Friday, July 31, 2009

Letter to a Writer Friend

I may or may not be a good writer friend. This summer I have read two manuscripts from writer friends, and am now ensconced in a third. I have a tendency to write lengthy line notes as I read, along with a letter in the end. I do this because I learn SO much more about writing a novel when I comment as an informed reader for someone else. It's also entirely possible I will no longer be asked for my opinion if I keep at this.

Here 'tis:

Dear _____,

I'm through five chapters. And here are my impressions. They are lengthy, and I can’t help it. I’m a novelist. Share these thoughts with your other readers and see if they agree. In the end, these are suggestions only, and you can tell me to go take flying leap. It would be okay if you did.

You have the poetic eye, and your mad skills are evident on every page. You strike me as a patient writer, information loaded into every sentence, every image. Obviously, your strengths come in setting up a scene, describing the land, a character, an ethos. The poetry in your prose is sharp, carefully imagined and well-executed on the page. I don't think an editor who reads your work would have problems with the quality of the writing.

The problems in this mss come in the structure and pace and execution of the story. I have a feeling this will not surprise you.

I would suggest this exercise. Go through the first thirty pages and highlight (literally) every sentence that depicts direct action in real time (not description, not flashback, not interior monologue): e.g. "Late that evening, Grandpa swung by the cemetery and picked me up in his truck." What you're going to find is that the first chapter and the first few pages contain the most direct action, but then it falls off dramatically. Chapter two begins with Grandpa going inside the house. Chapter three begins with Mason going inside behind him. No direct action occurs for three and a half pages between these two actions. In chapter three, you have Grandpa shouting a few lines from the dining room, but the first major character interaction in the entire novel doesn't come until the knock on page 16. And even then there is one exchange of greeting at the top of page 17, the next coming at the bottom of page 18, one line at the top of page 19, the next at the bottom of page 19, etc. You see what I mean by this. You aren't building tension. You're spoonfeeding your reader with backstory and the narrator's pretty language of description, then peppering the whole thing with bits of dialogue that sound more akin to Bartlett’s than to a real speaking person. You'll never be able to maintain tension when you have one exchange of dialogue followed by a thousand words of backstory. Furthermore, as you well know, readers want to learn about their characters by watching them in action, not by having a narrator tell them what that character is like.


I want to hear Grandpa talk on page 8 about the Crouchens, really talk about them honestly. Not resorting to witticisms like "Greener pastures are all anyone wants." Too many characters, when they do speak, talk in inscrutable proverbs. Sure, this device might mirror the Biblical themes of your story, but too much of it prevents your readers from getting to know the characters. It sounds too much like Forrest Gump with all his "Momma always said" moments. I want to see Grandpa put his arm around Mason and say, "I know you miss your mom. I miss her, too. That’s why I’m building this boat." See what I mean? You're making Grandpa too unknowable by having him hide behind supposed wisdom and conviction.

I also have a problem with his paradoxical actions. A man who is going to fight the taking and flooding of his land would not build a boat. He'd build a fence and guard it with a loaded shotgun. You have to ask yourself what kind of a man would build a boat in response to the situation you've created. I also question Grandpa's motivations. If he sold off most of his land and abandoned his olive trees, then why would he care if the government has come to take his land? He's already shown us he will accept money in exchange for land if the price is right. Why is the government's offer so hard for him to accept? The scene with the two government workers appears to be an intellectual exercise for him--whether he can outwit the two guys across the room, almost as if he doesn't care what is at stake so long as he wins the verbal joust. This totally compromises his sympathy with the reader. I still wonder about the offer. Was it any good? If he’s owned the land for a long time, I would imagine the government’s offer would be exponentially higher than what he paid for it. His only response to the offer was, “Do you know what this land cost me?” I don’t know what that means. Did it cost him more than it should to acquire the land? Again, too pithy, too mysterious.

I think your instincts are right: this taking of his land ought to be devastating to him, and on multiple levels, but he shouldn't be cavalier or cute about it. He can be curmudgeonly and still be sympathetic. But you have to present him as a real person. I'm far less interested in the look and zeitgeists of the town than I am in a young man and his grandfather trying to deal with the loss of a daughter and a mother. There ought to be tender words exchanged at the cemetery. The bout with the land ought to be a corollary that parallels the loss of Mama. At the same time, there needs to be some kind of conflict between Grandpa and Mason. Maybe over staying or going? Selling or fighting? Both of their convictions that God is talking to them? Something that gives this story some forward motion.

An example:
"Where the hell have you been?" Grandpa asked, his truck grumbling to a stop just outside the cemetery gate.
I shrugged. I was too afraid I'd burst into tears if I answered him.
He got out of the truck. I sat alone on a bench overlooking the red mound that hours ago had been a gaping hole in the earth—that terrible moment I watched her casket disappear into the abyss.
“We come from the land. We go to the land,” he said. “It’s always about land.”
I nodded. He was always talking in those highfalutin’ phrases. I half-expected him to launch in the book of Luke like Mama always did, but I swear I just wouldn’t be able to handle it if he did. I leaned forward so he wouldn’t see the tears that had sprung from my eyes. He put his arm around me and sat on the bench. “It’s all right, Mason. I miss her. Damn, I miss her.” For once we wouldn’t fight over this and everything else. We both looked into the darkness and exchanged no more words.

Or something like this....The point is that you have to suggest more than you actually say.

With the land, you have to be calculated when you have Grandpa wanting to fight. Don’t let his motivations and actions contradict one another in theory, even if they do in practice:

E.G.: Grandpa believed a man should trust in God, but tie his camel tight. That’s why he wrote letters to the editor every week about the gross injustices that were befalling our town, but at the same time, he took the divine instruction seriously that he should convert his home to an ark, a modern-day Noah he was fond of saying. People might think he was crazy, but when the waters came, he would be ready. And no one would say he’d given in. If anything he’d shown Jesus’ maxim to be true: a prophet is never appreciated in his own land.

Save the poetry for the moments that need it. But don’t let it interfere with story. In the end, readers want to read a good story. And this means pacing your story so that we feel the push and pull of the action. As is, your story lags big-time. Your description is so out of proportion with direct action that you could completely flip the ratio and it would be about right. By page 15, I’d completely lost the ability to appreciate the beauty of the language because I was completely oversaturated with it. Just glance at the pages and you’ll see what I mean. No page has the quick line of dialogue. They’re all completely full--margin to margin--with narration and description.

Now, I’m well aware of other writers who load their stories more with dense prose than dialogue or action, but even those guys like Irving, Pynchon, Foster-Wallace, Franzen, most of the post-modernists, are moving a story forward with action. What you have here in Begotten feels more Proustian, more Denis Johnson (when he’s ruminative) and while this kind of a story can work on several levels, I can tell you that no editor is going to give us first-time novelists this kind of latitude, no matter how stunning the prose. They’ll keep coming back to the big question: where’s the story in this? And why should I care?

I HIGHLY recommend you look at Les Edgerton’s book called HOOKED or Noah Lukeman’s THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. These books show you how important the first chapter is and why openings that worked as recently as five years ago have changed significantly. Both books predicate their theses on stories that open with direct action, action that illuminates character and conflict. Backstory is nearly always saved for later in the story and only in doses that are appropriate (insofar as they impact the direct action). You can get away with some digressions and the poetry of description, but it has to be peppered, not poured.


To me, he feels sensitive and observant, but I don’t have any sense for his personality. He has no more than a line or two of dialogue in the first five chapters. No one calls him by name. I have no idea how old he is. He seems to know things he can’t possibly know (the whole deal with the government agent and his wife, for example), and the only thing he does in the first thirty pages is leave a cemetery and walk inside a room. This tells me nothing about how he is dealing with his mother’s death (other than what he poetically describes), how he feels about his grandpa (he only buys into the ark idea because his mother helped with it a little bit before she died), or whether he has any friends, any loyalty towards the town, any opinions himself about the moving of the town. I know he’s an excellent correspondent (a superstar as far as narrators go), but what I’ve read so far makes me wonder if he describes everything and everyone so beautifully because he’s too grief-stricken to present himself honestly, or his grandfather. It’s all smoke and mirrors with him. I want honesty, raw grief, stupid actions. I want him to get drunk, throw a glass against the wall, tell his grandfather that his idea about the ark is the biggest fucking mistake he’s ever heard. If you want to describe something, describe his room, his bedside table, the books he reads, how his heart feels when his mom dies, how he reaches out to a pretty girl at school who listens to him and understands, etc. I don’t care nearly as much how much he loves the first frost of fall or how the town prefers diminutive names or him telling me he misses his mother. I’d rather him take a walk the morning of the first freeze to meet a girl. I’d rather he confide in her how he can’t cry in front of his grandfather, lest he come off as weak and girly. I’d love it if he were full of contradictions—prayers with the f-word in them. You know what I mean?


In short, you beat your reader over the head with the allusions, metaphors, sermons, clerics, and the Owen Meany-like divinity idea. It’s too much of a good thing, really. My suggestion is to keep Mason divine and develop it, keep the ark idea, cut the allusions and metaphors by 75%, and cut the church scenes. The reverend and Grandpa sound exactly the same on the page. Eliminate the reverend or collapse both characters into one. Give your readers some credit for being able to see the connections without your explicitly making those connections for them. Take chapter 7 for an example. I love the gibbous moon, but to compare it to the Blessed Sacrament and to extend it with the verb “genuflect” (second time you’ve used this word, which makes it a no-no because it’s way too specific to use it twice in reference to the stars and sky) takes the theme too far. Make us work a little bit. Maybe say the moon is like a wafer, but don’t give us the religious metaphor every chance you get . It feels like you’re working too hard at symbolism and theme. When you do want a biblical allusion, give it to us straight, as I’ve done in a couple examples above.

Approach and Structure

I think you could greatly benefit from an outline. As an exercise, reread each chapter as you have it and describe what happens. If your outline starts reading like Grandpa walks inside, Mason desribes the heat, Mason describes the families of Jericho, Mason describe Mama’s thoughts about dreams, Mason describes Mama’s insistence on the importance of education, Mason describes how his mother afforded his college education, Mason describes people’s names in the town, Mason describes the Jordan River, Mason describes the Michael’s family and how the whole town felt like a refugee camp—if your outline is littered with “Mason describes” statements, you’re going to realize, “Oh, I better have something more urgent happening,” or “I better show the nexus of thought between this action and this description.” For you, an outline could really solve the pacing problem. Donald Maas says you MUST have tension on EVERY page. Apply this test to your manuscript. It doesn’t require fireworks or backflips, but there needs to be forward motion, personal stakes complicated by problems, and public stakes complicated by problems. And it’s really nice when all three of these elements merge into an unstoppable locomotive of character and conflict that the reader simply can’t resist. Projecting only interior monologue—even if it’s conflicted—won’t compel because it’s one-sided. Think that for every internal conflict there needs to be a correlating outer one. Mason misses his mom, AND he’s trying to talk sense into Grandpa. Raul is Mason’s best friend, BUT he was noticeably absent during Mason’s mother’s funeral. So, yes, inner and outer tension on every page. Each page at a time. A constant upping of the stakes. This formula works for everyone from Cormac McCarthy to John Grisham. Literary, commercial, it’s no matter.

Here’s a possible progression: Mason mourns his mother at her grave, and Raul was a no-show. Grandpa shows up drunk. Mason has to drive him home. Mason describes the ark transformation. The agents show up the next morning as the Crouchens are packing. Grandpa invites them in, but the tension escalates and he tries to kick them out. Mason politely shows them to the car, and they try to persuade him of the right course of action. Mason knows it makes better sense to take the money (it’s far more than his Grandpa could ever get selling outright), but he is torn by his loyalty to his grandfather and the cause. He tells them not come back, or they might be facing the working end of a shotgun. But silently, this encounter tests his mettle, gets him thinking about what he should do. And the chapter ends with Mason revealing that he is a son of God, right as Raul knocks on the door.

See what I mean? You can then crank in description in the appropriate places. You’ll undoubtedly lose some gems (“kill your darlings”), but you’ll be able to balance story with language in just the right ratios.

I think you have a lot of work left to do. Again, it ain’t about the writing. It’s about your plot, your pacing, your characterization, and your development of conflict. You’ll have to restructure these first ten chapters, analyze each moving part. Think terms of scenes. After each scene, ask yourself, Why is this here? Is it necessary? Can I cut it? If not, why not? Etc. Ask the hard questions. I’ve made lengthy line notes for you in the first half of the pages you gave me, and hopefully they will help.

I would love to see a rewrite. The potential is amazing. I really have enjoyed what I’ve read so far. You got the chops, bro. You just gotta put it all together.

Lotsa Love,


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