Monday, August 31, 2015

Begging For Cover Blurbs

   Writers published by the biggest New York houses get [blurb] requests all the time. Typically they come from the editors at these publishing houses. It will be an email, or an actual book in the mail with a note attached that says something like this: "Jane Doe's first novel is an exciting new take on an old story and we'd be so pleased if you'd give it a look. And if you deem it worthy, a few words of support on Jane's behalf, sent to us by such and such a date, would give her novel a tremendous lift!"

     The more famous and respected the writer, the more of these blurb requests he or she will get. They might come from friends of the famous writer, too, or from his or her editor or agent and their friends. One imagines that Jonathan Franzen, for example, could spend hours and hours responding to the blurb requests he gets. Some writers are famous in the book trade for blurbing a lot (too much), and others for never blurbing at all.

Hector Tobar

Why Johnny Can't Write

  Can you tell a pronoun from a participle; use commas correctly in long sentences; describe the difference between its and it's?

     If not, you have plenty of company in the world of job seekers. Despite stubbornly high unemployment, many employers complain that they can't find qualified candidates.

     Often, the mismatch results from applicants' inadequate communication skills. In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates' inability to speak and write clearly….

     Experts differ on why job candidates can't communicate effectively. Bram Lowsky, an executive vice president of Right Management, the workforce management arm of Manpower, blames technology. "With Gen X and Gen Y, because everything is shorthand and text, the ability to communicate effectively is challenged," he said. "You see it in the business world, whether with existing employees or job candidates looking for work."

     Others say colleges are not doing a good job. In a survey of 318 employers published earlier this year by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and conducted by Hart Research Associates, 80 percent said colleges should focus more on written and oral communication….

Kelley Hollandt

Young Writers: Too Self-Conscious And Pretentious

 Though everybody is talented and original, often it does not break through for a long time. People are too scared, too self-conscious, too proud, too shy. They have been taught too many things about construction, plot, unity, mass and coherence….

     Another trouble with writers in the first twenty years is an anxiety to be effective, to impress people. They write pretentiously. It is so hard not to do this. That was my trouble.

     For many years it puzzled me why so many things I wrote were pretentious, high-sounding, and in consequence utterly dull and uninteresting. It was a regular horror to read them again. Of course they did not sell either, not one of them.

Brenda Ueland

Stephen King On The Problems Of The Long Novel

 Let us consider the problems of the long novel, in which the heft is apt to come in for almost as much critical examination as the contents. There is, for instance, Jack Beatty's famous critique of James A. Michener's Chesapeake (865 pages): "My best advice is don't read it; my second best is don't drop it on your foot." Presumably, Beatty read it--or at least skimmed it--before offering these helpful hints, but you get the idea. In this hurry-scurry age, big books are viewed with suspicion, and sometimes disdain.

     The book buyer's suspicions are more justified. The critic, after all, is being paid to read. Consumers must spend their hard-earned cash for the same privilege. Then there's the question of time. Prospective buyers have every right to ask: "Do I really want to give two weeks of my reading life to this novel? Can it possibly be worth it when there are so many others--most a good deal shorter--clamoring for my attention?"

Stephen King

A Bad Novel Is As Hard To Write As A Good One

When it comes to the novel you have to work long and hard even to produce a bad one. This may help explain why there are so many more bad amateur poets around than there are bad amateur novelists. Writing a good poem may be as difficult as writing a good novel. It may even be harder. But any clown with a sharp pencil can write out a dozen lines of verse and call it a poem. Not just any clown can fill 200 pages with prose and call it a novel. Only the more determined clowns can get the job done.

Lawrence Block

A Writer And Her Books

     I've decided that books are my enemy, though they used to be my great love. They are taking over. They crowd my dining room, they double up in the bedroom, they make the attic floor sag. We even have a library in the bathroom: shelves and shelves of books where a normal person might have a vanity table or piles of towels….

     I once went through our library and calculated that my husband and I had read about a third of the books that we own, and I think, as we buy more books and read of third of what we buy, that the statistic is more or less holding up. Sometimes we even buy a book and go to put it on one of our few organized shelves only to find that it is already there….

     We have a psychological problem and we recognize it: We never get rid of books….It's a sick relationship we have with these piles of pages between covers. Most people wold be secretly bragging if they said this, but I'm not bragging. I think it's weird and demented. Maybe I'm so involved with my books' fate because I am a writer, and I can all too well imagine a reader taking one of my books and cosigning it to the trash heap.

Amy Wilentz

Writer Envy

    It used to be like a fever with me, a compulsion, a madness: to go into a bookstore, head straight for the brand-new books, flip right to the back of the jacket and see if the author was young or old, my age or even--rats!--younger. Envy is a vocational hazard for most writers. It festers in one's mind, distracting one from one's own work, at its most virulent even capable of rousing the sufferer from sleep to brood over another's triumph.

     Envy is the green-eyed beast. It is a sickness; it is a hunger.... It takes what was most beloved--reading books, writing them--and sours it, a quick drop of vinegar into the glass of sweet milk. Even friendships aren't exempt.

Bonnie Friedman


  

Learning To Write On Your Own

Not too long ago, the concept of studying a "creative writing program" was unheard of. If you wanted to be a writer, then you became an avid reader and a citizen of the world, learning about life through travel and personal experience until you knew enough to write an essay, short story, or poem that said something. In college, you majored in English literature, philosophy, or history-areas of concentration that would introduce the best books and the most influential thinkers.

Lee Gutkind

Identifying With A Fictitious Character

If it is true that no two writers get aesthetic interest from exactly the same materials, yet true that all writers, given adequate technique, can stir interest in their special subject matter--since all human beings have the same root experience (we're born, we suffer, we die, to put it grimly), so that all we need for our sympathy to be roused is that the writer communicate with power and conviction the similarities in his characters' experience and our own--then it must follow that the first business of the writer must be to make us see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel. However odd, however wildly unfamiliar the fictional world--odd as hog-farming to a fourth-generation Parisian designer, or Wall Street to an unemployed tuba player--we must be drawn into the characters' world as if we were born to it.

John Gardner

Literary License In Creative Nonfiction

 The term literary license is often used in reference to writers who manipulate truth and accuracy in stories--what really happened--to enhance dramatic impact and, therefore, to make a story more readable or exciting.

     Creative nonfiction writers, however, are permitted a different form of literary license: to use the literary devices previously and exclusively available to the fiction writer in the writing of their true and accurate creative nonfiction stories. In other words, nonfiction writers cannot alter the facts, but they can capture and present them much more dramatically.

Lee Gutkind

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Norman Mailer On Responding to Letters

 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.

Norman Mailer

Science Writing

Science writing has a reputation for bloodlessness, but in many ways it is the most human of disciplines. Science, after all, is a quest, and as such it's one of the oldest and most enduring stories we have. It's about searching for answers, struggling with setbacks, persevering through tedium and competing with colleagues all eager to put forth their own ideas about how the world works. Perhaps most of all, it's about women and men possessed by curiosity, people who devote their lives to pursuits the rest of us find mystifying or terrifying--chasing viruses, finding undiscovered planets, dusting off dinosaurs or teasing venomous snakes.

Michelle Nijhuis

Lapdog Journalism

I think the principal problem with the establishment press, at least in terms of political journalism, has been excess deference to, and closeness with, the most powerful political factions, precincts over which journalism is, at its best, supposed to exercise oversight and serve as a watchdog. Instead it serves as a kind of amplifying mechanism and as a servant to them.

Glenn Greenwald

The Novelist's Fear Of Failure

American novelists, more than others, are haunted by the fear of failure, because it's such a common pattern in America. The ghost of Fitzgerald, dying in Hollywood, with his comeback book unfinished, and his best book, Tender Is The Night, scorned. His ghost hangs over every American novelist's typewriter.

Irwin Shaw

Stephen Koch On Clear Writing

  First drafts, even pretty good ones, can be excruciatingly hard for anyone but their authors to read….What is going on? Is John talking to Mary, or is he talking to Bill? Are we in Iowa or Guatemala? Nothing is so infuriating as not being understood, but if a reader of good basic intelligence does not know what you are talking about, you have a problem. Don't rationalize it by blaming the messenger for the message. Your reader is not stupid. You are not being understood, and it is your problem.

     Sadly, your first readers may be reluctant to tell you the truth about your lack of clarity. It is a fact that many readers (especially in a school) will go to great lengths to conceal their bafflement over a piece of prose they don't understand. Rather than run the risk of being thought dense or uncomprehending or philistine, all too many readers, including many who should know better--editors, teachers, workshop members--would rather skip over an obscurity than admit they just don't get it.

Stephen Koch

There's A National Novel Writing Month?

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."

John Williams

Writer Biographies As Author Self-Help Books

When I'm struggling with my own work I'm often drawn to biographies of writers. Not only do learn fun facts about prominent figures--Henry James suffered terribly from constipation, Kafka chewed every bite of food 32 times, Flannery O'Conner cared for a flock of around 40 peacocks, Montaigne never saw his wife with her clothes off, Balzac fortified himself with a paste made of unroasted coffee beans--I'm also reminded that there's no single path for living a successful creative or personal life. It's inspiring to read about a flawed human being who struggled with his or her demons and afflictions, experienced paralyzing episodes of failure or self-doubt, but somehow managed to do the work anyway, and produce something that enriched the world. That's my version of self-help.

Tom Perrota 

The Printed Book Is Here To Stay

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.

Adam Kirsch

The Armchair Traveler

My first writing mentor, Annie Dillard, once told our college class that if you ever have the choice between visiting a far-flung place or reading about it, choose the book. [As a nonfiction writer, if I had a mentor, which I didn't, the advice would have been just the opposite.]

Virginia Pye

Subjectivity In Creative Nonfiction

     Truth to the traditional reporter encompasses objectivity, meaning that the reporter must not allow personal feelings to enter into the writing of the story. Like Jack Webb in the old and often rerun Dragnet TV series, they are seeking "Just the facts, ma'am." What the reporter/writer feels or thinks personally about the nature or truth of the story is irrelevant. Curiously, most everyone in the newspaper business will admit that objectivity is impossible, but that doesn't seem to diminish the intensity of their belief in the principle.

     More often than not, writers turn to the creative nonfiction genre because they feel passionately about a person, place, subject, or issue and have no interest in or intention of maintaining a balanced or objective tone or viewpoint. Writers turn to creative nonfiction because they have a story to tell, often involving themselves, and they do not want to be reined in or  controlled by Big Brother rules and regulations.

Lee Gutkind

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Masterplot

There are stories that we tell over and over in myriad forms and that connect vitally with our deepest values, wishes, and fears. Cinderella is one of them. Its variants can be found frequently in European and American cultures. Its constituent events elaborate a thread of neglect, injustice, rebirth, and reward that responds to deeply held anxieties and desires. As such, the Cinderella masterplot has an enormous emotional capital that can be drawn on in constructing a narrative. But it is only one of many masterplots. We seem to connect our thinking about life, and particularly our own lives, to a number of masterplots that we may or may not be fully aware of. To the extent that our values and identity are linked to a masterplot, that masterplot can have strong rhetorical impact. We tend to give credibility to narratives that are structured by it. [True crime narratives often incorporate masterplots.]

H. Porter Abbott

What Makes A Good Dust Jacket?

 The great book designer George Salter once said that a good dust jacket "must be in perfect accord with the literary quality of the book. It must be even more if it is to function as an important sales factor, if it is to 'stop' the eye of the person passing by." …

     According to many book designers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to put together a good dust jacket. Each one needs to be approved by sales representatives, editors, art buyers and authors before it wins approval. "It is getting tougher and tougher to do good work these days," said Oliver Munday, a designer for Knopf….And Matt Dorfman, freelance book designer, admitted, "It was a pretty abysmal year for me approval-wise."

Nicholas Blechman


Don't Write About Common Experiences

If you write about your father hitting you on the head, you're up against a lot of competition with people who are writing about exactly the same experience. I used to tell students not to use certain subjects they seemed to gravitate to almost automatically at their age, such as the death of their grandparents--grandparents tend to die when you're in high school or college. I at least want to read about something I don't already know about. [How about: "Why my father hit my dead grandfather in the head." Just kidding.]

John Ashbery 

What Is Narrative?

Narrative is the representation of an event or series of events. "Event" is the key word here, though some people prefer the word "action." Without an event or an action you may have a "description," an "exposition," an "argument," a "lyric," some combination of these or something else altogether, but you won't have a narrative. "My dog has fleas" is a description of my dog, but it is not a narrative because nothing happens. "My dog was bitten by a flea" is a narrative. It tells of an event. The event is very small one--the bite of a flea--but that is enough to make it a narrative.

H. Porter Abbott

Writing In First Person

First person, past tense is a good way for beginning writers to tell a story. As voices go, it's straightforward, its boundaries reasonably clear. It's a familiar voice; we normally frame the ongoing narrative of our lives in the first person, past tense. "Where were you?" "I was out walking the dog and I stopped to buy an ice cream cone." But a first person narrator must be a participant in the story he's telling, and his involvement limits his information. He can report only what his senses reveal, what others tell him, what he knows, and what he speculates.

Richard Rhodes

Norman Mailer Versus Truman Capote

I think Capote's book and mine are formally similar, but vastly different. Obviously, I'd be the first to state that if he hadn't done In Cold Blood, it's conceivable that I wouldn't have thought of taking on The Executioner's Song. Nonetheless, it's also possible that something about The Executioner's Son [about the execution of a Utah killer named Gary Gillmore] called for doing it in the way I chose. In any event, its flavor is different from In Cold Blood [about the murder of a Kansas farm family in 1959]. Truman retained his style. Not the pure style--he simplified it--but it was still very much a book written by Truman Capote. You felt it every step of the way. The difference is that he tweaked it more, where I was determined to keep the factual narrative. [Capote created composite characters and invented events. In recreating the murder trial, he had the defense put on its case first.] I wanted my book to read like a novel, and it does, but I didn't want to sacrifice what literally happened in a scene for what I wanted to see happen. Of course, I could afford to feel that way. I had advantages Truman didn't. His killers were not the most interesting guys in the world, so it took Truman's exquisite skills to make his work a classic. I was in the more promising position of dealing with a man who was quintessentially American yet worthy of Dostoyevsky. If this were not enough, he [Gillmore] was also in love with a girl who--I'll go so far as to say--is a bona fide American heroine. I didn't want, therefore, to improve anything. Dedicated accuracy is not usually the first claim a novelist wishes to make, but here it became a matter of literary value. What I had was gold, if I had enough sense not to gild it.

Norman Mailer

The Creative Nonfiction Ending

The simplest ending to a nonfiction story is the climax. This is the scene that concludes a crisis, resolves a conflict, or marks a turning point in which the outcome becomes clear. An ending of this type should be considered in every narrative story. Obviously, it can be used only in a story that embraces some degree of narration, even if only a sequence of anecdotes. One approach to stories that consist of such a sequence is to break apart the principal anecdote, beginning with it, interrupting it at the point of greatest narrative suspense, then returning to it only at the end. More frequently, however, the climax is used as an ending in purely narrative stories, in which the overriding question from the outset is simply "What happened?"

James B. Steward

Literary Award Complaints

Literary prizes sometimes seem to function like parents whose approval we crave as well as spurn. The complaints are as common as they are contradictory: Prizes are awarded to tepid, undemanding best sellers everyone reads; prizes are awarded to obscure, abstruse books no one reads. They are awarded to the right authors, but for the wrong work (Hemingway for "The Old Man and the Sea," Faulkner for "A Fable"). They are awarded to the wrong authors for the wrong work (Margaret Mitchell for "Gone With the Wind"). They are withheld from the right authors for the right work (Gravity's Rainbow," by Thomas Pynchon, won jury approval for the Pulitzer Price in 1974 but was overruled by a board that deemed the novel "turgid," and "obscene"). Sometimes the grousing has the whiff of sour grapes. "Prize X has never been awarded to Philip Roth." Prize Y has never been awarded to me."

Jennifer Szalai

The Perfect Crime Novel Detective

 Though [writer Roger Rosenblatt] studied at Harvard, and even taught there, his most important education came from popular fiction. Above all, detective fiction, starting with Sherlock Holmes.

     "I wanted to be Holmes, himself," he writes early in [his new book, The Boy Detective]. "The detective I concocted for myself was not exactly like him. What I imagined was a composite made up of Holmes's power of observation, Hercule Poirot's powers of deduction, Sam Spade's straight talk, Miss Marple's stick-to-itiveness, and Philip Marlowe's courage and sense of honor--he who traveled the 'mean streets,' like mine, and was 'neither tarnished nor afraid.' The fact that, as far as I could tell, I lacked every single one of these qualities, and saw no prospect of every achieving them, presented no discouragement."

From Pete Hamill's review of Rosenblatt's book The Boy Detective in The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 2013 

Write What You Know

 Before you write about a subject, make sure you know it inside and out. If there are questions in your mind, don't skip them or cover them up. Do your best to find the answers. Then, if questions remain, you can always be honest and say so; the reader will forgive you.

     Whenever there's something wrong with your writing, suspect that there's something wrong with your thinking. Perhaps your writing is unclear because your ideas are unclear. Think, read, learn some more….

     The old admonition to "write about what you know" is a cliche, but it's still good advice. No matter how vivid and fertile your imagination, you'll write best what you know best.

Patricia T. O'Conner

Friday, August 28, 2015

Flat Versus Round Characters

  [The novelist] E. M. Forster introduced the term flat character to refer to characters who have no hidden complexity. In this sense, they have no depth (hence the word "flat"). Frequently found in comedy, satire, and melodrama, flat characters are limited to a narrow range of predictable behaviors….

     Forster's counter term to flat characters was round characters. Round characters have varying degrees of depth and complexity and therefore, in Forster's words, they "cannot be summed up in a single phrase."

H. Porter Abbott

Fear Of Criticism

 Are writers more concerned with others' opinions of them, more given to depression, and more reluctant to share their work, especially work they consider risky, than other creative types? In my experience, yes, yes, and yes. While the painters and other visual artists I know are surely sensitive people, they also seem enviably oblivious to what others think of their work. Musicians and actors, too, have hefty egos and tend to be more obsessed with what they do than what others think about what they do….Regardless of talent, it's almost impossible to get new writers to stand up and read from their work. [Maybe it's because they think this kind of exercise is self-important and boring to others.]

     Yes, writers' temperaments are unique. I have watched the most talented writers compare themselves to their favorite authors--to dead authors, especially--and grow encyclopedia-sized [writer's] blocks because they believe they'll never be as good. [They are probably right.]

     Talent seems to be inverse to confidence. Some of the most talented writers I know are reluctant to send out their work, so convinced are they that no will will ever publish it.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

     People wonder where writers get their ideas. Must they first experience what they write? Do they really rush wildly around looking for story ideas? Good writers look for "characters," because ideas grow as freely from characters as apples from trees. Every character grows not one but many fresh, unique, writable stories.

     Writers who want to write good stories or plays must know their characters better than they know themselves. Better--because most of the time we are unaware of the motivating forces within us. Strange but true, it is easier to create a living, three-dimensional character than an unreal, one-dimensional character.

Lajos Egri

Using A Pen Name

Pseudonyms are especially attractive to fiction writers, whose work (inventing people and seeing the world through their eyes) requires an impersonation, of sorts. Writing under a pen name is like doing an impersonation of someone doing an impersonation. I've fantasized about using an alias, but my fantasy mostly entails making a lot of money writing a quick horror novel. [Unless you write in that genre, good luck with that.]

Francine Prose

Spice Up Your Novel With A Murder

Violence serves as an element of suspense. If someone is murdered on the page--in an opening scene or at a plot point--then you have suspense. And please don't think that murders are the province of detective or crime fiction only. Alice Hoffman uses murders effectively in several of her novels….Indeed, William Faulkner uses murder, Charles Dickens uses murder, Wilkie Collins uses murder, Thomas Harding uses murder…and no one would accuse William Shakespeare of shying away from occasional bloodshed in the cause of a gripping tale. [If you do incorporate murder into your fiction, make sure you know something about the subject. Otherwise it will bring ridicule.]

Elizabeth George

Mystery Writer Agatha Christie

During her lifetime, Agatha Christie (1890-1976) sold more than two billion books, topped only by Shakespeare and the Bible. Hercule Poirot, her principal detective, appeared in 33 novels.

Reader's Digest

Writers Who Take Themselves Too Seriously

I'm so revolted by writers taking themselves seriously that, as a kind of protest, I've de-prioritized the role of writing in my life. I do it when I've not got anything better to do--and even then I often do nothing instead. [I just watched a documentary on J. D. Salinger's life. Now there's a guy who took himself and his writing seriously.]

Geoff Dyer

The Writer's Power To Inflict Pain

     "If you want to be a writer, somewhere along the line you're going to have to hurt somebody. And when that time comes, you go ahead and do it," Charles McGrath said when he was an editor at The New Yorker. "If you can't or don't want to tell that truth, you may as well stop now and save yourself a lot of hardship and pain."…

     A novelist wrote a withering account of her recent marriage. Soon after the book came out, the author's ex-husband killed himself. Was she correct to write that novel?

Bonnie Friedman

Applying The Rules Of Grammar

There's one thing to remember about the rules of grammar--they are not rigid; they change as our perceptions of our language change. What satisfied our eighth-grade teacher certainly won't satisfy an editor, but then our eighth-grade teacher wasn't trying to be an editor. The rules, however, were there to be learned, and once we learned them, we could believe they applied only when they made our work better.

William Noble

Getting Into A Writing Program

  When I went to writing school, I craved rules. I craved a mentor, and the revelation of secrets, and the permission to write scads, and most of all I craved the confirmation that I could write. In other words, I was like practically everyone else.

    What a mystique writing programs have! A sense of promise emanates from their doors, wafts up from the embossed paper bearing their letterheads. I felt that being accepted to one, and especially to that bizarrely exotic one nestled in the middle of America, Iowa, was like being chosen for an initiation into mysteries. After all, what could be more mysterious than learning how to write?

Bonnie Friedman

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Can Writing Be Taught?

  I find it both fascinating and disconcerting when I discover yet another person who believes that writing can't be taught. Frankly, I don't understand this point of view.

     I've long believed that there are two distinct but equally important halves to the writing process: One of these is related to art; the other is related to craft. Obviously, art cannot be taught. No one can give another human being the soul of an artist, the sensibility of a writer, or the passion to put words on paper that is the gift and the curse of those who fashion poetry and prose. But it's ludicrous to suggest and shortsighted to believe that the fundamentals of fiction can't be taught.

Elizabeth Gorge

The First Draft

 All writing begins life as a first draft, and first drafts are never (well, almost never) any good. They're not supposed to be. Expecting to write perfect prose on the first try is like expecting a frog to skip the tadpole stage.

     Write a first draft as though you were thinking aloud, not carving a monument. If what you're writing is relatively short--a financial report, a book proposal, a term paper--you might try doing your first draft in the form of a friendly letter. The person at the other end could be someone real or imagined, even a composite reader.

     Relax and take your time, but don't bog down, chewing your nails over individual words or sentences or paragraphs. When you get stalled, put down a string of X's and keep going. What you're writing now will be rewritten. If it is messy and full of holes, so what? It's only the first draft, and no one but you has to see it.

Patricia T. O'Conner

William Noble On Style

     When I speak of good, clean prose, of grammatically correct phrasing, I'm talking about writing that has no redundancies and no awkward, self-conscious parts. You're carried forward by the lilt of the writer's style where words and phrases have purpose, and where the music of words will create a harmony of word sounds. In simple writer-editor language, writing such as this "works."

     But remember, it's style you're really considering, and you don't want to get bogged down in a maze of rules and procedures. Your individuality makes itself known through your style, and sometimes the techniques that don't work for one writer might work for another.

William Noble

Mystery Writer P. D. James

 Mystery writer P.D. James, who brought realistic modern characters to the classical British detective story, has died. She was 94. James' books, many featuring sleuth Adam Dalgliesh, sold millions in many countries and most were just as popular when adapted for television. James died Thursday November 27, 2014 at her home in Oxford in southern England.

     Because of the quality and careful structure of her writing--and her rather elegant, intellectual detective Dalgliesh--she was at first seen as a natural successor to writers like Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey in the between-the-wars "Golden Age" of the mystery novel. But James' books were strong on character, avoided stereotype and touched on distinctly modern problems including drugs, child abuse and nuclear contamination…

     Although there was nothing remotely "genteel" about P.D. James' writing, she was criticized by some younger writers of gritty urban crime novels. They accused her of snobbery because she liked to write abut middle-class murderers, preferably intelligent and well-educated, who agonized over right and wrong and spent time planning and justifying their crimes. Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, hero of more than a dozen of James' novels, is a decidedly gentlemanly detective, who writes poetry, loves jazz and drives a Jaguar.

     Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford on August 3, 1920. Her father was a tax collector and there was not enough money for her to go to college, a fact she always regretted…She did not start producing her mysteries until she was nearly 40, and then wrote only early in the morning before going to the civil service job with which she supported her family. Her husband, Connor Banty White, had returned from the war mentally broken and remained so until his death in 1964…

     James' first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962 under her maiden name and was an immediate critical success, but she continued to work in the Home Office until 1979…

     James was often spoken of as an heir to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, icons of the classic British mystery, but her admirers thought she transcended both.

Jill Lawless

Reader's Digest

While it's long been a popular sport among the literary intelligentsia to put down the Digest, I'll unhesitatingly take the other side. If you want to find examples of clear, tightly edited prose, you'll look a long way to hunt down anything better than you can encounter in any issue of the much maligned Reader's Digest.

Jefferson D. Bates

The Redundant Writer

For some writers, once is not enough. They don't beat a dead horse; they beat a totally dead horse. They use modifiers that say the same thing as the words they modify. For them, every fact is a true fact. They don't expedite; they speedily expedite. They don't smell a stench; they smell a malodorous stench. In other words, they're redundant. Or as they might put it, superfluously redundant. [This is meaningfully profound advice.]

Patricia T. O'Conner

Novels That Require A Dictionary

 I love words. Most writers love words….When a writer has given new life to words you've heard a million times or used words you don't use or ordinarily think of, but love, it's inspiring.

     I love reading novels that send me to the dictionary to look up words. Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections did this. So did Don DeLillo's Underworld. I pulled out the Webster's to look up crepuscular. "Of relating to, or resembling twilight: active during twilight, insects." I can never look at fireflies, now, without thinking of them as crepuscular. [Come on. Comments like this set off my crap detector. No wonder nobody reads "literary fiction."]

     Ann Patchett's Bel Canto yielded the word sangfroid: "self-possession or imperturbability esp. under strain." So I have sangfroid when I don't stress out if I'm late getting somewhere. [I avoid pretentious novelists who show off by using arcane words for simple things and ideas. This is bad writing.] 

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

The Bad Boy Writer

The literary bad boy lives today…in the mind of the writer. He is a legend only, a creature of folk memory. Which isn't to say that there aren't plenty of traditionally chaotic real-life writers out there, right now, staying the course, crashing about and appalling their spouses [Norman Mailer knifed one of his wives]. What's changed, for us, is that the media is no longer interested….

     In 2014 we have bad-boy chefs (Bourdain, Ramsay), bad-boy comedians (Russell Brand), bad-boy athletes (the demonic Uruguayan soccer player Luis Suarez)….And it's possible, I suppose, that some young wordslinger could come along and wring a new twist from the tired repertoire of writerly naughtiness--be a postmodern literary bad boy. But in the end, who cares? Drink, divorce, insanity, firearms: all beside the point. The work is what counts….[If you like bad boy writers, try Charles Bukowski. He was very bad but his writing is good.]

James Parker

Writing While Intoxicated

Writers have always used drugs and drink to disinhibit themselves. In the beginning, the intoxicating effects of alcohol and drugs can prove prodigious. But once the tail is wagging the dog, the effects are generally deleterious.

Betsy Lerner 

Tell A Story

The object of most of your writing is to tell a story, whether it's fictional or not. The story will have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and in telling the story, you are moving the reader along, maintaining interest and attention from page to page. To facilitate this, the writer has at her disposal an array of devices--species of writing like narrative, exposition, dialogue, background. Each stage of the process... has its own particular challenges.

Ian Jackman

The Value of Rewriting

Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it's where the game is won or lost. That idea is hard to accept. We all have an emotional equity in our first draft; we can't believe that it wasn't born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 percent that it wasn't. Most writers don't initially say what they want to say, or say it as well as they could. The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it. It's not clear. It's not logical. It's verbose. It's klunky. It's pretentious. It's boring. It's full of clutter. It's full of cliches. It lacks rhythm. It can be read in seven different ways. It doesn't lead out of the previous sentence...The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering.

William Zinsser

What Is Literary Success?

 It is important to establish your own definition of success. Is it one story? A completed manuscript? One appreciative reader? Publication? A bestseller? A number-one bestseller? Ten number-one bestsellers?…

     [According to writer Irvine Walsh]: "I'll just write until I can't write anymore. If my next book was my last book, I wouldn't care at all. If my next book was my two hundredth from last, it wouldn't bother me. You can only write so long as you've got something to say. I don't think there's any particular virtue in being a writer."

Ian Jackman

The Pompous Writer

   Sometimes it takes courage to drop our pretensions, to choose use instead of utilize, rain instead of precipitation, arithmetic instead of computational skills. An idea expressed in simple English has to stand on its own, naked and unadorned, while ostentatious words sound impressive even when they mean nothing.

     Not all pompous writers are showing off or covering up their ignorance. Some are just timid, imagining that their ideas are flimsy or flawed or silly, even when they aren't. If you've done your homework, you shouldn't have to disguise your ideas with showy language. Be brave. Write plainly.

     The truth about big, ostentatious words is that they don't work as well as simple ones.

Patricia T. O'Conner

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Pretentious Writing

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

     There is a particularly dreadful style of writing, prose intended to sound lofty and important, found in a lot of 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, one might write: "The goal of college is the education of its students." Because this is so obvious, to write it simply and directly makes it sound vacuous. But when the 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 of writing is pompous and false, and represents writing at its worst.

Jim Fisher

Keep Your Dreams of Being A Writer To Yourself

     You know the last thing in the world people want to hear from you, the very last thing they're interested in? The fact that you always wanted to write, that you cherish dreams of being a writer, that you wrote something and got rejected once, that you believe you have it in you--if only people around you would give you a chance--to write a very credible, if not great, American novel. They also don't want to hear that if you did start to write, there would be some things you just couldn't write about.

     Your parents don't want to hear it: They want you to grow up to be a descent person, find a way to make a good living, and not disgrace the family. Your girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse will put up with this writer-talk for weeks, months, or even years, but none of them will love you for it….Your kids, believe me, are not going to like the idea of your writing….

     So don't tell them. Don't tell them anything about it. Especially when you're thinking about beginning. Keep it to yourself. Be discreet. Be secretive. There's time enough--all the time in the world--to let them in on the secret, to let them know who and what you really are.

Carolyn See

Writing Your Gripping Crime Novel

 You know you're reading a great mystery novel when you're up at three in the morning, unable to put it down. When you finally fall asleep, the characters go romping around in your dreams. When you get to the final page, you smack yourself in the head because the solution seems obvious in retrospect yet came as a complete surprise.

     Page-turning suspense. Rich characterization. A credible surprise ending. Sounds pretty simple, but writing a mystery novel is not for the faint of heart…Be prepared to keep three or four intertwined pots spinning. Get ready to master the art of misdirection so readers will ogle those red herrings you've sprinkled while ignoring the real clues in plain sight. Don't be surprised when you find yourself riding herd on a load of characters who won't go where you want them to.

     On top of that, you'll need dogged determination and intestinal fortitude to stick with it, through the first draft and endless revisions, until your words are polished to lapidary perfection. It wouldn't hurt, either, to have the hide of a rhinoceros to withstand the inevitable rejections. Talent being equal, what separates many a published mystery writer from an unpublished one is sheer stamina. Only gluttons for punishment need apply.

Halle Ephron

The Unfinished Novel

You've always wanted to write a novel, but you haven't been able to. Not yet, you haven't. Perhaps you've been too intimidated to even begin. (Who do I think I am?) Or you've started writing several novels over the years, each with abundant hope and enthusiasm, but you soon become discouraged when the characters in your head did not breathe on the page. Or maybe you keep pulling the same novel out of the desk drawer whenever you have some downtime, and you work on it again for a week or a month--you feel a feverish sense or urgency--and the novel keeps growing, year after year, but seems unwilling to resolve itself, and then, alas, the so-called real world summons you, or you lose confidence in your creative or organizational abilities, and you shove the manuscript back into the drawer and push your chair away from the annoying desk. Well, you should know that you are not alone. We've all done the same thing. Writing is hard, and it's harder for the writer than it is for anyone else.

John Dufresne

Handling Criticism Of Your Work

A negative response from your readers--especially when they've taken the time to be conscientious about it--is always a shock. It's like getting kicked in the behind while bending over to pick up a penny. It's not the kick that hurts, it's the humiliation of having bent over for the penny. True, your voice may not quiver when you're thanking them for their honesty. Your hands may be steady when you're opening that letter of advice from the editor you've always admired. [Who admires an editor?] You may even be able to agree with your favorite author when he tells you that he thinks your new book isn't half as interesting as the last one you wrote. But your whole face is on fire, there's a roaring in your ears, and behind your pleasant "uh-huh" stands an infuriated, tic-faced person demanding to know...(1) how you could allow these half-wits near your best work; (2) why you ever thought you could get away with calling yourself a writer; or (3) how you're ever going to write again. In fact, the difference between the writer who's going to add up to something in a few years and the writer who's not may have less to do with the quality of the work than with the way each one handles criticism. [Still, it's the quality of the work that counts. If you're no good, quit.]

Laura Hendrie

Learning To Write From Reading

   There are two ways to learn how to write a novel. By writing them and by reading them. If you are not reading them, the obvious question I'd ask is, why would you want to write something you wouldn't want to read? Are you one of those folks who really wants to make movies and figures writing a novel is easier than writing a screenplay? (It is not.) Or you think the novel will be your entree into Hollywood? (It very well could be.)…If you want to be a novelist, you have to read novels. You're kidding yourself if you think otherwise. Your daily view of the world is affected by what you've been reading, and what you write will also be affected.

     You should always be reading a novel or a collection of stories. When you find a novel you like, read everything by that writer, or read him until you've had enough. You're reading to learn….

John Dufresne

Who Needs A Literary Agent

  If your aim is to land a contract with one of the major book publishing houses, you probably will need an agent to represent your work. About 80 percent of the books these conglomerates publish are purchased through agents. Some of the largest houses won't even consider submissions from unrepresented writers; when they get manuscripts directly from the author, the author usually gets a short form note advising him to get an agent.

     The advantage to the big publishers in dealing only with agents is that agents know what editors are looking for and won't submit work that isn't salable. The agent's reputation, and therefore his ability to succeed as a agent, rides on submitting only the best--not just in terms of ideas, but also in terms of presentation and research--to only those editors who are appropriate for the project. The publisher saves enormous time and expense by allowing agents to do the work of shifting through submissions to find the real gems.

Meg Schneider and Barbara Doyen

Getting Your Novel Published

  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.

Meg Schneider and Barbar Doyen

Being A Screenwriter

  Screenwriting is a brutal, ridiculous calling. Sure, if you want to become a lawyer or a doctor, it's hard. It's a ton of work, but it can be done and once you've graduated from med school or law school and passed all of your exams, there are jobs out there….And there are people who need your services.

     But screenwriting is different. There are hardly any openings for gainful employment, and if there are a few jobs, you must compete for them with established Academy Award-nominated writers….

     "Being a writer is hard, being a professional writer is even harder, and being a working Hollywood screenwriter may be the hardest of all.

Richard Krevolin

The Allure Of The Evil Character

  It's a daring thing [for a "literary" novelist] to write about an evil person, especially in this day of autobiographical fiction, when readers assume most characters are thinly veiled self-portraits. And yet evil characters are usually dynamic and fascinating, upstaging all the goodie-goodies. [Crime novels are popular because the good guy is after the bad guy. Moreover, the evil character is one of the reasons behind the popularity of the true crime genre. For me, real villains are even more fascinating than fictitious ones.]

     Despite the allure of such characters, writers today usually avoid them, maybe because the whole category of Evil seems too theological or because modern psychology assumes that every bad act can be traced to childhood neglect or abuse and thus be explained away. [Novelists should familiarize themselves with the concept of sociopathy. Besides, who cares if a serial killer had a bad childhood?]

Edmund White

     

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Reading J. D. Salinger As An Adult

 When I flick through my old copies of J. D. Salinger's stories, I see that all the passages my teenage self has identified as especially moving and wonderful are precisely those that now make me frown and recoil. Where once the angst and alienation of Salinger's heroes--their hypersensitivity to "phoniness"--filled me with awe and some sheepishness about my own capacity for compromise, I am now inclined to feel that phoniness, as much as any other human weakness, deserves a bit of sympathy. I can still enjoy the Catcher in the Rye if I read it with a sort of squint, maintaining the illusion of some separation between Holden's disaffected worldview and Salinger's. But by the time I get to the Glass stories, wherein the preternaturally brilliant and morally fine Glass children struggle to bear a world filled with second-rate English professors and inadequately nuanced productions of Chekhov, I have to give up. [When I discovered Catcher in the Rye as a seventh grader, I felt I was reading the best novel ever written. This book, among others, inspired me to be a writer. Last year, when I reread Catcher in the Rye for the first time, I found the novel a bit puerile, and forced.]

Zoe Heller

Novels Don't Feature Happy People

It's more interesting to read about something being wrong than everything being right. Happiness threatens the things that every writing workshop demands: suspense, conflict, desire. It also threatens particularity. Happiness collapses characters into people who look just like everyone else, without the sharper contours of pathos to mark their edges and render them distinct. As Tolstoy famously tells us at the beginning of Anna Karenia: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Leslie Jamison

Adjectives And Adverbs: Manuscript Killers

The overall effect of a manuscript encumbered with adjectives, adverbs and the inevitable commas in between makes for slow, awkward reading--which these writers would find out for themselves if they only took the time to read their own work aloud.

     Manuscripts heavy on adjectives and adverbs can be spotted by an agent or editor immediately--sometimes even in the first few sentences--by looking for a plethora of commas (which inevitably separate a string of adjectives), or in the case of a writer who doesn't even know how to use commas, by looking to the nouns and verbs and then looking to see if adjectives or adverbs precede (or succeed) them.

Noah Lukeman

George Orwell and C. S. Lewis

If you want to learn how to write, the best way to start is by imitating C.S. Lewis and George Orwell. These two Englishmen, born five years apart, never used a pompous word if a short and plain one would do. Orwell was a master of the welcoming first sentence. He wrote an essay called "England Your England" while sheltering from German bombs during World War II. Here is his opening: "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."

David Brooks

Should You Join A Screenwriting Workshop?

There comes a time in every screenwriter's career when he feels the need to cease a solitary existence and enroll in a class or workshop. Before you jump in, be aware that many of these classes are taught by petty people. Of course not all workshops are evil. [I'm not so sure about that.] In fact, there are many wonderful workshops and teachers across the country. Just make sure the instructor of your workshop promotes constructive, not destructive, feedback, and the other students seem talented, supportive and serious. [My idea of good advice from workshop instructor: If you have real talent, get the hell out of this class. Movies today are crap, written by teams of hacks. Write a genre novel or get into nonfiction. Or better yet, get a real job.]

Richard Krevolin

The Most Erudite Cities

 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.

Associated Press

Getting Your Novel Off To A Good Start

  When I asked an agent recently how she decided whether or not to take on a manuscript, she told me she asked for the first fifty pages and read the first sentence. If she liked the first sentence, she read the second. If she liked that one, she read the third, and so on. If she reached the end of the first fifty pages without putting the manuscript down, she signed it up.

     Granted, most readers are willing to read your second sentence even if the first one isn't brilliant, but the agent's answer shows the importance of "hook." If you don't grab your readers with, say, your first fifty pages, you won't have them at all. So If you've been gleaning compliments from your writers group and good responses to your query letters, but your first fifty pages keep coming back with polite rejections, then you may have a good story that doesn't get started soon enough. If so, it's time to go back to the beginning and start looking for trouble.

David King

Eudora Welty On Creating Characters

Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.

Eudora Welty

Novel Writing Is Hard And Lonely Work

 Writing a novel doesn't get any easier the second or the eleventh time you do it. And unfortunately, you won't have fans in your writing room to urge you on. There'll be no applause. Just month after month of putting it down and crossing it out and recasting the sentence once again. Everyone who has a life thinks he has a novel to write. And he or she may. But very few people understand that the life is not the novel, that chronology is not plot….

     Writing isn't easy. Simply because you have access to a pen, some paper, and a dictionary does not mean that you can write a novel any more than having access to a piano means you can play the Goldberg Variations. Anyone can make noise. It's music we're after. Anyone can write on and on indefinitely. We're after the definite article.

John Dufresne

Truman Capote's True Crime Mistake

Put simply, adherence to the truth in nonfiction makes a story feel right. Perhaps the most famous compromise of that standard is Truman Capote's imagined graveyard scene at the end of In Cold Blood, still considered the benchmark for what he called the "non-fiction novel." A brilliant study of a murdered family and the killers who are eventually hanged, there was no happy ending available to the writer. Capote felt a need to resolve that artificially, blighting his immense achievement in synthesizing research with dramatic storytelling with a dreamy and unconvincing denouement he always regretted.

Mark Mordue

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Impostor Syndrome

Feeling like a fraud or con artist can be a hazard of the writing profession; there's a fine line, Balzac wrote, between the artist and the criminal.

Adam Langer

Biographies Must Have Drama

Considerable commentary focuses on the nexus between biography and fiction. As a narrative genre, biography would seem to have the greatest affinity with the novel, since both excel in the creation of characters and scenes through the sensibility of narrators. And yet the biographer has much in common with the dramatist, since biography is a kind of impersonation and the biographer functions as a kind of actor attempting to represent his subject's sensibility. The greatest biography in the English language, Boswell's Life of Johnson, consists mainly of dialogue, with Boswell's own comments serving almost like those of a director's notes.

Carl Rollyson

Are You Sure You Want To Write A Memoir?

To write a memoir is to enter…a war zone--with yourself, with the ones you love, with the critics you may never meet. It is to lay your life on the line, or several lines. You may be ridiculed, harassed, taken down in the court of public opinion. Worse, you aunt may never speak to you again. You may be called upon to defend the form…Your sole protection will be the work itself--its integrity, its artfulness, its originality, and its capacity to entertain or seduce….

Beth Kephart

Nature Writing

Nature writing often requires an ability to understand and interpret the findings of science. If you do not have the education or career credentials for writing about these subjects, you can rely on others who are experts, or you can write as a lay naturalist, an astute observer. However, the onus of accuracy is upon you. Although nature writing rests on science, the essay form leaves plenty of room for the writer's interaction with the environment, including one's inner emotional landscape as well as the outer landscape of the setting. One of the best ways to improve your skill in nature and outdoor writing is to read examples of it, as well as books on how to write this specialized kind of writing.

Elizabeth Lyon

Writing About Animals

I write about animals because I really like animals. I'm also interested in the animalistic side of human nature, and when and why humans cross over into doing very violent things. [When animals become gratuitously violent they are acting like humans. In other words, violent human behavior is more humanistic than animalistic.] Writing about animals is a way of getting at readers' emotions. People sometimes open up their emotions to animals more easily than they do other people. You see that with the way people get so obsessed with their pets. A big thing you see in New York is a person walking their dog with a diamond-stud collar, right past a homeless person. [Unlike people, dogs do not become paranoid schizophrenics.] That interests me as well. My stories are about people, but I use animals as vehicles to get at the people.

Carole Burns

How To End A Child's Picture Book

With little children, the way stories are resolved is critical. The endings of the more serious stories offer comfort and closure to fragile psyches. Little children need to feel safe, to feel protected from the vagaries of a capricious world. Time enough for them to learn about unpredictability and its messy aftermath.

     It's no accident that fairy tales end with "And they all lived happily ever after." Endings such as this give children a sense of security, a feeling they can cope with the circumstances they confront in their daily lives.

Nancy Lamb

Inserting Clues In Crime Fiction

Investigation is the meat and potatoes of mystery fiction. The sleuth talks to people, does research, snoops around, and makes observations. Facts emerge. Maybe an eyewitness gives an account of what he saw. A wife has unexplained bruises on her face. The brother of a victim avoids eye contact with his questioner. A will leaves a millionaire's estate to an obscure charity. A bloody knife is found in a laundry bin. A love letter is discovered tucked into last week's newspaper.

     Some facts will turn out to be clues that lead to the killer's true identity. Some will turn out to be red herrings--evidence that leads in a false direction. On top of that, a lot of the information your sleuth notes will turn out to be nothing more than the irrelevant minutiae of everyday life inserted into scenes to give a sense of realism and camouflage the clues.

Hallie Ephron

Are Successful Writers Jerks?

Like many, I've often been disappointed when meeting a writer whose work I admire, only to find that person off-putting. Some are downright obnoxious. How could such an unpleasant human being write with such sensitivity, such insight and candor? Or are the two connected? Perhaps rudeness and the courage to put your work on public display are symbiotic. An ability to reveal unattractive parts of yourself on the page and in person dips from the same well. That's why it's not necessarily a bad thing for a writer to lack social grace.

Ralph Keyes

The Novelist And Higher Education

     It is true that some writers have kept themselves more or less innocent of education, that some, like Jack London, were more or less self-made men; that is, people who scratched out an education by reading books between work-shifts on boats, in logging camps or gold camps, on farms or in factories. It is true that university education is in many ways inimical to the work of the artist: Rarely do painters have much good to say of aetheticians or history-of-art professors, and it's equally uncommon for even the most serious, "academic" writers to look with fond admiration at "the profession of English." And it's true, moreover, that life in the university has almost never produced subject matter for really good fiction. The life has too much trivia, too much mediocrity, too much soap opera, but consider:

     No ignoramus--no writer who has kept himself innocent of education--has ever produced great art.

John Gardner

Fiction Should Be About People, Not Words

I've had this conversation with many fiction writing students…Basically what's happening is this: The student is telling you that he has given up trying to write stories about people because he can't find anything to say about them, and wants your blessing as he launches a new student career of writing words about words.

     Give him nothing. This is a crucial moment in his life. If you let him go he's likely to end up with a doctoral degree in rhetoric and will spend the rest of his life teaching undergrads how to write words about words. The best thing to do is to put him up against the wall and threaten to shoot him if he doesn't shut up with that silly stuff.

Martin Russ

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Horror Genre And The Fun Of Fictitious Fear

Fear is fun. Being frightened is delicious. We tend to giggle when we're really scared--partly to expel the tension, partly because we're having such a good time. I'm not talking real fear. No one enjoys encountering a knife at the throat, or facing a loaded gun, or fighting the horrors of cancer. But a book or movie or a TV show can't physically hurt us. Instead, they provide an escape hatch, a way for us to deal with the fact that death is as natural as birth and that no one gets out of life alive. Manufactured horror on a page, in a theater, or on a television screen, allows us to transcend our own mortality--at least for the duration of the story. It's a way to surmount the horrors of the real world. And, as I say, it's a lot of fun. That's why we allow ourselves to be frightened over and over. By tapping into our primal fears, bringing the things of darkness into the light, we achieve an act of personal triumph. We feel brave; we've faced the monster and survived. We emerge with a grin and a giggle, we've put Old Mr. Death in his place.

William E. Nolan

The Nonfiction Writing Class

In your nonfiction writing class [the professor should] always be ready to "tie in" whatever you're talking about with its application out in the world. Undergrads are terribly conscious they they'll soon become human beings, and are delighted to know that some of the stuff they're learning may be useful after they leave this artificial hothouse called college. As a writing teacher you'll have more of an advantage in this regard than teachers of most of the other "humanities" courses.

Martin Russ

Print Journalism

  As narrative nonfiction writers we care deeply about sustaining quality journalism in an age that is rather inhospitable to it, for both technological and economic reasons. Television came along in the 1960s and 1970s and replaced print journalism as the quickest, most powerful instrument for the news. On the occasion of cataclysmic events--the crashing of the NASA shuttle, John Kennedy's assassination, the September 11 attacks--people turn to television. It is the prime carrier of news. So we, print journalists, have had to go where television cameras could not. We must answer the questions that the television's images pose. We're lucky: Television news raises more questions than it answers.

     Print journalists have to be better than they used to be. With network television, cable television, the internet, and even video games, it's tougher to compete for people's time. There are more and more sources of information out there, and they demand less and less intellectual energy. People work harder; they have less time. When I started as a journalist, fifty-two years ago, I operated in an age with a single-income middle class. Now it's a two-income middle class. The writer must get better and better, become a better storyteller.

David Halberstam

The Wrong Reasons To Write A Memoir

Nobody wants to hear that you're writing a memoir because you need some quick cash, or because you think it will make you famous, or because your boyfriend said there was a movie in this, or because you're just so mad and it's about time you get to tell your version.

Beth Kephart

Setting The Mood

The beginning mood in a piece of writing could be compared with the background music you hear at the start of a movie. That music--whether ominous, offbeat, or cheerful--gives you a pretty accurate idea of what kind of movie you'll be watching.

     Many books begin with a description of a place that sets the mood for what is to follow. A lead like this can be a sly way of introducing one of the themes in a book. [Truman Capote opens In Cold Blood by describing rural Kansas, the site of the Clutter family murders.]

Ralph Fletcher

Setting In Crime Fiction

The backdrop of a mystery, the world in which the action takes place--the scenery so to speak--has the potential to be as important as character or plot. Indeed, if painted vividly enough it can become a character itself; or it can determine plot. It can set a mood, create an atmosphere. It can add richness and color.

Julie Smith 

Don't Make The Mystery Reader Wait Too Long For The Murder

Some mystery novels don't reach the discovery of the body until many pages into the story…Mystery writers have freedom to spend quite a few pages establishing the character of the detective or setting up the society in which the murder will take place. But the audience is quite aware that a murder will take place, but will become impatient if the writer takes too long getting to it.

Orson Scott Card

Comedy Derived From Character

  One of the most famous lines in the history of comedy is from "The Jack Benny Show." Throughout his career, Benny developed the persona of the ultimate skinflint. On one show, a robber pulled a gun on Benny and threatened, "Your money or your life." Finally Benny spoke: "I'm thinking it over."

     For the cheapskate Benny persona, this was a rough decision that required some real thought. And it is a perfect example of comedy derived from character. This was not a joke superimposed onto a situation; it grew organically out of the Benny character.

David Evans 

Bad Writing Can Destroy A Good Plot

     Many writers spend the majority of their time devising their plots. What they don't seem to understand is that if their execution--if their prose--isn't up to par, their plots will never be considered.

     Agents and editors often ignore synopses of plot outlines; instead, we skip right to the actual manuscript. If the writing is good, then we'll go back and consider the synopsis. If not, the manuscript is discarded. A great writer can produce an amazing piece of writing with virtually no plot at all. [I'm not sure this is still true. Fiction and nonfiction readers expect good writing, and an engaging plot or story.]

Noah Lukeman

Mystery Novel Plot Structures

In a narrative constructed around a mystery, the central mystery, if anything, takes on an outsize importance, one that threatens to blot out everything else. On some level, the only thing that matters in a mystery story is the last chapter. You may think that's unfair, but it's just the way the genre works….

     One theory about the ideal structure of a mystery story…holds that in a mystery there are essentially two kinds of plot: an apparent plot and a revealed plot. The apparent plot is everything that happens up to the final chapter of the story... is immediately apparent, until the very end. The revealed plot is what really turns out to be the case after all the mysteries have been revealed.

     In a really good mystery…the difference between these two kinds of plots isn't just mechanical, it is interpretive. It isn't just about who-appears-to-have dunit and who-really-dunit. It's about what it all--the world, good and evil, women and men, family, justice, society, the truth at the heart of humanity--really means: what it seems to mean when we're wandering in the darkness, and what it means when we come into the light.

     Another theory holds that what the structure of a mystery is really about is story and discourse, signifier and signified. The mystery, in its opening chapters, posits the existence of a coherent, meaningful story: the body in the woods, the blood spatter, the knife in the grass, the partial footprint. But the story is hidden, its meaning obscured. The narrative that proceeds from this point is not, itself, the story--it is, rather, discourse, the system of talk and empty signification and endless deferment that surrounds the story, like planets orbiting a star that can be glimpsed only glancingly, never directly. The story, usually, is revealed in the final chapter, but the story that preceded the story--the story of the detectives finding clues, signifiers throbbing with a meaning that lay just outside their grasp--that wasn't the story.

Andrew De Young

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Using Historical Figures in Novels

No historical character in a novel should do or say anything that you don't know he said and did. You can't displace him in time, and you can't move him geographically. And you've got to be true to him. If I wrote a novel that included Billy The Kid, it would be the Billy The Kid out of history; in other words, he couldn't be the main character....I would never quote Billy if I didn't have a valid quote. I wouldn't put him in any part of New Mexico that he wasn't in at that date; I believe you owe that to historical characters. Nothing distressed me more than to see an historical character in one of those historical, romance novels take the hero aside and give him a little advice on his love life or something. I don't think you have a right to do that with historical characters.

Shelby Foote

The Unauthorized Biography

Unauthorized biographies undress their subjects. When John Updike realized that a biographer was on his case, he hurriedly wrote a memoir, Self-Consciousness, so that he could forestall the biography. Autobiography and the authorized biography are time-honored methods of attempting to derail independent biographies and make them seem illicit.

Carl Rollyson, Biography, 2008 

What Is Setting?

Many novelists avoid laying out the setting because they fear boring their readers, but the lack of vivid setting may in turn cause boredom. Without a strong sense of place, it's hard to achieve suspense and excitement--which depend on the reader's sensation of being right there, where the action takes place. When descriptions of places drag, the problem usually lies not in the setting, but in presenting the setting too slowly. Make your descriptions dynamic and quick; give bits of setting concurrently with character and action.

Josip Novakovich

Using Dialogue In A Memoir

 A fellow memoirist and reviewer writes: "I'm reading a memoir now where the author has written four chapters full of dialogue for events that occurred when she was four years old. Over half the book occurs before she is ten and it's all about what people said and felt. I don't see how much of this could be possibly true."

     My friend's got this right: Nothing makes a reader question memoir more indignantly than the things set aside by quotation marks…

     Unless you walked around your entire life with a tape recorder in your pocket, dialogue will become one of the greatest moral and storytelling conundrums you will face when writing a memoir. You may feel that you need some of it, a smattering at least, to round-out characters, change the pace, dissect the rub between what was thought and what was actually said. You may need dialogue because in life people talk to one another and readers want to know what they said. They want to know the sound of the relationships.

     Dialogue isn't, strictly speaking, absolutely necessary in a memoir…But when it's done right, it feels essential. It seems to bring one closer to the story's heart.

Beth Kephart

What Is Plot?

  Plot is the nervous system of your story. In the same way nerves connect your brain and muscles so you can move and live, plot interconnects and moves the elements of your story.

     Of the journalist's six questions, plot answers as many as three: what, how and why. Plot is the key event of your story and the logic between the event and the supporting events, which serve to illuminate it. Plot establishes the causes and the consequences.

Josip Novakovich

The Boring Novel

Imagine, if you will, a book on trial for being boring…Imagine the arguments: the solid citizens called by the prosecution to testify that this book had bored them senseless. Imagine the authors and hip professors brought in by the defense to assert that the book was not boring at all, but on the contrary a work of great and lasting interest.

James Parker

Cat And Dog Memoirs

Memoirs about cats and dogs are nearly as common as cats and dogs.

John Williams

News Versus Story

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.

Beverly Lowry

Robert A. Caro On The Biography Genre

I was never interested in writing biographies merely to tell the lives of famous men. [Caro is the author of a three volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.] I never had the slightest interest in doing that. From the first time I thought of becoming a biographer, I conceived of biography as a means of illuminating the times and the great forces that shape the times--particular political power. A biography will only do that, of course, if the biography is of the right man.

Robert A. Caro 

Why We Read Books About Writers

It is no accident that the popularity of literary biography has increased most notably in the past century and a half, a period which has also been marked by a growing sense that the artist as a person is detached from society, indeed a special kind of person quite apart from the common run of men.

Richard D. Altick

Friday, August 21, 2015

The "Cozy" Mystery Novel

A "cozy" is a mystery novel with a light tone and an element of fun; the setting is usually a small community and the protagonist is an amateur sleuth who's a member of the community. Sex and violence occur, for the most part, offstage. Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple remains the quintessential cozy protagonist.

Hallie Ephron

Characters In Novels Must Be Consistent

The very first rule of writing fiction rejects the basic truth of life: Characters must be consistent. If the matriarch of a powerful family of soda pop manufacturers has been established through three hundred pages as obsessively well organized, she cannot meet her end by getting her feet tangled on one of her own discarded sweaters and falling out her bedroom window. This kind of thing happens to people every day in the world we inhabit, despite evidence of past behavior, but we have left that world for a better one. If it happens here, we will throw the novel or short story out the window after the old lady, and good riddance to them both. In a pilotless universe, we accept confusion because there is no place to file a complaint. In a story, plotted and executed by an individual or individuals in collaboration, we know whom to blame.

Loren D. Estleman

The Happy Novelist

It may be that writers are actually happier living in their books than they are in the real world. There is evidence of this in the way writers immerse themselves in their fiction. How many times have you heard it said about someone that they are happiest at their work? Writers are like that, whether they admit it or not. But while most jobs fall into the nine-to-five category, fiction writing is a twenty-four-hours-a-day occupation. You never leave your work behind. It is always with you, and to some extent, you are always thinking about it. You don't take your work home; your work never leaves home. It lives inside you. It resides and grows and comes alive in your mind.

Terry Brooks

Book Clubs

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.

Kevin Baker

Writing In The Active Voice

Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense

     The timid fellow writes, "The meeting will be held at seven o'clock" because that somehow says to him, "Put it this way and people will believe you really know." Purge this thought! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put the meeting in charge! Write, "The meeting's at seven." There, by God! Don't you feel better?

     I won't say there's no place for the passive tense. Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa is a fair way to put this, although "was carried" and "was placed" still irk me. I accept them but I don't embrace them. What I would embrace is, "Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa." Why does the body have to be the subject of the sentence, anyway? It's dead…

Stephen King

Writer Humiliations

Experience has taught me that hardly anyone in or out of a book store will know who I am, or care. I have learned to live fairly comfortably with my writer's humiliation, and have worn it like a second skin over my original thinner one. After all, humiliations are suffered by most writers most of the time. And--to express a thought about life in the real world, for once--a writer's humiliations are chicken feed as compared with those endured by people who work for a living, and are grateful simply to make it home at night. Writers are already home.

     Naturally, some stinging recollections rise out of the past from time to time, such as that evening at a book fair in Providence, Rhode Island, when I stood beneath a golden banner with my name in red lettering, misspelled. It would have bothered me less had the banner not been provided by my publisher. And that evening in Washington, D. C., when I was seated at a table bearing a tall stack of my latest book while a dozen non-buyers ambled past, paused, picked a book from the stack, opened it, read a clause or two, and returned it to the stack. (Truth be told, there have been several such incidents.) And that afternoon in Miami, when I appeared for an interview specifically requested by a local radio station, and the interviewer began, "Who are you?"

Roger Rosenblatt

The Author As Celebrity

  I remember when looks started to matter in publishing. I began writing in the late 1960s--just as publishing was turning into an industry. The cult of personality had arrived, and writers could no longer be private people as my grandfather, my mother and my uncle, all professional novelists, had been. The notion of having author photographs on book jackets appalled them: They believed they could write freely only if they felt anonymous.

     My generation had no such qualms. We poured out our indignations, our quirky personalities, made ourselves vulnerable. I was young when my first book was published and had quick success; I roared round the world on the Concorde, from one international convention to the next. I like to think it was because I wrote good novels, not because I fluttered my eyelashes, but really, who can say? With age things calm down. Publicity photographs give up trying to make you look sexy and try to make you look intelligent.

Fay Weldon

The Power Of Journalism

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.]

David Carr

The Appeal Of Scandinavian Crime Fiction

 The detectives in Scandinavian crime fiction share many attributes with their American and British counterparts. Many are unkempt, unhealthy and sometimes fatalistic characters, but are nevertheless humane and brilliant sleuths. They doggedly pursue the criminal element, usually (but not always) winning the day at the expense of maintaining a normal family or social life. Some are alcoholics whose human interactions are limited to station and squad car. Some even develop relationships with the victims, or even worse, the criminal.

     Key to the appeal of Scandinavian crime literature is the stoic nature of its detectives and their peculiarly close relationship with death. One conjures up a brooding Bergmanesque figure contemplating the long dark winter. Another narrative component just as vital is the often bleak Scandinavian landscape which serves to mirror the thoughts of the characters. Ancient stone and dark shores inhabit these stories such that the landscape becomes an important narrative agent, even a character itself. Readers will also find fascinating the supernatural strain pervading this literature: Ancient beliefs in ghosts, changelings, and other natural spirits thrive in contemporary Nordic noir.

Jeremy Megraw

Contemporary Literary Novels

If I am to be honest, I must admit that most novels disappoint me. Contemporary American fiction in particular. What so many writers seem to have forgotten, or never to have learned in the first place, is that reading should not be a torture. I will also admit that I find whimsy fatiguing.

David Leavitt

Put A Prologue In Your Memoir

I advocate prologue in a memoir. I feel that it helps everyone involved--the writer, the reader--if certain early declarations are made. The thrill of literary memoir isn't bound up in plot, per se, and it shouldn't be bound up in gossip. The thrill of the genre--or at least one of its chief pleasures--is all about how well the author manages to answer all the questions or explore the themes or concerns that lie at the story's heart. Coy doesn't work--or at least I don't think it does. The questions, themes, and concerns that fuel a memoir are often best enunciated at the start. And prologues are such fine, flexible containers. You can make them do whatever you want them to do.

Beth Kephart

Setting Up The Novel's Big Scene

I can always tell when a writer has rushed through a scene or written around it in order to get to the good stuff. The dialogue is hurried, like the wedding vows in a tired old comedy where the bride's in labor. Descriptions are sketchy or nonexistent. Too often, the scene isn't even there; the novelist has lifted it out and thrown it away, or not written it at all. At best, this leaves an annoying gap. At worst, the "good" scene has not been set up and so it falls in like a cake because someone skimped on the eggs. In between is a lost opportunity, because sometimes the scene you dreaded most turns out to be the best in the book.

Loren D. Estleman

TV Writing

TV writing is for people who hate being alone more than they hate writing.

Matthew Weiner

Are Cable TV Drama Series Replacing The Novel?

  ….Television was so bad for so long, it's no surprise that the arrival of good television has caused the culture to lose its head a bit. Since the debut of "The Sopranos" in 1999, we have been living, so we are regularly informed, in a "golden age" of television. And over the last few years, it's become common to hear variations on the idea that quality cable TV shows are the new novels….

     To liken TV shows to novels suggests an odd ambivalence toward both genres. Clearly, the comparison is intended to honor TV, by associating it with the prestige and complexity that traditionally belong to literature. But at the same time, it is covertly a form of aggression against literature, suggesting that novels have ceded their role to a younger, more popular, more dynamic art form. Mixed feelings about literature--the desire to annex its virtues while simultaneously belittling them--are typical of our culture today, which doesn't know quite how to deal with an art form, like the novel, that is both democratic and demanding. [I don't know about democratic, but demanding, yes. Instead of demanding, I would use the term pretentious and unreadable other than to English lit professors who force this crap on their students who will someday be doing the same to their students.]…

     Spectacle and melodrama remain at the heart of TV, as they do with all arts that must reach a large audience in order to be economically viable. But it is voice, tone, the sense of the author's mind at work, that are the essence of literature, and the exist in language, not in images. This doesn't mean we shouldn't be grateful for our good TV shows; but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that they give us what only literature can….

Adam Kirsch

The Book Tour

You're lucky to go on tour. You're lucky to meet readers who prize your work and who seem as though they might be honored to meet you. You're lucky to eat the pretzels in the minibar. You're lucky to see cities you have never seen. These things are indisputable. Anyone will tell you.

Rick Moody 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

When To Introduce Your Horror Novel Monster

In a story or novel, when should your monster be introduced? Should you have him, her, or it attack your  protagonist in the beginning, perhaps on the opening page?

     There is no set rule as to how soon you should bring your monster center-stage front, but in nearly all of the best horror fiction, an aura of menace and potential danger is established right away; the monster is not introduced until much later, allowing you to provide tension and suspense for your readers as they nervously await meeting your menace at full force. The actions of the monster can and should be dramatized early; a murder, or a scene during which the effect of the monster is shown without a full revelation of the creature itself.

William F. Nolan