Kill your darlings! Michael Chabon’s case study

Anyone who has ever attended a creative writing class or workshop has heard these words:

“Kill your darlings.”

The genesis of the quote has been ascribed to a host of writers, William Faulkner most prominently. When the 2013 film “Kill Your Darlings” was released—starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg—writer Forrest Wickman published a piece on Slate attributing the phrase to “Arthur Quiller-Couch, who spread it in his widely reprinted 1913-1914 Cambridge lectures ‘On the Art of Writing.’ In his 1914 lecture ‘On Style,’ he said, while railing against ‘extraneous Ornament’:

“ ‘If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” ’”

A contemporary definition of the command was put forth by Melissa Donovan on March 22, 2016 at “We writers must be prepared to cut our favorite sentences, paragraphs and chapter, if doing so improves our work.”

Do famous writers really abide by the rule? moonglow-chabon-webIndeed they do, as made clear by Pulitzer Price-winning author Michael Chabon in a special presentation on the website of The New York Times on November 18, 2016, not long after the publication of his latest novel, Moonglow (Harper).

“The Sandmeyer Reaction: A Short Story” runs for 33 printout pages. Of interest here, though, is not the story itself but Chabon’s three-and-a-half-page introduction. In it, he says that “The Sandmeyer Reacton” was perhaps his most precious darling of the original manuscript of Moonglow, “my pole star.”

“The story determined all of my narrative choices as I worked toward it,” he writes. “. . .I went off to the McDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. I devoted the whole of a precious two-week residency to writing the first of several drafts. . . .” Chabon knew the section needed revising, but he was confident that it would play the key role in his novel that he envisioned. Two years later, in March 2016, he finished the book. At month’s end, he “sat down to read the manuscript. Not quite ‘reading’ it, exactly; stalking it, slithering along it, hunting in its sawgrass for stylistic infelicities, typos, boring sentences, clichés and gags that, face it, Chabon, just never were going to work.” All went well until he reached “The Sandmeyer Reaction.” As he read it, “the tighter the grip of dread became on my gut. Wrong. Wrong, Chabon. Stop. Something is wrong here.

His conclusion? “The book didn’t need ‘The Sandmeyer Reaction’ anymore!”

Chabon decided to kill his darling: “Years of planning, months of work, hours of vivid, violent, wakeful dreaming at the keyboard—down the memory hole. Buh-bye. . . .”

The upshot of that excision is what is most instructive. “The Fist of Dread immediately relaxed its grip as I cut away the pages,” Chabon writes, “and the hole they made in the fabric of the book was tellingly small. Two or three sentences needed to be rearranged a bit. I added a paragraph of connective tissue. . . .And that was it. As I stitched up the tiny wound, I had the annoying thought, not at all uncommon at such moments, which are, annoyingly, not at all uncommon: Yeah, I could have told you all along that part was gonna have to go.

The FWB urges you to read Chabon’s introduction and his killed darling in their entirety (see link above), not only for the lesson they offer, but because “The Sandmeyer Reaction” is—like so much of his work, including Moonglow—a terrific read.—Alex McNab

 A final note: With this post, the Fairfield Writer’s Blog is going on hiatus and will be in read-only mode as of January 1, 2017.

Published in: on December 28, 2016 at 12:55 pm  Comments (1)  

Alice Mattison’s gift to aspiring writers

One of the remarkable characteristics of successful writers is their willingness to alice-mattison-credit-sigrid-estrada-no-text1share their expertise with those aspiring to join them. Over the past several years, the Fairfield Writer’s Blog has been fortunate to cross paths here in Connecticut—in a workshop and at author appearances—with Alice Mattison (right). She is a literary novelist, short-story writer, poet and faculty member at Bennington College’s low-residency MFA program. After publishing six novels, four story collections, and a volume of poetry, Mattison has written a book about writing, The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control—and Live to Tell the Tale (Viking).

Mattison’s clear thinking, benevolent enthusiasm and engaging presence in front of a group make her a nonpareil writing mentor to aspirants of all abilities. In November, she spoke at the performance space at one of the great still-existing specialty shops for film fans and their fellow arts patrons, Best Video in Hamden, Connecticut. Her topic was ”The Pleasures and Perils of Writing a Novel.” In keeping with Mattison’s nurturing generosity, her enlightening and inspiring talk was not simply a reading, but a 30-minute or longekiter presentation—drawn from both her new book and well beyond—scripted especially for the evening’s event, followed by an equally long question-and-answer session.

The FWB suggests you check out The Kite and the String. Meantime, here is a short sampling of the wisdom contained between its covers.

The Dilemma: “Some [writers I meet] are so eager for rules and techniques that they can’t allow themselves the many messy stages of writing good fiction, the dreamlike, irrational state of mind that would let them write what’s senseless and only later, gradually, turn it into something that makes sense. Others write freely and spontaneously, but have trouble judging what they’ve done, or thinking in an orderly way about structure or plot.” [p. xiii]

The Title: “By keeping hold of both contradictory states of awareness—intense feeling and common sense—I could create stories that had some modicum of interest. . . .I needed abandon and control—a kite that takes off into the wind, a restraining string that’s unspooled a little at a time and pulled when necessary, a string that lets it fly, but not so far that it gets lost.” [p. 15]

The Challenge: “When we judge too quickly, we censor ourselves, writing nothing, or what’s unobjectionable but lifeless. We must slowly learn to drop our inhibitions when we write. . . .People who write freely but don’t stop and think may get down on paper scraps of the intensity of life, but what they write, in a fever, is not necessarily clear, not shaped, not given point and direction. . . .Strong feeling without common sense makes amateurs who may express what they feel to their own satisfaction, but can’t turn it into something a reader can take pleasure in.” [pp. 16-17]

The Process: “If nothing works, sit and do nothing. Suffer for a while. We’ve considered the need to waste time—waste some. Listen. Imagination will eventually present a situation or give you a person or a place—something, something to start with, which you can gradually add to. . . .” [p. 32]

The Crux: “Without trouble. . .there’s no story.” [p. 53]

The Time Line: “Violating chronology seems cool and sophisticated and sexy. . . .It would be boring, these writers conclude, to work out a series of chronological events and plod through them like some dodo. I disagree. Chronological order (interrupted, perhaps, by well-placed incidents from the past) is usually best. . .because it’s clearest, and because it allows us to wonder what will happen next, as we do in life. . . .Breaking chronology. . .makes the reader think of the writer, not the story. It’s usually preferable to think about who did what than how clever this author is. . . .Violating chronology merely in order to imitate the wanderings of thought often doesn’t provide enough benefit to justify what you give up: clarity and forward momentum. . . .” [pp. 136, 138]

The Backstory: If your novel begins with the most exciting event and then drops back six months or a year to tell how it came to happen, consider starting six months or a year back in the first place. . .so that when your exciting event occurs, it will happen to people we know and care about. . . .Knowing what’s coming, you can invent scenes that move you toward it.” [p. 146]

The Fallacies: “One of my colleagues says he became a better writer when he finally understood the value of a simple informative sentence, something like ‘Her brother was a landscape gardener.’ . . .People have told me sentences like that are boring—which is like thinking that ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is boring if you hear it in answer to the question ‘Is State Street that way?’ It’s not boring if you want to know.

“There’s also the lurking ‘show, don’t tell’ fallacy: the belief that because creative writing teachers advocate showing rather than telling. . .it is somehow against the law to tell anything. . . .Fiction earns its keep by bringing people and places to life, sure—but not all day long, not in every damn sentence. . . .Use the simple informative sentence for the things we do need to know if we’re to understand your story: the facts will make clear what we’re seeing and forestall confusion.” [p. 158-159]

The Revisions: “The difference between writers and people who say they are writers but aren’t may be that writers assume they’ll revise. . . .To learn how to revise effectively, you must, to the extent possible, learn to see your work as a stranger would. . . .If, as you read, you suddenly realize the whole thing is garbage, I promise you, it isn’t. This happens, and it’s never real; you wouldn’t have devoted all that time to it if it were garbage. Put the piece aside for a few hours, calm down, and try again. Maybe then you can see clearly what it needs and what is all right as it is.” [pp. 191-193]

The Editor: “Writing isn’t something you can get straight once and for all, like tying your shoelaces. Dancers and musicians have teachers well into their professional careers. They expect and welcome teaching. Writers, too, can never entirely learn to see the flaws in their own work. That’s why editors exist. . . .There’s no such thing as a writer who doesn’t need editing. . . .It’s not bad news that your work needs revision; it’s the nature of writing. Just because you’ve revised your piece many times doesn’t prove it’s done. On the other hand, the fact that it’s not yet right after many tries also doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. We practice a difficult art.” [p. 200]

The Reader: “Writing isn’t really finished until someone reads what is written. . . .” [p. 208]

The Commitment:Honor the work. It’s a matter of believing—or pretending to believe, even when you don’t—that you have the right to write, even if so far you haven’t proved that the world needs your stories.” [p. 212]

—Alex McNab

Published in: on December 21, 2016 at 12:55 pm  Comments (1)  

Moving from nonfiction to a first novel— 12 lessons on writing historical fiction from author Judith Hooper

judyhIs there a nonfiction wordsmith—magazine journalist, newspaper reporter, editor, essayist or blogger—who has never harbored the notion of writing a novel? Possibly.

Indeed, Judith Hooper, a veteran science-magazine writer and author, had no such thoughts, when she began work on what she assumed would be her fourth nonfiction book. Hooper and her husband, Dick Teresi, one-time staffers at Omni magazine, had collaborated on two science-centered books before Hooper wrote a third—Of Moths and Men (W.W. Norton, 2004), about controversial experiments related to the theory of evolution—on her own. The next work, though, failed to cohere. When Hooper finally published her fourth book, she had become a novelist. Alice in Bed (Counterpoint, 2015) was released in paperback two months ago.

Alice is Alice James (1848-1892), younger sister of philosopher and “father of American psychology” William James and novelist Henry James. Today Alice James is renown for her posthumously published diary, a journal teeming with progressive thinking, sharp commentary and great humor. During her life, she suffered from recurring mental issues alicecoverbefore dying of breast cancer.

On a trans-Atlantic voyage to England in 1885, Alice fell ill and became bedridden. Hooper opens her novel in 1887. Alice, age 38, resides, under the care of a live-in nurse, in a lodging house in Leamington, in the English Midlands. As Alice recalls her life, the story moves back to her adolescence in greater Boston, follows her as an intellectually curious but socially sheltered young woman both at home and abroad, and explores her relationships with her family, including her famous brothers. Eventually Hooper returns the story to Alice in Leamington during the final years of her life.

Here’s a sampling of blurbs from critics about Alice in Bed: “Hooper’s construct of one brilliant woman’s life is truly elegant,” said the website Booklist gave the book a starred review and called it a “mesmerizing first novel.” And The Wall Street Journal wrote, “The pleasure of Ms. Hooper’s novel comes from its ability to summon [Alice’s] warmth and vitality. . . .Ms. Hooper splendidly captures the humor and equanimity with which James faced her ailments.” You can read an excerpt here.

Judy Hooper is a native of the same tiny northern California town—one in which you knew pretty much everybody else—as your FWB correspondent. Both of us, and our respective siblings, are members of the 1960s alumni cohort of the Ross School, perhaps most famous for its cameo as filming location No. 23 in the movie “The Godfather.” We spoke by phone in October about the shift from writing nonfiction books to novels, and how to make historical fiction based on real people not only come to life but also walk a plausible line between what actually did happen and what might have happened.

1. Keep an eye out for a good story. A nonfiction book is sold to a publisher on the basis of a proposal, not the completed volume, and the author receives an advance payment. Sometimes the work doesn’t pan out. That’s what happened to Hooper, leading to Alice in Bed. “I went to Boston where I rented a room in someone’s house for two-and-alice-james1a-half months and worked at the Harvard libraries and the other academic libraries, researching [the nonfiction] book,” she recalls. “It had to do with 19th century psychology in Boston. William James was part of it. While researching, I came across Alice James’ diary. Then I came home and tried to write and I realized, this nonfiction book is not coming together.

“So I thought, I am going to make Alice (right) the center of this story. Well, yeah, but there’s already Alice James: A Biography [by Jean Strouse, Houghton Mifflin, 1980], so I didn’t want to write a biography.

“Then I thought, what if I write it as a novel? Then it was, can I write a novel? So I started on my own—very secretly, unbeknownst to my publisher—writing a novel. Then my editor at that publisher emailed me and said, where’s your book? I said I’m writing a novel, and she said, send me what you have. So I did. She read what I had, which was very preliminary. She loved it. She went to her publisher and the publisher said, no dice. So I had to pay the money back. It was a pretty good advance. But I was OK. I knew it was what I had to do. I worked on the novel five, six, seven years on my own.

“How does one select a character from history to write fiction about; how do you find a story for the character? I don’t know of any guidelines. I wasn’t thinking about it that way. I just fell in love with Alice James. I thought she’d make a great heroine. She was sort of quietly revolutionary. And she was so funny.”

2. Be open to help. As a published nonfiction author, when it came time to send the manuscript of her debut novel out into the world, Hooper says, “I had an agent already. So when I finally got to what I thought was a finished manuscript, I sent it to him. He was wonderful because, number one, he loved it, and number two, he loved it enough to tell me that it had to be completely rewritten,” beginning with cutting the first 14 chapters. Beyond that, “I needed someone to tell me what to do. He turned me over to a woman who had worked in his office and now lives in Oregon and is now a book doctor. And she was great.”

3. Draw from your nonfiction methods. Even before the blossoming of the New Journalism in the 1960s and ’70s, skillful reporters told their stories in narrative form, i.e., as a sequential account of connected events in detailed settings. “Of Moths and Men didn’t sell well,” Hooper says, “but it was nominated for two major prizes. I really like the book. It was a way station between fiction and nonfiction because it was a narrative. There were two main characters, and there was tension between these two different characters. It also had an interesting story world, which was Oxford in the 1940s and ’50s.”

4. Anchor your story in facts. . . From personal experience, the FWB can attest to the difficulty of turning off one’s journalistic instincts for saturation research and reporting when it is time to write fiction. Says Hooper, “Writing nonfiction—about science—I’d spend anywhere from nine months to five years researching everything in the field. Interviewing people. Reading books and scientific papers. Then I’d sit down and write the book.

“In the case of my novel, a lot of the research was reading thousands of letters of the Jameses and their friends. . . .So, yes, I did do research like that. But when I realized I was writing a novel and not nonfiction, I began to learn how to hang out more in my imagination. . . .Sometimes I felt it was like dreaming the characters into being. When I needed specific texts, I’d go get them. . . .So I did it as I went along. . . .

“I loved re-creating the 19th century. I wanted to find out about women’s clothing, and how uncomfortable it was, what corsets were like, how women did their hair and things like that. That was pretty easy to do. I live in an academic town where there are big academic libraries. So I was able to get copies of Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was the magazine that Alice James and her mother and other women read. It has fashions in there.”

5. . . .but use literary license. “I think different writers allow themselves different amounts of license,” Hooper says. “My rule was, not everything in the novel is factually true, or not everything is something you could find documentation of somewhere, but I would say that maybe 70 percent of what happens in the novel is actually true. And there are letters or other things with which you can document it. Alice had to go to Paris in 1874. I couldn’t have her go in another year. In my novel, Alice totally falls in love with Paris. She has what I would describe as a kind of spiritual experience there, and she starts to envision a life of freedom for herself where maybe she could live in Paris, as Henry is intending to and does later. She has a pivotal experience in Montmarte. I made this up.

“Similarly, she had to go live in England in a certain year. Her illness had to be as it was. She had to see the doctors she saw. All that had to be factual; that was my rule.

“But I would allow myself to fill in the blank spots. The things that I made up were plausible. They had to be plausible according to what is known about the Jameses. That was my criterion.

“Do we know that Alice was a lesbian? I feel totally confident that Alice and her lifelong partner Katherine Peabody Loring were lovers, even though there is no smoking gun. We know that they acted like they were in a marriage. It was that serious for both of them. There was the way the brothers, Henry and William, talked about Katherine when she was with Alice. I have Alice, at 18, having a love affair with Sara Sedgwick, an actual friend of hers. I don’t know if they had a sexual relationship. But I wanted Alice to have the experience of being head-over-heels in love when she was younger. I didn’t want her to have to wait that long, until she was with Katherine at age 30. I just thought it would be more interesting.”

6. Channel your main character. When your fictional protagonist is based on a real person such as Alice James, you virtually become a medium through which she or he speaks. For Hooper, writing in Alice’s voice “almost felt like ventriloquism. Alice’s voice is very distinctive. And there is also a James family voice. They didn’t talk like anybody else. I can’t quite explain it. But after you immerse yourself in the James family and in Alice’s letters and Henry’s letters and William’s letters, you just pick up certain things. . . .I was able take that and run with it. I felt like the voice that I had for Alice was close to her actual voice. I took a lot of jokes she made, or her actual phrases, something she had said in a letter, and used them in conversations.

“I’m not saying I was channeling the actual Alice, but I feel like fiction is much closer to channeling than nonfiction. It’s almost like you open the gates and someone starts talking through you.”

7. Try short stories first. Writing fiction is a craft you learn by doing. “I didn’t take any [fiction] courses, but I was in a writers’ group,” Hooper says. “We would meet once a week, write, then read what we wrote in the group. [Before Alice] I had actually been writing short stories—on the side—for about five or six years. So I was teaching myself to write fiction gradually.”

8. Rely on an all-time piece of advice. Her nonfiction experience notwithstanding, Hooper “learned a lot [about novels] from books about writing.” Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life was one of those. “One passage [on page 18] helped me enormously. It was:

‘E.L. Doctorow said once said that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.’

Hooper continues, “Before I started writing fiction I sort of thought that someone who wrote a novel had the whole novel in their head. That they had all the characters, and it was almost like transcribing God. So I felt I couldn’t write fiction before I started writing it. I would tell people I had no imagination. That’s not true, but I didn’t know how the process worked. It was liberating to find that out.”

9. Should you think of your reader? “Honestly, I didn’t think about who my reader would be,” Hooper admits. “I just don’t think that way when I write. It may be that some writers do. I knew I was writing literary fiction as opposed to popular fiction. That’s about it. Interestingly, I thought I would have a large following among lesbians. That did not turn out to be the case. In fact, I’m surprised by the number of men who’ve found it interesting.”

10. Learn from your readers. Elmore Leonard once said, in jest, that he would eventually learn the theme of his newest novel by reading what the critics said about it. He wrote to tell stories, not address themes. Hooper says, not in jest, that “people wrote me these amazing letters about their experience of reading the book. Actually, they told me things about the book and about Alice that I didn’t even know was in there. A friend—who is also a writer and read Alice at the end, after she had been with me at the beginning reading bits of it—said, ‘You know, what I like about Alice is that she’s so subversive.’ I hadn’t thought of that adjective, but when she said that, I went, ‘That’s right! She is! That’s exactly what she is, she’s subversive!’

“It felt great to publish my first novel. It takes a long time. I kept thinking I was finished and then I wasn’t. At each point, you start to lose faith. Or you start to question it. The nicest part for me was having friends who read, read Alice carefully and really loved it.”

11. Do something different the next time. Hooper is at work on a second novel, a contemporary story about three high school girls and a young woman who is a newspaper reporter. Because the story is not grounded in history and not based on real events, Hooper is facing a new challenge: “I have a plethora of choices with this book. That is confusing. I can do anything with these characters. I can have them be anybody. I have to construct their family situations. It’s almost like I have too many ideas at this point.”

12. Be patient with yourself. When you are writing fiction, Hooper says, “You can’t force it. [There’s an element of] waiting. It’s almost like [the story] has to appear to you.

“It’s about trust. You are going into the unknown. Even with known characters, like Alice and her brothers, you are still telling a story, and you still have to make it live on the page. You have to create scenes that are convincing. You have to create a believable world, from scratch.

“The novel I’m working on now, I’m stuck in certain points. But I’ve written enough fiction now that I trust that I won’t be blocked there forever, that I will see past that. It will just come to me at some point. That’s a difference [from nonfiction]. It’s really different, and I’ve come to love it.”—Alex McNab

Published in: on December 14, 2016 at 11:33 pm  Comments (2)  

Using the Five Senses

Descriptive writing provides words that allow a picture to develop in the reader’s mind. With a focus on the fives senses, a writer can use a few, well-placed details and let the reader fill in the rest. The five most recognized senses are sight (ophthalmoception), hearing (audioception), taste (gustaoception), smell (olfacoception), and touch (tactioception).

Smell. The sense of smell is often considered the most nostalgic sense.

A remembered scent can take the reader back to a specific time or place.

The scent of lilacs (or a description of lilacs) places me in the side yard of my childhood home watching my mother collect an armful of lilacs to fill a pitcher set on our dining room table.5-senses-web

Sound. The sense of sound is often considered the most important sense.

The foundation of communication, sound allows us to relate to others and to nature.

As we set a scene, we know there is always some sound. Sitting in the library, I hear the obvious sounds (voices, a child crying, the telephone ringing, the click of computer keys) but I also hear the sounds below the obvious (change clanking in the copy machine, the soft shuffle of feet along the carpet, the low hum of a mechanical system and the rustle of a newspaper page being turned).

One suggestion to add sound to your work is the use of an onomatopoeia—a word whose sound suggests the sense. Buzz. Hiss. Clatter. Words related to water might include: splash, spray, sprinkle, squirt, drip, and drizzle.

Running Water, an onomatopoeic poem by poet Lee Emmett, illustrates this technique:

Running Water


water plops into pond

splish-splash downhill

warbling magpies in tree

trilling, melodic thrill


whoosh, passing breeze

flags flutter and flap

frog croaks, bird whistles

babbling bubbles from tap

Sight. This is the easiest sense to incorporate into your writing.

Use it to “show” your reader.

What does your character see? What doesn’t your character see? Why?

Sight can flash back or foreshadow.

Taste. Think of eating and drinking, or kissing.

Convey the use of mouth and tongue

A reader can taste the warm blueberry muffin that the character is thinking about for breakfast tomorrow morning as he drives to Maine.

Touch. It can be gentle or harmful, and your reader should “feel” the touch.

Touch can be used to just describe “itchy skin.” Actual touch can be a vital moment in a scene. Consider:

“Hands that hug me. I feel the pressure of his arms as they encircle me and his palms are pressed against my back as he draws me in. He hugs me a bit longer and a bit tighter than in the years past as he knows time is limited.”— Steady Hands by Donna Woods Orazio

Blogger Orly Konig-Lopez (writersinthestorm blog, May 14, 2014) notes that your readers need to hear what your characters are experiencing. She suggests both the expected sounds (the twang of an accent or the jangle of keys) but also the unexpected “the sound of a house settling when the air conditioning is shut off” or the “otherwise invisible sound of air bubbles snapping as the guy in line behind you chews his gum.”

Here are a few suggestions to increase your awareness of the five senses in your work:

  • Pay attention to the world around you.
  • Sitting still, in a coffee shop, at the mall, at your child’s soccer game, or at work, try to connect with all five senses around you.
  • Working from a draft of your current project, take one colored pen/marker and add sound details. Choose another color and add details of smell. Continue with different colors and add in sight, touch, and taste. You will not incorporate all the added words, but a few well-placed ones will improve your work.
  • Create a list of favorite or unusual “sense” words or phrases.

You are setting the scene. What extra details can you insert so that your reader will fully experience this moment in your story? Rather than using broad descriptive words (ugly, great, beautiful, loud), provide your reader with a detailed image that allows them to know and feel what your character is experiencing. Chose your sense words carefully. Your writing shouldn’t be contrived, rather very specific, intimate, and relevant to the story. Surprise your reader.

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Photo by Beth Poe. Used by permission.


Published in: on October 24, 2016 at 12:18 pm  Comments (4)  

Editors rock!

In the second of two pieces about editors and editing, the Fairfield Writer’s Blog is once again pleased to welcome novelist Maddie Dawson as guest author of our latest post.

By Maddie Dawson

I thought I knew all about editing.


After all, I’d worked at a newspaper, The New Haven Register, for thirty years, handing in copy and then answering subsequent questions about the stories I wrote. The most memorable editing question came at two in the morning after I’d filed a story about a tragedy, the starving deaths of dozens of horses at a local farm that no one realized was going under. The complaint my editor had: “You didn’t explain why death is bad. Can you get someone to comment on that?”

Um, sure. But don’t we already know why death is bad? Could we just go with our gut feeling on this one?

As a freelancer for women’s magazines, I also was familiar with magazine editing. Those edits came from a different perspective: “Can you please interview a couple more sources? We’d like you to find a woman in her thirties who lives in the Midwest and who has breastfed twins and works preferably in a small office. It would also be good if she had brown hair and a mole on her nose. Oh, and also, find someone who has hired a wet nurse at one time or another and lives in a split-level ranch in Idaho and will probably divorce her husband by the end of the year.”

OK, so maybe they didn’t say precisely that, but trust me, it was close. I was always having to explain to editors that such people didn’t exist in the real world—or if they did, they weren’t in my Rolodex, and how would it be if I simply interviewed the sources I knew would have interesting things to say? “Well, if that’s the best you can do. . .” the editor would say.

Then I started writing books, and the real fun began.

I was sure I was ready for editing, ready for the teams of editors and copy-editors who would help me sharpen my prose, get to the true meat of my stories—and support my most confused and confusing efforts. At last I would have my own personal Maxwell Perkins! We would talk on the phone about plot points and adjectives! We would move commas around as though it were a team sport!

I signed with Shaye Areheart Books, a division of Crown Publishing, which is a division of Random House, and I wrote three novels with them before the imprint was shut down in a belt-tightening move by Random House. After that, I wrote two more novels for Crown.

Let me just say: I loved (and still love) my editors there! They are lovely, talented, smart women who were interested in my books and interested in me and my career, and we have had lots of great conversations over the years. Their job—and they were busy, busy, busy—was to discover authors, nurture their careers along by presenting their work and defending it to the very shadowy and scary Marketing Department, and then help to launch the book out in the world.

Although these editors sometimes needed me to shorten a scene or to tighten a chapter, we didn’t take the book apart scene by scene. Was it that there was no time for that, or that the books seemed good enough when they purchased them? Clearly they had a lot of authors they were working with—and although they were always willing to stop and take a phone call and discuss a character’s motivations, the edits they sent me were mostly suggestions about ending a scene with a cliff-hanging sentence (good advice!) or describing the character’s physical details sooner in the book (also very helpful!)

They hired copy editors to go over the nuts and bolts and semi-colons and commas of the books. These were the ones who tracked down discrepancies (thank you!) and made sure my characters kept their same names and hair color throughout the book and that they didn’t put on their coat and then three paragraphs later put on their sweater.mdcover

Then I signed my latest book with Lake Union, a division of Amazon Publishing, and found myself in a whole different world. There, not only did I have an acquisitions editor (the one who bought the book and deals with all the nuts and bolts with marketing and publishing—sort of like a general contractor who keeps tabs on my book as it moves through the system), but I also was given a developmental editor. She was a professional freelance editor who edits manuscripts full-time and doesn’t have anything to do with other aspects of the book’s publication.

She worked on the book for about a month. The manuscript, when I received it back with all its Track Changes, seemed to me to be ablaze with red lines connected to bubbles with questions in them. No page had seemingly escaped her careful scrutiny.

I have mercifully forgotten the precise number of changes and suggestions and comments she made (a number Microsoft Word so cheerfully pointed out to me). . .but trust me on this: it was in the thousands! Thousands, I tell you.

I had to take to my bed.

There was everything from formatting changes for me to accept or reject—to huge questions like, “Hmm, would she REALLY say that?” after a line of dialogue. Or, “I think this character caves too quickly in this scene. What if you don’t have her so eager to be friends right here? Maybe move to p. 156.”

In the letter that accompanied these massive changes and suggestions was high praise for the book. What?? She actually liked it, and yet she needed to see approximately 56,587 changes? There was also the assurance that this was MY book, and that I didn’t have to do anything. I could simply press a button that said REJECT CHANGES, and go back to my life.

But of course I didn’t do that. After gnashing my teeth and informing my friends and family that I couldn’t ever see them again, I set to work. Day after day for three weeks, I sat at my dining room table in my bathrobe, going over the manuscript, weighing my editor’s suggestions, rewriting scenes, rethinking characters.

I probably took 98 percent of her suggestions, because when I thought about them, they made sense to me. She had a distance and a perspective on the book that I simply couldn’t have, being so close to it. She had studied the arc of my story—an arc I’d been constructing but not ever sure was working correctly—and she knew when it faltered and when it needed oomph, and when the reader needed some sparky scene to keep her from turning off the light and going to sleep.

I found myself living for those moments when I’d come across one of her comments that would say: “Oh my God! I love this scene!” or even “I’m weeping here!” When she told me she actually loved this book, I wanted to send her roses and caviar and perhaps ask her to come live with me in my house.

By the time the book went to its next stop—copyediting—it was in mostly good shape. The copyeditor did all the fact-checking that was needed, and when I went over those edits, I learned a few more things I was grateful hadn’t slipped through the cracks.

And then—voila! The Advanced Reading Copies (known as ARCs, or galleys) were printed up, right before the final proofreading took place. Although the ARCs are close to what the final book is like, in my case, there were still a couple of things that changed—nothing big, but things I added and took out as I went through the final proofreading stage.

Having my book be so thoroughly edited has been nothing short of amazing. It’s like having a partner, someone who is so much on your side, who cares enough about what you’re doing to argue with you, make hard suggestions, listen to your concerns—and ultimately help you figure out the best answer.

The other day, when the first copies of The Survivor’s Guide To Family Happiness landed in my driveway by way of the Fed Ex guy, I opened the box with excitement—and sat immediately down and started re-reading it. With pleasure.

Editor’s Note: The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson (Lake UnionPublishing, 384 pp.) will be published on October 25, 2016.

Published in: on September 30, 2016 at 12:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Want to understand editors? Check out these portraits

Consider the editor.

Unless you opt for the self-publishing route, as a writer you must realize that the editor is the ultimate gatekeeper to your words appearing in print. That’s true whether you submit your work to a website, a newspaper, a magazine, or, via a literary agent or directly, a book publisher.

Do not think of the editor, however, as just an obstacle to overcome. She or he also can be—and in the best cases always is—an ally, one whose goal is to help you make your writing as good as it can possibly be and then get it in front of others to read.

So it may behoove you to broaden your understanding of how and why editors do what they do. Fortunately, the past few months have offered three notable portraits of editors at work.

The latest is Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, Avid Reader (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Gottlieb is a publishing giant, having worked as a top book editor at Simon & Schuster and, over two separate terms, Alfred A. Knopf, in between which hgottliebe succeeded the legendary William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker magazine. The roster of authors whose work he shepherded into print includes Toni Morrison, John le Carré, John Cheever, Michael Crichton, Robert Caro, Nora Ephron, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Joseph Heller and Bill Clinton.

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog has purchased Gottlieb’s book but has not yet read it. The universally positive reviews have promised a healthy dose of editorial wisdom amid Gottlieb’s stories about polishing the prose of authors from both the literary and celebrity ends of the publishing spectrum. One for-instance, from Dwight Garner’s review in The New York Times: “Throughout his long career, if one of his writers was blocked, Mr. Gottlieb liked to tell him or her, ‘Don’t write, type!’ ” Indeed, the simple act of putting something, anything, down on the screen or paper often acts as a trigger to getting your creative juices flowing.

The FWB already has cited, albeit briefly, Terry McDonell’s The Accidental Life (Knopf). McDonell edited 13 mTMcDagazines over a 30-year career in periodicals, most of them men’s magazines, ending with a 10-year stint at Sports Illustrated. Written in vignettes, the book presents portraits of such guy scribes as Richard Price, P. J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas McGuane and Richard Ford; editors Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone), Helen Gurley Brown (Cosmopolitan) and Liz Tilberis (Harper’s Bazaar); and other notables, including Steve Jobs and Jimmy Buffet. Scattered throughout are short, useful lessons about dealing with writers and writing, such as this summary, quoted in our earlier post: “I had only three rules [for writers]: Force nothing. Be clear. You can always go deeper.”

The third 2016 exploration of the editor’s job is not a book. It is a movie—“Genius”genius—starring Colin Firth as editor Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s and Jude Law as author Thomas Wolfe. The independent film is adapted from A. Scott Berg’s award-winning 1978 biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (Dutton). It was released in U.S. theaters in June, to so-so notices, and came out on DVD earlier this month.

Perhaps it takes an editor to fully appreciate the inherent drama of a famous author-editor relationship. The FWB recommends clicking through to “I Read It at the Movies,” in which Gerald Howard, executive editor at Doubleday (where he worked with FWB friend James Kaplan on the second volume of Kaplan’s monumental biography of Frank Sinatra), offers just such an appreciation of “Genius” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Howard’s essay expresses the challenges and rewards of his and his colleagues’ craft in far more refined prose than the FWB marshals here.

Should you decide to make a deeper study of the editor’s world, Berg’s life of Perkins is the place to start. It won a National Book Award for biography.

A companion memoir to Gottlieb’s is Michael Korda’s Another Life korda(Random House, 1999). Korda worked down the hall from Gottlieb at Simon & Schuster, editing writers as diverse as Jacqueline Susann, Larry McMurtry and Richard Nixon.

The FWB recalls Korda writing that one of the gifts he and Gottlieb shared was an ability to read a manuscript incredibly fast, often overnight regardless of length. And The Wall Street Journal’s review of Avid Reader has this advice from Gottlieb:

“ ‘Get back to your writers right away. . . .[It’s] cruelty to animals to keep them waiting.’ (He often adds a corollary: ‘Bad news delivered quickly is better than no news.’) When, later in life, [Gottlieb] started writing himself. . . ‘It made me insane when I would deliver a commissioned piece, or part of a book and wait days, sometimes weeks, to hear back from my editor. Insane with anxiety and insane with fury, I expected others to do unto me as I did unto others.’ ”

OK, so your interest is in writing, not reading about or watching the depiction of what Howard, in his essay, refers to as “the sausage factory” aspects of putting words into print. Editing—what’s the fun in that?

Well, if it is fun you are after, consider the story of five authors hoping to find glory through goldsmiththe auspices of editors at imaginary New York City publisher Davis and Dash. The compelling cast of characters navigates a world of glamour, intrigue, humor, heartbreak and, yes, steamy sex. Their journeys are recounted in fast-paced, occasionally cynical and endlessly entertaining style by the late Olivia Goldsmith, author of The First Wives Club, in her novel The Bestseller (Harper Collins, 1996). You can find a copy today on the shelves of the FWB’s home, the Fairfield (Connecticut) Public Library, or perhaps at a library near you.—Alex McNab

Note: This is the first of two posts about the editing experience. Coming up, a veteran author has her latest book edited by her new publisher.

Published in: on September 20, 2016 at 2:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Talking about Betsy Lerner, author, with Betsy Lerner, agent, editor & writer

The Bridge Ladies, Betsy Lerner’s lauded new book, began as a BLgroup portrait of five octogenarian women—including Lerner’s mother, Roz—who have been convening weekly in greater New Haven, Connecticut, for more than 50 years to play cards. It ended up as a memoir that—in presenting the group portrait—peels back the curtain on Lerner’s difficult relationship with her mother, a relationship fraught with a lifetime of intergenerational tension and misunderstanding.

Traditional homemakers, the Bridge Ladies are reticent with personal information and personal feelings even among immediate family, which, in Roz’s case, has always driven Lerner nuts. Rebellious since adolescence, Lerner left home for the big city and an independent, self-supporting life.

Years later, a change of address and a post-surgery period for her mother reintroduced Lerner to the ritual of the Bridge Ladies. She started hanging out on Mondays to see what made them tick, thinking there might be a book in it. The resulting volume also tracks Lerner’s lessons in the nuts and bolts of a complex card game she had never played, and her experience putting those lessons to work, despite being a beginner, in actual competition as a substitute Bridge Lady herself.

During three decades in publishing, Lerner has amassed a dynamite triple-play resume. She is author of three books: 4818The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (Riverhead, 2000, and updated and revised in 2010), Food and Loathing: A Lament (Simon & Schuster, 2003) and The Bridge Ladies (Harper Wave, 2016). She is a partner in the Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency. And prior to becoming an author’s rep, she worked as an editor for 16 years at Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin and Doubleday, at the last as executive editor. Oh yes, there is fourth impressive component of Lerner’s cirriculum vitae: an MFA from Columbia in poetry, a genre in which she has won major prizes.

In late June, Lerner made an author appearance, to read from and speak about The Bridge Ladies, at the Fairfield Writer’s Blog’s home, the Fairfield (Connecticut) Public Library. She drew a standing-room-only audience, and Roz was seated in the first row, right in front of the podium. Lerner reiterated to us what she had written in her blog, that her husband (who is the Director of the Yale University Press), her agent and other early readers told her that her initial efforts on the project, “sucked. My husband kept saying, ‘You have to use your blog voice.’ . . .I kept resisting. I couldn’t see my ‘blog voice’ as having anything to do with the Bridge Ladies. But when I finally shifted to the first person, the pages started coming to life, my sense of humor got engaged, and most important, I was able to write more deeply than I had been.” When Lerner’s mother read the manuscript, she told her daughter, “You don’t have to change a word.”

A few weeks after her Library visit, Lerner did a 40-minute telephone interview with the FWB. The principal thrust of our conversation was having Lerner speak about her experience as the author of The Bridge Ladies in the context of the advice and wisdom she offered other writers in The Forest for the Trees.9781594484834_p0_v1_s192x300

The Forest for the Trees is neither a craft manual nor a memoir. Rather, it is an editor’s narrative guide for writers through their internal challenge of getting words on the page and their external challenge of working with the people and processes necessary to get those words into print and in front of the public. The first half of the book defines different types of writers and explores how their personalities influence their work. (As an aspiring writer, you will recognize yourself in one or more of those chapters; they are not mutually exclusive.) The second half covers the path to publication, with an emphasis on the writer-editor relationship. The FWB strongly recommends adding The Forest for the Trees to your books-about-writing to-read list.

Our interview below mimics the format followed during our conversation:

a direct quotation, in most cases, from enumerated chapters of the FWB’s 2000 edition of The Forest for the Trees (quotes that we read aloud to Lerner);

a question or more inspired by the quote or chapter; and

Lerner’s answers, edited for clarity.

Not surprisingly, the conversation occasionally veered into additional questions for aspiring writers. After all, how often do you get to talk to an intelligent, affable 30-year-veteran of the publishing business with experience in all of the key roles: agent, editor and writer?

Chapter 1—“The Ambivalent Writer”:

  • “[T]he writer who can’t figure out what form to write in. . .is stalling for a reason. Perhaps he is dancing around a subject because he is not ready to handle it, psychologically or emotionally.” (page 20)

Q: Does that describe you with The Bridge Ladies?

BL: I wanted to write a group portrait in the third person, and in my fantasy it would be something that you would read in The New Yorker. Very elegant. Literary. Sort of finely observed at a distance. That’s what I was hoping for. . .but not capable of (laughs).

Q: Were you at all thinking, at that point, in terms of your relationship with your mother being part of that story?

BL: Well, she was one of the ladies. I thought she would be one-fifth of the story. I did not expect it to be about us, and I didn’t want to write about us. I think a lot of people around me thought that I was writing about my mother and our relationship, but I was in denial. I really did not see the forest for the trees (punctuated with jolly laughter).

You know, I haven’t read or thought about the specifics of The Forest for the Trees in a long time. So when you read that back to me, I blush. Because that’s exactly what was happening. I was fighting my own subject. That’s part of it. I also think that you are the writer you are, and I’m not a New Yorker writer. I haven’t honed my craft enough to write in whatever style I want. What comes naturally to me is first-person-voice-driven kind of writing. That’s not to say that I couldn’t do something else, but honestly it would just take years and years of practice.

Chapter 2—“The Natural”:

  • “[T]he degree of one’s perseverance is the best predictor of success.” (page 33)

Q: Given that you spent a year on the book before you even got around to changing to the first person and finding your story, would you say that sentence applies to you?

BL: Definitely. I’m a very compulsive person. I don’t like abandoning things. I felt I really had something. That also conspired to keep me going. But I thought of quitting many times along the way. I felt the project had beaten me and I couldn’t get it. But I definitely believe in persevering.

The only way for things not to happen is to quit. It’s the simplest thing to say, but it’s so true. Everybody thinks that everyone who has a book published, voila, it just happened. People take years and years writing any number of failed novels before something sees the light of day. There are some people who write a book and it gets published [right away]. But we all thought that about Harper Lee. Well, as it turned out, there was a book before To Kill a Mockingbird. She was told to rewrite it from a different point of view. I mean, you tell a writer that today and they mostly don’t want to do it. And it’s a big thing to ask somebody to do that “on spec.”

People are really impatient now. You have a computer. You can spit out a manuscript. You can get an MFA. And you think you’re on your way. But you could hit 10 walls, and the question is, are you going to persevere?

Q: Did you have any books or other writing between Forest and Food and Loathing and this one that didn’t see the light of day?

BL: Four screenplays. Two TV pilots. And then my blog, which I wrote every day for four years. I was always writing, but again, I was failing. You could say I was failing, or you could say I was learning (hearty laughs).

  • The chapter cites a Michael Cunningham quote that reads, “I think a certain fearlessness in the face of your own ineptitude is a useful tool.” (page 43)

Q: When I read that, I thought, that’s not Betsy as a writer, that’s Betsy as a bridge player.

BL: I guess you’re right about that (a gentle laugh).

Q: Do you think you’ll ever feel like a natural in bridge?

BL: Oh my God, no. I still count on my fingers. I’ll never feel like a natural. But this is what sort of applies: I really enjoy it. And I also really enjoy writing. I’m frustrated when I can’t sell something. But I still really love writing. A lot of my writers complain that they hate writing and are tortured by writing. There’s always a little piece of me that thinks either a) you’re not really telling the truth or b) then really, why are you doing it? I think that, nobody’s asking you to write, so it must be fulfilling to do it, even when you can’t get published.

Chapter 3—“The Wicked Child”:

  • “Let’s face it, if in your writing you lift the veil on your family, your community, or even just yourself, someone will take offense. . . .Writers tend to censor themselves for fear of what others people think, especially those at home. . . .Imagine. . .describing the inner thoughts of a character who felt that his mother was controlling and suffocating. Now imagine your mother reading it. You can fictionalize [which Lerner didn’t do], but you can’t hide.” (pages 50-51) And,

“Calling attention to yourself, especially within a family dynamic, may involve more scrutiny than a writer can bear.” (page 57)

Q: Your candor in The Bridge Ladies seems brave; how did you bear it?

BL: I’ve always had a really hard time with that term—brave. A lot of people have called me brave over the years and my brain always switches it to crazy. . . .I don’t think it takes bravery. I don’t think any writer goes into a project feeling brave so much as [having] a need.

. . .But then you also have to really examine your motive. If you are just writing to get back at somebody, I don’t think that’s good enough. I also think that’s why a lot of people write fiction. They think that they can disguise that stuff. But I would imagine that the loved ones pretty much know what they’re talking about.

In Food and Loathing, there was a lot that I could have said about my mother then that I didn’t. And I’m really glad I didn’t. Did I not go far enough? Was I not honest enough? I guess that’s for the reader to decide. I was always very careful there—and here [in The Bridge Ladies, too]—not to be writing a Mommie Dearest. . . .You have to find creative and subtle ways to address very complex emotions.

I just wanted to know my mother. I wanted her to accept me. I’ve always known she loves me. But it never gets expressed, so. . .we still don’t say, “I love you.” And sometimes at readings people say, “You must! You must!” I’m like, “Actually, we don’t have to. We don’t have to. We know it.” Knowing something is more important than saying it.

  • “Everything you put on the page is a deliberate manipulation of what happened, written to keep the reader entertained, moved, sympathetic, horrified, whatever.” (page 67)

Q: Did you get any feedback from the Bridge Ladies accusing you of manipulating their stories?

BL: Not at all. I think that I wrote about each of them in the same even hand. And I wrote about each of them with the same amount of affection. And when I didn’t agree with their way, I’d put it on myself instead of on them. That was consistent. Some people have said that the [ladies] seem that they’re more one person than individuals. It feels like a bit of a slight when someone says that, that I didn’t portray them as unique as I could have. By the same token, I thought of them as a Greek chorus by the end. One Bridge Lady said, “Oh, you liked so-and-so better. You wrote about her the most.” And I said to her, “She gave me the most. I interviewed you just as many times and you didn’t say very much.” She laughed. She knew that was true. I felt I had to be very careful about their feelings. Did that compromise me as a “reporter”? Maybe. But in the end I wasn’t really a reporter. I was a memoirist. So it was more about my impressions, and trying to create a piece.

Chapter 5—“The Neurotic”:

  • “Every time you put a provision on conditions under which you can work. . .you fail to grasp the essential truth of all great writing: it brooks no provisions.” (page 96)

Q: Do you have provisions that you fall victim to that keep you from getting to work?

BL: No. I always have a pencil and I always have a notebook. And I always write wherever I am. If I see something I want to write about or even just remember—a snippet of dialogue or an image—I [write it down]. I make my own provisions [to facilitate the working experience]. I get up at the crack of dawn. That’s when I get my writing done. . . before my head is filled with publishing and work stuff and husband stuff. It doesn’t even feel like a sacrifice. I want five hours uninterrupted, and that’s the only way I can get it, so that’s what I do.

  • “Every editor becomes a de facto therapist, whether or not he engages in the therapeutic as well as the editorial process.” p.110

Q: True in your case with The Bridge Ladies?

BL: Yeah. There were, I would say, four or five pivotal scenes in the book where [Karen Rinaldi, Lerner’s editor at Harper Wave] actually confronted me and said, “It’s almost like you’re not being completely honest here,” and, “what are you hiding,” and, “I want to know what your motives were,” and, “I want you to make me cry.” So she really pushed me very hard. And I’m grateful because I really didn’t see it myself. I couldn’t have gotten there myself. Those are all the scenes that people write to me about or mention to me as what really moved them.

Chapter 7—“Making Contact: Seeking Agents and Publication”:

Q: You’re an agent. You’ve been an editor. With The Bridge Ladies you are a writer. When you are working as a writer with your agent or your editor, how do you turn off that business side of your brain?

BL: Well, you don’t, entirely. I felt like I was my own editor for a lot of the book, figuring out the structure. I did that by myself. And it took months and months; it took a year, probably, to get it right. I [also] thought about what month should the book be published in, and what should the jacket look like, and what should the [jacket] copy should be like. I’m very sensitive to all that.

Except, when I was in the middle of writing, when I was deep in it, then I wasn’t thinking about all that stuff. I was just enjoying being a writer. I knew [that period] would be brief. I knew it would be over. Three years doesn’t sound brief, but for me, with 30 years in publishing, three years for a project is very brief and I really relished it. You don’t get the chance to get into something very deep very often.

I’ve represented publishing people. It definitely is hard, because [you as an author] know too much. In my case, I was trying so hard to be a good citizen. But I freaked out a few times. And I’m embarrassed about that. It’s so difficult when you put your work in someone else’s hands. I feel now that I’m being a much, much better agent for my clients, because I’m so much closer to what they’re going through.

Chapter 8—“Rejection”:

• “The greatest compliment any writer can hear from a reader are the words Your book changed my life.” (page 173)

Q: Have you heard that about The Bridge Ladies?

BL: No. I haven’t heard that. I’ve just heard, “This is my life. This is my mother. You got us. I’m not Jewish. We don’t play bridge. But you totally got us.” To me that’s the greatest compliment of all. To me it means that whatever I wrote was universal.

Q: Was the manuscript rejected by other publishing houses?

BL: There were about five or six people interested in it, which seems to me like a lot. Whoever passed on it didn’t really upset me at all. I had enough interest to counteract any rejection.

I feel rejection more as an agent. I’ll send something out to 20 people and sometimes at the end of the day you’ll get two offers. Which means your author sustained 18 rejections. Some of the rejections are smart. Some of them even make you wince they are so smart. And many of them are just ridiculous, not considered, and sometimes even nasty. So you take a lot of body blows. That just comes with the [agent] territory.

But for the writer, it’s shocking. As the agent, you’re trying to help the writer understand they should not worry about it, and we’re moving on. Some writers use those rejections as whips their whole lives. There’s a book called Getting to Yes. It’s a book I’ve never read, but I’ve always loved the title. And I’ve always said to people, it’s about getting to yes. It only takes one, so let’s roll the dice and see what happens.

Chapter 10—“What Authors Want”:

• “The challenge of sustaining a certain pace and rhythm throughout an entire book can be staggering.” (page 221)

Q: Did you run into that challenge a lot with this book?

BL: Yeah, I rewrote it at least half a dozen times. Fixing up the structure. Trying to hold it all in my head. I had index cards everywhere. I once just put it all out as a screenplay on “Final Draft Notes.” I was pretty desperate. I knew it was something that nobody could help me with. It was just too massive. I had the through line of the story, [from] when I started the project to when it ended. That was in linear, chronological time. So that was always in place. Then [the question] was, how do I dip in and out of the lives of the ladies, how do I merge in the bridge basics, and how do I merge in the bridge games. So those were the four plates I had spinning at all times. I think I managed it pretty well.

Every book, though, has its own set of challenges in terms of keeping the reader hooked. There are so many different kinds of books [that require sustaining structure]. I just edited a book of 12 essays. All stand-alone essays. But as a book you want it to feel like there is some flow. How do you accomplish that? In this case we went from the most basic ideas to the most complex ideas. So you were building that way. Another way was to add some connective tissue between the essays, so that you felt like you were building something between the chapters and not [having] just static chapters. Then there was an introduction to add, which basically set the reader up for how it was going to work. None of that is particularly complicated, but it matters. It makes a difference. Even a book of stand-alone essays can have a sense of continuity and momentum.

Chapter 11—“The Book”:

  • “One doesn’t have to work in publishing for very long to know that a great deal of time is spent letting people down gently.” (page 234)

Q: Could you comment on the reception and success of The Bridge Ladies, and how they compare to your expectations?

BL: I’ve been thrilled. The reviews have been really wonderful. The fan letters I’ve been getting have been wonderful. The ladies love the book. My hometown celebrated the book, and I didn’t get laughed out of town. So I’m really happy with it (laughing).

. . .When I made that decision [to use her first-person blogger’s voice] that everybody pushed me toward, I still wasn’t really happy about it. I thought a lot of the reviews would say that the book was all about me and not about the ladies. I was very anxious that I would get a lot of criticism. That hasn’t happened. I’m still waiting for it to happen. Actually, some of the Amazon comments have said that, but nothing in print has. Some of the Amazon comments are really nasty. I relish those, honestly.

 A Final Question on behalf of all as-yet-unpublished authors

Q: We aspiring writers work under this notion that before we submit something to an agent or a publisher it has to be absolutely perfect. When would you advise a writer to think that their book is ready to start shopping?

BL: Well, it should be complete. If you are not published and you are not a New York Times reporter or a New Yorker writer, if you don’t have amazing credentials, it should be complete. So many people approach me as first time writers with partials. That’s not a great idea. Anything can work. There are no absolutes. But generally your book should be complete.

Generally you should have it read and workshopped.

If you have any doubts about your spelling and your grammar and all that, maybe even get it professionally copyedited. You do not want to look like an amateur.

Finally, you should have a great title. So many people say, “Oh, I know the title is going to change anyway.” But the title is a very selling thing. When I get six or seven query letters in my inbox every day, the one that I gravitate toward is the one that has a great title. Something that just catches my eye.

It just happened, actually. I started to read the material. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. But I liked the title so much that I said, please send me some more. That’s how selling I think that title is.

“Perfect” is the wrong word. Your book should be as evolved as you can possibly get it.

Alex McNab



Published in: on August 10, 2016 at 3:13 pm  Comments (1)  


Simply defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary, creativity means “the ability to make new things or think of new ideas.” But there is nothing simple about the concept of creativity. For centuries the debate of “creativity” has raged. Greek philosophers like Plato rejected the concept of creativity, preferring to see art as a form of discovery. Asked in The Republic,  “Will we say, of a painter, that he makes something?” Plato answers, “Certainly not, he merely imitates.”

Author Leigh Anne Jasheway, in her essay, “Creativity in Color” (Writer’s Digest, September 2016), notes, “[R]esearch shows that no matter how you express yourself artistically, the simple act of using your imagination lights up your whole brain more than almost any other activity you can engage in.” In an attempt to find ideas that would help “word-dependent types … to become more creative,” Jasheway explores creativity through artists who express themselves visually in a variety of disciplines including a photographer, a recycled artist, a singer/songwriter, a painter, and a chainsaw artist/sculptor/art therapist. Six of her favorite ideas are listed here, with some additional suggestions.

  1. To find your guiding light, seek the dark. According to scientists, the “imagination network” is most active when we’re daydreaming or letting our minds wander. Photographer Tracy Sydor notes that she relies on her darkroom to not only develop her film but also to develop her thoughts. “Because I spend so much time stimulated by everything around me, I need to spend time in dark silence,” she says. “As a photographer, my outside eye is always busy. It’s only in the dark that my inside eye can focus.”

Find your quiet place to think; it may enhance your creativity.

  1. Engage in Child’s Play. Artist Noelle Dass’s approach to painting is childlike. “I usually don’t have a preconceived notion of what I’m going to create,” she says. “Most of the time I sketch with no goal or objective. My hand will draw something and then reveal itself to me: Oh, look, it’s a turtle staring at the moon!”

IMG_3429Add some fun to your writing world. Place a favorite photograph on your desk. Take a break and color with a box of fresh crayons. Keep a neon pink water bottle close by. If you write by hand, use a different bright pen. If you work on a computer, change the font or the color of the text. A favorite accessory of mine is a neon green magnetic creature (right), an impulse purchase at MOMA years ago that collects paper clips. It still makes me smile!

  1. Share what you love. Maiya Becker, a recycled artist, finds inspiration in items that have been discarded by others. “Creativity begets creativity,” she says. “I always feel more creative after I’ve helped children explore their own artistic talents. And today’s kids often don’t have a chance to be creative in school.”

Share your writing talents outside your work, exploring your enthusiasm, expertise and passion with others.

  1. Choose your company wisely. Jasheway notes that Austin-based singer Sara Hickman is “one of the most positive and creative people” she’s met. Hickman says, “I like working with other professionals who are fun and who bring up my game. I walk away with something new and exciting every time I’m in the presence of someone I can play with.”

Writers tend to spend a great deal of time alone. It’s important to seek out fun people or activities. Instead of taking another writing class, take a creative class in something else that interests you. Recently I took a weeklong course on the work of composer Felix Mendelssohn. He was also a poet and a painter. As we explored his work, class discussions were filled with energy and passion. It was a stimulating week.

  1. Turn “mistakes” into starting points. According to Al Jenkins, an art therapist, “There are no mistakes in art. There are accidents—and accidents can lead to something new! When chainsaw carving, I will often set the wood that didn’t work out aside and use it again later with another vision.” Jenkins notes, “The best thing we can do is give ourselves the gift of being free from the fear of failure. Negative thinking can lead to anxiety and depression, and these are creativity killers.”

What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail? If we can reframe the idea of “just go with it”—there is a chance that something different, unexpected, and creative could happen. Have you ever changed a recipe because you’re missing an ingredient or two and everyone LOVES the results? Or had a planned outing change for reasons beyond your control (think wedding, impending rain and yet, magical—and unplanned—pictures with the clouds moving in), with this outcome: Everyone had an epic time despite the weather.

  1. Reboot your brain. Research shows that cursive writing activates areas of the brain that are not engaged by keyboarding—areas that aid in memory, cognition, and creativity. As Jasheway suggests, “If online distractions are a distraction, reboot by pocketing your cell phone or iPad the next time you’re about to tap out some notes on the go, and instead digging out a pad and pencil. What if feeling more creative is really that simple?”

I lead a writing workshop and one of the few “rules” is that all participants must write by hand—no personal computers, iPads or tablets of any size. The motion of putting words on the page by hand slows the writer down just a bit. I often write a note (stamp and all) to family and friends even when an email would be quicker. I like the connection that is created.

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Published in: on July 6, 2016 at 9:04 pm  Comments (3)  

10 successful writers on writing

One of the wonderful characteristics of successful writers is their willingness to share their experience and wisdom about their craft and art with aspiring writers such as ourselves. We would be remiss not to consider applying the advice from the authors below to our own work—whether we are trying to write narrative nonfiction, periodical journalism, personal essays, private journals, memoir for possible publication or only to share with family members, short stories or novels.

Do you feel overwhelmed by your material? Take a tip from Mary Roach. Unsure whether to outline? There may be no correct answer, as Curtis Sittenfeld’s and Jay McInerney’s approaches indicate. Wonder how smooth your prose really is? Follow Nathaniel Philbrick’s example. Worried that you are losing the thrust of your story? Pay heed to Emma Straub. Not getting it done? Check in once again with FWB fave Laura Lippman, who is back talking about that timeless topic.

Nine of the 10 writers quoted here have, or are about to have, published new titles in 2016. The tenth, Sinclair Lewis, by way of Barnaby Conrad, is only a Nobel Prize for Literature honoree. The 10 know whereof they speak, and we owe them our thanks for passing their knowledge along to us.

• Sportswriter and bestselling middle-grade and young-adult novelist Mike Lupica (The Extra Yard Simon & Schuster, January 2016), in a Q&A at “Still No Cheering in the Press Box”:ExtraYard

Once you put your name on something, you are a writer that day. You have to make sure that you do your best work because you don’t know who is going to see it. . . . I can’t stress that enough, Talent gets found, but make sure you do your best work.”

• Veteran magazine editor Terry McDonell (The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers Knopf, coming in August 2016), from a prepublication review by “ck” at

“I only had three rules,”. . .McDonell writes of his career as an editor. “Force nothing. Be clear. You can always go deeper.

• Popular historian Nathaniel Philbrick (Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution Viking, May 2016) from a July 2013 interview with Ben Shattuck at The Paris Review website:NP

“I print out the whole chapter, edit it, spend a day looking it over, then reprint it, and take upstairs and read it aloud to my wife [out loud]. That is the most critical point. . . .It’s so funny—you can look at things on the screen, and it looks great. Then you read it, and you go, Oh my God. The rhythm of the prose is something I’m really trying to work on. So when I’m reading it aloud, I’ll hear the prose and go, That sucks.

“. . .When I wrote a first draft of a preface for Away Off Shore I showed it to our local bookseller, who said, This is just too academic. I was crushed. But I thought, Yeah, I don’t want to write a book like this, I want to write a book that’s accessible, yet provocative, and does not assume previous knowledge. That’s the hardest writing to do—clear, concise, integrates information from all over, yet hopefully reads like it’s a clear stream.

“. . .I had to be weaned from my own worst tendencies of trying to sound smart. The hardest thing to do is to leave that kind of pretension away. Just get to the essence. Hemingway is an author that everybody beats up on now, but, man, he takes profound experience and makes it accessible, and yet you may not fully grasp it when you first read it. You can read the page and not be intimidated. You don’t need to intimidate people.”

• From, a site visited daily by the FWB:SLewis

“I was Sinclair Lewis‘s [Nobel Prize for Literature 1930, Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, et al.) secretary-chess-opponent-chauffeur-protegé back when I was 24, and he told me sternly that if I could be anything else be it, but if I HAD to be a writer, I might make it. He also said, as he threw away the first 75 expository pages of my first novel: ‘People read fiction for emotion—not information.’ ”—Barnaby Conrad

• Novelist Emma Straub (Modern Lovers Riverhead Books, May 2016) from her essay “How to Write a Novel” in Rookie magazine September 2014:27209486

Know what’s important to you. . . .Why is the story you’re writing interesting to you? If you had to boil it down to a few sentences, what would you say? And I’m not asking you to summarize the plot; I’m talking about the juice in the middle of the plot. . . .The important part of your story might change as you’re writing, but I find it useful to have that little nugget in mind from the get-go, because sometimes writing a novel can feel overwhelming, and it’s nice to be able to come back to your earliest intention.”

• Novelist Curtis Sittenfeld (Eligible Random House, April 2016) on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show”:Eligible

I do outline. So some novelists do and some novelists don’t. And I do because I think that it helps me not write myself into a corner. You know, it’s almost like the difference between thinking through your day and thinking what you’re going to do. And then, if you don’t, if you’re like me, it gets to be like 3:00 p.m. and you think, what did I do? What did I mean to do? Like I’ve just kind of lost control over everything. And so it just makes me feel like I have a clear view of what I’m writing toward. But my outline is subject to change.”

• Novelist Jay McInerney (Bright, Precious Days, Knopf, coming in August 2016) from a 2008 Writer’s Digest interview by Anne Bowling:JMc

“I envy those writers who outline their novels, who know where they’re going. But I find writing is a process of discovery. It’s impossible for me to imagine a story and a set of characters as being distinct from the language in which they come to life, so I don’t really believe in preexisting schema. The most interesting things that happen in my books are usually the things that arise spontaneously, the things that surprise me.”

• Popular science writer Mary Roach (Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War W.W. Norton, June 2016) from a September 2010 interview with Marissa Bell Toffoli at “Words with Writers”:Grunt

“I think of Elmore Leonard, who said, ‘I try to leave out the parts that people skip.’ Especially for nonfiction writers, when you do a lot of research, sometimes you feel compelled to put something in your book just because you worked so hard to get it. There’s a tendency to include things just because you have them, and this can bog a book down. Let it go if isn’t earning its keep.

• Memoirist Betsy Lerner, (The Bridge Ladies Harper Collins, May 2016) from her 2000 book The Forest for the Trees: A Editor’s Advice to Writers:BL

“[H]aving natural ability doesn’t seem to make writing any easier. . . .the degree of one’s perseverance is the best predictor of success. It is some combination of ability and ego, desire and discipline, that produces good work.”

• Novelist Laura Lippman, (Wilde Lake William Morrow, May 2016) from an interview at the Huffington Post by Mark Rubenstein:

As a highly successful novelist, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?

LLip“To do it. [Laughter] To get up and write, and to do it regularly. I think people make a mistake in talking about developing discipline. Discipline is a scary word. It doesn’t sound like fun, and it’s difficult to maintain. It’s the conscious act of overcoming one’s own will—like following a diet or exercise program—which almost always fails.

“What really works for people isn’t discipline, but habit. It’s crucial to develop the habit of writing. It’s best to start small. My big mistake when I started was trying to write all weekend. It was impossible—it was exhausting and there were other things I needed or wanted to do.

“Instead, setting a goal of writing for thirty minutes a day, four times a week, is more realistic. My writing goal to this day is to write a thousand words a day. If I do that five days a week, in twenty weeks I’ll have a novel. That’s the important lesson I’ve learned—to build writing into becoming a habit.”

—Alex McNab

Staying Organized

A friend and I had breakfast at Chips Restaurant with a writer who was not familiar with Connecticut. We talked about books, libraries, writing and our state. I mentioned that Connecticut is known not only as the Constitution State but also as the Nutmeg State. He said he didn’t know that and reached into the back pocket of his jeans. He pulled out a small pad and a short pencil and wrote down the words nutmeg state.

As our conversation continued, he added a few other words to the page. I asked him about the pad and he said that he always carried one with him. This was where he collected tidbits of information, ideas and words—anything that caught his attention. It was evident from the soft curve of the pad that he carried in his back pocket often.

What struck me was that he wrote the words down immediately.

How do you keep track of your creative ideas?

I’ll admit that I don’t have an organized system. This post is as much for me as anyone else. Far too often I think: Of course I will remember this, it’s too good an idea/thought/word to forget. The kind of idea that sparks an interest. Sometimes I even repeat words over in my head (or out loud if I’m alone) to help me remember. Yet, when I try to pull the words up again, I can’t. I’ve forgotten what they were.

My other method is to write ideas down, especially if I am listening to a talk or an interview, of something that I want to look up later. Usually, I jot them on anything I have available including scraps of paper, a napkin (my favorite) or an email to myself with the words in the subject. I recently wrote on the white lid of my coffee cup. Then, the cup got tossed into the garbage as well as the words that had caught my attention.

The key is to consistently record your ideas. The method that works for you is the right method for you. Here are some ideas:

  • Carry a notebook – any size;
  • Use 3×5 index cards;images
  • Send yourself an email with the words in the subject line;
  • Record a voice memo;
  • Keep your scraps/napkins together in a file;
  • Keep a list on your computer;
  • Use a waterproof notepad in the shower.

Please share what method works for you. Perhaps it will inspire someone to get organized.

Three recent ideas that caught my attention: memory palace, atomic veterans, and Chinese takeout boxes into plates. I wrote them in a notebook and the notebook is sitting on the table beside me. They were very easy to remember!

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio





Published in: on June 1, 2016 at 2:33 pm  Comments (2)  
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