Showing posts from July, 2010

Gotham Writers’ Workshop, Writing Fiction

If you need to remind yourself of how vast the industry of writing how-to books is, just take a look at this list of “some of the newest books on the craft” of writing. The list is put together by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which hosts a plethora of online writing courses. The Gotham crew also has a book of its own: Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School (New York, 2003; 291 pp.). That’s what this post is about.
What’s distinctive about this “practical guide”? First, it’s wide-ranging: it goes from fiction on chapter 1 to the industry of fiction on chapter 11. That’s a lot of bases to cover, and they don’t flinch before the task.
Second, it’s very accessible, without being dumbed down. They’re not out to write treatises on character or point of view. They mention whatever’s essential, spice it up with insights, intersperse exercises, and that’s it. Chapters are a topic each, and about twenty-five pages apiece. There are plenty of exerci…

Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees

People often have warped images of writers: they drink or smoke too much, they obsess (think of Joshua Ferris’s cunning portrait in his recent short story “The Pilot”), they are quirky and maniacal (think of Jack Nicholson’s two roles as a writer). Thus, many people, afflicted by those images, shake their head mournfully when they hear you’re interested in pursuing writing as a profession.
Some of these stereotypes come from people who’ve had few encounters with writers (perhaps they bumped into a pungent and mustachioed English major sporting a beret). Some come from deep within the writing trenches: Gardner presents a caricature of his own in On Becoming a Novelist. It’s healthy, though, to read accounts written by people who are deeply familiar with real, professional writers. Betsy Lerner is one of them. She worked as an editor for years, and got an MFA before that, so she’s been around writers for a while. She wrote The Forest for the Trees (New York, 2000; 284 pp.) by drawing fro…

David Michael Kaplan, Revision

We’ve seen editing tackled by professional editors (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) and by a literary agent (The First Five Pages). Both perspectives are useful. But David Michael Kaplan’s Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction (Cincinnati, 1997; 226 pp.) is a book on editing written by a creative writer.
The result is an excellent volume, which adds an important dimension to the discussion: while editors and agents focus on what to edit, Kaplan also tackles how and when to edit. These may seem like trifles, but they aren’t: you can revise before writing (by planning), you can revise while writing (for instance, I’ve chosen midway that another point of view was better, so do I go back and correct everything I’ve written?), and of course you can revise after you’ve written (even after you’ve published). Kaplan goes through all these issues, and offers both encouragement and knowhow. He’s been down that road; he knows it’s hard. He often proves his points by sh…

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

Would you rather have an avuncular, didactic writer who walked you through the editing process, or would you prefer the guidance of an impatient, help-us-editors-not-waste-our-time author? Noah Lukeman, an agent, comes much closer to the second voice in TheFirst Five Pages:A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile (New York, 2007; 207 pp.).
It’s a book about editing a manuscript, not about starting from a blank computer screen. And it’s not a book that unveils a ten-point plan to guarantee publication. As the subtitle says, it’s about avoiding rejection: “There are no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing” (11). Lukeman goes through some of the more egregious faults, starting with presentation and hustling all the way to pacing and progression. Some faults, things you may have been doing unthinkingly and insist on being harmless, are cardinal sins that an editor or agent will notice in a matter of seconds and toss the manuscript into the bin…

Browne and King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

The author of a craft book I reviewed recently had this to say about writing: “Writing is way overrated. The truly creative writer gets the most mileage out of editing and revising” (98). Great. The question is exactly how to go about it? Sure, reading, letting it sit, rereading. Maybe finding some good readers to comment on it. Of course, making the plot strong and the characters complex and memorable. Of course, getting the grammar and the spelling right. But it would be useful to get some guidelines so that you can do your own editing after you’ve finished writing. The ideal would be to develop techniques that made you approach your writing with as much distance as if you were someone else. A very incisive, probing, and articulate someone else.
Plenty of that is to be found in Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print (2 Ed., Collins, 2004; 279 pp.). It presents bundles of good advice, tied around a handful of basic ideas that are…

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

We already saw (here) that Gardner’s The Art of Fiction gave good advice on writing techniques. But writing is more than techniques. Being misunderstood and frequently undervalued by people outside of writing seem to be common denominators for writers, who are thus often prone to recurrent anxieties. In his second book on writing, On Becoming a Novelist (New York, 1983, 1999; 150 pp.), Gardner counsels writers on their expectations, frustrations, and challenges. He knows about them. He’s dealt with rejection and with publication. He has good advice on what to make of all the turmoil. In today’s parlance, we could call him a writing coach. He’s not proselytizing, turning people into writers; he’s talking to “serious writers” again (as he did in The Art of Fiction), and he wants to walk them through the questions and the struggles without wearing rosy lenses.
Here’s the bottom line: “Nothing is harder than being a true novelist, unless that is all one wants to be, in which case, though b…

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (Vintage, 1983, 1991; 224 pp.) is a classic. It’s printed like a classic: thick paper, hazy letters. It speaks like a classic: note the subtitle, for young writers, which we would most likely write today as beginning writers. Gardner’s voice in the book has the gusto and loftiness of an early twentieth century don, with an inordinate faith in formal, humanist education. It’s surprising that, despite the old-fashioned tone, Gardner died at the early age of 49. Finally, the work is self-consciously a classic in its intended audience (“What is said here […] is said for the elite; that is, for serious literary artists” [x]) and in its high regard for itself (this book, says Gardner, is “the most helpful book of its kind” [xi]).
The claim that Gardner’s book is the most helpful book of its kind has ceased to be true in view of the profusion of writing manuals published over the decades that separate us from 1983. Gardner’s …

Hobart 11

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten on writing is also one of the simplest: let your fiction sit in a drawer (or hard drive) before reading it again. Here is Gardner’s version: “when the manuscript is ‘cold’ […] the faults stand plain” (On Becoming a Novelist, p. 65). The most savory variant went like this: writing is like cooking a stew; if you want to remove the fat, you have to allow the stew to cool off so that the fat will rise to the surface (I owe that one to Rafael Reig). The impression I got upon reading Hobart 11 (Spring 2010) was that it wasn’t allowed to cool off, and thus the undesirable ingredients were mixed in with the good stuff. That’s probably because it was a themed issue, so most contributors likely wrote their pieces according to the theme (the outdoors), and had to cut back on revisions in order to submit them on time. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good elements in the issue. There are.
Last time I commented on Hobart (here), I referred to each of the l…

Publicación: “Un accidente”

Se acaba de publicar el libro de cuentos El corazón habitado, editado por el español José Manuel García Gil. El subtítulo resume el contenido de la antología: Últimos cuentos de amor en Colombia. No tengo todavía el libro en las manos, pero me refiero a la publicación porque se incluyó un cuento mío, titulado “Un accidente”. El prólogo del libro está aquí, y en este blog Carlos Castillo (uno de los autores incluidos en la colección) reprodujo la tabla de contenido.
El cuento mío que seleccionó García Gil se llama, como lo dije, “Un accidente”. Reproduzco aquí la primera página.
Un accidente
Fue un accidente. Helena escuchó esa frase demasiadas veces: de su mamá, de los médicos, del conductor al que Helena le hubiera encantado siquiera castrar. Llenos de esa frase, llenos de cables y tubos y sondas y sangre; así fueron los meses después del accidente. Una de las esperanzas de Helena era volver a ver a Julián. No al Julián atrapado en la cama, un enredo de músculos y cables con un olor i…

The New Yorker

Over the past week, I’ve discussed a story from The New Yorker every day. This is a good chance to list those stories from The New Yorker on which I’ve posted comments on the blog (some of them are very brief, some not that brief). Here’s the full list. I’ve starred those stories I liked best.
Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” (June 26, 1948) Daniel Alarcón, “The Idiot President” (October 6, 2008) Kirstine Valdez Quade, “Five Wounds” (July 27, 2009) Dave Eggers, “Max at Sea” (August 24, 2009) Sherman Alexie, “War Dances” (August 10, 2009) * Orhan Pamuk, “Distant Relations” (September 7, 2009) Paul Theroux, “The Lower River” (September 14, 2009) * Sam Shepard, “Land of the Living” (September 21, 2009) Marisa Silver, “Temporary” (September 28, 2009) George Saunders, “Victory Lap” (October 5, 2009) * Julian Barnes, “Complicity” (October 19, 2009) Jonathan Lethem, “Procedure in Plain Air” (October 26, 2009) E. O. Wilson, “Trailhead” (January 25, 2010) Kevin Barry, “Fjord of Killary” (February 1, 2010) Clai…

George Saunders, "Victory Lap"

Here’s a blast from the past that is well worth a note. It’s one of the best stories that the TNY has published in the last year or so. I mean George Saunders’ “Victory Lap” (TNY, Oct. 5, 2009) (which tied as the TNY 2009 story of the year in Perpetual Folly’s ranking).
Saunders pulls off a tremendous feat by combining three very different voices (two teenagers and an older man) in a story in which something actually happens: a guy tries to kidnap a teenage girl (for perverse sexual reasons), and a teenage neighbor intervenes to save her. What makes all this an even greater achievement is that the voices come out clearly while using a third-person narrator, inflected in accordance with the character each section follows. The ending, in which the most gruesome scene is blurred by protective parents, is masterful. The sections focalized on the teenage neighbor (Kyle Boot) are hilarious, each detail a testimony to the maddening obsession with precision and control that drives Kyle’s paren…