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.

The Undoing Project

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Michael Lewis has brought us provocative books in the past such as Liar’s Poker and The Big Short. He thinks big and presents what he discovers in eminently readable form.

His latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, is not only a great read, but it makes us think about how we think, and that’s its purpose.

Here is part of what David Leonhardt shared in his review of The Undoing Project in The New York Times:

In the fall of 1969, behind the closed door of an otherwise empty seminar room at Hebrew University, two psychologists began a collaboration that would upend the understanding of human behavior. Those first conversations were filled with uproarious laughter and occasional shouting, in a jumble of Hebrew and English, which could sometimes be heard from the hallway.

When it came time for the two professors to write up their papers, they would sit next to each other at a single typewriter. “We were sharing a mind,” one would say later. They flipped a coin to decide whose name would appear first on their initial paper and alternated thereafter. The two names were Amos Tversky — the winner of that coin flip — and Daniel Kahneman.

Their work revealed previously undiscovered patterns of human irrationality: the ways that our minds consistently fool us and the steps we can take, at least some of the time, to avoid being fooled. Kahneman and Tversky used the word “heuristics” to describe the rules of thumb that often lead people astray. One such rule is the “halo effect,” in which thinking about one positive attribute of a person or thing causes observers to perceive other strengths that aren’t really there. Another is “representativeness,” which leads people to see cause and effect — to see a “narrative” — where they should instead accept uncertainty or randomness.

For writers, there is an important nugget in this review that ought to be stated in capital letters: “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”

Read the entire killer-good review here.

Great Books Camp

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What do conservatives read? What do liberals read? What do progressives read? What are you reading? What you read has a huge impact on what you write. Here are some thoughts.

This political season brought many issues to the fore, and one of the most interesting was what various political camps considered “great books.” Here is part of what Molly Worthen shared in her New York Times piece, “Can I Go to Great Books Camp?”

A small but growing number of young conservatives see themselves not only as engaged citizens, but as guardians of an ancient intellectual tradition. The members of Ms. Havard’s group were alumni of a seven-week crash course in political theory offered by the Hertog Foundation, the family foundation of the Wall Street financier Roger Hertog. Attendees discuss authors like Aristotle, James Madison and Leo Strauss and hear lectures by scholars and policy experts. “Our curriculum represents what we think ought to be a high-level introduction to politics, one you rarely find in any political science department,” Peter Berkowitz, the program’s dean, told me.

The Hertog course is one of more than a dozen similar seminars sponsored by conservative and libertarian organizations around the country. Some last for months, others just a few days. Some recruit older participants, but most target college students and 20-somethings.

Liberals have their own activist workshops and reading groups, but these rarely instruct students in an intellectual tradition, a centuries-long canon of political philosophy. Why have philosophical summer schools become a vibrant subculture on the right, but only a feeble presence on the left? The disparity underscores a divide between conservatives and liberals over the best way to teach young people — and, among liberals, a certain squeamishness about the history of ideas.

Liberals, however, can’t afford to dismiss Great Books as tools of white supremacy, or to disdain ideological training as the sort of unsavory thing that only conservatives and communists do. These are powerful tools for preparing the next generation of activists to succeed in the bewildering ideological landscape of the country that just elected Mr. Trump.

Read this intriguing article here.

Book Guilt?

Writing Techniques

What are you reading? Seems like an innocent-sounding question, especially among friends. But do you ever hesitate and wonder how your friend will react to what you’re really reading?

We used to use terms like “highbrow” and “lowbrow” to differentiate books like War and Peace from a trashy Gothic novel, but those terms are out of vogue.

But still, sometimes we have “book guilt” that what we’re reading doesn’t have sufficient “heft” or isn’t meaningful enough. I liked how Erin Smith addressed this in the Wall Street Journal:

Nearly everyone who considers themselves well-read, or just desires to be, has a book, or several, that haunts them—the classic they haven’t read.

Some take that one book on vacation, a seemingly surefire way of plowing through, and never crack the cover. Others keep an ever-lengthening list of books they feel they must read, or never forget the one they lied about completing in high school, or lied about at a cocktail party last week.

Is book guilt effective inspiration, or should it be left on the shelf with that lonely copy of “Ulysses”?

Amazon senior books editor Chris Schluep, previously a longtime editor at Random House, suggests people dealing with book guilt stop beating themselves up. If not having read a particular author is causing you stress, he says, choose the author’s shortest book.

Mr. Schluep also often reads works by Herman Melville and Daniel Defoe when waiting in line—a few pages at a time over however long it takes counts as reading. And before you dive in, Mr. Schluep suggests, get a second opinion from someone whose taste you trust. It may just be that the book isn’t for you.

Mostly, he thinks readers should just let the book guilt go. “People are way too judgmental about books,” especially the classics, Mr. Schluep says.

And if there is one particular book you just can’t struggle through, there is a way to get the gist of a classic work without doing the work. “Watch the movie,” he says.

You can read this entire insightful article here.

Tricks of the Trade

Writing Techniques

We all know that empathy is important. And most of us tell ourselves we need to have more empathy for others. It’s a worthy call, but many times we fall short.

Want a trick of the trade? Try reading fiction. I read a great article by Susan Pinker that validated what I thought I knew, I just needed sometime to explain it in a way that made sense.

Here is part of what she suggested in her great article: “Novel Findings: Fiction Makes Us Feel for Others.”

“We’ve long known about the collateral benefits of habitual reading—a richer vocabulary, for example. But that’s only part of the picture. Mounting evidence over the past decade suggests that the mental calisthenics required to live inside a fictional character’s skin foster empathy for the people you meet day-to-day.”

“In 2006, a study led by University of Toronto psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar connected fiction-reading with increased sensitivity to others. To measure how much text the readers had seen in their lifetimes, they took an author-recognition test—a typical measure for this type of study. “The more fiction people read, the better they empathized,” was how Dr. Oatley summarized the findings. The effect didn’t hold for nonfiction.”

“The results? Once competing variables were statistically stripped away, fiction reading predicted higher levels of empathy. Such readers also lived large in the flesh-and-blood social sphere, with richer networks of people to provide entertainment and support than people who read less fiction. This finding put to rest the stereotype of bookworms as social misfits who use fictional characters as avatars for real friends and romantic partners.”

Thought provoking? You can read the full article here.

Debut Novels!

Writing Techniques

Two writers, Leslie Jamison and Ayana Mathis have some interesting thoughts about why debut novels command so much attention.

Jamison suggests:

“Debut novelists can prove intoxicating in shallow ways — by virtue of their youth and precocity, their big advances, their buzz and hype. Hyped debut novelists are the writers who most resemble actual celebrities — actresses or singers. The snowball effects of publicity can operate with a logic like Don DeLillo’s most-photographed barn in America: The barn is a tourist attraction because of all the tourists who have been attracted to it. And all this attraction, in turn, deepens the pleasure of its counterforce: the satisfaction of participating in the backlash against the debut novelist, pushing back against her hype. It’s the shadow-fixation embedded in the fixation itself: Gossiping about the overhyped debut novelist has become its own kind of contact sport.”

“Of course, most debut novelists don’t find themselves greeted by seven-figure advances and photo shoots in Vogue, and many people who write beautiful first novels never get to be “debut novelists” at all. They never even get published. American publishing isn’t a pure meritocracy any more than America itself is.”

Mathis has a different point of view:

“A debut novel is a piece of the writer’s soul in a way that subsequent books can’t ever quite be. This isn’t to say a debut is a writer’s best novel, God forbid; only that the movement from a single blank page to 300 written pages is a psychic and creative feat rendered that much more arduous because it has been undertaken for the first time. Stakes are high, and even those who wouldn’t ever admit it are afraid. And so we devour news about other debuts. To which publishing house? How much was the advance? Were there prizes involved? We obsess about these bits of information with a certain desperation, as though they were tea leaves through which we might divine our own futures.”

“Much is expected of a debut these days. The arts have succumbed to the more pernicious aspects of novelty culture; we are increasingly less mindful of the fact that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Great novels sometimes come roaring out of the mind of a first-timer, but more often greatness is the product of years of striving. The most reasonable and realistic conception of a writer’s trajectory focuses on her artistic development. Her career shouldn’t be a one-shot, winner-take-all enterprise in which her debut has to succeed, or else. I don’t mean to imply that publishing doesn’t invest in careers anymore; it certainly does, but it is also the case that early-career writers don’t have as much room to fail as they used to.”

This killer-good article is well-worth reading in its entirety.