Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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The Times They Are a-Changin’

The Times They Are a-Changin’. I see it again and again. I’m no longer worried so much as bemused (or amused) at the wriggling that the entire book industry is doing right now, trying to find a comfortable fit in so many new and unfamiliar positions. I am wriggling, too, growing The Writers Circle even as I finish the fifth (YES, FIFTH!) draft of my latest novel. Clearly I’m not the type of author who can churn out a book every year. Teaching and supporting writers has become a vital, beloved, and invaluable part of my journey.

How we read (pronounce "reed")


In the meantime, here are just a few of the curious and inevitable adjustments being made in every corner of the bookish world.

First, if you don’t already know it, self-publishing is no longer the taboo “vanity” publishing it used to be. It’s first mega-star, Amanda Hocking, is making every struggling writer start to think, “Hey, I can do it myself, too!” Whether or not that’s true, be sure to read Storyseller, for a look inside the industry-changing success of this author who got there the wrong-way-round.

Next, there’s the squirming of independent booksellers. Whether they’re trying to make a profit or just trying to stay alive, they’re starting to charge admission for readings. This extremely controversial act of desperation is explored in Come Meet the Author, but Open Your Wallet from today’s New York Times.

On the pre-publication front, digital is now the way to go for galleys. A galley, for those who don’t know, is an uncorrected proof – a copy of a book that’s just about, but not quite, final. These used to go out to booksellers, reviewers and librarians in unexciting single color covers that you’d sometimes find on the used book rack or down in the basement at The Strand. When I published my book, they’d already gotten pretty fancy. My galley looks like a paperback copy of my hardcover, cover art and all. Well, now you can get galleys on your iPad or Kindle. It makes sense. Why pay for printing and shipping when the book’s “not quite ready for primetime” but you’re hoping to drum up interest? Check out NetGalley where “professional readers” can request titles before they are published for review purposes. (And if you think, “Hey, aren’t we all ‘professional readers’?” check out their publisher requirements to see if you qualify.)

How We Read (pronounce "red")


All of that said, I’m forever a traditionalist. And my focus more and more is on the how and why of writing, and less and less on the how and why of publishing. First, it all makes me anxious. Life’s anxiety producing enough. (I have two young sons… Need I say more?) Second, most of this is completely and utterly outside my control. But I can gain much wisdom and solace from good reading, good writing and good writing advice. So I turn to an old master – believe it or not Stephen King, whose books I cannot read (remember, life’s anxiety producing enough, per above?), but whose writing on writing is as direct and accurate as one can get.

I was as tickled perhaps as he to find his short story, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” in May’s issue of The Atlantic. And I know that he was pleased because he said so at the end of the accompanying Atlantic interview, Stephen King on the Creative Process, the State of Fiction, and More.

For him, as for any of us, seeing our work in a high-end lit-mag like The Atlantic or The New Yorker is a bit of a dream come true. Even he got rejected: “I can remember sending stories to The Atlantic when I was a teenager, and then in my 20s and getting the rejection slips.” Of course, he wasn’t “Stephen King” back then…

Or somewhere in between?


In any case, read the story first, because the interview gives a few minor spoilers. In both cases, I appreciated in his work, his candor, his characterization of writers, especially those who are past their prime and yet still working to express what cannot be expressed, and most especially his characters’ recognition that sometimes even the power of words is not enough.


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Huh…? vs. Hmmm…

We writers love the mystery of a story’s unfolding. Half the time, honestly, we’re not quite sure where it’s going ourselves. Isn’t that part of the fun – the exploration and discovery? And isn’t that the same amazing journey we want to share with our readers?

In our attempts to invite readers into the adventure, we strive for thoroughness, complexity, grace and subtlety. But our efforts, however earnest, can sometimes leave our readers overwhelmed or confused.

Don't wake me from the fictional dream.

Don't wake me from the fictional dream.


The Data Dump
Beginning writers often feel compelled to get everything down all at once. I call it a data dump, and it’s a natural tendency. We get so filled with our vision. It’s glorious and we want to share it all. We’ve thought long and hard about our characters and their circumstances. So we write it all out furiously and are only satisfied when everything’s on the page–until we go back and realize that it’s an unsightly mass of thoughts with no tension, no nuance. Everything is just laid out – splat! – without any shape or form.

Historical novelists (and others who rely heavily on research) are particularly prone to the data dump disease, as Michelle and I discussed at our panel last Sunday at BooksNJ 2011. We tend to fall in love with every measly, obscure detail and get so caught up that we forget that most readers don’t want to know how many lice were in the midden pit in a particular chieftain’s homestead in 10th century Greenland. (Yes, I once could have quoted you exact counts, back when I was working on The Thrall’s Tale!)

No novelist wants to offer up for mass consumption a poorly masked treatise. A certain perspective is required to decide how much to give, how much to hold back, and how to layer in just the right details to give the flavor to our thoroughly researched work without making it too rich to swallow. A fiction writer’s first concern must always be characters and conflict, rich emotions and lives that are made, transformed, destroyed…. Truly, don’t we all want to be swept away?

Don’t Hold Back
The next writerly menace is to hold back too much. This is where our readers are likely to say, “Huh…?” Perhaps our character is a speechless orphan who wanders the city streets holding out his hand. Since he cannot communicate, we never know what happened to him. Still we follow because he’s fascinating, sympathetic, forlorn. We are dying for our readers to comprehend his true depth and sorrows, but we give them only in hints and grunts, heart-wrenching looks and shuffling feet. See, dear reader, those huge, hungry eyes?

By trying to be subtle, we often end up being obscure. We neglect to take advantage of opportunities to slip in tidbits of back-story, a flashback or two of the past, or something said by a passerby who can shed a little light. If we don’t give something, our readers will eventually lose interest in our carefully crafted prose. They’ll be left saying, “Huh…?” instead of “Hmmmm….” and leave us behind.

Missing Bits
Even when you don’t fall victim to either of the above extremes, there are always little things that we authors understand implicitly but that our readers are completely unaware of. It’s not their fault. They’re trusting us to tell them what they need to know. We might drop hints that are too veiled for their own good, or forget to follow up a critical off-hand comment with proper reinforcement. All of these are cases when our readers are likely to say, “Huh…?” not “Hmmmm…”

Any time we leave our readers confused, we take them out of what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous fictional dream.” In his classic, The Art of Fiction, Gardner goes on: “In bad or unsatisfying fiction, this fictional dream is interrupted by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist. We are abruptly snapped out of the dream, forced to think of the writer or writing.”

We never want to draw our readers’ attention out of the book and we never want to draw attention to ourselves. The minute they say, “Huh…?” we’ve lost them. But a subtle or direct hint, an emotionally charged accusation, a dirty look or a crumpled photograph in the orphan’s pocket might reveal the character’s inner workings. It would leave the reader wanting to know more, and then, if we’ve done our job well, they’ll read on.

So how do you achieve the perfect balance between dump and hold? Think of sand through the small cracks between your fingers. You need to drop just enough, but not let the whole thing fall. One writer friend calls it “seeding”; another “tucking”; I often think of it as “layering” or “brush-stroking”. But one way or another, you drop in the details so discreetly that your readers hardly notice as they take it all in, organically understanding the terms and stakes, the characters and their interior complexities, the painful past and foreshadowed fate. We lay the groundwork and then carefully nurture it by giving our readers subtle reminders and more hints, building a stronger picture for them bit by bit until the moment when our story finally comes to full bloom, when everything will come together with the sense of random inevitability. We are swept away and returned. At last, the truth is revealed.


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How One Paragraph Can Take Four Days

by author and TWC Associate Teacher, Michelle Cameron

I love research.

To me, there’s nothing more inspiring than discovering how my characters might have lived their lives – what they wore, what they ate, how world events might have affected them.

All of my writing tends to start with a single scene in my head. When I wrote The Fruit of Her Hands, the picture of twenty-four cartloads loaded with volumes of Talmud being driven to a fiery death in a market square in Paris inspired me. With my next book – the story of Judean exile during the Babylonian epoch – it was imagining what those captives must have felt, mourning their lost homeland by the twin rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates. And in the series I’m writing today, the scene of Napoleon’s Jewish soldiers breaking down the ghetto gates of Ancona both astonished and bemused me.

printing press
Once that scene persists in tickling my imagination, I embark upon roughly three months of intense research. I try, in that short period of time, to read and peruse as much as I can related to my time period. Not just history books – artwork, architecture, and maps all inform the work. I try to get to museums – the Met is my favorite – several times when I’m doing my research.

My notes take several forms. The central document is a timeline that I usually divide into three columns: one for general historical events, one for historical events that I will incorporate into the novel, and one for fictional events so I can keep track of what needs to happen when. Then I have separate documents for major topics. What happened in the French court when the Jews tried in vain to defend their Talmud? What gods did the ancient Babylonians pray to? What did Ancona look like during the Napoleonic era?

In addition, I use the closet doors behind my head to pin up images – portraits of real-life characters and objects that will find their way into the work, as well as maps, street scenes, and renderings of what people in that time period wore.

What’s incredible about all this research are the story elements that grow out of it. Real life characters are woven into the fictitious story. Scenes suggest themselves. Slowly, the plot and arc of the novel take shape.
And then I start writing. But the research doesn’t stop there. In fact, the research never stops. The writing is often put on pause as I discover more I don’t know and need to. Which returns us to the title of this blog post.

Scene: a printer’s press in Paris during the French Revolution. I know why I need the printing shop, but I don’t know anything about what one would be like during that time period. Where is it located? What type of presses were used? What’s the process for turning out the pamphlets, the broadsheets? What time of day did the printers do their work? Since this is during a time of great turmoil, did they have to do their work in secret? What would happen if the King’s police raided them? What was the social structure like in the shop? How did the printed pieces get from the press into the hands of the revolutionaries, inflaming loud and passionate debates in the coffee shops?

It began with a single paragraph, all the questions above, and the need to do a lot of digging. Four days later – spent online and in various books – I have a full picture. Now I can keep writing – being very careful not to “dump” the history I’ve just gleaned into my work wholesale, instead using it just to flavor the work as needed.