No Time to Write?

How I Wrote Five Novels While Commuting - WSJ

Most people who write yearn for more of one thing. No, it’s not inspiration, or an uber-quiet office, or a better agent, or a more fabulous publisher. It is one thing alone: time!

That is why I was drawn to a recent article by Ken Wells, “How I Wrote Five Novels While Commuting.” It inspired me to make time. Here is how he begins:

When I took a job in New York City at the age of 44, I had work I loved, a growing family and a secret disappointment. I had always wanted to write a novel.

For eight years I’d dragged a manuscript around and fitfully pecked away at it. But mornings with my wife and young daughters were busy, and my job as an editor and writer at this paper was demanding. By the time I slogged home after eight to 10 hours at the office, I was usually too beat to write another sentence.

How would I ever find the time and energy to write?

My move came with a commute. I was captive to a train that shuttled me back and forth from my home in suburban New Jersey, to Hoboken, N.J., where I hopped a ferry to my job in lower Manhattan. The train ride was about 50 minutes each way.

A week or two into my commute, two things had become clear: I would be spending a lot of time on the train. And the ride was pretty comfortable. One day it hit me: Could I write a novel on the train?

I started doing calculations. If I subtracted, say, 10 weeks a year for vacation, business travel and sick days, that meant I’d have 42 weeks, or 210 weekdays a year, to work on my novel. If I could write two single-spaced pages a day, or about 1,000 words—which didn’t seem that ambitious—surely at the end of 12 months I could end up with close to a 400-page manuscript.

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

Reading Imperative

Books George Galdorisi

Many “smart” people aren’t actually smart. They just know a lot of trivia. Sure, they can tell you all sorts of facts, they have a library of big thick books filled with enormous words, or they can give you the up-to-the-minute news about a political race. But can they tell you what any of this means? Do they do anything important with this information? Of course not.

And these types have always existed. Seneca spoke critically of literary snobs who could speculate for hours about whether The Iliad or The Odyssey was written first, or who the real author was (a debate that rages on today). He disliked hearing people chatter about which Roman general did this or that first, or which received this or that honor. “Far too many good brains,” he said, “have been afflicted by the pointless enthusiasm for useless knowledge.”

Harry Truman famously said that not all readers are leaders but all leaders are readers—they have to be. And they certainly aren’t reading to impress people or for the mental gymnastics. It’s to get better! It’s to find things they can use. Not at the dinner table or on Twitter, but in their real lives.

The same must be true to us. We have to learn how to read to be better leaders, better people, better citizens. We must learn how to read for our own benefit—and so that we might have aid to offer to a friend in pain, or a soul in crisis. Seneca’s point was that only knowledge that does us good is worth knowing. Everything else is trivia.

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