Friday, September 16, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 10


Asking, “What is my novel about?” is a little like asking, “What makes my life worth living?”  The possibility that the answer might be, “Nothing much,” is so devastating that it often seems easier to avoid the question.  But contrarywise, the possibility that the answer might be something really, really important, something that you’ve known all along but never quite articulated, something that will clarify the meaning of past choices and make future choices easier, means that asking it is essential.

The other day, I mentioned to a friend from college that our old playwriting teacher made a few cameo appearances in this essay. 

“I’ve told you my story about him, right?” my friend asked.  “One day I was in the drama office when he walked in.  This girl was sitting at the table writing in a notebook.  He took a look around the place, and then said, to no one in particular, ‘He’s writing his will.’  Then he walked out.”

“He’s writing his will.”  Pronoun confusion aside, what a weird, dark thing to assume.  And yet, when any of us write, what else are we doing but that, really?  We’re imposing our will, our purposes and intentions, on language.  We’re leaving behind a document that, ideally, is going to survive us after death and bequeath something of value to others.  Why undertake such a thing at all if we’re going to do it fearfully, half-assedly, without conviction, without knowing what it’s meant to be?  We don't have infinite chances to communicate something of value.  We have to make our writing matter.

Eventually, whether we like it or not, all of our words will be set in stone.

I’m still not completely sure what my novel is about (or, for that matter, what really makes my life worth living).  But I do believe that it’s worthwhile to keep asking the question, persistently, seriously, on every day and on every page.  It’s at least worth trying to answer, because if I don’t, who will?  I know more about my own work than anyone else – and on top of that, I care more, too.  It’s up to me to get it right.

back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch?? AND literary rebellions & literary excuse-making AND thinking about answers AND making connections AND victims vs. passive characters AND "finding your voice" AND reading down in the trenches of the workshop AND book reports

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 9

Book Reports

If you’re submitting your manuscript for publication and don’t want to answer the question, “What is my book about?” I have good news for you: someone else will.  And even better, that person will most likely be a disgruntled, underpaid editorial assistant, or an intern doing the job out of the goodness of her own heart (and oh yeah, inexperience and career desperation), or – as in the case of a nationally distributed literary journal where I once spent some time – the high school aged child of a well-known writer, who doesn’t care to think up explanations for what he doesn’t like about your work, because “it’s just obvious.”

 Just hope it's not his judgment you're depending on.

My point is, some of the people reading your work will be idiots, idiots with power they do not deserve, respect, or fully understand.  There is nothing you can do about this.  Others will merely be tired, impatient, and/or chronically depressed.  These are the folks in whom to place your hopes.

I hope I’m not an idiot.  But I am tired, impatient, and/or chronically depressed.  And although I try to approach every manuscript (published or un-) I read with an open mind, I can tell you right now, reading bad or even just mediocre fiction makes me angry.  It makes me angry because, as William Shatner once told me via my ear buds, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re gonna die.”  When I read bad fiction, I am aware of the seconds passing, the slow internal decay of my guts, the dulling of my once sharp mind as I read sentences like, “Throwing womanly curves left and right, he realized she was a lady few could resist.”  When I am reading bad fiction for fun, I can assuage my anger at these moments by hurling the book to the floor and going off in search of immediate sources of pleasure, like a walk around the block or an entire keg of Troegenator, thereby restoring my faith that the world does yet have things of value to offer.  But if I have to read bad fiction for work, my only means of restoring equilibrium is to write a reader’s report.

A reader’s report is exactly what it sounds like: a report, usually written but sometimes oral, summarizing and evaluating a manuscript that’s under submission at a literary agency or publishing house.  Some editors and agents take a look at everything under consideration themselves – and kudos to them – but the vast majority rely on these reports to determine if it’s even worth cracking open the document the author sent.  The reader’s report represents an argument, pro or con, for doing so.  And the tenor of that argument will be informed by how angry the reader in question has become, how much of his life he feels you’ve wasted.

When I’m in this position, reading beautiful prose without finding formal coherence beneath it is the equivalent of listening to really rockin’ hold music: sure, that sounds great, but you’re still wasting my time.  Although I’ll be significantly less angry if a book at least tries to do things at the sentence level to keep me interested, my reader’s report will still primarily address not the novel’s texture and intricacies but its bones.  Is there a story here?  Do things that happen have consequences?  Do parts of it drag, and if so, could these draggy parts be excised?  What, at bottom, is the novel about?  Because the fact is, no matter how much I like a novel’s premise or style, and no matter how much time I’m willing to devote to helping the author edit, I cannot install an underlying structure that isn’t there.

The finality of this judgment – the idea that, at the end of all the years of hard work, writing, researching, rewriting, and doubting, a total stranger can read your novel and say, “Sorry” – is terrifying.  It’s so scary, in fact, that writers go to incredible lengths to avoid thinking about it.  And one of the ways they avoid thinking about it is by refusing to ask themselves the questions that, on some level, they must realize these strangers will ask right off the bat – questions like, “What’s the big idea?” 

 next up... write what you will
OR... back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch?? AND literary rebellions & literary excuse-making AND thinking about answers AND making connections AND victims vs. passive characters AND "finding your voice" AND reading down in the trenches of the workshop

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 8

In the Trenches

In a haunting scene midway through The Silver Chair, the fourth book published in the Chronicles of Narnia series, three adventurers search the ruins of a giants’ city for a fabled stone carving that is supposed to instruct them on what to do next.  C.S. Lewis writes, “In order to understand what followed, you must keep on remembering how little they could see.”  In the face of blowing snow, one of the human children, Jill, falls into a deep trench, or “sunken lane,” with vertical stone walls rising up on either side.  She begins exploring, but discovers that after a couple of sharply angled turns it comes to a dead end, and she climbs back out.  There are several other similar crevasses or grooves on “The Hill of the Strange Trenches,” as Lewis refers to it, but they all appear to lead nowhere.  It’s only later that the adventurers look back at the landscape they’ve just traveled and realize that the trenches are in fact the stone carving they sought – they’re actually massive letters engraved into the city’s foundation.

 Yeah, okay, I know.

The Narnia books may be creepy propagandistic screeds, but images like "The Hill of the Strange Trenches" are the reason that I can never fully exorcise them from my defiant, sinful mind.  And, in addition to being fantastically imaginative and unforgettable, this particular image has the added bonus of doubling, for me, as a great visual metaphor for the contrast between reading a work-in-progress piecemeal and reading a completed manuscript or published book.  When I read pages or even chapters from an unfinished novel, I am down in the trenches, noticing the sharp angles, wondering if the path is leading anywhere.  When I read a finished book, I am looking at the whole hill, and the message is either spelled out there, or it isn’t.

Let me break this down.  In a traditional creative writing class, a novel of 300 pages takes 10 weeks to workshop with submissions of 30 pages at a time.  That’s if the writer gets to submit every week, which in my experience is rare.  It’s more likely that writers will submit, say, every other week, which means we’re looking at 20 weeks – five months.  Five months of readers’ patient, thoughtful attention to detail.  Five months of limitless opportunities to forget what was set up on page 2.

It’s obvious to me that this is an artificially slow pace of reading, imposed not by the necessities of the work but by the necessities of the classroom.  When reading for pleasure, it does not take five months to get through a short novel.  (It takes me maybe four days; I’d estimate that even more methodical readers don’t need much longer than a couple weeks.)

But the problem isn’t just that the pace is artificial.  Reading a novel on this schedule also mimics and reinforces the writer’s own myopic experience of the work.  A comma can loom in bizarre significance, while the dramatic events of two chapters ago can fade like the memory of a dream.  Foreshadowing becomes meaningless when you don’t reach its object within that week’s span of pages.  This leads to a strange state of affairs, in which, amid an array of contradictory recommendations to the author, many of which seem to miss the point, the one constant is this: “Keep exploring.”  Encouragement isn’t a bad thing, despite what Flannery O’Connor might say about it.  Many writers, myself included, need encouragement while penning a first draft.  But the encouragement given by instructors and peers in a writing workshop should never be confused with serious, comprehensive criticism.

The pace at which literary agents, editors, and paid book reviewers read is an artificial pace, too: a pace imposed by the necessities of business.  This pace is to read the entire work as quickly as possible – in the span of a day or, at most, a weekend.  This is not a weekend spent devoted to patient, thoughtful attention to detail.  This is a weekend spent building a case: for or against. up: book reports
OR... back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch?? AND literary rebellions & literary excuse-making AND thinking about answers AND making connections AND victims vs. passive characters AND "finding your voice"

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 7


I’m about to circle back around to the questions I started this essay with, about queries, pitches, and the strange difference between how writers see their work and how that same work is viewed by readers, particularly the specialized readers working in publishing.  But first, I feel like I need to make one more digression, this time about that thing of which all fiction is made: language.

I find it tougher to generalize about language than the other elements of dynamic storytelling I’ve written about so far.  But a terrific essay by J. T. Bushnell in the current issue of Poets & Writers (titled, somewhat misleadingly, “The Unreliable Narrator”), got me thinking about one aspect of it: that nebulous and perplexing thing we call “voice.”  
 One thing's for sure: you don't want to sound wooden.  (Thank you, folks, I'll be here all week.)

In the piece, Bushnell first wrangles with pinning down a definition: “What is voice, exactly, and where does it come from?  Most craft books and teachers say the same thing as the agents: It’s how the writing sounds, what words are chosen, how sentences are arranged.”  But for Bushnell, this doesn’t get to the bottom of the matter.  In a sharp bit of prose, he adeptly imitates the word choice and sentence arrangements of Holden Caulfield to prove that, in fact, these verbal tics alone do not a voice make:

“I think you’ll agree… that it can’t be Holden Caulfield if the narrator is explaining his fondness for school fund-raising: ‘Boy, I loved working with old Dempsey.  What he’d do, he’d dress you in some lousy tuxedo and send you to the phoniest bastards at the concert, right up to their Cadillacs, and have you shoot the old bull as they came inside.  When they took their seats you sort of asked for some money.  It made me happy as hell to do it.  It really did.’”

The issue, Bushnell points out, is that, although this paragraph bears a superficial resemblance to Holden Caulfield’s voice, it’s about something entirely different – and that matters.  In The Catcher in the Rye, “Caulfield is obviously lonely and depressed… but he maintains his cool, casual attitude, and the disparity is what makes his voice ring.”  In the imitation, Caulfield is a self-satisfied asshat.  Though bringing up Caulfield’s “loneliness,” “confusion,” and “longing” may seem to digress from the question of voice, delving instead into “content issues, such as characterization, point of view, even theme,” it actually speaks to the heart of the matter, since these underlying forces are what in fact give his words their urgency and power. 

To frame Bushnell’s idea in the larger context of this essay, voice – like most everything else in a novel – needs to reflect the central goal/obstacle relationships that drive the story.  It needs to matter, to connect, in order to succeed in holding the reader’s attention.

Moreover, once deep-rooted connections to the central goal/obstacle relationships are in place, voice becomes easier to master.  It’s no longer something that you as the author have to generate in a panic, out of thin air.  Since the character (or close third-person narrator) has reasons for seeing the world a certain way, keeping the voice consistent is a fairly straightforward task, a question of examining those reasons, of asking, “Would the character say, think, or feel this?  Why or why not?”  As Bushnell puts it: “Understanding my characters’ secrets, illusions, and pretenses lets me see clearly how they’ll act, what they’ll say, how the action of the story challenges them.  And once I have this clarity of vision, the words and sentence structures come naturally, without thought.”

Monday, September 12, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 6


Passive characters don’t get much love in the creative writing classroom.  Yet passive characters number among some of the strangest and most memorable in classic stories: just think of Hamlet (“To be or not to be”), Bartleby (“I prefer not to”), and Fanny Price (“Don’t fucking touch me”).  So what gives?

The problem is that passive characters have been conflated with victims.  Victims are characters whose problems have absolutely nothing to do with who they are.  A victim is someone who is mowing his lawn when a giant radioactive pterodactyl from outer space takes a dump on his head.  There is no way he could have prepared for that contingency.  There is no way he could have prevented it.  And there’s no reason that it happened to him rather than to his next door neighbor.


It’s fine to open a story with the character as victim.  A lot of revenge narratives start out this way, for example, with a person getting cheated, raped, or seeing a loved one murdered, often for no real reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But this is actually only the preamble to the real story, which begins when the victimized individual responds to the event by taking some kind of action.  The trouble with victims comes when they stay victims – when, to misquote Chumbawumba, they get knocked down but don’t get up again.  Watching someone lie motionless under a pile of glowing pterodactyl excrement is only entertaining for the first couple of minutes.  Then it gets dull fast.

Passive characters, on the other hand, are characters whose inability or unwillingness to act brings about dramatic consequences.  Hamlet’s tortured indecision about whether or not to avenge his father doesn’t bring the story to a halt; to the contrary, it has disastrous repercussions for almost every character in the play, which could have been avoided if he just accused Claudius and they duked it out.  Bartleby’s refusal to do his work, and later, even to eat, torments his boss and ends up taking Bartleby’s life, permanently removing him from a bleak world of brick walls and dead letters.  Fanny Price’s abstinence from the drama ( both theatrical and romantic) surrounding her and her rejection of a marriage proposal in fact craftily position her to get everything she thinks she wants.

Just like action, passivity needs to matter.  It needs to present an obstacle to achieving or a means of attaining a goal.  It needs to connect with what the story is about. up: voice
OR... back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch?? AND literary rebellions & literary excuse-making AND thinking about answers AND making connections

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 5


Looking back over the previous sections of this essay, and then at the ruinous wasteland of the novel I’m currently attempting to write, I feel I should clarify something.  I don’t think it’s necessary, or for many writers, even possible to answer the question, “What is my novel about?” fully from the get-go.  It’s also likely that any definitive answer to that question will, in the course of writing the book, change beyond recognition.  What I do think is necessary, though, is engaging with the question from the beginning and then constantly thereafter. 

A good way of approaching this is to look for connections.

When I’m writing, I often find myself stressed out at the prospect of having to come up with new ideas.  Character motivations can be particularly difficult.  I’ll have a character do something that feels necessary for the story, but I won’t know why he does it, or how he feels about what he’s doing.  At those moments, I often convince myself it’s necessary to invent an elaborate explanation: I’ll give the character a convoluted interior monologue explaining his philosophy or politics or a heretofore unmentioned earlier backstory that somehow justifies his actions in the present day.  These passages are not fun to write, because they involve creating out of formal necessity, not out of inspiration, and they usually feature (in my own work and the work of others) the highest density of clich├ęs and the lowest level of clarity in the prose.  For these reasons, they’re also not much fun to read.  But more importantly, they fail at what they’re meant to do, which is to make the reader believe the character would act this way.

Allow me to provide an example from fiction’s younger and more glamorous sibling, the screenplay.  A moment like this occurs in the movie Juno, when the title character has a change of heart at the abortion clinic.  Juno, who we’ve so far been lead to believe is a spunky, independent, irritating, and fairly intelligent teenager living in the contemporary United States, has knowingly scheduled an appointment for a procedure that anyone with a television and eyes knows is highly controversial.  Abortion rhetoric on both sides of the issue is in fact so numbingly overfamiliar that it seems doubtful anyone could be unacquainted with it, even the Amish, much less the kind of smart-aleck who rattles off pop culture references at such a clip it’s like she’s composing a Barenaked Ladies song in ordinary conversation.  Yet screenwriter Diablo Cody appears to have gotten her as far as the clinic and gotten stuck.  Juno needs to stay pregnant for the story to proceed, but why?  To answer this, Cody went through the process I describe above and invented an elaborate explanation: the poorly articulated and entirely unoriginal arguments offered by a protester outside suddenly, inexplicably convince Juno, as if she’s never heard them before, and she flees.

What could have Cody done differently?  I would argue that, instead of inventing something, she could have looked at what was already present in the rest of the story and tried to find connections.  To me, the answer is obvious: Juno loves the guy who impregnated her – though she hasn’t yet admitted it – has a high opinion of herself, and believes their combined genetics will produce a great kid, one that could bring joy to the lives of others, including adoptive parents.  (It’s right there in the screenplay: she even looks at an ultrasound of the fetus later in the film and enthuses over its resemblance to the father.)  If, for example, Juno’s annoying friend said something like, “It’s too bad, though – you and the worst actor from Arrested Development would’ve made a super cute baby,” and Juno pondered this, then decided to leave, it would make sense with her character and resonate with the rest of the plot.  Bringing politics into the situation isn’t just unbelievable; it actively distracts from what the story is about, because it isn’t connected to anything else.

 Of course I don't mean you, Tobias.

My point is that, while writing, it’s often not necessary to invent anything new; you’re better off using (or re-using) what you already have whenever possible.  Oddly, this can actually be easier, too, because you don’t have to make things up out of desperation.  And it’s particularly important when it comes to characters, their goals, and the obstacles to those goals.  If you want us to care what happens to someone, then that person should have internal coherence: the way he acts should be organically connected to what we already understand about what he wants and how he sees the world.  And complications that arise should arise naturally, at least partly as a consequence of those actions; they just shouldn’t drop out of the sky from an authorial hand.  More on that in the next post. up:  victims vs. passive characters

Friday, September 9, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 4


Last night I saw my old playwriting teacher in a dream. He stood on a plinth in the midst of a desert of white sand as panelists from AWP crept past him on their hands and knees. Some of these he allowed to pass; others he incinerated with a single glance, sizzling them where they lay with blue-white thunderbolts from his eyes.

“Professor,” I called to him, “I believe I’m beginning to understand. Story is about a character encountering obstacles on the way toward a goal. Isn’t it?”

He did not reply. In the distance, I saw a great sleuth of bears roaming over the dunes toward the handful of panelists who had survived.

 Oh shit.

When I say the writer must answer the question, “What is this book about?” what do I mean, and how do I expect him to do it? I certainly don’t consider it easy. If telling stories were easy, my copies of Poets & Writers wouldn’t be all tearstained and covered with rings from the bottoms of pint glasses. But I do think there are certain things to look for, and certain danger signs to avoid.

A good way to start is to think about goals and obstacles for a character. Because I am obsessed with clowns, let’s start there. Most clown routines are predicated on a goal/obstacle relationship. Take this scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus:

Chaplin’s goal in the scene is to get from one end of the tightrope to the other (to impress a girl, but that’s not important for our purposes here). His obstacle? Monkeys. Monkeys who pull down his pants. Chaplin manages to get past the obstacle to his goal; he also could have definitively failed by falling off the tightrope or being rescued by someone else. But either way, there’s a clear source of tension, because we know what’s at stake, and there’s a natural point at which that tension is resolved. 

Many writers understand this goal/obstacle relationship when it comes to short stories, but somehow, the novel seems like a different thing entirely. In the early stages of composition, a novel can feel like an endless expanse, the bottomless void of outer space in which even the most basic natural laws no longer apply. I get this. Part of what’s exhilarating for me about writing book-length fiction is the initial feeling that I’ll never run out: of new facets in my characters, of new places in the book’s world to discover, of thematic material, which seems to glimmer self-evidently everywhere I turn my authorial gaze. 

Whittling all this down to a handful of central goal/obstacle relationships seems about as impossible and pointless as carving a redwood down to a toothpick. Yet when I look at fiction that succeeds in holding my attention, I find almost invariably that this is what the writer has sneakily managed to do. 

Consider Jonathan Franzen’s overreaching doorstop FREEDOM. By rights, this novel should suck the big one. It’s chock full of sentimentality, intellectually lazy politics, and incompetently managed narration (Franzen, just admit that Patty did not write that section, you goddamn liar). Yet Franzen makes it work through the oldest trick there is: thwarted romance. Everybody in this book wants somebody else in the book, and in every case, there is a major obstacle in the way of the relationship working out. Lalitha wants her boss Walter, who loves his wife Patty, who wants to bone his best friend Richard, who is Not Good Relationship Material. Meanwhile, Walter and Patty’s son Joey wants to have hot meaningless sex with conservative coeds but he’s hindered by his abiding love for Connie, his girl back home. 

These characters have goals as obvious as the straight line a tightrope makes above the rings of a circus, and though some of their obstacles come from internal sources (guilt, being a douchebag), they’re not a hell of a lot more complicated than those adorable cheeky monkeys. It’s this very simplicity that makes the book a page turner in spite of itself. Because we know what each character is after, we know when to say, “Oh no!” or “Whew, close one!”

I’m using the words “goal/obstacle relationship” rather than “conflict,” because I think that the word “conflict,” especially when applied to character’s internal thought processes, has been corrupted to the point of total meaninglessness. In common parlance, a character can be “conflicted” about just about anything – his identity, his relationship to his family or heritage, his past life choices. But this “conflict” does not relate to story unless it poses an obstacle to action in the novel’s present day – unless it gets in the way.

Kazuo Ishiguro is the king of this particular goal/obstacle relationship. His characters’ obstacles are almost always* psychological, of their own making, but daunting and impassable just the same. The obstacle in the way of an Ishiguro character’s true goal is usually a kind of competing goal, a desire to fulfill a duty. The butler can’t allow himself to experience love because he believes being a butler should always come first. The clones can’t run away and find happiness because they believe they should do what they’re “supposed to” and give up their internal organs. The detective can’t be with his lady until he finds out what became of his parents.

However, the form this kind of story often takes in lesser hands is something along the lines of “…and it fucks him up.” As in, “This character was abused as a child, and it fucks him up.” Or, “This character always wonders what happened to his murdered sister, and it fucks him up.” The particular “conflict” doesn’t specifically obstruct the present action, mentally tying the character’s hands and preventing him from reaching a goal. Instead, it makes the character sad :-(

Let me just say this once, writers of America. SAD CHARACTERS ARE NOT DRAMA. up: making connections

*This is even arguably the case in his masterpiece The Unconsoled, but here the psychological obstacles are literalized into the dreamscape the narrator navigates throughout.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 3


In the literary world, we often talk about writers who “break all the rules.” Obviously, this is hyperbole. If a writer broke all the rules, his book would be incomprehensible. But there are occasions when a book ignores one or more of the major foundational elements upon which most fiction rests. Not every work of fiction has incident or meaningfully developed characters, for example. The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker is a novel where nothing happens: a man rides an escalator and thinks about shoelaces, popcorn, doorknobs, and CVS bags, among other things. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino consists of descriptions of fifty-five fantastical metropolises, loosely linked together by passages relating a meandering conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Letters to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth is an entire book of bizarre comment cards written to the eponymous fast-food restaurant. All three of these books – and there are plenty of others like them – succeed not in spite of but because of the way they throw off convention. They make major defining decisions and stick with them: they entirely exclude certain strategies and devices from the work’s purview and do something else instead. 

In my work at three literary agencies, I have encountered only a handful of submissions that attempted to do something comparable to the above-mentioned titles. The vast majority of fiction manuscripts are not trying to “break all the rules,” or even any of the major ones. These books have incident and character development, scenes and dialogue and descriptions. These are the types of books I’m going to discuss.

Here’s a common scenario. A writer turns in a novel. In it, a woman’s husband gets kidnapped. As she waits for news from the detectives on the case, she remembers their long marriage and problems they’ve overcome as a couple – at one point, she had an affair, but he forgave her. Meanwhile, the daughter, distraught about her father, acts out with friends, experimenting with drugs and losing her virginity. Then we have a couple of scenes thrown in showing the husband in an underground cell. In the end, the detectives manage to track down the kidnappers, who turn out to be religious extremists, and they return the husband to his family.


From the writer’s point of view, this is highly commercial material. It’s got it all: kidnapping, adultery, teenage drug culture, and ripped-from-the-headlines nutso fundamentalism. And let’s just say that on top of that, it’s “beautifully written,” meaning the author’s word choices are strikingly original and the close third person feels appropriate to each character. “Wow,” thinks the writer, “I have hit this motherfucker out of the park.” What could possibly be the problem?

The problem, of course, is that nothing connects. In the present day of the novel, neither the woman nor her husband take any actions with consequences – they sit in rooms and think. The daughter’s actions may have the consequence of disillusioning her, but they have no bearing on the main arc of the novel or on anyone else. And there’s no connection between earlier events in the characters’ lives (like the wife’s affair) and their present situation (the kidnapping). One thing may follow another, but one thing doesn’t cause another. It may have characters, settings, and scenes, but it isn’t a story.

However, here’s another likely scenario: when an agent (or editor, or critique partner) points this out to the writer, the writer’s response is often to say, “But I don’t want this to follow a traditional narrative arc. I’m trying to do something innovative, something that breaks all the rules.”

What is going on here? For me, and I suspect, for a lot of writers, fiction is particularly appealing because it allows us to inhabit a place where the rules of everyday life don’t apply. The idea that our fiction is in some way “traditional,” “conventional,” and thus beholden to certain “constraints,” immediately presses a button in the brain marked REBEL. This REBEL button shut down my brain when teachers asked me to sketch a story in one or two sentences, both in early college and later in graduate school; this REBEL button may have something to do with the odd way so many writers (perhaps most famously Lorrie Moore) boast of their allergy to plot. Yet this rebellion is a half-assed, timid, meaningless one. If authors like Russell Edson or David Markson are aesthetic bohemians, wandering the land restlessly, rootlessly, and sleeping in tents of thin silk upon the rocky soil, then their faux-rebellious counterparts (my less enlightened self very much included) are assholes in midlife crisis who want to have it both ways: they take off for a week, ignoring their kids and cheating on their spouses, then expect to return home to central air and the welcoming embrace of a Sealy Posturepedic as though nothing ever happened. They want the comforts of drama, its familiar satisfactions, but they don’t want to do the work of setting it up.

It’s also difficult to look at a document of 300+ pages of meticulously constructed sentences and say, “I need to tear this down and build something entirely new with the scraps.” Yet this is basically what’s necessary in a case like the one I described. And that’s why I began this series by advocating that writers ask, “What is this book about?” in the very first stages, not at the end, where for all but the humblest and most persistent it’s really just too late. up: how to start thinking about maybe beginning to consider answering these questions
OR... back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch??

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 2


I took a playwriting class in college, which I did not understand at the time.  Our professor was a towering figure, nine feet tall and carved from granite, with glaciers for eyes and rough leather catcher’s mitts for hands.  I also seem to recall him breathing fire and talking to God on the telephone, but perhaps I’m confusing him with someone from the English department.  With a few rare exceptions, he spoke only in riddles.  Despite all this, one of the first exercises he had us do for the course seemed almost laughably simple: he told us to write a story in one or two sentences and read it out loud to the class.

Yet it wasn’t so simple after all.  Again and again, as we went around the room, he informed us that the words we’d read were not, in fact, stories.  They were characters, or settings, or descriptions, but they were not stories.  I became frustrated and confused.  It seemed impossible to me to tell a story in one or two sentences.  I did not know what he wanted.

Years passed.  I graduated from college.  I legally drank alcohol out of a flaming dish shaped like a volcano.  I moved to a big city.  I bought a futon and dragged a coffee table into my apartment from the street.  A tiny dog appeared on the floor of my kitchen, yappily demanding things.  I did not get any smarter. 

So many rites of passage.

And then, one day when I was in MFA Skool at Columbia University, the administrators of the program announced an upcoming event: the agents’ party.  Combining the most terrifying aspects of a job interview and speed-dating, the event threw a dozen or so agents into a room crowded with an enormous herd of sweaty, overdressed would-be authors in various degrees of inebriation.  The cacophony that then filled the place to the ceiling may have sounded like the death bleats of learned goats in an abattoir, but it was in fact the sound of those authors, myself included, attempting to “pitch” their books in one or two sentences.  Our volume in delivering these “pitches” was only matched by the disdain with which we set about the task of composing them. 

For me, at least, such crass salesmanship seemed fundamentally at odds with the work I was doing in the program.  In workshop, we read each others’ novels in chunks of no more than thirty pages at a time.  These pages gave us plenty to talk about, and talk we did: about the need to dramatize a moment in scene vs. describe it in summary, the appropriateness of a metaphor, the tangibility of a setting.  Sometimes a person’s comments would veer toward the larger structure of the novel: “Where is this story going?” someone would cry, as if waking from a dream to discover the landscape outside the windows had changed.  But these questions, being unanswerable, largely went unanswered.  These books weren’t even finished yet; it was far too early to ask what they were about.  That was a question for readers, scholars and critics especially.

Before we met with the agents, we attended a mandatory prep session, where a faculty member gave us a crash course in the art of the pitch.  My memories of these instructions are hazy, but the gist was that a pitch was supposed to be a couple of sentences, tops, and yet somehow encapsulate the whole whirring carnival in which I’d installed the better parts of my soul.  It was, in fact, virtually the same exercise from that long-ago playwriting class, only this time, instead of inventing a story, I was meant to explain one already in progress.  It might have crossed my mind that the task should seem less puzzling to me by now, that perhaps my befuddlement indicated a lingering gap somewhere in my knowledge, but I did my best to ignore these thoughts.  Instead, I called bullshit, decried “selling out,” and told my significant other that I planned to start my conversations with agents by saying, “I’m obsessed with clowns” (a worthy profession of which my protagonist numbered).  He gently suggested I might want to try harder to appeal to the “clown neutral” reader, and I grudgingly set about cobbling together a less off-putting introduction to myself and my life’s work.
I still say that if you find this guy "scary," you're out of your freakin' mind.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that asking a writer to convey, in words, what her book was “about” might in fact be a perfectly reasonable question.  It didn’t occur to me that, perhaps, it was important for the writer to know the answer to this question herself.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - Intro & pt. 1

This is an essay in ten (short) parts, in which I investigate what makes the parts of a novel cohere into a meaningful whole.  Although I’m using it to inaugurate what I hope will be a regular series of advice posts for emerging writers, this isn’t so much advice as it is an attempt to map out the landscape of my own thinking about a subject that continues to torment, confuse, and fascinate me on a daily basis.


I have worked in publishing – as an intern, an editorial assistant, and even, briefly, as an agent – off and on for the last six years.  And that means I have read some very shitty query letters.  I have read query letters that annoyed me, bored me, creeped me out, confused me, and made me laugh aloud for reasons clearly contrary to the author’s intentions.  I have signed into a briefly neglected email account to find literally hundreds of query letters shimmering in a rainbow of colors and a torrent of fonts; I have read them laser printed, typed on typewriters, and handwritten from prison.  I’ve read query letters from precocious, vampire-obsessed high schoolers who offered classmates’ lukewarm praise as potential blurb fodder, and from retired businessmen eager to imitate the dick-lit espionage thrillers that gave shape and meaning to their decades spent flying business class.  I’ve read query letters for literary novels and diet guides, addiction memoirs and middle-grade chapter books.  I have read the same query letter from the same author more than 100 times, thanks a lot, Oscar Whitfield.  I have sent so many form rejections that some day, I’m sure a very special corner of Writer Hell awaits me: perhaps James Frey will stand over me with a whip while I’m forced to piece together copies of his books from a ball pit full of shredded galleys.  Yet, in spite of all that, or perhaps because of it, I’ve come to what seems like a counterintuitive conclusion on the craft of the query: I think it barely matters at all.

I don’t deny that you can tell a lot from a query.  You can generally discover if the author has published broadly, if the author has attended an MFA program or has an Internet presence, if the author is aware that this is business correspondence and not a PostSecret.  You also generally get a vaguer sense of what the book is about, if it sounds like a flagrantly bad idea, and what other published work it’s consciously imitating.  You find these things out because this is the information a query letter usually contains: it’s the text, not the subtext.  And if some of this information is omitted, you (this being the tricksy, undefined second-person “you,” by which I of course mean, “I”) most often cynically assume it’s being omitted because the author has Something to Hide, or, perhaps more accurately, especially as concerns publication history, Nothing to Hide, because, like a resume, a query letter usually offers up whatever selling points its author can think of.  But there’s no secret Scantron Query Decoder 4000 employed at every literary agency, no hard and fast universal rubric to apply.  A query letter is just that: a letter, sent from one person to another person, who considers, briefly, what the first person has to say.

I say all of this because, of late, I’ve observed a high degree of anxiety concerning the “right” way to prepare a query letter in my immediate circle of literary friends and acquaintances.  Some of this, I think, is due to online resources like the immensely popular QueryShark, who eviscerates letter after letter for minute, seemingly unguessable infractions, like saying you “just” finished a novel, as opposed to, I guess, saying you finished it six months ago and then allowed it to properly marinate in a drawer full of hesitation and self-doubt.  I’ll point out something obvious: agents can be pompous assholes, but there is not a one still roaming the charred wasteland of what used to be American literary culture who would turn down an otherwise appealing prospect for employing the wrong adverb in a fucking query.  “Mistakes” like that are just an excuse for the real reason that queries get rejected, which is that the agent can’t imagine the book therein described ever making money, or even being interesting to read.  And if you’ve already finished working on the book in question, that’s not something you as the writer can do very much about.

Let me make this perfectly clear.  If you ask yourself, “What is my book about?” for the first time when you sit down to write your query letter, you are already royally screwed.  “What is my book about?” is a question that should have occurred to you long, long before, at least during the revision process but probably even earlier, during the composition of your first draft.  And by, “What is my book about?” I don’t mean the premise (which by its very nature is an unavoidable first step) or vague thematic stuff – “loneliness” or “modernity.”  I mean major defining decisions about the book’s structure, and in the case of almost all fiction, its pivotal events, their consequences, and what’s at stake for the characters.

I say this not in a spirit of condescension, but empathy, because it took me ages to start understanding how this works, and it’s still not clear or easy.  But it all boils down to this: you, the writer, must engage the curiosity of potential readers.  You must give them a reason to read your book.  Doing this is not “marketing” your work.  Doing this is the work. 

The right way to answer the question, “What is this book about?” is not to come up with some clever spin long after the fact in the form of a 250 word query letter.  The right way to answer it is to come up with a story and tell that story on every page of your book. up: the "art" of the pitch??