Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Who's Telling

Oh those novelists, blogged down again by those looming literary choices--point of view, psychic distance, voice. Thank Gag for picture books. Having written some, she knew she made many of the same decisions, but drew an extra arrow from her quiver: form. As a form, picture books could encompass all genres--fiction, memoir, non-fiction, mystery, fantasy, fairy or folk tales; and she considered whether and how genre in the picture book influenced point of view.

She loved John Scieszka's hilarious re-telling of The Story of The Three Little Pigs from the wolf's point of view in The True Story of The 3 Little Pigs! for its crafty use of the unreliable narrator device. Fairy tales are conventionally told in third person, so what happened when point of view shifted? Scieszka's use of the first person narrator invited the reader into a a world through the perceptions of a character and not into the verisimilitude of the fairy tale world created by the original author. The reader believes A. Wolf as the long-suffering "I" in Scieszka's tale because he is the tale-teller, the narrator of his own story, not the three little pigs' story. Each point of view creates a verisimilitude fitting its form or intention. Told in the conventional third person, the reader is invited into the fairy world created for the story, not created by a character for the story. Scieszka broke form for his intention to make the reader laugh at his ironic tale.

Writing stories with autobiographical roots, she'd written in first person for the same reason: verisimilitude. As much as she was part of the story, the narrative "I" became a part of the story, the world created by narrator as character. Fiction and non-fiction could be told from either point of view in the picture book, but the questions she'd ask were fundamental: Who's narrating the story and why? The truth of the story, the author's intention, rests in that question. Who tells it truer?

Furthering the Adventures...

Ron talks about writing sequels below, and I mentioned in the comments how hard writing one was for me. I blithely sold a trilogy and then sat down to write the second book in it and realized I had no idea what I was doing. It’s so scary—you want the story to be worthy of a trilogy, you don’t want to repeat yourself, you want to make dramatic and complete what is essentially a bridge between two other books—and, maybe most pressingly, you don’t want it to be significantly worse than the first.

It was agonizing at first. I had overwhelming urges to lie in fetal position in the corner of my office and stay there for about three years. I finished a draft and it burned my eyes to look at it. I would wake up in the middle of the night in panic, and it wasn’t until one of these 4am panic attacks that I finally figured out the story the book needed to tell. I pressed select all on 200 pages and deleted them. Blank slate.

I learned how to write a trilogy by writing one—maybe not the most efficient way to do things, but that’s being a writer for you. Ignorance is a good fuel for ambition. And, for better or for worse, I won’t be as blithe about it next time. I read so many disappointing sequels. Sometimes they’re just rushed—you imagine the publishers hiring some guy to stand behind the author and beat a nightstick in his hands every time she stops to consider her word choice. And then some great ones. The authors follow varying strategies. I am breathlessly waiting for the nice UPS man to bring the sequel to Skin Hunger, which continues the action after a cliffhanger ending. JK Rowling keeps the same basic structure for her sequels, but grows the threat (just about) every time, along with growing her characters a year. Garth Nix takes the world he built in Sabriel and moves the action up a generation. In The Bartimaeus Trilogy the author expands his ambition in the second book and gives the trilogy its emotional resonance. Phillip Pullman in The Subtle Knife cuts a hole in the world he built in the first book and climbs through into a new one.

So, Hamline students and alums and fellow citizens of Inkpot-land, what sequels have you liked? What makes a good one?

How to re-enter world of book?

I have a question for you all--be ye picture book writer or trilogy triathelete.  How do you get back into a book when you've set it down for a longish while?  Let's say that you were forced at penpoint to finish something else and you had to leave it languish for a few months.  What do you do to get back in that world?  Might be the same as writing a sequel, now that I think about it.

Monday, September 28, 2009


I find myself the proud owner of two sequels: Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs and Further Adventures of Stoner & Spaz. The former is a done deal (ARCs are out and about) and the latter will be fine. He said optimistically.

I only mention this because I've heard myself say that sequels don't interest me. And they didn't until, apparently, they did. I can explain the urge to find out what happens to Kevin, the narrator of the Shakespeare books. Mostly I just wanted to write poems-in-forms and have that pay off in real money instead of contributor's copies, the standard payment for literary magazines.

But for the other sequel, it wasn't Ben who called to me. It was Colleen. Potty-mouthed, difficult, intransigent Colleen. Ben is still the narrator of the sequel, but Colleen is the star. Every time she'd step onto the page, the book lit up. I heard her voice everywhere, telling me where to put her and Ben next and what they should say. Until, a hundred and forty-five pages later, she was through with me.

Now I feel like the guy who woke up with a new tattoo in a strange room. And like that guy, I miss the person who led me there.


Sunday, September 27, 2009


The other day I quit work on a novel. It feels complete, ready for another set of eyes. Almost every other time I've reached this point with a novel I ended up revising again, and I anticipate that will happen this time too. I'm not sure what makes me think the novel is at the right point to send along to a reader, maybe because when I revise it's similar to what Ron described below: wordsmithing with reverberation. And the reverberation was no longer happening, so the wordsmithing, I guess, was more accurately just dinking around. We'll see. What gauge do others use for deciding "This is it"?

Friday, September 25, 2009

First Person

Ah, writing in first. Writing in third. I go back and forth. I just completed another first-person novel, but took time to do a draft of it in third. Sometime the narcissism and narrow view of first is exactly what's called for. What did I learn by revising in third? Not sure, but I came up with some lovely writing (lovely to me) for a scene that takes place on the banks of the Mississippi; unfortunately my first person protag would never have those lovely Mississippi-inspired thoughts, so it all gets cut.

Me, Myself, and Her

I mentioned the other day that I've been struggling with finding a voice for my new book, which feels like trying to make a soup with no stock*. Everything I've written has been in a revolving third person, most with some kind of narrative voice on top of that. I thought I might try first this time--it seemed like the best choice for the book. And I've been struggling and staring at empty pages and considering other careers . This morning, I switched to third--with a narrator--and suddenly could mange to string words together for the first time in awhile. My first person is precious, narcissistic, rambling, dull. My fellows-in-blogginess all do it so well, and it isn't until I try it that I realize how hard it is.

Do you all feel like you can do one better than another?

*I'm assuming, as I can't actually cook.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I'm Between Novels

I'm between novels of any kind -- novels-in-verse/novels out of verse -- so I'm reading a lot of poetry and writing a poem a day. Usually a bad one. I'm like Mary L. in that I give myself assignments when it comes to producing stuff. A poem a day isn't that draconian a task. A good poem? Well, that's a whole other thing. Here's the opening stanza to yesterday's poem:

Death wanders into the Guess! store, leaving his scythe outside
for the homeless man and his dog to guard.

That's pretty promising, but the rest of the poem is awful. I started at eight a.m. or so yesterday, and wrote at the poem off and on until two p.m. when the races came on. I did some errands for my wife (who works like a normal person), talked on the phone, e-mailed my agent. And all the time this poem kept bouncing around in my head. I wrote and threw away six or seven drafts; I felt like a cook who'd made a terrific salad but couldn't get the entree and dessert right.

Oh, well -- better a salad than no dinner at all. It's hot here, anyway. 103 in Pasadena yesterday. Time to put on my hat and take out the garbage.


Good Excuses

Writing is a good habit if it you make it one. Or you can make a lot of bad habits and good excuses. I used to blame other life-forms (spouses, children, or bacteria because I love to clean more than write) for my slim output, but now I can blame a non-life form. No, not a zombie, though it can effectively produce one, like me when I fall victim to the blue-screen syndrome, the drive-through-Windows consumption disorder, the I'm writing (posting, browsing, staring at the blinking cursor) but not WRITING bad habit. I am sated, soothed, and seduced by each click in the pale blue light of my laptop screen. Diets do not succeed. Avoidance does.

In the dark, walnuts fall when they will outside my window. My writing will happen as it happens too, but for now, not in the light of my laptop. It will happen as it once did. Hello again, pen and paper.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ah, To Be A Pages Person.

Ron and Mary are discussing below how we structure our writing days.

When I first tried to write a book my husband challenged me to write five pages a day. Every time I wrote five pages, I’d get two Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups—the small kind, which I think have a more appealing chocolate-to-peanut-buttery-goo ratio. I wrote five pages pretty much every day. There’s nothing like a little motivation.

I found when I did this my mind was always working on the book in some level, thinking about what would come next. And then as I got toward the end of the book I’d write whole chapters in a day just to see what came next. I seemed to always be living half in the world of my book.

Then I had a baby and my writing time suddenly became conscribed by the hours we had child care, not to mention the piles of laundry and doctor’s appointments and desperately needed midday naps and entire days lost to things like little tyke getting sent home from school for getting handsy with the other toddlers. It's hard to fit in any page goal, what with all the time I have to spend procrastinating.

Right now, I am trying to begin a new book and can’t seem to find the voice. A day of stopping and starting led to little progress. But when I came home from picking up the tyke at school my cat had, helpfully, added eight pages of punctuation marks to the computer document. Do you think she likes Reece's?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

From the trashed office of the pages person

I'm rolling up my sleeves, and firming up my chin. I'm ready to take this blogging seriously. I am just finishing revising my novel before I email it to my editor tomorrow. My office is completely trashed. The floor only shows by the door. The dogs like it this way (my two toy poodles, Rene and Jacques, who will show up in this blog from time to time), more places to sleep. My desk is covered with folders, papers, globes, stars, kleenex, and even some dirty dishes. This is unusual. I am not particularly a slob, but when I'm in those final stages of trying to get something out the door, writing under deadline, I tend to drop things when I'm done with them and they fall where they may.

But now that my mind is temporarily free of trying to figure out if any of this novel makes sense, I can focus on trying to write about writing. Ron asked when we write. I used to be a night person, seriously a night person. But I'm also a pages person. What I mean by that is that I try to write three pages a day when I'm working hard on something (obviously, this is different for poetry, or maybe not obviously). And if I can get those three pages done before nine o'clock in the morning, then I get to feel sanctified for the whole day. But I do not beat myself up if I don't get them done until ten o'clock at night. I do find that I don't sleep as well if I work that late. My mind doesn't want to calm down as easily as it used to. That's why I tend to hook rugs at night. A nice repetitive activity.

Good writing to all whenever you do it.

Night or Day?

I heard Lorrie Moore downtown at the L. A. Central Library. Among other things she talked about when she wrote. Like me, she was a morning writer and, unlike me, a big coffee drinker. (I drink only a little.) She was very funny about it, advising us to not waste coffee on friends since one builds up a tolerance.

It made me wonder when the rest of us write. I've always been a morning person, while I'm just about comatose in the p.m. And coffee does help in the a.m. My mind runs without much regard for the rest of me, anyhow, and half a cup of coffee with some soy milk is like rocket fuel.

This morning, though, I'm reading galleys for a book of poems called INDIGO, and I can't be so jet propelled. I need to read the lines out loud at this point and listen carefully. I'm past the spelling or grammar gaffes at this point. Coffee will just make me go too fast.

If I finish by noon, though, I'll have a little Cafe du Monde (a New Orleans blend so it has some chicory) and see if I want to write poetry. After that I'll go out, buy tomorrow's "Daily Racing Form" and take a nap!


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Does That Tie Really Go With Those Socks?

There's an on-going and usually amiable argument about what revision means. The hard core insists it means "seeing again." Seeing the whole thing. Literally re-visioning it. That concept often gives students what my grandmother actually called the screaming meemies. Who can blame them. Nobody really wants to start over, even if it's the right idea.

The other point of view about revision is word-smithing. Little stuff like a sentence's rhythm, a vivid verb over a pallid one, a chubby paragraph slimmed down until it fits into those gray dress pants.

I'm a word (some would say wordy) kind of guy, and I've had some luck word-smithing when it comes to revision. It goes like this: Revising a single sentence or paragraph until it's gorgeous tends to throw into relief everything else on the page and, in fact, the whole manuscript. It works micro to macro.

Here's an analogy: my first wife and I used to go to San Francisco and see a friend of mine from grad school. Jack loved clothes and wore them well. So Cherry Jean and I would be ready to go but Jack would be revising. Not from head-to-toe. Not at first, anyway. He'd change his cuff links or his socks and then look in the mirror. Next the tie would go, then a belt with a silver buckle instead of the pewter one. You know how this is going to end, right? With a whole other outfit.

The issue may be Beauty. If a page can be made more beautiful, why not the entire manuscript?
But not today. It's Sunday. Put on your glad rags and meet somebody cute.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I got to read/had to read for the P.E.N. poetry prize, so that meant 65 books of poems. It was fun; I like poetry, and I got to read some people I'd merely heard about and a whole lot of people I'd never heard of.

What I particularly liked was how clear it was who the finalists were. Everybody else was merely good. Janis Joplin, of all people, said that at some point in the winnowing process, everybody is about as talented at everybody else, so what separates them is ambition. That's a cool thing to say, and I understand it. Forget about poetry for a minute and just think of novelists we know who try harder. They market themselves. They appear. That's one kind of ambition. Another kind is being ambitious about the product. These are writers who are hard to please where their own work is concerned. Maybe they wait six months or a year for the story to cure. Rather four wonderful books than twelve good ones.

Back to poetry. Ambition was less obvious there, at least the kind that separates the buzzing swarm of the Good What made it clear that the winners' books were terrific was the sense that they were onto something and the reader got to follow them as they found out what that was.
Paradoxically, those books and poems were fun to read again. The discovery never got old.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Writing vs. Having written

I asked a Hamline workshop once how many of them actually liked to write and most of them preferred having written: the pride in finishing, the appearance at a local book store, the feel of the book or magazine in one's hand.

Only a few preferred the quotidian: sitting down with two or three hours, a cup of coffee or tea, the favorite pen, the notebook with its inviting blank pages. I know painters who love the paint over the painting and potters who prefer clay to bowl. Even my mechanic likes the wrench and the spark plug more than the sound of the tuned engine. And once Buddy the cat has patiently stalked the bird beside the avocado tree, once it's dead he just stares at it.

Ron Koertge

Friday, September 11, 2009

Crafty Books

John Gardner. There, now that his name has been mentioned I guess The Storyteller's Inkpot qualifies as a forum for the discussion of writing. Today I was rereading some chapters in his The Art of Fiction as I prepared a presentation, and I was reminded that I don't exactly love the book. One's affection for these sorts of books ebbs and flows, I suspect. I'm curious as to what "how-to" books on craft my colleagues here are currently recommending to students. Anything newer than Janet Burroway, Robert Olen Butler or Gardner?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Squeaking away

There are a few major accomplishments in life: first steps, first day of school, first book.  I can now add to that list--first blog.  Yes, I'm new to this.  But I just wanted to get it over with so even though I don't have anything major to say (I'm finishing a novel, about twenty pages to go, and I'm dreaming about it, seeing scenes as I walk, not a lot of room for much else in my mind at the moment.) I wanted to contribute and let my fellow contributors know that I'm alive, reading their blogs, and squeaking.


Egged on by Dave Eggers

Marsha Q's post reminds me to nudge people to see Dave Eggers' watchable little movie called "Away We Go." It got some bad ink: " . . . true to Gen-Y life, but uninteresting." Okay, the deck is stacked in favor of the happy couple looking for a place to settle down, but anybody who writes and is looking for some structure would do well to take a look at the movie's underpinnings. The principals go from locale to locale, looking for a place to settle down. Neat, huh? Lots of room for description, new characters on a regular basis, a a mini-arc in every setting (usually from curiosity to disappointment).

Aside: Sam Mendes directed ("American Beauty" among others) and he said he put aside doing "Middlemarch" for something lighter. No kidding, Sam.

Sometimes movies and often TV get a bad rap, but scripts are very economical. When I wrote for "Hill Street Blues," I worked as hard on finding resonant language as I ever did working on a poem. And I didn't have to get paid in contributor's copies!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Here we go

...a bunch of writers/Hamline MFAC professors sitting around talking. There's a bit of the "tree falls in the forest" thing going on right now, I guess. Still, I wanted to mention today's wonderful NY Times Magazine article about the film version of Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze.

In the article, writer Dave Eggers is quoted describing the typical "easy" plot arc this way: "Let's go find the chalice! Where is it? Here are some people we meet along the way." Well...okay. Those of us who write "realistic" fiction not using chalices might confess to this sort of easy arc: "Things aren't great; things get worse; things get better. Here are some people we meet along the way."

I guess it's the "along the way" part that keeps many of us writing. The Jonze version of the Sendak classic looks to be very much all about "along the way." I'll be first in line.