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BIBLIOGRIND

Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Promotional Video for “Max, the blind guy”

I shot a promo video for my new novel today, in the square in Prague where I first saw “Max” and “Greta” — an older couple walking through the open-air market. The image of this couple — a doting wife and a blind man — gave me the story moment from which the full-length novel “MAX, the blind guy” grew.

About Writing Fiction: Carl & Mark’s dual interview

INTRODUCTION

This print interview-conversation is a partnership between two writers, Mark Beyer and Carl Purdon, who have become interested in exploring each other’s mind regarding process and work “beyond the page.” We hope to engage readers, and other writers, in the world and work of making a story.

I first met Carl Purdon through a Twitter conversation, and shortly discovered we had in common a desire to write good novels, not the garden variety “new literature” or genre or even (and the dreaded) BESTSELLER. Both our sensibilities wound around the relationship-based novel: men & women, parents & children, buddies, friends, even enemies.

Over those early months of “meeting” we traded comments on our respective blogs. We bought the other’s books and read them, enjoyed them, wrote about them, and discussed them. We learned that we wrote completely different kinds of stories from each other, but also that that cannot get in the way of good storytelling. All of this talk and comraderie took place in print. I have not met Carl in person, and have not yet spoken to him over the phone (though a podcast discussion is in the works, so someday I hope to hear the voice behind the narrative voice(s) I have read).

Here begins Part I of a series of questions that have a thematic appeal. Part II can be found at Carl’s lit blog “Fiction, Lies, and Carpal Tunnel” from July 2nd. The questions are mostly identical, and for which we have written our answers, independently, before compositing the conversation for readers. Several questions are author specific, yet correspond to the theme. We had hoped to see for ourselves, and to show others, how two very different people, with contrasting backgrounds, have found a passion for writing, and how-and-why they put it all together.

A WRITER’s IDEAS

1. What inspires you to write?

CARL: The need to write has just always been there for me, so I suppose you could say I’m inspired by observing people and trying to imagine what secret burdens, hopes, and dreams they have. I read a lot of biographies, so reading about people with amazing talents, or people who buck the odds and become great successes, makes me want to write so bad I can barely wait to get to the keyboard. I’ve always had a very strong need to create something that will outlast me.

MARK: First of all, I write out of desire, passion, and necessity. Secondly, the combination (or juxtaposition) of humans’ robustness and frailty intrigues me; I look for story everywhere, and when found, I play with it in my mind to tease out possibility.

2. How often do you come up with ideas that could become a novel?

CARL: I try not to think about it if I’m working on a project. Too many ideas makes me lose focus. Mostly ideas come to me in my sleep, or when I’m waking up in the morning. I do my best work when I’m asleep.

MARK: A couple of times each month I come across a “character” who I’ve met in person, or imagined in day-dreams or night-time dreams that are suited to investigate and then ponder the possibilities.

3. What percentage of these ideas make it to the “serious planning stage”?

CARL: Very few. I never write the ideas down. A long time ago I read something Willie Nelson said — that he never writes down song ideas when they come to him. He waits a few days and, if he still remembers them, he tries to make a song of it. Otherwise, it probably wasn’t worth the effort. I subscribe to that mentality. If it’s a good idea, I won’t forget it.

MARK: About 10%, actually; I’ve got enough projects listed for the next 15 years or so. Sometimes, as with “Max, the blind guy”, I needed to put them aside in order to work on a another story (in this case, the story of Minus Orth that became “What Beauty”) that had taken all of my attention for that moment. As a writer, I don’t forsake the stories that cling to me like good plastic wrap.

4. Have you ever abandoned writing a book?

CARL: Yes, I abandoned several books before I finished THE NIGHT TRAIN (which had been previously abandoned). My third book, BLINDERS, was also resurrected from the boneyard.

MARK: Yes. The count is up to 12 now. They simply didn’t work (vague characters; too plot driven; no understanding of how – or why – the ending takes place) and, oddly enough, I realized this at about the 150-page mark for each of them. The blessing behind these abandonees is that I found another story somewhere else and … back to the typewriter.

5. Is there one subject you would never write about as an author?

CARL: What is it? None that I can think of.

MARK: No, I can trust my inner resolve to take on anything. Nabokov accepted the challenge, and risk, with Lolita, and made fabulous art out of a grisly subject. That’s a masterstroke.

6. ONE FOR CARL: RED EYES is the sequel to THE NIGHT TRAIN: what was the hardest part of writing this book?

CARL: Keeping my “facts” straight. I wrote THE NIGHT TRAIN first in Microsoft Word, then finished it in yWriter (where I did all of my character notes). For some reason I still can’t explain, I deleted the yWriter version after exporting it to Word, thus losing all of my character notes. Other than that, I typically don’t like sequels because they are so often a rehash of the original, so I had a great fear of doing that myself. I wanted RED EYES to be different — able to stand on its own merit — yet appealing to the readers who liked THE NIGHT TRAIN. I had so many requests to do this sequel that I just didn’t want to let anyone down.

ONE FOR MARK: MAX, THE BLIND GUY is about a painter who loses his sight (and thus his ability to produce his art). Do you ever fear losing the ability to write due to some physical tragedy?

MARK: It’s known that a sustained brain injury affects language-communication ability. Yes, this is a fear. I’ve been thinking about buying a helmet for snow skiing; but after 45yrs without one, would I be tempting one of the Fates who have otherwise been kind to me? Sounds like there’s a story in there somewhere.

 

CHARACTERS

1. Do you draw your characters from life, or are they entirely imagined? (example?)

CARL: Mostly imagined, though they sometimes inherit traits from real-life people. Creating characters is the part I enjoy most about writing. Probably the character I had most fun with was Pap from NORTON ROAD.

MARK: This question has proven the most difficult (this is now my third attempt to answer it rightly): I once wanted to wholly imagine all of my characters (which hurt my ability to complete things); and then I sought to steal the character of people I knew (which got me into trouble, using thinly disguised characters). Now I use an amalgam process, and this has shown me a way to capture the true essense of my individual characters. The problem with drawing characters from life, and I’m speaking for myself, is that if I can’t use everything of this person I know-or-have-known, then I feel the character has been cheated. On the other hand, a writer cannot use everything about a person; there’s not enough time or space in a novel to make all of this happen. Both are dilemmas I continue to juggle with. For example, the North Carolina couple in MAX, THE BLIND GUY are people I knew first hand (kind people, but absolute nightmares in their steroetypical views of race, marriage, religion, etc); likewise for this novel, there was the priest I read about, years ago, who had been married and had kids, then found the church, from whom I devised “Father Paul” in all his strange and ominous glory. Minus Orth on the other hand, from WHAT BEAUTY, is a composite of about five artists I knew in New York City. The lesson is, “Don’t worry how or where characters come at you; see who they are and look for their sublties that will, at the right moment, show their value in the story.”

2. ONE FOR CARL: Each of your stories is immediately engaging. I see this as a product of how well you draw your characters – they are real in every sense that an imagined character can be – yet your novels are not very long. How do you get so deeply into each character without sacrificing story depth?

CARL: Dialog. I love writing dialog, and find that I can convey more about a character with a few words they speak than I sometimes can with a page of narration. I want my readers to get to know my characters by engaging with them, or watching them in action, the way we get to know people in real life. Characters should also keep some things to themselves, because we all have secrets.

ONE FOR MARK: Your books read like classic literature, especially when it comes to the very detailed descriptions you apply to characters and setting. How much do you know about your characters before you begin writing?

MARK: Inevitably, not enough. This seems to be one of the axioms of fiction: you learn more about your character(s) as you write about them, see them in action and hear them in conversation. All the material an author can compile – a la “a dossier” – has always been mere background for the author. How those traits and tics and recurring verbal flubs devised is the ghost within the machine. Nevertheless, when I feel I know my main characters as well as I can, then I begin writing the major scenes which require the full depth of who these people are.

3. It is often said that a writer has something of himself in every character. Is that true for you?

CARL: Yes and no. While I like to tell myself I’m capable of creating characters independent of my slant on things, I’m sure some part of me bleeds through. One of my favorite exercises is to try to “become” the main character. I practice it in my quiet times (lying in bed, riding my motorcycle or the lawn mower, or driving to or from work) and find it really stimulates the creative process.

MARK: Yes. Both the sensitive side and the thoroughly dark side. Writing allows for both of these to live wholly outside your self. It can be a cathartic experience to develop characters who display these good-bad connections to self, but I don’t design them for that purpose. Not by a long shot.

4. What do you expect from a reader in understanding your characters’ actions and desires?

CARL: To understand that no one is totally good or totally bad. Heroes have flaws and villains have something good about them. Stalin, for example, doted over his children even while he killed hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, without mercy. Sometimes I want my reader to struggle with whether a character is good or bad, as was the case with Farley Milo in THE NIGHT TRAIN and RED EYES.

MARK: I expect a reader to have an interest in discovering a character (and his/her story) who can challenge their own beliefs on multiple subjects. For example, I’ve been criticized for developing a few characters who are, as the criticism is levied, “too confident and self-assured.” Okay, I’ll listen to that criticism. However, some people (characters) are indeed confident and self-assured – nothing wrong with that. Self-assured and confident people often get what they want because of these very traits; I also don’t use these traits as a story trope to knock them off their pedestal. Fiction, as in life, often has its own way of evening things out. This comes without the demonstration of grand tragedy.

5. ONE FOR CARL: NORTON ROAD is the story of several people: the good, the bad, and the awful. Was it difficult for you to write wearing
the “black hat” that was Bodie Craig?

CARL: The short answer is no, it wasn’t difficult at all. The long answer requires me to slip back to my first novel, THE NIGHT TRAIN, and say that one of the last things I did with that novel (and I think the thing that made it all come together) was to add the POV of Jonce Nash, the abusive father. In doing so I discovered that I really enjoyed writing the bad guy. By the time I got around to writing Bodie in Norton Road, it seemed natural to me. Not sure what that says about my inner self, but writers aren’t supposed to be “normal” are we?

 

SETTING

1. ONE FOR CARL: You live in Mississippi and write about small-town life. Why do Small Town stories have as much drama to them as Big City stories?

CARL: First, small towns are what I know best, so there’s a comfort zone component there, I suppose. Small towns have as much drama as big cities because the people who live in small towns are real, just like the people who live in cities. The stereotypes of Southern people is almost always overdone. People have been producing drama since Adam and Eve ate the apple.

ONE FOR MARK: You left America to live in Europe. How has your writing style changed because of your travels?

MARK: I think the style has remained the same, but the voice has matured. My advancing years … wink-wink (I’m 52 this September) … has helped along the way. Life in Europe can have as fast a pace as American life, but the nuance of cultural differences (thought and debate as much as food and sense of place) have made me take a closer look at my surroundings, and the people, and their activities. What I “was” in America (a corporatized editor/writer/teacher) is also far afield from my simplified life in Europe. Overall, I’m far more thoughtful with the handling of my characters: perhaps this is why THE VILLAGE WIT, and WHAT BEAUTY, and MAX, THE BLIND GUY were each written in Europe.

But there’s something else: methodology. The simplified life I lead allows for the advantage of time, and therefore a slow method of developing my stories. That, and the free-will scene/character exposition I practice early in the writing process. This is something which I want to write about for budding authors (soon). Essentially, it requires you to disabuse yourself from outline and even “form” for a few months, until something takes shape (characters; story arc; and ending that makes sense to the beginning), and then you can simply put a loose order to the story before you fill in the gaps with “new” scenes. That’s the other two-years’ work.

2. Is setting important to you? Do you draw maps, see the place as real (if imagined), or do you use a set town from which you change names & etc.?

CARL: Setting is not as important to me as characters. I typically use an imaginary place and borrow heavily from a place I know. In THE NIGHT TRAIN and RED EYES, my characters did a lot of traveling, so I did a fair amount of research, even using Google Earth, to try and get the settings correct.

MARK: I find that setting presents itself as an opportunity to explore story in a more thorough manner. Perhaps this is why I write long books. In THE VILLAGE WIT, the story of Richard Bentley took place in the fictional English town of Heath-on-the-wold, which was an amalgam of several hamlets I visited in the Cotwolds, and for which I did draw a map because Bentley moved about town, meeting people for various means, and I needed to know how this was going to happen. For my novel WHAT BEAUTY, the city of New York was its setting and part of its character; it’s a city I know well (having lived and worked there for several years) and, for the novel’s purposes, I used as subject, character, a foil, as well as its setting role.

3. Both of you write books in which your writing displays a particular gift for keeping the reader grounded in “place” and “time.” Does this come from a need to control story movement?

CARL: I only wish I could control story movement. The fact of the matter is that my characters are constantly dragging me here and there. You can almost bet that if you come to a point in one of my books where you are surprised by something a character does or says, odds are I was just as surprised when I wrote it.

MARK: Absolutely “YES.” As much as my characters do as they would without me there to “think it up”, without some control of the story, it becomes a mash of events, internal monologue, or simply imagery for no purpose than self-indulgence-disguised-as-art. That’s what Hemingway called “sh*t” and which has no place in a writer’s craft (much less the story).

4. ONE FOR MARK: How important is location when you are developing your characters and storyline? Could “Max, The Blind Guy” have worked equally well in New York, or Moscow, or a small town in Iowa?

MARK: Location is important when an author wants to use that location as either a juxtaposition to character (as with Maximilian Ruth, blind or not, traveling through Europe), or a sounding board for the positive-negative relationship between the story and “the place” (read Kafka, Atwood, Nabokov, Murdoch, Norman Rush). Otherwise, any “story” and “character interaction” can take place anywhere, albeit the differences will have something to do with what happens: one can walk without much notice in New York, while in a small Iowa town, this is not possible. I think Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio plays this out quite well. Yet a character does not change his/her spots simply because the location is other to what they are completely familiar with; in fact, the normalcy of who they are can make for some fun, danger, enthusiasm, and tragedy.

 

LANGUAGE

1. How often do you NEED to put words into a character’s mouth?

CARL: Seldom. I generally give them their heads and write what they say.

MARK: Perhaps one-quarter of the time. Personally, I don’t think this is a bad percentage. A writer needs to design a story to make things happen, and sometimes those things require specific verbal signposts (or starting guns, if you will) for which dialogue is best suited. I say best suited because dialogue exposes character, and demands some reaction from another or multiple characters, which then brings out more of those characters. This is just one process.

2. What’s your key to listening to your characters and transferring that language onto the page?

CARL: I try to “become” that character. People so often think I’m in a funk, or sad, when in fact I’m a thousand miles away pretending to be a character in whatever story I’m working on. There have been times I’ve made wrong turns on my way to work and driven miles out of the way before realizing it.

MARK: Once I’ve found the character’s voice, it doesn’t change; however, finding that voice (which has as much to do with who this person was, is, and may become) can take several dozen pages. This is why re-writing is an all-important task for me (which I taught my fiction writing students to embrace, with varying success). This is why I work at the first 50-100 pages far more intricately than I need to for the middle 100 pages (or last 50): the voices of the characters must be adjusted within the first 100 pages during the second draft of the book, because I know more about them than when I first began the book. Such adjustments are natural for me as writer, and, ultimately, integral, to the success of the overall story.

3. ONE FOR MARK: I’ll admit to having to get out my dictionary a few times while reading your books. Is it your intention to educate your readers while entertaining them, or does your expansive vocabulary come natural to you?

MARK: No, I’m not out to educate, but rather to entertain. People, however, come to literature for all sorts of reasons. One way I entertain is through encouraging readers to think about themselves in the situations that my characters find themselves; this is about as time-honored a writing trope as can be found. Frankly, though, I educate myself when I write. The worming I do inside characters has a mirroring effect on me. The vocabulary I use, common or rare, come from “me the writer” finding the right word for the moment. Sixty-percent of English is made up of nouns, and the right word makes all the difference. I also like verbs.

4. ONE FOR CARL: Your language is almost wholly of the “everyday,” rooted in the Southern tradition of Eudora Welty, Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor, the same stock from which you hail. What do you think the effect of this language is on your readers?

CARL: They seem to enjoy it. I wanted the dialog, especially, to seem natural, and what can be more natural than the way the people I am surrounded by actually speak? So often we see the Southern dialect overdone to the point that it is barely readable. People love to stereotype Southern people. Let me step back a moment and qualify that: people love to stereotype people who are different from them. Southerners stereotype Northerners, too, so I’m not bemoaning it. Now, when my next novel comes out, people may be surprised to see that it is NOT Southern. I wanted to do something different, and this one will be different.

5. ANOTHER ONE FOR CARL: THE NIGHT TRAIN has a teenage protagonist, Jayrod Nash. NORTON ROAD has Pap, a man into his seventies. Dale Criss in BLINDERS is forty-something. And Frank Mayo (a.k.a. Farley Milo) in RED EYES is middle aged. Are these age differences, and varying points of view, intentional? What’s the difference for you in terms of capturing the language they use?

CARL: Not really intentional, though I certainly wanted to mix it up a bit. The main characters have always come to me more than I’ve gone looking for them. Jayrod Nash refused to leave me alone until I told his story. I had put THE NIGHT TRAIN aside because I couldn’t make it work, but he haunted me until I picked it up again. Pap came to me while I was writing The Night Train, and I didn’t know what to do with him. I didn’t want to make him an extra in The Night Train because I felt he needed his own book. I spent a lot of time talking to Pap before I figured out his story. Dale Criss is the one character I sat down and created from nothing. Frank Milo began as an extra in The Night Train. I had no particular plans for him beyond that first scene where he lit the cigarette in the pitch-dark boxcar and scared the boys to death. When they jumped off the train. he worked his way into the next scene, then the next, and before I knew it he was an integral part of the story. When I decided to write the sequel, I knew right away it had to center around Farley Milo, a.k.a. Frank Mayo.

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Part II of “About Writing Fiction: Carl & Mark’s dual interview” appear on Carl’s blog, “Fiction, Lies, and Carpal Tunnel” beginning July 2nd.

My new novel is now on sale: “Max, the blind guy” is the story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan. This book is available in print at Amazon.com and the digital edition is available as a serialized novel — 12 parts, published every fourth week. Come by MarkBeyer : Author to read an excerpt that you won’t find at on-line bookshops.

What Beauty was published in 2012. It’s a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

The Agent Steeplechase

The “Age of Internet Communication” has made life & work easier for writers (and other artists); contacting publishers, agents, and readers is a “virtual” no-fee process (remember printing/copying costs, envelopes, and postage?). As I embark on a 3-to-4 month effort to get “Max, the blind guy” a larger chance at a worldwide distribution market, I have noticed a few things (some new, others ridiculously cliché) about the publishing industry.

Firstly, the research to hunt down likely agents is far easier than it once was. Today, websites abound on which agents avail themselves of their education, their pedigree, likes-and-dislikes, what “turns me on” or “we don’t consider.” Great!

I can send out 10 queries in the space of an hour, using cut’n’paste tech with a letter that reads as if I had only them in mind (which I do, for the time it takes me to assemble the requisite letter) even while some actually expect a writer to send a single query, wait nine weeks for a single response (rejection? acceptance? blasé criticism?), and then think I’m lucky to have gotten any response at all.

Agents/editors might have the same tech as I do, but often they are living in a distant past that even the venerable Maxwell Perkins could chuckle upon over a sandwich eaten at his desk while reading manuscripts of unknown authors, looking for that gem he wouldn’t otherwise allow underlings to pass over out of venal angst or pure ignorance.

Nevertheless, while I do in fact look closely at each agent to whom I post a query, I know that I am up against a high wall of — no, not expectations — sales/marketing mentality. In other words, agents are looking for “the next …. [fill in the blank author’s name]” while not actually able to predict what will/shall/can/ought to sell, and what won’t. Truly, this IS the case. Most of them admit to this fault; hell, major-PubHouse editors haven’t a clue (and their jobs are far more precarious than agents’).

Secondly, I retain the hold on my “product” that the agents claim they “want to see in print” and promise they’ll “work with an author to forge the best book possible” — as if any author should allow a mere agent to tell them what is or is not good writing (likewise, an editor). You see, agents and editors (who may in fact be writers themselves, but usually not (only readers), and more likely business people who look at your book as “product”) are quite lovely people who are in a terrible position of not understanding the market any more than the average writer walking through the local Barnes & Noble and/or looking at various “sales sheets” of the top 100 books. So to allow yourself, as the writer of your story, to be convinced that this story needs this’n’that changed, becomes a fool’s game, with the writer playing the fool, if he isn’t careful (I’ve heard numerous stories of writers doing major rewrites over 2-year periods, only to be told by the agent/editor, in the end, the story didn’t fit any marketing profile).

Agents, Editors, Publishers, Readers. Friends, Adversaries, Haters, Benefactors. Slush Piles, Invitations, Rejections, No-Response Bastards. Published Book, Sales Figures, Book Fairs, Public Readings, Residual Checks.  Book Reviews, No Reviews, Good Reviews, Bad Reviews. “The best writing I’ve read in years!” “I didn’t get the plot.” “I liked the opening but not the ending — couldn’t the character have lived?” “I read only stories that I can identify with the character.”

Next book project. Time to pitch Hollywood producers. Merry-go-round or steeplechase?

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“Max, the blind guy” is a story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan. The manuscript is now out with agents; it may be in print as early as December 2014.

What Beauty was published in 2012. It’s a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Between Books: ending one novel and beginning another

I finished writing, rewriting, and editing “Max, the blind guy” two weeks ago. Finishing a book, as most writers can attest, is a loss; it takes something out of you and away from you. You also breathe better after this loss.

I liken the end of a book to the loss of a friend you had come to dream of ditching after a long bout of traveling together, and now it’s time to part ways, perhaps forever, but at least for a few months, to get the smell of his three-day-old shirts out of your nostrils and the echo of his voice off your mind.

But now I need a new friend. Not Max, or Greta, but a new “guy” and “girl” with whom I can hang around, and who will entertain me and horrify me; people who I’ll not know completely for a while, and then learn all their intimate details, even their secrets. This type of “friendship learning” was not always available to me. For several years I would meet a few friends, only for them to leave me too shortly, before their story was complete; maybe I’ll run into those few cotton-and-carbon souls again, and then I’ll have the chance to catch up and learn more, maybe all that they have to tell.

Those past friends will have a bit of a time to get my attention though. In the last five years I’ve come across many potential friends whom I want to befriend and learn all about their lives. My imagination of them, and others, is fecund, and I’ll ride this wave until I don’t know how to surf any more. Maximilian Ruth and Greta Klein were such a pair; I saw them in the spring of 2009, and they weren’t far away from my mind until their story was finally all told, and complete, two weeks ago.

As for now, SURF’S UP … I’m on the board once again. There’s a new pair of friends, Earnest and Charlotte, whose stories have piqued my imagination for quite a while; they bother me, in the most subtle manner. We’re getting together in a couple of weeks. Our meeting ought to be unusual, as are most first formal gatherings. I wonder what they’ll ask me.

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“Max, the blind guy” is a story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan.

What Beauty was published in 2012. It’s a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

A Word on Editing (and editors)

A good editor — an experienced reader who understands ALL aspects of a book, fiction or nonfiction, as specified by his particular expertise — will be able to look deeply into the story, right down to the sentence level (the prose). This is “close reading” — and for a good “reading” of your work, you’ll need to pay. In fact, a good editor is worth the money. But finding a good editor is difficult.

Now what I mean by “all aspects of the book” includes far more than structure (in fact, structure is merely a look at the surface, and, frankly, a close-reading high-schooler can do this well). The seasoned, sharp, intuitive-minded editor will understand each of your characters and his/her position in the book. He’ll be able to tell you which character is the most useful, and perhaps could be given more page time, and which character(s) can be excised. This editor will be able to direct you to your best pages of dialogue, and then compare that to your worst pages (the best editor can NEVER tell you how to write, or be a better writer, per se). The editor will be able to look deeply into your narrative abilities and (again) point out the strong vs the not-so-strong. The editor will be capable of feeling your theme and seeing where it can be strengthened through strong imagery, dialogue, metaphor, foreshadowing, the odd phrase and off-hand (seemingly so) comment by narrator/character. And then, the editor will be able to look at your structure and tell you if there’s a possibility to shuffle chapters (not like a deck of cards, mind you) to get more punch up front and better drama at the end.

All that I’ve said here is but a fingernail’s scratch against the breadth and depth of the value a good editor can bring you. Of course, if you’re a capable writer, you can see into your own ms for starters. Being (or becoming) your own best editor is about being able to, firstly, identify all aspects of your story, and, secondly, understand how each fits—as a puzzle piece or an intra-related part (from a distance or page-by-page)—and then, thirdly, when you spot something that’s “wrong,” being able to fix it. Let’s face it: if an editor can show you 5 things that are “wrong” but you can’t fix any of them, or the most important of them, then the story is no good. This can be a real problem, and there are so many ways to get oneself into a problem like this if you, the writer, are not careful with your story all the way through the writing process.

Good luck, everyone, and … Keep on Writing!

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

WHEN … do your ideas come to you?

“My best scenes strike at the worst time to write them down.”

“My best dialogue comes to me when I’m on the toilet.”

“My best ideas come when I’m in the shower!”

“My best edits come when I’m walking down the street.”

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The easy answer to these laments is to have a notebook at your side at all times. But in the shower? Okay, a tough sell, perhaps, but I’ve done it (near the shower, not inside). Let me assure you, wet paper and the idea secured is better than no idea.

However, this post is not about HOW to keep that idea no matter what the circumstances. My focus here is to get you to allow your mind to be fresh and ready for ideas at any time … and ALL THE TIME.

I say this because, for many novice writers, keeping the story strong—and fresh—is a struggle. Ideas wrap around us like the wind, often enough, but the wind is made of millions of particles. Within all those ideas is the ONE you need, not the dozens that don’t have glue, or sense.

Part of correcting when your story ideas come, and how they come, develops through story preparation and consistent writing progress. Here’s what I mean.

When we work on a story, our minds need to continually ask our “story brain” particular questions. What is the story about? What is the purpose of this scene? What can this character say, and what shouldn’t he/she say? When does this moment take place? How do these characters connect to the overall story? When should this scene end? How should the next scene begin?

Such questions are not only appropriate for the opening days of story development. They are questions that need to be asked of yourself each day, before you open the file to start the day’s writing. Here’s what I’ve learned works for me. I print a pamphlet that lists the major characters and their background, their motivations, and where I expect them to be by the end of the story. Then I list the minor characters, who they are, and how they connect to the major characters AND to the story (if you have trouble answering the questions, or haven’t an answer, you probably shouldn’t be writing the story yet). I also have “notes” on story progression, lists of possible scenes (already developed in some fashion, or a 2-sentence “nudge,” a snatch of dialogue, or a developed scene that needs fleshing out and MORE development), and other “lists” that are part of the development of the story in my mind … that might or might not get into the written story.

Notice the layering of this plan: characters, overall story, scenes or scene-by-scene development, dialogue, lists of ideas about story/place/sensory perception/character traits & etc to keep in the forefront of your mind before, during, and after the writing day. When this “plan” is followed (and in many ways, I’m not even talking about the day-to-day story-development process) I always have my story with me.

When your story is always with you, day after day, all the hours in the day, and even in your dreams, ideas for that day’s writing AND what you wrote yesterday OR the day before (or six weeks before), or what you intend to write tomorrow or next month (or haven’t even thought about writing yet!) becomes first-nature, becomes intuitive, becomes part of your life, becomes part of your thoughts as much as the thoughts of crossing the street, or sitting down on the train, or waiting at a stoplight or opening up a book or making a cup of coffee … or sitting on the toilet.

One the other hand, IF YOU DON’T WRITE EVERY DAY OR MOST DAYS IN THE WEEK, your story is simply not with you enough to encourage strong and consistent story ideas … no matter where you find yourself in a given day. I could be wrong on this, but after 15 years of teaching fiction writing and 25 years of writing fiction, I’ve found consistency in my observations.

So then, the big lament: “My best ideas come when I’m in the shower!” Maybe, but what really matters is that your ideas come at all, and, if you’re prepared, they’ll come at you like decks of cards, not birds shitting on you.

BTW … most often during the day I stop myself before stepping off a curb, wherein I turn my mind to the present and the REAL, or else risk being run over by a bus.

BTW–BTW … have a notebook and pen in your pocket at all times. It only takes a minute to jot down a sentence that should jog your memory at a future time. Also, have an ink refill in your bag.

 

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

When the Writing is Good … follow it with another day!he

I’ve written about the difficulties of finding time to write day in and day out. Jobs, family, pets, books to read, and … what else? … oh, yes! … wife and friends. The priority list can be long.

Or it needs to be short.

The question is, How serious are you about your writing career? Hours in the day can be shaved; you can learn to write a AT LEAST a few paragraphs every day. Remember, “one page per day and I’ll have 7/8 of a book in a year.” That’s the pattern, that’s the goal, that’s the priority that must top the list. And you’ll still have time for everyone else in your life. Reading good books, too!

Today I had my 3rd writing day in a row. Saturday & Sunday morning, and Monday afternoon (stretching into early evening). That’s a total of sixteen hours or so. Today I was hot because yesterday I took a few afternoon hours to set myself up for today’s writing. When I got home from teaching two classes (money!), I had a snack and then sat down.

Did the blank screen frighten me? NO! I didn’t have a blank screen because I had a place where I had left off, and I had notes and story chunks to bring me further. This is all part of the preparation and continuance of deep thinking about your project. If you never let it go (for long), then it’s always going to be with you … and, with a project that can take two years or more, I need to live with my characters, the places in which they live and move, the ideas and emotions they encounter.

When writing is good, try to follow it up with more writing. The next day; the next afternoon; or the next evening. Just a few paragraphs on a scrap of paper while on the train can be a great encouragement for that upcoming day where you have a whole block of HOURS to write.

I’ve quoted her before, and here is an especially good time to do that again: Isak Dinesen – “I write every day, with neither hope nor despair.”

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

Working on a Novel

“The Writing Life” has kept me busy … and, sadly, away from blogging. I’m not sure if this is going to change all that much, though I’d like to write a few posts each week. The competition between making a living and writing books ends up leaving out some things in a week’s time. And … I don’t consider my wife within this competition!

Meanwhile, I’ve completed the first part (Prague) of my new novel, with parts two, three and four (Vienna, Salzburg and Venice) to come. The Prague section, a present-day story, with additional looks back at the life of Max & Greta, has come to 100-k words. I’ve reread and rewritten these 187 ms pages, as an exercise for my mind vis-a-vis understanding all the characters, the nuances of Max & Greta’s relationship (past and present), and to prepare for what lies ahead.

At the moment what lies ahead is a blank screen, and 400pp of organized notes/scenes by which I’ll put together “Vienna” … and then “Salzburg” and, finally, “Venice.” I’ve thus far surprised myself at the length, the direction some things have turned, and I anticipate the next section to be equally long — because now the story takes its dark turn, as planned.

Oh, it will get darker by the time we get to Venice.

Of concerns, I have many; of fears, none. I have completely enjoyed — and have made much merry with — reading and re-seeing and re-writing “Prague” which helped me understand everything I need to know (so far . . . and, reaching just far enough ahead to make some clarity). As many of you writers know (or are beginning to learn), the real work of every book comes in the rewriting. Without it, no book is worth reading.

Making sentences sound rhythmic, even lyrical, and having the words describe a unique character living in a unique story, saying profound or everyday or disgusting things, is one of the great joys of writing — as it is of life itself.

 

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

On the Trail of a Story (1)

I’ve been working on “New Project #3” since late August. I have 93 ms pages. I’ve learned far more about my two protagonists (who also serve as the novel’s antagonists) than I had thought I’d needed to know when I finally started the book, after six months of notes-cum-scene development. I also know a lot more about other characters, scene progression, pacing, and what the story is about.

This is where the fun REALLY begins; this is where the angst REALLY launches from the shadows.

Philip Roth has said that the first eight months of any new project filled him with doubt and anxiety. What is the story about? Who are all of these people I have given name and voice and body to? What is the connection that gives this story sense, and meaning, and energy? Such thoughts, and the problems that go with the territory of writing a novel, have stopped many great writers, and more-so the fledgling type, in their tracks. And while I’m often slowed in my progress by the story’s difficulties, or simply the process of understanding one thing (or five) before going on to the next, I’m no longer “stopped” … and I’m never “blocked” (I don’t believe in writer’s block).

For my first two published novels I used a specific methodology that helped me write the story from a first-to-last chronology. It’s success taught me that I shouldn’t look for some other “way” to get into, sustain, and finish a novel. I haven’t even entertained a different method; the previous five mis-fired novel starts never got this chance, and perhaps that is for the best. Whatever the case, I had found a way that suited me best to stay focused.

The short answer to what I do is … I take six months before starting at Page 1 to find dozens, even more than one-hundred, scenes that can fit into the book. These come to me as character thoughts, dialogue, narrative, story movement, metaphors & similes, setting location descriptions, short-profiles of particular characters, wholly developed scenes amounting to five, ten, even twenty pages. Most are less than half a page: sketches of scenes that are the kernel of a fully developed scene; bits of dialogue; two images with a gesture; a line of narrative to set place and story moment.

At some point I begin to see patterns, and to find a narrative arc (the beginning, middle, and end; the rising action and how the story can close). This is where the story takes firm hold in my mind as “written” material (where before it was mental imagery and “heard” voices). Then I place the scenes in some sensible (but not concrete) order, a chronology of character events. At this point dozens of spaces exist between these islands of story. Nevertheless, the characters have begun speaking amongst themselves in my head, and I know it’s time to begin the real task of laying down the story from the beginning. I call the process I’ve just described The Stepping-Stone Method.

Some might call this an outline (I do not). It is a sheaf of specifically linked scenes that need to be filled in. For this current book, I figure I have 150 potential scenes cataloged. That’s not enough, evidently, because, as I’ve been writing this past week, every day I find new ways to tell a particular part of the ongoing story. These were all in my mind, and many were sketched out on paper, but getting them into the story, as story, has made me effect changes — to character, to scene (new scenes!), and to place. However, the intent of the story (what the story is about; how to hold to this theme/vision on every page, in every sentence) hasn’t changed; it grows with increasing awareness, focus, and edge.

Here is where discovery is made: threads of dialogue, the character action-reaction that is the heart of any piece of literature, who says what (sometimes I switch what one character says to the other; don’t always give the best lines to one character), taking three paragraphs to tell a short background moment/memory, references to this event or that person or some piece of music/film/news-event, &etc. We writers are in the midst of artistic creation, and that happens every time we sit down and get to work.

This happened to me while I wrote The Village Wit. It happened while I wrote What Beauty. It’s happening again with “New Project #3” … and yet I still feel the anxiety of wanting to make-things-right-before-I-move-ahead-or-otherwise-I’ll-fuckitallUP! But I don’t allow myself too much of that type of thought; only late at night, or while I’m trying to remember a date that is important to the scene because this-that-and-the-other links to it further on (or way back at the front). AHHHHHHH!

You see what I mean?

All of which is to highlight that I’m on the right trail of a story. My stepping-stone method prevents me from straying into something (or some place) that is tangential to the story; this method lets me look ahead, make needed changes, add a whole scene or a sentence (a single word!) …  and … always, always, always … find the thread of what this story is about. I take my time because I can, because this is literature, this is art, and therefore I know a light exists at the end of this long, sometimes dark, trail of a story.

“Write something every day,” encouraged Isak Dinesen, “without hope or despair.” I primed myself with these words this morning; I’ll be repeating them two years from now. The work has only just begun.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available in print and as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book available in print and as an ebook.

Why using brand names are not product placement

Once upon a time, I got into a pretty heated discussion with my MFA thesis adviser — my writing mentor at the time — about the use of product names in an early novel. I had a character in a scene take a Heineken beer from the fridge and, using a bottle opener, pop the top. My mentor said “Why have him drinking that kind of beer? It’s just a beer, so say it, ‘He grabbed a beer.’ ”

The comment made no sense to me, so I asked my own question. “What kind of beer do you drink?” He said, “Whatever’s on tap at the tavern.” “Okay, but what kind of beer do you buy at the store to take home for that ‘Sunday-in-front-of-the-tv’ drink?” “Whatever’s on sale at the liquor store,” he told me. I realized I could be knocking my head against the wall for awhile here, but there was an opening that I saw.

“Listen,” I said, “you buy discount beer, and that’s fine. But this guy drinks a high-cost foreign brew, with a different taste than ‘what’s on sale.’ The character is a discriminating drinker, and Strohs or Budweiser or LaBatt’s is not his brand of beer. And what kind of beer you drink, or don’t drink, or shy away from, or have a taste for, or even puke on from one sip, always says something about you. This is about character, and taste, having taste in beer that is different from the corner tavern or the hole-in-the-wall liquor store.”

“My tavern has Heineken for sale,” the mentor claimed. “It’s in the cooler, behind glass. You just have to ask for it.”

“So why don’t you ask for it?”

He said, “Because I don’t like Heineken. It tastes and smells like skunk piss.”

“Exactly!” I exclaimed.

If you have a character walk into a store and ask the cashier, “I’ll have a sixer of Schlitz, that party bag of Lay’s chips … and, oh yeah, how about a copy of Hustler, too?” … you kind of know you’re not dealing with a Yaley from Newport Beach. Not that a refined taste can be found in every Yaley, or that Schlitz and Lay’s can’t be considered refined in and of themselves (when compared to, I suppose, an Old Milwaukee from the can and a bag of month-old Funions).

Taste matters to character, and to story. Lilly Bart, in Wharton’s “The House of Mirth”, grew up with refined tastes. Perhaps too refined — in clothes, holiday hot-spots, wine and food, and men — all to her own devastation, in the end. Jay Gatsby threw lavish parties featuring gourmet meals, champagne by the fountainful, and everyone wore evening jackets or dresses (he would not have drawn Daisy’s attention without such ostentatious displays of wealth). In S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”, the boys were happy when they got soda and chips, and they smelled their clothes before deciding which emitted the least B.O. before putting them on for the day.

Style and taste represent choices by the characters that tell who they are, and go far in determining what their motivation might be. These were also carefully planned by the authors who drew them. We writers make choices — to our success or perdition — every time we place a bottle of something in a character’s hand, put her in a particular car, travel to a destination, sleep with another man’s wife. Without careful consideration to its result, and its effect on the reader, the story and/or character lack focus.

A writer must also see the big picture here. Understanding who all his characters are helps him see patterns in the dramatis personae, and through them, then too the arc of the story, and how that can unfold in such a way as to make the impact of the drama that much more powerful. This is because how a person acts, and what a person acts with, makes an effect on the reader, often so deeply that readers come to know this “character” as a real person; perhaps someone they would like to meet, or someone they would never want to meet, or someone whom they already know in the real world.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.