New York Times Writers on Writing series – Susan Sontag

This is the last post on the NYT WoW series, I don’t have anymore comments on those articles. The last one being “Directions: write, read, rewrite. Repeat steps 3 and 3 as needed” steps 2 and 3 being the most recent things I’ve learned (of course if you don’t have readers you’re just fine with the first draft! ;-)). Here are the words of Susan Sontag on the topic – she draws a parallel between reading and writing:

First, because to write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading. You write in order to read what you’ve written and see if it’s O.K. and, since of course it never is, to rewrite it — once, twice, as many times as it takes to get it to be something you can bear to reread. You are your own first, maybe severest, reader. “To write is to sit in judgment on oneself,” Ibsen inscribed on the flyleaf of one of his books. Hard to imagine writing without rereading.

Right. As my first reader, I was very nice, I liked it immediately… for the first few months/year. Then I went back to it and was like “What the … did I write?!”. Sigh. There goes the rewrite (not on all stories, the most loved are still mostly untouched, but still… some have 2 or 3 versions already).

Of course as soon as you finish your baby, it looks perfect. It still looks beautiful after a few months. But after one year you start seeing the holes in the plot, the missed descriptions, the little things that make it less than perfect… and thus you can fall into the well of endless rewriting. Not falling into that trap again, no. But still, I can see something good in the rewriting process.

And though the rewriting — and the rereading — sound like effort, they are actually the most pleasurable parts of writing. Sometimes the only pleasurable parts. Setting out to write, if you have the idea of “literature” in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit.

Isn’t that what I said yesterday? So I better go back to upgrading my novel now. And remember why I write in the first place.

Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer. And long after you’ve become a writer, reading books others write — and rereading the beloved books of the past — constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing. Distraction. Consolation. Torment. And, yes, inspiration.

And I’ll keep reading, in my genre and others, because I don’t want to become like this:

Many writers who are no longer young claim, for various reasons, to read very little, indeed, to find reading and writing in some sense incompatible. Perhaps, for some writers, they are. It’s not for me to judge. If the reason is anxiety about being influenced, then this seems to me a vain, shallow worry. If the reason is lack of time — there are only so many hours in the day, and those spent reading are evidently subtracted from those in which one could be writing — then this is an asceticism to which I don’t aspire. (…)

Like reading, rapturous reading, writing fiction — inhabiting other selves — feels like losing yourself, too.

Everybody likes to think now that writing is just a form of self-regard. Also called self-expression. As we’re no longer supposed to be capable of authentically altruistic feelings, we’re not supposed to be capable of writing about anyone but ourselves.

But that’s not true. William Trevor speaks of the boldness of the nonautobiographical imagination. Why wouldn’t you write to escape yourself as much as you might write to express yourself? It’s far more interesting to write about others.

And other worlds. And other human beings. And imagine/invent/make up things and people. Of course there is a bit of myself in everything, of my world views or whatever, but still… that’s why it’s called “fiction”, folks, right?

What I write about is other than me. As what I write is smarter than I am. Because I can rewrite it. My books know what I once knew, fitfully, intermittently. And getting the best words on the page does not seem any easier, even after so many years of writing. On the contrary.

Here is the great difference between reading and writing. Reading is a vocation, a skill, at which, with practice, you are bound to become more expert. What you accumulate as a writer are mostly uncertainties and anxieties.

Especially when you’re looking for outside recognition (a publisher, an agent, whoever might love what you write as much as you do). But don’t give up. Like the famous like of Galaxy Quest goes “Never give up, never surrender”. You might have a yo-yo ego like me, just don’t quit writing because you’re afraid of repetitions, rejections, etc.

Keep writing!

New York Times Writers on Writing series – Donald E.Westlake

On pseudonyms again: “A pseudonym returns from an alter-ego trip, with new tales to tell” where Donald E.Westlake informs us he used to write as Richard Stark. In this article he explores how the two different voices met again after a 23 years hiatus:

The relationship between a writer and his pseudonym is a complex one, and never more so than when the alter ego refuses to appear. I became Richard Stark in the first place, 40 years ago, for both of the usual reasons. As a young writer, effervescent with ideas, I was turning out far too much work to ship to the publishers under just one name. Also, being a writer who worked in a variety of styles, I thought it a good idea to offer brand-name definition. Westlake does this, Stark does that.

I enjoyed the article because it looks as if the writer can be bipolar or whatever – the two names have a very distinct voice:

Which leads to the question I am most frequently asked about Richard Stark when I’m at a book signing or on an author panel somewhere. Are you, people want to know, a different person, with different attitudes and character traits, when you’re writing as Richard Stark? Are you sometimes Dr. Jekyll, sometimes Mr. Hyde? (My wife is asked this question about me, too, and her answer is to roll her eyes.)

The real answer, of course, is no. I’m not schizophrenic, I know who’s sitting at that desk. But the other answer is, if we really want to get down to it, well, yes.

In the most basic way, writers are defined not by the stories they tell, or their politics, or their gender, or their race, but by the words they use. Writing begins with language, and it is in that initial choosing, as one sifts through the wayward lushness of our wonderful mongrel English, that choice of vocabulary and grammar and tone, the selection on the palette, that determines who’s sitting at that desk. Language creates the writer’s attitude toward the particular story he’s decided to tell.

As I mentioned, I use a pseudonym and will never use my real name (unless I get married abroad and lose my maiden name), but I do use different voices in different writings – it’s obvious that in a screenplay I won’t sound like in a graphic novel, nor like a novel. The prose is different for more than one reason (the main being the formatting rules of each kind of writing).
But sometimes I tried to write with different voices, especially when I was younger (I even tried to do different people’s signatures – all invented – to change my handwriting, if only for a name! ;-)), like writing novellas in journal or letter-form. Usually I can’t do it for a novel’s length, but maybe I haven’t even tried yet… although at the moment I’m overwhelmed with stories to write or edit, dunno when I’ll experiment with writing again! 😀

New York Times writers on writing series – Walter Mosley

Another author of the NYT series talks about “For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day“. Which begins with the best advice from Walter Mosley:

If  you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. The consistency, the monotony, the certainty, all vagaries and passions are covered by this daily reoccurrence

Then he moves on to those people who say they want to write but never get down to actually doing it, and all those procrastination excuses we all use (I should be editing instead of blogging, so you see…):

How can I create when I have to go to work, cook my dinner, remember what I did wrong to the people who have stopped calling? And even if I do find a moment here and there — a weekend away in the mountains, say — how can I say everything I need to say before the world comes crashing back with all of its sirens and shouts and television shows?

“I know I have a novel in me,” I often hear people say. “But how can I get it out?”

The answer is, always is, every day.

Now, writing might sound boring, but I still love it, especially the thrill of the first draft (which remained the one and only for many years in my case, as I didn’t have readers). But I’ve learned to enjoy the thrill of a new idea sparkled by a comment (maybe the critique hurt at furst, but then the imagination started working – et voilà!).

A day goes by. Another passes. At the end of the next week you find yourself in the same chair, at the same hour when you wrote about the homeless man previously. You open the journal to see what you’d written. You remember everything perfectly, but the life has somehow drained out of it. The words have no art to them; you no longer remember the smell. The idea seems weak, it has dissipated, like smoke.

So, work up your routine, and write every day.

It doesn’t matter what time of day you work, but you have to work every day because creation, like life, is always slipping away from you. You must write every day, but there’s no time limit on how long you have to write. (…)

Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. Images appear. Connections are made. But even these clearer notions will fade if you stay away more than a day. (…)

The act of writing is a kind of guerrilla warfare; there is no vacation, no leave, no relief. In actuality there is very little chance of victory. You are, you fear, like that homeless man, likely to be defeated by your fondest dreams.

Not for me. I keep writing. Published or not, I’ll keep churning out stories, mostly in novel form at this time. But I’ll keep writing – blog, journal, letters, e-mails, stories and graphic novels untill I’ll have the strength.

Happy writing.

New York Times writers on writing series – Marge Piercy

Today I’m commenting on Marge Piercy’s “Life of Prose and Poetry — an Inspiring Combination”, as she (like me) writes

character-centered fiction, which means it is almost never high concept, and my plots are neither tight nor ingenious. I get to know my major characters very well indeed before I write a word of the novel. Most of what happens simply proceeds from the interaction of the characters with one another and their environment, their history, their circumstances.

I admit I never read her books (another author on the wishlist, sigh!), but when I read this paragraph I thought “That’s me! How am I going to pitch that, though?” That qeustion is still unanswered, although I think I mentioned it in my query letter – no quests, no hero’s journey, but character-oriented fantasy, how’s that for “unsellable fiction” category? The pros: no fantasy cliches! But again, if publishers are like movie producers, they want something they can recognize and put in some kind of box. Sigh.

Back to the article and Marge’s words again.

For me the gifts of the novelist are empathy and imagination. I enter my characters and try to put on their worldviews, their ways of moving, their habits, their beliefs and the lies they tell themselves, their passions and antipathies, even the language in which they speak and think: the colors of their lives. Imagination has to do with moving those characters through events, has to do with entering another time, whether of the recent past or 300 or 500 years ago, in Prague or Paris or London or New York or the islands of the Pacific. It has to do with changing some variables and moving into imagined futures, while retaining a sense of character so strong the reader will believe in a landscape and in cities and worlds vastly different from our own.

I want a good story with good characters. Of course there need to be some kind of starting conflict, but the “epic wars” can be inner instead of real, and it won’t make the story less powerful. So, here’s my conflict: I want to write in a genre which is supposedly epic, but with smaller things such a spersonal conflicts or simply wandering characters trying to figure out their world.

I don’t believe in good vs. evil stories, as we live in duality and have all shades of gray  and making good or evil non-human beings sort of misses the point… welcome to my gray fantasy humanity!

New York Times writers on writing series – Susan Richards Shreve

Again I won’t post the whole article here, just go to “A storyteller finds comfort in a cloak of anonymity” in the aforementioned series. This also relates (sort of) to the post on Jim C.Hines’s blog, interview with an author who used a pseudonym. So pseudonym (or nom-de-plume) is the topic of today’s rant.

Susan Richards Shreve used it to write under another race voice (she’s white and wrote form a black woman’s POV). “Benjamin Tate” did it to start a new series of books – read his reasons in the interview. I do it because (like I say in the comments to BT’s interview)

“I use a pen-name or pseudonym because my real family name is in the unpronouncable/unspellable category even for my mother tongue (Italian – it contains a “grammar mistake”. And I’m not that fond of it that I want to see it on a book cover. I picked up the pseudonym years ago, even if I’m still unpublished. I’ve written some articles (in Italian) under my real name, but I keep the “journalist” very separate from the “writer” (I’m a writer, I don’t like being a journalist, so I quit doing it – never was may “dayjob” anyway! ;-)).”

During my first writing course (in 2001) there was a 17-year-old who couldn’t believe our teacher had written an anthology under a pen-name. She couldn’t believe someone would hide his/her name – I was about to tell her. I’ve lived in 3 different countries, traveled to a few more, and I can tell you my real family name is a real pain in the… whenever I reach the customs or check-in or whatever. As I couldn’t find a husband to legally change it (maybe I didn’t look very thoroughly… ;-)), I picked up a pseudonym a long time ago. In the late 80s, and used it as a ziner in the 90s.

Susan says “And so began the deep pleasure of anonymity” – something I think most have learned to enjoy through the internet in later years (in 2001 it wasn’t very spread, especially in Italy. I wonder if that girl now uses a nick or something – can’t remember her name, can’t google her, haha). Here are more words of wisdom from her about the topic:

Fiction is a glimpse at our common humanity, a reminder of it, a generous engagement between the reader and the imagined world of a book. So much of what we do as writers, no matter how grounded in the particular a story might be, is a leap of faith.

What I found myself thinking about, disappearing into the mind and heart of my young black protagonist, was the process of discovery, even self-discovery in writing outside of my own experience. Here is this young woman with no sense of who she is racially, sexually, no capacity for telling the truth, sinking toward madness. It is the reader who first knows the truth about this young woman’s experience and in that recognition comes, I hope, as I did, to love her.

After all, even Shakespeare tells us “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet” (and there you have roses again. Maybe I should have chosen “Barbara Rose” as a pseudonym! :-D)… so what are your thoughts on the topic? Pseudonym or not?

New York Times writers on writing series – Alan Cheuse

This time I’m using the NYT article only as a starting point for my own musings. Alan Cheuse talks about “Literary Second Acts in American Lives” or the “late bloomers in writing”.

Barbara circa 1975

I don’t know if I’m a late bloomer or not. I started writing in my teens (well, earlier, around 1975, but the first “official story” having even two parts is from the summer of 1978) and never stopped – although most of my babies will have to stay in the drawers for various reasons – BUT I’m unpublished.

I call myself an “unpublished professional writer” because if you learn your craft through 10000 hours of practice, I’ve fairly exceeded those. I lost count of the wordcount also because most of my older stuff (pre-1990s) is still handwritten, therefore the wordcount is impossible to make. Also some stories have been rewritten one or more times, and that adds to the wordcount as well.

So, I guess I’m a pro in my approach to writing (don’t have to follow those writing routines, can stick to my own deadlines, am a very fast writer anyway – and a compulsive one, BTW), BUT I’m still unpublished.

Barbara circa 1976 (yeah, I got better afterwards!)

In Italy, when I started writing, if you weren’t at least 40 you weren’t even considered for publication. Then the Italian equivalents of Christopher Paolini arrived, and now I’m too old to be published! Weird world… Anyway, my prose is not literary enough for Italy, so I’m trying to break into print in English. Yeah, right, when do I start querying though?

OK, I found a great beta-reader who just destroyed my brand new prologue, but then, it WAS a first draft and I KNEW it needed working. So as soon as I get my writers group comments as well, I’ll go back to editing. Which means I won’t start querying before September, I guess. Unless someone tells me there’s no problem in querying during the summer when everybody is up for a vacation… uhm, no. I think I’ll do it when everybody comes back with a fresh mind.

In the meantime I might try to write that query and submit it to QueryShark – the second writing shark of my English writing career, as my very first coverage service for my very first (horrible) screenplays was done by ScriptShark (I also sent them later works which were a little better, but I’m not sure they remembered the previous efforts, after all 5 years had gone by…). If I get picked up by the QueryShark, I’ll invite you to see how she destroys my query – might help someone else in the process…

So, am I a late bloomer or what? I certainly will achieve publication in my 40s, but does this make me a late bloomer? I’m guessing my readers are of different ages… some are indeed young, but others are a little older – to the latter, are you late bloomers or what? How do you consider yourselves?

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