Tag: writing craft and advice


“[M]ost of the time I’m blocked and unable to write.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

Anyone else relieved to hear somebody say this? (Well, to hear a widely published author say this.) Kanakia is a gem.


Good to keep in mind for novel writing

Rahul Kanakia says, “I find that with novels, they tend to fall apart in one of four places: the second chapter; midway through the first act; the end of the first act; and one chapter into the second act.”

Novels and novellas I pretty much wish I had written

In preparation for writing a book myself, the plan is to outline each book and figure out what makes me like it so much (and also what doesn’t). To be updated when I feel like it.

  • Midnight Cowboy: I love the restraint of this book, and the depth it gives its rather simple, straightforward main characters. (The movie was great, but the book goes so much deeper.)
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley: As the main character gets creepier and creepier, you keep believing in him and sympathizing with him and rooting for him and exulting in his triumphs. For similar creepy wish fulfillment, see We Have Always Lived in the Castle below.
  • The Aspern Papers: I adore the way the main character’s climactic dilemma arises so suddenly and yet so inevitably, the way the two characters’ development has made his choice almost as inevitable, and that ambiguous last line—“I mean of the precious papers.”
  • The Brothers Karamazov/The Karamazov Brothers: The scene with Ivan’s visitor! The question of how to give money to a poor man who’s too proud for it! The character development! The way the scene is set for the murder, and the way the whodunnit plays out (even though, I suppose, it’s not that difficult a whodunnit)! The courtroom drama!
  • The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare: I like this one because it’s so clever and so odd, and because it talks about ideas so well. It’s hard to do ideas in fiction.
  • Howards End: I don’t remember much detail about this one to tell the truth, I just remember how wonderful I found it.
  • Joy in the Morning (a.k.a. Jeeves in the Morning): Rereading this, my current favorite Wodehouse novel, I was impressed all over again. The moment one plot thread lets go, another one picks up, like a trapeze act. And the seamlessness of the plotting never gets stifling or flattens the humor, the way it does (for me at least) in some other amusing and plotty novels (I’m thinking of one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books).
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle: As a wish-fulfillment story for the antisocial, brilliant. As a creepy character study, brilliant. As a dark comedy, equally brilliant.
  • The Remains of the Day: The understated buildup to that climactic line works so well.

Other possible additions:

  • Lolita
  • Grendel: Another good novel of ideas.
  • The Beast in the Jungle
  • Pride and Prejudice: I enjoyed Sense and Sensibility a little more, but my impression is that this one holds up better.
  • The House of Mirth
  • The Age of Innocence: Such an elegant and infuriating novel. Again, I enjoyed The House of Mirth more, but I think this one holds up better.
  • The Custom of the Country: While the main character may be “unlikable,” the way she keeps topping herself is almost as compelling as The Talented Mr. Ripley.
  • The Unconsoled
  • The Driver’s Seat: So tightly written! Another compelling “unlikable”/”unsympathetic” character.
  • Portnoy’s Complaint

It’s funny how few of these there are. It’s not that I don’t like novels. There are a lot of novels I like that I just wouldn’t care to emulate. Actually this seems like a fair amount.

Things that didn’t quite make this list because they’re not unified enough, or not quite satisfying enough, for me to think of them as complete, single works:

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • The Idiot (although maybe the first volume would work?)
  • Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (yes, really—the character development is great)
  • Fight Club (yes, really, shut up—I love the way it builds up a wish-fulfillment fantasy and brings it all crashing down)

On soul in writing

“I think that the workshop is a place very often […] where the question of soul is not even in the discussion. The great thing here was that I didn’t have to worry about that, everybody that came to this class […] they weren’t worried about that word. They weren’t worried about the word ‘soul.’ Neither was Emerson. Neither was Whitman. Neither was Emily Dickinson. So […] somewhere along the way the word ‘soul’ became one of those words that people didn’t … the only place they would allow it is, you know, maybe in R&B music or something, but they didn’t much allow it otherwise. And so what was that thing people were talking about not so long ago, and where is it in us now? So what I’ve been trying to talk about is, you know, you can write from your persona, you can write from your, you know, by persona I mean your role and interface with society, you can write from your persona as a writer, which is a really solipsistic thing to say. ‘I’m a writer, so I’m writing as a writer,’ you know, […] or ‘I’m a poet, I’m writing as a poet.’ That seems like [it] can be very limiting, but if you say okay below the persona is the ego, below the ego are reactions that you’re trying to contain, and opinions, and formed ideas, and below that are real genuine feelings, and if you get to the level of actual feeling, then you’re closer to soul, so you’re writing from soul. And when you write from soul, it goes to soul. If you write from persona, it goes to persona. […] When you know that you have something to say that’s deep, then naturally the second part, the craft, comes in, because I want to say it in a way that makes other people feel it. […] So we’re starting at the other end I guess.”

—Rodger Kamenetz in an episode of the Kenyon Review Podcast

Another vote for “soul” as a starting place as opposed to craft. Inspiration, emotional truth.

On melodrama

“I think Kafka got something essential from that aspect of Dostoevsky; think of “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”), which starts off in normal bourgeois fashion and ends in wild, melodramatic tragedy. Dostoevsky would have loved it! But it’s very short (less than ten pages in my Sämtliche Erzählungen); if it were extended much longer, it would have become ridiculous, as does The Adolescent.”

—Steve Dodson (languagehat) (x)

Interesting thought; I think it’s true that many things work better short than long.

I wish I could read Dostoyevsky’s thoughts on Kafka.

I rather liked The Adolescent personally, despite having to make a list to keep track of all the damn characters, but I see Dodson’s point; it is indeed messy and melodramatic.

When a story rebels

“[While writing the short story ‘Sea Oak,’] I realized that if you’re writing a good story, it rebels a little bit, and it rebels mostly against your early and too-simplistic version of it. There’s that Einstein thing I always quote, ‘No worthy problem was ever solved on the plane of its original conception.’ The story just locked up until I was willing to stop dictating to it and start listening to it.”

—George Saunders (x, x)

A false emblem

“One will wonder quite reasonably why tigers and not leopards or jaguars? I can only respond that spots displease me and not stripes. If I were to write leopard in place of tiger the reader would immediately intuit that I was lying.”

—Jorge Luis Borges, as translated by Christopher Mulrooney (found here)

I love this but I’m not sure I understand or agree. Surely we all disguise our experiences, at least in fiction, by substituting one specific detail for another. Surely readers can’t read our minds and understand that this particular symbol or emblem is a false one. It seems to me that including true details (like the names of real people we’ve known) serves only a private purpose, a magical purpose.

On an unrelated note, Mulrooney removes Borges’ comma from that last sentence. I wonder why? Perhaps the Spanish original has a flat or abrupt or emphatic tone that’s best captured in English by eliminating the pause.

I try

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”

—Sylvia Plath

I’m skeptical that Plath actually said this, since she also said (quoting from memory), “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing[,]” but I don’t care—this is just how I feel, on my better days.

Found here.

Haha yes this

“I don’t believe in craft in the abstract—each individual novel is its own rule book, training ground, factory, and independent republic.”

—Zadie Smith (x)

Do characters need to change?

“What most interests me is surprise, discovering a capacity for something—tenderness, violence, duplicity, hope—within a character that I didn’t expect to find. For me, this is profoundly different and infinitely more compelling than a character who ‘changes.’ I’m not one of these folks who believe that stories are always about change or that there needs to be a Joycean epiphany three-quarters through a short story. In fact, such rigidness smacks a little of hogwash to me. So often the so-called changes in characters feel manufactured, crowbarred into the plot.

“When the ‘change’ feels beautiful and natural and, to invoke the workshop term, ‘earned,’ I think it’s because the character has confirmed what we’ve hoped or suspected all along. Maybe the character hasn’t changed at all, but rather has finally been put in a situation where her truest self can be revealed.”

—Bret Anthony Johnston (x)