Tag Archives: #fiction

Entertainments for Your Mind 3

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A photograph of the author Graham Greene topped the first blog in this series and I included a pic of Orson Welles as Harry Lime from The Third Man, a film based on Greene’s screenplay. In Hollywood Summer Smash Hit fashion, I followed with William Faulkner and a poster of The Big Sleep from his studio days when he worked with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Today, Ernest Hemingway headlines the third, last, and shortest, of these blogs on fiction and creative writing. He, too, spent time in Hollywood and also penned a screenplay for Bogart and Bacall: To Have and Have Not. I can’t seem to help myself. I just love movies and the best ones are almost always based an a great screen play that is adapted from an exceptional book.

Then, if the producers get the casting right, it’s zip, zam, zowie-am-swoosh to the top of the box office receipts. The whimsy of success is what makes movies so magical. It’s also what makes them such an incredible gamble and why so many go straight to DVD/Streaming or are only released in China. The window for success is incredibly small. Just as it is with writing fiction.

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Speaking of windows, what no wife, or partner, can understand is that a writer is working when they’re staring out of one. It is referred to as ‘the muse’ and Agatha Christie knew what it was. She once told a friend:

The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.

I mentioned earlier this would be the shortest of the three blogs and that’s because this is where we follow the Nike directive and just do it. You’ve had this idea in your head. You think it’s good. You think there’s a market for it, but you don’t really care. It’s so compelling you’re ready to turn off the phone, shut the kids in the bathroom, and abandon the outside world entirely until you can get this thing done. It will be as Gordon Lightfoot sang, a magnificent outpouring. Or, as the famous editor at Scribner’s, Maxwell Perkins, often suggested to his writers (among them Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe):

Just get it down on paper, then we’ll see what to do with it.

By the time your manuscript is complete, edited and ready for publication, you will have every one of the 80,000 or so words committed to memory. You will know it by heart. You will be able to visualize each and every paragraph. But because there are so many words, so many characters, so many connecting threads, you may find it useful to have some guideposts to keep you from getting lost along the way.

For example, once I get the idea for a story, I sketch out a very loose outline that sets down a general plot direction. These are basic mechanics you’re dealing with here: who’s going where, when and why. It also helps to know who’s related to whom, who’s having whose baby and where you want the bodies to end up.

Because what happens is, once you construct your characters, and they start talking to each other on the page, suddenly they develop a sense of independence and they will say things that surprise you. Seriously, you have created a monster, and not just one, but many. You’ll actually say to yourself, ‘well, that’s an interesting turn of events,’ and if you’re not careful, or, if you’ve misplaced your outline, you can wander off in any number of directions that may take many, many pages before you loop back into the story line.

It’s not a bad thing if you’re writing War and Peace, but for most of us who just want a mass market best seller, it’s a digression you want to try and avoid. Though, Hemingway kind of disagreed with that approach.

Don’t hold anything back. Let it all hang out and write from the heart. And write truly. That’s the continuing struggle. You will change, the world will change, but one thing will never change, and that is you must find out what is true: true to the moment, true to the character, true to the situation, and once you have found that truth you must project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who is reading it.

During this first write-thru, your story will have an incredible freshness and you’ll get a sense of elation that will lift you above the keyboard. You’ve brought together all these people—your characters—and they’re new and interesting and you’re meeting them for the first time and you’ve just never had so much fun with your clothes on. But you only get that feeling once.

As you begin the process of rewriting and editing, your characters can become leaden and burdensome and virtually unbearable. They’re like dinner guests who refuse to leave. You revisit them again and again, moving this conversation, changing that action, revising that motivation: nudge, nudge, clip, clip, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

To me, rewriting is like a lovely red head with enormously thick hair who’s just gotten out of the shower. She towels her hair dry and then starts to comb out the snarls. First time through, she can barely get the comb to move. It’s just a little tug, pick-pick, tug. The next time through it’s easier and the next and so on until she’s got an easy pull the whole way down. That’s rewriting. You start with this enormous mass of words you’ve spewed onto the paper and, the first time you go back over the manuscript, you cut this paragraph and rework that chapter and smooth out that snarl and crop that passage and you keep going until you can read the entire passage with a natural flow that pulls the reader into the story line.

This is what I find encouraging about the writing trades—Kirk Vonnegut told a friend—They allow mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence.

Now, when you’re rewriting, you have to be careful not to lose the emotion of your story while you’re adjusting it. You have to keep the tension between the characters and they have to remain believable and interesting. Stay true, Hemingway reminds us. If you’re not caught up in the situations and lives of the cast you’ve put on the page, then they are not going to come across as very compelling to the reader. This is what Robert Frost said:

 No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise for the reader.

Now, I should say a word or two about research. It’s fun. You get to hang out in the library with a lot of really smart people who know much more about the subject you’re writing on than you do. You need research to give your story authenticity and a sense of place, but you can do too much. Just because you’ve collected a thousand facts doesn’t mean you have to use them or that it’s important to the movement of your story. Be prudent, use a pinch of salt in your cookie dough, not a whole tablespoon. And remember:

If you copy from one author it plagiarism. If you copy from two, it’s research.

Once you complete your manuscript, you’ll have a marked sense of relief and you’ll be deserving of a pat on the back. You should give yourself one, because what you have to do next is going to be harder to  accomplish that what you’ve just finished. You’ll need to find a publisher. Even in today’s world of internet blogs, Amazon author pages and inexpensive websites, a publisher is a good thing, as Martha used to say. They have a lot more resources and a much bigger advertising budget than the rest of us.

But that’s an entirely different lecture series. So, let me leave you with a quote from Steve Martin, the comedian, on the occasion of finishing his first book.

I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.

Best of luck, good writing and please remember you can download a digital copy of my books at amazon.com/author/dcwall for only $2.99. Forgive the shameless commerce, I’m just trying to make a living, too.

David

Entertainments for Your Mind 2

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So how is it you go about putting together 80,000 words on a subject like greed, hate, corruption, sudden death and police investigative procedures? You work from what you know, what you’ve observed and what you’ve read that you’ve liked or has stuck with you. William Faulkner, pictured above looking a lot like a college professor, is arguably this country’s greatest writer of fiction and he told us to:

Read, read, read, read, read — I think Faulkner was following Gertrude Stein’s lead with her write, write, write, write, write . . . advise —Read everything, trash, classics, good and bad and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read. You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.

You have evolved to this point in time, to the place where, as a person, you have something to say that you want other people to hear. It’s time to charge your computer, sharpen your pencils or refill your ink well. Then look at yourself in the mirror and say out loud, “I’m a writer.” It might make you a little uncomfortable, but there it is. Personally, I’ve got a day job, kids, a mortgage, two car payments and a love of murder mysteries, but I think of myself as a writer. Roy Blunt Jr. put it this way:

If you were a member of Jesse James’ gang and someone asked you what you were, you wouldn’t say, ‘Well, I’m a desperado.’ You’d say something like, ‘I work in banks,’ or ‘I’ve done some railroad work.’ It took me a long time just to say, ‘I’m a writer.’ It’s really embarrassing.

I should point out at this juncture that while you may be ready to begin writing, the rest of your life might not exactly fall in line with your new sense of direction. In order to get this job done, and it is a job—Sean O’Casey, the Irish playwright said:

When I stepped from manual labor to writing, I just went from one kind of hard work to another.

—you’re going to need some space as well as peace and quiet. If you’re single, live alone and don’t own pets you’re halfway there already. However, by the time you get out of school you’ve already started picking up commitments here and there. Not many at first, but more and more as you get older. The process is incremental, like life itself, so you don’t notice the changes much on a day to day basis, but all of a sudden there you are with all these responsibilities, and worse, your parents have stopped paying your car insurance. In fact, you don’t hear from your parents very much any more.

Let me give you two quotes that illustrate my point. The first is from the novelist Lawrence Clark Powell and the second from the former prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru:

Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends and society are the natural enemies of a writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.

All my major works have been written in prison. I would recommend prison not only to aspiring writers but to politicians, too.

Another appropriate question to ask yourself is why would any sensible person subject themselves to the kind of exile that it obviously takes to write a book. Why would someone create strife in the home and tremendous personal anxiety to secure the time and solitude to write a book. After all, nobody called you up and asked, ‘ Could you get us 80,000 words by Friday?’ There are more than 50,000 books a month published and yet, there you are, tap, tap, tapping away in a garage closet at three in the morning so you won’t wake up the kids.

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I mentioned in the last blog that Graham Greene had written the screenplay for “The Third Man” starring Orson Welles.  William Faulkner spent some time in Hollywoodland, too. He was the lead writer on this Bogart-Bacall vehicle that was a box office hit.

Without question, the relationship between a writer and his book is, at best, a love-hate affair. On one hand we have Graham Greene telling us that writing is a form of therapy, but then he turns around and says:

Writing is for the most part a lonely and unsatisfying occupation. One is tied to a table, a chair, and a stack of paper.

The reason you do it is because you have to. You write because you must. Regardless of the situation or the circumstances and, at times, regardless of the cost. Maybe it’s ego that refuses to let you get on with the rest of your life, or perhaps it’s an insane desire for worldwide fame and fortune. Who knows, maybe you were neglected as an eleven-year-old. Whatever the motivation, it is overwhelming. George Orwell said writers write because:

You’re driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. Writers are vain, selfish and lazy and at the very bottom of their motive there lies a mystery.

So, the final question before you sit down to start is, does it matter? To anybody? Is what you have to say so interesting, so important, that you will rearrange your life to get it written? And if you do complete the manuscript, will it have been worth the time, the aggravation and the hard work? Geoffery Cotterell reminds us that:

In America only the successful writer is important, in France all writers are important, in England no writer is important, and in Australia you have to explain what a writer is.

The answer is, of course it matters. Yes, it is important. It’s vital. And though your story may not be well received, or received at all — it could go completely unnoticed — it will be more than worth the effort. And the things you will learn about yourself in the process will be wondrous.

Next time in Entertainments for Your Mind 3 (I think I’ve got this Hollywood sequel thing down) we’ll tackle the nuts and bolts of the process and getting it all down on paper, virtually speaking. And, if I may, a few more words of shameless commerce. My three books are available at amazon.com/author/dcwall for $2.99 per download. Actually Dead Last isn’t up there, yet. Soon. But One Cried Murder and Exit Marks the Spot both are. I thank you in advance for supporting my work. Best, David.