Crappy cover letters

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott (Zboralski, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Anne Lamott is the author of nearly twenty books and numerous short stories, but she’s best-known among writers of all stripes for her essay “Shitty First Drafts”. Her pitch-perfect rumination on the writing process captures the messiness of penning books, short stories, plays and scripts, all of which start with a shitty first draft:

This is how [writers] end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. … Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.

If I might borrow some of Lamott’s magic, I’d like to a coin a corollary to her term. If the story-writing process starts with a shitty first draft, it ends with a crappy cover letter.

To bust ass to write a great story and then summarize it in a paragraph or two is the tragicomedy of the author’s endeavor. It’s reaching a marathon finish line and having the judges inform you there’s one more mile to go for good measure. As with Lamott’s first drafts, my cover letters are initially shitty, but they are so insubstantial I prefer to view them as merely crappy.

A one-page single-spaced cover letter has to satisfy seemingly a half-dozen tasks at once: Introduce the work, summarize its contents, establish the writer’s bona fides, suggest the writer’s past successes without dwelling upon them, demonstrate the writer is committed to the craft but is someone the editors can work with when revision time rolls around, and most of all, that the work being submitted is perfect for the publisher’s needs and will sell like hotcakes (if that’s their goal; it’s not a given.)

Hence as I’m writing a crappy cover letter to an editor, a voice in the back of my head whines: Can’t you just read my manuscript?

This is my theory why writers generally loathe to tell strangers about their work. (“Oh, you’re a writer? What do you write?”) Standing before someone and explaining a book in twenty seconds is essentially ad libbing a cover letter in audio-book form. When I’m telling a person about my work the same voice in the back of my head whines: Can’t you just read my books?

Whether submitting to a major New York publisher or a twee not-for-profit literary magazine, cover letters don’t merely summarize—the writer has to sell the story in one or two short paragraphs, even if the intention is for no one involved to make a dime. By and large writers are horrible salespeople, hence, crappy cover letters.

(This may be why so many writers love Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s a peek into a bizarre alternate universe no writer would want to inhabit—but damn is the dialogue sharp and the situation taut. Always be closing.)

I recall one published writer whose counsel for success was Write your cover letter first. His bright idea was to make sure your novel can be summarized in a sellable way before writing the novel itself. (Is your cover letter crappy? Write different letters until one is good, and then turn it into a novel.)

I’ve never done this so I can’t advocate for it. Personally, I think it’s kind of crazy. I have to write a novel before I know what I should have written.

I have scant advice to offer a writer confronting the challenge of whipping up a cover letter for their latest story. Know that you’re not the only writer who hates this final mind-numbing step. One option is to limit your cover letter to your credentials and pray the editor reads your story cold. (I’ve done this with short stories to mixed success; I sincerely doubt it would work for a novel.)

Like Lamott’s first drafts, your first stab at a cover letter will read like crap. So, walk your cover letter through a similar process as any short story or novel: Take your time writing it. Put it through several edit passes. Ask your writer friends to critique it. Hell, pass it out at your writing workshop if they’ll allow it. Remember, writing is an iterative process.

And when you think it’s ready to send…let it sit on your computer for a week or two. Trust me, when you return to it fresh later you’ll spot all kinds of problems you missed before.

Revision is where the magic happens

“Yorkshire Sculpture Park” (scrappy annie, CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Recently on Twitter I wrote: “Revision is where the magic happens.”

I’m not trying to be mysterious here. I truly believe revision is where a story is honed, sharpened, and distilled. Revision is where the writer’s vision and passion surface after cutting away the dead weight and dead prose. The act of revision is pruning back a bush and revealing the topiary within. Revision is cutting away the stone block to find the sculpture trapped inside.

My tweet was in response to a question (“What’s your favorite part of the writing process?”) which was followed by a warning (“If you say revising I will have a hard time believing you”).

What can I say. Every stage of writing is difficult. There are no moments of pure pleasure for me. Even calling a manuscript finished and walking away is painful. The satisfaction is in the sum of the parts (akin to “work is its own reward”) as well as pride in the finished work.

One response to the question said something to the effect of “getting paid is the best part of writing.” That’s not part of the writing process, no more than collecting the bill is part of the cooking process in a restaurant. Even if you’re earning enough from writing to keep the lights on, great, but that’s not the writing process.

Make your phone your next writing notebook

A smart phone and a writing notepad.
r. nial bradshaw (CC BY 2.0)

Last week I finished my fourth novel and I used my phone throughout the entire writing process: developing, researching, outlining, plotting, and revision, all the way to my final draft. For all purposes, my phone was my writing notebook for this novel.

I didn’t write the novel on my phone. I’ll probably never do that. When I’m writing I want the full typewriter experience, real keys designed for human hands, the tactile sense physical buttons offer, the whole shebang.

But planning and revising a novel on your phone is certainly possible, and my latest book is proof of that.

In the past I’ve relied on paper-and-ink writing notebooks. A writing notebook is a tool I evangelize to anyone who will listen, mostly because I believe it functions as a kind of “inspiration laboratory” for writers. However, towards the end of my last novel (Hagar’s Mother) I found myself turning to electronic note-taking tools during the final editing process.

In the final stretch of editing a novel a torrent of small details begin erupting. When the edits are coming hot and heavy I find removing my hands from the keyboard to be a distraction, so I began using a free note-taking software packaged with my MacBook Air, Apple Notes. Rather than reach for a pen and my trusty notebook, I would Alt+Tab to Notes and add a bullet point to a little checklist I kept. As I kept working I would periodically consult my checklist and be sure the appropriate changes were made.

Well, Apple Notes is also available on my iPhone. At all times my writing notes were synchronized between my computer and my phone. That meant I could review my checklist while at work, on the bus, even in bed. It also meant I could add more ideas at any time. Later, when I returned to my computer to resume writing, they were there waiting for me.

That’s the hard reality I faced, one I’m certain most writers face as well: While I sometimes leave the house without my writing notebook, I never leave without my phone. These little devices are simply invaluable to us (which is why I encourage writers to keep them in mind when writing their own fiction).

After Hagar’s Mother, I decided to try an experiment and use Notes as my primary writing notebook for my next novel. I told myself if I had the slightest of problems I would bail out and revert back to my old paper-and-ink notebook. It seemed a risk-free experiment.

Well, I finished my novel and I’m here to tell you: I’m sold. Yes, you can plan, write, and revise your next novel using your phone as a notebook. What’s more, you don’t need to spend an extra dime on additional software as long as you’re using a reasonably up-to-date computer and smart phone. The note-taking software already installed is probably good enough, and if it’s not, there are free alternatives available.

Ways of note-taking

Let me get this out of the way: I’m not a shill for Apple. I’m happy with Apple Notes and how cleanly it intersected with my creative process. That doesn’t mean you should use Notes if you don’t own Apple products or want to try something else. (I list some alternatives at the end of this page.)

Looking back over my notes, I see three “types” of pages I developed, each representing a period of time in the novel-writing process.

The earliest pages are scrapbooks of ideas, thoughts, and research. Random notions fill these pages alongside bits of dialogue, descriptions, even character names. (With my fiction I try on character names the way I would try on a pair of pants.) For every novel I will read up on related subject matter to ensure I’m getting basic facts and terminology correct. Using my phone’s Share button I could add any page—Wikipedia, a news article, even a word in my phone’s dictionary—to a note. Although the foundations of the book are laid here, much of this primordial stew didn’t wind up in the final draft.

Later in the writing process, the pages start becoming more organized and less free-form. Here I was thinking about scenes I was developing. Dialogue and descriptions on these pages often reached the final draft. I also began roughing out timelines in these pages, primarily fleshing out the backstory of the main character.

The last note pages are highly organized. The novel was gelling; the big ideas are down on the page and I was more concerned about the small details and tightening up the narrative. In this stage my note pages are mostly checklists of changes to be made. The pages are broken up into sections: Characters, Details, Terminology, Important, and so on. When I made the edit, I would check off the item.

This stage is where I wrote a final character list (to keep track of names and relationships) and lists of terminology and spelling (useful in a novel with imaginary technology). I also built a final master timeline which incorporated the chronology of the novel into the backstory—useful when a character is talking about an event as happening the day before when it actually occurred two days before.

A few points here. First, notice the pages are structureless because the process is structureless. Even the later page’s organization is more-or-less free-form. The notebook met whatever need I had at the moment and never imposed a system on me. Some writing software wants to “guide” you through steps or categories for organizing your work. I’m not sold on that idea. I could use the digital note pages for anything I wanted to preserve for later. Make your writing notebook a tabula rasa.

Likewise, avoid reminder or to-do style software. Yes, I use checklists in my writing notebook, but I also used it for so much more. Task software imposes organization on your creative output. (“Mark this task High, Medium, or Low?”) That’s not what you’re looking for with a writing notebook.

These notes did not happen in concerted bursts. They represent hundreds of points in time, some slivers of seconds to type out an idea. At any point in the novel’s progress I was adding notes on the bus, at work (shh), in my easy chair, even while in the gym sweating and madly tapping a thought that came to me on the treadmill. The phone was always there. Losing even a single story idea to the frailty of human memory and our shortening attention spans is a loss.

Before you start

If you’ve read this far, you might be excited to start using your phone for your next big writing project. There are downsides to keep in mind before you start.

First, be aware you’re entrusting your precious creative output with a third-party corporation. Apple (or Google, or Microsoft, or whomever) could, at any time and with no warning, discontinue the software, discontinue their services, or even go out of business. Whatever software you work with, be sure you can export your data, even if it’s nothing more than printing out your notes or saving them as a PDF. You absolutely do not want to wind up in a situation where a corporation has your precious creative output locked up—or has deleted it.

Just as you protect your word processing files, make periodical backups of your notes in case of disaster. Most modern note-taking software has some method of doing this in such a way that the backups can be restored later if necessary.

Do a little research into your software’s data security practices. While you’re at it, make sure you’re using a strong password. No, I’m not worried about an author “stealing” my ideas, but I do worry about unknown persons accessing my notes without my consent. My writing notebook is a creative and freeing place. Part of that freedom rides on an expectation of privacy.

Recommendations

If you’re curious or excited to start using your phone as a writing notebook, your first step is choosing your software. My checklist for baseline features it should include are:

  • It should run on your phone and your writing computer. While you could turn to your phone while typing on your writing computer, I found it invaluable to be able to read and update my notes without leaving the screen. Being able to Alt+Tab to my notes and Alt+Tab back to my word processor was invaluable when the story was flowing and I couldn’t type fast enough.
  • Your notes should synchronize between every computer you use. In the 1990s synchronizing data between computers required specialized software and arcane cables. These days synchronizing should occur across the Internet, all-but-invisible to you.
  • Your notes should be available on the Web. It’s handy to be able to access your notes from anywhere. In the case of Apple, I can login to icloud.com. Your software should have this feature as well.

You’ll notice that the above three points revolve around a single convenience: access. The key to my success with note-taking software was that I could access it at any time. You never know when or where inspiration will strike. Recording and returning to inspiration is the entire reason for keeping a writing notebook.

(The reason I like being able to access my notes outside of a Web browser is simple: I turn off Wi-Fi when writing. Disabling Internet access is a great way to avoid temptation.)

Those are my top-tier must-haves for a digital writing notebook. Features I think are desirable include:

  • Checklists. It’s great to be able to add checkboxes next to the edits I need to make. It’s even better to check them off when they’re done.
  • Scrapbooking. Surprisingly, I found myself harvesting ideas from Web pages more often than I expected. Being able to store links, photos, dictionary definitions—even maps—was invaluable.
  • Folders & note organization. Eventually I would fill a page with so much raw material I needed to create a second page to continue, and subsequently a third. Organizing all these pages into distinct folders is a must.

Other features to look for:

  • Drawing or sketching. If you like to doodle in your writing notebook, you might seek out software that supports drawing. (Alternately, you could use a separate sketchpad app and add it to your notes.)
  • Audio notes. Some note-taking software can attach voice memos to a note. It’s not how I work, but it might be yours.
  • Searching. It’s surprising how many times I remembered a key word but could not find the exact note for it.
  • Collaboration. Some software allows you to share your notes with one or more people. If you’re collaborating on a novel with another writer (or illustrator, or editor), this might be a real need for you.

If you’re not an Apple user or seeking alternatives to Notes, there are other options you can investigate. I’ve not had a chance to use any of these but they seem promising:

Good luck!

Kurt Vonnegut on story shapes, writing with style, and running experiments

Recently I picked up Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, part of the Literary Conversations Series from University Press of Mississippi. The collection offers interviews and profiles of Vonnegut published between 1969 and 1999. The first comes shortly after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. The subsequent rocket ride of literary stardom Vonnegut enjoyed—or endured—follows.

The collection seems rather complete, culling all manner of sources, right down to a softball Q&A with Harry Reasoner for 60 Minutes. The collection is enjoyable if light reading, much like many of Vonnegut’s books, but it still held a few surprises for me. (Apparently after the success of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut contemplated throwing out Breakfast of Champions when he realized he could now sell any book he wrote no matter its quality.)

The more I learn about Vonnegut the more I’ve come to see how pragmatic he was when it came to the craft of writing. Vonnegut often lists Robert Louis Stevenson as one of his favorite authors because, as a boy, he was “excited by stories which were well-made. Real ‘story’ stories…with a beginning, middle, and end.” His essay “How to Write With Style” is advice of the roll-up-your-sleeves variety, featuring chestnuts like “Find a subject you care about” and “Keep it simple.” While teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop he led a course help students make a career out of writing after graduating—teaching, technical writing, ad copy, anything to put bread on the table. Apparently the course was not well-received by other faculty.

One popular meme is Vonnegut’s lecture on the shape of stories. The audience chortles as he chalks out curves and lines graphing a set of basic story structures. (Maya Eliam’s infographics of these shapes are lucid and wonderful.) Most likely many in the auditorium thought he was satirizing when he said story forms could be graphed mathematically or analyzed by a computer, but his lecture is in earnest. This was his master’s thesis in anthropology, after all.

In a 1977 interview with Paris Review—the most in-depth interview in the collection—Vonnegut drops a mention of his story shapes:

Vonnegut: Somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way…

Interviewer: If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

Vonnegut: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. … When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do.

The last sentence may be the most plainly spoken argument against the avant-garde I’ve read.

Vonnegut even compared writing novels to experiments, which I’ve explored myself. He felt experimentation was in his nature due to his education as a chemist and an engineer. (I believe this is the first time I’ve read another fiction writer describe creating fiction as a kind of experiment.) Here he talks with Laurie Clancy about Breakfast of Champions (still unpublished at this point):

Interviewer: Could you indicate what direction your new work is taking?

Vonnegut: It’s in the nature of an experiment. I don’t know how it’s going to come out or what the meaning’s going to be—but I’ve set up a situation where there’s only one person in the whole universe who has free will, who has to decide what to do next and why, has to wonder what’s really going on and what he’s supposed to do. … What the implications of this are I don’t know but I’m running off the experiment now. I’ll somehow have a conclusion when I’ve worked long enough on the book. … Regarding [God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater], I said to myself “Well, all right, what happens when you give poor people money?” So I ran the experiment off and tried to control it as responsibly as I could.

The Clancy interview is one of the best in the book. Vonnegut is engaged, thoughtful, and revelatory.

Ray Bradbury on getting stories published

When I was a younger writer, one question that monopolized far too much of my time was how to get published. Early on I recognized publishing was a numbers game for the starting writer. Any naive notions I held about the quality of my short stories leading to quick publication were dashed. Publication would only come by getting my work out there, far and wide.

Although short story writers are admonished to “study the market” and zero in on magazines suitable for their work, I honestly can’t say studying the market helped me get published in an of itself. What was more educational was when magazines flat-out rejected my best work, which encouraged me to continue to hone my craft and expand my scope. In other words, rejection slips taught me my best work was not so special after all.

I’ve been dipping into Wayne L. Johnson’s 1980 book Ray Bradbury the past couple of months, part of the Recognitions series published by Frederick Ungar. The Recognitions series features critical work on genre writers who’ve transcended their genre. Johnson’s Ray Bradbury is a biography of the author tracked through his output rather than a stiff-backed recounting of dates and locations of events in his life. Bradbury’s short stories are grouped by subject matter and style as a strategy for analyzing the author’s approach to fiction. Johnson’s book paints a picture of a man who delved deep in the human imagination and returned with some fantastic stories for the ages.

Galaxy Magazine (February 1951). Bradbury’s novella “The Fireman” was the nucleus for Fahrenheit 451.

Ray Bradbury was one of the most prolific short story authors of the 20th century because he never abandoned the form, unlike other authors who move on from them to novel writing. Bradbury capitalized on his bounty by disguising his short story collections as novels (The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man). Even Fahrenheit 451 is itself a maturation of a shorter work first published in Galaxy Magazine.

What caught my eye (and sparked the idea for this blog post) was a brief aside in Johnson’s introduction about how Bradbury was able to sell his prodigious output of short stories across the spectrum of American publishing:

Convinced that most editors were bored with seeing the same sort of material arriving day after day, Bradbury resolved to submit stories which, at least on the face of it, seemed inappropriate to the publication involved. Rather than send “Dandelion Wine” (later a chapter in the novel) to Collier’s or Mademoiselle, therefore, Bradbury sent it to Gourmet, which didn’t publish fiction. It was immediately accepted. “The Kilimanjaro Device” was snapped up by Life, which also didn’t publish fiction, after the story had been rejected by most of the big fiction magazines. … Bradbury insists that he places complete faith in his loves and intuitions to see him through.

Bradbury was certainly a known quantity when these short stories were published but, as Johnson indicates, he still faced his share of rejection slips. I don’t think Bradbury’s wanton submissions were ignorant of market conditions; it sounds to me he was quite savvy with this strategy. (Sending “Dandelion Wine” to Gourmet magazine is kind of genius, actually.) But Bradbury’s strategy transcends the usual mantra to “study the market.”

I’ve been a front-line slush pile reader at a few literary magazines and I can tell you Bradbury’s intuition is spot-on. When you’re cycling through a stack of manuscripts one after another, they soon begin to look and read the same. Too often short stories trod familiar paths. Too often they introduced characters awfully familiar to the last story I read from the pile.

A story with some fresh air in it certainly would wake me from my slush-pile stupor. The magazine market has changed dramatically in the past ten years—and absolutely has reinvented itself since Bradbury was publishing “Dandelion Wine”—but I imagine similar dynamics are still in place in the 21st century. Surprise an editor with your story and you just might have a shot at publication.

And if you’re banging out short stories and fruitlessly submitting them one after another to the usual suspects, try taking a risk and following Bradbury’s lead. Trust me, if you can put on your next cover letter that your short fiction was published by Car & Driver or National Geographic, that will surprise editors too.

Blood in the margins

Previously I wrote glowingly on Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. While I gushed how thoroughly McCloud dissects the language of comics, I didn’t spend much time (if any) on how Understanding Comics has affected me as a fiction writer.

Rather than expand my review to, oh, 10,000 words or so, I’ve broken up lessons I’ve drawn from Understanding Comics into separate posts. Most of these posts will deal with narrative structure in fiction, so they might be viewed as a supplement to the series I’ve been developing on fiction treatments and outlines.

Gutters & paragraphs

I write fiction: novels, short stories, the occasional novella. My chosen art form is pure text: letters to words, words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, paragraphs to chapters.

Scott McCloud’s chosen art form synthesizes images and written language into panels and panels into pages—comics. (Most people forget comics deal with text as well as images, another reason he calls comics “the invisible art.”) Word balloons, descriptive headers, even Batman’s BLAMMO!! coordinate with pictures in cell-like frames.

This doesn’t seem terribly applicable to writing fiction. What lessons can a fiction writer possibly glean from Understanding Comics?

Comics are a sequential art. Their “motion” depends on the layout of images across a page and the order with which they’re consumed by the reader. This is not so different than a story or a novel, only that they are built with a single component, words. But like comics, that single component is laid out sequentially, with words grouped into sentences and paragraphs. It may seem like a stretch, but I say these groupings act as narrative “panels.”

If you look back at my last post, you’ll notice McCloud identified written language as the ultimate pictograph in his “Picture Plane” diagram. By his reckoning, fiction is like a comic book with all the imagery stripped out. In comics, image and language spin together like dancers on a dance floor. In fiction, language is a solo act. Words are delegated to do all the heavy lifting.

Also like comics, fiction has a narrative “clock” which may be slowed down or sped up panel-by-panel, sentence-by-sentence:


   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
   Ten years later, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Probably the most-quoted section from McCloud’s book is the chapter “Blood in the Gutter.” Gutters are the blank space between panels (although some people question if even a space is required). For proof of McCloud’s obsession with the language of comics, look no further than his exhaustive dissection of the role of gutters in comics—the role of blank space in telling a story.

The blood in the gutter flows between seeing the axe-murderer bearing down on his victim in the left panel and “hearing” the scream across the night sky in the right panel. This closure occurs in comics as well as fiction (and in most other narrative arts too, such as film). McCloud reminds us, visually and lucidly, that narrative is a participatory act. No reader? No story, then, only ink on the page.

Closure in fiction is as complicated as it is in comics, and I can’t possibly cover all its facets here. One type of closure comics and fiction share is the use of white space (“empty space”). Take the above fiction example and add an asterisk:


   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
*
   Ten years later, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Even though the only change between these two examples is the asterisk centered on the line, it “feels” like more time has passed in the second example.

Different publishers use different devices to mark section breaks, such as three asterisks across the page, a short line or curlicue, or no print signal at all other than extra blank space separating the two text blocks. Often the first paragraph of the new section is not indented or has some other print feature to distinguish it, such as using small caps for the first three words.

Chapter openings and other similar breaks in the story will usually employ a variation of the above. Unfortunately, my blog’s layout isn’t conducive to demonstrating these different print styles. If you’re unfamiliar with them, pick up a books from different publishers and check closely how their layout editor arranged their chapters and section breaks.

White space can indicate the passing of a span of time—but it may also indicate a shift in space:


   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
*
   Ten miles away, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Here the asterisk indicates a change of location, leaving the reader to search out other clues to determine how much time, if any, has passed between Mary hanging up the phone and Bob sifting through the recycling. The blatant cues I’ve added here (“ten years later,” “ten miles away”) are meant to assist my examples. A more artful author could indicate the same shifts with other, more subtle textual clues.

So asterisks, line breaks, and white space can indicate changes in time and space. What other visual signals does the fiction writer have at his or her disposal?

Look at paragraphs. Paragraphs employ white space (a new line, often a leading indent) to indicate all manner of changes in fiction:

  • time
  • location
  • point-of-view
  • shift of tone and subject matter
  • change of speaker (as with dialogue)

There’s plenty of other possibilities too. And don’t think breaking up paragraphs is some mechanical rule-based process out of the creator’s control. It’s a grammarian fantasy that hard-and-fast rules exist for making paragraphs. In fiction, breaking prose into paragraphs is a somewhat subjective art. After a century of modernist and postmodernist experimentation, it’s only become more subjective. Packing paragraphs with shifting sentences is considered avant garde in some situations. Run-on sentences packed into a single paragraph are now acceptable as well. (Read the first chapter of Billy Bathgate for an example.)

If you think about it, chapters are an even more extreme form of visual signaling. Chapter breaks are miniature explosions in the novel’s stream-of-narration. Chapters give the writer a chance to make major shifts and signal big changes occurring, to take a deep breath before moving on with the tale. (Chapter breaks also give the reader a chance to bookmark and set aside the book. Every chapter the writer introduces is one more risk of losing their audience.)

Even the format of chapter breaks sends signals to the reader. Some books use numbered words (“Twelve”) and others numerals (“12”). Some books start each chapter on a new page while others do not. (I’ve noticed Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer books often fail to start chapters on new pages, contributing to the detective’s relentless pace. Alex Garland’s superb The Beach is also laid out like this, another novel with a unremitting narrator.)

Children books are notorious for chapter titles (“At the Old Sawmill”). Other books merely indicate chapters with—you guessed it—exaggerated white space at the top of the page. Even the numbering of chapters may play a significant role in the telling of a story. Chapters (and page numbers!) are numbered backwards in Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, while the chapter numbers in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time form a sequence of prime numbers because the narrator finds them pleasing.

I’ve read enough books to know a chapter’s blank space (or lack of it) and the format of chapter titles plays a role, no matter how minor, in my reception of the book. If narration is a participatory act, and if you’re the kind of writer who believes every detail matters (and I think you should be that writer), then pay attention to how you employ blank space.

One temptation at this point is to suggest these white space markers are not so diverse after all—aren’t asterisks and line breaks and chapters merely for scene changes, separating the story’s structure in a less-blatant way than stage plays are marked (“Act IV Scene 2”)?

Not really. For example, a chapter may end on a cliffhanger and the next chapter pick up immediately where the last left off: same scene, same characters, same time and place. I’ve seen book chapters end with a line of dialogue and the next chapter open with another character’s reply. Writers often use chapter breaks to highlight the importance of that moment in the narrative, but they’re not a scene break per se.

This is what I mean when I say you, the writer, should pay close attention to your use of blank space. When you insert blank space in your next story—a scene ending with a second break, or starting a new chapter—ask yourself what your story gains (or, what your story loses) with the blank you’ve added.

It strikes me as fashionable these days for writers to break apart short stories into quick, MTV-like section breaks. Often each section builds a little emotion, heightens some tension, then drops off and shifts to a new scene. Try writing a short story told in one uncut narration. Try writing a short story told in one uncut scene. Try writing a short story in one paragraph.

Likewise, if you’re working on a novel. question each chapter break. Should these two sequential chapters be “glued” together? Or perhaps the first chapter should conclude earlier, or the second chapter start later?

I have a bad habit of starting a chapter in media res, that is, in the middle of the action, and a couple of paragraphs in, jump to a flashback explaining how the characters wound up in this action. Most times this indicates a poor choice of where I started the chapter. Some times I drop the flashback entirely and it’s not a problem at all. The flashback added little, and removing it only strengthened the chapter as a whole.

But the exercise itself is a questioning of blank space in my fiction. What purpose does this particular use of blank space serve? Does it add or subtract from the story?

For a real-world example of empty space in fiction, here’s a selection from Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Look how Thompson uses fictive closure to avoid the censor’s red pencil in 1952:

I jerked the jersey up over her face and tied the end in a knot. I threw her down on the bed, yanked off her sleeping shorts and tied her feet together with them.

I took off my belt and raised it over my head. …

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped, before I came to my senses.

(Those ellipses are in the original.) Welcome to fiction’s version of “blood in the gutter”—a craven act of violence committed by three periods in sequence and the white space between the paragraphs.

Externalizing inspiration

<cite>North American Review</cite>, May/Aug 2009.

North American Review, May/Aug 2009.

Last time I wrote about keeping a writing notebook. Let’s say you started one, or have been keeping a notebook for some time. What do you do with it? Once you’ve filled a notebook with all these ideas, how do you transfer that inspiration to a final story or novel?

From an essay I wrote for North American Review regarding a short story of mine they published, I discussed how I used a writing notebook:

On occasion I revisit my writing notebooks for inspiration…Many of my stories evolve from my own (sometimes misplaced) attempts to wire two or three bits of disparate inspiration together and see if sparks fly.

The inspiration for the story the published (“The Obituarist”) came from three lines scribbled into my notebook years ago:

“The Obituarist – Dying, old age, writes obits for living ppl. Also writes fiction—short stories?—and has come to realize that man is reliant on conflict, tension, etc. because all our stories rely on them, and they are not stories otherwise. Speaking to a young person writing his obit. (Or he writes book reviews.)”

That was it. I had a title alright, and some idea of a character and his situation, but nothing further. As I explained for NAR, about a year after writing this in my notebook I began working on the story itself, which is now collected in A Concordance of One’s Life.

This is the true value of a free-form writing notebook. For some people, a writing notebook is to prevent forgetting something. For others a notebook is a journal, a way to talk to one’s self, a method of expressing pent-up emotions.

My writing notebook is to externalize my thoughts. Externalizing inspiration, no matter how crazy or random the inspiration may seem, is itself an act of creation. Writing an idea in a notebook is as important as sitting down before the computer and formally typing the story. Those erratic sentences I scribbled about the obituarist were not subsidiary or tangential to writing the story. Those words were the genesis. The story started with them, not a year later when I typed the opening sentence in my word processor.

By committing some scattered notions to the page, I’m getting them out of my skull, where they’re fluid, malleable, and insubstantial, and forcing them into the physical world, where they take shape and harden into form. It’s important to judge my ideas objectively in the bald daylight to determine if they’re worth expanding upon.

Plenty of my inspirations go no further than the notebook. That’s not a bad thing. Most do not age well. When I return to my notebook, I often blanch upon reading these old inspirations. I will hurry to turn the page—a sure indication I made the best decision not to pursue them.

Wiring sources of inspiration together

A Concordance of One's Life by Jim NelsonIn my NAR essay I wrote that “The Obituarist” grew from a single idea. More often I find success in combining ideas, “to wire two or three bits of disparate inspiration together and see if sparks fly.”

I hold a pet theory that true inspiration is rarely, if ever, a single atomic idea. I see inspiration as multiple ideas coalescing. They accrete mass over time until a tipping point is reached and the creator feels the urgent need to get the accumulation down on the page in the form of a story. (Or on the canvas, or modeled in clay, and so on.)

For an example of wiring disparate bits of inspiration together, I point to another story in the collection, “A Concordance of One’s Life.” The elements from my notebook contributing to the story include:

  1. Man writes a concordance of his own memoirs (but why?)
  2. Adult feels cheated about something that happened when he was young
  3. Small town becomes a literary tourist attraction (a la Hemingway’s house in Key West)
  4. A man with a name no one can pronounce

When I began writing “Concordance” the early drafts only involved points 1 and 2. When I paired them, I thought I’d answered that first question (“but why?”). I was wrong; the early drafts of the story went nowhere. I’d noted the second two bits of inspiration in my notebook before starting the first draft but failed to make a connection. I thought they were for a separate story, if I used them at all.

In a later draft I added the third inspiration and sparks began to fire. The quiet mountain town as a tourist attraction added a quirky backdrop to my drafts, odd scenes of faceless people going from location to location with their well-worn concordances in hand. Still, the story was shiftless and moody and failed to progress.

The final bit of inspiration came from waking one morning and, hazy-headed, realizing the cheated man was not the concordance’s author. Rather, the narrator was a friend or an acquaintance who went unmentioned in the concordance (even though everyone else in town is described within it). I’d given up on the story several times over a span of nearly two years. Patience and focus on the story’s needs led to plenty of sparks that Saturday morning. The draft I wrote became more-or-less what was published by Watchword later that year.

(Somewhere in this is a moral about not giving up on stories, but I must confess it’s sometimes good to cut anchor and move on. Some stories simply cannot be salvaged.)

The fourth point on inspiration—”man with a name no one can pronounce”—found its way into the story during the Saturday morning writing session. I’d been thinking about the man with the unpronounceable name as the basis for another story, but it had no feet. At the computer Saturday morning, I included it as a gag, a side bit of detail. As the story came to fruition, I realized it was one of the most important and salient aspects of “A Concordance of One’s Life.”