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5 Writing Tips from Blake Bailey

22 March 2013

From Publishers Weekly:

Book-length nonfiction is what I do, and my advice is necessarily tailored to writers who want to do pretty much the same thing.

1. Write about things that really interest you. Notwithstanding what my pal Mike claims was his spooky prescience, I never dreamed I’d be a literary biographer. I’m not an academic; I’m just a bookish Joe who gets passionate about certain writers and suddenly wants to read everything they’ve ever written and find out why they wrote it. Which brings me to how this miracle came to pass. “Blake, fiction isn’t working out for you,” my would-be literary agent told me several years ago. “All your success”–such as it was–“has been with nonfiction. Look: write me a nonfiction book proposal about something that really interests you right now, and I’ll try to sell it.”

. . . .

3. Action is character. This is what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notes while working on his final novel, The Last Tycoon, and he wrote it in caps: ACTION IS CHARACTER. If one of our greatest narrative writers had to remind himself of that right up to the end, it must be pretty important. It is. Human beings are far too complex to explain away in so many words: imperious; timid; pompous; vain; bombastic–and so on. “Imperious”? “Bombastic”? What do those words mean exactly? In Lillian Ross’s note-perfect profile of Hemingway, she shows us the great man in a narrow elevator at Abercrombie & Fitch. Aware that a woman is giving him the stink eye, he suddenly erupts: “FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!” Just that: no elaboration on Ross’s part; only what happened. (The woman looked at the elevator floor after that.) So was Hemingway a “bombastic” man? Well, yes, sometimes, but consider all the other implicit nuances of his behavior: sick of his own fame; moderately aware, too, maybe, that the woman isn’t staring at him because he’s Hemingway but rather because he’s a big sweaty guy with a three-day beard who stinks of booze and just stinks period (fun fact: he rarely bathed); and finally a man who was getting rather tired of living in general. Let us see and hear how your characters behave, and let us (for the most part) draw our own conclusions. It’s more fun that way, and it does more justice to the paradox of human nature.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly and thanks to Eric for the tip.

Additional fact for younger visitors: When Hemingway was riding that elevator, Abercrombie & Fitch was a high-end outfitter for outdoor activities of the rich and famous. You could buy everything you needed for a three-month African safari, from custom-tailored hunting clothes to custom-fitted big-game rifles at Abercrombie & Fitch.

If Hemingway could see what Abercrombie & Fitch has become, he would erupt with much more colorful language than he did on that elevator.

Non-Fiction, Writing Advice

17 Comments to “5 Writing Tips from Blake Bailey”

  1. ImprovEverywhere did a hilarious prank involving over 100 shirtless guys of all ages and body types flooding the Manhattan Abercrombie while hapless salespeople tried to herd them all out and separate the imposters from the paid models…



  2. Neither one strikes me as all that manly.

  3. The first time I saw an A&C store, my first reaction was, “Oh my God, that’s the famous outfitter’s! That’s so cool!”

    Then I went in and my reaction was just “Oh my God.”

    • I’ve only ever peered in through the front archway, but my reaction (sorry A&F lovers) was eeuww! Now I cross to the other side of the mall. I even hate the pounding music that leaks out the door. 😉

  4. I remember when it still sold hunting equipment. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

  5. Thanks for the explanation, PG. I was a bit baffled to think that Hemingway would have willingly gone to A&F.

  6. Hmmm. I need to do more research….ALOT more research….but I think I like the new A&F better.

    Significantly better.

    REALLY better.

    Nice ad, for example.

    I don’t write biography, but this article seems pretty decent, good points. As a non-fiction writer, I’m surrounded by fiction writers in the blogosphere, and most of the articles are about that, which is fine, no complaints, but it was nice to see non-fiction represented.

    • Hmmm. I need to do more research…ALOT more research…but I think I like the new A&F better.

      LOL! The ad above is yummy, isn’t it! 😀

      (Although I still stand by my expressed dislike for the stores. The beefcake photos look a lot better – A LOT better – at the reasonable size above than at the plastered-across-a-thirty-foot-wall size that they are in the stores!)

      • Of course, to be fair, I must admit to a sensory integration issue with sound. My brain doesn’t process sound normally. Overwhelming sound overflows my sound processing circuits and floods all the other processing circuits. With the result that any and all cerebral processing slows or ceases altogether.

        TL;DR version: I can’t think when it’s loud. 😀 Thus, my reaction to A&F.

        • Well, for me to be fair, I’ve never actually been to an A&F store.

          I just appreciate any clothing store that advertises its products by showing a man without any clothing on.

          I think they have the right idea.

          And yes, yummy does come to mind, J.M. 🙂

  7. I always wondered how A&F went from a traditional East Coast retailer to their presently, uh, distinctive clothing store.

    Looked at the Wikipedia article. Hemingway’s A&F went bankrupt in 1976. After various turns & twists, the brand name was bought by The Limited in 1988, which opened up a new lines of stores with that name & later spun those stores off as their own company.

    In other words, the two have as much in common as the Virgin Mary has with the singer Madonna. That explains a lot.

  8. some would look at hemingway killing a lion, thinking why? Not that he was ‘manly.’ A well fed and watered man of means going to a foreign country, having native people carry his rucksacks and boxes for him, feed him, water him, set up and break down his tent for him, carry his swill for him, load his rifle for him, take him to the place where lions live, not even tracking them….

    Why kill an innocent creature and have your picture taken next to its dead body… so you can brag what? That you were hand carried like an infant prince, and pleased that your slaves handed you the loaded rifle and you squeezed your forefinger?

    Aldo Leopold said it best when he killed a wolf just to kill; I saw the green fire die in her eyes… and I never wanted to kill again

    Just saying, where I come from, killing an animal as various coots from long ago did to have their photos in the limelight, aint the same as hunting with honor.

    • Wow, I’m impressed. I would never have been able to tell from that photograph alone that Hemingway didn’t load his own rifle.

      • you cant tell from the photograph Tom S. One can tell by reading the old biographies, autobiographies and magazine coverages of ‘rich man’ safaris, and this author’s own words, and those journos who accompanied him… many of my generation read these when we were teens… the plethora of choices in books then was no where NEAR what it is now. You got what your small town library bought. That was it. The push by NY publishers of their 12 darlings of the time was profound, leaving many many talented authors at the wayside for lack of publishers being enamored of not just a good story, but also excited by the hard drinking and drugging lives of their chosen ones. One of the reasons why indie publishing is SUCH a boon, and such a revolution… for you and I and others, not to have to compete in some swilling way, to be ‘the darlings’ of those who own the few distributive presses.

    • Aldo Leopold said it best when he killed a wolf just to kill; I saw the green fire die in her eyes… and I never wanted to kill again.

      I suppose some feel a sense of power from causing the green fire to die. I would want to weep, because I wouldn’t have the power to make that fire ignite, ever again.

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