What does it take to be a novelist?

Step 1 is learning how to write fiction at a reasonably high level. To do this, you need to write about a million words. This will take about five years. (Reference https://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/complexity-and-the-ten-thousand-hour-rule)

Step 2 you need to have been born as the sort of person who loves telling stories, who loves the process of sitting down at the keyboard everyday, who loves drawing portraits of interesting people, of facing intricate problems of motivation and event and weaving them into fascinating — nay, compelling — narratives.

Step 3 you need to be the sort of person who has a ton of grit and determination, you have to have an insatiable hunger for recognition. You have to have that feeling of “I’ll show them.” If you don’t have it, don’t try to become a writer. It’s part of the animal, it’s primitive, but if you don’t want to do the work (see Step 1) and rise above the crowd (see Step 2), forget it.

On the other hand, if you want a happy, fulfilling life, get a degree in accounting and marry an actuary, or maybe a teaching certificate or maybe an R.N. and then become a physician’s assistant in a pediatric intensive care ward. Marry a doctor, raise a family, dote on your grandchildren.

Nothing in life is better than grandchildren. Try to set things up so that you have some.


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The details, what it’s in

People thought his descriptions were too long.

Sounds like what you’ve done up to now is go with the idea that more is better and a great deal more is even better than that.

So maybe change your criteria.

But to what?

Try the idea that the best description is one that with a minimum of words conveys the essence.

Guitar notes struck the air like silver dimes.

That’s from William Styron’s now forgotten first (and best) novel, “Lie Down in Darkness.”

You might also read “In the Blink of an Eye,” by Walter Murch. He was the film editor of “The English Patient.”

Film editing? What’s that got to do with it?

When you edit a movie, you have to make a hundred a eighty thousand decisions about what to put in (and leave out) and where exactly to put it. You’re dealing with and looking for what Murch calls “precipitant” details.

What’s a precipitant detail? Did you ever take a chemistry class where you learned about precipitants? You’ve got a beaker of clear fluid. You add another chemical, which causes some of the stuff in the previously clear liquid to precipitate out, those white flakes of stuff that float to the bottom. It makes visible something that was formerly there but not visible or maybe not visible enough.

Precipitant details are those that (I might have this wrong) precipitate out the emotion of scene so that it becomes visible to the reader. From “Lie Down in Darkness”

He and Peyton had been happily married for some years now, but a trivial argument had come up; her back was to him; she was weeping. She was gazing from their penthouse window at the Manhattan spires and towers which lay below, as if drowning, in the movielike glow of autumn dusk.

The reader’s not exactly sure even what the hell it means, but you get the feeling, the emotion that’s evoked.

As Lisa Cron points out in “Story Genius,”

…feelings don’t just matter, they are what mattering means.

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Character and dramatic dilemma

What are those key elements of character & dramatic dilemma that really lend themselves to fictional treatment? Not that can be “sort of” worked out to yield a  level of satisfaction that gets a “I’d read more of this.” [“I’d read more of this” is really the lowest form of compliment, far below “what the hell are you waiting for??? Send this to an agent right away!!!”]

The dramatic dilemma needs to be something that can only be worked through and eventually resolved through interactions with others or the outside world. Why is this? Because if the dramatic dilemma is (for example) that a guy has a wonderful but unrecognized talent for drawing, and can find wholeness and redemption and justification for his life through his art, this logically leads in a direction that is less likely to be successful in a fiction treatment. Why? Because you don’t automatically need a lot of interaction with others to be successful at drawing pictures, you only need to sit and do the work, and if the work is good enough, it speaks for itself.

Terry’s line in “Facing the Blank Page” in the archives of the Wordplayer.com site really struck me: “You want to cross the finish line at the beginning of the race.” That’s like saying “Only place a bet if you’ve got a sure thing.” or “Always trade on a really good inside information.” As he points out, this isn’t when you’ve got some characters and situations that you think can be somehow worked around to sort of work. This is when you feel with “absolute certainty that the fundamental idea . . . is, without a doubt, an exceptional premise, one that implies that a film must be made from it, without question.”

To have enough insight and understanding in order to know with “absolute certainty,” it seems to me the writer has to have a feeling for how dramatic structure plays out from scene to scene, from act one to act two to act three. To take a big step toward this understanding, try this: record an episode of “The Good Wife” on your DVR (or find out when “Tootsie” is playing on a cable channel, and record it). Then sit down alone with pen and paper and pay attention and really identify what’s going on. Watch just the first scene, no more than that. Don’t get caught up in it. Roll back and forth in it, understand how each line and gesture contributes. How does this scene make you, the viewer, feel about each of the characters? Does it make you want something on behalf of the characters, and what is that? What is it in the scene that piques your curiosity? What is it that makes you wonder what will happen next? Now go on to the next scene. Does it follow logically from the scene before? Was it foreshadowed? Does it address anything you felt in the scene before? Then ask all the same questions of this scene that you asked of the first one (and maybe some more I haven’t thought of). As you go from scene to scene, notice the inevitability of how one scene requires the next, demands the next, raises questions and feelings in you that can only be addressed by the next; notice how often new and surprising elements are introduced and their effect on you, the viewer. Is it fun to be surprised? How often do (should) surprises come up?

Do this for awhile on any well-structured piece of dramatic fiction and I think you’ll gain a lot of understanding about what it is you need to be trying to do as a novelist. Your job is to create just such an enjoyable experience for your reader, nothing more, nothing less.

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What to make of a repeated phrase

Last November Bobbie asked re my story Waning Tapers about repeated phrases. Here’s the first two paragraphs of the piece:

Emmanuelle gazed from the second-floor window as the sleek automobile — its black flowing lines reminded her somehow of a panther — glided through the driveway’s final curve and braked gently near the portico below. She was pleased that he’d chosen to drive himself.

She wanted to remain there, standing back from the glass so she couldn’t be seen, holding the muslin curtain with the slender ringless fingers of her left hand. She wanted to watch him emerge, wanted to see whether he was as graceful as the car he drove, whether she could detect from his movements if his own lines, his shoulders, his arms, somehow mirrored those of the beautiful machine that had brought him to her door.

The repeat of she wanted in the second para comes from two places: one is musical, like the repeat of a three-note phrase at the beginning of succeeding measures or cadences. Whether or not this makes any sense to you might depend on what kind of music you listen to.

But the impetus to write it that way comes from immersion in the character. The repeat of she wanted conveys the character’s fear of what might portend and a feeling of yearning. These set the mood of the piece.

No one commenting on the piece mentioned the repeat probably because it didn’t bother them or perhaps because they saw it as a technique and not a flaw (guessing).

But all this after the fact analysis is in one way beside the point because the “I” that can analyze this stuff doesn’t know how to actually make any of it happen at the moment I’m writing. For that I have to rely on what I call my “writing mind,” which sometimes offers up what seems to be needed when the need appears, or not, as the case may be.

But now that you know that such things are out there, perhaps your own writing mind will take note (actually it already probably has) and at some point in the future you might find something similar happening to you.

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How to write transitions

I got tired of the double space asterisk break, and decided to write some stuff with transitions and not breaks.

Can I tell you how to write the transitions? I have no idea. It depends on whether or not I actually know anything, and it depends on your writing style and voice, and certainly on the material you’re working with. All I can tell you is how I do it.

The thing I relied upon was the character’s feeling. Of course, the setting helps guide the the character’s thinking, and her interior feeling. That’s what triggers the transition for the character and provides the logic for the reader.

Here’s the first transition from the party to the beach (examples from the Amazon short “Nikki This Hollywood Life” by Vanessa Gordot:

A glass of wine in one hand a cigarette in the other, Nikki eased away from the guy beside her. Not Benjamin. Benjamin was over on the other side of the room yelling in the ear of a skinny kid in rimless glasses.

The guy trying to talk to her was okay and actually about as out-of-place as she was, older if maybe thirty was older, clean-cut, jacket, no tie. He looked like a professor at a girl’s school. She couldn’t hear a thing he was saying. She’d really had it with this party.

“Gotta go!” she screamed, “Nice talking to you!” turning away, not caring if he heard or understood. Jesus, what a zoo.

She used her elbow to push open the sagging screen door and made her way down the dilapidated wooden stairs. Wary of her silk dress, the flaking paint, she stepped carefully, watching out for the cracks between the boards. Following a narrow alleyway, she emerged onto the wide sidewalk that separated the buildings from the beach.

And there was the Pacific Ocean.

The sun had just gone below the horizon and a swath of neon pink and fuchsia splashed across the sky. It looked like a set decorator’s idea of a sunset, a wash of vibrant color on a pale blue scrim, way over the top.

“Fake,” she breathed.

Here’s the transition from the beach to the flashback. You know the fiction notion of starting a scene as far into as possible? This occurred to me at the time, so I started the flashback at the very end of it, as she’s leaving it: [Caution, adult language ahead]

She sat there, holding her shoes in her lap, watching the night fold out over the Pacific, thinking about Michael Brockton and the Oscars and how the trades always mentioned his captivating crooked smile, weighing what she would have to do to retrieve the lighter she’d left upstairs against how much she didn’t want to end up letting Benjamin take her home and screw her. He always wanted to put her on her hands and knees, as if he wanted to be Christian Bale in American Psycho. Whatever happened to plain, old-fashioned face-to-face fucking?

Maybe it was the ocean, the sky, the sunset, the inexorable gathering of day into night, this perfect seascape evening sliding down the western slope of the world. Maybe it was a moment of lonely calm. From wherever it came, the awareness floated into her mind that she didn’t like herself anymore.

It was creepy, this wanting to float off into nothingness, to let go of the endless pretending, to never again have to look at her face in a mirror. The icy feeling curled around inside her.

She knew it was the aftermath, the fall-out.

Tuesday of last week she’d come out of the hotel room, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Beach hotel room, the heavy door swinging closed behind her, the lock clicking into place with a steel-embedded-in-oak finality. It was like the last sound that echoes through the theater at the very end of a really good noir picture. The audience is hushed, then the sound of that clicking lock breaks the tension and everyone knows it’s over and they can start breathing again.

The door closed behind her, she walked down the hallway, even the hallways rich and luxurious, feeling strangely proud of herself. Hell, that wasn’t so bad. If that’s all it took, if that’s all it was. She could do that. Not as a regular thing, no. But if that’s what it took, she could do it.

She’d been tipsy, well actually pretty blotto, but that wasn’t an excuse. She knew what was happening every moment, saw it with the clarity that comes with enough champagne cocktails. You might not be able to drive too well — though actually after it was all over she had driven herself home, no problem — but you could see the face and the eyes of the person you were with, see what was behind them.

[There’s a full discussion of writing this story elsewhere.]

Here’s the transition from her apartment to the metro in the first part of  “Zoe in Real Life.” It seemed to me that if I was describing things, if Zoë was clicking right along, all I needed was a short sentence.

The bastard! It was time for a change.

She dressed quickly, throwing on a tiered chemise in a buttercup shade that showed off her figure, a cream colored pleated skirt, sandals and a cropped silk jacket in a nautical stripe. She wore her dark hair loose. She ran a comb through it, ruffled it with her fingers, shook her head and she was ready. She caught the metro.

The train was full, all the seats taken, a throng pressed together in the aisle, jostling against each other as the train wove its rumbling way through the black, crooked tunnels, bumping through switches, stopping and starting, the yellow lights flickering. Someone was pressed tight against her from behind, and Zoë cast a quick glance.

Here’s the transition from the metro into her daydream, which becomes a brief scene:

As the car lurched the young man’s leg pulsed against her derrière in a not altogether unpleasant way. Zoë shifted to increase the contact. Warmth seeped into her tummy and she thought of the woman in the pictures, the model for Enrique’s porn. Who was she? What was her name? She was young enough, was she perhaps attending the university, a friend of the young man rubbing against her?

Zoë felt her sensibilities become hazy. The porn girl, Veronica, she would call her. And the student behind her, he was Clément, a gentle, loving soul, but poor, oh so poor. Yet he was brilliant, gifted beyond so many others. But he had no connections, no patron, so he depended entirely on Veronica for his support. Veronica, with little education and no connections of her own, with nothing but her unusual beauty and long legs, had turned to a shark, a greasy Sicilian, borrowed money she could not now repay. Of course the inevitable came to pass. The Sicilian caught up with her on a street in the Sixth, took her elbow, directed her to a corner table in a café away from the few other customers.

Here’s a transition from a flashback within the restaurant scene into another of Zoë’s daydreams:

They’d been the very best of friends ever since the day four years before—they’d been fifteen—when they pledged their loyalty on a summer afternoon beneath a bridge beside the shimmering Seine.

They’d stood close, facing each other. “Put one hand here,” Heidi said, placing Zoë’s right palms on her breast, “and the other here.” She put Zoë’s left hand on her crotch. Zoe felt Heidi’s pubic bone, her fingers curled into the unusually wide space at the top of her thighs.

Then Heidi put her hands on Zoë’s breast and cupped her minou.

“Now we kiss,” Heidi said. “Don’t forget to open your mouth.”

Their lips touched delicately, sensuously, and Zoë felt Heidi’s pink tongue come slipping into her mouth, tickling, teasing at her own. The kiss went on for minutes, the two of them like statues, only their tongues exploring, dancing together. When they broke Zoë was breathless. Heidi’s eyes glittered like the sun on the water.

“I adore you,” Heidi said simply.

“And I you,” Zoë admitted, a bit embarrassed at the state the little blond vixen had brought her to.

They’d been meilleures amies ever since.

Recalling the feeling, Zoë’s mind swept back to the girl she’d imagined earlier on the metro, Veronica. Veronica, who was both Clément’s girlfriend and also Enrique’s porn girl. What had happened? Oh, yes, Salvatore had sent her to meet a strange man with the promise of a thousand euros. But for what in exchange?

It was a modest hotel, small lobby, tidy elevator and hallways, though not of the first rank, and Veronica tapped lightly on the door of room 403.

A masculine voice: “It’s open.”

It was a sitting room, fairly large, patterned green carpet, furniture from perhaps twenty years ago, long off-white sofas on either side of a glass-topped coffee table and beyond them tall windows with sheer curtains, and a man looking down at the street, hands clasped behind his back.

When he turned, Veronica recognized him: the owner of a shoe store and nearby dress shop on Avenue Montaigne. His precious little mustache was centered in a round face. He wore a morning coat and pinstripe trousers.

There you go. Hope it helps.

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Stringing out the tension

Peter D. wrote:

I like Terence Malick movies and he does this thing where you will be in the midst of a battle scene, and the camera will just look away to show a lizard or a crocodile or something.

So there is the idea. I like to use it to break up dialog. In the midst of the scene launch into a paragraph describing some element of the scene. It doesn’t have to be important to your story. It is just there to ground the scene in reality. To make it seem that your story is happening in a real world.

So what is my question? Does anyone else use this technique, and does it have a name, other than “The look away”.

And do you think it is a good idea?

It is a technique and one I’ve used (example below). I don’t know that it has a name, maybe postponing reader gratification, or maybe (better?) stringing out the tension.

Interesting that you point to Malick’s example of being in a battlefield, where (one assumes) tension would be high.

I think the fundamental of the technique is that when you have the reader really wriggling on the hook (“oh, my God, what’s going to happen?”), at that point you play the game of seeing how far away you can go and still keep the reader wriggling.

I was finished.

Flat on my back. My left arm hurt like hell where the slug had gone through my bicep. Gordo stood over me holding the .45 pointed at the middle of my chest, five feet away.

I had no way to get up, much less get up fast. And to get out of the way of a .45 slug coming at a thousand feet per second, when it’s only five feet away—no chance.

Gordo sneered. “You think you can be like the others, the straight people?” he said. “Doan make me laugh. You one of us, you on our side a the fence. You can’t go over that fence. It ain’t in you. You ain’t got it in you. You done too much shit over here to go try and clean up your act over there. It ain’t never going to happen, homey.”

The bastard. It sounded true, and I hated that it sounded true.

I sank back, let the tension go, felt my body mold itself into the damp earth beneath me. I gave up. Here I would end. Finito. Adios.

I could see Gordo’s big brown hand wrapped around the pistol’s grip, his big fat finger starting to tighten on the trigger.

I didn’t want to watch. And I sure didn’t want to think about what was probably happening to Taylor, left alone back there with that ugly pock-marked fucker called Facil. Yeah, he was easy, all right. Easy to hate.

I looked up. We were out in the orange grove. I saw the tops of the trees, the green leaves and beyond them blue sky. I could hear tires humming along the distant highway. I pictured the people in the car, a guy at the wheel, a pretty girl beside him, happy, laughing, cigarettes going, listening to music. No idea what was happening in the middle of that orchard over there.

A bird called out. A bird that didn’t have sense enough to get away from the shit going down in his neighborhood.

“Stupid fucking bird.”

I guess I said it out loud.

“Huh?” Gordo said.

One hell of a blast made me flinch like a girl, and I must have closed my eyes. The thought went thorough my head that’s it, I’m dead. Shit, it didn’t even hurt! And I can still think. Hell, this being dead, it’s not so bad.

So is he dead?

Well . . . then he couldn’t be narrating, could he?

The rest of the scene:

I opened my eyes and it was all in slow motion: Gordo standing there, except now where the .45 had been there was only a bloody stump on the end of his arm and there was a misty spray of blood settling out of the air.

Gordo’s eyes were open even wider than mine. He turned his head, took a half step and looked over to the side of clearing.

I looked, too, and there was Taylor, cradling a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun at hip level, a wisp of smoke rising from the barrel. She was naked to the waist, a skinny girl with a wild look in her eyes, blood on her cheeks and dripping from her chin, blood on her chest, her arms and hands. She jacked the action on the Winchester to put another shell in the chamber, and it made that serious steel-on-steel racking sound they make. She was holding it loose and low with the muzzle pointed right at my head and I froze in fright, even more scared than I’d been when I thought Gordo was about to off me. If she’d been squeezing the trigger when she jacked that shotgun, I wouldn’t be here telling you about it.

She swung it up and over on Gordo. He said “Fuck!” in that insulted and pissed-off way you say it if somebody spills coffee in your lap.

Taylor just looked at him for a second or two as he stood there, holding his stump of an arm up as if that might somehow stop the spurts of bright red blood shooting out of it.

Taylor pulled the trigger and there was another blast from the shotgun. I don’t know if she was aiming or just lucky, but this one caught Gordo right in the groin. The impact lifted him off his feet, knocked him back a couple steps and sat him right down in the dirt on his big fat ass.

He looked down to survey the damage and said “Jesus!” like you’d say to a kid look what you’ve done now.

Taylor took three quick, silent steps in her bare feet across the clearing and stood over Gordo like he’d been standing over me. She racked the Winchester again and held it right on Gordo’s fat gut and pulled the trigger. The shotgun clicked on an empty chamber.

She didn’t seem to notice. She kept racking it and pulling the trigger and the shotgun kept clicking on empty.

I stumbled to my feet and put my arm around her shoulders, pulled her against me and took the shotgun out of her hands. It made my arm ache like hell.

She relaxed into me.

I asked her, “Are you okay, are you cut?”

She looked down at the blood on her hands and arms, on her chest.

“It’s not mine,” she said. “It’s that guy’s.”

She looked up at me and got a weird half-smile on her face. “I bit off his dick,” she said. She made it sound like she’d brought home a report card with an A on it. “I bit off the end of it and spit it out in the dirt and he fell down and couldn’t get up. He couldn’t take his hands off it, holding his dick, trying to stop the bleeding. He couldn’t get up.”

“You did good,” I said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

I tried to start her away, head back to the car, but she stopped me, pulled me around.

“We need to kill him,” she said, looking at Gordo.

He was sitting there, pasty-faced, his eyes a little glassy with the shock, holding his stump in the air, looking at us. His crotch was a mass of blood and flesh and shredded Levis. He was sitting in a widening black patch of blood-soaked dirt.

“He’s dead,” I said. “There’s a big artery that goes right from the heart down to Gordo’s particular problem area. He’s dead already.”

As I said it the air went out of Gordo. He slumped and then slowly keeled over on one side.

“Come on.” I pulled Taylor away and we walked slowly back through the orchard to my yellow Camaro.

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Pantsing and enjoying the journey

Ross pointed this out:

When you aren’t rushing to a destination, the journey becomes the focus.

To which I could only say: Yes.

The discussion was about Haruki Murakami, who maintained in an interview that he wrote without a plan, not knowing where he was going. This is sometimes called pantsing (I guess after seat-of-the-pants).

But even pantsers have resources. When you start, you know some things.

And along the way you’ve digested a lot of stories (probably), absorbed a lot of notions about how stories work (probably), and so can rely (more or less) on what you will at that point probably call your “instincts”* to — on the one hand — provide you with good stuff and — on the other hand — keep you (more or less) away from the ocean of crapulousness you don’t want to enter.

*Footnote: Not really instincts at all, but rather the accumulated grasp, understanding, comprehension and adeptness with all of this kind of stuff in the most generalized and at the same time most specific sense.

So clearly it’s not just “seat of the pants” but rather seat of the pants plus everything contained in the pants and also by the way all the other body parts above. Your complete Writing Self is engaged. Or is yearned for, depending.

I had read it before, but in response to this discussion (thanks, Ross), pulled up 1Q84 on my device and began reading it again. It seems to me Murakami allows himself wide latitude if for no other reason than it’s more fun to write that way, and if he’s having a good time, chances are the reader will have a good time too.

And it’s educational and fun to watch him solve some of the problems he raises for himself. For example (and this example is moderately X-rated, so if you’re of a tender disposition stop right here), in Chapter 5 of 1Q84 Murakami has one of his principal characters, Aomame, go to the cocktail lounge of a high-end hotel in order to pick up a guy and have sex. This character (spoilers ahead, so you might want to stop right here), an attractive young woman, has just assassinated an evil businessman, and she wants to blow off some steam and relax by having sex with a stranger. Seated at the bar, Aomame has a few drinks and eventually the right sort of guy sits down a couple stools away. They strike up a conversation. Everything up to now is the sort of thing that’s in most writer’s tool box. It’s work to write it, but not difficult work, just an application of craft. But now Murakami faces the problem of getting Aomame what she wants — sex. How to raise the subject? At this point the reader understands that Aomame wants to have sex and is sympathetic so there’s no need to go into that. The writer’s difficulty is that the situation is so susceptible to a hackneyed or cheesy way of handling it. How to get the sex thing going in a way the reader hasn’t often encountered in fiction, in a way that’s fresh and entertaining and different? That’s the problem. Here’s how Murakami handles it:

The man talked about sailboats. He moored his small sailboat in the Nishinomiya yacht harbor, he said. He took it out to the ocean on holidays and weekends. He spoke passionately of how wonderful it was to feel the wind as you sailed alone on the sea. Aomame didn’t want to hear about any damned sailboats. Better for him to talk about the history of ball bearings or the distribution of mineral resources in Ukraine. She glanced at her watch and said, “Look, it’s getting late. Can I just ask you something straight out?”

“Sure,” he replied.”

“It’s, uh, rather personal.”

“I’ll answer if I can.”

“Do you have a decent-sized cock? Is it on the big side?”

So that’s it, uh, a fun way to introduce a new topic.

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