R Is for Readers

Writers may write in solitude, but there’s nearly always at least one other person in the room. Maybe we see them. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we see them but try to ignore their existence. Maybe they’re in our own head.

Readers.

Editors are test readers of writing that hasn’t gone out into the world yet. Our job is to help prepare the writing for its debut. We’re hired because we’re adept in the ways of spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, structure, and so on, but on the other hand we’re supposed to be professionally stupid: if the writing isn’t clear enough, if gaps and inconsistencies exist in the sentences and paragraphs we’re reading, we aren’t supposed to fill them in from what we already know. The writing is supposed to do the work.

This is fine as far as it goes, but sometimes editors forget that despite our expertise and the fact that we’re getting paid, we can’t speak for all readers. If an editor tells you that “readers won’t like it if you . . .” listen carefully but keep the salt handy: you may need it. Editors should be able to explain our reservations about a word or a plot twist or a character’s motivation without hiding behind an anonymous, unverifiable mass of readers.

readers at outdoor café

One of the big highs of my writing life was when my Mud of the Place was featured by the several Books Afoot groups who traveled to Martha’s Vineyard in 2013 and 2014.

Readers can and often do take very different things away from the same passage, the same poem, the same essay, the same story. At my very first writers’ workshop (the 1984 Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop, Aurora, New York), day after day I listened as 18 of us disagreed, often passionately, about whether a line “worked” and whether a character’s action made sense or not and whether a particular description was effective or not. It was thrilling to see readers so engaged with each other’s work, but also a little unsettling: no matter how capable and careful we writers are with our writing, we can’t control how “readers” are going to read it.

This is a big reason I advise writers to find or create themselves a writers’ group — and to develop the skill and courage to give other writers their honest readings of a work in progress. This may be the greatest gift one writer can give another.

I just came to “Teasing Myself Out of Thought” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016), and what do you know, it articulates eloquently and clearly some of what I’m feeling my way toward here.

“Most writing is indeed a means to an end,” she writes — but not all of it. Not her own stories and poems. They’re not trying to get a point across: “What the story or the poem means to you — its ‘message’ to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.”

She compares “a well-made piece of writing” to “a well-made clay pot”: the pot is put to different uses and filled with different things by people who didn’t make it. What she’s suggesting, I think (maybe because I agree with her), is that readers participate actively in the creation of what the story or poem means. Readers are “free to use the work in ways the author never intended. Think of how we read Sophocles or Euripides.”  What readers and playgoers have discovered in the Greek tragedies has evolved considerably over the last 3,000 years, and it’s a good guess that Sophocles and Euripides didn’t embed all those things in their works.

“A story or poem,” writes Le Guin, “may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.”

If this reminds you of “J Is for Journey,” it does me too. And notice where that particular blog post started.

And finally this: “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do.”

That’s a pretty amazing and generous statement, and one editors might consider occasionally, especially when we’re editing works that aren’t simply means to an end.

L Is for Literary

At first glance “literary” looks straightforward. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary starts off with this: “of, relating to, or having the characteristics of humane learning or literature”.

Move on to “literature,” however, and fault lines begin to emerge:

a (1) :  writings in prose or verse; especially :  writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest

The American Heritage Dictionary definition of “literary” progresses from 1., “Of, relating to, or dealing with literature: literary criticism,” to 4a, “Appropriate to literature rather than everyday speech or writing,” and finally 4b, “Bookish; pedantic.”

For “literature” AHD moves briskly from the inclusive — “1. The body of written works of a language, period, or culture” — to something less generous: “2. Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value.”

In other words, value judgments lurk not far below the surface of both “literary” and “literature,” and it’s not hard to see how they stir up uneasiness and outright opposition.  In some quarters “literary” suggests not only bookish and pedantic, but pretentious, snobbish, affected, esoteric, incomprehensible . . .

As a longtime reader of fantasy and science fiction, I’m particularly intrigued by the way “literary” is used to characterize anything that doesn’t fit into a genre. This leads to grand generalizations, judgments, and arguments that generate plenty of heat but not much light. What it misses is that genres are primarily marketing categories developed by publishers in order to treat books as products. Categorize a novel and it’s easier to promote and sell. Writers aren’t stupid: if they want to sell, they’ll write what the publishers are buying.

Genres have been around long enough at this point that they’re embedded in readers’ heads. Audiences have developed for particular genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres, and self-publishers who want to sell ignore this at their financial peril.

Writers who want to sell will often write to the specs of a particular genre, at least until (if they’re lucky) they develop enough of a following that their byline becomes the brand. Unfortunately, the byline brand can become as restrictive as a genre category, which is why some well-known writers who want to strike off in a different direction do so under a pseudonym.

Without market pressures, though, writing often doesn’t fit neatly into categories. A while back, in “Genres and Dump Dogs,” I wrote this:

Literary genres are like breeds — of relatively recent development, especially the notion that there are clear lines between them and everything has to fit into one category. “Literature” is more like those village dogs of indeterminate breed: it adapts to the climate and food sources available, and maybe it looks a little like this, a little like that, but you can’t say for sure that it’s a beagle or a foxhound (or a mystery or a romance). When you’re trying to tell a story, you scavenge and steal from whatever’s in the vicinity and if it works you keep it.

If “literary” came to mean “willing to scavenge and steal from whatever’s in the vicinity, all in the interest of the work,” that would be OK with me. The sky, or maybe the ocean, is the limit.

Dog at edge of ocean

Travvy confronts the infinite.

A Is for Audience

Eek! I was reminded on Sunday, April 2, that I fully intended to take part in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The challenge was supposed to begin on April 1. The idea is to blog every day except Sunday, with each post taking as its theme a letter of the alphabet, starting with A. Taking Sundays off leaves 26 days in April, there are 26 letters in the alphabet — brilliant idea.

However . . .

Travvy waits

Trav spends a lot of time waiting for me to get home or get up from the computer.

My Sunday looked like one one I blogged about in “Calendars Rule“: I left the apartment at quarter to one and didn’t return home to stay till quarter past nine, having spent the time between at a political meeting, a rehearsal, a mailing party for a local political candidate, and my weekly writers’ group meeting. I did manage to return home long enough to take a walk with Travvy, give him his supper, and print out the pages I was taking to writers’ group.

Since then I’ve been in book review hell, which transforms all other writing into a guilty pleasure I should not indulge until the review is done.

However #2 . . .

I really want to do this A to Z thing. I want to blog shorter and more regularly, and deadlines really do help. (See, there’s an idea for D!) So I’m starting late. This post is backdated to April 1, although it’s being written on the 5th. I’ll catch up, I promise.

So — A is for Audience.

Actors in a theater and singers and musicians in a concert hall or coffeehouse can see, hear, and feel their audience. Even when they’re separated by rows of seats and what actors call the “fourth wall,” audience and performers are interacting. Not only are audiences moved by what’s happening onstage, the performers can be powerfully affected by the presence of audience.

town meeting audience

The audience at an annual town meeting in my town. We’re a very engaged bunch.

For most writers most of the time, the audience is not physically present while we’re writing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Even when we’re writing primarily for ourselves, we’re consciously or unconsciously choosing our words with someone or someones in mind. These imaginary readers (who may include people we know in real life) help us focus our work.

Here’s an example: My fiction is set on Martha’s Vineyard, where I live, but I’m writing for an audience that includes readers who don’t live here, have never been here, and maybe have never heard of the place. So I need to bring the place alive for those people without boring local readers with too much information or pissing them off with generalizations that don’t hold up to close scrutiny.

As an editor, I work on fiction, general nonfiction, and academic nonfiction. I like the variety, in part because it forces me to think about audience. I recently worked on a academic paper about the evolution of a particular concept in Egyptian literature. The target audience can be expected to have interest in and considerable knowledge about the Middle East in general but not necessarily about Egypt or Arabic literature or the period being examined.

Another recent project was a book about artificial intelligence. It was written for a general audience, which made me a good editor for it because I’m interested in the subject but don’t know much about it, and I’m pretty much lost when it comes to physics and computer science. The author did an excellent job of presenting complex ideas for a lay audience. When something was unclear to me, I asked myself whether this was due to the writing or to my lack of knowledge; in many instances, I’d do a Google search to find out how familiar the point might be to a general audience and how readily readers could fill in their own knowledge gaps.

The idea of audience can be paralyzing to writers who’ve rarely taken their work out in public. This is why I encourage writers who want to eventually see their work in print to start sharing it as soon as they, and it, are ready, and maybe a little sooner than that.

You’re probably already thinking about audience when you write. The audience in your mind is helping guide your decisions about what needs explaining and what can be left out. By testing your work on real people, you may discover that this or that point isn’t as clear as you thought it was, or that two equally astute readers may have different ideas about a character’s motivation. What you do with this information is, of course, up to you.

Coming soon: “B is for . . .”

 

Sturgis’s Law #9

Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.

Guidelines are not godlines.

Is middle school (junior high for us older folk) particularly hazardous to future writers and editors? This seems to be when admonitions to never do this or always do that put down deep roots in our heads.

  • Never split an infinitive
  • Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Always use a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Etc.

Plenty of us get the idea that written English is a minefield laid with rules they’ll never remember, let alone understand. When you’re afraid something’s going to blow up in your face, it’s hard to construct a coherent sentence. A whole story or essay? No way.

In the late 1990s, when I started hanging out online with more people who weren’t writers or editors, I often encountered a strange defensiveness from people I hardly knew. They apologized in advance for their posts: “Maybe I’m saying it wrong . . .”

My sig lines at that time identified me as a copyeditor and proofreader. I deleted those words from the sigs I used when communicating with people outside the word trades. And the defensiveness disappeared.

Those of us who work with words for a living eventually realize that language is not a minefield, but plenty of us have got a Thou shalt or Thou shalt not or two embedded in our heads. On the editors’ lists I’m on, it’s not unusual for someone to ask whether it’s really OK to break some “rule” or another. Generally the rule isn’t a rule at all.

English grammar does have its rules, and if you break or ignore them, intentionally or not, you may have a hard time making yourself understood. But many of the “rules” we learn in school aren’t about grammar at all. They’re about style. Style is more flexible than grammar — and grammar isn’t as static as some people think it is.

Sturgis’s Law #9 came about because even working editors sometimes confuse style guidelines with Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Let me back up a bit. Book publishers, magazines, newspapers, academic disciplines, and businesses generally develop or adopt a style guide to impose some consistency on their publications. For U.S. journalists it’s the Associated Press Stylebook. For trade publishers and university presses it’s usually the Chicago Manual of Style. In the social and behavioral sciences it’s APA Style, developed by the American Psychological Association. And so on.

These style guides do deal in grammar and usage — Chicago has a whole grammar chapter — but much of what they recommend is discretionary. It’s about style. For instance, Associated Press (AP) style generally uses figures for numbers 10 and up; Chicago spells out most numbers up to a hundred. When I start editing a book manuscript, I can tell within a few pages if the author is accustomed to AP style.

I’ve been using Chicago since the 12th edition (it’s now up to the 16th). I can’t say I know it by heart, but Chicago style is my default setting. No way do I want to invent guidelines from scratch for every manuscript I work on, especially when it comes to documentation: the styling of endnotes, footnotes, bibliographies, and reference lists.

Default settings, however, can be changed as need or preference dictates. They really are guidelines, not godlines. Chicago can be useful for any English-language prose writer, but keep in mind that it was developed for scholarly nonfiction and the further you stray from that, the more leeway you should allow in applying its guidelines.

If you use different style guides, or move between American English (AmE) and British English (BrE), you’ll see plenty of variation in things like capitalization, hyphenation, and the punctuation of dialogue. There’s even considerable variation between dictionaries. When I’m working, I’ve usually got Merriam-Webster’s, American Heritage, and Oxford (the UK/World English edition) open in my browser.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about guidelines is that they aren’t landmines waiting to blow up in your face. They’re on your side. They help your words get across to readers the way you want them to. Following guidelines can be like automating routine tasks: it frees your mind to deal with the more important stuff.

They can also help establish your credibility with agents, editors, and readers. There’s nothing wrong with a manuscript that isn’t double-spaced in 12-point type with one-inch margins all around, but a manuscript that is so formatted will enhance your credibility with any publishing pro who sees it for the first time. And the further it deviates from “the usual,” the more likely doubts are to creep into the reader’s mind.

The Poetics of Resistance

Like many other word people I’m looking for new ways to put my abilities to work in these trying times. The photos of poets in this blog post give me ideas and courage and faith.

Visitant

On Friday, January 20, 2017, I witnessed what will from here on out be known as a National Day of Patriotic Resistance, or, a poetry reading.

All throughout last Friday, I would peek at social media (I have to be on the Twitter and the Facebook for my job), observe the juxtaposition of the incoming/outgoing administrations, and then jump off again. Luckily, in the afternoon I was required to journey to the Bronx for work, which thoroughly distracted me for the afternoon. Then, when 5:00 rolled around, I traveled to Lower Manhattan to be among the poets.

When my friend, poet Jen Fitzgerald and other New York poet Terence Degnan announced a Day 1 poetry reading for the night of the inauguration, I knew that I would definitely be there. Poetry is the most honest of writing forms: Poets, I think, leave less of a barrier between themselves and the…

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On Second Thought . . .

I started the new year by blogging about the only New Year’s resolution I recall making in my adult life: write every single day until I finished The Mud of the Place, my first novel.

mud-cover-smShortly thereafter it dawned on me that a similar resolution might help me do what i say I’ve been going to do for two or three years now: turn Mud into an ebook. E-publishing was still terra incognita to me in late 2008, which is when Mud came out. I didn’t even get my first e-reader for another three or four years.

Be careful what you write about. It may give you ideas.

I’ve been partly mulling and mostly hiding from this idea for a week now.  Once I started this blog post, it took two days to finish it. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that I’ve only made one New Year’s resolution in my adult life — and I kept it.

I’ve got a theory about why so many people make so many resolutions and why so many of them fail. We pit what our mind thinks we ought to do against what our body is willing to do, and the body nearly always wins. Mind can’t beat body into submission, not for any length of time, because mind needs body’s cooperation to do anything.

Mind also needs body’s cooperation to stop doing something that mind thinks it shouldn’t do. I’ve got a few stories about that. As a chronically left-brain person, I was startled, perplexed, humiliated, and ultimately humbled to learn just how powerless mind was to stop body in its tracks. If you’ve ever dealt with addictive or compulsive behavior, you know what I’m talking about.

My Mud resolution worked because body was involved from the get-go. It was willing to sit down at the computer and open a Word file. At this point mind would realize that its worst fantasies were unfounded, the novel in progress wasn’t crap, and whatever wasn’t working could be identified and fixed.

So I’ve been dancing around the idea of making this new resolution because body knew that mind wasn’t fully committed to the idea of turning Mud into an ebook.  If mind were fully committed, it would have happened already, the way I signed up for the beginning guitar class in November (very scary) and have been practicing ever since.

True to form, I made a good start on the ebook project before I choked. I started researching ebook services. I got an ISBN — Speed-of-C, which published the trade paperback version, was happy to let the ebook sail under its flag. The book was printed from PDFs, so the corrections made in the production stage had to be transferred to the Word file from which the PDFs were made. I did that, then I started cold-reading the Word file straight through.

To my delight, the thing was good. I still liked it. I was still proud of it. But there I stalled, and kept stalling, until a few days ago I got the idea that I could make a New Year’s resolution about this.

So for the last few days I’ve been letting myself think about why my mind might not be quite ready to do this thing. As usual, the reasons were lying around in plain sight. I just had to look at them.

As a former bookseller who knows a few things about publishing, I did not believe that Mud of the Place would make a big or even modest splash in the wider world. I did believe — hell, I assumed — it would receive serious attention on Martha’s Vineyard, which is both where I live and where the novel is set.

It didn’t. Both the two weekly newspapers and the two independent bookstores largely ignored it. (The Vineyard Gazette did assign it to a capable reviewer, who wrote a thoughtful review. One of the bookstores did pay some attention — five years later, and that because a booklovers’ travel group based in Minnesota featured Mud in their two visits to the Vineyard, in 2013 and 2014.)

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it make a sound? If you write a pretty good novel, and no one pays attention, is it worth doing again?

Long story, but to say the least I was skeptical. Mind decided that serious writing was a waste of time. I put it aside. I looked for ways to fill the hole in my life where writing had been: training and competing with my dog, getting more involved with local politics and even running for office, training as a mediator . . .

Meanwhile, body was subtly, sneakily, rearranging my psychic landscape. Almost exactly six years ago, long after most of my friends, I got on Facebook. Loved it. Ever since I read about Margaret Fuller, I’ve fantasized hosting a salon, even though my verbal talents are more literary than conversational. Facebook was interlocking salons, mine and everyone else’s. I wandered from room to room, listening, talking, having a ball — and realizing that I didn’t need the Vineyard newspapers or bookstores to reach an audience.

Maybe a year and a half after joining Facebook, I started From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, my Vineyard blog. Two years after that, I started this one.

Travvy, upon whom the title character of Wolfie is based.

Travvy, upon whom the title character of Wolfie is based.

By then I was writing seriously again. I was even, muses help me, working on another novel. It was, I eventually realized, “all sprawl and no momentum.” It was suffering from “a surfeit of subplots.” By the time I set it aside, however, one of the subplots had coalesced into Wolfie, the novel I’ve been working on ever since (which, by the way, makes excellent use of my detour into dog training).

Like Mud of the Place, the novel in progress is set on year-round Martha’s Vineyard. It involves several of the same characters, about 10 years later. This, combined with my growing awareness of the online audience and e-publishing in general, made me think that keeping Mud alive as an ebook would be a good idea. I started working on it.

Then I choked.

What if the ebook version, like its paperback predecessor, fell in the forest and made no sound? It’s a definite possibility. Could I handle it?

I didn’t know. I still don’t. But I’m making this resolution anyway: Every day I will do something toward turning Mud of the Place into an ebook. “Something” can be as modest as proofreading two pages of the Word file at five minutes to midnight, but I will do something.

Watch this space. You’ll be the first to know when I get there.

 

Going Public

Recently I critiqued two book-length manuscripts, both novels and both promising. Before the authors contacted me, no one else had read either manuscript all the way through.

I say this not because it’s unusual but because it isn’t. Writing may be a solitary activity, but publishing is not. To publish is, by definition, to make public. (I’m not kidding about this. Look it up.) To many aspiring writers it seems easier to imagine putting their work before hundreds or thousands of strangers than to share it with people they may know personally. Is it surprising that so many writers labor for years on a book-length manuscript and then choke when it comes time to start seeking a publisher?

Puppy Travvy (right) meets Chamois, a mature yellow Lab, spring 2008.

Puppy Travvy (right) meets Chamois, a mature yellow Lab, spring 2008.

Making our work public does not come easily to most of us. It does takes practice. Think of your work in progress as a puppy. Puppies do better when they get to meet other puppies, adult dogs, and people of various sizes. At the same time, their owners learn more about the pup’s personality and maybe what the pup could use in the way of socialization and training.

No, you don’t need to let your work in progress out of the house before it and you are ready, but do get used to putting your words out in public and (if you’re lucky) getting responses from readers. There are lots of ways to do this. Blog. Contribute to the blogs of others. Review the books you read on GoodReads. Write press releases for the organizations you’re active in or occasional stories for the local paper. Join or start a writers’ group. Etc.

I’ve been taking Wolfie, my novel in progress, to my writers’ group scene by scene since early on. This has been good practice for me because I’m perfectionist enough to be uncomfortable letting anything out of my sight before it’s done. Once I was well into draft 3, I decided chapter 1 was ready to go out before a public that hadn’t heard any of it before.

Fortunately the ideal venue for such forays exists at my town’s library. Writers Read, as it’s called, meets roughly once a month. Unlike the usual writers’ group, regular attendance is not expected, but it’s developed a core of regulars that offer stability while others drop in from time to time. Six or seven writers read at each gathering. To avoid listener fatigue, the time limit of nine minutes is firmly enforced by the moderator. This presents a challenge for writers of longer works, but even novels and memoirs generally include scenes that can stand on their own without too much explanation (which is included in the nine minutes).

Personal responses from listeners are encouraged, but this is not a critique group. “I was confused by this bit” is OK; “this is confusing” is not. The moderator enforces this too. It often happens that one listener loves what another listener is confused by. This might be the most valuable lesson any writer can learn from taking her work out in public: different readers may have wildly different reactions to the same passage, which means it’s up to the writer to decide what to do about it.

Most of the participants in Writers Read are writers, but non-writers and future writers are more than welcome. I suspect that venues like Writers Read help novice writers get their courage up, first to write and then to share their work.

If nothing like this exists in your area, try starting something yourself. All you need is a space, a bunch of writers interested in sharing their work, and a few ground rules to keep the gatherings friendly and fruitful.

Writers Read, November 2016, West Tisbury (Mass.) Free Public Library

Writers Read, November 2016, West Tisbury (Mass.) Free Public Library

5 Reasons for “Quick Pass” on a Query Letter

Good advice on writing a query letter, whether you’re querying agents or independent publishers willing to read unagented manuscripts.

Carly Watters, Literary Agent Blog

Agents do inhale query letters. We get 1,000’s a year and go through them periodically; usually consuming them in batches of 20-100’s at a time. I try to read them once or twice a month.

Your query letter is my first encounter with you. It doesn’t have to be “perfect” (I mean that!), but it does have to convince me why I need to read your writing, get lost in your voice, and why this particular story matters more than the others.

Your query letter is the first opportunity toengage me and showme how you’re a storyteller no matter the medium. Storytellers can write a novel and explain it in a few paragraphs–they have to.

FIVE REASONS FOR A QUICK PASS:

  1. Novel that’s under 70k or over 110k. Storytellers know how long it takes to tell a story and a novel-length project requires a certain depth of story.
  2. Wordy descriptions…

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Mean Comments: When Your Self-Esteem Is at Stake

Wise counsel about dealing with criticism of the sort that only wants to tear you down, not improve your work. Writers are less likely than singers to be face to face with our attackers, but this still applies.

SongSmith

mean-commentsThe Drive of Being Heard

Art and music usually intend of making an impression or a statement.  Other people are inclined to voice their opinion when they’ve seen a play or heard a musical number that has moved them, whether the response is negative or positive. This drive for being heard and voicing our impressions has created an entire career; critics are paid to write or voice their reviews of various forms of art, whether it is food, movies, music, or visual.

Constructive criticism can be a great thing because it allows the artist to receive feedback that could very well improve its project. Even negative feedback can allow a creator to learn from its shortcomings and create even better work.

The Internet has become a helpful resource for artists in term of exposure, especially musicians and songwriters, as they are able to expose their work to a much larger…

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Dead Air

I seem to have taken up semi-permanent residence in Revisionland. Not only am I working on draft 3 of Wolfie, my own novel in progress, my recent jobs have included two critiques of first novels and a line edit whose structure needs a little tweaking. Editor that I am, with a fair amount of reviewing experience under my belt, I love revising and rewriting and recommending what other writers might do to improve their current drafts.

Most mornings I begin my writing session by lighting a candle or two, then picking The Writer’s Chapbook* from the table on my right, opening it at random, and reading the first quote that catches my eye. This morning the book opened to the “On Films” section, and my eye fell on a lengthy quote by novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. After noting that in the novels of William Faulkner (“who frequently had his shit detector dialed down to zero”) “wonderful streaks” often alternate with “muddy bogs” that need to be slogged through, he continues:

Everyone agrees that Faulkner produced the greatest streaks in American literature from 1929 to 1935 but, depending on how you feel about this, you either admit that there’s a lot of dead air in his works or you don’t. After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

From the mid-1980s till the end of the 1990s, I was very involved in community theater, mostly as a stage manager, actor, or reviewer. (No, I did not review plays I was involved in. However, I often reviewed plays directed or acted in by people I knew. This taught me tact. Whole other subject. I’ve written about reviewing before — see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy” — and surely will again.) No surprise, then, that when I’m writing fiction, I often feel like I’m blocking scenes or directing them and that my characters are doing improv up on stage.

Both of the first-novel manuscripts I critiqued recently hold plenty of promise, but both are currently weighed down with loaded with dead air. In both cases, much of the dead air is dialogue. To both authors I suggested: “Imagine you’re watching these scenes on a stage. Read them out loud. How long before you start to doze off, fidget, or throw tomatoes?”

A novel might survive “twenty mediocre pages,” as McGuane suggests, but five pages of dead air might well be fatal, especially if they come near the beginning, and especially if you’re a first-novelist trying to get past one of the gatekeepers: agent, publisher, reviewer, or even readers willing to give unknown writers a chance.

Put your talking, puttering-about characters up on stage or on a movie screen. How long would you sit still?

* * * * *

*The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers, ed. George Plimpton (New York: Penguin, 1989). I’ve got the revised, expanded version of the first edition. A completely overhauled edition was published in 1999, including some of the original excerpts but also more quotes from more recent and more diverse writers. Both editions are out of print but used copies can be found. That’s how I got mine. Highly recommended.