SKFigler’s Writing Blog

I’ll be posting about fiction writing primarily for readers, which of course includes creators of stories.  Posts will include insights and advice from great and good writers.  Also some bad advice, which I hope I’ll recognize and point out, such as the age-old platitude to “write what you know.” I hope to post once a week, probably on the weekend.  If I miss a blog, I hope you’ll miss it, too.


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.



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.

William Faulkner’s Self-Doubts (and yours)

Have you ever doubted yourself as a writer?  Why am I doing this?  Am I good enough, or any good at all?  Is it worth my time and the blood-letting?  Have you tired of the “Oh, that’s nice,” response when someone asks what you do and you reveal that, “I’m a writer”?  William Faulkner has some wise and telling observations in the Editor’s Notes at the end of the Vintage Books edition (1987) of “Sanctuary.”  They deal with his early sense of himself as a writer and his off-beat perception of success.

I’ve just finished reading “Sanctuary” for the third time, but the first  in over twenty years.  I recalled having liked it a great deal but like it even more now.  (I suppose “Light in August” is my favorite, but choosing among his works is like a chocoholic choosing whether he or she prefers dark chocolate nuts or chews.  Here’s a better analogy:  If I were “stuck” on a desert island with “Light in August,” upon finishing it (again),  I’d swim to the next island for the promise of “As I Lay Dying.”

So, here is what William Faulkner has to say about himself as an early writer  (By the way, he didn’t want this revelation printed in later editions by Random House):

“This book (Sanctuary) was written three years ago.  To me it is a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money.  I had been writing books for about five years, which got published and not bought.  But that was all right.  I was young then and hard-bellied.  I had never lived among nor known people who wrote novels and stories and I suppose I did not know that people got money for them.  I was not very much annoyed when publishers refused the mss. now and then.  Because I was hard-gutted then.  I could do a lot of things that could earn what little money I needed, than to my father’s unfailing kindness which supplied me with bread at need despite the outraged to his principles at having been of a bum progenitive.

“Then I began to get a little soft.  I could still paint houses and do carpenter work, but I got soft.  I began to be concerned when magazine editors turned down short stories, concerned enough to tell them that they would buy these stories later anyway, and hence why not now.  Meanwhile, with one novel completed and consistently refused for two years, I had just written my guts into “The Sound and The Fury” though I was not aware until the book was published that I had done so, because I had done it for pleasure.  I believed then that I would never be published again.  I had stopped thinking of myself in publishing terms.  [I wonder why he doesn’t include “Mosquitos” and “Soldier’s Pay”.]

“But when the third mss., “Sartoris,” was taken by a publisher and (he having refused “The Sound and The Fury”) it was taken by still another publisher, who warned me at the time that it would not sell, I began to think of myself again as a printed object.  I began to think of books in terms of possible money.  I decided I might just as well make some of it myself.  I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would  believe to be current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine  and wrote it in about three weeks and sent it to Smith, who had done “The Sound and The Fury” and who wrote me immediately, ‘Good God, I can’t publish this.  We’d both be in jail.’  So I told Faulkner, “You’re damned.  You’ll have to work now and then for the rest of your life.’  That was in the summer of 1929.”

Lies & Truth in Fiction

Albert Camus said that, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”  This definition of fiction has been passed along over many years through numerous writing teachers as, “telling lies in the service of greater truth.”  I’m one of those writers who has adopted this definition and use it as a guide for much of my fictional work.*   Some of my writing, though, is purely for entertainment, and, if you can find some greater truth in it, congratulations.

I wrote a novel of historical fiction called Hangtown about the California Gold Rush, which included two actual persons who were in Hangtown (now called Placerville) in that time of 1850.  One is Heinrich Schliemann, who in the 1870s discovered the lost cities of Troy in Turkey.  The other is Charles Crocker, who years later founded the Central Pacific Railroad and became one of California’s (in)famous Robber Barons.  They were in Placerville in the early 1850s as twenty-somethings and would have known each other.  The former was an assayer and gold merchant, while the latter ran what we might call a general store.  In furtherance of the novel, I might have Schliemann say to Crocker, “You, sir, charge the miners too much for your pickaxes,” while Crocker retorts to Schliemann, “Scoundrel!  You give them too little for their gold dust.”

That exchange is a lie the author (me) made up.  I am using the verbal exchange because it furthers the story plot, which requires Crocker and Schliemann to be in conflict.  It’s plausible and moves the story along; therefore, readers of historical fiction—note that the word “historical” modifies the essential nature of the work, which is fiction—generally accept such dialog without wondering whether it actually occurred.

Recently, however, there has been a dust-up over a stage performer and sometimes journalist who used the definition of fiction—”telling lies in service of greater truth”—to justify lying about the behavior of a major corporation, perhaps to emphasize the bad practices of large corporations in general.  Specifically, Mike Daisey on NPR’s This American Life charged Apple Corporation with abuses of its Chinese workers who manufacture some of Apple’s components and products.  As Mr. Daisey later admitted, many of the details of his “exposé” were not true.  Yet he continued to justify them in part because they were good theater.  (Currently there are over 30 Google entries about this.)

Seems to me that the essence of this lie/truth issue is in the purpose of what’s being presented.  The “lying” was done on This American Life, a journalistic program which seeks to present the truth to its audience; Mr. Daisey on that program presented stuff he concocted to make for better theater.  To my mind, that is like selling knock-off jewelry as real because the buyer will be happier thinking it’s real.  No, of course it’s worse than that, because the reputation of Apple was damaged.  But what if Apple was perpetrating harmful labor practices, and as a result of Mr. Daisey’s “lies” and subsequent bad publicity, it did better by its Chinese workers and even workers in other countries?

Would that justify the lies if they actually brought about not only a greater but a better truth?  Whadja think?

[*NOTE:  Most of my fiction, including Hangtown, is not yet available, but will be soon.]

The 3 Rules for Writing Fiction; Ignore at Your Peril

My first blog post on writing considers “The 3 Rules for Writing Fiction That Every Story-teller Must Know and Follow.”  We start with these three rules because they are of paramount importance to your success as a writer.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
Think about that for ten seconds or more.  Are you angry at the curveball I threw you or merely disappointed at having your hopes, so quickly raised, dashed upon the rocks of reality?  Maybe some of you had a little inward chuckle.  I experienced these emotions when first hearing this —let’s call it a joke—from a writing workshop leader years ago.  Yet it has turned out to be the best piece of wisdom on creating fiction I’ve encountered.
I first heard about the Three Unknown Rules at one of my five summers at the
Port Townsend (WA) Writers Conferences.  The workshop leaders over those five 10-day sessions were Alan Cheuse, Ursula Hegi, Brett Lott, Ron Carlson, and Pam Houston, all of them terrific writers and good to great teachers.  I forget which one offered the bit of twisted wisdom about the 3 Rules, but it is not original to him or her.  I’ve heard it attributed to great minds from E. A. Poe to W. S. Maugham to H. L. Mencken.
But why is it important to understand that nobody has discovered any hard-and-fast rules for writing (despite the lists of rules at various lengths you can find on Google)?  Because it gives you freedom.  Go with the knowledge of the absence of knowledge, or at least the absence of dogma.  Write with it.  Enjoy it.  Don’t let any supposed rule slow you down, because somewhere, some time, writers have “violated” with success any rule that has ever stood in a writer’s path…or been sought and used as a crutch.
Which is not to say that anything goes.  You should know what “rule” you are breaking.  Be aware that you are breaking it and to some extent why.  For example, the “rule” about not shifting point of view between characters.  (POV:  who is doing the thinking, seeing, feeling).  The POV “rules” include:  Don’t change POV within a chapter.  Never change POV in a short story.  Absolutely no POV shift unless you use a line break to separate them.  Why?  Because the reader might get confused.
Well, here is a POV shift from one paragraph to the next.  The first character is a nude model named Merav, the second is the artist in Blue Nude, the excellent novel by Elizabeth Rosner:
Danzig runs one hand through his hair, a gesture Merav already recognizes as habitual; he rubs at his jaw and his forehead.  [We’re in her head, seeing what she’s seeing.]
For the first long minutes, he had been able to look only at her hand, the one that dangled on the edge of the bathtub, catching light and reflecting it back…  [We’re in his head, seeing what he is seeing.]
Consecutive paragraphs; one POV shifted to the other.  Breaks the “rule.”  But I’m not confused by it.  Are you?
Why did Rosner do this?  Possibly because that moment in the story was so intimate that she needed to relate both minds nearly simultaneously, with no artificial separation in order to “follow the rule.”  Every such so-called rule of writing has been successfully broken.  It’s not the breaking of the “rule” that’s important; it’s doing it well.