Wednesday, September 30, 2015

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

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

Sue Grafton

What Is Literary Style?

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

David Madden

The Writer-Reader Relationship

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

John D. MacDonald

The Sting a Writer Feels Over a Bad Review

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

Anthony Burgess

The Importance of a Novel's Characters

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

James N. Frey 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451"

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

Dave Itzkoff 

More People Read Memoirs Than Literary Novels

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

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

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

Mary Karr 

Parenting How-To Books

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

Andrew Solomon 

Monday, September 28, 2015

One Great Book Doesn't Make One A Great Writer

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

Anthony Burgess

Writing In The Morning

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

Raymond Chandler 

Writing The First Draft Of A Novel

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

Evan Hunter 

The Use Of Exclamation Points In Dialogue

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

Allison Amend 

Kicking The Writing Habit

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

James Gould Cozzens 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Breaking Into Print Is Usually Hard For All Writers

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

Stephen King

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

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

Mallory Ortberg

Friday, September 25, 2015

H. P. Lovecraft And Young Adult Readers

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

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

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

Charles Baxter

Rating Raymond Chandler

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

Charles Finch

Edgar Allan Poe's Obsessions

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

Marilynne Robinson

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Cutting The Fat Out Of A Manuscript

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

Thomas Wolfe

"Dry" Writing

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

Sol Stein

Anyone Can Become A Writer

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

Harlan Ellison 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why Writers Drink And How It Affects Their Writing

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

Joan Acocella

The Science Fiction Fan

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

Harlan Ellison 

Writers Who Seek Fame

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

Malcolm Cowley 

Truman Capote On The Nobel Prize For Literature

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

Truman Capote 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Writing: The Hidden Occupation

Writing is the one occupation wherein nobody else ever sees you at work. They will see you in bowling alleys, on the golf course, at parties, at meetings, at various events taking place at any time of the day or night. All of which leads non-writers to Conclusion A: Writers don't work, and Conclusion B: Writers are available for whatever purpose you wish to put them to.

Hillary Waugh

A Dim View Of The Writing Life

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

V. S. Pritchett 

One Author, Different Writing Styles

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

Gore Vidal 

Novels With Too Much Description

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

Madge Harrah 

Writer Procrastination

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

Anna Holmes


Do Writing Styles Rub Off Among Novelists?

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

Zoe Heller

Monday, September 21, 2015

Isaac Asimov On Book Titles

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

Isaac Asimov 

Writing Is Rewriting

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

Robert Cormier

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Novelist's Take on Literary Critics

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

John Irving 

The Prolific Mystery Novelist

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

Richard Lockridge

Who is the World's Most Rejected Writer?

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

Jim Fisher 

A Novelist's Definition of Plot

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

Ursula K. Le Guin 

Liking Books That Offend

My mother didn't censor our reading as a child; so my sister and I naturally ran for the dirtiest books we could possibly find…I still don't trust a book if it's not filthy in some way, if it doesn't have the potential to offend someone, if not me.

James Hannaham

Not Everyone is a Harry Potter Fan

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

Lydia Davis 

The Difficulty Of Writing Clearly

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

Benjamin Moser

Spy Fiction

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

Olen Steinhauer 

Writing For Your Reader

Nearly every author I know imagines one or more readers while writing a book. It's a bloom of creative telepathy. The reader is a part of yourself, held at a distance, and becomes an important sounding board for the tone and language of the pages, an intimate ally. Readers and writers provide a kind of outside family for one another.

Diane Ackerman 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Old Writer

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

Cynthia Ozick 

Guilty Low-Brow Literary Pleasures

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

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

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

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

Charles McGrath 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Finding Time to Write

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

Julia Cameron 

Novels That Write Themselves

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

David Morrell 

The Role Of Revision In Writing

I write to find what i have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right. There would be nothing to revise if the initial prose didn't exist. Without revision my work would be too ridiculous to bear, a pile of almost-good pages I'd rather burn than publish.

Cheryl Strayed 

The Espionage Novel Hero

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

Joshua Hammer 

Biographies Of Writers

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

T. C. Boyle

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Books About The Dangers Of The Digital World

There's a certain type of technology writer who presents himself as a modern-day Paul Revere, breathlessly warning us about the dangers of our rapidly digitizing world.

     He taps into an of-the-moment, anxiety-inducing conundrum about the way the Internet is influencing contemporary life, whether it be making us dumber…or turning us into bloodthirsty mobs…

     At best, books by such writers provoke thoughtful debates about the trade-offs we make for our Apple-enhanced lives and sound the alarm on disingenuous business practices cloaked under the guise of Silicon Valley-speak; at worst they can come off like a bad "Dateline" report, skimming the surface of a larger phenomenon and preying on our fears about how our daily lives have been irrevocably changed by technology. Rather than to challenge us to reconsider our habits, they are more likely to inspire a defeatist "everything is terrible, nothing matters" attitude.

Jenna Wortham 

The Pleasure Of Manuscript Revising

When asked to summarize a morning's work, Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said that he took out a comma--and then, during the afternoon, put it back in. "Getting the words right" was Hemingway's explanation for rewriting the conclusion of "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times. Both these stories speak to the importance of revision, but each suggests that the process is a kind of end-stage perfectionist ordeal. Neither really conveys a sense of revision's pleasure, or the possibility that there's more literary fun in the carpentry than in the designing.

Thomas Mallon 

The Comic Novel

There's a reason many readers will forgive the comic novel a clunky narrative structure or uneven pacing; a reason they'll forgive a predisposition to tangents, tics or lock of emotional depth. The reason is simple--because funny is hard, both to execute and to resist.

Jonathan Evison 

Full Time Writers And Money

Money woes are real concerns. Billions of human beings can't afford medicine, or clean drinking water, or education for their children, or the rent of a home. And the money woes of a writer are no less real, no less potentially destructive than the money woes of any other woman or man. But money woes can also rescue a dreamer from dreaming himself out of existence, Money woes can make a writer look for a tether. [A day job.]

Mohsin Hamid 

The "Memoir-Novel"

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

Daniel Mendelsohn 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Suicidal Writer

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

Paula Fox

The Burned-Out Novelist

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

Donald Maass

The Effect Of Fame On Friendship

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

Truman Capote

The Level Of Taste And Intelligence In Hollywood

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

Joseph Hansen

How A Bad Review Affected One Novelist

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

Luke Walton 

The Manuscript Rejection Letter

My favorite rejection letter was from a literary agent who said, "We don't have time to take on new clients, and if we did, we would not take you." But I kept trying. My second book got published. The first one never did.

Lisa Scottoline

Writing School

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

Bonnie Friedman 

The Aspiring Novelist

Writing novels is something you have to believe in to keep going. It's a fairly thankless job when no one is paying you to do it. And you don't really know if it's ever going to get into the bookshops.

J. K. Rowling 

Do Writers Like Each Other?

On the whole, professional writers are a lot of whining bastards who wouldn't last a day on a real job. The true mortification of being a writer is having to meet other writers from time to time, and listen to their mundane egotistical rantings.

Duncan McLean

Literary Pretentiousness

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

Candace Bushnell

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Boring Novel

There's no book so beloved that someone, somewhere, hasn't found it unreadably boring. On Goodreads, in response to the question "What the most boring book you've ever read?," it's a given that the answers will include dense and intimidating volumes like "Moby-Dick." But readers have also apparently been bored by a number of books that in their time were considered thrilling and shocking--"Lolita," "The Catcher in the Rye," even an adventure tale like "Around The World in Eighty Days" ("Felt like I was reading it for 80 days").

     Often, it is the books enjoying the most official honor--the syllabus standbys, the anthology all-stars--that provide readers with their first experience of literary boredom. Partly that is because the classroom is seldom the best setting for encountering works of literature, which after all were not written to educate but to seduce.

Adam Kirsch 

Talking Animals In Children's Books

Animals can be an author's best friend. Talking animals, to be precise. Since the dawn of folklore, anthropomorphic beasties have been reliable go-to guys when a story simply wouldn't be as much fun with plain old human protagonists.

Christopher Healy

Books In The Bookstore's Humor Section

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

Judd Apatow

Monday, September 14, 2015

So You Want To Be Famous?

Fame is like a parasite. It feeds off its host--infecting, extracting, consuming its victim until there is nothing left but an empty husk…With this emptiness comes the possibility of a long afterlife as one of the blowup dolls of history.

Amanda Foreman

Publishers Favor Young Writers

The book publishing industry lavishes attention on the young and photogenic, though neither youth nor beauty guarantees fresh ways of thinking or storytelling. We can see the privileging of youth in other forms of media, like Hollywood, where actresses are considered over the hill when they hit 45, or journalism, where veteran editors and reporters get pushed aside for 20-somethings just because 20-somethings exhibit some facility with content management systems and Facebook feeds.

Anna Holmes

Crime Novelist Helen Eustis

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

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

Jim Fisher

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Converting A Journal Into A Memoir

Teaching writers to record their life stories involves no small amount of hand-holding--and for good reason. Even after years of journaling or jotting down passing thoughts, the act of sharing your first-person stories with the world can feel like a kind of perversion, like sweating all over someone's couch or coughing into the clam dip at a cocktail party. On the wrong day, even popular writers' rallying cries--such as Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird or Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones--feel like gorgeously embossed invitations to spread your germs far and wide.

Heather Havrilesky 

Novels Preferred By Middle-Class Readers

Middle class readers choose novels that will offer strategies for understanding and managing their personal problems. [They prefer novels that] explore the psychological interior, and present familiar characters and conflicts that validate and confirm their sense of themselves as deep, complicated human beings.

Timothy Aubry 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Literary Style Over Substance

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Fisher
      

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

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

Daniel Torday 

Do Most Writers Hate Themselves?

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

Thomas Mallon

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Talent And The Creative Process

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

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

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

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

Jim Fisher

What Kids 10 To 12 Like To Read

Children of both sexes in the 10 to 12 year age group predominantly read fiction, with the most popular genre amongst both boys and girls being adventure stories. Girls choose more romances, horror/ghost stories and poetry books. Boys choose more science fiction, comedy, sports and war/spy books.

Lyn Pritchard

Writer Ben Hecht On Hollywood

I knew her name--Madam Hollywood. I rose and said good-by to this strumpet in her bespangled red gown; good-by to her lavender-painted cheeks, her coarsened laugh, her straw-dyed hair, her wrinkled fingers bulging with gems. A wench with flaccid tits and sandpaper skin under her silks, shined up and whistling like a whore in a park; covered with stink like a railroad station pissery and swinging a dead ass in the moonlight.

Ben Hecht

Writing The How-To Article

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

John Jerome

The Power Of Narrative Nonfiction

I think narrative nonfiction is essentially a hybrid form, a marriage of the art of storytelling and the art of journalism--an attempt to make drama out of the observable world of real people, real places, and real events. It's a sophisticated form of nonfiction writing, possibly the highest form, that harnesses the power of facts to the techniques of fiction. It constructs a central narrative, setting scenes, depicting multidimensional characters and, most important, telling the story in a compelling voice that the reader will want to hear.

Robert Vare 

Waiting For Your Novel To Be Published

Novelists do all kinds of things as they wait for their books to be published, from imagining unforeseen commercial success to imagining unforeseen commercial success. Just kidding--we also update our websites. But eventually we have to face the fact that we are finished with that book--finished, and it's not even in bookstores yet--and it's time to start something new.

Ann Packer 

Journalists Must Be Trustworthy

In fiction, the writer's voice matters; in reporting, the writer's authority matters. The writer of fiction must invent; the journalist must not invent. We read fiction to fortify our psyches and in the pleasure that fortification may give us…We need journalism to learn about the external world in which our psychics have to struggle along, and the quality we most need in the reporter is some measure of trustworthiness. Good journalists care about what words mean.

John Hersey

The Value Of Primary Documentation In Journalism

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

Steve Weinberg 

Fame More Than Literary Quality Sells Books

 A character in B. Traven's story "The Night Visitor" who has written several books he has chosen not to publish, contemplates fame: "What is fame, after all? It stinks to hell and heaven. Today I am famous. Today my name is printed on the front page of all the papers in the world. Tomorrow perhaps fifty people can still spell my name correctly. Day after tomorrow I may starve to death and nobody cares. That's what you call fame."

     B. Traven, the pen name of the mysterious author of dozens of novels--notably, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre--believed that all books should be published anonymously. He based this belief on the notion that readers, by knowing in advance who the author is, will expect and demand a certain kind of book.

     Modern publishing is all about fame. Gore Vidal once said that an author should never turn down a chance to be on television. ( Vidal, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer were notorious media whores.) Today, book publishers pay publicists to get their authors in the news and on radio and TV talk shows.  (Publicity, by definition, is free advertising.) Publishers also like celebrity authors who are already famous. Fans come to celebrity book signings not to acquire the book for reading but for the writer's autograph and a photo op. As a result, it really doesn't bother anyone that celebrity authors do not write (or, I imagine, read) their own books.

Jim Fisher

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

The "humor section" is a meaningless bookseller's term. Think about it for a second. If you go into a bookstore and find yourself browsing the biography section, you know what you are going to get: biographies. Mystery section: mysteries. Sports: books about sports. But humor is something else entirely, conveying an intention rather than a subject. Rare is the humorous book about humor…Books filed under "humor" aren't about anything specific. Their subjects run the gamut from "Calvin and Hobbes" anthologies to comedic memoirs to pop culture parodies to the sort of gift books that are best read from the cozy confines of the commode. Their only commonality is their desire to amuse.

Michael Ian Black


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Stephen King: Literary Celebrity

Literary celebrity sounds like an oxymoron, but it does happen. Selling millions of books isn't enough; readers have to feel a profound personal connection to the writer. J. K. Rowling is definitely in the club. James Patterson is not. Or consider this story, one told to me 20 years ago by a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, the writer-rock band. (Now that may be an oxymoron.) The band stopped for breakfast at a small-town truck stop before the sun was up. This was pre-smartphone, pre-social media, practically pre-Internet. Yet by the time the band members returned to their bus, there were several people lined up, clutching copies of "The Strand," eager to meed the band's undisputed rock star, Stephen King.

Laura Lippman 

The Decline Of Literary Fiction?

In recent years, a number of talented novelists have experienced a sudden and alarming loss of faith in their chosen literary form. David Shields thinks most novels are boring and disconnected from reality. Nicole Krauss is "sick of plot and characters and scenes and climax and resolution." Rachel Cusk has decided conventional fiction is "fake and embarrassing." Karl Ove Knausgaard goes even further, dismissing the entire enterprise" "Fictional writing has no value."

     This distaste for the clunky machinery of traditional narrative fiction has spread quickly. Some of the most interesting "novels" of the past few years--Teju Cole's "Open City," Jenny Offill's "Dept. of Speculation," Ben Lerner's "Leaving the Atocha Station," not to mention Knausgaard's epic, "My Struggle"--are barely novels at all. They read more like memoirs, or a series of lightly fictionalized journal entries, recounting the mundane lives and off-kilter ruminations of their first-person narrators, who are either post-graduate students or blocked writers. There's a smallness to these books…

Tom Perrotta 

Children's Books Make Good Movies

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

Alice Gregory 

Distinguishing History, Biography, And The Memoir

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

Benjamin Moser

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

I wanted to be a writer, and that's what I wound up being. The difference is, I write about real people, and in telling their stories, I'm not free to play around with facts or make things up. And again and again come vivid reminders that the truth is often stranger than fiction, but far more remarkable as a story.

David McCullough 

The Fear Of Writing

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

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

Ralph Keyes

Mickey Spillane On Writing

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

James Charlton and Lisbeth Mark

One Writer's Idea Of A Good Writing Day

I know perfectly well how to have a good writing day: get up around six, get a quick breakfast, at my desk before seven for an uninterrupted three hours of solid work (invariably the most productive segment of the day); a break at ten to fetch the mail, then back to work--resisting, by sheer strength of character, the seductions of the mail--until noon. Break again to [take a walk], get lunch, read the paper. Back to the desk for another productive couple of hours, until concentration fades; sag away from the desk about four, get a nap, feed and exercise the dogs, and begin, cocktail in hand, to read whatever it is I'm reading at the time. Piece of cake. I get a writing day like that, oh, at least once a month.

John Jerome

Writers Need To Tighten Up Their Prose

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

William Zinsser

What's Real In Fiction And Nonfiction?

 I have long been intrigued by how often readers of fiction want to know which parts really happened to the author, whereas readers of nonfiction want to know which parts are made up. In both cases...there is a vague implication that the authors are cheating.

     These seemingly paradoxical obsessions, I think, reflect a universal human desire to distinguish what's real, in order to make sense of potentially overwhelming sensory experience. The ultimate reality is that we can't truly distinguish what's "real" in our perceptions, any more than nonfiction authors can avoid shaping "reality" by the way they recount events or fiction writers can avoid drawing on personal experience when ostensibly making up stories.

Deborah Tannen

Humiliations Of The Writing Life

Humiliation is not, of course, unique to writers. However, the world of letters does seem to offer a near-perfect microclimate for embarrassment and shame. There is something about the conjunction of high-mindedness and low income that is inherently comic; something about the presentation of deeply private thoughts--carefully worked and honed into art over the years--to a public audience of strangers, that strays perilously close to tragedy. It is entirely possible, I believe, to reverse Auden's dictum that "art is born out of humiliation."

Robin Robertson

Writers Lured To Hollywood

They give you a thousand dollars a week [1960s] until that's what you need to live on. And then every day you live after that, you're afraid they'll take it away from you. It's all very scientific. It's based on the psychological fact that a man is a grubbing, hungry little sleaze....In twenty-four hours you can develop a taste for caviar. In forty-eight hours fish eggs are no longer a luxury, they're a necessity.

Character in Rod Serling's play, Velvet Alley

Charles Bukowski On Not Selling Out

  I think that over-ambition kills. I think that trying to be a writer kills. Writing simply has to be a sickness, a drug. It doesn't have to be, it just is. When one thing or another cures your sickness, that's it. And, of course, there are no guidelines.

     I've been lucky. For decades now I haven't had to force myself to write anything in any particular way…If you slant your writing it means you want to make money, you want to get famous, you want to get published for the sake of getting published. I think that only works for a while. The gods are watching us. And they extract their toll. Without fail.

Charles Bukowski 

The Writer's Day Job

There's a difference between a vocation and a profession. A vocation is a calling--something you are called to. A profession is something that you practice...In the states, I think about 10 percent of the novel writers actually make a living out of their novel writing. The others have the vocation, but they can only partly have the profession, because they have to spend the rest of their time making money in order to keep themselves in their habit. They are word junkies. They've got to pay for their fix. I chose university teaching because there is a long summer vacation, and also because you could fake it.

Margaret Atwood

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Are Writers Prone To Suicide?

A good many writers are high-strung, strung-out emotional wrecks. A lot of them are really odd. Many slip into despair, some go mad, and a number get hooked on booze or drugs. More than a few have ended their lives with suicide.

     To writers who are more or less normal, there is nothing more morbidly fascinating than the tormented life and self-inflicted death of a fellow author. Ross Lockridge, Jr. is a case in point. In February 1949, about a year after the publication of his first book, Raintree County, a bestselling Book-of-the Month-Club selection, the 33-year-old writer gassed himself to death in his garage while seated in his newly purchased car.

     Journalist Nanette Kutner, who had interviewed Lockridge six months before his suicide, wrote this after his death: "He was no one-book author; he never would have been content to live as Margaret Mitchell [Gone With the Wind] lived. But he could not find a remedy for the letdown that invariably comes after completing a big job, the letdown [Anthony] Trollope understood so well he never submitted a novel until he was deep into the next."

     Do writers end their lives more often than people in other lines of work? There is no way to know if writers are particularly prone to suicide. Experts say that statistics on suicide by occupation are not clear on this issue because there is no national data base on line of work and suicide. Experts also believe that because occupation is not a major predictor of suicide, this aspect of life doesn't explain why people kill themselves. Since writing, for many authors, is more of a way of life than a profession, and is practiced by a lot of unstable people, it probably is a relevant variable.

     Well-known writers who have killed themselves include: John Berryman, Richard Brautigan, Hart Crane, John Gould Fletcher, Romain Gary, Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Randall Jarrell, Jerry Kosinski, Primo Levi, Ross Lockridge, Jr., Vachel Lindsay, Jack London, Malcolm Lowry, Charlotte Mew, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Hunter S. Thompson, John Kennedy Toole, and Virginia Woolf.

Jim Fisher

The Importance Of Plot

If you read interviews with many prominent authors...you will notice how many of them seem to turn up their noses at the mention of plot. "I never begin with plot," they say. "Characters (or situations or setting or thought) is where I begin my novels." What's the implication? Only bad authors begin with plot. Some of these writers don't just imply it, they say it: A well-plotted book isn't really "artistic." Books like that are for the great mass of dunderheads who read trash, not for us sophisticates who appreciate literature.

J. Madison Davis

The Coming-Of-Age Memoir

Coming-of-age is a literary term to describe the passage from childhood to adulthood, from a state of innocence to a state of experience. Most writing about the teenage years is about coming-of-age, for that is the point of those years. We slip free of the protection and constraints of childhood and step into the vulnerability and freedom of adulthood, and we know it.

Susan Carol Hauser

Issac Asimov On Writer's Block

 The most serious problem a writer can face is "writer's block." This is a serious disease and when a writer has it he finds himself staring at a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter (or blank screen on the word processor) and can't do anything to unblank it. The words don't come. Or if they do, they are clearly unsuitable and are quickly torn up or erased. What's more, the disease is progressive, for the longer the inability to write continues, the more certain it is that it will continue to continue....

     A writer can't put anything on paper when there's nothing left (at least temporarily) in his mind. It may be, therefore, that writer's block is unavoidable and that at best a writer must pause every once in a while, for a shorter or longer interval, to let his mind fill up again.

Isaac Asimov

     

Stephen King On HIs Place In The Pantheon Of Writers

Somebody asked Somerset Maugham about his place in the pantheon of writers, and he said, "I'm in the very front row of the second rate." I'm sort of haunted by that. You do the best you can. The idea of posterity for a writer is poison....

Stephen King

Novelists Who Practice Law

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

Arthur Train

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

Your Book Is Published, Now What?

Examining the first copy of your book is a mixed experience. On the one hand, proof now rests in your hand that you indeed wrote a book. This exciting thought lasts for about six seconds then the mind turns elsewhere: couldn't my publisher have found a better typeface for the jacket? Next time, I'm going to hire a professional photographer to take a good author picture. I wonder how long it will take before my book shows up on remainder tables. I wonder if it's going to get panned. I wonder if anyone will read it at all.

Ralph Keyes

How Publishers Screen Manuscripts

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

Michael Joseph

The Emotionally Detached Journalist

A few days spent in someone else's world (however dismal, violent, pretty or even boring that world may be) is simply not enough to experience it as real. It is too tightly framed by one's own domestic normality. Wherever you are today, you know that next Monday you will be home, and from the perspective of home today will seem too exaggerated, too highly colored, too remote to take quite seriously. So the writer slips into a style of mechanical facetious irony as he deals with this wrong-end-of-the-telescope view of the world. The perfervid [phony passionate] similes that are the trademark of the hardened magazine writer betray him as he tries to make language itself mask and make up for the fundamental shallowness of his experience with its synthetic energy....Emotional disengagement, self-conscious observation, the capacity to quickly turn a muddle of not very deeply felt sensations into a neat and vidid piece, are part of the necessary equipment of the writer as journalist.

Janathan Raban

Book Signings And Other Writer Humiliations

Writers can only moan to each other about all this, really: the humiliating reading to an audience of two, the book signing where nobody turns up, the talk where the only question is "Where did you buy your nail varnish?" Nobody is really going to care, are they, if we sit alone unloved besides our pile of books, approached only once in the two hours and that by a woman who is trying to flog us her self-published book on recovering from breast cancer? Or that we wait, alone in the darkness, on the deserted platform at Newark station, the only reading matter a VIOLENT ASSAULT: WITNESSES WANTED sign swinging in the wind, until we realize we've missed the last train home.

Deborah Moggach

[I once gave a talk at a public library attended by the security guard and a homeless man. When I invited questions at the end of the speech, the homeless guy raised his hand and asked, "Who's going to eat those donuts?"]

Monday, September 7, 2015

Writing Versus Talking On TV

Gore Vidal...once languidly told me that one should never miss a chance...to appear on television. My efforts to live up to this maxim have mainly resulted in my passing many unglamorous hours on off-peak cable TV....Almost every time I go to a TV studio, I feel faintly guilty. This is pre-eminently the "soft" world of dream and illusion and "perception": it has only a surrogate relationship to the "hard" world of printed words and written-down concepts to which I've tried to dedicate my life, and that surrogate relationship, while it, too, may be "verbal," consists of being glib rather than fluent, fast rather than quick, sharp rather than pointed. It means reveling in the fact that I have a meretricious, want-it-both ways side. My only excuse is to say that at least I do not pretend that this is not so.

Christopher Hitchens

Jimmy Breslin's Creative Nonfiction

   In the introduction to his breakthrough 1973 anthology, The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe writes about how Jimmy Breslin, a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, captured the realistic intimacy of experiences by noticing details that could act as metaphors for something larger and more all-encompassing that he wanted to say. Wolfe describes Breslin's coverage of the trial of Anthony Provenzano, a union boss charged with extortion. At the beginning, Breslin introduces the image of the bright morning sun bursting through the windows of the courtroom and reflecting off the large diamond ring on Provenzano's chubby pinky finger. Later, during a recess, Provenzano, flicking a silver cigarette holder, paces the halls, sparring with a friend who came to support him, the sun still glinting off the pinky ring.

     Wolfe writes: "The story went on in that vein with Provenzano's Jersey courtiers circling around him and fawning while the sun explodes off his pinky ring. Inside the courtroom itself, however, Provenzano starts getting his. The judge starts lecturing him and the sweat starts breaking out on Provenzano's upper lip. Then the judge sentences him to seven years, and Provenzano starts twisting his pinky finger with his right hand." The ring is a badge of Provenzano's ill-gotten labors, symbolic of his arrogance and his eventual vulnerability and resounding defeat.

Lee Gutkind

A Low Opinion Of The Literary Critic

Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They're there every night, they see it done every night, they see how it should be done every night, but they can't do it themselves.

Brendan Behan 

Booze And Writing

I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination. There is no need to either rue or apologize for my use of this soothing, often sublime agent, which had contributed greatly to my writing; although I never set down a line while under its influence....Alcohol was an invaluable senior partner of my intellect, besides being a friend whose ministrations I sought daily--sought also I now see, as a means to calm the anxiety and incipient dread that I had hidden away for so long in the dungeons of my spirit.

William Styron

The Shared Experiences Of Writers

Writers have helped me when members of my own family could not. Some writers have been closer than dear friends, even though I never have seen them in the flesh. For example, when I have read some of Somerset Maugham and his The Summing Up, the lucidity of his view of the writing profession illuminated dusky corners in my mind....I have been helped by other writers.

Margaret Culkin Banning

Isaac Asimov On The Writing Life

The writer's life is inherently an insecure one. Each project is a new start and may be a failure. The fact that a previous item has been successful is no guard against failure this time.

     What's more, as has often been pointed out, writing is a very lonely occupation. You can talk about what you write, and discuss it with family, friends, or editors, but when you sit down at that typewriter, you are alone with it and no one can possibly help. You must extract every word from you own suffering mind.

     It's no wonder writers so often turn misanthropic or are driven to drink to dull the agony. I've heard it said that alcoholism is an occupational disease with writers.

Isaac Asimov

Science Fiction Writer Philip K. Dick

As a result of our media's obsession with the alleged connection between artistic genius and madness, Phil Dick was introduced to mainstream America as a caricature: a disheveled prophet, a hack churning out boilerplate genre fiction, a speed-freak. None of these impressions of Phil, taken without awareness of the sensationalism that generated them, advances our understanding of his life and work. Today the myth of Philip K. Dick threatens to drown out what evidence remains of his turbulent life.

David Gill 

Joseph Wambaugh On Writing Narrative Nonfiction

When I write nonfiction, obviously I was not there when the events occurred. I write in a dramatic style--that is, I employ lots of dialogue. I describe feelings. I describe how the events must have taken place. I invent probable dialogue or a least possible dialogue based upon all of the research that I do.

Joseph Wambaugh 

The Whodunnit And Thriller Genre

The whodunit and the thriller are in their most typical manifestations deeply conventional and ideologically conservative literary forms, in which good triumphs over evil, law over anarchy, truth over lies.

David Lodge

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

Reality Versus Perception Of Crime

Whether we live in a more violent age than did, for example, the Victorians is a question for statisticians and sociologists, but we certainly feel more threatened by crime and disorder than at any other time I remember in my long life. This constant awareness of the dark undercurrents of society and human personality is probably partly due to the modern media, when details of the most atrocious murders, of civil strife and violent protests, come daily into our living rooms from television screens and other forms of modern technology. Increasingly writers of crime novels and detective stories will reflect this tumultuous world in their work and deal with far greater realism than would have been possible in the Golden Age [of mystery fiction 1920-1940]. The solving of the mystery is still at the heart of a detective story but today it is no longer isolated from contemporary society. We know that the police are not invariably more virtuous and honest than the society from which they are recruited, and that corruption can stalk the corridors of power and lie at the very heart of government and the criminal justice system.

P. D. James

Some Reasons Why Nonfiction Writers Get Rejected

Nonfiction writers write too much about themselves and what they think without seeking a universal focus so that readers are properly and firmly engaged. Essays that are so personal that they omit the reader are essays that will never see the light of print. The overall objective of a writer should be to make the reader tune in, not out....The uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality in action.

Lee Gutkind

Detective Fiction As Literature

It may well be that when the historians of literature come to discourse upon the fiction produced by the English-speaking peoples in the first half of the twentieth century, they will pass somewhat lightly over the compositions of the "serious" novelists and turn their attention to the immense and varied achievement of the detective writers.

W. Somerset Maugham 

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

Stephen King On Bad Writers

No matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can't lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers. Some are on-staff at your local newspaper, usually reviewing little-theater productions or pontificating about the local sports teams. Some have scribbled their way to homes in the Caribbean, leaving a trail of pulsing adverbs, wooden characters, and vile passive-voice constructions behind them. Others hold forth at open-mike poetry slams, wearing black turtlenecks and wrinkled khaki pants; they spout doggerel about "my angry lesbian breasts" and "the tilted alley where I cried my mother's name."...While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great one out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

Stephen King

The Book Tour

These days, publicity tours are very important. If you are asked to go one one, go. Not everyone is asked. I always feel honored when my publisher asks me to go on the road or appear on television chat shows. I've become very good at it. I know how to sell my book. If the conversation veers away to another topic, I have learned how to bring it back to the book. Nothing annoys me more than to hear writers in the various television green rooms around the country bitch and moan about how boring the book tours are, or how exhausting. Get into it. Have fun. Most of the people you meet are great. You're selling your books, and you're building your reputation. what's so bad about that?

Dominick Dunne 

Albert Camus On Lying Politicians

Every time I hear a political speech...I am horrified at having, for years, heard nothing which sounded human. It is always the same words telling the same lies. And the fact that men accept this, that the people's anger has not destroyed these hollow clowns, strikes me as proof that men attribute no importance to the way they are governed; that they gamble--yes gamble--with a whole part of their life and their so-called "vital interests."

Albert Camus


A Bad Review For "Catch-22"

Whitney Balliett reviewed a novel for The New Yorker in 1961, saying, "[The author] wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it. What remains is a debris of sour jokes, stage anger, dirty words, synthetic looniness, and the sort of antic behavior that children fall into when they know they are losing our attention." The book was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

James Charlton and Lisbeth Mark

Journalsim And The Cult Of Politically Correctness

Amity Schlaes, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article in The Spectator in January 1994, describing the white middle class' fear of blacks after Colin Ferguson murdered six whites on a Long Island commuter train, and after a jury in Brooklyn acquitted a young black despite powerful evidence that he had murdered a white. She wrote that whites were frightened because Ferguson's "manic hostility to whites is shared by many of the city's non madmen." When copies of the article were circulated among Schlaes' colleagues at the Journal, she became an outcast. A number of her co-workers would get out of the elevator when she got on. People who had eaten with her in the staff cafeteria refused to sit at the same table. A delegation went to the office of the chairman of the company that owns the Journal. It did not matter that Schlaes had pointed out that minorities were the greatest victims of minority crimes, or that nobody could show that a single element of her article was untrue or inaccurate. "Her crime," wrote the then editor of The Spectator, Dominic Lawson, "was greater than being merely wrong. She had written the truth, regardless of the offense it might cause. And in modern America, or at least in the mainstream media, that is simply not done."

Robert H. Bork

Having A Favorite Writer

There are writers you admire, for the skill or the art, for the inventiveness or for the professionalism of a career well spent. And there are writers--sometimes the same ones, sometimes not--to whom you are powerfully attracted, for reasons that may or may not have to do with literary values. They speak to you, or speak for you, sometimes with a voice that could almost be your own. Often there is one writer in particular who awakens you, who is the teacher they say you will meet when you are ready for the lesson.

James D. Houston 

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

Sylvia Plath On Not Writing

I was getting worried about becoming too happily stodgily practical: instead of studying [John] Locke, for instance, or writing--I go make an apple pie, or study The Joy of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel. Whoa, I said to myself. You will escape into domesticity and stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter. And just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf...and she works off her depression over rejections from Harper's (no less!--and I can hardly believe that the Big Ones got rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen.

Sylvia Plath 

Erle Stanley Gardner: A Writing Machine

Erle Stanley Gardner is credited by the Guinness Book of World Records as being the fastest author of this century. It was his habit to tape 3-by-5 inch index cards around his study. Each index card explained where and when certain key incidents would occur in each detective novel. He then dictated to a crew of secretaries some ten thousand words a day, on up to seven different [mystery] novels at a time.

James Charlton and Lisbeth Mark

The Slow Writer

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest comes out very easily.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

[If it takes a month to write the first paragraph, maybe this writer should be doing something else. Short of that, maybe she should start out with the second paragraph, then call it the first.] 

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

Gore Vidal On Being A Famous Writer

Recently, I observed to [an interviewer] that I was once a famous novelist. When assured, politely, that I was still known and read, I explained myself. I was speaking, I said, not of me but of a category to which I once belonged that no longer exists. I am still here, but my category is not. To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker, or speedboat designer.

Gore Vidal 

The Daunting Task Of Writing A Book

     Writing a book is a strange job

     "Here you go," a publisher says at the onset, handing you a salary of sorts, and a deadline, "we'll see you in two years." And there you go indeed, in a state of high alarm without any day-to-day ballast--no appointments, no tasks assigned each morning, no office colleagues to act as sounding boards, no clue as to what you are doing: equipped solely with a single idea, which you cling to like driftwood in a great, dark sea.

Patricia Pearson

What Is Libel?

 Here are two important tenets of libel law every writer should know: 1) If what you say is true, it cannot be libel, and 2) generally speaking, you can't libel a dead person.

     Libel is defined as a false and defamatory statement, in writing [or on radio or TV] that has been published to a third person....

     "Defamatory," in legal terms, means tending to harm the reputation of the person who is the subject of the statement. We're talking about a statement that is more than just embarrassing or annoying...it must be the kind of statement that would deter other people from associating with that person. [Subject that person to contempt, hatred or ridicule. It must also cost the libel plaintiff money, unless the defendant has accused the plaintiff of a crime, then it's called libel per se.]

 Lee Gutkind 

Internet Journalism

The question is not whether Internet journalism will be dominant, but whether it will maintain the quality of the best print journalism. In the end it is not the delivery system that counts. It is what it delivers. There has never been such access to knowledge in all its forms. What we have to find is a way to sustain truth seeking. If we evolve the right financial model, we will enter a golden age of journalism.

Harold Evans

Friday, September 4, 2015

Sportswriter Red Smith

The best sportswriters know this. They avoid the exhausted synonyms and strive for freshness elsewhere in their sentences. You can search the columns of Red Smith and never find a batsman bouncing into a twin killing. Smith wasn't afraid to let a batsman hit into a double play. But you will find hundreds of unusual words--good English words--chosen with precision and fitted into situations where no other sportswriter would put them. They please us because the writer cared about using fresh imagery in a journalistic form where his competitors settle for the same old stuff. That's why Red Smith was still king of his field after half a century of writing, and why his competitors had long since been sent--as they would be the first to say--to the showers.

William Zinsser

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 

Crime Fiction's Police Procedural Genre

Like its first cousin, the mystery novel, the police procedural features a well-structured, fast-paced chronicle of crimes and punishments. Unlike the mystery, the police procedural stresses the step-by-step procedures followed by professional detectives in solving their cases: processing the crime scene to collect physical evidence; canvassing the neighborhood for witnesses or suspects; postmortem examination of the body to determine the cause and manner of death; identifying the victim; tracing the background of the victim; investigating associates of the victim; examining the method of operation of the perpetrator; and continuing with the follow-up investigation.

O'Neil DeNoux

John Gardner On Learning To Write

Books on writing tend to make much of how difficult it is to become a successful writer, but the truth is that, though the ability to write well is partly a gift--like the ability to play basketball well, or to outguess the stock market--writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing. Though learning to write takes time and a great deal of practice, writing up to the world's ordinary standards is fairly easy. As a matter of fact, most of the books one finds in drugstores, supermarkets, and even small-town libraries are not well written at all; a smart chimp with a good creative-writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant. [This is like saying a human with a love for bananas could leap from tree to tree.] Most grown-up behavior, when you come right down to it, is decidedly second-class. People don't drive their cars as well, or wash their ears as well, or eat as well, or even play the harmonica well....This is not to say people are terrible and should be replaced by machines; people are excellent and admirable creatures; efficiency isn't everything. But for the serious young writer who wants to get published, it is encouraging to know that most of the professional writers out there are push-overs.

John Gardner

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

Writer Workshops

 Writer's workshops around the country reflect wildly different assumptions about what the work should be, what the goals are, and how progress might be measured. Some are simply therapy sessions, attempting to create a warm, nurturing environment in which writers are encouraged to express themselves, release their creative energies without fear, and see what happens. Some have a political agenda--feminist art, black art, social protest art. Some have an aesthetic agenda--minimalism, realism, metafiction, etc. There are writer workshops specializing in horror fiction, detective fiction, children's fiction, science fiction, and so on.

     There are workshops that have almost nothing to do with writing, where the texts are little more than an excuse for primal scream catharsis on one hand or new age channeling on the other. So it follows that in talking about a writer's workshop it must be made clear just whose workshop is under discussion.

Frank Conroy

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

The Writing Life's Sad Reality

 I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway. But I try to make sure they understand that writing, and even getting good at it, and having books and stories and articles published, will not open the doors that most of them hope for. It will not make them well. It will not give them the feeling that the world has finally validated their parking tickets, that they have in fact finally arrived....

     My students do not want to hear this. Nor do they want to hear that it wasn't until my fourth book came out that I stopped being a starving artist. They do not want to hear that most of them probably won't get published and that even fewer will make enough to live on. But their fantasy of what it means to be published has very little to do with reality.

Anne Lamott
   

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Writing As A Process Of Discovery

Many people think that writers are wise men who can impart to them the truth or some profound philosophy of life. It is not so. A writer is a skilled craftsman who discovers things along with the reader, and what you do with a good writer is you share the search; you are not being imparted wisdom, or if you are being imparted wisdom, it's a wisdom that came to him just as it came to you reading it.

Shelby Foote

Should A Writer Discuss Work-In-Progress?

I find it helps a lot to talk to friends or editors immediately after I return from a reporting trip. It puts me in a storytelling mode. Even though I'm less preoccupied with producing a seamless narrative then I used to be, I do feel that narrative energy is crucial to distinguishing a story from a research report. When you are telling a story to a live human being [as apposed to a reader] you get a sense, immediately, of what people respond to. It gets you outside of your own head. And often people ask questions that I haven't thought of--questions that force me to look at the reporting in a new way.

Ron Rosenbaum

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

What's Keeping You From Writing?

 If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do? You're a human being, with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle....

     Writing is work, hard work, and its rewards are personal more than financial, which means most people have to do it after hours. But if writing is work, learning to write isn't necessarily painful. To the contrary, silence is pain that writing relieves.

Richard Rhodes

     

Wallace Stegner On "Serious Fiction"

 "Serious fiction" is not necessarily great and not even necessarily literature, because the talents of its practitioners may not be as dependable as their intentions. But a literature, including the great, will be written in this spirit.

     The difference between the writer of serious fiction and the writer of escape entertainment is the clear difference between the artist and the craftsman. The one has the privilege and the faculty of original design; the other does not. The man who works from blueprints is a thoroughly respectable character, but he is of another order from the man who makes the blueprints in the first place.

Wallace Stegner

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

The Lure Of Detective Fiction

The resilience of detective fiction, and particularly the fact that so many distinguished and powerful people are apparently under its spell, has puzzled both its admirers and its detractors and spawned a number of notable critical studies which attempt to explain this puzzling phenomenon. In "The Guilty Vicarage," W. H. Auden wrote that his reading of detective stories was an addiction, the symptoms being the intensity of his craving, the specificity of the story, which, for him, had to be set in rural England, and last, its immediacy. He forgot the story as soon as he had finished the book and had no wish to read it again. Should he begin a detective story and then discover it was one he had already read, he was unable to continue. In all this the distinguished poet differed from me and, I suspect, from many other lovers of the genre. I enjoy rereading my favorite mysteries although I know full well how the book will end, and although I can understand the attraction of a rural setting, I am frequently happy to venture with my favorite detectives onto unfamiliar territory.

P. D. James

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