Q: How do you push yourself to improve as a writer? Do you have any tips for us writers who are just starting out?*
A: Read. Everything. Seriously, reading a ton of fiction is a fiction writer’s number one job, besides writing. I'm a firm believer in reading great books--how you define "great" really depends, of course--but I'm also a fan of reading not-so-great books from time to time. In fact, you can learn an amazing amount from books that are far from amazing. Anyway, you should read in three ways:
(1) just going along, sort of soaking up awesome writing even if it’s completely different from what you want to do. This is how I read Haruki Marukami’s work. I just hope something sinks in.
(2) very deliberately paying attention to a writer’s moves. I tend to struggle more with plot than character development, so I tend to obsessively chart the plot development in books that build tension and effectively weave together many threads. Then I try to see how and when I can make their moves work in my own fiction. This usually happens in revision.
(3) learning what NOT to do. When something makes you groan, pay attention. What went wrong for that writer? How would you have fixed it? Where did the problem start? Sometimes, for example, the problem with the ending of a book is somewhere in the middle.
Of course, aspiring writers need to WRITE, too, but that's obvious. Never underestimate the power of your reading to transform your writing.
Sometimes when Latin American literature comes up as one of my areas of research in a casual setting, I hear things like, "Oh, so you read Borges, right?"
Don't get me wrong: Borges is great--and important. So of course I read Borges. In fact, I studied in the very building at UT-Austin where he once gave lectures as a guest.)
But there are important literary horizons beyond Borges in Latin America, even in Argentina itself. If I had it my way, I'd beam any eager readers straight into one of my comparative literature classes, but in the absence of Star Trek technology, I'll settle for putting you on the track of a fabulous series of articles that introduce readers to important Argentinian writers (beyond Borges).
These features from The Argentina Independent showcase about a dozen Argentine fiction writers and poets such as Rodolfo Walsh, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Ernesto Sabato, Roberto Arlt, and (my personal favorite as well as one of the subjects of my current dissertation) Silvina Ocampo. A few of my own thoughts about her here.
The essays give a biographical overview as well as a bit of soci0-historical context, but their best traits are the enticing bits of literary history. Here's a passage from the feature on Macedonio Fernández:
Wrestling earnestly with the question, “How can we commit ourselves to love whilst facing the certainty of death?” the novel concerns itself with the idea of non-existence. A collection of characters, including the president, the gentleman who does not exist, the lover, and the author, gather at an estancia called ‘La novela’ where they are to be instructed in the art of non-being.
Subtitled ‘The first good novel’ and unabashedly described by the author as “the best novel since both it and the world began”, ‘Museo de la novela de la Eterna’ was written alongside a collection of intentionally bad writing titled ‘Adriana Buenos Aires’ and subtitled ‘The last bad novel’.
Together the two novels represent an extended experiment in writing, a museum of possible literatures, and secured Macedonio’s reputation as a writers’ writer.
Want to go beyond Borges? There's one idea of where to start. Now go read.
It's a rare thing, maybe, for an author to celebrate her book being locked up. But in this case, going to lock-up means being freed to find a new audience--and getting my book into the Michigan Reformatory library.
I stumbled across the fabulous and quirky Prison Reviews by Curtis Dawkins, who writes for BULL Men's Fiction. I loved the stories that lead into the reviews--which sometimes have to do with his experience in prison, sometimes not--and Curtis is a smart and uncompromising critic.
I had my publisher send The Knife and the Butterfly in hopes of getting a prison review, and Curtis rocked my world last week by writing a review of the novel that is fabulous and unlikely in equal parts. A taste of the unlikely:
Surprises are like those scared animals—you have to surprise them by hiding your desire to catch them. You have to wait patiently for them to wiggle through an unseen crack while your mind drifts to dinner. Your hand is cramped from holding the binder twine tied around the stake propping open the oak barrel and your hungover, trap-builder buddy is snoring under a tractor out back. If the critters know you’re waiting, they’re gone, and it might be a coon’s age before they show their anxious faces in those parts again.
And a taste of the fabulous:
That’s why this book is important. “Important” may be a term used too often in blurbs and reviews (it should only be used when the book could truly save lives), but it’s one I don’t think I’ve used in a review before. It’s easy to see these abrasive youngsters dying on the news and dismiss them as somehow deserving of their bloody death. But, as The Knife and the Butterfly makes clear, they have grandmothers and little sisters who love and will miss them—Regina and Meemaw are two of the most touching characters I’ve read about in a long time. The gang-bangers only want what everyone else wants. They only want to leave their mark on the world—in this case that mark takes the form of tagging the buildings and boxcars in Houston with spray-paint, which serves as a perfect metaphor for the transitory nature of all of our marks.
Check out the whole review. And while you are at it, think about sending Curtis a book yourself. He has a wish list of books he'd like to read and review, but he is also open to surprises, as seen above. All books get a second life in the Michigan Reformatory library for use by other inmates. Notice that books must be sent directly by the publisher or a vender and must be new.
To help YOU go write today, I'll share my number 1, go-to method of getting my style muscles in condition.
There is something to be said for having a shock-proof shit detector that can be turned "off" for the purposes of drafting. That is, an editor you can shut up long enough to get the words on the page.
I've already hoorayed over the triumph of finishing a draft (just the first of many, mind you) of novel #3 and managing to crank out 200,000 words in a year with a focus on plot.·
But in all that FAST writing, I had a recurring fear that I was steadily killing my inner stylist. Was I losing the art of the well-turned sentence? Had I become deaf to the music of language in favor of the blunter instruments of plot twists, drama, and suspense? Would I ever write another paragraph that, even if it took me an hour, had all the harmony and cohesion that are missing in our world?
As a reward for finishing the draft and because, let's face it, my style muscles have gotten a little weak, I'm taking a break from story and plot and returning to my first love: the sentence. Here's a lovely demonstration of why it matters to take time with the sentence:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals--sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
(Gary Provost, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. Mentor, 1985)
There are countless books of writng prompts and exercises out there, but I always come back to my favorite approach: starting with sentences I admire in books I'm reading. Try it! Here's how:
Find a paragraph of prose you admire. Write it out longhand just to get the feel of those amazing words coming out of your own pen (on loan). Notice the joints within and between sentences, how they fit together and flow.
Now write your own paragraph (on whatever subject you choose), modeling each sentence exactly on the paragraph you admire. Try to stick to your model; the idea is to pay attention to how writing moves at the sentence level—and to get infected by gorgeous prose. Here’s an example:
Gil Adamson’s opening sentence in her novel The Outlander: “It was night, and dogs came through the trees, unleashed and howling.”
Ashley’s sentence: It was noon, and salmon arced up out of the stream, rainbowed and gleaming.
What’s awesome about this prompt, which I shared with figment.com here? You can use it over and over, so it’s a perfect building block for a writing ritual. Best of all, you can surprise yourself into a twist in your narrative.
A day late, and a bad joke too many, but for labor day... I was thinking about fictional depictions of childbirth. Not motherhood, mind you, but proper labor. I think this is something most of us mothers would rather leave out of our fiction, but I'm curious if there are brave folks out there that I'm missing.
If there are, tell me who! What are they writing about labor?
The only in-depth labor scene I can think of is at the beginning of The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. (Irrelevant note: I tried to read this once, at eighteen, and couldn't get into it. Then about a decade passed and I moved to Bloomington, Indiana--where part of the novel is set, albeit in an earlier time--and I moved closer to mommyhood myself. The second time I finished it.)
Anyway, here's a bit from the opening of The Stone Diaries:
"What she feels is more like a shift in the floor of her chest, rising at first, and then an abrupt drop, a squeezing like an accordion held sideways... She breathes rapidly, blinking as the pain wraps a series of heavy bands around her abdomen. Down there, buried in the lapped folds of flesh, she feels herself invaded. A tidal wade, a flood."
Happy Labor Day!
(Note: this is part of my "If I were a librarian" fantasy in which I would always have ideas for the next great book to hand to a reader.)
I read Anne Frank's diary several times as a preteen, but Sharon Dogar offers something new here with a book that imagines what life in the annex--and after--might have been like for Peter van Pels. I loved how Dogar showed the evolution of their relationship, especially how she got inside what it might have been like to be forced together in a way, to know that this might be the only chance at love. Apparently there has been some fuss about Dogar sexualizing Anne Frank, but I think that objection has more to do with what people don't want to think about teens--and their own children--than to do with any inconsistencies between Dogar's portrayal and the Anne of the diaries. For more, please read my post, "Teens are (sexual) people, too."
Still, the most powerful part of Annexed for me comes in Part II, which imagines Peter's experience in the camps. The narration is choked with numb despair, but it is beautiful and gripping.
Finally, a word about shyness: I appreciated how Dogar captured Peter's personality and worldview, how she gave him a powerful, distinct voice in spite of his difficulty expressing himself to others. The narrative pulses with his will--and his right--to live.
A minor issue: The only gripe I had was with the chapter headings (e.g. "Peter Dreams of Lisa," "Peter Is in Love with Anne"). They seemed unnecessary and intrusive, but perhaps that wouldn't be the case in a paper book rather than in audio; the reader's eyes might fly right past these markers. Speaking of: I listened to Annexed on audiobook, and it's wonderfully produced with a large cast. Usually I don't like "performed" audiobooks, but here it works.
Why ANNEXED is a good pairing for NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which I reviewed here: NO CRYSTAL STAIR also draws on real-life documents to tell a story of struggle, although it's a quieter, less dramatic narrative (the life story of influential Harlem bookseller Lewis Michaux). Readers who are fascinated by fiction inspired by real events will love NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which draws on and weaves in actual documents from Michaux's life. This weaving of fact and fiction is more subtle in Annexed, but the dynamic is similar.
For me, death is the hardest chapter to bear in the story of a life.
Recently, my brother asked me to share some good memories about my grandmother, who passed on the fourth of July after a long struggle with cancer that clouded the end of a life of caring and connectedness. I told him I wasn't ready yet. And I'm not; I still feel too raw to skip back to the joyful parts.
I know that time will come, a time when I can celebrate and remember without the bitter bite of loss. It's happened with each important death in my life, and I anticipated it as I sat in the funeral. I kept my eyes open and looking up, up. Partly because I was trying to cry less and some liar told me this might help. Partly because upward is, for me, the direction of gratitude.
Even if I don't feel grateful, I can still put myself in position for it. I can remind myself that I will, eventually, appreciateher peaceful death, a death with my grandfather and father at hand. She opened her one good eye to the world, blinked, and turned her head toward the man she lived with and loved for more than sixty years.
There were no more breaths.
I wish I had let that be my last image of my grandmother. There was so much to hold onto: her awareness of the moment of passing, her connection to two men she loved, her release to the heaven everyone in the room anticipated for her.
Instead, at the funeral, I looked into the coffin.
I'm always sorry. I always tell myself, "This time around, I'm really, really not going to look." And I always, always look.
I don't know what we expect from the open coffin. What closure can denying decay for the duration of a funeral service really give us? Maybe it is part of what some people need. For me, it's an obstacle to closure. That frozen, flattened look--the features pressed into place by someone who never saw the person in life--it lodges in me, a dark seed that tells a story that competes with the one I want to tell for my loved one, the one that will let me remember the real life.
The look into the coffin begins a story of deception, of denial, of delay. A lie: I'm just sleeping here for a while. The truth of death is less eloquent: gone, gone, gone. A stuttering that finally resolves into silence.
For far more eloquent thoughts on death than mine, click here.
I reader recently emailed me to ask about the most-read articles on this blog. (Thanks for your question, Christy!) Here are the ten most popular posts, in reverse order to maximize suspense.
10. Five reasons NOT to self-publish your novel as an e-book. My tough-love advice for the eager-to-be-published.
9. The shit detector with on-off switch. Slight modifications to Hemingway's adage result in handy gift-giving advice for writers.
8. YA saves, but not like you think. A post responding to the second Gurdon article in the summer of 2011 (Remember? "AAAAAH! YA IS SO SCARY AND DARK!") and the responding rallying cry of "YA saves." Basically about the difference between parent-vision and teen-vision and what matters most for the YA audience.
7. Scrivener and me. A little shout-out for the program that is (STILL!) rocking my world. Coming soon... a post on organizing blog tours using Scrivener.
6. The Dropout Story. I am quite possibly the world's nerdiest high-school dropout.
5. Teens are (sexual) people, too. No surprise here... Sex always gets folks reading! One of my favorite posts on why I think sexuality has a place in books for teens... and why anybody who cares for a teen also ought to be thinking about the fact that sex--in some way--is in that teen's life.
4. How to Accidentally Make Ten Gallons of Soup. I can't help but think that these 1,000s of hits are from folks (cafeteria cooks?) actually interested in making 10 gallons of soup. Otherwise... are my mistakes really that compelling?
3. Stakeouts, Knives, Graffiti, and More. The truth about researching The Knife and the Butterfly.
2. Borges on visiting America. Tiny post with a Borges quote and a photo of the English building where he taught (and I attended classes) at The University of Texas at Austin.
1. Review of Benjamin Alire Saenz's Last Night I Sang to the Monster. This was the first book review I wrote after receiving a contract for What Can't Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly.
Enjoyed digging through the archives? You can use the tags on any post to see more on the topic. Also, check out the "search" function hanging out at the top of the page.