kottke.org posts about writing
New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar has written a book on people who are wholly devoted to helping others called Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. At least a few of the books' subjects were first profiled in the NYer by MacFarquhar, including this amazing story of a couple who adopted 20 children and a Japanese monk confronting his culture's suicide problem.
David Wolf of The Guardian recently wrote about MacFarquhar and her unique writing style, writing from the perspective of her subjects, like they themselves had written the piece.
MacFarquhar attributes her restlessness with form to getting "productively bored": "For a profile, I do try to make the piece sound and feel as though it were written by the person themselves, rather than by me. What I'm trying to get at is a sense of intimacy, a sense that you are, insofar as is possible, inside the mind of the person, so that you understand why they're in love with the ideas they fell in love with, what moves them, what drives them."
These principles guide most of her stylistic decisions. Anything that diminishes the immediacy of the reader's access to her subject is thrown out. "People think I'm a total freak for not using the first person," she says. "The way I think about it is that if you're making a conventional feature film, all it takes is for the director to walk across the camera just once and you have a completely different relationship to the whole story. For that reason, even though it sometimes means sacrificing great scenes, I take myself out."
What point of view is that? It's like a mix of first person and third person. Is one-third person POV a thing?
John McPhee, maybe our greatest living nonfiction writer (depending on how you feel about Joan Didion), has a lovely essay on omission in this week's The New Yorker. Along with a tidy analysis of Hemingway's iceberg metaphor and some great shaggy-dog stories about citrus fruits, General Eisenhower, and more, he includes an exercise he learned writing for Time that he's adapted for his students at Princeton.
After four days of preparation and writing--after routinely staying up almost all night on the fourth night--and after tailoring your stories past the requests, demands, fine tips, and incomprehensible suggestions of the M.E. and your senior editor, you came in on Day 5 and were greeted by galleys from Makeup with notes on them that said "Green 5" or "Green 8" or "Green 15" or some such, telling you to condense the text by that number of lines or the piece would not fit in the magazine. You were supposed to use a green pencil so Makeup would know what could be put back, if it came to that. I can't remember it coming to that...
The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed. Easier with some writers than with others. It's as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train--or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for reasons of aesthetics or plant pathology, not to mention size. Do not do violence to the author's tone, manner, nature, style, thumbprint. Measure cumulatively the fragments you remove and see how many lines would be gone if the prose were reformatted. If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.
Greening seems like such a material thing, wholly specific to print -- not just to the fact of magazine layout, but a specific kind of workflow. One's tempted to say with digital writing, we've overcome those space limitations, but I'm less sure. Twitter's the obvious example, but doing web layout, I've killed more than my share of lines to preserve symmetry or squeeze everything into a smaller space.
A short profile of writer/editor Roger Angell, still coming in to work most days at The New Yorker at age 93:
Angell saw Babe Ruth in his prime, but he never writes sentimentally about baseball, a sport that has inspired many sports-writers to produce reams of awful, faux-poetic prose. His habit of telling it straight is what makes his nine books hold up and keeps him relevant today. "I don't go for nostalgia," he says. "I try not to. It's so easy to sentimentalize the good old days, but I don't ever do that. I'm aware that things have changed, but I try not to go there. It's very easy, and you get sort of a mental diabetes. All that goo. I am a foe of goo, maybe too much so."
Angell's extended essay "This Old Man" offers an extended dose of that lucidity.
Here in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news. Living long means enough already. When Harry [Angell's fox terrier] died, Carol and I couldn't stop weeping; we sat in the bathroom with his retrieved body on a mat between us, the light-brown patches on his back and the near-black of his ears still darkened by the rain, and passed a Kleenex box back and forth between us. Not all the tears were for him. Two months earlier, a beautiful daughter of mine, my oldest child, had ended her life, and the oceanic force and mystery of that event had not left full space for tears. Now we could cry without reserve, weep together for Harry and Callie and ourselves. Harry cut us loose.
Anyone who's been writing for a long time has tools they like and come to depend on; one of Angell's is a discontinued Mead three-subject notebook:
The best notebook in the world. David Remnick and I talk about how you can't get anything to replace the Mead notebook, which is unavailable now. They take ink perfectly. There is a great flow. All the other notebooks are coated with something so your pen slides along.
"In recent years, when he goes on reporting trips," Angell's interviewer notes, "he has resorted to making use of old Mead notebooks that still have blank pages."
Three years ago, I came across a post on the Sharpie blog -- I don't know how or why I was following Sharpie's blog, but such were the mysteries of our universe in those long-ago days -- announcing a new kind of pencil: a mechanical pencil with liquid graphite ink, with leads that could not break, whose writing was initially erasable but over time (about three days) would become semi-permanent.
Sharpie eventually had to back off some of its claims for the liquid pencil -- the original promo material said pencil would become permanent like a Sharpie Marker, which isn't quite true -- but they brought them to market, and sell them for about $3 apiece. (Sadly, the reviews aren't very good.)
People love pencils. They love them. It's partly childhood nostalgia, partly how a craftsman comes to care for her tools, and partly the tactile experience. It's also a blend of appreciation for both their aesthetic and functional qualities, and (especially these days, but not only these days), a soupçon of the disruptive passion that comes from willfully embracing what poses as the technologically obsolete.
Over at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen has a story about Pencil Revolution, which she quite rightly calls "The World's Best Website About Pencils." She lists ten representative posts, from which I'll select my favorite five:
I found these at Staples (in the US) a few weeks ago and bought a pack. At $10 for three dozen, it was a pretty good deal. Less than $3.50 for some quality pencils is something I'd find it difficult to pass up. But three dozen is...a commitment to make to the Pencil Gods, when the pencil might just be terrible. I mean, they are pencils. One can't just throw them away if they turn out to be awful. Luckily, these pencils are not awful at all. Unluckily, having a Big Box means that I've given most of them away already.
I feel like there's something powerful about pencils that I feel viscerally but don't fully understand. There's the manuscript part: as much as I love to type, there's something super powerful in that alignment of the eye and the hand. But that's pens and chalk and crayons and markers too, and I have completely different feelings about all of these things.
In "Why pencils?" Pencil Revolution's founder Johnny Gamber tries to explain:
The first and best reason to use pencils is because you like them and enjoy writing/drawing with them. Because you feel better connected to the paper you're writing on (or the wall, etc.) and the earth from which the clay, the graphite and the wood all came. Because they smell good. Because sharpening them can be a sort of meditative process. Because you can chew on them. Or for reasons we can't explain.
The point is that it's best to write with what we like best, no? I'll admit to enjoying taking notes and writing papers and poems with pencils better than pens. That's the biggest reason that I use pencils at all.
Maybe it's that sense of work that's best realized in sharpening: the continual, attentive maintenance to a thing that's ultimately, necessarily, and even intentionally disposable. To adapt George Carlin's observation, when you buy a pencil, you know it's going to end badly. You're buying a small tragedy. Caring for a pencil becomes like caring for a pet, or a person, in accelerated miniature, like in time-lapse photography.
Pencils are like love. Pencils are like us. They are free to love, free to squander, and free to give away.
I'm going to do something rare here at Kottke and open up the comments. I'll close them down at the end of the day. Do you love pencils? Do you hate them? Why? What's your favorite pencil? What's your best pencil story? Did a pencil ever break your heart?
Letters of Note ran a 1955 letter from advertising legend David Ogilvy that details his process for writing advertising copy.
I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.
Before embarking on writing his new book, Steve Silberman asked a bunch of authors (like Cory Doctorow, Jonah Lehrer, and Carl Zimmer) for their best advice about writing books.
A few things became clear as soon as their replies came in. First of all, I'll have to throttle back my use of Twitter and Facebook to get this writing done (and I may never rev up my idle Quora account after all.) Secondly, scheduling intervals of regular exercise and renewal amid the hours of writing will be essential.
One thing I will be doing from time to time this week is pulling down random books from my shelves and writing about them, under the belief that the internet is better when not all of it comes from the internet. Here's the second installment (you can read the first here).
One of my favorite writers, poets, and teachers is Susan Stewart. She's just one of those people who radiates intelligence and fun.
She also helped show me that you could put both of these things into critical writing -- that plain, everyday language and willfully studied, obscure language were both traps.
Here is an audio recording of her reading one of my favorite of her poems, "Apple," which begins:
If I could come back from the dead, I would come back
for an apple, and just for the first bite, the first
break, and the cold sweet grain
against the roof of the mouth, as plain
and clear as water.
This poem also includes a Twitter-worthy quip: "If an apple's called 'delicious,' it's not."
And here is an excerpt from one of my favorite of her books (which I'm pretty sure was originally actually her doctoral thesis), On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection:
Problems of the inanimate and the animate here bring us to a consideration of the toy. The toy is the physical embodiment of the fiction: it is a device for fantasy, a point of beginning for narrative. The toy opens an interior world, lending itself to fantasy and privacy in a way that the abstract space, the playground, of social play does not. To toy with something is to manipulate it, to try it out within sets of contexts, none of which is determinative... The desire to animate the toy is the desire not simply to know everything but also to experience everything simultaneously...
Here is the dream of the impeccable robot that has haunted the West at least since the advent of the industrial revolution. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mark the heyday of the automaton, just as they mark the mechanization of labor: jigging Irishmen, whistling birds, clocks with bleating sheep, and growling dogs guarding baskets of fruit. The theme of death and irreversibility reappears in the ambivalent status of toys like the little guillotines that were sold in France during the time of the Revolution. In 1793 Goethe wrote to his mother in Frankfurt requesting that she buy a toy guillotine for his son, August. This was a request she refused, saying that the toy's maker should be put in stocks.
Such automated toys find their strongest modern successors in "models" of ships, trains, airplanes, and automobiles, models of the products of mechanized labor. These toys are nostalgic in a fundamental sense, for they completely transform the mode of production of the original as they miniaturize it: they produce a representation of a product of alienated labor, a representation which itself is constructed by artisanal labor. The triumph of the model-maker is that he or she has produced the object completely by hand, from the beginning assembly to the "finishing touches."
It's a kind of writing that's totally within the boundaries of the historical and theoretical conventions of the academy, but is also always rhetorically and imaginatively precise and correct, from the individual syllable to the grouped processions of images.
I can't tell you how rare that is. Probably you know already.
Rowling's writing process visualized. Looks like this page is from The Order of the Phoenix. (via famulan)
Author Janet Fitch wrote a list of 10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone.
Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: "Good enough story, but what's unique about your sentences?" That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there's music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words.
There are seven main features of a Malcolm Gladwell book.
5. Give things names and remember Douglas Adams' rule of capital letters. Capital letters make things important. For example, in The Tipping Point, Gladwell conjures up the following important concepts: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context. In Outliers, there's The Matthew Effect and The 10,000-Hour Rule.
And totally unrelated but related, here's an awesome photo of a 14-year-old Gladwell running the 1500 meters. (thx, nick)
A book about Agatha Christie's working notebooks reveals that the writer known for her intricate plots worked in a highly nonlinear fashion. Sometimes she didn't even know whodunnit until late in the writing process.
The contents of the notebooks are as multi-dimensional as their Escher-like structure. They include fully worked-out scenes, historical background, lists of character names, rough maps of imaginary places, stage settings, an idle rebus (the numeral three, a crossed-out eye, and a mouse), and plot ideas that will be recognizable to any Christie fan: "Poirot asks to go down to country-finds a house and various fantastic details," "Saves her life several times," "Inquire enquire-both in same letter." What's more, in between ominous scraps like "Stabbed through eye with hatpin" and "influenza depression virus-Stolen? Cabinet Minister?" are grocery lists: "Newspapers, toilet paper, salt, pepper ..." There was no clean line between Christie's work life and her family life. She created household ledgers, and scribbled notes to self. ("All away weekend-can we go Thursday Nan.") Even Christie's second husband, the archeologist Sir Max Mallowan, used her notebooks. He jotted down calculations. Christie's daughter Rosalind practiced penmanship, and the whole family kept track of their bridge scores alongside notes like, "Possibilities of poison ... cyanide in strawberry ... coniine-in capsule?"
I don't know why this approach seems so surprising. From all that I've read about how book authors work, writing a book is like sanding wood...you can't just start with the extra-fine sandpaper and expect a smooth surface.
In a memo to the writers of The Unit, David Mamet (the show's executive producer) provides a short but master class in writing for television.
THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, YOU ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE, THEY WILL SHOOT.
HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.
ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER "AS YOU KNOW", THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.
The Guardian asked a bunch of writers to share their tips for writing fiction. The responses appear in two parts. Elmore Leonard:
Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"... he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".
Here's Philip Pullman's response in full:
My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.
Who knew that a long article about F Scott Fitzgerald's tax returns could be so interesting?
The five months of furious short-story writing in 1923-24 had left him with a stake of $7,000. In Great Neck, that would only cover two and a half months of expenses. How could he stretch the $7,000 to gain the time to finish Gatsby? Earlier, as he was struggling to save, a friend wrote from France to suggest that Fitz-gerald join the many Americans living well in Europe on the strong American dollar. The friend wrote that it cost one-tenth as much to live in Europe: he had just finished "a meal fit for a king, washed down with champagne, for the absurd sum of sixty-one cents." Fitzgerald thought, based on the friend's recommendation, living expenses on the off-season Riviera would be low enough to let him finish Gatsby without any short-story interruptions.
Writer Joel Stickley keeps a blog about how best to write badly. Here's a snippet from a recent entry titled "Describe every character in minute detail, taking no account of narrative pacing":
Terrence Handley shifted his weight, the weight that had been steadily increasing for the last ten years and showed no sign of diminishing, at least while his wife Marie continued to excel as she did at the design and production of delectable gourmet meat pies, and shuffled his feet restively as he waited.
At 70, writer Charles Bukowski started using a computer -- a Macintosh IIsi that his wife gave him for Christmas -- and was so taken with it that he never went back to the typewriter.
There is something about seeing your words on a screen before you that makes you send the word with a better bite, sighted in closer to the target. I know a computer can't make a writer but I think it makes a writer better. Simplicity in writing and simplicity in getting it down, hot and real. When this computer is in the shop and I go back to the electric, it's like trying to break rock with a hammer. Of course, the essence of writing is there but you have to wait on it, it doesn't leap from the gut as quickly, you begin to trail your thoughts -- your thoughts are ahead of your fingers which are trying to catch up. It causes a block of sorts indeed.
One of Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules for writing short stories:
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Ayup. See also How to Write With Style.
The Paris Review has posted an extensive excerpt of an interview with writer Gay Talese from their summer issue. Wonderful stuff, ranging from his unusual writing process to how he got his start to a brief behind-the-scenes about writing Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.
All the other reporters of my generation would come back from an assignment and be done with their piece in a half hour. For the rest of the afternoon they'd be reading books or playing cards or drinking coffee in the cafeteria, and I was always very much alone. I didn't carry on conversations during those hours. I just wanted to make my article perfect, or as good as I could get it. So I rewrote and rewrote, feeling that I needed every minute of the working day to improve my work. I did this because I didn't believe that it was just journalism, thrown away the next day with the trash. I always had a sense of tomorrow. I never turned in anything more than two minutes before deadline. It was never easy, I felt I had only one chance. I was working for the paper of record, and I believed that what I was doing was going to be part of a permanent history.
It had better be good too, because my name was on it. I've always thought that. I think this came from watching my father work on suits. I was impressed by how carefully he would sew, and he never made much money, but I thought he was the real thing. His name was on those suits-the buttons couldn't fall off tomorrow. They had to look great, had to fit well, and had to last. His business wasn't profitable, but from him I learned that I wanted to be a craftsman.
Don't miss the piece of shirt board that Talese used to outline the Sinatra story. (via submitted for your perusal)
Update: Who else used shirt boards? Robert Rauschenberg.
The deadline for entering the Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing & Criticism is nearing. Get your entries in by June 1.
The Writing Award of $10,000 is open to writers, critics, scholars, historians, journalists and designers and given for a body of work. The Education Award of $1,000 is open to students (high school, undergraduate or graduate) whose use of writing in a single essay demonstrates originality and promise.
Dan Baum was a staff writer for The New Yorker for a time. In 2007, the magazine didn't renew his contract and he's currently explaining why (from his perspective) on Twitter (archived here). It's maddening to read the whole story 140 characters at a time but it's pretty interesting inside-baseball stuff, where baseball = professional writing. Here are some of the highlights so far (he's not quite done yet).
First, a little about the job of New Yorker staff writer. "Staff writer" is a bit of a misnomer, as you're not an employee, but rather a contractor. So there's no health insurance, no 401K, and most of all, no guarantee of a job beyond one year. My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-year. Every September, I was up for review. Turns out, all New Yorker writers work this way, even the bigfeet. It's Just the way the New Yorker chooses to behave. It shows no loyalty to its writers, yet expects full fealty in return. It gets away with it, because writing for the New Yorker is the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs. Like everybody, I loved it.
Some early advice from his editor on how to structure a story:
"Think about trying a process story," he said, using a term I'd never heard. "It's a New Yorker standard," he went on. "You simply deconstruct a process for the reader. John McPhee was the master. It makes for a simple structure."
More editorial advice:
Great piece of New Yorker advice: "This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like," he said. "Just know that when I get it, I'm going to take it apart and make it all chronological." Telling a story in strict chronological order turned out to be a fabulous discipline. It made the story easy to write, and may be why New Yorker stories are so easy to read. Of course, the magazine does run everything through the deflavorizer, following Samuel Johnson's immortal advice: "Read what you have written, and when you come across a passage you think is particularly fine, strike it out."
On the magazine's legendary fact-checkers:
The editing is as superb as you'd imagine. And it's lovely to have all the time and resources you need. I particularly liked the fact-checkers, who go way beyond getting names spelled right and actually do a lot of reporting. More than once, the fact-checkers uncovered information I hadn't had, found crucial sources I hadn't interviewed. It's like having a team of back-up reporters.
Baum has an unconventional working relationship with his wife:
All the work that goes out under my byline is at least half the work of my wife, Margaret Knox.
More details on that arrangement are available on his/their web site. Margaret edits while Dan writes.
Non-fiction frequently calls for a strong individual voice, and occasionally the use of the first person, so double bylines often aren't practical. Dan most often does the legwork of reporting the story -- the travel and the phone calls -- with Margaret acting as bureau chief: "Ask this." "Don't forget that." "Go back to him tomorrow." Dan then writes the first draft.
On second thought, perhaps it's not that unconventional at all. Since Meg and I started going out nine years ago, we've collaborated on several projects without shared credit; I provided much advice related to Blogger, Kinja, and Megnut and she's always operating behind the scenes here at kottke.org.
But back to the Baum/Knoxes. On their site, they've posted a bunch of proposals they wrote to magazines that resulted in good assignments. Among them is a proposal that New Yorker editor John Bennet called "the best proposal he'd ever read". The Baum/Knoxes have also shared a series of their failed proposals. These proposals and the ongoing Twitter story are a gold mine for young writers...fascinating stuff. (via the awl)
Update: Baum has published the whole story in a more readable format. (thx, richard)
Cathy Curtis, a former staff writer for The LA Times, shares how the web made her a better writer.
Another impetus for scanning, I believe, is the web's seemingly limitless content. It's like being unable to enjoy yourself at a party because you might be having a better time at someone else's house. Add the growing mania for speed ("This #%&* site is taking 20 seconds to load!"), and it's clear that web writing has to pick up the pace.
A Primer for Kicking Ass
Being the Result of One Man's Fed-upped-ness With 'How to Write' Books Not Actually Showing You How to Write
By James Tanner. Reprinted with permission.
0. Begin with an idea, a string of ideas.
Ex: Mario had help with his movie. He did a lot of the work himself.
1. Use them in a compound sentence:
It's obvious someone helped with the script, But...Mario did the puppet work, And...It was his shoes on the pedal.
2. Add rhythm with a dependent clause:
It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work, and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal.
3. Elaborate using a complete sentence as interrupting modifier:
It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work — his arms are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal.
4. Append an absolute construction or two:
It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the puppet work — his arms are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops moved out of frame.
5. Paralell-o-rize your structure (turn one noun into two):
It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and the puppet work — his arms and fingers are perfect for the puppets — and it was, without question, his shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and buckets moved out of frame.
STOP HERE IF YOU ARE A MINIMALIST, WRITING COACH, OR JAMES WOOD
6. Adjectival phrases: lots of them. (Note: apprx. 50% will include the word 'little'):
It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet work — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the standard big-headed political puppets — and it was, without question, his little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets moved out of frame.
7. Throw in an adverb or two (never more than one third the number of adjectives):
It's obvious someone helped with the script, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet work personally — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the standard big-headed political puppets — and it was, without question, his little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out of frame.
8. Elaboration — mostly unnecessary. Here you'll turn nouns phrases into longer noun phrases; verbs phrases into longer verb phrases. This is largely a matter of synonyms and prepositions. Don't be afraid to be vague! Ideally, these elaborations will contribute to voice — for example, 'had a hand in' is longer than 'helped', but still kinda voice-y — but that's just gravy. The goal here is word count.
It's obvious someone else had a hand in the screenplay, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet-work personally — his little S-shaped arms and curved fingers are perfect for the forward curve from body to snout of a standard big-headed political puppet — and it was, without question, Mario's little square shoes on the pedal, the camera mounted on a tripod across the over lit closet, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out past the frame's borders on either side of the little velvet stage.
STOP HERE IF YOU ARE NOT WRITING PARODY
9. Give it that Wallace shine. Replace common words with their oddly specific, scientific-y counterparts. (Ex: 'curved fingers' into 'falcate digits'). If you can turn a noun into a brand name, do it. (Ex: 'shoes' into 'Hush Puppies,' 'camera' into 'Bolex'). Finally, go crazy with the possessives. Who wants a tripod when they could have a 'tunnel's locked lab's tripod'? Ahem:
It's obvious someone else had a hand in the screenplay, but Mario did the choreography and most of the puppet-work personally — his little S-shaped arms and falcate digits are perfect for the forward curve from body to snout of a standard big-headed political puppet — and it was, without question, Mario's little square Hush Puppies on the H^4's operant foot-treadle, the Bolex itself mounted on one of the tunnel's locked lab's Husky-VI TL tripods across the over lit closet, mops and dull-gray janitorial buckets carefully moved out past the frame's borders on either side of the little velvet stage.
10. Practice. Take one sentence — any sentence — and Wallacize it. Turn ten boring words into a hundred good ones.
Ex: "John wanted to play ball, but he sat on the couch."
Or did John _________________________________ ?
[Ed note: I saw this on a mailing list a few weeks ago, really liked it, and asked permission to reprint it here. Thanks for sharing, James.]
Several authors share what they like and dislike about writing for a living.
I wouldn't be the first writer to point out that doing something so deeply personal does become less jolly when you have to keep on at it, day after cash-generating day. To use a not ridiculous analogy: Sex = nice thing. Sex For Cash = probably less fun, perhaps morally uncomfy and psychologically unwise. Sitting alone in a room for hours while essentially talking in your head about people you made up earlier and then writing it down for no one you know does have many aspects which are not inherently fulfilling.
Michael Lewis talks a little about his writing process.
I've written in awful enough situations that I know that the quality of the prose doesn't depend on the circumstance in which it is composed. I don't believe the muse visits you. I believe that you visit the muse. If you wait for that "perfect moment" you're not going to be very productive.
From a Vanity Fair piece on Bloomberg News, a brief mention of The Bloomberg Way, the style guide used by writers at the financial news and services company (emphasis mine):
Bloomberg News stories, it declared, "have a structure that is as immutable as the rules that govern sonnets and symphonies." Every story needed to include "the Five Fs": first, fastest, factual, final, and future. Leads were to be exactly four paragraphs long, comprising the stating of a theme, a quotation in "plain English from someone who backs up that theme," numbers-based details that further support it, and an explanation of what's at stake. The use of "but" was banned -- it forced readers "to deal with conflicting ideas in the same sentence." Words such as "despite" and "however" were to be avoided for the same reason.
Are there any copies of The Bloomberg Way online? I'd love to check it out. (via surowiecki)
A profile of David Foster Wallace from 1987, reprinted by McSweeney's.
"When you write fiction," he explains as part of his critique of a story about a young girl, her uncle, and the evil eye, "you are telling a lie. It's a game, but you must get the facts straight. The reader doesn't want to be reminded that it's a lie. It must be convincing, or the story will never take off in the reader's mind."
One of his two senior college theses was on philosophy (the other became The Broom of the System):
His senior philosophy thesis, he claims, had nothing to do with writing. "It offered a solution in how to deal with semantics and physical modalities concerning Aristotle's sea battle. If it is now true that there will be a sea battle tomorrow, is a sea battle necessary tomorrow? If it is now false, is a sea battle impossible tomorrow? It's a way to deal with propositions in the future tense in modal logic, since what is physically possible at a certain time is weird because one has to distinguish the time of the possibility of the event from the possibility of the time of the event."
Footnotes, Endnotes, and Parentheticals That Cost Me Marks on My Thesis.
3 Who, although a gifted academic, is still a douche.
A list of writing tips from Walter Benjamin.
Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.
I find that when I develop an idea for too long in my head, I forget most of it when I go to write it down. Once again proving that Walter Benjamin is a better man than I am.
Kurt Vonnegut shares his tips on how to write with style.
5. Sound like yourself. The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was Conrad's third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.
(via chris glass)
Writing advice from Zadie Smith: write it then put it in a drawer.
When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second -- put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year of more is ideal -- but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can't tell you how many times I've sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go on stage and read from them. It's an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it's published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.
Top notch advice. I'm currently working on a (mostly visual) redesign for kottke.org. I pretty much finished the Photoshop part of it two months ago and haven't looked at it since, hoping that the distance will give me some much needed perspective on whether the new design is any good or not. I've used this technique on the past couple of designs as well...if you have the luxury of the extra time, I'd highly recommend it.
Advice on writing screenplays.
I think people see inspiration as the ignition that starts the process. In fact, real moments of inspiration often come at the last minute, when you've sweated and fretted your way through a couple of drafts. Suddenly, you start to see fresh connections, new ways of doing things. That's when you feel like you're flying. The real pleasure of any script is the detail. And a lot gets lost in the process. Put it back in at the last minute.
Giles "Finds it hard to write a meaningful bio, despite being a professional writer for some 15 years now. That's horrifying. It's frightening." Turnbull on the difficulty of writing one's own biography. Having to write three-line bios is at least 33% of the reason I stopped speaking at conferences. (The other two-thirds: a) I don't like speaking at conferences, and b) conference organizers stopped asking me to speak.)
Mark Gaberman on what it's like to write for Jeopardy, which he's been doing for 7 years.
I've had Alex Trebek rap Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" -- he had his mind on his money and his money on his mind that day. Did a category called "Death and Texas" just because I liked the title (and finding stuff about people dying and/or getting killed in Texas turned out to be remarkably easy). I've learned about Jean Sibelius, and word to the wise, if you see "blah blah blah this Finnish composer blah blah blah...", Jean Sibelius might not be your worst guess. Well, at least if I wrote it. I'm just not that up on my Finnish composers.
This comes from a blog called Why We Write, a collection of essays by TV and film writers who are currently out of work due to the Writer's Guild strike. My favorite part of the site is the placement of two spaces after a period instead of the HTML default of one. View the source to check out the crazy markup they use to accomplish that little bit of fussiness. (thx, mark)
RU Sirius asks: Is the net good for writers? Ten professional writers weigh in.
I like to develop topics, approach them from different, often contradictory angles, and most of all, I like to polish the shit out of them so that the flow and the prose shine and bedazzle. On and offline, I find the internet-driven pressure to make pieces short, data-dense, and crisply opinionated -- as opposed to thoughtful, multi-perspectival, and lyrical -- rather oppressive, leading to a certain kind of superficial smugness as well as general submission to the forces of reference over reflection. I do enjoy writing 125-word record reviews though!
My favorite aspect of the piece is the interspersed American Apparel ads...they add a little texture to the discussion.
In a short post yesterday about where writers do their business, I mentioned that Witold Rybczynski had written about the writing room of a famous author that was purposely set away from the rest of his house. I grabbed my copy of The Most Beautiful House in the World off the shelf just now and found that I'd turned down the page containing the relevant passage back when I read the book a few years ago. The author I was thinking of was George Bernard Shaw; here is Rybczynski's description of his writing room:
But Shaw too was a builder, and the writing room that he erected in his garden was a Shavian combination of simplicity, convenience, and novelty. He called it "the Shelter," but it was really a shed, only eight feet square. It contained the essentials of the writer's trade -- a plank desk, an electric lamp, a wicker chair, a bookcase, and a wastepaper basket. Beside the desk was a shelf for his Remington portable -- like [Samuel] Clemens, Shaw was an early amateur of the typewriter. There was also a telephone (modified to refuse incoming calls), a thermometer, and an alarm clock (to remind him when it was time for lunch).
Shaw's writing hut had one other curious feature: the entire building was mounted on a pipe so that it could be rotated to take advantage of the sun's warmth at different times of the day. But the tiny building was so loaded down with books and furniture that the feature was probably never used. Pictures and more on Shaw's writing hut at BBC News, the National Trust, and Cool Tools.
Rybczynski also mentions that Samuel Clemens wrote most often in a hilltop gazebo he'd constructed for that purpose away from his luxurious house..
The Guardian has an extensive list of writers and the rooms in which they write (with photos and descriptions by the authors). For whatever reason, I became very interested in writers' rooms after reading Witold Rybczynski's The Most Beautiful House in the World, in which he describes several rooms built by writers specifically for working in, including one author who built a completely separate room apart from his house which combined his need for solitude with a short commute. (thx, youngna)
Show creator David Simon talks with author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, etc.) in the The August 2007 issue of The Believer. The entire interview isn't available online but one of the three best bits is:
My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.
Simon goes on to talk about the overarching theme of The Wire: the exploration of the postmodern American city and the struggle of the individual against the city's institutions. Many of his thoughts on that particular subject are contained in this Dec 2006 interview at Slate. But in talking with Hornby, Simon draws a parallel between these city institutions and the Greek gods:
Another reason the show may feel different than a lot of television: our model is not quite so Shakespearian as other high-end HBO fare. The Sopranos and Deadwood -- two shows that I do admire -- offer a good deal of Macbeth or Richard III or Hamlet in their focus on the angst and machinations of their central characters (Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen). Much of our modern theatre seems rooted in the Shakespearian discovery of the modern mind. We're stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct -- the Greeks -- lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality.
But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It's the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomics forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millenium, so to speak.
The NY Times still deals in the Shakespearian and tells us the story of Donnie Andrews and Fran Boyd (thx, nirav), whom Simon and The Wire co-creator Edward Burns introduced to each other. Andrews was the inspiration for the popular Omar Little character on the show and Boyd was depicted in a previous Simon/Burns collaboration called The Corner. The Times also has their wedding announcement.
And finally, some news about season five. Sadly, instead of 12 or 13 episodes, the final season of the show will only consist of 10 episodes. The shooting of the final episode wrapped on September 1 and the season will premiere on Jan 6, 2008 (both facts courtesy of a Washington Post article about the end of the show). The season 4 DVD should be out a month or two before that. Two actors from Homicide: Life on the Street (based on a book by, you guessed it, David Simon) will appear in the final season: Clark Johnson (who also directed the final episode) and Richard Belzer, who will reprise his Homicide role as Detective John Munch.
Michael Pollan has some good advice for writing about nature and science. "So choose your first person deliberately. Too many newspaper first persons -- and a lot of magazine first persons too -- are written in the voice of the neutral feature-writer. They're the voice of the Journalist. That is the least interesting first person you have. Nobody cares about journalists. They're not normal people. So choose a first person that draws on a more normal side of your personality. And think about which one will help you tell the story. You'll see that in very subtle ways it will shape your point of view and your tone and unlock interesting things."
Writer's Dreamtools has a timeline of events, people, entertainment, fashion, money, etc. for every decade since 1650. This allows the writer to put herself in that time period and as a jumping off point for further historical research. Favorite categories: "who's in" and "what's in". What a great resource for writers. (via youngna)
Robert Shields is the author of the world's longest diary. It runs to 35 million words and he wrote about everything he did. Everything. "3:30-3:45 I was at the keyboard of the IBM Wheelwriter making entries for the diary."
Following the lead of the Six Word Story group on Flickr and Caterina's prompt, Wired asked some prominent writers to pen their own six word stories. "Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words ('For sale: baby shoes, never worn.') and is said to have called it his best work." Got any good ones?
Computing is killing cursive writing. My writing was always bad, but now that I write things maybe once every three months, it's like I don't even know what a pencil is...most monkeys print better than I can.
Will people need to know how to read and write in the near future? Emails and texts are already not exactly literature and in 10 years, text-to-speech will be good enough that you can listen to anything you want. On the flipside, text holds a lot of advantages over "icons and audio prompts". A quick survey of the modern workplace reveals slow progress on the paperless office, so I'm skeptical that this no-text future is soon to arrive. (via 3qd)
By asking for "for the next sheet of paper that he or she would have written on", Jonathan Safran Foer collected emtpy sheets of paper from a group of writers, building "a museum of pure potential". (thx, matt)
Update: Here's the uncut version of the article as it originally appeared in Playboy. (thx, chris)
Seth Godin, who ruminates for a living, wrote a little something about how ideas are transmitted last year:
For an idea to spread, it needs to be sent and received.
No one "sends" an idea unless:
a. they understand it
b. they want it to spread
c. they believe that spreading it will enhance their power (reputation, income, friendships) or their peace of mind
d. the effort necessary to send the idea is less than the benefits
No one "gets" an idea unless:
a. the first impression demands further investigation
b. they already understand the foundation ideas necessary to get the new idea
c. they trust or respect the sender enough to invest the time
Seth hits the nail right on the head with this. When I'm deciding what links to post here, I'm essentially curating ideas, collecting them to "send" to you (and to myself, in a way). And unconsciously, these seven points factor into my decision on what to post here.
a. they understand it - I read everything I post and attempt to understand an article enough to represent it accurately when linking to it.
b. they want it to spread - I pick links and write posts based on ideas that I think are in some way important, meaningful, relevent, or good for the soul. And sure, I want those ideas to be more widely known or enjoyed, even if it's something as simple as someone getting a needed chuckle from a video of a monkey teasing a dog.
c. they believe that spreading it will enhance their power (reputation, income, friendships) or their peace of mind - This factors into anyone's motivations for anything. In George Orwell's 1947 essay Why I Write, his #1 reason is "sheer egoism".
d. the effort necessary to send the idea is less than the benefits - If I wanted to, I could post 30 links or more a day without too much more effort on my part, but in this case, part of sending the idea is making sure the reader has enough attention to consider it.
a. the first impression demands further investigation - I spend a lot of time on getting the description of some linked text, photo, or video just right, so that the reader has a good idea of what they're getting into. Choosing a 1-2 sentence pull-quote that accurately represents the idea of an article is key in getting people's attention in a productive way. "This is an awesome link" is only going to cut it so many times; you need to tell people what the link is and give people an honest reason to click.
b. they already understand the foundation ideas necessary to get the new idea - I assume visitors to the site are regular readers and that they have a good sense of what happens here, but I try to limit my reliance on jargon or "in-crowd" references so that everyone can follow along.
c. they trust or respect the sender enough to invest the time - If I do all that other stuff right, hopefully you'll trust me enough to be receptive to the ideas I'm sending you. And if not, you probably won't trust me for long.
Like I said, all this was pretty much happening unconsciously. I've worked consciously on bits and pieces of it, but until I read Seth's post, I didn't know that this was the end-to-end process.
Jack Shafer waxes poetic about the NY Times TV listing's film capsules. Their succinctness reminds me a bit of writing remaindered links posts.
Writing prose and writing software have much in common. "Vigorous writing of words is the same as vigorous writing of software. Every word, every line of code, every interface element should tell."
Robert Birnbaum interviews writer Gay Talese. "Look, if you want to make your living chopping people up, you will find an audience. You will, but it's not me."
Robert Birnbaum interview with Susan Orlean. Here's his first interview with her from 2001.
Update: I linked to this without reading it first, something I *never* do, but now that I've read it, there's really some great stuff in there about the writing process, magazines (specifically The New Yorker), and editing. And great quotes like "I'd rather work for Drunken Boat than for Time magazine, to be honest with you". Ouch for Time magazine.
Winterhouse (along with the AIGA) is sponsoring an award for design writing and criticism. There's a main award ($5000) and a student award ($1000). Be nice to see some Web design writing in there.
Merlin's excellent advice for writing sensible email messages. This one is excellent advice for email and blog comments: "Emails to a thread are like comments at a meeting; think of both like your time possessing the basketball. Don't just chuck at the net every chance you get. Hang back and watch for how you can be most useful. Minimize noise."
Paragraph looks like a neat idea. It's a writer's workspace located near Union Square here in NYC. It's like a gym, except for writers. You pay a membership fee and then you can show up and use the facilities (desks, kitchen, your own locker for your stuff, wifi, etc.). More on Paragraph at designer Khoi Vinh's site.
Winners of the 2005 Faux Faulker Contest. Winner: "The Administration and the Fury: If William Faulkner were writing on the Bush White House".
"So You Want to Write a Book?". O'Reilly Media's guide for new authors.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about his work space. He does most of his writing on his laptop while sitting on sofas and in coffeeshops and restaurants.