Category Archives: writing

4

Counterintuitive advice – what writers should not do

I mentioned a book I sold recently by Amy Morin based on her viral article 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, which resonated with so many people from around the world. One of the things that people mentioned was how she positioned the piece in the negative, from the perspective of things people don’t do, which highlights a different thought process than what we are used to when we think about things we should do to make ourselves better.

When I found this Writer’s Digest piece that offers advice with a similar interpretation, focusing on 15 things writers should not do, I thought it was worth sharing. In fact, there is overlap between Amy’s article and Zachary Petit’s. For example, Morin suggests mentally strong people should not resent other people’s successes, and Petit claims writers should not be spiteful about another writer’s success. Take those positive success stories and use them to motivate you, to try and learn something from them so you can apply them to your own work and eventual success.

Some of these traps are easy to fall into, like not wanting to give up on a particular piece that isn’t working, but if you can think about breaking the patterns, focus your energy on positive thoughts of looking ahead and learning and growing, you will be a better writer, and ultimately one with greater mental strength.

Are there any things in this piece that you struggle with? Personally I think there are many negative ideas in here that we’ve all experienced at one time or another. If you have any thoughts on how to take this advice to heart, please share. I’m sure there are other writers who would benefit not only from knowing what not do to, but learning more about how not to do it (therapists, feel free to chime in)!

2

Why writing and editing are not the same

Full disclosure: I do not claim to have mastered the editorial craft, but this blog post is in response to the many people I’ve spoken to who wish to break into the publishing industry in order to become writers. Many intern applicants have told me that they want to go into publishing because they want to be writers. They, like most, believe that writing and editing go hand in hand. If you are a good writer, you must be a good editor. And vice-a-versa. I don’t blame them. It’s a reasonable assumption, one I even made myself. But I quickly learned that this is not always the case.

Writing and editing require very different skill sets. Among other qualifications, great writers must have a voice, they must have a story to tell and be able to bring it to life. The dialogue must be realistic and the characters vivid, interesting, engaging.

What, then, is the editor’s job? What makes a great editor?

Editors must be able to assemble the writer’s story in a cohesive manner, must clearly see what the finish product should look like and know how to achieve that endgame, like a master watchmaker who sees how all the minuscule, intricate parts of a timepiece should fit together so that each one works in perfect concert with the other, so that the whole mechanism runs smoothly, flawlessly, beautifully. Move a chapter here, dissect some paragraphs there, control the rhythm and pacing of the book as a ship’s captain does the wind.

Yes, great writers can make great editors. And great editors can make great writers. But to confuse the two jobs is a common mistake that we should all try to avoid. Not only does it cheapen the arts of both writing and editing, but publishing houses and literary agencies aren’t looking to hire writers. In fact, it’s often frowned upon and seen as a distraction or conflict of interest.

2

A whole new genre…

Crossing genres is always fun, and so when I saw this Buzzfeed listing titled “If Pop Songs Were Works of Classic Literature,” there was no way I wasn’t clicking to see. The results are wonderful, overly writerly passages based on silly pop ditties and I loved every one of them. Here’s my shot at one:

  SK8rBoi

“One could hardly blame her for her prejudices. She was, after all a blue-blooded, white-collared, silver-spoon fed debutante who had never known anything beyond the ivy-clad walls in which she’d spent her formative years.

“It was hardly Penelope’s fault, then, that it took four years of skipping home from Madame Delphine’s Dance Académie surrounded by the trills and chatter of the very best of her friends, ballet shoes slung over their shoulders, for her to even notice him, the boy in artful tatters and skinned knees whose eyes followed her with a longing that could only be matched by the fervor with which he practiced his art over and over again.

“It seemed unlikely, this, the ballet princess and the gutter punk, and perhaps, maybe it was. But the best stories are the unlikely ones, are they not?”

I wrote that sample off the cuff with no edits, and that’s half the fun. Writing with the purpose of being groan-inducing and completely purple is kind of one of my favorite sorts of writing exercises. It’s really freeing when you intentionally remove not only the self-imposed need to self-edit, but make the whole point of the exercise a chance to poke fun at your most frustrating tendencies (mine are, obviously, dreamy imagery, extra-long and confusing sentences).

So have at it. Do your worst (really) and let me know what you come up with! I promise, it’s fun, and writing for writing’s sake is the best practice there is.

9

“Kill your darlings.” No, really, kill them dead.

A big part of my job involves helping writers develop ideas and then editing their work.   Good agents, Jane taught me a long time ago, send out material in its most polished, ready-for-prime-time form.  Even though an editor brings his/her own vision and expertise to the process of making a book ready for publication, it’s our job to get that editor to buy the thing in the first place.  So, a brilliant but bloated novel of ideas about the robot apocalypse (just a hypothetical, although you never know with Jim’s list), will probably get a long edit memo from us suggesting a lot of slashing and some burning.

Now, after a couple of decades of responses ranging from sobs to name calling, I’ve learned that telling authors to kill their darlings is always a loaded proposition.  Some will argue with you like defense lawyers at the O.J. trial, trying to convince you to recant and let them keep every superfluous line of dialogue, every unnecessary adjective, and every irritating dream sequence (a particular bugaboo of mine).  Some will accept your comments politely and then send back a manuscript with infinitesimal changes.  Some will send you six-page letters refuting everything you’ve suggested and insinuating that you belong in a less think-heavy profession.

Seldom (although not never) do we get a reaction similar to that of the author of this piece in the Times.  For every author who loves cutting and throwing out, there are thousands of hoarders.

Be honest, are you able to cut with gusto (or at least without facing a clinical depression) or do you have the impulse to argue with or rail against anyone who suggests it?

 

2

Writing’s (un)willing partners?

 

The writing life, as so many of you know, is a difficult one. Inherent in devoting yourself to a solitary, maddening, financially precarious pursuit is the tacit understanding that those around you must also come to some accommodation with your avocation.

I’m off to Grub Street’s MUSE AND THE MARKETPLACE conference in Boston (and very excited to be a participant, thanks to Adam Stumacher!) and I noted that there is a session on managing writing and parenthood.  Kids are not especially solicitous of activities that require quiet, solitary time—at least they are not in my house–so I think swapping strategies makes sense.  If I were not busy taking pitches and doing critiques, I’d sit in and take notes.   But in the absence of children, things are not necessarily easier.  My client, Christopher Yates, whose terrific literary thriller BLACK CHALK is just being released in the US, wrote a frank and funny piece on being a stay at home husband in order to write.  http://nypost.com/2014/04/30/my-wife-couldnt-survive-without-a-stay-at-home-husband/. Without prying, I wonder how it works in your household.  How do you negotiate time to concentrate, to create?

Writing has wrecked its share of relationships, so this strikes me as fairly essential question.

2

Teenage Dreams

One of the most important things an agent or editor values in a work of fiction, and something you’ll hear talked about ad infinitum is a resounding and real “voice” to a novel. Able writing, beautiful imagery or ingenious plotting are all well and good, but if a reader can’t connect to the protagonist and his or her voice, then a novel is left feeling flat, distant and, well, forgettable.

In reading queries and even published books, I find that the voice authors most seem to struggle with is the teen narrator—and this, of course makes sense. Most published authors and hopeful queriers have left their teenaged selves behind some (or many) years ago and so a lot of the thoughts and dialogue are supposed, remembered or possibly observed if the writer is lucky enough to hang around teenagers with some regularity. (Oof, did I say lucky?) The most impactful YA novels are those that have really captured what it’s like to be a teenager, the feelings, the impulses and the intense passion that can arise from those years. The slang needs to be perfect and not overdone or cliché and the same can be said for the characters’ predilections, motives and inner thoughts.

The best and worst part of reading good YA writing always hits me when I’ve been cringing at some of the supposed thoughts of teen girls thinking, “oh, god, who does this person think teenaged girls are, this is ridiculous,” and then I realize that the author is right and that’s what makes it so hard hitting. I was visiting my hometown last weekend and dug around my childhood bedroom a bit, unearthing the journal (I was too cool to ever call it a “diary” even though that’s exactly what it was) I wrote in faithfully when I was sixteen. As much as I wanted to punch/hug/kick/shake/comfort/congratulate the girl who was writing those words, I also had to admit that god, sixteen-year-old girls are annoying sometimes and yes, they do write and think and talk like those characters I had been scoffing at only hours before.

Herein lie the dreams of a sixteen-year-old.

Herein lie the dreams of a sixteen-year-old.

With this artifact, a true relic of my teenaged years in my hands, I realized something like this could really help a writer capture the youthful voice that may be escaping them in a current work in progress—an unmanufactured, unedited transcript of high school. Is this something that any of you YA writers do? If not, and if you don’t happen to be the parent or teacher of a teenager, then how are you able to write in a voice that is so far removed and so easily, tritely overdone and keep it sounding real? It’s something I’ve always had difficulty with, myself.

10

Series fatigue

Jane and I had dinner with the delightful and very savvy Abbi Glines last night.  During the course of a delicious meal of tapas-like small plates at ABC Cocina (which, in case you’re wondering, we liked better than ABC Kitchen, its sister restaurant), we talked about a number of interesting topics, from trends in fiction categories—ever elusive and often fleeting—to the lasting power of series.  Abbi pointed out that series can get tired after a while and that readers get tired of the characters right along with them, so an author needs to know when to move on to new pastures.

This reminded me of my love of Patricia Cornwell’s early Scarpetta books and how tedious I found the later ones, Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries which I lost interest in at about the letter G, and that by the time my son and I were at the 24th Magic Tree House book, I was ready to chuck them all out the window.  It’s possible that I just have a short attention span, but, Richelle Mead’s wonderful Vampire Academy series, for instance, kept me hooked up to the very last page of the final installment.

Sbook serieso, is it that authors don’t know when to put a cash cow out to graze and so keep adding books to a successful series even when the characters would much rather have retired to their home in Florida?  Or is it the readership that is so enamored of the characters and their universe that they keep clamoring for more even after the passion has faded?

Do you read every book in a series or do you find your attention wandering to that fresh, bright newcomer on the next shelf?  And do your favorite series authors maintain their effectiveness over numerous titles?

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?