Writer’s Desk: Follow Your Own Advice

Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville does not seem to be the sunniest person to be around when trying to finish a book. According to this interview in The Daily Beast, his wife has reportedly described his personality while writing as being like “a murderer who’s just come back from a particularly bloody killing.”

So perhaps it is not surprising that he is not one for giving advice to other writers:

When young writers approach me for advice, I remind them, as gently as I can, that they are on their own, with no help available anywhere. Which is how it should be. Like Popeye, I am what I am…

Though being reminded that it is all up to you is not-unhelpful. Meaning that Banville, despite his protestations, actually is giving advice.

Screening Room: Fellini’s ‘La Strada’

In Federico Fellini’s breakthrough classic La Strada, a girl from a poverty-stricken family is sold to a traveling circus performer who does not realize just what a miserable life he has consigned both of them to.

My review of the new Criterion Blu-ray DVD is at PopMatters:

La Strada became a quiet sensation upon its American release in 1956. Critic Christina Newland, in an essay that accompanies the recent Criterion Blu-ray, refers to its “paradigm-shifting effect” for the widespread of its influence. It quickly earned a prominent place in the arthouse canon that placed a small cadre of foreign directors—Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut—as standing for everything sharp, insightful, and humanistic that bloated, materialistic, and subliterate Hollywood apparently did not. In that respect, La Strada certainly fits the bill…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Woke Racism’

I reviewed John McWhorter’s most recent book, which came out last fall and became a quick (not surprisingly, given the title) bestseller, for PopMatters:

Woke Racism has the feel of something written in a blaze of indignation between podcasts, which is both a strength and a weakness of the text. This may explain the nuggets of anti-woke outrage, mostly stories about writers and academics targeted by antiracist Twitter mobs, dispersed somewhat randomly throughout. Many of those stories certainly pass the absurdity test—very few Twitter pile-ons or abrupt firings following a social media defenestration look defensible in the light of day. But a scattering of anecdotes does not an argument make…

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

Screening Room: ‘Italian Studies’

In the latest movie from the director Adam Leon (Gimme the Loot), a writer catches amnesia and goes looking for clues through a cacophonous pre-COVID New York.

Italian Studies opens this week. My review is at Slant:

As depicted in writer-director Adam Leon’s Italian Studies, a successful author’s (Vanessa Kirby) haphazard journey through Manhattan after she suddenly loses her memory has little of the urgency often seen in mysteries about recovering one’s identity. What Leon is presenting here is more of a free-associative, impressionistic portrait of a pre-pandemic city awash in noise, crowds, and serendipitous encounters. To the extent that this dreamy and at times tiresome film succeeds at all, it’s due to the crackling energy of the people who Kirby’s Alina Reynolds falls in with over the course of her wanderings…

The trailer is here:

Writer’s Desk: Hook the Reader

Every writer knows the advantage given by a great opening line. Like here:

  • “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
  • “Marley was dead, to begin with.”
  • “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

The best first lines provoke curiosity. What drugs? How did Marley die? What the heck is a hobbit? Sometimes the more questions you can raise the better.

For examples of this, try looking not at great novel starts but newspaper ledes. Those are the Who/What/When/Where paragraphs that usually come at the start of a news item and can contain an entire novel’s worth of curiosity and detail if done right.

In “Florida Woman Bites Camel,” Calvin Trillin provides a delightful example of how one newspaper (in this case the Advocate of Baton Rouge, Louisiana) accomplished this task in a story from 2019:

A veterinarian prescribed antibiotics Monday for a camel that lives behind an Iberville Parish truck stop after a Florida woman told law officers she bit the 600 pound animal’s genitalia after it sat on her when she and her husband entered its enclosure to retrieve their deaf dog.

And it was all true. The reader who does not want to know more about this camel-biting pair from Florida is probably not a reader who would rather be watching television.

Writer’s Desk: What Drives Your Characters?

The great writers make it all seem quite simple. Take John le Carré (the pen name of David Cornwell). When the writer Kate Weinberg interviewed the master spy novelist and they started talking about writing, she confessed to having problems with the novel she was working on:

The characters had been living inside me for years now, and I had a premise, a good one I thought—but I was struggling to weave the kind of intriguing plot I admired in his writing without reducing the characters to pawns on a chessboard. Whenever I think of story, I lose the characters, I told him. And whenever I think of character, I lose my story…

Cornwell’s solution was elegant in its simplicity:

“You need to remember this. The cat sat on the mat,” said David. “That’s not a story. But the cat sat on a dog’s mat. Now that’s a story.”

It’s all about motivation in other words. Why did the cat sit on the dog’s mat? What does the dog feel about the mat? And so on. Once you know why your characters are doing or want to do something, tangling them up in a plot can be somewhat second nature.

Writer’s Desk: Joan Didion, Full Stop

The luminous Joan Didion, whose sage words on writing we have filched from before for Writer’s Desk posts and most likely will continue to do so in the future, is no longer with us. Absconded from this mortal coil at the age of 87, Didion is now (as the comic Greg Proops might say) swirling in the heavens with all the other greats.

Didion wrote it all: Novels, screenplays, apocalyptic “whither America?” essays, meditations on mortality, and Saturday Evening Post columns about the hurly burly of life in the mid-late 20th century. She did it for all the best reasons: to explain something about life as she knew it (especially in California), to tell good stories, and to find some way of paying for the old mansion and nice cars that didn’t involve working a 9 to 5.

In 1976, Didion published the now iconic “Why I Write” essay in the New York Times. It’s deadpan witty and trenchant all the way through. but even decades later, one part that continues to stand out is her description of barely graduating from Berkeley with a degree in English because she had forgotten to take a class on Milton. So she took the Greyhound down from Sacramento every week so she could talk Milton until the English department greybeards deemed her sufficiently well-versed:

I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote ten thousand words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus.

No knock on Paradise Lost, or what can be learned from deep study of any of the greats, but ultimately Didion is right. Better to be able to describe what you can see and taste and touch. Pay attention to that and you can be a writer.

Writer’s Desk: Emerson Said Get Some Sleep

The Transcendentalist thinker and author Ralph Waldo Emerson (that’s his study above) nurtured the careers of many writers, most famously Henry David Thoreau. As a result, he had some advice for how writers should pursue their work.

In his journals, Emerson wrote this:

Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.

If the statement seems axiomatic, that is a fair assessment. Nevertheless, just every writer has had that stretch where they let the days blur together, fail to get enough sleep, and refuse to acknowledge that their work is suffering.

Keep working. But remember when to stop. When you need to, take a nap.

Reader’s Corner: PW 2021 Graphic Novel Critics Poll

Every year, all us lucky critics at PW Comics Week vote on what we thought were the best graphic novels of the year. Some years, it’s tricky combing through all the great work. Other years, there’s a lot of great work but one or two titles stand out and make our job relatively easy.

2021 was one of the latter. Rarely a good idea to vote against Bechdel (whose winner, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, I wrote about for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune).

The results of this year’s PW Graphic Novel Critics Poll were published today. Here’s a quick rundown of what won:

  1. The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel
  2. Run: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury, and Nate Powell
  3. No One Else by R. Kikuo Johnson

Writer’s Desk: Remember to Live

For obvious reasons, we read writers about writing because, well, who else are you going to ask? We like to look to those we love, and maybe occasionally to those who we may not love so much but because we think: Damn, look at how he’s done, how did he do that?

Which brings us to Frank Herbert. There are people who love just about everything he’s written and others who think that the Dune series, well, it fell off a bit after the first two. Nevertheless, given what he accomplished with the first Dune at least, many people listen to what he has to say. Like when he says this:

A writer’s job is to do whatever is necessary to make the reader want to read the next line. That’s what you’re supposed to be thinking about when you’re writing a story. Don’t think about money, don’t think about success; concentrate on the story—don’t waste your energy on anything else. That all takes care of itself, if you’ve done your job as a writer. If you haven’t done that, nothing helps…

I know what he is trying to say here. And it needs to be said. No matter what else you do and no matter how many rules you follow about exposure and making connections and studying the market and all that, none of it will mean anything if you haven’t put everything you’ve got into the work itself.

But still, telling writers, especially new writers, that nothing else matters? This feels like malpractice. Of course, the story is everything. How about the working parent who can only get an hour or so of solid writing time in between shifts and the baby? Doesn’t it make sense for them to consider focusing on what they can get done in that time and that headspace rather than putting hours and hours into a thing they may never be able to finish?

Of course the story is everything.

But money is not nothing. Neither is life.

Reader’s Corner: Best Books of 2021

The good folks over at PopMatters just put up their annual Best Books feature. It’s got pages and pages of great fiction and non-fiction reads. The link is here, you can see what my selections were above.

Here are some other great runners-up that I read this year and highly recommend:

FICTION

  • Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Cheng
  • My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Phase Six by Jim Shepard
  • The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

NON-FICTION

  • World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain
  • Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City by Rosa Brooks
  • Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia by Thomas Healy
  • Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever by John McWhorter
  • Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres by Kelefa Sanneh

GRAPHIC NOVELS

  • The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel
  • Street Cop by Robert Coover and Art Spiegelman
  • Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke
  • What Unites Us by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

Writer’s Desk: Listen, But Do What You Want

All writers need advice. Working in the garret of their own imagination provides the raw material, but never going outside and finding out what somebody might think will generally lead to subpar results … or a self-published novel filled with spelling errors and plot holes.

But, since nothing is easy, all writers also need to know when not to listen. Mel Brooks is a perfect example of this, though he definitely erred on the side of not. When working on Blazing Saddles, Brooks got some notes from a producer about things to change:

He said, “You can’t punch a horse.” I said, “You’ll never see it again.” I kept saying, “You’re absolutely right. It’s out!” Then, when he left, I crumpled up all his notes, and I tossed it in the wastepaper basket. And John Calley, who was running [production at] Warner Bros. at the time, said, “Good filing.” That was the end of it. You say yes, and you never do it.

Brooks’ advice might not seem applicable to people not working with movie studios or very pushy editors:

Don’t fight them. Don’t waste your time struggling with them and trying to make sense to them. They’ll never understand.

But it is a strong reminder that no matter how many notes you might get (change this character, trim that dialogue, cut the opening), don’t loose track of your original idea. It’s yours, not theirs.