CRAFT LESSON; Uncle Oren’s Toolbox and the Value of Over-reporting
One summer when Stephen King was a young boy, he helped his Uncle Oren, a carpenter, repair a screen door on the side of his house.
“I remember following him with the replacement screen balanced on my head, like a native bearer in a Tarzan movie,” King recalled. Oren meanwhile lugged his toolbox, bulging with tools and weighing in at nearly 100 pounds, “horsing it along at thigh level.”.
‘There was a hammer, a saw, the pliers, a couple of sized wrenches and an adjustable; there was a level with that mystic yellow window in the middle, a drill (the various bits were neatly drawered farther down in the depths), and two screwdrivers. Uncle Oren asked me for a screwdriver.”
Wielding the simple tool, Oren speedily removed the eight screws that secured the broken screen and attached the new one. But King was puzzled. He asked his uncle why he’d lugged the toolbox all the way around the house “if all he needed was the screwdriver. He could have carried a screwdriver in the back pocket of his khakis.”
“Yeah, but Stevie,” he said, bending to grasp the handles, “I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.”
I thought of this story, which can be found in King’s magisterial memoir “On Writing” today after a conversation with my friend Stephen Buckley. Stephen has had a distinguished career as a journalist; Washington Post foreign correspondent with postings in East Africa and Brazil, national correspondent and managing editor for the St. Petersburg Times, (now the Tampa Bay Times),–dean of The Poynter Institute before returning to Kenya to run the Professional Development Program at the Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communications, Nairobi, He is now a media consultant.
When Stephen comes back on his occasional visits to the U.S., we always try to have breakfast at Trip’s, a local diner. It’s a highlight of my year, not just because he’s a wonderful companion, but a reflective practitioner of the craft of writing.
. “I always worry that I don’t have enough material for a story so I overreeport,’ he said on his last visit. “Of course, then I have so much to wade through.”
I stopped him mid-bite.. “You can’t ever overdo it,” I said. ‘You can’t overreport or research too much. But you can underthink. You can underplan. You can underrevise.”
Writers, my mentor Don Murray taught me, “write best from an overabundance of material.”
When Murray was a prolific magazine writer, he filled a trash can with the reporting materials he used and if the can was full he—and his editors—were satisfied he had a solid, fully-reported story. But when he needed something else–a quote, a fact, a statistic–and had to scour the bottom of the near empty bucket he knew he was screwed. He’d under-reported.
Over-reporting played an important role in the first draft of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project,” a New York Times Magazine essay about the bitter legacy of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to America. Her first draft “was more than twice as long as what ran. There were a lot of examples that did not make it in the final draft. This is part of what makes long-form, deep research really hard. You just have so much information and it’s hard, when you’re so immersed in it, to figure out the most important examples and storytelling points.” The abundance of material, winnowed during revisions, gave the story the authority it needed to make her case. It won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
What Stephen Buckley thought of as overreporting was the crucial accretion of facts, details, scenes, dialogue that made his own stories so memorable. Yes, it’s a hassle, whether you’re researching a book or magazine piece, a feature story or even a deadline news account, to confront a pile of notebooks, screenfuls of interview transcripts, audio recordings and the other research materials that go into effective writing. It can be agony to realize you can only use a fraction of what you collected,
As Bloomberg Business Magazine writer Bryan Gruley said in a recent interview, when he’s pursuing a feature story, doing the work means “looking at every page of notes, documents, and other materials I’ve gathered in my weeks of research, even though only about 1 percent of what’s there is likely to make it into my story.”
But that’s where the power of a story comes from. It’s the price writers pay for writing stories that have the heft of Uncle Oren’s toolbag. It’s what goes into stories that have no holes, that are written with the strength that can come only from over-reporting,
“We talked all night.” “We looked up and realized the restaurant was empty.”
How often have we heard these descriptions of successful dates, those close, and perhaps apocryphal, encounters when two people reveal their personal histories to each other for the first time?
In the vocabulary of fiction, we would say they’re giving each other their backstory, revealing past actions and influences that shaped their personalities, the way they think and behave. An abusive parent? An inspiring mentor. A serious childhood illness. A painful breakup.
The literary device of backstory establishes what happens before the story that is the main plotline. It’s the information that gives characters and narrative arcs a sense of personal and social history.
Writers use them to raise the stakes for a character. Can a young mother with a history of drug abuse keep the monkey off her back so she can keep her child from the clutches of a vengeful ex-husband or Child Protective Services?
A backstory makes a character’s psychological motivations understandable. In Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” why does the wealthy spinster Miss Havisham always wear her wedding dress even after it’s tattered? Why does she leave the uneaten wedding breakfast and cake untouched on a table? Because in her youth, she was left at the altar, leaving her wounded and cynical. That’s her tragic backstory, and explains why she torments Pip, the protagonist of the novel, and Estella, the orphan she adopted. She had intended to spare her ward from the suffering she endured, but couldn’t resist causing her pain.
“My dear!” she tells Pip, “Believe this: when she first came, I meant to save her from misery like my own. At first I meant no more. But as she grew, and promised to be very beautiful, I gradually did worse, and with my praises, and with my jewels, and with my teachings, and with this figure of myself always before her a warning to back and point my lessons, I stole her heart away and put ice in its place.”
Backstories are critical elements in a novel or screenplay although they should not dominate the front story which make up the scenes and exposition of the main action.
A back story has two purposes,” writer Jessica Morrell says in her article, “What Backstory Can Do For Your Story.” “A character’s backstory comprises all the data of his history, revealing how he became who he is, and why he acts as he does and thinks as he thinks. It also reveals influences of an era, family history, and world events (such as wars) that affect the story and its inhabitants.”
The writer needs to know each character’s backstory, even though they may reveal only a small percentage. Lives are long. Just as people don’t tell a new friend or lover every single thing about themselves during a first meeting, the effective writer parcels out the backstory judiciously rather than cramming them all in flashbacks that tear the reader from the main story that has grabbed their attention in the first place.
There are a variety of ways to introduce backstory, including flashbacks, exposition, dialogue, direct narration and a character’s recollections. Whatever method you choose, avoid dumping background information on the story all at once.
“The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting,” Stephen King writes in “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.”
“Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest,” King says. “Life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.”
When Ernest Hemingway talked about the fact that only one-eighth of an iceberg shows above the water, he was describing a theory of omission that represents a form of backstory. In his short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” the backstory is that the couple sitting drinking wine as they wait for a train are discussing an abortion without ever saying the word. The original “Star Wars” movie and its first two sequels contain preconceived backstories that were later developed into prequels. Even its minor characters have backstories.
Other backstories are a form of foreshadowing. Early in the movie, “The Silence of the Lambs,” which hews closely to Thomas Harris’ novel, agent Starling, played by Jodi Foster, sees a lineup of the gruesome photos of serial killer Buffalo Bill’s victims.
“Thus, when Catherine, the senator’s daughter, is captured,” Morell notes, “we’re aware of the gruesome torments that await her. Further, because backstory reveals that Buffalo Bill keeps his victims alive for a certain number of days, the stakes are increased because time is running out for Catherine. When Starling confronts Bill in the climax of the novel, the backstory heightens the suspense.”
The inability to measure up to his younger brother, which fuels Peter Wiggin’s anger and ambition (the “Ender’s Shadow” series by Orson Scott Card)
The long-harbored guilt for brutal war crimes, which impels Benjamin Martin to avoid war (the movie “The Patriot”).
The long years of loneliness which influenced John Barratt to accept the compulsory swapping of roles with his French lookalike (“The Scapegoat” by Daphne du Maurier).
As you compose your novel or screenplay and develop your characters, you have to know their backstory. Study the backstories in classic novels like Fyodor Dosteovsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” about Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished law student who murders an elderly money lender. ShowTime’s “Dexter” uses flashbacks to reveal how a serial killer with a twisted ethical compass is born. Dickens launches “David Copperfield” with backstory. The backstory of the “Harry Potter” series is the murder of Harry’s parents by the dark wizard Lord Voldemort. Reread your favorite novels and study films to identify the back story, their purpose and the methods the writer used to develop and present them. to the reader
As you start work on your own story, it’s crucial to answer a ton of questions about your characters to make sure you understand who they are and where they came from. Here’s one of the most comprehensive that I’ve found. It’s long, but essential if you hope to write a story that raises the stakes for its characters, furnishes psychological realism and above all, make readers understand how and why your characters behave as they do. Backstory has many purposes in the creation of realistic characters. The most important is that it helps readers care about them.
I’d heard the story many times, but I still couldn’t believe it.
Let’s face it, it sounded a little strange.
Gay Talese, the acclaimed narrative writer, a pioneer of New Journalism, pinned his manuscript pages to the wall of his office.
He then walked across the room to his desk. On it rested a pair of binoculars.
He picked them up and trained them on his pages to study them word by word.
Or so the story went.
Bizarre. Perhaps. But it seems to have worked.
Talese is the author of books and magazine articles that set the standard for narrative writing. One of them, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” famously demonstrated how you could write a profile without actually interviewing the subject.
Talese wouldn’t be the first writer to turn to a ritual, quasi-religious behavior.
Rita Dove, the former U. S. Poet Laureate, wrote by hand, standing up at a lectern with a candlestick on it. She wrote at the end of the day. She lit the candle and as the burning tallow began to flicker on the page, she began to compose.
When John Steinbeck was writing his classic novel ‘East of Eden,” he started each day by writing a letter to his editor Pascal “Pat” Covici.” By his side sat twelve round pencils sent spinning twice a day through an electric sharpener, each sharpened tip enough to last a page.
Gail Godwin, the novelist (“A Mother and Two Daughters,” Grief Cottage“) and essayist, lights two different kinds of incense. Godwin relies on other totems: crisp new legal pads and new No. 2 pencils with erasers that don’t leave red smears.
Rituals, if these acclaimed writers demonstrate, matter to writers. They are part of their process, almost religious-like gestures designed it seems to summon the Muse.
Allure of rituals
The rituals of successful writers hold a special allure for those trying to emulate their success.
Over the years, I’ve collected many examples. Unfortunately, many are unattributed. They may be apocryphal, their authenticity dubious.
But I’ve seen a picture of Rita Dove standing at her desk with the lighted candle glowing.
On the Internet, I found an image of a notebook page that James Joyce marked up with red crayons.
From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors,” Celia Blue Johnson does a remarkably thorough job documenting the rituals, working habits and environments of nearly 200 writers from Diane Ackerman to W.B. Yeats.
James Joyce wrote in bed wearing a long white coat and used crayons to mark up his notebooks (in the picture below, he chose red and green ) for “Ulysses.”
Truman Capote, author of the legendary “In Cold Blood,” insisted on leaving three–only three– cigarette butts in his ashtray. Honoré de Balzac, the 19th-century novelist, gulped dozens of cups of strong coffee every day–the exact amount is in question–to keep him going. The French writer Colette couldn’t pick up her pen before picking the fleas off her cat. Whatever works, I guess.
Some, like poet Robert Frost, could only write by night, Johnson recounts. As an aspiring fiction writer, J.D. Salinger huddled under his bedsheets at night, and “with the aid of a flashlight he began writing stories,” his editor William Maxwell recalled. William Faulkner wrote “As I Lay Dying” in just six weeks, churning out his novel during the night shift at the power plant where he worked.
Others, like Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf trekked for miles in the countryside finding energy and inspiration along the way. Later in the modern age, the airplane became the favorite place of composition for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Margaret Atwood.
Environment matters to many writers. Marcel Proust famously lined the bedroom where he wrote with corkboard to keep out the noise and heavy curtains to blank light that might distract him from composing the classic, “Remembrance of Things Past.” Maya Angelou rented hotel rooms to write in. By her bed, “a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, “Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray and a Bible.”
I’ve been thumbing through Johnson’s book with great pleasure. It’s replete with fascinating examples demonstrating that “writers are a very quirky bunch,” sometimes bordering on the obsessive.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has altered the usual working spots for many writers, as author and teacher Matt Tullis found in this fascinating piece for Nieman Storyboard.
If you’d like to learn the rituals of some of your favorite writers, I recommend Johnson’s book, (I got a used copy off Amazon for under nine dollars. If you’d like to save some money, Maria Popova over at the inestimable Brain Pickings blog has already done a great service summarizing Johnson’s findings beyond the ones I’ve listed here.)
How writing rituals help
Tools matter. For the prolific French writer, Alexandre Dumas could only write poetry on yellow paper, pink for articles, blue for novels. Eudora Welty revised with scissors and pins–”straight pins, hat pins, corsage pins and needles-“-rather than paste. Langston Hughes wrote his letters in bright-green ink, Rudyard Kipling jet black.
To non-writers, these behaviors must smack of obsessive-compulsive disorder. To those of us struggling every day to create something worthwhile, they can be the difference between a productive day or one that ends in despair. Writers are fascinated by rituals, I believe, because they think if they mimic the routines of successful predecessors they might be able to achieve the same.
What may seem like ridiculous behavior to the non-writer, I recognize as actions with rational goals. They:
Help writers get in the frame to write.
Alleviate anxiety that prompts writer’s block, starting writing or procrastination, inability to get in the chair in the first place.
Focus on the mundane as a way to set aside intrusions.
Provide a routine to keep a writer on track
Of course, not everyone believes in rituals. Isaac Asimov, with over 500 published books to his name, dismissed the idea as “ridiculous.”
“My only ritual is to sit close enough to the typewriters so that the fingers touch the keys.”
I own a treasured paperback copy of Gay Talese’s first book, the 1961 collection, “Fame and Obscurity: A Book about New York, a Bridge and Celebrities on the Edge.” To call it dog-eared is a vast understatement; the cover hangs by a few threads. I carried it with me to a writing conference years ago where I knew my idol was speaking. During a break, I managed to get not only Talese’s autograph, but to confirm, from his own mouth, that he had indeed reviewed his manuscript pages with binoculars.
I was so awestruck that I neglected to ask an obvious question: why?
But if I had to guess, I think he would have answered, “Because it worked.”
I want to make a sacrilegious argument. If you want to be a better writer, don’t write. At least, not for a while.
How can that be? How can you improve if you’re not consistently practicing your craft, day in and day out?
If you’re like me, every day that passes without a word, a line, a paragraph written, seems like a day wasted. It brings to mind the French writer Simone de Beavuoir’s observation that I recently quoted: “A day in which I don’t write leaves a taste of ashes.” Not to mention that the motto at the end of my newsletters is “Never a day without a line.”
But there’s also something to be said, some writers argue, for letting the well of creativity fill up again after you’ve finished a story.
Whether you’re writing full time or on the side, as many do, fallow periods may be just what you need, these writers say. Journalists and freelancers dependent on constant output may not have this option, of course, but they can take mini-breaks if they intelligently manage their time.
There’s an agricultural analogy that supports the argument of not writing. For a while at least.
It’s not uncommon for farmers to plow their fields some seasons, but leave them unsown in order to restore their fertility.
The notion is reassuring because I’m suffering from an on-and-off spell of writer’s block. The days when I work productively on a fiction project are sadly outnumbered by those where I’ll do anything else. Incessant checking of my Twitter feed is a diverting substitute. Days have slipped by without my fingers touching the keyboard, except for producing my newsletters. The fog of self-doubt lifts some days, but even then my word count has amounted to just a few lines or scribbled phrases in my daybook.
As writers, we agonize over writer’s block, that occupational curse that holds our words at bay. But in “Maybe the Secret to Writing is Not Writing,” a provocative essay for Lit Hub I stumbled upon the other day, Kate Angus makes a persuasive case for taking a break.
“These days I’ve come to believe that it’s natural for many of us to go through periods when we put words to the page and times when we can’t. Maybe we can accept that we aren’t blocked at all,” she writes, “and that resting might just be part of our process.”
That’s what Roy Peter Clark, the influential writing teacher and my former colleague at The Poynter Institute, has been saying for decades. He turns the notion of procrastination on its head by urging writers to eschew negative self-talk when the writing machine spins to a halt.
“Turn your little quirks into something productive,” Clark says in “Writing Tools,” his best-selling guidebook. “Call it rehearsal or preparation or planning.”
It’s a potent solution, one that removes the stigma of writer’s block, replacing it with something positive.
Clark’s got a point. Your mind doesn’t shut off when you’re not writing. You’re still observing, an actor rehearsing a role, watching people and soaking up insights into the human condition — the subject matter of all great literature. Your mind still teems with story ideas, echoes with dialogue and creates possible characters. Like police officers, the writer is never really off-duty.
Angus quotes poet t’ai freedom ford (cq), who says there are “large swaths when I’m not actually writing, but I am doing lots of things to stimulate my muses and so I count it as writing. In that way, I don’t really believe in writer’s block, because when I consider the elements of my process, I’m most always writing (even if it’s only in my head).”
There are some who take the merits of not writing even further.
Poet Ada Limón feels ‘like there should be a permission slip for writers. Something you can sign for someone that says, ‘You don’t always have to write,’” she says in the essay. “You have permission to just be in the world and grieve and laugh and live and do your damn laundry. Writing comes when it comes, and it’s not the most important thing. You and all the little nuisances and nuances of life are what matter most. Don’t miss this gorgeous mess by always trying to make sense of it all.”
Taking a break isn’t without its risks. Ceasing regular writing may make it difficult to restart the habit.
Part of my problem is that I put aside my project while I finished a long short story besides my regular compendia of writing advice. I found it hard to regain my momentum, especially in the times of trouble we’re all living through. It’s hard not to be distracted and depressed by the steady drumbeat of tragic news, the pressures of pandemic and the gnawing uncertainty of life under quarantine even if, like me, you’ve been lucky enough to be spared personal loss. For those who haven’t please accept my deepest sympathies.
To deal with the fact that I’m writing less than I want or should, I’m reading more.
I’m savoring the acclaimed “Collected Short Stories of John Cheever,” 61 stories by the 20th-century master stylist called the “Chekhov of the suburbs.” Rarely does a page go by when I’m not copying out phrases, sentences or whole paragraphs to cherish, learn from and try to imitate. Reading generates writing. It amounts to a slow re-entry. I recommend it highly.
I may not generate hundreds of words at a stretch right now, but on walks with my dog, Leo, or by myself, I’ve been trying out scenes and staging imaginary plot points. They circulate in the back of my mind where I hope they will grow into something potent.
After reading Angus’s essay, I’ve been trying not to beat myself up if I deviate from my writing schedule, even though I still fear I’ll lose velocity and, heaven forfend, give up.
In the meantime, I’m learning to trust my subconscious. And I think it’s paying off. In recent days, I have found myself writing again, feeling excitement and energy rather than despair and inertia. The other morning I woke and couldn’t wait to start writing. I soon hit my daily word count and then nearly doubled it. And for the first time in a long time, I liked what I saw. Even a short break had topped off the tank of my creativity.
I think Angus and Limón make a valid point. Eventually, that farmer who lets his field go fallow for a season or more will plant again. With the soil replenished by time and the cattle and horses who graze upon it, the crop will be greater, richer. Who’s to say that won’t be the case if you set aside your writing, to soak in the “gorgeous mess” of life? You’ll have a wealth of material to draw on when you return to your desk and the chance for a harvest far greater than what came before.
What makes a character unforgettable? A classic novel provides a handful of critical answers
A distant husband, father to two flighty children. A businessman with dubious ethics. A Loyal friend. A man who longs for a life with greater meaning than an existence he finds increasingly empty.
He could be someone’s father, uncle, husband, brother, a memorably flawed human being.
But he is actually a character, George F. Babbit, a figment of a writer’s imagination, in this case, that of Sinclair Lewis, who wrote a series of closely-observed satirical novels that won him the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes.
I first read his 1922 novel, “Babbitt” in high school and have returned to it many times since. It’s been literature as comfort food. “Babbit” is nearly a century old and admittedly outdated in many, ways, but it remains a classic of literary realism.
Although he wrote fiction, Lewis brought to his novels a journalist’s attention to detail while researching his novels. From it, I learned many things, about style and satire and America in the early 20th century.
But most of all, Babbit teaches valuable lessons on how to create a believable character, so vivid that I can tell you, even though I haven’t cracked its pages in several years, what happens to him over the course of several months that constitute the novel’s trajectory. How he:
embraces a boosterish, patriotic and xenophobic middle-class business community
gleefully rips of clients and his employees
Ignores and cheats on his long-suffering wife
comes to doubt and ultimately doubt his beliefs and existence;
engages in a misguided and humiliating affair and then, chastened by ostracism, renews his tragic allegiance to his culture and community.
How did Lewis create a narcissistic character that lingers so deeply in the mind? And what can writers of fiction and narrative nonfiction learn from his methods that they can bring to their own stories?
How did Lewis manage to create a character, on one hand, an odious human being, while at the same time, as English novelist Hugh Walpole wrote, “without extenuating one of his follies, his sentimentalities, his snobbishness, his lies and his meannesses, he has made him of common clay with ourselves.” Babbitt, the man and the novel, are a triumph of the imagination and the writerly gifts of his creator.
Strong characters are a mosaic of many features. Here are five principal ways, with examples from my Kindle edition of “Babbitt”, that Lewis relies on to create a believable figure. (You can read the book for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg.)
What a character looks like creates a mental picture in the reader’s eye. Otherwise, he is a cipher. Lewis introduces Babbit in the opening pages as he sleeps:
He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay. His large head was pink, his brown hair thin and dry. His face was babyish in slumber, despite his wrinkles and the red spectacle-dents on the slopes of his nose. He was not fat but he was exceedingly well fed; his cheeks were pads, and the unroughened hand which lay helpless upon the khaki-colored blanket was slightly puffy. He seemed prosperous, extremely married and unromantic;
What does my character look like, sound like, smell like? Will readers be able to visualize him or her?
Status details are realistic and revelatory items that bring characters to life in fiction and creative nonfiction. In The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe defines status details as:
“the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behavior toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene. Symbolic of what? Symbolic, generally, of people’s status life, using that term in the broad sense of the entire pattern and behavior and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be. The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose. It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”
For Babbit, the details are the contents of his pockets, totems of his career and station in life.
He was earnest about these objects. They were of eternal importance, like baseball or the Republican Party. They included a fountain pen and a silver pencil (always lacking a supply of new leads) which belonged in the righthand upper vest pocket. Without them he would have felt naked. On his watch-chain were a gold penknife, silver cigar-cutter, seven keys (the use of two of which he had forgotten), and incidentally a good watch. Depending from the chain was a large, yellowish elk’s-tooth-proclamation of his membership in the Brotherly and Protective Order of Elks. Most significant of all was his loose-leaf pocket note-book, that modern and efficient note-book which contained the addresses of people whom he had forgotten, prudent memoranda of postal money-orders which had reached their destinations months ago, stamps which had lost their mucilage, clippings of verses by T. Cholmondeley Frink and of the newspaper editorials from which Babbitt got his opinions and his polysyllables, notes to be sure and do things which he did not intend to do,
…But he had no cigarette-case. No one had ever happened to give him one, so he hadn’t the habit, and people who carried cigarette-cases he regarded as effeminate.
What status details are evident in my character’s life; from the car she drives to the contents of his wallet? What do they reveal about her?
How people speak to others and past them and to themselves within scenes reveals their character. In this exchange with his wife, we hear the kind of blustery monologue that characterizes Babbitt’s solipsistic personality and witness a Man Child on full display.
“I feel kind of punk this morning,” he said. “I think I had too much dinner last evening. You oughtn’t to serve those heavy banana fritters.”
“But you asked me to have some.”
“I know, but—I tell you, when a fellow gets past forty he has to look after his digestion. There’s a lot of fellows that don’t take proper care of themselves. I tell you at forty a man’s a fool or his doctor—I mean, his own doctor. Folks don’t give enough attention to this matter of dieting. Now I think—Course a man ought to have a good meal after the day’s work, but it would be a good thing for both of us if we took lighter lunches.”
“But Georgie, here at home I always do have a light lunch.”
“Mean to imply I make a hog of myself, eating down-town? Yes, sure! You’d have a swell time if you had to eat the truck that new steward hands out to us at the Athletic Club! But I certainly do feel out of sorts, this morning. Funny, got a pain down here on the left side—but no, that wouldn’t be appendicitis, would it? Last night, when I was driving over to Verg Gunch’s, I felt a pain in my stomach, too. Right here it was—kind of a sharp shooting pain. I—Where’d that dime go to? Why don’t you serve more prunes at breakfast? Of course I eat an apple every evening—an apple a day keeps the doctor away—but still, you ought to have more prunes, and not all these fancy doodads.”
“The last time I had prunes you didn’t eat them.”
“Well, I didn’t feel like eating ’em, I suppose. Matter of fact, I think I did eat some of ’em. Anyway—I tell you it’s mighty important to—I was saying to Verg Gunch, just last evening, most people don’t take sufficient care of their diges—”
His speech also reveals his cultural and social influences in the manly but cartoonish banter with his friends over lunch at the Zenith Athletic Club.
“Oh, boy! Some head! That was a regular party you threw, Verg! Hope you haven’t forgotten I took that last cute little jack-pot!” Babbitt bellowed. (He was three feet from Gunch.)
It unveils his needs and desires in his pathetic attempts to woo a neighbor at a dinner party.
“Anybody ever tell you your hands are awful pretty?”
What does my character talk like? What does the way he talks to others reveal about him or her?
Babbit is a series of set pieces, built on scenes that show Babbit in action. A boisterous lunch at his club. A boozy convention with a disastrous visit to a brothel. A fishing trip in the Canadian woods with his best friend, the reticent and artistic Paul Riesling. A bitter labor dispute in which he inadvisedly takes the side of the workers. His dealings with real estate clients. His brief love affair with a widow and his involvement with her alcohol-sodden friends. They show Babbit’s likes and dislikes, his interactions with other characters and his goals in life.
How do my characters behave? How do their actions drive the plot and reflect the theme?
More than anything, Babbit wants to belong, to be part of a community that embraces and admires him even as he desires another life that enables him to be free of his family, his companions and his work. But even when he rebels, his actions and those of others thwart those desires. He cheats on his wife only to feel trapped by that illicit relationship as he is in his sexless marriage. He befriends a Socialist in a labor dispute, betraying his class in a final act of rebellion which causes his friends and fellow Boosters to reject him. It is only after his wife falls seriously ill that his friends rally round him. Defeated, he rejoins their company, rejecting his dream life. The tragedy is complete.
What does my character want more than anything in life? Wealth? Respect? Victory? Love?
That goal will play into everything we learn about the character.
I could have chosen other examples from my bookshelves and among the movies I’ve seen with equally memorable characters.
Feisty Erin Brockovich in the eponymous Academy Award-winning film about a lowly legal clerk who takes down a polluting corporation.
Mitchell Stephens, the haunted lawyer in Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter,” a novel set in a small town reeling from a school bus accident that has killed most of its children.
The brutally up-and-down boxer Floyd Patterson in Gay Talese’s classic profile, “The Loser.”
John Updike’s “Rabbit,” a series of 20th-century novels about a car salesman whose realistic approach and themes echo the life of Babbit.
For that matter, I could have chosen from Lewis’ other novels: “Main Street,” his breakthrough novel about an idealistic young woman suffocated in a narrow-minded village; “Arrowsmith,” about an idealistic scientist,” or “Elmer Gantry,” which eviscerated a huckster evangelist. All are triumphs.
But I chose Babbit, not only because I am so familiar with him, but because I wanted to know why he is so unforgettable so that I can develop characters as memorable as those Lewis created.
Since writers read twice—once to enjoy, the other learn—dissecting one of your favorite books or stories as I did can be a valuable exercise. If you want to create a memorable character, study how one is made.
Craft Query: Who are the most memorable characters you have encountered in fiction or nonfiction and what made them linger in your mind.?
“Every morning between 9 and 12 I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper,” said the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, whose famous works include the novel “Wise Blood” and the story collection “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” “Many times I just sit for 3 hours with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing: if an idea those come between 9 and 12, I am there ready for it.”
There is only one way I know to get the writing down: be there.. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, or not feeling great (major illnesses and surgery excepting), writing gets done when the writer is in the chair. More than one of the writers I’ve interviewed recently for this publication have emphasized this. Award-winning mystery writer Bruce DeSilva said, “My years in journalism taught me that writing is a job—something you do whether or not you feel like it. You do not wait to be inspired. You do not search for your muse. You just plant your ass in your chair and write.” It’s how he’s published five novels.
When Bryan Gruley pursues a nonfiction story in his day job as a feature writer for
Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, “doing the work means, for instance, looking at every page of notes, documents, and other materials I’ve gathered in my weeks of research, even though only about 1 percent of what’s there is likely to make it into my story,” he told me. “As a novelist, doing the work is more about sitting at my laptop every morning and putting words to digital paper. Whether it’s 300 or 500 or 1,000 words a day, if I keep doing the work, I know I’ll eventually have enough in front of me that I can begin to see my way to the middle of a book and, finally, an end. I’ve heard writers say, “That story just wrote itself.” If only.” Gruley just published his third crime thriller.
Some days the words will come in a flood. On others, it’s like pulling teeth. While many writers establish a word count and refuse to get up from their desk until they hit it, I don’t think that’s necessary. There have been days where I look up and realize I have written 500-plus words. Stephen King’s word count is 2,000 words, but for me, those two pages are good enough, even though I realize I will have to revise them. Then there are the miserable ones where I have been lucky to eke out a few dozen. But as long as I haven’t missed a day, I am content. Writing every day, or whatever schedule you set, is a promise we make. In a previous life as a newspaper reporter, I had no choice. When deadline came, I couldn’t tell my editor, “Sorry, Boss, the well just ran dry today.”
In retirement, I have the luxury to put some of those demands aside. For the most part. My blog and newsletter need constant feeding. When I am writing as a contributor to Nieman Storyboard, which celebrates narrative writing, I have to produce a story, whether I am inspired or not. Nothing focuses the mind like a clock ticking toward deadline. You write and hope what you wrote hits the mark.
I usually circle the subject at first, convinced I have nothing to say. Then an idea for a lead comes to me. I write it down whether or not I think it’s any good. I need that opening to, in the words of John McPhee, “to shine a flashlight into the story down into the whole piece.”
After that, I start throwing paragraphs up on the screen. I lower my standards. I count the words. I hazard an ending. I let it sit for a day or two. Then I begin rewriting, a word here, a sentence there, shift paragraphs around, until it finally takes shape. It’s a process fraught with uncertainty. Each time I start, I fear this will be the time it won’t work. But it seems to, so I try to remind myself of that. “If you keep working,” sculptor Alexander Calder said, “inspirations will come.” I tell you this in hopes that it might bring you comfort when you face this self-doubt. If you keep at it, it will come.
“Writers are sedentary hunters,” said writing teacher Donald M. Murray. “We sit in our chairs, and like a hunter in a duck blind, must wait, sometimes in the cold, until our prey comes into sight.” Sitting in his chair every day, Murray produced more than a dozen books, and scores of When your prey comes into sight, are you there, ready for it?
One summer between college semesters, I spent a scary week standing on wooden scaffolding as part of a crew painting a triple-decker tenement house. I was relieved when the workday ended, and I could climb down from our perch 20-30 feet up in the air and regain the comfort of solid ground. The job done, we dismantled the scaffolding, packed the poles and platforms into our truck, and drove away, leaving a freshly-painted house, looking, if not brand-new, a lot better than it did before we began.
As a writer, I use scaffolding in my work as well.
I could have used it to begin this column. In fact, it’s how I started my first draft:
This is a story about stories that begin with the phrase “This is a story about…” That is, it’s a story about scaffolding.
Scaffolding is the “temporary framework of platforms and poles constructed to provide accommodation for workmen and their materials during the erection, repairing, or decoration of a building,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines the term.
In the writing trade, the poles and planks of scaffolding are words, phrases, and sentences that help the writer build. The difference between the folks in hard hats and those of us who bang on computer keys is that they dismantle their scaffolding while, all too often, we leave ours standing.
Writers — and our readers — would benefit if we took ours down, too.
This is a story about…
“This is a story about” is perhaps the most popular form of journalistic scaffolding.
In many cases, such as book reviews and marketing pitches, “This is a story about…” serves as a piece of necessary information. In news stories, however, it’s become the default lead, a quick, easy, and clichéd way to begin a story, as well as a favorite and flabby device to convey the story’s theme.
Stories need focus. We need to know what the story is about to effectively report, organize, draft and revise. But let readers decide what your story is about based on the evidence you’ve presented in ways that illustrate and buttress the theme.
If you believe your story is about corruption, for example, ask yourself what is the best example you have — the building inspector who lives in a waterfront mansion paid for with bribes from developers? — and then use that information to craft a lead that engages a reader’s interest.
Scaffolding is an essential part of the writing process. But as my former editor, Julie Moos, pointed out, “Just because it’s part of your writing process doesn’t mean it should be part of my reading process.”
Too many writers are reluctant to dismantle the scaffolding they needed to get started, to continue, to move from one point to another. Scaffolding helps us focus, organize, and assemble our ideas.
We put it up to get our stories down, but if we leave it there, we obscure the readers’ view with several varieties of pole and planks.
Questions. Here are three graphs in a deadline story I wrote about a rooftop drama when a police officer talked a would-be suicide out of killing himself:
The two men talked for nearly two hours as the sun began to fade.
What did they talk about?
“You know, little things, even the way he shined his shoes,” Lawton said. “Anything to keep his mind off jumping or shooting himself.”
I must have thought the question was necessary, and the desk let it stand, too. But I don’t think the reader needs it. A reader’s mind is equally equipped at furnishing scaffolding to make the bridge between thoughts. Give the reader more credit. Cut the middle graph and the story is five words shorter, and, I think, more dramatic.
The two men talked for nearly two hours as the sun began to fade.
“You know, little things, even the way he shined his shoes,” Lawton said. “Anything to keep his mind off jumping or shooting himself.”
Transitions. In the 1970s, the Wall Street Journal influenced a generation of newswriters with front page features that drew on a stable of transitional phrases — “Indeed,” “to be sure,” “what’s more,” “moreover” — to move a story along. They sound authoritative, the verbal equivalent of a supercilious nod. In most cases, they’re unnecessary. Take “indeed” — shorthand for “as a matter of fact.” It’s an adverb, the dictionary says, “often used interjectionally to express irony or disbelief or surprise.” In many cases, it’s used unnecessarily as well.
Parenthetical asides. In the first draft of this column, I used phrases such as “of course,” and “that is” to bridge my thoughts. I realize now that I was making these comments to the reader. “Scaffolding, of course,” is my way of saying “Hey, I know you know what scaffolding is, but I feel the need to present the definition for those who don’t.
Some scaffolds play a valuable role in published work. For example, the hourglass structure story form relies on a device called “the turn.” It’s the part of the story that follows the lead and signals the reader a chronological narrative is about to begin. Usually, the turn is a transitional phrase that contains attribution for the narrative that follows: “According to police, eyewitnesses described the event this way” or “the corruption cases unfolded this way, law enforcement sources say.”
Scaffolding is what we usually produce when we’re trying to get our fingers and brains moving. It’s part of the process of transforming ideas into language. But why not give our readers the benefit of some additional effort?
My first draft of this column produced a “This is a story about…” lead. Then, I recalled a piece of advice from Mitch Broder, a staff writer for Gannett Suburban Newspapers: “When something is the first thing that pops into your head, yours is probably not the first head it popped into.”
No one ever asks a guitar player how you become a guitarist. They know, without asking. You buy a guitar and you practice. For years. Until you learn how to play. If you practice hard enough and have the good fortune to be talented, you may even learn how to play well.
So why do people ask, how do you write?
If they’re readers, I think they’re understandably mystified. A good story may be magical, but writers are not magicians. A great novel may seem to be a work of genius, but most writers are not geniuses.
A writer is someone who writes. Full stop.
But that answer doesn’t satisfy many people who ask the question in the first place.
What they want is a rule book, one with secrets to a successful life as a writer, preferably one with the word “Secrets” in the title. They can find plenty of them. I’ve bought my fair share.
I think people hope rule books have the answer because they suspect the hard truth. Writing is a lonely occupation with no guarantee of success and no expiration date for the training period.
“Writing makes no noise, except groans,” the novelist Ursula K. LeGuin said, “and it can be done anywhere and it is done alone.”
It’s a lot easier to read a rule book than it is to sit in a room by yourself, struggling to free your imagination, to write from within, which is where all good stories and novels come from.
To write is simple:
You sit by yourself.
And you write.
And you rewrite.
But you don’t stop there.
You read other writers. You study what they do and try to figure out how they’ve done it.
How they make characters come to life on the page. Write dialogue that sounds like real people talk. Craft sentences, paragraphs, scenes, stories, poems, scripts and novels that hold a reader’s attention from beginning to end. You try to adapt these lessons to your own work.
“Talent is a long patience,” the French novelist Gustave Flaubert said, “and originality an effort of will and intense observation.”
So you also study people. You eavesdrop on their conversations. You notice what they wear, how they walk and talk, how they show affection or disapproval. You take notes.
You become a student of human nature. You meditate on the human condition.
How do you become a writer? The same way you become a guitar player.
William of Occam was a 14th century philospher, monk, and — few people realize — police reporter for the Occam News. (Okay, I made that last one up.)
He is remembered as the father of the medieval principle of parsimony, or economy, that advises anyone confronted with multiple explanations or models of a phenomenon to choose the simplest explanation first. Why Occam’s Razor? Because scientists use it every day or because it cuts through the fog of confusion are two explanations I’ve heard.
“If you hear hooves, think horses,” is one way to understand the principle. Or put another way, Keep it Simple, Stupid. K.I.S.S.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my introduction to Occam’s Razor came in my early 20s, when I was working for a crummy little newspaper and dreaming about becoming a writer, but doing more dreaming than writing,
A friend introduced me to a published writer. I asked her how I could become one, too.
First, she said, you have to read all the time. Read everything — books, stories, newspapers, magazines. Everything. Read. Read. Read.
Okay, I nodded. What else?
You have to write, she said. All the time. Every day. Write. Write. Write.
I leaned forward expectantly, waiting to hear the rest of her advice.
That’s it, she said.
“Thanks a lot,” I remember thinking. “For nothing.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was right. If you want to be a writer you have to read all the time and write all the time. It’s as simple as that.
Being a callow youth, I couldn’t accept it. There had to be more to it than that. Some magic formula.
But there really isn’t.
Want to write a story? Sit down and start writing. And then start revising.
Want to get published? Submit that story to a magazine or a literary journal. Write a novel or a screenplay. There’s no guarantee you will succeed, although it’s a safe bet that if you never try you won’t make it either. It’s that simple, and difficult, but well worth the challenge.
What many writers I meet seem to want and need is permission.
Can I do this? Can you do that? Is it okay to…?
My answer is always, yes. Yes, you can. It may suck, you may fail, you may get rejected, but the only way you’ll ever find out is by trying.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Heed the prescription of “The Elements of Style” by Willian Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. A sampling from the classic text:
Make every word tell.
Omit necessary words.
Use parallel constructions on concepts that are parallel.
Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.
Use definite, specific language
And finally the simple advice I try to heed for compelling writing.
Use short words.
Short sentences, but don’t be afraid to vary length for pacing and style.
Go on a “to be” hunt,’ striking out passive instances of “is, was, was.” Replace with action verbs.
Search “ly” for unnecessary adverbs.
Trim bloated quotes.
Spell checks. Cliche check.
Research. Revise. Rewrite.
Looking back, I wish that writer had been more specific with her advice. Certainly, constant reading and writing and critical ae critical to becoming a writer. but there is so much more to becoming a published writer.
Like her counsel, some of this advice is obvious. But there’s a reason that scientists and other investigators continue to cite Occam’s Razor, more than 600 years after his death. It’s that simple.
I’m bleary-eyed as I write this. Late last night, I finished several weeks of binge-watching “The West Wing,” all 156 episodes of the nostalgic political series, which ran on television for seven seasons between 1999 and 2006, dramatizing the Democratic presidency of liberal Joshua “Jed” Bartlett and his young, idealistic staff.
The show has become a kind of televised comfort food for many Americans as the country is swamped by partisan bickering.
The plots are captivating, the dialogue, like its characters, is whip-smart. But while I watched the show for enjoyment, I also viewed it through the prism of a writer interested in story structure. What I found especially fascinating was a particular approach to storytelling that I think can be useful to writers of fiction and nonfiction: digressive narrative.
This is a stylistic device that writers employ to provide background information, describe the motivations of its characters and heighten suspense. They’re sudden detours from the story at hand.
Writer/creator Aaron Sorkin uses the tool throughout the series, but its power is especially evident and instructive in the first two episodes of the second season.
“In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” is a two-parter about an assassination attempt on President Bartlett and its aftermath. Using quick cuts, Sorkin toggles between the shooting by white supremacists that wounds the President and Josh Lyman, his deputy chief of staff, and a separate storyline: the creation of an upstart campaign staff that launched the obscure New England governor into the highest office in the land. (You can watch parts one and two on You Tube; Sorkin’s scripts for parts one and two are also available.)
Novelists and nonfiction narrative writers also
J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In the Rye,” is replete with these departures from the main plot, mirroring the manic personality of its rebellious teen hero, Holden Caulfield.
Digressions seem to stray from the main topic, but their purpose is to heighten the reader’s understanding. A famous one is Holden’s fixation with a pair of nuns he meets at a restaurant. He helps them with their suitcases, feels badly that they are eating just toast and coffee, and gives them a ten dollar donation.
“That’s what I
liked about those nuns,” he reflects. “You could tell, for one thing, that they
never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It makes me so damn sad when I thought
about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything. I knew it
wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway.”
The nuns reappear in his consciousness as he worries about their poverty. At the novel’s end, he looks for the nuns, wondering if he might run into them collecting donations. Like many digressions, Salinger’s focus is on minor characters. In this case, their only purpose is to tell the reader more about Holden and his concern with morality that is a major theme.
Nonfiction writers also turn to digressions. In “The John McPhee Reader,” editor William Howarth describes how the narrative nonfiction master’s “diving into the loops and stalls of digression, circling the main subject for a while” that “works his characters into a suspenseful plot.”
Many writers, like Sorkin, use digression as flashbacks. Others like McPhee take literary off ramps from their main story for informative digressions on everything from geology to roadkill. But sudden interruptions have other uses as well.
To tell the twin stories, Larson relies on repeated digressions, alternating the story of how the Exposition came to be with a more chilling tale of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer at loose in the city. Each story is powerful in their own right, but switching between them makes for a relentless read. It’s hard to lose interest when you have two suspenseful narratives that you can braid into a single story, which is why digressions can be such a useful narrative strategy.
I didn’t know the term at the time, but as a reporter for the Providence Journal Bulletin in 1981, I employed a digressive narrative to heighten suspense and give background information.
“In Sorrow Thou Shalt Bring Forth Children” opens on Jackie Rushton, a young woman about to give birth in a local hospital. An encounter with a nurse convinces her that the birth has gone terribly wrong. “I’ve lost the baby,” she tells herself. “The baby is gone.” The story then switches to the past as I use a digression to take Jackie and her husband Rob through courtship, marriage and parenthood and a new pregnancy. The section ends at a baby shower when Jackie’s water breaks. After the digression dispenses with the requisite back story, the main narrative picks up from the opening scene and without interruption follows Jackie and Rob through a perilous night when they don’t know if their baby will live or not.
Not everyone is a fan of the device. “It’s really hard to jump back and forth in time without giving the reader whiplash,” says New Yorker contributor Jennifer Kahn. Alice Mayhew, the legendary Simon & Schuster editor who died in February at 87 after a storied career bringing best-sellers to print, wasn’t a believer, either. She was known, according to a 2004 profile, for “unsentimentally pruning away digressions, even when — especially when — they are hundreds of pages long. Mayhew’s faith in chronological organization is said to be nearly religious.”
I think you can overdose on them, but used judiciously and with skill digressions, can engage readers who may welcome these temporary departures from the main plot. They’re certainly worth studying. You can start with The West Wing’s “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” or “The Catcher in the Rye” and then experiment with your own stories. Have fun!
This post appeared originally in Nieman Storyboard.