Writer’s Desk: Listen to Your Editor

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In the current publishing environment, one thing remains the same as in years past: Nearly all writers with a publishing contract have an editor. However, not all editors and not all publishers are made the same. Often, whether due to intent or time or budget (often all of the above), all that an editor can do is fix errors, make some suggestions, and generally guide the manuscript through the pipeline.

For those writers and editors who are lucky enough to be given the time and support to really work on a book together, though, the results can be revelatory. Take this essay by Thomas Ricks, in which he describes in some detail the lengthy, painful, and ultimately rewarding journey he went on with the editor on his (incredible) book Churchill and Orwell:

I asked Scott why he had been so rough on me the previous winter. ‘Sometimes my job is to be an asshole,’ he explained with equanimity. I wasn’t startled at this. At one point on an earlier book, when I told him how stressed I was feeling, he had replied, a bit airily, I thought, ‘Oh, every good book has at least one nervous breakdown in it.’

Near the end of our lunch, Scott offered one more wise observation about the writing process: ‘The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the editor. The last draft is for the reader.’

Negative feedback, especially from a trusted editor and/or friend, can be crushing.

But it can also save your book.

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Screening Room: ‘Strong Island’

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One night in April 1992, Yancy Ford’s brother William was shot dead. William was unarmed and black, the man believed to have shot him was white. Charges were never filed. In the documentary Strong Island, Ford excavates the layers of memory, guilt, and anger that covered this family-shattering crime for so many years.

Strong Island premieres on Netflix and in some theaters this Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

There’s an immediacy to Yance Ford’s chilling investigation Strong Island that runs the spectrum from bracing to uncomfortable. Even though Ford comes at the subject sideways, not immediately clueing you into what story is being told, there is nothing remote about how things begin…

Here’s the trailer:

In Memorium: Grant Hart (1961-2017)

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From Bob Mould’s Facebook page today, on the sad passing of Grant Hart, the brilliant drummer and co-lyricist for Hüsker Dü and ringleader of the great but underrated Nova Mob:

It was the Fall of 1978. I was attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. One block from my dormitory was a tiny store called Cheapo Records. There was a PA system set up near the front door blaring punk rock. I went inside and ended up hanging out with the only person in the shop. His name was Grant Hart.

And now, probably Grant’s greatest song (make sure to play on repeat):

Writer’s Desk: The Costanza Rule

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Occasionally, sitcoms can help. So you have all seen the Seinfeld episode “The Opposite”? (If somehow not, go here for the gist.) In short, that’s the episode where the perennially selfish, short-sighted, and self-sabotaging George Costanza realizes that his best change for success is ignoring all of his instincts and doing exactly the opposite.

In honor of Costanza’s insight, it would behoove many writers to check out the Twitter account The Worst Muse. Its “advice” is solid gold:

It’s still not too late to add a vampire.

If a character is in New York, she’s got to be either a model or a writer, right?

If your alien culture isn’t a thinly veiled allegory for contemporary politics, what’s the point?

Follow the Costanza rule with every one of these tweets and you’ll be set.

Writer’s Desk: Do What Edgar Rice Burroughs Did

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Edgar Rice Burroughs, born September 1 in 1875, is arguably one of the most important writers of the 20th century, for better or worse.

As with many bestselling writers who almost seem to fall into success, Burroughs had a varied employment record ranging from ranch hand to teacher and ad man before turning to fiction in his 30s. Once he started with the first Tarzan of the Apes stories in 1911, he never stopped.

By the time of his death in 1950, Burroughs had published nearly 70 adventure novels ranging from the Tarzan series to John Carter of Mars and other fictional universes involving dinosaurs, civilizations under the surface of the earth, and so on. His books were translated into dozens of languages and spawned innumerable movies, comic books, and TV and radio series, not to mention creating the DNA of the century’s pulp fiction aesthetic.

In 1939, when Burroughs was as big in the cultural imagination (if not bigger) than James Patterson or Stephen King today, Alva Johnson published “How to Become a Great Writer” in The Saturday Evening Post. Using Burroughs as a template, Johnson included a list of what helps make a great writer:

  1. Be a disappointed man.
  2. Achieve no success at anything you touch.
  3. Lead an unbearably drab and uninteresting life.
  4. Hate civilization.
  5. Learn no grammar.
  6. Read little.
  7. Write nothing.
  8. Have an ordinary mind and commonplace tastes, approximating those of the great reading public.
  9. Avoid subjects that you know about.

Johnson’s tongue is planted in cheek here, but only somewhat

In other words, ignore the history and habits of bestselling writers at your own peril.

Screening Room: Fall Movie Preview

When the air turns cool, it’s a reminder to cinephiles that it’s time to hie themselves back to the local movieplex, since it’s time for films to start bum-rushing movies out of the way. The Oscars and Golden Globes are coming, after all.

There’s a lot to look forward to. A Rosemary’s Baby homage from Darren Aronofsky, Gary Oldman doing Winston Churchill, Blade Runner 2049, Daniel Day-Lewis’s last role ever (he claims), and James Franco’s behind-the-scenes take on The Room, not to mention new flicks from Steven Spielberg, Alexander Payne, and George Clooney.

My fall movie preview, with plenty of trailers, is at PopMatters.

Writer’s Desk: Style and Forbearance, Young Scribe

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The great dispenser of acid-laced bon mots Dorothy Parker, born on August 22 in 1893, had the occasional bit of advice for writers. To wit:

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style.

Hard to argue with, yes? Strunk and White’s paen to simplicity is a must-have tool for any writer of any age.

But Parker went on:

The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

While people have a low tolerance for writers whingeing about the frustrations baked in to the writing life—nobody forced us to do it, after all—it’s worth pointing out to those just embarking on that path that happiness and fulfillment don’t necessarily follow.

Just writing, and writing well (preferably with a copy of Strunk and White at your side), must often be its own reward.

Writer’s Desk: See the Future

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There’s a lot of would-be science-fiction writers out there, but it’s a crowded market and not enough buyers.

For those who like imagining future scenarios but don’t always have the best publication to place them in, there’s possibilities with a firm called SciFutures. According to this New Yorker profile, the company uses a network of a hundred or so writers (including Ken Liu of the Hugo Award-winning The Three-Body Problem) to craft customized stories for corporate clients, known as “corporate visioning”:

A company that monetizes literary imagination might itself seem like a dystopian scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick. “There can be a little tension,” Trina Phillips, a full-time writer and editor at SciFutures, acknowledged … She and [founder Ari] Popper have found that clients generally prefer happy endings, though unhappy ones are permissible if the author also proposes a clear business strategy for avoiding them. Rarely is there room for off-topic subplots or tangential characters. Phillips mentioned one story that initially featured a kangaroo running amok in a major North American city. The client, a carmaker, asked that the marsupial be removed.

More interestingly, some of their clients include the military, who is always looking for new ways to confront threats they haven’t conceived yet.

That’s where the writers come in.

Reader’s Corner: Bannon, Trump, and the ‘Devil’s Bargain’

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As the D.C. news circuit scrambles to dissect the court turmoil in the White House to see how long Steve Bannon may or may not survive, it’s instructive to read Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.

My review is at PopMatters:

Years from now—assuming that books are still being published and we aren’t just wandering dazedly through a burnt-out cultural void of screaming memes—the books written about the 2016 US Presidential election will fill even more shelves than those written about Watergate. They will discuss the strategies, the major players, and the trendlines that led to this decision or that. Some books will also analyze how, in 2016, a fury-fueled flim-flam man broke almost every rule about presidential campaigns and became the most powerful man in the world. Those authors will argue with good reason that 2016 was the election that changed everything…

Writer’s Desk: Make Friends With Other Writers

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Patti Smith, remembering her friend Sam Shepard after his recent passing:

We had our routine: Awake. Prepare for the day. Have coffee, a little grub. Set to work, writing. Then a break, outside, to sit in the Adirondack chairs and look at the land. We didn’t have to talk then, and that is real friendship. Never uncomfortable with silence, which, in its welcome form, is yet an extension of conversation. We knew each other for such a long time. Our ways could not be defined or dismissed with a few words describing a careless youth. We were friends; good or bad, we were just ourselves. The passing of time did nothing but strengthen that. Challenges escalated, but we kept going and he finished his work on the manuscript. It was sitting on the table. Nothing was left unsaid. When I departed, Sam was reading Proust…

Writers should never just socialize with their own kind. The effect would be initially instructive and eventually destructive.

But writers should always make sure to have writer friends. They understand silence.

Screening Room: ‘Whose Streets?’

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The modern-day civil rights documentary Whose Streets? opens this week—three years after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson—in limited release.

My review is at The Playlist:

“St. Louis, I don’t know what year it is, but it’s not 2014,” a voice intones at the start of Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ activist documentary “Whose Streets?.” That weariness comes back later in this documentary about the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the waves of protest that followed, but it’s not the movie’s overriding emotion. Each of the film’s five sections is buttressed with beaten-but-not-down quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frantz Fanon. This isn’t a movie about despair in the face of seemingly implacable problems; it’s about the heavy lifting that constant hope requires. Disappointingly, that surging energy which animates the activists profiled here, in ways both intimate and caught-on-the-fly, never coalesces into the desired blueprint for reform…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Summer Movies, the Oscars, and ‘Wonder Woman’

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My article “Wonder Woman was Fine but It Shouldn’t Win an Oscar” is now available at Eyes Wide Open:

The summer movie season is undergoing the usual August agita. That’s when industry watchers and studio execs wring their hands over what’s going wrong with the business. Traditionally, the swelter of summer was when people turned off their brains, went to the multiplex, bought tubs of popcorn, and luxuriated in the air conditioning while watching Michael Bay blow things up with subwoofer-shredding thunderousness. That’s less and less the case, and the empty-seat summer of 2017 is an object lesson in what has gone wrong. There are a few reasons for this…

Writer’s Desk: Take the Train

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Among the books listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017 were familiar names like Arundhati Roy, George Saunders, Colson Whitehead, and Zadie Smith.

New to the list was Fiona Mozley, a 29-year-old bookseller from York whose debut novel, Elmet, hasn’t even been published yet. According to her editor, Mozley wrote the story while commuting on the train.

To be longlisted is an impressive achievement for anyone but for a debut author who wrote Elmet while travelling up and down to London from York on the train is just amazing.

This might be tricky if you take the New York subway to work (fewer seats, after all), unless you’re one of those dictating writers.

Notes: Not All Alternate Histories are Equal

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Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why, in quite simple terms, any comparisons between The Man in the High Castle and the upcoming HBO series Confederate don’t hold water:

It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany. The Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.

In one conflict, the defeated acknowledged their loss and paid a price. In the other, the defeated quickly got back to their old tricks. 

In other words, imagining a world where the white Southern racist establishment won may not be far different enough from reality to warrant the term “alternate history.”