Guest blogger Joshua Henkin stops by today to shake us out of our blogging doldrums. For those who want more of Joshua—and we all want more, because he rocks!— you can catch him live tonight at The Happy Ending Reading Series appearing with Chris Adrian and Kate Christenson.
Guest Blogger Joshua Henkin
Thanks, Wendi, for having me as your guest. My new novel, Matrimony, is about the twenty-year history of a marriage—what happens when a couple meet in college (he’s a Wasp from New York City, an aspiring novelist, the son of a wealthy investment banker; she’s Jewish, from Montreal) and end up marrying earlier than they expected and the ways that their choices (faithlessness, failed ambition, the decision whether to have a child) and things out of their control (health and sickness, the death of parent) test the endurance of their relationship.
Pantheon is sending me on a crazy twenty-five-stop book tour, which will take me, among other places, to lovely Washington, DC, on Sunday October 28—first, in the early afternoon, to the Jewish Book Festival at Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon, VA, and then, at 5PM, to the District itself, to Politics & Prose, one of my very favorite bookstores.
Apropos of book tour, I’ve started to do a bunch of interviews, and when I’m not being asked about my own marriage, I’m being asked for advice by aspiring novelists. This isn’t entirely surprising, since I teach creative writing in two MFA programs (Sarah Lawrence College and Brooklyn College). What’s more, Matrimony, though principally about a marriage, is also in part about the writing life, since Julian, my protagonist, is an aspiring novelist.
For a more detailed account of some of my thoughts about fiction writing, you might have a look at my three-part “Letter to an MFA,” which appeared on M.J. Rose’s blog Buzz, Balls & Hype, and at my forthcoming article, “In Defense of MFA Programs,” which will appear in the November/December issue of Poets and Writers.
But for now, I’d like to tell you briefly about my pet peeve, which is that too many writers write a perfectly good sentence but don’t know how to tell (and in some cases aren’t interested in telling) a story. A college friend of mine wrote her psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how children group objects. The adult groups the apple with the banana, whereas the child groups the monkey with the banana. Which is another way of saying that children are more natural storytellers than adults are. So one of my principal tasks as a fiction writer and as a teacher of fiction writing is to get myself and my students to think like children again.
Here, then, are a few bits of practical advice.
1) Set your story where conflict is likely to take place. Graduations, proms, college reunions, weddings, divorce proceedings, funerals, Thanksgiving dinners. Someone I know once said that there are only two kinds of stories—“Stranger Comes to Town” and “Person Goes on a Trip.” Which is really just one kind of story, since “Stranger Comes to Town” is simply “Person Goes on a Trip” from a different point of view.
2) Anyone who’s been to a Passover Seder knows the Four Questions—“Why is this night different from all other nights?” Well, it’s the fiction question, too. Why, of all the days you’ve written about, have you chosen to write about today? Every piece of fiction, either explicitly or implicitly, has to answer that question. There has to be urgency. Invite your characters over for Passover.
3) In fiction, as in so much else, desire is essential. Your characters need to want something. They need to care enough to put themselves at risk. What do your characters want? What do they think they want? What are they going to do to achieve those wants? Who’s getting in the way of their achieving those wants?
4) Beware passive characters. If your protagonist is passive, there better be an antagonist who isn’t passive. Too many passive characters make for a passive, inert story. Observation and cogitation are important in fiction, but good fiction isn’t principally about watching and thinking. There must be some doing—verbally, physically, psychically. I see too many student stories that are about watching. A character sits on a bus and observes the people around him. Well, that isn’t enough. Have a stranger place their hand on the character’s thigh. That will get him to take action. I’m talking metaphorically, of course, though literal hands on stranger’s thighs could work, too. Whatever it takes. Just make something happen.