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

“Unrelateable” Heroes: new coinage, old problem

Are we in a new era of word coinage?  Bill Morris, who publishes on-line at The Millions, thinks so.  He offers “fracking,” “illliquid,” and “repurpose” among other coinages.  In the following excerpt, “relateable” is a new coinage in the context of a story’s main character.  It’s particularly relevant to writers concerned with how readers might respond to an “unsympathetic” (i.e., bad-ass) protagonist.

                                    EXCERPT FROM:


by Bill Morris

“Relateable – A character in a novel or movie who has qualities that readers or viewers can easily recognize, identify with, and embrace. It’s a barometer of our culture’s watery values when the highest praise for a fictional character is that he or she is familiar, unthreatening, and easy to like. It reduces novels and movies to the level of a high school popularity contest, and it goes a long way toward explaining why so few Americans travel to remote, exotic, difficult locales. What ever happened to the glories of the unfamiliar, the discomfiting, and the odious? I’m thinking specifically about John Self, the scabrous, lecherous, loathsome – and hilarious – protagonist of Martin Amis’s best novel, Money [a Suicide Note]. He’s loveable precisely because he’s so…I hate to say it…he’s so gloriously unrelateable.”

        The full article is interesting and funny, not too long, and worth a tumble.

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

The Fiction-writing Apocalypse…Or Not?


In the ever-tweakable world of writing on, if not for, the internet:  E-publishing Division, Amazon has added another tweak:  Kindle Serials, as expounded upon by Porter Anderson (on the great Jane Friedman’s blog).  Home base of the discussion seems to be, “If Charles Dickens could serialize his novels, why not 21st Century writers?”  And Amazon, as usual, is the provider (or enabler) of such writer-friendly venues.  Kindle Serials is subtitled, “Great Reads, one episode at a time.”  Sounds great, right?  To me, too.  But Porter Anderson raises an interesting and important question (marketing- related, of course) for would-be serializers to consider:  If a story is going to be serialized (i.e., released piecemeal to the public over time), why not “improve it,” given the opportunity to get feedback from readers over that time?

I put “improve it” in quotes because that’s the issue, isn’t it, whether the likes/dislikes/ideas of readers would improve the author’s product, especially when those are the people presumably buying it?  Would that process improve a piece of writing, or simply result in the proverbial camel, venerably defined as a horse designed by committee.  Well, here is my unabashedly sarcasm-loaded opinion on that:

Reader-influenced serialized stories, hmmm. Why not apply that process to musical compositions, even opera? Or how about paintings? Or dance. Have each performance stop at several points and have the audience vote on the next movements, whether or not they know anything about dance. Seems great for Broadway productions, right? The ultimate in audience participation.

But why stop there? Let readers—writing seems the most available for this, given its unfolding nature and the time it takes—grab each subsequent chapter and run with it, submitting their individual efforts to the “readership,” then have that readership—for a fee. Weee!—vote for the best submitted chapter, and so and so on. ‘T’would be the ultimate in this our Interactive/Interconnected Age. I just love 21st Century progress.

Missing in this commentary, of course, are other issues, such as ownership of a work, artistic unity, and the author’s original intent, etc, which should be considered.  Soooo, consider them, please, and let me/us know your thinking.




Modern problems: a Chaplinesque

I am so fed-up with computer-type crap, such as failures and glitches and GOTCHAS (my name for so-called easy to add-on and use programs and apps which take endless hours to either get working or get rid of).  They tap-tap-tap my furious button to the point where, if I add/change anything, I’m just waiting for something to go wrong that will cost me dearly in time, money, and hair follicles.

When I watch pre-1980 movies, my nostalgia-gene homes in on the absence of computers, cell-phones, the WWW.HTTP.XYZ, etc.  Yeah-yeah, without personal computers we wouldn’t be able to clabgerate the folderoll and other neat things humanity never thought of doing until Hi-Tech showed us what we could do, even if we didn’t want to, but we should because everyone else is, and you don’t want to get left behind, heaven forfend.

Life would be calmer and more enjoyable without all this computer stuff (originally flogged as a time-saving devise, ha-ha), though I’d be back to the old carbon copy and white-out routine—Does anyone under 25 even know what that was?— which I could still do, of course, although the world would pay even less attention to me than it does now.  Oh, woe am I.

Please don’t call me Luddite; I prefer Chaplinesque.

Anyway, that’s how I feel this first Sunday in August.

How do you handle computer/software/cloud woes?

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.”

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?

ZAZEN (honor your muse and it will serve you)

I write at home in my office in my green chair.
…in my car parked on an ocean bluff.
…at Kreutzberg Cafe (San Luis Obispo, CA).
…while waiting at a doctor’s (or other) office.
…in any coffee shop or equivalent around the world, especially if it has comfortable seats.

I used to write in big city newspaper and wire service offices amid the clatter and clamor of typewriters (I’m of that age), wire service tickers with their bells, phones, amid shouting and threats (the empty variety, mostly), beneath the meaningless wind of cross-talk and curses and mindlessly spewed trivia.

The one condition in which I can’t write is the presence of one crying child. Two or more I can tune out. Children being children don’t bother me, nor do any number of barking dogs, nor our constantly clucking wild turkeys in mating season.  I suppose in the presence of crisis such as fire, flood, war, or riot, I would necessarily have a hard time writing.  I’ve been lucky enough to avoid those, although as a newspaper and wire service journalist, I’ve had to write during strike marches, court cases where boredom is the major danger, even at sports events from Little League to high school and university to major league contests.

My own sometimes-wandering mind gets in the way of a story’s progress more than almost anything external. But I’ve learned to control even that (generally), because these wanderings tend to be less engrossing than the story I’m writing.  If not, that tells me that something’s wrong with the story.  It’s a happy condition that working on a story—short variety or novel— even if only a few minutes, five to seven days a week, keeps my mind in the story in some gray corner, even while doing other stuff, such as exercising, sleeping, etc.

The trick to this is knowing and feeling that even five or ten minutes a day grabbed between other obligations or distractions is sufficient to keep me “in the story.”  I start to lose the story, voice, characteristics of the characters, etc. when I don’t touch the story for several days…or weeks.

What else should I expect if I neglect my story?  That whoever or whatever gives me the words will continue to visit when I ignore it? Merely thinking about the story is not enough.  The Muse requires ink or lead on paper (or electronic images on a screen).  It requires moving forward on the story, even if it’s merely a baby step. Which can be erased tomorrow if it turns out not to be good enough to keep.  Erasures or trash-canning is not lack of progress.  It is progress, though of the private kind at this point, just between you and your Muse.  What He/She/It requires is that you make the daily tangible effort.

I’ve focused on the brief end of a day’s writing time, five or ten minutes. What’s a “good” amount of writing time in a day? The answer is as much as you can.

I no longer define myself as a factory worker, student, journalist, baseball player, teacher, or laggard, all of which I’ve been. What I am now is a writer. I’m lucky that way. What stops me writing is severe pain in my back or butt or an unavoidable obligation or my beloved’s siren call. Also, fatigue from these things. Fatigue must be recognized and accepted. But as long as I’m sitting anywhere with pen and pad (or at the computer in re-write mode), I can and do write. I trust that ideas about words will come, and they do. They’ll come when you honor your Muse, which some writer/artists call “zazen.”

The following is from the Dharma Rain Zen Center:
Zen is the school of Buddhism that emphasizes the practice of meditation as both the means to, and expression of, awakening. “Zen” is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese “Ch’an,” which derives from the Sanskrit “dhyana,” which means ‘absorption.’ This is the state of stable, focused concentration that grows from repeatedly bringing the mind back to the present. Dhyana is the form and method of zazen http://www.dharma-rain.org/zazen/whatis.html; the practice of letting go and returning to the present. Cultivating this prevents distraction, but it is not a way to escape or ignore the conditions around us.  Zazen happens in and with the world, not apart from it.

This rendition of zazen is somewhat askew from the traditional and eastern.  But the act of daily writing dwells in the ideas of “focused concentration,” “bringing the mind back,” “absorption,” “preventing distraction,” not to nothingness, but to the core of what you are doing in the moments or hours you make available for writing.  I consider it ‘plunging back into’ my story-in-progress, a daily dip into my favorite stream.  That’s my zazen time.

Can you not find at least a few minutes a day to write on your story?  If you find it impossible, please let us know how and why.  Also, let us know if you have a way to get that writing done in your hectic life.  We’re always learning and adjusting.

“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.