Writers On Writing 4
An Empty Moment in Time - How Not to Write
I have been told by a straightfaced, professional person that my novel Persephones
Torch would never see print because "nobody wants to read a novel about
This struck me as an unconscionably foolish reason to give an author for turning down a
manuscript. It says nothing about the quality of the work: only the ignorance of the
person making the comment. Because it wasnt the theater part of the equation
that she objected to: it was the decade.
Its frightening that there are grown-up people out there, people who take
themselves seriously, people who are allowed to vote for chrissakes, who dont
give a damn about anything that happened before 1995. This is important to writers,
because these same people are the ones, within and outside of the industry, who are
shaping the business of publishing.
In todays literary landscape the past is acceptable only as a backdrop for
Romance novels of various sorts or as part of straightforward reminiscences (Angelas
Ashes, for one) designed to drive home the message of how bad the past was, how
much better off we are without it.
Make it Contemporary, and make the reader feel harmlessly validated and superior, if
you want your book to see print.
But its possible to be contemporary without actually being Contemporary, if you
know what I mean. Human experience is relevant regardless of the details of geography, era
or orientation. Does that sound obvious? Tell it to the editors.
There are specific reasons why my novel was framed by the milieu of the theater (the
double-edged sword of imagination, the way it can raise us out of the muck on the one hand
or warp our perceptions of reality on the other, is the books theme), just as there
are reasons why its events could only have taken place in the late 1930s and the beginning
of the 40s. My story could never have happened in a world were television existed,
where an excess of pre-fab daydreams inundates us day and night. Five decades ago people
spoke a different language and experienced the world in different ways and there
were laws, especially abortion laws, that made life for my characters more difficult
yet people were much the same as they are today. In the course of writing the
novel, I did not for one second stop to think that it might be less interesting to readers
because I mentioned Laurel and Hardy in the text instead of Rosie ODonnell. The
thought that it might, for that reason, be less interesting is bizarre to me.
By that definition, nobody would ever read Elie Wiesel or Robertson Davies, the one
because he writes about times that the under-forty crowd does not remember or care about,
and the other because hes Canadian, male, white and dead. If either of these writers
were starting out today, its more than likely that their work would be rejected by
todays editors, whose eyes are clouded by demographics, who care not about writing
but only about hitting the biggest of the big numbers.
A serious novel, one in which the characters have real thoughts and feelings, are happy
and sad, have successes and failures, ought to have just as much value to readers whether
its set in the here and now, or a hundred years from now, or sixty years in the
past, in New York, Dublin, Paris, Zimbabwe, Mexico or the farthest reaches of space. It
shouldnt matter, either, whether the leading character (or the author for that
matter) is male or female.
Books are not meant to be a tool by which a reader can put on blinders and just hear
what they want to hear. Books are meant to open up lives and expose worlds. If editors and
publishers start choosing books on the basis of what they think interests a certain
demographic, if certain milieu, decades, sexes and outlooks become verboten by unwritten
policy based on the opinions of people who cant see past their own experience, then
the industry will continue to become smaller and narrower and more and more
self-referential. And then, Im sorry folks, its all over. Burn the set. The
end of history is here.
By numbers, my generation has produced more writers and wannabe-writers than any other
in history yet it has produced not one single Faulkner, Parker, Hurston, Gillman,
Dos Passos, Hemingway, Austen, Bronte, Thurber or Chandler (or, if it has, those new young
giants have not yet found their way into print). Were suffering under a glut of the
written word, but so much of it, even when technically sound, is emotionally flat: Paul
Auster gamesmanship and Sam Shepard generic speed-written tosh.
So many people seem to want to be writers, without having any real idea of how to do
it, that a growth industry has risen in books about writing, magazines about writing,
computer software supposedly designed to aid you in writing Dramatica and the like.
To read this stuff youd think there was a secret to it, some mystic key that can be
found only by Questing or by following a rigid and arcane set of rules.
I tried one of those writing software programs, just out of curiosity. It was supposed
to help me outline a story by forcing me to come up with "Events," to tie those
"Events" to "Threads," and those "Threads" to a
I knew right away that I was in trouble, because the makers of this program simply did
not think or work the same way that I do. We may live in a culture of Event as opposed to
a culture of Character, but I still hang onto the idea that good fiction begins with
character. Event has meaning only in the light of character. It rises out of, and is
shaped by the characters roots. Conflict arises when two or more people, with all
their differences, get in each others way. Yet nowhere in this program were
characters, emotions or conflicts even mentioned.
How can you have events without having characters first? I thought. Well, I dragged
that software to the trash, breathed a sigh of relief and got back to work on my project.
It went real well once I stopped listening to some hack software developer tell me how to
The point is, everyone works differently. If you work by the numbers, the way some
rule-maker tells you how to work, you may indeed become technically competent more
quickly, but your work will be soulless. Theres plenty of that sort of thing on the
shelves already, its a big part of the self-referential glut that threatens to choke
Read good books and write. Its as simple as that. Forget about the instructional
manuals and the software and the magazines. Just put your ass in a chair and write. Do it
any way you want to do it, but be objective. Thats the hard part, the part that
drives some writers mad, that all the "writers aids" gloss over. You have
to pass judgment on yourself. Look at what youve built on paper. The architecture
may be nice, but is anybody home?
From whatever direction we approach the business of writing, we have an obligation to
look beneath the surface of things. Whats Contemporary today is forgotten tomorrow
and because something is well-crafted and clever does not necessarily make it worth
Next Installment: Writers on Writing 5:
It Takes All Kinds