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Friday, June 30, 2017

Believable Fantasy

I learned years ago from Lester del Ray that the secret to writing good fantasy is to make certain it relates to what we know about our own world. Readers must be able to identify with the material in such a way that they recognize and believe the core truths of the storytelling. It doesn't matter if you are writing epic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, dark urban fantasy, comic fantasy, or something else altogether, there has to be truth in the material. Otherwise readers are going to have a tough time suspending disbelief long enough to stay interested.

Terry Brooks, Sometimes The Magic Works, 2003

Memoirists Are Liars

Perhaps all memoirists lie. We alter the truth on paper so as to alter it in fact; we lie about our past and invent surrogate memories the better to make sense of our lives and live the life we know was truly ours. We write about our life, not to see it as it was, but to see it as we wish others might see it, so we may borrow their gaze and begin to see our life through their eyes, not ours.

Andre Acimen in Writers on Writing, edited by John Darnton, 2001 

Mark Twain and His Typewriter

     Mark Twain loved gadgets and would buy the latest thing when it came out. When typewriters hit the market, he was among the first to buy one for the then outrageous price of $125 (more than $2,150 in today's money.) Twain was also the first author ever to submit a typewritten manuscript to a publisher. It was 1833 and the book was Life on the Mississippi. 

     Twain used the "hunt and peck" typing method. He didn't know the touch-typing system of using all the fingers. Nobody did, because it wouldn't be invented for another quarter century. Twain eventually traded his Remington typewriter for a $12 saddle.

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, It Takes a Certain Type To Be a Writer, 2003 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Novelists Criticizing The Work of Other Novelists

     Novelists are not remotely wary of criticizing one another's work in private; they do it all the time. Only when they're asked to commit their shoptalk to print do they grow reticent. A hardy few are prepared to engage tough-mindedly with the works of their peers….

     Most fiction writers end up deciding that discretion is the greater part of critical valor. Some recuse themselves from reviewing any contemporary fiction at all. Others review only those novels they can praise in good faith. Still others adopt a tactful, discursive reviewing style that allows them to write about books they don't rate without actually copping to an opinion.

     Before we rebuke these writers for their intellectual cowardice, we ought to acknowledge the genuine difficulty of the task they shirk. The literary world is tiny. The subgroup represented by novelists is even tinier. If you're an author who regularly reviews other authors, the chances of running into a person whose novel you have criticized are fairly high….It may not be the worst thing in the world to find yourself side by side at a cocktail party with the angry man whose work you described as mediocre in last Sunday's paper, but the threat of such encounter is not a great spur to critical honesty. [If you're interested in literary courage, read B. R. Myers' book Reader's Manifesto where he rips apart several so-called literary giants. A great book and a wonderful read.]

Zoe Heller, The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 2013


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

O.J. Simpson: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Some writers of letters and a lot of kids don't seem to care if I'm guilty or innocent. They just want to believe in me….When I speak to kids, I say that you have to accept responsibility for your own actions…I say to everybody that if I had committed this crime, I would have had to take responsibility for my actions….

O.J. Simpson, I Want to Tell You, 1994 [Letter to a young fan following his arrest for double murder.]

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The "Mainstream" Novel

Authors often believe that if a novel can only be categorized "mainstream" that it will automatically ship to stores in large quantities and sell to customers in big numbers. That belief is naive. So-called mainstream novels can sell in tiny numbers. That is even more true in the category of literary fiction. Authors with such labels face a double struggle in building their audience. For one thing, they cannot tap into the popularity of an existing genre. They must build from the ground up, creating a category where none existed before--their own. It can be a tough job.

Donald Maass, The Career Novelist, 2001 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Story Versus Plot

Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is a story we say, "and then?" If it is a plot we ask "why?" That is the fundamental difference between these to aspects of the novel.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) Aspects of the Novel, 1927

A Stupid College Course

Lady Gaga may not have much class but now there is a class on her. The University of South Carolina is offering a class called Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame. Mathieu Deflem, the professor teaching the course describes it as aiming to "unravel some of the sociologically relevant dimensions of the fame of Lady Gaga with respect to her music, videos, fashion, and other endeavors." [No wonder sociology majors end up working at Walmart or in the mall.]

Michael Snyder, "20 Completely Ridiculous College Courses Offered at U. S. Universities," theeconomiccollapseblog.com, June 5, 2013 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Joseph Wambaugh on Writing Narrative Nonfiction

When I write nonfiction, obviously I was not there when the events occurred. I write in a dramatic style--that is, I employ lots of dialogue. I describe feelings. I describe how the events must have taken place. I invent probable dialogue or a least possible dialogue based upon all of the research that I do.

Joseph Wambaugh in Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Market Oriented Publishing

     Trivia has swamped contemporary literary life and become, it seems, more important than the books. A book's blurb is more important than the book itself, the author's photograph on the book jacket is more important than its content, the author's appearance in wide-circulation newspapers and on TV is more important than what the author has actually written.

     Many writers feel increasingly uncomfortable in such a literary landscape, densely populated with publishers, editors, agents, distributors, brokers, publicity specialists, bookstore chains, "marketing people," television cameras, photographers. The writer and his reader--the two most important links in the chain--are more isolated than ever.

Dubravka Ugresic, Thank You For Not Reading, 2003

Margaret Atwood on Unlikable Characters in Fiction

I have been idiotically told that I write "awful" books [novels] because the people in them are unpleasant. Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of the book with the moral rectitude of the characters. For those who want goodigoodness, there are the Victorian good-girl religious novels that would suit them fine.

Margaret Atwood, novelist,  2013

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Who Killed Jesse James?

     Did Bob Ford really kill the notorious outlaw Jesse Woodson James on April 3, 1882 in his house high atop Lafayette Street in St. Joseph, Missouri? If not Jesse, then who met his maker, courtesy of Bob Ford's revolver, on that fateful day?...

     Some say the assassinated man was an unwitting stand-in by the name of Charlie Bigelow. Others announce that there were in truth two Jesse Jameses: one, the true Jesse Woodson James, and the other, Jesse R. James, who was a Jesse Woodson James look-alke who could fool even Jesse's older brother Frank. In life and death, he passed himself off, it is said, as the authentic Jesse...

     Jesse James died on April 3, 1882 in St. Joseph, Missouri when he was shot in the head by a single bullet that did not exit his skull. In light of scientific findings, the claims of those who say that someone else died in Jesse's place, and that Jesse lived on to father additional children, are worse than nonsense. They are ludicrous in the extreme.

James E. Starrs (with Katherine Ramsland), A Voice for the Dead, 2005

  

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Crystal Mangum Murder Case

      In 2006, 27-year-old Crystal Mangum claimed that three Duke University lacrosse players gang-raped her at a team party. The students had hired her as a stripper. The case grabbed national headlines because the accused were privileged young white men and the victim was working-class black.

     When it became obvious that Mangum had fabricated her story of rape, North Carolina's attorney general declared the three Duke students innocent. The case ruined the career of Mike Nifong, the politically ambitious Durham County prosecutor who had championed Mangum's false allegations. The  state bar association disbarred Nifong for his bad faith and overzealous prosecution of the innocent college students. The Duke Lacrosse case represented what can happen when politics and race override the pursuit of justice.

     Another Durham County prosecutor, in February 2010, charged Crystal Mangum with attempted murder in connection with a row she had with her live-in boyfriend. According to the victim, she trashed his car then set fire to a pile of his clothes. At the time of the fire, children were in the apartment.

     Just before the trial, the prosecutor replaced the attempted murder charge with felony-arson and contributing to the abuse of minors. In December 2010, a jury found Mangum guilty of the child abuse charge after failing to reach a consensus on the felony-arson count. The judge sentenced Mangum to the amount of time she had served in jail awaiting trial.

   A 911 operator in Durham, North Carolina, on April 3, 2011, received an emergency call from the nephew of a 46-year-old man named Reginald Daye. Mr. Daye, Mangum's boyfriend, shared an apartment with her. The 911 caller said, "It's Crystal Mangum. The Crystal Mangum! I told him [Daye] she was trouble from the damn beginning!"

    According to this 911 caller, Mr. Daye needed emergency medical assistance. Crystal Mangum had stabbed him with a kitchen knife.

     Paramedics rushed Reginald Daye to Duke University Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery to repair the knife wound. Police officers arrested Mangum that day at a nearby apartment. Charged with assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to kill, the police booked Mangum into the Durham County Jail. The magistrate set her bond at $300,000.

     Ten days after his surgery Reginald Daye died from the knife attack. The prosecutor immediately upgraded the charge against Mangum to first-degree murder.

     In February 2013, Mangum gained temporary freedom after someone posted her bond. Acting as her own attorney, she claimed she had killed Reginald Daye in self defense.

     By the time the Mangum murder case went to trial on November 11, 2013, the accused had acquired the services of two defense attorneys. Assistant District Attorney Charlene Franks, in her opening remarks before the jury, said that the defendant, armed with a kitchen knife, had chased the victim down. Ten days later he died from his wounds.

     According to the defense version of the case, Mangum, to protect herself against an enraged and jealous boyfriend, locked herself in the bathroom. When Daye kicked down the door and started beating her, she used the kitchen knife to "poke him in the side." According to the defense, Daye had died not from the stabbing but from complications arising from his surgery.

     On November 22, 2013, the jury, after a six-hour deliberation, rejected Mangum's version of the events leading up to Reginald Daye's violent death. The panel found the defendant guilty of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced Mangum to a minimum 14 years in prison. At maximum, she could spend 18 years behind bars.

     If Crystal Mangum is released after serving her minimum sentence, she will walk out of prison at age 48. If she conducts herself behind bars like she has lived her life on the outside, she's in for a difficult 14 years.

     

Stephen King on the Long Novel

     Let us consider the problems of the long novel, in which the heft is apt to come in for almost as much critical examination as the contents. There is, for instance, Jack Beatty's famous critique of James A. Michener's Chesapeake (865 pages): "My best advice is don't read it; my second best is don't drop it on your foot." Presumably, Beatty read it--or at least skimmed it--before offering these helpful hints, but you get the idea. In this hurry-scurry age, big books are viewed with suspicion, and sometimes disdain.

     The book buyer's suspicions are more justified. The critic, after all, is being paid to read. Consumers must spend their hard-earned cash for the same privilege. Then there's the question of time. Prospective buyers have every right to ask: "Do I really want to give two weeks of my reading life to this novel? Can it possibly be worth it when there are so many others--most a good deal shorter--clamoring for my attention?"

Stephen King, "Flights of Fancy," The New York Times Book Review, October 13, 2013

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Talking Versus Writing

     People often assume they know how to write because they know how to speak. There are deep and important connections between spoken and written language, but they're not the same thing. If you think they are, tape a conversation and transcribe it verbatim and see how it reads.

Richard Rhodes, How To Write, 1995

Writing Narrative History

Historians have always crafted narratives. War. Peace. Political battles. Feuds in the hollers. Floods on the Mississippi. Hurricanes. Strikes. Assassinations. Voyages to known and unknown places. Trials of the century. Personal quests. Leaders with uncommon touches and tragic flaws. This is the stuff of great narrative and the stuff of narrative history, stories about the past told with verve and drama but also with strong arguments and thick footnotes.

Lee Gutkind, Keep it Real, 2009 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Trump University: A Scam or Standard Academic Puffing?

     In May 2005, Donald Trump added a new service to the far reaching and diverse Trump brand. (Bottled water, neckties, golf courses, resorts, hotels, office buildings, condominiums--you name it.) Aspiring entrepreneurs in search of their fortunes could enroll at Trump University, an online educational institution that offered courses and seminars in real estate, asset management, entrepreneurship (If you need to go to school to become an entrepreneur, forget it.), and wealth creation. Trump University tuition ranged from $1,500 to $35,000. This was a lot of money for a "university" that didn't confer college credits or an accredited degree. Enrollees knew this, of course. They were attracted to the Trump name and all it stood for. Fair enough. That's why students endure Massachusetts to attend Harvard.

     Donald Trump himself appeared in television ads for the school that led prospective students to believe that the course instructors had been handpicked by The Donald. The targeted customers were promised a free, 90-minute seminar where they would learn how to make money in real estate through a "systematic method of investing." The free seminar acted as a pitch for the three-day real estate seminar that cost $1,495. The Trump school also offered the so-called "Trump Elite" educational packages that included personal mentorship programs that cost between $10,000 and $35,000.

     Trump University, in June 2010, changed its name to The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative after bureaucrats with the New York State Department of Education declared the use of the word "university" in the company name misleading. (Just how stupid would a prospective student have to be to think this was a real university?) The state authorities also felt that because the institution wasn't licensed, accredited, or bonded by the state, it was not a legal operation. Perhaps this is the real reason New York injected itself into the business of Mr. Trump's school. The government wasn't getting it's cut of the action.

     In May 2011, six years after the founding of Trump University, the New York Attorney General's Office, under Eric T. Schneiderman, launched an investigation of Trump's online educational service. State investigators were looking for evidence of "illegal business practices." The attorney general opened the case against Trump after Trump University graduates from New York and four other states complained they had been misled by deceptive advertisement. (According to Attorney General Schneiderman, some of the "Trump Elites" thought they had purchased the right to meet Donald Trump in person. Instead, they were photographed next to a live-size poster of the man.) At this point, The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative had essentially ceased doing business.

     The state of New York, in August 2013, filed a $40 million civil suit against the Trump institution. In its quest for restitution, the attorney general's office accused Trump and his operatives of illegal business practices in the form of "false promises." In the suit the plaintiff described Trump University as "an elaborate bait-and-switch" operation.

     Attorney General Schneiderman, in a statement released to the media, said that Donald Trump and his people had made false promises to persuade more than 5,000 students--including 600 New Yorkers--"to spend tens of thousands of dollars they couldn't afford for lessons they never got." (They got one lesson, only suckers think they can get rich by going to a seminar.) According to the attorney general, "Trump University engaged in deception at every stage of consumers' advancement through costly programs, and caused real financial harm. Trump University, with Donald Trump's knowledge and participation relied on Trump's name recognition and celebrity status to take advantage of consumers who believed in the Trump brand. No one, no matter how rich or famous they are, has a right to scam hardworking New Yorkers. Anyone who does should expect to be held accountable." (Really? The biggest scam artists are government employees. Who's holding them accountable?)

     As could be expected, the Trump organization went on the offensive. Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told an Associated Press reporter that he had testimonials from 11,000 former students who had been "extremely satisfied" (odd combination of words) with Trump University. According to attorney Cohen, the attorney general's illegal business practices suit was laden with "falsehoods."

     George Sorial, another Trump lawyer, accused Attorney General Schneiderman of being politically motivated. According to Sorial, Schneiderman had filed the suit after Donald Trump refused to contribute to his campaign. "This [the lawsuit] is tantamount to extortion," he said.

     Critics of higher education generally might wonder why the New York Attorney General's Office wasn't going after other educational institutions that charge huge amounts of money for diplomas that, in the job market, are worthless. Why wasn't he, for example, suing Columbia University, Brooklyn College, or the University of Buffalo for deceptive business practices?  

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Creative Nonfiction Versus Reportage

Creative nonfiction differs from fiction because it is necessarily and scrupulously accurate….Creative nonfiction differs from traditional reportage because balance is unnecessary and subjectivity is not only permitted but encouraged.

Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1997

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Why Nonfiction Writers Get Rejected

Nonfiction writers write too much about themselves and what they think without seeking a universal focus so that readers are properly and firmly engaged. Essays that are so personal that they omit the reader are essays that will never see the light of print. The overall objective of a writer should be to make the reader tune in, not out....The uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality in action.

Lee Gutkind, Keep it Real, 2009

The Writer's LIfe

Before I entered publishing, I believed, like most people, that the life of a writer was to be envied. As one of my heroes, Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) wrote, "When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip." Now I understand that writers are a breed apart, their gifts and their whips inextricably linked. The writer's psychology is by its very nature one of extreme duality. The writer labors in isolation, yet all that intensive, lonely work in the service of communicating, is an attempt to reach another person. It isn't surprising, then, that many writers are ambivalent, if not altogether neurotic, about bringing their work forward. For in so doing, a writer must face down that which he most fears: rejection. There is no stage of the writing process that doesn't challenge every aspect of a writer's personality. How well writers deal with those challenges can be critical to their survival.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees, 2000

Monday, June 5, 2017

Mystery Writer Agatha Christie

During her lifetime, Agatha Christie (1890-1976) sold more than two billion books, topped only by Shakespeare and the Bible. Hercule Poirot, her principal detective, appeared in 33 novels.

Reader's Digest, December, 2014 

Clueless in the Bronx: Puerile Substitute Discusses Love Life With Fourth Graders

     A New York City substitute teacher was fired after she asked her 4th grade students for romantic advice about her relationship with two men. Cassandre Fiering, 45, asked students to act out conversations where they would play the part of the men, both of whom are in their 30s….The incident happened in June 2013 at Public School 189 in the Bronx. Fiering said she was stuck in the classroom with five students without a lesson plan while the rest of the class was on a field trip. So she decided to act out the conversations….

     Students allegedly said she called them her "munchkins" and told them to toilet paper one of the men's homes….The kids, who were asked to help her choose between the two men, advised Fiering to break up with the younger of the two men because he was not returning her calls. Fiering said the conversation was harmless, and that the kids thought it was fun….

     Fiering is also an actress who has had small roles in commercials, movies and television….She admitted that it was poor judgement to bring her romantic life into the classroom, but told a reporter with The New York News that she would appeal her dismissal. "I've been slandered," she said. "This is the biggest bunch of crap I've heard in my life."

     Fiering has since ended her relationship with both men….[This puerile woman was fired because she was a substitute employee and not in the teacher's union. Otherwise, she'd still be in the classroom.]

Ben Axelson, "New York Teacher Fired For Asking 4th Graders For Love Advice About Her Boyfriends," Syracuse.com, May 22, 2014 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Detective Fiction as Literature

It may well be that when the historians of literature come to discourse upon the fiction produced by the English-speaking peoples in the first half of the twentieth century, they will pass somewhat lightly over the compositions of the "serious" novelists and turn their attention to the immense and varied achievement of the detective writers.

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) English playwright, novelist and short story writer

How to Get a Literary Agent

Choosing an agent is a lot like choosing a hairdresser. [I currently don't have an agent or a hairdresser.] If you know a bunch of writers and most writers do because who else is home all day?) ask the successful ones who represents them. [In reality, writers with agents hate to be asked this.] If you don't know any writers, look at books by authors you admire and see which agent the author thanked in the acknowledgements. Send five to ten of these agents a resume, cover letter, and proposal for what you're trying to sell (it's imperative that the prospective agent knows that you have a money-making project in mind). Interview the agents who respond positively and pick the one you like best. If no one responds positively, send your stuff to another five to ten agents. Don't take it personally. Think of it as practice in handling rejection. (Believe me, you'll need all the practice you can get.)

Margo Kaufman in Jon Winokur's Advice to Writers, 1999

[Avoid any agent who charges an upfront fee. A vast majority of the successful agents have offices in New York City. Retaining a fee-agent with an office in Youngstown, Ohio is worse than having no agent at all. Here's the catch-22: It's difficult getting commercially published without an agent, and it's hard to get an agent if you're not published.]

Friday, June 2, 2017

Learning to Write From Reading

     There are two ways to learn how to write a novel. By writing them and by reading them. If you are not reading them, the obvious question I'd ask is, why would you want to write something you wouldn't want to read? Are you one of those folks who really wants to make movies and figures writing a novel is easier than writing a screenplay? (It is not.) Or you think the novel will be your entree into Hollywood? (It very well could be.)…If you want to be a novelist, you have to read novels. You're kidding yourself if you think otherwise. Your daily view of the world is affected by what you've been reading, and what you write will also be affected.

     You should always be reading a novel or a collection of stories. When you find a novel you like, read everything by that writer, or read him until you've had enough. You're reading to learn….

John Dufresne, Is Life Like This? 2010

JFK Assassination: Most Americans Believe in a Conspiracy

     [In an Associated Press poll] conducted in mid-April 2013, 59 percent of Americans think multiple people were involved in a conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy, while 24 percent think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and 16 percent are unsure. A 2003 Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Americans felt there was a conspiracy.

     As the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death approaches, the number of Americans who believe Oswald acted alone is at its highest since the period three years after the November 22, 1963 assassination when 36 percent said one man was responsible.

Associated Press, November 2013 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Novel Versus Short-Story Writing

     Short-story writing, as I saw it, was estimable. One required skill and cleverness to carry it off. But to have written a novel was to have achieved something of substance. You could swing a short story on a cute idea backed up by a modicum of verbal agility. You could, when the creative juices were flowing, knock it off start-to-finish on a slow afternoon.

     A novel, on the other hand, took real work. You had to spend months on the thing, fighting it out in the trenches, line by line and page by page and chapter by chapter. It had to have plot and characters of sufficient depth and complexity to support a structure of sixty or a hundred thousand words. It wasn't an anecdote, or a finger exercise, or a trip to the moon on gossamer wings. It was a book. 

     The short-story writer, as I saw it, was a sprinter; he deserved praise to the extent that his stories were meritorious. But the novelist was a long-distant runner, and you don't have to come in first in a marathon in order to deserve the plaudits of the crowd. It is enough merely to have finished on one's feet.

Lawrence Block, Writing a Novel, 1979 

Children Like the Sound of Words

Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia [words that sound like what they mean], they fall in love with impressive words and use them in all the wrong places.

Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft, 1998