Literary Agents

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty

Literary Agents

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Okay, so now you have a fully revised novel or short story collection and you’re ready to test the publishing waters. Huzzah!

If you’re looking to go the traditional publishing route, I highly recommend having a literary agent represent your work. Unless you’re a literary agent yourself, or have some kind of special relationship with a publisher, an agent offers the modern author a unique range of skills and contacts they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. How so? Literary agents have a working relationship with editors at a variety of publishing houses. They know what editors are looking for, in what direction their personal tastes skew, and how to best approach them. They have lunch with editors, they chat on the phone with editors, they run into editors at parties and book fairs and super-secret publishing orgies. They also know how to handle negotiating book deals and can ably explain the fine print of said book deal. They serve as a buffer between publishing houses and the author, which can occasionally be very necessary. A good literary agent is a writer’s advocate, initial reader, occasional editor, fine print watchdog, and all-around champion in a world that doesn’t otherwise give a flip about an author’s fiscal success.

Also, many mainstream publishers won’t even look at your manuscript if you don’t have an agent. Right or wrong, they see literary agents as a form of quality control, keeping out the barbarians with their bad writing and stale plot ideas. If a writer has an agent, they reason, he can’t be too impossible to work with and, almost as importantly, the publisher won’t have to do any hand holding when it comes to negotiating the book deal and seeing it to press—the agent can explain all that.

#

I waited until I’d finished my fourth novel before I seriously attempted to retain the services of an agent. I’d been seriously writing for nearly ten years, but I started very young and I knew my work wasn’t yet up to publishing standards. Not until Book #4, anyway. This book I liked a lot—it really made me laugh. I thought maybe it had a chance. Maybe it was the book I could launch my publishing career upon.

I’d been enrolled in my MFA in Writing program for a semester and I had a vague notion of how the wheels of publishing turned. I read the current edition of Writer’s Market and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. I learned that agents usually preferred to receive query letters as opposed to a chunk of a manuscript (much less the whole damn thing) upon initial contact. I studied examples of query letters and carefully crafted my own. Since it was an actual letter, and not an email, I don’t have an exact copy of it now, but I’m guessing it read something like this:

(Date)

(Agency Name)

(Address)

Dear (Agent Name),

Greetings. My name is David Oppegaard and I am seeking representation for my novel KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL. A literary comedy, it follows the adventures of Wilson Scrags, an escaped mental patient on the run from the law in the suburbs. Suffering from an invisible “friend” who torments him, Scrags befriends an eccentric cast of characters as he tries to evade the police and find peace. The manuscript is 60,000 words.

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon,

David Oppegaard

(My address, phone number, and email address)

Using Jeff Herman’s Guide to research every possible agent (my logic was since Writer’s Market was the most popular of the two books I’d go with the underdog, which might give me some kind of unusual angle) and I mailed out forty query letters with self-addressed stamped envelopes (good old SASEs).[1] Weeks passed and the first “Thanks but I’ll have to pass” form letters began to trickle in. I ticked each one off the list I’d created, noting the personal letters, until the dark day came months later when the list was fully checked.

Then one day, when I was at work at my optician gig, I checked my Hotmail account and discovered this email:

Dear Mr. Oppegaard:
Further to yours of February 22nd, Re: KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL, unfortunately Douglas Stewart is no longer at Curtis Brown. However, I had the opportunity to review your query and sample chapter, and the story sounds quite intriguing.[2] I am slowly taking on new clients at Curtis Brown, and would love to look at the next five chapters of your manuscript. If you would like to send me your material, please enclose a SASE for easier reply. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,
Jonathan I. Lyons
Curtis Brown, Ltd.

At first I couldn’t fully process what I was reading. I thought it might be one of those spam emails trying to trick you into realizing all your dreams would come true. Then I reread it a few times and started pacing around the eye clinic, feeling like I’d slipped into a delirious fever dream. Then I looked up Curtis Brown, Ltd. on the Internet to make sure it was a legitimate operation (turned out it was one of the oldest and most venerable agencies in New York!). This was all real. This was all really happening to me—my forty rejections in the desert and now this![3]

Well aware that fancy NYC agents were always crazy busy, I kept my reply to Jonathan short and sweet. I knew I was an idiot who was prone to saying crazy shit all the time so I thought I’d stick to as strictly professional as possible.

Dear Mr. Lyons,

Thank you for your interest in Knocking Over the Fishbowl.  I will send you the next five chapters within the week.

Sincerely,

David Oppegaard

Only eleven days later (some kind of agent record!) Jonathan emailed me to say that he liked the additional five chapters and requested the entire book, which I sent to him through the post with all due haste (this was only 2004 but it sure feels a lot longer ago when you’re talking about mailing manuscripts).

I was beginning to get very, very excited.

This was it.

This was it!

Then, only two more short weeks later:

Dear David,

I’ve been agonizing over your novel for the past week, hoping that I might be able to find a suggestion that would overcome my reservations. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find that “one thing” that would push me one way or the other, and I felt that the delay in my response has become too great. Ultimately, I also concluded that you should have an agent representing you who does not need a “push” like this.

I really have no negative comments to speak of regarding KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL. I enjoyed all of the characters, and I felt that you smoothly went from person to person without losing track of the storyline as a whole. I also liked the humorous undercurrent throughout – and in this way I found your writing similar to Dave Barry, albeit a bit less farcical. You captured Wilson’s “insanity” accurately and poignantly, but never allowed the reader to feel sorry for him. The only narrative line that I felt needed some work was Officer Lance’s out-of-control antipathy towards Scrags and others, and the motivations for the behavior. Still, overall I felt you have created a wonderfully eccentric cast of characters and storyline.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t fall in love with the novel. While a few agents might feel that “enjoyed” is sufficient to take on a work, I feel differently. Getting a book published is becoming more difficult every day, and I really feel an author needs an agent who is so passionate about the work, so in love with it, that they will fight for it to the very end.

I am sure this is abundantly clear from my above comments, but even still, you should know that this business is a highly subjective one. I strongly suggest querying other agents, and I have no doubts that you will find one that feels as passionately about your work as you do. I wish I had better news for you, and I would be honored to look at anything else you might produce in the future.

Best,

Jonathan I. Lyons

Oh, the humanity! Even reading this now, having published four novels and this very book on writing, I feel my heart squeeze painfully in my chest and worry deeply for twenty-four year-old Dave Oppegaard. I can’t even remember how I processed the news, exactly, but it probably involved alcohol.

But what a generous rejection, right? Jonathan was so, so very kind and perceptive. It almost made it worse, knowing what an awesome agent I’d almost had representing me.

This was dark night of the soul, my friends.

A dark night.

#

I’ll have to give twenty-four-year-old Dave credit, though. He was young and stubborn and too dumb to fully realize the odds stacked against him. He knew he’d gotten tantalizingly close and he kept on trucking. He went to his graduate school classes and talked Mary Rockcastle, professor and chair of his writing program, into giving him notes for a rewrite. He took those notes, rewrote the whole book one more time, then sent out a fresh round of queries. He got interest from another agent, who read the entire book, and then, at the last moment, also passed.

Despondent and desperate, I sent one last email to Jonathan Lyons, remembering his previous kindness. It had been five months since Jonathan passed yet, miracles of miracles, Jonathan agreed to re-read the novel.[4]

A few months later, after a check-in email or two, he got back to me.

Dear David,

I just finished reading the revised version of KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL, and I think you’ve done a great job. The novel is still ferociously witty, with rich and endearing characters. You’ve really tightened it – the second half of the novel is wonderfully paced. It also seems as if you’ve concentrated more on one dominant theme –
which I think is a better choice. I do think there are a few areas that might need a bit more work – the conclusion could be reworked a little so that the ending matches more the tone of the rest of the work, a few characters seem to disappear in the second half of the novel, and there is a small section at the beginning (maybe fifteen pages) that moves a little slower than the rest of the novel. Still, overall I think the manuscript is much improved from before.

I’d like to talk with you more on the phone about that at your convenience and gauge your reaction to considering one more, much slighter revision. Is it ok if I call you tomorrow?

Best,

Jonathan

Of course I would agree to any editing suggestions! Holy fuck! We talked on the phone the next day (me all a-tremble) and suddenly I HAD AN AGENT. I gathered all my friends at O’Gara’s on Snelling Avenue and we drank like banshees. I even got all The Lord of the Rings and claimed “it was a red day”.

This was it.

This was the next step in the Grind.

#

Jonathan and I have been together ever since. He’s been an invaluable ally. Truly. He’s read twelve of my novels, offered critiques and/or line edits on all of them, submitted most of them to editors (and squashing a few I didn’t have the heart to squash, which in of itself is very valuable, though heartbreaking at the time), and he’s even taken me out to delicious New York City dinners twice. By my rough calculation he’s currently (as I type this essay’s rough draft) earned a grand total of about three thousand dollars, spread over eleven years, by representing me and my hard-to-market genre blending work.

Talk about an artist’s champion.

[1] You can tell this was a while ago. Most agents accept electronic query letters now and many have their own submission form on their website.

[2] Remember when I was talking about luck playing a part in the career of nearly every artist? Having an agent pick up a query letter from the slush pile of his predecessor, read and respond to it with interest is like winning the lottery while getting hit by a bolt of lightning that actually turns you into a psychic.

[3] I must have miscounted or something. Around thirty rejections in I started to grow lax in my record keeping.

[4] This is all true. I swear!

Workshopping

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Nineteen

Workshopping

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Your standard fiction workshop, as made popular by the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, revolves around the idea of a round table discussion between a group of writers that is led (or, if you will, orchestrated) by a writing instructor. A small number of students, say three or four, depending on class size, submit a work of fiction to the group a week or so before the class meets in person. Everybody is required to arrive at each class having read the week’s submitted work with the understanding that they will participate in critiquing it during class. The general idea is that not only will the students who have submitted their work learn about their own work but the class will learn together as a whole, both from each other and the comments the writing instructor makes.

As you may have deduced from this setup, there’s a great number of variables in how well the workshop process works for both the student whose work is being critiqued and the class as a whole. The quality of a workshop session can fluctuate not only from week to week but from story to story.

By variables I mean things like:

Has everyone in class actually read the submitted work?
What quality is the work itself? Does it deal with any hot button issues like rape or racism that are likely to dredge up strong emotions in the other students?
What level in their writing (and reading) development are the students in the class at?
What’s the energy in the room like? Is everyone fresh faced and ready to engage or worn out and exhausted?
How well does the instructor maintain control of the workshop session without strangling it with authoritarian fervor? How adept is she at drawing out the timid students and putting a lid on the garrulous students?
Etc.
The writing workshop is a true group effort and even a veteran instructor can have their hands full with a group at odds with itself. Writers, especially younger ones just beginning to take their lumps in the gory world of fiction revision, can be as sensitive as spooked rabbits and ready to take offense at the smallest slight (either perceived or actual). They have not yet learned to distance their own personal identity from their work on the page. Having invested so much of themselves in their work they’ve not fully realized, through the magical grind of time, that there will be so much writing, so many words, ahead of them that emotionally latching on to only one small work, and such an early work, is a waste of energy that blinds you to the lessons you need to take from the workshop experience to improve.
A fiction workshop can be a very useful learning process but it can also be a minefield of prickly emotions and smoldering anguish. Its members (especially the adjunct instructor looking toward being rehired) engage in a subtle verbal dance any Japanese businessman would find familiar and employ a lexicon unique to the workshop process. Let’s say the following story is submitted to the workshop process:

The Phone Call

By David YoungWriter

Ralph woke up hungover and alone. His wife had left him the week before and their house felt empty without her. Ralph got up and looked at himself in the mirror. He was a fat, balding man with a frizzy beard and pale white skin. He had dark circles around his eyes from staying up so late drinking.
Ralph’s dog came into the bedroom and sniffed Ralph’s crotch. Ralph shoved the dog away and stood up with a big yawn. God, Ralph thought. Another day without Patty. Grumpy, chain-smoking Patty. How he missed her. At least her cooking. He did miss her cooking. The night before he’d tried to make a stir-fry and he’d burned the chicken so bad he’d set off the smoke alarm.
The phone rang. Ralph stared at it for a second while his dog ran around in a circle, chasing his own tail. Ralph answered the phone.
“Yeah?”
His voice sounded like a bullfrog croaking. A hungover bullfrog.
“Hi Ralph.”
Ralph coughed into the phone.
“Yeah?”
“It’s me. Patty.”
“Yeah,” Ralph said. “I figured.”
“How are you doing?”
Ralph scratched the side of his head and looked at his dog, who’d stopped chasing his tail and was now licking his balls like they were covered in cocaine.
“All right,” Ralph said. “I’m working at the bowling alley later. I’m picking up an evening shift for Jimmy behind the counter.”
“That’s good,” Patty said. “I’m glad you’re keeping busy.”
Ralph nodded, forgetting Patty couldn’t see the gesture.
“Ralph?”
“Yep.”
“I want a divorce.”
Ralph’s forehead creased together in a frown.
“You do?”
“Yes, Ralph. I’m not happy. I haven’t been happy for a long time.”
The dog looked up from licking his balls as if he could hear Patty on the other end of the phone. His ears were perked up and he was giving Ralph a look.
“Okay,” Ralph said. “A divorce it is, then.”
Patty sniffled.
“I’ll be in touch, Ralph.”
“Yeah.”
Ralph hung up the phone. The dog looked at him and barked.
“I guess it’s just you and me from now on, boy,” Ralph said, standing up. The dog twirled in a circle and ran to the doorway. He needed to go outside.
Maybe they both did.

The End

Ah, what a great profound literary story by Dave YoungWriter! Here’s how the workshop discussion of said story might play out (picture, if you will, fifteen students and one instructor all sitting around a table with marked-up manuscripts and various beverages in front of them—nobody’s gotten a good night’s sleep all semester) while student Dave YoungWriter, per standard workshop operating procedure, looks on without commenting.

Instructor: So, what do we like about this story?
Student #1: I like the dog.
Student #2: Yeah, he’s funny. He provides, like, comic relief.
Student #3: Ralph is so sad. I just feel for him, you know?
Student #1: But he’s got the dog to cheer him up.
Student #4: I kind of wanted know more about the dog, actually. What kind of dog is it? What’s his name?
Student #5: Yeah. Is it, like, Patty’s dog or Ralph’s dog, you know?
Student #6: I don’t know about the dog licking his balls. I don’t know if it was really necessary.
Student #7: I liked the ball licking. It was funny. My dog licks his balls all the time.
Student #8: But what she means is did it add to the story?
Instructor: You’re wondering if the ball licking was a telling detail?
Student #6: Right, exactly. I didn’t know how to feel about it.
Student #9: Maybe the ball licking is a metaphor for Ralph’s neutered sex drive.
Instructor: Now that’s interesting.
Student #10: Maybe that’s why Ralph drinks all the time and Patty’s leaving him. Because he can’t satisfy her sexual needs.
Student #11: I wanted to know more about Patty, actually. All we’re told is he misses her cooking. What does Patty do for a living? Did they meet at the bowling alley or what? What makes Patty tick?
Student #12: Maybe Patty isn’t real. Maybe the whole phone call is a hallucination.
Student #10: Like maybe Ralph’s still asleep and the whole conversation is a dream?
Student #13: Maybe Ralph’s dreaming about the phone call because he wants to get divorced in real life. Maybe he wakes up and Patty’s still lying beside him, all gross and snoring.
Instructor: I don’t think that’s what the author is going for here. I don’t see any evidence that this is a dream state—
Student #12: Maybe that’s the point! Maybe the author is saying being awake is the same thing as being asleep if you’re trapped in a loveless marriage.
Student #5: And the dog represents their child. The ball licking could mean their child is going through puberty or something.
Student #6: I still don’t think the ball licking is really necessary.
Student #2: Are you kidding? The ball licking is the best part!
Instructor: Okay, I think we’ve covered the ball licking angle sufficiently. How can we make this piece better?
Student #14: I think Ralph could be developed more. We don’t really get to see what he’s thinking very much. What’s his motivation?
Student #3: Yeah. Also, what’s the conflict here? Ralph wakes up, gets a phone call, and agrees to a divorce just like that?
Instructor: That’s a valid question.
Student #7: I think the conflict is the dog. He needs to go outside and the phone call is delaying that.
Instructor: So you think the dog is the main protagonist in the piece?
Student #7: Maybe.
Student #11: I think the main character is Patty. She’s the one who’s been unhappy for so long. She’s the one who makes the call. She’s the one who is leaving and that’s really brave, you know? Like she’s a heroine.
Student #1: But Ralph’s about to leave, too. To take the dog outside.
Student #6: Actually, I couldn’t really visualize the setting and that held me back. I want to know what the bedroom looks like. Do they have wedding pictures on the walls? Is there a mirror above the bed?
Instructor: A mirror above the bed?
Dave YoungWriter, who has long since laid his head on the table, lets out a barely audible sigh.

I could keep this patter up for another hundred pages but I think you can see where I’m going with this. If my fictional class of faceless students can find so much to critique and speculate on in a one page story you can only imagine the spectrum of conversations that can be held by fifteen very different people regarding a story five to twenty pages long. Everyone brings a unique perspective to a work of art and everybody is going to comment differently upon it. What I learned by going through the workshop process was to keep my radar tuned to observations that I found most useful and to tune out the white noise made by students who just liked hearing themselves talk (or just didn’t know what they were talking about).

Sometimes it’s helpful when a class reaches a general consensus about an issue in a story—like a character they all want to know more about, or a plot point everyone found confusing. Indeed, the beginning writer would be well advised to think of the workshop environment as an informal polling venue, with the instructor’s vote carrying extra weight and serving as a tie-breaker when needed. Rarely outside of the workshopping process will you be able to witness firsthand how your work affects a general audience until it is widely published and it’s far too late to edit anything.

I’ve noticed that interpersonal relationships play a surprisingly outsized part in the workshop process. I suppose this is inevitable, since politics creep up any time you get a bunch of people around a table, but I’m still chagrined every time I see it play out. Students in a university setting, be it graduate or undergraduate, tend get to know each other pretty well as they pass through the system. They form alliances with each other, they personally dislike each other, they grow revolted by each other. Friends sit together around the workshop table in bunches and the loners ends up in the corners, scowling at everyone else. When a story is workshopped by a member of a certain clique the other members rally valiantly to its defense, absorbing any and all critiques of the story as some kind of personal affront to all of them, which inevitably causes the members of rival cliques and the seething loners to engage in their criticism with ever more tenacity. Feelings get hurt, metaphoric blood is spilled. What started out as a friendly, detached stroll through the fictional park ends with a The Naked and The Dead-type death march. I recall leaving more than one workshop session as a student needing nothing more than cold air and silence, beautiful profound wintery silence, and it hadn’t even been my own work being discussed!

How did I handle my own writing being workshopped, you ask? Well, it was exhausting, for certain, and more than a little like being at your own funeral (though instead of friends and family in attendance near strangers stand over your open coffin and comment on your gussied up appearance). I always felt slightly feverish afterward and like doing anything except writing. I’d take my pile of marked-up manuscripts and their attached page long editorial-style notes and shove them deep in my closet, or in the bottom of my desk drawer, and wait about a week or two before looking at them. They felt radioactive to me.

But it got easier, by and by, and I learned to take what I needed and leave the rest. I realized it wasn’t personal even when it was personal. Every one of my classmates was trying to find their own voice, make their own way through the world. I learned to slowly detach myself from their constructive criticism, turn it around in my mind, and suss out the useful observations for my own ends. I found that the workshop process, when it’s firing on all-cylinders and everyone is equally invested, having more or less checked their egos at the door, is a wonderful and useful tool that cannot quite be duplicated in any other manner. You may have an agent one day, and an editor or three, but once you leave the workshop world you’ll never again be a part of a small battalion of intelligent, bookish people too raw and too green to hide what they’re really thinking, which, like iron ore, has great value as long as you know how to process it into a more refined material.

Cats

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Eighteen

Cats

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My cat Frenchie is sleeping on my bed right now. I have my big Ikea desk tucked into a recess in my bedroom so I’m facing away from her as I type but I can hear her softly snoring, my little furry tortoiseshell muse with the impenetrable coat of a Russian bear. She likes to sleep on books—she cuddles them as if they’re pillows—and she likes the big hardcover ones best since they give her the best value for her snuggling dollars. Right now she’s sleeping on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wonder if she hears the chirping birds of the prairie and the lonely wolf cries of the past seeping up through the pages and into her tiny cat brain. A plump housecat with a sweet disposition, I don’t think she’d fare well on the open plains. I don’t think she could beat up a frog.

Why do cats and books go so well together? Why do cats like to sleep on loose pieces of paper so much?

You never hear about a dog cuddling with a book. Eating a book: yes. Dogs have been eating books since time immemorial. Every fuckhead with a face knows that. Dogs also like to eat paper so much they’ve become a fallback excuse for not doing your homework: “Mitzy-poo ate my assignment, I swear!”. Okay, we get it, dogs: you’re good at chewing. Time to give it a rest, Arfy. We’ve got serious writing to do here.

#

My first cat wasn’t really my cat. He was an orange tabby stray we named Leonardo (after the leader of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of course) and let sleep on the porch of our house beginning when I was nine or ten years old. Leo wasn’t allowed in the house but we had a litterbox and a makeshift cat bed on the porch and we left out food and water for him. This arrangement seemed to work nicely for Leo and a couple of times I snuck him into the house when my parents were gone and let him run around. We had good times, Leo and I, and he lived on our porch for many years. One day we found him badly hurt in the backyard with his hind legs badly torn open. My mother, sister, and I wrapped him in a towel and sped fifteen miles in the family van to an animal hospital in Mankato. We all cried during the drive and thought he was going to die but the tough outdoor cat pulled through surgery and came out all right, his only real permanent injury a bent tail which eventually fell off a few weeks later and left a happy, twitchy nub.

Leo came and went from his porch home like a proper gentleman loafer but when I was around fourteen he disappeared for good, leaving a pet vacancy in my heart as well as a foreboding sense of loss. We lived right off a four-lane highway and we could only assume he’d been hit by traffic, but no trace of his body was ever discovered so his ultimate fate remains, to this day, a matter of pure speculation. I think he probably ran for kitty Senate and had to move away to properly represent our neighborhood in kitty Washington D.C. He always did have an amiable, crossing-the-aisle air about him.

My second cat also wasn’t really my cat, at least at first. His name was Opie and he was my girlfriend-at-the-time’s cat. Also an orange tabby, Opie was already seventeen when I met him and as grumpy as a wounded badger. I turned on the Dave charm, however, and slowly won him over as we got to know each other, going so far as to sleep on the bathroom floor with him one yowling night during a cross-country move from St. Paul to Boise, Idaho. Opie was one of those animals who have a ton of character, a certain fuck-you attitude, and I admired this about him as one admires the toughness in an ally during wartime. We became good pals, Opie and I, and when my relationship with his owner eventually ended Opie moved in with me.

For a while it seemed like old Opie would live forever, even if his don’t-fuck-with-me strut had grown a bit rickety, but a few months after his twenty-second birthday he stopped eating and began to waste away despite my repeated attempts at food bribery. On the third of July I went to party at my cousin’s house and returned home to my apartment quite drunk. I held Opie in my arms and felt how light and skeletal he was and tearfully told him it was okay, it’s okay Opie, you can let go now and die. Sometime in the middle of the night Opie, who needed the help of a stool by this time, tried to jump up on the foot of the bed for a late night cuddle and I heard him thump back to the floor, his attempt a failure. Then, with an effort that felt heroic in my deeply inebriated state and I still regard as one of the few rock solid arguments in my favor as a decent soul, I jumped up and picked him up, helping him onto the bed. We had a good cuddle, like we always did, and I fell back asleep.

The next morning, on the 4th of July, my girlfriend-at-the-time found Opie lying stiff on the bathroom floor, his favorite place to lounge. His eyes were open but he looked at peace, like he’d stared death down and remained unalarmed. We buried Opie the next day outside of River Falls, Wisconsin, on the grounds of my college roommate’s family farm. It was an ungodly hot, steamy day and the sun beat down on my hungover skull with mean spirited ferocity. I dug Opie’s cat-sized grave and lowered him into the grave myself while two sad women looked on and the moment felt continuous, as if I’d tapped into something that had no true beginning and or end. One of Opie’s legs, gone stiff with rigor mortis, stuck out at an awkward angle, forcing me to tamp it down with my foot—one final friendly fuck-you from the Governor.

I lasted for about a grief wracked month before I decided to get another cat, the first I’d ever chosen myself. I went to a couple of cat shelters and looked around with baleful eyes until I found Frenchie, with her beautiful tortoiseshell fur and sweet disposition, residing in a no-kill shelter only three blocks from my apartment. Frenchie came up to me amid the chaos of the forty cats frolicking in the shelter’s main room and sprawled onto my sandaled feet like a dog, offering me her soft white belly for a scratch.

Oh.

I guess I didn’t really have a choice this time, either.

#

Cats and the writing life go so well together. As long as you give them some attention every now and then and feed them they’ll leave you alone to write for as long as you need to write. They don’t need to be walked, like dogs, and they don’t thirst for fresh blood, like vampires. Whenever you need to have a restorative nap they’re always ready to assist—cats keep their schedules relatively clear. They don’t mind if you work very late or get up very early because time is nearly meaningless to them, one long flowing sea they’re always swimming in. They might puke on your manuscript or walk on your keyboard like they’re hot shit but they’re just messing around and trying to enjoy themselves—it’s nothing you should take personally.

I’ve often marveled at my cat’s calmness during periods when I personally feel very excitable or distraught. Cats possess a serenity that every writer should pay attention to and study as a model for their own inner life. Unless they hear a loud sound, get a piece of tape stuck to their heads, or just plain decide to take off like a missile and fire across the room, cats don’t let shit rattle them. They just keep on being a cat, day after day, and they don’t give much credence to their critics—in fact even the loudest, most vocal criticism doesn’t seem to hang around in their brains much longer than the time it takes them to widen their eyes and scamper a few feet across the room. They live in the moment—everything is show, nothing is tell—and they serve no master except the inner voice every cat is born with, telling them string string string.

Cats, unlike humans, don’t need to write anything and they don’t care about posterity. Their very whiskered lives are a work of art in of themselves, their every impulse arising from a blessed transcendence.

 

 

Resonance

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Resonance

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The ultimate goal of every story I write is resonance. I want the story to resonate in some lingering way with the reader. I want to haunt the reader. I want to dig into their skull and set up shop for a few hours. When they close the cover of my book I want the story to reverberate in the reader’s heart and kick around in the backwater of their mind, if only for a little while. I build my stories bit by bit with an eye toward this eventual payoff, this sensual dénouement. I do my best to make the reader care about my characters and the situations they find themselves in (or, to quote Bruce Springsteen, the “lonely places that we take ourselves”) and then I like to blow everything sky high.

My goal is not to shock you.

My goal is not to make you cry, or give you one last parting chuckle. I’m not giving a best man speech at a wedding. I don’t care if your great aunt thinks I look handsome in a tuxedo.

My goal is not to prove how clever I am, to show what a great twist I can add at the end and how I outsmarted all of you and made you think the well-mannered butler did it. Cleverness is not that clever.

No. Fuck all that. These options are a cheap way of closing—they can be added to any manuscript like ingredients in a soup. I want to connect with the reader. I want to cause that deep moment of reflective profundity that follows any good, thunderous piece of music at the very instant it stops. I may not be able to achieve this every time, with every reader, but if I can resonate with a few I am happy enough, for such moments seem to grow increasingly rare as the modern world grows louder and louder and reflective silence itself is encroached upon.

I want my work to resonate before it fades back into the collective dreamscape. I want my books to be like a warm summer evening filled with heat lightning, the horizon zapped by a beautiful spectral light the viewer cannot help but see when they close their eyes.

Revision

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Sixteen

Revision

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Being good at revising creative writing—whether it’s a play or a novel or short story or a poem—involves a particular mindset that’s part analytical, part mystical, and part totally bonkers insane. If writing is a grind, revising what you’ve written is the grind-within-the-grind. Unless your every word is rings true and golden in your rough draft (and it won’t, unless you’re maybe a Biblical prophet filled with God’s fiery Word) you’re going to need to rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. And then drink some coffee and rewrite some more.

I evaluate creative writing students, and the odds that they’re still be writing in ten years, by how much effort they expend in revision. I like the work horses. The grinders. I like the students who show a natural love for the extensive puzzle that is revision and a willingness to patiently engage in it without letting their ego or a sense of impatience blind them. The ones who don’t just love the pleasurable sexy heat of creation, but who take the time and effort to properly raise the kid, too.

That’s the kind of parent that sticks around.

#

Let’s return to my statement that revision is part analytical, part mystical, and part bonkers crazy and break the three categories down one by one.

Analytical

As you’ve gone through the rough draft process of a story or a novel you’ve been focused on creation. You’ve sat down many, many times over a period of several months or years and filled blank pages with words. You’ve created a world where none had existed before, created new characters and settings where a short while before had been nothing but a blank space, a vacuum only you knew had to be filled. You’ve been daydreaming. Imagining. You’ve been pushing the creative side of your brain, the right side, as hard as you possibly can.

But now you’ve got the rough draft of your story or novel completed and it’s time for that important second draft, when your story is still fresh and malleable and you can step back and see what you’ve got to work with. It’s time for you to do some left brain thinking, time to analyze the text for a variety of errors and correct those errors one by one. Does the plot satisfy? Are the characters suited to the story? Does the dialogue scan as natural and interesting or does it feel canned and dull? Should that be its or it’s?

I’ve seen the idea of putting a freshly completed rough draft of novel on the shelf for a month or longer frequently recommended in articles and interviews. I’ve tried it but can’t really say it made much of difference to me. The idea of shelving a novel speaks to the idea of giving your brain time to shift from creative to analytical, from right to left thinking, and allowing you to approach it with a certain freshness upon revision. In my own writing, however, I’ve found the line between creative and analytical not so clearly defined.[1] Even when I’m generating fresh new material I repeatedly fall back on my analytical brain, which I’ve crosswired over time to scan for stuff like character development and scene pacing and logical incongruities. I’m also frequently applying my creative brain to the process of revision, which involves not only findings errors and flawed passages but rewriting them (basically solving them as if they’re word problems) in a creative manner. I’ve found that approaching both a rough draft and the revision process in a dualistic creative-analytical and analytical-creative way not only saves time in the long run and leads to fewer revisions but it also keeps the laborious, time consuming process of revision itself as a fresh as possible (which is useful when I’m spending about 5-10% of my desk time writing new material and 90-95% of it in revision).

I do most of my research (the amount of which is dependent on the type of novel I’m writing. And the Hills Opened Up, my Western-horror novel, involved a lot of 1890’s copper mining/mining camp research) as I write the first and second drafts, allowing the research to filter into the story as I move along and find inspiration in the details I’ve learned. As soon as I’ve finished the rough draft of a novel I pour myself a drink, take a deep breath, and start digging into the second draft. I do the second draft on the computer but print out the manuscript for the third draft. I believe some magic occurs when you print out a manuscript that is unavailable during a computer revision (but I do one computer revision first because the rough draft is so raw and given to change I’d basically be blotting out three hundred pages with ink). I think the medium of print, of paper in hand, allows the eye to see things and discover associations in it that it would otherwise miss. Every author should have a home printer no matter how many laptops, iPads, PCs, cellphones, and whatever other fancy thing they may use for writing. Especially beginning authors, whose eyes aren’t yet as trained to pick out the flaws in their own work and prone to moving on too quickly to the next shiny new project.

I usually tend to go back and forth between computer and printed revisions and end on a printed revision as a sort of light dusting/line editing affair well suited to the coffee shop environment and an expansive, reflective state of mind. The trickiest part of writing is being as generous and giving to yourself in the creation stage as you are sharp-eyed and unforgiving to yourself in the subsequent drafts.[2] Revising a manuscript can often feel like going to the gym on a cold winter day and requires the same level of self-motivation, especially when you’ve sat with the manuscript for a long time and both of you are totally sick of each other. In The War of Art Steven Pressfield speaks of Resistance with a capitol R as a sort of devilish inertia that affects all artists trying to create anything new. Never have I faced as much Resistance as in the revision process as when I’ve had to really dig into a character’s personality and motivation, tunneling down into the often boring and unglamorous muck of deep imagining to return again with some idea or fact that I can use to make the character finally click.

Analyzing a work forged in the happy and tortuous hours of creation is dirty work and a sense of detachment (which will help even more when your works receives criticism down the road) will serve you well.

Mystical

As you’d expect the mystical part of revising a work of fiction is a lot harder to define and wrestle with. You can tell when a manuscript begins to scan more cleanly and the dialogue appears increasingly trim and there’s a smoother progression of plot and pacing—Scene A takes us logically to scene B and Scene B takes us logically to Scene C—but making the practical nuts and bolts of a story work is not enough to make the story work as a work of art that resonates with a reader.

The mystical side of fiction is what sets the artist apart from the layman who is consulting his Idiot’s Guide and his expensive writing software and already has a marketing plan in place before he’s written one paragraph of his would-be bestseller.[3] The mystical side is the gate-keeper of truly powerful fiction and all the scheming in the world won’t grant you access to its treasures. You need to sit with your story and meditate upon it and care about it in a deeply, irrational way (hey, it’s like a cat!) and gradually, through a kind of labor that doesn’t necessarily appear to be like work in an external way, you’ll get lucky and strike gold.

As you revise, you’re not only making certain your story works as a story with crisp characters and clean prose—you want to give it a certain lift that allows it to rise above the page and glow in the reader’s mind. You want to edit with an analytical mind but allow periods of reverie to overtake you; let your dreams and emotions sift in through the cracks of the revision process and you’ll find your new draft will surprise you in the shining manner it concludes, a lofty pinnacle you’ve ascended without rational intent.

Bonkers Crazy

I’ve recently submitted a novel to my agent that weighs in at 270 pages but took roughly 1,100 pages to create. It’s one novel built on the charred foundation of two previous much longer novels. The amount of work it’s taken to arrive at it—this Novel #15—was fucking bonkers crazy, no doubt about it, and caused me no end of headaches and moments of existential despair. Hard soul-searching moments where I wondered if my writing skillz had finally departed after too much Internet, TV, and booze.

But I like it now.

I like it a lot.

The first first draft of Novel #15, which I’ll call 15.1, was a sprawling third-person narrative revolving around five members of the same family with a backbone of a second narrative set in the past that tied in to the present narrative (got all that? Ah, you already sense trouble looming, don’t you?). It clocked in at 433 pages (or 107,152 words). It was well-written and had some interesting scenes (after fifteen books your line-to-line prose is hopefully solid, if anything) but I couldn’t shake the fact that it didn’t quite click. It was too literary, too dull, or…something. I didn’t know, exactly, I only knew it didn’t ring out like I’d hoped. As in a horror movie, I had a bad feeling about this.

So I shelved it for a while and some other stuff (Non-Writing mostly). Then I came back to it a month later, reread it and…

I still didn’t love it.

So what did I do?

I shelved it, yo. Permanently. I didn’t even send it to my agent for a second opinion. I just knew. I just knew it didn’t rock my face off and thus would most certainly not rock his face off. I also realized it wasn’t the prose or some smaller element of plot. It was the whole kit and caboodle…

Or was it?

I picked over 15.1’s bones and found elements that still burned hot like the white coals of a fading bonfire. I still liked the sections set in the past and how they formed a skeleton for the present narrative. I also still really like the setting, a small foothills town called Hawthorn that had risen out of a true wilderness.

So I took these beloved elements and retained my favorite character (Harper, the Webb’s teenage daughter) and set to rewriting the whole story from scratch. I kept the revolving five points of view engine for the present action and came up with four all-new characters to go along with Harper Webb and I gave them all interesting conflicts that would play off the novel’s newly redefined (and sharpened) theme: the idea of being haunted by something, either literally or metaphorically.

You see, I realized novel 15.1 had failed to properly resolve the elevator pitch question—I couldn’t really describe it succinctly when my friends asked me about it. It never had a true angle—it was so “literary” and sprawling it had gotten away from me completely. A six month/433 page detour, okay, but one I would not be taking again! No sir, fuck you very much! This time I had this theme of everyone being haunted by something and I’d come up a multitude of characters (or angles, if you will) of investigating it. Huzzah! I had shit locked down tight this time.

So I wrote and wrote and drank and wrote. Several additional months later I had a 388 page (103,337 word) manuscript I felt a whole hell of a lot more certain about, with some new characters and plot points that I really dug. I gave it a couple of impatient revisions and sent it off to my agent. Three weeks later (during which I wrote nothing I’ll be honest) Jonathan got back to me with an email that asked if I was free to talk that day.

Oh god.

This was never a good sign.[4]

So I called him and we chatted and he was nice and polite as always but I knew it was a no-go right away. He loved the setting and sections set in the past but the book was too sprawling and unfocused and most of the weird shit that happened in it was never explained (a big habit of mine—I think unsolved questions are a lot less interesting than solved ones). Most of all, he said he didn’t know who to cheer for.

Ah.

I’d muddied the water with too many near-protagonists and not one clear protagonist.

My mind started working in overdrive while we were still talking on the phone. I had too much invested in this project, too many words. I couldn’t just let the whole thing die. I thought about what my agent said and searched for my angle. I told him maybe I’d been trying to go too “literary” this whole time and he said something like wait a minute, you know this is a horror story, right?

Oh.

A horror story. Right. That made sense. Yes, it had all the trappings of a horror story but I’d never consciously proceeded as if it were—I’d been too lost in the multi-genre fog, I suppose, or scared off by genre shaming.

So if this was a horror story, who could shine as the protagonist? Who was the most interesting character?

Harper Webb.

The teenage girl I’d saved from 15.1.

This story not only wanted to be a horror story, in this cool wilderness setting, it wanted to be YA horror.

The penny finally dropped in my word-addled brain. I rolled up my sleeves and set to work on 15.3.[5] I kept the plot lean and mean and focused on Harper and her antagonist, a boy her own age who’d unearthed a most unusual skull. I changed the file name of 15.2 to “Fodder” and took whatever I found useful from it and inserted it in the new draft. I was aware of the genre I was working in and I knew the novel’s theme and I knew the setting so well I could have been born there and I knew Harper’s family inside and out. The rough draft of 15.3, which I called the “Harper Draft”, took me seven weeks and went as smoothly as anything I’ve ever written. I’d written my way through the desert and come out the other side.

As I write this I’ve sent 15.3 off to my agent and I am waiting to hear from him. I’m not too worried, though, even if he doesn’t like it.

I can always revise.

[1] Though if shelving a manuscript works for you then by all means go for it.

[2] Beginning writers tend to skew toward two extremes, finding themselves either paralyzed with self-doubt as they set out to write or allowing a sense of hubris to override their ability to properly criticize their own work during the revision stage.

[3] I was once staying in a hostel in San Diego and reading Don Quixote while killing some time. Some hostel dude I didn’t know came walking up a stairway and saw me reading. He shouted, “Hey, maybe the next book you read will be mine!” and I knew instantly he was destined for disappointment.

[4] More than once I’ve spent a year working on a novel my agent knew nothing about only for him to tell me he wouldn’t be able to sell it, not even with significant revisions. These were dark days, my friends. Dark days.

[5] This time I came up with a basic outline and went through it, point by point, over the phone with my agent. I wasn’t writing a third round from scratch without him being more or less aware of where I was headed. No surprises this time, buddy.

Day Jobs

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Fifteen

Day Jobs

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Like a lot of middle class American kids my first job was doing chores around the house for which I started receiving an “allowance” once I got old enough to want to buy stupid crap. I washed dishes and took out the garbage[1] and when I got big enough I started mowing our lawn. Somewhere around this time, when I was around eight or nine, I discovered classic rock and this new band called Guns-N-Roses, which led me to purchasing a Sony Walkman to listen to cassettes on. This enhanced the lawn mowing process to such a rocking degree I started mowing lawns in our neighborhood and eventually landed a contract to mowing the grounds of our small town’s mortuary.

The mortuary gig, which I’d keep up until I graduated high school, was pretty damn sweet. It paid ten dollars an hour, an epic sum at the time, and its owner wanted the grounds mowed every five days, regardless of rainfall, from nearly the moment the snow melted until the snow returned the following winter.[2] The riding mower, push mower, weed whacker, and gas jug were all kept out in the mortuary’s garage, right beside the mortuary’s single gray hearse. I knew dead people were cooling their heels inside the building, right on the other side of the garage door, but I didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother me. I’d fire up the push mower first, mow the small strips of grass surrounding the mortuary proper, and then head out to the much larger lawn on the other side of the rectangular parking lot that surrounded the mortuary on all sides. The whole process took about three hours and I happily gave myself over to it, burning to a crisp beneath the sun while I inhaled gasoline fumes and blew out my ear drums to songs like “Rocket Queen” and Skid Row’s “I Remember You”.

I also started mowing other lawns in town, riding my bike across town and later driving our family’s mower around in my Oldsmobile’s open trunk. I mowed for my step dad’s parents (his dad was our town’s eccentric mayor for over twenty years) and I briefly mowed the lawn at a hog farm a few miles outside of town until one day I failed to notice a dead, heat-bloated rabbit and ran over it, incapacitating the mower and forcing the hog owner’s son to scrape out the rancid rabbit guts.[3] In high school I also worked part-time at an IGA grocery store[4] and had the pleasure of paying taxes for the first time while still mowing lawns on the side.

During the summer between high school and starting college I quit my grocery store gig and started a lawn mowing “company” with my best friend, Ben, who was also a writer. We called our little startup Lords of the Lawn and drove around town at high speeds, chucking fliers at people and shouting our availability into the wind. Not surprisingly, we ran out of work in about two weeks and ended up working outside of town at the grain depot/farm where my stepdad worked as a mechanic. Ben and I were straight up grunt workers and told at the start of the day what our tasks would be by a twenty-something farm boy lifer who was just smart enough to make our townie lives miserable. We pulled nails out of a sheet metal roof for a few weeks and I developed carpel tunnel syndrome in both wrists and began waking in the middle of the night with my hands curled into stiff zombie claws.

After the roof finally gave up its last nail we started mucking out grain around the depot. This involved shoveling rotten corn muck into a skid loader bucket for hour upon endless hour. The corn muck looked like pig shit but it smelled worse somehow, with a funky fermented tang to it, and the smell burrowed into your skin and haunted your nose even though we wore masks (which themselves were stiflingly hot and clung to your face after they grew wet with sweat, like they were trying to suck the air right out of your lungs). This was in July and August and Ben and I worked mostly indoors, either in a shed as big as damn airplane hangar or inside nefariously hot grain silos, which had concrete floors and aluminum frames and trapped heat and humidity like they’d been designed to torture prisoners, not store feed corn.[5] One day as we shoveled and shoveled we saw a farm cat sitting on the edge of the grain trough, holding an enormous rat in one paw and gnawing on it like, to quote Ben, “it was a burrito”. One July day found us engaged in our worst task yet, actually descending underground to muck out a rotten corn tunnel in the near dark. We did this in fifteen minute shifts, with one guy sending up a bucket to the lucky above ground guy, and the tunnel wasn’t just dark and stifling it was also filled with biting horseflies. Ben and I quit the grain depot sometime in mid-August and when I told my easygoing stepdad we’d quit he was just fine with it—he said he was surprised we’d lasted two months.

When I got to St. Olaf College I was a student worker at our IT center for two years[6] and then our library (Rølvaag Library, named after Ole Rølvaag, author of the excellent pioneer saga Giants in the Earth) for two years. During the three summers between academic years I was a traveling camp counselor, an editorial intern for a children’s non-fiction publisher[7], and a trash picker for the St. Paul Public Housing Agency.[8] The traveling camp counselor gig was for the Minnesota Farmer’s Union and was easily the most interesting, if draining, of the three.

For the first month or so my fellow counselors and I were put up in a chain hotel in the St. Paul suburbs which we used as a base as we traveled around the area to hold Famer’s Union day camps. My roommate/co-worker was an Ojibwe Indian from northern Minnesota who I’ll call Joe and he was about as laid back as any human being I’ve ever met. During our off hours in the evening Joe liked to read car magazines and drink chocolate milk and he didn’t seem to really care much about money, often burning through what little dough we made the same day we got our checks by spending it on stuff like a new CD player boom box or more magazines or buying everybody dinner at one of the chain restaurants we could all walk to. Joe was a kind and generous guy, like Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, and when I wasn’t busy talking him into buying me junk food at the gas station I worried about other people taking advantage of him. In the middle of the summer Joe found out his girlfriend back home was pregnant and the news made him happy, despite the fact he was only eighteen with no real job prospects and I think she was only sixteen. We all headed north to hold a week-long stay over camp somewhere near Detroit Lakes and I met his girlfriend and some of his friends on the 4th of July and we all watched the fireworks together. It was nice.

A month later Joe got a call when we were holding another weeklong camp in another part of the state and he came into my cabin looking crushed. His girlfriend had suffered a miscarriage. I tried to console him as best as I could but the thing was too big for me, too big for nineteen-year-old Dave Oppegaard.

Joe stuck around for a few days, behaving erratically, and then one morning the sun rose and he was gone. He was in the wind. He left his new CD player boom box in the backseat of my car and I kept it until it broke many years later, one last parting gift from my grief stricken Ojibwe buddy.

#

I had the great good fortune of graduating from college in 2002, while 9/11 was still a fresh wound in America’s side , President G.W. Bush was already busy fucking things up with a Napoleonic audacity, and I’d delivered my mother’s eulogy only eighteen months earlier. I spent one torturous unemployed summer in which I lived in my aunt and uncle’s basement in St. Paul (and worked on my fourth novel) before I landed a job as an optician at an eye clinic on East Lake Street in Minneapolis. I worked there for about a year full-time, finished Novel #4, and applied to the MFA in Writing Program at Hamline University in St. Paul.[9]

After waiting for the graduate school interview for weeks the important day drew near, or so I thought. I got a call while I was taking a nap the day before the interview from a staff member at Hamline asking me where I was—somehow I’d gotten the date wrong and I was already fifteen minutes late. I asked the staff member to please let the committee know I was running late but would be there as fast as humanly possible, I only lived ten minutes away. After I hung up I rocketed out of bed, threw on my one suit (oh how I blush at my youthful earnestness now—it was a heavy black camelhair number that I’d talked myself into after graduating college) and drove across St. Paul at high speeds, still waking up from my nap and barely aware of the traffic around me. It was a blisteringly hot summer day. I parked near Hamline’s campus but had to walk across it and then cross Snelling Avenue to the Creative Writing Programs house (the program has since moved to a different house) and as I was running across the intersection at Snelling and Hewitt Avenue I failed to notice a bulldozer (!) that was part of a working street construction crew and I almost got flattened. By the time I entered the meeting room for my appointment for my admittance interview, I was this basically this wild-eyed, sweaty twenty-three year old who was channeling Chris Farley with every fiber of his being. I sat down before two annoyed faculty members (who would later become valuable allies) and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. Boy do I have a story for you!” and away we went.

I was admitted to Hamline’s MFA program despite this sweaty day[10] and I came to a decision: if I was going to attend graduate school I was going to do it up right and only work part-time so I could truly focus on my work and improving my writing. So I went part-time at the eye clinic and dug in to both the program and my revising Novel #4.[11]

#

Roughly fourteen months later Novel #4 landed my agent and I wouldn’t work a permanent, full-time position again until the fall of 2014, more than ten years later. I financed this period of feverish production (three years of graduate school work as well as eleven novels) with a mixture of thirty hours a week employment, straight-up unemployment, and a series of temp jobs such as adjunct teaching and standardized test scoring.

I wouldn’t exactly recommend this path and I will admit I have a tendency to do things the hard way. What I would suggest, however, is that any writer setting out on the writing path think long and hard how badly they want to be a professional writer and fully consider what they might have to sacrifice for it. I’m one of the very lucky few to make it as far as I have in publishing and I’m still broke, mostly unknown, and my day job history reads like a madman’s accumulation of stray tasks. By working part-time and ill-paying odd jobs in order to generate a constant churn of writing (the vast majority of which will never be published) I’ve bet on myself, more or less, and I’m still waiting to see if that bet ever pays off in an economically significant way, if I’ll ever be able to buy a new car (I’ve driven the same 1996 Honda Accord EX for thirteen years) or maybe, gasp, NOT live in a crappy one bedroom apartment. All this to get a leg up in an industry many have claimed is dying! While an anti-intellectual movement slowly gains steam in my own country!

It defies common sense, doesn’t?

Yes, yes it does.

But maybe that’s the point.

You can work very hard, be reasonably to greatly talented, and publish critically acclaimed work and still not make a big dent in the publishing landscape. You might have to work at your day job for so long you stop calling a day job and just call it a job. You might get sick of being broke and apply for that job that absorbs all your energy while your work suffers, if you return to your work at all. You might, simply, heartbreakingly, just not be lucky enough to break through, no matter how good your work is. Chance plays a frighteningly important part in the lives of many, many artists, all up and down the line—read any interview with any of-the-moment actor or writer or musician and they inevitably talk meeting the right person or being at the right place at the right time, and if they don’t happen to mention some kind of lucky break they’ve either forgotten it or lacked an awareness of the break when it occurred.

But there’s always hope, right? Maybe it’ll be the next story. Maybe it’ll be the next novel or the one after that which cements your authorial name and your daydream becomes your day job. It could happen. It’s happened before. It happens to someone every week. All you can do is give yourself over to the work, wanting more out of it than the pleasure of creation, perhaps, but content with the idea that, at the end of the day, the edifying nature of the work itself may be your sole reward. Otherwise you may find yourself chasing publishing trends and writing with external pressures in mind while your truly interesting material—what makes your heart and your voice unique—remains locked away and unavailable to you, which can only lower your odds of breaking into the marketplace in any manner, much less in a way you can still be proud of ten, twenty, fifty years down the road.

[1] One day I took out a particularly overstuffed, rank bag of garbage to our trash collection bin and halfway there the bag exploded all over me like a bomb, much to my mother’s amusement. We called that day The Revenge of the Garbage and I think of it often on the way to my apartment building’s dumpster.

[2] In retrospect the mortuary’s director was a consummate professional. He always kept the gasoline can filled and the mowers in good running order. He had me send him a monthly bill, which I typed up on our family’s shared Macintosh computer and printed out, and I always received payment, no questions asked, within five days of mailing out the bill. The only time he ever got mad at me was if more than six days went past and I hadn’t mowed or if I missed a patch of grass on the inner lawn.

[3] Still the only time I’ve been fired, which is rather amazing.

[4] Which had a smelly little pizza place attached to it, owned by the same dude. When the pizza place was low on employees I did double duty as a pizza delivery guy, which is a harder job than you’d think and involves fighting off a lot of slobbering dogs and staring down stingy no-tipping motherfuckers.

[5] I was listening to Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut album a lot during this period. It compounded my daily sense of sweaty delirium.

[6] I didn’t know much about fixing computers beyond “Let’s try restarting it” but I just passed all the hard jobs on to my co-workers like my buddy Mike. I spent most of my shifts “getting the mail” for the office, which involved walking maybe two hundred yards across campus and with a canvas tote bag to the campus mailboxes. Many was an hour I killed hanging out at our student center playing video games and eating pizza bagels and chatting with friends. Nobody noticed I was even gone, really, and one day we had a staff meeting (which I was absent from, since I was “getting the mail”) and our supervisor told everybody they should look up to me as an example of a good student worker since I was always willing to get the mail. Mike’s still outraged about this but I like to point out it was a better lesson for him about the working world than anything we ever learned in class.

[7] A whole summer of “getting the mail” and my first introduction to the modern office place, with my own terrible cube and everything.

[8] Which was as glamorous as it sounds.

[9] Fun story! I applied to five major graduate writing programs while I was senior at St. Olaf hoping to jump right in to the MFA world. I didn’t hear from any of them for a long time and it wasn’t until I came home from spring break of my senior year that my stepdad gave me all my mail that had collected at the house. This pile included five thin rejection letters from all five programs! I opened them one after the other! And then—I am not kidding—my step dad announced he was selling our home of nearly fifteen years.

[10] I also got into St. Olaf College despite my 2.9 GPA (me no good at math or science) with some help from their writer-in-residence Jim Heynen (since retired), who was kind enough to meet with me (and my mom, who made me go check out the school in person though I was already sold by the nice post card they’d sent me and the college’s suitable distance from home) before I applied. Jim looked at the novel manuscript I thumped down on his desk with bemused goodwill and I was told later he recommended me to the admittance committee.

[11] I will dutifully point out here this was only possible through the assistance of my grandmother, who was willing to pay the majority of my graduate school tuition. It was by no means St. Olaf-level tuition, which I had covered with all manner of student loans, but it was still exceedingly generous and made it possible for me to focus on writing over working. Thanks again, Grandma!

Literature & the Working Dude

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Fourteen

Literature & the Working Dude

560877-my-favorite-european-chefs

A few years back I taught an English literature class to a group of twenty rowdy chefs-in-training at a Le Cordon Bleu cooking institute that was about as close to the 1987 Carl Reiner film Summer School as I hope I ever come in real life.[1]

Le Cordon Bleu had an associate’s degree at the time that required every student to take an English literature course for some reason[2] and absolutely none of my students wanted to be there. A bunch of beefy, good natured jokesters[3], these cooking students weren’t too interested in reading anything other than a menu, much less surveying classic and modern literature. They’d come to class in their chef whites, fresh from a baking class or a meat prep class or whatever, and once their day at Le Cordon Bleu was over they usually had eight hour shifts at various restaurants to look forward to. They were exhausted and busy and some of them had kids at home. They didn’t want to be in my class but they weren’t total jerks about it, either—they were used to discipline required in a professional kitchen and more or less towed the line, with the occasional loud interruption or blatantly digressive turn.

Teaching this Le Cordon Bleu literature class required a detailed lesson plan, lest it go off the rails entirely, and the class was two hours every morning, four days a week, for six packed weeks. It had its own massive hardcover textbook called LITERATURE which was like a simplified Norton Anthology with pictures (!) in it. A friend of mine, who’d taught the course several times at Le Cordon Bleu was very enthusiastic about it and given me his lesson plan, which I more or less followed while adding my own personal adjustments. Every day the chefs-in-training and I covered a new aspect of literature, such as the sonnet or the limerick, or something more abstract, like feminist literary theory, and every day after class I was required to register the day’s attendance at the Le Cordon Bleu staff office with an eye toward making sure nobody missed more than seven or eight classes, lest they fail the course. It wasn’t stated explicitly but I got the main feeling my true job was to really make sure my students showed up, didn’t roam freely around campus during the class period, and managed not to set anything on fire (which is a very real possibility in a cooking school).

Every evening, after I’d returned home from my own part-time job, I’d put the next day’s lesson plan together and read the next day’s required reading. Here’s a sample of my lesson plan for one class with the day’s reading assignment listed first:

Tuesday May 22nd

Thinking about Literature

Story – “The Tell-Tale Heart” p. 36

Poem – “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” p. 963

Essay – “Dickinson and Death” p. 970

Glossary of Literary Terms p. 2059 (Just scan & familiarize yourself with this section)

Lecture

The heart of literature is story

Beginning Conflict-Rising Conflict-Crisis-Falling Action-Resolution

Upside down checkmark

Analyze Cinderella on white board

Group Activity-Analyze movies, present analysis to class

Break

Read “A Tell-Tale Heart” aloud.

Group Activity

Analyze “A Tell-Tale Heart”.

Have a student read “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” aloud.

Discuss poem, introduce literary analysis.

Literary Terms p. 2059

 

­ Looking back at this lesson plan, nearly three years later, I’m struck by how clean and neat it appears to be on paper in comparison to how raw and exhausting it felt to actually run. I’d taught a few fiction classes by this point but I’d never taught any type of class-class, with lectures and everything, and I was terrified I’d be found out for a fraud and locked in the school’s walk-in meat freezer (my friend had warned me to never, under any condition, admit to the class I was new to teaching—good advice, Aaron!).

We made it through the all-important attendance phases of each class and I more or less got the rowdy class to settle down but each day it was soon apparent that only or two students had done the reading at all and that I’d have to use some serious showmanship to keep the class’s attention on the subject at hand. In effect, I became a cheerleader for literature, the defense lawyer for its value in the modern workaday world. I was forced not only to explain it in terms of criticism and analysis but to argue for its inherent worth to a bleary-eyed, exhausted audience that just wanted to go have a smoke in the parking lot.

Why was “The Tell-Tale Heart” important?

Why was literary theory important? Why was psychological criticism, or gender criticism, or historical criticism important?

#

In college I once hiked around the tropical island of St. Lucia with a group of St. Olaf students and our genial, British–born professor Jonathan Hill. We were on a J-term trip studying English literature written by Caribbean writers like Earl Lovelace and Derrick Walcott (we met Walcott in a prearranged visit on St. Lucia and we later randomly encountered Lovelace[4] in Trinidad hanging out at the beach with his family in one of those strangely serendipitous moments in which everything feels mysteriously connected). I found myself walking beside Professor Hill as we hiked about the beautiful volcanic terrain and we began discussing death. Professor Hill’s brother had died not too long ago and my mother had passed the previous fall, only three months earlier.

As we walked along the lush bumpy ridgeline of a volcanic formation, looking down at the beautiful deep blue of the Caribbean Sea, the warm air as soft as butterflies around us, I asked Professor Hill something to the effect of what was the meaning of writing in the face of death (the quintessential college student question to ask, I know). Professor Hill paused and took a deep breath. He was wearing a baggy salmon-colored shirt and I could see a bead of sweat arc across his forehead.

“Art is consolation,” he said.

“For what?” I asked.

“For everything,” he said.

As I chewed on this, Professor Hill started walking again. We had a lot of island to cover and the sun wasn’t going to relent anytime soon.

#

Throughout my life, for as long as I can remember, literature has provided a type of escape and consolation I have found unmatched anywhere else.[5] As I continued teaching my Le Cordon Bleu students I realized every smartass thing I’d ever said and done in my own school days was being revisited upon me, if in a comparatively small dose. I also started feeling sorry for all the super-Christians I’d laughed at during my St. Olaf days, those chipper blond dunderheads and their earnest belief they had something so amazing to share with you, if only you opened your heart and paid attention. I wanted to share the Word, too, but my word wasn’t just one long fiction parable but all the fictions in all the genres. I wanted my Cordies to not only do the reading, not only turn in their papers on time, but to realize what an enjoyable thing reading was and how easily it could enhance their life (if only they Believed! If only they sat down with the Text!).

I knew on a conscious level that it wasn’t me the Cordies were rejecting (they didn’t even know I was a published author until the last week of class) but my identity was so wrapped up in writing and the writing life it was hard not to feel a little sting when they fell asleep in class or didn’t bother to show up at all. You want what you do, whatever it is, to be meaningful, and the more you’ve invested in it the more meaningful you hope it is. But a writer has to let go. You have to find that meaning in the process of creation itself, in being alive and engrossed in making something new, something that wouldn’t have ever existed without you. Not everybody likes to read no matter how pretty you make the words. Not everybody will understand or care how much effort goes into producing a book. If you’re a writer looking for a cloud of warm reassuring fuzzies to follow you around all day you’re in the wrong profession.

As the six week term (was it only six weeks? Or six years?) drew to a close I overheard one of my favorite, most engaged students say to his buddies how happy he was going to be when the class was over and he could throw his LITERATURE book in the trash. The same LITERATURE book which contained stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Jack London and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Dorothy Parker. The LITERATURE book that contained “The Death of the Salesman” in its entirety and which we’d read aloud together for an entire peaceful, often funny week. The LITERATURE book that contained five hundred pages of poetry and prose from many of the greatest writers who ever lived.

I could choose to let that comment drag my writerly soul over the hot coals of futility but I think I’ll pick another memory to focus on instead. I’ll pick the day we covered sonnets. I lectured about sonnets using a power point presentation and then we read a few together, going over all that crafty use of iambic pentameter, discussing the difference between the Italian sonnet and the Shakespearian sonnet. Then I turned my students lose to compose sonnets on their own in small groups sprinkled around the classroom.

I expected my rambunctious Cordies to focus for about ten minutes on their sonnets before they inevitably started getting loud and making Anchorman jokes and then I’d have to kill the rest of the period by reading something from the textbook aloud. Instead, to my happy surprise, they remained huddled together intently for over a half an hour, intently working together in earnest and debating each line of poetry, twenty future chefs crafting new recipes.

[1] The weird interview for the job should have tipped me off. It was with a portly silver haired fellow who, once he discovered I wrote fantasy and science fiction, proceeded to spend the rest of the interview talking about his son, who’d taken over a very well-known fantasy series after the death of its initial author. I pretended to be a big fan of the series though I’d never read it and probably never will. Luckily there was no quiz.

[2] As well as an economics course, which at least had practical real-world application for chefs looking to start their own restaurants someday. Judging solely by the carnival atmosphere in my class, that econ class must have been something.

[3] Sixteen dudes and four dude-ettes. I took a poll of everyone’s favorite books and the winners were Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, “the movies” and, oddly, several dudes picked Hatchet, the excellent young adult wilderness survival novel by Gary Paulsen. I guess cooks love a properly utilized tool?

[4] Lovelace’s novel The Wine of Astonishment is fantastic.

[5] But I’ve never tried heroin, it’s true.

Health & Wellness

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twelve

Health & Wellness

running-man-01-g

Writing novels and short stories is not an inherently healthy task. You spend a lot of time sitting at a desk writing or sitting in a chair reading. I can only imagine the amount of stationary hours, once added up, that writing has added to my life. It must be in the tens of thousands by now, and this on top of all the hours spent sitting at my day job and planted in front of the television or a movie theater screen. So much sitting. An ocean of sitting.

There’s also the drinking. For some reason, writing and drinking seem to go really well together! I know, a bold statement, right? The field of writing has seen more than its fair share of raging alcoholics, high-functioning boozers, cryptic, insomniac sousers, stern, tight-lipped dipsomaniacs, delirious inebriates, on-the-road ravers, bombastic bloated barflies, and posh, hyper-arrogant tipplers. I just googled “alcohol and writing” and the phrase churned up two hundred and seventeen million results.

After dabbling here and there in novellas as a kid (they primarily featured the furry TV alien A.L.F. and ninjas) I sat down and wrote my first novel at fifteen. Unlike what you’d expect, I didn’t start throwing back mason jars of whiskey and gin straight off. No, sir. I didn’t drink much at all until I was twenty-two, actually, when I was a senior studying abroad in England for a semester. It was the fall of 2001 and the world seemed to have gone insane. I read the newspaper every day (the printed one) in the University of East Anglia’s student center while drinking cup after cup of coffee. My mother had died the year before after a two decade battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the complications that result in treating it with 1980s era radiation. I searched the sky for answers. For meaning. I went to every class but my course load turned out to be remarkably light, a tourist’s course load, and I was left with a lot of time on my hands in my comically small student apartment.

This is when I discovered drinking could be your friend. Your nightly consolation. You’d think I would have been a drinking man since arriving at college three years earlier but I’d never really felt the need—I always joked that my imagination was so stoked I didn’t need booze. But then in England I discovered Scotch whiskey and hard apple cider (a big favorite of British teenagers, I was told) and I’ve been a big booze fan ever since, though I’ve graduated to hoppy IPAs, Old Fashioneds, and dirty martinis.

Yet if you’re expecting the turn here, the big writerly recovering alcoholic confessional, it’s not coming. Why? Frankly, I don’t think I have the stamina or inclination to be an alcoholic. Have you ever read an alcoholic’s biography? To reach that level you have to be truly committed to drinking. It’s a whole soul crushing raging beast of its own. You have to get up ready to roll. You have to hide booze in clever places. Myself, I don’t like drinking in the morning or the afternoon and I don’t particularly enjoy happy hour, either. I can’t write at a high level drunk. I can’t read drunk. What I am, you see, is a night drinker!

I’ll write into the evening, until nine or ten o’clock, and then I’ll hit that writing goal for the day and push back my desk chair. I’ll fire up the TV (that great friend of the drinker), make a cocktail, and suddenly three or four hours will have flown by and I’m bound for my bed, all caught up on my media allotment and ready for a profound sleep. Booze and TV are my sweet reward for a hard day’s work and my good pals—I am the modern day Netflix-loving writer!

#

Fifteen years of writing and night drinking and stir fry eating and not much exercising[1] caught up with me eventually. I grew fat! My cheeks became puffy! Oh, Lord. The ignominy of it all. The ignominy of getting older! My thirties! My mid-thirties! I was 5’9” and 245 pounds of writer man and I was not so happy with my appearance in photographs. I scowled at myself in the dark reflection of my computer monitor, frowned to see my passing reflection in storefront windows. I was working my ass off at my desk but I looked as soft and plump as prairie dog who’d eaten his way out of a barrel full of cheese curds.

Then one day about a year ago I went into the dentist to my get my teeth cleaned and they took my blood pressure. Apparently my pressure was pretty high and the hygienist said if it was much higher they wouldn’t have been able to clean my teeth. What the hell, right? This hygienist was clearly overdoing it but still, this information gave me pause. Later that night, while I was getting my night drinker on, I was scanning through Netflix and saw a movie listed called Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. The film image had a picture of a fat guy going into a vegetable juicer and coming out thin. I started the movie, even though it was already two in the morning, and I watched it all the way through, getting wicked drunk along the way.

The film, in a nutshell, is about an Australian fellow named Joe Cross who decides to fast for sixty days as he travels across America while drinking only water and vegetable juice. His main juice of choice is a blend of kale, cucumber, celery, green apple, lemon, and ginger, though he mixes it up every day to make sure he gets all the nutrients he needs. Joe loses a ton of weight and interviews Americans along the way about their dietary choices. In one scene, which continues to stick with me, he interviews a father and his teenage son and their friend as they eat in a greasy spoon-type diner. He asks the father if he’d be willing to drink vegetable juice for some of his meals while still getting to eat whatever he wants a couple times a week (i.e. steak and gravy-type fare) if he knew he’d be able to extend his life for many years and watch his son grow up. The guy thinks about it for about a half second and then replies no, when his time’s up his time’s up—it’s more important he eat whatever he feels like while he’s still alive.

Now I was no health nut[2], but that seemed rather dark to me and pretty lazy. This dude had a kid! He was supposed to be in it for the long haul! I’d always thought people had kids because A) they were tired of sleeping and B) it gave them a solid, undeniable reason to keep on trucking no matter how hard life got. Now here was this smug asshat who was unwilling to modify his diet for the sake of his kid. Jesus.

I stayed up until four AM watching the whole movie. In the morning, hungover as Lazarus popping out of the grave, I bought my first vegetable juicer and made a run to the produce section of my local grocery store.

#

The boozing writer’s life is not as glamorous in actuality as it has been made to seem in the popular consciousness. It’s a seductive image—drinking with Hemingway in Paris, drinking with Hemingway in Spain, drinking with Hemingway in Key West—but in actuality the overindulgence of alcohol (or any drug) tends to burn through talent like fire through deadwood. Writers spend a lot of time digging into their subconscious and uncovering the dark materials of their formative years. They draw on a deep, dark well of stored emotions and visceral experiences, expend a lot of energy transforming said material, and then refine that material into the high-grade fuel energy that brings their writing to life. It’s no wonder they seek relief, chemical and otherwise, and alcohol has traditionally been the most easily accessible form of relief available. They could turn to prescription medication, it’s true, but when you make a living with your mind every pill you take carries the risk of dulling your creative energies, of numbing you to the observational subtleties of environment that you draw on every day as your creative palette, of dampening the roaring voice that is You.

The artist is one big walking raw nerve and feels a lot of everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly. They can turn to prescription medication, drugs, booze, exercise, religion, having a family, but many can’t escape the feeling that they’re both dying to create and creating to avoid death. It weighs on them constantly, like a low tension drag, and there’s nothing glamorous about that. Just ask Ernest Hemingway or David Foster Wallace or Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf or Hunter S. Thompson or John Berryman or Anne Sexton or Hart Crane or John Kennedy Toole (man-o-man my heart breaks just typing his name in this list) or Spalding Gray or Richard Brautigan….

There’s nothing glamorous about being a corpse in a box.

#

I started making a green kale-based juice for lunch every day. I threw away the gummy faux-wheat bread and carcinogenic ham and oh-so-tasty Miracle Whip that had formed the basis for a lifetime of lunches and replaced them with a bottle of Mean Green. Never a big veggies guy beforehand, I started feeling a little peppier. I got rid of the milk in my fridge and the cereal in my cupboard and started drinking a blend of carrots and one green apple for my breakfast juice. I remembered the juicing movie with remarkable clarity (despite my gob smacked inebriation at the time) and thought about it whenever I was cutting up my vegetables and feeding them to the juicer.

I started to lose a little weight but it seemed to be going too slow for my liking. I was looking forward to the publication reading of my third book in June and wanted to be at my optimal writerly sexiness. So I took it up a notch. I started jogging in my neighborhood. It was…fucking terrible. I made it four blocks before I was huffing and puffing and had to turn back and walk home.

But I went running again the next day.

And the next.

It wasn’t pretty. None of this was pretty.

I started making eight blocks, then ten. I ignored the smirking fat smoking hipster who always holds vigil outside of my neighborhood pizza place and ran right by his smelly ironic ass. I made it to the park and back. I made playlists and put them on my iPod and I ordered one of those running armband carriers for it. I started running around Como Lake, which was prettier than my neighborhood. I bought cheap running clothes at Target. I kept running. Oh god I hated it. Oh god it was mighty. I did a ten day juice cleanse. I decided to apply the same day-in day-out dedication I normally reserved for working on a novel to losing weight—I flipped the crazy rabid gopher switch in the meaty recesses of my mind and just went for it. No more laziness justified by a prolific writing output and a day job and a sad personal history. No. No more justifications. None. I’d been childish and arrogant, ignoring my body and puffing up my ego. It had been easy to say fuck it, who wants to live forever, and do nothing about a correctible problem. It was much harder to be an adult and to do what needed to be done, however unpleasant, and keep things maintained. To keep shit tight.

By my reading I was down to 220. By October I was down to 190 and I was running up and down Summit Avenue like every gung-ho namby-pamby runner douchebag I’d always hated. I ran past this one school and a child had written on the sidewalk various inspirational things to the avenue’s many joggers in pink chalk. One phrase read, “Go hot wheels, go!”

The kid was right.

I was a hot wheels.

#

It’s been a year out now and I’m overdue for my yearly dental cleaning. I’m up to around 205 at the moment but I think I’ve got a handle on it (as long as my legs hold up—Jesus how they like to complain). I’m going to try to get down to 185 by June, when I am due to officiate a wedding. I still drink two to three vegetable/fruit juices every day. I go running four or five times a week and I can honestly say I’ve never felt a clearer sense of focus when I sit down to write. I used to hem and haw but now I just put on some tunes and go at it.

But I’m also still a night drinker. A TV binger. I still love extra sharp white cheddar cheese and reduced fat Triscuits and popcorn slathered in butter and sriracha and minced garlic. I love good beer and the occasional cigar. I still feel that drag that seems to accompany the process of creation, that melancholic tug, but I’ve come to accept it as part of the horror and the glory that is the Grind. I’ve learned to be kinder to myself, whether or not I really deserve it. Whether any of us deserve it.

And isn’t that what health and wellness is all about?

[1] I played on a beer league softball team during the summertime and walked about twenty minutes day to work and back but that was about it.

[2] I think I’d eaten a whole block of cheese that night.

Dialogue

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Eleven

Dialogue

ryan-gosling-emma-stone-gangster-squad

I think dialogue, or conversation between two or more fictional characters, is one of the most flat-out enjoyable aspects of writing fiction. Dialogue provides endless fodder for character development, plot development, and engages the author themselves in a way describing action or setting does not. It’s the cream in the coffee of fiction, the tasty frosted side of a wheat square. As I write dialogue I can feel myself physically loosening up, as if it is giving me a reprieve from the heavy lifting of descriptive prose.

“Jesus, Mack. Do you want to be a virgin forever?”

“Sam, it’s not like she’s dead.”

“Unless you killed her. Did you kill her, Mack? Is this really what we’re talking      about here? A country drive gone horribly wrong? Did you pitch her down a well? Chuck her into a bottomless sink hole?”

“I’m laying a foundation here. It takes time.”

“A foundation of death.”

“What time is it, anyway? I think we’ve entered some kind of shadow land where the laws of time no longer apply. Purgatory.”

“Her nose is pierced, man. I hear those girls are crazy in the sack.”

“Why? Some kind of metal poisoning thing?”

“Metal poisoning?”

“Metals can poison people. They seep into your blood.”

“Right. Whatever. The point is—”

“Sam, I know what I’m doing here. She’s a headstrong little pony and is going to take some rustling.”

“That’s your cowboy accent? You sound like a stroke victim.”

The Firebug of Balrog County

Dialogue provides much needed air in a story. It also creates an opportunity for the author to discover surprising details about their character (you know how sometimes you open your mouth to say something and you’re surprised by what you’ve said? Well, delightfully, I find this frequently occurs with fictional characters, too. They’re just gussied up mouthpieces for the author, right?). Dialogue gives the reader the sense that they’re right in on the action, right there listening to the characters talk, and provides a little happy buzz to the eavesdropping side in all of us. Great dialogue, patiently sharpened to point, pops off the page in a certain cocktail party-type way that even the most beautiful descriptive prose fails to match.

There are two major categories of dialogue: internal and external. Internal dialogue is when a character speaks to themselves in a format such as the monologue or stream of consciousness. External dialogue, which features characters speaking to each other, comes in three main varieties: direct quotation, indirect quotation, and summarized.

Direct Quotation

Direct quotation is the most common form of dialogue. It is dialogue that is usually bracketed by quotation marks and conveys a sense of immediacy—the reader is hearing this dialogue at the exact moment it’s being uttered, thus the “direct” in direct quotation.

“Hey girl,” he said. “I’m Ryan Gosling, baby.”

Direct quotation involves a lot of “he said” and “she said” dialogue tags.[1] Since its directness is its strongest virtue, I suggest using it for important scenes as a default setting, to be tinkered with only if you feel there’s some kind of compelling aesthetic reason for doing so.

The appearance of quotation marks themselves varies by country. The United States primary set of quotations marks are “…” in the United Kingdom it’s only one apostrophe ‘…’, and countries such as Spain, France, Italy, and Russia use brackets «…». Hebrew prefers its quotation marks ironed flat “…”.

You can also have direct quotation without any quotation marks at all, but the immediacy remains readily apparent:

I’m going to kill you!

Not with that foam noodle you won’t.

God, you’re always so negative.

Indirect Quotation

Indirect quotation is dialogue relayed second hand, or indirectly. In a sense it’s a mixture of direct dialogue (because it can appear to be the actual spoken words) and summary dialogue (because whatever someone has said has been summarized). It can have the feel of an exchange without the quotation marks surrounding it.

Did she like the house? She did like the house. She wanted to paint it goldenrod and dig a moat around it for security purposes. She had always wanted a home with its own moat.

Or it can appear to be a simple relay of what has been said from one character speaking for another character:

We were at the kegger and Higgy said he was going to take his shirt off and give everybody a good old manly titty show.

Indirect quotation is useful if an author is looking to play with voice and tone or to simply condense what a character has said off-stage without totally erasing the character’s voice from the statement.

Summarized

Summarized dialogue condenses dialogue (usually a lot of dialogue) into much more compact sentences. For example, instead of showing a long group argument you can simply tell the reader what was discussed.

Everybody at the kegger except Greg wanted Higgy to put his shirt back on and to stop slapping his belly like it was a drum. Greg was a nonconformist and believed in the right of the common man to go topless, even if he was as disgusted by Higgy as anybody. The argument dragged on and on until Higgy did a keg stand and passed out on the lawn and somebody threw a tarp over him.

As you can see, summarized dialogue can be very useful, especially when an author wants to convey a lot of information without slogging through a lot of expositional dialogue.[2] Beware relying on it too much, though, since at its heart summarized dialogue is still telling instead showing and thus loses the immediacy and power you get with direct quotation. You summarize enough scenes and the reader might begin to wonder why you didn’t just summarize the whole novel and move on with your day.

#

Good dialogue works on multiple levels. You shouldn’t just be recording what’s being said between your characters, like a court stenographer. You could be:

Advancing the action

“Hey, guess who I saw at the bait shop?”

“Who?”

“That one dude. With the face tattoo and the eyebrow piercing.”

“You mean Ferro?”

“Yeah. That guy.”

“No way. I need to go find that dude. He owes me money.”

“Well, I’d check the lake. Dude bought a buttload of night crawlers.”

 

Revealing your characters personality

“I feel tired today.”

“You always feel tired, Sherri. Maybe you need to take more vitamins.”

“Vitamins don’t work. They’re placebos for the gullible.”

“The gullible? You think I’m gullible?”

“I think you’d believe a chunk of poop was a magic wand if the government told you so.”

“What—”

“I bet you think JFK was really killed by Lee Harvey Oswald. I bet you really think we landed on the moon.”

“We did land on the moon.”

“You see? Gullible idiots like you are why I’m so tired.”

 

Foreshadowing trouble to come

“Did you see that?”

“See what?”

“She had a spot of blood on the side of her mouth.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It was bright red. Looked fresh.”

“Maybe she bit her lip.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

Increasing tension within a scene

“You’re looking good today.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“What do I mean about what? I just said you were looking good.”

“But you didn’t say it like you meant it.”

“I didn’t?”

“No. You said it in, like, a real dickhead sort of way.”

“Fine. YOU LOOK SO TOTALLY HOT TODAY YOUR ROYAL HIGHNESS.”

 

Providing exposition (hopefully subtly and sparingly)

“Man, the old guy was insane. All we did was knock on his door and he came busting out with a shotgun.”

“He pulled a shotgun on you?”

“Leveled a shotgun at us is more like it. He said he’d lived there fifty years and wasn’t going to let any goddamn mining company run him off his land. He said something about glowing worms, too.

“Glowing worms?”

“Yeah. He said they were going to ‘harvest our souls’ and then fired into the air.”

“Huh. That’s odd.”

 

Providing subtext[3]

“I think you’re great.”

“Really?”

“I just think you’re so, so great.”

“Thank you, sweetie.”

“No problem. It’s almost, uh, like I feel guilty spending so much time with you. Like I’m a big Josh hog. Because you’re so amazing.”

“A Josh hog?”

“Right! Like what if the rest of the world had more time to spend with Josh?! That’d make so many people so much happier.”

“Oh god . . .”

“You know what I mean, though? You’re SO GREAT, Josh! You have so much to share!”

“Oh no. You’re breaking up with me, aren’t you?”

You don’t need to make every single line of dialogue three or four layered (nor would this be particularly desirable—sometimes simple and clean truly is best) but it’s important to remember that fictional dialogue isn’t like dialogue in real life. It’s refined, concentrated dialogue and under far greater scrutiny than the 99.9% of things people say in real life, dialogue which is rife with small talk, water cooler babble, and circuitous bullshit.

When it comes to revising dialogue remember that revision is your great ally and you should feel no compunction when it comes to cutting lines. When it comes to dialogue tags use them as sparingly as possible—if the reader can figure out who’s speaking leave the tag out altogether, it’s now just page clutter—and try to avoid attaching adverbs, which are awkward cheats, he said sternly. If you want to strongly convey the tone in which a sentence is said use action or a description of your character’s posture while they’re speaking (otherwise just make sure what they’re saying is clear enough in the context of the dialogue that an adverb would be superfluous). If you feel an urge to italicize a word in a line of dialogue ask yourself if it’s really necessary—the reader normally should be able to sense the emphasis on a word in well-written dialogue on their own (unless it’s a really strange line).

Read your dialogue out loud and see if it passes the ear test. Read lots of plays and study TV shows known for their great dialogue. When using dialect, whether regional or something you made up yourself, make sure you have a good hand on it and even then use it in moderation lest you lose the reader.[4] Pay attention to the pattern of conversations around you but be cautious about taking dialogue that you hear on the bus or at the mall and inserting it verbatim into your story just because you think it’s cool—chances are it’s not going to be as distilled as it needs to be and will feel out of place to the objective reader. Dialogue grows organically from within your characters and the environment they find themselves in and has been filtered by your imagination in a way something you hear in the real world hasn’t been.

If you come across a particularly dead patch of conversation during your revisions ask yourself what’s at stake in this conversation and what each character is hoping to get out of it. What does this conversation, however brief, actually accomplish to move the story forward? What’s the subtext?

If you can’t decide if the story needs a particular patch of conversation it probably doesn’t. Cut it. Often a character’s actions speak loudest of all.

[1] In every writing class I’ve ever taught, including at the graduate level, I’ve had at least one or two students who didn’t know how to properly use dialogue tags and the basic grammatical rules that go with them. They put commas on the wrong side of the quotation marks, use periods instead of commas (“Hey girl.” he said.) and begin multiples sentences awkwardly with the tags up front (He said, “Hey girl…), among other things. It’s a strange grammatical phenomena.

[2] Expositional dialogue is dialogue that works on the basic level while also conveying either backstory, background information, or any facts that are important to know for the story to make sense. Unfortunately, expositional dialogue is hard to pull off and usually clunky. Both science fiction and fantasy genres, which frequently seek to establish a new universe, are unfortunately rife with expositional dialogue.

[3] Subtext, as it applies to dialogue, is when a character says one thing but actually mean more than they’re saying or perhaps something totally different. A character’s gestures and posture and actions can indicate what they’re really thinking when they’re saying something else.

[4] Unless you’re writing at a Flannery O’Connor-type level or you’re aiming for the next A Clockwork Orange. Then have at it and Godspeed my friend!

Plot-Part Two

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

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Causing Trouble

The middle of a novel can be a veritable plot thicket and it has swallowed many a promising novel. You started out strong, feeling good, feeling righteous, and suddenly, somewhere after you hit that inciting incident, the thread of your story begins to slip through your hand and you’re slogging through twenty pages of circuitous dialogue or just making shit happen for the sake of making shit happen, with no idea where it’s all heading or (worse yet) not even feeling interested in the events themselves.

The main thing I try to keep in mind when I’m laying out a book is the concept of escalating conflict. Also called rising action in Freytag’s Pyramid, escalating conflict speaks to the idea that the scenes of conflict in a story escalate as the story moves forward, like a fight with your significant other that seemed so innocuous at the beginning and ends up with both of you in jail. The conflict can be external (the protagonist fighting bigger and badder monsters as he continues his quest) and or purely internal (the protagonist coming to terms with the death of his child, his terrible childhood, etc.) but I’ve personally found through much trial and error that a good balance between external and internal conflicts is usually optimal. If an internal conflict within a well-rounded protagonist drives their actions forward, sending them marching ever onward despite growing obstacles, the plot always seems to fall into place in a much more natural manner. What a character wants speaks to what they end up doing about it.

If every conflict is external, i.e. events just keeps happening and the main character is forced to react to each event in turn, the character loses depth, bouncing back and forth between events like a tennis ball, and the reader will have more trouble emotionally investing in a tennis ball then a well-rounded character struggling with an internal conflict which, to some degree, they’ll feel familiar with, as we all have our own internal conflicts and struggles. A lack of emotional investment in a character is not only a major downfall in fiction but in many a film as well, especially action movies. Film, primarily a visual medium, must either take the time to show us why we should cheer for a character (which many action movies are loathe to do, since this takes valuable time that could be better used for more explosions) or resort to a clumsy flashback or two and just get on with the front story. Fiction’s great advantage over film is its ability to peer inside a character’s thoughts and mind with a naturally unobtrusive lens, merging the reader and character into one being.

Earlier I alluded to plot as a string of dominoes lined up to fall against each other. Each domino is a plot point, a major event in a narrative, but each of these theoretical dominoes is not the same size. Think of a plot’s inciting incident, which starts the whole line of dominoes falling, as the smallest domino in the string, with each subsequent domino a little greater in size, until the climatic event, the biggest domino, falls last and leaves the author (through the sections of descending action, resolution, and dénouement) to collect the pieces and put them back in their narrative box. You don’t want the plot to boil over too soon by introducing a scene that’s more important than the scenes coming after it—you don’t to shoot the primary antagonist in the second act and leave your protagonist with nothing to struggle against for the rest of the book. You want to cause trouble in the middle of a novel but not so much that the reader is underwhelmed with the novel’s final scenes, like a child that eats too much cake at a New Year’s Eve party and falls asleep before the midnight countdown.

As for stagnation in the middle of a novel, that plot thicket, you need to trust your gut. Chances are if you feel your antagonist is growing and changing internally as they go along you’re on the right path and if you’re invested in their journey, their struggles both internal and external, your reader will be as well. You’ll know when you’ve reached the climax of your story when you’ve finally reached a scene that forces your character to make some decision, to take some action, which changes everything and leaves them with no recourse but to keep moving forward—they’ve come so far they can’t go back anymore and the shadowy abyss of resolution lies before them, waiting to swallow them whole.

Getting Out

If the middle of a novel is a thicket the author must hack their way through, concluding a novel is akin to guiding an enormous ship through a treacherous waterway and bringing it safely to port. By the time the narrative has crested and reached its climactic moment it has a great deal of momentum behind it and is riding low in the water, heavily laden with all the cargo the story has taken on over hundreds of pages. The author, as captain, feels the pressure of all this weight pushing behind her and understands that one small miscalculation can end up sending the novel far off course, with the possibility of crashing into the shore and capsizing the entire ship always buzzing at the back of her mind.

Some authors write with an ending in mind from page one (like John Irving, who starts a novel by writing its final line first), some have a vague idea of how everything will turn out and write toward that, fleshing out the details as they go along, and some write with no clue how everything is going to turn out for the majority of the first draft. Some authors seek full control of the novel writing process from start to finish, viewing a novel’s structure in the same light as an architect studying a blueprint, and some are comfortable, indeed flourish, with a lack of structure, feeling that it gives their imagination full reign in a way that following a rigid blueprint doesn’t allow for.

After much trial and error, I’ve found a comfortable middle ground in plotting a novel all the way through. I really like the idea of giving yourself as much space as possible for surprises in a plot, truly enjoy the surprise discoveries that happen, big and small, as you get to know your characters better and see how they interact with each other and the choices they make, but I’ve also written enough novels that went completely off course near the end that I now appreciate the idea of always having a rough idea of where you want the novel to land. I enter a novel with an idea I’d like to see play out (like a suicide plague, or a meteorite landing in the middle of a small Nevada town, or a teenage pyromaniac trying to work through his mother’s death, etc.) and spend a week or so writing the first pages of the story and just feeling around the story to get a handle on it. Once I can sense that there’s enough to the story to carry it for the length of a novel, enough potential in its characters and its setting, enough interesting, I start sketching a rough outline in my author’s notepad.

My usual outline is about as basic as it gets. I write one line for each potential chapter describing in curt fashion what’s going to happen and to which character. I start with chapter one and go from there, piecing the story together and telling it to myself as I go along—an author’s first audience is always themselves and frequently they’re as surprised as anybody to learn what’s about to happen.[1] This first outline, which will be mucked up and rewritten and rewritten as I go along and discover new characters and investigate new developments, is just enough to both give me confidence that I have enough material to span sixty thousand words and give me a general direction—that final chapter—to aim for. I view none of the chapters as set in stone but I will consult the outline daily as I go along, altering it on the fly and reassuring myself that the story is remaining generally cohesive.

I don’t consciously think of the terms falling action, resolution, and dénouement as I write toward the end of a novel but I am aware that I need to wrap everything up in a more or less satisfactory way, at least as satisfactorily as the story allows. I’m keenly aware that once I’ve written that final sentence of the book I’m ending an entire world I’ve spent a long time creating and refining and I want to honor the death of this creation. It’s been good to me—it’s given me hundreds of hours of escape from the world and surprised me with its twists and turns.

I’ve also become a fan of the bang-inside-the-bang, the little revelation inside the greater final revelation in a story. Not only is the murderer’s identity is revealed, we learn that he has a personal connection to the detective. Not only had the valiant knight slain the dragon, but we learn that he wasn’t actually the one prophesized to do it (that guy was the knight who was actually fried by the dragon in the first chapter). Not only has the main character found a way to finally accept the death of their parent and make their peace with it but they’ve learned something about themselves through the process of grieving that will now change the entire trajectory of their lives. Give the reader a little extra pop in those final pages, one last surprise to really send them off in style.

Summation

Plotting a story is a matter of conflict, both external and external, and structuring those conflicts in an order that naturally escalates before finally reaching a conclusion. You can take apart a story and study its various plotting components like a mechanic working on a car but eventually you’ll need to take a step back and consider the work as a whole. Have you done more than simply complete a rote task? Has the story grown beyond what you intended for it when you set out in some pleasing way? Does the ending feel both surprising yet inevitable, as if it’s the one true ending for your story, throwing all other possible outcomes in shadow? There’s an aesthetics to plotting every good author appreciates and pays attention to, something beyond their stubborn ego and initial intent. They’re well aware that when a mortal makes a plan the gods laugh. They also know this is what makes writing so interesting.

[1] I find outlining is best down in lying in bed with a pen and a notepad which I use as much for doodling as I do writing the outline itself. A first outline usually takes a couple hours of dreamily staring at the ceiling.