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Taming the Shaggy Beast: Letting Your Novel Write Itself

The laconic comedian, Stephen Wright, once said, “I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done.” Now there’s a man determined to tame the shaggy beast, as Henry James called the novel form. I don’t know about you, but I think I’d prefer a few more practical strategies for getting the job done than just imagining you’ve gotten to the end by putting the numbers on blank pages. So with that in mind, let’s start with the notion that our novels all exist, fully formed, in a pre-vocabulary state, and are just waiting for us to find the words [...]

By |2019-08-11T16:00:35-04:00August 11th, 2019|Uncategorized|0 Comments

“Whatcha Doin’?”: Surviving a Writer’s Dry Season

I came back from teaching in the Miami of Ohio low-residency MFA program yesterday and found we’re still in the middle of a dry season here in Columbus. The lawns are brown and crunchy, and, truth be told, it depresses me to see them that way. Even those who are watering, or have irrigation systems, are having a hard time keeping up. The landscape makes me think of things ending, and not in that pretty, crisp-air, autumn sort of way. This dryness calls to mind a dormant land and a fallow period, one that suggests that things just might not [...]

By |2019-08-05T07:23:59-04:00August 5th, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

Teaching and Revising

I’m leading a fiction workshop this week—a good warmup for another academic year about to begin—and it occurs to me that the way I approach the discussion about a manuscript may offer a useful scheme for those interested in strategies for revising a first draft. My custom is to first consider—and to invite my workshop participants to consider—what the draft seems to be interested in.  What are its obsessions? To what does it devote the most space? What lies at its heart? Answering such questions inevitability leads to an articulation of the center of the piece. Such intimate knowledge is [...]

By |2019-07-29T08:51:10-04:00July 29th, 2019|Blog|4 Comments

Hot Enough?: Practicing Subtext in Dialogue

We’re having a heat wave. Temps in the mid-nineties. Heat indices well over a hundred. Cathy and I went out yesterday afternoon to do some shopping, and the volume of traffic was noticeably lower. The stores were a bit emptier. There was no waiting for a table at one of our favorite restaurants. If a city this size could ever seem like a ghost town, it came close yesterday. The malaise of a hot day in summer always reminds me of the scene in The Great Gatsby when Tom and Daisy and Nick and Jordan decide to drive into New [...]

By |2019-07-22T08:18:40-04:00July 22nd, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

The Variation in the Habitual: Creating Scenes

We’ve hit a stretch of hot, dry days here in central Ohio, each day like the one before it. The grass is brown, the trees are dropping their leaves, the sun blazes. I long for a variation in the pattern, something out of the ordinary, something to make me say, “Ah, here’s something different.” Such is the lifeblood of scenes in a narrative. A good scene depends upon such dissimilarity. Otherwise, why have a scene at all. A character’s actions or words demand dramatization. We have to dramatize because something extraordinary has happened. This doesn’t mean some grand event like [...]

By |2019-07-15T08:05:15-04:00July 15th, 2019|Blog|3 Comments

Don’t Wait: Write!

Cathy and I decided to make a little weekend getaway after the Fourth of July, so we headed up to Ohio Amish Country. We love the rolling hills there, the sight of haystacks in the pastures, the cows and sheep and goats, the sound of horseshoes clip-clopping over pavement as a horse and buggy passes. We were surprised to learn that the Amish are favoring bicycles as a mode of transportation these days. On Friday evening, as we drove into Berlin at dusk, we encountered a steady stream of bicycle and buggy lights in what used to be known as [...]

By |2019-07-08T08:28:15-04:00July 8th, 2019|Uncategorized|4 Comments

Coming Clean: Characters and Their Confessions

Cathy and I went to The Ohio Theatre last night to watch The Music Man, part of the summer film series. The movie is set in 1912 in River City, Iowa, where a con man, Professor Harold Hill, convinces the townsfolk that the appearance of a pool table in the billiard hall is a grave danger to their youth and the only way to avoid it is to enroll their sons in a boys’ band, and of course he’s glad to sell them the instruments, the band uniforms, and the instruction booklets. He means to skip town with the profits [...]

By |2019-07-01T08:20:16-04:00July 1st, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

First Drafts: The Delight of the Surprise

This afternoon, Cathy and I made our first pilgrimage of the growing season to Bambi’s Produce Market a few miles out in the country from where we live. Sunday afternoons, so it seems, are perfect for such trips, partly because we have the time and partly because such drives remind me of similar ones I used to go on with my parents when I was a child in southeastern Illinois. “Let’s take a ride,” my father would say, and off we’d go. We had no destination and no purpose. We merely drove for the sake of driving. We never knew [...]

By |2019-06-24T08:07:52-04:00June 24th, 2019|Blog|5 Comments

Driven by Desire: Character and Incident

"What is character but the determination of incident?” Henry James wrote. “What is incident but the illustration of character?” The desire need not be for something grand, but it does need to be intense enough to put a character into action. Take, for example, the father in Holly Beth Pratt’s “Nighttime Ride.” Here’s the opening paragraph: The dad had a sweet tooth; it was something fierce. When it got ahold of him, no matter where he was—clearing invasives on the job, taking the kids for a weekend, eating his one-pan dinner—he had to satisfy it, like if he didn’t it [...]

By |2019-06-17T07:35:54-04:00June 17th, 2019|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Pressure Points in Narratives

I’ve told this story before, so please excuse me for telling it again. It has so much to do with everything I want to say about pressure points in narrative. On the last night that my mother lived independently, a package addressed to her neighbor was accidentally delivered to her. My mother was a kind woman who believed in being a good neighbor, so she put on her coat and a rain hat—the kind women of a certain generation kept folded in their pocketbooks—and prepared to take the package to its rightful owner. This was in early March in southeastern [...]

By |2019-06-10T07:59:28-04:00June 10th, 2019|Blog|4 Comments