Writerly Roundup – July 2017
Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
So You’ve Decided to Write: Take Advantage of Your Insomnia, Terry McDonell, Literary Hub
What writer hasn’t encountered a battle with insomnia? Should you try to fall back to sleep or channel your sleeplessness into working on your essay or novel? McDonell believes insomnia is a writer’s friend.
I have no problem correlating creativity with sleep disturbance, but for writers and editors I think the insomnia is a marker for ambition.
The thoughts that arrive in the middle of the night might offer a new outlook on a piece, create a different vision for a particular plot, or help redefine a character’s motives. Sometimes the writer needs an epiphany at an unexpected hour.
If I woke at 3 am with a fresh thought about the top of a problematic story, it might lead me to a new layout or how that story fit into a package that hadn’t occurred to me, or a sidebar or a cover line or whatever. Maybe that troublesome piece was really a sidebar to another piece if I just cut it by two-thirds. When I was writing myself, new turns of phrase would come to me for my lede or kicker and, best of all, thinking about how the piece might be reorganized would lead to new story ideas. When I was working on my novel, my characters would only talk to me after midnight.
The next time a writer can’t go back to sleep, McDonell offers this advice:
I suggested they try taking advantage of their insomnia. I said the middle of the night was a fertile time for thinking about difficult work. Get up and make notes!
How to Pitch Agents at a Writer’s Conference, Jane Friedman (@janefriedman), Jane Friedman
During the year there are several opportunities to attend conferences where writers have the chance to pitch agents. What are the guidelines? Jane Friedman offers sound advice for those who are eager to pitch their novel or nonfiction work. Most writers are nervous and Friedman says that anxiety is normal, but there are ways to channel this restless energy into productive time with an agent.
It’s normal to be nervous. Compensate by overpreparing. If you’re inexperienced in pitching, you are more likely to walk into the meeting nervous and anxious—and unsure what to expect. And all of that anxious energy can detract from the quality of the pitch, particularly if you haven’t prepared what you’re going to say.
For specific genres, how should you construct your pitch? You only have 30 – 60 seconds to deliver the crux of your work and Friedman outlines specific guidelines depending on whether you are pitching a novel or nonfiction. For nonfiction work, Friedman suggests you should answer the following questions:
So what: What is the relevance of your topic and why is it important?
Who cares: Who is this book going to help? Whose problems will it solve?
Who are you: Why do you have the authority, credibility, and/or platform to be the author of this book?
What if you deliver your pitch and the agents offer a lukewarm response? Those writers shouldn’t focus on this single moment.
For all those writers who walk away disappointed from a pitch experience, remember that success is rarely attained in those specific five to fifteen minutes. Rather, it’s all the years of work leading up to that moment, and how someone’s years of experience give them the appearance of success—that feeling that they’re on the verge of breaking out. There’s not really any way to fake that, and it’s what agents and editors are ultimately looking for.
What Do You Love More?, Allison K. Williams (@GuerillaMemoir), Brevity
Writers send their latest novel, essay or memoir for feedback from their critique groups or during a workshop. If the feedback isn’t positive, how does a writer channel criticism into a positive? Allison Williams discusses that initial reaction when the work fails to have the reaction she hoped:
My writer buddy wants me to blog about going forward after bad feedback. About what it’s like to finally put out a piece you like, that your friends have given good criticism on and said “It’s ready,” and then receive literary magazine criticism so sharp and painful it makes you want to curl up and cry and never write again. Certainly, you never want to submit again. You may even start thinking that all the strangers who criticize and reject are right and the friends who read your work are only pacifying you, saying to each other behind your back, “We’d better not let her know how bad she really is.”
I’ve certainly encountered those moments where my critique group offers criticism I might not necessarily want to hear. When I walk away from the critique and approach it with fresh eyes, I realize the comments are valid. Why do writers keep submitting despite the risk of rejection? Williams compares it to her training as an acrobat.
Why did I still perform? Why do I still submit work? Why do I write deeply personal essays and send them into the world to get back the stab of “Sorry this does not meet our needs at this time”?Because I love being published more than I love protecting myself from being hurt. Not instead of–just more.
With each rejection there is also a realization. I agree with Williams’ assessment on how it feels when you keep sending work out the door.
And it does get easier. The more I submit, the more likely I am to feel a brief sting and move on, like brushing against the oven door. An hour later, I’ve forgotten. The more I submit, the less any one place feels like my “dream” venue or agent. The more likely I am to think, “Welp, sorry this wasn’t for you–who’s next on the list?”
10 Writing Rules You Can (and Should) Break, Max Winter, Publishers Weekly
We’ve all heard how we cannot break certain rules in writing. Stephen King has immortalized the advice – don’t use adverbs. Also, avoid exclamation points and integrate the senses in your work. But what if writers decided to break some of the rules? Max Winter, debut writer of The Exes, advocates bending and breaking some of those “rules” in fiction.
Let me begin by reminding you—and myself, because of certain things we must routinely remind ourselves, too—that there are, in fact, no rules in fiction. Like, none. (Hell, in this context, the word rule should probably even appear in quotes, just as, say, “reality” has since—when?—1920? 1945? ’53? From November 8, 2016 on, for sure.) And also by reminding us that this general rulelessness is almost certainly a big part of what made us want to write the stuff in the first place. (Remember that joyful whoop that would surge through the classroom whenever Teacher announced that the next assignment was to be creative? Exactly.)
There are rules we hear on surround-sound every single time we workshop a piece. One of the most common pieces of advice is, “Show, don’t tell.”
The go-to comment of the beleaguered high school English teacher (and I say this is as a former beleaguered high school English teacher—one who wasn’t above scrawling this exact phrase in margins of especially vague personal essays about things like rollercoasters and grandmothers). Like the proverbial and actual stopped clock, it’s right twice a day. Okay, it’s right a lot more than that, but still… Does Henry James mind telling you things now and then? How about Toni Morrison? Tolstoy? Point being, sometimes it’s simply more efficient and, indeed, more interesting—especially if the point itself is nuanced and complex and multivalent—just to come out and say it: “‘She would of been a good woman,’ the Misfit said, ‘if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.’” Or, “I am an invisible man,” a short, direct statement so endlessly complex that it takes every last one of the book’s nearly 600 pages to get us to the point where we “almost have it.” Or, hell, how about, “To be, or not be?” Point being, as often as not—and not for nothing—these are the lines that eventually become quotes.
Writers often are instructed to “write what you know.” Winter takes a different viewpoint on this perspective.
No, a better “rule”—which will end up covering the original’s intent, but not at the expense of new experiences—is simply to write what interests you, healthily or otherwise. Are we interested in what we know? Perhaps. Do we write to better understand what we do not know? Oh, absolutely. Because what we don’t know could fill a book.
How Rudyard Kipling Turned His Guilt Into Fiction, Joe Fassler (@joefassler), The Atlantic
In Joe Fassler’s piece, “How Rudyard Kipling Turned His Guilt Into Fiction,” he interviews Scott Spencer and his thoughts about Rudyard Kipling, author of the short story, The Gardener and how writers turn to fiction to navigate life’s unfortunate circumstances.
What makes fiction writers turn to fiction? Other forms of prose storytelling—essays, memoir, journalism—offer undeniable advantages, after all: immediate high stakes, flesh-and-blood characters who come pre-made, the thrill of knowing certain events really happened. How to make sense of the fabulist’s impractical knack for wholesale invention, the impulse to depart real life’s sure footing for the uncharted waters of myth?
Spencer talks about how he discovered Kipling’s short story, The Gardener.
Before that, I hadn’t much cared for Kipling, associated as he was in my mind with childhood reading and appalling politics. But I was struck by the blunt and delicate precision (I know, an oxymoron) with which he approached the subject matter: A woman named Helen loses either her nephew or her son in World War I, and is forced finally to confront the depth of her loss in a vast military cemetery in France—just she and a stranger, the gardener, amid acres and acres of humble crosses.
Spencer elaborates on Kipling’s son going to war and the same parallel he draws with the male character in his short story.
For me, the power of the story is in watching this artist grapple with his own material, in seeing what he has to do to get at his own feelings and reveal a profound truth. The simplest way to deal with this material would be to just tell the story of what happened to John, to write it as nonfiction or memoir. But there is a big difference between the biography and what ultimately unfolds across these nine or 10 pages. You’re watching life being transformed into art. To write this way is to seek a shape you can’t know until you see it, like reverse-engineering the skeleton key for a locked door you know you need to open. It’s moving to see Kipling so artfully seek relief from his own complicity in the myths that led to war.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!