What would Stephen King do?

King-on-writingSilk’s Post #159 — If you want to learn to be a good writer, you could do worse than read Stephen King. The guy is a legend, but let’s check his credentials anyway:

  • Published 54 novels, 6 non-fiction books, nearly 200 short stories. Yes, he’s been busy.
  • Sold more than 350 million copies of his novels. That’s certainly impressive.
  • Won too many awards to list, including Hugo Award, Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the National Book Foundation, National Medal of Arts … Oh, you get the idea.
  • Written 39 stories that have been turned into movies, including 5 Oscar nominees. Nice sideline, eh?
  • Is reported to be worth 400 million dollars. That should impress anyone who likes to measure success in dollars and cents.

If you’re a writer, though, one particular book nestled in this vast body of work was written just for you: Stephen King On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. As the huge horde of hungry, not-yet-published writers like me know very well, there’s no shortage of books on writing and publishing written “just for us.” Your shelves, like mine, may be groaning with them. In fact, there’s a whole industry built around selling advice and support to “emerging” writers.

A lot of the books on writing are useful (although prescriptions ought not necessarily be taken as directed), but you probably never heard of most of their authors before you aspired to become a published writer yourself. You can count on your fingers the books “for writers” penned by that super elite level of authors, the bestselling superstars.

Besides King, the ones that immediately come to mind are Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity), Elmore Leonard (10 Rules of Writing), Janet Evanovich (How I Write), Elizabeth George (Write Away), P. D. James (Talking About Detective Fiction), Walter Mosley (This Year You Write Your Novel), Annie Dillard (The Writing Life), and the prolific Margaret Atwood, who has written three books on writing, writers and the writing life (Negotiating with the Dead – a Writer on Writing; Moving Targets – Writing with Intent 1982-2004; and In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination). A few of these books are in the “how to” or coaching category, while others lean toward memoir, but they’re all valuable and often quoted.

Yet the one that stands out most for me is Stephen King’s On Writing. I must admit that King had me at the epigraph, where he set the tone with a pair of quotes:

Honesty’s the best policy.
— Miguel de Cervantes

Liars prosper.
— Anonymous

And the book only gets more circular and thought-provoking from there on, as it spirals deep into the organic heart of King’s writing life. It begins with 100 pages of memoir, called “C.V.” I call it confessions of a congenital writer. This section is larded with gut-wrenching real-life moments. Life is messy and mysterious, it tells us.

We then get to a tiny section titled “What Writing Is,” only to discover that it, too, is messy and mysterious. He opens this section with an answer to its title: “Telepathy, of course.”

Then King proceeds to demonstrate by drawing us into an imaginary scene where writer and reader experience a “meeting of the minds.” That’s the telepathy part, styled as a magic act. It’s a story about storytelling that reminded me of the famous scene in the 1976 movie The Last Tycoon, brilliantly acted by Robert De Niro, with the punchline “the nickel was for the movies.” (You can see it here on You Tube)

King then completely shifts gears, diving into a short how-to section called “Toolbox,” in which he reads us the usual creative writing teacher’s riot act in an entertaining story form. (King was, in fact, a high school English teacher at one time.) He begins with the holy trinity: vocabulary, grammar, style. These are not optional. He steers us to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as our bible. He warns that hell awaits writers who use adverbs.

Then, happily, class is dismissed and he launches into the section we were waiting for: “On Writing.” Surely this is where the magic is revealed, where King will give up his secrets and teach us how we, too, can become bestselling authors in X number of steps.

At this point, if you’re reading the book, I recommend you go back to the second of King’s three forewords, which begins, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” This is a good reality check.

I won’t elaborate on what’s in this section of the book. You should read it yourself. But I will tell you some things I learned from it. There’s nothing pedantic or even very structured in this book because King is, first and foremost, a storyteller, not a how-to list maker. What I took from On Writing are more like illuminations – ideas that lit up in some brain cell for me as a result of going along for the ride, of reading a non-fiction book written by a great fiction writer.

These are my own interpretations, not a literal list from Stephen King:

The joy of writing: Writing should be a joy. If you love it, you do it. You build your life around it, not the other way around. And that includes omnivorous reading.

The fear factor: Writing is emotionally and intellectually challenging as well as demanding of your time, and taking criticism can be bruising. So you need to have lots of that joy on tap, lose your fear of failure, and just keep writing.

Nature + nurture: Writing your head off is bound to make you a better writer, but you also have to have some native talent to become a really, really good one. Conversely, native talent will not make you a really, really good writer unless you write your head off.

Writing and storytelling: Good writing is a commandment, but storytelling is the holy grail. Writing = the craft; storytelling = the magic. You can learn a craft; magic rises intuitively from the inside out. Craft has rules; magic does not. Writing is a skill; storytelling is a talent.

Storytelling and plotting: These are not, not, NOT the same thing. A story is a tale with a life of its own. A plot is a plan, a map of how to sequence and structure the telling of the story.

OPs vs. NOPs: Forget the binary debate between outlining vs. organic styles of writing (outline people vs. non-outline people, or plotters vs. pantsers). There is no “right way.” Do what feels right. Your first draft will fall somewhere on the spectrum of imperfection no matter how you approach it. At best it will need cosmetic surgery, at worst it will be a Frankenstein that needs errant body parts re-attached in the right place. The story rules. Serve the story, not the process.

Characters drive story: Without characters, there is no story. Without characters who are real, dimensional and engaging – characters worth caring about – there are no readers.

Use your imagination: “Write what you know” isn’t a restriction, it’s an invitation. What you know – or can find out – are the answers to a constant stream of “what if?” questions you must pose. Those answers can come from your own experience, your probing imagination, or your research. Push your intuition and logic. Truth isn’t an average of likelihoods.

Use your senses: All of them. See, feel, hear, smell settings. Listen to dialogue. Pay attention to body language, micro-expressions, conflicts hidden under the surface. Taste foods, air, water, sweat from effort, sweat from fear. Do it every day, wherever you are. Recreate it in writing so that readers sense it too.

Making it matter: Some stories arise from a theme. Some themes emerge organically from a story. Either way works and can be enhanced in rewrite. Themes are a way to give a story more layers, deepen readers’ connection, make it matter to them, make it memorable. You can write a good novel with no theme, but why would you leave out this dimension?

Does all this seem familiar? Probably. Pick up any book on writing and you’ll find these topics covered somewhere, often prescriptively. Funny how you can “know” something – read about it, understand it intellectually – and yet not really experience that “aha!” moment at a deep, intuitive level until someone or something causes you to look at it through different eyes.

That’s what Stephen King’s On Writing did for me. I think it was because of his ability to create a story about story, to personalize it through the memoir material woven through the book. It was a hard book for him to write, every word “a kind of torture,” he admits. He began it in 1997, got half way through it, and put it in the drawer. Eighteen months later, in June of 1999, he “decided to spend the summer finishing the damn writing book.”

Two days later, he was fighting for his life after a horrendous accident in which he was hit by a van while walking down a country lane in Maine. It shattered his leg and hip, broke his ribs, chipped his spine. His story of this personal trauma in a section titled “On Living: A Postscript,” is a dramatic denouement to On Writing. The shock of it lit up the entire text of the book for me, like a bolt of fork lightning.

Five weeks after his accident, King picked up his half-finished manuscript of “the damn writing book” and began to write again:

That first writing session lasted an hour and forty minutes, by far the longest period I’d spent sitting upright since being struck by Smith’s van. When it was over, I was dripping with sweat and almost too exhausted to sit up straight in my wheelchair. The pain in my hip was just short of apocalyptic. And the first 500 words were uniquely terrifying – it was as if I’d never written anything before them in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me. I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man finding his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones. There was no inspiration that first afternoon, only a kind of stubborn determination and the hope that things would get better if I kept at it.

And, of course, things did get better. Exponentially better.

If the story of this book does not touch you as a writer, it’s time to take up something else. It certainly touched me. While I’ve always acknowledged his great talent and loved a number of his novels – which are mostly outside my genre comfort zone – I’ve never aspired to write like Stephen King. I still don’t.

But what On Writing has inspired me to do is to be more like him. Hence, my new compass point: What would Stephen King do? I’m pretty sure I know what the answer will be nine times out of ten: just keep writing. 


This is the first in an occasional series I’m planning to do on the 5Writers blog of reviews/discussions of books on writing. Stephen King seemed a good place to start. After all he is, well, the King.

How do writers describe emotions?

Karalee’s Post #103

I volunteer twice a week at a school to help refugee children learn English and Math. It is tremendously rewarding for me, definitely one of those win-win experiences.

Today when I left the classroom I felt a surge of happiness at the progress that these children are making. I turned the corner into a hallway leading towards the front doors and a student I knew from last term was right there laughing and interacting with her friends. She was holding a box of chocolates and she waved me over and offered me one, all the while speaking English and exuding happiness. Her shyness and insecurity seemed a memory of the past.

It truly is tremendous what a positive learning environment and the drive to learn can achieve!

I left the school almost skipping in my happy-mind state. Then, like Helga in her last post –  A picture worth a thousand plots. Or turning ideas into stories – I stopped short as a writer’s moment hit me. They come to me quite frequently, and this time it was in the form of a question.

How would I describe an emotion?

Wikipedia lists dozens of emotions. Psychologist Paul Ekman, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, states that there are six basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise. These emotions are expressed by certain facial expressions that are universal in all cultures.

The lists tell me what the emotions are, and facial expressions and other body postures are great contributors to helping describe the emotion. But that’s not all that writers need to do in describing an emotion.

Writers also need to express how the character is feeling while experiencing the emotion. How do I describe what fear feels like? Or happiness? Or more complex emotions like Shame? Pride? Guilt?

Almost two years ago I wrote the post How does a writer describe taste and smell? This post continues to generate interest with readers, and I believe it’s because describing taste and smell is difficult to do. I went back and reread my post and it struck me that some of the concepts I referred to also can be used in describing what a character is feeling within an emotion.

  1. An emotion can be described through a situation that evokes that emotion. For instance, a character can be in a closet waiting for the monster to break the door down and feeling like he’s jumped from an airplane and his parachute didn’t open and he’s waiting to hit the ground.
  2. Emotions can also be linked to memory and can be used in characterizations. An example could be happiness associated with celebrating a birthday, or being given special attention by a parent, etc. Later in life the same emotional feeling can be linked to a similar experience. Phobias are another expression of feelings associated with emotions. If you have a fear of driving it could be because you were in a car years before and a child jumped in front of your car and you couldn’t stop in time.
  3. Verbs are inherently used in describing what characters do when they feel certain emotions. When angry a character can hit, punch, kick, etc. When happy she can laugh, hug, dance, etc.

But, what if your readers have never felt the emotion that you are trying to describe? Could you, the writer, describe it in a way the reader could really experience and understand it? I would think not.

Like I wrote for describing taste and smell, much of what we write regarding emotions also relies on the reader experiencing something similar to it before. The reader needs to relate with his own emotions matching (or similar to) what the character is feeling in the story.

This is the ultimate connection of the reader to your character, don’t you think?

emotional thesaurusAnother great book to refer to in describing emotions is The Emotional Thesaurus. If you want to watch a video, here’s  YouTube link you may want to click on for more information on the subject of emotions.

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing Progress: Great suggestions from fellow writers on LinkedIn group Books and Writers on how to work around my self-editor and make progress. I will put these to the test this week!

Writing Distractions: I’m moving my office to another room in the house and am in the midst of reorganizing and finding loads of writing stuff I haven’t seen in months. It’s like Christmas and summer holidays rolled up in one!

Treats eaten: pieces of homemade pumpkin pie x 2 (small and delicious!)

Movies watched: Birdman. Didn’t think it was all that great. I wasn’t drawn in emotionally that’s for sure!

Perspective Photos taken this week:

airplane

baseball

Happy writing!

A bit of New Jersey wisdom

Silk’s Post #48 – Look, I’m from New York. Not the city, the suburbs. There’s probably a case to be made that huge chunks of Long Island (where I grew up), New Jersey and Connecticut are really all suburbs of “The City”. But Jersey is a planet unto itself.

Although I have some dearly-loved cousins there, I still tend to think of New Jersey as Noo Joisey. It’s not the place I automatically think of looking when I’m in search of wisdom.

But then I started reading How I Write by best selling author (and proud Jersey girl) Janet Evanovich.

After reading more books about writing than can be considered natural, I must admit that Evanovich’s unpretentious advice, presented mostly in Q-and-A format like a column of advice to the lovelorn, is a refreshing change. For what are we – the unpublished horde – if not lovelorn writers in search of an agent, an editor, a publisher, an audience?

Evanovich is a down-to-earth mystery series queen who freely admits to being a NASCAR buff, a cheez doodle addict and a disco music fan. She even claims to be inspired by Eminem videos and fantasies of seeing The Rock naked. So other than the fact that our birthplace zip codes are in the same time zone, and we both write, Janet and I probably don’t have a huge amount in common.

But what I love about her advice is her zero tolerance for BS. She’s hard-edged with a grin and a wink. Here’s her advice to a newbie writer who naively asked Evanovich what to do about her problem sticking with one story idea and her tendency to keep starting new projects instead, none of which seem to get finished:

“How about this – you start a book and every time you veer off in another direction, you imagine me standing behind you giving you a good smack on the head.”

In fact, almost all of Evanovich’s advice can be boiled down to this simple bit of New Jersey wisdom: Just quit your bellyaching and write already.

“Don’t get caught spending your writing time talking about writing, thinking about writing, planning your writing studio, shopping for comfortable writing clothes. Just do it. Write the book.”

Thanks Janet. I love the way you give million dollar advice using five cent words.

(I’m sailing around again, far from wifi, so forget the pretty pictures and links this time. Maybe I’ll add some tags and blog jewelry tomorrow if I can get a pipeline to cyberspace. Next week I’ll try to do something fancier.)

Writing Advice – 5¢

advice

Credit: iStock licensed image

Silk’s Post #38 — Helga always comes up with the best advice on writing from her beloved ‘masters’. She has enlightened us recently with her exploration of le Carré, and the fabulous quotes she found from Hemingway and Atwood. Can you tell she loves to research?

When I glance at my groaning writer’s bookshelf, I see advice from writers P.D. James, Bill Bryson, Kingsley Amis, Janet Evanovich, Ray Bradbury, Elizabeth George, Jack Hodgins, Hallie Ephron, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, William Safire, and of course everyone’s favourite man-of-few-words, Elmore Leonard (who nevertheless managed to stretch his famous 10 Rules of Writing out into an 89-page hardcover book, although, to be fair, it does have pictures).

That list doesn’t even include the dozens of books I’ve happily purchased at writers’ conferences and online that are full of writing advice from experts who are better known as writing teachers, editors, literary agents, writing coaches, publishers and others who write about writing (although some of them also write, well, regular writing too).

This all got me thinking about advice writers give other writers. Let’s face it, we are awash in it. In fact, there are times I feel I could actually drown in writing advice. Like so many other things we struggle to learn, it all makes sense … it’s all so easy … once we already know the thing from our own experience. Oh, conceptually it’s not difficult to wrap your mind around. We’ve all read the many, many lists of rules. (Most of them say much the same thing, so don’t bother reading all of them hoping to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow). And, just to make matters a bit trickier, there’s lots of equally sensible sounding advice that tells us there are no rules.

But don’t think for a minute that I don’t appreciate all this advice. Believe me, I do. I lap it up. A prolonged bout of writer’s block – say anything over 15 or 20 minutes (yes, I’m kidding) – sends me straight to the bookshelf for a dose of it. An hour or two wallowing in advice usually brings my blood pressure down without need for further medication, after which I can calmly return to my blank page with a very clear idea of what not to do.

What’s so much harder than grasping the concept, of course, is applying all this good advice to your own work right there on that actual blank page. It’s a little like trying to learn to play a sport by watching it on TV.  I don’t care how many times you see Tiger Woods swing a golf club or read books or study videos by golf pros, it’s not going to automatically get you into the cup in three strokes. Really, you just have to whack away until you ‘get it’ intuitively, physically, right in your bones.

Still, I’m grateful when I read advice from a great writer who once, like me, wasn’t. It’s a comfort.

Was there ever a profession more generous with its trade secrets? So full of mentors, coaches, evangelists? Writers seem to love to write for each other and about each other. After all, it’s what we do and who we are. I can’t imagine the same sort of soul connection between, say, chemists or bankers. Writers all have a common cause, a shared belief in the power of words and ideas, a passion for stories. We’re in love with them. Why else would most of us invest the insane amount of time, effort and heart into our work for so long with so little recognition or recompense to show for it?

Perhaps that’s one reason writers are so absolutely tribal, such a mutual aid society. Or maybe our willing embrace of each other comes from working alone so much.

Seriously, if you’re ever sitting by yourself in a strange airport or a crowded restaurant and you feel the need for human contact, just ask around and find yourself another writer. There’s bound to be one close by, if you believe the (now hoary but never really refuted) research finding that 80 percent of Americans want to write a book. When you locate this other writer (or wannabe writer), I guarantee you will have a lively conversation partner until your plane takes off or your dinner arrives. No secret handshakes required.

safire-bookBut back to Good Advice on Writing, which just happens to the title of a book by William Safire and his brother, Leonard Safir, on the topic. This is probably the best anthology of quotes on good writing ever collected – a whole bookshelf between two covers.

(I always had a bit of a crush on William Safire, the crusty, crafty columnist for the New York Times for 30 plus years. While I found his libertarian political views appalling, though always expressed with seductive charm, his columns on language were some of the best entertainment in print. Safire, in fact, wrote in just about every format imaginable; by his own account he was a: “reporter, press agent, lexicographer, speechwriter, novelist, pundit, anthologist and language maven.”)

Even in the preface to the book, impatient perhaps to get to the point, Safire immediately begins doling out good advice. When I read him, I feel like we’re sitting together in a good bar in New York City, chatting writer-to-writer over some kind of cocktails they haven’t mixed since the 1940s. Here’s a sample:

“This anthology is for the reading writer; specifically, the writer interested in good advice from successful practitioners in the art of transmitting original ideas. Although you are at the moment in the role of a reader, I presume you are a writer, or would like to be a writer, or get a kick out of hanging around writers and would not be averse to having them consider you a valuable associate.

“For me – the one doing the writing in this writer-reader symbiosis – that happily defines this book’s primary audience, but to you – the reading writer – it should raise the question: Is it a good idea for a writer to try to define an audience? More broadly, whom is the writer writing for? William Zinsser, quoted herein, has this answer: ‘You are writing for yourself … Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it.’

“Writing for yourself is not as arrogant as it seems … in the big writing decisions, from the selection of theme to the evocation of character, the good writer thinks only of an audience of Number One. Self-indulgent? Sure; that’s one of the pleasures that come with the pain of pulling a real purpose out of your mind. Creative authenticity comes from seeking to suit oneself and rarely springs from a desire to please others.”

Safire even advises us about the advice to be found in his book. He encourages skepticism.

“When writers read, they read with narrowed eyes, knowing that their emotions or thought processes are being manipulated and subtly directed by a fellow member of the scribe tribe … Writers read skeptically, often doubtfully … Reading writers are never mere receptacles. Read the sometimes conflicting advice of other writers [in this anthology] to help sharpen [your] purpose, but read with those narrowed eyes.”

To illustrate, he quotes one of his favourite pieces of advice from Somerset Maugham:

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

But should that seem to throw a pall on our writers’ tête à tête (remember, we’re still sitting in that New York bar), Safire just orders another round of Sidecars, or Rusty Nails or whatever our poison might be and reminds us why we’re all in this crazy world together:

“Many of us have been in varying lines of work, but insist that first and last we are writers. That’s because writing is less a profession than a professing – a way of stimulating, organizing and affirming thoughts to give meaning to some slice of life.

“When you’re tired of writing, you’re tired of life.”

Breaking the rules

rule bookSilk’s Post #26 — Everybody ‘writes’. (Let’s leave the very real literacy problem aside for the moment and concede that writing is a pretty commonplace activity.)

We all express ourselves in written words, somewhere, somehow, for some reason.

But becoming a ‘writer’ is quite a different matter. The decision to take up writing as a profession, even when (or maybe especially when) it’s a second career, takes a mole hill and turns it into a mountain. The simple, familiar, natural act of putting words on paper (or on screen) becomes a sometimes bewildering challenge.

You read a book – probably many books – and you become seduced. You think: I can do that, how hard can it be to tell a story?

Of course, very few would admit to thinking that naive thought, especially somewhere around chapter five of their first book. But surely most of us must have privately entertained a similar notion at some point. Otherwise, would we have set out on the Writer’s Journey at all?

Would-be novelists do not get very far down this road before they find themselves anxiously looking for road signs to tell them where they are and how to get to where they want to go. As soon as we realize we’re probably lost, we hunt for a friendly filling station where we can find a map, and maybe buy a guide book. We grab what help we can find, and top it off with a large coffee to go.

Once you understand that knowing how to put words on paper is not the same as knowing how to tell a story, what you really want to know are the rules of play. You have an idea for a novel, but where do you start? How do you move the plot forward? What do you do at the end? It all seemed so obvious before you faced that blank page. Now you cast your eyes skyward and beg for some reliable commandments that will get you to writer’s heaven.

Fear not. Apart from tax accounting, there is probably no field of endeavour so richly endowed with rules as the enterprise of novel writing. Many centuries of English etymology have yielded a whole universe of rules on usage, vocabulary and grammar, with such a mind-boggling array of exceptions to every rule that just navigating the language is an epic quest in itself.

But that pales in comparison with the rules of storytelling that must be followed if you want to turn your idea into a bestselling novel. Let’s start with the rule that there are only Seven Basic Plots. Or perhaps there are five. Or twenty. There is no real general agreement on this rule.

In fact, right away you discover that you’re going to have to choose among competing rules.

And there are many prescriptions for what a writer must, or must not, do. The aspiring writer, eager to learn, is given to understand that the penalty for breaking the rules is a rejection notice. Career suicide. Eternal obscurity. Among the most conventional of these rules (listed from memory after a couple of years of seeing them over and over and over) are:

  1. Show, don’t tell
  2. Write what you know
  3. Avoid too many adjectives, and all adverbs
  4. Write in active, not passive, voice
  5. Don’t go on and on and on and on and on
  6. Put conflict on every page
  7. Banish boring backstory
  8. Mind your POV
  9. Keep the writer’s presence invisible
  10. Don’t use exclamation points (for much more than you ever wanted to know about this topic, see my earlier post, “I miss the exclamation point!”)

Did you notice how I made a neat list of 10 rules? I’m following a literary tradition here. The gurus who give writing advice, many of them writers themselves, like to come up with pithy lists of rules.

Elmore Leonard has Ten Rules for Writing, as Paula noted in her post “Deja vu all over again”. So does Etgar Keret (plus a few hints about nose-picking). Neil Gaiman managed to edit his list down to Eight Rules for Writing. The great Robert Heinlein’s Six Rules for Writing are some of the tersest and wisest.

But that’s just a tiny sampling. There are pages and pages full of rules to learn. Books full. Seriously, there is no end to this overflow of wisdom. It’s an industry.

But there’s a catch. And it’s a big one.

Nobody ever wrote a great book by following rules. 

I’m not suggesting all this rulemaking and advice is not helpful. Rules encapsulate broader lessons that writers need to learn, and provide useful (if sometimes confusing) signposts along the road to from “Once Upon a Time” to “The End.” However, I’ve been forced to the conclusion that following rules is certainly no guarantee of success, nor is breaking them a guarantee of failure.

I offer evidence from two very different points in the literary spectrum.

Exhibit 1: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

girl-with-the-dragon-tattooThe blockbuster book. The hollywood movie. The phenomenon. Together with the two other titles that make up Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, this series racked up 65 million sales worldwide in a little over five years, and spawned three darkly dramatic Swedish films and a star-studded Hollywood remake.

I have yet to talk to anyone who started the series and did not get sucked into it. I also have yet to talk to a reader who doesn’t claim they almost abandoned it as they laboured through the slow-moving, backstory-riddled, unexciting first few chapters.

“Why the hell is everybody raving about this thing?” was my first reaction. But I stuck with it. Millions did. And we were rewarded with an original and daring saga, driven by unforgettable characters.

Flawed? Certainly. Perhaps if Larsson hadn’t dropped dead at 50 and had polished it further with the help of a good editor, it would have been a better book. Or maybe it would have been “fixed” by rewriting it into a forgettable formula suspense-thriller, or never have been published at all.

If Larsson has a biographer, I hope they’ll name the book The Man Who Broke the Rules.

Exhibit 2: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

midnight's-childrenThe Booker Prize. The art film. The critics’ darling. This 1981 saga of India is an enduring work of literature that became a movie 31 years after it was published. Critics lavished praise on Rushdie’s second novel, the sale of which prompted the author to quit his part-time job as an advertising copywriter and become a full-time novelist.

“An extraordinary novel … one of the most important to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation.”      — The New York Review of Books

“Huge, vital, engrossing … in all senses a fantastic book.”   — The Sunday Times

What most people know Rushdie for is his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, which earned him a different type of notoriety: a 1989 fatwa calling for his execution issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini for what was judged to be the book’s irreverence in its portrayal of the prophet Muhammad.

But while Rushdie’s work made him an outlaw in the Islamic world, it made him a superstar in the literary world. Midnight’s Children was awarded the “Booker of Bookers” prize in 1993 for the best novel among Booker Prize winners for fiction over the prize’s first 25 years. In 2008 it went on to win the “Best of the Booker” by popular vote.

I defy anyone to dive into the rich, thick soup of Midnight’s Children with anybody’s list of writing rules in hand. You will be overwhelmed with the wanton breakage of virtually all of them. There’s tell-tell-telling that doesn’t at all feel like telling. Bizarre, lurching changes in POV, concurrent with dizzying shifts in time and space. The book is littered with odd punctuation, so that it often feels like you’re reading a song with some hidden rhythm rather than a piece of prose. It’s difficult. A book to give an agent ulcers. Yet the whole thing is utterly engulfing.

What to say about an author so given to rule breaking and prize winning? He’s a survivor. A creative voice that has persisted despite death threats, assassination attempts, multiple marriages, the commercial obsession of the publishing industry, and every writing rule book. Oh, and the advertising business.

So let me ask Colson Whitehead, New York Times Sunday Book Reviewer to wrap up this rule-breaking point for me:

“There are no rules. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?”

I miss the exclamation point!

exclamation-pointSilk’s post #23 — No one ever seems to talk about punctuation anymore. Once upon a time, students were forced to diagram sentences – an exercise as exciting as algebra, and just about as relevant to the enjoyment of literature. Sentences were to be taught to behave, like errant schoolboys.

Now, despite an entertaining selection of modern books dedicated to preserving some semblance of grammatical purity, advertising-speak and email have pretty well demolished punctuational discipline forever.

Nevertheless, I love Lynne Truss’s sensible definition of punctuation in her surprising bestseller Eats Shoots & Leavessubtitled “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:”

“Best of all, I think, is the simple advice given by the style book of a national newspaper: that punctuation is ‘a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling.’ Isn’t the analogy with good manners perfect? Truly good manners are invisible: they ease the way for others, without drawing attention to themselves. … As we shall see, the practice of ‘pointing’ our writing has always been offered in a spirit of helpfulness, to underline meaning and prevent awkward misunderstandings between writer and reader.”

It has often been pointed out that poor use of punctuation is one of the quickest ways to recognize awful – or at least sloppy – writing. My heart goes out to all the editors of the world who labour to round up herds of squiggles rampaging across the manuscripts before them, and coax them into the punctuation corral. So, to give myself a break from the hard work of writing an actual book, I’m going to do a little series of blog posts on punctuation – just for pure amusement.

My first topic is a eulogy, of sorts, for the dear, departed exclamation mark (or point). I miss it! Don’t you? Just a little bit?

It started out life with so much promise, or so the theory goes, back in the days when Latin was a spoken language. It was an expression of joy, intended to connote wonderment and admiration. How far the poor thing has fallen!

The exclamation point didn’t earn its own dedicated typewriter key until the 1970s. Before that, you had to type a period, then backspace, then type a straight apostrophe over top of the period. I’m old enough to remember actually having to do this. I certainly used fewer exclamation points as a result. It’s my theory that the seeds of the exclamation point’s demise began with this mechanical advancement in typography.

Easy keyboard access to “!!!!!” proliferated its use. Like a drug.

By the 1980s, the exclamation point was becoming ubiquitous, and in the 1986 edition of The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer (a companion to the better-known The Elements of Style by Strunk and White), six rules for its use are prescribed:

  1. Use an exclamation point to mark an exclamatory word, phrase or sentence.
  2. If the whole sentence is exclamatory in form, place an exclamation point at the end.
  3. Use an exclamation point at the end of sentences that are interrogatory in form but exclamatory in meaning.
  4. When an exclamation is not emphatic, place a comma instead of an exclamation point after it. (Note: this is the only ‘rule’ that advises discretion in its use)
  5. Use an exclamation point to express irony, surprise and dissension.
  6. An exclamation point is used after a command.

Today, many style guides have virtually reduced the rules for use to one: don’t. 

Even Wikipedia’s advice on usage warns, “Overly frequent use of the exclamation mark is generally considered poor writing, for it distracts the reader and devalues the mark’s significance.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.” If he’d followed Margaret Shertzer’s rules, though, he would have written the first sentence as a command, with an exclamation point at the end of it.

In Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writingthe master of direct, pared-down writing advises:

“Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

In their hilarious book How Not to Write a Novel, subtitled “200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid them – A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide,” authors Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman wrote a whole section titled “I Mean This!! It’s Important!!!” to illustrate their advice about the exclamation point, which they describe as a graphical poke in the eye:

“The exclamation mark is the most commonly abused form of punctuation. While commas, often appear, randomly in unpublished manuscripts—and there is an epidemic—of unnecessary—em-dashes, it is the exclamation mark which takes the most punishment. 

“We understand that you are excited to be a novelist, but there are very few occasions when you should use an exclamation mark, and all of them are in dialogue. Even here they should be used sparingly, usually to indicate that a character is in fact shouting. … [With the frequent use of exclamation marks] the writing appears to be engaged in frantic hand-waving, straining every muscle to convince the reader that the action is important.”

If you really want to hear an editor rant about it, read this post by Erin Roof titled “Say no to exclamation points” on her interesting blog Grammar Party.

Need I say that literary agents also hate exclamation points? Almost nothing seems to curl their lips faster than encountering one on the page as they’re reading a few paragraphs of your manuscript – right in front of you – in a speed-date pitch at a writers conference. Just throw one at the end of an early sentence and then watch their faces. They won’t even say anything, but you know. You just know. That strained don’t-call-me-I’ll-call-you look they give you is very likely a reaction to having been stabbed in the eye by an exclamation point.

Yes, the punctuation mark that began as an innocent and innovative expression of wonder has become the most reviled squiggle in literature. The hallmark of the amateur, the hack. Ridiculed by crude nicknames like a screamer, a gasper, a startler, a bang and a shriek.

And now it’s dead, chased from the page by literary do-gooders.

It’s sad. I know the exclamation point had its shortcomings and quirks – like all of us – but it was always a friend to me. It added a bit of a smile to electronic conversations (“Hi folks!” or “See ya later!”), and a little kick to the dramatic literature of yore (“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”).

I will miss it!! Really!!!

But wait. Is it too soon to write an epitaph for the exclamation point? Perhaps I’ll let Fyodor Dostoyevsky have the last word. He’d like that. This quote cited in Good Advice on Writing by William Safire and Leonard Safir sounds like Fyodor chewing out his editor:

“Every author has his own style and consequently his own grammatical rules. I put commas where I deem them necessary, and where I deem them unnecessary others must not put them! [And] remember that I never use superfluous commas: Never add or remove a single one!”

Take that, agents, editors and writing advice-givers everywhere!

I probably should have saved that quote for my future post about commas, but I couldn’t resist quoting Dostoyevsky’s use of exclamation points.

Supposing is good, but finding out is better

Writer’s Post #1 (title by Mark Twain)

A short post due to one of our writers being away.

Writing is only a part of the process, (a big part, to be sure). But we’re also constantly reading.  Learning.  Educating ourselves.

So here are some of the things we’re looking at…

Writer’s Digest.   A great source for inspiration, tips, and advice.  (For example, character names.)

Publisher’s Weekly.  THE source for serious writers, especially for industry news.

A nifty find by Paula.  Synonym Finder.

I am re-reading this as the moment.  On writing.  Hey, it’s Stephen King. And he knows his stuff. Other books I’d recommend to help writers … Elizabeth George, Write Away.  Don Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel. Hallie Ephron, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel.  Oh there’re a lot of great books on writing out there, some by agents, some by authors, some even by publishers themselves. Not every book will speak to every writer, but it worth checking out as many as you can.

Writing programs being used.  Scrivener (for PC) and Storymill (for Macs.) MS Word (me!). Next book, I’m going to give Scrivener a try.

So those are some of the things we’re doing or using to make ourselves better writers. If anyone has any other links or suggested sites, please post them, we’d love to see what other people are reading/using.

— Joe

All the help I can get

zane-and-zoey

Silk’s Post #12 — Five minutes ago I suddenly realized I had to write a post for tomorrow morning. What distracted me? I am happy (oh so happy) to report that I’ve been too busy writing my book to worry about blogging.

Three-fifths of the way through our 5 Writers schedule, I think I’ve finally gotten traction on my novel. Finally.

Regular readers will have realized already that I’ve been dancing, dodging, diverting attention from the fact that I have actually written practically nothing so far. Might as well fess up to it, painful as it may be. I’m in awe of Joe and his 220+ pages. Of Helga and her progress after making major changes to her whole concept. Of Paula, labouring over her outline then surging past it into glorious prose. Of Karalee, who has been a bit quiet about her progress, but I suspect is ahead of all of us.

For me, it was ever thus. I am the world’s champion procrastinator, forever spoiled by my (far from admirable) ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the 11th hour. I managed to get through high school that way, and as much college as I could stand after discovering I’m allergic to academia. And I built a successful design/advertising agency that outlived most of the competition for 30 years by making sure we delivered strong creative concepts on skin-of-the-teeth deadlines. You can see I’m trying to psych myself up here, can’t you?

Because sometimes you reach into the hat and the rabbit is already long gone. All you have in your hand is a fistful of the raisin-like pellets he left behind.

This ignominious fate must be avoided!

That’s why I need All-The-Help-I-Can-Get to perform the trick of typing “The End” by February 5th. The arithmetic is tilted steeply against me. By my calculations, I now have to write something like 1,500 words every single day up to and including February 5th. Even Christmas Day. Wow.

Fortunately, I have an actual plot in my head (a big advantage over the first book I wrote, which evolved in such an organic manner that it continually threatened to turn into compost). And I have solid characters, each one with a name, a picture, a past and a future. I also have my viciously competitive instincts and my deep well of Protestant guilt to drive me on.

But most important, I have my cheering section.

I find that my cats, Zoey and Zane, are a tremendous help. They like to lie atop whatever’s littering my desk at a given moment and keep it properly anchored down. They bring a generous warmth and a patient calm into my office with them, at least once they’re asleep. I also have my patient husband, who brings me a cocktail at just the right moment and doesn’t seem to mind dining on frozen pizza at 9 pm.

I also have a shelf full of wise and inspiring books on writing, the authors seeming to speak to me from across the room like a Greek chorus. The introduction to one of my favourites, If You Want to Write,  joyously penned by Brenda Ueland in 1938 and still in print, begins with this paean by Andrei Codrescu:

There are two kinds of instructional manuals: the kind that are written by well-meaning techies who mean to make you understand how to connect all the parts to the whole; and the other kind, written by angels to instruct you in the achievement of impossible things.

Impossible, indeed. Brenda wouldn’t have thought so. Or even if she did, she wouldn’t have cared. She would have said to me (as she said to her long-ago writing classes at the Minneapolis YMCA, which were filled with ordinary people who wanted to learn to write simply because they had stories to tell):

Work freely and rollickingly as though you were talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters. 

She was the ultimate cheerleader, Brenda.

But finally, and most importantly, I have you – whoever you are, reading this blog. I know I can count on my 5 devoted writing friends to read it, and this is my late-night letter to them with thanks for their constant presence. And I’m grateful for every reader who spends a bit of their valuable time with my words. You could be doing anything right now – hiking up a mountain, doing the laundry, playing Angry Birds, making love. But you’re reading what I’ve written. Thanks.

Because, let’s face it, writers want to be read. And although I’ve been slow off the mark on my novel, I’ve probably learned more about writing by contributing to this blog than I have from a conference worth of classes or a stack of good books on writing.

I’ve learned what it means to be read, and oddly enough, that changes everything.

The last word shall go to Brenda:

No writing is a waste of time – no creative work where the feelings, the imagination, the intelligence must work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good.

What dreams may come

Joe’s Post #11 — Writers have the unique privilege of saying they’re working no matter what they’re doing.

Reading a book… working! Browsing the internet… working! Sitting at a café staring out into the world… working!!! (and yes, that is a picture of me drinking coffee if any women are reading this.)

But there is another place where we do our work. Under the covers. At night. With the lights off.

Dreamland.

Sure. Dreaming is a vital part of being a writer (well, so is sleeping or drinking wine, but stay with me…) I believe all of us dream, though not all of us remember our dreams. Remembering them or not, they help us writers unlock things from our murky subconscious. Character details. Exotic locations. Plot flaws.

So, like a lot of writers, I therefore keep a notebook beside my bed for those moments when I wake up with something awesome.

Sure I end up writing things like “socks and sandals.” (I know I was having a nightmare about wearing socks and sandals, but I have no idea why I woke up and thought that was important). Or “Vegas riding a horse.” Or “The Taj Mahal is blue.”

But there was also, “Need to show ranger in action, not just talk about it.” “Mention hatred of heat earlier.” “Dammit, I forgot about the backpack again.” “Mother should be beautiful.”

Nonsense to anyone reading it, but meaningful to me, helping me realize either mistakes I’ve made or ways to make my story better.

But, in some very special cases, I also get a story idea from my dreams.

Lou Rains meets 50 Shades of Grey. I won’t go into details since this is not a porn site, but it gave me a pretty cool idea for another book.

So, sure going for a walk is working, sure watching a good movie is working, sure, driving is working, but if you really want to accomplish something as a writer…

Sleep.

Pages Written to Date: 220

Books on Writing read: 1 (James Scott Bell – Plotting)

Number of awesome friends visited this week: 12

Number of friends who gave me pie: 0

1001 reasons for not writing

Silk’s Post #5 — Followers of this blog can be forgiven if they’re beginning to suspect that much of what we have to say about our 5 writers challenge to write 5 full length books in 5 months is dominated by … well, may as well admit it … excuses for why we aren’t writing.

Here’s a few apologia topics so far: too many distractions … been on the road … still outlining … need to finish rewriting my previous book … visiting a friend … too busy doing (fill in blank). These are real world interruptions, not made-up excuses. And there must be 1001 reasons – legitimate ones – for failing to get 1000 words on the page each and every day. I’m going to now add one more, and then I promise I will not make further excuses. At least not in this blog.

Next to “the dog ate my homework”, mine is probably the most common excuse of all time: I’m sick. Some kind of delightful plague I picked up on my travels has left me immobile on the couch today, under an afghan, cat draped over my feet. I’m so passive, I haven’t even had the energy to switch off the football game on TV (which usually sends me hurtling for the remote). My throat feels like it’s lined with ground glass, I have a sinus headache that throbs painfully when I move, and my skin is grouchy all over. I hate being sick, and rarely succumb to a bug. So besides feeling lousy, I’m also feeling … irritated.

Gate to ‘The Breakers’ (or perhaps a fancy pants symbol for writer’s block?).

Looking for a balm to cope with this flu bomb, I cracked open a slim, homemade-looking book I happened to pick up last week in (of all places) ‘The Breakers’, the most stupendous of the Newport, Rhode Island ‘summer cottages’, which was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in the gilded age of the late 1800s. After a tour of this 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, I discovered  Quotes for Writing by Janet Alexander Pell among the fancy china, the estate jewelry reproductions and the sumptuous coffee table books in the museum gift shop. She has made quite a nice little industry out of self-published ‘Books of Quotes.’

What’s delightful about this particular collection of quotes for writers – although not really a unique idea – is the intelligence and charm of the chosen quotes, and how applicable they  are to the 5 writers challenge. Why? They reveal the common angst, excuse-making, quest for discipline and need for inspiration shared by writers since … well, probably since the first word was chipped into a stone tablet. In fact, it’s amazing how much our writing forebears’ sentiments seem to channel the 5 writers blog.

What Ms. Pell has done is assemble common sentiments that are expressed with uncommon elegance.

Take this deft quote from Ursula K. Le Guin on the subject of A Writer’s World: “First sentences are doors to worlds.” Or this quip attributed to Washington Irving: “The only happy author in this world is he who is below the care of reputation.” (This suggests all the 5 writers should be happy indeed, given that no one has heard of any of us, at least as writers).

Three sections of this collection are of special interest to the 5 writers at this stage in our projects, and I’d like to share some of my favourite quotes from each, with gratitude to Ms. Pell. (By the way, you can buy her compilations online here).

Discipline …

“If one waits for the right time to come before writing, the right time never comes.” — James Russell Lowell

“With ordinary talents and extraordinary perseverence all things are attainable.” — Thomas Buxton

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” — Mary Heaton Vorse

“Give yourself artificial deadlines. Tell yourself, ‘I will mail this story by April 3 (or May 14, or August 8).’ Tell everyone else, too: fellow workshop participants, your spouse, your mother, your kids. Ask them to ask you whether the story’s gone out. Make it such a big deal that you must finish polishing or you’ll feel like the biggest fool in the world.” — Nancy Kress (who seems to have anticipated the 5 writers’ challenge, and the terrifying risk it entails)

“Can anything be sadder than work unfinished? Yes, work never begun.” — Helen Keller (whose kind words take some of the terror out of that risk)

Angst …

“Writing stopped being fun when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad, and even more terrifying the difference between it and true art. And after that, the whip came down.” — Truman Capote

“Writing a book is a horrible exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” — George Orwell

“I get a warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it; writing is hell.” — William Styron

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” — Gene Fowler

“Writing is a dog’s life, but the only one worth living.” — Gustave Flaubert

Inspiration …

“We are all guilty of crime, the great crime of not living life to the full. But we are all potentially free. We can stop thinking of what we have failed to do and do whatever lies within our power. What those powers that are in us may be no one has truly dared to imagine. That they are infinite we will realize the day we admit to ourselves that imagination is everything. Imagination is the voice of daring.” — Henry Miller

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” — Robert Frost

“What some people find in religion a writer may find in his craft … a kind of breaking through to glory.” — John Steinbeck

“Look, then, into thine heart, and write!” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Don’t wait.” — Daniel Quinn