Writing Secrets

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I’m ALWAYS to tap other’s brains to uncover writing tips. As I “shelter in place” I dug up one that spoke to me a while ago and still resonates.

Most everyone at least considers writing at some point in their lives. For those of us not as gifted as the Hemingways, Fitzgeralds and Faulkners 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. ”

Want more? You can read the full article here

We Write

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While we are all hunkered down and riding out the coronavirus, I’ve used the time to review some great articles on writing. Always looking to up my game.

I found one that resonated with me when I first read it, and it does today as well. It involves 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.

Want more? You can read the rest of the piece here

Life Changers

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I am always searching for “THE” book, and perhaps one that will change my life or at least how I look at the world.

I felt like I hit the mother-lode when I opened the New York Times and found this headline:

“The Book That Changed My Life: Our readers offer a heartfelt tribute to the power of the written word, paying homage to Orwell, Thoreau, Betty Friedan, Julia Child and Dr. Seuss, to name but a few.”

Here is how it began:

We asked readers to pick a book that influenced how they think, act or look at the world. The more than 1,300 responses cited hundreds of books, running the gamut from “Go, Dog. Go!” to Kierkegaard.

Many of the readers described how a book guided their spiritual development (“Be Here Now,” “The Violent Bear It Away”) or helped them through a difficult time in their lives (“The Color Purple,” “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” “Being Mortal”).

For others, a book changed how they looked at food (“Diet for a Small Planet,” “Fast Food Nation,” “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”) or war (“Catch-22,” “Johnny Got His Gun”) or love (“Normal People”). And for some, one book led to a lifelong love of the written word.

We thank one of our regular letter writers, William Cole, for suggesting this idea. It clearly struck a chord with our readers.

SUSAN MERMELSTEIN and THOMAS FEYER, Letters Editors

Want to discover which books we are talking about? You can read the full piece here

Nurturing Creativity

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Find anyone who writes anything and you will find a creative mind. But all writers get stuck, and they usually get stuck at the front end of the creative process.

That’s why I always enjoy the New York Times Better Living columns about creativity. I’ll found several of them online bundled together. Here is how they begin.

First, Give Permission: Tapping into your thoughts, dreams and imaginations is the first step to finding your inner creativity

I think I know what you do before you go to bed every night. Don’t worry, everyone does it. You imagine. You imagine some or another version of: If I only had this much money, I’d spend a weekend in the Caribbean; if I’d had just a second more to think, I know what I would’ve said to that jerk who had too many items in the express checkout aisle; or if I’d had just a second to think about it, I know what I’d have said to that beauty I nearly talked to reading my favorite book at the café.

We all have fantasies or, if you prefer, ideas. I will give them a different word: “Seeds.” These seeds are the germ-line of books, short stories, songs, the faces in a painting. Sometimes, when the idea is for a gadget that might, say, keep that guy in the car next to you from texting and driving, it’s the seed of an app or business. If it’s a doodle made during a boring corporate meeting, it’s the seed of an art project; the mixture of the barbecue sauce with the onions and the lemon might be the seed of the next, great slow-cooking invention.

Want more? You can read several creative tips here

Publishing Tips

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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.

It is a new era.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Little Women

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Most of us who write spend some time analyzing the work of successful writers, looking for tactics, techniques and procedures to up our game.

The release of the highly successful movie, Little Women, has drawn new – and useful – attention to Louisa May Alcott’s book.

I read the book decades ago, and enjoyed the movie, and that is why I gravitated to a recent piece, ‘Jo Was Everything I Wanted to Be’: 5 Writers on ‘Little Women.’

The subtitle is useful: “Julia Alvarez, Virginia Kantra, Anna Quindlen, Sonia Sanchez and Jennifer Weiner talk about how the book, now a hit movie, inspired them.”

I’ll bet if you read there short analytical pieces it will help you up your game as well!

Want to read these five excellent commentaries? You can read the full article here

Future News

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Occasionally, it’s worth looking back to see how people thought things would turn out.

Years ago I read a piece, “Novelists Predict Future With Eerie Accuracy.”

Fast forward: Were they right? See for yourself. Here is part of the article

The dirty little secret of speculative fiction is that it’s hard to go wrong predicting that things will get worse. But while avoiding the nihilism of novels like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” in which a father and son wander a hopeless post-apocalyptic moonscape, a number of recent books foresee futures that seem more than plausible as the nation’s ambient level of weirdness rises.

Albert Brooks, the actor and director, brought out “2030,” in which the nation’s economy is sent into a spin by seemingly good news: cancer is cured. The bad-news twist: the resulting drain on national resources by an aging population that no longer conforms to the actuarial tables and continues to consume resources at baby-boomer rates, and a rather literal twist on the notion of intergenerational warfare. “I chose not to go too far,” Mr. Brooks said. “I liked having more present in my future.”

In “Ready Player One,” the novelist Ernest Cline extrapolates from the ripples that rising energy prices and climate change send through the economy, and gives us a future where the suburbs die off and many people are packed into in high-rise urban trailer parks, spending their days on an increasingly addictive Internet instead of facing the quotidian squalor. Readers who spend so much time issuing updates via Twitter, Facebook and Google+ that they have forgotten what their spouses look like might see themselves reflected in Mr. Cline’s funhouse mirror. “I did try to envision it as a possible future,” Mr. Cline said. “I don’t see it as a future we’re necessarily headed for.”

Want to know what’s ahead – keep reading!

Want more? You can read the full article here

Ten Characters

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Most would agree that years after you read a novel, it’s not the plot that sticks with you, it’s the characters.

I’ve always been a plot-driven writer, so I recognize that I need to work on my characterization a bit harder than most.

That’s why I was drawn to Alberto Manguel’s piece, “In Art and Words, a Book Lover Honors the Characters He Can’t Forget.”

He has a pithy description of ten characters we all remember from great novels. Here is the first:

DRACULA

Apostle of blood, lord of night, invader of sleep — Count Dracula cannot die. He returns again and again, aided by Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer. In our bleak age, Dracula has become a necessary monster.

Want more about the other nine? You can read the rest of the piece here

Rewrite?

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Most of us who have written for a while know the inestimable value of a good editor. The challenge us, they sometimes infuriate us, but for me, they are mostly right.

I’ve been blessed with fabulous editors over the years who worked hard at the often herculean task of helping make my writing sing, not just sit there on the pages and muddle.

But I’ve always been challenged to articulate exactly WHAT these great editors have done, and let others into the tent to examine how they did what they did.

That’s why I was delighted to read Ruth Reichl’s recent piece where the Gourmet editor remembers editor Susan Kamil, who died last month.

The headline of the article is:  ‘I Think You Need to Rewrite It’: Ruth Reichl on What Makes an Editor Great. Here is how she begins:

Halfway through my last memoir, my editor, Susan Kamil, said, “Maybe you should just move on. This isn’t working.”

I threw the phone across the room. I’d been working on the book for a couple of years, sending drafts back and forth to Susan. “I’m sorry,” she continued, “it’s good, but if you’re not willing to go deeper, there’s just no point.”

Susan Kamil never let you off the hook.

When Susan died on September 8, there was an outpouring of grief from the entire publishing community. Susan was the most lovable person: enormously generous, endlessly kind, crazy for cats and great fun to be with. Always dressed in bluejeans and sneakers, she was one of the few women who was equally adored by both men and women. A gifted publisher, she was also a wonderful boss. But above all, Susan was an editor.

Susan didn’t just read your manuscript and offer suggestions; she became your collaborator, your partner. With Susan, a book was an ongoing conversation, and she filled every page of every manuscript with questions, suggestions, comments. The process never ended: She kept fretting over the words until the book went to press. She couldn’t help herself. In Susan’s mind a book was never really finished, and I suspect she found it impossible to read even the dustiest, most ancient tome without a pencil in her hand.

Want more? You can read the rest of the piece here

Sentences First

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Most of us who write are always looking for writing tips. I found some good ones in a recent book review with an intriguing title: “Nailing the Jelly of Reality to the Wall.”

The book the writer reviews is, “FIRST YOU WRITE A SENTENCE: The Elements of Reading, Writing … and Life,” by Joe Moran. Here’s how he begins:

A well-formed sentence, Joe Moran writes in his humane and witty guide to meaning-making, “is a cure, however fleeting, for human loneliness.” We all write more sentences now than ever, but how hard do we think about the shape of these etheric objects? A good sentence is a considerate gift; or maybe it’s an easeful, mapless walk with your reader, through a new city — but it might also be a high-wire act (audience agog for disaster). Moran’s book contains many such metaphors for the sentence, and at least one for figurative language itself: “Metaphor is how we nail the jelly of reality to the wall.” Is the sentence a transaction, or is it an artifact? Polished performance or open invitation? “First You Write a Sentence” is a “muted love letter” to the form, arguing in its genially opinionated way for sentences that make our lives more democratic and more pleasurable.

At the calm heart of Moran’s rhetorically affable book is an idea of adroit aplomb. He thinks a sentence should slide down the gullet like a clam, hardly touching the sides. His own prose is much like this. Unlike many writers on style, he doesn’t get carried away with examples; those he provides tend to be by masters of the almost invisible art of elegantly simple diversion. The mind and ear enjoy, but don’t get snagged on, the language of William Tyndale’s English Bible, Thomas Merton’s essays, the recipes of Elizabeth David. The sentences Moran likes derive from the loose, Senecan style perfected in the 17th century by the likes of John Donne, rather than ones from the stiff, hierarchical period of Samuel Johnson a century later. The best modern sentences resemble Donne’s, with simple statements upfront, then a pileup, if need be, of clause upon appositive clause, clarifying, elaborating, potentially without cease — but casually, too, always ready to end.

Want more? You can read the rest of the piece here