Writers' Reel is a weekly video feature.
How do writers support themselves, anyway? Just in time for Labor Day, here's a video of writers talking about work.
Below is an excerpt of "A Guide to Revision" by Rick Moody. Download the full document by clicking here.
Revision is the most important part of what we do as writers. It's also the least studied stage in the process. There are stylemanuals in abundance, true. These style manuals often feature a wealth of practical recommendations for writers. But these recommendations are, in their silence on the specifics of revision, essentially aimed at the first draft. Less often do these style manuals apply themselves to the ongoing process of writing, the painstaking improvement that is revision. At the other extreme, writing workshops, which often do make suggestions for revision, have an easier time suggesting major surgery than they do suggesting the kinds of fine tuning that make the difference in the long, slow deliberation of completion.
As a way of rethinking the kind of instruction I have recently offered my own students, it has occurred to me that I might attempt to make scientific - however disagreeable that word might sound - the art of revision. In this way, I imagine that I help to make this essential part of composition less fearsome, less unknown. A number of specific suggestions occur below, therefore, with a rationale for each. The diagnosis I'm offering here is old-fashioned: that haste and a lack of interest in line-by-line work are the literary diseases of the age. What follows are some things you can do to avoid falling ill.
Of course, I am by no means perfect at these things myself. But over the years I have become more teachable. (I have even revised these lines according to the rules contained in these pages and I am not sure the piece is done yet!) This, therefore, is advice I take myself, at least when I am working at my best. I offer it to all interested parties.
1. Omit Needless Words
This suggestion is from a style manual, one of the best, and it is therefore a good place to begin. The injunction comes from Strunk and White, of course, as readers of that primer will recall. E. B. White, an admirable stylist, has the line-by-line gracefulness of a great rewriter, and in thi s particular case the perfection is as much in the form of the recommendation as it is in the sense. Which is to say: it's obvious that all the needless words have been removed from the phrase "Omit needless words." (One cannot greet with like enthusiasm the authors' suggestion, elsewhere, to "Prefer the mainstream to the offbeat.") What could be more elegantly restrained than this nugget of widsom? The command, as shown here, is such an adroit verb form, don't you think? Use commands often! And while I will recommend below that you rethink modifiers when you revise, the modifier here ("needless") is so muscular, especially before the noun "words," that it is hard to quarrel with it. Why omit needless words? A parable, if I may. When I was first working in book publishing, in 1986, I worked for an editor who occasionally offered an exercise along the lines of the Strunk and White suggestion, in the course of training young editors. My boss's editorial exercise involved a deep inquiry into the phrase "Buy fresh fish here." This being a sign one might, for the sake of argument, see at a local fish market. About this phrase, "Buy fresh fish here," my boss observed that a) no fish market would advertise old or unfresh fish, making "fresh" redundant; and b) if you were standing at the fish market itself it was obvious that you were already "here," making that word unnecessary; c) what else would you do at the market but "buy" the fish, eliminating the need for that portion of the sign; leaving d) just "Fish" in the sign, as far as truly essential words went. Jane, my boss, suggested that contemporary prose be edited along these lines. Ruthlessly.
Download the rest of Rick Moody's essay here.
Writers' Reel is a weekly video feature. This week we've shared a New York Times video interview with novelist Richard Russo. Enjoy:
The Mark Blog recommends this excellent essay by Aimee Bender on how to be a disciplined writer. "Why the Best Way to Get Creative Is to Make Some Rules" was originally published in O Magazine. Read the full article here.
Years ago I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with my boyfriend at the time, and initially we shared the office, back-to-back, each working away at our computers.
But he was a newshound, and he'd read Internet news extensively while I was writing, making thoughtful grunts at each article. Months went by like this, and other times he'd give up on the news and I'd hear him typing away behind me. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. I couldn't ask him not to type; it was his office, too. But the distraction was overwhelming.
And the office space felt too big to me, anyway. When we had looked for a place to live, I'd been intrigued by the idea of writing in a hall closet, creating a little writing chamber all my own. Some of the apartment buildings in Hollywood were endowed with beautiful, substantial closets, with tiny windows and sometimes even a built-in shelf, perfect for the printer! Ours turned out to be windowless and fairly small, so I gave up and hung my clothes in it. A year later, unable to bear the drumming of fingers on keys, I drove myself to Target, bought a standing hanging rod, took the clothes out, cleaned up, placed a card table at one end, and, with some geometric maneuvering, shoved a desk chair into the other. By angling myself into the chair, there was just enough room to sit. We strung extension cords along the floor and ceiling, and hooked the computer up to a plug in the living room.
The first morning I stepped inside, I was dizzy with a strange new panic; the closet seemed too small, too dusty—and what was this ominous gray electrical box to my left? I kept the door half open. I told myself I'd give it two weeks, and then decide.
I don't remember when the two weeks passed. I wrote in that closet for more than two years.
I'd always assumed that when Virginia Woolf referred to a room of one's own, she meant a light-filled studio by a lake. But the truth is, there can be something very useful about a small, dark space. Large meadows are lovely for picnics and romping, but they are for the lighter feelings. Meadows do not make me want to write.
Writing can be a frightening, distressing business, and whatever kind of structure or buffer is available can help a lot. For almost 17 years now, I've been faithful to a two-hours-a-day routine, every morning, five or six days a week. I get up, sit down, check e-mail briefly, turn off my e-mail and Internet, look at the time on the computer, write the two-hour marker on a little pad of paper on my desk, and begin. Inspired by the highly regular routines of writers like Stephen King, Flannery O'Connor, Trollope, and many more, I tried to tailor mine to my own idiosyncrasies. In my rule book, I don't have to do anything except sit at the computer, but I'm not allowed to do anything else, and I usually get so bored I start to work. I generally stop to the minute, because I'm so ready to stop, and because I don't want to mess with the rules. The rigid time structure, much like the idea of the cramped closet, is freeing, and for me, the more I can externalize the ritual, the easier it is to submit to it. It's all a declaration against the regular dread I used to feel all the time when I wasn't writing. Once the structure was formalized, the dread diminished dramatically.
Read the full article here.
Writers' Reel is a weekly video feature. Below we've shared an interview with Colson Whitehead, whose latest book is Sag Harbor. Whitehead received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002.
Below we've excerpted an Atlantic interview with Amy Hempel. The full interview can be found here.
If you’re taking your time with this sentence-by-sentence construction, do you have very little revision by the time you’re done?
I probably have less revision than those who have that wonderful rush of story to tell—you know, I can’t wait to tell you what happened the other day. It comes tumbling out and maybe then they go back and refine. I kind of envy that way of working, but I just have never done it.
Is your focus on the sentence one reason you are a short story writer rather than a novelist?
It’s partly that, and it’s partly the way I live, or the way I make sense of what happens on a daily basis. That is, I don’t have the big overview, or as Barry Hannah once wrote, the “underview.” He wrote something about people in the bleachers, watching the main event, and he’s under the bleachers—his underview—picking everything that’s been dropped and left behind. I think that’s more of what I do, too. But part of it is just maybe registering more of the peripheral, the lingering after-effects, than the main subject that other writers might be able to write about.
How was the experience of writing your novella, “Tumble Home,” different from writing your short stories?
Just for one thing, having to keep so much in my head at once. I honestly don’t know how anyone writes a novel. I don’t know how it’s possible. I really don’t. The only way that this novella could get done was because I wrote it in vignettes—in “takes”—and then assembled them. The form of it was crucial to completion. I’ve written stories in vignettes, but I didn’t have as many elements to keep pulling forward, to keep intersecting as the thing went on. It was hard. It was really hard.
You have a couple of one-sentence stories. Did you start by saying, Okay I’m going to give myself this challenge of writing a story that will happen in one sentence, or do you write the sentence and realize, This is all I wanted to say?
The second. I wrote the sentence in each case and saw that that was the whole thing. Sadly, the first time I did it I didn’t see that for two-and-a-half years. In “Housewife,” I thought, Oh, this is the first line of a story, and two and a half years later I’m like, Nope, that is the story. The second time I did it, in The Dog of the Marriage with “Memoir,” that was it. I knew that was it.
I wanted to ask you about endings. How do you know when a story is finished?
I’ve always known when I start a story what the last line is. It’s always been the case, since the first story I ever wrote. I don’t know how it’s going to get there, but I seem to need the destination. I need to know where I end up. It never changes, ever. So that’s kind of curious, but that’s how I know.
Do you know the first line?
Yeah, I have the first and the last. Nothing in between. Grace Paley once said a very long time ago that as soon as she has a first line, she knows she has a story. Which is different from writing a first line, and thinking, Okay, now I’ll just go to work. She knows. She said she knew with the first line, and I seem to know with the first and the last line.
One thing that’s very nervy and fascinating that I’m reading right now: have you seen on Slate that Walter Kirn is writing a novel in real time and posting installments? Which is just an incredible experiment. He’s one of my very, very favorite writers. It’s just quite thrilling to see someone do, work this way, and work well this way.
I read that Miles Davis once said “You have to play a long time before you sound like yourself.” When reading your collection, there’s definitely a voice that sounds like Amy Hempel’s voice. Was it a long time in the coming?
Not a long time in the coming. The curious thing is that it’s nothing like my “voice” in life. It’s just not. If you talk to Grace Paley, to use a brilliant example, she does not sound so unlike herself on the page. The voice on the page is extremely artful, but I don’t see such a wide gap there; whereas my voice, or the way I sound on the page is quite different. It’s much tighter, and more compressed, and maybe savvier sometimes than I am. So I think it’s a kind of idealized self or idealized voice on the page.
Read the rest of the interview here.
PEN Center USA is pleased to announce a fabulous new writing workshop with Alan Watt, our recent Mark instructor! This one-day workshop is geared to help the writer uncover thematic elements behind the plot.
The workshop is offered at three prices:
$25 for Full PEN Center USA members
$45 for non-members
$75 bundle, which includes the workshop and an Associate PEN membership!
Saturday, September 22, 2012 12 PM - 3 PM
1404 3rd Street Promenade
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Preview the workshop:
Writers' Reel is a weekly video feature. Below we've shared a video profile of Andre Dubus, an American short story writer.
Andre Dubus, born in Louisiana to a Catholic family, studied journalism and English at McNeese State College. He spent six years in the Marine Corps, during which he married his first wife and had his first four children, including Andre Dubus III. After leaving the Marines he studied at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. As an ex-Marine turned writer, Dubus (pronounced duh-byoose) had a tough exterior and a tender heart - something he became known for in his work, which often deals with pain, tragedy, violence, and flawed characters with astonishing compassion and kindness. He wrote a few novellas and one novel, Lieutenant (1967), but was mostly devoted to the short story, a form in which he is considered one of the masters. As a devout Catholic throughout his life, his faith sometimes appeared explicitly in his writing and other times informed his work through themes of redemption and grace.
On an evening in 1986, Dubus stopped at a roadside to help a brother and sister injured in an accident. As he did, an oncoming car hit them, killing the brother and crushing Dubus's legs. The sister was saved because Dubus pushed her out of the way of the car. Dubus's left leg was amputated above the knee, and he lost the use of his right leg. After several years of physical therapy, he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, an experience he wrote about in the collection of essays, Meditations from a Moveable Chair. His other works include Adultery and Other Choices, The Times Are Never So Bad, Dancing After Hours, and Broken Vessels. He was awarded the PEN/Malamud, the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Jean Stein Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also received Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, and nominations for a National Book Critics' Circle Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Several of his stories and novellas have been adapted into films, including In the Bedroom (based on "Killings") and We Don't Live Here Anymore (based on "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and "Adultery").
Biography provided by bookbrowse.com.
Thank you to Writer's Digest for posting ten Gore Vidal quotes on writing, all taken from a 1975 Writer's Digest interview. Among his many achievements, Gore Vidal won the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. Join us in honoring Vidal's work and life, and enjoy a selection of his advice to writers:
“I’ve always said, ‘I have nothing to say, only to add.’ And it’s with each addition that the writing gets done. The first draft of anything is really just a track.”
“That famous writer’s block is a myth as far as I’m concerned. I think bad writers must have a great difficulty writing. They don’t want to do it. They have become writers out of reasons of ambition. It must be a great strain to them to make marks on a page when they really have nothing much to say, and don’t enjoy doing it. I’m not so sure what I have to say but I certainly enjoy making sentences.”
“Constant work, constant writing and constant revision. The real writer learns nothing from life. He is more like an oyster or a sponge. What he takes in he takes in normally the way any person takes in experience. But it is what is done with it in his mind, if he is a real writer, that makes his art.”
“I’ll tell you exactly what I would do if I were 20 and wanted to be a good writer. I would study maintenance, preferably plumbing. … So that I could command my own hours and make a good living on my own time.”
“A book exists on many different levels. Half the work of a book is done by the reader—the more he can bring to it the better the book will be for him, the better it will be in its own terms.”
Read the full article here.