Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Getting the Distance

I love revising. Really. But it’s hard, and harder still to teach. If you don’t believe me, plant yourself among inspired third graders with their freshly penned stories and try to get them to change anything.

You give a nice concise pep talk, including show and tell from your own work. Revision is important! Revision is hard! But you can do it! A child raises her hand. “What if I don’t want to change anything?”

Confident in the power of metaphor, you reach for a few to counter the resistance. It’s like putting on 3-D glasses – when you revise, your story looks different. It’s like your room – it gets a little messy sometimes. But it’s important. You can do it. The same child raises her hand. “What if I like it just the way it is?”

Within us all is a vestigial third grader, happy with our efforts, not so keen on changing anything of substance. Like the third grader, we’re already attached to the structure, the characters, the way the narrative unfolds. Besides, big changes mean big work.

We know we have to go the distance with our projects. We also have to get distance from them. We have to set love and admiration aside (that stunning metaphor! that clever character!) so we can spot flaws and ease them out of our work. We have to silence our inner third graders and take a pragmatic stance. We have to be our own kind and reasonable readers, appreciating what’s done well while questioning everything that’s not.

We approach other books pragmatically, with both kindness and reason. We note what other writers do well, from the sentence level to the whole structure. We note what could have been done better. As writer-readers, we train ourselves to zoom in and out of the prose. But approaching our own work with this stance is tougher that it seems. We want so very much for our writing to be beautiful and whole and perfect.

It’s critical to slow down. When you revise, you must be your own book doctor. First the diagnosis, then the treatment. Start by letting your project cool. When you pick it up to begin revision, find a way to see it in a different physical format. Changing the font and spacing helps. Even better – make it look like a book.

One of the best uses I’ve found for my Kindle is uploading work for a revision read. Not only do I get to see it in a different format, but I also can’t change it as I go. This prevents me from jumping right into treatment, which promotes a narrow view as I zoom in on a particular area and apply my fix. Instead, I’m forced to use the e-reader’s highlighting tool to mark places that need my attention, and to make separate notes about what’s not working, as well as noting the places I want to expand and contract. It’s more cumbersome than fix and go, fix and go - the Jiffy Lube revision. But that’s the point.

Third graders are great fun. But they’re still equipping themselves for life. Getting the distance for tough, meaningful revision is a skill we must make ourselves grow into. Pragmatic, kind, reasonable – that’s the reader you want to be when you revise. And there’s plenty of good in that approach, even beyond the page. “I think back to your class a lot,” a grown-up student recently wrote me. “I feel like I learned some life skills along with editing skills--the ‘pragmatic stance’ that is so enabling; imagining a kind and reasonable reader--what wonderful stuff!”

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Bounce

Some call it resilience, but I think that’s too nice a word, too easy. I prefer bounce, because it often comes with a smack, and the whole game can ride on which way it lands.

I’m talking about how writers respond to criticism, and how this relates to our overall success, which directly connects to how willing we are to fail. Writers aren’t so different from students in this regard. It doesn’t take much time in a classroom to realize that some students will never try very hard to succeed, and while there may be many explanations for this phenomenon, among the most fundamental is that if you don’t try, you won’t fail. In other words, you won’t need bounce.

Like a basketball, a writer must be pumped full to bounce back from criticism. Full of what, you ask? Some will say ego, but ego is unreliable and quickly deflated. I think bounce is a blend of confidence and strategy.

If the book in your head is always better than the one that gets on the page, how much better is the book no one ever reads? Except that’s not the goal, for most projects. At some point your project must meet its readers, and that’s where you’d best be ready with the bounce. I’m speaking here of the bounce you need with your early readers, pre-publication, though it should be noted that you’ll also rely on the bounce post-publication, when the reviews aren’t as stellar as you’d hoped and the sales figures are lackluster and before you know it your book is out of print.

At its core, the bounce is a state of mind. When teaching revision, I often direct writers in a process I call “Potholes and Spine,” a variation on an exercise I learned in Now Write. Part of the process involves looking hard at the places that aren’t working in a piece and recognizing that each one is a gift, an opening where you are able to go in and tinker around with the assurance that you’re zeroing in on an important spot, because in most cases the messy parts are messy because we’re trying hard to articulate something that matters.

Besides approaching our first readers with the knowledge that they’ll deliver back to us these gifts, we also benefit from confronting our unarticulated expectation that these readers will love what we’ve done. Usually we’ve been at this project for months, and we have to be rather in love with it ourselves, or we’d have ditched the thing awhile back. But first readers aren’t there to reassure us. They’re our first gatekeepers, able to see what we can’t, so love isn’t what they’re likely to deliver.

The other part of the bounce involves set-up and reaction. The last time I shared a chapter with my writers group – all of them wonderfully gifted authors – I failed to adequately explain what my project was about. When I submitted the piece, I said it was part of a proposal I was prepping for an agent. Wrongly, I assumed they’d know that meant it was a nonfiction project intended for a general readership. But writers are busy people, and busy people don’t necessarily read between the lines – and not writers bring the same set of experiences to the table. Half the group launched into a critique of the project as a novel. Where were the scenes? The dialogue? The intimate moments? Straight-away, I had to launch into bounce mode, though it was heartening to learn that the piece at least read enough like a novel to make my readers wish it were a stronger one.

Another reader got that the project was non-fiction but questioned my use of present tense where I was narrating from a particular point of view, juxtaposed against a broader narrative voice. I duly noted his objection, writing it down the way I write everything down when I’m getting reactions from first readers. It’s a great way to distance yourself, to avoid jumping in and explaining or defending what you’ve got on the page. Still it doesn’t squelch all the internal dialogue. The use of present tense in this project was a considered decision, used for conscious effect. Yet here this guy was, talking like it was a mistake.

The fourth reader liked it, a lot – no bounce required. All four of them launched into a lively discussion over whether I should have included speculative language that allows for scene-making in nonfiction: this character might have done this, or perhaps she would have done that. Or maybe I should have stuck to one point of view. Maybe the whole project should be redone as historical fiction, not nonfiction at all. All approaches I’d considered and rejected, but I wrote them all down, because – guess what – sometimes I’m wrong.

I thanked my readers and gathered their written critiques and went home. How had it gone, my partner wanted to know. One person liked it, I said. The rest, not so much. Even as I gave this report, I knew it wasn’t an accurate rendering. That’s where a good night’s rest – maybe a good week’s or even a month’s rest, if necessary – is critical to the bounce.

The next part of the bounce, perhaps the most crucial, is figuring out what to do with the hodgepodge of reactions you’ve collected from your readers. Most likely, your first readers are also writers, creative thinkers who’ll open a lot of lovely little doors to you. You can’t walk through them all.  You can’t do everything they say, and you shouldn’t. But if you wrote down all their ideas, you go through them, one by one. I find it helpful to make a master list that includes even those items I’m certain I don’t want to change, just so I can look at it all on the page.

At this point in the bounce I’ll often go back and do a little reading in aspirational books, ones that line up nicely with what I hope my book will one day be. Regardless of the nuts and bolts of my first readers’ comments, at this point I especially reconsider the voice – what makes mine (I hope) as captivating, at least in places, in those books I admire.

Then I review that summary list of comments again and consider what’s behind each of them. Often one concern masks another. The objection about tense, I realized, had more to do with choppiness, a real concern I’d been glossing over in the draft, and sticking whole thing in the past was in fact one way to make sure it read smoothly. At this point I also consider why I made certain decisions and whether that reasoning still holds. Everything should be laid out and up for grabs.

You know you’ve bounced when you realize it wouldn’t hurt to rewrite with some changes, even and especially big ones, and when you find yourself getting excited to discover how those changes might sound and feel. Then you thrash around in the muck and usually, by some miracle, the piece starts to get better, though in the end you may not be able to explain exactly how or why.  That’s the bounce.

Rejection isn’t so much the cross we bear as the uniform we wear, that dorky little hat or crazy vest or pointy shoes or whatever we symbolically put on each day to say look at me, I’m a writer, a real one. Then our first readers know they don’t have to pussyfoot around with their remarks: we’re real writers and we know how to bounce.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Marks of Distinction

A good style should show no signs of effort.  What is written should seem a happy accident.  ~W. Somerset Maugham

They’re tiny and seemingly inconsequential, so the decision appears easy enough: to use or forego quotation marks in literary fiction.

I was sold on dumping the little guys after David Vann, one of my literary heroes, explained why he doesn’t use them. None of the writers he loves use quotation marks to frame dialogue, he said, and in the hands of a skilled writer, dialogue is perfectly understandable without them.

I went straight home and began drafting a story.  As the story grew into a novel, I shared excerpts with a handful of readers. Their comments encouraged me – they liked the characters, wanted to read more. But though I’d told them this project was literary fiction, one still dared to complain about the lack of quotation marks around dialogue, saying it made her work too hard.

I wavered. I didn’t want readers put off. But if I tossed the little buggers back in, would my manuscript be perceived as less than literary? That worry is ubiquitous among writers. There’s something about not being taken seriously – an issue for nearly every one of us, on some level – that makes us long to be literary. Respect, distinction, snootiness, peer pressure – these forces all play into the seemingly simple question of whether to mark dialogue with quotation marks.

“Some rogue must have issued a memo,” writes Lionel Shriver in a Wall Street Journal piece titled “Missing the Mark.” "Psst! Cool writers don't use quotes in dialogue anymore."

In following Vann’s example, was I only trying to be as cool as the guy I look up to?
I had to admit that I’d had to reword and rework a few spots in my novel to ensure clarity without relying on quotation marks. But I did like how the prose looked on the page – clean and uncluttered, hinting of poetry and drama and fine literature. In a word, cool.

Nonetheless, I chucked my initial impulse and went back to quotation marks. I felt vindicated when a portion of my work-in-progress took top honors in a literary fiction contest. The judge said nothing about the quotation marks being an unliterary nuisance, and I must admit that I got especially excited when she characterized my project as literary, but with book club appeal. Readership might in fact trump cool.

Now I’m gearing up for another round of revisions on the project. I thought I’d settled the quotation mark question, but then I read Eowyn Ivey’s lovely first novel The Snow Child, which eschews quotation marks. For a different project, I revisited Howard Blum’s The Floor of Heaven, the first full-length nonfiction historical narrative I’ve read that left dialogue unpunctuated. Blum explains in an afterword that he left out the marks where the dialogue is invented.

More waffling. I began to feel out of touch as I do whenever I catch a report on who’s up for the Grammys or which TV shows everyone’s talking about around their water coolers. Hadn’t I until recently still been double-spacing after every end mark? Wasn’t I still clinging to the Oxford comma to the chagrin of some of my hipper friends?

“If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate,” Cormac McCarthy told Oprah Winfrey (How had I missed that those two conversed? Another pop culture faux pas.) This sounds a lot like what Vann said – not surprising, since McCarthy is one of Vann’s literary heroes. None of us wants to be lumped with the bunch who don’t write properly.

“What effect is this quote-free format meant to achieve?” Shriver asks. “Ideally, a minimalism that lends text a subtlety and sophistication.” But does dropping quotation marks really elevate ordinary speech to elegance, as critic John Freeman suggests? Or does it make everyone sound like they’re muttering, as author Laura Lippman complains?

Shriver points out a problem with lines like this one, from Susanne Moore’s The Big Girls:
Just what is it that you're not getting? he shouted. Your son has been molested.
The over-arching effect is a quietness, Shriver says, “an insidious solipsism” in which “the only character who really gets to talk is the writer.”

Another justification for omitting quotation marks has to do with making readers work. Isn’t that what literature is supposed to do? Not categorically. Mining for subtext is pleasant and rewarding, but trying to determine who’s speaking when quotation marks would easily mitigate the confusion seems like work for work’s sake.

In her Salon piece “All I Want for Christmas is Quotation Marks,” Laura Miller writes,
“There’s difficult and then there’s difficult; minor yet pointless inconvenience introduced into a work of fiction for no perceptible purpose other than to shore up an author’s wobbly sense of his or her own status risks conveying not confidence but insecurity. More to the point, what writer of serious fiction today can possibly afford to put readers off for the sake of a little highbrow preening?”

What writer indeed? I circled back to my literary hero and studied a few works by his literary heroes. Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, Annie Proulx, Marilynn Robinson, James Baldwin, Grace Paley. All, in at least some of their work, enclose dialogue in quotation marks. Cormac McCarthy was the lone exception.

To Vann’s literary favorites, I added my own  - Alice Munro, Jayne Anne Phillips, Elizabeth Strout. All punctuate dialogue in the conventional manner.

In the end, what matters is the effect demanded by the narrative. Those books by Blum and Ivey share an atmospheric dreaminess, a blurred sense of what’s real and what isn’t. A less traditional look on the page, a little fuzziness about who’s saying what – that’s all to good effect, with the added bonus of pleasing readers who consider themselves literary.

Because my novel demands neither a highly interior effect nor a blurred sense of reality, I’ll likely leave my pages cluttered with “those weird little marks,” as McCarthy calls them. To the extent that literary equates to good and true, I covet the label. To the extent that it presumes difficult and unapproachable prose, not so much. As for cool – well, I gave that up a few years back.

Try This: From a page or two heavy with dialogue, remove the quotation marks. Consider how it looks on the page and whether you have to rewrite to make clear who’s speaking. If you like the effect (for reasons other than coolness), the shape of the piece may point you in new ways to think about the piece. Explore ways in which you might allow it to become more interior, or more surreal – but only if it feels like those effects are integral to the story.

Check This Out: The definitive source on conventions for (ahem) literary work is of course TheChicago Manual of Style. The latest edition – number sixteen – came out in 2010. They’re not kidding when they subtitle this hefty volume The Essential Guide for Writers, Editor, and Publishers. Everyone who’s in this for keep should own a copy. Of note: the option of foregoing quotation marks around dialogue has yet to earn a mention.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Where Characters Come From

The part of a writer that is available for public viewing is what's on the page. This is the truest version of themselves. Malcolm Gladwell

Because I taught high school for many years, I sometimes quip that I enjoy writing because my characters, unlike my students, do as I tell them. Except when they don’t, which is often.

Writers are more parent than puppeteer, struck with wonder (and occasionally, with horror) at the capacities of those we’ve brought into the world. And as with the question of where babies come from, it’s both easy and hard to talk about where characters originate. Characters come from a writer’s imagination, of course, but the curious mix of discovery and planning and circumstance that yields a true and compelling character is tough to pin down.

Emerging writers often ask whether they should create dossiers on their characters, lists of details that define them, before they start writing. Implied is the broader question of whether characters are born out of inductive or deductive thinking – that is, whether characters are built or whether they unfold.

Tom Rachman’s novel The Imperfectionists is a wonderful study in the adept birthing of characters. From the first page, Rachman earns the reader’s trust with details carefully selected and ordered: Lloyd presses against his own front door, wearing white underwear and black socks, toes curled against the chilled air that rushes under the door, his breath whistling in and out of his nostrils as he listens intently, hearing first silence and then voices, a man and woman across the hallway. As the woman approaches his door, Lloyd hustles to the window and positions himself nonchalantly, looking out over the courtyard. The woman is his young wife; she has her older husband’s permission to do as she pleases with the man across the hall.

A washed-up freelancer so desperate for a paycheck that he dines on chickpeas straight from the can, Lloyd’s life is a series of failed relationships, including those with his adult children, one of which forms the crux of this first chapter. For the rest of the book, which is as much a series of linked short stories as it is a novel, Lloyd is mentioned only in passing. Yet at the end, the reader still cares deeply about him.

In a conversation with Malcolm Gladwell, Rachman discusses where his characters came from. “Several are tricky types,” he says, “the sorts who, had I met them in a newsroom, might have prompted me to run. But on the page, I had fondness for them. It’s writing that did this. To form these characters, I tried to conceive of their motives, resentments, disappointments; I watched them gazing unhappily into the mirror, or wincing at office slights.”

The process he describes is both inductive and deductive. Lloyd is at his most fundamental level a despicable journalist: he fabricates a story, and he exploits his son in order to do so. That’s induction – a premise. But to conceive of Lloyd’s motives, resentments, and disappointments, Rachman listens as Lloyd listens and watches as Lloyd watches. He gathers facts about Lloyd, discovers who Lloyd really is. That’s deduction, and what it yields, perhaps unexpectedly but not tangentially, is compassion.

Characters may begin as types – in Lloyd’s case, the despicable journalist – but our fondness for them grows when we turn them loose on the page. An author’s observation of his characters, Rachman says, “stirs compassion that, in real life, is so often obscured by our own motives.” The observational process sounds almost scientific, but compassion as its ultimate end distinguishes the writer’s work from the scientist’s, which by its nature requires a dispassionate approach.

The question of how much of an author herself wriggles into a character can be considered from a similar vantage point. “You separate off a potential in yourself—perhaps even just an emotion – and place it in the petri dish of this other character,” Rathman says, “and watch what becomes of it. That’s why these characters feel like parts of me, though they’re not in any recognizable sense me.”

Try This: Read Paris Review interviews with a few of your favorite authors, then create your own “Paris Review” interview with one of your characters. Begin with a paragraph or two to set the scene for your interview: time, place, season, and weather as well as how the character looks and how she is dressed. Open with easy questions for your character, then segue into more challenging ones, such as “What’s your definition of love?” and “What secrets are you keeping from your creator?” Reportedly when author Allen Gurganous did this exercise with one of his characters from The Oldest Confederate WidowTells All, he ended up with 100 pages and a fresh voice for his character.

Check This Out: To sum up all that Tom Rachman does right with character would take far more than a blog post. Better to read The Imperfectionists for yourself, a novel that makes the question of character versus plot seem utterly irrelevant.