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“There’s no magic to it…”

The point, the bit I live for, is the rare moment of satisfaction when a smell or a quality of sadness comes into perfect verbal focus. That’s how my family know the day has gone well: I have a lightness which comes from the absence of panic, the knowledge that, for once, I did what I’m best at doing.

I was much relieved to realise that the first paragraph of Charlotte Mendelson’s ‘My Writing Day’ entry for the Guardian was a wind-up. On the other hand, the final paragraph, quoted above, feels perfectly genuine.

“Just as the body needs time to rest, so too does an essay, story, chapter, poem, book or a single page”

From Bill Hayes’s New York Times essay on maintaining what might be termed ‘writing fitness’:

Then I woke one day, and a line came to me. It didn’t slip away this time but stayed put. I followed it, like a path. It led to another, then another. Soon, pieces started lining up in my head, like cabs idling curbside, ready to go where I wanted to take them.

I like this as a description of how it feels when a new project starts to find its form and shape.

” I agree with you about the spelling of poo, etc.”

Our early conversations and the revisions Roald made had to do with the shape of the story, the major characters, how the story began, how it ended, and what was missing. One significant change involved two chapters about problems the hero had at school. They were good stories, but I didn’t think they belonged in this book. Roald disagreed, strongly, and we argued about it. That was not fun. Eventually he agreed and the two chapters disappeared, but not forever.

Stephen Roxburgh, president and publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers during the 1980s, on editing Roald Dahl’s The Witches. (Via @pintadoguy)

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

It’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both.

Stephen King on writing first sentences.

“The most interesting part of writing a book is the how of telling that story…”

What is most real is the process, not the written representation, but the writer’s attention to the process of writing. That is what gives a work its vitality, and what gives the reader a heightened awareness, an experience of life.

Author Jane Mendelsohn on one of the most fascinating parts (to me) of the writing process: finding a story’s style, the bridge between its conception and execution. Or as Mendelsohn puts it, ‘solving the problem’ of how to tell a particular tale.

“You don’t ice a cake before you’ve made the cake”

Ex-Community and now Modern Family writer Megan Ganz, fifty minutes into her interview with Writers Bloc podcast host J.R. Havlan, shares a technique for getting through first drafts:

(On Community) we did this thing (we called) ‘spit drafting’, which was basically (that) you’re writing a script, you have the outline, you know what’s supposed to happen in the scene, but you’re having a hard time actually writing out those scenes, you’re having a hard time getting the jokes…

So instead of writing dialogue, you type it out and say… ‘I am in a fight with you right now’… ‘I have a response to you fighting’… ‘Well, I think you’re a jerk because you wanted to eat a pastrami sandwich and I didn’t.’ You’re getting the shape of the scene and you’d write it about to the length of how much that scene would take up in your script.

Sounds like a fun way of breaking through first draft paralysis. Also, Ganz admits that the Community writers used to swear in their spit drafts ‘like crazy’, which sounds fun too.

My micro life: 6:24pm, 10 May 2013

My daughter has brought home a school reader called Mum At Work — an admirable documentary piece which is pleasingly recognisable to us, featuring as it does a main character who works hard, solves problems, and has the rightful respect of her colleagues.

I now feel obliged to write a companion volume, Dad Writes Books At Home — less a documentary, more in the manner of an exposé, featuring as it does a main character who deletes and retypes the same sentence all day, often in his underpants, and who is mental.

“Listening closely to our own voice, modulating it into more tuneful harmonies”

Writers, like all artists, are Platonists. We have an inkling of something perfect and ideal, which haunts our imaginings and prompts every stroke of the pen or keyboard. We are aware that with a great effort of attentiveness, formulating and reformulating, listening closely to our own voice, modulating it into more tuneful harmonies, we might do something not just good, but perfect. And occasionally in phrase or sentence or paragraph we do just that. But I know of no writer who is not, finally, just that little bit disappointed with the final product.

Rick Gekoski, on trying to bring a concentrated light-heartedness to the act of composition.

“The finest teen writing should fill the adult reader with a sense of loss and longing”

Some teens are tremendously smart, with searing curiosity and vocabularies that exceed their horizons, others not so much. Hence we don’t write for teens, so much as for a subset of teens. Most often, this subset closely reflects the teens we ourselves once were.

Author Bernard Beckett touches on some interesting points about adults and their interest in teen fiction in this post for the Writing Teen Novels blog about the difficulties of defining young adult literature.

“They may have fought every social compulsion to ‘grow up’, their inner world constellated around avoiding that surrender”

Some hard and beautiful observations from Rachel Cusk in a considered piece for The Guardian about the value of creative writing courses:

Language is not only the medium through which existence is transacted, it constitutes our central experiences of social and moral content, of such concepts as freedom and truth, and, most importantly, of individuality and the self; it is also a system of lies, evasions, propaganda, misrepresentation and conformity. Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language; the student feels the need to assert a ‘true’ self through the language system, perhaps for the reason that this same system, so intrinsic to every social and personal network, has given rise to a ‘false’ self.

A piece of music or a work of art might echo to the sense of a ‘true’ self, but it is often through language that an adult seeks self-activation, origination, for the reason that language is the medium, the brokering mechanism, of self. The notion of ‘finding your voice’, simplistic as it may sound, is a therapeutic necessity, and for many people a matter of real urgency. It is also – or ought to be – a social goal. If the expansion of creative writing courses signifies anything, it isn’t the cynicism of universities or the self-deception of would-be students: it means, simply, that our manner of life is dishonest, that it offers too few opportunities for self-expression, and that, for some people, there is too great a disjuncture between how things seem and how they actually feel.

A writer may be someone who has never lost their voice, or has always had it; for a number of reasons, they have withheld themselves from immersion in the social contract.

“I’ve come to think that writing is more surprise than certainty”

Jenny Diski writing for the London Review of Books blog on writer’s block, panic and productivity:

(W)riting is not just about writing, it’s also (and maybe mainly) about the space in between the writing, when nothing seems to be happening, or random stuff is having an incoherent party inside your head. Almost always, you do eventually start to write, and it seems that you’ve been considering after all. It’s not as comfy as writing a thousand words in half an hour, but it seems to work OK, so long as you think of it as part of a process of writing rather than writer’s block.

“I like the Proustian approach of making a simile 500 per cent as long as the thing it’s describing”

You as the narrative voice put in a simile under the pretext that you’re helping the reader to understand better what something looks like or feels like. In fact, it’s just an excuse to put in a little espresso shot of what you hope is lyrical beauty.

From a GQ interview with Ned Beauman about his second novel, The Teleportation Accident.

“The unsung heroes – and heroines – of the freak drama are the narrators, because they survive, they keep staggering along, less beautifully, less ornately, more grimy and weary by the day but staggering still”

(It) is something, perhaps, about their entitlement that makes these freaks so unbridled. They have been bred up within the establishment, they know the rules intimately, and so they know, precisely, how to break them. Also, their confidence attracts the less socially secure… from less elevated backgrounds, who are constantly ill at ease in any social situation. Then, the freak emerges — beautifully tailored or, in Withnail’s case, looking somehow stylish even in a sweaty suit he hasn’t changed for months, riddled with aphorisms, squandering their privilege with such sophistication, such intelligence, that it is fascinating to observe.

The Withnail character from the film Withnail & I is compared with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby and Evelyn Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte in this examination of the ‘my friend the freak’ genre, in which a first-person viewpoint character narrates the (mis)adventures of another, more compelling, eccentric, self-destructive and generally wildly entertaining character.

“There is nothing better — at any age — than writing and reading purely for the pleasure of it”

My nascent writing skills took a huge leap forward when I started writing fan fiction as a teenager… I lost all the inhibitions and hang-ups of the classroom… and wrote purely for the fun of it.

@snazdoll on the value of writing (and reading) fan fiction. I agree totally: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy inspired me to fill whole exercise books with thinly-disguised knock-offs; even if the writing was terrible, I was learning the conventions of dialogue, paragraph rhythm, even stuff as rudimentary as indenting text for readability. Later I got into fan fiction through reading and publishing stories in Doctor Who fanzines. Fan fiction was far less visible then than it is now, so I guess that’s why I never felt much shame about it; there was nobody around to sneer at it.

There isn’t a university of writing. There are courses that help talented writers reach their potential or forge professional networks, sure, but for that talent to exist in the first place, would-be writers need the freedom to fill exercise books or post to fanfic boards, without inhibitions or hang-ups.

My micro life: 12:37pm, 30 May 2012

This has been the least focused day a writer has spent since T.S. Eliot accidentally cleaned his spectacles with K-Y Jelly.

“The allure of a voice”

The fiction acquisitions editor at a prominent UK publishing house once casually told me that if the voice of a novel manuscript was totally convincing, he could forgive almost anything else that might be wrong with it.

Chris Flynn, author of A Tiger In Eden, writing on ‘authorial voice’ for Meanjin. Flynn is also featured, along with The Chef author Wayne Macauley, on a recent Radio National Books and Arts Daily segment examining techniques for establishing voice (first person, in Flynn and Macauley’s case) in fiction.

“Writing a novel — actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs — is a tremendous pain in the ass”

Book Cover: How I Became A Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Writing a novel – actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs – is a tremendous pain in the ass. Now that TV’s so good and the Internet is an endless forest of distraction, it’s damn near impossible. That should be taken into account when ranking the all-time greats. Somebody like Charles Dickens, for example, who had nothing better to do except eat mutton and attend public hangings, should get very little credit.

How I Became A Famous Novelist by Steve Hely, page 73

“You have to have a huge amount of resilience”

The biggest challenge is getting the word out, and that comes as a huge depressing surprise to many people.

Independent Mac software developer Daniel Jalkut (creator of the blogging app MarsEdit) interviewed on the Mac Power Users podcast. As well as expressing a clear-eyed view about the pros and cons of things like the Mac App Store, his comments about self-promotion are not entirely without relevance to authors and other self-employed creatives.

“We hole up in a hotel and plot their next books, one at a time”

Fascinating post on different approaches an editing team takes with three different authors to plot and plan a new project.

“If I’m writing something set on Mars, or in a Victorian submarine under the sea, or about fake spirit mediums in World War Two, some part of me really feels like I’m doing the work I’m meant to be doing”

Why aren’t I letting myself have the same freedom as a writer that I grant myself as a reader? Why don’t I let myself write what I love, regardless of whatever the apparent genre of it might be?

I’m fascinated by authors who can plant themselves in all kinds of terrain. Russell Hoban is one example. Michael Chabon is another. Here he is talking about the experience of — and reasoning behind — his involvement in the movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom adventures. (Coincidentally I’m posting this while watching a video from Neil Gaimain’s Wheeler Centre appearance in which he talks about his concern at being pigeonholed.)