Tag Archives: fiction

Write Today

One of my first posts on this blog was “You don’t have to write every day.” It was very much advice for myself, as much as for anyone else. (Since then I’ve learned I’m not the only one who believes writing every day isn’t necessary. Nice to know.)

In that post, I wrote that “writers have to figure out for themselves how to make time for writing.” (Again, advice for myself.)

Two and a half years later, I’m still figuring it out. And I always will be, even in the unlikely event that I win the lottery or get an absurd advance or wake up in Ann Patchett’s body.

But recently I hit upon a new strategy for pressuring myself to write while convincing myself that there’s no pressure to write.

Instead of telling myself, “I am going to write every day in October,” and then writing every day for the first three days of October, and then missing a day and feeling terrible about myself, and then abandoning the effort entirely–instead of all that, I tell myself: “I am going to write today.”

I don’t write very long, just 15 to 30 minutes, 250 words or so. Even that small amount of writing feels nice to have under my belt. And it accumulates.

If I don’t write today, it’s a smaller failure than not writing every day. I don’t feel like I have to make up a day by writing double. I don’t even have to promise myself anything new until tomorrow.

The strategy has worked for ten days, with only one day missed. That’s a pretty good run for any writing strategy of mine.

And I really like the Zen of it, if that’s the right word. Because writing is Zen, it’s of the moment, and it’s most fun when I’m letting myself be of the moment.

Write today, my friends. Write today.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I’ve been slowly, painfully, trying to work on novel No. 2, and the question that I’m struggling with, and will probably struggle with for a while, is “What kind of book do I want to write?”

I’ve been thinking about this book for a long time. I even wrote a number of chapters … about 15 years or so ago. I’ve scrapped those chapters, for now, because I think I’m writing a different book than I was then.

Here’s what I do know about this book I’m writing:

  1. The basic premise and conflict.
  2. The overarching theme.
  3. That the story is about a family.
  4. That there are three main characters.
  5. That for now, I’m going with third person, with point of view shifting chapter by chapter.
  6. The years it takes place. Probably 1968-1991.
  7. The setting.

Here are some things I’m working out:

  1. The structure. My experience with novel No. 1 tells me that it’s good to have a basic idea of structure at the start, to help me get things on paper, but to be flexible and let myself shake things up once I’ve written enough to see what structure would work best. For this book, I think I want the chapters to form a sort of collage. I’ve been thinking short chapters, with time shifts, probably moving chronologically forward, but maybe not. I toyed, briefly, with the idea of a novel in stories. But I don’t think that’s it. I’m not totally sure whether to shift point of view chapter by chapter or to give each character a discreet section. That’s OK. I’ll figure it all out.
  2. The level of realism. When I first worked on this idea, I was trying to weave religious myth into it. After a while, I worked those parts out. I think I made the right decision, but now I feel like I’m trying to write a Jhumpa Lahiri novel. Honestly, if I thought I could ever write as well as Jhumpa Lahiri, I would die happy. But I’m not sure her style of contemporary realism is what I’m aiming for.
  3. The plot. I never start out knowing the plot.

What kind of book do you want to write?

I’ve got to blog more. Or, Shut Up And Read.

I keep reading things about how we’re supposed to read the classics, or we’re supposed to appreciate genre fiction more. And then the New Yorker’s so-called sci-fi issue features a whole bunch of essays about the precise moment of childhood when the writer realized that there was a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction, and started lying about what he or she liked to read.

Enough already, people. The existence of a genre-literary distinction is interesting, and debates about where that line lies are interesting, and questions of how and why we value certain kinds of literature are also interesting. Up. To. A. Point.

At the risk of seeming like I’m taking sides, I’m going to quote Shirley Hazzard’s response to Stephen King at the 2003 National Book Awards:

I don’t see this as ‘we should read this or we should read that.’ We have mysterious inclinations. We have our own intuitions, our individuality toward what we want to read, and we developed that from childhood. We don’t know why. Nobody can explain it to us.

Or to paraphrase God:

To you your books and to me mine.

I like Michael Ondaatje and Robin McKinley. I like E.M. Forster and Ursula LeGuin. I like Jhumpa Lahiri and Tamora Pierce.

You like what you like. It’s all good as long as people keep reading.

So, what are you waiting for? Go read, everyone!

Holding Up a Mirror

Two years ago I assistant taught a fiction-writing class at my local community college. When faced with a character-description assignment, a lot of students asked, “How do I describe a first-person narrator?” Without having the character look in a mirror, of course. The students seemed really stumped.

Now the easy answer is to have the character describe him- or herself. As in this excerpt from “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England” by Brock Clarke:

About my looks: I was tall and skinny as a kid, but with a big head. I looked like a vertical matchstick. … My face is the most prominent thing about me: it’s red, and sometimes it looks healthy and windburned and full of what you might call life, and sometimes it just looks enflamed.

(The description goes on for a while longer.)

But it doesn’t always seem right for a character to describe him- or herself. I mean, how many of us would really want to do that if we were narrating our own lives?

In that case, a lot of writers employ a sort of mirror technique, without the actual mirror: They have the point-of-view character describe another character, and through the description we get a sense of how the character sees him- or herself. Passages like these appear in the opening chapters of “Girl With A Pearl Earring” and “Prep.”

Although the example below, from “Wolves of the Crescent Moon” by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, is in the third person, I think it does the job nicely. The point-of-view character is missing one ear. He hides that fact by wearing a scarf wound tightly around his head. Here he’s buying a shawerma sandwich:

As the Turkish shawerma man sharpened his long knife, Turad gazed at his clean, finely defined ear, which glowed red in the light and heat of the flames. The Turkish shawerma man swaggered proudly showing off his beautiful ear as he carved tender slices from the huge cone-shaped column of chicken wrapped around the spit, piled them up with his spoon, added some fries, and spread a dollop of mayonnaise on the bread. His other ear glowed with every jolt of his body, thanks to the strong light of the halogen lamp that was positioned just above his head and the pile of chicken. And all the time the Turk was singing a sad song in a language Turad could not understand; he just kept staring at that captivating left ear as he wondered about the secret of the sad singing. How on earth could someone who possessed such a wonderfully perfect ear be sad?

I’d want that shawerma if the rest of the description weren’t so … creepy.

The point is, sometimes character descriptions, whether of the person narrating or of another character, can do more than show readers physical characteristics. In the same way that descriptions of setting can establish a mood, descriptions of characters can tell us how a character feels about him- or herself.

Get Your Characters Some Exercise

I promised I’d post an exercise in creating action and character movement. So here goes.

Step 1: Choose a character from a story or novel you’re working on. If you don’t have an off-the-shelf character, use someone you know, like your mom, your spouse, your neighbor, your co-worker. Don’t worry. They never have to read this.

Step 2: Take your character for a walk. Use a setting from your story or novel, or a place you know, like your neighborhood or the city you live in or a hiking trail you frequent. What does your character see? Have them use at least two of the other senses as well. Tell us what they’re thinking and feeling as they walk.

Step 3: Put a barrier in your character’s way. Describe it. Then tell us what happens next.

Step 4: Now have someone following your character. How does your character realize that someone’s on their trail? What does your character do? What does the follower do?

Step 5: Put another barrier in your character’s way. This time, they have to deal with being followed and figuring out how to deal with the barrier at the same time.

Step 6: Go back to the beginning. Give your character a companion. At each important juncture, they disagree about how to proceed. How does that change the scene?

I just made this exercise up, which means it’s untested. Plus I’ve heard that adult learners never follow instructions. With those things in mind, I’d love your feedback if you end up trying the exercise out. How’d it go? Did you change anything up? If so, what?

Get Me Out of Here!

When you’ve been working on a particular scene for way too long, and you just can’t seem to write your way out of it, you have a few choices:

  • Work on another scene or chapter for a while.
  • Shake things up: Change a key event in the scene, or make a character do the opposite of what you thought they were doing, or switch the dialogue around so that X says what Y said and Y says what X said.
  • Delete the scene. Go ahead. Do it. See how easy that was?

How to Lie to a Toddler

How to Lie to a Toddler

My son is 2 ½, and he sometimes obsesses about things. For instance, if we see his friend N as we’re leaving daycare, he’ll screech, “I want to see N’s car,” over and over again, long after we’ve left the parking lot.

I’ve found a strategy to minimize the screaming. I lie.

I point to a random car and say, “There’s N’s car.” My son says, “That’s N’s car? That’s N’s car! What’s N’s car doing?” There’s repetition, but it’s contented, not screechy, and everyone’s happy.

Now, lest you think I’m teaching my son dishonesty, I’d like to argue that he’s learning about imagination and storytelling and creative embellishment. The other day he pointed to a black postal worker driving a mail truck and said, “That’s A’s daddy.” (A’s daddy is Vietnamese and drives a Honda Pilot.) He seemed very pleased with himself.

Yesterday my husband and I were seeing if some friends could have dinner with us. We told our son that we might have dinner with Dave. (I’m using his name because it makes the story better. You’ll see.) It turned out Dave wasn’t able to make it. Our son started crying. “I want Dave. I want Dave.” This turned into “I want food. I want food. I want dumplings. I want dumplings” when we got to the restaurant. But then he returned to Dave. “I want Dave. I want Dave.”

I wanted a quiet dinner. “There’s Dave.” I pointed to the waitress behind the counter. My husband gave me a look that said, “That’s so wrong, but what if it works?”

And it did work. For about a minute.

Our son brightened and smiled. “That’s Dave. What’s Dave doing?”

“Dave is getting people their food.”

Blissful non-screaming. Until eventually he remembered that Dave is a tall white man with a beard, not a short Asian woman, and the yelling recommenced. “I want Dave! I want Dave!”

There’s a moral to this story, but I don’t think it’s going to sink in.

P.S. I don’t actually know if A’s daddy drives a Pilot. I may have made that up.