Men and Women

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Most would agree that men and women are different. That notion is a bit of a no-brainer. And most would also agree that male writers and female writers bring different skills to the craft.

But for me, I never thought deeply about just what those differences were between male writers and female writers. That’s why I found a recent piece by Nicole Krauss, “Do Women Get to Write With Authority?” so intriguing. Here is part of what she shared:

On forms to be filled out in waiting rooms, I always hesitate over the question of occupation: writer or author? For years it was only writer; now it’s a question of mood. Writer forever has her work ahead of her. Author has already done it. Writer bears no great claim: Like anyone else, she is just scrabbling away at it, unsure, experimenting. Author comes with distinction, and the right to expect that she will be read. Now, though, I think the perceived honor of the word is wrapped up in “author” sounding like a chip off the granite block of authority.

Both “author” and “authority” evolved from the Latin “augere” — to increase, to originate — and expanded in “author” to be someone who invents or causes something. Which returns me to a question that bothered me to no end when I was younger: Who gives her the right? Or more like: How does she take it? How does she claim for herself the authority to increase or originate, or invent or cause something, such as a book that people will read?

Want more? You can read the full article here.

Grisham’s Rules

Writing Techniques

Few novelists have been as wildly successful as John Grisham. And unlike some writers, Grisham shares his secrets! Here are his first two suggestions:

  1. DO — WRITE A PAGE EVERY DAY

That’s about 200 words, or 1,000 words a week. Do that for two years and you’ll have a novel that’s long enough.

Nothing will happen until you are producing at least one page per day.

  1. DON’T — WRITE THE FIRST SCENE UNTIL YOU KNOW THE LAST

This necessitates the use of a dreaded device commonly called an outline. Virtually all writers hate that word. I have yet to meet one
who admits to using an outline.

Want the other six? You can read them here.

Grisham’s Rules

Writing Techniques

We all have our favorite writers. As a guy who writes primary military techno-thrillers, I tend to gravitate to writers who excel in that genre: Clancy and his successor writers, Stephen Coonts, Dick Couch, Larry Bond, David Poyer, Rick Campbell, P.T. Deutermann and a few others.

But for all of us, there are writers who, while they write in a different genre, are so successful that we hold them up as examples regarding how we should write. John Grisham is one of those writers, and when he is generous with his advice, as he was in his New York Times piece, “John Grisham’s Do’s and Don’ts for Writing Popular Fiction,” We all listen.

Here’s just a taste to whet your appetite:

  1. DO — WRITE A PAGE EVERY DAY

That’s about 200 words, or 1,000 words a week. Do that for two years and you’ll have a novel that’s long enough.

Nothing will happen until you are producing at least one page per day.

  1. DON’T — WRITE THE FIRST SCENE UNTIL YOU KNOW THE LAST

This necessitates the use of a dreaded device commonly called an outline. Virtually all writers hate that word. I have yet to meet one
who admits to using an outline.

Intrigued? You can read the entire article here.

News You Can Use

Writing Techniques

While I’ve written op-eds for various newspapers, with novels and non-fiction books in work as well as a slew of articles for various journals and magazines, op-eds aren’t my current focus.

That’s why I ALMOST glossed over and didn’t read Bret Stephens recent New York Times op-ed, “Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers.” Had I missed his piece I’d have missed a gem.

Here is just a small part of what he shared in his fifteen tips. From my point of view, they’re invaluable for any kind of writing.

“A wise editor once observed that the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. This means that every sentence has to count in grabbing the reader’s attention, starting with the first. Get to the point: Why does your topic matter? Why should it matter today? And why should the reader care what you, of all people, have to say about it?”

You can read this entire op-ed full of “news you can use” here.

The Red Pencil

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For those of us who write, life is good – or even great – when you have a good editor. Editors are the unsung heroes who make our writing sing.

That’s why it seems a bit unfair that editors remain behind the scenes, toiling in virtual obscurity as they do their vital work.

Occasionally, and editor becomes well-known, largely because he or she has shepherded a writer along and helped that writer achieve fame or even fortune.

Harold Evans is one of those editors and that’s why I latched on to his book: DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR? Why Writing Well Matters.

Here is how Jim Holt’s book review of Evans book begins:

Have you heard of Harold Evans? Sir Harold Evans? Of course you have. He is one of the greatest and most garlanded editors alive. Now in his late 80s, Evans emerged from a working-class Welsh family in the provincial north of England to make his reputation as an ambitious young newspaperman. From 1967 to 1981 he was helmsman of The Sunday Times of London, which he turned into a powerhouse of investigative journalism. Leaving The Times after he clashed with its officious new purchaser, Rupert Murdoch, Evans soon moved to the United States. By the 1990s he had become head of Random House, where he edited the books of eminences like Norman Mailer and Henry Kissinger. Subsequently he himself wrote several popular books on American history. He is married to Tina Brown, the erstwhile editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Harry and Tina are Manhattan’s ultimate editorial “power couple.” One imagines that, after the last guest has left one of their glittering Sutton Place soirees, their pillow talk abounds in terms like “stet,” “transpose” and “delete.”

With that as a teaser, you can read the full review here.

My Fiction-My Life?

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Every so often, an article about writing reaches out of the pages, grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me, saying, “Yes, this is what writers like – and don’t like.”

Last Sunday’s New York Times book review had a killer-good piece on writing by Jami Attenberg entitled, “It’s My Fiction, Not My Life!” Here’s how she begins:

“The panic starts in London. I’m there publicizing my last book, and at a small press lunch, my British publicist tells me that she’s just read the novel I’ve recently finished writing. She leans close to me and says, quietly, ‘You should prepare yourself for invasive publicity.’”

“Oh, dread, I remember you. There are authors who blur the boundaries between themselves and their work: Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner come to mind. Elif Batuman has described her new novel, “The Idiot,” as a “semi-autobiographical novel.” But I’ve always found the presumption of autobiography when applied to my work a little lazy and a lot unfair.”

The question of autobiographical fiction seems to have been with us always. Here’s Wallace Stegner in a 1990 interview with The Paris Review: “The very fact that some of my experience goes into the book is all but inescapable, and true for almost any writer I can name. Which is real and which is invented is (a) nobody’s business, and (b) a rather silly preoccupation, and (c) impossible to answer. . . . The kind of roman à clef reading determining biographical facts in fiction is not a good way to read. Read the fiction.”

Want more? You can read the full article here.

Readin’ and Writin’

Writing Techniques

Why do we read? For pleasure, of course. Why else? Well, to learn about the world, to be entertained, to be moved, perhaps even to help us fall asleep…there are many more reasons.

This may be true for most, but for writers, most of us have a dirty little secret. We also read to feed our writing, and with any luck, make it better.

I always had this vague notion, but couldn’t put my finger on exactly how it worked, that is, until I read a great piece by Zoe Heller and Anna Holmes entitled, “What Do You Read While You Write? It spoke to me…and maybe it will speak to you.

Intrigued? You can read the full article here

Whose Story Is It?

Writing Techniques

We swamped in terminology about books: Biographies, memoirs, authorized-biographies, unauthorized-biographies, autobiographies, etc. etc. But then the question comes up: Who Gets to Tell Other People’s Stories? This is the title of a Bookends piece co-written by Anna Holmes and James Parker, who present the ying and yang of the argument.

In one Corner:

Anna Holmes is an award-winning writer who has contributed to numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Salon, Newsweek and The New Yorker online. She is the editor of two books: “Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters From the End of the Affair”; and “The Book of Jezebel,” based on the popular women’s website she created in 2007. She is an editorial executive at First Look Media and lives in New York.

In the other Corner:

James Parker is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and has written for Slate, The Boston Globe and Arthur magazine. He was a staff writer at The Boston Phoenix and in 2008 won a Deems Taylor Award for music criticism from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Want to see them throw punches? You can read the full article here.

Deconstructing a Novel

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There are many ways to get advice regarding writing a novel. There are courses, experts and any number of books and online advice. How to sort the wheat from the chaff?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember and focusing on novels in particular for almost twenty years. While it’s hard to pick the “best” advice I’ve ever encountered, I’ll offer the Freytag Pyramid as one we can all benefit from. From my perspective, you can deconstruct any novel and it fits this model.

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Very briefly, here is what each part comports:

  1. Exposition: setting the scene. The writer introduces the characters and setting, providing description and background.
  2. Inciting Incident: something happens to begin the action. A single event usually signals the beginning of the main conflict. The inciting incident is sometimes called ‘the complication’.
  3. Rising Action: the story builds and gets more exciting.
  4. Climax: the moment of greatest tension in a story. This is often the most exciting event. It is the event that the rising action builds up to and that the falling action follows.
  5. Falling Action: events happen as a result of the climax and we know that the story will soon end.
  6. Resolution: the character solves the main problem/conflict or someone solves it for him or her.
  7. Dénouement:(a French term, pronounced: day-noo-moh) the ending. At this point, any remaining secrets, questions or mysteries which remain after the resolution are solved by the characters or explained by the author. Sometimes the author leaves us to think about the THEME or future possibilities for the characters.

The Next Level

Writing Techniques

Last month, I spoke at the San Diego State University Writer’s Conference.  As always, it was an inspiring event with extraordinarily accomplished writers as keynote speakers, such as:

  • Jonathan Maberry
  • J.D. Jance
  • Sherrilyn Kenyon
  • R.L. Stine

What struck me about each of these writing rock stars is that ALL of them had difficult childhoods and struggled as adults before they garnered success as writers.

We all have our struggles and if our situation ever leads to our thinking that writing is just “too hard” given our touch circumstances, learning a bit about their life stories should encourage us to keep plugging away.

As one example of these travails, Jonathan Maberry, New York Time best-selling writer, and five-time Bram Stoker Award winner, grew up in a home with an abusive father who allowed no books in the home. It was his way of keeping his family in bondage. Maberry found freedom in his local library.

Juxtapose this with a recent piece in the Sunday New York Times Magazine about Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress. The article is entitled: Carla Hayden Thinks Libraries Are A Key to Freedom.” You can read the entire piece here.

I’ll share more insights from the San Diego State University Writer’s Conference in future blog posts.