Tag Archive for Writers on Writing

Writers: Stop Whining, Please

I have to get something off my chest.

A writer I know posted on Facebook that he’d just completed another novel. He described the process of writing just one book as “painful” and “basically torture.”

He compared it to childbirth. That’s the kind of pain he experiences.

Then a bunch of other authors chimed in about how their books were — wait for it — like their children.

And I have to say this, because it struck a nerve in me: I don’t find any of this remotely true. In fact, I find it embarrassing. Lacking in perspective. And, okay, I’ll say it: pretentious.

Torture? Really?

Why do it then? Go drive a bus, work as a nurse, become a clerk in a crowded office.

Is the job really so hard? Making up stories? I’m typing this from my office, sitting on a soft chair, listening to music. That’s where I work. Not in a coal mine. Not at Walmart for minimum wage. Not in the hills of Afghanistan. I’m sitting at home, typing.

I’m lucky as hell. And every day — every single day — I know that’s true. There are thousands of good, talented people who would LOVE to earn a living this way. Writing a book? People dream about getting published, wish for it, strive for it.

We have no right to complain. None.

Torture? Get a grip.

Of course, my attitude is not popular and I’m usually smart enough to keep my mouth shut. I just bite my tongue and taste the warm blood in my mouth. I think to myself about my three living, breathing children — how amazing they are, the surprising things to do, their complicated feelings and incredible potential — and I have to say that not one of my books is remotely like my children. It’s just a tired, dead cliche that gets used over and over (and over, and over) again, by folks who professionally are supposed to reach for higher than the standard cliche.

Oh well.

Another writer I know recently complained on Facebook about how hard it is to name characters. She probably wanted sympathy. It can be lonely writing a book. You can be filled with doubt, uncertainty. It’s not always easy.

Oh, the agony, the torture. This is so hard I might have to go upstairs to make a cup of tea and gaze out the window for an hour. Just to calm down. Maybe eat a snack. Sally, Jack, Tim? Mitali, Miranda, Scott? The pain, the pain!

I know I can’t say any of this without insulting a bunch of authors, many of them accomplished, award-winning writers. Perhaps my own meager work hasn’t been torturous enough? My wife is a midwife. She works so hard. Lisa gets calls through the night, labors with patients for hours, goes sleepless for 36-hour stretches. These are life and death situations, sometimes involving the deepest sorrows.

“Honey, get the water board, I’m ready to revise!”

Poor me! This awful burden of talent I’m forced to carry!

While I was stewing these past couple of days, feeling alienated and repulsed, I came across a blog post by one of my favorite current writers, Joe Posnanski. He reposted an old entry about his greatest day in sportswriting. You should click here, it’s a pretty terrific piece.

Be warned though, Joe tends to blog at length, as if he’s having too much fun to stop. Toward the end of this enjoyable story, he makes a little turn and — eureka, there it was — the exact words I needed to find. Somebody on this planet, a writer I respect, coming at this issue from a shared perspective. It’s why we read, you know. Sometimes writers can articulate something that strikes us as exactly right, hard and shining and true. A real thing.

Joe Posnanski wrote:

“People often ask me how I handle writer’s block — well knock on wood, thank my lucky stars, I’ve never had it. My thought about writer’s block is basically that my Dad worked in a factory almost his whole life, and he never had ‘factory block.’ Sometimes the words don’t come as easily as others, but you do what you have to do.”

That is, you go to work.

And you don’t complain about it. Or whine in public. Or compare it to freaking torture. You try to remember that you are extraordinarily fortunate to have this great gift of a career. We get paid to write books.

Be grateful. And shut up.

Writers on Writing: Five More Quick Quotes

I still have that list of quotes that I found at the bottom of my t-shirt drawer a couple of weeks back. Here’s five more, perhaps more artfully strung together:

“Often with writing, you begin by writing too much. And out of it suddenly emerges one line that’s exactly right. That one line reveals the essence of the story. It’s a strange process that’s almost impossible to describe. I find that I might write pages of description — I love to write description — and then rereading it I see how I could set the mood in three sentences rather than three pages. So I do a great deal of cutting back.”Charlotte Zolotow.

“I have written a book in as short as an evening and as long as five years.” — Joanne Ryder.

I find that there are a lot of sentences I have in my early drafts that I really don’t need.” — Jean Craighead George.

“My first version states the basic story. I will then try speaking it, hearing it. Then I’ll go on to a second version, a third, a fourth. At each stage, I will test it with my voice. Then I’ll go back to the writing. Finally, the story reaches the point where I can say to it, ‘You are alive.'” — Ashley Bryan.

I was on the train one day, coming into work from suburban New York. I heard, ‘Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?’ So I wrote it down. Having no tablet with me, I wrote it on the newspaper. Then I wrote, ‘I see a red bird looking at me.’ Then I wrote down yellow duck, blue horse, green frog, purple cat, white dog, etc. Within fifteen minutes, the story was complete.” — Bill Martin Jr.

Illustration by Eric Carle (but you knew that).

Writers on Writing: Five Quick Quotes

True story: I just found this three-page list of typed quotes on the bottom of my t-shirt drawer. I figure it dates back seven years, from when I was working with my son’s third-grade classroom — and at which point I learned, not coincidentally, that I knew nothing about how to teach writing.

All I had in my bag of tricks was encourage, encourage, encourage.

Anyway, these quotes come mostly from interviews I enjoyed, but also possibly from the supporting research I did. I’ll parcel them out over time in spoonfuls, five per blog entry:

Writing is very difficult and gives me a great deal of pleasure, partly because it is so difficult.” — Maurice Sendak.

“If you work hard on something, and think about it very deeply, new ideas sort of bubble to the surface. I find that while rewriting — even just retyping a page — new things come in that I hadn’t thought about before. Rewriting is important. I don’t think you are finished after only one or two drafts. Rewriting is not only polishing sentences; it is also a process of searching for new things to improve your story.” — Bernard Waber.

“I revise and revise and revise. I’m so picky. Yonder took me seven years to write. That book meant a lot to me. I wanted it to be perfect.” — Tony Johnston.

“Writing a story is like going down a path in the woods. You follow the path. You don’t worry about getting lost. You just go.” — Jan Brett.

“You never want to write about a perfect person. Look at Ramona Quimby. She’s not perfect — but it’s the failings that remind us of ourselves. That’s what builds character.” — Patricia Reilly Giff.

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

As part of a series called “Writers on Writing,” published in The New York Times, Elmore Leonard penned a thought-provoking article that first saw print on July 16, 2001. Every once in a while I remember that it exists and go back to reread Leonard’s observations.

I’m sympathetic to Elmore Leonard’s basic vision. I mean to say, I think I could hang out with the guy. When he talks about writing, I tend to nod my head. Grateful, reaffirmed, inspired. He explains in the opening paragraph, “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.”

A long time ago I decided that ego was the enemy of good writing. Thing is, that’s a tough dragon to slay. These days, I most admire writers who get out of the way (another way of saying, “remain invisible”) — who strive to eliminate any trace of “look at me, I’m so darned clever!” from their writing. (That tends to be the exact opposite of what we are taught to appreciate in college English courses, so most of my adult writing life has been about trying to unlearn aspects of my college education.)

Regarding Leonard: I like his everyday guyness, his plainspeak, his pragmatism, his unpretentiousness. Unfortunately, and oddly, I’ve never really gotten into his books. Maybe I’ve tried the wrong ones, or not tried hard enough. The thing is, I want to like his books more than I actually do. It may be worth noting that so many of his books have been made into movies precisely because he is such a “show, don’t tell” styled writer. Or maybe it’s because he’s okay with sex and violence.

Though I encourage readers to go back to the full article (linked above), I’ll only post the ten rules along with an indispensable additional comment or two from Leonard (in the article, he provides more background on each rule). Enjoy. And remember, when it comes to writing, there are no rules. But guidelines can be instructive.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

Writes Leonard: “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

Says Leonard: “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” For what it’s worth, there are a ton of adverbs used exactly this way in the Harry Potter books.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

And here comes my personal favorite:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Leonard comments: “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

I love that phrase, “perpetrating hooptedoodle.”

NOTE: For more posts that touch on the writing process, click on the “writing process” icon on the right sidebar, beneath “CATEGORIES.” I’m trying to do more of this kind of thing on this blog, in the hopes that it might sell books, urm, be helpful to teachers, or to writers of any age!

ANOTHER NOTE: I lifted that sound, urm, from the legendary graphic novel, The Watchmen (soon to be a major motion picture). A character in there says it a lot, just a variation on “um,” but I like it.