Novelists in Novels

Stephen King does it often.

Apparently, Wodehouse does it too: “He envied fellows like Gertrude’s cousin, Ambrose Tennyson. Ambrose was a novelist, and a letter like this would probably have been pie to him.” ~P.G.W. The Luck of the Bodkins

Novelists as characters.

I’ve never done written a novelist character myself, partly because I think that other fantabulous authors have done this meta-move with great distinction. King, definitely. Who can touch Misery or The Dark Half for writer-torture? Michael Chabon with Wonder Boys is the literary equivalent. (Read: workshops! Augh!) 

There are hundreds of examples that I could point to with writers writing about writers. I think the reason for the existance of such a line-up is obvious: Write What You Know. Writers understand the struggles of sitting down at the computer/typewriter/page. Plus there is that extra bit of getting to talk about writing in writing–which, aside from writing, is what writers do.

We’re kind of boring in that sense.

There’s the additional bonus in that there’s very little research. If your main character is a chef, you might have to go out and research the lingo. Not so when a novelist makes a novelist character. We already know “WIP” “galley” “ARC” and “How Advances Work.” We understand what a ridiculous word count is. The jokes are inside and we get them.

Then there’s the audience. You know who reads the most books? Give you one guess.

Writers.

So of course I’ll pick up a novel called How I Became A Famous Novelist (by Steve Hely). Or An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (by Brock Clarke). It’s like par for the course. The audience is built in.

How about you guys? Written about writers recently? Read a good book about writerly characters?

Attention Colorado Springs Writers!

My writers’ group has just put together a new website (still a tiny bit under construction) that you can visit here–

The Under Ground Writing Project

–and there’s a Community section that we’re looking to fill. So if you’re part of another writers’ group in the Colorado Springs area, or if you’re a local author and you want your website included in our Community section, or you’re going to give a presentation in the area, or whatever then shoot me an email (jenny@undergroundwritingproject.com). We’ll include events and whatnot on our calendar of events and link to you on the Community page.

And, ya know, if you want to come hang out with us, our meeting place and dates are posted too. =)

To Begin at the Beginning, Or Not to Begin at the Beginning? Question of the Day

Left alone, Monty lost no time in spreading paper on the table, taking up the pen and dipping it in the ink. So far, so good. But now, as so often happened when he started to write to the girl he loved, there occurred a stage wait. He paused, wondering how to begin.” P.G.W describing the character Monty’s difficulty in starting a letter to his one true love in The Luck of the Bodkins

Isn’t it always the way? You’ve pulled up your paper and pen (or, thankfully nowadays, your trusty laptop) and you long to start whatever it is that you’re going to write: an email, a novel, a short story, play, whatever. And then…nothing. Just a second ago you had the perfect opening line. You knew the images you wanted to invoke in the reader’s mind.

About a paragraph later in Luck of the Bodkins, Monty starts, but he starts badly. I mean, should you start a letter to your One True Love: “My Darling Old Egg”? (Here’s a hint boys: No.)

Maybe you’ve just started a novel or short story. Maybe you’re just writing an email to a pal. Either way, if you want to get to the good stuff in the middle, you’ve got to write the beginning, right? Some writers skip to the middle and write the images in their head.

I am not one of those writers, I have to know what happens beforehand or something in the scene I’m writing doesn’t feel right. Recently, I’ve decided to mix that up.

I’ve been working (very slowly) on what I like to call my Top Secret Project. But I’ve run into a problem. And that problem is the beginning. The first chapter has to do some pretty extraordinary things, and I’m feeling the pressure. For the past couple weeks I’ve told myself to suck it up, appreciate that the beginning is bad, and move on to the other stuff. Days and days and days of working on this. Writing words only to delete them, only to put them back again.

My reaction? Fuck it. I’m skipping to the middle. And then I’m going to skip around again. And again and again. Then I’ll assemble it all like a jigsaw.

My co-reaction is to work on another project that I have clearer in my head: a project I’m calling The Line (Codename: tL). I will fiddle with the Top Secret Project while I work with more focus on tL. Fiddling always gets good results. I think Top Secret Project needs percolating time–so, to the back burner it goes!

Do you guys fiddle while working on other things? Do you have codenames for your WIPs? How much percolating is necessary for you to get the right depth of flavor for your piece?

Ode to the Bathroom Floor

Some of you may or may not know that Wodehouse also dabbled in poetry. In that enterprising spirit, I shall regale you with my own poetic presentation on what I’ve been doing this week. With photos!

Ahem.

O, carpeted bathroom destroyed by bad cat spray!
(Who carpets bathrooms? Ah, well. It just came that way…)
We’ve gutted you, pulling your threadworn cover out.
Won’t say sorry because, damn!, the odor was stout!
Time for some new style, new fun, new pizzazz, new looks:
So, on to Home Depot, Lowes, and big how-to books — 

Which we did not read, because we’re bad, bold wingers 
Who guess at tile wet saw use–makes for some zingers!

After much knee-breaking bending and heavy lifting,

after much finger-risking and tile-color sifting,
and, of course, a lot of energy expenditure… 
we arrived at the end of our big adventure!

Et VOILA! The results of our hard work and dedication:

A splendid, angled, pretty-looking presentation!

Curses! Foiled Again!: Another Note on Foils

Another thing to think about when developing good foils is creating a goal that is compatible for both parties. This is harder than it looks. How do you create two characters with different backgrounds who want the same thing, but don’t want to beat each other up in order to attain the same thing?

Jeeves and Wooster are all about helping out Wooster’s mish-mesh of friends — Wooster because he has a sort-of sympathy for those like himself. And Jeeves, well, I think Jeeves does it because soap operas haven’t been invented yet. No — Really, Jeeves has found the perfect position: he rules the roost, influences men of power, and has enough money left to gamble. Deep down, I think Jeeves and Wooster are very similar. Helpful. Bossy. Just separated by Opportunity.

Mike and Psmith are all about adjusting to the surrounding circumstances. Mike’s been booted out of his old school for bad marks. Thus losing the heart to play cricket, his passion. Psmith has been booted out of Eton and is also adjusting to a new school. His answer is to dominate the new school. He finds a willing accomplice in Mike because their goal is the same: make the best of this school year and hope to heaven that the next year will be better.

See? Two different pairs of foils and both are balanced nicely. Wodehouse does this throughout his work. I’m working through some of his short stories right now and it’s a pattern Wodehouse seems to have mastered. If only all of us could hit on character balance and goals that easily!

Foiled and Balanced

Jeeves and Wooster.

Mike and Psmith.

Wodehouse knew how to use foils in his work to get the maximum humorous results.

On the surface it seems like it’s all about buffoonery placed against the wise-and-tolerant. After all, Wooster gets into one social scrape after another, right there along with his troublesome friends. Mike also stumbles through the world without a real direction until he meets up with Psmith.

But what makes Wodehouse’s pairings so interesting is that the wise foils are just as messed up as the main buffoons. Sure, Jeeves is brilliant. He’s also a gambler, obsessive about social standing, and doesn’t always hit on the right scheme immediately. Plus, he stays with Wooster throughout all the problems that W and his buddies get into–even coming back from some hard-earned vacations in some cases!

Psmith? When Mike has a tough time adjusting to the new boarding school, Psmith is there to help. Having been likewise shoved into a new school, Psmith takes over the place. On the surface it seems like this kid has it way more together than Mike. Not so much. He’s struggling just as much, and that’s what makes the turn in Mike and Psmith so nice and still hilarious.

The best thing is that the foils are equal matches. Wooster is determined not to get it, but his intentions are always for the good. His sweetness makes up for his obtuseness. Jeeves balances the flaws in the main character by being a trifle shady (with the gambling) and by paying attention to the situation. Mike is openly not adjusting to the new school; Psmith is faking-it-til-he-makes-it. 

That’s how good foils work. One character doesn’t really work without the other. Like peanut butter and jelly. In order to use foils you have to think about your main character: where are the weaknesses, strengths, foibles? How does the foil fill the gaps or create gaps of his own?  They should balance each other and then tear through the story together.

The Influence and How It, Well, Influences

My writers group, The Underground Writing Project, wrote what we call a ’round’ story. Basically, we each took turns writing a chapter and so on and so on until we reached the end. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In a seemingly unrelated topic: literature classes bring up the question of influence and it  is always brought up in relation to a writer’s work. Who influenced the piece? What traditions influenced the creation? What relationships did the writer have with other writers?

Well, the round story writing was a wonderful experience– and our heaviest influence was P.G. Wodehouse (with some Oscar Wilde in there for good measure). The resulting book (yes, we actually finished it) is what I like to think of as What Happens When Americans Get Hold Of British Parlor Comedy. There are polo matches and guillotines and love hexagons. We outright borrowed Wodehouse’s voice — or tried to. I mean, he is Wodehouse and we’re just us, right?

That experience is the first time in my writing practice that I actively thought about another writer’s influence on my work.  It’s the only time I pondered the way a voice should specifically sound on the page. (And interestingly enough, it’s also the only time I’ve been called out on a critique regarding voice: apparently I used ‘kind of’ instead of ‘sort of’ in one spot. Who knew, right?)

Now that I’m working on a new writing project, the idea of influence has popped into my head again. I know a certain writer influences the structure of the new piece, another influences the subject matter, and another influences the voice when I feel myself dragging. And I’m not going to tell you these writers’ names because they’re all genius, award winning writers and I’m not about to present the idea that what I’m working on matches up. At all. Forgive me.

The cool thing about the situation is that I feel myself stretching and trying things that I wouldn’t have without these other writers. The structure is a little funky. The subject matter is close to my heart. The voice is, oddly enough, more authentically me too, I think; more inspired than influenced maybe. I’m hoping that it winds up like the UGWP round story: the influence is present but it’s all original. I’m pretty excited.

Now, I really really really want to know from you guys whether you’ve actively let another writer influence your work? How did the experience go for you? What’d you learn?