Learn From The Dead: There’s a reason they’re still with us

We live in an age where everyone seems most concerned with what comes next. But writers should never apologize for spending considerable time with what came before. The simple truth is that we can learn from the dead just as we do from the living. William Faulkner, an author who knew a thing or two about writing fiction, is quoted as saying, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” He realized that as writers, we must forever be willing to re-examine, to look backward as well as forward, not just at our own work and experience, but that of others as well

While there are certainly contemporary authors we read, admire, and constantly learn from, we should also learn from writers who are no longer with us. Famous writers endure because their work touches different emotions in different people. So an immersion in the past need not be onerous. It can be as engaging as it is valuable. Ask yourself this question. Who are long gone writers that you admire, and why? Your answers will be your own. Here are three you may want to consider: Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, and Malcolm Lowry. They may indeed be gone, but their work continues to live and inspire via their distinctive voices.

Chandler elevated the detective novel from potboiler to mainstream literary fiction because he wrote, as one devotee said, like a “slumming angel.” No one could turn a phrase quite like Chandler’s private eye Phillip Marlowe. His character became the archetype for all who would follow. But Chandler’s writing wasn’t mere linguistic sleight of hand. There was always acute observation and insight involved, as in The Long Goodbye, when Marlow casually tosses off the thought, “At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.”

Graham Greene’s sardonic, irony-laced tales literally drip with attitude. Often venomous, always filled with regret, they chronicle the fall of the British Empire as omnipresent Greek Chorus in stories set in sordid little backwaters of the world where one or another disenchanted Englishman finds himself having to deal with betrayal, irresponsibility, and honor or the lack of it. More often than not his characters come to a bad end. But just as often, they grudgingly accept it, as Greene’s Major Scobie laments in The Heart Of The Matter, “We are all of us resigned to death: it’s life we aren’t resigned to.”

And for an absolutely heavenly descent into hell, check out Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under The Volcano. Reading of his protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin’s last twenty-four hours on earth, one is made mindful of the sad inadequacy one’s own vocabulary. Lowry’s explosive novel erupts from page to page as his alcoholic Consul spews a tsunami of words and phrases that turn into images and scenes and drama that one is unlikely to ever forget. Such as the last words Firmin utters when he’s finally stripped to realistic simplicity, “Christ,” he remarked, puzzled, “this is a dingy way to die.”

Make room for your own long gone but constantly remembered writers. Let them rent space in your brain. They will help keep the fires of inspiration burning. When it seems difficult to write something, read something you love. Nothing will help your writing more than having a head full of sources, styles, and stories to draw from. There is no better intellectual reservoir than a well-furnished mind. Keep yours filled with the work you truly enjoy, and don’t be shy about looking back to move forward with your fiction.

Joe Kilgore is contributor to The US Review of Books and an award-winning writer of short stories, novels, and screenplays. The Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library recently featured one of his stories. Joe’s latest novella is The Horse Killer

Professional Revisions – Executing the Process

In this series, editor and author Christopher Klim takes you through a multi-level approach to revising your work. Excerpts taken from Write to Publish: Essentials for the Modern Fiction and Memoir Market.

All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

EXECUTING REVISIONS

The four level revision process in Write to Publish a top down approach. Work the levels in iterations. Be comfortable with the work at one level, before moving onto the next. This builds the structure of the story before fixing the mess wrought by the construction. It also saves time. Why perfect a scene or paragraph that might not remain in the finished version? Upon passing from level two to three, a solid story stands in place. All scenes will remain on the story line and in their current position. It is now a matter of making them resonate in the reader’s mind.

A story is a unique creation, requiring a special effort to complete. During the draft process, pause to make note of ideas, weaknesses, and potential areas of research. I record story ideas and research information in a composition book. I also number revision concerns from the last page toward the front. I fill six to ten pages of notes on grammar, theme, tone, research requirements, and other specific story concerns. These are concrete problems, and I won’t slow the momentum of the draft to solve them. I might use too many passive verbs or fudge the details of an unfamiliar profession. Bad habits and the assumption of guesswork as fact are two comfortably dangerous behaviors, but the back of my composition book saves me, detailing my story’s shortcomings. It holds a checklist of needed revisions.

While good draft work is often brave and ground-breaking, the revision process requires another kind of courage. It is akin to self-surgery, knowing when to amputate one of your limbs. Be ruthless with your prose. If a word, sentence, scene, or chapter doesn’t serve the story, lop it off. It might contain the most brilliant prose of the piece, but it is cancer to the story, driving it off course and killing reader interest. Save it for another day. It might form the centerpiece of a new story. Trust your ability to think of even better words down the line.

SOLICITING FEEDBACK

There comes a point when a writer desires objectivity. Cultivate a trusted reader. I have a target reader in mind when I write, someone who appreciates the same aspects of storytelling. She knows when I miss the mark, and she is not afraid to tell me. I argue. I curse and moan, but in the end, I know she is right. She is not a writer. She is a reader. She doesn’t stay up at night considering character flaws or lifestyle element. She knows a good story. She laughs. She cries. She is entertained, and if I cannot do this for her, I have missed my objective.

Beyond that, build a reading circle. This is also com-posed of readers. Writers are a dangerous group to critique a work in progress. Each writer has a personal vision of a story, and it is often not yours. Good members of a reading circle are well read. They are just as happy with a biography of FDR, as the latest Robert Stone. They pick up TV Guide and The Economist in the same shopping trip. They love the written word. They are authorities to give the thumbs up or down on your work. They are a mere sample of the reading public. Try to remove your emotion and listen to them.

WHEN IS A STORY FINISHED?

Who knows? There comes a time when a writer must put the work down and move on. Writers often get a brain-storm and return to a particular piece with ideas to elevate the story, but overall, a point arrives when the writer can go no further and must let it rest on its laurels.

For my first published novel, I accepted countless pieces of advice from editors and agents, tweaking each nuance of the story. I reached a point where I was changing sentences because I was tired of reading the same lines over and over. I’d clearly spent too long with the story. I finally threw my hands up and told my writing mentor that I was finished accepting the often inane feedback leveled on my novel. An amazing thing happened. It was a moment out of a grainy kung fu movie. “Son,” my mentor said. “You’re ready to go to the next level.”

When the work is as good as it can be, move on. Begin another story. Hope for enlightenment, but learn when to quit spinning your wheels. If Michelangelo sought perfection – and he was darn near perfect in his art – he’d have chipped away at the statue of David, until it was small enough to clip on a key chain.

Finally, be patient with your talent at its current level. If you aspire to improve, you will sacrifice and work every day. You will get better. You will tell the stories you want to tell. Great artists learn to work in a vacuum, producing ideal works of art that hold a mirror to humanity, society, and themselves. Be brave.

EXERCISES

Outline your revision process. What do your talents require? Are you concentrating on your weaknesses? Can the ordinary be elevated?

Resurrect your old writing and run it through the aforementioned revision process. If the work is old enough, certain flaws will immediately stand out. See if the process doesn’t improve the story structure and prose.

Transpose a favorite writer’s passage to paper. Observe the sentence structure, pacing, and word selection.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

Previous: Professional Revisions – Level Four: Presentation

Catch, Release

by Adrianne Harun
Johns Hopkins Press

book review by Christopher Klim & the Eric Hoffer Book Award

“It didn’t occur to us then how we carry the terrors of civilization within us.”

With this wonderful collection, Harun has accomplished two rare feats. First, she’s taken the Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize with a work of adult fiction for the first time in its history. Second, and no less important, she’s delivered a cohesive story collection, when so many today seem hurried and uneven. Instead, Harun appears to be a master of the form. She threads interior monologue, which in longer works can become an endless slog, to reveal superb insight—instead of, well, just too much information.

“It’s all about loss,” the narrator of the title story announces. Flashes of humor balance heartbreak as the author explores tragedy: A wife tries to find her dead husband in the memories of a manipulative crone while her teenage daughter plots to teach her mother that “death can’t be called back.” A mother mourns her embattled relationship with her murdered fourteen-year-old daughter. Young sisters perish of an inherited blood disease, as their brother endures in exacerbation. A middle-aged bachelor struggles with losing his sister and his childhood friend to marriage. Parents wallow in self-absorption, leaving their teenage sons to struggle with maturity on their own. A gifted young African man immigrates to a new reality as a tissue donor to a dying child in London. Each story creates unforgettable impressions and memorable lines in a microcosm illuminated by the beauty and complexity of human emotion.

Overall, this collection is as it should be—deft, deliberate, dashing, delicious, and direct—but again all too rare in the form today. Harun makes sense of both the small and large issues of life through turns of language that at times bring us into confidence and during others refuse entry. It’s a lot like a conversation with someone we badly want to know—plain truths and blind alleys of understanding that require close attention yet an openness to enjoy the moment.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Professional Revisions – Level Two: Structure/Content

In this series, editor and author Christopher Klim takes you through a multi-level approach to revising your work. Excerpts taken from Write to Publish: Essentials for the Modern Fiction and Memoir Market.

All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

LEVEL TWO: STRUCTURE/CONTENT

With the opening in place, consider the structure and content of the story. Analyze character, setting, plot, and their relationship to one another. Changes at this point may affect the entire story structure, causing new scenes to appear or existing scenes to disappear. Work at a high level to establish the arc of the story. Why perfect the details of a scene if it might be removed from the entire piece?

Verify the Plot

Is there at least one strong dramatization per chapter? Don’t let a chapter go by without serious conflict among the characters. Readers anticipate it.

Does every scene serve the story question? Scenes progress the story question, for better or worse, otherwise they wander off the thread of the story. This is the time to add and remove scenes as needed.

Does the conflict heighten en route to the climax? When the drama heightens, that becomes the new plateau for the story arc. It eventually becomes routine, unless the drama escalates. Keep raising the stakes for the characters during the story. The climax is a natural outgrowth of the pressure cooker constructed along the story journey.

Are there too many coincidences? Coincidence is a helpful device for stories. Life forms pleasant occurrences, but if major plot points often hinge on chance encounters, the story becomes unbelievable. Limit it to one or two, although even one coincidence might be more than the story can bear. If a rare moon rock falls out of the sky and into the bed of Joe’s pickup truck, while he is on the way to a lunar geologist’s convention, where a million dollar prize for the top rock will be awarded, that might be more coincidence than the reader can handle. Keep coincidences subtle and useful.

Is there unneeded repetition? Repetition in grade school was useful, if not overbearing. Repetition in stories is useful to set up a later event. If Jane always parks her car in the same spot and suddenly changes to another, it might demonstrate a character change. In comedy, repetition sets up jokes. If Bob always sinks a hole in one on the golf course, it might be funny to see him miss when we most expect it. Repetition draws attention, and readers notice, but if Jane is always having a bad hair day, it begins to look silly.

Verify Character Details

Do character details appear in the story? Some level of character detail must exist for everyone in the story, even if they are only brief encounters for the reader.

Are the details proportional to importance? Apply character details in relation to their significance in the story. Every word builds a reader’s expectations. Secondary characters don’t deserve the detail required for primary characters.

Are the details consistent? If Jane has blue eyes or talks with a lisp on page 10, she will also have those attributes on page 200, unless appropriate explanation supports the change.

Are the details different? If every woman has blonde hair and a 38-inch chest, the story better take place inside the Playboy Mansion.

Is the dialogue realistic? Spoken language is casual, casting aside the rigid conventions of the written word. It is situational, attempting to address the line previously spoken. A single line of dialogue is a component of the whole conversation and often indecipherable when standing alone. If character are sketched with uniqueness and clarity, they will speak for themselves, defining the parameters of their langauge, moods, and attitudes.

“I’ve got the stuff,” Bob said.

“The what?” Jane replied.

“You know, the stuff.”

“I hate that garbage.”

“You always hate it.”

“There you go again.”

“Don’t start.”

“I’m not the one starting.”

Is there too much dialect? Some writers seek authenticity by recording dialogue verbatim, especially with the use of slang and accents. This is cumbersome to read. Pepper the dialogue with dialect, and readers will get the point, mentally filling in the blanks. It is better to know what a character is trying to say, than replicating speech with exactness.

Verify Setting Details

Do setting details appear in the story? Some level of setting detail must exist for each scene, even if we are only passing through a room. Otherwise the story is subject to ‘white room’ syndrome, where characters move in time and space with no sense of their surroundings.

Are the details proportional to importance? Apply setting details in relation to their significance in the story. Every word builds a reader’s expectations. If the writer spends a lot of time describing a certain aspect of setting, readers believe it to be vital to the story.

Are the details consistent? If Jane’s car is red on page 10, she will have a red car on page 200, unless appropriate explanation supports the change.

Are the details different? Variety in all aspects of the story entices mental acuity for the reader. In other words, it keeps people from becoming bored.

Are the details correct? This is the time to verify factual information. Correct assumptions about location and lifestyle (i.e. geography, professions, language, etc). These aspects illuminate the prose, yet invalidate a story if they are incorrect.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

Next: Professional Revisions – Level Three: Style

Previous: Professional Revisions – Level One: The Opening

Professional Revisions – Level One: The Opening

In this series, editor and author Christopher Klim takes you through a multi-level approach to revising your work. Excerpts taken from Write to Publish: Essentials for the Modern Fiction and Memoir Market.

All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

LEVEL ONE: THE OPENING

The opening is the first scene in a story, albeit a very crucial scene. It introduces the main character, her hopes and desires, and the point of view. Those are story basics, and not until they are known does the story get rolling.

The tricky part about drafting an opening is that this is the time when a writer knows the least about the characters and plot. Most writers agree that it takes roughly 100 pages to understand the main characters. This often invalidates earlier characterizations, and as a result, character desire and behavior seem unfocused or incorrect. Some writers toss out the first 100 pages and start over. That is a drastic measure, although it is common to labor over the first fifty pages and definitely the first twenty-five.

When revising, the opening must be arresting before I proceed. Everything falls out of the first line. Some writers say that the first line gives away the ending. Indeed, the open-ing scene starts the journey, and if it must change, the entire story path might change along with it. Try to get the opening in order before addressing the remaining story. You may return to tweak the prose, but it will be structurally sound before you edit the rest.

Chapter II of Write to Publish covers the important elements of story openings. Below is a checklist for review. The first three items are vital to the success of launching a story.

Introduce the Main Character

Show Predominant Point of View

Reveal the Story Question

Preview the Setting

Create Action

Set the Tone

Shorten the Time Line & Create Order

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

Next: Professional Revisions – Level Two: Structure/Content

Previous: Professional Revisions – The First Look

 

Last Stories

by William Trevor
Viking

book review by Christopher Klim

“He slept and waited still, but he knew in dreams that only angels were is solace.”

William Trevor posthumously delivers his final collection of stories in the aptly titled, Last Stories. Widely considered a master of the short form, Trevor does not disappoint in this assembly of late and mostly unseen work. We’ll dispense quickly with the accolades, which include prizes short and tall and at least ten New York Times bestsellers, some of which occurred in a time when the public has nearly ceased reading literary works and especially short stories. It suffices to say that more than one writer, during Trevor’s eighty-eight years, today works in the short form because of this author, and this trend will no doubt continue.

Trevor inhabits his characters, running the nuance of their thoughts without the navel-gazing of too many modern writers. These are not always likable people. We are appalled by their humanity, we blush at their foolishness, and we sometimes desire to close the book on them, but we have to know. These are not archetypes. There are no heroes, and we won’t be bowled over with pyrotechnics or punched by absurdity, but the characters will resonate and linger. Trevor appeared to love people for all their warts and wants. This and his entire body of work proves it.

During his narratives, the author throttles with expert control. Whether it be the express train or, as seen more often, the local crawl, all of this is taking us somewhere, most often to Trevor’s patented final twist. Unless you’re familiar with his work, it’s difficult to explain exactly how he does it. We should anticipate a final shift during the read, but it takes us by surprise. When his insights are laid bare, he exists without another word. This economy is part of his craft. We’re left with the feeling that we’ve been given the privilege of entering a Trevor live character sketch and suddenly a story pops up around it.

So that’s the crash course in William Trevor.

In honor of Mr. Trevor and in keeping with the spirit of his work, we’re going to keep this review short, and without knowing whether Trevor was a tea toddler or not, we raise a glass of fine whiskey to a glorious life in letters. We hope you pick up this latest work or one of his other exquisite collections. You couldn’t pass a summer’s day in better fashion.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Dead Dialogue

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

There are many ways to deliver dead dialogue upon arrival. Flabby, unfocused, and unnatural conversation between characters will kill a book in the best places. Certain readers gloss over narratives, but bear down on the stretches of dialogue. It’s like bugging a nearby conversation, hoping to hear special information uncovered, but poor dialogue disappoints every time, and shakes believability in the characters. Let’s take a look at ways to strengthen dialogue.

Let Them Speak for Themselves

Forced or unnatural conversations betray both the character and writer. When a writer stuffs words and information into the mouths of those in the scene, he creates a bad drama on stage for the purposes of transporting the story. Before the characters can even talk, the writer must understand who they are. When well-drawn characters enter a scene, they begin speaking for themselves. Their cadence and word choice will be a product of their histories and what they desire. They’ll reveal secrets in the subtext. As Robert Stone once said, “All dialogue is a conversation with the soul.”

Keep It Real, But…

While strong characters have a unique manner of speech, too much of it offers speed bumps in the exchange. It forces the reader to constantly interpret to discover the inner meaning of their words. Consider sprinkling dialect and inflection indicators throughout the conversation, instead of marking every instance. Readers will begin hearing the unique voice, without the authorial stage direction. The same goes for dialogue modifiers—those fantastic adverbs that describe their tone. Well-written dialogue wrought through great characters and circumstance will imply the tone without having to describe it.

Tighten Up

In real life, not all conversation has a purpose. We sit over drinks or on the phone and pass the time, revealing nuggets of life along the way. Perhaps, all we gather is a sense of how the other person is feeling at the moment. In a written work, idle conversation is death for the narrative flow, when it should form some of the most interesting stretches.  Great authors effectively enter conversation during its key moments and exit when nothing important is said or when the central message has been delivered. Even within those moments, they trim out the fat, employing color only for impact and to illuminate circumstance and character.

Hear the Voices

Now, we’re dropping back before the first bit of dialogue is written, before the first character exists. Prior to drawing great characters and letting them speak, writers must become a student of voice—both specifically and in general. Everyone speaks differently and at different moments. They reveal the truth on different levels. Eavesdrop on people talking. Be quiet and listen. Learn to hear not only how people speak, but the subtext that emerges within the conversation. For example, liars or those hiding information will say much in the unsaid. Fearful or grieving people will skirt that which affects them most.

To a skilled writer, dialogue arrives fluidly. She knows how and what the characters must say. Others have an inexplicable natural talent for delivering stunning conversation on the page. Many biographers select key moments to insert a phrase or passage that brings the figure to life. This occurs also in fiction, although generally on a wider palette where exact quotations are not required. In all narrative forms, dialogue is one of the writer’s greatest tools, which cannot be overexploited, but can be poorly employed.

Next in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Previously in The Book Killers series: Weak Point of View