Writer’s Desk: Take Your Time

One piece of advice that many new writers get is to write as much as possible. That way you can publish more often. And the more you publish, the more people get to know your work, success breeds success, and so on.

But at what point does that approach start to feel less like art and more like industry?

Donna Tartt had thoughts:

People say that perfectionism is bad. But it’s because of perfectionists that man walked on the moon and painted the Sistine Chapel, OK? Perfectionism is good. It’s all about production and economy these days. I don’t want to be the CEO of a corporation, of Donna Tartt Inc. I work the way I’ve always worked, and I don’t want a big desk and fancy office and people answering the telephone.

Of course, she had the advantage of writing a bestseller right out of the gate (The Secret History). That left her able to basically take a decade per novel.

Still, it’s good to remember that not every author needs to be out there selling themselves every minute of the day, contributing to anthologies, blurbing their friends’ books, writing a 16-part Netflix series.

Maybe that means keeping your day job and writing at night or in the morning. If you think you need the time to get the lines right, take the time.

Writer’s Desk: Write, Write, Talk, Write, Get Lucky

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Among the many questions that young writers have, besides “How do you make a living at it?”, is what they should do and what should they read to help them hone their craft.
There is no good answer. But embedding yourself in an ecstatically committed community of writers or at least people who love writing is a good way to start.
It has been a long time since I dared reread any of the wish-fulfillment stories I scribbled in my lonely teenage notebooks, but I suspect if I did, they’d contain something a little like this: You’re a freewheeling political reporter on assignment on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, covering a tech conference full of Ukrainian models, when Joss Whedon calls and asks if you’ve ever thought of writing for television. Of course you have, but only in the way that you’ve thought of being an astronaut. Six weeks later you’re in California, sitting in your first writers’ room, on Whedon’s new sci-fi show for HBO, The Nevers, and it turns out that the evenings you spent at college arguing about Buffy with your best friends were a better use of your time than you realized…
Sometimes writers get lucky. Very lucky. But for that luck to mean something, they have to have spent years preparing. Even if that means spending years writing, debating, and absorbing cultish fan-fiction. Whatever it is, commit yourself totally. It helps to be prepared.

Writer’s Desk: Tell Your Story

The next time you are not sure what to write about, maybe take a crack at your own story. It doesn’t have to be a biography, or a college essay about an adversity that you overcome, maybe just a few pages on a childhood memory, or a piece about the chasm between what you thought your life would be and what it became, or an essay about the first time your heart was broken, or when you broke somebody else’s.

Everyone has a story, it’s all in the framing, the insight, how you build it.

In Exhalation, the beautiful new collection from Ted Chiang (whose “Story of Your Life” was adapted into the movie Arrival), he has a story called “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” It’s a future fable about a world in which everyone will have cameras that record everything, which can then be instantly accessed, dismantling the entire concept of memory. Chiang writes this:

People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they’re the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. Which is why, even when we’ve experienced the same events as other individuals, we never constructed identical narratives: the criteria used for selecting moments were different for each of us, and a reflection of our personalities. Each of us noticed the details that caught our attention and remembered what was important to us, and the narratives we built shaped our personalities in turn…

The best stories are not from people who have the best stories. People who lead exciting lives can tell very, very dull stories. The best stories come from the best storytellers.

Do your best.

Writer’s Desk: Ignore ‘The Elements of Style’

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Any writer who has made at least a passing effort to improve their work is familiar with the lessons gleaned from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The slim little handbook has been featured on curricula since it first came out in 1959. Following its own advice, the book is pithy, to the point, and highly usable. More than likely the sentences you just read break at least three of its rules.

If you listen to this podcast from linguist John McWhorter—who has been writing some great pieces on language in the popular and political spheres for The Atlantic, by the way, particularly here and here—there is no reason to take Strunk and White’s many rules (avoiding the passive voice, qualifiers and the word “hopefully,” all of which are sound) as gospel.

“It’s just a couple of guys,” McWhorter says. Not that there is no need for standards in writing. But as a proponent of communication, not a pedantic enforcer of codes (looking at you, Lynne Truss), McWhorter sees no reason for writers to wrap themselves up in worry over breaking a few rules.

Be clear, vivid, original, and to the point. Keep it short. If it feels wrong, cut it. If you’re not sure about a line, toss it or redo. Otherwise, write on, and that should do the trick.

Hopefully.

Quote of the Day: What Jim Mattis Didn’t Say

Call Sign ChaosFormer Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, one of those adults we keep being told are keeping things in the White House from being even worse than they are, has a new book out: Call Sign Chaos.

If this essay in the Wall Street Journal, which Mattis and his co-author Bing West adapted from the book, is any sign, there is much he is not saying in the book. To wit, this section on how he dealt with an unnamed admiral who harshly and indiscriminately mocked his subordinates:

I called in the admiral and carefully explained why I disapproved of his leadership. “Your staff resents you,” I said. “You’re disappointed in their input. OK. But your criticism makes that input worse, not better. You’re going the wrong way. You cannot allow your passion for excellence to destroy your compassion for them as human beings.” This was a point I had always driven home to my subordinates.

“Change your leadership style,” I continued. “Coach and encourage; don’t berate, least of all in public.”

But he soon reverted to demeaning his subordinates. I shouldn’t have been surprised. When for decades you have been rewarded and promoted, it’s difficult to break the habits you’ve acquired, regardless of how they may have worked in another setting. Finally, I told him to go home.

There is no indication in this exercise in avoiding the elephant in the room that Mattis ever suggested that the commander in chief should consider not berating or demeaning people, much less just going home.

Writer’s Desk: Persevere

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“Woman at desk, gazing at outside view” (c. 1768)

Some days it comes. The words flow, you forget to look up, and before you know it, the whole morning has passed and you have five good new pages.

Some days it does not. Nothing comes. Everything sounds terrible. You write and delete and rewrite the same two lines before getting up and going for a walk.

Still, the desk remains. The page needs to be filled. How? No easy way around it, per screenwriter Akiva Goldsman:

Successful writers don’t wait for the muse to fill themselves unless they’re geniuses. I’m not a genius. I’m smart, I have some talent, and I have a lot of stubbornness. I persevere. I was by no means the best writer in my class in college. I’m just the one still writing…

Chances are, you are not a genius (no offense).

So, failing that, just keep at it. Be the tortoise.

And stop looking out the window.

Reader’s Corner: ‘The City in the Middle of the Night’

My review of Charlie Jane Anders’ novel The City in the Middle of the Night was published at Rain Taxi Review of Books:

The City in the Middle of the Night, is precisely the kind of novel that benefits from being called speculative fiction rather than science fiction, which can still seem pejorative to some readers. So far, “speculative fiction” seems not to scare off genre-unfriendly readers, meaning Anders may attract the kind of broad readership she deserves with this bristling and vivid book…