Category Archives: Giving Birth to a Book (That’s Why I’m Screaming)

What I’m writing at the current time and how it’s going.

She’s Such a Character

abstract bird artWhat does it mean to say that a character in a book is real? I mean, they’re obviously not real, just words on a page. But one of the ways we talk about characters in literature is how much they seem like a real person. As with everything we read, the character is created entirely inside the head of the reader, who takes the words and puts them all together somehow, to mentally picture someone.

Because the reader is using the words the writer provided, the writer and reader are actually working together to create the character. Sometimes fiction writers make it easier, but there are other writers whose characters never seem to acquire much depth. We could also ask whether or not it matters if a character becomes real.

Sometimes, no, it doesn’t really matter. Some books exist just to tell a story for entertainment, with no other purpose, and for those books, while the reading may be more fun if the characters are somewhat real, in the end, the story is what matters, and the characters are only tools to help tell it. Also note that since character development is a cooperative enterprise, with writer and reader working together, for some types of books, if the reader has to work too hard, they may feel the book is less entertaining.

I don’t write those kinds of books (i.e., the kind that sell easily), such as romance, thrillers, spy novels, detective novels, and so on. I never made a choice not to write such books, I just write what I write. That’s not who I am.

When I’m writing, it matters A LOT whether the character seems real. In fact, that aspect of the book matters more to me than anything else about it. I want my characters to remain in the reader’s mind afterward, almost haunting, as if these people I’ve created were someone you really knew. I’m not sure whether I actually manage to do this, but that’s what I want.

I’m finishing up a book right now (called Birds Above the Cage), and I find myself using a technique I’ve used on the last couple of novels. When the book is “done” in terms of the story, I then go through it once for each major character, looking only at sections that have that character, and I focus on character development. This time I also tried something new, kind of eccentric. I went on the web and searched for photographs, choosing one that I thought represented each major character, and I downloaded those photos. From time to time I’d look at the pictures to give me a sense that I was writing about a real person.

So at the moment I’m working with Lily. Something I did this time was scan quickly through all her sections of the book, making notes on things I said about her: she doesn’t like coffee, she reads Newsweek, etc. Now that I’m going back and reading her sections more slowly, I keep looking at that list, to see whether I can use any of it, to reinforce something I’ve already said.

That’s not enough, however. When it comes down to it, I simply have to read a scene and stare at the computer until blood is running from my eyes, thinking, “What else can I do here?” For this kind of writing, good enough is not nearly good enough. There are various “sets” of approaches that I can use: (1) thoughts of the characters, which is very useful, but I want a fuller sense of the person in space as well, (2) physical appearance and motions, like frowning, brushing back the hair, walking quickly, and so on, but it could be easy to overdo this, (3) the setting as it relates to the character, like piano music she left lying on the table, a bag of oranges she just bought, photographs hanging on the wall.

Here’s a small example from about an hour ago. Lily gets a phone call from her estranged father, who she hasn’t talked to in years, and he gives her some astonishing news. I wanted to enliven the scene a bit physically, have more than just lines of dialogue, so I had her suddenly stand up in amazement from a chair where she was sitting. That gave a little physical motion to the scene, and it also said something about Lily’s emotional state, that she would be provoked into that action.

I was also going to have her look out the window and notice something outside. I had in mind seeing a chipmunk run by, as she sees a chipmunk much later in the book, but then I thought that under the circumstances of the phone call, she would have such a strong emotional reaction she probably wouldn’t notice anything around her. To stay true to her psychology, therefore, I ignored the outside.

Doing this kind of writing, for me at least, is extremely challenging. It’s hard work, and I keep thinking, “I want a nap. I want a glass of wine. I want a cookie. I want a hug.”

Anything but sit here working on this book.

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It Depends on So Much

Signs saying "no"

Until they say yes

A tiered cake stood on one end of the table, and on the top tier were two figures, decorated cookies perhaps, looking a bit like cartoon characters. Written on the cake was the phrase “It all depends”. There were also other cakes on a table that ran ten or twelve feet, heavy laden with food: tiny ham biscuits, pimento cheese sandwiches, platters of fresh vegetables with dip, candied nuts, more pimento cheese sandwiches with bacon (now that’s a brilliant idea), rolled up sandwiches of some sort, and still more.

This spread was laid out to celebrate my friend, Anna Schachner, who has just published a novel called You and I and Someone Else from Mercer University Press.

The celebration of Anna’s book was sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book, held at the Decatur library, an event that began in the small theater downstairs, then moved over to the meeting room, with the cake, and did I mention pimento cheese with bacon?

I’ve known Anna since 1990, when we were both English grunts teaching at Dekalb College, and we were both reading stacks of fiction submissions for the literary magazine Chattahoochee Review. Since then I’ve gone on to whatever in the world it is I’ve been doing, while Anna stayed at the college and eventually became the editor of the magazine. In the twenty-seven years that I’ve known Anna, I’ve watched her work and struggle, writing, then writing more, then writing more, going through multiple literary agents (you know, the people who “help” writers). It has taken a while, but her book is now out there.

Quite a nice crowd showed up to fill the theater on Tuesday, and it was good to see Anna get such recognition. Other writers also came, of course, and on the stage with Anna were two writers who some people will recognize, Joshilyn Jackson and Karen Abbott. As it happens, Anna, Joshilyn, and Karen have helped one another as a writing group, and—here’s an interesting little factoid—Anna and Joshilyn are planning to each a class together at a prison.

For the book event, Joshilyn introduced Anna and Karen, and Karen then interviewed Anna about the novel that has just been published. They both had microphones, which were totally not working, and I wondered how it was the people running the event were looking at the stage without making a move to fix that.

So I couldn’t hear that well, but I was gratified to hear Anna describe some of the creation of this book, which went through multiple iterations over fourteen years. She described it beginning as multiple short pieces, which then turned into connected short stories, and finally into a novel. The book that I’m now revising (which I first began twenty years ago) has done some similar things, also gradually drawing together more and more tightly into a coherent story. I felt a little justified to hear Anna describe her long-birthing book that is now before the world.

After the interview we all stood up and mingled a bit. I was surprised to see my friend Lamar York, who started the Chattahoochee Review, as I knew Lamar had driven four or five hours down from North Carolina, where he now lives. I knew quite a few people, mostly faculty or former faculty from the two schools I used to be associated with, who had come to help Anna celebrate.

I also took the opportunity to introduce myself to Joshilyn Jackson and talk to her for a minute, something I had intended to do if I ever had a chance, as I reviewed one of Joshilyn’s books for a local arts website a few years ago. In addition, I had a brief chat with Karen Abbott, so I was rubbing shoulders with the gentry, and I offered to go outside and watch their horses if they wanted me to.

For the kind of literary fiction that I write, Anna is the only person I know who does that type of writing as seriously as I do it. After watching her try so long and hard, I’m glad I was here in Atlanta to see her sit on a stage and talk about her book. You go, girl.

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I Checked All Your Adverbs

woman drinking a cup of coffeeThis seems like a complicated point to make. When we write, at least in a subconscious way, we imagine a reader who is reading it, and as we imagine that reader, we picture them understanding our text exactly the way we want them to. If it occurs to us that the imaginary reader will not understand something, then we change it.

Sometimes, however, when a real reader actually reads what we wrote, holy Jesus! how did they come up with those ideas? That’s not at all what we meant. The fact is, as a writer, you really don’t know how a reader will perceive what you’ve written. Until a reader, or multiple readers, see what you’ve done (and tell you), you’re guessing whether or not it works. After all, writing is not merely about writing, it’s about being read. We do not write just to admire the alphabet.

As hard as writing is, as much blood as you have to leave behind while doing it, when you finally have a finished manuscript, if you can get the opinion of some readers before you hand it out to the world, you can feel more confident of what you have. You don’t necessarily have to change anything based on what the readers say, but if three people are all confused at the same point, would you pay attention to that? I certainly would.

Getting this kind of help is one reason people seek out and attend writing groups. For a novelist, however, there are two potential problems with such a group. One problem is inherent in any group, the difference between critiquing and copy editing. Critiquing is seriously considering the content in a piece of writing as well as how it is presented (style, structure, and so on). Copy editing is only looking at what is written to see whether it has any mistakes, without much attention to the content.

Many people who attend writing groups, in their “critique” of someone’s writing, will merely copy edit, pointing out a mistake here and there, or talking about some feature of style they personally like or don’t like. This slight copy editing, which requires little effort, creates the illusion that they are taking part in a writing group. It isn’t serious, and it isn’t much help.

The second problem with a writing group applies particularly to novelists. Even if the members of a writing group are both competent and willing (and you’re damn lucky if you find both of those things in a group of people), the group members necessarily read only in bits at a time, so if you have a novel, then you eventually need a critique of the whole book, and you can’t get it there.

Thus, when you finish the draft of a novel, you’re fortunate if you can find someone who is capable and willing to give you a critique of the book. It’s quite a lot of effort, and a lot to ask of someone. And yet . . . it’s incredibly, incredibly helpful to a novelist. I’m jealous of writers who have a circle of writer friends who gladly expend the effort to give critiques. I mean, I assume such a situation must exist, although I’ve never encountered it.

With the last book I wrote, The Invention of Colors, I found two people who were willing to give me a critique. One of them even went so far as to ask if she could do it. I felt lucky to find two very smart, well-read people who would do this. I felt lucky, that is, until they both fell off the earth and disappeared, and six months later I have heard literally not a word from either of them.

I’m currently critiquing a novel for a friend, and my focus is on two things. First, I’m thinking about overall plot flow and whether I see problems in the logic, in plot, or in the flow from section to section. Second, I’m focused on the psychological reality of the characters. One point I’ve found to criticize, which I’ve seen in other books, is when a character does something not because that character would actually do such a thing, but only because the author needs for it to happen in the plot. That’s weak writing, and I’ll always jump on that like a bulldog on a wedding cake, or . . . anyway, you get the idea.

But whatever I say, the book doesn’t belong to me. I will offer advice, and then the writer decides. The writer should always own the writing.

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Being a Writer!

man pushing a boulder up a hill

The writing process

Because I took off a day here and there, or because of holidays, I haven’t gone to work (I mean the one where I get paid) five days in a row for the last month. Which is how it should be. This isn’t the Middle Ages, damn it, and we shouldn’t be working more than four days a week.

With all that lovely time off, I’m so dedicated to my writing craft that when I wasn’t sleeping, or thinking about sleeping, or eating, or staring out the window, I was assiduously working on the current novel. Man, I was like a serf with a pencil.

It was fortunate to have an opportunity to work for uninterrupted hours, as I had reached a point where the book I’m revising required analyzing what I have and how I want to move forward. I’m taking the current text, cutting it into random pieces, and rearranging them to tell a somewhat new story.

I’m also throwing away at least half of what is already written, so much of the second half of the book will be entirely new. Given this much change, there was a lot to think about. Most importantly, I wanted to think about the pacing of events. If a dramatic interaction between two characters is moving the action forward, but it ends before the book is over, what is the reason to keep reading?

Well, why don’t I just figure that out before I write the book for a change? So I worked on all this, and you’re probably bored just reading about it. Imagine doing it. It was exceeding tedious. If anyone tells you how much fun it is to write, how the writer just sits there throwing off sparks from inspiration, you can say to them, “Liar, liar, sings in the choir.”

I have the impression—maybe I’m wrong—that some people are natural story tellers and plots just pop into their head. I’m certainly not like that. It takes me tremendous effort and thought and rethinking and at least one nap and two snacks to work out a story. OK, more than one nap.

But at last I rolled that stone up the hill and shoved a log in front of it, so it stayed there, and I was able to get back to the “writing” part of the writing, the part that has some pleasure in it, using words, creating things. I’ll give a little sample below of what I did this week. This is a flashback scene in which the protagonist, who is mostly in her 70s during the book, visits her father’s grave and remembers being 14. The work below is still just a first draft, but I’ll show you anyway.

************************************************

Eve looked at her father’s side of the grave and vague images of his funeral floated through her mind. She thought about their life above the hardware store, near the downtown square where she had just been driving, and she thought about the girl who she had been then, the serious girl who read so much, who studied hard, but who also liked to go to movies. Her father had always freely given her money to go to movies, and a memory of telling him about one of her favorite movies came to her as she stood in the cemetery.

They had just finished dinner, of pork chops, cornbread, and green beans. Richard Elfweather had taken one last small piece of cornbread to eat with sorghum syrup, as he liked to finish off a meal with something sweet. “Did you like the movie?” he asked.

“It was so funny!” Eve exclaimed. “You should go see it.” She had just been with Amy to see the new Marx Brothers movie, A Night at the Opera.

“Maybe I will,” her father said. He always said that, but he never went to movies.

“You know who they are, don’t you? Harpo never says anything, he just blows a horn.”

“Then why isn’t he called Horno?”

Eve laughed and said, “He plays a harp, too. That’s why he’s Harpo.”

Eve stood a few more minutes looking at the grave, then went back to her car. She was going to go home and call Lucette, to see if she would come over in the evening. It would be good to see a friend.

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Labor On, Word Boy

writer with his hand on his head

But is anyone going to read this?

It was quite the literary cornucopia around here last weekend. You know what I mean? Pointy basket lying on the ground with apples and beer bottles and paperback novels falling out of it. And of course when I say “literary” I mean marketing, or to use the more technical phrase, “begging for attention”.

I took part in two different conventions last weekend, in my capacity as a writer who ain’t nobody, hardly. The meeting I spent the most time at, thanks very much to my publicist, was a fantasy convention called Conjuration. If you’re a huge fan of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Star Trek or. . .Harry Potter, this was your meeting. And did I mention Harry Potter?

I don’t write those sorts of book, but I ain’t no fool either—I mean, not always, you know, about everything—and I’ll take whatever publicity I can get. Because I had allowed the convention people to use the space I rented a month ago for the book release party, they gave me a speaking slot at the opening ceremony. Thus I had the new experience of being introduced as a writer, going up to the stage in front of 300-400 people in a ballroom, to talk a bit. I wanted to be entertaining, so I took a pointed stick and a bag of dirt, but you needed to be there for that. I also tried to make sure the audience knew my name and the name of my new book (which is I’d Tear Down the Stars, just to make sure).

Before this occasion, when was the last time I stood in front of a ballroom of people saying, “Look at me, I’m a writer”? Never. Next to one of the meeting rooms was a rather large banner with (1) my photo, looking as good as I’m able, and I can’t help those limitations, and (2) a photo of the book. In addition, I was part of a table where my publicist was selling books of various people he works with. I sold a few, too, not many, but when you’re nobody, a few is OK. Right? Don’t tell me otherwise.

Regarding the convention in general, half the people there were in costume, including some striking, interesting outfits, some people carried short pointy sticks (“wands”) and some of them wore masks. I saw a young woman in the hotel restaurant keep her mask on while she was ordering dinner. People were having fun, there was music, they played games, they had drinks, they ate candy. I helped out with the drinking part.

In addition to the Conjuration meeting, completely by coincidence, the Atlanta Writers Club had their conference the same weekend, and I also went to that on Saturday afternoon for a few hours. If anyone was having fun there, it was a far more subtle form of fun. People were working there, but because we’re all writers at that meeting, we’re cool and impersonating confident, contented word artists. Ha ha, I’m so funny, so relaxed.

I went to the writers meeting because I’m trying to sell the novel I just finished, The Invention of Colors. This meeting brings in literary agents and editors from yon distant mecca of literary success and fame glitter. You knew I was talking about New York City there, right? I signed up ahead of time, or rather, I paid ahead of time, to meet with one agent and one publisher.

And I’ll tell ya, it went very well (i.e., what we call “well” in the brutal business of refined literature). The agent, who really seemed very pleasant, began by fairly meticulously critiquing my pitch letter describing the book (they call it “pitch letter” because you want to pitch yourself out a window when you have to write one). I figured, OK, she’s going to so much trouble to tell me how I should have written this, instead of how I did write it, that she’s going to say no. Then she told me I can send her the first 50 pages. Such an invitation, as it happens, is a very, very, very long way from “I’ll be your agent”—and yet it is well down the road from “No, thanks”.

An hour and a half later, I talked with the editor, from HarperCollins, and she said she liked the sound of the book and was interested. HarperCollins, however, has a company rule that she can only take manuscripts from literary agents, not from the unwashed, unpleasant writers who write them. (I added those adjectives, she didn’t spell that part out.)

So, if I can find an agent, the editor is waiting. Now when I send 50 pages to the agent, I will tell her that an editor already wants to see this novel. Will that be a magic charm and make it happen? I don’t know. Maybe I should have brought one of those wands from the Harry Potter people.

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Line My Room With Velvet

View from new apartment

My new view

What conditions does a writer need to write? In 1929, Virginia Woolf famously wrote that for women to write fiction, one of the requirements was “a room of one’s own”. Of course she was referring specifically to the impediments women faced as writers, since a lot of men in those days (like now) were insecure and stupid, and they tried to make their small lives seem bigger by dominating women.

If we stand back and take a wide view, we see that Virginia Woolf’s implied condition, of having a space to write, is true for any writer. Her “room” also implies something more, a space where a person can work in peace, undisturbed (which is why it is one’s “own” room). Even without a dedicated room, a writer must at least have a space, as writing requires notes, papers, shrunken heads, wine bottles, etc., in addition to working in peace. If you are writing at the kitchen table and must clear it all up for meals, you are much impeded.

The writer Marcel Proust lined his writing room with cork, to keep it quiet enough that he could write in peace. Writers who could afford it have created spaces that sound good just to hear about them, with views of mountains (Steven King), gardens (Edith Wharton), the ocean (Ian Fleming), or a city skyline (Norman Mailer).

Nice if you can get it, but you do what you can. When I was in my early 20s, facing a wall on one side of our small bedroom, I built myself a barely functional desk out of 2X4 boards that I cut up and nailed together. I know I must have found those boards, because I certainly didn’t have enough money to buy them. Now I have a cheap desk, but it’s real, with a flat surface, and it faces windows with a view of trees and nature.

This past Saturday, I moved to a new apartment. I could say I moved to avoid the brainfuck shrieking horror of Atlanta traffic, and indeed I am on my knees offering frankincense in gratitude for being out of it. However, the real reason I first thought of moving was because I was frustrated from lack of time to write, and yet I sat for hours every week in long lines of cars, idiotically throwing my life away.

You probably know from experience how the eyes sparkle and the soul sings just from the thought of moving. But I think this new apartment will be well worth the months of effort and planning, the money spent, and the much higher rent that I now have to pay every month. In deciding where to live, I chose a place across the street from my job, so now I walk to work in less than 10 minutes. I’ve estimated, conservatively, that compared to my old commute, I’ll gain at least another 20 hours per month of free time.

I’m thrilled with this act of chronological magic, but having “enough” time to write is relative. Over the years, I’ve known people to talk about how they were going to write when they could, but they were waiting until they really had time. If you’re waiting until you have time to write, then you’re probably not a serious writer, and maybe you aren’t going to write at all. The world will never give you time to write, so that’s the end of that. If you’re compelled to write, you have to take the time. This means that writers can be selfish about their time and can seem self-absorbed. I have been, and I don’t remember that bad behavior gladly, but it’s true.

In addition to a writing space and time, every writer will also have various requirements that allow them to work—maybe long stretches of uninterrupted time, maybe a state of calm and tranquility, maybe a mind clear of the details of the day (so that early in the morning might be better), maybe certain kinds of inspiration, or maybe a feeling of affirmation from other people that what the writer is doing is worthwhile.

When I was teaching, I would sometimes read things telling students what conditions they needed to write, “Sit quietly to gather your thoughts, blah blah blah.” In fact, every writer has to find their own conditions, and I would try to teach my students that. Some writers need a bottle of whiskey and a Def Leppard CD cranked up to 11. Others need a cork-lined room.

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Stars Fell on Georgia

Me at the Highland InnThis past Sunday we had the book release party for the short story collection I’d Tear Down the Stars. When I was thinking about the evening, I admit I did not approach it gleefully. And I always tell the truth, but you know that. Somehow the idea of being such a focus of attention kind made me uneasy.

Unless my memory grows weak (ha! what is the chance of that?) when I was younger, I think I was shy, or at least reticent with public display. No, I’m sure I was shy. I believe I still am, at least partly. Given an option to stand in the glare on a stage or sit in a coffee shop with a book and watch people, I’d like a cup of coffee.

And yet . . .

And yet, if you saw me on the stage, you’d never suspect I felt that way. I look like I’m loving it, thriving up there, and in some ways, in spite of what I just said, I probably am. I’m totally comfortable in front of a crowd. I could talk at the UN. I wouldn’t care. I had a long apprenticeship of standing in front of people talking, from 20 years blabbing away as a college professor. I know how to get the room’s attention, I know what to do with it, and when I read, I read well. That can be a useful skill for a writer.

The book release party started out slow, with not many people present, certainly not the large masses of people I had expected, literary afficianados chanting my name and waving ten-dollar bills to get in the door. I don’t know why that didn’t happen. Maybe because parking was difficult around there. Folks came in gradually, and I was really grateful for every person who showed up. After all, they didn’t have to come, did they? I had a number of friends attend, and I was particularly touched by two friends who drove four hours down from North Carolina.

We began the event with the four writers on the stage, drawing names out of my hat for order of reading, and I read last. Each of us read twice, with a break in the middle for people to . . . I don’t know what they were doing. I was talking to people and was asked to sign a few books.

As to the three writers who were kind enough to come and read with me, I was glad to hear them, and I was pleased to hear some clever, interesting writing. As I considered the writers to be my guests, I covered their bar tab, given that we had a bar in our venue. At the end of the evening, I was a little surprised that the tab was more than I expected, at $79, but you know—writers.

No doubt when you buy a copy of I’d Tear Down the Stars, you’ll be curious to know which stories I read during the world premier of the book. I started with “A Sharp Knife for Cutting Limes” (written as an attempt to try something dark and sharp), then I read an excerpt from the middle of “A Night at the Carnival” (a story that began as a description of someone I knew, who seemed to stumble from one problem to another, though that’s not what the story ended up being about), and I finished with a third reading, the title story of the book (which was told to me as an astonishing true story, but I changed the specific details).

The purpose of this book release was obviously for publicity and marketing. The reporter from The New York Times never showed up, probably that parking thing again. The main benefits I saw from doing this were (1) giving my book to people who came, so I put the book in people’s hands, and maybe they’ll read it, and isn’t that the whole point? (2) I slightly got to know the other writers, which can be good, and (3) there was, in general, the publicity of simply having the event. I’m estimating, since I haven’t counted, that we may have given out as many as 40 books.

I was talking to a friend later about the book release, and I compared it to a band just getting started who play in small bars. I think in terms of such a process, that you do what you can, take what publicity you can get, and keep trying. Maybe over time, you build up to something bigger, but mainly, you don’t stop, and you do an honest job at each place you go, even if it’s small.

And above all, you keep writing. I’ll be doing that.

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