Writing Advice

Start Strong or Lose Your Readers

5 February 2016

From Digital Book World:

One of the data points we record at Jellybooks is how many chapters a reader finishes. Reading fiction is a very linear activity in which you start at the beginning of the novel and, following the story arc, read until you reach the end. You don’t usually hop in and out of chapters as you would do in a non-fiction book or textbook, and reading analytics bears that out.

However, what if the novel doesn’t grab your attention? What if you get bored? Reading analytics can measure that, too!

The way we display this is through a completion graph. To facilitate comprehension by authors and editors, the graph is deliberately structured like a Table of Contents (TOC), listing each chapter in the book. Next to each chapter is a horizontal bar graph in blue showing the percentage of readers who read that chapter (or substantial parts of it). The grey bars show front- and back–matter (introduction, dedication, prologue, epilogue, copyright page and so on) that are organized as chapters but are not part of the main narrative. As readers progress, the percentage drops off, showing that readers lose interest and even stop reading.

. . . .

The example above shows a title that was tested several months prior to publication date. Readers received it as complementary Advance Reading Copy (ARC), like they would from say, NetGalley, but instead of being asked to write a book review, they were asked to upload their reading data with the click of a button. Though participation in this focus group was generally very high, this book stood out from the dozen or so others, as an astonishing 90 percent of readers gave up after just two chapters. Let that sink in. Nine in 10 potential readers who took the time to start reading this book, expecting to read it all the way to the end, gave up after less than 50 pages. Just 50 pages!

. . . .

Surveying readers confirmed that people gave up because they genuinely did not like the book. They either didn’t like the writing, couldn’t identify with the main character or simply “weren’t that into the book.” Many a reader also stated, “I will stick it out for 50-100 pages for any book I try, but after that I move on if I don’t like the book”.

Last year we also had the opportunity to exchange data and information with some senior executives [from] a certain company in Seattle that has data on millions of readers (but not prior to publication date), and it confirmed what we had seen. Readers don’t get past the first 50-100 page for the majority of books. Wow!

So dear author and editor, what is the lesson? In today’s world of infinite distractions, you need to capture the reader’s attention within the first 50 to 100 pages. The 19th century approach of 100-page rambling introductions that lay out the background will turn off 21st century readers.

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

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Serious Writer Voice

5 February 2016

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

So I read fiction magazine after fiction magazine, anthology after anthology.

I noted something as I read. Most of the stories had the same voice and tone. What do I mean by that? I mean they read like they’d been written by the exact same person.

It was always a joy—it is always a joy—to “hear” a new voice, a voice that doesn’t sound like anyone else. I could tell without looking at the byline when I hit a Joyce Carol Oates or Megan Abbot or Michael Connelly story. The Strand found an original F. Scott Fitzgerald story and published it last year, and Fitzgerald’s voice—unlike any other—came through loud and clear.

A lot of the stories I read this past year had wonderful plots. They had great characters and lovely twists. The stories were published, remember, and so they all had something unusual, something strong.

But that something generally wasn’t voice.

And now I’m reading manuscripts for an anthology that should be all voice. Every story should sound so different from every other story as to be unrecognizable. Think of it like accents or word usage: As I read, I should be seeing Texas accents and idioms in one story, Australian accents and idioms in the next, and Scottish accents and idioms in the next.

Instead, I get mostly what I call “serious writer voice.”

Serious writer voice is carefully bland. It will include a few setting details, some nice descriptions, maybe a few unique words. But mostly, it is indistinguishable from any other voice. Rather like the way we used to train broadcasters in this country.

When I started on the radio, I was fortunate enough to have the perfect accent, because broadcasters were trained to speak like a Midwesterner. (Middle Midwest, if you want to be specific—more Central Illinois than Northern Minnesota or Southern Missouri.) Now, if you listen, you’ll hear broadcasters with Georgia accents, and broadcasters with Brooklyn accents. They actually sound like human beings these days—with correct grammar (most of the time) but varied delivery.

Like broadcasters of old, writers have been trained to sound the same. Serious writer voice stories have paragraphs that are of uniform length, sentences that rarely have contractions, a lot of passive voice (!), and very few conjunctions. Things like dashes and parenthesis are used judiciously—as in so rarely that most stories don’t even have them.

All the tools that writers should have in their grammarian’s toolbox—the tools that make writers “sound” different—well, most writers don’t know they exist. It’s as if writers try very hard to build a house using a hammer, nails, some wood, and a saw. No screwdriver, no wrench, no metal, no PVC pipes, nothing. Just the same four things over and over again, whether they fit or not.

. . . .

Think of it this way: imagine someone telling you a story. That person, who uses his own voice creatively—mimicking accents, raising his voice when someone’s shouting, using different tones for different characters—will hold your attention with his performance as well as his story.

Then think of the same story told like this: the person stands in front of the room, uses no gestures, and speaks in a monotone. Sometimes, you can hear the story anyway. But most of the time, you have to struggle to pay attention, because that monotone is deadly.

Most of what I read these days—things that are published, both traditionally and indie—are written in the stylistic equivalent of that monotone.

Is there a reason this is happening? Absolutely.

Writers workshop their manuscripts. They have their friends (usually unpublished or poorly published) writers go over the manuscript. Those friends impose really weird rules on the writers. I’ve seen lists of these rules. The rules tend to vary depending on where the writer learned them.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch and thanks to Toby for the tip.

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

See through words

4 February 2016

From Aeon:

If you could ask Dante where he got the idea of life as a road, or Rilke where he found the notion that time is a destroyer, they might have said the metaphors were hewn from their minds, or drawn from a stock of poetic imagery. Their readers might have said the imagery had origins more divine, perhaps even diabolical. But neither poets nor readers would have said the metaphors were designed. That is, the metaphors didn’t target people’s cognitive processes. They weren’t engineered to affect us in a specific way.

Can metaphors be designed? I’m here to tell you that they can, and are. For five years I worked full-time as a metaphor designer at the FrameWorks Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, whose clients are typically large US foundations (never political campaigns or governments). I continue to shape and test metaphors for private-sector clients and others. In both cases, these metaphors are meant to help people to understand the unfamiliar. They aren’t supposed to make someone remark: ‘That’s beautiful.’ They’re meant to make someone realise that they’ve only been looking at one side of a thing.

Here’s an example. In the 1960s, the US philosopher Donald Schön spent some time at the consulting firm Arthur D Little (he eventually became a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nearby). He was working with product researchers trying to figure out why a new paintbrush design with synthetic bristles didn’t apply paint smoothly. As Schön related it later, someone in the group suddenly said: ‘A paintbrush is a kind of pump!’

Ordinarily, seeing a paintbrush this way would be considered a mistake. In this case, what the researchers knew about pumps suddenly became available for thinking about paintbrushes too. ‘Paintbrush as pump’ isn’t beautiful, but it’s very useful. It was, as Schön wrote later, ‘a generative metaphor for the researchers in the sense that it generated new perceptions, explanations, and inventions’. (Among other things, it led to new bristle designs that would bend the right way.)

. . . .

Consider the thing to be communicated – a business strategy, a discovery, a new look at a familiar social problem – and then make a pseudo-mistake. Actually, create a lot of pseudo-mistakes, and test each one. At the end, the floor will be covered with the blood of failed comparisons. One way to create these mistakes is to deliberately miscategorise the thing you are trying to explain. What do paintbrushes have to do with pumps? Ah, they all move liquid. You choose the pump because it’s the most prototypical member of the things-that-move-liquid category.

Another way to create the mistake is to break the thing you want to explain into its components, then connect them to some other idea or domain of life. Say there’s a city department that’s in charge of lots of different programmes, all of them related to health. The department plays a centralising function for various programmes funded by multiple sources, operating over several jurisdictions. That diversity confuses audiences. Also, the programmes are often for vulnerable populations – the elderly, immigrants, people with addictions: people for whom the average taxpayer’s sympathies are not necessarily assured. So the right metaphor must speak to inclusion and community, and suggest some benefit, such as health or opportunity, that’s more widely shared. I tried ‘bridge’ and ‘platform’, but ultimately went with ‘key ring’: the department holds the keys for unlocking health.

. . . .

Pretty much every metaphor designer is inspired by Metaphors We Live By (1980), by the Berkeley linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon. It’s the classic look at how metaphors structure the way we think and talk, and once you’ve read it, you can’t help but agree that, at a conceptual level, life is a journey, and arguments are wars (you take sides, there can be only one winner, evidence is a weapon). However, for the practical metaphor designer, psycholinguistic research turns out to be much more useful than philosophical commentary, because it studies how people actually encounter and process new metaphors.

It was the Princeton psycholinguist Sam Glucksberg who in 2003 argued that metaphors are really categorisation proposals. Provocations, you might call them. You’re suggesting that one thing belongs with another. But the thing that lets us make sense of ‘paintbrush as pump’ – or ‘lawyer as shark’ – is that ‘pump’ is the name of a category for liquid-moving mechanisms, just as ‘shark’ is the name of the category for predatory individuals. Words such as ‘pump’ and ‘shark’ aren’t just the names of individual things; they also speak to generalities. They have what Glucksberg calls ‘dual reference’. He points out others that have become conventionalised metaphors. ‘Butcher’ refers to ‘anyone who should be skilled but is incompetent’, ‘jail’ to ‘any unpleasant, confining situation’, ‘Enron’ to ‘any dramatic accounting scandal’, and ‘Vietnam’ to any ‘disastrous military intervention’.

Link to the rest at Aeon and thanks to Julia for the tip.

Going Analog to Beat Writer’s Block

4 February 2016

From author Toby Neal:

Going analog to beat writer’s block is a desperate measure, something I never thought I’d have to do. I don’t know how long I’ll be analog. It may be permanent.

“What are you saying?” You may well ask. “Didn’t you just write a cyber mystery about a woman who’s always Wired In?”

Well, yes. And it took a toll. Actually I’m not sure what took a toll exactly, all I know is that I hit a wall in November and couldn’t write any new material. It’s now February.

“Big deal,” you say. “You wrote fourteen mysteries, three romances, two memoirs and a couple of YA novels in five years. It’s okay to be a little burned-out and take a break.”

That’s what my friends told me, too. I told myself that, agreeing. But not writing isn’t “taking a break” to me. I’m happiest when I’m writing, and I couldn’t seem to. Nothing appealed, not even my romances, which are my go-to feel-good projects when I get a little stuck. Even blogging, which I normally love, felt Herculean.

. . . .

And gradually, I began to go analog. This definition from Vocabulary.com matches the way I mean the term: “Analog is the opposite of digital. Any technology, such as vinyl records or clocks with hands and faces, that doesn’t break everything down into binary code to work is analog. Analog, you might say, is strictly old school.”

My version of analog meant stopping the noise and distractions in my head and life, most of them somehow digital. I stopped listening to music in the car, and let my thoughts wander instead. I stopped listening to audiobooks or calling friends on my walks with my dog in the neighborhood, now just noticing things: the cry of Francolin grouse in the overgrown, empty pineapple field, distant roosters, barking dogs, doves and chattering mynahs, the sound the wind makes in the coconut trees, the swish of my feet through grass, the feel of air on my skin.

I stopped filling my ears with noise and my eyes with electronics, staying away from my computer except for planned chunks of work using the Pomodoro method.

. . . .

I did the book launches, and the two books are out, selling well, and gathering great reviews—all a writer of any stripe can hope for. These latest two are some of the best I’ve written, and with the relief of having them out there, I got a tiny insight:some of this block is performance anxiety.

I worry I won’t be able to top myself, that I’ve already done the best work I’m capable of.

Once that insight finally bubbled up through the silence I was cultivating, I could examine it. Interact with it. Test its veracity, as we do in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is my primary counseling mode. In trying to grapple with it, the tiny insight got louder, clearer and more detailed. I recognized the voice of the Inner Critic, and the razor-tipped arrow of a lie that had pierced me in the heart and frozen me in place.

Link to the rest at Toby Neal

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

The 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2016

27 January 2016

From The Write Life:

We’ve broken this year’s list [of the 100 Best Websites for Writers] into seven categories: Blogging, entrepreneurship, creativity and craft, freelancing, marketing, publishing, and writing communities. All sites are listed in alphabetical order within their categories, and the numbers are for easy tracking (not ranking).

. . . .

 Creativity & Craft

8. Aerogramme Writers’ Studio

Aerogramme Writers’ Studio keeps you up to date on writing news and opportunities, including contests, calls for submission, and MFA programs. The blog also contains tons of articles on the art of writing.

Post you’ll like: Who Is Your Boo Radley? Finding Characters Who Motivate You To Write

9. Ann Kroeker

Author and writing coach Ann Kroeker is on a mission to help writers reach their goals by maximizing curiosity, creativity and productivity. Her website is home to numerous blog posts, podcasts and resources for writers.

Post you’ll like: Write in the Middle of Traveling

10. A Writer’s Path

Author Ryan Lanz’s website is a wealth of information for aspiring authors. His blog features frequent guest posts, and his Writer’s Toolbox is constantly updated with his favorite picks for websites, blogs, music, apps and people.

Post you’ll like: Writing With Heart: Creating An Emotionally Engaging Character

11. Bane of Your Resistance

Using research in the creative process and neuroscience, Rosanne Bane takes on the big issue of writing resistance in all its forms: writer’s block, procrastination, perfectionism and more. Her weekly posts offer science-backed fixes to common problems for writers.

Post you’ll like: Momentum Beats Writer’s Block Every Day

. . . .

 Marketing

59. Build Book Buzz

When it comes to book publicity and marketing, you can definitely DIY it. Author and public-relations star Sandra Beckwith provides articles, training programs and other resources that help take the guesswork out of book marketing.

Post you’ll like: Put Your Fictional Characters on Social Media

60. Giving Voice to Your Story

We all have a story — a key message we want to share with the world. Through her blog and corresponding radio show, Dorit Sasson helps writers, entrepreneurs and thought leaders build a trusting relationship with their audience so they can share their message and reach new levels of success.

Post you’ll like: How Blogging Connects Authors with their Target Readers

61. Jessica Lawlor

Don’t let low confidence get in the way of your marketing success. Join Jessica Lawlor and the #GetGutsy community to find inspiration and tips on how to step outside your comfort zone and go for your goals.

Post you’ll like: A Reverse To-Do List: What What You Say NO to Matters More Than You Think

62. Kikolani

Founder Kristi Hines  brings you the latest strategies, trends and how-tos in digital marketing. Kikolani is a must-have resource for business and professional bloggers who want to make their brands stand out.

Post you’ll like: How to Develop Your Blog While Stealing Content From Others

63. Michael Hyatt

Michael Hyatt is the bestselling author of Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, and his blog will help you do just that. Read for tips and resources about personal development, productivity, leadership, influence and more.

Post you’ll like: Everything You Fear About Platforms Is Wrong

Link to the rest at The Write Life

10 Years in Publishing: 10 Lessons Learned

26 January 2016

From author Sara Rosett:

My first book came out in 2006. It’s amazing how much has changed since then—no digital versions and audiobooks were on CDs—but certain things remain constant like the advice to write a good book and then write the next one. I’m now a hybrid author with two self-published fiction series as well as my traditionally published series and have learned so much about the craft of writing itself as well as about publishing and readers. Here are my top ten lessons learned:

1. Beginning is always hard

I love the imagining, the plotting, and the planning, but then it comes time to put fingers to keyboard and I’m always right back were I started—the blank page. I’ve learned it’s best to just start. Get something down. As the Nike ad says, “Just do it.” I don’t have that same what if I can’t do it again? feeling that I had as I began my second novel, so it’s gotten better, but beginning is still scary.

. . . .

3. I can write faster

When I began publishing ten years ago, I wrote one book each year. The thought of writing more than one book seemed impossible. I couldn’t imagine writing even two books a year. Then ebooks came along and I heard about people writing several books each year and even a book a month. Crazy! But then I found out about the prolific writers’ habits and routines. They were usually extensive plotters and were fast drafting…well, that made a difference to my thought pattern. I was a plotter—not an excessively detailed plotter, but I worked from a plan—and if I was just getting my thoughts down and pressing on…then I might be able to do it, too. Mindset is everything. Once I decided it was possible for me to write more, my output increased. (The fact that I had readers waiting for the books helped, too!) From 2006 to 2011, I released one book a year. From 2012 to 2015, I released ten novels, one novella, and have two more novels in post-production.

4. “Shorter” books are okay.

This point is related to writing faster. When I began in traditional publishing, 75,000 was the minimum word count for my genre. It was important for the book spine to be wide enough on the shelf. With digital books, length matters less. Readers want a great story and—as long as the story is a good one and feels complete—readers don’t care if the story is 50,000 or 75,000. Agatha Christie thought 50,000 words was about the right length for a mystery. I have to say that the more I write, the more I agree with her. My self published books usually come in around 55,000 to 65,000 words and I haven’t had any complaints from readers.

Link to the rest at Sara Rosett

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

Ursula Le Guin Gives Insightful Writing Advice in Her Free Online Workshop

25 January 2016

From Open Culture:

Though it’s sometimes regarded as a pretentious-sounding term for genre writers who don’t want to associate with genre, I’ve always liked the phrase “speculative fiction.” J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman… A touch of surrealist humor, a highly philosophical bent, and a somewhat tragic sensibility can be found among them all, and also in the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, who does not shy away from the genre labels of science fiction and fantasy, but who approaches these categories in the way of, say, Virginia Woolf in her Orlando: as feminist thought experiments and fables about human ecological failings and inter-cultural potential.

That’s not to say that Le Guin’s writing is driven by political agendas, but that she has a very clear, uncompromising vision, which she has realized over the course of over five decades in novels, short stories, and children’s fiction.

. . . .

Le Guin stated last year that she no longer has the “vigor and stamina” for writing novels, and having given up teaching as well, said she missed “being in touch with serious prentice writers.” Thus, she decided to start an online writing workshop at the site Book View Café, describing it as “a kind of open consultation or informal ongoing workshop in Fictional Navigation.” In keeping with the metaphor of sea voyaging, she called her workshop “Navigating the Ocean of Story” and declared that she would not take reader questions about publishing or finding an agent: “We won’t be talking about how to sell a ship, but how to sail one.” Reader questions poured in, and Le Guin did her best to answer as many as she could, posting advice every other Monday for all of the summer and much of the fall of 2015.

. . . .

In answers to two readers’ questions about providing sufficient backstory, Le Guin refers to an old New Yorker feature called “The Department of Fuller Explanation, where they put truly and grand examples of unnecessary explaining.” Most of us, Le Guin writes, “tend to live in the Department of Fuller Explanation” when writing; “We are telling ourselves backstory and other information, which the reader won’t actually need to know when reading it.”

To avoid the “Expository Lump or the Infodump,” as she calls it, Le Guin advises the writer to “decide—or find our when revising—whether the information is actually necessary. If not, don’t bother. If so, figure out how to work it in as a functional, forward-moving element of the story… giving information indirectly, by hint and suggestion.”

Link to the rest at Open Culture and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

Could ‘method writing’ be the future for novelists?

24 January 2016

From The BBC:

Every February, as the Oscars roll around, movie fans revel in stories about actors who have gone to extreme lengths to prepare for parts.

Daniel Day-Lewis learned to track and skin animals and fight with tomahawks for The Last of the Mohicans, while, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio plunged into an icy river and sank his teeth into a hunk of raw bison while filming the Oscar-nominated film The Revenant.

Actors going to such lengths has become more common in recent years and a cynic might argue it certainly did not harm their film’s publicity, but given the apparent success of their technique, could working in a similarly immersive way also benefit novelists?

The author Thomas W Hodgkinson thinks so.

“I wrote the bulk of my new novel, Memoirs of a Stalker, whilst lying flat on my back in one of the cupboards in my home. There wasn’t even room for a laptop, so I had to write it on my mobile phone,” he says.

“I was trying to get into the mindset of my main character, who breaks into his ex-girlfriend’s house and lives there for months without her knowing. He spends a lot of time lurking in shadows, behind doors, and crouched in cupboards.”

. . . .

Sarah Churchwell, professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia, doesn’t totally dismiss method writing as an idea, but says most would not think it necessary.

“This idea is not different in kind to the way most authors write, it’s just different in degree. Writing is always an immersive, imaginative experience,” she says.

“As a writer, you do live inside the heads of your characters and the world you’ve created. Rather than locking themselves literally in a closet, most writers just mentally immerse themselves in a certain realm, whether fictional or historical.”

Prof Churchwell has experience of writing in such a way. For her 2014 book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, she says she had to immerse herself in all things 1922.

“I did nothing but read about 1922 for five years – I felt I was imaginatively living in that world. You do become naturally obsessed.

“You can’t shed the role at the end of the day… much the way actors often say they also can’t just emerge from the role. They are imaginatively living it, and writers are the same.”

Link to the rest at The BBC and thanks to Lexi for the tip.

The Akrasia Effect: Why We Don’t Follow Through on What We Set Out to Do (And What to Do About It)

16 January 2016

From James Clear:

By the summer of 1830, Victor Hugo was facing an impossible deadline. Twelve months earlier, the famous French author had made an agreement with his publisher that he would write a new book titled, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Instead of writing the book, Hugo spent the next year pursuing other projects, entertaining guests, and delaying his work on the text. Hugo’s publisher had become frustrated by his repeated procrastination and responded by setting a formidable deadline. The publisher demanded that Hugo finish the book by February of 1831—less than 6 months away.

Hugo developed a plan to beat his procrastination. He collected all of his clothes, removed them from his chambers, and locked them away. He was left with nothing to wear except a large shawl. Lacking any suitable clothing to go outdoors, Hugo was no longer tempted to leave the house and get distracted. Staying inside and writing was his only option.

The strategy worked. Hugo remained in his study each day and wrote furiously during the fall and winter of 1830. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published two weeks early on January 14, 1831.

. . . .

Human beings have been procrastinating for centuries. Even prolific artists like Victor Hugo are not immune to the distractions of daily life. The problem is so timeless, in fact, that ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle developed a word to describe this type of behavior: Akrasia.

Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Loosely translated, you could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control. Akrasia is what prevents you from following through on what you set out to do.

Why would Victor Hugo commit to writing a book and then put it off for over a year? Why do we make plans, set deadlines, and commit to goals, but then fail to follow through on them?

. . . .

One explanation for why akrasia rules our lives and procrastination pulls us in has to do with a behavioral economics term called “time inconsistency.” Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.

When you make plans for yourself — like setting a goal to lose weight or write a book or learn a language — you are actually making plans for your future self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future and when you think about the future it is easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.

When the time comes to make a decision, however, you are no longer making a choice for your future self. Now you are in the moment and your brain is thinking about the present self. And researchers have discovered that the present self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff. This is one reason why you might go to bed feeling motivated to make a change in your life, but when you wake up you find yourself falling into old patterns. Your brain values long-term benefits when they are in the future, but it values immediate gratification when it comes to the present moment.

. . . .

Aristotle coined the term enkrateia as the antonym of akrasia. While akrasia refers to our tendency to fall victim to procrastination, enkrateia means to be “in power over oneself.”

Link to the rest at James Clear

What writing obituaries taught them about life

4 January 2016
Comments Off on What writing obituaries taught them about life

From PRI:

Heather Lende and Harry de Quetteville both tell the stories of the recently departed. As obituary writers, their work captures both the grand and intimate details of a subject’s life. In many ways the obituary can feel like a vestige of another time when newspapers were booming and Walter Cronkite was sponsored by Winston cigarettes. Yet the modern obituary provides a portrait of life, from the high profile to the ordinary.

. . . .

Heather Lende has been an obituary writer for nearly two decades at the Chilkat Valley News, a weekly paper in Haines, Alaska. She describes Haines, a remote community only accessible by boat or plane, as “a lot like a foreign country.” In the small community, devoid of an undertaker or mortuary, rituals of death are a community affair.

“The reason I write obituaries really,” she said, “is because everybody helps with those death rituals. Whether it’s making casseroles, or playing the music, or typing up the funeral program. As a writer, I realized that I could do the obituaries.” In those 20 years, she’s written over 400 obituaries, yet unlike most writers, Lende says she knew each of them personally.

The question she’s most often asked — what makes a good life? — is something Lende thinks about a lot.

“I think if I had to say one word, it really comes down to relationships. All of it. When we go, do we leave people behind who will miss us? … if people weren’t really sad when you left, it seemed like you’ve missed an opportunity in your life. And now I think about that a lot in how I live. I think am I generous, am I kind, am I grateful? Those are the things that make a good life.”

. . . .

“It’s never depressing, far from it! It’s fascinating and hugely uplifting,” says Harry de Quetteville. He’s served as the obituaries editor for The Telegraph, a paper famous for, as he puts it, “obits of eccentric figures.”

Decades ago in British newspapers, obituaries writers often used a code to describe the behavior of their subjects.

“You would say someone was a bon vivant if they were an alcoholic drunk, you would say they enjoyed the company of women if they were basically assaulting everyone they saw … you might say someone was a confirmed bachelor if they were gay, and those days have rather passed now.”

Link to the rest at PRI and thanks to J.A. for the tip.

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