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concept to publication

Category: writing

Joyce Carol Oates on creating characters in fiction

Ms. Oates, rambling a bit, reveals that during “the first six weeks” of a writing project she is quite miserable. This is somewhat surprising to me, because I find beginnings exhilarating but bog down in the middles. Maybe she is working out the difficulties earlier on, and that accounts for how prolific she manages to be.

What are the most helpful books about writing and publishing?

jost amman card of booksThe most popular pages on this website, in terms of sheer volume of visitors, are those in my guide to getting a book published. (They account for the site’s top eight pages by volume; my rendering of the Daode jing comes in at no. 9.) Compared to this blog, the guide is more oriented to people without a lot of experience in publishing. For them — but for others as well — I would like to offer some suggestions for further reading. I’ve begun a page — hosted by Powell’s Books — of books for writers that can be recommended in good conscience. (Disclosure: as a Powell’s affiliate, I get, in theory, a small percentage on sales generated through this site.)

The list focuses on the kind of extended prose writing that is the main commodity of publishing, so I haven’t included books about translation or poetry, although I would be interested in hearing what people would recommend. I have also left off a few often-recommended titles that seem to me overrated, as well as books I haven’t read. In the latter category, some possibilities include the John Gardner books, On Becoming a Novelist and Art of Fiction; Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life; Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Winning the Creative Battle; William Stafford’s books on poetry; and Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town. Can anyone vouch for these?

So far I’ve listed the following (in no special order):

  1. Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst
  2. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, by Erich Auerbach
  3. Six Memos for the Next Millennium, by Italo Calvino
  4. ABC of Reading, by Ezra Pound
  5. The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers by University of Chicago Press
  6. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
  7. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
  8. The First Five Pages : a Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah T. Lukeman
  9. Steering the Craft : Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator Or the Mutinous Crew, by Ursula K. Le Guin

But that’s just a start, and I’m sure there are many excellent books that I’m forgetting that should be on the list. So, when it comes to the craft of writing and the art and business of publishing, which books would you nominate? What are your favorites?

Writers’ rooms

as byatt's writing room

The Guardian has an ongoing feature displaying writers’ workrooms. The common features tend to be clutter, piles of books, and undistinguished furniture. Shown is the room of AS Byatt, who says:

The objects in the room are in a way a metaphor of my mind. They are brightly coloured, or transparent, and are about intricate patterns and structures. I collect glass paperweights. There are also stones. A piece of the chalk cliff at Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, a bit of pumice from an Icelandic lava field. Rose quartz from Norway and rose quartz given to me by a Korean friend. My favourite is fantomqvartz (the Norwegian spelling) one crystal growing inside another. On the wall there is a Matisse poster of Leda and the Swan and three watercolours by John Houston – watercolour is bright and transparent too. There is a case of South American insects I found in a Conran shop, and a glass dish of snail shells. There is also a reproduction mediaeval print of Babel Tower. Snails, towers, DNA. I like spirals. It looks like clutter but it’s a kind of order.

Via NamasteNancy.

A.S. Byatt books at Powell’s Bookstore 

Recommended reading

At Frisco Vista I’ve told the story of the Belgum Sanitarium, which was located in Wildcat Canyon above Richmond on the San Francisco Bay. It’s a romantic little narrative, a bit like something out of Lafcadio Hearn. Usually I save references to my posts elsewhere for my end-of-month roundups, but I hope that some of my rightreading readers might enjoy this melancholy little tale.

Standards of Journalism

Print journalists criticizing bloggers is nothing new. So when Michael Skube, a journalism professor at Elon University, wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, in which he asserted that bloggers do no real reporting, it was difficult to suppress a yawn.

To bolster its argument — or to give it the appearance of specificity — Skube’s article mentioned four blogs by name. One of those was Talking Point Memo. TPM found that odd and sent Skube an e-mail, to which he responded

I didn’t put your name into the piece and haven’t spent any time on your site. So to that extent I’m happy to give you benefit of the doubt …

Gosh that’s generous! To that extent! The benefit of the doubt!

TPM followed up, pointing out that his article — which had appeared that very day — had in fact mentioned the site by name. And got another response:

I said I did not refer to you in the original. Your name was inserted late by an editor who perhaps thought I needed to cite more examples.

In short, the esteemed journalism professor, in an article criticizing online reporting, allowed an opinion to go to print under his byline about a subject he never researched and admits knowing nothing about.

There is just so much still to learn from print journalists.

LINK

Journalistic ethics and Publishers Weekly

Ed Champion excoriates Karen Holt for writing in Publishers Weekly that includes passages such as this:

There was the time at BEA when I wanted to ask Margaret Atwood a few questions so she took my arm and steered me toward some chairs in the corner (”Margaret Atwood is touching me!”). There was my trip to Maine last summer to interview Richard Ford when he and his wife put me up for the night in their guest cottage (”I’m staying in Richard Ford’s guest house!”). There was the night I capped off an interview with Gay Talese by joining him for dinner at Elaine’s (A double shot of literary New York icons).

“When a journalist conducts an author interview or writes a profile, a journalist has the duty to maintain some sense of independent authority, which will permit her to ask hard-hitting, challenging and thought-provoking questions. One must ask questions that nobody else asks. One must practice journalism,” Champion insists. “Karen Holt has, with one simple sentence, revealed that Publishers Weekly has little concern for journalistic ethics. Her stay at Ford’s home is not unlike some of the egregious influence peddling that studios use to buy the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s votes for the Golden Globes…. I think it goes without saying that staying at the guest cottage of your subject’s house is highly suspect and deeply unethical.”

I have to confess I felt a little foolish reading this, because it had never quite occurred to me to think of these pieces as journalism, exactly — I thought of them as a form of publicity and marketing. PW has always been a chummy publication, serving a chummy industry. Maybe that’s a factor contributing to book publishing’s recent difficulties. Champion makes us imagine the possibility of things being different.

Embedded journalism

The LAT covers the Mirthala Salinas affair.

UPDATE, Nov. 18, 2007: The above link (now removed) has gone bad. Here’s a summary of the story.

Ten Steps to Better Writing

i go pogo buttonCopyblogger has posted a list of 10 steps to becoming a better writer. Here’s the link, but never mind, the full list follows:

  1. Write.
  2. Write more.
  3. Write even more.
  4. Write even more than that.
  5. Write when you don’t want to.
  6. Write when you do.
  7. Write when you have something to say.
  8. Write when you don’t.
  9. Write every day.
  10. Keep writing.

Well, fine. Just one problem — how is all that writing really making you a better writer, exactly? Where does reading fit into the picture?

This attitude (which derives from the Romantic poets’ cult of the self) reminds me of Barnstable Bear, a character in the great comic strip Pogo, who could write but not read. He would pen wonderful passages, but then he had to find someone else to read them for him. I have heard the complaint from writing workshop teachers that many of their students are avid writers of poetry (for example), but fail to develop because they never cultivate the ability to read it.

I submit that reading is equally important as writing if you want to refine your writing skills. And I further suggest that one should read not just the best-sellers of the day but classics, works from other times and places, works in translation, and works in other languages.

Sure writing’s important, but, as Ben Franklin said, the person who trains himself has a fool for a teacher.

*

UPDATE: Here is Michael Moorcock’s first rule of writing: “My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.”

UPDATE 2: From the same link, here is Ian Rankin’s first rule of writing: “Read lots.”

UPDATE 3: And Sarah Waters: “Read like mad.”

Is It Serious?

muck monsterAlthough BoingBoing has already copied the entire article (under the heading “Ursula LeGuin rips into Slate Magazine”), this post “on serious literature,” which appears on the Ansible website, is marked “copyright Ursula K. Le Guin, 2007.” So I will quote just an excerpt. It pertains to the issue of whether genre fiction is serious writing, which is not merely an abstract concern. My friend Rod Clark, editor of Rosebud magazine, has lost some sources of funding because of his refusal to exclude genre fiction from his journal.

Something woke her in the night. Was it steps she heard, coming up the stairs? … As she heard the click of heel bones that had broken through rotting flesh, she knew what it was. But it was dead, dead! God damn that Chabon, dragging it out of the grave where she and the other serious writers had buried it to save serious literature from its polluting touch, the horror of its blank, pustular face, the lifeless, meaningless glare of its decaying eyes! What did the fool think he was doing? Had he paid no attention at all to the endless rituals of the serious writers and their serious critics — the formal expulsion ceremonies, the repeated anathemata, the stakes driven over and over through the heart, the vitriolic sneers, the endless, solemn dances on the grave? … Could it be that that Chabon, just because some mad fools gave him a Pulitzer, had forgotten the sacred value of the word mainstream? …

Read the full post.

The Word as Art

artlink cover: the word as artThe latest issue of Artlink (a contemporary art quarterly published in southern Australia) caught my attention with a series of articles devoted to “the word as art.” Of course there is a long tradition of using letters and calligraphy as the basis of artwork. Traditional arts from Persia, East Asia, and the Maya world are particularly noteworthy in this respect. But the range of text art seems to have increased recently.

Inside Out, a show of contemporary art from China that in San Francisco was jointly hosted by SF MOMA and the Asian Art Museum in 1999 (curated by Gao Minglu of Harvard in association with Colin Mackenzie of the Asia Society and Elise Haas of SF MOMA) included several excellent examples, such as Xu Bing’s remarkable Book from the Sky, a work composed of thousands of made-up characters, and Wenda Gu’s United Nations Series: Temple of Heaven (China Monument), a work made up of human hair.

xu bing, from the sky

Xu Bing, A Book from the Sky, 1987-91. Woodblock print, wood, leather, ivory, four banners: 103 x 6 x 8.5cm (each, folded): 19 boxes: 49.2 x 33.5 x 9.8cm (each, containing four books). Queensland Art Gallery: The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art, purchased 1994 with funds from the International Exhibitions Program and with the assistance of The Myer Foundation and Michael Simcha Baevski through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation.

wenda gu, united nations series
Wenda Gu, United Nations Series: Temple of Heaven (China Monument), 1998. Installation with screens of human hair. Approx. 24 x 30 x 27 ft. (732 x 914 x 823 cm). Collection of the artist.

After the break: brief summaries of the Artlink text/art-icles (and a quotation from each).

Read More

“They can’t sell them, they can’t give them away”

kant lecturing

That’s Carlton Sedgeley, founder of the Royce Carlton lecture agency, quoted in the International Herald Tribune dismissing the notion of midlist authors supplementing their incomes with the assistance of speakers bureaus associated with publishing houses. Such bureaus attempt to find paying gigs for the authors, in exchange for a 20 percent commission.

Mr. Sedgeley is not the only skeptic. Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly, patronizingly worries that such arrangements put too much pressure on authors to hone their presentation skills at the expense of their literary development. Do editors worry that their speaking gigs will retard their editing skills? Writing is an extremely tough business. If this can help, I’m for it. But I’m not sure how much of a market exists, once you get beyond the top tier authors.

New World / New Words

Acouple of days ago I completed proofreading first pages of New World / New Words: Recent Writing from the Americas, A Bilingual Anthology, the first volume in a new series from the Center for the Art of Translation called the Two Lines World Library.

I’ve decided to post my introductory essay on this website, here. I’d be interested in any comments. (Bear in mind it’s a print piece, so a little longer than most of my web stuff. And I haven’t broken it up into multiple pages like I often do.)

This book anthologizes translations from Spanish texts from Latin America that were published in the journal Two Lines, along with some other texts from elsewhere.


Introduction to New World / New Words


The Writer’s Life … in Film

Strange Maps

kerouac map

Swiss Miss called my attention to this excellent blog called “Strange Maps.” Many of the maps aren’t really strange, but almost all are interesting. Shown is Jack Kerouac’s map of a cross-country trip that served as fodder for On the Road.

Compare Kerouac’s map to this one, the Bellman’s ocean map from Lewis Carroll‘s “The Hunting of the Sanrk.”

bellman's map

Worlds of Words

Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment….

From “Pay Attention to the World,” a posthumous essay by Susan Sontag, reprinted in the Guardian

Outlook grim for writers

According to a story in the Independent, authors’ income has fallen in recent years. In the UK the top 10 percent of authors take home more than half the pay. Take away that ten percent and the remaining 90 percent have an average annual income of just £4,000 (about US $7,715).

From the story: “The best advice if you want to eat is: ‘Do something else.'”

We’re in Trouble

Eric and Kristen are in unfamiliar territory. They have only known one another a few weeks, but they have decided they are already deeply, madly in love.

Tha’s the way Christopher Coake’s collection of stories entitled We’re in Trouble begins. The collection has won Coake a deal of praise, and Granta seems to share this enthusiasm. It has named Coake one of the “best young U.S. novelists.”

What’s odd about this is that Coake — like six other of the young writers on the list — has never published a novel.

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Granta nominates best young U.S. novelists, from the Guardian

Christopher Coates’s blog

Comments on Getting a Book Published

how to publish a bookReader Rod Clark, who is editor-in-chief of the literary journal Rosebud, left — as a kind of lengthy aside to a comment on another post — some thoughts related to my my “How to Get a Book Published” tutorial. I had a place to capture these comments at my old blogger blog, but I haven’t been maintaining that blog since setting up WordPress here on my own site. So I’m porting those comments and his over here, and changing the comment links on the tutorial pages to refer here.

I’m always interested in what readers think, and posting here promotes community building. I will also answer e-mail, though not always promptly.

Note to Self

Will Self’s writing room. A 360 degree view in 71 photos by Phil Grey

will self's writing studio

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