Thursday, November 19, 2015

Andrew Malan Milward's 25 Entreaties

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Andrew Malan Milward, author of I Was a Revolutionary (Harper), shares some advice.

25 Entreaties: A Manifesto of Sorts, But Really Just Some Suggestions For Fiction Writers That They Are Free To Disregard
Emotional foreplay (see #22).
  1. Read poetry. It will clarify your vision by making you pay closer attention to the most elemental aspects of writing: the letter and the word. This is the last thing I do before sitting down to write fiction.
  2. Read “uncreative” writing. You want to be well versed in literature, of course, but reading outside the genre as well—history, science, philosophy, economics, political tracts, cultural studies, whatever blows your hair back—will open up interesting doors in your fiction that didn’t exist before.
  3. Have a routine and be disciplined about it. Art is hard but also rewarding.
  4. Remember that you have agency in the creative process. You are not simply a passive vessel waiting to be filled by the muse. We have way more control of inspiration and creativity than we’re led to believe, but a lot of it is just showing up. (See #3.)
  5. If you’re too easy on your work, bear down harder on it. Be merciless.
  6. If you’re too hard on yourself, try to be kinder. Self-doubt and rejection never go away, no matter what point you are at in your career, but they can’t be reasons to beat-up on yourself and they shouldn’t be reasons to give up on writing.
  7. Remember the suffering of others.
  8. Remember you have a body. We spend so much of our time inside our heads, reading and writing, that it’s good to do something physical regularly.
  9. Keep your eyes on the prize and remember what the prize is. It is not the six-figure book contract or a closet full of awards, nice as they might be. It is the sustained, regular, patient engagement in the world of your fiction and the good-faith attempt to make meaning that will help us understand the world and ourselves a little better. Get Zen on this shit: The process is the reward.
  10. Try to find the healthy balance of being kind and generous while also protecting yourself and your writing time. Not gonna lie: this can be very hard to do.
  11. Challenge yourself to be willing to take risks in your writing even if the probability of failure might be high. At the very least, you will learn something about yourself and your writing.
  12. Write about what you do and don’t know. Most efforts will be some combination of both. However, when you write about something you don’t know, be it a place you’ve never been or a character who’s had very different life experiences than your own, it carries a responsibility to not do a half-assed job. You want to do your research, when possible, and you want to channel the empathy good fiction demands so that you can put yourself in the heads of people very different from you. It will feel uneasy and it should. However, that uneasiness shouldn’t be a reason not to make that empathic leap.
  13. Don’t be afraid to tell. Backstory, narration, and exposition are not just complimentary or perfunctory; they can be as powerful as scene and action. The pleasure of reading fiction lies not just in watching characters do things but in seeing an interesting mind and narrative consciousness move on the page.
  14. Remember that the tragic and comic must co-exist.
  15. Be willing to wander into the open wounds of your characters, and when you do, do not flinch.
  16. Be flexible. It’s okay—and helpful, I think—to have a sense of where you think a story might be going; however, you need to not over-determine its end. Sometimes you can only see the meaning you’re making well after the fact and that’s okay. So let your characters surprise you, because inevitably they will. Be willing to follow them when a new door opens and see what happens, even if it differs from how you thought the story would unfold. This is the story teaching you what it wants to be about.
  17. However good or bad they might be, give your characters the dignity of human complexity. Don’t be glib with them or your readers.
  18. Periodically take the rectal temperature of your story or novel. 98.7 degrees is wonderful if you’re a human being but highly problematic if you’re a piece of fiction. Move the mercury! 
    Bring the heat!
  19. Write with confidence and clarity, and they will give you authority. Don’t let your sentences carry the subtext, “Do you know what I mean? Kinda? Maybe?”
  20. Remember that it’s okay to ask the reader to do some work, but first you need to make them want to do the work and then you need to make it pay off when they do.
  21. Remember that readers like to feel smart and they will resent it if you hold their hand too tightly. Trust the reader.
  22. Remember that most readers like to be generous with their emotions, but they hate to have them stolen without permission. The writer needs to do some careful, patient work to seduce the reader into feeling deeply. Put on some Barry White and engage in emotional foreplay with your audience.
  23. An eloquent prose style can be a wonderful virtue, but you should never sacrifice clarity for beauty.
  24. Write about whatever you want, but make sure you write about complex things complexly.
  25. Write toward, and with an acknowledgement of, the mysteries of being alive.