Chasing the Flame

Note: I am a writer as well as an editor. Sometimes I wear my writer’s hat when blogging. This is one of those times.

When the source of his fiction was autobiographical, Eddie could write with authority and authenticity. But when tried to imagine – to invent, to create – he simply could not succeed as well as when he remembered. This is a serious limitation for a fiction writer… But Eddie would make a living as a novelist, nonetheless. One can’t deny him his existence as a writer simply because he would never be, as Chesterton once wrote of Dickens, “a naked flame of mere genius, breaking out in a man without culture, without tradition, without help from historic religions and philosophies or from the great foreign schools.”  – A Widow for One Year, by John Irving

I spent four years trying to unearth my “naked flame of mere genius” while I struggled to write a speculative novel about a group of strangers who become trapped in a small mountain town when an impenetrable dome (not unlike the sort you might place over a slab of cheese) suddenly surrounds them. I reached as deep as I could to find all the relevant experiences I’d known that could place me inside the characters’ minds, but since I’d never been trapped under a giant cheese dome, I just made everything up. My characters came across as flannelgraph approximations of my writer’s intent and the story quickly crumbled around them. After about 40,000 words, I admitted defeat. I killed Sphere of Influence and spent the next year mourning the loss.

During that year, I read lots of great books. And, after a brief season of bitterness toward God for having given someone else the writerly genius I was supposed to receive, I reluctantly agreed to re-visit my childhood dream of becoming a published writer.*

I downscaled my plan: I would become a brilliant short story writer instead of a novelist (a plan that included frequent publication in The New Yorker, of course). I was much more intentional this time around. Before I wrote a single word, I sat down with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and tried to reverse engineer the stories in order to discern what it was about Anderson’s writing that made his short story collection “literary.”

Then I started writing.

Three overwrought, underdeveloped short stories into my new career, I sighed a defeated sigh and began to prepare my heart for the end of all dreams that featured “becoming a writer” as a key plot element. I was frustrated and discouraged. I stared into the mirror searching for evidence that I might be wrong, that I might be a writer after all, but all I could see was that I was no Sherwood Anderson.

Epiphanies are funny things – they appear out of nowhere and look at you like they’ve been there all along. They offer a kind smile instead of the smirk they have every right to wear and wait patiently for you to notice the truth they carry.

This was mine: I was no Sherwood Anderson.

Duh. (This is the only allowable response to recognizing an epiphany. A hand-slap to the forehead is optional.)

To my surprise, admitting I wasn’t a literary genius didn’t destroy my dream of becoming a published writer, it saved my dream from extinction. In time, the epiphany led me to this truth: Either you have the flame of genius or you don’t. But even if you don’t (and most writers don’t), that doesn’t mean you can’t become a successful published author.

After my epiphany, I started writing again, but this time I wrote autobiographically.

The shift from “trying to be a brilliant storyteller” to “telling the stories I knew” was life-changing. I stopped chasing the blue flame and simply started to remember…

…I remembered the day I ran home from school without a care in the world, fully believing that the very next footfall would touch only air. I remembered the jeering taunt of a classmate that pulled me back to earth mere seconds before I defied the law of gravity. I remembered the sadness that fell over my 10-year-old body like a lead blanket and slowed me to a defeated walk…

And as I began to remember this and a thousand other real-life stories, I realized what my writing had been missing: me.

Immediately, I had a deeper connection with my characters. When they cried, I felt the pain in my gut. When they yelled in anger, my blood boiled. When I painted a character into a corner, it was the character himself who would shout directions on how to solve the plotting problem.

What a difference this made. Instead of chasing the wind, I started to feel it caress my skin. Instead of trying to impress with big words, I chose to express with words I already knew. I stopped trying to be Charles Dickens or Sherwood Anderson and started to figure out who Stephen Parolini was.

Though improbable, it is possible my continuing study of writing and my willingness to learn might someday fuel a dormant flame that reveals a hidden genius.

In the meantime, I’m just going to keep writing. Because no one can deny my existence as a writer.

Not even me.

*I actually realized this dream nearly 20 years ago, and between then and now I’ve published a half-dozen non-fiction books, dozens of curriculum titles and hundreds if not thousands of magazine articles. But I’ve revised the original dream. Now it’s to become a published novelist. I’m still working toward that goal.

7 Things that Keep Editors in Business

A long time ago, in a life far, far away, I worked as an assistant manager of a Pizza Hut. The owner of this particular store (a former Pizza Hut corporate big-wig) had hired a man we’ll call “Gary” (since that was his name) to globally manage the stores. Since each store already had its own manager and more than a few assistant managers, I wondered what Gary’s responsibilities entailed. I found out one Friday in the middle of the lunch rush hour. He entered the restaurant as any other customer, waited to be seated, then proceeded to order enough food for a family of six.

Since this was my first experience with Gary, I was puzzled by the fear that marked the faces of my lead cook, the hostess, and every other employee under the red roof. (Even some of the regular customers seemed to cower in his presence.)

I soon learned that Gary’s primary responsibility was delivering surprise inspections. On this particular Friday afternoon, he was troubled by the dents in the Parmesan shaker (ten point deduction); the microscopic tear in the red and white checked table cloth (goodbye five more points); and worst of all, one of the pizzas he ordered was overcooked (there goes the hope of a passing score).

Inspection fail.

At first I was a little peeved at the nit-pickiness of Gary’s complaints. I mean, dents in the Parmesan shaker? And the pizza wasn’t that overcooked. After my fifth surprise inspection, I began to wonder if he kept finding things wrong with the store solely to justify his job. But then one day we scored a 97, much to the delight of the store manager (a man I feared not because he was my boss but because he was a semi-pro kickboxer and carried himself in the store like he was stalking an opponent in the ring).

It was then that I finally understood what Gary was doing: he was teaching us the difference between good and great, illustrating (in his own snarly, self-important fashion) how vigilance and attention to detail can introduce excellence where “good enough” once held sway.

Here’s the clever transition from a post about pizza to a post about editing. (You were way ahead of me, weren’t you?) Yup. I’m Gary. All editors are Gary, though thankfully, most of us don’t look like we’re trying out for the part of Blake in the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross.

So to that end, here’s a list of seven things that keep editors in business. Fix all of these in your novel and we’ll all be out of a job.

Or maybe we’ll find something else that needs attention.

  1. Pet Words and Phrases – These are the words that just keep coming back like the killer that won’t die in a cheesy horror film. You may think “Becky spat the words at him” is perfect for the scene you’re writing, but what you don’t recall is that Becky spat words three pages earlier. So did Louella. And Fred. And in the next chapter, Timmy is going to spit words. With so much spitting going on, your novel is drowning in saliva. Kill the repeat offenders when possible. Please.
  2. Head-hopping – I’m aware there’s an ongoing debate (I prefer to call it a conversation) about the whole POV issue, but my complaint here is very specific. Let’s assume you’re not trying to write from a pure omniscient POV (it might well be the hardest to pull off with excellence). Okay, so you’ve got your four or five main characters and each one is reasonably well defined. Good for you. So why, in the middle of Jason’s scene, does the unnamed baker across the cupcake counter have to interrupt his POV to point out just how indecisive Jason is being? Head-hopping within a scene is confusing. And I think it’s just lazy writing.
  3. [To be added later] – I have a writer friend who can churn out 10,000 words in a day. In order to maintain that pace, she often slips in placeholders such as [descriptive word] when the right words don’t come quick enough or when further research is required. But long before she turns her novel in to her editor, she goes through the manuscript and fills in those blanks. This way, her editor won’t have to wonder what she meant by [large potted plant with spiky leaves]. Now, if you’re collaborating with your editor early in the process, this isn’t such a horrible thing. You can work together to solve the puzzles. But if you’re saying “this is it – this is the final draft” and it’s full of holes…well…fix it first, dear Liza.
  4. The Brady Bunch Syndrome – This may just be my pet peeve, but I’m constantly amazed by how many novels (including many published novels, mind you) end so abruptly. Characters you’ve come to know and love suddenly resolve all their issues and everything is dandy. End of story. It almost feels as if the writer just got tired of writing and said, “well, I’d better end this now.” Give your ending due consideration. If you’re pushing the edge of your word count, don’t automatically cut from the ending. Just write your novel, then go back and trim (most likely from the middle). Allow the ending to breathe. A good story doesn’t stop at the last page. Well-written characters live on.
  5. Perfect Characters – This is a corollary concern to the previous item. Have you ever known anyone without a flaw? I don’t mean have you ever known someone whom you perceived as flawless, I mean have you ever known a perfect person? Me neither. Allow your characters to show their weaknesses – even the ones you want the reader to despise. Give the reader a peek behind the curtain to see at the very least, a hint of their humanity.
  6. Name Dropping – When writing dialogue, it’s not necessary to attribute every spoken sentence to a character by name. Nor is it necessary to write out their full name every time they appear. If we’ve already met Skip Johnson, it’s okay to say “Skip stepped up to the counter to order a Nehi Grape soda.” If you’ve chosen your character names well (if they’re not too similar, for example), the reader won’t be likely to mistake Skip for someone else. Also, think about how people address each other in real life and apply that to your dialogue sequences. Yes, it’s true that written and spoken dialogue have a different pace and flow about them, but if you’ve got too many names flying around the page, it can be unnecessarily distracting for the reader.
  7. Thesaurusitis – Do I need to say more? A thesaurus is a great tool, but when used as a crutch, it can obfuscate the congenital pulchritude of the scribed utterance. Sometimes the first word that comes to mind is perfect. Use it. Unless, you’ve used in a dozen times before. Then see item #1. (Obvious tip: To improve your natural un-thesaurusized vocabulary, read. A lot. Above your grade level.)