Writer’s Desk: Find Your Rhythm

If you have ever read Truman Capote (and if you have not, dear reader, why?), you know that he has produced some of the most perfectly calibrated sentences in the English language. Whether he sounded them out in his head, simply knew the music of words better than the rest of us, or learned everything he knew from Harper Lee, who is to say. The story might clunk here and there, but the words on the page always sang.

Capote knew that rhythm mattered, almost more than anything else. In 1957, he talked about style and control to The Paris Review:

Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence—especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all…

Writer’s Desk: Billy Wilder’s Rules

After Cameron Crowe failed to convince director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sunset Blvd., too many other classics to mention) to play a small role in Jerry Maguire, the two struck up a friendship. That turned into a series of conversations. That turned into a book.

That book contained Wilder’s rules for writing. They mostly involve getting attention, not letting up, and then grabbing people’s attention again. He specifies it’s for screenwriting specifically, but many if not all apply to most any kind of fiction:

  • 1: The audience is fickle.
  • 2: Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
  • 3: Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  • 4: Know where you’re going.
  • 5: The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  • 6: If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
  • 7: A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
  • 8: In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
  • 9: The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  • 10: The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Writer’s Desk: Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

Everybody expects writers to be, for the most part, miserable. This is particularly true of writers themselves. We are after all a cohort of people given not only to romanticizing what we do but at the same time highlighting just how difficult a task it is to write sentences one after the other.

Michael Cunningham (The Hours) wrote a piece for Oprah about this predilection:

I suspect that one of the many reasons we who write tend to contemplate our troubles the way nuns finger rosaries is the fact that our sufferings are entirely invisible to everyone but us…

But while Cunningham was gently ribbing his tribe of creatives and pointing out that sometimes the act of writing can be quite enjoyable (“If an author isn’t acquainted with happiness in some form or other we don’t trust him or her”), he also pointed out that whenever the writing went a little too well, that is when the writer is in trouble:

A writer should always feel like he’s in over his head. That’s part of what makes good writing compelling—the sense that as readers we’re in the company of a writer of vast ambitions, who is always trying to do more than he or she is technically capable of…

Do you have a project that you would love to write but have been putting off because you think it’s too much for you or you don’t have the skill? Make that the next thing you write.

Writer’s Desk: Deadlines Help

Writers like to complain. It’s one of our favorite pastimes. We particularly enjoy griping about deadlines. How unreasonable they are, how foolish we were to agree to them, how we couldn’t possibly get everything done before them, and so on.

But, against our nature as it might be, there are times when we should embrace the deadline.

Consider Saturday Night Live. Every week while in season, the writers ponder, pitch, write, rewrite, throw ideas into the garbage can in disgust, fish those ideas out later and dust them off, and generally burn the candle at every possible end to put a show together by the end of the week. As anybody who has watched the show over the years can attest, the end product is not perfect. But it never could be. Because endless time can be its own kind of trap.

SNL founder and creative mind Lorne Michaels famously put it this way:

The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.

Be thankful for the deadline. If not for that, you might never finish writing.

Writer’s Desk: Deflect and Keep Moving

When interviewed by LitHub, novelist Hari Kunzru — who was one of many authors reading at the “Stand with Salman” event this past Friday on the steps of New York’s Public Library — was asked how he gets around writer’s block. His first response is what many writers say (in essence get over it):

The thing with writer’s block is that it only exists if you make it a problem. If you want to write something, you write it. If you “can’t,” it’s usually because subconsciously you don’t actually want to…

But then Kunzru gets to the heart of the matter, which is what to do when you really can’t figure out a way to move forward:

If I sit down at my desk and find I can’t generate new text, I try to do the next most useful thing: revise something, make notes for another section, work on some other piece of writing, write administrative email etc. If I’m really not able to concentrate I go for a bike ride or clean the house. Soon enough I can get back to what I was “supposed” to be doing. I’ve worked as a writer since I was in my early twenties, and I have rarely had any other source of income, so the idea that if I don’t write, I don’t eat is very deeply engrained. It’s a good motivator. In a certain sense, I’ve never really had the luxury of getting blocked…

Maybe you can’t write the next paragraph of your novel. But you can do something. Forward movement is crucial.

Writer’s Desk: Practice, Practice, Practice

Do you know Sam Lipsyte? If not, then now is the time to get acquainted. Start off with his novel, The Ask. It’s very … well, just read it. Funny, profane, true; all the best qualities. No One Left to Come Looking For You is coming out later this year and it’s a knockout.

All of which is prelude to why you should listen to what he has to say about writing fiction; which he teaches at Columbia University.

In this interview, Lipsyte talks about the need to stay connected to what you are working on:

… the main thing is always to stay connected to a project. Even if today I might not get to it, I have to look at it—even if it’s 10 minutes or 15 minutes or 20 minutes, even if I just move a comma. An old teacher of mine said, “You pray at the altar every day.” Even if it’s just for a few minutes, you have to go into the document and mess around a little bit, read it, feel it, and then you can go on and do the thing you have to do that day, but you’ll be connected for the next big writing session.

Sometimes, if you are looking for an excuse to procrastinate, not having a couple spare hours to get some pages out is a good one. But Lipsyte is right: Don’t give yourself the out.

Keep praying at the altar.

Writer’s Desk: Leave it Loose

Who doesn’t like a tidy conclusion? Life is random. Does our art have to be? Isn’t a great part of the joy of creating and consuming art based on the possibility of finding a closure that our daily lives never offer?

Of course it is. If nobody liked neat finishes, then mystery novels would not be a thing.

But it does not always have to be that way.

In Iris Murdoch’s novel The Sea, The Sea, her playwright character has the following observation:

Then I felt too that I might take this opportunity to tie up a few loose ends, only of course loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones. Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need of a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us…

Some stories lend themselves to a snappy finish. But for others, your efforts to wrestle the elements of life into something sensical and satisfying could ruin what you are trying to build. Don’t force the conclusion.

In art, as in life, things can sometimes just end.

(h/t The Marginalian)

Writer’s Desk: Rules? What Rules?

J. K. Rowling (born on this day in 1965) has sold a few books in her career. So it is somewhat refreshing to see her resisting the urge to lay down some must-follow rules for other writers to follow. In fact, in this piece from 2019, she points out that her breakthrough came largely from going in the other direction:

I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children’s books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words…

Still, she presents a few common-sense rules of thumb to follow:

  • Reading: “Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.”
  • Discipline: “Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.”
  • Independence: “By this, I mean resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.”

That does not mean if you do everything she says, success will follow. Nothing is that simple. Remember what Dumbledore said:

We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.

Writer’s Desk: Stick With It

Of late Robert Heinlein’s legacy as one of the great postwar science-fiction writers has been somewhat forgotten, or overshadowed by his status as libertarian icon. But he deserves recognition not just for his great novels (Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land) but for providing us with some of the most salient writing advice ever put to paper.

In his frequently cited article, “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” Heinlein laid down five solid rules:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. You must put it on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

The last is particularly helpful for writers who have a difficult time with rejection. Of which there will always be a lot.

Heinlein was also smart enough to acknowledge that he frequently broke these rules himself. But sticking to them will help instill the diligence, rigor, and stubbornness necessary to get anywhere as a writer.

Writer’s Desk: Short is Okay

It is easy to confuse length with profundity, brevity with shallowness. The reverse can also be true, of course, but readers frequently believe that an epic-length novel must have some kind of importance, even if it does not always justify its length.

Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 320 pages, give or take) noted this in an interview with The Paris Review. He praised Robert Musil’s gargantuan yet still somehow unfinished multi-volume novel about the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, The Man Without Qualities, calling it “one of the two or three novels that I love most.”

At the same time, he was overwhelmed by its size (one English translation runs over 1,700 pages):

But don’t ask me to admire its gigantic unfinished expanse! Imagine a castle so huge that the eye cannot take it all in at a glance. Imagine a string quartet that lasts nine hours. There are anthropological limits—human proportions—that should not be breached, such as the limits of memory. When you have finished reading, you should still be able to remember the beginning…

Take the time to tell your story. If you think the crucial conversation that highlights everything your characters have been going through needs to be forty pages, then forty pages it is.

But keep an eye on the overall work. Don’t make your readers slog through so much to get to the end that they forget the beginning.

Writer’s Desk: Try Anything

Sometimes you just cannot get started. It all feels wrong. You have a story, a poem, a whole book even, inside you. But it won’t come out.

Don DeLillo was once asked by writer Kae Tempest about the accrual of a certain kind of detail:

In your novels, there is a noticing of the everyday that is so perfectly, so tunefully described that something very usual becomes eerie, oppressive. For example, there’s a line from White Noise where you write ‘On telephone poles all over town there are homemade signs concerning lost dogs and cats, often in the handwriting of a child.’ Which is such a beautiful and usual thing to see, but to suddenly be reminded of it in fiction …

DeLillo tells Tempest where that came from:

I was desperate to begin a novel at that point. I guess it was 1982 or 1983. A long time had passed and I wanted to get back to work. And I just started describing streets and signs on poles. I started noticing them, they were always there, but I not only noticed them, I looked at them, thought about them and thought about the people involved. And that’s how White Noise got started…

It can be that simple. Write whatever you can. Get it down in just the right kind of detail. Keep going. Repeat.

Eventually the story will make itself known.

Writer’s Desk: Everything is Material

Gertrude Stein tended to be more known for who she was (holder of literary salons, quotable intellectual roustabout, knower of the famous) than what she wrote. This always bothered her.

She would be irritated that today her profile remains primarily that of an expatriate rebel. But while much of her writing was high-minded experimentation, she still has a lot to teach any scrivener.

Take this aside (and note the similarities between its straightforward simplicity and that of one Ernest Hemingway, who she once mentored) from her novel Paris France:

Familiarity does not breed contempt, anything one does every day is important and imposing and anywhere one lives is interesting and beautiful. And that is all as it should be.

In other words, nothing is inherently literary. It’s all material. Tell it well.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Embellish

It’s easy to write more than you need to. As we come up with stories, our minds quickly fill up with material (setting, mood, backstory, interesting tangents) and it is hard not to want to put it all down on the page.

You know who does not do that? James Patterson. He’s an expert plotter and an impeccable marketer (started out in advertising, you know) who knows how not to waste reader’s time.

Plenty of us can write short. But it’s not that simple. In his new memoir, Patterson provides a simple trick:

Patterson’s breakout thriller, “Along Came a Spider” (1993), began as a full-length outline of the plot, and then essentially stayed that way. “When I went back to start the novel itself,” Patterson recounts, “I realized that I had already written it.” The short chapters and one-sentence paragraphs that became his signature style, and that are often the object of critics’ scorn, struck him as the ideal way to keep the novel “bright and hot from beginning to end”…

If the outline is your story, why embellish? Maybe readers will really want to know what color the drapes were.

But it’s not likely.

Writer’s Desk: Embrace the Unreal

One of the trickier and continually undiscovered American writers, Percival Everett specializes in a particularly elevated satirical fiction. More than a commentator on contemporary mores, he is also funny. A hard trick to pull off. From I Am Not Sidney Poitier:

People, my friend, are worse than anybody.

In this interview, Everett talks about how to maintain the illusion of realism:

If you were to find what you consider the most realistic fiction, memorized with a friend a portion of dialogue from that novel, then sat on a bus and acted it out, people would think that you are crazy. It is not realistic fiction. This is the magic of fiction. It seems the same way that you can have on a canvas that looks really three dimensional. It can’t be. Also, if you were to record the most meaningful conversation you’ve ever had with your best friend about something really important to you and wrote it down on paper, it would be the worst dialogue ever written. It’s a trick, recreating illusion. So it isn’t necessarily not realistic. It’s something else that gives us the appearance of realism. Given that, there can’t be any rules. You’ve already started from a place that is unreal…

Remember the common critique of many an annoyed high school kid struggling through Shakespeare: “Nobody talks this way!” True. But nobody talks like they do in Lee Child or Michael Chabon novels, either.

Embrace the unreality of it all.