George Saunders And The Intuitive Swerve

I was very lucky to see George Saunders talking about his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo this week. The man is a true inspiration. His writing is hard to categorise  – good, we say! He’s not a conventional realist, and his stories are these great shots of something we can’t predict – they have strands of the surreal, the hyperreal, the dystopian, the fantastic, the satirical, the gonzo and oddball and geek. Even more impressive is the fact he’s made himself a successful career as a published writer and a highly regarded teacher of creative writing (at Syracuse) on the basis of not publishing a novel, at least till now. Yay for not writing novels yet! If only we all were so patient.

And this novel: worth the wait! It’s quite a feat of the imagination. Many screen inches have been devoted to it already, so I shan’t repeat any of that, but what I shall say is that it contains many of my favourite things in writing: ghosts, the American Civil War, voices, intelligence, daring, swearing, exquisitely carved sentences, great liberties with history, great truths, a big heart.

His talk at Goldsmiths, where he was expertly interviewed by Erica Wagner, featured an enactment of several chapters with himself and several speakers. And, of course, it also featured many nuggets of his teaching and editorial genius, delivered with great wit and warmth and purpose. George Saunders must be a strong candidate for the writers’ writer.

Something I enjoyed in particular in his discussion of writing was this sense of a great writerly intuition uncluttered by self-consciousness or overthinking. As has been reported, this was a book that was a long time in the coming, and it seems to be a book that emerged instinctively. ‘When I wanted to outline, I didn’t,’ he said. He specifically talked about writers cultivating their ‘intuitive swerve’, discussing writing as improv, and letting the ghosts speak – his ghost characters in this book, but too I think that applies to the ghost that is any character we create.

Discussing historical fiction, he said emphatically that he doesn’t care what life was like in 1862. That’s my kinda historical fiction.

He also talked about the differences for him between writing a short story and writing a novel. This novel, of serious matters (war, a parent’s grief), required earnest writing, and his short form comes with a ‘tic of humour’ that’s pretty much a hallmark. It makes me think how some of my own short stories, written for workshops and for reading aloud at events, perhaps play a little too easily to the gallery, at the expense of digging deep. I think it’s quite an achievement to have combined humour and earnestness in Lincoln in the Bardo.

George Saunders also stressed the importance of revision – important in so many ways. First (and I think he quoted Einstein here?), he talked about problems needing solutions beyond the plateau of their conception. Of course our first drafts need work, and maybe lots of it! And revision offers so many chances to rework and fix and tweak and polish –  ‘the little move is what distinguishes you’, he said. He parsed the sentence ‘Frank came into the room and sat on the brown couch’, showing how many of those words, or those sorts of words, are superfluous (we ended up with just ‘Frank’). Through pruning away and leaving some work for the reader, we grow a respect for the reader, which creates intimacy.

George Saunders also advocates empathy more broadly as a cure for the tensions of these politically divided times. He describes Trump voters, for example, as including the sort of ordinary people he grew up among, and he met many too in reporting from the 2016 campaign trail, describing them as nice, affable, not angry. ‘How much compassion can you give? An infinite amount.’ And this gets embodied, of course, in the shining example of Lincoln in his book, as he told the Washington Post:

The main thing that I feel is — whatever you want to say about Lincoln — his empathy expanded as he lived. He was probably a typically racist Indiana boy. And then those last three years, his pot of empathy went out to include everybody: his soldiers, of course, these millions of Americans who were being enslaved, even the South. So that’s why we love him, I think because with all that pressure on him and all that hatred coming toward him, he didn’t turn to the haters and disabuse them; he actually tried to include them in his love.

Though too he cautioned about the enabling dangers of what the Tibetan Buddhists call ‘idiot compassion’, something that we perhaps need to hear more often. (I am sick of all the pandering, and I want my country back.)

Finally, Saunders also warned all writers against ego. ‘Don’t get ambitious. Don’t get elated.’

All round, a very brilliant and engaging evening. I am so lazy nowadays, one of those lazy home-working Londoners, and I don’t go out that much. But it was only the next day that I realised I’d schlepped all the way to SE and back (left the house at 4.30, got back at 10.30) without hesitating to think about it, because if you are serious about writing you don’t miss up the chance to listen to someone as brilliant and much loved as George Saunders speak.

A few Saunders links here:

* What Writers Really Do When They Write, by George Saunders – sterling advice

* Powell’s interview with George Saunders, February 2017

George Saunders interviewed in Vanity Fair, March 2017

* Who Are All These Trump Supporters? by George Saunders, from the New Yorker, July 2016

* The Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit: An Introduction – a real treat for syllabus geeks in the form of course paraphernalia from one of the great teacher’s courses at Syracuse

PS Sadly, I didn’t get my book signed. There were a ton of people in the queue, over a hundred surely, and it moved maybe one spot in the fifteen minutes I did wait. But I had a train to catch, and a city to cross! I did of course enter my own imagined space of how to commune with the great man among so many fanboys and -girls, and puzzled about the least smarmy way to ask if, given his interest in Tibetan Buddhism, he’d visited Naropa University during his time at the Colorado School of Mines, where he was an undergraduate. But I’d probably have only got tongue-tied and blushed and blabbed, anyway. Here’s the front of the adoring queue on my way out.

Thank You, Meryl

At the weekend I discovered this extraordinarily rousing speech of Meryl Streep accepting her National Ally For Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign. Following her Golden Globes speech in January, it’s very stirring, and very moving.

The audience just LOVES her. My people do make for good audiences, don’t they? (The HRC is an American civil rights organisation campaigning for LGBTQ equality.) I am reminded how, when I was younger, and closety, I affected a crush on Meryl Streep. I pinned up a newspaper clipping of her above my bed. I don’t think I fooled my family or friends, really – I was just fooling myself. Alternate energies were in truth simultaneously diverted towards Harrison Ford.

Meryl is just marvellous here – an inspiration. She always has been. So big-hearted, so funny, so smart. So many great roles. Holocaust, Kramer vs Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, Out Of Africa. Postcards From The Edge, Mamma Mia, The Hours, The Iron Lady, The Devil Wears Prada. Julie and Julia. Angels In America! Always so fearless and committed.

We are so lucky that we have so many bold, smart, funny women using the power and privilege that they do enjoy to stand up and speak out right now. They could just take the cheque, and smile sweetly, and then fade away with a homily or two. But they don’t, thank goddess. I’m also thinking of JK Rowling – not only does she tell great stories, and give the best commencement addresses, and troll tyrants, but she curates exquisitely too, judging by her retweets. It’s good to have people like this on our side, as allies. As examples of artists committed to the work of the imagination.

So for International Women’s Day, let’s take their example, and be compelled. Stand Up. Speak Up. Act Up.

 

Plotting Workshop

The Writers’ Workshop Getting Publishing Day was great fun. It was good to see some old faces and meet plenty of friendly new ones. I saw some really accomplished writing, a lot of it already at a publishable standard. With the right breaks and a good dose of luck, some of these books could be on the way to finding an agent and publisher – and let’s not forget we can create some of our own luck, too.

It was the first time I’d taught a workshop on plotting in an hour-long slot (though I realise we ran over by fifteen minutes, sorry!). In other contexts I’ve been able to assign reading beforehand, so we’d all be able to discuss the same stories together, but yesterday I fell back on examples such as Pride and Prejudice and The Hobbit. I emphasised that plot is best regarded as a verb rather than a noun: though inspired twists never hurt, plot is not some clever thing we have to conjure up – instead, plotting is an active process that brings together other aspects of craft such as characterisation, structure, narration.

Character is especially important: what are your character’s deepest yearnings, and how might they come into conflict with those of other characters? And how are the events of the book character-building?

I don’t dwell too much on what might be seen as the jargon of structure, but it can be useful to think about inciting incidents and reversals of fortune mounting tension towards a climax as a connected sequence of events. Most of all: don’t be boring! (The only rule in writing.)

I read the opening of Notes On A Scandal not only as an example of a strong narrative voice plotting away but also to point out how Zoe Heller chose to put what might be regarded as the most dramatic revelations of her story right into the first paragraph: the first sentence, in fact! So much about plotting is about the ways a writer chooses to handle time.

And those choices, I suggested, are best handled in drafting. Though some writers, especially more experienced ones, work from detailed plans, I propose that beginning novelists might regard the process of creating a first draft as an active part of plotting. By all means work from an outline – you’ll need one – but be free and easy with yourself in your first draft. Let yourself see what comes up. Have fun, be playful. Perhaps write bits off to the side to see how a different point of view or scene might work. Maybe even write notes to yourself in scenes at challenging points, e.g., ‘I need to work out a way to get A to do B to C in this scene here’ – reaching the end might give you the perspective on what B needs to be.

And when you finish that draft, print it off, and read it through, perhaps making a few notes as you go but mostly just reading through for the experience of reading (using a different typeface can help to make things look different).

Then ask yourself: what plotting can I create from what I have here?

And then – the most important thing I have to say – take that print-out, sit it beside you on your desk, push back your shoulders, and type it out again into a new document.

Terry Pratchett once said something along the lines of the first draft being the writer just telling herself the story. The second and subsequent drafts are there to work out the best way to tell – plot – that story, which might of course change along the way. And liberating yourself from your attachments is much easier when you’re not just tinkering with existing words on a screen. In the golden olden days a writer used to clatter out second drafts on a typewriter or redo them by hand. Some writers even put the print-outs in a drawer and never refer to them again, and write the new draft wholly afresh. You know the story, don’t you?!

To help with reading your draft, I also distributed a plotting analysis worksheet, and suggested that writers complete it in different ways, e.g., with reference to: a favourite book of childhood (done from memory); a book you’ve recently read and admired in a genre you’re working in (done with close reading of that book); and for drafts of your own work-in-progress (again, done from memory at least to start – what you contain within you is most important).

I shall be running an expanded version of this workshop as a plotting masterclass at the York Festival of Writing on 8 September.

Here are some other resources from my site on self-editing and revising.

And here are other links to further information on plotting, as well as quotes offering thought-provoking opinions:

* Dramatic Structure (including Freytag’s Triangle)

* Michael Hauge, ‘The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Screenplays’

* Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots – for a checklist of the 20 plots, follow the link here

* The site of Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey (follow the link Hero’s Journey on the left-hand side), plus Vogler on YouTube talking about the Hero’s Journey and discussing it using the example of The Matrix

* From my own blog: Tell Me A Story and A Book Is Not A Film

* Online Etymology Dictionary

* Someone asked for a good recommendation on grammar – I always suggest Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax.

* EM Forster defined story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence’: The king died, and then the queen died. And plot as ‘also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality’: The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

* Ursula Le Guin on change as the driver of plot:

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

* Stephen King on plot in On Writing:

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can – I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of a writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course) …

Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

Plot is … the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you are going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s last choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and laboured.

I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story … The situation comes first …

A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:

What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (‘Salem’s Lot)

What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)

What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne)

* And some of the books whose plots I often find myself discussing:

* Zoe Heller, Notes On A Scandal – read the opening chapter here
* Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (Best. Plot. Ever.)
* Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain
* JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings
* Nina Stibbe, Man At The Helm
* Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
* George RR Martin, Game Of Thrones
* Angela Carter, ‘The Werewolf’
* Paula Hawkins, The Girl On The Train
* Kent Haruf, Our Souls At Night
* Jack Kerouac, On The Road
* Jane Austen, Pride And Prejudice
* Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
* Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Writing Experiment No. 64: The Wrong Envelope

I’m planning for a workshop on plotting I’m leading at the Getting Published Day on Saturday. I went online earlier to read the news, and I saw this photograph of the audience at the Oscars just as it became clear that the wrong envelope had been opened by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway when they announced Best Picture. A classic reversal of fortune! Everything was going smoothly, and then it turned out someone had made a very human error. An error with a very human cause, and perhaps with very human effects (let’s see who carries those briefcases next year). But fortunately there are systems in place, so it was an error that was caught and resulted in that moment of truth; it all ended happily ever after, with two production teams acknowledging – celebrating – the victory of one of them on stage.

The moment of truth is captured above by Los Angeles Times photographer Al Sei – read the story about the taking of it here: ‘What is happening???’ Times photographer explains how he captured that viral Oscars moment. Look at those big names we’ve seen on Graham Norton’s sofa. Look at those slack jaws, look at those stars who’ve entertained us so often on the edges of their seats. I don’t think they were acting right then.

This unexpected error certainly injected some drama and thrills. Poor La La Land! But how wonderful for Moonlight! As Anthony Lane said in this charming piece in the New Yorker: ‘it was a disaster for all concerned, but it was also, in its harmless way, super, super everything we need in our lives right now. Peace and blessings’.

In reading this story about the wrong envelope, I’m also thinking: what does wrong actually mean? This strikes my imagination perhaps because last week I read another news story about the great, great care that goes into making sure that everything is right and correct in the running of the Oscars. Who knew?! We scoff at contrivances in the melodramatic plots of blockbusters and soaps, but things go wrong all the time in the real world, so why shouldn’t they in fiction? Writers just have to make things feel credible, or at least compelling. (Compelling can probably rush a reader past any lack of credibility. Compelling, and a good voice.)

As a writing experiment: Write a short story called ‘The Wrong Envelope’ in which someone is given a wrong envelope. The story could culminate in this event, or it could begin with this event, or the handing over of the envelope could take place off the page, or before the main action of the storyline begins. The giving of the wrong envelope could result from a human error, or otherwise. A train of events will be triggered: there should be causes, or consequences, or both. There might, or might not, be a moment of truth. And perhaps you can take your readers to the edges of their seats too.

Peace and blessings!

How To Write A Novel: Reviewed

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As I teach creative writing, taking a writing course might seem like a busman’s holiday, or teaching grandad to suck eggs … or something like that. But I am firmly of the belief that practitioners should keep their practice fresh. There are always new inspirations in creative fields, and it helps teachers to see familiar ideas in new frameworks.

I am also an eternal student, and come September that slant of autumn light makes me wistful for the classroom. So last term I took two online courses on writing a novel from the University of British Columbia’s prestigious writing programme. Offered via the edX learning platform, they use probably the best teaching materials on writing I’ve come across. Week by week, they cover the following aspects of craft and process:

How To Write A Novel: Structure and Outline
* Character, antagonism and world-building
* Internal and external journeys
* Story architecture 1: acts, scenes, beats, and story hierarchy, as well as a broader discussion of outlines
* Story architecture 2: complications, saggy middles, subplots, and resolutions
* Endings and scene analysis
* The transition to writing, including the creation of a detailed writing plan

How To Write A Novel: Writing The Draft
* The aesthetic journey: voice, prose style, point of view, and beginnings
* Conflict and tension, including characterisation
* Dialogue, including subtext
* Plot, including the specific requirements of genre and endings
* Research, including ethics
* Mind over manuscript, including theme, focus, blind alleys and procrastination, and other practical tips on the writing life

They don’t need to be taken in this order, and can be taken independently of each other. A commitment of four to six hours a week is suggested, though the courses are self-paced, and materials remain available to learners after the courses have ended. Downloadable video lectures, backed up with transcripts and additional notes, are pithy, punchy, and engaging, with ideas further brought to life through close readings in all the major genres.

Practical assignments are well pitched, and include the writing of specific scenes as well as various Q&As that will help you analyse what your book needs in terms of craft and technique. I’ve seen many character questionnaires in my time, but the one created for the Structure course must be the most purposeful in making your characters more engaging; I doubt you’ll answer all its questions right away, but it will give you plenty to think about in going deeper with your writing, which can only be a good thing.

The courses do not offer detailed workshop interaction or mentoring, though online forums get you to discuss important matters in your work and share selected samples of your output. Fellow learners, who included beginners as well as experienced professional writers, were dedicated and encouraging, and given the online setting it was refreshing to meet people from all over the world, some of whom were writing in languages other than English.

I particularly enjoyed working in a setting based in Canada, using examples from various writers who were new to me. And who can’t fail to be impressed by a country where working in more than one language seems no big deal at all? Postnational: I’ll take that description. It’s a good one for the country of writing.

The instructors, award-winning authors Nancy Lee and Annabel Lyon, are immensely generous in sharing their own experiences. Throughout the course they bring matters of craft and process to life by discussing their own work, and they also post examples of their own outlines and drafts. Further support comes from sf writer Andrew Neil Gray, who’s active in fielding questions in the discussion area.

The teaching team’s engagement goes even deeper in live weekly hangouts (lunchtimes in Vancouver, 9pm here in London), when they answer specific questions posted in real time or during the previous week. Annabel, Nancy, and Andrew genuinely engage with writers’ questions with good humour, bright ideas, and endless encouragement. Videos of the hour-long chats are saved for learners unable to attend at the designated time. These hangouts were really energising, and one of the things I’ll remember most about these courses.

What’s also sparky are occasional marked differences in the instructors’ style and process. Nancy, for example, told us how she starts her second draft in an entirely fresh document, not even referring back to the first draft. Annabel, on the other hand, returns to her previous drafts in a particularly organised way. Further videos offer valuable contributions from a number of other authors, such as Sarah Dunant, Lauren Groff, Paula Hawkins, Miriam Toews, and Jeff Vandermeer. The diversity of advice reflects the fact that all writers need to find their own way in matters of both craft and process.

I certainly gained plenty of fresh insights and practical tips from these courses. For example, one term that was new to me was half-scene, which describes that blend of summary and scene that I realised is the narrative mode of many books I enjoy; I am already applying this idea more consciously in my own work. The week on research prompted vigorous discussion on the ethics of cultural and personal appropriation in writing. I also came away with a deeper respect for and wider understanding of the possibilities of outlining. A good outline can not only bring the practical focus and discipline that keep you going until you complete a first draft, but also stimulate the imagination and help you find room for the flair a novel needs.

These courses are, I believe, currently running twice a year. A third course, on revising your novel, is in development for later in the spring of 2017, and it sounds most promising. The next offering of Structure and Outline begins on 10 January 2017: you can watch an introduction from Annabel and Nancy on YouTube.

Academic courses are no longer the only route for someone keen to learn the craft of writing. But creative writing is an industry, and some offerings are more practical – and far better value – than others. Of all the courses I’ve come across, online or in person, these are the best on writing fiction that I’ve come across. They are also far more affordable than most (US$295 for each course). I would recommend them heartily, not only to any writer keen to build their own programme of studies, but also for recent graduates of MFA/MA programmes in search of impetus, or experienced writers wanting fresh insights for a project that’s stalling. They could be particularly useful for writing partners or small writing groups who want to share some external structure for their practice. I took these courses alongside another writer friend, and I think it might really help to have that additional motivation to help keep you on track and continue with the work.