3.23.2007

you've got to read this: rulebreaker rules

Up since 2:15 AM. In the bath at 4 AM to calm me down (interview at work scheduled for 8 AM). I grab a Best American Short Stories to get the loop of interviewspeak out of my head, and come across John Keeble's story "The Chasm", originally published in Prairie Schooner. The story moved me to tears, which few do.

Like Chris Offutt's story "Melungeons" in the same book (B.A.S.S., 1994, Editor Tobias Wolff) it teaches so much to the writer. In this case, Keeble breaks a "cardinal rule" of writing: he commits the sin of "telling". And it works, beautifully. It takes the story further into the territory of its plot and its theme.

In my writing group, we were just hashing this out, since my piece this week was a short short in a confessional voice, a speaker "telling" her story. People don't talk in images, and you know this, and I know this. They talk, sometimes plainly, sometimes not.

To make all writing unnecessarily obscure in order to follow any rule is foolish. We know this, and I'm sure there are editors who know this too. Readers certainly know this. It was just nice, in the bath at 4 AM, to have a little professional validation on the matter.

3.22.2007

my ugly baby

Good news from the nursery: an ugly baby of a story that grew into a problem child is finally moving out of the awkward stage. This is a story that began with a very strong voice but not much plot. With some quality help, I came to see where it could go plot-wise, and finally got the courage to start cutting here and adding there.

This is news because of my continual struggle to see writing as a long process, in which where you begin might not be where you end. I have no trouble writing the first draft. It is staying with the piece while it's not working, persisting in writing it until it does begin to work, and bringing it all the way into that new place that I struggle with.

But at least with this story, I've done it. Almost. The story is far from where it began, and almost to where it needs to be. In this last rewrite, I had to remind myself that despite my over-familiarity with it, I should work to make it new, work to make it something I would want to read in a magazine, work to make it something that I would be proud to call my own.

That seems basic, I know. But I want to finish it with pleasure and excitement, rather than with relief at never having to work on it again. That's the same goal that parents have with their real babies, isn't it: to face parenting with confidence and delight, rather than grim determination to make it through the day.

3.16.2007

novelution: she loves me not

This week, I had my first non-starter session on the novel. I didn't want to read it from the beginning, didn't have the will to start a new section, had fresher drafts at home while I was at the office (note: this is an excuse), etc.

I kept looking for a way in, doing a bit of research which proved very edifying, but research ain't writing. I should have taken that research and incorporated it immediately into the draft I had available, then melded that one with the newer one at home. I should have pushed, but I didn't.

So this is it, our first fight. The character was silent, would not slip her voice into my ear. But I am an ardent suitor, undeterred. I will woo till I drop. I will keep showing up. Serenades on bended knee with trio of strings. Flowers by the mile. Come to think of it, those won't work.

What would my character want? What would win her over? This is another way in--the questions about your character that don't need urgent answering but that will lead inside the work, get you in the door again.

My girl isn't girlie, but she is a kid. And a reader. Maybe a paperback of a Jane Austen she hasn't read (is there one?) wrapped in a NYT Book Review and left at her doorstep (she's pretty shy).

Ah: she loves me again.

PS: Have begun reading McEwan's Atonement, both for pleasure and as a study of voice, of how he reveals information, of character (one main character is an adolescent, so it's doubly relevant for me, although the novel is 3rd person). So far, very engaging--I always worry with these hyper-praised books that they'll be impenetrable or dull or both. This one's neither, so far.

3.11.2007

i've got it

Tonight as we trailed in from a just perfectly sunny and still spring day at (get this name) Heart's Desire beach, I get it: my first breath of warm evening air. The sun is down, the grass is cool, but the air is warm.

It's thrilling, as it shoots me forward three months: all those evenings in the yard after dinner in that air, all those muddy then dusty kids' feet to clean off, shorts and lemonade and rides through town on the bikes to get ice cream.

At the beach I was telling my niece and nephew about the novel, and my deadline, of May 15. May 15?? Eek. But then, I felt excited, like I felt breathing the warm spring evening air. It's a pleasure, a pleasure to have this arduous task. It excites me, and I can see it, like I can see the evenings spread before us in the coming months.

3.09.2007

from the source: writing advice from an actual writer

We've all sought out or come across writing advice as we hone this skill. One way I try to teach myself about what works is to read, read, read. Well, it turns out I'm not alone.

Chris Offutt was mentioned in this space as the author of one story I read, Melungeons, that blew me away and taught me a lot. Offutt is the author of Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, the novel The Good Brother, and two memoirs, The Same River Twice and No Heroes (Tin House Contributors, Vol 7 No 1). Offutt read the blog post and wrote to me in the comments section. In my reply I asked if he'd be willing to answer a few questions. Willing he was, and here are my questions and his answers. I'm sharing them because they're simply right on target--no magic formulas and no turning back.

KFG: If a hierarchy exists between voice, setting and plot in stories, which would you choose as most key for your work?

CO: I don't see a hierarchy among those three. Foremost is language itself, then character. I like stories with a strong sense of place in order to ground the character in a firm reality. Voice is how the writer thinks, the confidence inherent in the language. Narrative is what happens; plot is why it happens. A character's reaction to setting and event informs voice. My chief interest is learning how the character responds to difficult circumstances.

KFG: Do you consciously plot and plan stories, or work from an idea and wait for plot to develop through first draft development?

CO: My stories tend to evolve through the process of revision. I often think about them a good long while before writing. But I try hard not to impose myself upon them. It's better to give them free rein. I've ruined a few stories by trying to force them to be a certain way.

When I feel that I can't do anything more with a story, I set it aside for a few months. The number of revisions isn't crucial to me. What matters is gaining sufficient emotional distance from the story in order to revise it with a clear head. On average, my stories lie around for 2 years or so, and run to 15 drafts.

KFG: A story of mine just got raves at my writing group. It's in the fifth or sixth draft, with another to come. If it were yours, would you send it to a smaller literary magazine or to a big time one? Do you think getting published in little magazines accomplishes much for a writer? Do you think unknown writers (like myself) have much chance of getting published in big magazines?

CO: The potential danger of a writing group is unconsiously trying to write for their approval. If I believe the raves are fully legitimate, I might cease working so hard. Turning that around, if a story gets trashed by the writing group, I risk revising it to please the group dynamic. Feedback is necessary. Always listening to it isn't.

Yes, publishing in small magazines helps a writer. First, you feel good for getting in print! Second, strangers somewhere are reading it. Third, agents and anthology editors follow literary magazines, looking for strong material. Fourth, when you have enough stories for a collection, the fact that some have been published in literary magazines gives publishers a certain confidence. Fifth, publication is just plain cool.

I don't know the chances you or anyone has of getting published in big magazines. I do know that if you don't try, you never will.

KFG: What was your process from aspiring writer to published? Would you recommend it, or do you know of a better way?

CO: My process from aspiring writer to publication is embarassing to admit. I wrote stories for 10 years and never sent them out because I was too terrified of rejection. At age 32, I was shamed into it by a poet who assumed I sent work out, and was shocked that I didn't. To offset my fear, I decided to make rejection itself my goal. I wanted to get 100 rejections in a year. Things went well until #87, when a tiny magazine published my first story. It felt good. Last year I published two stories, and harvested 11 rejections. Each rejection hurt. But I'm getting better at accepting them as part of the whole deal.

I recommend finding the process that works best for you. My lame method did for me.

KFG: What are the three most important things you'd tell a beginning writer?

Three most important things for a young writer? Read, read, read. Try to write one minute per day minimum. (That works for me.) Only listen to 20% of any feedback. Read your work aloud to yourself. Trust yourself to improve with steady effort. Don't drink too much. Try to avoid full-time jobs. Make sure your romantic partner is absolutely fully supportive of your efforts. (If not--either you won't write or you'll break up.) Read, read, read.

Literary achievement is based on commitment, discipline, and endurance. For thirty years I've had one motto: Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.

You can't really hear this kind of advice enough, or at least I can't. Thanks, Chris.

3.05.2007

got chickens?

I often see things I know to be signs of great import and meaning, but I don't know what the meaning is, so I make it up.

Today out walking in the warm, blossom rich spring air, I encountered a white rooster with a red comb. He was just stepping around a little narrow sidewalk in front of a house. The street was quiet, except for the sound of two women who sat in a parked car, talking.

I stopped and watched the rooster, maneuvering the stroller around so my daughter could see him too. He gave us the full profile, high and proud, then stepped about a little more and started scratching. There were no open gates or holes in the fence that I could see, and he could clearly fly, so I thought he had probably winged it for some fresh perspective, it being such a fine day.

Reluctant to leave him and imagining his owner's dismay at seeing him on the street, I paused near the car where the women were talking. I thought of waving to them, and saying, "Do you have chickens?" They didn't notice me, or the rooster, and continued to talk, oblivious to us.

I walked on, leaving the rooster to his sidewalk scratching and the women to their parked car chatting.

Now for the quiz: What does the white rooster in this story symbolize?

For me, the voice of my novel's character. I've been studying up on good story writing lately, reading especially those whose inventive and rockem sockem language I admire, just to get the juices flowing. The other night in the bath, it was Barry Hannah in a story from an old Best American Short Stories. What I love about that series is the feature in the back with a bio and short statement about each story by the author. Many give insight into the source of the story's content and the process of its writing. Hannah said in his blurb how key voice is, how you can get people to listen to a good story around a campfire but in black and white on the page, you've got to grab em, and you do that with voice. I'm paraphrasing.

I also read a killer one by a guy called Chris Offutt. Man o man.

But the rooster is the voice of my hero. She's got to be that unexpected, that strong, reaching her neck up to give the mighty profile when confronted with a foreign vehicle in an unprotected area, that cool--step and scratch, not bothered.

And me? I just have to be sure I'm not like the women in the car, too enamored with my own voice to see what's in front of me.

3.01.2007

Novelution: doing the numbers

At over 11,000 words to date, the novel is filling out nicely. I'm able to work on it 2 times a week, for 2 or 3 hours at a time. Tonight I thought of a beginning, which might also be an end--I'm 5% sure of that. So it goes!