Writerly Thoughts

As a writer, I need a place to share my writerly thoughts. This is where I get to explore what makes writing effective or interesting, as well as lay out my general philosophy on writing.

Love and Fear and Character

When we think of what creates a good character, we, of course, need to get into motivations. Vonnegut famously said in his eight points on writing, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” But is want everything? What is it that makes a character feel real?

Take a hint, bub! So, I used to say that characters had three basic motivations: love, hate, and fear. But in a discussion I had recently, the obvious pointed out to me that you cannot hate something unless you fear it. This is why, I assume, people do not hate the Buffalo Bills.

So, point made. Seems simple enough, but what of this fear thing? When we thing of character motivations, can’t they be boiled down so simply? As in, if a character must choose which road to turn down, left or right, he must consider what it is he is hoping to find down that road and what it is that he is terrified of finding. This happens in every story. It’s about risk.

Zzzzzz … Capitalism (bear with me) is about risk aversion and cost-benefit analyses. True capitalism, that is. It’s about investors looking for gains while mitigating risk all the while. But the same can be said of conflict and fiction. Think about it. In Jane Eyre, she makes a calculated risk to allow Rochester in her life romantically despite the fact that she’s been hurt by nearly every other person she ever got close to. The true conflict is about her overcoming her fear to get what she wants. But then, when the stakes get higher, when she finds out that Rochester is married and with that, the risk of public humiliation and shaming enters, her fear wins. The thing about Jane Eyre is that she does not triumph in the story. She fails to overcome in the end, and it is only when that risk is removed that she can rejoin her blinded and disfigured boyfriend.

You blog like the English cook. I don’t know why I have this tendency to boil things down. And yes, this point seems obvious as I write it, but it’s an interesting way to think about conflict, that it’s all internal and that it’s all about want overcoming fear.

So, the question cannot be just as simple as “What does the character want?” but “What does the character want, and what fears is he willing to face to get it.” I know, for me, when I write, I often think about what the character wants, but I rarely note exactly what it is a character fears.

Do you?

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What is the Writer’s Responsibility?

So, we as “literary” writers don’t often like the idea of pandering to the audience. It’s the sort of “The text will find its audience” idea. Still, does the writer have any responsibilities to the reader? And if so, what?

Charmed, I’m sure. In talking to a writer friend of mine, the word “charm” or “charming” came up a great deal. Is it the responsibility of the author to charm the reader? To entrance them? To pull them into your created universe without them knowing it?

But what does it mean to charm? I suppose there are a number of ways, but it seems to me that humor and wit are the easiest methods. Voice, in this case, feels very important for drawing in the audience … but I think it’s more than that.

Shut up, you pretentious windbag! I know, for me, I find a pretentious voice extremely annoying. It’s so often intellectual posturing, and posturing must by its very nature be disingenuous. It’s not just pretentious, but it’s sometimes with strange choices. For example, when American writers who have always lived in America refer to the TV as the “tele” or an apartment as a “flat” or instead of “taking a vacation,” a writer says “goes on holiday.”

This sort of posturing, this awareness of how the author looks in the eyes of the reader (as opposed to being an invisible and deistic creator), grates on me. The minute I say, “Yes, yes, I’m very impressed,” is when I put down the book. When I am impressed with the writer and the attention-grabbing sentences or lines, I am pulled from that universe I want so desperately to fall into, and I am incapable (or struggle with) enjoying or appreciating the content.

I am very aware that you are writing. Ok, so, I am getting off track some, but the point is, what do we owe the reader? Maybe more pointedly, what should we give the reader? In talking with other writers of late, I’ve come to the conclusion that the great spoonful of sugar, the great lubricant for content, for philosophies, for ideas, is humility. This struck me when we talked about it because I had a friend of mine recently say of my writing, “it’s for smart readers,” and that caught me off guard.

I don’t think it’s because I drop ten-cent words at every chance or write whole books without the letter “e” or write lines in iambic pentameter. I think what he was (perhaps unwittingly) saying to me was that I did not approach stories with enough humility. And when I think of the great writers I admire, perhaps the thickest chain that ties them together is humility, simplicity, and earnestness in the writing.

I earnestly want you to get off the internet. The idea of “a text will find its audience” or that we oughtn’t “pander” to audiences with short-attention spans is a pretty arrogant way of looking at the world. It’s easy to get caught up in our own artistic communities, like some strange church where we pat each other on the back and congratulate each other for how advanced, how empathetic, how deep we all are.

I dunno. I think I need to think more about this humility thing. I want to be that, but I haven’t quite figured out how to do it … suggestions?

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Public Reading at the Munch

Today marks my glorious return to the world of blogging. Are you not entertained? I update my fan(s) on what I’ve been doing, and have a recording of my most recent public reading to listen to … if you’re brave enough.

Adam Nannini Reading at the Munch

Ugh … he’s back. Hey, ladies and germs. Yes. It’s true. Rumors of my demise (wishful thinking) are greatly exaggerated. Still, I’m sorry I’ve been so vacant as it concerns my blog. I will work to improve my frequency.

Last you heard, I was about 23,000 words into my novel draft. I got up to about 40,000 words. I did not finish, but I am about to start over. I liked it, though. We’ll see where this goes.

I didn’t think you knew how to read. Anyway, below is a recording of my most recent public reading. It was as part of the Munch Reading Series, and I read a silly little piece called “Mr. Godzilla Goes to Washington.” It was just a piece I wrote in the midst of working on my thesis. I needed to do something silly, something fun. And this was it.

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Novel-Writing, 23,000 Words In

The process of novel-writing is a daunting one, and as I make headway through my first successful novel attempt (hopefully), I’d like to keep my fan(s) updated as to my progress and my thinking.

My guess? Both. Well, I’ve been writing pretty steady for a couple weeks, and I am near half of my 50,000 word goal this summer. The story is coming out quick and relatively easily, but as someone who thinks like a short-story writer, it’s difficult to know how it’ll all turn out. Thus far, it feels a little disconnected and strange since I let some plot strings dangle, waiting to be tied up later in the story (or to trip the main character along the way).

I’ve been having fun writing my main character, who is a rather disturbed man, and I have created a progression for him from just a little bit of a weirdo to much much worse. I don’t know if it’s believable, though. We shall see. His character’s progression has been exciting, though, so I’m happy about that.

When will your character progression begin? Yawn. One of the big things that is getting me that doesn’t typically get to me while I’m writing short stories is that it is a very rough draft. Now, typically, when I’m writing a story, I just get it out there, as referenced by this 2012 short movie in which I play myself.

But yeah, this time, I am nervous to have such a mess in so many pages. Scary stuff. I know this will take multiple draft and revisions, and this isn’t something to worry about now, but with long works, everything seems to get magnified. If I screw up a ten-page story, no big deal. But if I screw up a 200-page novel … eugh. Still, doesn’t do much good to dwell on it.

Are you done? Well, so that is my half-way update to my fan(s). The story still has a lot of momentum, and in fact, the momentum and action are building up. It’s a difficult story to control, but if I can pull it off, I think it’ll be an interesting one.

There. You are updated.

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Novel Writing, Day 1

Today, I annoy my “fan(s)” by explaining to them what is going on in my newest writing project, a novel. I keep them updated so that when it comes out and becomes famous, I can point at them and say, “Told you so!”

Very mature. So, a couple of weeks ago, I told you that I was getting ready to start a novel. I told you how I’ve struggled with this form in the past and how I’m nervous to start again.

But today, I started. I’m planning on writing 1500 words a day until it is drafted (I wrote 1600+ today), so we’ll see how that goes. The project is interesting because this is the first time I’ve written a novel infused with humor and absurdity (tools I’ve recently added to my stories). I think I have a pretty exciting and compelling premise, but I figure if it can’t sustain me writing it, I doubt readers will be riveted.

Yeah, alright Steinbeck. Writing has been a bit of an adventure for me of late. I’m enjoying it like I haven’t in years because I’ve given up on impressing people (not a writerly virtue, I think) and begun to focus on entertaining people. That isn’t to say that I have nothing to say, that I’m Michael Baying my writing (BOOBSPLOSIONS!), but that, at the end of the day, writers are here to entertain people. We’re here to create dreams, realities, escapes, and, perhaps most importantly, arguments through story.

Writing the novel fast comes from a mentor who suggested I get the draft out quick, so I am essentially nanowrimoing this bad boy. We often think of writers spending ten years or something on a novel, but perhaps most of that is in revising. I dunno. It’s interesting how each writer has a different approach that works for them, and I know, for me at least, writing with momentum is the way to go.

More like momen-dumb! The most interesting, and difficult, part of this project is the main character. He’s unlikable. He’s a killer. He’s disturbing. And I don’t particularly want to make him identifiable, which may be a mistake. We shall see. I’m hoping that tempering the story with humor and absurdity will make it more readable, but the entire premise is based on the fact that when something is horrible, people don’t look away. In fact, they rubberneck. They can’t help but look. It’s the voyeur in us. Maybe that premise is flawed. It remains to be seen.

Wrap it up, Tolstoy. Anyway, I plan on keeping all my fan(s) updated as to my progress. It’s quite an adventure.

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My Current Writing Project: A Novel

This summer, I am planning to undertake a rather difficult venture … writing a novel. I’ve got a plan for it (loosely), and I’ll be sure to keep my reader(s) apprised of its progress.

Wait, you’re still here? Yes, antagonistic self, I am still here, though I recognize that it has been a while since I’ve posted anything. Did you miss me?

No.

Fair enough.

So, I have tried on a number of occasions (mainly in Novembers {nanowrimo!}) to write a novel, but I have always failed. Short stories are easy for me to churn out, but there’s something about the novel form that always confounds me.

I think it has to do with the idea of the sustained conflict. Typically, in short stories, I get to conflict quick, and I try my best to be fast-paced and concise. When I have tried to write novels, I typically start fast, but I run out of steam somewhere between 50 and 100 pages. By then, it’s just an exercise of “and then this happened, and then this happened ….”

Is that clip art? This time, I mean to succeed, and I think I may. I will have more guidance with this project, and I won’t be pushing myself with arbitrary deadlines like nanowrimo prescribes. Still, I will be pushing myself.

My goal with this novel is to create a work that is accessible to your Joe Sixpack type of person, and yet, have it be interesting to a more advanced reader (AWP types can go suck an egg {I didn’t mean that AWP types, it’s just that I think so much of your preferred nose-in-the-air work is … terrible … no offense}).

Yawn. Anyway, so I’ll try to keep all of you, my reader(s), updated as to how the project is going. It should be fun and difficult.

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Goodbye, Gabo, old friend

Today, one of my favorite writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away. He greatly influenced my writing, my understanding of literature, and today, I feel like I’ve lost a friend.

We are friends … It’s a funny thing, writers. I mean, I feel like I get to know them, to understand how they think, to see what they see, and to understand what they loved, hated, and feared most in the world. In any other context, I would call that person my friend.

We’ve all had it where we lost one of our favorite writers. Most of my favorites are dead now. I had a dream of meeting Gabo (though I know this is kind of ridiculous), or at least, I hoped that somehow I could tell him how important he is to me. His short stories speak the most to me, stories like “Artificial Roses,” “There are no thieves in this town,” of course, “A very old man with enormous wings,” and so many more. His collections like Big Mama’s Funeral are weird, yet exciting, and the stories seem to find a way to tie together.

Influence, you say? I don’t see it. I think the very biggest thing that Garcia Marquez gave me was the license, the opportunity, to add wonder and the surreal to my work. I feel like he proved to me that sometimes the bizarre can speak more to real human emotions than straight realism.

And of course, that makes sense. There comes a place in the lives of characters, an emotional breaking point. They are emotions that cannot be said. Our poor and limited language tools aren’t sufficient, and they need to be expressed in a different way. Garcia Marquez’s use of magic and wonder in an oppressed and impoverished world, a world dominated by colonialism … somehow, it seems like it would be inappropriate, but it works. It’s dirty, it’s grimy, the world is so earthy, I believe it, and so, when he throws an angel onto the scene or he has characters that live forever or whatever he chooses to do, I don’t flinch. I jump on board because he has caught me in his world.

Not just Magical Realism. And that’s one of the things about Garcia Marquez. It wasn’t all magical realism. That’s the biggest thing he’s known for, but the fact is, the man could write compelling, believable, and flawed characters. And he had such a sense of place. When I read 100 Years of Solitude, I felt like I knew the town of Macondo. I knew the people. I could see the houses, the streets, the trees. The man could wholly immerse me in a dream, and that’s what his stories were like: dreams.

Maybe let someone else speak. Well, I don’t know. I’m very sad he’s gone. His impact on me, his opening up of my eyes to fresh ways of writing and reading I will always be thankful for. I’ve written a lot about Garcia Marquez on this site, and because I have Google Analytics connected to this site, whenever I’d see that I got some hits from Mexico City, I liked to pretend it was him.

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Writing From The Unconscious

In looking back at some of my old works, I’ve realized how powerful the unconscious is in my writing. It seems I’m often trying to tell myself something that I don’t realize until seeing it in retrospect. It’s an interesting way to think about writing control.

Huh … your writing always seems like you were unconscious. So, have you ever had someone find things in your story that you didn’t intend to be there, but you realize is absolutely true? I mean, it’s traceable, it’s obvious, but you didn’t put it there … consciously.

That’s what I’m talking about. It’s an interesting thing. Some writers talk about channeling a voice or some such, but it seems clear to me that what they’re really channeling is an unconscious part of themselves. It’s some part of them that is desperate to talk but has been shut down, closed off, and this is the only way it can find its way out. Writing (or other creative work) seems like it can very effectively serve as a spout for the hurting self.

You don’t know what you’re talking about, do you. I guess, in the past, I have prided myself on being in control of my writing. I’ve talked about it this way: “I am the god of my writing, and I am omnipotent. I am the creator.” And I still kind of feel like that’s true … except there are parts of me that are creating that I’m unaware of.

Unfortunately, when the unconscious speaks too much, it ends up being rather emotionally transparent. I’m not much fond of the idea of writing autobiographically, yet so many of my older works (and even some of my newest works, at least to a degree) end up speaking to my personal emotional experience. There’s some well within me that leaks onto the page, and I’m not sure how to feel about it.

Getting all touchy-feely, eh? Well, that’s just it. Should fiction be wholly fiction? Should writers have better control of that unconscious self? Should it be embraced? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I feel like it has made my past work something repetitive … redundant, even (get it? ‘Cuz I said it twice).

A poet friend of mine talks a lot about writing as though he is a medium. He feels this is important to writing poetry effectively. Maybe it’s key to embrace it. I don’t know. I know, when he first said that to me, I found it preposterous and distasteful. I again thought, BUT I AM THE GOD OF MY WORLDS! Still, I realize that it can’t be true that I’m in such control (depending on if you think of the unconscious as still being the “I”).

Zzzzzzz …. Anyway, it’s food for thought. I wonder where the appropriate acceptance is of the unconscious working its way into writing. Is it controllable? Should it be encouraged? What’s to be done? Thoughts, oh reader(s)?

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My Approach to Writing

I have been challenged by a writing group to write down a sort of writing philosophy. This felt like a rather daunting task, but it was productive to think about what I do, and maybe more importantly, what I am trying to do. Here is what I came up with.

My writing is typically about characters who feel great solitude, even (perhaps especially) while among others. My stories are about characters who want, and it’s from these wants that I derive my conflicts (a necessity in my stories). I feel like I’ve been heavily influenced by the wide physical expanses of New Hampshire and the wide emotional breaks in the Midwest. There is an inability to connect between characters, a miscommunication, an ongoing struggle to find meeting points.

I often throw magic in my stories to accentuate the conflict(s) in the story. Magic, for me, is heavily influenced by Garcia-Marquez’s short stories (duh), and often, they come at a place of emotional break for a character. As in, I write from a very traditional and realist approach, but when strain has hit its peak for a character, the surreal will often enter one of my stories, though not always.

I feel like my stories rarely have what some people call “a satisfying ending.” The bad guy usually doesn’t get it in the end, the guy almost never gets the girl, though if he does, watch out for strings attached. My characters grow, but it may feel small or disappointing or negative. Not all growth is positive, and my characters often feed on hope and fall prey to leaning on such hope.

I write in a plain style. As Orwell says, “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” and I try to abide by that. I’m not trying to impress people with my word craft but with my narratives, my conflicts, and most importantly, my characters. Yes, I do try to put things in ways that allow people to see the familiar in a new way, but my emphasis on language is purely functional to communicate as best as I can with the reader what I see in my head. I typically write in scene, and usually one story for me means one scene. I’m not wedded to this idea, in fact, I’d like to write longer pieces, but my impulse is to write about a singular event.

I try to layer my stories in meaning and symbols, but sometimes I can be clumsy with that (either being too on the nose or too subtle). My hope is to never let go of my plain-spoken and simplistic approach, yet pen stories with an extremely heavy emotional impact. That’s what I want: emotional impact. And what I mean by emotional impact is this: I want my reader to be impacted emotionally by the main character’s struggles, weaknesses, fears, loves, and hates, as well as the tone of the piece and the use of symbolic imagery, and I want that impact to start at the heart and work its way up to the brain, and I want, eventually, to change the way the reader thinks about some small aspect of the world they live in.

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I NEED MORE TWITTER FOLLOWERS! (AWP day 2)

At a panel at AWP, writers and journalists talk about the need to use Twitter as a way to reach an audience … just need an audience. Something I need to work on.

Adam in Seattle Coffee Shop

Nice Seattle Selfie. Thanks, Antagonist Me. I try. So, I went to a panel this morning at AWP about how writers can and should use Twitter. It was an interesting idea, though I would say that the panel itself felt a little undirected and more about personal stories than direct application.

Still, it was somewhat enlightening. As I Tweeted from the room, a number of people I could see were retweeting me. Strange relationship, that. But, I have about fifty Twitter followers right now, and the panel talked about how 200 followers was a low amount … which made me feel that my little Twitter empire was rather insignificant. So, I need to work on increasing my follower count.

It’s all about you, isn’t it. I think part of the problem is that I don’t have much of a Twitter strategy. Right now, I basically just make silly comments or point people to my blog posts. These are fine and good and all that, but I think I need to find a way to be more interesting to a general reader. Not sure how to do that, but it’s a good place to think from.

Anyway, having a large group of Twitter followers would be super useful to get more readers to my blog, to point people to publications (should that ever happen), to talk about events and whatnot that I’m taking part of. Twitter is a great tool, and I do agree with the panel that Twitter should be something every writer does.

I wish you kept your thoughts, so called, to 140 characters. Anyway, if you’re a Twitter user, let me know your handle so I can follow you. And if you want to follow me, my twitter site is Twitter.com/adamnannini. Any suggestions on how to expand my follower group, blog fan(s)? I’d welcome your thoughts.

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