Monday, August 07, 2006

"Famous Writers" and other optimists.

I never took the "Famous Writers" course offered to optimists a few decades ago, but there is something in their assertion that all you have to do is let one word follow another, keep it up, and you'll soon be a famous writer.

I do know a successful cartoonist who took the Famous Artists' course that was co-offered, but he too said there was something lacking in the course, that lack probably a person with more desire than actual talent.

Letting one word follow another.

Well, hell, that's how I started without taking the course.

I've said it before, but even a paranoid, if he writes enough, will eventually come out with something sensible, certainly resembling some sort of expository writing. The ninety-nine monkeys on ninety-nine typewriters thing.

"To be or not to be, that is the glatz...(whoops, typo!)

Jesu Cristo, how crappy our writing is when we first begin.

We men start with the great "God Is My CoPilot" type of novel, the iconic fighter pilot, face, helmet earphones reflected in the instruments of our P-40's, John Belushis, all of us, in "Pearl Harbour", or maybe fuzzy Snoopy puppies, keepers of the flame, flaming out with Red Baron strafe tracks all over out doghouses. Sad nights in the barracks. Love later. "When Dashing Pierre of the Lafayette Escadrille goes down, he goes down in Flames!"

So we send our chapters to our smart friends and the smart friends have a look and say "I wouldn't sent this to anyone just yet" and we persist and come out with something like a first novella, and it's about some harm done to some damsel a long time ago, and you realize that it was all autobiographical and somewhat nasty, since you yourself were involved and your conduct was hardly heroic.

Scratch one first novel.

"You've got to begin at the beginning," says the smart friend.

So you beging with "I was born..."
Then it seems to work better.

But you still haven't learned how to write, Famous Writers Course or no.
One word does follow another, but to the experienced editor, whether it's you by now or somebody else, it is just drivel, the kind of drivel this writer here was accused of when he interviewed a maker of gargoyles (maker of gargoyles??!) for a big magazine and totally f*cked up the story.

"Meet Victor Tinkl, famous gargoyle maker
"When it rains the medieval gargoyles surrounding his studio, as if around a cathedral, pee and ejaculate like crazy, some with wings outstreched, others just appearing to masturbate quietly, with griffon wings folded."

Mr. Tinkl, a successful drawing and sculpture master at the Ontario College of Art, took immediate umbrage and accused me of "irresponsible journalism: and calling my work "drivel."

That's what happens when you write for a magazine that is into sensationalism and you're just the nut case, with your "let one word follow another" style to go along with it all. ("I want peope to choke on their breakfast when they read you...Run just short of libel," said the sensationalist publisher, who sort of wanted a National Enquirer here in the boonies outside Toronto).

Well, he hired the right man. There was very nearly a libel suit.

A more proper way to have gone would have been a serious story on Mr. Tinkl as a scumptor with a baroque flair who sculpts for the love of sculpting and though he has a salary from the college, nevertheless spends tens of thousands of dollars doing what he really loves.

Like maybe we writers?

Letting one word follow aother.

Nah. You gotta have some structure, some planning, some judgment.

And yet and yet, to the beginning novelist, I really would suggest letting one word follow another. How else are you going to splatter 300 pages with words? You gotta have that word count. Writers, successful or not, gotta count words. Three hundred pages, and you have 40,000 words, you have a novel.

Whoops. Power failure in this heat. Computer going wonky.

More on this later.


Jaye Wells said...

For the second half of my most recent book, I let myself just write. Some great new elements showed up out of nowhere, but there's also a lot of shit. Last night alone, several pages got the large, red "X" treatment. Cutting the fat is satisfying, but I'd much rather not write the shit to begin with.

ivan said...

Depends how you write, your modus operendi.
I opened my Black Icon with birds flying around or something, tried to get "the camera" to zoom down to the action, and somehow got lost between the birds and the scene below. It kinda sucked. Then I went to my wife and another reader and they thought the opener should be tighter, focusing right from sky to the scene below. I finally decided almost on a newspaper-style accound of the opening scence and irt finally worked. The thing to me is to have the copy come out tight, not a word wasted no matter how many dummy runs you'd first made. Paper in those days was plentiful if ones own quality was uneven: you honed.
I have found (until recently anyway) that it is almost impossible to produce proof copy first time around. Good writing is rewritng, says the Master, old Papa.
I do agree that you can reach a level of professiolalism where you can write what you intended to write straight off.
There is a danger, however, of lapsing into plain English composition, where writin' itself is something else. Maybe magic.

Jaye Wells said...

Ivan, believe me, I'm not saying my first drafts are priceless works of art--the damned things always need slashing. What I meant was, I strayed from my plot outline and let myself be free to meander this time. Lots of scenes were cut later. However, some new characters showed up and some things happened that make it a better book than it would have been.

ivan said...

I would opine you're right.
I sent my second novel to an outfit in Montreal named Writers'
They reported "you wrote too much and didn't structure enough." I didn't believe them and took the work to a really famous American author living in Copenhagen. She said the same thing.
I took their advice and worked the book through again, sticking more to my plot, being careful all the while not to rub the balls off the story.
Good thing too, for when I went to The House of Anansi Press here in Toronto, they reported "the book has life and you set up scenes well."

I guess my advice was more to the beginning writer who is just dying to have a novel, any novel to cart around. These people can't put 45,000 words together no matter what they do and I suggested the "Famos Writers" approach so they would at least have a first draft, inchoate or not.

Don't know if you get mental blocks, but I do, and when I'm stuck like that, the let-one-word-follow-another approach really works.
Hell, I get so blocked sometimes, I have to put my name and address somewhere top right on the page just to get going. Most times I do.

It's the old journalist's trick:
"Once I get past the lead, the story starts to flow."

ivan said...

To those who are about to send full
manusctipts to editors:

You can send me a chapter or two. I'd love to read it.

But then in spite of ones obvious eccentricities this old Methuselah is the toughest marker around.

Meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley.

But you might larn somethin'

H.E.Eigler said...


Once I get those pages splattered with words - I'm sending them your way.

Might take a few years at this pace but mark my pixels they're comin' !

ivan said...


You sure have a turn of phrase.
Lucky attribute in a writer.

Looking forward to seeing your stuff.

Sela Carsen said...

Poor Mr. Tinkl. I can just imagine him choking.

Nearly got canned when I wrote in an obit that someone died instead of "went to Jesus."


Not famous, still putting one word in front of the other.

ivan said...

Hi Sela,
Right on of you!
No wonder you write...Got insight and humour.
I just Googled, looking Mr. Tinkl, and found there a cut quote from this blog, the bit about gargoyles peeing in the rain and all that.

Google scoops up everything!

Exactly like the Toronto Public Library scoops up every softcover book I'd ever written.

Mr. Tinkl has been rather successful of late, his fanciful sculpture placed in important new buildings and art museums.

I do belive he has stopped making gargoyles.

Yet some time ago, I stopped by a magazine and they asked me if I had any more stories about Victor Tinkl and his gargoyles.

I doubt if he'll talk to me now, but I did find Mr. Tinkl an incredibly talented man who definitely hears a different drummer.

Flights of fancy frozen in sculpture.

The rest of us have to content ourselves with writing.


Yeah, "went to Jesus."

I handled a story on the Turin shroud for the old Toronto Telegram
and said 'The Nazarene' was believed to have been wrapped in it and the head copy editor slapped my forehead with a big HB pencil and said, "Why didn't you just say 'Jesus Christ?'"

Chuckercanuck said...


even me dad gets a kick out of your stuff - this is the kind of "under the hood" talk he loves to chat with me about.

my question, silly to the been-there-done-that set, but mysterious to first-time dabblers:

I have a plot mapped out, chopped up into basic scenes.

Does a plan include organizing that into chapters? It seems to me, if 1 scene = 1 chapter, there are more chapters than normally found in a book.

So, I find most books have > 1 scene per chapter. So what's a chapter? Some set of scenes unified by some major plot advance? Can get perhaps to gimmicky that way, no?

There you have it. Chapter choosing seems a difficult part of structure.

ivan said...

In the first place, I greatly admire your expository writing.
...Must be doing something right when you sometimes glean 500 (sic)
viewer comments per blog!
In the second place, your father must be a genius. (No, not just because he reads me). What a son!

The way you're going seems the sensible way, certainly corroborated by my discussion of such matter with Susan Sonntag, in Copenhagen before she got tired of my bullshit, more or less told me to f*ck off and promptly left the table. She had said plotting and planning was everything; it you don't do that, you get rejected.

Well, I go a different way. My first draft is almost stream-of-consciousness, like my lovemaking: everything goes in but the skill.

First drafts can have almost anything in them. Your scenes could be well in there, imbedded in the swirl of prose.

It is in the second draft that you start breaking the work into chapters. This can seem almost arbitrary, artistic decisions on where to stop and start. A chapter can be as long as thirty pages or as short as two paragraphs.

It is in the third draft, your proof copy, the one you send to the publisher that nothing can be out of place, including scenes.

So, first draft, largely bullshit, just to get up to 40,000 words.

Second draft: you break the script up up into chapters. You make sure that the scenes are dummied in where they should be.

Third draft: This is the best you can do, polished to a candy-apple sheen.

Actually, it all seems to depend on how you think, and I know you are a hell of a thinker.

My friend the doctor (MD, MD of course!) found that the ideal format for him was a quality comic book, like maybe vintage Wonder Woman or Bionic Woman in comic book form. He then had a story board and he had his scenes.

Myself, I don't think in pictures.
If I screw up the book, I go right back to the beginning, all over again and keep going till it feels right. Wasteful, I know, but so is nature.

In a word, the comic book storyboard format seems to work best for most people.
Probably the best way to go.
You'd be too young to remember Classic Comics. They would take the world's great novels and put them into comic book form. Man,did that ever work!
That's my MAD advice anyway ( and EC comics used to produce work that seemed at times to echo Kafka, Dostoevsky, Hemingway).
Too bad the McCarthyites had to shut them down. That's when things went MAD and publisher William F. Gaines hasn't looked back.

Chuckercanuck said...


Thank you, Ivan - of course, I employ shameless self-promotion to get those stats!

I think, in some way, I'm more picture bookish. At least, to write from point to point like stones to cross a river.

ivan said...

Uh huh.

Myself, I think I've done too many drugs, but I kind of like the idea of stone is river and river is stone. The whole thing is one resounding bell, as a poem.

Nice work if you can get it.

The only person I've read who
achieves this miracle seems to be Tillie Olsen (I just thought of Ironing John's Shorts...Yeah yeah, Doubting Thomas, I can just hear you! Hah).

Tillie uses symbols suggested by bits of what seems at first random dialogue, until all of that dialogue and her own internal monologue--come together into one resonant whole of a story. The piece is like a bell with no Liberty cracks at all.

The kind of fiction I want to write would emulate poetry, but in fact, the kind of fiction I do write is sort of more like Chucker would write it, stone by stone, scene by scene.
Oh well. There's always the ideal.

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Anonymous said...

To correct the facts about the Viktor (note spelling error) Tinkl anecdote, which someone told us about. Many years ago this so called writer knocked on our door and asked to interview us. We said no we were not interested, however since he had driven some distance we invited him to have a cup of tea before he departed and chatted to him casually during the visit. We were very dismayed to see the what he subsequently published without our consent or participation. We felt that he had abused our hospitality and were much more cautious after that with any so called journalists who we did not know. Judith Tinkl

ivan said...

Oh come on Mrs. Tinkl,
Lighten up.
I have had more hits on my site regarding Viktor's work than I was prepared for.
My old acquaintance, Ed Mirvish used to say, "Any publicity is good publicity...Then he would post my reviews on his Markham Village all over the Royal Alex
kiosks, with my name on them.
Much as I admire Mr. Tinkl and all his works, he ain't the only gun in town.

Ivan Prokopchuk.

(p.s.: I am a known friend of Clifford Irving, the other flim-flam man. :)

Anonymous said...

Nur wenn man dran glaubt.. said...

Whoops. Is that Glaubting Thomas in his carnival Yiddish? :)