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.

What the Dickens?

Writing Techniques

Most writers have well-known authors who they admire. For many of us, it’s someone who writes in the genre we do, whether its science fiction, romance, fantasy, thrillers or any one of a number of genres.

And for many of us, there are paragons of the craft who we all honor and admire – masters of their craft whose work has been read or decades or even centuries because they speak to all of us, regardless of what we do in our day-to-day lives or where our writing interests take us.

Charles Dickens is one of those iconic writers. When Nathan Hill published “The Nix” a critic for Booklist called it an “engrossing, skewering and preternaturally timely tale” and compared it to works by Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, Tom Wolfe and John Irving. Mr. Irving, in turn, compared “The Nix” to works by Charles Dickens and other 19th-century masters.

But as Alexandra Alter tells us, being compared to Dickens had some unintended consequences.

Read more of this article here.

Book Reviews!

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Most writers write to communicate and care – often deeply – about how well they do this. One of the most watched aspects of this for most writers is the reviews they get in the run-up to the book’s publication date. These come from major reviewers that receive an ARC – and advanced reader’s copy – of the book.

Want to read an insider’s account about how impactful these reviews are. Jennifer Senior’s recent article in the New York Times is just that. Here is part of what she shared:

“How do professional authors handle unsparing criticism, written in just a few days or weeks, of something they’ve toiled over for years? I decided to ask Curtis Sittefeld author of Prep, American Wife and Eligible (a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice). In the last three years Curtis has become a friend, and she’s remarkably honest about such matters. She’s also willing to take real risks in her writing — imagining the inner life of Laura Bush, reimagining a beloved classic — which means she’s made herself critically vulnerable in all sorts of ways. Here are edited excerpts from our email exchange.”

This killer-good article is well-worth reading in its entirety: Read the entire article here.

Act Like a Writer

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What do actors know about writing? Actually, a great deal! Some time ago, actress Molly Ringwald connected the dots for the rest of us in her article: “Act Like a Writer.” It was an “ah ha” moment for me. Here is part of what she said:

I think there is a natural curiosity that many people have when they hear about an actor writing fiction. While it’s not exactly comparable to proving a mathematical theorem, it does seem an unusual endeavor to some. For me, however, what is surprising is that more actors don’t do it, as writing fiction draws on many of the same skills that, as an actor, I have been practicing my entire life.

The appeal of diving into a character has always been the back story: everything that my character has been through up to the point when the audience first encounters her. I have eagerly invented intricate histories that I shared with no one — except during an occasional late night boozy discussion with other like-minded and obsessive actors.

Ultimately, I believe that the true collaboration involves the audience, or in the case of the novelist, the reader. These are the people who truly make the characters live. When the metaphorical curtain went up on my own book, I sat in the audience, alternately anxious and elated, waiting to see how these actors transformed my words through their own personal experiences.

Read more of this article here:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/18/act-like-a-writer/

The Writer in the Family

Writing Techniques

Most writers have families, and these close relations embrace their lifestyle. Or do they. Well-known author Roger Rosenblatt suggests that most authors get treated like weirdoes in their own homes – and that they have only themselves to blame. Here is part of what he said in his humorous article:

So there I stood at the front of my granddaughter Jessica’s fourth-grade classroom, still as a glazed dog, while Jessie introduced me to her classmates, to whom I was about to speak. “This is my grandfather, Boppo,” she said, invoking my grandpaternal nickname. “He lives in the basement and does nothing.”

Her description, if terse, was not inaccurate. My wife and I do live on the lower level of our son-in-law’s house with him and our three grandchildren. And, as far as anyone in the family can see, I do nothing, or next to it. This is the lot of the writer. You will hear someone referred to as “the writer in the family” — usually a quiet child who dresses strangely and shows inclinations to do nothing in the future. But when a supposedly grown-up writer is a member of the family, who knows what to make of him? A friend of my son-in-law’s asked me the other day, “You still writing?” — as if the profession were a new sport I’d picked up, like curling, or a disease I was trying to get rid of. Alexander Pope: “This long disease, my life.”

Writers cannot fairly object to being seen in this way. Since, in the nothing we do — the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Wallace Stevens) — we do not live in the real world, or wish to, it is fruitless and dishonest to protest that we do. When family members introduce us to one of their friends, it is always with bewilderment camouflaged by hyperbole. “This is so-and-so,” they will say, too heartily. “He’s a great and esteemed writer.” To which their friend will reply, “Would I have read anything you’ve written?” To which I reply, “How should I know?”

At home, they will treat us like domesticated, dangerous animals, pet pandas or snow leopards, patting and feeding us, while eyeing our teeth. Or they will make touching attempts to associate us with comprehensible pursuits, such as commerce. When he was 3, my 5-year-old grandson, James, proposed that the two of us go into business together. “We will write things and we will sell things,” he said, thereby yoking two enterprises that are rarely yoked.

Read the entire article here.