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)  
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Creativity

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 (2)  
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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 amazon.com:TMcD

“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 advicetowriters.com, 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 (1)  
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A professional’s approach to the writing life

Author James Kaplan’s James-Kaplanmonumental, two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra checks in at 1,600 pages of narrative, plus more than 100 pages of notes and bibliography. Researching, reporting and writing Frank: The Voice (2010) and Sinatra: The Chairman (2015), both published by Doubleday, took a decade. The Fairfield Writer’s Blog is pleased and honored to welcome James Kaplan back as our first returning expert in the series of interviews about the craft and art of writing that we’ve been publishing over the past five-plus years.

In the Sinatra books, Kaplan not only tells the detailed story of a great singer’s life and his alternately charming and boorish personality, he does so amid the richly rendered context of many facets of 20th century American history: the American Songbook era of popular music and its composers, lyricists, arrangers, conductors and singers; the growth of movies, radio and television in the everyday lives of performers and patrons; presidential politics and international crises; organized crime; the ring-a-ding-ding heydays of Hollywood and Las Vegas as entertainment playgrounds; and, of course, the public’s unending fascination with celebrity life. The skill, style and flow of Kaplan’s writing make the books eminently readable. To select just a few words from a very long roll of praise, Frank: The Voice was described as “vivid” in The New York Times and “monumental” in The Wall Street Journal, and Sinatra: The Chairman was called “riveting” by The Boston Globe and “magisterial” by The Washington Post, which named it one of 2015’s notable biographies.ChairmanCoverfrank-voice-kaplan-200x300

In 2010, in the wake of the publication of Frank: The Voice, Kaplan answered questions about the creative side of writing. Now, following the publication of Sinatra: The Chairman, in a second exclusive email Q & A with the FWB, he offers examples and advice about how to be a more conscientious, disciplined writer—in short, how to approach the art and craft of writing like a pro.

  • Routine. How do you set the parameters of a work day, so that you treat your writing as a job as well as an artistic endeavor? Do you keep regular hours, and how do other considerations such as family, exercise, etc., fit into them?

I’m sometimes asked where I get my inspiration. The mortgage, I say, is a great inspiration. Accordingly I am boringly regular in my habits, finding a fixed routine both calms me and reminds me that I’m doing a job.

I work in the attic of my house, a very pleasant space under the eaves with skylights and treehouse views. On weekday mornings I get to my desk between 8 and 9 and work until my stomach starts to grumble, about 11. I have a snack and walk around the block, then go back to work until lunch, which is anywhere from 12:30 to 2 p.m., depending on how the work is going. I do my floor exercises: pushups, crunches or planks, light weights. Lunch is light and brief, a half-hour tops. If possible I try to close my eyes for 20-25 minutes after lunch. It’s not often possible (deadlines and other distractions), but it sure is nice when I can work it in. I exercise (gym or tennis) in the late afternoon, 3-4 times a week. If it all sounds like being in training, that’s because it is.

My wife and I have three sons: two are out of the house, and the youngest has a foot out the door. When they were small, since my attic office has a pull-down staircase, I used to call myself The Man in the Ceiling. But the blessing of working at home was being able to see a lot of my kids, changing diapers, walking/driving them to school, etc.

  • Quotas. During interviews for Sinatra: The Chairman, you spoke of a goal of writing 1,000 words per day. Did you stop once you got there?

I copied the thousand-word-a-day quota from [John] Updike, an excellent model of productivity! With both my Sinatra volumes I felt a great deal of pressure due to the enormous amount of material (and with the second volume, his upcoming centennial), so I was rigorous about hitting quota. Sometimes I went over, but never under. But when I hit quota, I allowed myself to stop for the day. Conserves energy. Plus, as Hemingway famously said: Always leave the story hanging so you know where to start the next morning.

  • Editing. Do you edit your own writing as you go, or get it all down and then go back and revise? On the Sinatra books you worked with two editorial “legends” (your word), Phyllis Grann and Gerald Howard, at Doubleday. How much did you stay in touch with them during the creative process? Any basic rules of thumb for the new writer working with an editor for the first time?

My mentor William Maxwell [1908-2000, fiction editor at The New Yorker and author of novels, short stories, memoirs, essays, etc.] told me, about novel-writing: “Don’t revise and polish as you write it, just head for the ending. Once you have it down roughly you can fine-tune it, but rewriting slows the pace and leads to self-doubt and other disasters.” This is excellent advice for fiction, where confidence and the imagination are intertwined. With nonfiction, though, I give myself a running start each morning by glancing over the previous day’s work and spot-polishing it. The logic is that it almost always looks better the next morning than it did the day before, and this gives me confidence to move forward.

With Phyllis Grann on Sinatra Volume 1, I only showed her the first chapter—to win her confidence that I was on the right track—then the complete manuscript. She was pretty hands-on about marking up the pages, but always told me to only change what I felt like changing. I took her at her word. I might as well confess here that I’ve always been able to produce a pretty clean first draft. Chalk it up to fussiness, but that and being good about hitting deadlines got me a lot of magazine work during my magazine-writing career (circa 1985-2000).

With Gerry Howard, the process was different. Since we had this big deadline of the Sinatra centennial [December 12, 2015], I sent him the manuscript chapter by chapter so he could keep up with me. I think it’s safe to say that Gerry’s a fan of my writing, but as a hardworking line editor and an excellent writer himself, he never hesitated about telling me when I’d written a little purple—excessively or over-expressively. And I learned with Phyllis and continued to learn from Gerry the sheer pleasure of cutting words and trimming the story to its essence. It may sound unreasonably sunny, but I can’t remember a serious disagreement with either of them about textual matters.

Advice about working with an editor for the first time would vary widely depending on the writer and the editor, but in general I’d say: know well ahead of the work who the editor is and what she or he is likely to like and dislike. And pay very careful attention to her or his suggestions: you may be very good, but the editor may still be right.

  • Distractions. How do you avoid the lure of the internet? Do you keep up on reading? Do you listen to music as you write?

When writing, it’s crucial to have steely discipline about the internet. I allow myself to look at my email once before I start in the morning, again at my 11 a.m. break, and then just before lunch, at 12:35. If you’re going to let yourself get sidetracked by cute cat videos or naughty pictures, you’re just being self-defeating: work it out. Since I had the huge advantage of using online newspaper archives for the Sinatra books, one of my biggest temptations was getting lost in those old newspaper pages: I could gaze all day at refrigerator and automobile ads and comic-strips and human-interest items from 1953 all day. All I can say is that I strapped myself to the mast and got on with the work because I had to.

When I’m writing, I like to read the opposite of what I’m doing—fiction if I’m writing nonfiction, and vice versa. The reason is simple: anxiety of influence. Don’t want to pick up some other writer’s rhythms, or get intimidated by masters in your field. While working on Sinatra, I began reading Proust! It was as different as could be, but the length of it gave me hope that I could persevere. And the depth of human understanding is incomparable.

I can’t listen to music as I write (though I listened to tons of Sinatra for reference). Since I write for my own ear—the sentences have to sound good to me—having other melodies and rhythms in my head as I composed would be distracting, if not crazy-making.

  • Commerce. Should newer writers turn down assignments or sales if they feel the payment offered is not enough, or is earning the credit worth accepting the job? You were awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for the Sinatra project; any advice for writers applying for grants or residencies? How much do you rely on your agent to handle the commerce part of being a professional writer?

A writer has to establish a market for him- or herself. This is a very daunting, chicken-and-egg process: you can’t get established till you’ve been paid, and you can’t get paid till you’re established. (The same is true of getting an agent: can’t get one till you’ve been published, hard to get published without one.) To get a foothold in the beginning, you need clips—samples of your published work. Do anything at first, for free or for pennies, if you can do it well and produce clips you’re reasonably proud of. You can then begin to negotiate your price upward. Advice on applying for grants: Persevere. I applied for the Guggenheim four times before I got it.

I rely utterly on my agent to handle my writing business. I expect her to negotiate the best possible deals for me, and to be a tiger in negotiations. She does and she is.

  • Quantity vs. Quality. With the long-term scope of a big project like a book, how do you set aside those concerns of “getting it done” and focus on turning your writing into art?

Make it manageable. Write an outline: know exactly where you’re going. Then break the work down into doable pieces. Calculate how much you can write a day, per week, per month (and be realistic about it). If all you can think about is the Himalaya in front of you, it’s too easy to intimidate yourself into paralysis. Stay as healthy and positive as possible, and time will be on your side.

  • Personal Characteristics. You are unfailing polite, friendly, soft-spoken and good-humored. To have success such as yours, one also must be committed, persistent and ambitious. Do these two sides ever conflict, and if so, how do you keep them in balance?

I am a gentleman to the outside world, and in the privacy of my office (and my inner life), a driven, ambitious, competitive S.O.B. I believe all successful writers share those less than savory qualities—some are just more clever about hiding it than others.

Alex McNab

Published in: on May 18, 2016 at 12:26 am  Leave a Comment  
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Defining “literary” with debut novelist Linda Legters

LLCoverFirst-time fiction writers seeking agents and publishers are urged to categorize their work according to the book world’s increasingly specific buzzwords. There is the genre: mainstream, mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. There is the reader: children, middle grade, young adult, chick lit, hen lit and others, including the latest label—“new adult.”

The broadest delineation, perhaps, is this: literary or commercial.

Defining “literary,” however, can present a challenge. It is not as epigrammatic as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous dictum on obscenity in the 1964 legal case Jacobellis v. Ohio—“I shall not today attempt further to define [it]. . . .But I know it when I see it.”

Linda Legters writes literary fiction. Her first published novel, Connected Underneath (Lethe Press), was released in April. Connected Underneath follows the intertwining lives of several characters in the fictional upstate Hudson River town, Madena, New York, as witnessed and imagined by a wheelchair-bound woman, Celeste, from her kitchen.

In a recent conversation with the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (and in an appearance as a guest speaker at the Fairfield Public Library’s monthly Writers’ Salon in the autumn of 2015), Legters shared her views about what makes literary fiction—an opinion articulated in far greater detail than Justice Stewart’s about obscenity. Along the way, she offered advice about writing and submitting short stories, the importance of a story’s first paragraph, what it takes to really create a character, the importance of making yourself uncomfortable and more.LLHeadshot

A native of western New York State, Legters began writing as a child. She also studied piano and now paints. “I grew up reading novels and assumed I couldn’t do any such thing,” she says. “When I was in my 20s I read a novella by Edith Wharton and I thought, Oh, I can do this. Not that I tried. I’d always written, but I hadn’t really written anything formal or organized. I started dabbling with short stories. But life got in the way. So I didn’t go to grad school until decades later.” She had earned a B.A. from the University of New Hampshire. When she resumed her schooling, she earned an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Today, she teaches writing and literature at Connecticut’s Norwalk Community College and the Fairfield County Writers’ Studio. She is currently revising her first completed novel, which grew out of a story she wrote in grad school and for which she found an agent but not  a publisher. “Since Connected Underneath, I better understand  how to write a novel, the sort of novel I want to write, so I think I can make [the revision] more successful,” she says.

 The basic difference. For Legters, commercial fiction is heavily plot driven, ties up all of its story’s strands at the end and has the goal of satisfying readers with events and characters that are fairly predictable. In contrast, literary fiction is  unpredictable and doesn’t tie loose ends: “You don’t know how it’s going to end because you don’t know how events in life are going to end.” It may never satisfy the audience in terms of easy answers or safe endings, “which is why it is harder to get published.” As a writer of literary fiction, Legters says she knows she may never have a large audience. But although she sometimes thinks she’d like to write commercial fiction that would be an easier sell, she knows she could never become sufficiently engaged to complete the project.

Use language to capture life. “Literary fiction is more language driven,” Legters says. “I’m fascinated by the effort and the ability to capture something in words. Just like a painter might be fascinated by capturing light or the quality of movement, I want to capture with words what I see or experience or imagine.”

But you need to have insights to capture. Simply putting words on paper was not Legters’ greatest difficulty in becoming a literary fiction writer. “I knew I could write a good sentence,” she says. “But I didn’t feel I had any fresh observations or any fresh takes or really understood human nature well enough to do anything interesting. My college major was 19th century British literature. The complexity of that influenced me. If I was going to write anything it was going to try to cover new territory as opposed to just telling one more story. I just didn’t feel I had anything to say. I had a lot of experiences but I had no new insights. I don’t know why I grew up at the age of 40 or 45 or 50. But I did.”

Is there an age factor? Legters’ experience as a teacher of young writers has led her to some of her conclusions. Her students tend to write plot-driven material, and “often they have not told everything in a story. They think they have explained something, but they haven’t; it’s still in their heads. They have experienced things deeply, but the hardest thing is really seeing what you put on the page versus what you think you put there; it’s good to find objective readers, and to put your writing aside and come back to it with fresh eyes.

“I teach a course at Norwalk Community called Creative Voice. We just finished a whole section on music. It occurred to me, when I was hearing what the students like, they will often pick songs that mirror what they feel. They go to it because it’s familiar emotional territory. We all do—it’s escape and validation. And commercial fiction is largely the same. It’s familiar. It’s safe territory. Even if, in commercial fiction, the story is about divorce or dark, dark things, somehow it ties itself up and doesn’t tend to go into the emotional darknesses of the range that literary fiction attempts. I think that’s a huge difference.”

Don’t equate experimental prose or structure with literary fiction; it may not be. “When art of any kind is experimental,” Legters says, “it’s too often experimental for experiment’s sake. It doesn’t accomplish anything but being gimmicky. So if I attempt to do something different, it’s because I need that difference to convey the emotion I’m trying to covey, or the character or the moment. The writing must be organic. It’s got to grow out the moment.”

One epigrammatic definition. When it is suggested to her that literary fiction deals a lot more with the interiority of its characters than commercial fiction does, Legters says, “Definitely.” Last fall, she told the Writers’ Salon that in literary fiction, “It’s the who, not the what.” Her reaction upon having her quote read back to her: “I said that? I think it’s true.”

A literary editor’s invaluable advice on character. “Tom Jenks is now the editor of [the online journal] Narrative,” Legters says. “But he also worked with Raymond Carver for years. He was editor of all these big name people, so it was a pleasure to spend  a few days with him at a workshop in New York. He saw that I was holding my characters at arm’s length. I sort of knew that. I worked hard to get rid of that. You need to be brave. Really, really, really think yourself into your character and allow yourself to inhabit that person. It takes practice. It doesn’t come easily. It’s a willingness. It’s a willingness to confront fears and motives and unpleasant things about yourself as well as what happens inside that character. Because the tendency—and I see this in new writers—the tendency is every character essentially mirror  themselves. That makes it difficult to produce characters that go beyond themselves.”

More on language and life. “The language used to describe a character’s inner life [is a key element of literary fiction]. In commercial fiction, people present a more recognizable inner life. Literary fiction is recognizable, but it’s different territory. It’s graver. I find it graver.”

How grave is her novel? “Even though Connected Underneath is a little bit dark, there is hope for us. I want readers to come out with hope. And also with a sense of responsibility. That, in fact, we are responsible for what happens around us. I think we neglect to see that all the time. We’re so absorbed in our daily lives or in our cell phones or whatever. There’s always hope.”

Make yourself squirm. When she spoke to the Writers’ Salon last fall, Legters’ most impactful statement was: “If you are writing about something that makes you uncomfortable, you’re writing the right thing. Truth is uncomfortable, it can be painful. But the truth is what you are trying to get at.”

Writing in the zone. While she doesn’t say it is right for everyone, in terms of her writing process, Legters prefers to be in what she calls the zone: “At lot of people say, write every day, no matter what. Write a hundred words, write three pages or whatever. I just did a guest blog thing for Nina Mansfield. It was about the roller coaster of confidence. I said that [a daily quota] doesn’t work for me. If it’s not going well, walk away. Do something else. Maybe do something else creative. I don’t know how [entering the zone] happens. I suspect that it’s surrender. I suspect it is the same thing that happens for an athlete who’s in the moment. Either you’re in the moment or you’re not.”

Keep revisiting your first paragraph. “I feel the first paragraph sets the tone for an entire book,” Legters says. “It has to be perfect. It had to be perfect in Connected Underneath. Because it’s Celeste talking about what’s going to happen, I knew that I didn’t know, I didn’t understand [the story], really, until I allowed her to be honest with herself.” So Legters never stopped trying to improve it. “I’d rewrite. I’d think I was happy and I’d move on. But I’d always come back to it.” When asked what she ultimately was searching for by doing so, she answers in a word: “Truth.”

Consider starting with short stories. Legters’ first published work of fiction was the short story “When We’re Lying,” in the May 2012 issue of Glimmer Train (where it was a “Family Matters” contest award winner), although her first acceptance, from Story Quarterly, preceded it. “I did start with a short story because it felt like something that was doable,” she says. “Not that short stories are easy. But it was something I felt was manageable.” Indeed. “The remarkable thing about ‘Spinning Through the Dark,’ [the Story Quarterly story] is that, although we all agonize over every word, I wrote [it] in eight hours—and it was published. The Glimmer Train story took me about eight years. So one never knows. . . .”

A story may be shorter, but. . . . “It’s not simpler. When I’m thinking about writing one, I go back to what Edgar Allan Poe’s theory of a short story is, which is that everything in a short story is about a single thing. Nothing is extraneous. Everything is very tightly controlled. It’s really about one event. Even Alice Munro’s stories—when you read them they feel like novels—if you look at them they are about one event, one single arc.

“Novels, of course, aren’t like that. They go in and out of arcs. I have been told that the difference between a short story and a novel is that a novel has subplots. And a short story does not. That does apply. People writing novels, I think, have the notion that in a novel you have so much room, you can put anything in it. I don’t feel that way. I think every line and every word should count, just as it does in a short story.”

Hone your submitting choices. When she first began submitting stories, Legters kept three lists—graded A, B and C—of literary journals where she’d like to be published. At any one time, she might have four stories out at 10 publications apiece. “I think that’s the way for first-timers to go,” she says. “Just get them out there.” But once you have some success, “be a little more discriminating. I have stopped sending to publications that I don’t really care if I’m in. A lot of people just try to get lists of credits. It’s time-consuming. I’d rather spend the time writing.” While she is not submitting shorter pieces currently because of the demands of promoting one novel and revising another, she says her C list, and perhaps her B list, have been shelved: “I have two or three short stories that have never been submitted. I’m only going to send them to the places I really want to appear.”

Her most important submitting rule. Legters told her listeners at the Writers’ Salon, “Don’t send a story out until it is done!” In her case, that moment induces an almost physical reaction, a full-body ”Wow, that’s it!” She said it’s a feeling she lives for now.

 Imagining is the fiction writer’s job. Legters writes from imagination, fueled by everyday observation and conversation rather than deep research. Speaking about Connected Underneath, she says that, “No one who has read it has complained, how dare you write about someone who is in a wheelchair, which Celeste is, and how dare you write about a 15-year-old and how dare you write about 40-year-old single dad. No one has said that. You’re a novelist. You can do whatever you want. Whatever you can imagine. I mean, not doing so would be like saying that no men can write female characters.”

As for research, “For this novel there are two subjects that I checked out fairly thoroughly. One was the process of getting tattoos. And I wanted to know what would happen to his bike if [a motorcycle rider] falls off it at some point.” The rest of the story is purely imagined. “The power of imagination” she says, is what makes writing fun.

Beware a pitfall of query letters. When you reduce your novel’s story down to one or two paragraphs in a conventional query letter, Legters warns that it can sound “trite.” When reminded that in her autumn talk she had used the adjective “stupid,” she says, “Even better.” For her first novel, she used the pay service Writer’s Relief to help get her query letter in shape and to provide a list of possible agents, an experience she says was “worth the money.” For Connected Underneath, though, she approached small presses directly and, ultimately, successfully: “[Lethe] is an LGBT press, and I’m not a member of the community. So it’s been interesting to see responses from people. Initially I was concerned that it might be marginalized as a gay novel, but, thankfully, that sort of label is becoming a thing of the past. Gay, lesbian, transgender, they’re part of the fabric of our lives.”

So, does seeing the published version of Connected Underneath make her squirm? “When I got my copies of my novel in the mail,” she told the FWB in our recent conversation, “I didn’t open the box for days. I finally did just before I was coming down to a class. I took the book out. This is going to sound terribly immodest. But I read the last three pages. I was so uncomfortable reading those last three pages but I realized I’d written a good last chapter. [She laughs.] That was so uncomfortable. So I feel like, OK, I don’t know that anybody else will like the book or buy the book. But I know I wrote a good chapter.

“It’s complicated. I think, because I write for myself first, and not necessarily to be published, I’m not entirely sure I like having it out there.”—Alex McNab

Published in: on May 1, 2016 at 4:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Words Can Paint a Picture

What was the last thing you read that completely captured you? Specifically, was it a single character, a description so real that you saw the thin layer of dust on the unused piano, or a scene in which you smelled freshly baked cookies as you felt the heat from the oven?

In her column “Paint Pictures with Words” (Writer’s Digest, January 2016), Barbara Baig notes that wheVector Red Lips With Love Wordsn our sentences are filled with “the vocabulary of the senses, we are forming verbal images. That is, we are making word pictures that communicate to readers the pictures in our own imaginations . . . we give them the sensory details and let those details act on their imaginations.”

As the writer, our job is to activate the reader’s imagination with just enough details. Then, we must decide “how clearly to focus our images.” As with many aspects of writing, a balance must be found. The words we write must allow our readers to visualize the details, to make our writing come alive but allow space for the reader’s own interpretation. As a writer’s words become personal to the reader, the reader will remember the words.

Techniques that Baig, author of Spellbind Sentences (2015), suggest include:

Don’t forget adjectives and adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs can make the picture more powerful, more vivid.

Consider the effect of your image on readers

The language of the imagination is a writer’s most powerful tool to make things happen inside the readers: to make them see, hear and taste, to evoke sensations and emotions inside them. We must make choices. Usually the decisions we make depend on what we want our language pictures to do to our readers.

Choose between static and moving images

As you practice imitating verbal images made by skilled writers, you will probably notice that some of them lack movement, while others involve a great deal of motion. What you are noticing is the difference between static images—those that don’t show any action—and dynamic images —those that do. When we create static images we are writing description. When we create dynamic images we are writing narration.

Baig included an example of skillful imagery from Josephine Tey’s 1936 mystery A Shilling for Candles:

“It was a little after 7 on a summer morning, and William Potticary was taking his accustomed way over the short down grass of the cliff-top. Beyond his elbow, 200 feet below, lay the Channel, very still and shining, like a milky opal. All around him hung the bright air, empty as yet of larks. In all the sunlit world no sound except for the screaming of some seagulls on the distant beach.”

One of the books on my shelf is Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively (2000; revised edition 2014). In it, McClanahan writes, “Description is an attempt to present as directly as possible the qualities of a person, place, object or event. When we describe, we make impressions, attempting through language to represent reality. Description is, in effect, word painting.”

Description enhances writing in all genres. As McClanahan notes, “A writer need not be bound by flat statement like ‘It was a rough sea,’ when verbs like tumble and roil and seethe wait to spell from her pen.”

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Published in: on April 6, 2016 at 8:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Tom Wolfe has turned. . .85!

Tom Wolfe turned 85 at the start of the month.images

The man in the white suit was born in Richmond, Virginia on March 2, 1931.

When the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) was in graduate school as a magazine major at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in the mid-1970s, his dream (and that of more than one of his classmates) was to become the next Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese, those two paragons of the school of writing known as The New Journalism. (Talese is 11 months younger than Wolfe; he’ll turn 85 on February 7, 2017.) Undoubtedly some of the Medill newspaper majors were similarly inspired by the leading lights of the day, although in their case the role models were Woodward and Bernstein.

Little did the FWB realize that Wolfe was sui generis—a unique combination of writing talent, reporting doggedness, intellectual depth, artistic creativity and ground-breaking style, including a colorful expansion of the effective use of punctuation and italic type. Both Wolfe’s and Talese’s great magazine articles were nonfiction short stories that are still recognized today as among the best ever written.

Wolfe made his mark with magazine pieces such as “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. . .” and “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” in the November 1963 and March 1965 issues, respectively, of Esquire; with his narrative nonfiction books The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1977); and, finally, with his piercing and laughter-inducing cultural criticism, especially his two-part takedown of the then-stuffy New Yorker magazine in the New York Herald-Tribune Sunday supplement New York in April 1965, and the books The Painted Word (1975) and From Bauhaus to Our House (1981) about modern art and modern architecture, respectively.

In December 1972, Wolfe published a piece in Esquire titled “Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore,” arguing that the current nonfiction was superior to contemporaneous fiction. Fifteen years later, in 1987, he turned the literary world on its ear by publishing his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, a story grounded in shoe-leather reporting that the author converted, through his ears, eyes, imagination and writing ability into a 659-page Wolfe-ian styled, socially prescient blockbuster about life in New York City. That was followed by another controversial treatise on the failure of many fiction writers to address large topics, preferring instead to write about their autobiographically-derived characters’ narrow external lives and internal musings. The article—“Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in the November 1989 issue of Harper’s—was subtitled, “A literary manifesto for the new social novel.”

It wasn’t until Wolfe published his 742-page second novel, 1998’s A Man in Full—a book that debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list and remained at the top for 10 weeks—that the long knives of some of the country’s leading literary novelists were unsheathed. John Updike in The New Yorker, Norman Mailer in The New York Review of Books and John Irving on a TV show in Toronto all panned A Man in Full, dismissing it as mere entertainment and its author as a mere journalist masquerading, and failing, as a novelist. Irving even declared that Wolfe was “not a writer.” Two years later, in his collection Hooking Up, Wolfe struck back with an essay titled “My Three Stooges.” And he was not deterred from writing more big novels, about big 21st-century topics: modern college life (I Am Charlotte Simmons, 676 pages, 2004) and the multi-cultural melting pot that is Miami (Back to Blood, 704 pages, 2012).

How did Wolfe do it? How did he write so much, so effectively, in so many different genres? Michael Lewis, the most accomplished and acclaimed Wolfe acolyte, attempted to explain in it the November 2015 issue of Vanity Fair. Wolfe has given his papers to the New York Public Library, and Lewis delved into those archives and visited with the man himself to produce “How Tom Wolfe Became. . .Tom Wolfe.”

In addition to Lewis’ article, there are two other invaluable primary sources: Wolfe’s 1993 anthology, The New Journalism (with E.W. Johnson, Harper & Row) and the interview anthology Conversations with Tom Wolfe, edited by Dorothy Scura (University Press of Mississippi, 1990).

Meantime, though, the FWB recently came across a treasure trove of Wolfe’s wit and wisdom at the website likesuccess.com. It is an online repository of memorable quotes by great writers, from A.A. Milne to ZZ Packer. From the nearly 150 Wolfe quotes listed on the site, here—as a delayed birthday tribute to the white-suited wonder and as a gift from him to all of us aspiring writers—are some of his about thoughts about writing and the writer’s life, with a heartfelt sentiment at the end.

“It helps to know from a very early age what you want to do. From the time I was five years old, I wanted to be a writer, even though I couldn’t even read. It was mainly because I thought of my father as a writer.”

“My father was the editor of an agricultural magazine called The Southern Planter. He didn’t think of himself as a writer. He was a scientist, an agronomist, but I thought of him as a writer because I’d seen him working at his desk. I just assumed that I was going to do that, that I was going to be a writer.”

“When I went to high school, my most passionate desire was to be a professional baseball player. But something within me told me that was not going to happen.”

“Everyone is taught the essentials of writing for at least 13 years, maybe more if they go to college. Nobody is taught music or tap dancing that way.”

“[W]hat I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I’m feeling inspired. It’s mainly a matter of forcing yourself to write.”

“I wrote a number of pieces in the year 1966 that were so bad that, although I’m a great collector of my own pieces, I have never collected them.”

“To me, the great joy of writing is discovering. Most writers are told to write about what they know, but I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.”

“My entire career, in fiction or nonfiction, I have reported and written about people who are not like me.”

“Fortunately, the world is full of people with information compulsion who want to tell you their stories. They want to tell you things that you don’t know. They’re some of the greatest allies that any writer has.”

“It’s fortunate that I am a writer, because that has helped me understand the properties of words. They are what have made life complex. In the battle for status in the animal kingdom, power and aggressiveness have been all-important. But among humans, once they acquired speech, all that changed.”

“I’m a great believer in outlines.”

“I used to go through the dictionary looking for unusual but nontechnical words. At one time, I thought the greatest word was ‘jejune’ and I would throw it into every piece because something about it appealed to me.”

“I found a great many pieces of punctuation and typography lying around dormant when I came along—and I must say I had a good time using them.”

“People complain about my exclamation points, but I honestly think that’s the way people think. I don’t think people think in essays; it’s one exclamation point to another.”

“I used to enjoy using dots where they would be least expected, not at the end of a sentence but in the middle, creating the effect. . .of a skipped beat. It seemed to me the mind reacted—first! . . .in dots, dashes, and exclamation points, then rationalized, drew up a brief, with periods.”

“I still believe nonfiction is the most important literature to come out of the second half of the 20th century.”

“I do novels a bit backward. I look for a situation, a milieu first, and then I wait to see who walks into it.”

“To me, novels are a trip of discovery, and you discover things that you don’t know and you assume that many of your readers don’t know, and you try to bring them to life on the page.”

“Philip Roth is a fabulous writer, but he pretty much stays within his own life. He’s so good—I mean, practically anything I’ve ever read of his I’ve really enjoyed. He just has tremendous talent. But I think he should have given himself a break and gone deeper into the society.”

“[D]on’t just describe an emotion, arouse it, make them experience it, by manipulating the symbol of the emotion. . . .”

“The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.”

“If most writers are honest with themselves, this is the difference they want to make: before, they were not noticed; now they are.”

“There is no motivation higher than being a good writer.”

“I read somewhere that writers, as they get older, become more and more perfectionist. Which may be because they think more highly of themselves and they worry about their reputations. I think there’s some truth to that.”

“Love is the ultimate expression of the will to live.”

Belated Happy 85th. . .Tom Wolfe!—Alex McNab

 

Published in: on March 15, 2016 at 11:24 am  Comments (1)  
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Harper Lee & Mario Puzo: Lessons from their legacies

There were two big stories in the literary news the other week. The death of 89-year-old Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was one.

The other?

The sale, at RR Auction in Boston for $625,000, of the 45-box writing archive of Mario Puzo, including the original 744-page typed working draft manuscript of his novel The Godfather. In that earliest iteration, from 1967, the book bore the title Mafia. After editing those first-draft pages with a red pen, Puzo went on to complete the manuscript he submitted to G.P. Putnam and Sons in July 1968.

While one book is considered a literary classic, the other a commercial one, there are some interesting parallel lessons to be learned about the writing life from the stories of the authors—often in their own words—of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Godfather.

Success was hard-earned by both writersHLeeBook
Lee moved to New York City from her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama in 1949 to pursue her ambition of becoming a writer. For a while she worked as an airlines reservation agent while creating a portfolio of short stories. An agent who read them encouraged her to try a novel. In 1957, her subsequent manuscript was judged by editor Tay Hohoff at publisher J.B. Lippincott to be “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” Hohoff said, though, that “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” and Lee got a small advance. Revising was difficult, frustrating work. According to Lee biographer Charles J. Shields, one night the writer threw her manuscript out the window and only went out to save the pages after a teary phone call to Hohoff. Two years of revisions closely guided by Hohoff eventually resulted in Mockingbird. [Note: The principal sources for this summary are two articles in The New York Times, by William Grimes and Jonathan Mahler.]

Harper Lee’s most insightful quotes about her writing life are from a half-century-old radio interview with Ray Newquist, the recording of which has recently been released by the UCLA Library Special Collections and the transcript of which appeared in Newquist’s book of interviews, Counterpoint (Rand McNally, 1964). For example:

“I never wrote with the idea of publishing anything, of course, until I began working on Mockingbird. I think that what went before may have been a rather subconscious form of learning how to write, of training myself. You see, more than a simple matter of putting down words, writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer.”

And,

“Naturally, you don’t sit down in ‘white hot inspiration’ and write with a burning flame in front of you. But since I knew I could never be happy being anything but a writer, and Mockingbird put itself together for me so accommodatingly, I kept at it because I knew it had to be my first novel, for better or worse.”

mario-puzoMario Puzo grew up in the rough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. His parents were illiterate Italian immigrants, yet one of his prized possessions as a youth was his public library card. “As a 15-year-old attending Commerce High School at 60th Street, Mr. Puzo was told by two different teachers that his compostions ‘were good enough to be published.’ ” . . . the author and social critic Camille Paglia reported in a 1997 article in The New York Times. “After [serving in Europe in World War II. . .] Puzo imagesreturned to New York and entered the New School for Social Research, where he won a literary prize, and then Columbia University. He never sold any fiction until he was 35 and earning a living as a magazine writer.”

Those magazines were not slick glossies. They were men’s pulp magazines, titles like Male and Man, for which Puzo wrote adventure stories based on real events, such as World War II battles. In a June 1984 interview with Josh Alan Friedman, he recalled his time working for the publisher Magazine Management:

“If I had a son who wanted to be a writer, I wouldn’t even bother to send him to college. I’d get him a job up there as an assistant editor, leave him there for five years and he’d know everything. You’ve got to turn out a lot of copy.”

And,

“The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever wrote anything about gangsters. The magazines didn’t print gangster stuff, that wasn’t part of our repertoire. . . .”

And,

“When I was working on The Godfather, I was doing three stories a month [for Magazine Management], I was writing book reviews for The New York Times, Book World, Time magazine, and I wrote a children’s book [The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw]. All at one time. And I was publishing other articles. I had four years where I must have knocked out millions of words. I tell ya, it’s absolutely the best training a writer could get, to work on those magazines. You did everything.”

In his 1972 nonfiction collection The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), Puzo recalled—in the piece titled “Notes from an Unsuccessful Writer’s Diary”—a memorable incident during his long apprenticeship. The diary entry is dated November 12, 1951:

“I received a sign, a small sign that really gave me a lift. . . .I got the blood bank story back from The New Yorker. . . .[T]hey sent me a form rejection slip. I expected it. . .didn’t feel disappointed. . .I really didn’t. And then I noticed on the bottom of the slip, with its cold and formal printed dismissal, somebody has written ‘Sorry and Thanks.’

“I’ll never know who the guy was, but he couldn’t know how that phrase came at a time when the author of the story was really desperate, really needed something like that. I say to myself, ‘A guy at The New Yorker likes me, likes my writing. Maybe he even voted to take my story. . . .maybe it was the office boy who happened to read the story while he was putting the rejection slip [in the envelope.]. . .But it doesn’t matter. If I ever get to know the guy who wrote it, he’ll be my buddy for life. . . .”

The Dark Arena (1955) and The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), Puzo’s first two novels, which he considered literary fiction, together netted him $6,500, even though the latter, his favorite book, was dubbed by The New York Times a “small classic.” Under the pseudonym Mario Cleri, in 1967 he published Six Graves to Munich, an obscure war novel that grew out of some of his magazine adventure stories. By then, he had received an advance of $5,000 from Putnam for The Godfather after submitting only a 10-page plot outline.

When it came, that success was huge
To Kill a Mockingbird, published in July 1960, stayed on the bestseller list for 88 weeks, won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold more than 40 million copies. The Godfather was published on March 29, 1969. It spent 67 weeks on the bestseller list. To date, it has sold somewhere north of 21 million copies.

And, of course, both books led to famous films. The movie of Mockingbird earned eight Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars, including Horton Foote’s for best adapted screenplay writing. Puzo’s novel spawned three movies, which earned a total of 29 Academy Award nominations and won nine Oscars, including two for Best Picture and two for best adapted screenplay writing, for Puzo and his co-writer Francis Ford Coppola.

Lee told Newquist:

“You see, I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement.”

In his nonfiction collection, Puzo wrote that. . .

“I never doubted I could write a best-selling commercial novel when I chose to do so. My writing friends, my family, my children and my creditors all assured me now was the time to put up or shut up.”

And,

The Godfather is. . .not a lucky best seller but the product of a writer who practiced his craft for nearly thirty years and finally got good at it.”

The paperback rights to The Godfather sold for $410,000, a record at the time. Before that, Puzo had sold the film rights to Paramount for a low $12,500 option payment, with escalators if the option was exercised. Eventually he earned much more from the studio.

Success affected them differently
Lee’s triumph led to her withdrawal. She eventually returned to Alabama, where she became somewhat reclusive and very reticent in public. At one point she embarked on researching a long nonfiction project with a crime at its center, not unlike the work she had done in the late 1950s with her childhood friend Truman Capote for his book, In Cold Blood. She had accompanied him on many of his research trips to Kansas and had acted as his appointment-maker and recording scribe for the interviews he conducted. In the end, although she continued to write, Lee intimated she’d never publish another book after Mockingbird. Perhaps it was out of fear:

“I hoped for a little [success], as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

Puzo’s blockbuster book and the subsequent films led to impressive productivity. Puzo published five other novels (and a sixth was finished by his longtime partner, Carol Gino). In addition to the three “Godfather” screenplays, he wrote at least half a dozen others for big productions, among them “Superman,” “Earthquake” and an uncredited version of Coppola’s “The Cotton Club.”

Despite the success of his most famous work, Puzo did not consider it his best. (Again, he bestowed that judgment on The Fortunate Pilgrim.) In The Godfather Papers he wrote:

The Godfather, on a technical level, is an accomplishment any professional storyteller can brag about. . . .The book got much better reviews than I expected. I wished like hell I’d written it better.”

Though he stayed in the public eye far more than Lee, Puzo also found it trying:

“I loved the money, but I didn’t really like being ‘famous.’ I found it quite simply distressing. . . .I dislike interviews and having my picture taken (with reason).”

Both offered timeless advice for other writers
Lee shared several nuggets of wisdom when she talked to Newquist.

For the aspiring writer:

“Well, the first advice I would give is this: hope for the best and expect nothing. Then you won’t be disappointed. You must come to terms with yourself about writing. You must not write ‘for’ something; you must not write with definite hopes of reward.”

About quality:

“It takes time and patience and effort to turn out a work of art, and few people seem willing to go all the way.

“I see a great deal of sloppiness and I deplore it. I suppose the reason I’m so down on it is because I see tendencies in myself to be sloppy, to be satisfied with something that’s not quite good enough. I think writers today are too easily pleased with their work. . . .

“There is no substitute for the love of language, for the beauty of an English sentence. There’s no substitute for struggling, if struggle is needed, to make an English sentence as beautiful as it should be.”

About the reader:

“Writing is selfish and contradictory in its terms. First of all, you’re writing for an audience of one, you must please the person you’re writing for. I don’t believe this business of ‘No, I don’t write for myself, I write for the public.’ That’s nonsense. Any writer worth his salt tries to please himself. . . .”

About difficulty:

“Ironically, it’s just as hard to write a bad novel as it is to write a good one—just as backbreaking, just as formidable a series of crises.”

Puzo, too, sprinkled some helpful pointers in his collection. Such as:

“Never send out a piece of work that is not completely finished even if it means a great delay in publishing.”

While he was selective in agreeing to interviews, Puzo did one for a cover story for Time’s August 28, 1978 issue. The story included “Mario Puzo’s Godfatherly Rules for Writing a Bestselling Novel.” There were 10, some enumerated with Puzo’s tongue firmly in his cheek, such as:

“Never let a domestic quarrel ruin a day’s writing. If you can’t start the next day fresh, get rid of your wife.”

Another is the most familiar of adages:

“Rewriting is the whole secret to writing.”

Yet another is highly debatable, at least for those of us who partake in writers’ workshops and critique sessions:

“Never show your stuff to anybody. You can get inhibited.”

And finally, there is this rationalization for a working writer’s tendency to subconsciously disappear into an antisocial cocoon:

“Moodiness is really concentration. Accept it because concentration is the key to writing.”

Puzo’s sentiment dovetails neatly with Lee’s thoughts about the creative compulsion that writers deal with:

“You know, many writers really don’t like to write. . . .I like to write. Sometimes I’m afraid I like it too much because when I get into work I don’t want to leave it. As a result I’ll go for days and days without leaving the house or wherever I happen to be. . . .”

Away from the public eye, both writers were homebodies, with close family ties. In Monroeville, Lee, who never married, lived with her older sister and attorney Alice into old age; until her death in 2014 at age 103, Alice Lee acted as her sister’s “gatekeeper,” as Alice’s obituary put it.

Puzo lived in the same house (often remodeled and eventually doubling in size) in Bay Shore, Long Island from 1968 until his death. According to Paglia’s article, four of Puzo’s five children lived with 45 minutes of their father and handled such tasks as cooking, housekeeping, secretarial work and landscaping; his accountant brother and attorney nephew oversaw his finances and legal work.

Puzo, who was five-and-a-half years older than Lee, died in 1999 at age 78.

Lee’s name, of course, was in the news a lot in 2015 even before she died. A very early draft of the novel that became To Kill a Mockingbird—perhaps the draft for which Lee’s editor at J.P. Lippincott asked for a complete rewrite—was, controversially, released earlier in the year. Titled Go Set a Watchman, it became the bestselling novel of 2015, with somewhere around two millions copies in print. The success of the earlier version raises an interesting question:744-pageDraft

What if, instead of its place in banker’s box at an auction house in February 2016, the original manuscript of Puzo’s Mafia (above) had just found a publisher? How would it do? Thankfully, it remains in typescript in that lucky bidder’s banker’s box, where most early drafts belong.—Alex McNab

Published in: on March 6, 2016 at 2:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Writing Short

Writing short. Consider the significance of the two-word sentence: I do.

Roy Peter Clark, author of How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, in an interview with Katy Steinmetz, defines writing short as “300 words or fewer . . . 300 is about the ClarkBooknumber of words that appears on a single, type-written page.”

Today, for many, short writing is a tweet (140 characters) but Clark reminds us that short writing has played a significant role in “human culture, over history, to say some of the most important and most enduring things.” Clark notes, “[I]f you take the shortest versions of the Hippocratic oath, the 23rd psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, any Shakespeare sonnet, the preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address and the last paragraph of Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ and add up the total words, it’s less than 1,000.” The Lord’s Prayer contains 66 words, the Gettysburg Address contains 286, and the preamble to the Constitution was crafted with just 52 words.

When asked by Katy Steinmetz how good writers approach short writing with the same care they would a book, Clark responds:

“The very best practitioners of short writing on blogs, on social networks, are people who are working over their prose. They’re revising it, with the same care they would if they were putting it on paper. . .When I’ve failed to do it, I’ve always regretted it, because it results in something awkward or upside-down or worse, inaccurate. A formula I learned about writing short poetry is that ultimately what you’re looking for is focus, wit and evidence of polish. Focus means that we have a keen understanding of what the message is about, wit meaning there’s a governing intelligence behind the prose, polish meaning there’s that one little grace note, that one little word in a tweet that sounds like us in an authentic way. What I’m pushing back on is the notion that this kind of writing and communication requires less care. . .These two things—speed and care—are not mutually exclusive.”

In a Washington Post review, “Confessions of an editor: A review of How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark,” Carlos Lozada provides an example of Clark’s ability to write short: “ ‘Omit needless words,’ William Strunk admonishes in The Elements of Style, then adds a 65-word, 386-character paragraph explaining why. In four rounds of edits, Clark gets it down to 27 words and 137 characters. It comes at a cost, he admits, but learning to determine that cost is the point. ‘A good short writer must be a disciplined cutter, not just of clutter, but of language that would be useful if she had more space.’ ”

Writing an obituary is a personal example of short writing that many of us will undertake at some point in our lives. By definition, it is a notice of a person’s death usually with a short biographical account. Condensing a life into a few hundred words, or less, is a difficult task. A dear friend recently asked me to help write some words about her Uncle Joe for his obituary. It was an honor to be asked. Two hours, several cups of tea, and three revisions later, the 145-word tribute was complete to “a gentle and compassionate man” who “greeted everyone with a smile.”

Six Word Story Every Day (also on Facebook) offers an interesting look at writing short. A story told in just six words. Last July, on my birthday, I began keeping a six-word-a-day journal. My entries reveal a range of daily events, reflection, contemplation, joy and sadness.

Telephone call from old friend—balance

Connected memories allow softer edged transitions

National Watermelon Day—Dad—miss you

Writers at the table: unlimited possibilities

Seafood soup: Daniel—me, cooking together

Summing up my day in just six words is a challenge. But, I have become a more “disciplined cutter, not just of clutter, but of language that would be useful if she had more space.”

Novelists can write shorter, too. In “To the Quick,” a new online essay on “lowering the word count” by debut novelist Tony Tulathimutte, he recommends the “scalpel edit.” He reduced this sentence in his first draft—

“Up to a certain degree he felt there was nothing wrong with disliking work”—

to five words:

“Still, it beat real work.”

Carlos Lozada notes that “Clark cites the late Pulitzer winner Donald Murray’s dictum about concision: ‘Brevity comes from selection and not compression.’ He also offers his own version: ‘Prune the dead branches before you shake out the dead leaves.’ ”

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Published in: on February 25, 2016 at 12:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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