Category Archives: writing

Read this piece (aka more on Stephen King)!

I am really not obsessed with Stephen King. I do think he’s amazing and a genius, and I’d like to spend a day living inside his brain, but I really don’t follow his every move. Which is why it’s kind of funny that I’m doing another post about him.

I recently shared a link with what I thought was some great advice from Stephen King, and now I want to share with our readers an article I came upon this week while cleaning out my bathroom (I store much of my best reading material there!). It’s from an August, 2013 issue of the New York Times Magazine, and it goes into some detail about the immediate King family, all of whom have storytelling in their blood. I find it beyond fascinating that this entire clan lives and breathes books and writing, stories and ideas. Not to mention they genuinely seem to have a strong affection for one another, despite some very rough and rocky times.

One of my favorite anecdotes is about how when King’s kids were little and he needed books to listen to while driving, he’d have them record the books he was interested in hearing. It’s brilliant! I’m going to get my kids to start recording books immediately. I can’t think of a better family activity.

I also loved reading about King’s daughter in-law, Kelly Braffet’s, entrée into the family. Can you imagine being an aspiring writer (she met King’s son at the Columbia MFA writing program in 2001) and meeting your future in-laws named Stephen and Tabitha King for the first time?

And yet another great anecdote comes from King’s son, Joe, who struggled as a writer for years unwilling to use his dad’s name to sell books. He went beyond using a pseudonym, Joe Hill, refusing to even admit who he was to his literary agent for 8 years (a time during which he did not sell a book)!

The stories go on. Anyone interested in writing should read this article. To me, it illustrates how important it is that the environment we create for ourselves and our families be one that allows for thoughtful and creative thinking. If you surround yourself with smart people who have similar interests and ideas, you will naturally find yourself gravitating in that direction.

I hope you enjoy learning more about the King family, and that they inspire you to be better writers, readers, and storytellers.

6

Conscious coupling

Recently, the term “Conscious Uncoupling” has become part of the zeitgeist.  It is meant to define the dissolving of a marriage.

Today, I’d like to discuss “Conscious Coupling” or collaborating on a book – in this case a work of fiction.

In Hollywood, collaborating on screenplays is done all the time and there are good reasons for that.  As I understand it, two people working together to write in that format can benefit from each other’s ideas, and the result can be that much stronger.

To some extent, the same can be said for two people collaborating on a fiction book.  There is no question that sharing ideas can add to the story and if the collaborators can blend their voices, the result can work.  But book collaborations of this kind can be fraught with problems for one or both of the participating authors.

If they are using their real names and then each wants to go off and write individually using his or her own name, could be limited by the option and non-compete clauses in their previous contracts.  If they use a pseudonym for the collaboration, they will not receive the credit they would want for writing the book and if the collaboration results in a successful book, it would not further their career when writing under their own names.

Many times in these collaborations, one of the authors is seen as the more important name, and then the other suffers both in the collaboration and when s/he wants to publish under his/her own name.

Finally, these collaborations can be used as a crutch.  They are comfortable and can be fun to do, but in the end, book writing—successful book writing – is a very difficult and individual task.  When the author completes a novel by him/herself and sells it, his/her future from a contractual point of view is clear and well defined.   S/he knows what s/he can and cannot do going forward as far as his/her option and non- complete responsibilities are concerned.  In the end, it seems to me this is the best path a novelist can take to grow his/her career.

I’d love to know what you think about these kinds of collaborations.  Do you like to read books written by more than one author?

6

Life Stories

The other day I was excited to hear that Neil Patrick Harris is publishing a memoir this fall, and told my friend Brian about it. “What?!” Brian yelped. “Already? He’s only 40!” I was a little surprised by this reaction – NPH has been in every corner of showbiz, from TV to film to internet series to Broadway. I’m certainly interested in a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his fascinating and creative life.

But Brian’s response got me thinking about the genre of memoir itself, and whether there’s a difference between memoir and autobiography. For some readers, autobiography and memoir may be synonymous terms for any story of a life that is written by its liver. For others of us, autobiography is based on chronology, while memoir focuses on a theme, experience, or period. For example, Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles is a hilarious and moving account of his upbringing and early career, peppered with anecdotes about his best friends Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson – yes, that Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. I think of this as autobiography because of the linear narrative. In contrast, Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi is both a Hollywood gossip-fest and a moving account of struggling with an eating disorder. And Cheryl Strayed’s Wild relates the months she spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which turned into a powerful way to process and grieve her mother’s death. The latter two might not tell a full story of their authors’ lives – and those authors might not have as prominent a place in history – but they are still worth reading for their candor and introspection.

Whether you call it autobiography or memoir, many readers can’t resist the lure of a true story well-told. Keeping the nuances in mind might help you as you structure your own personal story or refine your narrative non-fiction projects.  (But I will tell Brain to cut NPH some slack considering that Justin Bieber has published TWO memoirs. At the age of 20, he’s not even old enough to enjoy a writerly glass of whiskey while he writes his third!)

Do you distinguish between autobiography and memoir? Whose yet-to-be-written memoir would you be most excited to read? What true stories do you recommend?

 

 

 

4

Life (or writing) lessons from Stephen King

Who doesn’t like to take advice from a master? I’d say Stephen King falls into that category. Despite a terrible accident which almost caused him to retire from writing in 2002, King has produced a staggering number of books, including classics like Carrie, The Shining, Misery, and the list goes on. No one does it better, and there have been few that have managed to compete with his mastery of prose and plot. His category of fiction should just bear his namesake!

He’s offered much advice to many over the years, and his 2000 memoir/writing guide called On Writing is widely admired. This recent piece from openculture.com shines a light on King’s top 20 pieces of advice for writers, and it’s worth taking a fresh look at how to implement them in your writing process today.

His advice is so straightforward, and some of it is really simple. One wouldn’t necessarily think that turning off the tv would be a tip that Stephen King would consider in his top 20, but it speaks to the larger issue of a distracted culture and the need to pay attention to the task at hand. It reminds me of my parents always telling me to turn off the tv when I was doing homework as a kid. They had a point, even if I didn’t want to hear it at the time.

The suggestion to finish a draft within 3 months is also interesting. It’s like he’s in your ear screaming “Stop procrastinating!”.

And there are inspiring tips for writing here that are entirely applicable to life in general, so this list does not solely apply to writers and writing. A few to ponder: Don’t worry about making people happy (a ubiquitous but smart piece of advice that my client Amy Morin talks about in her piece “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do”), The magic is in you, Stick to your own style, and Take a break. Good thoughts for writing and life. Enjoy!

1

Write where you know

“Write what you know” is probably the most contested piece of writerly advice out there. Yes, writing what you know gives you authority and a personal approach; no, writing should be about discovery and taking readers to a new place.

So I was intrigued by a profile of the novelist Chris Pavone from yesterday’s Times , which highlights how his new thriller is set in the publishing world, a world that, according to the article, is a rare setting for a novel, especially a thriller, because it’s “too cerebral, too dominated by meetings, too absorbed by reading manuscripts and filling out profit-and-loss reports to make riveting fiction.”

Now, Pavone’s justification for such an ostensibly boring setting is that, “Any setting can be a good setting for a novel.” But in reality, it’s a classic case of write what you know, since Pavone served as a longtime nonfiction editor at Clarkson Potter. And not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that–clearly Pavone’s book focuses on the classic thriller tropes of action and suspense, rather than the drudgery of acquisition paperwork!

But it did get me wondering about setting in general, and whether it’s more constructive to place a story in a world with which you’re deeply familiar, or whether an exotic locale or industry is more helpful, especially for thrillers, as the article suggests. Personally, I’m not really sure–I’m usually drawn to thrillers that avoid NYC or DC as a home base, but then again, so many thrillers set abroad follow the same old trajectory of a former agent in exile forced back into action.

Where do you fall on the divide? Set the book in a world you know, or a world you don’t? And how does familiarity with the setting (or lack thereof) inform your plot?

4

A few thoughts about writing YA

I’ve been working with a lot of authors the last few years on the adult side who are looking to publish on the children’s side. I know I’m not the only one, as the market has surged and become a destination for talented writers whose books can often cross over to the adult market. The obvious early megahits on the YA side like Twilight and The Hunger Games have made room for more recent realistic teen novels like The Fault in Our Stars and Wonder.

I thought it was worth sharing this advice column I found in Publisher’s Weekly from published author Seth Fishman. Now that I have a few young humans of my own, I love that he says: “You’re writing for young humans, people who are the most in need of answers, people who are the most curious.” And I like the way he positions his advice from a broad perspective. Rather than focusing on plot or characters, it’s about thinking and feeling and the emotion that is so critical for adults writing for teens to get right.

Take a look and see if you YA authors have anything else to add to his list. What do you do when you’re getting ready to channel your inner teen?

7

Trains, planes, reading and writing

I love long train trips almost as much as I hate flying.   To me, there is something both soothing and exciting about zipping across a changing landscape in a powerful machine that hasn’t lost contact with the ground.  Whereas planes are claustrophobic, uncomfortable (unless you don’t need to put your kid through college and  you fly first class), and occasionally panic inducing, trains are throwbacks to a slower, more genteel age when no one expected you to get to where you needed to be so fast that you had to fight jet lag for days once you got there.

I also love reading on trains.  One of my fondest travel memories is of racing through Look Homeward, Angel in a mostly empty compartment on a trip from Zurich to Bruges.  Not that I’m such a seasoned world traveler, but I really enjoy the vaguely surreal dislocation of reading about America while traveling abroad.  And this feeling, I find, is heightened by the foreign and sometimes oddly familiar scenery you glimpse when you’ve snagged a good window seat.

I’m not a writer, but I can only imagine that the sensations and emotional states I’ve experienced while riding railroads in the U.S. and around the world are fairly common and that they might serve to rev up the creative process.  That’s why I dig the idea of Amtrak offering a writing residency for writers.   If I were writing a novel, I’d book my ticket to California, pack up my laptop, a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, and hit the rails.

What about you guys?  Do you think you could write on a train?  Would you want to?

3

Better writing through apps?

As loyal readers of this blog know, we sometimes have trouble coming up with topics for posts. And when we’re in the weeds, we often fall back on the Huffpost for a reading list or slideshow to provide a topic. You may note, too, that these posts usually get the “fun” tag, because they tend to be a little frivolous–though I guess “Ten Books to Survive Downton Abbey Withdrawal” might be considered vital “advice” to some…

But today I saw a Huffpost that actually got me thinking, both about the writing process and the role of technology in writing today. To me, the idea that apps can help you finish your novel at first seems counterintuitive–surely a major undertaking like a novel can’t be aided by rinky-dink phone apps? Yet the suggestions here seem pretty darn helpful, and partly because they seem ancillary to the main project, rather than tools that are embedded in your word processor.

Certainly the reading apps are no great revelation for most writers, and a voice memo app seems like a no-brainer. But Evernote and MindNode are far superior tools than the basic memo tool on my old iPhone, and has anyone used Poetreat yet? It seems like a great way to vary your word choice, which can often be a challenge, especially in early drafts.

Most impressive to me, though, is Hemingway, which has the potential to serve as your very own digital copyeditor. Often, when I send edits to an author, I ask them to do Global searches for words that get overused, like “Then”, or adverbs or repeated sentence structures like three or more “I verb” sentences in a row. I’ve always thought it’s a good, schematic way to go over a draft, but it can definitely get tedious. Hemingway seems like a great tool for that kind of analysis without having to spend hours doing individual word and phrase searches.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Huffpost without a little bit of fluff–or cats, which I guess is why they mention Write or Die. Silliness aside, though, procrastination and adhering to daily word counts are certainly struggles that writers know well, and for that SelfControl does seem like a good choice for blocking those pesky distracting websites like… oh, I don’t know… maybe the Huffpost?

Have you ever used any of these apps to help finish a novel? Or any other apps? If so, which ones? 

 

3

Writing your way to a better idea

One of the hardest things for writers is the process of coming up with an idea. And understandably so. Finding a topic doesn’t just happen, and so when I had to write creative papers for my college courses, each one started the same way: with a brainstorming session.

The mind is a funny thing. Our brains are capable of making some astounding—not to mention bizarre–associations, and when you let your thoughts run wild, that random stream of consciousness is likely to result in some pretty interesting ideas. There are a million and one different brainstorming techniques out there. In fact, brainstorming has evolved to become a bit of a science—seriously just type the word into Wikipedia and see—but I usually find the simplest methods to be the most effective.

Freewriting is one such method. Even if you can’t think of anything to write at first, the simple act of putting pen to paper can get those creative juices flowing. Clear your mind. Let go. Write. It may take a while to get going, and you may only end up writing “I have no idea what to write” for the first ten minutes of your freewriting session. But that’s encouraged. The ideas will come if you let them, if you keep churning out sentence after sentence.

If you’re having trouble, try doing some more in-depth research on freewriting and other brainstorming techniques. I find instructive tips such as this one to be very helpful. Not every thought you have during a brainstorming session will be gold. In fact, most will be absurd or downright nonsensical. Just remember, it only takes one good idea for the whole brainstorming session to be worth it. Be patient and have fun. It works. How do you think I came up with the idea for this post?

0

Writerly advice from the trenches

My enterprising client Kristi Belcamino, whose first book comes out in June, has been busy getting ready for her road to publication. One of her recent stops included a piece she did for Writer’s Digest, which I’d love to share with you all.

There is much to take away from Kristi’s article, including advice on the query process that she compares to a road trip with many twists and turns along the way. Her suggestion to not be prepared to stop until you’ve queried at least 100 agents might sound extreme, but she’s got a point about not giving up.

In a clever and entertaining way, she goes on to offer important pieces of insider advice that are widely applicable to anyone looking to develop a writing career. These include 4 key things you’ll need to “pack for your journey”: Perseverance, Work, Teflon-Mentality and Patience. Come to think of it, these 4 points not only apply to writing, but to anything you want to excel at!

Hope you enjoy Kristi’s article, and please share with us if you have other suggestions for the sometimes long, winding road to publication.