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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

The Writing Life: Scene Location

I went to the park this morning. Writing was on my mind; my new novel is seeping through my cranium cracks, but I’m wearing a hat to soak up the ooze while I do some further scene & character development. Thus, I needed to get out of the house for fresh fields, lateral vision, and the scent of automated life outside my palace apartment.

Down the street lies a beautiful park with an ancient (restored) vineyard, sloping hills and flat lawns, lush pine greenwoods, a fashioned grotto with fountain and labyrinthine “rocks,” and a cascading waterfall w/pond surrounded by oak, maple, pine, and chestnuts. The latter is where I sat to read through my notes, noodle with scenes, and capture dialogue of some characters yet “solid” in my mind.

Before I got up to the waterfall, however, I had walked along a path lined by weeping pines and European plane trees, silver-hued rhododendrons and flowering begonias. As I walked I thought of my characters, now married and the husband, a painter, asking his wife to model for him nude while she’s pregnant with their first child. Hardly a prude, her only stipulation is that he paint her outdoors. This, she thinks, should break his resolve. But no, he’s all for that, and has the perfect place: a forest, west of the city, secluded from dawn to noontime, when the chill air is swept out by summer breezes.

What I had imagined as I walked along this path was about thirty places that could work for these “painting” scenes: from western Illinois to Malta to the French Alps to a Venetian urban park, and all the way back to a Midwest golf course on which I first learned to play the game. But all of those places — as vivid in memory as nearly anything I’d experienced — didn’t seem as suddenly real as the very park in which I stood.

“Here is your location,” I thought. Here were indeed nice frames in which, wonderfully and suddenly (such as inspiration strikes) a nude pregnant mother-to-be might be seen, on a canvas, as a classical figure. This is what she would become under the guided artistry of her husband.

I took out my camera and began taking pictures. What? Of course!

These are canvases in which — on which — I only had to see and insert my leading lady. This, I realized, was something how (I don’t known for sure, because I’ve not worked on a film production) a location director finds places for film scenes. Of course, I could have walked around for awhile and taken notice of settings, nooks, crannies, and grottoes … but I wanted an exactness because, for these scenes, my artist-protagonist is fascinated with the various chroma of the flora that surrounds him. Inspired? Indeed!

A few thoughts about what happened today.

Firstly, I’ve worked for years now with the notion that — so well espoused by Eudora Welty in her Paris Review interview of 1972 — wherever I’m at and whomever I’m with can somehow infiltrate my story. So when I turned 360 degrees to see where I was in this park, I saw parts of this grand stage that I could use in my story. Thus, the photographs.

Secondly, I was reminded of Ezra Pound’s tutoring the young Ernest Hemingway by, among other things, taking him to the Louvre to look at paintings, and asking him to think about how he would write a description of the particular scene before which they stood. (Pound also, famously, instructed Hemingway to read the Russians and the French to learn how to write short stories — but that’s for another blog post.)

Lastly, the story of Vladimir Nabokov teaching literature at Cornell University struck me as particularly relevant. He told his students that if they were going to read Joyce’s “Ulysses” they best have a map of Dublin nearby as they worked their way through the story.

While much of any story setting can come from real places, we often must place scenes in invented spaces — most scenes happen indoors, and whose house or apartment or office are you thinking of while you write? — but for those scenes that are specific for so many reasons, not least of which is the imagery you want to convey to the reader, actual places are integral to your creativity and for the story’s success.


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.


The Divisions Among Us: Literature and Genre mix surprisingly well

“Literature and Fiction” — You’ll find this category listed on a plaque in the major bookstores. These titles are the industry’s marked division between contemporary/historical-themed stories that have been divided from the genres typically titled “Horror” or “Mystery” and “Thrillers” or “Science Fiction” — plot-heavy stories whose characters are, well, part of the plot. Oh, and then there’s one of the newer categories, “Dark Romance” (love that has an obsession with fangs, is my guess).

“To Categorize” has been an ordering device since Caxton’s day. Cervantes based his most famous character on the delusional fantasies one gets from reading too much — in Quixote’s case, Chivalric Novels. You need only jump a few generations to find what LeCarre and Fleming had developed on top of Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” … and how Steven King brought back what Edgar Allen Poe had begun with most of his short stories a hundred years earlier.

Are there differences between the “literature” of Cervantes and LeCarre and Conrad and Poe and the “genre” of King and Fleming and (most recently) Larsson and Meyer? I can only answer with my opinion, not any difinitive answer. And my answer is…

Yes, but less are the differences in writing quality as there are with intent. You can investigate this yourself by going to the library, bookstore, or look through your own shelves. Pull out several genre-category books you know well, and the same for literature-category titles. How does each begin? How are the stories sustained? What happens at the end? Easy questions to answer, really. The more difficult questions to answer are What do you know about the three main characters? How did the beginning make you feel; and how was that different compared to the ending? What is the turning point in the psychology of the main character? Do the characters represent real life, and does the story say anything about the culture in which it was written?

If you answered the first series of questions with details about the events that take place, in which a character must do something in order to prevent, or make certainty, something happening; and if you can tell me only that this character lives in a particular city, likes wine over beer, and eats sandwiches standing up at the kitchen sink, then you’ve probably gathered the definition of genre fiction: plot heavy, light on character introspection, with “twists” at the end, or beginning, of each chapter.

If you answered the second series of questions by focusing on relationships, emotions, character action & re-action to each other, dialogue rich with introspection and investigating each others’ motivations and emotions, then I think you’ve gathered a good definition of literature: little or no obvious plot (or that which doesn’t turn every other chapter), focus on characterization and motivation and emotional connection to events/other characters, and an overall relationship and association with contemporary culture. Also, information that is left out is as important as that which is given. Likewise, on nearly every page you’ll find something wise.

But let’s face it, lots of classic AND contemporary “literature” sucks because its intent is not well planned and then poorly executed by a less-than-competent wordsmith whose best-formed sentences often begin with “The…”. On the other hand, such well-plotted — and highly crafted sentences — can be found throughout the novels of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Sophie Hannah, Larry Niven, John LeCarre, Tom Clancy, King and Straub.

However, they won’t be found in James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Dan Brown, or Sue Grafton. Heavy names on the Best Sellers lists every year, right? That’s true. But that doesn’t mean they write good story, nor good prose.

What people read is as personal as who they marry. This makes sense. Yet even a marriage has its ups and downs, and must evolve over time; evolution that’s not so much going toward something “better” by anyone’s definition, but at least something different.

My marriage with genre fiction ended shortly after I finished writing my second novel. It was crime fiction, and it was pretty good: lots of story, plenty of twists, some blackmail and murder, and sex that was less gratuitous and more in line with the plot. But I had found that, with this second novel, there was nothing more I could “say” to readers.

My divorce with genre happened because I married too young (first novel, 18; second, 24). And then I realized there was far more to talk about, and the stories in which I could say so much more, in the “category” of literature, where characters reigned, not plot twists; where life could be investigated against the backdrop of contemporary society; and, finally, a place and “person” whom I could love over and over, finding more inside her, getting more from her, giving more of myself to her, than anything from that youthful, whimsical love.



Lit-Fict: if the “plot” can best be explained by ITS THEME, then it’s literary (eg, “A man thinks the world is against him and his revolutionary ideas about architecture, but in the end he is proven wrong by his success.” — “The Fountainhead”)

Genre Fict: if the “plot” can best be explained by WHAT HAPPENS, then it’s genre (eg, “A vampire tells his life story to a journalist, and we learn the chronicles of vampirism over a two-hundred-year period.” — “Interview with the Vampire.”)


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.

If You Have a Thick Skin, You Might Want to Be a Writer

I used to tell my fiction writing students — especially the ones that needed a kick in the ass to hand in pages — that “The easiest thing to do in the world is NOT WRITE.”

Sometimes this did the trick. Of course, the writers in the class (usually just 3 of the 20 students) hadn’t a problem to make story and put it on the page. It was the middle-grounders, the kids who had potential and imagination, but needed a few years to figure out how to tap into their heads, those were the hardest nuts. Nevertheless, the in-class methodology wasn’t hampering them, which was as open a process as made possible for imagination to find a story thread. Perhaps they didn’t like what they had written, or were trying to write, or how it was coming onto the page from the images in their heads.

These are all great concerns of the writer. Fortunately, criticism wasn’t part of the games we played in class. Criticism was the last thing these young writers needed at this stage; peer criticism worse still, because Who would you want least to criticize your early writing efforts but some schmo sitting next to you who himself can’t compose a coherent sentence? Right. What young writers need is encouragement. (I’ll discuss the CCC Fiction Writing Dept’s methodology in a future post)

Encouragement is a fortunate part of a writer’s life, because it can be found everywhere: the written word is bountiful in our literate world; at least, you should have a bookshelf of the best writers whose prose and characters and story are there for you to learn from.

READ GOODS AUTHORS TO LEARN GOOD TECHNIQUES! … (Roth, Bellow, Atwood, Murdoch, Woolfe, Joyce, Rush (Norman, not Limbaugh), Updike, Naipaul, McEwan, Theroux, Doctorow, Franzen, Eugenides, Waugh, Beyer, J.F. Powers, Ford, Barnes, McNair, Harding, Banville, McCarthy, Nabokov … to name but a few) … That’s another thing I told my writing students, mostly because it had worked for me and every writer for whom I held admiration of style, character, content, theme, use of metaphor, story progression; and onward. No, I am not being redundant here.

Redundancy would be for me to point out that rejection and criticism and ignorance is what writers must battle daily. Agents don’t answer but 5% of your queries (90% of which are rejections); publishers send rejections written (scrawled!) across the top of your well-written query letter; the agents and/or pubbers who ask to see your work take 6mos to answer, with another rejection (“We don’t know where your book fits in our marketing profile.”); your writers’ group colleagues don’t understand why Character-X won’t want to continue fucking Character Y “just because”; and, your family keeps asking “When is that book going to be done … Steven King writes a book every year!”; you look at your work one day, and its Pulitzer-bound, while the next day that same page is S-H-I-T; you sign a book contract only to learn the editor-of-the-day doesn’t like your book; when your book is published, the reviewers pass over yours for another title from yet another vampire author; and then, no one buys your book because it’s a single drop in the ocean of titles published this year.

This is what writers live with. And if you have a thick skin, or the perfectly matted feathers of a duck, then you might want to continue as a  writer. Why? Because you need to let the water-beads of rejection slide off you over and over. Meanwhile, you must write one sentence at a time, one paragraph after the next, one chapter and then another, until THE END appears one day on the last page. And then you start another novel.

Forget about the fact that you can publish your long-worked novel (or – GASP! – the one finished yesterday) via Amazon or another POD provider. That’s the first step in the public life of your book. Twitter away; FB is your “friend”; write another blog post — these are just starters in today’s market. And, as far as social media goes, writers are often enough hooked up with other writers, not with the readers they want to engage with. While this isn’t rejection, it can feel like a circle jerk.

So where do you find YOUR readers? Where have all the publishers gone? Why won’t your family read your published book? When shall recognition come to you, and with it the trappings of fame and success?

All of these will happen after you finish the next book. I promise. Now get back to work.


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.

The Writing Life: a new novel

This afternoon I found myself looking over more than a half dozen piles of printed pages lying atop my bed. Not strewn, but in neat-enough piles. Their cover pages hold such titles (written in colored pencil) as “Vienna” and “Prague” and “Narrative Arc” and “O, Though I Walk Through the Valley of Death….” Together, these piles make up some 100 possible scenes for my new project, a novel tentatively titled and loosely outlined (a strong narrative arc, for now, these first weeks of teasing out the story, all of which need a writer’s engineering to connect the various bridge spans).

To say that my excitement — and trepidation — claws at me, would be an understatement.

In this state and at that moment I realized that, three years ago, I had stood in just this same position (though a few blocks away) as I had begun another novel, whose idea was put together in much the same way, as piles of loosely based notes and sketched-out scenes and vivid characters vs. vague characters. And all kinds of possibilities.

That project turned into “What Beauty” which came out exactly one month ago. Sales are okay, thanks for asking (with one nice review). What I didn’t know about that novel, three years ago (including its title), was how soon I would get from the notes to the last (5th) draft. I didn’t think about that. I didn’t know how I would write the press releases, or the galley letter. I hadn’t thought about the cover, or about the reviewers who would get a copy.

I simply began to organize the notes into a general chronological order. It was the second time I used my “Stepping Stone” method of organizing a story and the work that would consume my life, and my mind, for the next 2 1/2 years.

When I realized this afternoon that another project as daugnting as the last sat before me, I breathed deeply and, as I exhaled, a chuckle became a laugh. “This writing stuff is hard work,” is what that laugh told me. “Time to have fun; get busy.”

It’s good to work, to take a sustained time for a walk through a fictional world that is of your making, with people you’ve chosen out of all the others you found and — with luck — can use in some other story; but not this story. And while I don’t plan on “how long” a project shall take, I know that the time will be productive, frustrating, not-enough-or-too-much, and well spent, and worth the effort for the next three or four or ….

Don’t think, Mark — write and think.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. 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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