Lessons learned from Ross Macdonald

Recently at San Francisco’s Green Apple bookstore I discovered an edition of Inward Journey (1984), a collection of essays, poetry, and remembrances dedicated to mystery writer Ross Macdonald and published shortly after his death. The collection is edited by Santa Barbara rare book seller Ralph B. Sipper, who also collaborated with Macdonald on his autobiographical Self Portrait: Ceaselessly Into the Past.

Ross Macdonald obviously affected and influenced a great number of people in and around the Santa Barbara writing scene. The anecdotes and memories related by his friends and acquaintances paint a picture of a private and thoughtful novelist who quietly guided a number of writers toward improving their craft. It’s a touching book that mostly avoids miring itself in the maudlin. Some of the writers are quite close to the subject, such as his wife’s warm and elegant recounting of an early and late memory of him. Other essayists are more distant and matter-of-fact, such as popular writer John D. MacDonald’s humorous tale of his dance with Ross Macdonald over the appropriate use of their last names in publication credits.

That confusion is due to Ross Macdonald being the pen name of Kenneth Millar, who adopted his father’s name to avoid being confused with wife Margaret Millar, a well-known novelist in her own right by the time his star began to rise. On top of that, Macdonald nee Millar also watched helplessly as his style of detective fiction (and his detective, Lew Archer) relentlessly compared to hardboiled writers Raymond Chandler’s and Dashiell Hammett’s work from a quarter century earlier—often to his own detriment.

Between his wife’s pen name, authors John D. MacDonald and Philip MacDonald, and the unasked-for competition with Chandler and Hammett, it’s a wonder Ross Macdonald was able to carve out a name for himself. He did, and his workmanlike approach to novel-writing led to a corpus of nearly thirty solid books, the bulk set in Macdonald’s own Southern California, in particular his home of Santa Barbara (renamed to Santa Teresa). As such, Macdonald inherited not merely Chandler’s mantle of the premier tough-guy detective writer but also the mantle of the leading Southern California mystery writer. The difference is, where Chandler’s stomping grounds are Los Angeles proper, Macdonald’s Lew Archer prowls the Southern California suburbs. This shift corresponded neatly with the rapid postwar growth of the Southern California valleys and coastal communities.

Free and joyful creation

Inward Journey opens with two previously unpublished essays by Macdonald himself. “The Scene of the Crime” is a lecture he gave at the University of Michigan in 1954 regarding the origins and development of the mystery story. It’s one of the most erudite, learned, and humble essays I’ve read on the subject. Macdonald had a degree in literature (his thesis analyzed Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and he draws on sources as wide-ranging as William Carlos Williams and Faulkner in way of framing the detective story as a modern narrative strategy devised in reaction to modernity itself:

“A Rose for Emily,” [Faulkner’s] most frequently reprinted story is a beautifully worked out mystery solved in a final sentence which no one who has read it will ever forget. … I don’t mean to try to borrow Faulkner’s authority in support of any such theses as these: that the mystery form is the gateway to literary grace…Still the fact remains he did use it, that the narrative techniques of the popular mystery are closely woven into the texture of much of his work.

The other chapter, “Farewell, Chandler,” originated as a private letter to his publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Pocket Books was republishing his detective novels and sought permission to “fix” them by making them more violent and sensational (and therefore more palatable to paperback readers). Macdonald was compared to Chandler his entire career, and this letter both acknowledges the debt while gingerly disentangling himself from Chandler’s legacy:

My hero is sexually diffident, ill-paid, and not very sure of himself. Compared with Chandler’s brilliant phantasmagoria this world is pale, I agree. But what is the point of comparison? This is not Chandler’s book. … None of my scenes have ever been written before, and some of them have real depth and moral excitement. I venture to say that none of my characters are familiar; they are freshly conceived from a point of view that rejects black and white classification…

A writer has to defend his feeling of free and joyful creation, illusory as it may be, and his sense that what he is writing is his own work. [emphasis mine]

These two chapters are worth reading (and worth republishing, if they’re not.) If you’re a writer of any stripe, I would then encourage you keep reading Inward Journey. Although many of the remembrances are strictly personal anecdotes, more than a few dig into Macdonald’s bibliography for clues toward understanding the man himself. They also relate tidbits of Macdonald’s writing habits and personal theories on fiction and form.

In particular, George Sims offers a wonderful history, book-by-book, of Macdonald’s bibliography, with highlights of his best work. The final chapters by Gilbert Sorrentino and Eudora Welty describe the evolution of Macdonald the writer (and Lew Archer, the hero) from Macdonald’s earliest works to his last. In 1954’s “The Scene of the Crime” Macdonald asserts the mystery novel stands to be viewed in the same light as Zola’s and Norris’ Naturalism; Welty picks up that theme in 1984 and asserts Macdonald has earned the right to be included in said light:

Character, rather than deed itself, is what remains uppermost and decisive to Macdonald as a novelist. In the course of its being explained, guilt is seldom seen as flat-out; it is disclosed in the round, and the light and shadings of character define its true features. … His detective speaks to us not as a moralist but as a fellow sufferer.

If you have any interest in Ross Macdonald or mystery / detective fiction, and your local library stocks this book, it’s well worth a trip to your nearest branch to read these chapters.

Playwriting & screenwriting books every fiction writer should read

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

When I discuss fiction with other writers, I’ll often turn the conversation to playwriting and screenwriting. (My writing friends are kind of sick of the topic.) I talk about these other genres because I believe there’s much for a fiction writer to mine from them.

Plays and film are different narrative forms than a novel or a short story, and so not all their nuances translates well. However, like comics and graphic novels, I believe the similarities outweigh the differences. What’s more, the practitioners of these other narrative arts have approached them with different assumptions and focuses than fiction writers. Different perspectives on the same art is a great way to learn more.

What I respect about plays and film are their emphases on structure. Structure is woefully under-emphasized in creative writing programs. Far too many MFA students are exiting programs without a working definition of crucial fiction elements like plot and character under their belts. Thankfully I was exposed to excellent playwrights in my education who exposed me to a world where narrative structure is not treated as a necessary evil but rather the primary focus.

From stage plays I explored books on screenwriting for largely the same reason: to better understand narrative structure. I cannot be overemphasized: scripts, both stage and film, are not defined by characters or setting or genre or dialogue. Scripts are structure. What I’ve learned is, the same applies to fiction, from short stories to novels.

What follows are various texts I’ve read over the years that have influenced my thinking.

Playwriting

Aristotle’s Poetics: Not the dry, dusty book you might think. Aristotle was a fan of stagecraft and his Poetics are an ancient fanboy’s attempts to understand why plays make us laugh and cry and why some plays “work” while others “fail.” If nothing else, read the Poetics for Aristotle’s definitions of plot, character, and spectacle. You will walk away with a workable definition of plot and character and comprehend why Aristotle thinks story should be plot-driven, not character-driven—and it will drive your MFA friends nuts.

The Playwrights Guidebook (Stuart Spencer): Spencer lays out the same elements as Aristotle but in terms more practical and less theoretical. Too often craft writers think “how-to-write” books are restrictive or push formulas with the ultimate intention of producing a blockbuster. Spencer’s more thoughtful approach breaks those expectations. If there’s one lesson to take away from Spencer, it is understanding the backbone of all playwriting, the beat as the fundamental unit of drama (action, conflict, and event).

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (John Patrick Shanley): A play in two acts featuring a pair of characters who are alternately in each other’s arms and at each other’s throats. Shanley’s humanist play is a model of economy and character-building. Fiction writers should look to Danny for its effective dialogue, the use of ambiguity, and creating characters through the steady accretion of detail—the naturalism of two highly protective people revealing their soft underbellies to one other.

A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry) and Fences (August Wilson): It’s difficult for me to pick one over the other, so I list both. In some ways, each play is constructed in a by-the-book manner: each act made of scenes, each scene made of beats, and all beats and all scenes propelling their stories forward. You can put your finger on a random page of either of these plays and discover all the elements of Great American Playwriting in action. This is why I’ve written on both plays before (here, here, and here).

Film & Television

Adventures in the Screen Trade (William Goldman): Although much of this breezy book regards the insanity that is the movie business, Goldman spends valuable pages discussing the creative decisions he made penning screenplays for such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men as well as lesser-known films like Harper and A Bridge Too Far. Most instructive is Goldman including a short story of his own and the script he developed based on it. Goldman is an accomplished novelist (he wrote The Princess Bride!) and his insights into screenwriting often “sound” like they’re coming from a fiction writer. Plus, let’s face it—reading the inside scoop behind these great 1970s films is a treat for any movie aficionado.

Screenplay and/or The Screenwriter’s Handbook (Syd Field): The former is “the Bible of screenwriting” and the second is the New Testament. Yes, both books focus heavily on script specifics, but Field’s discussion of narrative structure made me re-think how the novel is constructed, so much that I’m working on a series about it.

Unlike plays, I can’t recommend hunkering down and reading any particular movie script. That may sound strange since I’m recommending books on writing them. Film scripts are so concerned with camera work, it often hampers getting to the meat of the script fiction writers should be concerned with—dialogue, conflict, scene structure, and so on.

Often it’s instructive to read plays adapted into movies, especially if the films are loyal to the source text. A good example of this is Glengarry Glen Ross, which features easily the best case ever assembled for the play (trust me, I’ve seen a few productions).

Otherwise, consider watching a film as a writer instead of an audience member. Keep the remote handy so you can go back and re-watch key scenes and study their dialogue and construction. Go even further and watch a film scene with your computer open so you can transcribe their dialogue. That may sound nutty, but you will really come to appreciate the use of language in film—and your own dialogue will improve for it.

For scripts more dialogue-heavy and less involved with the camera, look for television scripts, in particular those set before a live audience. They tend to focus on characters with well-defined motivations and generating conflict, much like plays, while writing to a different audience than theatergoers. (An old theater saying that applies to any great performance: “When someone walks on stage, it better be trouble.” Take that saying to heart in your fiction as well.) Unlike plays, television scripts are usually harder to locate. A used bookstore with a well-stocked Film & Television section may be your friend here.

Fawlty Towers: John Cleese’s and Connie Booth’s sitcom regularly tops British polls as funniest show ever, and for good reason. While the comic acting is one-of-a-kind, the show’s writing is also superb. The first episode and “The Hotel Inspector” are heavy on wordplay and farce, with each character well-defined in their role.

Twenty Writers: Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on this series as well as a list of other reviews and essays


So far in this series, about half of the books I’ve discussed have been nonfiction and the other half fiction. This is the first time I’ve written about a text on critical theory—and it may be the best lit crit book I’ve ever encountered.

The text I’m speaking of is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Published in 1993, the book remains the definitive work on comics theory a quarter century later. Others have attacked the subject, but none come close to McCloud’s exhaustive treatment.

McCloud is an unlikely “Aristotle of comics.” Prior to Understanding Comics he was best-known for Zot!, a lighthearted superhero comic book series which introduced many American readers to the tropes and style of Japanese manga. While Zot! was a success in the 1980s, its reputation has not swollen over time, as evidenced by McCloud’s sheepish preface to a 2008 reprint.

There’s nothing sheepish to be found in Understanding Comics—McCloud is not merely comic’s Aristotle, he’s one of its best ambassadors. His belief in comics’ power and universality is unshakeable. Page after page he convincingly argues comics belong in the same inner circle as other high art forms, including art considered vulgar upon its first appearance, such as film and jazz. Comics may even be more inclusive than other forms, as the language of comics is the language of the modern world. Advertising, software, religion, news, and entertainment all employ comics’ visual cues for their own purposes. This isn’t so much a book on comics as a book on perception and semiotics.

When I first picked up Understanding Comics in the mid-1990s, I enjoyed reading comics occasionally, but only as a guilty pleasure. I’d read superhero comics as a teen but set them aside as childish even before I left high school. (And this was during the 1980s rise of so-called “adult” comics like The Dark Knight Returns and the all-but-forgotten Camelot 3000.)

McCloud’s treatise left me with a renewed pleasure for reading comics. He disassembled and reassembled what I “knew” about comics before my eyes, all the while with concision, humor, and infectious zeal. His unraveling of the “invisible art” also left me with a fresh re-looking of the world at large. I can’t think of higher praise for McCloud’s magnum opus.

The sequential art

Understanding Comics is not the first work on the principles of comics. That honor goes to Will Eisner’s Comics & Sequential Art.

Before Eisner, books on comics focused on technical production: inks, scripting, musculature, shading, etc. (The most prominent example I know of is How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, the standard go-to guide for aspiring fourteen year-olds back in the day.) Comics & Sequential Art focused on the language of comics, much as a book on film theory would discuss camera angles and shot selection as the “language” of movies.

Prior to Eisner and McCloud, books on writing comics skewed toward technique and process.

Sequential Art‘s biggest contribution is right there in its title—Eisner put forward a general definition for comics. He held up comics as a special style of communication with unique properties and advantages. Eisner saw the field still struggling to break free of cultural restrictions (“comic books are for kids”) and waiting to be applied to broader purposes. For example, Eisner advocated using comics for technical manuals and in education.

Reading comic books in grade school may be more acceptable today than when I was young, but I suspect the suggestion still earns chuckles among certain educators. That’s too bad; Eisner remains ahead of his time. After all, while IKEA’s assembly guides and their Ziggyesque “IKEA Man” character have elicited much lampooning, their ability to transcend written language stems from the fact that they are comics. And when Google wanted to introduce the world to its new Chrome browser in 2008, it hired none other than Scott McCloud to present the software’s design and features via a digital comic book.

Understanding Comics takes many cues from Eisner’s work, and McCloud is eager to tip his hat to the master as well as introduce readers to a plethora of other comic artists you may or may not have heard of. But where Eisner’s book is head’s-down on the drawing easel, McCloud’s eyes are fervently skyward. Eisner’s intended audience is other comic artists; McCloud’s audience is everyone. To McCloud’s thinking, the language of comics permeates the modern world. He’s not merely comics’ Aristotle and ambassador, he’s its evangelist. Understanding Comics may be the first foundational lit crit text written by a fan boy.

The invisible art

The care and thought put into Understanding Comics is evident from the front matter onward. Consider that a book subtitled “The Invisible Art” opens with an enlarged image of an eye staring back at the reader—an iris, eyelashes, and eyebrow framed by a comic panel. Seeing is everything for McCloud, which is why Understanding Comics earns a space on the shelf beside Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

One bit of lingo in the software business is “dogfooding,” that is, the idea software developers should use their own software to better understand the problems and bugs their users are experiencing. (Imagine if every Apple employee used Microsoft PCs and Android phones, or if the entire workforce of The Gap wore Armani suits.)

McCloud dogfooded comics. His entire thesis, from first page to last, is told in comic form. He demonstrates the ubiquitousness and power of comics by drawing comics. The only places McCloud “reverts” to pure text are the Acknowledgments and Bibliography pages (where he can be forgiven, since I doubt anyone wants to read a Bibliography set to comic form).

Cleverly, McCloud inserts a cartoon representative of himself into the book to gently guide the reader along (and even analyzes the strategy itself as a graphic device). He deploys every trick in the comic biz to illustrate his points: alternate panel layouts, strange word balloon shapes, odd and abstract art styles, and so on. Every page offers a surprise for the reader. I can’t imagine the quarts of blood McCloud must have sweat to craft this masterpiece. Whatever criticism you may lob at McCloud, you can’t call his book dry.

After an ambitious and vivid history of comics going back to prehistory (no, really), McCloud appropriates Eisner’s term for comics—”sequential art”—and develops his own rigorous definition. From this foundation he launches into the depth and breadth of the language of comics: panels, gutters, lines, word balloons, transitions, and the utility of color (as opposed to the job of coloring, a la How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way).

McCloud’s ambitious “picture plane,” from photo-realism (left) to iconography (right) with the degree of abstraction rising up the pyramid. The eye on the left is the realm of visual and the mind on the right is the realm of ideas. Notice on the far right how McCloud considers written language a kind of “pure” iconography.

But McCloud isn’t satisfied to stay grounded on matters pertaining to comics itself. He reaches further with chapters on iconography, the nature of vision, and perception versus self-perception. He muses on the unique language of comics, where pictographs plus written word combine, and how space on the page can represent shifts in location and time, and sometimes shifting both simultaneously. He concludes with a surprisingly moving chapter on the relationship between artist and art that should be required reading for students of all creative disciplines.

Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, McCloud’s faculties for persuasion are appealing and impressive. The power of Understanding Comics is in taking McCloud’s tour through language and imagery, even if you don’t always agree with his destinations.

Recommendations

If you enjoy Understanding Comics, I recommend exploring the terrain McCloud mapped out. What follows is a list of graphic novels reflecting McCloud’s vision. They’re also rewarding in their own right:

  • City of Glass, Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli: Engrossing graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel. City of Glass reads like a pure application of Understanding Comics.
  • Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, Shigeru Mizuki: Mizuki’s semi-autobiographical World War II manga features a “cartoony” military against a backdrop of stark photo-realistic Pacific island landscapes, a visual strategy McCloud fleshes out in his book.
  • Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, Guy Delisle: A story of palpable solitude, Shenzhen spends much page real estate showing off modern China via “aspect-to-aspect” transitions discussed by McCloud.
  • Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli: Like Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Polyp is a personal tale about a man hitting the road intertwined with philosophical musings on nature and existence. As with City of Glass, Polyp is obsessed with structure, symbols, and synthesis. Mazzucchelli’s detailed visuals slyly make the abstractions concrete.

For an entertaining stroll through the lingo and icons of the funny pages, I also recommend “Quimps, Plewds, And Grawlixes: The Secret Language Of Comic Strips”

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.”

Making the most of your writing notebook

Pablo Picasso – Tête d’Homme (1969) (CC BY 2.0)

You keep a writing notebook, right?

Years ago I attended an exhibition of Picasso’s sketch pads and notebooks. People thronged he museum fascinated with the charcoal and pencil scratchings of a 20th century oil painting master. Most of the sketches were loose, ad hoc, even sloppy. None of Picasso’s originals were on display. Scaled-down reproductions were presented beside the sketches produced in preparation for the final work.

What drives my fascination with the exhibit are not the sketches themselves. As artifacts, yes, they were captivating. (Imagine pages upon pages of the best doodles you ever saw.) What was more fascinating was their role as the connective tissue between Picasso’s imagination and the final masterpieces he executed over a lifetime.

We have no analogue in the world of fiction. Perhaps Hemingway’s or Henry James’ notebooks are studied by literature students, but I can’t imagine the notebooks of even the most famous writers drawing the attention of Picasso’s notebooks (although some of those writing notebooks are not forgotten).

Don’t keep a writing notebook for posterity. Don’t expect anyone but you to read it. But if you have any interest in writing, I recommend keeping a writing notebook. If it was good enough for Picasso—and Hemingway, and Henry James—it’s good enough for you.

Not an organizer

Let’s get this out of the way: A writing notebook is not an organizer. Keep your to-do lists somewhere else.

I actually have two writing notebooks, one for inspiration and ideas, the second to organize the nuts-and-bolts of my writing: producing treatments, sending query letters, and so forth. For the second, I follow a simplified version of the Bullet Journal approach, which has served me well for years now.

You’ll be tempted to keep your organizer and writing notebook in the same physical book. I caution against it. An organizer is exactly that, a place of constraint, rigidity, and order. (In other words, it’s to get things done.) A writing notebook needs to be a free-form place. Random ideas, bits of dialogue, strange notions, bits of fleeting language disconnected from anything rational. A writing notebook can even hold drawings, things like maps or bizarre flora & fauna.

I separate my organizer from my writing notebook for a reason. If I combined them they’ll blend, and I’ll find myself attempting to organize my creative notions. Rigidity comes later in the writing process.

I’ve inhabited a number of different writing notebooks over the years. I once went through a series of the ever-trendy Moleskines, pocket-sized and hardbound with their handy elastic band to keep the book shut. Most memorable is their twee “As a reward: $______” on the inside cover, allowing the owner a chance to estimate the dollar value of their own musings.

There exists numerous Moleskine knock-offs fine for the job. I’ve gone through several and can’t recommend any one. To mix things up, I’ve tried other notebook form factors as well. I even once experimented with a high school composition notebook, thinking the different size might yield unexpected fruit. (It did, but not in the way I was expecting—which was the entire point.)

Don’t get locked into one writing notebook manufacturer or model. Different paper weight, rule widths, dimensions, and bindings will subtly produce variation in the words you pour across the pages. The same goes for ink and pen types. The only variants I’ve not explored are graph paper (which I fear will introduce too much inflexibility) and unlined paper, which sounds like pure chaos for this writer, a man who barely read his own cursive.

As far as organization, I go minimal with my writing notebook. If I have a story or novel in mind, I’ll write my working title at the top of a fresh page, add the date for my own reference, and start writing. (I usually have at least one title in mind when I reach for my notebook, even if doesn’t survive to the first draft.)

If the idea is a random thought not associated with a story, I’ll give it its own page with the most simplest or basic of titles at the top of the page, only to separate it out from the other work I’m developing.

Even if my idea is merely one or two sentences, I’ll usually give it it’s own page. Don’t fear mostly-empty pages. There’s no reason to be aggressively economical with page use. That’s about as far as I go with organization.

I also don’t worry about being orderly with my entries. For example, I have a novella side-project at the moment. When I longhand narration into my notebook I do not concern myself with entering the new prose in chapter order. I don’t worry if what I’m writing follows anything else I’ve written in the preceding pages, or even if I will use it at all in the final work. If I’m inspired to write, I write.

Giving myself the freedom to write whatever I want whenever I want to is important. Artificial barriers such as “I can’t write this until I’ve finished that” merely give me a reason not to write at all, the biggest threat for any writer.

I try to ensure I have my notebook on me whenever I’ll be in a place when I can allow my thoughts to wander and explore. No, I don’t carry it with me at all times. (I don’t even carry my smartphone with me at all times.) If it makes sense for you to keep it on you at all times, do it—but don’t forget to carry a pen as well. One without the other is all-but-worthless.

My writing notebook is also not merely for writing prose. For example, when working on a novel I might have a page or two dedicated entirely to listing the names of the book’s characters. This allows me to swiftly look up a name if it slips my mind while writing chapters. For Bridge Daughter I had pages of medical terminology, real and fictional, as the novel employed quite a bit of it and I wanted to ensure consistency.

I don’t produce a table of contents or an index for my notebooks (such as how the Bullet Journal system advocates). When I’m entering words in the computer, I trust myself to recall what I’ve written in my notebooks and dig it out on-demand. (This sometimes means having two notebooks handy when I’m typing, as my ideas on the book may span more than one.)

Nothing is wasted

Returning to Picasso’s notebooks, another impressive aspect was their sheer volume. He produced metric tons of work he never intended to show or sell. These were for him, not us, as a means to an end.

I’ve frequently heard of or witness writers being stingy with their output. They view five pages of prose in their notebook never being published—or even making it into a working draft—as a “waste.”

Nothing is wasted. All writing is practice for the next round of writing. If you view every word in your writing journal as precious and must be conserved the way crude oil or drinking water must be conserved, you’re doomed.

Like Picasso, view your writing notebook as a place to be sloppy and free, a place to expend language wantonly. Be verbose, be chatty. Don’t worry about passive voice or tense changes.

I save all my old writing notebooks (for nostalgia, I suppose), but I don’t obsessively mine them for ideas, thinking each little scrap of language or inspiration must be utilized. My notebooks brim with imaginative dead-ends. I’m fine with that. I’d rather my ideas rot in my notebook, off the vine as it were, rather than go to waste on the vine—lost as fleeting thoughts in my head.

Computer programming & writing fiction: Iterative processes

Repetition (elPadawan, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Repetition (elPadawan, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Previously I’ve noted the similarities between computer programming and writing fiction, saying both attracted their own practitioners. I then explained why I view computer programming, as well as computer programs, as forms of art.

How else is writing fiction like computer programming? Practicing the two, one common aspect I’ve gleaned is their repetitive natures. Both are iterative processes.

I cannot in good faith declare any fiction I’ve written “done” until I’ve read the final draft from start to finish eight or more times. (Usually the number is higher.) With each read, sentences are moved or removed, paragraphs rearranged, punctuation revised, word choices are evaluated, and so on. Shaping prose is one of the most important skills a writer can cultivate. (Journalists do this in their sleep. Minutes after the final out, San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Susan Slusser files a game summary that is polished, informative, and to the point.)

In fiction, editing is usually described as fine-tuning a manuscript, but more often it’s about being bold—knowing when to strike a paragraph, a page, or even a chapter, all in the service of a better story.

As any computer programmer can tell you, this is a familiar process. Programmers probably spend more time at the keyboard revising existing code than writing new code. Small program edits—similar to line edits or word choice—are common enough, but when more major surgery is performed, programmers will often use a special word: refactoring. Refactoring is restructuring existing code without changing its external behavior. (It’s usually done to make the code easier to read and maintain, not to add a new feature or fix a bug.)

That’s the crux: Without changing existing behavior. It’s funny, in writing fiction, if you make a lot of bold changes, it’s considered a success if the story seems “new” or “better” to a reader. In writing code, success is if you make a bold refactoring and the program operates exactly as it worked before.

The Ouroboros

I enjoy reading how other authors developed their fiction. Authors selected for Best American Short Stories (and other volumes in the Best American series) are given the opportunity to write a capsule for the books’ back matter. They often discuss inspiration for the story, and how external factors shaped its outcome. Writers’ correspondence is another goldmine for learning creative processes. (In particular I recommend Raymond Chandler’s Selected Letters, which is a master class in writing, style, and technique.)

Often when an author discusses how they developed a story, I’ve noted they can’t pin down the exact moment of inspiration. There might be some flash where the creative process launches, but so many times writers confess how stories come from a nagging itch to write on a subject or develop some character trait. Long-forgotten inspiration will come roaring back to life for some reason. Writers some times talk about stories as though they “demanded” to be written.

Programmers have similar stories, although the inspiration may not be as abstract as, say, a line of dialogue or a character detail. Usually it’s a need driving the creation of new software, needs like “I wish there was a web site for me to connect to all my friends” (social networking) or “I wish I had a typewriter where it was easy to correct mistakes, and it would even check my spelling for me” (word processor).

Many times I’ve read of authors returning to old work and fighting (or succumbing to) the urge to edit it. The edits may only be a comma here, a semicolon there. They may be larger edits , striking paragraphs or scenes in the pursuit of a tighter tale. Programmers deal with this urge too, always looking to tighten up code and make it more efficient or elegant.

I’ve quoted this elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating:

…software development is an iterative and incremental process. Each stage of the process is revisited repeatedly during the development, and each visit refines the end product of that stage. In general, the process has no beginning and no end. [Italics mine.]

That was written by Bjarne Stroustrup, the inventor of the C++ programming language. Everything in this quote pertains to writing fiction as much as it pertains to writing code.

When I edit stories, I visit and revisit the story as part of the editing process, to smooth and refine the language, to ensure the story flows smoothly. Programming has a similar process, a continual revisiting and revision of the code to remove flab and tighten up its execution.

That’s what Stroustrup meant when he said the process has no beginning and no end. Stories and computer programs are never finished. They can always be made a bit better.

Sometimes alteration worsens the final product. When coding, I often talk serious changes as “surgery.” While it might be necessary, it’s possible to hurt the program while improving it. Touching code in one place can break code in another place. This is why sometimes you’ll download an update to an app and it seems slower or simply broken, even though the developer swears they’ve made improvements.

Likewise, fussing over a novel or a story can hurt it too. In the original editions of The Martian Chronicles, the chapters were dated like a diary, starting from 1999 and ending in 2026. Today, revised editions use dates from 2030 to 2057. A small change, undoubtedly made to preserve the story being told “in the future,” but it stole away some of the book’s charm. In my youth, 1999 was a magical date, a momentous odometer signaling a shift to the bold 21st century. 2030 is just another number.

A common adage among software developers is “Don’t fix what’s not broken.” The same can be said for fiction.

Distillation

Paul Joseph. (CC BY 2.0)

Paul Joseph. (CC BY 2.0)

Programmer Ben Sandovsky observes:

Treat yourself [the programmer] as a writer and approach each commit as a chapter in a book. Writers don’t publish first drafts. Michael Crichton said, “Great books aren’t written– they’re rewritten.”

Sandovsky is exhorting computer programmers not to make hasty changes to a computer program, but to edit and revise those changes before officially adding them to the program.

Late in the editing process, I’ll often read my stories aloud to make sure they flow well. I’ve never read my code aloud—computer languages aren’t like human languages, for the most part—but I’ve certainly eyeballed my code closely, going over it line-by-line, before committing it.

I often use the word distill for both pursuits—to purify, condense, and strengthen through repetitive processes. Writers and coders don’t simply edit their work, they distill it down to its essence.

Lazy writing makes for boring reading. Lazy programming makes for buggy software. In general the process has no beginning and no end. The art is knowing when to let go and release your hard work to the world.

Twenty Writers: David Kidd, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on the series as well as a list of other reviews and essays.


Peking Story by David KiddDavid Kidd’s Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China has settled into a somewhat unnoticed shelf of American literature: the literary eulogy.

Serialized in The New Yorker in 1955, collected in book form in 1961 as All the Emperor’s Horses, and republished in 1988 under the title it holds today, David Kidd’s book is an underappreciated classic in American nonfiction. Memoir, travelogue, New Journalism, creative nonfiction—none of these terms seem an apt categorization of Peking Story. The book is wistful, mournful, and laced with dry humor—a eulogy.

As the book opens, Kidd is a college student on a foreign exchange trip to Beijing in 1946. There he meets Aimee Yu, one daughter among many in a prominent Beijing family. In the span of a few pages, the couple are married. Courting Aimee is more glossed over than spun out, treated as a perfunctory narrative requirement. Peking Story is not a romantic book in the sense of love and matrimony. It’s a romantic book in the sense of Eastern exoticism and lost traditions. It’s right there in the subtitle: The Last Days of Old China.

As the book progresses, David Kidd the narrator develops as a kind of mystery himself. He doesn’t come off as one would imagine most Americans would talk or act in 1946, especially a college student from the Midwest. There are moments that read like a Graham Greene novel, the world-weary Britisher turning up his nose at the dreary reactionaries and their anti-imperialist manifestos—only Kidd studied at a state school, not Oxford. That’s one of the many mysteries of Peking Story, this American narrator who sounds distinctly un-American, seemingly more comfortable in Chinese silks and soft slippers than sneakers and blue jeans.

The Last Days of Old China

Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Kidd goes to some lengths to remain outside the books’ lens, preferring to focus on the events and people around him. Peking Story is a public story told by a very private man, and that shapes the book and contributes to its unique form.

Kidd alludes to his private nature (and the burden of telling his story) in his preface:

Only a few Westerners who once lived [in pre-Communist Peking] are still alive today—no more than ten or twenty of us at most, scattered throughout the world. I used to hope that some bright young scholar on a research grant would write about us and our Chinese friends before it was too late and were all dead and gone, folding back into darkness the wonder that had been our lives.

To this day, no such scholar has appeared, leaving me, as far as I know, the lone, first-hand chronicler of those extraordinary years that saw the end of old China, and the beginning of the new.

Author David Kidd

Author David Kidd

With the courtship and marriage out of the way, David Kidd eagerly moves into the opulent Yu family estate just outside of Beijing. (“Beijing” and “Peking” are Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations, respectively, for the current capital of China. As Mandarin is now the official language of the People’s Republic of China, I use it here and reserve “Peking” for the book’s title and quotes from it.)

It is within the Yu family compound that Kidd slides his marriage from the reader’s field of vision. In its place he slides in the colorful Yu family itself and their grand estate, garden, and art collection. Beyond the compound’s walls the Communist revolution begins to encroach on their daily lives. These elements are Kidd’s true focus, with his marriage merely the frame to explain his presence on the estate grounds and in the Yu family’s lives.

The Yu’s are rich beyond the everyday meaning of that word. The family’s history and prominence extends hundreds of years in China’s past. The grandfather was at one time the Chief Justice of the Republic of China’s Supreme Court. The family estate is known for having one the best gardens in all of Beijing, and perhaps China. The Yu’s once held mansions and houses all over northern China, but declining fortunes and currency devaluation have chipped away at their holdings. By the time Kidd arrives, the Yu’s have only the family mansion, a burial shrine outside the city, and a stunning collection of historical Chinese art the family cannot bear to part with.

Arriving in Beijing two years before the Communist Revolution and leaving two years after it, Kidd witnessed China’s transition from a strict traditional society with deep class striations to a country intent on leveling the field and erasing its past. Rather than write this story with a breathless, you-are-there urgency, Kidd describes the changes from the comfort and safety of the Yu estate. Kidd’s encounters with the new Communist regime comes fleetingly, such as when they must register with the local police that the Yu’s intend to hold a costume party. Kidd portrays the revolutionaries as dreary, inconvenient, and déclassé.

I normally hold little interest in British entertainment of the upper-class variety, the rich lolling about on their divans and club chairs, plotting intrigue against each other while servants rush up and down stairs attending their every whim. For all of Kidd’s blind spots, Peking Story works because Kidd plainly sees the Yu’s way of life crumbling beneath their feet. Rather than pick up guns and defend their estate—what an American story that would be—the Yu’s shrug, brew another pot of tea, and reflect upon their garden before its wrested from them. The tension between dynamism and stasis is the backbone of Peking Story.

The bronze braziers

As a fiction writer, what I draw from Peking Story is Kidd’s skillfulness at sketching out characters and painting colorful scenes with graceful economy. Although Kidd comes across as waspy throughout the book (and a bit too blithe to the poverty about him), his education and breeding gifted him with a clean writing style that flows effortlessly. It’s harder than it looks.

Kidd’s narrative construction is as classical as his prose. The chapters are arranged almost perfectly. Early scenes that read as little more than humorous anecdotes are later revealed as precursors of devastating consequences for the Yu family. Kidd neatly sews disparate anecdotes together to craft chapters that compare and contrast China’s culture and the steamrolling revolution. Although “compare & contrast” rings like a English teacher’s tired essay topic, these pairings illuminate the reader’s way through Peking Story like a trail of paper lanterns.

The most memorable anecdote in Peking Story relates to a collection of bronze braziers the Yu’s display throughout their mansion. As Kidd tells the story, the luster of these incense burners is indescribable. They must be continually heated in order to maintain their luster, and so the Yu’s charge their servants to maintain a small charcoal fire burning beneath each at all hours. Kidd tells us the Yu family has kept the fires lit and the braziers hot for hundreds of years.

Then, encouraged by the Communists beyond the estate walls, the servants begin to question the people they’re working for. One morning the Yu’s discover all the charcoal fires are extinguished. The once-indescribable bronze braziers are now irreparably dull and gray.

The tale of the bronze braziers is the most memorable and powerful anecdote in the book. It’s a perfect metaphor for the aristocratic Yu family keeping alive China’s culture and the Communist revolution threatening to upheave it all.

However, the story may be too perfect:

I hope that specialists in Chinese bronzes, and technical experts, will back me up in saying that the story is completely phony—as is, I felt on reading it, much of the rest of the book. That Kidd had married Aimee Yu was plausible, although when I knew him he was plainly gay—he might have changed, or could—entirely laudably—have married her to get her out of China. But the obviously deceptive picture that the book painted was upsetting; this is one of the few books I’ve read that made me angry.

James Cahill’s rebuttal to Peking Story is well worth the read. In particular, he voices here a suspicion I had in the back of my mind the first time I read the story of the bronze braziers. Their sublime beauty destroyed by petty malice seemed a writerly addition by Kidd who (possibly) felt the need to put an authorial thumb on the scale.

I’m torn on this subject. Cahill’s objections are worth any reader’s consideration, but I still find myself drawn to the elegance and power of Kidd’s prose. I don’t particularly care about his sexual orientation, although it certainly would explain why his marriage takes a back seat in the book.

In Kidd’s defense, unlike fabricators like James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and JT Leroy, Kidd’s falsehoods—if they are false—don’t create an undeserved authority or prop up an exaggerated persona. His presence in China is documented, as is his marriage to Aimee Yu. The story of the bronze braziers sweetens the book, the kind of misstep even a seasoned novelist might make to seal a point with the reader.

Tiananmen Square & Forbidden city entrance, Beijing, China. Joe Hunt. (CC BY 2.0)

It’s not the first time a well-respected work of nonfiction was revealed to contain fabrications. Questions about the veracity of Steinbeck’s Traveling with Charley have been received with a shrug by Steinbeck fans and academics. If Cahill is “angry” at the “deceptive” Peking Story, he must be outraged at Steinbeck. If not, why? Because Steinbeck’s sympathies are on the right side of history and Kidd’s are not?

(I would point out that if Kidd stretched the truth, it’s conceivable a kernel of truth inspired the story. Even if the braziers were not damaged beyond repair, it’s possible the Yu’s kept incense burning day and night through the household, and that one night, due to Communist influence, the servants rebelled, damaging them somehow. The metaphor of an Old China lost is not so strong, but the thrust of the anecdote remains.)

Where Cahill sees deception, I see craft. The reader’s reaction to the story of the bronze braziers is a leading indicator of the way they’ll receive the entire book. Some will toss the book aside, disgusted with Kidd’s approval of Chinese high society and disdain of the servants. Others will sympathize with the Yu’s, for no reason other than their desire to preserve a four thousand year-old culture and its rich traditions. In either case, Kidd’s anecdote encapsulates the entire book and the reader’s reception of it. It’s that kind of skill that encourages me to write a 2,200 word essay on Peking Story.

However, I’m less sure Kidd’s sympathies lie with the Chinese aristocracy per se. Kidd does not hold up the Yu’s as bold keepers of the flame, but rather as eccentrics. Without exception, Kidd’s tragedies are the loss and destruction of Chinese art, culture, and tradition. Kidd mourns for the dispersal of the Yu collection and estate more than any death in the book. He also mourns the death of common sense. In Kidd’s hands, registering a costume party with the Beijing police is as absurd as proving to the American consulate his wife is Christian to guarantee her visa out of the country.

Then there’s the matter of Cahill accusing Kidd of kowtowing to “anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S.,” guessing Kidd was “encouraged somehow by the powerful and rich China lobby.”

Kidd may be accused of all manner of motivation, I suppose, but Occam’s Razor strikes me as appropriate here. I see Kidd as genuinely upset at the rearrangement of Chinese society. He seems deeply shocked to witness a four thousand year-old cultural legacy deleted in a fit of moral outrage. The suggestion of shadowy, powerful forces funding a book that, frankly, did little to reshape American attitudes toward Communist China is unnecessary to explain the existence of Peking Story. I also don’t view The New Yorker—even The New Yorker of the 1950s—as a publication to kowtow to right-wing nationalists.

Fabricator or not, Kidd is forthright with his opinions and biases. When it comes to motivation, it’s simplest to take Kidd at his word. Cahill, on the other hand, appears more motivated by a sense of social justice than he’s letting on in his essay.

What’s more, for Cahill to argue Kidd misrepresented the Chinese Communists as a “mean-spirited movement” is to ignore the crop yielded by Maoism: The Cultural Revolution and its purges, denunciations, historical rewriting, and reeducation tactics. Kidd’s stories, first published eleven years before the Cultural Revolution’s earliest stirrings, practically predicts the furies to unfold. It’s a literary feat almost as impressive as Graham Greene warning the United States out of Vietnam in 1955’s The Quiet American.

The 21st century may be China’s century, but Peking Story eulogizes the price China paid to make its great lurch forward.

David Kidd died in in 1996, leaving behind a life as far-removed from his Midwestern origins as possible. After fleeing Beijing, he settled in Kyoto and founded a school of traditional Japanese arts:

As a tourist attraction, Mr. Kidd did not disappoint. To sit on a cushion before his throne, listening to his erudite patter, and seeing him sitting cross-legged on his kang, a divided Chinese sofa, rustling his silken gown as he gestured extravagantly with his inevitable cigarette, was to be in the presence of a presence.

With China’s role ascending in the 21st century, I would recommend Peking Story to anyone curious to learn about China’s future from its past. For those who want to go deeper, I would pair Peking Story with the superb Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang and Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan.