Writing the real, part IV: Filling in the background shading

I know that some of you have been waiting with bated breath for me to do my promised write-ups on sterling insights from these last two conferences — do not despair. As many of you know, I’m up against a tight revision deadline between now and the end of the month, so honestly, if I didn’t write it traveling to and fro recent conferences (hooray for long layovers), it’s probably not going to be posted before Halloween. It is all coming, however.

On Friday, I deliberately told a real-life anecdote in the way that most fiction writers include such stories in novels: in bare-bones form, assuming that my reader would automatically feel the way I did about the incident when it happened to me. I told it, as most aspiring writers do in their submissions to agents and editors, exactly the way I would have told friends over coffee — which is to say, I told it rather than showed it, and my telling, insofar as I got through the story at all, was light on such scene mood-setters as characterization, locale, etc.

I told it, in short, in a way that was not likely to prompt an agent to ask for the rest of the book.

Let’s return to my story, and see if I can tell it better this time. I was at a small conference in Montana, sitting by a plate glass window the size of a woolly mammoth, gazing out over a well-trimmed golf course toward the nearby blue mountains of Glacier National Park. (Better already, isn’t it?) I had given a class on manuscript submission dos and don’ts, which, I am grateful to say, attracted many conference attendees to share their book ideas with me, looking for advice on how to impress agents with them.

However, even the most well-meaning of helpers needs a break from time to time, so I was sitting with one of the other presenters, enjoying a cup of the local stand-a-spoon-up-in-it coffee, the old West kind that keeps even latte-hardened Seattleites like me up for days. Suddenly, a dear little old lady plopped herself down in the middle of our conversation and started telling us both about her novel. At length. As in the age of the woolly mammoth might have come and gone in the course of the telling.

I’m going to interrupt myself here to ask: isn’t this a more compelling telling of the story than Friday’s, which told the reader nothing about the setting or my mindset at the time the little old lady appeared? In this version, the scene is set enough that the arrival of the antagonist is palpably disruptive of a well-established mood. See why professional readers get annoyed by writers skipping that kind of background?

So we’re definitely better off than we were in the first telling, but this anecdote is still not up to submission standard. In fact, I’ve deliberately made another couple of common mistakes in this second telling, to see if you will catch it, too. Anyone? Anyone?

Points, of course, if you pointed out that I’m still telling about this little old lady, not showing. Also, I have tossed her into the story without giving her a name right off the bat – dooming my reader to endless future repetitions of the phrase “the little old lady.” (But she was small in real life, I tell you! And she was elderly, and female! It really happened! See how ineffectual reality is as an excuse for under-description?)

A great big gold star to those of you who caught that I’ve made the extremely common twin mistakes of assuming that the fact the story’s antagonist annoyed me is the most important thing about the scene — which, from my point of view, naturally it was — and that what annoys me will inevitably annoy everyone else in North America. (Extra credit to those of you who speculated that the pace of my going through this anecdote, and thus the length of this series, may have more to do with the fact that I wrote large parts of it while sitting in an airport in Kalispell, Montana, rather than home at my desk.)

The annoyance assumption is not limited to real-life scenes that are underwritten, of course. Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the lady down to the last shoelace, she will be annoying on the page as well, but that is frequently not true.

Exposing the schmucks around you for the scum they are is, of course, one of the great unsung compensations for being a writer. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Just be aware that it doesn’t always work. If a reader has to know you, or the other person, or any other pertinent background not in the book (or not essential to the plot), think very carefully about whether you want to keep the scene. Be aware, too, that often in such tellings, the writer’s dislike of the real-life person so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with her, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero.

You really don’t want that kind of ill feeling to boomerang back onto your protagonist or narrator, do you?

A really, really good test about whether it should stay: hand the relevant pages to someone who does not know you very well, WITHOUT saying “This happened in real life, you know,” and have her read it. Then (again without saying the magic phrase of justification) ask this helpful soul to tell the anecdote back to you. Does the emphasis fall where you expected in the retelling?

If it doesn’t, rework the scene or cut it. Give some serious consideration to changing a few of the facts to make it a better story on paper. (Not if it’s a memoir, of course, for A Million Little Reasons. In a memoir, real-life scenes that don’t work should just be cut.) After all, if you don’t go around trumpeting this particular scene in your novel is based upon a real event, how is the reader going to know?

Users of real-life material, please write this tip down and post it somewhere you can see it when you are sitting in your writing space: storytelling is supposed to resonate with truth AND be entertaining at the same time. Just because it happened a particular way doesn’t mean you have to TELL it that way. Because you are a fiction writer, not a reporter: dramatically, your story needs to work for your reader.

Have you noticed that I have not actually made it to the amusing part of the anecdote yet? I’m reserving that for tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work?

PS: Mark your calendars, folks up north: the PNWA is hosting one of its excellent Writing Connections events at the senior center in Mount Vernon on this coming Saturday, October 28th, from noon to 4 pm. Admission is free. Here’s your chance to meet published authors and a screenwriter and pepper them with questions!

Manuscript revision VIII: har de har har har

My, I went on a tear yesterday, didn’t I? Well, better get comfy today, too, folks, because this is going to be another long one. Although, as a writer of comic novels on serious topics (my latest is about when the first AIDS death happened at Harvard, hardly inherently a chuckle-fest), the topic du jour is very close to my heart: making sure the funny parts of your manuscript are actually funny, and revising so they will be.

Why, you may be wondering, am I taking up this topic immediately after the issue of freshness of voice? Well, to professional readers, humor is often a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

Hey, there’s a reason that my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, opens with the death of the protagonist’s grandmother in a tragic bocce ball accident in Golden Gate Park. (After consultation with his fellow players, the murderer is allowed to take the shot again, with no penalty.) The smile raised by it buys the novel good will with editors for pages to come.

But if a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

All very technical, I know. But as I’m relatively certain I’ve said before (about 7000 times, if memory serves), the more you can put yourself in your dream agent or editor’s reading glasses while you are revising your submission, the better off you will be in the long run.

Humor is a great way to establish your narrative voice as unique, but it can be a risky strategy. Why, you ask? Well, unless you are lucky or brave enough to be a stand-up comic, or have another job that allows you to test material on a live audience — okay, I’ll admit it: back when I was lecturing to college students, I used to try out jokes on my captive audience all the time — you honestly cannot tell for sure if the bits that seemed hilarious to you in the privacy of your studio would be funny to anyone else.

Trust me on this one: your first test of whether a joke works should NOT be when you submit it to the agency of your dreams.

So how can you know what works and what doesn’t? Personally, I read every syllable of my novels out loud to someone else before even my first readers or agent see them. If an expected chuckle does not come, I flag the passage and rework it, pronto.

Now, this isn’t a completely reliable test, because I have pretty good delivery (due to all of those years honing my comic timing on helpless college students, no doubt), but it does help me get a sense of what is and isn’t working. Reading out loud is also one of the few ways to weed out what movie people call bad laughs, the unintentional blunders that make readers guffaw.

This strategy only works, of course, if you are open to the possibility that the sentence that you thought was the best one-liner penned in North America since Richard Pryor died is simply not funny, and thus should be cut. Admittedly, this kind of perspective is not always easy to maintain: it requires you to be humble. Your favorite line may very well go; it’s no accident that the oft-quoted editing advice, “Kill your darlings,” came from the great wit Dorothy Parker.

But be ruthless: if it isn’t funny, it should go — no matter how much it makes you laugh. As any successful comedy writer can tell you, in the long run, actually doesn’t matter if the author laughs himself silly over any given joke: the reaction that matters is the audience’s. (And no, the fact that your spouse/mother/best friend laughed heartily does not necessarily mean a line is genuinely funny. It may mean merely that these people love you and want you to be happy.)

Lacking an audience, it is still possible to weed out the unfunny. There are a few common comic mistakes that should set off warning bells while you are editing — because, believe me, they will be setting off hazard flares in the minds of agents and editors.

First, look for jokes that are explained AFTER they appear in the text. Starting with the punch line, then working backward, is almost never as funny as bits told the other way around: a good comic bit should produce a SPONTANEOUS response in the reader, not a rueful smile three lines later. (And to an agency screener, explaining a joke after the fact looks suspiciously like the bit fell flat in the author’s writing group, and the writer scrambled to justify the joke in order to keep it in the book.) If background information is necessary in order to make a joke funny, introduce it unobtrusively earlier in the text, so the reader already knows it by the time you make the joke.

Second, ANY real-life situation that you have imported because it was funny should be read by other people before you submit it to an agent or editor. No fair telling it as an anecdote — have them read it precisely as you present it in the text. Keep an eye on your victims as they read: are they smiling, or do they look like jurors on a death penalty case?

The humorous anecdote that slayed ‘em at the office potluck VERY frequently rolls over and dies on the page. Just because everyone laughed when Aunt Myrtle’s prize-winning carrot-rhubarb pie fell onto your dog’s head at the Fourth of July picnic doesn’t necessarily mean that it will inspire mirth in the average reader. Especially if that reader doesn’t already know that Aunt Myrtle’s pies are renowned for making Mom swell up from an allergic reaction, so Dad generally arranges to have some tragic pie-related incident occur every year — which brings us back to problem #1, right?

Again, this is an assumption problem: there’s a reason, after all, that the language includes the phrase, “you had to be there.”

Don’t feel embarrassed, please, if you find that you have included such a scene: even the pros make this mistake very frequently; you know those recurring characters on sketch comedy shows, the ones that are only funny if you’ve seen them a couple of dozen times? Often, those are real-life characters pressed into comic service. (In the extremely unlikely circumstance that good comedy writer Ben Stiller will one day upon this message in a bottle: honey, that bit with the guy who keeps saying “just do it” has NEVER worked. It wasn’t funny in the often-hilarious THE BEN STILLER SHOW; it still wasn’t funny a decade later, in the not-very-funny STARSKY & HUTCH. Kindly stop telling us how funny it was when the guy did it in real life — it’s irrelevant.)

Third, you should also take a very, very close look at any joke or situation at which a character in the text is seen to laugh immoderately. (And if, after you reread it, you find yourself tempted for even 35 seconds to exclaim, “But everyone laughed when it happened!” go stand in the corner with Ben Stiller.) I like to call this the Guffawing Character Problem; it is ubiquitous in first novels, so much so that agency screeners often just stop reading when it occurs.

Why? Well, to professional eyes, having characters whoop and holler over a joke reads like insecurity on the author’s part: like the laugh track on a TV series, it can come across as merely a blind to cover a joke that actually isn’t very funny. It makes the reader wonder if, in fact, she’s being ORDERED to laugh. Agents and editors don’t like taking orders from writers, as a general rule.

The device also sets the funny bar unnecessarily high: the broader the character’s response, the more pressure on the poor little joke to be funny. If the character’s laugh is even one millisecond longer than the reader’s, it’s going to seem as though the writer is reaching.

Fourth, excise any jokes that you have borrowed from TV, movies, radio shows, other books, or the zeitgeist. And definitely think twice about recycling comic premises from any of the above. This is a freshness issue: by definition, a joke that has been told before by someone else isn’t fresh, right?

This may seem like rather strange advice to those of you who have just spent summer conference season being told endlessly by agents and editors that they are looking for books like this or that bestseller, but honestly, copycat books usually don’t sell all that well. (Witness how quickly chick lit fell off agents’ hot lists, for instance.) As Mae West liked to say, there are a lot of copies out there, but if you’re an original, no one can mistake you for someone else. No one remembers the copies.

Don’t believe me? Okay, name three books patterned after COLD MOUNTAIN. Or SEX IN THE CITY. Or, if you want to go farther back in time, CATCH-22. I thought not.

#5 is really a subset of #4, but it is common enough to warrant its own warning: if you use clichés for comic effect, make ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that you have used them correctly. You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to misreproduce clichés. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests and edited hundreds of manuscripts.) If you’re going for a recognition laugh, you’re far more likely to get it with “It’s a dog-eat-dog world” than “It’s a doggie-dog world.”

Trust me on this one. An incorrectly-quoted cliché will kill any humorous intention you had deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are 10-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you lift a 100-foot pole without the assistance of a dozen friends, anyway?) When in doubt about the proper phraseology, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

Even better, leave the clichés out altogether. Most agents and editors dislike clichés with an intensity that other people reserve for fiery automobile crashes, airplane malfunctions, and the bubonic plague. They feel (as do I) that a writer worth rewarding with a publishing contract should be able should be able to make it through 50 pages of text without reverting to well-worn truisms, even as a joke.

If you are new to writing comedy, allow me to let you in on a little secret: many jokes that garner chuckles when spoken aloud fall flat in print. This is particularly true of the kind of patented one-liner people on the street are so fond of quoting from their favorite sitcoms, movies, and sketch comedy shows. Take a gander, for instance, at these zingers out of context:

From the 1970s: Excu-u-use me!
From the 1980s: You look mahvelous!
From the late 1990s: I don’t know karate, but I do know cah-razy.

Now, if you close your eyes and conjure up vivid images of Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, and Owen Wilson, respectively, saying these lines, these old chestnuts might still elicit the odd chuckle. Go ahead and chuckle your head off, if you are given to atavistic clinging to the popular culture of your past, but please, I implore you, do not make the (unfortunately common) mistake of reusing these kinds of once-popular catchphrases in your writing. Not only are such bits seldom funny out of context, but it will date your book: what is humor today probably will not be in a decade, and one generation’s humor will not be another’s.

In fact, if you aspire to perfecting your comic voice, it might behoove you to take a good, hard look at the careers of Mssrs. Martin, Crystal, and Wilson — and Mssr. Stiller and Madame Mae West, for that matter. All of them started out as comedy writers, writing material for themselves and others, and all became progressively less funny (in this writer’s opinion) as soon as they started performing comic material written by other people.

An accident? I think not. They became less funny because their individual comic voices had gotten lost.

Oh, the people who were writing for them have tried to recapture their quite distinct original voices, but the copy is never as vivid as the original. Why any of you stopped writing your own material is a mystery to me. But I digress…

And so will an agency screener’s mind digress, if you drag gratuitous pop culture references into your submissions. People tend to have very strong associations with particular periods in their lives, and for all you know, the reference you choose to use may be the very one most favored in 1978 by your dream agent’s hideously unkind ex, the one who lied in court during the divorce proceedings and hid assets so cleverly that their daughter’s college fund had to be used to pay those unexpected medical bills of Mother’s. Then the car broke down, and all of those checks bounced, and the orthodontist tried to repossess Angela’s braces…

See what happened? One little pop culture reference, and POW! You’ve lost your reader’s attention entirely.

So even if you are using pop culture references to establish a particular period, do it with care. Be sparing. Even if your teenage son quoted SHANGHAI NOON endlessly for six solid months while the entire family cringed in a Y2K fallout shelter, do be aware that your reader might not have the associations you do with those jokes. There are a myriad of associational possibilities — and almost none of them will make YOUR work more memorable or seem fresher.

Which brings me full-circle, doesn’t it? One of the advantages to using humor in your submissions is to demonstrate the originality of YOUR voice — not Owen Wilson’s, not Steve Martin’s, and certainly not that anonymous person who originated that joke your best friend from college just forwarded to you. If your individual voice is not inherently humorous, don’t try to force it to be by importing humor from other sources. Lifting material from elsewhere, even if it is genuinely funny, is not the best means of establishing that YOU are funny — or that yours is a book well worth reading.

Or better still, remembering AFTER having read and offering to represent or publish.

People still remember Mae West, my friends, not her hundreds of imitators. Here’s to all of us being originals on the page — and keep up the good work!

Manuscript revision VII: never assume a universal reaction

In my earlier discussion of freshness and why your want you manuscript to convey the subtle-yet-vivid impression that it has just popped out of the cultural oven — or at any rate isn’t a Twinkie that’s been sitting in the back of a cupboard for the last five years — I brought up the need to avoid incorporating stereotypes into your submissions, lest you offend someone on the reading end of your query. (Hint: not everyone in New York is straight, for instance, or white, or male, or…)

Today, though, I want to talk about how stereotyping and other authorial assumptions of mutual understanding with the reader can water down the intended impact of a manuscript, even when the assumptions in question are not inherently offensive to the reader.

If I have not already made this clear, even amongst agents and editors who are not easily affronted personally, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions. Why? Well, in a new writer, they’re looking to see is originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent. When you speak in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult for a reader new to your work to tell where your authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s.

It’s just not as impressive as hearing from you directly.

Which is why, in some cases, marked personal prejudices may actually lend verve to a voice. This is nowhere more true than in the world of blogs. We bloggers are SUPPOSED to be absolutely open about our pet peeves and quirky interpretations of the world around us: one of the points of the medium is to be as subjective as possible. Think about it: wouldn’t Andrew Sullivan’s blog about politics (well worth reading, if you haven’t) be far less interesting if he didn’t make his personal views so VERY apparent? Or, for that matter, wouldn’t this very blog be rather uninteresting without my pronounced (albeit charming, I hope) personal slant?

That’s why the mainstream news’ attempts at establishing themselves as legitimate voices in the blogosphere have tended to fall so flat, I think: their voices are the products of PR research; the individual bizarreness has been utterly ironed out.

Which is, by the way, one of the most common critiques of MFA programs, and even writing groups. In some of these settings, the criticism goes, books end up being, if not written, then edited by committee: the authorial voice is nipped and tucked to conform to so many people’s opinions of what the work should be that the originality of the voice gets lost. In the industry, books like these are known as “an MFA story” or “workshopped to death.”

Does it surprise you that I, the queen of hogtying writers and forcing them to get an outside opinion of their work before they submit it, would bring this up? Ah, but as Aristotle tells us, true virtue lies in not taking a desirable trait to its most extreme form, but rather in practicing goodness in moderation. A fresh voice is an original voice, and just as adhering to stereotypes can muffle the originality of the writer’s worldview on the page, so can editing too much for what you think your readers want to hear — even if those readers are agents and editors.

In other words: make sure that your manuscript’s voice always sounds like YOU.

As with any rule, there are major caveats to sounding like yourself, or course. The first rule – and one of the ones most commonly broken by those new to writing – is that in order for your reader to be able to appreciate the nuances of your voice, you need to provide enough information for the reader to respond spontaneously to the action of the piece, rather than being informed that this is funny, that is horrible, etc.

Those of you who have taken writing classes are probably familiar with this rule’s most famous corollary: show, don’t tell.

The second cousin of this axiom is less well known: not everything that happens in real life is plausible on paper. And that’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? As Virginia Woolf tells us, “Good fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” While that is often true, what are we to make of the real-life experience that seems made-up when it’s translated into print?

Simple: fiction tends to adhere to rules of dramatic structure and probability; real life doesn’t.

So when you are looking over your manuscript with an eye to revision, remember this: “But it really happened!” is not an excuse that professional writers ever use — or that most agents and editors will ever accept. Why? Because it’s the writer’s job to make everything in the book seem plausible, whether or not it really happened.

Most writers don’t like hearing this, but not everything that strikes you personally as funny, outrageous, or horrifying is necessarily going to seem so in print. And it’s very, very common problem in novel submissions — common enough that I’m going to add it to the dreaded Manuscript Mega-problems list — for the author to assume that the opposite is the case.

Personal anger masked as fiction, for instance, usually does not work so well on the page. If the average agency screener had a dime for every manuscript she read that included a scene where a minor character, often otherwise unrelated to the plot, turned up for apparently no purpose other than annoying the protagonist, she would not only own the agency — she might be able to rival the gross national product of Haiti.

I cannot even begin to count the number of novels I have edited that have contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why. These scenes are pretty easy for those of us in the biz to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true — and it’s not as interesting as more nuanced conflict.

Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, the incidents turn out to be lifted directly from real life. The writer is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not automatically translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader.

This is an assumption problem, every bit as much as including a stereotype in your work. But what the writer pitches, the reader does not always catch.

Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger at the fellow so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. This revenge has clearly not gone as planned.

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

“But wait!” I hear some of you out there crying, especially those of you who are veterans of a lot of writing classes. “I’ve always been told that the key to good writing is to tap into my deep emotions, to let them spill onto the page. Are you saying that’s not true?”

Good question. No, I’m not saying that you should write with your emotional flow valve permanently set on low. I think there can be a lot of value in those writing exercises that encourage the opening up of the writer’s emotional memory. In revision, it is often useful to bring in some of those techniques to increase the emotional potency of a scene, just as a Method actor might use a traumatic memory from her childhood to inform her performance of a character in pain.

However, I do think that there is a fundamental difference between trying to express your deeper emotions in an exercise and trying to convey a CHARACTER’s emotional response in a book. In the first case, the point is to concentrate the feelings as much as possible. In writing a novel or short story, however, or even a memoir, unmitigated emotion is often confusing to the reader, rather than character-revealing.

What do I mean? Well, I’m going to stop telling you, and show you.

I try not to do this very often, but to illustrate, I am going to revive an anecdote I told on my former PNWA blog last winter. (My apologies to those of you who have heard the story before, but its illustrative value outweighs my dislike of repetition.) While you read it, consider the question: what helps a writer to include in a text, and what does not?

My most vivid personal experience of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. A few years ago, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, artistic retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a month-long stay in a fragrant cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills. They’re sort of a crapshoot.

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for a month was a painter, a sculptor, or a writer. Of the 60 or so of us in residence, only 12 were writers; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and then returned to the dark caves to which they themselves had been assigned. I elected to write in my room, in order to catch some occasional sunlight, and for the first week, was most happy and productive there.

When I go on a writing retreat, I like to leave the emotional demands of my quotidian life behind, but not everyone feels that way. In fact, several artists had come to the colony with their significant others, also artists: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young married couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise. (Although every fiber of my being strains to use their real names, I shall not. Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.)

Sculptor Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic, social, or his favorite of all, sensual. No one in the dining hall was really surprised at how often he brought the conversation around to sex; honestly, once you’d sat through his slide show of sculptures of breast, leg, pudenda, buttocks, and breast, you’d have to be kind of dense not to notice where his mind — or his eyes — liked to wander. He was amusing enough, for a monomaniac. We had coffee a couple of times. I loaned him a book or two.

And suddenly, Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon in the dining hall.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they liked jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I DO have standards” to an angry lover, is there? So I sat at a different table in the dining hall for the next couple of weeks. A little junior high schoolish, true, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable or my being distracted from the writing I had come there to do.

The fellowship that each writer received included a requirement that each of us do a public reading while we were in residence. Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. Eventually, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I HAD flirted with her completely unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the colony, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a turkey sandwich near the couple to spark a fight, but that was it.

At the end of the third week of our month-long residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, plus a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and the very important, repeated National Book Award nominee who had dropped by (in exchange for an honorarium that can only be described as lavish) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected — sensibly, I think — to read only highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it was not an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

The first two writers read: beautifully varnished work, safe stuff for any audience. When Gretel’s turn came, she stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

Her first piece was a lengthy interior monologue, a first person, present-tense description of Hansel and Gretel — helpfully identified BY NAME — having sex, in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the scene, a straightforward account of a mechanical act IN REAL TIME that included — I kid you not — a literal countdown to the final climax (his, not hers).

It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launch that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

Now, I certainly have no objection to writers who turn their diaries into works for public consumption, but this was graphic without being either arousing or instructive. However, the painters in the back row hooted and hollered, so maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece.

Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. (“Three…two…one.” That’s a QUOTE, people!) Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants are pleased the act described is over, it’s not the best sex scene imaginable. And let’s just say that her husband probably would have preferred that this real-time telling had taken longer than six minutes to read. A classic case, one hopes, of the real-life incident being better than its telling on paper.

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again in the first person, again with herself and her by now shattered husband identified by name, again an interior monologue, this little number had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first page. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character sashayed into the scene, sat down at their table, picked up a turkey sandwich — and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted, from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the details, apart from that fact that the narrative included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, bitch!” and “Are those real?”

Gretel read the piece extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. And to her credit, the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me — that’s not just paranoia speaking, I assure you; her physical description would have enabled any police department in North America to pick me up right away — never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

There was no ending to the story, no “three…two…one” this time. She just stopped, worn out from passion. I’m not even convinced that she read everything written on the page.

I was very nice to her during and after this hugely embarrassing event; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible — especially when they were against me — congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance in the dining hall after she had dumped her tray; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around. True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly failed, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I was nice to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, it was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Oh, how I wish I could say this was the only time I have ever seen a writer do something like this to herself…

But the fact is, it’s downright common in novels. Rest assured, though, that revenge fantasies tend to announce themselves as screamingly from the pages of a submission as they did from Gretel’s podium. If you’re still angry about an event, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective — at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate — give it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

And that can be deadly in a submission.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before submission becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer — and, let’s face it, a lot of us do — please, please join a writing group. Find good readers you can trust to save you from looking like a junior high schooler on a rampage — but who won’t tone down your marvelously original voice.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human. And yes, this incident did really happen — and that’s why I am writing about it here, not in my next novel, tempting as that might be.

Keep up the good work!

The myth of objectivity

Hello, readers –

I have received some interesting responses to Monday’s post about the relative weight public and private history should bear within the context of a memoir or novel (Getting the Balance Right, April 17). A couple of people have asked: what about objectivity? Aren’t there times when an objective statement of what is going on in a situation is appropriate?

A good question, and one that certainly deserves discussion.

Obviously, there are writing situations where a certain narrative distance from the subject matter is helpful to telling the story, but I’m not convinced that narrative distance, even far narrative distance drained of personal commentary, is inherently the best way to describe anything. Nor is it actually objectivity. Objectivity, it seems to me, does not lie in discounting the personal experiences of the individuals actually affected by the larger phenomenon being described, or in stripping a story of emotional content; these, too, are reflective of the storyteller, conscious choices in selecting a style of narrative. True objectivity, I think, consists of showing a complex story in all of its emotional roundness without judging the characters.

Or, as Mme. de Staël put it, “Philosophy is not insensitivity.”

I know, I know: this is most emphatically not how we generally hear the term objectivity bandied about. Most often, we hear it when the news media praises itself: they like to plume itself on presenting stories objectively. However, as anyone who reads a newspaper regularly can tell you, how journalistic objectivity tends to be more about balance than distance.

The imperative to balance, as if there were two – and only two – sides to any issue, often results in articles that are only superficially objective, or in presenting only the extreme ends of the opinion spectrum. In an effort to be fair to both sides, both of the sides presented are depicted as equally reasonable, and often as though humanity itself were split absolutely 50-50 on the point. Which in turn often gives the impression that every group involved is equally large. (I’m not giving the obvious example here, just in case any future president should want to appoint me to the Supreme Court.) And while the journalists who write such articles seem to be adhering strictly to the rules of objectivity they were taught in journalism school, the necessity of selecting which two POVs to highlight as the only two relevant arguments, and which to relegate to obscurity, is in itself a subjective choice.

We’ve all seen such articles, right? The structure is invariable: begin with personal anecdote about Person A on Side 1; move to description of overarching phenomenon; state what the government/institution/neighborhood proposes to do about the phenomenon; bring in the opinion of Person B on Side 2; discuss what that side would like to see done; project future. Then end with an emotion-tugging paragraph on the lines of, “But for now, Person A must suffer, because of all of the events mentioned in Paragraph 1.”

Now, is that truly objective? It is balanced, sure, insofar as Side 1 and Side 2 are both presented, but since the structure dictates that the reader gets more personal insight into Person A’s plight, doesn’t the choice of which side to highlight first dictate where most readers’ sympathies will tend?

How a journalist or any other writer – or a researcher, or a pollster, for that matter — chooses to frame a question is necessarily subjective. Heck, how we decide what is important enough to write about is a subjective decision. If you doubt this, I suggest an experiment: the next time a telephone pollster calls, pay attention to how the questions are worded. Are they encouraging certain answers over others? How many questions does it take you to figure out who commissioned the poll?

I’m not saying that writers should throw objectivity out the window; far from it. However, I think we are all better writers when we recognize that how we choose to define an objective stance is in itself a subjective decision. Once a writer acknowledges that, taking authorial responsibility for those choices rather than assuming that distance equals objectivity, and that objectivity is good, all kinds of possibilities for nuance pop up in a manuscript.

Which bring me back to my original point: from the reader’s POV, the objective facts of a story are only important insofar as they affect the characters the reader cares about – and that can be liberating for the writer.

Movies and television have encouraged the point of view of the outside observer in writing, because no matter how close a close-up is, the camera is always separate from the action it is filming to some extent. But not every story is best told from the perspective of a complete stranger standing across the room from the action; even in an impersonal third person narrative, the author can choose, for instance, to take into account the observations of the crying toddler being held in the arms of the protagonist. It is not better or worse, inherently, than the detached, across-the-room perspective; it is merely different. Considering it as a possibility, along with a wealth of other perspectives, gives the writer much more control in producing the desired emotional impact of the scene.

Not all editors, writing teachers, or readers would agree with me, of course, but as there were so many writers trained in the early-to-mid 20th century that a Graham Greene-like narrative detachment was the best way to tell most stories, resulting in a generation and a half of schoolchildren being taught that the third person SHOULD mean complete narrative detachment, I’m not too worried that all of you out there won’t hear the other side’s arguments.

I’m not a journalist, after all; I am under no obligation to show you Side 2.

One final word on objectivity for those of you who write about true events: many, if not most, members of the general public confuse their individual points of views with objectivity, as if we all went through life testifying in an endless series of depositions. They insist that their individual, subjective POVs are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and therefore the only possible version of events.

I bring this up, because literally every author I have ever met who has published a book about real events that took place within living memory (myself included) has been accosted at some point by someone whose life was touched by the events depicted in the book. These accosters then summarily inform the author that she is WRONG; the events certainly did not take place that way, and no reasonable person could possibly think that the author’s POV on the subject was accurate. Obviously, then, the author must have maliciously twisted the facts on purpose, to create a false impression. Because facts are objective, by gum: in a well-ordered universe, everyone would tell every story exactly the same way. And the author is left standing there, open-mouthed.

I just wanted you to be prepared.

Sadly, there is little the author can do in response to this sort of attack. It’s been my experience, and my true story-writing friends’, that it does not aid matters to try to explain the basic principles of subjectivity vs. objectivity or point of view to people who insist there can be only one POV. It’s easiest to treat such vehement amateur readers as you would a professional POV Nazi: thank them warmly for their input and get out of the room as fast as you can. If you see them in future, run the other way. (For further tips on handling the POV-insistent, see my posting, Help! It’s the Point-of-View Nazis!, April 4 and 5.)

I honestly do wish that I could give all of you who write about real events a talisman that would protect you, but this is one of those areas where writers tend to view the world very differently than others. If you doubt this, just try explaining to someone who has never tried to write what it’s like to be so grabbed by a story that you feel compelled to lock yourself up for months on end to get it on paper, without anyone paying you to do it. By non-artistic standards, the creative drive just doesn’t make sense.

I say that we should just embrace the fact that we think differently from other people. Let’s revel in our subjectivity, because insightful subjectivity is the cradle of original authorial voice. Let’s not be afraid to tell stories from various subjective POVs, where that’s appropriate. And above all, let’s not fall into the trap of believing that there is only one way to look at any given event. Or even two. Because that kind of attitude robs writers of the power to choose how best to tell the story at hand.

As Flaubert tells us, ”One does not choose one’s subject matter; one submits to it.” Let the story’s complexities dictate how it needs to be told.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Getting the balance right

Hello, readers –

I don’t want to disturb you, if you are one of the countless many rushing to get your tax forms postmarked by the time the post office closes, so I shan’t burden you today with a description of what tax time is like for the full-time writer. There will be time enough for that tomorrow, after everyone’s had a good night’s sleep.

In the meantime, please be extra-nice to postal employees today, because this is one of their most stressful workdays of the year — would you want hundreds of panicked last-minute filers rushing up to your workstation all day? — and I shall devote today’s posting to a writing insight I had over the weekend.

As many of you know, I have a memoir in press and a novel on the cusp of making the rounds of editors. In my freelance editing business, I regularly edit both, as well as doctoring NF books, so I consider myself pretty savvy about the tricks of the trade. This weekend, as if to remind me that I should always keep an open mind, a deceptively simple but undeniably useful rule of thumb popped into my mind while I was editing (drum roll, please):

The weight a given fact or scene should have in a manuscript is best determined by its emotional impact upon the book’s protagonist, rather than by its intrinsic or causative value.

Is that too technical? In other words, just because an event is important in real life doesn’t mean that it deserves heavy emphasis in a story. In a memoir, events are only relevant as they affect the central character(s); in a first-person novel, this is also true. Even in a third-person narrative told from a distant perspective, not every fact or event is equally important, and thus the author needs to apply some standard to determine what to emphasize and what merely to mention in passing.

To put this in practical terms: if you were writing about characters who lived New York in September of 2001, obviously, it would be appropriate to deal with the attacks on the World Trade Center, because it affected everyone who lived there. To some extent, the attacks affected everyone in the country, and in the long term, people in other countries as well. However, not everyone was affected equally, so not every book written about New Yorkers, Americans, or world citizens during that period needs to rehash the entire 9/11 report.

This may seem obvious on its face, but in practice, writers very often misjudge the balance between personal and public information in their manuscripts, as well as between historical backstory (both impersonal and personal) and what their protagonists are experiencing in the moment. In fact, it is a notorious megaproblem of memoirists and first-time novelists alike.

Sometimes, balance issues arise from a genuinely laudable desire to ground the story believably in a given time period. Memoirs about the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, tend to include extensive disquisitions on both the Vietnam War and hippie culture, the writerly equivalent of director Oliver Stone’s amusing habit of decorating crowd scenes from that period with a visible representative of every group in the news at the time, regardless of whether members of those groups would ever have attended the same event in real life: a protest march including Abbie Hoffman flanked by Gloria Steinem and several Black Panthers, for instance, with perhaps a Rastafarian, two of the Supremes, and Cat Stevens thrown in for good measure.

I bring up movie-style time markers advisedly, because, as I have pointed out before, how movies and television tell stories has seeped into books. On a big screen, stereotypical images are easier to get away with, I think, because they pass so quickly: have you noticed, for example, that virtually every film set in a particular year will include only that year’s top ten singles on the soundtrack, as though no one ever listened to anything else?

Frankly, I think this is a lost opportunity for character development, in both movies and books. Music choice could tell the reader a lot about a character: the character who was listening primarily to Smokey Robinson in 1968 probably thought rather differently than the character who was listening to the Mamas and the Papas or Mantovani, right? Even if they were smoking the same things at the time.

To use an example closer to home, in high school, if my cousin Janie and I walked into a record store at the same time, she would have headed straight to the top 40 hits, probably zeroing in rather quickly on big ballad-generating groups like Chicago. She was always a pushover for whoever used to warble the “I’m all out of love/I’m so lost without you” equivalent du jour. I, on the other hand, would have headed straight for the razor-cut British bands with attitude problems, your Elvis Costellos and Joe Jacksons. I am quite sure that I was the only 7th-grader in my school who was upset when Sid Vicious died.

Quick, which one of us was the cheerleader, me or Janie? And which one of us brought a copy of THE TIN DRUM to read on the bleachers when the football game got dull? (Hey, it was a small town; there was little to do but go to the Friday night high school football game.)

Such details are very useful in setting up a believable backdrop for a story, but all too often, writers spend too much page space conveying information that might apply to anyone of a particular age or socioeconomic group at the time. It’s generic, and thus not very character-revealing.

If I told you, for instance, that Janie and I both occupied risers in the first soprano section of our elementary school choir, belting out numbers from FREE TO BE YOU AND ME, much of the Simon & Garfunkel songbook, and, heaven help us, tunes originally interpreted by John Denver, the Carpenters, and Woody Guthrie, does this really tell you anything but roughly when the two of us were born?
Okay, the Woody Guthrie part might have tipped you off that we grew up in Northern California, but otherwise?

When books spend too much time on generic historical details, the personal details of the characters’ lives tend to get shortchanged. (And, honestly, can’t we all assume at this point that most readers are already aware that the 1960s were turbulent, that people discoed in the 1970s, and that it was not unknown for yuppies to take the occasional sniff of cocaine in the Reagan years?) It’s a matter of balance, and in general, if larger sociopolitical phenomena did not have a great impact upon the protagonist’s life, I don’t think those events deserve much page space.

I think this is also true of minutiae of family history, which have a nasty habit of multiplying like weeds and choking the narrative of a memoir. Just because the narrator’s family did historically tell certain stories over and over doesn’t mean that it will be interesting for the reader to hear them, right?

You would be amazed at how often memoirists forget this. Or so agents and editors tell me.

This is particularly true of anecdotes about far-past family members. If your great-grandmother’s struggle to establish a potato farm in Idaho in the 1880s has had a strong residual impact upon you and your immediate family, it might be worth devoting many pages of your memoir or autobiographical novel to her story. However, if there is not an identifiable payoff for it from the reader’s POV — say, the lessons she learned in tilling the recalcitrant soil resulting a hundred years later in a certain fatalism or horror of root vegetables in her descendents — the reader may well feel that the story strays from the point of the book. James Michener be damned — consider telling Great-Grandma’s story in its own book, not tacking on a 200-page digression.

I think we all know that the earth cooled after the Big Bang, Mr. Michener. Let’s move on.

Because, you see, in a memoir (or any first-person narrative), the point of reference is always the narrator. Within the context of the book, events are only important insofar as they affect the protagonist. So even if the story of how the narrator’s parents met is a lulu, if it doesn’t carry resonance into the rest of the family dynamic, it might not be important enough to include.

In my memoir, I do in fact include the story of how my parents met — not because it’s an amusing story (which it is, as it happens), but because it is illustrative of how my family tends to treat its collective past primarily as malleable raw material for good anecdotes, rather than as an unalterable collection of hard facts. “History,” Voltaire tells us, and my family believed it, “is a series of fictions of varying degrees of plausibility.”

I don’t say whether this is actually true or not; as a memoirist, my role is not to make absolute pronouncements on the nature of truth or history, but to present my own imperfect life story in a compelling way. So in my memoir, I reproduce the three different versions of the story of how my parents met that I heard most often growing up, with indications of the other dozen or so that showed up occasionally at the dinner table during my most impressionable years. I include them, ultimately, because my family’s relationship to its own past was a terrific environment for a child who would grow up to be a novelist.

Most of us are pretty darned interesting to ourselves: it’s hard not to have a strong reaction to your own family dynamics, whether it be amusement, acceptance, or disgust. That’s human; it’s understandable. But as a writer dealing with true events, you have a higher obligation than merely consulting your own preferences: you have a responsibility — and, yes, a financial interest, too, in the long run — to tell that story in such a way that the reader can identify with it.

Remember, fascinating people are not the only people who find themselves and their loved ones interesting; many a boring one does as well. And if you doubt this, I can only conclude that you have never taken a cross-country trip sitting next to a talkative hobbyist, a fond grandmother, or a man who claims his wife does not understand him.

Quoth D.H. Lawrence in SONS AND LOVERS: “So it pleased him to talk to her about himself, like the simplest egoist. Very soon the conversation drifted to his own doings. It flattered him immensely that he was of such supreme interest.”

So if you are writing about your kith and kin, either as fiction or nonfiction, take a step back from time to time and ask yourself: have I gotten the balance right?

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

When good perspectives go bad

Hi, readers –

The PNWA website is about to undergo a major overhaul! Even as I write this, dedicated volunteers are scurrying like mad to make it even more fabulous, user-friendly, and stuffed to the brim with useful info for all of you than it already is. Really, I think you’re going to like the results.

So don’t panic if you don’t hear from me for a few days – the blog will be in limbo during the reconstruction period, but it will emerge from its cocoon soon. My section will now be called GUEST WRITER, which makes me feel sort of like The Man Who Came to Dinner, but I promise you, even under the new aegis, I shall keep up my patented barrage of friendly advice, inside insights, and unsolicited gratuitous opinions. If you have writing- or publishing-related questions you would like to see me tackle, send ‘em in; if I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.

So to prepare you for the Grand Silence, I’m writing you an extra-long installment today.

Yesterday, I wrote about what a good idea it is to avoid incorporating stereotypes into your submissions, lest you offend someone on the reading end of your query. (Hint: not everyone in New York is straight, for instance.) In glancing over the post, I realized that I left a rather important piece out of the argument: even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions.

Why? Well, in a new writer, what they’re really looking to see is originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent. When you speak in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where your authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive.

Occasionally, though, marked personal prejudices may actually lend verve to a voice – which, incidentally, is nowhere more true than in the world of blogs. We bloggers are SUPPOSED to be absolutely open about our pet peeves and quirky interpretations of the world around us: the whole point is to be as subjective and stream-of-consciousness as possible. Think about it: wouldn’t Andrew Sullivan’s blog about politics (well worth reading, if you haven’t) be far less interesting if he didn’t make his personal views so VERY apparent? Or, for that matter, wouldn’t this very blog be rather uninteresting without my pronounced (albeit charming, I hope) personal slant? That’s why the mainstream news’ attempts at establishing themselves as legitimate blog voices tend to fall so flat: they are the products of PR research; the individual bizarreness has been utterly ironed out.

Minor vitriol, however, or personal anger masked as fiction, usually does not work so well in print. I cannot even begin to count the number of novels I have edited that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why.

Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, they turn out to be lifted directly from real life. The author is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader. (These scenes are pretty easy for professionals to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true.) Ultimately, this is a point-of-view problem — the author is just too close to the material to be able to tell that the scene doesn’t read the way he anticipated.

Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. I have read scenes where the case against the villain is so marked that most readers will decide that the hero is the impossible one, not the villain.

This revenge has clearly not gone as planned.

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

My most vivid personal experience of this species of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. And at the risk of having this story backfire on me, I’m going to tell you about it as nonfiction. Call it a memoir excerpt.

A few years ago, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, artistic retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a fragrant month-long stay in a cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day (ah, the recently departed Norcroft! I shall always think of you fondly, my dear – which is saying something, as I had a close personal encounter with an absolutely mammoth wolf there, and a poet-in-residence rode her bicycle straight into a sleepy brown bear. And both of us would still return in an instant.) to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills. They’re sort of a crap shoot.

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for a month was a painter, a sculptor, or a writer. The writers were a tiny minority; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and compared them to the dark caves to which they themselves had been assigned. I elected to write in my room, in order to catch some occasional sunlight, and for the first couple of weeks, was most happy and productive there.

When I go on a writing retreat, I like to leave the trappings of my quotidian life behind, but not everyone feels that way. In fact, several artists had brought their significant others to the colony, or, to be more accurate, these pairs had applied together: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise.

Although every fiber of my being strains to use their real names, I shall not. Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.

Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic or social. No one in the dining hall was really surprised that he often brought the conversation around to sex; honestly, once you’d sat through his slide show of breast, leg, pudenda, buttocks, breast, you’d have to be kind of dense not to notice where his mind liked to wander. He and I talked in a friendly manner whenever we happened to sit at the same table. I loaned him a book or two. We had coffee a couple of times. Never occurred to me to think anything of it.

Until Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they liked jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I DO have standards” to an angry lover, is there? So I started sitting at a different table in the dining hall. A little junior high schoolish, true, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable.

The fellowship that each writer received included a requirement that each of us do a public reading while we were in residence. Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. Eventually, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I HAD flirted with her mostly unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the colony, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a sandwich near the couple to spark a fight, but that was it.

At the end of the third week of our residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and the very important, repeated National Book Award nominee who had dropped by (in exchange for an honorarium) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected to read highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

Two writers read: beautifully varnished work, safe stuff. Then Gretel stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

The first piece was a lengthy interior monologue, describing Hansel and Gretel having sex in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the scene, a straightforward account of a mechanical act which included – I kid you not – a literal countdown to the final climax. It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launching that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” I have no objection to writers who turn their diaries into works for public consumption, but this was graphic without being either arousing or instructive. Also, I’d read some of Gretel’s work before: she was a better writer than this.

However, the painters in the back row hooted and hollered, so maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece. Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. (“Three…two…one.) Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants are pleased the act is over, it’s not the best sex imaginable.

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again in the first person, again with herself and her husband identified by name, again an interior monologue, this had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first page. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character entered the scene, sat down at a table, picked up a sandwich – and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted, from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade that included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, bitch!” and “Are those real?”

She read it extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. And to her credit, the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me – her physical description would have enabled any police department in North America to pick me up right away – never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

There was no ending to the story. She just stopped, worn out from passion.

I was very nice to her; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible, congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around. True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly failed, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I was nice to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, it was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Is there anything more stinging than someone you hate feeling sorry for you?

So do think twice about what you’re putting on the page, particularly for work you are submitting to contests, agencies, or small presses – or, heaven forbid, reading to a group of people you want to like you, or at any rate your narrator. Revenge fantasies tend to announce themselves screamingly from the page. If you’re still angry, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective – at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate – give it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

It’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before promotion becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer – and, let’s face it, a lot of us do – please, please join a writing group. Find good readers you can trust to save you from looking like a junior high schooler on a rampage.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human.

Keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini