Writer’s Desk: Let Your Characters Tell the Story

In 1987, psychedelic pied piper and one of America’s great novelists Ken Kesey taught a graduate writing class at the University of Oregon in which he and the students were to collaboratively write and publish a novel. His methods were unsurprisingly eclectic but his purpose was direct: “If we finish it and it gets published, everybody gets an A. If we don’t, you get an F.”

Much of what ultimately happened in that class, led as it was by a high-octane preacher-writer with a flair for the magical, would be difficult to reproduce in the field. However, as related in this Rolling Stone article, Kesey also had some decent wisdom to transmit:

Plot comes out of character, he explained, not the other way around. ”The trick is for us to build character in our characters,” Kesey said, ”to breathe life into them, to get them to stand up, stretch and start doing stuff. We’re not interested in pulling strings, in being puppeteers. We want these people to rise up off the page. Then we sit back and follow them through the novel.”

If you can create characters who seem interesting enough to follow around for a couple hundred pages, then what they actually do in that time may be more incidental than anything else. Person first, then plot seems like a good way to get started.

Writer’s Desk: Use That First Draft

Back in 2015, when he was promoting his novel Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín talked about the advantages of growing older, from a personal standpoint:

That’s one of the things you learn as you grow older. That if you don’t like someone, you never like them, and they never like you. It’s not something you grow out of, no.

While this might suggest a somewhat relaxed worldview, Tóibín in fact approaches his work like he’s on a clock:

I mean, well, there are writers who do drafts, knowing there will be later drafts, and that works for them, but I don’t do that. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be later drafts, but I write as though I will never get another chance.

This might not work for some who prefer to write long then cut. But it’s hard to argue with the practicality of putting it all down as you intended in one blaze and then moving on. Life is short. Books take a long time.

Writer’s Desk: What Obama Read and Why

This should be obvious: Read more to write better. But what to read? Everyone has ideas, ranging from books on writing to books whose style and insights can teach you something.

In this LitHub piece, Craig Fehrman talks about Barack Obama’s relationship to literature specifically as a writer. In Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote about being castigated by Marcus, a college classmate for reading a “racist” novel like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. When Marcus walked angrily away, another classmate, Regina, commented that Marcus was in a “preaching mood.” Obama replied:

“Actually, he’s right,” I said. “It is a racist book. The way Conrad sees it, Africa’s the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.”

When Regina then asks him why he’s reading it, Obama’s reasoning is instructive:

…because the book teaches me things … About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and what’s left unsaid. So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate.

Seen this way, almost any book you pick up has a lesson to teach.

Writer’s Desk: Start a Diary

Michael Palin, of Monty Python and travel-writing fame, has been writing in his diary since 1969. Even when nothing much is happening. Palin is a special case, because he can look back and read about that time he was with David Frost or John Cleese or at some little café in Tangier.

Still, for a writer a diary can be something of a gold mine. This is especially the case if you have a gift for description and observation. Several years’ worth of tracking what is happening around you can come in handy when looking for material later on.

But one doesn’t want to slap just anything down. Even if it is just your diary. Palin has some handy don’ts:

  • “Don’t be too obscure. British upper-class diaries are prime examples of this fault, as in Sir Arthur Fforbes-Ffinch’s account of London life in the 1920s: “January 4th: Bo-Bo, Tiggy, Spaff, Flatto, Gin-Gin, Mobbles, and Goofy came round and we all drank Brown Monkeys and played Sham-Sham until we’d crocked Bonzie’s and had to rumble.” Completely inexplicable if you didn’t know it was a Cabinet meeting.”
  • “Don’t try and make your life interesting when it isn’t. Diaries must be brutally honest. If you had only one egg for breakfast, write “Had egg for breakfast.” Don’t feel you have to have had 12 eggs for breakfast just to get in the diary.”

Also, one very helpful to-do:

  • “Write every day. Diaries are all about habit. They should become a regular part of your day, like cleaning your teeth or going to the lavatory. And, if possible, just as interesting.”

Writer’s Desk: Write, Don’t Worry

In Ocean Vuong’s 2020 novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, his background as a poet becomes clear in the shards of impressionistic scenery, the free-flowing memory, the jolts of fricative emotion.

He also, in one sweet line, asks a question that many writers might think they know the answer to:

What if art was not measured by quantity but ricochets?

Writers would say, Yes and amen to that. Because a good numbers of want the numbers, of course (whether it’s sales or fans or even compensation). But what sits down deep in many of us is the idea that what we do leaves us and bounces out there in the world, maybe connecting with somebody, and possibly even multiple somebodys.

But then Vuong lops off the last part of that line and circles back to ask a harder question:

What if art was not measured?

This is the healthier response of course. But also one that so many of us will find it impossible to follow by not measuring ourselves against all the other writers out there.

Try as we might.

Writer’s Desk: Rules? What Rules?

So Seth Rogen has a book out. That may surprise some who just think, “The guy from Knocked Up?” He’s almost more writer / producer these days than charter member of the Judd Apatow comedy mafia.

Rogen and his longtime friend Evan Goldberg have something of a screenwriting machine going, ranging from instant classics like Superbad to series like Preacher to, well, The Green Hornet. So they know how to put words on the page and make something out of it.

Of the advice they gave to The Script Lab, one item in particular jumped out:

Any rule can be broken. They’re just basic guidelines that you can just shatter if the moment is right.

It seems obvious, but really it is not. We all have rules that get stuck in our head, from hanging that gun on the wall in the first act to the number of red herrings to give your detective hero before he/she finds the killer (by the way, that number has been scientifically calculated as 4.5).

But each and every one of them should be hurled out the window with great force the second they get between you and your story.

Writer’s Desk: Leave Some Room

Anthony Doerr writes large books with an epic sweep. They feature dramatic action but also layered descriptions with particularly sparkling language. Per The Writer, Doerr knows this can be a lot for some readers. In a 530-page novel like All the Light We Cannot See, he keeps many of the chapters to just a page or two:

Because I’m a fairly lyrical and dense writer, I felt like it would be nice to give the reader these white spaces, these bursts of recovery time … Like a little bit of oxygen before diving back in again

Writer’s Desk: Know When to Move On

Every writer has had those sections that give them problems. They will be moving right along and then there is this part that just refuses to fit. They know it needs to be there. Otherwise the plot will not make sense or readers will not appreciate the argument being made or that one line of crystalline description will be orphaned.

John Steinbeck knew what to do in that situation. Take this item from a 1962 letter:

If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there…

Writers are always told to cut out the troublesome bits. But that does not always feel right at first. Sometimes you need to let it sit for awhile before you are able to put it out of its misery.

(h/t: Brain Pickings)

Writer’s Desk: Amuse Yourself

In her 1966 primer, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) had some choice advice for what writers should do. Above all, she said:

The first person you should think of pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself. If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write a book, the publishers and the readers can and will come later.

This should probably not be taken to mean that if you hit a rough patch in your writing to immediately abandon ship. But if you have difficulty sustaining interest in your topic, it is almost certain readers will do the same.

Writer’s Desk: Edit After You Write

In “How to Practice,” Ann Patchett writes about what she learned when helping a childhood friend clean out her late father’s apartment, and how it reminded her of writing. In short, she says you cannot do two things at once:

I made the decision to wait until we’d finished with the entire house before trying to find a place for the things we were getting rid of. This was a lesson I’d picked up from my work: writing must be separate from editing, and if you try to do both at the same time nothing will get done.

Compare this to filmmakers, some of whom (Spielberg, Soderbergh) are known for editing as they go to save on unnecessary filming. To some degree, writers must do the same, since if you put down everything, you will never finish. Still, Patchett has a point. When you are writing, write. Let it pour out, and worry about editing later.

Within reason, of course.

Writer’s Desk: One Idea per Sentence

Though Bill Bryson takes on large subjects, including but not limited to the history of everything, he tries to keep things simple. In his Dictionary of Troublesome Words, he gave some particularly specific advice:

There is no quota on periods. When an idea is complicated, break it up and present it in digestible chunks. One idea to a sentence is still the best advice that anyone has ever given on writing.

Writer’s Desk: Care About the Right Things

Paul Beatty, author of the incredible novel The Sellout, wrote about some things he wished he had known when he was starting out:

I felt a bit of pressure that if I wanted to be an author, I’d have be relatable, tell people what they wanted to hear, what they believed to be true about themselves, if not the world around them. Be like one to those corny Netflix stand-up comedians who win the (always overwhelmingly white) audience over by pillorying the easy target, pretending we’re all in this together, cultivating what Jerry Seinfeld calls the “we agree applause”.

He realized that worrying about everything outside the actual words on the page is mostly wasted effort:

I can’t say I’ve ever stopped worrying about becoming an author, and it’s not that I ever actively tried to become one, but I did stop thinking about trying. Reading WG Sebald’s Austerlitz and Percival Everett’s Erasure, listening to Bernadette Mayer and Rebecca Solnit talk about their forthcoming projects Helens of Troy and Infinite City, respectively, helped to remind me that the work is about the work…

Writer’s Desk: Follow Your Own Advice

Writers do not lack for advice. They are, in fact, drowning in it. This very site adds another drop to that flood most weeks; hopefully not entirely in vain.

Yes, sage advice from working authors can be crucial to those of us struggling to get words (the right words) on a page each day that do not embarrass us and hopefully put something new and fresh and true out in the world.

But that will only get you so far. This is what Richard Wright (Native Son) knew.

In 1945, in a letter Wright wrote to the artist Antonio Frasconi, he said:

I hold that, on the last analysis, the artist must bow to the monitor of his imagination, must be led by the sovereignty of his own impressions and perceptions.

You will not get anywhere without listening to what you have to say.

Writer’s Desk: Once Again, With Feeling

A few days after 9/11, Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian about the aftermath of the tragedy, the shock it had caused in the people he knew. Despite the world-spanning nature of the events, he noted that “the reckoning, of course, was with the personal.”

In describing how people channeled their traumatized watching into fantasies and daydreams that limn the cracks in the “terrible actuality”, McEwan hits on something essential in these imaginings about “what if it was me?”:

This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion … Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

Your writing does not have to overtly engage with ethical quandaries in order to be moral. All it needs to do is whisk the reader into another person’s consciousness. By doing so, fiction can breed understanding.