lookihaveopinions

Tag: fiction writing

The juggling act

“The conjurer juggles with two oranges, and our pleasure in beholding him springs from this, that neither is for an instant overlooked or sacrificed. So with the writer. His pattern, which is to please the supersensual ear, is yet addressed, throughout and first of all, to the demands of logic. Whatever be the obscurities, whatever the intricacies of the argument, the neatness of the fabric must not suffer, or the artist has been proved unequal to his design. And, on the other hand, no form of words must be selected, no knot must be tied among the phrases, unless knot and word be precisely what is wanted to forward and illuminate the argument; for to fail in this is to swindle in the game. The genius of prose rejects the cheville no less emphatically than the laws of verse; and the cheville, I should perhaps explain to some of my readers, is any meaningless or very watered phrase employed to strike a balance in the sound. Pattern and argument live in each other; and it is by the brevity, clearness, charm, or emphasis of the second, that we judge the strength and fitness of the first.”

—Robert Louis Stevenson (found here, quoted from here)

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How do these things happen?

Joy Williams’s commentary on “The Girls” for The Best American Short Stories 2005, in full:

“I don’t know. How do these things happen? For the writer, explaining is a dangerous business. Evoking the literal corrupts. All of these characters exist now, though the story would never have existed if the Girls had dogs instead of cats. When cats enter a story, the gates of Hell yawn wide. Redemption in general is at risk.”

Letters to and from the dead

“Stories are letters to dead authors, letters to dead readers, letters from dead authors to living readers, letters from dead authors to dead authors… Life is a temporary condition, a sort of prep school for future dead folks. As a writer you’re always aware of the din of dead voices, and the desire to join them.”

—Shelley Jackson (x)

On writing on autopilot and even perhaps being bored by it

“In an interview with The Times Literary Supplement, [Kazuo Ishiguro] stated that writing Remains of the Day was almost too easy—’a bit like pushing a button all the time.'”

Hugo Brown in The Millions

This is incredible because Remains of the Day is so unboring and so thoughtfully, so very thoughtfully written. And of course, it goes against this bit of advice.

Perhaps good advice?

“write to tell yourself the story

“edit to tell others the story”

—itstheenglishkid on Tumblr (x, found via everythingissymbolic)

The best writing advice George Saunders ever received

“Once, when I was a student, I cornered my mentor and hero Tobias Wolff at a party and assured him that I had sworn off comedic sci-fi and was now writing ‘real literature.’ I think he sensed, correctly, that 1) this was not an attitude that was going to produce my best work but 2) there was going to be no arguing me off of that position (only time could do that). So he just said, ‘Well, good. Just don’t lose the magic.'”

—George Saunders here (well worth reading in full)

“Don’t lose the magic”! Saunders says it took him four years after his first attempt at “real literature” to get the magic back, but also that “to suddenly recall his advice at just that moment was a sort of force-accelerator.” So maybe writing advice isn’t completely useless.

More time, less writing

“More time, yet less writing. Part of this has to do with the paradox of productivity that many of us are familiar with. I’m reminded of a corporate cliché I used to hear all the time: ‘If you really need something done, give it to someone busy to do.’ In speaking to other writers, I’ve learnt that my experience is far from uncommon. It seems that for many, the constraints of a day job, family, or other responsibilities provide a structure around which a writing routine can be eked out. Scarcity of time also leads one to guard fiercely whatever writing time one does have. Now that I finally have the luxury of time, I find myself only too prone to letting it slip away.”

—Rachel Heng (x)

Short story: “Shadehill”

“Shadehill,” by Mark Hitz

Appeared in Glimmer Train #92, Winter 2015; this and another story won the author the $50,000 Keene Prize for Literature; it was also anthologized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016

A few thousand words; 10 and 2/3 pages in BANR

When I first read this I thought the girl had drowned, like her namesake, and that the grandfather’s unforgivable crime was neglect. Then, skimming through it a second time, I suddenly made the connection with the beaver—then the cemetery by the shooting range—then the grandfather’s refusal to wear glasses, and that terrible encounter at the funeral—and also “her poor unmade head” (I had to go back and check to make sure I’d gotten that word right, what a word, “unmade”). I like a story that makes me go back and reread parts of it, like a mystery novel that cleverly disguises its clues. The emotional journey, too—pardon the hackneyed and almost ludicrous expression—is excellent, like rising and falling music. I wouldn’t say I felt the sick horror and disorientation the family goes through, I’m more detached than that, but I feel like I understand the exact texture of their experience.

I find it interesting that before we see Ophelia’s twin go into the water, we learn that she survives. We just don’t know exactly what happens to her, which is suspense enough.

Tagging this “first-person minor narration” because I think the central character is the family as a whole, not the narrator.

I haven’t read anything from Glimmer Train in a long time—I dislike their use of author photos—but obviously they’re a very good magazine. They invited Hitz to write a short essay on craft, in which he said:

“The two things that have sustained me in my writing (which until recently has been mostly a private, even secretive activity) are my evolving obsessions with various works of literature in relationship to my life, and my own subjective discoveries regarding craft. To put it another way, the most important and lasting lessons I’ve learned about writing were not imparted to me, but rather won through the long, circular process of reading closely, putting words to paper (or failing to put words to paper), and doing my best to return everything to life. Many of these personal lessons, which I am constantly revising, would likely sound simplistic, or even absurd, if I tried to explain them here.”

The humblest commentary on craft is, in my opinion, the best. (Edited to add: Turns out he said this and I quoted it way back in 2013.)

On our resources

“A writer—and, I believe, generally all persons—must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.”

—Jorge Luis Borges in Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges: Interviews by Roberto Alifano 1981-1983, can’t identify the translator by googling (quote found here)

In defense of semicolons

“Any number of celebrated writers who ought to know better—I’ll name no names—have said any number of foolish, disparaging things about semicolons. [Shirley] Jackson uses them, beautifully, to hold her sentences tightly together. Commas, semicolons, periods: This is how the prose breathes.”

—Benjamin Dreyer (x)