Tag Archives: Writing

How much is too much?

I belong to a book discussion group at my local library, which met tonight to discuss a work of historical creative nonfiction, that also happened to be a New York Times bestseller. The book was nearly five hundred pages with exhaustive notes, an index, and bibliography, the setting centering around the road to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The concept was interesting and the writing good, and upon first glance, it looked like it would be a compelling read. But the more I got into it, the more it became a slog, and I thought perhaps it was just me. Which is weird, because I love historical reads, fiction or otherwise. Then I got to my reading group. Seems I wasn’t along.  Of the ten people in the group, only five showed up, and of the five, only two finished it, and only one they really liked it.

“Why?” I asked of the group. “What didn’t do it for you?”

“TMI,” they said. “Just too much information.”

Hmm…. I thought. I’ve heard this complaint before, from other readers, from other writers–from editors who chop away at your darlings. Too much information. Too much detail, too much minutiae. Too much see how much research I did? Aren’t you impressed? And I’m going to cram it all between the pages of this book whether you like it or not! One of the comments was the info was too technical, that it was directed toward a very specialized group of people, who wouldn’t give a damn about it otherwise. For example, like if you were reading a medical thriller about an emergency heart surgery, and the writer decided to toss in the metabolic panel, radiology screening, and post-op report, with a side of pharmacology for good measure.  Sure, if you were a doctor you might, but then again only if you were on a busman’s holiday. Another comment was too much of a build-up, and not enough main event. The book touted itself as one thing, but there was so much surrounding info, there was very little room left for the main event. Like matryoshka, or those Russian nesting dolls, so many to go through before you get to the point. By the time you get to the middle, you run the danger of being worn out.

So what’s a writer to do which the research seems to take over the story? When there’s so much of it, it almost becomes impossible to pare? When you simply can’t decide what to lose so you lose nothing at all? Look, you have to decide what kind of book you’re going to write. In all fiction, you need to remember a basic principle: to disseminate information on a need-to-know basis. Is that factoid absolutely necessary to your narrative? Is it essential to your characterization? Will it move the plot forward? If it doesn’t, lose it, or at least save it for when it will make a difference. If you’re writing a novel, it’s absolutely essential to create a world, a milieu, a setting for your characters to revolve in, so some carefully placed details are absolutely necessary. But don’t overwhelm your reader, or your characters will literally be sucked into the woodwork. If you’re creating the definitive guide to Gimbel’s Department Store in New York City circa 1927, then yes, be as detailed as you like. But if you’re writing about a woman who found her first love among the cloches  in the millinery department, then choose your darlings wisely. You never know when any of them will get the slash.

Writers’ little helpers when the caffeine ain’t enuf

drugs-blogAn oldie but a classic by Grant Snider via the RIP GalleyCat and James Boog. This speaks to me, especially left-center, though I’m sure you writers out there can draw from it what you need. The New Yorker cuts worse of all. But still, I’m addicted. Heaven help me!

 

In the Interim

I just finished a book! (Thank you! Thank you! I’m patting myself on the back for you!) Edited, proofread, spell-checked and sent off to the agent. Now’s the worst part–waiting for something to happen with it. Trust me, that’s definitely futile. Better off to not think about it for awhile. Please, do NOT look at it any more. I’ve learned if I do, I’ll discover a gazillion more typos, head-hops, tense shifts, and all things that generally give me the yips because I didn’t find them on the last edit. This invariably happens as you’ve grown so close to the thing, it’s basically become invisible to you.  Leading to the point your only recourse is to concede, the book is as done on your end as it’s ever going to get, and the only thing left to do is give it up. So you stop thinking about it, because the bald truth is if you spent 10,000 more hours on it, it still wouldn’t be finished, as it’s never really done until you find it on the shelf at the bookstore. Then what’s a writer to do in the interim?

Well for one thing–celebrate! You’ve finished a book! My own fin-de-libro ritual is to celebrate at a local tomato pie joint with a pair of good friends. We get one large sausage and one large plain, and we gorge ourselves silly along with a bottle of wine. The thing is my girls are pretty strict about enforcing the “must finish the book” rule before we’ll go. And I love these tomato pies so much (thinny-thin crispy crust, handmade, local sausage) it’s incentive enough. See, it’s important to do something special for yourself, even if it’s a night binge-watching all that TV you’ve forgone while you were working so hard. Finishing a book IS a big accomplishment. Why I have students who pale at the prospect of a three-page essay. Three hundred plus is phenomenal. Bask in your glorious achievement!

Because after it comes the real, well…after. At least for me, a kind of quiet falls over my writerly world. The characters in my head retreat to the background, the dust over my imaginary locales settle, all my conflicts resolve, my goals met. The high that had taken me to the end of my journey becomes a low hum until it, too, silences. Leaving me to wonder: now what?

Only you can decide how to transition from one book to the next, because If you plan on taking this writer thing seriously, there MUST be a next book. Very few people are born Harper Lee or J. D. Salinger. If you want to have a career in writing you need to either be working on a sequel or thinking up something new. One thing I firmly believe in is that writers write, and if you aren’t writing, then you better be reading. Attack that to-be-read pile, study your current genre or the one you want to attempt. Pick up a craft book, the latest bestseller, or anything that will keep you reading. It wouldn’t hurt to attend a Writers Conference, or a writers’ organization meeting, or attend a book signing or reading at the local bookstore or college. And here’s another thing I haven’t mentioned: if you’re unagented, it’d be a good time to look for one. Again, if you take this profession seriously, and you want to travel the traditional publishing route (as opposed to self-publishing), you’re going to need a literary agent. So maybe the next writing you should do is a query letter.

But before you do, pat yourself on the back. You’ve just finished a book! Between the time you finished it and the day you sell, you’ll have a lot to do and think about. For now, celebrate your accomplishment. You earned it!

 

NANOWRIMO is about to descend!

Every year I make this promise: I will adhere by the rules of the National Novel Writing Month and get this new novel off the ground. I mean–really, it should be easy. I have it started already, I have it planned out, so all I have to do is write everyday (like I should do anyway when I’m actively writing a book), then log my time and voila! I get to see in–in graph form– just how productive I can be. And seriously, I do start out with good intentions. I write faithfully, amass the set amount of words that I pledge to do, read the day’s words of inspiration, log on my record my wordage, and then sit back with that smug look on my face that says, yes, I’ve done a good days work. This works beautifully for a few days, and then I get distracted by a shiny object or a bowl of gelato and BAM! I’m right back binging the newest drama on Netflix. Bad, bad, writer! Well, not this year!!

Okay, let’s see who makes it to the NaNoWriMo fail first this year. I vow it won’t be me, but then you never know. If you’re certain you’re a better human being than I am, then go here and see if you truly are. Far be it from me to judge.

Happy Writing!

Tips from the MFA Pit, Part 7 – Author or Writer?

Welcome to the Fall Semester! A little bit late, but excuse me, I’ve been a bit preoccupied teaching actual students! For this edition, we look at one of my students who is studying classic sci-fi and fantasy novels. One of their readings is a Jules Verne, and they had noticed that much of the writing is a bit cliched and dog-earred. Perhaps, but crossing two centuries into 2019, we’re still reading him. That led me to thinking what made this author so popular? Why does his writing still resonate? My observations on that were thus…

We tend to forget, in our sophisticated world of writing and reading, that all writing and reading had to start somewhere. What seemed dated and clichéd was at one time innovative. Jules Verne, when he wrote his tales of (then) high-tech and science was prescient for the times. His stories were forward-thinking as well as fantastic to readers, and the Victorians ate them up. The times were also rife with innovation—think about the technology that emanated from the period. Railroads, telegraph, telephones, automobiles, sanitary medicine, vaccines—and the novel, which was considered the scourge of the masses at the time. But the era that spawned Jules Verne also gave us Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Mark Twain—all masterly writers whose wit and wisdom and style are still the standard for excellence in prose. So where does that put Verne? Well, think about it. There are writers and there are authors. 

What’s the difference? Think about the books that top the bestseller list. Many are non-fiction, celebrity bios, people caught up in historic events or scandals, chefs pushing their recipes, diet books, exercise books, or the latest self-help craze. Fiction follows many trends like the ever-popular YA dystopian saga or the once-popular chick lit, or the reliably formulaic genres of mystery, romance, sci-fi, or horror. (Okay, I hear the screaming, but I’m NOT slamming on genre fiction. There’s good, there’s bad, and there’s memorable and there’s horrible. I should know. I’ve written them and I’ve loved them like an old sweater. They’re meatloaf-and-mashed-potatoes-cozy, and the reading world would be a dim place indeed without them). There’s the latest fiction craze that everyone’s following, there’s serials and sequels and authors we can’t get enough of. But just because someone manages to squeeze out a bestseller on a hot selling topic or storyline, it doesn’t make them a writer. It just makes them the originator—the author—of that particular piece of information we all want to hear about.
Writers—real ones that stand the test of time—touch a core of use that goes deeper than topic or storyline. They paint pictures with words, invoke emotional reactions, create memorable characters that we can identify with, empathize with, love, cherish, loathe. The settings of their stories invoke another world, they inspire us, leave feelings that linger within in us long after we read the last word. We become invested in the milieus they create, we pass on their books to friends. We study these writers, learn from them, their words and wisdom last longer than they do. So was Jules Verne, with his sometimes “pedestrian” prose, his formulaic writing, a writer or an author? Hmm…well over a century removed we’re still reading him. That’s got to mean something. We writers should all be so lucky!

Embrace your inner author

One week to the Author-Preneur workshop in Red Bank, New Jersey! Agents! Editors! Writing! Craft! Critique! Food, Blessing Bag stuffing, agents panel, and an attendee mixer afterwards. This is my third year in a row, and I’ve yet to be disappointed.  Go to the Corvisiero Agency for more info!