Prison Diary: On Writing Fiction

Ernest Hemingway

Copyright 2021 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

The following are some notes on writing and “my method,” especially related to producing first drafts; from March of 2010 [material in brackets is a clarification or an afterthought].  This was written early in my prison career; I will post further material on writing from the Prison Diary (which continues for another six years) as I get it dictated into the computer; this particular material will all be under the new tag, “Novelist Notes.” because a previous selection is available here as “Notes of a Novelist.”  Understand that this material is just an unpublished amateur talking to himself, though often quoting from books on writing, so, it is impertinent.  Your comments, as always, are welcome.

My writing method is not “waiting for inspiration,” it’s “waiting for ripeness.” When I’ve decided what to do with a scene, then it gets written. That’s the theory, but the theory is phony, because I don’t know what’s going to happen until I write it. The events occur to me as I write. For instance, in writing about Miri’s return to Ising, I didn’t know a single thing that would happen until after I started writing it—not meeting Rod on the bridge, not her stopping on the bridge, not her stopping at the park—nothing. It was only an exercise, but I like how it turned out, or at least the incident of the park. Rod on the bridge is nothing. Could Miri go for Rod? Shrunt [That’s a shrug with a grunt]. Seems a distraction.

I think [Anne] Lamott’s book [Bird by Bird] has been helpful on two points: first drafts can be “shitty” (her word) but it’s still important to do them, and the “one-inch picture frame” idea of sitting down with a small idea to start writing from, to overcome the anxiety.

With these in hand, pushing the river doesn’t look either so difficult or so foolish as it once did: it’s such a little push. [Pushing the river is a concept I got from gestalt therapist Barry Stevens:  Don’t Push the River—It Flows by Itself]

Pushing the river has paid off, with seven new pages. [Two previous + five added.]

Lamott’s book, which I recall as having been nothing special, now seems quite good and important. Taking all the pressure off the first draft seems like a very good idea indeed.

I think now my main writing problem is dullness. Having a first draft of a scene in hand allows me to pick it apart, piece-by-piece, looking for ways to tweak it by discarding old, easy ideas and looking for more interesting alternatives. For example, Lisette is divorced because her husband was found, in a virtual cliché, to be cheating. I can think long and hard, if I wish, to replace either the method of discovery or the malfeasance. I could even change the result, such as having him dead, in prison, in hospital, insane, missing, the sky’s the limit. He could have run away to live in an ashram, or gone on a mission to convert the heathen. I have a slot into which I can plug an interesting story.

Steven Dobyns: Best Words, Best Order, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1996: “No writer changed as much as Rilke, no one worked harder to change his work, to make it larger and more dangerous, to be always at the very edge of his ability.” p. xiv.

This quote points me in the direction of greatness. My writing tends to be timid and conventional, hence dull and worthless. Perhaps I aim too low (“to save the world,” “to teach people how to live” is too low?); that parenthetical presages the other perhaps: perhaps I just haven’t been patient enough, trying to judge the work before it is written. Let’s get it written first, then see how dangerous it is.

To put humor in the work, I can have a character make the jokes, or I can put the jokes into the narrative, creating amusing incidents and characters. The latter is more desirable, clearly. At least in general.

How does one—what makes an incident or character amusing? I think it is safe to say that we may have one point of view, or more than one, about an incident or character: the POV of “those involved,” and an optional intentionally different POV of the writer which the reader is expected to share.

So to be funny involves cultivating a double vision: how do the characters see this, and how do I want the reader to see it? And I think the basic method becomes clearer: exaggerate something, but leave the character(s) unaware of the exaggeration. To add humor, ask oneself: what can I exaggerate here? Or, what can I throw into the mix to spice it up?

When one has serious intentions, it is not easy to also be funny. Humor is largely destructive. The “funny” Dickensian eccentric risks becoming ridiculous, and so distanced from the reader. Perhaps what one wants is not so much “funny” as “dear.” Certainly this is the hope in the case of the protagonist or any character we want [the reader] to identify with.

So we can both distance with humor or bring closer with humor.

In general, what’s funny? Inappropriate, unconventional, unexpected, odd behavior. If it’s both funny and something we might like to emulate, that might be “dear.”

To push the river effectively, tell yourself it’s time to write a small, shitty first draft. Once one has the useless and boring, it becomes much easier to tweak it into something useful and interesting. [In theory!] The small, shitty first draft is a stage to be gotten through, the essential first step toward one’s true goal of an effective piece of writing. [A necessary evil.]

By aiming for the small and shitty, you take the pressure off; the “push” becomes a slight nudge.

One of my failings as a writer is not wanting to give my main characters negative traits. I don’t mind their having problems—Jere has plenty and Miri is unhappy—but I don’t want anyone to be vain or greedy or cruel. I suppose Miri is materialistic (though she’s also generous!), and of course Seff is perverse, and Jere is lustful and profane; but mostly they are just rebels against conventional culture, and so, admirable (mostly) to the unconventional author. I must think about this further.

My method right now is to write a complete first draft of the novel before starting to revise. I think this is good because one can waste a lot of time rewriting scenes that later will be changed or even cut altogether. You need to get the plot and characters settled first—that is, the story, then the words.

Here are three rules I’ve come up with for improving my writing:

1.  Push during the first draft process. Rather than ending a scene at the first convenient stopping place, keep pushing out additional material. This may break my habit of writing those too-short stories and scenes I keep producing. Maybe: don’t end a scene until forced to do so.

2.  Tweak the choices you made in the first draft, as a first step in revision. In other words, change the linear, plodding, inevitable story [obvious, commonplace ideas] into one full of delicious moments of surprising rightness. Look at each event, each character, each action, each line of dialogue with the question, what can I do here instead? [Good luck with that!]

3.  Hook the reader along, from beginning to end. I take a hook to be a raised expectation—an event which will have consequences, a situation that will force a character to choose, a hint of something forthcoming, even an ambiguity or incompleteness in the writing that the reader will expect to be clarified within a couple of sentences. Look for these hooks, add more, and be sure that these expectations are all resolved by the end, or all but one. Hooks are especially important at the start of: a book, each chapter, and even a long paragraph. These hooks need not be strong, and I think definitely should not be—the reader should feel interested, not “coerced.” He should, at best, not even feel it as it goes in.

Copyright 2021 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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