Why Writers Must Plan to Be Surprised

Every writer I know is at some point surprised by what they write. In fact, being surprised by what we write is as dependable as it is uncontrollable. Garth Stein, the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, came to novel-writing via screenwriting. Like most screenwriters, he had trained himself to outline his stories before he began writing them. In the middle of work on his second novel, How Evan Broke His Head, Garth’s protagonist, Evan, found himself in a recording studio. This was a part of Garth’s outline, his plan. At this point, Garth’s novel was still proceeding according to this plan.

But Garth needed to bring that studio to life, and a writer brings a scene to life with details. He couldn’t plan every detail, so he looked around that studio with his writer’s eye and saw that the sound engineer was an attractive young woman. As soon as she appeared he realized that Evan was in love with her. This was not part of the plan. But Garth had been writing long enough to know that when a character fell surprisingly in love, it was time to change the plan.

I have heard this story more times than I can count. The small, insignificant detail in chapter one – the flower pot on the ledge, the neighbor’s cousin, the squeaky floorboard – the detail the author couldn’t have planned but had simply needed to keep the story going, becomes the perfect plot device in chapter ten. Every successful essay, story, poem, or book I have written was born largely of these surprising details.

This is one of the most challenging aspects of writing to teach others. Then again, I had never planned to teach writing. I wanted to teach life! That’s what really interested me. Writing was just the way I understood life. I came up with a plan to teach a class for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association about how writing and life are all the same. The PNWA’s president asked if I’d like to teach a second class, and as an afterthought I said, “Sure. I’ll teach a class on memoir.”

It took me exactly one class to realize I loved teaching memoir. This was not a part of the plan. But I have been alive long enough to recognize – and keep doing – what I love. As soon as that class was done I arranged for another one. I became a much better writer from teaching these classes. You could say it was exactly what my own memoir needed. Plus, the more I taught it, the more I realized the students and I spent as much time talking about life as we did storytelling. Memoir is our life in story, after all. You can hardly talk about one without the other.

I admit that I remain a little finicky when it comes to surprises. I want them to be all birthday presents or letters from old friends. Since I know they are not, I sometimes try to fill in my life and stories with plans to crowd out unwanted surprises – to ensure the happy ending I believe I require, but am not guaranteed. These plans begin unraveling almost as soon as they are implemented, and I am always responsible for that unraveling. Without fail, some little detail I hadn’t planned has caught my attention. Now I’m interested, and I always love being interested, and the plan must be changed or abandoned to make room for me.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Everyone’s Story

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie Ford recently, author of Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Songs of Willow Frost (look for the interview next month). His writing journey was in many was a familiar one. He had tried to write a “bleak literary novel” because he believed that was what he was supposed to write. This did not go so well. He explained that in deciding to write Hotel he had to admit to himself that he really wanted to write not-bleak historical novels.

I drove home from our interviewing thinking about how many writers I know who’ve told a similar story. Theo Pauline Nestor found her voice when she finally accepted she didn’t want to write fiction, but wanted to write about her own life, what we call memoir. Kevin O’Brien had to accept that he wanted to write scary stories. Garth Stein had to accept that he wanted to write a book narrated by a dog. On and on.

Which reminded me of my conversation with Armistead Maupin, who came out of the closet publicly in the 1970s, thirty years before Ellen DeGeneres had her own daytime talk show. It occurred to me then that we all have to come out in one way or another. We all have to admit that we are who are, which is always going to be different in some ways either large or small from the family we were born into, or the genre we were taught to write.

It seems like it would be simpler if we all lived our entire lives out of our respective closets, but I believe something would be lost if we were deprived of that choice between who we are and who we thought we were supposed to be. I never quite feel myself so clearly as the moment I shed some old story I didn’t even realize I was telling. There I am, lighter now I suppose but really just the correct weight, me minus nothing except what I never wanted.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Free Intelligence

I was moderating a panel the other night with Jennie Shortridge, Deb Caletti, Erica Bauermeister, and Garth Stein, and noticed that the subject of intelligence came up a number of times. These writers would all be shelved under literary fiction, which I mention only because intelligence – that is, academic, critical-thinking, scientific intelligence – are frequently linked to the people who write and read literary fiction. In fact, Chris Cleave, in our interview following the release of Little Bee, half-jokingly referred to literary fiction as, “Fiction for smart people.”

But it was Erica Bauermeister, a former literature professor at the University of Washington, who also pointed that criticism, the ability to see and articulate what is wrong with something or someone, is also frequently seen as a sign of intelligence. What is the literary writer to do, then, if she does not merely want to criticize life but to actually celebrate it?

I say celebrate away. Within the heart of every pessimist, of every critic, of every rapier-witted social commentator, there hides a terrified optimist. She is terrified by the very hope that sustains her. She is terrified because to build a world she loves she must first trust its value before she has laid even one brick, a value she knows full well critics the world over will doubt the moment she utters word one.

Welcome to the world of the writer; welcome to the human race. Sometimes we must raze a building to erect a new one, but our world is not made through elimination and rejection alone. At some point we must say yes. At some point we must declare what we love and what we desire and where we want to go. When we do, all else is forgotten and forgiven, like the books we did not buy on a trip to the bookstore. When we say yes, intelligence is freed to meet creation, its sole companion in the story of life.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

Believing What We Know

I wrote in yesterday’s column about the day I first spotted my wife in a high school play. I was an enthusiastically romantic boy and so I knew I loved her from the first time I met her and I was not afraid to say as much. Jen, however, was more careful with her words. By the time she was 24 she had still not told a single man that she loved him.

While I was living in Los Angeles and she was living Seattle we wrote each other often. In these letters I would often write things like, “I love you and I know you haven’t told me you love me but I don’t care because I already know you love me because I love you.” This was how I wrote letters back then. And I was right, you know. I told Jen I loved her not as an expression of how beautiful or funny or charming she was, but to name that feeling we shared, a feeling I could not have experienced unless we shared it. I knew she loved me and I could not be convinced otherwise.

I thought of this when Garth Stein told me the story of publishing The Art of Racing in the Rain. When Garth, whose first two books had seen underwhelming sales, sent his third novel to his agent, his agent told him she couldn’t sell it. “It’s narrated by a dog,” she told him. “No one will buy it. Write another one.”

Garth was not a wealthy man. He had a wife and two children to support. It was Thanksgiving. His first two books hadn’t sold. His response? “You’re wrong,” he said. And he fired her.

“I knew,” he told me. “I knew like a baseball player knows when he catches a ball on the sweet part of the bat. I just knew I had hit it.” You know how this ends. Garth eventually did find an agent who quickly found a publisher. As of this writing, Racing in the Rain has spent 144 weeks on the paperback bestsellers list.

Jen eventually did tell me she loved me. I know it was hard for her to say, and I know something cracked open in her when she finally said it, but a part of me almost laughed at that moment because I like to be right. Instead, I told her I loved her too—but she already knew that.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Familiar Stories

I seem to be coming across this same story over and over recently. First, I watched Oprah’s interview with J. K. Rowling. In it, Rowling reminded Oprah that twelve publishers passed on Harry Potter; what’s more, her agent warned her she would “never make any money in children’s books.” Then, Thursday night I interviewed Geneen Roth. So many houses passed on Roth’s latest, Women Food and God, that it nearly didn’t get published. Oprah, one editor insisted, would never take a book with “God” in the title. Oprah made it a bestseller.

Add to these two Garth Stein, whose The Art of Racing in the Rain (no one wants to read a book told by a dog) is at 68 weeks and counting on the NYT bestseller list, and Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull rejected by 20 publishers before selling 44 million copies), and we see a pattern. Yes, novels like Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology sell quickly at auction and go on to be bestsellers, but swarming attention from publishing houses is not the only indicator of a novel’s commercial or literary value.

Conversely, do not take rejection as a sign of a work’s inherent genius. There is no formula for how many rejections you are allowed to receive before moving on to the next project. Just as you must know where a story begins and where it ends, so too must you know that it is your job to gauge – without the benefit of evidence – what the next best step for your project is once it has been written. In the business of sustaining a writing career, this can sometimes be as important as your craft.

Garth Stein fired his first agent when she told him she couldn’t sell Racing in the Rain. He did not know at that time that the book would spend over a year on the bestseller list. All he knew was what his heart told him, that he loved the story and he believed it was worth sharing with other people. This very same knowledge is available to anyone willing to listen to the voice that needs no evidence. Be as serious in your attunement to it as you would to the voice that guides you through the stories you write. This alone will allow you to tell that other story, the story of your life, with the same surprising satisfaction as the best story you’ve ever read.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Forget You’re Writing

I had a flute teacher who once told me that she took a helpful lesson from a French horn player. He told her to remember she was singing when she played, not talking.

I knew from an early age I wanted to be a writer of stories, and yet it was the poetry I read in high school that I found most instructive. I distinctly remember putting down a collection of T. S. Eliot and thinking, “Oh, you can do it that way.”

Garth Stein studied theater as a young man. He told me recently he thinks all writers should study acting at some point to help develop the muscle of becoming their characters.

Just as the bookstores are broken into their genre boxes, so too the arts are divided into separate schools. This is not such a terrible thing, of course. Artist are naturally seeking mastery in their given field, and soon enough this mastery is attained through attention to the unique details of their craft.

But in truth, the arts are about expression, not about craft. The craft is merely the tools to permit the expression. An artist’s first job, always, is to locate that which desires to be expressed. I began writing music in earnest a little over a year ago, and this fresh discipline provided a new perspective on the entirety of my creative life, of which writing had too long been the sole vehicle. The push and pull of tempo, the plot-like direction of melody, the interplay of instruments, all these reminded me of novel writing but without those fussy little buggers: words.

I love words, but there are days I hate them as well. They invite that dreaded art killer—interpretation. Without words, music requires its listeners merely to feel. What a relief. But I’m a word guy in the end, and so I try to see the words as notes, and the novel as a symphony. I can’t think a novel, after all, I can only hear it. Or I should say, I’ve tried thinking a novel, and the results were miserable, a flat world of chess pieces standing in dried out scenery. I always do my best writing when I forget that I am writing. And what a surprise, this was the very advice my wife received from her singing coach:

“Forget that you’re singing!” she’d bellow. “You’re listening to yourself.  Just let it through.”

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Story Of Your Life

Books on writing often warn beginning authors against switching perspectives. This refers to the sometimes disorienting technique of hopping the POV (Point OF View) from one character to another. Indeed, when it’s done within scenes or within paragraphs, it can be confusing, but like all “rules”, this is more of a guideline than an absolute. As always, anything can work if it truly serves the story. I was just talking to Garth Stein yesterday who wrote a bestseller from the POV of a dog.  Anything is possible.

One of my favorite truisms says, “A miracle is a shift in perspective.” The author of this quote was not referring to narrative POV shifts, though in a way she could have been. We are all familiar with what I think of as a favorite sit-com device—the same event retold from each character’s perspective to comic effect. Often, this kind of story will include a version showing what “actually” happened, often identifiable by the characters not behaving like circus parodies of themselves.

Yet reality, it seems to me, exists only through the prism of perspective. As much as philosophers and scientists might yearn for an absolute, such a thing does not exist within human knowing. We are, by the purely physical limitations of eyesight alone, bound to our unique (literal) view of the world. Include thoughts, personal histories, cultures, gender and all the other vagaries that might influence perception, and life seems like a thing reflected in shattered glass, leading to existential cries of, “What’s really going on here?”

The gift of human imagination, however, is that reality isn’t fixed. What the novelist might learn in moving POV from one character to another is reality’s ultimate generosity. We are never bound to one perception by anything more than our own determination to maintain it. Just as one character might see a threat where another sees opportunity, our perception that we are not smart enough, or pretty enough, or fast enough, or rich enough, is nothing more than one of those sit-com character’s take on the current state of things. As the author of your life, you have the power to move at will from character to character, as it were, searching for the perspective that serves you best, that tells the story of your life as you actually wish to hear it.

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