The hardest thing about writing fiction…

. . . is transitions.

I have spent most of the day getting my characters from one place to another.  They were doing something interesting in the place they left.  I am confident that they’ll do something even more interesting when they arrive at their destination.  There’s really not a whole lot to say about the journey, though.  You can’t just say, “After a dull journey they arrived where they were going.”  But you don’t want to go on for too long about what they saw and heard and thought about and felt during the journey, because none of that really matters.  You have to right-size the thing.

I’m exhausted.

Why do authors rewrite?

I’m a big fan of rewriting.  But here’s an article from the Boston Globe making the point that rewriting hasn’t always been the standard.  One reason was technology:

In the age of Shakespeare and Milton, paper was an expensive luxury; blotting out a few lines was one thing, but producing draft after draft would have been quite another. Writers didn’t get to revise during the publishing process, either. Printing was slow and messy, and in the rare case a writer got to see a proof of his work—that is, a printed sample of the text, laid out like a book—he had to travel in person to a publishing center like London.

Another was a philosophical opposition to revisiting your original inspiration.  If you believe that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions, you’re not going to approve of a writing method that is deliberately unspontaneous.

The author points to Modernism as the source of our current deification of rewriting:

The Modernists wanted to produce avant-garde literature—literature that was less spontaneous and enthusiastic than it was startling and enigmatic. In an interview with the Paris Review, Hemingway famously described his “principle of the iceberg”: “There is seven-eighths of it under the water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.”

This is all pretty straightforward, although I’d point out that there’s solid evidence that Shakespeare did do some rewriting–for example, of King Lear, where the Quarto version is substantially different from that of the First Folio.  And I think the author doesn’t give enough weight to writing-as-a-job vs. writing-to-create-art. If your next meal depends on getting your novel finished, you’re not going to spend months revising its conclusion.

I’m on board, though, with the author’s discussion of the typewriter’s effect on rewriting.  The typewriter didn’t actually make rewriting easier; in a sense, it made the process harder.

Today we equate a keyboard with speed, the fastest way to get words down, but as Sullivan points out this wasn’t always the case. In fact, a typescript offered a chance to slow down. Most Modernist writers, like Hemingway with “The Sun Also Rises,” wrote by hand and then painstakingly typed up the results. That took time, but seeing their writing in such dramatically different forms—handwritten in a notebook, typed on a page, printed as a proof—encouraged them to revise it aggressively.

This was certainly my experience when I wrote my original drafts by hand.

Finally, the author points out that the computer may paradoxically make us less inclined to rewrite:

Today, most of us compose directly on our computers. Instead of generating physical page after physical page, which we can then reread and reorder, we now create a living document that, increasingly, is not printed at all until it becomes a final, published product. While this makes self-editing easier, Sullivan thinks it may paradoxically make wholesale revision, the kind that leads to radically rethinking our work, more difficult.

I think that’s right.  As I approach the end of the first draft of the novel I’m working on, I’m mulling how to approach the rewrite.  Do I start with the existing Word document, and just edit and add and cut and paste until I’m satisfied with the result?  Or do I re-keyboard the whole thing?  The former is certainly easier; just thinking about the latter makes me tired.  But re-keyboarding might cause me to re-imagine the story at a deeper level, and that might ultimately lead to a stronger finished product.

What’s a writer to do?

Ideas big and small

One of the reviewers of Summit on Amazon said that he’s always amazed by how writers come up with their ideas.  How do writers do it?  Beats me.  But I’d like to make a distinction between big ideas and little ideas.  Big ideas are what this reviewer was talking about — in the case of Summit, a Russian psychic falls in love with an eccentric American pianist.  The CIA and KGB become involved.  Stakes are raised.  Twists and turns ensue.

Big ideas are a dime a dozen.  Anyone can come up with them.  A while back I threw one into a blog post for anyone to take.  For an author, the key to a big idea is whether you find it interesting enough to devote a year or two of your life to fleshing it out.  My friend Jeff Carver had a big idea about a place called Shipworld that he’s spent a decade or two fleshing out.

Little ideas are the key to fleshing out the big idea.  They are the twists and the turns.  They are the scenes that give the novel meaning.  They are the inspirations that make writing more than just a craft.  They are what make writing fun.  In Summit, my favorite little idea involved a minor character, some of those nesting Russian matryoshka dolls, and a double-cross.  I was really happy when that idea occurred to me!

I’m about 25,000 words into the first draft of my current novel, which is the third adventure of my post-apocalyptic private eye, Walter Sands.  I have needed one specific little idea for weeks now, and a few days ago it finally came to me. Yay!  It helps makes sense of an important subplot of the novel, in a way that also allows me to add some backstory about the world Walter inhabits.  Plus, I think it may solve this problem.  Now that I’ve come up with it, I can’t see how the novel could possibly have worked without it.

Now I just need to come up with a few more little ideas, stir them around with another 50,000 words of craft, and I’ll be done.

Patricia Cornwell wins her case

Here we gazed in awe at mystery novelist Patricia Cornwell’s lifestyle and the lawsuit she had lodged against her financial advisers.

Now she has won the lawsuit, to the tune of $51 million dollars. She seems to have given the Boston Globe a lot of access during and after the trial, in return for which she got prose like this:

And Cornwell is sitting, one leg crossing the other, just a couple of hours after the decision, lamenting the journey she had to go through in the first place, the type of challenges not even a hero in one of her novels should have to face.

“It’s just, we have fought long and hard,” she said, her Southern drawl deepening as she gets more heated while discussing the betrayal of her former finance manager, Evan Snapper, and his company, Anchin, Block & ­Anchin LLP.

“It’s just been harrowing, but we felt we needed to do the right thing, we needed to fight,” she said, in an hour-long interview with the Globe.

If I’m puzzled by why Cornwell didn’t pay closer attention to how her money was managed, I’m even more puzzled by why the financial management firm thought they could get away with the malfeasance they were found guilty of.  They would have made out perfectly well without it.  Why did the defendant, for example, forge a $5000 check from Cornwell as a bat mitzvah present to his daughter?  This sort of stuff is too stupid for fiction, and I hope Cornwell doesn’t put it in a novel, as she told the Globe she was thinking about doing.  That novel wouldn’t be worth reading.

Patricia Cornwell has problems that you and I are never going to have

The mystery novelist Patricia Cornwell is suing her former financial management firm for tens of millions of dollars.  I read about it in the Boston Globe; here is the story reprinted in another newspaper (the Globe version is behind a paywall).  This gives you a flavor of what the suit is about:

Cornwell said she was flabbergasted to learn, upon her questioning in 2009, that her net worth was only eight figures, which was her annual income in each of the previous four years.

When she took a closer look at the books, she said, she discovered that Anchin had borrowed money in her name for real estate investments without her knowledge. She says money from the sale of her Ferrari was unaccounted for, and she had to pay close to $200,000 in taxes on a helicopter because the firm wrongly registered it in New York.

She also says that Anchin mishandled a financial transaction involving 48 rare books, leaving the money unaccounted for, and that she found a $5,000 check that Snapper had written for a bat mitzvah gift to his daughter from Cornwell.

In addition, Cornwell’s wife, a Boston-area neurologist, also claims she was bilked by the firm.

Here is Cornwell venting about the case in the Huffington Post.

And here are my banal. uninformed comments:

  • She had a helicopter???
  • She had an eight figure income?  That’s a lot of figures, for someone who isn’t a professional basketball player.
  • I can see an author getting bilked; authors live in a different world.  But a neurologist, too?

I read one of Cornwell’s early Scarpetta novels; I vaguely remember it as being OK, but not quite good enough to make me want to read another.  Clearly the way to untold wealth in the writing biz is to come up with an ongoing series that keeps all your old novels in print and selling.  But clearly that’s not necessarily the path to happiness and peace of mind.  I have this idea that, if I had enough money (well short of eight figures), I’d just invest it conservatively and continue to live more or less the way I live now, so I wouldn’t have to worry about money ever again.  But I’m probably deluded.  Probably if I had as much money as Patricia Cornwell, I’d want a helicopter too.

“The Words”: What would you do to become a successful novelist?

The Words is a movie about writers and writing.  Not a very good one, alas.  The basic plot is straightforward: an unsuccessful writer comes across a manuscript in an old briefcase he buys in Paris.  The manuscript is brilliant.  He passes it off as his own and becomes famous.  Then the real author confronts him, and complications ensue.

Except they don’t, really. The complications are actually in the narrative structure.  The unsuccessful writer (played by Bradley Cooper, of all people) is just a character in a novel written by a successful novelist (played by Dennis Quaid, of all people), who is narrating the story to a rapt audience.  By the end we are made to wonder if the successful novelist is really writing about an episode in his own writing career–did he, too, get his start by stealing someone else’s work?  The writers seem to think it’s sufficient to hint at this possibility without resolving the question.  I guess they deserve some credit for not going in for cheap melodrama.  But the plot is filled with so many holes and absurdities that it doesn’t really matter.  I lost interest early on.

Part of the problem is that it’s really difficult to dramatize a writer on screen.  Writers, and the writing life, are just too boring.  The only interesting portrayal I can recall is in The Wonder Boys.  Let me know if I’ve missed any.

But I did find the movie’s central premise poignant. In this post I pondered Oliver Sacks’s self-threat to commit suicide if he didn’t finish a book in ten days, and I felt a twinge of sympathy. Here I pondered a young writer who evidently plagiarized parts of her first novel, and I felt a twinge of sympathy.  In the movie, the unsuccessful writer has poured three years of his life into a novel that is supposedly pretty good but completely unsaleable.  Now he risks his career, his self-respect and, ultimately, his marriage to achieve what he has always dreamed of–to win the awards, to be on the front page of the Times book review, to be something more than just another unsuccessful writer with a boring job at a publishing house, his nose pressed up against the window as he gazed in at the powerful and the talented and the just plain lucky.  And I suppose yet again I felt a twinge of sympathy.  If only the movie had made more of that . . .

Rules for writing: Rule 4 — Get people to read what you write

Haven’t added one of these rules for writing lately.  So here goes.  As always, they are intended for people (like me) who aren’t good enough to break all the rules.  And the numbers are pretty random.

So I’ve started a new novel, and I have sent the first two chapters off to my writing group, and a few days later I’m sitting  in someone’s living room sipping a beer as they take out their copies of the manuscript to critique it.  And I can feel the same old tension rising in me — heart beating a little faster — prepared to convince myself that, even if they don’t like it, I know it’s pretty good.  Or, at least, not too bad.  Or something.  This ritual with my writing group has gone on for a long time now — since the Carter administration, actually.  Or maybe it was the Harding administration — the administrations all kind of blur together after a while.  And I still get nervous.

It’s even worse when someone starts reading over my shoulder as I work on something.  That terrifies me.  If the person offers any criticism, I’m full prepared to say: Well, it isn’t done yet.  Just some random ideas.  I’m probably not going to finish it.  And I know that paragraph sucks.  I was totally going to rewrite it.  Really, I was.

Writing is fun.  Being read is hard — even by people who know you.  Especially by people who know you.  But the best way to improve your work is by getting opinions about it and figuring out what to do about them.

Here are some characteristics of good readers:

  • They should know something about writing.  It’s helpful to have someone say: “I dunno, it seems kinda long.”  But it’s way more helpful to to hear this: “You should cut that conversations at the end of the chapter.  The reader doesn’t need any of that information, and it doesn’t add to the characterization of the speakers.”
  • They should have some understanding of what you’re trying to do.  There’s not much point in showing your epic fantasy novel to someone who has never read Tolkien and has no idea of the conventions you’re working with.  They may not realize that cutting the elves is just not an option.
  • Most of all, they shouldn’t take your writing personally.  Here’s the kind of conversation you want to avoid:

Girlfriend: “How come you break up with me in that story?”

You: “It’s a story.  The characters are made up.”

Girlfriend: “Yeah?  They broke up in a restaurant.  We had a fight in a restaurant.”

You: “But the character is a redhead and you’re–“

Girlfriend: “You thought you could just change my hair color so I wouldn’t notice that she’s me, and you want to break up?  How stupid do you think I am?”

Now, your girlfriend is probably right about everything, but she’s not helping you improve the story.  And that, after all, is what matters.

Good readers are hard to find.  I’ve been really lucky with my readers, ever since the Carter administration.  Or maybe it was Truman.  If you find some good readers, hold onto them.  Hold onto your girlfriend, too, but keep her away from your fiction.