“It’s not about having a background that lines up with the characters you’re writing about, I realized. That’s not the responsibility of the fiction writer. Instead, you have the responsibility to be sympathetic—to have empathy. And the responsibility to be knowing – to understand, or at least desire to understand, the people you write about. … [Y]ou have to write something true by at least having a baseline of empathy before you start writing it. …
“Readers only balk at writers depicting people who aren’t like them when it feels like the characters are types. It’s when you’ve somehow failed to make fully nuanced and 3-dimensional characters that people start to say, What right do you have? But when the characters transcend type, no one questions the author’s motives. Characters’ backgrounds, their gender—these things are only aspects of their personality, just as they are for real people. If the writer pulls it off, if they make you see the humanity in the character, that stuff falls away—no matter who you’re writing about.”
— novelist Angela Flournoy in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. by Joe Fassler (2017)
I wrote about the importance of reading like a writer a few months ago, but today I want to suggest that over the next week or two, you should just read because you love it. Read because it feeds your soul and reminds you why you write. Read because you’ve been reading since you were five or six years old and few things connect you to who you really, truly are than a good book. Read not because you want to learn how Elizabeth George handles shifts in POV (masterfully), how Laura Lippman writes the modern noir in Sunburn, or how Ken Follett makes building a cathedral fascinating—although it’s perfectly fine to notice those things, and even to make a few notes for your own WIP. Read to get lost in a book, to forget what time of day it is or where you are. Read to meet new people, eat new food, explore a new community, and find out what happens, as my friend Barbara Ross says in her “cozy covenant.”
I promise, if you take a little extra time during this holiday season to read for pure joy, you’ll return to the WIP invigorated and inspired.
“Given the ways in which race works in this country, and in the West in general, it actually becomes a radical political statement to introduce blackness into the consciousness of the reader without explanation or announcement. In this way, my characters are not measured over or against whiteness, or understood as a reflection of whiteness. They are simply themselves. The hardest thing about writing, I think, is observing properly. But more and more, I think, it’s what makes a piece of writing good.”
—Ayana Mathis, in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed. by Joe Fassler (2017)
My favorite writing blog—it may be the only one I still subscribe to—is a group blog called Writer Unboxed, subtitled “about the craft and business of fiction.” Founded by novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, it’s a group blog with more than thirty regular contributors along with a cast of occasional contributors and guests, offering posts on craft, business, and inspiration. The craft posts are detailed—agent and teacher Don Maass, for example, raises a provocative topic then offers specific questions for you to ask yourself about your WIP. Novelist and teacher David Corbett writes often about character, and I’ve come to value craft posts from Kathryn Craft, Barbara Linn Probst, Barbara O’Neal, Heather Webb, and others. Editor Dave King, co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, often posts snippets from manuscripts he’s worked on, showing his edits and annotating them with his thinking. Editor and novelist Ray Rhamey dissects the opening pages of NY Times best-sellers in his “Flog A Pro” segment. Other posts give a practical look at the business of writing. I was particularly inspired by a Barbara O’Neal post on using collage to better visualize a WIP, and drink in posts on refilling the well and nurturing the creative spirit. Dialogue often erupts in the comments, giving additional suggestions and ideas.
“We’ve all heard the expression ‘one person, one vote’ used to promote the idea that every human being deserves a voice in the political process. Well, I like literature that’s ‘one person, one truth’ – that each person’s experience, no matter how marginal, has the power to tell us something vital about what it means to be human. It’s true that, in many ways, fiction has not been universal: It’s probably been a middle-class form, and there are definitely forgotten people whose lives have not been chronicled. I don’t think writers should be self-congratulatory. But one of the ideological things that the novel form helped accomplish was to expand literature’s focus. The novel tends to show us that the lives of ‘ordinary people’ are as full of drama, emotion, and even political significance as those of the greats.”
—novelist Tom Perotta in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed by Joe Fassler (2017)
“—A caller reported a woman tried to steal from a local grocery store and was allegedly driving a small red pickup. Employees reportedly recovered the cart before she could get away with the groceries.
“—A woman who allegedly attempted to rob a local grocery store called to request access to her personal belongings that she left behind. In her rush to escape with the cart full of goods, she had reportedly left her purse behind.”
Something tells me that when employees discovered the purse, they called the sheriff—and that this isn’t going to work out quite the way she expected.
“In almost every major literature there are works that make you love being human, and make you love and revere the humanity of other people. That is the great potential of any art. Viewed this way, our language—and especially literature, that special, potent case—has incredible power. “Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing that you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected. It’s like wrestling with the angel: On the one hand you feel the constraints of what can be said, but on the other hand you feel the infinite potential. There’s nothing more interesting than language and the problem of trying to bend it to your will, which you can never quite do. You can only find what it contains, which is always a surprise.”
— Marilynne Robinson, in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, ed by Joe Fassler (2017)
I’m a big fan of literary agent and teacher Donald Maass. I’ve attended both his Break-out Novel Intensive (BONI) and his BONI Graduate Retreat, intensive seminars where 30 writers gather for a week of classes with Don, Lorin Oberwenger, and other instructors. When I attended BONI in Hood River, Oregon in April 2012, I had a 3-book contract with Berkley for the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. The first manuscript was due August 1; I had about 60% of a first draft and felt pretty good about it. I went home and started over.
And Death al Dente won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel.
Each of Maass’s books on writing is filled with insight, easy-to-grasp analysis, and detailed exercises. I recommend them all, but particularly the most recent, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface (Writer’s Digest Books, 2016). We read in large part for an emotional experience, and Maass’s book shows us how to evoke that on the page for our readers. Easy to say, difficult to do, but so much easier with a master teacher.