Tuesday, August 22, 2017

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 

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

Journalism Beats Working

Being a journalist, I never felt bad talking to journalism students about the profession because it's a grand, grand job. You get to leave the office, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories. That's not going to retire your student loans as quickly as it should, and it's not going to turn you into a person who's worried about what kind of new car they should buy, but that's as it should be. I mean, it beats working.

David Carr

Is There a Formula For Writing a Bestselling Novel?

The fact that nobody has even been able to reduce the elements that go into the fashioning of a predictable best-seller has long been illustrated by the classic story of an expensive book-business survey that produced the three kinds of books that had always proved most popular: books about Abraham Lincoln, books about doctors, and books about dogs. The only thing predictable about the survey was that some publisher was bound to act on it, and not long after the survey some publisher did. He brought out a book called Lincoln's Doctor's Dog. It was--predictably--a disaster.

Jerome Weidman

Monday, August 21, 2017

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 

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

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 

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

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

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

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 Depressed Novelist

I get moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as nobody could ever like my kind of writing again [social-comedy novels]. I get depressed about my writing, and feel that however good it was it still wouldn't be acceptable to any publisher.

Barbara Pym 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Repeating Yourself as a Novelist

Every novel I write is harder than the last book. You would think that it would get easier in time, but it doesn't because the challenges are bigger, and your ego pushes you to do better. You want your writing to be cleaner, and I don't want to repeat myself--and that gets hard after so many books--but you don't want the same plot line, and the same characters, you want to keep it fresh. That's one of the hardest things, but it's just absolutely necessary.

Nora Roberts 

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

The Espionage Novel Hero

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

Joshua Hammer 

When Your Short Story Is Rejected, Write Another One

Many writers begin their careers with short fiction, gradually working toward novels as their skills increase and they gain confidence in their ability to handle plot and characterization. A novel requires, at the very least, several months to write, and if it is rejected by publishers, the blow to your ego may be severe enough to discourage further effort. A short story can be completed in a single evening (I've written them in an hour), and if the story fails to gain acceptance with an editor, no great emotional harm is done in terms of rejection. You just go ahead and write another.

William E. Nolan

Friday, August 18, 2017

Truman Capote's Problem With Booze

I can go three or four months without having a drink. And then suddenly I'm walking down the street and I feel that I'm going to die, that I can't put one foot in front of the other unless I have a drink. So I step into a bar. Someone who's not an alcoholic couldn't understand. But suddenly I feel so tired. I've had this problem with alcoholism for about fifteen years. I've gone to hospitals, I tried Anatabuse, I've done everything. But nothing seems to work.

Truman Capote 

Dealing With a Bad Review

My favorite Kirkus review labeled my writing as "awkward and repetitious." I framed that one.

Charles Knief

Alcohol And Creating Fiction

Raymond Chandler is reported to have said he couldn't find an ending to one of his excellent stories unless he took time to get drunk. Up to a point I accept his report. For alcohol can stimulate imagination. It can find inventions. But I'll lay my bottom dollar, as one not unacquainted with booze, that Chandler had to sober up to write that ending.

A. B. Guthrie Jr.

Creating Flawed Characters

I'm fascinated by characters who are completely flawed personalities, driven by anguish and doubt, and are psychologically suspect. Wait a minute--basically that's everybody, isn't it, in life and on the page? As a writer, I'm drawn to characters who, for one reason or another, seem to find themselves desperately out of joint, alienated but not wanting to be, and ever yearning to understand the rules of the game.

Chang-rae Lee

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Story-Driven Nonfiction

Story-driven nonfiction is extraordinarily successful, and there's a huge market for it. I think it's partly because when you publish a nonfiction book, especially one that's story driven as opposed to didactic or scholarly, you can target the market in a easier way.

Charlie Conrad

Ursula K. Le Guin On The Science Fiction Genre

I don't think science fiction is a good name for it, but it's the name that we've got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I get prickly and combative is if I'm just called a sci-fi writer. I'm not. I'm a novelist and poet. Don't shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don't fit, because I'm all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.

Ursula K. Le Guin

The Causes of Writer's Block

After depression, anxiety is probably the second-clearest link between writer's block and a psychiatric illness.

Dr. Alice W. Flaherty 

Do You Like to Write Or Just Want to be a Writer?

The first question for the young writer to ask himself is: "Have I things in my head which I need to set forth, or do I merely want to be a writer?" Another way of putting it is, "Do I want to write--or to have written?"

Jacques Barzun 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

John Gardner on Writer's Block

The best way of all for dealing with writer's block is never to get it. Some novelists never do. Theoretically there's no reason one should get it, if one understands that writing, after all, is only writing, neither something one ought to feel deeply guilty about nor something one ought to be inordinately proud of. The very qualities that make one a novelist in the first place contribute to block: hypersensitivity, stubbornness, insatiability, and so on. Given the general oddity of novelists, no wonder there are no sure cures.

John Gardner

The High Expectations of the First Novel

     I wrote my first novel when I was nineteen. It was bad, the kind of mystery they call "cozy" these days, but with added pretensions to high literary values. I had never taken a creative writing class and knew nothing of plot, character, or pace except for what I had gleaned from my random reading habits. It took me about a year to finish it, and the moment it was done I set about mailing it out to whatever big, famous publishers seemed most likely to back a dump truck full of money up to my parents' front door. It was, I figured, no more than I deserved.

     No one bought it. No one so much as nibbled. I'd be astonished to learn that anyone read more than a few pages of the thing before mailing out the obligatory polite rejection. Over the years I accumulated quite a stack of polite rejections.

A. J. Hartley 

Ray Bradbury as a Fantasy Writer

     Ray Bradbury's rocket ships were not souped-up fighter jets. Instead, they were the latter-day descendent of Joseph Conrad's sailing ships: You traveled on them not so much to encounter adventures as to think about what the encounter might mean. His Mars was not an arid red desert, it was filled with towns where old ladies puttered around on the same kinds of charming but pointless errands little old lades do in Marcel Proust's Cambray…


     One way to sum up Ray Bradbury is to notice that he is just about the only American science fiction writer to claim, proudly, the label "fantasy" for his books. Fahrenheit 451 was his only real science fiction novel, he said. You might even locate him in a middle ground between the best American fantasy literature and the hyper-masculine world of Astounding Science Fiction. 

John Plotz
      

Kurt Vonnegut on Writing Students

I wish my students could write simply and clearly, and keep a story moving as well. They are damned if they will tell a story simply and directly, and I have discovered the reason for this. It is not the fault of their previous teachers. It is their own fault: they have no stories to tell. I am going to take them on walks, and make them look at people. I have just ordered them to buy a book, which is to be the core text for my workshop. The book? That Steichen collection of photographs, The Family of Man

Kurt Vonnegut 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The First Novel As Fiction Light

The first novel is a good place to put in things that would be awkward to use elsewhere. No one requires much fiction from a first novel.

Peter S. Prescott

Types of 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 in On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey, 2000

Charles Bukowski on Humor

Humor is good when it stems from the truth. In fact, truth alone is often humorous. But the humor of artifice--whose worst device is exaggeration--always makes me a little ill because it is just another con game…I suppose that the worst is Bob Hope with his flip little cute exaggerations and his name droppings. I don't keep up much with the world and he drops these names I never heard of, all supposing to mean something.

Charles Bukowski 

In Romance Novels Love Conquers All

We romance writers get to make people happy. We assure our readers that no matter how bad things get, our heroines will aways win in the end. We confirm what romance readers believe in their heart of hearts: Love will conquer all.

Julie Beard

The Sports Writer

Newspaper people speak of journalists who cover the news as police reporters, City Hall men, and Washington correspondents. Print journalists on the sports beat are usually referred to as sports writers. The sports writer is not expected merely to tell us what happened. Upon small, coiled springs of fact, he builds up a great padded mattress of words. His readers escape into a dream where most of the characters are titanic heroes, devouring monsters, or gargantuan buffoons.

A. J. Liebling

Monday, August 14, 2017

Why Sherlock Holmes Didn't Stay Dead

Sherlock Holmes died in 1893 but then came back to life ten years later. After writing twenty-four Holmes stories in six years, Arthur Conan Doyle had grown weary of the popular hero and wanted to focus on writing historical novels. So he figured he could put an end to the whole thing by having Holmes plunge to his death from Switzerland's Reichenbach Falls, holding his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarity, in a mutual death grip.

     Although public outcry was enormous, Doyle remained adamant about not bringing Holmes back. Ten years later, though, McClure's magazine in the United States offered Doyle $5,000 per story if he'd bring his detective back to life. That was the equivalent of nearly $100,000 in today's money, and Doyle couldn't resist. His first story had Holmes coming out of hiding after ten years, and Doyle wrote Holmes stories for a quarter of a century before retiring himself and his detective for good in 1927.

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo

Creating Ghosts, Vampires and Werewolves

Suppose you have a strong desire to use a ghost, vampire or werewolf as your central horror novel menace. Is it still possible to utilize such conventional monsters? Will editors buy yet another vampire novel when so many have already been written?

     The answer is yes: Editors are always receptive to novels and stories containing supernatural monsters, but they must be freshly presented; your stories must offer new insights and a fresh approach.

William F. Nolan

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

Being a Screenwriter

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

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

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

Richard Krevolin

Sunday, August 13, 2017

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?"]

Novelists Don't Like Each Other

My theory is that novelists don't much like each other. Their relationships with each other are too complicated. I can't understand how two writers can be married to each other any more than I can fathom how two actors can be. It seems to me that the more contact writers have with other writers, the more vitriolic they are on the subject of one another. If a writer is only known from afar, through his or her written word or an occasional meeting at a writers' conference, the observations about that person are more restrained. It is daily contact, like stone rubbing stone, that most often produces sparks.

James Charlton

A Writer's LIfe

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

Stephen Koch

Novel Writing: The Vocation of Unhappiness

Novel writing is considered a profession and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think that an artist can ever be happy.

Georges Simenon

Humor And The "Serious" Novelist

The world likes humor, but treats it patronizingly. It feels if a thing is funny it can be presumed to something other than great. Writers know this, and those who take their literary selves with great seriousness are of considerable pains never to associate their names with anything funny or flippant or nonsensical or "light." They suspect it would hurt their reputation, and they are right.

E. B. White

The Comic Novel

Comic novels often offend as many people as they please because each reader's capacity for tolerating irreverence is different; what seems tame to one reader seems right to another, what seems corrosive to one reader seems hilarious to another.

Jane Smiley

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Charles Bukowski On Getting a Late Start as a Writer

I just got rid of a short story called "The Other." Arete took it. They pay a grand. Then they asked that I might I might illustrate the story. I sat down and flipped out three or four drawings, took maybe five minutes. The accepted--$400. Everything is very strange. From a total bum to all this. But something is watching me. I am always being tested. There is always the next day, the next night. I began late and I'm going to have to keep pounding. I missed a hell of a lot of years. But the luckiest thing that ever happened to me is that I didn't get lucky early.

Charles Bukowski

Negative Reviews

  The publishing industry, we hear, is in trouble. So why would a sensible writer tell people not to buy a book? If the novel, as we also hear, is moribund or dead, why drive another nail into its sad little coffin? And lately there seems to be a cultural moratorium on saying something "bad" about anyone or anything, unless you're a politician, in which case that's your job...

     There was a time when I wrote negative reviews…I admit it provided a wicked sort of fun, especially when I was writing for an editor-friend who delighted in sending me books that weren't exactly "serious" but got under my skin. Sadly, it's easier to be witty when one is being unkind. Friends would say, "Oh, I just adored your hilarious essay on that celebrity's memoir about her fabulous face-lift." And what would they say when I praised a book? Nothing.

     Even so, I stopped. I began returning books I didn't like to editors. I thought, life is short, I'd rather spend my time urging people to read things I love. And writing a bad book didn't seem like a crime deserving punitive public humiliation…

     But in the last year or so I've found myself again writing negative reviews--as if quitting for three decades I'd suddenly resumed smoking, or something else I'd forsworn. Once more, it's a question of what gets under my skin, and of trying to understand why. I've begun to think, if something bothers me that much, life is too short not to say so

Francine Prose

John Fowles On The Academic Critic

The literary thesis writers are after me. They demand that I have some sort of "plan" to my work. Actually, I write without calculation. If you write in a complicated way, you can't think you mustn't write in the complicated way because it encourages academics who would be better occupied ranking leaves.

John Fowles 

Critic Peter S. Prescott on the Science Fiction Genre

Peter S. Prescott says in his Newsweek piece on science fiction (December 22, 1975): "Few science fiction writers aim higher than what a teen-age intelligence can grasp, and the smart ones--like Kurt Vonnegut, carefully satirize targets--racism, pollution, teachers--that teen-agers are conditioned to dislike."

     That unsupported allegation about me will now become a part of my dossier at Newsweek. I ask you to put this letter in the same folder, so that more honest reporters than Mr. Prescott may learn the following about me:

     I have never written with teen-agers in mind, nor are teen-agers the chief readers of my books. I am the first science fiction writer to win a Guggenheim, the first to become a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the first to have a novel become a finalist for a National Book Award. I have been on the faculties of the University of Iowa and Harvard, and was most recently a Distinguished Professor of Literature at CCNY.

     Mr. Prescott is entitled to loathe everything I have ever done, which he clearly does. But he should not be a liar. Newsweek should not be a liar.

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut on the Short Story

This country used to be crazy about short stories. New stories would appear every week in the Saturday Evening Post or in The New Yorker, and every middle-class literate person would be talking about it: "Hey, did you read that story by Salinger?" or "Hey, did you read that story by Ray Bradbury?"

Kurt Vonnegut

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Creator of Sherlock Holmes Would Have Embarrassed His Protagonist

Sir A. Conan Doyle's detective Sherlock Holmes was the epitome of rationalism and logic. However, Doyle himself was not. He believed deeply in ghosts, fairies, and other spiritualistic claptrap, and was duped over and over again by charlatans and hoaxers.

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo

Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood:" Fact or Fiction?

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

Mark Mordue

Literary Hatchet-Jobs

 In 1978, Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford's viciously unflattering portrait of her mother, Hollywood star Joan Crawford, broke new ground in using the memoir to get even with a lousy parent. The book, painting Joan Crawfored as a self-centered, compulsively clean neurotic, was made into a movie in 1981. Three years later, Gary Crosby, in his memoir Going My Way, did a hatchet-job on his father, crooner and film star, Bing Crosby. In 1987, the critic Vivian Gornick, the author of a previous book on how to write memoirs, published Fierce Attachments, a memoir describing her troubled relationship with her mother. The book, showing the author's mother in a terrible light, reveals a relationship characterized by hatred and rage. The author blames her later-in-life problems on her awful mother and their turbulant relationship. More recently, the writer Dan Fante, in a memoir about an early life of drugs, booze, mental illness and violence, portrays his father, the southern California screenwriter and novelist, John Fante, as an angry, agressive drunk who regularly offended and bullied his bosses, his friends and his long-suffering wife.

     In 2011, Alexis Stewart contributed to the Mommie Dearest genre with a memoir critical of her famous mother, Martha Stewart. In the book, rather stupidly entitled Whatever Land: Learning to Live Here, the author shocks the reader with revelations such as these: mother made daughter wrap her own Christmas presents, didn't celebrate Halloween, and never closed the door when using the bathroom.

     A steady diet of Mommie Dearest books might cause celebrities to consider the wisdom of having children.

Jim Fisher

Stephen King on the Craft of Writing Fiction

All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story holds value over every other facet of the writer's craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven....

     I'm not any big-deal fancy writer. If I have any virtue it's that I know that. I don't have the ability to write the dazzling prose line. All I can do is entertain people. I think of myself as an American writer....

     My greatest virtue is that I know better than to evade my responsibilities by the useless exercise of trying to write fancy prose. I entertain people by giving them good stories dealing with the content of ordinary American ives, which is the best, truest tradition of American fiction.

Stephen King

     

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Making It As a Mystery Writer

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 

Tracy Kidder on Narrative Nonfiction

Some people criticize nonfiction writers for "appropriating" the techniques and devices of fiction writing. These techniques, except for invention of characters and detail, never belonged to fiction. They belong to storytelling.

Tracy Kidder in Literary Journalism, edited by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer, 1995

The Effect of Harry Potter on Teen Fantasy Fiction

The first novel I published was the fifth I'd written and when it sold I was working on novel thirteen. What finally made the difference? Harry Potter. I slid into publication on Harry Potter's big, beautiful coattails. When I first started writing you couldn't sell a fantasy novel for teens to save your life. An editor once told me, "First you have to sell three or four realistic novels, about real kids, preferably humorous. If they do well then maybe, maybe someone will look at your fantasy." Then Harry Potter hit, and every editor in the country started pulling fantasy out of their slush piles.

Hilari Bell 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Raymond Chandler On Working in Hollywood

I simply don't want to do any more work for Hollywood. There is nothing in it but grief and exhaustion and discontent. In no real sense is it writing at all. It carries with it none of the satisfactions of writing. None of the sense of power over your medium. None of the freedom, even to fail.

Raymond Chandler

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

Relatives: The Biographer's Natural Enemies

The biographer's business, like the journalist's, is to satisfy the reader's curiosity, not to place limits on it. He is supposed to go out and bring back the goods--the malevolent secrets that have been quietly burning in archives and libraries and in the minds of contemporaries who have been biding their time, waiting for the biographer's knock on their doors. Some of the secrets are difficult to bring away, and some, jealously guarded by relatives, are even impossible. Relatives are the biographer's natural enemies; they are like the hostile tribes the explorer must ruthlessly subdue to claim his territory.

Janet Malcolm

The Genre Limits of Autobiography

I  have tried autobiography and found that I am not to be trusted with it. I hate the restrictiveness of facts; I just can't control my impulse to rearrange, suppress, add, heighten, invent, and improve. Accuracy means less to me that suggestiveness; my memory is as much an inventor as a recorder, and when it has operated it has operated almost as freely as if no personal history were involved.

Wallace Stegner

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

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 

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

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

Scandinavian Crime Fiction

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

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

Jeremy Megraw

The First Novel Blues

 I completed my first novel on July 29, 2012 and spent the next two months sending it out to hundreds of agents and any publisher I could find that accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Dropping over a grand on ink, paper, and postage, my days consisted of checking my email, walking to the post office, and scanning the Internet for details of any literary agency that had an address, never mind a respectable client list.

     I received dozens of rejection slips but mainly non-replies. Those that did get back to me all said the same thing: love it, but can't see it selling. After a few months I was forced to admit that my novel wasn't going to be bought for $500,000 nor for the price of a battered second-hand paperback. I was devastated. What would become of me now?

James Nolan

Monday, August 7, 2017

Is Novel Writing a Calling Or a Job?

There is something dreary about wanting fiction writing to be a real job. The sense of inner purpose, so often unmentionable in a society enamored of professionalism, distinguishes a writer from a hack. Emily Dickinson didn't turn her calling into a job, and neither did Franz Kafka, or Fernando Pessoa, or Wallace Stevens, or any of the millions of writers who have never earned a penny for their thoughts. A defrocked priest forever remains a priest, and a writer--independent of publication or readership or "career"--is always a writer. Writing, after all, is something one does. A writer is something one is.

Benjamin Moser

Craft In Memoir Writing

A good memoir requires two elements--one of art, the other of craft…Regarding craft, good memoirs involve a careful act of construction…Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half remembered events. With that feat of manipulation they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone, not quite like that of anybody else who was present at the same events.

William Zinsser 

Everyone Has a Relative They Think Worthy of a Biography

My last biography is no sooner in the stores when the letters start coming suggesting a subject for my next one. The grandmothers of these letter writers are crying from the grave, it seems, for literary recognition. It is bewildering, the number of salty grandfathers, aunts, and uncles that languish unappreciated.

Catherine Drinker Bowen

The Scope of Science Fiction

One of the hallmarks of science fiction is its intense originality. Science Fiction has few limits on topics or scope, and has wandered far into speculation about the future, future societies, and technological change. Along the way, science fiction writers have explored fiction's classic themes of life and death, human failure, and challenges intrinsic to any worthwhile story. To catch an editor's eye, you must have something different in your story, something you handle especially well--a vivid character, an intriguing background, a compelling theme.

Paula E. Downing

Sunday, August 6, 2017

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 

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

Synopsizing Your Novel

 I hate synopses, and I've never managed to write one. How the hell can you boil down a novel from 400 pages to three?

     And what does the reader of a synopsis expect to learn from it, anyway? I'm not nearly good enough a writer to convey tone, voice, and character and summarize a 90,000-word plot in five paragraphs. Someone who writes in romance told me that the synopsis is used to prove you understand the expectations of the genre. Well, okay, I guess. But I've never heard another good reason, and even that sounds weak to me.

     If the publisher's demand for a synopsis in nonnegotiable, do the best you can. Otherwise, just skip it--attach Chapter One, or a list of writing credits, instead. For me, the whole point of the game is to get them to read the first few pages. After that, it's all about the writing, as it should be.

Michael Wiecek

The "Saved By The Love of a Good Woman" Theme in Romance Fiction

The theme of the man who is "saved by the love of a good woman" is common in both life and romance. In reality, savior complexes are dangerous because they encourage women to stay with abusive mates, but that is another story, one that belongs in "woman's fiction" rather than "romance." What matters in a romance context is that healing the wounded hero is a fantasy of incredible potency.

Mary Jo Putney 

The Drunken Neurotic Novelist

Novel writing, like other creative and artistic pursuits, tends to be romanticized by many and vilified by some. Novelists in America are seen as special, peculiar but mythical people whose lives have a certain magical charm, or, alternatively, as drunken, neurotic wastrels who sponge off the government and do no work. Sometimes writers themselves perpetrate these myths.

Judith Barrington

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Edgar Allan Poe On The Short Story

The novel differs from the short story in more than just length, but they both share the dynamic quality of character-moved-by-plot. But the difference is, that on the long trip the novel provides, there is space and time for a quantity of incidents and effects. Edgar Allan Poe spoke of the short story as providing "a single and unique effect" toward which every word contributes: "If the author's initial sentence tend not to the bring out this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-establishsed design." Poe's famous "unique effect" dictum can of course be taken too strictly, but it does seem to be the case that there is a degree of unity in a well-wrought short story--what we call an "harmonious relationship of all its aspects"--that isn't necessarily found in a good novel, that isn't perhaps even desirable in a novel.

Rust Hills     

The Urge to Write

Some of us want fame and critical recognition. Some of us want to make a lot of money. Some of us want to write in such a way as to influence people. Some of us are more interested in using writing to get in touch with our inner selves, and some employ it to gain entrance to the world of imagination.

Lawrence Block 

Creating Setting in Crime Fiction

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

Julie Smith 

Theme in Children's Literature

If an editor says your children's story is "slight," this may mean you have no significant theme. Don't blurt out your theme. Let it emerge from the story. If you must come out and say it, do it in dialogue, not narration. Avoid preaching. Children's stories should be explorations of life--not Sunday school lessons. Keep your theme positive. If writing about a special problem, offer constructive ways for your reader to deal with it.

Aaron Shepard

Friday, August 4, 2017

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 

Biography As A Prism Of History

As a prism of history, biography attracts and holds the reader's interest in the larger subject. People are interested in other people, in the fortunes of the individual.

Barbara W. Tuchman

The Mainstream Novel

Authors often believe that if a novel can only be categorized "mainstream" that it will automatically ship to stores in large quantities and sell to customers in big numbers. That belief is naive. So-called mainstream novels can sell in tiny numbers. That is even more true in the category of literary fiction. Authors with such labels face a double struggle in building their audience. For one thing, they cannot tap into the popularity of an existing genre. They must build from the ground up, creating a category where none existed before--their own. It can be a tough job.

Donald Maass

What It Takes To Write Narrative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction requires the skills of the storyteller and the research ability of the conscientious reporter. Writers of creative nonfiction must become instant authorities on the subjects of their articles or books. They must not only understand the facts and report them using quotes from authorities, they must also see beyond them to discover their underlying meaning, and they must dramatize that meaning in an interesting, evocative, informative way--just as a good teacher does.

Theodore A. Rees Cheney

News Versus Story

News is plot, event, what happened last night or this afternoon or is in process right now. News breaks fast, somebody writes it up, the gun is barely fired before the world is clued in. Story is a wider map and involves any number of whys, relating to personal history, family background, the times, the place, and cultural background. Story makes a stab at explaining how such a wonderful or terrible thing could have happened. News enjoys a brief shelf life, turns stale fast, grows a quick crust. Story addresses complicated possibilities and reasons, therefore lasts longer, maybe forever.

Beverly Lowry

Thursday, August 3, 2017

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 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 

A Novelist's Success Can Be Fleeting

The novelist'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 not a guard against failure this time. It's no wonder fiction writers so often turn misanthropic or are driven to drink to dull the agony.

Isaac Asimov

Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction

We must cut off the modern detective story from the novel proper, put it in quite another category, one with its own traditions, conventions and demands, and thus develop a completely independent critical approach to it. I feel, in fact, that however we react to novels of the American hard-boiled school, nothing but harm can be done by an attempt to see them as "realistic" or closer to the novel proper than other varieties of crime fiction.

Robert Barnard

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

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

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

John Updike On His Literary Productivity

I don't feel very rapid or prolific to myself. Looking back on the alleged 50 books that I've written, many of them are quite short, some are children's books, some are collections of material that appear in other books, so in a way it's a fraudulent appearance of muchness. Some of the books are sequels, which again is a kind of cheating.

John Updike

Why Biographers Write About People They Don't Like

Biography is not the place for "debunking," although in recent years there has been a trend in that direction. Why would a biographer wish to spend his days of work giving vent to anger or carrying on a literary association with a person he despises? Yet some enjoy this and write bestsellers.

Doris Ricker Marston

The Empowerment Fantasy in Romance Fiction

In the romance novel the domineering male becomes the catalyst that makes the empowerment fantasy work. The heroine isn't as big as he is; she isn't as strong, as old, as worldly; many times she isn't well-eductated. Yet despite all these limitations she confronts him--not with physical strength but with intelligence and courage. And what happens? She always wins! Guts and brains every time. What a comforting fantasy this is for a frizzled, overburdened, anxiety-ridden reader.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

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 

Starting a Mystery Novel Series

An editor rejected my first mystery novel with these words: "I think it would take something really unusual to convince me to take on a new mystery series--an American/Jewish plumber who solves cases by listening at people's drain pipes, or something like that."

William G. Tapply

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 

Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo Journalism

New journalism is a term that Tom Wolfe has been trying to explain, on the lecture stump, for more than five years and the reason he's never been able to properly define "new journalism" is that it never actually existed, except maybe in the minds of people with a vested interest in the "old journalism"--editors, professors and book reviewers who refused to understand that some of the country's best young writers no longer recognized "the line" between fiction and journalism.

Hunter S. Thompson

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Spy Novel

 At their core, spy novels are about secrets. Secrets create power. Power determines how we live. That's a formula for fiction that matters--matters to us in this world where making sense of what's really going on turns out to be a lifelong endeavor, one that fiction lets us do from the safety of own sheltered lives...

     Spy novels remind us of our past and reflect our future. Alan Furst's WW II era novels bring to life heroic struggles of the "greatest generation," while novels written long before 9/11 by Tom Harris and Tom Clancy foreshadowed dramatic hijacked aircraft terrorist attacks targeting American civilians…

     In spy novels we're guaranteed a fictional journey in which something happens. A secret will be stolen or protected, a spy will be caught or escape, the conspiracy will triumph or be crushed. A spy novel can be set anywhere with as much action as you want--sabers in the courtyard or switchblades in the alley, snipers, runaway carriages, strangers on a train, parachuting commandos, car chases, kung fu, high-tech weaponry and low-minded thugs…

     Right versus wrong, good versus evil, the essential nature of power and politics, all that and more unfold is a safe, fictional package for us to enjoy.

James Grady

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

Dystopian Science Fiction

Dystopia has appeared in science fiction from the genre's inception, but the past decade has observed an unprecedented rise in its authorship. Once a literary niche within a niche, mankind is now destroyed with clockwork regularity by nuclear weapons, computers gone rogue, nanotechnology, and man-made viruses…We have plagues and we have zombies and we have zombie plagues.

Michael Solana

Selecting a Genre

  You want to write, but to write about what, exactly? A memoir; history; poetry; a novel? Or a short story, perhaps. Or a long short story.

     While they are theoretically allowed to exercise their free will, many writers will contend that they've been invisibly but firmly propelled in one particular direction. Writers might write what they like to read, and we have heard how reading is the foundation of writing. Following your own reading tastes might help you narrow the field; fiction or nonfiction; poetry or prose. If you love movies, or the theater, or TV, you may be driven to write in those genres.

Ian Jackman

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Bret Easton Ellis on His First Novel

When I was writing my first novel, I had no serious hopes of publishing it. I was sophisticated enough to know that twenty-year-olds don't publish novels. I was writing it because I enjoyed writing and because it was cathartic. Some people release their pain and anxiety through, oh, I don't know, playing sports, or a hobby, or through sex or drugs. Writing for me was always a great stress reliever. It was Joe McGinness who thought the book had commercial potential, so he showed it to his agent. Less Than Zero was published in May 1985.

Bret Easton Ellis

A Good Short Story Is Harder To Write Than a Good Novel

 When I sit down to write a new piece, I find myself more apprehensive about the idea of writing a short story than embarking on a new novel. A novel doesn't rush me. It gives me time and room to feel out what the story is about…

     Short stories are not like that. It takes little skill to ramble on and on and put all you mind's wanderings out there for the world to see. But try turning a page into three sentences, or three minutes of verbosities into a 30-second spiel. It takes effort to transfer great meaning to small places…

     Short stories are like messages in bottles. They are adventures wrapped up in small packages.

Justin C. Key

Isaac Asimov On Writing Science Fiction

I can write nonfiction science without thinking because it requires no thought. I already know it. Science fiction, however, is far more delicate a job and requires the deeper and most prolonged thought.

Isaac Asimov

Most Critics of Romance Novels Have Never Read One

Most people who hate romance novels will admit--if pressed and if they're honest--they haven't actually read one since the 1970s when the so-called bodice ripper novels represented the genre.

Linda Lael Miller

Saturday, July 29, 2017

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 

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

The Biographic Hatchet Job

Almost every eminent person leaves behind an abundance of personal data which, skillfully manipulated, can prove him to have been a fool or a knave. Innocuous personal details and casual episodes, if sufficiently emphasized, described with archness and placed in misleading context, can be as damaging in their effect as plain evidence of dim intellect or villainy.

Richard D. Aftick

The First Novelist's Long Odds

As a first novelist I learned about the odds I was facing. They were, shall we say, long. It has been estimated that the number of novel manuscripts each year to be in excess of 100,000. The number of first novels published annually by major houses? Three to four hundred. [That many?]

Stephen White 

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Effect of Narrative Nonfiction On The Novel

What I remember about my first years as a published novelist is how eager publishers were, in those early days, for new fiction. This may have been because there was no New Journalism yet--once it appeared it dealt fiction a kind of double whammy, since the New Journalists used many of the techniques of fiction while keeping the appeal of fact.

Larry McMurtry

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 

Real Versus Literary Dialogue

If you need proof that dialogue and spoken words are not the same, go to a supermarket. Eavesdrop. Much of what you'll hear in the aisles sounds like idiot talk. People won't buy your novel to hear idiot talk. They get that free from relatives, friends, and at the supermarket.

Sol Stein

Movies About Writers

Writers like watching movies about themselves. It gives us something to do. My doctor father used to scoff at movies about doctors because he was always finding fault with some diagnosis or treatment. I don't know how cops or lawyers feel about their portrayals. Politicians are usually shown as corruptible. Teachers as sad. Writers are variously crazy (Jack Nicholson in "The Shining"), reckless (Michael Douglas in "Wonder Boys"), cranky (Van Johnson in "23 Paces to Baker Street"), self-destructive (Ray Milland in "The Lost Weekend"), without principle (William Holden in "Sunset Boulevard") and/or flailing (Paul Giamatti in "Sideways"). Nothing to argue with, really.

     What we are not shown doing in movies is writing. Composers are shown composing because we can listen to their flights of fancy on the soundtrack. Painters are shown painting because one can actually see art in progress. Kirk Douglas did some very good van Gogh impressions. Ed Harris went so hog wild in "Pollock," one was tempted to go out and buy an original Harris. But writers are rarely shown laboring at the craft....I suppose there's nothing visually dramatic in what we do, though we can get quite worked up about crumpling little balls of paper, tossing them on the floor, then turning our heads this way and sometimes that.

Roger Rosenblatt   

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Is Promoting Your Book An Exercise in Futility?

  Writers are prone to take themselves very seriously, which is fine, except it also means they sometimes find the self-promotional aspects of their craft distasteful, if not downright excruciating. Writing is about the journey, not the destination, right? And book selling is such an inexact science, it would be near impossible to prove that more publicity necessarily translates into more sales.

     Except it often does. Sure, there are veteran authors who have to do nothing than hit "send" on a manuscript before the Time magazine cover gets scheduled and the royalty checks start pouring in; others, thanks to whatever particular combination of timing and talent, seem to skyrocket into the public consciousness out of nowhere. But they are the exception, not the rule

     Then there are the rest of us. As the editor of two well-publiczed but by no means best-selling books, it would make sense for me to deem aspects of book promotion frivolous--sales of my first book were proof that multiple appearances on high-profile public radio and morning news shows don't always move the needle--but I do believe promotion is a necessary, if often exhausting endeavor.

     [Hillary Clinton's dishonest and boring memoir, Hard Choices, 2014, provides a excellent example of a book failing despite an extreme amount of publicity. In the end, all the promotion in the world won't help a truly dreadful book.]

Anna Holmes

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 

Romance Novels Made Into Movies

Every romance novel I've seen that's been turned into a movie has been terrible. I'm not sure why Hollywood can't get it right, but they can't, and I don't want to watch one of my babies get destroyed.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips

First Novels by Teenagers

I always wanted to be a novelist, from the time that I was a little kid and first learned that such a job existed. I decided to attempt my first novel when I was a teenager, and I thought it was going to be easy--that I'd no doubt be published before I graduated from high school. It obviously didn't work that way. It would be ten years of learning the craft and abandoning novels that weren't working before I had my first novel published.

Marissa Meyer in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, 2013 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

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

Ironic Humor in Fiction

     Fiction without irony is like painting without perspective. Irony exposes the incongruities of everyday life--the half-truths, deceptions and self-deceptions that help us all get through the day. Things are never what they seem, and the essence of ironic humor is the lack of fit between life as it is and life as we imagine it should be. We think the world should make sense: It doesn't. We think life should be dignified: It never is. We think life should have a serious purpose…But of course the purpose always turns out to be very silly in the end. Irony is the writer's richest and most inexhaustible humor resource.

     The genre of the campus novel, from Kingsley Amis to Richard Russo, is a perfect example. Higher education is meant to be serious business; universities are meant to be serious places. So it's funny when, in Russo's Straight Man, the chair of the English department hides in the ceiling space over the faculty offices to eavesdrop on a meeting between colleagues…

     Another reason why irony is such a powerful source of humor is that, as Voltaire observed long ago, life is absurd, but we try to make sense of it. This doomed effort creates some of the best comedy….

David Bouchier 

The Illness Autobiography

Dealing with adversity is in some ways the theme of all narrative autobiography, but there is a particularly rich tradition about struggles with a particular medical or physical malady, such as blindness, cancer, or paralysis. Originally, this type nearly always took the form of the Inspirational, a struggle against the odds in which the courage of the subject brings a triumph, at least of spirit, in the end. More recently, a new Literature of Adversity has evolved, which does not depend upon the "final triumph" but which derives its values from the depth and frankness of its discussion.

Tristine Rainer

The Journal As The Foundation Of A Book

No matter how messy or incomplete, journals are the missing links in creative life. For centuries, they've helped beginning and seasoned writers alike trigger new work and sustain inspiration. Anne Frank used hers for the basis of a book she wanted to write after the war. She mined it for details and later rewrote entries and composed scenes. Novelist Virginia Wolf invented herself as a writer in her journal. From age 17 until four days before her death [suicide] at 60, she used journals to move from family sketches to memoir to novels.

Alexandra Johnson

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Who Needs a Literary Agent?

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

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

Meg Schneider and Barbara Doyen

James Ellroy on Agatha Christie

Who wants to be a mystery writer? Who wants to be a crime novelist when you can be a plain old novelist with a capital "N"? You are known by the company you keep. I mean, do you want to be mentioned in the same breath as Agatha Christie and a bunch of people like that?

James Ellroy

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

In Writing For Children Don't Put Theme Over Plot

The goal in writing popular books for both adults and children is identical: Fiction is entertainment. Your children's book should not be designed to teach a lesson, send a message, or expound upon a moral theme. A theme, such as honesty is the best policy or perseverance pays, may be implicit in the storyline, but the point should be made subtly by the outcome of the plot.

Sam McCarver

Monday, July 24, 2017

Novels Without Humor

It's the hardest thing, writing humor into a book. But it's also essential. I just don't feel like I've got a book unless there's something funny in it.

Louise Erdrich 

Sequels To Novels

Some sequels seem fitting or inevitable while others, usually ones written by somebody besides the original and dead author, feel more like grave robberies. But the impulse toward exhumation can be hard to resist.

Thomas Mallon

Autobiographies of Famous People

For though fame is a help in selling books, it is of small use in writing them. [That's why they have ghost writers.] And though a reader may be pleased to eavesdrop on the reminiscences of famous people, he will rarely come away from such volumes with more than a nodding acquaintance. The reason for this is that famous people are usually too sensitive of their image to write anything of themselves that may jeopardize it, such as they are bored, frightened, bewildered or hollow as the drums that acclaimed them. Famous people, when they take to autobiography, are chiefly full of tidings about their pedestals and how they got on them, and how modestly they occupy them, and how many other people on pedestals they know.

Ben Hecht

Biography Versus History Books

The historian frames a cosmos of happenings in which men are included only as event producers or event sufferers. The biographer explores the cosmos of a single being. History deals in generalizations about a time. Biography deals in the particulars of one person's life.

Paul Murray Kendall 

Susan Sontag On The Perversity Of The Novel

Notoriously, women tolerate qualities in a lover--moodiness, selfishness, unreliability, brutality--that they would never countenance in a husband, in return for excitement, and infusion of intense feeling…Perversity is the muse of modern literature. Today the house of fiction is full of mad lovers, gleeful rapists, castrated sons--but very few husbands.

Susan Sontag

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Science Fiction Fans

I think science fiction, along with jazz, is America's great contribution to world culture. It's as great as jazz, as profligate, and wonderful. What disappoints me about it is that most of its practitioners have not been as good as they should have been, and the fact that science fiction emerged as a genre of commercial literature, forced to make adjustments and compromises to accommodate a mass audience, which was not its aesthetic interest. I don't segregate myself from those who do so. The readership has contributed to this debasement, I suppose, but any readership does. Norman Spinrod said the worst thing about science fiction is fandom. I don't disagree with that at all. Fandom has destroyed some authors. The need to be a hero.

Barry N. Malzberg

Stephen King on Pulp Fiction

My own idea is that fiction…falls into three main categories: literature, mainstream fiction, and pulp fiction…To label a novel "pulp" is not the same as saying it's a bad novel, or will give the reader no pleasure…To condemn pulp writing out of hand is like condemning a girl as loose simply because she came from unpleasant family circumstances.

Stephen King

Crime Novels Are Popular Because They Tell A Story

Most readers come to a mystery novel because the genre promises an actual story, a characteristic that many find lacking in so-called mainstream fiction.

Jeremiah Healy

Spare Versus Thin Fiction

  Fiction writers tend to fall into two broad camps: those who overwrite and those who underwrite. And, while a novelist may be able to get away with writing a spare story, a thin story will never ignite the reader's imagination. A spare story is one in which the writer deliberately chooses to pare down every element, using a small cast of characters, only one or two subplots, and little exposition and description. A well-crafted, yet spare story can work when every word counts and there is enough information to take the reader on a fictional journey. Ernest Hemingway usually wrote spare stories, but readers still feel immersed in his stories and understand the ramifications of the plot on the lives of his characters.

     A thin story, on the other hand, is not based on deliberate choices, but rather on inexperience. In a thin story, the writer does not supply enough sensory data, creating a story line that can't be followed with confidence because of a lack of needed information. Spare stories spark the reader's imagination, but thin stories do not have enough data to do so, leaving the reader confused. In these anemic offerings, the reader is often adrift, longing for detail to place him in the scene, a hint about the themes or deeper meanings, or any doorway into the writer's intentions. 

Jessica Page Morrell

Saturday, July 22, 2017

John Steinbeck's Journal

Here is the diary of a book [The Grapes of Wrath] and it will be interesting to see how it works out. I have tried to keep diaries before but they don't work out because of the necessity to be honest. In matters where there is no definite truth, I gravitate toward the opposite. Sometimes where there is definite truth, I am revolted by its smugness and do the same. In this however, I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day. Just now the work goes well. It is nearly the first of June [1938].

John Steinbeck

High Schools Don't Teach Students How To Write

The other night I took a look at my daughter's English essay and suggested that she try excising the words "extremely," "totally," and "incredibly" whenever they appeared in her prose. She did this and was surprised to discover that not only were the intensifiers superfluous, but that her sentences were stronger without them…

     Modern educators often talk of wanting to encourage "critical thinking" in students. A crucial part of that mission is--or should be--teaching young people how to organize and present ideas in lucid prose. Most people will not end up writing essays or novels for a living, but at some point they will want to write a job application, send a condolence letter, or compose an email to a colleague explaining why something went wrong at work. Knowing how to write--understanding the basics of what used to be called "rhetoric"--still matters, even in the Internet age. So it's a sad thing that in a great many American pubic high schools, writing instruction amounts to little more than inculcating the dreary requirements of the SAT essay.

     No one at my daughter's school had even mentioned to her that the use of the word "incredibly" is subject to the law of diminishing returns. No one talked to her intelligently about structure or style. Instead, she has been given a single, graceless formula for writing a book report and told that any departure form it will result in the automatic subtraction of marks.

Zoe Heller

The Power Of Journalism

News carries with it a promise of transparency, a light that can be shined into previously dark corners. It is far from a coincidence that the rise of the popular press spelled eventual doom for monarchs of all types. Once the news becomes democratized, governance is sure to follow. [It's no secret that in America, modern bureaucrats and politicians loath the idea of a free press and free speech. Those in power do not like transparency. Government is all about dark corners, and secrets. Some in America believe that members of the so-called mainstream media are nothing more than propagandists for people in power. Instead of journalistic watchdogs they have become establishment lapdogs.]

David Carr

Friday, July 21, 2017

Are Creative Writers Nuts?

 Quotes from authors about the writer's personality and state of mind:

Most writers I know have a combination of self-loathing and great narcissism.
Anne Lamott

One has to be an egomaniac to be a writer, but you've got to hide it.
James Jones

[Writers are] a bad lot on the whole--petty, nasty, bilious, suffused with envy and riddled with fear.
Roger Rosenblatt

Personally, I think it's [the talent to write] a disease, and the fact it produces books that people buy doesn't make it any more healthy.
James M. Cain

Most people who have strong talent [to write] also have impedimenta. There is something wrong with their character one way or another. It's not accident that so many talented writers are heavy drinkers and all that.
Norman Mailer

Neurologists have found that changes in a specific area of the brain can produce hypergraphia--the medical term for an overpowering desire to write.
Dr. Alice W. Flaherty

Unsurprisingly, a psychological survey of the Iowa Workshop showed that 80 percent of writers in the program reported evidence of manic depression, alcoholism, or other lonely addictions in themselves or their immediate families. We're writers, whoever claimed we were a tightly wrapped bunch?
Tom Grimes

Sigmund Freud said that writers and artists are people who discovered as youngsters that they lost out in the hurly-burly of the playground. They discovered, however, that they had the power to fantasize about such things, about the fruits of power, such as money, glory and beautiful lovers.
Tom Wolfe

Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project? Do you either start them all and don't see them to fruition or think abut starting but never actually get going?...Do you begin sentences in your head while walking to work or picking up the dry cleaning? Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed? Have you ever been diagnosed with any combination of bipolar disorder, alcoholism, or skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis? Do you snap at people who ask how your writing is going? What is it to them? Do you fear that you will someday wonder where the years went? How is it that some no-talent you went to high school with is being published everywhere you look?...If you can relate to the above, you certainly have the obsessive qualities--along with the self-aggrandizement and concurrent feelings of worthlessness--that are part of the writer's makeup.
Betsey Lerner 

Novels That Inspired Real Murders

 At his sentencing hearing in 1981, after he was convicted of John Lennon's murder, Mark David Chapman read aloud from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over…I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."

     The Catcher in the Rye was the book Chapman had been reading at the crime scene when he was arrested. It was the book that held, as he claimed, his message for the world. He was standing at the cliff; he was just doing his work.

     A few years later, the serial killers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng embarked on what they called "Operation Miranda," a violent spree of torture, rape and murder named for the woman abducted by a deranged butterfly collector in John Fowles' novel The Collector, which they cited as their inspiration.

Leslie Jamison

A Controversial Children's Book

Perhaps the most polarizing book written for children is The Rainbow Fish, by Marcus Pfister. To its fans, it's a sparkling illustrated story about a beautiful but arrogant fish who learns humility by giving away its shiny scales to less fortunate fish. To detractors, it's a socialist screed that encourages "an attitude of greed and entitlement," as one customer wrote in a review on Amazon.com.

John Williams 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Difficulty of Writing True Crime Books

The tools I have used for my writing career have been my ability to interview people and get them to tell me the truth, and my abilities as an investigative reporter. I might spend weeks verifying some little fact that is just going to be great in my book--it's going to be a little spark. Fiction writers don't need to spend weeks looking for the little spark--they invent it. I write about real people, real Americans getting into trouble, getting out of it, going to the penitentiary, going to the electric chair, being murdered, being saved. And it's all true.

Margaret DiCanio 

The Novelist As Embittered Loser

The novelist has a grudge against society, which he documents with accounts of unsatisfying sex, unrealized ambition, unmitigated loneliness, and a sense of local and global distress. The square, overpopulation, the bourgeois, the bomb, and the cocktail party are variously identified as sources of the grudge. [Today it would be global warming, consumerism, terrorism, and flag-waving yahoos.] There follows a little obscenity here, a dash of philosophy there, considerable whining overall, and the modern novel is born.

Renata Adler

Novels Should Not Be Primarily About Ideas

Ideas are not the best subject matter for fiction. They do not dramatize well. They are, rather, a by-product, something the reader himself is led to formulate after watching the story unfold. The ideas ought to be implicit in the selection and arrangement of the people and places and actions. They ought to haunt a piece of fiction as a ghost flits past an attic window after dark.

Wallace Stegner

The Relevance of Grammar

Among the questions that writers need to ask themselves in the process of revision--Is this the best word I can find? Is my meaning clear? Can a word or phrase be cut from this without sacrificing anything essential? Perhaps the most important question is: Is this grammatical? What's strange is how many beginning writers seem to think that grammar is irrelevant, or that they are somehow above or beyond this subject more fit for a schoolchild than the future author of great literature. Or possibly they worry that they will be distracted from their focus on art if they permit themselves to be sidetracked by the dull requirements of English usage. But the truth is that grammar is always interesting, always useful. Mastering the logic of grammar contributes, in a mysterious way that evokes some process of osmosis, to the logic of thought.

Francine Prose

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The First Creative Nonfiction Writing Course

     When I started teaching in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1970s, the concept of an "artful" or "literary" nonfiction was considered, to say the least, unlikely. My colleagues snickered when I proposed teaching a "creative" nonfiction course, while the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences proclaimed that nonfiction in general--forget the use of the word creative--was at its best a craft, not too different from plumbing. [Actually, it's probably just as difficult to be a good plumber as it is to be a good writer. Moreover, we have enough writers.]

     As the chairman of our department put it one day in a faculty meeting while we were debating the legitimacy of the course: "After all, gentlemen…we're interested in literature here--not writing." That remark and the subsequent debate had been precipitated by a contingent of students from the school newspaper who marched on the chairman's office and politely requested more nonfiction writing courses--"the creative kind."

     One English colleague, aghast at this prospect, carried a dozen of his favorite books to the meeting--poetry, fiction, and nonfiction--gave a belabored mini-review of each, and then, pointing a finger at the editor of the paper and pounding a fist, stated: "After you read all these books and understand what they mean, I will consider voting for a course called Creative Nonfiction. Otherwise, I don't want to be bothered."

     Luckily, most of my colleagues didn't want to be bothered fighting the school newspaper, so the course was approved--and I became one of the first people to teach creative nonfiction on a university level. This was 1973.

Lee Gutkind

Put A Prologue In Your Memoir

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

Beth Kephart

What Is It Like To Be A Writer?

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

Jim Fisher

What Makes A Good Dust Jacket?

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

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

Nicholas Blechman


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

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

John Cheever On Writing For Hollywood

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

John Cheever

Isaac Asimov's Relationship to The Characters in His Novels

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

Isaac Asimov  

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

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

James Parker 

The Literature Professor

I must say that of all the types and kinds and classes of people I've encountered over the years, literature  professors and rhetoricians are the sorriest of the lot. After six years of peripheral but daily contact I've found them to be morally timid, petulant, unimaginative, joyless, insincere, petty, ineffectual, self-righteous, emotionally shallow, and thoroughly uncharitable. In general, they comprise a kind of secular priesthood--monk-like creatures who lurk palely in academic cloisters, out of touch with the very life they're supposedly preparing their students to enter. Moreover, they read too many books.

Martin Russ

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Villain in Crime Fiction

Often I start working out a story in terms of its villain. Sometimes he's more interesting than anyone else. I'm curious about what makes a murderer who he is. Was he born missing some human quality? Did his early environment shape him? Or was it a combination of both?

Sandra Scoppettone 

The Myth Of The Great American Novel

The Great American Novel is as elusive as the Lock Ness monster…Mythical beasts, the both of them, but that won't stop us from setting up our telescopes and yardsticks, or from speculating: where will it surface?

Peter S. Prescott

All Novelists Get Discouraged

Writing a novel is a very hard thing to do because it covers so long a space of time, and if you get discouraged it is not a bad sign, but a good one. If you think you are not doing it well, you're thinking the way real novelists do. I never knew one who did not feel greatly discouraged at times, and some get desperate, and I have always found that to be a good symptom.

Maxwell Perkins 

The Slow Death Of The Mainstream Novel

 In our time, the only type of fiction that shows definite signs of fading from our culture is the traditional, unclassifiable story variously identified as literary, academic, and mainstream. If your writing cannot conveniently be defined as suspense, romance, western, or science fiction, your chances of publishing under a major imprint are about as likely as being struck by lightening while being kidnapped by terrorists on your way to claim your million-dollar lottery check.

     As with all trends, this one is governed by the laws of commerce. General fiction is a hard sell.

Loren D. Estleman
      

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Eudora Welty On Creating Characters

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

Eudora Welty

Novelistic Tones

The tone of a novel may be described in words like comic, wry, reflective, tongue-in-cheek, bittersweet, or in compounds such as incipient fear, sense of lurking evil and sense of unease.

Lesley Grant-Adamson

When To Introduce Your Horror Novel Monster

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

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

William F. Nolan