Write a Better Novel http://writeabetternovel.net Practical wisdom for novelists and other storytellers Wed, 24 Jul 2013 02:59:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.6.1 Truevoicehttp://feedburner.google.com Pushcart Prize Still Going Strong, Except… http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Truevoice/~3/cfmYdTyWTKY/ http://writeabetternovel.net/pushcart-prize-still-going-strong-except/#comments Tue, 24 Jan 2012 19:20:18 +0000 Bill Henderson http://writeabetternovel.net/?p=4773

No Electronic Submissions, Please. We’re Luddites

Pushcart PrizeThe Pushcart Prize XXXVI: Best of the Small Presses (2012 Edition) is out, and once again promises all kinds of special treats for readers, particularly fiction readers. Fine work they would possibly never encounter were they to rely solely on The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and the few other major outlets for short stories.

On Amazon the listing has a small box containing this: “Tell the Publisher! I’d like to read this book on a Kindle.” I had to laugh, ironically, when I saw that. In fact, nothing from Pushcart will ever be seen on a Kindle if the publisher––whose name, by coincidence, is the same as mine, “Bill Henderson”––has his way.

What’s up with that? In an essay in in Luna Park: on Literary Magaines, editor Travis Kurowski lays out a view similar to the one I hold. Both of us laud Bill Henderson for giving us The Pushcart Press. There’s no doubt Henderson came along at a time when a viable alternative to corporatized publication was sorely needed. But when the “digital revolution” began to change the world as we know it, rather than catch that wave and ride it, he let it break on his head.

I first became aware of this when, back in the 90s, he declared himself to be in reaction to the trending future by asserting that writers should stick to old-tech, pencil and paper, and not get sucked into the electronic maws of word processing and the Internet. In 1994, he published The Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club, a collection of short pieces he solicited from writers who felt as he did. If you try hard enough you can still find a copy.

Rather than lay into it in this post, let me direct you, if you want to know more, to an article I’ve posted here. “Note to Pushcart’s Bill Henderson – Get the Lead Out of the Future” will give you a late 1990s glimpse of some writers, and a major editor, frozen with anxiety and frustration, as a future they don’t understand begins to unfold around them.

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Good Stories Aren’t About What They’re About http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Truevoice/~3/_b36x4fGGNI/ http://writeabetternovel.net/good-stories-arent-about-what-theyre-about/#comments Wed, 14 Dec 2011 22:28:30 +0000 Bill Henderson http://writeabetternovel.net/?p=4494 *means.* Nothing illustrates the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction more clearly than this simple, but hard to verbalize, fact of life. Paradox? Yes, but when you think about it, what is fiction but paradox upon paradox upon paradox? ]]>

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No Success? No Problem. It’s What We Do. http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Truevoice/~3/5C-_MlQhcvg/ http://writeabetternovel.net/no-success-no-problem-its-what-we-do/#comments Mon, 12 Dec 2011 06:17:39 +0000 Bill Henderson http://writeabetternovel.net/?p=4681

This video caught my eye, because it put into perspective a reality fiction writers experience all the time: failure. If you’re going to write fiction, get ready; your work will ba rejected again and again. More often than not, to those you know and love, you will look like a failure.

An essential part of the maturing process for any writer is learning to soldier through the “failures.” You must. Otherwise, you might not be around for the succcesses when they finally arrive.

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Microfiction to Fiction, Part 4 – Conclusion http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Truevoice/~3/UF3hiCLjdI8/ http://writeabetternovel.net/microfiction-to-fiction-part-4-conclusion/#comments Thu, 03 Nov 2011 16:15:17 +0000 Bill Henderson http://writeabetternovel.net/?p=4620

The House in Flames

...I got a full dose of it before I left. You wouldn’t think a rickety old Victorian could burn like that, but it was throwing up fireballs like a dying planet.

The past few posts have been about how “Driving Shades” grew from 100 words to 9,000, in a few easy steps. Except, of course, they’re more than a few, and none of them were easy.

The fact is, very little in fiction is achieved without a struggle, since, once you’ve told it, the struggle is only beginning. Telling is not what fiction is primarily about. It’s only your ground floor. Now you have to show. Contrast this with writing a newspaper report––or a blog post like this, for that matter. Once you’ve told it, your job is done.

Would I recommend this a way to begin a new story? Not really. I would’ve had more to work with if I’d pulled something from the local section of my daily paper. Still, I’m glad I did it, and if I could go back in time, I would do it again.

Originally, I posted “Driving Shades” in 4 parts, to accompany the “Microfiction to Fiction” posts, of which this is the last. You can now read a much more advanced draft of the complete story here.

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Microfiction to Short Story, Part 3 – Choose the Right Style http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Truevoice/~3/WsySzlIJyIw/ http://writeabetternovel.net/microfiction-to-short-story-part-3-choose-the-right-style/#comments Thu, 03 Nov 2011 00:42:23 +0000 Bill Henderson http://writeabetternovel.net/?p=4606

Scary House

...it had the look of a crack house. At night there was an unreal darkness behind its windows. You could tell nobody lived in it.

I like to write characters who are introspective, observant, and articulate. These qualities presuppose a fluency of style well adapted for making fiction.

But the language of “Driving Shades” is tightly limited to simple, everyday words and phrases.

It’s a character narration, so the level of expression must mirror the language of the character-narrator, an ordinary guy from an ordinary home in an ordinary small town. The problem is, the events he lives in this story are beyond ordinary, and well beyond the capabilities of his normal language. I had to make do with a smaller vocabulary, not only of words, but of phrases, expressions, references.

If you enjoy doing beautiful things with language, this kind of challenge might go across your grain. But I find it fun to work with less––kind of like playing golf using only a couple of irons and a putter. Eloquence of effect doesn’t necessarily call for scintillating turns of phrase. Even Shakespeare’s writing, when the action becomes gut-level intense, drops down to words of mostly a single syllable. (Scintillating, by the way, is a word I’d never use in “Driving Shades.”)

Read the whole story. Click here.

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Microfiction to Short Story – Harder than It Looks, Part 2 http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Truevoice/~3/0EJxq7eob1U/ http://writeabetternovel.net/microfiction-to-short-story-harder-than-it-looks-part-2/#comments Tue, 01 Nov 2011 21:30:00 +0000 Bill Henderson http://writeabetternovel.net/?p=4578


...Sometimes she’s with me, walking beside me, and the wind is blowing around us. I’m trying to tell her it’s not over, it doesn’t have to be, if maybe we could just turn everything around and go back.

We know her only as Sis. In “Driving Shades” she is the narrator’s dead sister: a “shade.”

Sis, who doesn’t exist in the original version, becomes the central focus of a plot that also didn’t exist. I needed her and the other characters I’ve created, just as I needed a central conflict or “problem” that set them into action. In order to build it out into a broader structure, I needed it to be “about” something. Sis doesn’t do much or say much, but she is what the central conflict evolves from and revolves around. She is what it’s all about.

When you write microfiction, you can dispense with story, even plot, because what matters is not what happens next, what that means, and where it leads. It’s about effect. In 100 words, or 140 characters (Twitterfiction), you are trying to surprise and delight the reader.

You’re on!––then, in a single flourish, it’s over.

Microfictions may suggest plot, but can rarely do more than just that: suggest.

Some folks like to say that Hemingway’s “For sale: Baby shoes. Never used,” is the shortest story in the English language. It’s not a story; rather, it suggests a story––or any number of stories, for that matter. But in fact it’s a microfiction, a very good one, and it does what all good microfictions do: creates an immediate and powerful effect and is over.

Read the full story. Click here.

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Microfiction to Short Story – Harder Than it Looks http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Truevoice/~3/ZCW8JOFD2qs/ http://writeabetternovel.net/microfiction-to-short-story-harder-than-it-looks/#comments Mon, 31 Oct 2011 19:24:06 +0000 Bill Henderson http://writeabetternovel.net/?p=4507

death taxi-driving shades

What I couldn't tell him was that back then, most of my fares were dead folks, and I cared a lot about them. "Shades,” I called them. They didn't pay me but I treated them like fares anyway, and why not? Shades have places to go too, stuff to do, just like you and me, only things are a little harder for them.

I don’t normally post my work here. But because “Driving Shades” began as a 100 word microfiction––and because it’s Halloween––I decided to make an exception, and post it anyway. It’s a good example of how to begin with the merest fragment and build a full length short story.

It also illustrates a challenge that comes up if you’re writing a first-person narrative: adjusting diction to suit the level of a character’s language ability and style of speech. More on that in a later post.

“Driving Shades” began as a 100 word microfiction I wrote for the web site, Name Your Tale. The way Name Your Tale works is ingenius: readers send in raw titles, seemingly the more random the better, which get assigned to the website’s staff or to guest writers. As a guest, I’ve written about 25 of them. When I decided to expand one, just for fun, I looked over those I’d written and chose “Driving Shades” because something about it seemed to suggest a larger story of a genre I’d been wanting to try. The other day, Nick Faber of Name Your Tale reminded me that the original title was “Driving Shadows,” which was something of a shock. He’s right, of course, but I’m not about to change it. What follows is the original 100 word “Driving Shadows,” properly named, as published:

It’s a creepy job, driving shadows, but my kind of work. I can give back, make a difference. Shadows have stuff to do, just like us. If a shadow couldn’t call a death cab how would he ever get from the grave to his old haunts, his special places–the house where he first made love, the little green yard where he had his birthday parties, the broke down chapel where hope burned so hot. Shadows don’t fly, you know. They’re weak, they have very little spirit left, and it’s waning every second. Sure I’ll drive them around. Wouldn’t you?

The expanded version, “Driving Shades,” comes in at around 8,000 words. In the spirit of Halloween, here is the first of several parts:

“Driving Shades”

I guess it’s weird, driving a cab all night, but what else is there to do in this town at 4 in the morning? My TV’s busted. I used to read, but I can’t concentrate anymore and there’s nothing worth reading anyhow. So I drive.

I’ve been with Bay State three years, going on four, long enough so when I call myself a cabbie, you don’t see me shrugging it off. At some point, you cross a line and it’s real. You wake up one morning and you are this thing––and everybody knows it. All-State basketball, Eagle Scout, Catholic Youth and all the things you were, they don’t mean squat. Mom and Dad got that. They stopped bothering me about college or a professional job. I mean, not that they ever nagged me or anything—we’re not that kind of a family––but I’ve always known what they must have talked about back in the kitchen or late at night in bed: when’s he going to move the fuck out and we get our lives back.

One Sunday Dad and me were watching a Red Sox game and Mom drifted into the room. I could tell she was staring at me, but I kept my eyes on the TV. I knew something was coming. She picked up the remote and muted the commercial and the room got quiet all of a sudden. Nothing but a screen door whapping shut one yard over.

“Your dad and me,” she said––and stopped like she’d hit a wall. She sucked in a long breath, and her eyes opened wider. She shot a glance at Dad. “We… Dad and me, we want you to know that, with all you been through—“

“We been through,” Dad corrected her, in a whisper.

“We, that’s right…” Her face hardened a little, all except for her eyes, which were filling with tears. “That’s right. We. All of us…” She stopped again, shook her head from side to side, no sound coming out of her, and turned back to Dad, who cleared his throat, harrumph, hem-hem, and took over.

“You got a home here, son, is what Mom’s trying to say. Always, okay. No questions asked. Drive a cab, work at the bake shop, whatever, it don’t matter. We understand.” Now they were both looking at me. “We know what’s going on.”

Except they didn’t. They didn’t begin to know.

People around here remember me. They know how I used to be, and they like the memory, so they cut me some slack, bring me food on the job sometimes–a sandwich, bowl of soup, cup of coffee. Beyond that, they know it’s best to just leave me alone. They remember Sis. They remember what happened. Nobody forgets that.

Gabe, my dispatcher, gets a request every now and then specifically for me. When he puts on this certain tone, I can tell it’s a woman, maybe a girl I used to know. She doesn’t have anyplace to go, just wants to sit in my backseat while I drive her around in the dark, then take her home. Maybe she knew me in high school, had a crush on me or something, her husband’s on the road, that kind of thing. She’s alone, wants a little tenderness, a little talk. I try to be nice, but it’s never what she hoped for. I can sense the disappointment. She doesn’t say it, but I’ve let her down and I won’t see her again because she didn’t get whatever it was she really wanted.

Yeah, I’m a disappointment. At home, on the job, all over town, so what? Should I care? Maybe I should, but I don’t. What’s to care about? My pride, my reputation? Like, I didn’t live up to somebody’s standards? Don’t make me laugh.
There was a time when things mattered. If I reach back far enough, I can remember feeling happy because I’d had a good day. Or I was in love, or I’d hit a winning basket, or got a good grade. I also remember what it feels like to hurt inside so bad I wanted to kill myself. Those are the last feelings I remember having.

There was this guy on the basketball team, and I knew he’d been treated for depression, so I asked him about it one time. I asked him, “Say you were hurting inside so bad you want to kill yourself, what does that mean?”
We were out of the showers and dressing in front of our lockers, the last two guys. He was bent over, taking some time to rub his hair dry––an extra-long time it seemed to me. Then his head rose up slow, his eyes sad and hollow.

“You need somebody to talk to,” he said.

So I went to see Father Mackey. Not that I’m especially religious or anything, but I always kind of liked him. He’s a big guy, used to play football at B.C. and he still carries the extra weight, mostly as fat. He had a heart attack a few years back, but I don’t think he ever did anything to change his life. Underneath the Christian stuff, he really believes in blind fate.

It’s hard to remember what I was hoping for. Maybe that he’d have a direction for me, a path, one of those things. I couldn’t tell him the whole story, of course, but if I could just come close, maybe he’d figure out the rest. I took a deep breath and told him everything I could. He listened, nodding here and there, and when I was done, he looked at me for a long moment, like I had paralyzed him or something. Then he smiled big, like he had the answer, but I knew he didn’t. It was the smile coaches give you right before they tell you you’re not living up to your potential, and you’ve got to give a hundred percent of yourself two hundred percent of the time, go out there and fight. That kind of stuff.

He said I should pull myself together and try harder.

“We all know what you went through, you and your family,” he said. “But here you are sitting in my office today, lean and healthy. God put you on this earth for a reason, so I’d say get busy, find something that helps others and just do it.”
Just in case he had something particular in mind, I waiting.

“Okay, Father,” I said finally, looking down.

He reached over and pinched my elbow. “You feel that?”


“You’re alive, son. Join the living. Commit yourself to being a living human being. It’s a privilege, you know.” He sat back, nodding, grinning at me, and held the grin until the corner of his mouth twitched. “Show God you care.”


“About?” The grin was gone. His eyes toughened. “About being alive, son. This world is full of folks way worse off than you. They could use a little help.”

“Oh, yeah, I see.”

Father Mackey peeked at his watch and faked being surprised. “Holy cow, look at the time.” He rose up from his chair and thrust a hand out for me to shake. I took it, and he pulled me so close I could smell cigarette smoke on his breath.

“Show God you care,” he said again, the words beaming out of his big sunny face, and we were done.

I should have told him it wasn’t that I didn’t care, it was more like…what did I care about?

I always thought caring was when you get a feeling in your throat like you’re about to lose it, laughing or crying, but you don’t know which. Nothing makes me feel that way anymore. I mean, I knew what he meant––we’re all alive on the planet, sharing this life, all these hordes of people running around being alive and sharing it, but that doesn’t do squat for me nowadays. I get very little out of that. Nothing at all, really. Does that mean I don’t care about “the living?” Maybe so.

What I couldn’t tell him was that back then, most of my fares were dead folks, and I cared a lot about them. “Shades,” I called them. They didn’t pay me but I treated them like fares anyway, and why not? Shades have places to go too, stuff to do, just like you and me, only things are a little harder for them. They don’t fly like in movies or ghost stories. They’re weak. They have very little spirit left, and it’s waning every second. If a shade couldn’t get a ride, how would he ever get where he’s going? To his old haunts, his special places–the house where he got his first kiss, the little green yard where he had his birthday parties, the broke-down chapel where his hopes burned so hot. So sure, I drove them. It was a way I could make a difference, something I could care about. I’d even say it was when I was driving a shade that I felt almost alive.

What a joke: ex-popular boy, everything to live for, he picks up dead folks at night to feel alive and show God he cares.

But it made perfect sense to me.

[Continued Tomorrow]

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Be Like Steve http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Truevoice/~3/-KQF6acPg7g/ http://writeabetternovel.net/be-like-steve/#comments Fri, 07 Oct 2011 15:04:34 +0000 Bill Henderson http://writeabetternovel.net/?p=4450

Steve Jobs with iPhone4Steve Jobs was a busy guy. Then he heard the hellhound on his trail…and he got even busier.

For those of us who speculate endlessly about why we can’t find the time to write or can’t get that novel finished (and frankly, I have to include myself), the message is starkly simple: just shut up and get busy.

Worried that people will think you’re selfish? Redefine that as “guided by priorities.” Afraid you’re going to get it wrong? Getting it wrong is one step closer to getting it right––a particularly apt message, with Nanowrimo just over the near horizon. Be like Steve. Just do it.

Jobs laid it out in his Stanford commencement address: once he had been face-to-face with death, then reprieved, productivity became his given. He had seen what loomed ahead for him––for all of us––and the result was a logarithmic leap in the pace of his creativity. Remember: from iPod to iPad, that astounding run of new Apple product introductions was jammed into a 9-year period. It was driven totally and personally by Steve Jobs. Already a famously inventive guy, he became an absolute Godzilla of creativity and achievement.

“Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 1993. “Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful … that’s what matters to me.” ––Wall Street Journal, 1993

He took the ideas of “the future” that people dreamed about in the 70′s and 80′s and made it happen. Think about it, we’re in the future. ––Comment, Yahoo Answers

Obviously, we’re not all going to change the world, as Steve Jobs did. But we can change OUR world by incorporating into our own creative lives the kind of move-it-forward attitude that dominated Steve Jobs’ final years. I don’t think it’s news that, whether we’re 25 or 65, our time here is limited. But for most of us, it remains a concept, one that we pay scant attention to in our daily lives. For Jobs it had forced itself on him as a daily reality, and look at the result.

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Fitzgerald’s Long Winding Road http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Truevoice/~3/TVysfLqloPw/ http://writeabetternovel.net/fitzgeralds-long-winding-road/#comments Thu, 06 Oct 2011 13:06:59 +0000 Bill Henderson http://writeabetternovel.net/?p=4396

How to complete a novel according to plan and on schedule…not.

F. Scott Fitzgerald ponders his schedule

F. Scott Fitzgerald ponders his schedule

Rarely (almost never) is a great novel written in the heat of one long sustained passion. More typically, there are starts and stops along the way, some of them lasting years. A real novelist, like a pit bull, never lets go.

Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dispatches from the front, as he was taking 7 years to reel in Tender is the Night (the source is his publisher Charles Scribner’s introduction).

• Fitzgerald begins the novel in 1925, at the height of the “Roaring 20s,” little knowing it won’t be finished until 1934, in a very different time, the depths of the Great Depression.

• He first mentions it in a 1925 letter to Scribner: “the novel has begun. I’d rather tell you nothing about it quite yet. No news.”

• Five months later: “my novel should be finished next fall.” (emphasis mine.)

• A month later, “next fall” becomes “in January.”

• Nearly 2 years will pass before Scribner finally gets a look at the new work–a couple of chapters of it. Life is emphatically getting in the way for Fitzgerald, in the form of his wife Zelda’s mental illness and his attempt to help her cope with it (this will later become material for a significant piece of the novel).

• Zelda’s condition improves, but work on the novel takes another backseat when Hollywood beckons. Fitzgerald, financially strapped, heads West for a screenwriting stint at MGM.

• By early 1932, he’s back at it: “At last for the first time in two years and a half I’m going to spend five consecutive months on my novel.”

• A year and a half later Tender is the Night is finally finished. He expected to take a couple of years tops on it. Seven long years later, he staggers across the finish line with a future American classic.

I’m going to go out on a limb and venture that when Fitzgerald boxed up that “final” submission draft, rather than jump to his feet to shout, “At last I’m finished–and it’s GREAT!” (see my previous post, “Finishing a Novel – It’s So Easy”), he slumped into bed and slept for a week. Then got up and starting revising again.

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Finishing a Novel – It’s So Easy http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/Truevoice/~3/zj_XziPIctw/ http://writeabetternovel.net/finishing-long-winding-road/#comments Thu, 29 Sep 2011 16:00:51 +0000 Bill Henderson http://writeabetternovel.net/?p=4315

Just finished Great American NovelIt’s B-movie movie fantasy that never fails to crack me up: in a fever of excitement, the novelist-hero declares to his wife, his friend, his dog, “Finished! At last I’m finished–and it’s GREAT!”

I laugh because I know only too well that in real life, he’d wake up the next morning, read over his last few chapters, contemplate suicide, then resign himself to weeks, months of more hard labor. The work of writing a good novel rarely produces so clean a victory. It’s more like a truce that’s broken over and over until finally, a general armistice is declared.

Why share this? Because for some writers, those who never feel they’re getting to “The End,” the news might be comforting: you’re in the majority. Others, who think writing a novel is a one-and-done affair, like pounding out an overnight news story, might be persuaded to think again.

One reason good novels are good is that their authors weren’t satisfied with the first pass, the second, the third, or more. Students are always surprised to learn that Hemingway wrote the end of A Farewell to Arms over 30 times. To the experienced novelist, that’s not even worthy of note. As the saying goes, “it’s what we do.”

Even so, I think any good novelist will sustain an almost childish excitement over what they are writing on any given day. Sure, it may be only rough draft but in the heat of the moment, they’re madly in love with it. If they’re not, it probably has little value.

Of course, in the cool light of morning they’ll see its faults, pick it apart, rebuild it, or even start again. Tomorrow always comes. Good writers know this, respect the truth of it, and are invariably ready for whatever tomorrow brings, regardless of the message.

Weeks, months more work? Bring it on. 30 more versions of that ending? Let’s make it 40!

If you think that’s overkill, sit down and re-read the end of A Farewell to Arms. It’s a wonder of understatement, and reads as if Hemingway jotted it down on a napkin, in the moment–which, by the way, is another characteristic of good fiction writing. It never shows the struggle.

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