Thursday, April 9, 2015

What I've Learned from a World-Class Novelist

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee
When novelists speak about their craft, I feel like a voyeur - because what is more intimate than storytelling? Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro recently told me that he drafts novels long-hand, partly because writing at a keyboard feels "like a performance." Actually, he said this to about a hundred people, but he was looking right at me!

I had the privilege of listening to Ishiguro answer questions from fellow authors during his recent weekend with Denver's Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Ishiguro is the author of six novels, including The Buried Giant, Never Let Me Go, and The Remains of the Day, which earned him the Mann Booker Prize.

His comment that typing feels like a performance influenced me this past week as I faced a daunting rewrite. I chose to forego the intimidating task of typing-and-deleting, typing-and-judging, typing-and-regretting perfect little letters into my manuscript. Instead, I used a pen to slop whatever came into my head into a cheap notebook. I felt less pressure to perform for a "saved" document, which freed me to ponder wild possibilities that could be crossed out or crumpled without fear of leaving a blank page.

Here are three other Ishiguro thoughts I found worth noting:

"I deliberately leave space for feelings and emotions."

Here, Ishiguro was not talking about including emotions, but rather leaving space for readers to feel the emotions between the lines. It takes two to "tell" a story: once an author sends words into the world, interpretation is up to the reader. I often admonish myself to write with abandon, but Ishiguro reminded me of the value in restraint, knowing when to trust that I've sketched enough detail for the reader to feel whatever I've left unspoken.

How do we do that? I believe this is where intuition comes in. I need to ask myself: "Am I leaving space for the reader's emotional response, or am I telling the reader how to feel?" When someone asked Ishiguro how he knows when he has gone as far as he needs to go, he compared it to writing music - he's also a lyricist. Why does a musician in a recording studio pick one take over another? "It just sounds right," says Ishiguro.

"What I'm trying to do is just to share emotions."

Ishiguro called that his "humble goal," but I believe it's a profound aspiration. Emotion is what keeps readers up past bedtime: investment in the emotional lives of imaginary people. Exciting plots are important, but if we don't care about the characters, a plot with high stakes can still fall flat. We don't merely want to know what happens. We also want to feel what the characters feel. Their hopes become our hopes, their dreads our dreads, their losses and triumphs ours. More than that, as we empathize with these reflections of humanity - we all feel more connected with each other.

How does a writer do that? Ishiguro relies heavily on the concept of memories. He says that, for him, storytelling is about remembering, even if the memories are fictional. Memory leans on the kinds of images that stick with us because of the emotions attached to them. Memory is emotion.

"If I focus on relationships, the characters will take care of themselves."

No character is an island. Our entire lives are lived in relationship, not only to loved ones or enemies, but also to strangers, to home, to nature, to ourselves. If we didn't bump up against something other than self, we would not exist in any meaningful sense. So it is with characters. Characters have desires and fears, and when those come into conflict with the desires and fears of others, the characters make choices that reveal who they are.

How do authors make that happen? We don't. We allow it to happen. We observe and reflect human nature, including our own. We become curious about the way people relate to each other. We ask: How  would he react if she said this or did that? Why would he react that way? What do these people really want that they're not saying? It is through discovering who two characters are to each other that they become real to us.

If we pay attention, we might even find out who we are, in relationship to each other, to the story, even to the author - as if he or she were speaking directly to us.

What wisdom have other authors brought to your craft? 

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles TimesDenver PostConnotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.


  1. I can't compose without a keyboard. I started having severe hand cramps in my 20s and can't hold a pencil. If not for the computer, I'd not have been able to write. The important thing is to make the time, open the mind to the muses, and write. Get it out. Then revise, edit, and perfect. You can't prune a plant you haven't grown from a seed you haven't germinated.

    1. Diana, I love your final comment about pruning a plant you haven't grown. Indeed. I'm always gratified to see someone defend composing on a computer. I learned to write stories on a keyboard during many years as a journalist, and it's still the primary way I create. For me, adding each successive edit is like adding a layer of paint. Occasionally I enjoy exercises that take me out of that comfortable space, but I always go back to it.

  2. I second Diana's comment ... no computee, no writee.

  3. By including just enough information to provide the reader with an emotional skeleton to flesh out, we dignify them by allowing them to fill in the blanks based their own experiences or desires. It's rather like giving a coloring book and box of crayons to a child and letting the youngster use them without restraint. Do they choose traditional colors or opt for something more imaginative? Do the lines guide the placement of the colors? Or does the child go outside the lines on the page? Validating our reader with similar options may well earn us a fan who will be waiting eagerly for our next book.

    1. Well said, Linda. The creative question of how much of a sketch the reader needs before they start coloring in their own part is always my challenge. There are so many answers...

  4. Wonderful post and words of writing wisdom. I especially liked "It takes two to "tell" a story: once an author sends words into the world, interpretation is up to the reader." Thanks for the reminder that we have to write a story that readers can connect to on that emotional level.

    1. It takes two to share a blog post too, Maryann! ;) Thanks for reading.


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