Friday, June 29, 2012


It's taken me a long time to realize that writing fiction, that is, composing a readable work of fiction is similar to writing a song.  From all I can gather songwriters either come up with the lyrics and then try to find the tune embedded in the words or first compose the music and then find the words that fit the music. In fiction there are the lyrical components as well - the words, and the musical score, which is the structure of the story.

In my writing career I have been trying to do both simultaneously; letting the story evolve on its own and then rearranging, rewriting, and editing the structure into something worth reading. Only of late did I make the musical epiphany and decide that I've probably been doing it wrong, or at least wasting valuable time.  Now I see that the structure of a composition is a thing apart from the story being told.

The top level organization of a classic short story is: Introduction, Exposition, Epiphany, and Denouement.  The Introduction sets up the story's problem that will eventually be "solved" at the end.  Along the route to the Denouement there should be no more than three challenges to success, with the final challenge leading to the Epiphany or realization of the solution. There should be high and low points. Throughout the presentation there should be a bass line to set the tone of the piece. What's left is to sprinkle the composition with a few bright notes of brilliance, a not-too-long stretch of expositions, and maintain a consistent refrain for each character. Pull all those elements together and you have built a perfect structure for the story.

All you have to do then is add the words.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Shout Out

The web is a wonderful thing, connecting people around the world who never might have otherwise met. When I post  a new blog it is interesting to see how the different countries "light up" on my blog map. Apparently this blog is being read by not only people in the US and Canada but also struggling writers (which is probably redundant phrasing) in India, China, Russia, Germany, France, England, Scotland, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa. I am suitably impressed to say the least.

I have no way of knowing who you might be or what perverse pleasure you might get out of my masochistic musings, but I want to thank you for your continued interest in my struggles to understand this impulse that drives me to write. It is somehow reassuring to know that others may be as beset with what appear to be everlasting personal and professional doubts as I.  Welcome, fellow sufferers.

For my own part, if nothing else, I hope that at least one of you is encouraged by the news that they are not alone in dealing with their writing demons. I hope that someone will someday find a bit of my advice that actually helps move their work forward or at least gives them encouragement to continue.  The world needs stories, your stories, and failing to provide them would be a sin.

I will keep posting to this stream of consciousness as long as new devils beset me. I hope that some day I will experience a writer's epiphany that leads to the denouement of happiness and will be able to share that as well.  Until then, I hope you continue to read and enjoy these posts.

By the way, it wouldn't hurt to comment now and then.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Reason to Write

A well-published novelist told me recently that a writer should enjoy the building of a novel regardless of whether it ever sees "print" or not.  A writer's joy should come from the mental effort of producing a satisfactory cogent and compelling story.  Advances, royalties, and other rewards are nice, but they are a thing apart from the writing itself.

I have found this true for short stories, as witness my dismal 1:5 sales ratio. But then, I write what I damn well please to exorcize my personal demons and if a story sells, so much the better. I take no offense at rejection (well, maybe a little.) The process of creating worlds, populating them with curious creatures, and putting them in complicated situations lets me feel like a minor old testament god. It is very satisfying.

Nobody knows where the impulse to create comes from or where lies the source of the spring that waters a writer's imagination.  Yet writers seem impelled to create and put their creations into a reasonable form so that others might enjoy the result.  Some might think this a form of exhibitionism, of an ego-driven need to assert their vision on the world.

There might be a touch of this, but for the most part writers care less about acclaim than they do about the pleasure they get from a well-turned phrase, of choosing the perfect word, of crafting a well-defined character with depth and an emotional range.  There is a surge of almost orgasmic pleasure at putting the final bit of polish on a completed work.  This pleasure is rarely mentioned at conventions when being bright and amiable seems the better choice of presenting oneself and selling whatever books are waiting to be sold or signed than sharing ones innermost thoughts.

Joseph Campbell advised people to follow their joy to attain happiness.  This is true in writing as in everything else:  A writer should follow the joy of writing for its own sake. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Blog Post 100

It seems somehow apt that this one hundredth blog post should mark my return from the breathtaking Rio Hondo week-long critique-fest in the mountains of New Mexico.

Typical critique session
Typical critique session
I spent last week high (9,700 feet) above Taos with a group of eminent genre writers who came together for mutual criticism and to discuss the markets, the writing life, and drink. Each of the ten writers brought an early draft of something they felt needed improvement and which they  hoped could benefit from examination by other professional writers.

Each draft was read multiple times and, in a joint session, each person provided an intense, three-minute expression of viewpoints, sometimes helpful suggestions, and penetrating observations about the sample provided.  At the end of each round of comments there were sometimes lengthy discussions among the group on writerly points of style, phrasing, and pace. More detailed observations were scribbled on the manuscripts and returned to the author.

Any writer worth their salt requires a substantial ego to weather the fickle genre fiction markets and this group was no exception.  Despite their strong egos, there was no animosity, no wails of injustice, nor hurt feelings evident despite sometimes searing criticism over some flaw apparent to all but the author him/herself.  Often I felt that my critiques were a young pony in a draught horse show, underweight and overwhelmed.  Nevertheless, I learned a little about going beyond the obvious surface of words and plot to examine the underlying structure of the piece to discover how to convey understanding to the reader.

My piece was neither more nor less criticized than any other and now I have to sort through the notes and written comments/corrections resulting. That everyone read so carefully and multiple times assured me that little was untouched. Strangely, everyone grokked on a subplot throwaway that I  paid scant attention to and which would take the novel in a completely different direction that I was not contemplating (and may not follow.)

I came away both exhausted and refreshed. The knowledge of the field gained far exceeded any costs I may have incurred. I just hope that that knowledge improves whatever I choose to write.