Writers: Crazy All the Time

Here’s the thing about writing, especially writing fiction: You do it alone. In your head, sitting by yourself, your mind splits itself into three or ten or a hundred personas. These characters talk to each other, conflicts blossom and a story takes root and grows. If writing is going well, you lose time. You fold in on yourself and disappear into your own mind. Your subconscious becomes super-conscious. When you come back into the world, you may be surprised to see that it’s raining. Or the sun has set. Or the dog has peed in your slipper.

The kind of focus that generates a story comes easily to a few writers, less easily to most of us who write. Solitude — the ability to isolate oneself, to live inside the mind — is what makes writing possible. So it makes sense that authors tend to be introverts, but even for those of us who are introverted by nature, the necessary mindset is often elusive. Some writers are so desperate for solitude, so frantic for focus that they’ll go to great lengths to impose it on themselves.

Demosthenes, an Athenian orator and contemporary of Plato and Aristotle, shaved half his head so he’d be too embarrassed to leave home.… read the rest

Novels I Love

I’m not claiming these are the best novels ever written. The point is, I felt enough resonance with that particular piece of storytelling that I am compelled to read it again. Some novels I have read many, many times. There are also novels I truly admire, novels that are rightly called classics, that aren’t here because I  could not bring myself to read  that novel again.

This list is not divided up by genre, so let me warn you: you’ll find pretty much everything, from espionage and romance to very dark crime and sci-fi. And then there’s Austen.

  • Richard Adams The Girl in a Swing
  • Jane Austen Persuasion; Pride and Prejudice…
  • Toni Cade Bambara Gorilla, My Love
  • Amy Bloom Come to Me
  • Heinrich Böll Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum
  • James Lee Burke In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead; White Doves at Morning; A Morning for Flamingos
  • A.S. Byatt Angels & Insects; Possession
  • Jetta Carleton The Moonflower Vine
  • Wilkie Collins The Woman in White
  • Laurie Colwin A Big Storm Knocked It Over
  • Jennifer Crusie Crazy for You; Faking It; Welcome to Temptation
  • Judy Cuevas Dance; Bliss, Beast (as Judith Ivory)
  • Junot Díaz The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
  • Stephen Dobyns The Burn Palace
  • Dorothy Dunnett Niccolo Rising (House of Niccolo; 8 volumes)
  • Daphne Du Maurier Rebecca
  • George Eliot Adam Bede
  • Ken Follett Eye of the Needle
  • John Fowles The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  • Ariana Franklin City of Shadows; Mistress of the Art of Death
  • Charles Frazier Cold Mountain
  • Günter Grass Die Blechtrommel
  • Thomas Hardy Far from the Madding Crowd; The Mayor of Casterbridge
  • Mo Hayder Poppet (the Jack Caffery series)
  • John Fowles The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  • Mark Helprin A Soldier of the Great War
  • Ruth Hogan The Keeper of Lost Things: A Novel 
  • Irene Hunt Up a Road Slowly
  • Baine Kerr Wrongful Death
  • Stephen King The Stand; Black House; Dolan’s Cadillac
  • Barbara Kingsolver Animal Dreams; The Poisonwood Bible
  • Margaret Lawrence Hearts and Bones (Hannah Trevor series; 4 volumes)
  • Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Dennis Lehane Gone, Baby Gone; Darkness Take My Hand
  • Elmore Leonard Pagan Babies, Cuba Libre, Get Shorty
  • Gabriel Garcia Márquez A Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Charles McCarry The Bride of The Wilderness
  • Larry McMurtry Lonesome Dove
  • Jacquelyn Mitchard Second Nature; The Breakdown Lane
  • Toni Morrison Beloved, The Bluest Eye
  • Jojo Moyes The Girl You Left Behind
  • Alice Munro Friend of my Youth
  • Audrey Niffenegger The Time Traveler’s Wife
  • Tim O’Brian The Things They Carried
  • Michael Ondaatje The English Patient
  • Joseph O’Neill Netherland
  • George Orwell Down and Out in Paris and London
  • Ann Patchett The Magician’s Assistant
  • Annie Proulx The Shipping News; Wyoming Stories
  • Mario Puzo The Fortunate Pilgrim
  • Mary Doria Russell A Thread of Grace
  • Richard Russo Straight Man; Empire Falls
  • Bernhard Schlink  Der Vorleser (The Reader)
  • Karin Slaughter Will Trent series
  • Jane Smiley A Thousand Acres
  • Scott Spencer Waking the Dead; Endless Love
  • Mary Ann Shaffer The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society 
  • Kathryn Stockett The Help
  • William Styron Sophie’s Choice
  • Barry Unsworth Sacred Hunger
  • John Updike The Witches of Eastwick
  • Gore Vidal Burr; Lincoln
  • Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five
  • Alice Walker The Color Purple
  • Edith Wharton Ethan Frome
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder The Long Winter
games kids used to play

The cause of – and solution to – the historical novelist’s problems

For the historical novelist – for anyone interested in history – the internet has brought about a revolution. We are floating in a sea of information that deepens and spreads minute by minute. It’s incredibly empowering, but it also has its dangers. If you came of age before the internet, you will remember how things were. An argument over supper about any given war could not be resolved by opening a laptop. If it was a Saturday night, you were most probably clueless until Monday, when you could call a reference librarian or go there yourself. As a kid I jumped on any excuse to go to the library, but I was still limited by normal operating hours. A million questions, small and large, simply remained unanswered before the internet and we lived with that. The capital of Peru, the author of Antigone, where Napoleon was held captive, when women got the vote – if you didn’t have access to a good encyclopedia, your choices were few: maybe there was someone you could call. Usually the person on the other end of the line would have no idea who wrote Antigone, but she did happen to know when Wrigley Field was built.read the rest

Being Mean

A good, confident writer (or storyteller of any stripe) challenges the reader. Such writers follow the characters where they insist on going, and don’t give the reader much conscious thought. 

Good storytelling isn’t about happy-go-lucky people who never have a problem, or bad guys who always get what they have coming to them. On the other hand, when bad things  happen to good characters, there’s got to be bedrock underneath.  The character will suffer whatever it is you have planned for him or her, but you have to build a scaffolding before you open that trap door.

Later  in the creative process the writer’s beta-readers or agent or editor may raise some concerns,  using terms like character motivation and suspension of disbelief and readers who take offense at characters who fuckety-fuck their way through a novel. A sensible writer will at least consider  reservations that come from trusted sources, but s/he won’t be railroaded. 

A writer who is still honing basic skills might have trouble telling the difference between useful constructive criticism and mealy-mouthed nitpicking.  Learning to understand, make the most of, and provide constructive criticism in return is an extremely important skill that I emphasize in the classroom, and in one-on-one sessions.read the rest

Learn to Love Your Index Cards

The distinction between story and plot is a deceptively simple one.  I can tell you what happened with a bulleted list: first, second third.  Or I can tell you a story. That requires the artful rearrangement of what happened in a way that keeps  readers engaged.

A police report is a story told as a series of facts, in chronological order:

August 29 2018. At approximately 10:16am Officer Rodriquez and I were dispatched to the site of an accident on northbound State Route 12, approximately 500 yards north of Exit 15. Witness J.M. Corrigan had called 911 and was still at the site with his passenger, Maria Corrigan, of Tyler. The witness stated he had been traveling behind a 2012 Ford Explorer when that vehicle suddenly veered sharply to the right, left the highway, broke through the guardrail, flipped end-over-end and then plunged over the precipice falling approximately 200 feet. While the witnesses did not see the impact, they heard it clearly.

Witness JMC stated he had been traveling at about 70 mph, as was the accident vehicle. On examination and photographing of the scene we discovered no skid marks. Witnesses JMC and MC both stated unequivocally that the vehicle’s brake lights never flashed.

read the rest
Page 1 of 2
1 2