Kill your darlings! Michael Chabon’s case study

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

“Kill your darlings.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Mattison’s gift to aspiring writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Alex McNab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editors rock!

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

By Maddie Dawson

I thought I knew all about editing.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to take to my bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)  

10 successful writers on writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Alex McNab

Staying Organized

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

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

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

How do you keep track of your creative ideas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio





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

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  

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  Comments (1)