Beer and Books

I have just finished reading the first draft of a friend of mine’s first novel. As first drafts of first novels go, this was pretty together. He’d researched his subject down to its eyeteeth and outlined in great detail, and as a result the story was well structured and realistic and interesting. But it was still a first draft, so there were many of the usual ups and downs, which I began cataloguing for our upcoming night of beer and books.

The only thing I dislike more than having people tell me what they don’t care for about my work is telling someone else what I don’t care for in their work. The line between venting my frustration with certain parts of a novel and offering constructive and encouraging criticism is sometimes blurry in the heat of a discussion. I’m an opinionated guy, but I am far from the last word on what makes for a strong novel. I have read too many published novels—sometimes popular and critically acclaimed novels—that I found riddled with what I considered “problems” to think otherwise.

Yet this sharing of work and opinions is a part of the process, and so share I will. If all goes well, something I say will resonate with him and he’ll come away with a fresh perspective on the book. This happened to me recently. I had handed what I thought was a strong draft to my wife. She, however, had many problems with it, and as soon as she expressed those problems to me, I thought, “She’s right.” No hesitation, which was my clue that I had been unwilling to admit what I knew had to be changed.

This is all we can really hope to do when talking to people about their work – guide them toward what they already know but have been unable to see. Everyone’s going to make up their own mind in the end anyway. If what I have to offer makes no sense to him, so be it; perhaps he’ll publish it to wild acclaim as is. But if what I have to say does resonate, then wonderful also. It will not be that I have helped him improve his book so much as helped him to say what he truly wants to say, and I can’t think of anything I would ever rather do than that.

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There are many opportunities for a writer to put his attention where it shouldn’t be. Perhaps you have just sold your first book and you are wondering what the reviews will be like; perhaps you have just finished a draft and are getting ready to show it your writing group and are worried about what they will say; perhaps you have just begun your first short story are and wondering if you will be able to finish it.

There is no way to absolutely ensure you won’t be sucked into this kind of deadly prognostication. Contentment, which always lies in the moment, is not a fixed point on a grid. You will never locate contentment and go to it and stand there, feet nailed to the floor.

Rather, the job of the writer, and of anyone trying to get from one place to another, is balance. It is as if you are crossing on a narrow beam. Your job is to learn to balance on that beam and find your way across. You will certainly lose your balance from time to time; you will certainly think about other writers or critics or sales – but that does not mean you cannot regain your balance.

I was once told that the best way to walk across a ledge is to keep your eyes on a spot a few feet in front of you. This is good advice for writers. Keep your eyes just ahead of you, enough to know where you’re going. Don’t try to see the other end of the beam, and for God’s sake, don’t look down. Balance takes practice, nothing more. It’s not complicated, it’s not for the gifted, it’s there for anyone willing to take another step.

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The Formula

There’s no formula for writing a bestseller, I’ve heard it said. If there were, everyone would follow it. On its face, this seems like sound advice turned a bit inside out for effect. In other words, write what you want to write, since there’s no way to ever know for sure what will work.

Yet I have always found this particular piece of advice, well intentioned as it is, cynical and depressing in its assumption—that everyone would be happier following a formula for success. Yes, it’s true, humans may look for that formula, but that does not mean they would be happier following it.

But perhaps I am too hasty. Perhaps, in fact, everyone should be looking for a formula for success. Because as I look at the bestseller list, it is not that I see one formula repeated over and over, what I see are a plethora of formulas. Michael Chabon seems to have arrived at a formula of sorts for his work, as has James Patterson and Jodi Picoult and Nora Roberts. This is not to say that all their work is formulaic, following a predictable pattern book after book (though that certainly happens), but that these writers have learned how to write the books they are best at writing.

I made that decision myself many years ago. I decided that my task was not to learn how to write novels but to learn how to write the novels that I want to write. In this way, no one person could ever teach me what I need to know. I now have my own set rules for what is a good Bill Kenower sentence, or a good Bill Kenower character, or a good Bill Kenower ending. I suppose I could teach these rules to someone else, but what would be the point? Plus the rules keep changing. What an infuriating teacher I would be.

So find your formula. And like all curious scientists, may your research never end.

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Know It

We are all familiar with the old adage, “Write what you know.” This concept is loosely attributed to Hemmingway, and for two reasons. One, he had a habit of writing about things he did. Watch bull fighting, writing a couple of books about bull fighting. Go to war and like fishing, write stories about war and fishing.

The other reason, however, is that in A Moveable Feast he discusses making a decision to write a story about one thing he knows for sure. It is easy to think that he meant something he had experienced personally, but I believe in this instance he was referring to what he knew to be true.

And this is all any writer could and should do. After all, many writers will be called to write about things they have never done. There are entire genres—science fiction, fantasy, perhaps romance—where this is the case. But the doing isn’t the point.  What matters is what you know.

I think it was Carl Jung who said, and I paraphrase, “I don’t believe anything.  I either know it or I don’t.” I like this, and it’s a good motto for a writer. Believing is hedging your bets.  Know what you know.  Claim it.  And then write about it. It doesn’t matter whether that story is set in 21st century Seattle or on Gallagon Nine, your story will always be better if it is built on the bones of what you know in your heart to be true.

And if some day you decide something different is true, so be it.  You can only know what you know at the moment.  If you wait until you know absolutely everything before you write a book, you will be one very old first-time novelist indeed.  So stake your flag.  Choose one thing that you know for sure and write about it.  And people will either agree with you or not—that’s none of your concern. Your only concern is finding the next thing you know for sure.

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The Easy Stuff

I have been talking with a number of authors lately who have stressed the practical side of establishing a writing career. This page is often dedicated to the impractical, or at least the abstract challenges of navigating the unique territory of your own psyche. But there is much to be said for the practical, linear, algorithmic steps one can take to get from here to there.

Everything is always simpler than I imagine. I take that back.  First, before I do anything, before I begin a novel, or have a child, or start a magazine, I think it’s going to be easy, but easy in the way learning to pitch, say, looks easy in a learning-to-pitch montage in a baseball movie. Then I begin actually doing whatever it is I want to do and almost immediately feel as if I’ve been duped into solving a problem so complex I risk being strangled by all the tangential tentacles I had not anticipated.

Yet once I am through the hurricane, I see I had made the situation more complicated than it was. A novel needn’t answer every question ever posed by any reader, and children want do well and figure out how to take care of themselves. And all along the way there are practical, sensible, uncomplicated steps one can take that require nothing more than simply doing it.

Establishing a writing career is no different. Although every writer’s road is different and often crooked, no matter who we are or what we believe, we can always join writers organizations, or go to writers conferences, or go to hear writers speak—all of which, merely by placing yourself in a given place at a given time will broaden your exposure and open you to learning about the career you are interested in pursuing.

I started this magazine because I had spent years in isolation and thought it was time to get out and actually meet some other writers. So I went to a meeting of the PNWA and when the subject of a magazine came up, I said, “I can do that.” And here we are. I didn’t go to the meeting thinking, “How can I start a writing magazine?” I went just to get exposure and then one thing followed another. In other words, I did something practical, something requiring no talent, no passion, no training, just a car and directions.

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A Song You Know

The irony is not lost on me that I am writing what amounts to an advice column of sorts. Ironic, because I have spent my life steadfastly ignoring other people’s advice. And I was rather shameless about it. I was fond of saying, “My best advice is to never follow any.”

Now I end every interview by asking the writer’s advice, and it is often my favorite part of the conversation. Is it because I have become eager for advice? No, in truth, I have not. But I love to hear people talk about what they have learned, and what they feel they know for sure. It is rare that what one person has learned is exactly what I need to learn at the moment they share it, but I always find it instructive to hear what someone sounds like when they have made peace with something.

It really doesn’t matter what one has made peace with, peace always looks and sounds remarkably similar. Atoms, I am told, have two states of being: agitated or at rest. When agitated, the electrons can vary widely in their distance from the nucleus; but when at rest, there is but one position. Humans are much the same way. Our upset can take many forms. This is why the characters in our stories are so often upset, for in their misery lies their personality. Our peacefulness, however, is like a song we were all born knowing.

In the circus of my life I can forget it this song, but upon hearing it in another I am reminded of it in myself. I cannot be reminded of it often enough. For years I thought advice amounted to criticism—you’re doing it all wrong; do it this way and your life will improve. All anyone was actually ever trying to tell me was, “Find Peace.  This is how I did it.”

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Life Cycle

My new cat, Lou, is now officially an outdoor cat, which is to say that as long as the weather holds our house has become a place where he eats and sleeps, but little else. I miss having him around, but he’s got his business to attend to, which seems to be crouching beneath trees and staring at birds.

I’m sure Lou will catch a bird one of these days, but I honestly don’t think that’s the point. I understand about instincts and Darwin and survival and all the rest, and that’s fine, but I maintain that Lou is not hunting merely to scratch some ancient evolutionary itch. Lou won’t eat that bird if he catches it. He will drop it on my doorstep and go straight to his food dish.

Lou is like a lot of writers I know. The point of the hunting is not the catch but the hunting itself. If Lou catches something, wonderful, but if he hunts for the next three years and catches nothing, I doubt he will wake up one day and think, “Screw this. Bird-hunting is a chump’s game.” Hunting, like writing, attunes Lou to life. Or, to put it another way, it draws his attention to a keen focus. Or, to put it yet another way, he enjoys it.

We write because we enjoy it, or, like Lou, because it attunes us to life. To write well we must call our focus, we must listen, we must feel, we must think, and often all at once. If we produce something nice, great; if that nice something gets published, spectacular. But we don’t write to eat, though perhaps it will help us to do so. Whether we’re writing poetry, romance novels, literary fiction, or thrillers, we write to enter life fully.  Writing is merely our avenue of choice.

And when the work is published, perhaps your readers will, as they enter your story, enter life as well, as they tune their focus to the words on the page. It is its own cycle of life, as natural, in a way, as a cat catching a bird.

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Peace Freaks

In his screenwriting book Save The Cat, Blake Snyder advises writers to treat each scene like a little story with it’s own narrative arc, including a conflict and a resolution. I still must remind myself of this sometimes when a chapter is dragging – Where is the conflict?  I have a tendency, when I can’t think of anything better, to simply have my characters give information. The information is necessary, but the delivery is dull. So I go back in and ask, How can I give this same information through conflict?

Like a lot of people, I am willing to twist myself up to avoid conflict, which is perhaps why I have to remember to put it into my fiction. But a great teacher once pointed out that what we call conflict is actually contrast. That is, we see something in someone else that is different from ourselves – or we read a book we don’t like, hear a politician with whom we disagree – and we are stimulated by this contrast toward what it is we want. No, not that, we think, this!

The most common mistake in the world, maybe, is to respond to this feeling of wanting something different by trying to change the person that stimulated it in ourselves. This is entirely backwards. If someone writes a book you don’t like, you don’t (hopefully) look her up and tell her to rewrite it. No, you read a different book or, perhaps, write one yourself.

And this is what many of us are actually writing about in our books: contrast. All the conflict in all the novels is a result of people who want different things and the resulting commotion. For isn’t a scene always stronger when you know for sure what it is all your characters want? Of course. Our characters are seeking peace within themselves and going about it all the wrong way, which can be a lot of fun to watch.

This is why I think everyone is a peace-nick. In truth, no one wants to be at war, they merely see war as the most pragmatic means to peace.  So I’m a peace freak like everyone else, and I bear this in mind when I put my characters through their turmoil. The more I remember that these characters wish to be at peace with themselves, the easier it is to disrupt their peace. I know in the end that they are headed in a crooked path toward the only resolution any heart desires.

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Loyal But Stupid

My wife once visited a woman who could best be described as a bit of a psychic. As part of their meeting this woman described our two boys and me so as to give my wife some perspective. Her description of me? “He has a very strong intellect.” To which I thought, “No wonder I can get so miserable.”

Not that I have anything against intellectuals or the intellect itself, but if you have read this column with any frequency you may have noticed that I devote a certain amount of space to “the brain.” I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with my own brain. I love using it, but I sometimes hate the results it provides me, a syndrome Shakespeare best described in Hamlet: “Nothing on Heaven or Earth is good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Of all artists, the novelist is the one who can most often be mistaken for an academic or an intellectual. Unlike the painter or the composer or even the poet, the novelist is sometimes seen as an intellectual who can by the way tell a story, a kind of narrative philosopher. Perhaps some novelists see themselves this way also, but regardless, it is a misleading approach to the business of telling a story.

The brain will do whatever you want, but if you ask it to tell a story it will be completely lost. It does not know what a story is. Your heart knows what a story is. Your heart knows what is funny or exciting or romantic or interesting or frightening. Your brain hasn’t a clue. It is an organizer, a retriever of information, a cataloguer of words and memories. If you feel “funny,” it will find you “funny,” whatever you mean by that. But if you simply tell it, “Fetch me something other people will find funny,” you will receive either something someone else has already written or nothing at all.

The brain is curiously stupid. To be of any use, it must be in service to the heart. You would think it would know this, but it doesn’t. But it is loyal and obedient and if you tell it to listen to your heart, to take instructions from you heart, it will.  When you are feeling lost and scared, it is usually because you have asked your brain to provide you with comfort from the outside world. It cannot. Ask it to listen to your heart, and comfort will be there as surely your own heart beats.

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Uniquely Equal

For many years I worried that my work, by which I really meant me, would not be perceived as special. This worry was the source of much torment, as I rode the highs and lows of my perceived self-worth. One day I was God Almighty, the next a forgettable clown. Eventually I understood that my unhappiness had been caused by a small misunderstanding. It wasn’t that I was worried that I wouldn’t be special, I was worried that I had to be special—because, of course, no one is special.

Don’t misunderstand. Everyone is unique, but no one is special. By which I mean, no one is more unique than anyone else. Of course, certain people that we know or know of have garnered extraordinary attention. When this attention comes as a result of work that person has done, it is tempting to see them as special – specially talented singers or writers or designers or basketball players.

Yet all that these people who appear special have done is allow that which is unique about them through. That, perhaps, is special, but anyone can do this. Most people don’t, but they could. When it happens, the result, whether to your taste or not, is always marked by a certain clarity, because that which has been let through is un-muddied by fear. These people certainly know fear, but they have set it aside at least for the time they have spent making the work.

In this job I have had the opportunity to talk with many writers I consider authentic and distinct—Richard Bach, Alice Hoffman, Tomie dePaola, and Byron Katie, to name just a few. All these men and women have created very different work, and they are all very different people, but in my experience they all share one trait in common: humility when talking about their work.

There is a good reason for this. Whenever you let your authentic self through, you view yourself as you truly are—a portal. You cannot be any more or less of a portal than anyone else. An opening is an opening; it varies only in size and shape, not in openness. So you need never worry about being special. Allow that which is you fully through, and you will perhaps feel closer to all those people who are not you than you ever have before.

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