German soldiers march through Paris, June 1940 (German Federal Archive)
Sometimes it can just take you a while to get around to that book that everybody has been reading. Anthony Doerr’s fairly beloved novel All the Light We Cannot See has been hanging around on the bestseller lists pretty much since it was published last summer, and for good reason. It’s not just the France-during-the-occupation setting or the gorgeous language, though both of those attributes help, of course. It has a magic to it, plain and simple.
All the Light We Cannot See is available in hardcover everywhere, with a paperback edition scheduled for this December; my review is at PopMatters:
Like many great novels of the Second World War and other epic clashes of civilizations, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a story of the grandeur of terror. At least it begins that way. It’s August 1944 in Saint-Malo, a venerable seaside town on the northwestern coast of France. The Allies have landed and are steadily punching their way out of Normandy. The war is nearing another crescendo of death…
Sometimes you write a piece, a poem, a scribble, a book, and that’s all it is. Just the thing there, no more and no less. There is of course, absolutely nothing wrong with that. The world would be far too complex to live in if we spent our time looking for nuance in every bit of text that we came across.
But there’s writing and then there’s writing. It’s that second kind which some of us are aiming for. That’s the kind that acts like glue, or a song you can’t get out of your head, an itch under the skin.
As Neil Gaiman wrote in his introduction to Bradbury’s ode to the written word and the life of the mind, Fahrenheit 451:
If someone tells you what a story is about, they are probably right. If they tell you that that is all the story is about, they are probably wrong.
Something more that goes beyond the words on the page. That’s the key to sticking in the reader’s mind. How to do it? Aye, there’s the rub.
Roddy Doyle (photo by Jon Kay)
When an author’s resume includes such masterpieces as the Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van), it’s generally best to listen to what they have to say…at least when it comes to writing.
Herewith some rules for writers from the great Roddy Doyle about calming down and getting on with it when you’re blocked:
Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph — Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety — it’s the job.
By the time James Baldwin gave this interview to The Paris Review in 1984, his time was past as one of the writers whose voice was loudest in the great postwar arguments over what America would and should be. He was living in semi-exile in France at the time of the interview, heading into his 60s, but still full of burnt truths and hard-fought advice. Such as:
- “The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”
- “Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”
- [On starting out reviewing books for small change] “I had to read everything and had to write all the time, and that’s a great apprenticeship.”
- “I doubt whether anyone—myself at least—knows how to talk about writing.”
- “I do a lot of rewriting. It’s very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it.”
(image by pepo)
After PopMatters published their best fiction of 2014 feature earlier in the week, they ran the (perhaps more serious in tone, but still somehow more fun) compilation of the awesomest (yes, that’s a word) nonfiction titles that came out last year.
Doing my part, I wrote about:
- Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond
- Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Pikkety
- The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, Greil Marcus
- The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Rick Perlstein
- The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing
You can find the feature here.
James Patterson is seen at times as more machine than writer. There’s good reason for this. His advertising background; those couple dozen credited co-writers; a happy malleability when it comes to genre (romance, YA, mystery, whatever); multiple books a year; nearly $100 million in annual revenue.
All that being said, it’s helpful to remember that at one point even Patterson was a wannabe, just another unpublished novelist trying to get his book out there. From Todd Purdum’s profile for Vanity Fair:
His first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, about a Nashville newspaperman on a murderer’s trail, was rejected by 31 publishers before Little, Brown published it, in 1976. It won the Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America, but sold only about 10,000 copies…
Selling 10,000 copies of anything would be a dream come true for most authors. Still, success as a writer is never guaranteed. Even for the man who accounted for one of every 26 hardcover novels sold in the U.S. during 2013.
H.P. Lovecraft was the Stephen King of his day, if King had been a depressive type with a thing for turning horror fiction into fantasies of existential dread. He’s remembered these days almost exclusively for his Cthulhu mythos, in which unlucky humans occasionally run afoul of the ancient deities whose foul existence predates known history and any sense of modern morality.
But Lovecraft was also a student of the form, and not just horror (though his writings on “weird” and supernatural fiction are excellent in themselves). In his essay “Literary Composition,” the master of eldritch horrors from beyond the ken of mere mortals opines on the proper way to turn a sentence. Here’s a few snippets of still-applicable advice on what to avoid:
- Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep.
- Use of like for as, as “I strive to write like Pope wrote.”
- Errors of taste, including vulgarisms, pompousness, repetition, vagueness, ambiguousness, colloquialism, bathos, bombast, pleonasm, tautology, harshness, mixed metaphor, and every sort of rhetorical awkwardness.
Keep an eye on that last one in particular, no matter how tempting the market may be for work filled with vulgarisms and bombast.