Writing Fiction? Read History!

Many fiction writers, myself included, are fascinated by people. Who they are, what they do, and why they do it. Which traits can be attributed to quirks of personality, and which to underlying human nature. It seems like a wonderful mystery. Who are these incredibly complex beings, living all around us and existing within our own minds? What past experiences and innate forces created who they are, and how do those influences cause them to think and act now?

To understand people, read history. Broadly, and in depth. From all cultures and time periods. Read and read history. Because only by doing so, by studying people throughout thousands of years of recorded and archaeological history, can a writer begin to grasp who people are. Fundamentally. Patterns emerge, intertwined with anomalies.

Through the lens of history, great truths about human behavior become very clear and obvious. And yet in other aspects, on the individual level, people remain that great mystery. And isn’t that why writers create characters? Delving deep into that mystery, elucidating it for themselves and for their readers.

The Thrill of Editing

I must say, I’m having a lot of fun editing. Two years or so ago, I was about to publish Brilliant Disguise. Had it completely edited (I thought), formatted, etc. Was  about to push that publish button, when for some reason, I thought, no. Let it sit a while longer.

Two years later now. Far longer than I had anticipated. (Other writing projects consumed my attention.) I pulled out Brilliant Disguise, thinking to review it briefly, and then publish. I started to read. And to my surprise, I found that the story needed substantial editing. A bit of a shock, and not a pleasant one. Apparently, my writing skills had improved considerably in the intervening years. Once I got over that initial jolt, I sat down, blue editing pen in hand, and began to edit.

And edit. And edit. And edit. I’ve found the process to be absolutely thrilling. Taking a piece of writing that has good underlying bones, though somewhat obscured by inessentials, and stripping away the unnecessary to reveal the true story. What a charge. What a rush. Now far more clear and elegant, though maintaining depth and complexity.  The story I wanted to tell. The one I originally envisioned.

Editing requires sheer ruthlessness. Every last unnecessary word, sentence, paragraph must be deleted. That can hurt. Obliterating a phrase that sounded so pretty when being written, cutting and cutting tens to hundreds of hours worth of beloved labor, wrastling and wrangling and wresting it all into shape. But now that I’ve learned to be ruthless, I find great pleasure in the cutting and rewriting. It is nearly the best part of writing, watching the essential emerge in vivid image. Turning vision to words, which in turn evoke that vision. Good, happy fun! True elation.

If You Only Read the Books That Everyone Else is Reading…

I recently read a quotation by Haruki Murakami. “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” Nothing particularly unique about the thought, but it is interesting, and led me to a tangential line of reasoning.

The books that everyone else is reading. That bit seems particularly relevant to the current book market. And it resonates with me in particular, because whenever multiple people tell me that I just must read a popular book, I viscerally cringe. Why? Perhaps I’m a little snake-bit at this point, having delved into such popular volumes, only to find most of them at best mediocre. Perhaps I assume that popular equates somewhat with lowest common denominator, a certain group-think when it comes to perceiving both books and the greater world. Whatever the reason, the books that everyone else reads should often be avoided.

The issues at play here are two-fold. A portion of readers only want to read what is popular. What other people know and discuss. For them saying that they’ve read a certain book, and receiving only blanks stares of non-recognition in return, is both uncomfortable and lacks the neurotransmitter rush of positive reinforcement. If they can’t place themselves and their reading into some social context, then what is the point?** Certain books then get spun up into a popular pressure vortex. These are the books to read, these and no others. (And people only have so much time to read, so there is little opportunity to read beyond the expected, or even to find other options.) The books that are deemed popular are the ones where consumer money is spent, so the publishing world focuses its selections on meeting this demand.

But the problem doesn’t really start with the consumers, or even with the publishers. It starts with the book reviewers. The publishers, yes, but mostly the reviewers. Why? Reviewers, the ostensibly real, respected kind, tend to all review the same narrow selection of books. Countless times I’ve found, in a given month, the same books being reviewed in, for instance, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the New York Times Book Review,  the New York Review of Books, etc. There is no broad reading of all new books being published. There is no search for the best and brightest. These people aren’t book reviewers. They are simply shilling for the publishers, promoting those few books that the publishers want promoted, forcing them into becoming those popular, must-read volumes. Cynical, perhaps. But really, what else could account for nearly all published books being ignored? What else could account for truly excellent books having no chance against the promotional juggernaut? What else could account for the reviewed books coincidentally having the largest publicity budgets, already established prior to publication and public reaction? It’s rather QED, like it or not.

Imagine. Just imagine. If book reviewers actually read broadly of all published books, and wrote real reviews of the best of the lot, imagine how much more vastly and beautifully textured the reading landscape would be. People in general don’t have the time to peruse hundreds of possibilities every month. That should be the job of the reviewers, and they are failing miserably.

This discussion has wandered far from the quotation, but it circles back round to this. If everyone reads the same few books, foisted upon them by the publishers and reviewers, then the scope of perception is severely curtailed. And isn’t that representative of current society? It seems that the more freedom we have, the more information to which we have access, the greater and broader the scope of possibilities (of all sorts), the more narrow and confined and stunted our minds and imaginations become. By choice, by not seizing the endless opportunities that exist all around us.


** And perhaps for that same greater context, people tend to want to read what is already familiar. This accounts for some truly horrendous book series, whose latest installments, no matter how wretched, land immediately on the bestseller lists.

Trying to Write? Take a Walk.

The simplest advice. Suggested by many writers before me. But it is such good advice, the best, really, that it warrants repeating and repeating and repeating.

If you are trying to write, take a walk.

When your writing flows easily, straight from thought to paper, then stay seated and type away. When writing is more difficult, a real conscious effort, but accurately reflects what you envision, then keep writing. But when the mind is sluggish, those words with great effort appearing one by one (by one by one) on the page like the drip drops of ancient water torture, take a walk. When even with focused effort, writing fails to reflect the vision, take a walk. When frustrated, angry, weary, or in despair, take a walk.

No headphones. No devices. No distractions of any kind.  Your mind, your body, and the world opening all around you- nothing more. Nothing more. Can’t stress that enough. Take a walk. Blood flows, endorphins surge, and the mind, the imagination, expand in all sorts of lovely and unexpected ways.

Walk outside. Not on a treadmill, unless that is truly the only option. There is something about the vastness of the outer world that sparks the vastness of the inner mind. They both expand to infinity, until they almost seem to merge.

When you’ve finished your walk, sit back down and write. And write and write.

Whenever I think of writers walking, I always envision Emily Bronte, walking for hours upon hours across the wild Yorkshire moors, a lone, slim figure traversing scraggly earth and stormy sky.

Writing vs. Storytelling

By pure coincidence, I recently happened to read two non-fiction books about the same general topic, traveling through Africa. Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux, and African Silences, by Peter Matthiessen. The juxtaposition of the two tales made me think about writing versus storytelling.

The two authors themselves are similar in many ways. White, American males from the northeast, middle-aged when writing the books, of the same generation or nearly, having lived and worked in Africa years earlier and now returning to revisit the continent. They are both famous and successful authors, well-received critically, and much lauded. And while both are good writers, one is more clearly a storyteller as well. And isn’t it stories that we want to read, the kind that draw us in past the words, past the black and white text, to a world that we envision opening all around us. Storytelling, good storytelling, seamless and enthralling, is the most difficult form of writing to master. The technique can be somewhat learned, but the experts have an innate talent.

I’m going to say nothing more, no analysis, simply leaving you with four passages to review for yourselves, allowing you to draw your own conclusions.

The following are the first paragraph from each book.

Dark Star Safari:

“All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there, though not for the horror, the hots spots, the massacre-and-earthquake stories you read in the newspaper; I wanted the pleasure of being in Africa again. Feeling that the place was so large it contained many untold tales and some hope and comedy and sweetness, too- feeling that there was more to Africa than misery and terror- I aimed to reinsert myself in the bunda, as we used to call the bush, and to wander the antique hinterland. There I had lived and worked, happily, almost forty years ago, in the heart of the greenest continent.”

African Silences:

“On African journeys that began with an overland trip from Egypt to Tanganyika in 1961, I traveled widely in East and southern Africa (Botswana), the last great redoubt of large and wild creatures left on earth. Not until the winter of 1978 did I reach West Africa- specifically Senegal-Gambia and Ivory Coast- accompanying a primatologist, Dr. Gilbert Boese, on an informal survey of what was left of West Africa wildlife, from the Sahel region, south of the Sahara, to the Guinea forest of the coasts, then continuing eastward to Zaire, hoping to join an expedition in search of the rare Congo peacock, and enjoying two meetings with gorillas along the way.”

The following are a paragraph from each book, chosen completely at random.

Dark Star Safari:

“My first impression of Addis Ababa: handsome people in rags, possessed of both haughtiness and destitution, a race of aristocrats who had pawned the family silver. Ethiopia was unique in black Africa for having its own script, and therefore its own written history and a powerful sense of the past. Ethiopians are aware of their ancient cultural links with India and Egypt and the religious fountainhead of the Middle East, often claiming to be among the earliest Christians. When your barbarian ancestors were running around Europe bare-assed, with bellies painted in blue woad, elaborately clothed Ethiopians were breeding livestock and using the wheel and defending their civilization against the onslaught of Islam, while piously observing the Ten Commandments.”

African Silences:

“In the dead heat that persists into the dusk, the kob and waterbuck lie down on the dry mud of Sita N’di (the western kob seem to ignore the hottest sun) but the bushbuck and warthog have retreated to the shade of the hot dry woodland all around. Here and there, the woodland floor is white with silk-cotton from the Ceiba pods, which are eaten by baboons as well as vervets and thereby scattered in the time of seeding. Bamboo the brown color of burning white paper sprouts from a crust of lateritic stone, and the common Pterocarpus tree is coming into a pretty yellow blossom, as if in anticipation of the rains, but over the white woods hangs a ghostly stillness, intensified by hot wafts of the harmattan in the dry fans of raffia and borassus.”

Never Use a Thesaurus. However…

It’s an old bit of conventional wisdom. When writing, never use a thesaurus. Good advice, for the most part, because a writer should never use a word that is not already known to her. That she doesn’t already use naturally in conversation and print. Pumping up writing with unfamiliar words comes across as stilted and unnatural. And the writer always runs the risk of using the word incorrectly, and appearing foolish. So, never use a thesaurus to find new words. However…

I use a thesaurus on a fairly regular basis, for two reasons. First, as a memory aid. I will want to write a word that I know very well. The word will lurk there, just on the edge of my consciousness, but won’t appear to me. Very frustrating!! But what will occur to me is a word that is very similar. I look up that word in a thesaurus, and, lo and behold, there is the word that I couldn’t quite remember. Very useful.

Second, as a means to find words that sound a certain way. A significant part of writing isn’t just using words that convey a given meaning, but using words that sound a certain way.  That have a desired tone and cadence beyond the meaning. Some words simply sound better than others, either generally, or within the rhythm of a given phrase or sentence. A thesaurus provides synonyms, and thus an array of possible sounds and emphasized (or not) syllables. Again, I would never use a word with which I am not already comfortable, but a thesaurus presents a range of auditory options.

A final note. An amusing cautionary tale regarding using a word without quite understanding its meaning. In 2006 a movie called Factotum, starring Matt Dillon, appeared. At the beginning of the movie, beneath the title, is printed a definition of the word factotum. It reads something like this: “a man who holds many jobs.” (This isn’t the exact quotation, because I don’t feel like finding the movie, but it is close enough.) And what is the movie about? The main character, Dillon, can’t hold down a job, so he goes from one employer to another to another, and so on. Too funny. The writer didn’t realize that the word describes someone who fulfills many types of tasks within the same/one job, not someone who goes from job to job to job.  I’m not sure how no one, not one single person attached to the movie, realized the mistake. But the movie serves as a great reminder not to get fancy with unfamiliar wordplay.

An Instrument of War

“Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”

So said Pablo Picasso.

The same is true of writing.

I have nothing to say about the quotation. It speaks for itself.

It seems that so many artists, of all kinds, those of us who live relatively easy lives, forget the power we possess, latent though it may be.  Art is an instrument of other things as well, beauty, ugliness, imagination, creating entire new worlds within this one we inhabit. But it always has the potential to question, challenge, defy. To wage war.

Never forget that.