Challenging symbol-hunting in English class

owl in the Petrified Forest, Napa, CA. © 2007-2013 Elizabeth Browne All Rights Reserved

owl in the Petrified Forest, Napa, CA. © 2007-2013 Elizabeth Browne All Rights Reserved

In 1963 a 16-year-old named Bruce McAllister wrote to 150 famous authors to ask if symbolism — or apparent symbolism — in their work was intentional. He was apparently frustrated with the way his English teacher analyzed each novel they read for symbolism McAllister felt wasn’t there, or at least wasn’t a conscious choice on the part of the author.

First of all, what a brilliant reaction to an experience most of us probably had as high school English students. I certainly did, only I went home and complained about it and used it as a reason to procrastinate on my English homework. The over-analyzing of novels even made me sidestep English as a major in college. Going right to the source to challenge one’s English teacher! Bravo, Bruce McAllister, bravo. What’s even more lovely about this story is that McAllister went on to become an English professor and writer.

The survey responses revealed (surprise, surprise!) that most authors did not feel they consciously made use of symbolism in their novels. But the answers young McAllister received were also full of wisdom (Ray Bradbury: “self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act”) and watch-out-young-whippersnapper advice (MacKinlay Kantor: “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.”).

After reading McAllister’s questions and the authors’ responses, I felt strangely relieved —vindicated even, after all these years, that high school English class did contain some level of absurdity. Saul Bellow himself says in his response, “Symbol-hunting is absurd.” But aside from a weird feeling of personal satisfaction that my teenage cynicism had merit — these responses are wonderful and instructive. For example:

McAllister: “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?… If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”

Jack Kerouac: “No.”

John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”

McAllister: “Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”

Ralph Ellison: “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.”

Ray Bradbury: “If people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches I cannot prevent it can I? … Still, I wish people … did not try so hard to find the man under the old-maid’s bed. More often than not, as we know, he simply isn’t there.”

McAllister: “Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”

Richard Hughes: “Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?”

Ray Bradbury: “There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels…Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

Copies of many of the original surveys and responses are in the Paris Review, here. A summarized version of the responses appears here.


Linktastic Tuesday: writing advice, ms length, and books for the beach

I wrote this post this morning … and then WordPress ate it. I responded by eating 2 pieces of cake slathered in rich chocolate frosting. Take that, lost hour of my life! Not so lost anymore! Ahem. Anyway, the cake was delicious and made me feel better. I did want to share a few links on this lovely, pollen-coated Tuesday*, so now, here they are, version two:

Richard Gilbert has a great review/interview post with author Althea Black on his blog, Narrative. Black is the author of the short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely, and her advice on the writing process was frank and to-the-point, which is the kind of writing advice I most love to hear. Black describes how she put herself through a DIY MFA, reading and learning from writing books, and working hard at what she does (writing I Knew You’d Be Lovely was a 15-year process!) My favorite advice (because it’s true, and because it’s the hardest to do):

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

I love Black’s focus on economy of language — “never say with twenty words what you can say with two.” I will admit I was not familiar with Black or her stories but I am now going to rush out and find a copy of this collection.

Did you know The Great Gatsby is a novella? Me neither. It comes in just short of 50,000 words, which is the possibly arbitrary (and definitely debatable) number separating novel from novella.** Did you know you can find out the word counts of your favorite books on Amazon? Me neither. (Here’s how. You can only do it on “search inside this book” titles.)

I learned all this in “The Secret Lives of Novellas,” a short essay by Daniel Torday on the Glimmer Train site. Torday discusses his earlier obsession with word counts and what they represent, and how he realized that his WIP was long enough when it felt right to him, not because of a number. The WIP was published this spring, as a novella.

Looking for something to read on your summer vacation? Or, like me, just always looking for something to read? Two good lists of new titles for summer:
-Flavorwire: 10 New Must-reads for May
-Bookpage: 20 summer standouts

*I’m having a hell of an allergy attack today and am a sniveling, sneezing mess. Seriously, driving is not a safe activity for me. Too much sneezing.
** In his essay, Torday mentions that E.M. Forster defined the novel as “any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words.” In my MFA program, I was taught that the publishing industry considers 75,000 words a novel, though clearly that’s just a guideline. Nathan Bransford suggests 70,000-80,000 for a debut novel, and no more than 150,000. So, novellas: 35K-70K?

A writer’s daily habit

The November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine contains a motivating piece by Bay Area novelist Ellen Sussman about her daily writing practices. (Alas, not available online.) I’m always intrigued by the different ways in which writers approach their work — some people write at night, some in the morning, some can’t eat while writing, some must snack all the way through a writing session. Ahem. Some write longhand, some type on a computer. (One of my favorite descriptions of writing process is that of Truman Capote, who wrote lying down, sipping coffee or sherry, depending on the time of day) I was at a Litquake panel on the art of the novel last month in which author Bharati Mukherjee said she writes a first draft of her novel on a laptop, closes the file and does not refer to or open it again while she writes a second draft. She does the same thing for a third draft, essentially writing the novel from scratch three times! She did not, she said, recommend that method.

Anyway, Ellen Sussman’s piece was straightforward and made me realize, in addition to giving me some new ideas about how to structure my writing days around a 3-year-old and household chores,  that I need some writerly confidence. First and foremost, Sussman recommended this:

Repeat after me: ‘I’m a writer. It’s my job. It’s what I do.’
If you embrace that statement, then you can begin to develop the practice of writing. You go to work everyday. You sit your butt in a chair … and you put in your hours just like everyone else who goes to work.

I know this, of course, but I haven’t been doing it, or acting like writing is my job, which I very much would like it to be. Even if you have a full-time job and a houseful of kids, Sussman writes, you have to commit, even if it’s only to one hour a day. “It’s your other job — your writing job — and you can’t neglect it. Do it. You’re a writer.”

Sussman goes on to describe her writing days (5-6 days a week, every week). She sets working hours (9am-noon) and a word count minimum (1,000). If she doesn’t hit her minimum, she goes back to her desk after lunch. She meditates for 5-10 minutes before she begins and blocks the Internet with Mac Freedom for the 3 hours she’s supposed to be writing.

She divides her time into units of one hour each. For the first 45 minutes of each hour:

You do nothing but write. You don’t stop writing. Then, no matter where you are at the 45-minute mark, you get up from your desk. You take a 15-minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to actually do the work.

Sussman says she waters her garden or puts in a load of laundry, for example. She doesn’t check email or make calls or do other writing-related work. After the 15 minutes are up, when she’s back at her desk for the next unit of time, she sees that her unconscious mind has been working over her material and she’s full of new ideas. The 15-minute breaks allow for physical rest from the computer, too, and a way to get through your writing when you have a tough day (only 30 more minutes and I get a break!)

Because of this schedule, Sussman writes in her article, “If I have to rewrite a hundred pages of the novel, I know that I can do it in a month. I don’t despair as I would if I wrote a couple of pages one day and a couple of pages a week later.” So efficient! She says her writing practice allows her to take risks, since if it doesn’t work out, “I sit my butt down the very next day and start over.”

Do you have a writing schedule? What do you do to keep the rest of your life at bay while you getting your writing done?

Every day I write the book.

Or so sang Elvis Costello.* I cannot say the same.

The other day, Nichole Bernier tweeted a link to a year-old piece on the LA Times’ website, “A Working Mother’s Guide to Writing a Novel.”

Wow, did I feel ashamed after reading this piece.

I know, it doesn’t do to compare yourself to other writers who work in different, seemingly better ways. And by better, I mean, more productive. Comparisons only lead down a path of guilt, self-disgust, writer’s block, etc, etc.

But I digress.  This working mom, Mary McNamara, offered a list of 10 things that need to happen in order to successfully juggle work, motherhood, writing, and the rest of your life. (If indeed there is one.) The list is, I think, both motivational and sobering, and not just for writing moms and dads but for anyone who happens to be juggling other roles in their lives while attempting a writing career. Some of McNamara’s guidelines are fairly obvious: Have a laptop, for example, because you as a busy, working parent don’t have time to write longhand, then type it up, and you’ll be writing in various locations such as cafes, your kids’ ball games, the car, etc. Other suggestions are less obvious: Be discreet about what you are doing, because talking about writing a book and writing a book are completely different things.

The piece of advice that got me was this: “You have to write Every Single Day, and I mean it. Obviously there are exemptions for death and illness, but it’s like dieting or working out — if you start skipping one day or two, it’s all over.”

It’s not like I haven’t heard this advice before. Of course you have to write every day, is what I thought as I read the piece. And then I saw it. My inability to stick to writing every day had landed me where I am these days, which is, well… nowhere in particular. I have started a novel (or two?) and written several short stories in the past few months. Some of them I’ve completed, some of them I have not. In the past two months, I’ve written almost nothing, and have even lost track of what my most current project is/should be.

When I read McNamara’s advice I saw what my casual attitude of late with regard to writing has done to all aspects of my writing, the routine, the output, the quality of that output, and my motivation level.

It happens that I have recently resolved to get more exercise. My workout routine has gone much the way of my writing routine. I go to the gym once or twice in a week, then miss the next week, or multiple weeks. McNamara is right — skipping a day or two, or a week or two, means it’s all over. I have just as much trouble getting back to working out, and getting back to the fitness level I was in before, as I do getting back to my writing when I’ve been away from it.

So what’s the fix? I have grown accustomed to giving myself a lot of slack in recent months. And by slack, I mean making excuses. You’re doing the best you can, is what I frequently tell myself when I let my daily life take over my writing life or my workout routine.  You have a kid to take care of, a dog to walk, work to do, a relationship to maintain, dinner to cook, sleep to get, etc. etc. After reading that piece, and after trying to run at the gym for the first time in months, and after sitting down to write today and not being able to remember what project I was last working on, I see that I have not been doing the best that I can.

McNamara writes that she arranged with her husband to write at night, while he put the kids to bed. She cut out a lot of other activities. There are plenty of moments when I have been lounging about on the couch in the past few months (or years), in the evening, after my son has been put to bed, and I’ve been doing nothing in particular, which is to say, I’ve been watching TV and/or reading headlines and checking Facebook and Twitter on my iPhone. I have been telling myself, when my guilt about not writing or blogging or doing whatever else makes itself known, is that I am doing so many things during the day that I deserve these few hours of nothingness. In truth, some days I do need a bit of nothingness. But not every day. I could be writing during those times, is what I thought when I read McNamara’s article.

And so. I see now that writing every day involves breaking out of habits as much as developing new ones. It means snapping out of laziness and a cycle of excuses. And, toughest of all, it’s about being a hardass about making writing a priority, not something you can set aside because a preschool event has come up, or because you need to buy groceries, or because you feel like doing nothing instead. Writing, if you’re serious, is not a special hobby you get to when you’ve cleared your to-do list of everything else.


*Back in the day. The Charles and Diana aspect of this video seems baffling now, though no doubt in 1983 I thought it was great.

On unfinished projects

I’m stuck, again. By which I mean, I am not writing. It’s not a block, exactly, but a sort of paralysis. It’s about looking at something as a Big Project, rather than just “a short piece I’m working on.” This is something that’s happened before. Every time I even think the word “novel” I seem to freeze up.

But this time is different, because I know I’m farther along into a Big Project than I’ve ever been. I’ve completed or mostly completed 5 linked stories. I see these as, down the road, a full-length novel-in-stories, or perhaps after some serious revision, a full-length novel written from multiple points of view. I have pages and pages of notes on these characters. I have done research on the time periods involved in this project. I have some books I keep in mind — and on my nightstand — as model texts, books which have something in common with the one I think I am writing, or want to write, which serve to inspire me and from which I can learn.

In my personal history of writing novels, this is a lot of progress, and I am far enough along that I have become attached to the project and the characters in a certain way. I’ve become attached to the idea of finishing this manuscript. (Perhaps that’s the problem?) And yet, despite all of this progress and work and effort, or perhaps because of it, I’m stuck, not writing.

In my attempts to continue, by which I mean, my trips to the coffee shop with my laptop that result in becoming overcaffeinated and reading through what I’ve written so far and then moving on to skimming other long-forgotten pieces on my hard drive, I stumbled upon another novel. Yep, that’s right, I opened a Word document on my hard drive and realized I had written 125 pages of another novel a couple of years ago. And then abandoned it. I remembered writing the beginning of that novel, but I’d completely forgotten I’d gotten so well into it. It’s not horrible, this half of a novel, and despite several years having gone by since I wrote it, I know what will happen next. I could write to the end, I feel. That half-novel doesn’t deserve to be just a half, is what I think.

The New York Times recently ran a piece about why writers abandon novels, which included comments by authors such as Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Junot Diaz about their failed projects. Chabon said whenever he sat down to work on what would have been his follow-up book to Mysteries of Pittsburgh, “I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.”

I have had questions about this as long as I’ve been writing. How do you know if you’re feeling the “hand of dread” because your work needs to be abandoned or because writing is hard and you’ve hit a rough spot and you want to abandon it? How do you press on when you’re not sure which project might be the winner?

That, there, is why I’m stuck. My aforementioned novel-in-stories is the book I want to write, but can’t seem to at the moment. The recently rediscovered 125-page novel beginning is a book I know I can write, but might not be the intricate literary novel I dream of writing. And discovering that 125 pages has me flustered. If I could write 125 pages and actually forget they exist, might that not also happen to the novel-in-stories-in-progress?

And then, there’s this question: Which project should I proceed with right now? I don’t want to think of those 125 pages, but I find myself working on that novel in my head. And then I’ll think about the other. All the while doing nothing on either one.

I offer this glimpse into my paralysis, because, like that NYT article, I think it’s useful. The NYT piece is ostensibly about abandoned novels, but if you read it optimistically you’ll see that it isn’t. “Sometimes a novel thought long dead can come back to life, brush the dirt off its pages, and shuffle back into an author’s career.”

Perhaps this is true of all “abandoned” writing? All writing is practice for other writing: Egan wrote a novel which she abandoned but which she later rewrote as her first published book, “Invisible Circus.” Chabon, obviously, has had success since his failed novel (an excerpt of which is now seeing some notoriety in McSweeneys, complete with his snarky commentary about it, so in a way, it’s not a complete failure, right?). Sometimes it’s helpful to write something in order to know what you don’t want to write. Or to find your voice, or play with plot and structure.

As mentioned in that NYT piece, Stephen King’s recent Under the Dome is a complete rewrite of a failed novel from 30 years ago:

“The character list kept growing, and they didn’t connect, and I just got to a point where I dropped it,” King remembered. But three decades later, a fresh shot at the concept worked: “It was like my mind was working on it underneath.”

I think about these examples and I wonder about my own work. Was the 125-page half-novel practice for the next one? Or is the novel-in-stories practice for re-writing that previously abandoned project? To me the question should not be whether or not to abandon a project, but rather what is this piece of writing practice for? And when, if not now, is the time to return to it?


January writing links, pre-AWP blizzard edition

I’m getting ready for my trip to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday; I’ll be attending the AWP annual conference for the first time. I spent the weekend pouring over the amazing list of conference sessions and events and after picking out my must-attends, I thought, OK, I’m ready. And then I looked at a weather map.

Let’s be frank. I live in California. There’s not much cause to study the weather here. It’s been sunny and 60 degrees or so for most of the past month. And so it should be noted that when I booked my flight to DC for the conference, I didn’t consider the implications, of, for example, “February” and “Chicago.” And I happily booked myself a flight via the Windy City to get to DC.

Last night I checked my flights and thought maybe, possibly, I should look at a weather report for both Chicago and D.C. And it just so happens that there’s a giant, blustery blizzard of apparently historical proportions scheduled to batter Chicago on Tuesday night and Wednesday. Two feet of snow, tornadoes, you name it.

But enough about that. I have gotten myself rebooked on another flight via Denver. The airline won’t give me a seat, so who knows what that means, or whether I will, in fact, actually make it to D.C. as planned. But you did not stop by to read about the winter weather. I’m getting back to my routine of posting my favorite writing links for the month. Enjoy, and if you’re traveling to AWP, good luck and be safe!

Author Michelle Richmond on accidentally finding her way through a novel (Glimmer Train)

Writing advice from Rick Bass: Don’t compare bodies to car parts. (Huffington Post)

Should grammar be taught in the creative writing workshop? (via The Missouri Review blog)

An old interview with Colm Toibin in The Guardian: “Let’s have no more backstory!” I found Toibin’s approach to teaching American writing students very interesting.

Ploughshares magazine is launching an Emerging Fiction Writer’s Contest.  Deadline is March 15.

Let’s get persnickety! Why you should never, ever put two spaces after a period. (Slate)

Beyond the Margins offers 13 ways of beginning a novel, along with the pros and cons of each. Clever.

And, finally, some tips on surviving AWP. (The Missouri Review)

On Linked Stories, Part I

Sonya Chung had a nice essay up last week at The Millions, on linked stories/novels-in-stories. In “The Long and the Short of It: Linked Story Collections Bridging the Divide,” Chung describes her recent excitement about writing linked stories as a way to develop her skill as a writer.

As she sees it, short stories are taught in writing workshops because they really are good vehicles for boosting fiction writing skills:

You do need to work on several stories, soup to nuts, to hone craft and process, narrative structure, revision skills; to experiment with voice, point-of-view, subject matter.

You could practice all of the above in a novel, she writes, but “how many novels do you want to write and trash as part of your learning process before your stamina gives way to defeat? Practice works best on a manageable scale.”

And this is where, Chung writes, the linked collection comes in. Quite simply, when the short story is not long enough, but the novel is too much, linked stories offer writers, in Chung’s view, the perfect solution: the freedom of a novel-length storyline written “within the framework of compression, of small moments, of elegant lines and movement; you can write and sustain a standalone piece that is driven solely by the energy of voice; you can work at mastering the power of simplicity without sacrificing prismatic complexity.”

I’d add, too, that linked stories offer writers who are just starting out the opportunity to get publication credits (of short stories) while simultaneously working on a book-length work. Novel excerpts are publishable, of course, but the challenge of keeping the excerpt self-contained is a big one. What to cut? What to include? How to provide the gist of a whole within one small part? Linked story collections offer an alternative path. You can write one story, and work on getting that one published while you are at work on the next. In the end, you might have a whole, published in parts, which is an appealing place to be in when seeking a book contract.

One might argue that linked collections are hard to get published, but from the number of them I’ve seen recently, I don’t know … My guess would be that publishers would prefer a novel-in-stories to a collection of unconnected short stories (which is what many young writers leave MFA programs with). Linked story collections can be marketed as novels, which is, supposedly, what the “reading public” wants. (Well, what they really want are nonfiction books, but that’s another blog post.)

Chung goes on to list some of her favorite linked story collections, including Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx; Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson; and, Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. My own list might also include:

The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Day For Night, by Frederick Reiken (described in my previous post)
The Love We Share Without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak
-Visit From the Goon Squad
, by Jennifer Egan
-Miles From Nowhere, by Nami Mun

Coming soon, part II: In which I consider why writing linked stories is so much harder than it looks.

Michael Cunningham on writing

I have been making my way through Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share Their Thoughts on the Creative Process, by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman. The book is one-third writing text and two-thirds author interviews. It’s a useful book, if only for the interviews. (I haven’t read all of the fiction writing how-to section yet – what I did read I felt would be good for an intro course on novel writing. It’s drier and less inspirational than other writing how-to books I’ve encountered, yet provides the basics.)

I love reading author interviews and getting glimpses of how writers’ minds work, how they worked on their books, and learning about mistakes they made. Aside from (hopefully) learning a little bit from their experience, it’s nice to be reminded that authors are human, that they struggled with their writing as much as I do. If the interview is with an author whose work I have not read, I am sometimes inspired to go out and pick up their work. Such is the case with an interview with Michael Cunningham that’s in this collection. I am probably the only member of a bookclub who hasn’t read The Hours — and after reading this conversation with him, I’ve put it at the top of my reading list for the new year. I’m intrigued by the fractured narratives he seems to be drawn to – in that book and in some of his others. (I may or may not be writing such a novel myself. I can’t tell yet.) Some interesting excerpts from the interview:

On developing characters:
“One of the things I’m always aware of … is the fact that any character in any novel I write, no how minor, is visiting this novel from a novel of his or her own.” Every character is part of some “really gripping novel” that’s not written yet, Cunningham says, and it’s important to keep that in mind as that character develops in the novel at hand.

On MFA programs:
“I think MFA programs, though they can do harm as well as good, are great. It’s not like there’s anything else out there for young writers. … MFA programs are sanctuaries, places where [writing is] taken properly seriously.” Cunningham talks about the camaraderie he felt at Iowa — though he suggests that Iowa is certainly not the reason for his success and that it wasn’t always a positive experience.

On writing novels

I think one of the reasons this interview resonated with me so much, more so than the others in this book, is that Cunningham’s responses felt honest and open. (One of the authors interviewed in this collection seemed to be trying to create the image that he never hits stumbling blocks while writing his books, for example.) Of writing The Hours Cunningham said, “Of the books I’ve written, it was the one that felt most often and obdurately like it was just nothing, like it wasn’t going anywhere. It was just pieces, and they weren’t going to add up.”

I just appreciate knowing that, in the way that I appreciate knowing the story behind Junot Diaz’s Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. We all have days in which our writing seems stuck or awful, and days in which we wonder if this is the right career for us, and it’s nice to be reminded that we are not alone in that.

Cunningham wrapped up the interview with this:

“I think we spend our lives learning how to write novels, and die still learning. A writer’s body of work is really a chronicle of his or her long attempt to learn how to write, by writing.”

Writing links: Election Day/World Series hangover edition

Hello friends,
It’s a sunny, 75-degree fall day in Northern California. We Californians, unlike most of our American compatriots, yesterday elected a Democratic governor*, and have reelected a Democratic Senator. The San Francisco Giants have won the World Series for the first time, well —  ever, really, but since 1954 if you’re one of those people who looks at the entire history of a team and not its geographical location, but that’s neither here nor there. And you wanted to see some writing-related link goodness, didn’t you? Perhaps, like me, you’re avoiding reading the political news. Well, here you are:

Just in time for NaNoWriMo: How to Write a Novel, from San Francisco-based literary agent Nathan Bransford.

Some ebooks now priced higher than hardcovers. The times, they are a-changin’.

How to promote your book A great series from You know, if you have a book.

Lorrie Moore on MFA programs, writing from a male perspective (“I like being a guy for about 25 pages.”), and getting her start — from The Rumpus.

In addition to being a successful novelist, nonfiction writer, publisher and philanthropist/champion of kids’ writing programs, Dave Eggers is a pretty talented artist. His sketches/interviews from the World Series. (The Bay Citizen)

The Sorry State of the Rejection Letter. (via The Millions)

Are you a nonfiction writer? Does your work happen to fall into the normally unpublishable 90-pages-or-less category? Amazon wants you.

Finally: A sure sign that you’ve made it? You have your own font, a la Zadie Smith.

*Fun fact: The Republican candidate for governor of California, Meg Whitman, spent more on her campaign than the entire 2010 budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, approximately $163 million. Another fun fact: Her campaign was focused on cutting government spending.

Random advice from the Napa Writers Conference

This is just a fun list of some of the helpful tidbits I picked up while at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference last week:

The train has to leave the station quickly at the beginning of a story. This is a clever way of saying that you need to get a plot/conflict going sooner rather than later and that your characters’ desires/goals/motivations need to be made known quickly to draw the reader into your story. If your reader gets to page 25 of your novel and has no idea what the central conflict is, or who the main characters are and what they are after, you’ve got a problem. This metaphor really sticks with me for some reason. I think every time I write a new story I’m going to be asking myself at the end of page 2: Has the train left the station?

When using flashbacks the drama of the present needs to outweigh the drama of the past. That is, if a character is sewing on a button in the present, the flashback shouldn’t be, say, describing a car accident happen, because why, then, include it in flashback form and not as present action?

-When writing a novel, even if you’re not an outliner or planner, you need to impose a structure, even if you don’t end up following it … or you’ll get mired in the novel. You want to be able to finish your book, not find yourself lost in the middle. (This probably explains why I have two unfinished National Novel Writing Month novels on my hard drive.)

-There is such a thing as too much craft. You can read all the writing books you want, go to lectures and classes on how to write, but at some point, all of that sinks in and you just need to sit down and (surprise!) write.

Don’t write what sounds good, write what’s true. This is apparently a piece of advice that Ethan Canin often gives. I think it serves as a warning against passages that are too writerly. You can include all of the lyrical, beautiful passages you want, but if the reader doesn’t believe your story, you’ve got a problem.

-Place is everything; nothing happens nowhere. This little sound bite came from a lecture Ron Carlson gave at the conference. He was talking about the importance of setting and how setting can inform character and plot.

-No one should be more surprised by the ending of a short story than the writer. Another Ron Carlson sound bite, via Flannery O’Connor. It makes sense, right? If the writer is not surprised by his or her ending, the reader won’t be either. Which is not to say all endings have to be surprising, but there should be a sense of the unexpected, or of change. I think Ron brought this up as a suggestion to guard against writing toward a preconceived ending – sometimes you just need to let go and write and see what happens.

Write 100 pages of a novel before deciding whether to continue with it or not. This one comes from Curtis Sittenfeld, who told us that she wasn’t sure about the idea she had for American Wife and decided to starting writing the novel and see what happened. She said this will probably be her deal with herself from now on. It makes sense; ideas are all fine and good, but you can’t know without trying whether an idea is viable as a novel or memoir. And though it sounds like a lot of pages to write if you are going to come to the conclusion that your idea is not viable, I can see how 100 pages would help you figure it out better than, say, 25.

The people who get their books published are …. the people who actually finish writing their books. Sounds silly, right? But it’s important to remember not to get too worked up about publishing until you’ve finished writing your manuscript.