I have to drink and gamble to get away from this typewriter. Not that I don't love this old machine when it's working right. But knowing when to go to it and knowing to stay away from it, that's the trick. I really don't want to be a professional writer, I wanna write what I wanna write. Else, it's all been wasted…So did Hemingway, until he started talking about "discipline"; Pound also talked about doing one's "work." But I've been luckier that both of them because I've worked the factories and the slaughterhouses and I know that work and discipline are dirty words. I know that they meant, but for me it has to be a different game.
On the whole, professional writers are a lot of whining bastards who wouldn't last a day in a real job. The true mortification of being a writer is having to meet other writers from time to time, and listen to their mundane egotistical rantings.
As far as I'm concerned, in the abstract there's only one plot, and it goes like this: A person or group or entity wants something. Another person or group or entity throws up every barrier imaginable to stop that goal from being achieved.
Investigative reporting in America did not begin with Watergate. But it became entrenched in American journalism--and has been spreading around the world--largely because of Watergate.
Now, 40 years after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote their first stories about the break-in at the Democratic Committee headquarters in Washington's Watergate office building, the future of investigative reporting is at risk in the chaotic digital reconstruction of journalism in the United States. Resource-intensive investigative reporting has become a burden for shrunken newspapers struggling to reinvent themselves and survive. Nonprofit start-ups seeking to fill the gap are financially fragile themselves, with their sustainability uncertain.
Let us consider the problems of the long novel, in which the heft is apt to come in for almost as much critical examination as the contents. There is, for instance, Jack Beatty's famous critique of James A. Michener's Chesapeake (865 pages): "My best advice is don't read it; my second best is don't drop it on your foot." Presumably, Beatty read it--or at least skimmed it--before offering these helpful hints, but you get the idea. In this hurry-scurry age, big books are viewed with suspicion, and sometimes disdain.
The book buyer's suspicions are more justified. The critic, after all, is being paid to read. Consumers must spend their hard-earned cash for the same privilege. Then there's the question of time. Prospective buyers have every right to ask: "Do I really want to give two weeks of my reading life to this novel? Can it possibly be worth it when there are so many others--most a good deal shorter--clamoring for my attention?"
As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, and on behalf of all the variations and sub-genres such as urban fantasy, alternate history and steampunk which collectively make up "speculative fiction," I'd argue that genre fiction is different from literary fiction.
Whether it's dealing with ray guns and rocket ships, swords, sorcery or fur and fangbangers, speculative fiction's unifying identifying characteristics is that it doesn't attempt to mimic real life in the way that literary fiction does. It stands apart from the world we know. It takes us away to an entirely secondary realm, be that Middle Earth of Westeros, or to an alternate present where vampires and werewolves really do exist and you ring 666 to report a supernatural crime…
Speculative fiction can be considerably harder to write than literary fiction…When readers are paying close attention to every hint and clue, the writer needs to have internal logic, consistency of character and scene-setting absolutely nailed down. Readers have to be convinced that this familiar world is solidly real if they're ever going to suspend belief and accept the unreal, whether that's magic and dragons or faster-than-light travel.
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean," Raymond Chandler wrote in his article "The Simple Art of Murder" which could be called the manifesto of the American hard-boiled detective novel. This man, the detective, "is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of and certainly not saying it."
It's a worthy aesthetic, and Chandler was certainly the master of it, even back in 1944, when he wrote "The Simple Art of Murder." The essay was a repudiation of the English school of murder mystery--best represented by Agatha Christie--or, more specifically, the countless American knockoffs thereof, genteel, stilted puzzles set in "Miami hotels and Cape Cod summer colonies," rather than manor houses. Chandler held up Dashiell Hammett as the exemplar of what he referred to as the new "realist" school of crime fiction, yet Chandler was Hammett's equal, if not his superior in the style that would also become know as noir.
There might be some truth in the fact that writers whose first novels are autobiographical find it more difficult than other writers to write a second novel, but writers of any stripe have a difficult time following up a first novel. I've heard that as many as half of all first novelists never write a second.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In general, never choose your critic from your immediate family circle: they have usually no knowledge of the process of writing, however literary they may be as consumers; and in their best-natured act of criticism one may hear the unconscious grinding of axes sounding like a medieval tournament.
I've been annoyed less by sneers at my alleged overproduction than by the imputation that to write much means to write badly. I've always written with great care and even some slowness. I've put in rather more hours a day at the task than some writers seem able to.
There are books on my shelves that have made me feel that I am part of a community of writers. I have collections of interviews with writers, a source least used in the academy. The serious student of writing and the teachers of writing should know the existence of the extensive testimony of writers, material that has been ignored by composition researchers. What writers know about their craft has been dismissed as the "lure of the practitioner."
Regardless of the issues a writer struggles with--creative block, procrastination, fear of failure, etc.--the very act of writing tends to stoke the energy, continue the flow, direct the current of further writing. Writing begets writing.
Science fiction is that form of literature which deals with the effects of technological change in an imaged future, an alternative present or re-conceived history…
Science fiction, at the center, holds that the encroachment of technological or social change will make the future different and that it will feel different to those within it. In a technologically altered culture, people will regard themselves and their lives in ways that we cannot apprehend. That is the base of the science fiction vision, but the more important part comes as corollary: the effects of a changed technology upon us will be more profound than change brought about by psychological or social pressure... It will be these changes--those imposed extrinsically by force--which really matter; that is what the science fiction writer is saying, and in their inevitability and power they trivialize the close psychological interactions in which most of us transact our lives.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have never claimed to create anything out of nothing; I have always needed an incident or a character as a starting point, but I have exercised imagination, invention, and a sense of the dramatic to make it something of my own.
We've always had a tradition in America of hounding our artists to death. Look at the list of great artists, you see a continual history of defeat, frustration, poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction. The best poets of my generation are al suicides.
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.
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.
Writers who reply to reviews are invariably angry. (The flattered, happy ones keep their satisfaction to themselves.) An angry writer's tirade gives the lie to the surface placidity of literary life and reveals the passionate enmities that roil beneath. Think of Martin Amis's response to Tibor Fischer's attack on his novel Yellow Dog: "Tibor Fischer is a creep and a wretch. Oh yeah: and a fat-arse."
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.
There are several reasons why so many American writers have only one book in them. One is that it is very hard to be a writer of serious fiction in this country, not merely because we have so little respect for such work but because we throw up so many distractions in the way of it. All the hullabaloo attendant to writing a book to which other people respond intensely can be hugely flattering and can make it difficult to get on with one's work.
First-person narratives often appeal to beginners because writing one feels like being an actor and slipping into disguise. Actually, a novel could be made up of more than one character addressing the reader in the first person, but to attempt such things you require a good ear for voices because each of them must be instantly recognizable.
I understand that there are unlikable people, and I have no interest in making them likable, because I want to make them entertaining, and I think in order for characters to be entertaining they have to be unhappy.
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.
Many of the traditional themes of fiction--the corrupting powers of ambition, the nature of one's responsibility to self and to others, the tragedy of loneliness, the paradoxes and ambiguities of compromise--all seem congenial to the city's qualities--its crowded loneliness, its veneration for the new, its bustling immorality, its commercialism, its sense of busy pointlessness. The city is available as a symbol of opportunity and freedom and success, and of the empty underside of these qualities.
I just despise Hollywood. It isn't even a city. It's nothing. It's like a jumble of huts in a jungle somewhere. I don't understand how you can live there. It's really, completely dead. Walk along the street, there's nothing moving.
Asking what it's like to be a writer is a lot like asking what it's like to be a dentist or an attorney. The answer depends on where you live, what you write, how successful you are, how old you are, if you're married, and how you think of yourself as a writer. But there is one thing that most writers do say about the writing life: it's lonely and frustrating. Writers seem to feel misunderstood by people who don't write and under-appreciated or ignored by the reading public. Feeling isolated and forced to compete with other writers, many authors complain that their books are not adequately promoted by their publishers. Otherwise, they're a contended group of workers.
Rejection is part of any creative art. To overcome, I immediately get back to the keyboard and work harder. Then I think of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London, all of whom were rejected hundreds of time.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was both a perfect and terrible fit for Hollywood. His youthful fame gave him a shrewd perspective on that shallow, tinselly world. Yet while working there in the last three years of his life, he was a sad case: a debt-ridden genius, alcoholic, selling himself to collaborate on second-rate screenplays.
I find characters who are at cross-purposes with society, or opposed to society in some way, interesting because they are by definition the underdogs. They have to be clever, cunning, imaginative, dogged, and wily--whereas society merely has to lean its weight a little.
I think aspiring writers need as much discouragement as we can muster. Nobody should undertake the life of a fiction writer--so unrenumerative, so maddeningly beset by career vagaries--who has any other choice in the matter. Learn a trade! Flannery O'Conner said it best: "People are always asking me if the university stifles writers. I reply that it hasn't stifled enough of them."
In a bookstore I walked past the first table, and a book caught my eye. I walked another 20 steps, stopped and went back. The title that caught my eye was Cleopatra's Secret Diaries. The thought of learning the most intimate secrets of one of the world's most famous lovers definitely intrigued me.
Adversarial dialogue is action. When characters speak, we see them as they talk, which means that dialogue is always in immediate scene. Stage plays are in immediate scene. So are films, and now, for the most part, novels.