Slouching Towards Authordom – Writer, Know Thyself!
Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer.
But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth,
without pity, and destroy most of it.
We live in a world teeming with blogs and tweets, self-published e-books and vanity presses eager to capitalize on the desire for authorial recognition – for seeing one’s name in print.
When I was a kid, we had the phone book to assuage that overwhelming urge, now it’s the wilds of Cyberia!
This is nothing short of remarkable. In a generation, we writers have entered a technological paradise, in which every person with a computer can not only write, but be read by legions of total strangers. Kudos are just a keystroke away, and beyond that the brass ring of potential discovery. It is when in the midst of more adulation than one gets at Christmas dinner that we must be most unsentimental with our own critical faculties. For, while new Cyberian paradigms let us flirt shamelessly with fame and fortune, they also entice us into slow-dancing with rampant self-indulgence.
(A diary, as Oscar Wilde said, is sensational train reading, but it is still a private thing, not shouted from the rooftops. Personally, I think we could use a little Victorian decorum back in our public lives.)
The fact is, just as not every tablecloth scrawl Picasso did over a bottle of vin ordinaire is fit for the Louvre, not every thought that flits through our heads is fit for print. That doesn’t mean it’s not delightful and worthy in its own way. It might, like this Editor’s Corner, be well suited to a blog, but not rise to the standards of something for which you’re comfortable asking someone to lay out their hard-earned cash.
And that’s ok. In the 21st century, the idea of a writer living a hermitic existence is passé at best. Unless you’re Stephen King or Thomas Pynchon, you have to be out there, a visible presence on Facebook and blogging, selling yourself as much as your books. And while we all need to have fun or rant or brag about our new kittens, what we put out there, in whatever form, shapes our public persona and – right or wrong – how people think about our work.
Thus, discrimination becomes the hallmark of our existence. Even before we look for an outside editor or an agent, we must look at our work, clear-eyed and with rigorous honesty, not only as to quality but also as to fit. Remember: while there is room for all sorts of expression in this brave new world, just because something can be sold on Kindle, doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. So know your standards and don’t be discouraged. Good work finds its niche; sometimes that niche is free. And that’s ok, too.
In the midst of it all, we balance our at times paralyzing penchant for self-doubt, with an unquestionable need to be realistic about our abilities, creations, and audience. We learn to trust our inner voices, building strength to strength. Then, in our way, we will not have to lament, as Leonardo did, that we “have offended God and mankind because [our] work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”
In Remembrance of a Writer Past…
Words. Words. I play with words, hoping that some combination, even a chance combination, will say what I want.
There come times when events beyond our control interfere with life and cause us to change plans. It is such a time here at the Editor’s Corner, where the stuff of life must take precedence over the stuff of blogs.
Rather than leave the space empty, though, I give you the words of one far wiser than I, an extraordinary author who died this past weekend: Doris Lessing.
Doris Lessing said once, “I’m just a story teller.” ‘Just’ implies a meager endeavor, and yet what higher calling is there? We should all aspire to be ‘just story tellers’ like she. She’s a difficult writer and, by many accounts, was a sometime-difficult woman, but her prose is clear and provocative, and her advice on reading, writing, and living are nuggets as golden as her Notebook.
“A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.”
“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag-and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.”
“A writer falls in love with an idea and gets carried away.”
“You should write, first of all, to please yourself. You shouldn’t care a damn about anybody else at all. But writing can’t be a way of life – the important part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it.”
“A story is how we construct our experiences.”
“You can only learn to be a better writer by actually writing. I don’t know much about creative writing programs. But they’re not telling the truth if they don’t teach, one, that writing is hard work and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.”
“In the writing process, the more the story cooks, the better. The brain works for you even when you are at rest. I find dreams particularly useful. I myself think a great deal before I go to sleep and the details sometimes unfold in the dream.”
“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.”
“What’s terrible is to pretend that second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better.”
The Winter 2013 issue of Watkins Mind Body Spirit is now out including a piece by yours truly, “On Wings Everywhere Ascending: The Relevance of Dragons in the Modern World.” Watkins is THE resource for paranormal and occult studies across the pond. I am thrilled to be included in such company.
Brass Tacks in a Box of Paper Clips
Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.
― Michelangelo Buonarroti
A 14th-century traveler parks his camel on the banks of the Euphrates. The water is wide and easy and teeming with fish. But what sort? Would our traveler use a line or a net – perhaps his bare hands? How would he cook his catch? Does it matter?
The short answer is, “Yes!”
As storytellers, we laud our ability to build worlds whole and breathe life into pen-and-ink characters. We ask our readers to believe at times the most extraordinary things. For this to work, we have to remember that stranger our tales, the more they must be grounded in something familiar.
I write fantasy. I dance around dragons and unicorns, kitsune and mystical yeti crabs. I explore unknown planets and long-forgotten civilizations. Nothing pleases me more than when people say they believe my Dragons are real, when they can imagine walking through Dragon Country and being surprised and delighted by the scaly habitants. While some of this comes from my personal conviction about Dragons, that alone would fall flat if not backed up by plausible science, history, and cultural anthropology.
In other words, even our most imaginative fictions – especially our most imaginative fictions – must have an intimate relationship with facts. And establishing that relationship demands research.
This is not always easy. Even in the Internet age, when libraries and museums from every corner of the world are literally at our fingertips, getting details about time and place, costume and manner, spot on can be harder than one might think. Right now, I have been pulling my hair trying to solve the question of that 14th-century angler. As an editor of crossword puzzles, I pride myself on being able to research anything, but this has been giving me fits.
True, I can always go generic. A nice fish grilled over an open fire whets the appetite regardless of species. And, for a while, I was so discouraged about the lack of available information, I seriously thought about going that route. Then, this afternoon (Monday afternoon), I had one of those marvelous “Eureka!” moments that elicited an audible sigh of relief from my near-tonsured pate.
In the midst of lists of species names (in Latin, of course), cultural and environmental histories, and free-association googling, I came across a wonderful story about the sacred carp of the Euphrates, a barbel fish not only revered but also known to grant wishes! I had discovered an indigenous fish both tasty and full of fanciful possibilities. For my purposes it was perfect.
As helpful as this was to me, carp or bluegill, the point I am trying to make in my round about way, is that you don’t have polar bears chasing Robert Falcon Scott across the Ross Ice Shelf or have your heroine catch a train from Kings Cross to St. Ives. Eros – Anteros, to some – looks down on Piccadilly Circus,
and, as Bohemian as Montmartre is, it’s actually on the Right Bank of the Seine, not the Left. (The stepped hills are a dead giveaway.)
Little things in a story’s bigger picture, but the sort of things which give veracity, especially when dealing with actual places, events, and/or people. And veracity makes people believe. The last thing you want is to ruin the spell of your story by a nagging error of fact. It would be as bad as if a Rolex flashed from Chuck Heston’s wrist as he chased Stephen Boyd around the hippodrome.
So, put in the time, do the research, and double check Wikipedia with an independent source. In the end, even if you have such a superfluity of information that you bury most of it in your personal notes, it will still infuse your prose. It will still matter.
But What Happens?
Story is honorable and trustworthy;
plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.
― Stephen King
Last week my writers’ group happened to coincide with Halloween, and whether it was the holiday or the fact that it was unseasonably warm and pouring, our little intrepid band was remarkably light on pages. OK, truthfully, they were nonexistent. Hey, shit happens, right? So we spent a couple of hours talking – always a pleasure with intelligent, creative people – about politics, films, and, of course, the books on our respective nightstands and kindles. I’d just finished reading an extraordinary collection of short stories, “The Witch and Other Stories,” by one of my favorite writers, Anton Chekhov.
One of my fellows asked, “What are they about?”
A proper question – the sort of thing we writers have to answer every time we craft a query/cover letter or get button-holed in a conference elevator – but one which often gives me fits. More and more, we seem to live in a literal and literary worlds where something has to happen every page, paragraph, even line. Stillness, reflection, these are strains we seldom allow our turn-pagers. (You can imagine my delight when Alice Munro got the Nobel this year – a testament to the power of stillness.)
I thought for a moment and gleefully – must be my Russian blood – couldn’t come up with an answer. Chekhov and plot have always had a tangential relationship. His plays – The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, The Seagull – are two-hour explorations of life, love, and survival. Disarmingly simple.
The good doctor’s stories are the same, even more so. People come together, move apart, and in between, they survive as best they can. What happens? Life.
In our high-octane world that demands action every five minutes, is that enough? Absolutely.
Of course some will say that low-action stories are best left to “literary” fiction. And, from a publishing perspective there is some truth to that. After all, a mystery is about solving a crime; a romance is about winning and losing love, and most fantasy books these days are 600 pages of swords, sorcery, and noble quests.
Every agent or publisher will insist you have to be able to sell your story, to distill the plot into 50 words or less. Better yet, into one sentence. But what does that really convey? Moby-Dick is about a guy obsessed with killing the whale that cost him his leg. Right?
We all need ‘plot’ but in the end, it is just the skeleton of the work – the connect-the-dots image begging for lines to give it form. In the end it is not the ‘what’ of a telling, it is the ‘how.’ It is not the distance of the journey, it is the people you meet along the way. It is the words.
“Remember,” Ray Bradbury wisely wrote, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”