Pep Talk from Jonathan Lethem

My advice is about doorways, windowsills, and entrances and exits generally, but also bathrooms, boxes of tissues, sinks full of dishes, ice trays that need refilling, and so forth.

You’ll find this kind of thing bunched up around your characters—just as a matter of absolute necessity, for instance, the better-left-unmentioned doors and windows have every room your characters inhabit completely surrounded, unless you’ve set your tale in a sarcophagus or generational spaceship or some other kind of sealed container—much as you discover such material lying at the edges of attention in your own everyday lives. The comings and goings, loosening and tightening of faucets, shittings and pissings and nose-blowings of everyday circumstances. Keep them at the periphery, in the subliminal range, unless you really want to try to make something of them, and then you’d better make it good. I’m trying to tell you to ignore transitions. Skip to the good stuff.

The sex and death, the monkey shines and money shots, the spit-takes, the epiphanies and pratfalls. The epiphanic pratfalls. What you’d remember when you forgot all the rest—forget the rest on your reader’s behalf.

Write like you’d read—and notice how much you customarily skip as you read. Raymond Chandler said that when he was at a loss for a plot development he’d have a man walk through a doorway with a gun in his hand. Good advice I’ve heeded a hundred times or more, but it wasn’t the doorway, it was the gun that might solve your problem.

Arrive without coming in, and leave without leave—leave before you leave, if you get my drift. End the scene with the glance at the door, if even the glance. And there’s probably no writer who ever paused in his commitment to realism to consider how often a nose blown or a bladder emptied didn’t quite rate mention.

Realism goes just so far. It’s sort of like Chandler’s gunman: unless you’re blowing blood out of your nose, don’t even reach for a tissue. A tissue full of nothing but snot is a dog-bites-man story. And so, having said his piece, the weary veteran wished the fresh novices good luck, and went out the door, shifting slightly to the left so as not to collide with the guy on his way in with a gun in his hand.

Jonathan Lethem

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