First Forays

“The particular power and readability of Madame Bovary, when it appeared in 1857, were its great and novel attractions, and these were achieved by a thousand technical devices contrived by a mature genius — economical profusion of detail, controlled style, constant shifting of scene, focus, and angle of view, dramatization of confrontations, and a host of others, from the most obvious to the amazingly subtle. Most of them have been used or attempted, or deliberately eschewed, by writers of novels ever since. It has often been said that with Madame Bovary, Flaubert ‘invented’ the modern novel.”
Francis Steegmuller

What an admirable job our boy Francis does of capturing some of the key elements of Gustave Flaubert’s elegant, transparent style! This comment comes from his Introduction to November, Flaubert’s little-known early novel. I happened upon it in my local library and, since Madame Bovary is among my favorite novels, I decided to check it out.

Gustave penned November when he was just twenty or so — and while he never disowned it, he was quick to point out its flaws later in his career. After reading it, I can see why. Its self-absorbed narrator is given to florid descriptions and relentless bouts of melancholy. The book also has no plot: the first half flows turgidly and the second half seems pasted onto it with gushy glue.

And yet, hidden like gems within the sometimes painful prose, are flashes of insight, beautifully turned phrases, and a glimpse into the yearning, discontented soul that will eventually find its way into Emma Bovary. It’s amazing to see that in this very early novel, Flaubert was already playing with some of the themes he would probe so artfully in his masterpiece, Madame Bovary.

Here’s something I’ve found can be very instructive: Reading the earliest novels, short stories or plays of an author whose gifts you truly admire. It’s incredible how much you can learn from doing this. First and foremost, you realize that early in their career they often wrote heavy handed prose and were lousy at plotting. But they kept writing and gained experience and hard-won skills. Second, you can often see the seeds of their style and the bare-boned mechanics of their emerging technique. And finally, you can admire and take inspiration from their persistence and grit. Somehow, they managed to survive their first forays into writing and go on to pen masterful, enduring stories. If they did it, then so can we. So let’s write on!

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Paper Tigers

“Our fears are always more numerous than our dangers.”
Seneca, ancient philosopher and statesman

Seneca was a wise man and a wise writer. Though he lived in a very different age, the dilemmas he faced are much the same as those we battle with today. Talking with writers and aspiring writers, I often hear them voicing very similar fears. Here are three big ones that spring to mind:

Fear of not having anything to say of value — Write something, anything, that touches on the human condition in a way that readers can connect with and they’ll be on your side. Show them why and how their own lives have value and they will value what you say.

Fear that their creative wells will run dry: Creativity is like love — the more you give, the more you have to give. When our source of ideas seems to dry up, it usually means that we’re tired or bored and in a rut. When this happens, the best remedy seems to be finding a way to shake things up.

Fear that their work will never see the light of day — In my experience, some writers contend that they want to be published, yet in their heart of hearts, they are really afraid of taking this step. They feel much more comfortable inhabiting the Land of Possibilities than they feel committed to making it into print. So they spend more energy talking about the difficulty of getting published than they do sitting down and writing something and then revising it until it’s of publishable quality.

In the end, a lot of the fears surrounding writers seem to be paper tigers. As Seneca said so well, they are also more numerous than the dangers we actually face. So let’s stare them down and write on!

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Fat Books

OK, I confess! I’m supposed to be pouring over Dubliners by James Joyce for my reading group, which is getting together — egad! — in less than a week. But instead, I’ve been slowly plowing through that door stopper of a book, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I know, I know. Literature vs. Marketplace and all that.

But hey, my brain is feeling a bit fried from all the revising I’m doing on my YA novel, so I’ve been going lit lite and picking up Ken instead of James at the end of the day, when I feel like rewarding myself with a nice sit-down and a book break. Here’s one of the big attraction of Pillars: It’s a chunky monkey! By that, I mean it’s more than 800 pages. So just about every day after my writing stint is over for some time now, I’ve been dipping into it.

This is one of the joys of a big, fat, juicy read: It’s always there, just waiting for you to come back and lose yourself in it. A fat book seems to welcome you into its pages differently than a skinny one does: It seems to say, “Hey, dear reader, Relax! There’s no need to rush. Your job is to pick me up whenever you can and my job is to unspool my story in a leisurely fashion and throw in everything you need to get lost in my world. Let’s spend some time together. Enjoy!”

I can see why our boy Ken found historical fiction so satisfying after turning out all those thrillers: Instead of action-packed plots, he had a chance to slow down and savor that ton of stuff he learned about cathedral building — and then use it to create a world peopled by characters he could develop over time — characters his readers could get to know and enjoy. What a delightful way to spend time as a writer! And what fun it is a reader to look down and see that you still have a long way to go — lots of pages still unread. Write on!

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Better Unsaid

“It took me my whole life to learn what not to play.”
Dizzy Gillespie

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
William Strunk, Elements of Style

They say that brevity is the soul of wit and it’s often lauded as a desired literary aspiration. Not everyone agrees with this, of course: Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Anthony Trollope spring to mind. But while they may have waxed eloquent on the page, most of the time they followed the maxim, “Make every world tell.”

When you’re in self-editing mode, Deciding how to say what you want to say more concisely yet colorfully is the name of the game. Here are a few common prose padders you’ll want to avoid:

“Creeping nouns” — William Zinnser uses this phrase to describe extra nouns that glom unto perfectly clear nouns and add nothing new in terms of meaning. Examples: “crisis situation,” “weather conditions,” and “sales event.” In each case, a simple noun like “crisis” or “weather” has been expanded into a phrase that weakens its effect.

Poor verb tenses – Strong writers choose the most direct verb tenses and use the simple present or past whenever they can, because they know that convoluted constructions slow the reader down. Examples: “They wandered around” vs. “they were wandering around” or “He said it was difficult” vs. “He said it has been difficult.”

Unnecessary adjectives — It’s easy to get lazy and use an adjective + noun construction, when a carefully vetted noun is a better choice. Examples: “a slow, casual walk” vs. “saunter” or “bottomless pit” vs. “abyss.” Make your nouns sing for their supper!

Half the fun of writing is in the editing. Making what you’ve written tighter, livelier, clearer, simpler, more colorful: This is what revision is all about. And when you come up with a sprightlier verb or noun and find yourself with a much-improved sentence — now that’s a Fantastic feeling. Write on!

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Ding, Ding!

“Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming in mini-explosions of SHOOK SHOOK SHOOK. A thank-you note resonates with the same heft as a literary masterpiece.”
Tom Hanks

Tom’s got my vote! In fact, he’s so in love with the sound and the touch of a manual that he’s introduced an app for the iPad called Hanx Writer that mimics the sounds of a typewriter, from the pecking keys to the little “ding” at the end of a line. And guess what: Tom’s turn-your iPad- into- a-typewriter app is currently the #1 in the iTunes App Store.

I have to agree with Tom that there is something tremendously satisfying about banging away on a manual typewriter. Just recently, I pulled out my old black Corona and I’ve been using it to type up my rewrites before inputting them on my computer. I’ve found that pecking out a draft on my typewriter slows me down and makes it easier for me to edit.

Just recently, I took my typewriter out onto my porch, set myself up with some paper and a cup of tea and was pounding away. Just the sound of it made me feel productive! A neighbor walked by and asked, “Writing the Great American Novel?” I laughed and said, “Just doing my Hemingway.” And he laughed. That started me thinking about successful writers who used manuals to craft their books: Truman Capote, JD Salinger, Edna Ferber, to name a few. Edna was so attached to her typewriter that she carted a portable one all over the world with her.

The Hanx Writer intrigues me: cutting-edge technology and Old World charm — what an intriguing blend. Bravo, Hank. Write on!

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In Memoriam


Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more, day by day,
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Rossetti

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Pocket Library

“Butt in the chair!” — that’s the rallying cry of seasoned authors: Nora Roberts, the penner of more than 100 novels, springs to mind. But, like many another scribe, I tend to be a wandering writer. I’m disciplined enough to sit my butt in a chair for quite a while, but it’s rarely the same chair.

In my house, I have a bunch to choose from: There’s the painted wooden chair at my desk, the plush chunky crimson number downstairs by the fireplace, or my battered, but beloved, chaise on our porch. And I must confess, tonight, I am writing this post on my bed, which is not a chair at all, but suits me just fine.

As you might expect, all this roaming often sends me out and about in search of pleasing writing spaces. For me, this definitely does not include our local Starbucks. I know, I know, J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book in a coffee shop and maybe she’s penning her latest mystery amid clanging cups. Love that caffeine, but the noise level just doesn’t work for me. I also like to spread out — a lot.

That’s why I was thrilled to rediscover a tiny local library, a small, Art Deco gem. Inside, it’s got vaulted ceilings and ornate plaster rosettes, and beautiful woodwork. It reminds me a little of the children’s library upstairs in Washington Heights where I grew up, which had wooden pillars and shelves and big windows. Best of all, my newfound haunt has long wooden tables. I can spread out my papers, my pencils and pens, bottled water, index cards — and sit on my butt and write. When I’m done, I go home, sit on my butt some more, and input what I’ve written on my computer.

My pocket library has everything I need: A water fountain! A pencil sharpener! A big, fat dictionary! A nice bathroom! If only there was a vending machine with coffee and snacks, I could live there. And of course, I’m surrounded by books, which just makes me more determined to finish mine.

All of which reminds me, in this time of high tech and infinite distraction, how truly lucky we are as writers. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take much to make me content: a little quiet, a few ideas, fresh paper, something to write with — and I’m a happy camper. Hope this is true for you, too. Write on!

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