How to Transition: Journalist to Novelist

In her article of 8 July 2022 on the Writer’s Digest website, Mary Ford, debut novelist, writes about her transition from an award-winning journalist to a novelist.

Mary Ford

MARY FORD is an award-winning journalist who spent 28 years as the editor of two small-town community newspapers in Massachusetts: the Cohasset Mariner and the Hingham Journal. She met her future husband, Conley, in 1971 in California where she was teaching English and has always been fascinated by his story. Conley and Mary were married in Los Angeles and were featured on the Newlywed Game with Bob Eubanks. After their first appearance, the popular couple was asked back for the Alumni Game. They came in last both times. Their incompatibility has lasted for nearly 50 years. Boy at the Crossroads is Mary’s first novel.”

Mary says, “Being a journalist and novelist have one big thing in common: writing. But that’s the easy part. It’s the how to write that is the challenge.

Journalists report. They provide information. They explain and sometimes, overexplain. They try not to leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Their job is to stick to the facts and deliver the story in a concise, readable way that provides the reader with what they need to know.

A novelist doesn’t have to adhere to the truth, worry about attributing quotes with the person’s title, follow AP style, or wrap the story up in 800 words. A novelist can be more creative and depart from the facts.

A journalist tells what’s happening: Saturday’s temperature broke records. Water restrictions are now in effect.

A novelist shows what’s happening: Sweat trickled down my forehead and cheeks on Saturday. When I turned on the tap to wash my face, nothing came out.

When I retired four years ago after 35 years in journalism, the best advice I received as I started drafting my novel was to “leave the newswoman behind.” After all, no one wants to read a novel that reads like a 250-page report.

As I embarked on my new career as a novelist, I took classes at Grub Street Boston, a creative writing center. I listened and welcomed criticism during the workshopping sessions. After the class finished, I paid my instructors to critique my full manuscript and give me honest feedback. I also joined writing groups.

A big advantage that journalists have is a thick skin. They are used to being edited, having their stories cut, and having parts rewritten for clarity. After a decades-long career as a newspaper editor, I welcomed the direction and criticism.

A big challenge today for the plethora of self-published authors is to find a good editor and listen to their advice.

A journalist asks the questions such as: What does this mean? Is this clear? Is there another side to the story? What’s next? In other words, the journalist is writing for the reader.

While a novelist is free from the restrictive rules of newswriting, it’s still important that their writing is clear and doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary prose. A novelist should also write for the reader and not for themselves. That’s an important distinction.

Budding novelists, who are new to public writing (not simply journaling or writing for their own enjoyment), can be too attached to their own words. They need to put themselves in the reader’s shoes and think like them.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of having been a journalist is news judgement. A good reporter knows what the story is. Over the years, I mentored dozens of reporters and contributors. When hiring a new reporter, I always asked: “Are you a writer first or a reporter first?” They almost always answered “writer.” That was the wrong answer! It was much harder to teach them to report than to write.

Recognizing a good story is paramount for a journalist or a novelist. No amount of wonderful description or flowery language is going to make up for the lack of a good story. That’s where writing classes and groups can help. Fellow aspiring novelists can provide excellent feedback. Take comments to heart like: “That’s confusing.” “What’s your point?” “Boring!”

Over the years, I have found that good writing is more of a craft than an art. That doesn’t mean there aren’t brilliant, talented writers out there. Their books fill the classics shelf in the library. But a working writer with a good story—writes, rewrites, and revises—and then does it again until they are comfortable with their manuscript.

Discipline, not procrastination, is part of a journalist’s life. Today, in the world of competitive breaking news online, a reporter has to get down to the business of writing right away. There’s no putting it off.

I was the editor of two weekly newspapers for nearly 30 years. They were going to come out every Thursday and Friday, without any blank pages, no matter what. We had to get the job done week in and week out.

The best advice I have is to “do it!” Write as if there was an editor standing over your shoulder needing the story. If you want to be a published novelist, there is no way around the hard work of writing. Books don’t write themselves.

Outlines for novels can seem daunting. The synopsis, even more so. A synopsis is something you’re going to need because it’s vital to selling your novel if you’re going to query agents or publishers. And the outline is going to save you time while you’re writing your novel. Starting with your premise, expanding your outline, and then writing your synopsis is the perfect way to understand exactly what your story is about and how to get it done.”

Faith, Law & Writing

On Writer’s Digest (16-04-22), bestselling author Robert Whitlow talks about how he combines writing what he knows with writing what he’s passion about—faith and law—and how his characters get to that crossroad.

Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow is a film-maker and a best-selling author of fifteen legal thrillers. He is also a contributor to a short story The Rescuers, a story included in the book What The Wind Picked Up by The ChiLibris Ring. In 2001, he won the Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction, for his novel The Trial.

Mr Whitlow says, ” My newest novel, Relative Justice, sits squarely in the middle of the crossroads of faith, law, and writing. Well, maybe faith and law. The characters leave the writing part to me. But the journey referred to in the title of this article is often lived out by the fictitious people who inhabit the pages of the stories I write. How do my characters get to this crossroads? What are the rewards of the journey?

Let’s start with the law, not faith. In the real world, ethical attorneys (and the vast majority of lawyers I’ve known over the past 43 years as an attorney are ethical) don’t knowingly misrepresent the facts or the law. They strongly advocate for their client’s recollection of what took place and why the law should be applied in a certain way, but they don’t make up facts or evidence to deceive a jury or mislead the court. When writing about the law, believability of character is linked to accurate portrayal of the legal process.

One of the axioms repeated countless times at writer’s conferences is “write what you know.” Knowledge empowers creativity. By writing based on knowledge, an author can craft a story with nuance, texture, and freedom from stereotypes. I’m from the South. I’ve lived my entire life in Georgia, South Carolina, or North Carolina. My professional career has been spent as an attorney. I write southern, legal dramas, and I populate my novels with people drawn from the cultural soup I’ve eaten since I was a small child.

So, when writing a novel containing legal elements, I enter the creative arena with an awareness about the world of the law—trials, investigation, depositions, motions, client relationships, law office politics, etc. That knowledge is obtained either by direct experience, observation, or research. These are all a form of “knowing.” Only then can a story achieve the acceptance awarded by a discerning reader. Courtroom time can be compressed, cross-examination shortened, and shocking surprises inserted. But no writer wants a reader to stop in the middle of a chapter and inwardly think, “There’s no way anything like that could happen in real life!” Such a tragic moment takes the reader out of the world the author created and boots them into a place from which he or she may never return.

Relative Justice is a story about a small, southern law practice consisting of family members preparing to battle a behemoth drug company. It’s a David versus Goliath scenario. Every lawyer has a few rocks in his sling, but do the attorneys in the novel have the right ammunition and skill needed to slay a giant? If not, is there another way to legally bring down an imposing enemy? That’s the law part of the journey.

A second, less common axiom for writers is “write what you’re passionate about.” That’s equally important. For me, that means incorporating faith into the lives of my characters. Not every character, but faith is strategically interwoven into the lives of some of the people who inhabit my books. And because the world of faith is someplace I “know,” based on experience, observation, and research, it’s possible to achieve the goal of credibility. The reader may not agree with a character’s expression of faith (neither do I in every instance), but what a character believes and how it impacts life can be told in a way that fits with the flow of the novel to the intersection for faith and writing.

To safely arrive at this intersection, it’s necessary to avoid writing what I call “a crusader novel,” a story in which the writer has an agenda or message that the characters can’t carry. This doesn’t just happen in the Christian fiction genre. There are crusader novels written about many topics: environmentalism, race relations, and political agendas, to name a few. A book is relegated to this category when the author’s opinion becomes intrusive (preachy) and overrides the capacity of the characters to convey the message in a legitimate way consistent with who they are.

There’s nothing wrong with characters having opinions about a topic. But the writer must provide them with the background, education, or life circumstances that can justify what they believe and express. In Relative Justice, there are characters with various levels of faith or no faith at all. I take them as I find them and discover where a faith journey might believably take them, just as it occurs all the time in real life.”

Review: The Moral Imagination

This non-fiction work, subtitled The Art and Soul of Building Peace, was recommended to me by a colleague who is a peacebuilder. Since I am a trustee (chairman) of the Peaceful Change initiative, a UK peacebuilding charity, I felt I should read it. The book confirms much of what I have learned on the subject, and it explains why so many in the general public (including those who should know better) misunderstand it.

The author is John Paul Lederach, who is an American Professor of International Peacebuilding at Notre Dame University and a Distinguished Scholar at Eastern Mennonite University. He has a PhD in sociology from the University of Colorado. His academic work draws on his experience in the field as a mediator, negotiator, peacebuilding practitioner, trainer and consultant. At the international level, this has involved input into peace processes in Somalia, Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, Columbia and Nepal.  He has written widely on conflict resolution and mediation. He is a Mennonite Christian. He currently works for the foundation Humanity United.

John Paul Lederach

Lederach describes ‘Moral Imagination’ in terms of three parameters: an Awakening – the capacity to see things at a deeper level and beyond what initially meets the eye; a kind of Aesthetic Creativity which surpasses logic; and Transcendence, the refusal to be bound by the existing views of perceived reality. Having read the book, I would define Moral Imagination as: the application of God-given creativity, planned or accidental, so as to achieve a unique and valuable amelioration of a complex human problem. I say God-given, because its source is genuinely inspirational. Sometimes it is accidental – what Lederach refers to as serendipity. It is unique because every human situation is different. And it is rarely a ‘solution’ because complex human problems are almost never solved in one go.

Lederach says that there are four disciplines which are necessary for peacebuilding. These are relationship, paradoxical curiosity, creativity and risk. In peacebuilding it is essential to be able to visualise the complex web of relationships which make up any particular human society, because it is the dynamics of those relationships which can lead to conflicts. Paradoxical curiosity approaches social realities with a respect for complexity, a refusal resort to dualistic truths (e.g. good vs evil). Risk is the ability to step into the unknown without a guarantee of success or even safety.

Time is an important parameter in peacebuilding. Humanity has developed the capability of developing mechanisms and agreements for stopping violent conflict, but we have little capacity for building and sustaining a stable, peaceful society in an unstable environment. What is required for the latter task is the creation of a flexible, effective platform, which houses dynamic processes and patience.

An effective peacebuilder exhibits constructive pessimism in order to be aware of distrust in society, because distrust can be glossed over ignored, and violence will resume.

Lederach tells us that creativity in peacebuilding is more of an art than a technique. In this sense it is akin to writing haiku.

In terms of relationships, the peacebuilder must learn to think of them as a dynamic web which exists in all sorts of social spaces and which include unexpected interdependencies. Thoughtful, unhurried observation of this human web is essential.

Critical mass is not an effective test of numbers of people required to make a change successful, because the critical mass can override a vocal minority, and distrust is renewed. It is better to have a ‘yeast strategy’ in which small numbers of effective and trusted communicators become distributed throughout the society.

In modern, Western society we tend to think of time in the order of past, present, future. But in many societies, the past can lie ahead in the sense that the recent past, including the legacies of those recently deceased, can not only affect our futures, but our sense of who we are as a people and individuals. It is counterproductive in these societies to adopt a ‘forget the past’ solution. The past must be included in the future.

Finally, Lederach says that finding voice is an essential act in peacebuilding. Neglected members of society must also find their voices, and the peacebuilder him/herself must find their own, authentic voice, shaped by a sense of vulnerability and an appetite for risk.

Judging by the attitudes of many philanthropists, who view peacebuilding as a low return investment and one where achievements are difficult to measure, much of Lederach’s peacebuilding is not understood. What he is saying is that Moral Imagination Peacebuilding is the only way to achieve lasting peace in conflict-affected regions. Military solutions, mediated deals and other top-down solutions will ultimately unravel because they fail to address the underlying causes of the conflict. MIP takes time, patience, commitment and money, but the ultimate costs of continuing conflict are far greater.

This book should be read by every president, prime minister and secretary of state. And by those of us who wish for a more peaceful world.

Edgar Allen Poe on Vivid Writing

The http://www.writerswrite.co.za website has a compilation of advice from famous writers on writing.

“Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor, and literary critic. He was born 19 January 1809, and died 7 October 1849.

Edgar Allen Poe

He was one of the first American short story writers. He is known as the inventor of the detective fiction genre, and for contributing to the emerging science fiction genre. His works include classics like The Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher.

Poe was ahead of his time in his writing. He understood that less is more and he had a critical plan for each piece that he wrote.

In his essay, ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, he explains the elements that make up a good story. Poe takes us through the creation of his poem, ‘The Raven’. He says he selected this well-known work to show that nothing is in it by accident. He writes ‘…that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.’”

“Here are five tips that Poe gives on vivid writing:

  1. The work should have a vivid, original effect. He writes ‘Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?’ He says that tone and incident should be worked together to have the desired effect (mood) on the reader, ‘whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone’.
  2. Do not overwrite. To have the desired effect, it should be read in one sitting. He says, ‘if any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression.’ Obviously, novels do not necessarily fit this rule, but he believed this was essential for effect. Perhaps our modern unputdownable novels with shorter chapters have the same effect on the reader. The ideal length for a poem, he says, is one hundred lines.
  3. Know the ending before you begin. He believes you need to know this to be able to plot effectively. He says, ‘Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.’
  4. Choose a setting that works for the story. Poe first decides what he wants to say in the poem, or rather what he wants the characters to say, and only once that is in place, does he decide where to set the poem. He says he needed to bring the lover and the Raven together in a specific way, ‘— and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture.’
  5. The tone should reflect the theme. He says the choice to allow the raven, a bird of ill omen to repeat one word, ‘Nevermore’, in a monotonous, melancholy tone at the end of each stanza allowed him to ask: ‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy? Death — was the obvious reply.’ The melancholy tone echoes the theme of death.”

Publishing Today

Below are some of Harry Bingham’s thoughts on the state of book publishing today. Harry is the founder of Jericho Writers. It’s a good time to be a writer!

Harry Bingham

Self-publishing

Ten years ago, self-pub wasn’t really a thing. Now it certainly is. These days, there’s no longer any good public data for the scale of the self-pub market, but very roughly you should assume that self-published titles sell as many copies as all Big 5 titles on Amazon combined – in other words, one heck of a lot. Indeed, there are corners of the reading globe (romance and erotica especially) where self-publishing utterly dominates.

What’s more, indie authors make money. Again, public data is no longer available, but when it was, it was clear that at every single income level you care to name, there were more indie authors earning at that level than trad-published ones. More million-dollar indies. More $100K indies. And so on down. I’m certain that that basic picture hasn’t changed.

Multiple imprints

A friend of mine is currently selling a book, via a top British agent at a top British agency. The list of editors who are receiving that book include (of course) all the Big 5. It may surprise you to learn that the book doesn’t go to just one editor per publisher. It goes to as many editors, at as many imprints, as may be right for the book. From memory, the book is therefore going to two editors in different bits of HarperCollins, the same at PRH, and so on.

If an auction arises, those two HarperCollins editors, let’s say, might find themselves bidding against each other. A PRH / S&S merger wouldn’t necessarily reduce the number of editors that an agent pitched to. It would just change the email addresses of one recipient.

The long tail

Good publishing simply does not stop at the big firms.

My friend had as many small- to mid-sized publishers on that submissions list as Big 5 editors. And honestly? I think it’s simply 50/50 whether the book ends with a large house or a small one. The right publisher for that book will be one where the editorial, design and marketing visions align the best … along with a dollop of good chemistry between author and editor. A real passion from a Faber or a Bloomsbury or a Granta would (to my mind) be a better deal than a more lukewarm offer from a larger firm. (Those are British firms, but there are similar firms in the US and elsewhere too.)

The quality in some of these smaller houses is incredible. You often get more daring publishing, greater willingness to take risks, and generally bolder decisions at every level of the firm. You also, as an author, actually feel important to the firm, which is not something that’s easy to feel when you’re in the grip of one of the big machines. I once rejected an offer from a top, top quality British independent and I’ve always wonder if I did the right thing. If I had to guess, I’d say probably not.

Money

Most authors I know don’t ultimately care about money anyway. Yes, they want to be paid properly for their work, and they want that side of things to be handled with proper justice and professionalism, but the real payoff is more intangible. It’s the passion of a publisher, the respect of a community of peers, the book in the bookshop, the reviews and comments. All those things are every bit as likely – perhaps likelier – for authors working with strong indie presses as for those working with the Big 5.

The Big 5 firms are great. The indie publishers are better than they’ve ever been. Self-publishing creates a tremendously inspiring and effective route for countless authors.

Author-led marketing tools are the best they’ve ever been.

Barnes & Noble and Waterstones (respectively the flagship bookchains in the US and UK) are both in better shape than ever.

The independent bookstore sector has lost a lot of poor-quality stores, but the strong ones remain strong.

Books (thanks, especially to low cost ebook pricing) are insanely affordable – and you can read in any format you choose much more easily than before.

The simple fact is that it’s better to be an author today than at any point in the last two decades. Indeed, that’s probably underselling it. I think it’s easy to argue that this is the best ever time to be an author.”

Review: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Having never read any James Joyce, I decided I should start with something shorter, that Ulysses. I am disappointed, but not put off enough to abandon the idea of tackling Ulysses.

Joyce was born in 1882 into a middle class family in Dublin. He was educated at Catholic schools and universities, a brilliant student. In 1904 he met his future wife and they moved to mainland Europe. He published a book of poems, Chamber Music, and a short story collection Dubliners, before serially publishing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses was published in Paris in 1922; it’s publication in the UK and the US was prohibited because of its perceived obscenity until the mid 1930’s. In 1939, the next major work, Finnegan’s Wake, was published. He died Zurich in 1941 shortly after surgery for a perforated ulcer at the age of 58.

James Joyce

Portrait is set in Dublin in the late 1800’s and is narrated by an omniscient, neutral third person, except for some stream of conscious in the final chapter. It traces the experiences of its protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, from his childhood to his early 20’s. Stephen is a bright, perceptive individual, but he lacks self-confidence, and his relations with classmates are somewhat difficult. The themes in the novel are family: his father is a heavy drinker and an unreliable bread-winner. His mother is kind and loving but dedicated, uncritically, to the Catholic church. The church restricts Stephen’s desire for artistic freedom, and there is likewise a tension in his image of women: virginal purity vs prostitute. There is also tension in Stephen’s view of Ireland and its culture: loyalty to its homely comforts vs a ‘nation of clodhoppers’. Amidst all this conflict, Stephen searches for his own identity: priest vs artist. He chooses the later, leaving family, Dublin and the church behind. Joyce’s innovative techniques, including stream of consciousness, internal monologue and description of a characters psychic state rather than his actual surroundings.

Joyce’s prose is certainly captivating; one never has a doubt of what is going on in Stephen’s mind, but, for me, sometimes it seems too detailed. I felt that there was to much of it, that it would be better to show rather than tell. Do we have to know exactly how he was feeling? Would not a hint now and then suffice? Let the reader pick up the thread.

Some of the scenes in the novel seemed superfluous or repetitious in their effect.

But my largest complaint about Portrait is that my edition had over fifty pages of footnotes, so that one had to continually flip back and forth. Some of the footnotes had to do with Dublin places or real Irish people, and might be skipped. But many others were translations of Irish word or Latin phrases, and were a necessary aid to comprehension. One has the impression of a novel set in a particular time and place, and that therefore its issues and messages may not be transferable. For me, this rules it out as a classic.

Reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in the Context of the Ukraine War

Ani Kokobobo has an article which was published on The Conversation website on 6 April 2022 which raises the question of reading the two Russian icons with the war in Ukraine in mind.

Ani Kokobobo is Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas.

Ani Kokobobo

She says, “As someone who teaches Russian literature, I can’t help but process the world through the country’s novels, stories, poems and plays, even at a time when Russian cultural productions are being cancelled around the world. 

With the Russian army perpetrating devastating violence in Ukraine – which includes includes the slaughter of civilians in Bucha – the discussion of what to do with Russian literature has naturally arisen.

I’m not worried that truly valuable art can ever be canceled. Enduring works of literature are enduring, in part, because they are capacious enough to be read critically against the vicissitudes of the present.

You could make this argument about any great work of Russian literature, but as a scholar of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, I will stick with Russia’s most famous literary exports.

Upon learning that Russian writer Ivan Turgenev had looked away at the last minute when witnessing the execution of a man, Dostoevsky made his own position clear: “[A] human being living on the surface of the earth has no right to turn away and ignore what is happening on earth, and there are higher moral imperatives for this.”

Seeing the rubble of a theater in Mariupol, hearing of Mariupol citizens starving because of Russian airstrikes, I wonder what Dostoevsky – who specifically focused his piercing moral eye on the question of the suffering of children in his 1880 novel “The Brothers Karamazov” – would say in response to the Russian army’s bombing a theater where children were sheltering. The word “children” was spelled out on the pavement outside the theater in large type so it could be seen from the sky. There was no misunderstanding of who was there.

Ivan Karamazov, the central protagonist in “The Brothers Karamazov,” is far more focused on questions of moral accountability than Christian acceptance or forgiveness and reconciliation. In conversation, Ivan routinely brings up examples of children’s being harmed, imploring the other characters to recognize the atrocities in their midst. He is determined to seek retribution.

Surely the intentional shelling of children in Mariupol is something Dostoevsky couldn’t possibly look away from either. Could he possibly defend a vision of Russian morality while seeing innocent civilians – men, women and children – lying on the streets of Bucha?

At the same time, nor should readers look away from the unseemliness of Dostoevsky and his sense of Russian exceptionalism. These dogmatic ideas about Russian greatness and Russia’s messianic mission are connected to the broader ideology that has fueled Russia’s past colonial mission, and current Russian foreign politics on violent display in Ukraine.

Yet Dostoevsky was also a great humanist thinker who tied this vision of Russian greatness to Russian suffering and faith. Seeing the spiritual value of human suffering was perhaps a natural outcome for a man sent to a labor camp in Siberia for five years for simply participating in a glorified socialist book club. Dostoevsky grew out of his suffering, but, arguably, not to a place where he could accept state-sponsored terror.

Would an author who, in his 1866 novel “Crime and Punishment,” explains in excruciating detail the toll of murder on the murderer – who explains that when someone takes a life, they kill part of themselves – possibly accept Putin’s vision of Russia? Warts and all, would Russia’s greatest metaphysical rebel have recoiled and rebelled against Russian violence in Ukraine?

I hope that he would, as many contemporary Russian writers have. But the dogmas of the Kremlin are pervasive, and many Russians accept them. Many Russians look away.

No writer captures warfare in Russia more poignantly than Tolstoy, a former soldier turned Russia’s most famous pacifist. In his last work, “Hadji Murat,” which scrutinizes Russia’s colonial exploits in North Caucasus, Tolstoy showed how senseless Russian violence toward a Chechen village caused instant hatred of Russians.

Tolstoy’s greatest work about Russian warfare, “War and Peace,” is a novel that Russians have traditionally read during great wars, including World War II. In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy contends that the morale of the Russian military is the key to victory. The battles most likely to succeed are defensive ones, in which soldiers understand why they are fighting and what they are fighting to protect: their home.

Even then, he’s able to convey the harrowing experiences of young Russian soldiers coming into direct confrontation with the instruments of death and destruction on the battlefield. They disappear into the crowd of their battalion, but even a single loss is devastating for the families awaiting their safe return.

After publishing “War and Peace,” Tolstoy publicly denounced many Russian military campaigns. The last part of his 1878 novel “Anna Karenina” originally wasn’t published because it criticized Russia’s actions in the Russo-Turkish War. Tolstoy’s alter ego in that novel, Konstantin Levin, calls the Russian intervention in the war “murder” and thinks it is inappropriate that Russian people are dragged into it.

“The people sacrifice and are always prepared to sacrifice themselves for their soul, not for murder,” he says.

In 1904, Tolstoy penned a public letter denouncing the Russo-Japanese War, which has sometimes been compared with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Again war,” he wrote. “Again sufferings, necessary to nobody, utterly uncalled for; again fraud, again the universal stupefaction and brutalization of men.” One can almost hear him shouting “Bethink Yourselves,” the title of that essay, to his countrymen now.

In one of his most famous pacifist writings, 1900’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Tolstoy presciently diagnosed the problem of today’s Russia.

“The misery of nations is caused not by particular persons, but by the particular order of Society under which the people are so bound up together that they find themselves all in the power of a few men, or more often in the power of one single man: a man so perverted by his unnatural position as arbiter of the fate and lives of millions, that he is always in an unhealthy state, and always suffers more or less from a mania of self-aggrandizement.”

These writers have little to do with the current war. They cannot expunge or mitigate the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine. But they’re embedded on some level within the Russian cultural fabric, and how their books are still read matters. Not because Russian literature can explain any of what is happening, because it cannot. But because, as Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan wrote in March 2022, Russia’s war in Ukraine marked a defeat for Russia’s great humanist tradition.

As this culture copes with a Russian army that has indiscriminately bombed and massacred Ukrainians, Russia’s great authors can and should be read critically, with one urgent question in mind: how to stop the violence. Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny noted during his March 2022 trial that Tolstoy urged his countrymen to fight both despotism and war because one enables the other.

And Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze cited “War and Peace” in a February 2022 entry in her graphic diary.

“I’ve read your f—ing literature,” she wrote. “But looks like Putin did not, and you have forgotten.””

Writing Sex Scenes

Sharon Short’s final segment on Point of View hasn’t been published yet, so let’s look at writing sex scenes. Jessica Martin has a piece in Writer’s Digest titled ‘How to Write a Sex Scene Like Nobody Is Watching’.

Jessica Martin is a lawyer by trade, a writer by choice, and a complete smart ass by all accounts. Based in the suburban wilds of Boston, Jess shares her life with a finance geek, a small sass-based human, and a pair of dogs named after Bond characters.

Jessica Martin

Ms Martin writes, “There are some key scenes in your typical rom-com that writers have to nail. Chief among them is the sex scene. But writing one can stir up all sorts of feelings: anxiety, excitement, a bone deep certainty that if you write a bad one, no one will ever let you live it down. It runs the gamut and while every writer has a different strategy, here’s mine.

The name of the game is distance.

First up physical space. To actually write a sex scene like nobody is watching it helps if nobody is actually watching. For me, this means leaving my house because although I have a perfectly good writing space, there’s a six-year-old beastie who likes to barge in and demand to know why caterpillars don’t eat meat. Or whether you can hear a fish fart under water. Kid, I have no idea how to answer that.

This house I speak of is also occupied by two scheming dogs who lie in wait until I’m in a writing groove. They drop their heads on my leg and drool until I have no choice but to submit to the world’s most devastating puppy dog eyes, bursting with longing that only translates into one thing: Hey human, go fetch me a snack, will you?

And then there’s the husband.

I hope this isn’t shocking to anyone here, but I’ve had sex with him. I don’t want to think about him when writing a sex scene, because I’m pretty sure that violates the sanctity of the marriage pact or something—I don’t know, it’s just weird.

In any event, I vacate the house when I need to write a scene that involves the words thrust, pant, or moan. During COVID, there weren’t a ton of options for non-germy solitude, so I wrote the majority of these scenes in the front seat of my car parked in a state forest. Wearing a ratty hoodie and sucking down tea from a thermos for warmth. Hey, I live in New England and the nights are chilly. You know what else the nights were like in that state forest? Decidedly, not private.

What I didn’t realize is that after the park shuts down for the day, it’s apparently a hotbed of illicit activity. As teens swarmed the woods armed with their flashlights and pilfered booze, they would sometimes comment on the weirdo sitting alone in her car and wondering if I was a NARC. So, I’d need to wait until they’d dispersed into the woods like horror movie cautionary tales before I could get down to the good stuff.

OK, so now I’m physically alone. Now I need to be mentally alone.

Recently, I was out to dinner with my boss, who casually mentioned he’d bought 50 copies(!) of my book for our entire legal team. I was incredibly touched but also momentarily panicked as I sputtered that it was a rom-com … and when the room went silent, I blurted out, “There’s a sex scene.”

As every eye in the room turned to regard me, a colleague asked, “What kind of sex scene we talking here?”

“A tasteful one,” I replied archly (or at least nonchalantly. Please let me be remembered as being calm and cool in that moment).

It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about it before, it was just that interaction finally drove home that someday, somewhere, my husband, parents, kid brother, my actual kid (when she graduates to books without pictures), friends, neighbors, coworkers, former classmates whose Instagram accounts I follow but otherwise wouldn’t recognize, my incredibly bendy yoga instructor and a whole host of others might one day pick up my book and wonder, SO THAT SEX SCENE, IS SHE DRAWING FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE?

While I freely admit to stealing snatches of conversation (especially insults, I love standing behind teenagers in lines), character traits I admire in my friends, and sometimes wholesale shenanigans from my free-wheeling law school days, I draw the line at digging into my own personal cache of sexcapades. Why? Frankly, because I’d like to look that subset of people in the eyes again. Call me a prude, but I like to have a bit of an air of mystery about me. That and I don’t want anyone thinking about my sex faces.

But I’ll peel back the curtain and allow you a peek into my process.

There I am, sitting alone in a car in a dark forest (OK, that sounds creepy, but bear with me) and I warm up by watching YouTube compilations of my favorite on-screen couples. You know the ones, set to angsty music where beloved characters eye each other across a room, a shared smile passing between them. Or maybe it’s that near brush of the lips or a finger tracing a bare collar bone, a shirt goes up and over the head. For me it’s less about what the characters are actually doing and more about that delicious moment of mutual (and completely consensual) commitment to the path of no return, no going back to being friends or enemies or indifferent strangers—it’s on.

Once I’m there, then I imagine my characters, their expressions, their voices, their sex faces (not mine, thank you very much) and what the timbre of their sex scene is. Is it slightly humorous, two people fumbling around knocking stuff over in their jubilant haste to get to one another? Is it full of murmured teasing as one character deliberately seduces the other? Is it rushed but somehow decadent because it’s going down somewhere where any moment our lovers could be discovered?

That’s the feel part.

Then comes the mechanics. I cannot remember where this nugget of wisdom originated, but someone once told me that sex scenes are like fight scenes. Watch the hands. I love this, because it makes me go back and smooth out the scene once I’ve finished with the heady feeling part to make sure it all syncs up. For example, if his pants were carelessly discarded like caution to the wind on the floor a moment ago, as he slides up her body, his hands worshipfully tracing the topography of her hips, then he shouldn’t be reaching for protection in his pocket, right? It has to be in the bedside table or if they’re outside, maybe she’s the resourceful one who still has pants on and whips out the foil packet with a triumphant cry? Details count.

Once I’ve nailed the feeling and true up the details, I break the veil of solitude, I leave the deep dark woods (I’m sure you psych majors are having a field day). I slip back into being a lawyer, a wife, a mother, that person who almost always uses a turn signal when changing lanes. I send the sex scene to my beta readers, then my agent and my editor. I’ll ask them, “This isn’t gross, right?” and that’s usually all I need to feel confident that it’s there.

At least until someone tells me they bought fifty copies of it and they’re giving it to all my coworkers.”

J K Rowling on Writing

On her website, J K Rowling has a page in which she answers the question, “Do you have tips for others trying to write?”

Ms Rowling says, ” I have to say that I can’t stand lists of ‘must do’s’, whether in life or in writing.

I haven’t got ten rules that guarantee success, although I promise I’d share them if I did. The truth is that I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children’s books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words.

So forget the ‘must do’s’ and concentrate on the ‘you probably won’t get far withouts’, which are:

Reading

This is especially for younger writers. You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader. Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.

Discipline

Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer’s life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.

Resilience and humility

These go hand-in-hand, because rejection and criticism are part of a writer’s life. Informed feedback is useful and necessary, but some of the greatest writers were rejected multiple times. Being able to pick yourself up and keep going is invaluable if you’re to survive your work being publicly assessed. The harshest critic is often inside your own head. These days I can usually calm that particular critic down by feeding her a biscuit and giving her a break, although in the early days I sometimes had to take a week off before she’d take a more kindly view of the work in progress. Part of the reason there were seven years between having the idea for Philosopher’s Stone and getting it published, was that I kept putting the manuscript away for months at a time, convinced it was rubbish.

Courage

Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn’t work out, well, I’d faced worse and survived.

Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?

Independence

By this, I mean resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.

I often recommend a website called Writer Beware (https://accrispin.blogspot.com) to new and aspiring writers. It’s a fantastic resource for anyone who’s trying to decide what might be useful, what’s worth paying for and what should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of scams out there that didn’t exist when I started out, especially online.

Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings. I’ve often taken comfort from Robert Benchley’s words: ‘It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up, because by that time I was too famous.’”

How Not to Lose The Plot

James Gault has an article on the Voice of Literature e-zine in which he discusses the elements of plotting.

James says, “I write mostly political thrillers with a touch of humour, set in the present but sometimes with references to the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of my books are in the Scottish vernacular. Some are really comic novels. They always have references to social issues. I try to offer readers interesting and engrossing characters, and favour relatively complex exciting plots with more than one unexpected twist in them.”

James Gault

He says, “What is a plot? Is it just the series of events that occur in a work of fiction, what we might call the story? Or is it perhaps more specific than that? Words can be hijacked to mean whatever the writer wants, and in this case I am shamelessly going to do that and define a plot in a specific sense.

A plot is a story with certain characteristics. For my definition, I am borrowing from a book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, in which he analyses and classifies the stories of works of fiction from different eras and from poems, plays, novels and films. You may not agree with all his classifications, but he puts his finger on what is perhaps the essential element of a fictional plot: a character is presented with a problem and has to overcome the challenges of solving that problem.

In a way, all fictional stories (and possibly all interesting real life ones) fit this model. The structure is obvious in certain genres: mysteries, thrillers, romance etc. Other genres do not at first sight appear to conform, and these I would call episodic genres. They include biographical novels, sagas, slice of life stories and so on. In these cases, there is no central problem to be solved, but a series of different problems which arise and are resolved.  So they are more a collection of related plots, tied together by a central theme. For me, this kind of book requires much more talent from the writer, who has to find some other narrative drive to pull readers through to the end of the work. 

Of course, the path to coming up with the solution to the main plot problem is normally long and tortuous. Other, smaller problems arise along the way, obstacles are put in the path of the protagonist, attempts to move forward are thwarted and misleading information is presented and misinterpreted with disastrous results. Unexpected plot twists make readers stop and re-evaluate their conclusions so far, and set their imaginations off in new directions. There is often a false ending, where everything seems to be resolved and then some forgotten fact or incident raises its head, plunging the reader back into the problem and looking again for a secure and safe answer, but with heightened suspicion now. Without a good helping of all of these ingredients, no narrative can expect to hold a reader’s attention to the end.

I’m going to risk an oversimplification here. There are other elements to novels, like writing style, atmosphere, accurate details, but I would contend that to be effective, the two main essentials are character and plot. So, for a novel (or play, or film, or TV drama, or narrative poem) to engage its audience. there are two essential  goals the writers must reach:

  • find an interesting and difficult problem for the protagonist to solve
  • create main characters with whom readers can identify as they try to solve the problem.

Achieving these goals may not result in a best seller, but I do not think any success can be achieved without them.”