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Here's a link to an interview I did and also a giveaway of free hardback copies of Utopia, Iowa at this site. I have several other interviews coming up about writing that will be on the web. One is about Merlin and his effect on my writing and on drinking coffee, and one is on writing and reading and one on process. Also, I have a few book events coming up: I will be at the North Texas Teen Book Festival on March 7, teach a class for WLT on Plot in Character Driven Fiction on April 4 and be on a SCBWI panel on process on April 11 and at TLA in Austin on April 16, 17.
Utopia, Iowa, my YA novel, is being published by Candlewick Press today (FEB 10) and that’s a most excellent thing. I’m very grateful. But it almost didn’t happen. That is to say Utopia, Iowa’s road to publication was not a smooth superhighway. It was more like a road I drove in rural Mexico one summer not long after I graduated from high school, one that was an obstacle course of potholes and cracked pavement and that eventually went from poorly paved to not paved at all, then to mud, and then ended in what appeared to be a cow pasture. My choices were hang with the cows or go back and try to find another road. I like cows but… How many rejections did Utopia, Iowa, get? I could probably ask my amazing agent for an exact number, but I’ll guess in the neighborhood of fifteen, including one from the publisher who ultimately accepted and published it (though not the same editor). And also--an important detail- the version she accepted was not that same version that had been rejected. We’ve all seen the lists of novels that were rejected numerous times and ultimately became huge bestsellers and/or literary classics. To name a few… Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone--at least 11 rejections. (Bazillion copies sold) Lord of the Flies: 20 rejections (15 million+ copies sold) Classic A Wrinkle in Time: 26 rejections. (millions sold) Classic I don’t know how many of these manuscripts, if any, were rewritten during or after rejections. I have read that J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the Ryewas rewritten after many, many rejections and only then accepted by a publisher. Obviously, no one knows for sure what people will buy—so there’s that. But also, since there are a lot of critically acclaimed novels and even classics on the list I’ve linked to, it’s fair to say that experienced editors and publishers may also be wrong about the quality of a novel. But what I’d like to focus on is I wrote a manuscript that was the best I could write at the time and that was handily rejected. Eventually, we had to admit that it wasn’t going to sell. I left it in my documents and moved on. I wrote another novel and that one was accepted. And then I wrote another and that one was accepted, too. But I never entirely forgot that manuscript I’d left behind. Something about it, even after years, still interested me. Maybe part of that interest was that it was set in Iowa, the state I grew up in and hadn’t been back to for many, many years. But I also think I felt a connection to it that I never entirely broke free of. So I pulled the manuscript up and read through it. I still liked parts, but I saw a big problem in the manuscript that I hadn’t seen before. There were two stories and they were competing with each other—not working together. I thought about this problem for a day. Did I really want to go back to the manuscript again? It was going to take a lot of work and a lot of time and I could quite possibly end up in the same place—that damn cow pasture. Ultimately, the answer for me was yes. Part of the yes was that foolish stubborn steak so many writers have that serves us for both good and ill, but part of it was that I thought I could fix the story, that I could make it much better. It was worth the gamble. And that version of Utopia, Iowa, sold on its first submission and made me very happy. I don’t want to say we should never give up on our manuscripts. Most writers have a few they were wise to give up on. However, I do want to say that if you have a manuscript buried in your documents folder that you couldn’t publish, maybe one that came close to being published or one you still feel connected to in some way, it’s worth taking a look at it again. Maybe the time away will give you the distance you need to see it more clearly. You never know. Writing, like publishing, is seldom a straight road. Two minute version of Utopia, Iowa—in case you’re looking for a fast read.
I've written on writing in the moment before but I want to add something about my process here.
One thing that was important for me to learn is that writing fiction is juggling many things at once and not thinking about any of them while you’re in the act of writing. There are just so many areas of concern: voice, character, plot, setting, language, and on and on. If we think about them while we’re writing, there’s a good chance we’ll freeze up or go into a kind of stiff, forced writing, or maybe make the wrong choices. And the wrong choices can be deadly in a novel. The wrong choices can lead you to other wrong choices and then you’re halfway through the novel and you’re thinking, HOW THE F**K DID I GET HERE? WHAT AM I DOING HERE? THIS ISN’T MY BEAUTIFUL NOVEL. THESE AREN’T MY BEAUTIFUL CHARACTERS (and before you know it you’re in a Talking Heads song—sorry, off topic).
So--you can't think--much--about writing while you're writing. You can think all around it, of course. When you're driving your car (this, of course, does raise safety concerns but we all must make sacrifices for our art), taking a shower, walking the dog (one of my favorites). I'm constantly turning over aspects of what I'm working on when I'm not actually working but the writing itself, in my opinion, should be as much in the moment of the story as possible.
So yes--writing in the moment is important for making the right choices and discovering connections between plot and character.
But the thinking that goes on around the writing process is important too. Lately, I've been trying to order this thinking a bit more by writing it out. I'm not yet ready to call it an outline but it is brainstorming in a more orderly way. I've always been a discovery writer so this is a bit new for me. More later on how this works for me--for now I just want to point out that I think that you can be a believer in discovery writing (finding your way by writing it out) AND mapping aspects of story and character in order to guide some of these discoveries.
When people ask what my one piece of advice would be to new writers, I always say write and also read, which sounds kind of uninspired except that it is REALLY the best advice. Writers become writers by writing. They learn by writing. They learn by their mistakes and they figure out things and they become better. Reading helps. You have to read, but writing is #1 way to get better.
I wrote five novels before I was published. I wrote five novels where I was learning how to write. I thought they were good at the time. I loved writing them. But they weren't really very good. When I figured out why, little by little, I got better. I'm still working on getting better with everything I write.
I was looking at this youtube by Brandon Sanderson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pLdI8f5BiI
Check it out for inspiration. He wrote 12 novels and hadn't made a penny off of them. He thought the first five were practice but he thought the sixth was very good and he felt like he knew what he was doing. He felt that way about the subsequent novels he wrote, too. But none of them were published. Finally, though, someone did agree to publish #6 which was called Elantris and it became a big hit. Now he's a bestseller.
We've all heard these stories. They're rare but what I like about Sanderson's is that he just kept writing. Twelve books. Whether you traditionally publish or publish independently, you still have to deal with finding an audience. That can be hard. A lot of it is random. A lot of it is luck. What you can control though is your work, your writing, your learning how to write better each book. So the simplest advice---keep writing--is still the best as far as I'm concerned. Write what you love and what you really want to write. Be aware that your writing isn't perfect and keep looking for ways to improve. You'll find your way and you'll love what you're doing.
ALSO, I have a new novel coming out on 2/10/15
My publisher is giving away ten copies of Utopia, Iowa at YABC........
I was thinking that it might be helpful to look at the process of learning to write using the idea of a puzzle. I am really thinking of two comparisons here: learning to write generally and learning to write a particular novel or story. I think that when you first start to write you struggle and part of the struggle is you don’t have the right pieces. You force pieces where they don’t go because you need to do something. Also there are many holes in the puzzle which you try to overlook, though you feel something is wrong. Your puzzle is, in short, a mess. Writing just takes time. You have to write a lot and finish some things—most of us anyway have to do this—before your completed puzzle looks like anything resembling an accomplishment. You have to struggle through a couple of very ugly finished puzzles before you do something that fits together. You learn how to write by writing (and to a lesser extent reading). An important part of this is finishing a story or novel
so that you know what that's like--and revising.
What happens after that, when you reach a certain level, having worked on the different aspects of craft (character, language, dialogue, plot, setting, voice etc… the different puzzle pieces) is you begin to be able to put a puzzle together that creates a coherent picture of varying interest. What our challenge is at this point—and it’s a challenge that never ends—is to improve the pieces of the puzzle and the way they fit together in a particular story. Writing is ultimately about connection—about making all these pieces fit together in a way that makes an interesting—at the basic level—story. WE hope for more, of course; we hope for surprising, brilliant, exciting. We hope for transcendence, power, beauty….More. I think some writers become competent with the puzzle and they’re fine with that. They’ll continue to create interesting stories that fit together and they will be similar in content and structure and that’s ok for them. They don’t keep struggling to learn more because they’ve mastered what they need. Others struggle on. They keep learning. They try different things. Their work may be a bit less polished than the writer who does a similar thing over and over, but they also have a better chance of creating something...More. I try to be this kind of writer.
Every writer faces the second kind of puzzle every time they begin a new work. They must discover the pieces of a new puzzle and how they fit together. Since every story is different, even a writer who writes similar stories will likely struggle with this. It will be easier, of course, but it will still be a challenge. OK, enough with the puzzle. My point is pretty simple. No matter how long you’ve been writing, you can always get better if you keep fighting to find new ways to improve your skills. This fight and improving skills put you in a position to reach higher levels with your work. Sure, writers are born with different levels and kinds of talent. That we can’t change. What we can change is our skills and these skills can give us the opportunity to create works we would otherwise be unable to create. Put it another way--Successful art comes from hard, steady work and from being in the right place at the right time. The poet, Randall Jarrell, once said he stood out in the rain hoping to be struck by lightening. Poets can be a bit gloomy but he’s right that writing is about constantly trying to learn more so that you can be in a place where, if the right connection is made, if the right strike of lightening hits, you can use it in a way that gives you the chance to write the best story you’re capable of writing.
The connections between characters and plot situation and setting and their relationship to internal and external conflict is what drives a novel forward. I struggle with this all the time. I think this simple way (Use THEREFORE, BUT and not AND THEN) of looking at the relationship between what happens in a story is helpful. Check out this very short video (about two minutes) by the creators of South Park—their # 1 Rule. They say that what you’re doing is trying to link what happens in a story by either a “THERFORE” or a “BUT”; what you should avoid is the “AND THEN” because this will just lead to a sequence of unrelated events etc. I think this is a simple way to remember one of those larger guiding principles of propelling your story forward. THIS HAPPENS Therefore THIS HAPPENS THIS HAPPENS so (therefore) THIS HAPPENS Boy steals a car/Boy gets caught by police/Boy calls parents to come and get him out/ BUT parents won’t because they decide it will teach him a lesson/therefore-when he’s in jail he gets beat up so badly he gets put in the hospital/ therefore…. And on it and on. Also giving away another ARC of Utopia, Iowa, at Goodreads—I’m down to one.
Fear. Even Stephen King has it, and not because he scares himself when he writes. He fears failure—fear that he will fail to finish what he’s writing. He’s written something close to 70 books and he still deals with what every writer I know has to deal with—fear of not being able to finish a story and worse, that it won’t be very good if you do finish it. It’s that nagging voice that you have to silence in order to write at all. Is it comforting or terrifying that it still comes to a man who’s written about 70 books? For me it’s comforting. We all struggle. So here’s a writer on Jane Friedman’s blog writing about fear and quoting Stephen King from an interview in Rolling Stone. And after that a link to the interview itself. Also an interview I did for SCBWI—not about fear but… and a link to a giveaway soon to be over. One day and change left on my giveaway of 5 signed ARCs of Utopia, Iowa—Candlewick-- which comes out Feb. 2015—enter here if you so desire.
I love this Elmore Leonard http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1651959 interview because the king of writing dialogue is insightful and because he says a lot of things I think about dialogue. I love the part where he says his characters who can't talk well don't make it. How's that for giving characters incentive to say interesting things in interesting ways? I think he creates interesting complex characters by listening closely to how they talk and what they say. He figures them out through dialogue and I do this, too. Maybe you can or if not at least make dialogue more important to your stories. Another thing I love about this interview is how he says he keeps trying to get better. The guy is close to 80 at this point and has written--I don't know--forty novels. He's still trying to get better and it still interests and excites him. He's one of my role models in how to keep writing and keep having fun writing and still try to write stories that are entertaining and still about something.
So here are a few tips for writing dialogue:
1. It should have the appearance of real conversation without being real conversation. Transcriptions show how boring most real conversation is. Um, a, um...
2. Use mostly he said, she said... avoid using a lot of different taglines or adverbs to "show" how the person is feeling. He said dejectedly OR she said happily. MY thoughts on this is you probably haven't done a good job of showing how your characters feel in their dialogue if you have to resort to these kinds of descriptive adverbs. True most of the time.
3. DIALOGUE is showing. It's not telling. Readers are in a scene and this is one reason it can be so effective and engaging. Good dialogue can do many things. Move a story forward. Reveal character.
4. Don't dump info. "Remember how when we were younger we always went to the City Park and how you..."
5. Real conversations are often indirect.
6. This sort of goes with indirect but isn't exactly the same. There needs to be subtext in order for the dialogue to do MORE and be MORE in your story. Something should be going on underneath whatever the conversation is about on the surface. Showing this opens up opportunities to give depth to characters and plot.
Of course reading writers that are good at dialogue like Jane Austen, Elmore Leonard, John Green and many others will help.
Also, my giveaway of five Signed ARCs of Utopia, Iowa (Candlewick, Feb. 2015) is still going on over at Goodreads. Sign up to win a copy if you're so inclined-- https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22747808-utopia-iowa
So here’s my problem. I can’t be faithful. I’m not monogamous. When it comes to fiction, I just can’t do it. It would be simpler if I could be. But both as a reader and a writer, I’m drawn to many different genres: literary, fantasy, realism, mystery, sci-fi. To make matters worse I like serious novels that also have some kind of humor in them. I’m most excited by fiction that blends many of these genres and elements. I was on a panel at a writing conference recently and one of my fellow-panelists said that the problem with genre bending/blending was expectation. An editor on the panel agreed. His point: The audience has certain expectations for a genre and if those expectations aren’t met they’re not going to like the novel. The panelist said that it was like going to a soft-drink machine and pressing Coke and getting a Dr. Pepper. I absolutely see how that would be disappointing, even maddening. I don’t care for Dr. Pepper. Sorry DP fans. And I do get what he means about expectation, but many of the writers I love have convinced readers to know them well enough to know that their fiction won’t fit neatly into a genre label. A few examples would be Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, Chris Moore—or they wander into new territory and later everyone says they’re writing in a new genre-- like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and magical realism. I like realism as a writer and a reader. I’m a fan of John Green and Pete Hautman (who writes in many genres) and Rainbow Rowell and Francisco Stork—to name a few. But I also like fantasy—The Golden Compass, Elsewhere, Harry Potter, and many, many others. These two genres, when done well, really get me excited as a reader. They also excite me as a writer but I don’t want to have to choose. I don’t want to write one or the other. I want to write realism and I want to write fantasy. Both at the same time. I’m telling people I write fantastical realism (which I’m pretty sure isn’t a real literary term but if I say it with confidence maybe I won’t get called on it) to try to describe what I do in Utopia, Iowa—my novel coming out early next year. There are magical creatures in that novel and people who have gifts that are magical. But the day to day of the novel has many ordinary moments. My main character has pretty normal teenager problems: girl problems, school problems, parent problems. He has a dream of becoming a writer for movies and it both scares and exhilarates him. He also happens to see ghosts. This is what excites me as a writer. This mix. To make matters worse and add yet another element: I like to write characters who find humor in our sad, strange, funny world. So that’s another thing that excites me when I write fiction. Writing with a sense of humor about the strange and sometimes serious aspects of our world. There are many writers who have this particular problem: Gaiman, Prachett, Green and, of course, Mr. Dickens and Ms. Austen. Many more. I love reading fiction that has this element, which, I suppose, is one of the reasons I love writing it. Maybe all I’m saying in all this is that as both a writer and a reader the books that most excite me are the ones that surprise me in some way. I think you have to write what excites you. Anything less—even if it will be easier to sell because it fits more neatly into a category—will be less. The reader will notice. And, more importantly, you won’t have nearly as much fun.
PLOT IN THE CHARACTER DRIVEN NOVEL & GIVEAWAY Just listed this morning (Oct. 15) on goodreads—I’m giving away 5 signed ARCs of the very novel I use as an example in this post (what a coincidence!)—Utopia, Iowa. Sign up for the giveaway and add the book to your reading list if you’re so inclined. Thanks. When I sit down to write a novel, I try to think of a situation for a character to be in. I don’t usually get it right the first time or even the second or third but I get some of it right and then a little more on the next draft and a little more and so on. The way I develop my situation is by writing my way into my main character. First drafts are always hideous and my main character—if I were to visualize—would be this monster, half-formed and everything out of proportion. Dr. Frankenstein and I have a lot in common. But as I write, I start to know things about my character because of how he/she speaks and how he/she reacts or creates actions in the scenes and the situations he/she gets into. I have to be patient. This awkward stage is very hard to get through. My character is driving the story—particularly what my character needs and wants within a specific situation. Scene by scene this might be small things. He/she wants a cup of coffee or a piece of chocolate or to have sex or not to have sex. But in the marathon of the novel there will be something deeper that he or she wants, something I think of as desire (and Robert Olen Butler calls yearning) in order to distinguish it from all the other many, many wants a character has. This will help direct the entire novel’s plot. So one connection between plot and character is that what the character desires, believes they need, will cause them to act and react in certain ways and this will cause things to happen in the novel. Keeping the link between the two helps me focus my story. Again, character driven fiction will rely heavily—surprise, surprise—on the character(s). So in addition to this desire, you need to understand primary characteristics of your character. For me, character is where it all starts. BUT we still need plot in character driven stories, we need narrative drive, and the connection between plot and character, a symbiotic relationship, is going to power the story forward. It can create opportunities for depth and excitement. Plot and character, linked in a symbiotic relationship, can help you make those connections that are so important in writing a novel and in the finished novel. In Utopia, Iowa, my main character, Jack, has many things he wants: he wants to write for the movies but is afraid to follow his dream; he wants to leave his small town of Utopia, Iowa, but at the same time doesn’t (he loves the quirky little town and its people but he also has the desire to see more of the world); he wants to be more than just best friends with his best friend, Ash, but is afraid that trying to make this happen will destroy their relationship as best friends. You can see the conflicts these “wants” of my character will create. You can probably imagine different ways these wants might play out in the novel. But, in addition to all of these, there’s an underlying character trait in Jack that pushes the story along—he likes to help people. In his case, because he, like many in his family, happens to see dead people, some of these people he helps are ghosts. Essential to this particular story is the fact that a dead girl comes to him, one who has been murdered, and asks him to help her find who killed her and how she died (she has death amnesia which, in case you are unfamiliar with this particular condition, is very uncommon among the dead). He should ignore her—he knows trying to find answers for her could get him into trouble-- but…he can’t. I love character driven fiction but I think sometimes writers who say their fiction is character driven decide this somehow means they don’t need plot. Au contraire, the connection between plot and character is what makes for good writing and good reading.
Setting is the poor relative in the fiction-writing craft family. We give character, language, voice, plot, a lot of attention. Rightly so. But setting also deserves some love.
So here are two ways to think of setting. The first narrow. The second broader.
Narrow-- character development: where your characters live. Her house or apartment. The places your character goes to have coffee or eat dinner or work. All of these are an interaction of character and setting and the setting helps reveal character. Maybe think about this in revision and use setting to develop and deepen character. Broader picture: For some writers, in some manuscripts, setting becomes a character. This can be a very powerful and distinctive characteristic of a writer's work. From the reader’s side—they can be drawn to a certain writer because the setting creates an atmosphere. Think Philip Marlow in LA; Raymond Chandler’s noir atmosphere comes , in part, from his evocation of setting in his novels. There are many, many examples, including the many examples in fantasy and sci-fi where the worlds need to be clear and present in the story. One way to think of setting is as a character. I know that I did this in my novel—out early next year--http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22747808-utopia-iowa. The town of Utopia, Iowa, became a major character. I loved the eccentric people that lived there and the mystery of its past and the threat of dark forces drawn to the town because of its past. I began to think of the town itself as a character and that (I hope) helps build an atmosphere in the novel and contributes to the overall tone of the story. But it also helped me develop a connection between setting and character and plot. To me, so much of the process of writing a story comes from making these connections. Here's an exercise on the importance of setting in a more focused way—to build character. Describe the place where someone lives just by the details. The details that you choose reveal the character. A man who has separated from his wife and family but wants to go back to them. A man who has separated from his wife and family and doesn't want to go back to them. A high school student's room—he’s lost and partying too much. A high school student’s room—she’s an A student. A girl or boy who doesn’t have a place to live. A boy and girl who are seventeen and have a child. This could go on and on. The purpose of the exercise is to focus on how setting can evoke and develop character.
First my disclaimer—I’m a reluctant promoter. I try now and then, but I struggle with that part of being a writer. So I’m inexperienced. But I have been reading up on it a little, trying to know more. One thing I keep reading is that writers have the opportunity to connect directly with readers, thanks to social media, in ways they never could before. So although the gatekeepers and influencers are still important, there seems to be a lot of potential to let readers know about your work without going through the middleman or woman. The problem is how do you make that connection? There’s a much-quoted line from Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother and co-editor of Boing Boing, “The problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.” Yeah, that is a problem. I kind of have that problem. His point is a good one, I think-- you should give away as much content as you can because the worry shouldn’t be that you’ll give away too much; the worry should be that no one will read what you give-away or what you or your publisher sells. Of course Amazon and now publishers give away the first few chapters of books to try to get readers interested. The SAMPLE has been around for a while and I’m a big fan of it. I usually read the sample of a novel before I buy it even if friends have recommended the novel. But the SAMPLE—in most cases-- isn’t available until around publication. It made me think that it would be nice if that kind of experience or an experience like that could be available before the book was published. So my idea is pretty simple (it may have been done before but I haven’t seen it anywhere). You give away a short version of your novel before it’s published. What I did was make a 2-minute novel that is something that a reader can read in less time than it would take to listen to a song. I took select lines from my novel that comes out on Feb.10, 2015 --Utopia, Iowa-- from the beginning to the end. I posted it to my website. Here it is if you want to take a look at the post: http://brianyansky.com/2-minuteUtopia.html I was careful not to give away the secrets of the story, of course. I picked lines that I thought were interesting or funny or revealed a little character or plot. I wanted it to be fun and short. More than anything I wanted to give a feel for the novel so that if someone read the 2-minute version and liked it, they might be interested in the full 300+ page version when comes out many months from now. So here are some reasons I think this is a good idea and something you might try with your novel: *You have something you can show readers before publication. * The 2 minute version will remain on my website through publication so it isn’t a one-shot promotion deal. I did put it out there when I got my book cover but I can keep referring people to it as time moves closer to the pub. date and I do other promotions. Will it help? Who knows? But as a reluctant promoter I’m all about small steps; if it makes even a few readers aware of and interested in Utopia, Iowa, I’m happy.
The cover reveal for my new novel. I don't know if this is the shortest novel in the world but it is certainly a quick read. I hope it gives a feel for the longer version.
The 2-Minute Novel: UTOPIA, IOWA by Brian Yansky
Here is UTOPIA, IOWA, from the first few pages to the last (with a few parts left out). It should take you about two minutes to read. You can fill in the missing words yourself and/or wait to read the whole story, 300+ pages, which comes out February 10, 2015.
11. I learned a lesson that day: Real revolution needs more than creamed corn.
22. But I wondered if skewed priorities were a bad thing—which was probably just further proof I had them.
33. I was already dealing with detention, the start of senior year, and all kinds of questions about my future. I didn’t need a dead girl, too.
44. “What do you think, Mr. Bell, is true love real?”
55. “Nathaniel says The Matrix is like Philosophy for Dummies…”
That sounded like Nathaniel.
66. “Does the Banshee always mean death?” Whisper Wainwright asked.
77. Penny was a fortune-teller. She also had a nursery. She was very good with plants and visions of the future. It was a small town; a lot of people needed more than one talent to get by.
88. She had many gifts/curses but she didn’t like to be specific about what they were.
99. “…something dead—dead and old and very powerful—was controlling her. But here’s the really spooky part.”
“That wasn’t the spooky part?” I said. “That sounded like the spooky part.”
110. He had a glass eye that saw much further than his natural one.
111. Ash softened…”Just don’t take your dead girls out on me…”
112. She told me she needed a friend not another boyfriend. Numerically this was true, but…
113. Next to Ishi the king looked small and weak. All the same Ishi would be dead before he took one step if the king felt threatened.
114. “A dream,” the detective said…He reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive (1993…)
115. The next morning Mom and Dad didn’t fight. It was worse. They were polite.
116. She wasn’t fooling me. I knew she was using some kind of reverse psychology. Still it’s kind of disconcerting to have your mother advise you to hold up a bank.
117. The dead wanted to forget they were dead. It was best for everyone if they didn’t.
118. “You must eat your mortal’s heart,” the king says.
119. It was not at all The Breakfast Club (1985…)
220. Love is madness.
221. “The dead don’t bleed,” I said, trying to reassure her.
222. My fourth mistake was not riding away after I called the police.
223. I liked to think of myself as the loner-outsider type (See Cool Hand Luke and Junoand about a million other movies) but maybe I was just socially challenged.
224. “I’m so tired of this small town,” she said.
225. Sometimes she could be a very irritating witch.
226. Gram drank her potion and gave a few drops to Captain Pike.
227. “A monster’s got her,” Amanda said.
228. The bell rang.
229. Thanks to Silence of the Lambs (1991…)
330. Ash drove us over to the Cowboy Guru’s house…
331. “It’s a place that was and can never be again,” he said. “Now you be careful. The young should never want the past more than the future.”
332. “The Princess Bride, I think.”
“That’s a great one,” I said.
333. “Hollywood,” she said.
“The stuff dreams are made of…” (Maltese Falcon, 1941)
3 THE END
UTOPIA, IOWA is about a small town where the supernatural meets the natural. There’s some murder and mystery and mayhem in this novel. Ghosts and other creatures and humans abound.
Some funny moments. Some sad. At heart, it’s a story about a boy who wants to write for the movies and his struggle with leaving all he knows (family, friends, hometown) to pursue his dreams. Long version-300+ pages available FEB 10, 2015: Candlewick Press.http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22747808-utopia-iowa
WHY I WRITE FUNNY/SAD NOVELS
Hi, my name is Brian and I write funny and sad novels. This mix is at the heart of any story I tell, no matter what else is in the story. I don’t write comic novels, though I want you to laugh when you read my novels. I don’t write sad novels, though I want you to experience the emotional roller coaster of my characters as they struggle through their stories. Both humor and sadness are in my novels and that’s a big part of what makes them mine.
I see the world as funny and sad. People laugh at funerals and cry at weddings. Sometimes they laugh and cry at the same time. We’re complicated, we humans. Surgeons make jokes when they’re operating on patients. Cops joke at crime scenes. Are they doing this because they enjoy other people’s pain? Of course not. Are they less serious about their jobs than someone who never jokes about anything? NO. They have difficult jobs dealing with life and death situations and humor helps them handle the things they must handle. There are many moments in life when funny and sad are side by side like this. For me it seems perfectly natural that funny and sad can both be in a novel, sometimes in moments right next to each other.
I’ve written novels that are mostly realistic (MY ROADTRIP TO THE PRETTY GIRL CAPITAL OF THE WORLD) and speculative novels (ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES) and realistic novels with supernatural elements (the upcoming UTOPIA, IOWA—February, 2015) and my last recently finished WIP told from the POV of a dead boy in a library between life and the afterlife (again, mostly realistic but with supernatural elements), but what they all have in common is the mix of humor and sadness. Of course there are writers far more successful than I who also have this mix at the heart of their work: Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gabrielle Zevin, and Neil Gaiman, come to mind. If you’re a writer who is forcing your writing to be either serious or comic because you think it must be one or the other, I’d ask you to consider the success of these writers.
I know I didn’t really find the voice for my fiction until I began to work toward a balance of funny and sad in my work. Now I can’t imagine writing fiction that doesn’t have both.
"Maybe because he has a laptop and a confident air, I’m not that surprised he has the gift of speech. Or maybe when you’re dead and you died the way I did, it takes more than a talking golden monkey with a laptop to surprise you."
This is from my WIP. It's just one paragraph out of context but here's the point I want to make. Along with all the other things you're trying to do at once--create voice, use language well, develop characters,plot, and so on and so on--creating surprise at all levels (sentence, paragraph, chapter) is helpful in engaging the reader.
So here--yes, in my quirky way--there's the surprise of the monkey himself and the fact that he can talk and has a laptop. But how I make this particular paragraph create suspense is I want the reader to want to read on because there's something the text raises that makes he/she want an explanation for "...maybe when you're dead and you died the way I did...". I hope the reader reads this line and wants to know more about my death, in particular how I died.
It's helpful to look at your use of language in this way during revision. With me--and I've noticed this in others--sometimes I word my sentence in such a way that I miss an opportunity to make the reader want an answer to a question--whether it's on the local level of the scene or a bigger question in the larger story.
I suppose there are many nuances to the revelation of character but for me the two most present in any work of fiction are what a character does and what he/she say and how these things direct his/her emotional and intellectual world.
Sometimes we try to tell how a character is feeling and that is that bad kind of telling that writing craft books are always decrying. (There is a good kind and I wish those books made this distinction and I'm sure some of them do but I've seen many that don't. Good telling--info that doesn't need to be shown...but that's another post). Also authors might think something to the point of exhaustion for both themselves and the reader.
So revelation of characters, in my humble opinion, should be shown through the action they take in the various situations that the story requires them to move through. These will be choices they make and others that are made for them and that they react to.
But for me--I LOVE DIALOGUE Yansky...what characters say to each other can reveal just as much. Each character tells a lot about who they are both in the way they say things and the things they say. Again sometimes they're initiating the conversation, moving it along, and sometimes they're reacting to what others have said.
Also dialogue shows the voices of characters who aren't narrating the story. It not only gives them their say but shows who they are by the way they say what they say.
For me, a lot of how I get my characters comes from how they talk.
Elmore Leonard, in talking about writing dialogue, said that he would let his characters talk and he'd follow the interesting ones. He'd kill off the ones who weren't interesting. Harsh? That's a writer for you.
What characters do and say are most important for me.
There is so much on the net about the craft of writing. Some good, some bad. Some good, in my humble opinion, is the simple advice to read a lot and write a lot. You must do these things to be a writer. I’ve written this advice myself. Simple but true. If you don’t like to read, you don’t have much chance of being a writer. You won’t get the nuances and subtleties of form and structure and language etc… And you have to write. That’s pretty self-evident. You can’t finish work if you don’t write. So, internet writerly advice is often “butt in chair” and “just write” and things like this. While all this is true and, I’d add, reading up on craft, it’s also true that a lot of writing isn’t done when you’re writing. A lot of writing is done when I walk the dog. So I would also advise that you consider this aspect of writing. Working out characters and what they do and have done to them is a lot of times accomplished when you’re doing something mindless like walking the dog. When I sit down to write, I do my best to be in my characters and their world and I try not to force things upon them. When I do, I usually head in the wrong direction. So a lot of times when I’m walking the dog, I’m thinking over questions about the story that have come up because of the writing I did earlier that day or the day before. There are always a lot of decisions to be made in any story. Walking the dog is an excellent time to work on these problems. And it has an added bonus: it makes your dog happy.
I've written before about how I start a novel, how I get going. Situation.
I do think Patrick Ness's idea that a good idea for a novel will attract other ideas is helpful. It highlights one thing that I think confuses a lot of novice writers: one idea is not enough. It's not, usually, near enough. When people come up to you at a party and say, "I have a great idea for a novel" they might as well be saying, "I saw an interesting bird today."Birds are everywhere. So are ideas. You have to be able to develop an idea and one way to do this is to push deeper into it, creatively develop it, and other ideas will come out of that first idea and help you develop your story.
For me, I need a little more than an idea to get started. I need a situation. For example, an idea might be that aliens invade the earth. That's not really a situation yet. A situation makes it more specific. Telepathic aliens invade the earth; they're so advanced that they conquer it in ten seconds. That's a situation. Now I develop that.
One powerful advantage to working from a situation is you can keep coming back to it to focus your story. Think about it as you wander your way down the narrative path. It's where your story comes from. What does this mean to your characters? How they react develops not only the story but the characters. What do they want because of their situation? What's at stake? All these kinds of writer questions come out of the origin of your story.
If you're a writer who has published, then you get asked to speak or be on panels and talk about the various aspects of writing. Many writers are teachers or teach now and then. In the modern writing world, writers often articulate their process, their thoughts about character and so on to audiences or classes. This can be very helpful to inexperienced writers--but not always.
I am not talking about responses to specific work by a new writer (the direct responses that speak to a person's work) but the more general advice writers give to other writers. When a writer gives a talk or talks in general about an aspect of writing, he or she is really talking about something that they've built a lecture around. They're making a point. They're making a point that they feel at that particular moment.
Voice is the strongest thing in fiction
Characters make the story.
It's not just that different writers have different opinions about many aspects of writing. The same writer (I speak from experience here) will feel differently about their writing process etc... at different times. They'll focus in on an aspect and maybe get carried away by how they view it at that moment because they're learning something new or relearning something or simply excited about some approach to writing.
I think it's good for the person who is listening to writing advice to be aware of that. The writer may be talking like he's convinced of something--and he is--but that conviction isn't necessarily going to last a life-time. Writing is complex. The continent of writing is vast and writers are constantly stumbling upon new things.
On the receiving end: what's good advice for one writer may not be good advice for another. For example, I teach a creative writing course sometimes and I tell my students to slow down within a scene. That's generally good advice because inexperienced writers tend to rush through a scene. But it is not universally good advice. I may have one writer who includes way too many details. They get so bogged down in details that the reader falls asleep trying to slog through them. AND/OR that writer may be giving the wrong details so the whole scene is out of focus and harms the narrative drive and character development. So that writer hears "slow down" and they try to stretch out their scenes even more, and their writing not only doesn't improve, it actually gets worse.
SO, if you're taking a course, listening to a lecture, in a workshop, my advice is to listen to whatever the writer, writer-teacher, writer-speaker says AND THEN see if it works for you. In other words, writer beware. All writing advice is not for you. One size does not fit all.
As a writer all I can do is what I can do at that particular place and time. Write what interests me, what gets me excited, what moves me. If I do less than that then I think it comes through in my writing. Anyway, where's the fun in doing less than that? But what I can do can always be more. I have time to make it more.
I try to learn, try to do what I do well better and try to do what I don't do as well better. I feel lucky that I'm a writer. I get to keep trying to write better until I can't write anymore. That's a gift. Think of being a professional athlete and the short run they have at doing what they love.
Writers have time to get better.
And you don't have to be the best writer in every way to be a good writer. In fact, even the great ones are not the best in every way. Good writers do some things very well and others maybe not so well. Some are very good with description or dialogue or characterization or...you name it. Find what you do well, what you love to do, and do it. And then try to do it better. And then try to improve the things you don't do as well.
We can get better. We have time.
You will never figure it all out. How fiction works. Why some novels come alive an others don't. Nobody has it figured out. That's a blessing and a curse. Some days it feels like a curse anyway. But it's a blessing. To be engaged, to be passionate, to love the process--in spite of the days when you hate it--, to love the mess of it all and finding order in that mess and shaping it into a story, is pretty damn awesome. And it goes on, this feeling, this struggle, a whole life because we can't ever "figure it out" completely.
So, I feel lucky. I have time to get better.
Last blog of the year. I love this short inspirational youtube from numerous well-known writers giving a sentence or two of writing advice. What is the one piece of advice that almost every one of them gives?
You find your way to your unique way of writing by writing.
I eventually got an MFA in Writing at Vermont College where I had many great teachers.
But before that, when I was an undergraduate, I tried out a few Creative Writing classes. Back in those days, and maybe in some classes these days too, the instructors didn't so much teach the class as talk about writing and then go over a story or two and then--nothing. There was no organized approach to teaching craft, no exercises to help us understand aspects of craft. It was just talk and then workshop. I didn't get much out of any of those classes.
Last night I was having final conferences with my students in my own creative writing class. When I started teaching this class years ago, I vowed to make it different from those useless classes that I had taken as an undergraduate. I would go through elements of craft, give them exercises to practice , get them writing in and out of class, get them reading published fiction and discussing it as writers, show videos of other writers talking about elements of craft. I would inspire them to write. I'd do more.
Last night I was talking to one of my students and he was asking me about majoring in English and I said there was good and bad to it for a writer. "We read differently than English students do," I said. "As writers, you and I read differently, and sometimes English classes can be frustrating for us because we read as writers."
A big smile broke out on his face.
It made me remember something--- how, back in one of those useless creative writing classes, the professor said, off-handedly, that when I finished my first novel I'd most likely put it away in a drawer and go on to the next and I shouldn't worry--that was natural.
A big smile broke out on my face.
I'd forgotten that smile until I saw it on my student's face.
You see I hadn't really believed I could write a novel. I wanted to. I'd written some things. But I didn't know if I could or how I would ever finish a novel. But here was this writer and this teacher of writing assuming I would. It made me think maybe he knew something I didn't. Maybe I really could finish a novel.
Belief is hard to come by.
You never know where you'll find it.
Sometimes even in a useless creative writing class. NOT so useless it turns out.
Thinking of yourself as a writer, finding the belief to do so, is a huge step to becoming one.
That professor/writer gave me an incredible gift.
Thank you, Professor G.
I'll try to pass it on.
What I love about this video is it expresses very well a certain landscape most writers must go through:
You've been writing for a while and you've had some good moments --you know that--and you know you have some good stories in you and you know you've worked hard and read a lot and studied the various aspects of writing fiction--AND you know something isn't quite what you want it to be be in your writing, something isn't quite There... but you don't know what. You know good work; you understand it when you read it. You appreciate it. You believe you have it in you to write good work but something isn't right in your scenes or sentences or characters, some thing, maybe small, isn't right. It's a disappointment. Ira Glass articulates this gap between what you know you can do, what you want to do, and what you're able to do. And we all, at least every creative writer I know, have been in that place. (Not to say there isn't always a kind of gap for writers between what they imagine and what they can actually get on the page but here I'm talking about a different gap, one more specific to writers still trying to find their way and at this place where they understand a lot but can't quite get that understanding into their fiction. )
The video speaks to that and writing your way through this "place". It has no magic formula to give, but I think it's helpful to know almost every writer has gone though it. You have to just keep writing. It's that simple and that complex. Keep writing.
Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.
I read for pleasure first--because the experience of reading is one of the things I love about this world. But I'm a writer so I also read with an eye to how another writer does something well. Really good writers do some--BUT NOT ALL, which is encouraging in a way-- things really well. So I try to learn.
For example, I look at this sentence that opens A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and I think WOW. And then I think--what makes it so good? It does a lot of things in one sentence, but I think, more than anything it makes me want to know Owen Meany and, to a lesser degree, the narrator. It's a great opening and it immediately attracts me to the characters. I want to know more.
"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."
"doomed" (a powerful word that makes us think of fate and tragedy), a boy with a "wrecked" voice and "smallest person I ever knew"---give the beginning of this sentence almost a mythic quality, and there is something about wrecked that has the echo of forces beyond us. Shipwreck--for example. And he's not just a "small" person but the "smallest person I ever knew"--Here it's a bit like a fairy tale. In all these there is the sense that this story is larger than itself, whatever itself will be.
And then the next line: "the instrument of my mother's death"--not that he killed her or that he was a part of her death in some way. More vague and yet full of mystery and more involved than just being a part of it --"the instrument". How was he the instrument? What does instrument mean in this context? We want answers to this question and it is always good when a writer gets a reader wanting answers to questions he's posed directly or indirectly in the text. So this is yet another thing that this sentence makes me think about.
Why does the reader turn the page? To get to the next one. This sentence makes me want to turn the page because I want to know more about Owen Meany and the plot. The reader already has me hooked on character and story and I haven't even finished the first sentence.
OK, onward------Then the "but" and we turn the corner. All of these interesting and strange things that Owen Meany is, as interesting and compelling as they are, are not the reason our narrator is "doomed" to remember Owen. This is a thrilling moment in this sentence. We've been brought to it by the choice of words, the compelling information, the rhythm of the clauses...not because, or because, or even because... THEN but because he is the reason I believe in God.
What? I didn't see that coming but when it comes it seems just right...all of this is about faith and this will be a book about faith. You don't have to be a Christian to feel that this is right. Faith or the lack of it is one is at the heart of so much of what it means to be human.
There's more to say about this sentence, of course, but let me just end with this. Here's Mr. Irving's sentence again.
"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."
Let me just rewrite this for him:
I have to remember a boy with a broken voice--not because of that or because he was so small or because he was part of why my mother died but because he made me believe in God.
IT'S the same information. I just changed a few words. Only a few. But what happened? I sucked the life right out of it--or most of the life. I did. I should be ashamed of myself. Oh, it's not awful, I suppose, but that's the difference--not awful and something beautiful. This reminds me of Mark Twain's quote, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightening and the lightening bug."
I learn a lot from reading other writers. Sometimes I learn just from reading one sentence.
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Here's some good advice about bad advice in writing that is sometimes good and sometimes bad---depending. And that could be all I have to say on the matter because it does, in a way, say it all. OK--not really but sort of. Your way has to be your way. A lot of the bad advice that you'll see in the "ten worst pieces of writing advice" is good for some, especially inexperienced writers. BUT people repeat it as gospel to others who it is harmful to. My advice is to listen to everything you hear about writing, read everything you can about writing, experience everything you can, but first and foremost write. Write every day. Write different things. Push yourself. Find what you do well and not so well. Learn from doing. You'll find your way.