This forced me to review, just three days ago, the 50,000 words of fiction that I wrote during National Novel Writing Month and haven't looked at since November 30. I was amazed by how much of the Novel-Writing-Month material was readable and usable, how good the dialogue is, how the characters (I enjoy their company!) made connections and friendships on their own, and built their own biographies. They are directing the next draft and I can barely keep up with them. Possibly it'll finish at around 120,000 words, and now I am sure I will finish it. Remember, this is the first time in my life I can say this! How about you?
The work is extremely absorbing, but one of my main tasks on earth is to help any writers who ask me, so next Saturday, Feb. 23, I teach a seminar on a subject I know well: writer's block. The University of Missouri-St. Louis Continuing Education program offers non-credit seminars on creative writing, and Feb. 23, 9 a.m. to 12 noon, the subject is writer's block. I will do my teacherly best to breathe fresh air into anxious minds using discussions, writing assignments, facts and surprises. The seminar is $65. Register by phone on weekdays only: 314-516-6950. If you yourself aren't blocked, maybe your students or friends are.
1. Fiction writing is addictive.
2. Some days writing is better than others.
3. A piece of yourself must go into each of the characters or they are not interesting.
4. Characters really do come alive and start dictating what they want to do.
5. Can't be scared of the stratospheric numbers: word counts, pages, number of characters, number of chapters. . .
6. The great tasks of composition and revision are nothing but work. Work is all they are.
7. Those pages and pages of dialogue were the characters defining themselves.
8. Write anything; worry about it later.
9. While you're drafting, go there. Just go there.
10. Write the cliche (example: the harried, worrywart suburban mom) and then give her one of your own traits or values. Suddenly she's real.
11. The fourth dimension of any novel is its moral dimension.
Is what I wrote any good? Of course not. It's a draft. Drafts aren't good. Drafts are the first step on the way to making it good.
The time and trouble was worth it. Now I understand novelists better than before.
The National Novel Writing Month movement began in San Francisco in 1999 with 30 people vowing to draft their novels, with each other's support, in November's 30 days. The goal is 50,000 words, or 1,667 words per day, about 10 double-spaced pages, and it's acknowledged that what you'll produce is maybe a draft of a draft. But those who complete 50,000 words ("weighed," but not read, by the organization's website) win the challenge. That's all they win, except for a 50 percent discount on book-writing software called Scrivener. The GenExer demo'ed it for us and I liked it and you can download the trial version here, Nanowrimo participant or not, fiction or nonfiction writer. Use it free until Dec. 7. Very intelligently designed for book manuscripts. Yes, you can export what you write in Scrivener to Word, or import into it what you've already written.
Peter Leach in 2011 won the Gival Press Award, its prize the publication of his first novel, Gone by Sundown, which is also the winner of a bronze medal from the IPPY independent publishers association. Set in St. Genevieve, MO in the 1930s, this vivid, class-conscious story is based on a real murder trial and resulting eviction of all the town’s black residents, ordered to be “gone by sundown.”
Leach stayed productive while his novel inched toward publication; he has 16 more books in manuscript. Peter Leach was born and grew up in St. Louis. He studied playwriting at Yale Drama School, had an NEA Grant for creative writing, and his fiction has appeared in many literary magazines. His short-story collection Tales of Resistance won the George Garrett Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 1999. Gone by Sundown is available through Amazon.com and on the shelves at Left Bank Books. Leach says, “I don’t have a lot to show for my efforts. There were long patches between very modest publications and awards. I keep at it because it gives me satisfaction. It is what I do. I would become demented by strong drink, behave badly far more often than I do, and who knows what, if I were not writing fiction.”
Q: Your fiction is rooted in real events and you research your books like a historian. Why not present these stories as nonfiction? They’d be easier to publish.
A: It’s certainly true that nonfiction sells more readily. Many agents won’t touch fiction. Let them pry the poetic license from my cold dead hands. Fiction is what I do.
Q: You have 16 completed books in manuscript. What are you working on now?
A: I am now working on White Folks Bearing Gifts, about Cookie Thornton’s murderous rampage at Kirkwood City Hall, February 7, 2008.
Q: Tell us how you wrote Gone By Sundown.
Someone in St. Genevieve, I forget who, mentioned the driving out of the black people from St. Genevieve in the 1930s. I used as sources two weekly local newspapers, the St. Genevieve Herald and the Fair Play, reading on microfilm all the issues from 1929 through 1941. The two black men and the black woman accused of murdering two white limestone workers and inciting the eviction are real, as are the novel’s “old French Colored” characters, the Ribeau brothers. Attorney Sidney Redmond is based on a man who later headed the St. Louis NAACP. The excursion train that people took to see Holt Hardy’s hanging is based on actual events in Sedalia, Missouri.
I prowled Ste. Genevieve and the surrounding rural landscape with topographic maps, talked to people who had some memory of the events, took pictures, and toured the Mississippi Lime works on the edge of town, immense caverns eighty feet high, and their kilns.
The novel’s working title had been Negro Clean, to suggest analogies to the ethnic cleansings in Bosnia and Rwanda. My then-agent sent out ten copies of the manuscript, re-titled St. Genevieve 1937. The first replies objected to the dialect. A favorable letter came from a man at Ecco Press, who suggested making the character Redmond more central. I went through three extensive rewrites. After parting with that agent I finally changed my first-person narration to close-in third person. That was when I put it through yet another revision, to just about what it is now.
But where would I send it, when the ten most likely publishers had already seen it? Finally I went through the last two issues of Poets and Writers and submitted it to six or seven contests. I almost did not send it to the contest it won, because the entry fee was $50.
Q: What started you writing fiction?A: I won fourth prize in a city-wide contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine when I was 14, and at 15 won second prize. My father dreamt of writing like Sherwood Anderson but ended up in advertising. He cherished an encouraging handwritten rejection from the fiction editor of Esquire. He subscribed to Story Magazine, a monthly. It had stories by Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Starting at age 14 I read through every issue he had. My catching the bug to write fiction pleased my father no end.
- Over-explanation. This includes prologues. "Prologues are never needed. You can usually throw them in the garbage. They're usually put on as a patch."
- Too much data. "You're trying to seduce your reader, not burden them," Friedman said.
- Over-writing, or "trying too hard." "We think the more description we add, the more vivid it will be; but we don't want to be distracted from the story" we open the book for.
- Beginning the novel with an interior monologue or reflection. Usually this is written as the thoughts of a character who is sitting alone, musing and thinking back on a story. Just start with the story.
- Beginning the novel with a flashback. Friedman isn't entirely anti-flashback, but the novel's opening page is the wrong place for one.
- Beginning a novel with the "waking up sequence" of a character waking, getting out of bed, putting on slippers, heading for the kitchen and coffee...a cliche
- Related cliche: beginning the novel with an alarm clock or a ringing phone
- Starting out with an "ordinary day's routine" for the main character
- She sees a lot of manuscripts beginning with "crisis moments" that aren't unique: "When the doctor said 'malignant,' my life changed forever..." or "The day my father left us I was seven years old..."
- Don't start with a dialogue that doesn't have any context. Building characterization through dialogue is okay anywhere else but there.
- Starting with backstory, or "going back, then going forward."
- Info dump. More formally called "exposition."
- Character dump, which is four or more characters on the first page.
And, Friedman said, the "biggest bad advice" about opening a novel is "Start with action." She said she thinks, "But I haven't been made to care about these characters yet." Ideally, the first page introduces a character the reader feels he or she knows and understands.
Housepets are not a good subject for fiction, either. We love them but they say nothing, do little and mostly go nowhere, and that doesn’t make for enjoyable fiction. Fiction narrated by a pet is old-old news. Think Black Beauty (1877).
Famous writers have published books about housepets. Virginia Woolf wrote Flush. I haven't read it. May Sarton wrote The Fur Person (a cat). Some people love it; there's even a gift edition. I haven't read it. Same with Doris Lessing's On Cats. I'm inclined to read about people, and then maybe animals other than housepets, as in Call of the Wild, Giraffe, and Watership Down. Readers are still recommending Watership Down, a misleading title for a novel about a colony of wild rabbits, published in 1972. I heard it recommended just yesterday. I have even read Will I See Fido in Heaven?, a work of nonfiction. (BTW, the answer, just as I had hoped, is "Yes.")
Having had pets I know how dear they are, and their lives have a few dramatic moments, but a reader is thinking, “What’s in this for me?” The author bursting to tell a pet story should write it, but for a readership, prepare to deliver a story never before told.
They come to fiction writing imprinted with "flashback" although "flashback" is supposedly an advanced fiction-writing technique. Flashback in beginning fiction is the equivalent of the downcased "i" in beginning poetry. It is a borrowed form of originality, and its reasoning is that "Other people do it."
I always give students this lecture hoping they won't waste their efforts on what I call the Barstool or Bathtub story. That's when you tack your character on a barstool and have him do nothing but think back on sordid past events. Don't show him thinking about sordid events. At least show him living the sordid events. Don't put your main character in the bathtub and keep her there while you describe her reveries or resentments. The reader, who reads a story wanting to enter a world where people do things, realizes early on that your character isn't going to do anything but sit, and is disappointed.
Wearing her trademark rhinestone pin saying "Bobbi," Smith sat with us, read us some early efforts and told us she writes Westerns because NYC says no romance fan wants to read about the Midwest, or even any Western state except Arizona or Texas. Wyoming does not cut it. We talked about digital, about vampire books, about agents. I don't think I've ever been so close to someone so creative as to invent 54 full-length novels, even if they're not the lit'ry kind I read (exclusively, mind you!). She said a romance-writers convention had once held a Hunk Contest, and the winner got to be on the cover of a romance novel, and it happened to be Bobbi's, and she did her book tour with him, drawing tons of fans smitten not with the novel but with the Hunk.
Above all, she said, "You have no control." Luck. Publishers' and agents' whims. Audience whims. Cultural and technological shifts. Her new book is digital only, and not by her choice; by her publisher's.
If you have ever sought an audience, doubtless the little-to-no audience has happened to you. I have seen a poet at a bookstore bravely reading to empty chairs. Once I read poems in a restaurant on a night raining cats & dogs. There were no diners. The audience: a friend from work and a man who had a crush on me (note: I later married this guy). I have given "workshops" on the topic of, say, writing tone and style, and had two people show up. I have taught classes of two (who stuck with me after others dropped out). Each time I doggedly went through with it. Slightly sick at heart, but it was my own expectations that did that. This happens at last to everyone. But show up and do your job (or your show). We can control only what we do; we can't control results.