“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” -Madeleine L’Engle

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” -J. D. Salinger

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” -Toni Morrison

“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” -Lloyd Alexander

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” -William Faulkner

“One writes such a story [The Lord of the Rings] not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. No doubt there is much personal selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mold is evidently made largely of linguistic matter.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

“I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten, –happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another.” – Brenda Ueland

“Follow the path of your aroused thought, and you will soon meet this infernal inscription: There is nothing so beautiful as that which does not exist.” – Paul Valer

“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways of keeping readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell students to make their characters want something, even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

“Occasionally, there arises a writing situation where you see an alternative to what you are doing, a mad, wild gamble of a way for handling something, which may leave you looking stupid, ridiculous or brilliant -you just don’t know which. You can play it safe there, too, and proceed along the route you’d mapped out for yourself. Or you can trust your personal demon who delivered that crazy idea in the first place.Trust your demon.” – Roger Zelazny

Neil Gaiman’s Essay “All Books Have Genders”

Books have sexes; or to be more precise, books have genders. They do in my head, anyway. Or at least, the ones that I write do. And these are genders that have something, but not everything, to do with the gender of the main character of the story.

When I wrote the ten volumes of Sandman, I tended to alternate between what I thought of as male storylines, such as the first story, collected under the title Preludes and Nocturnes, or the fourth book, Season of Mists; and more female stories, like Game of You, or Brief Lives.

The novels are a slightly different matter. Neverwhere is a Boy’s Own Adventure (Narnia on the Northern Line, as someone once described it), with an everyman hero, and the women in it tended to occupy equally stock roles, such as the Dreadful Fiancee, the Princess in Peril, the Kick-Ass Female Warrior, the Seductive Vamp. Each role is, I hope, taken and twisted 45% from skew, but they are stock characters nonetheless.

Stardust, on the other hand, is a girl’s book, even though it also has an everyman hero, young Tristran Thorne, not to mention seven Lords bent on assassinating each other. That may partly be because once Yvaine came on stage, she rapidly became the most interesting thing there, and it may also be because the relationships between the women – the Witch Queen, Yvaine, Victoria Forester, the Lady Una and even Ditchwater Sal, were so much more complex and shaded than the relationships (what there was of them) between the boys.

The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish is a boy’s book. Coraline (which will be released in May 2002) is a girl’s book.

The first thing I knew when I started American Gods – even before I started it – was that I was finished with C.S. Lewis’s dictum that to write about how odd things affect odd people was an oddity too much, and that Gulliver’s Travels worked because Gulliver was normal, just as Alice in Wonderland would not have worked if Alice had been an extraordinary girl (which, now I come to think of it, is an odd thing to say, because if there’s one strange character in literature, it’s Alice). In Sandman I’d enjoyed writing about people who belonged in places on the other side of the looking glass, from the Dreamlord himself to such skewed luminaries as the Emperor of the United States.

Not, I should say, that I had much say in what American Gods was going to be. It had its own opinions.

Novels accrete.

American Gods began long before I knew I was going to be writing a novel called American Gods. It began in May 1997, with an idea that I couldn’t get out of my head. I’d find myself thinking about it at night in bed before I’d go to sleep, as if I were watching a movie clip in my head. Each night I’d see another couple of minutes of the story.

In June 1997, I wrote the following on my battered Atari palmtop:

A guy winds up as a bodyguard for a magician. The magician is an over-the-top type. He offers the guy the job meeting him on a plane – sitting next to him.

Chain of events to get there involving missed flights, cancellations, unexpected bounce up to first class, and the guy sitting next to him introduces himself and offers him a job.

His life has just fallen apart anyway. He says yes.

Which is pretty much the beginning of the book. And all I knew at the time was it was the beginning of something. I hadn’t a clue what kind of something. Movie? TV series? Short story?

I don’t know any creators of fictions who start writing with nothing but a blank page. (They may exist. I just haven’t met any.) Mostly you have something. An image, or a character. And mostly you also have either a beginning, a middle or an end. Middles are good to have, because by the time you reach the middle you have a pretty good head of steam up; and ends are great. If you know how it ends, you can just start somewhere, aim, and begin to write (and, if you’re lucky, it may even end where you were hoping to go).

There may be writers who have beginnings, middles and ends before they sit down to write. I am rarely of their number.

So there I was, four years ago, with only a beginning. And you need more than a beginning if you’re going to start a book. If all you have is a beginning, then once you’ve written that beginning, you have nowhere to go.

A year later, I had a story in my head about these people. I tried writing it: the character I’d thought of as a magician (although, I had already decided, he wasn’t a magician at all) now seemed to be called Wednesday. I wasn’t sure what the other guy’s name was, the bodyguard, so I called him Ryder, but that wasn’t quite right. I had a short story in mind about those two and some murders that occur in a small Midwestern town called Silverside. I wrote a page and gave up, mainly because they really didn’t seem to come the town together.

There was a dream I woke up from, somewhere back then, sweating and confused, about a dead wife. It seemed to belong to the story, and I filed it away.

Some months later, in September 1998, I tried writing that story again, as a first person narrative, sending the guy I’d called Ryder (who I tried calling Ben Kobold this time, but that sent out quite the wrong set of signals) to the town (which I’d called Shelby, because Silverside seemed too exotic) on his own. I covered about ten pages, and then stopped. I still wasn’t comfortable with it.

By that point, I was coming to the conclusion that the story I wanted to tell in that particular little lakeside town … hmm, I thought somewhere in there, Lakeside, that’s what it’s called, a solid, generic name for a town … was too much a part of the novel to be written in isolation from it. And I had a novel by then. I’d had it for several months.

Back in July 1998 I had gone to Iceland, on the way to Norway and Finland. It may have been the distance from America, or it may have been the lack of sleep involved in a trip to the land of the midnight sun, but suddenly, somewhere in Reykjavik the novel came into focus. Not the story of it – I still had nothing more than the meeting on the plane and a fragment of plot in a town by a lake – but for the first time I knew what it was about. I had a direction. I wrote a letter to my publisher telling them that my next book wouldn’t be a historical fantasy set in restoration London after all, but a contemporary American phantasmagoria. Tentatively, I suggestedAmerican Gods as a working title for it.

I kept naming my protagonist: There’s a magic to names, after all. I knew his name was descriptive. I tried calling him Lazy, but he didn’t seem to like that, and I called him Jack and he didn’t like that any better. I took to trying every name I ran into on him for size, and he looked back at me from somewhere in my head unimpressed every time. It was like trying to name Rumpelstiltskin.

He finally got his name from an Elvis Costello song (it’s on Bespoke SongsLost DogsDetours and Rendezvous). It’s performed by Was (Not Was) and is the story of two men named Shadow and Jimmy. I thought about it, tried it on for size…

…and Shadow stretched uncomfortably on his prison cot, and glanced across at the Wild Birds of North America wall calendar, with the days he’d been inside crossed off and he counted the days until he got out. 

And once I had a name, I was ready to begin.

I wrote Chapter One around December 1998. I was still trying to write it in the first person, and it wasn’t comfortable with that. Shadow was too damn private a person, and he didn’t let much out, which is hard enough in a third-person narrative and really hard in a first person-narrative. I began chapter two in June 1999, on the train home from the San Diego comics convention (it’s a three day train journey. You can get a lot of writing done there.)

The book had begun. I wasn’t sure what I was going to call it, but then the publishers started sending me mock-ups of the book’s cover, and it said American Gods in big letters in the top, and I realised that my working title had become the title.

I kept writing, fascinated. I felt, on the good days, more like the first reader than the writer, something I’d rarely felt since Sandman days. Neither Shadow nor Wednesday were, in any way, everyman figures. They were uniquely themselves, sometimes infuriatingly so. Odd people, perfectly suited for the odd events they would be encountering.

The book had a gender now, and it was most definitely male.

I wonder now, looking back, if the short stories in American Gods were a reaction to that. There are maybe half a dozen of them scattered through the book, and all (but one) of them are most definitely female in my head (even the one about the Omani trinket salesman and the taxi driver). That may have been it. I don’t know. I do know that there were things about America and about its history that it seemed easier to say by showing rather than telling; so we follow several people to America, from a Siberian Shaman 16,000 years ago, to a Georgian pickpocket two hundred years ago, and, from each of them, we learn things.

And after the short stories were done, I was still writing. And writing. And continuing to write. The book turned out to be twice as long as I had expected. The plot I thought I was writing twisted and snaked and I slowly realised it wasn’t the plot at all. I wrote the book and wrote the book, putting one word after another, until there were close to 200,000 of them.

And one day I looked up, and it was January 2001, and I was sitting in an ancient and empty house in Ireland with a peat fire making no impression at all on the stark cold of the room. I saved the document on the computer, and I realised I’d finished writing a book.

I wondered what I’d learned, and found myself remembering something Gene Wolfe had told me, six months earlier. “You never learn how to write a novel,” he said. “You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.”

Spoken Word Poetry

“If I was a cow (moo)

If I was a cow being led to the slaughterhouse (moo?)

I would try to kiss you one last time

Before my lips were mulched into wieners.”

-Shane Koyczan

This guy’s weird. He’s got a neck beard. I first heard his poetry–spoken word poetry at all, actually–during the opening ceremony for the Vancouver Olympics. After that, it was Anis Mojgani at a TWLOHA event, telling the fat girls and the ones amendments do not stand up for and the people who go on vacations alone: to shake the dust.

From there, it was Sarah Kay. The first I heard was a little number called “Love Letter From a Toothbrush to a Bike Tire.” Full of metaphors and figures of speech, adorable in its accusations.

“You were full of hot air.”

“They said you would tread all over me.”

But it’s not even her best.

Look up “B,” the version on TedTalks.

Look up “Postcards,” “Brother,” and “Peacocks.”

And, once you’ve fallen sufficiently in love, check out her stuff with Phil Kaye.

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Book Review: Veronica Roth’s “Divergent”

At Target, they have these signs. A popular book on the left, then a cardboard, “Ooh, you liked this book? Try this one!!” with an arrow pointing to the right. The first time I saw Divergent, it was sitting to the right side of Meyers’ The Hunger Games.  I assumed it was just tag-along dystopian rubbish. Poorly written first-person fiction that would sell because that’s what’s selling.

 

I have never been more wrong.

 

The accolades speak for themselves: New York Times bestseller. Amazon.com Best Books of the Year. ABC New Voices Pick. Chapters/Indigo Top Teen Summer Read. Publishers Weekly Best Book. School Library Journal Best Book. Ad nauseam. This is more than just hype.

 

This girl knows what she’s doing—and she does it masterfully. I tend to shy away from first-person narratives, expecting to be dragged along by a hopelessly flawed character; wanting to stab my eyes with butter knives (Still too soon?) each time they make an obvious mistake. But the way Roth builds Beatrice Prior as a narrator, giving her warring amounts of fear and recklessness, allows for enough volatility to keep her from being predictable.

 

The funny thing about this dystopia Roth has created is that it is supposed to be a utopia. The city—futuristic Chicago—divides its citizens into five factions, each based on personality traits. When each citizen reaches the age of 16, they get to choose which faction they will embrace and live as a part of for the rest of their life. It’s supposed to diffuse all tension, all conflict—but humans are, by nature, flawed. Such a society can never last. When Beatrice decides to split away from the faction she has grown up in, troubles are stirred up, and the waves just grow from there.

 

While Beatrice is, above all, the guiding perspective through the story, Roth keeps her in balance with a myriad of other characters. Surprising for a YA novel, both Beatrice’s parents are involved, influencing her actions even after her choice to leave them. The love interest, as well, is balanced with the furtherance of plot: any interaction not only provides a bit of love interest for our protagonist, but also serves to propel the story and develops characters.

 

A bit unusual in its approach, Roth has created a very intriguing perspective on altruism, fear, and fighting in spite of it. 

“Reading and weeping opens the door to one’s heart, but writing and weeping opens the window to one’s soul.”- M. K. Simmons

“Editors also know that the people who are really readers want to read. They hunger to read. They will forgive a vast number of clumsinesses and scamped work of every sort if the author will delight them just enough to keep them able to continue.” – William Sloane

“The main question to a novel is – did it amuse? were you surprised at dinner coming so soon? did you mistake eleven for ten? were you too late to dress? and did you sit up beyond the usual hour? If a novel produces these effects, it is good; if it does not – story, language, love, scandal itself cannot save it. It is only meant to please; and it must do that or it does nothing.” – Sydney Smith

“Like everyone else, I am going to die. But the words–the words live on for as long as there are readers to see them, audiences to hear them. It is immortality by proxy. It is not really a bad deal, all things considered.” – J. Michael Straczynski

“No tale is so good…but can be spoilt in the telling.” – Terence, 160 BC

Writing the First Novel, a lecture by Richard Setlowe

AMBITION

Two types: 1. Wants to build a better mousetrap. 2. Wants the world to beat a path to their door. If you’re the latter, listen no longer–I have nothing to impart to you. These lessons are for building better mousetraps: attracting and entrapping the reader.

MYTH OF WRITING THE FIRST NOVEL

Secret fantasy many of us have: Writing the Great American First Novel.

We want to write 300-400 pages of brutally honest prose in which we are only thinly disguised as the main character. We won’t only triumph in ways we only wished we could in real life, but also get revenge for the thinly-disguised parents, exes, bosses, who never really saw our potential. We’ll send the manuscript to NY, who will hold us in suspense for a few weeks before giving us a six-figure advance. The book will soar to the best-seller list, and we will be lionized asa glamorous writer and make the cover of People.

Of course, the book will be sold to the movies, and Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, or Nicholas Cage will play the thinly-disguised us, having a love affair with several fantasy figures before, in the second novel, settling down with a soul mate and intellectual equal.

Writing students approach novel writing with these exaggerated expectations and nurture this fantasy.

REALITY OF WRITING THE FIRST NOVEL

“Writing is a craft, as well as an art, and that craft takes time to develop. Forget genius, forget inspiration. It takes time measured not in weeks or months, but in years. Hemingway said, ‘Write a million words.’ He wasn’t kidding.” -Dennis Palumbo

You’re not going to publish your first draft. Or your second. Or your third, or fourth probably. I’m not saying this to discourage you, but to free you. Be free to experiment, to explore blind alleys, To write and be bad. To be dissatisfied with your writing, and to keep writing.

So write a million words. Most first novels run from 100,000 to 200,000 words. Do the math.

“I have never felt like I was creating anything. For me, writing is like walking through a desert and all at once, poking through the hardpan, I see the top of a chimney. I know there’s a house under there, and I;m pretty sure that I can fig it up if I want. That’s how I feel. It’s like the stories are already there. What they pay me for is the leap of faith that says: “If I sit down and do this, everything will come out okay.” -Stephen King

WINNING THE FIRST NOVEL

Some people say you should not start writing until you know exactly where you are going. Stephen King argues otherwise, as do I. Publishers probably propagated this idea, and other non-writers who like to know what they’re paying their writers to write before they pay them. An outline is really more like a business proposal. It’s not a long-used system, but it’s not the best one. It’s logical, yes, but the trouble is, novels aren’t written by logic. “They emerge from some strange inspiration, a subconscious alchemy that transmutes our experiences and imaginings into a walking dreamlike narrative.” We really have to dig into our subconscious for ideas–that’s the wellspring of them. So where do we start?

WHERE TO START WRITING

Write the first major confrontation, action, dramatic event, etc. that comes to mind. That’s it. Just a scene of dialogue, action, a description, meditation, stream of consciousness, as you please. It doesn’t matter if it’s not the beginning–it could be the climax. I started writing at what became Chapter 23 of one of my novel. The thing is, you keep writing until the scene plays out. It’s the “chimney poking through the hardpan.” There’s already energy and tension there. By writing, you’re releasing creative energy. You can continue writing from there, until you get to the end, or else go back and fill in what needs to lead up to these scenes. It’s the seed from which your novel will grow. You don’t have to have the entire story. It’ll come.

SCRIBBLING

Some work at a computer. I’ll take notes and write articles directly on the computer, but for fiction, I prefer scribbling with Bic ballpoint pen in drug store marble-bound composition notebooks. Writing both sides, I filled four of them. The fifth and most of a sixth were filled with random notes, research, newspaper clippings, notes that were vaguely related. Once I’d scribbled a good hunk, a chapter or two, I typed it up on my computer, making each chapter a separate file. Another novelist said he spent nearly a year just taking notes and thinking, writing in longhand or on an old-fashioned typewriter before actually writing the novel.

It’s not eccentric, it’s just getting the story to flow. That way, there’s less critical thinking when the time comes to write a full first draft. Keep scribbling. You don’t have to know the End, Act Three, Resolution, or any specific part.

So if you’re having trouble getting started, just sit down and start scribbling the first thoughts that come into your head. Words, phrases, doodles, sentences, descriptions, lines of conversation, and pretty soon you’ll be forming scenes, and eventually THE STORY.

“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.” -Kurt Vonnegut