Posted in Publishing, Traditional Publishing, Writing, Writing books

Writer: Know Thyself!

I was perusing my bookshelf this morning (in truth I was looking for a couple of books with the right spine width to wedge under a door my husband was re-installing – but I digress), when I happened upon one of my favourite old books. Over the years I’ve culled my book collection mercilessly, but there are a few that still remain on my shelf. Written by literary agent John Boswell, this one has remained one book that I do re-read from time to time, just to keep me grounded as a writer.

the awful truthIt is titled The Awful Truth About Publishing: Why they always reject your manuscript – and what you can do about it. In spite of its age (it was published in 1986 by Warner Books), and the concomitant fact that it was published long before the advent of the eBook era and the avalanche of self-publishing, it remains one of the best reads to help a writer with her head in the clouds to keep her feet on the ground – which is the only place to be if any real success is to follow.

As I cracked the cover (hard cover at that) I opened the book at Chapter 4: “The Awful Truth About Yourself.” And it does seem to me in these days when the “cult of the amateur” shrouds just about every facet of artistic endeavour (movie-making, music production and, yes, you guessed it, writing) it might be worthwhile for aspiring and other writers to do a bit of navel-gazing. Are we always aware of the truth about ourselves? Based on some of the drivel I’ve read recently, coupled with the book-marketing noise on the Web, it seems that many “writers” are, indeed, blind to some truths about themselves. And I put myself in that category from time to time.

Boswell offers this: “Writing, for the gifted few, is an art, and the chances of reaching this level are about as good as they are of becoming a prima ballerina or a major league second baseman” (The awful truth about publishing, p. 41). I love to be reminded that writing is indeed one of the arts, a factoid that seems to be forgotten by those among us who harp on ‘authorpreueurship’. While I’m all for the notion of self-help even in writing, let’s be clear that if you’re writing a book with the clear objective of making money, then this isn’t art.  It’s content creation and it’s okay. But it isn’t art. Some of my own work – or at least work in progress – seems to bend in that direction, while other work is simply seeing if I can create a piece of art that will entertain and perhaps even provoke.

He then goes on to make a statement that, had he been able to gaze into a crystal ball and see the future of publishing as we know it today he would have realized is even more profound. “Fortunately,” he writes, “…writing is also a craft and one which can indeed be learned by almost anyone. But…it is still not something that can be learned overnight, or a skill that pops into your head, fully honed once you ’get around’ to putting your publishable thoughts on paper…” (p. 41). And here is where it gets really muddy these days.

Boswell poses a question that I’ve often asked my own students – and use to ask myself. Do you want to be an “author” or do you want to write? It’s much the same question as do you want to write, or simply to “have written”? And these days we might also ask: do you want to be a writer or a content creator? One is not fundamentally better than the other, but they are different. They have different objectives, processes and audiences. In my view it’s really only a matter of knowing yourself. I’m trying.

[I’ve written about ‘content creators ‘ here  https://backstorywriting.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/are-you-a-writer-or-a-content-creator/ ]

Posted in Writing, Writing craft

When is a book too long?

big bookI just started reading a book that clocks in at over 900 pages.  900 pages!  Just imagine that.  Before I bought it I read the online reviews on Amazon.  The reviews were good but one issue kept cropping up: the book was too long.  In fact, this particular novelist is known for her long books, usually in the vicinity of 500-600 pages.  I’d read several before.  I haven’t read a book that long since I read Herman Wouk’s wonderful “Winds of War” which is over 1000 pages in pocket paperback size.

This got me thinking:  How long should a book really be?

If you are to believe Chuck Sambucino (whose work in Writer’s Digest I do admire), any book over 110,000 words is too long.[1]  This seems entirely too didactic to me unless we’re talking about specific genres such as children’s books.  That would mean that many very famous and well-loved masterpieces are “too long.”  Of course, any bad piece of writing is too long even at 60,000 words which he further suggests is too short.  It’s not that cut and dried.

Kurt Vonnegut reputedly gave this advice to writers: “Start as close to the end as possible,”[2] which suggests to me that there is likely a place in every story that is the best place to enter it.  Indeed, I believe that this applies equally to non-fiction and fiction.  Starting too far from the end means that you’ll include far too much extraneous material.

I really don’t believe that here is any ideal length. If a story sustains itself for a long session, then that’s probably right.  However, over the years I’ve challenged students to take their best 1000 words for example, and edit it ruthlessly down to half that length.  Then, I’ve said, you’ve got really tight writing.  You have to do it without losing the message of the piece and leave out every extraneous word.  They hate it because they want to keep every bon mot, every personal device and turn of phrase.

When William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings,” this is exactly what he meant.  (Note: This phrase has been variously attributed to Anton Chekov and Oscar Wilde, among many others. I’m going to stick with Faulkner.)

Not every word we write needs to make it to our reader.  Keeping unnecessary material suggests to me one of two things: either you are a serious narcissist who believes that every word you write is precious, or you are seriously in need of an editor.  And in that royal “you” I include myself sometimes.  We all do it.  I’ve even argued with editors about their opinions on some things to leave out. They usually win.

For beginning writers, I think that the biggest pitfall in keeping the story to the essentials is including too much backstory.  Backstory is for us – the writers – so that we can come to know and animate in our own imaginations our characters and the places they where they live and breathe.  This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction.  Knowing how to reveal and how much to reveal is the key to a tight story.  When I’m reading I can always tell when a writer wants the reader to know just how much research he or she put into a story.  And I shouldn’t be able to sense that.   Just as in our interactions with people around us, our interactions with books can have TMI: too much information.

I think that it’s wise to understand that your notebook s and the material contained in them are first and foremost for you, the writer.  Making a decision about how much of that you need to share with your readers is one of the keys to good writing.

I’ll let you know how I feel about the 900-word book – if I ever get through it!

[1] Chuck Sambucino. Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post. Writers’ Digest online. http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post

[2] Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Basics of Creative Writing. http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/538

Posted in Backstory, Ideas generation, Journals, Writing craft

A writer’s letter to Santa Claus

christmas treeWhat do you give a writer for Christmas?  Most of the lists of suggested gifts are filled with things like computer writing software, printer paper and coffee cups emblazoned with bon mots from writers who have gone before us.  I have a different view of what a writer – like me at least – really covets.  So, apart from the Moleskines which I covet every year, Santa Claus is really the only one who can fill this list.  I’d like to share my 2014 letter to Santa with other writers and aspiring writers.

“Dear Santa:

So we come to the end of another year.  It’s been a year of writing, not writing, writing some more, editing manuscripts, madly searching for a publisher, and taking a foray into self-publishing.  Well, you know what I’ve been through this year.  I’ve worked hard so I know you’ll look kindly on this writer’s little Christmas list.

  1. First, I would like a few Moleskines.[1] I know that they’re expensive as notebooks go. I know that other people in my life can provide these as well – but one can never have enough Moleskine notebooks, can one? After all if they’re good enough for Ernest Hemingway, they’re good enough for the rest of us. I also know that most of my work is digital. But I can’t shake my addiction to those brightly-colored covers. I seem to be inspired to write just by looking at them. Or at least I’m inspired to think about writing. That’s a first step in any project, isn’t it?books
  2. Now to the things that only you can give me. First I’d like the gift of a continually open mind. Let me see ideas everywhere I go and in everything I do (then the Moleskines become very useful, right?). Let that open mind accompany me when I read the newspaper, eavesdrop on conversations in restaurants and airports – well, you get the idea.
  3. I’d also like the gift of patience in the rewriting and editing process. That feeling that comes at the end of a finished manuscript at long last is wonderful, but can put me off from the rigors that are then required in the revision process. I need that forbearance more than anything else to get me through that part of the writing process.
  4. Then, Santa, although I know it might be difficult, I’d like the gift of compassion for all those agents and editors who can’t seem to answer their email in a timely fashion – even when they’ve requested the proposal or manuscript. *deep breath*
  5. I’d also like the gift of creativity so that I can see old ideas in new ways. I have journals filled with all those ideas from my sometimes open mind (see #1), but they are often derivative or jotted down on a whim leaving me without a clue as to context later. Please let me revisit those journals and consider how to turn those ideas on their heads or inside out to come up with a truly innovative approach to the material.
  6. Finally, thicken my skin just a little bit as I prepare to send out a manuscript to readers for pre-publication comment. I’m sure they won’t all love it (as they should).

Well, that’s it for this year Santa.  I’m planning another hard-working writing year and hope to be able to share with you at the end of 2015 just how far I’ve come with these gifts of Christmas 2014.  Merry Christmas!”

[1] For the uninitiated, Moleskines are (as their web site says): “…the heir and successor to the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries: among them Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway…”  You can read about them at http://www.moleskine.com/en/moleskine-world and buy them all over the world in book stores and online.  The paper is great and the array of sizes and colors amazing.