Writing

The Parable of the Leaf Blower

I moved into my current home about three summers ago. When Fall came, I tried to use my leaf blower, but it didn’t work. I plugged it into the electrical outlet in my garage, but when I switched it on, nothing happened. Assuming my leaf blower was broken (but being too cheap, lazy, and weirdly sentimental about the machines I own to throw it in the trash), I put it away and left it my garage for the past three years.

Earlier this month, however, I decided that I’d try to fix my leaf blower on the off chance that the problem was just a loose wire or a switch or something I could repair given my limited skill set as a handyman. My first step, of course, was to plug it in and flip the switch. And this time around, it screamed to life.

That’s when I remembered an important detail: Subsequent to the last time I’d used the leaf blower, I hired an electrician to rewire the garage. But I never put two and two together. I never made the connection between the bad wiring in the garage and the fact that the leaf blower didn’t work. As a result, I spent the next three years raking leaves like some kind of caveman when I could have been blowing leaves like some kind of jerk with a really loud leaf blower.

The point of this parable is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch, but I think it works.

It’s the end of November. If you made it through National Novel Writing Month with a draft, you’re probably painfully aware of how much work it needs. And if you came away from the month with only a portion of a draft, then you might feel like you have a lot further to go. Either way, you probably have a massive collection of pages that you feel, due to your proximity to the project, is somehow “broken.”

Maybe you hate the characters.

Maybe you feel the dialogue is flat.

Maybe the plot doesn’t make any sense.

But a lot of these negative feelings you have toward your novel might have a lot more to do with outside issues than with your novel. Your disdain for the project might have more to do with the fact that you’ve been living so closely with it for the past month than the fact that there’s anything wrong with it. In other words, your manuscript isn’t broken. You’re just too burnt out to appreciate it right now.

If you suspect that this is the case, your best bet is to put the manuscript aside for a while — probably not three years, but long enough to come back to it with fresh eyes. More to the point, don’t give up on the project, and don’t trash it just because you think it isn’t working. Instead, give yourself some time. Let your synapses rewire themselves. Allow yourself to recover from the arduous process of banging out that draft.

A month.

Two months.

Maybe longer.

And when you think you’re ready, turn to page one of the manuscript, flip the proverbial on-switch, and give your work a chance to scream back to life.

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.