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.


Posted by Scott Alumbaugh, 0 comments

Sometimes a Great Notion

Sometimes a Great NotionI just finished reading this book. It took me 200 pages to realize Kesey wasn’t just fucking with me. Well, 217 pages, actually. There was just something about the following passage that told me all the POV jumping and time shifting wasn’t just a way of showing off or desperate attempts to make a boring story interesting.

Oregon October, when the fields of timothy and rye-grass stubble are being burned, the sky itself catches fire. Flocks of wrens rush up from the red alder thickets like spars kicked up from a campfire, the salmon jumps again, and the river runs often and slow . . .

Down river, from Andy’s landing, a burned-off cedar snag held the sun spitted like an apple, hissing and dripping juices against a grill of Indian Summer clouds. All the hillside, all the drying Himalaya vine that lined the big river, and the sugar-maple trees farther up, burned a dark brick and over-lit red. The river split for the jump of a red-gilled silver salmon, then circled to mark the spot where it fell. Spoonbills shoveled at the crimson mud in the shallows, and the dowitchers jumped from cattail to cattail, frantically crying “Kleek! Kleek!” as though the thin reeds were as hot as the pokers they resembled. Canvasback and brant flew south in small, fiery, faraway flocks. And in the shabby ruin of broken cornfields rooster ringneck clashed together in battle so bright, so gleaming polished-copper bright, that the fields seemed to ring with their fighting.

I don’t know why, but that paragraph told me it would be worth my time to read the next 400+ pages. And it was.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh, 0 comments

The Convenient Corpse

Chalk outlineI recently read two books that seemingly have little to do with each other: Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow and Atticus by Ron Hansen. What struck me about these two books is that they both have what I am choosing to call a “convenient corpse.”

A convenient corpse is a body everybody can care about enough to drive the plot of the book, but not care about so much that the person’s death causes the protagonist and real moral concern. The person’s death drives some aspect of the story; but once that purpose is served, the body can go away and just leave everyone else alone. I find this concept really disturbing.

In Presumed Innocent, the body is Carolyn Polehemus, the protagonist’s mistress and obsession who turns up dead. She’s blond, sexy, gorgeous, and a great attorney to boot. It also turns out that she was manipulative, conniving, and apparently trying to sleep her way to the top. By the end of the story, we learn that even Carolyn’s college-age son doesn’t really care who killed her. And that allows our hero, Rusty Sabich, to think it’s okay not to turn in his wife for murdering Carolyn. You see, he couldn’t bear to separate his wife from their son. And it’s okay to let Carolyn’s murderer go unpunished because no one cares about Carolyn anyway. She was a slut. Or as Sabich’s pal Lipranzer says, she was bad news.

In Atticus, a father travels to Mexico to reclaim his son’s body. Everyone tells the father, Atticus, that his semi-estranged son committed suicide. Atticus soon comes to believe he was murdered. As he investigates, he discovers that his son is not dead at all; someone murdered another person who looked like Atticus’ son, and the son arranged to use the body to make everyone believe he was dead. In the end, the son gets a hand slap for interfering with a police investigation. Dad and son reconcile. As it turns out, we are told who killed the stranger: it was the finance of a young woman whom the son accidentally killed while driving drunk on the highway. After killing the wrong man, the killer commits suicide by provocation, so that end is neatly tied up. The son never has to account for killing the woman. He gets to go on with his life. No one bothers to find the next of kin for the other man killed because he is a drifter of sorts from Europe.

In both cases, I found myself wondering what would happen if someone cared about the corpses. What if Carolyn’s son pushed to find out who murdered his mom after Rusty Sabich walked away free? What if a family member from Germany turned up to find out what happened to their long-lost son or brother? What if someone cared?

Obviously, such complications don’t fit well into a novel’s tightly constructed universe. Loose ends can only dangle so long. If they aren’t tied up, the novel gets unwieldy. I get that. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with a universe where protagonists get to make easy choices just to wrap up the story.  It feels unsatisfying. Convenient. Too unreal even for fiction.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh