Category Archives: writing

3

Books Aren’t and Shouldn’t Be Like Real Life

I remember the first time I attended a lecture on writing memoirs. I was expecting this lecture to tell me all the obvious things, like how to write about sad or unbelievable events and make them seem as realistic as the moment they happened. Except that wasn’t at all what I learned. Regardless of what the lecturer was actually teaching us, it all centered around the same idea—books are not real life. Who wants to read about real life? Who wants fiction mirroring exactly what they do on daily basis that they hate so much because it has no significance except to get them from point A to point B? It’s the things that are important, and the little things that snowball into the important things, that we care about.

For instance, if I told you that I woke up this morning and walked my dog, got ready for work, and then I was in horrendous car accident (I wasn’t, I’m fine), you might wonder why I even started with walking the dog. You actually don’t care about the rest of my life. That’s fine, neither do I, except maybe when my dog does something cute that I can Instagram, but otherwise, this is all just run of the mill stuff. It’s exactly what people are trying to escape when they’re reading books. Now, if I told you I went on a walk with my dog and saw a man in a red mustang staring at me, the very car that eventually comes to hit me after the memory of those creepy eyes haunted me the entire time I got ready for work, THEN the dog and the shower and the color of T-shirt I picked out can take on a whole new meaning.

A lot of you probably think this is so self-explanatory, but let’s apply it to larger things, say your male character. He falls in love with someone, gets his heart broken, and doesn’t learn anything from it. This is the same thing as me not learning anything from walking my dog (I rarely look to see if weird men are following me…though that might change now…). Why would we want to read about your male character? Most of us have had those relationships, get in, get out, some weird stuff happens, but you’re basically the same at the end, except you’re wearing sweat pants more—or less depending on your level of self-worth.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that when you’re looking at your story, your plot, your characters, your side characters, you should be asking, is this something that people are going to want to read in order to procrastinate on doing the dishes or cleaning up dog poop? Or am I just writing about a person doing something with no real significance?

I guess I can take out that scene where my character dreams about muffins in the middle of trying to kill his uncle. No, that was really a scene in one of my unfinished novels… Actually, I think it’d be funny if anyone can give me a more insignificant scene they wrote before realizing. Impress me.

The inside scoop on writing for kids

All you aspiring writers out there – don’t you sometimes wish you could sit down with an experienced editor and ask a book’s worth of questions about children’s book publishing? Well, your wish has been granted in the form of a new book written by children’s book editor and author Cheryl B. Klein.

Her site alone is full of good information for aspiring authors but it’s her new book, THE MAGIC WORDS: WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND  YOUNG ADULTS that is really going to give you the inside track.

In case you don’t know, the publisher she works for as the Executive Editor, Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, published a little series called Harry Potter. Arthur Levine is the genius editor who recognized its market potential and bought it for the U.S. market. Their list is incredible and it’s a very small team that acquires and edits all of their books. She’s worked on a range of books, from picture books to YA, and she even worked on the last two books in the Harry Potter series.

THE MAGIC WORDS  itself has been generating good response and positive reviews. Booklist, a trade publication, gave it a starred review.  They describe it like this:  “For anyone wishing to write for young readers, Klein’s remarkable new book will be a sine qua non, an indispensable, authoritative guide to the act, art, and craft of creation. An editor for 15 years, Klein clearly knows her apples about the writing—and publishing—process and demonstrates an extraordinary gift for analyzing it, breaking it into its constituent parts, and reducing those parts to other parts until an essential kernel of truth is uncovered.”

Seems to me it’s more than a worthwhile investment (of under $20!) to learn about the unique craft of writing fiction for children from one of the best and brightest in the business. How she had time to write this book is beyond me, but I’m very glad she did so I can share it with all of you!

3

Pretentious much?

The thing is, writers can be inordinately pretentious and blissfully unaware of the fact.  Part of the whole living in your head while trying to describe the most banal processes using language that elevates them to art will do that to you, I guess.

I’m reading The Girls now and had just finished Sweetbitter before it.  I loved the latter and struggled with the former at first, before giving myself over to the strangely familiar creepiness of the story.  Both are debut novels by pretty young blonde women.   Both are firmly evocative of a particular time and place—California in the late ‘60s and New York City in the early oughts.  And, both showcase prose that is sometimes pretentious to the point of hilarity.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great writing in these books.  The authors are nothing if not exquisitely attentive to their craft.  It’s just that as I read, my eyes occasionally rolled back into the universal expression for “Girl, get over yourself!”

Anyway, this parody in The Millions of Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer’s e-mail exchange for T The New York Times Style Magazine in which the hyper-educated actress and Cormac McCarthy trade brilliant observations, cracked me up, precisely because it’s really not that farfetched.  Writers who are allowed to indulge their bombast without check (i.e., a strong editor with a finely sharpened red pencil) can very quickly veer into self-parody.

Personally, I don’t mind a little purple mixed in with the black ink, but it is one of the things that authors need to be vigilant about.  A momentary lapse is forgivable and even endearing, too many and you’re headed for the rejection pile.

Can you think of any fun examples of affected, self-important writing you’ve seen recently?

Cat Godard

1

“Ssh, I’m reading…”

I have a fairly handy knack of being able to tune most people out if I’m reading (or trying to otherwise work), but I know many people (my own mother included) who need pretty much absolute silence in order to concentrate and read. However, there are always some people (and situations) where you absolutely cannot tune people or conversations out, so this article from Bustle about “14 Thoughts You Have When Someone Tries to Talk to You While You’re Reading”  made me chuckle.

Whether you’re a reader or a writer, it can often be very difficult to find that coveted time and space to read or write without interruption. As a general rule, our office relies pretty heavily on communicating with each other and working together to get tasks done. Any number of instant messages can pop up on my screen during the day asking for help or an opinion, emails flood in, the phone will ring, someone will wander by to ask a question, and it can often make concentration on a single project challenging. On the other hand, it would be impossible and counterproductive to shut out everyone and just focus on what I have to do—our business and our office don’t work that way; we can’t be as selfish as we might often want to be with our time. It’s a matter of figuring out how to multi-task and how to stay focused and efficient despite any interruptions.

However, as a writer, setting boundaries is often important, especially if you have other obligations and demands on your time. Some writers I know get up early or stay up late to eke out a few precious hours when no one else is awake; others set specific hours where they cannot be disturbed (and turn off phones, social media, etc.,) in order to get their writing quota done for the day. It can be challenging to verbalize the boundaries or to enforce them, but important—for example, my mom says she can’t read or do her art if she has the feeling that someone is going to come barging in and interrupt her concentration.

For me personally, I find that my best work is done early in the morning when no one else is awake or in the office and I do a lot of my reading on the subway (I’ve perfected the death glare of “talk-to-me-at-your-own-peril”). How do you eke out time for yourself at work or for personal reading and writing? Can you work or read with interruptions? What boundaries have you set?

5

Coco Chanel’s Guide to Sample Pages

If you follow us on our Facebook page (and you should!) you’ve already seen this post from the Penguin Random House blog about what editors want to see in a winning first page. I gave it a read and realized a lot of these things are what agents look for, too, when we’re reading the sample materials that come with queries. We talk about queries a lot on this blog, but your sample pages (we ask for the first 25 pages) are just as important. Even if you have a killer query with a great story concept and impressive writing credits, your writing itself still has to hook me! So I thought I’d talk in a little bit more detail about how to apply the PRH editors’ tips to your writing.

The first suggestion is A Powerful Opener, which is really about the rest of the tips all coming together – the Attention-Grabbing Characters you’ve dreamed up, the Well-Realized World they inhabit, conveyed through your Authentic Voice, which stems from your Unique Perspective.  Often new writers think a powerful opening means packing their most majestic, glorious prose chunk full of with their favorite four-syllable words into the opening lines of the book. And that’s a fair instinct! But overwriting can actually take away from your Authentic Voice. One well-chosen perfectly placed word can actually do more to convey emotion, place, or personality than three or four well-chosen words; one word doing the job on its own carries more of your Voice as a writer than if you gather two or three together to get your point across. Coco Chanel said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one piece off,” and the same thing applies to adjectives in your sentences. Take one off!

Another key to a Powerful Opening is understanding where the story starts. I’ve mentioned before on Twitter my pet peeve about manuscripts that start with the character waking up in the morning, or start with the narrator telling me how they thought it was going to be just another ordinary day. Figure out where the stakes of your story appear – your Attention-Grabbing Character’s first conflict or obstacle or unexpected event – and then back up just far enough to show me who the character is and what their world is like.

Is your story about a poisoning at a cocktail party? Don’t begin with your hero making breakfast that morning, or skip to the moment when the victim clutches their throat. Open when your main character gets to the party and sees their frenemy or love interest standing by the chips and salsa. Open with your protagonist running into their love interest at the wine store on the way to the party and inviting them along. Open with your narrator getting lost in the host’s apartment complex and reacting with the rage, despair, or sense of adventure that is key to their personality. These are all ways to show what kind of place they live, what their friends are like, how much money they make or whether they know a lot about wine, all of which are more important to how the story unfolds than describing to me what they look like while they get dressed in the morning. You want me to get invested in your characters – Attention-Grabbing Characters! – as quickly as possible, and I do that more quickly by seeing their lives in action.

I hope this has been a little bit helpful in taking the tips on a great opening page and applying it to your writing. I look forward to seeing your strong queries and irresistible sample pages in my inbox soon! And let me know in the comments what your favorite tip is for starting your manuscript off strong, or if you’ve learned anything else about writing from Coco Chanel.

 

What I’m looking for in fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy, more so than other genres, rely on worldbuilding. And worldbuilding is hard. Novels in this genre don’t just need the usual—good writing with complex characters and compelling plot—but they also need to introduce readers to a believable new world, whether that new world is completely foreign or nearly identical to ours with one or two minor changes. So how can authors accomplish this?

Personally, I find that descriptive imagery goes a long, long way to immersing me in a new world. For example, the opening lines of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World go like this:

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet.”

There’s a lot to unpack in the those first four sentences, but the main takeaway is this: Jordan doesn’t simply write that the palace had been destroyed, or even that holes in the walls let bars of sunlight in. Instead he paints the reader a picture with strong language and a focus on the smalls details, the little individual pieces that make up the whole. “Rents” and “holes” have two very different connotations, and based on the other word choices and contextual clues, one can reasonably guess that the palace has seen terrible violence recently. Jordan never explicitly says this, but the tone of his writing establishes a certain mood and allows the reader to draw inferences, making him or her an active reader and a willing participant of Jordan’s world.

This excerpt also does a great job demonstrating the old “show don’t tell” adage. Its vivid imagery accomplishes a small measure of worldbuilding by enabling the reader to visualize the world, which is an obvious, yet very crucial, aspect of worldbuilding. If your story takes place on a different planet, I want to be able to imagine what that planet looks like. If your story opens in a palace courtyard, I should be able to see that palace courtyard in my mind’s eye.

None of this should come as groundbreaking, but it has been some time since I’ve been transported to a different world like Jordan’s. And I hope to visit another someday soon. I’d love to hear from our readers. Which worldbuilding techniques do you prefer? Anyone have a favorite author particularly adept at this skill?

0

Getting the spark back

I recently picked up Leslie Jamison’s stunning collection of essays, THE EMPATHY EXAMS, which I haven’t been able to put down. It’s one of those books that changes how you see the world, how you approach the motions of everyday living, and how you treat others. It is also a book that makes me want to think about writing and the craft of writing more.

81PZlhUHHhL

 

I know it can be tough to find inspiration—and time and energy—to write when you have a full-time job, are in a committed relationship or taking care of a family, when you want to find the time to also create and maintain sustainable and meaningful relationships with other human beings. It can be tough even if your full time job is to write. There are so many other things to be thinking about, to be concentrating on. Yet, Jamison’s essays remind me that it is exactly in these moments—full of activity and ordinary—that are so ripe with writing material. It’s little, intimate, ordinary details that can make a character truly stand out on the page and make us go, “Oh yes! I know exactly what he/she is feeling/thinking” or “I’ve been in that situation before too!” Her essays remind me that writing is essentially about people and the stories they carry with them—and so going out and observing, spending time with friends and family, people-watching in a restaurant or bar; these are the beginnings of characters and plotlines and settings.

Is there a book or collection of essays/poetry that you always turn to when you’re feeling uninspired? Is there an activity you like to do for inspiration or to get the writing juices flowing again? Who are your writing muses?

1

Write What You Want

 

I was at Yallwest a couple of weeks ago, and something I heard at one of the panels won’t leave me. “Write what you want.” Of course, this seems very self-explanatory, and I’d heard it about 100 times before while working toward my MFA, but something about hearing it now, knowing more about publishing, made that statement more powerful.

 

While trying to get published, it’s easy to get lost in the idea of what will sell and what won’t. I see a lot of queries with, “My book will appeal to ages X through Y and people interested in…” Well that sentence alone tells me that the writer was thinking about the marketing of his or her book. Which, in a way can be good, but at what point does thinking about marketing diminish your ideas?

 

I then thought about how knowing about market trends has influenced my writing. I’ve seen a certain pattern in my idea brainstorming. I’ll have a new book idea only to get excited about it, and then immediately shy away from it because I know it doesn’t follow the current trends. I also know as a writer, that an idea can shape into something wholly different once it becomes a story. What I thought was a poor idea could have shaped into something incredible given my passion for the subject. I could have made something unlike the publishing world has ever seen, and my fear that this would be unaccepted, has squandered that potential.

 

So, that’s why I believe writers should focus more on writing what they want, rather than what they think others want, because if you’re trying to follow a trend, you will never be unique. Originality dies that way. My advice now will always be to write what you want, don’t follow another writer or what you think you should be writing. It may get you published, but that brilliant idea you squashed in order to follow the trend could have been the next break out novel.

 

What do you think about this topic? Do you follow the trends or write what you want?

1

Music is Fuel For Your Writing

Everyone knows the expression, “Music is food for the soul.” Here’s my spin on it: Music is fuel for your writing. Last month, I had the privilege to attend one of NYU’s Media Talk series, and the one thing I remember the authors saying over and over again was that they did not necessarily enjoy the writing process (I myself can attest to that). So, what do I do to get in the writing mood? I put on some music. I have a playlist carefully put together just for my listening/writing pleasure.  I personally prefer music without lyrics, so here are a few my favorites :

Honor Him/Elysium/Now We Are Free by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard

My Name Is Lincoln by Steve Jablonsky

Song For Bob by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

In this short blog post/exercise, Melissa Tydell explains how music is key in an author’s writing journey, and I implore you all to give this exercise a try if you don’t already. You’ll never know what beat gets you writing because, as we all know…

 

14

Writing by hand

As a kid—before computers were widely available, and before I was allowed to use a computer without a strict time limit—I always equated pens and penmanship with being a Writer. There was something so thrilling about sitting down with a new notebook and a pen and filling it up with my story ideas. (I also just liked to look at my handwriting, to be honest.) I’d start a lot of stories in class (usually during math) and go for pages and pages, the scratch and flow of pen on paper so much more satisfying than equations and formulas. It will probably not surprise you that math was unfortunately my lowest grade in high school.

That love of writing by hand hasn’t gone away as I’ve gotten older. I’m picky about the writing utensils I use, whether they’re for professional, academic, or downtime purposes. There are only three kinds of pens I’ll use for writing letters, and I’ve stocked the DGLM office with my preferred inky brand (Precise V-5s, if you were wondering). But with most people writing on computers these days, I have to wonder: do people use pen and paper to write stories anymore? What are the pros and cons of writing on a computer versus writing by hand? I confess to having converted to the digital side; I occasionally will draft poems using paper and ink, but mostly prefer my laptop, to get spacing and line breaks more precise on the first go-around.

The king of all pens.

The king of all pens.

I will say that writing using pen and paper tends to make me a more careful writer. I’m more conscious of the words I’m putting down, and it’s often a useful way to get a first draft, even if I hate that first result. It’s so easy to simply backspace over something on a computer and forget the original idea that might come in handy later. With pen and paper, you see every staggering, stop-and-go moment of the process, every cross out and idea. Of course, it’s not the most efficient way to write—especially if you have deadlines looming and 200 pages to go.

But what do you think about writing by hand? Do you think it’s dead? Do you think it’ll ever truly go out of use?

 

*swoon*