Writer’s Desk: Making It Up as You Go

Back in 1973, Cormac McCarthy was about to publish his third novel, Child of God, and was already one of America’s greatest writers. Few people where he lived in Kingsport, Tennessee had any idea.

When a writer from the Kingsport Times-News tracked McCarthy down and tried to pry some wisdom out of the “the mustachioed, suede-suited novelist,” here is some of what the later very press-avoidant writer told them:

When you write something down you pretty well kill it. Leave it loose and knocking around up there and you never know—it might turn into something.

Which is a hard thing to do. Some writers worry that if they leave it knocking around up there too long, it might disappear. But maybe that’s the test? If it hangs around long enough, it’s something to hang on to and work on.

McCarthy went on:

Creativity is an elusive thing to pin down; but McCarthy finally made his point with a parable. While living in Spain some years ago, he had a novelist friend, “a kindred soul, a madman.” This friend was in a bar, where companions were quizzing him. “Where do you get your ideas?” While the conversation was taking place, only the novelist was paying any attention to a dwarf who was crawling along the top of the bar, methodically draining the abandoned mugs of their last dregs of beer. . . . “I can’t explain how one creates a novel,” McCarthy mused. “It’s like jazz. They create as they play, and maybe only those who can do it can understand it.”

Writer’s Desk: Write Like a Scientist

For the last couple decades, Cormac McCarthy has been something of a fiction writer in residence at the Santa Fe Institute, a scientific  center whose attendees are more likely to be doing postdoc physics research than crafting lucid prose.

Since clarity and concision matter as much as research in getting a point across, McCarthy has also been helping the scientists with editing their work. Here are a few of his tips:

Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.

Limit each paragraph to a single message. A single sentence can be a paragraph.

Minimize clauses, compound sentences and transition words — such as ‘however’ or ‘thus’ — so that the reader can focus on the main message.

With regard to grammar, spoken language and common sense are generally better guides for a first draft than rule books. It’s more important to be understood than it is to form a grammatically perfect sentence.

Weekend Reading: July 29, 2016


Reader’s Corner: The Headless Woman and Other Femme Cover Cliches

belljarcover1For the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s iconic The Bell Jar, normally sane British publisher Faber & Faber decided to gussy up the thing with a cover that was thought to be more … ahem … marketable. The result was downright degrading, looking like some pandering chick-lit nonsense about shopping and getting the guy.

This isn’t a new thing, as any even casual peruser of bookstore stacks has come to know, and as Eugenia Williamson examines in a piece for the Boston Globe. Books with male authors are more likely to feature dark, moody illustrations (Cormac McCarthy) or fanciful type-heavy designs (Jonathan Safran Foer), and they don’t have to even include people (Jonathan Franzen). It all signals seriousness, even though a majority of those books are still being read by women.

Whereas, books by lady authors are either slathered with pinks and enough accessories to stock a Macy’s window or end up featuring one of two by-now cliched design motifs. Per Williamson:

In recent years, many of the people on book covers have been women without faces. So prevalent is this visual cliché that the publishing industry has cycled through at least two well-documented iterations. The first, the Headless Woman, features some poor thing cut off above the neck, like the swimsuit-clad beachgoer on Alice Munro’s story collection “The View from Castle Rock.” The website Goodreads’s Headless Women page has 416 entries. Last year, the Headless Woman was supplanted by the Sexy Back, in which a woman is shown from behind, often gazing out over a vista.

Why this is seen as being something female readers want on their covers, of course, is anybody’s guess.