The Hot Tub Book Club

bookclub009-thumb-465x348-17081Happy summer to all you writers out there, this is Adair Heitmann penning (or more aptly typing) today’s blog. On May 9th I wrote to you about taking three easy steps into the powerful realm of book clubs. Before that, on April 2nd, I spoke about the attraction of many people reading the same book, then discussing it. You’ll be surprised how this can improve your writing.

Isn’t that what every writer dreams of? People buying their books, checking them out of libraries, reading them on eReaders, listening to them while commuting, and then sharing strong opinions about the books in the world? This is heady stuff.

When our son was five we joined a “Family Book Club Reading the Classics” at a local library. The power of the connections made and the friendships forged in that club have lasted over a decade. In fact the book club seceded from the union of that library when it’s former director asked us to be less excited about it in public. What? Tone down our enthusiasm for reading and healthy debate? Quiet the healthy pounding in our hearts when a fellow book clubber prompted an impassioned response? Cool our fervor over heated literary discussions? No! Not this book club, we disaffiliated ourselves and became a sovereign state! We now meet on our own, in our own homes, we rotate locations and leaders.

This brings me to “The Hot Tub Book Club.” Sorry to disappoint you but swimsuits are required and it is rated PG. It’s a book club that grew organically out of two families going to watch a Young Adult movie adaptation of a YA book, then casually chatting about it over a pizza dinner followed by a soak in a hot tub. Ahhhhhh, the fellowship of book clubs.

Friendship, wholesome debate, and connections are part of the power of book clubs. For writers, we want to build our author platforms. What better way to get out and about in the community than by joining a book club? You’ll become better known in literary circles, you’ll hear what really makes a good book tick, and who knows you may meet your next agent while discussing a good book.

If you want to start your own book club, set out your intentions:
1. Will it have a leader or rotate amongst the group?
2. Will it be online (Goodreads is a place to start) or in person?
3. Will a genre rule? Fiction, new fiction, memoir, romance, recipes, self-help, gender, non-fiction, Young Adult, classics, mystery, female authors . . . the list is endless.
4. Set clear ground rules and boundaries – no personal criticisms of opinions, polite behavior instills trust, start on time and end on time.

Until next time, keep on writing!

Published in: on July 11, 2014 at 4:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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Lessons from a novelist-in-progress

Shortly after you retire from your government job in Washington, D.C.—writing congressional testimony about economics and finance for a federal agency—you make your initial foray into fiction. You enter the first 50 pages of your debut novel, The Last Monument, in the 2011 Maryland Writers’ Association Novel Contest, subtitled “Great Beginnings,” in the mainstream/literary category. You win! (And collect $200.)

You query agents. After sending out requested pages you establish a dialogue with one of them (though you do not become an official client). From that rep and others, you hear the same thing; they cannot sell a novel that has an unlikeable protagonist. When the book indeed doesn’t sell, you realize that the naysayers are most likely talking specifically about unlikeable female protagonists in commercial fiction. It is, you conclude, an easy thing to say.

Now what? If you are Valentine “Missy” Craig (below)IMG_0256 from Bethesda, Md., you go right back to work on novel number two. And to make sure it works, after you finish a first draft you hire a freelance editor in Westport, Conn., who spent his career at many prominent publishing houses. After he’s read a couple of revisions of your Book Two, you travel to Westport to meet him in person. And you stay overnight with a longtime friend and her nosy husband, who happens to be a regular contributor to the Fairfield Writer’s Blog.

The blogger won’t let you leave for your writer-editor lunch until he’s picked your brain for the lessons you’ve learned that other aspiring novelists might apply to their own creative writing.

Book One, by the way, tells the story of a woman who is contacted by a daughter who she gave up for adoption many years ago and how things develop. Book Two is about a woman who is dealing with the loss of her husband and child in a house fire, and incorporates the historical topic of burking, or murdering someone for medical use of their body parts.

So here they are, 10 lessons from award-winning, though yet unpublished, novelist Missy Craig:

Lesson 1. It’s all practice. “Book Two is much better written,” Missy says. “Even the second part of my first book is better written than the first half. You don’t believe it, but it is practice. Writing dialogue. Doing things subtly. It’s all practice.”

Lesson 2. Summarize your contents. “The organization [of a novel] can be tremendous, and nobody tells you that. Keeping track of all the plot lines and personalities, keeping the tone consistent. I’m now a better person at keeping track of stuff. I don’t really outline. But I have a table of contents. Each chapter is [summarized] in one or two sentences. It helps me decide where something has to be done, or expanded, or where it shouldn’t be, maybe where something is really out of order. So it’s a great organizational tool for me.”

Lesson 3. Join a group. Being part of a writers’ group “makes you sit down and write.” And try to write well, Missy adds. “You don’t want to write something really crappy and have everyone think that’s the best you can do.”

Lesson 4. Take a class. “So many people say they’d like to write a novel and they just never do anything. I’d tell them to take a course.” Missy applied for and was accepted into a dialogue class at the Washington Writers’ Center. “It was absolutely wonderful. How many times in new writers’ work do you read, ‘Pass the salt.’ ‘Here’s the salt.’ They feel like they have to describe everything that happens. First off, my teacher said, ‘I never want to hear any character say, “Pass the salt.” ’ He said, ‘Cut that out. Dialogue should be either for character development or to move the story along.’ ”

Lesson 5. Make your characters human. “What I like about novels is the character identification and caring about the character,” Missy says. “It’s very important to me for people to understand why people are the way they are, that they’re not as they appear. If I can do that, and do it subtly, that’s what I’m looking for.” In Book One, Missy held back on taking the reader inside her protagonist’s head: “I wanted the woman to be someone hard to figure out, so I didn’t want to show much interior.” There’s more inner processing with the main character in Book Two, and “it does make for greater depth,” she says. On the other hand, her independent editor “thinks the man I have in Book Two is too good to be true. Which is very interesting, because every woman who’s read it has said, ‘Oh, where are they?’ ” The editor has suggested that her male lead needs some faults, that the protagonist and the male lead are too harmonious and that the characters do too much thinking and talking and too little engaging in action scenes.

Lesson 6. Finish like you mean it. “My father wrote plays when he was young, and he never finished anything,” Missy recalls. “And he wrote novels, and he never finished them. Working for the government, people think that you don’t complete things. Believe it or not, you have to do it—on time. If I were writing a 40-page thing for the head of the agency to present before the banking subcommittee, all hell would break loose if it was not on the Hill in 40 copies Saturday at midnight. So that was very good discipline for finishing” a work of fiction. “I have to finish things. . . .It’s like a compulsion.”

But that compulsion can manifest itself as a weakness, she learned. Her independent editor said that in the final third of Book Two, “I was shortcutting a lot of stuff. He said the writing was variable. . . .It was like an outline.” And the story itself was “too pat. He said, ‘You just crossed everything off. Closed that, closed that, closed that. Everything’s been closed down. Finished. That’s not how things are.’ After awhile, you start realizing, yeah, this could be longer. Needs more explanation. More context. . . .I may need to explain some things a little more.”

Part of the unsatisfactory finish was because Missy had to deal with a health issue. But there was also her method of re-reading her drafts: “I start doing editing as I go. I have to limit myself to marking problem passages with stickies or check marks and just go back to them later. Instead of taking care of them then. But I just keep on taking care of business again and again. I can’t stop myself. That’s why my ending is not that great, because I don’t get there as often.”

Lesson 7. Be alert to boredom. This tip concerns to that familiar cliché about balancing scene and exposition. In Missy’s words, “Typically I know I’m doing too much telling, and not enough showing, if it gets boring. Telling can be boring. Often you don’t become aware of it until reading [your copy] two or three or four times later.”

Lesson 8. Read your chapters by theme. Book Two has three major themes, and, “I’ve got them separated like that” for reviewing, Missy says. “I pull out those chapters and print them—because I think it’s important to read the manuscript on paper. I review and revise the one that’s worst, the least developed, first. If it’s the mystery theme, let’s say, 10 chapters, I have them all in a row, even though they’re not in the book all in a row, so I can follow the theme through and see if it’s developing properly, see where I perhaps repeat myself. Of course, then when you put the entire book back together, sometimes you have to change other stuff.”

Lesson 9. Hire an editor. When Missy sent Book Two to the agent she had been in contact with, “She liked it, she said. But she said, ‘I don’t think I can sell it.’ It was complete, but pretty much a first draft. No doubt, I sent it too early. So she gave me the names of three editors,” and Missy hired the man from Westport. “He’s read two drafts so far. I think he really gets it. And he’s nice, too.”

In addition to telling her she needed to improve the last third of the story, the editor has helped her with characterization, such as flagging a character’s behavior with a note asking, “Where did that come from? That’s just too out of the blue. You have to expand it.” He’s also advised her to kill her darlings: “I wrote a good scene with a coyote that comes out and surprises the protagonist and her dog. The editor said, ‘That’s very nice, but what is it all about?’ It was a very nice five pages of prose, and it set mood, I thought. He wants me to throw it out.”

In case you were wondering, the editor also read Book One. In answer to agents’ objections that they could not sell a book with an unlikeable protagonist, he told Missy, “I don’t think that’s so. I’ve bought books that had unpleasant people in them.” One of the issues he had with Book One was its point of view, specifically that it sometimes had a secondary POV although it was written in third-person limited. “He told me he liked the first one,” Missy says, “but to go do something else. Which means, he gave me an answer” about its ultimate viability as a publishable work.

Lesson 10. Approach agents at conferences. “I have gone to several writers conferences,” Missy says. “I go only when I’ve completed a novel, and the only reason I go is because agents are there and they are actually looking [for writers with good books]. If you go talk to them, I find that about 80 percent of them will say, ‘Give me 50 pages.’ I think it’s very efficient. Whereas if you send a cold query, 95 percent you never even hear back from. I have sent cold queries out that moved forward, though.”

So, what was the outcome of Missy’s lunch with her editor? He asked to see one more draft of Book Two, with the idea that after that it will be ready for line editing. And then, presumably, successfully querying and signing on with an agent, followed by submissions to publishers and the next stage of its successful journey to a bookstore near you.—Alex McNab

Published in: on July 7, 2014 at 3:53 pm  Comments (2)  
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Balancing drama with levity

On May 28, the Library and Fairfield University sponsored a joint author appearance with thriller writers Terry Hayes and Andrew Gross. Hayes, a veteran screenwriter (“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior,” “Dead Calm,” “Payback,” et al.), is a first-time novelist whose I Am Pilgrim, just published in the U.S., is already a bestseller overseas. Gross, whose new title is Everything to Lose, is a veteran on American bestseller lists. One attendee was JoAnn Kienzle, a longtime member of our twice-monthly Saturday writers’ group, who writes novels and short stories and has worked as a credited scriptwriter on TV series. Here she elaborates on a storytelling point Hayes made during the discussion.

In “Regarding Happiness,” one of his many essays on writing, Charles Baxter wrote, “We all understand intuitively that reading about the happiness of others is often boring.” Baxter wrote the essay in response to readers, including his own mother, who said they wanted to read happy pieces. Why would readers seek storiesTHayesPilgrim about happiness if it is, by nature, boring?

Because, though happiness itself is boring, drama is taxing. Reading something sad, or frightening, or thought-provoking, can exhaust the reader. While creating happy stories isn’t the answer, creating levity is. Last week, when Terry Hayes (above) spoke about his new thriller, I Am Pilgrim, he explained that, while drama is critical to interesting storytelling, lightness is also an important element in writing. He pointed out you occasionally need to use something—a heart-warming moment, a funny scene—to give your reader a break from the heaviness.

When I worked in television, my agent told me something similar. He also said a key distinction between dramas is how they handle comedy. If you think about the television dramas that you enjoy—Mad Men and Breaking Bad are great examples—you’ll realize how many of the moments you remember are funny, though the shows are anchored with very dramatic scenes.

And it’s the same for novels. Writers don’t need to be able to create jokes or one-liners to create relief, they just need to be able to let their characters have moments of levity. As you are writing your next piece, pay attention to the emotion you are trying to elicit from your reader in each of your scenes and make sure there’s a balance. It will both help your reader stay engaged and make your writing more interesting.—JoAnn Kienzle

Published in: on June 3, 2014 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Three Easy Ways to Get Started in Book Clubs

bookclubs_custom-1ec58e61bccbffba94a3c846786b5fc6af15cce1-s6-c30Hello writers! This is Adair Heitmann writing about reading, discussing what you’ve read, and the impact that can have on your writing.

Do you want to add spice to your life? Join a book club. Today’s book clubs range from one-time casual book chats to long-running serious literary encounters. Welcome in the new era!

Three easy ways to get started:
1. Sign up for library eNewsletters
Libraries have book clubs, and most have eNewsletters. Go to the library’s website and sign up for the eNewsletter for all the libraries within your driving range. Book clubs will be announced via the library’s eNewsletter.

2. Dive into social media
“Like” on Facebook and follow on Twitter the above said libraries. They’ll announce their books clubs on social media.

3. Start your own book club
“If you build it, they will come.”  If you can’t find a book club that works for you, start one.* Be sure to do it with joy. Maybe create a Beach Bum Book Club so you can deepen your tan while discussing the newest fiction. Or start an After Work Wine’d Down Club, the possibilities are endless.

Synergy is important. My favorites are the intergenerational book clubs. They are lively, fast-paced, and intense.  This passion for the written word then overflows into your own writing. You can observe what people like or don’t like about a book and apply that insider information to your own writing.

When your favorite books become movies, that ignites a whole new level of interest and intrigue. Did they choose the right actors? Was the scenery what you imagined?  You can gain even more fertilizer for your own crop of books by discussing and listening to what really matters to people when a book becomes a movie. Then apply this to your own writing.

Until next time, keep on writing.

* I’ll write more about this in later blogs.

Published in: on May 9, 2014 at 1:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Is that all there is? The aspiring novelist’s to-do list

So you want to make a full commitment to your effort to become a successful, engaged writer of long narrative fiction? Consider the following elements of the job description.

Story Organization

• Determine your story’s three-act structure.

• Chart your plot points/story beats, including but not limited to:

Inciting Incident

Establishment of the Stakes

Attacks on the Hero

Midpoint

Reversals and Revelations

Recalibrating the Stakes

All is Lost Moment

Hero’s Pause for Dark Reflection

Final Battle

Climax

Resolution

• Review the hero’s journey, desire, agenda, quest, path of change.

• Ditto the antagonist’s.

• Go through and outline your entire first draft before beginning revisions.

Research

• Make daily stops at the best online story aggregators and discussion boards about your subject.

• Check relevant topics on Wikipedia.

• Take whatever field trips are necessary to get the “real feel” of your story world.

• Tune into TV shows about that world on the NatGeo, History, Biography or Spike TV channels, even if you’ve seen the shows several times before.

• Keep checking amazon.com for any new books about your subject, then try to read them when your purchase arrives.

Technology

• Download and take a class in Scrivener, even though you have already written thousands of words in Microsoft Word.

Social Media

• Post regularly on two blogs of your own: a personal one and a writerly one, where you might even consider posting excerpts from your work-in-progress.

• Comment regularly on Twitter, post and share on Facebook, and keep your profile updated on LinkedIn—the minimum in terms of social networking.

• Establish a presence on GoodReads.

Publishing Planning

• Learn the difference among an Elevator Pitch, a Log Line and a Premise.

• Research the surefire three-paragraph query letter and file away some examples thereof.

• Seek out, similarly, the ultimate guide to crafting a winning synopsis. Be sure you can write it in 1-page, 3-page and longer versions.

• Collect the names of reputable freelance editors who can review your manuscript, if and when you finish it.

• Begin compiling a list of agents you’ll approach about your completed manuscript, with a reminder about each one as to why she or he is receiving your letter.

• Bring yourself up to date about the burgeoning world of self-publishing, in case you opt for or must go that route.

Writing Advice

• Read the three writers’ magazines (Writer’s Digest, The Writer and Poets & Writers) when the new issues hit the mailbox or newsstand.

• Surf the websites of writing gurus and agents (i.e., writerunboxed.com, storyfix.com, themillions.com, janefriedman.com, Janet Reid (jetreidliterary.blogspot.com), etc.

• Explore going away to a multi-day writers’ conference or writer’s retreat, or both.

Local Writing Community

• Attend the semi-monthly writers’ group and the monthly Writers’ Salon and Writers Read sessions at your public library.

• Read the library’s Writer’s Blog, and contribute a post if invited.

• Take part in your own or a neighboring community’s One Book One Town celebration, depending on which town has selected a book that interests you and that you want to or have read.

• Join a fee-based ongoing weekly workshop/critique group with a veteran college professor or published novelist.

• Collate the suggested edits/questions/areas-needing-improvement-or-cutting that you agree with from all of the reading copies of your work that you handed out in the library and fee-based workshops/critique groups.

• Attend local appearances by touring novelists. Strongly consider buying a copy of their new book and getting it signed, perhaps after telling the author that you’re working on your own novel, so she or he will write a pep-talk inscription for you along with her or his autograph.

Reading

• Heed the words of Stephen King: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

• Read fiction while writing fiction to keep your creative pump primed.

• Don’t read fiction while writing fiction so you don’t subconsciously fall into the style of the authors you are reading.

• Read the latest Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner.

• Read the widely acclaimed first novel by a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

• Read the just-published second novel of another graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because you so enjoyed her first novel.

Updike• Read the widely acclaimed new biography of a great American writer, John Updike, even if the only works by him that you have read are some of his essays about golf.

Current Events

• Stay abreast of key writerly issues, such as the latest developments in the MFA-vs.-NYC and unlikeable-vs.-likeable-main-characters debates.

Submitting

• Keep sending out the two or three short stories that have been collecting rejection slips.

 And, Oh Yeah, Don’t Forget

• Set and adhere to a daily writing schedule—using an elapsed-time, word-count or page-count quota—so you can, once and for all, finish composing and revising your book.—Alex McNab

Reading the Same Book Goes Beyond the Same Town

fwblog_a_house_in_the_skyHello Fairfield writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you about the power of reading books and then talking about them. Recently Fairfield held its month-long One Book One Town (OBOT) experience. After months of research the OBOT committee selected A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett. It is a dramatic and redemptive memoir of a woman whose curiosity led her to the world’s most beautiful and remote places, its most imperiled and perilous countries, and then into fifteen months of harrowing captivity—an exquisitely written story of courage, resilience, and grace.

The authors spoke to over 750 residents and non-residents on March 27 at Fairfield University’s Quick Center. Before their formal talk, yours truly had the opportunity to meet them at a small reception. Yes, shaking their hands was inspiring, yes, having my picture taken with them was an ego-boost, but the amazing part was who I met standing in line for the book signing and photo op.

As a way to start a conversation with the woman behind me, I used my tried and true ice-breaker, “So, what brings you here?” The flood gates opened. Ingrid and her friend Andonia drove from New Jersey just for the event. Turns out they started a book club at work, and A House in the Sky was their first pick. From reading Amanda Lindout’s website, Ingrid found out that both she and her co-author Sara Corbett would be in Fairfield, CT speaking at the One Book One Town premiere event. In a heartbeat, both Ingrid and Andonia took 1/2 day off from work and went for a little field trip to Connecticut.

What amazed me about Ingrid, Andonia, and my spontaneous discussions was that we were perfect strangers. We came from diverse backgrounds, ages, and stages in life, yet I felt our conversations were authentic, lively,  and interesting. The veneer that usually stands between genuine conversation was gone. It was as if we were in our own intimate book club, standing amongst scores of other people.

This leads me to the power of books and the magic of book clubs. Clearly the depth of the book A House in the Sky had a lot to do with the level of connections. The One Book One Town program is really one big book club. When the entire town reads the same book, people talk about it in grocery stores, online, at church, at libraries, and in living rooms.

I’d say I’m in three book clubs, one being OBOT. Then there is my Family Book Club which has stood the tests of time for over 10 years and morphed into a four times a year book, pizza, dessert and chat extravaganza. The ages now go from one-year old, through high school, into college up to 65 years old, plus there is a new baby on the way! We started out reading the classics, now we’ve moved onto, “Does this book have what it takes to become a classic?”

My third book club is a movie/book club. It started organically around the movie Catching Fire. Another family and mine wanted to see the movie, we had all read the book. We decided to see the movie together, then have pizza at my house and talk about it afterwards. The mother of the other family recently told me that our fun, impromptu,  you-don’t-have-to-talk-about-the-book-the-whole-time book club has ruined her middle school age daughter for “same-age book clubs!” After finishing Divergent so we could see the movie, and then talk about the book vs. the movie, we are now reading Maze Runner and The Fault of Our Stars.

As you can see, I’m hot on book clubs. If you aren’t in one now, find one. Libraries have book clubs, churches have them, start one at your job or in your neighborhood. I’ll offer  hints and tips about finding the right book club or starting your own, next month when I write again for this blog.

Until next time, keep on writing! Your book may become a book club winner.

An informal writer’s guide to editing & editors

“If you turn in something you think is perfect, an editor will go, ‘I know you think it’s great, but it’s not. You need to do this and move this and change this.’ You may think that person’s an idiot, which they might be, but they’re probably not because they’re still in business after everybody else has been fired.”

That warning to all of us who aspire to be published came from our local writing guru Carol Dannhauser, who prefaced her remark by pointing out that there are a lot fewer editors working at magazines and book publishers than there used to be, and that those survivors are overwhelmed with submissions.

So the question arises: proofreading_symbolsCan we increase our chances of having our writing accepted for publication if we have a better understanding of the editors’ perspective? Perhaps. It certainly cannot hurt.

Here, then, is a random survey of sources where you can increase that understanding.

Self-editing: In “A Short Course in Line Editing” from thereviewreview.net, author and journalist Michelle Seaton presents a paragraph from a 1940s pulp romance story and uses it to illustrate how you can make your writing tighter and clearer as you line edit. A key point is this:

Double-check the clauses. When something goes horribly wrong in a sentence a dependent clause is usually at fault. . . .Many times our problematic clauses just need to move out of the sentence, and get their own place.”

Copyediting: “Style Sheet: A Conversation with My Copyeditor,” at themillions.com, is by Edan Lepuki, novelist (California), short story writer and founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Lepuki conducts a Q&A with copyeditor Susan Bradanini Betz. Betz defines the copyeditor’s role this way:

“When I copyedit, I get closer to the manuscript than I was ever able to as an acquisitions editor. I read every single word, looking at each word and tracking the syntax, not skimming over sentences. It’s not my job as a copyeditor to suggest big-picture changes or comment on quality, so I am focused on the story and the language at the word and sentence level. I keep the reader in mind and try to anticipate what might be confusing or problematic; I check facts and dates, track characters and events for consistency; and I do the most thorough read I possibly can, coming away with an in-depth understanding of the work that wasn’t possible for me in acquisitions. . . .”

Acquisitions editing: Christine Kopprasch, associate editor at the Crown Trade Publishing Group, a division of Random House, answers questions from a staffer and the Facebook community of writerunboxed.com in “Interview with a Big Five Editor.” Among the works Kopprasch has acquired is Fairfield Writer’s Blog friend and contributor Maddie Dawson’s latest novel, The Opposite of Maybe, which will hit bookstores in April. Kopprasch gives a behind-the-scenes rundown of an editor’s  responsibilities, as well as pointers for writers. Such as:

“I establish a relationship with the author, talking often over the phone or by email, and start editing. Usually I do multiple rounds of editing: a few in-depth rounds with lots of comments and structural suggestions, and then as much line editing and refining as is needed. . . .”

What specifically is it that attracts you to a story, a writing style, or a cast of characters, that eases your mind over taking a chance on an unknown author?

“The voice, foremost, and the I-can’t-put-this-book-down feeling that’s so personal and hard to explicate. . . .”

What is the one thing that will turn you away from a book every time? 

“A flat voice. ‘Information dumps,’ too. . . .”

Name [two] things we writers can do to our manuscripts to make your job easier. 

“Make your first chapters amazing, both to hook us and help us hook our team. Be sure it’s really ready to submit, which usually means putting it away for a while and coming back to it with fresh eyes somewhere in an author’s editing process.”

Editor-author relationships. The standard for Q&A explorations of this critical aspect of writing was established in the Fall 1994 issue of The Paris Review with “The Art of Editing No. 1.” Robert Gottlieb’s stellar editing career has included stints at Simon & Schuster, Knopf and The New Yorker. Rather than go one-on-one with interviewer Larissa MacFarquhar, Gottlieb shared the stage with many of the notable writers with whom he worked, among them John le Carré, Robert Caro and Toni Morrison. Here is Morrison on Gottlieb’s art:

“I was an editor myself for a long while. . . .If it has your fingerprints on it, it’s no good.”

In today’s online environment, slate.com sets the bar high with its occasional author-editor interviews in “The Slate Book Review.” Recent pairings have included author Claire Messud (The Woman Upstairs) and editor Robin Desser (Knopf), short-story master George Saunders (Tenth of December) and Andy Ward (Random House), and novelist Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch) and Michael Pietsch (Hachette). Here is a sample from the last:

Tartt: Do you work with all writers the way you work with me? (Which is to say, not really commenting until you have the whole manuscript in hand.) Or is it different with different writers?

Pietsch: . . .Every edit is different. Some writers like to show a chapter at a time or even individual scenes, as they go, for comment; I’ve worked with writers who wanted to read a passage over the phone just after they completed it. Others want to write in total privacy, not revealing a single thing until it’s finished. Sometimes editing consists primarily of a letter asking questions about plot elements, or about pacing, or character, and sometimes it’s entirely line-by-line comments on language. . . .Editing is only useful if the writer finds it to be. And some writers really don’t want an editor’s help at all. Martin Amis told me once that he’d rather have his own mistakes than an editor’s fixes—an opinion that any writer is entitled to!

Tartt: I’m with Martin Amis on that. I’d always rather stand or fall on my own mistakes. There’s nothing worse than looking back, in a published book, at a line edit or a copy edit that you felt queasy about and didn’t want to take, but took anyway.

Editor biography & memoirs. Want to read more about editing and editors? Begin with Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg’s monumental 1978 biography of the remarkable shepherd of many great 20th century writers at Charles Scribner’s Sons. Perkins guided F. Scott Fitzgerald through The Great Gatsby, cleared the way against in-house objections to profane language in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, convinced Thomas Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from Look Homeward, Angel, helped pave the way for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Pulitzer Prize winner The Yearling and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved County, and steered first-time novelist James Jones away from one work-in-progress to the beginnings of From Here to Eternity, which won the National Book Award after Perkins had died.

Michael Korda—a successful author of a diverse collection of nonfiction books including, most recently, a biography of Lawrence of Arabia—told the story of his many years as editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster in Another Life: A Memoir of Other People (1999). Korda edited as diverse a list of authors as you can imagine, from Larry McMurtry to David McCullough to Jacqueline Susann to Ronald Reagan. Another Life is entertaining as well as informative about editing and publishing.

Finally, check out Daniel Menaker’s coverfinal_mymistake_hirecent memoir My Mistake (2013). Menaker was an editor at The New Yorker, principally but not exclusively working on fiction, before moving into book editing at Random House. His book weaves the story of his career with his moving personal story about him and his brother. On pages 110 and 111 of My Mistake, he reprints the first two sentences of the original manuscript of a New Yorker book review by the renowned psychoanalyst Robert Coles, followed by the version that appeared in the magazine. The excerpts are an object lesson in the editor’s role in the clarification of prose. Menaker allows that it is “an example of the heavy work that editors sometimes had to do.” You get the sense that he wishes he did not have to wield so detailed a blue pencil.

In an online interview he did with the “Barnes and Noble Review” in December 2013, Menaker spoke of how his own memoir benefitted from being edited by others:

“What they did—what a good editor does—is make your text the way you really would have wanted it to be if you had been doing it on your most disciplined, best day.”

We should all be so lucky to work with editors who do that to our writing.—Alex McNab

March 26 Update: At the millions.com, Edan Lepuki at has just posted a new interview with her acquiring editor at Little, Brown, Allie Sommer. Check it out. It’s a fine bookend to the conversation with Lepuki’s  copyeditor cited above. Here’s an excerpt of Sommer’s words—AMcN:

“My job is to make suggestions on how the author can take what he or she is already doing and make it even better. Mostly, I try to think about how the reader will react to the text. . . .It all leads to the same goal of making it the best possible experience for the reader.”

 

 

Published in: on March 20, 2014 at 3:23 pm  Comments (2)  

Happy Birthday John Steinbeck

john_steinbeckHello, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you. Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Steinbeck would be 112 today. Steinbeck (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American writer widely known for the The Grapes of Wrath (1939), East of Eden (1952) and the novella Of Mice and Men (1937). As the author of twenty-seven books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books, and five collections of short stories, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

What do you think his secret is for writing works with such staying power?

A few hints may lie here . . .
quote

and here . . .
john steinbeck story quote

Until next time, keep on writing.

A local guru’s writing tips for 2014

A lot of us in this Connecticut town got our start as creative writers in one of Carol Dannhauser’s Writers’ Workshop of Fairfield groups. Carol is an award-winning magazine writer and TV producer, author of three books, a former big-city newspaper reporter, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University, a dedicated foodieCarolD (that’s a persimmon gelato cone she’s eating in the photo on the right, incidentally) and a determined if fledgling fencer. She also is an indefatigable, effervescent writing coach of groups and individuals of all ages and levels of experience.

So when she appeared as guest facilitator at the Library’s first monthly writers’ salon of 2014, the turnout overwhelmed the capacity of the lovely writers’ room and the group had to move upstairs to a much larger space. Carol’s topic was “tips, tools and techniques for actually writing the pieces you need/want to write this year.” In her inimitable idiom, here are highlights of what Carol told us:

“Have a deadline.” Read on to learn why.

“Figure out your motivation.” Writing, Carol says, “is fun. And it’s hard. It’s fun and hard at the same time. What is it about this project of yours that will help you derive satisfaction? What makes you do it, on top of whatever else you do, when your kids are still sleeping, when you get up an hour before everybody else gets up, when it’s Wednesday night and everybody else is watching ‘Modern Family.’ Something has to be nudging you along to pick up the pen. The fact that maybe you should do it isn’t the right answer. I make my living as a writer of nonfiction. I dabble in fiction. . .[but] I am determined to finish a draft of a novel this year.” Why? “I want to see if I can do it. And it’s a great story. It’s a great story and I think I can do it, but maybe I can’t.” Of course, that thought process gets in the way of every writer, she says. So…

“Get rid of the judgment.” Carol admits she’s a terrible fencer. “But every single week I devote a certain amount of time to becoming a better fencer. I get my ass kicked, by children, including my own. I will leave and go, ‘I’m terrible.’ Then, in a couple of more days, I’ll try it again.” Many of us don’t approach writing that way. “There’s all this judgment that comes with writing,” most of it from yourself. “You write it and, ‘Oh, it’s terrible.’ It’s terrible now. Every single thing I write is terrible—until it’s not.” That’s why. . . .

“You have to have the faith that it will get better.” Writing takes practice. “If you do it long enough, sooner or later it will get better. Yes, you go on a wing and a prayer sometimes. Try really, really hard to tell your inner critic, ‘I know it sucks. Give me some time, and it will suck less,’ and less and less. And then maybe it won’t be so bad. Then maybe pretty good, then good, then maybe it’ll be great. But you can’t give up. How many people have half-finished projects? A third finished? That’s my big one. You just can’t give up.” Eventually, though. . .

“You need to be done.” Why? “Because if you wait for you to be done, you might not ever be done.” So refer back to her command about a deadline.  “I would suggest making a deal with yourself: ‘Self, I’m going to finish this piece of something by March first. Maybe it’s not going to be perfect. But it’s going to be finished. And then I’m going to do something with it by April first.’ If you are a perfectionist, you will never finish it.”

“Give your writing respect.” That means writing something every single day. It “needs to get the same little bit of respect as your other projects in life. It doesn’t have to be a whole production. But it has to be a commitment to writing in some way on a regular basis.” One way to do that is to keep a log of every time you write. “Not that you read about writing, or read someone’s blog. That’s all great. [But] you’re not writing.”

“Make your goal smaller.” Carol says, “Yeah, I want to write a novel. But my goal yesterday wasn’t to write a novel. My concrete goal was to figure out how time was going to elapse in this little novel of mine, and how to split it up.” Over the course of a two-day writers’ retreat, she did just that, as well as figure out how to amp up the conflict and reach a resolution in the last quarter of her story. Again, your goal “doesn’t have to be, ‘I’m going to write my whole memoir.’ Like Legos, you don’t have to build the whole thing in a day.”

“If you’re stuck, skip over that part.” As she says, “What do you do in traffic? Detour. You can sit there all day, and it’s not happening. Go around. Skip it. [If you want to], put some piece of crap on the page. The beauty is, you can go back and fix it. I think of poor Michelangelo when he was sculpting. ‘Oh my God! You wrecked the nose. You’re screwed.’ And I just cut and paste.” Once again. . .

“You have to stick with it.” Mixing her artistic metaphors a little, Carol says, “In creative writing, you have to understand that it’s going to be a piece of clay for a long time. Maybe you don’t get the nose right 15 times. You try it again. How many guitars did Picasso paint? Again and again and again. How many horses? Again and again and again. Till he got it right? He never got it right. And every one was a masterpiece. People will spend a million dollars on one of his sketches. So try, try, to let the judge go.”

Deal with procrastination. “The first thing I’d do was play Scrabble against my computer,” Carol confesses. “I would not begin writing until I had won. Sometimes 25 minutes would pass and I’d think, ‘Well, this is good. It’s words. It’s priming my brain. Like warming up at the track.’ No, it’s not. It’s playing Scrabble. I have quelled my Scrabble habit. Not like going cold turkey. Since January 1, now I play after writing 500 words.” If procrastination is your problem, Carol told us, Hillary Rettig’s website may help. It offers an online newsletter with tips and tools for overcoming procrastination. Carol took a two-hour writers’ workshop with Rettig at Hartford’s Mark Twain House (a very writer-friendly locale with a calendar of events worth considering) and says, “Go check her out. And if you ever contact her, tell her I said hello.”

“Get a partner.” Before we left the room, Carol asked us to introduce ourselves to a person we didn’t know and exchange email addresses.  “Tell them what you’re going to write, then check in later,” she advised. The focus should be on what you plan to do next. As for what you accomplished between check-ins, a simple, “Did it,” will suffice. “Because I have promised my partner that I will be writing, that’s what I do,” she said. “Or you can meet up. But the commitment is what’s important. It’s so helpful. Writing is so solitary. That commitment to somebody, it’s magical.”—Alex McNab

Writers: 3 Ways LinkedIn Helps You Work Smarter

keyboard_linkedinHello writers, this is Adair Heitmann sharing information on how using LinkedIn can expand your writing platform. We’ve all heard of LinkedIn right? LinkedIn is a social networking website for people in professional occupations. I call it the virtual water cooler of traditional corporate days. When I worked at Xerox Learning Systems, I’d meet and network with colleagues around the water cooler. The conversations were always professional, upbeat, and a good way to be visible while moving up the corporate ladder.

Nowadays, with telecommuting, or everyone bringing their own plastic bottles of designer spring water to the office, the water cooler set of connections has dried up. Meeting people and exchanging  ideas is now done online. Follow these three steps and see how your writing world expands. Let us know here how you make out.

  1. Join LinkedIn, fill in your professional profile, add a good PR head shot.
  2. Share your blog on LinkedIn: Most blogging sites have a “Share” feature. Go to >Settings on your blog site, then >Share and check the box next to LinkedIn. Fill in the prompts. Your next blog post will automatically publish to your LinkedIn profile.
  3. Join LinkedIn Groups. You don’t have to spend much of time on this. I’m a member of 18 writing groups on LinkedIn. Currently my groups range from A to almost Z. From “Authors & Writers” to “Writers International.” Do I discuss topics with members everyday? Absolutely not, I don’t have time. However, occasionally I’ll comment on a topic. Do I post my blogs to my LinkedIn profile? Absolutely yes. Be open to new opportunities on LinkedIn. I was recently asked to be a guest blogger for an eMagazine on eMarketing. Did it come through a writing group? No, it came through a LinkedIn Group I’m in on social media marketing. They noticed my online presence.

Just as you would dress for success at your day job, remember to dress for success in every communication on LinkedIn. It really is the current water cooler of connections.

Until next time, keep on writing!

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