This won’t be a regular blog, but sometimes, as writer, reader, or editor, I’m struck by a question, insight, or idea I think others might like or find useful. I’ll also toss in some articles and book reviews.
Steven Pinker’s book on Writing
Steven Pinker is a linguist and cognitive scientist who has written a number of erudite books on a wide range of topics. His latest, The Sense of Style, is about writing. I recommend it. Here’s a link to my review of it on goodreads.com.
Volunteer to Teach Writing
A writer's outlook on a piece a student is working on is likely to be quite different from a teacher's. Helping a kid figure out what he or she is really trying to say and how to best say it isn't the same as teaching standard essay technique and format. Help a kid learn to write better. You may even learn something new about your own writing. Many schools and other organizations have such programs. Here is a blog from a PEN program I'm involved in.
Tips for Writing Memoir
Will Boast, a successful memoirist, offers some very good advice in his recent piece in Publisher's Weekly. Here's the link.
Book Reviews: What Are They Good For?
They are very good for something. But they’re rarely used for that purpose in big, mainstream media. A review of the latest book by a big-selling author proves the newspaper, magazine, or whatever outlet is on top of the literary scene, the reviewer gets to look smart, at least for a while, and people have something else to talk about at cocktail and dinner parties. It’s nice for famous authors and their books to get free advertising, but they don’t need it. Fans of the writer will read the book anyway, those who aren’t, won’t, and the undecided can Google it. But how do we find out about the amazing books by unsung authors that don’t have a corporate machine pushing them into the public eye? We all know that commercial success doesn’t equate to literary quality, however we define it. In an industry already dominated by profit motive and anxiety about the future, reviewing mostly well-known authors only adds to the trend away from discovering the new and wonderful, and toward relying on the reassuringly familiar. This might be good for business, but it’s bad for literature. Reviewers do have a vital function: to find terrific books very few people have heard of, and tell their readers about them. Their highest calling is to discover new talent and bring it to the world at large. As an independent book editor, I have seen, among many ho-hum manuscripts and a number of solid mainstream and genre contenders, a few beautiful, brilliantly original, and valuable works that often defied pigeonholing. Agent and publisher rejections mostly cited, in encouragingly polite, regretful, or even apologetic terms, worries about commerciality. Some of these works found a home with a small press, and others dove into the self-publishing tsunami. Despite their authors’ efforts, those of their publishers, and rave reviews in smaller publications and literary blogs, none were mentioned by any widely read reviewer. There are exceptions of course: some small press and self-pubbed books get reviewed in major media, and others do well without it. But that’s the point—they are rare exceptions, and shouldn’t be. Can we expect reviewers to plow their way through tons of mediocre or worse books to find the rare gem? They don’t have to. Any agent, editor, or reviewer knows that you can tell within five pages whether a book has promise, and within 25 if it stands a chance of living up to it. If it quickly reveals itself as a dud, a reviewer can stop reading and look elsewhere, for there’s little point in writing a review that tells us why an unknown book should stay that way. As well, friends and colleagues constantly bombard reviewers about unknown books they loved, and reviewers know whose opinions to pay attention to. One of the main problems facing reviewers who would like to look for hidden masterpieces is pressure from their editors. Most media live by their advertising, and publishers buy ads in book-review venues. I’m not saying advertisers twist media arms for good reviews, but they do expect the newspaper (or magazine or website) that sells them ad space to review their major releases. In big media, usually only the big houses can afford the big ads, and it’s their biggest authors, along with newcomers being groomed for superstardom, who get the big attention. Reviewers are left with little time to unearth hidden treasures or the space to review them. Publishers and agents take a significant financial risk if they follow their hearts to back a mesmerizing long shot. But that’s not true, at least to anywhere near the same degree, for reviewers and their publications, because many of their readers love to hear about uniquely beguiling books. For the sake of literature and its future, literary publications and sites should probably devote at least half their reviews to beautiful and revelatory books we might otherwise never hear of. The reviews don’t have to be long, just a brief description of the work and why it’s so good. Assistants, interns, and apprentice reviewers could be sent on exploratory expeditions, and the outlets might even solicit guest reviews. How could we possibly persuade reviewers and their editors to widen their coverage and go halfsies? We might start by asking them to. Mirror this blog on your pages, tweet it around. Talk up the thrill of discovery, the pioneer spirit, and the gumption to buck trends and reveal the new. These can only make for better books and better readers.
Interview with Peter Gelfan at Savvy Authors
This interview, by award-winning novelist Dora Machado, touches on both writing and editing. Dora is author of the Stonewiser series and The Curse Giver. Read the interview here.
PEN America Party
Last night we were at the PEN America annual bash for new members and new books, which is really just a big cocktail party mercifully without speeches. We talked to a number of people, one of them being a guy about our age, Jeffrey Escoffier. I of course had to ask him if he wrote cookbooks. No. He writes nonfiction about sexuality, so he was kind of interested in Found Objects. I asked him what, in all his years of studying sex, he had learned to be unequivocally true. He came right back with what he said was the only immutable rule about sex he's ever found. Escoffier's Law: One lover is never enough, two is always too many.
Fiction readers are very demanding creatures. They want their made-up stories to be as close to truth as possible—sort of like vegetarian meat. If they have to pick between two gritty detective novels, one by an ex-cop and the other by an MFA who has always lived in the nice part of town, you know which one most of them will carry to the cashier. Other than for pedigree patinas like book-jacket bios and publicity profiles, the main way readers judge the authenticity of an author, and therefore of a novel, is by his or her voice. Ernest Hemingway serves as a good example. He’s generally regarded as “the real thing,” a man’s man who went to war, hunted big game, hung out in between-the-wars Paris with literary legends, had big tragic love affairs, went fishing with Fidel Castro, and exited this world on his own terms. But his voice doesn’t depend on his bio. It permeates his writing. I recently edited Book of Hours by J. S. Anderson. I did not know the author, his background, or what led him to write the novel. (Nor do I ask when I start to edit a novel, because I want a clean read of the story itself with no more information than readers will have.) By the time I was a few chapters into the book, I was convinced that the author had been a cloistered monk whose monastic duties included restoring the illuminations of antique manuscripts—just like his protagonist. This is what I mean by an authentic voice. Even if readers know nothing of the author’s background, they feel they’re listening to someone who knows what he’s talking about, and that even if the story is fiction, it’s true to life. Human beings, both individually and culturally, have a huge advantage over most or all other species in that not only can we learn from our own experiences and by watching those of others, we can also learn from others’ experiences without having to witness them. We remember vicarious experience as stories. According to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel-Prizewinning author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, “This is how the remembering self works: it composes stories and keeps them for future reference.” We gobble up stories not just for entertainment but to increase our store of useful experience without having to risk our lives to acquire it. Hence we look for authenticity of experience even in fiction—we want our storytellers to be the real thing. How does a writer forge an authentic voice? It’s a daunting subject. Some successful authors give encouragement along the lines of “After you’ve published your third or fourth novel, you begin to find your voice”—a big help for someone trying to get their first into print. “Write what you know” is a well-worn piece of advice but certainly limiting. What if you want to write that detective novel but aren’t an ex-cop? Watching endless episodes of “CSI” and “Law and Order” will probably result in a novel that reads like a rerun. Googling “writing voice” is like searching a flea market for a true gem. So I compared Hemingway’s writing with that of my as yet relatively unknown client J. S. Anderson. Their styles, subject matter, and sensibilities are very different, yet both had strong voices—so what are the similarities of execution? We have probably all read novels that give detailed descriptions of towns, buildings, cars, or weapons. “Jake Snade tucked the Smith & Wesson 460XVR into his attaché case. The pistol weighed 82.5 ounces unloaded, and with a 10.5” barrel with an adjustable rear sight, it boasted the highest muzzle velocity of any production revolver on earth at 2330 feet per second. For what he had in mind, he would only need one or two of the five .460 magnum rounds impatiently waiting in the cylinder.” The writer has done some homework, and it sounds better than “Jake grabbed his really big gun and stuck it in his briefcase,” but does it add up to an authentic voice? Contrast it with a passage from For Whom the Bell Tolls:
He reached over for the submachine gun, took the clip out that was in the magazine, felt in his pocket for clips, opened the action and looked through the barrel, put the clip back into the groove of the magazine until it clicked, and then looked down the hill slope. Maybe half an hour, he thought. Now take it easy.
Then he looked at the hillside and he looked at the pines and he tried not to think at all.For me, that click brings the description of the gun into the realm of authentic experience. Even more convincing are Robert Jordan’s thoughts and feelings about what he’s about to do with the gun. Hemingway doesn’t fondle the equipment. He’s more concerned with his characters. From Anderson’s novel:
Alphaios would himself be using quills in addition to his brushes. He knew quills were slightly curved, and that those used with comfort by right-handed scribes came from the left wings of the birds. Left-handed scribes were not unknown, but rare.
He agreed with this approach. Although modern pens could be more precise, the authenticity required of this manuscript demanded the use of quills. That, in turn, meant finding or mixing their own ink; modern ink was too thin for quills.Like Hemingway, Anderson doesn’t dwell on the tools of the trade but concentrates on his protagonist’s intent and how he plans meticulously to achieve it. Authenticity seems to have more to do with the characters’ involvement in the setting and props than with the author’s factual knowledge of them. This in itself is true to life, for a person who intimately knows, say, a town or a tool doesn’t inventory its features to himself but focuses on the immediately relevant ones and what he plans to do with them. You may well have to do a lot of research and talk to plenty of people who have lived your characters’ lives—you’re very unlikely to get away with faking your milieu. But you can guide your research by being very specific. The question isn’t so much how a cop would track a serial killer as it is how your cop would track down your serial killer, and what’s at stake personally for both of them. When you run up against a point of fact, research that fact. Authentic characters are the heart of authenticity. They can even make fantasy and sci-fi come across as authentic: readers believe the characters and so buy into the rest. If you can truly inhabit your protagonist and other main characters, authenticity stems from how they deal with the setting you have dropped them into and the plot you’ve thrown at them.
For any writer feeling rejected
For a look at rejection letters from the point of view of an acquisitions editor who has to write them, here's Jeff Shotts's blog.