Category Archives: writing

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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

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“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?

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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.

 

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The Creative Juices

 

A couple of posts ago I wrote about different authors’ processes; what works for some, but not for others. This intriguing interview with Patrick Ryan that recently appeared on the Electric Literature  blog  gives another perspective.

The advice writers most often hear is that they should ideally be the vessel through which their work passes. In her invaluable 1934 book BECOMING A WRITER, Dorothea Brande described the “creative coma” that we now refer to as being “in the zone”:  when the writing is flowing freely, with no self-editing angel looking over your shoulder. It’s AFTER that time that writers should go back over their work with a full editorial eye.  That makes a lot of sense, IF you have the ability to write that way. Not all authors do.

About the writing of his short story “The Way She Handles,” part of his new collection THE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS, Patrick Ryan says:

 

The end of “The Way She Handles,” that wasn’t planned. I decided to pull back in order to look at the narrator’s life from a later vantage, and it was thrilling. It was like running on a decline — you realize that the decline is giving you a momentum, and that you’re not entirely in control anymore. I’d never had that experience before. Normally, I’m so controlling. I write so slowly. I rewrite constantly while I write. That’s not a brag — it’s a problem. I write ten words, I take five back. Nearly every writer I know says the point of a first draft is to knock it out, but I can’t. I write a paragraph, and I can’t write the second paragraph until I feel like the first one is in okay shape. It’s not a great way to work. If I have a rare, three-hour session, say, and I write three pages? That’s Olympic. So this was a rare instance where the whole last part of the story came to me in a rush. I looked back on it and thought, how did I get so lucky?

 

By the time he finished the story, he realized, in fact, that the entire emphasis of it had shifted to another character, and it had found its true heart.

 

I’ve always admired writers who are able to focus their creative forces, and to bring their inner editor back only when necessary. Often, it’s much easier said than done. If you’re a writer, please feel free to chime in and let me know if you’re one of those lucky ones who can make this system work.

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Whatever Works

During a very energizing few days at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference last week, I had the pleasure of spending time with fellow agents as well as a lot of authors—published and yet to be—and I practically O.D.’d on some of the best tacos known to man (El Sitio at 2830 De La Vina St., I’m lookin’ at YOU.)

One of the highlights of my stay was attending a panel of newly-published authors who were eager to talk about the craft of writing. An audience member asked them at  one point what their “process” was. It’s a legitimate question, because it seems to me that no two authors have the same process for writing and, Lord knows, that process is not always a steady one. It can vary depending on a writer’s moods, not to mention demands both personal and professional that always threaten to encroach on writing time. Lida Sideris, author of the mystery thriller Murder and Other Unnatural Disasters, answered, “I don’t have a process. I write by the seat of my pants. No one was more surprised at who the culprit was than me.”  Another panelist, Stephen Vessels, (The Mountain and the Vortex) warned of the danger of procrastination. “THINKING about writing can take an enormous amount of time,” he said. “You can THINK about writing instead of ACTUALLY writing for years.” That would seem to tie in with the mantra that succesful authors urge upon neophytes: Write every day. Sometimes that can mean setting yourself a goal of a certain number of words or pages. If it’s ultimately not usable or requires heavy editing, fine—those are decisions that can be made later.  You can’t edit a blank page.

But there are also successful authors who depend on a germination period before they sit down to write. They may need to take time to develop possibilities and choose among them; to let stories grow in their head before the actual writing begins. They may outline the arc of a plot before actually beginning a novel.

Whatever your process is, it is just that—your process. It’s what works best for you. Would anyone like to chime in and let us know what your particular system is? I’m always eager to hear about that.

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Being There

Last weekend I had the pleasure of being the guest of the Pennwriters Conference in Lancaster, PA, along with fellow agents Noah Ballard of Curtis Brown, Ltd. and Mark  Gottlieb of Trident Media. We spent two days meeting with writers both published and aspiring, hearing their pitches and helping them hone them, answering their numerous questions on writing and publishing. We also participated in panels and led workshops tied in with the areas in which we specialize.

It’s very much of a two-way street, because if we’re lucky, we agents come away with a new client (or several). But at this particular conference, I also came away with something I hadn’t really expected. Not to get all gooey here, but I was moved by the sense of support that flowed through the entire weekend. It started at the top, from the organizers who put it together and are dedicated to helping their membership attain their dreams of being published. And it was palpable among the writers who attended, this feeling of them being there for each other.

Friday evening’s keynote speaker, the bestselling Bram Stoker Award winner Jonathan Maberry, doesn’t always get to attend a lot of conferences with his busy writing schedule. But he explained to me that this one has always been special to him for the key reason of its ongoing sense of support. “The Pennwriters staff stays in touch with the conference attendees year round, BETWEEN conferences, and is really there for them,” he said. “And a lot of the writers also stay in touch with each other.”

As we know, writing can be a lonely pursuit. And if you’re trying to establish a literary career in a state as big as Pennsylvania, with its vast, sparsely populated regions of farmland and forest separating its beautiful cities, fellow writers might not always be easy to find. Organizations like Pennwriters do a terrific service in bringing writers together, virtually and in-person, for the feedback and coaching they need.

The sense of encouragement at the conference, and the lack of schadenfreude, were an indication to me of why the Pennwriters conference is entering its 30th year. As author John C. Houser, one of its regulars,  said to me over lunch, “One of the best things about this conference each year is seeing so many members get published.” There’s a place for healthy competition, certainly, but this is a great place for a sense of fellowship as well.

So, on that note: Reach out to your fellow writers with encouragement. You’re likely to get some flowing right back to you.

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?

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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.

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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?

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Listen Up!

Podcasting has been with us since around the mid-2000’s, but this past year the amount of podcast listening has increased by an amazing 24 percent. The highly addictive Serial may have had something to do with that, but what I feel excited about is the number of podcasts now devoted to books. Out of the hundreds of thousands of podcasts available to listen to at any time, there are plenty that focus on books and authors.

 

It’s now clear that podcasts can be a great marketing tool. Publishers have been doing their own podcasts; so have book critics and fans.Not only are authors being invited as guests to promote their books on podcasts, but social-media-savvy writers have started doing their own podcasts which they can make available on multiple platforms.

 

A regular personal podcast can really boost an author’s social media presence, even between book launches. And authors can help each other as well by inviting other authors to take part in their podcasts. With listernership on the rise, a personal podcast is something authors would do well to consider making a regular part of their promotional efforts.

 

If you haven’t done so yet, check out some literary podcasts like Dear Book Nerd, Slate’s Audio Book Club, and Lit Up.  For even more podcasts, covering not just reading but such topics as language and writing, this list from the Penguin Random House “News for Authors” site has some great suggestions. And if anyone knows of great book-related podcasts that aren’t mentioned here, by all means, please feel free to comment and let me know.

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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?