Sunday, February 27, 2011


Taste is something that most people think is completely personal and unchangeable, but that is not true, if you are willing to learn. Taste, as I’m using the term, is what allows you to make the right choices to produce the kind of writing for the category that you want to join. There are many categories of taste, but for writing purposes people are mainly interested in two obvious ones: taste for writing that gets published, taste for writing that doesn't. Most people who have taste in the latter category are wedded their own writing or their friends', and are happy with it, or not unhappy enough to change. Changing is always uncomfortable because it requires some ego to be destroyed. It is much easier to live with righteous outrage at the "bad" writing that gets published and sold in quantity.

Of course, “bad” writing often sells, not because it’s bad, but because of popular ideas, psychological trends, and human stories that are emotionally enthralling. Readers who are not schooled in writing do not care about a lack of style, depth, universality—or even symbolism! Face it, the majority of readers are not academics or writers and buy what they enjoy, rather than what might be lasting. For this reason, there is a subcategory of "publishable taste," which is the taste to be able to create popular escapist literature, whether escaping into romance, crime, or knowledge, a category that many people would like to acquire the taste to produce. James W. Hall happens to have a book coming out this summer that will explain in depth how to develop this taste, in other words how to write a bestseller. If that is your goal, your first tip on developing taste is to get the book. I can’t wait to get mine.

I also have another book recommendation, this one for developing taste in words, images, and sentences, the basic level that also must be addressed. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, will help you to acquire taste on the literary level that will have positive affects on any kind of writing you choose.

Obviously, you should also be reading the kind of literature that you intend to write. If this does not come naturally, then maybe you’re on the wrong track. Or it’s possible that your chosen literature is out of your writing range. I, for example, having started my life as an English major, continued with a Master's Degree in English, and on to teaching English. With this background, my first taste was developed toward the classics. I got nowhere with that taste in my own writing since I didn’t have the profound thoughts necessary to be able to create classic literature. Of course, I was missing the skills to write fiction of any kind at that point, too, only looking from the outside in, rather than seeing the writing from the author's viewpoint. I went on to learn technique while getting my MFA in Creative Writing at Florida International University, and during that time I also developed the knowledge of and taste for noir literature, mainly from studying the writing of James M. Cain. This is where I managed to hone my taste successfully to get published. The mix of sex and crime was something that clicked for me. My first novel, Miami Purity, has been called a noir classic, so what more can I ask?

Now, however, I am trying to expand into the popular world of animal literature. I have immersed myself in animal writing over the past five years, reading fiction, non-fiction, academic animal rights treatises, and even a little animal fantasy. Books such as Seabiscuit, The Life of Pi, and Water For Elephants have become my bibles. I analyze and learn, but I also enjoy my new category. I am enthralled by stories involving animals, so if I am not able to develop the taste required to write a “popular” book, what have I lost?

So this is my general tip. Let your taste develop through your reading. Consciously work on it. And don’t be afraid to give up old feelings and move on. Aging requires it!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Learn from Others' Mistakes!

I decided to do a short post this week, mainly directed to participants in writing groups or teaching, but also workable for the self-taught writer when reading published fiction.

In an interview from The Middlebury Initiative, writer Julia Alvarez, a former student of Middlebury, brought up the fact that she continues to learn from her students. "You learn to solve problems because you didn't create them," she said. "You may think you're reading and evaluating this story for someone else, but in trying to figure out what this story needs to take off, you're learning how to do that in a way you can't in your own story because you're inside it." This method is something I have been grateful for throughout my twenty years of teaching creative writing. Not only am I collecting a paycheck and being rewarded with student enthusiasm and creativity, but since the learning process never ends, my own trial and error has been partially conducted vicariously.

Once the printer has been employed, the words and ideas have already taken on value for the writer, both for the time expended and the fondness that develops with rereading. I don't need to tell you that making changes is painful. Much more fun to observe a misstep and avoid it!

Not to mention, people in general enjoy digging in and finding errors in others' work more-so than in their own. In addition to the needs of ego, I think most opposition to rewriting is due to the work involved. The more we can find wrong, the more work we have to do, and no matter how severe we try to be on ourselves, when it comes to making a fine judgment, the voice that wants to save time and effort sometimes prevails. Or it might work the opposite way for some: the more work I do the better it gets. Not always the case! However, when you're finding problems for others, you have no pull either way, are free of bias, except what your own taste leads you to prefer.

Taste. That's a necessity that can be taught. Maybe I'll have something to say on taste next week. I hope so.

Meanwhile, keeps your eyes and ears open. Writing fiction is a twenty-four hour job.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Plotting Checklist

I fear that my blog is too serious, judging by the number of followers (7) in my third week. Perhaps blogging is not the vehicle for studying a textbook-type lesson. Nevertheless, hard-headed as I am, I am continuing this week to give information that I I've digested and embodied in my writing over the past twenty years.


Courtesy of Frank Strunk, Antioch Writers’ Workshop, 1992

1. Ghost/back story:

What is it that is haunting your character as the story begins?

2. Inciting Incident:

What event sets the plan into motion?

3. Character’s Need:

In what way does your character need to grow emotionally (although probably unknown to him or her).

4. The Goal:

What is it that your character wants?

5. The Plan:

What does your character decide to do in order to get what he/she wants?

6. The Stakes:

What will be the consequence if the plan does not work?

7. The Oppositions:

Who are the people who are working against your characters?

8. The Nightmares:

What are the encounters between your character and the oppositions?

9. The Final Nightmare/Blackest Moment:

What happens to make things look hopeless?

10. The Revelation:

What does your character learn about himself/herself, others, or life?

11. The Choice:

What does your character do because of what he/she has learned?

12. (My addition - from Aristotle) The Reversal:

Have your characters reversed their positions (from beginning to end) in the hierarchy of power in the story?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

I have this question to answer from a far-away friend, (the "ink-slinging sea gypsy") Cap'n Fatty Goodlander.

I think he's only asking something to be nice. He's already got several five-star non-fiction books to his credit, but maybe that flows more easily than fiction for him, which is what he's asking about.

Now, I'm afraid this answer is going to be mostly empathetic. I get stuck all the time, especially around midway. The exuberant blast of creativity that comes with getting to know your characters, making free and far-ranging choices, striking out fearlessly into deep water, all these usually get me at least a third of the way in, before second guessing and writer's block tries to set in. I often notice a "middle slump" in, otherwise, wonderful novels, so I don't think we're alone. I'm sure it's caused by the necessity to leave open ocean and plot a course for some particular destination, which requires tedious tacking to keep underway. (Hope my attempt at a nautical metaphor isn't too pitiful!--I've forgotten a lot from my brief sailing experience.)

Of course, people who outline don't have this problem, but it you're asking this question, you're like me and outlining doesn't work for you. I don't know, maybe I'm lazy, but I can't seem to do much unless I see one word after another, one sentence after another on the screen. I need instant reward, even if it's more like punishment.

Okay, that's the empathy part. My general remedy is to wake up early and think about what to write next before I turn on the light. I make myself do that morning after morning when I'm in the midst of a novel, and soon it becomes habit, so that I review and question myself and think of new ideas every morning. In slightly more practical terms, depending on where you're stuck, say it's only about a quarter of the way through, the character has a need and a goal, as mentioned in my "Fast Start" post, so it might be time for him or her to make a plan, or take the next step in the plan. If you're thinking in literary terms, you always want your characters to make a choices which keep the cause and effect working.

However, you can also take an occasional detour. I've heard crime writers recommend throwing in a gun. I think what that means is to add something unexpected and important, but not coincidence or anything out of character, of course. I tossed in a gun around the middle of my novel Miami Purity, but it was used for masturbation rather than shooting, which fit the circumstances. The scene runs the risk of being labeled "gratuitous sex," but I say it further develops character. It's more realistic than one might think, although I can't divulge my source.

Another possibility is to do some research. When I was writing "Stormy, Mon Amour," (in my collection Florida Gothic Stories) about a woman who fell in love with a dolphin and gave birth to a mermaid, I got stuck and realized that I didn't know enough about dolphins to continue developing the relationship. Luckily for me, (about six months later) I was able to attend a reading by Rick O'Barry, a dolphin rescuer, who visited Books and Books in Coral Gables, FL, and I learned exactly what I needed to know to finish the story. If you keep your eyes open, often Fate helps you out, but not immediately.

I guess, in general, I'm thinking that what I recommend is to get away from the computer. If you're on your sailboat, Cap'n, in the middle of crystal blue sea and sky, that might not be so easy, but heck! I can't even imagine how you can concentrate on something as tedious as writing when you're sailing to exotic ports and living your dreams.

You've probably already tried all these "solutions," so if you have any suggestions, I would appreciate them. You, Cap'n, or anybody--

A Personal Note

I just wanted to take a moment to remember my college roommate from Ohio State, Denise Fuciu, DVM, my good friend for almost exactly 40 years, and one of the most clever and interesting people I have ever known. I am in frozen Canton, Ohio, tonight in order to attend her funeral tomorrow. I will miss her dearly. She was the keeper of the memories, "The Book of Quotes," and my enthusiastic consultant on everything animal in my novels. Her humor has been a constant in my life, all the way until the end, regardless of her diagnosis.