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Tag: fiction writing

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.

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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)

A non-writing writer

“A non-writing writer is a monster inviting madness.”

—Franz Kafka in a letter to Max Brod

Let your characters do the suffering

“In stories, in the worlds that we can go into, there’s suffering, confusion, darkness, tension, and anger. There are murders; there’s all kinds of stuff. But the filmmaker doesn’t have to be suffering to show suffering. You can show it, show the human condition, show conflicts and contrasts, but you don’t have to go through that yourself. You are the orchestrator of it, but you’re not in it. Let your characters do the suffering. It’s common sense: The more the artist is suffering, the less creative he is going to be. It’s less likely that he is going to enjoy his work and less likely that he will be able to do really good work.”

—David Lynch (found here)

Interesting. Someone (not a writer) was telling me recently that the best time to write is while crying. I thought at once of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Which is the best: while suffering, after suffering, or as Lynch says, without suffering at all?

Characters’ desire vs. characters’ power

“Pairing a character’s desire with their power isn’t an easy process, and it often doesn’t happen until the story is pretty well fleshed out. Usually this is because any desire is, generally, pretty achievable for a powerful enough character. So you often either need to tone down their power, increase their desire, or increase the opposition to their desire.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

If this is true I’m doomed

“My very first writing teacher, Max Steele, once told our class that we would never be the writers we were meant to be until we had dealt with our mother issues. I heard this as an eighteen year old and it is something I have thought about ever since. In fact, in my own writing classes, I refer to it as: if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother and have been both surprised and delighted over the years to see how often a character’s mother, or the absent mother, ends up being the key to whatever is missing.”

—Jill McCorkle (x)

Actually possibly good writing advice

Rahul Kanakia has a post up about his rules of thumb for writing fiction. They’re pretty good, and I’m going to try to follow them.

I’m gratified to see that at one point he remarks: “This is probably bad advice for you, but it’s great advice for me.” So few advice-givers seem to be self-aware enough to admit that.