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Q and A
I took a class by Mark Poirier this summer and he recommended to us Twin Study and I'm really glad he did because it is awesome and so is your advice here in QnA. There seems to be another resurgence in short story popularity. Will we see another short story collection from you in the future, or are you more interested in publishing a novel? how do you choose between the two?
Thanks for the support, Al. I didn't realize there was another resurgence in short story popularity. I will have to look into that. As for short vs. long things, I'm not sure. Mostly I want to moan and lie face down on the carpet for two years with my cat occasionally sniffing my head to see if I'm dead. So I guess that means I'm more interested in publishing a novel. Short stories are fun to write but I love reading long, and you know, you gotta follow the love. Also, the only people who read short stories are people in writing programs, and while I have nothing but respect and affection for that group, I sometimes wonder if there's anyone else out there. Hello?
Since graduating college with a BFA in creative writing, I've whiled away my twenties in a high-pressure job I don't want, trying to get to a place financially where I can support myself for a minute as a writer. I keep telling myself that next month or next year I'll have the time and space I need to write, but the years pass, and I'm still unpublished. I've written some stuff in the meantime, but only when I've taken a big chunk of vacation time to do so.
I'm almost thirty and I'm fed up. I told my employer I wanted to be part time, so that I could focus on writing. They agreed, and though I'm showing up for fewer hours and for half pay, I feel just as emotionally drained by the work, and it seems to be sucking up just as much time as before.
So far in my life, I've been too much of a wuss to brave unemployment and poverty--but maybe that's what I need to do to write? My husband's opinion is basically that I'm being a baby, everyone has to work, and if I want to be a writer (something he sees still as a pipe dream, as I have yet to prove myself), then I just need to fit that into my working life.
So I'm wondering...do you think that the distractions of poverty and a lack of income will be greater than the distractions of my current, high-pressure job? If I keep the job, do you have any advice on how to carve out the time and mental space to write within a busy life?
Yes, I have a suggestion, and it's brutal, so brace yourself: get up in the morning and write for an hour before you go to work. Do it every day. A lot of authors have written their first books this way; I know Nicholson Baker wrote The Mezzanine before work, and when I was searching the web for other morning authors I found this site: http://writetodone.com/2008/01/17/how-to-write-first-thing-in-the-morning/ Check out the comments too because people LOVE it. I have a friend who loves it and he's not a morning person, he's a beer person. Here's another site that is maybe less specifically about the a.m. but has an awesome picture of Joan Didion smoking: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/11/20/daily-routines-writers/
An hour might not seem like enough time, I understand this, but it's worth a try. It's hard to overestimate the amount of sheer brain-power-concentration you need to write but common to overestimate the amount of time it actually takes. If you're consistent, an hour a day is a lot. Life is long. It adds up, and once you get into your project, you'll be able to tweak your schedule for longer stretches if you really need them. Anyway, I'm pretty sure that half of most people's writing time is spent freaking out (I'm at about 75%). If you squeeze it into an hour in the morning, you won't really have time to freak out, and if you're a little groggy, you won't have the energy. (I recommend you freak out later, at work, while you're on the clock).
And name, I'm proud of you for being a young woman with a high-powered job that pays a lot! That's not nothing. Even if it's not a job you really wanted, it's a lot. I don't want you to quit. I don't want you to give up your dreams either, but I hope you're not downplaying your real accomplishments, at least not to yourself. Taking some satisfaction in what you are doing might lower some of the bad-pressure you're putting on yourself to write, write, write. There's motivation, which is good, and there's self-laceration, which is a soul-siphoner. If I could crawl inside your head and tweak your attitude about your job, I'd make you more proud of yourself and less conscientious. You know--like a guy. A proud-of-himself-for-being-good-enough type of guy. Then you'd have more energy to write. And try the morning.
The slug-o-sphere ain't such a bad place for a little vacation. Be sure to wear your shorts and clogs. Have you seen Batboy in the slug-o-shere?
Batboy Found in Cave.
Have you seen the latest version of The great Gatsby? If so, what did you think? I thought it was fun to watch but not a very good film, I liked Tom Buchanan in this film better than in the one from the seventies. The Redford Gatsby is the better of the two. On an unrelated subject. That character Batboy, what's he up to?
I haven't seen it. Do I have to?
What's the most embarrassed you've ever been?
I can't actually remember--I'm pretty much embarrassed all the time and find life itself humiliating--but maybe when Ben Minot threw a pair of my panties at Howe Gelb? It sounds worse, or maybe better, if I don't explain the circumstances.
Thanks to Michael for the question and thanks to you for the brilliant answer. Have you ever considered writing a book on fiction writing?
Yes. But I'm not sure it would work because I'm giving it away for free here.
I wanted to stop by and say that I am looking forward to your reply to Michael's question (although, this morning I see it is there and it is, of course, brilliant). I have a similar problem, except that I don't write much. I just have that nagging sensation that I should. But then I think I suck and I don't. I even took a course for external validation, but then I figured everyone gets A's and good comments, because they've paid and the coordinators want people to sign up again or spread the word. How do I get past this? Or do I resign to writing SQL and dotnet?
Monsoon, I’m so sorry it took me so long to answer your question. The delay had nothing to do with your question—I just got sluggish. Your question is actually exciting, because your dilemma is the flip side of Michael’s. You are a feely writer. Feely writers have to push themselves. Feely people need routine, and habit, and a structure that gives them (or forces them into) the time and space to write. Without it they go sluggish and neglect to answer questions on their beloved Q & A board, or resign themselves to writing SQL and dotnet, not because that’s what they want to do, but because they forgot/avoided/wriggled out of the effort it takes to do something else. Which truly sucks, because then their lives are over and they die. Oops.
So let’s rededicate ourselves to a little structure, Monsoon. I will write every day, frequently enough that I stop forgetting the difference between “everyday” and “every day,” and you will write regularly too. You can do the same exercise I gave Michael, but instead of limiting your pages, you’ll need to push yourself to finish them. I recommend you write your three page story in one hour, three times a week (that’s three stories, 3, THREE, iii) and remember to make them suck. Sucking is good! They’re supposed to suck. If you knew how to write excellently from the get-go, it wouldn’t have enough enough mass to pull at you in a meaningful way. Writing fiction, or making art of any kind, is a big, huge, sprawling, messy undertaking that enfolds you and pulls on you and spits you out and makes you feel smart and talented and stupid and broken. If you think your favorite authors are typing sentences while thinking, “This is fucking fantastic!!!” you’re woefully mistaken. They too are thinking about how they don’t write enough, they suck, and that any validation they’ve earned is specious and corrupt for various logical reasons. They’re thinking maybe they’ll give it up and start a marzipan delivery service. Because who wants to leave the house for marzipan when they can have it delivered? Not me.
The thing is that some things are things that if you want to do them, you have to just do them. Writing can be demanding and difficult and unrewarding and make you want to gnaw off your arm, but it can also be awesome and challenging and give you an anchoring point from which to understand your life and life in general. You know Monsoon, I have no idea how old you are, but when you brought up the issue of external validation, it got me wondering if you might be suffering from a little Generation C-itis. People who are generation C (some call them Y) grew up with eager, compensatory parents known for offering a steady stream of congratulations for mundane acts. The idea behind this—a sweet and noble one—was to bring up children with strong self-esteem, but the constant, strobe-like injections of praise turned some kids into praise-junkies. (I call them C because I used to see them walking around campus, talking to their moms on their cells, getting another hit of encouragement). Gen C’ers are marinated in positive reinforcement, in direction and organized time—which isn’t what anyone gets when they sit down to write. And though it’s wonderful to be encouraged, if you’re accustomed to earning applause for ordinary acts, it makes sense that validation would lose its worth. You might even become suspicious of praise in general. Then you might get that feeling you got in your writing class: getting an A doesn’t mean anything, it seems like it might be about the teacher more than the student, and good comments must be meaningless because everyone must have received them. Deception surrounds us; hence, the defeated tone of your question.
But I think that might just be the negative voices in your head talking. I kind of hate to contradict them, because I’m charmed by the notion that your local creative writing department is running some kind of flimflam scheme, deceiving and flattering students into “spreading the word”--that must be some good heroin…oops! I mean COMMENTS they’re handing out over there. I’m not sure if I need to point out that a more logical explanation is that you’re good and deserved an A? In the end, you’re going to have to decide for yourself if you think you’re any good. Some people take classes to get them writing, so that’s something you could do. Otherwise, you’re going to have to get yourself going. I’ve been reading books about procrastination lately, and they all say the voices in your head don’t matter. What matters is habit—if you want to be good at piano, you have to practice piano every day. If you want to write, you have to write. Just do it like going to the gym. You don’t have to be overflowing with enthusiasm to go the gym or consider yourself a great exerciser—you do it because it makes you feel better. Like that.
This site is a blessing. Is it a blog? I have no idea, but hey, whatever works right. You are a strong, brilliant woman. Just so you know I posted questions on your site before. I'd rather not tell you which ones were mine. Your answers were great. They moved me and provided comfort but you didn't give me easy answers or solutions.
We hear a lot about writer's block, but my problem is the opposite. I can write easily and fill a blank page. I like to write longhand, and that deserves attention here too. Over the past year, I've probably gone through six notebooks. Each one has lots of writing - words, lists, images, ideas, outlines. If I wanted to, I could sit and write for two hours without any worries, never breaking a sweat. The words are there. I can force myself to grind and press on if needed. But little, if any, of this writing amounts to anything worthwhile. When I go back and read what I have, it's hard to follow and understand. These many pages are mostly free writing, word association games, lists. Part of me thinks this shouldn't be a problem, because to be writer one has to write on a daily basis. I encounter that advice all the time in books about composition, gurus, and teachers. Just write! Write whatever you want. Set a quota. So I keep thinking this is all just in my head. Still. While writing is a passion, it is also something I want to do professionally, and I want more out of it. I want a complete story, a whole poem, one good ten-minute play, a short essay I can send off to the world. Unfortunately I am far away from these goals!
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon confronts this same dilemma, and I plan on rereading the novel. What's wrong? I have no idea. I can think of a hundred great premises, images, characters, settings, plots for short stories, plays, movies, but when I attempt to get it on the page, the story goes NOWHERE. I think over the past six months I started at least five different short stories, and there's no story in the short story. The sentences and paragraphs wander aimlessly, add up to nothing. I describe a tea pot, the woods, an ambulance, a helicopter overhead: the descriptions last for a long time. I made the switch to poetry, because I thought poetry would force me to keep the piece concise, clean, and arrive at an ending. Not happening. Instead I dabble with the language, spin images, compose five of pages of verse that have nothing to do the poem I want to write or thought I might write. I'll think about the ending, and that can mitigate the wandering nature. Still I can't make it to the ending. It's out of reach. Poems should be done in one sitting. A poem doesn't have to tell a story, and that might allow me to arrive at a conclusion. I find that none of the poems I work on have a destination or any meaning. In most of my writing, I always want to spend a great deal of time on the images. Showing, not telling.
What should I do? What's wrong? I could continue to write, and it brings a certain amount of happiness. I'd like to actually move beyond the free writes and work on poems and stories containing more meaning, substance, clarity, sense. This dilemma doesn't get much enough attention in any of the thousands of books and articles about creative writing. Which is strange. I'm not the only one? It's one reason I posted this question here. Maybe I'm not supposed to be a writer. That's a possibility. Bricklaying isn't for everyone.
I also outline. The outlines rarely help. Often I forget what is in the outline and just keep writing about this, that. Whatever runs through my mind at the time. All this is getting to me. As much as I might enjoy just writing about the breeze outside or a skirt or a flapping kite in the air, I like the feeling of finishing a draft, printing it, holding it.
Reading is not why I struggle. I read daily. I have wondered about life and writing broadly. What if writing has more to do with your identity, knowing yourself, moving through fears, anxieties, personal quirks and interests? That sort of enters the touchy abstract stuff that isn't related to craft. Suppose this question now reads as if I'm looking for a magic answer. I have to be willingly to state that's not going to happen.
Should I write what I know? I swing between the different approaches to the write what you know tattoo. You read so much about it. Know what you write. Write what you don't know. Write what you can image, feel, see with your third eye. I don't know. Who does? There's so much advice about writing, most of it contradictory. Read The Elements of Style, and it gives us a sense of how language should work. There's nothing in there about sorting through personal issues, figuring how you're going to make the leap from amateur to doer. E.L. Doctorow claims he can only see a few miles ahead when he writes a new novel, one headlight beaming. John Irving likes to outline and thinks aspiring writers could benefit from a similar process. I like both those guys. I just read Colson Whitehead's Rules and that has my head spinning, his rules are so good. I think you quoted from the essay here and just so you know there is a YouTube lecture that accompanies the Rules. I feel better already but not really.
It bothers me that I have read so many creative writing books and taken a number of workshops and courses. I am wrapping up my MA in English at Utah State University, and I'm supposed to have a creative thesis done. That's not the case. I wanted to write a full-length play. The potential play is basically two notebooks of dialogue. It just goes on on on. Talking, arguments, little description, subtext, dabbling, plenty of stage directions. I abandoned it. I wonder if this whole damn thing stems from personal cracks. Part of me is always reluctant when it comes to putting myself into whatever I'm working on. As I revise this post, I realize how absurd it is to leave this question for you.
Hi Michael. You are so nice to call me brilliant! I've been wanting to move to England just so people would say that word to me all the time. Now to your question: To my mind, there are two kinds of writers. The first has a torrent of words running through their heads that often, in everyday life, resolves into a kind of self-narration ("I am sipping my coffee now")--these people write a lot of books and may seem sort of compulsive about it, like Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Lethem: for the sake of argument, I will call them "wordy." The other kind of writer has a mind full of feeling-tones, vague ideas, and grudges: they have to struggle to find the words they need to bring this blob to life. These types don't write as many books, and they tend to be shorter when they do (I am this kind of writer). For the sake of argument, I'll call these people "feely." You, Michael, are wordy. Without a doubt.
I don't think one is better than the other, but they do have their particular limitations. Wordy writers tend to find pleasure in the physical act of writing (longhand, for instance), favor description, and have a strong tendency to create characters who are stand-ins for themselves. Language, for the wordies, is a version of the self, and to be known is to put this self on the page. This also isn’t bad, but it has some pitfalls. (As does being a feely author, who might spend all day writing the word "grass" only to erase it and write "moss".) While feely authors have to figure out how to go, wordy authors have to figure out how to channel their constant forward motion. That, dear Michael, is your challenge.
Given that, here are some things to keep in mind: 1. Don’t let your inner stream of language become too close to your facade, or social self—this part of us is boring and basically a gigantic compromise. At the same time, try not to let that inner-word-stream join with with your inner-facade, which is your goody-goody, journal-writing self. (“I am watching the steam from my coffee rise from my cup, wondering if I will ever shake off this inner loneliness. Why is the coffee at this place so bad?”). The trick is to try to allow it to dip down into your joyful/fucked up/essential self, the one that’s excited about life, that falls in love, that is angry and mean, who has dreams and masturbates and sometimes wants to kill people with his/her bare hands. Now you’re cooking! 2. Find your themes. What ideas are your free-writing list paragraph poems full of? Why do you want to write anyway? These are probably feelings but you can say it in words. There will be layers. “To show those fuckers how smart I am,” for instance, has a layer below it: “For having to pretend to be dumb for so long” (hi ladies!), which is an idea that can be expressed with anecdotes from a life, yours or someone else’s. What I mean is: here is your story. This isn’t the same as “writing what you know.” This is writing what has meaning for you. Which keeps it from seeming dead. 3. It’s okay if that doesn’t work. Just try it. Then do this exercise. Let’s call it: Three Pages.
Three Pages. 1. Write a bunch of stories with a fairly short page limit. I’m going to say three pages because you’re wordy, but it could be shorter. Don’t write anything else! No free writing, no lists. Just write short stories. They can suck! In fact, they should suck. Here’s how to write a story: 2. Each story must have at least two characters who have an actual sense of vitality in the tale. So there can’t just be one character who matters while the other one stands there and says, “What kind of pizza?”. Both are affected by the events. 3. The two (or more) characters must want different things. This isn’t always the same as “a conflict,” as your writing books say, though it may be a conflict. In the story, the characters either see that they want different things, or have to deal with it, or decide to decline to deal with it. (It can be anything. Mr. Hippo wants to move to a bigger swamp, Mrs. Hippo wants to be a songwriter in Nashville. Miss Horse wants to Dr. Horse happy; Doctor Horse wants to drown kittens). 5. Have as much description as you want but dude, you only have three pages. And all the description, all the detail and action and skirts blowing in the wind, has to partake of the central metaphor/theme/idea/thing of the story. So if it’s a story about love, the skirt might, “blow up and blur into the outline of the car, until they meld into one.” That example sucks, but I hope it shows what I mean. 6. No outlining. It's short. Just do it. It's not supposed to be good. 4. The characters may not be stand-ins for you: no no no, just no. Maybe in one story out of six, you can make it be a you-character, just to see how it feels. But the rest of the time, make them not-you. This doesn’t mean you never know how they feel, or what they want, or how they get through their days; it means that you have to use your own humanity and imagination and memory and experience and intelligence to create a different personality on the page. 6. Have the ending relate to the beginning, or the beginning relate to the end.
After you do this for a while, you should begin to have an idea of how to write fiction. After you do it for even longer, you’ll start to have an idea of what kind of fiction you like/need/want to write—if you do want to. Maybe you’ll discover that it’s not your thing, and that you wanted to direct movies all along, or songs, or go to Los Angeles and become a stylist. Fine! But you've been trying to write stories for a long time, so you should do this first.
Hi Stacey. I'm doing the weird thing again where I'm posting anonymously to your blog, even though I know you in real life, and I could just contact you in a more ordinary way. But whatever - I'm a fan of your blog and I have a question. So - that story I was all angsty about editing came out and I got contacted by an agent. I have a phone call scheduled with her next week. Do you have any tips for me? I'm guessing she's going to want to know if I have a book she can sell. Right now I don't, but I do have a few scattered chapters and an overriding idea that would tie it all together. When I say the pitch/plan out loud, it sounds feasible to me and also not totally bad. It also isn't written, which could be a problem, but it is based on the thing that I published that she liked. I was thinking I'd try to sell her on that idea, tell her it isn't ready to see yet (100% true) and then write like crazy. Or is that not how this works? How does this work? What questions should I ask her and what will she probably ask me? And what does a person expect out of an agent? I don't really have any idea how this stuff goes and I want to sound like I do, at least a little bit.
Hi Sort of. (Just to clue-in other readers, after Sort of's last post, she wrote me an email on the side unmasking herself. Since I figure I know or have met many people who write in, I wasn't surprised--but I was pleased.) That's great about the agent! I want to read the story and will try to remember where it is, because you told me. Oh, I found it. Oh, it's wonderful! Except I think I can't read the last paragraph. Fuck. Okay, I'll deal with that later. Great story! I'm not surprised the agent liked it. The real question now is do you like the agent?
The deal with agents is this: they are people who make their living helping writers find publishers. They need writers. You may think she's auditioning you but really, you need to be auditioning her: do you like her? Does she have your best interest at heart? Does she agree with your values about art and writing and selling, and do you even know what those values are? (Like, do you want to be read by the masses taking the train to work or are you more of an artiste who lives to be true to her vision, accessible or not, or somewhere in between, or what). Will she be a good reader of your work and does that matter to you? (It's nice, but you also might have other readers you trust).
Agents make money when a transaction occurs, and since you don't have a finished book, you don't have anything to sell right now anyway, so the best thing that can happen is that you like her, you check in with her, you talk to her about your plans, and she encourages you. She can try to sell a novel with three chapters and an outline, but for a first book that's less likely. It does happen though. Ask her about that. Ask her what her game plan would be for you--try to sell a novel? Try to place stories in magazines first, then sell a novel? Could she get you freelance gigs, if you want them? What percentage does she take? What other authors does she represent? Ask her how she sees you and how she might situate you in terms of other writers. If she says you are the next Jodi Picoult, maybe you don't wanna be her client, though honestly I have not read Jodi Picoult and she's probably awesome.
Since the center of the publishing industry is in New York, she should either be in New York or talk to you about how she handles living elsewhere. A good agent will not make you sign a contract with her until she is actually selling your book--she isn't worried about you leaving her because she's good. It's a voluntary relationship, in other words.
Overall, I think you should think about what you want from an agent and see if she's up for it. I LOVE the idea of you banging out your book based on the story as fast as you can--maybe this lady will give you a deadline, or encouragement, or editorial feedback (though I wouldn't necessarily trust this to be good until you have evidence that it is); it would be nice if she just generally clued you in to the realities of the marketplace in helpful and encouraging ways. She could be a sort of mentor, ideally. Ideally, you could ask her what you should be asking agents and she'll tell you. Have her explain foreign rights to you vs. English language rights. Then just think about it. You don't have to go with her or not until you have a finished thing. Remember, she needs you. You are the gas in her engine. I mean, she's basically going to suck up 20% of your income, so make sure it's worth it. And also, Sort of, ask her if she'll take 17%. It never hurts to negotiate and it will be interesting to see what she does BECAUSE it's going to be her job to negotiate with publishers on your behalf. If she freaks out, she may not be the right person. She's not the only agent on the planet, and if she wants you, others will too. Rock on!
Kosher chocolate mousse--rock on!
Well, pie is all kosher as long as it doesn't have meat in it. This torte sounds amazing. It's from The New National Council of Jewish Women (Salt Lake City Chapter) Cook Book, which looks to be from the 1950's. It's not a real book but a bound collection of recipes from the members. This one is by Janet Rosen, who is probably related to me because how many Jews could there be in Salt Lake City in 1952?
CHOCOLATE ICE BOX TORTE
Line bottom of 9" spring form with macaroons; the sides with lady fingers. Cream well 1/2 c. butter and 1-1/4 c. powdered sugar. Melt and add 1/2 lb. sweet chocolate. Blend all thoroughly. Add 1/2 t. almond extract, 3 yolks of eggs, well beaten, 1 c. toasted and chopped almonds. Beat 3 whites of eggs until stiff and fold into chocolate mixture. Lastly fold in 1 c. whipped cream. Let set several hours.
Later: looking at this recipe again, I think it has great potential to be a low-carb stevia dessert. If I actually make it and it works, I'll post it.