Writing Advice

Stephen King: Can a Novelist Be Too Productive?

29 August 2015

From The New York Times:

There are many unspoken postulates in literary criticism, one being that the more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be. Joyce Carol Oates, the author of more than 50 novels (not counting the 11 written under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly), understands perfectly how little use critics have for prolific writers. In one of her journals she wrote that she seemed to create “more, certainly, than the literary world allows for a ‘serious’ writer.”

As with most postulates dealing with subjective perceptions, the idea that prolific writing equals bad writing must be treated with caution. Mostly, it seems to be true. Certainly no one is going to induct the mystery novelist John Creasey, author of 564 novels under 21 different pseudonyms, into the Literary Hall of Heroes; both he and his creations (the Toff, Inspector Roger West, Sexton Blake, etc.) have largely been forgotten.

The same is true of the British novelist Ursula Bloom (over 500 published works, under many pseudonyms), Barbara Cartland (over 700) and a host of others. One is reminded of Truman Capote’s famous bon mot about Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

Yet some prolific writers have made a deep impression on the public consciousness. Consider Agatha Christie, arguably the most popular writer of the 20th century, whose entire oeuvre remains in print. She wrote 91 novels, 82 under her own name and nine under a nom de plume — Mary Westmacott — or her married name, Agatha Christie Mallowan.

. . . .

 No one in his or her right mind would argue that quantity guarantees quality, but to suggest that quantity never produces quality strikes me as snobbish, inane and demonstrably untrue.

. . . .

The long gaps between books from such gifted writers make me similarly crazy. I understand that each one of us works at a different speed, and has a slightly different process. I understand that these writers are painstaking, wanting each sentence — each word — to carry weight (or, to borrow the title of one of Jonathan Franzen’s finest novels, to have strong motion). I know it’s not laziness, but respect for the work, and I understand from my own work that haste makes waste.

But I also understand that life is short, and that in the end, none of us is prolific. The creative spark dims, and then death puts it out. William Shakespeare, for instance, hasn’t produced a new play for 400 years. That, my friends, is a long dry spell.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Kyle and others for the tip.

First Line Mania

20 August 2015

From Mysterious Matters: Mystery Publishing Demystified:

Lately I’ve been hearing that a manuscript has to have a “killer” opening line, that you “have only one chance to make a first impression.” Now everyone seems to think that the first line of a manuscript has to be an exercise in Jane Austen-like perfection.

Yes, it’s true that a good opening line is important. But I don’t dismiss a manuscript if the first line is less than perfect. I DO need to see something interesting, different, attention-grabbing, odd, off-kilter, unexplained, or unexpected in the first three pages — AND the writing has to be good.

In other words, a good opening line is important, but it’s not ENOUGH. And if it’s all downhill after that opening line (I can actually think of several books I’ve read lately for which that condition holds), the fabulousness of the first sentence doesn’t matter much, does it?

. . . .

Let’s look at some opening lines:

GONE GIRL (Gillian Flynn): “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”   — Decent opening line. Doesn’t blow my socks off. But by the third paragraph, I’m hooked. I know something really creepy is going on.

LIFE AFTER LIFE (Kate Atkinson): “A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the cafe.”  – Meh. Most notable for use of the word “fug,” which one doesn’t hear much. By the end of page 2, though, I want to read more.

. . . .

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Stieg Larsson): “It happened every year, was almost a ritual.” Good. Makes me want to keep reading. Not exactly literary; no humor, wit, word play. Nothing bizarre, no author trying to impress me with an opening line. By the end of the first page, I’m hungry for more.

Link to the rest at Mysterious Matters: Mystery Publishing Demystified and thanks to Jacqueline for the tip.

All I really need to know, I learned from Anne of Green Gables

20 August 2015

From author and TPV regular Libbie Hawker:

I’m not ashamed to admit it: I’m a huge Anne fan. Which is to say, I’m a huge Lucy Maud Montgomery fan. And I have loved Maud’s work for as long as I’ve been reading books.

Now that I’m a professional writer myself, my respect for L.M. Montgomery has only grown. Her particular, unmistakable way with words—the apparent ease with with she wielded language—always leaves me in awe, no matter how many times I re-read her work.

. . . .

One of the things I love best about her immortal works are the many gems of simple, no-nonsense wisdom and just-plain good advice they contain. With that in mind, I present some of my favorite life lessons from Montgomery’s four most popular Anne books, Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, and Anne’s House of Dreams. Some of these speak directly to fellow writers, but most of them speak to us all, regardless of our interests or occupations.

. . . .

Even when you’re alone, you have real good company—dreams and imaginations and pretendings. Anne’s House of Dreams

When you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worthwhile. Anne of Green Gables

What is an imagination for, if not to enable you to peep at life through other people’s eyes? Anne of Avonlea

. . . .

You can learn to write well if you train yourself to be your own severest critic. Anne of Green Gables

Your characters will do and say things you never meant them to. Then that spoils everything that went before, and you have to write it all over again. Anne of the Island

. . . .

Things are so mixed up in real life. They aren’t clear-cut and trimmed off, as they are in novels. Anne of the Island

Lines and verses are only the outward garments of a poem. The real poem is the soul within the words. Anne of Avonlea

Link to the rest at Libbie Hawker

Here’s a link to Libbie Hawker’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

Self-Publishers: Who Grants You Permission and Who Tells You No?

10 August 2015

From TPV regular JW Manus:

[B]ack in the good ol’ bad days of traditional publishing, writers had one road to travel to publication. Submit their work to agents and editors until somebody, somewhere said “Yes.” A writer could spend months or years on the submission/rejection treadmill, and quite often they never did find the right person at the right time to say “Yes.” There are some (I used to be one) who feels that grind builds character and makes writers better writers. I don’t believe that anymore. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. I think the submission/rejection grind wrecked or outright destroyed far more writers than it ever helped–even those who got publishing contracts, and in some cases, especially those who got publishing contracts.

The reason I’ve changed my mind is because the prevailing myth is that the reason agents and editors reject writing is because it’s no good. It’s not just a myth, it’s an outright lie. The ONLY reason any work is rejected is because the agent or editor doesn’t think they can sell it. That’s it. The only reason. One person (or a committee) decides a particular piece of work is unsaleable, and rejects it.

Some agents and editors are better than others at reading the market and knowing what will sell. But the vast majority are just as dumb as the rest of us and so they’re just guessing. I’ve met a lot of publishing house editors and several agents. Some are quite talented at what they do. I’ve never met one who was infallible. Most of them are just like me: established tastes and strong opinions. Unfortunately taste and opinions do not make for good business sense. For example, I love Anne Tyler’s books and I’ve never been able to make it past chapter three in a Nora Roberts novel. Were I an agent or trad editor and something that reminded me of Anne Tyler crossed my desk, I’d dub it good or great, and I’d reject anything that smacked of Nora Roberts. I would tell myself I’m making my decision based on sound business principles, but the reality is, I’m just another goof who can’t see past my own biases.

. . . .

Writers, editors, and agents have only their own prejudices, tastes and opinions to judge the worthiness of a work. The only people who actually know what will sell are readers.

I do some copy editing and a whole lot of proofreading, and some of the books I work on appeal to my tastes and others don’t. Some are beautifully written, others aren’t. Some are slickly professional, some are rough or even amateurish. It’s not my place to judge a work’s worthiness. In fact, no writer wants to ask me about the saleability of a work because I’m the last person anyone should ask. A former friend and I used to have a running joke: if I adored a story she wrote, chances were it would not sell, but if I hated it, even loathed it, it would not only sell, but probably pick up a few awards along the way. I know what I like and I’m very passionate about it and given time to think I can make pretty good arguments as to why I like or dislike any particular piece of writing. I haven’t a clue about why anybody else likes what they do. I can Monday morning quarterback with the best of them and sometimes I think I can figure out the appeal of best sellers, but it’s just guessing.

If a client asks my advice on how to improve the CRAFT of writing, I can go on for days. I’m pretty good at pinpointing where a writer is interfering with the reader. No writer should ever ask me if they should publish. How the hell should I know? More importantly, I don’t have the power or the right to tell anyone to not publish. As a reader, yes, I can decide if I want to shell out cash and then invest my time, or not. As an editor? Absolutely not.

. . . .

The trouble with the submission/rejection grind was that a lot of rejected manuscripts ended up in drawers or under the bed or tossed in the garbage. The only thing wrong with them was that some editor or agent (or even a lot of editors and agents) decided they didn’t know how to sell it to readers. Readers, if they knew about all those lost/forgotten/trashed stories, might disagree.

I’m of the mind these days that if you write it, let readers decide if it’s something they might like–and NO ONE ELSE. Not your critique partners, not an editor, not an agent, not a reviewer, and certainly not organizations like Authors United or Authors Guild.

Link to the rest at JW Manus and thanks to Deb for the tip.

An Accomplished Writer Takes a ‘MasterClass’ From a Gargantuan Selling Writer

9 August 2015

From Observer:

The MasterClass ads started popping up in my Facebook feed a couple of weeks ago. Evidently I fit the demographic of a person who might be willing to cough up 90 bucks for three hours of online lessons taught by a famous person, imparting wisdom on how he or she got that way and how, presumably, I might even do the same, once I mastered the lessons in the MasterClass.

Knowing how scarily well Facebook appears to understand my life, it is unlikely that anyone there (man, or machine) saw me as a candidate for the Serena Williams MasterClass in Tennis, or the Usher MasterClass in the Art of Performance. Back in 11th grade, I played Lady Macbeth in the Oyster River High School production of Macbeth, but I doubt Facebook was aware of this fact, or had me pegged as a possible buyer for the Dustin Hoffman MasterClass in Acting.

It was the James Patterson class they must have recognized as right up my alley—the one titled James Patterson Teaches Writing—a class described as offering advice on how to write a best seller. No doubt this one was offered to me because I am a writer, myself. Just not the type whose name tends to show up on the bestseller list.

In the 42 years I have worked full time—day in, day out—as a writer, producing, so far, 15 books (a couple of memoirs, a collection of essays and a bunch of novels). I have made it onto The New York Times list for a lifetime total of four weeks—back when the movie version of my novel Labor Day sent the novel that inspired it very briefly onto the charts. Other than that one heady moment, I have labored, like most of my writer friends, in one level or another of financial challenge.

. . . .

Meanwhile, I continue to drive a 1995 Honda Civic and clean my own bathroom. And, in my ungenerous moments, I confess to having harbored a certain not-particularly-attractive level of bitterness over the success of writers like John Grisham and—above all others—James Patterson, a man who holds the title as the world’s best-selling author, publishing so many novels a year that he needs a whole stable of collaborators just to keep up with the demand.

But when this MasterClass announcement showed up in my feed, a new thought came to me. I could hate the man for selling so many more books than I do. Or I could humbly acknowledge that maybe the guy knows something I don’t, and sign up for his class. Which I did.

. . . .

I entered anticipating that his lessons might offer up some great comedy material—by the time the last lesson was over, and Mr. Patterson (Jim, to me, now) had set me loose to write my best seller, I had developed genuine respect for the man. Even affection. If I met him at a book festival some day, and the opportunity arose, I’d greet him like an old friend.

What changed? For starters, Mr. Patterson possesses an abundance of good, solid common sense and some genuinely valuable wisdom. Not necessarily about the art of writing, mind you. But about storytelling. And at the end of the day, if you ask me (and more importantly, if you ask readers and book buyers), that’s what matters most. A person can write the most beautiful, lyrical sentences (as James Patterson will be the first to tell you, he does not), but if the story doesn’t grab a reader by the throat, and—having grabbed on—hold her there, none of the rest may matter all that much.

. . . .

Some other things James Patterson believes in: Research. Surprises. Action. (If a story isn’t galloping along, it’s sinking. Fast.) He’ll tell you that your first sentence had better be a killer. And that every page needs to contain a measure of drama and intrigue; suspense and excitement that keeps the reader in her chair. (I say “her chair” because it turns out that the vast majority of James Patterson’s millions of readers are women. A fact I might not have anticipated.)

Link to the rest at Observer and thanks to Michael for the tip.

I’m John Scalzi and This Is How I Work

7 August 2015

From Lifehacker:

John Scalzi is a Hugo award-winning author of science fiction. He’s also an occasional columnist, a regular (and often hilarious) blogger, an active Tweeter, television consultant, and more. And when people mention Scalzi’s name, it’s usually followed by “how does he write so much?”

. . . .

What apps, software, or tools can’t you live without? What do you use for writing?

For writing I use Word or Google Docs, depending on project (shorter projects tend to be in Docs; longer projects tend to be in Word). I have writer friends who swear by Scrivener but honestly I don’t understand it; it’s overly complicated for my own writing process. In any event Word is the publishing industry standard, so sooner or later everything gets put into it anyway.

I use the WordPress web interface to write on my blog. For Twitter I use the Tweetdeck web interface even on my mobile devices, because I mute a truckload of obnoxious people and I don’t want to have to mute them across several Twitter apps. Facebook I also tend to use a web interface for, even on mobile, because their strategy of extracting parts of their mobile interface as separate apps is wearying and stupid. I use Gmail and Google Inbox interchangeably.

On my blog and elsewhere I have use for a lot of photography. I use a Nikon D5100 or my Droid Turbo to take the photos, process them with Photoshop and/or CameraBag 2, and then store them using Flickr, which I am used to and enjoy working with. For occasional audio work, I use a Blue Yeti microphone and Adobe Audition to process it.

. . . .

What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?

When I’m writing a novel or other long project I will turn off the internet from 8am to noon. That’s when I’m the most focused and creative, generally.

. . . .

Do you ever write away from a computer? Have you used or do you use a typewriter or pen and paper?

The very first Mac came out my freshman year in high school, which is also the year I started taking writing seriously, so in fact my writing process is very intimately tied into using computers. With the exception of an occasional high school poem or song lyric (which you don’t want to see, trust me), everything I’ve ever written is digital-native.

. . . .

What do you listen to while you work?

I tend not to listen to music while writing novels or serious projects because it will distract me. When doing less labor intensive projects (or housekeeping like answering email) I will listen jazz standards or classical music or 80s pop tunes, usually via Rhapsody’s “unRadio” channels. I don’t listen to new music when doing anything brain-intensive; I get distracted. I save new music for down time.

Link to the rest at Lifehacker and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Write what you know or what you can imagine?

1 August 2015

From NYT bestseller and former writing professor Dave Farland:

Many years ago, the most common bit of writing advice doled out to aspiring authors was “write what you know”. We all became so familiar with that advice, even third-grade children considered it when choosing topics for their creative writing assignments.

However, Frank Herbert certainly never visited the barren and dangerous world of Dune prior to writing about it so convincingly. Obviously writing what you know isn’t exactly the be-all-and-end-all of writing advice.

Perhaps, write what you imagine, would be more accurate—because if all of us wrote what we knew, the world would be filled with books about ordinary people living out simple lives in boring towns and cities around the globe.

. . . .

Your challenge is to become so in tune with the world around you now, that you canimagine your invented world. Take the time to study the world around you—people, places, even conflicts. Get out of the house, people- and relationship-watch, visit a working lab, study a biology textbook, learn.

If you’ve never felt snow melt on your skin, sand sinking away from your toes as the tide rushes out or the thrill of driving a car very, very fast, how can you write it in such a way that the reader can feel it, too?

You don’t have to have experienced every little thing life has to offer, but you do have to live, study and experience.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

Reader Expectations: Blessings or Curses?

24 July 2015

From author Elle Casey:

If you know me, you know I write in several genres. At last count, those included urban fantasy, romance, thriller/suspense, paranormal, action-adventure, dystopian, and hard science fiction-space opera. The hard sci-fi was new for me as of last month. It’s a genre I enjoy as a fan of TV, film, and novels (Dune was my first!), but had never experienced as a writer.

So far I’ve published one sci-fi novel (Drifters’ Alliance, Book 1) and a short story prequel to that series (Winner Takes All), which is scheduled for release on August 24th as part of an anthology titled Dark Beyond the Stars.  I’ve really enjoyed stretching my wings and trying this new thang. I love space battles! Pew-pew!

I’ve also realized something important about myself and my job as a writer, and because this new discovery is kind of slowing me down and holding me back from writing my next book (by clogging up my brain), I figured I’d blog about it. Generally speaking, when I write something down in the blogosphere, it gets it out of my head and allows me a clear path ahead. And right now, my brain is completely clouded and jammed up with the specter of … duh-duh-duh-duuuhhhh … Reader Expectations.

. . . .

Once you write a book, if it’s good enough and all the planets and stars have aligned (meaning you get some kind of online exposure somewhere, be it via a retailer and/or an influential blogger), you gain a following of readers looking forward to your next release. And those readers will naturally have some expectations concerning that next release. For example, they’ll want your next book to be similar in tone and style, similar in length (or longer if possible), and capable of evoking the same kind of emotional responses the previous one did. Fair enough, right? That’s cool.  I’m down. I’m a reader too. I toootally get it.

When there are just a few expectant readers out there, it’s somewhat easy to make them happy. After I wrote one book, I had maybe three people who bothered to email me and tell me what they were hoping to see in the next book (and one of them was my mother). I was happy to accommodate any of those requests that made sense for the next story, and I did my best to write the second book with as much passion and focus as I had the first. Reader expectations in small doses like that were invigorating!

. . . .

The problem with reader expectations for me at this point, really, is twofold: First, because there are so many, they constantly conflict with one another; and second, because of that first point, they eventually make it very difficult for me to write anything at all.

I’ll give you an example of the first situation, a phenomenon you can verify by reading the reviews on any of my books. For the same book, I’ve heard from readers that :

  • the story is too long, and the story is too short,
  • the girl should have gone with boy #1, and the girl should have gone with boy #2,
  • a girl of this age would never do what my character did, and my character acted exactly as a girl of this age would,
  • I didn’t resolve the main conflict, and the main conflict was completely resolved
  • people don’t say in real life what my characters say, and my characters are so real they practically jump off the page,
  • I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I’m a frigging genius,
  • series suck, and series are awesome,
  • cliffhangers suck, and cliffhangers are awesome,
  • characters shouldn’t swear (because it’s not nice to read in a book), and characters should swear (because real people swear and characters in books should act real).

Link to the rest at Elle Casey and thanks to Noelle for the tip.

Here’s a link to Elle Casey’s books

Author Epiphany: I Film-Track My Novels

23 July 2015

From author Sarah McCoy via Writer Unboxed:

Epiphany Part 1 arrived in my living room as my husband griped at another Turner Classic Movie marathon Friday night.

“But it’s Katharine Hepburn!” I balked. “One of the greatest character actors ever!”

I’m addicted to old movies. Black and whites make me swoon and don’t even get me started on Technicolor.

My husband merely shook his head. “I’ll never understand why you like these when it takes an act of God to get you to the theater for a new release.”

“Because these aren’t movies about surly Teddy bears or Tom Cruise sprinting from danger again,” I argued. “These are mini-time capsules. From the costumes and scenery to the plotlines and cultural messages— I’m gathering history details. Educational entertainment!”

And the second I said it, I realized, yes, that’s exactly it. It’s the same in my reading and writing. Not only am I a historical fiction devotee, but I also advocate for the past teaching us something in the present. My preference is for stories that make me think back about how it was, as a catalyst to change how it is. It’s why I write contemporary-historical dual narratives like my latest release The Mapmaker’s Children. I appreciate being entertained and educated without the didacticism of a classroom. I like feeling my time has been well invested in things that enrich my perspective and enable me to speak intelligently on a topic I may not have known prior.

. . . .

My imagination is much like my stomach. Everything I put into it influences its state of being. It craves hearty nutrition and aches at too much sugar. It has violent, allergic reactions to certain fare and appreciates recipes with a long tradition of excellence. Simply stated: I am what I put in me. And I prefer to put in Little Women with Katharine Hepburn.

. . . .

Since the blog specifically requested songs, I thought I’d share my classic film-track for The Mapmaker’s Children with you, Unboxed Writer friends. I’m listing them by year because it’s impossible for me to order by preference. All are outstanding movies that I highly recommend.

1) The Littlest Rebel (1935)

Signature Shirley Temple. I grew up loving all her films. It’s because of her that I donned my first set of tap shoes and didn’t mind that I had a Rambutan hairstyle for much of my childhood. This is Shirley’s nod to the Civil War. She sits on Abe Lincoln’s lap while he comforts her on her Confederate “Di-ddy’s” plight. Just give in to the sweetness. It’s Shirley.

. . . .

3) Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Errol Flynn is stationed in the Kansas Territory during John Brown’s bloody crusade against slavery and falls in love with the railroad man’s daughter Olivia de Havilland. Ronald Regan (yes, our 40th president!) plays George Custer. It’s a winner.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Here’s a link to Sarah McCoy’s books

The tortured artist myth: how creativity really works

19 July 2015

From The Irish Times:

The only way to make any kind of real art, apparently, is to suffer for it. This is how a real artist lives, or so I’ve been taught. The artist as a black hole of despair, spinning art out of a state of destruction, passion and reckless abandon. A self-hating creative, driven by an unquenchable need to make masterpieces and then burn out, like a dying star.

It’s a sexy concept. Thousands of books have been written about Van Gogh’s ear, Marilyn Monroe’s death and Billie Holiday’s heroin addiction. Slinky starlets wear T-shirts portraying Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse, members of the famed 27 club – the age at which all of them died. Like most myths it’s an attractive idea to buy into.

But that’s exactly what it is: a myth. A concept we’ve invented to turn people who create into demigods. As a result the idea of one of us lowly ones making art, or even attempting to, seems absurd.

How could I possibly write, or act, or dance? If I’ve come from a nice home, with supportive, loving parents, and a relatively comfortable start in life, where do I begin? Do I have permission to make art? Or will everything I make be too pleasant and insipid? According to the trope, I have no great depths to plumb, no searing pain I can mine for inspiration, not even a touch of childhood trauma. How dare I even begin to think that I have anything great worth saying?

. . . .

There is rarely any discussion of the minutiae of daily life as an artist, dancer or writer. About the empty blank page, or the first line in a script to be read out loud. The tiny, terrifying steps it takes to begin, reshape and then present any type of creation to a casually dismissive world. But each of those tiny steps is where the joy lives – the strangely challenging joy that convinces us to search for the next change in pitch, to sit for hours waiting for the right word to arrive, to repeat a page of lines out loud over and over until something about it clicks and then flows. It’s that moment that gives you the momentum to push forward, further into discovery.

Some days it comes more easily, some days it doesn’t come at all. Those days are where the famed torture lurks. But the decision to keep searching, not the suffering, is what makes an artist. It’s not as seductive as a concept, the artist as hard worker, but it’s more approachable, more doable, than the artist as inspired genius.

Link to the rest at The Irish Times

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