As I wrote a few weeks ago, The Fiction Writer’s Handbook by writer and master teacher Shelly Lowenkopf will be published in November. As the publisher, I remain in awe of Lowenkopf’s approach to offering the tools and concepts that great fiction writers use.
Yes, the step-by-step methods that some other books use work for a number of people. I remain a fan of Janet Buroway’s Writing Fiction, which is used in a many writing programs. A few eclectic yet inspirational books on writing that I adore include Bird by Bird by Anne Lamot, Steering the Craft by ursula le guin, and Writing in General and the Short Story in particular by L. Rust Hills. This book may become a standard.
What Lowenkopf has done is he’s taken his lifetime or reading and teaching and infused each entry with practical knowledge and experience. Here, I thought I’d throw out more of his entries to give you a flavor. This time I’ll start with the writer and the reader, the two most important components to the craft.
The following entries are ordered alphabetically in the book, but the idea of the book is to read where whimsy or desire takes you. There is a preface for absolute beginners to give new writers an idea of which entries to consider, but more seasoned writers will have their own needs.
At this point in your writing career, you’ve developed a measure of narrative and dramatic skills, even produced a modest body of novels or short stories. In all probability, you’ve experienced extraordinary, idiosyncratic pleasures, and known severe disappointments. You understand loss. Somewhere along the path of your decision to become a writer, you read one or more books or stories by other writers and were so taken by them that your decision to become a writer was formed.
How unfortunate for you that these same writers and their work made writing seem so simple that you believed writing was easy.
Only one way out now: Master your craft, then keep reaching.
Individual, unknown to the writer, who will read and react to the writer's work; person known to the writer who will read the writer's work; individual who knows the writer and is also a writer, who will read the writer's work; critic or individual who considers himself as a critic, who will read the writer's work; person who has some issue with the writer's ethnicity, lifestyle, religion or lack thereof, who will nevertheless read the writer's work; person in search of artistic and emotional insights, who will read the writer's work; individual who will deliberately or innocently misconstrue the writer's work; person who will read the writer's work hoping to evolve her own writing; person who will read the writer's work hoping to find mistakes the writer has made; individual who is convinced he can concoct and render better stories than the writer; individual who is willing to experience transformative moments while reading the writer's work; person who had never considered looking at some person, place, thing, or condition until she saw it portrayed in the writer's work; person who is seeking a miracle, who has come to the writer’s words to find it; individual the writer must simultaneously forget entirely and keep entirely in mind.
The writer/reader relationship is complex, somewhat of a piece with exchanging personal secrets with a fellow passenger on a trip, done with the knowledge of the separate and remote lives each party lives, of the unlikely prospect of ever meeting again. And yet. Some writers have a following; some readers anxiously await a new work from a writer.
Readers who admire particular writers often feel as though the writer knows them personally, is writing directly to them. Yet the reader/writer relationship is a partnership of selfishness. Under optimal circumstances, each party profits enormously. The path to achieving that partnership is filled with distraction, frustration, and the underlying subtext that each contact may be the last, a subtext that tempts the writer to want to say more and the reader to ask more.
One way to approach the relationship begins with the writer, who produces the first draft as though it were a deeply held secret, brought out into the daylight in a moment of recklessness. In subsequent drafts, the writer adds relevant details to the extent that he now feels the secret is out of the darkness and is visible for what it is. At this point the writer becomes increasingly more aware of the reader, simultaneously adding such details as he believes the reader may require, removing such details he believes the reader will already know or will not need to know.
The equation of the Reader/Writer relationship is one of shared secrets: the writer has an idea what the reader wants, then proceeds to offer it.
Hint: Consider the early draft stage of a letter to someone you know or wish you knew. Go so far as to caption the manuscript as you would a letter, “Dear_____.” In no sense should the material be thought of as going to an anonymous reader—there is already too much anonymity. If you can’t find an ideal person to whom you’d address your “letter,” try addressing it to yourself.
Wile E. Coyote
A scruffy, scheming, cartoon character who, on appearances and behavior, would go unnoticed among the individuals in a Dostoevsky novel. Coyote lives in the butte- and mesa-littered American Southwest. On closer consideration, the Coyote and the desert are as right for one another as Dostoevsky’s characters are right for the press and scurry of the urban landscape they inhabit.
The Coyote has one essential goal: to capture and devour Roadrunner, a bird of the cuckoo family who haunts the hardscrabble terrain of the Southwest. He, of course, will never succeed in his quest. Not only is Roadrunner a fast, shrewd cookie and worthy opponent, but because of the simple dramatic principle that were Coyote to realize his goal, there would no longer be a story. Doomed to a series of near misses and frustrations in his attempts to outsmart Roadrunner, Coyote’s constant companion is humiliation. We watch him with fascination and admiration at the way he shrugs off his last humbling defeat, then sets forth again.
A literary descendant of Joel Chandler Harris' iconic B'rer Fox, the Coyote is a candidate for beatification and ultimate sainthood as the patron saint of characters. He has a singular, ongoing goal that occupies him every moment he is on stage. His devices and stratagems have the complexity born of mounting desperation. He is so intent on bringing The Roadrunner to ground that he frequently finds himself in mid-air, his paws cycling in wild attempts to gain some footing--but it is too late; he has only the downward fall to disaster.
He is, as Mark Twain wrote of the generic coyote, “a living, breathing allegory of want. He is always hungry.” The Coyote frequently obtains materials and devices from The Acme Company, a mail-order distributor. These items, in their ludicrous way, add to the Coyote’s plight; they are technology gone mad. They are particularly out of place here on the mesas and buttes. After a time, we no longer question the Coyote’s use of such absurd contraptions, recognizing them as growing signs of his desperation. These extreme remedies plus the Coyote’s own hunger-driven ingenuity comprise his tool kit.
The dramatic center of The Coyote is in his single-minded pursuit of his agenda, making him worth concentrating on while creating any front-rank character. As you create characters or encounter them in your reading, consider comparison points between The Coyote and Captain Ahab or, for that matter, the other notable Herman Melville creation, Bartleby the Scrivener. Jay Gatz, better known to us as The Great Gatsby, is Wile E. Coyote incarnate. You don’t think so? Look what Gatsby did in pursuit of Daisy. So is that other morose character from Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Dick Diver.
Look closely and you will see traces of the Coyote in such historical forerunners as Jane Eyre and Becky Sharp. Now that you think of it, doesn’t Inspector Javert of Les Miserables bear resemblance? Shakespeare, too, had his own pre-coyote characters in the likes of Sir John Falstaff and Coriolanus. Not to forget Don Quixote.
Wile E. Coyote is the antithesis of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, instead the Natty Bumpo/Deerslayer of noir fiction, leading us away from the happy and manufactured endings of the early days of the novel and into the still unexplored dark sides of reality and humanity Huck Finn set after when he lit out for the territory ahead.
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