As the clock strikes midnight on Halloween, 2009, Penultimate kicks off NaNoWriMo with a guest essay. By me.
At a few minutes after midnight, it will be my wedding anniversary. Yes, exactly a few minutes.
Coincidentally, today my husband discovered the most extraordinary interactive site in the world—a comparative illustration of the sizes of the tiniest objects from a coffee bean down to a carbon atom.
And yesterday a glossy black half-grown kitten with gold eyes wandered out of the woods, took one look at my son, and adopted us. My son’s named him Jack—Panther Jack O’Lantern.
Today we’re linking to one of my favorite sites ever: the Poets & Writers collection of Jofie Ferrari-Adler interviews.
Have you ever read the Paris Review interviews? My friend Sasha Troyan (award-winning author of Angels in the Morning and The Forgotten Island) got me into those years ago. Wonderful stuff—interviews with all the great authors of the twentieth century you’ve ever heard of and all the ones you haven’t yet. I discovered Isak Denisen, Edna O’Brien, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and dozens of others through them.
Now Poets & Writers is doing the same thing, only with the agents and acquisitions editors of the contemporary publishing world.
Read these interviews. Then read them again. Then read them again. Enjoy them for the great conversations they are. Take notes. Follow advice. Look up the books and authors mentioned.
This is the company you hope to join.
They probably pitched it as one thing, and then they went with something else because, hey, nobody’s watching.
—Craig Bartlett, on the phone
I did something freaky yesterday: I called up someone I hadn’t talked to in thirty years. It was my old friend, Craig, who used to stay up late every Wednesday night with me and my minions putting together our school newspaper. . .
Read the full essay on Pulp Rag.
We were supposed to talk about rejection again yesterday. But I knew you didn’t want to. Who wants to talk about rejection? Right before Halloween?
So instead I called up Craig Bartlett, Creator/Executive Producer of Nickelodeon’s Hey, Arnold!, author of the Hey, Arnold! children’s books, and now Creator/Executive Producer of the new PBS/Jim Henson Company children’s cartoon, Dinosaur Train, and interviewed him.
Unfortunately, that interview’s not ready to post yet. I need to get some pictures from him and verify his bio (all I know for a fact is that he worked with me on our school paper in 1980, and even that I might be misremembering. . .after all, it was the eighties) and ask him a few more questions about craft—we spent an inordinate amount of time catching up on each other’s lives and hyucking it up over shrink-wrapped geoducks.
So in the meantime we will toy with rejection only in terms of how, hey, it’s Halloween, right? It’s just a form letter, it could be from anyone, it could be about anyone. It doesn’t have teeth. You can set it on fire if you want to, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Meanwhile, there are ghosts and skeletons and and other manifestations of the really serious issues of life bumbling around out there, banging on your door and demanding treats to leave you alone.
Seriously—things could be a lot worse, now, couldn’t they?
For starters, go to Kung Fu Grippe to learn how to handle rejection like a grown-up. I don’t know who this is, but I LOVE them.
Little, Bown acquisitions editor Alvina Ling has written a piece on on Decline Letters.
The Rejectionist displays a rejection from the NY MOMA to Andy Warhol. Boy, I bet they feel stupid.
Then if you still haven’t had enough, read Kung Fu Grippe’s version of an honest rejection letter.
A couple of weeks ago I finally read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.
It turns out Angela didn’t have any ashes.
Sadly, McCourt died earlier this summer. It was in the news. Only thirteen years earlier, Angela’s Ashes had rocketed out of nowhere as a memoir without a particularly focused plotline, much less sympathetic characters, much less what is known in normal circles as HOPE.
It’s the language. It’s well-written. McCourt was a high school English teacher.
However, it’s also the genre and what it says to those of us literate readers of the industrialized world: there is suffering in the world. And, like McCourt, a middle-class educated American for almost sixty years, we do understand suffering.
Now more than ever. . .
Read the full essay on Pulp Rag.
You’ll notice that today we’re blowing our minds with a certain amount of advice on screenwriting. Yes, screenwriting is a close enough cousin to fiction that the serious fiction writer can take enormous assistance from screenwriting advice, without the extra hassle of having to deal with Hollywood.
Alexandra Sokoloff uses Jaws to talk about characters’ PLANS being thwarted by PLANS. Even the shark had an evolving plan!
ChristopherR2D2 chides you about being afraid to write. I almost didn’t include this one because it’s rife with Google ads, but he’s also got a link to a good piece describing writer’s block as simply the decision not to write. (He—as so many others—is a little lost on the subject of forcing yourself to write just for the sake of writing. It may very well take ten thousand hours to learn how to do something, but ten thousand hours of writing drivel that never improves is far worse for your skills than ten years of writing once a year in a concentrated effort to learn the craft.)
Ben Bova reminds us that Donne was smarter than you’d think from the number of writers these days who can quote him. (More aggressive ads.)
And then there are our comrades, the fiction writers, leading the way through the mines for the rest of us with their lanterns aloft:
In a beautifully-written exploration of craft, Alexander Chee describes studying under Annie Dillard.
Morgan Barnhart of the Peevish Penman advises you to write your scenes when you’re possessed by them, not just when you plan to.
Jonathon Karp, editor and publisher of Twelve publishing, is interviewed in-depth in another of those wonderful Poets & Writers interviews by Jofie Ferrari-Adler.
While a new interesting publishing blogger has appeared, Bob Spears on Book Trends, a bookstore owner and book packager covering all aspects of ebooks, Print on Demand, self-publishing, even teaching children to love reading. He’s got a mighty dandy mustache, too!
Finally, you should all be aware of what’s been going on with the Price Wars between Amazon, Target, and Walmart (really, you guys, Walmart) and the American Booksellers’ Association letter to the Department of Justice asking them to step in. If you have any interest in ever being published after this last week, much less any love for independent booksellers (which you’d better), you need to know about this.
No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put at just the right place.
—Isaac Babel, “Guy de Maupassant”
A convincing lie is, in its own way, a tiny, perfect narrative.
—William Boyd, “A Short History of the Short Story”
This week we’re linking to the Willesden Herald of Willesden, London. Why? Because they run an annual short story competition, and Stephen Moran took the time about a year and a half ago to explain in great detail exactly what you can do to lose a short story competition.
This is priceless information. Read it and take notes.
Even more than that, though, at the bottom of the page Moran included “A few interesting links” to three works every fiction writer should throw themself into headfirst and wallow in until they become part of their body chemistry: by William Boyd, Raymond Carver, and Jack Kerouac.
Boyd tracks a history of the short story from Walter Scott and defines a handful of short story types being written today: event-plot, Chekhovian, cryptic/lucid, poetic/mythic, mini-novel. Be aware that, although he’s dismissive of Virginia Woolf’s stories, she did in fact do much to loosen the bonds of the short story from formal prescription. Also be aware that, although he claims Chekhov completely re-imagined the short story without plot, this is a clever bit of subterfuge—Chekov’s stories have plots. Even Woolf’s stories, weird as they are, have obscure little plots. They’re just not arranged the way previous short story plots had been up to that point.
Understand that when Raymond Carver says he and Flannery O’Connor didn’t plan their stories—and Boyd says Chekhov “abandoned manipulated plot”—they’re talking about highly-accomplished authors who had already studied structure intently. They didn’t mean: “Don’t learn structure. You’re too special.” They just meant the short story form can take a certain amount of spinning madly across the sun—so long as the writer knows how to keep the reader with them in their spins. Notice Edgar Allan Poe’s restriction in the acknowledged first definition of a short story: “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” Even in 1837 Poe already knew there must be—in the writer’s mind, at least—a story there to tell.
“No tricks,” Carver says, and I would like all aspiring writers to carve this into something directly in front of their keyboards, like their monitor screens. Don’t save up information for your climax. Don’t pretend you don’t know something about your characters that you actually know. Don’t think you’re fooling anybody. Every time a writer imagines they’re cleverly planting a mystery in the beginning of the novel that’s not a mystery, to be revealed like a magician whipping a handkerchief off a top hat at the end, the reader figures it out long before that and then the novel has no more tension. Never rely on your reader’s stupidity for tension. You don’t want that stupid of readers.
(Okay, don’t wallow in the Kerouac, either. He didn’t write short stories, anyway, and his hyper-intense focus on himself and his own internal experience of life, while a fascinating take on conventional fiction, has been from the beginning hideously misunderstood by faux “writers” just looking for an excuse to focus on themselves without the benefit of fiction, spawning generations of narcissists who don’t write fiction and never have, but continue to insist on putting words on paper, drinking themselves blind, and smoking themselves stoopid because that’s what their hero Jack did. If the neighbor kid jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too? Apparently—YES.)
The short story is. . .well, short. Which makes it good practice grounds for serious writers. Use Boyd’s definitions of different story forms to practice—write stories in each form, write the same story in every form, write with plans and without. I don’t mean do one of these. I mean do all of them.
Write, write, write.
You’re a writer.
“I went to confer a favour and you will go to ask one. If they are proud you will be on the right side.”
—Henry James as Mrs. Prest, “The Aspern Papers”
Henry James was a writer of the first order, with an understanding of character astonishing in its depth, a beauty of language and atmosphere haunting in its resonance, a sense of tension that reaches out of the page to lock around the reader’s throat, and a grasp of grammar like a half-nelson. But where he really excelled was in plotting.
Today let’s dissect the plot of his extraordinary story “The Aspern Papers”. . .
Read the full essay on Pulp Rag.
You’ve got a query letter. You know what to put in your author bio. You’ve even looked up how many pages of your manuscript this particular agent you’re querying wants to see with your query.
Laura Mosko, Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market Editor, has outlined the basics of writing a synopsis from literary agent Marshall Evans’ The Marshall Plan for Getting Your Novel Published on Fiction Addiction.
eHow, of course, has instructions on formatting a synopsis.
Fiction Writer’s Connection of Albuquerque has a useful synopsis checklist.
Writing World’s Marg Gilks wrote a nice, chatty piece on writing a synopsis back in 2001.
Pearl Luke offers a good, succinct synopsis for her novel Madame Zee.
The Absolute Write forum thrashes over contradictory synopsis advice.
And I have to include this one not because it is helpful in any way, but because the answer A: made me laugh: WikiAnswers.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.