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.
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.