Some manuscripts have a meh quality to them. That’s not good. If you’re bored with it, the publisher will also be bored along with prospective readers. Take two aspirin or a double Scotch and go back to it in a few days. If it’s still meh, get rid of it, at least let it set for a while and go on to something else.
But some manuscripts sing. That’s the first clue about getting your groove back. Then more stuff begins to happen:
You’re reading a compelling novel like Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain and here come your characters right in the middle of it, talking the dialogue right out of the book (You got a girl? Shit no. You sound like you’ve had some bad experiences. Who aint? You fool with them and that’s the kind you’ll have.)
You’re watching one of the final episodes of “How to Get Away with Murder” and after Annalise Keating says, “Prayers are for the weak–I’ll stick to beating your ass in court,” one of your characters blurts out “Say which?” and you find yourself writing dialogue for your book while people on the show are getting away with murder.
Taylor Swift is singing “The Man” and you get it mixed up with Burl Ives’ “The Big Rock Candy Mountain because your story is pushing on your hand like the dog that’s not getting petted.
You’re ready for a good night’s sleep, turn out the lights, the cat snuggles in close and purs outs a lullaby, and ten minutes later you realize your seeing scenes from your story rolling through your mind’s eye like big trucks on a long-haul highway.”
Your spouse and/or significant other says, “Do you want sex,” and you say, “No, I’m busy, but thanks for asking.”
Storywise, you got it bad and that ain’t good because you won’t have your life back until you finish your book. The groove’s got you.
When creative writing students turn in their first short story or dialogue exercise, the teacher’s response is frequently, “All of your characters sound like you.”
The writer had certain points to communicate via dialogue and distributed them amongst the characters as though their manner of speaking is interchangeable. Or, as the teacher might say, “You should be able to tell which character is talking by what they say and how they say it.”
Several student responses are likely: (1) A dozen synonyms for said. (Yes, there’s a difference between “he said,” “he yelled,” and “he whispered.”) But they don’t help if the words that are said don’t sound any different in tone, structure, word choice, accent, and focus than the three other people in the conversation. (2) The student thinks up a list of eccentric phrases and distributes these amongst the characters, rather like dealing out cards, so that EVERYONE TALKS FUNNY. The teacher is likely to say, “The people sound like they just escaped from a carnival freakshow.”
One of the hardest things for a writer to do is getting to know his/her characters so well that the way they talk arises naturally out of the person. People talk differently because they are different. The writer’s at a disadvantage here if s/he hasn’t spent any time listening to how “real people” express themselves. Some use slang, some have accents, others speak in short sentences while a few speak in paragraphs. Children sound like children and are influenced by fad words from school or (in modern times) words from texting. Older people may use terms from 40-50 years ago that young people may never have heard, as in “You ain’t got no gumption.”
One way to figure all this out is by reading the works of authors who write great dialogue. TV viewers and critics used to say “‘The West Wing’ has great dialogue.” Listen to a few of these shows and figure out what Aaron Sorkin did to make his characters’ dialogue memorable. Here again, the characters all had their issues, likes and dislikes, fears, joys, etc., so what they said fit who they were.
Resist the urge to pepper conversations with small talk. That slows down the story even if it does sound just like a conversation you heard in a store or on the subway. You are advancing the plot, not shooting the breeze. Read your words aloud. So they sound like they’re words to be read or words to be spoken?
If you look up “writing dialogue” online, you’ll find some decent advice that’s almost as good a learning by reading well-written novels.
You don’t stop brushing your teeth during the holidays, so don’t stop putting a few words on paper. It’s your habit. It’s your mission. Unless it’s a hobby, which in that case you only write when you feel like it. Only you know the difference. – Hope Clark
So, what do you think about this quote?
Hope Clark tries for a thousand words a day. But if something gets in the way, she tries to put as many words down as possible. Maybe it’s a hundred, maybe it’s a thousand. It’s something, though, because she’s a professional novelist and that means putting words on the page is just as important as an otherwise employed worker showing up at the office every day.
She’s the author of “The Edisto Island Mysteries” and the “Carolina Slade Mysteries.” They read well and she’s developing a platform and a lot of satisfied readers. I mention all this, not to promote Hope Clark, but to note that while many of you may not have heard of her, she’s a successful novelist.
Many of us are not successful novelists, as the industry views the phrase, because we don’t write every day. We may have a few published books out there via small presses or self-publishing, yet we write more from the perspective of hobbyists than professionals. I suppose that if a writer’s books have never made money, then s/he finds it hard to see himself/herself as a professional. If you’re not making money or slowly gaining a list of satisfied readers, there’s no incentive for writing 200 words or a thousand words a day.
So, we rely on bursts of creativity and sooner or later we finish a book or a collection of short stories and then it gets published and appears on various online bookseller sites. Sure, we wish either that Oprah would call and tell us our latest is her next book club selection or that a Hollywood studio found our latest and has put down the cash for an option on the material. But, the chances of that are slim to none, so there’s no reason to try and turn out as many novels per year as James Patterson.
Perhaps writing when we feel like it is an expensive hobby, but more exciting than collecting stamps and coins, taking photographs of every national park, or joining a quilting club. Early on, we decided we are who we are and so that’s the way we’re going to write. If you’re young, maybe you want to keep pushing. If you’re not young, maybe you don’t.
I have no regrets about being who I am. I hope you feel the same about yourself and the number of words you write per day. We need to follow our hears when it comes to who were are and how often we write.
I think many poets, myself included, are struggling with how to keep writing in the face of the environmental degradation that is looming over us and our children, the beauties and seasons that will be lost, the diversity of flowers and trees and butterflies and fish. These are in danger of vanishing before the words for them do. Poetry is extremely hardy—it was around before the alphabet and will outlast many kinds of human technology. I am robustly optimistic about poetry, but that is maybe the only thing I am optimistic about.
I think a lot about Richard Wilbur’s “Advice to a Prophet”: “Whether there shall be lofty or long-standing / When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.” So much of our language is rooted in the old seasons, and in a miraculous natural world. It is terrifying to think that the language will outlast some of these. On the other hand, I suppose there will be new metaphors, and the poets of the future will find a way forward. – A. E. Stallings
Should writers be political? I think the answer is “yes,” though in many countries being political results in a death sentence or life imprisonment. Each of us does this in our own way. We don’t write in a vacuum. It’s hard to ignore the slings and arrows of fads, bad government, and horrible business decisions. However, many of our potential readers say they’re tired of logging on to Facebook and other services, much less the news sites, and seeing a continuous flow of bad news.
I’ve been an environmentalist for a long time, so Stalling’s words resonate with me. My response in my fiction has usually been to celebrate the natural world. Perhaps this is not enough. It appears that more people want to celebrate suburbia than the world as it was created. So, how do writers approach that point of view?
Many writers have focused on climate change. Yet readers seem to think such works are “over the top” and that climate change either isn’t happening, isn’t caused by humankind, or that the worst scenarios won’t play out for hundreds of years. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t say how soon the Earth’s environment will collapse. But we’ve been warned, I think. The least writers can do is celebrate the environment and have their fictional characters worry about global chaos.
The best we can do, perhaps, is allowing our characters the opportunity of expressing the kinds of fears we have. This way, we’re not beating our readers over the head with politics and activism. We’re telling stories in which folks have the same worries many of us have. I doubt that most people read stories that sound like a list of the political arguments of the day. So, unless we have a seriously hardy theme, we need to be careful about how political we are.
Our readers want stories, not political tracts. Yet, we can inject our opinions if we are careful about how we do it.
“What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
“I would have to say the loneliness of falling out of step with society. When I’m out celebrating a friend who has just made a huge stride in their career, someone would ask me, “Hey how’s that book coming along?” Then having to tell them that I have a desk in an ex-FBI warehouse and I’ll be sitting there in the foreseeable future, occasionally looking out the window, trying to make imaginary people behave themselves.”
Many writers and aspiring writers might easily share Wang’s answer to the challenges of writing books. You have to be able to accept a lot of prospective loneliness that comes with being out of sync with everyone else.
Personally, I don’t like the question “Hey how’s your book coming along” because most people want a quick answer. They don’t want to hear about the plot or your trials and tribulations and doubts. Chances are, they would be impressed if you told them you’d just signed a $100,000 deal with HarperCollins and that your agent is already in negotiations with Hollywood. Otherwise, the best answer is “slowly, but surely.”
Anything other than that, and people’s eyes glaze over and they find excuses to go to the bathroom, head over to the bar for another drink, or simply disappear. You have to be crazy or filled with a lot of passion to sign up for this.
If you’re a writer, do you feel that you’re not part of the hustle and bustle of “real life”?
“Know what direction you are going instead of waking each day without defined purpose. Of course you have days off. Of course you build in a day of rest. But having missions and goals give more substance to your dreams. And the more organized you are, the more you accomplish, and the more efficient you become at reaching more dreams. The planning makes you seem oh so shrewd and wise.”
Sound advice from author Hope Clark as part of her current blog tour in support of her latest novel Newberry Sin. I’m the worst person to advise anyone about planning because I seldom do it. That’s my loss. But I see that those who keep their priorities straight tend to get more done. That certainly applies to writers. If everything else comes first, then a person really doesn’t want to be a writer.
P.S. I’m currently reading and enjoying “Newberry Sin” and plan to post a review of it here soon.
Washington, D.C., January 2, 2018, Star-Gazer News Service–Homeland Security Agents announced here today that a massive sting operation has resulted in the arrest of thousands of writers with low Amazon rankings committing crimes with the help of plot generator software rather than writing great American novels.
Chief of station Liberty Valance said that the writers were caught when the modus operandi of a “larger than usual” number of crimes matched the formal structure of short stories and novels.
“Over and over again, we were seeing exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution,” said Valance. “We also saw a correlation between writers who purchased plot generator software who were getting rich even though their Amazon rankings–with numerous one-star reviews–were in the toilet.”
Publishing insiders have worried for years that plot generator software was more likely to be used for planning perfect crimes rather than perfect fiction.
“If a writer’s any good, s/he doesn’t need a software package to create the plots for his or her novels,” said Bennett Surf, director of the American Association of MFA (manufactured authors) Colleges and Universities.
Analysts discovered that writers were launching their plot generator apps and typing in phrases like “knock over liquor store,” “make money via insider training,” “run over granny with a reindeer,” and “overthrow government” rather than using the software for the purpose for which it was intended.
“That purpose,” said Surf, “was bilking prospective writers out of hundreds of dollars by selling them a product that promised that a lack of imagination and writing skill need not keep their fiction off the New York Times bestseller list of the Pulitzer and Booker prize winners circles.”
Valance said that most of those caught designed first person crimes rather than third person or omniscient narrator crimes, making it easy for profilers to “pin the tales on the wannabees.”
A white paper issued by attorneys for the top ten plot generation applications said that the programs were dispensed for purposes of fun and relaxation, and that all of those “spending hard-earned cash” for the products signed terms of service agreements in which they promised not to use computer-assisted plotting for anything other than novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories.
“We even banned the use of plot generators for poetry because sonnets and limericks are usually horrible and potentially criminal,” said Plots-R-Us CEO Bill Smith.”
“There never have been any writing shortcuts (other than sleeping with somebody in the publishing business) and now–thanks to the Homeland Security Department’s agents and analysts–crime no longer pays as well as it did,” Valance said.
The White House praised Valance for no longer being a decorative drapery. “Today, it’s curtains for wordy criminals,” President Trump tweeted.
–Story by Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter
If you were out on the Internet in the 1980s, you probably remember that CompuServe was a major ISP, providing e-mail and forums for millions of users. In those days, almost every hi-tech company, whether hardware or software, had a forum staffed in part by representatives of the company to help people with bugs, usage issues, and other information. In addition to these forums, CompuServe also maintained forums for pets, religion, political discussions, hobbies, and literature.
The forums all provided discussions in threads–originally in a DOS/non-graphic mode–that looked sort of like the outline-style comments on many blogs as well as on Facebook posts. As CompuServe (which became part of AOL) lost market share over time, these forums dwindled in number so that on December 14th when the remaining forums were shut down by CompuServe’s parent (a Verizon subsidiary), there were relatively few forums left compared to the old lineup.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was a regular participant on CompuServe’s Literary Forum. That name was later changed to Books and Writers. Those who participated in the forum in those days had a rare treat, seeing the birth of now-bestselling author Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. In those days, she was a very active participant and helped many of us get our start in the writing business. She answered questions from everything from craft issues to publication and promotion issues. While her active participation seemed reduced to me due to her busier schedule, she was still on the forum when CompuServe pulled the plug this month.
Like many early participants, I was lured away from the forum by the more cutting-edge software at MySpace and then Facebook. Also, the software at CompuServe’s forums changed so that when you replied to a comment, your reply was no longer posted beneath the message you were responding to, but at the end of the thread. For me, that made navigation a punishing task. Plus, many of the people I knew there when I was a regular had drifted away, and so I had less incentive to go there as fewer and fewer people knew me. My personal opinion was that the staff had become a bit heavy handed, though others didn’t see it that way.
Now, there are two forums to choose from
The management of the former CompuServe forum, that is to say, the forum’s contract holder and the staff members (called Sysops and Section Leaders) changed the name back to Literary Forum. You can find it here: http://www.thelitforum.com/
Meanwhile, a group of former-participants at the CompuServe forum who disagreed with various of the forum’s policies, started its own Literary Forum. You can find it here: https://forumania.com/ This screen is a landing page for multiple forums, one of which is Literary Forum with a button to click on to go to the forum. UPDATE: This forum has closed.
Both forums are new. So there are probably software issues still to be worked out. The first forum listed here has more posts because they apparently were able to bring over posts from CompuServe. The Forumania Literary Forum doesn’t have a fan base and has fewer discussions to involve yourself with. I am a participant in both forums, but have a strong preference for the new Literary forum on Forumania.
Both forums require you to create an account if you want to respond to posts or start your own threads. Both are free. Both forums offer sections (groupings of threads) that will appeal to many readers and writers. There are discussions of current books, genres, the writing craft, and promotional matters.
I invite you to look at each of them, learn how they are organized, and see if you can find a niche there that fits your preferences for talking about the books you’re reading and/or the books you’re writing and promoting. Unfortunately, neither forum has been able for afford software that places responses to threads in the order they’re posted. I figure that if Facebook and WordPress can display responses in an outline form, everyone ought to be able to do it–and CompuServe knew how to do it decades ago. So navigation isn’t as user friendly at either place as it is at other websites.
However, I received a lot of writing help and inspiration at the original Literary Forum when I was starting out. Perhaps you’ll find this kind of help at one of these literary forums as well. They are worth the time and effort and a good place to make some new online friends.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism, paranormal, and contemporary fantasy novels and short stories, many from Thomas-Jacob Publishing.
“Stay away from the ones you love too much. Those are the ones who will kill you.” – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
“You’re more likely to be hurt or killed by someone you know or love. And you’ll probably be at home when it happens.” – Mother Jones Magazine
“Over half of the killings of American women are related to intimate partner violence, with the vast majority of the victims dying at the hands of a current or former romantic partner” – The Atlantic
“Over the past 10 years, more than 20,000 American children are believed to have been killed in their own homes by family members. That is nearly four times the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.” – SPCC
As I look at articles written for and about writers and their work these days, the focus of late seems to be mirroring the political issues debated in the press, in Congress, in churches, and in social media. I am seeing more essays, poems, and short stories by writers who–like everyone else–are trying to make sense of environmental problems, personal rights, racial issues, economic imbalances, health care priorities, terrorism, immigration, and religion as it impacts governmental policies.
Some writers write to figure stuff out: the resulting poem or short story might help readers figure stuff out. And if the writer is good, this can be done without making the poem or story sound like a political tract or a news release from a social service organization. It’s been said that many people learn more history from well-written historical novels than they do from the basic history courses they were required to take in high school and college? Why? The drama of the story catches their attention. The same can be said about fiction that focuses on the issues of the day.
For those of us who haven’t yet become immune to the horrors reported in the daily news, the quotes at the beginning of this post are shocking. The thing is, most news stories about family-related abuse and murder focus on one family or one person. So, while the numbers of the dead, dying, and traumatized continue to add up through the calendar year, nothing focuses our attention on them with high amount of impact of terrorist shootings such as 58 people killed and 546 injured at the Las Vegas Harvest music festival on October 1.
We lost our innocence a long time ago, those of us who–as children–believed that the world would be better off by the time we grew up than it has turned out to be. We believed in Superman and other heroes who would find ways to prevent every potential Las Vegas horror without infringing on our liberties. And we believed in the power of churches, laws, social service institutions, education, and the general evolution of society to end the abuse and murder of family members, especially women and children.
So here we are today, focused on terrorism–which we seriously do need to sanely address–while deaths and injuries of family members stack up like cord wood with fewer headlines to remind us that those we love are more likely to hurt us or kill us than a terrorist or some other thug on the streets. I’ve seen novels and poems about this, but not enough. It’s easier to find novels about fighting terrorism than fighting child and spousal abuse. I’m not surprised: after all, a government security contractor that isn’t bound by the rules governing police/FBI fighting a group that wants to blow up Washington, D. C. is more likely to be a bestseller than a novel about a woman who keeps calling the local police department with fears about what her husband might do.
We can do better, I think. We can look at family-oriented abuse and murder and–perhaps, first–join nonprofit groups that are fighting it and educating the public about it. But writers can take another step. They can experiment with themes and plots and characters and find compelling ways to tell stories about individuals who are–so to speak–living in hell next door while we focus on people caught up in the national news miles away. We need writers creating short stories, essays, memoirs, and poetry about this as a means of figuring out why it’s happening, and of reminding readers that it’s happening closer than they think.
“The space Hunt’s fiction inhabits is the dark dark itself, which, she writes, is ‘unknowable, unlit, mysterious, and disappearing.’ ‘You can have one foot in a spot that’s grounded,’ she says, ‘and one foot out there in the dark, the night, the unknown, which is so tempting, and for me is the place where mystery is sighted. I can’t not go into the unknown. Where the scary music is playing and people say, ‘Don’t go in there,’ I’m the person who says, ‘What’s in there?’ I must know.”
Going into the dark, I think, is the author’s first duty. That’s where our stories come from, from truths that are greater than logical, everyday world truths because they include dreams, imaginations, ponderings, and whatever goes bump in the night.
When Hunt writes in Mr. Splitfoot, “These woods are where silence has come to lick its wounds” she’s not stating anything logic can support. But we know what she means and what she means changes us the minute we consider it and know it. Perhaps, thinking of this quote, we go into the woods, hear silence at work. and understand something knew about our world, or at least, ourselves.
The writer either has to go into the woods first and discover this “truth” or s/he has to imagine going into the woods, almost like a shamanic journey, and discover what silence does. Then s/he places this discovery into a poem, essay, or story. This is not to say that writers must think and write like Samantha Hunt (though it helps); but writers must go into the unknown one way or another. That’s where the new stories are.
Whether you literally or figuratively go into the dark woods to listen to the silence or to the occasional screams and pleas that shatter that silence, you are doing something chaotic, uncontrolled, fearful, and possibly dangerous. The greater the chaos and danger, the more spectacular–and potentially transformative–the story. No pain, no gain, as people say.
The resulting story, as author Jane Yollen says–echoing Emily Dickinson–is truth told on the slant. In other words, “All storytellers are liars. We make up things to get at the truth. The truth of the story and—if we are lucky and have revised well—the truth of the world as well.”
You have probably heard–or discovered in a physics class–that when a tuning fork is struck with a hammer, a nearby tuning fork will vibrate at the same frequency. As I once wrote in a review of a book about the blues, and why that music is so powerful, “In his 1967 inquiry into the nature of man, Man in Search of Himself, physicist Jean E. Charon writes that inasmuch as the material in the unconscious is in archetypal form, works of art communicate it via an innate knowledge shared by artist and viewer in a language which ‘awakes unconscious resonances in each of us.'”
When a reader finds silencing licking its wounds in a poem or story and is the kind of reader attuned to such ideas, s/he will see the truth of those words at a slant, so to speak. They will convey a truth, an idea never considered, bring forth a new way of looking at wounds and woods and silence that was–in this reader–waiting to be born. Thinking of Yollen again, this is what she calls “life in truth” rather than “truth actual.” Truth actual is the apparent logical workings of the everyday world, what we expect in credible news reports and expert testimony and scientific studies. Life in truth includes the realities behind the ever-addictive illusion of a logical world.
Darkness, the place where seeds germinate to create the flowers we will one day observe, is the same place where writers’ stories germinate. As Hunt says, writers want to go into the dark to see what’s happening there and then write a story or a poem about it. Or, maybe even a blog post.
Writers seem to learn at an early age that the ability to see in the dark is a prerequisite to telling a good story.