At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Writer's Life: Visit to Readers Behind Bars

There's nothing juvenile about the Prairie View School–at least from the outside.  Its an old State Hospital–built in the 1930's is my guess–set on a hilltop on the outskirts of Waseca, a farming town in southwestern Minnesota.  Foreboding on the outside with heavy roofline brows and stone sides, wire-meshed windows and fenced passage ways between buildings, the school has a similar gloominess inside.  Worn granite flights of steps, heavy cast iron radiators cranking out the heat in the classrooms–and keypads on every door.

Buzz in, buzz out.  Know the code.  I have arrived with my books, my thoughts, and my No. 16 stock car and "motor novels" for young adults.  I'll be here all day talking to the kids, ages 13-18.  My crew chief and some staff unload the car from our enclosed trailer, and secure it on a (fenced) tennis court between buildings.  I head inside to get oriented and prepare.

The Prairie View staff is a mix of men, women, younger and older, and they have the tonal quality of outdoors people.  They are always watchful, observant; they seem to know what's happening behind them and in all directions.  They have peripheral vision–especially when the students arrive.  

Single file.  It's an arresting image (poor choice of word) to see the kids enter in single file and wait for instructions.  A handful of girls must sit on the left.  Boys on the right.  They are conditioned to ask permission for nearly everything.  I do not know and have not asked why they are here, but a staff member confided that a few will eventually be "sentenced" for "up to two years."  Some quickly re-offend in order to get back here, where there is order, not family chaos; where there's  food and heat and a bed.   Some say outright that their future will be prison.   

In my first session (20 students, which is good), there is no real introduction, and I tell them about myself.  Farm background.  Small town high school.  Hunt, fish, write, play some piano, father, husband. etc.   I need them to have a sense of who I am.  I go around the room and get their first names and where they are from (all over MN).

I talk some about college days, when I was partying too much my first two years, and had to change my scene.  There's an uptick of interest, and I get a few questions about that.  I talk about how sometimes we all need a different, a new set of friends. . . .

They've read a couple of my books.  "Kids read quite a lot here," a staff member told me earlier.  There's very limited TV, no internet access except in class.  I talk about writing books–it's a process not a miracle–and make a big point of writing realistic fiction (as opposed to sci-fi or fantasy).  Writing out of my own experiences.  Taking my own life seriously.  Trying to make sense of the life and times I landed in through no choice of my own.  They have some good questions about the fiction.

When we talk about my stock car novel, I tell them about Skyler Smith,  my 18 year old driver–how he was supposed to be here today but he's in "trouble".  That he's in danger of not graduating from high school, and so losing his "ride."  Trying not to be heavy-handed, I talk about Skyler holding up (or not) his end of our bargain.  Of being (or not being) a good team member.  The staff, interspersed around the room (and always watchful) nod their heads slightly.  Their entire curricular theme is about Personal Responsibility....

To break up the session we go out to see the "Bookmobile" close up.  Single file.  Girls first.  I notice something else about their movement:  the kids stop at every doorway, every threshold, to look up or to hear permission to step through. 

Outside in the biting air, we move in an orderly circle around the car.  I explain things:  the engine, chassis, safety features.   "No, you can't sit in it.  No we can't start it up!"  The students laugh and are having fun.  Then, too soon, it's back inside.

I read to them for awhile, do more Q & A, and soon my first session is over.  On the way out, in a stolen moment at the back of the line, two boys pause.  "Tell me again about why you had to switch schools and ditch your friends?" one of them asks.  There's an urgency in his voice.   

I say,  "I had this feeling that I wasn't going anywhere.  I was stuck.  I wasn't moving forward."

"That's us, right now," the other boy says, and they laugh.

But it's a good laugh, and the first boy adds, "I've only got four months left."

After two more sessions, interspersed with a pot luck lunch put on by the staff, I meet with the teachers for half an hour of "professional development" chat--as if I could help them.  But  I promise to follow-up with a list of good YA fiction, authors I know that these students will like.  We deconstruct the sessions.  I ask about a thin, blonde girl in the third session, who alternated between annoyance and being totally absorbed in my talk--even raising her hand a couple of times to ask me things.

"She's new," a teach says.  "It takes them a few days to let down their guard and understand that no one here is going to bully them or pick on them, like in regular high school.  That doesn't happen here.  Once they understand that, we can start to make progress."

Then I press them a bit about their jobs--about how they remain positive.  "Humor," they say, and all laugh.  A couple of older boys appear in the doorway.  They each hold one of my books.  They are 'graduates', in transition to the community on work internships, and I go to say Hello and sign their books.   We chat briefly.  They have a strong handshakes–a built confidence from their time here. Their grip on my hand, and their eyes directly on mine  fill me with hope for all the kids, and a deep appreciation for the adults who help them.

As I leave the building, a sheriff's van arrives.  Four teenagers get out.  A large Deputy ushers the kids toward "Intake", as its called in the prison business.  The kids walk awkwardly, and then I notice that they have leg restraints to keep them from running.  

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Finding An Agent

I recently had an aspiring writer contact me and ask about finding a literary agent.  I wrote back that the formula is pretty basic:  track down a list of agents and submit a sample of your work.  If he/she likes it, you will be asked  for “the rest.”  If they like the whole manuscript they’ll take you on.

There are lots of avenues toward finding an agent.  I found my agent via an article in the Minneapolis Tribune.  A Twin Cities writer had a big splash with a book, and the agent’s name was mentioned.  I tracked him down and sent him a chapter.  He liked it, asked for all that I had, and sold the novel within three months to a New York publisher.

Trade writing magazines like Writer, Writer’s Digest, etc. have useful articles on agents, and sometimes lists of current agents, but the internet would be the place nowadays to find agents.  Obviously you must be wary, and use your usual spidey senses when doing business on the internet.  A key indicator of an agency's legitimacy is the list of authors it represents.  As well, an agent should charge you only if he/she sells your work.  Commission is usually 15 percent.  This sound like a lot of money, but the larger question is:  "Fifteen percent of what?"  If the agent can sell your work, be happy to give him/her the money.

Big agency versus small agency is a consideration.  Small agencies, often just one person, are agile and attentive, but you are more vulnerable if that agent has any kind of personal or professional trouble (which has happened to me).  Giant agencies move slowly and are impersonal, so I would look for a small-to-medium sized agency, one with at least 3-4 agents all of whom have worked in publishing prior to becoming an agent.

The previously-mentioned magazines have useful articles on “submissions” to agents.  Try to find one of those and model your letter accordingly.  On the other hand, so many people probably read those and follow the  boilerplate instructions exactly, that you might catch an agent’s attention by an ‘original’ letter—one that suggests that you are a writer but not a cliche'.  A good, fresh, short letter, and of course your gripping, can't-put-down sample chapter.

A more creative approach:  Say you read a book recently that you really liked.  Don’t be afraid to track down the author and ask for his/her agent’s name.  If you can “sell” yourself through your email, which means a short, clear and polite query, then the author more often than not will give you the agent’s name–at the same time making clear that they are not recommending you, but only giving you information, which is fair for everybody.

 Securing an agent does not happen via presenting your life story, your "connections", your resume' or your sense of humor as displayed in the world's most clever query letter:  it's about the sentences in your fiction submission.  An agent cannot sell a dead fish (as they say). If your manuscript reads well–is a good story, well told– an agent will see that immediately and be in touch.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Natasha Tretheway

Last night I had the pleasure of listening to a fine poetry reading by Natasha Tretheway, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2007 for her book Native Guard.   She was up in Minnesota as part of the Northwoods Writers Conference, held by the lake on the campus of Bemidji State University.

Born in 1966 in Mississippi to "mixed" parents (her father was white), a elegant woman dressed in blacks and grays and wearing some nifty heels, she reminded me several times of Barack Obama in complexion and manner and use of language. Many of her poems were about, literally or metaphorically, the matter of "mixed blood" and being in the "middle".  Her poems were about mothers, grandmothers, the Civil War, the gulf coast, Vicksburg, visiting the plantation mansions for "living history"--in short, plumbing deeply her personal narrative.

As I listened to her poems, I thought of writer John Champlin Gardner's point that the best writers often have a "wound" from which their art flows, and which I have mentioned in other blog entries.  Certainly Ms. Tretheway's wound was her dual-culture background, and the many issues surrounding it. I thought of other writers and their "wounds":  Tim O'Brien and the Vietnam War;  Harper Lee and black-white tensions; Flannery O'Connor and her intense, pressing Catholicity; Truman Capote and sexual orientation as it bore on his art.  The idea of "wound" can likely be recast in more positive language--let's call it a "well"--because it's the source from which artistic expression flows, and in the end the writer should honor it, as Ms. Tretheway does in her poems.

Speaking of true sources, Tretheway commented on being at the headwaters of the Mississippi River as opposed to the far end of it in the Mississippi Gulf, a poet's territory for sure.  However, she also spoke to the language and form of poetry during Q and A, using the phrase "the elegant envelope of form", as she tried to explain how she tries, with each poem, to push beyond the "usual arc of the poem that ends in epiphany."  Most of us would be happy to master that kind of poem (which she writes as well), but her point was hyper-literary and most interesting as she described how certain closed forms let certain poems become more than they would have been, had she gone with the 'old-fashioned' (my term) free-verse ending in epiphany.  I have to think more about that idea, now, as I read her work--the irony of a poem becoming 'larger' within the confines of a closed form.

The lesson here, beyond the necessity to be a reader if you want to be a writer, is to go and hear other writers.  You always come away filled with ideas useful to your own work.

Teaching, Gender Roles and Ichabod Crane

A recent national report bemoaned the lack of male teachers in the lower grades: only nine percent of elementary teachers are male, which is a 40 year low. While the percentages go up in middle and high school, children in grades K-12 are far more likely encounter women teachers than men. This disparity has various causes: teaching is traditionally “women’s work”, the education degree is perhaps not challenging enough to men, etc. Analyzing the same report, ABC Nightly News speculated that some of the problem might lie in our modern discomfort with men in close contact with children, but that most of the dilemma is based in teacher pay. Me? I blame the lack of male teachers on Washington Irving.

Irving (1783-1859) was one of our early American writers. His story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is not only a great Halloween tale, but a closer read of the narrative exposes the roots of our of current disappearing male teachers–and the prejudice and image problems they encounter still, and not just in the lower grades. In Irving’s story, Ichabod Crane is an itinerant teacher in the Dutch settlements of upstate New York in the 1790’s. He’s clever, though lazy; he’s musical, and well-liked by the ladies for his conversational skills. As Irving describes him, “Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves. . . a scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.”

On his teaching circuit, Katrina Van Tassel, the “blooming” daughter of a rich farmer, catches Ichabod’s eye–but he has a competitor, another farmer named Brom Van Brunt. Irving describes Van Brunt as “. . . a burly, roaring, roystering blade. . .the hero of the country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood. He was broad-shouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff, but not unpleasant countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance. From his Herculean power his nickname was Brom Bones.”

The competition between Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones peaks in Sleepy Hollow itself, that eerie, fog-ridden pathway between farms wherein Crane one night encounters the headless horseman and a smashing pumpkin. Crane flees in terror, and is never seen again. Shortly after his rival’s disappearance, Irving writes, Brom Bones“. . . conducted the blooming Katrina to the altar.” While no one knows quite what happened to Ichabod Crane, whenever the story was told, Brom Bones“. . . was to look exceedingly knowing.”

As a former English professor, I was never the kind to strap a story or a poem to a chair and beat the symbolism out of it. However, the larger meaning of “Sleepy Hollow” is as clear as the "long snipe nose" on Ichabod’s face: the intellectual, artistic and articulate male is vanquished by the brute force of a “roistering” macho man–or, as we say nowadays, a man’s man. In a nutshell, the male teacher does not measure up, and is run out of town.

Literature provides other, more modern examples of the uncertain role of the male teacher. In his first adult novel, Staggerford, Minnesota’s Jon Hassler provides a striking portrait of the ambivalence with which the male high school English teacher is regarded. “The women of Staggerford tended to overestimate [male] teachers’ intelligence, while the men of Staggerford tended to underestimate their ambition,” Hassler writes early on in the novel. The main character, mild-manner Miles, is crowded and dogged by the football Coach, Mr. Gibbon (no small symbolism there), in a competition not unlike that of Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones.

The stereotype of the male teacher as less than masculine persists to the college and university level. Once, many years ago at Bemidji State University where I spent my teaching career, the campus ROTC cadets were rappelling from the roof of the library. One of them, a young woman, spotted me walking by. “Hey Professor Weaver, want to try?” she called from the roof top. “Bet you don’t dare.” I waved politely and passed by. I didn’t mention that I had been a member of the University of Minnesota skydivers club back in the day.

This whole tug and pull of male identity reared a more disturbing face in a recent Star Tribune front page article on National Guard member, Staff Sergeant Chad Malmberg, 27. For his valor in an Iraq firefight, he was awarded the Silver Star. Now in college at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Malmberg was portrayed as a “different kind of student” in contrast to the “slackers in their flip-flops” hanging around the campus. No disrespect to Sgt. Malmberg, but I always found those “slackers” (true slackers don’t go to college) to be some of the best students: open-minded, curious about ideas, willing to learn, and courageous in their opinions. They had a different kind of courage than Mr. Malmberg–the ability to make hard decisions about service to their country based on a different set of assumptions: that joining the Peace Corps, or teaching in an inner city American school would be a good–or even better–contribution to America than fighting in a misbegotten war in Iraq. Governor Pawlenty called Malmberg a “true hero, no doubt about it.” Malmberg himself said he felt like a hero “just putting on the uniform.”

Brom Bones, in his clever trick on Ichabod Crane, wore the cape of a headless, revolutionary war soldier. In real life, however, there are plenty of men who don’t feel the need to wear a uniform to feel like a man. Reid Benson, 24, and a friend of our family, is serving in the Peace Corp in Cameroon. His village, as Joseph Conrad might say, is in "darkest Africa"; it has no electricity, and candles and kerosene lamps, and bed bugs in his mattress are his daily life. He's teaching there, and says that the villagers still have a great respect, even love, for America; when his "tour" is done, he will have deepened that linkage to and respect for America. However, when Reid comes home there will be no parade, no medals, no public honor (that all goes to the "warrior males" in our culture). In short, until we give our male teachers the respect (and the pay) that they deserve, we are still living in Sleepy Hollow.

Robert Hass: Time and Materials

Imagine Billy Collins trapped in a library of classic literature for a year–and the poems he would write after his escape.  That would be Time and Materials, the latest poetry collection by Robert Hass.  The title is a great metaphor, an application of a tradesman's quote for work to be rendered (his payment either by "time and materials" or a general cost estimate of the job).  When I was in the graduate writing program Stanford, Hass had passed through not too many years earlier but his reputation lingered–particularly his dissertation on Dostoevsky (if I recall).  His first books of poems, Field Guide, was well received, and his poems have only gotten denser, in a good way.  Hass is a true literary man, adept in translations, an artist in metaphor, and with literary investigations (Milosz, Horace, Goethe, Transtromer) wide-ranging enough to make one feel adrift in a very small boat of one's own reading.

His new poems need to be read in very quiet moments with your full powers of concentration.  I tried that yesterday morning, at 6 a.m., after I had made a crackling fire in my fireplace (it was -22 below up north in Minnesota), and with a strong cup of coffee in hand.  One of my favorites was "Ezra Pound's Proposition" (linking child prostitutes in Bangkok to the World Bank).   Another, "I Am Your Waiter Tonight and My Name Is  Dmitri", a nod to John Ashbury's poem, is a funny, extended  geneaology of a modern young waiter 'who may very well be great-grandson of the elder Karamazov brother.'  That and a couple of other Hass poems cleared my head. 

 For a moment in my quiet, pre-dawn house I had a shooting star flash of insight into what good poems do: they remind us that the half thoughts, the fragments of apprehension, the eighth notes of understanding, the shards of insight that we quickly let go of as crazy, dangerous, or too crushingly sad to think of again let alone say aloud–that these are in fact the truths of our lives.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Self-Publish? No, But Hear Both Sides

1.  Don't Do It
The whole matter of self-publication is a delicate, tricky business.  Say you've written for years with very little success, and you're feeling a desperate.  Your family (husband, wife, partner, etc.) is beginning to give off odd vibes about all the time you spend writing "with nothing to show for it."  They don't say that, but you know that's what they're thinking.  Then you read in the paper about some 17 year-old high school kid who has just published his fantasy novel, and the local newspaper has given him the front page.  Key word there is 'local.'  You don't recognize the publisher, and, after Googling, you still don't find this publisher–which means the kid has created his own imprint, that is, used the local printing company which also does the Chamber of Commerce brochures as well as anything that arrives on its desk as long as it's for pay.

You know in your heart that the kid has jumped the queue, rushed the line, punched his own ticket ahead of you, a hard-working writer who is playing by the rules.  For God's sakes, look at all the publicity he's getting! Who knows how many books he'll sell, but this is 21st century post-modern America, and who, anymore, really cares who the publisher is?  So why shouldn't you self-publish your novel?  You've work-shopped it, you've revised it, you've slaved over it for years.  It's ready.  The bastards in the New York publishing industry are all on the take, and too busy publishing their friends to bother with you, so now it's your turn.  Why not self-publish?

For a whole bunch of reasons.  First, you haven't sold your novel or published your short stories because they're not good enough.  This has to be said, and I say it with the best of intentions.  Your writing is not quite "there", and it's up to you to understand where "there" is.   In other of my "Write Right" entries I talk about that (style, structure, voice), and make that case that at some point (probably right now if you're thinking of self-publishing) you need to lay a page of your prose alongside a page of a writer you admire, one who speaks to you, and closely examine how his/her writing is different from yours.  This will take you back to the sentence level, where writing flourishes or withers. 

Some writers, nonfiction ones in particular–Joan Didion and John McPhee come to mind– could write about making the morning coffee and keep our interest, and that's solely because of their sentence style.  So take another look at your sentences.  Do they carry a reader continuously and energetically forward?  Do they have balance, rhythm?  Are they pleasing on the tongue (the mind has its own ear)?  Do they sound good read aloud?  Are their images fresh and precise--though not so much so as to draw undue attention at the expense of the paragraph?  There's no end to the ways to see your sentences and to make them better.

One last note:  I can assure you that there is no conspiracy out there to keep you from publishing.  The publishing industry is just that--a for-profit business.  Editors' jobs are on the line on a daily basis.  They need to find and work with writers who can sell books, and being kind to and publishing their writer friends is not going to do that.

In the end, I think writing and publishing is one of the purest forms of democracy out there.  If your writing is good, someone will take notice; if it's not ready, they won't.  If it's close, they'll tell you.   
Now get back to work.  You've spent enough time here

2.  Another View
 I received this note by email from a young woman, and asked her permission to publish it:  

 "About your latest blog entry: Walt Whitman self-published.  So did The Celestine Prophecy guy.  Blogs are self-published--the very blog you write is self-published.   It's possible that publishers are over-booked with projects or that they have specific ideas about what they want to invest in.  You were a little harsh, and you were speaking from a position of privilege, already having a publisher.  Verily, I say unto thee, you have your reward.  Some people go into business for themselves.  They have their hardships.  But they probably come out of it knowing what it takes at every step to publish and promote their own work.  And they're probably barred from some bookstores because they don't have big-name publishers to get their feet in the door.  Why do you make it your business to put these people down by saying their writing isn't "good" enough?  At the same time that you're speaking about publishing, you could just as well be talking about independent musicians--are they not "good enough" to get record deals?  Some of them are amazing, motivated, and absolutely opposed to getting taken on the money end.  The two industries are distinct, but they are similar in that the artists want to control what's happening at every stage.  I know you're passionate about publishers, but please don't lump everyone into one category.       
from:  "Over the Transom"
3. Two Writers, Two Different Opinions
Below is a conversation among two writer friends about self-publishing.  The first is Marsh Muirhead, essayist, poet, short story writer, and  author of Key West Explained.  He loves to take breaks from chilly Minnesota and head down the Florida Keys.  The second is Susan Hauser, poet and nonfiction writer.  Her  many books include Full Moon (poetry), You Too Can Write A Memoir, and Wild Rice Cooking.  I'm WW, the interviewer....

 WW:  Lots of aspiring writers track me down, searching for help with “getting published.”   When they understand how much work  (heart, spirit, focus, revision and persistence) it takes, they often ask me about self-publishing.  What are your opinions?

 MM.  Self-publishing means more books than ever (quality not a factor), while we have fewer readers by the hour. However,  I do not think this is the end of civilization as we know it–for two reasons. If you self-publish you need to sell the books via an effective distribution system, and you need to reach your specific readership with a quality book. Nobody but the writer will spend much time and effort in distribution; so that puts a limit, I think, on unreadable books.

My two favorite example of the latter: a friend’s aunt "found a publisher" ( a vanity publisher) for her novel. The publisher "placed" it on Amazon as part of the package. The Auntie does all and any other distribution of the book herself (a dubious endeavor since she and her husband, in their late 70s, find the cocktail hour taking up increasing portions of the day).  What to say about the quality of her novel?  It is well punctuated.  Sometimes it is told in the first person, often the third, shifting as if much of the writing consists of notes by the author to herself while she sketches out her imagined life story where very little happens. Today it is ranked 1,760,000 on Amazon -
 zero sales.

 I published my Key West Explained with the idea that it has little competition, a very focused readership, and the best way to sell that kind of book is on Amazon. Today it's ranked 39,800 over-all, and #2 in books (it sold 5 copies yesterday, a very good day) in the category of  "books about the Florida Keys."  It is almost the only book about Key West exclusively, is the only one heavily illustrated, has a map, a 2008 (C) date, and the word "Explained" in the title–a diction choice I thought was crucial to its appeal. Sales continue to slowly increase; it's at about 60-70 books per month now. The printing of 2000 copies should sell out late next year (I have one other distributor in the Keys who supplies the bookstores - they sell a few copies a month as well). The book is over-priced at $21.95 so I still clear $9 a copy after Amazon takes its cut and I pay for mailing the cases to them. When all 2000 sell I will realize a profit of about $6000, unless I totally deduct 4 trips to Key West, at which point the book will break even -- and I get 4 free trips to Florida.
The key to sales was me, and a particular technique:  I reviewed all the other books (25) on the keys so that my review directs anyone browsing Key West books on Amazon to get my pop-up tab directing them to KWE.

Since creative work –poems, collections of stories, novels– compete with hundreds of thousand of like books, self-publishing would be a dubious effort for that, and I would never consider it unless I had very strong artistic, critical, and editorial support AND a distribution system.

WW:  Susan, what’s your reaction to Marsh’s comments?

 SH: Here's the thing about self-publishing, that Marsh acknowledges that he does: you have to package books and mail them. When they are selling well, as KWE is right now, Amazon will take a whole box. If they sell less well, as most literature does, Amazon does not stock any copies. Instead, when they get an order, they send you an email and a mailing label and you package the book and send it out. Eventually, Amazon deposits a payment in your bank account. I have done this (as you can tell) with Full Moon. When I started, Amazon took a dozen copies at a time. They shipped them and as they sold they paid me for them. After a while sales declined to a dribble. Now I get occasional orders, in spurts. I think someone gets one as a gift, buys a few more for gifts, then the impetus peters out. I find it is not worth it to me to keep packing materials and postage on hand (weigh the package or put out money for the postal carrier). I'd rather spend my time writing.

 Of course, self-publishing starts with the production of copy for the printer. As Marsh knows, this can be time-consuming. Even if you hire a company that does that, you still have many decisions to make. I have a friend who paid a well-known company to do that and she had no end of trouble. In addition, she has not sold enough books to recover her costs even though the book is a good one.

Publishing is like writing: if you haven't done it, it looks like it can't be too much trouble. But in reality, it is. I occasionally self-publish things because I like figuring out the placement of text on the page, etc. But I would not want to do it with the intent of providing income. Marsh is being smart about KWE, writing reviews on Amazon, etc. For me, all of that would be time away from writing.

All that said, I have a couple of mss. I have not been able to place with publishers and I plan to self-publish them when I retire. Maybe. The decision in the end is about how one spends one's time.


[this "debate" piece was published in the Huffington Post]


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Writing Before Reading (multiple entries)

1.  Gearing Up To Write
Right now, in preparation for writing, I'm reading novels.  Actually "reading" is misleading.  Tasting. Dipping.  Sipping.  Skimming. Looking for a voice.  Looking for a tone, for a vision, for something. . . .  What interests me more than plots and character development are (1) sentences and (2) authorial voice.

There are lots of good sentence writers out there, including Toni Morrison, F. Scott Fitzgerald (and Faulkner and Hemingway in opposite polarities).  And it's also interesting that the best prose stylists seem to have the most compelling visions of human nature.  Maybe really good prose is a kind of  window, even a doorway, into the meaning of life .  Hmmm. . . . Sounds like a dry critical book  by someone like Northrup Frye ( let us briefly praise the graybeard critics for getting us thinking about the novel form) but I'm talking about approaches to writing one.  Which are many, messy, and with few rules.

 Oh, there are fiction techniques to apply once you get going (the idea of, say, a chapter), but the early stages of planning a novel are as uncertain as summer weather in the Midwest.  But a really good novel--a lasting, literary achievement kind of novel--is about several things beyond its events.  It's about place, milieu and country; and it's about the author's vision of the world as it leaks through the prose. 
Anna Karenina, Grapes of Wrath, Beloved--all are place-based and deeply rooted in the country and the times they are set in (with Anna Karenina, what it means to a woman in 19th century Russia).  But all three novels are suffused with authorial voice that becomes nearly as compelling as the narratives themselves.

 That's always what I'm looking for –my own voice.

2. Short Stories:  The Long and the Short of It
 A great way to keep up on the short story as a literary form is to read the yearly “Best Of” collections.  These include the long-running Prize Stories: The O’Henry Awards, the Best American Short Stories, as well as other, more focused anthologies.  The latter include New Stories of the South, similarly regional collections, collections focused to gender and ethnicity, collections all the way down to Best Stories by One-Armed PaperHangers (not really, but there’s no end to the fine point editors can bring to bear).

The main anthologies usually have a preface by a bleary-eyed series editor who has read a couple thousand short stories (or at least should have), then pitched a 100 or so finalists to a well-known guest editor, who then makes the final selection, plus adds an introduction to the book.

The Best American Stories 2007 is guest-edited by Stephen King.  If you’re laughing here, the joke’s on you.  Christine and yards of horror fiction notwithstanding, Stephen King is a serious literary figure, a direct descendant, fictionally speaking, of Edgar Allan Poe, who, of course, was our first true critic and theorist of the modern short story form.  Poe’s theory of the “single, unified effect” remains the bedrock idea of any short story, no matter who does what with it.  Stephen King still writes horror, but he also writes straight-up literary stories that appear in The New Yorker, and other “serious” magazines; like John Grisham who has broken out of lawyer/court room fiction with The Painted House and other titles, King has wide interests and reach.  His book On Writing ought to be required reading in college creative writing classes.

Unlike most guest editors, King read along with his series editor the 2,000 or so stories.  He also (part of the job) picked 100 “notable stories” which didn’t quite make the final cut.  Reading the guest editor introductory essays in the “Best Of” anthologies is sometimes worth the price of the book; King’s is very fine if a bit worrisome.  In speaking to the health and general condition of the story form he writes, toward the end, “The American short story alive? Check.  [Is it] Well?  Sorry, no, can’t say so.”  His well-argued point is that more and more short story writers are writing for M.F.A. programs, “. . . for editors and teachers rather than for readers.” In short, stories written for each other.

After such a well-turned introduction from this literary maverick, I was all set for a great, fresh selection of stories. However, a scan of the table of contents ran up a red flag.  Some editors, by design, chose an array of exotic-sounding authors most readers have never heard of, sort of a“new-voices, diversity-on-parade” approach.  This can be annoying , though so can the converse, in King’s choices: Louis Auchinloss, Mary Gordon, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Richard Russo.  “Oh no, these are going to be really long short stories,” was my first thought– which they were.  And the long short story is a personal bugaboo, a fishbone in my literary craw.

When is a short story not a short story, but something else?  Say, a novella.  Or something unnamed, but clearly not a short story.  Can Alice Munro’s sixty page short stories be called such?  I’m a big fan of Munro, and if you stay with her stories there is an eventual pay-off, if subtle and almost sly at times, but fighting to stay with a short story should be not part of the deal.   Poe was no fool; he wrote that the true short story could/should be read “in one sitting,” and, ever the rationalist, Poe posited this to be a half-hour–which makes for interesting discussion about what/how much we can read in thirty minutes.  (For me, to suitably honor a good writer’s prose by reading the sentences in a manner to fully hear their rhythms and appreciate their valences, a half-hour rules out much of Munro.)  Poe also wrote that “. . . the long poem does not exist.  The phrase ‘long poem’ is a flat contradiction in terms” ­–which I happen to believe is also true of the “long short story.”   Poe believed that the mind  “. . . cannot sustain high emotion after the lapse of half an hour,” a point most of us—particularly parents of teenagers or high school teachers–can agree with, especially if we substitute “attention span” for “emotion.” Poe meant “emotion” as a kind of ‘elevation’ of the soul that only high art brings, but attention is where we have to start, and keeping it is the key.   

 So I guess I’m an impatient reader.  I worry about that, and try to guard against it.  However, when I started story number one in King’s collection, “Pa’s Darling” by Louis Auchinloss (and originally published in The Yale Review­–another red flag, but that’s my rural Midwest talking) I ran up against this kind of prose: “I have decided to write up this assessment of my past, to make a probably vain attempt to get it off my chest.  Whether I shall ever show it, or to whom, I do not know as of yet. . . .”  

Shades of Charles Dickens!  “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station must be held by anybody else, these pages must show”  (David Copperfield, from chapter one, “I Am Born”).  Speaking of being born, why not back up  the beginning still further, to the evening of the main character’s conception, as Laurence Sterne does in the opening of Tristram Shandy (trust me, you don’t have to read this novel.  I’ve done it, I’ve got you covered—me or Spark Notes).   My point is, I still believe the true short story opens in medias res, not with extended (auto)biography of the characters.  The true short story is a train rolling out of the station,picking up speed as it passes, its whistle and thunder and acceleration giving you brief moments in which to decide:  get on board or wait for the next train.

In the case of good very short(er) stories, you, as reader,  essentially have to make a dive for it–and try to hang on. I like that kind of reading rush, which I got from William Gay’s “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You” (one of King's better choices). Talk about a train moving:  this story flows from/through a meth head “. . . armed and dangerous and running on adrenaline and fury and grief and honed to such a fine edge that alcohol and drugs no longer affectedhim.”  I love that kind of story–T.C. Boyle, who hardly ever disappoints, is in also the collection– though sometimes a smooth-flowing twenty page story is fine too.  I read (and write) both kinds.  Still, if an overly leisurely narrative pace makes me edgy, I don’t think I’m alone. As Papa wrote toward the end of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (remember the older waiter who is anxious and can’t sleep?), “Many must have it."

My larger point:  try out one of the collections, and see where you fall on the matter of short story length.  In some ways the whole question of short versus long story is solipsistic, narrative navel-gazing–but hey, this is what literary people do.  It’s better than killing trolls online for hours at time, plus it keeps us out of the bars.

The “Best Of” collections also gives you would-be fiction writers some serious extra value.  At rear of each is a list (make that The List) of literary magazines read and consulted, including their addresses, their editors’ names, how many stories they publish per year, etc.  And not least, each author in the book is pressed into a comment on how his or her story came to be.  These author “insights” can be disappointing—like getting a peek behind the puppeteer’s curtain, and seeing the wires, pulleys, bootblack and cheap paint.  Some authors divulge that their story came about randomly, through an intersection of unrelated events that the author thought “might make a good story.”  Others (more to the point of good writing) are the result of deep personal epiphanies, heartbreak, joy, or  stunning and uniquely-observed life events.

These collections are about fifteen bucks, for which you could get one good martini at the Algonquin Hotel, and or a suitcase of Blatz beer in Minnesota.   Be your best self and go buy one of these books. 

3.  The Next Generation of Readers (?) 
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently published a study that confirms what most teachers and librarians already know:  kids read less and less.  The stats show a particularly alarming drop among teenagers and young adults, who (duh) are spending more time on the internet and less time with the printed word.  Dana Gioia, the NEA chairman, called this "alarming data" from a "general culture which does not encourage or reinforce reading."  More duh there, but it's useful to see the actual statistics.

The number of 17 year olds who read at least something for pleasure dropped from 31 percent back in 1984 to 22 percent today.  Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 spend an average of 7 minutes a day reading for pleasure.  Older people, especially those over 55, spend on average nearly 1 hour per day reading.  Older people also read newspapers; young people don't, a fact which has put great stress on the old-school newspaper and journalism side of publishing.

Time for novelists to jump off high buildings?  Not at all, but time for writers in general to wake up and look around.  I've gone on a couple of rants in earlier blog entries about adult "literary" writers fiddling while the woods are burning (to mix a metaphor or two); I've said for years that the next generation of readers is not guaranteed, that we must do more, and do better, if we want to keep kids reading.

Here are a couple of general ideas. If you are a teacher or librarian or a parent, and concerned about “your kids" and their reading habits, a good part of that concern probably  comes from the omnipresence of video games.  How can a novel compete with Halo or GTA-IV?  Simple answer:  it can't.  At least it can't very well.  Sometimes the best you can do is pair a novel to a video game.  For example, if a kid continually  plays professional sports video games like MLB or NFL, find him related baseball and football novels.  For baseball, my "Billy Baggs" triology of Striking Out, Farm Team and Hard Ball will work, along with titles like Chin Music by Carl Deuker.  And there are several good YA football novels out there. If the kids obsesses on fantasy games, find him the right fantasy novels.  In short, don't despair over video games, but use them as a bridge back to the print novel or short story

Second, some publishers (and authors) see promise in "value-added" books.  A classic example is the American Girl Series, which books come with corresponding dolls.  Other books have their die-cast collectibles, though most of these are at the children's level.  In a way, I'm doing this at the young adult level with my Motornovel Series and actual stock car.  Teachers and librarians are excited about the idea of my stock car team showing up at their school complete with novel, author, car, and driver.   I have invitations from all over Minnesota, Iowa City, and as far away as Huntsville, Alabama.  The latter is a long way to trailer my race car, but I'm not ruling it out.    If we can't distract boys from video games by showing up with a bright, very loud race car--and a novel to go with it--then all is lost.   Which I don't believe for a minute.

 4. Eric Clapton’s Autobiography
 As  a genre, autobiographies have a self-selecting readership.  We generally don’t read self-disclosing books by people whom we don’t admire unless, perhaps, we really dislike them.  It’s easy to imagine serious haters buying Hillary’s “own story” (whenever that might happen), or Ted Kennedy’s to-be-written memoir (an eight million dollar advance) in order to indulge in a warm bath of vituperation.   But that’s crackpot territory.

Most of us want to read about our heroes, though even that gets problematic.  A key convention of the autobiography is deconstruction, myth-busting, and general reduction—bringing, in his or her own words, a great figure “down to size” (as we say in the Midwest).  We approach the autobiography our hero with a shadow already cast:  do we really want to know everything?  The shameful secrets?  The boring and/or ugly side of our Great Person?  Watching the writer deconstruct himself can be destabilizing if not downright depressing:  we realize that, but one click of the Wheel of Fortune, our hero is much like us:  that Eric Clapton was not God.

But I’m still a Believer, even after his 328 page confessional of blues, drugs, sex, addictions of various kinds, rehab and redemption.  The original “Layla”, and certain songs on the Blind Faith and Cream albums, come as close to music of the spheres as a mortal can reach.

John  Champlin Gardner, the fiction writer and critic, wrote somewhere about artists as being “wounded”–that most great artists have some kind of “injury” that drives to them create and express.  This is the general concept of the “tortured artist,” which lots of people have written about,  but Gardner’s “wound” metaphor puts a finer point on the cause-and-effect of life experience to artistic expression.  Clapton opens his book with a jarring revelation about his parents–-an earthquake moment for any kid.  No wonder classic American blues, rife with alienation and loss, spoke to Clapton.

The fun part of the book is following him through the heady days of buying his first guitar, learning to play, meeting “lads” such as Steve Winwood, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, the Beatles—and of course all the “birds” that came with the territory of rock musicians.  It’s clear, by the book’s writing style, that this is really Clapton speaking, unfiltered by a professional ghost writer; the sentences are just rough enough, and spattered with working class British diction, to be reassuring if not pleasing.

 Here and there he speaks to how certain songs came to be written.  Everyone (mostly) knows about “Layla” (Patty, George Harrison’s wife, until Eric took her away), and, sadly,“Tears of Heaven”, about the death Clapton’s four year old son. For my money,the book could have used far more anecdotes about song-writing, and how songs came together within the context of his various bands.  Classic rock and blues were more than music; they were a cultural engine that drove an entire gen-gen-generation, and we who came of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s remain hungry for inside bits that only the key players can provide.  Clapton sometimes takes for granted his place at the center of the one of the most extraordinary confluences, ever, of art, era and culture.

The last third of the book is devoted to “recovery”, including multiple trips to Hazelden in Minnesota.  These are more interesting to Clapton, perhaps, than to us; give me more stories about Cream, and Derek and the Dominos, and less about the spiritual side of beating drug addiction.  And speaking of addictions, one blind spot for Clapton is (I hate the term) sexual addiction; he writes with self-awareness of his dependence upon alcohol and hard drugs,but clearly he couldn’t get along for many years without an endless supply of foxy young women.   On a positive note, today Clapton is married (to a much younger woman), and by all accounts is a happy man, so perhaps he has licked (sorry) that addiction,too.  Chekhov wrote that, “. ..  sooner or later, to every happyman, life will show its claws.” With a few good friends, and some luck, Clapton survived the brutal side of rock n’ roll.  This autobiography is a great read for all of us who were on the outside looking and listening in.

 5. “Mending Wall”:  Forever Young
 Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”  has one of America’s most recognized lines:  “Good fences make good neighbors.”   As I write this, in Jerusalem a concrete wall 25 feet high is being erected by Israel to separate the outskirts of the city from the West Bank and the Palestinians.  This new wall, which will eventually stretch for nearly  500 miles, is necessary, Israel maintains, to keep out suicide bombers.  In the last few years nearly 1,000 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian attacks.  Palestinians charge that the new wall cuts deeply into their West Bank land, separates farmers from their fields (thousands of olive trees have been uprooted by the wall), and only creates more isolation and despair.  In the last few years nearly 3000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli counter-attacks.  A wall, therefore, to reduce the violence.  A wall to stop the killing.  At first glance it seems logical.  After all, as Robert Frost said (well, you know the line).

But Frost’s famous poem is almost universally misread.  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the poem begins (my italics).  Nature (frost, wind, rain) and man (hunters and their dogs) conspire against the wall, want it down.  Frost begrudgingly “on a day [meets his neighbor] to walk the line/And set the wall between us….” but he doesn’t like this duty or even see much necessity for the wall. “He [the neighbor] is all pine and I am apple orchard/My apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines …”

Most importantly, in their brief conversation it is not Frost but the neighbor who utters the famous line about good fences.  Frost describes the neighbor this way:  “Bringing a stone grasped firmly in each hand…he moves in darkness….”   Frost clearly means “darkness” here as a kind of blindness, as ignorance, as slavish tradition.  The neighbor is unable to move beyond this same slogan that his father used.

Frost also writes, "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling or walling out."  I can't pretend to understand the issues, or how know how to achieve peace in the Middle East, but both Israelis and Palestinians could do worse than to read this American poem.      

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Your Writing Output

 If you're writing fiction, what's a reasonable daily output?  It's the issue beyond all others--all the technique talk, the strategizing, the research, the preparation.  At some point you have to begin your novel (or short story), and put black words on a white paper or monitor screen.  We all know authors with reputations for high output:  Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Louis L'Amour (100 novels), Isaac Asimov (400 books).  King recommends a minimum of 1500 words per day, six days a week, along with 4-6 hours of reading today–all well and good if writing and reading are the only things you have to do.

 Other novelists are known for the slimmest of bodies of work–and some for a single book:  Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird;  J. D. Salinger,  Catcher in the Rye;  Anna Sewall, Black Beauty;  Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago; Leonard Gardner, Fat City (my favorite first novel).  I purposefully did not list Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, and John Kennedy Toole, Confederacy of Dunces, because both authors suffered from serious life issues that likely prevented a higher literary output.  The authors at the top of this paragraph, however, lived long beyond their early works, but for whatever reasons did not write much more.  One might forgive Harper Lee, whose novel would be hard to top; there is something to be said for stopping on a high point. 

But this is about you.  How many words/pages should you be writing on a day?

Let's start with the assumption that you have managed to carve out some writing time for yourself.  You have most of a day to yourself.  Or better, several days running–a five day week, let's say.   If you're just starting your novel, your output will be smallish.  But try to set a goal:  by week's end I will have one good chapter, or 15-20 or so pages.  That's  only 3-4 pages, or on toward 1,200 words per day.  Not a lot, but a start, and it's good, careful writing that you're pleased with.  This latter point is no small matter;  when starting, it's probably better to have a smaller output of quality pages than a stack of rushed work--unless, of course, you are Jack Kerouac.

When your novel is up and rolling, your output will increase--could easily double.  You will be able to spend more and more hours at your desk.  You'll have the urge to come back later in the day (assuming you start writing in the morning) for a second shift.  You will be eager to get up the next morning and begin writing.  At peak stride, you might write up to ten pages a day, or around 2500 words.  Commercial and pulp fiction writers would laugh at these numbers, but I'm talking about serious, thoughtful, literary fiction.  And in the end, finishing a full draft of your novel is about math.  If you write three pages a day, 100 good days of writing will get you close to a book-length manuscript.

Final thought:  if you're a perfectionist, your output is going to be half or possibly much less than the above numbers.  In the end, of course, your literary output is all up to you.   Are you a writer, or aren't you?   

Writing the Memoir (multiple entries)

I've pulled the trigger on  my new book-to-be, a nonfiction work on hunting.  After some agonizing in a couple of earlier blog entries (I worried that readers don't hunt, and hunters don't read) I just had to dive in.  Deadlines are a good thing, and my editor's winged' chariot is always hurrying near.  But I'm pleased at how it's going.  I have a couple of titles in mind, a general arc forward, an  overall rhetoric (which is always comforting), and I'm taking real  pleasure  in writing nonfiction prose.
Fiction, of  course, is written in prose (as opposed to poetry, though there are novels written in verse), but I  mean writing nonfiction-style prose.  Full-bodied paragraphs with topic sentences.  Parallelism.  Semicolons.  The occasional conjunctive adverb.  The  goal for any writer is what Orwell called "Windowpane prose":  a style of writing by which the reader can see through, without distraction, to the subject matter under scrutiny.

 If we write  well we can write about anything--and have readers.  I remember reading a very long New Yorker article by John McPhee on oranges and how they're grown.  Afterward, I couldn't believe I had stayed with it, but was happy that I did.

My  "hunting book", however, is a delicate dance.  If  it is true generally that readers aren't big into hunting, and hunters not big into reading, then I must find my way to a comfortable middle ground without losing my readers on the two margins.
What has started as a straight nonfiction book is tilting toward memoir.  Which is a process of editing life.  We  leave out the meaningless times (we all have years of them) in order to find a coherent thread.  A narrative line that both makes sense of life, and amplifies its significance.   Example: Patricia Hampl's The Florist's Daughter.  From the get-go we understand intuitively that this book is not about climbing mountains or inventing an AIDS vaccine; that it's a "small" book wherein the main character has forked no lightning; a book about family.  You can never go wrong writing about family (we all have one), and with Hampl, the sentences alone are worth the price of the book.

One can write several memoirs.  We can't (probably shouldn't) try to write the "definitive" memoir.  Rather, there are multiple threads in our lives, and the goal is to pick one and follow it forward.
Nonfiction books can be placed on a continuum of the author's voice and visibility.  For example, we could write a biography that, by nature, should have nothing at all to do with us.  The far other side is the intensely personal memoir (the "confessional", ala James Frey) that is all about us.  And of course there and endless gradations between those two poles.  My friend, the late Jon Hassler, a novelist, was once asked, "How much of your fiction is based in real life?"  His answer:  "27.4 percent."  (He was a wry, witty guy.)

Also, you should not talk too much about your writing in-progress.  Nattering on, describing what one is writing bleeds away psychic energy that you need for yourself and for the book.   Don't give it away.  Put it between the imaginary covers of your book-to-be. 

A Couple Of Weeks Later
I have a title:  The Last Hunter:  An American Family Album. The subtitle is a bit artsy, but it dovetails with a photography thing I'm doing inside the book (no actual photos, but old snapshots described). 

And writing this memoir been way trickier than I thought.  Fifty pages into it, here's what I've learned:
There's no place to hide.  In fiction, there's the reliable "Any resemblance to persons living or dead..." disclaimer, but in nonfiction it's life without make-up.  Maybe some blush-on and eyeliner for the "creative nonfiction" types, but memoir writing (memory lapses aside) had better be the truth.  The real truth.  If I (you) starting leaving out uncomfortable facts, we're done.  Might as well go watch football.

Now back to work.

Three Months Later (this piece was published in the HuffingtonPost Books Section)
I learned some things while writing my memoir The Last Hunter:  An American Family Album.  For me, a fiction writer, the memoir was new territory– a literary form I had always lumped in with the autobiography.  But clearly they were different.  If an autobiography is the true and full story of one’s life—the entire trip so to speak—a memoir examines  recurring scenes along the way.  A memoir is for making sense of patterns in our lives (mother issues, spiritual growth, addictions), and their roles in how we live and think.

One largely unexamined aspect of my life was hunting. I grew up in the Midwest, and to pick up a shotgun or a rifle in the fall was a given.  Hunting was seamlessly integrated into Minnesota farm life, and so embedded in rural culture that, in November, schools closed for the opening days of the deer season.  This fact never seemed remarkable to me until years later, when literary life began to supplant my woodsman side.  When great books became more important than a well-oiled Winchester.  When travel and “distance,” as Blaise Pascal wrote, “lends perspective.”

In fact, it was a young woman editor who suggested I write The Last Hunter (in my family, c’est moi). I was initially skeptical.  I had paid enough attention to recent memoirs to know that writers such as James Frey and Margaret B. Jones had, by their dishonesty, cast a pall over the whole genre.  And second, who would read a book about killing things?

“But it’s not really about hunting,” my editor insisted.  “It’s about family, and tradition, and great change.  It’s about sentences and literary form.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But readers don’t hunt and hunters don’t read. That leaves almost no one to buy this book.  My own two kids don’t even hunt.  I’ve got these fine old guns that no one will ever shoot.”

“That’s the interesting part!” she said.  “Just write it.  We’ll worry about readers later.” (I’m a lucky guy to have such an editor.) 

The writing went surprisingly well–the more I wrote the more I remembered.  How my uncles all carried their rifles differently. The dark rosettes of sliced deer heart frying in butter in a heavy, cast iron pan.  The whistle of duck wings in early morning dark. The sweet, spiced smell of mincemeat that we cooked and canned family-style—all hands to the kitchen–over a long day filled with stories and laughter and good work.  But also the ever-increasing pull of the city on me and my children.  My editor was right:  the book quickly became far more about the arc of family life than about guns.

Still, hunting has a brutal side.  Crippled birds not found. Blood trails and gut piles.  Shooting accidents (my family has had its tragedies).  It soon became clear to me as I wrote:  tell the truth or stay home.  There are enough censors out there; the last thing I wanted to do was join their ranks.  No “creative nonfiction” to muddy the works.  Clarity and truth: the memory deserves no less.

Another lesson became evident.  While The Last Hunter necessarily had to be a closely observed, personal story, it also had to connect to the main—to the general reader.  A memoir should hold up a mirror, or least a fragment of one, with which other people might begin to examine their own experiences.  If a subject matter such as hunting is far afield–even offensive to some– a memoir in the least ought to provide readers an unvarnished look at how other people go about justifying their lives and making sense of things. 

Four Months Later
Have been on the road for three weeks doing promo for the book, including several TV slots in Minneapolis.  My comment in an earlier entry about "connecting with the main"appears to on target; I'm hearing from lots of readers about similar changes in their family--that familiar arc, in the Midwest, of leaving the land.  The book hit 20,000 on Amazon's ranking, though now is higher.  But clearly it's selling some copies.  I think it's a book that, by its prose and assemblage, will have legs.  Longevity.  Which is the best an author can hope for.

Writing: Process or Genius?

I've written in other blog entries that writing is a process not a miracle.  That publishing a novel is far more about hard work than genius.  That many (if not most) would-be writers do not work hard enough at the sentence level–then gripe about the publishing industry "putting up walls" against new writers. They (the unpublished writers) start to see the publishing world in conspiratorial terms:  that it's against "any one new", etc.   Whenever I run into this type of person, I know the next question is going to be about self-publishing.

But a recent New York Times column by David Brooks, the agonized conservative, puts a finer point on the discussion of natural talent versus hard work.  Totally without permission, I've lifted the body of his column and pasted below, and have butted in with my comments in brackets:

(NYT May 1, 2009)
. . . . If you wanted to picture how a typical "genius" [my emphasis] might develop, you’d take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It wouldn’t have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits. Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic background, or, shared the same birthday — anything to create a sense of affinity.
This contact would give the girl a vision of her future self. . .  give her a glimpse of an enchanted circle she might someday join. It would also help if one of her parents died when she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and fueling a desperate need for success.

Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary biographies without end. This would give her a core knowledge of her field. She’d be able to chunk Victorian novelists into one group, Magical Realists in another group and Renaissance poets into another. This ability to place information into patterns, or chunks, vastly improves memory skills. She’d be able to see new writing in deeper ways and quickly perceive its inner workings.  [As I say up top, if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader.]

Then she would practice writing. Her practice would be slow, painstaking and error-focused. Ben Franklin would take essays from The Spectator magazine and translate them into verse. Then he’d translate his verse back into prose and examine, sentence by sentence, where his essay was inferior to The Spectator’s original.  The aim is to focus meticulously on technique. . . . [At some point, you must lay a page of your writing alongside that of your favorite writer.  Compare, contrast.  Why is their writing better?]

By practicing in this way, performers delay the "automatizing" [my emphasis] process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough. ["Since I speak English, I can be a writer"--this is the unsaid assumption by some people who get the sudden desire to write a book; without any "practice", they start writing.]  By practicing slowly, by breaking skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.  [This paragraph is about understanding the grammar, style, prose patterns, types of sentences, and above all, the techniques of fiction.]

Then our young writer would find a mentor who would provide a constant stream of feedback, viewing her performance from the outside, correcting the smallest errors, pushing her to take on tougher challenges. [An editor?  A writing workshop?  A circle of writer friends who distribute tough love in their editorial comments?] By now she is redoing problems — how do I get characters into a room — dozens and dozens of times. She is ingraining habits of thought she can call upon in order to understand or solve future problems.

The primary trait she possesses is not some mysterious genius. It’s the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.
[end of David Brooks' essay]

Mr. Brooks' ending is a bit of a downer, and slightly misleading.  If we write something that is "boring" to us, it will also bore the reader.  But to be fair, he's talking about "practice." However, what he might have added at the end is the thrill that comes when you, the writer, break through the membrane of self-consciousness ("I'm writing this!"), and, with all your techniques "automatized",  enter the zone of creativity wherein the story unfolding on your screen is more true and more real than, as we say, life itself.  Now you're ready for publication.