Friday, October 14, 2016

All You Have to Do Is Write Two Pages a Day...

But it sounded so good. I believe it was Stephan King who first offered this cruel advice, but I passed it along just like a lot of other writing coaches. Write two pages a day, we said, confidently, smugly, and in one year you will have a book. Yes, it’s true, if you write two pages a day every day for a year you’ll have 700 pages of written material.

But you’re not going to have a book. Even if you could actually do this, I contend you wouldn’t even have a workable draft to rewrite.

Of all the problems I see my writer friends facing, finding the time to work is the most intractable, heartbreaking, guilt-inducing difficulty they face. My first advice (actually, my first advice is to not start in the first place, so this is my second advice) is to find a girlfriend, boyfriend, partner who has a good job or is wealthy and who is ok with you taking time to simply write. Unfortunately, finding this person is not easy. Neither is hacking out time to write from a regular life – having a job or a family. So then along comes King who says it’s not that difficult to find enough time to write two pages a day, and he’s right. That’s about 500 words if you double space it, and you should double space it, not all that much when you sit down and do it. But…

Far more goes into writing a novel than just putting words on paper. Putting words on paper is typing. It’s finding the right words that is the difficult part. So much goes into constructing a novel beyond the writing: voice, structure, POV, plot, characterization to name just some of the more important aspects. All of these variables have to be thought through; connections have to be made. So when are you supposed to figure all of this out? When you’re writing your two pages a day? Yes, it’s possible, but then your two pages a day will be taking four or more hours a day, which blows apart the notion that an extra half an hour or even an hour stolen from some part of your normal life is going to put you on the path of a completed novel.

It takes me a year to write a novel. I work on it every day, all day. I do the physical, writing part for around four hours; rewriting may take up another couple of hours. The business part – dealing with publishing aspects, the Internet, goofing around when you should be working, etc. – takes another couple of hours. Now if you’re regular civilian -- meaning you have a normal job -- you put in your eight hours and then you’re done. (Yes, yes, I know, many people have far more demanding jobs that they work on for long hours.) But if you’re a writer working on a project as large as a novel, you’re still not finished when you get your eight hours in because the damn thing gets lodged in your head and your brain works on it while you’re doing everything else – living your life. When you’re eating, sleeping, driving, putting gas in your car, shopping, watching television, working out. When you’re conscious or unconscious.

Lawrence Kasden, the screenwriter, once said, “Writing is like having homework for the rest of your life.” He was correct. But it’s much worse than that. Writing is having an obsession for the rest of your life. How you deal with that obsession is the writer’s constant dilemma.

Oh look, I’ve finished my two pages. 550+ words. I guess I’m finished for the day.

Actually, I haven’t even started on my own work. Blogging is extra, something I have to fit in around and into my normal writing time.

So what’s the answer?

To be continued.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Moving Is Like Writing a Novel, Sort Of

They say moving is one of the most stressful events in a person’s life, second only to the death of a loved one. I believe it. But it occurred to me recently as I was driving down I-95 for the fifth time, shuttling between suburban Maryland and my new hometown in North Carolina, trying to keep straight in my mind a list of things I had to remember to do while concentrating on not crashing my loaded car, that the mental contortions that I was going through were, or at least they felt so to me, just like those my brain undergoes when I am in the throes of writing a novel. In both instances there are just too many things one needs to remember, and not only remember but constantly keep in mind because one event almost always influences another.

Did I remember to have the utilities turned off? On? Has the realtor put in the closing extension paper? Did the termite guy turn in his report? Did the movers deliver the boxes? Did I remember to put in a scene in Chapter One about the restraining order, or did I just think that I should do it? Is there enough backstory about Maria? Does Trevor need a Dark Secret in his past? What the hell is going to happen in the end?

Look out! Jesus, where did that truck come from? Where am I? Richmond! I can’t be in Richmond already. Where the hell did the last 45 miles go?

I’m sure you’ve had the same experience: you’re alone in the car on a trip, you’re driving along and suddenly you notice you’ve been on autopilot for X number of dangerous miles. This lost time might have been spent in simple reverie, but in the two experiences I’m discussing here, Moving and Novel Writing, you can blame the intense mental work involved with each.

And that’s just the technical details, the lists of Things To Do. That’s to say nothing of the extreme pain that involves both. Most people have the experience of at least one big-time move in their lives. Say from a house of many years where you’ve raised a family and piled up all the crap that one collects and suddenly you have to figure out what to throw away and what to take with you. Same thing with a book. You’ve piled up many pages over the years it’s taken to produce a draft and suddenly you realize the damn thing needs to be drastically cut (every novel needs to be cut) so you agonize over what’s important – to you and to the book – and throw out what isn’t. So that’s what you’re doing hurtling south on I-95 at 75 miles an hour. Throwing things out, making lists, rearranging furniture and material.

Look out, world. There’s a guy on the highway with 14 boxes of books and other assorted crap in the back of his vehicle and he’s got a lot on his mind. Or maybe he’s a novelist and he’s blocking out a scene where the sailing ship has an encounter with a white whale. In either case, he’s dangerous. Trust me, I know. That guy is me.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Coincidence, or Not?

Thriller Guy is in the process of moving. His home, not this site. Do not fret, he will reappear with some regularity once the pain of ripping up roots and relocating is finally finished. In the meantime, TG will steal various interesting posts and thoughts from other sites and put them up here. This will be somewhat random, but what is Thriller Guy himself but Somewhat Random?

The following is from LiteraryHub and is brilliant writing advice. TG comes across Coincidence, usually forehead-slappingly obvious and laughable, in many of the thrillers he reads and reviews. This sort of crude writing is part of the reason that thriller writers don’t get no respect in the general literary community. So read this, no matter what genre you’re working in. TG is going to buy this lady’s book, because if the rest of it is as smart as this piece is, it’s going to be invaluable. Yeah, it;s long and requires some thought, but let's show those snooty Literary Writers that we genre folk can learn and apply just as well as they can.


One way to use coincidence and make it work is to have nothing turn on it. Coincidences
feel illegitimate when they solve problems. If the story doesn’t benefit from the coincidence, it’s simply pretty and suggestive. Another way to make a coincidence work is to begin a story with it. Make it the reason there’s a story to tell in the first place. A third is to establish that the community in which your story takes place is one in which coincidence is part of the landscape. People in my town, New Haven, Connecticut, revel in coincidence, and we claim it happens here all the time: you know everyone in more than one way. Maybe this is true in all cities of a certain size—small enough that the barista will turn out to be your office mate’s daughter; large enough that you’ll be surprised.

It also helps to make coincidence unobtrusive. There’s a wild coincidence in E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End that doesn’t seem to bother most readers. Helen Schlegel, one of the two sisters who are the book’s main characters, for complicated reasons brings a working-class couple she has befriended to a wedding reception—and it turns out that the woman she brings was once the mistress of the bride’s father, Henry Wilcox, whom Helen’s sister, Margaret, is engaged to marry.

Margaret is the character through whom we experience all this. The former mistress, Jacky, is drunk, Henry comes forward to try to get rid of her, and Jacky greets him, “If it isn’t Hen!” Margaret, who has no idea what Jacky means, apologizes for the awkward interruption. Henry, recognizing Jacky, imagines that Margaret and Helen have devised a plot to expose him. He says, “Are you now satisfied?”— which baffles Margaret even more. Finally, after a painful page, Henry says, “I have the honor to release you from your engagement,” and Forster says of Margaret, “Still she could not understand. She knew of life’s seamy side as a theory; she could not grasp it as a fact. More words from Jacky were necessary—words unequivocal, undenied.” At that point Margaret begins to speak, stops herself, and then finally says to Henry, “So that woman has been your mistress?”

None of the characters know what’s going on, and in the confusion, it’s unlikely that anybody notices that the author is manipulating all of us, characters and readers. He’s distracted us by concentrating on Margaret’s psychology. She can’t grasp what has happened, not because it’s unlikely that the single lower-class person her sister has befriended should be her fiancĂ©’s former mistress, but because she doesn’t understand life and sex. The coincidence isn’t important to Margaret.

Another way to make coincidence work is to put the story into a slightly unfamiliar universe, as in farce—a universe where coincidence is part of the joke. Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is not farce, but the blatant (though useful to the story) coincidence in it doesn’t bother readers; I’ve never heard anyone mention it.

A grandmother scares her family with tales of an escaped convict, The Misfit. She, her son, and his wife and children set out on a trip through Georgia, where The Misfit is thought to be hiding. The family has a car accident, and the person who comes along is The Misfit, who kills them all. The grandmother is whiny, sneaky, and selfish, and every bad thing that happens to the family until The Misfit arrives is her fault. When she breaks out with her son’s name, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy,” at the end, we feel love in the story for the first time.

Why does the coincidence work? You might think its success had to do with Flannery O’Connor’s religious universe. Just before The Misfit shoots the grandmother, she looks at him closely and says, “Why you’re one of my babies.” The grandmother has led this family into evil, evil that is her opportunity. In a universe with God in charge of it, even the difficult, opaque God of Flannery O’Connor, a family can be led, for a reason, down the only dirt road in Georgia where an escaped convict lurks. But nothing in the story suggests that the coincidence is connected to its religious message.

One way to make a coincidence feel less clumsy is to have the author acknowledge that what she is describing is improbable. But O’Connor doesn’t. There’s no disclaimer, no apology, no paragraph saying that sometimes the strangest things happen.
Not only does the coincidence work, but it gives me the same sort of pleasure as coincidences in my life. It delights me. I think the coincidence is O’Connor’s way of letting us know we’re in a slightly skewed place in which what happens does not exactly follow the rules we’re used to.

But the main reason the coincidence works may be that the characters are so stupid that they don’t know coincidence is surprising. The grandmother predicts that they will meet The Misfit, and they do, like people hearing a weather forecast and encountering rain. The narrative voice is almost always as stupid as they are. Here is the grandmother in the car.

She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down. She pointed out interesting details of the scenery.

Only later comes a different kind of sentence:
There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another. Then silence. The old lady’s head jerked around. She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath. “Bailey Boy!” she called.

This narrator would be more than smart enough to point out that running into The Misfit was highly unlikely, but this narrator isn’t in evidence at that point in the story. So O’Connor’s coincidence is something like Forster’s. The characters aren’t aware of it, or wouldn’t call it a coincidence. There’s so much that the characters don’t get, in this story, that the unlikeliness of the coincidence is just something else that’s beyond them. Like Aunt Sarah, who didn’t know that finding a five-dollar bill was remarkable, they don’t know enough about art to notice the coincidence; they think they’re just in life. Coincidences happen in life; they are suspect only in art.

I’ve been arguing for giving your characters actions to perform, insisting that if fiction only explains how people feel—what is going on for them inwardly—it doesn’t fully use its capacity to keep a reader engaged. Making interior experience clear, on the other hand, by finding equivalents for it in external events, or finding external events that resonate with feeling, is endlessly interesting, because we can think up endless numbers of situations that embody the struggles of the inner life, and many events feel like embodiments of inner dramas. Even in ordinary life, you know that the day you receive an impossible assignment at work will be the day you come home to discover that the dishwasher has flooded the kitchen floor. Isn’t resonance what makes one event worthy of going into a story and another not worthy? Stories that don’t work sometimes include long, boring scenes in which people do something like clean a car window. The trouble is not that nothing is happening but that what happens has no connection to strong feeling, to the inner life. Unless, of course, it’s a story like Andre Dubus’s “The Winter Father,” in which a man who doesn’t live with his children takes them to dinner, then has a conversation with them in his car, outside his ex‑wife’s house.

Next morning when he got into his car, the inside of the windshield was iced. He used the small plastic scraper from his glove compartment. As he scraped the middle and right side, he realized the grey ice curling and falling from the glass was the frozen breath of his children.

Consider the morality play, in which abstract qualities like good and evil take form as characters. In the fifteenth-century English play Everyman, a man is told by a character named Death that he must undertake a journey from which he won’t return. All his ordinary friends (Fellowship, Kindred, and so on) refuse to go with him, but he is finally accompanied by Knowledge and Good Dedes. We still write books about journeys because we are interested in inner journeys; we still write books about conflict because we have taken notice of some inner conflict. Once we consider action not as the sign of cheap fiction, but as the way any fiction embodies the life within us, then it’s clear that no single kind of action is superior to any other kind. Anger and conflict can be expressed by means of a novel about a war, but also by a novel about a conflict in the workplace or in a family. There is such a thing as the story or novel in which nothing happens, but that’s not the same as the story or novel that makes us care intently whether or not a flower will be picked and then shows us a character surreptitiously picking the flower.

But what makes us care whether the flower is picked or not? A beautiful description of the flower won’t do it, and a pathetic description of the person who doesn’t want it picked won’t do it. What will make us care is some other action or conflict that is going on at the same time and coincides with the picking of the flower: that is, some action that belongs by coincidence. Coincidence, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary says, means “the concurrence of events or circumstances appropriate to one another or having significance in relation to one another but between which there is no apparent causal connection.” That could mean my roommate meeting the man from the gas company under the crepe paper streamers, but it could also mean Stephen Dedalus, in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, breaking his glasses when he is small and defenseless in a harsh place. Appropriateness, that is, can be the damnedest thing ever, or it can simply be suggestive and interesting. Coincidence could mean the concurrence of somebody’s inner sorrow with the privations of the Great Depression or with the anxiety and frustration of the war in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. It could mean The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s story meeting the grandmother, a different kind of misfit. Essentially, coincidence is the coming together of two events. Of course, these coincidences can be clumsy and manipulative as well: you’ll need to figure out a way to make your ordinary eighteenth-century Bostonian part of history without having Paul Revere’s horse step on his foot.

If, as we make up any story, we start with one event and ask ourselves what else might be happening, we risk obvious coincidences and correspondences, but we give ourselves an exciting opportunity: the chance to bring into our stories events that will make them not merely plausible but arresting. “What else might be going on in the life of this character?” is a question that is not hard to answer, and if we are open, as we write, to the strong feeling in our work, the possibilities that come to mind will often turn out to enliven our stories and tell us more than we knew about what’s going on in them.

Coincidence is often what gives fiction its chance to mean something. When two things come together, improbably or not, a spark is struck. Making those things happen simultaneously suggests that meaning is just beyond the surface. Many of us are in rebellion against meaningfulness. Randomness is cool and anything else is slightly nauseating, the sort of profound philosophy that can be inscribed on mugs printed with little rainbows, or posted on Facebook. The risk is that the author is seen scrambling around making it happen, caring too much about meaning. Coincidence is risky.

Coincidence is risky, but risk is good, we all know that. When one of my sons was in a writing program in high school, he was graded on risk-taking. “Jacob got an A-minus in risk,” I told anyone who’d listen. Aren’t we looking for guidance in writing that, unlike the directions provided by rules and formulas, will be unsafe? Of course, it’s risky—and often admirable—to write openly about true personal hardship and pain. It’s also risky to make up story. If the dictates of craft are safe and limiting, the suggestion that we make an event happen, and try to sense what other event might be going on at the same time, is not just risky; it’s stimulating. The kite soars; ideas come.

Using coincidence is part of our opportunity to focus on story, on the way story offers meaning and solace and delight. There is loveliness in things happening and then happening some more—and happening simultaneously—whether on a small or a grand scale. Anything we describe—art or music or sex or a heavy rainstorm—is in the story by report, but the story, its coinciding strands, is there itself, something beautiful no matter what’s in it. Writing must always be linear, since we read one word at a time, but nothing in life happens all by itself. Coincidence brings simultaneity into your story. Used thoughtfully, it makes the narrative richer and deeper. Look to the right and left of your characters; see what more they can do, what they must do, to articulate in action that inner life we love so much. Like dreams, stories make feeling tangible.

Alice Mattison is a widely acclaimed author and longtime writing teacher. She has published six novels—including The Book Borrower, Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, and When We Argued All Night—as well as four collections of short stories and a collection of poems. Twelve of her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, and other work has been published in The New York Times, Ploughshares, and Ecotone and anthologized in The Pushcart Prize, PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and Best American Short Stories. A frequent panelist at AWP and other writing conferences, she has held residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. She has taught at Brooklyn College, Yale University, and, for the last twenty-one years, in the Bennington Writing Seminars, the MFA program at Bennington College. Her book The Kite and the String, is out now.

Thursday, July 21, 2016


Recently, Thriller Guy’s alter ego Allen Appel was going through boxes of old manuscripts and correspondence having to do with past books. He’ll take it from here…

I can’t remember why I thought it was important to save various drafts of my novels that had been marked up with edits. Because I’ve written so many books these edits add up to many thousands of pages, pages that are heavy and a pain-in-the-ass to dispose of. Amongst all these manuscripts I found piles of letters from readers who wrote on actual paper and sent them to me, usually via the publisher. That’s the way we used to do it back in the Paleolithic era; now every bozo with a computer can hunt you down on Google and send you a death threat because he doesn’t like your attitude or your writing. The vast majority of these letters were positive, but there was one, ONE! That was so brilliantly vituperous I’ve decided to put it up here in its entirety.

My original thought was to use the name and address of the writer, but after having Googled him I’ve decided that he is probably a usually reasonable fellow and that my book Till the End of Time, the third in my series featuring time traveler Alex Balfour, for some reason pushed him over the edge into madness. I will say that his last name is the same as that of a past president who was both loathed and adored. Without any further ado…

Dear Mr. Appel:
            After reading “Till the End of Time”, it didn’t take too much effort to deduce that you are a member of that sleazy band of a low-life parade of bozoes who would, for the sake of free love, marijuana and a snort of just about any foreign substance that would fit up your nose, flush down the toilet all those positive and decent values (Love of country, respect toward authority, the Golden Rule, etc.) taught us all in grammar school. And at a time when so many of us fought long and hard in the jungles, mountains and rice paddies of Vietnam in defense of the same democratic principles that allow even an asshole such as yourself to put out the pathetic rubbish that is representative of “Till the End of Time.”

            And how do you know that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy slept with Marilyn Monroe? Are you some kind of long lost eyewitness (perhaps from a nearby closet in panting, wheezing, drooling observation?) of this so-called infidelity? Or have you filled that airhead of yours with all that sensational tripe which appears, quite strongly, to be the framework for this “Literary Dud” of which you must surely have bribed someone at Doubleday to publish.

            You should give up writing, Allen Appel. And then get down on your knees and thank the Good Lord that, for the moment, John Kennedy isn’t around to defend himself. Because if he were, he would put a foot so far up your cowardly ass, that you would taste shoe leather “Till The End Of Time.”

                                                                                                M. R.

I didn’t write back to M.R. perhaps the only person who bothered to write and never received a response from me, because he seemed balanced on the knife-edge of homicidal madness, and I did not want him turning up on my doorstep with some of the many weapons he probably owns.

But everyone is entitled to an opinion, I guess. About the same time I received this letter my publisher sent me a review by a columnist somewhere in Idaho who had written in his local newspaper that Till the End of Time was “perhaps the best book that had ever been written in the history of the world.” Which is just the other side of the same coin.

I’d be glad to hear from you.