Category Archives: writing

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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!

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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? 

 

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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?

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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.

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When it’s okay to use bad grammar

When shuffling through query letters, bad grammar is often a loud warning bell. Literary agents tend to be wary when reading material from the prospective, unpublished author. Nothing will make an agent drop a query into the reject pile faster than poor grammar.

However, incorrect grammar can often be utilized as a literary style. Nearly every accomplished author does so—to one degree or another. Sentence fragments. Abbreviated words. Missing punctuation. Misspelled words and incomplete sentences. Literature is abundant with poor grammar.

So, how then can you determine when to ignore all those rules drilled into you by your elementary school teachers?

What is your writing for? Writing is purposeful. You don’t pick up a pen and commit words to paper accidentally. Is this a blog? An academic piece? A query letter? A creative piece? Resume? Knowing your audience is a time-tested lesson in writing, so for formal prose, always go the safe route and edit your piece to perfection to ensure perfect, “proper” grammar.

On the other hand, for creative pieces, bad grammar can help the author illustrate his or her point. The form your writing takes should match its tone.

Cormac McCarthy is known for his stark, bare prose and his distaste for commas and other forms of punctuation, such as the quotation mark. His writing not only complements the often-bleak tone of his work, but also adheres to a simplistic style for the sake of clarity and rhythm. He believes that punctuation can often disrupt the flow of a sentence and is usually superfluous.

Hope this was enlightening. I encourage those interested to read more on the topic. Here are some semi-related links to check out on the topic of grammar:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/a-matter-of-fashion/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/effectivefrag.htm

http://andthatswhyyouresingle.com/2013/03/12/does-bad-grammar-punctuation-turn-you-off/

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The power of the period. Or comma. Or colon. Or …

One of the things I stress most over, when writing, is punctuation. (WAIT, WERE THOSE COMMAS RIGHT, JUST NOW? IS THIS PARENTHETICAL OKAY IF IT’S  ITS OWN SENTENCE? OH GOD, AM I SUPPOSED TO PUT THE PERIOD INSIDE OR OUTSIDE THE PARENTHESES IN THIS SITUATION? I’LL JUST WING IT.)

It’s funny, because most of the time I just view punctuation as a banal necessity to make sure your words aren’t misinterpreted (See: either any and all arguments for the serial comma or this amusing article on Buzzfeed). It’s stressful because there is a generally agreed upon right way to do things and if you don’t know the right way to use a particular punctuation mark there’s the absolute horror of being called out on it at some point and coming up blank. I’m mostly sure I know when and why to use a semi-colon, but please, don’t ask me to explain in front of anyone.

I still remember the day I learned the difference between and em-dash and an en-dash (and to a lesser extent, the hyphen, only included because it’s visually similar) and it changed my world. The em-dash is now, I think, my absolute favorite punctuation, to the point where I actually have to go back and edit some of them out of things I’ve written so as not to overwhelm.

Vulture posted an article by Kathryn Schulz yesterday, “The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature” that I just loved and that really got the wheels turning in my head. Of course, I suppose I’d always been aware of punctuation as a literary device, just as much as anything else, but because it’s something used in even the most ordinary of sentences, it’s never stuck out as particularly powerful to me before. After reading this, however, not only am I convinced, but I’ve started noticing the punctuation in everything I read—and write, which is bound to get distracting eventually, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

I think my favorite of the examples that Schulz presents are Nabokov’s parenthetical and Dickens’ colon—both are masterful and truly do change the sentiment and takeaway from each passage in which they appear. Reading through the comments, I notice someone lit upon just what I myself had been thinking of as I read—what about the lack of proper punctuation, or heck, punctuation at all to bring home a point or strengthen an emotion? One commenter referenced Molly Bloom’s monologue at the very end of Joyce’s Ulysses and her rushed, hurried, full of sensation, devoid of thought “and yes I said yes I will Yes” has always been one of my favorite closing lines in literature and it couldn’t have been as perfect as it was if there had been even a single comma betwixt the words—I’ll go on record saying that.

What about you? Any particular mark of punctuation just really not do it for you? Elude you in the proper way it’s meant to be used? Do you have any more literary references for its excellent use? I’d love to hear them.

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Writing tips from 2013 to help you in 2014

I hope you all had good holidays. I personally did a lot of celebrating since my birthday falls right between Christmas and New Year’s. One highlight was seeing Kinky Boots on Broadway. I loved it! After so much fun, I feel ready (even if my piles don’t) to be back at work and motivated to work with my authors to sell lots of great books.

I like at this time of year to regroup, look at the big picture, and try to come up with a strategy for a successful year ahead. I find this approach to be effective, even if I can’t always keep all of my annual goals.

I love this list of best-of writing articles from 2013 compiled by Writer’s Digest because it covers so many bases in the writing process. And it’s especially useful since it’s broken down by categories like Writing Better Characters, How to Get Published, and Inspiration for Writers. One of my favorites is the 2001 interview with Tom Clancy and his quote: “I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I just keep it simple: Tell the damn story”. That’s definitely keeping it simple, and direct!

I wanted to share it with our blog readers who are hopefully feeling like I am – motivated, energized, and ready to work hard to be as successful as we can be. Starting out by reading these articles just might help get you on the right track for the year ahead.

Enjoy and please let us know which articles from their list you find to be the most helpful. Now, let’s all get to work!