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Mailbag: Questions About Your Novel, Talent and How Much it Matters

Hello, writers! We’re back with another mailbag post, in which I respond to some of the thoughtful comments left on previous posts. This week I’m talking about my post on dealing with questions about your novel. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as it’s difficult to be in a novel-writing stage of life; non-writers (and writers too) just can’t resist asking difficult or downright intrusive questions. Stick around below the jump, as well; I’ve got a response to the excellent comments about my post wondering how much talent matters.

Elemarth said:

I’m glad you wrote this, because it’s a problem that bothers me a lot. I know exactly what my novel is about and why I’m writing it, but it’s complicated and I usually don’t want to get into it, so I hate it when people ask. I wonder if I should lie and say “I’m not really sure,” which is easy, or be just come up with something really vague.

Thanks, Elemarth. I think we novel-writers all struggle with this — we want to be honest, but we really don’t want to have to sum up our hard work in half a sentence. I think it is fair to stay vague depending on the situation — if it is someone you trust, go into detail, but don’t expect a stranger to give you the right response if you tell him or her every detail.

Louise said:

Totally understand feeling like my novel is insignificant, ‘a small, pathetic, and silly topic’ – this post made me laugh and reassured me!

Thanks, Louise! Yes, we writers are sensitive souls, aren’t we? The mere act of talking about your novel too soon can kill it in our minds by making it sound stupid in our ears. This is a true phenomenon that many of my teachers warned me about. So play it safe — keep it in your head until it’s ready to come out!

After the jump: more great comments, and a word about how much talent matters.

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Mailbag: Writing Resolutions, Best Writing Tools

It’s time for a return to the weekly mailbag, readers! I’ve been gradually catching up with most of the comments, and now I’ve made it all the way up to the end of December. This week I’ll be responding to my post on writing resolutions for 2012 (how are those going, writers?). I’ll also respond to comments on my post summing up my favorite writing tools of 2011. Let’s get to the comments!

On writing resolutions, Sarah Allen said:

Wonderful resolutions! I like the finding a new voice one. There are certain forms or characters I don’t feel comfortable with, but I think I might experiment with them anyway just to stretch myself and see what happens.

Thanks, Sarah — new voices can really stretch our writing abilities in my opinion. Some writers make it a regular challenge to write each book in a different voice or style — it can force us to learn new words or even empathize with new perspectives.

mary said:

We’re not supposed to keep stopping projects when they get tough & relegate them to that file or drawer you speak of–we don’t learn anything that way.

So, as you suggest, I’m going to pull out those moldering first drafts & see how I can MAKE them work. I know there is something there–I read parts aloud to others who were very POed when I said, “And that’s all I’ve got so far…”

Actually,several are complete drafts, but I just dread “re-write.” Still, it must be done. Perhaps this will be the Year of the Rewrite for me–& that is a big enough goal, for sure.

Thanks, mary — you’ve put it better than I have for sure. Not every story will end up being our best, but we can learn something from every imperfect story and the struggle we go through to make it work. If we give up the moment a story becomes imperfect, we’ll be left with a drawer full of coulda-woulda-shoulda stories. And the Year of the Rewrite is a noble goal! Best of luck with it.

After the jump: more inspiring responses.

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Mailbag: Choosing the Right Subject, Finding Words After Trauma

It’s that time again, readers — time for me to respond to some of your thoughtful comments. This week I’m responding to comments on my post about choosing the right subject for your stories, as well as my post reflecting on finding words after trauma. Let’s see some comments!

On choosing the right subject, Savanna said:

This was fun to read, I’ve had similar experiences in Creative Writing groups, or classes. I’ll admit that I’ve never taught one, but upon sharing work I find that I’m listening to a multitude of pleasant (boring) stories regarding the beach.

Personally, I’m a big fan of conflict. Without some form of conflict within my own stories, I get bored with my own writing and move on to something else. I think that it’s a key element in short fiction.

Thanks, Savanna! I don’t know why people seem to think that their vacations will be interesting fictional fodder for others to read — it’s like telling other people our dreams! But I’m just as guilty — for some reason, I often find myself shying away from that most essential story ingredient, conflict. It’s true that without conflict in my story, even I’m likely to get bored with it.

Margaret said:

I’m 65, and there are still experiences in my life I don’t want to write about for publication. Perhaps the students are suffering from “my God, I can’t write about that. People will know that…” Self-revelation, which is IMO what happens when we write about subjects that matter to us, is inevitable in such cases.

Good point, Margaret — I think many of us want to avoid writing about personally traumatic or disturbing events. The fun of fiction, however, is that we can make our characters suffer — though if the subject hits too close to home or we get too attached to our characters, we may feel like the events are happening to us anyway. As commenter mary brady points out, why would people want to read all the darkness and turmoil that made us miserable? What’s important to remember, however, is that fiction can be a way of taking control of a subject, of making sense and order out of it, or at least shutting it away, safe on the page. Students who are afraid to put fictional conflict in their stories should remember that we read to learn about conflict — and sometimes, we read to learn how to resolve conflicts of our own.

After the jump: responding to and writing after trauma.

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Mailbag: Social Reading, Plugging into a New World

In this week’s mailbag, I’m tackling comments on my post wondering whether books should be social, as well as my post discussing how to plug into a new world, whether it’s a fantasy world of your own making or just a different sort of experience. Let’s see what readers had to say!

In response to “Should Books Be Social?”, J said:

Um, I never thought about that. Goodreads on the contrary is where I met my “tribes”. There are lots of groups dedicated to “trashy” books you can join. You won’t be judged. If you are self conscious you can create several accounts and have one for your book snobs friends and one for your guilty pleasures. I read all over the map, respected books and trash but I have no shame so I keep everything in one account.

Thanks, J. I love the prospect of a community that judges a little less and simply enjoys the wonderful pastime that is reading; but this fracturing you suggest into separate accounts is precisely what I’m worried about. Who has the time to separate oneself into all of these different selves? I like the enthusiasm and community behind Goodreads — I just think many online social networking sites end up making us perform our lives rather than live them.

mary said:

Anyway, GR sounds like a goldmine to me. As it is, I turn only to my county library for monthly ‘picks’ of good books in various genres. But they are quite good at giving you several reviews from Booklist, etc. Plus, they always say: “if you like such & such an author, you’ll probably like this.” And those quiet little librarians can have pretty out there tastes, too.

It never occurred to me Book Snobs existed, but of course they must–it’s human nature (though I do not believe any person has finished “Infinite Jest” except maybe its late author. I know that NO one has honestly read “Pale King” all the way through–and I am a CPA who prepared tax returns for decades ’cause I LIKED doing them!

Definitely, the algorithms that sites like Goodreads and Netflix offer are truly useful and downright revolutionary — they allow you to enter the collective brain of millions of people and extract recommendations uniquely tailored to what you’ve liked. I’ve appreciated Goodreads’ recommendation feature greatly.

And I have finished The Pale King, mary, or what exists of it — though of course, it is itself unfinished!

After the jump: more comments, more responses.

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Mailbag: Taking a Bite out of Your Writing, IKEA

This week has some nicely contrasting posts to comment on. First I’m responding to comments about sinking your teeth into your writing, and then I’ll talk about my disgruntled article on the New Yorker review of IKEA furniture. Lots to do, and lots to say, so let’s get to it!

Jonna said:

Giving this kind of detail and attention to your writing does not only add to your work and make it better for other people read but using emotion can make you want to write more because now there is more behind the writing than just words there is connection to the writers emotions as well.

Good point, Jonna, and one that I didn’t think of! If the writer is more emotionally engaged in the work, she’s far more likely to see it through to the end, and give it the treatment worthy of her emotional attachment to it.

mary writes about another writer’s experience:

With the help of one good teacher, he discovered the secret: conflict. Not only that, but BIG exciting conflict. The hero must need/want something but must go through obstacles to get it. And the more the stakes are raised by things like violence, anger, betrayal, etc., the more you access the emotional excitement you’re talking about.

When he felt a story flagging, he went back to his pages & forced himself to pinpoint conflict/obstacles. If they weren’t there, he rewrote the pages and included these features.

It’s amazing how simple the recipe can be in an exciting story, and yet how often we shy away from those simple ingredients! People aiming for literary fiction in particular often avoid the very things that make stories interesting, as though they’re embarrassed to have more plot than meta-drama. We can all take a lesson from potboiler fiction and throw some conflict into the stew.

After the jump: more comments, more responses.

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Mailbag: Point of View, Psychology in Writing

The mailbag is back, readers, and we’re blasting ahead with more posts and thoughtful comments from our archives. In the past few months I wrote about the importance of point of view and how to use psychology in writing. You all weighed in, and I’d love to respond. Let’s get to the comments!

On point of view, mary said:

Recently, I’ve been watching many improving science programs about animals in the wild. It’s all the rage to attach cameras to them, then experience “Life–POV Badger!” YOU get to experience small dark burrows behind a little dirty nose, YOU get to be stuck in the maw of a giant cobra, and so on.

These programs have expanded my ideas for POV. Why not tell the story of the politician from his dog’s viewpoint? How many times have we thought the dog was asleep near the fireplace when, in fact, the dog heard EVERY word of the clandestine meeting that was being held? How many badgers have been witness to MURDER in an otherwise empty field?

Thanks, mary, for a lighter take on the possibilities different points of view can give us! It’s true — thanks to a process of democratizing point of view in the last century, we’ve become newly interested in the perspective of the lesser heard, the voice of the voiceless, including the animal voice. It’s often a way to comment on the larger tensions at work and to critique the failings of a society. Consider Black Beauty, which is generally considered responsible for starting the modern animal rights movement thanks to its story from the point of view of a long-suffering horse.

E said:

In a long story (over 50,000 words), is multiple POV ok? I can’t tell the story through one POV because of the various places where the story is happening…

Is there a general rule in this regard?

Sadly, E, there’s no hard and fast rule about this, but I can tell you that far shorter great books have used far more points of view. Faulkner’s classic As I Lay Dying using at least eight or ten perspectives, with each chapter the speaking voice of a different family member. It’s a fascinating take on the death of one southern mother whose sons, husbands, daughter, and neighbors all view the death differently. At one point, we even get to hear from the mother herself — and in that case, different points of view can even act as a source of suspense in the novel, as we eagerly wait for Darl or Dewey Dell’s perspective on new events.

Margaret said:

One thing I’m mulling over is how many points of view I can use in a novel. I’ve got a potential story with two four-way relationships .. I’ve written a YA sci fi about one of them, first person POV. I’m tempted to write about the second — but I’d want it to be third person.

Sounds exciting, Margaret — and a great idea. Often we get to know side characters so well that we wish we could see the story from their perspective. Many novels have played with this burning need of readers, such as Wide Sargasso Sea, which re-tells the story of Jane Eyre from the perspective of the madwoman in the attic. There’s also The Wind Done Gone, which gives us Gone with the Wind from the perspective of the slaves. The possibilities of point of view are endless!

After the jump: responses to psychology in writing.

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Mailbag: Inspiring Faces, American Stories

It’s that time again, readers — time for me to catch up on your thoughtful comments. This week I’m responding to my post about studying a face for inspiration, as well as a post in which I wondered what makes an American story American. Let’s hear some comments!

On studying faces, Gary said:

Faces! Ah, an excellent source of material. The deep lines in a face of someone of advanced years … the smooth complexion of the young … what stories they tell! When we describe our characters, how much attention to we give to aspects other than eye color, lips and nose?

And if you, like me, live in a city like Boston and don’t want to be caught staring at faces on the subway, try Googling “faces photo” and try that! You can take one face and write an entire short story about why it looks the way it does.

Great idea, Blair!

Thanks, Gary — and great idea. The internet can help us indulge in our inner gawker without embarrassment these days; looking at photos of various scenes on Flickr, as you can see from my weekly photos, is a continual source of inspiration for me. A chance to study a face without fear of interruption is a great opportunity. And yes, I’ve always found it interesting how young adult novels in particular are obsessed with eye shape, eye color, and eye clarity — perhaps because young lovers are obsessed with the idea of staring into the beloved’s eyes.

mary said:

I read a poem by a woman who happened to glance into a ‘foreign mirror’ while traveling & saw herself for the first time: her head crooked on her spine from too much reading, her scored cheeks, & her suspicious eyes.

“And then, where the surface wavered,
I saw surprise–a sweating, older woman, her coming
printed in faint lines around my mouth—and loved
the old bitch, whole, as if she were my next-door neighbor.”

I think I may write about my own face for this exercise.

Thanks, mary, for this reminder that a well lived-in face can inspire love and understanding — particularly for our own faces. Women in particular can have very fraught relationships with their faces; they are trained to start hating them by age twenty-six or so, which is downright tragic. So it’s a great idea to take a critical, understanding, look at your own face and tell your story that way.

After the jump: comments on what makes stories American.

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Mailbag: Images in Fiction, Simul-Reading

This week’s mailbag is ready for action, readers! Today I’m tackling two posts from September. In the first, I wrote about the role of images in fiction. In the second, I wrote about the joys (and the urgency) of simul-reading. Let’s get to some comments!

About images in fiction, Margaret said:

Blair, children’s fiction often has illustrations, and I think they add a tremendous amount to any story. As to my own work, while I have a clear picture of my scenes in my head, I don’t feel confident trying my hand at illustrating them.

Good point, Margaret — I, too, often imagine what my scenes and characters are looking like, but I definitely don’t feel that I have the talent to capture them in paint, charcoal, or any other graphic medium! Drawing is a talent and a skill that takes a great deal of discipline, work, and natural aptitude, and I simply don’t have the aptitude (or the patience to make up for that with hard work). I do, however, think it’s useful to imagine our scenes in a visual way. Even if only in our heads, we can paint pictures.

mary wrote:

Curiously, I put very little description into my writing. I use tons of dialogue and action, but NO character description & very little ‘place’ description. I NEVER describe what a character looks like.

Yet, when I ask my vast reading public (all 6 of them) what certain characters look like, they give me wildly detailed descriptions–and insist it WAS in the story! Isn’t that odd?

I’ve heard that before as well! The interesting and wonderful aspect of fiction is how a novel can become a different world for every single reader who encounters it. Unlike a movie, a book leaves room for the reader’s imagination. That’s the beauty of it!

Ekaterina said:

I get lots of ideas about my characters when drawing them. Whenever I’m stuck I take a pen and draw. I also listen to inspiring music while drawing, I guess it helps as well.

Thanks, Ekaterina. I also listen to music — a little cross-fertilization in these different art forms can really help enrich our creative process, I think. I’ve written about this before, and I imagine I will again. Professional writers are often heavily influenced by music — just look at Murakami’s 1Q84, which plays with the classic song “It’s Only a Paper Moon” throughout the novel.

After the jump: more comments, more responses.

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Mailbag: Discovering Old Friends, Writing Skeletons, Creating Moralities

It’s time for another mailbag, readers! I’m still catching up on comments from the past, so let’s get right to the posts. Several weeks ago I wrote a post about looking through your books and discovering old friends. I also wrote a post aboutgetting down the bones of a story before filling in the details. And I also gave some tips about the difficult process of creating a character’s morality, which is as important as creating a character’s personality.

With regard to the first post, David Abrams wrote:

I’m finding I’m drawn more and more to the Books of My Youth. For the last five years or so, I’ve been collecting editions of the stories which held me in thrall as an early reader–from the Jim Kjelgaard dog books (“Big Red,” etc) to the Three Investigators mysteries. I haven’t re-read as many of them as I’d like (too many contemporary adult literary fiction titles clamor for my attention), but just looking at them sitting there on my shelf brings back a headful of memories. I can remember smells, tastes, and the scratchy feel of a certain branch of our backyard tree–all of which take me back to what it was like to discover these characters and plots as a kid.

Thanks for this thoughtful comment, David. I agree — the books of our childhood have a powerful, often sensual grip on our memories. I remember the smell of my favorite books’ pages, as well as the exact paper texture. I remember some of my favorite passages spatially — that is, I can picture what quadrant they are in on the page (e.g., that great paragraph from The Grapes of Wrath about the “zygote” of revolution is on the bottom left and continues to the top right onto a page that ends halfway down). This spatial memory of the books is important to me — and makes me feel particularly attached to the books I reread endlessly and adoringly as a child. That includes pretty silly books, including a long line of fantasy novels and horse books!

mary brady said:

When I hit your mention of “Franny & Zooey” I was thrown back to my first year attending pagan public high school (having been expelled after 9th grade from the all-girl Catholic HS on account of my ‘bad attitude.’) I adored “F&Z” along with “Raise High the R, C.” I liked them much more than “Catcher I T R” but maybe that’s ’cause I’m female. Plus, “Catcher” is pretty much a downer.

The books that we love often bring up the people we were or the places we were in when we read them. I not only remember those books on my five star list, but as you point out, Mary, I also remember what I was thinking then, what I was worried about, and where I was. Memory is wonderfully associative, and books have a particular power for maintaining those complex webs of existence in our brains.

After the jump: more comments, more responses.

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Mailbag: Wall of Books, Bad Happy Endings

It’s back, readers! I’ve finally gotten my act together and started the mailbag again so that I can respond to your thoughtful comments. We have something of a backlog at the moment, but I’ll do my best to move briskly and catch up in the coming weeks. This week I’m tackling my post wondering What will happen to the wall of books?, as well as Why happy endings are killing your story. So without further ado, let’s get to these long-suffering commenters! First, in the responses to What will happen to the wall of books?, mary brady said:

One problem I foresee is the ever-changing nature of digital storage. We’ve gone from floppy discs to the Cloud, & there is no guarantee an “old” Kindle or Nook will be compatible with some new technology in 5 (or fewer) years.

What I’m really asking is whether books on a digital platform are ‘collectible’–i.e., something you can keep for years and years in the original format you purchased? What if the Kindle ‘breaks’? Where is your book collection then? Will the makers gladly reload every book you (swear) was on it?

Thanks, Mary. Now that I’m the owner of a Kindle, I can say that Amazon does protect your texts; anything you buy can subsequently be downloaded to any new future kindle, which, I must admit, does better than paper books, which are generally are on a one-copy-for-your-money basis. But there remains the problem of changing formats. Amazon has its own format, which is incompatible with what seems to be the emerging standard, ePub. When will things get standardized? And will we have to rebuy the White Album again? Who knows?

Michael Washburn said:

In this connection, I would like to paraphrase (and expand upon) some of the points made by Epstein in his articles. He points out that an electronic medium, i.e., a “slim hard drive,” is an infinitely fragile, tenuous medium for preserving one book, let alone a library. At the push of a button or the click of a mouse — or with some other mishap that might erode a drive’s memory — the book or books stored there are no more…

Traditional (print) books may be less technologically sophisticated, but they have inherent advantages over e-books, which, again according to Epstein, do not and for the forseeable future will not represent more than a small fraction of publishing houses’ income. I think that all the above bodes well for the survival of the traditional medium.

Thanks, Michael. I agree: there are certain advantages the paper book has that the ebook has yet to match. I’m reminded of a New Yorker cover from a few years ago that has an alien landing on the surface of a clearly deserted future Earth. There among the broken and ruined trash of past e-readers, the alien is happily cozied up with a paper book, clearly the only thing capable of surviving for the long term. I also still feel that paper books have a “specialness” that can’t be matched. I recently bought two books I was eagerly anticipating, The Marriage Plot and 1Q84, as hardcover books merely because I wanted them in their physical form on my shelves.

After the jump: responding to questions and comments about happy endings.

I also wrote a post explaining Why happy endings are killing your story. Happy endings can be a menace; they give the sense of cessation, of an end to motion and growth.

Elemarth said:

I like to lead my character to the correct path, where they see how to get to happiness, and they have the ability to do so. Of course, this can only work in certain books and genres. Another way you could make the reader feel like the story continues after the last page is to point out the next adventure.

Thanks, Elemarth. Life at its best is a continuing adventure, so we should definitely imply that more adventures are on their way. When we stop acting curious or adventurous, we stop being ourselves — and what, then, is happy about that?

mary brady said:

I think it is fine to have an ‘upbeat’ ending, just not a cliche “happy ending.” My characters & their situations tend to be rather quirky. Ending with a small incident that implies (modest) hope for their future works pretty well for me, I think.

I also like using a small concrete ending that implies hope for a better future. To me, unhappiness is often the state of being still, of being “stuck” in some unhealthy way of thinking or feeling. Happiness starts to return when we get “unstuck.”

Kristen said:

I really appreciate and agree with this post, especially with the big “happy ending” punch in the gut that was the Harry Potter epilogue I was reminded of recently.

The idea of a pleasant resolution is much more appealing than a happy ending. Leaving the characters on the up and up, even if every problem in their lives hasn’t been resolved is still very satisfying. I would rather see a character set on the right path with the right motivation to continue improving their situation than for everything to be conveniently resolved.

I also liked the Harry Potter ending, Kristen, but I’m going to be a little controversial here and say that I think the movie handled it better than the book. We get “all was well” in the book, but in the movie we get our grown-up characters looking after their children as they leave, clearly with slightly furrowed brows, worrying about their children as parents will do. The point isn’t that all is well; the point is that they have finally been allowed to grow up, and to have the concerns and cares that come with adulthood. It’s the strange, paradoxical freedom of responsibility.

Thanks, readers. Tune in next week for more responses!