Conversations with Writing Mentors
Antioch University, Los Angeles, CA
As unbelievable as it may seem, I am STILL in the race with this novel. It has been quite a long time. I have written three full drafts while in five different countries. I’ve been angry, optimistic, threatened, confronted, and exhausted by the process. I’ve had three agents and two editors read it and give me feedback. And I am still in the race!
Thank you. I feel proud of that simple achievement alone.
My mentor for this upcoming semester—or project period, as Antioch calls it—is Frank Gaspar. Frank is a novelist and poet. He is a warm individual who has a laid-back demeanor and a deep knowledge of and love for literature. He said in his many decades of teaching creative writing there are three things that he’s seen create failure for writers. Unfortunately, I only remember two of them.
1. Writers don’t finish their novels. They quit after the first draft. They quit after the third draft. They don’t commit themselves to staying the course until it’s complete.
2. Writers don’t use critique to improve their writing. They emerge from a workshop or from an MFA program writing in exactly the same way they did when they went in.
Last semester the critique from my writing group (“Huh?”; “We don’t get it”; “Does speculative fiction mean we have to speculate as to what’s happening in the story?”) and the feedback from my mentor, helped me realize I did not have a character narrating my novel, I had a voice. The voice of the narrator spoke, but she was never embodied as a person. Not even in my head did she have a complete identity. Aha! I thought. Because structure and a throughline is my big problem, I thought this was an important step forward. You can’t have a throughline without a character. So I saved two characters from a neglected short story and used them to animate the story. So far it has been working pretty well.
During this residency period—two weeks in December—I worked with Nancy Zafris as my workshop leader. Nancy looks at a story like a fish. The top arc of the fish’s body is the plot, the bottom arc of the fish’s body is the theme. Ideally, the plot drives the story, but recedes at the end when the theme (and the resonance of the story) rises up to meet the plot. Looking at the story like a fish helps to pinpoint where a story might be weak or lacking. Commercial fiction—Nancy says—tends to be all plot. Imaginative stories which move characters from plot point to plot point without much resonance or reflection. Literary fiction tends to be all theme and little or no plot. Nancy’s goal as a workshop leader is to have our stories have both, and use each to maximum effect.
It was a great exercise to take everyone’s story apart and try to figure out the working parts. In my case, I was intentionally trying to get my characters to a certain place so after the first half of my chapter all the resonance/theme dropped out and I had only plot. Nancy went on to draw the characters in relationship to each other. Nancy likes to identify character triangles. Triads hold a special tension that two characters or one character alone doesn’t. So Nancy identified the triangle in my story and then demonstrated how the fourth character created a second triangle and intensified the theme. Then she demonstrated how a fifth character totally took the story and ran off the edge of the page with it—with no resonance and no relationship to the theme.
Literary writers like passive characters, Nancy asserts. She believes literary writers are mostly observers, so we write observers. We like to have our characters reflecting and thinking and dwelling in deep thoughts, but nothing happens. She classified all the characters in the workshop. Out of 8 stories, 6 featured passive main characters, 1 featured a partially passive main character and the last featured an active main character. My main character goes into a coma… how passive can you get? I don’t think there’s inherently anything wrong with passive characters, but if all you write is passive characters, then you don’t have much choice of expression or much control over your craft.
Frank furthered this conversation by talking about throughline as the engine that drives the character forward. Throughlines, he says, need to be simple. A man wants to catch a whale. In Moby Dick, this simple throughline is the engine for pages and pages of ruminations on whales and the meaning of the universe, and more. The engine is what pulls the reader through the story and anchors the writer. He gave an example, a family searching for redemption is not a throughline… it’s a theme. But a family fighting to regain their farm, is a throughline. It is still redemption they want, but it’s in the form of something tangible.
I can hear a million dissenting writers saying, no you don’t have to write a novel like that. There’s lot of great literature that doesn’t fit into that category. And I am certain that is true. But it just so happens that I’ve been writing in circles, slowly and slowly coming to some form of forward motion and I’m seeking structure for this novel. It just so happens that these ideas and suggestions address the aspect of my novel that isn’t working and gives me tools for fiddling around and finding my way. Later having found my way, I’ll be able to do what I want, but I would be ecstatic to simply create a novel that works. A book-length piece that zings and sings.
So I’m in L.A., meditating on throughlines and preparing to return to NYC. I’ve decided to take the upcoming semester off from my 9-to-5 so that I can focus on my novel. While it is humanly possible for me to do this degree while working, it is not possible for me to apply myself to my work while doing the 9-to-5. My writing has suffered, and I’m taking a break to invest in my novel. Best wishes for the new year to all of you.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
My last post to the KIS.list was in August. Yes, August, four months ago. It was the third anniversary of the KIS.list, but I didn’t realize it and, consequently, didn’t celebrate it. So, I just want to thank all of you who traveled with me for three years. I’m awed that 200 people (and thousands more through various lists) join(ed) me for monthly conversations about writing, art, and travel. I am inspired by you who read, and by all the writers among you who share your struggles, challenges and victories with me. Three years!
Since my last KIS.list post, I had one story accepted, three or four invitations to submit and I’m currently working on an essay for an academic anthology. I have adjusted the meter accordingly. In addition, an erotic anthology I was a part of has been sold to a mainstream publisher. So we get $75 more dollars and a new edition of the book (this doesn’t count as a new publication).
In looking at the Acceptance/Rejection Meter, I realize it has been running for two years! My activity is way down since I had a child and entered school. My submissions for publication are down from 12 submissions during the KIS.list’s first year to 10 submissions for the last TWO YEARS of the KIS.list! You can draw whatever conclusions you need to from that. I’m now merging the meters and below is my record for the past three years.
Kiini’s Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2004
Publications: Acceptances = 11; Rejections = 11
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 2
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 2; Rejections = 5