The Virtue of a Real Creator

Here are some lines excerpted from Friedrich Nietzsche’s, Thus Spake Zarathustra, on the working of the heart, mind, spirit, and soul of a true creator. If you are or would be that, take them to heart, please.

XXII, The Bestowing Virtue

In truth I divine you well, my disciples; you strive like me for the bestowing virtue. What should you have in common with cats and wolves?

It is your thirst to become sacrifices and gifts yourselves: and therefore you thirst to accumulate all riches in your soul.

Insatiably strives your soul for treasures and jewels, because your virtue is insatiable in desiring to bestow.

You constrain all things to flow towards you and into you, so that they shall flow back again out of your fountain as the gifts of your love

Then elevated is your soul. and raised up; with delight, it enraptures the spirit; so that it becomes creator, and valuer, and lover, and everything’s benefactor.

When your heart overflows broad and full like the river, a blessing and a danger to the lowlanders: there is the origin of your virtue.

Craft and Inspiration

Last week, I completed draft five of my newest novel, The Answer to Everything.

The novel is most likely the final book of my Tom Hickey crime series, and in many ways it’s a departure from the other nine books. One of those ways is, I have attempted to pay more attention to inspiration and less to current expectations of what a crime novel should limit itself to.

A couple passages from my Writing and the Spirit reflect a quandary with which I needed to wrestle and with which other novelists may find themselves presented:

“Flannery O’Connor, in her collection of essays Mystery and Manners, explains, ‘If the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design.’

“On the other side of the quandary lies Fredrick Buechner’s contention that The Brothers Karamazov, which he considered the greatest novel ever written, ‘… just because Dostoyevsky leaves room in it for whatever comes up to enter, is entered here and there by maybe nothing less than the Holy Spirit.’”

I call my quandary “Craft vs. Inspiration”, and here is my proposed solution, again from Writing and the Spirit:

“Before we attempt anything a tenth as ambitious as The Brothers Karamazov, we need to recall that Dostoyevski had already mastered the art of dramatic writing.

“Gene Riehl retired from the FBI in order to write novels. He found a writers’ group, read dozens of books on structure and other elements of fiction, mystery, and suspense. After ten years of hard work, his first novel came out. His second book followed. But then, for a year, he didn’t write anything, and he saw no point in writing what he called ‘just another story.’

“One evening, I mentioned to Gene my admiration of Dostoyevski’s skill at setting up dramatic situations in which he could have his characters debate the issues he found most important. Gene sat up taller. ‘Do you think I could get away with doing that?’

“’Try it,’ I said, only hoping his mastery of dramatic writing was sufficient.

“My point is, unless you’re a master storyteller, don’t venture far from the spine of your story.”

Though I would never compare myself with Dostoyevski, I have written eighteen novels and probably am as close to mastering the storyteller’s art as I ever will get.

So while writing and revising The Answer to Everything I cut loose and attempted to fit whatever I felt might come from the muse or spirit, rather than from my limited intellect, into a fairly sprawling and, I hope, fascinating, and perhaps even enlightening story.

I’ll let you know as soon as it’s available, and suggest you decide to what degree I have succeeded or failed.

Thanks for reading, Ken

Me, Writer, in Brief

As some folks are no doubt dying to know the story of my writing career. I’m going to attempt a capsule version. Of course I once set out to write a short story and ended up with 1400 pages. I’ll try my best to make this shorter.

As high school kid and later as a college English major, my choice in novels skewed toward the “literary”, which to me meant novels of character rather than novels of plot.

So my first novel, Midheaven, got labeled “literary”. And though it earned a prestigious award and was well reviewed, it didn’t sell a whole lot.

The next couple novels I wrote were rather experimental. They didn’t find a publisher.

My friend Don Merritt was making decent money writing adventure paperback originals. I needed money, so I wrote what I thought was one of those. But when I sent it to my agent, she said, “Oh no, this isn’t a paperback original. It’s a literary novel.”

I put writing aside, and started teaching too much, at several colleges, on account of needing money. After a year of that, I was a mess. Then some friends who were mystery writers asked to see my adventure/literary manuscript. They read it and urged me to send it to a certain mystery contest. I did so and won.

So I became a mystery writer, for seven books. And though they won plenty awards and earned consistently excellent reviews, they didn’t sell a lot. One reason, I think they aren’t what most readers look for when they buy a mystery, even though I had tried to restrain myself and stay within the boundaries of the genre. I’m just not good at restraint.

So at long last, I have decided to forget restraint and write what I most love to read, which is novels about crime but also about character, what people think and feel and act and often do such weird and irrational stuff.

I have completed the third draft and I’m happy about it. A couple more revisions and we’ll see what happens. It’s called, by the way, The Answer to Everything.

How Many Words, How Many Drafts

A note to a Perelandra College student:

About word count etc, let me give an example of what I go through with pretty much every novel I have written (17.5 if I counted correctly).

In the first draft I aim low, say 200 pages or about 60,000 words. Then I go through it and always find stuff that needs expanding.

My current work in progress is the tenth and final book of the Tom Hickey crime series. The first draft was around 63,000 words, the second draft slightly over 79,000 words. I will now read through, clean it up a bit, then turn it over it to a friend who can give me some advice about the legal stuff, as it’s something of a legal thriller. By the time I work with her suggestions and other concerns that come along, it will perhaps grow by a few thousand more words, about which I’ll be pleased since legal thrillers are generally long. Still, at this point I’m not aiming for a certain number of words but rather to do justice to what the story has become during the first two drafts.

Most writers I know, especially in the early years of their careers, attend classes or writers groups and in those venues get their novels critiqued. Then they revise and ask for a critique from at least one fellow writer with whom they trade editing, or if that’s not available they pay an editor. Then they revise again, maybe several times before they submit to a publisher. If the publisher accepts the book, another editor will work on it.

A famous writer, whose identity escapes me, commented: “Writing isn’t writing, it’s revising.”

Ernest Hemingway claimed to have revised the ending to A Farewell to Arms 47 times. (I find it strange to think anyone would bother to count.)

The more and longer you write, the less you probably need outside editors, because you get better at self editing. Still, I doubt anyone becomes so objective that a good editor can’t help, at any stage of the process.

The Key to Good Writing

Like all of us these days, I get too much email. I sign up for something and emails from a dozen purveyors of similar somethings invade my inbox. So I find myself depending upon headlines, which I know very well is an unsound practice given that charlatans are often the best headline writers.

I got a memorable lesson in headlines from The National Enquirer when they ran one stating “Secret of Eternal Life Found”. I paused at the magazine rack long enough to thumb through the rag and discovered not a word about that claim other than the headline.

Last week I came across the headline “The Key to Good Writing”, and clicked the link. The article told me that the key to making a piece of writing good was getting rid of the bad writing in it.

Now, being a teacher of writing, which often requires me to be a teacher of revising, I know very well that bad writing is a killer. But to say that getting rid of what’s bad makes something good is a classic logical fallacy akin to “ducks are birds and chickens are birds so chickens are ducks.”

Ridding our work of bad writing may make it technically competent but certainly doesn’t make it good, because the word bad in this context essentially means ineffective while good implies both effective and in some way valuable, worth reading.

University Creative Writing programs send legions of technically competent writers into the world but not nearly so many good writers.

When asked to judge a competition for an Arizona Commission on the Arts fellowship, I was given a hundred stories to read. Ninety of them I judged as competent. Five left me feeling pleased I had read them.

Making an article, story or poem good requires a whole complex of elements which I won’t list here as I don’t intend to make this post into a book. But I will suggest a way to know if you have written something good; put it aside for a month or so, then read it. If at the conclusion you think “I wish I had written that,” it’s probably good.

If you’re still not sure, consider the Writing and the Spirit degree program at Perelandra College.

What Keeps Me Writing

A Perelandra College student who, though mighty serious about writing, can’t often make herself sit down and write, wrote and asked me some questions. In case my answers might help others, here they are:

How have you been able to write so many books?

I’ve noticed that among naturally creative people, the ones who have chosen a certain vocation are usually the most contented.

If I’m not creating something, I sink into a state of moderate to severe melancholy. My best creative outlet, the one at which I’m most likely to succeed, is writing stories. So I write them, and rewrite them, and generally keep working on them until I have something about which I feel proud.

Meantime, I read stories that give me ideas and insights about how to make my own stories better.

Novelist Don Winslow gave a talk in which he asked, “What could be more fun than going to your writing place every morning and asking yourself, ‘What if …’?”

Sure, writing is hard, but it can also be lots of fun.

Do you just write a certain amount of words a day?

I try to write at least three or four pages, about a thousand words, but if life (usually my daughter) doesn’t get in the way I may keep going for another page or so. And if I don’t write my quota, I don’t let myself worry about it. Usually, the pace picks up the farther I get into a novel.

One thing I love about writing novels is, if the part I’m working on feels too hard to tackle on a certain day, I can make notes or write a rough scene that will come later and which I feel ready to tackle.

If I feel stuck on a certain scene, I might sketch it and then move on, come back to it later.

Now, all the above is only about writing first drafts. If I’m revising, I might go through ten pages a day, or twenty or more, which is one of the reasons I enjoy revising.

Writing first drafts tries my patience.

And, no matter if I’m writing or revising, if I miss a day, or a week, or a month, I don’t kick myself but simply notice how much more alive I feel once I start writing (or revising) again.

How do you keep going when you feel self-doubt?

Everybody has self-doubt. If I start cooking a meal from a new recipe, I worry nobody but me will care to eat it. If I decide to run a race, I sure as heck doubt about my ability to win. If I get married, I doubt about whether I can keep this person in love with me.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

So I just try to do my best.

In Tae Kwon Do, the master simply tells us, “Do your best.” He doesn’t expect perfection. In traditional Tae Kwon Do, no one ever reaches tenth degree (perfection).

When you sit down to write, just do your best. And if it sucks, work on it, revise until it doesn’t suck. Then revise until it’s great. Then, in some cases, when inspiration has delivered something wonderful, revise until it’s a masterpiece.

By the way, learning to revise is what writing classes like Perelandra College’s are mostly about.

If I pass into eternity having written just one masterpiece, I will consider all that writing worthwhile.

And, most importantly, there’s the story itself.

Some stories that come to us simply deserve to be told, and if we are so lucky or blessed to have been given them, we’re obligated, I believe.

We need to tell the stories that are in our hearts, the ones we believe in and want to share, no matter the obstacles.

If we don’t, shame on us.

Novels Change Us

David Brooks of the New York Times wrote an editorial about racism and classism and what might be done to counter those attitudes. He commented: “Conversation can help, though I suspect novels … work better.”

I believe in reading and feel sure it is, for most people, the most effective path to many sorts of growth. The reading I find most valuable and enjoyable is fiction in general, novels in particular. Feodor Dostoyevski, Charles Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Mary Shelly, Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Raymond Chandler, Jane Austen, Malcolm Lowry and others have so informed my knowledge and attitudes, I can’t imagine myself without the experiences they gave me.

Neither can I imagine myself not writing. I consider writing both my vocation and something I need.

I’ve often been asked why I don’t write a bestseller. Here’s my answer: bestsellers usually follow certain formulas, and I’m no good at writing to a formula. When I write and ideas come, if I try to ignore or alter them to fit a formula, my interest wanes to the point where I would rather wash dishes or dig holes in a rocky yard than write anymore. Besides the fact that, if I bothered to get tested, I would probably be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, I’m reasonably sure that my need to follow the ideas that come rather than retreat into a formula is related to my hope of learning from what I write, as I have often learned from what I read.

One of my early stories — you can find it in my collection Cars: California Stories, is called “The Curse”. The curse it refers to is a wild imagination and the need to use imagination to make sense of the world. I suspect I’m hardly the only writer to be afflicted with that curse.

Please know I’m not suggesting that anyone should avoid trying to write a bestseller. If you can discover a formula and follow it to riches and fame, good for you, as long as you stay humble.