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.

EXTRA! EXTRA! NO PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION!

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.

The Lousy Hero?

We love our protagonists, our hero/heroines.  Why else would we write about them?
Writers often create lead characters that they like, or would like to be like, a good person with problems, someone sympathetic, maybe even adorable, certainly spunky.   But I believe the writer who doggedly creates the good-as-can-be hero/ine path is short-changing his or her work and development as a writer, as well, of course, as the reader.

What about adding serious flaws to your “good” character, give him/her self-caused problems to battle instead of the problems all coming from the dastardliness of others or vagaries of fate?  Battling ourselves is at least as interesting as battling the bad guys ‘n gals.  The problems can be more difficult than bad parents or misleading friends, Martians, Corpo-types, nature-gone-wild, Vampirish Werewolves, the government, the greed of others, etc.

Too often I’ve heard in critique groups, “I just don’t like the main character; why would I want to read about him/her?”  Well, I suppose that’s a legitimate perspective and has some audience out there in reader-land.  But writing a nasty antihero, can help deepen your understanding of character and bring greater dimension to your work.  Norman Mailer in The Spooky Art:  Thoughts on writing says, “…it helps if your character is average lousy but with striking contrasts and excellent elements.”

Badness is a juicy role.  We hate these characters because we love to hate them.   They’re so interesting.  Donald E. Westlake (<i>The Ax</i>, <i>The Hook</i>, and, writing as Richard Stark for the Parker mysteries) loved to use anti-heroes with few, if any, redeeming qualities.  But a large part of Westlake’s genius was in leading us to understand these “bad” guys, even seeing how we, his readers, could become so twisted as to kill the way they did.  Although, the frequency of their killing leads us again to doubt our changing opinion of them.  We as readers are in a rocking boat on a turbulent sea.  Isn’t that a great feeling while safe at home or the beach or (?) reading a book or Kindle/Nook/iPad/smart phone?

How do you feel about bad guy/gal protagonists?  Do they turn you off or intrigue you?  Who’s your favorite?  Have you tried to write one?  I welcome comments and will reply.

Is the morality story still with us?

“All men are moral.  Only their neighbors are not.”

John Steinbeck’s works overflow with wisdom.  The quote above comes from The Winter of Our Discontent, which to my mind is a beautifully earthy, down-home rendition of a moral person (character) who is gravely tempted to stretch his morality beyond the point of breaking.  I think Steinbeck is saying that people tend to see themselves as “better” than others, noting the flaws of others while being mostly blind to their own.  Note that he uses the “all men are moral” as a set up for the punchline.

Writers, of course, can take advantage of this “truth,” to the extent that we “know” it.   Our characters often become more engaging to the extent that they are blind to their own foibles.  Of course, we writers are also human, and so are not immune in “real life” to our own, much less our characters’, short-comings.
(NOTE:  Quotation marks are used herein “merely” to mark the words and phrases that are either satiric or a matter of opinion.)

Which of your favorite, or otherwise, contemporary writers—say, 1990 to the present—offer such moral gems that lead or push us to consider and weigh their truth?  Or is that simply not the mode of contemporary fiction, as Norman Mailer says?

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.