Many people ask why a writer commits suicide. But I think that people who ask don't know the vanity and the nothingness of writing. I think it is very usual and natural for a writer to commit suicide, because in order to keep on writing he must be a very strong person.
A remarkable thing about the novel is that it can incorporate almost anything--essays, short stories, mock memoirs, screenplays, emails--and remain a novel. The elasticity is also a sign that unlike, say, the epic or the ode, the novel is a living, evolving form. But if its outer limits are virtually nonexistent, the minimum requirement is generally that there be a narrative telling us something. In this way, any manner of book can find a way to justify calling itself a novel. But the label should not be worn lightly, since it invites scrutiny of the highest and most exacting kind.
I simply don't want to do any more work for Hollywood. There is nothing in it but grief and exhaustion and discontent. In no real sense is it writing at all. It carries with it none of the satisfactions of writing. None of the sense of power over your medium. None of the freedom, even to fail.
If you can't create characters that are vivid in the reader's imagination, you can't create a good novel. Characters are to a novelist what lumber is to a carpenter and what bricks are to a bricklayer. Characters are the stuff out of which a novel is constructed.
Writing is the one occupation wherein nobody else ever sees you at work. They will see you in bowling alleys, on the golf course, at parties, at meetings, at various events taking place at any time of the day or night. All of which leads non-writers to Conclusion A: Writers don't work, and Conclusion B: Writers are available for whatever purpose you wish to put them to.
My mother didn't censor our reading as a child; so my sister and I naturally ran for the dirtiest books we could possibly find…I still don't trust a book if it's not filthy in some way, if it doesn't have the potential to offend someone, if not me.
Nearly every author I know imagines one or more readers while writing a book. It's a bloom of creative telepathy. The reader is a part of yourself, held at a distance, and becomes an important sounding board for the tone and language of the pages, an intimate ally. Readers and writers provide a kind of outside family for one another.
I write to find what i have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right. There would be nothing to revise if the initial prose didn't exist. Without revision my work would be too ridiculous to bear, a pile of almost-good pages I'd rather burn than publish.
There's a certain type of technology writer who presents himself as a modern-day Paul Revere, breathlessly warning us about the dangers of our rapidly digitizing world.
He taps into an of-the-moment, anxiety-inducing conundrum about the way the Internet is influencing contemporary life, whether it be making us dumber…or turning us into bloodthirsty mobs…
At best, books by such writers provoke thoughtful debates about the trade-offs we make for our Apple-enhanced lives and sound the alarm on disingenuous business practices cloaked under the guise of Silicon Valley-speak; at worst they can come off like a bad "Dateline" report, skimming the surface of a larger phenomenon and preying on our fears about how our daily lives have been irrevocably changed by technology. Rather than to challenge us to reconsider our habits, they are more likely to inspire a defeatist "everything is terrible, nothing matters" attitude.
When asked to summarize a morning's work, Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said that he took out a comma--and then, during the afternoon, put it back in. "Getting the words right" was Hemingway's explanation for rewriting the conclusion of "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times. Both these stories speak to the importance of revision, but each suggests that the process is a kind of end-stage perfectionist ordeal. Neither really conveys a sense of revision's pleasure, or the possibility that there's more literary fun in the carpentry than in the designing.
There's a reason many readers will forgive the comic novel a clunky narrative structure or uneven pacing; a reason they'll forgive a predisposition to tangents, tics or lock of emotional depth. The reason is simple--because funny is hard, both to execute and to resist.
Money woes are real concerns. Billions of human beings can't afford medicine, or clean drinking water, or education for their children, or the rent of a home. And the money woes of a writer are no less real, no less potentially destructive than the money woes of any other woman or man. But money woes can also rescue a dreamer from dreaming himself out of existence, Money woes can make a writer look for a tether. [A day job.]
My favorite rejection letter was from a literary agent who said, "We don't have time to take on new clients, and if we did, we would not take you." But I kept trying. My second book got published. The first one never did.
When I went to writing school, I craved rules. I craved a mentor, and the revelation of secrets, and the permission to write, and most of all I craved the confirmation that I could write. In other words, I was like practically everyone else.
Writing novels is something you have to believe in to keep going. It's a fairly thankless job when no one is paying you to do it. And you don't really know if it's ever going to get into the bookshops.
On the whole, professional writers are a lot of whining bastards who wouldn't last a day on a real job. The true mortification of being a writer is having to meet other writers from time to time, and listen to their mundane egotistical rantings.
There's no book so beloved that someone, somewhere, hasn't found it unreadably boring. On Goodreads, in response to the question "What the most boring book you've ever read?," it's a given that the answers will include dense and intimidating volumes like "Moby-Dick." But readers have also apparently been bored by a number of books that in their time were considered thrilling and shocking--"Lolita," "The Catcher in the Rye," even an adventure tale like "Around The World in Eighty Days" ("Felt like I was reading it for 80 days").
Often, it is the books enjoying the most official honor--the syllabus standbys, the anthology all-stars--that provide readers with their first experience of literary boredom. Partly that is because the classroom is seldom the best setting for encountering works of literature, which after all were not written to educate but to seduce.
Animals can be an author's best friend. Talking animals, to be precise. Since the dawn of folklore, anthropomorphic beasties have been reliable go-to guys when a story simply wouldn't be as much fun with plain old human protagonists.
Fame is like a parasite. It feeds off its host--infecting, extracting, consuming its victim until there is nothing left but an empty husk…With this emptiness comes the possibility of a long afterlife as one of the blowup dolls of history.
The book publishing industry lavishes attention on the young and photogenic, though neither youth nor beauty guarantees fresh ways of thinking or storytelling. We can see the privileging of youth in other forms of media, like Hollywood, where actresses are considered over the hill when they hit 45, or journalism, where veteran editors and reporters get pushed aside for 20-somethings just because 20-somethings exhibit some facility with content management systems and Facebook feeds.
On January 11, 2015, 98-year-old crime novelist Helen Eustis died at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. The Cincinnati native was best known for her novel The Horizontal Man, a story about a murdered English professor. The book, informed by her experience as a student at Smith College, won the Mystery Writer's of America Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1947 for best debut novel.
Eustis wrote The Fool Killer, a mystery adapted into a 1965 film of the same name starring Anthony Perkins. She also wrote award-winning short stories and translated books by mystery writer Georges Simenon as well as other European crime novelists.
Teaching writers to record their life stories involves no small amount of hand-holding--and for good reason. Even after years of journaling or jotting down passing thoughts, the act of sharing your first-person stories with the world can feel like a kind of perversion, like sweating all over someone's couch or coughing into the clam dip at a cocktail party. On the wrong day, even popular writers' rallying cries--such as Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird or Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones--feel like gorgeously embossed invitations to spread your germs far and wide.
Middle class readers choose novels that will offer strategies for understanding and managing their personal problems. [They prefer novels that] explore the psychological interior, and present familiar characters and conflicts that validate and confirm their sense of themselves as deep, complicated human beings.
Children of both sexes in the 10 to 12 year age group predominantly read fiction, with the most popular genre amongst both boys and girls being adventure stories. Girls choose more romances, horror/ghost stories and poetry books. Boys choose more science fiction, comedy, sports and war/spy books.
I knew her name--Madam Hollywood. I rose and said good-by to this strumpet in her bespangled red gown; good-by to her lavender-painted cheeks, her coarsened laugh, her straw-dyed hair, her wrinkled fingers bulging with gems. A wench with flaccid tits and sandpaper skin under her silks, shined up and whistling like a whore in a park; covered with stink like a railroad station pissery and swinging a dead ass in the moonlight.
I think narrative nonfiction is essentially a hybrid form, a marriage of the art of storytelling and the art of journalism--an attempt to make drama out of the observable world of real people, real places, and real events. It's a sophisticated form of nonfiction writing, possibly the highest form, that harnesses the power of facts to the techniques of fiction. It constructs a central narrative, setting scenes, depicting multidimensional characters and, most important, telling the story in a compelling voice that the reader will want to hear.
Novelists do all kinds of things as they wait for their books to be published, from imagining unforeseen commercial success to imagining unforeseen commercial success. Just kidding--we also update our websites. But eventually we have to face the fact that we are finished with that book--finished, and it's not even in bookstores yet--and it's time to start something new.
In fiction, the writer's voice matters; in reporting, the writer's authority matters. The writer of fiction must invent; the journalist must not invent. We read fiction to fortify our psyches and in the pleasure that fortification may give us…We need journalism to learn about the external world in which our psychics have to struggle along, and the quality we most need in the reporter is some measure of trustworthiness. Good journalists care about what words mean.
Secondary sources are most useful when they lead to primary documents. The legislative hearing transcript would be a primary document as would be a real estate deed, political candidate's campaign finance report, lawsuit, insurance policy, and discharge certificate from the military. Documents can be just like human sources because they are prepared by humans. However, unlike humans, documents do not talk back and do not claim to have been misquoted.
A character in B. Traven's story "The Night Visitor" who has written several books he has chosen not to publish, contemplates fame: "What is fame, after all? It stinks to hell and heaven. Today I am famous. Today my name is printed on the front page of all the papers in the world. Tomorrow perhaps fifty people can still spell my name correctly. Day after tomorrow I may starve to death and nobody cares. That's what you call fame."
B. Traven, the pen name of the mysterious author of dozens of novels--notably, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre--believed that all books should be published anonymously. He based this belief on the notion that readers, by knowing in advance who the author is, will expect and demand a certain kind of book.
Modern publishing is all about fame. Gore Vidal once said that an author should never turn down a chance to be on television. ( Vidal, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer were notorious media whores.) Today, book publishers pay publicists to get their authors in the news and on radio and TV talk shows. (Publicity, by definition, is free advertising.) Publishers also like celebrity authors who are already famous. Fans come to celebrity book signings not to acquire the book for reading but for the writer's autograph and a photo op. As a result, it really doesn't bother anyone that celebrity authors do not write (or, I imagine, read) their own books.
The "humor section" is a meaningless bookseller's term. Think about it for a second. If you go into a bookstore and find yourself browsing the biography section, you know what you are going to get: biographies. Mystery section: mysteries. Sports: books about sports. But humor is something else entirely, conveying an intention rather than a subject. Rare is the humorous book about humor…Books filed under "humor" aren't about anything specific. Their subjects run the gamut from "Calvin and Hobbes" anthologies to comedic memoirs to pop culture parodies to the sort of gift books that are best read from the cozy confines of the commode. Their only commonality is their desire to amuse.
Literary celebrity sounds like an oxymoron, but it does happen. Selling millions of books isn't enough; readers have to feel a profound personal connection to the writer. J. K. Rowling is definitely in the club. James Patterson is not. Or consider this story, one told to me 20 years ago by a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, the writer-rock band. (Now that may be an oxymoron.) The band stopped for breakfast at a small-town truck stop before the sun was up. This was pre-smartphone, pre-social media, practically pre-Internet. Yet by the time the band members returned to their bus, there were several people lined up, clutching copies of "The Strand," eager to meed the band's undisputed rock star, Stephen King.
In recent years, a number of talented novelists have experienced a sudden and alarming loss of faith in their chosen literary form. David Shields thinks most novels are boring and disconnected from reality. Nicole Krauss is "sick of plot and characters and scenes and climax and resolution." Rachel Cusk has decided conventional fiction is "fake and embarrassing." Karl Ove Knausgaard goes even further, dismissing the entire enterprise" "Fictional writing has no value."
This distaste for the clunky machinery of traditional narrative fiction has spread quickly. Some of the most interesting "novels" of the past few years--Teju Cole's "Open City," Jenny Offill's "Dept. of Speculation," Ben Lerner's "Leaving the Atocha Station," not to mention Knausgaard's epic, "My Struggle"--are barely novels at all. They read more like memoirs, or a series of lightly fictionalized journal entries, recounting the mundane lives and off-kilter ruminations of their first-person narrators, who are either post-graduate students or blocked writers. There's a smallness to these books…
I wanted to be a writer, and that's what I wound up being. The difference is, I write about real people, and in telling their stories, I'm not free to play around with facts or make things up. And again and again come vivid reminders that the truth is often stranger than fiction, but far more remarkable as a story.
I know perfectly well how to have a good writing day: get up around six, get a quick breakfast, at my desk before seven for an uninterrupted three hours of solid work (invariably the most productive segment of the day); a break at ten to fetch the mail, then back to work--resisting, by sheer strength of character, the seductions of the mail--until noon. Break again to [take a walk], get lunch, read the paper. Back to the desk for another productive couple of hours, until concentration fades; sag away from the desk about four, get a nap, feed and exercise the dogs, and begin, cocktail in hand, to read whatever it is I'm reading at the time. Piece of cake. I get a writing day like that, oh, at least once a month.
I have long been intrigued by how often readers of fiction want to know which parts really happened to the author, whereas readers of nonfiction want to know which parts are made up. In both cases...there is a vague implication that the authors are cheating.
These seemingly paradoxical obsessions, I think, reflect a universal human desire to distinguish what's real, in order to make sense of potentially overwhelming sensory experience. The ultimate reality is that we can't truly distinguish what's "real" in our perceptions, any more than nonfiction authors can avoid shaping "reality" by the way they recount events or fiction writers can avoid drawing on personal experience when ostensibly making up stories.
Humiliation is not, of course, unique to writers. However, the world of letters does seem to offer a near-perfect microclimate for embarrassment and shame. There is something about the conjunction of high-mindedness and low income that is inherently comic; something about the presentation of deeply private thoughts--carefully worked and honed into art over the years--to a public audience of strangers, that strays perilously close to tragedy. It is entirely possible, I believe, to reverse Auden's dictum that "art is born out of humiliation."
They give you a thousand dollars a week [1960s] until that's what you need to live on. And then every day you live after that, you're afraid they'll take it away from you. It's all very scientific. It's based on the psychological fact that a man is a grubbing, hungry little sleaze....In twenty-four hours you can develop a taste for caviar. In forty-eight hours fish eggs are no longer a luxury, they're a necessity.
I think that over-ambition kills. I think that trying to be a writer kills. Writing simply has to be a sickness, a drug. It doesn't have to be, it just is. When one thing or another cures your sickness, that's it. And, of course, there are no guidelines.
I've been lucky. For decades now I haven't had to force myself to write anything in any particular way…If you slant your writing it means you want to make money, you want to get famous, you want to get published for the sake of getting published. I think that only works for a while. The gods are watching us. And they extract their toll. Without fail.
There's a difference between a vocation and a profession. A vocation is a calling--something you are called to. A profession is something that you practice...In the states, I think about 10 percent of the novel writers actually make a living out of their novel writing. The others have the vocation, but they can only partly have the profession, because they have to spend the rest of their time making money in order to keep themselves in their habit. They are word junkies. They've got to pay for their fix. I chose university teaching because there is a long summer vacation, and also because you could fake it.
A good many writers are high-strung, strung-out emotional wrecks. A lot of them are really odd. Many slip into despair, some go mad, and a number get hooked on booze or drugs. More than a few have ended their lives with suicide.
To writers who are more or less normal, there is nothing more morbidly fascinating than the tormented life and self-inflicted death of a fellow author. Ross Lockridge, Jr. is a case in point. In February 1949, about a year after the publication of his first book, Raintree County, a bestselling Book-of-the Month-Club selection, the 33-year-old writer gassed himself to death in his garage while seated in his newly purchased car.
Journalist Nanette Kutner, who had interviewed Lockridge six months before his suicide, wrote this after his death: "He was no one-book author; he never would have been content to live as Margaret Mitchell [Gone With the Wind] lived. But he could not find a remedy for the letdown that invariably comes after completing a big job, the letdown [Anthony] Trollope understood so well he never submitted a novel until he was deep into the next."
Do writers end their lives more often than people in other lines of work? There is no way to know if writers are particularly prone to suicide. Experts say that statistics on suicide by occupation are not clear on this issue because there is no national data base on line of work and suicide. Experts also believe that because occupation is not a major predictor of suicide, this aspect of life doesn't explain why people kill themselves. Since writing, for many authors, is more of a way of life than a profession, and is practiced by a lot of unstable people, it probably is a relevant variable.
Well-known writers who have killed themselves include: John Berryman, Richard Brautigan, Hart Crane, John Gould Fletcher, Romain Gary, Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Randall Jarrell, Jerry Kosinski, Primo Levi, Ross Lockridge, Jr., Vachel Lindsay, Jack London, Malcolm Lowry, Charlotte Mew, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Hunter S. Thompson, John Kennedy Toole, and Virginia Woolf.
If you read interviews with many prominent authors...you will notice how many of them seem to turn up their noses at the mention of plot. "I never begin with plot," they say. "Characters (or situations or setting or thought) is where I begin my novels." What's the implication? Only bad authors begin with plot. Some of these writers don't just imply it, they say it: A well-plotted book isn't really "artistic." Books like that are for the great mass of dunderheads who read trash, not for us sophisticates who appreciate literature.
Coming-of-age is a literary term to describe the passage from childhood to adulthood, from a state of innocence to a state of experience. Most writing about the teenage years is about coming-of-age, for that is the point of those years. We slip free of the protection and constraints of childhood and step into the vulnerability and freedom of adulthood, and we know it.
The most serious problem a writer can face is "writer's block." This is a serious disease and when a writer has it he finds himself staring at a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter (or blank screen on the word processor) and can't do anything to unblank it. The words don't come. Or if they do, they are clearly unsuitable and are quickly torn up or erased. What's more, the disease is progressive, for the longer the inability to write continues, the more certain it is that it will continue to continue....
A writer can't put anything on paper when there's nothing left (at least temporarily) in his mind. It may be, therefore, that writer's block is unavoidable and that at best a writer must pause every once in a while, for a shorter or longer interval, to let his mind fill up again.
Somebody asked Somerset Maugham about his place in the pantheon of writers, and he said, "I'm in the very front row of the second rate." I'm sort of haunted by that. You do the best you can. The idea of posterity for a writer is poison....
Examining the first copy of your book is a mixed experience. On the one hand, proof now rests in your hand that you indeed wrote a book. This exciting thought lasts for about six seconds then the mind turns elsewhere: couldn't my publisher have found a better typeface for the jacket? Next time, I'm going to hire a professional photographer to take a good author picture. I wonder how long it will take before my book shows up on remainder tables. I wonder if it's going to get panned. I wonder if anyone will read it at all.
Publishers will tell you...that every manuscript which reaches their office is faithfully read, but they are not to be believed. At least fifteen out of twenty manuscripts can be summarily rejected, usually with safety. There may be a masterpiece among them, but it is a thousand to one against.
A few days spent in someone else's world (however dismal, violent, pretty or even boring that world may be) is simply not enough to experience it as real. It is too tightly framed by one's own domestic normality. Wherever you are today, you know that next Monday you will be home, and from the perspective of home today will seem too exaggerated, too highly colored, too remote to take quite seriously. So the writer slips into a style of mechanical facetious irony as he deals with this wrong-end-of-the-telescope view of the world. The perfervid [phony passionate] similes that are the trademark of the hardened magazine writer betray him as he tries to make language itself mask and make up for the fundamental shallowness of his experience with its synthetic energy....Emotional disengagement, self-conscious observation, the capacity to quickly turn a muddle of not very deeply felt sensations into a neat and vidid piece, are part of the necessary equipment of the writer as journalist.
Writers can only moan to each other about all this, really: the humiliating reading to an audience of two, the book signing where nobody turns up, the talk where the only question is "Where did you buy your nail varnish?" Nobody is really going to care, are they, if we sit alone unloved besides our pile of books, approached only once in the two hours and that by a woman who is trying to flog us her self-published book on recovering from breast cancer? Or that we wait, alone in the darkness, on the deserted platform at Newark station, the only reading matter a VIOLENT ASSAULT: WITNESSES WANTED sign swinging in the wind, until we realize we've missed the last train home.
[I once gave a talk at a public library attended by the security guard and a homeless man. When I invited questions at the end of the speech, the homeless guy raised his hand and asked, "Who's going to eat those donuts?"]
Gore Vidal...once languidly told me that one should never miss a chance...to appear on television. My efforts to live up to this maxim have mainly resulted in my passing many unglamorous hours on off-peak cable TV....Almost every time I go to a TV studio, I feel faintly guilty. This is pre-eminently the "soft" world of dream and illusion and "perception": it has only a surrogate relationship to the "hard" world of printed words and written-down concepts to which I've tried to dedicate my life, and that surrogate relationship, while it, too, may be "verbal," consists of being glib rather than fluent, fast rather than quick, sharp rather than pointed. It means reveling in the fact that I have a meretricious, want-it-both ways side. My only excuse is to say that at least I do not pretend that this is not so.
In the introduction to his breakthrough 1973 anthology, The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe writes about how Jimmy Breslin, a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, captured the realistic intimacy of experiences by noticing details that could act as metaphors for something larger and more all-encompassing that he wanted to say. Wolfe describes Breslin's coverage of the trial of Anthony Provenzano, a union boss charged with extortion. At the beginning, Breslin introduces the image of the bright morning sun bursting through the windows of the courtroom and reflecting off the large diamond ring on Provenzano's chubby pinky finger. Later, during a recess, Provenzano, flicking a silver cigarette holder, paces the halls, sparring with a friend who came to support him, the sun still glinting off the pinky ring.
Wolfe writes: "The story went on in that vein with Provenzano's Jersey courtiers circling around him and fawning while the sun explodes off his pinky ring. Inside the courtroom itself, however, Provenzano starts getting his. The judge starts lecturing him and the sweat starts breaking out on Provenzano's upper lip. Then the judge sentences him to seven years, and Provenzano starts twisting his pinky finger with his right hand." The ring is a badge of Provenzano's ill-gotten labors, symbolic of his arrogance and his eventual vulnerability and resounding defeat.
I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination. There is no need to either rue or apologize for my use of this soothing, often sublime agent, which had contributed greatly to my writing; although I never set down a line while under its influence....Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily--sought also I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long in the dungeons of my spirit.
Writers have helped me when members of my own family could not. Some writers have been closer than dear friends, even though I never have seen them in the flesh. For example, when I have read some of Somerset Maugham and his The Summing Up, the lucidity of his view of the writing profession illuminated dusky corners in my mind....I have been helped by other writers.
The writer's life is inherently an insecure one. Each project is a new start and may be a failure. The fact that a previous item has been successful is no guard against failure this time.
What's more, as has often been pointed out, writing is a very lonely occupation. You can talk about what you write, and discuss it with family, friends, or editors, but when you sit down at that typewriter, you are alone with it and no one can possibly help. You must extract every word from you own suffering mind.
It's no wonder writers so often turn misanthropic or are driven to drink to dull the agony. I've heard it said that alcoholism is an occupational disease with writers.
As a result of our media's obsession with the alleged connection between artistic genius and madness, Phil Dick was introduced to mainstream America as a caricature: a disheveled prophet, a hack churning out boilerplate genre fiction, a speed-freak. None of these impressions of Phil, taken without awareness of the sensationalism that generated them, advances our understanding of his life and work. Today the myth of Philip K. Dick threatens to drown out what evidence remains of his turbulent life.
When I write nonfiction, obviously I was not there when the events occurred. I write in a dramatic style--that is, I employ lots of dialogue. I describe feelings. I describe how the events must have taken place. I invent probable dialogue or a least possible dialogue based upon all of the research that I do.
The whodunit and the thriller are in their most typical manifestations deeply conventional and ideologically conservative literary forms, in which good triumphs over evil, law over anarchy, truth over lies.
Trivia has swamped contemporary literary life and become, it seems, more important than the books. A book's blurb is more important than the book itself, the author's photograph on the book jacket is more important than its content, the author's appearance in wide-circulation newspapers and on TV is more important than what the author has actually written.
Many writers feel increasingly uncomfortable in such a literary landscape, densely populated with publishers, editors, agents, distributors, brokers, publicity specialists, bookstore chains, "marketing people," television cameras, photographers. The writer and his reader--the two most important links in the chain--are more isolated than ever.
Whether we live in a more violent age than did, for example, the Victorians is a question for statisticians and sociologists, but we certainly feel more threatened by crime and disorder than at any other time I remember in my long life. This constant awareness of the dark undercurrents of society and human personality is probably partly due to the modern media, when details of the most atrocious murders, of civil strife and violent protests, come daily into our living rooms from television screens and other forms of modern technology. Increasingly writers of crime novels and detective stories will reflect this tumultuous world in their work and deal with far greater realism than would have been possible in the Golden Age [of mystery fiction 1920-1940]. The solving of the mystery is still at the heart of a detective story but today it is no longer isolated from contemporary society. We know that the police are not invariably more virtuous and honest than the society from which they are recruited, and that corruption can stalk the corridors of power and lie at the very heart of government and the criminal justice system.
Nonfiction writers write too much about themselves and what they think without seeking a universal focus so that readers are properly and firmly engaged. Essays that are so personal that they omit the reader are essays that will never see the light of print. The overall objective of a writer should be to make the reader tune in, not out....The uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality in action.
It may well be that when the historians of literature come to discourse upon the fiction produced by the English-speaking peoples in the first half of the twentieth century, they will pass somewhat lightly over the compositions of the "serious" novelists and turn their attention to the immense and varied achievement of the detective writers.
Choosing an agent is a lot like choosing a hairdresser. [I currently don't have an agent or a hairdresser.] If you know a bunch of writers and most writers do because who else is home all day?) ask the successful ones who represents them. [In reality, writers with agents hate to be asked this.] If you don't know any writers, look at books by authors you admire and see which agent the author thanked in the acknowledgements. Send five to ten of these agents a resume, cover letter, and proposal for what you're trying to sell (it's imperative that the prospective agent knows that you have a money-making project in mind). Interview the agents who respond positively and pick the one you like best. If no one responds positively, send your stuff to another five to ten agents. Don't take it personally. Think of it as practice in handling rejection. (Believe me, you'll need all the practice you can get.)
No matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can't lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers. Some are on-staff at your local newspaper, usually reviewing little-theater productions or pontificating about the local sports teams. Some have scribbled their way to homes in the Caribbean, leaving a trail of pulsing adverbs, wooden characters, and vile passive-voice constructions behind them. Others hold forth at open-mike poetry slams, wearing black turtlenecks and wrinkled khaki pants; they spout doggerel about "my angry lesbian breasts" and "the tilted alley where I cried my mother's name."...While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great one out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
These days, publicity tours are very important. If you are asked to go one one, go. Not everyone is asked. I always feel honored when my publisher asks me to go on the road or appear on television chat shows. I've become very good at it. I know how to sell my book. If the conversation veers away to another topic, I have learned how to bring it back to the book. Nothing annoys me more than to hear writers in the various television green rooms around the country bitch and moan about how boring the book tours are, or how exhausting. Get into it. Have fun. Most of the people you meet are great. You're selling your books, and you're building your reputation. what's so bad about that?
Every time I hear a political speech...I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounded human. It is always the same words telling the same lies. And the fact that men accept this, that the people's anger has not destroyed these hollow clowns, strikes me as proof that men attribute no importance to the way they are governed; that they gamble--yes gamble--with a whole part of their life and their so-called "vital interests."
Whitney Balliett reviewed a novel for The New Yorker in 1961, saying, "[The author] wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it. What remains is a debris of sour jokes, stage anger, dirty words, synthetic looniness, and the sort of antic behavior that children fall into when they know they are losing our attention." The book was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
Amity Schlaes, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article in TheSpectator in January 1994, describing the white middle class' fear of blacks after Colin Ferguson murdered six whites on a Long Island commuter train, and after a jury in Brooklyn acquitted a young black despite powerful evidence that he had murdered a white. She wrote that whites were frightened because Ferguson's "manic hostility to whites is shared by many of the city's non madmen." When copies of the article were circulated among Schlaes' colleagues at the Journal, she became an outcast. A number of her co-workers would get out of the elevator when she got on. People who had eaten with her in the staff cafeteria refused to sit at the same table. A delegation went to the office of the chairman of the company that owns the Journal. It did not matter that Schlaes had pointed out that minorities were the greatest victims of minority crimes, or that nobody could show that a single element of her article was untrue or inaccurate. "Her crime," wrote the then editor of The Spectator, Dominic Lawson, "was greater than being merely wrong. She had written the truth, regardless of the offense it might cause. And in modern America, or at least in the mainstream media, that is simply not done."
There are writers you admire, for the skill or the art, for the inventiveness or for the professionalism of a career well spent. And there are writers--sometimes the same ones, sometimes not--to whom you are powerfully attracted, for reasons that may or may not have to do with literary values. They speak to you, or speak for you, sometimes with a voice that could almost be your own. Often there is one writer in particular who awakens you, who is the teacher they say you will meet when you are ready for the lesson.
A good book review should do an evocative job of pointing out quality. "Look at this! Isn't this good?" should be the critic's basic attitude. Occasionally, however, you have to say, "Look at this! Isn't it awful?" In either case, it's important to quote from the book....Criticism has no real power, only influence.
I was getting worried about becoming too happily stodgily practical: instead of studying [John] Locke, for instance, or writing--I go make an apple pie, or study The Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel. Whoa, I said to myself. You will escape into domesticity and stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter. And just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf...and she works off her depression over rejections from Harper's (no less!--and I can hardly believe that the Big Ones got rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen.
Erle Stanley Gardner is credited by the Guinness Book of World Records as being the fastest author of this century. It was his habit to tape 3-by-5 inch index cards around his study. Each index card explained where and when certain key incidents would occur in each detective novel. He then dictated to a crew of secretaries some ten thousand words a day, on up to seven different [mystery] novels at a time.
An inescapable truism about journalism is that form dictates content. The form of journalism--gimme a headline, gimme a story in the next hour or two, and gimme it in 500 or 250 words--subverts the content. It's easy for someone who is allowed 20,000 words and months to report a New Yorker story to say this, but it's nevertheless true that most editors don't allow reporters enough time or space to get a story's facts and context right.
Recently, I observed to [an interviewer] that I was once a famous novelist. When assured, politely, that I was still known and read, I explained myself. I was speaking, I said, not of me but of a category to which I once belonged that no longer exists. I am still here, but my category is not. To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker, or speedboat designer.
"Here you go," a publisher says at the onset, handing you a salary of sorts, and a deadline, "we'll see you in two years." And there you go indeed, in a state of high alarm without any day-to-day ballast--no appointments, no tasks assigned each morning, no office colleagues to act as sounding boards, no clue as to what you are doing: equipped solely with a single idea, which you cling to like driftwood in a great, dark sea.
Here are two important tenets of libel law every writer should know: 1) If what you say is true, it cannot be libel, and 2) generally speaking, you can't libel a dead person.
Libel is defined as a false and defamatory statement, in writing [or on radio or TV] that has been published to a third person....
"Defamatory," in legal terms, means tending to harm the reputation of the person who is the subject of the statement. We're talking about a statement that is more than just embarrassing or annoying...it must be the kind of statement that would deter other people from associating with that person. [Subject that person to contempt, hatred or ridicule. It must also cost the libel plaintiff money, unless the defendant has accused the plaintiff of a crime, then it's called libel per se.]
The best sportswriters know this. They avoid the exhausted synonyms and strive for freshness elsewhere in their sentences. You can search the columns of Red Smith and never find a batsman bouncing into a twin killing. Smith wasn't afraid to let a batsman hit into a double play. But you will find hundreds of unusual words--good English words--chosen with precision and fitted into situations where no other sportswriter would put them. They please us because the writer cared about using fresh imagery in a journalistic form where his competitors settle for the same old stuff. That's why Red Smith was still king of his field after half a century of writing, and why his competitors had long since been sent--as they would be the first to say--to the showers.
After twenty years and a hundred books, I...realize that I don't know how to write a novel, that nobody does, that is no right way to do it. Whatever method works--for you, for me, for whoever's sitting in the chair and poking away at the typewriter [now computer] keys--is the right way to do it.
Like its first cousin, the mystery novel, the police procedural features a well-structured, fast-paced chronicle of crimes and punishments. Unlike the mystery, the police procedural stresses the step-by-step procedures followed by professional detectives in solving their cases: processing the crime scene to collect physical evidence; canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses or suspects; postmortem examination of the body to determine the cause and manner of death; identifying the victim; tracing the background of the victim; investigating associates of the victim; examining the method of operation of the perpetrator; and continuing with the follow-up investigation.
Books on writing tend to make much of how difficult it is to become a successful writer, but the truth is that, though the ability to write well is partly a gift--like the ability to play basketball well, or to outguess the stock market--writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing. Though learning to write takes time and a great deal of practice, writing up to the world's ordinary standards is fairly easy. As a matter of fact, most of the books one finds in drugstores, supermarkets, and even small-town libraries are not well written at all; a smart chimp with a good creative-writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant. [This is like saying a human with a love for bananas could leap from tree to tree.] Most grown-up behavior, when you come right down to it, is decidedly second-class. People don't drive their cars as well, or wash their ears as well, or eat as well, or even play the harmonica well....This is not to say people are terrible and should be replaced by machines; people are excellent and admirable creatures; efficiency isn't everything. But for the serious young writer who wants to get published, it is encouraging to know that most of the professional writers out there are push-overs.
I hate writing about anyone who is familiar with the press or has a "story." I like to write about people who don't necessarily see what their story is, or what my interest might be. I like subjects who really know how to enjoy life or are immersed in whatever they are doing fully.
[The literary critic's] constant reference to genius is a characteristic of the pseudo-scholar. He loves mentioning genius, because the sound of the word exempts him from trying to discover its meaning. Literature is written by geniuses. Novelists are geniuses....Everything [the critic] says may be accurate but all is useless because he is moving round books instead of through them. He either has not read them or cannot read them properly. Books have to be read...it is the only way of discovering what they contain....The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events in the life of its author, or to the events it describes.
The term "creative writing" offends some people; they think it has something affected or precious about it. Actually it is an innocent phrase developed in American schools and colleges sometime between the two world wars [1920-1940] to designate that kind of writing course which is not Freshman English or Report Writing for Engineers. One suspects that "creative writing" courses grew up partly because ordinary courses in composition had got bogged down in "correctness," gentility, and the handbook-and-exercise method, and some means had to be found to free students for the development of their natural interest and delight in language.
Creative writing means imaginative writing, writing as an art, what the French call belles lettres. It has nothing to do with information or the more routine forms of communication, though it uses the same skills...
Like all other forms of creative writing, it is written to produce in its reader the pleasure of aesthetic experience, to offer him an imaginative recreation or reflection or imitation of action, thought, and feeling. It attempts to uncover form and meaning in the welter of love, hate, violence, tedium, habit, and brute fact that we flounder through from day to day.
Writer's workshops around the country reflect wildly different assumptions about what the work should be, what the goals are, and how progress might be measured. Some are simply therapy sessions, attempting to create a warm, nurturing environment in which writers are encouraged to express themselves, release their creative energies without fear, and see what happens. Some have a political agenda--feminist art, black art, social protest art. Some have an aesthetic agenda--minimalism, realism, metafiction, etc. There are writer workshops specializing in horror fiction, detective fiction, children's fiction, science fiction, and so on.
There are workshops that have almost nothing to do with writing, where the texts are little more than an excuse for primal scream catharsis on one hand or new age channeling on the other. So it follows that in talking about a writer's workshop it must be made clear just whose workshop is under discussion.
One of the cruelest remarks in the language is: Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. The parallel must be: Those who meet experience, learn to live; those who don't, write.
The second remark has as much truth as the first--which is to say, some truth. Of course, many a young man has put himself in danger to pick up material for his writing, but as a matter to make one wistful, not one major American athlete, CEO, politician, engineer, trade-union official, surgeon, airline pilot, chess master, call girl, sea captain, teacher, bureaucrat, Mafioso, pimp, recidivist, physicist, rabbi, movie star, clergyman, or priest or nun has also emerged as a major novelist since the Second World War.
I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway. But I try to make sure they understand that writing, and even getting good at it, and having books and stories and articles published, will not open the doors that most of them hope for. It will not make them well. It will not give them the feeling that the world has finally validated their parking tickets, that they have in fact finally arrived....
My students do not want to hear this. Nor do they want to hear that it wasn't until my fourth book came out that I stopped being a starving artist. They do not want to hear that most of them probably won't get published and that even fewer will make enough to live on. But their fantasy of what it means to be published has very little to do with reality.
Many people think that writers are wise men who can impart to them the truth or some profound philosophy of life. It is not so. A writer is a skilled craftsman who discovers things along with the reader, and what you do with a good writer is you share the search; you are not being imparted wisdom, or if you are being imparted wisdom, it's a wisdom that came to him just as it came to you reading it.
I find it helps a lot to talk to friends or editors immediately after I return from a reporting trip. It puts me in a storytelling mode. Even though I'm less preoccupied with producing a seamless narrative then I used to be, I do feel that narrative energy is crucial to distinguishing a story from a research report. When you are telling a story to a live human being [as apposed to a reader] you get a sense, immediately, of what people respond to. It gets you outside of your own head. And often people ask questions that I haven't thought of--questions that force me to look at the reporting in a new way.
The writer works out plot in one of three ways: by borrowing some traditional plot or an action from real life...by working his way back from his story's climax; or by groping his way forward from an initial situation....
The writer who begins with a traditional story or some action drawn from life has part of his work done for him already. He knows what happened and, in general, why. The main work left to him is that of figuring out what part of the story (if not the whole) he wants to tell, what the most efficient way of telling it is, and why it interests him.
If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do? You're a human being, with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle....
Writing is work, hard work, and its rewards are personal more than financial, which means most people have to do it after hours. But if writing is work, learning to write isn't necessarily painful. To the contrary, silence is pain that writing relieves.
"Serious fiction" is not necessarily great and not even necessarily literature, because the talents of its practitioners may not be as dependable as their intentions. But a literature, including the great, will be written in this spirit.
The difference between the writer of serious fiction and the writer of escape entertainment is the clear difference between the artist and the craftsman. The one has the privilege and the faculty of original design; the other does not. The man who works from blueprints is a thoroughly respectable character, but he is of another order from the man who makes the blueprints in the first place.
Some people when they sit down to write and nothing special comes, no good ideas, are so frightened that they drink a lot of strong coffee to hurry them up, or smoke packages of cigarettes, or take drugs or get drunk. They do not know that good ideas come slowly, and that the more clear, tranquil and unstimulated you are, the slower the ideas come but the better they are.
Interviewers ask famous writers why they write, and it was the poet John Ashbery who answered, "Because I want to." Flannery O'Connor answered, "Because I'm good at it," and when the occasional interviewer asks me, I quote them both. Then I add that other than writing, I am completely unemployable. But really, secretly, when I'm not being smart-alecky, it's because I want to and I'm good at it.
I've been pegged as a writer whose beat is extreme ideas, extreme landscapes [mountain climbing], extreme individuals who take actions to their logical extreme. And there is some truth to that. I'm intrigued by fanatics--people who are seduced by the promise, or the illusion, of the absolute. People who believe that achieving some absolute goal, say, or embracing some absolute truth, will lead to happiness, or peace, or order, or whatever it is they most desire. Fanatics tend to be blind to moral ambiguity and complexity, and I've always had a fascination with individuals who deny the inherent contingency of existence--often at their peril, and at the peril of society.
The writer's personality and his personality on the page are not necessarily identical, but often there is a resemblance, not unlike that between an owner and his dog. A writer's work emanates from his personality, ego, sensitivities, and blind spots, his projections and unconscious wishes. All these contribute to what we eventually call style. Not everyone can arrive at a party and command the room; most writers are more inwardly focused. But even for those whose personal style attracts attention, the proof is always, finally, on the page. [This begs the question: can a reader tell if a novelist is a jerk by reading his fiction?]
I'm now eighty , but some people still regard me as a wild man. Even at my peak, that was only five to ten percent of my nature. The rest was work. I remember Elia Kazan saying one day at Actors Studio, "Here, we're always talking about the work. We talk about it piously. We say the work. The work. Well, we do work here, and get it straight: Work is a blessing." He said this, glaring at every one of us. And I thought, He's right. That's what it is. A blessing.
Of course, if you ask what work is dependent upon, the key word, an unhappy one, is stamina. It's as difficult to become a professional writer as a professional athlete. It often depends on the ability to keep faith in yourself. One must be willing to take risks and try again. And it does need an enormous amount of ongoing working practice to be good at it. Since you are affected by what you read as a child and adolescent, it also takes a while to unlearn all sorts of reading reflexes that have led you into bad prose.
According to Professor J. Scott Armstrong of the University of Pennsylvania, among academics, "obtuse writing...seems to yield higher prestige for the author." Armstrong has conducted a number of studies to test this hypothesis. In one, he asked twenty management professors to identify the more prestigious of two unidentified journals presented to them. The more readable journal (as determined by the Flesch Reading Ease Test) was judged the least prestigious. In another experiment, Armstrong rewrote the same journal article in two different forms. One he rated confusing and convoluted, the other concise and clear. A panel of thirty-two professors agreed that the confusing version reported a higher level of research. "Overall, the evidence is consistent with a common suspicion," concluded Armstrong. "Clear communication of one's research is not appreciated. Faculty are impressed by less readable articles." [Another reason for bad academic writing is that if the material is presented clearly, the true banality of its substance will be revealed.]
A friend of mine spoke of books that are dedicated like this: "To my wife, by whose helpful criticism..." and so on. He said the dedication should really read: "To my wife. If it had not been for her continual criticism and persistent nagging doubt as to my ability, this book would have appeared in Harper's instead of The Hardware Age." Brenda Ueland
Those who tell stories better than they write them are the bane of editors. Editors dread wasting time on captivating talkers whose words lose their fizz on the page. Obviously, writing skills transcend conversational skills. But the drama and flair we bring to telling stories is too often lost once our words are nailed down on paper. Most of us converse better than we write because we feel so much less vulnerable when addressing a limited number of ears. While talking, we can alter material or adjust our delivery in response to cues from others. If things get out of hand, we can change the subject altogether. Even whey they bomb, spoken words float off toward Mars. They can always be denied. "That isn't what I said!" is a great court of last resort. But words we've committed to paper [or online] can be held in evidence against us as long as that paper exists. Is it any wonder that we're scared to make this commitment?
I find the possibility of life as a fiction writer horribly depressing. Nonfiction, meaning journalism, essays, scholarly work, etc. is far more important to me because I am attempting to have an actual impact on the culture, on politics, and on ideas in people's heads. Nonfiction provides a more direct line to all of those things than fiction, which is too often used as an escape or to console people about their lives. Oh, and nonfiction pays much better.
An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. [Editors should never] get to feeling important about themselves, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing. A writer's best work comes entirely from himself. If you [an editor] have a Mark Twain, don't try to make him into a Shakespeare or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain. Because in the end an editor can get only as much out of an author as the author has in him.
There is a kind of writing that sounds so relaxed that you think you hear the author talking to you. E. B. White was probably its best practitioner, though many other masters of the style--James Thurber, V. S. Pritchett, Lewis Thomas--come to mind. I'm partial to it because it's a style that I've always tried to write myself. The common assumption is that the style is effortless. In fact the opposite is true: the effortless style is achieved by strenuous effort and constant refining. The nails of grammar and syntax [word order] are in place and the English is as good as the writer can make it.
The well-known description "Golden Age" [of detective fiction] is commonly taken to cover the two decades between the First and Second Wars, but this limitation is unduly restrictive. One of the most famous detective stories regarded as falling within the Golden Age is Trent's Last Case by E. C. Bentley, published in 1913. The name of this novel is familiar to many readers who have never read it, and its importance is partly due to the respect with which it was regarded by practitioners of the time and its influence on the genre. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote that it "holds a very special place in the history of detective fiction, a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original." Agatha Christie saw it as "one of the three best detective stories every written." Edgar Wallace described it as "a masterpiece of detective fiction," and G. K. Chesterton saw it as "the finest detective story of modern times." Today some of the tributes of his contemporaries seem excessive but the novel remains highly readable, if hardly as compelling as it was when first published, and its influence on the Golden Age is unquestionable.
I've often suspected that part of the reason why editors take so long to decline on projects, apart from never having enough time to consider them, is linked to how uncomfortable we are rejecting and disappointing people, whether it's the agent who has submitted the work or the unknown soldier who wrote it. Plus, we've all seen enough books that have been notoriously and strenuously rejected throughout the industry that nevertheless go on to bestsellerdom or critical acclaim.
Just as you shouldn't take a polite letter for an encouraging one, don't let a harsh letter do more damage than necessary….It's hard not to focus too deeply on a rejection letter, or any correspondence from an editor, because it's often the only feedback you have, but I beg you not to spend more time with rejection letters than the time it takes to read and file them away.
Good dialogue is such a pleasure to come across while reading, a complete change of pace from description and exposition and all that writing. Suddenly people are talking, and we find ourselves clipping along. And we have all the pleasures of voyeurism because the characters don't know we are listening. We get to feel privy to their inner workings without having to spend too much time listening to them think. I don't want them to think all the time on paper.
A huge vocabulary is not always an advantage. Simple language, for some kinds of fiction at least, can be more effective than complex language which can lead to stiltedness or suggest dishonesty or faulty education.
As adults, we often forget that children can comprehend more than they can articulate, and we end up communicating to them below their level, leaving them bored. Or, the opposite can happen: children are growing up faster than we did and act very sophisticated although their vocabulary skills are underdeveloped. Striking the balance between writing below or above their level is tricky.
[Some writers] insist that you should never write out of vengeance. I tell my students that they should always write out of vengeance, as long as they do so nicely. If someone has crossed them, if someone has treated them too roughly, I urge them to write about it.
Bad books by celebrity authors shouldn't surprise us [Bill O'Reilly's Killing Kennedy], even when the subject is an American president. The true mystery in Kennedy's case is why, 50 years after his death, highly accomplished writers seen unable to fix him on the page.
For some, the trouble has been idolatry. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote three magisterial volumes on Franklin Roosevelt and the new deal, attempted a similar history in A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in The White House. Published in 1965, it has the virtues of immediacy, since Schlesinger, Kennedy's Harvard contemporary, had been on the White House staff, brought in as court historian. He witnessed many of the events he describes. But in his admiration for Kennedy, he became the chief architect of the Camelot myth and so failed, in the end, to give a persuasive account of the actual presidency.
In 1993, the political journalist Richard Reeves did better. President Kennedy: Profile of Power is a minutely detailed chronicle of the Kennedy White House. As a primer on Kennedy's decision-making, like his handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, the book is fascinating. What's missing is a picture of Kennedy's personal life, though Reeves includes a passing mention of Marilyn Monroe being sewn into the $5,000 flesh-colored, skintight dress she wore to celebrate the president's birthday at Madison Square Garden in 1962….
Balancing out, or warring with, the Kennedy claque are the Kennedy haters, like Seymour M. Hersh and Garry Wills. In The Dark Side of Camelot, Hersh wildly posits connections between the Kennedys and the mob, while Wills, through he offers any number of brilliant insights into Kennedy and his circle of courtiers, fixates on the Kennedy brothers' (and father's) sexual escapades in The Kennedy Imprisonment. The sum total of this oddly polarized literature is a kind of void. Other presidents, good and bad, have been served well by biographers and historians. We have first-rate books on Jefferson on Lincoln, on Wilson, on both Roosevelts. Even unloved presidents have received major books: Johnson (Caro) and Richard Nixon (Wills, among others). Kennedy, the odd man out, still seeks his true biographer.
In 1891] I made my first effort to live entirely by my pen. It soon became evident that I had been playing the game well within my powers and that I should have no difficulty in providing a sufficient income…The difficulty of the Sherlock Holmes work was that every story really needed as clear-cut and original a plot as a longish book would do. One cannot without effort spin plots at such a rate. They are apt to become too thin or break. I was determined, now that I had no longer the excuse of absolute pecuniary [financial] pressure, never again to write anything which was not as good as I could possibly make it, and therefore I would not write a Holmes story without a worthy plot and without a problem which interested my own mind, for that is the first requisite before you can interest anyone else.
We start out in our lives as little children, full of light and the clearest vision…Then we go to school and then comes on the great Army of school teachers with their critical pencils, and parents and older brothers (the greatest sneerers of all) and cantankerous friends, and finally that Great Murderer of the Imagination--a world of unceasing, unkind, dinky, prissy Criticalness.
In the past two or three years I've had perhaps half a dozen ideas for novels that got no further than the first chapter. I've written three novels that got no further than the first chapter. I've written novels that died after I'd written over a hundred pages; they repose in my file cabinet at this very moment, like out-of-gas cars on a highway, waiting for someone to start them up again. I very much doubt they'll ever be completed.
That's not all. During that same stretch of time I've seen two novels through to completion and succeeded only in producing books that no one has wanted to publish--and, I've come to believe, for good and sufficient reason. Both were books I probably shouldn't have tried writing in the first place. Both failures constituted learning experiences that will almost certainly prove beneficial in future work. While I could by no means afford the time spent on these books, neither can I properly write that time off as altogether wasted.
But how could an established professional [author] write an unpublishable book? If he's written a dozen or two dozen or five dozen publishable ones in a row, wouldn't you think he'd have the formula down pat?
The answer, of course, is that there's no such thing as a formula. Except in the genuinely rare instances of writers who tend to write the same book over and over, every novel is a wholly new experience.
Take a class of writing students in a liberal arts college and assign them to write about some aspect of science, and a pitiful moan will go around the room. "No! Not science!" the moan says. The students have a common affliction: fear of science. They were told at an early age by a chemistry or a physics teacher that they don't have "a head for science."
Take an adult chemist or physicist or engineer and ask him or her to write a report, and you'll see something close to panic. "No! Don't make us write!" they say. They also have a common affliction: fear of writing. They were told at an early age by an English teacher that they don't have "a gift or words."
Scenes (vignettes, episodes, slices of reality, and so forth) are the building blocks of creative nonfiction--the primary factor that separates and defines literary and/or creative nonfiction from traditional journalism and ordinary lifeless prose.
The uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject place, or personality but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality in action.
An author [who is well-known] will receive as many as several hundred letters a year from strangers. [Today it's emails.] Usually they want something: will you read their works, or listen to a life-story and write it.
There are happy paradoxes to being successful as a writer. For one thing, you don't have much opportunity to read good books (it's too demoralizing when you're at sea on your own work) and you also come to dread letter-writting. Perhaps ten times a year, a couple of days are lost catching up on mail, and there's little pleasure in it. You are spending time that could have been given to more dedicated writing, and there are so many letters to answer! Few writers encourage correspondents. My reply to a good, thoughtful, even generous communication from someone I do not know is often short and apologetic.
We're now past the halfway point of National Novel Writing Month [November]--or, as it's inelegantly shortened online, NaNoWriMo--when aspiring authors aim to produce 50,000 words during November. More than 277,000 writers signed up for the sprint this year. Erin Morgenstern, whose best-selling novel The Night Circus originated as part of the exercise, once advised: "Don't delete anything. Just keep writing. And if you don't want to look at it, change the font to white."
Communal support is an important part of the endeavor, with participants sharing daily word counts and inspirational exhortations on Twitter and Facebook. The forums on the project's official website offer a cascade of advice. One writer asked the crowd: "How old must a child be to survive in the Nordic forest?" Another solicited "favorite literary quotes that a guy might not mind having as a tattoo."
For a while there, after the 2008 crash, it seemed possible that publishing would follow the music and journalism businesses into meltdown. The best literary news of 2013 is that…books have not succumbed to the downward-spiraling revenue trend. Sales of book in all formats actually grew by almost $2 billion in the last five years, and e-books have turned out to complement printed books without replacing them.
Even if you've published short stories or a nonfiction book or two, you'll have to have a complete manuscript before you try to market your novel. Agents and editors generally insist on this, sometimes even for your second and third novel. This is because too many of them have signed contracts with new novelists, only to discover that the writer can't finish the work. In your query, remember to include an exact word count for your manuscript; a phrase like "approximately 125,000 words" will make an agent or editor think that you haven't finished the novel….
When you get a request for more material, many agents and editors won't ask for the full manuscript. Instead, they'll ask for a synopsis and perhaps the first fifty pages or the first two or three chapters. Only when they've had a chance to review these will they ask to see the entire manuscript.
For the third straight year, Alexandria, Virginia has topped Amazon.com's list of the best-read cities. The online retailer announced that Alexandria, where many government workers from nearby Washington reside, ranks Number 1 for sales of books, newspapers and magazines in cities of 100,000 or more. Miami was second, with residents there eager for books and magazines on self-help, health and mind, and body topics. Knoxville, Tennessee, was third; followed by Amazon's home city, Seattle; and Orlando, Florida. Rounding out the top 10 were many college towns: Ann Arbor, Michigan; Berkeley, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Cincinnati; and Columbia, South Carolina.
News is plot, event, what happened last night or this afternoon or is in process right now. News breaks fast, somebody writes it up, the gun is barely fired before the world is clued in. Story is a wider map and involves any number of whys, relating to personal history, family background, the times, the place, and cultural background. Story makes a stab at explaining how such a wonderful or terrible thing could have happened. News enjoys a brief shelf life, turns stale fast, grows a quick crust. Story addresses complicated possibilities and reasons, therefore lasts longer, maybe forever.
I love book clubs. I love reading for them, I love talking to them, and if I had my choice I'd probably do nothing but visit them to promote my books. Where else do you find people who have already made a commitment to read your book, and to read it closely enough to discuss it in a knowledgeable fashion with their friends? The best insights I've ever been offered about my work have come from book club members. In a world full of readings attended by the inevitable, random 5 to10 bookstore browsers and 20-year-old assistant night managers who consistently mangle the title of your book, book clubs are an oasis of intelligent thought and discussion.
News carries with it a promise of transparency, a light that can be shined into previously dark corners. It is far from a coincidence that the rise of the popular press spelled eventual doom for monarchs of all types. Once the news becomes democratized, governance is sure to follow. [It's no secret that in America, modern bureaucrats and politicians loath the idea of a free press and free speech. Those in power do not like transparency. Government is all about dark corners, and secrets. Some in America believe that members of the so-called mainstream media are nothing more than propagandists for people in power. Instead of journalistic watchdogs they have become establishment lapdogs.]
I'm fascinated by characters who are completely flawed personalities, driven by anguish and doubt, and are psychologically suspect. Wait a minute--basically that's everybody, isn't it, in life and on the page? As a writer, I'm drawn to characters who, for one reason or another, seem to find themselves desperately out of joint, alienated but not wanting to be, and ever yearning to understand the rules of the game.
Most chapter books (ages 7-10) are 1,500 to 10,000 words long or forty to eighty pages. These books, divided into eight to ten short chapters, are written for kids who can read and who can handle reasonably complicated plots and simple subplots. Written with a lot of dialogue, the vocabulary in chapter books is challenging, and words can often be understood in the context of the sentence. Most chapters are self-contained with a beginning, middle and end. But some chapters move the plot forward by means of cliffhanger endings.
When a copy editor gets to work on an article for The New York Times, it doesn't matter what section its for, the guiding principal is the same one that doctors embrace when they take the Hipocratic Oath: First do no harm.
If I were an editor looking at the opening sentence of this piece,…I'd start with the glaring factual mistake: "First do no harm" is nowhere to be found in the oath. The ancient Greek physician may have written those words, or something like them, but he did not put them in the oath, despite what is commonly believed.
And while we're at it, that "its" should be "it's." That "principal" should be "principle." And it should be "Hippocratic," with two "Ps." And isn't the whole thing a little long? And maybe a cliche? And--sorry to be a stickler--but isn't the reference to "ancient Greek physician" in the second paragraph an example of what The New York Times stylebook frowns on as indirection ("sidling into facts as if the reader already knew them")?…
Fortunately, most of the stories that have come across my desk in my 15 years at The Times are in a lot better shape than that.
Copy editors are basically one of the last lines of defense before articles are posted on the web or put in the paper. We try to make sure that a story is factually accurate, balanced, and grammatical. We're also responsible for making sure it complies with The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. And we write headlines and captions….
Perhaps the most polarizing book written for children is The Rainbow Fish, by Marcus Pfister. To its fans, it's a sparkling illustrated story about a beautiful but arrogant fish who learns humility by giving away its shiny scales to less fortunate fish. To detractors, it's a socialist screed that encourages "an attitude of greed and entitlement," as one customer wrote in a review on Amazon.com.
Fiction writers tend to fall into two broad camps: those who overwrite and those who underwrite. And, while a novelist may be able to get away with writing a spare story, a thin story will never ignite the reader's imagination. A spare story is one in which the writer deliberately chooses to pare down every element, using a small cast of characters, only one or two subplots, and little exposition and description. A well-crafted, yet spare story can work when every word counts and there is enough information to take the reader on a fictional journey. Ernest Hemingway usually wrote spare stories, but readers still feel immersed in his stories and understand the ramifications of the plot on the lives of his characters.
A thin story, on the other hand, is not based on deliberate choices, but rather on inexperience. In a thin story, the writer does not supply enough sensory data, creating a story line that can't be followed with confidence because of a lack of needed information. Spare stories spark the reader's imagination, but thin stories do not have enough data to do so, leaving the reader confused. In these anemic offerings, the reader is often adrift, longing for detail to place him in the scene, a hint about the themes or deeper meanings, or any doorway into the writer's intentions.
I don't love women writers enough to teach them. If you want women writers go down the hall [to another class]. What I teach is guys. [Elmore Leonard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, Henry Miller, and Philip Roth.]
David Gilmour, novelist and professor at the University of Toronto