Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction

Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction

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by John McNally

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Vivid and Continuous takes its inspiration from John Gardner, whose essential truths in On Becoming a Novelist clarified McNally's goal of communicating a "vivid and continuous dream" with his own writing. In fifteen concise, energizing chapters, he dispenses advice gained from almost thirty years of studying, writing, and teaching. Just blunt enough to get your

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Vivid and Continuous takes its inspiration from John Gardner, whose essential truths in On Becoming a Novelist clarified McNally's goal of communicating a "vivid and continuous dream" with his own writing. In fifteen concise, energizing chapters, he dispenses advice gained from almost thirty years of studying, writing, and teaching. Just blunt enough to get your attention but not blunt enough to crush you, challenging but not discouraging, personal but not ego-ridden, snarky but not mean, John McNally will prompt you to think more deeply about a variety of issues that will push you toward writing more meaningful, more accomplished work.

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Vivid and Continuous is smart, extremely helpful, and—unlike most books about how to write—very funny. I guffawed and nodded my head in agreement as I read the chapter on subject matter to avoid. John McNally’s engaging voice beguiled me in every essay, offering up wisdom gleaned from years of experience as a dedicated teacher and successful writer. This book is one of a kind. I can’t wait to assign it to my fiction-writing students.”—Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady and coauthor, Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft 

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University of Iowa Press
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Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction


Copyright © 2013 John McNally
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-156-1

Chapter One


What's your process like? When do you write? Do you have a routine? Do you write in the morning or at night? Do you write every day? Do you write longhand or type? How much do you write each day? How many hours a day do you write? Do you stand or sit when you write? Do you gauge a day's work by words, pages, or time spent writing? Do you write seven days a week? Do you have a specific place where you write, or can you write anywhere? Do you write with the door open or shut? Do you play music while you write? Do you shower before you write? Do you write in your underwear?

During nearly every post-reading Q&A, someone will ask the writer one of these questions, but what they're really asking is, "What's your secret?" The secret is that there is no secret. Most writers do, in fact, develop idiosyncratic habits, but they do so because it works for them. And by "works," I mostly mean that it keeps them going; it gets them from one day to the next. I do believe that some writers' processes have effects on their writing, but by and large the reason we do the things we do is because it makes the experience endurable if not actually pleasant, the way a child might need a particular blanket to sleep with at night. It's not that the child couldn't sleep without it, but it makes falling asleep easier. The great thing about being a writer is that we don't have to give up our blanket.

Time Is on Your Side

My own habits have changed over the years, most notably in regard to the one thing that probably does actually affect the writing itself: the time of day I choose to write. I used to be a night person, writing from midnight until five in the morning, but that was back when I was a student and could sleep all day long without consequences. Once I started working for a living, I couldn't possibly maintain that schedule, so I eventually, slowly made the transition to writing in the mornings. In both instances, I wrote when I was groggy, barely awake, because I believe that my best work comes from the unconscious mind, and that the best way to tap into the unconscious mind is to write when the thought process is still nearest to the dream-state. I want my prose to be lucid, but I want to surprise myself by letting the unconscious mind inform the work. Once I'm fully awake, I start thinking about what I have to do that day, e-mails I need to answer, bills I need to pay, tasks I need to take care of—and once all of those things begin to intrude, my brain blocks out the element of surprise and the writing becomes calculated, about as far away from the dream-state as it can get. Gone are the surprising connections. Gone are the enigmatic details. I might as well try hammering a nail through a wall of steel.

The time of day a writer writes is not insignificant. Cynthia Ozick wrote at night. In an interview published in the Paris Review, Ozick says, "Most social life begins in the evening when I'm just starting. So when I go out at night, it means I lose a whole day's work." Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here, says, "I like early morning, five a.m.-ish, because I have no distractions at that hour, and if I force myself to get up that early, you can bet I'm not going to procrastinate." Alan Heathcock, author of Volt, says, "I write from the time I get my three kids off to school, to the time they come home. I write Monday through Friday. Having grown up in a working-class town in the Southland area of south Chicago, I'm always intensely aware that buddies of mine are police officers or pipe fitters or office stiffs, going to do their work, day after day, and that they would have nothing but disdain for me if I treated my writing like anything but a job (even though it's much more than a job)."

Rarely will you hear a writer say, "It doesn't make a difference what time of day I write." Routine, routine, routine: a writer finds a routine that works and, barring life's interferences, sticks with it.

Bean Counting

I try to write at least two typed pages a day. If I'm really deep into a novel or have built up enough steam, I'll write more—four or five pages, as many as fifteen, although I believe that the laws of diminishing returns kick in early, and the more I write, the worse it gets. If I can write at least two typed pages a day for three hundred days a year, that brings my yearly total to six hundred pages, which is the length of two moderately sized books. Of course, most of what I write I have to throw away, and most of the year is spent revising rather than churning out pages, but still ... a few pages each day will add up over time. I once tried writing an entire novel in a month, and I succeeded, except that my agent couldn't sell it, which said to me that I needed to slow the hell down. The novel was an experiment. The problem was that it read like an experiment.

Everyone works at a different pace. "I like to get ten pages a day," writes Stephen King in On Writing, "which amounts to 2,000 words. That's 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book—something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh." Thomas Wolfe, like King, wrote whale-sized novels. In The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, Wolfe claims to a friend that he was he was churning out 3,000 words per day but was hoping to increase to 4,000. As documented in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck created for himself a complex-sounding equation, explained in his journal entry on June 11, 1938: "The placing of an optional page on Saturday is to try to maintain a certain writing speed. Then if for any reason I miss a day (and I probably shall), there will be days piled up. Two days a month, in fact, to draw on. Two weeks gone now out of twenty. Eighteen weeks to go. I figure about 200,000 words and I have 10,000 words a week as a minimum. Today I will have one spare day in case anything happens. I hope it won't, but if it does."

Most writers I know have more modest goals, like Jonathan Evison, who is happy with one typed page per day. And not every writer believes in word or page count. Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author of The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, writes, "When I'm writing the draft of a novel, I have to make myself write for 2 hours each weekday." According to Alan Heathcock, "I don't believe a page count is appropriate. I set daily goals which have more to do with solving a certain narrative issue, writing a particular scene, extracting insight from a moment. I'm not a quantity guy. I'm a quality guy. And writing is not a race. Writing 5,000 words shabbily can't compete with 200 words written with precision and passion."

What's Your Poison? I usually start my day, prior to writing, drinking an ice-cold bottle of frappuccino, but I'm trying to quit. The caffeine/sugar rush is great for the first half hour, but it doesn't take long before I crash. Some people light a cigarette before typing their first words of the day; others start filling themselves with vats of coffee. Notice how the unhealthy part of the process precedes the writing. Is writing so daunting, so excruciating that we actually need to brace ourselves with stimulants or depressants first? Or are we playing a role? After all, in nearly every movie about a writer ever made, the writer is portrayed as a hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking troublemaker. Don't believe me? Rent the Humphrey Bogart movie In a Lonely Place and then let's talk.

I had read somewhere that William Faulkner would wake up early, start drinking whiskey, and hammer out dozens of pages of a novel, so I decided to give it a go. I was in graduate school, still young enough to think this was a good idea. I dubbed it my "Faulkner Day." I started writing and drinking around nine in the morning, and I wrote several pages on a legal pad, but the next day when I looked over what I had written, I saw that much of it was illegible, despite the increased size of the handwriting, and that what was legible wasn't any good. My one and only Faulkner Day was a failure. And the truth is that I can't even write with a hangover, which is why, now that I'm older and (I hope) wiser, I rarely drink, because I hate wasting writing days, those days being the very thing I spend so much time and energy trying to hoard. It's a romantic image, isn't it, pouring a glass of your favorite liquor as you stare gloomily at your blank computer screen, but I suspect the idolization of someone like Charles Bukowski, whose drunken exploits have been dramatized in two movies, has ruined more than one promising young writer's career.

Location, Location, Location

I used to be able to write anywhere. When I was an undergrad at Southern Illinois University and writing my first short stories, I would work for several hours at the library until it closed for the day and then I would wander over to the student union and write at a table near the escalator, until that building closed as well. I used to write on trains, in hospital waiting areas, in dorm rooms. These days, I can't write in public or even in my office on campus, where I'm likely to see people I might prefer to avoid. Instead, I have an office at home where I do almost all my work, but even this setup isn't without problems. I have several dogs and cats, and the dogs, in particular, have become more and more demanding of my time and attention. I love my dogs. I do. But on days when they're acting out, it's difficult to get done what I need to get done—that is, until I bought a used Airstream trailer. When I bought it, it hadn't yet crossed my mind to use it as a makeshift office, but one day, on a whim, I carried my computer and books out there, and that's what it has since become. My daily output has increased by at least ten percent. And there are no distractions, save for a squirrel running over the roof every fifteen minutes. Ironically, during a seven-month period when I'd had to live in a camping trailer due to unemployment, I barely wrote ten pages. In that instance, I couldn't escape the smallness of the trailer. Using a trailer as my office, however, is a wholly different experience. I at least have a house to which I can return now.

Is a camping trailer the new writer's garret? Perhaps. Alan Heathcock owns one, too: "My ritual is to walk out my front door and walk around the house to the side drive where my trailer/writing studio is parked. It's a 1967 Roadrunner Travel Trailer, with all the original wood, was once an Idaho State Police surveillance vehicle. I find leaving the house, even for that very short commute, makes me take the writing less like a hobby and more like a job."

And maybe that's it: It isn't so much where one writes as it is having a place to write that's separate from where one lives. A room of one's own, as it were.

Weapon of Choice

When I first began writing, I wrote in longhand and then typed up what I'd written, using a cast-iron Royal typewriter from the 1940s, pecking out my words with two fingers. After the manual typewriter—and after taking typing lessons—I bought a Smith Corona typewriter, and then a Brother typewriter, and then a Smith Corona word processor, and then, finally, a long series of computers, all of them utterly forgettable. In the early 1990s, I began typing directly onto the computer. After nearly twenty years of writing this way—from brain to computer—I have begun writing in longhand again. I have even purchased a refurbished IBM Selectric typewriter from the early 1970s. In other words, I'm moving in reverse. Why? The main reason is that (for me, at least) the writing process is different when I use a pen instead of a keyboard. The sentences have different rhythms. The prose takes less time to revise. With a computer, I'm a fast writer; I've hammered out as many as twenty pages of prose in a single sitting. I couldn't write that much in longhand if I tried ... and that's a good thing! Why write twenty crappy pages when I could have written two or three worthwhile ones?

When asked by the Paris Review what implements he wrote with, T. C. Boyle replied, "I use my toenails actually—collect them, hammer them down, mold them into shape, but I guess you want a straight answer."

I was in the audience when Boyle was asked that question, and the audience wanted not only the straight answer but the definitive one, because our deepest hope, as aspiring writers, is that we, too, will write a masterpiece if only we find the right time of day, the right implement with which to write it down, the magical number of words to produce, the perfect place for the muse to visit us, when in fact there is no right anything. There is, when all is said and done, only that which works for you.


1. Try writing in different locations. For instance, try writing in solitude and then try writing somewhere busy, like a coffee shop. Do you notice any differences? Does one place work better for you?

2. Try writing at different times of the day, particularly early morning (earlier than you would normally wake up) and late night (later than you normally stay awake). Any differences? Any preferences?

3. If you normally write one way, try another way. For instance, if you use a computer for first drafts, try composing your first draft longhand. Or try—take a deep breath—a typewriter. Is one easier? Is one more polished? Is one preferable?

The Ideal Reader

I have never sat down to write a story or novel and thought, "Okay, so who's my audience going to be?" When asked by others who my audience is, I'll sometimes say, "Writers don't choose their audience; their audience chooses them," which sounds good and which, to a certain point, I believe to be true, but which ultimately is a cop-out of an answer. The truth is that we do, consciously or unconsciously, hone our stories and novels in such a way that we can't help making certain readers more receptive to our work while excluding or distancing other readers.

When you're in a creative writing workshop, especially an MFA program, it's almost impossible not to write with your immediate audience in mind. Even if you tell yourself that you're not going to write for that particular audience, the very fact that you're conscious of whom you're not writing for is evidence of the role which that particular audience is still having in your work. To be conscious of not writing for an audience is, to my mind, an act of writing with that particular audience still in mind.

A creative writing workshop only magnifies and compounds the problem. Even at the undergraduate level, the student often becomes aware that the professor is the target audience since she's the one grading the story. And it's true: how could she not be the target audience if she's the one lecturing on craft, correcting mistakes, and assigning stories to read? Not surprisingly, my breakthrough story—the first story of mine that garnered some attention and opened a few doors—was written the summer after I graduated from my MFA program. It was the first time in five years that a workshop audience wasn't looming in my future. I wrote that story as though I was to be its only reader, and it was a liberating experience. Who cared what anyone else thought? The result was that I had written, for the first time, a short story that seemed organic—not constructed, not fabricated. Because it seemed organic, it also seemed more honest. Where the story came from, I couldn't have said. The opening sentences came to me as I was falling asleep, and I wrote the first page of the story in the dark—literally in the dark.

Over the past twenty-plus years now, since graduating from my MFA program, I've thought a lot about audience, and for me, audience boils down to "ideal readers." Who are my ideal readers? I can't say that I've come to any of these conclusions consciously, but I have, at long last, narrowed down my ideal readers to three people.

My First Ideal Reader

This may sound odd, but my first ideal reader is my mother.

My mother passed away in 1988 while I was finishing up my MFA, so she had read only a handful of my very early stories. Nonetheless, on those rare occasions when I think about my ideal reader, my mother is who most often comes to mind. The more I tell you about her, the odder my choice may at first seem. She was an extremely intelligent woman with a very limited education. In fact, she didn't go to school beyond the eighth grade. She had grown up in a sharecropping family in Tennessee and began picking cotton when she was three. My mother was embarrassed by her lack of education and often referred to herself as "not smart," which couldn't have been further from the truth. Her psychological acuity was sharper than most academics I've met, and she had the gift of a natural storyteller, something I wouldn't fully appreciate until long after she had died and I had been teaching creative writing for a number of years. She told wonderful stories about her childhood, and even though I'd heard those stories a dozen times or more, I never tired of hearing her tell them. What she knew was how to be patient. She was never superfluous in detail, and she never took unnecessary detours, but she never rushed the telling, providing just enough details to set the scene while pushing the narrative forward. She understood dramatization by giving the actual dialogue of other people in the scene, and she intuitively understood narrative arc: her stories always had a beginning, middle, and an end. The stories were complex, morally ambiguous. Even when the closure involved a wrong being dealt with, the stories were never preachy or moralistic. There were always shades of gray, and the people she told me about were always complex and often haunting, like her father, a violent man who favored my mother and never hit her as he did his other children.


Excerpted from VIVID & CONTINUOUS by JOHN McNALLY Copyright © 2013 by John McNally. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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