Think Architecturally

I’ve been doing what I often do two-thirds of the way through a novel, I’ve been re-structuring it. My most influential writing teacher, Ellington White, used to say often that if a piece of fiction isn’t working, or becomes bogged down, the problem (or solution, depending how you want to look at it) often lies in the structure.

The phrase “think architecturally” I’m borrowing from Naomi Epel’s nifty little deck of cards recommended to me by Steve Krause, called The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit For Writers. Each card addresses some writerly advice gleaned from a wide range of writers Epel interviewed. It sounds cheesy, I know, but the idea is to draw a card when stuck or looking for a little inspiration, read the discussion in the accompanying booklet, and take it from there. It rarely tells me anything I don’t know already, but that’s usually the point: You’re forgetting something you already know!

So in my case, when I drew this card and remembered Ellington’s advice, a cursory examination of the three threads of the story quickly revealed they were seriously out of proportion with each other, and while one was ladled in great globs, the others were eked out in dribs and drabs. The sequence of events in each needed to be seriously reworked. This led to other discoveries and an end to the logjam. Feeling stuck? Ellington, Naomi, and I recommend having a look at structure.


I was discussing with Sarah a realistic novel she’s reading, and she related being bounced out of the fictional dream by a lapse in plausibility. The emotional power of the scene in question was completely undercut by her doubts that the characters would have gotten themselves in that situation to begin with. My favorite summation of the issue is by Edith Merrilees: “Plausibility is the morality of fiction.” This issue comes up all the time in creative writing classes in which students will defend an implausible bit of plot in a story based on “real life” by objecting, “but that’s the way it really happened!” Too bad. The bar is set higher in fiction. It has to be more persuasive because it’s fiction, and the reader assumes it never really happened. I’m currently immersed in Kelly Link and Jeffrey Ford stories where anything can happen and often does, but especially in such stories in which the narrative logic creates its own reality, plausibility is essential. If the imagined reality is inconsistent, then the reader is jarred out of the dream. Beginning writers are fond of giving characters immense magic powers, but then can’t explain why the characters ever have any difficulties the magic won’t solve. The Matrix movies always left me wondering why anyone would waste time fighting in a virtual world. Coincidence presents a particular difficulty. Life is full of them. Novels are full fo them. In general, however, a reader will accept an unlucky coincidence before a lucky one. Bad luck, I suppose, seems more plausible than good luck. A story can begin with good fortune–someone winning the lottery or discovering a magic amulet—but after that the reader will be skeptical of any more happy accidents.

Getting a well-rounded education

Reading snippets from all the graduation speeches passing out advice to future leaders, future followers, future whatevers, I thought I’d address aspiring writers with my two cents worth. First off, I suppose, is to read everything. Don’t like to read? Don’t write.

Learn to live cheaply. Learn how to cook, to sew, to take care of yourself. Shop in used clothing stores. Do without a car. Use your own body to get around, to do things. You’ll spend quite enough time sitting on your ass developing back trouble and hemmoroids.

Fall in love. Trust. Be trustworthy.

Write. Write some more.


Make it interesting

“The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.” That’s Henry James in the “Art of Fiction.” If your readers get to the bottom of the page and turn it, you’re in the game. Don’t listen to complaints that you’ve violated this genre boundary or ignored some aesthetic principle or other. It’s not a sport. There’s no rulebook for fiction. Conversely, no matter how well a piece of fiction captures your Original Vision or suits your (or your writing instructor’s) favorite program for Good Fiction or how damn smart you feel when you write it, if it’s dull, then Henry James and I humbly suggest revision.


Rereading Neil Gaiman in preparation for a class I’m teaching this summer, I’m reminded of the importance of voice in fiction. Read him aloud—the prose sings. During the process of writing and rewriting, I often read aloud, and before a piece is done—poem, novel, short story, doesn’t matter—I print it up and read it through as if for a public reading. Anything I stumble over or doesn’t sound right, I revise until the voice is right. Ideally each piece should have its own distinctive voice, inseparable from the story being told. A story’s not just words on a page, pixels on a screen, it’s someone speaking, inviting others to listen.

Listening to music

I often listen to music while I’m writing fiction. I typically pick songs that particularly grab me and elicit some emotional/musical response: I laugh, I cry, I tap my foot. I listen repeatedly to the same tunes while working on a particular piece, as a soundtrack in a way. I used to listen only to instrumental music while writing, ages ago, but found that I like the words, the sound of the singing voices, like somebody chanting in the background. I started doing this to insulate myself from other sounds like a noisy roommate or a jack hammer. But now I do it for the trance-inducing quality of it. John Gardner talks about fiction creating a “fictional dream,” and the first dreamer is the writer. All the good stuff happens when I’m inside the story, in a sense not aware of it as words but as an alternate reality. At such moments, the writing can become almost automatic, like I’m taking dictation rather than assembling words on the page or screen. At the moment, I’ve been listening to The Be Good Tanyas.

I usually don’t listen to anything specifically connected with what I’m writing. The story I’m writing now, for example, is set in the late sixties, and tunes by the Stones and Steppenwolf are mentioned in the story, but I don’t listen to them while I write it. I guess I’m looking for a less literal connection between story and song, something that will surprise me.

Writing advice #2

As I’m often reminded while revising, when you’re persistently stuck, the problem isn’t usually in the scene you’re desperately trying to write, but two or three scenes back where you made a wrong turn or let a cat out of the bag that should’ve stayed there a little longer or a character did something totally implausible or out of character and you’re pretending it didn’t happen.  It’s like a leak in a sloped roof—the leak isn’t usually where the water’s coming into the house, but farther up the roof.  You keep bringing buckets to the problem when you need to get on the roof.
I suppose this is why I prefer to work recursively, looping back repeatedly, rather than a sustained march through a first draft followed by revision.

What’s the best writing advice you ever received?

I was in a graduate fiction workshop at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of my pieces was up, and it hadn’t gone well. I was rope-a-doping my way through the post-mortem, resisting all suggestions to improve upon the clever perfection of my workshop gem, when some member of the workshop—I’m not sure who—said, “Get closer.”

That’s it.

And damn, if the bastard wasn’t right, and I could scarcely look at a single scene or sentence in the story without wanting to revise it, to strip away the cleverness and get closer to the sense, to the characters, to the heart of the matter, to whatever it was had me writing the story in the first place. Over and over again ever since, revising some new clever bit of boredom I’ve contrived, it’s the advice that keeps on giving: Get closer. Try it. Might work for you.