There is something to be said for that stubborn streak your parents always complained about. “Muleheaded” was, as I recall, my parents’ fave term. That trait has gotten me into more than a few fights and through plenty of standoffs with my kids, and into a fair amount of trouble. It’s also gotten me published a few times. Here’s the thing with stubbornness: You can fall back on it when you really, truly believe you’ve got a winner. I wrote a story I loved way back in 1993. Yes, I’m old, okay? Let’s move on. In its early days, it went through workshops, incarnations, edits, and reviews by trusted friends. It tentatively made its way into the world and got rejected plenty. Then it sat in a drawer for about a decade and a half until I rediscovered it one day and decided it was worth another try. Back to editing and begging friends to read it. And cutting! This story is still nearly 6,500 words, but it used to be a whopping 8,000, until a writer friend gently suggested “You have got to CUT some of this bullshit.” So I did. In the last four years I’ve sent it out pretty regularly to more than 50 different magazines and journals. This month…drumroll here… It worked! I’m a finalist in New Rives Press’s American Fiction series! (Yes, that’s my big ol’ face right there at the top—so embarrassing.) All the finalists get published in the latest issue, along with three top prize winners judged by…drumroll again… Elizabeth Strout. Elizabeth Strout! Pulitzer Prize winner! Olive Kitteridge creator! Reading MY story! I’m a wee bit excited about this one if you can’t tell. So my point is, stubbornness. And a real willingness to listen to what others have to say and make the hard changes you have to make. The American Fiction prize winners will be announced by late September. And I was thrilled to see the publication date is October…a mere three months away! Then I realized it is actually October…2015. Ah well. After 21 years, what’s one more? Write well everyone―keep submitting! ―Cathy
Tag: writing tips
Sorry for the lateness in posting.Remember when summers used to mean long, lazy days with nothing to do but read, run, play, hang by the pool?
Yeah, we barely recall that either. And even if we did, it’s a far cry from what we’re doing now, right? Here at Write Despite, we’ve been a wee bit busy. Karen is working on securing final changes and cover art (fun!) for her novel, which comes out this fall. I’m submitting, submitting the same story again and again and drumming up a very slow start to a new short story. Oh, and using every ounce of my energy to ignore my novel rewrite number 580,026. Hopefully we’ll have more on both of those later.
In other news, we’d like to announce the winner of the Hannah Barnaby book! Writingfamily is the winner of Wonder Show and will be receiving her copy shortly. Thanks to everyone who chimed in with comments.
Hope you’ve all been able to write up a storm this summer despite the kids being home, the sun calling you outdoors and vacations giving you a well-deserved break from the routine. If you’re struggling to fit writing into your days, remember our mantra here at WD:
It’s only 20 minutes!
Yeah, we know. But still, write well everyone, and enjoy your summer!
Q & A with ‘Wonder Show’ Author, Hannah Barnaby
Hannah Barnaby is author of Wonder Show, a novel set in 1939 that tells the tale of 13-year-old Portia Remini, who flees a Home for Wayward Girls and winds up with a traveling sideshow. As if the freakish world of the carnival and its sideshow “misfits” aren’t enough to deal with, Portia’s also searching for the father who abandoned her, and keeping a constant watch for Mister, her old headmaster, whom she’s certain will someday find her.
Wonder Show was a 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist and a Children’s Book of the Month Club pick. It was also named to the YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults List, the Bank Street College’s Best Books List, and the School Library Journal’s Best Books List, and it was an IndieBound New Voices Selection.
Intrigued? Offer up a comment to Hannah’s interview with Write Despite, below, and you could win a free, signed copy of Wonder Show.
This is your first book, correct? Why did you choose to write YA and is it the genre you plan to continue with?
Wonder Show is my first published novel, but not the first that I wrote. I have a middle-grade story that I wrote during my MFA program at Vermont College, that novel-in-the-drawer that most writers have. I’m not sure if it will ever be resurrected, but it taught me about the building blocks of a novel and about my own process.
As for choosing to write YA, I actually work pretty hard not to think about genre while I’m writing. Some genres—picture books, for instance—are obvious designations and have their own rules, but the lines between others—like middle-grade and YA—are not as clear. When Wonder Show was first published, it was named to the middle-grade summer reading list for the Children’s Book of the Month Club. Then it was nominated for the William C. Morris Award for debut young adult novels. So there was no hard and fast label for the book, which I appreciated because it reflected the fact that the audience for Wonder Show could be wider than one group of readers.
Your website says you came up with the character of Portia Remini in a dream, but what drew you to write about the circus, and its sideshow “misfits” in particular?
When I set out to write Wonder Show, all I had was the image of a girl riding a bicycle on a dirt road, and the sense that she was running away from somewhere. I didn’t know where she was going or who she was running from or anything else, really. Then a friend told me about a grant offered by the Boston Public Library, the winner of which would get financial support as well as being named the Children’s Writer-in-Residence. I decided to apply, and in researching the library’s Special Collections, I found that they had an archive of circus materials and quite a few books on circus and carnival history. A few months later, I won the grant! And then I was faced with actually writing the project that I’d proposed, which became Wonder Show.
The shifting POV among your characters comes later in the book, and gives it an unexpected twist. Was it fun to switch gears this way, and what made you decide to use this technique?
I wrote the first draft of Wonder Show very much by instinct. When I sat down to write each day, I took a few minutes to think about Portia and where she was and who she was with, and then I started to fashion a scene that built that atmosphere. It wasn’t plot-driven writing at all, but it was very much character-driven, and so I needed to get to know the supporting cast better. Writing pieces of narrative from each different point-of-view gave each character a turn to speak to me and let me know who they were and how their stories intersected with Portia’s. I wasn’t sure about keeping these pieces in the final manuscript, but I came to love them and what they revealed about the sideshow family. (I will say, however, that writing without regard for plot or chronology made the revision process *extremely* challenging. I don’t recommend this method.)
Can you talk a bit about your road to publication?
My path to publication is very different than that of most other writers, because prior to becoming a writer I worked as a children’s book editor at Houghton Mifflin, and winning the grant from the BPL also put me in contact with some valuable allies. One of the judges who awarded me the grant was Melanie Kroupa, who then had her own imprint at FSG. A couple of years after I finished my residency, Melanie wrote to ask, “What ever happened with your novel? Can I read it?” I asked for some time to do a quick revision (six weeks!) and I sent it off. Melanie didn’t end up acquiring the project, but her request got me working on the manuscript again and eventually Kate O’Sullivan, a friend and former colleague at Houghton, offered me a contract.
Do you write every day?
I aspire to write every day, but I rarely do. The reality is that I have three kids, only two of them are in school full-time, and life is unpredictable. So most of all, I try to be flexible. I might steal 20 minutes of writing time while my daughter’s in ballet class or while I’m supposed to be folding laundry. When I can plan for larger blocks of writing time, I always plan ahead so I know what to work on as soon as I sit down. I always, always have a notebook and pen with me because you never know when an new idea will come or the solution to a problem will make itself clear. (And my kids are always saying the most hilarious things, so I can capture those, too.)
What advice do you have for other writers still struggling to create or publish?
Writing is HARD WORK. And the fact that it’s hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong—it means that it’s important and complex and full of emotion, as all good writing should be. Take the time to find the process that works for you, and know that your process will adapt and change from project to project. When I started writing Wonder Show, I was a single, working professional living in Boston. By the time I finished the novel for publication, I was married with children and living in the Connecticut suburbs. My perspective had evolved, and it deepened my writing and my understanding of the creative process.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just completed a contemporary YA novel that’s going out for submission soon (wish me luck!). This summer, I plan to work on a younger chapter book and a few picture book manuscripts—I’m giving myself permission to loosen up my schedule and play with writing more than I usually do. I’ll let you know how it goes!
And by the way, if you’re anywhere near Richmond, Virginia, on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, Hannah will be reading at the Girls of Summer Reading Party at 7 pm at the main branch of the Richmond Public Library, 101 East Franklin Street, Richmond, VA. She will be reading with Meg Medina and also author Gigi Amateau, another ‘Q&A Book Giveaway’ author previously featured on Write Despite. Go if you can!
AND DON’T FORGET: YOU COULD OWN A FREE COPY OF WONDER SHOW. JUST TELL US WHY YOU’D LIKE TO OWN THIS BOOK BY POSTING YOUR COMMENT HERE.
I recently sat in on a panel with Jeff Kleinman—again. He’s the agent from Folio Literary Management I wrote about last year. If you missed that post, here it is. He gives lots of great information for submitting novels to agents, especially literary fiction, and had a few new insights this year. But even what I got from the panel last year bears repeating.
Kleinman has four must-haves for writers who submit to his agency:
1) Premise – You MUST have a logline, even if you don’t use it in your submissions. You have to know it in your head because it will help you hone in on your book. Too many good writers don’t have a real sense of what their book is about. A logline, as he explains it, is much like the statement you see on a movie poster. For Splash it was: “Boy meets girl. She’s a fish.”
2) Characters – You get rejected mainly because agents DON’T FALL IN LOVE with anyone in your book. That means you didn’t do a good enough job of bringing your characters to life. Go deeper! Interview your character with crazy questions and keep asking him or her why.
3) Momentum – Make sure words serve to turn pages. Understand what your reader wants to know next.
4) VOICE. This can’t be stressed enough. In commercial fiction it’s what’s most important and it’s a huge problem for many writers. Ask yourself how you can focus and drill down to get something that’s distinctive. Establish voice in the first three to four sentences. There has to be an authority in the voice that the reader buys into.
Also, there’s this. People read for three things: Character, voice and plot. Kleinman suggested reading The Goldfinch as a great current example of all three. The painting in this book, he says, is the plot device that carries the story forward.
If you’re getting:
All form rejections—Then your premise needs work. It doesn’t sound at all interesting.
“Minimal” rejections, as in “Hey, it’s not right for me”—Then your writing is stronger but you still don’t have a great premise.
Personalized rejections—Then clearly something is starting to work. They want to engage with you more. Now you’re likely done with your query letter—it’s probably good enough.
Requests for the first 50 pages—This is the basic minimal amount that gauges their interest in you and it means you have a strong premise. They’re willing to go further.
Requests for the full manuscript and they still reject it—Then it’s always, always CHARACTER. You didn’t engage the agent enough with your characters, especially the main one.
Your query letter should state:
– Why you’re writing to that particular agent.
– Who you are, and how you met the agent, if you did.
– Your contact info.
– What your book’s about—one to two sentences only. Your synopsis will provide the rest.
And hey, get this: He says not to sweat the synopsis too much: “We usually only ask for a synopsis to ensure you’ve written the whole thing.” We suspected as much, didn’t we?
“All agents can do is point out that you’re bleeding. We don’t necessarily know where you’re bleeding from. You have to know how to fix it.”
“Agents want to help you improve your book, but only when you’ve taken it as far as you can. Make sure it’s as ready as you can make it.”
Paperlet, an online writer community, not only allows readers to comment on and edit each other’s work, but actually helps you “build” your story by walking you through the basic structural steps. Check it out at www.paperlet.com.
Hope you find this stuff as useful as I did, everyone. Write well!
C. Michael Curtis, a senior editor and longtime revered fiction editor at the Atlantic Monthly, published an essay called “Publishers and Publishing,” in On Writing Short Stories, a collection of essays, edited by Tom Bailey. It’s a pretty enlightening, amusing reflection on the fiction submissions he receives. Our fave part:
“Much of the writing that pours onto the desks of literary editors at both the serious-minded but commercial general magazines and the smallest, most fiercely independent quarterlies is inept, undeveloped, amateurish, crazed, obscene, unintelligible, or some combination of the above.”
Kinda makes you feel better about the stuff you submit, right?
At least, that’s what we thought. I mean, we’ve received rejection letters with comments like “uninteresting” and “meandering” and “seems to have no larger point.”
But “crazed?” “Obscene?” Just what the hell are people doing out there?
Here are some other amusing rejections we ran across:
“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” (Written about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22—believed to have been given this title because it was the 22nd publisher, Simon and Schuster, who agreed to take it on.)
“The American public is not interested in China.” (Seriously, what could be interesting about Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth?)
“This will set publishing back 25 years.” (Wonder why? Anyone read Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park?)
“Good God, I can’t publish this.” (Said about William Faulkner’s Sanctuary.)
“An absurd story as romance, melodrama or record of New York high life.” (Gasp! Blasphemy uttered about F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.)
“Stick to teaching.” (Louisa May Alcott was urged to keep her day job after submitting Little Women.)
“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” (We get your point. But Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was still a masterpiece.)
“An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” (Maybe depressing and gory and violent, but William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was dull?)
“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” (Wonder what this visionary thinks of The Hunger Games. He rejected Carrie, by Stephen King)
“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.” (Give it up, Garth Stein. Even George Orwell’s Animal Farm can’t cut it.)
This is an awesome essay of Curtis’s by the way, and you can check it out here:
If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, let us recap a bit. He gives a great rundown of what editors are, and aren’t, looking for in submissions, including cover letters. He says only two things included in your letter might cause an editor to be more interested in your story than the average one:
- Citations of stories published elsewhere, particularly in periodicals of comparable size and reputation; and
- Mention of the fact that you’ve been enrolled in a reputable MFA program (or residence at Bread Loaf or Sewanee, etc.).
Other take-aways? Same as you’ve always heard:
- Don’t recap your story—let it speak for itself.
- Don’t talk about other magazines that have rejected it already.
- Don’t single space.
- Don’t send anything with typos or grammatical errors.
- Don’t try to dazzle them with your wit or sound hostile or desperate.
In short, just make your writing as fab as possible, keep your cover letter simple and direct, and send it out.
Spray and pray, people. Spray and pray.
The Long and Short of It
Taking a break from the book for a while because … well, because I’m stuck. Discouraged. Not feeling it . But you don’t want to hear my problems. Neither does Karen. She told me to shut up and quit whining and go write a short story. Okay, she was much nicer than that, but I got the message.
A short story!!??
This may seem like no big deal to you, but I haven’t written a story in years. How sad is that? I’ve been so caught up in the novel thing that the idea of shorter fiction hasn’t even been on my radar. If you want to switch gears and get a new outlook and rev up the energy again, though, I guess you really should consider going back to the basics.
I plan to start by reading stories, of course. I used to read short fiction all the time. Best American Short Stories is always on my Christmas list (thank you in-laws for making sure this is under the tree each year), but I confess I haven’t read a whole one in years. I’ll look through them now, though, since I’m one of those people who pulls inspiration from others (okay steals, if you like—I’m not too proud to admit it).
Any other suggestions for where to find great stories? Do you read literary journals? The New Yorker? Alice Munro anthologies?
Anyone want to write along with me?
When we’re done, here’s a GREAT listing of pubs to submit to:
So switch it up, hunker down, carry on, write it short–or long. Whatever moves you. As always, just write.
Oh, and I saw an amazing quote the other day. I’m not much for such things, but this one stuck with me:
“Imagine what you would do if you knew you could not fail.”
I know, right?
Author Vanessa Hua’s breakthrough publication
Most writers remember their first publication: the magical acceptance letter (usually after a raft of rejections,) reading the galleys, seeing the finished thing alive in the world. We thought it would be fun to launch an occasional series featuring authors talking about their breakthroughs. Sometimes the story behind the story is the best part.
Please join us in welcoming Vanessa Hua to Write Despite.
Vanessa is a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing. An award-winning writer and journalist, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, ZYZZVA, Crab Orchard Review, New York Times, New Yorker, Salon, and elsewhere. A former staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, she has reported from China, South Korea, and Panama. She blogs at threeunderone.blogspot.com and can be found at www.vanessahua.com
Late in 2005, I won the Cream City Review fiction contest – my first short story in print. When I received the e-mail, I stood up in the newsroom and shouted with joy and excitement, struck by the heady, dangerous feeling of affirmation. I’d been judged worthy! By then, I’d also reported from China, launched an award-winning campaign finance investigation, and had married. When I won the contest, it felt all parts of my life were coming together – professionally, personally, and creatively.
I’d been writing fiction since I was a child, won writing contests in high school, and had studied creative writing at Stanford University. After graduation, I focused on my journalism career. In my spare time, I wrote scenes, sketches, starts of stories that went nowhere. When I re-read pieces I’d written in college, I felt conflicted: proud that the stories had merit, yet it felt like a stranger had penned them. I didn’t remember how to write a story.
Eventually, I signed up for a fiction workshop where I produced the story that won the Cream City Review contest. I’d learned about the journal after reading the publishing bio of another student in the class whose work I admired. That success helped keep me going as I started writing more fiction, submitting to journals, taking workshops, joining writer’s groups, and going to writing conferences. Of course, if you spend too much time chasing validation, you might succumb to the despair of rejection – and I’ve been rejected many times since then. And you have to spend more hours writing than talking about writing.
In 2007, I decided I wanted to learn how to write a novel, and I headed to UC Riverside, where I earned my MFA. Five years later, I had the pleasure of being asked to judge the Cream City Review fiction contest. I hope that the prize helped encourage the winner in her career, too.
In deciding where to submit, I continue sending to places that publish writing I admire. I also seek out paying journals, those with interesting business models, such as DailyLit, and strongly promote the work of their authors, such as At Length. I also enter contests, such as The Atlantic’s student fiction prize, which I won in 2008. Your chances might be slim, but if you don’t enter, you have no chance at all.
To buy Vanessa’s stories, go to
Q&A with Author and Literary Journal Editor Scott Garson
Scott Garson is the author of IS THAT YOU, JOHN WAYNE?—a collection of stories—and AMERICAN GYMNOPEDIES, a book of microfictions. His fiction has won awards from Playboy, The Mary Roberts Rinehart Foundation and Dzanc Books, and he has work in or coming from Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, Hobart, Conjunctions, New York Tyrant and others. He edits the Pushcart-Prize-winning journal of very short fiction, Wigleaf.
What was your first real publication and how did it come about?
If I tell you that, how can I keep it buried?
My first publication was back in the ’90s—in the ‘Before’ era, as I see it now. Before the internet. Before indie mags had more than local reach. Then, as now, we were all sending our stuff to the Paris Review and receiving form slips in return. If we wanted a more realistic chance, we had to get creative. I looked through the addresses in the back of the Best American Short Stories and saw an Illinois journal (now defunct) called Black Dirt. They accepted and published a story of mine called “Aloha.” It was okay. My Mom liked it, I think.
You’ve just published your second book, Is That You, John Wayne?, another amazing collection of short stories. What makes you gravitate to short fiction? Do you ever plan to write longer-—say, a novel?
Well, I do! There are a couple of novel manuscripts in my past… Does that sound depressing? Novels are like short stories, I think: it takes a while to learn how to do it. But while apprentice short stories are easily enough forgotten, novels take longer. There’s such an investment. It’s like you’re not allowed to let them go.
I’ve let those manuscripts go. Goodbye to you, unpublished novels. Good luck!
As to the attraction of short fiction, that’s easy: I loved reading before I discovered short fiction, but I probably wouldn’t ever have thought to become a writer if it weren’t for reading short fiction. That’s to say, fiction seduced me via the short story. It’s where I first saw how sense, sentence and story could come together as a kind of magic. I wanted to do that, to make that kind of thing.
How long has Wigleaf existed?
We just had our sixth birthday. Birthday #5 was fun because my wife, Becky, made Wigleaf a birthday cake. A real birthday cake for a virtual magazine. My kids approved because the magazine, unlike them, could not bring a mouth to the party.
Again, this is a journal dedicated to short-short fiction. Why and how did you create it and what were you trying to do differently from other literary journals?
I suppose I was getting a little dejected as a writer when I got the idea for Wigleaf. That might be too strong a word, but my excitement was for sure not at a high. This was in 2007, I guess. I was publishing stories fairly regularly, which should have been spiriting, but there wasn’t a lot of response, and if I got a contributor’s copy and didn’t particulary enjoy some of the other fiction, I was liable to feel that the whole process was kind of useless.
Around this time I sent out a short-short for the first time, a 500-word story called “Lucky.” It was accepted by a journal that published only work of that length, Jennifer and Adam Pieroni’s late great Quick Fiction. Maybe you know where this is going. Reading that contributor’s copy of Quick Fiction was a great and amazing experience. All the writers were doing such careful, interesting work. With each piece, it seemed like the whole sense of what a story could be was invented all over again.
Not long after that I taught myself basic html. Online lit mags and short-short fiction were both sort of new, as I saw it. I thought they were a good fit for each other. (Some other early online mags had paved the way here: SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, Hobart, Juked, and FRiGG, to name a few.)
What are you working on now?
Only a handful of people know this, so I guess it qualifies as a secret. Ready? I’m writing a novel for young readers which I’ll probably try to publish under a pseudonym. My two kids—ages 8 and 11—are responsible. They’ve challenged me to write something “not boring,” and my 8-year old has all sorts of advice for me as to how to do that (for example, “People like books that have chapters with titles.”). As a writing project, it’s certainly a switch-up. I’m enjoying it.
Any new publications forthcoming?
I have a draft of a short novel that I feel good about. Just now I can’t stand the idea of publishing it. A writer who’s got a book out is a writer whose mindlife is somewhat compromised….. Maybe in another couple years.
Do you write every day?
In some seasons, yes. When I’m teaching, no. This semester, I write on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends.
Maybe when my kids are grown I’ll be able to write every day again. (Not that I’m looking forward to that… This is a good time!)
Advice for aspiring writers?
#1. Read a lot.
There’s the duh advice.
#2. Understand that for most readers, the pleasure of fiction is the pleasure of interiority. This is not saying too much, in the sense that there are so many different ways to take readers inside a life. But it’s a good thing to remember, all the same. Better that the mind of your fiction move from the inside out rather than vice versa.
Go ahead, distract me
Distraction is the enemy of the writing process, and it’s a wily enemy.
Because we do a lot of our writing at home, we are subject to a particular virulent strain known as Domestic Distraction (DD.) When we sit down to write (often hiding from our children and other family members) we can pretty much predict the ambush.
Actually, Cathy just sent me this email describing a recent writing session at her home:
“Well, right now I’m trying to work, and I have four kids running in and asking for popcorn and drinks. And one of them is 14! And the phone keeps ringing. And the dog is barking. I had a dentist appointment this morning, and now the renovators are coming in half an hour and I have to get the whole kitchen cleaned before they get here. How much writing do you think I’ve actually done today? Slightly less than tweet-length.”
Sounds about right. Sometimes it really is best to get out of the house to write. Go to a coffee shop. Try the library. Anywhere that the people won’t mean anything to you, and the surroundings will mean even less.
But if you can’t slip away, you might as well laugh. Here, in no certain order, are some of the recent issues that have had the temerity to disturb us at our writing desks.
- The house is too cold. It’s winter. It’s New England, but seriously my fingers hurt.
- The dog wants out. Now he wants in. Now he wants back out.
- The neighbors’ kids are really into screaming. In their backyard. At full volume.
- My 5-year-old has been too quiet for too long.
- My 5-year-old has been unbearably noisy for too long.
- Ah, the always inspiring: “Mommy, can you come wipe my bum?”
- I need coffee.
- I’ve had too much coffee.
- Man, a turkey sandwich sounds good right now.
- I’ll just check Facebook for a second…
Care to share your own DD?
Structure: The Lost Art?
I started college as an art major. I lived in a small town and began a long educational stint at a small college, which had exactly two art professors. One was the 3D instructor—pottery and sculpture, which I was not so into. I wanted to draw and paint. So I spent most of my time with the 2D art teacher—a gruff, critical guy who seemed to never be able to explain exactly what was wrong with a piece, just that you hadn’t put enough of your “soul” into it, or you needed to “color outside the lines” more. He was also into trash. “Found objects” were his medium, and he could often be spotted rooting through the bins outside the art building scavenging treasures to incorporate into his “art.”
I say “art” in quotes, yes, because I could not tell exactly what his art was. One creation he displayed proudly in his office was a board nailed on the wall holding a tangle of red wires, some prickly stuff that looked like steel wool, and clumps of brown feathers. His students dubbed it (behind his back) “Road Kill in Mixed Media.”
One day, when we were reading about Picasso and how he’d progressed from realism to abstraction during his career, I came across a line that went something like, “Realism provides the foundation for mastery which then allows artists to expand in whatever direction they choose.”
There. That’s what I’d been sensing all along. I pointed this out to my professor and said, “I feel like I need to know how to paint something realistic first, before I try to weird it up.”
He was, to put it mildly, offended. More like defensive. Actually horrified. He blurted out that this was a bourgeoisie concept that had been around for centuries and it was, essentially, crap. Learning the basics, he said, would only enable you to produce cookie-cutter, formulaic art. Then he fell back on his favorite dada-ist phrase: “Anything the artist spits is art.”
Okay, really? Not only is this gross, but come on. Whatever you throw out into the world is golden just because you proclaim yourself gifted? That’s crap.
I ended up changing towns and colleges and majors until I finally got a degree in creative writing. I took countless workshops, all of which were eye-opening and useful. Yet in all the talk of novel writing (and there wasn’t much—we concentrated mainly on short stories) there was still very little teaching of structure.
I still feel kind of bitter—okay, plenty bitter—about that. Because to this day I’m still struggling with it. I get that people don’t want to teach something considered too conventional. But I’ll take formula over floundering any day. Like Picasso said, I’d rather come to learn something so well that I can then break apart its underlying foundation and have it still support all the crazy cube-like heads and feet above.
The book I’m reading now (Save the Cat!, which I’ve mentioned previously) gives such strict guidance on structure it tells you on what page a key element in your story should take place.
Actually, your script—this is a screenwriting book. I wish this guy would write a how-to on novel structure and tell me on exactly what page my main character should make a life-altering decision, or bottom out, or find enlightenment.
My old art professor would spit his artistic saliva at me for that one. But I’d rather have the tools to create what will stand upright and endure, not what’s become a mass of wires and feathers that I have to now go back and try to pry up from the roadside.
It’s so much easier if you build the foundation from the start. Structure, I’m starting to think, is EVERYTHING.
What do you think?