Writerly Roundup – November 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.
Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘Write What You Know’ is the Stupidest Thing I’ve Ever Heard, Emily Temple, LitHub
I can’t get enough good advice from outstanding writers. Though they often offer conflicting nuggets of wisdom, I want to read it all anyway. To that end, Emily Temple presents a collection of applicable quotes by Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. He offers his thoughts, his personal dos and don’ts, and enough writing wisdom to make you stop and think.
For example, Ishiguro doesn’t think writing what we know is the way to go. He’d rather see a writer tackle something unknown, something that “fires the imagination.” In addition, he’s got some common-sense thoughts about genre and our modern tendency to tiptoe around its boundaries.
Is it possible that what we think of as genre boundaries are things that have been invented fairly recently by the publishing industry? I can see there’s a case for saying there are certain patterns, and you can divide up stories according to these patterns, perhaps usefully. But I get worried when readers and writers take these boundaries too seriously, and think that something strange happens when you cross them, and that you should think very carefully before doing so . . . I would like to see things breaking down a lot more.
Fiction writers may get caught up in developing their characters. After all, the characters star in the novel. They drive the plot, and we all know how important it is to flesh out a character. However, Ishiguro shifts the emphasis from the character to the characters’ relationships. As in life, we are often defined by the way we interact with those close to us.
I used to think in terms of characters, how to develop their eccentricities and quirks. Then I realized that it’s better to focus on the relationships instead, and then the characters develop naturally. Relationships have to be natural, to be authentic human drama. I’m a little suspicious of stories that have an intellectual theme bolted on, when the characters stop and debate before they carry on.
Readers will be interested in the unusual way that Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day (he completed it in just four weeks) and in his methods of keeping himself insulated from other stories as he writes his own. If you’re going to take writerly advice, you might as well take it from a Nobel laureate.
The Internet is an Ideal Home for the Essay, Lorraine Berry (@BerryFLW), The Guardian
Most of us spend a good deal of time on the internet. And for busy mothers of younger children, it may be a primary source of reading material. There’s nothing wrong with that; if you don’t have time to pick up a book, the internet can give you a small serving of literature in the time you’ve got to read it. (Literary Mama is one such place!)
In recent years, the internet has done a fine job of supporting the personal essay. And while some of them come attached to a click-bait title, the value lies in that accessibility. Suddenly, people who have never heard of Roxanne Gay and Rebecca Solnit know their names and can read their essays on contemporary issues.
Not only has the internet provided a host of sites where the essay is queen – places such as the Millions, the Rumpus, Talking Writing, Literary Hub, and the Awl – but it has also fostered a new kind of reading. The web may distract with shiny clickbait, but the interconnections that send you from reading about, say, being a volunteer in medical exams to the trees growing in abandoned office buildings, give writers such as Solnit and Gay another route to finding an audience. Every time another writer cites their work and links to it in constructing an argument, a new reader is just a click away.
This accessibility makes a huge difference to the average reader who, years ago, wasn’t permitted to enter that sphere. Then, only academics had access to the work of other academics.
Way back before the dawn of Netscape Navigator, the future for public intellectuals looked grim. The academy was clotted with jargon that excluded all but the privileged few. They read each other’s essays, but the rest of us did not. The internet provided the space where writers could re-establish the essay’s importance to the general reader.
The father of the essay, Michel de Montaigne, hoped the form he practiced would allow writers to know themselves. In this modern era, technology allows us to share with the literary world what we discover.
Writing Voice: 4 Tips for Tailoring Your Distinctive Voice, Cris Freese (@crisfreese), Writers Digest
Every writer has a voice. No matter what we write, it eventually comes through. Many famous authors have a distinct voice, and even if their byline is hidden, their identity reveals itself in their work. Good writers know their voice and use it. In a series of four examples drawn from his own work, literary agent Cris Freese offers some advice to writers who want to find and develop their voice.
For example, one author wrote fantastic stories using voices from other cultures. But to her confusion, they “fell flat.” Readers didn’t engage. Meanwhile, her blog found success.
Her blog was a big hit—and the ammunition I needed to convince her to write a novel set on [her farm]. She’d found her fictive voice right there on the farm. (Of course, she’d never lost it; she used it when writing nonfiction. But her love of other cultures and faraway lands blinded her to it in her own storytelling.) She wrote the first in a traditional mystery series set on the farmette—and I got her a three-book deal. VOICE LESSON #2: If you’re having trouble finding your voice, start close to home. The truth is often right under your nose.
In another example, Freese tried to sell an author’s ” überdark” work. As the rejections mounted, he tried to convince the author to lighten up, just a tad. Fearful of losing his voice, the writer resisted, not wanting to budge on the manuscript’s ending. As it turned out, voice wasn’t the problem.
[He] was worried about “compromising his voice.” But voice really had nothing to do with it. I explained to him that the first page sells the book and the last page sells the next book. He didn’t have to change his voice; he just had to rethink the emotional impact of the ending on his reader. Leaving a bad taste in the reader’s mouth—no matter how beautiful the voice—is not the way to build an audience.
Freese’s Lesson #4?
Voice is how you tell the story—it’s not the story itself. Be sure that you don’t compromise the emotional impact of your story to protect what you mistakenly believe is your voice.
Some writers find their voices naturally. Others may struggle. If you do, you can find a wonderful number of craft essays on the subject. Freese knows what he’s talking about, and his real-world examples are helpful.
7 Tips to Increase Your Odds of Placing in Poetry Contests, Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer), Lit Reactor
Sometimes it’s nice to focus on the poets, as Annie Neugebauer has done in this LitReactor piece. With her extensive experience as a judge, she’s in a position to offer tips on making the most of your poetry contest entries.
For example: consider your competition.
The biggest difference between submitting to contests and submitting to journals or magazines is that you’re directly up against other entrants. Sure, a magazine has a limited number of poems they can accept for any given issue, but a contest usually names a single winner. What does that mean for you?
In practical terms, it means you can’t just enter a great poem—you have to enter an excellent poem. It means that your shorter poem isn’t on the same playing field as someone else’s lengthy one. It means that your hilarious punchline poem isn’t likely to stand up against someone’s thoughtful view on grief. It means that you have to ask yourself if the poem you’re sending in can stand against a poem of serious weight. If it can’t—and not all poems can, which isn’t a problem with your actual poem—then save it for a different purpose.
Standing out can be tricky, especially in a large contest. Don’t succumb to the temptation to use colorful paper or an odd shape or form. Instead, make your work stand out in the best possible way.
Do something new. If I’m reading 500 poems, you can bet there are repeats. Lots and lots of repeats. The most common thing I read are explosions of sadness. I have nothing against explosions of sadness. I write explosions of sadness. I am an explosion of sadness. But my god, y’all, how many poems can one person read that are explosions of sadness? If you’re sending one in, it needs to have such a powerful, interesting, original take that I can’t stop thinking about it. Otherwise it blends in with the crowd.
Fortunately for us, Neugebauer offers a list of the most common poems she sees, including ones about this grief and rage, as well as those that sound lovely but don’t really say anything specific. Of course, you’ll also want to be accurate with facts and follow the contest rules to the letter.
Seriously. All of them. I don’t care how amazing your poem is; if it breaks the rules, you’re out.
If you’ve got a contest coming up or read our Calls for Submissions, this piece will no doubt offer some great suggestions.
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!