Archive for writing life

Interview, Summer 2015

Posted in Moments of Clarity with tags , , , , , , , , , on 10/13/2015 by Janet Fitch

Fabulous interview with Kate Gale, at the AROHO (A Room of Her Own) writing retreat in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, summer 2015.   So many astute questions here–talked about writing, literary forebears, thoughts on mentorship and a woman’s voice, my own literary project and the special problems of writing the historical novel.

Four Literary Questions

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , on 12/29/2014 by Janet Fitch
This question was posed for me by a reader on my Goodreads page. For me, the best questions are the ones that make me think more deeply about the issues involved. This was a good one:
 “What makes a great story/book? There are so many writers out there, but only a few get any acclaim, and some of the best posthumously. It is a herd mentality that snowballs into popularity?”
The questioner is actually asking four separate questions here.
1. What makes a great story?
2. What makes a great book?
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim?
4. Is it a herd mentality that snowballs a book into popularity.
I answered them in order–but Number 2 is the one that interests me most.
1. A great story is one which satisfies the question it raises in the beginning. It can be a very subtle question, about love, say, or loyalty, or an obvious one, ‘who killed Colonel Mustard and why,’ and satisfies it in a way that was continually surprising, that’s both suspenseful–even oddly so–and pays off along the way in terms of its central question, as well as at the end. Story is setup and payoff. A novel is a series of payoffs. But there is alignment, it doesn’t jump the rails.
2. A great book is far more than a great story. A great book, and I mean greatness–a great book deepens our understanding of the human condition. A great book moves us, it shapes us. On the technical level, a great book will have us torn between the urge to read on–to satisfy suspense, what we call ‘profluence’ ie. what’s going to happen?????–and the urge to stay and reread that sentence because its so bloody beautiful, moment to moment. The exquisite tension between beautiful writing and compelling story is the greatest of all pleasures. And then to be continually thinking more and more deeply about life and our own humanity, add that in, and you have Greatness.
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim? Because out of the 400,000 or so books published in English this year, or the 100 million books in existence today, there are only going to be a certain number who meet the criterion of #2–greatness. Of these, so much depends upon a sensitive connection between publisher and public. That’s why real book critics are so terribly important and the loss of stand-alone book review sections in newspapers–and the loss of newspapers–across the country so imperils the whole literary project. Acclaim–real acclaim, recognition of greatness and the ability of great readers to find those books and acclaim them–is a very dicey prospect, luck plays all too big a part in it. There are a lot of writers but not a lot of greatness in any generation. It’s locating the greatness and then allowing that to reach the readers that’s always the issue. Why posthumous books often get more recognition is that the often horrible event of a writer’s death calls attention to their work, and if greatness is involved, there’s the huge regret that there will be no more of their work, and that somehow we readers might have been more attentive, might have somehow saved that writer.
4. The question of popularity and the question of acclaim are two very very different ones–hard to accept, maybe, in this time of ‘ranking likes’ instead of ranking greatness. We all like a bag of Doritos from time to time, but we all know the difference between chemically treated snack food and a fine and nourishing meal. Popularity means that various aspects of reading matter, a story, a self-help or whatever, meet people’s needs in a satisfying way. They might not be literary needs–see #2–and often aren’t. They might be the need to escape some heavy-duty personal problems for a while. They might be the need to tag along on an adventure. They might be a way to vicariously live a dream life. If they perform their function successfully, people talk about it, and then their friends hear about it.
It’s not so much ‘herd mentality’ as it is the contagious excitement of something people have found entertaining, useful, pleasant, interesting or meaningful in some way–and it can be excitement of a literary nature too. Fine writers can be exceedingly popular–Tolstoy was very popular in his time, as was Dickens and Twain. In our time, we have John Irving, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, George Saunders, John Le Carre, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Russo, Jonathan Lethem, TC Boyle, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison. Naturally, that’s the sweet spot. To strive for greatness, to tell a great story, to have some acclaim and some popularity–what more can writer hope for?

Publication Day, No Stopping Train

Posted in Moments of Clarity, Upcoming Events with tags , , , , , on 10/14/2014 by Janet Fitch

It’s been a full year since my friend, the writer Les Plesko died. That night, I watched his YouTube station, over and over again, and wrote the poem On Watching Your YouTube Channel Late at Night.

At the time, I wrote that his magnum opus, the brilliant No Stopping Train, “set in the Hungary of his birth and circulated privately among his friends” had never been published. Now, a year later, that book is entering the world. Prospects look good. So many emotions crowd in on me tonight.  I did a long email interview yesterday with David Ulin, the book critic from the L.A. Times, which ran in short form on the Times literary blog Jacket Copy, and at full length on the Les Plesko website Pleskoism.  But the thinking, and remembering, has brought me to the place of–as a student of his posted, “very glass half full.”  I don’t know if the glass is half full or empty or completely overflowing or downright broken.  All of the above. He wanted that book to be published so much, published well, appreciated.  And here it is. And he is not.  I want to celebrate, and I know I will, but tonight I just feel bereft.

Your book born today

Into the arms of old friends

How like you it looks.

Tomorrow, an interview on KCRW, our local NPR station, with Lisa Napoli, on its ‘journey to publication.’  That torturous path. Can I get my chin off my knees? It is such a beautiful book, a rigorous book, a real barn-burner. If I think about the book and not the ‘journey to publication’, I feel so incredibly happy.  So glad such a thing has come into the world, and is being greeted properly. One of the questions Ulin asked me was whether there was a hierarchy between his books, did he value some over others.  I said that he’d worked so very hard on this novel, there was such beauty, such labor, such rigor, he really wanted to see it — as an old friend put it— “walk down the aisle in a white dress.”

Now here it is, and he’s not there.  And it’s so beautiful in that dress, its shining veil.

An excerpt was from No Stopping Train was published in The Nervous Breakdown this week.  Read it–it’s everything I teach, everything I value in prose–the lyricism, the word choice, the rhythms, the tightness of the dialogue, the moodiness and texture of the landscape, the poetic devices–assonance and alliteration and rhyme. Such music.  The bigger issues interlocked with the human ones, love and betrayal, honor and affinity.  All honed to a glinting edge.

On Sunday, October 19, 6 p.m. in the Charles Young Salon at UCLA, where he taught so many students, for so many years, we, his old friends and students, will walk his book down the aisle. If you’re in town, please come.  For more information, click here.

Round Three– Even Kids Get Writer’s Block

Posted in The Literateria with tags , , , , on 08/02/2011 by Janet Fitch

My third week with Figment, the teen writer’s website. This week, a deluge of questions centered around the issues of Writer’s Block. What exactly is writer’s block anyway?  Is it not being able to write at all, or hating what you do write?  And what do you do about it when you get it?

here’s the complete entry:


What does “writer’s block” mean to you? I know that when I have the legendary “disease,” it’s not the inability to write, but the inability to write something that I’m proud of. (Roberta Shaprio)

Writer’s block is fear. Fear and an absence of ‘inspiration.’ You’re afraid to write because it won’t be as wonderful as what you imagined, what you can see in your mind. This is a disease called Perfectionism, and is the killer of artists. This is what my last book, Paint It Black, is largely about. Perfectionism is knowing how great literature can be, art can be, music can be, and fearing that what you produce doesn’t measure up. So we don’t write at all because it can never measure up to what’s been done in the past. Michael, my character who commits suicide in Paint it Black, knows a lot about painting, and is afraid he doesn’t measure up. His mother, a classical pianist says to him, “There’s no room in the world for a good enough pianist, there are too many geniuses. And you are no genius.”

But the truth about perfectionism is that, in the creative arts–writing, painting, choreography, music composing–our flaws, what we can’t do, become our signature. Bob Dylan is interesting because his voice is lousy, and yet he does interesting things with it, making it a more interesting, memorable voice, very expressive of himself and his cynicism. The expression is more important than the perfection.

Now Josie, the protagonist of the book, is a punk rocker. And the essence of punk rock is, it doesn’t have to be great, forget perfection, you don’t need anybody’s seal of approval, just get out there and make a sound. Just bang away. There’s a great story about Patti Smith‘s guitarist Lenny Kaye, who used to be a rock critic. He was interviewing some punk guitarist and just envying the hell out of him, he said, “I’d kill to be a musician like you.” And the guy said, “Well, why don’t you?” and Lenny said, “Well, I can’t play the guitar.” and the guitarist said, “Well, neither can I.”

Just go out. Just make a sound. Play it loud.

So Josie–and punk rock–is all about permission. Giving yourself permission to go out and maybe be lousy–so what? YOu’re expressing something.

For me, art is created between those two poles. You have to aspire to greatness WHILE AT THE SAME TIME allowing yourself to just make a sound. We slide back and forth on the scale, sometimes aspiring to more, sometimes just giving ourselves permission to be lousy and what of it? Sometimes you have to just make a sound.

That’s the key to writer’s block. When writer’s block strikes, it’s a sign you need to slide more toward the punk rock side of things.

What do you do when you feel as if your writing in itself isn’t good enough for the plot you’re trying to do? How do you overcome your self doubt? (Amelia McElveen Zombie)

The secret is, it’s NEVER good enough. Literature and the other arts are a field in which there is no upper end. You’re always in the middle of a ladder that extends into the stratosphere. The antidote is–make a sound. Write from where you’re at.

Also remember this–THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PERFECTION IN THE PHYSICAL WORLD. Which means that once you create something REAL from an idea in your head, it will never be as perfect as the idea. You have to allow that. The most perfect book is the one that remains unwritten. If you want a real book that someone can actually read, it will never be as beautiful as the one in your head. But it will be real!

What do you do when you write a piece, but then realize you absolutely hate it? Do you keep it the way it is (You are your worst critic), or change everything? (Asian Swag)

If I do write it and then absolutely hate it, yeah, I scrap it and try again. I’m doing this right now with my latest short short on my blog. “Tear” is the prompt. I’ve written it three or four times. Oh well.


Often I have an idea in my head and I’m ready to write, but I just get bored. I know what’s going to happen and I’ve already written the next couple chapters in my head but I just can’t stay focused and write it. I’ll frantically type/scribble words down but after a couple sentences I stop working and am in just kind of a lull. Has this ever happened to you? How do you keep going easily? (Cailin Plunkett)

Some people outline, it suits their subject matter and their temperament. Mystery novelists, for example, are all outliners. Because a mystery novel is a little machine, all the gears and levers and springs have to work together to solve the plot. It is a plot driven form.

On the other hand, I write character driven stories. Which means I follow the character, scene by scene, and see what they do, how they react to situations, and watch the changes within them.

When I started writing, I didn’t know anything about all this–there was no Figment to clue me in–but I read this book that said you take index cards and you plot out what’s going to happen, scene by scene, and put them on a bulletin board. Then you take the first card down, and write that scene, then the next card down and write that scene, and when the cards are all gone you have a book.

I tried it. Did about three cards and then I was so bored I couldn’t bear doing one more. I felt like I’d already written the book, and I hadn’t even started yet. Because I knew everything about it. ZZzzzzzzzz… Writing it was just drudgework.

I’d much rather go on a journey, not knowing things, but keeping my feelers out. Then the writing of it is as much a journey for me as it is for my reader. In White Oleander, I didn’t even know Ingrid was going to jail. But sometimes I know a couple of things–in Paint it Black, I knew that Josie was going to live with Meredith for a time, because I had written a short story about it.

A good way to avoid writer’s block is to write the scenes you can see clearly, and when you have a good pile of them, then see if you can put them in some sort of order. Then you can see what you still need to write.

It seems what you have is a pileup–where there are so many things you have to write and you see them clearly, but it just seems like such a job to get them out on paper. The trick to that is to write in scenes. Just pick a scene you can see clearly, and write that scene.

(Scene defined: one time, one place, one movement from one emotion to another emotion, and something happens where things can’t go back to the way they were before.)

Then write another scene. Think of them as fenceposts. You probably won’t even have to go back and connect them, readers are pretty savvy. Like in movies, you have an action scene and then suddenly you’re in the dining room of a posh restaurant. We don’t have to see them going home, sleeping, getting up, taking a shower, going to work, coming home from work, paying the babysitter, and going out to the restaurant. The reader gets that time has elapsed.

A bit of advice: stop writing it in your head. Wait until you’re at your keyboard. Sometimes other things happen instead–so don’t get too far ahead of yourself.

Before you start a novel, do you create your characters on paper or do you just make it up as you go? (Tom “Jellybean” Stack)

I create the characters in my mind, usually with some vague idea of where it’s going to go, and then I start making it up.

Do you usually write down the entire plot before writing, or at least outline it, so when you get writer’s block you can bypass it? Or do you fly free, and hope you don’t get writer’s block? Which do you suggest to do? (Fish Fingers and Custard)

No, I don’t outline. But I have a few vague ideas, and yes, sometimes when I get stuck, I just jump ahead. Have some other tricks I discuss below in ANTIDOTES.

Do you think that writing out the plotline before you start writing would help? Or just making up as it goes along? (Emma A.)

I usually start with a short story, so I do know something about the story before I start writing a book. But mostly, make it up.

I am inspired, but how do I get the willingness to actually write? (E.R Graham)

Get out there and make a sound. Play it loud. Make a mess. Time to go to the punk rock side of the equation.


Basically, how do you get through writer’s block? Is there anything you do like write on other things, free write or something like that? (Kelsi Skye)

Yes, sometimes free writing, or writing from prompts, a photograph, some music, is just what the writing-doctor ordered.

1. Take a photograph and write yourself into the photograph. I am that woman, what do I see, who am I, what’s my problem?

2. Very helpful is to talk to the character and ask them what’s going on with them. What are you not seeing about this scene, or about them?

3. Make a 3D character study of the main character in particular. Find out about their past, things you didn’t know: favorite classes in high school, their religious/spiritual beliefs, what they think about money, how their family interacted, issues about money, politics, any kind of illnesses or physical anomalies, their relationships with various family members, what is their secret? What are they ashamed of , what do they dream about?

4. Write ahead–pick a scene from further on and try that.

5. write a scene from a different character’s point of view.

6. Change person (first to third or vice verson.) Change tense.

7. get a book of prompts–like The Writer’s Book of Days or The Writer’s Idea Book.

8. Copy out a paragraph of a writer you really like, and feel their style.

9. Read poetry. Get into language.

Should I eat a peanut when I get writers block? (Zara Olympia)

Hey, eat two.

What is the most frustrating thing about writers block? (Zara Olympia)

That it’s the thing you want to do most in the world, and you can’t do it, even though there’s time and desire.

What do you think causes the infamous “Writer’s Block?” How many types are there? And finally, (I know this has probably been asked before but,) what are your methods to getting past it, or stopping it from happening in the first place? (L.S. hanna)

Types of Writer’s Block:

1. Can’t write at all. Goofing around. Afraid of it. Often it’s a fear of our own creativity. And the longer you don’t write, the worse the Fear gets.

Antidote: just punk rock it. Make a sound. And write every day so there’s no buildup of Fear.

2. Writing writing writing but nothing’s coming together, it all sucks.

Antidote: You might have real story problems. Try writing from another character’s point of view. Try stepping back and saying, “What the heck am I trying to say here?” “What’s at stake?” “What does she want?”

Should you force yourself to write if you have writer’s block? (Maekir Vilemist)

Yes. You might not be able to write what you want, but at least make a sound.

When you have writer’s block do you think it’s better to just try and keep on writing, or to wait until your writer’s block goes away? (Storm Adrian)

It’s important to have stuff coming out of the tap. Even if its not the story you want to write, but just an exercise from a photograph or a prompt.

Is it worth it to force yourself to write during writer’s block? I mean, is that one paragraph you manage to write the one you always delete? And if so, should you still force yourself, just to learn perseverance/get over your case of writer’s block? (Arkady Adler)

Yes. Writer’s block is fear. Must work through it or it just gets bigger.

Are there any songs/artists you listen to to help inspire you out of writer’s block? (Emma A.)

I like listening to stuff that is irritating. The more irritating, the more it gets an emotion out of me. That’s the best for freewriting. If I’m writing my novel and I’m running out of ideas, I might play something that gives me the mood of the scene. and there’s in general a kind of dark, romantic music that stirs my moody soul–not to write to, but just create the mood. Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell usually put me into that space. Lots of Prokofiev.

What inspires you to get out of the infamous writer’s block? (Emma A.)

Pain. The pain of writing becomes less than the pain of not writing.

Do you eat special foods to get rid of writer’s block? (Hannah Pouler)

Try to avoid carbs, they make you sleepy. Also milk and turkey. Also big meals. Special foods would be–coffee… and some kind of protein. Often I chew on carrots because the crunch helps my feelings of agression and anxiety.

Do you get the opposite of writer’s block, what I call buildup? Or is it just me? Buildup: When you haven’t written in so long that the characters and plots are taking up so much room in your head you can’t concentrate on anything else. (Celine Dirkes)

Yes. The secret here is to write every day, write in scenes, and don’t think of your work unless you’re actually at the keyboard.

How do you crack writer’s block enough to leak a few good words? (Kennedy Lang)

Punk rock it.

When you’re in a writing slump, do you prefer to force yourself to write and possibly produce less than satisfactory results, or find ways to inspire/motivate yourself in order to write something you could actually be proud of? (Annie)

All of the above. First you write something, you make a sound. Then you work with it until you like it.

How do you motivate yourself to keep deadlines? Do you like to set yourself a fake earlier deadline to work harder or do you procrastinate until the end, or do you just write whenever the ideas come? (Annie)

I meet with other writers on a certain day a week. That helps–have to have something to bring to the group. The buddy system’s awesome, and has built in deadlines. I write whether or not the ideas come, because for me, they only come when I’m working. I never get usable ideas unless I’m at the keyboard working.

How do you get the will-power to start and finish a story and overcome the writer’s block? Do your characters ever push you to write, but you just can’t find the muse for them? (R.J. Hathaway)

I get the will because the pain is worse, the ridiculous pain of not doing the one thing I really want to do.

Do your family members ever help you with writing block? (Emma A.)

Only by not trying to lure me away from my work. That just adds to the problem. Also by being sympathetic to the moaning and groaning.

About how much time do you take off during writer’s block? (Zina <3)

Ugh. I try not to think about it!

Are there any special places, people or things to help end the writer’s block? (Zina <3)

If I’m having trouble writing at home, a change of location, to a coffee house where I can semi-distract myself when I’m working, is often really helpful. Sometimes a writer friend and I will write together–that can be helpful. We don’t talk, we just are there and can tell if the other person’s slacking. Not letting a day go by without writing is the most helpful.

Have you ever come with a random scene for a story that is absolutely perfect and you really want to use it, but it just doesn’t fit in? (Marie J)

Sad but yes.

Which is harder, publishing your book and going through all that, or finishing the book completely including editing and fixing plot holes and filling in gaps and fixing the beginning? (Amelia McElveen Zombie)

Both are hard. Writing is hard enough, but at least you are in control of it.

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s my complete post, including the questions:

“…the truth about perfectionism is that, in the creative arts–writing, painting, choreography, music composing–our flaws, what we can’t do, become our signature. Bob Dylan is interesting because his voice is lousy, and yet he does interesting things with it, making it a more interesting, memorable voice, very expressive of himself and his cynicism. The expression is more important than the perfection.”