Judson Merrill explains How To
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My literary career is young but it’s never too early to begin never too early to begin trimming the unruly hair of posterity. For the benefit of scholars and fans alike, I will use this space on The Outlet, on a semi-regular basis, to release a selection of my correspondence and other papers. Enjoy. (Universities interested in acquiring the complete Judson Merrill archive should contact me through my web site.)
Excerpts from my forthcoming primer, Sharpening the Razor: How to Hone your Prose into Great Fiction.
People often ask me from whence I get the ideas for my stories and novels. The answer is neither mysterious nor noble. I borrow plots from children’s books, I get settings from my more lucid dreams, and I write about characters patterned wholly on the people I know.
Do not wait for inspiration. Good writing is the product of hard work, not lightning strikes. Example: I recently sat down to work on my new novel, Baby Shavers. I had been struggling with a crucial chapter in which the protagonist is found, by his wife, about to shave the hair off their infant child. It is a scene of immense pathos and conflicted feelings. On the one hand, the reader wants the protagonist to make his marriage work and honor his wife. On the other hand, the reader also wants him to shave the baby. I knew if I didn’t get the balance right, the scene would fall flat. Unhesitatingly, I put a poll on my website asking my readers if they thought I should use alternating perspective to capture the duality of the scene.
For the writer transitioning from stories to novels, maintaining a narrative arc over 300 pages can be incredibly challenging. Fortunately, this problem is one of craft and there are tricks and skills any writer can learn to help bolster their plot over the course of a full book. One invaluable piece of advice I received many years ago is to write really short chapters, maybe just a page or two. Not only does this create lots of white space and pad the length of your book, it also ensures that not too much happens in any one scene, naturally delaying the story over many chapters.
Exercise: Write a story that has no characters. Populate it instead with furniture. After several pages, introduce a magical dust storm that gives all the furniture the gifts of emotion and speech. Allow the pieces of furniture to speak and interact with each other. How is the second half of your story different from the first? What can this tell you about your other work?
There are going to be distractions. Working through those distractions and writing a sentence, then a chapter, then a book is what separates the novelist from his brother-in-law who every Christmas bores the novelist with all his inane ideas for a novel. The best way to work through distractions is to use them as motivation. For example, were I, hypothetically, to have ongoing and untenable marital troubles, I could allow myself to be distracted from my work or I could use the fact that I’m already spending every night in my study as an excuse to crank out some pages.
Show don’t tell. Okay. But what does that mean? Is it the law of the land or is it like one of those laws prohibiting the shaving of infants and children which were written to be ignored?
Characterization is another area that is a challenge for many writers. For years, I have been going to writing conferences and studying with some of the world’s greatest authors. All of them have had one message about the surest way to write full characters. It’s a message I now share with you: “Judson, you really need to develop fuller characters if this story’s going to work.”
Exercise: Take a scene you’ve already written and re-write it twice, once from the perspective of a baby with hair and again from the perspective of a freshly shorn baby. How are the three versions different? Or are the shaved and non-shaved baby versions basically the same and everyone should just relax?
A word on critics: All writers will encounter critics, both professional and amateur, from the moment they begin writing. Remember that those men and women who are paid to share their opinion on the hard work of others fall into two classes of person. One, the man who critiques because he cannot write and, two, the writer who churns out reviews because her writing alone cannot support her family. Both of these individuals, of course, want nothing more than for you and your book to fail, just as you, naturally, want them to fail at their chosen life’s work. Those critics closer to us, in our families and our social circles, are much harder to endure. But the same principle applies. Remember that they hate you out of jealousy and you, too, are free to pick on their careers, belittle their life choices, and sue them for sole custody of the baby.
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The full Judson Merrill archives can be found here.
-Judson Merrill lives and writes in Brooklyn. Some of his work, including his e-novella The Pool, can be found at judsonmerrill.com