Monday, April 23, 2018

The Write Stuff

A reader has been very kind to seek me out about writing advice. Specifically, he asked how I center myself and clear my thoughts prior to writing.

I am flattered because, like him and lots of others, I too am always looking for good advice about writing. I have been amazed to find out how much advice—much of it really good—is out there, probably mainly because so many authors—and also editors and readers—write blogs. While I have happily discussed my own writing process on these pages, I have not tried to pass myself off as any kind of writing expert. After 23 years as a blogger and three novels, I still feel like a beginner who has barely begun to learn to write. Still, I am willing to share my thoughts, for what they are worth.

There are probably as many variations of the writing process as there are writers—if not actually more. I can certainly tell you what works for me, but that does not mean it will be the best way for you or anybody else. For one thing, I do not have the common problem that some aspiring—or even some successful—writers have, which is to regularly find oneself frozen in front of a blank word processor page. So I am probably not the best person to tell you how to beat writer’s block. For that, I still think the best approach is that of novelist Richard Bausch: “When you’re stuck, lower your standards and keep going.”

For what it is worth, here in a nutshell is how I myself approach the challenge of writing a novel. (It occurs to me that I am mostly repeating what lots of other writers have already said.)

Have a clear story in mind. That may be stating the obvious, but there is no point sitting down at a keyboard if you do not know the story you want to tell. I do not plot my books out in excruciating detail before I start—and I sometimes find things happening in the story I did not entirely expect—but I always have a definite story arc in my head and in my notes. That includes a firm sense of where the story begins and where it ends. And that leads to the second thing.

First, write a really good first sentence. Then write a really good last sentence. It is important to have a really good first sentence, so I will spend a lot of time on that—even if it may not seem like it. Then I try to come up with a really good last sentence. Realistically, it is difficult to come up with the last sentence at the very beginning, but it is important to have at the outset an general idea of what that sentence will be like. Usually, about two-thirds through the writing, I come up with a pretty definitive version of the whole final paragraph. That may not work for everyone, but it is essential for me.

Commit to writing a significant number of pages every day. This advice is pretty common. The suggested number of pages varies, but it is important that your goal is set in number of pages as opposed to, say, number of hours per day. I think the reason for that is self-evident. Since I am pretty motivated and disciplined by nature, I have always given myself permission to write the most pages I reasonably can each day—whatever that number might be. And, since I have the luxury of setting my own deadlines, I do not beat myself up about skipping writing days. If, however, you are trying live off your writing, then you would be well advised to put strict benchmarks on yourself.

Lower your standards and keep going. (Yes, I am plagiarizing that from Mr. Bausch.) Some days I feel absolutely inspired and every keystroke I make seems absolutely inspired. (The next day, though, it usually looks like it was typed by random monkeys.) Some days every word I muster feels stale and tired, and I question why I ever bothered to go to school—instead of just staying illiterate. If I make the mistake of reading actual really good writers (for me that’s people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but there are many, many others) and comparing their work to mine, well, then I just want to break all my fingers. The trick is to just keep writing—no matter how short from your ideal you are falling—with the thought in your mind that you can always go back and polish it later. Of course, it is better to write something good in the first place, but the fact is that, as the person doing the writing, you will not really be in a position to judge the quality of your own writing until you read it later anyway. Even then, you really are not the best judge. That is what editors are for, but the goal is always not to embarrass yourself in front of the editor.

Make your initial goal to simply finish the first fifty pages. I have read in several places that there is something magic about hitting the fifty-page mark. In my experience, this is actually true. Those first fifty pages are always a lot of work, but at or about that point something strange does happen. Every word is still as much work as it ever was, but overall there seems to be less wind resistance or less friction on the runway. It becomes less easy to stop writing because the story has something akin to momentum or maybe inertia. Let that thought encourage you to keep going.

Accept that you are only about halfway done when you get to the end. As much work as writing can be, it is much more fun writing the first draft of a story than it is to go back and polish and re-write the whole thing. I am sure there are actually writers who enjoy that part of it, but for most of us, I suspect it takes a pretty healthy ego to spend day after day dealing with what is basically ample evidence of your own imperfections. If you want a book you can be proud of, then you just have to suck it up and get on with it. You have to keep reminding yourself that making the writing better is as creative in its own way (though different) as dreaming up the characters and the plot developments.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Fitness of Character

How do writers come up with their characters?

The suspicion with novelists—especially first-time ones—is that their protagonists are thinly-veiled versions of themselves. Writers known mainly for one main character—Ian Fleming comes to mind—are frequently seen to have deliberately made that character their alter ego.

But what about the other characters, besides the main one, who populate a novel? Where do they come from?

I suppose in the worst of cases they spring from whatever mechanical need there is to advance the plot. Or perhaps they are just slightly modified stock characters from any number of examples of stock fiction. What writers and readers would prefer, of course, is that every character in a story—even the most minor—would spring to life as a fully realized creation that lives and breathes naturally and is unique in the same way that every human being is non-identical to all other human beings.

My own experience is that a character may begin as being somewhat “like” someone I have known in my life, but by the time she has become fully immersed in the biosphere of the story, she has taken on her own life and overshadowed the original inspiration. It is amazing how your characters—not unlike your children—may begin by depending on you entirely but, before you know it, they have minds and wills of their own. As a writer, you may end up feeling less like an author than a stenographer.

No one has really queried me about where the various characters in Lautaro’s Spear came from—aside from the inevitable accusations that Dallas Green is really me. (For the millionth time, he’s not.) As for the other characters, individual readers have had their favorites and their non-favorites, but most (of the ones who have communicated with me anyway) have liked Marty, the somewhat mysterious proprietor of a hole-in-the-wall Mexican eatery hidden away in San Francisco’s Mission District. Interestingly, he is the one character in the book whom I more or less appropriated full-cloth from real life. It so happens that back in the 1980s when I was working in the Lower Queen Anne area of Seattle, I had my own Marty.

He was pretty much as described, although he did not have a sidekick Leonides (that I was aware of anyway) and I was never invited to his home. And he never made me a margarita, although I am sure it would have been good. He was just a guy who served up Mexican food and liked to talk. Always anxious for an opportunity to practice my Spanish, just like Dallas I would converse with him en espaƱol, which he clearly understood, but he would insist on responding in English. And just as in the book, when I mentioned my year in Chile during the Pinochet regime, he began dropping hints that he somehow had something to do with the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende and brought Pinochet to power. I could never be sure, when he said “yeah, we did on a job on him,” whether he was speaking of the U.S. collectively or some other community he identified with or, most tantalizingly of all possibilities, some elite squad of which he was personally a member. The last idea fascinated me. What if he was some sort of secret agent?

If that had been the case, how likely would it have been for him to have wound up cooking enchiladas in the shadow in of the Space Needle? In hindsight, perhaps more likely than I might have thought. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was a regular customer of a Mexican restaurant in downtown Redmond. Years later I learned that one of the people cooking the food there had been Henry Hill (using a new identity), an FBI mob informant whose story became the basis for the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas.

I never actually learned the name of the cook who inspired the character for my book. In Lautaro’s Spear I called him Marty. That was my own little tribute to the character played by Edward James Olmos in the TV series Miami Vice, Lt. Martin Castillo. In all my years of television viewing, that was definitely one of the best cases of an ordinary-seeming secondary character being revealed, bit by bit over time, to be way more interesting than was first apparent. I wonder who he was based on.