Writing

Leon Uris: Research feeds your writing

Research to me is as important or more important than the writing. It is the foundation upon which the book is built.

Leon Uris

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Quote of the Day

Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary.

Cecil Beaton

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My Oblique Strategies

So much of writing is about starting. Getting those first few words down on the blank page or screen. Getting unstuck. Solving some problem — a scene that feels stagy or false, a knot in the plot that won’t come unknotted. A character enters a room then … what?

In 1974, the musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt first published Oblique Strategies, a tool for unlocking creative blocks. This was a printed deck of cards, each containing a short, cryptic, Zen-like koan meant to jostle the artist’s thinking and spark the creative process: “Use an old idea,” “Honour thy error as a hidden intention,” “Work at a different speed.” The idea was that the artist, frozen with indecision or out of ideas altogether, could draw a card at random, read the mysterious phrase, and somehow the creative machine would stir to life. (You can shuffle through all the cards here.)

I have always loved the idea of Oblique Strategies, but I never felt that Eno’s and Schmidt’s original messages fit me very well. All artists have their idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, their particular ways of getting snarled up. In order to work for me, oblique strategies have to target my individual, habitual ways of getting stuck. It’s like getting a shot: what’s in the needle depends on the infection you’ve got.

So here are my oblique strategies. I’ve never bothered to put them down on cards, but I have always kept a list of them, which I refer to all the time. My strategies are a little less “oblique” than the originals, less out-of-leftfield, because they are not particularly concerned with stimulating ideas. Generally my problem is not lack of ideas; it is an inability to get the ideas out of my head and down onto the page. I have the syrup, as Gertrude Stein said of Glenway Wescott, “but it does not pour.” I’ll leave my list here, for my own reference and maybe yours. Hopefully they will help some writer someday. If not, try the originals or try writing your own.

  • Be professional and productive, not great, not even original
  • Think quantity: the goal is to complete as many novels as possible
  • Don’t overcomplicate the problem — look for the simple, obvious solution
  • Go back to your template stories
  • Always be starting
  • Lower your standards
  • Unplug
  • Take a walk
  • Steal
  • The hero must act
  • Don’t fucking procrastinate
  • The hero drives the plot
  • Don’t be secretive — discuss the problem
  • Work outside your habits
  • Believe in yourself and in your project
  • Get over yourself — your book just isn’t that important
  • Ask for help
  • Make them care by making yourself care
  • The problem contains the solution
  • Stay up all night
  • Prepare slowly and cautiously, write fast and reckless
  • Change speeds: compress a long scene, expand a short scene
  • Abandon the plan
  • Nothing clever or abstract, just simple physical actions: a character walks on stage, then what does she DO?

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Fitzgerald: “utter helplessness”

I am thirty-six years old. For eighteen years save for a short space during the war writing has been my chief interest in life, and I am in every sense a professional. Yet even now when, at the recurrent cry of “Baby Needs Shoes,” I sit down facing my sharpened pencils and a block of legal-sized paper, I have a feeling of utter helplessness. I may write my story in three days or, as is more frequently the case, it may be six weeks before I have assembled anything worthy to be sent out. I can open a volume from a criminal law library and find a thousand plots. I can go into highway and byway, parlor and kitchen, and listen to personal revelations that at the hands of other writers might endure forever. But all that is nothing — not even enough for a false start.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “One Hundred False Starts” (1933)

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Make it new (and not)

According to an article in the Atlantic, the industrial designer Raymond Loewy had a theory about what makes new products desirable.

He believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible. Loewy called his grand theory “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”—MAYA.

The theory applies equally to art.

Could Loewy’s MAYA theory double as cultural criticism? A common complaint about modern pop culture is that it has devolved into an orgy of familiarity. In her 2013 memoir cum cultural critique, Sleepless in Hollywood, the producer Lynda Obst mourned what she saw as cult worship of “pre-awareness” in the film and television industry. As the number of movies and television shows being produced each year has grown, risk-averse producers have relied heavily on films with characters and plots that audiences already know. Indeed, in 15 of the past 16 years, the highest-grossing movie in America has been a sequel of a previously successful movie (for example, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) or an adaptation of a previously successful book (The Grinch). The hit-making formula in Hollywood today seems to be built on infinitely recurring, self-sustaining loops of familiarity, like the Marvel comic universe, which thrives by interweaving movie franchises and TV spin-offs.

But perhaps the most maya-esque entertainment strategy can be found on award-winning cable television. In the past decade, the cable network FX has arguably produced the deepest lineup of prestige dramas and critically acclaimed comedies on television, including American Horror Story, The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, and Archer. The ideal FX show is a character-driven journey in which old stories wear new costumes, says Nicole Clemens, the executive vice president for series development at the network. In Sons of Anarchy, the popular drama about an outlaw motorcycle club, “you think it’s this super-über-macho motorcycle show, but it’s also a soap with handsome guys, and the plot is basically Hamlet,” she told me. In The Americans, a series about Soviet agents posing as a married couple in the United States, “the spy genre has been subverted to tell a classic story about marriage.” These are not Marvel’s infinity loops of sequels, which forge new installments of old stories. They are more like narrative Trojan horses, in which new characters are vessels containing classic themes—surprise serving as a doorway to the feeling of familiarity, an aesthetic aha.

I have always believed in studying older stories, even using them explicitly as templates or models, so Loewy’s theory comes as no surprise to me.

In fact, there is a sub-genre of how-to books for the analytically-minded looking to write a bestseller. These guides dissect popular novels for common elements — a recipe for success. The latest, called The Bestseller Code, sics a computer algorithm on the data and concludes that my Defending Jacob is #10 on its list of “100 novels our computer thinks you should read.” So it turns out my blazingly original work is actually hopelessly derivative, which, if Loewy is right, might explain a few things.

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Theories of procrastination

toure_1

toure_2

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The Efficient Plots Hypothesis

The [Efficient Plots Hypothesis], as I imagine it, says that the ideal reader can’t know if the mood of a book is about to get sunnier or darker at any given point in the plot. This … [is] because the purpose of a narrative is to engross the reader. Engrossment proceeds through uncertainty. If you knew what was about to happen, you’d skim ahead or stop reading.

That is: at any moment in a story, the emotional trajectory is a random walk for the reader because anything else would be boring. And stories aren’t boring.

This could be tested empirically by asking readers if a book will get more positive or more negative over the next five pages, and by how much. In a pure EPH world, they’ll only be right about half the time.

If the EPH holds, then, it doesn’t suggest that fiction is truly arbitrary; rather, that it’s an elaborately constructed game between reader and writer, socially conditioned and in no way permanent. It would suggest that there are enough fundamental plots that at any point in a book you are unsure what plot you are in; and that plots tend to wear themselves out over time.

Read about it here.

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Ian McEwan’s writing day

I’m pretty obsessive once I get going. I tend to throw everything at it, and I’m generally rather happy if I’m making progress of 450 to 500 words a day. I work from 9:30 in the morning. If things are going, I see no reason to stop, because I know there’s a point I’ll get to, a moment of hesitation, and a day or a week will pass before I see the way through.

Sometimes, I work late at night, sometimes into the early hours if things are going along. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a day looking over things from the day before. I was a very early adopter of word processing back in the early ’80s. Being able to constantly correct is good for writers.

I think you do need to come away, somewhere along the line, and let it sit, so you can come back with a completely fresh eye and almost regard it as the work of a stranger.

Source. Earlier installment is here.

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Auden: “a genuine writer forgets”

Just as a good man forgets his deed the moment he has done it, a genuine writer forgets a work as soon as he has completed it and starts to think about the next one; if he thinks about his past work at all, he is more likely to remember its faults than its virtues. Fame often makes a writer vain, but seldom makes him proud.

W.H. Auden

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How Styron wrote

The previous summer, Styron had begun [The Confessions of Nat Turner]. He nudged a No. 2 pencil across sheets of yellow legal paper, each sentence polished before he moved on to the next. The most methodical of novelists, he demanded utter silence, even with small children in the house. He had a stone wall built in front to try to muffle the noise of passing vehicles, according to his daughter Alexandra in her 2011 memoir, Reading My Father. His pattern was all but inviolate. Up at noon, leisurely lunch or brunch with Rose. Push away from the table at two o’clock for a long walk with his dogs, while he organized his thoughts for the afternoon siege. Then, into the barn until he emerged at 7:30 with “my painful 600 words,” which he refined some more over a drink at the bar and then gave to Rose for typing, about two and a half pages in all. Once he was done he tinkered very little. “This guy does not revise heavily and start all over again,” says his longtime editor, Robert Loomis, aged 89. “Bill’s first draft was essentially his final draft.”

Sam Tanenhaus, “The Literary Battle for Nat Turner’s Legacy” (great read)

“My painful 600 words.” I know the feeling. It took William Styron four and a half years to complete The Confessions of Nat Turner.

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If it’s hard, why do it?

Hard Things

This graphic, from a story in the Times the other day, pretty well captures the appeal of novel-writing for me. You do it precisely because it’s difficult.

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Writing as meditation

I see writing as a form of meditation, where I can let everything else fall away for a few moments and just stay with this one activity. It means I need to get my mind into the writing space, notice when the urge to go to distraction comes up, and not just automatically follow the urge. I can look within myself and let feelings flow out through the written word, or see the truths within me and try to channel those onto the page.

Leo Babauta, “Training To Be a Good Writer

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Quote of the day

I’m most in awe of novelists, who move sets, lights, scenery, and act out all the parts in your mind for you. My kind of writing requires collaboration with others to truly ignite. But I think of Dickens, or Cervantes, or Márquez, or Morrison, and I can describe to you the worlds they paint and inhabit. To engender empathy and create a world using only words is the closest thing we have to magic.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

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Horace: Artless art

“The art lies in concealing the art.”

Horace

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On procrastination, good and bad

We tend to think of procrastination as a personal failing, even a moral flaw, a sin. For novelists in particular, marooned at our lonely desks and in our heads, facing enormous tasks and distant deadlines, procrastination is a besetting danger. The web makes the problem infinitely worse, with its little cruelty of turning the writer’s workspace, his computer screen, into an endless cabinet of wonders. Distraction is always just two clicks away.

There is now a small industry churning out advice on how to stay productive in the age of distraction, but it all boils down to this: put away your toys and get to work. In his wonderful The War of Art, Steven Pressfield advises, “Be a pro.” And that, honestly, is the bottom line. Just do it.

Personally, I try to live by that advice. By nature I am lazy and undisciplined, a lifelong procrastinator, so I rely on a set of formal strategies to stay focused. I work in a barren office, on an ancient ThinkPad T23 laptop that has no internet capability. I cripple my smart phone using various apps. (I fiddle constantly with how best to disable my phone during work hours, which, yes, I know.) When all else fails, I leave the damn phone at home.

Fellow weak-willed writers, I can’t say this strongly enough: do not burn energy resisting the temptation of the web. Just turn it off completely. Unplug. Research has shown that people who exhibit strong willpower are not better at resisting temptation; they simply do not expose themselves to temptation. They do not bravely refuse to eat the ice cream in the freezer; they never go down the frozen-food aisle in the supermarket in the first place.

Once I have unplugged from the web, I focus on starting. Not writing a whole novel or even a single scene, not writing for a certain period of time or hitting some daily word-quota. Just starting. As a writer, that is the most essential and difficult thing you will do: start. You must learn to start and start and start. Every morning, despite the awesome scale of the task, despite your own mounting anxiety, you must start. You will fail, of course. All writers fail. Most writers fail most of the time. Doesn’t matter. Get up, dust yourself off, and start again. If you start enough, in some small percentage of those attempts, you will achieve the blessed, transporting, trance-like state of flow that every writer treasures, and the residue of that deeply-focused work will be words on the page.

So that is my anti-procrastination strategy. In two words: unplug and start. I do not claim there is any special wisdom there, nor do these strategies work infallibly for me. I fail all the time, and I scourge myself for it. Probably you do, too.  if you are a writer. It seems to be a universal feeling in this job. But failure is part of writing. Tomorrow you will try again. What choice is there? As Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

With all that said, I would like to suggest that some procrastination is actually good. Yes, good. Sometimes a writer resists writing not because he is lazy or careless, but because the passage just isn’t ready to be written. Hemingway famously said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Sometimes the way your shit detector goes off is by refusing to allow you to write shit in the first place.

Continue reading →

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George Saunders on writing

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The Virtue of Ignorance

A 1960 interview with Orson Welles about “Citizen Kane.”

Q: What I’d like to know is where did you get the confidence from to make the film with such —

A: Ignorance. Ignorance. Sheer ignorance. You know, there’s no confidence to equal it. It’s only when you know something about a profession, I think, that you’re timid, or careful or —

Q: How does this ignorance show itself?

A: I thought you could do anything with a camera that the eye could do or the imagination could do. And if you come up from the bottom in the film business, you’re taught all the things that the cameraman doesn’t want to attempt for fear he will be criticized for having failed. And in this case I had a cameraman who didn’t care if he was criticized if he failed, and I didn’t know that there were things you couldn’t do, so anything I could think up in my dreams, I attempted to photograph.

Q: You got away with enormous technical advances, didn’t you?

A: Simply by not knowing that they were impossible. Or theoretically impossible. And of course, again, I had a great advantage, not only in the real genius of my cameraman, but in the fact that he, like all great men, I think, who are masters of a craft, told me right at the outset that there was nothing about camerawork that I couldn’t learn in half a day, that any intelligent person couldn’t learn in half a day. And he was right.

Q: It’s true of an awful lot of things, isn’t it?

A: Of all things.

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Turning time into language

Anthony Trollope

Adam Gopnik’s story on Trollope in the New Yorker touches on

his very Victorian work ethic: he wrote for money, and he wrote to schedule, putting pen to paper from half past five to half past eight every morning and paying a servant an extra fee to roust him up with a cup of coffee. He made a record of exactly how much each of his novels had earned, and efficiency and economy, taken together, got him a reputation as a philistine drudge.

Trollope was, in truth, merely being practical about the problems of writing: three hours a day is all that’s needed to write successfully. Writing is turning time into language, and all good writers have an elaborate, fetishistic relationship to their working hours. Writers talking about time are like painters talking about unprimed canvas and pigments.

Not sure I agree with Gopnik’s three-hour rule. Three hours a day may have been enough for Anthony Trollope to write successfully, but you, alas, are not Anthony Trollope.

It is interesting to think of writing as “turning time into language.” Of course, Gopnik is not saying that’s all writing is. He is making a simpler point about Trollope’s practicality and discipline. (Otherwise the phrase is meaningless: all art forms can be reduced to “turning time into” something — sculpture, music, painting, etc.). Still, it is a useful formulation for writers to keep in mind. Looking back at these monstrously productive Victorians, it is easy for a writer to get psyched out. Better to use Trollope as a daily reminder to turn your time into text, and be done with him.

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Pixar’s story rules

list of storytelling tips picked up at Pixar by Emma Coats, a former “story artist” there (via). Interesting.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th — get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on — it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you do like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write “cool.” What would make you act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

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The procrastination muse

A visit from the procrastination muse

Via

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