Getting Your Attention

Literary agent Donald Maass and I spent a fair amount of time on the subject of voice in his interview. Don pointed out that a lot of things get lumped into that which we call a writer’s voice. Whatever it is, he concluded, when it comes to gaining an agent’s attention, it’s important. It’s more important than grabber, action-packed openings or unique settings. It can’t make up for a story with no conflict or unbelievable characters, but it can draw a reader in when little is actually happening.

The problem with voice, and the appeal of grabber openings and unique settings, is that the latter can, theoretically, be taught—or at least defined. The voice not so much so. There is no such thing as a good voice or a bad voice. If it works, it works. This is the point at which agents and editors begin to sound like models giving dating advice to men: If you want my attention, just be yourself.

But what if you they don’t like myself? Good question. But consider this: everyone in the world appreciates authenticity, and no one appreciates it more than the one being authentic. When you are speaking authentically, however briefly, you have shed the constraints of anyone’s requirements but your own. When you are speaking authentically, you are not trying to please an agent or editor, or your husband, or your parents, or your minister, or your professor; you aren’t trying to sound smart or clever or alluring or happy or sad or serious; when you are speaking authentically you are only trying to say as accurately as possible what it is you know to be true.

From this position you see that you are not speaking to gain a model’s attention or an agent or editor’s attention, you are speaking to gain your own attention. The first and greatest payoff of speaking authentically will always be relief—I said what I wanted to say and the world didn’t end. Next, and much later, might come dates with models or publishing contracts, but these will pale compared to the freedom of saying what you wanted to say.

The worst suffering in the world is the belief that we are not enough, that we must be someone else to succeed at anything. This thought is a kind of suicide. So Don Maass is right—voice is the most important tool in a writer’s toolbox. Without it, you aren’t even there.

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The Good Story

One of my earliest memories of a close friend was the day he told me the story of Knack the Black. We were in high school, and Knack the Black, Father Knackowitz, had been the Vice Principal of the parochial high school Chris, my friend, had been compelled to the attend the year before. It was a simple story, really. Chris wanted me to understand what life at this particular Catholic school was like, and so he told me about the time he had seen Knack catch a student shirking in the hallway between classes.

The key was Knack’s coffee. He loved his coffee, and, according to Chris, was never seen without it. In this instance the shirker made the mistake not only of shirking, but bumping into Knackowitz and spilling his beloved java. Chris was fifteen years old at the time of the telling, had never taken a writing class or had never read a book on the craft of storytelling, but painted such a compelling portrait of Knack, his coffee, his black raiment, and his rage, that forty years later I still have a vivid picture in my imagination of a man I never met.

Did Chris exaggerate? Of course. Did it matter? No. The truth was hardly the point at all. We were becoming friends, and stories would always be a part of the friendship. Not everyone is good at telling stories, but not everyone is good at listening to them either. I know I am good at the latter, and I hope I do a fair job of the first. The better we are at hearing stories, the better stories we get to hear. Just as a comedian is funnier when his audience is laughing, so too a storyteller will tell better stories when his listener is appropriately shocked, amazed, or delighted.

The reason I became such fast friends with Chris and why I am a writer and storyteller today is because stories are a vehicle through which I can express my own love of life. I have always felt that discovering a new writer is like finding a new friend. What we call friendship is a shared perception of life. So when lovers and friends, when readers and writers, when comedians and audiences get together, the applause and the laughter and hugs and the handshakes never mean merely, It’s good to see you, or, You’re so funny and entertaining—rather, they are us standing up and cheering as we discover once again that life is worth living after all.

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The Efficacy Of Kindness

Writers who outline often site time management as a driving force behind their decision to abandon Doctorow’s “headlights on the road at night” technique. To extend this metaphor, outliners don’t have time to travel down some dead end, back up, and find the right road again. Once they start writing, they want every word pointing them exactly where they need to go.

This is particularly true, of course, if you are expected to produce one book a year, as many commercial and/or series writers are. But not everyone can outline, myself, as I have often mentioned on this page, included. And in my experience, the greatest time saving technique a non-outliner can develop is the willingness to rip up the pages that aren’t working and start again.

By which I mean, pay attention. There are a lot of stories floating in the ether. As you write, you are tuning your antennae to the story you are currently telling. It is easy, however, when you are deciding where to go next, to tune into the wrong story. If you are feeling a bit stuck, you might leap on just such a story if for no other reason than to feel the satisfaction of writing again. Very soon, however, problems will arise: characters will become wooden, the conflicts two-dimensional. You are trying to force the square peg or your current story into the round hole of the new story, and the results are predictably awkward.

The sooner you admit what you have done, the sooner you can begin tuning your antennae again. In the end, time will be wasted not because you have made some wrong decision—everyone does this all the time—but because you were afraid to admit what has happened. You might look at the wrong turn part of your story and wonder, “What is wrong with me?” or, “Why have I forgotten how to tell a story,” or, “This novel is doomed.”

Now, not only must you get yourself back to the actual story you want to tell, but you must also recover from the terrible idea you have just sewn into your psyche. I have wasted a lot of time recovering in my life. Writing without an outline requires great discipline. You must be particularly disciplined in your kindness. If you train yourself to be as kind as possible whenever a wrong turn is taken, you develop more and more courage to race ahead, knowing as you now do, that there has never been a good time to punish yourself.

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Right Of Refusal

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway described his decision early in his writing career to end stories before the end. Which is to say (I believe), the story would stop before the point where a story traditionally—at least before the full advent of Modernism—was expected to end.

Anyone who has ever sat through the last ten minutes of a movie that has been subjected to too much market research can certainly sympathize with Papa. Some stories keep ending and ending and ending: the guy get’s the girl—end.  No.  Cut to them marrying!  End. No. Cut to them having children, children growing, grandchildren—and death. End.

This is only a mild exaggeration. Storytellers are faced with the existential truth that nothing ever actually ends, it always flows ineluctably into the next thing. What’s more, one person’s end is another person’s beginning or middle. The end of the story of a pitcher who finally throws a perfect game could be the beginning of the story of a boy who spends his childhood wondering if there is really such a thing as perfection.

As in all parts of writing, what is not said is often as important as what is said, and this is certainly true of endings. Hemmingway was right, I think, not just because one would avoid serial endings, but because it allows your audience to fill in the meaning of the story. The conclusions your readers reach on their own are always going to be far more powerful than those you reach for them.

I know it is easy to lose faith in your readers at the end of your story. What if they don’t get it? Wouldn’t one more example drive it home? Usually not. An ending is actually an invitation to you readers to open a door. Hopefully, the story led to that door, but whether they choose to open it or not is up to them. You can beg them to open it by offering more and more evidence for why opening it would be a good idea, but the harder you try, the more likely they will not. Everyone is stubborn in this way. We are always more likely to take what we have been allowed to refuse.

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Absolutely Right

I had a cold earlier this week, and then last night I broke into a sweat at about 1:00 in the morning, and I woke up today and my head was clear again. I always find it illuminating when a fever breaks. For several days I shuffle around trying to remember what health feels like. I can’t. I only know that once upon a time I didn’t have to blow my nose every ten minutes and I generally had energy for whatever needed doing. Yet these ideas feel as distant as the stories my parents told me about myself as a child.

And then I am well again, and I understand that the sickness was like leaving home for a foreign country that did not suit me. Sickness always reminds me of despair in that way. Despair is like an idea we try on for a time. We are trying to force ourselves to accept a view of the world that is in direct conflict with ourselves, and usually this view of the world involves there being something very wrong with us that needs correcting. Yes, the view feels awful, but we have been told that the truth hurts, and so we will stick with it a bit longer until, like a disobedient slave, we come to accept the terms of our arrangement.

Andre Dubus III said that when he wrote his first story he “finally felt like Andre.” What more could anyone hope for? Our own health, mental and physical, is always there for us like our very selves, as long as we are willing to surrender to it. Andre’s father and namesake was a writer also, and so perhaps Andre III resisted that path for a time himself.

But you don’t get to be anyone but yourself and feel good about it. Obviously, this is good news, though it doesn’t always seem so. The temptation to play the role of someone better can be great, but this is merely avoiding the inevitable work of growing the unique flower that is you, a flower you’ve never seen before and so must accept that that which is different from all that you have ever seen before is not wrong. The gift of ill health and despair is a reminder not that there is something wrong with you—but actually just the opposite. Despair is the reminder that there is something absolutely right with you if you are only willing to live it.

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Burn On

Yesterday a good friend told me she felt like a failure. This is one of the saddest things to hear someone you care about say, but all the same, it is just as important for the sympathetic ear as it is the one in the throes of doubt to remember the truth of it.

Failure is always a nightmare from which we have chosen not to awaken. Nightmares are scary things and for good reason—they are a worse case scenario alternate reality, a living dystopia of the mind. All the science fiction you have ever read about robot overlords or sorting people by the color of their hair or post-apocalyptic wastelands are worlds built on fear. So too is the nightmare of failure.

If someone comes to you singing the sad song of failure, your first responsibility is to yourself. If you are to be of any use to anyone, you must not believe the nightmare. You cannot argue with it; you cannot challenge it; you cannot run from it. Only someone who believes the nightmare would run from, argue with, or challenge the nightmare. And although your friend would not intend it as such, the song he or she sings is a siren song, inviting you to believe the nightmare. If your friend believes in a nightmare, then the only option is to destroy it, and only someone who sees it as real can help destroy it.

But it cannot be destroyed because it is not real. And because merely disbelieving is not a direction, your only choice is to hold the light. And not just the light in your friend, or in yourself, but in the entire world. A tall order perhaps, but there is no other option. If one can fail, all can fail, and the nightmare is real again.

And so you hold the light. Beyond the veil of the nightmare there always shines the light, although the veil is heavier in some than in others, and the light more obscured. But it is there, as sure as your friend is there, and if you hold the light, perhaps your friend will see it too and recognize it and the spell will be broken. Or perhaps not. But there is no tragedy in someone believing a lie for another day, or another month, or another year. It would only be a tragedy if the light could be extinguished, which it cannot—it will burn on, awaiting everyone’s return.

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Always Right

So healthcare legislation passed this weekend, and I have a cold. Cold or no, I hope this doesn’t mean I’ll be forced to actually go see a doctor. I have nothing against doctors personally. In fact, the discipline and compassion required to be a good doctor are admirable. I, for one, have managed to avoid having to make a single “life or death” decision far longer than I have avoided doctors.

I would be very happy to socialize with doctors, but conversation is not really what doctors are billing you for when you visit. A trip to the doctor is always about what is wrong with me, not what is right with me. The doctor’s dilemma is a little like that of the editor-for-hire. If a book doctor reads your manuscript and declares: “Perfect!  Don’t change a word,” then what was she hired for? Although, admittedly, I know a few writers who would pay good money to hear those five words even once.

But aren’t we all guilty of this to some degree? We go back to our work with a scalpel to cut out everything “wrong” with it. In fact, nothing in any draft is wrong, it’s just that some stuff doesn’t belong in the story we’re writing. In another story, another essay, the stuff that so bothers us would be perfect.

It’s not unlike the cold that kept me up last night. There is nothing wrong with my runny nose—it is doing exactly what it should be doing given what I have caught. It’s hard to remember when I’m hacking at 3:00 in the morning, but there it is. I can get just as grouchy rereading work that needs more editing. The implied threat of the unfinished manuscript is that there is actually something wrong with me, that a genetically better writer would have had this finished a long time ago.

Where’s the use in that? I am told that the body is a self-correcting organism, always seeking health as it scabs over wounds and expels viruses. This is useful to remember. There’s nothing wrong with us, we’re just always growing and changing and so things always need adjustment. The story you find so troublesome today you might have been proud of ten years ago. When you reread work, you aren’t correcting what is wrong, you are bringing new work into alignment with what is right with you today.

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The Dead

On Friday I interviewed Carry Ryan, whose second novel, Dead Tossed Waves, takes place in a world overrun with zombies. Zombies, and the undead in general, have taken a strange hold on our imagination of late. Without dipping into the realm of the semiotician, there seems to me to be a clue early on in Ms. Ryan’s book about why this is so. In her series, a character bitten by a zombie very soon becomes a zombie themselves, something “not alive, but all hunger and need.”

I will say this about zombies—they make great villains. There is no threat of your readers mourning the death of a zombie, primarily because it is already dead. But more than that, as Ms. Ryan pointed out, they are all hunger and need. We often find the idea of need devoid of soul frightening. That this need actually wants to eat us should not be surprising.

Speaking of semiotics, I had some close friends who went to Brown University in the 80s, where and when semiotics were all the rage. During one class, my friends studied Night of the Living Dead, and were told the zombies represented the capitalist establishment’s fear of the proletariat rising up. To which I thought, “Does that mean factory workers would cheer for the zombies?”

The answer, of course, is that like all villains—or like all fiction, for that matter—zombies cannot be one thing to all people. And just like in my dreams, I feel that all the characters in a story, both those that I read and those that I write, are me—the hero, the villain, the girl, the guy—everyone. Including zombies. After all, what is worse: to be chased by a thing with hunger but no soul, or to be a thing of hunger with no soul? I know my answer.

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Stand Up

My brother has a great story about the first time he tried standup. It was open mic night at our local comedy club, and John, a naturally gifted comedic actor who liked to write, figured it was time to give it a try. He worked up a short routine, went down to the club, and waited his turn.

When that turn came, he found himself in new territory. In theaters, audiences sit politely through the stuff that doesn’t interest them and respond to what does. Not so much in comedy clubs. What’s more, the loneliness of the comic’s spotlight must be experienced to be understood. You are playwright, actor, stage manager, and director. Not only is there nowhere to hide, there isn’t even anyone else to blame.

John immediately knew why comedians speak of “dying.” The laughs weren’t coming, and he found himself listening to that awkward silence that follows a joke that has missed its target. Until, that is, he used “fuck” in a joke. Big laugh. In describing this night, he said, “Next thing I knew, Bill, I was screaming fuck all over Periwinkles.”

Obviously, comedians curse. But the question a comedian must ask is: Am I cursing because I want to or because I believe I must to survive? No audience member, even a heckler somewhere down in his blackened soul, actually wants an artist of any stripe to die. What an audience does want, somewhat selfishly, is to behold someone unafraid of dying.

The death the artist seems to suffer is quite simply this: “Nothing I am doing is working, therefore I am no good.” As soon as we think, “I am no good,” we commit a kind of mental suicide, extinguishing ourselves in the hope that we might be reborn as something better. Strangely, the only thing worth extinguishing is the belief that we are no good.

The comedian’s struggle, which is everyone’s struggle, is to ignore all evidence—such as quiet comedy clubs or date-less Saturday nights or piles of rejection letters—that we are no good. Someday we will all in fact die, but when that moment comes it will not be because the universe wished to erase us and start over with a better model. You are the only version of you that will ever exist. So stand up on your stage and speak. The audience that is the rest of the world will hear you all the more clearly the more you understand that no matter the criticism or silence or applause, you intend to keep speaking until the light goes out.

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It is that time of year when I am asked to help read entries to the PNWA’s annual writing contest. Writing contests seem to attract submissions that are still very much woks in progress, or at least ought to be works in progress. I tend to personally avoid too much hard advice on fiction writing, but the one piece of advice that comes up over and over again with agents and editors in particular is to make sure your first five pages are strong. I would have to agree. In fact, I would agree standing on a chair and shouting until my teeth rattle.

But let me back up. This kind of advice can be obnoxious. It assumes the worst of us. Yet it is born of readers of unpublished, unpolished work slogging through pages of back-story or dense, character-less exposition to finally get the actual story. Thus we have a phrase I have come to loathe: The Grabber Opening.

The literary agent Donald Maass and I discussed this very idea in this month’s interview. Don, who represents a lot of high concept fantasy and science fiction, pointed out that you needn’t have gunfire and sex on the first page to “grab” your reader’s attention. Tension, of some variety, and voice will usually do the trick.

To me, the first pages of a novel is where the writer gains the reader’s trust. Stories are driven by characters in conflict. Conflict creates tension.  Readers, for the most part, need to trust that the writer understands this. Thus, from the very beginning, it is in fact important to show characters in conflict, even if that conflict is trying to decide which lipstick to wear. If the character doing the deciding thinks the wrong lipstick will ruin her first date, we have ourselves an opening.

Still, I don’t know how useful this advice really is. It can lead to writing outside yourself, to staring at your first five pages like a math equation to see if it adds up to Grabber. And grab is the wrong verb anyhow. You want to invite your readers to your book. It acknowledges that in the end the reader always has the choice to read or not to read. You can’t actually grab them. The best invitations are always honest, trusting that what the host actually has to offer is enough.

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