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Slow Down and Look Around

September 15, 2009 | 25 Comments

Mr. Keillor:
I am an aspiring writer and am currently working on a book, but I need some advice on how to proceed. I feel like my characters are moving too fast, things are happening too quickly. I have my plot and everything, but I feel as though I might end it a little too fast. What do you suggest?

Lucy G.
Chico CA


Hard to advise a writer in Chico at this distance, Lucy, though I remember Chico fondly from a visit a couple of years ago. A different California from the mythical parts — Hollywood and hippiedom — and I loved the little one-story white wood house where I stayed ...

a sort of shotgun-style ranch house in which the breeze could breeze on through. It was an amiable town and I especially remember the friendly breakfast that an amiable man at UC arranged and what a friendly hour it was over coffee and frittatas. My abiding experience of California over many years is amiability, mellowness, a friendly open attitude. I met some Californians a month ago in northern Michigan and we sat down to dinner and it turned out to be one of those sweet friendly encounters with strangers that goes on for three hours and you want it to go on a couple more.

If I were a California writer, I would try to describe this sense of easiness and perhaps tie it to the landscape and the climate. I'd write about people in love with their home. But they must deal with the same troubles that afflict other humans, and not only mudslides, earthquakes, and brush fires, but also the dreadful problem of indifference. Spiritual listlessness, what is sometimes included under Sloth, or Acedia, in the Seven Deadly Sins. The inability to carry out one's duties. Not an easy subject, indifference, but it's very much part of most good crime novels. Injustice is supposed to arouse us from indifference: an essential test of our humanity. And indifference is the prime target of satire. Your characters might need to slow down and look around them and be moved by things outside themselves, including the vast indifference of the world. And you, in writing this fast-paced novel, might need to allow yourself the freedom to make those sudden astonishing discoveries about your characters that are a beautiful reward for aIl the hard work. Writing opens up continual new possibilities and characters reshape themselves as you try to pin them down. You may be underestimating your characters, not letting them breathe and sing and jump around. Characters start out as cardboard cutouts and then they start to talk back to us. We create small mean characters and they develop endearing traits and our heroes prove to be shallower than we'd hoped. But don't let me tell you what to do, Lucy. Most books are too long, so I shouldn't be telling you to extend yours. I just hope your novel is set in Chico.


Yes, you are correct.California's
"attitude" has much to do with the
weather. My husband lived many years
in New England. When we met, he said,
"I'm going to check the weather report,"
and I said, "Why?"
It's kind of you to say something
positive about California folks. We
tire of people stereotyping us as
lazy, blond, big-breasted, surfer,"dude",
money hungry, (and here in South Orange
County)right-wing fundamentalists riding
around in trucks with shotguns.
I grew up in SoCal, and many of us were
children of Midwesterners (they saw the
Rose Parade once and had to move here).
We have many of the same values as you
in the Midwest -- people just have to
look to find them.
Of course since we're such a large,
populous state, with a diverse
population, we're perfect for observant
writers. A writer can find most any
character type they're looking for.

Lucy, just keep watching and listening!

San Clemente

Lucy, Take a lesson from some of the better of the writers who have integrated their locales into their books. I think of Wm. Saroyan and John Steinbeck in California, Pat Conroy, John
Grisham, Carson McCuller and Ruth Ann Siddon from the South, and Barbara Kinsolver. These all write descriptive passages with such beautiful prose that you almost don't care what the plot is. Judy

Mr. Keillor,

Even your advice is beautifully written and introspective. You'd make a wonderful muse and mentor. Thanks for sharing some of you with us,

I realize how hard it is to be objective about your own writing. And then there's this thing called 'style' that every author must have. (GK has a great style that's quite unique.) But regardless, a plot only progresses in two ways: narrative and dialog. Personally, I tend to favor dialog, especially when it comes to character development - allow the reader to meet the characters. You may already be 'in love' with your characters, but the reader has to get to know them.
So let's say you have a great plot and good characters and your narrative is such that your reader can almost smell the roses growing next to the mailbox. And let's say that you actually get a Literary Agent to look your work, and he or she tells you, "Well, it's a little wordy, don't you think?" Because the fact of the matter is, in today's book market Ernest Hemingway would have trouble getting published. And he would, because he's a little wordy, don't ya think?
People are spoiled now-a-days. They want instant gratification. They don't read a book, they turn on the TV.
So fast and furious development of characters and plot may be the best way to go.
But there is one question that I constantly ask myself as I write: "Is this a book that I would want to read and would enjoy reading?"

Place is metaphoric as well as literal, which is why we're all attracted to this site. I agree about Steinbeck and Saroyan and about McCullers (and Williams) and their use of place. But they are all using place to evoke something universal and essentially place-less, aren't they?

I'm new in town, so hello everyone.

Thank you for your inspiring response--just when I felt like never writing again.
You are a gift!

Dear Garrison,

Myself and, I'm certain, many others are glad to see and hear that you are mended and well, and that your radio thespian tendencies remain undiminished all to our benefit and enjoyment.

An English major myself, I'm unable to escape noticing the 'happy ending' for everyone concerned in your most recent ordeal, that being the proverbial 'silver lining' in what seemed a dark moment for all of us, your fans.

Although your singing IS much improved since we received the frightful news of your 'health emergency,' please do not repeatedly submit yourself to such tactics in a continuing effort to improve your vocal artistic merit.

We will be content, as we ought to be, with repeat broadcasts of previous shows, but a scare like the one you recently gave us will not be well-received.

Out here in the Piedmont Region of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, the highlight of our Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings is listening to Prairie Home Companion, and we look forward to this season's offerings.

Thank you!

Post Script - The website design looks great, too!

Thank you for the shout out to Chico. I work at Chico State and live in a small mountain community 16 miles from town. The 8 years I have lived here have brought me a growing appreciation for this place and its people. There is a surprising array of music, art, theater, and creativity in Chico. There are also a large number of fans of "Prairie Home Companion." We would love it if you would do a show here!

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I'm one of the folk from Cheboygan, Michigan. I want to say how greatly we appreciate the gift of yourselves and your talents that you and your pianist gave to us to help support the Opera House here last month.

I'm also pleased to see by your writing to Lucy that the stroke that you had recently has not stolen your skills in that department. As a devoted fan, and as a Physical Therapist, I add my best wishes for your full recovery.

May God hold you in His hand,
Connie Dinner

I've been listening to your show since 1985, and you are an excellent writer, story teller, and radio actor. Overall, the show is usually terrific. However, I've noticed over the past year or so that you've been singing more and more, it seems. It's obvious you like to harmonize with your guest singers. But they are professionals and thats what they do best. I don't think you have a very good singing voice. Just because you can harmonize and hit the notes in varying degrees doesn't mean it sounds good. I'm sorry to be so blunt, but since its been making me change the station when I hear you sing, I felt I must make this known. The occasional satirical song, as sung by Lefty, for example, would probably be ok. But song after song after song sung by you is off-putting. Again, I'm sorry if this bruises your ego. But as I said, your writing, your storytelling, your hosting, your banter, your acting...all VERY good. Keep doing those things, because you do them well. And continue to make Prairie the great show its always been.
I appreciate your time.

I forget from week to week, until I hear the show again, just how beautiful the music is and I was just logging-in to mention it before reading this. I think I know what Jon is refering to, maybe some more frequent singing, but I disagree in the conclusion! I don't find it distracting--the music itself, and the 'professional' performers seem to be able to handle it well enough. The 'Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain'--a beautiful song in the first place, sung very well by everyone there--is still in my mind on Monday. --What else is there? (--On PHC, there is also good comedy radio and a pack of exceptional human spirit.) --Glad to see it back for another season!

Great to have you back, and I hope you continue to feel better.

Just curious--that song about a guy from Montana stealing your meds--could that guy go by the name of Max Baucus?

Thank you for the inspirational thoughts to Lucy the writer from Chico, Ca, and for your lovely kindnesses to the people of California. If you ever have the chance to come to SoCal, you're welcome to stay with my family in Yucaipa, Ca. where the hills are rolling, the apples are crisp, and the Llamas are above average. :)

Mr. Keillor,
I am not an English major and even failed grammer so I apologize right off. I agree with Jon about your singing a bit too much over the last year or two. But I disagree with Jon about your singing ability. I'm a part-time musician and believe you have a better than average singing voice and sing quite well. In my opinion you do your very best singing Gospel. Since my early twenties growing up in Wisconsin I've listened to your Saturday night shows and continue to find them very entertaining. My favorite is "News from Lake Wobegon." Congratulations on bringing such great musicians and singers to your program each week. I attended one of your shows in Hot Springs Arkansas a year or two ago and it was fantastic. Do keep up the good work and please take care of your health, we need you!

I'm in favor of GK's duets. I like to listen as I make dinner on a Saturday night, finding the length of the show makes it the perfect time to try out a fussy recipe ripped from a glossy magazine that turns cauliflower into a hedonist's delight. GK's duets inspire me to try for yet a third harmony line even as I shuffle and dance in my fuzzy red socks, measuring the nutmeg and grating the parmesan. Now that we've all labeled ourselves into red or blue of an ever-more-finely-sliced hue, maybe more duet singing is just the thing to bring us back together? My Saturday night practice gave me the courage to do a trio on "Cruel War" with two of my brothers one night after dinner that was a highlight of my summer. And have a heart: just how many sketches is the poor guy supposed to write every week, regardless of how much help he gets from Sarah Bellum?

So glad you & your body are getting in sync again. My husband & I love your program -- keep up the good and necessary work. Kathy

Dear Mr Keillor,
Re Oct 3 show: I believe you are ~6 years older than me; so I was surprised when you said (in the "News from Lake..") a girl went home from school due to your joke and returned wearing different pants.
I remember I once found it hard to convince my daughter - until her mother agreed with me - that, when we went to school, girls never NEVER wore pants, slacks, jeans, etc. So in conservative rural MN, how could she be wearing pants??
Thank You, I like your Work,
Jakob P.

Dear Mr. K,

Our family has enjoyed your broadcasts for many and many a year now. First introduced to us by our parents, now we give them to our children. You have provided many a laugh and many a tear on the long, long trip from Portland, OR to Duarte, California, as we take that road trip every year to visit hubby's mom, now in a nursing home, and our beloved beaches.

Thank you, first, for your masterful compliments to California. That is the California I'm thinking of when I call it home. I never liked the glitz and the concrete. Thus you find us at home here in the green, green landscapes of the Northwest.

Second, I observe that Jon, above, must be a young musical professional of some kind. When I was such I might have had a similar word for you. However, I am now nearing the great birthday all people seem to fear for some reason, and from this vantage point I can see a lot more than I did 24 years ago at 26, when I earned my degree in vocal performance. I see that there are a lot of other things that matter in this life more than perfection. I see that there are people who matter more than careers. I see that there is love, which makes all things beautiful. And I see that without passion, nothing is worth doing. I see that it isn't the perfectness of the tone that makes a song beautiful, but the love of the singer.

Thank you for following your heart and sharing your voice, which is indeed above average, with all of us. When you share that you share yourself, which is an invitation to a dance, called Community, called Love.

Take care of yourself! We need you here in this America we have in common, now more than ever!

Much love from the Joneses and Farrells out West,

Dear Mr. Keillor –

I will join the chorus of Californians thanking you for your kind words about the Golden State. As a native who was born in So Cal but has lived in Northern California since 1959, I am touched by your appreciation of Chico (which, just to clarify, has a Cal State campus, not a UC – two different systems of higher ed in California).

Last night at my book club we were discussing this month’s read, Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather. We agreed that her beautiful descriptions evoked a mood, a lovely ‘spirit of place’ that took us to the Southwest through her carefully chosen images and gave us a wistful appreciation of that time and place. Perhaps Lucy could consider using the Northern California landscape in a similar vein. . .her characters may surprise her when they flourish in the gorgeous ‘fruit and vegetable basket’ that comprises Sacramento’s big valley. I know that spirit of place is one of the things I have loved most for the past thirty years when you take me to Lake Wobegon in shared imagination.

With respect,
M. Hesser

PS – My husband also had a mild stroke at about the same time you did and is recovering beautifully. He has already lost 25 pounds as the doctors told him a no fat (not low fat, but NO fat) diet and taking lots of exercise can prevent further strokes . . .I’m just sayin. . . . . .

Dear Mr. Keillor,
In regard to your own books, I just finished "Pilgrims" and I liked it the best of all of your novels I have read -- and I have read most of them, if not all.
I belong to that long line of story tellers who are generally called preachers, and I really appreciate the great parables you come up with from time to time. Most notable - the Christmas tree that fell on a man who planned to sue the city until he decided he couldn't afford to pay his share of the amount he'd want, also the time the Sanctifiied Brethern split over hospitality to those in error. That put theological disputes in a marvelous perspective.

Dear Garrison,

I am so glad to hear you are feeling better. You add such delight to my Saturday mornings as I listen on the internet. You make my workday speed by.
Don't listen to Jon. I enjoy every bit of your singing. Your personal joy just shines through.

Thank you for all your entertainment through the years. I hope to attend your show that will be coming to Omaha next year.

I am not from California. After reading the letters on the web page just now, I felt I needed to point that out.
Also, not an English major nor writer. However, I am a big fan of you and the PHC.
I am very happy to see you are doing well. Was very concerned that you would not be able to continue on with the program.
PHC is a way of life for many many people our here in the other part of the USA. It would leave a huge hole in our life to not have PHC around to enjoy. Keep up the great work and stay healthy. You are too young to not be making all of our lives richer. Ninety may be a good time to retire or when I develop dementia and can not remember when to listen.
I am sure Lake Wobegon has many many things in common with California. However, I am happy to live in the Right part of the country. Plus I do not have to worry about my home falling off into the ocean or my state becoming part of another country. This is important to me as I can not swim and only speak English. Plus I do not do Left anything very well.
May God bless you and Thank you for making my life brighter.

My wife and I love your show, every second of it and your singing! I love "Lives of the Cowboys."
Stay well. I am going to try to see you when you come to WPB

Dear Garrison,
I've loved your program for years. Sometimes my radio in the house can't pick up a strong enough signal to hear the show. But the radio in my Caravan usually can. So I take a cup of coffee or bottle of beer, depending on the season,and sit in my driveway enjoying the show.
Something to pass along to you: Last year during deer hunting season I stopped at a local mom & pop convenience store across the river in West Virginia. On the door, in place of the typical "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service" handwritten sign was another sign that said "No Bloody Hands", directed I suppose to hunters who had field dressed a deer that day. It seemed very much like something you'd find at Lake Wobegon. Use it if you like.
Thanks for years of entertainment.

Dear Garrison,
I too have loved your show for many years. As a kid from Michigan , we used to listen to John Lair's "Renfro Valley" on Sunday mornings. Many times I experience the same feelings I felt back then. Your duet "No Other love" with Heather Masse brought me to tears. I wish you would record it. You are appearing in Monterey(Ca) tomorrow night and I will be there to see you. Please take care of yourself. You bring so much to so many...
Suzie Q.

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