A good short story, personal essay, poem, or memoir captures the texture of life. The most celebrated memoirs are those which tell more than one story. For example, in Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life we read about the boy's education and conscience, but also about the bad second marriage his mother is trapped in, and how she is changing, doing things formerly out of character, like campaigning for JFK. These experiences happened during the same period. They were parallel.
Wolff could easily have written the entire memoir about his youthful self and how he learned to lie and fight. He could have written a fine memoir just about his mother's life. Either one would probably have been swell. But these in reality were intertwined, and Wolff wrote them that way.
What this appears to accomplish:
1) More accurately depicts the boy's exterior reality (events, conversations, his stepfather's behavior, friends and schooling and lessons learned)
2) More accurately depicts his interior reality. We all live more than one life at a time. In fact, at least two: the life that people can see and the one they don't. I've read (dull) stories and essays delving deep into an individual's emotional life that never indicate that this character or person has a job, or siblings, or a loan to pay off, or a best friend who isn't a dog, or a political opinion, or a goal.
Fiction and nonfiction have this in common: To capture the texture of real life, the work needs a subplot or more than one narrative thread.
You can see this on television, say, on The Simpsons, when the main story is about, for example, Homer, but a secondary story is woven in about two other characters. If you look for this, it is absolutely everywhere. That's because having two or more threads captures the texture of life.
When your creative prose seems dull or flat or thin or like "weak tea," it's usually because it has only one facet or thread. A secondary or parallel story, or "subplot," is a lot of work for the writer and requires skill. It is a large part of what makes superior fiction and creative nonfiction. You can spend years in creative-writing courses and never once hear about subplotting, or why subplotting is as basic as the "main story." I have, however, heard a poet say, "A poem should always be about two things." Poets get it.
Prose writing is a little different. After you have learned how to develop and play on one thread, attempt to add another to the piece you are working on. Don't worry about how well or poorly you do it at first. I said it's a skill and that it's not easy.
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.
Here is what I was taught about writing descriptions in both poetry and fiction:
- take the adjectives out
- choose verbs carefully; "the difference between the wrong verb and the right verb is like the difference between the lightning bug and lightning" (a misquote, but it's functional)
- never use adverbs
- cut, cut, cut every word you don't absolutely need
- make every word count
- detailed descriptions are old-fashioned and slow down the story and annoy the reader
- use short sentences and paragraphs
- "If you write a passage that you think is particularly fine, strike it out," also expressed as "Kill your darlings"
- be extremely economical and concise with language; the writers who did that correctly were Ernest Hemingway and Emily Dickinson, so write like them
- never write "very"; if you have to use "very" you have chosen the wrong adjective
In other words: Put your poetry and fiction on a strict diet and treat words like calories.
All this was very 20th-century when the style was for stripped, bony, "masculine" prose like Hemingway's, not sparkling and vivid like Fitzgerald's, although nobody pointed out that Hemingway's style was right for his subjects, hunting and war and fishing, while Fitzgerald's was right for describing romance, youth and parties.
When I came to write essays, I realized almost all of the above advice was ruinous for personal essays. I now think essays about life should have the shape and texture of life. They should be long and rich and fill pages and explore tangents and use the five senses. I revise creative nonfiction NOT by stripping the piece to the bone but adding facts and details to enrich and clarify and layer it. Not fat, but flesh. James Baldwin, whose style is sumptuous, first inspired me to write personal essays, and I noticed he makes his most careful choices when selecting adjectives rather than verbs, although if I must choose between them, I will work harder on finding a good verb.
Of course I have somebody read my drafts and tell me where I went overboard and where there isn't enough, or where I'm unclear, and then I revise until the essay makes sense to everyone who reads it. It can't be merely expressive, as some poetry is; it must make sense, and not just to me.
I still believe in not using "very."
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.
After the library officially closed at 5 we NaNos were "locked in" (one could leave the library but not re-enter). Until 9:00 p.m. we could sit anywhere in the library and I set up near the front window and then moved back into the conference room for the final hour. I missed some of the "get up and stretch" moments and the raffle that repaid the leaders for their outlay on food. Participated in some five-minute "timed writes" during which everyone wrote as quickly and as much as they could.
I wrote 7,252 words this evening so my novel draft is at 24,111, almost half of the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words during the month of November -- and there is less than half the month left! One should be writing about 1,700 words daily (about 75-90 minutes' worth) or, alternatively, attending organized write-ins all over the city to write in concentrated blocks of usually three hours. The seven-hour Night of Scribing Recklessly is one-tiime event. I just had to be there.
I value the pressurized and communal NaNo novel-writing experience, although the draft so far lacks shape and like most NaNos I have no idea what might end up in the book. NaNos (thousands, nationwide) are drafting, writing for quantity, bypassing our inner critics -- for now. We update our word counts on the National Novel-Writing Month website, nanowrimo.org. It's nonprofit and free and open to all. And, contrary to what I had imagined, it's not crazy: The discipline is sobering and sane.
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.
The second-person "You", usually conjoined with present tense, as in (example)
"You take your mother's wedding dress from your closet,"
appears way too often in poetry drafts, including my own. Contemporary poets seem worried that using "I" is too "confessional" or too assertive. Some years ago poets wanted to be assertive, but currently it's important to seem humble and modest while practicing this most egoistic and self-indulgent of professions.
A "you" implies that there is an "I" but doesn't say so. I say, if it's an "I" poem, please come out of the closet and use "I."
The second-person "you" is technically an address either to the readers or to a specific person the poet knows. The "you" poem very often addresses an impaired, unlovable, absent or somehow guilty person. Therefrom comes the pleasure of using the "you," because you can expose him without naming names. "You" could also be the poet addressing himself or herself, especially regarding a past self such as the one who made a bad marriage. ("You put on the dress and veil/dreading your walk down the aisle to your father" usw.) Why should the rest of us read a poem addressed to your ex or your former self? Please be conscious of addressing poems to "You." It is bad if it is a habit. I catch and correct myself in later drafts.
The other alternative to "you" is the third-person pronoun "he" or "she." Here is where it's clear why the "you" is such an attractive option. Both "I" and the "he/she" demand greater nerve and attention to detail. The "I" should bare it all and articulate the unpleasant truth such as "I didn't want to marry him, but I was pregnant and married him for the sake of the child having a father and so my parents wouldn't harass me." The third-person "She" and "He" indicate people -- characters that must be detailed so as to resemble real people with mixed thoughts, feelings, and experiences. "You" is an outline, a faceless shadow figure -- to the audience. The poet uses "you" to hint at an entity rather than taking the trouble to describe it. It's just easier! The reader must figure out from the poet's dropped hints whom "you" might be -- an ex, a dying grandmother, a former self. I wonder what cultural rule poets are upholding when we could be direct and forthright but choose not to.
- 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.
Free books for my students, direct from the publisher!? What a delight! For such a great book! (It's available used.) Ms. Bly (1930-2007; pictured) would have loved this! I'd be a fool to ask questions!
Well, I just couldn't let my freshmen down -- and there was the fork in the road.
The six men in our class went on to publish: four became fiction writers, one a poet. I'm glad for the successes of Tom and George Saunders, a deserving Golden Boy, beloved by The New Yorker, now teaching at Syracuse. They were never my close friends, and Tom I never saw again, and George only once, but I have had the honor of being considered their peer.
The three women were all depressed. One went to St. Louis where SHE had the fellowship (in poetry. Her fiction wasn't worth a bean. Back then there was no such thing as creative nonfiction).
I see now that for a young writer to keep writing, someone has to give you, grant you, a boost -- a scholarship, fellowship, some prizes, a mentor, a wealthy spouse, a lucky break. Or you have to boost yourself by boldly breaking down whatever holds you back.
In honor of Tom's success, and Doris Lessing's -- blow off an obligation today!