Posts Tagged writing

“I Couldn’t Put It Down”

Have you ever read a book you liked so much you said to yourself (or to someone else), “I just couldn’t put it down”?  You meant, of course, that you liked the book so much you kept reading even though you had other things to do, but couldn’t tear yourself away.  I’ve read a few books like that, though most books I’ve read were of the “I can put this book down and get on with my life any time” type.  Right now I’m reading a book that, at the very least, approaches that “couldn’t put it down” status, if it doesn’t stand squarely within it.  The book is Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”  It was first published in 1986, but has gained some attention in the past few months because the repressive ultra-conservative society it portrays has struck some people as similar to the path our conservative government has begun to take us down.  Whether that’s true or not, I leave to history to decide.

This blog post is not intended to be a review of the book, but rather a brief examination of the factors that contribute to the “couldn’t put it down” concept.  What makes a book so good you enjoy reading it so much you’d rather read it than do something else?  Many books I’ve read—in fact most—I could put down at almost any time, but “The Handmaid’s Tale” is too exciting to do that.  The last book(s) that took my attention into the story to that degree were Connie Willis’s dual set about the Battle of Britain, “Blackout” and “All Clear,” even though I’ve read a number of other books in the meantime.  Why should this be?

I think several things have to come together to contribute to a book to that extent.  First, the writing.  The writing has to be above reproach; smooth and free of points that take you away from the story.  As you read, you’re immersed in the story, and nothing comes along that is unclear, unreadable, or varies from the author’s style.  The English grammar is fundamentally impeccable.  Actually, Ms. Atwood uses an inordinate number of commas, many in positions I wouldn’t, but that hasn’t seemed to bother me.  Very early on I began to overlook them and haven’t looked back.  The writing still flows in spite of them.

Second, the subject matter has to interest the reader, and more than to just a small degree.  As I mentioned, our political climate today has induced some people to make comparisons between the book and the present government.  I’m not sure I agree with them to the extreme extent they’re willing to go, but I can see their point.  As a result, the book has aroused my attention and I want to see what all the fuss is about.  I’m interested and want to know more.  That’s the same reason I liked Connie Willis’s books; I have a great interest in World War II, and I enjoyed reading her take on it.

Third, I believe there is the undefinable.  Everything “comes together” in these books.  The writing, the subject, the author’s style—they all meld together to produce a book that for a few people becomes fascinating to the point of delight or enchantment.  That’s good, but that’s not something that can be quantified or dissected.  That situation is precisely what a writer wants to achieve.  Really.  I just hope my books reach that point for a few people.

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So You Want To Be A Writer

Not long ago I happened to overhear someone say they like to write, and were starting to write short stories.  They didn’t ask me this question specifically, but I began to wonder, what would I say if someone asked me, “How do I go about becoming a writer and get published?”  It helps, of course, to have a modicum of talent, but barring that, what should a newbie do to start a writing career?  I’m assuming you want to go all the way and get published somewhere, but even if you only want to write for yourself and never show it to others, what can you do?  Here are a few suggestions I have to readers of this blog as to how to start.  Take or reject any or all.

  1. Start writing.  Just sit down and start.  Whether you write on a computer, on a legal pad, on a typewriter, or on a mirror with the blood of a vampire, it doesn’t matter how good it is, just get it down.  You can revise it later when you’ve learned more about the craft.  Put your ideas down before you forget them.  Make notes to yourself.  If you’re doing a family history, get Uncle Joe’s reminiscences down before he croaks.
  2. Read writing magazines.  There are several good writing magazines out there.  I have subscriptions to Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and Poet’s and Writers, but several others exist and you shouldn’t be limited to these.  Writing magazines such as these are the most concentrated form of information about the art and craft of writing you can get.  I started with a subscription to my first one almost as soon as I started writing.
  3. Read books and stories in your genre.  But, and this is very important, read outside your genre.  If you want to write prose, read poetry.  And then decide you will write prose in as lyrical style you can, influenced by the poetry you read.
  4. Read books on writing.  A hugely popular book is William Strunk, Jr., and E.B White’s The Elements of Style.  And it won’t break your budget to get a copy.  But there are others, such as Stephen King’s book On Writing, Donald Maass’s books, in particular, Writing the Breakout Novel, and Writing 21st Century Fiction, or Oakley Hall’s How Fiction Works.  But don’t be limited to these.  Check online and check your library.
  5. Join a critique group.  Find a group that either accepts all forms of writing, or at least is limited to your favorite genre.  Submit your work to the others in the group and listen to what they say.  But also, read and critique the others.  This gives you experience in looking for what works and what doesn’t in a manuscript.  Some critique groups are online.  Check out Lit Reactor.
  6. Join a writing group.  Preferably one that has regular meetings.  If they have a guest speaker, listen to what the speaker has to say.  Some groups have open mic nights where you can read, and sometimes get feedback.  Go.  Listen.  Enjoy.
  7. Start attending writer’s conventions.  You can find these listed in many magazines.  Look for one in your area.  Or look for one that specializes in your genre.  There will be an expense involved, but it may be tax deductible.  There will be speakers who will have a lot of good info in what you are interested in, and there will be speakers who don’t have much to say to you.  Listen to all.
  8. Get an MFA in creative writing.  This may take several years, but many universities have low-residency programs where you only have to be on campus for a short time each year.  But they are intense, and you will learn a lot.  Plus, you get those letters after your name.
  9. Round up beta readers.  You are the alpha reader of your work.  But you will eventually need someone to read your entire manuscript and give you feedback.  This is someone you trust to be objective, yet ruthless.  No one in your family is that person.  You will want someone at a distance, yet someone you know and trust.  You may even find someone online.
  10. Read other writer’s manuscripts.  In other words, be a beta reader for some other beginning writer.
  11. Start a list of where you’d like to submit your manuscripts.  Usually in your genre, although you might be submitting to a magazine that publishes works of many genres.  Do you like dogs?  Submit to the dog magazines.  Poetry?  Many literary journals take poetry.  You can find lists of magazines (there are thousands out there) in the backs of writing magazines, and in reference books.  Check your bookstore or library.
  12. If you have completed a manuscript, start looking for agents or publishers.  Start this list even before the manuscript is complete and thoroughly revised and edited.  Again, writing magazines have lists of these, and reference books abound with lists of agents and publishers and what they’re looking for.  Try online too.  Check each agent or publisher’s website for what they want.
  13. If you prefer, start looking into self-publishing.  You can publish your own book, and not be bothered by agents and publishers.  But beware, you’ll want to have your book edited by an independent editor, and a good cover designed by an independent artist.  Remember, you’re taking on the job of publisher yourself, and, let’s face it, you, as a beginner, aren’t a good editor or publisher.  Get others to help you.
  14. Talk to other writers.  Network to get the inside scoop.  Tips and suggestions that no one else talks about.
  15. Set up a website or a blogsite to advertise your book.  Start thinking about this even before your book is published.
  16. Visit the library.  ‘Nuf said.
  17. Don’t quit your day job.

Stop reading this and start writing.

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Some Of The Older Books

In this Christmas season, I decided to look back at some of the books I’ve purchased or been given over the years.  Of all the books I have, two stand out as being almost unique.  Back in 1955, my grandfather gave me two books which I’ve kept longer than any others I own.  I still use them and refer to them occasionally.  Neither are books that tell any type of story; they’d be considered reference books if they had to be catalogued.  But I still have them.

The first is the Rand McNally Standard World Atlas of 1955.  Or, in Roman numerals, MCMLV.  Atlases have always been important books, for everybody, especially for authors.  It helps to know a little about the place you’re setting your story, and an atlas is a good starting point.  But the main reason I’ve kept this book is not just its maps and descriptions of places (it has a large section called “Places of Interest in the United States” with pictures and descriptions of various sites in the USA) but because it has railroads on most of the maps, rather than the roads found on maps today.  On the maps of the US and Canada, the railroads are identified.  Since I’ve been fascinated by railroads for a long time, and have done some model railroading, I’ve kept this atlas largely because of those railroads.

The second is a picture book called Wild Animals Of The World.  It has portraits of most of the wild animals we’re familiar with, either from seeing them in zoos or in the wild, and even some we’re not familiar with.  The portraits were painted by Mary Baker, and the text was written by William Bridges of (at the time) the New York Zoological Park.  It also has an introduction by Roy Chapman Andrews.  Each animal is represented on one page with its portrait at the top and text below.  From my point of view, what’s interesting about the book is its timelessness.  The portraits are exceedingly well done and accurate, and the information in the text has held up all these years.  I go back to it now and then, partly to refresh my memory about certain animals, and partly to look up new ones.

Both books have held up reasonably well over the years, though the atlas is worse for wear.  The spine has fallen off, and the two covers are entirely separate pieces (I know, I should have it rebound), but I still use it.  But what is most interesting about these two books is the fact that I’ve kept them for so long.  And that reveals the vital importance of books: if you give a book as a present, you never know how long it’ll last.  The oddest book may be the one most cherished by its owner.  Books are the repository of all knowledge, and you don’t need a battery to turn them on.  Neither is great book, in the manner of, say, a Dickens novel or a compilation of Longfellow poetry.  They’re just regular books that happened to appeal to someone well beyond what might reasonably be expected.  I doubt that my grandfather had any idea I’d keep these books this long (61 years and counting).

Give books for Christmas (or for any other reason).

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A Slight Disagreement

I’ve been trying to get a science fiction novel published for over fifteen years now, and during that time I’ve learned a lot about the art and craft of writing.  I’ve read magazines and books, both about writing and in my chosen genre, I’ve attended meetings and conventions, I’ve heard speaker after speaker both at meetings and in private, I’ve been a member of several critique groups, and a lot of stuff has been thrown at me over the years, all about writing in general, and novels in particular.  In this post, I would like to comment on three admonitions that have been handed down from tutor to pupil almost without comment for many years.  I feel they’re a little off the mark, and I think writers will adhere to them at their peril.  For example:

  1.  They say: Do not let anything interrupt you from your writing.  Writing should be the most important thing in your life.  Shut out all else and make writing the most important focus in your life.  This is dead wrong.  The most important focus in your life should be your health, not your writing.  Don’t let your writing interfere with staying healthy.  Get out and exercise.  Go walking.  Lift weights.  Swim.  Jog on a treadmill.  Watch what you eat.  Keep your weight down.  Keep your blood sugar and blood pressure down.  In short, keep your health in the best possible condition.  It won’t do you any good if you have a heart attack at age 40 because you’ve been sedentary and you sat for long hours in front of a computer screen writing Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning novels.  It’s hard to write from a hospital bed under sedation.  Instead of worrying about how you could be writing while you’re exercising, you should be worrying about what you could do to exercise while you sit in front of that damn computer.  Being sedentary is hazardous to your health.
  2. Keep track of your word count while you write.  Put your daily word count on Facebook and proclaim it proudly to the world.  Okay, this isn’t a bad idea, though I don’t know about the Facebook thing, but my disagreement with this admonition stems from the fact that word counts are useful only when writing the first draft.  Like you may have done on NaNoWriMo.  How many words did you write every day?  But once you finish that first draft, you have to revise.  And revise again.  And again.  And so forth.  Word counts don’t apply very well to revisions, but I’ve heard of authors who maintain they write a certain number of words every day.  Without fail.  That may be true, but when do they revise?  Are there authors who are working on a new draft all the time?  My feeling is, don’t worry about the word count once you get to the revision stage.  Concentrate on making the book the best you can.  Your final word count is the most important.
    I’ve heard some writers say they write a certain number of words everyday.  Usually around 1000.  If so, that means they put down 365,000 words a year.  That’s three to four novels, but only the first drafts.  When do they revise?
  3. Write everyday.  Fine, if you want to do this, I’m all for it.  My feeling is that it’s not that important.  However, like any skill, constant repetition will help to make it better, and a daily writing habit is a good idea.  Write in a journal.  Write for 5 minutes a day.  Ten minutes.  Work on revising your latest work.  But don’t turn depressed and suicidal if you miss a day.  If you play a musical instrument, you may have been told the same thing: practice every day.  It’s the same idea.  The great pianist Artur Rubenstein is reported to have once said, “If I don’t practice for one day, I can tell.  If I don’t practice for two days, my wife can tell.  If I don’t practice for three days, everybody can tell.”  Perhaps that’s enough said.

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Learning To Write By The Big Guys

Have you seen the ads, on Facebook but elsewhere too, where some of the best known names in writing say they will teach you to write?  In some cases they even say they will teach you to write like them?  Most of those “lessons” or “studies” are probably real.  In most cases these are not bogus or scams, and I suspect they are legitimate, and in all probability they really will teach you how to write, but you should think twice before you sign up.  There’s a fallacy in that advertising.

I’ve blogged on this topic before, but I believe it bears repeating.  A big-name author who’s sold lots of books can certainly teach you how to write.  Of that there’s no doubt.  The real problem with these courses that promise that you will be able to write like the famous author, is that no one, not even the most famous author in the world, can teach you to write exactly like him or her.

These ads always remind me of an episode of “Seinfeld,” where Jerry, who has to take a lie detector test, asks his friend George, an extremely duplicitous person whose life revolves around something like twenty different lies, to teach him how to lie.  “I can’t do it, Jerry,” George says.  “It would be like asking Pavarotti to teach you how to sing like him.”

Oddly enough, the dissembling George has a good point.  No matter how well you can sing, neither Pavarotti nor any other music teacher will be able to teach you to sing as well as he does.  The amount of talent you have is unimportant.  Pavarotti is Pavarotti, and you are you.  (Considering that Pavarotti passed away in 2007, before that episode of Seinfeld was made, he won’t be teaching you anything anyway.)

Writing is the same.  Or similar anyway.  A big name in literary circles can teach you the basics, and can even teach you many of his/her “tricks of the trade.”  And you might be able to take away from his/her course a wealth of knowledge about writing, and even eventually write best-sellers and win prizes galore.  But you will never write “like him/her.”  You are you, and don’t you forget it.  The placing of words on a piece of paper or a computer screen is a highly personal and unique matter.  It is that sequence of words that individualizes a writer.  You will never put down the same sequence of words that a famous writer would do under the same circumstances.  It makes the difference between, say, Hemingway and Proust.

Even if you wanted to, you shouldn’t write like someone else.  Nor should you even try.  Stick with your own style.  Do your own thing.  Learn the basics and even learn the advanced stuff in writing, but keep to yourself.  You’ll be doing yourself and us a favor.

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Sending Stuff Out

I just sent a short story to four journals.  Same short story; four literary journals.  Now comes the waiting part.  I may not hear from one or more of those journals for up to six months.  Which means I will be looking around for other journals for which to send the same short story.  I think it’s one of my best short stories.  I’ve sent that short story (in several slightly modified forms) to at least twenty-three other journals over the past seven or eight years, and gotten thoroughly rejected by all who received it.  (Except for one journal whose editors did say they liked my style of writing, but they didn’t like the story’s ending and so declined to publish it.)

So, now I will wait for the results, which, if past history is any guide, will probably also be rejections.  That may sound somewhat pessimistic, but my scientific training tends to look at numbers like this in an objective, dispassionate way.  Granted, that’s probably not the best way to look at my submissions history because writing is such a subjective field.  A frustratingly subjective field.  One has to look at each submission as a separate, unique event, and hope someone else will like my style of writing.  (In case you’re wondering, yes, I did change the ending.)

But still, I send stories out.  I continue to cling to the hope that someone, somewhere, will like my story well enough to publish it, and that would mean they might publish another story, and I might get still another story accepted at a different journal, and so on.  There’s a real endpoint here, a point at which I can say I’m a published author.  But the only way I can reach that goal is to send stuff out.  No sending, no publishing.

I’ve heard that some people have difficulty sending their work to journals and magazines.  For some indefinable reason, they’re hesitant.  Afraid of something, I guess.  I’ve never suffered from that phobia.  That may stem from the requirement of my profession as a scientist to publish any results I obtained in the lab, and working in the lab was fun as well as life-affirming and profitable.  Well, reasonably profitable, anyway.  I enjoyed sending stuff out.  For several reasons.  A published paper got my name out into the scientific world, it added a little to the total knowledge about viruses, and I became known to a very tiny group of other virologists as an expert in an even tinier aspect of the overall field.  What’s not to like?

So, where does this hesitancy to send writing out come from?  I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I wonder if people are afraid the editors at a journal will laugh at them, or throw their submission in the trash, or send out an all-points bulletin to other magazines as to just how bad a writer they are, or even worse, send the writing police after them to yell at them, “Don’t ever send anything out again.  EVER.”

Ridiculous.  No one is going to laugh, or try to intimidate you if you send something out.  The worst that could happen is that they’ll say no.  And if they do, there are plenty of other journals to send to.  It’s a numbers game.  If you’ve vetted the story well enough, and polished it until you can’t make anymore changes, it stands a good chance of being accepted somewhere.  Send it out.

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Learning From Donald Trump

In this season of hotly contested political races, including the Presidential one, I think it’s interesting to sit back and try to learn something from all the commotion that surrounds them.  I’m speaking here of what writers can learn from the current Republican nominee, Donald Trump.  I’ll leave the political and economic and foreign policy and sociological and other lessons to be learned from this race to those better equipped to discuss them (as well as to those who have intensely held opinions), and deal with the more prosaic issue of writing.  Specifically, what can Donald Trump teach us about writing?

Shortly before the first Presidential debate, a comment was made by a TV reporter that the Democrats were wondering which Donald Trump would show up: the combative, belligerent, trigger-happy one, or in direct contrast, the more thoughtful or reflective one.  By the time of the debate, Donald Trump had begun to tone down his vitriolic attack on almost anything that moved, and the Democrats were unsure of how he would come off.

I didn’t watch the debate and I’m not sure exactly which Donald showed up, but that’s not the point of my essay here.  It is, rather, the fact that Donald Trump has (at least) two different public personae.  It is precisely this duplicity of personality which makes a character in a novel or short story far more interesting than a simple, one dimensional one.  That is not to say that all the characters in our stories have to be politicians, but that they should be complex and interesting.  We all are that way.  We all have aspects of our personality that might seem incongruous to others.  I, for example, am a PhD scientist, committed to using the scientific method (experimentation and logic) in my vocation, yet I have always been a deeply religious person too.  Some people will ask, how can you believe in something you can’t see or feel or measure?  I have my reasons, though I usually don’t speak about them.  It certainly isn’t necessary that all of our literary characters need be as dualistic to the same extent as “the Donald,” but they should be to one degree or another.  A few examples: the cowboy who writes poetry, the football player who does needlepoint, the banker who plays the horses, the priest who visits a strip club (probably in disguise), the jazz musician who attends the opera, the atheist who attacks organized religions yet surreptitiously reads the Bible or Koran—and there’s zillions more.  Putting these people in situations where their odd interests become the focus of the plot line can make for interesting reading, and, for the writer, interesting writing.

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