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!

Some final thoughts on writing, 2013

On December 28, 2013, our Library writers’ group completed its fifth calendar year of twice-a-month workshops. That’s a lot of reading, listening and critiquing. At each meeting, I distribute a handout of writing advice culled from myriad blogs, websites, books, newspapers, magazines, author appearances and more. All told, I have passed out 106 such digests during those five years. Extracted from the 2013 handouts, on this last day of the year, I’d like to share a few of the thoughts on writing that I came across in books I read—not all of them books about writing—during the past 365 days.

• From The Liar’s Bible: A New Collection of Essays on Writing by Lawrence Block (via Kindle from Open Road Media):

Block“Sometimes I think it takes guts to write fiction. And other times I think what it really takes is arrogance. Consider the effrontery of the fictioneer. He sits down at his desk and makes up a story, assuming that the product of his own imagination will keep other people, total strangers to him, interested and enthralled. He invents characters and trusts that these strangers will care mightily about what happens to these made-up people. The flip side of all this arrogance is anxiety and insecurity. Why should anyone waste his time reading my made-up stories? Why should people care what happens to my characters? And where do I get off deciding what happens next? How do I know what my characters think/feel/believe? What entitles me to decide how their fabricated lives will turn out? It helps if I can learn to operate less on arrogance and more on humility.”Burke

• From Light of the World: A Dave Robicheaux Novel by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)

“At a certain age, you realize the greatest loss you can experience is a theft you perpetrate upon yourself—the waste of days given us. Is there any more piercing remorse than the realization that a person has thrown away the potential that resides in every sunrise?”

• From Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (Warner Books):Goldman

“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”

• From Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (Random House):Kidder

“That you can learn to write better is one of our fundamental assumptions. No sensible person would deny the mystery of talent, or for that matter the mystery of inspiration. But if it is vain to deny these mysteries, it is useless to depend on them. No other art form is so infinitely mutable. Writing is revision. All prose responds to work.”

• From The Double by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown & Co.):

Pelecanos“[Spero Lucas] had too many books in his apartment and he liked to pass them on to the wounded soldiers and marines who had little to do beyond their rehab. Some of the books were biography and history, and some were considered literary fiction, whatever that was. But like most people, the recovering veterans enjoyed a good story told with clean, efficient writing, a plot involving a problem to be solved or surmounted, and everyday characters the reader could relate to.”

• From Elsewhere: A Memoir by Richard Russo (Alfred A. Knopf)

Russo“It didn’t take me long to learn that novel writing was a line of work that suited my temperament and played to my strengths, such as they were. Because—and don’t let anybody tell you different—novel writing is mostly triage (this now, that later) and obstinacy. Feeling your way around in the dark, trying to anticipate the Law of Unintended Consequences. Living with and welcoming uncertainty. Trying something, and when that doesn’t work, trying something else. Welcoming clutter. Surrendering a good idea for a better one. Knowing you won’t find the finish line for a year or two, or five, or maybe never, without caring much. Putting one foot in front of the other. Taking small bites, chewing thoroughly. Grinding it out. Knowing that when you’ve finally settled everything that can be, you’ll immediately seek out more chaos. Rinse and repeat. Somehow, without ever intending to, I’d discovered how to turn obsession and what my grandmother used to call sheer cussedness—character traits that had dogged both my parents, causing them no end of difficulty—to my advantage.”

[Thanks to my wife, Diane Melish, for reading the book and sharing the quote with me.—AM] 

• From Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro (Atlantic Monthly Press)17465707

“Sit around a scarred wooden table in a writing workshop for enough hours and you’ll hear write what you know, along with show don’t tell, never use adverbs, and other guidelines. And know that every rule you’ll hear in a writing workshop is meant to be broken. You can do absolutely anything—tell, not show, make excellent use of an adverb—as long as you can pull it off. Get out there on the high wire, unafraid to fail.”

“. . .If beginnings are leaps of faith, and middles are vexing, absorbing, full of trap doors and wrong turns and dead ends, sensing an ending is your reward. It’s better than selling your book. It’s better than a good review. . . .There will be a moment—today, tomorrow, three weeks or two months from now—when you’ll write a sentence and then stare at it, dumbfounded. It has caught you unawares. You can’t be on the lookout for it. You can’t will it, or force it, and you don’t have to, because it will feel inevitable. Everything has led to this.”

• From The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P: A Novel by Adelle Waldman (Henry Holt & Co.)Waldman

“Sure, writing his book hadn’t been entirely easy.. . .[S]omething that existed only as a Microsoft Word document, a sprawling tale of a young immigrant family grappling with life in the American suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, [it was] a work he’d been revising and rewriting since he was in his midtwenties without ever having earned a penny from it. But writing his book—at least after a certain point, years in, when, by shifting its focus from the son to the parents, he’d finally seemed to find the thing’s pulse and the novel began to take shape almost of its own accord—had also been the greatest pleasure of his life. That a publisher was willing to pay him for it, pay him generously, was nothing to complain about. He’d do it again for free, in a minute. Many of those late nights, when he’d paced his apartment, his mind roaming the world he’d painstakingly created and could finally inhabit—moving within it from character to character, feverishly distilling into words thoughts not his own but theirs—had been ecstasies of absorption and self-forgetfulness.”

“. . .It could be difficult to stay motivated sometimes—he knew that—especially when you were unhappy. But he also knew that you had to push through. He had. He had written his book even on days when it was the last thing he felt like doing.”

Finally, all best wishes on writing well and with success in the New Year.—Alex McNab

Poetry: A Gift that Keeps on Giving

Simple-GiftHello writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you during this holiday season. I’m writing about a little known American poet, Grace Noll Crowell, (October 31, 1877 – March 31, 1969). Her work walked into my life last month, when I attended a discussion group about the topic, “enough.” I read one of her passages and saved it to share with you here.

What’s interesting is that Crowell wrote her first poem at age 8, but her otherwise loving family laughed at it. Humiliated, she didn’t write again for decades. Crowell went on to have a  happy marriage and three children, but she fell gravely ill in 1906. While resigned to spending life as an invalid, she had no desire to be a burden to her family. She turned her emptiness into plenty, and was determined to become a writer. Crowell’s first poem, The Marshland, was written and published while she was recovering from her illness. She started to write as a way to inspire others not to give up hope. She became the  author of 36 books of inspirational verse and 5,000 poems. Her work appeared in hundreds of magazines and newspapers. She wrote books of poetry, stories for children, and poem and prose devotions.

Crowell was so popular it was necessary for her husband, who was a bank teller by day and a writer himself at night,  to quit his job to manage her writing career. Thousands of pieces of correspondence from grateful readers needed to be answered and hundreds of visitors from all parts of the United States and Europe who visited her at her Dallas home needed to be received. She died at age 91.

As 2013 comes to a close and we anticipate the new, I’ll share Crowell’s words with you.

I Have Found Such Joy
I have found such joy in simple things:
A plain, clean room, a nut-brown loaf of bread
A cup of milk, a kettle as it sings,
The shelter of a roof above my head,
And in a leaf-laced square along the floor,
Where yellow sunlight glimmers through a door.

I have found such joy in things that fill
My quiet days: a curtain’s blowing grace,
A potted plant upon my window sill,
A rose, fresh-cut and placed within a vase;
A table cleared, a lamp beside a chair,
And books I long have loved beside me there.

Oh, I have found such joys I wish I might
Tell everyone who goes seeking far
For some elusive, feverish delight,
That very close to home the great joys are:
The elemental things — old as the race,
Yet never, through the ages, commonplace.
-Grace Noll Crowell

Until next time, keep on writing.

Dani Shapiro’s book for writers

Joanne Hus, a member of our Saturday writers’ group at the Library, was the first person to bring our attention to Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing. Joanne’s story “We All Fall Down” was published in Venü magazine. She sent us this post:

A number of books about writing and creativity sit at my fingertips to inspire me: Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird among them. The most recent addition to the inspiration kit I keep at my desk is Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.

Shapiro (right, photoDSJH by Joanne Hus) has written bestselling novels and memoirs. She has a lot to teach us (in fact, she has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, The New School, NYU, and Wesleyan University, as well as being cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy), and I found Still Writing to be singularly generous. This is not a book about writing technique; rather, it is a book about the writing life. As she says in her introduction:

“The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail—not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime.”

What makes Still Writing so useful is Shapiro’s honesty about how hard it is to create something out of nothing. She names the temptations that threaten to derail any creative endeavor, especially what she so accurately calls the “crack cocaine” known as the Internet.

I was fortunate to catch up with Shapiro at Hickory Stick bookstore in Washington Depot, Conn.—in Litchfield County, where she resides—in October. She began her presentation with a brief explanation of why she wrote the book. Like many books, Still Writing started off as a blog. Shapiro’s readers kept asking her to write one, so she asked herself what topic she could write about “that wouldn’t make me want to shoot myself.” Lucky for us, she decided to write about “what it takes to be alone in a room with nothing but a blank page for company.”

Shapiro is disarmingly honest about her own wrestling with creativity. For aspiring writers like me, it is at once reassuring and sobering to realize this struggle doesn’t get easier with practice. Indeed, according to her comments at Hickory Stick, the struggle is “harder and harder—in a wonderful way.”

She told us, “The most treacherous part of my day is the walk from the kitchen to my office. On that walk, I can get into so much trouble!” For example, on that walk one day she noticed that the curtain rods in the living room needed updating. When she got to her computer she decided to check Restoration Hardware’s website to look for replacements. Somehow, an entire morning vanished. Shapiro shares similar stories in Still Writing, and I found it especially encouraging (if a little frightening) that even someone of her stature and accomplishment is sometimes thrown off course by the Internet and other distractions. Like anyone else, she struggles to get out of her own way.

Most of us are alone when we create something, if not literally then metaphorically. I am happy to have Dani Shapiro next to me at my desk, whispering words of encouragement as I do battle with the blank page:

“Sit down and begin. Act as if you might just create something beautiful, and by beautiful I mean something authentic and universal. Don’t wait for anybody to tell you it’s okay. Take that shimmer and show us our humanity. That’s your job.”

Joanne Hus

Published in: on December 3, 2013 at 8:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Laura Lippman’s four little words

You’ve read them here before.

They are my favorite four words of writing advice.

They also haunt me.

“Finish the damn book.”

Go to the website of author Laura Lippman. lauralippman The words are right there in bold type, in the “Self Help” and “Son of Self Help: The Sequel” areas, under the “Letters” menu heading. Lippman (right) is the Baltimore-based, Edgar Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling crime novelist who writes a series about private eye Tess Monaghan as well as acclaimed stand-alone titles including, most recently, And When She Was Good. On February 14, 2014, After I’m Gone, another stand-alone, will be published by William Morrow. aftergoneUS-199x300It is Lippman’s 20th book, the first of which was published in 1997.

I’ve been trying to meet Lippman’s charge for a long time.

At this point, I have written a long first draft of what I call a literary tough-guy novel. I have read most of the chapters in critique workshops over the years, and I’ve revised much of what I’ve written. That, however, isn’t the same as reimagining and rewriting the parts that need it. I still wrestle with the plot and the characters’ motivations. Also, I need to strengthen existing scenes and add missing ones in the domestic subplot, which I find hard to do. (Who would have guessed? I’m a guy, after all.) And at one point or another, I’ve fallen victim to almost every one of the following 10 reasons I’ve come up with for why aspiring fiction writers don’t finish the damn book.

1. Laziness;

2. Fear—of the book being too lousy; too self-revealing; too offensive to family, friends or an interest group; etc.;

3. Paralysis by analysis because the novice novelist studies too many craft books and feels his/her story misses too many beats of the prescribed story-structure formula;

4. Failure of imagination in coming up with an ending that meets the ideal, that it be both surprising and inevitable;

5. Losing one’s way in the story;

6. Perfectionism;

7. Inability to stop doing research;

8. Self-inflicted internet interruptions;

9. Lack of compelling need or desire to finish;

10. “Not enough time.”

At this point, while I can see a path toward the finish line, I seem to lack the confidence that I can invent what it will take to get there.

There seemed to be one thing left to do to try to overcome the dilemma: Reach out to Laura Lippman for her insight behind those four words.

When an initial email to Lippman came back as undeliverable, I contacted Joe Meyers, the Ellery Queen Award-winning book critique at the Connecticut Post, who had just seen Lippman at the Bouchercon mystery writing conference in Albany, N.Y., where the above photo of the author was shot. He suggested I contact Sharyn Rosenblum, the ace publicist at HarperCollins, of which William Morrow, Lippman’s publisher, is an imprint. Rosenblum forwarded my general query to Lippman, which I planned to follow up with a more detailed message. Before I could do that, Lippman wrote me back with answers that anticipated everything I planned ask her. Here is what she said:

“People don’t finish for a lot of reasons. Some don’t finish because a book is like a marriage or a new relationship. There’s a lot of giddy excitement in the early going, but then it requires work and patience and good habits and showing up—if not every day, pretty regularly. You can’t neglect it. Some people just don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s not hard, relative to a lot of jobs, but it’s harder than it looks.

“People also don’t finish because of fear. What if it’s not good? What if I don’t get published? What if I get published and people say it’s not good. A lot of perfectionism—the tendency to rework the same pages over and over—is a way of masking those fears. There’s a line in the musical ‘Company,’ about marriage/relationships: ‘Don’t be afraid that it won’t be perfect. Be afraid that it won’t be.’

“Every external dream we have about publishing has the nutritional value of cotton candy. I’ve been lucky enough to see some big dreams come true—prizes, making The New York Times list, having one of my books adapted for film. And that’s nice and that’s lovely and I tried to enjoy those moments, but they were moments and they didn’t really feed me.

“The work is what feeds us. So when you’re down in the dumps and trying to finish, imagining money or red carpets or even the Nobel Prize ceremony isn’t going to take you there. Because none of those things can nourish you.

“You try to make the book better. The book tries to make you better. Together, you struggle toward the finish line. Sometimes, the book will be urging you on, pacing itself. Sometimes it will be the other way around. The book wants to quit and you have to do whatever you can to keep it going. There are lots and lots of tricks. Have a character write you a letter. If you know the end of the book, start writing it and work backward, see if you can make it connect to what’s already written. Rewrite what you have until your characters do what you need them to do. (I had to rewrite a book three times or so before I could get the characters to go to Delaware for the climax.)

“The reward for finishing is finishing.”

Indeed.

Those six words are my new second-favorite piece of writing advice.

My thanks to Laura Lippman.—Alex McNab  

Published in: on November 17, 2013 at 10:55 pm  Comments (2)  
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Inspiration for Writers

light bulbs inspirationGood morning Fairfield writers! This is Adair Heitmann writing to you on this sunny and warm October morn. In the real life of work, family responsibilities, and community volunteering, not to mention exercising, seeing friends, and possibly pursuing a hobby, writing time for many of us is at a premium. That’s why I like to keep short quotes by other authors around me. These inspiring tidbits help me through my creative day. Today’s encouraging words follow:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

Until next time, keep on writing!

Published in: on October 2, 2013 at 1:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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