Category Archives: Writing

The Method of Writing: Plan, plan, plan, or “back the fuck off”?


The literary dawn on the lake of the mind. (Murte Lake, Wells Gray Provincial Park, BC.)

In October The Atlantic ran an awesome interview with Andre Dubus III.

I love Andre Dubus III. He’s got a cool name. He writes cool books (Dirty Love just came out this fall). He swears profusely, even in print, even in a 156-year-old magazine, because, well, he’s that fucking passionate about writing.

And in this interview he suggests all you plotters and planners and outliners really need to just back the fuck off. He’s talking to you, Ms. Writer with your note cards and your plot points and your summaries. These are his words. Back. The. Fuck. Off.

That outline you just did? That idea you had for the climax of your novel, for the clever resolution of the short story you’re going to email to some hip litmag? Throw it the fuck out and sit the fuck down. Then write, and see what comes.

You’re a blind woman, or man, or marsupial. Whatever. You’re feeling your way through a tunnel, and the point is you don’t know where you’re going. All you know is what your senses tell you about what’s right in front of you.

That, Dubus says, is all you need. Take note of whatever is mentally in front of you. You’re the ethnographer of your imagination. You’re wearing twill khaki shorts and the mosquitoes are bleeding you dry, and you’re just scribbling notes about whatever you observe in your immediate dream-surroundings.

You’re not composing a novel or devising a short story. You’re not even a writer. You’re just taking field notes from your subconscious.

So your job is to shut the fuck up. Just be quiet and wait for your subconscious to float an image. Your conscious mind is a security guard/stenographer. It waits for something to happen, then it takes note.

This is what Dubus says. He probably knows what he’s talking about, if The House of Sand and Fog or any of his five other well-regarded books are something to go by.

On this, he echoes the sentiments of other bestselling — though less “literary” — writers like Stephen King, who in his memoir On Writing also said he doesn’t plan. He just sits down and feels it out.

The downside of this approach is you end up having to chuck out prose by the boatload. But Dubus is simply too bad-ass to shed tears over spilt ink.

“I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96. If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1? Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.”

Thrown in the fucking wastebasket. Ruthlessly recycled. He doesn’t care. He’s Andre Dubus IIIOne day he may wipe his ass with those 92 pages. It just depends if he buys environmentally friendly toilet paper or not.

All you planners out there, stop sucking your teeth while you contemplate the horrifying inefficiency of this approach. There are plenty of upsides we have yet to consider. Allow me to hold forth on them forthwith.

Well right off the bat, you save all the time of plotting and sketching. Plotting days become writing days.

So although you may have to throw more stuff out, you have way more stuff. You are word-rich. You no longer have any excuse not to write every day. You can’t say, “Well, I would write today, but I have to hammer out the twists in my story first.” If Dubus heard you say this he would politely tell you:  stop making excuses, sit the fuck down, and write.

It’s very passionate advice. The main question, though, is about quality. Because better quality is a potential upside here, though obviously not all high-quality writers approach their work this way.

Yet Dubus suggests  if you don’t write like this, your book or story or epic poem is going to sound contrived. It’ll come off as gimmicky, inorganic. You’ve got to let it develop naturally or it won’t have an authentic ring. The soul of art is born of uncertainty, he would claim.

It’s hard to settle this. We need some scientists in white coats to see which writers work like Dubus and King, and which ones plan out their writing in advance. Then they can get a bunch of participants to rate the work each group produces. Barring that, it’s just an assertion made in really fucking strong language.

I’ve tried both approaches, and I don’t know which is better. Planning in advance provides a lot of comfort as you move through the writing process. But maybe comfort isn’t really what you want as a writer. I must admit it does raise questions in the back of my mind about sounding contrived.

Proceeding with no plan, however, often seems to produce work that doesn’t go anywhere. Work I couldn’t imagine people want to read because it doesn’t present itself as a clear story. But I do find this work tends to be raw and engaging. Maybe I’ve just never given this freewheeling process enough time.

The point Dubus seems to make is that even your output is a colossal mess, eventually you’ll be able to tie pieces of it together into a coherent structure. The trick is to keep going, to write continuously so that you have enough raw material. So that you don’t care if you have to scrap pages 1-92.

I’d say that’s a tall order. But it’s also a brave way to work. And if Dubus’s books are anything to go by, it’s something worth going after.


99 Styles Later


Wildflowers in Olympic National Park

My reprise of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style is over. Woohoo, ninety-nine styles done! (And ninety-nine photos, which were as challenging as the styles.) Having reached the end of what turned out to be a long project, it feels mighty fine.

But beyond personal satisfaction, what’s the significance of revisiting this old and unusual work? A few things come to mind. One is that a book like The Exercises In Style poses a question about the nature of literature, not only from a stylistic point of view but also in terms of story. Because a book that recounts the same mundane anecdote on every page 99 times simply has to be boring. And yet it’s not. It defies expectations,  so it amuses and occasionally amazes.

As a result, it’s a book that demonstrates the power of ingenuity, as well as the influence forms have on readers’ experience of plot — from forms that encompass the whole story, like genre, to those that lie within phrases, like metaphors. These elements not only change the reading experience but fundamentally alter the story; the plot elements remain fixed, yet in spite of this the story flows and melts and reforms as something new.

One can ask, then, what’s a story? Because if Queneau has proven anything it’s that while strictly speaking we’re dealing with the same characters and events, in reality we’re not. The story mutates when you write it from a different angle. The original ingredients aren’t well-preserved, they dissolve into the whole. Literature, he proves ninety-nine times, is as much about structure and texture as about plot and character.

Moreover, the former shapes the latter. In other words, The Exercises In Style demonstrates that what people draw from a piece of writing is perhaps more contingent on authorial voice than many realize. And not only does this mean we should pay attention to the sorts of devices and perspectives we employ on the page — a commonplace — but we should actively cultivate a variety of them. Ninety-nine might be a good number to aim for.

Of course, this has its limits. At a certain point in this ‘grand game of styles’ a longing for change, character development, or just anything new to happen creeps up and seizes you by the throat (“Please God, not the same anecdote again!”). I can’t say I’m sad to move to other projects after rehashing the same material what felt like endless times.

On the other hand, it was always fun. The constraint of repeating certain story elements pushed me to breathe new stylistic life into them, for under such limitations that was all I could do. The result was a series of ventures into new genres, voices, and rhythms that I now see have tremendous power to shape how stories come across.

Mind you, such observations could well be made through reading too. But when you try out ninety-nine ways of approaching the same writing assignment, it really sinks into your bones. Not only does such an exercise illustrate that our angle of attack matters, but it underscores our vast creative potential: if you set your mind to it, the literary fount you can tap into is limitless. We are all creativity machines with infinite production lines.

So what does all this boil down to? Creative constraints are good. Exercises that push your literary limits are good. Experimentation is good. And writing? That’s beyond good. That’s magic.

But it’s a magic that bears repeating — that demands it, lest the pencils rebel from their drawers and poke us in the eye. And ninety-nine times is just a beginning.

Style No. 99: Love Story

Although the street was full of dust and metal, it looked just like this.

Although the street was full of dust and metal, it looked just like this.

I met her in the bare concrete of the road but it was like a garden bloomed around her nonstop. Had a smile like carnations and eyes like hummingbirds, full of force and shine. She was whistling for an autorickshaw when I spotted her, so I ran quick before my chance slipped off. “Hey,” I said. “We’re both wearing orange. Want to share a cab?”

She smiled, a little hesitant. “Where are you going?”

“Anywhere,” I said. “Anywhere at all.”

At that moment she did what I’ll never forget. This woman, whose name I had let to learn, put her arm around my shoulder and squeezed me tight. “Alright, handsome,” she said. “Let’s go.”

An auto pulled up then, and I remember it perfectly because a female driver was unusual — some nervous grandma with a funny shawl tied over her hair. Maybe that’s where she kept her driver’s licence and insurance papers, who knows. She leaned over and gave us that look they always do without speaking, those expectant eyes awaiting your destination. “Vishwavidyalaya,” said my orange companion. “Metro station ke pas.”

Tik hai ji,” the driver murmured. She spat an ochre jet of betel-tinged saliva in the road and glanced in the rearview before opening the throttle and launching into the traffic’s raging current. Those nervous eyes again.

I spun round to see what had her worried, and just as we pulled out I saw a strange man in the road behind us. I’m not sure what it was about him — I mean he wasn’t even looking at us, his eyes were off the other way. But he had a funny vibe, something frightening. Like he knew things you didn’t.

Then like that we were gone and all I could see was a crush of bikes and lorries. Anyway I didn’t have time to think about oddballs in the street. I was with a girl, and I was in love.

Style No. 98: Fantasy

The dill pickle is the centaur's snack of choice.

The dill pickle is the centaur’s snack of choice.

You know I think dad’s losing his ears. After I got thrown out of school for dancing ass naked on the roof mom told him I needed a mentor. So next Saturday he barges into my room and squares up like he’s got an announcement to make. “Listen up. Your mother and I have talked it over, and we’ve decided it’s high time you had a centaur.”

“Jesus, Larry.” That’s mom from the other room. Doesn’t sound pleased one bit.

I’m used to her commentaries of course. And at that moment dad’s words were more important, if only because they were more confusing. So I blocked mom out and zeroed in on just what the hell he was talking about. A centaur?

You can imagine I was skeptical, but then he edges out of the jamb and in trots Mr. Horse-man, so there you go. Turns out you can buy the things up on West Saanich Road for like eight hundred bucks.

“Hey little boy,” the centaur said. “My name’s Clive T. Barrington. It’s good to meet you.”

Jesus, if the name didn’t shock me more than the hooves. Clive Barrington the horse-man. This can’t be real, I’m thinking. This can’t be. “Yeah totally,” I said. “Nice to meet you too. I’m Art. You know, I never had a centaur before.”

I reached up to shake his hand but it was too high to reach. Besides, he was looking the other way, staring out the window with a strange look on his face. There was a deep wistfulness in those obsidian eyes. Or maybe a knowingness. Yeah, a knowingness.

“What you looking at?” I asked.

“Hmm? Oh sorry. I was just thinking of the two boys who sold me. Noisy kids with whistles and gaudy fruit-coloured clothing.”

“Oh, well… sorry to hear that I guess.”

Finally he turned to me and smiled. This time it actually was wistfulness on his face. No doubt about it. “Ah forget them, eh? What are you and I going to do together?”

“Well jeez, I was thinking it’d be pretty awesome if we–“

“–take him back to the store?” That was mom chiming in, biting my lines like she does. “He can’t stay, you know. Good god Dan this is not what I had in mind.” There she goes scolding dad some more.

“Oh come on Wilna.”

“It’s a centaur for Christ’s sake,” she said.

“Exactly! That’s exactly what I’m saying! Look how awesome he his!”

Mom sighed and looked nervous. She rubbed her forehead where that shawl hid whatever it was she kept on her head all the time. “No, Dan, I’m sorry. Art, you can’t have a centaur. In case you forgot, you’re still grounded from that stunt you pulled on the roof, of all places.” Then she turns to Clive like she’s being all nice. “I’m really sorry about this, Mr. Barrington, but there’s been a miscommunication.”

Clive’s face hardened. I don’t think it was anger, though. Those were tears he was holding back. “Well,” he said. “Such is the life of a strange creature who is man above the waist and horse below.” With these last words it seemed a light bulb went off in mom’s head. I saw her eyes dart for a peek between Clive’s hind legs.

“Hmm,” she said. “Well you know, Dan, actually… Maybe this centaur would make a good mentor for Art, even if this is a mix-up.”

“That’s what I’m telling you,” he says. “Centaurs are fucking wicked.” Poor dad, he hasn’t caught on yet. Clive smiles like a little boy desperate enough to do anything to get what he needs. The tragic friggin life of a slave I guess.

Well it probably won’t take dad long, and then Clive will be out on his ass or his hooves or whatever. Suppose I’d better enjoy it while it lasts. Mom too.

Style No. 97: Post-Apocalyptic

The ash grey world of the Time After.

The ash grey world of the Time After.

On the third day we took to drinking piss. By then so much ash had fallen that the water was worse. It was all worse. Sipping urine was the best thing left to us in this charred and lonely world.

When I say ‘us’ that’s an assumption of course, because it’s just me. Well me and Sheila, but she’s a goat and hasn’t drank much of anything since It happened. Turns out goats don’t drink piss under any circumstance whatsoever.

I did, however, see some people a month ago, so I’m not the only one. Two boys in orange t-shirts scuttling off with an old woman — a grandmother, maybe. Looked like she had their supplies tucked under a cloth on her head.

Couldn’t talk to them, though — nervous as hell, they were. Soon as they spotted me one of the boys blew an old whistle like a cat dying, then they disappeared. Now I’m back on my own. Alone, except for Sheila.

I’m not sure if it’s really what they call bestiality any more. With no people left I think the comparison doesn’t hold. It’s just animality now, raw love between living things. So few left, I’d say it’s fair.

Anyway I believe she likes it — I do. Every time we’re together she gazes off the other way, glossy black eyes staring in the distance, but in a nice way. Then she bleats in a fashion I could only describe as wise. The sound rumbles out of her like an old mountain stream, like the cry of an animal who knows something no one else does.

Well maybe that’s the truth. Maybe she knows more about living in a world like this than any man could ever hope to.

But hell, there’s no time for philosophy; the sun’s plunging down, purple as a bruise. We need to sharpen our spears before They filter out of the shadows, lusting for whatever meat remains in this tar-blackened husk of a life.

Style No. 96: Hardboiled

They called him Khan The Tailor and he was known in the neighbourhood for looking the other way.

They called him Khan The Tailor and he was known in the neighbourhood for looking the other way.

Let’s just set one thing straight before we get started, which is that I ain’t no snitch. A dick’s got to have secrets or he ain’t no kind of dick, private or otherwise. That’s the law of this business if you give a damn about getting clients. Not that it matters whether you solve the case or not. In this town the victims’ll turn round and slit the throats of the criminals in a second. That’s if they ain’t done it already.

But stories. Well they got their own laws too don’t they. Stories got to be told, that’s why they call them stories. There’s a message stored up inside them.

So I was on the case for this broad named Jack. What the hell kind of name is that for a broad you’re thinking? Pal, don’t even. I been there. Anyway it’s a dime in my pocket so what do I care.

She says to me Rex have I got a job for you. That’s me, Rex Mosgley. Investigateur extraordinaire or whatever they say up in Montreal. Rex it’s a pinch caper, she says. My boys they lost two suits pricey as a mint.

— A pinch eh? What kind of suits we talking? (That’s my way of talking to broads.)

— Crushed velvet orange jumpsuits, it’s the latest fashion, oh you’ve got to get one you’ve just got to.

— Damn it Jack don’t talk to me about fashion. Don’t you know the world is all grey for a man like me?

— But can you get them back?

— Does the pope shit in the woods?

— I don’t imagine it’s my place to comment on religious matters.

— Oh come on, don’t get so nervous now. Makes you look older than you are, like you’re someone’s grandma, which just can’t be true for a broad as fine-looking as you. (Rule number one, always compliment the client.)

— Actually my daughter-in-law just had a baby. His name’s Melvin. Melvin Pennington Samsonite.

— That’s a lot of luggage for a little boy to carry. How about you just give me the skinny on this character you say made off with your boys’ funny suits. Let me guess, someone with a .44 Magnum and an attitude malfunction.

— Funny you should mention that. See, it’s Khan The Tailor. They call him the Khan Man because he’s always separating folks from their belongings. And he’s haughty too, like he knows something nobody else does.

— Whoa babe, let’s push the manifold crank back a few turns. Khan the tailor? Stand up guy he is. Sews my underwear every Christmas. (This is when I started thinking something’s fishy. This racialist type Jack broad? Fishier than a goddamn Newfie kitchen I’m thinking.)

— Are you implying I’m a liar, Mr. Mosgley? You do understand that this Khan is a… a Hindoostani, don’t you?

This is when I noticed that she’s got something hidden beneath the shawl on her head. Right from then I knew things weren’t going to end well. I’m telling you, clients are worse than marks in this damn town. It’s no life for a dick no more.

— Bend an ear this way Jack and bend it good. My mother’s from Chandigarh, you hear? Dad brought her back from the service, fell for the mangoes if you get my drift. So here’s what I’m going to do is I’m going to look the other way and let you leave my office. Let’s hope Khan’s willing to look the other way too.

Well wouldn’t you know it, one of those days. Turns out this broad’s name ain’t Jack at all. Frau Jach maybe. Soon as I’m done my spiel she whips off that head shawl of hers and slings a pistol my way. Then she starts spewing some cream-of-word soup, garbled German or  devil knows what. Arbeit macht frei.

But as it happened, I was the one to set her free long before her finger got to scratching that trigger. I have the shotgun bolted to the desk like any dick with his head screwed on right. Not sure what she expected, should’ve known better if you think on it. Hell, when you been working in this business as long as I have, that’s just what you call mandatory office supplies.

Style No. 95: Sci-Fi

The planet of the Balthonians looks much like this piece of Earth-fruit.

The planet of the Balthonians looks much like this piece of Earth-fruit.

The planet Nebtok Blintz 6.1 is located just a short distance from the Zerbon nebula. It has a twin planet (6.2) and both float in a beautiful wraith of Zerbon’s orange gasses. While this was nice to look at as I drove in, visibility was terrible. Luckily I’d just had my wipers repaired, and after clicking them to intermittent I was able to see well enough to land.

I only had a tourist visa, which I’d picked up at the Nebtoki consulate on Pluto (all the Zerbon planets seem to have consulates there, who knows why). The bastards only gave me 30 days, but whatever. I’d have the last laugh as I was going to meet up with the Balthonians and help them smuggle four tonnes of diamonds from the planet’s carbon core. Then we’d roll in our billions and take  peyote and maybe go to Alpha Centauri for burgers. But first there was work to do.

Getting through customs was disgusting. I forgot how drippy the Nebtokis are, and to make matters worse the agent at my wicket had left his mucus cup at home. Ew. Maybe this helped me in the end though, because I was able to pass myself off as a tourist without being selected for reversible brain dissection. A more attentive agent might’ve seen I had things to hide.

I returned to my pod and headed for the rendez-vous point I’d set up with my contact among the Balthonians, Chad. “So you’re here, finally,” he said. As though it was my fault the whole road was socked in with orange gas and I couldn’t go more than 100,000. My foot wasn’t even on the pedal, I swear.

“Just give me the diamonds, cowboy,” I said. This is what people call Balthonians because they look like cows.

“And if I say no?” he said, smiling like a crazed fool. What the hell was he playing at? Jesus, I just crossed the galaxy for this guy.

“Hey, what’s the deal man? You’re the one who called me, unless you forgot.”

“Oh I didn’t forget. It’s her who isn’t so sure.”

“Her? The grandmother?”

“One and the same.”

“My god. I thought that was just a legend. You know, scare the Bogzarfs and all that. ‘Ooh, don’t mess with us or the grandmother will get you.'”

“Might scare you too.”

“Well I’m not nervous. If anyone should be nervous it’s her.”

“Oh she is, she always is. That’s her M.O.” He turned his head and yelled back into the darkness of the cave he’d come out of. “Grandmother! Our fence is here. Come size him up.”

Of course I’d lied to him, I was nervous as hell. The grandmother? She was feared from here to the goddamn vanguard of the universe.

After a minute she waddled out of the cave, and to my surprise she just looked like an other Balthonian woman. The only exception is that she had a cloaking device wrapped around her head like a shawl. “What do you want,” she asked.

“What is this?” I said. “You guys fucking called me, ok? You. Called. Me.”

“Alright alright, keep your hat on,” she said, looking me up and down like I was a slave she was inspecting for Krebian digi-lice.

“I’m not wearing any lice, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I said. “Trust me, no one is listening in.”

“Yeah haven’t I heard that a million times,” she said, continuing to size me up.

“What about you, eh? What you got under that cloak?”

At this Chad turned purple. I thought his eyes were going to pop out of his damn head. “No one dares mention the cloak!” he roared.

“It’s fine, Chad, it’s fine. If he wants to see, let him see.”

Finally we’re getting somewhere, I thought. A little cooperation. I was chewed up with curiosity by that point, wonder just what the hell this famous old lady kept on her precious little head, so even though it was just a second before she unveiled, it felt like an eon.

In the end I wish it had been. For when she pulled the cloak off her head I was greeted not by typical Balthonian fur, but something wholly different. A strange little man growing straight out of her skull. “Good god,” I said. “What the fuck is that.” At this the little man turned his head — not at me, but the other way — and a knowing smile pinched across his face. And that’s when I felt it, the heat. The raging unbearable heat. “No,” I said. “It can’t be true.”

His little voice croaked out then like a toad jumping from its wee dank toad hole. “Oh but I’m afraid it is.”

Every second that passed made it harder for me to speak, as I was cooking from the inside out. “Not…not…a mind boiler?”

“Haha! Merry Christmas Earth douchebag!” he cackled. With that I collapsed under the force of the burning, flopping like a fish on rocks. I tried to ask why, but my tongue swelled and choked me out.

There was no explanation, no reason, no hope. I’d met my end among this band of diamond nabbers. GoddamnI thought. Should’ve known better than to trust a cowboy. Should’ve known… And like that I was gone.