This is the time of year in which many of us make grand resolutions, forgetting (yet again) that some of us (and by that, I mean me) don’t have personalities that lend themselves to discipline and structure.
I am almost certain to fizzle out on my solemn promissory declarations by Week Two; by Week Four I am not even feeling guilty about it, because I have forgotten the earnest resolutions all together.
All the same, into every life must fall times of self-examination; a time to ensure that we are headed in the right direction and doing so as well as can be expected. This can be extra important for writers, whose lives lack many of the external carrots and sticks that serve to keep others on track. We can’t expect that even our best work will necessarily be published; we’d better not await a phone from an editor who just happens to be wondering what we’re writing these days. No, a writer is in charge of his or her own motivation and accomplishment, and just in time for New Year’s resolutions comes along a new book by Oregon poet Sage Cohen called The Productive Writer.
I’ve used Sage’s poetry how-to, Writing the Life Poetic, in my workshops before, as I like how the book beguiles those who wouldn’t necessarily label themselves ‘poets’ into experimenting with a genre that’s new to them.
In the same way, The Productive Writer won me over even though I’m not the type of person to gravitate toward books that include time management charts, lists and ‘questions to ask yourself.’ Before I’d even finished the first chapter, though, I was mentally developing a new system to collect inspiration and ideas. The second chapter went on to expand my understanding of what a ‘platform’ means to a writer, and why you should consciously develop one regardless of the kind of writing you do.
Further chapters don’t just help you achieve success in terms of page count or publication; they help you build a writing life, with all that entails: finding community, sharing your work, keeping your momentum going, and honing the practicalities of your work, from filing systems to submission tracking.
Sage is an amazingly prolific person herself, juggling life as a poet, teacher, author, business writer and mother while maintaining her various websites and other self-marketing pursuits. I’m hoping her book will help me emulate even a portion of her accomplishments – so, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finish drawing my writing goal chart.
Happy New Year to all, and may you make all your dreams come true!Filed under From Peggy, Inspiration, On Books, Organizing our Writing Lives, Poetry, The Writer's Path, Writing as Career | Comments (3)
You know those writing books you buy, all excited, and then you read the introduction, all excited, and Chapter One, all excited, and then you somehow put it down and never pick it up again … let alone try any of the suggested exercises or writing prompts? I have shelves worth of those.
But at the moment I’m in the middle of powering through Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, and devouring it like a fast-paced novel.
Most of us don’t need a magic writing prompt to put the wind in our sails; we need to believe in the value of writing and of writers and even, sometimes, to feel that there are people out there who understand us and our somewhat illogical willingness to forego cash flow, sleep and leisure to wrestle words out of our head and onto a page that perhaps no one will ever read.
Thanks to her long career in New York publishing, Betsy Lerner ‘gets’ us, and describes writers back to ourselves in a way that is both reassuring and inspirational.
She also weaves in quotes from other literary sorts, such as this oh-so-true one from Martin Amis:
“(Writers) develop an extra sense that partly excludes you from experience. When writers experience things, they’re not really experiencing them anything like 100 percent. They’re always holding back and wondering what the significance is, or wondering how they’d do it on the page.”
Ring a bell with any of you?
For more self-revelatory tidbits, check out Lerner’s book, published this year by Riverside Books in a newly updated edition.Filed under From Peggy, Inspiration, On Books, The Publishing Industry, The Writer's Path, Writing as Career | Comments Off
I love the ideal bookshelves of artist Jane Mount. Have a gander at her whimsical pen and ink drawings of her clients’ favourite books lined up all together on a shelf.
Being a booky sort, I can never figure out why it’s so hard to find art that celebrates words. Recently I’ve been looking for a literature-inspired charm or pendant as a gift, but all I ever seem to see are little silver cell phone, martini glass or stilletto charms. Is this what we’ve come to, people??
But Jane’s ideal bookshelf creations give me hope. Now I know there are other people out there like me, people for whom owning the books is not enough – now we have to have drawings of them!
It makes me wonder, of course, what I’D choose for my bookshelf if I was to fork over the two hundred or so dollars for my own commissioned work. For the smaller of her two sizes (an 8 by 10-inch painting), you can submit photos of between five and fifteen books. Would I choose the ones I most love, right now? Or a selection I’ve loved at different phases of my life?
I know Gift From the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindburgh, would go on it. And maybe Anne Lamott’s great writing book, Bird by Bird. Maybe even The Scandalous Lady Robin, a crazy Regency romance about a fiercely independent woman who goes about in men’s clothing, a book that I read about twenty-eight times when I was in my teens.
How about you? What’s on your shelf? For inspiration, and to absorb some reading recommendations from like-minded souls, have a look at the idea bookshelves Jane has already posted.Filed under From Peggy, On Books | Comment (1)
Books give us the wings to be wide-ranging, enabling us to travel in spirit to places far distant from our own tiny existence. But sometimes we stumble upon associations that make the reading world seem very small – the literary equivalent of running into our hometown milkman while we are on a mountain-climbing adventure in Tibet.
I had such an experience this morning when I picked up Anne Fadman’s collection of essays, At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist. It’s been on my shelf for a while, having been brought home on impulse from the Indigo bargain bin.
Today, though, I flipped through the hardcover and settled in to read the introduction – and there discovered that the author is the daughter of Clifton Fadiman, whose name I know only because his was the first quotation I memorized, at the age of nine or so, from my mother’s battered old copy of Bartlett’s Quotations.
“Ennui,” he said, “felt on the proper occasions, is a sign of intelligence.” After finding out what ‘ennui’ meant, I was delighted to use this quotation to justify my tendency to glaze over or feign illness to get myself out of school.
So I settled in to read Anne Fadiman’s introduction feeling like we had already been introduced by a mutual friend. She, as was her father, is a devoted essayist, and she writes that “Conversation was at the center of my father’s life, it’s at the center of mine, and it’s at the center of the familiar essay.”
She then goes on to give her definition of the familiar essay, which may be inspiring to those of us who enjoy writing in the genre, but don’t want to fall into the traps enunciated by Fadiman:
“Today’s readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal – very personal – essays (more heart that brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both).”
The familiar essay found its heyday with Charles Lamb in the early nineteenth century, she says, when “The familiar essayist didn’t speak to the millions; he spoke to one reader, as if the two of them were sitting side by side in front of a crackling fire with their cravats loosened, their favorite stimulants at hand, and a long evening of conversation stretching before them. His viewpoint was subjective, his frame of reference concrete, his style digressive, his eccentricities conspicuous, and his laughter usually at his own expense. And though he wrote about himself, he also wrote about a subject, something with which he was so familiar, and about which he was so enthusiastic, that his word were suffused with a lover’s intimacy.”
She says that her character, a blend of ‘narcissism and curiosity’, lends itself well to writing the familiar essay. If that’s the case, many of us wordsmiths would do well to try penning one ourselves!Filed under From Peggy, Inspiration, Memoir, On Books, Quotations, The Writer's Path | Comments (2)
And I have a question for you.
To set this up, I’ll tell you I’m a dedicated purger. We’re now at the point in our house (which some would consider small but which is the perfect size for us) where it’s very important to practice the “something in, something out” rule. This means it’s OK to bring home something nicer or newer or better than something we already have but that thing we already have needs to be going somewhere else. I have no wish or desire to accumulate stuff and, in fact, it kind of makes me feel claustrophobic to do so.
So…what about books?
There was a time when I thought I would keep every book I ever got (this was during the acquisition phase of my life). However, clearly that’s no longer practical nor, to be honest, do I really find it desirable anymore either.
So, while my “Complete Works of William Shakespeare” and my Jane Austen collection will always have shelf space (don’t forget every Dick Francis book ever written and “My Friend Flicka” and “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “The Monday Horses”…oh, so many great books!) I can’t say I feel the need to keep an Emily Giffin book forever just because it was an enjoyable cottage read.
There’s also an added strain on our bookshelves in that my son is turning out to be a truly avid nose-buried-in-book reader (yay!) and I really want to build a library for him as well. Percy Jackson and the Olympians (the entire five-book series) has earned itself permanent fixture status just because of how much he adored it. It literally changed him; he’s a different child from before he read it and so how can I ever get rid of those books? (As an aside does anybody know what’s up with Rick Riordan? How can the man write so much? I’d love to know what he eats for breakfast!).
All this to say, I do get rid of books. Yes, I do. I have various ways of doing so and they include “going to the cottage” (lots of things go to the cottage on a kind of trial separation), donating to my kids’ school’s Book Bonanza fundraiser, lending them to people and then completely forgetting who I’ve lent them to and being surprised if they ever come home, etc.
My question for you is do you get rid of books? If so, how? And do you, like me, try to limit the number of books you need to house by taking advantage of things like borrowing from friends (and then returning them!), using the library and using e-readers? Note: we have two e-readers in our house – a Kindle and an iPad – and I’m not sure where they fit into the “something in, something out” rule but, there you go, once again it proves I’m not perfect!Filed under From Tudor, On Books, On Life, Organizing our Writing Lives | Comments (2)
I finally succumbed to the ubiquitous, in-your-face product displays at Indigo and purchased The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. And I’m glad I did – mostly because it’s given me a super tool to bring to writing workshops.
The book was written by a down-on-his-luck fellow who brought joy back into his life by paying attention to those small, wonderful moments that make us smile. He started a list of them on a blog and it hit a chord with millions of readers, and then of course came the book deal.
As you’ll see on his site, the moments he captures are, truly, awesome. Recent ones include “when someone returns your book and they’ve actually read it” and “when you get in the car and notice someone’s filled up the tank.”
The book is full of more little happinesses, like those times “when you get an eyelash out of your eye” or get “the thank-you wave when you let someone merge in front of you.” They really are great.
But the reason I bring the book to writers’ workshops is to illustrate the danger of over-explaining things in your writing. Each of Pasricha’s ‘awesome things’ is followed by his explanation/analysis of the pleasure – text that can run from a paragraph to two pages in length. And the effect, for me at least, is to dilute the power of his original idea.
When you’ve found the perfect detail or descriptor in your writing, let it speak for itself. Attempts to make sure the reader ‘gets it’ saps its initial impact. As publisher Sol Stein put it “one plus one equals a half.”
Comedian Sarah Silverman puts it another way. As quoted by Shinan Govani in the June 23rd National Post, she made a reference at a Nantucket comedy festival to a “hat on a hat.” As Govani explained that’s “a joke that ruins a joke by adding an extra bit of comedy when the joke, as it happens, is simple and clear.”
However you want to phrase it, it’s a lesson worth remembering.
Bonus tip: If you’re looking for a party game for your writers’ group – and who isn’t – try this one: Ask people to write down their top three or four ‘awesome things’ but to keep them anonymous. The group leader reads out the list, and a prize goes to whoever can identify which writer belongs to which list. It’s illuminating! A variation, of course, would be to include two or three anti-awesome things, too, like those times you realize it’s garbage day just as the truck thunders by your house…Filed under From Peggy, In the News, Language & Usage, On Books, Sites We Like, Tips on technique, Writing Exercises | Comments Off
Tudor: I spent March Break in Florida (sneaky hey? You didn’t even know I was gone…). At any rate, I was supposed to have a brand new e-book reader to take with me and was jumping up and down and very excited because, while I’m the person who wrote the essay in journalism school about how newspapers would never disappear, I suddenly realized that having committed to travelling as a family of four with only carry-on luggage (which we managed) how on earth was I ever going to bring enough “real” books to keep me busy?
So, of course, an e-reader was the answer to all my problems and would give me something fantastic to blog about upon my return and…it didn’t arrive before we left!
What a blow. So, instead, I was able to take one (ONE!) book and had to rely after that on Florida condo bookshelf books – you know the kind I mean – the ones somebody found interesting enough to buy but didn’t love enough to keep. Not the kind of books I wanted to read on one of my very rare holidays.
But, they did get me thinking and have provided me with blog-fodder; just not the type of fodder I was expecting.
I ended up reading three books and came to an interesting conclusion. It seemed that the better the quality of the writing (here I’m talking about language, flow, the ability to put words together in an elegant and interesting way) the less emphasis on plot, whereas the more emphasis put on plot, the worse (and I’m talking really quite bad) the quality of writing got.
This, of course, feeds into the stereotype that lyrical / literary / elegant novels don’t go anywhere or do very much storywise and that action-packed thrillers are real donkeys to read.
So, in the spirit of proving this stereotype wrong (or, at least, not always right), here are a few examples, just off the top of my head, of books that I think move story-wise while also being crafted in a way that makes them moving.
- Anything written by Dick Francis up to, and including, Decider (1993).
- Fall on Your Knees and The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald.
- Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series.
Another great example, even though not my personal favourite, is the Inspector Rebus series by Ian Rankin. While Rankin and Rebus have never fully clicked with me, they’re a great example of meaty stories mixed with rich characterization and high-quality writing. That this series has been so well-received and that both Rankin and Rebus have become near-household names just shows how strongly readers appreciate great writing piggybacked on a good story and how richly authors who manage it will be rewarded.
How about you Peggy? And everyone else out there too? What stories keep you turning pages with their blend of artistry and action?
Peggy: Well, as you know, Tudor, I’m a bit of a memoir junkie. And I’m not the only one. Statistics quoted here on a women’s memoir website show that the incidence of memoir publishing has well more than doubled in the last decade.
Much of the growth has been in the area of non-celebrity memoirs; thoughtful books penned by previously unknown people who have either lived through some extraordinary experiences, or people who have lived ordinary lives but write about them extraordinarily well.
These are the books that are gripping me now. I just finished After the Falls by Canadian author Catherine Gildiner, and loved it; she grew up in those transition years between the 1950s and 60s, a time of massive social change and an era that’s always fascinated me (probably because I just missed it!)
Personal essays and stories penned in her book Pathologies, by Susan Olding (also Canadian!) wrapped themselves around my heart and had me reading to the wee hours, and I also enjoyed the life stories by Cynthia Kaplan in Why I’m Like This.
I was also up late at night enjoying the collected stories of B.C. writer and storyteller Ivan Coyote; though she often writes from a place in the gay community, her insights, humour and sometimes-poignant reflections about humanity and the people who comprise it will resonate with many of us.
These are a few of the personal stories I’ve enjoyed in the past couple of months, and all of them are well-paced and well-crafted pageturners. I’d welcome more memoir recommendations!Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Language & Usage, Memoir, On Books, Sunday Special | Comments Off
Peggy recently recommended that I read In the Woods, by Tana French as a way to illustrate some things I’ve been working on in my own writing.
This is why Peggy is brilliant at editing / coaching others and I am not. Because it was a great suggestion and I have tonnes of thoughts about the writing, characterization and plot of this book. And many of them line up with the thoughts / misgivings / uncertainties I have about my own writing.
There is nowhere near enough space to tackle all of them in this post but it might be worthwhile reading this book (I got it out of the library) because they just may pop up again in the future since both Peggy and I have read the book and it does illustrate some issues very nicely.
For today, the big “discuss” I’m going to chew over and then send to Peggy is RESOLUTION as it relates to plot. What does the author owe us in terms of resolving plotlines? Does it change from genre to genre? Has this author lived up to her obligation?
So, first I say, yes – genre makes a difference in terms of what we expect from an author. In a coming-of-age novel, we expect the characters to reach some new level in life but we don’t expect to know what they go on do for the rest of their lives. In a mystery, because it’s a mystery, we pretty much expect the mystery to be solved.
Which, in this book, French half does. There are two main plotlines, both are mysteries. One is solved. One, despite being equally if not more prominent than the other, is not.
Which raises the question of what is owed to us? Are we owed a resolution to that plotline? People (readers, writers, editors, etc.) sometimes argue “in real life everything isn’t resolved” and that’s true. However, if I was happy with unresolved endings from real life I would stick to real-life stories like this heartwrenching one. Once I enter the realm of a piece of fiction writing I expect the author to use the freedom fiction gives her to give me an ending.
I could be wrong though. No doubt some will argue it’s not only more realistic but also more artistic to leave the story with no ending.
As a writer I find plotting is the hardest work. If you use the little girl in French’s novel as an example, she’s pegged to be a great ballerina because she both has the talent needed and is willing to put in the hard work necessary.
For me writing is mostly talent and characterization leans heavily on it too. Everyone can strengthen their writing style but a true voice is much more nature than nurture. Characterization can be improved with exercises but I think, often, really great writers just get it. French’s writing is great and her characterization (mostly) strong.
However, along comes plot which, as I said above, to me represents the hard work aspect of things. The planning and checking and re-checking and poking your fingers into your eyeballs (whoops; maybe that’s just me!). Plot, in many ways, levels the playing field. Because so many writers who write (you’ve read these reviews) “lyrical”, “beautiful”, “flowing” prose and who even have likeable characters, just don’t put in the miles needed on the plot.
For me In the Woods is an intriguing, captivating, well-written book but I think it would have been better for another round of plot revision. Likely from an objective outside source. Which brings me to the question – where was the editor? But that’s another post for another day…
And on that unresolved ending I’ll turn it over to Peggy.
Peggy: When Tudor started talking about the two mysteries in Tana French’s In the Woods, I drew a total blank – despite the fact that I loved this book, and continue to recommend it to others. So clearly the plot isn’t what stayed with me.
I do remember a vague feeling of ‘hmmm….’ at the end of In the Woods, given that not everything is tied up in a neat package. What I recall more, though, is the disappointment that the book had to end at all.
I don’t point to this novel as a primer on how mysteries should be written. But I have used it as an example of how a relationship can be portrayed so well that it is a living and breathing entity of its own. The friendship between the two detectives, Maddox and Ryan, is as tangible and real as the most precious vase or ornament you own – and as fragile.
I also quote passages from the book to illustrate the power of using specific descriptors when you’re writing. When one of the detectives describes his first weeks in a bedsit when he moved out of his parents’ home, he doesn’t just talk about lying in his room listening to the street noise and smelling foreign food; he is listening to people argue in Russian, hearing the wail of a violin, and breathing in the pungent smell of curry. Scenes throughout the book are sprinkled with such sensory details, which serve to animate each passage and certainly enriched my reading experience.
So to answer your question, Tudor, no, I didn’t feel ripped off by the loose endings in this particular book. But when I read a more typical, plot-driven genre detective novel, I certainly want all the twists and turns explained to my satisfaction by the time I turn out the light on the last page.
Writers sometimes experiment with leaving questions (large or small) for readers to work out on their own, but this is tricky business. No, you don’t want to spoon-feed everything to your audience, but you also don’t want to leave readers confused or dissatisfied. When in doubt, run your story by a few people and see if you’ve managed to strike the right balance. And then go read The Likeness – Tana French’s next mystery featuring Detective Maddox. Enjoy!Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, On Books, Sunday Special, Tips on technique | Comments Off
Not being a follower, I likely won’t have Ozzy Osbourne’s new autobiography I Am Ozzy on my bedside table in the foreseeable future. But I love the widely reporter disclaimer that appears at the beginning of his book, and think all of us memoir writers should include something similar (though the faint-hearted among us might opt for less colourful language!):
“Other people’s memories of the stuff in this book might not be the same as mine. I ain’t gonna argue with ‘em. Over the past forty years I’ve been loaded on booze, coke, acid, Quaaludes, glue, cough mixture, heroin, Rohypnol, Klonopin, Vicodin, and too many other heavy-duty substances to list in this footnote. On more than a few occasions I was on all of these at the same time. I’m not the fucking Encyclopedia Britannica, put it that way. What you read here is what dribbled out of the jelly I call my brain when I asked it for my life story. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Isn’t that true of all our memoirs and autobiographies? We might not be loaded on coke or Vicodin, but our memories are skewed through different lenses: resentments, birth order, health or illness, our economic situation, you name it… as police know well from often conflicting witness reports, two people’s readings of the same situation can vary dramatically.
And on top of our immediate perception of any given event, we are now finding that our memory of it proves, over the years, to be fluid and malleable, shaped by a variety of influences and factors. (Just one small example, showing how doctored photos can shape a person’s recall of events, is here.)
Perhaps the best we can expect of our memoirs is they are utterly faithful to our lives as we perceived them. When we write something, we know when it has the ring of truth about it – and we also know when we are avoiding genuine authenticity. The latter will never truly engage your readers – even if your ‘facts’ are impeccable.
Thanks, Ozzy, for the reminder!
Filed under From Peggy, In the News, Memoir, On Books, On Life, Quotations
Tudor: Do beautiful books come from beautiful people? Sadly, not always. It’s disconcerting to meet, as I once did, the author of a deeply beautiful story only to find him to be rude, dismissive and patronizing but, unfortunately it can happen.
However, those encounters aren’t fun so they’re not fun to write about and instead I’m going to tell you about some of the loveliest book writers I know of.
Here are three that come immediately to mind:
1) Jacob Berkowitz, author of Jurassic Poop. Dinosaurs and poop. Kid heaven. But even better was the presentation Berkowitz gave at our local library. My kids will never forget “Chief Bottom”, as Berkowitz called himself, showing them how they could use scientific skills to solve pre-historic mysteries. After the presentation, he gave even more of his time to explain the real-life science behind Jurassic Park (mosquitoes, amber, DNA, etc.) to my two future paleontologists.
2) Genevieve Hone, author of The Way I See It. I was fortunate to meet Genevieve as a person before I knew she was an author and it’s no surprise she writes with compassion, empathy and common sense as she is all these things in real life. Her novel take on parenting from a child’s point of view is fun reading – for more information read my review of it here.
3) Suzanne Lafleur, author of Love, Aubrey. Little did I know when I happened to pick her book up from one of the displays in the children’s section of the library, what an emotional roller coaster Lafleur would send me on. Love, Aubrey had me not just sniffling but outright sobbing (I dare you to read it without Kleenex close by) but in between was enough humour and hope to keep the read easy and enjoyable.
Since I have a thing about sending actual written cards, letters, etc. and Lafleur’s website says she likes receiving them, I wrote to her and she sent back the nicest note. She referred to me as a “fellow writer” – so kind. Just as though she hadn’t noticed that she’s written a brilliant, published children’s novel and I haven’t. She told me to keep writing. She even told me my handwriting wasn’t as bad as I feared. In short, she made my day.
The above are just three of the wonderful people I’ve come across who have written wonderful books. For me a great book is made even more enjoyable by knowing a bit about the great writer behind it.
What about you Peggy? Do you have any author stories you’d like to share?
Peggy: Last year I sent an email to detective author Stuart Pawson (who writes a wonderful series featuring DI Charlie Priest), and was inexplicably thrilled when he answered. A brief but – I’ll say it again – thrilling flurry of correspondence followed (my mother and I are both in love with character Charlie Priest) so to speak to his creator was delightful.
As a society, I guess we put known writers in somewhat of a celebrity league, and any notice they pay us is far more impactful than that bestowed by, say, a dentist. So when an author is even a little bit nice, the effect is magnified tenfold. I’m always impressed by those authors who spend the time to encourage others; those, like James McCann, who does workshops with teens in which he hands out his email address in case there are burgeoning writers in the group who want to follow up with him further.
However, I know that it is also easy for writers (the less famous ones, usually!) to get caught up in being too ‘nice’, to the great detriment of their own work. Whether it’s volunteering at the library, writing with kids, or helping other people edit their letters or stories or reports, this kind of ‘niceness’ is very often at the expense of one’s personal writing time. Especially when writers aren’t yet widely published, they may not think they have the right to close their door, turn off the phone, and expect to work at their writing undisturbed on a regular basis.
We talk about writing being a selfish act, and it can feel that way. It requires a solitude and apart-ness that contradicts many of the instincts we have as friends and parents and partners. By and large, people are designed to live in community, but writers must deliberately remove themselves from the pack if they are to get any real work done.
And yet the authors who make that commitment turn around and present us with stories that touch our hearts, give us hope, make us laugh, keep us amused, and restore our souls (sometimes all in one volume!) Anyone who can give a gift like that can’t be too selfish in my books.Filed under From Peggy and Tudor, Inspiration, On Books, Sunday Special | Comments Off