Archive for October, 2016

Making the reader care

October 27, 2016

One of the toughest questions editors ask of writers is “Why should I care?”

The central mission of the writer is to make readers care about a character. But in order for that to happen, we have to get to know the character. The writer must make the character real.

One of the characters in a story is called “Mr. Coke” because he delivers the soft drinks to the barber shop. That name tells me something about what the man does and the familiarity with which he is greeted. He is known. He has a nickname.

In some of the drafts I  get some details, but too often, not enough detail. One novelist wrote about flat and round characters. Flat characters play small parts. We don’t need to know much about them. Round characters seem real. They are pumped up with detail and background. We know how they speak. We know what they value. We know about their disappointments and their desires. The writer takes us inside the minds of such characters.

You need at least one round character to make a story.  That’s what happened with “Death of a Poet.” All the flat characters react to Judith. But they are flat compared to her. She is the round character.


The Deadlines

October 27, 2016

Since these deadlines are buried at the bottom of the blog in the syllabus, I thought I would repost them.


Week 5 Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 “Death of a Poet”

Week 6 Nov. 10 and Nov. 17 DRAFTS DUE


Where we are Oct. 27 & Nov. 3

October 26, 2016

Some of you have got longer drafts and outlines, which is where you want to be. Some of you just have a page or two. You’ve got to have a plan for the story, and most of all, you’ve got to get into the heads of your characters. What are they thinking, planning and doing?  Have you got a plan for what the story is about?

Bring whatever you have to class, printed out, and bring at least three copies so you can share. The feedback from student to student has been good, and we should continue.

I apologize that I have been so slow to get back to you. I am determined to give everyone some feedback. I just sent some responses. I’ll be sending more. Be patient. We are going to work on consultations. We may need to do them by phone.

One thing I’ve noticed that would help if you would remember to start as late as possible. Don’t begin at the beginning, begin in the middle of things. Begin when the daughter first suspects that her mother, the teacher, is fooling around with one of her students. Ask yourself what the story is about. Don’t begin in childhood of the character. Don’t being with trying to wake up. Begin where the character finds herself in trouble, or recognizing  something, or being worried about something. And figure out how the story is going to resolve.

On Thursday I will spend a little time on my story “Death of a Poet.”  Please read it, just to see the structure. I had the title from the beginning. W th a title like that, the story can’t begin with where and how Judith grew up. It starts with her first discovery of a tumor. I was fortunate to have her notebooks with her funny and mordant  writing so I could describe it.  A lot of that first chapter was an editing job.

Partway through the writing, I decided to put the story in present tense. This was a literary device common in poetry and in many short stories. This is not a strategy I recommend. I’ve done it only once in my career but it was the right choice for this story. There’s an article  “No Tense Like the Present”  in the instructional material in pages.

Notice  how the story breaks into chapters. This is very important. The reader doesn’t sit there and think, What wonderful chapters! But each chapter has a theme. “Discovery” is about her first surgery. “Change” is about moving to a new city to live on her own. “Contingency” is about her final illness and the friends who help her through it. As a writer, you must be conscious of the structure, not because readers are looking for structure, but because without, the story has no focus, no momentum. The story has to be headed somewhere and reader senses that through the structure.

One thing about the story that made it fairly easy to write, once I had all the interviews typed and reviewed, and the notebooks and poems photo copied, was that I knew how it would end. I knew how the story was going to end from the beginning.

Let’s talk about endings. About putting together an outline and an ending.

Writing tips

October 20, 2016

Don’t use exclamation marks! I mean it! And adding more doesn’t make the sentence any better!!! Let the words do the work.

Don’t write very first. It’s either the first or it’s not.

It’s all right, not alright.

Isolate the quotations in separate paragraphs

Use the indent function of Word.

Write shorter paragraphs.Two to five sentences. Paragraphs are the organizing blocks of writing. Make them tight and coherent. Don’t write long ones.

Write a title. Even a bad title is better than no title. Keep working until you find a better title.

Don’t begin at the beginning. Don’t begin with waking up or being a child. Start at a high point.

Don’t write an essay opening. Tell a story. Can you tell the difference between writing an essay and writing a story?

How are you going to write numbers? What style? Consider AP style: numbers under 10 are spelled out, as in three minutes. But 3 o’clock.

Don’t overuse adverbs: she desperately wanted, she nodded vigorously, she really cared, she repeatedly said.

Be direct. Don’t be coy. Don’t hide the ball. Don’t hold back information. Go straight to the point.

Don’t write blah dialogue: Hello there. What’s going on? Nice to meet you. It doesn’t make the story move. Dialogue has to advance the theme of the story.

Use who not that for people, as in the girl who looked like a rapper, the guy who took my notebook. Think of the movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Kill clichés and overworked words: long story short, bittersweet moment, beyond ready, unique, any given day.

Titles: always have one; always be willing to change it.

October 20, 2016

Here are some stories about famous book titles. If you search, you can find blogs that tell of movie titles. The point is, a title can lead you to the heart of the story.

When Jane Austen’s father submitted an early version of her second novel, First Impressions, to a publisher on her behalf, it was rejected. As Pride and Prejudice, it did much better. [via]

Don DeLillo wanted to name his 1985 breakout novel Panasonic, but the corporation’s lawyers protested, and he settled for White Noise. [via]

Once Max Brod got his hands on it, Kafka’s The Man Who Disappeared was retitled as Amerika. [via]

Philip Roth’s most famous novel went through incarnations as The JewboyWacking Off, and A Jewish Patient Begins his Analysis before it became Portnoy’s Complaint. [via]

Bafflingly, All’s Well that Ends Well was the original title for Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace — in fact, it was first released under that title until its publishers came to their senses. [via]

Toni Morrison wanted to name her first post-Nobel prize novel War, but instead wound up calling it the wildly dissimilar Paradise. [via]

They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen was the original title of Jaqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. [via]

Rick Moody, who has described himself as a ‘bad titler,’ eventually changed the title of his novel F.F. to The Ice Storm. Apparently, “F.F.” would have been meant as “short for ‘Fantastic Four’ or a variant of the notation for ‘fortissimo.’” [via]

Trimalchio in West Egg; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; Gold-Hatted Gatsby; and The High-Bouncing Lover were all titles considered for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. [via]

Adolf Hitler originally wanted to title his book Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice, but ultimately changed it to the much more succinct Mein Kampf. [via]

Ford Maddox Ford wanted to call his novel The Saddest Story — he only suggested calling it The Good Soldier as a joke, but his publisher wasn’t laughing, and took him up on it. [via]

The Last Man in Europe wasn’t commercial enough for George Orwell’s publisher, who suggested they go with 1984. [via]

When William Golding’s first novel was discovered in Faber and Faber’s slush pile, it was called Strangers from Within. With a little editorial guidance, every American schoolchild now reads it as Lord of the Flies. [via]

In the end, Ayn Rand thought her first title, The Strike, gave too much plot away, and renamed her novel Atlas Shrugged, at the suggestion of her husband. [via]

Tomorrow Is Another Day was the working title of Gone With the Wind, and that’s not the only change we’re grateful for: up until the very last second, Scarlett was named ‘Pansy.’ Bullet dodged. [via]

Bram Stoker considered many titles, one of them being The Dead Un-Dead, before landing on the much less B-filmish Dracula. [via]

When Carson McCullers was twenty-one, she submitted six chapters of her first novel, The Mute, to Houghton-Mifflin. They offered her an advance, renamed the book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and launched her career. [via]

Fiesta, the original title of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, is still used on many foreign editions. [via]

Evelyn Waugh’s The House of the Faith was changed to the much more distinctive title Brideshead Revisited. [via]

Joseph Heller originally imagined his novel as a Catch-11, but doubled the number to Catch-22 so as not to compete with the recently released Ocean’s Eleven. [via]

Alex Haley’s influential 1976 novel was changed from Before This Anger to the much more diplomatic Roots: The Saga of an American Family. [via]

When Harper Lee decided her magnum opus was about more than one character, Atticus became To Kill a Mockingbird. [via]

Vladimir Nabokov originally planned on calling his most famous work The Kingdom by the Sea before it became the Lolita we know and love today. Waste not, want not — Nabokov used a very similar phrase (A Kingdom by the Sea) in his 1974 pseudo-autobiographical novel Look at the Harlequins! as the title of a Lolita-like book written by the narrator. [via]

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book about the Watergate scandal was originally called At this Point in Time, before it was changed to the more dramatic All the President’s Men. [via]

Stephen Crane’s original manuscript was entitled Private Fleming, His Various Battles, but in an attempt to keep it from sounding like what he considered to be a more traditional Civil War narrative, he renamed it The Red Badge of Courage. [via]

Thursday night’s class

October 19, 2016

Dear Writers

Here’s what we’ll do. Instead of sending you electronic copies of one another’s work, I will bring printed copies to class. Two or three students, depending on how many are available, will read and mark up each story, and then the roles will be reversed.

if you haven’t sent me a draft, bring three copies to class tomorrow and you will get some class feedback. Put your name on your draft and give the story a title. Indent the paragraphs. Use space-and-a-half line spacing so there’s room for comments.

I am reading hard and will get back to you with comments as soon as possible. Meanwhile, please stay tuned to the blog. It’s my best means for staying in touch with you.

If you haven’t subscribed to it, please do.



More about Brit Bennett

October 19, 2016


Brit Bennett read at Brazos Books last Friday and one of the store’s employees wrote an interview, which I encourage you to read. . Her book is taking off. If you haven’t been to Brazos Books on Bissonnet, you should check it out.  Here are a couple of excerpts:

At the core of the story is the unlikely friendship between two girls—Aubrey, the pure, saintly girl who reads her Bible relentlessly and comes to every available service at Upper Room church, and Nadia, recently motherless and going wild with hurt and guilt, who has “already learned that pretty exposes you, and pretty hides you and like most girls, she hadn’t yet learned how to navigate the difference.”

As in all the best novels about friendship between women, the bond between Nadia and Aubrey stretches between the twin poles of great admiration and secret envy. Their friendship develops unexpectedly and tightens quickly into an intense, complex thing with both girls seeking something they need from someone who seems to be her opposite. Even at the end, when that angry, festering secret comes between them, both women still look to the other to be what she can’t.

In the interview, Bennett says this, which is something for every writer, female and male, to think about:

Bennett: Oh yeah, I mean, I’ve always been interested in the relationships between and among women. A lot of, if not most of the closest relationships in my life are with other women, whether that be my sisters or friends. And I do feel, like you said, the relationships between women are often trivialized or shown as the minor subplot to the main story of a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, for example. But I was really interested, particularly in this part of my life when friendships are so, so important, so I was really interested in the development of women’s friendships and that aspect of your early and mid twenties when that is such a huge part of your life.

Success story of young novelist

October 10, 2016

From today’s New York Times, comes a story of Brit Bennett, who started writing a novel when she was 17. Now it’s been bought and 100,000 copies are about to be published.

But notice what happened. She started as late as possible. She began with the ending. And in the revising process, she focused on the place in which the story happened. That made the story come alive.

“The Mothers” begins with an abrupt ending of sorts. Nadia, who is grieving after her mother’s suicide, starts dating Luke, a pastor’s son, and becomes pregnant. Determined not to let her life be derailed, she gets an abortion and leaves for the University of Michigan. Years pass, and Nadia’s friend Aubrey, a committed Christian, begins dating and eventually marries Luke, living a version of the life that Nadia ran from. Nadia’s story is framed by the recurring chorus-like voice of “the mothers,” the gossipy elder women of the church who serve as her hometown’s eagle-eyed morality police.

In the years Ms. Bennett spent writing the novel, the narrative morphed from a narrow story focused on Aubrey, Luke and Nadia into a layered portrait of a community. She modeled the setting on her hometown, a multiethnic beachside city in San Diego County with a large military population, which often felt suffocatingly small to her.

“I’ve had people be shocked that the book is not set in the South or some Northern urban city, but it’s like, black people exist everywhere,” Ms. Bennett said. “There’s a way in which we have these familiar expectations from black narratives, of where they’re set and what they’ll be about, and it wasn’t something that I felt I had to push back against or whatever, but I wanted to represent the place that I was from and the people I knew.”

I encourage you to read the whole story. And when the book comes out, it sounds well worth reading.

How to write the opening and outline

October 7, 2016

Many of you are still struggling with the opening.  One problem is you try to start with action elements without setting up the characters and place. My big advice is SLOW DOWN.

Write about your character or characters and what has brought them together. Who are they? What are their values and problems. The screen-writer Syd Field boils character down to needs. What does the character need? Look at the Six-Box model for fiction by Walter Dean Myers. In the first box the character has to be established and the character has to fleshed out and described. Something has shaped the character, maybe his or her parents or town or culture. Tell us about the character. If a reader is going to spend any time with a story, the writer has to explain who the character is and what she is obsessed with and what he is reacting to. What is the character’s need.

Then, following the six-box model, what is she going to do to accomplish her goal? Despite having a career and a family, Pershing Holland is going to drink himself to death. Notice the conflict in that sentence. His story would not be so interesting if he drank himself to death right away. He had a chance at life, but he couldn’t handle it. Stories are not always uplifting. They tell us truths about human nature, and those truths are not always pleasant. The outcomes are not always happy. But we need these stories in order to have a sense of balance about the way the world is and the way people are.

See if you can describe a character in a place and tie the two together, and identify what the character is trying to accomplish. Make the character and the place come alive. You can do this just by explaining it, the way you might tell someone you met at a party, and you’re going to explain how your crazy relative stole your identity, or how you kept choosing the wrong partner and what went wrong.

Then what happens next? Once you have established the characters needs and ambitions and problems, and shown us where the story takes place, outline the series of obstacles the character must overcome.

If you look at almost any movie you will find a strong central character who has to overcome a series of obstacles. In the outline you lay out what the obstacles are, how the character comes to understand something.

Dont rush into the plot and action. Sit with the character and the place. Describe them, think about them, explain them. A character comes from somewhere and has absorbed the values and problems and opportunities of that place.

Donald Trump was one of those rich kids who went to a military school and was set up in business by his dad. Hillary Clinton’s father installed drapes and was an ambitious student who went to Wellesley College and Yale Law School and was a Republican in high school and college.  The point is, you have to know your character. The character has to be a rounded human being, not a wooden puppet whose strings you pull.

That’s one reason I favor nonfiction. The tendency with fiction is to take the easy way out and make the character a puppet. In nonfiction you have to come to grips with a human being, and you can ask questions. You will be surprised what people will tell you if you ask questions and listen.

P.S. Notice I’ve broken down the “pages” section to the right into two sections, one with instructional pages and the other with reading.

I urge you to look at the instructional pages and see if there is a structure that fits your story. The most important thing is to find a structure. Don’t try to wing it.

Try to figure out what the theme of the story is about. Our Iranian character is defined by a need: to tell stories and write poems that challenge injustice to women. Our football hero is defined by the loss of this brother.  Our writers know what make these characters tick. Show us in your introduction what makes the character tick.


“Workshopping” the introduction and outline

October 6, 2016

Workshopping is a term that grew out of the Iowa Creative Writing program back in the 1940s. It involves students reading and commenting on one another’s writing. The aim is to help the other students not by mindlessly praising or cruelly criticizing but by giving helpful advice from a reader.

Here’s how this will work. Students will submit their introductions and outlines to a special gmail account I have set up. I will send your draft to four of your classmates, who will read and write one page of helpful ideas based on what you have learned about structure as well as your instincts as a reader. What is strong and interesting in the piece? What is missing? What should be more developed? Is the structure clear?

You will send the page to both the writers and to me at my gmail account. (The special account is necessary in order to coordinate all the drafts.)

The address is:

Each student must send me an email with your name from the account you want to use for the class. We will do this tonight with Group B, the group that starts with all last names after Hudson.

Group A, which met last week, must send an email immediately.




GROUP A: Submit an opening and an outline by Monday, October 11.

GROUP B: Submit an opening and an outline by Monday, October 17.

Reminder of the rest of our schedule:

Week 4: Oct. 13 and Oct. 20 Workshopping of introductions and outlines

Week 5 Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 “Death of a Poet”

Week 6 Nov. 10 and Nov. 17 DRAFTS DUE


LAST MEETING: Dec. 1 Perhaps in a big room. To be determined.