Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Big Tease

I spend much of my summers screening entries for the Writer's Digest self-published books competition, and the absolutely number-one writing mistake among the entries goes something like this:

Jenny awoke to a hail of bullets. She quickly rolled out and ducked down next to her bed as fragments of sheetrock rained off the wall. Jenny had only seconds to consider how she had gotten herself into this situation.

It all began in the EZ-Care Senior Center, where Jenny was raised by her great grandfather, Paul Abhrahamson Johanssen, who they called "Spruce"....

Seven pages of background information later...

Now, back to those bullets!

Are you freakin' kiddin' me?! Many authors have this need for their readers to understand every plot detail at all times - thus to write first chapters filled with background exposition. But that's not what first chapters are for - what they're for is getting your reader involved, and you don't do that by pulling this incredible tease-job.

So please, get Jenny out from under that hail of bullets. You've got an entire novel to fill in the details.

Photo by MJV. Artwork by Nina Koepcke.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Challenging Young Writers

Following is an essay I wrote for Diane Scanlon's excellent website for gifted children and their parents, www.dirhody.com

Inside a wooden case that once held a children's-model telescope, I keep a slip of paper from the second grade. It's a test result, revealing that my seven-year-old self had the reading comprehension skills of a freshman in high school. This was a pattern that would continue in later years. My sixth-grade teacher stopped giving me any but the bonus spelling words (the basic words being a waste of everybody's time). In high school, I hated every English class I took, and got A's in all of them.

Looking back, it's amazing that I never got into my school's honors humanities program. I was clearly a natural writer, one who was not being challenged - and that was why I hated English class. But it was the '70s, and everybody seemed to be focusing on the other end of the spectrum, making sure the problem kids would at least make it to graduation.

Fortunately, my SAT verbal score finally tripped the wire. I was invited to San Jose State's honors humanities program, where a corps of professors from different disciplines took us through world history - from Genesis through Nixon - touching on the music, art, philosophy, science, history and literature of each era. And boy did we write! Constantly. At the end of the two-year program, for my final project, I wrote and performed in a play in which Aristotle, attempting to tutor Alexander the Great, has his idealized forms rudely diasassembled by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. It was hilarious, especially when Craig Carter, playing on Freud's cocaine addiction, emptied two dozen packets of sugar on a mirror, performed his part with a wacky German accent, and then managed to accidentally snort some of the sugar into his nose. I found him in the hallway, hacking and snorting like a rodeo bull.

Since then, things have worked out well. Craig finally cleared his sinuses and became a gonzo-style journalist. I went on to write a dozen novels, seven of them published, to win a few poetry awards and fellowships, to cover theater and opera for several different Bay Area magazines, and, recently, to write on poetry and fiction for Writer's Digest.

So would I have taken this route without that honors humanities program? To be frank - yes. I ran into my sixth-grade best friend Maurice a few years ago, and he said, "Oh yeah. You were always talking about writing novels." Clearly, I'm one of the obsessed.

But I worry that it took so long for my obvious needs to be noticed - that other talented kids with just as much talent but perhaps less determination might not have received the kick-start that their gifts merited. Which is why I'm so glad to see a website like Diane's. Not that kids with learning disabilities don't deserve every attention they receive (let's talk about my brother Larry, who overcame his to win an MBA, and is now a Silicon Valley CFO). But let's not forget about kids with special abilities, talents that need to be challenged in special ways.
Photo by MJV.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


The particulars of writing - the small, physical details - are an eternal fascination to writers (beginning, would-be and veteran), so let's talk about that. Keep in mind, however, that what works for me might not work for you.

Longhand, longhand: I am a devout fan of hand-writing. There's nothing more liquid for the permanent codification of ideas than the easy flow of thoughts from brain to hand to pen to paper. The computer screen, to me, presents entirely too much separation between you and your words. Particulars? Spiral notebooks (for their resistance to abuse) and Papermate Write Bros. light-blue pens (cheapness, inkflow and come on! Black ink? How dull.).

Location, location: A busy coffeehouse, enveloped by that lovely wall of chatter, with plenty of fellow humans to watch when you need a visual respite (there's a physiological, brain-function need for this, BTW - I'll get to it later). A long view is a nice plus, a non-jiggly table an absolute must (apply folded-up newspaper under table legs as needed). And - duh! - some caffeine. A beverage also makes a handy disciplinary device. On a slow day, at least make yourself write until you finish that latte. At this very moment, I'm on a solid window counter at Peete's in San Jose, CA, with a lovely view of the traffic on the Alameda and a solid surface to work on. Comestibles? One strong latte and an ollallieberry scone (because I like to say "ollallieberry"). You may find, as I have, that the largest danger in the coffeehouse is a nearby conversation that is too interesting. Be strong. Move to another table immediately; nothing is more important than your writing. (I almost feel like telling my neighbors, "I'm sorry, I have to move because you're much too intelligent.")

Is there a Draft in here? I'll get more specific later, but following is the rundown of my drafting process:

First: Written as quickly as the pen will fly, as quickly as the thoughts arrive. Think of it as a jigsaw puzzle: you must first pour out all the pieces onto the tabletop so you can begin to sort them out. Remember Hemingway's saying: "Everyone's first draft is shit." Just get it out, baby.

Second: Written a tad more slowly, to allow time for renovation, but still fast and sloppy enough to open up new ideas.

Third: Written as slowly as possible, with a focus on word precision, sentence structure, punctuation - the small stuff.

Fourth:Typing into the dreaded computer. Largely a matter of word processing, but sometimes a garbled sentence will hit the brain-screen and call for a fix.

Fifth: The edit. Print out the completed manuscript and read through it, marking changes with a colored pen as you go. Type changes back into computer.

The Extreme Sixth: For special cases (for instance, my last novel). Take printed-out manuscript and rewrite it longhand, as in the third draft above. Retype the whole thing into the computer. This one is grueling, but does offer a certain reassurance to the author, who can now tell himself that he has been exceedingly thorough.

The Chapter Method: I tend to do my novels a chapter at a time, working them at least through the third draft before going on to the next. This is largely because I work without an outline, so I need to get a firm grip on where my plot and characters stand before I go into the next development.

Shew! Enough for now. I'm sure I'll get further into some of these aspects later. Besides, I just finished my latte.
Photo by MJV