Today’s Featured Kindle Book on FKBT: Thieving Forest by Martha Conway
4.4 out of 5 stars!
Today’s Featured Kindle Book on FKBT: Thieving Forest by Martha Conway
“Good stories have a quality of authorlessness. The better they are, the more authorless they seem. . . They give a sense of being out there, like facts.” (Janet Malcolm)
I have this quotation in front of me on my writing desk, and every once in a while I read it and ponder once again how I can apply it to my work. Clearly it is meaningful to me (why else would I give it such a place of prominence), but like every writing rule, it’s not going to be helpful to every writer. I cannot imagine Zadie Smith or Lauren Groff, both talented writers, being moved by this rule. Their zingy sentences show imaginations hard at work, whereas the novels of Michael Chabon, another writer I admire, display a kind of genius for creating multi-dimensional characters and plot without so much sentence zing.
There are so many ways of writing a good piece of fiction, and just as many ways of failing to do so. This must be why writers collect rules. At times I’m astounded at some of the rules my colleagues put forth — “Never use parentheses (or semi-colons, or dashes) in fiction” or “Never go into a character’s head or heart” or “Always remind the reader of your character’s physical presence” just to name a few.
New writers are particularly susceptible to rules, and I always like to warn students away from trying to follow too many. At the same time, rules are there to keep writers alert to possible pitfalls, usually ones that many others have fallen into before them. Rules also serve to keep us attentive. The same teacher who told me never to go into a character’s head or heart (advice I ignore), also taught me to look at each sentence carefully. Really carefully. Like it was under a microscope. Even if you’re writing a 1,000 page epic, every sentence counts.
My rule (or one of them) is to look at writers you admire, writers who write fiction that more or less falls within your wheelhouse, and study how they do what they do. When I was writing short stories, I once took a short story by Rick Bass and re-wrote the first paragraph using my character and my situation and my setting but his sentence structure, just to see how he moved a story along. When he wrote about the weather, I wrote about the weather; when he wrote a facial description, I wrote a facial description. It was illuminating. Of course, I couldn’t use that exercise as my story’s opening (much as I wanted to), but it taught me some interesting techniques. (A revelation: you don’t always need to use connecting sentences to go from one image or action to another. Just make the leap.)
Here’s another note card I have propped up before me: “Character is action. Action is plot.” Paraphrased from David Mamet, who paraphrased from Aristotle.
Virginia Woolf would not abide by that rule.
The answer—my answer—to what are the best rules for writing is this: you must compile your own particular set of rules, and follow them. Study writers you admire, think about craft, pay attention when reading to what you enjoy and what you don’t. Think about your reader. Think about writing. And when you write, follow your rules.
As it turns out, following your own rules is basically called style.
What rules do you follow? Which do you ignore?
I’m also hosting a year-end giveaway. I’ll pick five winners for either a paperback or audiobook version of Thieving Forest on December 15th.
Martha Conway’s new novel, Thieving Forest, won the North American Book Award in Historical Fiction and a Silver Medal in Historical Fiction in the Independent Publishers Awards, and her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her short stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Folio, and other journals. She teaches creative writing at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and UC Berkeley Extension.
An avid reader until high school, he all but stopped reading because he “couldn’t find any books he liked.” Sound familiar?
Maybe he read so much for his classes that his reading capacity was tapped out, or maybe it was a developmental issue. However — although I didn’t say this aloud (much) — I found it hard to believe that with the thousands of books published every year, he couldn’t find anything good.
That is, until he tried listened to an audiobook. Now he’s listened to three books in the space of a month, and if he finds a part “boring” he just puts the narration on 1.5 speed until the next chapter begins! I’m thrilled.
Will this last? Who knows. But I believe it’s a good thing for however long it continues. Studies show that reading fiction helps to develop empathy and increases your attention span.
And this comes at an especially significant time for me, since Audible just released the audiobook version of Thieving Forest. Thieving Forest been given an 800 Lexile Score, which means that it’s appropriate for readers in the 8th grade and up. I’ve decided to set up a raffle to give away five free audiobooks.
To win a chance at a free listen, just fill out your name and email address below. I’ll pick five winners on December 15th. Good luck, and happy listening!
Yes! I want to win a free audiobook of Thieving Forest. Sign me up!
A PARENT IN MY child’s school recently forwarded me an 11-minute video about skills we’ll need for the 21st century. What really stuck with me was the bit about creativity:
“Most creative thoughts happen when your mind is left to wander: daydreaming; doing the dishes; exercising.”
This rang true for me. My last novel, Thieving Forest, had a lot of plot components that needed careful coordination, and in many ways these were cerebral exercises: how long would it take someone to walk through the Great Black Swamp, south to north? How long would it take someone to canoe up the Maumee River? How could these two characters from these two places meet up, and where?
I made a lot of lists, and I did a lot of calculations. When I wondered how a Potawatomi would greet someone, I looked it up on the internet. When a character reminisced about her childhood in 1790, what might she say? All in all I spent a lot of time reading and writing things down.
But when I got stuck, I went to the beach.
Whenever I walk along the beach looking at the sand dunes and the ocean waves and the little tiny black specks of surfers braving the cold Northern California waters, and I think about my current work-in-progress, my imagination begins to sort of hop from scenario to scenario. I picture characters doing this or that, saying this or that. It feels a bit like playing. There are times when nothing stands out, but most often I have an “Ah-ha” moment. I imagine something happening, or a character saying something, and I think, That’s It.
I can’t think my way into this place, I just have to sort of imagine it.
Daydreaming is an activity that doesn’t seem to get a lot of buzz lately. Ever since the Puritans came up with their eponymous work ethic, we’re all trying to get a lot more done in a lot less time. I’ve heard podcasts targeted for writers trying to speed up the process of getting a novel finish so that they (we) can write a lot more books. There’s a definite business model for writers that is based on producing as many books as quickly as you can.
However, taking a softer approach is also a worthwhile model. Time away from the keyboard is not necessarily time wasted. Daydreaming, wool gathering, trying out various scenarios in your mind while you walk the dog or do the dishes—all these can make for a much more complex, interesting story.
Don’t get me wrong, you still need to put words on paper or screen, and that requires discipline. But taking some time to not write can be very productive.
How do you dream your stories?