My guest is a man with an impressive background and resume. He also has serious thoughts about writing and is sharing some of them with us today.
Shelly Frome is a member of Mystery Writers of America, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of mysteries, books on theater and film, and articles on the performing arts appearing in a number of periodicals in theU.S.and the U.K.He is also a film critic and a contributor to writers’ blogs. His fiction includes Lilac Moon, Sun Dance for Andy Horn, Tinseltown Riff and the trans-Atlantic cozy The Twinning Murders. Among his works of non-fiction are the acclaimed The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. Twilight of the Drifter, his latest novel, is a southern gothic crime-and-blues odyssey.
Making a Case for the Slow Simmering Process
by Shelly Frome
Judging from the daily posts e-mailed via countless writers’ sites, the watchword is that writing fiction is just a casual pursuit among kindred spirits: Here’s a sample:
“Hey, everybody, how do you mine your ideas?” “On average, how many plot twists do you need?” “Is it okay to do a stand-alone or should you have a sequel or two up your sleeve?” “What’s trending in paranormal romance?”
And here are some friendly tips on offer:
“Try these power words that add punch.” “Try on different hats--writing for two or more age groups at a time.” “Taking it seriously without having to take it seriously.” “Find your readers with this fun site.”
At first glance, though Writer’s Digest has a huge circulation, it seems the easy writers must have skipped over an article in the current issue featuring Andre Dubus III, the bestselling author of House of Sand and Fog. This son of a literary icon declares that “the story has to percolate in your mind for a long time. There’s a profound difference between just making something up and letting it fall into your psyche and imagination rather than pushing it out. Doing the real work first and then painstakingly crafting the words.”
Of course this is the same magazine that plays both ends against the middle. The same magazine that shouts “Readers of fiction are faced with saturated genres and a limited amount of time and money. Any title has to immediately grab their attention. The market doesn’t lie.”
In one previous issue, someone calling herself a literary change agent seemed to echo this selfsame outlook. So no wonder. If the denizens of the net read this magazine at all, here is a woman who claims that reaching readers is a matter of blanketing social media, blogging anywhere and everywhere, and “passing out fliers on street corners.”
To meet these demands, contributors billed as successful pros offered sure-fire tips like these:
“Use plotting strategies that make the book a winner. Give readers a hook at the get-go. And be sure to leave them with a take-home thought.” “Make them laugh and cry. When readers laugh and cry they’ll get that emotional high they’re looking for along with that walloping payoff.” “Before you start, come up with a logline that makes buyers sit up and say ‘gotta read it’.” “Try this for a ploy. Redesign an old hit TV show for the texting, tweeting, Lady Gaga generation. It’s a great reminder how important it is to always have your readers in mind.”
Having just returned from a major conference in Portland, Oregon, with its 800 attendees, I have to admit the attitude wasn’t that much different. The focus was on generating a marketable product rather than on creative development. Being a paid professional rather than going through all that labor or, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s terms, being a true novelist with a peasant’s soul.
Admittedly, every time I happened to mention some literary icon like, say, Eudora Welty, no one had the foggiest idea who I was talking about.
So, even though I may be fighting an uphill battle, let’s at lest consider Ms.Welty’s approach as an option. Take the time when Willie Morris (another writer some of you also may have never heard of) was a youngster and his mother introduced him to Eudora Welty in Jackson, Mississippi. “Willie, this is Ms. Welty who writes books her own self.” What his mother meant was, this lady wrote from the inside out. Using her imagination she first made sure she had a story to tell and knew exactly what was in her characters’ hearts at all times. In that way she never wrote anything that didn’t spring naturally to mind. Welty’s way of working also required a firm sense of time and place. “It tells me the important things. Steers me and keeps me going straight. It’s a definer and confiner of what I’m doing.”
In short, Eudora Welty allowed each creation to take it’s time falling deep into her psyche and never once pushed anything out.
Moving on, we can take into account what Harper Lee had to go through spending over a year transforming her tales about her Depression-era small-town in Alabamainto the full-fledged To Kill a Mockingbird. By her own admission, she couldn’t have done it without the prompting and abiding encouragement of her New York editor. In every case, something meaningful seems to spring from the same kind of sensibility and work ethic. More recently, there’s the example of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, with its neglected 14-year-old girl, isolated on a South Carolinapeach farm, a mysterious crime hanging over the narrative, a search for a long lost mother and a hovering image of a Black Madonna.
If you want to, you can find literary threads anywhere and everywhere. You can trace Edgar Alan Poe’s inauguration of the detective novel down to yesterday and today’s P.I.s who take us inside the sun-drenched mansions of Beverly Hills and down the mean streets to reveal something extraordinary. And that includes James Lee Burke from the banks of Bayou Teche and Iberia Parish as he captivates readers with his vivid descriptions, crackling dialogue and sudden acts of violence. At the same time, he holds the record for rejections (111). Undaunted, he kept at it and at it till that particular work found a readership.
The stories can be as light as Agatha Christie’s cozies, but underneath it all was a lot of research and a great concern over making the world right. The stories can be as fanciful as Ray Bradbury’s science fiction taking us to other realms, with his own universal concerns and work ethic as he strived to make the extraordinary human. You can switch to Steven King, a disciple of Bradbury whose fascination with what’s lurking beyond the veil of the ordinary causes him to put in at least four to six hour days.
You can get far more serious and turn to Reynolds Price’s novels set in his native North Carolina. His tales tell us life is all about getting through time and what time does to you. How to endure when, bit by bit, parts of your freedom have been bartered away. All this dovetailing with the complications of sexuality, white racism and loneliness within the backdrop of his region and its history. Needless to say, a lot went into this before it was even close to seeing the light of day.
I know what you’re thinking. What about something a lot more in-between? What about somebody like John Grisham. A guy who knows that readers have an insatiable appetite for stories about lawyers and scandals. A guy who says novels that don’t work use too many words. The generator is your big idea. To locate it, you steal something. “Everything is fair game. We all steal, that’s what we do.”
Then you narrow it down to a half-dozen one-sentence pitches and run them by someone. Like his wife who never fails to pick the one with the best hook.
Granted it’s something to think about. Granted also, he put in a lot of work painstakingly honing his craft bit by bit, day by day, month by month. As if tossing it around and telling anyone what he was up to would cause his muse to flit away and leave him empty and bereft.
All told, I guess it comes down to the simple words uttered by Marlon Brando in Bud Schulberg’s On The Waterfront. “There’s more to this, Charlie. A lot more to this than meets the eye.”