Scott Alumbaugh



Before . . .

Last April, after sending out around fifty queries for two novels, and probably twice that many short story submissions over the past three years, with no success, I decided to take a break from writing and try to figure out what I was doing wrong. Or at least, what I needed to be doing better.

After reading a number of “successful” current authors, I found some patterns. Some which suit me personally more than others. The one thing that stuck out most is the hardest to describe. And that’s voice.

Reviewing my own work, I found that as I developed my stories over successive drafts, they became less and less idiosyncratic. The language more formal, more structured. Less alive, and much less interesting to read. Not coincidentally, this coincided with the number of people I submitted each story to for critique. In other words, I fell into the trap every writer knows they should avoid: letting critiquers’ comments overly influence their style.

I knew this was an issue. I experienced it twenty-five years ago, when I first studied writing at UCLA Extension. But goddamn if I didn’t fall for it again.

Once I realized this, I formed an image of a river. Specifically, the San Gabriel River in Southern California. It’s a great analogy to the process of writing and refining fiction with the help of others.

When you start out, your creativity is like the river picture at the top of this page. It’s wild, it creates its own channel, and it works its way out of the wilderness to find the Sea of Publication.

But along the way, your river of creativity hits the San Gabriel Valley: that is, a settled area it must pass through safely. The valley is settled by critiquers. People, like you, who write and love to read. But they know the Rules better than you do. And as outside observers, they see things in your story you never could. So they comment on things like point of view, punctuation, usage, tightening your prose, making things clearer.


. . . After

Which raises a dilemma. If you ignore them, you run the risk of  megalomania (“They just don’t understand me”). If you go too far in the other direction, you end up with, well, the picture to the right: the San Gabriel Wash—a style that constrains your creativity and makes a sterilized, walled-in beeline to the Sea of Oblivion.

Just to be clear, this is not the critiquers’ fault. They are doing exactly what you asked, and what every writer needs. The fault is all mine and what I did with that advice and opinion.

Yep, I am afraid I became the Wash. Happily, I see that now. Which is not say that I have found the key to great writing and publication. Just that I think I’ve found a good place to spend a lot of energy trying to correct.


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The Light in L.A.

The New Yorker recently posted a video online (embedded above) taken from its show, which airs on Amazon. The video is based on one of my favorite pieces in the magazine: an article called “L.A. Glows,” written by Lawrence Weschler, and published in the February 23, 1998 issue of the magazine. (The issue theme was “California,” and it’s the only one of that theme I recall.) The article is here (requires a subscription).

It captures the wonder of light in Southern California (with a capitalized “S” because it is such a distinct region—as Carey McWilliams titled his book, “An Island on the Land”), and is really a wonderful read, both for the subject and the quality of the writing. For instance, it includes passages like this (from Coy Howard, and architect):

. . . when you have the kind of veiled light we get here more regularly you become aware of a sort of multiplicity—not illumination so much as luminosity. Southern California glows, not just all day but at night as well, and the opacity melts away into translucency, and even transparency.”

Ever since I read that passage I have wanted to be able to write like that. In my current work in progress, California Incline, I often talk about the sky. A lot of bloggers who give writing advice warn against overusing weather as a metaphor for a character’s mood. But when a story is set in L.A., the sky is a character. Describing it doesn’t so much reflect on the human characters, as give the reader a description of the ethereal character that hovers over the human actors.

So at different points I include short passages like these:

High clouds had drifted onshore, covering downtown; a veiled sun in a nacre sky softened the edges of the city with pearlescent light.”

Uphill, toward Hope Street, lay a fountain watched over by a bronze nude against an amber-blue sky streaked with Van Gogh clouds, wisps whipped to shreds at the ends.”

Even the sky looked washed out, threadbare blue with bleachmark clouds.”

Not quite the level of poetry found throughout the Weschler article, but I hope enough to give some character to the light.

Of course, for a cross-cultural perspective on L.A. light, you have Miami Ray Bones (Dennis Farina) in Get Shorty:

 They say the fucking smog is the fucking reason you have such beautiful fucking sunsets.”

In  any case, I strongly recommend the Weschler article if you can get a chance to read it.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in California Incline, Fiction, Novel Writing, 0 comments

A Riot Every Generation?

In my current WIP, California Incline, the story suggests that the Rodney King riots would never really end in the sense that its root causes were (are) still present:

But even though John had left town, he hadn’t escaped anything, because a riot isn’t an event with a beginning and an end. It’s in the air, like the ashes of the American Dream of immigrants like Yong Soo whose businesses lay in burned-out ruins. The Rodney King riot reached back to the Watts riot a generation earlier, to the Zoot Suit riot a generation before that, and even earlier. As soon as it was over, everyone knew it wasn’t the last riot L.A would have. For all the talk about change, the problems were still there. The hate and the fear, the unemployment, the anger, the repression, the drugs and the gangs . . .

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Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in California History, California Incline, 0 comments