Writer’s Desk: Move to Paris

Sometimes you just want to chuck it all and move to Paris. That’s how travel writer Edwina Hart ended up there after reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in her twenties (a dangerous thing to do when young and unmoored from adult responsibilities). She got an attic studio apartment in Montemarte and proceeded to fall in love with the city, particularly Hemingway’s beloved Shakespeare and Company bookstore.

After losing her apartment, Hart blew into the bookstore as one of its resident “Tumbleweeds” (“a title given to fledgling writers that live in the bookshop for free based on the proviso they ‘read a book a day'”). According to Hart:

Although little writing was ever done, I began to truly feel like a writer. I adopted the French art of flaneuring – wandering around without intention or direction. Armed with observations of Parisian life, I would scribble my thoughts down at street-side cafes or in the shade of chestnut trees in Jardin du Luxembourg (where Hemingway used to hunt pigeons to feed his family). On weekends, Tumbleweeds would make crepes in the kitchen of George’s apartment above the shop. Sunday afternoons were spent attending tea parties run by an octogenarian Welsh poet who regaled us with stories of how George used to cut his hair by setting it alight with a candle, or leave his shop entrusted to an unwitting customer, only to return a week later…

Little writing was ever done. Nevertheless, sometimes it helps to just feel like a writer.

Nota Bene: Movies About Writers, Why?

From Anthony Lane’s despairing review of the biopic Tolkien:

Why do people keep making films about writers? And why do people watch them? It’s not as if writers do anything of interest. Unless you’re Byron or Stendhal, a successful day is one in which you don’t fall asleep with your head on the space bar. An honest film about a writer would be an inaction-packed six-hour trudge, a one-person epic of mooch and mumblecore, the highlights being an overflowing bath, the reheating of cold coffee, and a pageant of aimless curses that are melted into air, into thin air…

Writer’s Desk: What Does Mark Bowden Think?

Sure, Mark Bowden is a bestselling author (Black Hawk Down, Hue 1968, among others). But for many years, he was also a regular journalistic scribe trying to spin gold out of hay. So he knows something about the daily grind and making it work for you, your editor, and your audience.

To wit, here are some tips he gave to Publishers Weekly:

  1. Know something — “Try coming up with 800 words when you have nothing to say; then try when you have just had a new experience. When you’ve learned something—anything—you’ll struggle to stay under the word count.”
  2. Understand what you are trying to do — “A clear answer to that question will help you avoid confusion and cliché.”
  3. Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more — “I still listen closely to my editors and usually take their advice. They are your first readers, and they get to talk back. They can tell you if your prose is confusing, boring, boorish, or simply wrong. A writer who doesn’t listen is a fool.”
  4. Be yourself — “Young writers in particular try to sound more learned or sophisticated or official. It’s the fastest way to make a fool of yourself on the printed page.”
  5. Scenes are gold — “Think about your experience as a reader. Pages turn swiftly when we’re reading action or dialogue, while exposition and description can slow things to a crawl.”

Writer’s Desk: It’s Work, Not Inspiration

Marlon James, 2014 (Larry D. Moore)

According to Black Leopard, Red Wolf author and Macalester College professor Marlon James, the only way he can get anything put down on paper is seeing it as work:

When I sit down with my laptop, I go to work. To me, writing is work: that’s part of my process, that it’s a job. I’m a big believer in that if you establish a routine, the muses show up. I love when people say they write when they’re inspired. I’m like, “Oh my God, I haven’t been inspired to write since the Carter administration. How does that work?” I’ve got to pay bills. I can’t wait on inspiration to write a novel. I’d never write anything…

James is far from strictly pragmatic, though. Although writing might be work, it’s also practice, and it’s through practice that the magic happens:

It’s a vocation. It’s practice. Dancers, musicians, and actors know what I’m talking about—I don’t have to convince them. But writers will say things like, “I couldn’t write today because I didn’t feel inspired.” And I’m like, “That’s lovely.” It’s about doing the work—and knowing that inspiration or creativity will show up once they realize you’re serious…

Writer’s Desk: Love Your Characters and Other Rules

Etgar Keret, brilliant creator of collections like The Nimrod Flipout, is one of the greatest living practitioners of the dry, droll, and surreal black comic story.

Interestingly, when he gave Rookie his 10 rules for writing, though, they were quite joyful and optimistic:

  1. Make sure you enjoy writing.
  2. Love your characters.
  3. When you’re writing, you don’t owe anything to anyone.
  4. Always start from the middle.
  5. Try not to know how it ends.
  6. Don’t use anything just because “that’s how it always is.”
  7. Write like yourself.
  8. Make sure you’re all alone in the room when you write.
  9. Let people who like what you write encourage you.
  10. Hear what everyone has to say but don’t listen to anyone (except me).

Writer’s Desk: Take Every Assignment

When Vivian Gornick wanted a job at the Village Voice in the late 1960s, she wrote an article and sent it to them. Editor Dan Wolf then called her up and asked, “Who the hell are you?” She replied, “I don’t know, you tell me.” She got anxious, sent him another article every year or so, and only then asked for a job.

Gornick told Artforum what happened next:

‘[Wolf said] You write one piece a year, how can I give you a job?’ I said, ‘No more, I’ll do anything you ask.’ He said, ‘Spend a day at the Catholic Worker and write a piece about Dorothy Day.’ I did. Then Jack Kerouac died and Wolf said, ‘Go to Lowell, Mass., and report on the funeral.’ I did. One more assignment—and he gave me the job. And that is how I became a writer.

Fight your anxiety.

Keep on pushing.

When the editor tells you to go cover something or somebody, you go and do it.

And that is how you will become a writer.

Writer’s Desk: Read It and Wing It

A notable anti-academic observation on the writing life from Kurt Vonnegut, collected in George Plimpton’s The Writer’s Chapbook:

I grew up in a house crammed with books. But I never had to read a book for academic credit, never had to write a paper about it, never had to prove I’d understood it in a seminar. I am a hopelessly clumsy discusser of books. My experience is nil…

Writer’s Desk: See the Future

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.

Writer’s Desk: Time to Get Started

soldierwriting1

So, yes, the new year has just begun. We all probably need a little break because, let’s be honest, the last one didn’t acquit itself too well, now did it?

But, that doesn’t mean your book / essay / short story / gardening column for the community newsletter is going to write itself.

So, finish off the rest of that bottle of prosecco you opened last night before the fireworks and Don Lemon’s piercing, but never quite finished. Then, get to it!

As P.D. James said:

Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

The world is waiting.

Writer’s Desk: Writing Advice from Antonin Scalia

1280px-Supreme_Court_US_2010

Although the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was best known for his strident dissents from not only his fellow liberal judges on the bench but even occasionally his conservative allies, he always prided himself on not just the slashing wit contained in his decisions but on his readable and provocative style.

A few years back, Scalia co-authored a book, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges. Some of its advice on presentation — dress to impress, and “Maintain a dignified and respectful countenance”— is not too helpful for the average writer, who we can probably agree are a (albeit proudly so) slouchy and indifferently attired lot.

But the tips from Scalia (a grammar nerd who bonded with his co-author over a David Foster Wallace essay titled “Tense Present”) on writing presentation are worth heeding:

There’s a myth abroad that you should never begin a sentence with a conjunction. But look at any species of reputable writing—whether it’s a good newspaper, journal, novel or nonfiction work—and you’re likely to find several sentences per page beginning with one of those little connectives. You can hardly achieve a flowing narrative or argument without them…

Banish jargon, hackneyed expressions and needless Latin…

People tend not to start reading what they cannot readily finish…

Remember, many lawyers write for a living. The better ones do it well.

Writer’s Desk: The First Draft

baudelaire

Jane Smiley on getting out of your own way:

… you cannot be judging yourself as you write the first draft—you want to harness that unexpected energy, and you don’t want to limit the possibilities of exploration. You don’t know what you’re writing until it’s done. So if a draft is 500 pages long, you have to suspend judgment for months. It takes effort to be good at suspending at judgment, to give the images and story priority over your ideas…

I think there are two kinds of sentences in a rough draft: seeds and pebbles. If it’s a pebble, it’s just the next sentence and it sits there. But if it’s a seed it grows into something that becomes an important part of the life of the novel. The problem is, you can’t know ahead of time whether a sentence will be a seed or a pebble, or how important a seed it’s going to be…

This, of course, is easier said than done. We’ve all been stuck at the desk, agonizing over the drivel we’ve been turning out and questioning the entire vocation. But just stick with it and (for a little while at least) ignore the inner critic. If you don’t have any raw material to work with, then there’s nothing to chisel and hone into something beautiful later on.

Writer’s Desk: Making a Name

William_S._Burroughs_at_the_Gotham_Book_MartThis is Patti Smith at a Louisiana literature festival in 2012:

When I was really young William Burroughs told me – I was really struggling we never had any money – and the advice that William gave me was built a good name and keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name eventually you know that name will be its own currency…

We don’t all get to be like Smith and receive personal advice from El Hombe Invisible at an age when we’re young and struggling and wondering if any of the combat we’re suffering just to create something will ever be worth it. But her distillation of it is useful nonetheless.

Protect your work at all costs. Don’t sign up for anything you don’t believe in. Refuse to sell yourself cheap. And if you have to … use a pseudonym.

Writer’s Desk: Grammar Cops

falcon1

Elements_of_Style_coverA scene from perhaps the greatest movie that will never be made:

EXT. CITY ALLEYWAY. NIGHT.
Police tape marks the scene. Red and blue lights flash. A young, nervous-looking BEAT COP sees STRUNK and WHITE approaching.

BEAT COP
It’s over here, detectives. The body was found about an hour ago.

STRUNK
Use the active voice, rookie.

BEAT COP
Oh god, it’s horrible. I feel nauseous.

STRUNK
Unless you mean you’re sickening to contemplate, you mean “nauseated.” Now get out of  my crime scene before you puke all over it.

WHITE (inspecting the body)
It’s definitely our guy, Strunk.

STRUNK
The Crossword Killer?

WHITE
Yeah. And look, he’s getting more confident. This time, he used a pen.

Writer’s Desk: Gaming the System

writing notebook

Some say publishing is rigged. These are often the people who have been shopping their work—whether misery memoir, cozy murder mystery, 11-part zombie erotica series, or finely etched literary short story about quiet people with quiet problems—without success for years and don’t get what they’re doing wrong. Unable to get an agent or magazine to give them the time of day, their conclusion that it’s all a closed loop for insiders is not hard to fault; especially when one considers the quality of much that is published, not to mention the august list of big-name authors who first had to grind through dozens or hundreds of rejections.

It’s hard not to write off a lot of this frustration as sour grapes, the anger of those whose writing simply isn’t good enough to hack it. Obviously a lot of the time that is true—just take a dive through what gets self-published on Wattpad if you need convincing.

On the side that argues it’s all a racket comes a rare voice from the inside. In the New Republic, Theodore Ross writes with winking candor about what happened when he got sick of his rejection slips and decided to stop following submission guidelines and game the system:

At the time of these submissions, I was a junior editor at an established magazine, and I decided to use this to my advantage. I typed up a cover letter on my employer’s very fine letterhead, slipped it and the story into an envelope embossed with our well-known logo, and rules be damned, sent it to the folks in Brooklyn. A few months later, an editor emailed me at work—stick it, SASE!—to say he would like to buy the story, which I think rose slightly-but-not-significantly above not-half-bad. It was published a few months later after a few skillful edits. I earned $500, which I believe is $495 more than I had earned in my fiction-publishing career to that point…

Moral of the story: To get published, first work at a well-known magazine.