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

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Talent And The Creative Process

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

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

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

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

Jim Fisher

The Difficulty Of Writing Clearly

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

Benjamin Moser

Guilty Low-Brow Literary Pleasures

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

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

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

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

Charles McGrath 

Writing Fiction For Men

  Some authors appeal mainly to men: Tom Clancy, Len Deighton, Jack Higgins, Gavin Lyall, Frederick Forsyth, Harlan Coben, Lee Child, Gerald Seymour. This is neither praise nor blame, it's just a fact. I don't think there's a school of writing that's classified as Bloke Lit, not yet. But it may be the next big thing.

     Points that come to mind about writing for men are: Men like information and excitement. Men like heroes and heroines who are lookers. Men like shorter books. [Most true crime readers are women. Women like their crime, and they like it real.]

Maeve Binchy

Friday, July 14, 2017

Raymond Chandler On Ernest Hemingway

Raymond Chandler [a noted and literary twentieth century crime novelist] wrote a sentence true of [Ernest] Hemingway and himself: "I suppose the weakness, even the tragedy of writers like Hemingway is that their sort of stuff demands an immense vitality; and a man outgrows his vitality without unfortunately outgrowing his furious concern with it."

Michael Schmidt

Cat And Dog Memoirs

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

John Williams

The First Whodunit

Literary murders are as old as the book of Genesis. But no one before Edgar Allan Poe, as far as we know, ever wrote a story in which the central plot question was "who did it?" and the hero was a detective [C. Auguste Dupin] who correctly deduced the answer to that question.

William G. Tapply

Should Novelists Have Children?



I think it has to be faced: There's something in writing, in being a writer, that is inimical to family life. Or vice versa. P. G. Wodehouse made the point with his usual levity and grace by dedicating The Heart of a Goof  to "my daughter Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time." A priest friend of mine pointed out to me that all the great works of mysticism were written by celibates: "If they'd had kids, they'd all have been too tired to pray." The writer is a solitary person, immersed in moods. The defect, the brain splinter that makes a person a writer is anti-domestic. He or she waits, yearning, for the moment when the imagination goes rogue and love and duty go out the window. Writers are not easy to live with. Children need, require, and deserve attention. So what's the answer? If you happen to find out, do me a favor and let me know.

James Parker

Researching the Regency Period

 The Regency period of British history has fascinated me for a long time. I've read Jane Austen's books many times, as well as a lot of other fiction and nonfiction about the period. When I first decided to write a novel set in London in the early 1800s, I reread several of my general sources on what life was like in the period, mostly books on the social history of England. Then I read biographies and autobiographies, starting with several about Jane Austen and then branching out into books on Lord Wellington and the Prince Regent (later George IV). I asked my friends for recommendations.

     Then I hit the library, looking for specific things, like a street map of London in 1817 and books on period slang. The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue turned out be be invaluable for dialogue. Along the way, I kept running across other fascinating things that I hadn't known to look for.

Patricia C. Wrede 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Literary Biography

Literary biographers are parasites. They are Fifth Column agents within the ranks of literature, intent on reducing all that is imaginative, all that is creative in literature to pedestrian biography. They are the slaves of their absurd and meager theories. They feed off literature: they attempt to replace it.

Michael Holroyd

The Advantage of Fantasy Over Science Fiction

The fantasy genre is a much more accessible form of literature than science fiction. You don't have to possess any pre-existing knowledge to get into fantasy. In science fiction, however, you do because it has all of that science in there.

Terry Brooks

The Memoir-Worthy Life

The truth is out there. You can't miss it, in fact--it's everywhere. But even as we embrace the twenty-four hour confession cycle of social media, the popularity, and subsequent disparagement, of the memoir reveals our mixed feelings about true stories. We might be lured into tales of harrowing childhoods or devastating divorces, but our internal machinery will monitor the narratives based on the same arbitrary rubrics that guard our own personal revelations (or lack thereof): Is the author honest about his motives? Are her experiences exotic enough to teach us something new? Does he learn a big lesson at the end, or does he tumble off a cliff into a nihilistic abyss?

     Blogs and Instagram and YouTube have rendered brutal honesty and statements of "my truth" about as mundane as instructions on how to dye your hair. Nevertheless, committing your life experiences to the published page is still viewed as an audacious act, one reserved for celebrated authors, public figures, or those who've lived outside the norm and endured horrors untold. For every phalanx of writing instructors exhorting their pupils to write what they know, there's an equal and opposite gaggle of critics urging them to keep their junior-varsity trials and tribulations to themselves. If your pain doesn't equal the pain of the reader, you are merely indulging yourself.

Heather Havrilesky

Teen Horror Fiction

Horror is an extremely popular genre in teen fiction. It's easy to see why. A good horror story will take a relatively normal individual, Our Hero, and pit them against a malevolent, often mysterious enemy, The Monster. Our Hero must struggle to understand this monster, its strengths and weaknesses. Then he must face it. Often, Our Hero conquers the unknown beast, sometimes not, and until some understanding of The Monster is found, Our Hero, faced with the unknown is often powerless against it. Teens deal with parents, teachers, peers, and a world full of rules they have yet to fully understand.

     Teen fiction, at its best, examines these confusing emotional issues; therefore, the coming-of-age theme is essential. Characters face the unknown and take steps to gain power over it. They are forced to make life-defining decisions by examining who they are and taking actions that set the stage for the adults they will become.

     This is what makes horror so compelling for a teen audience (besides the cool monsters, of course). Horror looks at issues of death, alienation, insecurity, physical changes, loss of faith, and the inherent fear of the unknown. On some level, horror fiction shows teens that even the greatest obstacles can be faced and survived. The most well-known example of this comes from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the idea presented is that high school is, quite literally, hell.

Thomas Pendleton

Not All Writers Want to Write About Themselves

Some writers never write about themselves because they are private, or because they do not believe it is possible for one to say anything objectively truthful or valid about oneself.

Deena Metzger

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

E. B. White On Writing Clearly

The main thing I try to do is write as clearly as I can. Because I have the greatest respect for the reader, and if he's going to the trouble of reading what I've written--I'm a slow reader myself and I guess that most people are--why, the least I can do is make it as easy as possible for him to find out what I'm trying to say, trying to get at. I rewrite a good deal to make it clear.

E. B. White (1899-1985), the author of the classic book, The Elements of Style

Literary First Novels Are A Hard Sell

Ignoring the hot MFA [Masters of Fine Arts] grad you read about in Publishers Weekly whose novel starts a big publishing house bidding war, literary first novels are almost impossible to introduce into the marketplace. Bookstores will only order them in small quantities, if at all, and it is difficult to get reviews, especially in places that really matter. Additionally, getting a bookstore reading for a first fiction author is an effort that would make Sisyphus proud. A well-established independent bookseller once told me flat out that he would never book a first fiction author into his store.

Robert Lasner

The Work Habits of One Of America's Worst Writers

Before the days of word processing, how did authors keep track of their various drafts and revisions? Purple prose writer Jacqueline Susann [Valley of the Dolls, 1966; The Love Machine, 1969; and Once Is Not Enough, 1773] typed each draft on different colors of paper: yellow for the first draft, then blue, pink, and finally white. [It's hard to believe she wrote four drafts of these dreadful novels.]

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo

John Cheever On Academic Criticism

The vast academic world exists like everything else, on what it can produce that will secure income. So we have papers on fiction, but they come out of what is largely an industry. In no way does it help those who write fiction or those who love to read fiction.

John Cheever 

The Novel Of Manners

Novels of Manners emphasize social customs, manners, conventions and mores of a definite social class. Such novels are always realistic, and sometimes they are satiric and comic, as in Henry Fielding's or Jane Austen's work.

Sherri Szeman

Monday, July 10, 2017

Not Everyone Is A Fan Of The Whodunit Crime Novel

The tradition of the mystery or crime novel is an old and honored one, but it's quality has been debased. And possibly nothing has done more harm to the nature of mystery fiction than the notion that it should concern itself more with "whodunit" than why the deed was done. Chief among those responsible for this decline is Agatha Christie.

Thomas H. Cook

The Elements Of A Great Biography

In general, a biography has to have a theme, and its subject has to fit into the context of the times the subject lived in. More than that, the subject of a biography should also be a symbol of some sort or the spirit of his or her age. The book should bring out some thematic element of that culture. Broadly, a good biography is one that illuminates and shows the times as much as the person.

Peter Rubie

Purple Prose

The term "purple prose" describes prose that is heightened, flowery, and overdone. The culprits of purple prose are usually modifiers that make your writing wordy, overwrought, distracting, and even silly. You might say that Hemingway's prose is the opposite of purple prose.

Jessica Page Morrell

The Horror Genre Legacy

The horror genre has a great literary history. Hawthorne, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, many others found a depth and seriousness in it which made horror more valid, more interesting and worthy, than the general run of mystery fiction. Horror was about the invention of clever puzzles. It dealt with profound emotions and real mysteries, not who had left the footprints under the gorse-bush and how the key to the library had wound up in the colonel's golf bag. Horror could touch people, change them, make them think. While horror fiction was certainly entertaining, there was much more to the genre than mere weightless entertainment.

Peter Straub

Mental Illness Memoirs

The memoirs of the mentally ill are full of confused action, failed promise, and grinding pain; they do not tend to make good narratives.

Dr. Alice W. Flaherty

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Hemingway's Death Wish

I spent a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I wouldn't kill myself. When a man is in rebellion against death, as I am in rebellion against death, he gets pleasure out of taking to himself one of the god-like attributes; that of giving it.

Ernest Hemingway 

Learning To Write From Reading

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

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

John Dufresne

Turning Tragedy Into Humor

 Unlike tragedy, a sense of humor is determined by many factors: our age, our socioeconomic backgrounds, our culture. What most of us consider tragic is fairly static, though something tragic can be made funny by comic techniques such as repetition. In Nathanael West's A Cool Million, the hero keeps losing limbs and other parts of himself as he makes his way in the world until there is very little that's left of him. You lose one limb or all your limbs at once, that's tragic. But if you lose them little by little, as well as an eye, your teeth, your hair, you start defying logic, and once you've transcended logic, most people will laugh in spite of themselves, even if they find something a little horrifying at the same time.

     Simply put, tragedy has serious and logical consequences. Cause and effect. Comedy usually doesn't. You throw a person off a tall building in a comedy, he bounces. You throw someone off a building in a tragedy, don't wait for the bounce.

Robin Hemley 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Book Tour

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

Rick Moody 

Journalists Expose Others, Novelists Expose Themselves

The dominant and most deep-dyed trait of the journalist is his timorousness [timidity]. Where the novelist fearlessly plunges into the water of self-exposure, the journalist stands trembling on the shore in his beach robe. Not for him the strenuous athleticism--which is the novelist's daily task--of laying out his deepest griefs and shames before the world. The journalist confines himself to the clean, gentlemanly work of exposing the griefs and shames of others.

Janet Malcolm

Who Buys True Crime Books?

The main audience for true crime works is generally the middle class with more women than men buying the books. There is also a fairly strong teen market, and books of regional interest have specialized markets. For example, both Texas and the Pacific Northwest are strong locales for the true crime market.

Vicky Munro

Humor: A Difficult and Risky Genre

There may be a certain risk with humor. Someone said it's not only ten times harder, it's fifty times harder to bring an audience to laughter than to bring it to tears. With humor, it's easier to bomb…You don't want to be corny. Corny is something that's not funny.

Gail Galloway Adams 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Biographers' Fascination With Their Subjects' Sex Lives

One respect in which modern biography resembles fiction is its fascination with its subjects' sexual lives. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the novel was the literary genre above all others to which readers turned for the representation of sexuality. Biography restricted itself to the public lives of its subjects--or, insofar as it dealt with their private lives, did not intrude into the bedroom.

David Lodge

The Novelization of Movies

 You've seen the movie, now read the book. The movie came from an original screenplay, but several weeks before the film comes out, there's a book on the stands. Novelizations, they're called…

     The authors of these books are usually paid a bit more up front than the average first novel advance--but their percentage of royalties is far lower, so that a box office hit won't mean that much more money to the novelizer than a complete failure. Also, writing a novelization can be a frustrating experience, since you almost always have to work from the screenplay, turning in your manuscript before the filming has been competed. Often the whole plot of the movie will be changed in filming or editing, and there sits the book, with the old "wrong" version firmly enshrined.

     Novelizations can be fine pieces of work, but in most cases very few readers and no critics will notice or care. There's little joy in the work, it does nothing for your career, and whether the money is worth it to you is for you to answer.

Orson Scott Card

Can Writing Students Handle The Truth?

The brute fact is, the instructor in a fiction workshop earns his pay by telling students what's wrong with their stories. The students themselves are convinced they need encouragement more than anything, and of course you'll encourage them as much as you can; but what they need most of all is discouragement, so that they'll come to realize how appallingly low their standards are and break the terrible habits they've learned.

Martin Russ

Promoting One's Book

Authors have to promote their books, and they have to be flashy about it. Especially these days. You can't imagine anything less frivolous, and more painted in grim necessity, than an average mid-list bookstore signing in 2014. The audience is hushed and minuscule, the shattered-looking author can't believe he's there--the whole thing has the last-ditch solemnity of a persecuted religious rite. Oh sure, there have been good reviews; there have been polite acclaim. Fellow authors have kicked in with the blurbs and the boosts. A prize might have been won. But as regards this book, and this writer, the great sleep of the culture is unbroken

     So: You find new formats, new ways to perforate the oblivious disregard in which America holds you, the dark night of your unfamousness. The problem of course is that it's all so, you know, unliterary. Anti-literary, really. In the promotional moment, what has hitherto been an inward enterprise (the writing of the book) is turned outward overnight; the author is all of a sudden on display.

James Parker

The Journalist As Con Artist

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns--when the article or book appears--his hard lesson.

     Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

     The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist--who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things--never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own.

Janet Malcolm

Writing The Legal Thriller

Perhaps you have made a decision to write a legal thriller because you have been a participant in a dramatic courtroom battle--as a defense attorney whose skill exonerated an innocent client, as the beneficiary of family heirlooms in a hard-fought will contest, or as a juror who second-guessed the tactics of the litigators throughout a protracted trial. Maybe your fascination with this category of crime novels is that you have practiced law on the civil side but have fantasized about delivering the stirring summation in a high-profile murder trial. Or maybe you simply enjoy the prospect of entering this world because you like lawyers.

     Once you have selected this sub-genre as your setting, I think there are critical issues to face before you start pounding out the pages. Whether you are writing a courtroom drama or using a legal eagle as an amateur sleuth, remember that you have chosen to portray a profession--like medicine--that requires an advanced degree and is governed by a lot of rules and procedures. Even if your characters are going to break those rules, you have to know what they are in order to heighten the tension of any ethical dilemma or criminal verdict…

     I prefer to read books written by experienced lawyers or by authors who have studied the practice seriously. They know the language and attitude of the courtroom, they move their characters about it with ease, they sit them at the proper counsel table, they craft their arguments to the judge with appropriate rhetoric, and they know when to make objections. Many other readers who have no reason to be familiar with legal procedure won't care about getting those details right, so you first need to figure out who your target audience might be.

Linda Fairstein 

Making Time To Write

Few beginning writers have the luxury of large blocks of time to write. Jobs, family, and social responsibilities take up most of the day…Writer Thomas Sullivan found that his family obligations and high school teaching position left him only two minutes to write each day, in the school library, before the bell rang announcing his first class. Two minutes is barely time to brush one's teeth, yet Sullivan managed to squeeze at least a paragraph out of those precious moments, day after day. Driving to school, he would be writing in his head, and by the time he sat down with pencil and pad, the words were in order and ready to record. This situation continued for years, during which time he wrote three novels.

Loren D. Estleman

The Paragraph

The length of your paragraph has a big influence on voice. As with sentences, you want to vary the length of your paragraphs to prevent a sense of stagnation or predictability. But beyond that, you can manipulate the feel of your voice by leaning toward long, winding paragraphs or short, snappy ones or somewhere in between.

     Generally a new paragraph signals a shift in thought, either major or minor, or a jump in time or space. But there is a lot of room for interpretation on when you want to make these paragraph shifts. Some writers may cram a bunch of thought shifts into a single paragraph while other writers may separate each thought in a new paragraph. Similarly, you could move freely through time and space in a single paragraph or use a new one for each shift.

Hardy Griffin 

The Novelist And Higher Education

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

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

John Gardner

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Biography: The Unwanted Genre

Between history and the novel stands biography, their unwanted offspring, which has brought a great embarrassment to them both. In the historian's view it takes ten thousand biographies to make one small history. To the novelist biographers are simply what Nabokov called, "psycho-plagiarists."

Michael Holroyd

Choose Your Words Carefully

In writing, diction relates to the choice of words and phrasing. In nonfiction, precision and clarity are the goals to aim for. In fiction, the writer's capacity to choose words carefully for their effect as well as their accuracy is a measure of the writer's literary ability. The opposite of careful diction is "top-of-the-head" writing , words put down as fast as they come to mind, without revision for accuracy and effect. It is found most often in hurried popular writing in which communication of content or story dominates the precise and fresh use of words and expressions.

Sol Stein

Flashbacks

I try to make my books linear, which means that the starting point is at the beginning and it travels along a chronological line toward the end, with no flashbacks. I do this because it makes for an easier read.

Janet Evanovich

Dark Humor

  A friend of mine once told me about a guy who murdered his first wife and put her in a freezer. He had her in a storage locker and his second wife stopped paying the bill for it, so the contents were auctioned off, and one lucky buyer purchased a freezer with a dead woman inside.

     Gruesome certainly, but I could easily imagine a darkly comic story about such a situation.

Robin Hemley

TV Writing

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

Matthew Weiner

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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

     

When Does a Novel Become a Memoir?

Perhaps everyone has a story to tell, but many never get around to telling them, and many others tell them poorly. Many people have led fascinating lives, but falter when they attempt to tell their stories. Often, this is because they focus on content rather than form. There's a difference between a memoir and a novel. A memoir is supposed to be true. A novel isn't. The difference between fact and fiction. It's a complex distinction, and some writers blur the distinction to good effect. Others, claiming they want to write fiction, really want to write memoirs. If you base a story on an actual event, but refuse to alter it because "that's the way it really happened," you probably want to write a memoir instead of a story.

Robin Hemley

Putting Suspense In True Crime Books

True crime books should be suspenseful. It's easier to create complete suspense in fiction, but it's still possible to hold back the denouement of a real case for a few hundred pages. It's always a temptation for new writers to give the whole thing away in the first chapter, leaning very heavily on verbatim on police files. If you do that, your book will sound stilted and will go downhill rather than building tension.

Ann Rule (Ann Rule passed away in July 2015. She was 85 and the bestselling true crime writer in America.) 

Weak Story Equals Bad Movie

Story is the strongest element in writing. Structure seems to be the great weakness in our current movie fare. I found at Universal when I worked there with relatively new or young writers that they were generally good with dialogue, character development, atmospherics, but weak in their storytelling.

William Link

Not Everyone Is A Fan Of The Fantasy Genre

 …Fantasy, I'm convinced, is the genre that's constantly waiting for you to let down your guard, and pull the rug from under your feet without any warning.

     On the face of it, I should have no problem with fantasy. I am, after all, a fan of science fiction, someone who grew up reading comic books filled with fantastic, amazing tales of people who can do things far outside the reach of mortal men, whether it's flying faster than speeding bullets or shambling through the world as an undead monster seemingly unable to remain six feet under. Surely superheroes and science fiction are fantasies? If I can accept them easily enough, why do I have such a problem with the fantasy genre?

     The trouble, I suspect, is in the world-building aspect of each genre. Superheroes, for the most part, exist in worlds that are intentionally meant to mirror our own, with the differences becoming part of the story and out in the open. The same applies to much of science fiction; although the far future may be filled with inventions and ideas that don't exist in our world. They too have to be specifically mentioned in order for them to exist and matter. There's a sense that forewarned is forearmed.

     In fantasy, I can assume that all bets are off. Fantasy stories tend to take place in worlds that are like ours, but not ours, where countries have different names, and magic--something that purposefully defies categorization, and thus threatens deus ex machina twists and resolutions--is witnessed and wielded without a shrug. As much as I appreciate imagination, there's something about fantasy that feels too far removed from the world in which I live….

Graeme McMillan

Monday, July 3, 2017

Science Fiction In The 1950s

No science fiction novel in the fifties sold more than one hundred thousand copies. Science fiction itself was regarded with lack of interest or contempt outside of the genre walls. Its very audience was an unorganized constituency, much like audiences for contemporary men's magazines. They might like it, buy it, need it, but they were not in the main evangelical and those who were, simply increased the popular perception of science fiction as a strange field, incestuous and defensive. The genre made no impression up the academic/literary nexus which controls critical perception and audiences in this country.

Barry N. Malzberg

Novels Studied In School Are Short

It's fair to say that not many writers' works and reputations survive for more than a generation or two. In a practical sense, writers in this country generally survive after their books--that is they stay in print--because they are taught in the classroom. Moreover, short books, like small dogs, live longer: Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Hemingway's In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises are taught more frequently than Tender is the Night and For Whom the Bell Tolls, not necessarily because they are better but because shorter books are easier to get students to read and to teach.

Anthony Arthur

Lean Versus Flabby Writing

 I don't subscribe to the view that good editing requires the ruthless elimination of every single word that is not logically essential to a sentence. Sometimes idiom or the natural cadence of English favors phrases that aren't stripped to the bone. There's nothing wring with "hurry-up" even though "hurry" means the same thing.

     But in many cases, extraneous words really do gum up our prose; many padded expressions are weak, flabby and ineffective.

Phillip B. Corbitt

Contemporary Literary Novels

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

David Leavitt

Books By Literature Professors

   I don't yet understand the source of my antipathy toward literature professors. The pervasive air of smugness has something to do with it…

     I've paid some attention to the publications of my English Department colleagues and have the impression that they are responsible for a staggering amount of inconsequentia.  English professors are always turning out extraneous "textbooks" or else are collecting other people's writing and publishing them as anthologies. My favorite example--if you'll allow me a moment of rottenness--is something "edited by" two of our tenured battleships, and proudly displayed behind glass in the departmental office. It's called Affirmations of the Human Spirit: Readings in Excellence, and is little more than excerpts from the Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost with a one-paragraph introduction to each.

     Many of the local professor-products are patched together with the primary purpose of preserving their authors from perishing in the publish-or-perish sense, or else for some low-wattage pedantic reason; in any case, they tend to shorten the lives of those forced to do "readings" in them. Boredom, like speed, kills.

Martin Russ

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Satire In Fiction

 Satire is the opposite of truth telling. Satire is a big lie mobilized to get a comic effect. Sometimes the lie is mere exaggeration, sometimes it is a complete invention. Either way, satire is an attack weapon. It inflates the faults and foibles of powerful people or conventional ideas, with the intention of making them look ridiculous. "Humor belongs to the losers," said Garrison Keillor, and that's what satire is about. It's a kind of revenge, often very sweet and always triggered with anger.

     Jonathan Swift was the father of modern satire. In scathing books like A Tale of a Tub, The Battle of the Books, and Gulliver's Travels, Swift mocked the pretensions and prejudices of his own time. His technique was quite simple and works as well today as it did in the 1700s. He picked his target, imagined a fantastic metaphor and exaggerated everything. For example, in Gulliver, he created a deadly satire on prejudice with the story of the "Big Endians" and the "Little Endians," two groups locked in eternal battle over which end to open a boiled egg.

     Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller crafted marvelous satires on the Second World War, using Swift's tools of exaggeration, fantasy and aggressive ridicule. But contemporary satire is harder. Politics and popular culture have moved almost beyond the reach of ridicule. It's difficult to come up with something so bizarre that it won't actually happen before your piece appears in print. So satire can be risky for a fiction writer, who always risks being upstaged by reality.

David Bouchier 

Who Or Whom?

When do you use who and when do you use whom? The answer is, "Who cares?" Or, if you prefer, "Whom cares?"

Joel Saltzman

Writing The Whodunnit Crime Novel

 Most of my fiction writing has been in the murder mystery novel genre, specifically whodunits, in which there usually are four to six suspects. One of the most difficult aspects of writing whodunits is to give all of these suspects roughly equal motives for having committed the murder. The idea is to keep the reader guessing as long as possible.

     I try to adhere to the doctrine of fair play in the plot. That is, I put in clues so that the reader could conceivably identify the murderer. Having said that, I bury the clues by making them hard to spot. Many of these clues are embedded in seemingly innocuous details. [In real life, people often commit  murder with virtually no motive that makes any sense. Moreover, people with the most obvious motives  often turn out to be innocent. In the murder mystery genre the plots have to make sense. In true crime they just have to be true.]

Robert Goldsborough

Don't Rush Your Novel's Ending

One of the main pitfalls to avoid when writing your novel's ending is what I call The Horse Nearing the Barn Syndrome. Writing fiction is satisfying but hard work, and the tendency is to hurry things along when you know you're approaching the end. You want that feeling of accomplishment, and the sooner you type "The End" the sooner you will experience it. But you haven't done your job if the reader senses this impatience in the work. The story's pacing should remain firmly under your control, so that the ending seems a natural outcome of what went before. No inconsistency should jar the reader from your fictional world, or put him or her outside the story looking in, rather than experiencing on a vicarious level what your characters are experiencing. It's comforting to know the reader's cooperating with you in achieving this mesmerizing effect. Even rooting for you. Nobody begins reading a novel wanting to be disappointed.

John Lutz in Writing Mysteries, Sue Grafton, editor, 2001 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Happy Novelist

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

Terry Brooks

The Author As Celebrity

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

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

Fay Weldon

Setting Up The Novel's Big Scene

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

Loren D. Estleman

The "Cozy" Mystery Novel

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

Hallie Ephron