Sunday, January 17, 2016

Hemingway Advises Like No Other Writer Can

There is a fascinating look at Ernest Hemingway's literary advice to the 22-year old Arnold Samuelson from the latter's stay with the literary legend back in 1934.

As you would expect, Hemingway sets down practical, memorable advice when it comes to writing novels, and also what a reader should have read or be reading to educate himself properly. The list of books a writer at that moment in time should have read is enough to peak anybody's interest, but here are some other prize snippets from the book picked so gracefully by Maria Popova:
The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.
I've employed this practice with my own writing since I was a child--leaving off at a high point so as to easily jump in the next day. If I've ever failed to do so, I found I'd be facing mental struggle with where to pick up again with the story, and a wasteful morning of wrestling ideas and submitting them onto the page would ensue.

And my other favorite Hemingway advice for today is:
When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing. When you can do that, the reader gets the kick and you don’t get any. You just get hard work and the better you write the harder it is because every story has to be better than the last one. 
See the rest of Popova's article, "Hemingway's Advice on Writing...

Friday, January 15, 2016

Is There Such A Thing As Reading Too Closely?

Is it possible to identify too much with the words and fantasies of others? Yet, how far can the writer, who should be the most voracious of readers, take the act of close reading and identifying himself with the text before it goes too far and becomes an exercise in therapy?

Unless you think within all the pages of illusion and literary feats there might be lurking the perfect passages to define you, pinpoint your struggle, and somehow soothe the deepest aching of your soul.

That's what it seems David Foster Wallace did with parts of his reading life. In an interesting article written by Mike Miley called Reading Wallace Reading we learn an important, if not murky and hard to grasp lesson about the role of fiction, and every writer should define what it is or isn't about storytelling that attracts him.

It may not be all it's cranked up to be. Fiction can be a friend or a mirror for the ego, or an excuse to distract one's self from life, but when does it become a misleading factor in our lives? The Reading Wallace article talks about a passage from Don DeLillo, beside which Wallace wrote his initials DFW.

I think this passage helps me to see why I balked earlier at the idea of calling my quest in Austin a pilgrimage. These annotations are not holy relics because they restore nothing. Rather, they are simply the fears and obsessions of a damaged soul laid naked on the page, pushed to the margins but hardly marginal. A close encounter does not provide more salvation.
No one ever talks about how identifying with something you read might not always be a good thing. Saying “that’s like me” is not always an affirmation — it can be terrifying and make you feel “more fucked-up and Unknown.” Critics and fans alike rhapsodize about identifying with David Foster Wallace’s writing as though it can only be consoling and empowering, and I used to think so too, until I got too close and discovered what may be the most important truth about literature, the true “aesthetic benefit of close reading,” though I doubt the Mellon Foundation would be all that interested in hearing about my discovery, as it is beneficial only in the most cautionary of senses: there is such a thing as reading too closely.
It's almost like Wallace was looking for truths in other people's minds that he could attach to his particular quirks and personal suffering, as to give them a voice and an understanding. And yet, maybe he was searching in the wrong places? Some of the eerie silences within cannot be described in words.

What role does reading fiction play in your life? 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Coloring Characters With Language from Their Professions: Learning from Robert Ludlum

People who tell writers to make their characters like real people irk me. As Kurt Vonnegut put it in his novel Timequake, “there are enough real, living and breathing human beings on earth. Why would I want to create another one?” Which means that no matter what, your character is not living and breathing, but rather an effect of a series of letters stamped together to create meaningful sentences, which turn into paragraphs, and that is what the writer uses to drive forth the plot, and to develop that mysterious and all-important “real” character.

engraved by Robert Thew
We all know that characters in books are just products of well-orchestrated information, but many writers’ characters lack the dynamic, fluid, and well-constructed quality that most of us readers crave in our heroes and antiheroes.

One obvious way to add depth and quality to your character is by giving him or her a unique profession, and then using that profession to color the insights the character has throughout the novel. This lends credibility to your character again and again, and it should heighten the prose as well as your character will dip into new pools of language that you, the writer, might not have naturally plumbed.

For example, in Robert Ludlum’s The Holocroft Covenant, we see the master pulp fiction writer craft an architect on a secret mission to South America. There are many characters in this novel, and many plot twists, but what comes through at the right times is the protagonist, Noel Holcroft’s perceptions being those of an architect. He doesn’t see the world as a writer or a commercial airplane pilot, he notices sound structures, pressure points in infrastructure, and how well buildings are built.

As the author, you don’t want to beat the reader over the head with these insights, but when it counts, you need to set the scene with details that your main character is witnessing…and more importantly, witnessing through his primary interest in life.

The Graff state was spectacular. The view was magnificient: plains nearby, mountains in the distance, and far to the east the hazy blue of the Atlantic. The house itself was three stories high. A series of balconies rose on both sides of the central entrance: a set of massive double doors—oiled mahogany, hinged with large, pitted triangles of black iron. The effect was Alpine, as if a geometric design of many Swiss chalets were welded into one and set down on a tropical mountain (85).

You might say, “That wasn’t so spectacular. Yes, he notices a few details about the large house, but so would any other character.”

But Holcraft goes just a bit further than a politician might, or a gardener. If Ludlum’s career wasn’t to write thrillers for the masses, he might have gone further with the particular language, and really laid it on thick for literary fiction lovers (or overdo it with hysterical realists like Zadie Smith or DFW), but he knows his trade, and that’s about as wild with language as he can get. He’s got a particular story to tell. 

It's up to you to determine how much decoration is needed in your literary landscape. Make your descriptive scenes count.