Answer Me These Questions Three

Answering Your Questions, Totally Sober v. II

A few weeks ago, I started collecting subscriber questions for another Q+A piece. I had done one back in October, and it seemed to go over well. A good time was had by all, including me.

This time, however, I botched my request for questions. Because I only asked once, I only have three (well-crafted, interesting) subscriber questions to work with. Next time I do this, I’ll ask repeatedly over a period of a few weeks, and gather up more ammo. As it stands, I’m excited to give detailed answers to the ones I did receive. Thanks again!

1) What is your process for starting to write a novel? — Matthew

A good question that I wish I had a better answer for. I don’t have a uniform procedure, partly because I’ve only worked on a few novel projects. They’ve all been fraught and angst-ridden in their own ways, which gets in the way of constructing a clinical “process.” This will sound corny, but I was taught that being a fiction writer is as much existential as it is technical—it’s something you are as much as it’s something you do. Which means that writing a novel will probably be a microcosm of the rest of your life, and therefore as messy or calculating or whatever else as that implies.

That said, there are a few things I’ve taught myself to do to start a long project off in a way that will (hopefully) save me some aggravation down the line. The first is to write either a short story or an extended scene with the protagonist and at least one other significant character. It’s nice to have some proof of concept for the premise/world, to test out a particular narrative voice, and to investigate whether you like spending time with a character (not the same thing as liking a character, per se). This exercise may or may not be part of the novel. The important thing is simply to get the character from point A to point B, so you can decide whether you want to go with them all the way to point Z.

After that, I like to sketch out a basic three-act arc for the plot. Inevitably this will change if I stick with the project, but it helps to know where I want to go, and to have a rough map of how to get there. And then I just dive in. So far, I’m not sure any of my “final” drafts have been that great, but hey, at least the writing 60-100k words of the same story is now a LOT less scary than it used to be.

2) Is there a maxim (or perhaps a series of maxims; Vonnegut's famed list immediately comes to mind) on writing that you ascribe to for fiction? And a follow-up question: On the flip side, are there writing maxims that you consider to be complete and total dross? — Owen

I could go on and on about this one. Maybe the most important aphorism about writing fiction comes from Aristotle’s Poetics: “What is convincing though impossible should always be preferred to what is possible and unconvincing.” We’ve all heard it a thousand times, but it can’t be said enough that fiction is the art of the believable and convincing, more than it is an art of the “real” or “authentic.” Emily Dickinson’s “tell all the truth but tell it slant” gets at something crucial as well: Find a distinctive angle for re-noticing, re-encountering whatever it is you’re writing about. Don’t just report; transform and transport.

A less canonical piece of advice came to me from someone who’s worked closely with my fiction: If a character has to reflect on something or brood or whatever, it’s almost always best to give them another character to play off of. Pure interiority often loses us, and even Virginia Woolf, the queen of the interior, prefers to let interactive scenes bracket and expose what’s going on inside a character.

There aren’t too many maxims about writing that I truly hate or believe to be completely wrong. “Write what you know” gets misused as a way of pushing people toward autobiographical fiction, but if you interpret it as “write from a place of emotional understanding,” it looks a lot wiser.

I do have a bone to pick with Elmore Leonard. His advice is probably golden if you want to write like Elmore Leonard, but it’s just silly to sum up the key to fiction writing as, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Most of the very greatest prose looks like prose when you see it on the page. Great writing usually looks like something a smart, talented person belletristically brought into being, and that’s a good thing. Again, “authenticity” isn’t usually the goal.

3) There's a bit of a disconnect between the advice good teachers of the craft of writing give and the actual writing that they (or others) produce, which seems to grow out of the space between what can be said about writing and what can only be said through writing. So John Gardner can write a very useful and widely-circulated craft manual, but following the advice outlined there won't lead you to a Grendel; there's something more to it than can be communicated that way. I'm interested, given your perspective as someone who grew up among writers, been instructed by writers, and as a writer yourself, in what thoughts you might have about this space between the practice of writing as a discursive subject and as a creative act. — Richard

This is a really interesting one that deserves a long essay. I think the place to start is by saying that there are, more or less objectively, a higher number of technically proficient fiction writers now than that at any point in history. It actually is possible to learn the “skills” of fiction writing, and many people do so. So why don’t all of those people produce great books? What is “talent”?

One good way to describe talent is as the ability to emotionally surprise a reader. If you feel something radically different than you might have expected, or if the feeling is much more intense than you thought possible going in, or—best of all—if you can’t even describe the feeling, then you’re in the presence of literary talent.

All of this is necessarily frustrating to talk about. I took a class on aesthetics (from an analytic philosophy point of view) during my first semester as an MFA student. It turns out that the biggest thorn in the side of the practice of aesthetics has, for literal thousands of years, been that art makes us feel things. And feelings are hard to talk about systematically or objectively or even coherently. You can see why this would be a problem not only for aestheticians but for anyone teaching the practice of art.

So that’s where I find myself now: Aware that I’m technically proficient, but struggling to make the most of whatever talent I may have for making people feel things. Some of that may be teachable, such as when we tell writers to have characters manifest their feelings in action, or for dialogue to tell us more than simply what’s being said. But ultimately truly great fiction has to surprise us, has to do something to us we feel like we can’t easily find elsewhere, or maybe we can’t even explain.

I do think good teachers of writing ultimately make their students feel all of this. Some get there by being obstinate pricks, some by exhortations to treat writing as a spiritual vocation, some by exhaustive intellectual analysis that finally makes it clear that what we do isn’t all about intellect.

I hope that begins to answer a very good question.

One more round of thanks for everyone who offered up these great questions. I look forward to doing this again sometime!

I’m probably going to take next week off, due to having too many things to do. If so, I’ll be back soon!

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Calvin and Hobbes Corner

Now we’re cooking with gas:

The leaf collection is doomed!! If only anyone could have seen this coming. It’s not like Calvin has been putting off this tediously substantial assignment for, oh, it feels like a dozen strips or so. Calvin’s refusal to collect leaves has become downright Sisyphean for us at this point. If Watterson set out to convey the feeling of avoiding the task being more onerous than doing the task, he certainly got us there.

But look, a spaceship! FINALLY SOMETHING IS HAPPENING!! Now that we’ve gotten to this point, I want to praise Watterson for his sense of narrative timing. He studiously made nothing happen for several strips longer than he needed to, and now not only are we are at zero-hour with leaf collecting—there are suddenly space aliens. You wry old card, you.

“The problem is that mom’s not flexible.” I’m old enough (30) to remember life before the Internet. I didn’t have a smartphone until I was 21. Do we think people were more or less “flexible” before they were so easy to reach and were constantly connected? I’m going to go with “less.” We ask too much of each other now, I’d say. Or maybe it’s the opposite and I’m just feeling curmudgeonly.

A poem

Ilya Kaminsky is a witness stand