Reading and Writing

Writing Techniques

“Beyond the First Draft” is a collection of essays about writing. Because they are about writing, they’re also about reading. For John Casey, as I would judge for most good writers, it’s difficult to separate the two activities. One feeds into the other, and the process is repeated in reverse. No doubt there are exceptions, because there is scarcely a rule to which there aren’t, but it is rare to find a writer who wasn’t first, and for a long part of his life, a devoted and compulsive reader, though not necessarily a discriminating one.

Eventually some writers may get beyond reading, but if they do so, it usually means that they are beyond writing too. The narrator of Somerset Maugham’s novel “Cakes and Ale” visits the home of celebrated novelist Edward Driffield, whom he had known in the author’s less reputable youth. There is a library with books neatly and tastefully arranged by the novelist’s second wife, but, on seeing a pile of magazines, the narrator remarks wryly that if Driffield now read anything it was probably only “the Gardeners’ Chronicle.”

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What is Your Muse?

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Writing isn’t easy. You have to give it your all – but you have to be OK if you fail. In fact, there is a day dedicated to writing failure. July 8 is Fitz-Greene Halleck Day, a chance to remember the most intensely forgotten writer in American history. “No name in the American poetical world is more firmly established than that of Fitz-Greene Halleck,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1843. And yet, despite a Central Park statue that still stands in his honor, Fitz-Greene Halleck may now be the most famous man ever to achieve total obscurity.

Failure is big right now — a subject of commencement speeches and business conferences like FailCon, at which triumphant entrepreneurs detail all their ideas that went bust. But businessmen are only amateurs at failure, just getting used to the notion. Writers are the real professionals.

Three hundred thousand books are published in the United States every year. A few hundred, at most, could be called financial or creative successes. The majority of books by successful writers are failures. The majority of writers are failures. And then there are the would-be writers, those who have failed to be writers in the first place, a category which, if you believe what people tell you at parties, constitutes the bulk of the species.

For every Shakespeare who retired to the country and to permanent fame, there are a thousand who took hard breaks and vanished: George Chapman, the first translator of Homer, begging in the streets because his patrons kept dying on him; Thomas Dekker, whose hair went white in debtors’ prison; and my favorite, the playwright John Webster, whose birth and death dates in the Dictionary of Literary Biography have question marks, symbolic hooks into oblivion.

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Teaching Writing

Writing Techniques

Can good – or even effective – writing be taught? Or is it a gift only the lucky few possess? In this Bookends piece, the New York Times asked well-known writers Rivka Galchen and Zoe Heller what they thought. A few points:

From Rivka

I wonder if we can really teach someone to be a biologist. I mean, sure, we can say, This is what a cell is, and here’s this thing called RNA, and here’s this thing called DNA, and here’s this technique called agarose gel electrophoresis that will separate your DNA and RNA fragments by size — but will teaching really produce the next Charles Darwin or Rachel Carson or Francis Crick? A real scientist follows her own visionary gleam. Penicillin was discovered when Alexander Fleming returned to his messy lab after a long vacation and made sense of a moldy petri dish most people would have thrown out as contaminated. The structure of the benzene ring came to the chemist Friedrich August Kekule after a daydream about a snake biting its own tail. You can’t teach that kind of dreaming.

From Zoe

The other night I took a look at my daughter’s English essay and suggested that she try excising the words “extremely,” “totally” and “incredibly” wherever they appeared in her prose. She did this and was surprised to discover that not only were the intensifiers superfluous, but that her sentences were stronger without them.

The question of whether writing can be taught is often framed as a “great” or “perennial” debate, when in fact it is neither. No one seriously disputes that good writing has certain demonstrable rules, principles and techniques. (All writers, insofar as they are readers, have been “taught” by the example of other writers.) What passes for controversy on this issue turns out, in most cases, to be some smaller and more specific disagreement — usually having to do with the efficacy of creative writing courses and whether they foster false hope in students without literary promise.

Read the entire article here.

Promoting Your Writing – Gently

Writing Techniques

With the explosion of e-publishing and the need for writers to help promote their own work, all writers – first-timers and best-selling pros face the ongoing dilemma of promoting their work without being shrill about it. But much self-promotion on social media seems less about utility and effective advertising and more about ego sustenance. How do you avoid this pitfall?

In April, Rebecca Makkai, a fiction writer, published a satirical piece on the blog for the literary magazine Ploughshares titled “Writers You Want to Punch in the Face(book).” In it, she depicted the Facebook posts of a fictional writer, Todd Manly-Krauss, who is “the world’s most irritating writer.” Teddy Wayne offers some useful tips for all of us in his “Of Myself I Sing” NYT piece.

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http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/fashion/of-myself-i-sing.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A5%22%7D&_r=0

Helping Your Writing Shine

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Writers looking for help? Evan Williams to the Rescue!

Evan Williams is at it again. Mr. Williams is sitting in an office here a mile up the road from Twitter, where he is a founder and is still a board member, working on Medium, an amorphous-sounding company that could be one more curio of the Internet age or might end up taking over the world.

So in 2012, he started Medium, a place where stories are made and read. It’s a blogging platform, and anyone can contribute, with writing on all manner of topics. The posts that gain attention, often on Twitter, are displayed prominently and gain more traction as readers and contributors weigh in. The design is responsive, meaning that no matter what you are reading on — phone, tablet or computer — it always looks pretty.

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Write, Right

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There are likely as many “beginning writers” as there are established writers. A few beginning writers hit pay dirt the first time. Many, many others struggle for a protracted time.

In this New York Times “Bookends” piece, two established writers, Anna Holmes and Leslie Johnson answer the important question: “When you started out, was there anything you used to do as a writer you now regret?” Just to whet your appetite:

Anna:

I regret many things, including, but not limited to:

  • Inserting myself into reported narratives where I didn’t belong.

  • Crafting long, complex sentences that I thought made me sound intelligent and sophisticated.

  • Assuming that aggressive, masculine-sounding prose was the ideal style of writing because it was so frequently rewarded in my literature and composition classes.

  • Taking too long to get to the point.

Leslie

When I started writing autobiographical nonfiction, I was mainly using these early slivers of memoir to purge all kinds of guilt and self-loathing and shame. I was writing almost exclusively about the parts of myself I liked least — or the situations I most regretted. These were the aspects of my life that carried the most urgency, and I was convinced that confessing them was the only way to achieve a sense of authenticity — to escape the trap of self-aggrandizement. They were the ragged edges, the loose threads. I wanted to follow them. I felt an urge to articulate every notion or impulse I’d ever had. I thought this would earn my readers’ trust. I wouldn’t make myself look good, and — in this refusal — I would make myself look honest. But it usually turned out more like this: I just made myself utterly unlikable.

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We Write!

Writing Techniques

Here is a question aspiring writers sometimes ask themselves: Who owns the story, the person who lives it or the person who writes it? In her piece, “The Right to Write,” Roxanna Robinson sheds some light on why we write:

Writers are trying to reach some understanding of the world, and we do this by setting down stories. We draw on our own experience, but, since that includes everything we encounter, this means drawing on others’ stories as well. Shakespeare didn’t limit himself to writing about the life of an uneducated actor from Stratford-on-Avon. He felt he had the right to write about anyone – kings, queens, fools, servants, any age and any gender, any background, any race. Many of his stories came from other sources, but he imagined the lives and the minds of these characters so completely that he earned the right to tell their stories.

A writer is like a tuning fork: We respond when we’re struck by something. The thing is to pay attention, to be ready for radical empathy. If we empty ourselves of ourselves we’ll be able to vibrate in synchrony with something deep and powerful. If we’re lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note, one that isn’t ours, but which passes through us. If we’re lucky, it will be a note that reverberates and expands, one that other people will hear and understand.

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Writer Envy

Writing Techniques

Most writers have a short “pantheon” of well-known writers who they admire. And more often than not, new writers tend to write the kind of books their “heroes” write. They may branch out later, but they typically begin by “writing what they read.”

In this short “Bookends” piece, successful writers Zoe Heller and Daniel Mendelsohn share their favorite writers – with a twist. The subtitle of the piece is: “Whose writing career do you most envy?”

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Blurbs Run Amok

Writing Techniques

Writers want other writers – especially prominent authors – to blurb their books. Blurbs sell books and most writers – especially new authors – crave them. But there is growing evidence the blurb industry had run amok and as the picture here suggests, attempts to pump up sales of books may have reached terrifying heights. Here’s what Jennifer Weiner has to say:

The publishing industry is littered with frequent blurbers. Mr. Shteyngart managed to stand out as an undisputed master of the form. His standards were high. “I look for the following: two covers, one spine, at least 40 pages, ISBN number, title, author’s name. Once those conditions are satisfied, I blurb. And I blurb hard,” he once told a reporter at this paper. Indeed, a Shteyngart blurb was a thing to behold, soaring past quotidian praise to the level of performance art.

For Upamanyu Chatterjee’s “English, August,” Mr. Shteyngart wrote, “Comparing Upamanyu Chatterjee with any other comic novelist is like comparing a big fat cigar with a menthol cigarette.” He called Charles Blackstone’s “Vintage Attraction” “so post-post-modern it’s almost pre-modern.” Of Reif Larsen’s “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet,” Mr. Shteyngart said, “I felt my brain growing as I read it.”

Writers seeking praise at any price might pause to think again. Read more here in the article “All Blurbed Out

Good Books & Good Writers

Writing Techniques

It’s rare when an accomplished journalist like the New York Times David Brooks is so self-revealing he begins an Op-Ed (in this case, two Op-Eds written earlier this month) with, “I thought I might spend a couple columns recommending eight books that have been pivotal in my life.” These books might change your life too.

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Really Good Books, Part I

Really Good Books, Part II