Reading and Writing

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While there is a massive amount of good writing advice from multiple sources, if there is one that is routinely at the top of every “advice” list, it’s: “Every good writer is a reader.”

Great advice, but it’s often packaged in ways that don’t always resonate. That’s why I was drawn in by a recent piece, “How to Tap Your Inner Reader.” Here’s how it began:

Studies suggest all kinds of benefits to reading, including increased empathy, stress reduction and memory retention. It can even curb your criminal instincts, according to some researchers, although my family might have their doubts about me. 

But if you’re a reader, you probably love books not because they lower your cholesterol but because they bring you joy. Reading is, ideally, a leisure activity: the kind of thing you can devote an afternoon to while dinner is bubbling in the slow cooker and the cat is curled at your feet and you slouch in an armchair like a teenager (hey, maybe you are a teenager) losing yourself in a world somebody else has imagined into being. Reading a book is a form of communication because you’re communing: The writer speaks, the reader listens, and somewhere along the way you achieve a real intimacy, of a sort. That’s magical. 

But leisure activities require leisure time, and who’s got that? Let’s face it; the afternoon in the armchair probably isn’t happening, even if somebody else takes care of dinner. Finding time to read generally means making time to read, and that means making it a priority. If you can incorporate the gym into your regular routine, you can incorporate quality time with a book too.  Want more? You can read it here

Better Prose

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Whether you write at work, at home, as a hobby, whatever, you likely welcome tips on how to improve what you write. It’s human nature.

That’s why I was struck by a recent review of a book, “Dreyer’s English.” The review had the intriguing title, “Flossing Your Prose.” Here’s how it began:

I spy a trend: copy editors’ memoirs-cum-style guides. Four years ago, Mary Norris—a longtime copy editor for the New Yorker—published the splendid “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.” Now comes the copy chief at Random House with the rather more grand-sounding “Dreyer’s English.”

I hasten to say that the grandness of Benjamin Dreyer’s title is at least half ironic and self-deprecating, as is his subtitle: “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” But the name of the book does accurately reflect its difference from Ms. Norris’s. Hers is three-quarters memoir, one-quarter guide, and his is roughly the opposite ratio.

And accordingly, Mr. Dreyer has a lot of useful information to impart. In the first sentence of this review, he guided me to lower-case the “c” in the word following the colon; write “editors’ ” rather than “editors” or “editors’s” (or, heaven forbid, “editor’s”); and use “cum” (Latin for “with”) to indicate a thing with two identities, without italics or fear of offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Writing in such an utterly correct way feels good, I must say. It reminds me of something Mr. Dreyer quotes an author friend as saying—being well copy-edited is like getting “a really thorough teeth cleaning.” The result may come off as just a trifle stilted, but I’m in sympathy with what Mr. Dreyer writes later on: “There’s a certain tautness in slightly stilted prose that I find almost viscerally thrilling.” (That post-colon “There’s” gets capitalized because it kicks off a complete sentence.) Want more? You can read it here

A Novel in No Time

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No time to write? Sure there is. With all the technology at our command we can write where we’ve never been able to do so before.

One piece by Kit Eaton helped pull all that together for me…it was even inspiring! Here’s how he began:

It used to be that when a moment of inspiration struck writers, they would have to rush over to a stone tablet, or find parchment and ink, to record their thoughts. Later, writers had to find paper and a typewriter, or a laptop or desktop computer, to get busy with their storytelling.

Nowadays, they can write into a smartphone and tablet app almost anywhere when an idea seizes them. So what are some of the popular apps for scribes?

Storyist is the writing app I use most often to write this column, books and other articles. The app is a full-featured text editor, giving people the ability to customize fonts, colors and page formatting, embed images, and more. The app also has predesigned page formats to help write screenplays, manuscripts and novels.

To help build a novel, Storyist provides different types of “story sheets” to work on. You can use the sheets to note information about characters, plot points, scene settings and other details. This part of the app is surprisingly powerful, and I have found that the preformatted sections of the story sheets (for example, the Smells heading under the Settings story sheet) help me think about characters and scene settings.

Want more? You can read it here.

A Novel in No Time

Books George Galdorisi

No time to write? Sure there is. With all the technology at our command we can write where we’ve never been able to do so before.

One piece by Kit Eaton helped pull all that together for me…it was even inspiring! Here’s how he began:

It used to be that when a moment of inspiration struck writers, they would have to rush over to a stone tablet, or find parchment and ink, to record their thoughts. Later, writers had to find paper and a typewriter, or a laptop or desktop computer, to get busy with their storytelling.

Nowadays, they can write into a smartphone and tablet app almost anywhere when an idea seizes them. So what are some of the popular apps for scribes?

Storyist is the writing app I use most often to write this column, books and other articles. The app is a full-featured text editor, giving people the ability to customize fonts, colors and page formatting, embed images, and more. The app also has predesigned page formats to help write screenplays, manuscripts and novels.

To help build a novel, Storyist provides different types of “story sheets” to work on. You can use the sheets to note information about characters, plot points, scene settings and other details. This part of the app is surprisingly powerful, and I have found that the preformatted sections of the story sheets (for example, the Smells heading under the Settings story sheet) help me think about characters and scene settings.

Want more? You can read it here

Too Many “Coders”

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Who hasn’t heard the refrain: We need to prepare for a tech future. We need to do more STEM in the classroom. We need to teach our kids to code. That all may be true…up to a point.

But perhaps we’ve gone too far. Maybe we need to train people to be…well…people, and to WRITE. Here’s how a great article, “Aristotle’s Wrongful Death,” begins:

History is on the ebb. Philosophy is on the ropes. And comparative literature? Please. It’s an intellectual heirloom: cherished by those who can afford such baubles but disposable in the eyes of others.

I’m talking about college majors, and talk about college majors is loud and contentious these days. There’s concern about whether schools are offering the right ones. There are questions about whether colleges should be emphasizing them at all. How does a deep dive into the classics abet a successful leap into the contemporary job market? Should an ambitious examination of English literature come at the cost of acquiring fluency in coding, digital marketing and the like?

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a special report that delved into this debate. One of the stories described what was happening at the flagship campus of the University of Illinois and at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., casting these developments as different harbingers for higher education.

Illinois is pairing certain majors in the liberal arts — for example, anthropology and linguistics — with computer science. Assumption is doing away with a host of traditional majors in favor of new ones geared to practical skills. Goodbye, art history, geography and, yes, classics. Hello, data analytics, actuarial science and concentrations in physical and occupational therapy.

Assumption is hardly an outlier. Last year the University of Wisconsin at Superior announced that it was suspending nine majors, including sociology and political science, and warned that there might be additional cuts. The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point recently proposed dropping 13 majors, including philosophy and English, to make room for programs with “clear career pathways.”

While these schools are swapping out certain majors for others, some higher education leaders are asking whether such devotion to a single field of study — and whether a college experience structured around that — are the right way to go.

Want more? You can read it here

Telling Stories

There is a prevailing myth – likely perpetrated by publishers, established writers, and there fellow travellers that it takes a special talent to tell stories. That’s bunk.

That’s why I was pulled in by Daniel McDermon’s piece, “How to Tell a Story.” Here’s how he begins:

Before there was history, there was storytelling. It’s essential to our human identity. The stories we tell are how we know who we are. And sharing a tale with an audience can be immensely rewarding. But for novices, it can also be terrifying. Fear of speaking in public is very common. A great many of the world’s greatest performers have struggled with powerful stage fright. So you should know that you’re not alone. We’re here to help you build your confidence and find your own voice.

While his sound advice it primarily focused on public speaking, what he shares has enormous value for the written word. His advice continues:

There is no way to bet better at telling stories to people than by telling stories to people. There is no substitute for experience. “You just have to get up and do it,” said Aaron Beverly, who finished second in the Toastmasters world championship of public speaking in 2016. He compares storytelling practice to a gym workout. To build muscle, weightlifters have to get their reps in. And if you want to develop your skills as a speaker or storyteller, so do you.

The goal, Mr. Beverly said, is to feel so comfortable in the role that you go on autopilot. You build a sort of muscle memory for your body by standing up in front of a crowd, or on a stage, and speaking out. But you don’t have to do it all on a large stage. You can practice at an open-mic night, at a gathering like The Moth, or even at work by leading a meeting. If nerves are holding you back, start as small as possible. Ask a friend to listen and give you feedback.

Sharing a great story is like giving your audience a gift, because it will stay with them. They can even share it further, the same way that stories have been passed along since the beginning of human life.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Page Tuners at 90!

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One of my writing mentors once told me that there were three ingredients to being a successful writer: talent, persistence, and durability. I’ve always gotten the first two, but wondered about the third. Then I read this recent piece about Mary Higgins Clark who is still cranking out page-turners at the ripe young age of ninety! Here’s how the article begins:

At age 90, Mary Higgins Clark is often asked why she’s still writing. The suspense novelist gives two answers: “One, I love to write,” she says. “The second is I get very well paid to write.”

As she enters her 10th decade, Ms. Clark is still writing two books a year. Her fast-moving mysteries often feature a sharp, intelligent heroine who helps to discover the killer after a few false starts. Her broad commercial appeal has generated more than 50 best sellers, including such titles as “Where Are the Children?” (1975), “The Cradle Will Fall” (1980) and “We’ll Meet Again” (1999). All told, there are more than 100 million copies of her books in print in the U.S. alone.

Her latest, a murder mystery out this month called “I’ve Got My Eyes on You,” is the 43rd book she’s written solo (some of her other titles have co-authors). Set in Saddle River, N.J., where Ms. Clark lives with her husband in real life, the book opens with the murder of an 18-year-old girl who ends up at the bottom of a swimming pool after a party at her parents’ house. Among the suspects: her boyfriend and a neighbor.

Want more? You can read the full piece here

Heart or Head?

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Tim Parks knows how to get the conversation going and the emotions flowing. Here’s how titled his piece in the Roving Eye column in the New York Times Book Review: “Should Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head?”

That will keep you reading. Here is part of what he shared:

And he [Montaigne] asks a question that no one asks these days: “Is it right for the arts to serve our natural weakness and to let them profit from our inborn animal-stupidity?” Aside from its astute selection of moving detail, art is constantly in the business of manipulating our emotions, as if this were an end in itself. This, after all, was Plato’s objection to the arts and every kind of artistic effect — that it was manipulative and potentially mendacious. Or simply a waste: “How often,” Montaigne asks, “do we encumber our spirits with yellow bile or sadness by means of such shadows?”

If we apply these ideas to narrative fiction as it is today, what do we find? First, the idea that a book, or film for that matter, stimulates extreme emotions is constantly deployed as a promotional tool. Terrifying, hair-raising, profoundly upsetting, painfully tender, heartbreaking, devastating, shocking, are all standard fare in dust-jacket blurbs and newspaper reviews; it is as if the reader were an ectoplasm in need of powerful injections of adrenaline. Anything that disturbs us, arouses us, unsettles us, is unconditionally positive. “You will be on the edge of your seat.” “Your heart will be thumping.” “Your pulse will be racing.” Aristotle’s response to Plato, that arousing emotion could be positive so long as the emotion was clarified, cathartically contained and understood, is rarely invoked. At best there is the implication that arousing emotions fosters sympathy, perhaps even empathy, with fictional characters and that such sympathy then breaks down our prejudices and hence is socially useful. So readers will frequently be invited to contemplate the sufferings of threatened minorities or discriminated-against ethnic groups, or the predicament of those who are young, helpless and preferably attractive. But this is an alibi and we all know it; what matters is stimulating emotion to sell books.

Want more? You can read the full piece here.

Paula Hawkins

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One of the most popular writers today is Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train. And for many of us, we’re always interested in learning about what great writers read: Some excerpts:

What books are currently on your night stand?

“As If,” by Blake Morrison; “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead; Virginia Woolf’s “A Writer’s Diary.” I’m also listening to the audiobook of “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” by Marlon James.

What’s the last great book you read?

“A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanagihara. I came to it rather late — I’d been put off by what I’d heard about the upsetting subject matter, but when I heard Hanya speak about the book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May I changed my mind. And I’m so glad I did, because while it was every bit as traumatic as everyone said it would be, it is also a remarkable study of friendship, suffering and the difficulty of recovery. Incidentally it is the first audiobook I have ever listened to, and I’m now a total convert. I’d forgotten what a joyous thing it is to allow yourself to be told a story.

Want more? You can read the full piece here.

The Writing Process

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There are a few writers who help define what writing is for all of us. John McPhee is one of them. That’s why I was intrigued by a review of his newest book: “Draft NO. 4.” Here is part of what the reviewer had to offer:

Followers of John McPhee, perhaps the most revered nonfiction narrative journalist of our time, will luxuriate in the shipshape prose of “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process,” a collection of eight essays that first appeared in The New Yorker, his home for more than 50 years. Writers looking for the secrets of his stripped-bark style and painstaking structure will have to be patient with what is a discursive, though often delightful, short book. McPhee’s publisher is presenting it as a “master class,” but it’s really a memoir of writing during a time of editorial cosseting that now seems as remote as the court of the Romanovs. Readerly patience will be rewarded by plentiful examples of the author’s sinewy prose and, toward the end, by advice and tips that will help writers looking to become better practitioners of the craft and to stay afloat in what has become a self-service economy.

Virtually no part of McPhee’s long career, full of months-long or years-long research trips and hours or days staring at a blank computer screen, resembles the churn-it-out grind of today’s professional web writer. Except the earliest part, which he returns to often: the English class at Princeton High School whose teacher, Mrs. McKee, made him write three pieces a week (“Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them”) for three solid years and encouraged her students to critique one another, to the point of hissing and spitballs. Her constant deadlines led him to devise a crucial tactic: Force yourself to break from “wallowing in all those notes” and determine an ending, then go back to worrying about the beginning. Which leads to the first formal rule he provides, and then only a quarter of the way through the book: When you’re getting nowhere and “you don’t know what to do. Stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”

Want more? You can read the full article here