What is "Doom Eager"?

Lorrie Moore, from "Better and Sicker"
"Martha Graham speaks of the Icelandic term "doom eager" to denote that ordeal of isolation, restlessness, caughtness and artistic experiences when he or she is sick with an idea. When a writer is doom eager, the writing won't be sludge on the page; it will give readers -- and the writer, of course, is the very first reader -- an experience they've never had before, or perhaps a little and at last the words for an experience they have."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Authors choose their favorite books of 2010

Authors choose their favorite books of 2010
Salon.com's Laura Miller shares notable authors' picks for best books of 2010. Check it out!

Most of my reading in 2010 was in the YA genre. This year I really liked Jessica Blank's realistic 1980's coming-of-age story Karma For Beginners (Hyperion Teen), Kimberly Derting's debut thriller The Body Finder (HarperTeen), and Carrie Vaughn's fantasy tale of a girl and a dragon Voices of Dragons (HarperTeen).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Why we love bad writing

Why we love bad writing
Laura Miller muses on why so many of us love bad writing in her article posted at salon.com.

I have to admit, as much as I despise "bad writing," Miller has a point in her article: the masses love quick to gobble up, easy to digest, filler plot-heavy novels. I imagine it's much in the same way many of us like fast food, plasticware, and disposable razors.

Last night before calling it quits for the day, I read a few chapters of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. No, I couldn't read it quickly. And, yes, the Russian names are near impossible to sound out in my head; I end up glossing over them. But there is something to reading Tolstoy I can't get from reading Nicholas Sparks or Jodi Picoult. For me, it has to do with the craft of a sentence, the quality of character development, the fine construction of a paragraph. My father used to tell me, You pay for quality. I guess I still believe that.

I'll take a few chapter of Tolstoy over an entire Dan Brown novel any day.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

a comment on art by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was specifically addressing the benefits of attending university creative writing programs when he wrote, "The primary benefit of practicing any art, whether well or badly, is that it enables one's soul to grow." Most of us writers won't get the opportunity to attend an established writing program. But many of us can be blessed enough to hook up with a supportive and talented group of writers, hopefully for critique groups, or workshops and conferences, or just to share the "rapture and misery," the moments atop the mountain and the dark nights in the gutters of doubt and insecurity. If our soul is to grow through the practice of our art we can find encouragement and security in the company of other practitioners of the art.

Don't know a single soul who writes? Try one or both of these online communities:
WritersCafe.org or Fictionaut.com

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

writing as a "series of permissions"

I love this quote from writer Susan Sontag. It's taken from her essay "Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed" reprinted in the 2001 publication of Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times.
"Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in a certain way. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to find you own inner freedom."

I think it's important to realize our "own characteristic way of narrating" is uniquely our own and that we must insist on giving ourselves permission to express it. Much can be learned from workshops, critique sessions, writers programs and the like, but ultimately the writer must take what she has learned and find her own way.

Follow the link below to read Sontag's essay.
"Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

my morning at a storage auction

Every time I turn on the television these days, I see commercials for the handful of new "reality" shows centered around auctions and "picking" antiques. You know the ones, they star gruff-looking, everyday types who make their livings from buying other people's junk and reselling it for a profit. The latest of these genre of shows are the storage unit auction shows, including Auction Hunters and Storage Wars. I'll admit I got more than a little curious. You mean you can buy abandoned storage lots and turn around and sell people's junk for a tidy profit? Okay, I'll bite! So, today I attended my first storage lot auction.

I didn't find any treasures. In fact, I never even bid on a lot. But, I did find that going to the auction provided some real treasures for observing human behavior. The moment that resonates most for me was the look on a young man's face -- he looked to be in his early twenties -- when it dawned on him that he'd most likely overbid -- and by a substantial amount -- for a storage locker that contained a beat up, fake Christmas tree, a microfiber suede couch, a few (probably counterfeit) Coach handbags, and boxes of assorted old clothes and household items. I knew he was in trouble when he bounced on his toes in anticipation while the bidding got driven up to over $500. After the bidding stopped and he'd "won" the lot, he tore into the pile, looking for anything that justified his impetuous purchase.

The experience got me to wondering about the folks who'd abandoned the lot units. What were their stories? How had it come to their belongings being auctioned off to the highest bidder? How did they feel about strangers rummaging through their lives? What abandoned dreams were stored away in those cardboard boxes and plastic bins?

Reflecting on this morning, I'm left wondering if there's a story in the experience somewhere -- either on the side of the anonymous whose possessions were just auctioned away or on the side of the eager looking to score a windfall on the lost and abandoned dreams of folks they'll never met and whose "lives" they've just "won."

Monday, December 6, 2010

steps for staying "tuned in" for what you need

"Once you're into a story everything seems to apply -- what you overhear on a city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you're writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story. I guess you're tuned in for it, and the right things are sort of magnetized." - Eudora Welty

Good source material for our writing is around us all the time. I think we are most "tuned in" to it when we are actively working on a writing piece. The following steps may help you stay "tuned in" for what you need for a writing project:

1. Make and stick to a writing schedule as much as possible. Neglecting your writing work leads to distraction and lack of focus. When we are not focused on our work, it's harder to "tune in" to the fabulous source material that surrounds us every day.

2. Be observant. Watch others and be attune to your surroundings. What does the day feel like? How does someone react to stimuli, to others around him or her, to conflict?

3. Listen carefully and with purpose. Catch and write down as soon as you can overheard conversations you think you can use later. Note an interesting or provocative turn of phrase. Notice the construction and syntax of spoken language.

4. Keep your writing project in mind as you go through your daily routine and living obligations. Working through scenes in your mind ahead of time will make it easier for you to write and to incorporate the source material you've encountered as it fits into your work.

5. Keep a notebook for each writing project, as well as a general notebook or journal to keep ideas and scraps of phrases and observations from your surroundings. Don't worry if you'll ever use anything you record or when you'll use it: just get it down. Write it down as soon as possible. We always think we'll remember that cool phrase or idea the next day, the next week, the next month. How soon we forget when we fail to write it down.

Keep the literary faith, friends. And keep writing!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

the problem of the struggling writer

While being interviewed for The Paris Review, writer Frank O'Connor was asked by the interviewer: "What about the problem of the struggling writer who must make a living?" Frank O'Connor answered with the following story:
"Now, that's something I can't understand about America. It's a big generous country, but so many students of mine seemed to think they couldn't let anyone else support them. A student of mine had this thing about you mustn't live on your father and I argued with him. I explained that a European writer would live on anybody, would live on a prostitute if he had to, it didn't matter; the great thing was to get the job done. But he didn't believe in this, so he rang up his father and told him he'd had a story refused by The New Yorker, and his father said, 'I can keep you for the next forty years, don't you think you can get a story in The New Yorker in forty years?' Well, this father was a man I understood and sympathized with, a decent man. But the boy felt he mustn't be supported by his father, so he came down to New York and started selling office furniture."

I got a check today from a client, a wonderful fellow who's retired and writes short stories about men who love women, who are entranced and manipulated by their feminine wiles, often times to the point of their own self-detriment. The check was for $60. It's not much, but it beats selling office furniture. As far as I'm concerned, anything, even being broke all the time, is better than geting sucked back into "making a living" but feeling used up and creatively dry.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thought for the Day

"Why do people always expect authors to answer questions? I am an author because I want to ask questions. If I had answers I'd be a politician." - Eugene Ionesco

Saturday, November 27, 2010

John Gardner on what writers do

"What the writers I care most about do is take fiction as the single most important thing in life after life itself -- life itself being both their raw material and the object of their celebration. They do it not for ego but simply to make something singularly beautiful. Fiction is their religion and comfort: when they are depressed, they go not to church or psychoanalysis but to Salinger or Joyce, early Malamud, parts of Faulker, Tolstoy, or the Bible as a book. They write, themselves, to make things equally worthy of trust -- not stories of creeps and cynics but stories of people capable of a measure of heroism, capable of strong and honest feeling at least some of time, capable of love and sacrifice -- capable of all this, and available as models for imitation. Everything true writers do, I think, from laborious plotting on butcher paper or three-by-five cards to laborious revision, draft after draft, they do to create characters -- the center and heart of all true fiction -- characters who will serve till Messiah comes, characters whose powerful existence in our minds makes a real-life messiah unnecessary. Imperfect, even childish human beings, writers raise themselves up by the techniques of fiction to something much better than even the best of writers are in everyday life: ordinary mortals transmutted for the moment into apostles." - John Gardner, from On Writers and Writing

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

minimize procrastination and worry

"I became an afternoon writer when I had afternoons. When I was able to write full-time, I used to spend the morning procrastinating and worrying, then plunge into the manuscript in a frenzy of anxiety around 3:00 P.M. when it looked as though I might not get anything done. . . . The fact is that blank pages inspire me with terror. What will I put on them? Will it be good enough? Will I have to throw it out? And so forth. I suspect most writers are like this." - Margaret Atwood

The fact is finding time to write is difficult for most writers, even those of us who are home all day. When we look at how we spend our time, however, we may find, like Margaret Atwood, we waste precious time during which we could be writing instead of procrastinating and worrying.

Besides procrastination and worry, watch out for these time-suckers that take away from writing time. Some are just disguised forms of procrastination and worry.

1. Watching television mindlessly. We all have our favorite shows. If possible, I record them and catch up later when I've completed my writing for the day. I try to make watching a show my reward for getting writing done.

2. Running pointless errands. Do I need to run to five different stores, waisting time (and gas)? Can I combine errands or better plan my driving route, so that routine errands don't steal my writing time? I stock up on common household items (buying them when they're on sale, of course), so that I'll need to spend less time shopping.

3. Fussing over unnecessary household projects and tasks. Reorganizing the closet or cleaning out the garage isn't as important to me as sticking to a writing routine. I find it's more productive to write when I'm fresh and alert. Cleaning and tackling projects around the house come after I've written, or can be accomplished during short breaks between chapters or scenes. I've been known to throw in a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher while I'm working through a troublesome passage or scene in my mind.

4. Over-committing of time and energy. It took me many years to realize it's okay to say "no" to friends, colleagues, organizations, and yes, even to family members when saying "yes" means little or no time for writing. The writing life means commitment of my time and energy. This doesn't mean always saying "no," but setting priorities. I ask myself besides writing time, what activities and commitments mean the most to me and my inner circle? What can I honestly commit to and do well, keeping time for writing a central part of my life? It can be hard at times, feeling as if I'm being selfish, but over-committing of my time and energy can leave me feeling drained and resentful.

Monday, November 22, 2010

it's out there ... so write about it!

"The material's out there, a calm lake waiting for us to dive in." - Beverly Lowry

In my case, it seems it's not a "calm lake" of material waiting for me to dive in but more an ocean of waves crashing in. I can catch a wave and ride it in, or I can drown. Think I'll let my writing be my surfboard.

Began a short piece this morning entitled "Spoiled Milk." I'm not sure where it's going yet, but the image of a woman who sums people up by the contents and condition of their refrigerator struck me while I was cleaning my own this morning. Maybe it'll become something, maybe it won't. I, like Lowry, believe there is material for stories all around us - in the ordinary, mundane actions and circumstances of life, as well as the grand and dramatic moments.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Clutter" appears in FWA "Slices of Life" 2010 Anthology

The Florida Writers Assoication presented their second volume of short stories, Slices of Life, last month. My author's copy came in the mail Monday. It's always a nice treat to see one's work in print.

"Clutter" was a piece that rolled around in my mind for six months or so before I finally sat down and put it to paper. FWA's call for short "slice of life" stories seemed the perfect occasion for my personal piece that provides a glimpse into a condition that baffles the mind, while it simultaneous attracts and repells, and serves as a constant distraction and cause for disagreement: compulsive hoarding.

One characteristic of the "slice of life" story is that it not provide neat resolutions or offer deep analysis of character behavior. A story about hoarding and the impact it has on relationships, in this case between mother and daughter, felt like a perfect fit. In my experience with compulsive hoarding behavior, there are no clear resolutions or easy analysis, any understanding one arrives at comes after years of struggle and confusion.

While this particular event is fictionalized, the relationship and conditions of the main characters are not. "Clutter" wasn't an easy to piece to write and, looking back on it now, I catch sentences and bits of dialogue I'd love to revise. There are passages that feel clunky and awkward, but, given the clunky awkwardness of emotions presented in the piece, the language feels right to me.

Overall, I'm happy with it - and, even more so, happy to be done with it. It was a bugger of a story that wouldn't let me go. I hope others will find something of value in it.


My mother is a hoarder.

I sit on the edge of her bed in a cluttered bedroom. A stack of clothes, easily a foot high, makes the far side of the bed unusable. I’ve not seen it made since before my father’s death, over four years ago last November.

A week after the funeral, my husband and I had taken my mother to a Thanksgiving buffet at a pricey hotel on the beach. We’d all been very quiet during the meal and after. I’d been afraid I’d say something about Dad, make her cry at the table. Mostly, I’d looked out the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, facing the ocean, and tried not to think of her being alone in her house, her with her mountain of things.

When we’d driven her home, I’d asked if she’d wanted me to stay overnight. Peter could pick me up the next day. We could pack up Dad’s things. Maybe, take a box of his clothes or books to the Goodwill. She’d looked at me as if I’d said we could pack up Dad and take him to the Goodwill. I’d felt bad right way. And, worse later, when it struck me we’d sort of had already.

Walking her to the door, she’d told me she was tired, would call the next day. She’d rather be alone, but thank you for the dinner. The pecan pie had been good. She’d opened the front door, and I’d given her a long hug. Before she’d closed the door, I’d caught a glimpse of the foyer. Dozens of art frames, of various sizes, some with paintings, some without, leaned against a wall. In her bedroom, I knew she kept boxes upon boxes of art supplies: small bottles of paint, many empty or dried up, brushes of every size, their bristles ratted and worn, rulers, tape, scissors, scraps of fabric. So much stuff, she’d given up on keeping the boxes labeled and orderly. I imagined she had so much she’d no way to keep track of what she owned already, buying the same supplies twice, maybe three or four times. She’d shut the door quickly behind her, cutting off my, Call me if you need --

Sitting on the edge of the bed, I stare at a collection of plastic paint bottles and a cup of well-used brushes on her vanity dresser. The brushes stand at attention like weathered soldiers, war-torn and weary but ready for battle. I think she might like new ones, a gift for her birthday next month, but then I think she has these and I know she won’t throw them out.

“Finished any new paintings?” I ask.

“I always have something new,” she says. On her knees, she hunches over a disordered pile of magazines, pushed up against a nightstand.

I look away from her. Watching her rifle through her stockpiles makes me nervous. I look, instead, back at the vanity. Next to the cup of brushes sit two clear, plastic egg cartons, their tops cut off, not neatly, but in a way that leaves jagged edges. They roost atop the cluttered mess. One filled with random, small trinkets: buttons, beads, pebbles, probably from the yard, broken jewelry; the other empty. I imagine the items random but know she would have a full history and intended purpose for each and every one.

“What are you looking for?” I ask.

“An article. I saved it for you.” She moves a stack of the magazines from one side of the nightstand to the other. Pieces of paper and clipped-out coupons fall to the floor, and she pushes them up against the pile. “I just don’t know where it is right now.”

“That’s okay. It’s not important.”

She stops looking through the magazines and looks up at me.

“It is to me,” she says.

The lines on her face have gotten deeper, but the light in her eyes is still strong. Cornflower blue, they pierce me.

“Here,” I say, reaching out my hand to help her up.

She grabs hold my hand, and I help her to her feet.

“When are you going back to work?” she asks.

I walk over to the vanity dresser. I mean to throw away the empty egg carton but do not want to upset her. The dresser top calls to me to straighten it. I pick through the carton of trinkets, separating the button and beads from the other oddball whatnots, placing them into the empty carton.

“Why don’t we clean this up?” I ask. “Let me help you. Just right here. We can get a little clear space right here.” I try to smile at her, as I pick up the brush cup. Its ready soldiers rattle against their plastic barrack.

“This is fine.” She reaches out her hand.

I know she wants to take the cup out of my hand.

“These are old,” I say.

“I’m old.”

“What about this?” I put down the brush cup and pick up an empty paint bottle. Burnt Sienna, the label reads. I wonder how long it’s been sitting here. “Let’s get rid of this.”

I hold the paint bottle out to her, close enough she can grab it if she wants.
She turns and walks back to the pile of magazines and hunches over them, turning her back to me.

“The article was on writing,” she says. “I know it’s here somewhere.”

I sit back on the edge of the mattress and watch her thumb through magazines. When a scrap of paper or torn-out pages fall out, she lays them back inside their glossy tomb and keeps searching.

The room is cold. Spring is weeks away, but it’s still cold outside. I know she keeps the thermostat set on sixty-five. I pull my cardigan, button-down sweater around me. Her back to me, I stand and walk back to the vanity. I move a button from one egg carton to the other. Then, another. Behind me, I hear the shuffling of objects. I put a third button with the others and pick up the Burnt Sienna paint bottle. It fits easily into the palm of my hand. I slip it into the pocket of my cardigan.

The End

Thursday, November 4, 2010

follow your hunches

"A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something." ~ Frank Capra

I think a hunch, a gut feeling, is your inner writer trying to point you in a direction of interest. The reason we don't listen to our "hunches" is a matter of self-doubt. That inner critic that says, "You're not good enough" or "You don't have enough experience." Don't let anyone, even your own inner critique, cause you to stop listening to your hunches. The worse that can happen is that you try something and it doesn't work, so you try something else. There are an abundance of learning opportunities in failure. When you hear your inner writer whisper, "I have a hunch that ...", stop and listen ... at least give it a moment's consideration. There may be honesty and genuine inspiration in your hunch. Self-doubt is a killer. Killer of ideas. Killer of inspiration. Killer of good fiction.

Keep the literary faith, friends. And keep writing. And listening to your hunches.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Art is ...

"Art is a shutting in in order to shut out. Art is a ritualistic binding of the perpetual motion machine that is nature. ... Art is spellbinding. Art fixes the audience in its seat, stops the feet before a painting, fixes a book in the hand. Contemplation is a magic act." - Camille Paglia

Finish this sentence. Art is . . .

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Norman Mailer on the purpose of art

"I feel that the final purpose of art is to intensify -- even, if necessary, to exacerbate -- the moral consciousness of people. In particular, I think the novel at its best is the most moral of the art forms. You are exploring the interstices of human behavior -- which is the first approach to religious experience for many of us, especially since the organized religions don't begin to offer sufficient account of the terrible complexities of moral experience and its dark sibling, moral ambiguity. The wisest rule of thumb for the would-be moralist is: There are no answers. There are only questions." - Norman Mailer, from "The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing"

Is it necessary in the novel to answer questions of morality? I think of the novels I've loved most, and they all seem to have in common a lack of moral certainty. Two that come to mind are Toni Morrison's Beloved and Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Both of these novels seem to me to run deep with moral ambiguity.

Novels that resonate in me are about choice and uncertainty. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason (or vice versa) - or not knowing what action is the most right or the worse wrong - is what keeps me up at night, gnaws at my soul, provides the most compelling conflict. For me, the final purpose of art is about presenting choices and helping us experience the aftermath of those choices, so that we may choose wisely for ourselves.

Friday, October 22, 2010

thought for the day: driven to distraction

A technique that distracts the reader is never a good idea. The means by which one tells the story should not call attention to itself, yanking the reader out of the narrative world one has taken great pains to create. Distracting technique is a violation of the promise one makes with the reader: I will transport you to another existence, where a meaningful journey awaits. How rude to remind the reader he does not actually exist in that world.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

keeping your tone when writing a novel

This is only my second post this month. Going through my marriage separation and my mother's unexpected illness has left me drained and numb. Today I found comfort in these words by Norman Mailer on stamina and writing a novel:
"A large part of writing a novel is to keep your tone. I love starting a book; I usually like finishing one. It's the long middle stretches that call on your character -- all that in-between! -- those months or years when you have to report to work almost every day. You don't write novels by putting in two brilliant hours a week. You don't write novels if you lose too many mornings and afternoons to a hangover."

I'm in that long middle in-between and have, quite honestly, let my life circumstances shut me down. But, now it's time to wake-up, shake it off, and get back to work. As Mailer puts it, "There's nothing glorious about being a professional.. . . Professionalism probably comes down to being able to work on a bad day."

I've had too many bad days lately.

Monday, October 4, 2010

what young writers can learn from writing a novel

"If you start a novel before you're ready, it's exactly as if you are a young athlete out in a contest with professionals who are far beyond you. Not ready, you get clobbered. You receive a painful lesson in identity. One does well to build up a little literary experience before trying a long piece of work. On the other hand, if you can accept in advance the likelihood of ending in failure, a young writer can learn a good deal by daring to embark on the long voyage that is a novel." - Norman Mailer from The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing

Read a review of Mailer's The Spooky Art at salon.com.

My short list of what a young writer can learn from writing a novel:
Note: To all "young" and "more-seasoned" writers, please feel free to add to this list.

1. Humility. What can be more humbling than realizing your years of pent-up angst and untapped creative juice got spent and dried up by chapter three?

2. Character development. Writing a novel, you'll soon find out if you've got what it takes to develop a fully-realized character. One that isn't just a caricature of your mother (or father, spouse, lover, etc.)or thinly disguised version of yourself.

3. Plot structure. If you don't grab onto the three-act plot structure, you'll fold quickly. Or, you'll write a brilliant experimental novel no one will want to publish.

4. Not to look down on your audience. No one likes a know-it-all writer. Trust me on this one.

5. Be emotionally honest. False emotions jump off the page and scream insecurity(on the part of the characters and the writer). Writing a novel forces you at some point to get real with your characters and yourself about where the story is going and what meaning can be found there.

6. Time management skills. Writing a novel takes focus and sacrifice. You'll learn to structure your time to include daily writing or you won't finish the novel.

7. It's okay to cut what doesn't work. This point is difficult for the young writer who believes his or her words are inspired and can never be revised or deleted. If you don't learn to edit ruthlessly, you'll likely get bogged down in your own sludge of word fancy and unnecessary plot points.

8. It's harder than it looks. You'll certainly come to appreciate how hard good writing can be, which brings me back to number one: humility.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

books that make you cry

"It's much easier to write a solemn book than a funny book. It's harder to make people laugh than it is to make them cry. People are always on the verge of tears." Fran Lebowitz

I googled "books that make you cry" and the only interesting thing I found on the first page was a list of Books That Make You Cry from goodreads.com. Some of the books listed made me scratch my head; others, namely the classics, I agreed with.

Today I heard a piece on NPR about Jonathan Franzen's 2001 novel The Corrections. Winner of the 2001 National Book Award, Franzen's novel sounds like a book that promises to make me laugh and cry. Here's a link to readers' reviews of the novel posted on Diane Rehm's NPR website.

Friday, September 17, 2010

the audience of ten

"A man really writes for an audience of about ten persons. Of course, if others like it, that is clear gain. But if those ten are satisfied, he is content." - Alfred North Whitehead

I'm not convinced of Alfred North Whitehead's conviction that we really write "for an audience of about ten people," but I'm willing to entertain the thought. Here's my list of the ten folks for whom I write:

1. myself (I get to include myself, I assume.)
2. my father (It pains me a bit to admit this.)
3. the men I've loved (a collective "person" & I won't name names)
4. Joan Norton (my high school AP English teacher)
5. my son
6. Michelle G. (a close friend and former student)
7. James Joyce & company (a collective group of authors who have influenced me)
8. my mother (Why she's so low on this list, I'm unsure.)
9. Dr. Kathleen Hassell (my master's degree creative writing professor at UNF)
10.my brother Curtis Wilson Smith (deceased December 22, 2002, a talented musician and writer)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

how lack of mastery can be a good thing

"The persistent problem with my writing is that I never know how something is going to come out; even when I write a short review, I always have to start over. I have no mastery. But it's actually beneficial -- it prevents things from becoming routine." - Heinrich Boll

Don't let fear of mastery (or the lack of it) keep you from writing. Self-doubt, fear, self-criticism, these feelings and thoughts will creep up and threaten to stop us from our writing goals. There is little use in trying to eliminate or suppress them. Better to acknowledge them as they occur; then let them pass through the mind and continue writing. Too much agonizing and brooding over them only leads to melancholy and stagnation.

If possible, look upon them as a benefit, as Boll does, as a reminder of the power and possibility inherent in the act of revision and a measure of how much one values close attention to the craft. Let your inner critic push your writing to new heights.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Thought for the Day

Go with your instinct -- even if it may turn out to be wrong later. Learning to trust yourself can be difficult, but it is vital if you are to develop your own voice. Second-guessing yourself isn't the same as thoughtful editing and revision.

Monday, September 6, 2010

a Mark Twain quote on Labor Day

Happy Labor Day, writers! Relax and enjoy the day. Anyone who's tried it knows making a living writing is a ridiculous venture, but one well worth the pursuit.

A little Mark Twain on Labor Day:
"Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers pay within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for."

Keep writing and keep the literary faith!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

the question of style

"We always worry that we are copying someone else, that we don't have our own style. Don't worry. Writing is a communal act. Contrary to popular belief, a writer is not Prometheus alone on a hill full of fire. We are very arrogant to think we alone have a totally original mind. We are carried on the backs of all the writers who came before us. We live in the present with all the history, ideas, and soda pop of this time. It all gets mixed up in our writing." - Natalie Goldberg

I've been thinking about the nature of style a lot lately. What it is exactly. How we develop it. What elements constitute our "style" of writing.

J. A. Spender said, "If you are getting the worst of it in an argument with a literary man, always attack his style. That'll touch him if nothing else will."

I think style is, perhaps, the quirk or habit or preoccupation in our writing that sets us apart. I fear it may be that thing that others desire to drive out of us, stop us from doing. The question for me is always: Is this (questionable thing) just a part of my style or is it a problem in my writing? One might think that's an easy question to answer. I don't find it so.

Consider Hemingway's comments on his style:
"In stating as fully as I could how things really were, it was often very difficult and I wrote awkwardly and the awkwardness is what they called my style. All mistakes and awkwardness are easy to see, and they called it style."

I don't want to embrace a mistake and foolishly cling to a habit I think defines "my style." Conversely, I don't want to strip away that which sets me apart, leaving my writing generic and bland.

Montesquieu said, "A man who writes well writes not as others write, but as he himself writes; it is often in speaking badly that he speaks well."

Am I a hodgepodge of writers I have read? Is what makes me unique part of my "awkwardness" in writing? Can my "speaking badly" help me "speak well"?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Fan Wu on e-books for The Ploughshares Blog

Guest blogger Fan Wu comments on the rise of e-books on The Plougshares Blog:
E-books? E-books! by Fan Wu

Fan and I are of the same mind. We can't stop the popularity of e-books and changes in the publishing industry, but we don't have to join them either. They'll pull my books from my cold, dead hands.

"The harmonies of bound books are like the flowers of the field." - Hilaire Belloc

Thursday, September 2, 2010

on metaphors

"The really good metaphors are always the same. I mean you compare time to a road, death to sleeping, life to dreaming, and those are the great metaphors in literature because they correspond to something essential. If you invent metaphors, they are apt to be surprising during the fraction of a second, but they strike no deep emotion whatever." - Jorge Luis Borges

Classic Metaphors That Come to Mind:

Chasing the white whale/the big fish
The Tree of Life
The Great Flood
The growing of gardens & the time of harvesting
The acts of cooking & eating
Metamorphosis & mutation (turning into a bug/butterfly/wolf/X-men)
The carnival/freak show
Rivers flowing
The game of chance/gambling
The office space & work
Eagles/hawks soaring & the power of flight
On-coming trains
Couching lions/tigers/dragons
Fear of technology

What classic metaphors come to mind for you?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

a quick fix - dialogue that packs a punch

Natural sounding dialogue can be a struggle for many writers. To get that "right sound" to your characters' dialogue, try this quick fix:

Write a conversation between characters in whatever way you want; then go back through and strip out words to create shorter, choppier sentences, keeping in the interesting essentials but cutting away the unnecessary "fillers" found in so much "wooden" or "clunky" dialogue. Play around with using contractions and sentence fragments. Ask yourself, how can I say the same thing with less (not more) words? You'll find your dialogue will become faster, sound more natural,and pack a harder punch.

Keep the literary faith, friends. And keep writing.

Monday, August 30, 2010

truthful books

"Truth is not loved because it is better for us. We hunger and thirst for it. And the appetite for truthful books is greater than ever." - Saul Bellow

I think this is true. I feel this is true. We crave truthful books, books that hold a mirror up to our world, within which we gaze and say, "I recognize that." We may emphasize one word or the other (or all in varying degree):
I recognize that.
I recognize that.
I recognize that.
I know where I am. I know who I am. I know the truth.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

musings on point of view

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes, "In contemporary writing one may do anything one pleases with point of view, as long as it works." Earlier in the text, Gardner comments on Henry James' claims of the use of first-person point of view in long works of fiction as "barbaric."

In his own book entitled The Art of Fiction, a collection of previously published articles on the craft, novelist David Lodge writes of the subject, "The choice of the point(s)of view from which the story is told is arguably the most important single decision that the novelist has to make, for it fundamentally affects the way readers will respond, emotionally and morally, to the fictional characters and their actions."

I haven't written my own The Art of Fiction but here are some of my musings on point of view:

1. Though I don't find first-person point of view "barbaric," I do find it overused in contemporary fiction, stylistically overindulgent, and a set-up for lazy writing. First-person, in particular, lends itself to "telling" versus "showing" and, firmly rooted in the character's mind, allows for often tedious (and worse, boring) over-narration.

2. Beginning writers, and many established writers, fail to consider carefully the question of point of view. Who is in the best position to tell this story, is a fundamental question that must be considered in the planning stages, not a question to be answered by accepted norms/characteristics of a particular genre or dictated by trends in the market. For me, telling a story is about revealing a truth. Through whose eyes should we see this story? Who can best reveal that truth?

3. The third-person objective point of view is underrated and underutilized. Certainly better suited for shorter works of fiction, the third-person objective vision allows for gaps, or room, in the narration for interpretation of character's thoughts and feelings. As this method of point of view relies only on description, action, and dialogue -- what characters do and say -- the reader feels more freedom to interrupt the text. It is "showing" in its most direct sense. It is the camera's lens.

4. As a young reader in my twenties and early thirties, I used to enjoy omniscient narrators who commented on, even judged, the actions of characters in the story. I even wrote a few, somewhat successful, short stories in that fashion. Now it makes me cringe. It feels like moralizing. In my forties, I no longer want a "God" narrator commenting and judging characters, pointing out their weaknesses and failings. Maybe as we grow older, there is a certain tendency toward understanding and compassion. Maybe it's because I've moved away from organized religion and the "voice of God" narration style feels damning and condemning.

5. Gimmicks with point of view annoy me -- excepts when they work. I've written before about the use of second person by Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City and Joshua Ferris's use of first-person plural in Then We Came to the End. I consider them both gimmicks, in a way, but both work and add levels of meaning. By gimmicks I mean such POV mistakes as multiple first-person points of view for no apparent reason (especially retelling the same event over and over, as in the movie Vantage Point) and "mind of the killer" first-person points of view placed within the framework of a larger first-person or third-person limited story (where the only reason for plunging into the "killer's mind" is to shock and scare). Typing this I realize both of these "gimmicks" involve the use of first-person. Another good reason not to use first-person unless the story cannot be told from any other point of view.

I'll end with another quote by David Lodge: "One of the commonest signs of a lazy or inexperienced writer of fiction is inconsistency in handling point of view." This is our craft, my fellow writers. This is our art. Let's not be lazy. Let us consider what a careful examination of point of view can do for our fiction.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

earning an "honest living"

"You must not suppose, because I am a man of letters, that I never tried to earn an honest living." - George Bernard Shaw

My attempts at earning an "honest living" before staying home to write:

movie theatre worker
drug store clerk/pharmacist's helper
retail women's clothing/jewelry salesperson
car salesperson
microfiche filer (worst job ever)
substitute teacher
ESE paraprofessional
high school/middle school teacher
summer camp coordinator
non-profit site director
bookstore owner

Sunday, August 22, 2010

how I spent my weekend

"No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft"
- H. G. Wells

I love editing someone else's writing. A friend told me once it was the perfect job for me. I get paid for telling others what's wrong with what they wrote. Of course, I hope I'm not that crass about how I approach helping others edit and revise, but, I must admit, it does suit me. Perhaps it's all those years of grading student work or my "Miss Know-it-all" attitude, which I have, mostly unsuccessfully, tried to kick over the years.

When it comes down to it, I like helping people learn to write well. I can't say I'm magnificent at it all the time, but it appears to be a skill so many struggle with and are afraid of. It makes me happy when I see them improve or they feel more satisfied with their manuscript. Somehow I believe the world becomes more orderly, more aligned, when I edit.

I spent this weekend editing a manuscript for a healthcare company. Even though it was a rush job, leaving no free time for leisure pursuits, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think I get off using the Word Track Changes function. What weird creature am I?

Friday, August 20, 2010

short stories in the fiction market

It's no secret the fiction market is changing. With the ever-lowering price of e-book readers, efforts by online retailers to squeeze out agents and publishers, and falling stock prices of the big box booksellers, what sells and makes money in the fiction market is becoming narrower and narrower. I once read in a feature article in The Writer's Market that trying to make a living as a poet ensured a life of poverty . . . or, something to that effect. I used to buy collections of poetry. I can't remember the last time I did. Sadly, the reality of a shrinking poetry section in most bookstores is commonplace. It seems, more and more, the same can be said of the short story market.

Kurt Vonnegut once remarked, "This country used to be crazy about short stories." I think those days have passed. Recently, I hunted in the latest Writer's Market for magazines to submit short fiction for the YA/teen market. Not counting faith-based magazines, there were four listings, only one of which paid any amount worth considering if one actually tried to make a living selling short stories. The current feeling is one has to be a sought-out writer to get paid any decent amount for a short story, meaning the writer is already a decently-paid novelist.

Flash fiction and short story fiction appears to be most appreciated and published in online e-zines. There are some fantastic online literary magazines out there, but most of the ones I've run across pay little to nothing. Like most online content, the general public feels it should be free.

I can't say I don't contribute to the decline in the short story market. A few weeks ago I stumbled across a recent short story by Katherine Dunn, one of my favorite writers, in The Paris Review. Online, I could read the first few pages, but to read the rest of the story, I had to order a copy. I'm not against paying for content, but looking through the remainder of the magazine's content for that issue, Dunn's story was the only thing I was eager to read. Or, pay $15 bucks, for that matter.

I'd love to see a website similiar to ITunes, where I could download one short story for .99 cents. Heck, I'd pay at least $1.50 a short story for decent writers. They don't have to be well-known, just strong writers. I don't want short story collections to go the way of poetry collections, market losers purchased by the literary elite off the "last chance" bargin table. Won't Apple or a smart start-up create IStories for me?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

the end of the dust jacket

"When I was a ten-year-old book worm and used to kiss the dust jacket pictures of authors as if they were icons, it used to amaze me that these remote people could provoke me to love." - Erica Jong

While I won't admit to kissing author photos on a book jacket, I will admit to staring in wonderment at an author or two's book jacket photo the way one might stare at the yearbook picture of the popular kid in high school, the kid you wish you hung out with, the kid you wanted to be. I suppose dusk jackets will go the way of bookstores at some point. E-book readers don't need dusk jackets. Do they even come with front cover art and author photos?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The bookstore massacre is coming Brett Arends' ROI - MarketWatch

The bookstore massacre is coming Brett Arends' ROI - MarketWatch

This article by Brett Arends made me sad, but, alas, I have to agree with him: the massacre of the American bookstore is coming. Apparently, Barnes & Noble is going up for sale. I closed my bookstore business almost two years ago. We were just beginning and headed in the right direction when the recession knocked up a fatal blow. I believe bookstores are making themselves obsolete with e-book readers. Gadgets are fun, but I'm hoping some form of bookstores will remain.

Friday, August 13, 2010

the mind of the writer

"Even if my marriage is falling apart and my children are unhappy, there is still a part of me that says, 'God! This is fascinating!'" - Jane Smiley

My friends think I'm a good listener. Don't get me wrong. I am a good listener, but there are times when I worry that I'm not so much listening to empathize and support as I'm listening to take notes for writing. Does this make me a bad person, or is it just the writer in me? Maybe both.

I'm hoping no dear friends read this particular blog, but, being the smart individuals they are, they've probably picked up on my strange habit of seeing the world as an orchard of potential characters and plots, waiting to be harvested. That's the cool thing about good friends: they get how twisted you can be and love you anyway.

I think writers by nature can't help but look at drama, and conflict, and joy, and pain (the stuff of life) and say, "That would make a fantastic story." It's in our blood. We apologize in advance to anyone who expects better of us.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Layoffs at Borders Headquarters

Read the Publishers Weekly article - click here.
Layoffs at Borders Headquarters

I can't help but wonder if the recent announcement of more layoffs with Borders is a direct result of recent increases in e-book sales. Everytime I bring up e-books with my writer friends I hear the same thing, commonly surmized by the idiom "You can't fight progress." Also, I can't help but wonder if the salespeople at the big book chains realize when they push the e-readers on their walkin customers, their got-in-a-car-drove-themselves-to-an-actual-bookstore-to-buy-a-book customers, if they realize they're helping put themselves out of a job.

Bye-bye bookstores. We'll miss you.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Thought for the Day

"I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper." - Steve Martin

Give yourself credit where credit is due and don't be too hard on yourself. Writing is creating out of thin air, from the smoke of our dreams and desires. It's not magic, and it doesn't come easily.

Monday, August 9, 2010

books and chewing gum

"This will never be a civilized country until we expend more money for books than we do for chewing gum." - Elbert Hubbard

I couldn't find stats on how much Americans spend on chewing gum, or, for that matter, how much we spend on books. I know, I'm a dork. I actually tried to find this out. Although this sentiment might not be statistically true, it sure feels psychologically true. My lament is not that we don't read, but that we don't read enough good, thoughtful writers.

I spend a lot of time, too much time, in thrift stores and at yard sales. I'm always hunting for books. Sadly, the majority of what I find is utter garbage. Okay, okay, I hear you already. So people are reading. That should be enough. The fact that what they're reading is soulless, pointless, trivial BS shouldn't matter. I can't help but agree with Mark Twain when he wrote, "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

UNF Writers Conference - lessons learned

The 2010 UNF Writers Conference has concluded and before hitting the sack for some well-needed rest I thought I'd share my notes on the conference and some lessons learned.

New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry kicked off the three-day event with a informative general session on "What Every Writer Should Never Forget." What is that crucial element we writers must keep in the forethought of our minds? The three-act structure. I found Berry's focus of a hands-on, methodical approach to story structure solid advice for the beginning writer and a great reminder for more experienced writers. For most writing, the fundamentals of story telling begin there, so what better way to begin a writing conference? Lesson learned: Begin at the beginning and pay attention to the basics of structure.

The rest of Friday's schedule allowed the writer to choose from sets of workshops. The three out of the four I attended were interactive and provided concrete ways to build character, market yourself, and increase tension and desire in your reader. I found Sharon Cobb's session on creating characters through the "psychologist-treatment" method innovative in its approach to getting to deeper levels in the understanding and fleshing-out of characters. Darrell House's high-energy session - part performance, part self-marketing tips - on "getting the gig" in the children's book market was just a blast. Local crime writer and literature professor Michael Wiley's session on building narrative desire for the reader was invaluable in its thoughtful approach to the elements of tension and suspense, especially for mystery novels but applicable for other genres and mainstream literary fiction. Though not as interactive, Young Adult fiction writer Adrian Fogelin's session served as a good reminder of the way fiction can touch pre-teens and teens and what a unique opportunity the YA author has for shaping young hearts and minds. Lesson learned: Pick your workshop sessions wisely and find ways to apply the speaker's message to your particular genre and style.

Saturday and Sunday concentrated on critique sessions with a published writer. Attendees were given some options on genres: children's, memoir, general fiction, young adult fiction, non-fiction, and screenwriting. I used the opportunity to workshop the first ten pages of my YA book Gems in the Rough. The YA author for my section, Kristin Harmel, was fantastic. Energetic, supportive, and honest, I found working with her and the entire critique group engaging and productive, so much so our group has decided to ban together and start our own Jacksonville YA writers critique group. Go Team YA! I was even lucky enough to find an early reader for my book who I thing can give me the fresh eyes and constructive criticism I need for the revision process. Lesson learned: Be supportive of your fellow writer's efforts and use the time to network.

Sunday's lunch speaker, magazine writer Mary W. Bridgman provided useful advice on getting your work out there and using small magazines as a way to build publishing credits. The day ended with information on writing a pitch for the "Book & Film Deal Connection" pitch book, which will go out to agents, publishers, and producers who have agreed to read the pitches. I could tell there were lots of excited writers in the audience ready to pitch their books.

The only swing and miss, for me, for the conference came after lunch on Sunday with the First Page Panel program. Attendees were invited to submit the first page of a manuscript. For what purpose was rather vague at the time of asking. I submitted the first page of a manuscript that hasn't gotten past the first chapter and hadn't been revised, a sci-fi/horror bit called Additive, about the conspiracy by food companies and the pharmaceutical industry to hook Americans on a dangerous food additive. About half of the first pages submitted were selected. Mine was one of them. The First Page Panel turned out to be the writer reading his or her first page in front everyone and three workshop leaders sitting on stage critiquing their first page submission.

In theory, perhaps not a bad idea. But who wants to be unknowingly thrown into an American Idol -style first page crit/bash? Some judges even focused on spelling and comma errors, which although important if you're sending work to an agent, aren't worth focusing on and using to club the unsuspecting beginning writer. The audience wasn't able to visually follow the page (I need to see a page not have it read to me), the writers were not allowed to provide any set up or even book jacket blurb to orient the audience, and one of the judges took more time to rip apart the page than the writer took to read it. I was sort of happy the session ran long and they never got to mine. Overall, a bad idea and a waste of valuable time. I would have appreciated more time spent on the business aspect of building a writing career, the kind of stuff you don't get in the other workshops. Lesson learned: Be careful sending in samples of work when you don't know what it will be used for.

For the most part, I enjoyed the weekend and will return for next year's conference, hopefully with an agent and a book deal.

Happy writing this-coming week, friends, and keep the literary faith.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

UNF Writers Conference this weekend

The UNF Writers Conference is in its second day today. I plan to post a detailed entry after tomorrow's conclusion, but in the meanwhile I wanted to offer words of encouragement today to keep the literary faith and keep writing. Two common themes running through the workshops and critique groups are to write the book you most want to read and not to be afraid to edit savagely when needed, which I firmly believe is a necessary function similar to pruning a rose bush or disciplining your child. Along these lines, I offer a quote by the esteemed author Henry James for your consideration:
"I have performed the necessary butchery. Here is the bleeding corpse."
Henry James, following a request from the TLS to cut three lines from a 5,000 word article.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

books and writers that make us want to write

"Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer. And long after you've become a writer, reading books others write -- and rereading the beloved books of the past -- constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing. Distraction. Consolation. Torment. And, yes, inspiration." - Susan Sontag

A few books that made me want to write (in no particular order):

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce
Beloved and Paradise - Toni Morrison
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
Geek Love - Katherine Dunn
Ellen Foster - Kaye Gibbons
Kate Vaiden - Reynolds Price
The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursala Le Quin
Romeo & Juliet - William Shakespeare

Add to this list the short stories of Flannery O'Conner, Edgar Alan Poe, Angela Carter, and Ray Bradbury and the poetry of e. e. cummings, Robert Frost, and Sylvia Plath.

Keep reading, keep writing, and keep the literary faith.

Monday, August 2, 2010

more quotes on the joy of books

"Books are a delightful society. If you go into a room filled with books, even without taking them down from their shelves, they seem to speak to you, to welcome you." - William E. Gladstone

"As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye." - John Milton

"An ordinary man can . . . surround himself it two thousand books . . . and thenceforward have a least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy." - Augustine Birrell

A good book to me is an accomplished literary construction. I am drawn into the story, and the characters become real. They talk to me long after the last page is read. But more than that, I delight in the structure of the book, whether multi-layered or straight forward. Much in the same way I imagine an architect might stand in awe of a remarkably-constructed building. I study its use of dialogue, paragraph construction, chapter structure, literary devices. I want to discuss with others who love good writing an author's command of punctuation, how he or she wields a comma with deft and grace, slices a passage in just the perfect manner with a dash, makes a statement with an ellipsis. When every word counts, every sentence holds together, every scene is a beauty on its own and necessary part of an exquisite whole, I clap my hands and applaud the talent, skill, and passion of the author. Bravo. Bravo.

What is a good book mean to you?

the random read

"If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them -- peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them at any rate be your acquaintances." - Winston Churchill

I love the anticipation of surprise in the random read. I have a large bookshelf of books I've read, books I want to read, books I think I should own (just in case they go out of print and every copy but the copy I've saved is consumed by rabid swarms of book-eating locus). It's one of my favorite pastimes to flip through a book that's been on my mind. I turn to a page, letting my eyes pour over the words until a passage strikes my fancy. I rarely read more than a page, placing the book back carefully in its proper place. I find great comfort in knowing it will be there for me when I feel the urge to visit it again. I suppose it might be like a foodie stopping by Whole Foods just to walk the isles, picking out an interesting jar of this or that or handling a ripe fruit, taking in a good, long sniff of the produce, and placing it back on the shelf or in the bin. Or the wine aficionado at a wine tasting.

Random reads for your pleasure:

From Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

"'I remember when first I went to Paris, Clutton, I think it was, gave a long discourse on the subject that beauty is put into things by painters and poets. They create beauty. In themselves there is nothing to choose between the Campanile of Giotto and a factory chimney. And then beautiful things grow rich with the emotion that they have aroused in succeeding generations. That is why old things are more beautiful than modern. The Ode to a Grecian Urn is more lovely now than when it was written, because for a hundred years lovers have read it and the sick at heart take comfort in its lines.'"

From The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

"The rain had stopped. The air now drove out of southeast, broken overhead into blue patches. Upon the crest of a hill beyond the trees and roofs and spires of town sunlight lay like a pale scrap of cloth, was blotted away. Upon the air a bell came, than as if at a signal, other bells took up the sound and repeated it."

Time for one more? Yes?
Always time for one more.

From Jazz by Toni Morrison

"Girls can do that. Steer a man away from death or drive him right to it. Pull you out of sleep and you wake up on the ground under a tree you'll never locate again because you're lost. Or if you do find it, it won't be the same. Maybe it cracked from the inside, bored through by crawling life that had to have its own way too, and just crept and bunched and gnawed and burrowed until the whole thing was pitted through with the service it rendered to others. Or maybe they cut it down before it crashed in on itself. Turned it into logs for a fire in a big hearth for children to gaze into."

Ah, the random read. Always a surprise and delight waiting in the turn of a page.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

a little bit of Virginia

I've started reading Michael Cunningham's The Hours yesterday. The Hours tells the stories of three women and relies heavily on the work and life of Virginia Woolf. I'm not far enough along to comment on the plot or structure yet, but the language and style is beautiful and haunting. It's hard for me to find a novel I care to read to the end. I'd love to say I finish every book I start, but I don't. I think fiction needs to be worth my time. Not that it has to be literary but that it must be well-crafted. Twenty pages in, I can tell I'll finish this one.

I find Woolf herself a fascinating character study. Woolf once described the fashion in which she was preparing to write her next book in this way:
"As for my next book, I am going to hold myself from writing it till I have it impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall."

There is something exquisite in her description of the story idea as a fruit, hanging on the vine or tree, ripening, becoming sweet, becoming ready to be harvested. The act of holding back until the right moment, until the feeling is almost too much to bear, too much to keep to oneself, is provocative and sensual in a way that appeals to my sense of how a writer should feel about his or her work. The hour I've spent writing is nothing compared to the hours upon hours I've spent mulling over the story idea, turning it this way and that, waiting for it to ripen.

It makes me sad to think of how she took her own life out of despair and hopelessness, not so much for us as her readers but for her, that her act would cause her to miss the next developing fruit. If we keep the literary faith and our emotional faith, there is always that next great novel idea and that next turn in our life that brings a new chapter and, hopefully, a new ray of light. I felt much the same way the day I heard David Foster Wallace had taken his own life. My oldest brother was a talented writer and musician, and, sadly, a severe alcoholic, who (although we are unsure of all the facts) may have had a hand in his own death.

Okay, I totally didn't expect to be going down this path with this entry. But here I am. While I'm resisting a strong urge to delete the last paragraph, I'll keep it.

For your reading pleasure, I offer you a little taste of The Hours(which begins with Virginia Woolf's imagined last moments before walking into a river, her coat pocket weighted down with a large stone, to end her life), followed by a morsel of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Enjoy.

"She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric. Patches of sky shine in puddles left over from last night's rain. Her shoes sink slightly into the soft earth. She has failed, and now the voices are back, muttering indistinctly just beyond the range of her vision, behind her, here, no, turn and they've gone somewhere else. The voices are back and the headache is approaching as surely as rain, the headache that will crush whatever is she and replace her with itself." - Michael Cunningham, The Hours

"Sinking her voice, drawing Mrs. Dalloway into the shelter of a common femininity, a common pride in the illustrious qualities of husbands and their sad tendency to overwork, Lady Bradshaw (poor goose -- one didn't dislike her) murmured how, "just as we were starting, my husband was called up on the telephone, a very sad case. A young man (that is what Sir William is telling Mr. Dalloway) had killed himself. He had been in the army." Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here's death, she thought." - Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Yes, sweet Clarissa, in the middle of our fine, little party, here is death.

Keep writing, friends. Keep the faith.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thought for the Day and a Question

"The perfect place for a writer is in the hideous roar of a city, with men making a new road under his window in competition with a barrel organ, and on the mat a man waiting for the rent." - Henry Vollam Morton

My perfect place to write is in my office, in absolute quiet and with my West Highlands Terrier, Yankee, at my feet and, when it pleases him to visit, my fat, orange tabby, Sherwood, exploring under my office desk or kneading my plush futon pillows.

Sherwood lovin' on my office pillow.

Yankee, my office mate. He doesn't get much writing done, but he's a fun chap to have around.

Where is your perfect place to write?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

this season's book cover trends - cover art for the book fashionista

Elizabeth Bluemle takes a humorous look at this year's book covers, with an emphasis on the YA market, in her online blog post "The Season of Windblown Hair - Or, the Zeitgeist of Book Covers."

For my part, I happen to be reading Kimberly Derting's The Body Finder, which appears in Bluemle's first line-up of floral covers. I have to admit, it is a fashionable cover.

And on that note, I'm looking forward to the premiere of Project Runway Season 8. Episode one is entitled "And Sew It Begins."

significant fiction versus trivial pursuits

"If the young writer is to achieve intellectual and emotional significance in his fiction, he must have the common sense to tell foolish ideas from interesting ones and important emotions from trivial ones. These abilities can be guided a little, for instance by the teacher's pointing out, as I've done above, that stories beginning in character and conflict are bound to be more interesting than stories that do not -- a principle applicable even to thrillers, sodbusters, and horror stories. And the writer's sense of what questions are really interesting and what ones aren't worth bothering with may be heightened a little by wide reading, by conversation with intelligent people, and by the conscious attempt to, as James said, 'be someone on whom nothing is lost.'"

There's a weighty idea, "intellectual and emotional significance." I can imagine the young writer confusing significant fiction with "serious" or "literary" or, more misleading, "classic." This notion of "foolish ideas," of which I'll grant contemporary fiction is full of, can be misleading. Gardner warns the young writer not to be "carried away by fads." Sound advice by any means. But I would caution the young writer not to be handcuffed by the precepts of an traditional style or accepted subject matter. What may seem faddish, or even foolish, at first glance may have significance (something to say) lurking beneath, waiting for the hands of the daring, and perhaps novice, writer to pull from it elements that elevate it to the level of "significant fiction." Three novelist come to mind.

In the 90's Douglas Coupland depicted the nature and struggles of young adults in such groundbreaking novels as Generation X and Microserfs. I assigned Microserfs as a novel study for my sophomore high school students in 1997, two years after its release. My creative writing class studied excerpts from Generation X. I wanted my students to know that good writing could be reflective of the age in which they lived and, at once, entertaining, hip, and "intellectual and emotional significant."

The second writer is the new phenom Joshua Ferris, whose 2007 publication Then We Came To The End takes a funny and poignant look at modern office life and the effects of group think. Written in first person plural, while bordering on gimmicky, the point of view feels perfect for this tale of the American workplace.

Likewise does Jay McInerney's use of second person in Bright Lights, Big City , which captures perfectly the protagonist's need to psychologically distance himself from his own destructive behaviors. Not only is McInerney's daring use of second person fresh and reflective of the times, he takes what, by all accounts, is the height of trivial and self-indulgent, club-life in the 1980's, and creates a modern backdrop for a significant novel about human frailty, weakness, and the universal desire to be loved and nurtured.

It is precisely these risks Coupland, Ferris, and McInnery take (stylistic risks the average workshop and some writing programs would likely frown upon) that elevates their work and creates the intellectual and emotional punch they deliver. No, Gardner isn't wrong about trivial pursuits, but there is something, I believe, residing deeper in the seemingly trivial pursuits of society. It will take that daring, keen-sighted writer to reveal it to us.

By the way: For an interesting look at Jay McInerney, read Victoria Lautman's Writers on the Record.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

the writer's store of energy

"A writer's knowledge of himself, realistic and unromantic, is like a store of energy on which he must draw for a lifetime; one volt of it properly directed will bring a character alive." -Graham Greene

We'd like to believe we are noble and kind and unselfish. I'm sure for all of us, even the most depraved of us, there are occasions when these aspects are true. But for our fiction, they're not very interesting. At least, not unless set in contrast against our own inclinations toward pettiness, meanness, and greed. We are all human, right? And, even though we might want to deny so, aren't noble, kind, unselfish characters, ultimately, a bit boring? I mean, we all love Superman, but don't you secretly want to step on his cape, now and again? Isn't Batman, with his obsessions and secrets, more like us?

To understand the varied aspects of humanity, a writer must begin by knowing himself or herself; then, be open and courageous enough to draw from that knowledge, disregarding the whispers. We hear you behind our backs, you know. "Does she really do that?" "What kind of a guy thinks up a thing like that?" "Did that really happen to her?"

We jolt our characters alive out of our own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Sometimes it ain't pretty, folks. But isn't that a yummy morsel to chew on?

Monday, July 26, 2010

wrestling with subordinate clauses

Much is made in books on writing and writing workshops on "finding your voice." Most often "finding your voice" means writing with emotional honesty about the life you know. The promise is, having engaged in this type of raw and patient practice, that your voice will emerge naturally, producing in its "echoes" work that is original and authentic.

Okay, 1) I'm not arguing with this theory and 2) I generally agree with this practice, to a point. My problem with this technique, especially to the exclusion of other techniques, is that it doesn't help the young writer fully understand and appreciate the nature of style and allow for a means by which he or she may try out or adopt certain stylistic features, finding that perfect fit, suited to the writer.

And so, the young writer hears in a workshop that one shouldn't begin a novel with dialogue (though Ayn Rand does it strikingly in Atlas Shrugged, or one shouldn't employ the use of multiple first person points of view (except Faulkner does it hauntingly in As I Lay Dying). I know, I know. I hear it already, "But you're not Ayn Rand, dear." And, "He's William Faulkner, so he can." Poppycock. Emulation is, in part, how we learn. It's how we learn to tie our shoes, ride a bike, cook a meal. Emulation, practice, and trial and error.

I've debated this issue with writers before, especially when it comes to employing techniques used by "the greats," but discouraged for beginning writers, and most often times from short-sighted, though well-meaning, workshop hosts. So, it was refreshing today to stumble upon Nicholas Delbanco's essay "From Echoes Emerge Original Voices," published in print and online in Collected Essays from The New York Times. Delbanco's premise is that "To engage in imitation is to begin to understand what originality means."

In the article, Delbanco describes a course he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Michigan, during which students study and imitate the styles of great writers in order to understand how style may be reflective of a system of values and an author's perception of "reality" and how the writer conveys that reality to the reader. What Delbanco hopes emerges is not young writers trying to sound like older writers but writers whose emerging voices emanate from an awareness of style and the importance of the small details: punctuation choices, short, clipped sentences, incantatory repetition, or (as has been criticized in my work) the selective use of subordinate clauses. I see the world as a dependent clause, joined by a series of subordinate clauses, finished by a period. It's my style. Don't tell me not to do it because I'm not yet recognized.

Delbanco explains, "We can tell the way a writer thinks by looking at his or her desire to use say, the apposite comma or, as a sentence nears completion, the subordinate clause." In the following paragraph, he points to Virgina Woolf's use of parenthesis in To the Lighthouse. I'm no Virgina Woolf, but neither was she (until she was).

I say, carry on beginning writers. Emulate. Practice. Try on different styles, studying every choice the greats make, or don't make. In doing so, you will begin to understand what you are trying to say to the world and the best way to say it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thought for the Day

"A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down . . . If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him." - Edna St. Vincent Millay.

One of my favorite Millay poems.

And do you think that love itself

And do you think that love itself,
Living in such an ugly house,
Can prosper long?
We meet and part;
Our talk is all of heres and nows,
Our conduct likewise; in no act
Is any future, any past;
Under our sly, unspoken pact,
I KNOW with whom I saw you last,
But I say nothing; and you know
At six-fifteen to whom I go—
Can even love be treated so?

I KNOW, but I do not insist,
Having stealth and tact, thought not enough,
What hour your eye is on your wrist.

No wild appeal, no mild rebuff
Deflates the hour, leaves the wine flat—

Yet if YOU drop the picked-up book
To intercept my clockward look—
Tell me, can love go on like that?

Even the bored, insulted heart,
That signed so long and tight a lease,
Can BREAK it CONTRACT, slump in peace.

Friday, July 23, 2010

the good, the bad, and the corny

"The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. Irony is always scratching your tired ass, whatever way you look at it. I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass." - Jim Harrison

I don't disagree with Harrison. But I think leaning on the side of sentiment is dangerous, especially for beginning writers. If we write from a place of emotional honesty our words will ring true. If we fake it or exaggerate, we become overly sentimental saps.

John Gardner calls this style of writing Christian Pollyanna and warns us "People who regularly seek to feel the bland optimism the Pollyanna mask suspports cannot help developing a vested interest in seeing, speaking, and feeling as they do -- with two results: they lose the power to see accurately, and they lose the power to communicate with any but those who see and feel in the same benevolently distorted way."

The mask of sentimentality is a cop-out. It's an easy, lazy way to process the world and communicate to your reader. Don't be lured by its distorted reality of dead expressions, flawless heroes, and happy endings. Sentiment, yes. Sentimentality, no. Write how you really feel about things.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

writing the pitch paragraph

Kristen at Pub Rants posted her insights into the growing importance of getting your query pitch paragraph just right. You can read her blog post at Pub Rants: Another Reason to Nail Your Query Pitch Paragraph.

I recently got the chance to work on my pitch paragraph for Gems in the Rough. Okay, I didn't so much as get the chance as I couldn't reduce my novel synopsis down to one page for an upcoming conference, so I wimped out and went with option 2, a paragraph pitch, which turned out to be more than a paragraph. I imagined the task as writing back cover copy for the novel. It's still rough, and I keep going back and forth about whether it should be written in present tense and give away major plot points. I'm gathering from comments on Kristen's post that most authors are okay with cover copy that doesn't contain any spoilers past the first third of the book.

I'd appreciate any feedback. If you read this pitch for a YA book, would it spark your interest?

Pitch Paragraph: Gems in the Rough by K. M. Smith YA Paranormal Romance

Sisters are special.

Twin sisters – twice as nice.

Demon twin sisters . . . ?

Summers on easy-going Annabel Island, Florida have always been a breeze for seventeen-year-old twins Ruby and Pearl Pryce. Impulsive, warmhearted Ruby has agreed to help run her beloved Aunt Mandy’s gift store, The Golden Dolphin. Smart and competent, she’s got everything in control – if only she could get her trend-setting, increasingly-irresponsible twin sister Pearl to stop ducking out.

While Ruby runs The Golden Dolphin, her father, city commissioner Tim Pryce, runs Leon Beach and mother, Laurel, plans her daughters’ up-coming eighteenth birthday celebration. The summer before college is underway. But this summer the sisters are in for the shock of their lives. Nothing they have ever known could’ve prepared them for the mysterious relative come to reveal family secrets, the latent powers that dwell within them, and the handsome stranger sent to hunt them.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thought for the Day

Persistence is the pathway; perfectionism, the fallen log that blocks the way.

Today, give yourself permission to make mistakes. Have respect for your talent, and turn down the volume on the critics in your head.

Monday, July 19, 2010

turn on the headlights

E. L. Doctorow once said that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." Today, turn on the headlights and travel the distance you can. Maybe it's just 15 mintes of editing. Maybe it's writing a short scene or a bit of dialogue. Maybe you write the dialogue first, then turn on the headlights tomorrow and write the scene around that dialogue. If you need to turn on the brights to see better, don't worry; you're the only one out on that stretch of road.

Happy traveling, writers.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

the ether of ideas

"This is the first important lesson that the writer must learn. Writing a novel is gathering smoke. It's an excursion into the ether of ideas. There's no time to waste. You must work with that idea as well as you can, jotting down notes and dialogue."
- Walter Mosley, from "For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day"

I feel "the ether of ideas." It is that dreamy place in the gentle quiet just before falling asleep or having just awoken, that long car ride, that booth at the back of the diner, that space between where we are and where we'll be next. Call it "the zone" or "the void" or "our inner world." In the ether thoughts and ideas float around us. Voices speak, grab hold our hand, pull us aside to whisper stories into our tender ears.

Everyone feels the ether, hears the whispers, smells the smoke. The writer is the lucky (or unlucky) fool who feels compelled to gather the smoke of those ideas and voices and write them down. They slip through the fingers so easily.

The "dream" of the novel is quick to dissolve, which is why we must write every day. And, why, even when to others it may seem as if we are doing nothing, visit that place, in the ether, amidst the smoke, as often as we may.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

when you're strange . . .

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, "The Writer's Nature":

"As for the quality of strangeness, it is hard to know what can be said. There can be no great art, according to the poet Coleridge, without a certain strangeness. Most readers will recognize at once that he's right. There come moments in every great novel when we are startled by some development that is at once perfectly fitting and completely unexpected -- for instance, the late, surprising entrance of Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment, Mr. Rochester's disguise in Jane Eyre, the rooftop scene in Nicholas Nickleby, Tommy's stumbling upon the funeral in Seize the Day, the recognition moment in Emma, or those moments we experience in many novels when the ordinary and the extraordinary briefly interpenetrate, or things common suddenly show, if only for an instant, a different face. One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel. One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd pats of one's being to take over the work from time to time. Or be capable of cracking the door now and then to the deep craziness of life itself -- as when in Anna Karenina Levin proposes to Kitty in the same weird way Tolstoy himself proposed to his wife. Strangeness is the one quality in fiction that cannot be faked."

A friend once told me I was "white socks with a black suit." At first, I was angry. Since then, I've come to appreciate and embrace his description of me. I think it fits me to a "T." And I'm okay with that.

I agree with Gardner that the best writers are a bit strange, which is to say they see the world, engage with the world in an atypical way. Generally, they are not group-joiners and don't necessarily play well with others. Too much strangeness, however, doesn't lend itself to good writing. Batshit crazy only produces work that rambles, rants, and reeks of ego.

So, be strange. Be white socks with a black suit. "When you're strange, people come out of the rain." Say "hi." Introduce yourself. Sit and talk a spell. It's okay if no one else can see them. If they make good characters, write their stories.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

the scissors and the pencil

"I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil."
Truman Capote

Cutting passages and scenes you love, writing you've labored over with the sort of devotion and intensity a new mother shows her young,can be gut-wrenching. The only rule for me in writing is this: Does it work? If it doesn't, and many times we know it doesn't (even when we are in love with the sound of our own words), we must take out our scissors. Do it. Cut it. Cut it out all at once and be done with it. One sign of a good writer is the ability to see objectively, to know what works and what doesn't, and when it doesn't, to cut without mercy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

finding your writing springboard

From editor Malcolm Cowley's introduction to
Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews
The Viking Press, 1959

"Apparently the hardest problem for almost any writer, whatever his medium, is getting to work in the morining (or in the afternoon, if he is a late riser like Styron, or even at night). Thornton Wilder says, 'Many writers have told me that they have built up mnemonic devices to start them off on each day's writing task. Hemingway once told me he sharpened twenty pencils; Willa Cather that she read a passage from the Bible -- not from piety, she was quick to add, but to get in touch with fine prose; she also regretted that she had formed this habit, for the prose rhythms of 1611 were not those she was in search of. My spring-board has always been long walks.' Those long walks alone are a fairly common device; Thomas Wolfe would sometimes roam through the streets of Brooklyn all night. Reading from the Bible before writing is a much less common practice, and, in spite of Miss Cather's disclaimer, I suspect that it did involve a touch of piety. Dependent for success on forces partly beyond his control, an author may try to propitiate the unknown powers. I knew one novelist, an agnostic, who said he often got down on his knees and started the working day with prayer."

I haven't tried prayer. Maybe I should. What seems to work for me, as my springboard for writing, is reading interviews by writers on writing or finding words of inspiration from writers and those who love the writing life. I think it's that I need to feel both hopeful and empowered. I need to be reassured that producing work, even when it's not what I feel is my best effort, is better than not producing at all.

Teacher and novelist John Gardner writes about how every writer, no matter how many writing courses and workshops taken, no matter how many critique groups attended, is, in the end, on his or her own. Finding your way as a writer is partly about finding your springboard: that walk, that moment of prayer or meditation, that inspirational passage powerful enough to launch you into your working day.

What is your springboard for writing or other creative task?

Friday, July 9, 2010

character first, character foremost

"Character is the very life of fiction. Setting exists so that the character has someplace to stand, something that can help define him, something he can pick up and throw, if necessary, or eat, or give his girlfriend. Plot exists so the character can discover for himself (and in the process reveal to the reader) what he, the character, is really like: plot forces the character to choice and action, tranforms him from a static construct to a life like human being making choices and paying for them or reaping the rewards. And theme exists only to make the character stand up and be somebody: theme is elevated critical language for what the character's main problem is." John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

I think we are sucked in by writing workshops and the publishing industry to focus on plot first, the interesting premise, the unusual situation. Not that character is ignored, but that we hear a lot of talk like "consider what if ...", meaning what if this happened to someone (read plot) or "hook your reader with an exciting initiating event", meaning again soemthing unusual or exciting happened to someone (again plot). Much of what passes for good movies and books, to me, these days is based on gimmicky premises, "twist" endings, and plot-driven, souless escapades. In fact, the last two movies I've seen that come to mind where character is treated with the importance it deserves are Revolutionary Road and Brothers.

I don't know if this lack of concern for character is a result of having to fill the market commercially, a misdirection on the part of writers workshops, teachers, and editors, or an indication of the public's general bad taste. What we remember, when the movie is over or the last page read, especially months and years later, is that character we couldn't shake, those people we felt we knew, that we loved or hated or both. Where are the great character-driven stories these days?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Walking on Alligators

On Jacksonville's westside is a wonderful used bookstore, Chamblin Book Mine, a maze of room after room crammed full of every genre of writing one can imagine. I could spend days browsing its stacks. Today I found a book of meditations for writers, Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy.

Shaughnessy takes passages about writing from various writers and expands on them, providing for each passage an affirmation statement designed to motivate and inspire. She begins with this quote from Erica Jong:
"Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark places it leads."

Shaughnessy follows the Jong quote with a short essay that invites us to take the journey of writing, wherever it may lead, even if we find ourselves "walking on alligators." She ends her remarks on Jong with this affirmation:
"Today, I will have the courage to go wherever my writing wants to lead me. I will not judge as I write. I will write, and write as honestly as I can."

Shaughnessy's meditations seem a wonderful way to start each writing session. I highly recommend it to those who write or want to start writing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Monday, July 5, 2010

"Clutter" Accepted for Publication

I received word today that "Clutter," a "slice of life" story I wrote for the Florida Writers Association's second collection of short stories, was accepted for publication. The collection contains sixty stories by FWA members and will be released at FWA's 2010 conference in Lake Mary, Florida October 22-24. I'm not sure what the FWA has planned for larger distribution, but hearing my piece was selected was a bit of welcomed news.

"Clutter" is a personal piece about my mother's hoarding behaviors and my worry for her and frustration with not being able to help her. It's intensely personal and makes me sad when I read it. It was one of those stories that grabs hold and won't let go until you commit it to paper.

Seeing the piece published will be both sweet and bitter. Anyone who knows a hoarder knows they can become deeply ashamed and baffled by their own behaviors. My mother is 81 and knowing I wrote about her obsession could cause her pain. I would never intentionally hurt her. I think as writers we often struggle with which, if any, parts or people of our personal life to share in our work. "Clutter" is the first work I've sent out for publication since making a serious effort at a writing career. I'm glad it was accepted. I'm sad, however, I can't share it with my mother. She would be very proud.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Children's Books: An Angelic Autumn

Children's Books: An Angelic Autumn
Karen Springen, Publisher's Weekly

Are angels the new vampires? Does the new bad-boy hottie come with a pair of wings? According to Karen Springen, they are and, yes, he does.

Apparently, angels are in and vamps are on their way out. Of course, last month I heard that mermaids were the new thing in the YA market.

For me, naming any trend the newest, bestest plot/character gimmick means a wave of quickly-written, poorly-edited books flooding the market. Not that the urge to chase the elusive market is not tempting. I don't think, however, the publishing industry can accurately predict where the market will go or what will take off and be the next blockbuster hit. Markets are led by early "alpha readers" who latch onto a book, talk it up, and spread the word, and knowing what they will like is anyone's guess.

You can know this simple truth: They'll love a good story. For my part, I'll aim to write a good story. The market can work itself out.

Steinbeck had it right when he said, "The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thought for the Day

"Complacency is a deadweight on the spirit. It smothers imagination."
Paula Fox

Monday, June 28, 2010

Paula Fox on writing ... and a little Pavese for good measure

"Hard and unremitting labor is what writing is. It is in that labor that I feel the weight and force of my own life. That is its great and nettlesome reward.

It is not easy to convince people who take writing courses just how much labor is required of a writer.

After all, their mouths are full of words. They need only transfer those words to paper. Writing can't be really difficult, like learning to play the oboe, for example, or studying astrophysics.

Pavese, in his diary, also writes:
'They say that to create while actually writing is to reach out beyond whatever plan we have made, searching, listening to the deep truth within. But often the profoundest truth we have is the plan we have created by slow, ruthless, weary effort and surrender.'

Most students of writing need little convincing about the deep truth they have within them, but they are not always partial to 'slow, ruthless, weary effort.' Few of us are. Yet there comes a time when you know that ruthless effort is what you must exert. There is no other way. And on that way you will discover such limitations in yourself as to make you gasp. But you work on. If you have done that for a long time, something will happen. You will succeed in becoming dogged. You will become resolute about one thing: to go to your desk day after day and try. You will give up the hope that you can come to a conclusion about yourself as a writer. You will give up conclusions."
Paula Fox, "Imagining What You Don't Know"

The Guardian has published a wonderful article online about Fox and her works. Click on the link above. It gave me hope to read she didn't publish her first novel until age 43. I turn 43 this December. Perhaps it is not too late for a successful writing career.

Friday, June 25, 2010


" . . . part of me was still a writer, I guess, and a writer is a man who has taught his mind to misbehave."
Mike Noonan, protagonist of Bag of Bones by Stephen King.