Sit on a Boulder and Stare at the Horizon

Answering Your Questions, Totally Sober

I’ve always wanted this newsletter to be “interactive,” or whatever a less sterile, corporate term might be for creating a conversation. So two weeks ago, I asked for questions, and you delivered. Thank you so much if you contributed—your questions were great. I’m going to answer eight reader queries in a way that I hope will make you feel like I took them seriously without getting insufferably pedantic. If you feel like I’ve been, as Orwell said of Joyce, “an elephantine pedant,” please complete the circle by yelling at me in the comments.

1) What recent trends in literary fiction (particularly in the US) do you find most misguided or personally unappealing? Are there any writers in particular whom you think are guilty of popularizing these trends? — Connor

I’m starting with this one because it’s simple: I hate, hate, hate (most) autofiction. For those lucky enough not to know, autofiction is when someone meanderingly and undergrad-ly writes about themselves and calls it “fiction.” I suspect a lot of other people also hate (most) autofiction, because now they’re calling it “autotheory.” They can run but they can’t hide.

Fiction is supposed to be made up. Shocking, I know. “Made up” doesn’t mean that fiction doesn’t try to tell us something about reality. It invariably does try, a simple realization which blows apart arguments such as that made by David Gates in Reality Hunger. What I mean is that fiction, especially the novel, is at its best when it makes the most of its own artifice. Middlemarch has a lot to say about English provincial life in the early 19th Century, and it chooses to do so by using the magisterial access to the interiority of other minds that only fictional prose can provide, and by shaping a plot machinery that can keep ticking across a thousand pages, and by using just about every other conventional trick of the novel form. Trick and machinery and magisterial—if words that signal invention and virtuosity alarm you, novels may not be for you.

Making up a good story is of course hard. It’s much easier to write about someone you talked to on a plane (a la Rachel Cusk), or to drone on interminably about your upbringing (Knausgaard, if you hadn’t already caught on). Easy and also not why the novel form exists. Write an essay or, if you have to ramble like Knausgaard, do a podcast.

There are other things I want to rant about, but most of them will have to wait. Except for this: Please stop publishing piles of notes by young writers and calling them novels just because you want them to have something on the market. That’s also not what a novel is.

2) What would you recommend to someone who has never written fiction, but is interested in writing for their own enjoyment and doesn't know where the hell to start. — Will

Start with character. There’s probably someone in your imagination who interests you. It may be someone a lot like you, and—though I risk contradicting what I wrote in my last answer—that’s OK. What do they want to do? Why do they want to do it? Where did they come from, and where are they going? Why does it matter?

Scribbling down some answers to these questions would be a good start. Then the most important thing is to write a lot. NaNoWriMo is easy to make fun of, but honestly, the first and maybe most important hurdle in learning to write novels is proving to yourself that you can write 60,000 or more words about made-up characters doing made-up things. Once you have a character whom you find it fun to think about, consider doing NaNoWriMo or finding another way to get a lot of vaguely ordered words down about this character and their world. Setting a realistic daily goal—as low as, say, 50 words—is another great way to keep yourself and your characters moving forward.

There are lots of great, more advanced lessons to be had, from James Wood to Charlie Baxter. I find screenwriting beat sheets useful as well. But first, come up with a character you enjoy and ask them what they want to do, and then let them do it. See what stops them from doing whatever they want, and then see what they do about those obstacles. That will always be how great stories start.

3) What are your thoughts about writing while drunk? — Sara

A lot of these newsletters have been written after a couple of drinks. So has a lot of my fiction, so clearly I’m not against writing while “buzzed” or “tipsy.” If we define “drunk” as intoxicated past the point of being your best self, then good writing probably won’t happen. The keys, as always, are to hydrate, eat enough food, and pace yourself. There’s a great moment in the strange and under-appreciated movie Computer Chess (2013) in which a drunk British scientist explains that he does his best work after three scotches. That’s probably about right for most people who can hold their liquor.

4) How do writers come up with names for characters? — Matthew

Right now, I’m reading Ulysses, and reflecting a lot on where Joyce gets his character names. The star of the Nausicaa chapter is called “Gerty MacDowell.” Like all of Joyce’s characters, she’s in part (though, like all of Joyce’s characters, not entirely) a figure of fun. We’re supposed to laugh at her awkward name and her naive pining. She’s also famously well-rendered in a single chapter, enough to make her more memorable than the protagonists of the vast majority of novels ever written. Still, I think her name was chosen for comedy. It’s a utilitarianly Irish name, the name of someone un-special, clunky without being remarkable. It’s the name of someone you might feel a little bad for but would also gossip about.

That’s Joyce’s aloofly puckish sensibility. I tend to simply give characters names I’ve always liked. Two of my protagonists have been named “Sofia” and “Gloria,” because I’ve always liked those names. Usually you have to like spending time with important characters, so you’ll gravitate toward names you like typing over and over and over again. That’s probably the closest thing to a universal answer.

5) A throughline both here and on your podcast is a sense that it's gotten much harder to do the kind of writing you find valuable within the business model of the modern publishing industry. Would you mind talking a bit about the strategies you've found, both in your own practice and in the work of others, for telling individual stories in the face of an industry that's grown to oppose, or at least constrain, that impulse? — Richard

A question so well thought-out that answering it completely would require a kind of distance from my own work and goals that I find hard to achieve.

Fiction sales have been declining a bit every year since 2012. The market is shrinking for all fiction writers, and publishers are generally becoming more risk-averse at a time when there are probably more people than ever producing skilled, accomplished work. So it’s simply harder to sell almost any novel now than it was a few decades ago.

Beyond that overarching problem, though, I’m not sure the market has gotten any less friendly to my work. Partly I say that because the kind of fantastical, inventive storytelling I find myself doing over the past few years isn’t going out of style. I’m a compulsive genre-bender and gap-spanner, which has indeed presented a few challenges in terms of finding exactly the right publisher. But I’m loathe to claim persecution. I’m less worried about myself than I am about friends and colleagues whose work has less plot and is more quietly highbrow and so on.

So I guess that answers the second part of your question: I think my role in the conventional publishing marketplace, if I get to have one, will be as someone who can tell plotty, world-built stories that aren’t completely stupid. I think that’s an attainable role, but I guess the marketplace gets to decide that.

6) Should authors attempt to map out a story before the real writing begins? Is that a useful approach? Or perhaps one relative to the scope and scale of the story itself? Also, miscellaneous question: What are your feelings on Cormac McCarthy? — Owen

It’s definitely good have some kind of plan, preferably a broad outline, before getting too far into a novel. Of course, as one of my podcast cohosts like to say, “A complicated plan is a list of things that won’t happen.” But having some of the bigger movements mapped out from the start will help keep you from despairing. And despair is always your most dangerous enemy in novel writing.

Short stories are different because often only one thing needs to happen. It becomes a matter of identifying what the perfect thing is for these characters and their predicament. There might be strategies that can help you there, including a simple outline, but it’s probably more useful to sit on a boulder and stare at the horizon for a while.

Cormac McCarthy is indisputably one of the greatest living American writers. People will be reading Blood Meridian for as long as they’re reading American novels. All Western writers, including yours truly, owe him a debt. And we all need to stop trying to imitate him. Please God, everyone stop.

7) Here's the one that's been bugging me since, oh, January 2018: what does it take to turn a short story into a longer form, like perhaps a moment that could anchor a novella? — Kelsey

This is a tough one, in a way that’s productive for me to try to approach. I should probably think about it longer, but my deadline looms. Surely you can relate, Kelsey.

I’ve always written proof-of-concept short stories when I’m considering doing a novel. The goal is to test how much I care about the characters, and to try out a voice. One byproduct of doing this exercise is that I struggle to write a short story without wondering whether what it really wants to be is something longer.

And here’s how I frame that “what it really wants to be” question: Do I believe the problems these characters face in this story would be more interesting if we zoomed out? That is, do their struggles here fold into a world of struggles I find interesting? Sometimes what the characters in a short piece most want to do is get into trouble and then die. Sometimes they have a smaller problem that they resolve in a way that makes us think about Our Society. I start thinking they might be novel characters when I realize their problems are only the fraying end of a longer thread I’ve been pulling on.

If your character sitting on a boulder and watching the horizon as she has an epiphany feels like she wants to get up and walk toward that horizon, and if you yourself are wondering what she might find, then you should at least pursue it. You probably won’t know whether it’s good until you’ve got most of a draft, which is terrifying, but you write about nuclear weapons so I suspect you can handle constant low-grade terror.

8) I have no opinions on video games as I don't play them but they seem like an okay way to kill time. What are your favorite short stories? — Sara

Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor, The Haunter of the Dark by H.P. Lovecraft, and Vacuum by Brad Watson.

Those are my best efforts! If you want to continue the conversation, or bully me, or whatever, get in the comments…

Calvin and Hobbes Corner

Crazy like a tiger:

A count of Calvin and Hobbes strips that feature neither Calvin nor Hobbes might not reach a dozen. I remember an arc with Calvin’s visiting uncle, which I’ll eventually get to, where the three adults discuss Calvin. And there are a few more mom/dad convos, as well as maybe an interactions with Rosalyn or two, but our namesake characters are rarely all the way off the stage.

Here we have Calvin’s parents searching the dark forest for what they believe to be their kid’s stuffed tiger. They know Hobbes is just a toy, but one uniquely crucial to Calvin’s sense of self. And they’re good parents of their only child, adults with plenty to do but enough leisure and consideration to do something kind for their kid. (Though I hope they’re not too far from home—Calvin is all alone, and he’s only six.)

But do they really know Hobbes is not real? In the first two panels, Calvin’s dad refers to Hobbes as a “stuffed tiger” and then a “toy.” Then his mom calls out for Hobbes as if he’s a real animal who can answer to his name. She gets ridiculed, but the reason for the slippage is clear: Hobbes is so real to Calvin that at times the gravity of a six-year-old’s reality draws in the adults in his orbit. And the woods at night are the kind of place where our priors about reality can begin to slip.

A poem

Ki no Tomonori pleases her majesty