Monday, December 15, 2008

Word of the Year

Remember when the word of last year "TRUTHINESS" was all the rage? We can go way back and remember when BLOG was the most looked-up word on the Internet. Then there was WMD and PODCAST and some clever turns like PECKSNIFFIAN, named for an unscrupulous character in a Dickens novel.

So, it's looking like 2008 is going to give us a wicked reminder of our nationalizing government tendencies with the top two finishers (according to Merriam Webster) invoking the economic meltdown of the century so far: #2 SUBPRIME......#1......wait for it......BAILOUT.

I long for the days of Monica Lewinsky headlines and the meaning of IS. The Mortgage Boom, the headlines about French wines appreciating at astronomical rates. Where is Mister Rogers, the Teletubbies brouhaha, the days when Andy Rooney was the most controversial piece on Sixty Minutes?

No need to answer. It's rhetorical. But it is fun to remember.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I'm So Glad Maureen Dowd Was Off

Or else we wouldn't have gotten this BEAUTIFUL piece by Timothy Egan. If you get sick of the celebrity memoirs and fiction that more resembles what my dog deposits, you'll want to give this a read.

Typing Without a Clue

Oops, it turns out that lovely newspaper whence this article comes requires a registered account to read. In case you don't have one, here's the skinny.

Joe the Plumber is writing a book. I will reserve comments about the things he apparently cannot do: pay taxes, hold a legit plumbing certification, etc. There's a good chance we'll discover he can't write either, but it won't stop the juggernaut of money thrown his way for telling us his story (as if John McCain didn't tell us enough about Joe's life).

Timothy Egan tells us Sarah Palin is next in line for a high-profile memoir. Allegedly, a seven figure advance is in the works for her story (I can see it now: Chapter 1 Staring Across the Bering Strait). Mr. Egan in his article points out that a book from her is potentially a verbal train wreck. Case in point (Palin in an interview with Matt Lauer on when she knew they'd lost the election):

“I had great faith that, you know, perhaps when that voter entered that voting booth and closed that curtain that what would kick in for them was, perhaps, a bold step that would have to be taken in casting a vote for us, but having to put a lot of faith in that commitment we tried to articulate that we were the true change agent that would progress this nation.”

His point resonates clearly. Writing is not like teaching. Just because you think you can do it, does not mean you can. And for those of us who ARE doing it, tempers tend to flare when dilettantes swoop in and steal the spotlight--which is in itself inaccurate since writers work in solitude and most of the ones I know prefer to stay there. I think really writers resent people who take the spotlight and don't represent the purists of the craft faithfully.

Egan again:
Day in, day out, [writers] labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal.

Our columnist, one faithful Mr. Egan, leaves these charlatans with one final piece of advice:

For the others — you friends of celebrities penning cookbooks, you train wrecks just out of rehab, you politicians with an agent but no talent — stop soaking up precious advance money.

Amen, brother! (But what am I getting all self-righteous for? Not like Joe the Plumber stole my book deal or anything. But it is fun to think so.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The New Pat Conroy Novel

Pages from Conroy's manuscript

It has been almost 14 years since Pat Conroy published Beach Music. 22 years since The Prince of Tides. In the intervening years, he's done a memoir on basketball from his years playing at the Citadel. He wrote his passion project, a cookbook with essays and stories. Yet in the back of his mind, he's always had the idea for the big Charleston novel, a story that's been brewing since he moved from San Francisco back to the east coast in the mid-nineties. He's had things to say about the Holy City since he last left it (fictionally) in The Lords of Discipline in 1980.

South of Broad should be out next September. For those who expect the inevitable delays with a Conroy novel (Beach Music was delayed for years), I would say rest easy. The novel is finished; it's edited (original manuscript weighed in around 1400 pages), and no one is happier about that than Mr. Conroy himself (perhaps Sandra, his wife, is happier).

The novel will be big, epic, like the others (final book weighs in somewhere around 600 pages). Stylistically, Pat remains acute in his sensitivity, sprawling in his images, and is still the overwriting show-off that I love him for--except even better. He continues to grow as a writer, a claim he's shy about, but one I think is true.

Leo, his protagonist, is a newspaper reporter in Charleston, and a large chunk of the plot revolves around a serial killer and a high-profile murder in the 1980s (all invented [no ripping from headlines here]). But Conroy has not morphed into the thriller writer by any stretch. His main character remains the Lowcountry of South Carolina, his story centers more around relationships and his eminently likeable Joycean protagonist. At the height of the novel's intensity is a mind-blowing chapter involving the serial killer and Hurricane Hugo (the still legendary storm that leveled Charleston and several towns to the north in 1989). If you are a Conroy connoisseur, you can look forward to a novel that recalls The Prince of Tides and Beach Music in terms of scope and style.

Note: As a favor, and because I love Pat dearly, I typed the last third or so of the book, but because I am still first a fan (I will do a big blog entry soon on my friendship with Pat), I asked him not to send the final two chapters. I have not read the entire novel and don't want to until it comes out. I want the all-absorbing experience of curling up on the couch on a rainy day, cracking the cover on a big new Conroy book, and swimming in his worlds--just like you do.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Life seems to be injecting lists into my daily experience. The NY Times has the best books of 2008 (already). Another blog I read has 75 books every man should read. There were the 10 Commandments on Sunday. Another blog I came across has 101 things you don't know about [him the blogger]. And just last week someone asked me about my favorite books.

Lists are hard. But I like them. They interest as much for what they include as for what they don't. They elicit opinions--sometimes strong ones. They force self-reflection, solicit new lists, promote discussion. I'm not David Letterman, but I think I'll try some of these.

Here's a top ten contemporary novel list with a tie for ten:

1. The Prince of Tides (turned me on my head at age 20...had no idea language could do this to a person)
2. Sophie's Choice (a dilemma that leveled me...I was never the same)
3. Lonesome Dove (I didn't know I could love two characters, fictional characters)
4. Pillars of the Earth (epic, beautiful, and what medieval times must've been like)
5. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb is a small god that stirs my soul)
6. Shantaram (a true story, haunting, and so evocative I dreamed about it)
7. Middlesex (writing so beautiful I called people on the phone to read to them)
8. The Things They Carried (the best book about war ever written)
9. The Secret History (the most brilliant first novel I've ever read)
10. The Cider House Rules (John Irving is a genius, pure and simple)
10. A Prayer for Owen Meany (I'll say it again...John Irving is a genius)

And how about a top ten classic American novel list:

1. The Great Gatsby (I want to live in Nick Carroway's spare bedroom)
2. To Kill a Mockingbird (Atticus is my hero and role model)
3. Fahrenheit 451 (one of the coolest plots and best titles ever)
4. Crime & Punishment (Raskolnikov is one of the best characters ever created)
5. A River Runs Through It (contemporary, but a classic. A heartbreaking poem really)
6. Of Mice and Men (Lenny--unforgettably tragic; George profoundly just)
7. A Lesson Before Dying (how to be a man, applicable to any generation, any race)
8. Huck Finn (no comment necessary)
9. The Sound and the Fury (Quentin, the existential man)
10. For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway's opus)

Wow, I should've done top twenties. Huge gaps, huge gaps.... Got thoughts of your own? I'd love to hear them.

Dear Friends, Here's a DEAL for YOU!

But first a small rant: the handwritten letter has died. It is no more. I see desks with no pens, no stationery. I receive mail with no handwriting whatsoever on any part, not even the envelope. Why is that? Too many things vying for attention...Frenetic society that allows no self-reflection...unwillingness to handwrite what could easily be communicated by email (w/ all its attendant shorthand, LOL! BFF...GMAB)?

I don't have an answer for you. But I have a solution. Let's not lament. Instead, let's write some letters. Not typewritten, not printed on the laser printer, but handwritten. I confess, it's difficult. But here's the deal.

I'll write you a letter. Just send me your address (for this part, yes, email is perfect). You just have to promise to write someone else a handwritten letter. Pay it forward. Deal?

Write soon.

Love, Sean

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Apologies in Advance to Kindle Lovers

I know I'm going to make some enemies here, but I have to say it: I don't want a Kindle. My dad wants one. A few friends of mine have them. I've used them. I see what it's about. If you have been asleep for the last year or two, then you may not know that this white slab of genius circuitry allows one to read books, newspapers, magazines, anything electronic really, on a glare-free magnifiable touch screen. You can access online newspapers, read this blog in fact. You have access to Wickipedia, your own Word docs, and a special website where you can download complete books in under a minute.

Let's face it, the utilitarian benefits are undeniable. And, sure, I could definitely use one. For example, I travel quite a bit still (yes, unusual for a real estate agent, but what can I say?), and having a Kindle in my bag would make life far easier than my last trip where I had the latest Entertainment Magazine (love the reviews in there), the two latest novels I was reading, along with a book on writing. Add to that two journals and the business material I needed for the trip, and I looked like an evicted librarian skulking away with a bag full of loot. Would my trip have been lighter with the Kindle in the bag? Sure. But I still don't want one.

Cue Violins: I have to smell the pages. I have to hold the book, feel the crispness of the corners. I like the paperbacks to have the even creases along the spines after they're read. I get a little giddy when a signed first edition has the glassine jacket protector and it crinkles just a little when you open it to the signature. And I want the bookshelf stuffed full. Gotta have the books.

I like to lay down the book, fan the pages, reread an earlier chapter. Some books I underline, highlight, fold pages. Some I put between bookends, showcase their aesthetic beauty (right now, I have signed first editions of Pillars of the Earth and World Without End in perfect blocked beauty atop an end table). The rest color the shelves.

I am not a Luddite. I just don't want the Kindle. A new book lamp might be nice, though.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Argument for the Library Card, Part II

Writer Susan Cheever's bookshelves (ah, the envy)

Book Selectivity: it's like promising yourself you won't go out with an unattractive girl. Picking what to read is a dance: flirt with the cover, read the blurbs on the back, scan the jacket copy, see if you know anyone in the acknowledgments. I like to read the first sentence, the first page or two. Sometimes, I read the first chapter, and sometimes, I find myself in line buying the damn thing. Can't not buy, can't not buy.

But sometimes (and as a writer, this genuinely pains me), I give it the three minute appraisal and put it back on the shelf (can't we just be friends?)--reducing what was probably thousands of hours in the making to a mere three-minute consideration. I assert this is life, kids, but oh, how unfair. Like the audition, like the college application, like the demo CD (speed dating, anyone?). Consumer subjectivity becomes the bane of all artists. Taste be damned. Could there ever be a written work that has 100% universal appeal? NO, and if I put your book back on the shelf, I apologize. It's not fair, and I admit it.

If I can commit to reading 50 books a year, then that means statistically I am reading .00029% of all the books published annually (isn't it fun to think that every single one was written by SOMEONE, and was read by SOMEONE?). I do my part by buying the ones I read, and the selection process is a tough one. On a certain level, I do understand the capriciousness of the book editor. On the other hand, what makes it onto the shelf is well-loved.

How I wish to be like Carol (her comment to my last entry was that she reads nearly a book a day): less discriminating, more inclusive, better read. Better conversationalist. Her library card is flat worn out. She buys only what she must. She reads the way a great white eats: whatever is in front of her. And I know first-hand. I sent her my novel; I had a two-page synopsis/critique the following afternoon.

For whatever reason, this dichotomy fascinates me. One approach is like breathing, the other aroma therapy. Necessity? Luxury? Either way, it's all good. Here's to pages turning.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Argument for the Library Card

Okay, I have a friend (Carol would be most upset if I shared her name) who reads books like one breathes oxygen. Note: please resist the urge to channel my bad metaphors entry from yesterday.

Unnamed friend Carol makes a habit of reading all the fiction and poetry submissions for the National Book Award each year and then deciding who she thinks should win. I would never have known this had I not casually mentioned an entry or two as being particularly noteworthy. Aside from her prodigious skills as a quick and thorough reader, I find it remarkable how many books she reads--I will guess on average 100 books a year. BTW, Matthiesen is a shoe-in.

I read around 50. I am proud of this fact. Some years it ends up being fewer (particularly this year where I have been working on a novel), some years more. My personal goal is a book a week. Well, this type of reading, though it may sound like a lot--requires discrimination and selectivity. I had this discussion with another friend of mine, and her comment was that I am nuts if I buy all the books I read.

Confession: I do. I spend obscene amounts of money at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, ABEbooks. I have a library card, and it gathers dust like an old library card in an attic with poor ventilation gathers dust (okay, channel the bad metaphor discussion). Unnamed friend Carol does not buy her books. Other unnamed friend does not buy her books either. They borrow. They return. They own no bad books.

Me, I have to have them. Have to have them all (the REALLY bad ones, I do return). They're a visual history. They tell me what I know, where I've been. I pull them off the shelf, smell the pages, fell the edges. If my brain had a picture, my bookshelf would be it. Book knowledge by photo. Tactile history.

Thomas Jefferson when he died was the last person who could legitimately claim to have read every book in print. His library numbered 10,000 volumes. This has become another goal of mine--not the reading part. With 175,000 new books a year, it can't happen. But the 10,000 volumes? I'm working on it. By the time I'm senile, my books should hold up the roof. By then I won't remember what's in them, and I can start over.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bad Writing: Let's Go There

Here are some nuggets to make you feel better. Some of these horrific examples (a few of which are actually pretty clever) come from student essays (allegedly), and a few are from my own experience.

Let's look at some of great failed metaphors. These people really took the teacher's advice to heart of avoiding the cliche, but oh, what a mess they made otherwise.

1. He was as tall as a six-foot-three inch tree.
2. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.
3. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for while.
4. She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.
5. It hurt, the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.
6. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
7. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a tumble dryer.
8. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a landmine or something.
9. Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.”
10. She grew on him like she was a colony of E.Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef

Then there are the horrible descriptions, such as "He began to think about starting to run." Or maybe this one: "Utterly dismayed, she threw up her arms." (Kinda gross if you ask me).

Then, there's the worst dialogue phrase ever written (courtesy of Richard Connell in "The Most Dangerous Game"): "Pistol shots," muttered Rainsford, swimming on.

Who says this to himself?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I'm Such a Sucker

AP photo by Jim Cole

I'm a flag-waver, but not a sign carrier. I tend to keep to myself politically and regardless of my affiliations, I carry immense respect for whoever occupies the Oval Office.

I met Bob Schieffer once, and I asked him what it was like to stand in the Oval Office with the President of the United States, and he said it was the closest thing to a religious experience he'd had outside of a church. It was a comment that derived from a respect for the office and our nation's history, more so than the person occupying it.

But to my point, regardless of our presidents (or presidents-elect), I'm a sucker for the ones with literary bent. I've shaken Jimmy Carter's hand as he signed a book of poems for me. I've met John McCain as he inscribed his memoir. I admire Bill Clinton's literary acumen and fondness of Southern fiction. Kennedy's love for poetry. But I especially respect Barack Obama for his literary accomplishments--more precisely his reputation as a writer before he became an elected official.

While The Audacity of Hope chronicled his political thoughts garnered his freshman year as a U.S. senator, his first book Dreams From My Father was written well before his documented path to president became a focus. Consider this excerpt from the October 13, 2008 New Yorker:

Not since Theodore Roosevelt has an American politician this close to the pinnacle of power produced such a sustained, highly personal work of literary merit before being definitively swept up by the tides of political ambition....

A Presidential election is not the awarding of a Pulitzer Prize: we elect a politician and we hope, a statesman, not an author. But Obama's first book is valuable in the way that it reveals his fundamental attitudes of mind and spirit. "Dreams From My Father" is an illuminating memoir not only in the substance of Obama's own peculiarly American story but also in the qualities he brings to the telling: a formidable intelligence, emotional empathy, self-reflection, balance, and a remarkable ability to see life and the world through the eyes of people very different from himself.


Friday, October 31, 2008

The Short Story

Well, I did it. Fifteen years have passed, and I finally wrote a new short story.

I envy those writer friends of mine who have drawers full (or is it hardrives full?) of them. Some people I know can write them on demand like a deejay taking requests:

--Um, yes, I need one to submit to this contest. Theme is Waterparks. 2000 words or less.

--Sure, when would you like it by?

--Friday, and can you give it a little mystery? I hear judges like that."

For me, writing on demand is like painting by numbers. It can be done, but WHY?

Short stories have vexed me. Most places who publish them like them to be short. This allows for more stories within a given space, and (in our attention deficit world) maximizes the chances a given story might be read. My problems start with a novelist's sensibility that has trained me for the marathon, not the sprint.

I'm still telling you about my protagonist on page 12, and while this is to be expected in the world of novel-telling, it is a tragic flaw in the short story cosmos, a flaw which most short story writers would label weakness of discipline (or editing).

So to venture back into this world was perilous at best. Could I employ the subtleties of characterization, the nuances of dialogue to tell a complete story, beginning to end, in a few pages? More importantly, could I tell a story that ventured beyond episodic, a story with purpose and import for the characters?

The answer: I don't know. But I do know this: After a painstaking week, I have 11 pages, 2,820 words. I have two characters with two major problems that for me were fascinating when put together in the same room. I chose a restaurant (brief aside here: my friend Carol reads short stories for a major U.S. literary journal, and she says that if she read one more short story that takes place over coffee in a coffee shop, she will experience violent stomach regurgitation. There is a question as to whether Carol would feel nauseous after reading my story. For the record, my characters drink red wine and whiskey.). I attempted a Carveresque ending. I took a legitimate shot at emotional pathos in a harsh world. So, does it all work?

Again, don't know. I feel satisfied. The pay off with a novel comes at the end, which means, every few years, I can say I have finished something. This week, I can say I finished something (or abandoned it, as the Valery quote goes) for better or for worse. I think I like it. But most importantly, I did something I didn't think I could do.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

William Ackerman

When I was eight years old, I started playing drums (much to the disappointment of my quiet-loving parents). Because this affinity for banging on things turned into an obsession that eventually became a semi-professional career, I have never been able to read, study, write, or do just about anything studious when background music has any kind of percussion accompaniment. The fingers start tapping. The foot slides into the bass line. Next thing you know, the pen is a drumstick, and I'm working toward the next fill.

When writing became an obsession for me, I had to find music that would work as an integral part of the creative process, but also something that would not distract my mind or alter the mood. That's when I discovered William Ackerman. If you are unfamiliar with this guy, let me clarify: he started Windham Hill Records back in the early 80s, and his first album was a little CD by an unknown guy named George Winston. In addition to virtuoso guitar playing, his other talent came in producing--and really inventing the New Age Jazz genre (in my humble opinion).

Will Ackerman is a one-man band--a guy with an acoustic guitar. But this is guitar on a higher plane. Steel strings, warm tones, melodies that swell inside the heart and head....Music as art. To afficionades of the instrument (I consider myself a fan, not an afficionado, because I do not play guitar, and more to the point, I CAN'T play guitar, not a single chord), his open tuning style creates infinite possibilities of sound and textured notes that share the same space. The melodies are understated, but catchy. The music catalytic and subliminal in how it engages. I write better, think better, reflect better. Can't really say why.

Ask any writer, and he'll tell you a favorite: "I listened to XXX when I was writing this book." For the past ten years, I have catalogued a treasure trove of Windham Hill guitar, piano, ensemble recordings, but William Ackerman keeps emerging as the beacon for my best work.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Just a sample of a heart-stopping passage by David Foster Wallace. Jeez, is it me or does this passage feel surreally allegorical? (I still can't accept that he's gone).

An excerpt from the title essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (DFW after attempting skeet shooting for the very first time [and this during his very first cruise]).

OK, let's not spend a lot of time drawing this whole indcident out. Let me simply say that, yes, my own skeetshooting score was noticeably lower than the other entrants' scores, then simply make a few disinterested observations for the benefit of any novice contemplating shooting skeet from the rolling stern of a 7NC (7-Night-Caribbean) Megaship, and then we'll move on: (1) A certain level of displayed ineptitude with a firearm will cause everyone in the vicinity who knows anything about firearms to converge on you all at the same time with cautions and advice and handy tips pass down from Papa. (2) A lot of the advice in (1) boils down to exhortations to "lead" the launched skeet, but nobody explains whether this means that the gun's barrel should move across the sky with the skeet or should instead lie in a sort of static ambush along some point in the skeet's projected path. (3) TV skeetshooting is not totally unrealistic in that you really are supposed to say "Pull" and the weird little catapultish thing really does produce a kertwanging thud. (4) Whatever a "hair trigger" is, a shotgun does not have one. (5) If you've never fired a gun before, the urge to close your eyes at the precise moment of concussion is, for all practical purposes, irresistible. (6) The well-known "kick" of a fired shotgun is no misnomer: it does indeed feel like being kicked, and huts, and sends you back several steps with your arms pinwheeling wildly for balance, which, when you're holding a gun, results in mass screaming and ducking and then on the next shot a conspicuous thinning of the crowd in the 9-Aft gallery above.

Finally, (7), know that an unshot skeet's movement against the vast lapis lazuli dome of the open ocean's sky (this is a satirical jab at a similar cruise essay by Frank Conroy) is sun-like--i.e. orange and parabolic and right-to-left--and that is disappearance into the sea is edge-first and splashless and sad.


Monday, October 13, 2008

What (Besides Books) is on Your Bookshelf?

A few years ago, I had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves built into my office, and then proceeded to stuff them full of books. Already, I feel like I need more space. That's because my library card is merely for show. I can't seem to read a book without facing down the urge to own it. I want to pluck it from the shelves from time to time and relive the reading of it. After all, the experience of reading is about as important as the story itself: e.g. There's Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Read that one in 1994, and I remember finishing it at the kitchen table one morning before school started (I was teaching then) and flinging it across the room when Henry shot himself. I still love reading that prologue. You find out who did it FIRST, then spend the rest of the book figuring out why. Too cool. I love thumbing the pages.

Then of course, as is a function of humanity, I can't not notice the clutter that has taken root on my shelves. For reasons predictable and not, books on a bookshelf aren't enough. There must be landmarks of personal endeavor, trinkets of memory, photos, and random paraphernalia that marks my life in addition to the books. It's a visual album, laid out, observable in a glance, not just the books of my life, but the other accouterments of time spent reading and writing and living. There's my wife at age 20. There's my favorite drummer in a concert photo I bought off e-Bay. Plates with my children's handprints on them. I have a signed manuscript page from a William Styron essay about Robert Penn Warren (whose high school I was living in when I was reading The Secret History--very Kevin Bacon-ish). I have a framed photo of Dealey Plaza at sunset, the place where John Kennedy died. I have handmade boxes from a monastery in Spain, a public market in Honduras, La Ramblas in Barcelona. I have a picture of me with my friend Pat Conroy and the envelope that he wrote his agent's name on--who ended up being my first agent. There's a caricature of me the art teacher at my first school drew when I left that job. I have my first novel manuscript suffering in obscurity just above a Black & Decker book on how to build a porch (which I did--starting the week after Maggie was born, a lapse in judgment I continue to hear about to this day).

A great bookshelf is a chronicle, a time line in rows and stacks and mementos, a shorthand to what's been crammed in your brain over time. It's a permissive self-indulgence, one that pleases me, especially on this morning where I'm writing about writing because I really should be writing on my novel.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Poetry: The Fiction Aphrodisiac

Unlike Marianne Moore, I don't despise it.

Once graduated from the hallowed halls of academia, I am now free to choose the poets with whom I am "intersected." Billy Collins explained this to me once. He said you as a person have intersections with poets, and every now and then, the person you are (at that moment in time) collides with a certain poet and his/her work (at that moment in time), and something resonates. What's the other saying? When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

I have my list: Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Stafford, Wilbur, Kinnell, Meinke, Olds, Collins. And those are just the recent Americans.

Reading "distilled" words--verse--boils away the superficial layers of muck on the brain. It allows quicker access into that place where the ideas lie. I just read The Niagara River by Kay Ryan, our latest Poet Laureate, and her words spark like flint. She can turn an image on its head, a concept into paper:


What's the use
of something
as unstable
and diffuse as hope -
the almost-twin
of making-do,
the isotope
of going on:
what isn't in
the envelope
just before
it isn't:
the always tabled
righting of the present.

And suddenly, I'm off onto character landscapes, nuanced plot, detailed description. It's the fiction aphrodisiac.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Break Throughs

Even the word makes you feel good. Scientists find a "break-through" on cancer. A salesman "breaks through" to the next level in his production. A golfer has a "break through" on his swing; now he no longer slices (imagine my relief!).

They're like epiphanies, great moments where the cosmos aligns and slips you the nugget of enlightenment. Break-throughs are the conquering of barriers (picture doors splintering as hulkish bodies clamor through). They are the light through clouds. They startle, but comfort. They test us, but renew enthusiasm. For the writer, they're essential to finishing.

Every novelist knows there are sticking points in a project: the 150 page block, the multifarious drafts of endings, the first chapter that becomes the second that becomes the third, the fount of ideas that has run dry.

I've been at a sticking point since my agent told me I don't have a marketable book. Do you recast or abandon? Commit to action or languish in inaction? Give in to your adolescent complaining ("Nobody understands me!") Where are you, Hamlet, Prufrock, Gregor Samsa, Poor Sophie?

As they say, you fake it till you make it, which I have attempted in an effort to be a "real writer" i.e. a writer who does not falter in the face of rejection. "No, I'm not quitting on this novel. I will keep re-working it." (Then return to staring out the window.) I repeat Kipling's mantra "Drift, Wait, Obey." I relive my story, trying to understand its faults. I ask the characters, "What are you doing? Why?" Just what the hell is "non-marketability" anyway?

Then the other morning over coffee, still staring out the window, I experienced the moment: the "break through", the light bulb flipping on, the stuffy nose clearing in an instant. What-if's swarmed like locusts. Ideas crystallized in high-def images. Characters spoke clearly. I saw the story map itself, scenes clipping by each other like that cool little CD flippy thing in iTunes. I changed the point of view. I changed and added a narrator. We would still go to Dallas. Danny would indeed win Addison by the end. I would write 1963. Got it all down before the words evaporated.

I'm sure this wasn't THE break-through. Many gooey sticking points lie like flypaper in wait. However, for today, the advice of a friend finally broke through: Tell a good story. Your characters will rise up like angels. The rest be damned.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Here It Is--the Perfect Morning

Up at six. Four and a half scoops of coffee, 8 mugs of water. Kids and wife off to school. Coffee takes a dash of milk--two percent--and a saccharine tablet (quarter grain) in the biggest mug not in the dishwasher. Take in a newspaper, the most recent Entertainment Weekly, then, it's settle to the desk.

The desk contains no superfluous paper, no bills, no lists of unfinished business, no real estate files, no unread mail. There are books, research pages, an open journal, pen waiting. There's the computer humming, the chair fitting my back like a cupped palm. The words stir, then stand up, as if charged. They file and fall onto the page. My mind enters that trance state Faulkner talked about, the away place where words pass the blood brain barrier without consideration, where the sentences make magic, and no critic can be heard for miles. This could go for hours. The dog sleeps, the kitten you saved finds euphoria in your power cord, and the coffee machine announces it will no longer heat your second and third cups.

Meanwhile Addison (who once shunned Danny's infatuation) is now finding him necessary, a haven for her insecurities about her father. She's finally doing what you told her, but her mouth is still Ridgeville prison. Such recalcitrant characters.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mind Dump--Why Write This Stupid Book

Robert H. Jackson's Pulitzer Prize Winning Photograph, 1963.

Thinking this morning about a photo exhibit I saw years ago in Dallas. Pulitzer Prize winning photos, mounted on boards that were easily 30 by 40, hanging from the rafters with paragraphs of explanation and background beside them. Emotions embedded like genetic code in the colors and shapes.

How many needed explanation? The Vietnamese girl running naked down the streets after a napalm attack, the Kent State shootings, the Lee Harvey Oswald shooting, The World Trade Center attacks, the flag raising on Iwo Jima, a soldier's homecoming, the fireman with the child after Oklahoma City, Babe Ruth retiring. Photos since 1942.

The art adorns the 7th floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, one floor up from where Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President Kennedy. Downstairs, enclosed in glass is the "sniper's lair," a view no longer afforded any museum visitor. But there one floor up from history, I slip past the photograph of Ruby shooting Oswald and stand at the 7th floor corner window. Dealey Plaza lays out its white colonnades, its uterine shape, all a dull green on this overcast day.

The X on the street stirs something unnameable (or is it?). It's the place where John Kennedy died, the place where history turned forever. The exhibit, the emotions, the photograph my eye takes now--almost Oswald's view--all of it, life-changing.

That's why this novel is important

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Beating Cancer

I've written about this before, and I'm saying it again (more to myself than anyone). The cure to the snarling critic on your shoulder telling you you're crap is called BIC. Butt. In. Chair.

You write through it. You work through the pain.

In my reminiscing about David Foster Wallace, I came across a Charlie Rose interview with him, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner (someone calls these wacky post-modernist types "word punks," which I love). Rose was asking them about the influence of the Internet on reading--how prescient this was, being 1996--and Leyner said he didn't really care that there might be a dwindling reading audience. In audacious fashion all three writers claimed that one must write for self first, an audience second. If you read any of these three writers, this point becomes abundantly clear.

Lesson learned (and will be re-learned and re-learned every time the cancer of inactivity and leach of self-esteem infects my mind).

Advice to myself:
Don't write what you think other people (i.e. agents and editors) want to read.

Stop trying to sound like someone else. Be yourself (advice I heard when I was sixteen and trying to get the prom queen to notice me).

Stop writing like you just finished some How-to book on how to be literary.

Lose the snobbish-ness. Write a good story. The rest is silence (Thanks, Hamlet).

Monday, September 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace 1962-2008

Anything I think to say about David Foster Wallace seems trite or somehow undeferential to the talent he possessed as a writer. I cannot think of anyone who has written more precisely, cogently, ironically, humorously, empathetically on the human condition, the zeitgeist of America, or the peerings inside the soul. Inimitable doesn't cut it. Genius perhaps.

It's a bummer day.

For an incredible interview with Charlie Rose several years ago, click here. The ending is a little haunting.

Here is a nice tribute by A.O. Scott of the NY Times.

And one more

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Terminal Cancer of the Writer

Ever have one of those days? You know, a day when every word, every sentence, every paragraph sounds like a juvenile, moronic, wannabe writer wrote it? The scene couldn't have stiffer characters, lamer dialogue, more pedestrian description (baby blue eyes? Seriously?).... You have the motivation, the hunger, the knowledge, yet, with sentence after sentence, a dismal truth blooms in your mind: you really are a charlatan, a dilettante, an incompetent fool.

You are quite certain that if by some chance you could instantaneously pluck the worst writer on the planet from the huddling, scribbling masses that you would be that guy. No photo-finish, no tight race with hanging chads. Yep, far and away the winner, you're the one, THE worst writer alive, blissfully unaware, pounding out your middling prose as if it were the next prize winner.

Okay, you get the point. It's the enemy, the devil of all good prose. The terminal cancer of the writer. So, now, you've diagnosed--perhaps even self-medicated (more whiskey, Mr. Fitzgerald?). What do you do about it?

I'll get back to you....

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

October 16, Charleston Premiere of The Secret Life of Bees. For more information, go to

Great Class

Once a month I have the privilege of co-leading a writing workshop of adults who want to learn about fiction. We write, we think, we talk, we read. It's light-hearted, but full of great questions, higher thought, serious study. Our people are from all walks of life: teachers, technical writers, nurses, construction workers, military folks.

Some want to escape "real life" for a few hours. Others want advice on finding an agent or publisher. Some want to dive into exercises (Write about yourself in the 3rd person...Go!). Overall, though, I think we want the shared inquiry into a difficult craft, the keys to universal human expression, a common experience as artists. It makes me think of 20 people who can't swim jumping into a boat, saying simultaneously, "Let's shove off."

It's scary, but oddly comforting.

Not Finished, Not Even Close

So there are problems, big problems. But then, it could be worse. I could be reading a form letter, unsigned. I could be drowning in the silence of a non-response.

Literary agent says what can simultaneously boost and burst a writer's ego: "You write your ass off, but the story doesn't grab me." "You have amazing chops, but the book doesn't deliver what you promise."

And suddenly, I'm sixteen: "Can't we just be friends?" Yeah, that feeling.

So now, there are options. Rewrite--no promises. Or...shelve it and start next project--no promises. Or...give up and go back to playing Scrabble.

The pity party is over. I'm back to work. There will be blood.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Finishing, Now the Down-side

I finished my book last week. I gave it to a trusted writer friend for honest feedback. I sent it to my agent. I wiped my hands, the brand-new engine freshly built and bolted. I let the hood whack shut in supreme pleasure at the sound, buffed the bumper till it shined.

Sure, there would be comments, suggestions, questions. But the book was as good as I could make it. My abilities could execute no finer prose. Then, reality. No sooner had I paid for postage, I was leveled with a stomach virus, followed by a cold and sinus infection. My friend's feedback, while spot-on and brilliant in its insights, arrived mid-illness. To extend the metaphor: the car did not start. A tire fell off. Someone forgot the battery.

Me: sick, tired, bed-ridden. Manuscript crisply cornered on my agent's desk awaiting appraisal. Too many problems to name in the story. Potential disaster.

Does Dan Brown have this problem?

Finishing, the Up-side

Finishing a short story or a novel completely rocks. You wrench office door clean off its hinges, bursting forth in proclamation, "I'm FINISHED!" It's the grown-up science fair project on the due date--sheer joy as that sucker backs in on a flat-bed truck to the amazement of your peers. You walk around for days in that buttery glow. You're like the guy who tells everyone his cholesterol dropped a hundred points: "Guess what?" you say even to strangers, "I finished my novel." It's true. People will pretend to be in awe. You'll look down your nose at the inferior fiction in Barnes & Noble. You'll wear black turtlenecks for a few days, and you might even tell a stranger, "Yeah, I'm a novelist. Just finished my latest book." You won't even think how to get past the next question: "So where can I buy your book?"

After all, when the book is still warm off the printer and you've stacked the pages so tight they resemble the ream of paper freshly torn from the wrapper, after you've named it, written your acknowledgments in your head, chosen your beautiful epigrammatic quote, after you've cast the movie in your imagination--you gawk, you imagine it's your first child from the womb. You think, I did that. Here's my contribution to the world. Something from nothing. Story and character, man in conflict with himself. This is your golden period--no criticisms, no rejections, no reason to think editors won't fight like kids in a sandbox to publish it. And it's OKAY. Bask in it. Enjoy it.

The darkness will come later.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Titles, oh God

Can I be honest and admit that I HATE titling my work? So much do you possibly capture an entire novel in three or four words, even eight or nine? Hell, I can't even capture my novel in one-page synopsis without stopping every few minutes to shop for a gun online.

I wish I could hang a blue handicap sign on the cover page of my novel, something saying "Author Title Challenged." There, free parking.

How can I have such confidence in my story and contempt for any title I come up with? Quite easy, really, especially if you have titles like these:

Horrible Novel
Insert Gun, Pull Trigger

I can scan my bookshelves and find so many genius titles. Why could't I have dreamed up these gems?

The Violent Bear it Away
Their Eyes Were Watching God
The House of Sand and Fog
To Kill a Mockingbird
Lonesome Dove
Fahrenheit 451
Catcher in the Rye
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Blood Meridian
A Prayer For Owen Meany
Cry the Beloved Country

Yes, I could go on. A writer friend of mine says your entire book should be found in your title and your first sentence. While I agree, finding the right words is another sisyphean task altogether. Roll that rock up the hill and watch it come right back at you.

I need a rock pusher!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Congratulations to John Hart

My friend John Hart texted me last night from the Edgar Awards to say his second novel has won the 2008 prize. He beat out Michael Chabon and Ken Bruen, among others, a feat we both agree is monumental. Mucho praise and adulations. This sophomore effort to The King of Lies deserves every award it gets.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Rare Philip Roth Interview

Philip Roth doesn't give interviews often, and in this one, his opinions about the books he writes and how they might be viewed in the future is compelling (even if it's a tad apocalyptic). Notice his response when the interviewer asks what he'll do if the novel dies out.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Composting (Some Thoughts)

Natalie Goldberg has this marvelous little chapter in her classic book Writing Down the Bones where she explains the concept of composting. Her contention, and I agree, is that we accumulate a lot of junk throughout our daily lives. Over time, the mind, consciously and subconsciously, will sift through the miry bog, process the information one piece at a time, and then when the time is perfect, a flower will push up through the mess. We have to be ready to water it, to make it grow (translation: be ready to write).

Some writers say the best way to write about a place is to NOT be there. Want to write about the beach? Do it in the dead of winter snow. My friend Pat Conroy wrote his masterpiece The Prince of Tides from Rome. The descriptions of the South Carolina marsh stemmed from his deep longing to be there.

Need to write about your father's passing? An unrequited love? You have to let it sit. You have to let the brain keep turning it. Time will do its thing--doesn't it always? Sometimes this means, doing nothing. Sometimes, it means scribbling your way through journals, waiting for the gems to appear.

In the end, whatever your method, when the flower blooms, you'll be ready for it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Sesquipedalianist

I came across the word in an editorial by Dick Cavett in the New York Times. He was discussing the bloated use of euphemism by our commanders in the field.

Politics aside, you have to love the irony of this gargantuan bohemoth: sesquipedalian. Defined, the word describes a person who uses overly long, complicated words in speech or writing (broken into its roots to mean "foot and a half"), which then begs the question, is it possible to use this word without committing the very crime you've leveled against another? No, and that's the beauty.

Not to be outdone, there also exists a beast to characterize one's fear of long words: hippopotamonstrousesquipedaliophobia (words the size of a monstrous hippopotamus perhaps?).

As writers, you're allowed maybe one of these zingers every hundred pages or so (you're NEVER allowed to use hippopotamonstrous...). But when the word becomes the precise word, oh how beautiful it can be. You know what I'm talking about. Just this morning, I've been prowling my list of beauties (I keep a list of great words in my journal for use in stories when the occasion is right). They're not all fifty-cent words, but they'll shine if they find a home on the page:


Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug. Don't be afraid to flex your verbal muscles when you've got the perfect word, but don't fall prey either to the bloviating puffery of the sesquipedalianist.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hire the Guy with the Truck AND the Trailer

A famous drummer was asked once why he spent so much time learning to play overly complicated rhythms, blazing fills, and impossible multi-limbed independence when most of his recorded playing was a straightforward groove. His answer: Every carpenter wants the best tools in the toolbox.

As writers, I can think of no better metaphor. Aside from how to get an agent, the most popular question ever asked of writers is "how do I become one?" (When a young woman asked Robert Penn Warren that question, he replied, "When did you decide to be so beautiful?" What a schmoozer.)

The best way to become a writer is WRITE! See my BIC entry below. The mere act of putting words on paper engages the mind, teaches us what we really think, how we really feel. We learn by doing--dialogue, characterization, setting, conflict, all these things become clearer as we implement them on the page. You learn nothing by talking about writing or staring into space. You learn nothing by writing only when inspiration hits. Write often, every day if you can. Do your thinking in the car and shower. Over time, your writing will reveal what you're good at, what you're bad at--which should then arouse curiosity, which takes us to the next tool: READING.

You don't get point of view? Google it or buy a book on it. Read a novel in that viewpoint and study how the other writer did it. Not good with grammar? Take a day and relive those joyous middle school moments. Learn what an introductory participial phrase can do and how to include that construction in your toolbox. (Re)learn the comma rules and how to use those stupid apostrophes. No one who calls himself a writer should be making the its/it's mistake. Try submitting something with a few there/theirs/there's mistakes and see what happens.

My habit is to read constantly. Always, I have a novel and a book on writing going simultaneously. Sometimes I take a break and read non-fiction. Sometimes I read Entertainment Weekly (oh, the shame). In any case, read to enjoy. Read to fill the toolbox. You never know when something will come in handy. Learn new words, new sentence constructions. Learn to be funny, serious, poignant. Know why people do things.

Yes, it's simple. You find tools at Lowe's and Home Depot. Writers find tools through reading and writing. Imagine that. If you call yourself a writer, but you don't read, then REPENT, SINNER! That's like running on one leg. And your toolbox will be only half-full. If you read and don't write, well, you're a reader.

The Greeks say "Know Thyself." I say have a toolbox so big you can't fit through the door. Always hire the guy with the truck AND the trailer. Know what I mean?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


My friend Carol Peters posted on her blog the poet Jorie Graham's answer to a question asking what advice she had for aspiring poets. In it, she quoted John Berryman who warned of writers succumbing to the "thinky death." In context, I think he was warning poets not to write poems with an interpretation in mind, for that could lead to stiffness, preachiness, bad poetry in general.

For the novel writer, the "thinky death" could fall along similar lines. Activists, philosophers, and religious zealots--take note. Literary agent Pat Walsh sees it all the time. In his excellent book 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Publish & 14 Reasons Why It Just Might, he laments how many writers whose books don't make a point; rather their point makes an entire book. Camus, Kafka, and Sartre did it (and well), but I don't see those novels lighting up the bestseller lists in the twenty-first century. They might not have even been published in today's market.

A similar tangent to the "thinky death" is the writer who stares out the window all day (me), talks incessantly about his novel (me, but to myself), and is addicted to writer groups and conferences and revising the same novel that's been under construction since the heady days of university (not me, thank God). These are the thinkers, which produces that horrible symptom of talking, which means that no writing is getting done.

Here's the vaccine to the "thinky death." Ready? It's called BIC--BUTT IN CHAIR. You gotta do it. Can't fake it any longer. Pray, play Scrabble, drivel on in a blog, but then get the words down. Set yourself a goal. Here's mine. "I'm not getting out of this damn chair until I've written this scene." Notice I did not apply an evaluative label. It could be awful, skeletal, without any verve whatsoever, but you know what? I've got something to work with.

So, think about that (but only for a minute) and post BIC on your desk lamp. I'm rooting for you.

Effective Silliness

Have you been working on a manuscript for a while? Want to make it fresh again?

Change the font. I'm not kidding. Change it. Right now.

I've been writing in Times Roman since the Roman Empire, it seems. Just the other day, I changed the entire manuscript to Big Caslon--attracted first to the name, and now I really like the font. If you're a Mac-head like me, you'll find it in MS Word.

Anyway, when I sit down to write in the morning, it feels new all over again. My characters suddenly sound smarter. Can't tell you why. Same stuff, right? A different window dressing perhaps.

Sometimes, I drink coffee with real sugar, too, except that IS better than the artificial stuff.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Good Job (if you can get it)

Being a writer is impossibly difficult. The only way to publish a novel is to hire an agent. Agents get a hundred queries a week (mine does). He might ask ten of those letter writers to send opening chapters. From those, he might ask for one complete manuscript. Last year he took on one new fiction writer. Sheesh.

So, let's say this lucky hired soul actually gets his book on an editor's desk (thanks to a great effort by the agent--all those lunches and phone calls paid off). This editor might read five or six manuscripts a week--not in the office, mind you, but on the train home, at night before bed, on weekends. He might get offer a contract on a book every few months.

This is withering news. More people win the lottery than receive publishing contracts.

Of all the people writing novels, maybe half of one percent might get them published. Of those, maybe a half percent might make enough money to quit their day job, and of those, maybe a half percent might go on to make writing novels a career. No matter your literary taste, you have to tip your hat to the Nora Roberts' and John Grisham's of the world.

Why so hard? Failure lies around every corner. We'll always be rejected more than we're accepted. Even at acceptance (contract signing time!), the real problems begin--fights over format, jacket covers, publicity budget, pub dates, titles, etc. Then your book appears on book shelves, and now it must sell--empty book signings, bad reviews, missing copies, no reviews all the recurring nightmare of the published author. For a look at the carnage, check out the remainder discount racks at the bookstore. No one is immune, not even Dan Brown.

So, you still want to do it? Yep. Despite all that? Yep. Fitzgerald's books were all out of print, and he died with no money. It took seventy-five years for anyone to realize Moby Dick was a genius novel (just don't ask any high-schoolers for their opinion). Were it not for Alice Walker's tireless stumping in the 70s, no one would know who Zora Neale Hurston is.

Truth is, the written word can make a difference. A career of pushing words around on the page is a job to die for. If it were easy, we'd all be doing it (then again, according to my agent, we all ARE doing it).

If you learn to treasure the process and remain committed to the act, you can succeed. Attach too much self-worth to the results? Forget it. The real reward is finding the zone, that quiet time where your brain takes you deep into the nether regions of consciousness where you spin out your stories, and you swear for a time that the magic is indeed magic. Yep, that's the why.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

What Kind of Writer Am I?

Had a teacher tell me once there were two kinds of writers: one writer who says, "Read these words I am putting on the page and get lost in the story." Then there is the other who says, "Watch my hand move. Isn't it awesome?"

The idea, of course, suggests we should be committed to the story on the page and not overly concerned with diction or syntax. We're taught as authors to get out of the way of the story, to use a style appropriate so as not to call attention to itself. If I use a word like peripatetic when I could have used wandering, for example, I might be asking you to notice my hand.

But what about a Thomas Wolfe or a Michael Chabon? Writers' writers as we call them.

Or what about the person who says, "You're taking all the fun of writing away if I can't explore language and words and story."

I suppose the answer is to consider another analogy: there's nothing wrong with hot soup, but, remember, too much spice can ruin it.

And, sometimes, peripatetic is the right word.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Random Thoughts Over a PB&J

Okay, I just leafed through a great book on editing, and now I'm pondering writing advice that's been making the circuits for years. Consider these few:

After finishing a draft, put the manuscript in a drawer for a few weeks. I put my clothes in a drawer, maybe some thumbtacks and paper clips, but never a manuscript. Maybe I close the computer file, or if I've printed it, stick it in an expandable file folder. I don't know, but a drawer? How about a shelf? Maybe I'm just weird.

Show don't tell. Great advice, but so ambiguous. Maybe it should say, "Show some, tell some, show some more, tell the unimportant stuff, show the important stuff--all in moderation."

Beginning writers shouldn't use the first person point of view. It's not gasoline powered. It's not multi-bladed. It can't maim or kill. If first person is the right point of view, then it is.

Literary novels are much tougher to sell than commercial novels. Aren't all novels literary? Aren't all novels published commercial? I'll concede on one point, though. ALL novels are hard to sell right now. My agent says more people write them than buy them.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Brush with Greatness

I saw Doug Marlette on a book tour a little over a year ago. Upon hearing he would be coming through South Carolina, I made the drive from Charleston to Litchfield Books, a wonderful independent store owned by Tom and Vickie Warner.

Doug's second novel Magic Time had just been released to fabulous reviews and seemed the proper follow-up to his award-winning first novel The Bridge. Doug knew what fame and notoriety were about, having won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial cartoons in the Charlotte and Atlanta newspapers. According to his best friend Pat Conroy, with whom he spoke every morning, this novel writing thing had turned into a second career, and it was ridiculous to think one man could have so much talent.

And that was precisely why I wanted to meet him. It's a privilege to meet people who have mastered anything (a Tiger Woods, a Wynton Marsalis, a Meryl Streep), but here was a guy who achieved success in TWO fields (rigorous, competitive ones at that).

As is common for all writers who've endured a book tour, the store was nearly empty. Turn out had been modest, and I arrived midway through the second hour. I shook Doug's hand, mentioned a few friends I knew we had in common, and we talked for the better part of 30 minutes. Doug was gracious (wanted to know details about my writing (this took 8 seconds)); he was charming and told me several stories about the inspiration for The Bridge; he signed both my books with generous inscriptions; and he gave me a quick pep talk about making it in a cut-throat industry. I left the store pumped, ready to write, feeling as if I'd made a new friend.

I did not see him or speak to him after that. Nine months later, he died in a car crash. He was on his way to a Mississippi high school who had produced a musical about his cartoon strip Kudzu, and had planned to meet the students who'd adapted his work. The road was wet. The car he rode in hydroplaned and hit a tree. He died instantly.

That fall, I read an article Doug had written before his death about getting to spend an afternoon with Walker Percy in 1989 a year or so before Percy died. In the article, Doug mentioned several times how generous Percy had been with him, a young man on the cusp of life learning from the wise. He said it was an experience he'd remember the rest of his life. When I think about my afternoon with Doug Marlette, I think, me, too.

I met him once. I miss him anyway.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Help! I'm procrastinating

What I do when I don't want to write:
  • Do the dishes
  • Play fetch with the dog
  • Research carpal tunnel syndrome (which I'm getting from all this typing)
  • Research the Kennedy assassination (subject of current novel project)
  • Play Scrabble
  • Reheat coffee
  • Read Entertainment Weekly
  • Bite cuticles
  • Nap
  • Watch Youtube videos of great drummers
  • Research Hollywood celebrities to play the movie roles of my novel
I have time to write. I schedule it each day. I have the will to write. Sitting down each morning, I am ready, fingers poised to pour out the brain's inspiration. And some days, the brain rebels. My dog won't come inside when I call him; the brain won't form a sentence, or when it does, the sentence blows. DELETE. Try again.

Not sure what that's about. I know this, though. The Internet is the enemy. Some mornings, I have to get belligerent. This involves a trip to Barnes & Noble where the Internet costs money, where I have to sit down and write (or browse the new fiction--I REALLY am my worst enemy).

The things we tell ourselves, the acrobatics we go through....

Thursday, March 27, 2008

They're JUST adverbs

In an earlier post, I mentioned my belief that writers cannot be objective about their own work. For example, I had a character utter the following sentence in dialogue: "'I'm bored," Sam said, stifling a yawn." Advice: if a character says he's bored, chances are, the reader is, too. Bad writing. Didn't even catch it, but a reader did.

Any great writing teacher, will tell you: avoid adverbs (to which I want to raise my hand and ask, "Completely?"). I had a teacher who said adverbs were like mice. They multiplied when you weren't looking, littered themselves throughout your manuscript never to be noticed again. And when do we notice? We're worried about plot, characters, pacing, suspense, setting, dialogue, arcs, titles, chapter breaks, names, realism, style, flow, book tours, the Pulitzer. Okay, well maybe not so much the last two. Point is, who cares about a pesky adverb?

Truth is, they are like mice. Want a different metaphor? They're artery cloggers. No single one shuts down the system, but get enough clumped around a verb, a paragraph, a novel, and you'll have full cardiac arrest (read: rejection).

One of the worst adverbs is the qualifier VERY. I just ran a check on the first third of my novel (40,000 words). I have 23 very's. Many are in dialogue, but I'm thinking at least 20 can go.

23 out of 40,000 isn't terrible, but I can give myself no pats on the back yet, for I've happened on the most nefarious of adverbs: JUST. Ran the check (Oh, God, the horror). I have 165. And that's only the first third of my manuscript. Do I self-flagellate, cut my wrists, buy a headstone? No, but there will be an amphibious landing on the black sands of JUST, and we will plant the Good Writing flag on Mt. Adverbial if it kills us. Sorry. Melodramatic digression.

As writers, we must pay attention. We don't see what we aren't looking for. Test the theory and look at this video. Pay careful attention. When you see how right I am, then stage your own amphibious assault. (adverb count on this post: 15. Jeesh).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Critiquing: "I just don't get it"

A student of mine wrote an honest e-mail saying that a critque I provided on a fiction piece irritated him. Certainly, I wasn't trying to irritate him. He asked my opinion, I gave it, and he didn't like what I said. Should I have been more encouraging? Should I have cited more well-executed turns of phrase?

It begs a good question: why invite criticism of work when it will only irritate or crush the fragile ego that every writer keeps hidden in a well-buffered room of the brain? We spend years plying the craft, reading about it, improving our skills, and when it comes to feedback, we cringe and hope only that it's softer than the last round. It seems ludicrous we'd put ourselves through such torture, only to make the suggested improvements and submit it again. It's asking someone to tell you your face is ugly when you think you're making the best of what you have. Flannery O'Connor when asked if writing programs were stifling too many young writers uttered her now famous phrase: "My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." That's a real pick-me-up, isn't it?

And how hard is it to stomach criticism when the critiquer just doesn't get it or is not of the same caliber writer as you? Maybe we should all adopt the Kerouac approach. Write insistent first drafts, don't change a word, and proclaim their urgency and the beauty of first thoughts. Or maybe we should listen to Anne Lamott: write the shitty first draft, thank the good Lord it's over, and revise, revise until the work is no longer an embarrassment. Maybe you're like me--an inveterate reviser, so attached to writing and erasing and writing again that unless someone yanks the damn thing out of my hand, I'll rip right through the page. Walt Whitman revised Leaves of Grass his entire life. John Irving rewrites until he drives himself to drink. It's a compulsion I know well (the revising, that is). And why do I rewrite like a obsessive compulsive? I'm avoiding feedback. Work that isn't finished is permitted to be bad. Works in progress, by their very definition, are not polished. Never underestimate the convenience of a good excuse. But like all things, we must come out of the room eventually, manuscript in hand, and share the words. If you want to see it published, you will indeed share the words and solicit feedback from a test audience. Even Spielberg would nod his head at that one.

The tough answer about criticism is you take it. Writers lack objectivity about their own work. It's why I can't see I've used the word really three times in one sentence (when I shouldn't be using the word at all). It's why I don't catch the bad dialogue ("Hi, Danny"), the cliches ("wide as a house"), or the dangling participles ("She had brown hair weighing a hundred and ten pounds")--this after reading it ten times through.

The way to accept criticism is to ask for it ONLY when you're ready to receive it. Ask for it too early, and the catalog of opinions will confuse you. Ask for it when you're too fragile, and you might give up. Employ the readers you trust, whose opinions you respect, and filter all results. But be careful. Just because a reader may not be as articulate as you'd like doesn't mean the criticism can be ignored. Sometimes "I don't get it" is more powerful than "your use of the objective correlative resonates with me."

We must all learn to leave ego at the door, to make the writing about the writing, not the writer. If you need to hear that you're wonderful, give the book to your mother. If you need to hear the truth, share it with a teacher or writing colleague. It's horrible medicine, but it's what makes healthy (and publishable) books. In the end, when my agent says, "We're not getting the response we hoped for with the novel," I have three choices. I can give up. I can curse the literary establishment for being tone deaf to my lyrical genius, or I can write another book.

I'd like to say, I just shut up and start writing, but in truth, I give up (for about a month). Then I throw darts at a map of New York City for about another month. And then (alas) I get my ass back in the chair and start the next book. Flannery O'Connor wouldn't be happy, but my mother would.

Monday, March 24, 2008

It takes a year

Well, I started this blog a year ago, and now I think I'm ready for the first entry. I suppose this makes me either the world's most egregious slacker or perhaps someone neurotically (psychotically) contemplative. Was it Flaubert who was said to spend all morning inserting a comma and the afternoon taking it back out? That's me, only it's probably a sentence I'll end up trashing later on.

My father was always one for not doing work twice--an example: carrying the trash can to the door, only to carry it to the outside can later. It's a little funny I'd end up spending half my life doing double, triple, quadruple the work writing, revising, trashing, writing, revising, rejection, etc. When he asks how the writing is going, I tell him the words came out right the first time. This very second, he is calling on the cell phone asking me to proofread one of his legal brief. (I didn't answer. I'm so bad.)

Okay, to the point. I just finished reading an excellent blog by Kate Flora, a lengthy expose about trying to live the life of a published writer. Her words have pushed me off the fence of my Prufrockian indecisiveness. I had to share, and thus becomes my first blog entry. Aside from being scarily accurate and a touch depressing, Kate's piece is a must-read, a caveat emptor, to anyone thinking of persisting in this writing mess. As an old professor advised: "Quit if you can." And if you can't? Well, don't go reading Kate's blog with any sharp objects within reach.

Here’s the Truth: Staying Published is like Spending Twenty Years on Survivor