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

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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

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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

Bringing Characters to Life!

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I’ve recently led seminars at a number of writing conferences and writing classes including: “Get Published Now!” at Coronado, CA, Adult Education Class; the San Diego State University Writer’s Conference and the Coronado Writer’s Workshop. At those events, “best practices” was a constant theme and Silas House was an author mentioned frequently as one all of us want to emulate.

Most everyone at least considers writing at some point in their lives. For those of us not as gifted as the Hemingway’s, Fitzgerald’s and Faulkner’s of this world, sometimes some writing techniques can come in handy. Here is a suggestion from Silas House, author of five novels as well as plays and works of nonfiction:

To Kill a Mockingbird would certainly have had little effect without the presence of memorable folks like Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus and Calpurnia. The Outsiders wouldn’t have meant much to me without Ponyboy, Johnny, Cherry Valance and all the others. The Color Purple only took up housekeeping in my heart because of characters like Celie, Shug and Sofia.

Characters are what make us love fiction, what make the stories stick with us and speak to us. Yes, plot and sense of place and action and the language are hugely important. But a novel would be a boring affair indeed without those who populate it.

The point is that I didn’t come to care about Scout or Ponyboy or Celie because of how they looked. I cared about them because I knew what was going on in their minds and hearts. Readers are better informed if we give them what is in a character’s brain, not what is on her body.

Read more about writing techniques in Silas House’s article in the New York Times, here:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/13/tell-their-secrets/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1

Dean Koontz on Writing

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By any measure, Dean Koontz is one of the most successful American authors of our generation. His novels are broadly described as suspense thrillers, but also frequently incorporate elements of horror, fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. He has had many of his books reach the number one position on the New York Times Bestseller List. He has sold over 450 million copies of his books.

Dean Koontz doesn’t often offer writing advice to the rest of us…but occasionally he does. This advice – what he reads and why and what books he commends to presidents and to the rest of us is worth taking a look at.

More here from Dean Koontz:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/books/review/dean-koontz-by-the-book.html

A Creative Niche

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Being “creative” is often thought of only in terms of being artistic, and something reserved for only the gifted few who take up the “arts” as an avocation. I like a more expansive definition, like this on suggested by Pamela Druckerman:

I’ve always liked this idea that, somewhere in the world, there’s a gap shaped just like you. Once you find it, you’ll slide right in. That still left a critical question: How do you find this place? This is especially relevant for creative types, who often won’t have a clear career sequence to follow. They’re not trying to become vice president of something. They’re the something. They’ll probably spend lots of time alone in rooms, struggling to make things.

As someone who’s spent years in such rooms, I offered this advice. It applies to many nonartistic jobs, too. I’ve also forgiven myself for being an obsessive. The comedian Louis C.K. said, “Anything you do should be better than anything you did before.” Your bosses and clients will always expect you to deliver good work. You’re the only one who will care enough to make it great work.

Be creative. Do great work – whatever it is. More here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/opinion/sunday/how-to-find-your-place-in-the-world-after-graduation.html

Waiting for the Muse

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One challenge many writers face is this: Do I wait for the “muse” or just plunge ahead. Sadly, many go to their grave still waiting for the muse. But that said, it is useful to think about how and where you find inspiration.

I vote for not waiting. As Tom Clancy famously said about the craft of writing: “I tell them you learn to write the same way you learn to play golf. You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired — it’s hard work.”

In his controversial Rede lecture at Cambridge University in 1959, the English novelist and scientist C. P. Snow addressed the widening chasm between the two dominant strains in our culture. There were the humanists on one side. On the other were the scientists and applied scientists, the agents of technological change. And “a gulf of mutual incomprehension” separated them. Though Snow endeavored to appear evenhanded, it seemed evident that he favored the sciences. The scientists “have the future in their bones” — a future that will nourish the hungry, clothe the masses, reduce the risk of infant mortality, cure ailments and prolong life. And “the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.”

In the antagonism between science and the humanities, it may now be said that C. P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” was certainly right in one particular: Technology has routed the humanities. Everyone wants the latest app, the best device, the slickest new gadget. Put on the defensive, advocates for the humanities have failed to make an effective case for their fields. There have been efforts to promote the digital humanities, it being understood that the adjective “digital” is what rescues “humanities” in the phrase. Has the faculty thrown in the towel too soon? Have literature departments and libraries welcomed the end of the book with unseemly haste? Have the conservators of culture embraced the acceleration of change that may endanger the study of the literary humanities as if — like the clock face, cursive script and the rotary phone — it, too, can be effectively consigned to the ash heap of the analog era?

I vote for writing. The activity of writing them redeems itself even if it is only a gesture toward what we continue to need from literature and the humanities: an experience of mind — mediated by memorable speech — that feeds and sustains the imagination and helps us make sense of our lives. More here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/20/books/review/sing-to-me-o-muse-but-keep-it-brief.html