Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Rare Philip Roth Interview

Philip Roth doesn't give interviews often, and in this one, his opinions about the books he writes and how they might be viewed in the future is compelling (even if it's a tad apocalyptic). Notice his response when the interviewer asks what he'll do if the novel dies out.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Composting (Some Thoughts)

Natalie Goldberg has this marvelous little chapter in her classic book Writing Down the Bones where she explains the concept of composting. Her contention, and I agree, is that we accumulate a lot of junk throughout our daily lives. Over time, the mind, consciously and subconsciously, will sift through the miry bog, process the information one piece at a time, and then when the time is perfect, a flower will push up through the mess. We have to be ready to water it, to make it grow (translation: be ready to write).

Some writers say the best way to write about a place is to NOT be there. Want to write about the beach? Do it in the dead of winter snow. My friend Pat Conroy wrote his masterpiece The Prince of Tides from Rome. The descriptions of the South Carolina marsh stemmed from his deep longing to be there.

Need to write about your father's passing? An unrequited love? You have to let it sit. You have to let the brain keep turning it. Time will do its thing--doesn't it always? Sometimes this means, doing nothing. Sometimes, it means scribbling your way through journals, waiting for the gems to appear.

In the end, whatever your method, when the flower blooms, you'll be ready for it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Sesquipedalianist

I came across the word in an editorial by Dick Cavett in the New York Times. He was discussing the bloated use of euphemism by our commanders in the field.

Politics aside, you have to love the irony of this gargantuan bohemoth: sesquipedalian. Defined, the word describes a person who uses overly long, complicated words in speech or writing (broken into its roots to mean "foot and a half"), which then begs the question, is it possible to use this word without committing the very crime you've leveled against another? No, and that's the beauty.

Not to be outdone, there also exists a beast to characterize one's fear of long words: hippopotamonstrousesquipedaliophobia (words the size of a monstrous hippopotamus perhaps?).

As writers, you're allowed maybe one of these zingers every hundred pages or so (you're NEVER allowed to use hippopotamonstrous...). But when the word becomes the precise word, oh how beautiful it can be. You know what I'm talking about. Just this morning, I've been prowling my list of beauties (I keep a list of great words in my journal for use in stories when the occasion is right). They're not all fifty-cent words, but they'll shine if they find a home on the page:


Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug. Don't be afraid to flex your verbal muscles when you've got the perfect word, but don't fall prey either to the bloviating puffery of the sesquipedalianist.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hire the Guy with the Truck AND the Trailer

A famous drummer was asked once why he spent so much time learning to play overly complicated rhythms, blazing fills, and impossible multi-limbed independence when most of his recorded playing was a straightforward groove. His answer: Every carpenter wants the best tools in the toolbox.

As writers, I can think of no better metaphor. Aside from how to get an agent, the most popular question ever asked of writers is "how do I become one?" (When a young woman asked Robert Penn Warren that question, he replied, "When did you decide to be so beautiful?" What a schmoozer.)

The best way to become a writer is WRITE! See my BIC entry below. The mere act of putting words on paper engages the mind, teaches us what we really think, how we really feel. We learn by doing--dialogue, characterization, setting, conflict, all these things become clearer as we implement them on the page. You learn nothing by talking about writing or staring into space. You learn nothing by writing only when inspiration hits. Write often, every day if you can. Do your thinking in the car and shower. Over time, your writing will reveal what you're good at, what you're bad at--which should then arouse curiosity, which takes us to the next tool: READING.

You don't get point of view? Google it or buy a book on it. Read a novel in that viewpoint and study how the other writer did it. Not good with grammar? Take a day and relive those joyous middle school moments. Learn what an introductory participial phrase can do and how to include that construction in your toolbox. (Re)learn the comma rules and how to use those stupid apostrophes. No one who calls himself a writer should be making the its/it's mistake. Try submitting something with a few there/theirs/there's mistakes and see what happens.

My habit is to read constantly. Always, I have a novel and a book on writing going simultaneously. Sometimes I take a break and read non-fiction. Sometimes I read Entertainment Weekly (oh, the shame). In any case, read to enjoy. Read to fill the toolbox. You never know when something will come in handy. Learn new words, new sentence constructions. Learn to be funny, serious, poignant. Know why people do things.

Yes, it's simple. You find tools at Lowe's and Home Depot. Writers find tools through reading and writing. Imagine that. If you call yourself a writer, but you don't read, then REPENT, SINNER! That's like running on one leg. And your toolbox will be only half-full. If you read and don't write, well, you're a reader.

The Greeks say "Know Thyself." I say have a toolbox so big you can't fit through the door. Always hire the guy with the truck AND the trailer. Know what I mean?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


My friend Carol Peters posted on her blog the poet Jorie Graham's answer to a question asking what advice she had for aspiring poets. In it, she quoted John Berryman who warned of writers succumbing to the "thinky death." In context, I think he was warning poets not to write poems with an interpretation in mind, for that could lead to stiffness, preachiness, bad poetry in general.

For the novel writer, the "thinky death" could fall along similar lines. Activists, philosophers, and religious zealots--take note. Literary agent Pat Walsh sees it all the time. In his excellent book 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Publish & 14 Reasons Why It Just Might, he laments how many writers whose books don't make a point; rather their point makes an entire book. Camus, Kafka, and Sartre did it (and well), but I don't see those novels lighting up the bestseller lists in the twenty-first century. They might not have even been published in today's market.

A similar tangent to the "thinky death" is the writer who stares out the window all day (me), talks incessantly about his novel (me, but to myself), and is addicted to writer groups and conferences and revising the same novel that's been under construction since the heady days of university (not me, thank God). These are the thinkers, which produces that horrible symptom of talking, which means that no writing is getting done.

Here's the vaccine to the "thinky death." Ready? It's called BIC--BUTT IN CHAIR. You gotta do it. Can't fake it any longer. Pray, play Scrabble, drivel on in a blog, but then get the words down. Set yourself a goal. Here's mine. "I'm not getting out of this damn chair until I've written this scene." Notice I did not apply an evaluative label. It could be awful, skeletal, without any verve whatsoever, but you know what? I've got something to work with.

So, think about that (but only for a minute) and post BIC on your desk lamp. I'm rooting for you.

Effective Silliness

Have you been working on a manuscript for a while? Want to make it fresh again?

Change the font. I'm not kidding. Change it. Right now.

I've been writing in Times Roman since the Roman Empire, it seems. Just the other day, I changed the entire manuscript to Big Caslon--attracted first to the name, and now I really like the font. If you're a Mac-head like me, you'll find it in MS Word.

Anyway, when I sit down to write in the morning, it feels new all over again. My characters suddenly sound smarter. Can't tell you why. Same stuff, right? A different window dressing perhaps.

Sometimes, I drink coffee with real sugar, too, except that IS better than the artificial stuff.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Good Job (if you can get it)

Being a writer is impossibly difficult. The only way to publish a novel is to hire an agent. Agents get a hundred queries a week (mine does). He might ask ten of those letter writers to send opening chapters. From those, he might ask for one complete manuscript. Last year he took on one new fiction writer. Sheesh.

So, let's say this lucky hired soul actually gets his book on an editor's desk (thanks to a great effort by the agent--all those lunches and phone calls paid off). This editor might read five or six manuscripts a week--not in the office, mind you, but on the train home, at night before bed, on weekends. He might get offer a contract on a book every few months.

This is withering news. More people win the lottery than receive publishing contracts.

Of all the people writing novels, maybe half of one percent might get them published. Of those, maybe a half percent might make enough money to quit their day job, and of those, maybe a half percent might go on to make writing novels a career. No matter your literary taste, you have to tip your hat to the Nora Roberts' and John Grisham's of the world.

Why so hard? Failure lies around every corner. We'll always be rejected more than we're accepted. Even at acceptance (contract signing time!), the real problems begin--fights over format, jacket covers, publicity budget, pub dates, titles, etc. Then your book appears on book shelves, and now it must sell--empty book signings, bad reviews, missing copies, no reviews all the recurring nightmare of the published author. For a look at the carnage, check out the remainder discount racks at the bookstore. No one is immune, not even Dan Brown.

So, you still want to do it? Yep. Despite all that? Yep. Fitzgerald's books were all out of print, and he died with no money. It took seventy-five years for anyone to realize Moby Dick was a genius novel (just don't ask any high-schoolers for their opinion). Were it not for Alice Walker's tireless stumping in the 70s, no one would know who Zora Neale Hurston is.

Truth is, the written word can make a difference. A career of pushing words around on the page is a job to die for. If it were easy, we'd all be doing it (then again, according to my agent, we all ARE doing it).

If you learn to treasure the process and remain committed to the act, you can succeed. Attach too much self-worth to the results? Forget it. The real reward is finding the zone, that quiet time where your brain takes you deep into the nether regions of consciousness where you spin out your stories, and you swear for a time that the magic is indeed magic. Yep, that's the why.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

What Kind of Writer Am I?

Had a teacher tell me once there were two kinds of writers: one writer who says, "Read these words I am putting on the page and get lost in the story." Then there is the other who says, "Watch my hand move. Isn't it awesome?"

The idea, of course, suggests we should be committed to the story on the page and not overly concerned with diction or syntax. We're taught as authors to get out of the way of the story, to use a style appropriate so as not to call attention to itself. If I use a word like peripatetic when I could have used wandering, for example, I might be asking you to notice my hand.

But what about a Thomas Wolfe or a Michael Chabon? Writers' writers as we call them.

Or what about the person who says, "You're taking all the fun of writing away if I can't explore language and words and story."

I suppose the answer is to consider another analogy: there's nothing wrong with hot soup, but, remember, too much spice can ruin it.

And, sometimes, peripatetic is the right word.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Random Thoughts Over a PB&J

Okay, I just leafed through a great book on editing, and now I'm pondering writing advice that's been making the circuits for years. Consider these few:

After finishing a draft, put the manuscript in a drawer for a few weeks. I put my clothes in a drawer, maybe some thumbtacks and paper clips, but never a manuscript. Maybe I close the computer file, or if I've printed it, stick it in an expandable file folder. I don't know, but a drawer? How about a shelf? Maybe I'm just weird.

Show don't tell. Great advice, but so ambiguous. Maybe it should say, "Show some, tell some, show some more, tell the unimportant stuff, show the important stuff--all in moderation."

Beginning writers shouldn't use the first person point of view. It's not gasoline powered. It's not multi-bladed. It can't maim or kill. If first person is the right point of view, then it is.

Literary novels are much tougher to sell than commercial novels. Aren't all novels literary? Aren't all novels published commercial? I'll concede on one point, though. ALL novels are hard to sell right now. My agent says more people write them than buy them.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Brush with Greatness

I saw Doug Marlette on a book tour a little over a year ago. Upon hearing he would be coming through South Carolina, I made the drive from Charleston to Litchfield Books, a wonderful independent store owned by Tom and Vickie Warner.

Doug's second novel Magic Time had just been released to fabulous reviews and seemed the proper follow-up to his award-winning first novel The Bridge. Doug knew what fame and notoriety were about, having won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorial cartoons in the Charlotte and Atlanta newspapers. According to his best friend Pat Conroy, with whom he spoke every morning, this novel writing thing had turned into a second career, and it was ridiculous to think one man could have so much talent.

And that was precisely why I wanted to meet him. It's a privilege to meet people who have mastered anything (a Tiger Woods, a Wynton Marsalis, a Meryl Streep), but here was a guy who achieved success in TWO fields (rigorous, competitive ones at that).

As is common for all writers who've endured a book tour, the store was nearly empty. Turn out had been modest, and I arrived midway through the second hour. I shook Doug's hand, mentioned a few friends I knew we had in common, and we talked for the better part of 30 minutes. Doug was gracious (wanted to know details about my writing (this took 8 seconds)); he was charming and told me several stories about the inspiration for The Bridge; he signed both my books with generous inscriptions; and he gave me a quick pep talk about making it in a cut-throat industry. I left the store pumped, ready to write, feeling as if I'd made a new friend.

I did not see him or speak to him after that. Nine months later, he died in a car crash. He was on his way to a Mississippi high school who had produced a musical about his cartoon strip Kudzu, and had planned to meet the students who'd adapted his work. The road was wet. The car he rode in hydroplaned and hit a tree. He died instantly.

That fall, I read an article Doug had written before his death about getting to spend an afternoon with Walker Percy in 1989 a year or so before Percy died. In the article, Doug mentioned several times how generous Percy had been with him, a young man on the cusp of life learning from the wise. He said it was an experience he'd remember the rest of his life. When I think about my afternoon with Doug Marlette, I think, me, too.

I met him once. I miss him anyway.