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.

Can You Write Like Tolstoy?

Writing Techniques

Most writers read for pleasure – but also to be inspired by great writers and adopt the good things they do and make it part of their writing process.

Few would argue that Tolstoy was one of those iconic writers who inspires all of us. Indeed, who wouldn’t want to: “Write Like Tolstoy.”

In his Wall Street Journal review of Richard Cohen’s book, “How to Write Like Tolstoy,” Stefan Beck takes on  an age-old question: Can good writing be taught. I found his analysis intriguing. Here is part of what he said:

One is bound to feel duped if, having bought a book called “How to Write Like Tolstoy,” one encounters within the first six pages the question “Can one, in fact, teach people to write?” This dodge is a common rhetorical gambit of people being paid to teach people to write—the implication being, “Don’t expect a miracle.” Richard Cohen, an author, professor and veteran editor of such luminaries as Kingsley Amis and John le Carré, cites Kurt Vonnegut as having been skeptical of writing instruction. Vonnegut, on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “held that one could not make writers, and likened himself to a golf pro who could, at best, take a few shots off someone’s game.” So one can teach people to write—just not like Count Lev.

Notwithstanding its title, which is clearly tongue-in-cheek, Mr. Cohen’s book has admirably modest aims. It seeks to provide sound advice to aspiring writers and to illuminate the ways in which the finest novelists have addressed fiction’s creative and technical challenges. It begins with “Grab, Invite, Beguile: Beginnings,” ends with “The Sense of an Ending,” and, in between, discourses upon character, point of view, dialogue, plot and rhythm. There are also, less predictably, chapters on plagiarism and the difficulties and rewards of writing about sex. All of this amounts to something more substantial than a mere handbook. It is a paean to the creative process.

Read more of this article here

Suspense!

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Two things are universally true. First, writers are told time-and-time again to “create suspense” in whatever they’re writing. Second, Lee Child is one of the most celebrated authors writing today. When I discovered her opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, “A Simple Way to Create Suspense,” I thought I’d struck gold. I wasn’t wrong. Here’s part of what she shares:

How do you create suspense? I’m asked that question often, and it seems that every writers’ symposium has a class with that title. It’s an important technical issue, and not just for so-called suspense novels. Every novel needs a narrative engine, a reason for people to keep reading to the end, whatever the subject, style, genre or approach.

But it’s a bad question. Its very form misleads writers and pushes them onto an unhelpful and overcomplicated track.

Because “How do you create suspense?” has the same interrogatory shape as “How do you bake a cake?” And we all know — in theory or practice — how to bake a cake. We need ingredients, and we infer that the better quality those ingredients are, the better quality the cake will be. We know that we have to mix and stir those ingredients, and we’re led to believe that the more thoroughly and conscientiously we combine them, the better the cake will taste. We know we have to cook the cake in an oven, and we figure that the more exact the temperature and timing, the better the cake will look.

So writers are taught to focus on ingredients and their combination. They’re told they should create attractive, sympathetic characters, so that readers will care about them deeply, and then to plunge those characters into situations of continuing peril, the descent into which is the mixing and stirring, and the duration and horrors of which are the timing and temperature.

But it’s really much simpler than that. “How do you bake a cake?” has the wrong structure. It’s too indirect. The right structure and the right question is: “How do you make your family hungry?”

And the answer is: You make them wait four hours for dinner.

As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer. (Which is what I did here, and you’re still reading, right?)

Read more of this insightful article here.

Your Muse?

Writing Techniques

Most writers seek help from “the muse” at some point. Some spend their entire lives waiting the muse and never write a thing – don’t let that happen to you!

For a humorous twist on this, the movie The Muse, with Sharon Stone, Albert Brooks and Andie MacDowell captures it brilliantly. Here’s the trailer:

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi972488985

Alexandra Kaptik answers this question in her Wall Street Journal article, “Inspired Choice.” Here is part of what she said:

When William Kretz, a software engineer from Arlington, Texas, decided to begin writing fiction as a hobby, he headed for that old favorite haven of would-be artists: the coffeehouse. But his destination wasn’t some smoky beat refuge or even a glossy Starbucks. Instead, it was a Web site called Coffeehouse for Writers.

The site is one of several online rallying points for budding authors, offering homespun free advice as well as some how-to courses that charge fees. For the 29-year-old Mr. Kretz — who was struggling to write a first-person fictional account of the inner life of a problem-ridden superhero — the big draw was that other denizens of the site kept prodding him to improve his writing while pushing him not to give up.

“I would never have thought I could do it without their encouragement,” says Mr. Kretz. When he posted his first chapter on a message board sponsored by the site, www.coffeehouseforwriters.com, he expected rave reviews but didn’t get them. “I was stunned — I really thought my work was nearly perfect,” he says. But the reaction of the writers convinced him that his first draft was “a literary piece of garbage” with far too many unnecessary words.

To help him along, one writer took on the task of nitpicking his entire work, one chapter at a time. “By chapter nine, I learned how to reword sentences on my own,” says Mr. Kretz, who is currently submitting his first short story to a magazine.

Where will you find your muse?

Read more of this article here.

Writing to Produce

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It is a rare writer’s conference or symposium where a writer doesn’t get asked: “How many words do you write a day.” Most attendees are looking for a magic formula from writers of all ilk, seeking that path to publishing. But there is no pat answer. It’s different for all of us. But if there is one truth it is this: How much you write isn’t a reflection on how well you write.

Here is what one of today’s most successful and well-known writers, Stephen King, has to say about the subject.

No one in his or her right mind would argue that quantity guarantees quality, but to suggest that quantity never produces quality strikes me as snobbish, inane and demonstrably untrue.

It is easy to look at those few books, each of extraordinary quality, and conclude that the fewer the better. Perhaps: The recently retired Philip Roth wrote multiples more than the two of them combined, and “Our Gang” was pretty awful. But then, “American Pastoral” seems to me a much finer novel than either Ms. Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” or Mr. Franzen’s “Freedom.”

My thesis here is a modest one: that prolificacy is sometimes inevitable, and has its place. The accepted definition — “producing much fruit, or foliage, or many offspring” — has an optimistic ring, at least to my ear.

You can read more of this insightful article here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/31/opinion/stephen-king-can-a-novelist-be-too-productive.html