A Book for Writers

CaptureOnly occasionally do I post a piece on writing. And writers. When I do, it is something I feel can be useful to my fellow writers. I try to avoid repeating insights you can find on other blogs. With this in mind, today I’d like to recommend What We See When We Read by Peter Mdndelsund, art director and book designer at Alfred A. Knopf.

It answers so many questions I have had about description over the years. What to leave out and what to put in. Insights into how a writer should describe a character. How much of that description a reader will remember.

He interviewed readers of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, asking them to describe Anna. You will find the responses very interesting. Throughout the book, he refers to a number of great writers besides Tolstoy and how they have used description. Writers such as Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Kafka, Herman Melville and Gustave Flaubert.

Here are some of the writerly insights I found in the book:

1.Build the opening sentence solely from verbs. Make the verbs matter in the opening paragraph.

2.Focus on what the character does and how they do it, not how they look.

3.Different actors can inhibit a role in a play. and we accept those performances as true to the role. See how many actors have performed Hamlet. That’s because Shakespeare didn’t spend a lot of time describing Hamlet.

4.We hear more than we see when we are reading. So use appropriate sounding words to create a rhythm to a paragraph.

5.If the reader has to keep going back and re-reading a section because they are confused, the writer has lost the reader.

6.Describe a character or setting the way a character experiences them through their senses.

7.Show the world through the character’s eyes, not through the author’s.

8.When using a detail to describe a setting or a character, make it memorable and important. Then repeat it. Tolstoy mentions Anna Karenina’s “slender hands.” We remember Cyrano as big nosed. “Which aspect of a character is chosen to represent the character is crucial.” (p.394)

9.Don’t tell the reader everything. Give the reader a chance to use their imagination.

10.When using detailed description, make sure this matters. Such as showing what’s in a character’s closet or in their refrigeration. This probably isn’t needed unless the writer wants to reveal the character’s obsession with clothes or food. For instance, a writer might want to describe a character’s bathtub because the character obsesses over cleanliness.

11.When the writer creates a character, they are creating a world.

Note: I am in no way associated with this writer or his publisher. I have not received a book to review.

The Boy Who Loved To Read

Short Story Prompt: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway

Thor, not the god, the man. Actually he was a teenager. Thor loved to read. Reading was a favorite thing for him to do. Oh sure, he liked the girls. And they liked him. Liked him a lot. Can’t blame them. His blue eyes and blonde hair, and those rugged Scandinavian looks he inherited from his dad.

Like I said, Thor liked to read. It was okay when he was younger, but he was expected to put the books down once he went into puberty. His dad knew the kid had talent. He had the potential to go all the way to the pros. He had an arm on him that would make him a great quarterback.

Thor was not the kind of kid to put up a fight. He was a Libra and Libras are people who like their peace. Will go out of their way, and sometimes against their own best interest, for peace. So, in the tenth grade, he went out for football. Since he was a natural, the coach made him quarterback. First string too. He was the youngest quarterback in the history of the high school.

Between practice and schoolwork and dating, it didn’t leave much time for reading. Then there was the job on the side. His dad brought him in to work in his garage on Saturdays during off-season. Said it was good for him. Would give him a work ethic.

But reading wasn’t something Thor could just give up. He had gotten through all seven of the Harry Potters. He went on to “Treasure Island” and Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. All fun reads. Then there were the Norse myths. When he found out that his dad had named him after the god Thor, he had to know who this god was. So he poured over Edith Hamilton and Bulfinch. Their books had sections on the Norses. He even read some of the Norse sagas, especially the ones that featured the god, Thor.

Thor had a hammer. A big hammer. It even had a name. Mjolnir. It was Thor’s best friend. Other heroes got a sidekick. Thor got a hammer. Was it a real hammer? Or was that hammer symbolic? His high school English teacher taught her students about symbolism in literature. One day he asked his teacher about Mjolnir. She said that it was indeed symbolic. But he wasn’t so sure. Maybe one day he could get a hammer like Thor’s. He’d put off going after it now, but one of these days he was going to have that hammer.

Lately he had taken to reading “The Lord of the Rings”. He read under the covers and by flashlight. But, before he could get a page read, he dropped off into sleep. He wanted to know what happened to Frodo. He wanted to know bad. He just had to know.

He started visiting the bathroom regularly, not for a one or a twosy, but for what he termed a threesy. It was the only place in the house where he could read in peace. At first, it was only five minutes. Then it became longer and longer. When it turned into an hour, his mother became very concerned. The rest of the family, his younger brother and his dad, were not happy either. When they had to go, they had to go. Though they knocked on the door furiously, it was hard for them to get him out.

What happened next is family lore. His mother stood at the bathroom door and knocked.

“Why are you in the bathroom?” his mother asked through the door. “You sick?”

“No,” he replied.

“Then what are you doing in there?” she wanted to know.

“Nada.” Then he realized that would be the name of his hammer.

“Are you playing with yourself?”

“No,” he answered. “I don’t do that. I don’t want to go blind.”

“Good,” she said. “Don’t forget the rest of us have to use the bathroom too.”

He shook his head and mumbled that he understood.

“Then what? What are you doing in there? Are you reading in there?”

He didn’t answer.

“Why do you keep spending so much time in that bathroom?” She was yelling through the door now.

“It’s a clean well-lighted place.”

Surviving Nanowrimo # 8: Write your story

WHAT SHOULD I WRITE

Take a look at the top 10 books on Google list of bestselling fiction for 2020  What do you see?

I am looking at the October 11th list. I see romance, literary, coming-of-age, historical, dystopian, suspense, horror, fantasy, and humor. If you go back and look at the lists for other years, you would probably find different categories. One thing is for sure. No category dominates over a period of years. Some are old pros at the bestseller lists; some newbies. And some of these were written by pantsers, some by plotters.

What is this telling you and me? That anything we want to write has the possibility of having a readership. The important thing is that the story has well-drawn-out characters who have a story to tell.

There is one thing I would say. Usually, but not always, the novels on the list are not the writer’s first novel. Some write ten, fifteen, twenty novels before they get lucky. Be prepared to be in for the long haul and even if you don’t make it to the bestseller list, there’ll be readers who can’t wait for your next one.

Once you’ve finished your first nanowrimo novel, edit it through three or four edits till you’ve dressed it up in its Sunday best. Have some other people read it and give you feedback. Then send it out to agents or publish it on Amazon’s kindle. Once that’s done, start on your next novel.

So write what you want to write. Fall in love with your characters. But not so much you won’t be able to send them through hell. And have a hell of a good time doing it.

WHEN THE NOVEL IS FINISHED

This is very important. When the novel is finished, I take some time off from the book. Maybe a month. Maybe two months. I go write another novel. After a while, I go back to your novel and read it straight through. The first thing I realize is that your novel is crap. But I don’t give up on it. All first drafts are.

So what do I do then? Now it’s time to outline the novel. I use a book like Save the Cat Writes a Novel. Why do I need a guide? Because I may have left out some essential things.

I am working on a noir novel called The Man Without a Tie. Using Jessica Brody’s book, I realized I had not introduced the antagonist early enough.

Once I have done the outline, I re-write the novel based on the outline. That’s the second draft. A third draft is to correct grammar, take out stuff and add stuff. A fourth draft is to spiff up the novel in its Sunday best. Then I turn it over to a Beta Reader for feedback.

But this is my process. If you have a process, use it. If not, try this one.

REMEMBER

One of the most important thing I have learned, writing this blog: My job is not to save the world. My job is to entertain the reader. If I am not entertaining the reader, I probably will not have readers. Advise is cheap. There is so much of it out there in the world you can get it at bargain basement prices. Or not pay for it at all.

If I can bring a little joy, laughter or tears to my audience, I’ve done my job as a creative artist. Don’t believe me about this. Look at the most popular writer in the English language, Shakespeare. It’s been over four hundred years since he died and he is still selling. His plays are performed all over the world.

FAVORITE WRITING BOOKS

I have read hundreds of books on writing. From this experience, I have learned a great deal. But after a while, they begin to repeat themselves. So I am going to suggest ten that I’ve found very useful:

1.Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury
2.This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley
3.Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody
4.The Weekend Novelist: Learn to Write a Novel in 52 Weeks by Robert Ray and Bret Norris
5.Mastery by Robert Greene
6.Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing
7.The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway
8.What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund
9.Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
10.On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

AND FIINALLY

This is my eighth post on the Nanowrimo experience. These insights have come from participating six times. Each time has taught me a little more about how to write a novel.

It’s my hope these insights have helped. If they didn’t, it’s okay. The important thing is to encourage you to get out there and write that novel in November. You never know. It might end up on the bestselller list.

In Praise of the eReader

The eBook has taken a bad rap over the years. Like so many readers, I like the feel of a physical book myself. Especially if it’s a graphic novel or an art book or a book of photographs or a book that’s well designed. There’s nothing quite like cozying up to a good physical book. In fact, I have several book shelves stacked with “me beauties”. And I still enjoy browsing bookstores and libraries.

When the kindle and the nook first came on the market, I was resistant. I thought it was just a fad. There wasn’t going to be a large supply of eBooks. The eReader was going to be like that pet rock I adopted in the seventies. Boy, was I wrong.

After a bit, I downloaded the kindle app on my computer and gave it a try. I was surprised how much I enjoyed my experience. So I bought my first kindle and the experience didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. In fact, it was downright pleasurable. This was back in Ought-twelve. These days I carry my kindle everywhere the way I used to lug around books.

So here are ten reasons why I fell in love with the kindle and keep the affair going on.

1.Out-of-print books available.

2.Very portable.

3. Lightweight.

4. I don’t have to struggle to read at lunch at work. There’s no universal bookholder for paperbacks, large books and epic war-and-peacers.

5. My reading speed improved.

6.It’s an ecological thing to do. Think of all the trees saved.

7. Libraries have gotten on the bandwagon, offering eBooks through apps like Overdrive.

9. Price. Through programs like bookbub, very inexpensive books. Many of the classics are free.

10.Unpublished writers now have a chance to become successful authors.

So, as you can see, it’s not an either/or. I have the best of both worlds. The physical book for my sitting alone reading at home and the eBook for my carrying around reading and for research projects. Whoopee!! I am a happy camper. And may I wish all of you Happy Reading!