the unbearable lightness of the blank page

Sarah has an interesting post over at Smart Bitches. Let me tell you first about the quote she attributes to Nora Roberts: “I can fix a bad page but I can’t fix a blank one”.

I think I should have this tatooed on my forehead. Backwards, of course, so I can read it in the mirror. It’s a really excellent reminder for anybody who writes for a living.

Sarah’s post deals with a description of a college course she ran across that promises to teach interested persons how to write and publish a romance novel. You may want to read her thoughts on this, because she asks some questions I’m going to try to answer some of them here.

I do believe that some things about writing can be taught in a classroom. If you understand basic concepts about narrative structure, point of view, plot vs story, and so on, you’ll probably have an easier time as you pursue a writing career. Some people seem to have an intuitive understanding of these technical issues and don’t need instruction. Some people don’t understand basic concepts and write anyway — and get published. You can probably come up with a couple names on your own.

The point is: if you can tell a really good story, you may well get away with all manner of infelicities. The story is the thing, it’s what the readers want. Tell a great story, no matter how flawed in execution, and you may even make a fortune. It has happened.

You can also study very hard, take every class, work diligently, and be able to quote every theoretical work on fiction — and still not be able to tell a story in writing. That happens too. Some of those people can write a beautiful sentence (tree) but have no idea what a story is (forest).

So a class on how to write and sell a romance strikes me as dumb. As would a class on how to write and sell a thriller, or a scifi novel. If you want to write a romance, you have to read them. You have to read a LOT of them. Simple as that. And of course an understanding about structure and characterization would be a starting point. As you read through a hundred or two hundred romance novels, you’ll get a sense of how things work in the genre, and how they don’t.

Every one in a while I think about the possibility of running a week long workshop, somewhere near home. This would be a workshop for people who haven’t written a novel but would like to, but feel that they need an introduction to the basics. After teaching for a dozen years I could put a solid workshop together, certainly, but two things stop me:

It would take a lot of organization;
That age old question: what if I give a party and nobody comes?

Now that would be embarrassing, setting it all up and having to cancel for lack of participants. Authors who do successful writing workshops usually do so under the auspices of some kind of organization that takes on the onerous organization end of things. For example, the Maui Writers’ Conference. A terribly tough gig, but somebody’s got to do it. She said wistfully.

There are many really awful conferences and workshops out there, too.

And there are specialty workshops, particularly for doctors and lawyers who have got the fiction writing bug and money to spend.

So my advice would be: if you want to write a novel, read. Read a lot. If you like a structured approach to learning something new, take a course — but a general course, an introduction to writing fiction. Or you can enroll in a workshop, which are available pretty much everywhere from Maui to Tuscany to Mobile, Alabama. If you feel that you have the basics down and you want to learn about the specifics of a particular genre, you are sure to find conferences and workshops — for legal thrillers, sci-fi, romance, and any other genre you can think of.

But you still have to read, and you still have to do the work. A single college course is never going to get you published, and much less onto the NYT best seller list.

once again, with feeling: POV and head hopping

First, I can’t remember where I found this link. If it was your blog, I apologize for not giving you credit. Whoever you are.

So here, Therese Fowler’s weblog. She’s got her first novel coming out soon, with a high profile house that’s putting a lot of marketing energy and money into her debut. I’m looking forward to reading her book.

On the other hand, after reading her post on the perennial POV debate and thinking about it for a while, I would like to boil the whole discussion down to a few points and get in my two cents at the same time:

1. POV is one of many technical skill that fiction writers have to master.

2. For some that will be easier than for others. In the same way, all of us have our strengths and weakness (dialog, description, etc etc).

3. Writers reading other writers are far more observant and critical than the average reader out there. In the same way an accomplished tailor will look at a garment and find all kinds of flaws I don’t see, most readers won’t be aware of POV cheats or shortcuts.

4. Nevertheless, I would say that a serious writer works to get these things right.

5. Maybe there’s an annual convention where tailors sit around arguing about hemming shortcuts. I would guess that some of them truly enjoy such ongoing discussions. Authors love to bat around the big questions: POV, present vs. past tense, third vs. first person narration, etc. I’m not such a fan of these discussions, but I can see that they are important to some people.

6. If there is a rule that says: no POV switching within a scene, then that rule is a matter of fashion and aesthetic. Trends come and go in fiction as they do in most things. Minimalism hung on for a long time and has slid away, mostly, into the shadows. The obsession with the semi-colon — fueled to some degree by John Irving in his Garp phase — faded.

7. There’s a difference between breaking a rule, and bending a rule to suit your needs. If you break the rule and the story falls flat because of that, you have not succeeded. You took a chance, it didn’t work. Back up, think it through.

8. Some authors are better at bending the current rules than others.

9. Some don’t care to try, out of fear or laziness or whatever.

10. Rather than contemplating this on-going, never-ending debate, I (and you) should be writing.

Note: In the spirit of full disclosure: I am not Nora Roberts, but I do switch POV within scenes sometimes. I believe that it mostly works for me, but feel free to disagree.

open communication

There’s another (yet again) clash in one very small, limited corner of the internet, but as it happens to be the corner I inhabit, and as I would prefer this not blow out of all proportion, I am going public right here and now. My hope is that it can all be settled immediately. If you are tired of all this (and I am, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you were) please feel free to pass on by. (WW, I’m looking at you.)

There’s a Yahoo discussion group to discuss Diana Gabaldon’s books. It’s a great community of readers who like to talk about the Outlander series. I have been lurking on that board for years, but I’ve never posted, and there are also longer periods where I’m off doing other things and don’t check in.

A few days ago somebody posted on the forum here to ask a question. I’ll refer to this person as WB. It was a simple question. Had the title of the next book in the Wilderness series changed? Because there was a discussion to that effect on the Yahoo Gabaldon board. Also, the person who had started the discussion seemed pretty critical generally of my work.

So I popped over and indeed, the title of the thread included the words “Donati” “Body Snatchers” and “Spoilers”. Once I read the post I understood: RK (as I’ll refer to her here) had just finished Into the Wilderness, and she disliked it. A lot. She was voicing her opinion on the Gabaldon board, which of course is her right. The “Body Snatchers” reference had to do with her claim that ITW is populated by characters I have borrowed or stolen or adapted from other sources, mostly Diana’s books, and that there’s nothing original or interesting in my work.

Let me be clear: RK is entitled to her opinion. I can’t pretend that it’s nice to be accused of plagarism and lack of originality but I am also comfortable enough in my skin to let my work stand on its own merits.*** So let’s take RK’s opinion at face value: she prefers Diana’s books for a lot of different reasons, one of them having to do with the fact that she feels my characters are uninteresting and recycled.

Back at this forum I answered WB’s original question about the title confusion (no, Queen of Swords was not changing title to Body Snatchers). I clarified what I thought was going on, and I responded to the review, very briefly. As was my right.

Now this is where it gets messy. This is where you really need to pay attention. Fact: WB did not email me me the text of RK’s posts or comments on my work. The Gabaldon discussion forum is public, and anybody who has a Yahoo identity can join the group and read the posts. It’s true that WB mentioned RK’s posts, but that’s it. I see nothing wrong in that; she was asking for clarification, and I provided it. Some of the fen over at the Gabaldon forum were upset, however, and WB heard about it from RK and from others as well. I know this because WB told me.

I am a little confused why RK should be surprised that something posted on a public forum might indeed be more widely read. It also seems less than logical to me to accuse WB of bad etiquette for sharing posts from the Gabaldon forum. After all, RK got hold of my post on this whole mess somehow, most likely because somebody pointed her to it.

So let’s be clear.

1. WB did nothing wrong. She likes Diana’s books, she likes my books, she was confused and taken aback by the tone of something she read and so she asked about it. I went and had a look, and answered.

2. RK is entitled to her opinion about my work. The tone of her review is not what I would call professional or balanced or respectful, but it is certainly strongly emotive. Again: that is her right. She can be as vocally negative as she likes; she can stick her tongue out at me and blow raspberries, if it makes her feel better. Following from that, it’s also true that other people are free to agree or disagree with her, on that board or this one. I have to point out though that anyone who publically reviews a book is in fact opening up a discussion, and that in judging, they will also be judged.

3. I defend RK’s right to be negative about my books, just as I defended Beth’s right to post a negative review of one of Diana’s books. And I must point out again: Beth’s review did not appear here. I did not endorse it because I haven’t read the book. I did open up a discussion on the topic of negative reviews, pointing to Beth’s website. I did make it clear that I admired her for her willingness to put her neck out, and for her obvious love and admiration of the early books in the Outlander series. Apparently some few Gabaldon fans are still angry at me for supporting Beth’s right to post her opinions. I wonder if they will also be mad at me for supporting RK’s negative evaluation of my work.

I harbor no deep resentment toward RK, no anger or need for revenge. On the other hand, I feel no need to try to win her over, as she suggests I should. If anything at all was offensive in her posts, it was this idea that it is somehow my obligation to convince anybody of the value of my work. I suppose I could email authors who have written books that didn’t work for me. I could get in touch with John Updike or Nora Roberts or Jodi Picoult or Stephen King or Toni Morrison and offer them the opportunity to pitch their books to me, but then that would be presumptuous and less than respectful.

Finally, a point I need to make: In the course of all this back and forth, bits were copied from my website onto the Gabaldon forum boards. And I’m fine with that — I make the material public, and people are free to share it as long as it’s not done in a misleading way.

***I will point out that it has been postulated that there are only so many plots out there, and everything is a rehashing of something else. Certainly time travel has been done before, as have novels about Scotland, Revolutionary America, and the War of 1812. I have always said quite openly that I got the idea for ITW from an exercise where I put some of Jane Austen’s characters in the same room with some of Fenimore Cooper’s characters. Sparks flew, and ideas sprouted, and here I am five books later.