Notes on Gardner from a “Young” Writer

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The Book

Recently a workshop instructor recommended John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. As fiction writing is still fairly new to me (though I would hardly call myself “young”), I eagerly ordered it. Whereas Stephen King’s On Writing took me a mere few hours over the course of two days to read, this book took me the entire month of February. It felt like a huge accomplishment just to finish it.

The book is structured into two parts: the first with four essay-like chapters on “theory” and the second with three practical chapters: Common Errors, Technique and Plotting.

The Good

First, let’s stipulate that Gardner knows what he’s talking about. He is able to describe particular fiction-writing approaches and clearly articulate why they work or don’t work, while acknowledging that rules don’t always hold: “Whatever works is good.” I learned what I need to consider in writing fiction—some new concepts, some things I might be doing poorly, some opportunities to enhance the impact of my writing. Good stuff.

Without rehashing the whole book, here are a few things that struck me:

  • Gardner laments that works of literature taught in many writing classes are “lesser” works of fiction, often chosen because they demonstrate a certain element of writing (“theme” for example), but frequently are missing good storytelling. This surprised me coming from an academic and, in all honesty, probably made me more open to listening to what he had to say.
  • Gardner emphasizes working on one aspect of writing at a time (e.g., in exercises). He tries to get “young” writers to surprise themselves how well they can do a particular thing, in order to build confidence. While this is certainly isn’t a new concept (practice improves performance—go figure), there was something comforting in the way Gardner allowed the chunking of Writing into manageable pieces.
  • The concept of “psychic distance” was new to me (actually it was mentioned in the class that led me to the book, but still new). Think of a movie camera panning a landscape vs. zooming in for a close-up on the main character. Same idea in writing. Stay further back on less important things, and get closer (inside the character’s head) on more important things. Notice how it changes the pace. I think I understood this intuitively, but Gardner’s description of it helped me realize what’s happening when I get stuck in the slog of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.” Pull back and speed things up.
  • Gardner provides several technique exercises at the end of the book. While I have not done them (yet), I did do one exercise found in the middle of the book. In a nutshell, the idea was to describe a barn from the perspective of a father who had just lost a son in war, but not mention the son or the loss. I was surprised how vivid the description became for me and where my mind took the exercise. Aha!—a new technique to improve my writing (probably in poetry as well as fiction).

The Bad

The biggest complaint I read in reviews of this book is that Gardner is condescending and elitist. Now, I can understand that perception. He is erudite and pedantic. He makes many references that, to me, felt obscure. I like to consider myself fairly well read and well educated, but I would have to do a lot of catch-up reading to follow all his allusions. His prose is dense—a great example of academic writing, but not a style that itself demonstrates how to write fiction. (By contrast, King’s book helped me learn by example, even though he, too, was writing non-fiction.)

But I did not really interpret Gardner’s academic philosophizing as condescending or elitist (at least not in the negative use of the word). My two biggest issues were structure and sexism.

Structure

Structure might seem like an odd complaint. Here’s the thing: This book would be a useful reference book—but it is not designed to be easily referenced! The format of the writing, chapters, and pages does not allow for easy scanning and location of key points.

Perhaps my preference for easily scannable writing is due to my many years of writing in the business world. In that realm, headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists are your friends. I want my eyes to be able to quickly locate the section on “psychic distance.” One might think it is in the “Technique” chapter. Nope. It’s in “Common Errors.” Huh?

The book is also inconsistent in the bare formatting that does exist. The “Technique” chapter does have some subheadings (Vocabulary, The Sentence, etc.), but the “Common Errors” chapter does not.

Poor formatting plus long, academic writing equals a text that demands a lot of work on the reader’s part to find key information.

Sexism

Another common complaint about Gardner’s book, with which I agree, is his sexist language (some say misogynistic—I’m not sure I would go that far). Gardner bemoans the patriarchal nature of English,

Again and again this book speaks of the writer as “he,” though many of the best writers I have read or have taught in writing classes are female.

But then he goes ahead and reinforces the patriarchy by using the masculine pronoun entirely, and using female examples that are cliché bordering on sexist, e.g., strippers, unhappy housewives (really??).

The book was written in 1983, so perhaps a bit of allowance is made for academics who follow “proper” rules of English. But, good grief, even at that point in time language was evolving (using the plural instead of singular to avoid the pronoun gender problem altogether; alternating masculine and feminine pronouns; or, more controversially, using “they” as singular), and clichés were still clichés.

Gardner knows that the writer needs to control the language, learning but disregarding the “rules” when needed (“Whatever works is good.”), but somehow ignores his own advice on this terribly obvious point. Pronouns and clichés are within your control!!

The Recommendation: Read (in small doses, with your tolerance hat on)

I think the next time I read this book—and despite its flaws, I’m pretty sure I will—I will outline the key points, print them out, and tuck them inside the book as a reference tool. But what I would really like to see is a new edition, formatted for easy scanning and updated for contemporary usage.

That will probably happen only in my fictive dreams…

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What I Learned from Stephen King

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“When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I’ve never read Stephen King. I don’t like scary stories—books, movies, campfire tales. But I’d heard so many good things about King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that, as a writer, I had to pick it up. And…

Wow. I liked his writing. I may have even learned a bit of craft simply by reading his prose. But more than craft, what hit me hard was his advice on process (which, let’s face it, you kind of have to have before craft really matters—I mean, if you don’t write, craft is kind of meaningless, yes?).

Here’s what resonated most for me, at this point in writing space and time:

  • Set a daily writing goal – King writes 2000 words per day and completes it regardless of the time it takes. Alternatively, you could set a time-based goal regardless of word count. Setting goals is nothing new, but it’s nice to get affirmation that the pros do it too. (Or, wait—maybe that’s what makes them pros??)
  • Write first – “Mornings belong to whatever is new—the current composition. Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait.” Again, prioritizing is nothing new, but how many of us do it well?
  • Write every day – Another piece of well-worn advice, but the rationale was enlightening. “Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death.” Aha!
  • Get your novel done in three months – At 2000 words/day for 90 days, King’s right—three months yields quite a decent length novel. But again the rationale is key: If you take longer than three months, you get tired of it yourself. See “Write every day” above. Aha!
  • Eliminate distractions – Close the door, close the blinds, and (I’m sure he’d add) turn off email/social media. We’ve all heard this advice, but have you heard a rationale other than “in order to focus”? How about this one: Get rid of the mundane world so that you can create your own. Aha!
  • Rest between drafts – Let your first draft rest (King suggests a minimum of 6 weeks, at least in the context of novels—your boss probably won’t wait for that report past Friday) before looking at it fresh; it should appear alien to you upon rereading. Have you ever thought “Did I really write that? I don’t remember writing that.” No, the writing brownies did not sneak in overnight to write for you. The mind can play wonderful tricks to help you see things anew, allowing you to become a more effective editor.
  • Write the first draft with the door closed and the second (or maybe third) with the door open – Close the figurative door as well as the literal. Listen to yourself and your characters to get the story on the page. Don’t get distracted by others’ opinions or questions about what you’ve written. Responding to someone asking about the symbolism of the apple or to someone telling you how wonderful you are is likely to send you off on the wrong path (focusing on explaining symbols or being wonderful) rather than getting the story on the page. When you’ve revised enough to be comfortable that the story is “done” (i.e., not chock full of holes), go ahead and get the feedback—see what a few select audience members think. I used to have an affirmation “I listen to my own voice.” That’s why!

Thank you, Professor King, for the lessons on process. I will be back when I am ready to learn more about craft. And before then I may even pick up one of your novels.

NaNoWriMo Week 4 – Woo-hoo!

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After Week 3’s utter disaster of near-non-writing, I had a lot of ground to make up in Week 4 if I wanted it hit my 50,000-word target by November 30. The key issue was a poor plot. I’d written myself into a boring corner and had run out of ideas to escape it.

What got me started again? Ego.

I knew I normally could only handle about 3000 words at a time before my average words per hour dropped into single digits. When I reached the critical calculation that it would take 3500 words/day for a solid week to win NaNoWriMo, I knew I couldn’t delay any longer. My ultra-competitive, Type-A genes kicked in. I was determined to finish this sucker—good, bad, or horrible.

And horrible it was. But it is done.

It’s time for a sports analogy

When I was in high school, my family went on a summer bicycling “vacation.” We weren’t alone. This was the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), which consisted of 10,000 riders making their way from the Missouri River to the Mississippi. Did I bother to train? Nah. I rode around town, maybe did one 17-mile ride. How hard could riding a bike be? You can always coast, right?

Well, RAGBRAI averages about 70 miles per day for 7 days. And there are hills.

By the first day I was sore. By the second day I was in pain. And by the fifth day, I was sick. Couldn’t finish the ride.

I like to think I’ve gained a little wisdom with age.  In my 30s I began running. As many runners do, I found that races kept me motivated to train. I did 5Ks, 10K, 10-milers, even a half marathon. While training for the half-marathon, I did a long run of 18 miles. Holy cow! I thought. If I can do 18 miles, I can do 26.2! But I’d better get a training plan in place to make sure I’m ready.

So I talked to my runner friends who could recommend training regimens, and I started training. I executed my plan and successfully completed my (one and only) marathon: the California International Marathon (CIM).

Despite the fact that I finished, NaNoWriMo felt a lot more like RAGBRAI than CIM.

The obligatory “Lessons Learned”

  • It’s possible to write a novel with a bad plot. The video course on story structure that I mentioned in Week 3’s post helped me create some structure—even with a marginal plot. I made some arbitrary decisions, made some changes that might require significant revisions, and then charged forward.
  • I need to learn more about the writing craft. I’ve been reading for a long time. I know when something is good and I know when something is bad. Sometimes I can even say why. But I haven’t spent time analyzing or studying how to write compelling characters or complex worlds.
  • I can write more than I thought. I wasn’t sure if I could write a novel. Now I know I can. Just think what could happen if I had a decent plot and and developed characters. 🙂

Thanks for all the comments and likes on my NaNoWriMo posts—it helps to know there are supporters (and commiserators) out there. Thanks to my friends who sent me creative thoughts during the month, and especially to my writing buds Linda and Wendy. Last but not least, thanks to my husband for enthusiastic cheerleading (you look great in that skirt, George!).

I’ll see you at the next marathon–oops, I mean NaNoWriMo–with training plan in hand…

NaNoWriMo Week 3 – A Near Bust!

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After the ups and downs of Week 2, Week 3 was nearly all down. 😦

I got stuck. Really, really stuck.

I thought “I will give my muse a rest for a couple days; THEN I will be ready to write again!”

Not so much.

Procrastination. Blocks. Dinking online…(Oooh, I’m not supposed to do that!)

To get myself re-motivated I watched more of my ModPo class on Coursera (will cover in a post soon–it’s fabulous!). I ordered a Kelly Writers House (hosts of ModPo) coffee mug. I decorated a Christmas tree–with multi-color lights for the first time in I don’t know how many years (there’s a post in there somewhere, too).

Then I decided I had to do something that might actually HELP with my novel dilemma–where is this frickin’ plot going???

One of the perks of NaNoWriMo is the pep talk that shows up in your inbox every couple days (thank you, writing gods!). Another is the ability to tap into heretofore unknown resources. One resource that showed up (after making a very small donation to the non-profit organization that supports NaNoWriMo) was a free StoryWonk video class on STRUCTURE. (Structure? Hunh? You mean I can’t just write in circles and hope to end up somewhere?)

I already knew I had structure problems–I just didn’t know exactly what they were.

This video class really helped. It confirmed I actually did know some of the problems–and it showed me others, then gave me solutions to address them. After mapping out some possibilities, I started writing again yesterday. And today I hunkered down and plunked out 5000+ words.

I’m still behind schedule, but I’m 3/5 done, and completion is still viable if I can generate about 3500 words/day. (By “completion” I mean a 50k-word draft that will need to be completely rewritten, but if I’m lucky will have some bones to start with.) Whew. It will make for a long week, but I think I can squeak through.

I welcome any creative energy you can spare!! 🙂

Stats

Target word count end of Day 25: 41,675

Actual word count end of Day 25: 32,403

NaNoWriMo Week 2 – Help!

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Week 2 has been full of ups and downs. After week 1, I struggled to figure out where the plot was going. (Plot? What plot?) I took a day for a planning session, then again made progress, finally catching up on my target word count on Day 13.

And then I petered out again.

Yesterday I desperately emailed my husband at work for a pep talk. He dutifully called me and gave me a cheer.

Karin, Karin she’s our man! (Really??)

If she can’t do it, no one can!

Well, as nice as the sentiment is, I feel utterly at a loss as to where to go next. If I can figure that out, I’m confident I can catch up (again).

But that’s the problem! Aack!

I am an endless source of creativity. I am an endless source of creativity.
I am an endless source of creativity. I am an endless source of creativity.
I am an endless source of creativity. I am an endless source of creativity.
I am an endless source of creativity. I am an endless source of creativity.
I am an endless source of creativity. I am an endless source of creativity.
I am an endless source of creativity. I am an endless source of creativity.
I am an endless source of creativity. I am an endless source of creativity.
I am an endless source of creativity. I am an endless source of creativity.
I am an endless source of creativity. I am an endless source of creativity.

Is it working yet?

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Stats

Target word count end of Day 15: 25,000

Actual word count end of Day 15: 24,013

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It’s all downhill from here, Wrimos!

NaNoWriMo Week 1 – Lessons, Observations, Affirmations

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After my first week of attempted novel-writing, I suspect I am in the same position as many first-time Wrimos—panicking!

My most profound lessons thus far…

  • Try not to get behind.
  • If you get behind, try not to get any further behind.
  • If all all possible, catch up!

I can’t speak for others, but I am finding 1667 words per day a challenge. It takes me a few hours to get there, and the sense of being behind—by even one day—makes the task even more daunting. If you write slowly (as I do), 1667*2 is a very big number. I fell behind Sunday and I have not quite caught up (only a few hundred words behind target though).

Interesting (or not) observations…

I’d started working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way before NaNoWriMo. Synchronicity is at work and many of her tools, concepts, and ideas have helped with this novel-writing exercise.

  • One of the regular tools in the book is Morning Pages, three hand-written pages of stream of consciousness writing first thing in the morning. I’ve noticed a shift from filling up the pages with whatever crap falls out of my head to using the pages as a way to process what might happen next in my novel.
  • One key concept that I have found eases my writing is a mental shift from “thinking something up” to “just getting it down.” Listening to whatever might come and recording it rather than straining to create something from nothing.
  • A related concept: Trusting that the words will come. Saying to the universe: “You take care of quality, I’ll take care of the quantity!” In other words, get your butt in the chair and fingers on the keyboard and something will manifest. Mostly this has worked for me, and I’ve found some interesting characters and plot points as a result. However, I think I’ve hit my limit on what I can do with my very sketchy plot idea. I feel like the context is set but the real story has not yet started. It’s time to map out a little more of an outline so I know what scenes to tackle next.

My two new favorite affirmations…

  • I am an endless source of creativity!
  • I write with ease, joy, focus, and flow!

Feel free to use with reckless abandon. 🙂

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Stats

Target word count end of Day 8: 13,336

Actual word count end of Day 8: 12,615

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Happy writing, Wrimos!

Time for a new challenge: NaNoWriMo!

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September’s haiku challenge must have worn me out, because October has been mighty slow. Or perhaps just fallow. Time for some crop rotation…

November is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words in 30 days, or 1667 words per day. (Click on the logo at left for more details or to join the fun.)

I’m in.

I’ve never written a novel before. Never even attempted it, let alone attempted it in 30 days. Well, it won’t be a finished novel in 30 days, but how cool would it be to have a first draft in that amount of time?

I’m in!

Day 1 report: I am thanking my lucky stars (and my niece and husband and mother-in-law) that I got the germ of an idea while on vacation last week. I used my journaling time while traveling to play with the idea and expand it a bit. That being said, it is still inchoate. I spent part of today organizing the various scribbles from my notebook. Then, I started writing. Since I didn’t really know where to start, I started with…chickens! Yup. We’ll see if they stay, but I’m pretty sure my main character is meant to have a chicken sidekick. 🙂

Day 1 word count: 1728