Underneath all good writing is a strong structure. You may not see it, but it’s there.
The word “structure”—to new writers, especially—can sound like a quick way to make something dull. It’s the teacher at school who makes you diagram sentences and create outlines. It’s Dad stepping into his fourteen-year-old’s slumber party to oversee charades. It’s the volleyball coach pointing at you to move somewhere when all you want to do is bean the ball. It’s the lifeguard shouting, “No splashing in the pool!”
Why can’t you just have an idea and write? You can. I constantly urge that there is no bad first draft. Even so, structure exists whether you see it or not. You can feel the structure when you start a compelling piece. If you saw Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception or Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman, or, going back, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, you might not know what’s going on at first, but you feel you’re in an expert filmmaker and storyteller’s hands. You know you will be rewarded.
The same is true for a great essay you stumble upon or your favorite novels. Nothing is wasted. Every moment is used well. That is thanks to structure.
A strong framework simply allows you to communicate effectively to your reader. It also can make writing easier because you have a path to follow as you write. You may choose to stray off the path; that’s fine, but the structure you create, the path, can help you find your way. It’s worth understanding structure.
Narrative or Not?
Writing as taught in college has two basic approaches: essay form or a narrative form. Both require structure. I’m not about to suggest that there’s only one structure for either approach. Here, I’m focusing on narrative. For whatever writing you do, the trick is to understand your own goal in writing.
If you’re writing stories, fiction or nonfiction, there is no single approach, but I’ll offer mine. Before you start, you need to clarify your aim. Will your story be from a single POV? First person or third? If your story is not from a single POV, is your intention still to have a single protagonist or multiple protagonists?
Maybe your intent it to be experimental and have no protagonist. The more you get away from a single protagonist, the fewer readers you may have, but readership may not be your goal. Once you decide why you’re writing your story and what you want from it, you are likely to find your structure.
In a notebook, on a napkin, on your computer, or somewhere, you might write down what you hope to do. I first got this idea from a book, Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It, subtitled, “Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking.” It’s about what he went through to make his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It. Included is his journal that launched him into writing his screenplay. In his first day’s entry, he writes that he wants this film “different from my other work. First of all, the protagonist will be female, a change for me. It will be told through her eyes. I’ve been thinking about some narration. It will have a happy ending.”
The journal goes on for over two hundred pages and covers over a year and a half. I now write a journal for each of my big projects. When I get lost on the way—typical—I can go back to the beginning and remind myself what catapulted me into the project and my hopes for it. If I get stuck in a particular scene, I can go to my notebook and write about why I can't write--and solve my problems.
With the journal, I also create an outline. My outlines are never carved in stone. Rather, when something in a story surprises me, I go back to my outline and see how that affects what’s coming up. I then change my outline. I keep my outlines on the computer, as it’s easier to change that way.
Follow Your Bliss
Mythologist Joseph Campbell spent years of his life gathering, reading, and understanding ancient myths from around the world. He found many commonalities, one of which he called the hero’s journey. He wrote about it in the book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It’s about the structure of myths.
These ancient, often religious, stories spoke certain truths. Today we might call them “lies,” but he saw them as metaphors for how a group of people thought and felt. He shows in the book that stories fulfill an absolute human need. They tell us things and provide a genesis to understanding our world and what it means to be human.
As I’ve pondered the need for story, I’ve come to see the long lines at movie theaters, live theatres, and author readings go beyond the need to be merely entertained. People are there, subconsciously, to get something more, to learn something. We are voracious for clues on how to more than just muddle through life. Good stories help us understand the chaos around us.
What You Bring to It
Another author, Christopher Vogler, applies Campbell’s ideas to how to write in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screen-writers.
Don’t read his book as a simple formula to narrative. If you follow the structure exactly, you will get a predictable and drowsy tale. Rather, it’s a book that shows you that rhythms in stories are much like the four seasons: While certain things always happen, it’s the differences that delight.
Some years ago, I brought Christopher Vogler to speak to my “Writing for a Living” class twice. The last time, in fact, he said he was starting to see that the hero’s journey is all of our journeys. The same structure that applies to myth, in fact, applies to life.
He said to notice that when you travel, such as he did to Spain, something unpredictable is bound to happen. The unpredictable experience is likely to be the “Supreme Ordeal” in myth. It’s the low point of your trip. It is what will become, in future years, the tale that you tell around dinner tables.
On one of his trips, for example, the low point was when he drove onto a beach following the well-worn path of other cars. When he drove slightly off the beaten path, his rented car sank into the sand, and he and his wife were hopelessly stuck.
“Surviving the ordeal becomes the reward,” said Vogler. In Spain, beach-going strangers, curious about a car sunken into the sand, gathered until there were enough people to lift the car out. After that, everyone partied and got to know each other. It became a great time.
In A Joseph Campbell Companion by Diane K. Osbon, Joseph Campbell says, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” He also writes, “In choosing your God, you choose your way of looking at the universe. There are plenty of gods...The God you worship is the God you deserve.”
We like to see truths in action in our stories. As a novelist and playwright, I look for ways to create drama.
While talk of mythic elements such as “refusing the call” (when the protagonist rejects getting involved in a situation at first) in Vogler’s book are interesting, I look at storytelling in another classic way: Stories are about need and conflict. Your protagonist has to have a deep desire, and then people or events stand in the way of that desire.
In Sylvester Stallone's Rocky, for instance, a third-rate boxer wants a chance at the world championship, but a number of things stand in his way, including his own self-esteem. In James Cameron's Titanic, Jack and Rose want to love each other, but so many people, including her fiancé and her mother, impede their desires—as do the events after the ship hits an iceberg. As soon as you give your protagonist a deep need, things start to happen.
George Bernard Shaw, in his time, saw that dramatic conflict meant social conflict, and that stories needed to be “a presentation in parable between Man’s will and his environment.” In his story Pygmalion, which became My Fair Lady, for instance, there was the struggle of nature vs. nurture. Was grace and elegance inherited or learned? “Learned” is the answer, but the hilarious and inspiring struggle between men and women in the course of love seems to be inherited.
If your protagonist has no need, you’re not likely to have a story. If no one or no event stands in his or her way, no stunning tale arises. “I want a chocolate malt; I made one; I am happy,” is not much of a chronicle.
This isn’t all that goes into “story”--more to talk about in the future. A great book for dramatic structure, by the way, is Story, by Robert McKee.
How to See Your Structure
By knowing structure, you know where to focus on a rewrite.
To see your structure, you need to analyze what you have on the page. First, you might go through your story and underline where one scene ends and where the next one starts. (Yes, novels and short stories are in scenes like plays and screenplays, and if you’re not writing in scenes, you may be losing your way easily. I recommend Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book.) Look at every scene and note where turns in the story take place. If a scene doesn’t have a turn, consider getting rid of it. If you burn through many pages before the next turn, then perhaps your pacing needs fixing. Add turns or delete text.
What I’m suggesting is clearly see what each section of your writing does. Analyze it. Even if you use an outline when you write, don’t look at the outline, but look at what ended up on the page.
Now you can play with that outline, crossing out sections you may not need and moving other sections around. If something does not seem clear on the outline, that may be a spot where you have to write more for clarity. In an outline form, you should be able to see where you stray and where you miss.
Don’t misunderstand me: Solid structure does not mean your story will be brilliant—but it is necessary. You might nail your main points, but you may be missing the rich Corinthian leather, the navigation screen, and the seats that heat at the push of a button. You forgot the hot breath on your neck with your lover on the front porch. In other words, the writing still needs to be vivid and active. Structure, though, helps carry readers along and makes them feel they are on a definite journey.
All in all, it’s perfectly okay to write without notes or an outline and see where inspiration takes you—but then it’s a good idea to analyze your structure and improve on it. Launch us on an amazing journey.
Sometimes a good sentence zings in like a mosquito on a mission from the Minnesota woods. When I hear or read a good line, it often catches me off guard and makes me see my world in a new way.
When I first started teaching creative writing, at the California Institute of the Arts, I carried home a pile of final projects to read. In the story I began with, a student described the veins on his grandfather’s hands as “swollen ropes.” Another student wrote about a maypole from her youth that had brightly colored ribbons “hanging in glorious tendrils to the grass.” Those are the kinds of analogies and details that give writing life, whether you’re writing fiction or not.
It occurred to me then, too, that some people think great writing is all about good grammar. Good grammar alone is box architecture. A square cinder-block building may stand, but there’s nothing exceptional about it. It has no personality, no feeling, no style. It’s a house but not a home.
In high school and most of college, English class bored the hell out of me. Why? I didn’t see the fun and freedom in language—I didn’t grasp that it was something to be handled like film, that images could be slammed against each other, or similes and metaphors could carry me to new heights. Perhaps my teachers didn’t know this either, or I just didn’t absorb it. Now, ironically, I teach English, and I try to lead students to this water’s edge. One of the points I try to make to them—and now to you—is that beyond grammar is the idea of writing with specifics. I offer you a few major points.
1: God is in the details.
This simply means that you should avoid the general for the specific. “How was the dance?” you might ask a friend. “It was nice,” as an answer, may not tell you a lot. In contrast, the following brings more: “I danced with Daphne Richards who wore white shorts and a royal blue sweater, and when I held her during Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Back in Your Arms,’ I could feel her skin was moist from the previous dance, and I could smell her perfume, which reminded me of orange blossoms.” That speaks volumes.
Words such as “nice,” “good,” “fun,” and “awesome”—and all stand-alone adjectives in general—don’t have as much power as when you appeal to the senses.
I have an exercise to help you work on this skill. It’s in three parts. Try this: Go outside with a pencil and paper to where a stranger might pass. You might sit on a stoop in front of your house or at an outdoor cafe.
A) Describe an object nearby or a person whisking past by giving details—just write on your paper without a lot of thinking, much like a sketch artist begins a sketch.
B) After that, come up with a simile of this person or object by using the word “like,” as in “He is like a ____________.” Just fill in the blank. Come up with two or more, and again write as quickly as possible.
C) Now create a metaphor by saying the person or object is a ___________. Fill in the blank with a noun.
For example, one person I tried this with went to an ice cream vending machine and wrote: “A) ‘Klondike, the Original’ says the silver wrapped square with blue ink. There’s a picture of an Eskimo. The machine says it ‘accepts $1 bills’ and to ‘insert face up.’ B) The ice cream square is like an invitation to all my needs. It is like a cigarette ad—so much promise. I can be fulfilled. C) Because I have no money, the ice cream is unreacheable… so the ice cream bar is a dancer in a cage. It is Emily Dickinson, where need is greater than attainment.”
I am constantly impressed by the results of this exercise. Even people who do not write very often come up with some amazing lines.
2: After creating structure, let yourself get lost in the moment.
Again, harking back to what I often implore, don’t feel you have to write a perfect first draft. Allow yourself to be imperfect. I find the best writing comes when you know what you want to say in general (or from an outline), but then you allow yourself some fun in saying it. Allow yourself to be impulsive. Try out sentences or thoughts that stretch you. You can always erase them later. As in the exercise above, if you just do it without spending a lot of time pondering, good things will come.
3: Analogies—similes and metaphors—are important.
Similes and metaphors are one way to get specific. They don’t come tripping naturally from my fingers. Hence, I don’t worry about creating them in a first draft. In rewriting, I’ll often look for spots to insert a simile or metaphor. Similes and metaphors evoke images and feelings—they are specific.
To provide examples to my class of the rich use of simile and metaphor, I sometimes grab a book by Tom Robbins, such as Jitterbug Perfume. Some critics say Robbins goes overboard, but that’s what I love about his work. His analogies come like a runner’s breath, one automatically after another. For example, I just opened the above book to read:
“They stopped to catch their breath after the rigorous descent. There, sitting against the base of the cliff, sequins of sweat sewn to their brows, they regarded one another as pilgrims—or survivors—do. Kudra folded her hands over her uterus, where some very strange little swimmers recently drowned. Alobar issued a sigh that was shaped like a funnel: a full quart of beet juice could have been poured through it” (p. 148).
Notice the analogies: Sweat is described as sewn sequins. The travelers are pilgrims, survivors. Kudra’s abdomen is described as her uterus—an important point—and the “swimmers” you can guess. Last, a sigh is compared to a funnel—quite unique. Come up with your own unique comparisons.
If you like a more “normal” or nonfiction example of analogies, I offer you this from Time:
“The Chickasha twister settled in like a plow, ripping an 80-mile gash northeast through a corner of Oklahoma City and several suburbs for an endless four hours. Thousands of Oklahomans heard the shriek of the warning sirens gradually overwhelmed by a sound variously described like a locomotive, or a screaming jet engine, or nothing on Earth.”
That certainly gets you into the moment, much more so than, “A big dark thing came down on the city creating a big noise. It ruined houses and made a mess.” As you read a book or story you like, underline good descriptions and lines you love.
4: Writing is a dance between the general and the specific.
Despite what I said in rule #1, you need the general to set the scene. Then you get specific. Back and forth. Ursula K. Le Guin in her excellent book, Steering the Craft, describes this process as “Crowding and Leaping.” If you’re telling a story, fiction or nonfiction, you first have to quickly get into the who-what-where-when-why-how in a general way before getting into specifics. You then focus on an event, a crowding of details, before leaping to the next event.
In novels, short stories, playwriting, and screenwriting, you the writer choose which scenes to show. Between each scene is a leap. Other than the rare work, you do not show every single minute in a person’s day.
Even in such non-narrative and “dry” situations as writing a software manual, you set the stage by describing in general what a function can do before giving the exact details—the keystrokes and effects—of how to work the function. A good software manual leads the reader into understanding why something is important or what it does before getting into specifics. Trying to understand a poorly written manual shows you how important specifics can be.
5: Use active verbs.
“Spot is tired. Jim is happy.” One of the biggest ways to make your writing more interesting is, after you write a first draft, seek out and destroy forms of “to be.” This means “am,” “are,” “is,” “was,” “were,” “be,” and “been.” Replace them with more active verbs. “Spot fell to the floor, dog tired. Jim swooped Jill up in his arms and licked her neck like Spot might.” Already the situations and sentences are getting more interesting.
You won’t be able to replace all forms of “to be”—nor should you—but getting in the habit of using active verbs also will take you into metaphorland. Sirens don’t literally scream, after all (no vocal cords), and winds don’t literally whistle (no lips), but such active verbs can paint a scene well (even though there’s no paintbrush.) Active verbs are great tools to use.
While specifics alone won't make your writing great, using them has the effect of balance. Remember the moment when you first learned to ride a bicycle? You found balance. Then everything else came along naturally: the pedaling, the steering, the enjoying. May the wind whip through your hair as you find the balance in your writing.
Why is it that some books have you eagerly turning the pages after your bedtime and other books work like sleeping pills? Partly, it’s style. Why is William Faulkner revered by many English majors and Mad magazine by other people? Style. Is it everything?
“Style” is one of the elements of strong writing, akin to “voice,” but different. As Shelly Lowenkopf explains in The Fiction Writer’s Handbook, “Style is the physical fingerprint of the writer, demonstrated by such traits as length of sentence, cadence, length of paragraph, use of adjectives and adverbs,” and more.
Lowenkopf goes onto say, “The difference between style and voice has its origins in the author’s intent in writing the work; voice comes from an emotional and/or philosophical atmosphere and is a direct reflection of the author’s attitude. Style is more a mechanical function, relating to the way the author uses tense or where she places commas and other punctuation.”
Style is probably one of the elements your tenth-grade English teacher tried to bonk you on the head with, and no matter how many times you’ve read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, you may not feel as if you’ve found your “voice” (which your style reflects.)
Some people think style is inherent, as if writing ability were like blue or brown eyes. Rather, it is something you work at.
Style is not a mathematics table that can be learned through memorization. I do, however, have suggestions and ideas to help shape style and improve your writing. What follows are a few things about style.
1) You are writing to a real person or real people. My late mentor, Bob Lee (who co-wrote, with Jerome Lawrence, great plays such as Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame), always reminded me, “You have an audience. What is it that the audience is supposed to feel?”
In other words, writing prose to yourself is one thing, but if you are writing to or for other people, then knowing—or at least guessing at—how other people might react is important.
You learn this through experience. The more you write, the more feedback you get, whether it’s from your teachers (“vague; wordy”); your business correspondents (“I don’t understand what you mean by ‘general supply’”); or audiences seeing your play or screenplay (laughter, tears, applause, or lack thereof). As you edit—but not necessarily as you write—imagine your audience reacting to what you wrote. My friend E. Van Lowe, who used to write for many TV sitcoms including The Cosby Show, tells me as he’s writing his young adult novels (The Falling Angels Saga) that, “I know where my audience is going to laugh—I can see it. I know where they’ll be surprised. It’s fun writing this way.”
2) Match your style to the form. A personal essay in an application to a college should be different in style from a letter to your mother. A summation in a murder defense case should differ from a memo to your company’s president. Some people, however, don’t vary their styles much. (“Dear Son: I experienced what one might call self-satisfaction at your stalwart performance this Winter solstice when I attended your theatrical recital. Never have I encountered a more syncopated and coordinated dancing candy cane by a kindergartener....”)
People who are fond of big words seem to sprinkle them in everything they write. I’ve spoken to magazine editors who feel too many people write like academics—they use big words and a dry style, and “it’s boring,” they say.
Simply put, a chunk of the population can use this suggestion: “Loosen up.”
On the other hand, I had a recent freshman composition class that was too loose at first. Many of the writers were simply chatty, as if the only style they had was based on speech. Their writing reflected that. “Just cause we gotta be free is what this author is saying. Ya can’t trust the pigs. We gotta believe that. That’s what I think.” For them, I spent time on the structure of an essay, and moved them toward correct spelling and point of view. My goal wasn’t to erase personality—personality is what sings in all writing—but to have them show more control and consistency in their writing.
3) Be concise. The more I write, the more I consciously try for brevity, and the more I admire Hemingway’s ability to do so. In an article in The New Yorker, Joan Didion wrote that Hemingway “in his time made the English language new, changed the rhythms of the way both his own and the next few generations would speak and write and think.... This was a man to whom words mattered. He worked at them, he understood them, he got inside them.”
To make something look simple, such as the opening four sentences to A Farewell to Arms, took concentration, effort, and rewriting.
Some people’s writing style comes off as dull, often because of too much meaningless detail. (“And on the fifth day of our vacation, we stopped first at an In-N-Out Burger where I had a Combo Number One and Mary ate a Combo Number Two...”) Cut out the dull. Try to see if a long paragraph can be written more succinctly. A Persian proverb puts brevity in perspective: “Epigrams succeed where epics fail.”
4) Read your work aloud to get a better sense of rhythm and style. This is especially helpful if you want a more loose or casual style. If you don’t struggle for air as you read your sentences, then they’re probably not too long.
In a fabulous writing book, Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin, which I use for my creative writing classes, the novelist Virginia Woolf is quoted. “Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm,” Woolf wrote in a letter. “Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand, here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in mind, long before it makes words to fit it....”
Reading aloud will give you a better sense of the rhythm you have or don’t have. How you create that rhythm is another matter.
5) There is no bad first draft. As Virginia Woolf suggested, rhythm and style are partly mysterious. No matter how much I deconstruct the elements of writing, there will be a part I’ll never get to, what I call the phlogiston. In Shakespeare’s day, chemists theorized that something mysterious left burning logs and other organic things in combustion. They called this puzzling thing “phlogiston” (pronounced “flow-jist-on”). I use the word as the mysterious element that goes into creativity. You tend to get it, much like oxygen combines with elements in burning, when you write “organically,” which is to say when you are inspired and you write what’s in your gut without pausing to make sure you have all the other elements. Save your analysis for after you write a first draft.
I’m not dismissing analysis, because judging your own work is important. In fact, what separates good or great writers from mediocre ones is the ability to judge one’s own work. While your first draft may have the phlogiston, you may have jumped over points, sacrificing clarity, for instance, or you may have misspelled words or used poor grammar or rambled on when you could be more concise. You rewrite to polish your first draft.
6) Rewriting is a natural part of writing. You’d be surprised how many people feel “stupid” because they don’t write perfect first drafts. Hemingway didn’t write perfect first drafts. He spent revision after revision distilling his writing until it looked so simple, as if it flowed from him in one nonstop vision. Most writers, large and small, are the same. Rewriting is my favorite part of writing because I find and throw out the stupid stuff and replace it with something better (most of the time). I am able to concentrate on each sentence and paragraph. In a first draft, I don’t spend the time analyzing as I go. I allow myself to try new things—some of which may be dumb, others of which may be inspired.
7) Inspiration comes from perspiration. When I bring up inspiration, I don’t mean you should wait for mystery (“the muse”) to grab your soul and then run to your keyboard and write in a fevered pitch. That’s myth. That rarely happens.
Instead, you have to fool yourself into inspiration. If you’re writing a large piece, such as a book or script, then sit yourself down at the same desk or table at the same time each day. And write. Some people are morning people. Others are night people. Write during your best time of the day.
Sure the writing at first may suck, and you hate your words, but write anyway. Some people—most people—have to write junk before the good stuff comes. It’s cleaning out the carbon.
Soon your body gets used to the rhythm of writing each day. You’ll see that you get to the good stuff faster and faster, because, simply, this is your time to write.
The same can be said for shorter works and letters. Just sit down and write it. There is no bad first draft. Just do it, and then rewrite.
8) Read. Writers need to read other writers. You cannot work in a vacuum. Allow yourself to learn by reading material other than your own. If you’re creating a Web page, then read a lot of other Web pages. Figure out why you like some compared to others. Try out a style if you like it. If you’re writing short stories, then read short stories from a variety of writers. Don’t feel guilty if you’re reading some great master and you don’t like the writing. (Personally, Faulkner puts me to sleep.) Read the things that hold your interest.
Want to treat yourself to something special? Take a literature course at the local college or high school extension program. In the college courses I teach, every so often I’ll get one or two people who earned their degrees long ago, but they’re back simply to enjoy reading and writing about literature again. They like to be assigned reading and writing. These older students tend to excel. I’m biased: I think much about life can be found and learned in literature.
In sum, the more you write and read, the more you’ll develop style. So go write and read.
A poem . . . begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness…. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words. —Robert Frost
All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic. —Oscar Wilde
Some years ago when I first started to teach a fiction class called “Essential Beginnings” at UCLA Extension, I had to consider what I should offer new writers. In the context of a three-hour class, what things might I guide people toward that they may not otherwise discover immediately on their own? Poetry. I use it now, too, in my fiction class at Santa Monica College.
Poetry is a great thing for writers to know, even if they don’t plan on being poets. In fact, poetry is a great thing for everyone to understand. Poetry can pack so much into so little. It lets you live in the world with a new pair of glasses with a clear prescription.
The following isn’t short—around 2500 words. I can’t pack poetry into a shorter space. Thus, as with a fun puppy, enjoy a little at a time. When you start to understand how this works, you can use poetic devices in your fiction and nonfiction.
Good writing is often layered. The first layer is the immediate connotation—what the words say. Then there may be subtext—what the words also suggest. Subtext can come through many methods—by what’s not said, for instance, and through the rhythm and sounds of what is written, as another example.
When I think of layering, I think of Shakespeare’s plays. He was able, through language both simple and complex, to play not only to the groundlings—the poor people standing in the front—but also to the educated royalty in the boxes, and to future generations.
Let me draw your attention to the quotes at the top of this piece. I offer them because Frost had it right in saying that poetry—and, to my mind, prose writing—often starts with a definite physical feeling, and you expand those sensations into thought and words. Wilde’s quote, however, is to remind you that genuine feelings don’t necessarily lead to great writing. They can lead to cliché. The trick is to get beyond the obvious. One way to do that is play with the language. In order to play, here are a few devices:
What you write has sound. People hear your words in their heads, and so the sounds you create can draw people’s attention. In addition, at the right moments, you can be much like a music composer, working with sound to create feeling. The skillful writer has sounds in mind.
If you’ve ever read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, you might remember the last two paragraphs, partly for their sound:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning--
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
There’s a lot going on there. Gatsby saw more than just a green light on a pole at the end of a dock. It’s a symbol, no? It suggests how we all look at the future. He believed in what the light represented—hope.
Look, too, at what is not said. The third sentence is a fragment: “And one fine morning—” What happened one fine morning? Did we make pancakes? No. Again, we all are like Gatsby. If our spouse doesn’t understand us, or our boss doesn’t see our talents, well, one fine morning we’ll show them! At our best moments, our future is golden. Yet year-by-year, we have less future, and the current always is against us. If we’re not golden this year, when?
The last line is like a punch because Fitzgerald gives us emphasis by giving sound to the sentence. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back….” See the four words that begin with “B”? That’s alliteration, which is a way to emphasize something. They give the sentence extra oomph, shoving us into the last four words, “ceaselessly to the past.” We all keep getting stuck in the past. The line, too, gives the whole novel an extra bittersweet moment. We are there in the past of the story and the present of our lives. Life is both bleak and beautiful.
How can you start thinking in terms of sound? Consider these other sound devices:
The close juxtaposition of vowel sounds creates assonance. “Asleep under a tree” is an example, as it, “Time and side.”
This is a type of near rhyme, a pleasing sound, where there is a close juxtaposition of consonant sounds, as in S-sounds of “boats…into the past.” The L-sounds of “cool” and “soul” have consonance.
Lines that are musically pleasant to the ear bring euphony. It’s often combining alliteration, assonance, and other agreeable sounds for a greater whole. There is a harmony and a beauty to the language, which is what many poets are often after. Emily Dickenson’s poem, “A Bird came down the walk” has this effect, as seen in the last stanza:
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam--
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.
A jarring, jangling juxtaposition of words can be used to bring attention, too. Cacophony is discordant language that can be difficult to pronounce, as in the excerpt from John Updike’s poem, “Player Piano”:
My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck from these keys melodies.
The sound of this alone (“On-ah-matah-PEE-ah”) makes it important, no? Onomatopoeia refers to words whose sound is suggestive of its meaning, such as: Sizzle. Boom! Buzz. Cuckoo. Oomph.
In poetry, rhyme is used to echo sounds; one word sounds like another. Rhymed words call attention to each other, so carry more weight. While rhymed poetry has not been particularly popular in poetry in the last fifty years, songwriters use it often. In fact, it makes it easier for listeners to remember the words, and it also helps carry rhythm. Judicious use of rhyme in prose can bring a subtle emphasis to particular words. “He never wanted to fly because he didn’t want to die.”
Essential in poetry and often in prose, rhythm refers to the regular or progressive patterns of accents in lines or sentences. Rhythm helps with the flow of your words. The measure of rhythm is meter.
Poetry is rhythmical, imaginative language expressing the invention, taste, thought, passion, and insight of the human soul. —Edmund Clarence Stedman
IMAGERY AND OTHER DEVICES
A good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on. — G. C. Lichtenberg (1742—99), German physicist, philosopher.
The Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy. --Ezra Pound (1885—1972), U.S. poet, critic.
Even if you are writing the text for a home page, I encourage you to create with flair and vibrancy. Description is an art in itself. Often, words have to be the reader’s eyes. One of my favorite descriptions by a novelist is in the opening page of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler:
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the visor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
This passage sets both place and tone. The narrator, private detective Philip Marlowe, has both a sharp eye and a dry sense of humor. In addition, as straightforward as this paragraph seems to be, by the end of the novel, the adept reader realizes that the description here was also allegorical, meaning it illustrated the very nature of Philip Marlowe, who acts as a knight himself by rescuing two needy (and sometimes naked) daughters of a paralyzed California millionaire. Allegory is just but one device you can use to enhance imagery in your work. Comparing something to something else, using simile or metaphor, are other ways. Let me show you several devices, one by one.
An allegory, as above, is a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning. Sometimes allegories are just a single word, such as a character being named Hope or Charity. In other cases, it is a symbolic narrative. The Chandler example, above, is a mini-narrative that later takes on larger meaning.
An analogy is a comparison, usually something unfamiliar with something familiar. “The plumbing in my house is a maze of turns where even water gets lost.”
Metaphor is an analogy, but it usually goes a step further, comparing two unlike things without using “like” or “as.” Metaphors can be subtle and powerful and transform people, places, things, and ideas into fresh visions.
In The Big Sleep, which is filled with simile and metaphor, is the line, “Her eyes ate Carmen with the green distillation of hate.” First, eyes don’t really eat—that’s a metaphor, comparing eyes to a mouth. Second, distillation usually refers to alcohol, but here the distillation is green and refers to hate. Metaphor.
A great way to move into metaphor is to use active verbs instead of forms of “to be” (am, are, is, was, were, been). “Her fingers danced across the keyboard.” Fingers don’t really dance—but it expresses what is meant. “Her breath skated across my lips.” You get the idea.
Another way to create metaphor is to plunk two unlike things on either side of “is” (or other form of “to be”). “She is a mule for love.” “Peder was the Steven Spielberg of scam artists.” “The kite was a symphony.” “My feet were mustangs.” When you create a great metaphor, you create a picture that says far more than a plain description. It’s unique.
Simile is a direct comparison of two unlike things using primarily “like” or “as.” “Her eyes are like comets” is a simile. However, “Her coffee is like my mother’s coffee” is not a simile, because the two things are the same. “Her coffee is like my mother’s shoe polish,” however, would be a simile.
“Hair like steel wool grew far back on his head and gave him a domed brown forehead that might at careless glance seemed a dwelling place for brains,” is from The Big Sleep, as is, “I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets.” Chandler’s use of simile and metaphor gave his words an extra level of meaning—they added to the narrator’s sense of life. You can harness that power, too.
I include this because it’s a rare but beautiful type of comparison. A zeugma (pronounced “zoog-ma”) is a word that is used twice, bringing up two different connotations. My favorite is from Paul Simon’s song, “Duncan” where he sings, “Holes in my confidence, holes in the knees of my jeans.” The first “holes” is metaphorical, the second, literal. A zeugma can also be a single word used to modify in two different ways. “On his fishing trip, he caught three salmon and a cold.”
Irony uses contradictory statements or situations to reveal a reality different from what appears to be true. For instance, it is ironic for a minister to have a dysfunctional family or for a fire station to burn down. A verbal irony is when someone says one thing but means another. “‘Hey, Slim,’ she said to the fat man.”
Euphemism is the substitution of something that might be offensive or hurtful with something more innocuous. “She is at rest” is a euphemism for “She died.” Euphemisms are not necessarily “better,” and in fact can deflate language, but if a character uses euphemisms all the time, for instance, that says something about that character.
Repetition is the purposeful re-use of a word, phrase, image or sound, and is fundamental to poetry. In high school, you may have had your English teacher circle repeated words and say that is was bad or ineffective. Unintentional repetition can be, but do not think any repetition is a sin. It can be salvation. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in her fabulous book, Steering the Craft, “To make a rule, ‘Never use the same word twice in one paragraph,’ or to state flatly that repetition is to be avoided is to throw away one of the most valuable tools of narrative prose. Repetition of words, of phrases, of images; near repetition of events; echoes, reflections, variations: from the grandmother telling a folktale to the most sophisticated novelist, all narrators use these devices, and the skillful use of them is a very great part of the power of prose.”
Symbol is an image that represents or stands for something else. Flags, for instance, represent countries. The Statue of Liberty represents freedom. (These are clichés, too.) In your own work, you may create symbols that are true to your piece alone. In my published short story “Green River,” I happen to use the river, a candy bar, and dinosaur bones all for symbolic purposes. In the short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” author Flannery O’Connor uses many symbols including an automobile that, not coincidentally, is hearse-like.
Getting Beyond The Obvious
All the devices I’ve presented in this are meant to show you that you have tools at your disposal in writing. They are meant to bring subtlety to your work. One way to get to understand the devices is to purposely overuse them. One assignment I give my students is to write at least two double-spaced pages with a minimum of eight similes or metaphors. So many comparisons in a short time are often hilarious, but also there are some stunning images. The writer may not have reached such an image without writing three stinkers first.
For sound, Ursula Le Guin has her students write a paragraph to a page of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud. She has them use any sound device—alliteration, repetition, onomatopoeia, made-up words, and more—but not rhyme or meter. The idea is to have fun, cut loose, and toy with sounds and rhythms.
Remember, when you write your first draft, give yourself permission to overuse some of these devices. When you polish, take out the ones that don’t work and keep the brilliant ones.
For more terms, click here for the Glossary of Poetic Terms at a site by Bob’s Byway.
Poetry is one of the destinies of speech. . . . One would say that the poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language. —Gaston Bachelard (1884—1962), French scientist, philosopher.
With the upcoming AWP Writers’ Conference in Minneapolis, April 8-11, I thought I’d revisit last year’s conference in Seattle to show where the trend in publishing is going.
“Why are you here?” a poet at a booth in AWP’s Book Fair asked me. That could be answered a number of ways, from how and why I was conceived, to how a chance mixture of chemicals and lightning created life on Earth, to “To be.” My pause made him ask it another way. “Are you a writer, professor, or both?”
I looked down and saw the nametag around my neck, which also revealed that I taught at Santa Monica College, was obscured by my jacket. “Both,” I said. “And I'm a publisher, too.”
Still the question sat with me—or rather walked with me—much of the day. Why did I come to the AWP Conference? Did I hope to leave with something? To quote a kid on a trike in the movie The Incredibles, I came “to see something amazing, I guess.”
The annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference is different every year, changing with the city it’s in, with its keynote speaker, and with all the different panels throughout its three full days. Each time I go to it, I come away with new thoughts on writing and publishing. Still, I see there’s a trend in publishing emerging.
My main passion in life has always been in storytelling, particularly now in writing fiction. I’ve had two agents, and my last one in New York six years ago was having trouble finding a publisher for my offbeat novel, Love at Absolute Zero, about a brilliant young physicist who, after getting tenure at the University of Wisconsin, wants to find a wife in three days using the Scientific Method.
The agent had found three enthusiastic editors--their notes emphasized the writing and the humor they loved--but their marketing departments had said no. Since when did marketing departments get such a strong input? The answer: when big corporations bought them. “Novels with science in it is a hard sell,” I also heard.
I mention this because during the AWP Conference that year in Denver, I realized that everything about AWP was geared toward an idealized vision of publishing. The keynote speakers and others were philosophical, brilliant, and funny. They commanded long lines of people for book signings and were literary. Agents and editors believed in their work--even if science was in it. Additionally, the growing number of MFA programs, members of the AWP, stressed literary fiction.
Yet the real world seemed different. My published books may have won awards, but if I called an independent bookstore to ask if might I speak there, I was always asked if I had a lot of fans in that particular city. I had sensed quickly the market for literary fiction was like the snow on Kilimanjaro, ever shrinking, making it ever more challenging for writers with my sensibilities to get published or speak. Best as I could tell, the big publishers, looking at the bottom line, wanted genre fiction i.e. novels that would bring in money.
I have nothing against genre fiction, mind you. Heck, thanks to my own curiosity, my two latest novels, Blood Drama and A Death in Vegas, are thick in crime. I’ve loved the challenge of making stories that need to be read. I also published Love at Absolute Zero through White Whisker Books, a company I created. I was once a senior editor for a publisher, so I simply did what I learned there. I hired my own top editor, proofreaders, and designers.
Last year in Seattle, panels and booths galore focused on alternate methods of publishing. Heck, one of last year’s sponsors of the conference was Amazon and its publish-it-yourself wing, Createspace. At the Book Fair on the fourth floor of the Convention Center, I came across a group of people who had another approach. They’ve created the Kickstarter of publishing, calling itself Inkshares. You write a proposal for your book and add it to their website. If you can crowd-fund your book and generate over $10,000 within two months for the cost of publishing your book, the company will then edit, design, print, and market your book, and you get to keep 70% of the royalties.
I’d asked Larry Levitsky, the CEO of Inkshares, what if someone’s novel is terrible—just atrociously written—despite having a good proposal. Would Inkshares still edit and publish the book? Levitsky imagines that will never happen, that the marketplace will not fund such a book.
Another panel, “All Publishers Great and Small: Reexamining the Book Business in the 21st Century” sounded promising—and for many people there it was. The young panelists all told of how they were published first by micropublishers and worked their way up to bigger publishers.
At first, I was heartened by all these stories and choices, but as I heard people talking and asking about using Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, and asking how many books can one sell, and, essentially, how does one get famous, I felt drained. I had to get away from the mechanics of publishing.
I soon was re-energized by other panels. One had five authors from Grove Press who read sections of their novels. Margaret Wrinkle, Patricia Engel, Pablo Media, Dani Shapiro, and Josh Weil reminded me of why I like narrative fiction so much. Great writing read aloud is like lightning, quickly gone but beautiful.
Another Grove Press event had author Sherman Alexie (see photo above) on painskillers from a fall, and he was funny. He said he could be super-depressed, paranoid, resentful, OCD-impaired, unsure of his talents, feeling slighted, and never delivering work on time. Yet he could be ecstatic, in awe of life, and in awe of his editors Morgan Entrekin and Elizabeth Schmitz, who encourage him and put up with him.
It was clear Entrekin enjoys the offbeat and isn't afraid to go with great stories, no matter what a marketing department might say. Maybe my manuscript should have gone to him. Still, my books have sold well, won awards, and I'm happy. I left thinking how the panelists love what they do. The writers love their agents and editors, and the editors feel lucky to work with the talent they've found. We're all in good spots.
A panel about teaching Flannery O’Connor in the classroom invigorated me, too. The five panelists spoke of O’Connor’s passion, humor, and ways of throwing off the reader. For instance, the young mother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is described as having a face “as broad and innocent as a cabbage.” That’s why I give O’Connor’s stories to my students: to focus them on her mystery and power. I want people to feel and see and taste some of what I find in this crazy life.
I also saw Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) speak with writers Monica Drake (Clown Girl) and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruin) and HarperCollins editor Calvert Morgan. It reminded me that there are passionate people working for the big publishers, too.
My day ended with seeing three poets read their work. Lucia Perillo, Natalie Diaz, and Dean Young gave lively performances then joined in a conversation with Copper Canyon Press editor Michael Wiegers. They spoke not on how to become famous (how many poets are famous in America?) but on such topics as laughing in the face of sadness and living with the delights and betrayals of one’s body.
This is the reason why I go to AWP—to be surrounded by great writing and leave inspired. To see about this year’s show, go to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) website. #AWP15
“A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one; it comes as sincerely from the author's soul.” -- Aldous Huxley
Critiquing is the most difficult and tender area in writing. In many ways, it's the Rorschach test of being human. You've just spent hours, days, weeks, months, or even years writing a piece, and now you want feedback. You are in a vulnerable position.
Of course, you want to hear you're successful, but you want an honest opinion. I've heard writers say, “Please read this. You can be brutal.” They don't expect (or want) “brutal,” and I certainly don't want to be the instigator of making someone feel diminished or demeaned. Brutal gets few people anywhere. What most want is you to say, “This is great!” as large and definite as the faces on Mount Rushmore.
Everybody loves somebody sometime
First off: You will never get everyone to love something you wrote. Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Michael Connelly, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood—no great writer has a lack of critics. Writing is subjective. Don't expect to touch everyone's soul. If you don’t believe me, look at the reviews on Amazon for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. There are one-star reviews.
You want at least a majority of people to love your writing, which is not an outrageous goal. It can happen. Just don't expect it to happen every time you sit and write.
So, how do you get a majority to like your work? You have to write and show it to people. When you get a sense of what works, write more like that (but make it different). When you get a sense of what doesn't work, fix it.
(Ha! And you thought the process was complicated.)
If you intend your work to be read by many others—and to be published or produced or appear on the Internet—then seek critiques. Other people may help you catch both silly mistakes and unintended bloopers. The best criticism dives into meaning and the subtleties of language.
How to find people to critique
To be critiqued, you might ask those people you know and respect—and people to whom, if they don't completely glow about your work, you can still listen and not be hurt. (Be sure to say thank you.)
It's getting harder and harder to find people with free time, though. Between phone calls, tweets, Facebook messages, voice mail, e-mail, text messages, letters, notes left on desks, and the occasional surprise visit, we're all feeling the pressures of the information age.
People do want to help their friends, and they often say “Sure!” to your question of “Do you have a spare hour or two to read this?” But, “as soon as possible” is not always soon. Hence, you might have to ask four or five people to get one or two who can read it in a timely fashion. People mean well—they just don't always have the time.
If you're writing fiction, remember that many people these days don't read fiction. People who do not read fiction may not be the best critics of your work. Two of the best ways to find help with fiction are to join a writer's group or to take a workshop or class in fiction. Local colleges have extension classes, and high schools often have adult education. Writer's groups are often word of mouth. Start your own if necessary.
The Internet can also be useful—groups gather there, too, and you can join. Try the search words “fiction writers groups.” If you’re not a member of Goodreads, then join. It’s free, and in some of the groups that are there, you’ll make friends with passionate readers who may have an interest in your work.
The best and most honest
The best and perhaps the most honest criticism will come from an editor. In the old days, once your book was set up with a publisher, you would get an editor at the publishing house. Now, many publishers expect the books they receive to be polished. If you’re trying to get an agent, agents expect polished, and if you’re self-publishing, you’ll want your book as polished as possible for the world.
Hire an editor. An editor is paid to consider your content. If you’re writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, your editor will have an overview of your structure, which you may not be conscious of, and he or she will offer suggestions in improving your story. An editor usually does not read for grammar and sentence clarity. Some of that will occur, but that’s a proofreader’s job. A good editor can be around $60 an hour or $5 per double-spaced page. Proofreaders will be about half of that.
Finding a good editor who fits you well can be a challenge. Ask other writers or, if you’re using a self-publishing service such as Lulu.com, you can get suggestions of editors. I found mine when I taught at UCLA Extension. They were fellow instructors.
How to give criticism
You may be asked to consider someone's work. How do you respond? In the writing group I once was in, we actually formed a few rules. We skated without rules for a few years, but when a potential member was trying us out, and he heard our criticism, he said, “You people are ruthless!”
What we discovered at that moment is that we had slipped out of the habit of commenting positively. We seemed to have assumed that everyone knew we liked and respected each other; what was good was self-evident. Unintentionally, we only focused on the sections that needed work.
We relearned to be positive by developing these rules. Do not assume everyone knows what's good. We all need lovin'.
Here are the rules we developed. Feel free to use them for your own group.
1. Allow everyone a voice. Go around the room in order, starting with whomever wants to start first. We'll move clockwise.
2. Before starting the critique, the author should introduce the work and even offer his/her goals or questions for the piece. The author then listens attentively but silently to criticism. (This avoids interruptions and explanations and allows the writer to see how people have been interpreting the work.) The writer should be writing notes to bring up later when it's his/her turn, at the end.
3. Remember that there are no “bad ideas,” just “poor implementations” of those ideas. So don't say someone's basic premise is bad, just that the approach needs work.
4. Start with what you like about the work and then offer comments intended to help the author revise the work to improve it. Ways of revising the weak spots should be suggested: “Here are the text's strengths—keep them—and here are the weaknesses—try to work on these.”
5. Criticism must be honest—but with tact. “Supportive” doesn't mean giving a series of sweet nothings, but writers do need to know what works and what is strong, as well as what needs improvement.
6. Talk about the most important things first. Any minor points should be written in the manuscript. Get in the habit of having a pen or pencil in hand to circle typos and make points that might be too small to bring up to the whole group. In comedic material, making a check on the side at lines or sections that are funny can be particularly helpful.
7. Be as brief as possible. If someone has already made the comment you were going to make, then simply say you agree with that person. Don't nitpick. You should have circled or corrected the smaller points on the work before the session.
8. Criticism always refers to the work and never the person. “This script is weak” is acceptable. “You write weak plays” is not. (Our group has never had a problem with this—and doesn't want to.)
9. In the initial round, whoever is speaking has the floor. Other critics should avoid jumping in—debate can be saved for after everyone has spoken.
10. Don't ask the author questions unless it can be answered yes or no. If you have more complex questions, write them on the work itself or save it for the open discussion at the end.
11. After everyone has spoken, anyone can bring up a point for debate. This is often the best part. If someone feels strongly about having flashbacks, for instance, and other people disagree, this is a time to discuss the issue. Again, the author should be generally silent to allow debate and to see what people are finding important.
12. After any debating, the writer should be allowed to direct questions to people or to the group as a whole. He/she can initiate topics for discussion. The writer can also offer a summation of what's been said, to see if he or she has a good understanding.
How to take criticism
No one is the voice of god. You do not have to take someone's advice. You only have to be polite and thank them for their time. Do not defend yourself or tell people they are lousy judges of writing or that their work sucks so no wonder they can't see great writing when it's before them. You do not have to go off and change your work. It's your work. Take what you find useful, store other points for consideration, and ignore the rest.
It's good to take notes, particularly if you're in a group situation. You will not be able to remember everything. Some people record their critiques to listen to them more closely later when they are alone and more emotionally unattached.
While the above paragraphs prepare you for possible disappointment, many writers nonetheless assume their work will be a hit—and, perhaps, as ageless as Shakespeare. Thus, when people don't see you as brilliant as you are, disappointment can descend as quickly as a scythe. Not everyone can keep the disappointment from his or her face or vocal cords. Do the best you can. Again, do not defend. Stifle the desire to attack. If you are not good at taking criticism, then perhaps you really don't want to know what people think—which is fine. Don't waste people's time if you don't want anything less than a rave.
A friend and fellow writer told me, “I often find it hard to accept criticism as it's given. I've thought about what I've written for a long time, so I can't immediately agree with some criticism that doesn’t seem very well thought out. What I do is take notes but don't make any changes immediately. I try to put everything away for a few days, then look at the notes again and try to objectively test them. I ask myself, 'Is this right for what I'm doing?'”
Improving by taking a class
In my own creative writing classes, now at the Art Center College of Design and at Santa Monica College, I'm typically blessed with individuals who seek and take criticism well. They also happen to be driven writers who take a course to improve their work, not to have it validated per se, and everyone in the class gets to critique everyone else's work. Most do so with panache. They are learning from everyone else. They're conscientious and understand the vulnerability of a writer when being critiqued. I also fully believe the best way to improve your own writing is to critique others.
A colleague of mine who has taught at UCLA for 30 years, and who was once my instructor, is as conscientious as they come. He told me of a few students who were so rocked by his critiques that they created scenes in class or later demanded their money back. Of course, he also has stories of those who were thankful, gained strength and courage in his course, and went on to publish or have scripts produced. The point is, being critiqued can be difficult, even by the best instructors, but there is much to be gained from criticism.
I'm not saying there are not instructors out there who trash people's work to feel self-important. If you find that in the first week or two, leave the class or group. With a little research or word of mouth, however, you should be able to find the good instructors or groups.
Published reviews—a different thing
A review is a different kind of feedback. It’s meant for readers, as the writer is unlikely to withdraw the book and rewrite. With published reviews, you have to hope you find new supporters of your work, and if you have a bad review, so be it. Don’t focus on such reviews. Just move on.
If there’s one mantra I have for myself in writing and book publishing, it’s “Keep trying new things.” It's not a mere aphorism for me. It's a truth that's worked in several ways.
First is in the writing itself. When I began as a writer in college, certain things worked, and others did not--so I kept trying. I accepted I was Charlie Brown, and Lucy would forever yank away the football (but then one day, she did not.) When a story doesn't work, put it aside and try another. Keep trying.
As to what to write, some experts suggest to “brand” yourself and don’t vary. If you want to write horror, then write horror, but then don't write a comedy. You're muddling up your brand. However, I've never bought into that. I’ve sensed that my style and voice is my brand.
This is to say, I can’t help but see the world as absurd and funny. I come up with serious stories, such as a woman on the verge of suicide in my short story, “I’d Rather Die than Move to North Dakota,” and humor slips in. (It was published by Lit Noir, a literary journal.) My world point-of-view guides my subconscious mind as I write. That allows me to go into different genres and try new things. I have two literary novels out, and now two crime novels, along with two collections of short fiction. I’m trying new things.
“Keep trying new things” rose its head again when my most recent crime novel, A Death in Vegas, appeared. I wanted to try a new type of marketing. My books grab readers, but how to get that across to more people? “Let’s try a book trailer,” I said.
My publishing company hired a brilliant young Los Angeles director, Samuel Gonzalez, Jr., known both for his short dark films and also for his music videos. We went over basic ideas, which included my reading from the novel. When I showed up for the shoot, Gonzalez had brought in actors for a sequence that riffs a few scenes from the novel. I was to star. I had never thought of myself as an actor. I’m a writer.
Something in me said I had to stay true to my work, my baby, my novel, and so Gonzalez guided me brilliantly through the shoot. You can see the film below. He turned the trailer into a mini-movie, which runs seven minutes without the credits. See what you think.
In short, if you’re a writer or creator of any sort, push yourself, try new things. Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers says you have to persist for over ten thousand hours until your great at it. Start now. You might like the results.
I tried something new a little over a year ago: teaching online. I live and write in California, but agreed to teach creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University via the internet. All started well. My first two classes were great with a dozen interesting and eager students in each class, and I had some latitude in how to teach.
To teach online well requires more time than physical classes. It's because you can't see your students' body language or answer things quickly. Most things are written. When SNHU doubled my class size for the third term--to 25 students--and I was forced to give some other professor's writing exercises and readings, which was a lot of busy work for the students and me, it all became crazy. I won't go into it, but I didn't agree to do it again. Even so, I liked the students a lot. I even liked the medium. If you're looking for online classes in writing, look for small classes such as at UCLA Extension.
One thing I wished to try for the third class was to be more visual. I created small videos for my class, which worked out well.
This led to another type of video, one for the general public on how to make it big in writing: getting rich-rich-rich from your efforts. After all, that's what I'm often asked: How do you get rich in writing? I answer it here. Click below for my surefire tips to get there. It’s short, just four-and-a-half minutes.
When I first started writing, I aimed to be a “serious young writer,” which is why after working as a stock clerk at a Hollywood camera store and then as a tile salesman in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, I joined an MFA writing program at USC.
I adored my time at the university and made good friends. We were all serious young writers, ready to storm the Bastille of Mediocrity, beat aside bad agents, and deliver the Truth. Some of us were there to write the serious and artful Great American Screenplay along the lines of Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H, The Deer Hunter, and The Conversation. Others, who cared nothing for money, wanted to write the next great play, our generation’s Death of a Salesman or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff? I would later write Who Lives?, a story about who might be among the ten test subjects of the first working kidney dialysis machine.
Some of my friends wanted to crack the novel in a fresh way, such as was done with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and whatever Tom Wolfe was doing with New Journalism, which seemed novelistic. Witness The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Me, I wanted to write movies, plays, and novels—and throw in short stories and essays. The great thing when you’re young is you don’t have to put a governor on your ambitions.
None of us in the program were short of dreaming. The one thing we did NOT want to do was write in a genre, such as writing horror or a thriller. Genre was selling out—just not dreaming big enough.
Influential books at the time for me included Watership Down by Richard Adams, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig, and Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. I didn’t read Stephen King’s books of that decade, which included Carrie, The Shining, Salem’s Lot, and The Dead Zone. That’s because Stephen King was in the horror category, a genre I didn’t want to consider. I also assumed (wrongly) that King must not be a very good writer if he was always writing horror.
Then a few years ago, I read some of his short stories including the one that became the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The stories, touching, revealing, full of emotion, and well-written, blew me away. When his book 11/22/63 came out, I had to see his take on the Kennedy assassination because I remembered the day vividly. I was in fifth grade when Kennedy died. I saw all the adults around me cry, and my parents were Republican.
I became glued to King's 11/22/63. After I finished it, I moved onto his Joyland. I found it gripping and emotional.
These two novels made me appreciate King’s writing and also see many of the things he probably learned early on, things which have taken me many years of writing plays, screenplays, and novels to see. Because I also teach creative writing, these are some of the lessons I try to get across to my students.
I should explain both novels briefly. In 11/22/63, 35-year-old English teacher Jake Epping learns that his friend’s diner in Maine has a time portal in the back room that takes any traveler to a date in 1958 at that same place. No matter how long you stay away, you return two minutes after you left. After Epping tries it a few times, he realizes he could drive down to Texas, hang around five years, and then try to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK.
Joyland is both coming-of-age and a mystery set in 1973. Twenty-one-year-old Devin Jones's heart is broken by his college girlfriend, who runs off with another guy. Each day, Devin is consumed by the loss, but after he takes a summer job at an amusement park in North Carolina and comes to know his co-workers, he slowly mends. He also gets curious about a murder that happened in the park a few years earlier, and there's a rumor that her ghost can be seen on one of the rides.
Using Joyland and 11/22/63, I offer a few things I’ve come to appreciate about King’s writing.
1) Devin Jones in Joyland and Jake Epping in 11/22/63 are great protagonists. Jones is vulnerable and temporarily damaged—and I deeply empathized with him. Epping not only has tremendous curiosity for when he finds a wormhole into the past, but also he realizes he can expunge one great evil—Oswald—and perhaps change history for the better. Both these characters are driven, and readers clearly see their goals and desires.
2) Truth. One of my own goals in my work is to meter out truthful moments. I’m not so much going after the Big T Truth, but it’s the little ones that count, moments that reveal life as we know it. King does this as easily as breathing.
For instance, in Joyland, Jones says, “People think first love is sweet, and never sweeter than when that first bond snaps. You've heard a thousand pop and country songs that prove the point; some fool got his heart broke. Yet that first broken heart is always the most painful, the slowest to mend, and leaves the most visible scar. What's so sweet about that?”
Later Jones realizes, “It’s hard to let go. Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go. Maybe especially then.”
In 11/22/63, Epping says, “We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.” Later he adds, “Stupidity is one of the two things we see most clearly in retrospect. The other is missed chances.” We also come to learn and understand another truth, “The past is obdurate.”
When I write, I’m on the lookout for moments when such truths can lend the story extra depth.
3) Foreshadowing is hard to do, but when done well, it gives any story a sense of destiny and the tone of “This happened; you have to hear this.” One reason it’s difficult to create foreshadowing is that you have to know your own story well. If you’re on a first draft, you may not know what will happen fully. You can’t foreshadow it yet. Thus, foreshadowing is something I tend to add in later drafts.
In both of King’s books, the foreshadowing lends foreboding. Also, the narrator indicates he’s older than the events, and he’s relating what has come to dominate his memory. This gives a sense of importance to the stories.
4) Dialogue and details. King has the right balance for both—not too much or too little, which sets the pacing. “I started to reply,” says Jones about the fortuneteller. “She hushed me with a wave of her ring-heavy hand.”
5) The biggest thing that originally stood in my way of appreciating genre fiction was the idea that genre was devoid of theme. Perhaps I thought that literary stories considered theme and all other stories didn’t. Theme, however, is everywhere. Even writers who don’t think about theme tend to have one because where a story ends says something. You can have the richest, most empathetic characters, but if in the end they are all brutally murdered, that’s suggesting something about life, no?
I never thought of Raymond Chandler as genre because the plots of his detective stories were all over the map—but Philip Marlowe’s insights, tone, and themes grabbed me. That should have clued me in that genre could be special.
My wife tends to watch what I call “bludgeoning shows,” things like Dateline or 20/20 where the true-life tales are often about one spouse murdering another and then trying to hide it. A theme that comes through is “Spouses lie and murder, and marriages are horror shows.” While that’s certainly a truth out there, it’s not one I want as universal or paramount.
Theme at its best is a truth that weaves through a story and can be sensed in the end. Good writers somewhere along the way come to understand what their stories are about and then make readers or viewers discover it on their own. King is a master of this. In both Joyland and 11/22/63, you’re in good hands.
I'm now a King fan, even if I haven’t read most of his books. I love these two and I’m starting a new one, Lisey’s Story, because he said in an interview, he felt it was his best one. Truth be told, now that I’ve written two crime novels, Blood Drama and A Death in Vegas, I have an extra appreciation of genre. In theme, I’ve strived to make the books more than bludgeoning shows. They are about the human condition, including its joys and absurdities.
Good stories are hard to create, and as a writer, I have to celebrate good ones when I see them. In my off hours, I’m enjoying Bosch, which streams on Amazon. There’s another genre writer I enjoy: Michael Connelly. That’s for another blog.
Note: NPR interviewed King about how he writes. Read/hear that interview by clicking here.
When I took my first creative writing class, a poetry class, in college at the University of Denver, I did it because I needed to fill in some credit hours. English had never topped my hit parade because most of my professors had made me feel that to truly understand a book, you needed to be an English major. I was not. I was into psychology. Little did I know then that psychology would be important in reading and writing.
My last required English class, one in American Literature, turned me around. I couldn’t believe that in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the protagonist, Jake Barnes, was impotent—although I didn’t know that word then. I surmised, though, that his penis somehow didn’t work right, and could we really be reading about this in a class? Was it legal for a writer to write about that? How were we going to talk about it?
I learned that Hemingway had traveled to Spain in 1925, and a lot of those experiences such as the running of the bulls had ended up in his book. He’d had a few wives, so apparently impotence wasn’t a problem. Maybe it was when he killed himself on July 2, 1961.
After that, I also discovered that an F. Scott Fitzgerald story that we read, “The Rough Crossing,” was based on a trip that Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda had taken. I hadn’t known until then that it wasn’t cheating for writers to draw from their lives so directly. Also in “The Rough Crossing,” I was impressed how the storm at sea matched the storm in the characters’ marriage. That was a clever thing.
When I took the poetry writing class, I drew from my life, as did many of the other writers in the class, and it was fun. Symbols emerged in some of the poems, which could add extra meaning. I learned of other poetic devices, such as alliteration and onomatopoeia. This word stuff was amazing.
Another important event in my life was that I spent part of my junior year abroad in Denmark. I learned about language in a whole new way: if you don’t know a language, it’s difficult to communicate. In high school, I’d taken Spanish and Latin, but because Minnesota didn’t have many people speaking either language, I never felt any urgency to learn. In Denmark, I really wanted to understand what people were saying around me.
I took Danish, and I came to see that understanding another language also gives you clues to how a large group of people think. After all, language guides our thinking. Danes have some dozen words for “snow,” yet they have the same word for “fun” and “funny,” which to us are two different concepts. There, I also spent a lot of time reading English-language novels that I picked up in a local library because I had a lot of time to myself. I’d never been much of a reader until that point. Books were incredible. How had I missed that before?
I’d discovered Kurt Vonnegut’s books in Denmark, and while the story lines were wild and of science fiction, much truth rang out to me. In Cat’s Cradle, for instance, Vonnegut created words for things that had no previous words. A “karass” is group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, such as those in a Corvette-owners club. A “duprass” is a karass of two: two people who are so deeply connected, they are their own universe. They often die within a week of each other.
I read voraciously abroad. I remember looking for the thickest book in English at the Danish library. It was Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. I read it on buses, trains, everywhere. Wow.
After college and a few years of jobs selling things such as men’s clothes, cameras, and ceramic tile, I went on to earn an MFA in creative writing. In 1994, I started teaching creative writing at CalArts after I’d been publishing a lot of articles and reviews and writing short stories and plays.
One thing most creative writing classes don’t have time for is reading published stories and books. Nonetheless, I would slip in a few. Why reinvent the wheel when writers before us have done some amazing things? Reading great stories gives you permission to experiment.
In my third year of teaching, the chair of the English department at Santa Monica College called me out of the blue, having heard I was an inspirational instructor, and she asked had I considered teaching English? I hadn’t, but I took up her offer. My challenge was, “How do I stir my future students in English a way that most of my English professors had not?”
The main thing that had turned me off was in reading older books about older characters that I had no connection to. I thought I’d use contemporary nonfiction narratives and novels, trying new things every semester, one by a female author, one by a male, to keep me on my toes. It has worked. I assign the reading and a few questions to go with it, and my students and I sit in a giant circle and discuss it, like a book club. Everyone talks.
I also instruct them how to read more actively. Reading with a pen in hand helps. They should underline or highlight things that speak to them. If they have a question about something, write it in the margin. The first time a major character is introduced, put a bracket around it. For example, J.K. Rowling in the first Harry Potter book introduces Hagrid with “hands the size of trashcan lids” and feet “like baby dolphins.” When you write in your book, you interact with it. You make it your own. If it’s your book, you can write in it.
I delight when students—and it happens often—say something like, “I’ve never been a reader, and I didn’t think I’d like reading this, but I couldn’t put it down.” One student told me, “It’s weird. It’s like a movie in my mind. I’m looking at ink on a page, and suddenly I’m in these people’s lives. I love it.”
I’ve used such books as Patti Smith’s Just Kids, about her years after high school in New York, and she and Robert Mapplethorpe struggled to find what to do with their lives. Novels such as In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake worked well. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five had only a lukewarm response, but his Cat’s Cradle found converts.
I’ve ended up creating a list on Amazon’s Listmania of the most successful books I’ve used, which you can see by clicking here. These are books that engaged nonreaders, and you may enjoy them too.
Many of my students are surprised they like reading and want to know how to find more books. With perhaps two million books published each year, there absolutely are new things you will love. You just have to find them. Services such as BookBub, BookGorilla, and BookSends help you discover new books at bargain prices. They send you a handful of links to highly rated books each day whose eBooks are on sale. Choose the category of books you like, and in this daily email, you are likely to find things that grab you.
I know I’ve ignited a number of students into reading. Reading helps a person think, feel, and see the world in fresh ways. It may inspire you to write, and writing draws you into thinking and understanding more deeply.
May you find the frenzy of reading. Reading is life.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.