Writer’s Desk: Make It Shorter

Writers like the great Andre Dubus (whose wrenching New England stories of love and agony put Raymond Carver to shame) choose a lonely and difficult road when they decide to master the short story rather than the novel. But the form does lend itself to those who prefer concision.

It is one thing to go through one’s draft to do some nipping and tucking. But Dubus was brutal:

Dubus’s prowess in narrative compression is legendary. Andre Dubus III has written that his father’s story “Waiting,” about the hollow ache experienced by a woman widowed by the Korean war, took fourteen months to write and was more than one hundred pages in early manuscript form. But when the story was published in the Paris Review, it spanned a mere seven pages…

Be prepared to dump 93 percent of what you write. At least.

Writer’s Desk: Be Intentional

There is a lot of writing in the new Wes Anderson movie The French Dispatch. After all, it is about a magazine. The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., played by Bill Murray, is a grumpy but accommodating sort, the sort who complains constantly while still carrying inside him a deep and abiding love not just for the written word but also for those who know what to do with it.

In the film, Howitzer (based on legendary New Yorker editor Harold Ross) does not dole out much in the way of writing advice, but what he does say about the craft on multiple occasions is nevertheless solid:

Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.

This is harder to accomplish than one might imagine.

Writer’s Desk: Stuck? Write Something Different

Writers are not born prolific. They work at it. More than most of us. That’s how you end up like Isaac “I lost track of how many books I wrote” Asimov.

He got blocked, like the rest of us. But in that moment, he didn’t just sit there grinding his teeth. The asymmetric approach seemed to work for him:

I don’t stare at blank sheets of paper. I don’t spend days and nights cudgeling a head that is empty of ideas. Instead, I simply leave the novel and go on to any of the dozen other projects that are on tap. I write an editorial, or an essay, or a short story, or work on one of my nonfiction books. By the time I’ve grown tired of these things, my mind has been able to do its proper work and fill up again. I return to my novel and find myself able to write easily once more…

Just make sure you always have a spare project or five on tap.

Writer’s Desk: Short, Shorter, Shortest

A poet of many talents, including an icy wit and a cross-disciplinary verve, who tends to generate a high degree of excitement in a certain kind of literary enthusiast, Anne Carson is often asked about writing. Rarely does she pretend to be have any great wisdom to impart.

In this interview, though, when prompted about how her terse answers indicated she preferred brevity, Carson proves just that, illustrating her point with one of the greatest sentences in the English language:

Short Talk on Brevity… try to leave the skin quickly, like an alcohol rub. An example, from Emily Tennyson’s grandmother, her complete diary entry for the day of her wedding, 20 May 1765: “Finished Antigone, married Bishop.”

Writer’s Desk: Bring the Emotion

Hubert Selby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn) wrote from a deep, dark place that could traumatize unwary readers. That could be because he deprioritizes anything that does not deal with a character’s emotional state:

Very seldom is there any physical description in my work. Occasionally it might be necessary, perhaps for ironic reasons. But physical description is unimportant to me because we don’t live and die on the outside. It’s not so much what I do but what I feel about myself. That’s where I live and die on a daily basis, inside of me…

If you write about what you live and die for, that seems like a good place to start.

Writer’s Desk: Let the Words Come to You

The late Jim Harrison cast the kind of shadow across the literary landscape you don’t much see anymore. A writer more arguably associated with a kind of lyrical American wilderness and wildness than any since Theodore Roosevelt (perhaps Cormac McCarthy), he flung his talents widely across fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He was also a gourmand of exquisite tastes and occasional overkill (“Hangovers have all the charm of a rattlesnake cracking its jaws as it swallows a toad”).

Though prolific, Harrison took his time when working on a piece. He was more likely to let the characters mill about in his head for a time, take a walk, be patient, and then strike when the moment was right:

You can’t go to it. It has to come to you.  You have to find the voice of the character. Your own voice should be irrelevant in a novel. Bad novels are full of opinions, and the writer intruding, when you should leave it to your character…

Good advice but of course easier for some than others. Following this method, Harrison wrote Legends of the Fall in nine days and submitted it after only changing one word. Hard act to follow.

Writer’s Desk: How to Get Published

So, how do you get published? A lot of writers have thoughts about that. But it tends to derive from when they were first coming up, which is often decades ago and relevant to an entirely different industry.

In this piece from Locus magazine, science fiction author Cory Doctorow (Little Brother) talks about what he used to know about breaking in:

Thanks to online forums and writers’ groups, I could name every single major SF publication, their editors, word rates, and response times. I could tell you whether their contracts were negotiable, and, if so, which clauses could be struck out. I could name every major agent who was open to new clients and every book editor who was willing to read unsolicited novels…

But now, he acknowledges, he knows none of that. Instead, he proffers what he calls broader meta-advice:

1) Note where works that are comparable to your own were published recently;

2) Research the editorial guidelines and word rates for those markets;

3) In descending order of pay-scale, submit your stories to those markets, according to the submission guidelines for each;

4) Keep writing.

Learn the industry. Get to know people. Hope for a break. Keep trying if you don’t get one.

These principles apply regardless of the year.

Writer’s Desk: Figure it Out Later

In a famous 18th century parable, Rabbi Jacob ben Wolf Kranz (better known as the “Dubno Maggid”) relates a fantastic story about the creative process:

Once upon a time, I was walking in the forest and I saw all these trees in a row with a target drawn on them, and an arrow right in the center. At the end of the row I saw a little boy with a bow in his hand I had to ask him, “Are you the one who shot all those arrows?!” “Of course!” he replied. “How did you hit all the targets right in the center?” I asked. “Simple”, said the boy, “first I shoot the arrow, and then I draw the target”.

This may sound vaguely familiar because singer-songwriter Caroline Polachek used it as the inspiration for her album Drawing the Target Around the Arrow. Polacheck’s phrasing gets it just right: Fire off your idea first and then figure out what you were aiming for later.

Also important: insisting that that was your plan all along.

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.