Writing Strategy: Defy Shakespeare.

If Shakespeare caught you reading one of his plays, he’d smack you. He was that kind of a guy: rough and tumble, working class, a showman and a salesman.

And Shakespeare never intended his plays to be read–he meant them to be experienced, to be seen and heard. But to accomplish such performance on a large scale, he faced a huge technical challenge.

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The Globe Theater had no sound amplification system. He made his living selling admission tickets and like public venues today, more seats meant more revenue. In Shakespeare’s theater, you could actually buy a seat on the stage and be right in the thick of the drama, and easily hear every word of dialogue spoken. But how could Shakespeare assure the ticket holder in even the most remote balcony seat that he’d be able to hear the dialogue and thus follow the story portrayed on stage?

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That’s a challenge we face as writers, too: how do we ensure that readers follow our thousands of words, grasping them in the cohesive manner we intend, line after line, page after page? How do we assure the story can be followed from the cheap seats, the distracted reader, the hit-and-run reader who must come and go from our hours-long story as spare time allows?

Shakespeare reached back a thousand years for the secret weapon: meter.

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The rhapsodes of ancient times traveled from town to town telling stories they’d memorized–just like Shakespeare’s actors–to an audience for a fee. Meter was the linguistic device that helped these rudimentary bards memorize and recite thousands of lines of a story. Kind of like this:

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My grandfather left school and went to work at age 13. He learned to read and write, but in his retirement years, volunteering at the public library, these letters became an obstacle: to re-shelve books, he had to know alphabetical order. As he told me, “I know all the letters, just not in order.”

How do you and I know the order? Meter: that silly, childhood song constructed of both meter and rhyme. The A-B-C song prompts us to know what’s next, what fits, what’s expected. It’s the crutch that allowed the rhapsode to recall and his audience to anticipate what should come next in a thousand lines of poetically composed story.

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Ancient Greek rhapsodes actually beat a tempo with a stick to underscore their meter as they recited line after line.

Like in a theater, seated in the cheap seats, straining to hear: what’s next? What fits, what rhymes? Ain’t no PA system–but I have a framework to anticipate and even fill in the blanks if needed. Because there’s no replay function, then or now, in live drama.

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From ancient times right up to today: engaging the dialogue is crucial.

Shakespeare used the most efficient, natural meter he knew of to organize his spoken words into a structure that allowed his customers to follow, anticipate and even fill in the blanks (see cartoon above) so as to follow, engage, and experience his story. It’s the A-B-C song playgoers and library volunteers and novel readers need to seamlessly, effortlessly know what goes where, when and how it fits.

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Shakespeare’s meter gave his audience a systematic way to stay engaged in the crucial lines of his story.

Writers can engage readers with the same metric organization in parts of our narrative, especially those parts we wish to deepen in intensity. If you use a logical syncopated meter, like the rhapsodes’ own method of engaging listeners, you will engage readers. Subtly, invisibly, readers will more easily follow your narrative, like boats that are riding the tide.

There, I just did it: the last line I wrote has a deliberate but subtle iambic meter, one that readers can engage, can anticipate, can intuitively know what book goes on which shelf.  Meter is a simple, subtle way to engage readers, to help them follow, to give them a poetic feel that they can subconsciously rely upon to fill in the blanks, to reinforce the feel, to grasp the story.

I don’t use meter in every line, of course. But I add poetic accent that structures crucial passages to reinforce, to engage readers, to help them along in a subtle undertow that allows them to glide through the dialogue, paying more attention to the story than the mechanical process of reading.

So, defy Shakespeare: read his plays, focused on the dialogue. Borrow from him the meter he borrowed from the ancient bards who succeeded where both playwrights and novelists strive today: enable, enmesh and engage the audience in the story.

After all, that’s just what he did himself.*

*more iambic meter: that’s just what he did himself.

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Why Writers Write

Writers write because they can’t not write. And here’s why that matters.

I was told a long time ago that “writers write because they can’t not write.”

Meaning, writers write for the story, the craft, the achievement of conveying “story” that others can live, then own themselves.

If you’re a writer, no one wants you you to do that. Everyone from Socrates to your mom is against you. Well, my mom is anyway. She said of my first novel, East Jesus:

“I’m offended by the title, I’m offended by the language, and I’m not going to read it.”

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Despite that, the novel won critical praise and some awards (runner-up, “Best Novel of 2017,” North Texas Book Festival). But that wasn’t why I wrote it, which is good: if the approval of family and friends was the goal, I’ve failed. That wasn’t the goal.

I write because I can’t not write. I write to convey story–not “a story,” or “the story,” but the concept of imaginative experience lived and conveyed in words. That’s what I teach my university students, what I believe in, and what I like to read myself.

Sure, Socrates warned me: words can’t stand alone, can’t defend themselves. But Plato simply insists we must create a way to share meaning beyond the verbal realm which simply vanishes when we do.  And Aristotle made a longwinded career specifying how we could do just that.

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Socrates: you’re so wrong, so-dead, old man.

And on goes the quiet, endless writerly battle to create habitable, liveable prose that others can not only read, but live themselves. We write alone. We write without approval. We write on.

The end game is that readers live the story and thereby own the meaning. Socrates? Dead and buried, my friends. And the lonely writer toils in silence and anonymity.

Except sometimes.

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This year I was stunned to see Voodoo Rush named “Best Novel of 2017” by the N. Texas Book Festival. I was honored simply to be a finalist among the multitude of entrants, much less the other talented writers who were also finalists. When I heard third place announced and it wasn’t me, I was grateful and even thought, “Well, at least Rush won’t  do worse than East Jesus.”

When second place was announced and it wasn’t me, I was stunned. I’m a grown-ass man, but I had to suck a flood of tears right back in. I told myself, in addition to take that, Socrates my so wrong, so dead man, hold your shit together to go up to the stage and accept this award.

Because as it turns out, somebody read the book, lived the story, and found it to be worthwhile.

Okay, so my dad reads novels in the Voodoo Rush genre. He said, even though he has a paperback copy, that he’s been “too busy” to read it. My son tried but “couldn’t get into it.” My wife didn’t like it and put it down.

Regardless of who ever reads what, the best novel I ever wrote, Blood and Remembrance, will be released in May 2018 by Dark Horse Fiction.

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It’s a stand-alone prequel to East Jesus, a strong, liveable, breathable prose you can ride like a thoroughbred, broad shouldered, head tossing, hanging on for dear life bareback, thundering across west Texas to Death Row and back. That’s why I wrote it.

Dead Greeks and family notwithstanding, I wrote it because the story needed to be written and lived and owned but mostly, because I can’t not write.

That’s what writers do.

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Ain’t no such thing as writer’s block.

Writer’s block? Here’s the dropped-pants, bent over reality: writer’s block just means you have to detour.

There–I said it. And I believe it.

If writer’s block were more than just a lame excuse for not writing, I wouldn’t even bring it up. But I believe writer’s block is more about the writer than the blockage.

write prequel sequel
Actually ironic, because I’m writing a prequel to my first novel right now.

Confused? Don’t be. Here’s the dropped-pants, bent over reality: writer’s block just means you have to detour. But not stop.

Keep writing.

That sounds as simple as Dr. Oz’s useless advice to insomniacs: “If you wake up, go back to sleep.”

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What I mean is, keep writing productively in your area of focus, but with a different vector. To be un-Oz-like, here are a half-dozen tangible, sensible, useful hands-on things you can do to detour productively around “writer’s block:”

1. Write an interview with a main character: no set length, but when you sit down on the page with your character and start asking questions, the answers might surprise you. Try it–you will learn more about that character, which will help you flesh that person out in your main story.

2. Write a short story using a main character. Put the person in a different context, elicit behaviors that perhaps couldn’t fit in your main plot and setting. Again, this adds new dimensions to your character, a fullness that can only help your main story when you return to the manuscript.

3. Map out a prequel: I’m actually writing a prequel to my first novel right now.

EJ front
East Jesus: second place, “Best Fiction of 2016,” N. Texas Book Festival

It’s a wonderful return to the roots of plot and character: how did these folks become who they are in the newest novel project? What earlier events and people made them like we find them in the latest story? This exercise will add meat to the bones of your primary story, although no one but you will see it. Nonetheless, readers will sense the greater fullness of your story and characters.

writers block

4. Do some grunt work: you know you need a cogent synopsis, a character list, and marketing materials (publishers doing marketing? how many “Zs” are in “fat chance?”). Like mowing the lawn, nothing will get you back to writing like the threat of grunt work. Still, it needs to be done.

5. Map out a family tree for your characters. If nothing else, that’ll reinforce the connections and boundaries in your mind as you write, and you may even decide to include the resulting tree on the finished book’s fly leaf for readers.

6. Write obituaries for your characters. Essentially, an obit is a thumbnail sketch limning a kinder-than-deserved image of a dearly departed person. You’ll get to know yours better, you’ll investigate the good, the bad and the ugly of the personality you’ll need to reinforce in your main story. I’ve even done a funeral sketch because that exercise  really brings out full personalities in collateral characters.

funeral reflection

Those are some productive ways to write your way around any roadblocks you may encounters. Really, it may be that you need to attend to these important developmental exercises to fortify your longer efforts in your primary story. The novel is a marathon writing endeavor, so pace yourself. Find new ways to write productively within the context of your story even if none of it ends up on the original manuscript page, because the end result will be enriched regardless.

Finally, writing a novel is hard labor. Ultimately, there’s really no substitute to just pushing through. Do it.

Dr. Chris Manno teaches writing at Texas Wesleyan University and is the author of the novels East Jesus, Voodoo Rush (both White Bird Publications), Sanctuary Moon (Dark Horse Fiction) and the short story collection, Short Fiction for the Impatient Reader (White Bird Publications).

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Writing a novel is hard labor.

 

 

 

One Very, Very Bad Reason to Write a Novel.

A writer is privileged to be captured by story, chosen by story, living in story for the misery it is of writing a novel, for the joy it is to have had story get down on one knee to you of all mortals and say, “write me, bitch.” 

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If there’s a “good” reason to write a novel, I don’t know what it is. But I can think of one really, really bad reason, and I hear it all the time:

“Writing a novel is on my bucket list.” Seriously–that stupid “Bucket List” pop culture nonsense is going to get you killed: people dream up something outrageous, something common sense has prevented them from doing for their whole life, write it on a “list” then assume doing that extreme act will let them die satisfied. If you don’t die doing it (“I’m going to hook my soft fleshy body to a crack head skydiving freak with a death wish and let him plunge us both to the brink of extinction then say ‘I went skydiving’) you believe you’ll die peacefully when your time comes?

death holiday

Wrong: my grandpa Al had a bucket list and actually did some of the nonsense listed there but still, on his death bed, he spent his last hour yelling profanity (“Am I dying? Is that was this is? FUCK.”) and shitting himself. That might make a worthy scene in a novel, but writing one was not something he’d put on his crazy bucket list, thank god. Because it wouldn’t have made his end any more satisfying or less profane.

My point is, writing a novel because it’s something you “want to do before you’re dead” is only going to end badly. First, if the urge to write your novel comes from anything but an overwhelming story–forget it. Go on to your next item (“I must ride a donkey down the cliffs of Molokai!”) on your pre-death checklist. Second, story drives the writer, not vice versa, and story finds the writer, and not via a social media-driven, digital pet rock like a list.

old fart jazz hands

I’m not talking about “a story” or “the story,” but rather–and this matters–“story qua story:” story is a force that moves below the surface, powerful as a riptide, and carries a writer out to sea. You write because you have to, not because you want to, or because you wrote “novel” on a death list.

A writer is privileged to be captured by story, chosen by story, living in story for the misery it is of writing a novel, for the joy it is to have had story get down on one knee to you of all mortals and say, “write me, bitch.”

As for the donkeys on Molokai–mark them off your list right now. I’ve done that and it’s far from idyllic scene “bucket list” stylists conjure in their heads. Picture yourself on a trail  inches from the edge of a crumbly cliff that plunges straight down the height of a skyscraper, on the back of a donkey, an ass, who really doesn’t give a shit if he lives or dies.

I could not enjoy the view or the ride because once we got out on the rim, I realized that: he’s leading a donkey’s life, he just toils and toils and hoofs fatass tourists up and down this steep canyon trail year round and what the hell–how is plunging to a merciful death anything but a sensible solution, with you on his back?

And in the case of writing a novel, guess who’s the donkey? Day in, day out, plugging away, dragging your ass (yeah, I did that) up the mountain, again and again, writing, revising, writing, revising. The donkey gets a carrot maybe, oats, whatever the hell donkey’s eat, then maybe rest.

But you, the novelist? The carrot’s an illusion: no one’s reading your shit anyway, and there’s no rest either: the story owns you–or why write it, other than to exorcise the demon it is, put it down on paper, inscribe what story gifts you, make it habitable so that the story lives on well beyond your death bed?

med O2 eff off

So, no–don’t tandem jump with a meth addict or ride a “nothing to live for” donkey over a cliff because it was fashionable to say it was on your “bucket list.” The notion that somehow you’ll die happy having done so is a cruel hoax, and the very thought that writing a novel belongs on the same pop culture adult pacifier is an atrocity.

If you’re quietly writing, dragging yourself up the mountain, keep the big secret. that is, story is a privilege, a fleeting affair with no guarantees but which nonetheless is its own worthy reward. Just live story while it lasts and don’t tell anyone, everyone, because you’re going to kick the bucket in a heartbeat anyway, at least in the temporal context of the universe.

You can’t take story with you, so skip the “bucket list” and just write. That’s what writers must do.

Chris Manno is the author of the award-winning novel East Jesus, plus Voodoo Rush, Sanctuary Moon and the short story collection, Short Fiction for the Impatient Reader.

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I check on the kids on the shelf in the library, making sure they’re doing okay.

 

 

 

You wanna write, or just look pretty?

Writing, editing, publication and marketing are a living hell. Join me, won’t you?

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I’ve got a few books in print. Seeing them there is wonderful; getting them there was hell. That’s the “Writer’s Hell” I’m talking about.

The publishing business is horrendous: agents, publishers, editors–they don’t want you. Book store owners, distributors, reviewers–they don’t care.

Nor should they. According to Publisher’s Weekly, there will be over 700,000 books released this year alone, joining 2.5 MILLION titles on the market.

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They have so many options, so much flooding their inboxes that they don’t care–which will be their downfall. But that doesn’t help us right now, writers with a book seeking print, does it? Well, are you a writer, one who has to write, or just a poser, one who has to say they’re writing, but who will punt to these horrible odds? Gut check, writerly friends: decide.

Here’s just one horror story: I had my first novel sold to a small, high-quality Indie publishers three years ago.  I queried a dozen agents, large agencies and small, “my novel is sold–would you please represent me in the contract?”

Not one responded. Not. One.

To me, that’s like calling a real estate agent and saying, “I have a buyer, will you PLEASE take a commission?” Nope. Too busy.

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A pivotal scene in my second novel, Voodoo Rush, takes place in this gas station bathroom. Seriously.

So, I had an attorney look over the contract. He charged me $1,200 to do so, and almost immediately afterward the publisher ceased operations. Back to square one.

EJ new cover There’s a happy ending to this story (see above), but it was still a living hell. Yes, I found another publisher, the novel is in print and has won awards. I’ve gone on to publish another novel plus a short fiction collection with the same publisher.

But it’s still hell: contract demands, ever-tightening, duration (bad deal for authors) ever-lengthening; marketing meager (it’s on YOU, writer friend, to sell your awesome story), and a marketplace that is nearly impenetrable or if you manage to gain a following, it’s up to you to keep the fire burning.

I do–barely. I will–infallibly. It’s a struggle. It’s hell.

Are you a writer? Join me, won’t you? We ain’t here to “look pretty,” we’re here to write. Subscribe now, let’s work through this together. Let me hear from you.

And here at A Writer’s Hell, you’ll hear from me. C’mon back.

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