Five times in my life I’ve
felt like I was reading a great novel:
“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville.
2. “Lord Jim” by Joseph Conrad.
by James Joyce.
4. “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner.
5. “Blood Meridian” by Cormac
I don’t think anything beats these novels for breadth and depth. If I had to pick one, it would
have to be "Blood Meridian."
I want three things from a work of fiction:
(1) to learn something new about myself, i.e., to gain some insight into human
nature that I didn’t have before;
(2) to learn something about the world that I didn’t know, i.e., take
me someplace and show me something new; and
(3) to have an aesthetic experience that moves me deeply.
These novels deliver on all these fronts. I recommend them highly.
GOOD NOVELS (and other works of fiction)
1. “Anna Karenina” by Count Leo Tolstoi.
2. “The Stranger” by Albert Camus.
3. “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway.
“Tijuana Straits” by my friend Kem Nunn, or any of his other books.
5. “All The King’s Men”
by Robert Penn Warren.
6. “A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man” by James Joyce.
7. “The Great
Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
8. “All The Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy.
Horses” by William Faulkner.
10. “Here On Earth” by Alice Hoffman.
11. “The Book Of Ruth”
by Jane Hamilton.
12. “Glass People” by Gail Godwin.
13. “Help Wanted,” stories by Gary
14. “The Girl With the Flammable Skirt,” stories by Aimee Bender.
15. “The Last Domino”
by my friend Adam Meyer.
16. “My Antonia” by Willa Cather.
17. “The Bean Trees” by Barbara
18. “Jesus’ Son” stories by Denis Johnson.
TRUTHS ABOUT WRITING
Good fiction is a mix of telling and showing. "Call me Ishmael" is not visual, but knocking
off someone's hat is. Visual imagery is powerful. So is making the reader participate in the communication. As Billy Wilder
said, if you can make the audience add two and two, they'll love you forever. So don’t just tell me Joe is sad.
Describe him walking into a train station with a dozen roses in his hand. He waits as the train pulls in. Everyone gets off
and leaves, and Joe is still standing there. He throws the roses into a trash barrel and walks away, all alone in the station.
Now that is really sad, especially if you tell us at some point that Joe is waiting for his ex-girlfriend Sally, whom he hasn't
seen in five years.
WHO ARE YOU WRITING FOR?
The first reader I try to please is myself. I look for
a story that pulls me in and pulls me along, more and more, deeper and deeper. Some writers write for someone they know. Steinbeck
said he wrote for his old creative writing teacher. It helps to know your audience.
WRITING IS LIKE SCULPTURE
Sculptors say they see the figure inside the stone before they start to carve. In the first draft you are trying
to find the figure in the stone.
DON’T REWRITE THE OPENING UNTIL THE END
Keep writing on the
first draft until you reach the end. There is nothing like forward momentum. You shouldn’t monkey with the beginning
until you know what the book is about.
The purpose of the first draft is to discover the story. Create the characters
and follow them. Find the fictional “reality” of the story. Who, what, where, when, why and how.
worry too much about the writing or the plot. Just tell it the way it comes to you. You can clean it up later. Don’t
worry about interesting the reader on first draft. Just interest yourself.
Have fun. Dig deep.
There are generally two kinds of writers, left-brain and right-brain. The left-brainers map the
story out ahead of time, or map it out as they go. They know the main turning points and maybe the end.
& STICK TO THEM
You have to make choices and forge ahead, even if they are arbitrary or if they turn out to
be wrong. Don’t violate them or change them until you get all the way through.
THE HERO NEEDS TO DRIVE THE
The main character cannot be passive, just letting things happen to him. He has to want something bad enough
to take an emotional risk.
Do you really need the back-story? Most of the time, you
don't, or you can imply it. Or you can mention it in passing. Or better yet you can devise a dramatic way to bring it
in. Most of the novels I like don't have flashbacks. If you want Jillian to find out that Max was a spy for Russia, have
them run into an old friend of his. Maybe the friend is drunk and disillusioned with the spy game and she overhears them as
he calls Max by another name. "Hey, Dimitri, what's your cover this time? Is the girl part of it? She's cute.
One of the perks of the job, eh, Dimitri?"
Then "Max" would have some 'splainin' to do.
[It would also move the story forward while revealing the back-story.]
It's hard to maintain forward momentum
during a flashback. What we care about, us readers, is what is happening to the characters now, in the present.
I think you should only dig deeply into the past when it's relevant to the present. Mysteries are usually about the
past. The detective digs up the past to find out who done it. But thrillers are about the future. What is going to happen
STAY CONNECTED TO YOUR INNER SELF
Your stuff should be full of objective correlatives to your
inner world and always meaningful to you. It should be a way of working out your fears and your inner conflicts and nightmares.
These things matter: your inner world, the inner world of the character, and the external world of the novel.
They all have to connect up. Your inner world has to connect with the inner world of the audience.