Saturday, July 31, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XXV

Okay, they seem to be saying to you, Here we are, at your request.  Now, you going to give us a clue about why you called this meeting?

Well, you say, drawing the e's and l's out long enough to collect some thoughts, I figured we'd all hang out for a while, exchange some witty dialogue, maybe trade some gossip about a character who's not here yet, maybe even a remark or two about politics, then drip in a note about what a cool story this is.

Un, no, they tell you in near unison.  We're all members of the character's union; we don't hang out or give props to the author for casting us in such a cool story.  Our contract says we get a story or we're outta here.

But, you insist, I provided good snacks--get the early reference to lobster roll--and I provided air conditioning somewhere in there, didn't I?  Listen, you plead as you scroll through the scene on your computer.  Ah, here it is:  "The air conditioning purred away like a well-fed hummingbird, dispersing any traces of the torrid blaze of the sun outside."

You listen, they tell you.  We've been meaning to talk to you about that metaphor.  You've got to quit screwing around.  Get something going pronto or we're gone.  Capisce?

Couldn't happen to you, you say; you're not referenced in this; you're always on story, right?  You never hit soft spots in your work, right?

For many of us in the trenches, this scene is replayed with some regularity, meaning it must be faced and coped with in one draft or another and on a regular basis.  

Speaking for the "us" in the "us" in the above trenches trope, it is business as usual, the ongoing attempt to keep defensiveness and the need to explain well out of our work, banished in that dump site where all the props, useless foundations, and unreliable effects of our everyday thinking must ultimately be sent.  

We have enough on our hands as it is; telling a story in an effective manner--so that it produces an emotional reaction--quite naturally seems easy because it is supposed to seem easy.  Naturally you would think it easy; you were supposed to think it was easy.

It is only easy if you become aware on a word-for-word basis how difficult it is, then tell the story in spite of, perhaps even because of the difficulty.  That's how we got you into this business in the first place--making you think is was so easy that you could do it,too.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XXIV

There is an order of dramatic events in story that at first blush may seem to come at whim, either the whim of the characters or of the writer.  This order has its origins in what the major character wants and how this character behaves in service of bringing these wants to resolution.  Each time that character appears in a scene, he or she brings expectations relative to the final outcome.

All characters come into a scene with some degree of expectation, perhaps dread or anticipation, perhaps even curiosity.  A character without some tangible expectation has no business in a particular scene.  It is literally enough for you to say John, a minor, minor character, who will be in the scene, dreads the scope of the scene which could be say a faculty meeting or other arrangement where individuals tend to talk at great length about themselves as opposed to the agenda for the meeting.  John has, through his dread of the coming meeting, bought his way in.  Everything John says will reflect his being here under a measure of duress-regret-unwillingness.

This vision of characters having an expectation in a forthcoming scene is the basis for what they say, which is what dialogue is.  If you don't know what a character is doing in a scene, that character will not sound convincing, but even more to the point, will not sound as though he or she knows why you've got him there at that moment.

Dialogue is not conversation, not even when the characters are conversing.  Some expectation or misinterpretation or misunderstanding is waiting close at hand to pounce.  In the better scenes and exchanges of dialogue, characters may become so eager or frustrated or preoccupied that they reveal/betray some hint of their true agenda.

When I was a low-level employee at the night office of The Associated Press, nestled in a corner of the Los Angeles Times building, there was a sign in place at every reporter's desk.  It read:  "There has never been a better verb than said."  This adage can well apply to fiction as well; said is a neutral word, one the reader takes for granted unless it is inelegantly or inexpertly repeated to the point of distraction.  Elements of story such as dialogue may be used to create a relevant effect, but think about this:  the best effect of all in story is the plausible sense of story, a sense we take in the same way we take in breath as we read.  We do not need someone to explain to us why we breathe any more than we need someone to explain to us what story is and what it means.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XXIII

How often have you pondered on the edge of consciousness, reaching for that most Flaubertian prize, the right word, not, as Mark Twain so aptly put it, its second cousin?  You know the word is out there, orbiting about your scene or concept, wanting a landing pad in one of your sentences.  Not that you are a snob, looking for arcane tropes to prove--what?--your erudition; you are merely trying to fit another piece in the puzzle that began when you undertook your project.

There is a word; other words may nuance out to the same approximate meaning, but there is only the one word that will do it for you, convince you of its absolute resonance and necessity.  The word appears, a long lost relative returning home.  You greet it with warmth, then move on, looking for the next word that in its way produces the sense of certainty you seek in your work.

You are certain, as in positive, aware for sure, although there is certain reason, as in some, for wondering if certain is the word you are looking for.

Sometimes a certain word bothers you each time you see it in place in a manuscript you are trying to bring to a final version; something about it reaches forth to attract your attention each time you encounter it, causing you to strike it out, then insert another, surer, more emphatic word in its place, giving you, at last, the comfortable sensation of relief now that you have it for certain.

Remember, you are the filter or, if you will, prism for the reader.  Just as the great superhero character of the past, The Shadow, had the power to cloud men's minds, meaning he could render himself invisible, you have the power to convey feelings, the most precious gift we have as writers.  Aha, I sense some of you already, set to argue with me:  What about ideas?  you snort.  Aren't they precious, too?  Didn't many of our great works of art and science come from ideas?  Of course they did, but as well they must have induced some feelings within their creators as they came into focus?  Aren't some formula haunting and magnificent in their function and purpose?  There are, in fact, men and women who experience such joys from considering mathematical formula just as musicians can see in a progression of notes an inherent joy or industrious reverence that they willingly translate for us with their instruments.

So I ask you to look carefully at your choices, to pick the combinations, sentence lengths, punctuation, and general deployment as they reverberate within you and--get this because it is important--within the sensitivities of the characters you create.  It is not only the right word in the right sentence in the right place for you, it is the right word for your characters as well.  If it is to be truly from them, it must certainly be of and from them.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XXII

A hint of intrigue or mischief.

An outrageous proposal.

Logic, spread thinner than the peanut butter in a cafeteria sandwich.

An ironic comparison between two unlikely bedfellows.

A provocative question.

An introduction to an impending disaster or, to use a currently popular illustration, a train wreck.

All these elements and others like them appear with some regularity at the beginning of stories and essays.

They are components of opening velocity, the energy required to nudge stories, essays, reports, and memoir into sufficient activity and structure to keep them not only moving but interesting.  If there is neither intrigue nor challenge at the beginning, why should we expect it to suddenly spring into life somewhere in the interior?  Your work, without opening velocity, is in its own way a Heart of Darkness.

Opening paragraphs are portals into your inner world, the world that informs who you are, what you write about, and how you write it.  Think carefully about the more virtual portals you have entered in recent days or weeks--years, if you wish, recalling how those portals conveyed some positive or negative feelings to you that influenced your experience inside their boundaries.

Think about how you felt, then ask yourself if you are content with your inner world as it is.  Does the arrangement of the furniture suit you?  Are the pictures hung to your wish.the plants watered?  Is there  enough light?  Perhaps there is a tad too much dust?  Why should we enter your landscape in the first place, then there are so many scarier, pleasant, interesting, challenging others so contrived as to lure us in and serve up refreshments on the family china, brought to mouth with the family silverware.

Opening fucking velocity, your key to story that takes us somewhere.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XXI

Unless someone close to you has specifically pointed it out, chances are you have not fully articulated to yourself the connection between voices heard in rooms and voices emerging from reading material.

It is a truth universally recognized that in any large room filled with people, there is at least one person whose speaking voice will cause you in some way to come unglued.

You may have first recognized this potential in faculty meetings, or while merely trying to slurp down enough coffee and croissant to secure your waking state.  The phenomenon is also likely to emerge in rest rooms, doctors' office waiting rooms, or ticket lines for motion pictures or sporting events.

The irritating quality of the voice may be various, a rasping nasality, a locution characterized by a tendency to honk, or that most common culprit, the disagreeable timbre reminiscent of hardwood being sawed.  Squeaks and repetitions of some phrase such as you know, you know what I mean?, like, and drill, baby, drill are also contestants.  The overwhelming fact is:  you know an irritating voice when you hear it, to the point that the mere mention here of irritating voice evokes in your inner iPod sufficient response to set your jaw on clench mode, perhaps even your brow to furl in abject disapproval.

Some writers may already have a similar effect on you, explaining why the very mention of them and their work sends you into default negativity.  Thus do I introduce for your consideration the need to transfer the voice you hear as you compose into the material that lands on the page.  If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you haven't read enough or, worse, you haven't read with that investigative focus it is easy to confuse with plagiarism.

I expect to hear from some of you that you are not a hearing person; when you compose you are describing pictures you see of your characters and scenery and emotional landscape doing a ballet before your eyes.  No problem if this is the case.  What you do next is read your work aloud after you believe it is completed.  What you get is your voice--the attitude and effect your work is likely to have on readers fortunate enough to have the opportunity to read your work.

What's that you say; you don't like the way your voice sounds?  Okay, back to the reading gig, searching your search for voices that please you, reach you on some emotional level to the point where you can even venture an opinion why you like the voice.  Notice how that writer mixes sentence length for effect.  Notice how that writer will use short, clipped sentences in tense, action-heavy moments as opposed to thinking things through in leisurely form the way remarkable Jack Benny did when, being accosted by a mugger with a gun who demanded "Your money or your life," responded with an agonizing pause to the point where the mugger said, "Well? (intending the meaning to be What shall it be?), followed by Jack Benny's classic, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."  Nor is it any accident that Mr. Benny's personal Achilles' Heel was another comedian with a reputation for splendid timing, George Burns.  Voice is timing, pacing, the orchestration of your text to the emotion you wish your text to convey.

And don't tell me you had no idea you were supposed to imbue every scene you write with a dominant emotion.  I don't write letters to young, middle-aged, or geezer writers who have no awareness of that.  I mean seriously, if you wonder why your manuscripts come back unread or with some ominous mark and the notation "I stopped reading here," it is because the reader had struggled to that point feeling nothing but relief at having reached it in order to bail out.

But I digress.  This is about voice, about you sounding like you.  I know it is tempting to want to sound like writers whose names you find on bestseller lists, but stop and think about it for a moment:  They got onto those lists because they not only had a story to tell, they had a particular voice in which to tell it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XX

I call your attention to a situation you will undoubtedly have met in your ongoing attempts to develop your writing craft.  The situation begins when you present yourself to work on a project you have already launched.  You are in effect coming in at day two or twelve or three hundred, no matter how long, as long as you've developed some sort of feel for it and have an attitude for it that you bring as part of your working routine.  But today you find you have no regard for the project, no anticipation to get going, no splendid flow of ideas and possibilities fluttering about you.  To put it bluntly, you are stuck.  Not only that, your hand is caught in the cookie jar of self-consciousness:  writer, stuck in the midst of project.

It sometimes helps to turn to your exercises, the random notes you frequently make when a vagrant impression seizes your imagination and threatens to run off with it.  Or you make the quick switch of priority to your blog.  Working at something else is in its way going after a fly with a fly swatter; you become focused on the purpose at hand, bringing you away from your awareness of being a stuck writer and back into your process, your accustomed working medium,wherein there are flies buzzing about you everywhere.

But this doesn't work, either.  Now you are not merely stuck and self-conscious about it, aware of the clock ticking away your time for this particular writing session, you are fucked.  You begin openly to wonder if the project were any good in the first place and why you'd spent so much time on it in the second place and who would want to read about this subject, and this is something so awful you couldn't even be sure of finding a member of your family to tell you how original and wonderful it was.  Seems to me that is being fucked, all right.

And so, what are you going to do about it?

You have two approaches, each involving the work of any writer other than you.  In your travels, you will have no doubt come across a work of such aching awfulness that the mere thought of it is enough to restore your missing balance, convincing you that somewhere in the world someone is a worse writer than you, a worse writer who is nevertheless published.  If the work is as truly bad as you claim, there is little doubt that reading a chapter or two will convince you that your own work is so lacking in substance as to make this seem not half bad in comparison.  If that does happen, you should get rid of this book immediately because it is not bad enough to be doing its work on your behalf.  Remember, you want a work that has preferably been on the New York Times Bestseller list.  It is a book you can hate not because you are jealous of the author's success with it but because it is genuinely atrocious.

Remember, you are doing this because you are fucked; you are doing this for self preservation.  You must force yourself to read page after page of this book until its flaws stand out above its virtues, where you can see places where the writer made wrong turns, where even decent editorial suggestions could not wrench it back into anything resembling a competent story.  You read until you sense that even you could do better.  Then you are no longer fucked and can get back to work.

The other approach is to find a work of such resonant sublimity that you recognize once again that there are writers who have the power to lift the sunken spirit to a place where you understand that being fucked is always a momentary thing.  You know this because you are able to recognize sublimity when you see it in print and even though you are badly fucked and can never hope to write at such a level, still, you can feel some of the sublimity seeping through your adverse credit report on the state of your own ability to write.  You continue reading for several pages beyond where you recognize the sublimity, feeling it metaphorically under your wings, lifting you to the exact place where you realize that one of the reasons you write is to lift yourself and others.  You now have awareness of a goal and a purpose, one you will have to strive to reach.

And just for the absolute hell of it, you set down this inspirational book and pick up the first one, the one with resonant awfulness and you think hell yes, I'm on my way again.  Hell yes.  Just watch me.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XIX

You might say, dear ones, that doubt is a vote of no confidence in the future; you doubt that some promised event will take place, that some promised behavior or intent will be faithfully acted upon.  You may also doubt that a particular report of behavior or activity is accurate.  Being writers encompassing the entire age range, you have had your moments in which you have no faith that the nuance and acuity of something you have written will be understood and, accordingly, appreciated.

If asked, you could fill an entire university Blue Book with doubtful things, beginning your litany with the thing about which you are the most cynical, say a politician keeping his or her promise, fueled by the righteous anger that awareness brings, filling page after page, pausing only briefly when the first warning bell signifying fifteen minutes of time left for the exam, then picking up pace again as new doubts arrive, perhaps even doubting you will be able to get in all your doubts within the Blue Books you have with you.

To say that you have few doubts causes those about you to think you an incredible optimist, a naif, perhaps a relic from one of your characters.  And in fact, as you grow and your experiences with such things as relationships expands, you begin to see how the behavior of those about you has undergone subtle change from your early sense of idealism to more of a wariness, a wait-and-see approach.  You are, for example, less likely to judge a contemporary for having sold out and more likely to think such things as adjusted to the marketplace, as though your burgeoning experiences were informed by MBA language and theory.  Similarly, you may come to regret a friend's concepts of textuality after reading a draft of that person's novel in progress.  I'll have to ask you to trust me on this, but I don't think it a good plan to discuss a writer friend's text apparatus, that is, if you wish to remain friends.

And you will have perhaps come to the place in your career where you have doubts about your characters.  Will they remain content to follow your direction, looking upon you as a Goddard or Scorsese, or will they, as you were wont to do yourself, rebel against the authority figure that is you?  By now, you will have become somewhat of a control freak in this regard, doubting the character's trustworthiness, coming down hard with the heavy hand of authorial power.  You might have even threatened them and they, in their turn, threatened you back, reminding you that when kids are old enough to fly the coop, they may chose not to return under any circumstances.

What would happen, I wonder, if you are fortunate enough to have a series going and your characters decide to stay away, refusing to bring you information?  You could try guilt as in you never call, you never write.  Or, you never confide in me any more.

I understand that it is somewhere between sophistry and conceit to put you in a parent-child relationship with your characters, but I ask you to understand that you have perhaps been spending too much time with your iPod and computer, causing a rift of resentment.  I may be pushing too hard at this point, making it easy for you to shrug off my concerns, but in all truth, I doubt that you will pay me much heed.

It is one thing to think of your characters as individuals you meet while traveling, individuals who are so sure of never seeing you again that they will open up their secret selves to you and reveal secrets they reveal only to strangers, giving you remarkable plot lines and materials for devious constructions, but consider this:  Suppose they are making up these stories; suppose they are all fabrications.  You will have been taken in, your trust in your characters severely compromised.  And for what?  Some improbable concatenation of events that make it clear to everyone but you that you have been recording the lies and fantasies of characters as opposed to listening to them closely in order to find out things more remarkable than designer plots.  By now, you'll have all had experience with listening to young persons inventing excuses for not doing what was expected of them while at the same time doing precisely what they wished to do.   After they have told you their whoppers, smile at them and say, okay, now why don't you tell me what really happened.  You will not be so likely to be written off as a text manipulator and you will gain some street credibility (anti-doubt, you see) for being able to get at the heart of the text, the things your characters truly intend in their truest of hearts.

If you allow them to have hearts, they will return to you time after time, bringing you goodies for the holidays that far outstrip a gaudy plot that had been outsourced to India.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XVIII

You know how it is.  You suddenly become aware something is missing, perhaps your reading glasses or your pocket knife.  You pause for a reflective moment in which you seek and are given the location of the place you last sat when reading, or where the knife might have slipped from your pocket and into its bosomy folds.  Of course, the living room sofa.

Energized by this awareness, you pounce on the sofa cushions, confident they are the source wherein you will recover the lost item.  Sure enough, your memory, in tandem with a sharply honed instinct for such recovery, has served you well.  The glasses or the pocket knife reveal themselves.  But also you discover a trove, a true discovery:  coins, a forgotten pen, paperclips, and, if you are at all like me, shards of dog snacks.

You in fact discovered more than you anticipated--which is exactly the path you have come to expect each time you read or write a story.  In the metaphoric tumble of cushions, paperclips, and interstices within the story, there is the mystery guest discovery along with the sought after target.

In the legal sense, discovery is relevant evidential information which, our legal code dictates, must be available for prosecution and defense.  In story convention--and you will, of course, have noticed the shift from code to convention in my comparison--discovery is more subjective because some readers (and some characters) are quicker on the up-take.  Note also how important vital information, relevant information, has become in both disciplines, a significant difference residing in the underlying principal of fairness. In the law, information must be as balanced between the two parties as possible.  In other words, no surprises, even though fairness as a quality is often little more than an abstraction.  In a story, however, all information is subject to manipulation, not the least of which is point of view.  Information in story is released to create suspicion, wariness, and mistrust, among the characters themselves and between character and reader.  How delightful it is to have deduced from information supplied about a particular character that the individual is devious and uncaring, only to arrive at the discovery that the character is indeed empathetic, concerned, and admirable.  It may come as a disappointing discovery if a character we have assumed to be altruistic and companionable turns out to be self-centered.

We read for discovery in all its nuances.  These discoveries make us more alert to the ways of interpreting our own daily life as well as helping inform us of ways of behavior in which we can become better discoveries to those we care about.

Think of it this way as you go about your daytime job, then return home for a writing session:  you represent enough loose change between the cushions of a sofa to amount to a latte or cappuccino at a first-rate coffee house; you are there, waiting to be discovered.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XVII: Your Inner Mississippi River

The accomplished writer is reminiscent of the horse "breakers" or trainers, men or women who educate rather than dominate the animal, making future ventures profitable and enjoyable for rider and horse.

Energy is a metaphor representing the necessary resources to contain and control an idea, render it rideable without breaking its spirit.

Once astride the illuminating idea, the writer wants to show appreciation to and for it, allowing it to frisk about for a time in a parade of enjoyment.  This is the first stage of awareness beyond those shimmering moments of discovery and recognition of potential.  This is literally the workhorse energy of the project. Important as this energy is, it is at best a nod of recognition; it cannot and should not be expected to power you all the way through to completion.  That has to come from somewhere else.

The energy to engage and discover is like Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, where the scope and sprawl of that vibrant river is captured in its multifarious whim within a paragraph:  "The Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world--four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope--a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so..."

The energy to engage and cause discovery finds its source somewhere within the writer's psyche, or should I say process?  Yes, I think I shall.  Process in a confirmed writer is a Mississippi of willfulness, with the power to carve its way through, around, and over obstacles.

Let us say your process--your inner river--is mirth, wherein you take your pleasures causing characters to collide in response to the absurdities and inconsistencies they meet in highly cultured landscapes.  Your joyful energy comes from contriving the wildest absurdities and inconsistencies your imagination can reach, a suggestion that should already have you sniggling at the implication that there is a direct ratio between the newest appearances of absurdity and inconsistency in real life and their having been forecast in the fictions of a number of writers.  Mr. Mark Twain, I believe, foresaw this aspect when he set time strictures on the publication of certain materials he had written, as though saying, Civilization will catch up to my depictions in another fifty or sixty years.

Go forth in fun; find your own interior Mississippi.  Consider using a raft.

On the other hand, let us say you take secret pleasure at the portrayal of worst-case scenarios, stopping short of having your characters say, If anything else can go wrong, it will, not because it makes a good read so much as because that is the way things are on this planet.

Fun is where you find it, or perhaps it is what sprouts after you sow the seeds of it in whatever manner you chose.  If you are an ironist, you will specialize in characters who, because of some expertise, real or imagined, are paid to predict future outcomes.  Of course the predictions are as wrong as could be, but the number of individuals who nevertheless believe them to have been accurate reflect on your own sense of mischief as a writer, encouraging you to heap more irony yet on the smoldering coals.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XVII

You've probably filed away as muscle memory the way the word "definition" suggests an explanation of what a particular word means, no doubt having gone through some dumb tests in your literature classes, questions such as "Define transcendentalism," or "Define an epistolary novel."

"What a word means" is a true enough definition of definition, but it fails to carry along with it the nuance of a high order, as well implying behavior and the particular quality of that particular behavior.

There are moments in a story which may be called defining because they embody or define the actual and thematic personality of the narrative.  The meeting of Romeo and Juliet is such a defining moment because it provoked the chemistry between them that became the spine of their attraction and ultimate fate.  Definition thus helps delineate the activity and supports the implications of its meanings.

As early as the first sentence of Ford Maddox Ford's memorable novel, The Good Soldier, its first-person narrator, John Dowell, tells us:  "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."  Dowell proceeds to tell us a story which, by the nature of his definition of it, causes us to have an impression of Dowell considerably at odds with the picture Dowell has of the events and of himself.

We are currently being barraged with the concept of high-definition, which applies to the sharpness and intensity of digital images.  We would do well, I suggest, to apply the same concept to the motives and behavior of the characters we set loose in our scenes, building with them to something that goes well beyond the twists and turns of a story as though they were some ride in an entertainment park but rather a more personal look at how individuals behave when they are auditioning for parts they wish to play in a performance of unrivaled complexity and consequence.

At the beginning, dear friends, definition is for us; it establishes parameters, boundaries, limitations.  As we engage the characters of our choice in story situations, it is up to us to see that the circumstances of story drive the characters beyond the boundaries, where the true story begins as they start to react to what they have done and what they must now do in order to continue.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XVI

It will come as no surprise to you that I write to you today as an advocate for at least an awareness in your work of irony if not in fact the actual presence of irony.  Thus will I have introduced my pair of topics for the day, my twofer, surprise and irony.

Surprise is an event, revelation, or turn of circumstances the reader was not anticipating.  This is different from an event, revelation, or turn of circumstances where the character who is to be surprised was taken unprepared.  This is so because you want to get the reader used to thinking he or she knows a tad more than the character, is perhaps more worldly, more cynical, more prone to expect things to go wrong.  And this often proves to be the case because readers are used to reading narratives where things not only prove wrong, they explode in the characters' faces.  This is, after all, the basic spine of fiction.  Things go wrong.  Things don't work.  People change their minds. get better offers, have that well-known affliction of buyers' remorse.  If things went right in story, there would not be nearly so many readers as there are and I can tell you from personal and professional experience with stories and story-related materials that you don't want to go around taking the readers there are out there too much for granted by not allowing things to go wrong in your stories.

Readers will tell you that they want things to go well in your stories, but the irony is that most of the readers who tell you this are either members of your family, close friends, or, worse, members of your writing group.  Can't you tell a happy story for a change, they will ask you.  Or perhaps they will suggest that you need a vacation or a few hours with a competent therapist, someone with whom you can talk over your growing tendency to make things seem so dreary.

You've probably seen advertising campaigns with digital clocks built in to them, counting down the hours left in George W. Bush's presidency or the length of time elapsed since one of Mel Gibson's melt-down screeds.  In the time you've been reading these few vagrant paragraphs of this letter to you, six young persons, twenty-two middle-aged persons, and one geezer have made the decision to become writers.  This is not a significant jump in the numbers and indeed some of them probably wish you well in your own pursuit of the goal, but still, that is a total of twenty-nine persons out there writing things who will be spending serious time thinking up things that can go wrong for characters, devising ways in which men, women, and children characters have their hearts wrenched in some way or other.  True, they will then have to devise some kind of effective closure to the mischief they have wreaked upon their characters, and in fact so will you be faced with providing more intriguing complications than those new writers as well as all those out there, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches with you, writing stories about individuals against whom Fate appears to be shutting the door, closing off opportunity, saying no.

The way to deal with this problem, this over inflation of things going wrong or, at least, not as originally planned is to surprise yourself, develop your skills at having outside forces conspire against you and your characters.  Surprise may come tentatively at first, but the more you work at it, your talents will grow and you will find hidden opportunities lurking in every new scene.

Your friends and family will argue that this is embedding a misanthropy within your creative process. cause you in effect to be chortling as you go about, flinging banana peels in front of your characters, giving them the opportunity to slip and you to laugh at their slipping.  Here's where the irony comes in:  you will be developing greater empathy rather than the misanthropy of which you are accused.  Knowing that disaster, embarrassment, even humiliation await your characters, you will regard them even more deeply than you ought.  You will carry this empathy over into your real time life, appreciating the disappointments and setbacks of your friends and family.  People will be drawn to you, wanting to confide their own setbacks to you because of their belief that you have come to appreciate the human condition with such conviction.

All part of the job, you'll say.

It must be wonderful to have such a job, they'll say.

And you'll be thinking, how great is it that you don't have to wait nearly so long for rejection slips or, on the longer projects, rejection letters; you can find them waiting for you in the in-box of your mail server.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer XVI

Every time a character sets foot into a scene you have created, he or she comes armed with two essentials, agenda and expectations.  A character who enters a scene without either is a runaway from a writing group, incompletely formed, neither to be trusted nor endured.  Like you, the character thus waiting in the wings to go on has awareness of whence he or she has just come, what happened there, and under what circumstances.

Agenda is the character's goal, the one he or she strives before our eyes and by implication to achieve.  This agenda may well be inarticulate even as the character works or perhaps lurches toward achievement of it.

Expectation relates to the character's attitude while pursuing the agenda and is thus more time sensitive.  Each time a character enters a new scene, that character brings some tangible measure of the expectation that something will happen or, if there is to be a surprise, of some planned event not happening.  Looked at functionally, each scene becomes each character's anticipation of what will happen next, working in tandem with the reader's curiosity to see in fact what does happen.  A character can, for instance, dread going home for the holidays to a family gathering only to have such dread overwritten by the intense wonder of bonding and good fellowship, a theoretical outcome to be sure, but one following another dramatic certainty I commend to your attention:  Although the reader has expectations, they should be delayed as long as possible if they are ever in fact met.  Or to put it another way, don't take the reader where the reader wants to go because once the reader gets there, the story is over.

We all of us conspire with the characters against the reader in this last sense, hopeful of keeping the reader with us by constantly yanking the rug, table cloth, bed sheet, or any other similar length of metaphoric material from under him.  We conspire against out characters by blunting or misdirecting their expectations.  A character whose fantasies and wishes are met is not going to seem worthy of our interest, not for long.  Interestingly enough, a character who seems to have everything emerges as a character who is about to experience some comeuppance.  And that comeuppance had better not be too late an arrival at the party.

There is no sense investing our characters with these tools if they are not used, which is to say it is a good idea to know what their overarching goal is.  Doesn't hurt a bit to have an idea how far they're willing to go to achieve their goal nor to see how their expectations are faring as they wait to do whatever it is you have planned for them, where ever it is you planned on having them do it.  Nice touch if you can arrange a scene in which they interpret things to mean they're on the cusp of achieving their agenda or, conversely, that they are so far away from their goal as to be rendered inchoate with frustration.

Happy campers only work in commercials; unhappy campers are always on the cusp of entering a new scene with a new story.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XV

Secret, the noun, plays a major role in our everyday drama, enhanced by the delicious subtext of secret, the adjective.  We all carry secrets about with us, some of them so small and inconsequential as to make the rest of us wonder why you'd want to hide such a thing, other secrets so whopping large as to become secrets we don't allow ourselves to recognize.  Thus our mutual awe of and regard for the polarity we carry like some up-market backpack:  the things we keep secret from others, the things we cannot acknowledge in ourselves.

A common, satisfying approach to secret in either avatar, adverb or noun, is the trade.  I tell you one about me, you respond with one of your own, thus each of us has something on the other, an assurance, if you will, that this exchange had been a bonding experience wherein each gets to know the other.  Tell me your secrets and I will tell you who you are.  That sort of thing writers fall to arguing about when the splashes of Campari bitters have become too generous or too numerous or both.

If and as our relationship continues, the exchange rate will increase, each wanting to share secrets as an analog of handshakes to prove neither is carrying a concealed weapon, but also a kind of classification or scoping out process in which each seeks to out-secret the other, each party going for the brass ring of being the most complex or sophisticated or, dare I suggest, the most interesting.

Of a more injurious nature:  You know some secret about me that assures you the power of controlling my loyalty or at least a compliance to your agenda,  (And don't for a minute forget the adjectival secret being attached to the noun of agenda.  Secret fucking agenda.) lest you make my secret public.  Doesn't much matter what the secret is so long as you know I try to keep it as private as possible.  Okay, that's the lawyer's equivalent of billable hours to charge clients, which is to say it is blackmail, which is surely billable. but it is also illustrative of how secrets and secrecy work for and against us as power points.

This opens what I will call the Ex Door, where we have shared secrets almost as we have shared bodily fluids with ex-mates, ex-lovers, ex-friends, and not to forget ex-employers.  How many stories have you read where an amiable-sounding narrator is confronted by an Ex from the past, asking for help, pleading almost piteously that no one else but you could possibly believe the scrape he or she has gotten into?  And how many more are you likely to read in the future?

The delicate fulcrum on which your character's entire connection to the character from the past is based is on the secrets and intimacy of an historic relationship.  The reader will watch carefully to see how you respond.  If you are male and she a female and you refuse help in the present time, there is danger the reader will think you are, pardon the archaic words, a cad and a bounder.  And interestingly enough, if you are a male and you do agree to help, the reader will not only be rooting for you, the reader will be suspicious of your ex from the past.

This example was only one permutation.  The protagonist could well be a career woman whose ex happened to be a likable guy who never quite made it and thus the separation--until now.  You could just as well ring in the potential of same sex.  If you don't, I probably will because I think it might be interesting to see if the bond of a same sex relationship in that kind of secret set-up has more, less, or merely the same degree of connectivity.

My parting advice to you is to write from your own personal fear that your deepest held secrets might be laid bare, which will kick into high gear your own devious, manipulative nature, influence the characters you chose for the portrayal, and help you define the secrets in the lives of your characters.

I could also caution you to be careful of individuals who tell you how you can trust them to keep your secret, but that's something I'll leave just between us.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer VIX

If we take the adverb "where" at face value, it signifies "that place," as in over there, or right there, or the more ambitious over there in that corner.  You could add such prepositions to it as in, to, or at for even more fine tuning.  "I'm going in there."  "I'm going (to) there."  "I'll be at that place."

As a rather innocent-seeming word, where opens the doors of possibility, going so far as to infer, if you use it adroitly, an interior landscape of self, a place where your darkest fears or brightest hopes or most radiant reaches of creativity reside--perhaps even simultaneously.  A perfectly democratic word, where also indicates the place of origin for itches, which leaves yet another door open, the door to places where urges inhere.

Where has more tricks up its linguistic sleeve; look what happens to this remarkable, serviceable word with the mere addition of a question mark.  Is there anything so arresting as "Where?"  Uttered or written thus, where? becomes a glorious challenge to the Cosmos, to the deeper natures of existence and our human understanding of it.  A single mark of punctuation transforms a useful word into a mystery we are programmed to wish to solve.  The addition of the question mark to where brings forth from the shadows the origins of poetry and story, just as the incessant, ant-like march of primary cells stalking out of the primordial sludge foreshadowed us.  Where? is the perfect adjunct to what if?, a first cousin to why not?  It is the presupposition of mystery, the hidden, the occult, answers that will grant us some power of understanding we did not have at the outset.

Until we understand their meaning, answers are hidden.  Where? you say.  Why, right out there in plain sight, waiting for us to trip over them, interpret them, make over them.  The danger with answers is that having had enough of them, there are those among us who feel entitled, others still who begin to feel powerful.  How fortunate, then, we are to have chosen (or to have been chosen by) writing, which is the incessant, army-ant-like quest for answers to the conundrums that confront us.  Where?  Why right over there, in that as yet unwritten story.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer XIII

By now, you've reached the point in your commitment to writing where you take for granted the process by which you get the germ of an idea, then set forth to compose on it, get it down in some format.  It is a happy process, almost to the point of inducing giggles.  You get an idea from the association of something freshly seen, a contrast perhaps with something freshly seen and an earlier experience, and you are filled with the giddy energy of trying to capture enough of it to ride, otherwise play with, bend into usable shape.  It is not until you begin dealing with editors who want your work and want it to be if anything more clear and representative of you that you'd imagined.

You will begin to see where this is going; you will have come face to face with revision.  It will suddenly occur to you that a performer, say an actor or musician, has crafted out a performance and must do it again and again, at least more than once, perhaps for several weeks or, if fortunate, months.  How, you sympathize, can they do it?  How can they repeat the performance?  You cannot help feel a bit smug that you have chosen the craft you have, until you realize that it, too, is performance; you continue to experience it until you have got what you consider to be its essence and then along comes the editor, the conduit to the public eye, asking you to go back in once again and remove what they will variously refer to as soft spots or places that do not cohere.

And so you'd better get used to the idea of going back in, finding a way to reenter the world you dreamed and thought you'd left behind you, not unlike the world of Oz Dorothy Gale left behind her when she returned to Kansas.

Perhaps you have even been struck by the lightning of a new idea or concept and are impatient to return to it, avid for the giddy laughter and energy of new discovery.  But circumstances require you to return to the older work, perhaps to add something you'd missed earlier, perhaps to remove something you'd repeated, perhaps to excise something that didn't do you, your story, or any of its characters any good, in fact holding it down, adding lead weights to its ballet shoes.

The sad news is that there will be few times when you are able to keep your focus on one work from origin to completion.  The good news is that if you approach it properly, going back in can be energizing, can be fun, does not have to be dull, repetitious.  The answer is simple enough in the abstract:  you must look for the portal to your own entertainment.  You must be all those characters as they dance about one another, their agendas bouncing and caroming as though bumper cars at a carnival.  You must see what the work means and how it represented for you a discovery of epic awareness.  How can this be?  It can be if you will every performance to be an opportunity for discovery, asking yourself every time you believe you're in familiar ground what elements and feelings had you missed earlier.  Going in again, even if it is to read a favored chapter at a book signing for this very book, is a trip to your turf, rendered as your landscape, where a cigar may indeed be merely a cigar but where as well it can also be a phallic symbol or anything else you wish.

Learn to ask yourself, What does it mean to me?  Then you write it as though the meaning were absolute reality.  You neither have to explain it nor describe it; in fact, if you do explain it or describe it, you'll be doing the reader's work for them and you don't want to do that.  I started to say, trust me on that, but you should not trust me on that or on anything you do not absolutely take for reality in the first place.  You should, however, trust yourself and the vast panorama of chaos and swirling impressions in which your characters find themselves.  Those are the realities that inform story.  Without them, a story is a menu of dramatic events, set loose like so many laboratory animals.  You have seen enough menus in your life to know that these are merely lists; you want names and entries that evoke taste and sight, sensual issues that will cling to your readers like the crumbs from this morning's breakfast toast clinging to your sweater or shirt.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XII

Another of the truths universally recognized is the fact of writers being control freaks, so it will come as no surprise to you when I bring up the subject of accommodation.  If you strive to induce the life about you to conform to your vision, you'll have had the need to ransack your tool kit for that very tool, because you'll have been brought to the unspoken need to accommodate somewhere along the way.

In the process of getting sufficient hold of an idea to bring it wriggling onto the page or screen like some enormous trout, filched from a deep pond, you watch in etched regret as it loses a modicum of its glorious color.  But you are so grateful to have landed it in the first place that you allow the process of accommodation to begin, increasing to the point where eventually you have made more concessions and adjustments than you can keep of.

It was always thus, but you were so set on landing that metaphoric trout that you could not admit that grand as the idea or vision is, you lose bits of it as the days of landing it on the page progress, and you already know of yourself how poor a loser you are; you bear down instead, trying to get it.  Such as well is your nature that as the idea begins to assume the form you can bring to it, the energy to do so continues and you properly consider yourself inspired, in the pursuit if not the thrall of the chase.

The story is truly in the details, those tiny flecks of truth inherent in your observations.  The more of these impressions you can recall, the greater the presence of reality your version of this invented reality will have.  Of course you want your characters to respond with activities that advance the story to the point of combustion while still retaining that truth or plausibility of direction; they are doing what they do not so much because you are directing them but because they represent the course of action that will define them as they relate to the story.  You pave purposely chosen characters with the belief that you could control them, seeing how difficult it is for you to control things in reality as you would wish.  But these characters you have created with expectations of being Dr. Frankenstein to their monster are anarchists; they turn on you, demand the freedom to make their own mistakes.

As time in the writing world progresses, you become more devious, providing your stories with characters you can manipulate through guilt or guile or sheer bluff and braggadocio.  But so do they.  You can do what so many elders do, you can disown them, but that is an act of futility.  The real way to get the job done, to get the most of your vision transcribed from the big-bang moment of creation to the placement of them in a scene in a story is to accommodate and the way to do that is to recognize how, even though you created them, you cannot control them.  But you can watch them and admire them and above all else, respect them.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XII

Story elements often come in pairs, a direct causal relationship emerging that clamors for our attention the way certain atoms appear to cry out for union with other atoms.  One such unwilling-to-go-it-alone element is care, which is dramatic shorthand for Why should the reader care?  This, in turn, is short hand for the more inclusive Why should the writer care in the first place?

You should care because all the dramatic elements and their order of appearance were chosen on your watch.  You have also chosen the tone and theme your work will impart to most readers.  You have in effect held a magnifying glass to the process by which you feel, think, imagine, and represent.  From this representation, the universe as experienced by you comes forth.  It is a vision fraught with competing agendas.  Sunlight caught up in a true magnifying glass will focus enough energy to begin one of the more primal reactions yet known, the combining process known as burning.  Ideas caught up and brought to focus in the magnifying lens of your process brings to life another primal force, the use of imaginative cognition to engage and solve problems large and small.

Care--the concern felt by writer and reader--is attracted to and looking for attachment to risk.  You've probably noticed how certain food combinations--say baked beans and brown bread or rice and beans, or peanut butter and sesame seeds--seem to naturally go together.  This is because these combinations combine to form a complete protein.  Care and risk go together because each element on its own is such a splendid force in story.  Taken together, they form a kind of bonding of concern that makes the story have a lingering, memorable meaning.

Persons in real life take chances to risk a favorable outcome; in story they are driven by an extra measure of caring to take that added measure of risk in order to effect the hoped for outcome.  Against seemingly impenetrable odds, your characters are risking their understanding of the intent of others.  They are risking that their own actions will be correctly understood by all who are close to them.  Similarly, the writer is risking the seemingly straightforward enough result of being understood by readers.

Writing anything, even a grocery list, is a risky business because you are immediately confronted with it as proof of your forgetfulness or your misreading of the amount of laundry soap available.  Worse yet, the grocery list is living reproof that you failed to keep conscious tab on your management of peanut butter or toothpaste.  Writing is a rebuttal of your personal sense of Reality and your perceptions of your own powers of observation.  You thought this was a compelling story, your early drafts suggest with an accusatory snigger.  All the supports holding up that idea have vanished like dispirited lovers, leaving you with this blob from inner space--your own inner space.  You need the very quality some writers seem to have in excess of their abilities to get things down on paper--an outspoken confidence in your craft, your particular vision.

Coming upon a Moleskine notebook left behind by a writer, you might consent to a few pages of scattered reading just to see what the writer was working on, how the writer's process was presenting material, what the writer felt to be of interest, but let anything happen to your own notebook and panic bubbles up to the surface.

Don't ever write anything you have no passion for.  Take whatever chances are available to get your passion articulated to the point where you can apply it to your pages.  No fair writing "The good parts go here."  We get to see the good parts, and if there truly aren't any, you truly need to invent them.  Now.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XII

Among the many verbs and nouns connoting action and attitude that can and should appear in a story, one intransitive verb in particular should not appear.  Even were a character to act upon or behave in a manner suggested by the verb, that character ought nevertheless to do so aggressively, with a distinct tinge of panache.

The verb I call to your attention is dither, which is a perfectly good word to use when one of your character refers to another.  Oh, stop dithering.  Do something.  But dither is not such a lovely word when you, acting as author, use it.  John dithered, a description you might think to augment with an adverb, John dithered fretfully, thus compounding the error, writing yourself into an imponderably tight corner from which you are not likely to recover.

Dithering is the kind of risky business in which a writer, however avid of publication and recognition, would do well to avoid; in certain parts of the world, dithering will result in the ditherer being shoved aside by non-ditherers who are intent on boarding a subway car.  Although a writer may be in fact much in need of that first refreshing brace of coffee of a morning, dithering in a line at Starbucks is likely to effect a sense of being left stranded, even sworn at.

If you must dither at all, dither in a book store where you will appear torn between or perhaps even among a number of attractive choices, allowing you to be seen as someone who cannot choose between two philosophical giants or an equally intriguing pair of opposites in the world of poetry.  Dithering in a restaurant can project an image of a finely educated palate, agonizing over the decision involving coquilles Saint Jacques and vol a vent, although in all frankness I must warn you that dithering in a Quiznos or Subway Sandwich Shop will have the reverse effect, leaving you to become immortalized as the writer who could not choose between the six-inch Omega wheat turkey and the six-inch whole grain meatballs and cheese.

Decisions, even those that eventually send you back to rewrite, are every bit as key as dithering is not.  Better to make a wrong active choice than a dither.

I can already hear you asking, when does making a choice become dithering?  The answer comes built into the choice-maker's own awareness of the ticking clock.  I'll probably regret this later, the chooser will say, then go on to make a choice the audience already knows is wrong but nevertheless respects because of its timely delivery.  I just don't know, the ditherer will allow to be tweezed forth like an unwanted facial hair.

We can forgive any number of infractions, social, political, or literary, but we cannot admire much less can we respect dithering.  But there is a catch here:  Using a ditherer as a person you intend the reader to dislike is opening you to the accusation of using a cliche, loading the deck, traveling a well-worn path, thus this brief nudge of a reminder that the less dithering informs your story, the more likely your story will carry itself, mistakes and all, to a place where it resonates with volition, intent, and their remarkable side-kicks, consequences.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XI

I may not be the one to present this to you in a way that enlists your belief.

Enlist, by the way, is one of those verbs I learned from a former girlfriend who was involved in one of those coaching-type programs where individuals were packed into a room and presented with a great deal of information while not being allowed to have a bathroom break. You enlist individuals into your plans or agenda.   I have trouble keeping things straight when I have to pee.  You could almost say there was a direct ratio between the need to pee and the ability to keep things straight.

What I have to present here is the very real notion that things are not always as they seem.  They may never be what they seem.  I like to think I am what I seem, but I have had some varied responses to that, making me aware of the on-going possibility for misinterpretation and misidentification, two key factors in producing a condition called misfortune.

Things not being what they seem, it seems to me, is a natural lead-in to the concept of alternate-universe fiction, a thing many of us have come to associate with the splendid writer, Philip Pullman.  In his alternate-universe stories, there is invariably a portal somewhere linking two universes, allowing passage from one to the other, pretty much what writing fiction is in general.  Here you are, writing about a world you have created while you are firmly rooted in this world.  Much of you is in the world you have created, but mosquitoes from this world can still bite you, cats can and do come plunging through the cat door, bearing a mouse or vole or perhaps even a gopher or rabbit they intend to devour on the cleanest part of your carpet.  Telephones from both worlds may ring.  Religious missionaries may approach your front door, literature clutched as though it were the armament carried by medieval knights at joust. Nevertheless, you have the advantage of knowing you are in both worlds, the world of the real and the world of your imagination; you have dual citizenship, which allows you to move back and forth, a particularly good thing to be able to do when you are bored out of your mind.

Of course boredom is the key.  In your contrivance to lead a meaningful, craft-enhancing life, you must remember that you do not have to suffer boredom, merely removing as much of your presence as possible from the place of the dread bore influence, then into your created universe.

Similarly you will not appear the same to those who see you.  Yes, I realize that is somewhat of a mountain goat leap between paragraphs, but if you stop to think about it, you'll see that I'm not pushing definitions on you, rather urging you to see that if you are not where you wish to be, you still have options.  Sometimes a bit of the Tom Sawyer fence approach is needed.  You modify it by getting as quickly as possible to the setting of your story, then commencing some tomfoolery or other, cleaning up or rearranging the furniture or removing some adverbs, humming all the while so that your characters become intrigued, one by one joining you, finally wanting to try their hand at it.  Be sure to be firm at first.  No, no, this is something I must do by myself.  Everyone seems to understand that need in a writer, but there you are, appearing to look so singularly pleased with yourself and with life, whereupon one of them will ask if he or she could just try out the scenery to get the hang of it.  Reluctantly, you agree.  Mind, you warn, don't be getting sloppy, tracking dirt about.  Thus chastened, they will agree to anything, and of course, you will have realized the purpose of this exercise which is to make them do things they did not believe they could do.

They will then seem to be following the outline you have so laboriously contrived for them.  But now we will both know better.  They will be working toward secret agendas of which, thanks to you, they are quite capable of holding, all the while appearing to take their directions from you.

I told you so, and I told you I am not a likely source to have done so, didn't I?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, X

In our daily wading through the streams of ideas and language with which we seek familiarity in our chosen craft, there is invariably up there in the stream ahead of us the flashing metaphor of the tail of a dam-building beaver or a speckled trout, seeking a fly to finish off its lunch.  With luck, we catch full sight of these metaphorical notions, these ideas and excellent arrangements of words that, in combination, become the stories we write about.

Because we are writers and, by nature, curious to see how the other ladies and gents in the craft are doing, we read.  We read particular writers because their work has so many flashes of wording or idea.  In some cases our favoring these writers we read is so complex and demanding that we scarcely take the time to articulate what it is about their work that so beckons to us.  It is important to step out of--to continue the metaphor--the streams of our own language and time, going back into the past, going to other places as well.

Aha, I can already hear some of you young and middle-aged writers with a particular complaint:  I only have the one language.  It is not quite fair that you, because of your shall we call it generational access to other languages have an advantage.  You and your brother and sister geezers have heard middle-Eastern and perhaps Asian languages at one time or another.  And some of you, the complaint continues, actually have been instructed in Latin and Greek, making your wading streams and fishing holes and wine-dark seas all the more diverse.

All these arguments may hold some weight.  I did persist in my studies of Spanish from about grade five onward, and I did live in places where I picked up enough awareness of profanity to be able to render racial, social, and sexual insults in a number of tongues, but to make my point here, I'm going to speak of other writers, writers to the north of us and considerably to the east, both groups of which speak an English that is only a cousin to our English.  I start with my favorite, a man who wrote one of what I consider the most splendid, evocative lines that transcend his being English and me an American.  He is the poet, John Keats, dead since 1831.  The line of which I speak is from his poem "The Eve of St. Agnes."  It is, in fact, the third line of the poem:

 ST. AGNES’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
  The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
  The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass...

After the many times I have read the poem, by the time I reach that line, I have no doubt it is cold when, shortly, we meet a lonely herdsman, at his prayers and rosary, his fingers quite numb --quite in keeping with the other creatures of this vision of a dramatic moment.

I am similarly fond of the novels of my Canadian neighbor, Janette Winterson, whose writings about love reveal yet other dimensions of that remarkable state; as well I treasure the mordant wit of her fellow Canadian, Mordecai Richler, and the mischievous, rollicking possibilities of mocking solemnity that find their way in and about the works of Robertson Davies.

And true enough, writing in his native Australian English, the splendid poet Les Murray causes me to stop my reading and glance at the metaphoric stars he has cast in the metaphoric sky.

The urgency I cast upon you is that you not be satisfied with the mere recitation of your own language, rather that you look beyond the boundaries it has set for you, looking for words as hoary and wise as the old trout who has resisted being caught all these years.  There are words and phrases and rascally ideas hiding in the fifteenth century prose and ideations of Geoffrey Chaucer, words and phrases and visions that collide within the situations set before us by a remarkable twenty-first century short story writer, Deborah Eisenberg.   Those collisions of word and sound and nuance are the reasons why our stories must never become the literary equivalent of farm-raised fish; they must swim about in the free waters of risk.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer IX

Your enthusiasm for a project in the works rather than plot or outline is the hybrid vehicle you will ride through to the final destination.  The main source of power for this hybrid vehicle is your enthusiasm, but when that switches off or its warning lights begin to flicker, your next remarkable fuel is curiosity.  Thus my advice to you:  Beware of Sisyphean sentences in the course of which you push stolid predicates to the top of a rhetorical hill, give them a shove, then hope they achieve in their downward descent some--you guessed it--momentum.  Remember Sisyphus as a metaphor representing meaningless, mind-numbing work; keep him in mind as an exemplar of the kind of sentence you do not wish to write, not under any circumstances.

Sisyphus was sentenced to an eternity of meaningless work for defying the god Zeus--well, actually, for hitting on a mortal woman Zeus had planned an adventure or two with.  If your sentences bear the aura of fearful duty--"I've got to explain my characters' motivation"--or the taint of relying on the need to satisfy everyone in your writing group, including that one person who is so particularly critical of everything you write, these burdens will weigh your sentences and, indeed, your story, bringing it to a standstill, leaving you with the uncomfortable awareness of being alone, stranded as it were on a desert island much as the young chaps in Lord of the Flies were stranded.  And you know what happened to them.

How, I hear you asking, do I achieve this mind-freeing enthusiasm of which I speak?  I can give you the mechanism.  The specifics work for me; perhaps they'll show you how to draw upon them to develop your own, as indeed I drew from my role model, a musician name of Franz Josef Haydn, not only an articulate composer but a prolific one.  He began his working day by sorting through his library of musical scores, finding a piano work written by Karl Philip Emanuel Bach, then spending half an hour playing the score on his own piano, whereupon he turned to his own composing.  Although a fan of Haydn, particularly his piano sonatas, I am not so much a fan of KPE Bach, whose music doesn't send me off the way Haydn's does, but to be sure, Haydn's approach gets me looking.  Look for ten things you can read, recite, listen to, taste, or merely look at.  These are to be selected with the notion that they will provide energy and momentum to you because they have in the past.  I can pretty much get going on nearly anything by Maurice Ravel.  Yo-Yo Ma's renditions of the six unaccompanied cello suites by KPE's father, Johann Sebastian Bach, get me moving.  I find it difficult not to be energized by the playing of nearly anything by Bill Evans going it alone, or accompanied by the wise, verbal bass playing of Eddie Gomez.  Reading Louise Erdrich gets me moving; reading almost anything by Jim Harrison can get the ideas hopping.

It rarely takes me more than three or four things to get me going.  Sometimes I am drawn back again to the wonder and whimsy of the Krazy Kat comic strips that so enchanted me as a young person and made me wonder if I would ever be able to project such a magisterial vision as George Herriman's on the walls of my mind.

So okay, you pick among these ten things of yours and have at them.  If they don't help you to tuck into your day's writing session, I'm sorry to say you're fucked, which is a different kind of destination than the one I have in mind for both of us.  I have in mind a destination that is informed by The Three Princes of Serendip, a Persian folk tale which has come to us through a number of languages, leaving us with an uncanny sort of dramatic road map and the word serendipity.

You can, dear writer friends, follow the well-worn paths of tradition, plotting everything in advance, then arriving at your destination in mechanical fashion that promptly bites its thumbnail at any sense of realism.  You can, of course, follow the path of the three princes, arriving at your destination by happy chance, your destination coming as a complete and pleasing surprise for you, or perhaps not--perhaps not so pleasing as to seem mechanical, but pleasing enough to seem lifelike.  Besides, you've arrived at anticipated destinations before in your earlier works, you've been through the juggling, rearranging of plausibility as though it were cheap motel furniture.  That didn't make you feel as pleased at it might had you agreed to let the unthinkable come striding forward, inviting it in to accompany you on your way.

I leave it to you, dear friends:  We can cause our conclusions to have the heavy hands of event managers or we can follow those remarkable three princes who were actually from Sri Lanka and somehow, through the serendipity of translation and writers looking for destinations that will leave us with something of substance, found us.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer viii

A truly vital and informative factor in our daily writing lives often goes unrecognized, much like the letter gone missing but yet in plain sight within Edgar Allen Poe's famed short story.  The factor of which I write directly informs the behavior between and among characters; while we are aware of it and using it, this factor also informs our social, political, and financial lives.  Some would argue that this factor plays an undeniable role in our romantic life.

More to the point, this factor plays an important role in everything we write, how that writing is read by others, and what the consequences mean to us.

By now you will have realized what the factor is, particularly those among you who have reached geezerhood, which allows you a greater sampling of human interaction from which to draw example.  The factor's very strength and reach are giveaways.  Power is like that.  What F. Scott Fitzgerald said about money is directly applicable to power.  Individuals who are born to it have grown up aware of how it begins early in life, drawing lines, separating those who have it from those who, however much money they might have, from those who eat at the second table, sit in the upper balcony, wait for the cheaper paperback edition to appear.

In its most basic form, power is the ability to do and say what one feels like doing or saying with the complete expectation that as many others as reasonable will accept this position as being so.  In varying degrees, individuals have power to exert over us, what they say is said with the expectation of our obedience.  The dog's owner is thus able to tell a dog to sit or to stop a particular action with the expectation of the dog's obedience.  An acquisitions editor holds a kind of power over incoming manuscripts, a parent has power over children until the children are--or deem themselves--grown up.  Curious, interesting, often insightful uses and shifts of power inhere in sexual relationships, where in a deeply personal sense a pair of lovers willingly exchange and/or abdicate roles of power, each to the other.

Fiction commonly is the armature about which power is wound, and in another sense, a writer whose  lucubrations are necessary because of a daytime job is at the whim of his employer, hopeful of the time where no "outside" work is necessary.

Writing has a measure of power over you as well, making it a splendid idea to determine the source of it, the better to understand the writing self various writing coaches, instructors, and editors are telling all of us they need to get a grip on.  As a hint, I, as a teacher and editor, have used this very line of suggestion on numerous occasions over the years, often with good results but most certainly with good results when the doing has caused me to get a better grip on my own writing self.

You will reach a point where you become aware of exerting your use of power over your created characters, in some perverse way gratified when they begin to sense they are dimensional enough to rebel against your authority, in the process doing things you had not intended.  There is this lovely trope to think of when the behavior of your characters perplexes you:  Your parents wanted better for you than they had, thus their approach to your education.  Your characters are trying to get you away from your lucubrations, and wouldn't that be fun?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer vii

At some point in your pursuit of recognition as a teller of tales, relator of stories, revealer of invented gossip, you will become aware of consequences.  You have probably become aware of them already when family, friends, and strangers, on hearing the path you have chosen, will ask you the question, "What have you published? as though that were the defining moment as opposed to the activities you perform, somewhat like asking a musician, "Ah, what notes have you played?"

The consequences of having work out in circulation, however humble the venue, regardless of whether the medium is paper or some electronics-supporting screen, will cause the work to become a target for a response or, alas, no response whatsoever.  Your own responses to these consequences will provide you with the opportunity for untold hours of philosophizing about the human condition and quite possibly motivating factors which in their turn will invigorate subsequent behavior from you.

One of the consequences--unseen at the time--of Herman Melville having written Moby-Dick was the direct push it gave to being a customs inspector, a career he had considerably less interest in than being a story teller.  You might say Melville was pushed into inspecting customs by the excruciating consequences of which all writers are in dread.  When I mentioned philosophizing a while back, did you think I'd forget to return to that important matter?  Would you, for instance, rationalize having had to spend large chunks of your life as a customs inspector a worthwhile trade for having written a book which would not become popular in your lifetime?  Could you, in effect, take the long view? The point here is that the mere act of writing will set into consequential result a series of behavior patterns over which, however much you control and revise your work, you have no control over.

The further point is to wonder if the characters you create come far enough off the page to have some of your readers join you in wondering if they have set enough consequences in motion, within and without their own boundaries.

What makes us care?  We care if the risk is significant enough, the consequences extensive enough, the reward something we can get our teeth into.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer VII

Few warnings to writers are as fraught and dire, so filled with the oil-spill bubbles of intent as these:  Listen to your characters.

That warning often comes in the second paragraph of one of those close-but-no-cigar letters from literary agents or editors, an explanation for the first paragraph which, although respectful of your inventiveness and inherent flair for story, nevertheless is an expression focused on the word regret.

They fucking regret you wasted their time.  The implications are simple enough:  If you would listen to your characters, you wouldn't be in this mess and they would not be regretting the time they wasted on your inventiveness and inherent flair for story.

Of course you are at pains to want to know all about how to listen to your characters because, truth to tell, some of them are already a colonoscopy waiting to happen.

Had you been in one of my classes, I'd have given you some hints on how to put the old stethoscope up against their rib cages.  You have to know who they are, I would have suggested.  Which means you have to consider them an armature about which you wrap relationships, past experiences and goals, not frivolously, mind you, but to the end of being able to tell in about the length of a good Twitter entry what their agenda is.  From this point, you have to assess what they would be willing to do, however painful or distasteful, to accomplish their goal.  You would need to know their boundaries, because if you don't know their boundaries, how can you presume to push them over those lines they have drawn so forcefully in the sand or whatever the flooring is of their particular landscape.

Like you, your characters undoubtedly carry on some kind of interior monologue, until it becomes a dialogue, then an argument between at least two rival factions, say the id and the superego.  So you get them pushed into this kind of inner argument while you sidle up to them and fucking eavesdrop so that you have some sense of where they stand and how they feel about all the other characters in your story.

It might help you to imagine the characters are all residents of a third world country and you come along, a rich gringo.  Don't, please don't tell me how broke you are, that you still have your student loan to pay off or that Coach purse you charged on your credit card as a sop to your grief at breaking up with your boyfriend or the monthly fee you agreed to for eHarmony, which you signed on to when your last girlfriend dumped you because you'd been going with her for eleven years and still couldn't make up your mind, and now you've learned to commit, goddamnit, and would be willing to except that all the chicks on eHarmony who respond to your emails represent themselves as skinny and when you meet for coffee they not only want whipped cream on their Irish coffee, they're also thinking you could pop for some mince pie ala mode.  I mean, who are these people?  You have no such problems with the likes of Gatsby or Lady Brett; it is only your own people who seem somewhat remote from you.

So what you do is, after you figure out (which is a euphemism for thinking) what you think they want, you push the matter, using all the interrogative techniques you learned from watching the law part of Law and Order; you squeeze them until you find out what they really want, which is a step of two closer to the bone than to help people or give a boost to the unfortunate, they want to show someone who dumped them in the past how wrong they were, how they were keepers.  They want to get revenge.  They want to undo a truly dumb decision or get a re-do on an opportunity they missed because they were stoned.  Help me, Young, middle-aged, or geezer writers, work with me:  squeeze those fuckers until they tell you something they've never told anyone else.  You can even promise to keep their secret, knowing you won't.  But, as Huck Finn said, that ain't no matter.

You want at least one secret from each character as ante for sitting in the game.  Once you know this stuff, you can slip back to that W. Somerset Maugham view of yourself, so fucking world-wise and understanding of the the Human condition that it's all a joke we laugh at over cognac and cigars.  Except that some of your characters don't get along, they're the literary equivalents of Siamese Fighting Fish; you put them in a tank and watch it come sprouting forth like unwanted crab grass.  Put your characters into a Green Room before they go on stage.  You might even drop the hint that one of them is going to end up on the cutting room floor.  You have to stop being so nice and considerate or they will be all over your ass like students at a tenderloin high school, going after a substitute teacher.

"You think you're Henry Fucking Higgins,  I am so not from the greater Boston area.  I am so not from anywhere remotely near the greater Boston area.  Put that in your fucking crack pipe and smoke it.  I am from Lincoln Fucking Nebraska and I've put a lifetime's effort into convincing fuckheads like you that I am from the greater Boston area just so I can pull the rug out from under them the way I did with you."  Get them talking and thinking that way toward one another, maybe not on the page, that's too simple, but thinking each of the other in such terms, then watch what happens to them.

You start looking at them in this manner, you just might catch a good wave.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer VI

Dear Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer,

Some years ago, never mind how many, I knew on some unarticulated way that most of my stories didn't begin soon enough, which is to say they began too late, coming to life only after a page or so of the stuff editors don't especially like to read, stuff that makes readers impatient, and bookstore owners apoplectic. The real irony is that at the time I'd already become an editor myself, growling to myself just as fiercely as did the editors who were reading my work and sending it back.

I had a pretty good friend at the time, worked a few miles north of me on the same street for a publisher called Price, Stern and Sloan.  She and I would share moody lunches at a whacked out Chinese restaurant on La Cienega, where we shared complaints.  "You'll notice,"  she said one day addressing the topic of beginnings, "how the fortune cookies here get right to the point.  There is a lesson to be learned."

A literary agent named Morrie Graushin owed me for some now forgotten favor.  He had one client I wanted to bring into the umbrella of the publisher I worked for.  After a few months of back-and-forth with letters and telephone, I got Morrie and his client to lunch at Dan Tana's Restaurant on the Sunset Strip.  This was definitely an expense account incident.  Could scarcely wait to turn in the chit.  Lunch: SL, Morrie Graushin, and client, Louis L'Amour.

The client was a tall, imposing, sincere man who came quickly to the point of asking me why we were there and then, before I could answer, suggested it was perhaps to effect his moving from his publisher, Bantam, signing on with Dell, whereupon I would become his editor, a concatenation--he used words like than when he spoke but not when he wrote--he was sure would be pleasant but not about to happen because he felt a loyalty to his publisher that transcended--he never used that word in one of his stories, either--his long-term financial plans.  This established, he suggested we have a pleasant lunch and talk shop.  We did.

I'm telling you all this because it has remained with me to this day.  Notwithstanding the hundreds of millions of copies of his books that have variously been published and made into films, Mr. L'Amour was not a notable stylist.  You might even say he was clunky, several hundreds of millions of copies of his books purchased to the contrary of my argument notwithstanding.  Nevertheless, he was and remains an accomplished storyteller.  He knew where story lived, knew how to coax it out and perform.  Knew where to begin, where to end.  The thing I came away from that chat with was the sermon he delivered on writers who began their stories too soon, filling them in with all manner of background nonsense that--he pounded the table with enough force to cause the garlic bread in the basket to jump a good four inches--no one cared about because it came too soon.  Looking directly at me as a representative to him of a type, he averred that too many editors allowed this state of events to continue.

To this day, when I am in a workshop situation, an appropriate classroom situation, or in some related editorial mission and the subject of beginnings becomes an issue, I think of his wisdom and his table pounding passion.  I see the wicker basket of garlic bread jump.  In my mind, the basket hovers for a moment of emphasis before settling down to the starched white napery.

Toward the end of May of this year, my literary agent, Toni Lopopolo, had business in the area.  She also had a speaking engagement at the Borders' Bookstore in Thousand Oaks, whence I drove just to hear her in action and hang out for a bit.  Speaking of beginnings to a group of writers, she read from a novel, Beat the Reaper by a new writer, Josh Bazell, using it to illustrate what I call opening velocity, the momentum a novel needs to yank readers in over the edge of reason, keeping them thoroughly in place by passion and heartsick curiosity.

Interested in your take said the note accompanying the book, which arrived just before the world shut down for the three-day weekend.  I am duly impressed with the opening, which was slick enough that it took me to page 20 before I realized A) no story had been introduced yet, only the barest hint that one might be coming, and B) in lieu of story, there was sufficient violence and mean spiritedness to take the reader's mind away from the fact of being there to read a story, presenting said reader instead with attitude, half-assed iconoclasm, and the setting forth of yet another Charles Bronson John Wayne Charleton Heston protagonist who not only takes me where I don;;t want to go but in the process makes me realize this is not a simple matter of dramatic skill but a playing on an instrument of anger, destruction, disrespect, cynicism, and a few bones of altruism thrown in to make it seem acceptable behavior.

I am not in consequence about to hold up Laura Ingalls Wilder as a role model for you, young, middle-aged, or geezer writer, or to suggest the goodnight litany mantra of the Waltons as the only true path.  Be cynical if you wish, but do it with a panache and a purpose other than bringing the rough and tumble of Nascar to the printed and soon-to-be-digital page.  Stomp on my moral, ethical, and political toes if you will, but do so from a place of conviction and passion.

Let me see the translation in you work of your passions to the dramatic passions of your characters, that splendid high-trapeze moment when they realize they are driven to what they do through love in all its various incarnations.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer

Dear Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer;

You may think you know your characters because, after all, you reached your pointed finger across the Sistine Chapel of your own blank screen, giving life to them, but until you know what a specific character wants, you know only the prime coat, the shadows, the basic forms.

Some instruction formats--classes, books--will suggest things such as flaws in the psyche or perhaps in the bodily function, a list or nervous tic or fear of spiders or, if you are the David Foster Wallace type, even a goldfish.  These classes neglect to let you in on a secret well known to lawyers and doctors:  Your characters will lie to you.  They will reveal what passes for intimate secrets of the sort a fellow traveler on a transatlantic flight might confess, but how do you know they are telling the truth?  Because you are a complete stranger whom they will never see again and they just couldn't resist the chance to let off a little steam that had been building up?  Not the way it works, pal.  Stop to think about the reading you've done, then make a list of characters who told lies.  True enough, they may be a bit like Blanche Dubois, who lied somewhat to herself.  And think about all the times you've been lied to by perfectly respectable sorts of your own creation, individuals every bit as reliable and truthful as their creator.

Need I remind you, dear writer friend, of Charles Baudelaire and his Flowers of Evil:

And yet, among the beasts and creatures all—
Panther, snake, scorpion, jackal, ape, hound, hawk—
Monsters that crawl, and shriek, and grunt, and squawk,
In our vice-filled menagerie's caterwaul,
One worse is there, fit to heap scorn upon—
More ugly, rank! Though noiseless, calm and still,
yet would he turn the earth to scraps and swill,
swallow it whole in one great, gaping yawn:
Ennui! That monster frail!—With eye wherein
A chance tear gleams, he dreams of gibbets, while
Smoking his hookah, with a dainty smile. . .
—You know him, reader,—hypocrite,—my twin!

Let's say that you don't outright lie, rather, like me, you are a tad forgetful of events and their circumstances; let us say you are merely arranging things to give them a bit of a better dramatic edge, one with serrations.  So okay, it's not as bad as Baudelaire, it's more like Ernest Dowsen's "I have been faithful to thee, Cynarra, in my fashion.

The point is, they aren't going to tell you everything.  They may in fact be playing you along, much as that remarkable young lady did to the victim in Saki's memorable short story, "The Open Window."  You are not, of course, going to be suspicious and skeptical of them all are you, because, well, you may have been burned once or twice, may even have believed the occasional politician when he or she promised you something that was more or less restructured after the election was history?

Instead of ranking them in the more classic folders of protagonist, antagonist, pivotal, messenger, and the like, you might instead try to rank them in terms of their hold on the truth in shall we say the Platonic sense.  And look at the fun you may have, pushing those with strong commitments to the truth to take a step or two beyond the self-imposed boundaries.  Think also of the delicious tension inherent in someone not well known for the truth being forced into a position where his or her reputation depends on it.  Ah, you say.  Story, you say.

Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer

Dear Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer;

You may think you know your characters because, after all, you reached your pointed finger across the Sistine Chapel of your own blank screen, giving life to them, but until you know what a specific character wants, you know only the prime coat, the shadows, the basic forms.

Some instruction formats--classes, books--will suggest things such as flaws in the psyche or perhaps in the bodily function, a list or nervous tic or fear of spiders or, if you are the David Foster Wallace type, even a goldfish.  These classes neglect to let you in on a secret well known to lawyers and doctors:  Your characters will lie to you.  They will reveal what passes for intimate secrets of the sort a fellow traveler on a transatlantic flight might confess, but how do you know they are telling the truth?  Because you are a complete stranger whom they will never see again and they just couldn't resist the chance to let off a little steam that had been building up?  Not the way it works, pal.  Stop to think about the reading you've done, then make a list of characters who told lies.  True enough, they may be a bit like Blanche Dubois, who lied somewhat to herself.  And think about all the times you've been lied to by perfectly respectable sorts of your own creation, individuals every bit as reliable and truthful as their creator.

Need I remind you, dear writer friend, of Charles Baudelaire and his Flowers of Evil:

And yet, among the beasts and creatures all—
Panther, snake, scorpion, jackal, ape, hound, hawk—
Monsters that crawl, and shriek, and grunt, and squawk,
In our vice-filled menagerie's caterwaul,
One worse is there, fit to heap scorn upon—
More ugly, rank! Though noiseless, calm and still,
yet would he turn the earth to scraps and swill,
swallow it whole in one great, gaping yawn:
Ennui! That monster frail!—With eye wherein
A chance tear gleams, he dreams of gibbets, while
Smoking his hookah, with a dainty smile. . .
—You know him, reader,—hypocrite,—my twin!

Let's say that you don't outright lie, rather, like me, you are a tad forgetful of events and their circumstances; let us say you are merely arranging things to give them a bit of a better dramatic edge, one with serrations.  So okay, it's not as bad as Baudelaire, it's more like Ernest Dowsen's "I have been faithful to thee, Cynarra, in my fashion.

The point is, they aren't going to tell you everything.  They may in fact be playing you along, much as that remarkable young lady did to the victim in Saki's memorable short story, "The Open Window."  You are not, of course, going to be suspicious and skeptical of them all are you, because, well, you may have been burned once or twice, may even have believed the occasional politician when he or she promised you something that was more or less restructured after the election was history?

Instead of ranking them in the more classic folders of protagonist, antagonist, pivotal, messenger, and the like, you might instead try to rank them in terms of their hold on the truth in shall we say the Platonic sense.  And look at the fun you may have, pushing those with strong commitments to the truth to take a step or two beyond the self-imposed boundaries.  Think also of the delicious tension inherent in someone not well known for the truth being forced into a position where his or her reputation depends on it.  Ah, you say.  Story, you say.