Tag Archives: writing
Roy Peter Clark wrote the 2010 bestselling book, The Glamour of Grammar, and on September 21, 2011, his new book will be released. The new book is entitled Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. Mr. Clark joins us here for a guest post, answering a key question for us.
JA: Should you write the ending of your story first?
RPC: The paragon for this paradigm is J.K. Rowling, who has told the story many times that she began writing the seven-book Harry Potter series by writing the ending first. Not the ending of the first book, mind you, but the ending of the seventh book! She even teased her faithful readers with the news that the last word in the series would be “scar.” She changed her mind.
It helped me to write to an ending for my 1999 newspaper serial novel “Ain’t Done Yet.” The story, in 30 chapters, described a burned-out reporter hired to investigate a cult planning a terrorist attack for New Year’s Day 2000. Max Timlin, the reporter, feared two things most of all: lightning storms and high places. So, of course, he would fight to the death with the villain on top of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in a fierce storm. Because I knew the big arc of the story, I could focus on the little arcs, those moments of surprise that reveal patterns, cliff hangers, and character.
I like the advice of a novelist (don’t remember his name) who said that writing fiction was like driving a car at night along a winding country road. You don’t need to see all the way to your destination, as long as your headlights can illuminate a stretch of the road ahead. In other words, if you can write your way to the end of a scene, you can build narrative momentum toward what’s coming next.
Interested in winning a copy of Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces? If so, just return to this site on Wednesday, September 21st to see how you can win one of five (5) copies that we’re giving away!
The late writer Norman Mailer was known to be a tough guy, and he was also quite a writer having won both of literature’s highest prizes – the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award – for his account of the domestic protests against the war in Vietnam, The Armies of the Night. He was once asked by an interviewer to divulge the “secrets” of writing, and Mailer immediately invoked his First Rule, “Always trust your editor.”
I’ve thought about this more and more as I come across works by newer and debut authors; whose works often show promise (“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential,” to quote the wise philosopher Linus) but lack a firm and unified voice. All too often I see the debut novel that starts off like a house afire but then dwindles away from the halfway point until the ending. Perhaps it’s because the writer’s energy and confidence faded out; more likely, some type of scheduling conflict meant that the editor involved did not have the time to devote to smoothing out the rough spots in the second half that was devoted to the first.
I think that the work of a literary editor can be fairly likened to the work of a recording engineer. Bands make all kinds of sounds in the recording studio – some too loud, some too harsh, some too tame and quiet, some jarring, some pleasant – and it’s up to the recording engineer (for a brilliant account read Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick) to mold the sounds into something uniform. Even more than uniform, they must be pleasing to the ear. The human ear loves mid-range sounds, so the very best sound engineers minimize the highs and lows to produce a product that sounds unnaturally “natural.”
Buy a very expensive car today and you’ll be offered an equally expensive add-on option, a top-of-the-line audio system (think an extra $5,000 to $7,000) that produces comforting mid-range sounds from any genre of material, rock to jazz to classical or country music. This stereo reproduction system will have a built-in range limiter, a single-function computer program that mimics and sometimes even improves the sounds produced by a top-flight recording engineer blessed with perfect hearing and “golden ears.”
Similarly, the writer’s editor must take out what’s jarring, what’s unexpected or simply not registered in the author’s best, pleasing voice… It’s the editor who must decide, whether or not the author concurs, the answers to the questions: “What is it about this author’s tone that is pleasing to the reader’s inner ear? Which part of the writer’s voice is pleasingly mid-range?”
In order to complete his/her task, the skilled editor must edit and sometimes brutally cut out that which does not seem to fit. And this is where Mailer’s advice is so important to the new writer, the prospective writer. I will restate his advice this way, in my own words: Don’t argue, don’t take it personally. The very best, the most talented, of writers have found that they must trust their editors.
The skilled editor can take multiple, disparate voices and make them harmonize like the fine instruments in an orchestra. As an example, take the short story collection about true love, Love Is a Four-Letter Word. This compilation contained 23 stories written by just as many writers. Yet in the hands of editor Michael Taeckens, the collection never seemed choppy or disjointed. I found that it had a singular mid-range tone – not too loud, nor too soft – that made it seem quite enjoyable. And it wasn’t just me. One reader noted at Amazon that, “…this collection was pretty good… not just in theme but in tone.” Said another, “…the stories flowed quite seamlessly from one to the other. We have Mr. Taeckens, the editor, to thank for that.” Exactly!
When a highly skilled editor can take 23 voices and make them sound like one melodious voice, just think of what he/she can do to assist the previously fledgling, isolated writer in finding his or her natural voice.
One other key function is left up to the editor. Carolyn Parkhurst wrote, “…the ending of a novel should feel inevitable. You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming… you should (feel) satisfied that there’s no other way it could have gone.” If the draft ending of the book does not feel natural and inevitable, it’s up to the editor to tell the writer so.
In the end, it does come down to that one word: trust. Mr. Mailer was so right.
Note: Thank you to author (The Language of Trees: A Novel) and former professional editor Ilie Ruby, for serving as one of my editors on this piece. And thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as the second editor.
Questions That I Am Asked Frequently* by Jeff Shelby, author of Liquid Smoke
I am asked many questions frequently. Or, at least in my head, I am asked questions frequently. Or maybe that is just the voices. Sometimes it is hard to tell. The voices can be loud and kinda pushy. Anyway, here are some questions that I may or may not be asked frequently.
Q: Is your book, like, a REAL book?
A: Yes. It’s totally real. It has words and everything. It’s very real. As is the pink elephant standing next to you. Watch out, it’s about to pee on you.
Q: Is your book any good?
A: No. It’s GREAT. It’s so GREAT you’ll probably want to quit your job and travel the world, telling people about it. If you wanna go to Mongolia, I’ll probably go with you. I’ve never been there and I hear they have great BBQ. And I hear they love great books. Like mine.
Q: Are you rich?
A: No. I’m Jeff. Pay attention.
Q: I have an idea for your books. Can I send it to you?
A: No. I’m already full of ideas. Those voices again…
Q: What is LIQUID SMOKE?
A: It’s smoke that is made of liquid. Duh.
Q: Why do you have such awesome hair?
A: (Blushes) You think?
Q: Are you going to write more Noah books?
A: Yes. Unless I don’t. But I will. Maybe.
Q: I heard you wrote a book called STAY AT HOME DEAD but you’re using a different name, Jeffrey Allen. What’s that all about?
A: Where did you hear that? Did you tap my phone? Because it’s true. Look for it in January. And stay off my phone.
Q: What’s the hardest part about being a writer?
A: Counting all the money we make. (BURSTS INTO LAUGHTER) Kidding. Um, probably writing the first word of the story.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
A: No. I always wanted to be a baseball player. But the Padres got a restraining order and it’s all awkward now.
Q: If you could write one piece of advice about being writing, what would it be?
A: Write. And don’t let pink elephants pee on you. Ever.
*It’s quite possible that I’ve never been asked any of these questions frequently and that’s why I answered them so poorly.
(Copyright 2011, Jeff Shelby)
Liquid Smoke: A Noah Braddock Mystery (Tyrus Books, $15.95, 300 pages) will be released on August 22, 2011. Jeff Shelby is the author of the novels Dead Week, Killer Swell and Wicked Break. He lives in San Diego, and sometimes responds to the name Jeffrey Allen. But then sometimes he doesn’t.
Perspectives on the Publishing Trade
A Disturbing Trend
Increasingly, I’ve been bothered by a new trend in fiction that’s not at all positive. This is the creation of the novel that has no plot, no true story line. Such books – which are often actually novellas – revolve around a few days, weeks, months or years of a character’s life. The reader-purchaser is often fooled by front jacket blurbs that promise exciting plot twists, and sometimes mention “crimes,” and indicate that one absolutely must read through to “the last page.” Ah, yes, but when the reader has completed all of the 240 or so pages, he/she may find that nothing happened in the space between first page and the last. No crimes have been committed, no major characters killed, no cities threatened, no buildings or homes firebombed, no fictional characters have had their lives transformed.
Why is this happening? I have no idea, but it’s made worse by reviews that actually praise the author for being “clever”! This type of review will read something like this, “Author Betty Robinson really had me fooled this time, thinking that her character was going to commit a heinous crime; the story’s conclusion was a clever one.” Except that the clever conclusion involved an absence of events.
I, for one, would like to see some truth in advertising. Firstly, books that are novellas should be clearly labeled as such, not subtitled “A Novel.” (Recently, even a couple of short story collections have carried the designation of novel.) Secondly, I’d like to see a Reader Advisory sticker that reads: Warning – Nothing actually happens between the covers of this novel/novella. It’s a book about nothing. Purchase it at your own risk; there will be no refunds. Thirdly, how about requiring the purchaser to sign a waiver of his/her expectations? (“I understand that I’m not going to be satisfied by reading this story.”)
Maybe this doesn’t sound like much, but it might be a start in making things better.
Plausibility is the Thing
One of the key items that a reviewer of a novel needs to consider is plausibility. Does the tale told in the book ring true? Are the characters like people one would encounter in real life, or are they either too perfect, too flawed or too strange? If the story’s premise and/or its characters are not plausible, then reading the novel becomes an exercise in futility. The story may have some positive features but if it’s lacking feasibility, it’s like saying that someone’s done a great job of putting lipstick on a pig. Great makeup job but it remains a pig.
What does the reviewer do in this situation? Focus on the writing while reminding the potential reader that this may be a talented writer but he/she has not met his/her potential this time around. In other words, offer up some hope for the future.
Now here’s the funny thing, as I’ve learned from experience… If a reviewer questions the plausibility of a novel, the author is never going to concur with this finding. Never. Ever. Ever. Nope. The writer’s response will be something like, “I based this on something that actually happened, and I know (or knew) people like the characters in this book!” Fine, but that’s the author’s perspective not the reviewer’s view.
In a courtroom, it’s often said that the prosecution has the burden of proof. Well, when it comes to drafting a novel, I think the author has the burden of drafting something that’s plausible.
A U.S. Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.” The same is and should be true for a book reviewer – either he or she “sees” the plausibility in a fictional setting or he/she doesn’t. Either way, it’s critical for the reviewer’s credibility to call it as he/she sees it. Play it as it lays.
There’s another famous quote, one attributed to an actor, “Once you’ve learned to fake sincerity, you can fake anything.” But a writer of a fictional work can’t fake plausibility – it’s either on the written page (“On all fours,” as law professors say) or its absent. And if a reviewer makes the call that it’s absent, the writer should remember that it’s nothing personal. Your next book may become one of the reviewer’s favorites.
Pictured: Life: A Memoir by Keith Richards, which is now available in trade paperback, unabridged audiobook, Kindle Edition and Nook Book forms/formats.