Seven Nuggets of Writing Wisdom

It never hurts to get a little booster shot of advice.  There are books, workshops, podcasts, interviews, columns, and blogs galore about writing — how to do it, how to make it better, how to sell it, what to do, what not to do, who to listen to — and almost anybody you ask about it will have an opinion and will be happy to share it with you.  And a lot of people you don’t ask will try sharing it with you, anyway.  So here I am, right on cue.

So yeah, advice is all over the place and sometimes it’s a tad overwhelming.  But sometimes you’ll find an angle that gives you a little more incentive, or a little more hope, or maybe an aspect that hadn’t occurred to you and helps you understand your motivation or your plot or your characters a little better.  And sometimes you just need a reminder of something you already knew was good advice but has gone a little out-of-focus, or slipped gradually out of your mind while you were distracted with that masterpiece of yours that hasn’t been behaving like you thought it would.

What’s nice is to find some thoughts on which a whole lot of writers have reached a consensus.  Enter Joe Fassler.  Mr. Fassler is a writer, journalist, and editor who has discussed the art of writing with a whole bucketful of writers, and condensed their best advice down to seven nuggets of wisdom in this post from Literary Hub.  When you get through with his article, scout around on the Literary Hub website a little and see what else you can relate to.

I’ll have to confess that for quite some time I haven’t been attentive to that website, because they’ve been doing a considerable amount of liberal pontificating in their newsletters and material.  Let me be clear…there’s absolutely nothing wrong with liberals and their thoughts.  However, when subjects are almost exclusively about LGBTQ pride, militant feminism, racial equality, and hating the last President — let’s face it, LitHub — it’s a crusade and it ignores a huge percentage of the rest of the literary world.  All those subjects are fine, but a constant barrage gets a bit tiresome, and they could be a little more tolerant and inclusive with the rest of the literature firmament.  When they are, you can find a lot of good information there, so keep your mind open if some of it seems a little narrow-focused at first glance.

These are common rivulets running through the creative watershed of the entire literary landscape, so if you’re a writer, of any genre or category, this has to do with how you do what you do, and deserves a look-see.

I Talked to 150 Writers and Here’s the Best Advice They Had

Joe Fassler on Seven of the Most Common Writing Tips

By Joe Fassler

October 26, 2017

I once heard John Irving give a lecture on his process at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an in-depth account of the way his novels come to be. He kicked it off by writing a single sentence on the chalkboard—the last line of Last Night in Twisted River. All his books begin with the ending, Irving explained, a capstone he works and reworks until it’s ready. From there, he’ll generate a detailed summary that ultimately builds towards the finale, like SparkNotes for a book that does not yet exist. Only when he has the synopsis and last sentence in hand will he actually start writing.

I remember being fascinated by this. The approach had clearly been successful, and made sense in theory, and yet was so unlike any creative strategy that had ever worked for me. Which is an important thing to keep in mind when trafficking in the familiar genre of writing advice: Just because John Irving does it that way doesn’t mean you should. Not only is every writer different, but each poem, each story and essay, each novel, has its own formal requirements. Advice might be a comfort in the moment, but the hard truth is that literary wisdom can be hard to systematize. There’s just no doing it the same way twice.

And yet. In the five years I’ve spent interviewing authors for The Atlantic’s “By Heart” series—the basis for a new collection, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process—it’s been impossible to ignore the way certain ideas tend to come up again and again. Between the column and the book I’ve engaged a diverse group of more than 150 writers, a large sample size, that nonetheless has some defining traits. Here are the recurring ideas, distilled from dozens of conversations, that I think will most help you—no matter how unorthodox your process, how singular your vision.

Neglect everything else.

It starts with a simple fact: If you’re not making the time to write, no other advice can help you. Which is probably why so many of the writers I talk to seem preoccupied with time-management. “You probably have time to be a halfway decent parent and one other thing,” David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, told me. That can mean mustering the grit to let other responsibilities languish. As he put it in short: “Neglect everything else.”

Many authors need to put blinders on, finding ways to simplify their experience and reduce the number of potential distractions. That might mean consistently keeping a single two-hour window sacred, as Victor Lavalle does, morning time he safeguards against the demands of parenting and full-time teaching. For others, it means finding ways to ward off digital derailment. Mitchell does this by setting his homepage as the most boring thing he can think of: the Apple website.

Ultimately, the literary exercise is about finding ways to defend something fragile—the quiet mood in which the imagination flourishes. As Jonathan Franzen put it: “I need to make sure I still have a private self. Because the private self is where my writing comes from.”

Beginnings matter.

Everyone knows that the opening line is a crucial invitation, something that can make or break a reader’s interest in a book. But far less attention has been paid to the role first lines play for writers, leading them through the work’s dark, uncertain stages like a beacon.

“The first line must convince me that it somehow embodies the entire unwritten text,” William Gibson told me, a radical, koan-like conviction that nonetheless seems to be commonplace. Stephen King described spending “weeks and months and even years” working on first sentences, each one an incantation with the power to unlock the finished book. And Michael Chabon said that, once he stumbled on the first sentence of Wonder Boys, the rest of the novel was almost like taking dictation. “The seed of the novel—who would tell the story and what it would be about—was in that first sentence, and it just arrived,” he said.

Weird Ways to Wordsmith

Every writer has their own idiosyncrasies that somehow seem useful when they’re trying to crank out their…whatever their product happens to be.  Sometimes they’re not totally comprehensible to the normal folks, but hey…whatever works!  It took me a lot of fumbling around to come up with a system, but I read somewhere that Patricia Cornwell kept journals to discuss her plots and details with herself, and I figured that must be a worth a shot if that’s what helped her sell a hundred million books.  That’s what finally kept me focused — arguing with myself about why a plot point might work or not, keeping details of characters straight, trying out names of people and places and books — just about everything about the book.  The notes file for my first novel was about half the length of the finished novel itself.

Of course that won’t work for everybody, but we all have our ways.  I do have other rituals, but those are the ones that give me my super powers and the aliens have sworn me to secrecy. 

But, great news!  Other — and some quite startling — rituals that apparently lead to much greater super powers, since they’re part of the writing lives of a lot of very successful authors, are not so secret.  Several of the strange habits of famous writers have been collected in a book called “Odd Type Writers” by Celia Blue Johnson.  It was actually published back in 2013, so yes, I’m a little slow in discovering it but the information is timeless, so that makes me feel better.  Many of those habits have been excerpted from the book in an article I recently came across by Maria Popova on her Brain Pickings website.  The website always has some interesting info to peruse, and I usually get a little too distracted and spend too much time enjoying the side trips, but they’re always worth it. 

Take a look!  I posted a similar article a few months ago, but this one has different and more extensive tales to tell.  This article may not give you that one tip that will put you on your way to immediate best-seller-ness, but it does give a fascinating glimpse into the quirks behind some of the greatest wordsmiths of the ages, and maybe you’d like to chase down that book and find out even more.  Happy perusing!

The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers

Color-coded muses, rotten apples, self-imposed house arrest, and other creative techniques at the intersection of the superstitious and the pragmatic.

By Maria Popova

Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public library) — the more dimensional and thoroughly researched counterpart to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals — Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.

As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:

“One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.”

Mode and medium of writing seem to be a recurring theme of personal idiosyncrasy. Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant — then handed them to his secretary to type up. Edgar Allan Poe, champion of marginalia, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached into a running scroll with sealing wax. Jack Kerouac was especially partial to scrolling: In 1951, planning the book for years and amassing ample notes in his journals, he wrote On The Road in one feverish burst, letting it pour onto pages taped together into one enormously long strip of paper — a format he thought lent itself particularly well to his project, since it allowed him to maintain his rapid pace without pausing to reload the typewriter at the end of each page. When he was done, he marched into his editor Robert Giroux’s office and proudly spun out the scroll across the floor. The result, however, was equal parts comical and tragic:

“To [Kerouac’s] dismay, Giroux focused on the unusual packaging. He asked, “But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?” Giroux recalled saying, “Jack, you know you have to cut this up. It has to be edited.” Kerouac left the office in a rage. It took several years for Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, to finally find a home for the book, at the Viking Press.”

James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. But this was a matter more of pragmatism than of superstition or vain idiosyncrasy: Of the many outrageously misguided myths the celebrated author of Ulysses and wordsmith of little-known children’s books, one was actually right: he was nearly blind. His childhood myopia developed into severe eye problems by his twenties. To make matters worse, he developed rheumatic fever when he was twenty-five, which resulted in a painful eye condition called iritis. By 1930, he had undergone twenty-five eye surgeries, none of which improved his sight. The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night. (As someone partial to black bedding, not for aesthetic reasons but because I believe it provides a deeper dark at night, I can certainly relate to Joyce’s seemingly arbitrary but actually physics-driven attire choice.)

Thoughts on Memorial Day

This is the license plate on the front of our Expedition.  I originally put it there in honor of POW/MIAs, but when the guy at the car wash pointed it out to his co-worker and they both gave it a respectful thumbs-up, just as we’re heading into Memorial Day Weekend, I got to thinking about how it sums up the military point of view of most military special days.  And it’s especially pertinent to this weekend.

I’ve been seeing plenty of Facebook posts explaining the differences between some special dates, and here it is in a nutshell:  Armed Forces Day is for those now in uniform, Veterans Day is for those formerly in uniform, and Memorial Day is for those who never made it out of their uniform.  To most of us veterans, the first two have blurred lines and both usually end up including everybody anyway.  Some might think there’s a case to be made that maybe we have more special days than we need.  Most of us didn’t join for accolades anyway, so we don’t make a big fuss about it, but it is nice to be recognized, so we don’t complain, either.

But Memorial Day is different.  It’s to honor the men and women who gave their lives in the service of their country.  A lot of service members and veterans do get a little riled up about it, and that’s okay…it’s a very serious thing and they take it very seriously.   So you’ll see posts saying things like, “Don’t thank me for my service on Memorial Day.  It’s not about me!”  True, it’s not about them, or me, or any of us who are still around.  But there will still be people thanking us for our service, and most of us will still thank them for their support, because their hearts are in the right place and they’re sincere about it, and we should be respectful back for the respect we’re given.  Just makes sense.

There will also be people saying, “Don’t say ‘Happy Memorial Day’!  There’s nothing happy about people being killed in the service of their country.  This is a solemn occasion, a time for mourning, a time for respect.”  You also hear that this weekend isn’t about the cookouts and the beach and the parties.  But, well, maybe it is, in a way.  Maybe it’s a fitting tribute for our fallen heroes, to celebrate our wonderful country…a country so wonderful that there have been men and women willing to give their lives for it, and for us, to keep us free.  Maybe in addition to us respecting and honoring them, we should be happy they lived and served and gave us all a legacy of honor and love to aspire to.

So of course, by all means, barbecue and swim and play volleyball and enjoy the weekend with friends and family.  Maybe that’s not what the holiday was created for, but it’s been a rough year and it’s a good time to start breathing a little easier and celebrate the healing we’re starting to experience, the warmer weather coming, and this land we love. 

While you’re enjoying your weekend, fly your flag if you can, at half-staff until noon on Monday, if you have that capability.  Lift a glass in a toast, say a little prayer, salute that flag, talk about the loved ones you miss, or take any way you wish to remember and honor the ones Memorial Day really belongs to.  Remember that everything you have is because of those who gave up everything they had.

Some gave all.

The Long and Winding Query Quest

The query — it’s how you get somebody to agent or publish your writing. Some of us are well-worn and weary from ages on the Query Quest, striving to create the perfect submission that will make the world yearn for our wondrous weaving of words. Some are just starting. Many writers aren’t really yet aware that the quest awaits them. And it may not actually be an obstacle for many writers, depending on what they write and how they intend to get it out to the world, but it ends up being pretty important if you want to sell something to a large publishing house and make that elusive best-seller list.

If you have queried and queried and still haven’t managed to become world-famous, take heart because you’re far from being alone. You’re in quite a huge company, as a matter of fact. If your novel is finally ready for publication and you’ve discovered that now you need to learn how to write and send out a query, and now it’s going to take even longer to reach that pinnacle, you’re also in a pretty large group.

Here’s a tip: start learning about querying while you’re still writing that epic tale. Right now. It takes a lot of work just tracking down all the information on how the whole thing works, not to mention figuring out the best way to write a query letter, create a synopsis, find the right agents to present it to, and even figure out exactly what genre you just wrote that masterpiece in. Learn as you go, so when your baby is ready to be put out there, you’re ready, too.

To help with a little perspective, here’s a column by Catherine Baab-Muguira on the excellent Jane Friedman website. It’s short but well-written and explains not just how she finally broke a long streak of disappointment, but also several other things she learned along the way. Maybe reading this will help you learn the lessons without having to go through the same slow and painful journey, and at the least will remind you that if you’re having query angst, you share it with many. Many, many, many.

Take a look, and cruise around the Jane Friedman site while you’re there. Sign up for a newsletter. Learn everything you can while it isn’t painful. Start now.

What If It Takes 12 Years to Get an Agent?

Posted on  by Catherine Baab-Muguira 

Today’s post is by author Catherine Baab-Muguira (@CatBaabMuguira). Her book, Poe for Your Problems, releases in September 2021.

About a week before my nonfiction debut went to auction, I received two requests from editors who planned to bid if I did what they asked. The first editor wanted me to take my 4,000-word writing sample and rewrite it in a purely comedic vein. The second requested a rewrite, too, only he wanted me to make the book ultra-serious. No jokes.

It was 2019. I was childless, but I did have a demanding full-time job I couldn’t shirk, so I got up at 5 a.m. every morning and banged out new drafts before work. In the evenings, my friend Lizzie hunkered down beside me while, over beers and takeout, I walked her though the new material. Then we punched it up, or slathered on the sad. The adrenaline rush of all this was real, and also very far from pleasant. I felt like the comedy-tragedy mask come to unshowered, greasy life. If I didn’t satisfy both briefs, my book might not sell.

A dozen years prior, when I’d first started trying to get a book published, I wouldn’t have been up to the task. Fortunately, by the time all this went down, I’d already spent 12 years in the query trenches. I’d also spent a year in L.A. pitching movie ideas to producers in deep V-necks who absolutely loved the idea, wow, beautiful, brilliant, only change the entire thing, okay?

It’d been like a fitness boot camp for my ego: sadistic and deeply wrong, probably in violation of multiple health-department codes. In the end, though, I was glad to have survived, and the conflicting requests found me in shape. I’d already made pretty much every stupid, humiliating mistake you can make. Perhaps without all those years of unanswered emails, form rejections, close calls and ghostings, I would’ve been tempted to be like but but but! How dare you question my Art!

Instead, my feeling was: Thank you for the suggestions. Hand me that brief. Lemme see what I can do for you.

This kind of compromise isn’t for everyone, I realize. Depending on your ambitions, your age, where you are in your writing career and/or the happiness of your childhood, you may be on a different path. My goal was getting my book’s big idea out into the world, whatever form it took, whether comic or tragic. And for me, in the most literal way, humor triumphed over depression. Running Press, a subsidiary of Hachette, bid on the funny version and won.

I want to say I learned a lot in my years of querying and perhaps most especially in those last few hysterical days before auction—as Nabokov wrote, “The last long lap is the hardest.” But I also know it’s all too easy to recast the struggle as edifying and educational when you find yourself, for however brief a moment, lifted out of it. Who’s to say the self-congratulation phase is not, in its way, just as blind as what came before?

Putting it mildly, the world demands different dues from different people. We don’t all have the same access, resources or, for that matter, masochistic streak, dark sense of humor, what have you. I do, however, feel comfortable presuming that your experience of querying has been horrible and painful, too. Disheartening. A mashup of Cinderella and The Road.

You may take heart in hearing that you are almost certainly savvier than I was when I sent my first queries in 2006, when I was 24, and it turned out no one wanted the bildungsroman I’d written hoping to sway an indifferent ex. I queried two more novels off and on over the next 10 years before starting work on a nonfiction proposal in late 2016. It was 2018 when I signed with an agent.

Here’s what I came to see in my dozen years of disappointment. Maybe this hard-won knowledge can help you, too, wherever you are in your—the word is hard to dodge—journey.