All posts by ahoss17@gmail.com

When Readers See Behind the Curtain

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“Show, don’t tell” is such ubiquitous advice, repeated so often so often in conference halls, writing guidebooks and classrooms, that I’d imagine most creative writing teachers would save themselves a lot of time by owning the phrase emblazoned on a stamp (don’t bother Googling; I’ve already checked and no such object exists). There’s even a short story published in the New Yorker titled “Show Don’t Tell.” But here’s the thing: sometimes you have to tell. In Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell cautions not to take the advice too literally, writing that “Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.” I’d imagine the idea’s been around as long as we’ve been on Earth telling stories, though the phrasing is often attributed to Chekhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass

The idea is that one allows the reader to see, hear, taste, smell, feel and experience a scene in a more immersive way than getting hit with an info dump. That draws attention away from the fact that it’s a work of fiction and makes the story come to life, and there’s the key: telling is okay only insofar as it doesn’t break the illusion. I want to examine two authors telling and not showing in interesting ways. One writer pulls it off. For the other, I believe, the tactic backfires.

Telling as a Plot Device

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica may just be the best-researched novel ever written. Every page drips with details large and small, insider lingo and scientific accuracy (too much for some reviewers). Clearly he knows his subject matter. In fact, Robinson traveled to Antarctica as part of the NSF’s Artists and Writers Program, which, yes, is a real thing. In his story, shortly after landing at McMurdo research station in Antarcitca, one of his characters gets a call from his boss, who wants to know what it’s like down there. “Just tell me what you see, Wade,” he says. “You’re my eyes.” Wade responds:

Well, I’m walking by the Crary Lab now. It’s quite small, composed of three small buildings on a slope, with a passageway connecting them. There’s a street sign saying I’m on Beeker Street, but it’s not much of a street. There are a lot of pipelines right on the ground… Now I’m passing a building like a giant yellow cube, with a bunch of antennas on the roof. Must be the radio building. Now I’m passing a little chapel… Now I’m on a road going out to the docks. Right now the docks are empty, because the bay is iced over.

Oh, you clever writer person you! I bet there’s a little sticky note saying “show, don’t tell” on the corner of his laptop screen. He found a way to sneak an infodump into his story… but, come on. It’s still an infodump. For me, this passage exposed the wiring and gears behind the metaphorical curtain. The phone call is such an obviously convenient literary device that it draws attention to the fact that we’re reading a work of fiction and in doing so breaks the immersion, like seeing a cameraman’s reflection in a movie.

Telling to Advance the Plot

Raymond Chandler had a similar dilemma in his gritty noir novel Farewell, My Lovely, but he tackles it much more skillfully. His detective, Philip Marlowe, has just been jumped by assailants. He doesn’t see them coming. They smack him on the back of the head and he’s out. A little later, he regains consciousness. Here’s how chapter ten opens (edited lightly for space):

“Four minutes,” the voice said. “Five, possibly six. They must have moved quick and quiet. He didn’t even let out a yell.”

I opened my eyes and looked fuzzily at a cold star. I was lying on my back. I felt sick.

“Then one of them got into the car,” the voice said, “and waited for you to come back. The others hid again. They must have figured he would be afraid to come alone. Or something in his voice made them suspicious when they talked on the phone.”

I balanced myself woozily on the flat of my hands, listening.

“Yeah, that was about how it was,” the voice said.

It was my voice. I was talking to myself, coming out of it. I was trying to figure the thing out subconsciously.

“Shut up, you dimwit,” I said, and stopped talking to myself.

Now that is an inventive literary device. Both writers break the same rule for the same purpose, but Chandler finds a way to keep the immersion intact. He remains faithful to the spirit of “show, don’t tell.” Robinson’s clunky approach strikes me as nothing more than a plot device, whereas Chandler’s deft handling works to advance the story even during a lull in the action.

Is a Novel an Art or a Craft? A Literary Agent Offers a Unique Perspective

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I know this debate seems pointless at the outset, but… Well, but nothing. That’s how it seems. “But wait,” you ask, “can’t a novel be both?” Well, not according to this totally unqualified person who doesn’t cite sources:

[Arts and crafts] are two forms of creativity that are commonly juxtaposed by [people who] don’t see any difference in them. But the fact is that art is different from the craft in a sense that art is a creative merit that comes from within whereas craft is skilled work.

(Side note: when you don’t have any on-the-surface expertise on an issue, you should probably cite sources if you want to be taken seriously.) Writing for The New York Times, art critic Margo Jefferson divides the issue a different way, between “art made to be used (crafts and design), and art made to be contemplated (painting, drawing and sculpture).”  The Swedes, I’m told, solve the issue by simply having a single word encompassing both the design of an object and the useful object in and of itself: Konsthantverk. (I love that when Chrome translates the Wikipedia page, the various types of crafts are labeled “species”). One can make an academic career out of splitting hairs over the definition of art, but I usually cede authority on the matter to Tolstoy, who famously defined art as the communication of feelings.

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Yes, I took that into Photoshop and changed the comma to a semicolon. I am an OCD-riddled English teacher. Leave me alone.

A novel (a good one, at least) certainly communicates emotions from page to reader. So it’s settled then. Right? Well, not according to many successful novelists, editors and agents. In an interview featuring the world’s least-skilled cameraman, John Irving comes down firmly on the craft side, going as far as to say he doesn’t consider himself an artist at all:

I’ve heard him take the point further, in a quote I absolutely cannot find right now, in which he says he is “not even a storyteller.” I first heard Irving say that several years ago, and it ha influenced my philosophy towards writing. I made a similar point when I was interviewed by a local newspaper after the publication of my debut novel (yay shameless self promotion). So my attention was piqued when I saw literary agent Donald Maass make the following statement in his phenomenal writing guidebook Writing the Breakout Novel:

[This] is a book for dedicated craftspeople: The kind of folk whose work is so fine and apparently effortless that onlookers call it art.

Well that’s an interesting take on the issue. Writing is a craft, Maass tells us, but very good writers will have their handiwork appreciated as though it were an object of high art – something to be contemplated, a wellspring of emotion. But that’s only on the surface. Peek behind the curtain and you’ll see a mess of gears and wires, support beams that hold the structure intact, the machinery needed for a reader to suspend disbelief. Now, am I reading way too much into that quote? Probably. But it’s a neat way to acknowledge that writing is a craft, but that it can still communicate emotions. You just have to find a way to hide the wires and gears from the reader.

How Important Are Writing Guidebooks?

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Short answer: very important, but a danger comes with reading too many. Guidebooks are crucial if you have little in the way of formal training. They always help and never hurt. Case in point: a student in my business writing class sought me out after class one day. He wanted to be a fantasy writer. He wanted advice. I asked him if he’d taken any of our college’s creative writing classes. “Nope,” he said, smiling broadly. “I’m 100% self-taught.” Oh? I asked him what how-to books he’d read in the course of educating himself. He made a face. “Books?” he asked. “None. Should I?”

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But I Learn From Experience!

As a professional writer, the perception that writing is something easy irks me to no end. I’m reminded of the sage wisdom of Harry Crews:

“Your chances of being a renowned brain surgeon are better than being a renowned novelist,” he says. His sip of water at the end if particularly savage. I admire Harry Crews (A Feast of Snakes goes down as one of the darkest and most downright bizarre novels I’ve read), but I disagree with him on one point. I do believe that anyone can be a writer. But it takes time and practice and you have to learn from qualified experts. Fortunately for would-be novelists, there are no shortage of guidebooks to help us along. Too many, perhaps. In his criminally under-appreciated The Craft of Writing, editor and author William Sloane makes the following observation:

Lord knows this is not the first book on writing and the writer. There appear to be thousands of them, even if you leave out the accounts by writers themselves of how they wrote and what they wrote… All told, the combined instruction and encouragement thus afforded the part-time or beginning writer is more than sufficient to subtract seriously from the time he ought to be devoting to more important reading.

And there’s the rub. Time spent reading volumes of how-to guides is time taken away from reading novels in the genre you wish to write. In any genre, really. You shouldn’t read your genre exclusively (at least according to Faulkner). That’s why I was thrilled to discover that Hallie Ephron’s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel opens with a list of “Novels That Set the Standard.” She splits her list of novels into categories based on their strength: plot, dialogue, characters, setting, action, suspense and classics that define the genre. I found that list the most valuable part of her guidebook, by a mile (and the advice itself was really good!). So read guidebooks, but understand that studying novels is equally important in the short term and more important in the long term.

But Aren’t Rules Meant to be Broken?

Do you feel that way? Here’s an antidote: become a teacher. Teach a couple semesters of creative writing. Let me know how that goes. Do you still feel that aspiring writers should be free to break rules? Look, obviously there are no hard and fast rules in writing. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner phrases the dilemma more eloquently than I can: “What the beginning writer ordinarily wants,” he writes, “is a set of rules on what to do and what not to do in writing fiction.” He concedes that there are some good general guidelines and warnings, but he warns against a search for anything absolute:

When one begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things must always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition… Trustworthy aesthetic universals do exist, but they exist at such a high level of abstraction so as to offer almost no guidance to the writer.

Sol Stein, in On Writing and How to Grow a Novel – both of which are excellent – is more pedantic than most. Stein recounts a conference he attended during which an aspiring writer put a question to a panel of experts regarding pace. Most of the panelists wiggled around the question with vague responses like “go by feel.” When they got to Stein, the first words out of his mouth were “Here’s how it’s done.” His advice is frank and specific. In some places I find it extremely helpful (such as his “Actors Studio” technique). In other places I find it frustrating. Which leads to my third point…

When Experts Disagree

Towards the end of How to Grow a Novel, Stein comments on the much-debated issue of manuscript length, and gives the reader an exact figure to shoot for: 75,000 words. “Longer than that is a hazard except for bestselling authors,” he writes. My debut novel was 93k in a first draft, then edited down to 87k when I began submitting. The version that got published was eventually cut to a final length of 84,000 words. I’ve learned firsthand how painful that process can be. So when I saw Stein suggest that even my hard-edited manuscript would be, in his eyes, nearly 10,000 words too long, my heart pulled one of these:

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Then a couple weeks ago, I got my hands on one of the best how-to guides I’ve had the pleasure of reading: Writing the Breakout Novel by literary agent Donald Maass. He talks a lot about the importance of adding depth to characters and places in order to create fiction that feels more fleshed-out and alive. “In enhancing your work,” Maass writes, “you may notice it growing lengthier.” He continues:

Breakout novels are highly detailed and generally complex. Their authors do not stint if adding material will deepen the impact of their stories. Many breakout novels are long. Do not be afraid of that.

He throws in a few asterisks, warning that “length is not a virtue all by itself.” No doubt that’s true. I remember talking to a conference-goer at last summer’s Writers Digest Conference who proudly announced that he planned to pitch a 300,000 debut novel to agents the next day. I suggested he cut the book in thirds and pitch it as a trilogy and he lost it. Some of the most famous books of all time are long, he protested (quite angrily). Later, on Facebook, I saw him complain that none of the agents ever got back to him. Sol Stein sounds like he’s heard that line before: “I know, Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full is very long,” Stein writes. “So is his reputation.” Do you have a Nobel Prize? No? Then don’t pitch a 300,000 word book.

The Bottom Line

Experts will disagree, so listen, learn and take from them what you need. Writing a resume provides a good analogy. No hiring manager can tell you the right formula. My business writing students routinely expect me, as the professor, to have the correct answer, and their faces noticeably whiten when I tell them, at the outset, that I can’t deliver. That doesn’t mean (I hope) that they shouldn’t listen to me. I tell them to hear me out, then go to the career guidance office, then read the textbook, then poke around online. I warn that they will find conflicting information. That doesn’t mean that anything goes. Identify your strengths and take what you need from each source. Be as informed as possible. All that goes for writing a novel just as well.

How to be Taken Seriously as a Writer

I’ve been reading a ton of author blogs these past couple weeks, both established and emerging literary voices, the self-published and the unpublished, memoirists, poets and playwrights, short story authors with 25 years’ experience and creative writing students still in high school. Some of these bloggers offer advice to the aspiring masses; others reflect on the ever-evolving journey or a writerly life. A bit of this sort of thing too:

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That’s okay! That’s me, most of the time. My goal with this research is too learn new things and to network, but mainly to try and get a sense of what kind of brand identity I’d like to bring to my own blog. A common theme I see repeated on many writers’ blogs is a desire to be taken seriously. We all want to be respected. And it’s easy, with all those rejection letters piling up against the backdrop of a crowded internet’s mad scramble for attention, to feel discredited in advance, like a dish returned to the kitchen before the diner so much as takes a bite.

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The underlying question here regards the nature of expertise. When do I get to call myself an expert? If I’m Stephen King, I can dole out advice off the top of my head and be taken seriously. I am not Stephen King. Writers are treated notoriously poorly, well, just about everywhere. So what can you do about it, at least until you are Stephen King? I’d argue two things can help tremendously:

  1. Back up what you’re saying by citing sources
  2. Provide examples from the work of successful authors

I’m currently reading through the wonderful guide Writing the Breakout Novel by longtime literary agent Donald Maass. Its first chapter, in which Maass debunks common myths about succeeding as a novelist, was particularly revelatory (spoiler alert: a promotion campaign is not what will make your book a success). Early on, Maass establishes his credibility:

The principles and techniques I describe I have learned from years of analyzing breakout fiction. My teachers have been our era’s greatest authors. Applying these techniques has yielded dynamic and profitable results for me and for my clients.

Okay, Mr. Maass, you have my undivided attention. He could ramble stray thoughts off the top of his head and I would accept his lessons as gospel. But he doesn’t. On almost every page, he cites examples and quotes established authors who have used these techniques. Flipping through the chapters you get the sense that, contrary to the book’s premise, it is NOT his business to dispense original advice. Rather, Maass carefully studies successful books and attempts to work backwards, drilling down what formula made the story work and then seeing how its component parts can be rearranged to suit a writer’s needs. Too often I see bloggers work in the opposite direction. “I’m not successful yet, but here’s what I do, and if you do it too, you’ll be successful.” Well, when you say it like that…

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In a previous post, I wrote about Sol Stein’s “actor’s studio” method discussed in his great writing guide Stein on Writing. It’s a great technique to add instant drama to a scene. I linked to the (credible) source where I learned about it, then found an example of the technique used in the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Don DeLillo, then wrapped by showing how I attempted to integrate it into my own writing. Not to sound like the grumpy English teacher that I am, but I think that if we all cited sources a little more often, it might make headway towards establishing credibility. At least, of course, until we’re Stephen King.

Weekend Writing Prompt: King Tut’s Tomb

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This picture of the unbroken seal on King Tut’s tomb – 3,245 years old and still intact – is one of my favorite photographs. I show it to my students. I ask them to imagine what it might be like to be moments away from a monumental discovery. Archaeologist Howard Carter had no idea what awaited him beyond that ancient seal. “Feverishly we cleared away the remaining last scraps of rubbish on the floor of the passage before the doorway,” Carter wrote in his journal, “until we had only the clean sealed doorway before us.”

Write a story about discovery. No need for all the fuss and drama of unearthing a pharaoh’s bones; the photo can be a metaphor. Your character is on this side of the doorway. I’m reminded of James Scott Bell’s edict in his essential Plot & Structure, which every aspiring writer should read, that a character must pass through a literal or metaphorical “doorway,” a point of no return, to set a story in motion.

Your character discovers a doorway and passes through it. What does she find?

What Can Writers Learn From The Movies?

 

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I got quite the death stare from my old creative writing prof, a man equal parts coffee stains and Phil Spector hair, when I reported to him in a moment of undergrad indiscretion that the inspiration for my short stories came “from the movies.” Ten years later, the roles reversed. Imagine my fatherly pride when one of my freshman comp students told me he dreamed of being a writer! I asked about his favorite authors. “What, you mean, like, books?” he asked, visibly confused. “I don’t read books. I’m more a movies and Nintendo kind of guy.”

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Looking from far and above, to echo Malinowski, from our high places of snobbery in erudite writerdom, it’s easy to dismiss such talk as an echo of the death rattle of literature (much exaggerated!). And, to be sure, if you want to be a writer you have to read. Yes, books. But cinema is an art form, after all, and just as anthropologist Ernest Becker argues in his 1962 book The Birth and Death of Meaning that no single academic discipline has a lock on the truth, so too is truth not the sole property of a single form of art. Becker describes a key assumption behind his project:

And if we want to understand very general attributes of what it means to be a human being, including the nature of soul, that we can’t do that from any one disciplinary perspective.

When approached as an intellectual exercise, I believe writers of fiction can study three aspects of film to improve their craft: (1) dialogue, (2) cinematography, and (3) emotional resonance (what I’ll call “general effect”).

The Advent of the Talkies

Let’s begin with the most obvious: dialogue. And I’ll start by trashing one of my favorite authors. I love Don DeLillo. He is one of the great living American novelists. But the dialogue in his stories is not always realistic. This is intentional. (“There are fifty-two ways to write dialogue that’s faithful to the way people speak,” he tells the Paris Review. “And then there are times when you’re not trying to be faithful.”) Here’s a taste, from his 2007 novel Falling Man:

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That dialogue reminds me of an Elmore Leonard technique of omitting words (see tip #7 here). From later in the same scene:

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You read enough of that and it starts to come out in your own writing. Two of my characters in Infinity Point have the following chapter-opening exchange:

“We’re close.”
“To what?”
“What do you mean to what? To it. The truth.”
“What, it’s a place? It’s something you can look at? The truth?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Not really. What is your truth?”
“I couldn’t tell you. I can’t really say.”
“But the truth.”
“It’s an idea that can be distorted but not destroyed.”
“You’re sure of this.”
“It’s an idea bigger than us.”

(I couldn’t resist some slight editing.) That piqued the curiosity of my book club. “Huh,” one of the members said. “That doesn’t sound like how normal people talk.” Sorry, that’s just the Don DeLillo in me talking! But do we really want hyper-realism, all of the time? Better question: do we want it any of the time? Let’s see if we can better answer that question with the help of film. Exhibit A: an exchange from early in the noir film Double Indemnity (1944), in which femme fatale Phyllis, played by Barbara Stanwyck, first meets the co-conspirator with whom she will conspire to murder he husband. A romantic energy flourishes at first sight:

Is that how “normal people talk?” Not a chance! It’s pure style. The dialogue in that film (screenplay by Billy Wilder and the great Raymond Chandler) is rapid-fire wit and moody noir by turns, helping maintain a spark between characters while developing a bleak undercurrent of doom. It is like a love affair at the end of the world. Contrast the stylistic approach with the following exchange from 12 Angry Men. Pay attention not only to what is being said but how each person is saying it:

So, what can we take away from that? It depends on what you’re going for. Studying screenplays is a better option for learning dialogue than eavesdropping at a coffee shop. “Life has no plots,” as Harmony Korine once put it. But ultimately you want to present the reader something with which they can relate. To that end, listen not only to what the characters say, but how they say it. Where are the pauses? What are they doing with their hands? All of this can be valuable to the writer.

The Canvas of the Imagination

In How to Grow a Novel, master editor Sol Stein speaks to the importance of visual details. He cites as an example the following snippet of Russel Banks’s novel The Sweet Hereafter, in which a bus driver makes her first stop of the morning at the top of a hill:

Down in the valley, you could see the house lights of Sam Dent coming on one by one, and along Routes 9 and 73 the headlights of a few cars flashed like fireflies as people headed to work.

I picture the image vividly. “An inexperienced writer,” Stein notes, “might say that down in the valley you could see the house lights of Sam Dent and the headlights of a few cars… But that wouldn’t be writerly.” Russian director Alexander Sokurov sees a deep affinity between the canvas of cinema and the more traditional canvas of a painting (sometimes to exhausting effect). Less obvious, I think, is the relation between that sort of visual canvas and prose writing. How does one learn to see those “writerly details” Stein describes? From studying the visual arts, of course! Take for example the following scene from Andrei Tarkovksy’s masterful Andrei Rublev (1966). I’d fast-forward to the 6:30 mark, unless you are in the mood for long-winded theological debate.

Every frame is packed with details. How might you describe in prose the children at 7:00 rolling down the hill? What do the dark splotches at 7:09 resemble? The films of Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos are far and away the best for this exercise. Here’s a supercut of striking visuals from The Weeping Meadow (2004):

Back during my first (ill-fated) foray into novel writing, I wanted a thrilling car chase sequence. Very difficult to write! I poked around Google in search of answers and chanced upon a friendly message-boarder who suggested queuing up a movie car chase, examining the cinematography, pausing every so often and trying to put into words what you just watched. The product of such efforts was admittedly terrible, but the idea stuck. Instead of trying to translate BADASS ACTION sequences from screen to page, I now seek out striking visual details that might help paint a more vivid image in a reader’s mind.

The Big Bang Symphony

Did I mention I once impulse-bought a novel based on nothing more than its fantastic title, The Big Bang Symphony? Well, I did, and it rewarded me with the core idea of my next novel. But that is what readers want – a big bang. Earlier in How to Grow a Novel, Sol Stein writes that a reader of fiction is looking for “an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experiences in life.” He argues that the writer owes this to the reader out of simple courtesy. Think of a film that gave you that type of experience. For me, the first flick that comes to mind is Warwick Thornton’s criminally under-appreciated Samson and Delilah (2009), described as a “survival love story” set in an Australian Aboriginal community whose inhabitants lead, well, somewhat difficult lives.

Samson and Delilah is a brutally depressing film, unapologetic in its bleakness. It left me rattled for days. Most sad sappy melodramas are romanticized in a predictable “good cry” kind of way. Not so here. A crushing tale of despair, the film loses any hope of a happy ending from the opening frame. In What is Art, Leo Tolstoy famously opined that

Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications

Warwick Thornton took a feeling and transmitted it to me through the medium of film. The obvious question is, how does one do that? I don’t think there’s any practical advice anyone can give on this point other than “try.” Once, in a teenage moment of youthful indiscretion, I attempted to convey the feeling of a Bruce Springsteen song into a short story. You’ll laugh, but it helped me become a better writer. It was hard! I had to put a ton of thought into the translation of an emotion into worlds, doing so (hopefully) in a way that will communicate this emotion via ESP into the mind of a reader.

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Administrivia

I’m hoping this becomes a regular series: “What Can Writers Learn From _______?” I will do diligent, cross-disciplinary research and plumb the depths of various arts and sciences for ideas writers can shoplift. These posts are long (I mean, I guess) and well-researched, and they take time to write. I’m trying to get into a regularly-scheduled habit of blogging this summer. Meanwhile I am also working on my next novel, which I’m hoping to get into presentable shape before the Writers Digest Conference in August. Those factors considered, expect regular updates.

One thing I’m really bad at is ending blog posts.

 

Against Bite-Sized Content

An early draft of this entry began as follows: “I know, I know. The irony. Railing against ‘bite-sized’ content in a measly 1,000-word blog post.” Then, whilst prowling the interwebs this morning, I stumbled upon the following advice from John Rampton at Forbes in defense of longform blog content:

We’re talking about 1,000 words or more. If that sounds insane, it’s not. It’s actually pretty common. Why would someone sit down and write so many words? Because it’s good for SEO.

Silly me! This Tolstoyan epic of word meat might well come equipped with SparkNotes and a character list. I mean, 1,000 whole words (1,253, to be exact). The insanity. How long did that take to write, what inspired you to write it and can you autograph my copy? And let’s not neglect the last line. Why did Melville write Moby Dick? For SEO, of course.

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Over-writing is, obviously, a thing. Longer content is not automatically of higher quality, and not all short content is shallow or poorly researched. Tom Scocca, writing in the annals of Hulk Hogan’s jockstrap, ponders the dilemma of longform journalism thusly:

Some articles should be short. Some articles should be long. No articles, as Vox and its SB Nation demonstrated, should be longform… Editors have traditionally sized up stories when making assignments—based on how interesting a piece seems likely to be, how much money they want to spend on it, and, in the olden days, how much physical space they had to fit the words into, around the ads—but an open-ended length is unhelpful to everyone. It’s like a cartoon cutout holding a ruler at the roller-coaster gate: Over this much, you’re a big-boy writer.

Charles Dickens wrote long novels because he was paid by the word (well, okay, it’s a bit more complicated). Sylvia Plath called writers “the most narcissistic people.” Clearly there is good long and bad long, and that mostly depends on a writer’s skill. Marieke van de Rakt at Yoast warns that “If you aren’t the best writer, try to maximize the words of your post around 700-800.” Seems a bit arbitrary, but okay. Protip, though: few people on the internet admit they “aren’t the best writer.” Haven’t you heard? Everyone on the internet is an expert on grammar.

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I am a novelist and college professor with a master’s degree in linguistics and six years of experience teaching writing. I got credentials, man. But credentials don’t impress much in my field. Try arguing with someone on the internet about language. Why would they listen to me (i.e. an expert)? They’re experts themselves, you know. They’ve gone to high school and they can Google things.

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[meaningless filler content because a picture before a headline with no intervening words somehow triggers my OCD]

Life in the Slow Lane

Longform content is more time-consuming to create. That’s a good thing. Maestro of slow living Carl Honoré writes “the central tenet of the slow philosophy is taking the time to do things properly, and thereby enjoy them more.” Writing this blog post took me a long time. I harbor no delusions of crafting a literary gem, but finding good quotes, continually honing my opinion through research and revising, revising, revising, is a lengthy process (when done right). Sure, I could crank out ten blog posts per week. I’m a professional writer who once wrote 12,000 words in a single day. But I’d like to think that writing is a thing writers should enjoy (unless you are Philip Roth). We live in a world that values quantity over quality when it comes to entertainment, food, alcohol, sexual partners, resume items, extracurriculars, and yes, I’m obviously aware it extends to word count as well. Research shows that human beings feel a constant need to be busy, and often correlate business with happiness. And this is not a smartphone-induced hypermodern mindset. In 1945, poet Edna St. Vincent Millary penned the following:

We have gone too far, we do not know how to stop: impetus
Is all we have. And we share it with the pushed Inert.

We are clever, – we are as clever as monkeys; and some of us
Have intellect, which is our danger, for we lack intelligence
And have forgotten instinct.

Progress – progress is the dirtiest word in the language – who ever told us –
And made us believe it – that to take a step forward was necessarily, was always
A good idea?
In this unlighted cave, one step forward
That step can be the down-step into the Abyss.
But we, we have no sense of direction; impetus
Is all we have; we do not proceed, we only
Roll down the mountain,
Like disbalanced boulders, crushing before us many
Delicate springing things, whose plan it was to grow.

We have no sense; we only roll downhill. Peace
Is the temporary beautiful ignorance that War
Somewhere progresses.

Her poem speaks to a point made a couple years earlier by Winston Churchill:

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What I take from that is that we should only do things if and when there is a need beyond our imagined need to do things.

But Oh, How the Poor Reader Suffers

Brain science tells us the average human attention span is eight seconds. And, no, that is not a default state of human nature. A similar study in 2000 found a 12 second attention span. (Some problems.)

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Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the year 1840, seems prophetic on this point as he laments the secularization of society. He argues that “In the ages of faith, the final aim of life is placed beyond life. The men of such ages are therefore used naturally and, as it were, involuntarily, to fix their gaze for many years on a static object towards which their progress is ever directed.” He argues that viewing one’s life as a single long-term project is good for attention span and happiness. He continues:

As soon as they have lost the way of taking a long-term view for their principal hopes, they naturally tend to seek the immediate gratification of their smallest wishes, and it seems to me that from the instant they give up the hope of living forever, they are inclined to act as if they were to live for only one single day. In skeptical times, therefore, there is always the danger that men will surrender themselves endlessly to the casual whims of daily desire and they will abandon entirely anything which requires long-term effort, thus failing to establish anything noble or calm or lasting.

As a teacher, I don’t discipline students for texting in class. I don’t pick on the kid in the back who looks like he’s not paying attention. Heck, in the future I don’t even think I’ll penalize late work. I talk to my students often about taking responsibility. I can’t force someone to be successful, or creative, or even to be smarter. It’s a conscious choice on their part. Students in my classes end up with the grade they want.

smartkid

So why should bloggers contribute to soundbite culture by cranking out daily hot takes on Donald Trump and the Kardashians? Not only is that dumb, it’s not even a good way to drive traffic to your blog. And, believe it or not, I got to take my time writing this blog and actually found it enjoyable. Approaching the subject from a cross-disciplinary perspective – neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, religion, history, poetry and literature – left me with a deeper understanding. There’s nothing old-fashioned or counter-cultural about living slowly. It just means you like doing things right.

Learn to add drama to a story with Sol Stein’s Actors Studio method

There are no good Inside the Actor’s Stuido memes. However, whilst prowling the interwebs this morning, I came upon a curious discovery. Turns out that Actor’s Studio host and mild-mannered curmudgeon James Lipton spent his younger days working as a pimp in the Red Light District of Paris (well, “a procurer… an agent, so to speak”).

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Hmm, probably shouldn’t lead a blog post with “James Lipton was a pimp.” Because what can I really say to top that. Well, I’ve come too far now.

I’ve long had an obsession with Lipton’s glacially paced interviews, so imagine my joy at spotting a chapter titled “The Actors Studio Method for Developing Drama in Plots” in venerated master of the craft Sol Stein’s book On Writing.

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Approximation

So here’s the deal. Back in the ‘50s, Stein – at the time a playwright-in-residence at the Actors Studio – attended a workshop led by Elia Kazan. He was partnered with screenwriter Rona Jaffe, with whom he was instructed to improvise a scene. Stein received whispered instructions. His character, Kazan said, was a school headmaster intent on expelling a troublemaker. Jaffe’s character was the child’s mother, intent on defending her son. Tempers flared in a dramatic improvised scene. Only afterwards did Stein discover what Kazan had whispered in Jaffe’s ear – that her son was well-behaved and had been falsely accused. The two characters had different scripts. As a result, understanding became impossible and conflict inevitable.

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Approximation

Side note: I tried this in a classroom once during a lesson on rhetoric. I paired up two students, each with secret note cards. One played a high school principle, the other a student who had been falsely accused of cheating. Same deal – different scripts. It failed miserably. My students did everything they possibly could to avoid conflict and negotiated peace within half a minute. Methinks they just wanted the part where they participated to end. Anyways…

We don’t want negotiated stalemates in stories. We want conflict. We want ALL CAPS YELLING (metaphor all caps, of course). How to ensure the sparks fly? Give your characters different scripts. Take a look at the following exchange from Don DeLillo’s masterpiece Underworld (lol at masterpieces of literature having 3 stars on Amazon…). Two events had just transpired in the story: the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb and Bobby Thompson hit his famous game-winning home run to clinch the pennant.

“Did you see the paper, Father?”

“Please, we know each other too well. You’re required to call me Andy now. Yes, I stole a long look at someone’s Daily News. They’re calling it the Shot Heart Round the World.”

“How did we detect evidence of the blast, I wonder. We must have aircraft flying near their borders with instruments that measure radiation. Or well-placed agents perhaps.”

DeLillo’s characters are discussing the news with different scripts. One is referring to Thompson’s home run, the other to the nuclear test.

I employed a similar technique in my novel Infinity Point. In the following scene, actress Nikole Fink has been taken hostage at gunpoint. She steals away to a public restroom where she knocks a passerby unconscious, steals the woman’s cell phone and – panicked and confused as to how to contact the police in a foreign country – places a frantic call to her agent in New York. Meanwhile, Nikole’s agent has become fixated on clearing up Nikole’s recent scandal in the tabloids in which she had been photographed by paparazzi stealing evidence from a crime scene. Wally assumes this is what the call is about. They are operating with different scripts:

“You have to help me, Wally,” the voice spoke. Yes, it was her. “I… I didn’t mean to… Look, I did something bad and I need your help.”

You know, Wally thought, perhaps I am simply not cut out for this industry. I am a delicate man, a sophisticated man. I enjoy tea from Thailand. I own a respectable collection of vinyl records. James Bond I am not.

“Yes,” Wally said. “I know, Nikole. Do not worry. I am working on it.”

“You…? Wait. What?”

“I have hired a detective. He and I are negotiating as we speak. This man is the best in the business. Surely he will help.”

Nikole was quiet a moment.

“What are you talking about?”

“I know everything – the cave, the bodies, the hourglass, the Black Lotus, the body bag, the blogger’s photographs. At first I was concerned, but now with the detective’s help, we will settle matters. You needn’t worry.”

Wally tried to imagine the scene on the call’s opposite end. He pictured Nikole drowning in pills and wine, her apartment a war zone of filth.

“Everything is under control,” Wally insisted.

This builds tension because the reader wants Nikole rescued; however, the misunderstanding prevents progress on the front and only buries Nikole deeper in her situation.

Probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever written

My hard drive failed a couple weeks back. Most of my stuff was backed up but horribly disorganized. Years of memories and files going all the way back to high school were scattered across external HDDs, flash drives, email attachments and cloud docs. Scrounging through the shreds of my life I came across a ton of old writings, mostly fragments, half-finished drafts and experiments of writing under the influence. I’d forgotten about most of these. They’re pretty terribad in terms of the actual writing, but they have fantastic titles. One is called “Some Weird Lesbian Fantasies I’ve Had.” Another is titled “Notes On A Coke-Fueled Orgy Held On The Occasion Of The Seventieth Anniversary Of The Sinking Of The Battleship Bismark By Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.” I’ll post those when I need some clickbait. But I think this one’s gotta take the cake in terms of sheer weirdness. I wrote this about six years ago right after I moved back to Ohio from New York City. Yeah I was going through a bit of a phase or something, I don’t know. There’s really no explanation.

 

A Masochist’s Guide to Manhattan

Tucked between the scripture-sprayed graffiti canvas of East Village dive bars, within earshot of the Tompkins Park’s acoustic panhandlers, a sidewalk’s length from the number 6 line, in a back room off a back room off underneath Luigi’s Tavern, a man named Sergei will punch you in the testicles for a dollar. In a corridor starved of clean oxygen, the men squeezed tight. The ceiling leaked black tears. Bass from the tavern’s jukebox shook the walls and the stench of feces and newspapers grew stronger the closer the line moved to Sergei’s office. I tried making small talk with a Japanese businessman beside me, but everyone seemed withdrawn and embarrassed, sheathed in shadows and silence. Here is the world’s forgotten crawlspace. Here are pennies lost beneath cushions. Every so often a man would stagger past us, clutching his crotch, stopping every so often to reel over in pain. “Anyways,” I said to the Japanese businessman, “I’d say it’s a bargain. Not much you can get in New York for a dollar these days.”

On the uptown Q train there is an MTA employee named Willard who will beat you with a broom if you board the train drunk. Most days I don’t have money for booze so I just shamble around like a puppet corpse flailing and shoving and pickpocketing until someone calls the cleaner. After a time I began to recognize the regulars. Some men from the line at Sergei’s made weekly appearances before Willard, but some women were return customers too, the trash of the city, come not to be cleansed but swept uselessly, bouncing around a filthy bathtub without a drain, drowning but not dying, existential excrement.

On 86th and Fourth there is an alcoholic named Valeria who will slash your face with her fingernails in exchange for an argument and red wine. After a particularly brutal beating, Willard palmed Val’s business card into my jeans pocket as I lay bleeding amidst a forest of apathetic feet. He whispered something in my ear but that time I really was drunk and I don’t remember the details. We watched Humphrey Bogart movies and drank and I found her clipboard between the couch cushions. She shrugged.

Kathy, a retired classics professor in Chelsea, will break your heart once per month if you agree to water her plants and feed her fish at precise intervals. Once I deviated from the schedule and killed a goldfish named Sam, and Kathy showered me with so much love that I had to stand at the ledge of her apartment rooftop and threaten to jump unless she’d promise to spit on my grave.

Dollar Wash, a dry-cleaning service on Broadway run by two identical Lithuanians named Natalie, will hire and fire you once per week. The sisters wore matching outfits every day. Nothing at Dollar Wash costs a dollar. Once I stumbled in drunk and started a fight with a customer and ended up damaging two of the industrial strength washers and a Lithuanian mobster beat me near to death with a wooden bat. A week later the sisters hired me again.

On my last day in the city I stumbled through the park, nursing my scabs and my scars. I found a plot of grass under a willow tree and watched children throw a football in a field. Summer sun felt scalding on my scalp. I sat and watched a mass of humanity circulate like an atmospheric pressure system, laughing and sobbing and texting and walking dogs, eating ice cream and flying kites, hailing taxis and holding hands and watching planes write love notes in the sky. And if I could have that moment back, just for an hour, an instant, a day, just one last time, just a blink of a strip of film negatives to be experienced afraid and alone just once more.