Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Writer's Day Job

In the past 15 years, I've worked as a juice barista, a Gap clerk, an assistant to an asylum lawyer and then to an Emerson scholar and then to a mean-spirited self-help guru; I've worked as an office temp, a SAT tutor, an innkeeper, a medical actor, and a teacher at six different universities. The fantasy that "making it" as a writer will render other jobs financially unnecessary is usually just that--a fantasy.

Leslie Jamison 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Some Writers Outline, Others Don't

If you are writing longer pieces than Edgar Allan Poe tended to do, and you haven't outlined, you'll be marching boldly forward into the dark. 

Ian Jackson

Friday, December 18, 2015

In Novels Setting is Important

I have always tried to keep the settings of my novels as far as possible within the confines of my own experience.

Ngaio Marsh 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Is There a Secret Formula to Creative Writing?

If writing could be reduced to a formula or algorithm, everyone would do it.

Jonathan Franzen 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Writing For an Audience of One

I wrote for fourteen years before I finally sold something, so it is clear that I am not writing totally for an audience. I write what I have to write--and then find out who might be interested in reading it.

Donna Jo Napoli

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Suicidal Writer

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.

Abe Kobo

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Writing Nonfiction Books

Among all the home businesses touted these days, I can think of none that is easier to get into, cheaper to start, or offers more potential for recognition, respect, and reward than nonfiction book writing. It is, in my opinion, the ultimate dream job.

Marc McCutcheon

Friday, November 27, 2015

Creating Dialogue in Fiction

When I write dialogue, I feel as though I'm merely the typist, transcribing what the characters say inside my head. I don't have the sense that I'm making anything up.

Elizabeth Berg 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Making Real Money as a Writer

You would-be Thomas Wolfes and Gertrude Steins out there should understand one thing above all: likely you ain't gonna make no money as a writer. Real money I mean.

Larry L. King 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Rare Creative Writing Student Who Can Write Creatively

I think that out of seven years of teaching at the University of Pennsylvania I found maybe two students who had their own voice, in my judgment. There were lots who were competent but only two who were startling.

Paula Fox 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Plight of the Creative Writing Teacher

Creative writing teachers, poor souls, must immerse themselves in slop and take it seriously. It is probably impossible to teach anyone to be a good writer. You can teach people how to read, possibly.

William H. Gass

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Discouraging Word For Aspiring Novelists

I think aspiring writers need as much discouragement as we can muster. Nobody should undertake the life of a fiction writer--so unrenumerative, so maddeningly beset by career vagaries--who has any other choice in the matter. Learn a trade! Flannery O'Conner said it best: "People are always asking me if the university stifles writers. I reply that it hasn't stifled enough of them."

Gerald Howard 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Searching For a Way to teach Creative Writing

Some well-known writers are disdainful of anyone being able to teach creative writing in a meaningful way. They fear that what is being taught is mechanical "factory fiction" rather than worthwhile art that reflects the human condition in an entertaining way. In my view, this is a disingenuous attitude, because books or classes in creative writing can only point the way. There is no magic formula, and the ambitious but uninspired writer who searches for it will never succeed. Studying writing through analysis, or, more accurately diagnosis, is not a justification for encouraging or perpetuating mediocrity.

Peter Rubie

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Difficulty of Being a Woman Novelist Who Is Married

Men writers who are married to non-working wives--that is, wives who stay at home--have a certain advantage. Every writer needs a wife!--someone to stand guard, to cook meals, to deal with the immediate problems of house and children, and keep them out of their husbands' hair. It's more difficult for women writers, who have to do all these chores plus their writing.

Phyllis A. Whitney 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Stealing From Other Novelists

Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men is one of my favorite books. I read a lot of southern writers--Faulkner, Eudora Welty--and a lot of Dickens. It seems I stole something from everybody I ever read. I hope in a good way.

Rick Bragg 

Friday, November 6, 2015

When a Writer Faces the Blank Page

Writing should be a snap. We've been telling stories all our lives; we know all of these words; we've got a pen and some paper and a million ideas. We fiddle. We put on some music. We scribble. We stare out the window. We remember we have that wedding to go to next August. Better buy a gift soon. We smooth out the paper. We consider how none of our errands are getting done while we sit. We get up. And now we know what writers already know: that writing is difficult, and it is a disorderly and unnerving enterprise, and because it is, we all have, it seems, developed an unnatural resistance to the blank page.

John Dufresne 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Is Suicide a Career Move For Writers?

Anne Sexton (who killed herself) saw Sylvia Plath's suicide as a career move, one that had been taken from her because Plath beat her to it. Sexton say suicide as a kind of death that had a lot of resonance for a literary career and also helped with the marketing of the work. Her prediction about Sylvia Plath came true: Plath was relatively unknown when she killed herself, but shortly after that she becaqme the best-known woman writer in American and probably England as well.

Diane Wood Middlebrook 

A Writer Who Got an Early Start

I didn't begin to write out of political awareness. I'd been writing since I was nine years old. I published my first adult story when I was fifteen.

Nadine Gordimer

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Celebrity-Authored Memoirs

Publishers love celebrity authors because they don't have to spend money to make them famous. Celebrity worshippers will come to the book signing events for photo-ops and autographs. The book on sale is nothing more than a souvenir. Celebrity "journalists" invite these semi-literates to appear on TV talk shows to talk about and promote their vacuous, ghost-written memoirs.

Jim Fisher

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Setting For a Novel

Many novelists make use of their hometown or the various places in which they have lived. And why not? These are places one knows best.

Robert DiMaria 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

In a Novel Things Have to Happen to Have a Story

Since a novel is a recreation of reality, its theme has to be dramatized, i.e., presented in terms of action. A story in which nothing happens is not a story. A store whose events are haphazard and accidental is either an inept conglomeration or, at best, a chronicle, a memoir, a reportorial recording, not a novel. It is realism that demands a plot structure in a novel.

Ayn Rand 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Adversarial Dialogue in Novels is Action

Adversarial dialogue is action. When characters speak, we see them as they talk, which means that dialogue is always in immediate scene. Stage plays are in immediate scene. So are films, and now, for the most part, novels. 

Sol Stein

The Underdog Character in Fiction

I find characters who are at cross-purposes with society, or opposed to society in some way, interesting because they are by definition the underdogs. They have to be clever, cunning, imaginative, dogged, and wily--whereas society merely has to lean its weight a little.

Donald Westlake 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Beginning Writers Are Usually Not Rewriters.

The beginning writer writes his first draft, reads it, and says, "This is awful. I'm screwed." The experienced writer writes his first draft, reads it, and says, "This is awful. I'm on my way!"

Jerry Cleaver

Advice to Crime Novelists

Don't distract a mystery reader with a romantic subplot.

Florence King

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Title of a Book Matters

In a bookstore I walked past the first table, and a book caught my eye. I walked another 20 steps, stopped and went back. The title that caught my eye was Cleopatra's Secret Diaries. The thought of learning the most intimate secrets of one of the world's most famous lovers definitely intrigued me.

James Bonnet

Truman Capote Sought Fame Then Didn't Like It

I was famous too young. I pushed too hard too soon. I wish somebody would write what it's really like to be a celebrity. People come up and ask me for autographs in airports, and I give them because otherwise I think they'll hit me over the head.

Truman Capote 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Stephen King on Writing Description

Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience.

Stephen King 

Aldous Huxley on Critics

The critics don't interest me because they're concerned with what's past and done, while I'm concerned with what comes next.

Aldous Huxley 

Novels With Too Much Dialogue

Dialogue presents a terrible temptation. It offers the writer a convenient platform from which to set forth his pet theories and ideas.

John Hersey

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Writers And Their Booze

You usually can tell when a writer is going downhill by the size of his liquor bill.

James M. Cain

Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

But you can't teach writing, people tell me. And I say, "Who the hell are you, God's dean of admissions?"

Anne Lamott 

Learning to Write From Books By and About Other Writers

There are books on my shelves that have made me feel that I am part of a community of writers. I have collections of interviews with writers, a source least used in the academy. The serious student of writing and the teachers of writing should know the existence of the extensive testimony of writers, material that has been ignored by composition researchers. What writers know about their craft has been dismissed as the "lure of the practitioner."

Donald M. Murray

Monday, October 26, 2015

How Characters in a Novel Should Not Address Each Other

Don't have characters call each other by name in dialogue, unless it's for a specific effect, such as a threat. In real life, people rarely use each other's names when they're talking.

Cynthia Whitcomb 

For the Novelist There is Only One Plot

As far as I'm concerned, in the abstract there's only one plot, and it goes like this: A person or group or entity wants something. Another person or group or entity throws up every barrier imaginable to stop that goal from being achieved.

David Morrell 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Is The Writer of One Great Novel a Great Novelist?

A man can write one great novel that can be great, but this doesn't make him a great writer--just the writer of a great book.

Anthony Burgess 

Writing a Bad Novel Is Better Than Writing No Novel

A bad novel is better than an unwritten novel, because a bad novel can be improved; an unwritten novel is defeat without a battle.

Paul Johnson

Great Writers Produce a Body of Work

Young writers write two or three books that are not only brilliant, and mature, and then they are done for. But that is not what enriches the literature of a country. For that you must have writers who can produce not just two or three books, but a great body of work. Of course it will be uneven, because so many fortunate circumstances must go together to produce a masterpiece, but a masterpiece is more likely to come as the culminating point of a laborious career then as the lucky fluke of untaught genius.

W. Sommerset Maugham 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Poorly Read Writing Student

On the first day in my intermediate writing class, I ask the students to write down their ten favorite books of fiction and their authors. A lot of them can't name ten. A lot of them fill in with genre writers, thrillers and whatnot.

T. C. Boyle

Friday, October 23, 2015

Profile of the Genius Writer

Genius did not need to be rootless, disenfranchised, or alienated. A writer could have a family, a job, and even live in a suburb.

John Cheever 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Becoming Versus Staying a Writer

Anyone can become a writer. The trick is not in becoming a writer, it is staying a writer. Day after week after month after year. Staying in there for the long haul.

Harlan Ellison

The Dissertation Genre

P.h.d. students famously despair that the academic dissertation, as a literary genre, is inherently boring to the point of unreadable, while joking that the difficulty of writing one is enough to drive a person insane.

James Camp

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

One Prolific True Crime Writer

When I'm in a writing mode (eight months of the year), I am at my computer at least six days a week from 10 AM to about 7:30 PM, and I require ten pages a day--my personal commitment.

Ann Rule

Norman Mailer On Reading Reviews

I'd never dream of not reading reviews. It's like not looking at a naked woman if she happens to be standing in front of her open window.

Norman Mailer

Are You Sure You Want To Be a Writer?

We've always had a tradition in America of hounding our artists to death. Look at the list of great artists, you see a continual history of defeat, frustration, poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction. The best poets of my generation are al suicides.

James Dickey

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Prize-Winning Novel

Literary prize committees have always been unreliable judges of quality, and any reader silly enough to buy a novel for the stamp on the cover deserves a ghastly read.

B. R. Myers 

Should a Writer Sellout to Hollywood?

If Hollywood wants to prostitute me by buying one of my books for the movies, I am not only willing, but eager for the seducers to make their first dastardly proposal.

Thomas Wolfe

Monday, October 19, 2015

Writers Hear Voices in Their Heads

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.

Meg Chittenden

The Isolated Writer

I'm a loner. I don't like groups, schools, literary circles. I don't have any writer friends, because I just want to have--distance.

Haruki Murakami

Why Do Writers Write?

Why I write, sheer egoism. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen--in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.

George Orwell 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Insecure Life of the Writer

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 book has been successful is no guard against failure this time. It's no wonder writers so often turn misanthropic or are driven to drink to dull the agony.

Isaac Asimov 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

How a Writer Can Deal With Rejection

Rejection is part of any creative art. To overcome, I immediately get back to the keyboard and work harder. Then I think of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London, all of whom were rejected hundreds of time.

Cork Millner

How Writers Feel About Being Writers

Asking what it's like to be a writer is a lot like asking what it's like to be a dentist or an attorney. The answer depends on where you live, what you write, how successful you are, how old you are, if you're married, and how you think of yourself as a writer. But there is one thing that most writers do say about the writing life: it's lonely and frustrating. Writers seem to feel misunderstood by people who don't write and under-appreciated or ignored by the reading public. Feeling isolated and forced to compete with other writers, many authors complain that their books are not adequately promoted by their publishers. Otherwise, they're a contended group of workers.

Jim Fisher 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Raymond Chandler on Writers as a Class

Writers as a class I have found to be oversensitive and spiritually under-nourished.

Raymond Chandler

Who Do Writers Write For?

I made the decision very early on in my career to put everyone out of my mind when I write. Relatives, editors, Hollywood, critics. I have no reader in mind. I think it's death to a writer to consider how anyone will view their work. One writes for oneself in much the same way one daydreams for oneself.

Anita Shreve

The City as a Novelistic Theme

Many of the traditional themes of fiction--the corrupting powers of ambition, the nature of one's responsibility to self and to others, the tragedy of loneliness, the paradoxes and ambiguities of compromise--all seem congenial to the city's qualities--its crowded loneliness, its veneration for the new, its bustling immorality, its commercialism, its sense of busy pointlessness. The city is available as a symbol of opportunity and freedom and success, and of the empty underside of these qualities.

Rust Hills 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Importance of Setting in a Novel

Setting is as important as character. Go to the bookstore, open up a bunch of books and read the first line. You'll find that the majority of opening sentences have something to do with setting and evoking an emotion with the reader.

Bob Mayer 

The Interpretation of a Novelist's Intentions

The idea that readers could know an author's intentions better than she does herself is, of course, deeply destabilizing to our usual ways of thinking about literature. If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place? Isn't literature supposed to help us achieve contact with other minds, rather than trapping us in a hall of mirrors, in which we can see only our own distorted reflections? Surely there must be limits to a text's interpretability.

Adam Kirsch 

A Literary Agent's Opinion of Manuscript Submissions

I just see an awful lot of people who believe that what makes a novel is 80,000 consecutive words. Most submissions I see feel like someone checking "write a novel" off their bucket list.

Chris Parris-Lamb

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Two Basic Plots in Fiction

There are only two basic plots in fiction, writers occasionally say: "Somebody goes on a journey" and, the other side of the coin, "A stranger comes to town."

Max Byrd 

War Novels

The literature of war is by its very nature political. If a writer's sentences are personal--what else, really can they be?--and a writer has trained his lens on a bloody battleground, in reading him we will come to know where he stands, where his passions lie. When it comes to fiction, this passion can often result in rhetoric-spouting characters whose sole purpose is to serve the author's ideas.

Dani Shapiro 

Unhappy Characters in Fiction

I understand that there are unlikable people, and I have no interest in making them likable, because I want to make them entertaining, and I think in order for characters to be entertaining they have to be unhappy.

Maria Semple

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The World of Publishing

The world of publishing is a potentially hostile environment, especially for the writer.

Jeff Herman 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Novel Writing: The Lonely Profession

To write, you must concentrate, concentrate long and hard, and being alone is the price of that concentration. It takes years of self-imposed quarantine to write even a bad novel.

Tobias Wolff 

A Writer's LIfe

A writer's like is hard. Everybody says so, and everybody is right.

Stephen Koch

The Master of Fine Arts Professor

Most writers who teach in academia aren't really academics. The majority of people who teach in MFA programs, I think, tend to be working writers who just need the gig.

James Hynes 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Kingsley Amis on The Point of Writing

If you can't annoy anybody, there's little point in writing.

Kingsley Amis 

Truman Capote on Hollywood

I just despise Hollywood. It isn't even a city. It's nothing. It's like a jumble of huts in a jungle somewhere. I don't understand how you can live there. It's really, completely dead. Walk along the street, there's nothing moving.

Truman Capote 

Joseph Heller's Work Habits

I work almost constantly. For a novelist without hobbies, weekends don't make much difference. Most people don't enjoy weekends anyway, they don't know what to do with Sundays.

Joseph Heller 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Best Writing Style

The best style is the least noticeable.

Whit Burnett 

Isaac Asimov's Relationship to The Characters in His Novels

My stories write themselves, and the characters do and say whatever they please without reference to me at all. I am not responsible for them, and their views are not necessarily mine.

Isaac Asimov  

Where Do Writers Get Their Stories?

If you're a doctor, you get sick people; if you're a lawyer, you get cases; if you're a writer, the Almighty sends you stories, sometimes too many.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Writer Can Lose Confidence in His Work

I've been working, working, working, and you know, sometimes you look back at your work and you see that it just isn't any good.

Truman Capote

Older Characters Created by Creative Writing Students

The over-thirty characters in my undergrad students' stores are pompous, insensitive, vulgar, unimaginative, grossly materialistic, hypocritical, self-deluding, stupid, and often totally wrongheaded about everything.

Martin Russ

Nora Roberts on Not Plotting Her Novels

I don't plot. I don't sit down and plot a book. It sort of unreels as I write.

Nora Roberts

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas For Books?

I have never claimed to create anything out of nothing; I have always needed an incident or a character as a starting point, but I have exercised imagination, invention, and a sense of the dramatic to make it something of my own.

W. Somerset Maugham 

One Author's Opinion of His Fellow Writers

On the whole, professional writers are a lot of whining bastards who wouldn't last a day in 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.

Duncan McLean

Is Book Reviewing a Public Service or an Art Form?

There is an art to book reviewing. Or a craft, I should say--because if the reviewer tries to be artistic, if he once abandons the secondary zone of creation, he's sunk. The point of the review, after all, is not him: It's the book. The book that somebody else wrote. So good reviewing demands a certain transparency of language, and an absence of prancing and posturing.

James Parker 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

How Do You Feel After Finishing a Really Good Book?

I get slightly angry when I finish any good book--I'm miffed that I'm not reading it anymore, and that I'll never be able to read it again for the first time.

Daniel Handler

The Novel as an Evolving Genre

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.

Thad Ziolkowski

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How Should a Writer Respond to a Critic Who Gave Him a Bad Review?

A writer should not respond to his or her critics. A writer should rise above, in radiant aloofness. Sometimes that's not possible, of course. I was drinking with a friend in London when he spotted, on the other side of the bar, a man who days before had reviewed him cruelly in a national newspaper. My friend grew  agitated. "I'll punch in in the face!" he said. "No, wait. I'll buy him a drink!" He paused. "What shall I do?" He had no idea and neither did I. Aggression, under the circumstances, seemed quite as promising/futile as magnanimity. I don't even remember what he did in the end. The point is: you can't win.

James Parker 

The Angry Writer

Writers who reply to reviews are invariably angry. (The flattered, happy ones keep their satisfaction to themselves.) An angry writer's tirade gives the lie to the surface placidity of literary life and reveals the passionate enmities that roil beneath. Think of Martin Amis's response to Tibor Fischer's attack on his novel Yellow Dog: "Tibor Fischer is a creep and a wretch. Oh yeah: and a fat-arse."

Zoe Heller 

F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood

F. Scott Fitzgerald was both a perfect and terrible fit for Hollywood. His youthful fame gave him a shrewd perspective on that shallow, tinselly world. Yet while working there in the last three years of his life, he was a sad case: a debt-ridden genius, alcoholic, selling himself to collaborate on second-rate screenplays.

Caryn James

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Power of the Political Novel

The line between fiction and nonfiction is more blurry than many people like to admit. Sometimes, political writing that claims to be nonfiction is actually fiction. The political power of such fiction-as-nonfiction is undeniable…

     Most novels aren't directly credited with starting wars, Yet fiction still instigates change. Fiction can say publicly what might otherwise appear unsayable, combating the coerced silence that is a favored weapon of those who have power.

Mohsin Hamid

The Price of Fame

A writer dreams of the goddess Fame and winds up with the bitch Publicity.

Peter De Vries 

A Dim View of the Literary Critic

Books are savaged and careers destroyed by surly snots who write anonymous reviews and publishers can't be bothered to protest this institutionalized corruption.

Warren Murphy 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

When Novelists Write in the Passive Voice

Writers most often drop into passive voice when they are unsure of themselves, when they don't want anything to happen to one of their characters, when they don't want their characters to do anything bad.

Roger MacBride Allen

To Get Over Writer's Block Just Write

Regardless of the issues a writer struggles with--creative block, procrastination, fear of failure, etc.--the very act of writing tends to stoke the energy, continue the flow, direct the current of further writing. Writing begets writing.

Dennis Palumbo

Former TV Talk Show Host Dick Cavett Remembers His Favorite Author Guests

Anthony Burgess recounted how, diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor, he rapidly dashed off four novels in succession to support his family. Upon learning he'd been misdiagnosed, he claimed he was "vaguely disappointed. All that hard work for nothing." John Cheever on drinking while writing: "I can detect a sip of sherry in a paragraph." Vidal Gore on Truman Capote's death: "A brilliant career move."

Dick Cavett 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Writing a Novel in First Person

First-person narratives often appeal to beginners because writing one feels like being an actor and slipping into disguise. Actually, a novel could be made up of more than one character addressing the reader in the first person, but to attempt such things you require a good ear for voices because each of them must be instantly recognizable.

Lesley Grant-Adamson

Prolific Writers Are Not Necessarily Bad Writers

I've been annoyed less by sneers at my alleged overproduction than by the imputation that to write much means to write badly. I've always written with great care and even some slowness. I've put in rather more hours a day at the task than some writers seem able to.

Anthony Burgess 

For A Novelist Early Success Is Not Necessarily a Good Thing

Winning the National Book Award for your first boo is an efficient way to lose your writer friends. People are cheered by your success--but only up to a point.

Ron Chernow

Friday, October 2, 2015

Choosing Your Novel's Setting

When you choose setting, you had better choose it wisely and well, because the very choice defines--and circumscribes--your story's possibilities.

Jack M. Bickham

Don't Let a Family Member Review Your Writing

In general, never choose your critic from your immediate family circle: they have usually no knowledge of the process of writing, however literary they may be as consumers; and in their best-natured act of criticism one may hear the unconscious grinding of axes sounding like a medieval tournament.

Jacques Barzun

John Cheever On Writing For Hollywood

I went to Hollywood to make money. It's very simple. The people are friendly and the food is good, but I've never been happy there. Perhaps because I only went there to pick up a check.

John Cheever

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Raymond Chandler On Working in Hollywood

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.

Raymond Chandler

Ernest Hemingway on Writing During the Summer

Summer is a discouraging time to work--you don't feel death coming on as the way it does in the fall when the boys really put pen to paper.

Ernest Hemingway 

The One-Book Author

There are several reasons why so many American writers have only one book in them. One is that it is very hard to be a writer of serious fiction in this country, not merely because we have so little respect for such work but because we throw up so many distractions in the way of it. All the hullabaloo attendant to writing a book to which other people respond intensely can be hugely flattering and can make it difficult to get on with one's work.

Jonathan Yardley 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Most Writers Go Through a Period of Rejection Before They Are Published

Early in my writing career, I managed to turn out three novels, one right after another, while I was married, raising two children, keeping house, and working full time as a medical secretary. Those novels were never published and netted me not one red cent, but the work was essential. Writing those books prepared the way for the fourth book, which was published and got me launched as a professional writer.

Sue Grafton

What Is Literary Style?

Style is an author's choice of words (diction), arrangement of words in each sentence (syntax), and handling of sentences and paragraph units to achieve a specific effect.

David Madden

The Writer-Reader Relationship

The writer and the reader are involved in a creative relationship. The writer must provide the materials with which the reader will construct bright pictures in his head. The reader will use those materials as a partial guide and will finish the pictures with the stuff from his own life experience.

John D. MacDonald

The Sting a Writer Feels Over a Bad Review

I get angry at the stupidity of critics who willfully refuse to see what my books are really about. I'm aware of malevolence, especially in England. A bad review by a man I admire hurts terribly.

Anthony Burgess

The Importance of a Novel's Characters

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.

James N. Frey 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451"

Since its publication in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 has handily retained its place in the canon of dystopian fiction: more approachable than 1984, not nearly as baroque as A Clockwork Orange. Its long-standing presence on adolescent reading lists makes it no less worthy of adult attention, and in an era when accessibility to books is still regularly denied--whether by jittery school boards or petulant online retailers--its relevance can hardly be disputed.

Dave Itzkoff 

More People Read Memoirs Than Literary Novels

I don't think there are more bad memoirs than there are bad novels: Most novels are bad and most memoirs are bad and most poems are bad and most movies are bad.

     I just think genres rise and fall: When the novel began authors were seen as morally reprehensible because the books were made up. And because they didn't have any interest in truth. Obviously you can tell great truths in a novel and you can lie in a novel.

      Memoirs fill the need of dealing with the real. As novels have gotten less real, memoir readership has grown.

Mary Karr 

Parenting How-To Books

You know less than you think you do. The constant reinforcement of that sorry idea has become a drumbeat under parenting, as advice books of every kind pullulate like toadstools after a storm. Such literature sets out to refocus our daily life with your child, usually with proscriptive rebukes and optimistic exercises--with easy-sounding answers that are often impossible to enact. Anyone who has raised a child will know how assaultive the abundance of such parenting advice can feel, how dreary it is to be told constantly that if you only did (or, indeed, had done) something slightly different, your child's problems would evanesce, and you would have, through the alchemy of nurture, a child who is happy / well behaved / nonviolent / good at math / successful / self motivated / popular / thin.

Andrew Solomon 

Monday, September 28, 2015

One Great Book Doesn't Make One A Great Writer

A man can write one book that can be great, but this doesn't make him a great writer--just the writer of a great book.

Anthony Burgess

Writing In The Morning

I write when I can and don't write when I can't; always in the morning or early part of the day. You get very gaudy ideas at night but they don't stand up.

Raymond Chandler 

Writing The First Draft Of A Novel

The only true creative aspect of novel writing is the first draft. That's when it's coming straight from your head and your heart, a direct tapping of the unconscious. The rest is donkey work. It is, however, donkey work that must be done. You must rewrite.

Evan Hunter 

The Use Of Exclamation Points In Dialogue

Exclamation points in dialogue tend to make statements sound lovesick teenage email. Try at all costs to avoid using them!

Allison Amend 

Kicking The Writing Habit

Writing is a nervous habit I contracted about age 15 and 60 years on, I can no more kick it than I can kick tobacco and booze.

James Gould Cozzens 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Breaking Into Print Is Usually Hard For All Writers

My career was more fortunate than a lot of people's. I published first when I was eighteen. Before I picked up about sixty rejection slips. A lot of guys pick up 400, 500, or something like that.

Stephen King

Great Characters in Literature Would Not Be Great People in Real Life

Something that makes a really great literary character would often make a horrible roommate, or friend, or boyfriend. And that's why they're so much fun to read about and it's so great that they don't exist.

Mallory Ortberg

Friday, September 25, 2015

H. P. Lovecraft And Young Adult Readers

For adolescents, something about horror never goes out of style. They often feel an excited disgust upon learning how things really are, and their disgust is merely a notch away from the more thoroughgoing pleasures of horror. It is the closest they can come to the sublime.

     Every teacher of creative writing in every American college and university is no doubt familiar with the tendency of young people, usually young men, to concoct gruesome narratives that take place in an edgily unspecified locale. Mayhem, awkward sentences, paper-thin characterizations, and complicated weaponry vie for the reader's attention. But always there are the aliens, organic or machinelike or both, and always the accompanying rage and revulsion.

     The authors of these horrific fictions sit in the back of the classroom avoiding eye contact, rarely speaking to anybody. Shabbily dressed, fidgety, tattooed, hysterically sullen, they are bored by realism and reality when not actively hostile to both. When asked about their reading, they will gamely mumble the usual list of names: Neal Stephenson, Stephen King, J. G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick. But the name I have heard most often mentioned in these litanies is that of H. P. Lovecraft, whom they revere. He is their spirit-guide.

Charles Baxter

Rating Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler is a bit like Rimbaud: a great artist who left behind no great art. The plot of his most famous novel, The Big Sleep, makes no sense, as he admitted himself, and none of his novels hold up--their characters are thin, their wisecracking quickly stale, unless you happen to adore wisecracking.

Charles Finch

Edgar Allan Poe's Obsessions

The word that recurs must crucially in Poe's fiction is horror. His stories are often shaped to bring the narrator and the reader to a place where the use of the word is justified, where the word and the experience it evokes are explored or by implication defined. So crypts and entombments and physical morbidity figure in Poe's writing with a prominence that is not characteristic of major literature in general. Clearly Poe was fascinated by popular obsessions, with crime, with premature burial.

Marilynne Robinson

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Cutting The Fat Out Of A Manuscript

I suffer agony over some of the cutting, but I realize it's got to be done. When something really good goes it's an awful wrench, but as you probably know, something really can be good and yet have no place in the scheme of a book.

Thomas Wolfe

"Dry" Writing

We sometimes speak of academic writing, of courtroom transcripts, of material that does not compel our attention or elicit a strong desire to continue as dry. What do we mean by "dry" is that it does not enable use to see what we read, it does not move us, and, most important, it does not stimulate our intellect with insight, its ostensible purpose.

Sol Stein

Anyone Can Become A Writer

Anyone can become a writer. The trick is not in becoming a writer, it is staying a writer. Day after week after month after year. Staying in there for the long haul.

Harlan Ellison 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why Writers Drink And How It Affects Their Writing

Many writers use alcohol to help themselves write--to calm their anxieties, lift their inhibitions. This may work for awhile but eventually the writing suffers. The unhappy writer then drinks more; the writing then suffers more, and so on. 

Joan Acocella

The Science Fiction Fan

Most science fiction fans like to think of themselves as special people. The especially like to picture themselves as being on top of the latest issues, but most of them are reactionary escapists. The average fan probably started as a high school misfit who discovered pulp magazines as a way of avoiding reality.

Harlan Ellison 

Writers Who Seek Fame

I never cease to be amazed why some of my writer friends became famous and others, just as talented, didn't. I've come to suspect it's a matter of wanting fame or not, and those who don't want it, don't get it.

Malcolm Cowley 

Truman Capote On The Nobel Prize For Literature

The Nobel Prize, to me, is a joke. They give it year after year to one absolutely nonexistent writer after another.

Truman Capote 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Writing: The Hidden Occupation

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.

Hillary Waugh

A Dim View Of The Writing Life

The professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and has become almost nothing.

V. S. Pritchett 

One Author, Different Writing Styles

I write in different styles because I hear different voices in my head. It would be boring to have always the same voice, point of view.

Gore Vidal 

Novels With Too Much Description

When I wrote my first novel I thought that "good writing" meant "beautiful writing"--long descriptive passages filled with adjectives, adverbs, metaphors and similes. "Reads like poetry," I told myself with satisfaction. Then I got my first rejection letter in which the editor said, "Too much description, not enough action and dialogue."

Madge Harrah 

Writer Procrastination

The procrastination has gotten worse over the years, and of course, I blame technology. When I was younger, my go-to method for avoiding dealing with a writing assignment was to pick up a glossy magazine. My procrastination was, in a sense, solo. Now, with the proliferation of the social media, I get to procrastinate alongside thousands of others, which makes me feel less alone yet more ashamed and overcome by inertia because, well, everyone else is doing it! Misery loves company, but company is the last thing I need when what I really need is to write.

Anna Holmes


Do Writing Styles Rub Off Among Novelists?

Some novelists I know abstain from reading other people's fiction when they are writing their own, for fear of adulterating their prose style with unconscious borrowings. The rigor of this impresses me. But I don't have the discipline to foreswear fiction for the years that it takes me to finish a book. And in any case, I'm not entirely convinced that having another author's style rub off on mine would be such a terrible thing.

Zoe Heller

Monday, September 21, 2015

Isaac Asimov On Book Titles

I'm pretty careful about titles. I always believe that a short title is better than a long title and I like to have one-word titles such as Foundation. What's more, I like to have a title that describes the content of the story without giving it away, but which, when the story is finished, is seen by the reader to take on an added significance.

Isaac Asimov 

Writing Is Rewriting

The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.

Robert Cormier

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Novelist's Take on Literary Critics

I have a friend who says that reviewers are the Tickbirds of the literary rhinoceros--but he is being kind. Tickbirds perform a valuable service to the rhino and the rhino hardly notices the birds.

John Irving 

The Prolific Mystery Novelist

A mystery writer who waits patiently for a mood to encompass him, for an idea to strike, may find starvation, or other employment, striking first. The professional in this field cannot write one book every three or four years. Three or four a year would be more like it.

Richard Lockridge

Who is the World's Most Rejected Writer?

The Guinnes Book of World Records has a category for the highest number of publisher rejections for a manuscript. The current record is 106 for a book called World Government Crusade by Gilbert Young. Because one might not be proud of that distinction the record is likely to be inaccurate. For example, Robert Pirsig claims to have received 121 rejections for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Jim Fisher 

A Novelist's Definition of Plot

I define story as a narrative of events which moves through time or implies the passage of time, and which involves change. I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax.

Ursula K. Le Guin 

Liking Books That Offend

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.

James Hannaham

Not Everyone is a Harry Potter Fan

When my younger son was reading the Harry Potter books, I thought it would be fun to read them along with him, since I knew that adults were enjoying them too. But when I tried the first time, I found the writing flat and shallow, and the characters less than interesting.

Lydia Davis 

The Difficulty Of Writing Clearly

Clear expression can come only from clear thinking. And I know how hard it is to write something that is easy to read.

Benjamin Moser

Spy Fiction

"The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" led me from crime fiction to spy fiction (Raymond Chandler originally brought me to crime), but it was "Tinker, Tailor" that really sealed the deal. Having spent my 20s wrapped in a self-conscious literary cocoon, shunning genre, it was a shock to realize that a great novel could be written with international intrigue and the occasional gun, and not only about suburban malaise.

Olen Steinhauer 

Writing For Your Reader

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.

Diane Ackerman 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Old Writer

Old writers in their youth understood themselves to be apprentices to masters superior in seasoned experience, and were ready to wait their turn in the hierarchy of recognition. In their lone and hardened way of sticking-to-it, they were unwaveringly industrious…In their college years, they might on occasion enroll in courses in "creative writing," though unaware of the vapid redundancy of the phrase: courses presided over by defeated professors who had once actually published a novel and were thereby rendered reverential, but afterward were never heard from again. Old writers were spared…the institutionalization of creative writing M.F.A. [Masters of Fine Arts] programs in the universities, taught by graduates of M.F.A. programs--a cycle of M.F.A. students who will in turn become M.F.A. teachers…Old writers in their youth were resolutely immured in their first novels, steadfastly enduring unworldly and self-chosen isolation; they shunned journalism, they shunned coteries, they shunned parties, they shunned the haunting of magazines for review assignments, they shunned editorial work, fearful of being drawn into the distracting pragmatism of publishing.

Cynthia Ozick 

Guilty Low-Brow Literary Pleasures

The last time I was ashamed of reading something was when I wanted to understand the "Fifty Shades of Grey" fuss. I bought the book on my Kindle, because I didn't want my fellow commuters to see me with it…

     Shame is something we feel in public. I doubt that anyone is truly embarrassed when alone with a book. It's the fear of being found out that makes us nervous--or, rather, being found out by the wrong people…

     We like to think of reading as an ennobling, uplifting activity, which it very often is. But sometimes we're reluctant to admit that it can also be entertaining, escapist, even arousing…

     Alone with our books, we ought to feel free to take off the brown paper cover and think and imagine whatever we want. No one is looking.

Charles McGrath 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Finding Time to Write

Making writing a big deal tends to make writing difficult. Keeping writing casual tends to keep it possible. Nowhere is this more true than around the issue of time. One of the biggest myths about writing is that in order to do it we must have great swathes of uninterrupted time.

Julia Cameron 

Novels That Write Themselves

The assumption is that writing a novel is so easy anyone can do it if only there weren't the pressures of an important busy schedule, which apparently you, dear writer, do not have. In fact, a good story often reads so easily that civilians [non-writers] seem to think that the darn things write themselves. Whenever I leave the house, I make sure that one of my novels is hard at work. I expect five pages by the time I get back.

David Morrell 

The Role Of Revision In Writing

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.

Cheryl Strayed 

The Espionage Novel Hero

Heroes in espionage fiction tend to fall into two categories: the world-weary professional and the rank amateur.

Joshua Hammer 

Biographies Of Writers

I have to confess to being a real sucker for literary biographies, especially the early chapters in which the writer wrestles with ambition, not to mention paying the rent, and then, of course, the late chapters portraying his/her decline and fall.

T. C. Boyle

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Books About The Dangers Of The Digital World

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.

Jenna Wortham 

The Pleasure Of Manuscript Revising

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.

Thomas Mallon 

The Comic Novel

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.

Jonathan Evison 

Full Time Writers And Money

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.]

Mohsin Hamid 

The "Memoir-Novel"

The memoir never strayed that far from fiction--in form and, notoriously, sometimes in content, too. At the height of the memoir boom, the highest praise you could lavish on a work of autobiographical nonfiction was that it "read like a novel." Life, after all, is mostly uneventful; even the crises that we experience now and then are often random, inexplicable. That inexplicability is precisely what makes us want our lives to have "meaning" in the same way works of art and literature have "meaning"--meaning derived from structure, pattern, order. It's no accident that the greatest memorists, from St. Augustine to Vladimir Nabokov, were also serious students of literature…As such, these writers knew how to give the random stuff of life a pleasing literary shape.

Daniel Mendelsohn 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Suicidal Writer

I often thought of killing myself but then I wanted lunch.

Paula Fox

The Burned-Out Novelist

If you are exasperated, burned out, getting nowhere, and cynical about this novel writing "crap," then quit. Life is tough enough.

Donald Maass

The Effect Of Fame On Friendship

Most people who become suddenly famous overnight will find that they lose practically eighty percent of their friends. Your old friends just can't stand it for some reason.

Truman Capote

The Level Of Taste And Intelligence In Hollywood

In the picture business intelligence and taste are to be found only among the office help.

Joseph Hansen

How A Bad Review Affected One Novelist

I quit writing after Publishers Weekly told me my first novel was "just terrible." Something broke, you see. I was 29 and I'd worked ten years at that novel, and I didn't see the point of spending another ten years only to be told the same thing again. So I tend bar here in North Plainfield, New Jersey, and try to encourage the other writers who come by now and then. We don't get many writers in North Plainfield.

Luke Walton 

The Manuscript Rejection Letter

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.

Lisa Scottoline

Writing School

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.

Bonnie Friedman 

The Aspiring Novelist

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.

J. K. Rowling 

Do Writers Like Each Other?

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.

Duncan McLean

Literary Pretentiousness

What turns me off most is literary pretentiousness. It forces the reader to think about the author instead of allowing the strength of the story to come through.

Candace Bushnell

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Boring Novel

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.

Adam Kirsch 

Talking Animals In Children's Books

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.

Christopher Healy

Books In The Bookstore's Humor Section

Avoid the ghetto of the bookstore humor section. It is always in the back corner next to computer manuals, and all of the books seem like they were written by a corny dad in his free time.

Judd Apatow

Monday, September 14, 2015

So You Want To Be Famous?

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.

Amanda Foreman

Publishers Favor Young Writers

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.

Anna Holmes

Crime Novelist Helen Eustis

  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.

Jim Fisher

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Converting A Journal Into A Memoir

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.

Heather Havrilesky 

Novels Preferred By Middle-Class Readers

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.

Timothy Aubry 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Literary Style Over Substance

As a reader, I'm put off when I suspect that a writer is too aware of his own style, or is more concerned with style than communication. It's a lot like a politician who takes on a speaker's voice when talking publicly. I consider this, in writers and politicians, pretentious and phony. I prefer to read authors who don't recognize their own literary voices, or if they do, are clever enough to make their writing style appear naturally interesting and unique.

     There is a dreadful style of writing, prose intended to sound lofty and important, found in the promotional literature put out by colleges and universities. The thoughts and messages conveyed in this form are usually quite simple. An example of this style can be found in many college mission statements. In straightforward prose, a university public relations person might write: "The goal of our institution involves providing our students with a quality education at a reasonable price." Because this is so obvious, to say it directly and plainly makes it sound kind of stupid. But when a mission statement is puffed up with carefully selected words and high-minded phrases, the simplicity of the message is replaced by syntax intended to make it sound profound. This style is pompous and false, and represents writing at its worst. Here is an example of highly pretentious writing taken from a pamphlet published by a relatively prestigious liberal arts college:

     "The mission of ________College is to help young men and women develop competencies, commitments and characteristics that have distinguished human beings at their best. All of us who are affiliated with the College are working toward that end each day in as many different ways as their are students on this campus. (Wow, 1,400 different ways.) Our students have unique talents and new insights that are being developed during each interaction with faculty, staff, alumni and other students. (I taught at the college level for 32 years. Where I worked, very few students had unique talent and new insights. In fact, some of them were uniquely untalented and completely without insight. So in my opinion, the talent/insight stuff is a load of stylistic crap.) For each student, those interactions become building blocks in their foundation for living." (Yeah, sure.)

     Ignore, if you can, the lack of substance, unadulterated puffing, and pandering in this mission statement and look at the style. Note the lofty and, to my mind, cheesy alliteration that starts off with the words--competencies, commitments and characteristics--and the use of the buzz words distinguished, affiliated, insights, interaction, and foundation, typical university-speak wordage comparable to university-speak favorites such as outcomes, challenges, and impact (instead of affect) not used in this passage.

     If I were a creative writing teacher, I would use passages like the above to show writing students how not to write. It's a bit ironic that so much heavy-handed, dead prose is produced by colleges and universities. Professors, notorious for being writers of unreadable fiction and highly pompous and dense nonfiction, also contribute to the style over substance problem. If you don't believe me, look through any university press book catalogue. The book titles themselves are beyond comprehension, and the catalogue descriptions of these works are so badly written it's no wonder no one buys this stuff.

Jim Fisher
      

E. M. Forster's Distinction Between Novelists And Historians

E. M. Forster makes a limitlessly useful distinction, in "Aspects of the Novel," between the novelist and the historian: "The historian," he explains, "deals with actions, and with the characters of men only so far as he can deduce them from their actions." On the other hand, "it is the function of the novelist to reveal the hidden life at its source: to tell us more about "Queen Victoria than could be known, and thus to produce a character who is not the Queen Victoria of history."

Daniel Torday 

Do Most Writers Hate Themselves?

One most often hears about the spur of self-hatred in stand-up comics, but writers do seem to be another high-risk groups for this diagnosis, made most famously by George Orwell in his essay "Why I Write" (1946). Orwell indicates a clear awareness that self-loathing and self-love are locked in a tight, procreative embrace. The first writerly motivation he cites is "Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get back at grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc."

Thomas Mallon

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Talent And The Creative Process

 Many writers are reluctant to talk about the creative process--that is, how and where they get their talent, ideas, and inspiration to write. Many authors deny that talent is an inborn gift while others ridicule the notion that writers have to be inspired before they can create. I believe that while there are a few people simply incapable of writing anything decent, most individual can teach themselves the craft well enough to write for publication.

     Most of the highly literate novel writers born with special literary gifts are, is some shape or form, mentally ill. No joke. A good many of them are also suicidal alcoholics and drug addicts. Being hit with the born literary gift is like being struck by lightening. No thanks.

     Perhaps having some natural ability to write and create is more common that not having it at all. The need to create probably resides in most people. When a reader tells a writer that he can't imagine how one can write a book or an article, some writers may wonder how a person couldn't produce a literary work.

     I think a lot of authors like to give the false impression that writing is extremely difficult. Once you get the hang of it, it's fairly easy. That's the writer's dirty little secret.

Jim Fisher

What Kids 10 To 12 Like To Read

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.

Lyn Pritchard

Writer Ben Hecht On Hollywood

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.

Ben Hecht

Writing The How-To Article

Some kinds of writing are more debilitating than others, and it took me years to learn which, for me, is which. Instructional writing--the pure how-to article--is the worst.

John Jerome

The Power Of Narrative Nonfiction

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.

Robert Vare 

Waiting For Your Novel To Be Published

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.

Ann Packer 

Journalists Must Be Trustworthy

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.

John Hersey

The Value Of Primary Documentation In Journalism

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.

Steve Weinberg 

Fame More Than Literary Quality Sells Books

 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.

Jim Fisher

What Are Books In The "Humor" Section Of The Bookstore About?

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.

Michael Ian Black


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Stephen King: Literary Celebrity

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.

Laura Lippman 

The Decline Of Literary Fiction?

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…

Tom Perrotta 

Children's Books Make Good Movies

Children's books typically make for better movies than anything made for adults.

Alice Gregory 

Distinguishing History, Biography, And The Memoir

History, after all, is not the past but a story of the past; biography is not a life but a story of a life. And a memoir is not a memory but an artist's transfiguration of that memory.

Benjamin Moser

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

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.

David McCullough 

The Fear Of Writing

 Anxiety is not only an inevitable part of the writing process but a necessary part. If you're not scared, you're not writing. A state of anxiety is the writer's natural habitat. Yet those who live there are seldom bold. War-chasing Hemingways are the exception among writers. Most seek adventure only in their imaginations. Like most of us, they're brave here, timid there, trying to muddle through, to sneak enough good words onto paper before a surge of anxiety erases their literary disk. At the same time, they're driven to seek attention and must peddle their wares to the public.

     To love writing, fear writing, and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction....Writing is both frightening and exhilarating. It couldn't be done without the other.

Ralph Keyes

Mickey Spillane On Writing

Mickey Spillane, addressing a Mystery Writer's of America convention, warned his fans not to look closely for symbolic depth in his novels. Of his famous protagonist, Spillane said, "Mike Hammer drinks beer, not cognac, because I can't spell cognac."

James Charlton and Lisbeth Mark

One Writer's Idea Of A Good Writing Day

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.

John Jerome

Writers Need To Tighten Up Their Prose

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

William Zinsser

What's Real In Fiction And Nonfiction?

 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.

Deborah Tannen

Humiliations Of The Writing Life

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."

Robin Robertson

Writers Lured To Hollywood

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.

Character in Rod Serling's play, Velvet Alley

Charles Bukowski On Not Selling Out

  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.

Charles Bukowski 

The Writer's Day Job

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.

Margaret Atwood

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Are Writers Prone To Suicide?

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.

Jim Fisher

The Importance Of Plot

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.

J. Madison Davis

The Coming-Of-Age Memoir

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.

Susan Carol Hauser

Issac Asimov On Writer's Block

 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.

Isaac Asimov

     

Stephen King On HIs Place In The Pantheon Of Writers

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....

Stephen King

Novelists Who Practice Law

I enjoy the dubious distinction of being known among lawyers as a writer, and among writers as a lawyer.

Arthur Train

[Other lawyers who became successful novelists include: Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turow, John Mortimer, Louis Auchincloss, John Grisham, and Richard North Patterson.] 

Your Book Is Published, Now What?

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.

Ralph Keyes

How Publishers Screen Manuscripts

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.

Michael Joseph

The Emotionally Detached Journalist

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.

Janathan Raban

Book Signings And Other Writer Humiliations

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.

Deborah Moggach

[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?"]

Monday, September 7, 2015

Writing Versus Talking On TV

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 studi