Archive for the ‘writing’ Category
I’m tightening the ideas and removing the crap from a presentation workshop I’m running on Monday. It would be bad, after all, to give a bad presentation about giving good presentations. While doing so, I realized I wasn’t emphasizing audience enough: understanding who you’re presenting to and what they need, focusing on their needs and not yours. Whenever I want to show clients the value of obsessing over what the audience wants and needs, I call in a great quote that you can find in Nancy Duarte‘s outstanding and welcoming HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations. In her book, Duarte quotes Ken Haemer, presentation research manager at AT&T:
“Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it ‘to whom it may concern.’”
Think about that the next time you’re in front of other people. Or the next time you’re writing or doing anything for other people.
Last year I worked to become a better editor; the next several posts here will share some of what I learned. I’ll use personal stories to tell most of the lessons, but most of this one comes from some books I read last year.
Editors frequently hear from writers that an assigned topic isn’t a good one because it’s been done already. On a surface level, that might make some sense. No one wants to read another article about Taylor Swift’s love life or the death of print or the popularity of the baby name “Nevaeh.”
Or do they? The problem isn’t that Swift’s amorous adventures, a dynastic shift in media, and that damn name are played-out; it’s that they are uninteresting topics. Chances are the first story about them wasn’t particularly interesting, either.
Yet some writers (you know who you are, or, to be more accurate, I know who you are) claim that we should declare a moratorium even on topics of considerable weight. Over the past year I’ve heard people complain that everything from global warming to the failure of U.S. financial regulators to do their jobs for 30 years or so was “over” or “done to death” and please would I not make them write about it.
What they meant, I have come to realize, is not that the topics had gone dry. It’s that their imaginations had. If the topic is worthy, it might also be worthy of another angle.
Here’s an example, drawn from what turned out to be the two books I read in 2012 that satisfied me the most: Stephen King’s 11-22-63 and Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power. The central event in King’s novel and Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson is the same: the assassination of President Kennedy. Over the past 50 years, there may have been no single event in American history argued about or covered more than the JFK murder. As we move toward the 50th anniversary later this year, I suspect we’ll be confronted with more evidence that the story is far from over and far from settled.
There has been plenty of crap written about the assassination, yet half a century on King and Caro had plenty new to say about it. Why? Because they looked at it in ways their predecessors hadn’t thought to. King’s 11-22-63 follows a time traveler as he seeks to prevent Oswald from pulling the trigger (the time traveler also discovers that messing with the space-time continuum is a very bad idea). Caro’s The Passage of Power (you can read a relevant except here) considers the day, in unprecedented detail, from the point of view of Vice President Johnson, pinned under a Secret Service agent on the floor of his car while the bullets flew, gathering himself in a hospital cubicle and on a grounded Air Force One. We see a fuller picture now, because we see it from someplace we never stood before.
Many (most?) of us think we know what happened that day in Dallas, but both King and Caro make us consider 11-22-63 in different ways. They take perhaps one of the most-overcovered topics in our nation’s history, look at it differently from all before them, and make it new again. If the topic is interesting, chances are there’s a new way to look at it. There’s also an excellent chance that whatever topic you’re wrestling with hasn’t been covered as much as JFK’s death. Keep moving until you find the new vantage point. It’s a sure way to deliver something people feel they have to read, no matter how much about the topic they’ve read before.
The tale of how New Jersey’s method of privatizing jails went so wrong is is not a funny story in any way, but I am pretty regularly in awe of how Gail Collins deploys consecutive sentences for devastating comic and commenting effect. Recently she delivered a real winner:
“The program costs about half as much per inmate as a regular jail. This may be in part because the prisoners keep escaping.” — Political Private Practice
In so many great pieces of writing, each sentence moves off the previous one, sometimes revealing a new truth behind the previous sentence, moving the whole damn thing forward. Bang two sentences against one another and you’d better get far more than each one could deliver separately.
The tie they decided on was so wide it might as well have been a bib.
I don’t write as frequently as I like/should for HBR — hey, editing takes time — but here are some recent posts I’ve published there:
Consulting for the Evil Empire (blog)
Enticing the Next Generation of African Leaders (blog)
Why Do We Need Leaders? (blog)
Sharing Links and Hors d’Oeuvres (about TED; published in the January-February issue; forgot to note it here)
My guestblogging stint at BoingBoing ended a few weeks ago, but they’re allowing me to stay on and contribute regularly. So far I’ve showcased the silly, but I’ll also be covering Real Stuff. Much more to come, I hope. I’m also blogging occasionally for my job and will continue to do so as much as I can. Some examples: When Storytelling Isn’t Enough, a conference report, and When The Longtime Star Fades, a fictional case study that appeared in the September HBR. The latter includes what is, to my knowledge, the only reference to A Flock of Seagulls in the history of Harvard Business Review.
I hope to write more, everywhere, including here (thanks, Shayne, for the nudge to come back). Why? For a selfish reason, I think. As with exercise, another habit I haven’t developed as much as I should, I feel better on the days that I write than on the days that I don’t. So I’ll keep writing.
“Tenses and cases rarely agreed when he spoke in public: not because he was illiterate, but because he was trying so hard not to swear.”
I’m not one for finding wisdom from writers who don’t inspire me, but I’m grateful enough for inspiration to take it from any quarter shy of Thomas Kinkade. Anyway, a few weeks back, I read a profile of the popular novelist James Patterson. It was a long magazine piece, more interested in matters other than writing (i.e., money and success). But, buried in the article, I found this:
“I don’t believe in showing off,” Patterson says of his writing. “Showing off can get in the way of a good story.”
Inarguable. Show a little less love for your sentences; show a little more love for your story. Story. Story. Story!
First, some words from two of my favorite Russian writers:
“Everything I am writing at present bores me and leaves me indifferent, but everything that is still only in my head interests me, moves me, and excites me.”
— Anton Chekhov
“I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child. “
— Vladimir Nabokov
Several times a day, I get an idea. I think it’s good. I write it down. I read it. It isn’t good. I work at it for a while and sometimes it gets good (or, at least, good enough). But it’s never as good as it was in my head. I can’t just connect a cluster of cords from my brain to my readers, Navi-style, so I have to keep writing until I get closer to what I first heard in my head. Will I get there? Probably not. Will I get close if I try hard? I’d better.
This year I’m going to finish the novel. Really. I’m hoping that announcing it will make it more likely that I’ll do it. We’ll see.
One person not having any trouble getting her writing going is Grace Guterman, age nine. On New Year’s Eve, out of nowhere, Grace decided to use her whiteboard to show us how to write a novel.
First, as you see in the picture, you have to pick a genre. She went with fantasy. Then you have to figure out who the characters are. She likes to start with pairs of characters, such as a boy and a girl, a horse and a cat, or a doll and a teddy bear. She considered many combinations, decided on a boy and a doll, and started writing.
A second draft comes next, followed by the final one. “I usually write two ‘draphts’ and then go on to the real thing,” she advises. Although she started with a boy and a doll, she switchd to a boy and a horse. Her premise: “The boy was a prince and the horse had diabetes.” The story had medical complications and a trick (O. Henry-ish) ending. Did I mention that Grace is nine?
She’s also writing another novel, apparently, about the three most important things in life:
A writing pal and I are going on a blinders-on fiction sprint in November, so I won’t be blogging or tweeting or Facebooking (?) or anything that month. (I will continue blogging and tweeting and Facebooking (?) for work, though, for the obvious reason.) Email responses will be slower than usual, too.
Seeya December 1. I’ll tell you how it went.
I’m more familiar with Lydia Davis’s work as a translator than I am with her fiction, a deficiency I intend to remedy shortly. In an interview with The Economist’s Intelligent Life promoting her new collection of short stories, Davis talks about what she learned as a writer from translating Proust (her Swann’s Way is the strongest of the Penguin series a few years back):
She considered each sentence a “little puzzle”, and strove to stay true to Proust’s sounds, rhythms and word choices … “Translating makes me much more acutely aware of shades of meaning,” she explains. “You have a set problem and you can’t get around it by avoiding it. You have to pick just the right word.”
Jane tagged me in her meme about learning to write. At first I wanted to write three contradictory practices that illuminate my development as a writer. That’s hard for me, not because I have trouble telling stupid stories from my youth (I don’t, as my friends know all too well), but because because I feel like I’m still becoming a writer. Yes, I know I’ve been writing or editing for more than 25 years, long enough that I have plenty of work in the remainder bin or landfill, but I’m still trying to get good. So, rather than tell you about the 11th grade high school teacher who inspired me or the thrill when I heard my fiction read on the radio, I’ll tell you three things I’ve learned along my “twisted path to becoming a writer,” a path I have yet to complete.
1. Hate adverbs.
One practice I’ve picked up is to eliminate as many words ending in “-ly” as I can.
I’m writing a novel. To solve a problem I created for myself in the second act, I went back and looked at something similar I had written years ago. It was a terrible piece of writing. Trying to make the sentences more powerful than the story dictated, I loaded them with tricks. Some of them I had picked up from my years as a cranky rock critic (fellow travelers know the “comma, say, comma” formulation); others confused listmaking with storytelling. The worst of them was my reliance on adverbs and adjectives to do the jobs that nouns and verbs are for. The sentences was full of pairings like “astonishingly precise” and lots of adverbs like “actually” and “simply” that, most of the time, are just fancy ways of saying “very.” I even used the words “insouciant” and “insouciantly” in a 3,000-word section, which should trigger some sort of penalty.
Almost every one of my sentences gets better when I remove the adverbs. As I continue down the path, I’m learning not to put the adverbs in at all.
2. It’s not about me.
Go to bookstores. The local Booksmith, workplace of my favorite bookseller, has a wall of new hardcover fiction. I am a ravenous reader, but the wall is full of novels I’ll never read by authors I have never heard of and novels I’ll never get to by authors I have heard of. Even if I complete a novel worth reading and talk someone into publishing it and inserting it into such a display, most people who go to bookstores looking for fiction (a small percentage of a small percentage) will never notice it. This once made me despair; now it liberates me. Here’s why.
In the early ’90s, I had a difficult job with a difficult boss. Much of that boss’s direction was unhelpful, both to the financial and editorial health of the magazine I edited, but one of his suggestions was brilliant and has stayed with me. I was editing a music magazine that had its offices in Peterborough, New Hampshire, no center of pop culture. There were elements of the office’s physical location that were useful, but bucolic setting = cloistered attitude for some of the editors there. They were self-conscious tastemakers, out of touch with our readers. My boss suggested we talk to readers regularly and learn what they thought. My initial response was negative — no one knows better than I what my readers want, damn it! — but within the week I tried it. It was fantastic! Much of the feedback was obvious or mundane, but some of it was surprising, provocative, and essential in helping me understand what my readers wanted. Without it, I would have been unable to turn the magazine from one intended to please four editors into one set on entertaining several hundred thousand people.
Which brings us back to that wall of new fiction and the practice I draw from it. I’m only going to get a few people to notice my book; what can I do to make it stand out? Do I know what is my book about? Do I have characters, subplots, or themes that don’t support what that book is about? Are they there just to entertain me? What about the reader? There is a difference between what one writes for herself and what one produces for an audience. After I’ve written something, I ask: Will anyone who picked up this book because of what it is about care about this? No? Then why is it there?
3. You can’t get to the 10 percent until you throw away the 90 percent.
The first two practices are about taking things about. This one is about putting things in. I think I’m starting to get good; I even have some external validation to support that belief. But most of what I write is still crap. Most of what everyone writes is crap. Tama Janowitz once wrote that the first drafts of her novels were 1,200 pages; the second drafts were 800 pages; the final drafts ran 400 pages.” Regardless of whether you’re a Janowitz fan, that sounds about right. You can’t have the best writing on paper until you put everything down on paper, including the dumb ideas, cliches, forced transitions, clever asides, and limp dialogue. None of that will be in the final/published version, but you can’t get to a good-enough final/published version until you have written out all the junk. My practice: Pour it all out, then sort it all out.
In recent years, it became fashionable to trash John Updike, usually for being too white, too moderate, too old, too prolific, not progressive enough. Even the most energetic and successful of those takedowns, David Foster Wallace’s 1998 essay “Certainly the End of Something or Other,” later collected in Consider the Lobster, sometimes seems more concerned with political correctness and the likability of a protagonist than any literary or story failings.
It’s true that Updike’s later works are not the ones he’ll be remembered for (although I’ll argue that In the Beauty of the Lilies, from 1996, stands among his most ambitious and deeply felt). The last Updike story I loved was “Natural Color,” published in 1998 and collected in Licks of Love. It’s the pick of many later stories in which older men looked back on earlier romances, this time with withering results. To make sure I got the year right, I just looked up the story on a New Yorker DVD. The story is accompanied by the keywords “divorce,” “New England,” “sex,” “husbands,” “old age,” “winter,” “love affairs,” “redheads,” “hair color.” I tend to distrust algorithms when it comes to fiction, but that list sure offers a neat encapsulation of Updike’s interests.
The last novel Updike published while he was alive, Terrorist (2006), doesn’t work particularly well. The characters are unusually flat, speaking in topic sentences, Updike sometimes confuses his audience with that of his characters, and the climax hinges on at least two unbelievable coincidences. But it is by John Updike, so if you give it your attention you are privy to one brilliant section. Roughly two-thirds of the way through, pretty much out of nowhere, someone who I thought was a minor character, one Charlie Chehab, launches into a lengthy, hilarious, insane, and occasionally persuasive argument that the soldiers of the American Revolution were the Al-Qaeda of their time. I won’t quote an excerpt; it must be read in its entirety and it gains more weight later in the novel when we learn something new about Chehab. It’s a thrilling riff unimaginable from any other author. Even when he was allegedly past his prime, Updike could deliver something surprising, unprecedented, and unmistakably his. We should all age that way.
I’ve been trolling “about” pages as I’m writing one for the MIT SMR website relaunch, and I just came across this:
“We’re still in beta, which means we still suck.” — from the “about” page on Business Sheet.
I’m a big Philip Roth fan (maybe for some reason I am particularly interested in Jewish writers from New Jersey), but Indignation isn’t very good: slight as best, exercise at worst. It’s not that the main character is unlikable; all Roth protagonists are jerks in one way or another. It’s that this jerk narrator is boring and what happens to him is uninteresting. He complains, he reacts to things that happen to him, he dies. That’s it. For an author who excels at creating repulsive protagonists you want to read about forever (hello, Mickey Sabbath!), this is disappointing. But even greats produce subpar work (among New Jersey artists, this is known as the Human Touch rule).
I write that having just finished it in one evening. So what am I doing dismissing a book I devoured all at once? How bad could it be, really, if I couldn’t put it down? It’s because of what Robert McKee identifies as the difference between literary talent and story talent. Roth’s spectacular literary talent grabbed me and pulled me through the book. His sentences are elegant, highly charged, surprising, as always. But the story is hackneyed, tossed-off, nowhere near as considered as the words Roth uses to tell it. Technically, Indignation is strong and lots of fun. But those marvelous words and sentences and paragraphs are wasted on a character and a story unworthy of them. Literary talent isn’t uncommon; story talent is. Roth has both by the truckload and it’s a surprise when the latter abandons him, even if only this one time. In traditional fiction, it doesn’t matter how thrilling the sentences are if they’re not in the service of a story.
I, of course, don’t have a fraction of Roth’s story talent. He’s written 25 novels, most of them of the top rank, and I’ve written, oh, let me count … zero. So feel free to ignore me. But maybe novices can be heartened that even their heroes don’t knock it out of the park every time. And that reminds me: I have something else I should be writing right now…
The six-word novel meme has been around for a good long time. Every now and then, to clear my head, I give myself six minutes or so to come up with as many six-word novels as I can. It’s a fun, easy, low-pressure way to get started writing for the day. Here’s what I came up with the last time I tried (according to my notepad, I took a whopping 11 minutes):
Got hit. Got famous. Got revenge.
All I learned didn’t help me.
Made four promises. Kept only three.
Mother, wife, daughter, mistress, second wife.
I think I saw Mom’s killer.
Dog person and cat person disagree.
He knew the secret and told.
He did too much and paid.
Enjoyed the view. The view changed.
Hated the whale. Whale hated him.
He wanted to show his father.
“I don’t have enough.” He did.
It had to come out somehow.
Telling him stories kept her alive.
He wanted to tell her everything.
She kissed him. It didn’t help.
If only my much-longer novel-in-progress was anywhere near as worthwhile as a couple of these…
Where you been?
Canada, mostly. The five of us and a friend of Eli’s packed into the van: half a week in Montreal (good, and I was not responsible for this), half a week in Ottawa (great), and a one-night stopover in Burlington, Vt., on the way back. As of Tuesday, I’m three-quarters of the way to Inbox Zero. I need to learn French for the next trip to the Great White North.
Was everything the same when you returned?
Mostly. Manny is gone, and so is Scrabulous, but it looks as if the latter has returned in not-too-diminished form. I missed a particularly weird Carl Icahn hissy fit, and I’ll have to check in with Paczkowski for guidance on how to interpret that.
What did you learn about your newspaper-reading habits while you were gone?
As I’ve noted previously, I’m done with print newspapers. For the first half of the vacation, I did a reasonably good job of staying off the laptop (and we were in another country, so I didn’t want to turn on the iPhone unless absolutely necessary). If I wanted to know what was going on in the world I had to read the print versions of the Times and Journal, both of which were available in hotel gift shops at imminent-apocalypse prices. I imagined that reading newspapers this way would feel like a luxury. Instead, compared to their younger online siblings, they felt out of date and, well, short. Aside from the immediacy you get from following news via the net, chances are you see that news as part of a larger river of information. It’s always coming at you. In comparison, reading the news in a newspaper feels limited, finite. It ends. News on the net never ends (for better or worse).
Also worth looking at was the National Gallery in Ottawa. We spent two hours there. I bet we could have gone at least two days without running out of surprises. I was particularly taken by William Kurelek’s “Arriving on the Manitoba Farm,” which looks dark and formless in this image, but reveals more and more layers of detail and meaning when you have the pleasure of standing in front of it.
When you stopped in Burlington, Vt., on the way back, did you see any newspaper headlines you’d expect to see only in Burlington, Vt.?
What did you read?
Parts of Francine Prose’s Read Like a Writer (mostly zzz, but it did introduce me to this guy) and Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, and (several times) my favorite Chekhov story, “The Lady with the Dog.”
And you read them all on your…
Kindle, right. It’s a usability nightmare and the selection of Amazon-blessed-and-DRMed books is insufficient and random, but I found it convenient and comfortable under all but the most low-light situations.
Did you write?
Yes, especially early in the week when I was still keeping that off-the-net promise. It’s amazing how less depressed you can be about the quality of something if you’re actually working on it. And maybe I should consider a new business model.
What was Jane’s most memorable quote during the week?
There were so many candidates, but I’m going with “I’m trying to save the tattoo.”
How’s the new job going?
So far it seems like a very good fit. I’ll have a full report at the end of The First 90 Days.
Weren’t you going to tell us the point of this blog?
Comments from Doug, Owen, and Andrea — and a gift from Brian — showed me the limits of my thinking from a few posts ago. And Jane has suggested that I write about what I think about: namely, media and technology. So, unless you’re reading this via a newsreader, you’ll see that the blog now has a new tagline: “media, technology, and the rest of it.” I’ve got some ideas for making this more than a vanity blog; we’ll see if I can live up to them. Oh, and to warn you, I’m going to pay more attention to Twitter.
Gotta see how the WordPress app for the iPhone works.
One of the unexpected side effects of moving this blog to WordPress was easy access to real-time statistics. I could tell, pretty quickly, whether a particular post or type of post was getting picked up or ignored. It’s seductive stuff — as anyone who has followed his or her book- or record-selling stats on Amazon knows so well. The bad part, aside from the time-wasting, is that the easy access to stats makes a blogger think too much about audience before posting. Blogs, I believe, are supposed to be about unvetted expression, capturing a moment, embracing the amateur and enthusiast in you even if you’re a professional writer in your real life. I intended to title one of my previous blogs “Quality over Quantity,” to celebrate that, but as old-timers know, I committed a typo and wound up titling that blog “Quantity over Quantity,” an unintentional joke too amusing to fix.
Now I’m not so sure. It’s 2008 and almost everyone has a blog (or has at least tried):
Is blogging getting old? Over the past two years, Twitter and Facebook status messages have emerged as media for distributing thoughts deemed too evanescent for a blog post. And now there are so many such services that aggregators such as FriendFeed and Ping.fm have emerged. More are coming. Nothing is so mundane that it can’t be shared immediately via many media. As Philip Greenspun’s blog puts it in its tagline: “A posting every day; an interesting idea every three month.”
I am a bit too enamored with my own ideas, as are many of us. As Jane said to me once and probably thought many more times, “Tell it to your blog.” The blogosphere is a wonderful place, but it’s one by definition full of noise. Although I value that noise and revel in it sometimes, I think too many of my posts are mostly noise, little signal.
Sometimes statistics reveal a truth. The two posts here that received, respectively, the most traffic and the most pointers in recent weeks were Barack Obama, Rolling Stone, and the secret of one great magazine cover and Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Twin “Hurricane”s in Rio. They’re two of the more substantive posts here from the past month. Neither post will change the world and both of ‘em featured pointers to more interesting content elsewhere. But they both sought to do a bit more than point to something and say, “Cool.” So, as this blog trudges forward, I’ll stop posting just to post. If I have something interesting to offer, I’ll try to communicate it in a substantial and entertaining way. If I don’t, I’ll try to shut up.
Just read her Harvard commencement speech and some commentary on it. Regular readers here know I’m interested in mistakes and failure. Part of Rowling’s section in her speech on what failure taught her struck me as worth remembering and passing along:
“Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
“Death is a bore. But life isn’t very interesting either. I must say I expected death to glimmer with meaning, but it doesn’t. It’s just there. I don’t feel particularly alone or condemned or unfairly treated, but I do think about suicide a lot because it is so boring to be ill, rather like being trapped in an Updike novel. I must say I despise living if it can’t be done on my terms.”
That’s a paragraph from page 152 in Harold Brodkey’s This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death. My first reaction is: Wow, what a powerful paragraph. My second reaction is: He’s lying.
There’s a lot of lying in that thin book, in spite of its frequent emphasis on the truth, lying about his place in the world, lying about how angry he is, perhaps even lying about when he got the AIDS that killed him (Brodkey fell ill in 1993 and claimed not to have been exposed since 1977, a statistically unlikely scenario). But stop a moment and reread the paragraph up top. It’s pretty much everything you’d want from a writer: smart, funny, unexpected, full of — yes — life. But it wouldn’t be as powerful without it being a lie. Without lies, sometimes literature can’t get to the truth, I guess.
There’s Jane, the kids, the G-chord at the beginning of “Powderfinger,” and not much else. But I do want to acknowledge, on my blog, that I believe, deeply, in the serial comma.
“But it’s been a good week for us. I sold my novel, after a bidding war, for $11 million, and My Poet had a poem taken by a well-known literary journal, which gave form in the payment of an origami swan made out of her recycled submission.”
from Naheem Murr, “My Poet,” in the July/August issue of Poetry
Ask him or her. That’s the advice I picked up from an “Art of Fiction” interview with Israeli novelist David Grossman in Paris Review #182. Here’s the exchange:
Q: Do you have any strategies you employ when you get stuck?
A: Sometimes I write a letter to my protagonist, as if he were a real human being. I ask, What’s the difficulty? Why can’t you make it? What is preventing me from understanding you. It’s always helped.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to write someone a letter.
I hate all those there-are-two-different-kinds-of-people formulations, but today I’m thinking that, when it comes to novels, there are indeed two different kinds of people: those who want to write a novel and those who want to have written a novel. I hope I’m in the first camp, but in my self-questioning moments I fear I’m in the second. Back to work…