Reader’s Corner: ‘Secret City’

My review of Secret City, one of the summer’s most rewarding history titles, is at PopMatters:

The difference between America’s capital and its other cities, according to James Kirchick’s densely detailed, panoramic, and eye-opening new history Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, was that life in the federal seat of power during the Cold War came with an extra layer of paranoia. That fear manifested as extreme state-sponsored homophobia. Everywhere else in America, gayness was perceived as a threat to various orders (familial, religious) that lived primarily in people’s minds. But in Washington, being gay—or, more crucially, being discovered as gay—was seen as a threat to the very security of the nation….

You can hear an excerpt from the audiobook here.

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.

Writer’s Desk: Work Backward

Screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, Steve Jobs, The Trial of the Chicago 7) has a trick for getting past a writing block which many of us use, or at least know that we are supposed to use: Get outside and take a walk.

But he does this not just to clear his head but to see what he picks up along the way:

Frequently if I’m really stuck I’ll go out into a public place – a diner, a bus stop, any place you might overhear a conversation. I hope that I can land in the middle of a conversation that will get me thinking, ‘What in the world was the beginning of this conversation?’ I’ll try to write that…

Think of it as a challenge or puzzle. Take this line Sorkin overheard:

I was in Jackson, Mississippi, and passed by a park bench, and two men were sitting there, and one of them said, ‘Who thought they were going to get the jump on Jesus?’ Again, I thought, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ He wrote the best line in the scene, now let me write the rest of it…

Give it a shot.

Writer’s Desk: Be Flexible

Writers have habits. Or they don’t, and then feel that if they did stick to a schedule, then the words would come. In the interest of enforcing discipline, routines are probably going to be helpful. That is why so many writers follow them. But hewing to very strict habits every day of one’s life can feel a little too much like work.

Consider the habits of Thomas Hardy (Tess of the d’Ubervilles), described in the magazine The Writer:

Thomas Hardy prefers the night for working, but finds the use of daytime advisable, as a rule. He follows no plan as to outline, and uses no stimulant excepting tea. His habit is to remove boots or slippers as a preliminary to work. He has no definite hours for writing, and only occasionally works against his will.

Excepting his ill-advised strict adherence to tea, which can be excused by his British heritage, this is all perfectly sensible advice.

Choose whatever time works best for you. And take your shoes off first.

Reader’s Corner: Marvel Comics vs. Penguin Classics

Next month, Penguin Classics is doing the seemingly unthinkable: collaborating with Marvel Comics for their first line of comics anthologies. It’s kind of a big deal and is likely cause discussions of the “whither Penguin?” variety.

I wrote about this unlikely collection for The Millions:

Largely devoid of the ironies, ruminations, and absurdities of less mainstream and traditionally “higher-brow” comics, the three entries in the Marvel Collection revolve around combat and struggle. Together, they comprise more than a thousand pages of exceptionally reproduced color panels whose artistry ranges from the merely competent to the spectacular. At many points, Black Panther, Captain America, and Spider-Man are not unlike Odysseus—tested by an array of villains, undone by their own arrogance, tempted by glory, unsure of their fates…

Writer’s Desk: Know When to Walk Away

Alexander Grothendieck (1928-2014) was one of the most important mathematicians of the twentieth century. When Fermat’s Last Theorem was finally solved in 1994, it was only because of what Grothendieck had discovered about algebraic geometry.

But he was not just a numbers guy. Like many mathematicians, he was primarily a problem-solver. He loved it. Not only that, he understood it on a more fundamental level than most people ever do.

According to Rivka Galchen’s fascinating profile, Grothendieck compared problem-solving to dealing with a hard nut:

You could open it with sharp tools and a hammer, but that was not his way. He said that it was better to put the nut in liquid, to let it soak, even to walk away from it, until eventually it opened. He also spoke of “the rising sea.” One way to think of this: there’s a rocky and difficult shore, which you must somehow get your boat across. There may be a variety of ingenious engineering feats that can respond to this challenge. But another solution is to wait for the sea to rise, providing a smooth surface to cross effortlessly…

Think of this the next time you come up against a seemingly unsolvable problem in your writing. Paragraph isn’t gelling or the plot isn’t making sense? Walk away for a bit. Come back and work at it but just a little. Don’t think you can solve the problem in one big go.

Wait for the sea to rise and the answer will present itself.

Writer’s Desk: Choose the Right Words

In 1988, Nobel Prize-winning poet and onetime Soviet dissident Joseph Brodsky gave the commencement speech to the University of Michigan. In the wide-ranging address, he dispensed an array of life’s wisdom, including be nice to your parents and avoid putting too much trust in politicians.

More to the point, he reminded his audience to choose their words well:

Treat your vocabulary the way you would your checking account.

Writer’s Desk: Channel Your Emotions

The prolific and beloved poet May Sarton was an emotive, careful writer who seemingly never published a line that had not been weighed, judged, fully understood, and buffed to a high sheen.

Given her attention to both raw inspiration and careful editing, she had a lot to say about the art of poetry that can apply to almost any kind of writing.

In Writings on Writing, she references Valery and what he said about the inspiration or “the intense feeling” that generates a piece of work. She throws a little cold water on the idea of some great rush of emotion driving the creation of art:

A true poem does not begin with a feeling, however compelling, and of course we feel a great many things that never become poems.

Instead, she argues, the writing comes from that collision of a feeling with something else:

A poem emerges when a tension that has been something experienced, felt, seen, suddenly releases a kind of anxious stirring about of words and images … the energy that was absorbed in experience itself, now becomes an energy of an entirely different kind, and all that matters is to solve the sort of puzzle, the sort of maze in which certain phrases, and a certain rhythm lie around like counters in a game of Scrabble.

Without emotional inspiration, there would be little writing, or at least not much worthwhile writing. But that inspiration needs channeling and puzzling out before it can be fully formed and live on the page.

Writer’s Desk: Learn from the Pros

I covered three new books about writing (how to do it, why do it) for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. You can read the whole piece here.

Generally it’s not a great idea for writers to spend too much time reading about how to do their work. Better to just dive in and do it.

But sometimes, especially when you are stuck, it helps to see how some other writers break through that wall. Matt Bell’s Refuse to Be Done is a great handbook for this kind of thing. He is inspiring but also a realist, overflowing with numerous tips for hitting your deadlines and producing solid work.

The real recommendation here, though, is the anthology How to Write a Mystery. It is obviously very specific to its genre. But the book is truly a treasure trove of incredible and practical advice that can not just help any writer work through problems in their story but feel excited about doing it.

Hard not to love a book from an organization whose motto is, “Crime doesn’t pay. Enough.”

Writer’s Desk: Write Badly

Making art of any kind generally involves granting yourself permission. This can take many forms. Allowing yourself to fail, to be criticized, to bare your soul.

According to Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible), novel writing is not that complicated. She provided some tips to Publishers Weekly:

To begin, give yourself permission to write a bad book. Writer’s block is another name for writer’s dread—the paralyzing fear that our work won’t measure up. It doesn’t matter how many books I’ve published, starting the next one always feels as daunting as the first. A day comes when I just have to make a deal with myself: write something anyway, even if it’s awful. Nobody has to know. Maybe it never leaves this room! Just go. Bang out a draft…

Of course, “bang out a draft” is harder than it sounds. But breaking it down like that can get some people over their anxiety. Put the words on page. They don’t have to be good. Just get something down. Bad pages can be improved.

Writer’s Desk: Ask, But Don’t Answer

At a recent panel for the American Booksellers Association, several novelists discussed “Storytelling in the Cultural Moment.”

Several themes were played with, including the idea of how to play with a “rupture” in your story. But one particularly salient point came from Jennifer Egan on the topic of curiosity:

Fiction for me is about asking questions and not answering them…

It’s a harder rule to follow than you might think.

Writer’s Desk: Find Perfection in the Little Things

The polymathically prodigious Samuel R. Delany (who turned 80 this week) published several novels by the time many people have yet to graduate from college, re-orienting the entire field of science fiction just as it was entering its great period of 1960s experimentation. He kept that going for decades, knocking out everything from space opera to dystopia to memoir.

In a recent piece for The Yale Review, Delany tried to answer the question of why he writes. He had several takes, ranging from wanting to read the books he could not find, to because it was fun, to enjoying the erotic imagination, and dealing with the certainty of death.

But one of his most salient points comes in this anecdote about Michelangelo agreeing to take an art-besotted baron to a tavern where all the artists hung out:

After three evenings, the lord said, “But all I hear among these men is talk of stone and chisels and files, gesso and tempera and pigments. I expected to hear talk about beauty, the truths that we learn when we gaze up at their works, the perfection that they create for us. Why do they waste their time talking about these trifles?”

Michelangelo answered, “But perfection is the sum of trifles, and perfection, my lord, is no trifle!”

Nearly everything writers do, from researching conversational patterns in nineteenth-century Turkey to deleting commas, is in a way trivial.

But that’s the only way to get close to perfection.

Writer’s Desk: Maybe Change the World?

Comics legend Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) has a writing tutorial now on BBC Maestro, which looks absolutely fantastic. Moore is an expert at weaving together numerous characters and overlapping dramatic arcs inside complex and frequently historical settings while still maintaining clarity and momentum. Not an easy feat.

On top of that, he wants to focus not just on mechanics, but the larger picture. Namely: What can writing accomplish?

You should remember that a writer can change the world. Think of the books that have completely changed human history. See yourself in that light. Because if you are a writer, then you are having an effect upon human history…

Aim big.