Writer’s Desk: Let Your Characters Talk

Occasionally some notable literary discussions take place in less-notable places. Take, for one example, the MidAmeriCon, 34th World Science Fiction Convention, which took place over a few days in 1976 at the (historic) Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City. There, the great science-fiction author Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination) was doing the sci-fi-con circuit that kept the genre afloat and buzzing in those pre-Internet days.

Bester took some time to talk to an eager fan for the noted genre magazine The Tangent about writing:

You know, Robert [Heinlein] said to me once—we were talking shop, writing techniques and stuff like that—and Robert said I’ll tell you what I do, Al. What I do is get a bunch of characters together and I get them into difficulties, and by the time I can hear them talk they’ve solved their difficulties and I’m finished.

I was absolutely flabbergasted! I can’t even start a story until I can hear my characters talking. I’ve got to know who they are, what they are…I’ve got to identify with them completely…

“I’ll tell you what to do Al…”

It’s likely that more writers are like Heinlein than Bester. For some of us, characters are stubborn things. If you waited around for them to talk, you might never get anything written.

Writer’s Desk: It’s Work, Not Inspiration

Marlon James, 2014 (Larry D. Moore)

According to Black Leopard, Red Wolf author and Macalester College professor Marlon James, the only way he can get anything put down on paper is seeing it as work:

When I sit down with my laptop, I go to work. To me, writing is work: that’s part of my process, that it’s a job. I’m a big believer in that if you establish a routine, the muses show up. I love when people say they write when they’re inspired. I’m like, “Oh my God, I haven’t been inspired to write since the Carter administration. How does that work?” I’ve got to pay bills. I can’t wait on inspiration to write a novel. I’d never write anything…

James is far from strictly pragmatic, though. Although writing might be work, it’s also practice, and it’s through practice that the magic happens:

It’s a vocation. It’s practice. Dancers, musicians, and actors know what I’m talking about—I don’t have to convince them. But writers will say things like, “I couldn’t write today because I didn’t feel inspired.” And I’m like, “That’s lovely.” It’s about doing the work—and knowing that inspiration or creativity will show up once they realize you’re serious…

Writer’s Desk: Make Mistakes, Don’t Be Afraid

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

The author Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic, the forthcoming Spying on the South) has ranged all over the world before settling back in America (sort of) to write books. Because most writers are rightly in awe of foreign correspondents (yes, it is a romantic occupation), it’s generally worth listening to what they have to say about the craft.

Here’s some notes from his interview in Writer’s Digest:

I think you’re much more likely to find the interesting stories if you take risks and do stories other people aren’t doing. In that way, you have to trust your own instincts, not follow the advice that everyone else is giving you, your parents, your editor, who encourage you to stay on the straight and narrow. And that’s a lot more fun…

You quickly discover as a writer that the worst experiences make for the best copy. I wouldn’t know how to write about a beautiful place. I couldn’t write a story on Hawaii. I sort of try to write about bleak places and frightening events. I find that’s more compelling to write about than, say, a nice vacation in France…

I tend to notice the absurd contradictions in my reporting. Like when I’m in a biker bar and some guy’s threatening to beat me up and I notice they’re watching male figure skaters on TV. Life is tragic and funny at the same time and I think that to tell a story in just one note or the other is too monotone. I don’t like one-note books…

Writer’s Desk: We Do Language

Toni Morrison in 2008 (Angela Radulescu)

For this week’s installment, we’re providing not so much advice as a reminder of what we do when we write.

In 1993, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In her acceptance speech, she said this:

Word-work is sublime … because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives…

We work in words. Sometimes, those words live on after us.

Do good work. Make Toni proud.

Writer’s Desk: It Beats Working

We lost the great Russell Baker this week.

An easygoing witticism factory who mined a seam of everyday observational humor without playing to the lowest common denominator, Baker once provided what might be the greatest reason of all to become a writer.
At this time I had decided the only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any…
Yes, it takes work to win a couple Pulitzers like Baker did. But not work.

Writer’s Desk: Drinking vs. Yoga

Dorothy Parker didn’t do yoga.

As a general rule, writers enjoy drinking. According to Katie Herzog in The Stranger, besides the role models of Dorothy Parker, et al, there’s one very good reason for this:

…writing is easy. Have you ever tried mining coal with a hangover? Or changing a bedpan? How about convincing 30 kindergarteners that it’s time to take a nap? Writing is one of the only professions in which it’s possible to do work when your stomach is a mess and your head is an anvil. It might not feel good, but with enough Advil, you can probably type through it.

Something to consider? Maybe yoga:

Sure, it might be hard to imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald in child’s pose, but he also died before he was 50.

 

Writer’s Desk: Be Nice to Your Editor

Your editor’s desk may look like this. Be nice to him.

Matt Zoller Seitz is one of our greatest critics. That means he doesn’t just have a vivid viewpoint on movies but that he’s first and foremost a lucid, enjoyable, and thoughtful writer.

In a piece he published on RogerEbert.com a few years back that listed some great advice for young critics just starting out—including “Just write, damn it”—this point stood out:

Always make your editor’s life easier, not harder. This is a job, not just a pursuit. Your bosses do not exist to make you feel good about yourself. They have to crank shit out, and a lot of them don’t care how brilliant it is if it comes in late or has accuracy or structural problems that they have to solve. Journalism isn’t filled with just-OK writers because that’s what editors want. It’s filled with just-OK writers because editors don’t want to have to put out fires after regular office hours unless there’s a damned good reason. So hit your deadlines. Turn in copy that’s as smart and clean and exciting as can be under the circumstances. Take responsibility for your words…

It’s almost impossible to say how important this is. Unless you’re out there blogging or self-publishing on your own with nobody looking over your shoulder, we all have editors. And we should. They’re the helpful folks who keep us writers from making fools out of ourselves with sloppy spelling, errors of speed (“its” when you mean “it’s”), and so on.

Be nice to your editors so that they can focus on making your writing better, not just cleaning up mistakes. Writing is a solitary activity that must turn into a team sport if you’re going to go anywhere with it.

Hit those deadlines. Be responsible.