The Con (Part Two)

(Continued from part one.)

As ridiculous as it sounds, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to saying that you can be a writer, and after you say it enough times, you might actually start to believe it—regardless of whether or not you’ve ever actually written anything. And that’s when the real work of the con has to begin. At some point, you need to sit down in front of a computer or a typewriter or, if you’re a real glutton for punishment, in front of blank legal pad, and start writing. But you can’t just start writing. You need to have something to write about. You need to have something to say. And so you start pacing the room and talking to the walls and trying to figure out what, exactly, you want to write about.

Again, easier said than done.

And once you do, finally, settle on something to say, you need to convince yourself that it’s worth saying. Or not just saying—that it’s worth sitting down in front of your computer day-in and day-out for hours on end, and for days, weeks, months, or years at a time to get this idea out. While all of your friends are out having fun, you’ll gladly shackle yourself to your desk just to squeeze out a few more words. Because it will all be worth it in the end, you convince yourself.

Because…

Because…

Because…

Hmm. Maybe it’s best not to seek an answer to that.

Let’s call it the artist’s prerogative.

So the first con is the con you pull over on yourself. You convince yourself that you’re a writer and, as such, that you must have something important to say. It’s a bit of a circular argument, but it generally works for a lot of us.

But here’s the neat thing about living the con that is being the writer—it gives you plenty of opportunity to hone your skills as a storyteller. Because ultimately what you’re doing is playing a game. Here’s a character. Here are all of the details about her life. Here’s her problem. Here’s how the problem gets worse. Here’s how she eventually gets out of it. If you’re doing your job as a writer, you’re basically convincing your reader that all of these things are real. Or, if they’re not really real, that they could be real. Because just like the “mark” in any con, your reader really wants to be taken in. Your reader wants to believe—or at least to suspend disbelief.  All you have to do is make the story believable.

And how do you do that?

Well, it turns out that there are plenty of opportunities for cons like us to get together. They’re called workshops, conferences, and writers’ retreats, and they’re wonderful. Of course, when I say “con,” I mean it in the best possible sense. Because all writers face the daunting task of looking at a blank page—of creating something from nothing, for all intents and purposes—we’re in a peculiar position. The only real precedent I can think of is God and all that business of creating the universe. And to dare to do something like that—to invent something from whole cloth—takes a lot of guts—a lot of confidence, in other words. And that’s why we writers need to stick together, which in turn is why it’s great that we have all of the aforementioned venues for coming together.

While workshops and conferences are ostensibly there to help us become better writers, the real value of participating in such activities is that they give us, as writers, a chance to step away from our computers—at least for a little while—and get to know real human beings. Talk about our struggles. Share strategies for beating pesky things like writers block and the bigger issues of existential angst that plague us all. Let each other know that we’re not crazy. That what we’re doing is worthwhile. That writing is a perfectly legitimate pursuit.

Is it all just a shared illusion?

Maybe it is. But the bigger question is: what isn’t?

Real estate?

The stock market?

Majoring in English?

At the end of the day, or the end of every episode of The A-Team, anyway, what made Face such a compelling character for me was that no matter how big the swindle, his mark always went away happy. Along similar lines, the writer of fiction is the best kind of con there is because that’s also what we’re looking for—we want our readers to come away happy from whatever we’ve written. So, yes, maybe there’s a bit of circular logic involved in the way we writers convince ourselves that what we do is legitimate. But that’s the whole point of writing—to conjure something out of nothing, to create something that wasn’t there before, to arrange the mirrors to make the world believe in something that doesn’t quite exist but is, nonetheless, real.

Insider Tip: The Editorial Review Sheet

In addition to writing and teaching, I’ve sat on the editorial boards of a few different literary journals, and I’ve also served as the acquisitions editor for a small literary press. One common thread through all of these endeavors has been the use of a review sheet to help the editorial staff keep track of what they like and what they don’t like about submissions under consideration.

Some of the most common terms I’ve seen on editorial review sheets over the years are defined below.  If you belong to a writers’ group or are thinking of starting one, you might want to use these terms to discuss the work that members of your group submit for review. Using these terms can help members of your group provide specific feedback to each other and move beyond general comments like, “It was good, but something was missing.”

  • Character Development: Basically, readers want to be able to believe in the characters you’ve created. This goes beyond being able to picture them in our minds; it’s more a matter of getting to know them as “people.” What do your characters want? What makes them tick? How have events in the story changed them? By the end of the story, we want to miss the characters in some way. We want to wonder what happens next in their lives. We want to care about your characters.
  • Plot: Plot refers, as most writers know, to rising action, climax, and resolution. But in character-driven fiction, plot is not just a matter of forcing a plot on a character (or a character into a plot). In many ways, the plot and character need to depend upon each other. In other words, don’t just give your character an obstacle (or set of obstacles) to overcome. (That’s how video games work, not short stories.) Give us an obstacle that’s meaningful to your character; make sure your character’s sense of self is somehow relevant to (and preferably changed by) the events that occur in the story.
  • Language: Another word for language is “style.” By and large, readers want stories that are told in a clear fashion. Flowery prose is okay in some instances, but not if it gets in the way of the story. Along similar lines, your grammar also needs to be polished. A proliferation of grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors (and by a “proliferation,” I mean more than two or three in a manuscript), will make readers less likely to enjoy your story.
  • Voice: In many ways, voice is similar to language. One way to draw a distinction is to think of language as how the story is told and voice as who is telling it. The best advice I can give in terms of voice is to avoid putting on airs. In other words, don’t pretend to be an Elmore Leonard when at heart you’re a Leonard Cohen. Many journals and magazines aren’t necessarily looking for a specific style, but the editors and their readership do expect you to be consistent in the kind of language you use. In other words, if you start off using the Queen’s English, then shift into vernacular, and then end with a more academic tone, you’ll confuse your reader.
  • Flow: When you consider flow, think about whether all of the parts of your story build upon each other. If there’s a “detour” of sorts, you should probably take it out. In many instances, the flow of a story can be disrupted by pieces of trivia or other matters that the author may have found fascinating but that don’t advance the story.
  • Subject Matter: Just as different readers have different interests and tastes, editors (and, by extension, journals) look for different kinds of material. The best way to know if you’re writing about the kinds of things a specific editor or journal likes to publish is to read that journal.Keep in mind, though, that it’s best not to write about a subject because you think an editor will be interested in it. It’s best to write about things that matter to you and find journals that are interested in those subjects. If you’re commenting on a submission for a writers’ group, this could be a good place to suggest that the author submit to a particular journal based on its usual content.
  • Overall Impression: This category can allow you to sum up your feelings about a particular submission that you’ve been asked to read. Here, you can talk about the ways in which all of the other factors in the story come together to create a unified whole. Alternately, you can talk in more general terms about how making changes in one category might improve the story as a whole.

By discussing work in terms of these categories, your writers’ group can have more focused, nuanced, and, ultimately, productive sessions.