Talking And Writing: Fifteen Questions



I wonder how some people can talk so much. For me, it’s really difficult. I mean, if I must, I can, but it’s a big effort. Now it’s true that I am used to speaking in public, and I am used to being on a stage; but that’s script reading, not talking; it’s a world of difference. And the same with writing: some writers cannot stop writing. They keep their detailed diaries and journals, often from a young age, with an enviable fluency. On the other hand, writers like myself have to be chained to the chair and desk while writing. I kind of understand this difference in writers. With a writer, the voluble ones have the advantage of being able to get that first draft done quickly, and they don’t agonize over every word. But, still, those writers understand that a first draft is just a first draft. They know and accept that it’s not going to come out right that first time. But what I don’t understand is how some people can keep talking, since it’s not just a first draft, and there’s no chance to edit it once it’s out there. It’s already published–in a matter of speaking. Or is that it? Do they simply trust that they can keep talking and revise themselves in the moment?

I don’t know what I am writing until I write it. This essay itself has gone through many drafts (not enough!), and each time I’m discovering what it is I want to say. But I almost never allow myself that same luxury as a speaker. I almost never surprise myself as a speaker. Do others?

When I do radio I much prefer to edit interviews than do live radio, because I think the listener deserves more than my unedited wanderings. I am not a fan of poetry that reads like unedited diary musings. That seems inartistic to me. I don’t expect anyone to make any sense of my first drafts.  The only time that I allow myself to speak without thinking first is during an acting improv, because to me, the stage is a very safe place, and I never have to take responsibility for what a character says.

But real life? No, I will not allow that. Do the talkers do what I do in an improv and silence their inner critic (or does it not exist for them)?  Or does the inner critic work so quickly that they don’t worry about what comes out? Or are they confident that they can just keep talking, and in so doing revise as they talk? Maybe that’s what explains the compulsive quality of some of the non-stop talkers I’ve known. Are they revising, revising, and refusing to stop until the final product seems right? Or is it that they simply do not care that there may be some unwanted leakage? In the end, my attempts to manage myself are futile anyway, and maybe I just feel more wary and ashamed than I need to feel. The talkers have such a trust in themselves and their ideas, and there seems to be no border between their inside and outside. I don’t know how to be so transparent.

But I also see that talking is used as a defense, just as silence is used as a defense. Is it that the talker cannot imagine silence being used as a defense any more than the quiet one can understand the use of talking as a defense? Choose your weapon.

Still,  I don’t even understand the biology and physics of the non-stop talker. How, I wonder to myself, is it physically possible for a person to be like a record player, putting the needle on the phonograph record and having it play straight through non-stop? Is the person doing in public what I am doing privately in my head all the time? Maybe those words are not meant for the public but for the talker? Is it that the talker cannot hear his or her own self-talk unless it’s spoken out loud?

Shakespeare talks a lot about talking. And his characters can certainly talk–to themselves and to others. But he makes fun of Polonius for babbling too much, and the silky flowing words of the King, Claudius, are treacherous ones. Yet Hamlet, who speaks more lines than any other character in Shakespeare, speaks with restraint in public. When questioned about his malaise he offers up only, “I am too much in the sun,”  and “I lack advancement,” and, of course, his succinct book review: “Words, words, words.” The true bulk of his lines are thoughts which he shares only with himself–and the audience who paid to hear them.

I think that even if I wanted to change the way I was, I could not do it.

Is the truth in the stream of consciousness or the reflection upon it? Which is our deepest self?


The Same, Only Different


The same, only different. That’s what the people want, so they say. But how same and how different? That no one can tell you.

I’m working on the manuscript of Novel #2. Presently, there is much good in it, and much that is not so good in it. The way the book is presently constructed, it has a frame story that takes place in the present, and a mystery of sorts leads one of the characters back in time to previous events. So a substantial amount of the book takes place in the past. And as I was going through the manuscript this time through, it became very clear to me: the parts that were not so good were mostly in the frame-story portion, the portion of the novel set in the present.

I tried to understand why this was so. It seemed to me that the characters in the frame story had less dimension, spoke more stiltedly, and seemed overall less real to me. When I first had the impetus to write this book, the incidents in the past are what propelled me to start writing. I grafted on the frame story, because I thought I could make a clever plot connection between the events in the present and the events in the past. And that is where I made my mistake. Because clever is very different from true. And what I’m learning now, for my taste at least, is that truth beats clever every time.

Not that there is no place for cleverness in a novel. But it can’t be the sole reason for its existence, unless it’s a genre-specific item, like a sci-fi story or a mystery. As an extreme example of this, I recently read a mystery called The Tokyo Murder Mysteries, recommended on one of the magic forums. It’s an extraordinarily clever locked-room style multiple murder mystery whose answer is literally the same as the method to a very clever close-up magic trick involving dollar bills. Now I enjoy this kind of book, it has a great power to amuse and entertain me, but on the other hand it has little power to move me. And if a piece of literary fiction doesn’t move the reader in one way or another, then for me, it hasn’t done its job.

So what then should literary fiction do, at a minimum? The formulation I came up for myself was that the kind of book I’m interested in reading and writing must speak a recognizable unspoken truth about the human condition. However, that stipulation is necessary, but not sufficient. It can’t keep saying the same thing in the same way as other books. So I amend it to, “To speak a recognizable unspoken truth—in a novel way.”

In a novel way. Oh my goodness, I never—stupid me—never made the connection between the two meanings of the word. A novel is something that talks about life in a novel way. There must be surprise and unpredictability. The same, only different. How much same and how much different? In a genre novel, very likely much of it is the same as others in its genre; if any of the rigid conventions of the genre are broken, it’s quite possible that the reader will feel badly disappointed. On the other hand, the need for surprise somewhere in the book is even greater, because of the necessity of distinguishing itself from the rest of its similar genre-soaked companions. So a genre book depends heavily on one twist, usually at the end, that does all the heavy lifting. If that twist doesn’t work, then the book has little value. To take the murder mystery example above, if the reader doesn’t appreciate the ingenuity of the solution to the multiple murder mystery, then as far as the reader is concerned, the time spent reading has been wasted.

But in literary fiction, the balance is different, there’s much more unpredictability. As a writer I am most happy when I surprise myself as I go along, because I know that if I am happily surprised as I am writing, then perhaps the reader will be pleasantly surprised as well. A tale full of sound and fury that’s been told before in the same way? Well, that signifies nothing.

The balance of those two imperatives—truth and novelty—is  something that I must continually weigh as I continue to revise my manuscript. I can’t allow myself to be seduced by one side to the exclusion of the other. There must be both throughout the manuscript.

A novel should speak the recognizable unspoken truth in a novel way.



If It Were Done When ‘Tis Done…



… said Shakespeare’s Thane of Cawdor about his bloody deeds. Well my deeds are not bloody, but after more than three years of battle with my novel, The New World, and 15 drafts, I have finally said, “enough.” This is it: best I can tell, it’s done. Yes, I could keep tinkering, but I no longer know whether the tinkering is doing any good. It’s time to get on to the next phase.

The manuscript is sitting there in a pile next to me.

Now, to get this published.  I think it’s very good. I still enjoy reading it, even after reading it through for the 100th time. So that’s one person who likes it. I still love my characters, and I still want to keep my promises to them.

I could self-publish, and maybe that’s how this will end up, but I suspect that would seem like a disappointment to me. So the next step—and God knows I’ve only been approaching this one step at a time, but at least that’s got me this far, to a point I would never have thought myself capable of—the next step is to get myself an agent. And in order to do that, I have to put together a query letter and synopsis to send out to prospective agents.

After writing a 90,000 word novel,  you’d think it would be a breeze to write a one page query letter and a two page novel synopsis, but it seems intimidating to me, and here I find myself without much of a compass. I’ve read a bunch of books on the subject, and the query letter is supposed to tell all the reasons that you think this particular book would be the right book for this particular agent, the subtext always being, “Here’s the reason why my novel is going to make you money.” To that end, you lay out what genre your novel is, and how it is just like popular books X, Y, and Z, and here’s the plot, where a, b, and c happen,” and maybe you’re subtly highlighting why this would make terrific movie material, and so on.

I’m not sure that my novel necessarily falls into any of these categories. It’s not particularly plot-driven, and I’m not sure it can fit into any well-defined category. I suppose one could say it’s what the agents call Literary Fiction, but even that designation doesn’t tell you too much. Is it a Domestic Drama? Maybe, but I’d like to think there’s too much humor in it to be considered strictly a drama. Maybe the kind of thing Anne Tyler writes. I recently read her A Spool of Blue Thread which I greatly admired, and thought, “Damn, that’s the novel that I’ve been trying to write!” Well, I’ve got to accept my limitations and understand that I’m no Anne Tyler, but at least I feel some kind of kinship with her book, so maybe the people who like Anne Tyler’s books will like mine.

Anyway, best I can tell, my work is now just beginning, and I’m about to plunge into a whole new world of learning about publishing. I never expected to get anywhere close to where I am now in terms of my writing, so anything else is gravy. I’ll just take the next step and tell myself: screw your courage to the sticking point and we’ll not fail. (Hmmm, note to self: maybe I want to rethink quoting Lady M as my inspirational source.)

Evolution of a Classic Song: Leonard Bernstein’s “Tonight”





Listen as musical composer and commentator Rob Kapilow deconstructs Bernstein’s masterpiece, “Tonight,” from West Side Story. Utilizing  the revisions of the song from Bernstein’s archives, Kapilow explains, musical phrase by phrase, how the song is constructed, and why it works so well. It’s a fascinating exegesis and all the more wonderful for the heavenly singing of Sally Wilfert and Michael Winther as Maria and Tony.

As the cherry on top, after Kapilow’s close explication, Wilfert and Winther get to sing the song through, uninterrupted.

This enlightening demonstration was just one of several bonuses the audience was treated to at this month’s Everything Old is New Again Live cabaret performance, David Kenney’s monthly fundraiser for radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NYC at The Metropolitan Room. The next live show is March 6th; until then, keep happy by listening to David’s show every Sunday night from 9-11pm, at

Click on the grey triangle above to hear Kapilow and company.

Mix and Match


Sometimes when I tell people that I’m writing a novel they ask, where do you get your characters from?  Is character X in your story actually person Y in your (somewhat more) real life? Did this really happen? Which character is supposed to be you?  Am I in it? And so on.

So I thought I’d talk a little bit about character. As always, I’m only speaking for myself. I’m sure there are many writers who don’t do what I do at all.

First off, I want to be able to recognize the characters I read and write about. Now, I grant that this is just a personal preference; but I don’t think I would ever want to write a book that takes place on the planet Zaurus and concerns the Great War between the Alliots and the Beloggotians. The advice about writing that I have taken to heart the most is this, by Grace Paley: write about what you don’t know about what you do know.

Now this is very different from: write about what you know. That charge may be fine for non-fiction, but for a novel I feel that if I know everything about it beforehand, and I’m not discovering anything new as I go along, then there’s a good chance that the reader will also find it predictable, and that’s not interesting at all.

On the other hand, my charge is not just to write some random nonsense, a string of words put together. If I’m going to bring some kind of revelation to the reader, then what I hope for most is that in the act of writing, my conscious plan will become subverted, and the beak of my unconscious will crack through the egg of my surprised will.

An example. A while back, I was slogging through my day’s idea for my current novel, and it was really tough. But then it turned out that one of my characters was going to bed, falling sleeping in the same room as his brother, and all of a sudden, a whole flood of memories of sharing a bedroom with my brother came rushing through me: I realized that this was a whole section of my life that I had never really explored before, but something of the truth of my life. The relationship of the brothers in the novel could be revealed in that one little scene. Those night time experiences had been incredibly important to me, but I had never really looked hard at them before. All of a sudden, I began to ask: What was it like, really, to go to sleep in the same room as my brother, night after night? What was it like for my brother? What was the importance of that relationship at night? How did it form who we were? More concretely, what were the sounds, words, rituals, shadows?

Now I am not saying that my brother or I am in this novel. We’re not at all— that would be uninteresting. I’m a very boring person. That’s not the way it works. What I’m doing instead, on a primarily unconscious level, is taking different parts of relationships  and pieces of my life and putting them together, like those mix and match flip flap books I had when I was a child. Do you remember them? They had five or six faces that were cut horizontally in thirds and then you could flip the separate sections so that you could create a new face with one person’s hair, another’s eyes and nose, and another’s mouth and chin. Composites. You take different truths and pieces of imagination and then mix them up in new and compelling ways.

What’s interesting about the truth in fiction or acting is that you don’t have to have the complete truth to establish the reality of a character or a scene. A drop of cream in the coffee, as Lee Strasberg once said, is enough to change the nature of the coffee. In acting, as in writing, you pour out different drops of yourself and other people which you know to be true, and then you stir and combine those aspects in new ways. In that sense, every character is unique, but every character is also one’s self. So each brother in the example above contains parts of myself and others, but where the characters truly come alive is when I put them into a situation and watch how they handle it.  I rarely know beforehand what will happen, but I try to focus on what I don’t know about what I do know about the situation and the characters. That’s where the juicy part is.

So, yes, you’re all in it, and no, none of the characters are you.


The Road to Hell…and Back




It’s been about a month since I spent any substantial time working on Novel #2. Lots of excuses—dental surgery, friend died, working on some interviews, the book sucks, worried about Novel #1—but none of them are any good. My schedule for this book was three days a week, 800 words a day. Seems innocent enough. Here’s a little outline of the road to hell.

  1. It starts with me feeling lousy in the morning. For a few days I procrastinate and finally do my scheduled writing in the evening.
  2. Next, I miss a day entirely and make it up the next day, on the day I’m supposed to have the day off entirely from writing.
  3. Next, I miss a day and don’t make it up, feeling very guilty about it.
  4. Next, I miss another day and don’t make it up, but now I don’t feel so guilty about it.
  5. Next, remorselessly, I miss another and another and another day. Soon, it’s almost a month since I’ve written any of my 800 words a day.

And back:

  1. Friend calls, says she can’t write, the muse isn’t visiting.  I tell her to hell with the Muse visiting, you have to visit the Muse.
  2. Today is approaching, and I know I want to write this particular post about getting back on the wagon. I’ll feel like a terrible phony if I write about getting back to writing without getting back to writing.
  3. I open the file for the novel, and start reading, and realize I have no idea where I am in the plot.
  4. I write anyway, not caring whether it has any coherence or not. It’s more important to get the 800 words in.
  5. I do it, and it’s still pretty awful.
  6. I know it’s awful, but allow that there just might be some little thing that will make it into the next draft. That’s reward enough right now.
  7. I write this post, so that I can remember the arc of what happened.

For the future:

  1. Stick to my schedule whether I feel like it or not. It’s like what those money gurus tell you about saving money from your paycheck—pay yourself first; writing that book is my first obligation.
  2. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. What matters is 800 words.
  3. If I don’t do it, it won’t be done by anyone else. My years on this planet as a functioning human being are quite finite.
  4. If it doesn’t seem worthwhile, maybe it’s not. But it’s not like I’m doing anything better with the time.
  5.  Okay, maybe I’m fooling myself, it’s all worthless. True, but there’s nothing wrong with fooling myself, if it helps me keep going.
  6.  Whether I write or not, time is going to pass anyway. I can let it pass with a book, or without it. I’ll be happier if I have a book—even if it sucks.
  7. I remind myself about the magic of revision. I can’t revise unless there’s something to revise.
  8. When I see myself slipping down the ladder, get back to the very first rung again, back to the original schedule.

Hope this is helpful to someone out there—but selfishly, I hope this is useful to me!

Cheating at Magic, Mindreading, and Writing

Cheat 1

While most people understand that the performance of magic requires deception, they generally have no idea of the range of deceptions possible. Mirrors, sleight-of-hand, threads, trapdoors, yes, these are known, of course. But, really, these are only a small number of the methods—not that they can’t still fool even those who know of them.

But the performance of magic actually entails a very large collection of often interlocking discrete methods, and even magicians can be fooled by another magician. Each time I learned about a branch of magic different from those with which I was already familiar, I would be surprised at the new tools brought to bear—“Oh, they’re really doing that!—I had no idea!” Sometimes ideas and methods from one branch of magic are carried over to another branch, but cleverly adapted to the limitations and possibilities of the other field; on the other hand, some methods really are unique to one particular branch of magic. For a magician it’s kind of a thrill to learn that the method was not method a, b, or c, or even method x, y, or z , but the unconceived Ψ, Ω, and Σ. (Most spectators on the other hand, as previously discussed, do not feel delighted at all when told of a method. They generally just feel stupid and suckered. Contrary to magic ads of the 50s and 60s, it’s not “Fun to be fooled!”)

I have in mind, for example, the mentalist practice of miscalling. Now I’m not at liberty to explain what that is here, but it absolutely shocked me when I first came across it. It filled me with surprise, disbelief, scorn, and then ultimately admiration. Probably not many in the general public know of the use of the technique. But what I can tell you is that that class of methods was totally off my radar.

Now writers deceive all the time, too, but not much attention is paid by the general public to the methods of deception used. Unlike in a magic performance, with writing the deceptions are not the main course, but the means to a different end. You can take lots of literature courses in college, intensively studying a work, but the facts of deception are almost always glossed over in favor of focusing on matters like theme, plot, character, and so on: the deceptions fade into the background and become invisibly transparent.

I know this, though: I feel more of a cheat as a writer than as a magician. At least most people understand that a magician is using deception even if they don’t understand the means. On the other hand, I don’t think that many readers understand the range of deceptions that the writer brings to the table. Perhaps the deceptive technique that slides by readers the most is that of revision. It’s a huge cheat. Readers see the final artifact of a novel as if it were created at once in a coherent linear manner. But that’s almost never the case. It’s not even true of this essay; I’m writing this now on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. But I have no intention of publishing it now. I know that by the time that I do publish this essay, I will have revised it, and it will be very different. In fact, I have no idea what this essay will look like ultimately when I do finally publish it. I am trusting right now that despite my first incoherent draft, somehow, sometime later, I’ll be able to pull something out of it. It really is an act of faith, but the reader will never know what this piece once was. I have all the time in the world to make this be just what I want it to be. So, I’ll be seeing you sometime later—who knows how much later?—just don’t tell anybody when I really wrote this (wink).

Progress Report


It’s draft number eight of my novel, The Longest Winter of Holly Walker. I’m thinking, two more drafts to go, but I thought that about half a dozen drafts ago as well. The good thing is that I can see the improvements clearly; the annoying thing is that the remaining inconsistencies and clumsy craft stand out even more; I’m like a cabinet maker whose cabinets have misaligned hinges.

The major characters are more delineated; the minor characters have been put back in their boxes, so that they can stay minor characters and not pull focus away from the major ones. Weather and time continuity errors have been eliminated for the most part. And for good measure, I’m halfway on to changing the title.

So what is it that remains? A comedy/drama of several generations of middle-class New York City dwellers trying to survive love and family. People fighting for a future that they can’t control. The attempt to stay human in the midst of the unknowable. The ridiculousness of needing and wanting others, despite the impossibility of living up to others’ expectations. It’s about opening up, beginning to feel again, about parents and children, about figuring out how to get up in the morning.

So the manuscript is printed out, and into the drawer it goes for another few weeks so that I can get some perspective on it again. I’ll probably look for more readers, although I wouldn’t want to ask the same readers from before; I want people who are knowledgeable about writing, but fresh to this piece.

Meanwhile, novel #2 is about half way through it’s first draft…

The Revision Dilemma

It’s not too often we get to hear a singer/songwriter’s process of development.

A few days ago, I posted video of Joni Mitchell’s classic song, All I Want. Today I stumbled on this fascinating live video of Joni Mitchell singing a very early version of the same song—or is it? Although you can still hear phrases that ended up in the final version, and that mountain dulcimer is playing the same riff throughout, the specific words, and the entire theme of the song, are very different. If you get a few minutes, maybe you could compare the two versions for yourself before you read on.

While this early version is certainly less polished, there’s something very raw and moving to me about it. It seems a shame to me that some of the strongest aspects of this song have been revised out of it.

Is that inevitable? With the need to straighten and tidy up, will an artist inevitably lose some of the initial raw power? I hope not. Lately I have been creeping like a baby to the bath with each revision of my novel. I’m not sure I want to clean off. I am reluctant with every new change. What if, what if, I cut out the guts of it? It will be prettier and tidier and more presentable, but will I have made a terrible mistake?

I Can’t Remember To Forget You: Proust and the Mother of All Descriptive Novels


Description. It doesn’t come easily to me. Other writers have spoken about this–there seems to be a definite divide among writers: some agonize over dialogue, while others have trouble with description. As a reader, I have to admit, I don’t like to read long passages of description. Okay, I admit it: sometimes I just skip pages and pages of the damn descriptive stuff. Does this make me a bad person? I only hope God doesn’t throw those skipped pages in my face at the final reckoning.

Since the novel I’m writing could benefit from better description, I figured that a good way to learn how to do it would be to read the great novelists who are best at it. So after a lot of temporizing, I made the plunge and picked up the first volume of the Mother of All Descriptive Novels, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. When I say picked up, I should point out that at over a million words and seven volumes, the novel is difficult to pick up at all without straining yourself. But anyway, I’ve started reading the first volume, Swann’s Way, and well, how can I put it delicately? It’s freakin’ torture! It is requiring a real act of will to continue reading. Someone I know, a Proust fan, says blithely, “Oh, yes, the first volume is like that. It only starts getting good halfway into the second volume.” Oh, joy.

Yet it is oddly compelling in its own molasses-like way. Right now, I’ve made it to page 100, and here’s one example of what I’ve run across so far:

All these things and, still more than these, the treasures which had come to the church from personages who to me were almost legendary figures (such as the golden cross wrought, it was said, by Saint Eloi and presented by Dagobert, and the tomb of the sons of Louis the Germanic in porphyry and enamelled copper), because of which I used to go forward into the church when we were making our way to our chairs as into a fairy-haunted valley, where the rustic sees with amazement on a rock, a tree, a marsh, the tangible proofs of the little people’s supernatural passage–all these things made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town; a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space–the name of the fourth being Time–which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant, hiding the rugged barbarities of the eleventh century in the thickness of its walls, through which nothing could be seen of the heavy arches, long stopped and blinded with coarse blocks of ashlar, except where, near the porch, a deep groove was furrowed into one wall by the tower-stair; and even there the barbarity was veiled by the graceful gothic arcade which pressed coquettishly upon it, like a row of grown-up sisters who, to hide him from the eyes of strangers, arrange themselves smilingly in front of a countrified, unmannerly and ill-dressed younger brother; rearing into the sky above the Square a tower which had looked down upon Saint Louis, and seemed to behold him still; and thrusting down with its crypt into the blackness of a Merovingian night, through which, guiding us with groping finger-tips beneath the shadowy vault, ribbed strongly as an immense bat’s wing of stone, Théodore or his sister would light up for us with a candle the tomb of Sigebert’s little daughter, in which a deep hole, like the bed of a fossil, had been bored, or so it was said, “by a crystal lamp which, on the night when the Frankish princess was murdered, had left, of its own accord, the golden chains by which it was suspended where the apse is to-day and with neither the crystal broken nor the light extinguished had buried itself in the stone, through which it had gently forced its way.”

You may have noticed that that was one sentence. There evidently was a period shortage in France at the time. But there is still something fascinating about it.

As I was reading it, I was trying to recall of whom Proust reminded me, and then it hit me: Samuel Beckett. Now this may seem an odd choice. Beckett is so stripped down, while for Proust everything is decoration, and yet what struck me were two things: first, the total obsession of the two authors in detailing the inner mental processes of their protagonists, and second, the absolute commitment by each author to put down the entire mental process on paper, no matter how tedious, incoherent, or repetitious. Now it may sound like I am criticizing them, but I’m not. It takes a kind of ferocious courage to be so committed. As a reader, I am thinking, oh, are they really going to do this, is Beckett really going to describe how his protagonist moves stones from one pocket to the other and then to his mouth for page after page after page? Is Proust really going to go on and on and on with his description of what every nook and cranny of the town’s church meant to his protagonist? And after a while, the answer becomes apparent: yes they really are. And for me, my numbness turns into a kind of wonder at their bull-headedness. I remember once when I was eight years old I had decided to write down a million circles. I don’t remember how far I got, but if I had finished it, it would have been really cool. That’s how I’m feeling about Proust right now.

It’s interesting to think about how at the turn of the twentieth century, the cultural air of Europe was filled with the explication of mental process. Freud and the flowering of psychoanalysis; Stanislavsky on the inner motivation of the actor; Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen writing plays where the true realism resided in the innermost recesses of the characters’ psyches; expressionist painters who depicted the inner states of their subjects in outward form. And, of course, Proust. The drive was always to make the inner explicitly outer, open to be read and seen.  And equally important, to reveal the connection between inner and outer, and to show how the inner was the prime motor of the outer.

I’m not sure what I can learn from Proust explicitly about writing description, but I have a feeling that if I can make my way through the novel–or at least this first volume (my years on the planet are limited like all of us, after all)–then I might gain some descriptive power by a kind of osmosis. By bathing in it, I hope to benefit from the residue.

That’s the theory, anyway. If it doesn’t work out, at least I can say to God that I feel the Proust pages I did read should offset all those pages of description that I skipped over through the years. If She’s got any sense of fair play at all, I figure She’s got to give me a break on that. And there better be plenty of madelines up there.

Would He Had Blotted A Thousand


The players often mention it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted a thousand.'” –Ben Jonson

Stephen Minch, owner of The Hermetic Press, publisher of fine books about conjuring, must have blotted out hundreds of thousands of words by now. Enough, anyway, so that he can write authoritative and amusing advice to the players in his Hermetic Press Stylebook.

Minch’s 11-page Stylebook is a fascinating little read for anyone interested in magic, reading, or writing. Even if you are a writer who is not at all interested in magic,  I still urge you to take at look at this booklet. You can download it for free here. I was lead to this book by a review in Genii, The Conjurer’s Magazine, where the reviewer, Eric Mead, no slouch himself in either the writing or the magishing department, makes a very good case for the stylebook’s necessity. “Writing about magic,” Mead says, “is technical work, extremely demanding, and requires a clarity and precision with words that few seem to be able to master.”

As someone who has spent some time proofreading magic and other kinds of books, I can attest to this. The issues involved in writing about magic are sometimes magic specific: should we capitalize the names of cards? Should the names of sleights be capitalized? If a deck is face up (hyphen or no?) where is the top of the deck? And here’s one that Minch doesn’t take on: should we call the people for whom we do effects (tricks? experiments?) spectators, participants, subjects?

But since magic is a hands-on art, its description must also share similarities with other hands-on how-to books. Mead points to the following instructive example:

“Here is one sentence one might find in a magic book: ‘Pick up the deck with your right hand, and place it into left-hand dealing grip.’ Minch suggests this sentence is more effective if written, ‘With your right hand, pick up the deck, and place it into left-hand dealing grip.’ Not only does the second version avoid an ugly dangling phrase, it delivers the reader information in the most useful order.” [italics mine]

Useful really, when you think about it, for so many kinds of description. If a reader is trying to follow along, s/he doesn’t want to pick up the deck, and only then, afterward, find that the deck was picked up by the wrong hand. Order matters!

There are some issues, however, which Minch tackles, with which I disagree; he dislikes “(s)he” and “s/he,” pleading that “When someone comes up with a new non-gender specific pronoun that is as functional as “he”, I’ll consider it; but for now I think it best to follow traditional usage. Especially when you consider that ninety-eight percent of the readers of magic books are male.” This seems to me to be dead wrong on two counts: “s/he” is just as functional as “he”; and even if 100% of magic readers were male, it’s still sexist to default to the male pronoun. These kinds of things matter, too, in my opinion.

But for the most part, there is much sound advice. I have to admit, I had never thought before about why “put the deck on the table,” was poor usage. (If you don’t know why, then you, like me, especially need to read this stylebook. 🙂 )

I like proofreading. It really makes me think a lot about how writing, not the least, my own, can be improved. It’s a low-risk way to get to be a better writer. So, thanks to the people who have given me the opportunity to revise their work, and thanks to Stephen Minch of Hermetic Press for bringing clarity to his criteria for good magic writing.



I’ve gotten back feedback for my novel from the few people to whom I’d sent it. I can’t thank them enough for how helpful they’ve been!

They gave me such useful comments, big picture and little picture. They told me what worked for them and what didn’t work.

I’ll try to summarize the feedback, especially when the same comments were given by more than one reader.

The biggest thing that was not clear to the readers was: whose story is this? The character, Holly, who I want to be the protagonist is not yet carrying the story. That feedback makes so much sense to me because of the way that I wrote the book. I didn’t start off with any plan in mind—I just wrote. Sometimes I’d sketch out one character, and then I’d move on to another, not necessarily related, character. It wasn’t until a few drafts in, that I even understood how the characters were related. In fact, it wasn’t until the most recent version that I understood who the protagonist would be. At that point, it still felt like an ensemble piece, and not a story with a lead character and supporting characters.  I had attempted to fix it by cutting certain scenes starring minor characters.  I liked those scenes and those characters, but I had given those characters too much time, so they had to go. You can listen to one such scene, which I broadcast on the radio, here. But despite that, what I’ve learned from my readers is that I’m still not there yet. My protagonist, Holly, is not yet the spine of the story. And that’s valuable to know, because I couldn’t judge that accurately by myself.

The second point that my readers made, was that it was difficult, at first, to sort through and get a fix on all the characters. It takes too much time to understand who they are and what their role in the story is. In addition, I need to introduce the major conflict, which should drive the book, much earlier on.

Readers also caught all kinds of logical mistakes in the time line and elsewhere. Those are also difficult to catch on my own. And several readers mentioned, too, that they thought that I could add more visual elements in setting a scene.

But the other wonderful thing that they did, was to tell me what they liked. That was really important for me, too. I don’t expect that everyone will like everything that I’ve written; I know that people’s tastes vary too much. But I do want to feel that for the people who are my “ideal readers,” that certain key moments worked for them. I sent this out to these particular readers because I had a feeling that we had some shared literary sensibility. So it was exciting when they liked certain scenes, or were amused by certain lines, because I was writing those scenes and lines, in some sense, just for them. That they responded positively tells me that I’m heading in the right direction.

This has been a very happy experience for me. I feel like I can go back to the novel and work. I know what I need to do. Whether I have the skill to do it is another question.

I feel an obligation. But the obligation—is this strange?—is not to myself, or even to the book, but to the characters. I can’t let them down. They want their story told. I have to see this through to the end, for them.

Fourth Draft Jitters Part 2

Just when I thought I was out . . . It’s not finished by a long shot.

Last week, I wrote about the novel I was writing. I was nervous because after a month of letting it lie dormant, I was about to dive into the fourth revision. I didn’t know what I was going to find.

The plan was to find a quiet place and read through it in one sitting. I started to read and after thirty pages I had to stop. It was too disappointing. Everything that had seemed so sparkling and trenchant a month ago was flat on the page, a dead thing.


A few days later, I read some more. I came to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong that couldn’t be improved by pitching the first 150 pages into a burning tar hellhole of a pit.

Double grrr.

So. Decision. I can see the problems plainly. I can identify them. I can name them. I can put the proper colored tag on each one.

What I don’t know is whether I can fix them. That is, I may be at the limit of my skill and talent. Alternatively, I could seek feedback and educate myself further and see where that takes me. I expect that I would then be capable of making some changes, but not have the ability or talent to make others.  I may have to accept that this is where I am.

Or I could just scrap the whole thing.

Today, however, I had a more positive experience. I decided to sit down again and start reading from page 151 until I reached the end, some 200 pages later. And I was able to do it. Sometimes I was smiling, and sometimes I was giving myself mental high fives. I liked what I read in that latter part. I was compelled to keep reading up to the end. The patient was definitely worth saving.

I think I see the path I have to take.

The first third doesn’t work because it takes too long for my actors to become active. I need to chisel away the rest of the marble to reveal the action of my story. My protagonist needs to be confronted with her problem within the first few pages. Settings need to be clarified, chronology and seasons sorted out, cliches ditched, language sharpened. I think these are all possible, all within my skill set.

So my time line is extended one more time. They’ve pulled me back in. We can’t let each other go yet. I’ll be back at my desk again tomorrow, as always, trying to write myself out.

Fourth Draft Jitters


I’m as jittery as a three-wheeled caboose. I am about to face my novel again, the fourth draft to be exact. I don’t know what I’m going to find.

I’ve been working on a novel for the past few years.  In the last 10 months, I’ve given it more serious commitment. It’s become the most important part of my day. Three drafts done, the words finally sculpting a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

I worked through the drafts without much break in between. I didn’t want to lose the thread of whatever was there. I printed out the completed third draft, put it in a manila envelope, and buried it under a pile of bills by the window in the corner of my workspace. The morning street noises unconcernedly wafted over it.

One month. That’s the timeline I was giving myself. I was on forced vacation from the characters I liked and loved. The plan was to get some distance and come back for one final draft before letting a few others give their feedback.

I kept myself busy during the month (this blog, an outline for another novel) but now the time is up. Tomorrow I dig up the manila folder and start reading the pages again. It’s like meeting an old college friend. I hope we still like each other.

When my son was born I kept thinking how lucky I was to have such an absurdly beautiful baby.  Maybe Nature makes that happen for all parents. The parents look at their newborn and think no baby could possibly be more perfect. When I look back at the earliest pictures of my son, the truth is he looks pretty much like every other newborn baby. Even down to the identical funny little hats they are all issued at the hospital. It’s a wonderful protective mechanism we’re given (the parental pride, not the funny little hats).

But novels? I’m not so sure we get that kind of creator’s protection. We have to face the consequences of our lexical mistakes and bear the shock of whatever is really there. What if there’s nothing worth saving?

How bold will I be? Will I wimp out if it’s clear that the whole structure is rotten and needs re-modeling? Will I ruthlessly cut out characters who don’t add to the story line? Will I, as the advice famously goes, kill my darlings?

Not so fast. In previous drafts, my editorial self was tempted to take out whole characters and subplots. But I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t kill my darlings. And that mercy, I think, for now at least, was the better choice. As I found out more about my characters and my story I found a way to more fully integrate them into the plot of the novel. I think the novel is stronger for that decision.

The one thing I am happy about is that with every draft so far,  I’ve surprised myself with new content. It’s not just been about changing words here or there, but still working with something alive and pliable. Each round I’ve written something that surprises me, surprises my characters. I am grateful for that.

She steps off the platform with suitcases, the blue suitcase I remember. The turn of her shoulder. What coat is that? What hair? We walk towards each other with half a smile on our lips. I stumble on a rock.

I’ll let you know how it all went in the coming week.