Archive for June, 2008

Twenty-Six of the Greats: Character Hall of Fame

June 30, 2008

Here’s something whimsical let’s try. Anyone reading this blog is highly encouraged to take an active part — and you’re not limited to just one comment on this post. As long as you’re being halfway decent in allowing others a chance to get their two cents in, you can come back repeatedly. I’ll pop in myself on this one from time to time.

Here’s the deal: on this posting, let’s work through the alphabet, starting with A, ending with Z. For each letter, tell us about a fictional character you love whose name (first or last) begins with that letter. Briefly identify the character and the book, story, movie, or TV show the character is from, and the author if you know his/her name. (I know with TV shows, that can get tricky, since they’re written by teams of writers.) Okay, okay, we’ll allow graphic novels, too. Also, briefly tell us why the character deserves to be on this list.

Got the rules? Okay, I’ll start us off.

A is for Atticus Finch, the unforgettable lawyer and father in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. There are tons of reasons to admire Atticus, but to follow my own rules, I’ll keep it short: he’s a model of good fathering — raising kids by the example of his own character, virtues, and behavior. He knows how to talk to his children and what things to teach them. He’s wise, patient, responsible, has his values straight . . . and he has the courage to stand up for what’s right, even when it’s an unpopular position. Here’s a man who uses his considerable gifts and education to benefit others. He’s a great judge of character, too. And humble — his kids never know he’s a sharpshooter until he needs to use that skill. Awesome scenes: when he sits outside the jailhouse at night and faces down the lynch mob . . . and how about at the end (or is this only in the movie version?), when he sits at the bedside of Jem, who has a broken arm? The kids know Atticus will be sitting there still when Jem wakes up in the morning. Beautiful! Gives one the shivers!

There’s A. Who’s got a B? Do I hear a B?

The Purest Writerly Joy

June 27, 2008

Santa Claus is a close personal friend of mine. I’ll bet you didn’t know that (except for you, Santa, who I know are reading this blog up there at the North Pole). My perambulations have brought me into contact with lots of people around the world, so — the rest of you — don’t look so surprised. Why do I bring up my friendship with the Jolly Old Elf at the end of June? Well, last winter, I read an article he wrote for a newspaper about his visit to a certain town in Iowa. (Yes, Santa keeps his hand in at writing — why else would he be reading a blog about the writing life? — his life isn’t all about toy-making. Trust me: the immortal soul who annually writes the longest list in the world is a writer of the highest order {not to mention all those millions and millions of notes he leaves beside the plates of cookies and glasses of milk left out for him — he writes fast and he writes well}. And anyone who checks said list twice is also an editor, which all good writers also have to be.)

But anyway, this article of Santa’s that I read. He’d been to this town in Iowa, and he’d ridden in their Christmas Parade. But what he loved the most was talking to the children — meeting them one by one, seeing the wonder in their eyes, hearing the requests for those wonderful visions dancing in their heads. (FWIW, most kids today no longer dream that much about sugar plums.) In one of his encounters that touched Santa (and his readers) most deeply, he was able to reassure a child who was deeply worried. The little one was spending Christmas away from home, at Grandmother’s house (which was probably over the river and through the woods) — and was half-sick with worry about the ramifications that would have for Santa’s Christmas Eve visit. “Don’t worry,” Santa Claus told this wee one. “I know the way to Grandmother’s house, too.” And the child was immensely relieved. And seeing that relief that his words had brought was a greater joy, a greater fulfillment for Santa than he gets from the actual toy deliveries themselves.

Delivering those toys, I suppose, is somewhat like a farmer sowing a field. Santa knows his work will bring delight in the morning, but he can’t see the joy directly. He can’t ever see it with his own eyes. By the Rules of Christmas, he has to be long gone by the time the first sleeper tiptoes from bed to peep around the doorframe at the wondrous changes that have taken place in the night watches, in the hour of the kneeling oxen.

Santa’s main job has a lot in common with that of a writer. See the connection? We labor in isolation at our own North Poles, wherever they may be. Long months go by, and we pile up words and pages, much like Santa stacks up those bales of toys — the whistles and the balls and the whips that crack. Like Santa, we deliver. The manuscript goes out through the driving snow, out into oblivion. Once it’s gone, we’re left in the boreal darkness, drinking our hot chocolate, gazing in weary commiseration at the exhausted elves, wondering how our words are faring Out There at the place they went to. And after about two nights of deep sleep, we wander restlessly back to the workshop. We roll up our sleeves, pick up our tools, and start the whole wild, mad, paint-sloshing, industrious process again. Because that’s what we’re here to do.

But like Santa Claus, we don’t really know how our stuff went over for eleven months. (I use that number symbolically. For writers, it may be a good deal longer than that.) The moment Santa knows he pulled it off is when those letters start rolling in. The awareness comes home to him then that he’s provided what those kids wanted, and they’re relying on him to provide it again. Then, with operations well underway at the Pole, he journeys out to towns like that one in Iowa, and he meets them . . . the ones he labors for. Their faces reassure him that of all the things he might have done with his immortal life, he’s chosen the right one.

The point I’m making with all this is that, this past week, by grace, I’ve been experiencing Santa’s early December “subcreator’s joy.” It is the profoundest joy, the greatest privilege, of which I’m not worthy in the least.

Come and see — come and get a ring-side seat! Come and read these comments and questions from young readers. There’s nothing I can say about the rewards of writing that could be nearly as eloquent as your own perusal. This is what writing is for. This is why we do it: giving worlds of adventure to others — providing good food for their imaginations. The writing life doesn’t get any better than this, and there’s no award I could win that would bring me more happiness and fulfillment than these letters do. I thank the good Lord for the privilege of standing in this place. Won’t you share this joy with me on Cricket‘s Web site? Here’s the link:

All glory to God!

The Terrible Power of Story

June 23, 2008

There is something we don’t normally think about as writers: the fact that we hold lightning bolts in our hands. This Heaven’s-fire can light up the sky, dazzle, electrify, and inspire; but it can also lay waste and devastate. Consider: since the dawn of time, we humans have hungered for stories. We crouched around the fires, intent upon the words of the old one, who evoked for us places and people and deeds . . . wonders and terrors that we had not touched or tasted ourselves, but of which we partook through the magic of language and imagination.

We escape into stories. They transport us from our workaday lives to places where everything is more focused, usually more intense. The hardships and the triumphs are greater than ours. The colors are brighter, the passions are stronger, the resolutions more satisfying and meaningful. In stories, life makes much better sense. The wicked are punished. Virtue and perseverance are generally rewarded. Dreams come true — or if they do not, there is dignity and nobility in their not-coming-true.

Listen to anyone who loves a great book: “I felt I was there,” s/he says. “I want to go there.” “I want to live there.” “I didn’t want it to end.” Why are series books so popular from age to age? — because we never want it to end. We don’t want to come back from those places we love. We don’t want to say goodbye to those people.

This offering of an escape, a refuge, is a great service to readers. Sometimes it’s greater than we could possibly imagine. I was absolutely floored when a person — now a close friend — told me the story of how my book Dragonfly saved her life. That sounds like a ridiculously grandiose claim for me to make, and it would be, but for two reasons: 1.) it’s true, and 2.) the credit doesn’t belong to me. Dragonfly is not an “inspirational” book. It doesn’t have any “message” of encouragement, and the part that encouraged my friend isn’t a particularly encouraging part — in fact, it’s the book’s most tragic moment. But this person read it at precisely the time in life that she needed to read it. All the events of her life worked together — and yes, I believe that certainly God worked — through the medium or filter of this book, this scene — and this person was inspired to keep on living. She took one path instead of the other at a very, very dire crossroads in the darkest stretch of life. And she got to a place that was much better. Again, I had nothing to do with it. But God, working through her life’s circumstances and through something I left lying around out there in the world (the book) . . . saved a life. That’s an extreme example, but the point is, we never know. When the stories leave us, they have a life of their own. They’re like children in that sense. They’re made from parts of us — they have our blood in them — but they pass beyond our reach and our knowledge. They encounter people we never will. Tennyson wrote in The Princess: “Our echoes roll from soul to soul, / And grow for ever and for ever.”

All good and fine, right? Who wouldn’t want to be a writer? On the first day of class, I usually tell my writing students, “If you want to change the world, you’re studying the right thing.” But there is a grim side to it all.

Writing transports us into other worlds . . . wonderful, enchanting worlds. But think of the old stories in which people make forays into the realm of Faery. “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand-in-hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” Or in another poem, Goethe’s, the Elf-King comes and snatches away the child, and the child’s father is left holding a corpse. Faery is an alluring place, but humans who enter it do not come back — or if they do, so much time has passed in their own world that everyone they knew and loved is either very old or long dead.

There is a cost to visiting elfland. The song of the Sirens lures sailors to their deaths. And are not these wonderful and well-loved books Faery to us? Take note of this next sentence, because it’s the gist of this lengthy exposition — it’s the one-line summary of this posting:

I have been as tormented by stories as by anything “real” in life.

Perhaps . . . no, probably . . . no, definitely — moreso. The joy of a story that gets into our hearts is a savage joy. A cruel joy. It’s devastating, and we have no defense against it.

First example: Watership Down. In fifth grade, I remember crying and crying when I finished reading it. The world for me had changed, not entirely in a good way. I had loved the book so much, and now it was over, and I knew that I might re-read it later in life, but that I’d never again have the experience of reading it for the first time. And I knew that, although I’d carry the book around in my heart forever, I couldn’t live inside the book. I’d have to go to school, grow up, work, etc. — those perfect moments of traveling with Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, et al. were not where the bulk of my life would lie.

That’s the reality: beauty — true and perfect beauty — makes us miserable. We encounter it, but it’s like the food in those all-you-can eat buffet restaurants: we can’t take it with us. And we have to leave; we always have to leave.

Second example: The Thorn Birds. Colleen McCullough published the book in 1977. In 1983 it was made into the TV miniseries, which made history for being second only to Roots in popularity. I first experienced it as the miniseries, which captivated me so much that I read the book. I was in high school. The story sent me into the wildest delight and worst agony I’d ever known. I was head-over-heels in love with Meggie Cleary. Not Rachel Ward who played her, but the character, Meggie. I wanted to live on Drogheda in the Australian Outback. I wanted to raise sheep. The story, along with the Mel Gibson / Sissy Spacek film The River, affected the way I thought — I saw rural, agricultural life as sacred, pure, and to be desired above all else. These stories affected the way I dressed. I had some hand-me-down clothes from my uncle, who was a farmer. I insisted on wearing these gray and khaki-colored, oversized shirts, pants, and floppy fedora hats even when I went away to college in the Chicago area. Stories — fiction — had given me an ideal. Or perhaps they had helped me to realize my innate ideals; I was a country boy, so country life was my birthright.

I bring this up now because recently I’ve been revisiting the film version of The Thorn Birds on DVD, and it’s amazing how it’s all come back to me in its grandeur, wonder, and searing pain. I’m in high school again. It’s astonishing how these scenes are etched into my mind and heart — it’s like I’ve never been away, and yet all these years have gone by in the interim. I’m still in love with Meggie Cleary. I still want to put on a fedora and go herd sheep. My friend S.F. will remember me saying back in college that I wanted the theme music of The Thorn Birds to be played at my wedding and my funeral. I still want that.

Oh, the power of these stories! And they do, as I said earlier, have their own life. I read an interview with Colleen McCullough, and she said she didn’t like the film version of The Thorn Birds at all — she said she didn’t like anything about it. Rachel Ward has said that she didn’t enjoy filming it at all, even though she met her husband during the making of it. So the woman who created the story and the woman who gave Meggie a face both disliked this film version that enchanted me. The story cut through — it has its life. It is what it is, and it’s bigger than the sum of everyone who brought it to us, including the author herself.

Incidentally, Rachel Ward is about 50 now. She’s an attractive 50-year-old, but that face that was Meggie in 1983 exists now only in pixels and perhaps on celluloid somewhere. But it does still exist there, and it’s as powerful today as it was then. I challenge any man to look at that face, to hear that soft voice with its accent, and not be thoroughly miserable.

And the book goes on — and all the great books go on, changing the world in each new generation, making a difference in the life of every unsuspecting reader who stumbles upon them. “What’s this about?” I asked my dad, picking up a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. “Oh, it’s a long, involved story about a ring,” he said. “Everyone wants the ring.” “Hmm,” I said — and the rest is history.

So get out there, writer, and fulfill your sacred task. Save lives, but know that you will also break hearts. But . . . I guess we readers want that, don’t we? It’s like that legend that gives The Thorn Birds its title: the bird that, all its life, seeks a long, sharp thorn; and finding it, the bird impales itself on the thorn and dies. But dying, it sings a song of unimaginable beauty . . . “and all the world stills to listen. And God in His Heaven smiles.”

The Star Shard

June 21, 2008

     Waves of agony Cymbril had never expected rolled through her as tears spilled from her eyes and her nose ran.

     “Little bird.” His palm brushed her hair, gently as the falling of light. “This is a song I’ve not heard from you before. But it is a good song, too, and makes the world better, not worse.”

     “I don’t know what to do,” Cymbril gasped when she could. “I thought I knew what I wanted.”

     “And so you will,” said Urrt. “Your heart knows. When the time is right, it will tell your head. Have courage.”

                                                                         — from “The Star Shard”


My novelette “The Star Shard” is running in a serial in Cricket Magazine this year. It began in the April 2008 issue. If anyone missed that first installment, back issues can be ordered directly from Cricket at Or, yes, you can also simply read that part of the story on their web site at this link: (Probe around — it’s there, I promise — you may have to click “Look Inside.”) One thing that makes this event so exciting is that the editors tell me this is only the second time in the magazine’s long history (they began publication in 1973) that they’ve printed a story of this length. [The first time, for you Cricket history buffs, was M. M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess — I remember it!]

Anyway, “The Star Shard” is beautifully illustrated by Emily Fiegenschuh. Some of Emily’s early professional work was for Wizards of the Coast, including illustrations for the Monster Manual II. Her soft, pastel style and expressive character faces are perfect for young-adult fantasy that’s full of fantastic contraptions such as the Thunder Rake and non-human people such as the Urrmsh and the Sidhe. Stories, at their core, are about characters, and I think I like Emily’s characters most of all. On Cricket‘s site, you can see many of her preliminary sketches and read her notes on them. I was given a chance to see most of them before they were finalized, and we were all in pretty close agreement (Emily, the editors, and I) over which versions we liked the best. Her Thunder Rake is based with very few alterations on a detailed sketch that I was asked to make.

Most exciting of all is that, for the first time ever, readers of Cricket can log onto the site and write in questions for Emily and me to answer. We’re both eager to do so, so we hope those questions will come pouring in!

I suppose this is also the best time to say, for anyone who doesn’t know, that you can find a complete and updated bibliography of my published writing on my web site. Either click the “Frederic S. Durbin” link on the Blogroll at the right of your screen, or else point your browser toward

And Happy Midsummer’s Eve to all!

The Intensity of Dreams

June 18, 2008

“Everything in a dream is more deep and strong and sharp and real than is ever its pale imitation in the unreal life which is ours when we go about awake. When we die we shall slough off this cheap intellect, perhaps, and go abroad into Dreamland clothed in our real selves, and enriched by the command over the mysterious mental magician who is here not our slave, but only our guest.” — Mark Twain

And why do you suppose dreams have that vividness, that strength, that intensity? Here’s my theory: I would contend that in dreams, we are not limited to what the five senses perceive. Things in dreams have shapes, sounds — and probably smells, tastes, and feels, too, though I must confess I can’t remember perceiving any of those latter three in dreams — but they also have emotional values. In essence, emotion in dreams becomes another sense for us — a sixth sense. In the dream, something may look like a door, for instance, but we know we’re afraid of it. Or something may look like a tree gilded by a summer sun — a tree we’ve never seen before — but we know in the dream that we like it. It fills us with joy, wonder, or excitement.

As writers, we’re usually searching for emotional truths and striving to express them. We’re often delving into our memories as into an old attic trunk, rummaging through the curious contents for things that will be of great use to us in the stories we want to tell. The older a memory is, the more dream-like it becomes, for it takes on an increasingly greater emotional value. To survive in our minds, I think, memories must have an emotional imprint.

Reportedly, the poem “Kubla Khan” came to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a dream. I don’t recall that I’ve ever turned a dream into a fiction story, but it seems to me that my dreaming mind does with ease what my waking mind strives to do when I write. My dreams often have fascinating premises, intriguing conversations, suspense, drama, mystery, conflict, and resolution; but best of all, they appeal to my emotions, and they sweep me into the world of their internal realities. When they’re nightmarish, I pass through them in frustration, dread, or mortal terror and awake in a cold sweat; when they’re at their best, I don’t want to leave them.

Isn’t that exactly what we’re attempting to do with the stories we write? Aren’t those the effects we’re trying to produce? There may be something we can learn from dreams, some things our subconscious may teach us through them. At times I find a dream so intriguing, so emotionally powerful, that I write down as much about it as I can after I wake up; I record the dream itself and how I felt about each element. One trick for remembering dreams: try to recall them before you say your first words in the morning. I’ve read that the act of speaking catapults us into full wakefulness. Before we speak, we’re still standing knee-deep in the shallows of the dream lake.

Look back over your shoulder at the ripples, at the fantastic shapes rocking in the mists. Their emotional connections may serve you well in your writing.

Here’s a poem I wrote back in my college days:


As I lay one night

   In a troubled dream

I saw a man, a stranger,

   it seemed,

From faraway lands where the

   goblins dream,

From the Sleeping Land,

   Where the Green Men dream.

We passed in the mist of the

   Moon’s pale beam;

I was the stranger,

   And it was his dream.


And finally, here’s Twain again:

“The dream vocabulary shaves meanings finer and closer than do the world’s daytime dictionaries.”         — Mark Twain

Famous Last Words

June 14, 2008

For me, the single most interesting part of a book is the very last sentence or two. The end of any unit of writing — be it a phrase, a sentence, a chapter, or an entire book — is said to be the “power position.” It’s what the reader is left with, the last word echoing in the reader’s ears as s/he walks away. I absolutely love last lines. I love to study them, to savor them, to collect them in my memory.

Much, much, much is said in discussions of writing technique about first lines and first chapters. We’ve heard again and again how we must grab the reader by the throat; we must yank the reader into our fictional world from page one. That’s all too true, and getting truer by the minute in the world of modern publishing. Gone are the leisurely eras when the public had an attention span for the printed word.

But in my experience, first lines are not that big a deal. I can’t think of any book I’ve ever read of which the first sentence was what sucked me in. Sometimes it’s the book’s cover (Steven Millhauser’s Enchanted Night and a lot of the Lovecraft covers when I was a kid); sometimes it’s the back cover’s blurb; sometimes it’s something I’ve heard or read about the book or some combination thereof. (I first picked up The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings partly because of the covers [illustrations by Tolkien himself], partly because of their perennial prominence in the small bookstore my parents owned, and partly because of what my dad told me about the stories — although he told me Tolkien was German; I think he had this “ring” story mixed up with the one Wagner wrote his opera about. But that’s fine –whatever he said, it got me to read the books, although Dad hadn’t read them himself.) But anyway, first sentences rarely do anything to lure me in. They can’t lessen the weight of the enormous number of sentences that are coming after, numerous as the grains of sand on the beach, that must all be read if I’m ever to get through the book.

The pressure on a first sentence is too great, isn’t it? Some are memorable, to be sure: “Call me Ishmael.” “I am a cat.” “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, . . . .” “The night Max wore his wolf suit, . . . .” But a first sentence has nothing to build on. It might introduce a character, but we don’t know that character yet. It might introduce a place, but it’s not familiar yet. It might show us some action, but we’re not going to figure out what’s happening until we’ve read further. If they’re done right, first sentences become transparent, right? Their purpose is to make us get past them. They’re doorways.

But last sentences . . . last sentences are the inscriptions cut in marble. They’re what all the book has been leading us toward. Final sentences aren’t transparent. They’re the prima donnas. They’re the spoils of war, the souvenirs, the battle scars. They wuv us very much and cling to our leg as we go out to the car.

We’ve all got our favorites, right? Who can forget the way Watership Down ends? . . . or The Lord of the Rings, so humble and homely after all the grand adventures in far, perilous lands? . . . or The Great Gatsby? I think the last few sentences of A River Runs Through It are brilliant, but the author goes one sentence too far; if that very last sentence were lopped off, the ending would redouble in power. And there’s Charlotte’s Web, which not only makes us cry, but manages to salute writers everywhere.

I won’t ask anyone to pick one favorite last line — it’s likely impossible to choose just one. I’m going to offer an example here, because I think it does its job so well. (It’s not my #1 favorite; it’s just one I respect a great deal.) Then I’ll open this up to anyone who cares to quote other concluding lines. I’m anxious to hear which are the ones that resonate with you, that echo on through the decades of your life, compelling and unforgettable, perhaps taking on new shades of meaning as you gain experience.

The only rule is this: please don’t quote something that will spoil a plot for anyone. Let’s not have anything like, “And so, though none of us would have guessed it in a million years, the murderer was really his brother Hal.” And yes, you’re not limited to one single sentence. Sometimes we need the last two or even three. My example uses two. And multiple submissions are okay if you really can’t decide among your four favorites.

Okay, here’s my example to prime the pump:

“But now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.” — Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha


Focus, Rhythm, Flow, and the Wodehouse Trick

June 9, 2008

Recently a friend, reading a story manuscript of mine, asked, “What’s this scene doing in here?” It was a valid question of just the sort we writers hope our test-readers will ask. As an enlightened master of the I-Really-Have-No-Idea-What-I’m-Doing school of writing, I gave a typical reply: “Well, rhythmically, it feels like there needs to be a scene there, but I’m not sure if that’s the right one.”

We’re forever paddling along in our canoes, exploring the dim boundaries between Craft and Art, between controlled design, inspiration, intuition, and dumb luck. How much of writing is like shaping and firing a ceramic pot? How much is like stumbling through a pathless woods in a direction that “feels right” and coming out, miraculously, twenty steps from the parking lot? I think the best answer to those questions is, “Hmm. Yes. Absolutely, yes.”

“But,” you remind me, “it wasn’t a yes or no question.” And the answer to that is, “Very true. Very true.” So let’s proceed as if this post were making sense. . . .

Most of us would agree that writing involves both experience-based skill and a certain degree of something intangible. Craft and Art intersect and overlap each other all the time. The ceramic pot-maker who is an artist makes more amazing pots; the artist who knows how clay and ceramics work can create shapely and enduring vessels for his/her visions.

Where the interplay of Craft and Art becomes most obvious is when one examines a written draft. (That is to say, I’d argue that in writing our first drafts, we don’t really think of such things; we’re just trying to get the story out without breaking it.) When it’s down on paper, then we have to start paying attention to whether it works or not, which parts do or don’t work, and why/why not.

One year at the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conference, I was enrolled in James W. Bennett’s fiction workshop, and again and again, his advice to us was “Focus.” He was exactly right. I’d say that 99 times out of 100, that’s the difference between a manuscript and a publishable manuscript: the degree to which it’s focused. If you’re only ever going to post one sticky-note above your computer monitor, that’s probably the one word you should write on it:


Over and over again in my own self-editing, I discover sentences in which I’m not really saying what I mean. We all do this: there are conventions of speech that we use in conversation. We hear and read them all over the place. So when we go to write, we stick them into our prose — even when they’re not serving our purpose. When I write a conversation between characters, I almost always end up chopping out about half of it later, and nothing is lost. Maybe it’s Art that gets stuff onto the page to begin with, pulling it out of the nether realm of imagination, and then it’s Craft that cleans it off, hoses it down, or chips away the stone that’s not part of the statue.

There’s definitely a part of editing that’s like sports or music: aside from the meanings of words and the clarity of intent, there’s a pace that we have to feel. Does the eye move along from one sentence to the next? Are we getting snagged and hung up somewhere (over awkward phrasing, perhaps? — poor word choices? — show-offy overdone metaphors?) or bogged down in the mires of too much description or backstory? [Hint: when we find ourselves using a whole lot of the pluperfect tense in the first page or two . . . or anywhere in the manuscript, for that matter . . . something’s probably not right. If we have to tell the reader all these things the character “had” done before s/he did what s/he’s doing now, we may not have started the story in the right place . . . or we may think we have to tell the reader a bunch of stuff that we really don’t have to tell.]

So — the editing process involves paying constant attention to the focus of meaning, the focus of narrative, and the way it’s all flowing.

Toward those ends, P. G. Wodehouse (pronounced “Wood House,” for all you pronunciation buffs out there) reportedly had an intriguing system. Check this out:

“To save time . . . [he] inserted a long, continuous roll of paper into his typewriter. At the end of the working day, he would cut the strip into pages and pin the pages to the wall. He would then walk around and re-read them, stopping to lower a page if the plot sagged or to tilt a page if he felt the story needed a twist. He then revised, page by page, until all the pages were hanging level.”

     — from On Writers & Writing, 2001 Desk Diary, by Helen Sheehy and Leslie Stainton

I’ve never tried his method, but it sounds like it could work well (at least the pinned-up pages part — I’m not inclined to try writing on a roll of shelf paper, gift wrap, or paper towels). Doesn’t it seem that seeing the whole story at once on the wall would be helpful? You could note, proportionally, how much wall space it was taking to get to points A, B, and C in the story. I think you’d begin to associate parts of the wall with the corresponding parts of your stories: “The first major setback happens under the window . . . things are at their worst between the closet and the sofa . . . the climax happens two steps from that corner . . . and by the thermostat, we need to be out of here.”

Wodehouse, of course, used his system to identify the weak points. Fixing them that way, one by one, on the wall would also give a sense of steady accomplishment; it would tell you at any given time how far along you were in the revision process.

Might be something to try. Though, in my little apartment here in Japan, I may have to use my neighbors’ wall space, too.

“But,” you say, “isn’t this whole posting a blatant contradiction of the last one, in which you and Blake told us we’re better geniuses if we don’t work too hard to ‘improve’ our writing?” To which I say, “This is a really Asian thing, Weed-Hopper. This is yin and yang. Hold both concepts at once and know them both to be true. And breathe. And focus.”

Blake on Improvement

June 5, 2008

I ran across this quote from William Blake:

“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

For a stretch of about twelve or fifteen years, I read a couple of the popular writing trade magazines almost cover-to-cover. It wasn’t just about “studying” them — it was a form of relaxation for me. Reading about the craft of producing fiction was, I suppose, what TV is for many people. The articles gave me a warm glow, a tingle of excitement. I loved reading about the techniques and tools, the markets and trends, and I liked hearing the stories of writers who were actually doing it: setting their words on paper and selling them. It still thrills me to hold a book, to browse in a bookstore, to see a ream of typing paper or a computer monitor, to hear the click of keyboard keys and feel them under my fingertips.

Writers’ magazines definitely have their benefits. They keep you somewhat in touch with what’s happening in the publishing world. They can teach you shortcuts and the proper ways of going about things (such as submissions). They can chop a lot of time off the process of learning, which would otherwise be done by trial and error. They’re a wonderful source of resources and places to try sending your stuff. But — to finish the TV analogy — wallowing in the trade magazines has its negative aspects, too. Like TV, it can become a form of escapism. Every moment you spend reading about technique is a moment you don’t spend improving your technique, either by reading well-written literature or by striving to write your own.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, points out the mistake companies make in focusing on artificialities and secondary concerns at the expense of creating products (or services) and selling them. Instead of building a good computer, for example, they schedule a meeting to discuss selecting a committee to explore the feasibility of creating a task group to formulate a strategy. . . .

Endlessly studying writing techniques can be the same. Isaac Asimov said, “It’s the writing that teaches you.” And Asimov certainly knew. You’d have to walk quite a way to find a writer more prolific.

I’ve met “writers” who are all about networking and getting an agent and learning how to protect their intellectual properties from theft . . . but they don’t seem to have any actual material. They don’t, that is, write. I’m not sure when they’re planning to do that part.

There’s a second danger of studying too much technique. There’s the danger that you might learn it. I remember a big debate about ten years ago over the proliferation of writers’ workshops and MFA programs in creative writing. The criticism leveled against them was that they produced multitudes of Serious Writers who all wrote the same. Stories began to smell of having been “workshopped” — all the edges sanded off, all the distracting idiosyncracies plucked out, all the individuality boiled away. “Trained writers” were becoming a quite competent lot who had learned not to take any risks. Nor were the book superstores helping the matter, with their shelves of “safe bets” by a few giant authors, to the exclusion of almost anything else.

During my years of ingesting the trade magazines, I worked and reworked a gigantic novel manuscript, the infamous “second novel” (after Dragonfly, I thought I had it figured out How This Works — heh, heh!). When it came back rejected from my first publisher and two agents, I scrapped almost the whole plot and rewrote and rewrote it all again, grinding and polishing and stewing over all the techniques I knew I should be using. I “finished” it again after hundreds and hundreds of pages, after countless thousands of hours. Today, the book is rife with possibility in its ideas and characters, but the writing makes me shudder — it’s extremely hard to read because it’s been “techniqued” so much. Bleah! (Thank Heavens I was selling short fiction during those years, or I would have been pretty discouraged.)

A big epiphany for me in the last year or so has been to take a deep breath, “forget” the techniques, listen to the characters, and get back to basics — to not concern myself with what’s “marketable,” but about what excites and fascinates me in a story. [By “forget,” of course, I don’t mean “forget”: I mean that techniques must assume their proper place. They become part of the writer, deep inside, like all those scales you played when you were first learning to play your musical instrument.] Tell a good story. Slosh paint around. Break the rules when you need to. Use anything and everything to get the story told.

Clifton Fadiman wrote, “Books are not rolls, to be devoured only when they are fresh.” I think we need to go back and read the great old books that have stood the test of time — books that are still with us, and that were written before writers knew the rules and went to workshops.

A final thought about Blake’s quote: I’ve heard several Japanese friends say that Japan is a country not of innovation but of skillful imitation. In the arenas of manufacturing and technology, Japanese are masters of taking the inventions of other countries, making small improvements, and then cranking out steadily better and better models every year. [For readers who don’t know: I live in Japan. This paragraph won’t make sense without that fact.] This [Japan] is a land of discipline . . . a land of regular Improvement. But in most cases, the Genius is borrowed from abroad — from lands where it’s more permissible to sit on a creek bank doing apparently nothing . . . to wander the crooked roads until the stars come out . . . to try things . . . to listen to voices in the cornfield . . . to dream.

We came in with Blake’s words. Let’s look at them again, the same words, on our way out:

“Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

Give me a crooked road any day, with moss growing on the stiles and branches bending low, and surprising meadows at the turns!