2.27.2007

warning: more writing advice

This just in from NPR.org: Samuel G. Freedman is the author of six books, the most recent being Letters to a Young Journalist and Who She Was. He gives a course on narrative nonfiction at Columbia that’s a kind of bootcamp of self-editing: “Mixed metaphors, overwriting, and cliches are beaten out of every student. At the end of each critique, Freedman tallies everyone's cliches. That effort goes into creating the CPP: Cliche-per-Person index.” The course then teaches students how to write a book proposal. NPR.org gives Freedman’s 10 tips for writing non-fiction, which are applicable in many cases to fiction writers.

Ten Thoughts for Writing Narrative Nonfiction
by Samuel Freedman
~ Read avidly and analytically. Don't just read the currently popular narrative writers such as Erik Larson or Susan Orlean; read the authors who created the tradition: Stephen Crane, John Hersey, Gay Talese, J. Anthony Lukas. Read plenty of fiction along with nonfiction. And whatever you read, as you read, consider the book a text in how to research and write book. What worked? What didn't? How was this organism assembled? How does it function?
~ Understand that reporting enables writing. Even the most stylish prose, absent research of the first order, is ultimately an empty vessel. The writer who has done the indefatigable and intellectually curious reporting can write an accomplished book without being a lyric poet, because he or she has a powerful, important story to tell.
~ Pay attention not only to the external dramas of your characters but the internal ones — the drama that takes place between the ears, the drama of motivation. There is not richer, more compelling material.
~ Never be afraid to sound ignorant or foolish. The only stupid question is the one you don't ask.
~ Take the time to outline before you write, whether you're writing a short feature story or a full-length book. For fiction, an advance plan is a death knell, a curb on the imagination. (I agree—kg) For nonfiction, it is a blueprint, a musical score, the structure that liberates you to enjoy the writing process because you are always aware of the overarching structure.
~ Forget about the market. Write only the book you burn to write. Choose a topic you love, because you'll be married to it for years. If you can develop a gripping enough proposal about a vital enough topic, if you can paint memorable characters, then you can get an agent and editor to put aside the conventional commercial wisdom.
~ Every work of narrative needs to have these elements: character, event, place, and theme.
~ A book needs to operate on both a temporal and an eternal axis. The temporal axis is what makes your subject newsworthy, for lack of a more artful term, right now. The eternal axis is what will make it enduringly relevant.
~ Think back to high school chemistry class and the chart of the Periodic Table of the Elements. That chart told you that every thing in the material world can ultimately be reduced to only those elements. As an author, your territory is the Periodic Table of Human Nature. It's all the basic elements of human experience: love, hate, yearning, ambition, disappointment, ecstasy, etc.
~ Never put too much faith in any list.

2.25.2007

hi! i'm: an old dog

It took me many years to realize that my writing talent wasn't going to miraculously produce a writing career, if baked at the right temperature in the oven of time.

So I started writing, for real.

I quickly realized that the work I was producing was in most cases good, but not quite good enough.

So I started editing, for real.

I published a short book of stories, and some stories and poems in magazines. I did a lot of readings and even a few signings. I got reviewed, favorably.

But I'm still learning the second lesson. Still learning it, like TODAY I'm still learning it.

I edit my work, usually between 3 and 5 drafts before I send it out. But at times I feel the piece could be better, could be stronger.

I send it out anyway.

Why? The answers aren't pretty.

This week I tore through The First Five Pages, a book about staying out of the rejection pile. It's unusual for me to read a writer's guide of any kind, but it was recommended by a friend, and I was curious. Much of it was dismayingly basic (don't send a soiled manuscript) but other parts hit home: the book goes into tone, into characterization, into focus.

With every section, I thought of my work. Mainly, I thought of the novel I'm writing, and I felt good. Then I thought of some of the stories I have sent out, and I felt...something further away from good.

Here's the biscuit: even with thorough editing, it is difficult to see the weaknesses in my own work, and this book's examples of how writing can be made stronger have resonated with my own sense of what's not working in some stories. It made me want to rush home and edit those stories, or at least review them with the book's points in mind.

I've had successes in this game, and many rejections, and I'm still learning. I don't quite qualify as an OD, so I should have no trouble learning NTs.

2.21.2007

back in black and white: telegram

Novel stalled STOP
Work increased STOP
As expected STOP
Rejection yesterday STOP
Don't care STOP
Not giving up STOP

2.12.2007

bad, bad unicorn: a review

Allow me to share with you a few lines of the devastatingly awful book I just read to my daughter. Actually, that's a lie. I couldn't get through the thing. Please gimme a witness on this:

"In a mirror of sunrise glitter, dawn was born again in a land of crystalline splendor. As the sunshine crept across the diamond mountains, it shimmered from the crystal trees and flowers that made up this wondrous land."

::gasp::

"For, you see, all living things in this land were cast from either glass, diamond or crystal. The only colors were splashes of blue, silver and gold."

I feel a little woosy just typing the words. But I'm hanging on because:

"In this magic land, many strange crystal creatures frolicked in the dancing lights of day. There were crystal-like birds called glimmerings, smiling little lizards called beamers and, most beautiful of all, horse-like creatures called lightasoars, who had wings made of delicate diamonds so they could fly wherever the eye could see."

OK. That's just a taste. The story goes on to relate the strange occurence of something brown in this blue, silver and gold world, and how all the creatures (despite their beauty) are total haters to the brown thing, except one, of course. This brown thing grows up to be a beautiful rose and brings beautiful red rose color to their formerly red-deprived world. Theeeee End.

All the above dreck is copyrighted, of course, and I bow low to the copyright gods (and to the book's corporate sponsors, the diamond industry). I grovel at their sixteen-toed feet. But puhlease, people:

Is this what gets published? I mean, how should I take this? I see two ways:

1. I'm appalled that this manuscript came into print. It makes me lose faith in editors and publishers of children's books, and by extension in all editors and publishers.

2. I'm encouraged because if this piece of something that rhymes with pap can get into print, so can a manuscript of mine.

Neither satisfies.

I look at the imprint: "Copyright 1980" (maybe that's the explanation right there). "No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, except for brief passages included in a review appearing in a newspaper or magazine."

Or a blog.

I added that last part. But this is a review, or has caused one--a review of my own goals for my writing. We've all seen terrible books in our own coveted genre get published, books we hear great things about and hope to love and end up putting aside, aghast by what gets printed.

So. I don't write to get published. I don't write to get paid. I hope to continue writing the book I'm writing, because I love doing it. I hope to have a finished manuscript, and to look for an editor and publisher.

Do I want my work published? You damn skippy I do. But that's not the point of writing. I'll find an editor, and a publisher, but they don't sit at my desk with me, they're not at the table. It's my character I'm writing for, it's her story that I want to tell, not my own, not the story of how I wrote a book and got published.

What luck! It's recycling day. I have just one more item to add to the pile.

2.09.2007

nanorifivemo

Deadline is set for my novel's first draft completion: May 15, five months give or take from the start. We're going on a trip that begins that day, and I imagine spending each morning on the sun-drenched porch, making edits whilst the others frolic in the sand.

This strikes me as an unlikely reality for a number of reasons, but not the writing part. The deadline can be met. Now back to work, hacking my path to that porch in the sun.

2.07.2007

can't find nothing on the radio

Eating a quick dinner tonight between students, I heard on the radio the lamentable story of d-league basketball players who face deprivation (shared living quarters, sparse budget) on their way to (hopefully) becoming NBA players. The article mentioned that the salary cap for NBA players is 21 million dollars per year.

I sat in my car, looking out at the dark trees and the windy, rainy, street. Cars lined up, people making their way home from work. People not facing the limitation of a salary cap of 21 million dollars per year.

Basketball can be an art, especially when it is played as a team, a collaboration. Sometimes you get a Leonardo (Jordan), but mostly the beauty is in the miraculous rhythm of teamwork.

Writers work their art alone. Most struggle to do so in the confines of their paying work and other obligations. I'm happy to say that I am not facing the salary cap. I'm not facing a salary, so far. I'm working, alone, bouncing the basket in an empty auditorium. No one to pass to, but no one guarding the basket, either.

I can dunk it. The crowd will roar. Let the salary caps come as they may.

2.04.2007

say goodnight gracie

After the initial turbulence of a new semester's schedule, we're nearly at cruising altitude. The novel now has an official a seat of its own, isn't walking the aisles in hopes of squeezing between the bulky masses of work, kids and sleep.

It's sleep that doesn't have much a place. If I don't want to be away from home three evenings a week, I'll have to take one of those evenings, the writing one, and turn it into an early morning. Or something.

So maybe the novel's place isn't that secure. And maybe they're not coming around with the drinks quite yet. There may still be periodic turbulence, when the stacks of papers start coming in, and time to write the novel will disappear, like the 13 roasted peanuts inside the little foil bag.

The only way the novel will get priority is if I'm willing to give up sleep, go to bed early knowing that a thermos of coffee is ready on the counter for my 5 AM wake up. If I can do that once a week, the manuscript will continue to grow.

The good news: it's still coming. 10 pages last session. More notes made as kids played in the sand at the park. I could be worrying about content, not scheduling. That's a good thing.

This week in the paper an article heralded the much anticipated arrival of the Queen Mary to our shore, with a photo of the captain of the vessel. He looked intensely worried, and between the lines of stats about the size of the ship, I realized why: the boat had only a 30 minute window in which to slip beneath the golden span of our fair bridge, just 30 minutes to get that big ass boat into port.

Timing is everything.

He made it. According to early estimates, one million people came out to see the boat pass through the gate. One million. I'm happy for him. He's my new role model-- big project+ tight schedule=no problem.

Now off to bed.