The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: Geoff Dyer on How to Write Fiction


"Writing is a natural process – we're all geared up to do it." - Geoff Dyer

Today's Bookmark is an article from The Guardian featuring Geoff Dyer and his tips on how to write fiction:

The great thing about this cat – the writing one – is that there are a thousand different ways to skin it. In fact, you don't have to skin it at all – and it doesn't even need to be a cat! What I mean, in the first instance, is feel free to dispute or ignore everything in this introduction or in the articles that follow. As Tobias Wolff puts it in his masterly novel Old School: "For a writer there is no such thing as an exemplary life … Certain writers do good work at the bottom of a bottle. The outlaws generally write as well as the bankers, though more briefly. Some writers flourish like opportunistic weeds by hiding among the citizens, others by toughing it out in one sort of desert or another."

To read the full article, click here.

Writers' Reel: David Rakoff's Final Book

Today on the Writers' Reel: David Rakoff's final book.

From the incomparable David Rakoff comes Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish, a poignant, beautiful, witty and wise novel in verse that spans the 20th Century.

David Rakoff, who died earlier this year, built a deserved reputation as one of the finest and funniest essayists of our time. Written with humour, sympathy and tenderness, this intricately woven novel proves him to be the master of an altogether different art form.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish leaps cities and decades as Rakoff, a Canadian who became an American citizen, sings the song of his adoptive homeland--a country whose freedoms can be intoxicating, or brutal. Here the characters' lives are linked to each other by acts of generosity or cruelty. A critic once called Rakoff "magnificent," a word which perfectly describes this wonderful novel in verse.






Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with archetypal characters.  Just to be straight on the terminology:  archetype as in stock characters.  Archetype as in the way Carl Gustav Jung thought of archetypes, represented in people around the world, in the collective unconscious.  To borrow from “In Jungian psychology, a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.  Jung defined many of these types.  Examples include the sage, the jester, the magician, the rebel, the lover, the explorer, the hero, just to name a few.” 

In some ways, archetypal characters are important because they help the mind categorize.  The reader may think, Oh! That’s what type of person this character is at their core, Archetypes may help the reader identify the people who populate the page.  Also, since each person has one or more archetypes operating inside them, the reader can identify with the characters as well.  However, the danger in these types of stock characters is that they risk becoming too predictable, too blasé.   Characters need to rise above any sort of label.  Otherwise they’re two-dimensional and fall flat on the page.  You can start with an archetype, but then you need to flesh them out, make them real.  Just like people, characters are individuals with pasts.  Characters rise above stock status when details and specifics are given, and when their actions become their own, not what is expected of them.
There’s a red flag I try to keep in mind.  If a character isn’t surprising me, if I know exactly what they’d say and do in any given circumstance, then I need to examine him or her.  Chances are, I’m relying on their archetype to carry me through the story.  What to do?  Sometimes I do character-building exercises, writing in a notebook.  An example of a prompt is:  What is inside this character’s purse or brief case or satchel?  Why?  Another exercise I’ve used is to write a two-page story starring the character in question, and see where it goes. In telling this story, I imagine the most painful thing that has happened to this person, then write about the character handling this situation.  Lastly, reading any part of The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri always inspires me and points me in the right direction where character is concerned.
Now that it’s summer, I’ve been catching up on my long list of things I’d like to do.  Today I listened to Mark instructor Antoine Wilson interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm.  Mr. Silverblatt observed that the main character in Antoine’s latest novel, Panorama City, plays the role of the sacred fool archetype (also known as the jester).  However, as Oopen, the main character, navigates through obstacles and changes, he transcends this role. It’s a fascinating interview, and I highly recommend it.
Summer reading has been another thing I’ve been catching up on.  Yesterday I finished Middlesex.  Jeffrey Eugenides has a miraculous way of weaving in exposition without crowbarring it into the prose.  Next up:  The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge.  I started it today.   Before I knew it I had read the first three chapters without glancing at the clock.  Crisp, clear writing that’s layered with strong metaphor in an unassuming way.  I found myself rereading parts to see how the writer pulled it off.  After that:  Midnight Rumba by Eduardo Santiago, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, and Hermie Lehman’s Fixing Time by Jeff Radt.  Cannot wait.

Bookmark This: 3 Tips on Overcoming Learning Plateaus from David Foster Wallace

This week's Bookmark is taken from 99U, a Webby Award-winning website whose effort is to provide a "missing curriculum" for making ideas happen.

In several passages from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a tennis coach cautions his pupils on three psychological traps that are essential to avoid in continuing to improve toward tennis mastery and to progress from one learning plateau to the next. Whether you’re playing tennis, improving your own craft, or trying to overcome writer's block, navigating these plateaus could be key to reaching your full potential.

Check out the 99U article here.

What Now?

Before my Final Review this Saturday, here’s a brief list of future possibilities:

1. Write the 3rd draft: Take the notes I’m given Saturday, and apply the ones I like to the manuscript, along with the inevitable changes that occur in the process.

2. Decide what to call it: Almost is the working title right now. I feel like it almost works, but there may be a better title out there somewhere.

3. Decide what it is: I’m leaning toward a “novel-in-stories,” and trying not to be dissuaded by this article: It critiques the whole concept, claiming that most linked collections are really the result of lazy or novice writers attempting to tie separate stories together to make a kind of faux-novel, the result often lacking the cohesion and narrative tightness of a real novel. While I can see the point, I’ve also seen it work really well, (hate to bring it up again, but what about Jesus’ Son?). To me, each story must first work on its own, and secondly must keep the reader turning pages. I kept reading Jesus’ Son because, besides the great writing, I was interested in what would happen to Fuckhead. For A Visit From the Goon Squad, I was curious to see how the various characters connected to each other. It wasn’t the only reason I kept reading, but it helped. The book is unlike a standard collection, in which one generally feels comfortable reading a story at a time, even putting it down for months or years before reading the next one. I like the absorption aspect of novels. I also like the space that is achievable through short stories, and between the stories themselves, the freedom not to have to put all the pieces together. Some stories are better told in short segments. They can be overwritten when the author forces an overarching narrative and fills all the gaps. I’m a fan of less-is-more, unless the more is warranted. So my goal with Almost, or whatever it’s eventually called, is to have it every way possible.

4. Look for agents/publishers: With The Mark, we’ve worked on our query letters, and soon it will be time to put them into action. In the next few months, I’ll compile a list of who to send to, based on connections and like-minded authors/books. But I don’t want to send the work out too early. At the same time, it’ll take a while to hear back, and I’m hoping it won’t take another three years to get this thing out in the world. I feel like I’m close, like one more re-write should be enough, but then again we’ll see what the committee has to say on Saturday.

5. Decide what to apply to next: I’ve reached the maximum level of PEN Center USA fellowships (unless they create a new third-tier. Something that ends with guaranteed publication. How about it Libby?) I’ve been to three residencies, enough for this book. I’m over workshops for the moment; I’d rather not have too many people’s opinions running through my head for the third draft. I’m still interested in teaching, so should I once again apply for MFA programs? In the past, I’ve only applied to free and difficult-to-get-into programs, figuring that would be the only way it’d be worth it. I’m not a huge fan of the MFA industry, at least the expensive ones, churning out writer after writer into an unforgiving landscape full of debt. Especially when a lot of those writers may not have lived long outside an academic situation. But I have. And I feel ready to revisit an MFA. But first, another year of struggle, maybe more travel, maybe even living in a different town. I’ve only got this one life. And I’m fast approaching the halfway mark. It’s now or never.

6. Read at Dirty Laundry Lit: (Shameless promotion)



What is a story good for? This is the question posed by Ira Glass, host and producer of the radio and television show This American Life. In this clip, Glass cites Tenggren's Golden Tales from the Arabian Nights to express the power behind a story.

50 Books I Want to Read

There’s the World Library’s list of the 100 Best Books of All Time.  There are many inventories of popular books each year.  There are winners of prizes large and small.  There are recommendations from friends and teachers.  There are book reviews.  I am forever feeling that I haven’t read enough, that I want to read more. Yet when it comes time to settle in with a new book, I sometimes can’t find anything I want to read.  So, this is a list for myself, and for you if you’re interested, of book recommendations.  Essentially, this is a list of 50 books that I want to read. 
There are many books on this list that I’ve started and not yet finished, as well as books that I’ve heard mentioned many times but that I’ve never actually held.  Many of these books are literary fiction, including classics that I timidly admit I haven’t read.  Others are popular, genre- or YA-literature that’s piqued my interest.  It’s all mixed together here, in alphabetical order by author’s last name.
In compiling this list—which I know will continue to grow and change—I’ve been delighted to be reminded that there are so many good books in the world.  I—we—will never run out of quality literature to be read.  I hope you enjoy this list.  Happy summer reading!
(in alphabetical order, by author’s last name)
1. Gryphon
Charles Baxter
2. An Invisible Sign of My Own
Aimee Bender
3. Tell the Wolves I’m Home
Carol Rifka Brunt
4. The Address Book
Sophie Calle
5. Waiting for the Barbarians
J.M. Coetzee
6. One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses
By Lucy Corin
7. White Noise
Don DeLillo
8. Don Quixote
Miguel De Cervantes
9. The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion
10. I Sailed With Magellan
Stuart Dybek
11. Light in August
William Faulkner
12. Rock Springs
Richard Ford
13. A Room With a View
E.M. Forster
14. Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace
15. The Corrections 
Jonathan Franzen
16. I See You Everywhere
Julia Glass
17. Lord of Misrule
Jaimy Gordon
18. The Complete Short Stories
Ernest Hemingway
19. Unbroken 
Laura Hillenbrand
20. The Orphan Master’s Son
By Adam Johnson
21. Jesus’ Son
Denis Johnson
22. Eat and Run
Scott Jurek
23. Man Walks Into a Room
Nicole Krauss
24. Imperfect Birds
Anne Lamott
25. The Rainbow 
D.H. Lawrence
26. Let the Great World Spin
Colum McCann
27. The Giant’s House: A Romance
Elizabeth McCracken
28. The Paris Wife
Paula McLain
29.  Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell
30. Self-Help
Lorrie Moore
31. Jazz 
Toni Morrison
32. Bear Down, Bear North
Melinda Moustakis
33. Dear Life
Alice Munro
34. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Haruki Murakami
35. The Things They Carried
Tim O’Brien
36. The Complete Stories
Flannery O’Connor
37. "Brokeback Mountain" 
Annie Proulx
38. The Cost of Living
Rob Roberge
39. Gilead
Marilynne Robinson
40. Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Karen Russell
41. Tenth of December
George Saunders
42. The End of Your Life Book Club
Will Schwalbe
43. Running and Being
George Sheehan
44. Mary Coin
Marisa Silver
45. My Hollywood
Mona Simpson
46. On Beauty
Zadie Smith
47. Cutting for Stone
Abraham Verghese
48. The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton
49. Evidence of Things Unseen
Marianne Wiggins
50. Mrs. Dalloway
Virginia Woolf 



Back in January, at the beginning of The Mark Program, I wasn’t sure what narrative distance meant.  Antoine sometimes spoke about the psychic, or narrative, distance of a piece.  He called attention to lapses in the psychic distance, and questioned why I had made that choice.  Was narrative distance similar to point of view?  What was it, anyway?  In our bible for the program, Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern describes psychic distance as “the degree of intimacy readers feel toward characters.”  He uses the following examples in contrasting psychic distance in a piece: 
A young man and a young woman sat morosely under a green parasol. They seemed mutually peeved.
Philip stared unhappily across the table. The honeymoon was not going well at all.
The second example has less distance.  As Stern points out, “readers are virtually inside the characters.”  By closing the gap in the narrative distance, the writer allows the reader to gain access to the character’s world.  I found this concept so helpful.  It helped remind me the importance of transparency in presenting our characters, of making the character as flushed out as possible.  As Rob Roberge wrote in my mid-project review notes:  “The reader should know more about characters than their lovers, their family, their therapist, and so on.” 
Think of psychic distance as the zoom button on your camera.  At times you can zoom back and get a lot of the background.  This is when there’s a lot of distance from the reader, as if there’s an omniscient storyteller hovering above the character, reporting.  Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, when the camera zooms into a close-up of a person or an object.  In writing, this would be the equivalent of inhabiting the character so much that the reader feels right there, as if they are the character.  Then there are all of the spots in between the two extremes.  John Gardener delves further into this in The Art of Fiction
To help keep the psychic distance consistent, I found it helpful to examine the spots where Antoine, Marissa, or Eric pointed out any sort of change or jump in voice.  More often than not, I realized that it wasn’t merely a minor error.  A lot of times these slight changes proved to be times when I was changing the psychic distance, usually unconsciously, in order to avoid going further into a character or to avoid a side issue.  It was a type of glossing over, a line that needed to be examined.  Narrative distance is something I need to watch out for when revising. I need to watch the distance so that character comes through.


BOOKMARK THIS: Mythbusting: An Interview with Jim Krusoe

Jim Krusoe discusses his latest novel Parisfal in this Q&A with Marco Kaye from the Los Angeles Review of Books.

MARCO KAYE: Several years ago, in an interview with Michael Silverblatt, you mentioned writing a novel about “the war between the earth and the sky,” an idea inspired by your son. After finishing it, you realized it didn’t work and shelved it as an “interesting experiment.” Can you talk about returning to this material, and how the Parsifal legend saved it?

JIM KRUSOE: I may have called it “interesting” back then, but what I really meant was terrible. It was a draft that had airships and submarines at perpetual war, and the crewmembers on both factions were nearly identical — why, I was never sure. I have seldom sighed a sigh of relief so deep as when I got to the end, took a step back, and realized it was completely impossible; I would never have to look at it again.

Then, about a month later, I was plunked down on my living room couch, itching to write something, as the prelude to Wagner’s Parsifal came on the radio. So I sat, looking out the front window at the cars passing by and at the guy across the street watering his lawn, and somehow it came to me that the war between the earth and sky wasn’t meant to be foreground, but the backdrop to the Parsifal story. And the core story, after all, was nothing more than that of a child raised in innocence who moves to experience.

To read the full interview, click here.

Come see Jim Krusoe read at Hollywood Forever this Friday.

For more information on L.A. Story, or to R.S.V.P., click here.



Here’s part two of the interview with my former mentor Jerry Stahl.  I was curious about how Jerry approached some of the issues that had come up during my writing process, from the more micro (which POV works best for this story?), to the macro (what’s this book really about?), as well as issues that will be coming up in the near future (publishers?).
Q: Much of Bad Sex on Speed is written in the second person, a less frequently used POV. What’s your take on it, and why did you choose it so often in the novel, though not in every chapter?
Every writer has his or her own MO. Mine, for better or worse, is not to calculate, plan how a book’s going to go. In other words, second-person-wise, it chose me, not the other way around.
Of more significance was learning to write minus what felt like a significant portion of my brain. It’s kind of like involuntary enlightenment – realizing there’s another path because the one you’re familiar with has gone away. If you can’t remember enough to plan, you’re going to improvise.
For me, in the end, every book is about finding a world you want to plumb and plunging into it. And keep in mind, before Bad Sex on Speed and Happy Mutant Baby Pills I was coming off nearly three years working on a movie – the HBO film Hemingway & Gellhorn.In that world, every move requires an explanation. Every line is scrutinized, studied, and – nine times out of ten – revised. In the new novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills – while more character-driven and less overtly ‘random’ than  Bad Sex on Speed – it felt weirdly, fantastically liberating to just write from point A to point of no return without charting out every step along the way.
So perhaps, along with the chemical brain-savaging, the sheer dive-off-the-deep-end freedom of these two books was dictated as much by the writing I was doing before I started them as it was by what I wanted to say when I finally did.
Q: A lot of people tend to slow down and become more sentimental as they age.  Bad Sex seems to up the ante with the grotesque and macabre. Please explain why you refuse to write about the pleasures of domesticity, the divine truths of kindergartners and grandparents, the redemptive power of nature, etc… 
Who said I refuse to write about the pleasure of domesticity? I’ve had a long-running blog on The Rumpus, “OG Dad,” about being a late-inning father. (The OG stands for “Old Guy.”) That collection will be published some time in 2014. Doesn’t get more domestic than that. I've got a 24-year-old daughter that I love, a year old little girl I'm crazy about, and a great girlfriend who understands what it's like living with a writer, because she's a writer herself. Maybe that's why I can go the places I go on the page.
 The one doesn’t preclude the other. Besides which, as Flaubert – or was it Balzac? – wrote, “If you want to be avant-garde in your art, lead a conventional life.” One reviewer of Bad Sex compared the jump from straight-ahead storytelling to surreal and plotless narrative to Burroughs’ leap from the neo-noir of Junky to the narco-demented Naked Lunch. I wouldn’t presume to put myself in the same sentence as the late William B., but it’s a nice parallel. 
Q: Do you set out writing with a goal in mind, or come to it in the process?  Is it merely a dip into a meth-head’s mind & life? Or is the book trying to tell us something more specific?
All due respect, but I think when an author starts expounding on what his or her book is “trying to tell us,” the reader should run for the hills. If you’ll pardon the cliché, this book exists as a Rorschach of the reader/consumer’s own sensibilities.
Q: Tell me about your new novel Happy Mutant Baby Pills.
I didn't mention that, as part of the hepatitis C trial, I was not allowed to be anywhere near my pregnant girlfriend. The medication - it was explained to me - was so toxic that just my finger brushing her skin after I'd touched a pill could have turned the fetus into the subject of a Discovery Channel special. (The technical term is teratogenic.) The novel stemmed from the realization that the whole situation is just a more extreme example of what living in America does to us every day. A matter of degree.  GMOs and pesticides, drugs in the water supply and crap in the air, etc… etc… I mean, everybody from Bataille to Žižek talk about how humanity-destroying the Modern World is. But now just breathing, eating, existing can destroy you before your soul gets out of bed. 
In brief. This is a book about a pregnant woman who, as a form of social protest, embraces all these toxins rather than avoiding them. Ingests them, finds even more. She's on a quest to bear an epochally horrific offspring as a form of protest.  Joan of Arc's boyfriend is a failed writer, a guy who makes his living creating the warning labels on all the drugs you see advertised in all the commercials on MSNBC or Fox at two in the afternoon or two in the morning... It's a love story. With side trips to Occupy L.A. and Christian Dating Services, among other things. My most overtly socially conscious book. And maybe the funniest. (At least to me.) 
Q: Can you talk about the difference between large publishers and smaller ones?
For me, size doesn't matter, so to speak. It's about the people you're working with. I have a great editor at HarperCollins, Michael Signorelli, who had ideas that completely changed the opening structure of the book. You know, taking editorial suggestions can be a little like having a trapeze coach: there you are in mid-air with someone offering suggestions from the ground. But when it works you make it through that free-fall to the other side. And the other side, if you've done it right, is not what you thought it was going to be going in. It's a matter of trust - and luck - and there's no question the book is infinitely better than it would have been, had I been left to my own devices, and didn't have Signorelli asking the right questions. At Rare Bird/Barnacle Books, I worked with Tyson Cornell, a real visionary. His background is in indy music and running Book Soup, an artist who's worked with other artists. So it was less abut editing than assembling. Putting together a book that's almost like a concept album. Or a stand-alone sculpture, some kind of gorgeous physical thing. (There are actually secret inscriptions on the book - like bonus tracks on an album.)  Rare Bird has an office in downtown LA that would make Marlowe blush. So taking meetings there felt less about publishing a book than joining a movement….  
But this is what I really want to say: big publisher or little --  it's like a musician who plays a club one night and an arena the next – what you can never forget is how fucking fortunate you are that you get to play. People accuse me of being negative, dark, whatever cliché you want to insert. But that's just the obvious. The truth is, the very act of sitting down to write is, by its very nature, incredibly optimistic. Even if, every morning, you have to machete your way through a forest of psycho-emotional demons to get there, when you sit down at your desk - in my case a couch - you are committing an insanely and irrationally life-affirming act. An act of faith. A sentiment that would have made me punch myself in the face at twenty, but now that I'm 106, it's undeniable. The only drug left is writing -- and I need it more than it needs me. 
Q: Finally, any reflections on your experience as a mentor in the EV program? 
Fantastic experience. As it happened, I was paired with a writer who was accomplished and skilled going in, so I can’t take credit for much of anything. But certainly being a party to the enthusiasm and against-all-odds devotion to the act of writing was nothing but great for me. There is nothing more inspiring than working with somebody who is inspired. And the same applies to the entire program. I am very grateful to have been a part of it.