WIG&TSSIP: Afterword: Writing in General

The Ditchwalk Book Club has been reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.

The final section of Hill’s book is also the most personal. Departing from the twin subjects of fiction and craft that bound the rest of the work, Hills writes of his own experience with nonfiction and of the eternal self-abuse that is any kind of authorship.

If you are serious about making writing an ongoing part of you life, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself sitting in a dusty corner, staring across the room at your desk, wondering if you’ve lost your mind. You’re going to experience a crisis of faith that has no bottom. You’re going to think that you’re doing it all wrong while every other writer is doing it with ease.

When you do, this chapter will remind you how wrong you are:

If the way my mind works when I’m trying to write has any resemblance to the way real writers’ minds work, then I pity them all. When I have time to write the ideas aren’t there — or if the ideas, then not the words. Forcing myself to put the words on paper helps not at all: insights become platitudes as phrased when under self-imposed duress. You see?!

I’ve long been thankful that someone had the guts to admit that writing is a nightmare. Not a sexy, drunken-binge nightmare or a death-tempting, drug-addled nightmare or an artistically obsessed, relationship-killing nightmare, but a self-imposed, lost-at-sea nightmare. Because the romantic, angst-ridden writing process portrayed in the movies, and often by authors themselves, is a fraud. Writing is hard even when it’s going well, and most of the time it’s not going well.

Hills ends the chapter in a two-page-long, single-paragraph monologue that I reread whenever I feel like banging my head on my desk or taking an axe to my computer. And every time I read it I laugh and am reminded that I am not alone.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction your success will be determined by your ability to merge multiple, fragmented lines of thought into a coherent and focused whole. Whether writing about the actions of imaginary characters or addressing a real-world subject you’re going to lean heavily on reason and logic to find your way, and sooner or later you will get lost. At that moment the best thing you can do for your sanity is remind yourself that what you’re trying to do is really, really hard, and all the more so if you’re trying to do it well.

As a fiction writer I find Rust Hills’ book to be an invaluable aid. As a writer I find this chapter to be soul-sustaining.

Writing is a solitary pursuit that routinely destroys good people. I want you to have your dreams but I don’t want them to break you. Whenever you run aground, this chapter will make you laugh and remind you that you are not alone.

— Mark Barrett

WIG&TSSIP: Rust Hills’ Introduction

The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.

Rust Hills comes at fiction-writing from a decidedly literary perspective. What does that mean? Well, this:

I’ve got a shelf of how-to-write books, and they all seem to me pretty much dreadful, especially the ones about the short story.

Then I’ve got another shelf of books, some of them seem to me great. These are college textbook anthologies of short stories, with analyses of the stories that sometimes get quite technical.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking what you really want is the how-to-write books, because you want to learn how to write, not how to read. Believe me, I understand: I’ve been there, and I”m no great fan of critical analysis. But Hills is going to throw you a curve in a minute and I don’t want you to miss it.  Read more ]

Ditchwalk Book Club: WIG&TSSIP Overview

The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. If you’re interested in improving your storytelling craft I encourage you to follow along. Original announcement here. Tag here.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking you’re not a short story writer so this book won’t help you with your flash fiction, novellas or novels. Wrong.

Short stories are the smallest form of fiction that can be fully realized. If you can write a short story you can write anything — either by subtracting elements or by adding complexity and scale to increase the length of the work. More importantly, understanding the mechanics of this tightly-knit form exposes the mechanics of all other forms as well, meaning you can directly apply any lessons learned to your storytelling life.

I won’t promise that you’ll click with this book the way I did. For me it was a confirmation of a hundred things I’d felt and come to believe about writing, all compiled in a simple accessible volume. What I can promise is that you’ll never think of fiction writing the same way again, and you’ll have at least one ah-ha moment along the way. Worst case scenario: it won’t make your writing worse, and will almost certainly make your writing — and your writing life — better.

To make sure we’re all on the same literal page I ordered the latest version of the book: First Mariner Books edition 2000. I will be commenting on each section of the book in a separate post, but quoting sparely in order to respect fair use and copyright. While you certainly don’t need my commentary to profit from Hills’ book, you’ll need a copy of the book to fully profit from my commentary. Or the book.

First up: Rust Hills’ introduction to Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, and why it shouldn’t scare you away.

— Mark Barrett

Alone in the Wild

I happened on a documentary yesterday on the National Geographic channel that I feel compelled to recommend. Called Alone in the Wild, it documents Ed Wardle’s attempt to spend ninety solitary days in the Yukon wilderness. Putting the challenge in context, Wardle has twice summited Everest. (You can see a page about the show here. I haven’t been able to locate a DVD, and the documentary doesn’t seem to be available on Netflix.)

If the title or subject matter evokes anything for you it will probably be the similar story of Christopher McCandless, whose fatal journey Into the Wild was turned into a book and subsequent movie. By absurd chance I happened to read the original magazine article about McCandless when it first came out in 1993, and my reaction then is the same as my reaction now: I’m not surprised that someone who knew little or nothing about surviving in the wilderness died after only cursory study and inadequate planning.

I want to stress that I take no satisfaction in the fact that McCandless died. The arrogance and ignorance he displayed is the flip side of adventurism and daring, and had he lived he might have profited from the experience both personally and financially. I do think, though, that there is a human tendency to perceive conception as the greatest obstacle to attainment. It’s not the doing that’s the hard part, it’s thinking of something to do that takes real ingenuity.

Over the course of my life I’ve come to believe that this is exactly backwards. In the storytelling world it doesn’t take long to realize that great ideas really are a dime a dozen — or a gross. It’s execution over the long haul, draft after draft, and the realization of detail in the final polish that makes any idea shine. But that’s not fun to contemplate because it presupposes a life of hard work and apprenticeship, when what everybody wants to do is fall out of bed and land on fame and fortune.  Read more ]

The Ditchwalk Book Club: WIG&TSSIP

For some time I’ve been wanting to talk about what I believe is the best book ever written on the subject of storytelling.* Rather than simply identify it and applaud, however, I’m going to walk through the entire book in a series of blog posts. If you’re interested in grounding your storytelling with a solid foundation of craft I encourage you to buy a copy of the book and follow along. I don’t promise it will change your life, but I’m confident you will profit from the discussion, and perhaps considerably so.

The author of the book is L. Rust Hills, the former long-time fiction editor at Esquire magazine. I was fortunate to meet Rust when I was a fiction writing student, and he had a profound effect on my understanding of storytelling as a craft. From him I learned more about how fiction is constructed than I did from any other source, and I remain indebted to him for that instruction. (Mr. Hills died in 2008.)

The good news is that most of what I learned from Rust Hills comes from a small book he wrote that is still in print. Titled Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (WIG&TSSIP), Hills’ book treats every aspect of fiction writing as a craft technique, and shows how specific narrative choices create specific effects. Rather than resort to formulas, Hills focuses always on the author’s intended effect, and whether or not the author accomplished that objective. The goal is never replicating a form, but rather accomplishing the storytelling goal you intend to accomplish for your intended readers.

It’s true that Hills was a dedicated proponent of literature, so you might be worried that his book is a ponderous tome. Nothing could be further from the truth. WIG&TSSIP is plain spoken and accessible to everyone. Too, the points and observations he makes about writing literature apply to every kind of storytelling. If you’re a genre writer or tend to favor a particular formula, reading Hills’ book will improve your writing without asking you to abandon your beliefs because it will make you aware of the interconnectedness of your words on a deeper level.

If you’re interested in the craft of fiction — either as a writer or a reader — I encourage you to get a copy of Hills’ book and follow along. In order to give everyone time to find a copy or have one delivered I’ll be starting the discussion in about a week.

* Yes, that’s a bold claim. Regular readers know I don’t hype recommendations, but in this case I think the praise is warranted. I’ve read a lot of how-to books on fiction writing and nothing else has ever come close.

— Mark Barrett

Judging the Quality of Your Writing

In the previous post I said there’s no relationship between writing quality and publication. Book deals are made for economic reasons, not because great writing makes the world a better place. If a prospective but marketable writer stinks, the industry will hire a ghostwriter, treating content as just another part of the manufacturing process.

I said the same thing in a recent spat with Jane Smith. I said the same thing when Sarah Palin’s book was announced. I’ve pointed to, and will continue to point to, incidents where publishers have failed to meet the same standards they routinely accuse unpublished and independent authors of failing to meet.

I understand why publishing wants to promote itself as the sole judge of quality and merit. Such status equates to power, and power in the marketplace equals money. But publishing’s credibility is so completely corrupted by its own actions that nobody in their right mind would take the sole word of a publisher, agent or editor when it comes to judging writing on the basis of quality, any more than one would try a case if the presiding judge had a vested interest in the outcome.  Read more ]

Burning Desire

I had occasion over the weekend to dig through some old boxes of scripts and stories I wrote years ago. I found some duplicate copies and stuff I no longer cared about and decided to get right of the dead weight.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard about writers burning their early works, but it seems to have been a fairly common occurrence. And I can understand the appeal. Fire as metaphor and ritual seems to be a human constant, signaling everything from death to purification to rebirth.

I had about five thousand pages to dispose of, and believe me, I wanted to burn them. I wanted the act, the warmth of the fire, and the ashes. Particularly the ashes.

Because we live in a world dying from greenhouses gasses, such things are frowned upon these days, and recycling is the norm. So I recycled.

But I wanted to look into that fire.

— Mark Barrett

The Storytelling Life

If you are interested in telling stories I want you to do something for me. I want you to protect that desire from your friends, your family, your peers, your online acquaintances, the literati, the critics, the publishing world and, most importantly, you.

If you decide at some point that storytelling no longer interests you that’s fine. What’s not fine is to think there’s some metric by which you must measure success. And the last possible metric you should measure success by is money.

I’ve been paid for my storytelling skills more than once. I have been and am a professional writer. But the storytelling I’ve done that has made money is only part of my storytelling life. The epicenter of that life, the core of my storytelling drive, is the mystery and promise of the blank page. It has been that way since I was a child, and I have protected that core from every assault waged against it.

I have not, however, always put storytelling first. For much of my adult life I put relationships ahead of my desire to tell stories, and I have no regrets about that. To do anything else would have been unthinkable to me. If life is short, and it is, then it’s for damn sure too short to be spent satisfying an itch while the people you love go wanting.

There were of course times when I was frustrated. And there were times when I could have written but I wasn’t supported in doing so. But even during the worst of it I didn’t feel as if I had to make a final decision one way or the other. I didn’t have to choose precisely because I never intended to let storytelling go. What I want you know is that you don’t have to choose either.  Read more ]

The Dysfunctional Workshop

For the purposes of this post I’m going to break the universe of fiction workshops into three categories. First, there are helpful workshops that teach you something useful. Second, there are boring workshops where you learn little or nothing, but nothing bad happens. Third, there are dysfunctional workshops where you risk damage to your writing soul.

Careful readers will have deduced that this post is about the third category. What it’s not about, however, is legitimizing the self-centered writer — a malady considerably more prevalent in the writing universe than the dysfunctional workshop. There is a ton to learn about writing fiction, and some of the lessons you learn will be hell on you. There will be times when you will be so sure you’re right you’ll bet your life and still be flat-out wrong.

Nothing that follows excuses authorial narcissism. Fiction writing requires an author to constantly debate their own weaknesses and biases, even if only for reasons of self-preservation. Because if you can’t police your own nonsense, others will be happy to do it for you.  Read more ]

Optimizing Fiction Workshop Submissions

For the purpose of this post I’m going to break all writing workshops into two groups. In the first group are workshops taken by writers who are learning craft. People in these workshops, whether students in a formal sense or like-minded individuals sharing a passion, are primarily interested in improving their writing skill. In the second group are workshops populated by seasoned writers who already have a solid understanding of craft. These workshops primarily help authors determine whether their fiction is functioning as intended.

To the extent that writers are always learning, and that all writers want their work to be successful, there is obviously some overlap between these two groups. Rather than argue any pure distinction, I will simply note that this post concerns writers who are primarily interested in learning the craft of storytelling, and who are taking workshops that support that objective.

Uncontrollable Variables
There are a number of factors that can help or hinder the rate at which you learn the craft of storytelling. Here are three aspects of any workshop that are outside your direct control:

Workshop Leadership
If the person running your workshop does not know how to moderate such a group, or if they lack the ability to articulate craft issues, the workshop will necessarily suffer.

Workshop Sophistication
The more experience workshop members have at giving feedback, the better the feedback will be. Better feedback — by which I mean more craft-focused feedback — will necessarily improve your understanding of craft.

Authorial Ability
Every writer learns at their own rate, and that rate is not consistent. (Think fits and starts rather than steady growth.) Other than writing as much as you can and participating in workshops, there’s not much you can do to speed the rate at which you learn. There is no crash course.

At best you might hope to control for two of these variables by asking other writers for recommendations, but in general you simply have to trust the fates to even things out over time. What these inevitable uncertainties should encourage you to do, however, is put a premium on variables you can control.   Read more ]