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Articles tagged with: writing


Let it Simmer

Tim O'Brien reminded us of an important writing practice in his chat with Mediabistro on Monday. On the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Things They Carried, he worries that the ease of digital publication in blogs, online articles and even books, will adversely affect the quality of writing. He fears it's too tempting to "push the button" and launch freshly written prose that hasn't had time to marinate. Whether you're writing an angry letter to your boss or the first three chapters of your new novel, it's always a good idea to "let it simmer." Most of us have had the experience of revisiting a piece we once thought quite brilliant and discovering that it's mostly crap. When you're caught up in a burst of creative energy, it's easy to overestimate your own originality. Always, always let your work in progress sit for at least a couple of days and preferably a couple of weeks until you can read it with an objective eye that is not influenced by the heat of the moment.

And if you haven't read The Things They Carried, it's an amazing look at war and its effect on the human psyche. One of my favorite writing assignments was asking my students to write an informal journal entry on "The Things I Carry." Through the years I read the most amazing pieces that ranged from discussions of how the contents of one's purse define its owner to thoughtful discussions of the emotional baggage we carry from our life experiences and how those biases shape our actions and relationships. If you take the time to try it, you might learn something new about yourself. And don't forget to let it simmer, then revise it.

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Posted in March, 2010


Pen Down, Brain Off

I really liked what Rebecca Stead said in a recent New York Times article about how she spends her weekends. Her book When You Reach Me is the latest Newbery Award winner, and it was one of my favorite recent reads. I don't always agree with awards committees and I don't read a lot of YA books aimed at younger readers (her MC's are sixth grade), but this one was charming - in a Time Traveler's Wife mixed with Encyclopedia Brown kind of way. Stead said Sunday is her day to turn her brain off. She said that it's the only way to allow it to relax and make new connections. Without the input that comes from "days off," storytellers have nothing to say.

Her comments reminded me about the importance of doing nothing. In our society, where productivity is so highly revered, we seldom give ourselves permission to do nothing. I've commented that some of my best ideas for writing have come to me while I'm in New Orleans, but maybe that's because I'm away from my routine and not feeling tied to a computer or compelled to work (although I do think the city's ambience has something to do with it.)

So, this weekend, turn your brain off. Take a walk or go for a bike ride. If this rain keeps up, hit the couch and let your mind float free. Yep, you can even take a nap if you like. A lot of writers think your best stuff is accessed in those first few moments of waking up, when the censors aren't up and running at full throttle yet. Natalie Goldberg writes about writing from your "wild mind" or "monkey mind," accessing the universe through your imagination. You just have to unclutter your head to dig down to the deep primal issues that are waiting to be mined (pun intended.) There's no telling what will come to you if you give yourself permission to drift.

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Posted in March, 2010


E-books v. Tree-books

Much has been written about e-book pricing. Proponents of the $9.99 pricing Kindle offered until recently argue that publishers should be able to still make money at that rate because they're saving the cost of paper, printing, and shipping. It seems logical, I know, but the New York Times today discusses why five of the six largest publishers justify their $12.99 to $14.99 ebook prices. (Thanks, Drew, for the link.) According to these publishers, printing, storing, and shipping only accounts for about $3.25 for each book. I confess that math is not my forte, so I'll leave you to read the breakdown the Times gives for the cost of books.

Honestly, one of the most compelling arguments for the increase, in my mind, is that print booksellers won't be able to compete with e-books priced at $9.99. That price difference is certainly what lead me to buy about a dozen books to read on my iPhone, (which is surprisingly satisfying, despite the small size. Scrolling is so easy you get used to changing pages quickly and being able to adjust text size and highlight are plusses too.) It was a little hard for me to justify spending $15 for a paperback when I could get the e-book for $10 - and often at the same time the $26 hardback came out. Add to that the beauty of deciding you want a new book at midnight and downloading it in bed within ten seconds. Yeah, I LOVE browsing in bookstores, but I'm gonna need some financial incentive to continue to do so. Maybe leveling the playing field with the $14.99 pricing is a good idea if we want book stores to survive and thrive.

Just wondering how many of you read e-books and what your thoughts are about pricing. Before we all get too worked up about it, we do need to remember that digital books currently make up only 3% of book sales at the moment. I do look for that to increase, but hopefully, bookstores aren't going anywhere any time soon. At least in Huntsville this weekend, the bookstore culture was alive and well, I'm glad to say.

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Posted in March, 2010


What is “High Concept”?

In today's tough marketplace, agents and editors spend a lot of time talking about "high concept" books. Instead of being offended by the fact that this is more of a marketing term than a writing one, you better learn it, know it, and live it. Is your book based on a premise that will be easy to boil down into a logline? Is that logline unusual and compelling enough to attract the attention of a broad spectrum of readers (or viewers in the case of writing for film.)

It's all about the pitch, people. You have to be able to sum it up in two or three sentences in a way that is powerful enough to make people respond emotionally. You need an amazing subject, a provocative title, a compelling inciting even that opens your story, and a great hook that makes your version (possibly of an old theme, aren't most tales old as time?) unique or special.

Screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff has one of the best explanations I've seen for "high concept." She says your premise needs to culturally topical (currently a cultural phenomena - vampires, anyone? zombies?)
2.exploit a common fear around a situation we can all relate to
4.generate water-cooler talk controversial enough to generate press
6.include a big twist

Okay, maybe not all those at once, but that list should get you started. I gotta admit I sometimes  want a "quiet" book - a character driven, in-depth storiy about the motivations and dreams of ordinary people - like Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan, a terrific slice-of-life read. But I think it's gonna be a while before we see many of those books getting big pushes from publishers again. I'm still reading them, and I hope you'll let me know if there's a good one I've missed.

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Posted in 2010


Adverbs Are of the Devil

Adverbs Are of the Devil

Yes, I confess to my own part in the misconception that good writing is full of them. I did once *gasp* encourage students to slather their poetry with adjectives and adverbs, but I do have a defense: You know how you've read that Picasso had to be able to paint realistic scenes in order to hone the skills that allowed him to create his own masterful style? Well, while beginning writers are learning to choose the exact right noun or verb, adjectives and adverbs help create the images that bring life to the page.

Stephen King says in On Writing (y'all know how I love that book): "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. . . they're like dandelions. If you have one on our lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . ."

It's no accident that Hollywood uses the term "wrylies" (as in "he said wryly") to criticize overuse of parentheticals in screenplays. If you're doing your job with dialogue, your readers will know the tone of the lines without adverbs or parentheticals to guide them.

"But I like adverbs!" she shouted defiantly. (Bad.)
"Fine," he said. "You may continue to show your ignorance on hundreds of pages of adverb-filled prose." (Good.)

One of the best tips I ever heard was from a woman at a B'ham SCBWI meeting who told me, when we were discussing adverbs at a cocktail dessert party (ah, the social skills of writers) to run an "ly" search on my manuscript after I thought I'd rid my novel of adverbs. I was shocked at how many were still there! Did I delete all of them? Of course not! But I made freakin' sure they were all really, totally, completely, undeniably, indisputably needed. (Yes, those adverbs were intentional. I was just havin' a little fun.) Thank you, nice blonde-haired lady. I wish I knew your name to give you credit. If you're reading this . . .

*Note: Two years after I wrote this (and five years after it happened,) I actually recognized the nice blonde-haired lady at another SCBWI conference and told her how helpful her adverb tip had been. So now I can appropriately thank Cathi O'Tyson for her great advice and for being a new writer friend; we can't have too many of those!

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Posted in 2010

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