Transcending Self-Publishing: Thoughts Upon Reading David Jauss

October 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve been reviewing David Jauss’ On Writing Fiction (Writers Digest Books, 2011) chapter by chapter, but I’m not sure what to say about his final chapter, “Lever of Transcendence” other than ‘read it’.

I was motivated to read On Writing Fiction and to purchase several other works that I will review as I read them in coming months both to help me become a better fiction writer and also to participate in the conversation taking place amongst writers about self-publishing.

The boom in self-publishing has been both good and bad for writers. It has been a good thing in that writers whose works might otherwise never see the light of day can be published and read. That’s also what’s bad about it, because many of those works should never see the light of day.

Self-publishing makes it too easy for writers to get published. It eliminates the hurdles posed by agents and editors who act as gatekeepers to the prize of having one’s work published by a major publishing house. That system helps most writers produce better works than they would have produced on their own. It also at times prevent works from being published that time will later judge worthy. (You can find online the names of respected authors who self-published after numerous rejections.)

Yet, if those who for whatever reason like myself choose to self-publish, there are resources to replace some of the services traditional publishers provide. There are free-lance editors who can be hired, but of course some of those are better than others. There are other resources -– online discussion groups, websites where you can submit your writing to be critiqued randomly, online writing courses, as well as books that range from step-by-step manuals to theoretical discussions, such as David Jauss’ book of essays.

Jauss’ chapter on transcendence helped me appreciate what makes great writing. Of course, great writing doesn’t always sell and what sells is not always great. That gives false hope to those beginning writers who both think that they are talented and doubt that they have any, which drives them to self-publish unedited or poorly edited works and then wonder why their books aren’t selling. Some of those writers then write books about how to write, which ironically sell better than their novels.

To me, writers have an obligation to the reading public to put forth the best they can produce. I may be wrong, but that suggests that writers have an obligation to be self-critical – i.e., to ask for and to consider what others say about their works. It also suggests that in addition to writing, one must read constantly and critically and finally, it suggests that writers should not publish just because they can.

You don’t have to read On Writing Fiction to become a better writer, but it won’t hurt.

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Discovering the God Connectedness: David Jauss on Short Story Collections

September 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

David Jauss teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas and writes short stories. He admits in “Stacking Stories; Building a Unified Short Story Collection,” in On Writing Fiction (Writers Digest Press, 2011) that until he was added to the judges panel for the little magazine Shenandoah’s prize for emerging writers that he never read short story collections from front to back. That assignment changed his view. He had an epiphany (see previous blog post on Jauss’ book). Collections hang together. His essay on how to build a collection of short stories is a paean to the hitherto undiscovered god of story connectedness.

In “Stacking Stories,” Jauss is no longer the critic we admired from previous chapters whose insights came from careful reading rather regurgitated formulas and platitudes. Instead, he sings praises to the myriad ways that a group of short stories can be assembled in one volume.

His conversion leads him to see connectedness everywhere he looks. Stories in the collections he read for Shenandoah relate to each other by liaisons, motifs, parallels, contrasts, mirrors, etc. – in so many ways that this reader had to look ahead to find the end of the chapter. Only a few more pages. Thank goodness.

But my problem is not just with Jauss’ style of discussing connectedness; it is with the underlying concept. Let’s start with Jauss’ admission that in the dark days before he saw the light he didn’t read short story collections from front to back. We have no way of knowing how many other people do likewise, but let’s assume that if a creative writing instructor and a short story writer approached collections in that manner, the majority of ordinary readers do likewise.

That means that other than suggesting to readers that they try it the other way, this essay can only be of interest to a very small audience – creative writing instructors and writing prize judges.

The explication of collection connectedness is of little use in my opinion to writers who are assembling their own collections. Why? Because each writer has to deal with his/her own pile of stories. If you like the concept of mirrors or themes, so what? If your stories don’t fit in a specific manner, what are you going to do – rewrite them? I’m exaggerating of course, because I suppose a few writers might uncover a way of organizing their stories that they hadn’t thought of, but won’t they be the exception? Won’t most writers find the best way to order their own stories without requiring a topographic map of possibilities? Knowing that other writers’ collections reflect one principle or another does not help the individual writer except to suggest that he put his or her stories in some kind of logical order other than drawing the titles out of a hat.

Further, this focus on the order of the stories in a collection threatens to distract the reader from the stories themselves. Most people don’t read short stories one after the other in one sitting. At least I don’t. If I have a book of short stories on my reading table, I’ll pick it up at odd moments, days or even weeks apart. Thus, the impact of the collection as a whole is likely to be minor for most readers.

It’s possible that book reviewers reading this essay will be encouraged to look for organizing principles should they ever be presented with the task of reviewing a short story collection, but I can’t imagine that anyone qualified to review books for a legitimate publication needs to be told to do so.

That reduces the field of potential beneficiaries of “Stacking Stories” to creative writing instructors assigned to judge short story collections. If that’s you, then read the essay; otherwise, this is one essay in the book you can skip.

Epiphanies: A Technique That’s Easy to Do Badly

September 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

Lots of short story writers and not a few novelists have given into the temptation to end their stories with the hero coming to a sudden realization or epiphany. If you fall into that group, then you’ll want to read David Jauss’ essay “Some Epiphanies About Epiphanies” in On Writing Fiction (Writers Digest Books, 2011).

While it may feel right to end your story in that fashion, you should be aware that it may not have the impact on the reader that you envisioned. One reason is that it’s become so common. Further, you may want to consider some of the elements of epiphanies that can undermine your intent.

Citing positive as well as negative examples from writers including Joyce, O’Connor, Chekhov, and Fitzgerald, Jauss helps us see that epiphanies can be effective if the author is conscious of the potential negatives and avoids the easy way out that epiphanies falsely promise.

This brings up a point that I think needs to be made about the emergence of self-published fiction. Critics have been howling about the poor quality of much of self-published fiction and, having sampled a number of self-published books in recent months, I tend to agree.

Because a writer can avoid having to get his/her novel past an editor, self-published writing can be weak in a number of areas, including of course avoidable errors of grammar, spelling and word use.

I see four ways that self-published authors can avoid embarrassing themselves:

1. Pay a professional editor to go through your work,
2. Find a group of serious writers who will offer honest feedback in return for your doing the same for them,
3. Take classes and attend workshops, and
4. Read not only good fiction, but also books on writing that can help you see the difference between the ordinary and the creative.

Writers who plow ahead without taking advantage of these resources are only harming themselves. Many readers will not give an author a second chance. So, while it’s tempting to skip and skimp, treat your craft and yourself with respect. Take the time to do the best job you can.

Writing in First Person, Present Tense? Think Again

September 20, 2011 § 38 Comments

I must admit I wasn’t aware of the growing trend in fiction of authors writing stories and novels in the present tense until I read David Jauss’ chapter “Remembrance of Things Present” in his volume On Writing Fiction (Writers Digest Books, 2011).

If you’ve written something in first person present tense or are in the process of doing so, I strongly recommend you read this chapter. Jauss reviews the origins of present tense writing, suggests why it’s become popular and details seven advantages and 10 disadvantages of using this format. In my humble opinion, the disadvantages win hands down. Yet, Jauss believes it can be done well if the writer is aware of the pitfalls.

In truth, very few writers manage present tense without falling prey to more than one of the negatives. Oddly, I happen to be in the middle of a political thriller that is written in present tense. I was having trouble committing myself to finish the book; now, after reading Jauss, I understand why. Without mentioning the name of the book or the author, I’ll give some examples of the problems in the novel I’ll call “Florida Thriller”.

One pitfall of writing in present tense is that authors tend to get caught up in the minutia of daily life. In “Florida Thriller,” the protagonist keeps up a steady stream of information about what he’s doing almost minute by minute. He tells us each time he pours himself a cup of coffee or takes a shower. He tells us whenever his girl friend takes a shower and he tells us what he has to eat seemingly for every meal.

That the author recognizes that he’s doing this and is concerned about the impact it may be having on the reader is revealed half way through the book: “I made a pot of coffee (yes, I know I drink too much coffee) and took a cup into my office, where I sat down and reread the notes.” When an author suspects he’s boring his readers, he’s always right.

First person present tense also creates problems of the pace of the story. Writing about the minutia of daily life bogs the story down and distracts the reader from the plot. It takes so long for the story to unfold that the reader is tempted to put down the Kindle and turn on the TV.

Another problem that first person authors face is the difficulty in providing the depth of perspective on events and situations that one gets from the narrator in a third person story. So, in “Florida Thriller,” the author is forced to make the protagonist a walking encyclopedia. He has to be an expert on so many things because there’s no third person narrator to provide the necessary background. Then when the protagonist doesn’t know something, the author is forced to introduce new characters just to provide the missing information. The new characters play no role in the story, but the protagonist needs them to provide key information. This slows down the flow of the story and burdens the reader with keeping track of extraneous characters.

I suspect that authors who are attracted to this format are often writing about their own lives as they wish they had turned out and therefore they can’t resist making their main characters into super-human heroes. Because they identify with their protagonist and are thus intimately interested in what their main character eats, how s/he dresses, h/h love life, etc., they don’t see the disadvantage of drowning the reader in those details. Further, super-hero characters suck tension out of the story since we have no doubt that the hero will figure everything out in the end. In sum, I don’t think present tense authors are thinking enough about the impact that format has on the reader. They’ve chosen a format that is inherently narcissistic. This is my story, the author is saying. Read about me. Admire me; aren’t I terrific!

In sum, if you want to write in present tense first person at least take the time to read Jauss’ essay to learn what some of the difficulties this format presents as well as make sure the supposed advantages are essential to your story.

On Point of View

September 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

“From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction,” the second essay in David Jauss’ On Writing Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 2011) will probably be of interest more to critics than to writers. Jauss frees us from a didactic approach to viewpoint, releasing us from rules to be obeyed so we can discover how skilled writers have changed point of view to deepen their message.

While fiction writers may find it liberating to learn that good writers skillfully shift point of view to pull readers into and push them away from their characters, doing so skillfully is an art that few master easily. As a result, some writers may be liberated into writing bad fiction.

Critics, however, can benefit from seeing how changing point of view mid-chapter, mid-paragraph or mid-sentence is not always wrong.

I recall having a story I submitted a few months ago to YouWriteOn.com criticized because I introduced the viewpoint of a second character in the middle of a scene. As a result of the critique, I re-wrote the scene removing the shift, but I wasn’t happy with how it came out. Now I can go back to that story and write it the way it wants to be written.

On the other hand I recall from a recent novel how the author presented the viewpoints of three different characters in three succeeding paragraphs. It was jarring and I started looking (and finding) more examples of similar shifts, some of which were integrated more smoothly than others.

In other words one should be careful when changing from external narrative to internal dialogue or any other shift. If overdone readers may find it tiresome and distracting.

Anyone interested in the topic will appreciate the examples Jauss offers from Hemingway to Chekov to Joyce to Faulkner. I did.

Writing the Truth

August 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

I wasn’t confident when I ordered David Jauss’ “On Writing Fiction” that I’d find much worthwhile. I have a basic distrust of how-to books. The last how-to I read is probably “Volkswagens for Dummies,” which I used to rebuild the engine of my VW bus circa 1969. But writing fiction cannot be reduced to a step-by-step process; so what’s the point!

Turns out I enjoyed the opening essay “Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life”. In it Jauss takes on the “Write What You Know” school of fiction writing. I found the essay liberating in that he’s basically saying it’s okay to do what I do — i.e., make things up. Rather than write about myself, my fiction is about people, places, events and circumstances that I have not lived. My writing (thus far) is not autobiographical.

What was liberating was the notion that what you make up springs from a kind of unconscious truth. Take naming characters for example. People ask me about how I came up with the name of the protagonist in The Expendable Man. His name is Nick Grocchi and I don’t recall exactly where the name came from. It just did.

Occasionally I struggle over names. I put one down and later change it and perhaps change it the next time I edit that chapter. I’m searching for the “right” name — the one that fits, that sounds right.

Other times I use the first or last names of people I know. Rarely however are they the names of the main characters in the story. Those are artifical names. A minor character’s name rarely matters. So why not honor a friend or acquaintance!

Not only did I know my protagonist’s name was Grocchi, but I knew all about his background. His father was Italian; his mother Polish. They grew up in Baltimore in immigrant ethnic neighborhoods which bordered on each other. As a result although immigrant Polish Catholics and immigrant Italian Catholics went to separate churches, they went to the same high school.

Nick’s father married a Polish girl because he knew he wasn’t going to marry an Italian. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It was just the way he felt. Like Nick’s father I knew I wasn’t going to marry someone Jewish. Don’t ask me why. That’s just the way I felt.

Thinking on it, there must be some human instinct going back to caveman days that tells some people to marry outside their clan. Can you imagine a cave guy ignoring perfectly good candidates for a mate in his clan, risking bodily injury to raid a neighboring clan and drag a girl back to his cave that he’d seen for a few seconds from afar. “This is Uwa,” he’d say to his shocked mother. In her clan, her name was Oja, but he’d given her a new name and a new life. Eventually, his mother came around and accepted Uwa as her daughter-in-law. That’s how it happen then and it’s been happening ever since, except now the bride has the same instinct. She’s not attracted to anyone in her group either.

So my character isn’t me, but in order to write about him, about how he thinks and acts, I have to understand him. I have to know him. In doing so, am I revealing something of myself? Jauss argues good writing does just that, just not necessarily in a way that the reader needs to know where it came from. Makes sense to me.

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