Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Benjamin Hale's Four Essential Fiction Writing Rules

In the 64th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Benjamin Hale, author of The Fat Artist (Simon & Schuster), focuses on some basic approaches to making stories.

I set out to write a ten-rules-of-writing-fiction essay á la Elmore Leonard, but I only came up with four essential ones. (I have quite a few more after these, but that’s under the “advanced” menu.) These are four basic rules that I give myself when I write fiction, and they work for me.

1. Don’t write disingenuously.

I have many opinions on the art and science of writing fiction, but the foundation they all rest upon is this commandment: Write what would give you, as a reader, pleasure to read.

Questions arise. What gives me, as a reader, pleasure? What is literary pleasure? There are simple pleasures and there are complex pleasures. There are immediate pleasures and there are pleasures a reader must work for, and oftentimes are more pleasurable in the end because of the work done. There are pleasures I know, and I revisit them again and again: the stories of John Cheever, Patricia Highsmith, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flannery O’Connor, to name a few examples. The only way I have of discovering new varieties of pleasure is to keep on reading, as widely as I can, and in the spirit of exploration: contemporary literature, ancient literature, “high” and “low” literature, literature from as many languages and cultures and times as have left stories behind. The more new pleasures a reader finds, the more techniques of producing literary pleasure that reader as a writer can incorporate into his or her own work.

Do not ever write for someone else’s idea of pleasure. This pitfall is harder to avoid than it seems at first. One might think, Well, The New Yorker seems to like stories that do so-and-so, so I will try to write a story that does that. Or, x writer won x prize, or y writer got an advance for infuriating sum of money z for her book, so I will try to write a book like that. If one drop of this horrible substance falls onto your page, it will contaminate it. If it does, then you are now writing disingenuously; you are writing (as Sinclair Lewis put it in his letter rejecting the Pulitzer in 1926) “not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards.” Don’t write for extrinsic praise. Don’t write for critics. Don’t write for scholars. Don’t write for writers. Don’t write for a “readership,” or an “ideal reader.” Simply try to write what you, as a reader, would honestly find pleasure in.

2. When experience and imagination fail you, research.

There are, as far as I can discern, three sources of inspiration for any maker of stories: (1) experience, (2) research, and (3) imagination.

Experience is everything that you as a human being have learned, thought, seen, touched, smelled, tasted, heard, felt, observed, and remember. I happen to know what an unseasonably early snowfall on an aspen grove on a mountainside in Colorado looks like, what it feels like to be held at gunpoint by robbers, the curiously bizarre smell of the penguin enclosure at the Denver Zoo, moral shame, romantic obsession, and heartbreak so brutal it feels life-threatening (at first)—among other things. These are things I can use in my writing because I have experienced them firsthand.

When a story forces me to write about things I have not experienced firsthand is where research comes in. What it feels like to be a chimpanzee. What it smells like on a fishing boat. What it feels like to have a brain tumor. What it feels like to breastfeed a baby. What a drag queen might have observed at a rooftop cocktail party in New York City in May of 1981. Research can involve reading lots of books about chimpanzees, reading memoirs written by people who have survived brain tumors, asking someone who has breastfed a baby to describe it, interviewing a retired drag queen, calling up a commercial fishing company and asking if they mind if I stand on their boat and try to stay out of the way while they work, so that I can take mental notes on what I see, smell, and hear as they haul in their first catch of the morning. Almost anyone—mothers, drag queens, fishermen—will be enthusiastically receptive to a phone call from a fiction writer politely asking what it feels like to do what they do, or have done. The world is pretty big, and the work of writing fiction does not have to be confined to the surface of your desk, or the walls of whatever room you write in. If a story steers you toward the task of rendering something in words that you have not personally experienced, find someone who has experienced that thing, and ask him or her about it.  Most people will be delighted to tell you.
Old salt: Imagination setting sail

Then, take (1) experience, and (2) research, and mix these with (3) imagination. No one on earth will be able to tell you what it feels like to be a chimpanzee in a zoo, so if that’s what you’re writing about, after reading lots of books about chimpanzees, at some point you’re just going to have to plunge into dark territory and imagine it. You can read a lot of books—histories, journals, diaries, and so on—trying to get a sense of what it felt like to be a Scottish sailor in the Royal Navy onboard a ship in the Atlantic on a sunny day in the eighteenth century (I have not finished that particular story yet), but at some point you’ll have to put your imagination in the driver’s seat. If imagination fails you, return to experience or research, and begin again.

3. Structure is crucial.

The single most useful tool anyone has ever given me to go about the craft of storytelling is a technique the writer William Melvin Kelly taught me sixteen years ago. Here it is:

First, tell your story in three sentences.  Beginning, middle, and end.  Then, break those three sentences into nine:

1.) The beginning of the beginning.
2.) The middle of the beginning.
3.) The end of the beginning.

4.) The beginning of the middle.
5.) The middle of the middle.
6.) The end of the middle.

7.) The beginning of the end.
8.) The middle of the end.
9.) The end of the end.

Once you’ve got that down, you now have an outline. The novelist Edward Carey told me (and I think he’s right): “Very few stories that get finished haven’t been outlined at some point.”

In the years after he taught it to me, I have tweaked Willy Kelly’s nine-sentence method somewhat to suit my purposes. I make a nine-box visual outline for every story I write (that actually gets finished*). It’s similar to the storyboarding method screenwriters often use. I go through four or five drafts, and when I’m done it looks like this:

All those letters represent little notes—plot points or bits of information the reader needs to go on into the next box. With this outline, I’ve got the story blocked out into nine “boxes”—or “chapters,” or chunks of narrative; then I’m ready to begin the sentence-by-sentence composition of the story. If I start with box #1, I’ll sit down to write, and tell myself, “You can shoot off into whatever tangents or spandrels you want, describe all the bathtubs and bird feeders and so on that come to you at the moment of putting words on the page (knowing that much of that will get cut later), but whatever you write, you must make happen or convey a, b, and c plot points or data points before moving on to box #2.” And then, when all the actions or bits of information necessary to the story have happened or have been revealed, it’s time to move on to the next box. I follow the boxes until I’ve come to the end of my first draft. Then it’s time for the fun part—revision.

This method builds a three-act structure into a story, and it helps me construct a story horizontally, rather than vertically. It allows a story to expand from inside-out, reaching outward from its center like the branches of a tree. Most importantly, it builds structure into a story. If you don’t think structure is important in storytelling, just listen to someone tell a joke badly: A bad joke-teller forgets to plant information at the right time, and has to backtrack—“No, no, wait, I forgot to tell you…”—and by then, the timing is ruined; the moment is lost, unrecoverable.

Sometimes, of course, it happens that in the process of writing the sentences, I think of something I like better than what I had planned in the outline. That just means I have to go back to the outline and fiddle around with things. The carpenter, in nailing the planks and boards together, has noticed something that did not occur to the architect, so he informs the architect, and the architect tweaks the design. Another metaphor I find useful is that of the composer and the musician. Not so much a classical composer, but a jazz composer, who allows his musicians more leeway for improvisation. There is a vital interplay between the two. The composer needs the musician to play the notes, but the musician who thinks he doesn’t need the composer is just noodling.

4. Write your first drafts by hand.

Again, I’m not saying these “rules” are anything but what I have found works for me. When I write by hand, I don’t get stalled trying to think of exactly the right word—I just leave a blank there, promise myself to reencounter that little problem in the future, and move on with the story. Later, when I’m typing up what I’ve written by hand, I stop and think of what that missing word should be, I experiment with restructuring the grammar of my sentences, I take things out and put things in, and so on: In typing it up, I create my second draft. Some writer, I can’t remember who, said about the subject of what to do on those doldrums days when one doesn’t feel much like writing: “When the fish aren’t biting, I mend the nets.” While writing a first draft, if I am able to stay significantly ahead of myself with the handwritten manuscript, then I’ll always have nets to mend on those days when the fish aren’t biting. Also, writing by hand will keep you away from the Internet, which is absolutely crucial in writing a first draft.


*A few months ago, I was talking on a panel about short stories at a writers’ conference. I told them about my rule of nines, and someone in the audience asked me, “Do you always use this method to outline stories?” I thought about it, and said, “No. I use this method to outline all the stories that get finished. The stories that dribble and drool and eventually dither out into nothing after meandering for a hundred pages—those are invariably the ones that haven’t been outlined in this way, and they never actually get finished.”