Heart or Head?


Tim Parks knows how to get the conversation going and the emotions flowing. Here’s how titled his piece in the Roving Eye column in the New York Times Book Review: “Should Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head?”

That will keep you reading. Here is part of what he shared:

And he [Montaigne] asks a question that no one asks these days: “Is it right for the arts to serve our natural weakness and to let them profit from our inborn animal-stupidity?” Aside from its astute selection of moving detail, art is constantly in the business of manipulating our emotions, as if this were an end in itself. This, after all, was Plato’s objection to the arts and every kind of artistic effect — that it was manipulative and potentially mendacious. Or simply a waste: “How often,” Montaigne asks, “do we encumber our spirits with yellow bile or sadness by means of such shadows?”

If we apply these ideas to narrative fiction as it is today, what do we find? First, the idea that a book, or film for that matter, stimulates extreme emotions is constantly deployed as a promotional tool. Terrifying, hair-raising, profoundly upsetting, painfully tender, heartbreaking, devastating, shocking, are all standard fare in dust-jacket blurbs and newspaper reviews; it is as if the reader were an ectoplasm in need of powerful injections of adrenaline. Anything that disturbs us, arouses us, unsettles us, is unconditionally positive. “You will be on the edge of your seat.” “Your heart will be thumping.” “Your pulse will be racing.” Aristotle’s response to Plato, that arousing emotion could be positive so long as the emotion was clarified, cathartically contained and understood, is rarely invoked. At best there is the implication that arousing emotions fosters sympathy, perhaps even empathy, with fictional characters and that such sympathy then breaks down our prejudices and hence is socially useful. So readers will frequently be invited to contemplate the sufferings of threatened minorities or discriminated-against ethnic groups, or the predicament of those who are young, helpless and preferably attractive. But this is an alibi and we all know it; what matters is stimulating emotion to sell books.

Want more? You can read the full piece here.

Paula Hawkins


One of the most popular writers today is Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train. And for many of us, we’re always interested in learning about what great writers read: Some excerpts:

What books are currently on your night stand?

“As If,” by Blake Morrison; “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead; Virginia Woolf’s “A Writer’s Diary.” I’m also listening to the audiobook of “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” by Marlon James.

What’s the last great book you read?

“A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanagihara. I came to it rather late — I’d been put off by what I’d heard about the upsetting subject matter, but when I heard Hanya speak about the book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May I changed my mind. And I’m so glad I did, because while it was every bit as traumatic as everyone said it would be, it is also a remarkable study of friendship, suffering and the difficulty of recovery. Incidentally it is the first audiobook I have ever listened to, and I’m now a total convert. I’d forgotten what a joyous thing it is to allow yourself to be told a story.

Want more? You can read the full piece here.

The Writing Process


There are a few writers who help define what writing is for all of us. John McPhee is one of them. That’s why I was intrigued by a review of his newest book: “Draft NO. 4.” Here is part of what the reviewer had to offer:

Followers of John McPhee, perhaps the most revered nonfiction narrative journalist of our time, will luxuriate in the shipshape prose of “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process,” a collection of eight essays that first appeared in The New Yorker, his home for more than 50 years. Writers looking for the secrets of his stripped-bark style and painstaking structure will have to be patient with what is a discursive, though often delightful, short book. McPhee’s publisher is presenting it as a “master class,” but it’s really a memoir of writing during a time of editorial cosseting that now seems as remote as the court of the Romanovs. Readerly patience will be rewarded by plentiful examples of the author’s sinewy prose and, toward the end, by advice and tips that will help writers looking to become better practitioners of the craft and to stay afloat in what has become a self-service economy.

Virtually no part of McPhee’s long career, full of months-long or years-long research trips and hours or days staring at a blank computer screen, resembles the churn-it-out grind of today’s professional web writer. Except the earliest part, which he returns to often: the English class at Princeton High School whose teacher, Mrs. McKee, made him write three pieces a week (“Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them”) for three solid years and encouraged her students to critique one another, to the point of hissing and spitballs. Her constant deadlines led him to devise a crucial tactic: Force yourself to break from “wallowing in all those notes” and determine an ending, then go back to worrying about the beginning. Which leads to the first formal rule he provides, and then only a quarter of the way through the book: When you’re getting nowhere and “you don’t know what to do. Stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”

Want more? You can read the full article here

Insider Information


Many writers look for “insider information” on not only how to write but also how to market what they write.

I’m always looking for both, and that’s what intrigued me about a recent interview with literary critic Parul Sehgal. Here is part of what she shared:

I love being part of both a tradition of literature and this fantastic, fractious, quarrelsome thing known as criticism, which is part of literature, and on top of it, and alongside it.

Criticism can be a way of adding to a bank of knowledge, a bank of understanding, a way of refreshing and renewing and protecting language.

In scientific fields, there’s this established idea that you’re always standing on the shoulders of giants — that every discovery pushes the whole enterprise forward. When it comes to the arts, though, we don’t talk about things that way. We tend not to say that, because of some novel, we now know X or Y. But I’ve always felt that to be true. Because of the modernists, for example, we have a greater sense of subjectivity.

I like to think of literature and criticism as an act of pushing something forward, of mapping new terrains, internal and external, of doing things with language that reveal something about what it means to read and to live.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Men and Women


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:


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.


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:


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.


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


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?


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.