by Victor LaValle
For more in-depth advice on structure, sign up for Victor's six-class writing workshop "You Need Structure," which starts June 2.
I met my best friend, Mat, in graduate school. We were in the same writing program, shared similar backgrounds and senses of humor and that’s really all a good friendship takes to get going. We were in the same lectures, shared a workshop once, and spent much of our outside time going over the books we were reading for school, the feedback we’d been getting on our fiction, and our ambitions for our careers after we graduated. We both enjoyed the great luck of publishing first books soon after leaving school. He wrote a novel and I had a collection of stories. Then he published a second novel and I published my first. We both felt like we were on the right path.
Soon after he published that second novel Mat was offered the chance to write a comic book. For guys like us—who’d been comic heads since childhood—this counted as a high honor. He said yes and I asked for details about the process almost every day. His editor said he’d have to write a script for the comic. This meant writing out exactly what was said, what was seen, and what was happening on every panel of every page in the issue. After he’d done all this the artist would take that script and turn the stage directions into illustrations. (Panel one: Superman punches Batman. Panel two: Batman grimaces. And so on.)
A few days later he called me up. He sounded dazed. He’d been writing his script and quickly noticed a pattern. In the first panel his characters sat around a living room talking. Then in the next panel they were standing on the sidewalk talking. Then in the third panel—big dramatic turn!—the characters were sitting again, in a coffee shop this time, and they were talking some more. Was he supposed to just go on like this for twenty-two pages? (The length of an average issue of a comic.) If there were six panels to a page that would mean one hundred and thirty panels of people sitting around talking. Who could ever endure such a thing?
Joseph Heller: Catch-22
"I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say… Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level."
by Dawn Raffel
I’ve been an editor for a very long time—let’s say several lifetimes in dog years—and I’ll let you in on a secret. Although your workshop colleagues will (ideally) read your entire manuscript carefully, generously, and kindly, an editor will begin making a decision in about a minute.
Yes, editors are people who love books, love writers, and love the thrill of discovery. If a good editor chooses to work with you, he or she will pay exquisite attention to every hiccup of language. But that will happen only if the editor makes it past the first few pages. READ MORE
by Erika Dreifus
"Quiet: Though this term may be used to refer to luxurious writing, it’s often used today as a criticism. A novel deemed quiet may center on one character’s internal journey, or there may be relatively little going on in the story from a plot perspective. Quiet novels typically lack solid hooks and are rarely considered high concept."
—Lynne Griffin, "Literary Lingo Explained," The Writer
I learned these dispiriting lessons about "quiet" fiction nearly a decade before reading The Writer's literary lingo list last summer. My education began back in 2001, when a literary agent began circulating my first book-length fiction manuscript, a World War II-focused novel titled The Haguenauer Line.
Soon enough, rejections accumulated. Sometimes, editorial remarks that the manuscript was "too quiet and small" to be able to publish successfully accompanied these "passes." In one case, an editor suggested further that The Haguenauer Line suffered not only from being too "quiet," but also from its close resemblance to "other quiet World War II novels" his particular house had taken on that, in industry parlance, "had not performed."
Margaret Atwood, interviewed by Dawn Raffel
Atwood discusses wonder tales, Scheherezade, post-9/11 dystopias, and Picasso's response to cave paintings.
Dawn Raffel: You make distinctions between types of fiction that might fall under what you call the “wonder tale” umbrella: Science Fiction [Martians, spaceships], Speculative Fiction ["Things that really could happen but just hadn't completely happened when the authors wrote the books"], Sword and Sorcery Fantasy, and Slipstream Fiction [surreal and strange]. Yet you seem less than delighted by the need to categorize at all. Do you feel that new technologies—electronic delivery systems rather than brick-and-mortar stores; hybrid-object books that combine text with visuals and sounds—might obviate the need for categories? Or will the blogosphere create ever narrower slices? Is it just a human need to categorize?
Margaret Atwood: I think it’s a human need to name – to tell this from that. On the most basic level, we need to distinguish – as crows do – the dangerous creature from the harmless one, and – as all animals do – the delicious and healthful food object from the rotting, poisonous one. In literary criticism it’s very helpful to know that the Harlequin Romance you sneak into when you think no one is looking is not the same, and is not intended to be the same, as Moby Dick. But stories and fictions have always interbred and hybridized and sent tendrils out into strange spaces. One traveler reports hearing a tale at a Bedouin campfire that was in essence Romeo and Juliet, but it contained a new character – a Sheik named “Sheik Spahir.” Shakespeare had morphed into a character in his own story, which had itself mutated…
by Fiona Maazel
Everyone asks me what it takes to be a writer. Well, not everyone, since in fact most people don’t care about us writers. Or at least, they mistake the labors of writing for unemployment. Whenever something has to get done in my building, someone will email me saying: You’re at home, you don’t work, can you deal with this? I generally say no. Because the secret to being a writer is…writing. Writing and revising, which are the essence of discipline.
Much like The Anthologist, J.D. Salinger’s Seymour: an Introduction tracks the tumultuous, sometimes unwieldy process of writing, and in another introduction no less. Buddy Glass’ attempts to write the opening for his brother’s, Seymour’s, posthumous book of poetry are stilted, uneven. It is most definitely a failed attempt in terms of scholarship—we learn more about Seymour and Buddy than Seymour and poetry. But throughout, the careful reader is privy to the fertile mentorship and encouragement given freely from one writer to another. One learns how necessary it is to have an idol to emulate. Buddy’s reflection of Seymour as a man with infinite talent feels close to any writer envy ever felt, even if Seymour’s greatest advice is to write while most of your stars are out, passionately for yourself.