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)  

Tom Wolfe has turned. . .85!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m a great believer in outlines.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Published in: on March 15, 2016 at 11:24 am  Comments (2)  

Harper Lee & Mario Puzo: Lessons from their legacies

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

The other?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee told Newquist:

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

In his nonfiction collection, Puzo wrote that. . .

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the aspiring writer:

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

About quality:

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

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

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

About the reader:

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

About difficulty:

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

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

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

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

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

Another is the most familiar of adages:

“Rewriting is the whole secret to writing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in: on March 6, 2016 at 2:32 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: ,

Writing Short

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telephone call from old friend—balance

Connected memories allow softer edged transitions

National Watermelon Day—Dad—miss you

Writers at the table: unlimited possibilities

Seafood soup: Daniel—me, cooking together

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

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

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

to five words:

“Still, it beat real work.”

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

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Published in: on February 25, 2016 at 12:13 pm  Comments (1)  

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  

“Cut the boring parts. Fix the crap.” And other advice from author Kristan Higgins

images-1Beginning in 2006 with Fools Rush In, Connecticut author Kristan Higgins—a two-time winner of the Romance Writers of America RITA Award—has published 14 novels, and No. 15 (the fifth in her Blue Heron series) is scheduled to hit bookstores before year’s end.

Romance is the best-selling genre in publishing, and Higgins is one of its stars. Yet her IfYouOnlyKnew-smsummer 2015 title, If You Only Knew (released in August from HQN Books), marks a shift toward what is known these days as “commercial women’s fiction” in the label-obsessed book business.

The affable and amusing Higgins has shared her writing wisdom with aspiring Fairfield writers more than once. She was a featured panelist in a lively group discussion the Library presented on romance fiction in February 2010. Then, this past September, she made the final stop on her book tour for If You Only Knew just down the street, at the Fairfield University Bookstore. It was there that the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) asked if she would be willing to answer some emailed questions about writing, a request to which she graciously assented.

Changing from romance to women’s fiction. FWB: You said the changes with your new book were not big ones. But what did they entail? Should aspiring writers try to check off genre conventions from the get-go, or just write the best story they can write?

Kristan Higgins: I’ve always straddled the line between women’s fiction and romance in that my books have never been solely focused on romance—my characters have issues with job, family, friends, the past. But for If You Only Knew, the biggest change was having two female narrators. In the past, my books have had only one first-person narrator, or the hero and heroine as point-of-view characters. This was the first time I focused on two women.

I don’t think there are any rules or conventions to follow other than exactly what you said: Write the best story you can. Understand what makes a good story, however. To do that, you have to read great authors.

Revising & editing. Your admission on what you do when you get stuck is, “I write crap! You can quote me on that.” You also said that you were a very good reviser. Can you describe how your revision process works. How extensive are your editor-suggested changes, and are those revisions easier or harder to make than the ones you make between the first draft and the manuscript you submit?

KH: It’s funny; I’m teaching an online class on revising right now. My process consists of being a stone-cold darling-killer. I think I have a very good eye for what works and what doesn’t, and I’m not sentimental about my work, as some authors are. The process isn’t that formulaic; it’s more like, “Cut the boring parts. Fix the crap.”

As for my editor’s suggestions, they’re rather general; she mentions an area or character that gave her pause, and she lets me decide how to fix it. Every once in a while, we disagree, and though those occasions are rare, she defers to my gut instinct. We have a lot of respect for each other. And affection, too, which doesn’t hurt the relationship.

Productivity. You said that keys to writing two 115,000-120,000-word books a year are your separate office space, your dedicated 9 a.m.-4 p.m. writing schedule and ignoring the internet. Should aspiring writers try to employ some sort of daily quota system to get words down, or just make it a habit of writing every day? Is the love of writing an often-unrecognized secret to writing productivity in an age of so many distractions?

KH: I do shut down my internet for chunks of time when I’m writing, because it’s just so easy to be distracted, especially when the book isn’t going well. I think setting goals is a must, though I’m more vague with mine. Rather than trying to hit a daily word count, I shoot for a weekly or monthly count. And yes, writing every day is helpful. Otherwise, the pressure builds up and an author can feel a little sweaty and panicked.

Humor & sex in the story. You employ easy humor so well in incident, word choices, dialogue, etc. Should a writer consciously strive for humor, or employ it only if it part of her natural writer’s voice?

KH: I think humor comes naturally. Your writing voice has it, or it doesn’t. Personally, my books get funnier as I revise, when I can home in on the humor and cut the dreck. I don’t think anyone should chase after any element of writing because it’s popular, whether it’s humor or, uh, spanking, for example. Honesty is probably the most important element in a writer’s voice.

At the romance panel that you said you didn’t include detailed sex scenes in your romance novels . . . .If You Only Knew has an inciting incident that involves “sexting.” Are you writing more, or more involved, sex scenes than before? Would you care to comment on what you feel makes a sex scene work?

KH: I’ve gotten a little more comfortable writing love scenes, but I still don’t write graphic details. As a reader, I find those really detailed scenes less appealing. Honestly, they can be about as explicit as a lesson from a gynecologist, and. . .well, that’s just not for me. And honestly, it’s a rare author who can write an explicit love scene without just regurgitating the same phrases that have been used for centuries. An audio book narrator told me if she had to read the world “shattered” one more time, she would punch herself in the face, for example. Lordy, that made me laugh!

I think the challenge in writing a love scene is to capture both the emotional and physical elements in a new way without getting ridiculous. We all know what happens (one hopes). What’s really original is the emotional component. That’s what I try to focus on, while still giving a strong sense of sexy time.

What makes a love scene work is just that—love. Why is this time is different and meaningful? How do you convey that? What’s the subtext? Otherwise, you just have Tab A going into Slot B, and Ikea seems to have that kind of description covered.

Setting. The last question comes from our Library writing colleague Alison McBain, who has read all of your books. “[Kristan’s] books are written in a similar version to how she presents herself—funny, quirky, down-to-earth. She also does an amazing job of incorporating local areas into her novels. How does she research/choose a location/incorporate the places in which she sets her books into the narrative? Her towns feel so real—I’ve rarely read an author who does as good a job in making the locations really come to life. She is a master at that. Does she have pages and pages of research, or are these places where she’s spent a significant amount of time herself?”

KH: That’s one of the nicest comments I’ve ever read, so thank you, Alison! I do visit the locations I’m researching. All of my settings are in the Northeast, and I’m a Connecticut Yankee, so I already have that sensibility. It would be tough for me to write a fifth-generation Texan, for example, because culture is so ingrained.

When I visit a location, I wander a lot and try to soak everything in. I take pictures of ordinary things. . .the pavement, the lamppost, a regular house, the grocery store. I also try to find a townie bar and eavesdrop. I ask questions once in a while; I’m always interested in what people want me to hear about, and what they don’t bring up. As with most things, the unspoken stuff is the most interesting.

Growing up, I was a little bit of a fringe character in my family and in school, which allowed me to watch and listen more than participate (save your tears. . .I wouldn’t have it any other way!). It’s translated into a really excellent skill as a writer. I think it’s true for most writers—we’d rather listen than talk.

—Alex McNab

Published in: on November 15, 2015 at 7:55 pm  Leave a Comment