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!

09SUSPENSE-blog427

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

30king-master675

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

Herman Wouk at 100

Writing Techniques

Few of us can forget the novels Herman Wouk has written over his illustrious career. He celebrated his 100th birthday this year and reflected on his Bronx childhood and his writing career. Here is some of what he said in his Wall Street Journal interview.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly when I wanted to be a writer. In the eighth grade, the school published a yearbook that included one of my short stories. It was a simple-minded story, but there it was. It was about a boy who filches fruit from the fruit stand and is asked to hand it out to the needy on Thanksgiving. During the handouts, one of the people in need turns out to be the fruit-stand man. In the end, the boy feels badly and pays for the fruit he pinched.

When I finished high school and went off to Columbia University, I didn’t think, “Well, now I will start being a writer.” Initially, I thought I wanted to be a psychologist. So I took organic chemistry, which turned out to be a big step toward becoming a writer. Chemistry, clearly, wasn’t for me. I gravitated to the college newspaper and then the “Jester,” the campus humor magazine. I had always been a writer.

If his journey doesn’t provide inspiration for your writing journey, nothing will. Read more here:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/novelist-herman-wouk-on-his-bronx-childhood-1457455764

 

Writing Critics

31scott-blog427

Where you stand depends on where you sit. Some people think of critics as effete snobs who offer unfair criticism of works of art they themselves don’t have the courage to take on themselves.

But another view is that to be a critic is to be a defender of the life of art and a champion of the art of living. Here is what A.O. Scott, chief film critic for the New York Times, had to offer on the subject:

Like every other form of democracy, criticism is a messy, contentious business, in which the rules are as much in dispute as the outcomes and the philosophical foundations are fragile if not vaporous. We all like different things. Each of us is blessed with a snowflake-special consciousness, an apparatus of pleasure and perception that is ours alone. But we also cluster together in communities of taste that can be as prickly and polarized as the other tribes with which we identify. We are protective of our pleasures, and resent it when anyone tries to mock or mess with them.

And yet our ways of thinking about this fundamental human attribute amount to a heap of contradictions. There is no argument, but then again there is only argument. We grant that our preferences are subjective, but we’re rarely content to leave them in the private realm. It’s not enough to say “I like that” or “It wasn’t really my cup of tea.” We insist on stronger assertions, on objective statements. “That was great! That was terrible!”

The real culture war (the one that never ends) is between the human intellect and its equally human enemies: sloth, cliché, pretension, cant. Between creativity and conformity, between the comforts of the familiar and the shock of the new. To be a critic is to be a soldier in this fight, a defender of the life of art and a champion of the art of living.

You can read more of this insightful article here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/sunday-review/everybodys-a-critic-and-thats-how-it-should-be.html

Books and Social Skills

BN-MY349_RESREP_8S_20160307104835

My mother wanted me to be more social. She always complained: You need to get your nose out of those books.” I was an avid reader, and to her point, not very social. Maybe it had something to do with growing up in New York City and learning – at an early age – never to make eye contact on the subway.

Fast forward decades and as Ann Lukits suggests in her Wall Street Journal Health and Fitness article, maybe books do make us more social. In her words:

People who read a lot of fiction are known to have stronger social skills than nonfiction readers or nonreaders. A new study suggests that reading fictional works, especially stories that take readers inside people’s lives and minds, may enhance social skills by exercising a part of the brain involved in empathy and imagination.

Fiction’s ability to improve social skills—or social cognition—may depend on how well readers’ attention is drawn to other people’s mental states, the researchers said. Stories containing compelling emotional, social and psychological content may trigger neural changes in the default network, which could translate into enhanced social skills in real life, they suggest.

Worth a try? Read more here:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/reading-fiction-may-enhance-social-skills-1457366832

Publishing’s Big Bets!

A new trend is shaking up the publishing world, and this time it isn’t Amazon! The publishing industry’s hunt for the next blockbuster has given rise to an elite new club: the million-dollar literary debut. Literary fiction, long critically revered but poorly remunerated, is generating bigger and bigger bets by publishers.

As a result, publishers are competing for debut literary talent with the same kind of frenzied auction bidding once reserved for promising debut thrillers or romance novels. “If they feel they have the next Norman Mailer on their hands, they’re going have to pay for that shot,” literary agent Luke Janklow said. “It’s usually the result of a little bit of crowd hysteria in the submission.”

At least four literary debut novels planned for 2016 earned advances reported at $1 million or more, a number agents say is striking in the world of highbrow fiction. At least three such debuts were published this year, and two in 2014.

You can read more here:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/betting-big-on-literary-newcomers-1447880214

Publishing Breakthroughs

Writing Techniques

Twenty years ago, the words “self-published” meant a writer had gone to a vanity press, paid a great deal of money, and gotten several boxes of books he or she never sold. Ten years ago, things were a little better a few self-published books were able to break through and find at least a modest market. Five years ago things changed dramatically and self-publishing, thanks in large part to Amazon, began to take off.

 

Today, the market is reaching new heights. In a New York Times Magazine article, “Meredith Wild, a Self-Publisher Making an Imprint,” the curtain is drawn upon on this booming market. As the article points out:

Ms. Wild’s path from becoming a self-publishing star to operating her own small imprint is the latest sign that independent authors are catching up to publishers in the sophistication of their marketing and the scope of their ambitions. Self-published authors can negotiate foreign-rights deals and produce audiobooks. A handful of the most successful independent writers sell print copies of their books in physical retail stores like Barnes & Noble, Walmart and Target, giving them access to a market that traditional publishers have long dominated.

Now enterprising authors like Ms. Wild are forming their own small publishing houses. Just like the old-guard editors and publishing companies that they once defined themselves against, these new imprints promise to anoint fledgling authors with legitimacy and give them an edge in a flooded and cutthroat marketplace.

In a sense, these authors-turned-publishers are thriving because the self-publishing ecosystem has become oversaturated. Amazon has more than four million e-books in its Kindle store, up from 600,000 six years ago, making it harder for new authors to find an audience. Building your own brand may sound appealing and empowering, but only a small fraction of self-published authors sell enough books to make a living, and many are put off by the drudge work and endless self-promotion involved.

It is a new era. Read more here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/business/media/meredith-wild-a-self-publisher-making-an-imprint.html?_r=0

Leveraging Self-Doubt

Writing Techniques

Last month, I led two writing seminars at the San Diego State University Writer’s Conference. The three-day event was packed with great editors, agents and writers and there was a wealth of advice I wrote down – twenty-eight pages worth! More on that event in future blogs on Writing Techniques.

Several of the keynote speakers addressed the writer’s “curse” of self-doubt and talked about ways to overcome it. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of my writer’s brain, I knew I’d read a killer-good article on the subject. I had. It was a piece in the New York Times Magazine aptly-called: “The Dutch-Elm Disease of Creative Minds.” Here is part of what it said:

If you are in any kind of creative business you likely ride on the razor edge between hubris and self-doubt. Some call self-doubt, “The Dutch-Elm Disease of Creative Minds.” Mark O’Connell takes a refreshing view of this in his article: “Sorry, Chief, but that’s Not Going to Cut It,” in the New York Times Magazine. He addresses self-doubt head-on

Because if I had to identify a single element that characterizes my life as a writer, a dominant affective note, it would be self-doubt. It is a more-or-less constant presence in everything I do. It is there even as I type these words, in my realization that almost all writers struggle in this way; that the notion of a self-doubting writer is as close to tautology as to make no difference, and that to refer to such a thing as a “struggle” is to concede the game immediately to cliché, to lose on a technicality before you’ve even begun.

You can read this awesome piece here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/08/magazine/the-dutch-elm-disease-of-creative-minds.html