Reading Over the Shoulder: A Thing I Wrote While Writing With Friends at Poor Richards

Writers are over-the-shoulder readers. If there is a writer sitting next to another writer, odds are that one or the other will look over their compatriot’s shoulder and peek. There are millions of reasons for this.

First, most writers (the real ones) are readers. If words are on a page, then the words must be read. Otherwise, how do they live? If they sit still on the page, left behind by the writer who abandoned them, there is no oxygen to them. This is something writers understand, so they will read the words. 
Second, there is a certain level of competitiveness. We must make certain the words written by others are not inherently better than our own. I mean, do they (the person whose shoulder we’re reading over) know the proper use of whose
But mostly I think writers will read over your shoulder because of a distinct need to know. We’re nosy. We want to know the inner-most workings of a brain. 
We want to know what observation you’re making about the world. Did we miss something? 
We wonder what is so important to you that you need to get it on paper. We want to know what your handwriting looks like. We want to know how your type so fast that the words, these series of letters, appear so quickly and represent whole universes that didn’t exist until now. Just now. As the ink spilled from your pen, bringing something of order to the chaos of space. 

How Do First Chapters Work?

Rabih Alameddine’s novel I, the Divine is a novel told entirely in first chapters. As a reader, the whole-novel-as-first-chapter concept put me in an immediate state of: What do I have to follow here?

(The answer is: Sarah’s life. It wasn’t as difficult a read as I thought it would be. Alameddine flows the first chapters together so gracefully that Sarah’s story is a mosaic – broken, but you still get the full picture.)

As a writer my brain went: Does it work? Why? And

What’s the purpose of a first chapter?

In his blog post The All-Important First Chapter, writer Nathan Bransford says that “the first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they’re going to be getting, and what to expect.”

And, ya know, technically, in Alameddine’s first first chapter (yes, you read that right) he does promise the readers that they’ll be reading about Sarah, her life, and her relationships. But what’s interesting is that you could open up any of Alameddine’s first chapters and understand the same thing: that you’ll be reading about Sarah, her life, and her relationships. 

In one chapter, you learn about Sarah and her first boyfriend; in another, you learn about her second husband; in another, her grandfather or an AIDS patient or her mother…and so on. Technically, Alameddine promises in each of his first chapters – regardless of POV, tense, or length. 

According to Bransford, the first chapter should also set up genre – and I think genre is the secret to why this book works like it does: it’s very literary. If Alameddine meant to write a high fantasy or a romance novel or a mystery, he couldn’t have done this.

This is a story about a woman’s life and relationships. In a real person’s life you can start anywhere. And I think that’s one of the points Alameddine is trying to make: there is a promise made at any point in a person’s life.

This promise is tied to something else Bransford says readers should know by the end of the first chapter: “have a good sense of who (what type of person) the main character is, and how their world is changing.” In a real person’s life, any moment can tell you who that person is. In a real person’s life, any moment can change the trajectory of their life. Their world changes.

So, Alameddine’s book is a crash course in how first chapters can work. If you’re stuck and don’t know how to start your story, here’s a few pointers inspired by Alameddine’s I, the Divine:

1. Set your chapter waaaaay earlier than you think is necessary for the story. Conversely, set your chapter waaaaay later than you think is necessary. Can you make either/both work?

2. Write a few first chapters – some long, some short; some in first person, some in third; some in present tense, some in past. Mix it up. See what feels right for the characters and the book. It’s just the first chapter – it’s playtime.

3. Keep the setting and main character in place – but mix up who the side characters are. Let them interact with your main character. How does that change things? How does it bring out different sides to your main character? At the very least, you might get an important scene for later down the road.

But, most importantly and regardless of genre, you have to pick the key moment. The moment the world shifts.

Do you guys have tips for first chapters? Or any chapters in between?

Still Typing: A Tuesday Post of Accountability

Hello writer-friends. It’s Tuesday, which means that it’s time to be accountable…which I wasn’t last Tuesday.

Quick reason for no posting last Tuesday: My grandmother died on March 31. It was rather an emotional week that manifested some strange things.

The first of which – Last Monday (the Monday after her death) I decided to go crazy and write a book in a day. For those of you who would wish to attempt this feat, here’s what you have to do in a nutshell: type 8 pages an hour for 24 hours.

I was unsuccessful.

But I think I’ve figured out the emotional component that made me want to attempt such a reaching kind of thing. It’s this: my grandmother never read anything I wrote. Because I’ve never really finished a draft that I was proud to show her, or the readers that surround me. I have the rough drafts and sketches and all that stuff we writers accumulate. I’ve shown these things to my fellow writers, but not to any readers.

Which, I’ve decided, is stupid.

What the hell am I doing this for if it isn’t for people to read the stories?

I’m over halfway there for my book-in-a-week. And I think it’s accomplished a multi-purpose emotional set of tasks:

1. I know that I can finish a rough draft relatively quickly – even quicker than a NaNo pace. So that has given me a sense of time…I have plenty of it to accomplish the telling of stories.

2. Writing is fun. Don’t focus on the publishing, people. If you’re focusing on the publishing and ‘business’ elements, you’re not writing anything anyone wants to read. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth. If you just take the time to cut loose and enjoy yourself, you’ll accomplish a lot more and have more fun doing it.

3. Be willing to show the people you love what you’re up to. I’m sure a lot of you have read the Door Open/Door Closed section of Stephen King’s On Writing. He’s describing writing with the door closed and then, when the rough draft is finished there’s this offhand line: “it’s time to give up the goods.” I hadn’t thought much of that line – it seemed to me that he was saying “show it if you wanna show it.”

But what it really means is: Give up the goods.

(Profound, I know.)

Yes, there’s editing to do. Yes, you’re gonna change things. But the people that love you and surround you want to see some evidence of what you’ve been up to. Some of them actually want to read it and give you encouragement/advice/their opinion. Don’t spoil it for them.  
***If they actually read it you also get the added bonus of having something to discuss with them – what they think, what they dislike, what they were impressed by, and what they wished they didn’t know about you.***

4. Palate cleanser. I needed a break from the two humungous projects I’ve been working on. (One in a first draft bang-it-out state of affairs, and the other in a rewrite phase.) I’ve realized that I have a ton and half interesting ideas and that it’s okay to splurge and refresh every now and then. I don’t think I could’ve emotionally dealt with the two in-progress projects last week – I’ve placed too much on them intellectually and emotionally. A fuck-it-whatever piece was just what I needed to recollect myself.

That’s what I’ve learned this past week-and-half-or-so. What’ve you guys been up to?

P.S. In case you’re wondering – the novel is a steampunk romance mystery with Jack the Ripper. I think it might make an interesting series…we’ll see!

Spontaneous Prose: What it Looks Like

There’s a list Kerouac jotted down that is often copied. Called “Belief &Technique for Modern Prose,” it is thirty pieces of advice for writers who want to write spontaneously and Beat-like.

A couple of my favorites tidbits:

#1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy (because I love the idea of writing for your own joy)

and

# 29. You’re a Genius all the time (which is just a nice thought, ya know?)

The items that concern me today are: #13 Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition and #15 Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog.

It’s hard to define these kinds of terms – what does Kerouac mean? How do you know if you’re grammatically inhibited? Does interior monolog mean no dialogue? How can any story be written in such a manner?

Mostly the answer to all of these questions is: write FAST. Don’t THINK. Kerouac wrote very quickly, inspiring the famous quote from Truman Capote regarding Kerouac’s writing style: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” And a big part of me sides with Capote. (Most of me, actually.)

That’s not to say that, as writers, we shouldn’t experiment.

Writing fast, keeping to internal thoughts, and removing English-teacher-inspired inhibitions has an interesting effect. There’s a blurring of lines. There’s an additional layering of meaning – because an adjective or an adverb can apply to multiple things. It reads more poetically, and has a lot in common with stream-of-conscience writing.

Here’s an example from Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, which I’m reading right now and, to me, comes across as the most free of Kerouac’s prose I’ve read yet (just be forewarned, this excerpt is a little long so you can get the feel of it):

Out of the bar were pouring interesting people, the night making a great impression on me, some kind of Truman-Capote-haired dark Marlon Brando with a beautiful thin birl or girl in boy slacks with stars in her eyes and hips that seemed so soft when she put her hands in her slacks I could see the change – and dark thin slackpant legs dropping down to little feet, and that face, and with them a guy with another beautiful doll, the guy’s name Rob and he’s some kind of adventurous Israeli soldier with a British accent whom I suppose you might find in some Riviera bar at 5 AM drinking everything in sight alphabetically with a bunch of interesting crazy international-set friends on a spree – Larry O’Hara introducing me to Roger Beloit (I did not believe that this young man with ordinary face in front of me was that great poet I’d revered in my youth, my youth, my youth, that is, 1948, I keep saying my youth) – ‘This is Roger Beloit? – I’m Bennett Fitzpatrick’ (Walt’s father) which brought a smile to Roger Beloit’s face – Adam Moorad by now having emerged from the night was also there and the night would open –

I never said it was easy to read. The whole book is like this. No commas = no breathing.

But let’s take a look at a couple of the effects….

Without the pesky commas, a line like “with stars in her eyes and hips that seemed so soft when she put her hands in her slacks I could see the change” gains multiple levels of meaning. Since the stars refer to her eyes and then syntactically continues on with no break to her hips, it reads like there are stars in her hips. That’s an interesting image.

By putting her hand in her slacks, Kerouac adds a sexual image with ‘change’…even though it also refers to coin change in her pocket.

And ‘night’ in the last sentence gets multiple uses as well. The reader hears “emerged from the night” “the night was also there” and “the night would open” all in one fragment – and the first two ‘nights’ are in the same position in the sentence, so you also get the longer image of “emerged from the night was also there” when it’s all smashed together…and it all refers to the character of Adam Moorad still.

Multi-layers.

Fun, huh?

I didn’t even go into Kerouac making up new words (‘birl’ for a girl who wears pants or ‘slackpant’ to describe the clothing).

Or his use of repetition of “my youth, my youth, my youth”…and then his flat out, kinda spaced-out “I keep saying my youth” as if the reader didn’t notice.

Thank God this is a rather simple boy-meets-girl-they-break-up story. Otherwise my head would be spinning more than it already is with this book.

Should you like to hear all of Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose” here ya go:

Pop Buddhism

This weekend, I finished reading The Dharma Bums – the book that apparently started the Backpack Revolution.

First, My Problem:

As the title implies, there are a plethora of Eastern-religion references throughout Dharma Bums. My problem was, and remains, that I had the toughest time believing Ray Smith, the main character, really understood the tenets of Buddhism. Sure, he meditated. Sure, he could list the Four Noble Truths. Sure, he bought into the idea of Enlightenment.

But he seemed to use all these things as an excuse to sit on his butt and do nothing. It’s not an attractive characteristic.

He used Buddhism to excuse his life rather than to live his life – does that make sense? This kind of pop-philosophy annoys me.

Second, Pop-Philosophy is Exactly What I’m About to Do:

After all, Kerouac’s my mentor this month, right? Gotta learn from the man. So, without further ado, I give you:

The Three Temptations of the Buddha as They Relate to Writing

1. Desire: It’s actually referred to as ‘lust’ in the story…but I’m adjusting things to make my point.

What on earth can desire have to do with writing? Well, it speaks to motivation, as do the other two temptations that I’m gonna talk about. I don’t know about you guys, but every now and then J.K. Rowling’s paycheck pops into my head. (As do Stephen King’s , James Patterson’s, and Nora Roberts’s). This seems harmless on the surface – after all, my logical brain knows the odds of getting the dough these writers bring in is astronomically low.

But my family is a single income family – and that single income is a public school teacher. (I know it’s forboden to discuss money, politics, and religion…but apparently I don’t follow rules very well.)

My husband and I cut a deal, known in the writing-type world as the Dean Koontz Deal. Meaning: my husband will bring home the bacon for a few years while I focus exclusively on my writing. I noticed, at the beginning of the summer, that a certain desperation had crept into my writing. It made me sit down religiously. I wrote word after word after word (and don’t get me wrong, they were pretty good words, if I do say so myself). But I panicked that I wasn’t moving fast enough. I didn’t need to be a millionaire, but I needed to have some income. I really, really, really wanted this to work and I wanted it to work FAST.

That’s desire. Sure, an income would be nice. But that kind of pressure…that kind of Want, the kind that feels like Need, is very, very unpleasant to write with.

2. Fear: Pretty straightforward this one, isn’t it? My desire could certainly be construed as fear – how to feed the kids? How many cars does a family need? Think of everything I lose in this game!

Fear can certainly be used as a motivator – fear of missing a deadline, fear of not hitting a word count, fear of being stuck. I think, a lot of times, writers just write because they fear the silence of a blank page. What if I never write again? Must put down WORDS! Must EDIT NOW! Because if I stop writing for even a second it means I’m Not A Writer.

Then, what if what you put down isn’t good enough? That’s one that stops writers. It stops me often enough. I’m not even comparing myself to anyone. Speaking of comparing…

3. Others: You can’t do it for Them. You can’t do it for your writer’s group…can’t try to impress them. You can’t do it to impress your mom, or to show your high school ex-boyfriend how you’re better off without him. In other words: You can’t do it for other people – not to beat them down with your bad-ass-ness or to bask in the glow of their love.

This one hasn’t been as much of a problem for me…maybe because my mother has hated all of my stories (she’s one of those very specific like/dislike kinda readers) and I only ever had to do it because I enjoyed writing. Though, I won’t lie: I sure do look forward to praise.

Now, How to Avoid Temptation?: The Middle Road

The middle road for all writers, in my-own-self’s opinion, is that you should always write for your own enjoyment. Maybe this is desire, but I don’t think so. This is a concept that has to be internalized, and accepted whenever a writer is ready. It’s an easy thing to say: “Just write because you like to write and don’t think about all that other shit.” But harder to put into practice.

One thing I thought of to help internalize this idea is a play on the concept of the Under The Bed Book. The idea is that Bad Books go under the bed, never to see the light of day. These are the books you never show anyone, you accept the lesson and move on.

I’m gonna shift that around a little and say: Put a Good Book under your bed. Put away a book that you’re proud of. Put away a book you think could be saleable. Just let it go. You created it, now keep it for you. You keep the lessons learned, and you don’t have to hear anyone ever say a bad thing about that book, and you never have to care if you would’ve made millions on it.

“Oh, yeah, Jenny,” you say. “You putting your money where your mouth is?”

I am actually. I’m currently working on a project that I’m going to keep to myself. I’m working on it right along with a project that I’m going to let out when it’s ready. I’ve had to do this for myself, to give myself permission to not feel that crazed desperation looming over me. I had to remind myself to write for myself.

If you can do that without doing all the work of writing a not-to-be seen novel, kudos to you! Keep doing what you’re doing.

I’m still working on it.

Thursday Reviews!: Good Blonde and Others by Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

Good BlondeGood Blonde by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Best part about this book:

The sections where Kerouac talks his writing style. There are two selection/chapters that cover this “spontaneous prose”: “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” and “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose.” Both are kind of checklists; but how-to lists might be more accurate. Interesting, downright fascinating…though I’m not 100% sure what to do with stuff like #14 in “Belief”: “Like Proust, be an old teahead of time.” But I can certainly get behind #29: “You’re a Genius all the time.” (I tell myself this everyday. Heehee.)

And speaking of genius — the essay “Are Writers Made or Born?” is AWESOME. Basically he separates the idea of great talents (what he refers to as interpreters…like a great violinist is not Mozart, for example, even though he/she plays well) and geniuses — the Mozarts — are people who create something new that hasn’t been seen before. Worth reading even if you read nothing else in this collection.

Other stuff that was pretty good:

His arguments for Beat and what it is. His definitions are meant to clarify a lot of the philosophy of the Beat movement. I don’t know if they clarify too much…but I think I caught a few details that I didn’t know before. Probably one of his most interesting observations in “On the Beats” is “The dope thing will die out. That was a fad, like bathtub gin.”

The stuff you have to wade through:

Sports. While he makes some really great arguments for why baseball strategy (walking the best hitters, etc.) makes for dull games and players who don’t know how to swing for the fences…for the most part the sports sections are dull. The games and seasons he writes about are long gone, and the immediacy of a sports article doesn’t reverberate through the ages like we would like. Even for a writer like Kerouac.

View all my reviews

Adding Gravitas: Kerouac’s Word Choices

“Gravitas” is one of my husband’s million dollar words when he’s offering a critique. It’s a tricky word to digest when it’s thrown at you like: “This needs more gravitas.” He’s much more eloquent but, I mean, what can you do with that?

Generally I take it to mean that the stakes aren’t sufficiently high for my characters – but I’ve come to realize that this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes gravitas (gravity/weight/an anchor) isn’t in the story itself but in the way the story is told.

On the Road is a story with zero anchor, if you look at it. The characters flit from place to place in fast cars. There’s literally and figuratively no home-base. The characters ping around from place to place, leaving wives and children and parents. You can’t latch onto these characters. As Sal Paradise tells the reader when he gets to Old Bull Lee’s house: “Poor Bull came home in his Texas Chevy and found his house invaded by maniacs.” They are madmen. Druggies, cheaters, partiers, crazies. Trying to connect to these characters is very much like trying to nail down one of those bouncy balls you get out of the quarter machine. Ping ping ping! There goes the lamp.

So, with place and people unavailable for adding sufficient weight to a story, a writer has one refuge: language.

That’s how Kerouac centers his miscreants. He adds depth (a great deal of bullshit depth, truth be told) to their madness: “A tremendous thing happened when Dean met Carlo Marx. Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of a hat…From that moment on, I saw very little of Dean and I was a little sorry too. Their energies met head-on. I was a lout compared, I couldn’t keep up with them. The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in a big dust cloud over the American Night.”

This description of his two friends, who basically got together and talked ‘philosophy’ while drunk or high get some mythic heft from the way Kerouac describes them: ‘tremendous’ ‘keen’ ‘energetic’ ‘mad swirls’, he’s a ‘lout’ compared to them. Reading this, you feel like there are consequences to getting left behind – and a weird sense of admiration for those with greater faculties or abilities.

Plus, you’ve got that American Night. Capitalized. There’s not beating the sense of pride and participation in that kind of presentation. And there’s no sense of escape from the dust cloud that’ll cover them all. Reminiscent of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, shadows that still cover the whole country.

And all in a couple sentences describing two friends meeting. (Though, as an interesting side-note – Carlo Marx, a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg – had very little to do with the road trips.)

So, next time someone says that there’s not enough weight, or your characters seem flat, or there’s no meaning – instead of assuming it’s a plot point or a characterization (it still might be) see if it isn’t the way the words are working. Playing with the wording might just fix the issue.