Influence from Great Writers

Nathan Bransford (author, agent, media manager) asked on his blog“Which Writers Most Influence Your Work?” It’s a short blog, but generated a great deal of response.  It’s worth looking at, if you can get past the Mom and Dad and “My second-grade teacher said…” stuff, although my response slinks a bit toward that.  So, here goes:

At Oglethorpe University (in the dark ages half a century ago) my senior English professor said, “Steve, you have a very nice way with words; you just need something to write about.” I took that as an encouraging comment, whether it was meant that way or not. A year later I was in a writing class at The New School (NYC) in which the teacher was so harsh that I gave up writing fiction for decades. Really. So, they were both influential regarding my writing.

Fortunately over the years I grew up, grew thicker skin, and began to write fiction, my first and long neglected writing love.  The writers who have influenced me in style, process, structure, and thought include Ron Carlson, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Philip and Henry Roth, Alice Munro, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Chandler, Vonnegut, Michael Chabon, E. L. Doctorow, Donald E. Westlake, Bernard Malamud, Melville, and of course Nabokov. Not all at the same time, certainly, but all are behind me kicking my butt generally forward (a self-indulgent fantasy, but not a bad one to have).

Below, I add for my dear readers just how (or why) some of the authors I’ve listed have helped me.

Ron Carlson:  a great teacher and writer of short stories and accessible novels.  He grabs everyday life, wrestles it from the mundane, and makes it meaningful.

William Faulkner:  His more famous works are FAMOUS and worthy, although the style doesn’t fit the modern audience.  Read his earlier works first, which are simpler (Mosquitos and Soldier’s Pay).  Don’t ignore Light in August, a great read, not in the stream-of-consciousness style in which one sentence could run for pages. He does “bad guys” so deeply that you almost root for them.

John Steinbeck is down-to-earth, gritty, and “real.”  Great characters who struggle with right and wrong.  My favorite is Winter of Our Discontent.

Vladimir Nabokov can be hard to read.  (Hey, he’s Russian.)  He’s very internal, not plot driven, actually more personal issue/problem oriented.  Most people know about Lolita, whether they’ve read it or seen the movie.  Many people consider Lolita a book about pedophilia, although the real subject is obsession, which is why I call his work problem oriented.  Amazingly poetic writing given that English is his third language.

Kurt Vonnegut is funny, caustic, incisive, and terse.  I strive for these things.

Donald E. Westlake also writes terrific bad guys.  Read The Ax to see how Westlake goes so deeply into the bad guy that you can understand why he’s bad and maybe start rooting for him (or her).  I became comfortable writing “bad” characters from reading his.  Maybe too comfortable.

Henry Roth shows how to write three-dimensional children who are able to be “smarter than their age” in Call It Sleep.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  You may be wondering where my fiction is (if not necessarily where you can buy it.)  Fair question.  I’ve written four novels and a book of short stories.  I just haven’t published them.  Why?: A)  I love writing stories; sending them out for publication steals time from that;  B) Fear of failure; C) Fear of success; D) All of the above.  But two of the novels will soon be available on Amazon/Create Space and/or BookBaby, affordably priced.  I’d love to know what you think of the novels.



Best Simile

Literary writing often flows with similes and metaphors.  Also, not so literary writing.  And, of course, poetry.  Here is the best simile I’ve yet encountered, and it comes from the pen of a critic, not a “creative” writer:

“…tombstones cried out of the earth, like teeth around a scream.”

This is from John Leonard upon visiting the Jewish Cemetery in Prague.  (He was writing about Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright, as well as Czechoslovakia’s last president and the Czech Republic’s first president.)

What is the best simile you’ve ever read, or written?  And what do you think of my assertion that the writing of critics, as critics, is not “creative?”

William Faulkner’s War Wisdom

“For six thousand years we labored under the delusion that the only way to stop a war was to get together more regiments and battalions [including, of course, more and more efficient technology of murder] than the enemy could, or vice versa, and hurl them upon each other until one lot was destroyed and, the one having nothing left to fight with, the other could stop fighting.  We were wrong, because yesterday morning, by simply declining to make an attack, one single French regiment stopped us all.”

This passage from William Faulkner’s [with one small bracketed addition] A Fable says  so much so directly (for Faulkner).  A few decades later First Lady Nancy Reagan said it even more succinctly (which is not to say better) with “JUST SAY NO,” although her focus was sex, not war.  Lysistrata combined the two—war and the withholding of sex—to great effect.

Wouldn’t it be truly glorious, efficient, and wise if those who made war happen had to do the fighting, just them, no armies to do the dying for them?  But humanity as a whole, judging by our long record, has been well equipped with brain-power while short-changed on wisdom.

Others have raised the message, too, but I like Faulkner, so I offer his words to you.  Yet, perhaps the most troubling rendition of this message comes from Dalton Trumbo in the form of “Johnny Got His Gun,” a 1939 novel about World War I, made into a 1970 movie.  It’s the story of an American soldier who loses all his limbs and half his brain, so that he has no sight, hearing, speech, yet is alive and thinking, wondering what happened, where he is, who’s there, though the medical staff at the field hospital don’t know of his ability to think, only that his heart still beats.  The opening moments of the film showing generals and politicians and the “glory” of war provide the message behind the credits and a military drum-beat.  Then comes the bomb blast.  Then the army surgeons speculating over Johnny’s delimbed body.

I offer nothing new today, just a reminder from a great writer in our leaders’ latest moment of searching for war.  I love finding gems such as this and feel spurred to pass them along.  A Fable is about World War I, the “war to end all wars,” (a phrase attributed to Woodrow Wilson), was published in 1950, but entered my consciousness just this week.  Lysistrata is a play by Aristophanes first performed in Greece in 411 BCE. which I first encountered in college (Oglethorpe University).  Being young and not yet smart, I was of two minds about the anti-war message (Peloponnesian War) of Lysistrata, actually three.  First (or last), it is a hoot.  More importantly, it spurred my own then uber-masculine urge to fight to defend whatever, while contrarily opening my mind to the peaceful bliss of Canada.  Fortunately, I turned out to be 4-F and have lived out my life in relative peace in this, my nation of war-willing leaders.

Circling back to Faulkner’s opening quotation, the expected price of refusing to engage the enemy in battle is a bullet in the back from one’s own officer, but that’s another story.

Wm. Faulkner home movie – 1949

The Millions does it again, finds and presents something of great interest and value to fiction writers.  In this case it’s a 15-minute gem of William Faulkner (offered in five  3-minute segments, as the technology of the time was so limited) just after he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.  These short films show Faulkner in his home town of Oxford, Mississippi, interacting with friends and neighbors and giving a graduation speech to the high school.  It’s scripted to show Faulkner at his interpersonal and philosophic best, which is pretty damned good.  Each brief segment provides memorable stuff.  Enjoy.

Faulkner film-1949

BookTalk Nation — Check it out

I have “discovered,” after about a year of hearing about it, an interesting, engaging, and useful blogsite called BookTalk Nation.  On it you can hear  half-hour interviews with authors of fiction and non-fiction books.  You access the interview by computer at or by phone (212/563-5904).  This is a fairly new enterprise sponsored jointly by The Authors Guild and the independent bookstores who join.  Hearing/seeing the interview is free, while profits from book sales resulting from each interview are shared, half by the “home” indie bookstore conducting the interview and half divided among the bookstores that have joined BookTalk Nation.  (Full disclosure:  I get a huge pile of nothing for telling you about all this.)

It’s a very cool idea, allowing writers to escape our lonely, harsh lives—You know, “sit down and open a vein”—to hear how other writers do it, what their lives are like, where their inspiration and characters come from, etc.-squared.  So, go to and see if it’s good for you.  Hit the “HELP” key in the upper right corner of their home page for answers to most of the questions you may already have.

The next interview is with Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club (non-fiction), Thursday, March 7 at 3:00pm Pacific Time.  The next fiction tallk is Tuesday April 2, 7:00 PM EST / 4:00 PM PST with Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train.

Oh, almost forgot.  If you have a book already published, you can click on a button at the lower left of BookTalk Nation’s home page to offer yourself for an interview spot, along with an indie bookstore you’d like to conduct it.  Which is a nice switch, the author getting to select the interviewer.

My love-hate relationship with writing advice

I do not write in isolation.
I have a spouse (roommate/compatriot/lover/best friend) who expresses strong ideas about my lack       of self-promotion.
I am in three critique groups, each worthy of my devotion.
I have attended various writing retreats/programs (Centrum five times).
I was in a masters degree writing program (UC-Davis) before blowing town.
I spend several computer hours each day reading and researching about writing.
And it’s relevant to this piece that I began writing for publication well before the computer age, producing books, daily journalism, and academic stuff.

But I sometimes wonder whether I wouldn’t have been better off, writing production-wise, in a cell, solitarily confined.  How much have I gained from all of those (these) writing-related activities?

I cherish the comments I receive in critique groups, because the folks are usually paying attention to the work, though I use maybe one out of five comments.

I seldom go to writing conferences anymore because they yank me out of writing-mode, and most of the general advice I’ve heard before. The specific advice applicable to my pages hits home (is useful), again, maybe one in five.

As to writer-blogs and the bounties of the internet in general, it’s like trying to squash a one-pound slice of chocolate decadence cake into a four-ounce Chinese take-out container.  (Well, maybe not, though some of you will resonate to my meaning.)  Along with the tons of horrid junk available on the www, we can find some great stuff—Anne R. Allen’s blog, The Millions, Kristen Lamb , Jane Friedman, etc.—but even these take loads of time.   Sure, you can access the stuff fast, but you still need to digest and use it at far less than warp speed.  (One answer, of course, is for humans to evolve into cyborgs, which is not the sort of progress I would hope for.)

Maybe the origin of my problem lies way, way back in childhood.  “Shmuck!,” my mother used to say (not actually; it just felt that way), “Your eyes are too big for your stomach!”  I want the advice, but I don’t want it.  It takes too much time to get, then mostly reject.

So, who says I have to spend the time seeking it?  But if I don’t, then maybe I’m missing things.  A new writer-help program or product.  Insight or information about selling (a term I prefer to “submitting”) my writing.  New tricks for an ever-trickier trade.  The wonders of self/indie-publishing vs. the horrors of traditional publishing.  And vice versa.

And what if Asteriod XXX-fortyskugelfogwahwah passes too close to earth and wipes out all our data and programs and chapters?  What will literary (more or less) civilization do then?  Go back to the methods of Faulkner, Hemingway, Mansfield, Woolf, Huxley, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Wharton, Lawrence, Ferber, etc.?  Wouldn’t that be awful, to have a new generation that wrote with less advice and minimal machinery?

Laszlo Luddite, guest poster

E-book readers pull data from you sub-rosa. So?

Lynn Neary (NPR, 1/28/13) recently did a report on the electronic tracking that Amazon, Barnes & Noble and probably others do of our e-reading, not only what we buy, but how we read it.  Maybe the first issue is that of privacy.  Do we, the purchasers/readers of books, want the sellers and the writers of books to know if we stopped reading, where we stopped, did we read passages on particular pages more than once, etc.?  Some readers, of course, will take the standby position that since they are doing nothing wrong, it matters not to them that they are being tracked.  As this particular post is not intended to be political, we can tackle that question another day, though the privacy issue may linger in one’s mind.

From a purely publishing/writing/reading stand-point, according to best-selling author Scott Turow, president of The Authors Guild,

I would love to know if 35 percent of my readers were quitting after the first two chapters, because that frankly strikes me as, sometimes, a problem I could fix. Would I love to hitch the equivalent of a polygraph to my readers and know how they are responding word by word? That would be quite interesting.

(A polygraph hitched to your readers, Scott?  Now that is interesting.)

Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan (The Goon Squad) says, in contrast,

…this speaks to the question of how important market research really would be for me as a creative person … [It’s] interesting to know, but should not really be predictive or part of the creative process.”

I for one (or 2 or 3, depending on whether dog and/or cat are on my lap) read in idiosyncratic ways, which I challenge a computer program to make heads or tails out of.  For example, I read several books at a time (upstairs book, downstairs book, and on my Kindle, from which I may read from several books, depending upon mood, need, or interest of the moment).  Sometimes I “quit” reading a particular book for several months.  Sometimes I quit a book “permanently,” meaning it’s lost my interest…until it regains my interest.  Sometimes I dump a book.  But if Scott Turow thinks I stopped reading at page 50, because that’s where it got boring, it may have been boring from page 3 and I just waded through until it got unbearable.

So, I don’t believe “they” can make accurate and useful marketing or editorial decisions from my patterns.  While I know that such decisions are made by computers from aggregated data (i.e., lots of readers), I believe my reading patterns are closer to normal than odd-ball.  In fact, if you want to read reactions to this new sub-rosa electronic feedback tracking game, check out the comments at the end of Lynn Neary’s NPR article.

Which goes to one of my favorite maxims that applies at least to the last 100+ years:
Just because something can be measured, doesn’t mean it should be measured.

So, what do you think, not only about your reading patterns being tracked in the background (sub-rosa), but what editors/publishers and writers might make of the data, for good or ill?

Can we end without an ending? Doctorow did.

I just finished reading E. L. Doctorow’s “Wakefield,” a short story in his 2011 collection called, All the time in the world.  “Wakefield” is the tale of a successful middle-aged lawyer who “accidentally” (comes early, so not a spoiler) abandons his home, family, and job by secretly moving into the virtually unused storage space above their detached garage.  It’s an intriguing premise and executed as well as one would expect of a writer as fine as Doctorow.

But it’s not a finished story.  That is, the story stops at the very point where the reader yearns to know the consequences of Howard Wakefield’s nearly year-long absence and abandonment of his family.  He, Wakefield (and thus writer Doctorow) carries on this big change of life, then is instigated to change back, but he (and we) are literally left at the opened door.  It leaves me wanting to write at least the next scene, but since it’s a great writer’s story who chose to leave it “unfinished,” do I dare?  I can see it, perhaps, being used as an exercise in an MFA writing class.  I can see it being praised for its “literariness.”  (If Doctorow can leave me hanging like that, can’t I coin a word, even if it’s never used again?)

This technique might be called “in medias res,” Latin for “in the middle of things,” except that this usually refers to beginning in the middle of a story, not ending there.  Thrillers and mysteries often begin in medias res, but can you imagine one ending there?

If I were to read “Wakefield” as my own work to a critique group (temporarily as “mine” and presuming they didn’t already know it), I could expect to be flayed for not ending the story.  “This story is unsatisfying!” “Actions have consequences!”  “You’re copping out, Figler!  Don’t come back without an end to this story and an apple streusel!” etc.  Or, someone may like stories that end without ending.

What other published stories by good or great writers have ended without an ending (consequence, etc.)?  How did you feel about it?  How might your story be received if you did this?


I’m sure that fewer than ten among my sea of readers have missed the shocking news that the Pulitzer Prize committee has decided not to award a prize for fiction this year.  This is the first time in thirty-five years that this has happened over the ninety-six years of Pulitzer awards.

Here is a quote from the New York Times article:

… it was the absence of an award for fiction that was perhaps the most shocking result of the committee’s voting. A winning book can be an instant boost to sales and is one of the most closely watched awards in the publishing industry. Finalists in the category included “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson, “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell and “The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace, who died in 2008.
Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said he was “shellshocked” by the lack of a winner in fiction.

Are you bothered, irate, or even outraged by this decision?  Or, is this a literary yawn?  Does it, perhaps, gladden you?  I’d like to know your opinion of the Pulitzer decision re: this year’s fiction, and will share with you not only the results, but also will then reveal my own feelings on the subject.  (This may seem like the modus opinioni of politicians:  “Poll first, then take your courageous stand,” though I would not sink to such depths.  Trust me.)  So, please comment with your opinion and reason.  My regular post will appear nearer the weekend.


“Rules of Writing” Redux

The Guardian, a British publication, has a series in which it asks famous (or at least published) authors of fiction to tell what their “rules for writing” are.

[None of them said, “no one-sentence paragraphs” or “keep your sentence’s subject and verb as close as possible,” although my English teacher from way back in 7th grade, the beloved Bessy Potter, had these among her basic rules of writing.  Yeah, I know, there’s a difference between rules of grammar and what The Guardian asked for; I just had to take the opportunity to honor Miss Potter.]

Among the authors who responded were Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy, Hilary Mantel, Will Self, Michelle Paull, Michael Morpurgo, Rose Tremain, and Zadie Smith.  If you haven’t heard of some of them, it’s probably because you aren’t up on your British writers.  No harm, no foul.

You probably have heard about and may have read Elmore Leonard, author of many mysteries, several of which have become movies.  In other words he’s very successful, as well as being one of my favorite reads.  Terrific dialog, characters, and plots.  (Sorry, Bessy, about my egregious lack of subject and verb.)  The article lists his “Ten Rules,” most, if not all, of which are good advice, though only the eleventh having the general and perhaps eternal status of what I would call a “rule.”  Though, if having an eleventh rule in a list of ten isn’t breaking some sort of rule, I don’t know what is.

So, here is Elmore Leonard’s 11th Rule of Fiction Writing:  “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”  Now, that’s as close to a real rule as I’ve heard, because if what you write sounds like writing, the reader is too aware of you, the writer.  Write from inside or along side your characters’ mind, not from your own.  For example, try not to give your character, Joe the long-haul truck driver, complex sentences and/or multi-syllabic words unless he’s a Yale graduate or an autodidact or it’s an integral part of the story.  Gee, that sounds a bit like a rule, although it’s meant as a suggestion, which is very different.

Leonard’s “rules” include:  Never begin a book with weather; avoid prologues; only use “said” to attribute dialogue; never modify “said” with an adverb; avoid detailed description of characters, places, and things.  Plus a few other “rules”, the most widely known, I would guess, being to “leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”  (A good trick, if you can do it.)

Considering Leonard’s rules and the very different rules offered by the other writers polled by The Guardian, and the rules of so many other writers, I stand by the declaration made (arrogantly?) in the very first post on this blog/website, which is that There are no rules for writing fiction.  What The Guardian and others call “rules” are merely suggestions for the struggling writer-becoming-author to consider.  If we gathered and totaled these “rules” over the years, we would certainly reach a thousand, and many would contradict each other.  Consider them (those “rules” you run across), yes; necessarily follow them?, no.  Or, you will be weighted down, freighted, thinking about them rather than swimming down deep in your story where you ought to be, even in second and third drafts.  (I think I see Bessy up there on a cloud, scowling.)  Just another suggestion.

As always, I welcome thoughtful disagreement, as well as agreement, which need not be thoughtful.