If you so much as dip your toe in the vast pool of Writerly Advice, chances are that certain items will stick to your skin. Famed writers have had their advice distilled into short lists that appear over and over again on inspirational websites and in books. Not all of them are useful for all writers; Henry Miller's enables bad habits that keep me from writing, Neil Gaiman's is lovely but unhelpful for the stage I'm at now, Elmore Leonard's is as pleasurable and katana-sharp as his prose but a little too specific and definite for my taste (though #10 is one of the greatest pieces of advice ever).
The list that has settled into being a good guide for me is Kurt Vonnegut's. I'm pretty sure I've quoted this list here before, but I can't remember when, so perhaps it'll be new to you.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.
My writing became a lot tighter when I started obeying rules #4 and 5, more satisfying with rule #6, and more focused and confident with #7. #8 and I don't agree yet, but maybe I'll grow into it.
Today I want to talk about #3. Something occurred to me while I was running yesterday morning about rule #3.
One of the books I read this summer was How to Get into the Twin Palms, which I bought after hearing the author read at the Last Bookstore. What she read was funny and engaging. The book was not. It was about a young woman whose journey over the course of the book seemed to me little more than a descent into mental illness. I think it was subtextually about the struggle to find identity in a culturally weird space (L.A. and/or America), and about the aftermath of the Cold War on Eastern European immigrants. But these points were illustrated by a character I found difficult to understand and impossible to like,* and the whole book was just her shabby perspective on mundane events. The book is clearly drawn in parts from the life of the author, so I hate to say all of that, but I found almost nothing about the book compelling and I wondered (with curiosity, not venom) what a small press editor saw in it that I didn't.
What the main character wanted? She wanted to get into the Twin Palms, a Russian nightclub across the street from her apartment. I don't really understand why, unless it was a metaphor for wanting to be Russian instead of Polish, which I also don't really understand.
It reminded me of Green Girl, which I read enough years ago not to remember in specifics, but which I found equally confounding because it was just a narrative of a sad, ordinary life in a city. The narrating character didn't have any epiphanies that I remember, and I was overwhelmed by her apparent lack of motivation to do anything at all. I did not know what she wanted, unless it was just to get along in the world, and I didn't know how the stuff that happened in the book hampered or helped her. (Here's a helpful review, which opens up the book a little but which does not convince me that I missed a great reading experience.)
There are other books like this that I've read or read partially and given up on, annoyed and bored by the complete lack of tension that pervades them. I find many of them are first novels by women out of indie presses. It was Twin Palms that helped me put a finger on what these dissatisfying books had in common, and it really hurts that I am finding no pleasure in books that I support with all my heart in the abstract.
|"Small press"...oh, I'm hilarious|
So, I've had to give some thought recently to the motivation of one of my two main characters in the secret project. One of her chapters felt kind of limp to me, and I realized it was because I hadn't given her anything to want at the time. Not even a glass of water. I was trying to strategize around this problem while I jogged on the treadmill yesterday. I was also thinking at random about the awful mom character in Over the Top, who, to paraphrase Mallory Ortberg, is basically walking around with a big skull and crossbones over her head, because she's so obviously going to die and her death is so obviously going to push the plot forward in the second half of the film. I was feeling annoyed that women's deaths (or rapes) are so often nothing more than the fire under the male characters' asses that makes them take action and move the plot, because why can't the women take action instead? and why should their bodies be incidental to the important part of the story, i.e. the story about men? These thoughts, along with my thoughts about the zero-motivation characters in Twin Palms and Green Girl, melted into a sort of primordial idea-goo in my jog-jog-jogging brain, and I formed a hypothesis.
What if #3 -- as well-meaning as Vonnegut was! not questioning his integrity or politics! -- comes from a wholly masculine method of forming stories? What if the story of a woman is not necessarily the story of a fire under one's ass? What if it's some other kind of story, one that doesn't plot in a line on a two-dimensional chart, but that moves in other shapes?
A professor I know is fond of pointing out that when you encounter art that you don't like, it might be because your expectations have been subverted, rather than because the art is bad. She uses this theorem to teach Coriolanus, a very weird Shakespeare play that (I'm not exaggerating as long as she wasn't) all her students hate 100% of the time. So I wonder if the reason there was nothing there for me in Twin Palms and Green Girl and some of the other women's indie lit I've read is because my expectations about how a narrative is constructed, which are based on my education in the Western canon erected by Harold Bloom and his evil cronies, were for a masculine, pump-pump-pump-orgasm-sleep model of the novel. Instead of for some other model, a looser, non-codified model that women are still building as they write into the twenty-first century.
Perhaps not. Perhaps Twin Palms and Green Girl are bad novels. Or they're bad novels for me and for what I enjoy reading. But perhaps I should try and rewrite that limp chapter without worrying that I must have motivation in play at every moment in order to write properly. Maybe there are other rules I can follow, or maybe I can make my own.
*There's been a lot of critical discussion in the last couple of years about unlikable female characters in contemporary fiction and how it's potentially sexist to dismiss a book as bad because its main female character is unlikable. It casts the purpose of a female character as "to be liked", an echo of the impulse felt by women oppressed by patriarchy and an outlandish expectation to bring to all non-male characters in literature. Do women need to be liked or likable to be compelling characters? I don't think so, but I think there's a difference between a well-drawn antiheroine and an apathetic blank slate. And likable vs. unlikable isn't really what I'm getting at here, anyway. I didn't just dislike the main character in Twin Palms, I found it impossible to empathize with her. That's a killer if your novel is a straightforward first-person narrative.