Writers on Writing

My favorite presenter speech of the 2014 Oscars was delivered by Robert De Niro, who, by way of introducing the nominees for Best Original Screenplay, remarked, “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing: isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled; crippled by procrastination; and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy.”  

I laughed and laughed. Whatever delicate soul crafted that teleprompter preamble is someone I should definitely have coffee with (see “caffeine-addled” and “procrastination,” above)—because it’s all so true.

A lot of the time, it’s easier to get discouraged by writing—both the process and the product—than to feel optimistic about it. That’s not to say that my low moments as an author aren’t balanced out by highs—whether it’s simply relief at having completed a new chapter, the deep satisfaction that comes from writing a sentence I feel proud of, or the sheer excitement of knowing that I’m actually fulfilling my lifelong dream of writing a book—but sometimes inspiration just doesn’t come from within.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been noticing so many quotations online recently that motivate others—to live and let live, to do what they love, to be more positive, to dig deep for inner strength, to appreciate their families and friends, to never let anyone treat them badly . . . and the list goes on. Last week, I even received an invitation to join an “inspiration exchange,” in which a sender emails the single-most influential quote of his or her life to a whole group of strangers.

Well, I didn’t jump on that bandwagon, but it did get me thinking about the kinds of quotes that resonate with me, and what I realized is that most of them have to do with the craft of writing. Below, a selection of my favorites, and why they encourage me to push myself as a novelist:

Quote: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night, and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” —Joan Didion

Why I love it: Because this is classic “write what you know” stuff.

Quote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” —Ernest Hemingway

Why I love it: Because anyone who’s read Hemingway knows that he’s a master of making a big impact with a little sentence—also known as economy of words.

Quote: “A lot of people hate heroes. I was criticized for portraying people who are brave, honest, loving, intelligent. That was called weak and sentimental. People who dismiss all real emotion as sentimentality are cowards. They’re afraid to commit themselves, and so they remain ‘cool’ for the rest of their lives, until they’re dead—then they’re really cool.” —Mark Helprin

Why I love it: Because I like to think my novel celebrates the hero and the antihero who coexist in many of my characters.

Quote: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” —Robert Frost

Why I love it: Because it’s a reminder not to get jaded (in writing or in life) and to use all those emotions I wear on my sleeve to my literary advantage.

Quote: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” —Anton Chekhov

Why I love it: Because I’m always reminding the authors I work with to “show, don’t tell,” and Chekhov sums up the concept perfectly and succinctly here.

Quote: “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”

Why I love it: Because I’m proud to be an editor, and I think all good editors deserve more respect than they sometimes get.

Quote: “Definition of rock journalism: people who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read.” —Frank Zappa

Why I love it: Because—duh—it’s hilarious!

 

 

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And That’s a Fact!

People who’ve never written a book before may have romantic ideas about how the process works: you sit at an antique desk in a serene space flooded with natural light; you sip a cup of herbal tea; you ruminate a bit, gazing off into the middle distance with just the hint of a smile on your lips; and then the ideas pour out of you in a cascade of creativity so bountiful, someone should really bottle the stuff.

Now let’s talk about how my writing process goes. Substitute a fluorescent bulb for sunbeams, a scarily unergonomic IKEA desk for the wooden rolltop, and a vodka rocks for the teacup, and you’re getting warmer. That’s on a good day, of course. On a bad day, you’d also need to replace the at-best-intermittent clickety-clack of my keyboard with an image of me staring gloomily at some obscure web page about native trees in state parks, or 1960s commercial architecture in Austin, or pictures of small-town high-school football players.

Why the long face? I blame fact-checking, an arduous but essential responsibility for any writer who wants to be taken seriously.

At its core, fact-checking is an interesting study in mind over matter, as it calls into question what our brains have been conditioned to think is correct versus what actually is correct. Here’s a quick example: “dumpster.” Looks okay, right? Makes you think of a big metal bin where people deposit their trash, and then you move on down the page to other, more pleasant visuals. But hold up—you just made your first fact-checking error, because “Dumpster” is actually a trademark and therefore must begin with a capital “D.” How about “laundromat”? How about “jacuzzi”? How about no? Both of these are trademarks, too—so if you ever find yourself in a jam and need to use your Jacuzzi as a Laundromat, at least you can congratulate yourself for knowing how to properly capitalize these terms when you’re stuck in the hospital with staph.

This kind of minor formatting consideration is only the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to fact-checking, though. Once you get in the habit of doing it, you’ll realize just how many seemingly insignificant details need a thorough once-over. There’s a reason why good magazines and newspapers have full-time staffers devoted to this pursuit, and why I, as an editor, have to be vigilant about confirming the accuracy of each special term and proper noun and time frame and statistic and report title I come across while I’m reviewing a book manuscript—even when I’m fairly confident I already know the answer, and even when it feels like drudgery.

When I’m working on my own book, I admit I find it tempting just to let my imagination run wild and make up a bunch of stuff to support my plot and my characters, but my novel is about a very specific time frame and place: South Texas in the 1940s through ’70s—a setting in which I’ve never lived. Therefore, I have a responsibility, both to my aspiring-author self and to prospective agents and publishers, to ground my fictional narrative in a geographically, temporally, and culturally precise setting.

Let’s look at one brief scene in chapter 34 of my book, in which we encounter my male protagonist lying on his bed, flipping through the latest issue of National Geographic. If I also tell you that it’s January, the middle of this boy’s senior year of high school, and that he was born in July 1949, what would your fact-checking radar home in on in this scenario?

Well, you’ll need to start by doing some basic math. The boy will have turned eighteen over the summer before he started senior year, so that means this wintertime interlude takes place in January 1968. Monthly magazines’ printed publication date is typically the month after they’re mailed, so this particular National Geographic would be the February 1968 issue. That means it’s time to go to Google Images to search for jpegs of back-issue Nat Geo covers. Aha! February ’68 features a great white shark, accompanied by the headline “Sharks: Wolves of the Sea.” Now you’re getting somewhere. But, of course, this character is reading the magazine, not just looking at its cover, so now you’ll need to revisit Google Images to find more jpegs of the interior of this issue, whereupon you’ll discover the byline of a Nathaniel T. Kenney, author of the cover story, and select a tiny excerpt from his article for my character to be reading at the instant when the reader comes upon him.

See how easy it is to tumble down the rabbit hole?

In a later chapter of my book, this same magazine buff moves to Austin. It’s July 1968 when he arrives in the city by bus. This is another outwardly innocuous event, but in reality one that requires a surprising amount of research. For starters, I had to find out the name of the bus depot in downtown Austin that year: the Continental station. Then I looked at pictures of the Texas State Capitol building for a while, since my character has a great view of it as his bus pulls in. To understand exactly what he’s seeing, I first had to understand that the Texas State Capitol is 308 feet tall, so its dome (made of a special “Sunset Red” granite, which I also looked up) would have towered over the surrounding skyline at the time. When I discovered that the dome is topped by a statue of the goddess of liberty holding a lone star, I knew I’d struck upon something for my protagonist’s girlfriend to ooh and aah over as she looks out the bus window, and something that could double as a symbol of hope for these two characters as they begin an exciting new chapter of life. And that’s all before the guy who picks them up at the depot takes them on a seven-minute drive that leads me into yet another minefield of fact-checking legwork.

For some, this kind of information gathering is satisfying, like a treasure hunt, and I get that—I’m nothing if not detail-oriented, and I can’t stand sloppiness in any form, especially narrative. But sometimes all I want to do is create my own version of a “Once upon a time…” story—and I’m pretty sure the Brothers Grimm didn’t have a fact-checking department to investigate whether the windowpanes of the witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel” were made of raw or refined sugar. Then again, maybe that’s just because Wikipedia hadn’t been invented yet.

Which Came First, the Author or the Editor?

As I sit down each week to write a new installment of my novel, I often find myself puzzling over a chicken or egg–type question: What was I first, a writer or an editor? Can someone be a good editor without understanding how to be a solid writer first? How about vice versa?

For me, these two roles are inextricable. I can’t imagine deserving the privilege of editing someone else’s writing without having spent many years trying to craft sentences of my own that flow better, read more clearly, leave a certain kind of mark on the reader. By the same token, I can’t conceive of drafting my own book or magazine article without drawing constantly upon the lessons I’ve learned through fine-tuning other writers’ language.

This feedback loop certainly doesn’t apply to all publishing professionals, but that’s usually because they’ve consciously chosen one area of specialization. For example, several seasoned editors I know steadfastly claim, “I love editing, but I don’t want to be a writer”—yet I believe that if these same people, whose adeptness with language and grammar is undeniable, decided to parlay their editing skills into a book or article or blog of their own, they’d do a great job with the crossover. Then, of course, there are the writers who straight-up aren’t interested in editing—and kudos to them, too, because it can be really tedious. If you’re a macro-focused author with an editor and/or publisher whom you trust implicitly, why not focus on the creative, big-picture stuff and farm out the micromanagement of your text to someone who’s genuinely into it?

But what if you’re a double agent, like I am? This is where things can get tricky and feelings (my own) can get hurt (by me). As the editor of other writers’ work, I derive deep satisfaction from the treasure-hunt aspects of copyediting (Aha! A misplaced modifier!) and from rearranging all the building blocks of a manuscript like Jenga pieces during a developmental edit. But when I put on my author hat, those “treasures” aren’t quite so sweet when I come across them in my own work (A misplaced modifier? How could I have been so sloppy?), nor is all the time I have to spend in my personal woodshop, sawing and sanding those Jenga sticks until I have what passes for a complete tower.

My editing experience also has a way of turning my writing process into a slog through wet sand. As often as people ask me, “What’s the big deal? Just sit down and let it flow”; as many times as I’ve lamented to my writing coach that sometimes it takes me hours to write only four pages; as much as I want to silence what my coach calls saboteurs—those inner voices taunting me, Hurry up! What’s the holdup?—I just can’t resist self-editing. I treat every sentence within every paragraph within every chapter, not to mention the novel as a whole, as a project unto itself, something to belabor often to the point of obsession.

Sometimes when I’m writing, I think of the movie Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman plays Nina, a technically meticulous but dangerously uptight ballerina who is cast as the lead in Swan Lake. Nina dances the austere White Swan to perfection in her audition, but when it comes time for her to portray the savage abandon that the part of the Black Swan embodies, she falters—she’s just too rigid. One day during rehearsal, Portman watches enviously as her understudy, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), pirouettes wildly around the studio. Their instructor (Vincent Cassel) sidles up next to her and whispers, “Watch the way she moves—imprecise, but effortless.” At that moment, Lily careens into a fellow dancer, but she just laughs and keeps on spinning—just as the Black Swan should.

Guess which swan I am in this scenario? I’d love to say I’m like Lily when I write—loose, easygoing, letting the words tumble out of me onto the page with joyful recklessness—but I’m just not. I’m Nina all the way (minus the bloody cuticles). That’s because there’s an editor alter ego inside my author persona all the time, and while I hope I don’t end up stabbing her with a shard of broken mirror, like Nina did to Lily, I do wish she would let me spread my wings a little more some days.

I console myself with this idea, though: maybe all the personal policing my writing process involves on the front end will pay off in the form of a more polished manuscript on the back end. Everyone has to tackle pesky issues like verb-tense shifts and word repetition and punctuation errors at some point, but some writers (understandably, I might add) prefer to put off dealing with these details until they’ve completed a rough draft. I suspect that’s how Lily would approach her own novel. But, again, that’s simply not who I am. So I’m crossing my t‘s, as well as my fingers, the first time around, in hopes that both my editor self and my author self feel good about our book.