Review: Writing with the Master

This is the true story of a retired businessman who’s been writing novels and having them rejected by publishers/agents.  The businessman’s friend John Grisham (the best-selling author) offers to coach him in the writing of a new novel. The book sets out, in detail, all of the coaching provided over two years.

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Tony Vanderwarker                               John Grisham

Tony Vanderwarker is a retired advertising executive who had his own, very successful, ad agency, sold it and moved from Chicago to Charlottesville, Virginia with his family.  John Grisham, also a Charlottesville resident, is a friend of Tony’s, and one day, over lunch, John offers to ‘mentor’ Tony in writing a new novel.  Grisham had previously referred one of Tony’s works to an agent whose review was positive, but not quite good enough to be published.

The process started with John asking Tony what he wanted to write about.  Tony’s first two ideas were rejected out of hand.  His third idea was a thriller about nuclear weapons lost by the US Air Force in air crashes where the weapon was not recovered.  There are nearly a dozen such weapons, dating back to the 1950’s.  Tony prepared a three sentence description of the plot and then a full, multi-page outline.  At each stage we see portions of what Tony has written and John’s written critiques.  The critiques are blunt and to the point.  After three and a half months of trial and error, Tony revises his plot outline, and is ready to start chapter outlines.  During this process, we see a reflection of the way John Grisham writes his novels.  First, a one paragraph outline: is it interesting enough, strong enough?  Then the three page outline, complete with characters: do the subplots support the main plot or are they extraneous?  Are the events credible?  Are the characters interesting and likeable?  Then comes the first draft of the manuscript.  In Tony’s case, John tears into the manuscript and points out a number of problems:

  • the writing is sloppy: there are repeated words and phrases and factual inconsistencies.
  • there are too many distractions to the basic plot
  • the actions of a key character don’t make sense
  • too many bad guys
  • minor character isn’t fully credible
  • inserting the author’s political views into the story
  • make the dialogue real: repeat it out loud.
  • Show! Don’t Tell!

Tony is absolutely gutted by this critique!  He turns his attention to the notes John has written on individual pages of the manuscript.  Here, again, we see the text and the comment.  Tony divides the manuscript into seven piles and begins the task of rewriting, which takes a year.  Once again Grisham responds with a cover letter describing his principal concerns and returns the manuscript with page-by-page comments, including:

  • too many detours; too much backfilling
  • don’t be afraid to cut
  • not allowing the suspense to build

Tony makes the suggested changes and submits the manuscript to John’s agent, who likes it and refers it to another agent because it doesn’t fit for him.  The agent to whom it is referred is very complimentary but declines. Tony goes back to the default mode of mass submissions, without success.

When Tony has essentially given up on getting his novel published, he gets a great idea.  Why not write a book about the process that he and John Grisham have been through.  Grisham agrees, and the book is published by Skyhorse Publishing, who also agree to publish the mentored novel: Sleeping Dogs.

For anyone who is interested in the process of writing fiction, this book is a must read.  And for those with only a passing interest in the creative effort, there is enough of the rest of Tony’s life fitted neatly in to make to book a good read: his life as an advertising executive, his work for an environmental charity, his relationship with his wife and the Charlottesville area.

Personally, I’m not surprised that Sleeping Dogs didn’t get published on the first attempt.  From my point of view, there’s too much that stretches credibility.  But, I’m not surprised that Skyhorse decided to take it up.  Writing with the Master is a great promotion for Sleeping Dogs.

As for John Grisham’s advice, I think that ninety percent is spot on.  Two quibbles: I believe in outlining, but not to the extent that John does.  I think that detailed outlines can stifle creativity, and I notice that Tony has reached a similar conclusion.  There’s not much in John’s advice about the use of creative language, which I think is important to differentiate the writer and his/her text from the mundane.

Tony writes well, and I’m glad that he decided to follow-up on his brainstorm: why not write a book about the mentoring process?

Social Media Backlash

There was an article entitled “Authors Stifled by Fear of Social Media Backlash, Franzen Warns” which appeared in the 22 August edition of The Daily Telegraph.  Jonathan Franzen is an award-winning novel and author of Freedom and The Corrections.

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Jonathan Franzen

Franzen claims it is becoming more difficult for writers to produce great novels in the era of social media because they are too frightened of a public backlash to be truthful.  He says that the “firewalls” protecting authors from their readers have now disappeared, and there is now too much pressure to use social media to promote new works.

The article says that he has famously refused to go on Twitter, having labelled it “unspeakably irritating”.  Now he has spoken of his concern it its impact on novelists, telling The Guardian: “The ways in which self-censorship operates – the fear of being called a bad name – people become very careful.  And it becomes very hard to be creative, actually.  Because you’re worried  about what you might be called, and whether its true or not.  There used to be rather serious firewalls between the artist and the buying public – the gallery, the publisher.  And technology demolishes that wall and basically says: self-promote or die.  And that is a bad head for any sort of artist to be forced into.”

Yesterday he was derided on Twitter after revealing he had once considered adopting an Iraqi orphan, adding: “One of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation.  They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people.”

I’m afraid I don’t agree with much of what Franzen says.  I congratulate him for wanting to adopt and Iraqi orphan; let’s hope it wasn’t critics who dissuaded him!  I grew up in an era where we used to say to bullies, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!”

I believe that if an author takes a well-reasoned position on a subject which may be controversial, and he is derided by trolls, there will be plenty of people who agree with the author but don’t bother to say so.  This is what good authors have done for centuries, and this is no time, in an age of social media and terrorism, for authors to lose their courage to speak freely!

Franzen might well say to me, “Well, but you have never been attacked by trolls.”  True.  But I’m certainly not going to change my position if they do.  Besides, I live in a country where personal threats are illegal.  There are some things which my characters have said in my novels which may very well offend some sensitive people.  They’ll just have to get over it.

As to social media, I have this blog and several Facebook accounts.  I’m on Goodreads and Amazon.  I’m not on Twitter – mainly for the reason that I don’t have time to prepare daily tweets.  The world is changing: get on board!

Franzen bemoans the loss of “firewalls”.  I don’t think that firewalls are helpful to the author in the long run.  Any artist should have access to the public’s reactions to his/her work – good or bad.  Dickens had very few “firewalls” between himself and the public.  Why should we?

The Art of Emotional Composition

Nancy Quatrano has an article in the August 2015 issue of The Florida Writer which caught my eye: “Show vs. Tell: The Art of Emotional Composition”.  I thought that many of the points she made in the article were good.  I just objected to the didactic tone of the article, so I’ll summarise and comment on the points she made.

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Nancy Quatrano

Ms Quatrano makes the point that there are three way for an author to transfer information to the reader: exposition, dialogue and narrative.  Exposition is an invasion by the author into the story; it is characterised by the use of the word ‘had’.  An example would be; “Ann had told John that she was getting a divorce.” Expositions are shortcuts, or flashbacks, and involve the use of the passive voice.  Ms Quatrano recommends the use of exposition “lightly and carefully sprinkled in, like expensive seasoning.”  I think that exposition should be avoided altogether on the basis that it deprives the reader of experiencing what is going on in real time.

She recommends checking for the use of -ly words (adverbs), and suggests that this is a hint that the wrong verb has been used.  I agree that the right verb, used alone, makes better reading than a weak verb and supporting adverb in the sense that it better expresses the author’s intent.  In my experience, though, it isn’t always possible to convey how the action feels, without an adverb – even with the help of a thesaurus.

Use of the explaining words and phrases: “because” or “in order to” should be avoided, Ms Quatrano suggests, because it is just another form of telling, rather than showing the reader.  It is OK to use them in dialogue.  Agreed.

She says: “Stay away from relative terms like big, small, fast, slow, pretty, ugly.  Show the reader what they need  to see through dialogue and scenes.  Concentrate on showing actions and reactions, not on explaining what’s going on.”  I would say: stay away from relative adjectives for a different reason: they are vague.  Readers find vagueness boring.  In my experience,  sometimes the use of an unconventional noun or adjective conveys exactly the picture I’m trying to paint.  How about: instead of saying ‘little girl’, we write ‘knee-high Goldilocks’?

She says: Avoid the emotion killers: am, is, are, was, were, be, been and being.  These slow down the emotional intensity.  This is true, but she doesn’t say why.  These are all forms of the verb ‘to be’, which is an intransitive verb, that is: a verb which does not need a direct object to complete its meaning.  Intransitive verbs do not convey action.  Readers like action, and emotion arises from action, not from ‘being’.

Coming back to Ms Quatrano’s other two choices: dialogue and narrative, I tend to use narrative sparingly and mostly to set the scene or to transition from one scene to the next.  I use dialogue to define characters, to tell the story and to suggest key messages to the reader.

The Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary

There is an article by Maria Popova on her BrainPickings.org site about the creative benefits to writers of keeping a diary.  Since I have not kept a diary except briefly in my early teens, and that has long since disappeared, I was curious about the benefits.  Maria Popova is  a Bulgarian writer, blogger, and critic living in Brooklyn, New York.  Her Brain Pickings blog features her writing on culture, books, and eclectic subjects.

Maria Popova founder of Brain Pickings

Maria Popova

Ms Popova says: Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude — how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives.  She goes on to quote famous writers who have kept journals to discover their perceived benefits.

Anais Nim, from a lecture at Dartmouth college: Of these the most important (benefits) is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervour, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work.

Virginia Wolff says:  Still if (my diary) were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dust heap.

André Gide’s view: A diary is useful during conscious, intentional, and painful spiritual evolutions. Then you want to know where you stand… An intimate diary is interesting especially when it records the awakening of ideas; or the awakening of the senses at puberty; or else when you feel yourself to be dying.

Susan Sontag says: Of course, a writer’s journal must not be judged by the standards of a diary. The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being.

Eugéne Delacroix muses: Even one task fulfilled at regular intervals in a man’s life can bring order into his life as a whole; everything else hinges upon it. By keeping a record of my experiences I live my life twice over. The past returns to me. The future is always with me.

Virginia Wolff again: How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

And, in conclusion, Ms Popova writes: This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of the diary — its capacity to stand as a living monument to our own fluidity, a reminder that our present selves are chronically unreliable predictors of our future values and that we change unrecognizably over the course of our lives.

I must say that I’m un-persuaded.  I don’t feel the need for a ‘living monument’ to my fluidity of self.  I seem to have enough difficulty managing the fluidity of my feelings, my values, my priorities, my relationships, my identity from moment to moment and from day to day!  But it does seem to me that the idea of capturing a ‘diamond in the dust’ is a good one; perhaps I should establish just such a file!  One activity that I find myself engaged in more and more as I grow older and I observe what are actually ordinary things and events is to ask Why? The answers are quite astonishing sometimes, ranging from the whimsical to the unlikely to the enlightening.  Also, I’m beginning to make a habit, when I observe an unusual facial expression or event, of asking, How would you describe that?  It’s an exercise in creativity, of avoiding ordinary language.

 

Review: Go Set a Watchman

I was one of the 100,000+ readers who bought a copy of Go Set a Watchman on its first day of issue. For me To Kill a Mockingbird is a great work of literary, social and political significance. So, I was anxious to read Harper Lee’s second (or first) novel which apparently served as the draft which became To Kill a Mockingbird. The pre-publication reviews of Watchman, which were largely uncomplimentary, didn’t deter me.

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Harper Lee

So, Lee submitted a draft of Watchman to publisher J B Lippencott, where an editor suggested that she re-write the book in the first person, from the perspective of Scout, a young girl. The re-writing took two years, during which Lee became so frustrated she threw the manuscript out the window of her New York apartment into the snow. Her literary agent persuaded her to retrieve it and carry on. Reportedly, during the re-writing, Lee’s editor was closely involved with her.

Two of the principal characters, Scout and her father Atticus, appear in both novels. But, in Watchman, Scout has become Jean Louise, a twenty-something, new York-based, adult, and Atticus is now in his seventies, still living in the rural Alabama town. Three new major characters are introduced in Watchman: Henry Clinton, a life-long friend and marriage prospect; Aunt Alexandra, her father’s sister, an arch, small-town, Southern traditionalist; and Dr John, her father’s brother, and eccentric but wise philosopher. Jem, Scout’s older brother, is strangely dead.

In Mockingbird, the plot focused on the trial of a black man who is wrongly accused of raping a white woman; he is defended by Atticus, the small town lawyer. This tightly-focused plot yields themes of justice, racial and sexual equality, love and duty.

In Watchman, the story follows Jean Louise’s relationships with Henry, her aunt, her uncle and her father. Race is again an issue, but less dramatic and compelling: the grandson of Jean Louise’s childhood black, nanny/mentor has killed an old white man in a car accident which was the grandson’s fault. This time, Atticus is revealed as a racist who wants to limit the freedom and political power which black people have acquired over the preceding twenty years. The message I get from the book is that how one acts on vital issues, such as race relations, is determined by our conscience (the Watchman), and our conscience is influenced by our context, which must also be respected. At the very least, Watchman seems to be a watering down of the clear, landmark message of Mockingbird. Disappointing!

The characters, the setting, and the context of Watchman are all well defined, credible and real. These descriptions rely on interesting, unique writing. Some of the dialogue comes across as contrived, rather than natural. Frequently, there are references to obscure literary figures: these references tend to confuse rather than illuminate. Apart from my concerns about the message of the novel, the plot seems to have been created ad lib. Too much text is devoted to setting the context, and exploring dead ends (Jean Louise’s relationship with Henry), and not enough effort is exerted on defining the role and implications of the Watchman.

One can’t help but wonder if the editor behind Mockingbird were still alive and involved with Watchman, what would the recent novel be?