Thursday, September 18, 2014

James Magruder and the Boyhood Tribulations

In the 21st in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, James Magruder, author of Let Me See It (TriQuarterly Books), discusses one of his literary touchstones. 

When I’m stuck, really stuck in a story of my own, I read comedy to feel better. The quickest fixes are Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Ignatius J. Reilly visiting the Prytania Theatre early on in A Confederacy of Dunces, and the Delbert Bumpus chapter in Jean Shepard’s undervalued Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters. Longer wallows would include Dawn Powell’s The Happy Island or A Time to Be Born or Waugh’s The Loved One. Most salutary of all is Herman Wouk’s second novel, The City Boy, or The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder. Published in 1948, just before The Caine Mutiny would bring Wouk fame, fortune, and (for better or worse) a mass market readership, The City Boy has more honest laughs per page than any other book I know. When I pick it up—and I have probably read it twenty times since I spotted it on the fiction shelf in the Bower Junior High Library in 1973—I promise myself not to go too far, and find myself up all night with Herbie, a fat, brainy Jewish sixth-grader growing up in the Bronx in the 1920’s.

For forty years I have laughed at Herbie getting sick on seven pieces of French pastry at Golden’s
restaurant; Herbie trying to impress Lucille Glass, the red-haired siren of Mosholu Parkway, by changing the part in his hair, only to have it spring up like a boxwood hedge in a romantic moment; Herbie teaching Lenny Krieger, his jock cousin and nemesis, the difference between a dactyl and a trochee. My favorite episode, “The Dubbing of General Garbage,” features a giddily horrible Decoration Day Pageant commemorating Flanders Fields, after which Herbie and Lenny play Grant and Lee in “The Surrender at Appamatox.” For once, Herbie triumphs with his clear diction, natural ham, and a trick button only he has noticed on General Lee’s scabbard.

The novel broadens, and the cast widens, a third of the way in, when Herbie and his sister Felicia, Lenny, and Lucille head upstate for a month in the Berkshires at Camp Manitou. Tribulations pile up for our hero—on the pond, in right field, in his cabin, on a horse, at a mixer. How Herbie redeems himself to become the most popular Manitou camper, win Lucille’s favor (at least for the moment) and, not incidentally, save his father’s ice plant in the Bronx, is a boy’s adventure—breathless, tender, truthful, hilarious—to rival anything in Tom Sawyer or Penrod.

When I discovered City Boy, I wasn’t fat, I wasn’t Jewish, my family wasn’t working class, and I never went to summer camp, but at thirteen, runty, effeminate, four-eyed, unathletic, and often the new kid in class because my father moved us around too much, I understood humiliation. I had learned to make the bullies laugh before they had a chance to hit me. I knew how to charm girls and teachers and pretend I didn’t know the answer sometimes and claim to love Hot Wheels and Speed Racer and, always picked last for team sports, I knew to get knocked out early in dodge ball before anyone could watch me throw like a girl. I also understood Herbie’s appetite. I craved appreciation. I remember on my first readings how Wouk’s recollections of his Bronx boyhood scared as much as it entertained. Wouk “saw” me, “heard” me, noticed me as no other writer had before (and I was quite a bookworm). I felt both Herbie and I were waiting until life got fairer and the world began to value knowledge over force. Except I kept my head down while Herbie stood as tall as his legs would let him. That’s what made him heroic.

Perhaps I even understood, in my junior high way, that the only way to master your childhood was to put it out there and invite people in. I didn’t allow myself to attempt fiction until my early forties. I am (for better or worse) a very autobiographical writer, and humiliation has been my narrative meat and drink. The last time I read The City Boy was in 2010. My first novel had come out and I was shopping a book of stories. The City Boy frightened me in a new way. The humor remained, for me, bone-deep, inscribed not only in the characters and situations and details, but also in its syntax, its rhythms, and the calibrated distance of the third-person narrator. What I heard in this last go-round was the large, direct, and influential part of Wouk’s voice on my voice. It was as if his sentences had seeped into me on a cellular level. I’m not sure how I feel about this, as I’d rather read my work and hear Forster or Conrad or Dawn Powell. I suppose Herbie is in me that deep because he got me young and hit me hard. In any case, I’ve been giving copies of his adventures to friends and family since college. Perfect material for Steven Spielberg, it is my one free idea for pals who work in movies or television. Now I’ve told you. Fortunately, The City Boy is always in print.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Slice Magazine Offers Writers (and Beer) on Tap

By Nick Fuller Googins
Brooklyn, NY, Sept. 6, 2014

It’s Saturday night at powerHouse Arena (a bookstore/events space in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood) and the free beer has run out. What’s striking is that this doesn’t seem to faze anyone. Okay, a few people complain, but they’re probably the ones who arrived late. The rest of us mingling beneath the chandelier glow are taking the beer shortage in stride.

In the House: an appreciative audience
Slice magazine’s “Writers on Tap” billed itself as “a reading for discovering new voices and drinking good beer,” and it served as an interlude of sorts to the weekend-long Slice Literary Writers’ Conference. Slice, based in Brooklyn, publishes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and interviews in a sleek, sexy magazine. According to co-founder Maria Gagliano, who introduced the night’s reading, Slice places a special emphasis on bridging the gap between emerging and established writers, with each issue featuring both well known and up-and-coming authors. The Slice Literary Writers’ Conference, held at St. Francis College in downtown Brooklyn on Sept. 6-7, kept true to this same focus, offering emerging writers the opportunity to meet with agents, attend workshops, and hear from a wide array of literary voices. Many of us here at powerHouse had come straight from the conference.

Earlier that day, we’d heard Tin House editor Rob Spillman, speaking at a panel entitled “The Secret Lives of Literary Magazines,” warn against what he called “Doogie Howser Syndrome,” or the predilection of some beginning writers to tack on an ending that tells the reader everything the previous fifteen pages of the story have already shown. At another panel, “It’s About Me…But It’s Also About You: Writing Nonfiction that Connects with Readers,” Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing, told us, “Memory is an act of imagination.” During a session on revision, Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls, had this to say: “Anyone who says they write without editing is either full of shit or not a writer…or a genius.”

The “Writers on Tap” reading that evening showcased the work of five writers handpicked by editors from Slice, A Public SpaceOne Teen Storyand Henry Holt & Co. Included in this bunch were authors Kseniya Melnik and Justin Taylor, both of whom released story collections this year, Melnik with her debut collection, Snow in May (Henry Holt & Co.) and Taylor with Flings (Harper), his second book of stories.
Busy man: Justin Taylor reads from Flings

Celia Johnson, co-founder of Slice, introduced Taylor, describing Flings as “a wonderful ensemble of matters of the heart,” a collection filled with “grief, lust, and falling in-and-out-of-love” that “takes you everywhere, from Oregon to Hong Kong.” Taylor, who later confided that he’d done five Flings readings in the past couple of weeks, took to the podium and said he needed a break from the collection. Instead he read from a thick sheaf of papers, a section of his novel-in-progress about a former child actor who’s leveraged his faded glory into part ownership of a bar—one that he himself patronizes often, especially if a certain female bartender is on duty. Of the former actor: “He liked to sit at the bar and let his longing run away with itself,” and he “assumed that all girls knew all things and modified his behavior accordingly.” If the audience’s reaction offered Taylor some focus-group-like insight as to the response his completed novel may elicit, he can anticipate having to include plenty of pauses for laughter at future readings. But that assumes he’ll have time for pauses.

Justin Taylor is a busy man. In addition to being on tour for his third book, working on his fourth, and teaching at more than one university, he is currently writing a review for Bookforum on Denis Johnson’s new novel, The Laughing Monsters. In preparation, Taylor explained that he’d been reading much of Johnson’s backlist, including his plays.

“Denis Johnson writes plays?” I asked.

Taylor reached into his bag, pulled out Soul of a Whore and Purvis and flipped through, exclaiming with no small degree of admiration that Denis Johnson not only writes plays but he writes them in verse.

Not so La-Z: Kseniya Melnik reads from Snow in May
Sarah Bowlin, editor at Henry Holt, introduced Kseniya Melnik, praising her writing for its ability to “reveal something cutting very easily and something emotional very slyly,” as well as possessing a “human quality that transports you.” Transport us it did, all the way back to Post-War Russia, where much of Melnik’s linked collection is set. She read from “Strawberry Lipstick,” a story that begins with heart-broken Olya, who “lay in bed between her younger sister, Dasha, and her older sister, Zoya, feeling that, at eighteen, her life was over. For what was life without love? A never-ending shift at a factory assembly line.” Bittersweet, cutting and emotional, the tone seemed to instantly and precisely evoke that of a love-sick teenager living through a Soviet winter.

Melnik admitted she enjoys writing stories about snowy places. It comes as little surprise because she grew up in Russia, moved to Alaska at age fifteen, and went to school in upstate New York. Currently she resides and writes in El Paso where it does in fact snow on occasion, though not often and not in recent memory. A word Melnik uses to describe the place is “sweltering.” The incongruity of writing much of Snow in May while living a few football fields from the Mexican border is so delicious that Melnik must be sick of people mentioning it. So I didn’t. But I had to wonder how she coped with such contrast. What was her secret?

The next day, Melnick answered my unasked question while participating in a panel entitled, “Literary Quirks,” when she said, “I cannot write at a desk. I write in a La-Z-Boy. I trick myself to think I’m relaxed.” If that helped her write so sharply about life in snowy Russia while living in El Paso, then that must be one hell of a La-Z-Boy.

Photos courtesy of Slice magazine and © Maria Gagliano

Friday, September 5, 2014

Monica McFawn and the Pursuit of Clarity

In the 20th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Monica McFawn, author of Bright Shards of Someplace Else (University of Georgia Press), draws inspiration from a guy named Murray.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life?
Years ago, I was living in a rural town in southern Michigan, working as a 4-H agent. My job was to manage the county’s 4-H program, and my duties were varied. I organized a shipment of shavings for the fair’s show ring, I counted unused piles of blue ribbons, I wiped the grease off pigs after a greased pig contest and other unimagined tasks. It was a far cry from the writing community I had just left, so far that when I once told a 4-H volunteer that I had an MFA in Poetry, he responded, “A Masters in Poultry? That’s good. Lots of kids here are interested in showing turkeys…”

My boss, Murray, liked to joke about my impractical background and citified ways. Despite our lack of things in common—I was a vegetarian poet in my late twenties, he was a sixty-something beef farmer—I liked him. Everyone did. Murray was tall and lean, with a concavity to his whole body, like a sapling bent by snow. Whenever he walked into a room, he aggressively put people at ease with little jokes and questions. Even the most withdrawn person would eventually be charmed, if only by his persistence. More than any of the colorful scenarios the job offered up, it is Murray’s character that I remember most.

Without fail, Murray seemed to force openness out of people who were normally anything but. This was most obvious during the weekly Horse Council meeting, a font of drama and infighting. The first moments of these meetings would be an idle volley of a low-stakes part of the agenda—perhaps what company would donate the paint for the horse stalls, or something. Then, the topic would shift into controversial territory, and the discussion would become a dense weave of puffery, posturing, and roundabout justifications. Murray would watch, sometimes drumming a leg and sighing. Then he’d speak.

“So the issue here, he might say, “is that the Horse Princess duties aren’t spelled-out? Right?”

It was his tone, rather than his words, that seemed to change the atmosphere. His voice had a frank, confessional quality, as if he were asking you advice over a beer. Yet he was also loud and exuberantly clear. Some people would answer him frankly, while the more scheming or indecisive types would look disconcerted, as if he’d spoke in another language. But the room, overall, would feel suddenly brighter, and the conversation would resume with new transparency. I took great pleasure in witnessing this—not because Murray was right but because, blunt as he was, there was an artfulness to his interruptions. He would break into moments of circuitous mutterings, so the clarity of his voice would be perfectly juxtaposed.

When I talked with Murray after these meetings, he’d lament the inability of the Horse Council to speak plainly. He couldn’t—or wouldn’t—understand why the group constantly ran aground in ambiguity and disagreements. He seemed certain that if people just got down to brass tacks, if they just spoke the basic truths within them, then there could be no misunderstanding.

Was Murray right? On one hand, I admire the embodied worldview of that boisterous, honest voice, a voice that could chase away any shadows, that could cut through guile and doublespeak to what lay beneath. On the other, the Horse Council’s problems were complex. The mix of personalities, ethical issues, and multi-familial tensions created a texture that was, in some ways, impenetrable. People could speak their deepest truths, and the impasse might only deepen. There is only so much clarity to be found.

It’s something I think about in my writing. Should a short story aim to say something clear about the world—should it be clearer than the world? Or should it instead faithfully recreate the entanglements, subtleties, and white noise of daily life? Maybe the answer seems obvious—we don’t want to end our stories with neat little morals. But the flip side is also true—a short story can’t just be eloquent murk. Everyone’s read beautiful prose in a story that seems to say nothing. It’s no better than being didactic.

Murray does appear, somewhat transfigured, in one of my stories. But his larger impact has been that he made me consider the role of clarity in art. My favorite stories are not like Murray, or the Horse Council, but like Murray at the Horse Council. The Council is colourful, difficult, fascinating, and opaque. It is the part of the short story that recreates life. Then Murray speaks. The tone shifts. His voice is the epiphany or a philosophical turn in a short story. Yet even as it illuminates the problem, it doesn’t solve it. All it does is startle us, for a moment, with a name for what we all see.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mark Chiusano on Finding the Right Cover

In the 19th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Mark Chiusano, author of Marine Park (Penguin), discusses the challenges of coming up with a fitting cover for a book of stories all set in a specific place.

One of the most exciting parts of the publishing process for Marine Park was choosing the cover. I should preface this by saying that I was a very poor Art Appreciation student in high school. Visuals were never my strong suit. I had essentially no idea how a cover should look. The book is a collection of stories all set in the lesser-known Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up, Marine Park. Once, in a Park Slope bar bathroom, I took a shaky picture of a grainy map of Brooklyn that I thought could be a first draft of the cover, or something. Some divine intervention stopped me from sending it to my editor. When the actual first draft of the cover came out, I was even happier I’d refrained. The designer had gone, on his own time, on a boat out around the curve of the borough off Jamaica Bay, and snapped pictures of the waterfront houses, cattails, piers, and beaches of the surrounding area. The image they’d chosen was sunny, bright, intriguing, alluring—a beach scene, houses in the distance and blue sky above, the choppy water below. My only hesitation was one of the items out on that choppy water—a jet ski. Come on, I said, there’s no jet skis in Marine Park. Hmm, the photographer said, or something to that effect. Photos capture reality, see, he could have told me. He hadn’t made the image up, of course. Perhaps he’d pointed his camera a number of blocks away from Marine Park proper, but essentially he was right. Still, I said, obnoxiously. There were no jet skis in Marine Park.
© The New York Times

With great patience, the art department tried another photo. This one was truly perfect. Same great verticality, blue skies up top, choppy water below, and in the middle a row of houses, trees, and seawalls. I tried to decide where the photo had been taken—a bit west of the salt marsh Nature Center? Orthogonal to the park itself? Regardless, it fit the feel of the book perfectly. There was even some great graffiti on the seawall saying “Slow Down.” I could picture a few of the various curmudgeonly characters in the book, old Marine Park heads, saying just that to some young bucks. The designers found some fantastic font for the title itself, graffiti-like as well. Sold, I said.

About a month before the book came out, a friend called me and said he had a story I wasn’t going to believe. He was an Old Mill Basin native, not far from Marine Park. One afternoon, he said, he’d been sitting on Rockaway beach with his cousin and cousin-in-law, enjoying the beginning of summer. The waves were good, the sun was warm, there were no jet skis in sight, and he was reading an early copy of Marine Park. His cousin-in-law, a nice guy named Matt, does a double take when he strides out of the water and catches sight of my buddy reading the book.

Hey, he points at the finely calibrated cover. That’s my mother’s house! And so it was, apparently. On closer inspection he identified the place with certainty.

The three beachgoers were happily marveling at this shock of recognition, when suddenly, the thought hit Matt. Wait a minute, he said, indignantly. That’s not Marine Park—that’s Gerritsen Beach! GB, not MP! In my mind he started pounding his chest to underscore the tribal affiliations of our hoods.

In this way, I discovered, you can’t please everyone. But in the end the sky above is blue, the water below is dark and choppy, and the thin strip of land in the middle is someone’s true and permanent home.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tom Noyes Keeps the Faith

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Tom Noyes, author of Come by Here (Autumn House Press), explains why fear and trembling over the state of literary fiction augur well.

Literary fiction is sick. Literary fiction is dying. Literary fiction is dead.

One doesn’t have to search too far to find these kinds of sobering pronouncements. In fact, if you’re a dedicated reader or writer of literary fiction, you know this dispiriting news seems to have a way of finding you. But what’s the real story? Is the news of literary fiction’s demise greatly exaggerated, or is there truth to be heard in the dirge-like proclamations of its final failure? It’s difficult to figure out what to make of all the discord and strife.

Here’s one possible answer: No matter how healthy or unhealthy literary fiction is believed to be at any given point in history, the anxiety that its readers, critics, and practitioners feel about its health, the very anxiety itself, is necessary, invigorating, and, ultimately, affirming. Uncertainty, doubt and existential angst about the state of literary fiction bodes well for the continued relevance of literary fiction. No matter how desperate and dire, no matter how bitter and troublesome, all commentary that calls into question literary fiction’s survival and relevance is, even if it doesn’t mean to be, an intrinsically vital, dynamic expression of faith in fiction. In a roundabout way, these kinds of foreboding statements function to buoy and breathe new life into the very thing that they aim to bemoan and eulogize.

Mr. Dynamic: Paul Tillich
To explain further what I’m getting at, to push this point of faith in fiction, I’m going to turn away from fiction writers and fiction critics and turn toward a couple theologians.

In his important work The Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich defines faith as “ultimate concern.” Faith is not simply the will to believe, says Tillich. Rather, it is a cognitive affirmation of the transcendent nature of the ultimate reality (the reality with which the faithful is perpetually “concerned”). When you have true faith in something or someone, according to this definition, you cannot not be concerned with them. You cannot not think about them. Whether this ultimate concern, this dedicated thinking about the something or someone, takes the form of praise or critique, love or hate, is essentially irrelevant. Furthermore, Tillich argues that doubt is included in every act of faith; in fact, this interaction between faith and doubt is part of the dynamic nature of faith. Surely this tension is anxiety-inducing, but it’s also necessary. There can be no faith without doubt, without anxiety, without what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”

This is where another religious thinker’s notion of the “double movement of infinity” is perhaps helpful. For Kierkegaard, a nineteenth-century Danish Christian existentialist, the spiritual life was a roller coaster ride, an anxiety-inducing cycle of a) desiring to be in God’s presence, b) realizing that his physical nature wouldn’t allow him to be in God’s presence, c) feeling the pain of this realization, and then d) somehow, through the pain of this unfulfilled desire, finding himself, in a sense, in the presence of God, but not present enough, so that e) the cycle starts all over again. Rather than lending his life sustained peace and harmony, Kierkegaard’s spiritual convictions depressed him and about drove him mad. Moreover, Kierkegaard seems to suggest, this is exactly how humankind’s relationship with the Divine is supposed to be. It’s supposed to depress you sometimes. It’s supposed to sometimes drive you nuts. This is faith.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, fiction writers? Fiction readers? The form will sometimes yield itself to be almost exactly what we always hoped it would be, but then, inevitably, it disappoints us, or worries us, make us nervous, and the chasm between what we desire for our art and our art’s reality drives us to, well, want to do nothing more than to obsess about and revel in the pain of our favorite writers’ and our own “failed” attempts.

In applying this concept of faith to “the state of fiction” statements, my suggestion is that even the most ardent critics of fiction and its practitioners are exhibiting faith in the “ultimacy” of fiction. In fact, it’s possible that fiction’s biggest doubters and bemoaners are, ironically, in this sense, its biggest supporters, its lifeblood. The worst thing that could happen to fiction, to any art form for that matter, to any deity for that matter, would be for its disciples to become satisfied and content. There can be no true faith without doubt. No dynamic faith without anxiety. When tendencies or examples of contemporary fiction make us fiction writers nervous or angry or confused or panicked, or relieved or delighted or invigorated, we can know we’re standing on solid, safe ground. It’s only when we stop feeling or thinking anything at all about the state of our art that we should consider ourselves goners.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Ben Marcus' "Dear Writer" Letter

In the 17th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Ben Marcus, author of Leaving the Sea (Alfred A. Knopf), addresses a would-be author.

Dear Writer:

I trust this finds you immersed in your work, suffering alternating spells of doubt and excitement, doing your best not to entertain impossible questions like What is fiction for? and Who will read my work? Good. Those questions can churn in the background, along with other larger unanswerables, but right now you need your best head space for getting something done.

You’ve heard all of the advice already—show don’t tell, write what you know—and after giving it serious due, you’ve laughed in its face. Then you stepped on it. Also good.

Your blinders are on, your Internet is off, and you have somehow carved out a daily schedule into your very hectic life. Fine. You probably also have some goals. At a thousand words a day you’d finish a draft of your novel in two or three months, an absurdly quick pace. But did you do the math that suggested that at two hundred and fifty words a day you’d finish a draft in a year or so, still ridiculously fast, as far as novels go? And if you lowered your word count expectations, wouldn’t it stand to reason that those words would be more sharply gathered, more coherent, more precise? Would they be truer to your vision of your book, and would they more forcefully invite readers into the world you’re creating? Because you could bang out two hundred and fifty words and then revise them about a hundred times each day, maybe perfect them, rather than charging ahead just to get more words. More words are a fallacy. But you know that. It’s about the right words, and, well, if it so happens that you can rightly order a thousand of them or more a day, well then you should. Still, you have a strong suspicion that this obsession with word count is somehow deeply beside the point. And your suspicion is correct.

By your desk I imagine that you have a pile of books. A few shelves maybe, somehow related to your dream of this novel. Mixed in with all of the research texts you’ll only ever skim are perhaps a handful of novels that you mean to learn something from. When you’re not writing you pick up these books and try to observe the techniques. Perspective and tense, the approach to time, character detail, structure. How the exposition is balanced with the narrative, how the feeling somehow leaks up out of nothing. You read from these books relentlessly and you underline the sentences that interest you.
You read them aloud, you write them out by hand. From these books you design little exercises for yourself to practice the techniques you need to master. Good. You cannot do this enough. You read in bed before you go to sleep. In the morning before you get out of bed you pick up a book and read. Even just a few pages. This is the best nourishment for writing. This and no TV, no Internet. Add to this some exercise every day, a walk or a swim just when your work is exhausting you, because the motion of your body can trigger your best problem solving.

And of course if you do not face enormous, seemingly insurmountable problems as you pick your way forward into your novel, then something is wrong. Problems are the best sign that you might be onto something.

All of this is just regimen, and it’s obvious. But the strictness of the regimen will help your book come into being. Strictness, focus, relentless drive. Persistence and no small bit of mania.

When you’re ready for outside readers you know better than to show your novel to good friends, friends who want you to succeed, who also hope to preserve the friendship, which keeps them from being impartial standard-bearers for your work. You also know better than to show your novel, if it’s advice you want, to someone who doesn’t actually read, won’t read another book this year, hasn’t read one in a while. No offense to those people, but, uh, you know. I’m sure they mean well. Let’s also leave off partners and spouses and parents, at least as critical readers. You know this, too, of course. We love our partners, spouses, and parents, if imperfectly, but when we show our books to these people it’s to get validation. Validation is important, go and get some. But once you’ve gotten it, it’s time for criticism. Real criticism is much harder to find, and it’s much more important when it comes to improving your book.

A good outside reader is someone who holds you to a higher standard, someone who wants more from you than you might really be capable of, who sees the book on your terms, but raises the bar for you by showing you what might be possible in your revisions.

When you show your novel to someone like this, you know better than responding defensively to any criticism you hear. You do not get to follow your readers home to explain what you meant. Everything must be on the page. You know that you should listen carefully to your critique, take good notes, ask some polite questions, and then, in gratitude, send them a gift: a bottle, or a case, of something wonderful. A live animal, maybe.

We have not discussed what kind of book you will write, because this is up to you. Please let it be up to you. I beg you. It is your secret and it is almost all that matters. This is your book. The world has enough books that were written according to dreams or ideas other than your own. But it does not yet have your book. Please write only the book you most want to write, the book you wished existed in the world. The book must meet your own deepest desire for what a book can be. But of course you know this already. It’s why you started writing in the first place.

Good luck.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Nicholas Grider's Ten Pieces of Advice

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Nicholas Grider, author of Misadventure (A Strange Object), offers several tips.

Ten Pieces of Writing Advice

1. Don’t give up.

2. Don’t fall so much in love with something you’ve written that you’re unable to see that it might not work, or might belong elsewhere; learn from the criticism of others.

3. Don’t end up hating something you’ve been trying to revise so much that you lose sight of what’s good about it; learn from the praise of others.

4. No matter how much you’ve revised it, given time and perspective you can probably still improve it, but:

5. Don’t overdo it. If a text is telling you it’s done, if it has exhausted you and you have exhausted it, it’s done.

6. The goal of revision isn’t perfection, the goal is maximum impact.

7. Don’t write solely to please yourself and don’t write solely to please others, but ask yourself what will give the most to both you and the reader, and realize that this is not necessarily a kind of compromise.

8. There’s often a tradeoff between complexity/innovation and accessibility, and when you’re trying to decide how your text should be defined in those terms, don’t let people tell you what to do, just go with your gut. There’s no right answer.

9. Realize that sometimes something you work very hard on really only ends up being practice for something you write in the future, but that the learning involved in practice is just as important as “finished” texts and publication.

10. This bears repeating: Don’t give up. Take breaks, put things aside, shelve things for years, but if you’ve got something and it has something important to give to both you and the reader, don’t give up.