Misconceptions About Writing, No. 1 (of 6)

Somewhere on the Internet, I found the “6 Misconceptions About Writing” by Rebecca McClanahan, which is excerpted from Write Your Heart Out, which was published in 2001. Ms McClanahan is the author of ten books and is also an educator, and public speaker. She specializes in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.

I quote from her document below.

Rebecca McClanahan

Misconception #1. Writing gets done without writing.

I usually don’t answer the phone during my writing hours, but when I do, it’s often a friend or family member calling, and the conversation goes something like this.
“Hi. What are you doing?”
“Writing,” I answer.
“Really?” she says, as if this were news, as if it weren’t the same answer I’ve
been giving for years now. We talk a while, she tells me about her day, I
complain about the essay that’s tying me in knots or I exalt in the final revision of a poem that’s been eluding me all summer. We say goodbye and hang up.
A week or two later she calls again.
“Hi. What are you doing?”
“Writing.”
Again she seems surprised. We talk a while, say goodbye, and after a few
minutes of sharpening pencils (I don’t even use pencils) or fantasizing about a six-figure advance on some book I’ll never begin, or staring out the window where people with real jobs and leather briefcases are hurrying to meetings, I get back to work. Later in the week while I’m getting a haircut, my stylist asks if I’m still writing, as if it were a bad habit, like smoking, that I surely must have kicked by now. It occurs to me to ask him if he’s still cutting hair, but I decide it would be mean-spirited. Besides, it takes energy to talk, and I need all my energy for the chapter revision that’s backing up in my head. So I just look in the mirror and nod politely.
Occasionally even writer friends seem surprised to find me writing, just as I’m sometimes amazed to catch them in the act. I realize this makes no sense. How else do I suppose their poems, stories, essays, songs, lectures and journal entries get written? Yet the fantasy that writing gets done without writing is so appealing, it’s a hard one to release—like the notion of babies being delivered pain free, via stork or cabbage leaf. Watching the freshly polished baby asleep in a blanket beside his exhausted mother, it’s easy to forget that just hours ago he was a squirming sack of blood and skin and primal scream. And reading someone else’s published novel—or a finished poem, short story or essay—it’s hard to imagine the often tedious, painful, messy, sometimes joyous, always life-changing process by which it was delivered, kicking and screaming, into the light.
Like sex or childbirth, writing is almost always a private act. Others don’t see us doing it, and the popular media do little to dispel the notion that writing gets done without writing. In movies about writers, the writers do everything but write.
They sit in dark cafes, dance on tables, smoke one thin black cigarette after
another, slap their lovers, drive too fast or drink too much. In the few scenes where they’re actually writing, the camera doesn’t linger. Who would pay seven dollars to watch someone sit at a desk and write? So the camera seeks out something more interesting—the bottle of Scotch, the unmade bed, the cocktail dress dropped on the floor—and moves on. One quick shot of the writer’s hand on the keyboard (typing, what else, “The End”) and he’s heading for the door, grabbing the finished manuscript and cigarettes on his way out.
No wonder we imagine writing gets done without writing. And no wonder we believe anyone can write a book. The truth is, anyone can’t write a book. Only the person who writes the book can write the book.”

How The Times’ Best Seller List Comes Together

There was an article in The New York Times on 2 October 2020, written by the “Best Seller Lists Staff” and I quote from it below:

“Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

“Come holiday or hurricane, one thing you can count on is that The New York Times’ best-seller lists will be published online every Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern. And those lists will be dated for the print Book Review, where they will appear 11 days later. This is just one of the many quirks of the work we — the three-member BSL team, as we call ourselves — do, combining data science, investigative reporting and our own special blend of foxhole humor.

“As much as we wish some myths were true, such as that the lists are determined by an automated data spigot with a secret algorithm or our executive editor’s throwing darts at the wall, the work of putting together the lists requires the full-time efforts of the three of us and the support of an information technology team.

“The sales data that drives what books make the lists, and where they land within them, is sent by stores giant, tiny and in-between all across the country. It reflects the previous week’s Sunday-to-Saturday sales period, which stores begin to report to us over the weekend. We receive numbers on millions of titles each week from tens of thousands of storefronts and online retailers as well as specialty and independent bookstores.

“So there’s a lot of data in need of herding. This is complicated by the fact that a single title in one binding, such as hardcover, can have a dozen or more International Standard Book Numbers or I.S.B.N.s, which are like Social Security numbers for books, depending on the different kinds of stores where it is sold. We must tie them together in our system and track all of them appropriately. Since our work must be kept under wraps until we publish, we use an assortment of code names for books, authors and stores.

“By noon on Mondays, we have received roughly 75 percent of the data and have some idea of what the best bets are going to be for new titles. But, as in sports, it’s not over until the final buzzer, which will come the following afternoon. Monday afternoons fly by because we continue to gather reports, help stores with technical issues and begin the stressful task of writing things we know will eventually be read by a lot of famous authors.

“We write descriptions for the new titles based on the blurbs on the books’ jackets or publishers’ websites. Most weeks, we have a dozen or so new titles across our 11 weekly lists. On busy weeks when we also close our seven monthly lists, we can have over 40 new titles. We have to make sure we have the correct title, author(s), publisher’s imprint and pertinent facts about the book before squeezing everything into a limited space on a tight deadline.

“Yes, this means we are ranking the books and writing their descriptions without having read the works. You might ask how we can choose which books are good if we aren’t first reading all of them. We don’t. Unlike the staff members of the Book Review, from whom we work independently, we aren’t making value judgments. We go off the sales data.

“The window for reporting each week closes at noon on Tuesdays. For the next few hours, we determine the final rankings, based on the sales data and details provided by stores. We want the lists to reflect what individual consumers are buying across the country instead of what is being bought in bulk by individuals or associated groups.

“During the finalization stage, the three of us gather in a room (or, these days, we get on the phone), and one editor reads each list from top to bottom as the other two double-check information. To stay alert, we sing some book titles to the tune of familiar songs. Recent chart toppers include: Tara Westover’s “Educated,” crooned to the rhythm of Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited”; Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race,” delivered in the style of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”; and Sean Hannity’s “Live Free or Die,” belted like Axl Rose wailing “Live and Let Die.”

“Once we complete the descriptions for the new titles, we send them to get copy-edited before they get published in our subscriber newsletter, online and in the print Book Review. On Wednesday evenings, people are either popping Champagne corks or calling for our heads. Whatever the reaction, it’s important to remember that the lists are less of a final judgment by readers on a book or topic and more of an ongoing conversation. Each week tells a different story. The only way to get a true sense of trends in the book world and in our culture is to look at the lists over many weeks, months and even years.”

This sounds like a complicated process, but maybe it’s the fairest way to do it.

Review: The System

I heard Robert Reich speak on a subscription program – was it a Guardian program?  And I was impressed enough to order his book, The System: Who Rigged it, How We Fix It.

Robert B Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkley.  He has served in three national administrations and written sixteen books.  His articles have appeared in top newspapers and journals.  He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and Newsweek.  He lives in Berkeley.

Robert B Reich

This book is about what has gone wrong with the American political system, how it has occurred, and what can be done to recover our democracy.  Professor Reich says there are three major power shifts which have occurred and, together, they have, over the last forty years transformed the United States from a democracy to an oligarchy, where power is concentrated in the hands of an elite group of very wealthy individuals.  The power shift was brought about by corporate raiders who made the shareholder the only stakeholder in publically traded companies.  Previously, the employees, the communities in which they were located, their suppliers and customers were also stakeholders.  This led to a strict focus on profits, resulting in wage stagnation, loss of union power, off-shoring of production, and, in turn, to tremendous increases in CEO compensation.  CEO’s gained tremendous wealth and power.  So, Professor Reich says that the first power shift was from stakeholder capitalism to shareholder capitalism, and the second was a shift in bargaining power from large unions to large corporations.  And the third shift was unleashing the financial sector (Wall Street) from laws regulation.  This meant huge financial rewards for CEO’s, hedge funds, derivatives traders, and others.  With vast financial resources available to few people, and with the Supreme Court’s ruling on political campaign finance, it became possible for this limited pool of powerful people to ‘bribe’ politicians with huge contributions to obtain the laws, regulations and taxation they wanted.  The top ten percent of Americans became richer, the bottom ninety percent became poorer, with lower quality education, health care and basic infrastructure.  Professor Reich argues that it is possible for the ninety percent to act in concert to change the system.

In the book, Professor Reich singles out Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, the huge bank, as an example of an individual who uses his power to change the system.  He and many other specific examples populate this book with a host of convincing evidence.  A multi-page appendix lists the sources of the evidence.  There is also much evidence of the wage, benefits, health care and educational erosion for the ninety percent, including personal examples.  The book is written with considerable emotion and conviction.

As accurate and convincing as the book is, I have two minor criticisms of it.  It is often repetitive, making the same point repeatedly.  It is also not organized like a legal brief, the points are all there, but they tend to get somewhat tangled.  Perhaps these ‘faults’ were intentional on the part of the author and his publisher.  They intended this book to be an emotional tirade.  If so, it is very convincing.

 

What Is Literary Talent?

On September 10, 2020, Writer’s Digest ran a reprint of a 1925 article written by Thomas H Uzzell, the former fiction editor of Colliers Weekly and author of Narrative Technique.  He also wrote The Technique of the Novel – a Handbook on the Craft of the Long Narrative, Grandee Jim: A Novel of Action, Romance and History in Old Santa Fe, and was the editor of Short Story Hits.  I was unable to fine a picture of Mr Uzzell, who said:

“Just before I sat down to write this article, a young woman came to me saying she wanted help in writing short stories. I asked her how much writing she had done, and her answer was, “None,” and she had been wanting to write for eight years! A hopeless case. People who want to write, write; they don’t think about it. They may write very badly because they are too subjective and have no idea of an audience and know nothing about technique, but—they will write something. Their interest gives them the energy needed to get the writing done.

On the intensity and the endurance of a person’s interest in his writing does his success hang more utterly than on any other single factor. Love of the medium and love of the deed or want of that love make or break 95 out of every 100 aspirants. Where that love is, you find something as deep as life itself. How much writing have you already done? The answer to this question will offer the best solution I know as to how much writing you are going to do.

Legions of people with literary ambitions who get nowhere are more pre-occupied with the thought of why they would like to success than with the thought of how they are going to win success. They want to “win fame,” “earn some money,” to “fulfill ambition,” “make their friends proud of them;” and, alas, too many of them have turned to fiction after failing at everything else they have tried, as the one thing within their slender powers.

Desire for money or fame are not at all inconsistent with a genuine literary purpose; they are generally incentives to energetic action; but if the action is not the putting of ideas in the shape of words on paper, all resolutions will come to nothing.

One of the commonest errors with regard to this desire to write is the mistaking of a love of reading for a talent for writing. Once he realizes that the easier a book is to read the more painful the labor that produced it, the person with this “book-lover” complex becomes discouraged. His interest was not in self-expression, but in being “literary.”

A handicap even greater than this “book-lover complex” is that caused by some pathological inhibition, some nervous disorder which prevents the writer from comprehending the conduct of normal human beings. His writings express not life as it is, but some suppressed personal desires. This psychopathologic problem of writers is too wide and intricate a subject to be more than touched on here.

The highest mark of genuine writing talent is an interest in the art so deep that copy in quantity is produced. Jack London was fond of quoting his favorite author, Conrad, as follows: “An artist is a man of action.” Action for the literary artists is writing.

Nearly every student writer postpones too long the hour of beginning. He hopes for the beautifully finished plot, the perfect word, the high inspiration. The art of writing is a well-developed habit under constant control. Years of writing are necessary for practically every aspirant to develop this habit effectively enough to release his message to the world. For the average student a million words are needed for this training in habit only.

Whether or not you should write is a question you must decide for yourself. It is both a moral and a literary problem. Most of us do the things we want to do, and writing is no exception. If you have an interest in writing you are writing; if you haven’t you are not, and that is just about all there is to it—on the moral side. If, however, you have been writing persistently without attaining satisfactory results, you may well seek expert advice as to the things which may be hindering you. Such advice can only direct and guide your energies which in themselves are your main asset.

If it were possible to give a “formula for literary success,” such analyses of writers’ assets as I have made would lead me to say that, in the case of the average writer of second and third-rate popular stories we would find that his success depended

60 percent on sheer industry or energy,

10 percent on personality,

30 percent on technical skill.

The writer who produces a bestseller or wins national fame for the high quality of his art owes his success, we would find,

45 percent to sheer industry,

45 percent to personality,

10 percent to technique.

If I am even approximately right in my analysis, the factor of energy or industry plays a larger role in literary talent than is generally supposed. It is also my belief that beyond a certain point, when sufficient energy is allowed, a writer succeeds in his work in exact proportion to the depth and richness of his personality. This last factor is the variable one. It is the only true inspiration. It is that gift which may most truly be said to be born in us, and the possession of which may be said to rest in the laps of the gods and, as one disappointed writer I know says, “The gods sometimes stand up!””

I certainly agree with Mr Uzzell that ‘love of the craft’ is essential to literary success, but I don’t see ‘love of the craft’ as being literary talent.  I think one has to have Love of the Craft and Technique/Skill in about equal measure.  I also agree that personality enters into the equation, as well, in the from of Creativity, Imagination, Intelligence, and a Sense of Freedom.

Review: Lucifer Exposed

I was looking for a book with the title Hostage to the Devil, that I read a long time ago.  It was written by a man who was a priest and a psychiatrist, and it dealt with about five genuine cases of ‘possession’ that he had experienced.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find it, so it must be out of print.  There is a newer book with the same title, but its reviews put me off buying it.  Instead, I bought Lucifer Exposed by Derek Prince (1915-2003), which had many excellent reviews -106 reviews, of which 96% are four or five stars.

Derek Prince’s website says that he was “born in India of British parents. Educated as a scholar of Greek and Latin at Eton College and Cambridge University, England, he held a Fellowship in Ancient and Modern Philosophy at King’s College. He also studied Hebrew and Aramaic, at Cambridge University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“While serving with the British army in World War II, he began to study the Bible and experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. Out of this encounter he formed two conclusions: first, that Jesus Christ is alive; second, that the Bible is a true, relevant, up-to-date book. These conclusions altered the whole course of his life, which he then devoted to studying and teaching the Bible.”

Derek Prince

Lucifer Exposed uses numerous quotations from the Bible to describe the history, the motivation, the intentions and the actions of the devil.  It describes the devil a a beautiful fallen angel whose fall was caused by his trying to usurp the power of God.  The devil’s power over death was destroyed by the death of God’s son on the cross and his resurrection.  The devil’s reaction had been to try to estrange humanity from God by tempting us into sin, and by destroying the power of the church to disseminate Jesus’ teaching.  The book makes the point that escape from Satan’s clutches cannot be achieved by following the law, because there is always another law we have neglected.  Salvation can only be achieved by faith in Jesus and his teachings.  The book draws a major distinction between citizenship in the World (the temporal, secular place of which the devil is the ruler) and citizenship of Heaven (God’s spiritual world).

This is an excellent piece of Biblical scholarship: well written, thoroughly referenced, and completely logical and believable.  My only comment is that I would have liked to have seen some secular arguments (as well as the religious ones) for the existence of and the extreme hardships caused by the devil.  These hardships are often wrongfully blamed on God’s ‘negligence’.  There is, I think, abundant evidence that most of the World’s hardships are caused by the devil.

 

Review: The Kite Runner

I found a well-used copy of The Kite Runner on the  bookshelves of our Sicilian house just at a time I needed something to read.  How it got there is a bit of a mystery as my wife hasn’t read it.  I guest must have left it.  It is a book, by Khaled Hosseini, that I have wanted to read for some time.

Mr Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965 into a privileged family.  His father was a diplomat and his mother a language teacher.  In 1970 the family moved to Tehran, where his father worked at the Afghan embassy.  They returned to Kabul in 1973.  In 1976 they relocated to Paris, but were unable to return to Afghanistan because of the 1978 Saur Revolution and the Soviet invasion.  In 1980 they applied for asylum in the US and settled in San Jose, California, where Mr Hosseini attended high school, Santa Clara University and University of Calfornia, San Diego Medical School.  He practiced medicine until 2005.  The Kite Runner was released in 2003, A Thousand Suns in 2007, And the Mountains Echoed in 2013, and Sea Prayer in 2018.  His novels have sold 55 million copies, globally. He, his wife and two sons live in northern California.

Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is set in Kabul and San Jose, with brief stops in Peshawar, Pakistan beginning in the mid 1960’s.  The central character is a boy, Amir, who lives with his well-to-do father in the best section of Kabul.  They have two low caste servants, Ali, who’s wife deserted him and Hassan, a boy of Amir’s age, who is his best friend.  Amir’s father seems to like Hassan better than Amir, a source of much jealousy for Amir.  Amir witnesses a terrible assault on his friend Hassan, without making an effort to come to his rescue.  Ali and Hassan leave the household when Amir implicates Hassan in a theft.  Amir and his father flee Afghanistan and find asylum in the US.  Years later, after Amir’s father dies, Amir is called to Pakistan by his father’s old friend, Rahim Khan, who tells him that Hassan and his wife have been executed by the Taliban.  Rahim also tells Amir that he and Hassan were half-brothers, and that Hassan and his late wife had an orphaned son.  Amir confronts his lack of courage to rescue the orphan and take him to the US.

This is a splendid book about family: good and bad, strong and weak.  It’s also about how childhood can shape our adult lives.  As one reads, one can’t help wonder if this isn’t a memoir rather than a novel.  One feels transported to the old prosperous Kabul, to the savage, wrecked Kabul after years of war, and the strange life of exile in an Afghan settlement in America.  Mr Hosseini is extremely adept at having the reader feel what the characters are feeling, be it jealousy, love, fear or anger.  I’m glad I found this book.  It’s a compelling story wonderfully told.

Are Racist Books Still in Circulation?

An article with the title ‘While Offensive TV Shows Get Pulled, Problematic Books Are Still Inspiring Debate and Conversation’ dated July 3, 2020 and written by Ron Charles appeared in the Washington Post.

Ron Charles writes about books and publishing for The Washington Post. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest. Before moving to the District, he edited the books section of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston. His wife is an English teacher and the cinematographer of their satirical series, “The Totally Hip Video Book Review.”

Ron Charles

The article, in its entirety is as follows.

“As Confederate statues finally tumble across America, television networks are marching through their catalogs looking to take down racially offensive content. It turns out that little video monuments are lurking all across the TV canon — more shocking with each new announcement. Just this month, blackface scenes have been rediscovered and removed from “The Office,” “Community,” “30 Rock” and “Scrubs.”

“The Office”? — really? I don’t remember that scene.

Of course not. Collective amnesia is an essential condition for perpetuating poisonous stereotypes, the way bad sanitation leads to cholera.

In her most recent novel, Swing Time, Zadie Smith captures the disorienting surprise of running across an old racist trope. Her title Swing Time is borrowed from a 1936 musical comedy starring Fred Astaire. In Smith’s prologue, a young woman googles a favorite scene from that movie that shows Astaire performing a tribute called “Bojangles of Harlem.” With a shock, she sees what she had not noticed as a child: “I hardly understood what we were looking at,” she says. There’s Astaire dancing as magically as ever, but he’s in blackface with “the rolling eyes, the white gloves, the Bojangles grin.” Her beloved scene suddenly feels ruined by racist exaggerations.

Any theater launching a production of “Othello,” for instance, must begin with a rich body of scholarship on Shakespeare’s sources and intentions. What are we to make of the Moor, the Venetian general manipulated into murderous rage by his villainous white colleague? Even before Othello comes onstage, he’s subjected to obscene racist ridicule. And later, Othello himself laments, “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have.”

As a Renaissance writer working in England 250 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, Shakespeare surely held the white supremacist values of his culture. But is “Othello” a racist play, or is it a fledgling critique of racism?

Twitter would, no doubt, trend with #CancelShakespeare. By the end of a ferocious week, the Bard would withdraw his play, begin a listening tour, and issue a statement expressing deep regret for the pain he has caused by appropriating the experience of a Moor.

Monuments celebrating racist traitors, which were erected to fabricate history and terrify black Americans, are not works of art that deserve our respect or preservation. Similarly, scenes of modern-day white comedians reenacting minstrel-show caricatures are not ironical interrogations of racism that we have to stomach any longer.

Blackface has long been an issue in comedy.  Look no further than ‘Saturday Night Live’ for proof.

But. complex works of literature are large, they contain multitudes.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin presents a fascinating trajectory of the currents of American sensitivities. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery melodrama electrified the nation when it was published in the early 1850s. Northern abolitionists wielded the novel as a sword for their cause. Southern defenders of slavery answered Stowe’s work with condemnations and counter stories. Even if President Lincoln never actually told Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War,” the sentiment of that legend is true: Stowe energized the debate that led to battle. Frederick Douglass wrote that the novel’s “effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal.” In the 20th century, though, the book fell out of favor. Critics complained that it traffics in subservient racial stereotypes; the name “Uncle Tom” became a racial insult denoting complicity with one’s oppressors. But in 2006, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins published The Annotated ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ which offers a complex reappraisal of the novel as a “strange, startling, and audacious work.”

Just a few weeks after it was published in 1885, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned by the Concord Public Library, which condemned Twain’s novel as “absolutely immoral.” Complaints came from white readers alarmed by the book’s coarse language; the Brooklyn Public Library was shocked that Huck said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” Heaven forfend! But in the 20th century, that silliness gave way to thoughtful considerations of the novel’s treatment of racism and racist slurs. By the 1950s, a movement had begun to remove the novel from American schools because of its frequent use of the n-word. As that push gained momentum, critics debated whether Twain’s portrayal of Jim is sympathetic or humiliating; others suggested editing the novel to fit contemporary tastes. The critical arguments have been illuminating, exploring, among many subjects, Twain’s regard for black people and the deleterious effects of racist language on African American students.

Even weak novels can spur great debates. This year, a thriller by Jeanine Cummins called American Dirt would have fallen quickly into the obscurity that awaits most thrillers. But several insightful critics uses Cummins’ book to highlight the persistence of racist stereotypes in popular literature.  Their critiques and subsequent activism promise to permanently improve the representation of Latino people in publishing.

What’s more insidious is the self-satisfaction that comes from calibrating our Racism Detector to spot only a few obvious sins. Scanning videos for blackface or searching text files for the n-word is so much easier than contending with, say, the systemic tokenism of TV rom-coms or the unbearable whiteness of Jane Austen.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a point like that must be in want of a quarrel.

Bring it.”

Describing a Character More Effectively

An article offering eleven secrets to writers describing characters appeared in the Writer’s Digest on January 14, 2015.   It was written by Rebecca McClanahan, whose website describes her as ‘author, educator, and public speaker specializing in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.’  She has written 10 books.

Rebecca McClanahan

Ms McClanahan says, in part: “The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form.

1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”

This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him.

2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.

It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair.

Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”

3. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair.

4. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination.

5. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.

If your character doesn’t yet have a job, a hobby, a place to live, or a place to wander, you might need to supply these things. Once your character is situated comfortably, he may relax enough to reveal his secrets. On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond.

6.In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.

Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people. In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves. We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her.

7. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.

In the opening scenes of the film The Big Chill, we’re introduced to the main characters by watching them unpack the bags they’ve brought for a weekend trip to a mutual friend’s funeral. One character has packed enough pills to stock a drugstore; another has packed a calculator; still another, several packages of condoms. Before a word is spoken—even before we know anyone’s name—we catch glimpses of the characters’ lives through the objects that define them.

8. Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.

Techniques abound for describing a character indirectly, for instance, through the objects that fill her world. Create a grocery list for your character—or two or three, depending on who’s coming for dinner. Show us the character’s credit card bill or the itemized deductions on her income tax forms. Let your character host a garage sale and watch her squirm while neighbors and strangers rifle through her stuff.

9. To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.

Be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking a large, generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used-car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief.” Besides providing visual images for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, his habits and desires, and even the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details.

10. Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.

However, we don’t need to confine our use of verbs to the actions a character performs. Well-placed verbs can sharpen almost any physical description of a character. In the following passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, verbs enliven the description even when the grandmother isn’t in motion.

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

11. We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.

With writers like Milan Kunera, we learn about characters through the themes and obsessions of their inner lives, their “existential problems” as depicted primarily through dreams, visions, memories, and thoughts. Other writers probe characters’ inner lives through what characters see through their eyes. A writer who describes what a character sees also reveals, in part, a character’s inner drama. In The Madness of a Seduced Woman, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer describes a farm through the eyes of the novel’s main character, Agnes, who has just fallen in love and is anticipating her first sexual encounter, which she simultaneously longs for and fears.

… and I saw how the smooth, white curve of the snow as it lay on the ground was like the curve of a woman’s body, and I saw how the farm was like the body of a woman which lay down under the sun and under the freezing snow and perpetually and relentlessly produced uncountable swarms of living things, all born with mouths open and cries rising from them into the air, long-boned muzzles opening … as if they would swallow the world whole …”

 

The Seven Deadly Sins of Novelists (According to Editors)

A post with the above title was published on the Writer’s Digest bog on October 18, 2018.  I was interested because until recently I had not used a first class editor, and when I did, I found it to be an entirely different experience.  The authors of this piece are freelance professional editor, Pam Johnson and novelist Steven James, whose “award-winning, pulse-pounding thrillers continue to gain wide critical acclaim and a growing fan base,” his website claims.

Steven James and Pam Johnson

Their Seven Deadly Sins are:

1. Lack of Communication: Failing to specify expectations.

When I submitted my manuscript the editor, I highlighted my own concerns and reservations about the novel.  This gave him something meaty to work on.

2. Sloppiness: Not submitting your best work.

“Poor punctuation, grammar, spelling and so on is so distracting to an editor that she will struggle to concentrate on the story she’s been hired to edit.”

This seems obvious.

3. Stubbornness: Refusing to change your course of action.

The editor suggested a major rewrite which involved a change in the narration and a different role for a minor character.  It was, I admit, a difficult pill to swallow, but once I started on it, I could see what a huge difference it would make.

4. Impatience: Not realizing that writing a book is a long process.

I was certainly guilty of this when I started writing, and, unfortunately, the self publishing process makes it easy hurry things through to completion.  When an agent and the publishers editor are involved and both of them have a financial incentive to produce the best quality novel, the process becomes more thorough and careful.

5. Passing the Buck: Expecting your editor to write the book.

This expectation is lazy, wishful thinking.  With benefit of hindsight, I probably should have asked the editor to review the re-written manuscript, but I was hoping that the next edit would be done by my agent and the one after than by the publisher’s editor,

6. Testiness: Getting upset with your editor when she’s only trying to help.

Fortunately, my editor takes the view that ‘criticism is the enemy of creativity’, so he always had reasons for any major changes suggested.  This helped me to latch onto his point of view.

7. Throwing in the Towel: When the going gets tough, the author quits.

“Writing a book is a long, difficult process—and editing can be equally strenuous. You need to be patient and work hard. Even if your current book doesn’t make it into Barnes & Noble, you will learn so much from writing it. Maybe the experience will lead to a future bestselling novel. And the sense of accomplishment when you’ve completed your work truly is priceless.”

My view, as well.

Review: Before We Were Yours

I bought a copy of this historical novel written by Lisa Wingate.  Ms Wingate’s long bio reads, in part: “Lisa Wingate is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Before We Were Yours, which remained on the bestseller list for fifty-four weeks in hardcover and has sold over 2 million copies. She has penned over thirty novels and coauthored a nonfiction book, Before and After with Judy Christie. Her award-winning works have been selected for state and community One Book reads throughout the country, have been published in over forty languages, and have appeared on bestseller lists worldwide.  Booklist summed up her work by saying, “Lisa Wingate is, quite simply, a master storyteller.”

Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours is a historical novel written in two parts.  One part is set along the Mississippi River, near Memphis, in the late 1930’s and early ’40’s.  The second part, in Georgia,  is more contemporary.  The first part centers on a family of ‘river gypsies’ who live in a shanty boat on the river.  The parents are Briny and Queenie Foss; their five children are Rill, the narrator, a girl of twelve and the oldest, Camilla, Lark, Fern and Gabion, a male toddler.  The story begins with Queenie in the throes of giving a difficult birth to twins.  Briny takes her to the hospital in Memphis, leaving the children on the boat in Rill’s care.  All five children are abducted and taken into care by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, a real abduction and orphanage mill which made an estimated $10 million for it’s real owner, Georgia Tann, and was active from the 1920’s until it was shut down in 1950.  It made a habit of taking children into custody on false premises and placing them in wealthy, childless families.  Most of the first part deals with the hardships faced by the Foss children as they wait for a family to take them away: first Gabion, then Camilla is separated and disappears, then Lark.  Rill and Fern escape from the family that took them in, only to find that Queenie is dead in the childbirth and Briny is mortally crippled with drink.  Rill and Fern return voluntarily to their assigned parents.

The second part is told by Avery, single in her 30’s, who turns out to be the granddaughter of one of Queenie’s twins, who survived, and was also taken in by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and adopted.  The grandmother, Judy, now in her 70’s and suffering from dementia, is the widow of a Stafford, who are a dynasty of Georgia senators.  Avery is being prepped to run for the Senate, replacing her father, who is ill.  She meets May Crandall, who is in her 90’s and in a nursing home, during a pre-campaign visit to the nursing home.  May, we discover later, is Rill.  Much of the second part is taken up with Avery, being assisted by the grandson of a friend of Judy’s, trying to piece together her family history.

Ms Wingate is clearly a talented writer.  She describes her characters and the life on a shanty boat so clearly that they are real.  She is also a master at keeping the reader turning pages, a one suffers anxiety about what happens next.  The story itself is heart-rendingly captivating.

In my view, though, the novel has its flaws.  In the first part, there are too many chapters, with too much detail, about the hardships the Foss children endured, while they were awaiting adoption.  I think the story would be stronger if it were edited down,  In the second part, there are secondary issues that aren’t well enough developed to stand alongside the children’s story: the effect that disclosure of their real heritage would have on the Stafford name, and Avery’s decision about whom to marry.  There are also too many family events that do not really contribute to character development or the plot.  More rigorous editing would have made this a memorable novel.