Monday

Michael Neff Loses it At Algonkian Novel Workshop


Yes, that's him. Michael Neff. And where is he? In the AEI Films and Books office in LA? Yes, that's it. He was holding a workshop there, attempting to talk a few genre writers into analyzing screenplays before rewriting their novels. So why does he look crazed? He's rejecting a bad manuscript, or maybe a bad film pitch. That's what he's doing. A pitch too far, and now, he's lost it. He tried to be patient, but it didn't work. The writer was a narcissist, a flipping ego maniac, thus escorting Neff to the brink, to the point where he actually resembled the Cage man himself.

Look at him! What is he saying?

"I'm sorry, Alva, it's just too late. Too late to add a plot line with a cliffhanger. It's all TOO LATE!!!"

To which the now terrified writer replies: "I'm sorry, Mr. Neff, I'll search passionately for a plot, and premise first, yes ... a premise that will sell, and--"

"TOO LATE!  TOOOOOO LATE!"

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Author Salon Reviews of Craft on Algonkian

Announcing that Algonkian is adopting Michael Neff's craft advice observations and reviews included at Author Salon for all Algonkian writer events and workshops. A summary of a sampling of advanced craft articles are found here.

Sample from a review article as follows:

A STUDY IN THIRD PERSON POINT OF VIEW
      Lessons and Readings Necessary To The Creation of a Competitive Commercial Manuscript

   By Michael Neff

Let's get right to the point on this issue. Yes, we know that CATCHER IN THE RYE and HUCKLEBERRY FINN could never have been the famous novels they were without the engaging first person voice of their protagonists. And yes, first person seems to be in vogue with paranormal YA and some fantasy here and there, however, third person point of view is the best way to relate a dynamic work of fiction, hands down. Unless the first person voice is so remarkable, unique and/or compelling that the novel could not exist without it, third person is strongly advised.

For purposes of this study, we define four levels of third person point of view (3POV) as follows:

  • Author-POV
  • 3POV Distant
  • 3POV Close
  • 3POV First-Close
The Author-POV or APOV, refers to the author, the detached or "omniscient narrator" who steps in now and then to set the scene or make artful commentary at the right time (just *please* don't address the reader directly because that is so irritating and breaks the reader's immersion into the fictional dream).  3POV Distant or 3POV-D occurs at such time the narrative focuses on a specific character and we watch her or his actions as if we are the camera actively filming this character. 3POV Close or 3POV-C takes us into the character's head and camera viewpoint shifts to the character, i.e., we see or experience, for the most part, only what the character is viewing or experiencing. 3POV First-Close or 3POV-FC dives deeper into the character's head and effectively mimics first person POV, but naturally without the usual limits of first person POV because the author can cut from the 3POV-FC and pull all the way back to APOV.
More at Author Salon Reviews of Craft on Algonkian
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Sunday

Fool's Gold, . . . or Not

  By CeCe Baker

Questions, questions, questions! What happens when a writer decides to pen what could possibly be his or her break-through novel?  Are previously-written works taken seriously?  What will be the impetus to write another one? Barbara Kingsolver said, “There is no perfect time to write. There’s only now.” Steve Martini said, “If the writer has a masterpiece within, he had better save it on paper. Otherwise, none of us will ever miss it.”

What single act or thing is it that begins our process as writers? My best ideas come to me when I’m near water. And while it can be something so subtle as a relaxing soak in a hot tub or as exotic as sitting behind a waterfall watching the sheen of its water dissolve as it hits the rocks below, still there’s something about moving water that gets my creative juices going.  Knowing what does it for me, I can’t help but wonder what it is for Barbara Kingsolver or Steve Martini.
The one quote that steers me most though is by E. L. Doctorow, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  With best sellers such as “Ragtime,” “Homer & Langley,” and “Billy Bathgate,” E. L. Doctorow’s continuous leaps of faith set an example for all of us to follow.  Every day I write and every day I struggle to see beyond the headlights.  
When I first started writing, I was sure there was a definitive process. Every how-to-write book implies that. Those of us that believed in those how-to-write books kept looking for our process  by skimming through every writing book we could find on the shelves of book stores and libraries. We learned about style and other techniques. We had many fits and false starts on stories we were convinced would be our break-through novel.  I remember one well-known author telling me that in order to find their process all new writers should put themselves among those who ”really write.”  She used adverbs sparingly, but wasn’t afraid to place her emphasis on the word “really.”  This little snippet was some of the best writing advice I ever received. 
You can do this in a number of ways; but, the easiest is to simply read other authors’ works that have already proven their word worth. The first rule of writing is “Read! Read! Read!”  We get that.  We read veraciously and, when we tire of reading, we study the construction and choreography of television programs, movies, and plays and try to translate their formulas for success to the body of our written works. 
We cultivate other writers as friends, go to conferences and carefully select our muses.  A few of mine are Jeannette Walls, Dorothy Allison, Pat Conroy, Terry Kay, and Nora Ephron – but, not necessarily in that order, and that’s certainly not all of them. We dance, drink and play word games that are mostly appreciated by other writers and truly surprise those that are non-writers.  We word-paint scenes that display our souls – perhaps even more intensely than singing, dancing, or using an artist’s brush and palate.
And when we learn nothing more than just the basics of writing, we become the harshest judges in the world of our own talents.  In doing all of these things we are learning what our “process” is.  We also learn that no two writers have the same process.  Buzz words for writers’ processes include words like “planner,” “pantser,” and “percolator.”  As you can tell, they’re pretty self-explanatory.  As for myself, I’ve learned that depending upon the plot or characters in a potential work,  I can be one or a combination of all three of these processes. I do know that I tend to mull over the essence of what I’m going to write longer than most writers.  When I do that, I’ve found that most of the time I’ve spent has been used on deciding whether or not I believe my words will be accepted by the reading world.
James Baldwin said,” Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.”  Every writer has to be doggedly determined to overcome this perceived conspiracy.  And, while we aren’t exactly sure that the odds for others’ realization of the value of our words are greater than those of finding fool’s gold, we are still dedicated enough to realize that our only true answer for this riddle is to put them down on paper. So, with a leap of faith, we do that - fool’s gold or not.   Having done this, there is one thing of which we can be assured.  Along with James Baldwin, other authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Steve Martini and E. L. Doctorow would be proud. 

Friday

Are MFA Programs Worth it? Some Unvarnished Thoughts on MFA Programs and the “Literary-Industrial Complex”

Reprinted with permission from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block by Hillary Rettig
The question is often asked: are MFA programs worth it? Are they worth the tremendous outlay of dollars and time? Perhaps some more than others (see our note below) ... The following is what popular writer Hillary Rettig has to say on the issue. Meanwhile, the debate rages on. Need we say more? Yes, we need to say much more.
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MFA programs promise training and mentoring that will improve your writing, but often don’t deliver. Tim Tomlinson, in the introduction to The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, writes, “Many people find it hard to believe that I passed through two years of an MFA program, four separate workshops, and received not so much as a comma back on a manuscript. But it’s true, and my case was not exceptional.”

I can believe it, because I’ve heard many stories of absent MFA teachers, and neglected MFA students. One MFA graduate told me, in a typical comment, that, “Though the faculty were great, most were over-committed writer-teachers and only quasi-present. My peer group did most of the teaching.” She attended one of the most highly regarded programs, by the way.

And when teachers aren’t absent, they’re often inept or negligent. Tomlinson offers ten types of ineptness, including teachers who believe writing can’t be taught (“enables lazy teaching”); those with a “Moses complex” (“Anything that doesn’t fit into their narrow definition [of good writing] is treated as an abomination.”); and those who fail to “establish any critical vocabulary with which to assess manuscripts” (“…the critiques are almost guaranteed to be either dull or chaotic or both.”).

Teachers with these failings will inevitably leave a trail of damaged and discouraged – not to mention, financially cheated – students.

Gross negligence and ineptness are far from the worst you hear about MFA programs, however. In my classes and elsewhere, I regularly hear about teachers who were hostile or belittling; who encouraged vicious criticism within groups; who marginalized students because of who they were or what they wanted to write; or who committed sexual discrimination, harassment or exploitation. (See the section on teacher malpractice in Chapter 2.8.)

And then there’s the hero worship and favoritism, which are present in many educational settings but often taken to an extreme in MFA programs. Favoritism is not just demoralizing (and, sometimes, devastating) for the students who aren’t favorites, but often a mixed blessing for those who are. Here’s Jane Smiley, from her essay “Iowa City, 1974,” in Mentors, Muses & Monsters (Elizabeth Benedict, ed.):
there was a story going around that one of the instructors had taken a particular shine to the work of one of our fellow students. He expressed his admiration for her potential by devoting himself to trashing her work. He would have her into his office, and then subject her to brutal line-by-line criticism, making her defend every word, every phrase. He “held her to a very high standard” and only praised her when she met it….Thank God, I thought, that I was not this teacher’s pet.
I’ve already mentioned the unhealthy mentor-protege relationship at the center of Tom Grimes’ memoir Mentor (Chapter 3.9). Here’s Grimes on what it was like to be the favorite of Frank Conroy, director of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop:
Frank had defended, praised, and, in a way, isolated me from my classmates. With the exception of Charlie, I existed apart from everyone. I had Frank’s approval, friendship, and affection. When it came to most of the other students, he barely knew their names. And I imagined my classmates thinking, Tom Grimes was published by Frank Conroy’s publisher. He didn’t write a good book; he received an undeserved gift. I didn’t want to feel ashamed, disgraced, or haunted by second guesses.

So he went with the publisher who hadn’t published his mentor – but that didn’t save him from being haunted. Later that evening, he told Conroy, during their celebratory drink, “I’ve made a terrible mistake…I went with the wrong house.” Which turned out to be true.

This brings us to one of the root problems with graduate writing programs: that most of the teachers teach primarily to make money – which means, inevitably, that many will have little or no aptitude for teaching, or interest in it, or even respect for it. Grimes quotes Conroy about accepting the Iowa directorship: “Forty, broke, unemployed and in debt, I accepted an offer to come to Iowa…more from a sense of desperation than any deep conviction that I’d know what to do when faced with a roomful of young writers.”

I commend him for his honesty – and, to be clear, I believe his lack of preparedness is the rule, not the exception, for MFA teachers. And so these broke and desperate, but not necessarily skilled or committed, teachers wing it, which means that, even when their intentions are good, they can leave a trail of woe.

Finally, to top it all off, MFA faculty are also notoriously unhelpful with, and often openly disdainful of, problems with procrastination and blocks. So, good luck handling any disempowerment you may be experiencing – and that the program itself might be causing.

About Those Career Advantages…


What about the supposed career advantages of MFA programs? Mostly illusory. First of all, even if MFAs did confer a huge advantage on graduates, there simply aren’t that many opportunities for writers or writing teachers to start with. Here’s Jane Smiley, again: “Every so often, a tall, big-shouldered editorial power would swoop into Iowa City and…court one or two [students], then return to New York.” That’s one or two students out of dozens. And Tom Grimes, discussing a reunion with three other Iowa graduates, “We represented a typical workshop graduating class: three out of four hadn’t survived as writers.”

To survive as a writer, you need to make the leap from the literary magazines to writing that pays real money – usually, books, screenplays and feature magazine articles. Unfortunately, that’s the point where the value of an MFA shrinks to near-zero. Despite pervasive propaganda to the contrary, many agents and editors, when being candid, will admit that an MFA degree confers, at best, a slight edge.

What about teaching? An article entitled “What Becomes of an MFA?” by Daniel Grant in the February 26, 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education1 cited a University of Florida at Gainesville survey of its MFA graduates that found that:
60% were teaching on the college level (although more than half of them were adjunct faculty), 10 per cent were working in publishing or actual writing (technical writing, for the most part), another 10 per cent were employed in fields unrelated to writing, and the remaining 20 per cent were pursuing another degree.
So, fewer than 30% of graduates got a permanent teaching gig – and it’s safe to assume that many of those were part-time. It’s probably also safe to assume that many of the approximately 5% who wound up doing technical writing initially had another career in mind, since technical writing is not what people enroll in an MFA to learn.

Finally, it’s also safe to assume that the percentage of successful careers among the 40% who didn’t respond to the survey is even lower than among those who did. (Kudos to the University of Florida / Gainesville for at least surveying its students and publicizing the results – most schools don’t.)

Tomlinson, in The Portable MFA, says literary agent Noah Lukeman always answers those who ask him what he thinks of MFA programs thusly: "Take the $35,000 – $50,000 you’re going to spend on the degree, buy yourself a good laptop and printer and a bundle of paper, and go off to a cabin and write. At the end of two years, the worse that can happen is you have nothing. Less than nothing is what you’ll almost certainly have at the end of your MFA program, because, besides nothing, you’ll also have a mountain of debt."

Some will probably claim that I – and Tomlinson, Lukeman, and Anis Shivani, author of an essay entitled, “The MFA Creative Writing System is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System That Represses Good Writing”2 – are biased against MFA programs, writing programs or even literature in general. What I really have a bias against is obfuscation in the service of exploitation: the kind of thing that confuses smart and dedicated people into thinking that teachers who are only “quasi-present” are “great.”
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Is the MFA Program worth it? This will be the first of two or three artciles at Writer's Edge on this subject. Regardless, if you must attend an MFA program, we recommend UNC and FSU as places you should look at first. Their programs are unique and pragmatic when compared to most others.

Tuesday

Michael Neff of The Writer's Edge Interviewed by Authornomics

Sample from the Authornomics Interview. More can be found here.

What do you usually look for in a pitch? What’s one of the biggest turn-offs for you in a pitch?

A pitch that is imprecise, muddled, or way too long, or some combo thereof, creates a condition of frustration for all concerned—unless and until a way can be found to correct it. For many, this actually involves a rewrite of the novel. The pitch is simply a method of artfully communicating what your novel or nonfiction is about. If you can’t communicate a project that will sell, it usually means you have not written a project that will sell. At this juncture, we use the pitch as a means of driving further into the story. The intent is to discover what is working, what is not, and what, if anything, is missing. Plot, premise, characters, theme, everything is out on the table. Many of our writers have completely rewritten their novels as a result of the pitch process, and several have been published because of it. A good example is Kim Boykin, the author of The Wisdom of Hair.

What does your position as an associate for AEI Film Productions involve? How did you first get into this area?

I moonlight as an agent and developmental editor for AEI and StoryMerchant. I’m now the AEI Associate for the SF Bay Area. The owner, Ken Atchity, became acquainted with Algonkian and attended some of our events. Recently I have helped develop, edited and agented, or co-agented, two important books: Rise of the American Corporate Security State—Six Reasons to Be Afraid, a nonfiction by Beatrice Edwards (Berett-Koehler), and Killer on the Wall, a “social media cozy” by Wendy Eckell (Thomas Dunne). Several more novels are on the way, including another high-concept cozy mystery and an adult fantasy novel with series potential. Also, several Algonkian books have been ushered into contracts with AEI/SM, most recently The Last Scribe by Rachel Walsh, currently in development.

On the film side, we are working to produce Firehouse Shih-tzu, a comic film about a hero “firehouse dog” out to stop a dangerous arsonist in Brooklyn. I co-wrote the script. The sequel, Up Shih-tzu Creek Without a Poodle, is being written. It’s amazing what inventiveness can erupt from three bottles of Napa Cabernet.  Additionally, we are also working to produce Message to Shigatse, a controversial humanist film from NextPix productions about the Chinese kidnapping of the Panchen Lama. The hunt for a lead actress is underway. We have feelers out to Kate Winslett’s camp at the moment. Fingers X’d!

What are some of the biggest challenges you find in transforming books into films? Can a film ever be as good as a book?

High-concept genre books are generally easy to convert to the three-act film structure. They hit the same plot points and notes. But we all know that the film medium is limited to what it can display or provoke. Novels are not. The great novel will always outweigh the film because it can contain so much more, go more places, reveal more things. That’s not to say a good movie can’t be better than the novel upon which it was based. There are always exceptions. I’ve heard competing opinions re SIDEWAYS, for example.

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Sunday

Must a Reader "Like" Your Characters?

by Robert Bausch

NO! You NEVER have to worry whether or not the reader "likes" your main character--or any of your characters for that matter. You only have to worry that the reader "knows" enough about your character to have an emotional investment in what happens to her. Readers who put down books because they don't like the characters are not very good readers, so you don't want them anyway. I've heard editors at major publishers say they do not want a particular book because the character is not "likable," so the philistines are on the march and it's clear the woods are burning. But it's a rigorously stupid idea that we should "like" the characters we read about. If that were actually true, we could instantly eliminate fully half of the world's great literature and forget about it, starting with Richard The III, and coming forward to Portnoy and "Rabbit" Angstrom. 

I worked really hard to make the main character in my novel, A Hole in the Earth a 39 year old case of arrested development. And I've had people tell me they threw the book across the room they disliked him so much. One former teacher (and grandmother, she hastened to tell me) said, "I don't want to waste my time reading about such a person." I said to her, "What do you want? Stories about wonderful people and the nice things they do and think, and where they went to do them and all the things they saw and what they ate?" Really serious fiction, humorous or not, is about real people--human, flawed and quirky people--in real trouble and it traces what they try to do about it, or not do. It isn't about success, or goodness, or badness, or justice or mercy, or love, or kindness, or cruelty or bestiality, or any other thing. It's about life. All of it. Good and bad. And it does not concern itself with whether or not the reader is either comfortable or happy. It only concerns itself with what is true, pure and simple. John Updike once said that the action of reading is so private, and such a quiet exchange between writer and reader that as writers we have an obligation to be as truthful as we can; as truthful as we'd be in our own thoughts to ourselves. 

I am so tired of the pea-brained idea that the reader has to be made happy or pleased by what we write. Readers who believe that are people who make demands on their reading: they say things like, "I only read mysteries," or "I like detective stories," or whatever. They are narrow, usually not very interesting, and what they say and think about other kinds of work is almost always not worth listening to. We should let our reading make demands on us; we should read as widely and eclectically as we can, as many different kinds of books as we can: poetry, fiction of every stripe and kind, non-fiction, biography, history, anthropology and so on. 

It is how we prepare as writers. 

If I’m reading a novel about a young woman named Elizabeth, I will care about her if I feel like I know her. I don't have to be a woman, a young girl, or even American, to respond to her. I will want what she wants because SHE wants it; I will fear what she fears, because SHE fears it; I will hope for what she hopes for because SHE hopes for it, and so on.

Here are six basic principles to remember and apply in order to read wisely and well:
  1. An author is usually NOT his narrator, or any of his characters.
  2. An author does not put things in his story or poem to stump the reader. Or to “get a point across.” What we find in stories and poems—the metaphors or symbols, or themes or whatever—comes from a waking dream, the author’s unconscious mind at work. Most authors don’t insert secret meanings or messages any more than you insert those things in your dreams. When you dream, what is there, is there. You respond to it by dealing with its possible meanings, without asking yourself what you intended. You didn’t intend anything. You didn’t put anything in your dream on purpose. You simply dreamt something. The author doesn’t intend anything either. 
  3. You don’t have to like or approve of a character to identify with him or her. You only have to be engaged in what happens to the character. We become engaged in the characters of a work of fiction the more we know about them. Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? We were interested in that not because our interests are puerile, (if he were an obscure plumber who lived out there we never would have heard of him or the crime) but because most of us felt we knew him--or at least enough about him to be interested in what happened to him.
  4. Most authors work very hard to make their characters real, human, quirky and alive. And, in some cases, deeply flawed. The character’s flaws are not the author’s flaws. To reject a novel or a story because the characters are not "likable" is a profound act of closed mindedness and misunderstanding about the purposes of literature. We do not read literature so that it will present us with characters we approve of, who say things we like to hear. Literature is about people in trouble, and it is usually trouble where action makes no difference; where we are helpless. And if it is worthy literature, it is peopled with characters who we don’t like and who say things we don’t like to hear. 
  5. Most novels and poems are not autobiographical. Unless study proves otherwise, we should assume a writer writes with his experience, not about it. 
  6. We don’t have to approve of what a writer’s vision is to appreciate it. One does not have to be an atheist, to appreciate the work of Albert Camus, who is. One does not have to adopt Camus’ rejection of God, in order to understand that he is doing that. It is foolishly ignorant to reject Camus’ work because he rejects God; or to condemn Hemingway’s novels because he was “macho.” It is rigorously stupid to disapprove of Kate Chopin’s work because she was a feminist, or Ann Rynd’s novels because she was a materialist. It takes a truly small mind to reject Walt Whitman’s poetry because he was gay. We read to understand the other, as well as ourselves in relation to the other. We do not read to have everything we believe about the world confirmed, but rather to test what we believe against all of its opposites and oppositions. We read to widen our awareness of the world, not to constrict it. 
 In other words we read to learn not to name things so readily, and to see what we can see, and we judge a work of literature based on what IT is, not on what WE are. 
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