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The Russian Futurist Movement

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Robot musicians! Moon cities! Immortality in pill form! Overwhelmed at the breakneck pace of inventions and technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution, artists and scientists alike were thinking big at the turn of the 20th Century. Nothing seemed out of reach. Many of the things we take for granted every day – automobiles, bicycles, refrigerators, street lights, air conditioning, plastic, vacuum cleaners, light bulbs, radio broadcasting, movie cameras, laundry machines, etc. – were invented in rapid fire succession, practically overnight. Every year – almost every day – there was a new invention that could revolutionize modern life. Influenced by the Italian futurist movement, a network of daring young artists in early 20th-century Russia advocated pushing art to its most extreme limits. The futurists were fascinated by the rapid development of urban life and they worried that many aspects of Russian culture lagged behind, including the Russian language itself. In his most well-known poem, the futurist Velimir Khlebnikov seeks new uses for old words:

Invocation of Laughter
By Velimir Khlebnikov

O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers!
You who laugh with laughs, you who laugh it up laughishly
O, laugh out laugheringly
O, belaughable laughterhood – the laughter of laughering laughers!
O, unlaugh it outlaughingly, belaughering laughists!
Laughily, laughily,
Uplaugh, enlaugh, laughlings, laughlings
Laughlets, laughlets.
O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers!

“Unlaugh” is not a word. But why not? In this poem, Khlebnikov adds existing suffixes and prefixes to the root “laugh,” many of which hadn’t been used in language before. Literary scholar Nandaka Maduranga writes that the poem “explores numerous possibilities that are embedded in language, but that had hitherto been ignored.”

 

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A really cool resource at the Getty Research Institute that allows you to experience “sound poetry” from the Russian futurist period

 

In fact, Khlebnikov frequently uses intuitive word-building rules to create new words that he does not need to define:

Rus’, you are but a kiss in the frost
By Velimir Khlebnikov

Rus’, you are but a kiss in the frost!
The midnight roads are blueing.
Lips joined in a blue lightning bolt,
Clasped, he and she are blueing.
Sometimes at night lightning would spark
From the caress of two mouths.
And a blueing, languished lightning bolt
Would swiftly outline two coats.
And the night would shine intelligent and dark.

We can say something is “turning blue,” but we can’t say something is “blueing.” Why not? What is a word, anyways? Who has the authority to tell us what are “real” words? (Modern day linguists still have no answer to those questions!) I am determined to use the word “blueing” on the first page of my next book.

 

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Pavel Filonov, a futurist painter, sought to deconstruct and re-purpose Medieval painting techniques

 

The Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov, who died in 1903, predicted that scientific advancements promised radical life extension and, very soon perhaps, even an affordable path to biological immortality. Khlebnikov himself seemed to question if the end of life was a fixed certainty:

When Horses Die
By Velimir Khlebnikov

When horses die, they breathe
When grasses die, they wither,
When suns die, they go out,
When people die, they sing songs.

Futurism was by no means limited to poetry. The art movement, which flourished between 1912 and 1921, encapsulated much more, including painting, drawing, architecture, typography, cinema, and even fashion design.

 

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Futurist artist Natalia Goncharova sought a radical break with the past in her fashion designs

 

All the old Golden Age writers of Russian yesteryear were despised by the futurists. Tolstoy, Dosteovsky and Pushkin, according to the futurists’ manifesto, should be “heaved overboard on the steamship of modernity.” Ultimately they lost this bet against history. Dosteovsky is still read by millions today and taught in universities all over the world. The futurists, on the other hand, have been all but forgotten. I remember having a conversation with a scholar of Russian literature at a conference a few years ago. He had no idea who the futurists were. Perhaps the most famous futurist poet (famous at the time, that is) was Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was a rather intense fellow. He advocated poetry as a channel to glorify the individual, writing poems with titles like “To His Beloved Self, The Poet Dedicates These Lines,” which includes lines like “Where am I to find a beloved equal to myself? / Such a woman has no place in the tiny heavens!” A bit full of yourself there, Mayakovsky? He continues praising himself in his poem “A Cloud in Trousers:”

No gray hair in my soul,
no doddering tenderness.
I rock the world with the thunder of my glorious voice,
strolling, looking good –
twenty-two.

If you prefer,
I’ll be pure raging meat,
or if you prefer,
as the sky changes tone,
I’ll be absolutely tender,
not a man, but a cloud in trousers!

You can probably tell where this is going. The communist authorities, once they took power, were apprehensive at Mayakovksy’s glorification of the self rather than the larger social class. Other futurists sought to pare poetry down to its bare minimal elements. There was a minimalist sub-movement within futurism that produced extremely short poems. Some of Vasilisk Gnedov’s poems aren’t even a full word. Really. One of his poems (untitled) is simply “Cruelt.” Another, “The Poem of the End,” is literally just a blank page (a sort of prelude to modern art, perhaps?). One of my favorite Russian minimalist poems is “Burial (A Sonnet)” by Vladislav Khodasevich.

 

Burial (A Sonnet)
By Vladislav Khodasevich

Forehead –
Chalk.
Coffin
Pale.
Priest
Sang.
Shaft
Bang!
Day
Sacred!
Crypt
Blind.
Shade –
To hell!

 

The futurists were very much involved in the politics and social issues of the day. They ridiculed the traditional way of life in Imperial Russia and advocated radical change. Mayakovsky in particular savagely hated Tsar Nicholas II and heaped praise upon Vladimir Lenin, who he idolized as a hero. Unfortunately for Mayakovsky and the rest of the futurists, that feeling wasn’t always mutual. It wasn’t long before the futurist movement as a whole had run afoul of the authorities in Communist Russia. The futurists had high aspirations after the revolution. They dreamed of dominating the artistic spheres of influence under the new regime, and did their best to help the cultural apparatus of the new government. But it was not to be so. Futurism began sputtering out in the 1920s. Mayakovsky’s death in 1930 was ruled a suicide, though the circumstances remain mysterious. Then Joseph Stalin came to power and they were all put up against a wall and shot. The End. (Okay, well, a few of them were actually executed and sent to gulags and what have you, but others simply renounced their work and bent to Stalin’s will. In any case, Russian Futurism was over.)

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In books published during the futurist period, the typography on the page was often presented in strange and unexpected ways

When Writers Fail to Keep Up With the Times

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So I’m reading this Lee Child novel, The Hard Way, and at a certain point I just can’t take the story seriously anymore. Now, I know. Hold up. Wait a second. Who am I, right? I’m a nobody with the faintest outlines of a fledgling “career” (generous term). I’ve published a whopping one novel through a small press and I’ve landed a handful of short stories in mostly obscure literary journals. So who am I to criticize a best-selling author? Well, I’m an English professor with a degree in literature, but I don’t pretend that makes me an expert (I’m always shocked at never-published bloggers without degrees who feel qualified to blog about the “rules” they’ve learned without citing sources). Anyways, hear me out. We all know that book writing is not a meritocracy. Many popular books are awful, and some of the greatest works of literature of our generation go criminally underappreciated (Exhibit A). People on bestseller lists should not be immune from criticism, even from nobodies like me.

I’ve decided to write a murder mystery as my sophomore novel, and I’ve been diligently reading and studying all the big names in the genre. And I have to admit that as a snobbish literary type, I’ve been quite impressed by the skill of many commercial crime writers. Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent was particularly excellent, especially in his deft handling of the characters’ emotions. Now, the novel has outdated references to VHS recorders and mainframe computers, but hey, it’s set in the 1980s. The Hard Way is not. It was published in 2006 and the story is firmly planted in the 21st Century (with numerous references to “the years after” 9/11). And yet, the characters seem stuck in a bygone era.

Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher comes off as a bit of a luddite, but given his drifter persona that’s okay. It’s the private investigator I have problems with. Lauren Pauling, we’re told, is a former FBI Special Agent and a successful detective operating out of New York City in the 21st Century. And what’s her number one strategy for investigating people? Looking them up in the phone book. Really. No mention of the internet. And it works every time she tries it. Later, they travel overseas and link up with a second private eye. What’s his go-to strategy? Looking people up in the phone book, of course!

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We’re asked to believe that a former member of the British Special Forces lying low in the English countryside (who only recently moved onto a farm) has listed himself in the local phone book. When Reacher suggests they continue to lie low and the bad guy, Edward Lane, won’t find them, the ex-soldier says it’s not possible. “Eventually he’d look us up in the phone book,” he says.

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I am a 30 year old man and I have never in my life been listed in any phone book, nor have I ever owned a phone book or even used one. This is because I live in the 21st Century. Nor have I ever purchased an atlas. This is because I have the internet. While in England, Reacher finds that his target has hidden himself away in a hamlet called Bishops Pargeter. First priority: finding the place. So what does he do? He walks into a map shop and checks the atlas. Finding the town too small to be listed in a typical atlas, he’s forced to seek out a specialized map. Again, no mention of the internet. Here I am reading this book like:

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Then they hit the road, Reacher driving, Pauling navigating from the atlas, because of course they don’t have a GPS. But the breaking point for me came later, as they rush off to this farm to try and warn the family living there that the bad guy’s coming for them. Reacher suggests calling the farm to warn the occupants, but Pauling points out a difficulty: they’d have to pull over and look for a phone booth, and in doing so they’d lose precious time. That seemed off to me. Then I realized that this private detective from Manhattan who once was a Special Agent in the FBI does not own a cell phone. Really.

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So, phone books, atlases and a pay phone booth. I’d recently read a book by Raymond Chandler that took place in the 1940s, and these are the things his characters used, in the 1940s.

Michael Connelley’s character Harry Bosch is likewise clueless when it comes to tech, and I am likewise incredulous. A homicide detective who can’t work a suspect’s smartphone is not going to be employed much longer if he lives in the 21st Century. It’s not realistic. I can’t help feeling that Child and Connelley – both men in their 60s – are covering for their own technological ignorance by writing it into their characters. Don’t get me wrong, I do that too. I’m sure every author does. You can’t be an expert on every topic. For example, I don’t pretend to know the first thing about medical forensics. And yet, I’m writing a murder mystery. So what do I do? I place my story in a setting where nobody can do a proper autopsy of the victim. The mystery takes place at an isolated research station in Antarctica. Boom, problem solved. Now I completely understand that if I intend on making a career out of writing crime fiction that I’ll need to learn the ropes inside and out eventually, but that works for now. The idea of a detective in modern times who can’t work a wristwatch is asking the reader to suspend too much disbelief. All novels are historical novels, and books set in the present day should be as realistic and as well-researched as novels set in the distant past. Then again, The Hard Way has a near-perfect Amazon score with almost 2,000 ratings, whereas Presumed Innocent has about 300, with one reviewer giving it a single star because “To much words” [sp]. So what the hell do I know?

Raymond Chandler Breaks All of the Rules

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Today I learned that there are no public domain photographs of Raymond Chandler in existence. Zero! Seems odd for a guy who was born in the year 1888. Anyways, I love me some Chandler, especially his 1940 classic Farewell, My Lovely. It’s one of the very best crime books ever written. But he does some odd things here and there that sometimes fly in the face of commonly accepted writing advice. I previously wrote about his clever strategy for breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule. Later on in the same novel, he does something highly unusual in the middle of a fight scene. Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlowe is investigating a lead when he falls in with some rough people and finds himself in a fistfight:

I tried to yell, for no reason at all. Breath panted in my throat and couldn’t get out. The Indian threw me sideways and got a body scissors on me as I fell. He had me in a barrel. His hands went to my neck. Sometimes I wake up in the night. I feel them there and I smell the smell of him. I feel the breath fighting and losing and the greasy fingers digging in. Then I get up and take a drink and turn the radio on. I was just about gone when the light flared on again…

Did you catch that? Chandler inserted a flash forward right in the middle of an action sequence. This is strange for two reasons. First, it breaks the flow of the action. In Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel, crime writer Hallie Ephron warns against doing that:

If you find yourself taking a pause in the middle of an action sequence to explain something, be aware that you are slowing the forward momentum… Don’t dump information into an action sequence.

So, he’s blatantly disregarded some core tenants of a fight scene. But, moreover, this flash-forward ruins the suspense. The author is telling you, right then and there, that the main character’s going to be just fine. Not only will he survive this fight, but it sounds like he’ll survive the events of the novel as well. What’s the use of putting your character in danger if the reader knows he’ll survive? Sol Stein addresses the dilemma in his essential guidebook On Writing:

A point sometimes overlooked by beginners is that if a story centers on the narrator’s ability to survive life-threatening dangers, some suspense will be lost in the first person because the character will have to survive to finish the story.

I can’t help but think that Chandler is having some fun with the confines of first-person narration here. He’s blatantly announcing to the reader “OF COURSE HE LIVES! WHAT ARE YOU, STUPID?” It’s a story told in first-person, dummy. And before you dismiss this as the over-analysis of an English professor, consider that Chandler routinely inserts meta-commentary on writing and literature into his novels, including in Farewell, My Lovely, when he takes a dig at his contemporary Ernest Hemingway. Marlowe meets a dumb brawny cop and decides to nickname him Hemingway (much to the cop’s confusion). Then they have this exchange:

“Who is this Hemingway person at all?”

“A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.”

Dang, Ray. That’s savage. I don’t pretend to understand his beef with Hemingway (I think Hemingway’s pretty great!). But Chandler was a writer of enormous talent and great wit who liked having fun now and again with the conventions of literature. I can’t help feeling that’s what he’s doing here, and I love it.

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.

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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.