Negotiating Memory

Central to what we must confront as fiction writers is how to navigate the narrative past.

It’s both a logistical consideration as well as an aesthetic one: When we are referencing an event that happened before the ‘now’ of the story, what authorial mechanisms do we use - flashbacks, section or chapter breaks, font changes?

The conventions are well worn, and I’m not certain that there’s a good answer that doesn’t draw attention to itself, which could then result in potentially pulling the reader out of the story. (I’m reminded of Faulkner’s wish that he could have published The Sound and the Fury with different font colors to denote each character’s inner thoughts. We are all better for the fact that Faulkner didn’t get his way.)

This past week, I watched the third season of HBO’s True Detective with much envy - the creative team was able to evoke specific periods of time with consistent use of clothing, hair styles, even the color palette. The actors of course did much of the heavy lifting - their body language, speech, their non-verbals all transmitted which time-frame we viewers were in. (And if you haven’t seen True Detective’s season 3, do yourself the favor of watching it right now.)

Anyway, I’m currently struggling with an effective and creative way to evoke 3 distinct timelines in my WIP, and I find myself using well-known techniques—section and chapter breaks—and at least right now I’m bored with those options. We’ll see where I land after the next round of revisions.

Rules For Writing - Rule #7 - Thou Shalt Create Compassionately

To state the obvious: writers are fallible human beings who bring to their art a unique and special brand of contagious insanity. It’s why as readers we follow certain writers – we fall in love with their foibles, their prejudices, their obsessions. Their brand of crazy becomes our brand of crazy in an intimate symbiosis that can rival a love affair. (And when it goes bad...look out.)

Less obvious: Creative writers are not reporters. In art there is not just reflection but also aspiration, and because of this, writers consciously or unconsciously attempt to accomplish two near-impossible feats at the same time --

Show the world as it is

Show the world as we want it to be

Regardless of genre, a writer has to make aesthetic choices that are inherently ‘real.’ Real to the drama, real to the characters, real to the setting. This doesn’t mean realism—the genre—this means internal realism, realism that follows the conventions of the established narrative, realism that reflects the truth of the characters. A couple arguing about finances at the kitchen sink or a couple arguing about how best to cast the spell of Machaca against the ancient evil known as Booger Man must ring true to the reader or the illusion fails and the reader is lost to us.

Fine. Internal realism is a difficult task, but it’s doable. It makes sense.

More difficult then is how to show the world as we want it to be. This could be setting based—the idyllic farm in a verdant valley—this could be character based—we really want these two characters to end up together—this could be plot-based—we decide not to kill a character who by narrative rights should die. At some juncture what separates the creative writers from the journalists is this. We side-step reality and imagine. We play God.

But this same imaginative aspect that makes creative writing so fabulous is also fraught with complication. Let’s focus on character and say as the author, you’re a vegan, but your work presents you with an unrepentant meat-lover. Or let’s focus on setting and say that you’re a conservative who believes the government has far too much presence in our lives, and you really want to idealize the life on a small farm, but you just can’t ignore how subsidies keep many farms afloat. If you don’t do your job as a writer, the danger is that your personal views will interfere with the work. Fiction will become a political treatise, a personal manifesto. These have their place, but neither is art.

The way into this mess, and the way to make art from it, is through compassion. Not weak, I’m OK you’re OK apologetic acceptance, but the more difficult exercise of finding where in the other person or situation exist our own touch-points, the places where we can connect and understand. We will find not just commonality but also an appreciation and respect for the differences.

Lest you think I’m arguing that authors check their individuality at the doors of their writing rooms, I’m not. Your particular brand of nuttiness will still shine through your works even when you practice compassionate creating. Your voice will still sound throughout. This can’t be helped. But to serve the work, to reflect the world as it is AND as we wish it to be, we have to open ourselves, be willing to learn and to listen, and be ready to take on ideas and concepts that are frightening and foreign to us. 

As in life, so in art.

Rules for Writing - Rule #4 - Thou Shalt Not Use a Douchy Author's Photo

I know.

This has nothing to do with the actual act of writing, nor does an author’s photo correspond to a writer’s facility with language or how superbly s/he might evoke an imaginary world. I suspect that the majority of the terrible author photos floating about the interwebs are not the fault of the writers themselves but of their publicists.

But still. 

In this self-publishing age where writers are increasingly responsible for the promotion of themselves as a ‘brand,’ there’s no excuse for allowing a douchy photo of oneself to make it into the public sphere.

A bad author photo can cause the writer true damage. I still won’t pick up a Sebastian Junger book after having seen his 1990s-era shirtless author photo promoting ‘The Perfect Storm’ – a photo so smug, so rippling with prep-school educated, elitist entitlement that my only reaction was to want to smash his face. Over and over.

(To be fair: My sense is that Junger has transformed in dramatic ways as a writer in the years since because of his war correspondence. My point is that I’ve avoided an author I may well have enjoyed because of his self-aggrandizing author photo. Interesting aside: the photo didn’t appear in my Google search.)

As a rule we don’t necessarily expect our authors to be photogenic (although in some genres—such as Bigfoot Erotica—being photogenic is certainly a plus one). We do, however, expect our author photos to convey a sense that said writers are approachable, compassionate, intelligent. Yes, that’s a difficult balance, but it’s a balance we should all strive for.

This is, after all, the person we readers are inviting into our imaginations to tromp around for pages and pages (for weeks and weeks potentially), and when we take a break from the words and consider the latest theme or plot-twist and we gaze upon to the author’s photo, we don’t want some pretentious douche-bag preening back at us.

A horrible and distracting author photo is the visual equivalent of ‘poetry voice’ – that monotone bah buh bah buh bah buh bah that is as excruciating to listen to at a public reading as it is difficult to vanquish from your ears once you’ve heard it. (MFA students and University writers, pointing at you here.) A bad author photo is daring the reader to read the work despite appearances, as if the author is saying,

“Hey, I got published. I can make you look at whatever photo of me I want you to.”

As readers we owe writers nothing. This isn’t college. We’re not required to read anything. If your author photo is repelling me, I may never come back around and judge your work on its own merits, which is what should happen in an ideal world, but can’t.

I did find some interesting links regarding author photos here and here. Certainly worth considering before deciding on the photo that will grace your mighty labors.


Rules for Writing - Rule #3 - Thou Shall Not Be a Thief (Lying is OK)

 Writing is a complex craft. I shall minimize the vast, laborious and mysterious process of how a work of fiction or non-fiction emerges from the nothingness of the blank page thusly: 

A writer reads. A writer churns out pages of text. A writer researches. A writer churns out pages of text. A writer re-reads. A writer re-writes pages of text. A writer reads... 

In that tidal wash of absorbing and producing, a writer is bound to come up with a plot point, a character, a theme or even a passage that another writer has already written. It happens. And when it happens, the writer adds 'writer weeping' to the above tasks on the 'To Do' list. The honorable writer--of which there are many--recognizes when she has stolen, and she rips out this part of her piece and condemns it to the virtual dustbin.

A writer should never, ever, steal from another writer. Ever.  (And don't quote me T.S. Elliot. Seriously, don't.)

Unfortunately for us all, both the publishing industry and the public enjoy celebrating our thieves and our cheaters. Tell me you don't know these names: Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Jonah Lehrer, James Frey. This (brief) sampling of three journalists and one memoirist have all reaped rewards for their (alleged) fabricating and their (alleged) stealing. 

My personal favorite story, though, is that of Kaavya Viswanathan. She's the Harvard student who submitted a sample of her Young Adult novel as her admissions essay and was rewarded with an agent, publisher, book and movie deal while still a freshman at Harvard. 

Magic, right?

Not really. 

Viswanathan (allegedly) ripped off several authors in her bid to become an accidentally-discovered literary talent. She saved the most blatant (alleged) robbery for Megan McCafferty, an established and popular author of Young Adult literature.

This is heinous and calculated and sad on many levels: Viswanathan was saavy enough to guess that a Harvard admissions counselor is probably not going to be current on her YA lit reading; Viswanathan strategized correctly that if she covered the (allegedly) stolen material with details of her Indian heritage she might blind the admissions counselor and the agent and the publisher to the (allegedly) plagerized material with the sparkles of multiculturalism; and, finally, Viswanathan wagered that any controversy that might surface should she be caught would only result in her becoming more notorious, more famous.

And by golly, she was correct on all fronts. Although her 2-book deal and the planned movie adaptation were cancelled upon the discovery of her (alleged) plagiarism, Viswanathan (of course) went on to graduate from Harvard, land herself one of the coveted spots in a writing workshop taught by Jamaica Kincaid, and matriculate into law school. (As an aside, one can't help but wonder how much Harvard The Institution had to do with this redemption. The hallowed Harvard was as culpable as Viswanathan, after all.)

Plagiarism pays. Thievery translates into fame. The publishing world, rather cynically, knows that it can sell so many more books of the fallen and the shamed than they can of the honorable and the obscure. Stephen Glass, Jonah Lehrer, James Frey have published since the exposure of their fraudulence. And they have--arguably--sold more books because of their infamy.

Yes, I have effectively made the case for robbery. And if your goal as a writer is notoriety, go for it. But for the true writers out there, do the honorable thing and stay away from plagiarizing the works of your fellow authors. It's never OK. Even when Harvard and the publishing industry reward you.



Rules for Writing - Rule #2 - Thou Shalt Write Fiction That Propels

I've finally eluded the curse of the recovering English major: After having my first child, when my personal time dropped to precious increments of minutes rather than entire hours or days, I decided that I don't have to read every piece of fiction I slide in front of my eyes. I can behave like that theoretical reader authors write to, the one who gives writers all of a single sentence to either draw the reader in or push the reader away.

If a piece of fiction doesn't grab me, and grab me quickly, I give up on it. 

Here's today's Rule of Writing Fiction - Thou Shall Write Fiction That Propels Not Repels

Pick your engine: character, plot, description, voice. Of course every work of fiction has healthy doses of all these and more, but one engine will purr and hum as the primary force driving your piece, and for you the writer, recognizing that primary engine will help you to shape the work appropriately.

Character: A common piece of advice is for the author to allow her characters to guide the direction and shape of the story. This isn't exactly wrong, but strict, character-driven pieces can quickly become tedious, especially if they are devoid of a compelling voice or plot. And by all that is righteous and holy if you write a piece solely to highlight what the kids call 'an unreliable narrator' you are forever banished to the Phantom Zone. Here's a secret that's not really a secret: all characters and all narrators are by definition unreliable because they are human incarnations with limited perspectives. Just like all of us. If 'unreliable narrator' is all you've got, you've got nothing. Find some other way to make your characters interesting.

Plot: Literary fiction more than most genres is allergic to plot, and I've never understood why. (It probably explains my attraction to the genre forms and comic books and 'Twilight Zone' episodes - the plot in these works is the thing. And while such an approach has obvious flaws, I'd rather read or watch something that has a plot than something that does not.) Take some time to ask yourself what the ending of the piece should be and how it is you are going to get there. Throw in some interesting twists and curves (your characters, if written well, will assist you in going places you didn't think you were going to go). Don't be afraid to plot. It's going to be OK.

Description: Writing a piece of fiction with the aim of showing off your poetic prowess is an egregious sin. Write a damned poem if that's what you want to do. Fiction needs to be about something, and that something is not pretty words. A well-placed, just right description can make a piece of fiction resonate to transcendent levels, yes, but burdening each and every paragraph with neck-deep adjectives and similes and metaphors bogs down the narrative flow--stalls the engine as it were--and keeps the reader spinning in some eddy when the reader should be flying along the rapids of your narrative. 

 Voice: Voice is the most elusive, mysterious and integral driver within a writer's propulsive devices. How or why some writers have a compelling voice while others do not is one of those wonders that draws us to art in the first place. Is it talent? Skill? Who knows. I don't. But I do know when I read a work that has a compelling voice, because I will follow that writer and his or her story anywhere s/he wants to take me. If you are a writer with a compelling, naturally propulsive voice, you need only sprinkle in character, plot and description to bolster your momentum. I hate to even write this, but I think voice is the one part of writing that can't be taught. It can be acquired through practice and absorption, but no person can teach another how to evoke voice. 

There are, or course, other engines that a writer can use to propel rather than repel his readers. I've only highlighted the few that occur to me during my bleary first cup of coffee. But the overall point and takeaway is that a reader's time is precious, and they do not owe you nor your fiction that precious time and energy unless you give (and give everything) in return. Yes, we writers must serve the work--that is our task--but the work must serve the reader. Without the reader what we do simply doesn't matter.

We owe those readers fiction that moves them.