Writers Connection Interview

The following is an interview that appeared in the Writers Connection Newsletter in March, 2019.
E.C. Murray with Peter Mountford

ECM: First, thanks so much this interview. I find writing fiction extraordinarily difficult. Most challenging is establishing depth of character. George Lucas wrote seventy pages before he came to the beginning of Star Wars. You've written that you know "oceans" about your characters; that "you inhabit them." How do you do that?

PM: Character development can be extremely hard, or else it’s the easiest thing in the world. I think there are basically two methods of really getting to know a character: one is to have them be based on yourself and/or someone you know very well. Sometimes I take someone I know, and put them in the body of an actor who I’ve seen on screen. Then they’re very easy to see.

The other method, which you probably have to do anyway, is to really research their life. Go find their elementary school, and the house they grew up in, and where do they live now. It’s as if you’re going to write a feature article about a real person, you have to do similar work. I often find real places on Google maps now—and choose a house for them. With a new character I’m working on, I just tried writing a pages intake session for him with a psychotherapist. I wrote it in first person with lots of his interior thoughts and perceptions. The scene will not be in the book, of course. But it was very informative for me. What does he do for fun when he’s not working? How does he see his childhood? I have my students in one of my yearlong classes at Hugo House doing the same for their characters.

Elizabeth George spends more than a year studying her characters in this way, learning everything about their compulsions and psychological makeup, their needs, desires and eccentricities. Then you can put that character into a situation and you understand how they see the situation, what they will do, and so on. 

ECM: Many aspiring writers start and restart their manuscripts, getting so bogged down they never finish. Do you have a linear process for tying together your research, plot, and character development? Some people use note cards, some sticky notes on a white board, some pen and legal pad. Some absorb their research, some go back and forth between the manuscript and their research notes. What do you do?

PM: Like a lot of people, I love writing that first 50-70 pages of a book. There’s little to no prep—it’s fun and free and anything’s possible. It’s a lot like the beginning of a relationship. Infatuation. No one is worried about who takes out the trash. There is no trash in a new relationship! Lorrie Moore once said something about how a short story is a wildly exciting love affair, and a novel is a marriage. With a novel, at some point it’s time to get serious…like are you going to move in with this novel and live with it? How is this actually going to work?

So I do that first 50 pages and then I pause and explore characters deeply, and thoroughly. I map out the major turning points. Five or six of them. I’m working on a detective novel now, and that’s a slightly different thing, because you need to know from the outset who the killer is and lots of other information that the reader won’t know until the final 10% of the book. You need a collection of suspects and red herrings. I don’t really believe in taking a full outline too seriously, since you don’t truly know what will really happen until you’re on the ground, so to speak. You can plan the next 8-15 scenes with some degree of accuracy, but the further down you’re planning the more it’s just a bit of a guessing game, because while you’re on the page things come up, opportunities and so on. You have to respect the plan but also respect the information that emerges in the moment.

Editing or re-writing can be a procrastination tool for writers who are afraid to exit the comfort of that carefree first 50 pages. To commit to the book. I often open a new document called “ACT II” or something and then I’m forced to proceed, because the original pages aren’t in front of me anymore. Also, revising on a computer is dicey, people become cavalier on the computer. It’s better to print and make notes with pen and then if they’re really that valuable you can input them later.    

ECM: Many writers claim there’s a difference between writing, publishing and reaching readers in New York versus Seattle - that writers in Seattle are at a disadvantage. What are your thoughts? 

PM: Knowing people in publishing does help. Of course relationships matter—it’s a fact of any business. And 90% of publishing is in New York. I’d say that attracting the attention of these gatekeepers by attending lots of Paris Review parties or whatever is actually a labor-intensive and limiting approach. Better to get on their radar through publishing essays or stories that these people read and admire.

Ultimately, publishing begets more publishing. If you’ve had stories in Tin House (RIP!), and A Public Space, and Southern Review, then any agent will pay close attention to whatever you send them. Roxane Gay, for example, didn’t spend years hobnobbing in New York, but instead spent years writing and publishing fiction and nonfiction constantly, building a lively social media presence, and in time she was well known and admired by the gatekeepers, and was signing major book deals. Anthony Doerr has lived in Boise his entire career and it’s going pretty well for him. You write stuff that people will notice and they will, in fact, notice.

 ECM: Your prose, like many writers I admire, is precise and lyrical. Do you have suggestions for writing strong, poetic prose?

PM: Lots of cutting. Also, read it aloud and imagine there’s a sizeable audience in front of you. Now how do you like that sentence? I spend upwards of 10 hours a week working with clients as a writing coach and manuscript consultant and I also often read my clients’ work aloud to them. It sounds awkward but it’s not. I pause whenever something occurs to me. Could be as simple as “oh, that’s a great detail,” or, “I’m confused by this,” or, “I like how you organize the tension here, making it really clear, but this metaphor is taking me away from the specificity of this situation.” People’s writing improves quickly this way. There’s nowhere to hide. And they begin to see what a person will actually experience while reading their work.

I’d discourage lyricism for the sake of lyricism. It’s like a long guitar solo in a song that doesn’t need it. The prose style has to be organic to the character and the point of view. If you’re writing from the POV of a 12-year-old boy, he’s probably not going to be admiring a stand of poplar trees, or whatever, or deploying canny metaphors. You don’t have to strip away the charm and descriptiveness, but you also want to honor the basic framework for the character’s perspective.

Generally speaking, selecting very apt verbs and nouns does a lot of work, also a natural but varied syntax. Generally avoid describing emotions—they’re abstract. As William Carlos Williams said, “No ideas but in things.” There are some fairly straightforward techniques that can help make your prose feel alive.

ECM: When I start a work of fiction, an idea comes to me and I feel I absolutely must write that story. Is this true for you, or do you start with a larger purpose - a theme  - you'd like to explore? It seems one theme, or stream, you write about is that no matter how hard you work to make the right decision, you cannot predict the outcome. If this is correct-that you aimed to explore this idea, where in your process did it come?

PM: Yeah, I feel that too. With short stories in particular, it’s often just a character in a situation. And it’s so alive with conflict and engaging thematic potential, and then it’s a lot of fun to write. The thing writes itself, in a way. I love that. But generally I find the theme while writing, and that organizes my revision. Halfway through, I say oh, this story or novel is about x and y and z. Then I have to go back and make sure that it’s really about that—everything that is extraneous to that theme is omitted, and characters and situations are re-imagined to add pressure to that theme, or make it do something interesting.

Like my Modern Love column about a table and chairs I inherited. While I was working on it I realized that the table was a metaphor for connection and community and embracing your past, even the difficult flawed parts of your past. Once that theme was clear, I just went through the piece and removed anything that wasn’t bolstering that theme—the first draft to the final draft was a radical change, but it wasn’t hard. The first draft felt like an episode of Antiques Roadshow, or something, fun, sure, but ultimately frivolous.

ECM: We all know our writing shouldn’t be boring. Do you have any tricks to make your writing “un-boring?” Riveting, scintillating, engaging? 

PM: Absolutely, and I talk about these in my classes at Hugo House, and with my coaching clients. A lot of what’s crucial is to put the source of tension in front of the reader more or less immediately. A lot of students and clients of mine have taken the idea of building mystery and assumed all mystery is created equal, and that’s not quite true. Some unproductive mystery would be like who is this person and what do they care about, or what do they want. That can sap heat from a story. Is this person old or young? Are they inside or outdoors during this scene? Those questions are distracting and create confusion. A reader needs to see need to see those things as quickly as possible.

Very often in their zeal for writing scenes, people forget the importance of simply coming out and saying something to the reader. They spend a page getting the reader into a very situation that might be interesting, sort of, but in the process they’ve neglected to tell us anything substantial about the characters or the situation. Often you have to let a narrator narrate a bit more—a little more telling and less showing. 

My essay called “The Laughter Club” which appeared in The Sun a couple years ago opens with the following two sentences: “If you happen to survive base-jumping with a bum parachute in Montana, or make it through a gory woodchipper mishap in Alaska, Harborview Medical Center—the only Level One Trauma Center in the Pacific Northwest—is where you’ll end up. My job there was to collect anesthesia records—crumpled yellow sheets covered with doctors’ scribbles—and determine how much patients owed for their life-saving, if temporary, failure to feel.” The relevant information is right there. 

ECM: What are a few elements that contributed to you being the writer you are today? What tips do you have for aspiring writers? 

PM: My main thing was that I like the act of writing, the experience itself. And it was helpful to realize that publication and so on is a way to buy time to write. My goal is to have at least 20 hours a week to do the thing I love to do. Publication is a means to that end.  

The other thing is that a piece of writing is an offering to a reader. It’s for their benefit. It has to grab their attention and sustain their attention, or else it’s not a very kind offering. You want something that they will appreciate in some way, whether it’s upsetting or funny or thrilling or fascinating or some combination of these qualities. Once I realized that the bar for engaging a reader’s attention is actually quite high, I was able to stop writing stories in which nothing happened—where it was just people sitting around the dining room table having subtext-rich conversations about their subdued conflicts.  

Also, finally, respect the process, even though the process often requires quite a lot of a attempting and re-attempting before something works. Failure is good. Really. It helps you get better and find the thing that’ll work next time. My writing habit is the only aspect of my life where I manage to apply sustained attention (I have terrible ADD). I’m hugely impatient in most other ways, but when it comes to working on a book, say, I am relentless, because I love the experience of being inside a story as it comes alive, so I don’t want to stop and do something else.

For more information about The Writers Connection and E.C. Murray, check out: https://www.elizabethcorcoranmurray.com/ and https://elizabethcorcoranmurray.wordpress.com/

Up Close and Personal: The Magic of Third Person Limited

(Please note that this piece originally appeared in the Feb 2019 issue of Writer's Digest)

Let’s start with a flashback.

When my story was up for discussion in my first-ever writing class, our lanky, mustachioed instructor inhaled deeply and peered out at us. His eye glinting mischievously, he asked, “What is the point of view in this piece?” I rolled my eyes. Third person, thank you very much! Who wouldn’t know that? “Third … limited?” one of my peers ventured.

The instructor frowned, drew a deep breath, then said, “Well, look at the fourth paragraph.” Two-dozen heads tilted down toward their printouts. “The POV drifts,” he explained. “Is it omniscient?”

Silence. I was already lost. Limited? Drifting?

As it turned out, not understanding these terms was pretty seriously hindering my storytelling potential. Like many people, I assumed third person was just the point of view where you write “he” and “she” instead of “I,” without understanding the nuances. This is like classifying all wheeled vehicles—from bicycle to big rig—under the category of “car” as opposed to “feet.”

I didn’t fully understand third-person limited (TPL) point of view for a long time, and certainly didn’t understand why an author would choose to be “limited” in this way. Isn’t limitation generally an undesirable thing? Before that discussion, I’d received about 1,000 consecutive rejections—from literary magazines, agents and editors. But since figuring this whole POV thing out, most of my writing has been published. It’s not a coincidence.

TPL is a remarkably flexible and powerful approach to narration. As needed, you can move in close and pull away from your POV character. In the process, conflicts and characters and setting—almost everything—become clearer and more vivid.

THIRD-PERSON WHAT?

First, because even a writing professor such as myself needs a reminder from time to time, here’s a refresher on the primary types of third-person narration:

OMNISCIENT. The preferred narrative approach in classic literature. The narrator is all-knowing, allowing the writer to enter the minds of anyone they want. Examples of omniscient narration include the works of Charles Dickens, but also some contemporary novels like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

CINEMATIC. The author describes events as impartially as possible, as if just a camera on the wall. The reader can’t “hear” character’s thoughts. Think Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Beginning writers often start here because it looks easy. (It’s not.)

LIMITED. As the name suggests, the narrative is limited to a single person’s perspective. This is the most prevalent approach in literature since the early 20th century. If the character doesn’t know something, the reader can’t know it. Examples are boundless, but include everything from the Harry Potter books to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

SHIFTING LIMITED OR MULTIPLE LIMITED. In many books—including both of mine—the third-person narrator is restricted to one character’s perspective through the entirety of the novel. But in shifting or multiple limited, the point of view changes from chapter to chapter (or is divided by section, or in some other easily definable chunks). Examples of shifting limited POV include West of Here by Jonathan Evison (which employs nearly 50 different points of view) and R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries.

YOUR LIMITATION IS YOUR STRENGTH

When a short story or novel is written from one character’s POV, readers build rapport with that character. We see the world through their eyes, feeling their grief, joy or even cynicism.

In that respect, yes, third-person limited is much like first-person POV, but with the crucial distinction that readers aren’t completely trapped within that character’s perspective. The ability to convey a character’s thoughts—and then back away when you’d like to mute their thoughts—is a critical difference from first person. The narrator can sit on the protagonist’s shoulder for some parts of the story, then back away for other parts. Early in a book, employing a very close stance can help readers understand the character’s inner workings. As the book progresses, readers will come to know them so well they can probably predict their thoughts, and thus that close proximity isn’t as necessary.

When the plot is moving quickly, or to compress time, it makes sense to assume a more distant perspective, much like the cinematic POV. Moments of high drama and physical violence (also sports and sex, for that matter) are typically best served at a more removed viewpoint— helping readers understand unfolding events.

This perspective gives you, as an author, flexibility. In The Punishment She Deserves, Elizabeth George uses a close TPL perspective to evoke the turmoil of a young woman’s acute psychological crisis. Later in the book, George uses a distant POV during the climactic chase scene, as the detectives pursue their main suspect.

Limitation can increase suspense. If you can’t see outside of a character’s perspective, then the reader doesn’t know what’s around the corner or whether the character can trust other people. And if the POV character trusts someone that the reader worries might be dishonest, that can be an excellent tension-builder.

A FAVORITE EXAMPLE

The brilliant short story “Intervention” by Jill McCorkle does a terrific job of demonstrating the power of close third-person narration, as in the following paragraph:

The intervention is not Marilyn’s idea but it might as well be. She is the one who has talked too much. And she has agreed to go along with it, nodding and murmuring “all right” into the receiver while Sid dozes in front of the evening news. Things are so horrible all over the world that it makes them feel lucky just to be alive. Sid is 65. He is retired. He is disappearing before her very eyes.

From this selection, we can see a handful of sentences doing significant heavy lifting:

  1. Here, “… it might as well be … she is the one who has talked too much,” Marilyn feels she’s set in motion this intervention and regrets it.

  2. She murmurs “all right” into the receiver as Sid sleeps; presumably he can’t deduce the plans being made while he’s asleep, yet she’s still careful with her words.

  3. In saying, “Things are so horrible all over the world that it makes them feel lucky,” the word “them” demonstrates that Marilyn still feels a closeness with Sid, and that they often share the same worldview.

  4. With the sentence, “He is disappearing before her very eyes,” we see Marilyn feels there’s something wrong with Sid. When coupled with the word “intervention,” we gather Sid is an alcoholic.

The word “feel” appears only once: “They feel lucky just to be alive.” All the other emotional content is communicated by implication: Marilyn’s guilt and sense of responsibility, her concern about her beloved husband Sid’s drinking problem, and her accidental (or half-accidental) instigation of secret plans for an alcoholism intervention— as well as the fact that she regrets setting these plans in motion. The internal conflict and apprehension are cemented, drawing readers in.

If McCorkle had tried to do this in cinematic-third POV, the paragraph would be painfully blunt:

Marilyn regrets telling her daughter that Sid—Marilyn’s husband, her daughter’s father—has been drinking too much. Now her daughter has called her on the phone to say that she wants to stage an intervention. On the phone with her daughter, Marilyn is nodding and murmuring “all right” into the receiver while Sid dozes in front of the evening news, which is full of bad news from all over the world. Sid is 65.

HOW TO DO IT

Writing in third-person limited is surprisingly difficult. It’s a technique that requires close observation, practice and a willingness to rigorously rework sentences. I teach the approach in my MFA classes and with my clients as a writing coach. We struggle through it together.

Most commonly, writers seem to create richly drawn perspective for the characters they most easily identify with, but the POV becomes distant when switching to a character they feel is difficult or unappealing, or whose life experiences are totally dissimilar to their own. Readers don’t hear the ungainly character’s thoughts or get any of that complex, multi-layered writing, as in McCorkle’s story.

If you’re going to be close to your POV character, you need to completely understand their inner life, from their amount of self-awareness (or lack thereof) to how they see a sunset. It’s a lot like method acting.

In a 2016 op-ed for The New York Times, author Kaitlyn Greenidge described how she struggled in her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman to write a subtly racist character in a way that felt convincing. She finally realized, with dread, that she would have to “love this monster into existence.”

Build your own experience with TPL by rewriting scenes in different perspectives, being keenly aware of the distinctions between each. Here’s an example of the same scene rendered three times, starting with omniscient third:

Tom, who owned the general store, was superficial and sexist, and he thought Mildred, a cheerful old lady who came into the store every day, was loud and unattractive.

With third-person limited, we want to ensure that the character’s beliefs are reflected in the narrator’s description of things. Not by necessarily telling us what the character thinks, but by coloring in their fictional world—setting, people, events—with the character’s perspective, informing the words selected. Here is the same scene rendered from Tom’s close-limited perspective:

Mildred burst into the store, braying hellos to everyone and brandishing her stained dentures in a crooked grin. Tom looked away, admiring the sleek new light fixtures he’d installed over the deli.

One of the biggest challenges in writing this way is that readers might end up thinking that the perspective being asserted here is the author’s, not the character’s—which can be unfortunate, especially if your POV character is someone as unpleasant as Tom. There’s little to be done to mitigate this, and if the author tries to wink knowingly at the reader, the spell may be broken. It is something to bear in mind if you’re hoping to spend a whole story on the shoulder of such a character.

Here’s the same situation described from the point of view of Lilly, a young woman who works at the deli in the general store.

The door opened. Lilly looked up through the glass of the deli counter, which she was doing her best to clean to Tom’s exacting standards—and grinned to herself at the irresistible enthusiasm of Mildred, that chatty old lady whose arrival was one of the bright spots of every morning at the store.

QUOTED THOUGHTS

Another way to put TPL into practice is by revising sentences where thoughts and statements are doing a lot of work. Moving emphasis to internalized view is called “free indirect speech.” For example, take this passage:

“I need you to pick up this room,” Teresa said to her sick daughter, who was gazing at her phone. As she looked around the dark room, she thought to herself, These tissues and dirty dishes are disgusting!

To get closer to free indirect speech, remove the quotes and thought tags—this will increase the emphasis on an internalized view:

Teresa’s daughter still hadn’t picked up the room. Disgusting, balled up tissues and empty plates and glasses were everywhere. Teresa glared at her on the sofa, at the girl’s puffy eyes and red-rimmed nostrils. Morgan was staring at her phone. Again.

As you can see, you don’t have to actually quote Teresa’s thoughts. We know exactly what she thinks if you get close enough.

The more time you spend with this point of view, the more you see the sentences beginning to do several jobs at once, layering meanings between the lines. This is what is so magical about third-person limited—readers don’t even see the sleight of hand, but find themselves immersed in the world of your design.

7 Tips for New Writers

Last year, I was invited to give a commencement speech at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA graduation—advice for writers heading out into the world. Here’s the text of that speech; I hope some of what I said rings true for you:

***

As we prepare to send these ten graduates off into the wilderness, I’m honored to stand up here and share some of what I’ve leaned about the writing life with you all. Please note that I’m going to sprinkle some concrete pieces of advice throughout this speech, which should take exactly 12 minutes and 23 seconds, some of which has already elapsed.

My first piece of advice: When you’re invited to read on stage, stick to the allotted time!

Second Piece of Advice: Pick the right verb and you won’t need an adverb.

This is the rapid fire part of the speech, so here comes . . .

THIRD PIECE OF ADVICE: You do have time to write.

If you feel like you don’t have time to write, I suspect that your problem is that you have a life. So, do away with that.

Like, adios to yoga and the gym. Facebook is not helpful, also quit knitting, sky-diving, stamp-collecting. Most personal relationships are overrated, so do the bare minimum to maintain civil relations with the people you value. TV’s out, of course, unless it’s late and you’re comatose after writing a lot—no, wait.

No TV. Instead, read a few pages of good stuff. Take long walks with great music in your ears. Let your thoughts about writing take over crazy amounts of real estate in your mind. It’s a love affair, a very dangerous love affair.

Good news. You’ve got time to write! Isn’t that nice?

***

Okay, back to this speech.

News flash: Writing is not an inherently brave act. But showing your writing to strangers, or worse still, showing it to loved ones? That’s brave AF. It’s personal, even when it’s not, even when you’re writing about vampires, or whatever. Your subconscious sneaks in, anyway, revealing your weird joys and proclivities and vulnerabilities.

And after opening that vein, failure is the norm. That’s the kicker. Only a massive sense of humility will allow you to withstand an inevitable waterfall of rejection—it’ll be raining down on your head all day and night.

I would love to tell you that you will not have to deal with a waterfall of rejection, but that would be a lie, and you’re not supposed to lie during commencement speeches.

Personally, I applied to 13 MFA programs and got into one, which awarded funding to students based on our “literary merit.” No pressure. Bad news: I received the least amount of funding from my cohort of 10 fiction writers.

Almost everyone else in my group got a full ride their second year, with a small stipend for living expenses. I got a pat on the back: “Good job, keep trying!” I exited the program with about $28,000 in student loans. It was humiliating.

On the upside, I left the program with a draft of a novel. Isn’t that nice?

Alas, that novel didn’t sell. No takers. Sent it around, no bites.

I’d also written a novel before I started at the MFA program, and showed it to a friend, who said to me, with a commanding seriousness, “Show this to no one else.” He was right.

Writing is an outrageous thing to do, if you think about it, and not just because of the certain vulnerability and failure. It’s a rough situation to get into on purpose. It takes a kind of bravery, I dare say. And you graduates embody that.

When you do publish something, you’re asking strangers to pay for the privilege of reading your poems or prose. A full book can take like 20 hours to read—so you’re asking this stranger if you can bend their ear for 20 hours, and by the way, they should pay about $30 for a hardcover version of this experience. And if they don’t mind, maybe they could write a nice Amazon review.

That’s some hardcore hubris we’ve got here, friends.

But that’s not the whole story. When you get past the craziness of this undertaking, a piece of writing is an offering to a reader. The act of reading puts that fellow human in a deep collaboration with you. You’re in cahoots, but the experience happens entirely inside their head. Every person who reads your writing brings their own motley collection of personal baggage to that experience—your subconscious is talking to their subconscious. As David Foster Wallace said, of fiction, “We all suffer alone in the world. But a piece of fiction can allow us to identify with a character’s pain, and imagine someone else identifying with ours. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”

Every person who reads your work will experience something different. It’s magical. As writer Heather McCue said: “I began to write because I was too shy to talk, and too lonely not to send messages.”

***

Okay, Fourth piece of advice: Writer’s block is no excuse for not writing.

When faced with a seizure of creative energy, some writers turn to alcohol, or Adderall, but please follow the prescription directions under medical supervision. Most  writers I know don’t drink and write, actually, but do what you must. End of the day, you need to sit down and write sentences. Sentences self-propagate through asexual reproduction like amoebas. So try writing a bad sentence, the worse the better. Then another. Another. Keep going until they’re not so bad.

Once they’re not bad, try to keep them that way.

***

Back to my speech. The reason I wasn’t able to publish the first two books I wrote was that they were awful.

A few months ago I exhumed the second one and quickly hacked 50 pages out of it—the ease with which they were cut was, perhaps, a red flag—and sent it to my agent. She’s very polite, so after she read it she said, “When you’re famous, this will be of great interest to academics.”

By the time I finished my MFA at the age of 30, I’d also written and revised and submitted about 20 short stories, and had received—I kid you not—approximately 1000 consecutive rejections. I’ve kept them all in two large boxes.

But at some point my writing improved. I’d read my peers’ work closely, and kept writing and writing and writing, and reading and reading and reading. For YEARS. The thing that really accelerated my improvement was specifically sitting around with the other writers in my MFA program and talking about writing. Through the process of reading their work critically, and having them read mine critically, I began at long last to have a real sense of control and purpose on the page.

Fifth PIECE OF advice is something that I saw on a poster, it was a picture of a cute kitten, or maybe Winston Churchill, but it said, “If you find yourself in hell, keep going.”

Because at some point you find yourself exiting hell.

By the time I graduated from my MFA program, despite being in many ways at the lowest place in my professional life, and feeling humiliated and foolish, I was able to write with a sense of aliveness and intentionality. I made craft decisions on purpose. Before that, if something was good, it was just a fluke.

These days I still get rejections, but most of what I’ve written since I graduated has been published—two novels, fifteen essays, about as many short stories.

What happened was I realized—here’s concrete advice #5, or maybe it’s #6—I realized that you must win over the reader, sentence by sentence.

This is, after all, an offering to them. It’s not for me. It’s for them. And I started to accept that readers are not naturally inclined to care about what I’m saying. I have to make them care.

They’re eager to watch The Walking Dead, which is understandable, and I’m trying to convince them to stay and read the next sentence. It’s a tug of war. Me versus those flesh-eating zombies. You’ve got to try hard, of course. I fail all the time, still. We all do. But it’s helpful to know what you’re up against.

Another piece of advice—this is #7, I think: There are always more words.

Most emerging writers assume a failed attempt—maybe it was too long, or scribed in Klingon, or no one likes it, not even their mom—but tossing that failed work in the trash means you’ve lost something precious.

This notion is born of a sort of "scarcity mentality," as opposed to an "abundance mentality." That is to say, emerging writers understandably feel that their "pile" of writing is small, and it is: because they haven't written much yet. They feel overly protective of those pages because they don’t have a stockpile of pages.

Instead of hoarding your iffy Klingon romances, try to just assume that there’s much more where that came from, and it won’t take long to write now that you know how to write. Keep building the pile and don’t look back. And once it’s ready, send it out and expect rejection, and keep your head down, don’t stop.

Here’s the thing: You are going to fail a lot, and you have to continue anyway. As Dory says in Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.” But Dory is blessed with the inability to remember anything.

Which is your final Tip—number 8 if you’re keeping track: Amnesia is helpful.

Because I tried quitting writing. Honestly, I did. But living without writing is not living. Colors drain. I get dumb. As Joan Didion said, “I don't know what I think until I write it down.” If I’m not writing, I’m not thinking.

I’m unable to stop myself from writing. I love the exhilaration of actually composing a piece of writing—usually I would rather write than go to a party, and I like parties. I love how the prose comes alive. It’s the one truly mystical thing I know of.

My characters are often funnier and smarter than I am. How is that even possible?

It has to be magic. The subconscious mind out-singing the conscious mind. I’m so delighted to hear that voice, which isn’t supposed to be audible.

Publishing is fine, it’s nice, but it’s a means to the end. The end, for me, is having the time to write. I don’t write to publish. I publish so that I can write—so that I don’t have to get a day job.

But writing is lonely, and it’s almost impossible to improve without community. You have all been blessed with this beautiful community here—keep in touch with each other, even if it’s difficult. These people will be your core literary community for the rest of your life. Make new community, too, of course, and lean on each other, offer to read your friend’s work, and read with generosity, but also read critically. But most important of all, please, please…beware of adverbs.

They’re not your friends. Just find the right verb.

Peter Mountford Consulting offers writing coaching, classes and speaking services in Seattle, Washington and beyond. I work with clients to develop a writing approach, revise work and submit writing for publication. I help you develop your unique writing strengths, and offer the writing tools and assistance you need to become a successful writer.

A Changing Port Townsend (for the WITS Blog)

Port Townsend.jpg

(Note: this was originally written for the WITS Blog for Seattle Arts and Lectures in January 24, 2019.)

For the seventh year in a row, I’ve been fortunate to be part of a group of WITS writers who’ve gone to Port Townsend for two weeks in December. While Seattle has gone through some dramatic changes in these last seven years—to the extent that I sometimes get lost in my own neighborhood—Port Townsend’s changes come far more slowly, and subtly, which is a big part of its charm.

This year, there was one significant change in the school district, which was that our host school, Blue Heron, transitioned from serving elementary and middle schoolers to being purely a middle school (the new Salish Coast Elementary School opened). A couple of the WITS writers were off in the new school, but since I work with eighth graders, I still didn’t see a dramatic change: I was in the same building, same classroom, with the same wonderful teacher, Ms. Schroeder. But the school lost all of its littler inhabitants, and it was interesting to note the subtle shift in the atmosphere as a result.

It was, in a sense, a classic Port Townsend alteration: so subtle that you might miss it if you don’t pay close attention.

In Port Townsend, you’ll rarely see a building getting knocked down to make room for a large multi-use building. The one Starbucks in town is still in the Safeway. Several years ago, we arrived to find a new bistro and bar on Fort Worden—but, of course, it was housed in a century-old building that used to be the fort’s brig.

Still, things at year Blue Heron felt slightly smoother and clearer. Maybe it was because there were no kindergarteners—adorable as they are—turtling down the hallways with those giant backpacks. The eighth graders might have felt more distinctly aware of themselves as adolescents, not little kids, because they worked hard and wrote so many wonderful stories. This year, I also had five classes, two more than usual, for a total of 120 students, and all of them were enthusiastic about their writing.

The profusion of extraordinary ideas was remarkable: historical fiction, science fiction, experimental fiction, monsters, psychological torment, side-splitting comedies, and one very memorable story about a teenage girl with loving parents who desperately want her to succeed in school, but in their zeal for her to do well, are unable to see the struggles she’s working through. Until, that is, she finally sits them down and asks them to hear to her, until she tells them about what she wants and what she’s concerned about—then, they finally do listen, and it’s as if they’ve woken up and finally understood the person they’re trying to raise.

It’s a Port Townsend kind of end: not flashy or dramatic, but it is powerful and meaningful, everything is a little different in a subtle, but important, way.

Upcoming Classes: Never Be Boring, Advanced Personal Essay, Fiction III

Rule #1: Never Be Boring (There are No other rules) — at Hugo House (feb 2019)

There is no rule to writing great fiction and creative nonfiction except to “never be boring.” Also, please try not to be confusing or vague about important information. We’ll focus on compelling openings of stories, essays, memoirs, and novels through a combination of discussion, reading, and workshop.

More info HERE.

Advanced Personal Essay: Finding a Way Through — online class through Creative Nonfiction (April-June 2019)

“If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene.” - Hilary Mantel

Transforming actual people and events into characters and plot elements in an essay can be disorienting, but this is how we turn what would otherwise be journal entries—written for the author’s benefit—into literature, which exists for the benefit of readers.

This class is designed for those who have already explored the basics of personal writing and wish to explore specific techniques for turning a personal anecdote into a publishable essay.

Specifically, you will look at some typical structures of the personal essay, and how those formats help authors avoid common pitfalls of the form, such as getting lost in a giant pile of information and/or coming off as solipsistic/maudlin.

More info HERE.

Fiction III at Hugo House — online class through Hugo House (May-June 2019)

This class will build upon craft learned in Fiction I and II. Students can expect advanced readings, regular workshops, and feedback from their classmates and instructor. This course takes place online through our partners at Wet Ink, and classes can be done at your own pace throughout the week.

Register HERE

Is Your Book Doing Improv?

"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."

-Robert Frost

There is, generally speaking, no "correct" way to outline, and no correct amount to outline. But it's a question we all wrestle with, and you’d be wise to formulate a plan, one way or another.

Some authors, like Lee Child, generally have no outline whatsoever. They sit down to write a book without knowing what’s going to happen. At the other end of the spectrum is someone like the mystery writer Elizabeth George, who prepares meticulously with hundreds of pages of notes on characters and the crimes at the story’s center, and the approximate shape of the book.

Hollywood films, likewise, are remarkably tightly structured narratives. This is why biopics are so often rife with exaggerations and distortions, elided details, combined characters, and so on: reality never really conforms neatly to the very precise structure that a Hollywood narrative requires. The first plot point at page 27, the mid-act turning point, etc. Life isn't like that. So the "true" story in Hollywood’s hands is always, it turns, only vaguely true.

As writers of books we, fortunately or not, don't have to obey such strict narrative laws. We get to play and improvise, to follow our story blindly … to some extent. 

Like many writers, the thing I love about writing is the joy of writing something unexpected and shockingly alive (shocking to myself, first and foremost). As Lorrie Moore said in her second-person short story "How To Become A Writer": "The only happiness you have is writing something new, in the middle of the night, armpits damp, heart pounding, something no one has yet seen." That’s what keeps me writing, basically.

Or, as Joan Didion put it: “I don't know what I think until I write it down.” The process of writing is a process of discovery. 

Often, when writing dialogue, I’m delighted and totally surprised by what the characters are saying. They’re more witty and interesting than I am. This is the only magic I really know in the world — that what happens on the page is almost literally beyond my capacity. 

The heat in the story comes from the heat within you, the excitement and the unknown. 

When I follow a strict outline, that heat can be impaired. Because I’m filling in blanks, not improvising. And while the structure I imagine in the abstract might be interesting and a good story, somehow it fails to achieve the excitement and energy of that improvisation. 

But if I ONLY improvise, and have no plan—then I'm in really big trouble. It’s fine for a short story, perhaps, but if a piece becomes longer than 30 pages I can no longer “see” both sides of the piece at once. I can’t remember the text outside of what I have recently been working on, to be precise.

Writing a book is like creating an enormous painting, 50 feet tall, and equally wide, and you can’t ever get more than two feet away from the canvas. And you have a small paint brush. How are you supposed to work on the overall composition? It’s almost impossible without some kind of map to guide you, and the outline is that map.

There are many templates to choose from. You can imitate the structure of a book you like, or you can go with a more archetypal structure (a Faust story, or a “man comes to town” story, or a “rags to riches” story — more on these structures later). Some people call this approach “scaffolding” (e.g. Zadie Smith), and others call it “structure,” there are a million ways to talk about what we’re talking about, but it’s really the big plan that you’re following.

In any case, all of these templates or scaffoldings or structures are helpful with longer texts like novels, but they don’t guarantee that the book will be good. As a consultant I help authors develop a sensible plan and also accept the limitations of that plan. We’re trying to find a way to be both forward thinking, and alive to the moment, and present with the story in front of us today.