The learning is never complete. I believe you must hone your craft with continuing education.
I’ve decided to spend the next few months honing my craft with continuing my education by adding to my tool box with a self-prescribed course which I’ll detail further below. But first a chunk of numbing biography so you can understand why I’m still craving knowledge.
Feel free to skip to CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE.
I finished my MFA two decades after received my BA in professional writing. My first real success came as a playwright after getting close but no cigar with my first book deal in my early 20’s while still pursuing that BA.
Looking back now, I’m happy that success as a novelist didn’t happen. The agents and almost deals made me feel like I was on the right track and this professional encouragement kept me grinding.
But I needed life experience. I needed to expand my horizons. And I needed to observe the world and learn new skills. I have no doubt I would no longer be writing if I’d been published then. I would have been pigeon holed in a genre that I loved, could imitate, but had no mature connection. I would struggle to write one potboiler after another. And to find another agent is a time and soul consuming affair.
Maybe I wouldn’t and movie money would have set me on another path, but I can see it going worse in more ways than better. I did get a great rejection story out of it and a bizarre agent call– that’s important too at the bar.
And then I went back for my MFA. Twenty years later. That thesis novel is, of now, available for purchase in finer indie book store and is being translated into Russian as we speak, so to speak.
Since the Fountain sold, I wrote a follow-up and sold it to the same publisher. It is experimental inspired in part by classic novellas such as 1984, Clockwork Orange and the mosaic structure of Jenny Offill‘s Dept. of Speculation, a book I adore for its use of narrative negative space (I just made that up), where nothing is on the nose, and nothing is stated outright. It’s an engaging pay-attention read.
But since it’d been ten years since I’d last wrote a book of this style (Satire, Literary, Transgressive.), having spent way too many years on TV pilots and screenplays (fodder for another blog) – I decided to read Consider This by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk – I never did receive a response to a typed letter to him. And among the funny book tour stories were tools, he’d accumulated and put to good use.
I picked up a couple of his tools along the read , but more importantly, I felt I had a form of several he mentioned. Augmentation, not devastation.
I’ve decided to spend the next few months adding to my tool box with a self-prescribed course aka
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE (or WRITING CAN BE TAUGHT)
Alan Moore – an early and huge influence on my approach to writing, so much in fact, I have a piece of original comic book art (including a typo) from the comic my mom gave me that changed my interest in writing and I also have said comic book framed. – has done a series of lecture videos (BBC MAESTRO series).
Thus far, he is cheeky, whip smart and thorough, but also emphasizes the worthiness of such pursuits.
I look forward to doing the exercises.
EDIT: I have also added Mark Forsyth‘s The Elements of Rhetoric.
George Saunders – A Swim in the Pond in the Rain at Midnight. George Saunders takes several Russian authors and their stories and breaks them down into why they work, why and what tools they are using in their process. It’s a large volume and I suspect, I will dip in a chapter at a time. If the Russians are reading me, and ZOOM readings may be a thing, I’d like to be more familiar with their giants.
And then Kurt Vonnegut and his Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style. I haven’t read much of his work, but I did see him lecture in 1996 in San Antonio, Texas and it was a glorious and magical evening. I feel like I will be more amused with his personality and advice than his actual writing. Maybe not.
Getting awfully white in here.
And I’ve picked up a couple of Robert Bolaño books. Last Evenings on Earth was a perspective shifting read for me when The Fountain was gestating, so I thought I’d return and read Cowboy Graves (3 novellas) and Nazi Literature in the Americas. This book is nothing but fictional biography of fictional fascist-leaning poets, writers. A fake literati history. Dry, ironic, and funny.
I love fake history and had done something similar in The Fountain in a fake Wikipedia section (XX also has a fake Wiki section, but I did it first, dammit). This I imagine will spur me to actually read my copy of Pale Fire by Nabokov with its parallel narrative / commentary running in the footnotes section (a more contemporary example of this style would be The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski).
That’s a lot of men (but an international cast).
Have no fear, as I am editing a fantastic story collection by Anna James Dickson called The Girl in the Piñata. I’m learning as much from her as she is from me.
WELL OILED TOOLS.
While I’m off doing this, here’s a hodgepodge list of my own tools and guiding principals for writing. Not all my tools, but more high level advice I’ve accumulated through failures, successes and advice given to me by other professionals that I have found true.
Take a look and see if any of it resonates with you enough to put in your tool box.
- Invest in yourself. Get that software that makes it easier. Get that computer that doesn’t slow you down. Get nice headphones. A cushion for your chair. Equip yourself. Protect your writing time.
- Network. Make friends. Support your friends. Become part of a scene if you can. Maybe even take a class or attend a workshop.
- Find your TRUSTED READERS. Someone to read that gets what you’re doing, can articulate why they liked it or why they’re bumping up against a story choice. Pixar and Disney do several internal screenings of works in progress in front of directors and writers on every project. Sequences are torn down and built back up, Characters cut, storylines rebroken. Find your own brain trust.
- Lawyer up. Always get a lawyer to look over your contract. Can’t afford it? Okay. But what happens if it’s a success, are you getting screwed out of a once in a lifetime windfall? Don’t give away the farm or those film/TV rights. That’s where you can actually make money. Don’t let anyone tell you this is standard, cuz it’s not. Do not hike your skirt in gratitude.
- Exercise. Move your body. Get sunshine. This I need to do more.
- Don’t take rejection personally. That’s a hard one. Keep sending out your stories, keep writing. It only takes one person to champion your work. But you have to do the work. Some projects will land, some won’t. Some will see the light of day. Most won’t. Some will take years, maybe even decades.
- Snooze. Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting. Fictionalize it.
- The World and Characters sell. This is especially true of screenplays and TV shows. Studios/producers are buying the world and the characters. The story will change. Be prepared to toss out your brilliant plot and come up with another one. Be pleasant about it. Spend your time world-building.
- Style over substance. Add a spoonful of sugar to your writing. Use Trojan Horses of Genre and the Tools of the Hack to carry your subversive ideas and characters. Be sneaky. (Thanks, Wayne!) Don’t be afraid to be a bit more “voicey” in your work as well.
- Brevity. You don’t need most adverbs, the readers imagination will fill in the gaps. You also don’t need to describe every head turn, stand up, look, glance, of your character. Unless it’s a revelation. Cut into scenes as deep as you can, if you don’t, know why you’re doing it and to what effect. The reader will connect the meat of scenes. Characters generally only need one ENTRANCE (first impression) and one EXIT (last impression). Assume after the entrance, we know they know how to use a door.
- Connection over conflict. Everyone pushes conflict, but connection in the story, to the story is key. Otherwise, it’s just spectacle.
- Also Write for Story, Cut for Theme. Often a theme doesn’t emerge until later in the process. When it sprouts, water and nurture it in the rewrite and editing. Let it guide your revisions. Make it look like you knew what you were doing the whole time.
- Editing– good hair cut/perfection. It’s not what you take away but what you have left. The reader doesn’t care how long it took you to write that chapter if it makes your book a slog. Do them a solid.
- Authentic. Have I told a secret? Have I put some blood on the page?
- Am I having fun? Surprise and delighting yourself, will delight your reader. The shortest point between Plot Point A and Plot Point B is a straight line, It’s also the most boring.
Cut the bridge between the two and let the characters fall into an adventure. If you don’t blow that bridge, ask yourself: Am I assholing my way through this?
- Try to track the reader’s journey. Does it need a few more laughs. Is this great scene needed? Have I played fair with any surprises or revelations? Humor or wit, goes a long way to keeping the reader engaged. Brain chemistry activated.
- Moments? Emotionally track. The late great monster producer Don Simpson used to read a screenplay and ask where is THE MOMENT? Because that’s what we remember.
Build to your moments. Don’t gloss over them. Rock musicians will tell you a good song builds tension up to a cathartic release. Be like a rock musician.
- Is the spiritual goal embodied in a physical object or act? Aka finish line. More so for film or TV. The ring thrown into the fires of Mordor. Cuz, you gotta have something to film also known as the MacGuffin.
- Kill your junk words. See Dreyer’s Guide to English.CH. 1 is basically a check list of words to remove. I do this on my last pass.
That’s it for now. Exciting things on the horizon for The Fountain and other projects.
Meanwhile, here’s a link to an interview I did with Damien Roos at [PANK] magazine.
Here’s a link to more advice from famous people that has served me well. Some may look familiar….