November 21, 2002
"Book of the Day"
Thursday, November 21, 2002
Agent Noah Lukeman Thickens the Plot
When an agent takes time out of his packed schedule to pen a book on the craft of writing, it's a good idea to at least take a look. And even moreso when he writes several books! Noah Lukeman, agent to the likes of the Dalai Lama and National Book Award-nominee Dan Chaon, has written the second of a planned trilogy on the craft of writing. The first volume, entitled The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile (Fireside, $12), focused on honing a writer's style. His latest volume, The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life (St. Martin's, $19.95), looks at ways to pump up the action and keep things compelling. In particular, Lukeman maintains that the seeds for strong plots are sowed in fertile characters and spends much of the book analyzing various aspects of believable characterization.
Like his first book, he breaks things down into simple chapter categories, which in this case include "The Journey," "Suspense," "Conflict," "Context" and "Transcendency," as well as providing checklists and writing exercises to help put into practice what he preaches.
PW Forecasts was impressed with the breadth of material, calling the new book, "a worthy addition to any narrative writer's reference shelf."
Lukeman, who reviews thousands of manuscript submissions a year, took time out of his busy schedule to speak with PW about the creative process.
PWD: What kind of writer is this book helpful to?
NL: It's for all writers, beginning and advanced. Though it is primarily designed for the novelist, screen writers, nonfiction writers and even poets will also find it helpful. Context is still important for the poet. Conflict is for the screenwriter. Suspense is for narrative nonfiction. The only exception is how-to nonfiction--a writer of that kind of book will not necessarily find this book helpful.
PWD: The lists of questions you provide to ask about characters reminded me of those in a self-help book...
NL: The first three chapters are about characterization, the inner life and outer life of characters, and it does give a checklist of items that a person could ask about themselves. People feel like they've gone through a journey of their own in their lives. Writing is a way of looking inside yourself and grappling with life issues. You begin looking at issues about what is really profound in your life or what isn't--does intellectual, emotional or spiritual gain really matter? I talk about a surface journey--financial gain, weight loss, career--or a profound journey, where you come to a realization about yourself and take action about that realization. It's important to put your writing in the context of a greater goal.
PWD: After working with so many writers at different stages, do you believe writing can be taught?
NL: There's a funny quote in my book in which Flannery O'Connor was asked, "Do MFAs stifle writers?" Her response was that "It hasn't stifled enough of them." There's an inspired type of writing and a technical type of writing. Technical writing can be taught and people can achieve a certain level of mastery. I'm about bringing the technical mastery to the highest level possible. I repeat throughout the book that the best teacher you have is yourself. You do that by writing, rewriting, leaving it, coming back--it really depends on your devotion to it.
PWD: Yes, but can writers be taught plot?
NL: Inspirational mastery cannot be taught. I tell people, "you can be great on the piano, but you may never be Beethoven." That said, this book sets out to rectify the issue of writers at MFAs or literary journals who may write well but don't have a plot. You may say the writing is very pretty, but it's missing something. This book tries to help a writer take you to a place where the reader says "wow, there's a story." What I do is break down the process, discuss the arc the audience travels toward satisfaction. I emphasize that it's not just the story, which can mean or be anything. It's the journey of a character.
PWD: Why did you take the time to write the book, when you surely would have made more money selling manuscripts?
NL: It's because I see thousands of manuscripts each year, and it's very frustrating to me that I can't answer each of them personally. All I do all day long is help writers get published. If you really want to do your job well as an agent or an editor, you have to focus on 40 writers a year. If you want to help the other 10,000 people, you physically can't do it. My personal exposure to new writing at all stages of the process is as much as humanly possible. No writing professor or writing student is going to have that perspective.
PWD: Do you give any credence to books that advise adopting the "lifestyle" of a writer? Playacting as part of the creative process?
NL: I don't buy the message of a writer's lifestyle. How can you tell them to write at night or the monring, indoors or outdoors, with music or not music. For most writers it's not this glorious pleasurable thing with the birds chirping in your ear on a Sunday afternoon. They spend their time in a closed room. Writers sometimes have to cut themselves off from their families and the put themselves away. Ninety percent of the writers I know are not sitting there full of joy; usually it's a hard process for a lot of people. Many writers put off writing, have a tough time doing it, but are happy with it once it's finished. The so-called writing life is not romantic. I didn't write this book to get new clients or make money. I did it to put down what I know for these other 9,980 writers I can't work with and for booksellers to have a book to give those customers who come in everyday and ask, "What should I read to learn how to write better." Hopefully, they'll hand them this book.
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