July 2018 | Two books on writing

Photo by Theresa Barker.

How often do we overlook the things in our own back yard?  Mt. Rainier is a beauty in my own state of Washington, and we can often see it from Seattle on clear days, but it has been a few years since I had a chance to visit this lovely and inspiring mountain.  Last week when family came into town planning a drive out to the Mt. Rainier National Park, I hopped in and went along. I wasn’t disappointed!  Even in the height of tourist season – late July – it was crowded in the park, but not mobbed, so we had a wonderful visit.  We sat on the porch of the National Park Inn at Longmire, at the base of the mountain, and looked out on this view.  It was wonderful.

Stands of green firs, glacial-rock channels of rushing water, piled-up white clouds. Even though I’d been to the Park a few times before I was still moved by being in such a natural place.

How often do we overlook the things in our back yard? When I got home from this trip with cousins I did some thinking about what I may have overlooked, caught up in everyday life. As writers we are uniquely gifted to notice things, the beautiful, the unusual, the details, the small things, things that are so important to our lives.

July is one of my favorite months. I think of it as the month right in the middle of summer. It’s a festive month with the Independence Day holiday at the start, and then rolling into the hot-ish month of August at the end. Just the name – July – sounds jubilant, jewel-like, and jazzy. Doesn’t it? August feels like cusp of summer, like we’re about to hit the “dog days” of summer and all too soon, the school days of autumn. But July, July is the festive month of summer abandon.

What I’m Reading This Month

I’ve come across two excellent craft books for fiction writers this month, Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and When the Rewards Can Be So Great by poet Kwame Dawes. The Kwame Dawes book is a collection of essays by MFA faculty with Pacific University, ranging across poetry, nonfiction and memoir, and fiction. Workshops that were taught by MFA instructors were converted into essays on craft. Both inspirational and practical, these essays touch on how to find one’s own voice, the nuts and bolts of writing, and the key elements of a good writing process. For instance, “32 Statements About Writing Poetry” by Marvin Bell starts

  1.  Every poet is an experimentalist.
  2. Learning to write is a simple process:  Read something, then write something; read something else, then write something else.  And show in your writing what you have read.
  3. There is not one way to write and no right way to write.
  4. The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff.  No good stuff without the bad stuff.
  5. Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.
  6. You do not learn from work like yours so much as you learn from work unlike yours. . . .

The Jane Smiley book has been a game-changer. It is both analysis of novels and the novel-writing process, and practical about how to become a novelist. The premise is that Smiley, when suddenly struck with writer’s block, decided to read 100 novels. In reading them she began to formulate her thinking about the novel:  what is a novel, who a novelist is, the origins and psychology of the novel, and so on. The analysis in this book is fascinating. And inspiring! Here is an excerpt, the opening of Chapter 3, “Who is a Novelist?”:

A novel has an author. The desire to write a novel is the single required prerequisite for writing a novel. . . . While the desire to write a novel does not guarantee that the resulting novel will be a good one, or, if it is, that the author will produce a string of good ones, it is the only way to begin. Most often it grows out of a compulsive habit of reading as a child. It was said of Sinclair Lewis that he was always doing two things at once, and one of them was reading a book. Charles Dickens was an avid reader as a boy; his dearest childhood memories were of reading The Tales of the Arabian Nights. . . .

I am definitely one of those who read voraciously from when I was very young. At night I would sneak a flashlight under the covers and read after lights-out. And even though I’ve written a couple of novels and countless short stories, I found this book presents new ways of thinking about the novel, and about novel-writing, than from any other book I’ve read. I have been recommending it to all my writer friends!

Writing Tip – 1st person vs. 3rd person

Chicago Buildings on a Ramp

In Steve Amick’s essay in the Kwame Dawes book he discusses the difference between first-person point of view and third person point of view. First person is in the “I” narrator (“I came into the grocery store and saw Mandrella there”), and third person is in the “he/she/it” narrator (“He went into the grocery store and there was Mandrella”). Any writer past the beginner stage is well-aware of the difference between these two points of view, but the interesting thing about Amick’s essay was that he pointed out when each point of view was at its best. For instance, in first person you have the advantage of immediacy and of strongly identifying with the main character, as though they were you, because of the “I” voice. When you read first person, the idea is that you feel as though you are the main character more than if you read third person.  In third person you have more distance from the main character, which can avoid some of the awkward hyper-intensity that can come with the first person. This is pretty straightforward.

However, Amick goes beyond the basics and talks about additional advantages or ways to use each of these points of view. In first person, you tell the story, but you can also tell the telling of the story. The first person viewpoint assumes the narrator has survived the story, and in doing so, they may be looking back on how it affected them and what they might have known or not known at a particular stage. Reflection on events might not be so readily available for third person, who is experiencing the events of the story as they unfold.

In third person, the main character’s story is told from the outside, although their thoughts and feelings may come into the story as part of the telling.  Depending on the author’s wishes, we may learn nothing about the characters thoughts (so-called “cinematic” style), only seeing the events and actions or dialogue that take place.  Or, we may be brought deeply into the character’s consciousness, hearing their thoughts and feelings about events along with the events that occur. Or somewhere in between!

But third person also allows statements to be made about the character from the author. For instance, “Arlan went into the hotel.  He was a short, wiry man who loved off-track betting and needed a financial shot-in-the-arm.  The man he wanted to see was waiting in the bar . . .” This type of description is also possible in first person, but would be much more wordy and indirect, as you’d have to hint at it through what Arlan though about himself. E.g., “I went into the hotel. I am always shorter than most men, and even though I tell myself I’m wiry and nimble, it still bugs me. I tried not to think about what would happen if I lost at the races again, or about the bills piling up at home. Being addicted to off-track betting is a definite liability if you want to eat. Or have an apartment. Or keep a spouse happy. I went into the bar and saw the man I’d come to meet . . . ”

As you can see from this short example, giving information about the character in first person can be longer and more indirect than in third person.  But you may have also noticed that first person gives you the chance to have a really interesting voice.  I’d say that the best first-person novels I’ve read have a very strong, unique voice, a voice that leads me to want to know everything about the character, not just a narration of events but their in-depth thoughts and reactions to the events happening in the story.  Richard Ford’s Independence Day, about a real estate agent whose business is failing and whose wife has divorced him is one example.  And I’ve always loved the classics Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brönte) and Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier) as books with very strong voices.

Which brings me to the latest writing exercise I’ve been doing:  first person vs. third person. First I write a brief piece in first person, and then a second piece in third person. I started out telling the same story from each perspective, but after some practice I would write two different stories using the same title (from my exercise last month).  Here is “Crazy Glue”:

STORY ONE:  “Crazy Glue” – 1st person

I bought Gorilla Glue. It’s better for wood repairs. But Marcel got angry anyway. “I said Crazy Glue! What’s this s–?” I saw again the mean curl of his lip, the scar go white over his eye. The angry outbursts had started when I told him I was pregnant, and a part of me noticed that I’d let myself get involved again. Again. With a man who hates women. Who hates women. What was wrong with me? I knew better than to respond, though. “Crazy Glue,” Marcel continued, staring meanly. In French or in English he could be just as mean. I would not wait this time. My sister’s place was safe. I would leave tonight.

STORY TWO:  “Crazy Glue” – 3rd person

The band that called themselves Crazy Glue went on the road. Madison Wisconsin. Duluth Minnesota. Bismark North Dakota. The Midwest was good to them and their fans loved them. Even in the dead of winter when they had to come out in the 20-below weather, their fans made the inner bar scenes swelteringly hot. Crazy Glue made sales of their home-cut CDs and band-theme T-shirts. They considered adding coffee mugs, hip flasks, and key rings to their merchandise. The drummer had an uncle with a custom merchandise business who gave cut rates to family. But then they hit Sioux Falls Iowa, the venue backed out, and no alternate venue could be had. The plane ticket home was appealing, but they drove. Their equipment.

Are you up to the challenge of writing something in first person and then again in third person?  Try it!  You may be surprised by the results.

Thanks for joining me in thinking about summer and novel-writing.  Happy writing!

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