- J.R.R. Tolkien
Everyone has a novel in them, they say. And those works of art or escapism should be published for everyone to read. Apparently, millions and millions of books are being published in the US every year. A small percentage of those books are novels (or fiction novels, as some call them). A very small percentage of the novels published over the last three or four years have depicted the world in chaos as Harry Potter and his friends discover they have been left behind in a uniquely British rapture.
A little under 200,000 people profess to be writers in the US. The rest are too ashamed to admit it. The latter are mostly the ones who participate in library-sponsored parties for NaNoWriMo writers, where anyone can gather with other strangers for a few hours to scribble or type at the first of at least 50,000 words. They will be hear great advice, like this from Chris Baty:
- Jot down the names of your characters to stop a Mike becoming Matt or Mick as you write.
- Eat peppermints: a Nasa-funded study showed the peppermint plant increased alertness by 30 per cent.
- Go outdoors with a newspaper, a pen and a notebook. Close your eyes. When you open them spot ‘Your Person’ and write down everything about them. Close your eyes. Open your paper on a random page and let your finger choose a spot. Open your eyes. The thing you’re pointing to has a link to the person you just collected. Work it into your next chapter.
Many will say, "Just get it written." They may insist, "The story must get out of you." But let these stats depress you. And while you're thinking over your plans for next month's exercise, ask yourself whether your story is worth pursuing.
"Nine times out of ten, your idea is really quite mediocre and has been done before, actually a number of times and in a number of different ways," Laurie Scheer states, but you haven't read those stories. You're just invested in your own. What still lies before you is the biggest challenge for all writers today: whether you want to write or to have written.
Go ahead and write 50,000 words next month, and if you love it enough to keep at it, then keep writing. Words are awesome. If you don't love it, maybe you can organize that library party into a community lacrosse team.
Here's an amazing in-the-moment video of an actual writer working his craft!
Remaining in the deep pockets of the short-sentence lobby for years was enough incentive to prevent Roy Peter Clark from writing this piece in favor of the long-sentence opposition party.
"When I fight this anxiety," he writes, "when I advise writers to 'Fear not the long sentence,' my encouragement inspires looks of alarm from teachers as if I were advocating taking all the garter snakes out of high school terrariums and replacing them with anacondas."
Or a natural fear of powerful, short-sentence lobbyists, who might leave conveniently unedited documents on reporters' desks which could embarrass their former supporters. Clark appears to have no fear, however, spilling the beans with items like this:
By my count, there are three main reasons to cast a long sentence:
- To take a journey through a physical or emotional landscape.
- To create a catalogue or inventory.
- To build a mosaic of logic or evidence.
Megan McArdle, a columnist at Bloomberg View, attempts to explain why writers are great procrastinators. She suggests many, perhaps most, writers haven't failed enough. They have rested on their natural talent for too long and believe that the talent is all they have to offer. They don't see their talent as a muscle that will grow with exercise; rather they see it as a solid that can be tested for purity. If the world discovers they aren't as good as they sometimes appear to be, they will be certifiably, undeniably doomed.
"This fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you 'really' are," McArdle writes, "is so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome. A shocking number of successful people (particularly women), believe that they haven’t really earned their spots, and are at risk of being unmasked as frauds at any moment. Many people deliberately seek out easy tests where they can shine, rather than tackling harder material that isn’t as comfortable."
When faced with this fear, people may choose to hamper their own performance. She quotes Alain de Botton, saying, “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.” "For people with an extremely fixed mind-set," she continues, "that tipping point quite often never happens. They fear nothing so much as finding out that they never had what it takes." (via Lore Ferguson)
"There's an old saying that you should never judge a book by its cover. Today, perhaps, that conventional wisdom has rarely had more meaning. To a degree that might astonish the reading public, a significant percentage of any current bestseller list will not have been written by the authors whose names appear on the jackets."
Andrew Crofts, "one of Britain's most invisible and yet successful writers," has written out his experiences as a ghostwriter for 40 years. Bestselling ghosted works include a lot of "misery memoirs." (via Prufrock)
Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits, talks about his business in ways that make him uncomfortable. "I feel like I’m bordering on saying something sacrilegious here, but here it goes: There’s a common strain of thinking among writers, particularly literary writers and the institutions that foster them (conference/colonies/workshops), that insists a book is only as good as its writing."
Although he still believes in the preeminence of good writing, he know believes subject is very, very, and also very important. "Once a manuscript leaves your desk, subject matter is the primary (and often only) way it is discussed. So if you haven’t figured out a quick way to answer that cringe-inducing question 'What’s your book about?' in a way that interests other people, somebody else will. And that will be how the book is sold..."
He goes on to say how surprised he was that people in publishing actually want to love your book and that the slowness of the whole process is understandable.
Essays are a dead form, says author David Hughes. “But today we no longer have access to the state of mind in which such useless but diverting conceptions appear in the unanchored intelligence [another nice phrase]. Our conceptions must be vast or hasty or topical; to ride the storm of the uneasy mind we are in, an idea must be sensational, it must walk on the water or fly faster than sound. A poet manqué does not write essays: he joins the staff of an advertising agency, where one word is an expensive item, or he talks about the films he is going to make.”
Patrick Kurp spells out the joys and perils of Hughes' opinion on essays in today's post. "Good essays," he says, "even the most impersonal, are suffused with the essayist’s sensibility. No one else could have written them."
Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic and Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, writes about the thrills and spills of being a digital bestseller.
I finished writing in late January, just as the State Department prepared to issue a much anticipated report on the Keystone XL. If I were writing for a traditional publisher, I’d have to wait months to see my work in print. This time, I’d be read within days, right on top of the news!And there's more.
Exhausted but exhilarated, I headed to the liquor store for a celebratory bottle and returned to an urgent call from my editor in Sydney. “Mate, we’re [bleeped],” she said. The Global Mail’s backer had had a bad financial setback at his firm and evidently decided he could no longer afford a folly like quality journalism. He’d abruptly pulled the plug just hours before I filed my copy, making The Global Mail a dead letter.
Worse still, for me, Byliner hadn’t yet inked its deal with the Aussies. Suddenly I had no platform for a very long story on a subject that was about to be all over the news. And I’d yet to be paid anything beyond my original travel budget (which I’d overrun, in any case).
At this point I called my literary agent, whom I’d foolishly failed to involve in the project. (Another fantasy of the digital world: Writers can do it themselves and dispense with all those middlemen.)
39 Things to Remember While Struggling to Build Your Writing Career by Kimberly Grabas.
Some good thoughts here, not about incomplete sentences, but stuff like failure, personal manifestos, practice, and simply doing it. "Writing is supposed to be hard work." Yeah. It's not hard work like pulling weeds either. It's hard work like speaking the truth in love when you'd rather throw snark from the corner.
The Writer by petebritney on deviantART
Patrick Kurp talks about writing and discusses the diary of WWI veteran: "The 'ideal reader' is a phantom. The writer who says he writes exclusively to please himself is a solipsist, and one who writes exclusively to please others is a whore. Neither is worth reading. I won’t pander just to pack the house, nor will I resort to fashionable chatter."
Thus spake Mark Bertrand:
"Things that don’t matter don’t keep getting done. Things that do become second nature. The key to any discipline, I suppose, is figuring how to make it matter."
So if we want to be writers, we must decide writing is what we actually want to do. And whatever work that must go around the writing too must matter--the research, the market opportunities, and the spiritual nurturing that keeps us closer the Lover of our souls.
"Writers already lead uncomfortably quantified lives, measuring our worth in the number of words written today, in the number of books in print and how well they’ve sold. All of these metrics speak to one kind of quality –– my quality of life –– without addressing another, the quality of my work. The best written books aren’t always the bestselling..."
Far more than any philosophical writing, Bertrand says reading novels exposes and explores him in unexpected ways. "In novels I face up to things I never seem to in other kinds of writing."
Lifehacker has a list of apps it believes have the chops to help you score no matter what cliché you're throwing their way. Looking for something free of the usual on-screen distractions? Something to help you edit or write a screenplay? They've got it.
- Previous edited stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald are being released without the content edits. "Before these stories were bowdlerised, they contained antisemitic slurs, sexual innuendo, instances of drug use and drunkenness. They also contained profanity and mild blasphemy. The texts were scrubbed clean at the Post," James West, general editor of the Cambridge edition of Fitzgerald's work, said. He believes the stories make more sense without the tempered language. "One of the commonplaces of Fitzgerald criticism, for decades, has been that he avoided unpleasant topics and realistic language in his magazine fiction. We can see now that this was not altogether his choice."
- If Eskimos have 50 words for snow and 70 words for ice, do they experience these things more richly than the rest of us? Do their words shape their world? John H. McWhorter says not quite. We can think about concepts for which we have no words, and our world isn't really shaped by our use of language. "...language has only a minor effect on cognition and no effect on a person’s view of the world—that is, in this case, how humans understand time, causality, color, space, and so forth." Reports about studies that supposedly show the opposing view are exaggerated.
- Crossway Books is throwing a sale in celebration of Crazy Busy winning Book of the Year.
- The only measure of a writer is that you want to remember his words.
Do literary writers find readers and make money in digital publishing? Not yet. Porter Anderson writes:
Literary fiction, by contrast, has no content guidelines, makes no promise of one topic or another, varies vastly in style and form. Not surprisingly, then, it’s perennially difficult to define without a fight. Claims of serious intent and/or artistic achievement may be asserted by fans of literary fiction. Its detractors love to charge that it focuses on language over plot; “navel gazing” poetics over entertainment; precious reflection over storytelling.But Jane Friedman says you can see some successful writing if you look beyond the book length form. She says, "Thoughtful, intelligent 'literary' work is doing quite well digitally if you step away from book-length or novel publishing and into journalism-driven or nonfiction-driven publishing. Most of the following outlets and platforms include some fiction, too, just not a lot." These platforms include: Byliner, Atavist, Medium/Matter, Symbolia, The Magazine, Storybird, and Hi.
In general, she says, people don't want to read short stories or poems on no-name sites like Brandywine Books. Big name sites, like The Poetry Foundation, get readers, but not others. I think the field may still be in flux as more readers read everything onscreen. I also think literary writers should reflect on the poverty of our recent literary traditions and develop a new perspective based more on Shakespeare and Milton than on Freud and Beckett.
Indie Authors Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant have obtained funding for a live writing exposition through their podcast. "'Fiction Unboxed' is a publishing experiment. Platt and Truant are full-time authors, determined to prove with their Kickstarter project that well-told stories can bloom from excitement and inspiration, rather than from a 'true artist's' tortured soul."
They are doing this, naturally, by torturing themselves for a month.
Apropos of nothing, here's an audio skit.
Indie Authors Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant have obtained funding for a live writing exposition. "'Fiction Unboxed' is a publishing experiment. Platt and Truant are full-time authors, determined to prove with their Kickstarter project that well-told stories can bloom from excitement and inspiration, rather than from a "true artist's" tortured soul."
Barnabas Piper tells us to stop writing about writing, because we don't really have anything to say.
"When Stephen King writes a book about writing I read it cover to cover and then start over. And it is marvelous. When a thirty-something, barely published, Internet composer of public journal entries does so, it’s uppity."
Yeah. Sorry about that.
In his new book, Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, talks about how to keep a creative team running. He says he noticed many creative companies, even Disney, dying off a bit at some point. They couldn't keep their creativity going. Catmull wanted to know the reason and whether it could be avoided. Now, with co-writer Amy Wallace, he has given us his conclusions.
"If you're doing something new, you will make mistakes," he says. "In fact, if you're not making mistakes, you're probably just copying other things. The way you avoid mistakes is to be super safe. Well, we can't be safe. That means somebody will make mistakes, and we have to say let's learn from it."
He says he learned from Disney the technique of putting your storyboard on video to see it works the way you think it will. And it never does at first. In fact, the original storyboarded video isn't good at all, but artists and writers lose their objectivity at that point and fail to see the problems. Catmull tries to work through the problems with an atmosphere that builds everyone up and allows them to take risks in pursuit of a stronger story.
You can read an excerpt from Catmull and Wallace's book through NoiseTrade and your eReader before you buy.
Let me write about myself for a minute. For the past several months, I've been pursuing a new line of work and I spent part of that time wondering what that line should be. I'm still looking for work in various ways, but my main thrust this year will be freelance writing and editing.
I am bidding on projects through Elance.com and Writer.ly (some interesting stuff on these site). I haven't gotten to other freelance venues yet, and I like the testing options available through Elance. They verify your skills to a degree. If you have work that could be hired out, you can post a job with Elance and invite me to bid on it. Naturally, I would do my best writing ever, and the project would be more profitable than your wildest dreams, and we would sing each other's praises for months. The regulars at the pub would love us for at least a day. Maybe two! Feel free to look at my Writer.ly profile too. It's still in beta mode, but some people are finding work there.
I am happy to have made new connections with a couple editing services. There are two other organizations who have me on their writing roster also. Of course, there's LinkedIn for general networking. With all of these connections, I am not at all busy. I'd like to try being busy, for a change of pace.
I started this blog in 2004. Lars joined me several months later. Since we're an established lit-blog, we are asked to review various independent books. Every time I agree to receive a book for review, I hope to love it. I usually don't, and I wish I could reply with an offer to edit this already published book. It would be rude to make such an offer, but the need bleeds upon the page. Through these new services, perhaps I can field editing requests from authors who have a good story and need help making it great.
Aaron Armstrong talks about the word heresy and how a popular author is probably misusing it. Heresy is a serious matter. To use the word to mean rebel, outsider, or maverick doesn't help when we have to talk about actual heresy.
Several days ago, Nick Harrison listed five points of writing advice he labeled heresy. Ok, he didn't, but he did not like them. Now he offers five things he likes. For example, he says, "If you write fiction, please remember that you’re not just telling a story or passing along information. Your goal is to emotionally move your reader."
For more writing fun, Chip Macgregor describes several things editors love (by which I mean hate) when they read a manuscript. Multiple fonts? Excess commas? Great stuff. Also this: 'For some reason, Number-Impaired People will make an outline that reads, “First,” followed by “Two,” then “C,” and then “4.” (Or, occasionally, “13.”)'
Editor Nick Harrison talks about the writing advice he dislikes, such as writing what you know and never using passive voice.
“Write even if you know you’ll never be published.” Apparently the idea is that a writer writes because he has to (which I agree with) and that writing is somehow its own reward (which I disagree with). I don’t know about you, but I’m writing to be published. I’m glad I don’t know whether or not I will have more books published in the future because if I knew my writing would never see the light of day, I’d probably be tempted to quit.
Pastor Anthony Carter, who has written a very good book on Christ's work on the cross called Blood Work, talks about pastors wanting to write. He says it's natural, because they already write for their churches, but a book a little different.
"If you write for national attention," he says "you are writing for the wrong reasons. I would encourage any pastor to remember and take to heart this sobering reality: Most people won't even know that you have published a book, and the rest won't care."
Nick Harrison offers these wonderful quotes and testimonies to discourage the writer in your family. Rejection. Loneliness. Struggle.
My favorite Christmas gift this year may have come from a total stranger. Digital artist Jeremiah Humphries produced the above drawing of Erling Skjalgsson, apparently, on a whim.
I like the use of light to suggest the hearth fire in the hall.
These are the moments that suggest to a writer that he hasn't entirely wasted his time.
For more information on Mr. Humphries' art, check out his blog.
Author and pastor Doug Wilson has a lengthy post big-named Christians, ghostwriting, and plagiarism. He's had to deal with plagiarism accusations in the past and he describes some of them:
One of my first books was one called Persuasions. In that book I have a character compare monogamy to buying a musical instrument and learning to play it, which is not like buying a record album and being stuck with listening to just one album over and over again. Years later I had a friend tell me he was disappointed that I had used C.S. Lewis’s analogy when he thought I was fully capable of coming up with my own. But I had no idea I was borrowing from Lewis. I am sure I got it from Lewis, and had used it in many witnessing conversations, and then when I wrote a book of witnessing encounters, in it went.This reminds me of some devotional emails I used to write. One man praised my writing highly twice, both times after I had simply forwarded a portion of a Puritan prayer printed in The Valley of Vision. I thanked him, but wondered if he thought what I had just sent out was mine. I'm still not sure.
Other times I use something consciously. I conclude my weekly homily at the Lord’s Table with a phrase I got from John Bunyan — “come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ.” Should I feel bad about not saying, every week, “as Bunyan once said . . .”? But I don’t feel bad.
Author and pastor Tim Keller talks about writing as a pastor, recommending young pastors to give all of their time to their ministry and plan to write later. They can write short pieces now, if they feel compelled to write, but he suggests they wait for greater maturity before they tackle whole books. He also recommends reading:
That is far and away the most important discipline. You must read widely in general for years before you become capable of recognizing good writing. And then before you write a book on a subject, you should read 20 or 30 good books on the subject carefully and skim another 20 or 30. If you just read three or four (and refer to another three or four), your book will be largely a rehash and will offer few fresh insights.
Emma Coats, formerly a storyboard artist with Pixar, has taught storytelling for a few years, I gather. Her 22 principles of storytelling have been on the Interwebs for a while, but I don't believe I've linked to them here. They are very good.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.For a different perspective, award-winning author Paul Harding has a few ideas of what makes fiction work. "Fiction is about immanence. We are beings who experience our selves in time and space, through our senses. Fiction persuades its readers that they are reading something artful by immersing them as fully as possible in the senses and perceptions, the thoughts and actions of fictional lives."
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
Author Barnabas Piper also chips in his two sense, saying it's the boring parts that make the whole story work. "World-class novels are not composed of email responses and traffic jams and grocery shopping. But without such things the characters would never get where they needed to go and be who they need to be."
Kevin DeYoung talks about a pastor's responsibilities and possible conflicts with writing books and articles. Among other good thoughts, he says, "I’m glad I read Martyn Lloyd-Jones before I ever wrote a book because I can hear the Doctor in the back of my head saying, 'The pastor is first of all a preacher and not a writer.' There is nothing wrong with being a writer first, but that’s simply not the calling of a pastor."
He notes what a wonderful privilege it is for people to read anything you've written, which is a good reason for a writer to get over himself.
On a related note, Miles Mullin writes about contemporary tribalism among evangelicals. "This is the troubling reality of the personality-based leadership that encompasses much of American evangelicalism. Often, charisma and dynamic communication skills trump character and integrity as popular appeal wins the day," he observes. Like fans of sports teams who argue over purely subjective judgements, fans of preachers and writers defend their leaders against any accusation, sometimes even against obvious sins.
People have often suggested a popular Christian fantasy author is the next C.S. Lewis. I don't think that's an appropriate question. Few people strikes us as the same as another person only better, so why should we look for a living author to replace a dead one? That would make the dead one mostly obsolete, wouldn't it?
Steve Harrell doesn't think so. He says we need a new Lewis. "When we try to insert Lewis' cultural observations into our culture today," he writes, "we become like Indiana Jones—still fighting the Nazis through the 1980s. The Modernist war between reason and theology is over.... We live in a postmodern, post-secular age that doesn’t respond well to the intellectual arm-twisting and large-scale historical criticism that Lewis excelled at."
Joel Miller argues Harrell is missing the point. "A vibrant intellectual life includes thoughts that span millennia. They’re not so foreign as some insist, and their differences might just keep us from going off the rails."
Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, notes Lewis's blessing to us is "in what you might call pastoral theology: as an interpreter of people's moral and spiritual crises; as somebody who is a brilliant diagnostician of self-deception; and somebody who, in his own book on bereavement after his wife's death, really pushes the envelope – giving permission, I suppose, to people to articulate their anger and resentment about a God who apparently takes your loved ones away from you."
In related a post, Jeremy Lott notes the angst many have had over Susan's absence from The Last Battle. Many readers think Lewis condemns her life choices by appearing to keep her out of Narnia when everything comes falling down, but Lott quotes from Lewis' letters to show that the author simply believed Susan's story was longer and more adult than the one he wanted to tell. "Why not try it yourself?" Lewis asked a reader, to which Lott replies, "Who has tried to tell Susan's story?" He hopes someone will attempt to pick up the life of Susan Pevensie and finish at least part of her story.
Image: C.S. Lewis by ~free-slave on deviantART