Great Advice from Authors

But enough from me about writing… Here’s a link to an article in The Guardian that gathers advice on the craft from some of the world’s best-known authors: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction. Authors include Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Franzen, and Neil Gaiman.

The Point of Telling

One other thing Junot Diaz discussed when he visited Montgomery County Community College earlier this month was what he called the point of telling. He started his explanation by discussing his experience reading unpublished fiction and realizing that although the pieces in question had a lot going for them, something was just – off. This something, he said, is frequently hard to identify, but frequently the problem lies in the point of telling.

The point of telling is a little bit like point of view or the perspective from which an author tells the story. The difference is that point of telling has less to do with who is telling the story (e.g., a first-person narrator or a “close third-person” narrator) than where the narrator stands in relation to the story.

Diaz discussed the point of telling in relation to time. For a story to do its job effectively, the narrator needs to be at a fairly consistent distance from the events in question throughout the narrative. For example, if the narrator begins telling a story five years after the events described therein, the whole story needs to be told from a distance of five years.

Needless to say, the narrator doesn’t have to say, “All of this happened five years ago.” The point of telling is a lot more subtle than that.

Imagine you’re in a car accident. Not a bad one — just a minor fender-bender — but enough of an accident to leave you somewhat jarred. In the moment, you’ll be feeling a lot of emotions and your senses will be highly attuned to everything. The experience will be immediate and raw, highly visceral.

After a few days, however, you’ll get some perspective. You’ll be able to think about the accident in a somewhat more abstract way. It won’t be a matter of What’s happening right here, right now? Instead, the information will be filtered through all of the parts of your brain that try to make sense of the world. How did the accident happen? you’ll start to ask yourself. And your brain, being the amazing aggregator of information that it is, will reconstruct events to the best of its ability.

As more time passes, your attitude toward the accident will change. What once seemed so traumatic and pressing (How will I get to work now? Is the other driver insured? What the hell was he thinking? Were there any witnesses? Should we call the police? Where will I take my car to get it fixed? And all of the other myriad questions running through your mind…) starts to fade into the background of your life and become a minor blip on the radar.

Or it might actually start to look funny. As my friend Tom Powers always reminds me, comedy equals tragedy plus time. Most likely, the opposite might be true as well: comedy plus time might actually turn to tragedy. The important thing, though, is to try to remain at a more or less uniform distance from the events you’re describing. Doing so will allow your readers to settle comfortably into your story without constantly wondering how close (or far) they are from the action at hand.

Advice from Junot Diaz

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to see Junot Diaz speak at the Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference. Towards the end of his discussion, he offered some advice for writers that I personally found very helpful. Here are a few things he had to say:

  • Leave room for your reader. Don’t spell everything out for your reader. Give your reader the opportunity to interpret the events that you describe. Allow for multiple interpretations. Ambiguity is good.
  • Characters are best understood in relation to each other. Diaz used the “character” of Wilson in Castaway as an example of this concept. Wilson, who is a a volleyball, gives the hero of that film (played by Tom Hanks) someone to talk to. It’s through the hero’s interaction with Wilson that we learn the most about the hero.
  • The world should resist your characters. Don’t place your characters in an idealized world. Instead, allow your characters to live in a world where the daily tribulations that complicate all of our lives rear their ugly heads and complicate your characters’ lives.
  • Don’t worry about publishing. Worry about writing. If you want to be an artist, work on your art.
  • Live your life. People who’ve spent their lives learning how to write might end up having little if anything to write about. People who have lived — who have gone and done things and met people and made mistakes and experienced the world — have something to write about. Diaz also suggested that if you want to be a writer, you should get your heart broken on three continents.
  • Read. Diaz remarked that writers are the only artists he knows who don’t do the thing they want their audience to do. Musicians listen to music. Painters admire the work of other painters. But half the time he goes out to see writers at readings, they say they’re “too busy writing” to do any reading. Diaz made a point of saying that this attitude is insane.

Great advice from a great author! If you have the chance, definitely attend one of his readings.