Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Importance of a Novel's Characters

If you can't create characters that are vivid in the reader's imagination, you can't create a good novel. Characters are to a novelist what lumber is to a carpenter and what bricks are to a bricklayer. Characters are the stuff out of which a novel is constructed.

James N. Frey 

Monday, September 28, 2015

One Great Book Doesn't Make One A Great Writer

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

Anthony Burgess

Writing In The Morning

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

Raymond Chandler 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Monday, September 14, 2015

Crime Novelist Helen Eustis

  On January 11, 2015, 98-year-old crime novelist Helen Eustis died at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. The Cincinnati native was best known for her novel The Horizontal Man, a story about a murdered English professor. The book, informed by her experience as a student at Smith College, won the Mystery Writer's of America Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1947 for best debut novel.

     Eustis wrote The Fool Killer, a mystery adapted into a 1965 film of the same name starring Anthony Perkins. She also wrote award-winning short stories and translated books by mystery writer Georges Simenon as well as other European crime novelists.

Jim Fisher

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Writing The How-To Article

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

John Jerome

The Value Of Primary Documentation In Journalism

Secondary sources are most useful when they lead to primary documents. The legislative hearing transcript would be a primary document as would be a real estate deed, political candidate's campaign finance report, lawsuit, insurance policy, and discharge certificate from the military. Documents can be just like human sources because they are prepared by humans. However, unlike humans, documents do not talk back and do not claim to have been misquoted.

Steve Weinberg 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Children's Books Make Good Movies

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

Alice Gregory 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

How Publishers Screen Manuscripts

Publishers will tell you...that every manuscript which reaches their office is faithfully read, but they are not to be believed. At least fifteen out of twenty manuscripts can be summarily rejected, usually with safety. There may be a masterpiece among them, but it is a thousand to one against.

Michael Joseph

Monday, September 7, 2015

Market Oriented Publishing

Trivia has swamped contemporary literary life and become, it seems, more important than the books. A book's blurb is more important than the book itself, the author's photograph on the book jacket is more important than its content, the author's appearance in wide-circulation newspapers and on TV is more important than what the author has actually written.

     Many writers feel increasingly uncomfortable in such a literary landscape, densely populated with publishers, editors, agents, distributors, brokers, publicity specialists, bookstore chains, "marketing people," television cameras, photographers. The writer and his reader--the two most important links in the chain--are more isolated than ever.

Dubravka Ugresic

Sunday, September 6, 2015

How To Get A Literary Agent

Choosing an agent is a lot like choosing a hairdresser. [I currently don't have an agent or a hairdresser.] If you know a bunch of writers and most writers do because who else is home all day?) ask the successful ones who represents them. [In reality, writers with agents hate to be asked this.] If you don't know any writers, look at books by authors you admire and see which agent the author thanked in the acknowledgements. Send five to ten of these agents a resume, cover letter, and proposal for what you're trying to sell (it's imperative that the prospective agent knows that you have a money-making project in mind). Interview the agents who respond positively and pick the one you like best. If no one responds positively, send your stuff to another five to ten agents. Don't take it personally. Think of it as practice in handling rejection. (Believe me, you'll need all the practice you can get.)

Margo Kaufman

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Elements Of A Book Review

A good book review should do an evocative job of pointing out quality. "Look at this! Isn't this good?" should be the critic's basic attitude. Occasionally, however, you have to say, "Look at this! Isn't it awful?" In either case, it's important to quote from the book....Criticism has no real power, only influence.

Clive James

Headlines Over Content

An inescapable truism about journalism is that form dictates content. The form of journalism--gimme a headline, gimme a story in the next hour or two, and gimme it in 500 or 250 words--subverts the content. It's easy for someone who is allowed 20,000 words and months to report a New Yorker story to say this, but it's nevertheless true that most editors don't allow reporters enough time or space to get a story's facts and context right.

Ken Auletta

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Mystery Of Novel Writing

After twenty years and a hundred books, I...realize that I don't know how to write a novel, that nobody does, that is no right way to do it. Whatever method works--for you, for me, for whoever's sitting in the chair and poking away at the typewriter [now computer] keys--is the right way to do it.

Lawrence Block 

Good Journalistic Interview Subjects

I hate writing about anyone who is familiar with the press or has a "story." I like to write about people who don't necessarily see what their story is, or what my interest might be. I like subjects who really know how to enjoy life or are immersed in whatever they are doing fully.

Adrian Nicole Leblanc good 

E. M. Forster On The Literary Critic

[The literary critic's] constant reference to genius is a characteristic of the pseudo-scholar. He loves mentioning genius, because the sound of the word exempts him from trying to discover its meaning. Literature is written by geniuses. Novelists are geniuses....Everything [the critic] says may be accurate but all is useless because he is moving round books instead of through them. He either has not read them or cannot read them properly. Books have to be read...it is the only way of discovering what they contain....The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events in the life of its author, or to the events it describes.

E. M. Forster

What Is Creative Writing?

 The term "creative writing" offends some people; they think it has something affected or precious about it. Actually it is an innocent phrase developed in American schools and colleges sometime between the two world wars [1920-1940] to designate that kind of writing course which is not Freshman English or Report Writing for Engineers. One suspects that "creative writing" courses grew up partly because ordinary courses in composition had got bogged down in "correctness," gentility, and the handbook-and-exercise method, and some means had to be found to free students for the development of their natural interest and delight in language.

     Creative writing means imaginative writing, writing as an art, what the French call belles lettres. It has nothing to do with information or the more routine forms of communication, though it uses the same skills...

     Like all other forms of creative writing, it is written to produce in its reader the pleasure of aesthetic experience, to offer him an imaginative recreation or reflection or imitation of action, thought, and feeling. It attempts to uncover form and meaning in the welter of love, hate, violence, tedium, habit, and brute fact that we flounder through from day to day.

Wallace Stegner

Norman Mailer On Novelists

One of the cruelest remarks in the language is: Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. The parallel must be: Those who meet experience, learn to live; those who don't, write.

     The second remark has as much truth as the first--which is to say, some truth. Of course, many a young man has put himself in danger to pick up material for his writing, but as a matter to make one wistful, not one major American athlete, CEO, politician, engineer, trade-union official, surgeon, airline pilot, chess master, call girl, sea captain, teacher, bureaucrat, Mafioso, pimp, recidivist, physicist, rabbi, movie star, clergyman, or priest or nun has also emerged as a major novelist since the Second World War.

Norman Mailer

Thursday, September 3, 2015

John Gardner On Plotting The Novel

The writer works out plot in one of three ways: by borrowing some traditional plot or an action from real life...by working his way back from his story's climax; or by groping his way forward from an initial situation....

     The writer who begins with a traditional story or some action drawn from life has part of his work done for him already. He knows what happened and, in general, why. The main work left to him is that of figuring out what part of the story (if not the whole) he wants to tell, what the most efficient way of telling it is, and why it interests him.

John Gardner

Facing The Blank Page

Some people when they sit down to write and nothing special comes, no good ideas, are so frightened that they drink a lot of strong coffee to hurry them up, or smoke packages of cigarettes, or take drugs or get drunk. They do not know that good ideas come slowly, and that the more clear, tranquil and unstimulated you are, the slower the ideas come but the better they are.

Brenda Ueland

Why Do Writers Write?

Interviewers ask famous writers why they write, and it was the poet John Ashbery who answered, "Because I want to." Flannery O'Connor answered, "Because I'm good at it," and when the occasional interviewer asks me, I quote them both. Then I add that other than writing, I am completely unemployable. But really, secretly, when I'm not being smart-alecky, it's because I want to and I'm good at it.

Anne Lamott

Jon Krakauer On What Interests Him As A Journalist

I've been pegged as a writer whose beat is extreme ideas, extreme landscapes [mountain climbing], extreme individuals who take actions to their logical extreme. And there is some truth to that. I'm intrigued by fanatics--people who are seduced by the promise, or the illusion, of the absolute. People who believe that achieving some absolute goal, say, or embracing some absolute truth, will lead to happiness, or peace, or order, or whatever it is they most desire. Fanatics tend to be blind to moral ambiguity and complexity, and I've always had a fascination with individuals who deny the inherent contingency of existence--often at their peril, and at the peril of society.

Jon Krakauer

Does A Writer's Style Reveal His Personality?

The writer's personality and his personality on the page are not necessarily identical, but often there is a resemblance, not unlike that between an owner and his dog. A writer's work emanates from his personality, ego, sensitivities, and blind spots, his projections and unconscious wishes. All these contribute to what we eventually call style. Not everyone can arrive at a party and command the room; most writers are more inwardly focused. But even for those whose personal style attracts attention, the proof is always, finally, on the page. [This begs the question: can a reader tell if a novelist is a jerk by reading his fiction?]

Betsy Lerner

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Norman Mailer On Becoming A Writer

 I'm now eighty [2002], but some people still regard me as a wild man. Even at my peak, that was only five to ten percent of my nature. The rest was work. I remember Elia Kazan saying one day at Actors Studio, "Here, we're always talking about the work. We talk about it piously. We say the work. The work. Well, we do work here, and get it straight: Work is a blessing." He said this, glaring at every one of us. And I thought, He's right. That's what it is. A blessing.

     Of course, if you ask what work is dependent upon, the key word, an unhappy one, is stamina. It's as difficult to become a professional writer as a professional athlete. It often depends on the ability to keep faith in yourself. One must be willing to take risks and try again. And it does need an enormous amount of ongoing working practice to be good at it. Since you are affected by what you read as a child and adolescent, it also takes a while to unlearn all sorts of reading reflexes that have led you into bad prose.

Norman Mailer

Why Professors Avoid Clear Writing

According to Professor J. Scott Armstrong of the University of Pennsylvania, among academics, "obtuse writing...seems to yield higher prestige for the author." Armstrong has conducted a number of studies to test this hypothesis. In one, he asked twenty management professors to identify the more prestigious of two unidentified journals presented to them. The more readable journal (as determined by the Flesch Reading Ease Test) was judged the least prestigious. In another experiment, Armstrong rewrote the same journal article in two different forms. One he rated confusing and convoluted, the other concise and clear. A panel of thirty-two professors agreed that the confusing version reported a higher level of research. "Overall, the evidence is consistent with a common suspicion," concluded Armstrong. "Clear communication of one's research is not appreciated. Faculty are impressed by less readable articles." [Another reason for bad academic writing is that if the material is presented clearly, the true banality of its substance will be revealed.]

Ralph Keyes

The Book Dedication

A friend of mine spoke of books that are dedicated like this: "To my wife, by whose helpful criticism..." and so on. He said the dedication should really read: "To my wife. If it had not been for her continual criticism and persistent nagging doubt as to my ability, this book would have appeared in Harper's instead of The Hardware Age."

Brenda Ueland

The Ethical Dilemma Of Journalism

There's an ethical dilemma in almost all journalism. In taking someone else's story and making it your own, in describing them on your terms, in ways they may not agree with.

Ted Conover 

The Benefits Of Writing Nonfiction

I find the possibility of life as a fiction writer horribly depressing. Nonfiction, meaning journalism, essays, scholarly work, etc. is far more important to me because I am attempting to have an actual impact on the culture, on politics, and on ideas in people's heads. Nonfiction provides a more direct line to all of those things than fiction, which is too often used as an escape or to console people about their lives. Oh, and nonfiction pays much better.

Nick Mamatas

The Book Editor-Writer Relationship

An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. [Editors should never] get to feeling important about themselves, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing. A writer's best work comes entirely from himself. If you [an editor] have a Mark Twain, don't try to make him into a Shakespeare or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain. Because in the end an editor can get only as much out of an author as the author has in him.

Maxwell Perkins 

Detective Fiction's Golden Age and "Trent's Last Case" By E. C. Bentley"

The well-known description "Golden Age" [of detective fiction] is commonly taken to cover the two decades between the First and Second Wars, but this limitation is unduly restrictive. One of the most famous detective stories regarded as falling within the Golden Age is Trent's Last Case by E. C. Bentley, published in 1913. The name of this novel is familiar to many readers who have never read it, and its importance is partly due to the respect with which it was regarded by practitioners of the time and its influence on the genre. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote that it "holds a very special place in the history of detective fiction, a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original." Agatha Christie saw it as "one of the three best detective stories every written." Edgar Wallace described it as "a masterpiece of detective fiction," and G. K. Chesterton saw it as "the finest detective story of modern times." Today some of the tributes of his contemporaries seem excessive but the novel remains highly readable, if hardly as compelling as it was when first published, and its influence on the Golden Age is unquestionable.

P. D. James

Responding To A Publisher's Rejection

I've often suspected that part of the reason why editors take so long to decline on projects, apart from never having enough time to consider them, is linked to how uncomfortable we are rejecting and disappointing people, whether it's the agent who has submitted the work or the unknown soldier who wrote it. Plus, we've all seen enough books that have been notoriously and strenuously rejected throughout the industry that nevertheless go on to bestsellerdom or critical acclaim.

     Just as you shouldn't take a polite letter for an encouraging one, don't let a harsh letter do more damage than necessary….It's hard not to focus too deeply on a rejection letter, or any correspondence from an editor, because it's often the only feedback you have, but I beg you not to spend more time with rejection letters than the time it takes to read and file them away.

Betsy Lerner

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Pleasure Of Reading Good Dialogue

Good dialogue is such a pleasure to come across while reading, a complete change of pace from description and exposition and all that writing. Suddenly people are talking, and we find ourselves clipping along. And we have all the pleasures of voyeurism because the characters don't know we are listening. We get to feel privy to their inner workings without having to spend too much time listening to them think. I don't want them to think all the time on paper.

Anne Lamott

The Writer's Vocabulary

A huge vocabulary is not always an advantage. Simple language, for some kinds of fiction at least, can be more effective than complex language which can lead to stiltedness or suggest dishonesty or faulty education.

John Gardner

Choosing The Right Words For A Children's Book

As adults, we often forget that children can comprehend more than they can articulate, and we end up communicating to them below their level, leaving them bored. Or, the opposite can happen: children are growing up faster than we did and act very sophisticated although their vocabulary skills are underdeveloped. Striking the balance between writing below or above their level is tricky.

Alijandra Mogilner

Writing Out Of Revenge

[Some writers] insist that you should never write out of vengeance. I tell my students that they should always write out of vengeance, as long as they do so nicely. If someone has crossed them, if someone has treated them too roughly, I urge them to write about it.

Anne Lamott

Books About John F. Kennedy

 Bad books by celebrity authors shouldn't surprise us [Bill O'Reilly's Killing Kennedy], even when the subject is an American president. The true mystery in Kennedy's case is why, 50 years after his death, highly accomplished writers seen unable to fix him on the page.

     For some, the trouble has been idolatry. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote three magisterial volumes on Franklin Roosevelt and the new deal, attempted a similar history in A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in The White House. Published in 1965, it has the virtues of immediacy, since Schlesinger, Kennedy's Harvard contemporary, had been on the White House staff, brought in as court historian. He witnessed many of the events he describes. But in his admiration for Kennedy, he became the chief architect of the Camelot myth and so failed, in the end, to give a persuasive account of the actual presidency.

     In 1993, the political journalist Richard Reeves did better. President Kennedy: Profile of Power is a minutely detailed chronicle of the Kennedy White House. As a primer on Kennedy's decision-making, like his handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, the book is fascinating. What's missing is a picture of Kennedy's personal life, though Reeves includes a passing mention of Marilyn Monroe being sewn into the $5,000 flesh-colored, skintight dress she wore to celebrate the president's birthday at Madison Square Garden in 1962….

     Balancing out, or warring with, the Kennedy claque are the Kennedy haters, like Seymour M. Hersh and Garry Wills. In The Dark Side of Camelot, Hersh wildly posits connections between the Kennedys and the mob, while Wills, through he offers any number of brilliant insights into Kennedy and his circle of courtiers, fixates on the Kennedy brothers' (and father's) sexual escapades in The Kennedy Imprisonment.

     The sum total of this oddly polarized literature is a kind of void. Other presidents, good and bad, have been served well by biographers and historians. We have first-rate books on Jefferson on Lincoln, on Wilson, on both Roosevelts. Even unloved presidents have received major books: Johnson (Caro) and Richard Nixon (Wills, among others). Kennedy, the odd man out, still seeks his true biographer.

Jill Abramson

Science And Technical Writing

     Take a class of writing students in a liberal arts college and assign them to write about some aspect of science, and a pitiful moan will go around the room. "No! Not science!" the moan says. The students have a common affliction: fear of science. They were told at an early age by a chemistry or a physics teacher that they don't have "a head for science."

     Take an adult chemist or physicist or engineer and ask him or her to write a report, and you'll see something close to panic. "No! Don't make us write!" they say. They also have a common affliction: fear of writing. They were told at an early age by an English teacher that they don't have "a gift or words."

William Zinsser

Scenes As The Building Blocks Of Creative Nonfiction

  Scenes (vignettes, episodes, slices of reality, and so forth) are the building blocks of creative nonfiction--the primary factor that separates and defines literary and/or creative nonfiction from traditional journalism and ordinary lifeless prose.

     The uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject place, or personality but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality in action.

Lee Gutkind