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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

About Writing Fiction: Carl & Mark’s dual interview


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.


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.



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?



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.



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.


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 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.

BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens, worth the two months’ commitment!

I began BLEAK HOUSE back on April 6th, and finished it this morning over coffee. It’s a book of wonderful noise and beauty. The characters will stay in my memory the rest of my days. The images (with just a bit of help from Phiz’s illustrations) are a reader’s friend and a writer’s “how-to” guide. Beyond each of these, the long-long-long story held my attention throughout.bleakhouse

Dickens wrote the book over 20 months, publishing each monthly installment (the last being a double issue) in his own magazine. The installments ran about three chapters each, and end in some dramatic way. Hollywood has nothing on Dickens; perhaps they learned through him!

What struck me most as I read daily was the patient and intricate way Dickens exposed his characters. You immediately know something unusual about a person (a facial tic; a manner of dress; a gesture of hands, fingers, eyes; a repetitive speaking tic), which then blossoms into the full human being, whereby each petal represents a part of his or her life.

bleak_house3My favorite character was Mr Bucket, a detective with the Metropolitan Police, who, despite the “low” position he has in Victorian society, proved himself to be a humane man and dutiful copper. My least favorite was Richard, a ward of the court through the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce case that “ignites” and “consumes” the bulk of the story, in one way or another. Richard proved foolish and allowed his passion for “justice” to drag him into the mire that was Chancery case law. Naturally, this was Dickens’s intent, and there is a moral to the story.

In fact, there are all kinds of morals set within BLEAK HOUSE. It’s an encyclopedia of Asopian learning: beware poverty; know your place; work hard and reward comes to you; etc…etc…etc.

The novel’s length can be off-putting; so too, but infrequently, the language of characters and their mannered (or ill-mannered) approach to life. However, my advice is to buy a nice hardcover edition w/illustrations, and take your time. For me (who is still getting used to reading e-books) this book should not be read digitally. It has honor to it, and history.

As a writer (and teacher of mentor to fiction writers), I must say that this book (and other of Dickens’s books) is a fabulous primer on how to tell story, develop characters, manage plot, mix narrative and dialogue, and even end the story with drama that is fulfilling.

Happy reading!


My new novel has just been published: “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 On June 12, 2015 the digital edition will begin publishing in 12 monthly installments. Come by MarkBeyer : Author and 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.

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!


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 Editing Your Work and Finding an Editor

I’ve been on a LinkedIn discussion, which began as a “why to writers trash each other?” but changed into all manner of discussion, one of which was holding up the use of a freelance editor (or allowing editors to really have at your work). I’ve written about editors before (I was an editor, of non-fiction and fiction) for 10+ years. It’s really a thankless job, and yet if anything goes wrong (like low book sales, for starters), the editor is blamed, not the writer (oddly enough).

But on this thread I had to take answer one comment regarding putting much stock, trust, MONEY, and hope in the competence of an editor:

1st parry: We all need to beware the mystique of editors. They are, predominantly, insecure people who are afraid for their jobs (an exceptionally high-stress career, acquisitions is, at the mid-to-higher levels) and who feel they must “edit” to justify their existence. We writers need to be our own best editor: learn what your story is about, how it best needs to be told, and who is the best character to tell it. From there, the story all comes down to the writing: if you can write, you can make any story read well; if you can’t, then you’ll make the best idea read like shit.

2nd parry: Actually, Pete, your guess is incorrect: I’ve not had a “bad experience” with an editor. In fact I’ve had only good experiences with editors of my work, mostly because they are people whom I have the utmost trust and confidence in. Finding one of these is as difficult as finding one’s wife or husband. Which takes me to your second point: “this is the best time EVER to be a freelance editor.” Frankly, freelance editors (whose pedigree is always suspect—why don’t they have a mid-to-top job with a house?) are particularly suspect. What is it that makes a person think they can edit a book? Do they write books themselves? Do they read books? Do they know what helps (or harms) a character, narrative, dialogue, metaphor/simile/analogy? Aspiring writers shouldn’t go to editors to “fix” their work (because if the work needs enough editing to call it “fixing,” then it shouldn’t have been written in the first place). For a further disquisition on editing, take a look at J.C. Guest’s comments (above).

3rd parry: Alice, after you differ with me, you seem to say as much to defend my own position as “writer-as-own-best-editor” with your comment about reading aloud and re-reading (and thus re-writing & editing). I’d go further by suggesting writers understand what the editing process involves, which is not simply a second set of eyes on the story. Likewise, a good writer doesn’t look at his/her own work and see what they expect, they see what a reader sees and expects, thus making adjustments accordingly. Finally, re my “mystique” comment: since the early 20th C editors have gained such a quality (think Ezra Pound of T.S. Eliot, Maxwell Perkins of numerous authors) and some justified but many not so much. If you’re connected with the biz, you can count on two hands the number of editors who’ve been hailed as outstanding. And that’s not saying much, given the number of books published (before the advent of self-pubbing). But further, by you saying editing is “just another job” (and Gary saying “editors have to make a living”) … then I’m terribly suspicious about editors. Why? Because what I write is not just another book, and therefore I don’t want a person who thinks his/her time between waking up and going to bed “just another day at the office.” And this is where my point becomes its most sharp: don’t trust just anyone to read your work, and those you trust you should be ready to argue your point and make them defend their criticism; and … the investment in writing a work of art, literature, something that a writer could think will last 400 years, should only be put in the hands of someone that shares that view. Anything less is merely clocking in for a few coins at the end of the day.

And the final frame: Hey, writer … I appreciate all your opinions. And your caveats about (and advice for choosing) whom edits your work are spot on. Many young (and older) aspiring writers have commented abundantly on bad experiences with editors whom they’d evidently chosen poorly (one had said the editor had continually confused characters; others have complained about almost no editing done, while paying a hefty up-front fee). I have always taught (and preached) that good writing is essentially good re-writing and excellent self-editing.

Keep on writing!


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.”


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.



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.”


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.


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.

On a Tall Horse, Looking at the Horizon

I was engaged in a short (for me) but bitter (for some commentators) dialogue on LinkedIn two weeks ago that, at once, encouraged me to drop that group (The Writer’s Guild) and come to understand what I believe about writing.

The discussion began with my string “If You Have a Thick Skin, You Might Want to be a Writer” for which I included the edgy, and intentionally provocative question, “Do too many people think they can write books? (I mean GOOD books…)”.

To make a long story short, the majority of posts took exception to my making myself some paragon of good taste, which I had not, only posed that question. People got nasty, said I was a snob, said I didn’t have the right to say what was “good writing” — or what was not. They said, as a major block of like-minded voices, anybody who finished of book, or story, or … anything … was a good writer and that — their reasons never extended as far as explanation — no one could tell them their writing was BAD WRITING.

To me these people sounded like amazingly stupid interlopers onto my turf. Yes, some of them had written books. Yes, some of them have been professional journalists for years. Yes, some have even “sold lots of books” and got “great reviews” on Amazon. But all of this really doesn’t mean anything, because unless you can make statements about WHY a book is good or bad, and WHY writing lacks everything needed to tell a story, and WHY the sales figures for books merely computers units sold, then you cannot be considered a reasonable judge of literature, of quality, or even literary taste.

I believe this because there must be some standards placed on GOOD, GREAT, BAD, OKAY, and AWFUL. “If you don’t know it, you can’t be taught it,” is not a fair statement about judging literature, because the teaching of standards is no less possible than the teaching of speaking or reading a language. Both have rules, and there have always been rules about what is literature and what is genre fiction — at least until the advent of Amazon publishing, and those writer manqués with thin skins who like to spout off. Listen: just because people say something over and over (“any book is good, who are you to question that?”) doesn’t make it true.

As an egalitarian micro-society, Amazon publishing lives up only to Robespierre and his blood-soaked henchmen. Their indictment of French society and opening the gates of prisons and letting loose the “freedoms of man” only served to, finally, murder a lot of people. This is what happens when you put the mob in control of government, right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, and even taste.

“Fifty Shades of Gray” isn’t so bad!

Yes it is, and here’s why: the sentence structure is B-class; its imagery is pedestrian or not there at all; its dialogue is fatuous; the scenes are repetitive; the characters are lifeless (this, for a sex-laden story!); and its sex scenes are ridiculous and highly un-erotic. These aren’t merely opinion, or a matter of taste. If you like these books, like them for the story, if there actually is one there, but don’t claim the writing is what grips you.

Have books been dummed-down so much that most people don’t know the difference between good and bad? And that good and bad is NOT a matter of taste? That most best sellers are not good simply by virtue of selling a lot of books? It seems to me that, these days, to scale the proverbial “bar” once set to determine quality writing, one must walk downstairs into the basement.

Let me end this here: it is more than opinion that determines good writing, and love for craft is part of that, as is love of language, as is using dialogue that speaks to theme as much as drives story, as characters are fully realized without a reader’s need to “add” his own interpretation of who/what the character is, as scene is developed with an eye toward imagery that brings the five senses to play, as language is thematic and playful with the subject, as sentences are coherent and develop a coherent story that has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. No, not all stories that contain these are good (because then “taste” does play a part) but that’s a start. The authors that practice this craft? Roth and Updike, Atwood and Murdoch, McEwan and Bellow, Banville and Ackroyd, Naipaul and Theroux, Stead and Lessing … to name a few. Most of them are dead; where are today’s?

Someone in the thread made a comment directed at me, “You’re riding a very tall horse and I wouldn’t want to be you when you get knocked off it.”

This is my answer to that bit of wisdom: The horse on which I ride IS high, well high above the mud and slop and shit that a good portion of “writers” now stand, sit, or wallow around like pigs. I write strong literature, books that make you question why we are who we are; characters who challenge your self-identity; narrative that is striking and poetic and asks you to bring some level of intelligence to the page. And on this horse I hardly ever look down, for that is not my need, and my eyesight is on the horizon, where the scepters of writing-Kings and writing-Queens await me, where Knights-of-writing stand tall abreast of my steed, helping to keeping safe the idea, and my honest practice, of GOOD WRITING.

I hold my own books up for such scrutiny as anyone might make a challenge.


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 is your story told?

Lots of jokes start something like this — “So a guy walks into a bar …” — and away you go, into the story, often 3 sentences, and then the punchline. Ha-ha … hee-hee … guffaw-guffaw.

So why are jokes written in the present tense? Two thoughts on that, and shorter than any joke: Action — Immediacy.

Now for the big question: How many novels or short stories have you read (notice the tense) that were written in Present Tense Prose? Not many, I’d venture to guess. Most “stories” have already taken place, and the narrator is recalling the events, complete with insight, self-argument, the long-look-ahead-while-death/love/birth-suddenly-happens-in-the-past-of-the-story. Pheew! Take for example this sentence: “I didn’t know it then, as John dug the ring out of the thick shag, but twenty years later I realized he had known who I was all along.” That’s saying a lot, past, present, and future.

Stories told in the present tense have a certain immediacy to them that gives writers lots to work with, and also allows them to leave things out that cannot be known; may never be known (unless there’s a sequel). Likewise, the use of verbs in present tense manages to convey strong imagery: “A man pushes through the waiting crowd, climbs the stairs two at a time, and walks into the bar…” We readers see this vividly because of the activeness of “pushes” and “climbs” and “walks.”

We writers see the vividness of present-tense verbs all the time, as we write, because we invent the story as we see it happen(ing) in our minds. So why do we take that active moment and change its tense when we get to the page? Perhaps this is tradition. Perhaps the story is a reminiscence and therefore requires past tense. Or perhaps there are a half dozen or a dozen more reasons. Ask the writer. He or she may know, or may not know exactly. It’s often a feeling.

Which is to say, then, how you feel the story takes hold of you might be the impetus behind trying a narrative form you haven’t tried before. See what happens between what you see in your mind and what happens on the page. Feel for the verbs that work and those that don’t work as well. This is always a battle anyway, so if you’ve been on the battered side once more often than you’d like, try a different strategy.

In my present Work-in-Progress, I am writing the “present” story in present tense, while for two stories-within-the-story that give the two protagonists time to reflect, to tell the story of their lives together, I’m writing in the past tense (these are stand-alone pieces that follow a meandering chronology). This structure is how I am able to keep the many balls in the air for this particular juggling act. And the narrative forms allow me to shape the story in a way that the reader will know what’s happened in the past, but not know exactly what’s happening in the present (thought they’ll have teasing guesses). The characters experience this same riddle, which mirrors life far more than we often give it credit for: Do you know what’s in store for your life tomorrow? Do you understand all that is happening to you right now? Are all your memories “correct,” “right,” and “true”?

These are the questions that authors struggle with on a daily basis. The WHEN of the tale is integral to the HOW.


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.

Writing Time and Time to Live: the same thing?

We writers have a conundrum that is our life-blood and our life-long bane: how much time can we reasonably spend writing each day?

If given carte blanche, our “job” would be to write, read, correspond w/book journalists (some might call them “compassionate critics of my books”), and go on literary tours that take us to major cities and small towns across our home country and every country in which our books have been translated. And what’s more… okay, stop!

Wait a minute. Is this what all writers want, or just me? Honestly, it must be somewhere in between. But even as a somewhere-in-between notion, we’re talking the second conditional for 99.999% of writers. Yet that’s still me I’m talking about. So let me talk about this, The Writing Life, as a Way of Seeing.

You must understand that this life I’ve proposed in not so far fetched, even in the real time of working for a living, being married, contemplating buying puppies (two sausage dogs, bitches, great companions, though sometimes noisy), and moving to yet another country (my fourth in 7 yrs).

Here’s how this The Writing Life works (for me): I’ve long-ago ditched the concept of “carving out time” to write, read, love, travel; instead, I’ve carved out time to “make a living” in between writing and reading and writing-about-reading, and travel and love and thinking about the puppies. My world is mostly a fictional world, lived inside my head while I walk, while I eat, while I talk with friends, while I read, while I fuck (hey, you never know when a great idea will pop up), and, especially, while I make a living.

Let me clear on this one point — Nothing gets in my way of this … except when I cross the street, wherein I take time to look both ways.

I do this — all of this — successfully because at the time I am living outside my present writing project, I’m actually allowing the writing project to live inside my everyday life. And when I’m inside my writing project, I feel some of the way through it by negotiating with my memory of life outside the writing project (present, past, past perfect, and even the future tense). Stay with me here, because this concept is not so difficult ….

Eudora Welty spoke glowingly of being receptive to her world when she wrote, and taking whatever happened in her day — verbatim events and speech, or metaphorical or as fictional constructs based on the former — for use in her fiction. It didn’t matter what these were: dialogue, scene, place, gesture, group dynamics, memories or dreams or anecdotes or jokes told by people. All of this could be used at will or discarded if useless. And … this is the best part, as I brought Welty’s idea into my own writing life … all of what lands in my net can be changed to suit whatever I need it for to make my story good, better, and the best my abilities can make it after draft, re-draft, third draft, fourth, fifth and onward until every written word makes perfect sense for its position and holds true to the world of its creation and the story for which it lives.

That’s the long and short of this concept. The only adjustment to it is how much you want to continue interacting with the “real” world in place of the “fictional” world where you are happiest (or happy-ERRR, if that helps soften the disconnection with so-called society that you might think I’m proposing; which I am; sort of).

The one drawback to this The Writing Life concept is that it’s terribly selfish to most of the outside world. On the other hand, if you don’t want much to do with the so-called outside world, then this concept begins to look better and better. For one single example, I give you TELEVISION. I gave up TV nearly seven years ago. In that time I’ve been more creative, more dynamic, more ME, and more productive than I had been for 25 years previous to that conscious decision to kill the machine that spews out mindless mush. I have no guilt over it’s murder.

The only time I need to compromise with this The Writing Life is when I’m spending time with my wife, us two alone, time for each other, time set on our own private terms, time for which we don’t need to negotiate or compromise because this TIME takes place on the go and in-between and over-and-back-on-time; this is time that I truly cherish because, without it, I might just leave the real world for the fictional altogether.

Which, on the face of things, can be scary. But let’s face it, for a writer, there’s not much else we want to do anyway.


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.


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