A crowd-sourced narrative Masterclass

It began here, when narrative writer Pamela Colloff — whose six National Magazine Award nominations is a record for the NMA — asked an existential question. Her peers, a cross-section of the best in the business, responded with insight, and amazing generosity.

The thread is a crowd-sourced Masterclass on writing, but thanks to the nested replies it is also a maze — so here it is, simplified and ordered:

Related, from John Schwartz:

Draft. Get it down — THEN you can get it right. (For some reason, beginning writers seem to resist the idea of a draft: “What’s the point if I have to do it all over again, might as well do it right the first time”. Doesn’t work that way, though — you really can’t write and edit at the same time without tying yourself up in mental knots. Here:

(NB: To David Schwartz’s earlier point about focussing on chunks, a good resource to study the brick-by-brick building (See Grann and Jones above) of a book is Working Days, John Steinbeck’s journal on the writing of Grapes of Wrath. Sample entry dated June 7, 1938:

“Today’s work is the overtone of the tractors, the men who run them, the men they displace, the sound of them, the smell of them. I’ve got to get this over. Got to because this one’s tone is very important — this is the eviction sound and the tonal reason for the movement. Must do it well. I am one page ahead so that if I should go no farther I should still have caught up. And so to do it. I am not frightened of this any more. Too much a part of it, finally.”

That was his statement of intent; this is what he produced that day — towards the latter half of Chapter 5:

“The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects. They crawled over the ground, laying the track and rolling on it and picking it up. Diesel tractors, puttering while they stood idle; they thundered when they moved, and then settled down to a droning roar. Snub-nosed monsters, raising the dust and sticking their snouts into it, straight down the country, across the country, through fences, through dooryards, in and out of gullies in straight lines. They did not run on the ground, but on their own roadbeds. They ignored hills and gulches, water courses, fences, houses.

“The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat. …”

There’s more, but you get the idea. Steinbeck’s ‘cue card’ details what he wants to do in that section, the tone he wants to achieve and why — and then he writes along that guard-rail.

Related, there is this:

(NB: See the second point Darby makes. Writers run up against this problem all the time — they get to a portion of the narrative that just doesn’t seem to “come out right”; they end up struggling, get in a blue funk, and rue “writer’s block”. Darby has the right solution: Let the hard bit lie (block it out or leave a gap with a reminder about what you need there), move on to a different segment that is clearer in your mind and hence easier to write. Come back to the tricky bit later, when you’ve got some solid pages behind you and are feeling better about yourself). More briefly, kick the can down the road:

The first point Darby makes in the earlier tweet is on notes. Here’s more, from Issac Bailey:

Also see:

More granularly on outlining/notes:

(NB: I bang on a lot about this in my workshops. A two-step pre-writing process: (1) Start by writing, in not more than 50 words at the outside, a note on what your book/narrative is really about [“I want to write about a fellow who was two fellows”: RL Stevenson]. This is your North Star, the mental compass you need and (2) Think through the broad outline of your narrative — where you will begin and why, how that lede will flow into sense of place/scene, when your main character(s) will surface and in what context, where you need exposition and why… and put each element on an index card. Lay them out, shuffle them around till the structure flows clean, stick them up, and use them as your guide rails. And, yeah, feel free to deviate if you have to. PS: If you don’t have the working space to spread out dozens of cards, there’s are apps for that. I use this one on my tablet, and prop it up next to my laptop.)

Linked to the above is another major hurdle writers bump up against: The inability, straight out of the gates, to see the best structure. Tony Dokoupil has a good solution, Jason Zinoman makes a related point, and Rachel Synder adds a layer:

A working notebook! Every writer I’ve worked with/spoken to talks of how the book-in-progress stays with you even when you are not at your desk actually working on it; about how at the oddest times — washing dishes, walking the dog — a scene can come fully formed into your mind, or a line that exactly captures what you are trying to say… so, an ever-present notebook, and:

Rachel Monroe has a bonus tip with ref the above, and Robert Moor has examples of how the tip works in practice:

Still staying with inspirations and inspired moments, this:

(NB: You wouldn’t do a bench-press cold; same principle applies to serious writing. You don’t want to wake up, head straight to your workspace, and start where you left off till fingers and mind are warmed up a little. I used to type “quick brown fox” a few times as warm up; more recently I realised that picking a favourite book at random, opening it to some passage I had flagged and typing it out works like a charm — fingers and mind get relaxed and loose, but more to the point, there is something about the rhythms of good prose flowing onto the page, even if that prose is not your own, that puts you in a good frame of mind.)

Wright Thompson once did a riff on writing in scenes but as with all good writing advice, there is the risk of taking it too far, layering scene on scene just because you can. Apropos, Jesse Eisinger”

That’s how the pros do it: write scenes that are not just ‘scenic’ in the sense of long-winded BS about the colour of the sky or whatever, but which highlight the central characters and their motivations. See:

And, related:

It’s exactly like a movie — writing in scenes works if you know how to zoom in or out and, more importantly, when to do which, and why. The answers lie in asking yourself what you want a particular scene to do for the reader (see the Steinbeck quotes above, for an example). And staying with writing in scenes for a beat longer, see #1 below:

Short version: Feel it. Every workshop ever, when you open it up for questions, the first one you get is a wail: “How do I find my voice?” The question implies that voice is somehow external to you, that you have to go looking for it outside of yourself. When, as Katie Engelhart’s post suggests, ‘voice’ is how you react, how you feel, how you personally process all that you saw and heard and experienced and are writing about. See Andrea Pitzer’s point above, about not writing everything from 30,000 feet up, from a middle-distance perspective. To avoid that, to get close up, you need to be aware of your own feelings (that bit sounds like cut-price Deepak Chopra, but you know what I’m talking about).

Oh, and it’s ok to not write, too; to go off and do something else, related:

Speaking of which:

It’s ok to panic (a little bit). And then to harness that panic. Two related tips below, the first from Ian Frisch on finding a pace that works for you, the second from Tim Layden on buckling up for a long haul:

Alongside setting a pace you are comfortable working to, set your narrative tone early. Vide Fred Vogelstein’s point #1:

What does the reader need to see/know next? What questions are uppermost in her mind at this point and how do I clarify those? Anticipating the reader’s needs at any point is key to logical structure. Here’s Ben Coates on this crucial aspect:

Get help; get a second pair of eyes on your output (and don’t leave that too late). Caveat: Be selective in who you send your drafts to and know why; once you’ve picked your feedback loop, listen to it — even if the feedback hurts.

Alongside getting extra eyes on your prose, this from Jim Lewis. (Reading your work out loud is the best way I know of catching errors — grammar, syntax, whatever — and also identifying bits where the writing ‘sticks’, doesn’t flow smoothly.)

Here is all that you need to know, in a compact Tim Weiner tweet:

In no particular order, below, advice from pros that is golden:

PS to the above: 90% of the time, “writer’s block” is symptomatic of your either not having done adequate reportage, or your having taken a wrong tack in the narrative and bumped up against an obstacle. Listen to Nocera.

I’ve only looked at the tips relating to the actual writing process, but the thread has useful tips on when and how to write your prefatory notes, how to keep track of acknowledgments, attributions, etc. Plus, folks have been discovering, and adding to it, on a daily basis.

So, here: bookmark, and visit often. Happy writing, stay safe.

PostScript: The thread also references various tools (Evernote for collecting and collating information, Scrivener for organising, drafting, writing). In comments above, I mentioned one more: Index Cards.

Here is one other tool, to solve a specific problem: too many open browser windows. Sometimes, when researching, you feed in a query, scan the results, and open likely links in separate tabs. Problem is, pretty soon your browser has a couple of dozen open tabs and each is too small to be able to easily make out which is where. Hence, OneTab (There are extensions for Firefox, Edge, Safari, whatever).

Open all the windows you want and when you are done, hit the OneTab icon on your toolbar, and all windows fold into a neatly ordered, readable list of links. You can move things up and down, re-order them, name them with a specific subject if you need to, lock the list so you don’t accidentally delete them… This gives you the space to go through each specific link, transfer the keepers into your Evernote or Scrivener or writing tool of choice. Another tool that serves the same purpose, but stacks your windows as cards, is Get Toby.

Fixed ideas

IN 2003 Joan Didion – who I have quoted before, and will likely quote many more times during this election cycle because there are few more insightful essayists on politics and propaganda – wrote an essay titled ‘Fixed Ideas’. It dealt with how the national narrative was shaped after the fall of 9/11, how the administration sold an entire nation the Kool Aid of a “patriotism” that equated the administration with the country and created a mindset where to question the former was to betray the latter.

That essay is now available in book form, with a preface (available here for NYRB subscribers) by New York Magazine’s writer-at-large Frank Rich, and it should be mandatory reading for anyone looking to navigate the smoke and mirrors world of contemporary politics. I wish I could just cut-paste the whole thing; since I can’t, here are a couple of clips I keep revisiting when the noise threatens to overwhelm me (The ellipses indicate where I have skipped paras to compress the point):

The movement to marginalize or mock any quibbles, however slight, with administration wisdom, to minimize unwanted news that might reflect ill on the competence or motives of its leaders, was the nearly spontaneous reaction of the press and television, needing only a nudge from the White House.

Meanwhile, the administration’s law enforcement excesses and failures – the roundup of thousands of immigrants who had nothing to do with al Qaeda, the inability to discover the source of the anthrax attacks – disappeared into the journalistic memory hole even faster than the White House’s bogus assertion that a credible threat against Air Force One had precipitated George W Bush’s disappearing act on September 11.
It (the administration) knows the power of narrative, especially a single narrative with clear-cut heroes and evildoers, and it knows how to drown out any distracting subplots before they undermine the main story.

The above are excerpts from Rich’s extensive preface. Read it slowly and think: What does it remind you of?

Think of Pathankot. Uri. Pulwama. Then read this clip from Didion’s essay:

As if overnight, the irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties that would come to seem in some ways as destructive as the vent itself. We now had “the loved ones”, we had “the families”, we had the “heroes”.
In fact it was in the reflexive repetition of the word “hero” that we began to hear what would become in the year that followed an entrenched preference for ignoring the meaning of the event in favor of an impenetrably flattening celebration of its victims, and a troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance. “Taste” and “sensitivity”, it was repeatedly suggested, demanded that we not examine what happened.

There are few differences – aside from increased decibel levels – between post-9/11 United States and the India we live in today. The one significant change is that there, the government actively stage-managed the narrative and the media went along – sections of it willingly, the others willy-nilly because it was deemed “unpatriotic” to ask questions. In India today, the media – or sections thereof – have taken on themselves the onus of framing and amplifying the narrative; the establishment mouthpieces allow, even actively encourage, the media’s activities, and play the role of amplifiers, appearing constantly on friendly channels for stage-managed interactions and avoiding any forum where awkward, unscripted questions are likely to be raised.

You have to admit, a friend said to me, that it is “brilliant political strategy”. I have to admit nothing of the kind, because governance is not about winning elections; national security is not a mise en scene to frame a leader’s aura, to add layers to his mythos. National security is measured not in votes gained and lost, but in coffins. And from that point of view:

We don’t know what led to the repeated intelligence failures that form the unexplored backstory to these repeated terrorist strikes (and by the way, this collective ignorance dates back even prior to NDA-II). We don’t know because we cannot ask; we cannot ask because no one in government allows such questioning.

Absent such knowledge, we can only speculate: That there are broken links in the chain between the formulation of hard intelligence and the acting on it. That Pathankot’s lessons were not learned, because the same storyline played out in Uri. That Uri’s lessons weren’t learned, because Pulwama. Logically, therefore, an establishment busy selling a flattened narrative of the all-powerful hero versus the perfidious villains both without and within is an establishment with neither the inclination, nor the ability, to set things right.

What does that lead to? Or to borrow from Bob Dylan, “How many deaths will it take…?”

THIS Twitter thread by Nikhil Mehra, a Supreme Court advocate and by no stretch a “left liberal” with an anti-Modi bias — is worth a read.

Here is the full thread. And the reason it caught my eye is that it is a far more nuanced take on possibilities than either the manufactured Modi-wave propagated by the likes of TimesNow and Republic, or the breast-beating “What is the Congress doing, oh my god our feature” chorus of the soi disant ‘balanced analyst’, a tribe whose increased querulousness stems from a discomfort that the Congress is not following the script the analyst community had written for them.

I agree with Nikhil’s take to a very large extent. I also, like him, am very wary of forecasts — lessons learnt from covering five major national elections and a few assembly polls. That said, I like political strategy, I’ve been carefully monitoring the game board and everything else being equal between now and the last date of polling, I think this election will play out almost exactly as Nikhil said, ending with (remember the “all else being equal” caveat) the NDA (not the BJP, the entire 39-member alliance) will end up around the 210 (+- 10) mark and therefore unable to buy up enough elected MPs to make up the deficit. Equally, I think the Congress gameplan is to end up as the party with the most seats from among the opposition. The key part of Nikhil’s analysis (which happens to resonate somewhat with the way I see it too) is laid out in these three tweets in the middle of his thread:

Whether by accident or design, the opposition (I use the term loosely, because for all the artificial attempts to create a “Mahagatbandhan” strongman, the only maha alliance this time round is the NDA) has figured out that the BJP’s only game is to create the atmosphere of a presidential-style contest that pits Modi against a singular figure from the other side.

Such a contest makes it possible for the NDA to sideslip issues, to harp on the ‘TINA factor’, and to make it about personalities — a strategy that is right in their wheelhouse. By sidestepping such a gladiatorial contest and setting up 2019 as a series of battles against different individuals and/or partnerships on different fronts, and also by shifting the conversation from the emotive, but largely meaningless, tropes of “patriotism” and “international stature” and suchlike shibboleths, to actual bread and butter issues pertaining to each region, the opposition is seeking to shift the focus from the Modi mythos to the NDA’s fairly pathetic track record.

Net net, Nikhil nails it — for all the best efforts of the naysayers, I think the Congress knows what it is doing. I also think, FWIW, that there are the odd glitches and missteps — but that has been true for every party and grouping thus far.

SPEAKING of manufactured narratives, a particularly egregious example caught my eye recently. Here is how this story opens:

Chaos in Malda ahead of Rahul Gandhi’s rally, Republic headlined. So did the rally actually take place? How did it go? If you followed that channel, or TimesNow, you would never know. In contrast, there is this:

Priyanka is a Congress spokesperson, and the image could be massaged, who knows? But there is also this, via one of the BJP’s most important allies:

Who knew? Elsewhere, I saw this — one of many such; I picked this example because the poster is not known for any anti-Congress bias, and hence for me is an exemplar of how even the bystander is seduced by the massaged narrative doing the rounds:

Good point. So: Rahul Gandhi and demonetisation. On GST, in West Bengal, in the very same rally on the sidelines of which the interview Chowdhury cites took place; and elsewhere. (And this on Angel Tax).

I could go on, but the point should be self-evident: There is what is actually happening, and then there is what we are led to believe is happening, by a noisy section of the media that blanks out every speech, every press conference, not merely of Rahul Gandhi but of every single opposition leader, even as the same channels cover live, then discuss at length, every rally and speech of Modi, Shah, Adityanath et al, while various members of the Cabinet such as Irani, Jaitley and Rajnath Singh spend more time in these studios than in their respective ministries. The fault, dear Brutus…