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: Accept Imperfection

Despite what many might think, even the most talented writers harbor doubts about their talent. In fact, it is highly possible that self-doubt is crucial for many to succeed at their craft. A writer who just loves to death every line they slap down? That cannot be a good sign.

Still, it is surprising the extent to which some writers can only see the mistakes in their work. Ethan Canin (Emperor of the Air), who is about as precise a stylist as one can find in the modern American canon, seemed to say just that in this 2016 interview following the publication of A Doubter’s Almanac, which took him several years to complete:

Even when you succeed, you fail. Even when others think you succeed, you fail. I mean, how can anyone write a novel? Every novel is a failure.

While Canin is overstating the case (one can think of a number of at least nearly-perfect novels out there), what he says is potentially helpful for any number of writers who right now are frozen in their process because they just cannot let go of a flawed work.

No book or story or poem will be perfect. Let them go.

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: Wait for the Words to Reveal Themselves

Leonard Cohen published his first poetry in 1954, later moving on to novels and then the songs that made him famous, never quite putting down that pen until his death in 2016.

Discussing an album he released in 2014, Cohen talked about the importance of not giving up on the work. He mentioned working on one song for four decades. One song.

Not seeing himself as qualified to give advice to other artists (“because my methods are obscure and not to be replicated”), he still underlined the necessity of sheer stubbornness:

A song will yield if you stick with it long enough. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable duration. Sometimes a song has to hang around for a decade or two before it finds its expression…

This is the way of the craftsperson as much as it is the artist. Inspiration is crucial. But so is the refusal to give up, no matter how little that piece of writing wants to reveal its secrets to you.

Writer’s Desk: Pull a Gatsby

Megan Abbott, whose newest novel The Turnout is out this month, had some good advice for how to find the right narrative perspective for your book:

I’ve always been interested in the “Gatsby structure,” which is when you don’t tell the story from the point of view of the most interesting character, though they can become the most interesting character, of course. You let Nick Carraway tell it…

You want a watcher to tell your story. Somebody with an exciting life may not have the time or focus to notice what’s happening around them.

Writer’s Desk: Put in the Effort

In this interview, Minnesota author Charles Baxter explains how he knows he is on a good streak:

I work during the morning. I pace; I stare out the window. I sit with my head in my hands. If I can feel myself breaking out into a sweat, particularly from my underarms, and if I give off a noticeable body odor that even I can smell, I know the writing is going well…

If it feels too easy, maybe give your last few pages another look.

Writer’s Desk: Watch TV and Learn

Say you have written a book. You have been lucky enough to have your book published by a major house. Maybe you have even gotten some good press. But nevertheless, the income stream is negligible. What do you do to keep writing and not have to hold down a separate job?

Maybe write a book that has a better chance of being optioned for a streaming or television adaptation. In “The Rise of Must-Read TV,” Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J. D. Porter note how streaming services like Netflix (which has had great success with book-sourced series like The Queen’s Gambit [pictured above]) have been on a “buying spree” of book properties.

The writers studied what makes a book more appealing to the interests of TV producers looking to populate a big, broad-appeal series. They identified a few common characteristics:

Although not every novel under contract for potential adaptation shares all of these features, they do seem to possess a consistent set of what we call “option aesthetics”: episodic plots, ensemble casts, and intricate world-building. These are the characteristics of contemporary fiction that invite a move from the printed page to the viewing queue.

These are just dramatic choices you can make. If (and only if) they work well for the story you have in mind, then run with it. Remember: Jennifer Egan modeled A Visit from the Goon Squad on The Sopranos.

Writer’s Desk: Write As Though You Are Already Gone

Sometimes the best advice can come from writers reminding you of what other writers have said. For instance, there is the 2012 speech that Jeffrey Eugenides gave in which he gave some advice via what one writer related about another writer’s advice:

In his 1988 book of essays, “Prepared for the Worst,” Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously.”

Eugenides goes on to interpret what Hitchens/Gordimer meant, which to him boils down to writing in some sense as though one is already dead and gone:

It may inoculate you against the intellectual and artistic viruses that, as you’re exposed to the literary world, will be eager to colonize your system.

Which is all likely true. Better to accomplish, of course, without trying to finish one’s memoir or mystery while viewing it through the veil of the after life.

(h/t: The Millions)

Writer’s Desk: Try Again, Try Harder

Writers love little more than those days when the words just arrive, streaming from your mind to the page with seemingly little to no effort on their part. It can, of course, be glorious to go from eking out a few lines to finishing five pages in a morning.

But Samuel Johnson has a warning:

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.

It’s good to feel the pleasure of your writing. But stay frosty.

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.

Literary Birthday: Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman (born today in 1905) was raised comfortably in Louisiana before her family, who did not always manage their money well, moved to New York. There, she worked various jobs while trying to get her writing career off the ground. When it did, with the 1934 premiere of her hit play The Children’s Hour, her success came with a heavy helping of controversy. Based on an incident that took place in Scotland in 1810, the story was set at an all-girl’s school where a student spreads a lie that the two women running the institution were lovers.

A milder version of the moral panic Hellman depicted greeted the play itself, which was considered too dirty-minded for the Pulitzer Prize. She, along with her longtime paramour Dashiell Hammett, palled around with Communists and other radicals. This gained her the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who put the playwright under surveillance. Hellman’s FBI file runs to over a hundred not terribly interesting pages: “Miss HELLMAN did not engage in any Communist activities in Fairbanks.”

Writer’s Desk: Lie to Tell the Truth

The passing of the great Janet Malcolm this week at the age of eighty-six is not a thing that the world of writing will bounce back from. One of the great profile writers the New Yorker ever had, Malcolm had a spare and wry yet richly illustrative style that compressed whole volumes of insight into a few lines.

But the work that everyone will continue going back to is The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), ostensibly the story of how the relationship between writer Joe McGuiness and murder suspect Jeffrey R. MacDonald unraveled in spectacular fashion, but really an X-ray of why and how journalists do what they do.

In this slim and cutting book, Malcolm characterizes her profession as a confidence game of sorts:

Fortunately for readers and writers alike, human nature guarantees that willing subjects will never be in short supply. Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses — the days of the interviews — are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife…

Malcolm knows that for a writer to tell the truth about something or someone, they must often first strew the path before them with lies.

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: 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: Pare It Down

There’s a Mike Birbiglia joke about how some quotes attributed to famous people are really just sayings that predated that person but they were the one who everyone remembered saying it (funny in his original version). It’s hard not to think of that when reading this piece of advice from ace science-fiction writer and editor Frederik Pohl:

Students of playwriting at the University of Texas (so one of them told me long ago, leaving an indelible impression on my mind) used to be told that there were only three reasons for including any given line in a play: To show character; to advance the action; or to get a laugh…

Clearly that advice was around before Pohl, and likely before whichever teacher delivered it to those students. But it’s grand wisdom nonetheless and if you have ever read any of Pohl’s witty, page-turning science fiction, you know that he followed the lesson to a tee.

So for the sake of convenience and giving a somewhat overlooked writer his due, let’s credit Pohl with this one.