Rebecca Mclanahan wrote an enlightening essay on writing of which this is the fifth of six instalments.
I think this is probably the best of the six instalments, and it resonates a lot with me.
Misconception # 5: Writers publish their work and get famous or rich or both. When people ask me what I do for a living, I try to change the subject. If they persist, I tell them that I teach writing, judge writing contests, edit manuscripts, and give lectures and readings. These are not lies; I do all these things. They are, in fact, what I do for a living—that is, to pay the rent and health insurance. What I do for a life is write, and that’s the part that’s hard to explain. I feel the way Louis Armstrong must have felt when he was asked to define jazz. “If you have to ask,” he answered, “nothing I say’s gonna help.” One of the problems with admitting that you’re a writer is that people invariably want to know what you write. Or maybe they don’t want to know, but at least they ask. It doesn’t work to answer “words.” Sometimes, if we’re lucky and if we keep putting words on the page, poems or stories or novels or essays eventually emerge, but we don’t really write them. What we write is one word, then the next, and the next. Seen this way, writing is a very democratic pursuit. It’s like the old line about how the president puts on his pants: one leg at a time, just like you, just like me. Seen this way, a Nobel laureate writes the same way a first grader does: one word at a time. But as I said earlier, this answer doesn’t go over well at cocktail parties. So you mumble something like “poems,” hoping to put an end to it. “Oh really,” they say. “What kind?”
Now you’ve done it. What are you supposed to answer? Long poems? Short? Serious? Free verse? Poems about wilted lettuce, dying dogs, rivers? “Very bad poems,” I might answer right now, thinking of the draft I’m currently struggling with. The conversation can go anywhere from here, but usually it moves in one of these directions: “My wife (or daughter or son or second cousin) writes poems too. It’s a great hobby, don’t you think?” “Doesn’t anyone believe in rhyme anymore?” “I have this great idea for a poem. All I have to do is write it.” Or my personal favourite, “Would I know your work?” Another Louis Armstrong question: If they have to ask, nothing you say’s gonna help. At this point in the conversation, it’s probably best just to shake your head No and try once again to change the subject. At this point, it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve published five well-reviewed books, one recipe in your church newsletter, or nothing at all. Though the questioner probably means well and is only trying to make polite gestures, it’s hard after one of these conversations not to feel devalued. A man at a dinner party once suggested that, since no one really reads the kind of things I write, maybe I should write a novel instead. I didn’t tell him that I had done just that—that in fact I’d written three and that I’d had a great time writing them and one of them was pretty good if I do say so myself, though the other two, well… I didn’t tell him, because what he seemed to be saying wasn’t that I should write a novel, but that I should publish the kind of novel that lots of people would read, a book that would make oodles of money and/or make me famous. The man was a nice guy, probably a good husband and father, maybe even someone with a passion for painting or gardening or woodworking or sculpting, who pursued his passion privately, intensely, the way I pursue writing.
Even so, I felt it best not to tell him about the novels. When we stand outside a process, when we’re on the outside looking in, it’s impossible to imagine what goes on inside. The man was on the outside looking in, and, corny as this might sound, my memory of writing the unpublished novels was just too precious to share with him. Only I knew what those years had meant to me. What if he brushed those years aside as if they were so much lint? I wanted to keep the memory of each writing day inside me, the way I keep each unpublished essay and poem, even the most flawed, warm and safe within its folder or box. To those standing outside the process, only writing that gets published and makes the writer famous and/or rich, matters. To writers living within the process, every word matters, even if no eyes but our own ever read those words.
The Los Angeles Times had an article by Chad W. Post on December 4th which puts this mega merger of two big publishing houses in perspective.
The Publishing Perspectives website runs this bio of Mr Post: “Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. In addition, he is the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog and review site that promotes literature in translation and is home to both the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Awards. His articles and book reviews have appeared in a range of publications including The Believer, Publishing Perspectives, the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and Quarterly Conversation.”
Excerpts from his article are as follows:
“Consolidation in the book industry is never popular, but at a time when diversity — of employees authors, books, and opinions — is being scrutinised in every corner, it feels especially ill-timed. There is also the prospect of an incoming administration less friendly to monopolies. A bald attempt to dominate a precarious business, the imminent merger might capture the attention of the antitrust division of the Department of Justice. It should.
“It should also worry the fragile ecosystem of small independent publishers — like me — who are vying for the same shelf space in bookstores but have none of the resources of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. And ultimately, it should worry any reader hoping to discover voices or opinions they haven’t heard before.
“Bertelsmann knows this all too well; that’s why it guaranteed the seller, ViacomCBS, a termination fee in case of government intervention. PRH Chief Executive Markus Dohle’s statements have downplayed the power that will now be concentrated in a single entity — arguments that even in a post-fact world should raise everyone’s suspicions about his motivations.
“Dohle told Publishers Weekly that PRH’s market share is about 14.2% and Simon’s 4.2% of the market if you include self-publishing. This gives every title equal weight, regardless of sales. Here is context Dohle would have us omit: In 2019, PRH had 215 books on PW’s hardcover bestseller list and 93 on its paperback list. That accounts for 39.7% and 27.8% of the bestsellers respectively. Add in S&S titles, and you’ve got just under half of 2019’s bestselling hardcovers and more than a third of paperbacks. That’s a more realistic indicator of true ‘market share.’
“Going toward motive, Bertelsmann points to the dominance of Amazon (a company that could probably buy all of PRHS&S and launch it to the moon without touching cash reserves) as the impetus behind supersizing. A bigger company can negotiate better terms with the megalith, hold the line against its profit-busting discounts. This logic, wedded to the capitalist myth of the survival of the fittest at all costs, conveniently ignores the fragility of publishing. PRHS&S won’t slow Amazon’s roll for a heartbeat, but it will help more PRHS&S titles become bestsellers. So we know who benefits. Who loses?
“Authors, for one. The Authors Guild strongly condemned the deal in a statement, claiming ‘there would be fewer competing bidders for their manuscripts, which would inevitably drive down advances offered…. The history of publishing consolidation has also taught us that authors are further hurt by such mergers due to editorial layoffs, canceling of contracts, a reduction in diversity among authors and ideas, a more conservative approach to risk-taking, and fewer imprints under which an author may publish.’
“These concerns dovetail with another major trend in the book industry, an increasingly heavy reliance on two cash cows: bestsellers and backlist titles. This two-pronged approach favors giant companies that can acquire prestige imprints — thus securing the catalogs of Hemingway et al. — and pay enormous advances for ex-presidents and the like. As the critic Ron Charles stated in a fiery article, “In the future that Bertelsmann celebrates, we can all read anything we want so long as it’s a bestseller by John Grisham.”
“This is the possibility that sends shivers down the spines of most of us involved in this semiquixotic business. Diversity of opinion, experience, literary style and audience is at the heart of the book world, especially independent booksellers and librarians.
“And that’s what concerns me most, personally. I’m the founder of Open Letter Books, a small publisher of translated work. I’m also an editorial consultant at Dalkey Archive Press, which for nearly 40 years has supported innovative authors — many of them jettisoned by big publishers because of middling sales. Dalkey merged with Deep Vellum, a nonprofit press based in Dallas with a commitment to publishing literature from around the world. That should be the merger everyone’s talking about, a joining of forces to better take on the task of publishing new and (commercially) challenging work.
“Contrary to the traditional understanding of antitrust law, this lack of competition doesn’t inflate consumer prices; it decreases labour costs. In other words, it disadvantages writers. Nowadays, the Big Four might not even make an offer for those big literary debuts. These are not guaranteed hits, after all, and it’s much harder to drum up buzz by having a bunch of editors bidding against one another at auction. Which they often aren’t, because they all work for the same four houses. (Penguin Random House imprints are allowed to bid against one another but only to a point.)
“That’s where publishers like me figure into it. We may not be big shots — unless we’re being lumped into statistics to help Dohle make a point. But we have our function as small gears underpinning Consolidated Publishing. Here’s the modern career trajectory for a literary author in any language: get a few pieces into literary magazines, make a deal with a small independent press, sell a more than respectable number of copies, get snatched up by one of the Big Six-sorry-Five-sorry-Four.
“For the conglomerates, the most financially prudent way to acquire authors who aren’t sure things is to treat independent publishers as farm clubs that identify and develop talent ripe for exploitation. Let the presses with the thinnest profit margins take the risks, seek out the undiscovered — the books readers didn’t know they wanted, the authors who change the way we talk about writing — and then, once they’ve proved these books can take off, just poach the authors. Simple. A winning formula.
“Although everyone in books knows this dance inside and out, here are just a handful of examples of authors whom a small press took a chance on, only to lose them later to a big press: Roberto Bolaño, Nell Zink, Valeria Luiselli, Laird Hunt and Alejandro Zambra. And if big publishers can’t buy them, they just clone them. After Elena Ferrante, make Italian authors a thing, like you did with Nordic crime after ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’
“There are two potential conclusions to draw from his data set: 1) the most powerful companies know which books to bet on or 2) the most monied companies determine what is read. Call me cynical, but I’m inclined toward the second.
“Here’s my darkest vision of this merger: The first post-COVID-19 gathering of the Winter Institute, the only formal convention bringing together publishers and booksellers (now that BookExpo might be permanently retired), will be dominated by PRHS&S. They will have special dinners, busing booksellers to fancy venues every night to explain why it has the most important (meaning sellable) books over shrimp scampi. Meanwhile, the true laborers of the book industry — those who hustle and work the angles, who take the greatest risks and reap the paltriest rewards — will barely get any bookseller facetime at all.
“Amazon may indeed be a threat to all publishers (and many other industries too). But its greatest threat is not to Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins. It’s to the indie publishers who can’t afford Jeff Bezos’ terms. These two giants, PRHS&S and Amazon — helped along by COVID-19 — could put any number of presses out of business, further reducing the diversity of voices available to readers like you. And that’s exactly what we should stand against in 2021.”
Returning to Rebecca McClanahan’s essay, here is No. 4: Writers have something important to say.
“There’s that phrase again: Writers have. In our earlier discussion, what writers have is time; now, what they have is something important to say. This notion is a doubled-edged sword. The first edge—that writers have something—suggests that writers already possess something whole and complete in itself, before any word is written. Since this something (call it an idea, concept, character, emotion, story, vision) is already fully formed, the writer’s job becomes simply putting this something into words. Put into words. This phrase says much about how the writing process is often perceived. Put into words suggests that language is merely the container, the holding bin, into which something is placed. If I just had a great story to tell, so this theory goes, I could tell it. If I could just work out the kinks in this idea, the hard part would be done; then all I’d have to do is write it. When we buy into this notion, we rob ourselves of the permission to begin without knowing exactly where we’re going, we rob the something of its chance to grow and change, and we rob language of its chance to help shape and reshape the something. When we buy into this notion, words become powerless. They hold no sway. They are merely the box into which we place our already perfectly complete thought, story or vision.
Is it any wonder we despair? Some of us, having decided in advance that our words will never be able to carry the weight of what we want to say, never write the first word. And even those who do manage to break through the wall of initial doubt often get no farther than a first draft. We have failed to capture our grandfather, the yellow kitchen, the black dog. We haven’t written the poem that seemed so clear in our mind or the story that appeared in our dream. If only I could find the right words, we think, as if the dictionary were at fault. Or we blame ourselves: We are just not up to the task. Someone else would be able to put into words this vision I have. We may begin to question whether what we have to say is worth the paper it’s written on. Which leads us to the other edge of this double-sided sword: Writers have something important to say. What do we mean by important? Well, it depends on whom you ask: Tolstoy, in What is Art?, suggests that in addition to its other qualities, art is a new idea which is important to mankind. Yikes, I think. That’s one big shoe to fill. Maybe I shouldn’t even try. Commercial publishers would have us believe we have something important to say if someone is willing to buy it. And some writers believe what they have to say is important simply because something of import—by which they mean unusual, strange, horrible, or noteworthy—happens to them. But if this is the case, why do we abandon, often after only a few pages, a book written by someone who sailed around the world or broke an Olympic record or murdered her husband or had affairs with three presidents, yet keep going back to that same little story on our shelf, the one about an old woman who does nothing more than take a walk to town?
‘Wait a minute,’ you might be saying. ‘I’ve read ‘A Worn Path,’ and you’re not playing fair. Eudora Welty could write about a shoelace and make it seem important.’ Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe a great writer can nudge a seemingly trivial something to the ranks of greatness merely through the force of her words. Or maybe, just maybe, the process is a group effort, a three-headed committee composed of Eudora, a something, and the words. Maybe no one is totally in charge, maybe they all just sit around the table and listen to one another. Really listen. The something talks for a while, then language comes in and mixes things up, then Eudora comes in to smooth out the wrinkles, but while she’s talking, the something pipes up again, and this goes on all morning and into the afternoon, but by the time the three of them knock off for the day, a plan is in motion. And if they keep at it, by the next day (or week, or year), the business will be accomplished. Perhaps not in the manner any of the three might have imagined beforehand. Still, the work gets done. And it’s none too shabby, they agree, walking out the door together, turning off the light. None too shabby at all.”
Ms McClanahan has captured my feelings about ‘Something to Say’ very well indeed.
The New York Times had an interesting article on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp’s bid for Simon & Schuster on November 17 and this was followed by yesterday’s article in the LA Times that Simon & Schuster was actually bought by Penguin Random House. In any case, the number of ‘big five’ publishers has decreased from five to four. Each of these articles has some worthwhile insights.
First, the NY Times article written by Edmund Lee who covers the media industry for The New York Times. He has reported on major changes at news and entertainment companies, including 21st Century Fox, Comcast and The Walt Disney Company, as the industry grapples with challenges from Silicon Valley.
Mr Lee’s article says, in part:
“Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is making a play for Simon & Schuster, the venerable home to best-selling authors like Stephen King and Hillary Clinton that raised a ruckus this year after releasing a string of hit titles critical of President Trump.
The powerhouse publisher was put up for sale by its owner, ViacomCBS, in March, and the company has since fielded more than half a dozen inquiries, according to three people familiar with the process who declined to be named because the matter remains confidential.
“In addition to News Corp, which already owns HarperCollins, a leading bidder is Penguin Random House, according to the people. Penguin Random House, the largest book publisher in the United States, is owned by the German media giant Bertelsmann. The French firm Vivendi, a minority owner of Hachette through the publisher Lagardère, has also made a bid.
“At least one of the offers has topped $1.7 billion, far above the minimum ViacomCBS had set, according to two of the people. Several financial firms, after lobbing offers below that range, are no longer in the running. Final bids are due before Thanksgiving, and ViacomCBS could announce a winner some time after that. A deal may not materialize.
“Publishing has become a winner-takes-all business, a circumstance brought on by Amazon’s aggressive pricing, and now a publisher needs size to survive. Tent-pole titles can better offset losses from weaker books. A bigger inventory can generate more data on the habits and interests of book buyers.
“Those dynamics underpin the wave of consolidation that has swept the business in the last decade. Penguin and Random House merged, Hachette Book Group acquired Perseus Books, and News Corp bought the romance publisher Harlequin.
“Founded as a publisher of crossword puzzle books in 1924 by Richard L. Simon and M. Lincoln Schuster, Simon & Schuster expanded into a major house with 50 imprints, including Charles Scribner’s Sons, the publisher of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. The company now has 1,350 employees and publishes roughly 2,000 books a year.
“The company has proved durable, even during the recent downturn. Simon & Schuster’s revenue rose 8 percent to $649 million this year through September. Profit before tax during the same period rose 6 percent, to $115 million.
“Any merger agreement would also have to undergo regulatory scrutiny. A combination with either Penguin Random House or HarperCollins, the two largest book publishers in the country, could raise questions in Washington. Penguin Random House’s sales exceeded $4 billion last year. Annual sales at HarperCollins, which reports its fiscal year at the end of June, were about $1.7 billion.
The Los Angeles Times article is written by Christi Carras and Ryan Faughnder.
Christi Carras is an entertainment reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Ryan Faughnder is a film business reporter for the Los Angeles Times’ Company Town, covering the major Hollywood studios, including Walt Disney Co.
It says, in part:
“On Wednesday, ViacomCBS announced plans to sell Simon & Schuster to Bertelsmann’s Penguin Random House for a whopping $2.18 billion. The merger, set to be finalized in 2021, will see S&S continue to operate independently as part of the Penguin Random House publishing empire.
“It’s the latest step in the long-term consolidation of the publishing industry, in which book houses are looking to gain bargaining power when dealing with online retailers such as Amazon.com. Hachette Book Group in 2016 bought Perseus Books, following the 2013 merger of Penguin and Random House and News Corp.’s 2014 deal for HarperCollins to buy romance novel publisher Harlequin. Critics of such deals worry that bigger behemoths in publishing wield increasing power over authors.
“C. Kerry Fields, a professor of business law and ethics at USC’s Marshall School of Business said he doubts the Department of Justice will quash the Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster deal. Antitrust authorities, he said, focus their attention on potential harm to consumers, rather than authors. In a dispute between the publishers and Amazon, the Justice Department sided with the latter, charging the largest publishers with collusion to control prices. The suit was settled in 2012-13, and the merger of Penguin and Random House soon followed. Supporters of the latest acquisition will probably be able to argue that consolidation levels the playing field.
“In a Wednesday letter to his staff, Penguin Random House Chief Executive Markus Dohle hailed Simon & Schuster’s ‘distinguished legacy of publishing notable authors, perennial bestsellers and culture-shaping blockbusters’ as a ‘natural complement to our publishing programs and catalogs around the world. As we have demonstrated, we can successfully unite company cultures and prestigious publishing teams while preserving each imprint’s identity and independence. Simon & Schuster aligns completely with the creative and entrepreneurial culture that we nurture by providing editorial autonomy to our publishers, funding their pursuit of new stories, ideas, and voices, and maximizing reach for our authors.'”
There is an article in today’s Telegraph which tells the story of this year’s Booker Prize very well. It was written by Cal Revely-Calder.
Mr Revely-Calder’s website is cryptic. It says that he is ‘writing in books + art + culture’, that he is ‘commissioning editor, the telegraph; contributing editor, minor literature(s)’ ; ‘2017 frieze writer’s prize + 2014 guardian student critic of the year’ and ‘ bylines in artforum, frieze, theTLS, the spectator, apollo, the white review + others’.
In the Telegraph article he says, “This year’s Booker Prize was unusual: we approached it with suspicion. Last time, it was a shambles. All the judges must do is pick one outstanding novel. It was thus historic, and tedious, when they failed in 2019. Of their two “joint winners”, one was Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – a lifetime-achievement award in disguise – and the other was Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which was merely, if complexly, bad.
“Thirteen months on, you might have feared the worst. (Would they let everyone win, as with the much-maligned Turner Prize?) So what a relief that, this evening, the Booker regained its ruthlessness, and sense. Douglas Stuart deserves the £50,000: his debut novel, Shuggie Bain, was the standout book of the year.
“Only his second published work, it drew on Stuart’s own Eighties youth. A little boy in Glasgow’s filthy tenements, he’s beset by his mother, an alcoholic, and his burgeoning sexuality. It’s a searing story of Special Brew and vomit at dawn, and the steadfastness of a child’s love. Few novelists can write a woman like Agnes: wretched enough to break your heart, but with a drunk’s grim selfishness. Built on this harrowing portrait, Shuggie Bain has excoriating power.
“Of the six novels on the shortlist, four were debuts, and none of the novelists was a “household name”. Good: the purpose of the Booker is to broaden the public’s taste. This year’s group had a psychological bent, with narrators tussling with their own dreams, and their societies’ and families’ demands. There were the usual silly complaints: Stuart was the only Briton shortlisted, for example. So what? The list was the strongest for years: quality won out.
“The absent giant, if you believe the headlines, was Hilary Mantel: with The Mirror and the Light, her Cromwell trilogy might have won three Prizes from three. But that decision was right: the novel was prolix, and Mantel doesn’t need publicity. (Atwood said the same of herself last year; Evaristo, she argued, might have won for that reason alone.)
“I had a few doubts about the longlist, admittedly. It left out Actress by Anne Enright, a haunted, heartbroken work – if not quite as rich as The Gathering, for which she won the Prize in 2007. Strange, too, was the lack of Ali Smith’s Summer, the end of her ‘seasonal’ quartet; one of Britain’s most playful novelists has been overlooked again.
“But these are trivial gripes. With the exception, perhaps, of Diane Cook – The New Wilderness is a poorly-plotted dystopian tale – I’d recommend any of the final six. Stuart’s victory is a just reward, but all of them will benefit; book sales were flying already, with a public confined by police to the couch. There’ll be no champagne flowing in Bloomsbury, but festivities or no, this marks the Booker’s return to form. Shuggie Bain is an extraordinary novel, which will scramble your heart and expand your mind. Buy it, read it, and weep.”
Continuing with Rebecca Maclanahan’s essay of writing, as follows:
“Writers know in advance exactly where they’re going, and they get there.
“Some writers claim to carry whole books in their heads the way Mozart carried whole sonatas, releasing the finished composition in one swift, turbulent flourish. Some say they know, even before the first word is written, exactly how the story will open, the plot thicken, the theme develop, and all the loose ends tie together on the last page. “As for me, and for dozens of writers I know personally and hundreds whose journals, letters, interviews and memoirs I’ve studied, writing appears to be an ongoing act of discovery, or, as John Updike says, “a constant search for what one is saying.” Some writers begin in the dark, with only a word, a phrase, a cloudy image or emotion to guide them; they feel their way to the light. Some, like Katherine Anne Porter, who said she always knew where she was going and how her stories would end, write the ending first and then, in Porter’s words, “go back and work towards it,” thus making a kind of backwards discovery. Still others map out a plan but quickly discard it when the road unexpectedly veers off in a more intriguing direction. “The idea that writers always know in advance exactly where they’re going is linked to the first idea we discussed—that writing gets done without writing. “Since most writers publish only their final, edited version of a piece of writing, if indeed they publish it at all, readers are rarely able to glimpse a writer’s path towards a completed draft. We can’t see the crumpled pages, the cross-outs and deletions, the discarded chapters that were fed to the fire or used for lining the parakeet’s cage. Because we see only the finished product of a writer’s labour, it’s easy to assume that everything happened according to plan. Thus, the myth is perpetuated: Writers know exactly where they’re going, and they get there.”
I can’t imagine having a complete story in mind when I begin a novel. For me, a novel is an organic creation which develops as one creates it. Yes, I have an idea of the plot, the characters and the setting, but I reserve the right to make changes – additions and deletions – as I write. The point is that as the characters interact on the pages, new and more interesting events begin to emerge. And while I agree with the point made in a previous post that it is good practice to prepare an outline of the novel, and I usually write an outline of each chapter, I almost always deviate from the outline. In fact I have killed off a character for the sake of the emotional response of the other characters, and to strengthen the point of the novel. (Though I did cry every time I had to deal with his death.)
There was an article by Chris Mooney in Writer’s Digest on September 1, 2020, with the above title, that caught my eye.
The Harvard Extension School says this about Chris Mooney on its website: “Hailed by Lee Child as one of the best thriller writers working today, Chris Mooney is the critically acclaimed and international bestselling author of twelve novels, including The Snow Girls, the ninth book in the bestselling Darby McCormick series. In 2006, the Mystery Writers Association nominated Mooneys third novel, Remembering Sarah, for an Edgar Award for Best Novel. Remembering Sarah went on to become one of the top 100 bestselling books in the Netherlands. He has sold over two million copies.”
In the article, Mr Mooney says: “I was never a fan of academic creative writing courses. The ones I took in college and graduate school were, shall we say, less than desirable (more on that in a moment), and the classes were run by professors, some of whom were published writers, who loved to talk about what made great writing but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) explain what made a great story. Story, more often than not, was secondary.
“I’ve been teaching creative writing at Harvard’s Extension School and their Summer Writing Program, on and off, for the past two decades, to mainly graduate students, and I’m always struck by just how little many of these great, promising writers know about story. Whether you’re writing romance, young adult fiction, or the great American novel, it all begins with story. You have to know story structure, how it works and how to work it, before you write a single line.
“And this is how you do it.
“Rule #1: What Story Do You Want to Tell?
“You have to start here. And this is where many writers fail because they don’t take the time to ask themselves the question. Even when they do, they often come up with an idea that isn’t clear or specific.
“Let’s say you want to write a coming of age story about a boy. That’s a starting point, a germ of an idea, but it tells you absolutely nothing about the actual story. Saying you want to tell a story about a thirteen-year-old boy from Kansas who undergoes a spiritual awakening while in a six-month coma—that’s more specific.
“When I began drafting my crime thriller novel Blood World, I started with the idea that one of the things we struggle with in life is the effects of aging. It’s a premise, but it’s not a story.
“Once I sat down and experimented with ideas, I came up with a better preliminary idea for Blood World: There are people called carriers who have a certain gene that allows their blood to operate at maximum efficiency. They live longer, are healthier, and look young. When a “non-carrier” gets a full-body blood transfusion with carrier blood, along with a mix of certain medications, the results are amazing—fat melts away; skin looks young and supple; increased energy and muscle mass—oh, and as an added bonus, you’ll have the sex life of your dreams. The younger the carrier, the cleaner—and more powerful—the blood.
“Interesting, right? The idea is also specific and clear.
“Once you have a solid idea that excites you, then you move onto the next important question:
“Rule #2: You Must Have Conflict.
“No matter what story you write, no matter what scene you write, conflict is your best friend. This isn’t just the realm of thrillers. The same principle works in every story, whether it’s literary fiction or a summer rom-com or the latest Disney Pixar movie.
“Your job as the writer is to create lots of conflict, and you do that with your characters. Your characters have to want something—a goal or desire—and you, the writer, need to set up interesting obstacles. The characters have to struggle against these obstacles, and when they overcome them, not only does the experience change your characters in some way, they must take what they’ve learned and apply them to new obstacles, with greater stakes. This is what creates not only drama and suspense but also creates story.
“To put it simply, your protagonist wants something, and the antagonist will go out of his or her way to prevent your protagonist from getting it. Their actions and decisions create conflict, which creates story and also moves the story along. John Truby, in his excellent (and highly recommended) book The Anatomy of Story says it best: “Create an opponent … who is exceptionally good at attacking your hero’s greatest weakness.”
“There’s one caveat: The story must feel natural—meaning, the story comes about because your characters are making their own decisions. The writer is invisible. The reader must never feel you’re forcing your characters into decisions and choices in order to serve the plot. Story isn’t a machine.
“Rule #3: Always Start With Action.
“You always—always—want to open with the “big” event—the inciting incident—because this is what your overall story is about. Don’t work up to it; throw the reader right into it. Yes, it’s tough, because you need to weave in backstory and some other matters, but you have to do it. It takes time and practice.
“Let’s say that’s not your creative process—that you’re the type of writer who needs to write his or her way into the story first. Okay, fine. Do that. Then, when you’re done, your job is to identify this “big event” and figure out a way to start the story there. You have to get the reader into that scene as soon as possible. This rule applies not only to the opening scene but to every single scene you write.
“Rule #4: Always Increase the Stakes … and Don’t Let Up.
“Most beginning writers have an idea of a scene that starts with conflict. Where they often stumble is by not taking the time to ask themselves what the stakes are.
“I always approach story this way: You place a noose around your character’s neck. Each decision the character makes tightens the noose just a little bit. But as the story evolves, as your character makes tougher decisions, that noose is going to get tighter and tighter. It’s at its tightest right at the end—the climax of the story—where your character encounters his or her greatest obstacle, the one that is going to allow your character to finally “breathe” again. When this happens, however, your character is changed in some way by the experiences and the choices he or she made.
“And what if you don’t want your character or characters to change? That’s fine too because that says something about them and the overall story you’re trying to tell—but we still need to see and know why they don’t change.
“Rule #5: Prepare Yourself in Advance.
“I’m the type of writer who knows how a book is going to open, and how it’s going to end. I might have some vague ideas about what happens in the middle, which is why when I start writing, the beginning part flies … and then comes to a grinding halt. Why? Because I have no idea what happens next. Not only that, I’m usually paralyzed by indecision.
“When I first started out, I would write draft after draft of a book. That process doesn’t work out so well when you have to write a book a year—and, most important, it’s draining and demoralizing. What’s a writer to do?
“Now, if you’re of those writers who says, “I can’t do an outline, it will kill my creativity,” know that I, too, thought that way. But consider this: TV writers get into a room to first hammer out ideas. Then they work on the overall themes and character arcs, then individual episodes and then scenes. So I decided to try it.
“By sitting down and outlining your book, figuring out its structure ahead of time, wrestling with the big dramatic choices your characters are going to make, how you’re going to increase the stakes—trust me when I tell you that doing all these things upfront, before you write, will free you up creatively.
“How? Because you’re creating a roadmap of where you want to go. When you sit down to write, you already know where you’re going, which puts you into a more relaxed state. You’re focusing on the scene in front of you. You’re not worrying about what comes next, if it’s the right or wrong decision. The more relaxed you are, the more your imagination will work, offering you more ideas. Some of these ideas will be very exciting, and if you get one that you fall in love with one, guess what? All you need to do is take a look at your outline and see how to best incorporate it. You won’t have to throw out 100 or more pages labored over for weeks or months and start from scratch.
“The outline is a guide. That said, the more locked down the idea, the more pleasant—and creatively fulfilling—the writing experience. I’ve had students fight me on this, and while not all of them enjoyed it, they all said the same thing at the end: They’re glad they tried it. The process allowed them to engage in their story on a deeper level because all the “big-picture” stuff was already out of the way.
“Do yourself a favour and follow these guidelines. They’ll make you a better storyteller. You’ll create deeper, more fully formed characters that readers will fall in love with and a richer, more compelling book that readers won’t be able to put down. At the end of the day, isn’t that what you want?”
Somewhere on the Internet, I found the “6 Misconceptions About Writing” by Rebecca McClanahan, which is excerpted from Write Your Heart Out, which was published in 2001. Ms McClanahan is the author of ten books and is also an educator, and public speaker. She specializes in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.
I quote from her document below.
“Misconception #2: Writers have time to write. For many people on this planet, writing is not an option. Those who are locked in the jaws of war, illness, poverty, violence, illiteracy, starvation, natural or unnatural disasters don’t have the luxury of writing. Getting from one day to the next is all they can manage. On the other end of the scale are those for whom life affords every luxury. Blessed with health, talent, opportunities and material resources, their only responsibility is to the blank page or canvas. Some are born into wealth and privilege; their days are and will always be truly theirs, to use as they will. Others, through cosmic collisions of luck and fate, are granted uninterrupted time and space in which to work. If they chose to write their hearts out, nothing can stop them—or so it appears. (We’ll talk more about this assumption later.) The rest of us fall somewhere between these extremes. And though we cite plenty of reasons for not writing, lack of time seems to be the biggest factor. Listen in on any group of writers long enough, and chances are the subject of time will come up. “If I just had more time,” someone sighs aloud, and everyone around the table nods agreement: the poet/single mother of three, the essayist/ computer programmer, the novelist/college student, the mystery writer/nurse, the memoirist/carpenter. The challenge of making time to write is not new nor is it trivial. For centuries, writers have felt time’s weight pressing down upon them, and many have collapsed beneath it. Books, journals, diaries and interviews are filled with their struggles. In Tillie Olsen’s meticulously detailed Silences, which ironically marked the end of Olsen’s own twenty-year literary silence, she tells of famous and unknown writers alike whose work was interrupted, postponed, abandoned, or, in some cases, barely begun. As Olsen explains, time wasn’t the only pressure bearing down on these writers, but it was one of the heaviest. Heavy enough to silence Melville’s prose for thirty years while he wore himself out at the customs dock trying to make ends meet. Heavy enough to force Katherine Anne Porter to spend twenty constantly-interrupted years writing Ship of Fools rather than the two years she estimated it would have taken had she been able to write full time. Any piece of writing requires time, and a sustained, artistic, well-crafted creation requires not only actual writing time but time for imagining, thinking, feeling, dreaming, revising, reconsidering, and beginning again. The circumstances of our lives eat up that time; that’s why we call them “time-consuming.” Some time consuming circumstances are welcome: playing with our children, making dinner for friends, planting a flower garden, taking a trip to the mountains. Other circumstances, if not always welcome, are nevertheless necessary: going to work, filling out tax forms, changing the oil filter, making out the grocery list. But whether welcome or unwelcome, pleasant or unpleasant, necessary to our physical survival or to our emotional well-being, these circumstances use up time, time that is not being used for writing. When day-to-day circumstances absorb the time that could/should/might be used for writing, you may get a little edgy. You might even get angry or envious, imagining living the life of a Real Writer, someone who doesn’t have to work at another job, or two or three, to make ends meet, who doesn’t have to mow the lawn, call the plumber, take out the garbage, clean the chimney, make breakfast, grade papers, feed the kids and the cat. I’ve wasted whole afternoons doing that old two-step, The Sulk & Carry. (The steps are simple: You just sulk awhile, then carry it with you all day.) It’s just not fair, I tell myself. In addition to everything else they have, Real Writers have time to write. Or so it appears on the surface. In actuality, no person, however rich or free of outside constraints, has time to write. True, some people have more money, energy, opportunity, or freedom from day-to-day duties than the rest of us. But nature abhors a vacuum, and each life, however privileged, must fill with something. And fill it does. All the time in the world, by itself, will not make writing happen. Or, as we’ve said before, writing only happens by writing, and only the person who writes the book can write the book. Okay, so maybe it won’t be a whole book. Not this year, anyway. Maybe what you’ll manage is a poem a year, one long letter on each grandchild’s birthday, a handful of travel essays or short stories, a stack of editorials written to your local newspaper, song lyrics for your daughter’s wedding, one wild and crazy screenplay, or a locked diary filled with your secret fears and wishes. Whether you end up publishing a body of work that makes Joyce Carol Oates’ output look paltry, or whether you write one story that no one but yourself ever sees, is beside the point. The point is, you’re writing. As the Rolling Stones song says, “You can’t always get what you want…but if you try sometime, you just might find you’ll get what you need.” If you can make time to read this book, you can make time to write. If you can make time to watch the evening news or your favorite sit-com, you can make time to write. True, you may not be able to make the time you want, but you can make the time you need. You may even find that time limits actually feed the writing process. (We’ll discuss this in the next chapter.) Most of us already have everything we need to do the kind of writing we need to do. And if we don’t yet have what we need, there are ways to go about getting it. We can change the external circumstances of our life to allow more time for writing, we can wait for our circumstances to change, or we can learn to work within the restraints imposed upon us. But one thing is certain: If we spend time complaining that we have no time, we’ll have even less time to write.
I was somewhat startled to find this book in the English language section of the bookstore in Capo D’Orlando, Sicily. But maybe the owner had read it and thought it might find a buyer among the half-dozen English speaking tourists here who were born before the publication date (1957), and felt guilty about never having read this American classic. If so, he was right. I was at university at the time, had plenty to read and thought that this book was too hip for me. I confess that while I enjoyed reading it, it’s still too hip for me – or I’m too square.
The fly leaf inside the cover says that the author, Jack Kerouac, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922. “In 1947, enthused by bebop (music), the rebel attitude of his friend, Neal Cassady, and the throng of hobos, drug addicts and hustlers he found in New York, he decided to discover America and hitchhike across the country. His writing was openly autobiographical and he developed a style he referred to as ‘spontaneous prose’, which he used to record the experiences of the beat generation. Kerouac wrote a number of hugely influential and popular novels – most famously the international bestseller On the Road. As muchas anything, he came to represent a philosophy, a way of life.”
On the face of it this is a semi-autobiographical novel about an educated writer’s travels across the USA and Mexico with one particular male friend whom he admired, and in the company of other friends who drop in and out searching for kicks: alcohol, drugs, music and sex. Almost always destitute, they party all night and sleep during the day, moving from place to place mostly as hitchhikers, as jalopy drivers, and occasionally on buses. The original version of On the Road was typed by Kerouac on a scroll 37 meters long (to save time in changing sheets in the typewriter). It included explicit sex and the real names of some of the author’s friends; these were removed or changed at the insistence of the publisher, Viking. I notice that the original version has been published in 2008.
As for the ‘spontaneous prose’ used by Kerouac, it does make the novel marginally more difficult to read, but it also makes the emotions, the thoughts and the settings – bizarre as they sometimes are – more real. If I had known about the scroll version, I would have bought it instead, as being more authentic. Sex was a primary objective on the road, and the edited version mentions it only in passing.
As I reflect on the novel and its author, it seems that the novel created a sensation at the time it was published. I think that most readers today would wonder what the point of it all was. Was it really just irresponsible kicks and living life at maximum velocity and intensity. Kerouac’s biographer, Douglas Brinkley, says that the author was a committed Catholic. But there is none of this in the novel (except for doodles in the original margin). Kerouac also suffered from mental illness. Politically, he was conservative. But I don’t get a sense of the author’s values. If I were able to, that might answer the major question I have after reading this novel: Why?
Somewhere on the Internet, I found the “6 Misconceptions About Writing” by Rebecca McClanahan, which is excerpted from Write Your Heart Out, which was published in 2001. Ms McClanahan is the author of ten books and is also an educator, and public speaker. She specializes in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.
I quote from her document below.
“Misconception #1. Writing gets done without writing.
I usually don’t answer the phone during my writing hours, but when I do, it’s often a friend or family member calling, and the conversation goes something like this. “Hi. What are you doing?” “Writing,” I answer. “Really?” she says, as if this were news, as if it weren’t the same answer I’ve been giving for years now. We talk a while, she tells me about her day, I complain about the essay that’s tying me in knots or I exalt in the final revision of a poem that’s been eluding me all summer. We say goodbye and hang up. A week or two later she calls again. “Hi. What are you doing?” “Writing.” Again she seems surprised. We talk a while, say goodbye, and after a few minutes of sharpening pencils (I don’t even use pencils) or fantasizing about a six-figure advance on some book I’ll never begin, or staring out the window where people with real jobs and leather briefcases are hurrying to meetings, I get back to work. Later in the week while I’m getting a haircut, my stylist asks if I’m still writing, as if it were a bad habit, like smoking, that I surely must have kicked by now. It occurs to me to ask him if he’s still cutting hair, but I decide it would be mean-spirited. Besides, it takes energy to talk, and I need all my energy for the chapter revision that’s backing up in my head. So I just look in the mirror and nod politely. Occasionally even writer friends seem surprised to find me writing, just as I’m sometimes amazed to catch them in the act. I realize this makes no sense. How else do I suppose their poems, stories, essays, songs, lectures and journal entries get written? Yet the fantasy that writing gets done without writing is so appealing, it’s a hard one to release—like the notion of babies being delivered pain free, via stork or cabbage leaf. Watching the freshly polished baby asleep in a blanket beside his exhausted mother, it’s easy to forget that just hours ago he was a squirming sack of blood and skin and primal scream. And reading someone else’s published novel—or a finished poem, short story or essay—it’s hard to imagine the often tedious, painful, messy, sometimes joyous, always life-changing process by which it was delivered, kicking and screaming, into the light. Like sex or childbirth, writing is almost always a private act. Others don’t see us doing it, and the popular media do little to dispel the notion that writing gets done without writing. In movies about writers, the writers do everything but write. They sit in dark cafes, dance on tables, smoke one thin black cigarette after another, slap their lovers, drive too fast or drink too much. In the few scenes where they’re actually writing, the camera doesn’t linger. Who would pay seven dollars to watch someone sit at a desk and write? So the camera seeks out something more interesting—the bottle of Scotch, the unmade bed, the cocktail dress dropped on the floor—and moves on. One quick shot of the writer’s hand on the keyboard (typing, what else, “The End”) and he’s heading for the door, grabbing the finished manuscript and cigarettes on his way out. No wonder we imagine writing gets done without writing. And no wonder we believe anyone can write a book. The truth is, anyone can’t write a book. Only the person who writes the book can write the book.”