Why I try not to be too hard on students:

I was going through some old boxes from my parents’ house and found papers and stories I’d written as a freshman and sophomore in college; while the papers weren’t bad, the stories were terrible. The kind of terrible that gets justifiably mocked in academic novels like Blue Angel. The kind that would make many instructors throw up their hands in dismay and their lunch thanks in nausea. The kind that make me wonder what the hell could’ve made me want to keep going. Actually, I don’t wonder, because the answer is probably ignorance—the sort of ignorance I’ve been trying to cure, probably futilely, ever since.

Reading Eileen Pollack’s “Flannery O’Connor and the New Criticism: A Response to Mark McGurl” reminded me of those early experiences (the article is behind a bullshit paywall, by the way):

The careless inclusion of random details or digressions or the unintentional revelation of aspects of one’s own character are precisely what gets beaten out of a student even in the nicest, most tactful workshop (let alone the considerably more venomous workshops that tend to be the norm at Iowa). Even if novice writers are not narcissists in the therapeutic sense, they have rarely had the experience of writing for a disinterested audience (i.e., readers other than their mothers and doting high school English teachers). This means that a story’s prose must be coherent, the plot comprehensible, the characters (and the world they live in) believable and consistent (even if the story isn’t meant to be realistic). Writers soon learn that their classmates do not want to read a 20-page digression about a character’s fight with her parents because they did not buy her a BMW for her sixteenth birthday, or the endless details of a championship high school football game, or an angry fantasy about raping and mutilating a beautiful woman who rejects the main character’s amorous advances, or a sermon against abortion or nuclear war. A student may never receive a lecture on craft or the tenets of the New Criticism, but by handing out drafts of a story and listening to detailed responses from readers of all sorts, he or she will learn how best to convey the ideas and emotions he or she intends to convey and not include anything that reveals aspects of his or her psyche or autobiography that are irrelevant and/or embarrassing.

I gave and got criticism that was designed to beat out the merely random, and the class’s response was certainly a useful, if “venomous” and vitriolic, way of imparting important messages about audience reaction. If I teach fiction writing classes, I might include Pollack’s paragraph in the syllabus, even if the experience of attempting to write about not receiving a BMW or football games will probably still be necessary for students to get the lesson.

Looking at that old work shows me that, if I didn’t have the particular problems Pollack enumerates, I still had one analogous to them. When I’m looking at student work, I should remember my own development at an equivalent age.

The academic papers, fortunately, were much better, and I’d see a couple of them relatively recently. As a first-year grad student, I split a two-bedroom apartment with another first-year, and one night we found and traded papers from when we were freshmen, mostly out of curiosity: would we have lived up to the standards we imposed on others? The answer, fortunately, was yes, but I wouldn’t rank the papers I wrote as a freshman as among the best that my students have written over the last three and a half years.

Beyond critiquing it, however, the writing is itself a window on the old person I used to be, who has become a stranger to me over time, kept alive only through the random bits of writing that he chose to commit to paper or hard drive and drag around.

Working out the plot with the Rejector, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and other friends

Over at the Rejecter, someone is asking whether an MFA program will teach her how to structure her novels. Actually, she’s asking about the professional and intellectual utility of MFA programs, but I want to focus on the plot issue, since that’s what the Rejecter doesn’t address. I had the same problems as the correspondent, but I don’t think I have them any more.

Specifically, the problem:

I have been writing novels since I was about seven. I literally think about it all the time. However, try as I might I have never been able to get beyond the 40,000 word mark before losing the plot and momentum of my story and deciding to start something else entirely. I’m a journalist on a big women’s glossy in the UK so it’s not getting the words down on paper that’s the problem, it’s rather getting my plot from A to B that stumps me.

That sounds really similar to me: the first two novels I actually completed are now, in retrospect, unpublishable, although I didn’t know that at the time and couldn’t have articulated why. Now I know: nothing happened. The novels had interesting premises but no action. There were a lot of bits of clever dialog and some good scenes, but nothing that held those scenes together. The novels lacked narrative tension.

The next two I wrote were and are publishable; they got a lot of agent activity and requests but no agents who took me on. Ditto for the latest, currently titled Asking Alice, which is still out. Look for my name in lights shortly.

One big thing changed between the first two unpublishable novels and the later three: I started writing outlines, which I’d previously considered unnecessary because I’m so smart that I can hold everything in my head (oops). Those outlines were and are pretty loose and fluid, but they’re outlines nonetheless, in which I asked myself essential questions about each chapter: what happens in it? Why? Why this chapter and not some other? What’s the central tension? What does each character worry about? These kinds of questions guided me toward writing better plots because I thought about how information was doled out and what kinds of things the characters are struggling to achieve. In addition, I thought about how drama works: is something important happening in this chapter? What is it?

If I can’t identify what’s important or why the characters should care, I’m probably doing something wrong.

This doesn’t mean each chapter has to end with someone getting shot, or the heroine declaring her love, or the revelation of a shocking fact, or an alien invasion.* But it does mean that I have to at least think about what the scene or chapter is conveying to the reader, what is happening to the characters, how it relates to the previous scene or the next scene, and, perhaps most importantly, what dilemmas it raise that have to be resolved in the future.

Every scene or almost every scene needs some kind of tension or uncertainty. Once again, this doesn’t necessarily mean a guy holding a gun: it could be highly cerebral. In Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze, the tension in some scenes concerns the interior dialog and sanity of John Clare: is he sane? Are we seeing the mind of someone else, or are we seeing his mind, which has assumed the shape of someone else? Those scenes can be quite tense but also quite subtle. Others can hinge on a piece of information, as when Randy Waterhouse realizes he’s actually building a datahaven in Cryptonomicon.

Over time, through reading and writing, you’ll learn where to end scenes and how the form of the novel works, and by “you” I mean “me.” You have to learn if you’re the kind of writer who wants to break that form successfully. I remember being on the high school newspaper and going to journalism contests. A lot of traditional news articles end with a whimsical or funny quote that’s not essential but does a good job of encapsulating the story. I’d read enough articles to have picked that idea up, and at one of the competitions I remember taking notes as a source spoke and putting a star next to something he said and thinking, “that’s my final quote.” I wrote the piece and later looked at what the judges had to say; I don’t think that was one of the times I won anything, but I do remember them commenting on the money quote at the end.

They did it because I’d successfully synthesized a principle no one had explicitly stated but that nonetheless made my article a little bit better.

Learning to write scenes is similar: you can’t enumerate all the principles involved, but over time you start to feel them. Once you become attuned to reading novels for what each scene does or what tensions exist in a scene, you’ll probably become better at plotting them for yourself—if you’re anything like me, at least. And you might start telling stories that build plots. I talked out a lot of Asking Alice, the novel making the rounds with agents right now, with a friend. It didn’t hurt and might’ve helped. Sometimes it’s also fun to make up a plot when you’re out. Michael Chabon portrays this in Wonder Boys, when the blocked English professor Grady Tripp and his gay editor, Crabtree, are in a bar:

‘Hey,’ said Crabtree, ‘look at that guy.’ […]
‘Who? Oh my.’ I smiled. ‘The one with the hair sculpture.’ […]
‘He’s a boxer,’ I said. ‘A flyweight.’
‘He’s a jockey,’ said Crabtree. ‘His name’s, um, Curtis. Hardapple.’
‘Not Curtis,’ I said.
‘Vernon, then. Vernon Hardapple. The scars are from a—from a horse’s hooves. He fell during a race and got trampled.’
‘He’s addicted to painkillers.’
‘He’s got a plate in his head.’

And they go on from there. They could be building a plot (telling the story of Hardapple’s rise and fall as a jockey) or they could be building the background. Either way, they’re doing something useful. Where do stories come from? Everywhere and nowhere. They’re not talking about plot, not just yet, but they begin moving in that direction.

The original querier to the Rejector has identified a particular weakness, which is a good start. My proposed solution: read some novels she admires; pick them apart and write outlines that focus on why characters do what they do, what information they reveal when, and so on. Some writers who I think do this particularly well: Ruiz Zafón, as mentioned; Elmore Leonard, especially in Get Shorty and Out of Sight, which I still think are his best; Anita Shreve in Testimony; Graham Greene in The End of the Affair; Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose. Mystery and detective novels are often very good at plot because all they have is plot. Note that this path is not recommended.

If anyone out there is sufficiently interested, drop me an e-mail and I’ll send you my quick-and-dirty outline of The Angel’s Game, although I wouldn’t recommend reading it until after you’ve read the novel. Ruiz Zafón is astonishingly good at making each scene count in both this novel and The Shadow of the Wind; one shocking thing about reading The Prince of Mist is how weak that novel is in comparison. Ruiz Zafón is clearly someone who’s learned a lot about writing over the course of his publishing career, and he’s an example that makes me more hesitant to condemn not-very-good first novels—even those that gets published. People learn over time. I’ve read Saul Bellow’s The Dangling Man and thought it was okay—but no Herzog.

That’s not a slam: very few artists of any kind in any medium do their best work on their first try. Like anyone else in any other activity, artists learn as they go along, and they have to assimilate a huge body of material.

Anyway, I’m not sure how many MFA programs teach plot or tell their students some ways to think about plot; if I end up teaching in one, you can bet I’ll talk about it some. As an undergrad, I took a lovely novel writing course from a guy named Bill Tapply, who passed away last year. Although I got a lot out of his class, he seldom talked much about plot, which in retrospect I find curious because his Brady Coyne mysteries work very well in this respect. From chatting with others who’ve taken fiction writing classes, I gather that this is common: they talk about language and ideas and description and all kinds of things, but not plot. If I ever end up teaching one, I’m going to talk about plot—not to the exclusion of everything else, certainly, but enough to give a sense of what my 19-year-old self needed to hear. And, from what the correspondent to the Rejecter says, what she needs to hear too.

This is important because I’ve read so many novels with dynamite first halves and dreary second halves, especially in literary fiction (one reason I like Carlos Ruiz Zafón and have been writing about him a lot lately: his novels hold together). Sometimes otherwise very good novels fall apart plot-wise. I started Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask a few days ago, based on an agents advice,** but gave it up because it feels too episodic and disconnected; the novel strays so fair that it loses me as I find my mind wandering and myself thinking, “So what? What’s at stake here?” By halfway through, the answer frequently felt like “nothing.” Too bad: the first page of The Ask is terrific. A lot of the droll humor works. It just lacks…


Too bad I can’t better define what that something is. But I can talk around it enough to know when it’s missing.***

* For the record, zero of my novels thus far have featured an alien invasion, although I’m not opposed to that sort of thing on principle and my eventually deploy it. One of my ambitions is to eventually write a novel that begins as a fairly straightforward love story about modern urban couples / triangles and angst that suddenly shifts, about halfway through, when aliens attacks. I think this would be totally awesome.

** It was a rejection, but not a form rejection, which counts for a lot when they pile up and you’re looking for some pattern with no more success than people who see secret signals in the white noise of a random universe: “I hope you receive that as no more damning than had I written ‘I like hamburger dill pickles, but I love capers.’ ”

*** I’d like a book on plot that’s as good as How Fiction Works, which I could then add to my post on The very very beginning writer. Suggestions would be appreciated. The books I’ve found that deal with plot tend to be of the “heroine reveals her love” variety that I mocked above, instead of the, “this is how literature might work” variety that James Wood and Francine Prose offer.

Someone has probably already written a lot of what I wrote above. I just don’t know who that person is or where their work is.

The very very beginning writer

Literary agent Janet Reid is asking for advice. Or, more specifically, she’s asking writers for advice about advice:

When you were starting out, what advice did you get that REALLY helped you? And I mean both helped you improve as a writer, and helped you deal with the sense of failure and frustration when you wanted to do something so bad you could taste it, and it wasn’t working.

I left a comment, but after 90 of them, I’m guessing she probably got all the advice she wanted. That being said, I wish that a) all of the following books had been written, b) someone pointed me to them, and c) I was smart enough to find and read them:

—James Wood’s How Fiction Works
—Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer
—The two collected volumes from the New York Times, Writers on Writing.
—Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Those five are the major ones. A few others that might be worth leaving off at first because they could be overwhelming:

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
—William Zissner’s On Writing Well
—Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliche
—Steven King’s On Writing

It’s somehow popular to argue that writing can’t be taught, but the more experience I accumulate, the more I begin to doubt that advice. Mark McGurl tackles it to some extent in his book The Program Era, which is also probably worth reading for anyone pondering a career in writing fiction, since so many of those careers today run through teaching at some point or another.

Someone else in Reid’s comments section gave similar advice to mine but in different words: “Go to your local library and read every book in the “How to write” 808 section.” Good call. If the writer takes this advice, they’ll learn more than they ever could in 10 or 15 minutes with Reid. The writer might disagree with some or most of what’d dispensed in the books I listed, or the books listed in the 808 section—which is a good thing, because otherwise fiction would droop into being formulaic. That being said, I still think that at least knowing such guidance exists is a positive: it gives you something to work with, or something to work against. Either way, I think the knowledge imparted will beat beating one’s way around blindly in the dark.

EDIT: A friend has been telling me to read Robert Olen Butler’s From Where you Dreamfor months, and I’m now getting around to it (this kind of lag between meaning to read something and actually reading it isn’t unusual for me: the number of books I’d like to read expands faster than the amount of time I have to read, and the list is continually being reshuffled based on needs and idiosyncrasies). With that long preamble, I’d like to point to this passage:

If I had me to talk to me back when, I might not have had to write a million dreadful words. If I’d caught me at the right moment—and in the right spirit—I might have had to write only a quarter of a million—maybe not so many as that if I’d really listened. You might ask, why did he write five terrible novels? How many terrible novels can you write? The answer is that I had no idea how badly I was writing. None. And my ability to continue working through a million words was so rooted in self-deception that I might not have been able to hear this message. So those are the things you may have to sort through, too.

You might. But if you stumble on this post, or Olen Butler’s book, or some of the other books listed above, in time, you might still come out with fewer terrible stories and novels than you would otherwise.

EDIT 2: This post concerning Philip Greenspun’s “Why I’m Not a Writer” is also germane. If you’re rich enough, you don’t have to worry about food and rent. Everyone else does. If you want to be a professional writer, one useful way to go about it is by starting off with a fat inheritance so you don’t need a day job. And if you want to be a writer, you’ll probably have a day job for life.

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