I have looked deeply and longingly at my own writing time and again trying to determine what is good and what is poorly done and what is the best that I have written. How does one examine what is good? What are the standards that you must meet?
I had a writing teacher who was teaching a class in fiction writing and said to us, “You write fiction to create that special bittersweet something, that je ne sais quoi, that you need in order to come to terms with reality. Everything necessary to say something that satisfies a nameless desire.” I wish I remembered his name so I could credit him with having said that wise thing. Or, at any rate, I wish I could remember the name of the wise guy that he was quoting.
So, basically I am trying to capture in prose something that I have no idea what it is, but both you and I will know it if we see it. Easy-peasy, right?
Good fiction that I have read and liked makes me feel something. If it is truly literary quality, like the novels of Charles Dickens, Terry Pratchett, and Mark Twain, it will make me both laugh and cry. Funny things balanced by things that hurt to know and make you weep for characters that you have come to love. If it is a downer kind of novel, as some very good bits of science fiction and horror fiction are, it will make you laugh a little, cry a little, and think a lot; think with dread, or despair, or even impossible hope. Steven King, George Orwell, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury are good examples of this.
I am grappling with how you do that. I am not fool enough to think I am some sort of literary great. I am a school teacher writing stories for school children, stories I wanted to hear when I was a kid. Stories of good versus evil, good people coming together in the face of chaos. Heroes, villains, and clowns being heroic, villainous, or foolish. And themes that both warm and chill your little blue heart.
. So, what can I do besides keep on writing and keep on trying and keep on begging people, fools, and children to try reading my writing because they will like it, even if it is the least best thing I have written?
The question came up on Twitter. “What things aren’t safe to write about in a Young Adult novel?”
I have personally never questioned myself about that before. The writer asking for input was writing something science-fiction-y about a telepath using telepathy to torture someone. He was apparently worried that a younger audience would be traumatized by that.
Really? Anyone who can ask that has never spent much time talking to young readers.
I base my answer on over thirty years of trying to get kids to read things of literary quality. My very first year of teaching a male student stood up when the literature books were passed out and announced, “I don’t do literature!”
“Really, Ernie? You are going to lay that challenge before me?”
We slogged through The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that year, using and reusing 20 paperback copies of the novel purchased with my own money. Ernie maybe didn’t like it. But he did literature.
And I went on a thirty-four year quest to find out what literature kids really would do and what literature kids really neededto do.
Here’s a tiny bit of wisdom from Mickey’s small brain and comparatively large experience; Kids are not traumatized by literature in any form. Kids are traumatized by life. They need literature to cope with trauma.
Kids want to read about things that they fear. A book like Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card has some graphic violence in it and a war against faceless aliens, but it does an excellent job of teaching how to empathize as well as fight against bullies, and it helps them grapple with the notion that the enemy is never clearly the thing that you thought it was to begin with.
Kids want to read the truth about subjects like love and sex. They are not looking for pornography in YA novels. They get that elsewhere and know a lot more about it than I do. They want to think about what is right and how you deal with things like teen pregnancy, abortion, matters of consent vs. rape and molestation. Judy Blume started being objectively honest with kids about topics like puberty and sex back in the 60’s with books like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. and Iggie’s House.
If you are writing for young adults, middle grade and high school kids, even kids 5th Grade and below who are high-level readers, it is more important to worry about writing well and writing honestly than it is to worry about whether they can handle the topics and trauma that you wish to present. Write from the heart and write well.
I can honestly say I know these things I have said are true about young readers from having read to them, read with them, and even taught them to read. As an author, my opinion is worth diddly-squoot since I have hardly sold any books, and no kids I know have read them (except for two of my nieces, both of whom are pretty weird and nerdy just like me.)
For the last five and a half years I have been averaging more than 500 words every day. A rough conservative estimate of that means 17,112,000 words. If words were cocaine, I’d be dead five times over by now.
But writing is not the same as cocaine. The addiction to it has very different effects. I divide my daily writing into at least two parts. The daily blog is itself, more often than not, 500-plus words. So, by itself it can satisfy my daily word-count. And I devote at least 500 words every day to my novel work in progress. So, that means I have produced well over 17 million words in reality. Probably closer to 34 million than to 17. That, of course, is far less than Stephen King wrote in the same period of time, but it is also far more than the average person writes.
And one thing that such an overdose of verbiage does to a writer, is to make him or her a better writer.
I have produced nine novels, between 35,000 and 50,000 words each, in the time since I retired from teaching and began writing and self-publishing in earnest. I have gotten only five-star reviews on the novels that have been read and reviewed. Granted, nobody who read and hated my books hated them passionately enough to leave a scathing review, so the 5-star average is just due to laziness on the part of the reading public. But it is marginally evidence that my storytelling is good.
Another effect I have experienced from my writing addiction is that it has made me increasingly metaphorically naked. My illustrations for this post reveal a little bit of that. It is not only that I like to write in the nude when I can, but that I have used my stories to grapple with everything that was once a deep, dark secret buried in the depths of me. Being sexually assaulted as a child was something that for many years I could never admit even to myself. Struggles with loneliness, depression, and self-hatred are also something I had kept buried until I needed them to tell stories with.
I finally worked up the courage to send a gift copy of Snow Babies to the girl I grew up with whose name I used for the main character, Valerie Clarke. Valerie loved the book and became an advocate for me with both the Belmond and Rowan libraries. I even admitted that the part about Valerie being the most beautiful girl ever born in Norwall, Iowa came from something the boys in our 5th and 6th grade classes at school all said about her. She told me she never knew we had said that back then. Ah, but that was probably an untruth too.
As addictions go, my addiction to fiction is probably a lot better thing to have than addictions to gambling, cocaine, wife-beating, or gummy bears. But it hasn’t made me any richer or healthier either. It has made me older, and possibly a little bit wiser.
I have claimed that I am a humorist and all my novels are comic novels, to some degree at least. But it is often pointed out to me that I write about things that make people cry. And I freely admit that I most certainly do.
But if you think about it carefully, analytically, or even emotionally, you have to admit, even a book like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has some weep-worthy moments in it. I have read the book more than once myself, and I never get past the scene where Huck looks down at the body of his young friend Buck Grangerford, killed in the Shepherdson/Grangerford feud about something nobody living even remembers, without shedding gushers and gushers of heart-busting tears.
And in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, as much as I laugh and guffaw at the antics of quiet Mr. Dick and his kite, or the much deserved downfall of villainous Uriah Heep, it is the drowning of Little Emily on the boat with David’s school friend and idol Steerforth that leaves me surrounded by puddles… nay, lakes… that I have wept.
And I think that I may justify the sad parts in so many of my weary works with the fact that I am merely providing the necessary counterpoints to my merry-making and mirth.
There has to be that necessary balance, that well-rounded-ness, to a story that makes it feel truly complete. And, of course, we know that even in a horror novel by Stephen King, you find humor used as a balance point to lighten the moments just before the monster delivers its liver-shaking, earth-tilting scare.
Snow Babies, among my published books, is a good example. It is a story that celebrates how a small Iowa town comes together to survive a deadly December blizzard. And while it tells funny stories of kooky characters battling the elements, and both surviving the blizzard and ’84 Reagan/Mondale political debates, as well as putting up Christmas trees, it is still also about death and loss of loved ones, finding and losing love, and just what sort of self-sacrifice or other accidental happening truly makes someone a hero. Or a bus driver… this book has more than one bus driver in it.
So, I think, in the end, that I have made a cogent case for the notion that in order to be a humorist, you have to manipulate many emotions, not just mirth, but sadness also. As well as fear, bitter irony, and pain. And that may well also be the underlying reason that comedy is harder to write than tragedy.
I am a novelist. In the same way that a pianist is a pianist because he plays music on the piano, I am a novelist because I have written 12 novels and published eleven of them. I am not a professional novelist. I have made $1.75 in royalty payments for August 2019. But not being a successful writer for money does not prevent me from being a novelist.
So, don’t be surprised when I say that I have strong opinions about what a novel is and what it should be.
First of all, a novelist must also be an avid reader. Not merely a reader of other novels by other novelists, but of anything and everything. Essays, plays, non-fiction books about a wide array of factual things, and pseudo-factual things, and conjecture, and conspiracy theories, and poetry, and science books, and Mark Twain, and Isaac Asimov, and Charles Dickens, and Ray Bradbury, and comic books, and graphic novels, and more, and more, and more… for as long as your brain shall work. A novelist should try to read everything, because to be a good novelist, you must know everything. Certainly you must know far more than what you actually write down into novel form.
A good novelist must be good at short fiction as well. Because a novel is more than just one story. It is made up of parts. I call them Cantos. Most writers call them Chapters.
But whatever you call them, or even if you don’t give them separate titles or sections in the novel, they are like short stories in themselves. They must have their own lead sentence, their own beginning, middle, and end. They must have their own end line, or punch line, or thesis statement. And they must have, by their end, a point to make about setting, plot, character, or theme.
A novel is layer cake of little stories, each layered upon other layers, and all baked together into the same over-arching cake.
And a novel, when it is published, is never really done. Sequels, prequels, and serialization are always possible and sometimes even necessary. Rewrites and new editions are also a thing. And even in the mind of the reader, the novel never really ceases to have an effect. I still carry around A Tale of Two Cities in my head everywhere I go, and through everything I do, even when I am writing my own novels. Sidney Carton is very much alive to me, even though he dies at the end of the novel.
So, there you have it. A bunch of burbling about novels from an unsuccessful novelist. For whatever it is worth, I am truly a novelist. And I do not apologize for being that sort of low-down, despicable sort of human being.
I write and draw comics and comic-book-style stories.
And that isn’t me in the first picture of this post. Although it is pretty close.
But today, I am once again merely sitting down to the keyboard to monkey around and tap out something in writing to get the old writing practice over with.
There is no over-arching plan to follow, no theme already in mind… just little old me sitting down and working at it to get ideas on paper.
And soon, unless the school district I applied to rejects my application for no foreseeable reason, I will be doing the work of a substitute teacher. Of course, that’s not me in the fuzzed up background of the picture. That is not even a real classroom. No classroom contains that many left-hand raisers. And if you could find one, no real classroom has that many hand raisers without having asked the question, “Who wants ice cream?” And a mere sub cannot possibly afford to ask that expensive question.
But that isn’t even the kind of work I meant when I lamely wrote that title. Lamely writing a title is work I have to force myself to do. And that is even harder when you write it first while having no earthly idea what you are even going to write about in the essay.
I always told writing classes (the ones who actually never raise either hand about anything) that the best way to do it is to leave writing the title til last so you will already know what you wrote about and what to call it. But forcing yourself to follow through on a title you just pulled out of the air is one way to force yourself to get the necessary work done.
Another thing you can do to force yourself to get the work done when you need to write something, is put the writing aside and read a book. As Sagan suggests, books are magical things that let you channel the mind of another author, preferably one who is smarter and a better writer than you are. I can write fake Twain and fake Dickens like nobody’s business because I soaked in Twain’s magical way of writing down what people said in the weird way the individual talker actually sounded during my college years, and I absorbed Dickens’ knack for creating weird but lovable characters with distinctive personalities and motivations when I was even younger than that. But channeling is not the same as plagiarizing, so you can get away with it much easier than most other literary crimes you are fully capable of committing as an author. You can easily steal style and ideas from whatever book you are reading, and that helps you do the necessary work.
Of course, when you are done procrastinating and wasting time by reading somebody else’s book, you can then turn to another helpful tactic to do the work that needs to be done. You can pick a book to re-read.
That’s right. When I recently re-read Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe, I was better able to see and admire the structure of that book, a hero’s quest-type story that narrates the episodic adventures of a ragtag group of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world as they are on a quest for a lost book, one that is being written as the reader reads it.
This particular author is quite good at Quixotic Quest
Stories, and understanding how he has put his story together is marvelously
instructive. He has written a blue-print
for a kind of story you can easily apply to the structure of your own story.
I am doing something very similar now as I re-read my own story, The Bicycle-Wheel Genius and follow the eccentric characters on a very similar quest to find a story in pre-apocalyptic Iowa in the 80’s and 90’s.
So, what is the theme that I can wrap this warped wooden
bowl of advice-fish up in so that you can take it home and feed it to your
children (by which I mean your own writing)?
Well, my best advice is to never take advice from Mickey. He is sarcastic and ironic and usually
joking, so he rarely means whatever he says.
After all, he wrote one of the best essays of his life yesterday, and
practically nobody has read it yet. But I am also saying you don’t have to go
it alone. There is a whole world of us
out there, and even the dead ones count.
Use what you learn from others to help you get the necessary work
done. So, find that unused steam engine,
fire it up, and start chugging away at the next surprise best seller, or at
least the book that most pleases you yourself to write.
I start today with nothing in my head to write about. I guess I can say that with regularity most days of the writing week. Sundays in particular are filled with no useful ideas of any kind. But I have a certain talent for spinning. As Rumpelstiltskin had a talent for spinning straw into gold, I take the simple threads of ideas leaking out of my ears and spin them into yarns that become whole stories-full of something to say. And it is not something out of mere nothing. There is magic in spinning wheels. They take something ordinary and incomplete, and turn it into substantial threads useful for further weaving.
Of course the spinning wheel is just a metaphor here for the craft of writing. And it is a craft, requiring definable skills that go well beyond merely knowing some words and how to spell them.
The first skill is, of course, idea generation. You have to come up with the central notion to concoct the potion. In this case today, that is, of course, the metaphor of using the writing process as a spinning wheel for turning straw into gold. But once that is wound onto the spindle, you begin to spin yarn only if you follow the correct procedure. Structuring the essay or story is the next critical skill.
Since this is a didactic essay about the writing process I opened it with a strong lead that defined the purpose of the essay and explained the central metaphor. Then I proceeded to break down the basic skills for writing an essay with orderly explanations of them, laced with distracting images to keep you from dying of boredom while reading this, a very real danger that may actually have killed a large number of the students in my writing classes over the years (although they still appeared to be alive on the outside).
As I proceed through the essay, I am stopping constantly to revise and edit, makeing sure to correct errors and grammar, as well as spending fifteen minutes searching for the picture of my mother’s spinning wheel used directly above. Notice, too, I deliberately left the spelling-error typo of “making” to emphasize the idea that revising and proof-reading are two different things that often occur at the same time, though they are very different skills.
And as I reach the conclusion, it may be obvious that my spinning wheel of thought today spun out some pure gold. Or, more likely, it may have spun out useless and boring drehk. Or boring average stuff. But I used the spinning wheel correctly regardless of your opinion of the sparkle of my gold.