Kill your darlings! Michael Chabon’s case study

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

“Kill your darlings.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Mattison’s gift to aspiring writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Alex McNab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using the Five Senses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Water


water plops into pond

splish-splash downhill

warbling magpies in tree

trilling, melodic thrill


whoosh, passing breeze

flags flutter and flap

frog croaks, bird whistles

babbling bubbles from tap

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

Use it to “show” your reader.

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

Sight can flash back or foreshadow.

Taste. Think of eating and drinking, or kissing.

Convey the use of mouth and tongue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Photo by Beth Poe. Used by permission.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our interview below mimics the format followed during our conversation:

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

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

Lerner’s answers, edited for clarity.

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

Chapter 1—“The Ambivalent Writer”:

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

Q: Does that describe you with The Bridge Ladies?

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2—“The Natural”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3—“The Wicked Child”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5—“The Neurotic”:

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

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

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

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

Q: True in your case with The Bridge Ladies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8—“Rejection”:

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

Q: Have you heard that about The Bridge Ladies?

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

Q: Was the manuscript rejected by other publishing houses?

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

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

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

Chapter 10—“What Authors Want”:

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

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

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

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

Chapter 11—“The Book”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generally you should have it read and workshopped.

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

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

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

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

Alex McNab



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

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

10 successful writers on writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Alex McNab

Reading your work aloud—a refresher

When you search Google for “why you should read your writing aloud,” the line at the top of the first page says there are roughly 24.6 million results.

That number in itself seems like a pretty convincing reason for the value of vocalizing your work in progress.

Reading your writing aloud has been an element of every workshop in which the Fairfield Writer’s Blog has been a member. Each writer around the table brings in and distributes copies of her or his latest scene or chapter or essay, then reads the piece aloud as the others follow along on their copies. (The FWB has never participated in a workshop in which copy was distributed and expected to be reaReading-Aloud1d before a session.) Critiquing follows, ideally with the writer remaining silent as the others offer opinions on what did work and what didn’t work.

The reading-to-the-group system seems sensible, except for one thing: The piece was written to be read silently, in a book, in a magazine or on a screen. Sometimes sentences that seem unwieldy to your colleagues—because of your ineffective vocalizing or a length that requires you to take an extra breath or two—would be perfectly fine if those fellow writers weren’t listening to it as well as reading it.

Oh, and another thing: In the FWB’s experience, at least, the writing of fellow read-alouders with British accents always sounds better than that of us American speakers. Of course, sometimes it is better.

To encourage aspiring writers to share their work and to get comfortable reading it aloud, the Library holds an open-mike Writers Read night on the first Tuesday of every month. In addition to the usual benefits of reading work aloud, writers learn to enunciate better, speak more slowly (or, rarely, faster), and project their voices at an appropriate volume for the room. Unlike a workshop, Writers Read is critique free, although audience members are invited to ask questions of the author after her or his reading.

Whether you opt to read aloud in public or a classroom, do try it at home. For many writers, it is an essential step in the revising and proofing process. The FWB has a difficult time reading aloud when alone. It makes him self-conscious, which reading in a workshop or for an audience does not.

Whenever you read aloud—whether to yourself or to a group—have a pen or pencil in your hand. Then, every time you stumble while reading a passage, or recognize a repetition in sentence structure or length, or catch an overused word, or find a typo or another boo-boo, make a simple mark in the margin. Only when you finish, go back and find the faults and correct them. Do not pause to scrawl in a correction as you are vocalizing.

With so many other places that already have done so, the FWB purposely has avoided enumerating reasons to read your writing out loud. If you need specifics to be convinced of its value, click on these links to four of those places cited in the Google search (the artwork above comes from one of those sites, author Steven R. Southard’s Poseidon’s Scribe).

Alex McNab

Published in: on January 26, 2016 at 9:02 pm  Comments (3)  

Creating New Year’s Writing Resolutions

Do you make New Year’s Resolutions?2106

Do you keep your New Year’s Resolutions?

For many people, the beginning of a new year is a time for reviewing the past and looking forward to a new year. There are 366 days in 2016 – ample time for each of us to accomplish a goal or two or more. Have you considered your writing goals?

In an article from Writer’s Digest—“5 New Year’s Resolutions for Writers” (1-1-2013)—Rachel Scheller complied a list of resolutions to help “improve your writing, focus yourself, and achieve your publishing goals.” Her list:

  1. I resolve to . . . make time for writing.

  2. I resolve to . . . embrace my personal writing style.

  3. I resolve to . . . self edit as I write.

  4. I resolve to . . . step outside my comfort zone.

  5. I resolve to . . . call myself a writer.

I like the addition of  “I resolve to . . .” that Scheller added to each item on this list. The goals seem more active. The choice of the words “I resolve to” adds a bit of weight to each resolution.writing-tips-best

Of course, creating resolutions is a personal effort. I do make New Year’s resolutions. I create lists. Here are some of my writing resolutions:

• I resolve to . . . make my writing time as important as other events in my daily schedule.

I will write “WT” on my daily calendar.

• I resolve to . . . be consistent in my personal writing.

I can meet a daily word challenge; word by word toward a larger goal.

• I resolve to … be quiet, to look, and to listen.

I find inspiration when I pay attention to the most ordinary moments.

• I resolve to . . . expand my reading into genres that I neglect.

Mysteries are at the top of my list. Any suggestions?

• I resolve to . . . take a risk with my writing.

Good luck with your writing resolutions this year.

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Published in: on January 5, 2016 at 8:37 pm  Comments (1)  

Talking writing with musician & memoirist Steve Katz

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog has sought writing-craft advice from KatzBooknovelists, biographers, short-story writers and more. Until now, though, it has never spoken about writing with a “celebrity” author, despite the piles of titles—by the famous, the infamous, the accomplished and the not-so-much—weighting down tables and shelves at stores that still sell books.

One reader’s “celebrity” may be another’s “who’s he?” But for us seasoned music fans whose most influential listening began in the 1960s and carried on for two decades or so, guitarist/singer/songwriter Steve Katz deserves the description. In his memoir—Blood, Sweat and My Rock ’n’ Roll Years: Is Steve Katz a Rock Star?—he is a candid, thoughtful and humorous storyteller, an enlightening tour guide to a memorable period of popular music—and some of its notable personalities. Publishers Weekly’s prepublication review called the book “one of the few rock memoirs worth reading from beginning to end.” And, yes, Katz wrote the book—his first—himself.

Katz was a nice Jewish boy with a dry wit who grew up in Schenectady, Queens and Long Island, New York before selling “something like 29 millions records,” he writes. During the early-60s heyday of the Greenwich Village folk-music scene, while a teenager, he laid down roots as a finger-picking acoustic guitar student of legend Dave Von Ronk and country blues master Reverend Gary Davis before playing with the Even Dozen Jug Band. Moving to electric guitar, he recorded influential albums and played the Monterey Pop Festival with The Blues Project, then became a founding member of the famous rock/jazz ensemble Blood, Sweat & Tears. During Katz’s four-album tenure, that band earned platinum and gold records and Grammy awards, as well as played at Woodstock. Later, Katz recorded for the Beatles’ legendary producer George Martin as part of the group American Flyer, produced two albums by rocker Lou Reed (including a stealth appearance by pop singer John Denver’s live audience), worked as an executive for a record company, did a reunion stint with BS&T, and eventually returned to his acoustic roots as a solo performer/raconteur.

The FWB first saw Katz’s one-man show at our community’s Pequot Library in 2013, during which he mentioned the probability of writing a memoir. After the book’s publication by Lyons Press in summer 2015, he performed in our area again, at the Trumbull Library, with the FWB in attendance.

In October, Katz, now 70, KatzTodaywelcomed the FWB into the home he shares in northwest Connecticut with his wife, ceramic artist Alison Palmer, and a menagerie of friendly dogs and voluble African parrots. Our conversation centered on the decisions he made and the lessons he learned while writing about his life and career, a challenge for any author, not just a first-timer, celebrity or not. Here, then, is Steve Katz on writing a memoir:

Have a reason for writing. “I would tell stories to people, to friends, and they would say, you should write a book. . . .I had gone back with Blood, Sweat & Tears for three years [in the 2000s]. And when I left— I was 68 then—I said, well, what am I going to do now? I think I’ll write a book. I didn’t really think about it before. Then when I started writing, I realized it was interesting. The other reason for writing the book was that it gave me an index. So as I get older and I start forgetting things, I can always just look in my index. Fantastic.

“I never thought of myself as a real storyteller until I started writing. And then I started thinking, well, I wish I had told the stories like this, because when you are writing, you can take your time with them. Put them in better words, [add detail] and stuff like that. So now when people interview me about my career, I just say, why don’t you read the book?”

 You don’t need an MFA to write a memoir. [During his early days in the music business, Katz wrote] “record reviews. For Eye magazine, a spinoff of Cosmopolitan. I was an English major in college and I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always written poetry and lyrics and stuff like that. That’s not to say it came easy for me. Still, when you write a song, when you’re an artist, there’s that blank canvas that you have to fill up. One thing I knew about creative writing was that everything depends on the first sentence of every paragraph. And also you take that context to the next chapter.

“[As a reader, I love] anything by Philip Roth. He used to be in town [in northwestern Connecticut] all the time, sitting in the chocolate place reading the newspaper. About 10 years ago he was turning onto a street off Main Street and I was crossing the road. He was in his Volvo station wagon. I started moving back, and he stopped and went like this, [waving] for me to go. I came home and emailed all my friends, ‘I was almost killed by Philip Roth today. I’m so excited.’ ”

Even a rock star has to write query letters: “I went to a website that had a list of literary agents. I just went in alphabetical order. When I got to D, I got a deal [with Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management]. She repped Barack Obama and Dreams from My Father.”

 Seek—and welcome—professional help. “When I sent in my proposal, the first one, to Dystel & Goderich, Jane called me and said, ‘We love the idea, we want to represent you, but you are going to have to rewrite the proposal, and we’re going to set you up with somebody. You’re going to need help with the proposal. It’s got to have more oomph to sell it.’ So they told me about Mike Edison. I went and looked him up. He was editor of High Times magazine for a while. He wrote for Penthouse, and he wrote something like a hundred pornographic novels. I called Jane and said, ‘Wait a second, who are you putting me together with?’ Then I read a book he wrote called Dirty, Dirty, Dirty. It was the funniest thing I’d ever read. I said, ‘This guy is perfect. He gets my sense of humor.’ The proposal he worked on with me is essentially the forward to the book. That was mainly Mike. He added other certain things, too, but I’d say 95 percent of the book is mine. Mike helped me through the process.

“Bruno Ceriotti lives in Italy and is a rock and roll lunatic. He was a fan. I would write a paragraph and send it to him for dates and stuff like that. I would say, ‘The Murray the K Show started at 10 o’clock every morning. . .’ and he would write back and say, ‘No. It was 10:15.’ I don’t know how he got all these things but he was really, really helpful. I never met Bruno.

“Forgetting about Mike, the biggest contributor to my book was [Katz’s editor and now Interim Editorial Director] Keith Wallman of Lyons Press. He didn’t write anything, but he was so helpful in editing. For example, [take] the opening lines of Chapter 3, ‘Mimi.’ I wrote, ‘I came home from the concert late at night’ or something like that. ‘I opened my door and I could see that Mimi was gone.’ Keith would say, ‘Put this in a time context.’ OK. ‘It was November of 1966. Ronald Reagan had just been elected governor of California, and the Beatles had just begun recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. I tiptoed into my apartment, not wanting to wake Mimi, but the moment I opened the door, I knew instantly that she was gone.’ It makes total sense. It is such a little simple thing. Keith was incredibly helpful with that. It was a real education for me to see what an editor really does.”

Use your natural voice. “It’s basically my sense of humor. Most rock ’n’ roll memoirs are, ‘My dad used to beat me so I took drugs.’ I never had that. The worst thing that ever happened to me was that my mother spilled chicken soup on me. . . . I look at the book as being funny, and not just a memoir. I think some of the reviews have caught on to that.”

Enjoy the writing process. “I woke up every morning and sat at my computer. I loved it. But it was difficult with the dogs, and helping my wife lift her sculptures and stuff like that. There was always something happening, except for the three months we spend in Mexico in winter. My wife’s a workaholic. It sort of rubbed off on me. I’m not a workaholic, but some of it rubbed off. Especially when she’s at work in the next building.”

Don’t just write. Rewrite. “I’d constantly go back. And that’s why going through the proofreading thing was. . .how many periods and commas and semicolons did I get wrong? But they kept finding things. And they were right.”

Use the music to frame the story. “I was able to do that in the context of the set that The Blues Project played at Antioch College in late 1966. I don’t remember the concert that well. I remember all the [stoned, dancing] kids in the audience. But I was able to tell stories through the songs.”

Use the words to convey the music. (Katz writes of the debut rehearsal of Tim Buckley’s song, “Morning Glory,” with the BS&T horn section: “When the horns entered on the second verse for the first time, I almost couldn’t sing. . . .The sound, the feel of the building verse into the chorus, it was at that moment that I said to myself, So this is why I wanted to be a musician. It was an ethereal moment. . . .That’s something you carry with you for the rest of your life.”) “I put that in later, because I thought about that afternoon we rehearsed it, and how wonderful that feeling was. You sort of keep going back and going back and adding things. Yeah, that was an amazing afternoon.”

The best-known elements of your story don’t necessarily make the most compelling writing or reading. “It was much more interesting for me to write about The Blues Project or even the jug band and the beginnings there than about Blood Sweat & Tears. I think I make it clear in the book that BS&T was more of a corporate type thing. So I don’t spend that much time on it. If I was a rock star during those days, what I remember is getting up a 5 a.m. to get a plane to a city and hopefully having time for a nap before the sound check. Then after the concert, schmoozing with radio people and stuff like that, and then you’re in bed by midnight and have to get up at 4 o’clock to catch the next 5 a.m. plane. Or you’re taking buses. The arenas and stadiums all looked the same. So it was always hard work. The most fun part was when you were onstage playing music.”

Remember your reader. “My whole career, because of the nature of being a musician who plays publicly, you want to entertain people. If you are writing a book, if you are making a movie, if you are making a record, I always think about entertaining people. I’m certainly not Proust. I’m not that heavy or intelligent. [Laughter.] I wanted the book to be entertaining. I wrote it for people to have a good time reading it.”

Be open about writing about old intimacies. “I love my wife more than anything. But [folksinger] Mimi [Farina] was my first love. And a first love is different. I approached writing about it by first going to my wife and asking her, do you mind if I write about some old girlfriends? This is not an easy thing. She gave me a green light and it made it a lot easier.”

Your story may not agree with the way others remember things. . .“I didn’t really rely on other people’s memories that much. I didn’t get in touch with former band members. If I did, nobody could remember anything anyway. I’d say I only spoke to [drummer] Roy [Blumenfeld] from The Blues Project. It was the only time. I didn’t speak to any of the people in BS&T. I spoke to Roy because I wanted the story about [our lead guitarist] Danny Kalb and his suicide attempt. I wasn’t speaking to Danny at the time, and I certainly wouldn’t have gotten the correct answer anyway. Roy knew the whole story.”

. . .Especially if the others are people with whom you have had feuds. “There are four of them. With my brother, he was my brother, so I had to mention it. Basically I skipped over it and gave a description about his greed, and then I went on later about how that affected me and Lou Reed [with whom Katz also had issues].

“As far as [Blues Project organist and singer and BS&T co-founder] Al Kooper, he wrote a book where he didn’t say nice things about me, but I loved the book. I actually used Al’s book for research. He enlightened me with some memories. Al’s always been very funny, and even though that book was a pure collaboration with Ben Edmonds, I think his humor comes through. Kooper and I have worked together since then. Everything I write about is true. We don’t get along anymore. But we were a family. We did get along great. We had a background of growing up in Queens, our Jewishness; we had things in common. I think we agree on what happened a lot, but not why they happened. Al’s whole story about why he left BS&T is different from the way I see it. I do respect the fact that he sees it differently. This is my truth, that kind of thing. Even though mine is right.

“Whereas David Clayton-Thomas [the singer who replaced Kooper in BS&T], you know, might as well have been an alien. David wrote a book, and I didn’t even want to read it. Finally somebody said to me, you have to read his book. So I got a yellow highlighter just to mark all the misperceptions and lies. I went through five highlighters by the time I’d finished the book. He makes up these things and he actually believes them. I have to say, though, that when Lew Soloff died in February, the only person who got in touch with me from the band was David. On Facebook. He said let’s put aside our petty differences and pay tribute to Lew. Which I thought was really gentlemanly, especially, you know, because I rip him to shreds in the book. I thought it was very nice of him to do.”

Let your vulnerable moments come through on the page. (Toward the end of the book, Katz recounts his discomfort before a one-night 1993 reunion concert at the Bottom Line in New York featuring many of the early members in BS&T, including the great jazz and session trumpet players Randy Brecker and the late Lew Soloff) “Here I am, a guy who started out playing Travis picking [a variation of finger-picking named after country-western musician Merle Travis] on acoustic guitar . I wind up on stage with these incredible players. These are great players. I hadn’t played for a while, especially electric guitar. And Randy Brecker, who’s just the sweetest guy in the world—when I said at one rehearsal that I was nervous—told me, ‘What you did works. It has more to do with heart.’ And that’s why Randy has always been one of my favorite people. I could hardly read music. It was difficult. That’s why I had to leave BS&T at some point. [Later, jazz tenor saxophone player] Joe Henderson was in the band. Sitting next to Joe, I’m saying, what the hell am I doing here? The guy is a genius, pretty much.

“I’ve sort of been in limbo like that. I come from the folk crowd, who never have accepted me because of Blood, Sweat and Tears. And of course some of the great musicians of the Blood, Sweat & Tears jazz thing don’t accept me because I’m a folk musician.”

Build your story around a theme. “The theme is that I always felt I was always on the outside looking in. As I write in the book, ‘Lorraine Alterman, a writer. . .had done an article about me for a short-lived magazine called Scenes. . . .The subtitle [of the article], which was put on the cover, asked the musical question, “Is Steve Katz a Rock Star?” With descriptions of me taking leftovers from my mom’s house, the answer was inconclusive at best.’ ”

You can make it through the hardest part of the story. “I think it was my first marriage. My wife’s mental illness, which also ties into our house burning down. When I started writing it, I figured, oh boy, this is going to be difficult. But you sort of move aside, you become objective about the whole thing. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be. You can add subjectivity later. But first you want to put the facts down. The great thing about writing is it’s like clay, you know. You can mold it anyway you want. Edit. Thicken things. That’s one of things I loved about writing the book.

Relax, it’s OK to feel embarrassed. “When you look back at some of the stupid things you did, and you’re writing it, and then proofreading it on paper, they make you say, I don’t want to think about that. Oh God! There’s a whole paragraph about my sideburns. How one was longer than the other. I was really very self-conscious about the whole thing. It’s totally ridiculous, but it’s true. Now, looking back on it, it’s hilarious. I wanted [the reader to think back to] . . .when you’re a kid, and make it into a funny story. That’s one of my favorite parts of the book.”

What small crises of confidence as a writer? “This is one of the few great things about getting older—there are certain things that get better. And one of them is you have the self-confidence to say, basically, I don’t give a damn what people think. This is my life and I’m going to put it out there. I couldn’t have done it 10 years ago or 20 years ago because I would have been afraid of what people thought. I don’t care anymore. I did the best job I could.”

Look for unique ways to promote your work. “Lyons Press got me to talk at the Jewish Book Council convention. There are all these Jewish centers from across the country. You have to do a two-minute talk. I was sitting next to Joe Klein. Tess Gerritsen was there. I was a nervous wreck because I had to convince these people to bring me in. So I said, ‘I have something to offer you that not many do. There are not that many Jewish ex-rock stars out there. And not only that, but I can give you a [musical] performance. But I have to charge you.’ So I’m getting my fee. Starting in a week and a half, I’m on the road for two months. Kind of like one-nighters, almost, all over the country at Jewish community centers. I get mobbed at the meet-and-greet afterward.”

Appreciate how your written memoir triggers your readers’ memories. “No, I don’t consider myself a celebrity. Some people do; people who are fans do. A celebrity is like [someone in] People magazine. I have to amend what I just said, if you don’t mind. I’ve been working in the craft world a lot [with Alison], and every now and then somebody will say, ‘Oh God, you’re Steve Katz.’ But lately I’ve been feeling like a celebrity. Now, with my concerts and because of the book, because I’m going out and performing, people are thrilled to meet me. Which is, like, really weird. This is why I enjoy playing. People say, ‘Do you get any young people?’ I don’t care about young people coming to my shows. It would be nice if they did. Maybe they’ll enjoy my finger-picking and stuff like that. But the fact is that, for people of my age. . . .all of a sudden, you’re part of a memory that happened years ago, and that remains part of their lives.” —Alex McNab


Published in: on December 20, 2015 at 6:46 pm  Leave a Comment