Pencil Perfect

Roald Dahl would sharpen six Dixon Ticonderoga pencils every morning before he began writing. John Steinbeck preferred a Blackwing 602. If like me, you are a lover of writing process and the low-tech tools of our trade, then finding out tidbits like these is always a treat (see Mrs. Pumpernickel for my ode to writing equipment). Little wonder, then, that I was entranced to learn that someone else loves pencils, erasers, stationery and all that jazz enough to actually pen a book about it called The Perfection of the Paper Clip.

Here’s what Wall Street Journal reviewer Mark Miodownik said about James Ward’s labor of love: “Now I am a stationery lover. I have strong opinions about sticky notes, envelopes, pencils and paper. So when I picked up this book I felt rather like a sports fan about to read a history of his team. I was excited but worried, concerned most of all that a hierarchy of stationery might be presented, that the pen might be pronounced not just mightier than the sword but also mightier than the pencil. I needn’t have worried. Mr. Ward presents each item with equal reverence and care.”

What a sprightly review! And just to whet your appetite, here’s a brief history of the pencil: Its origin can be traced to 16th century England. “The story goes that, during a story in the northern English county of Cumberland, an old tree was uprooted and the hole revealed a mysterious black substance that resembled lead in its softness and metallic shine. But it wasn’t a metal; it was a special form of carbon called graphite.” Some enterprising soul soon found that lumps of it could be used to write on paper. But it was messy, so it was encased in wood, which gave the graphite strength so that it wouldn’t snap — and voila! The pencil was born. When it teamed up with rubber, a star was born. “The pencil’s ability to mark and be erased, to write and be corrected, proved to be a winning formula for writers, musicians, engineers and other creative folk.”

Roald Dahl was obsessed with the Dixon Ticonderoga’s No. 2 pencil; John Steinbeck preferred the Blackwing 602 model, which had a special type of lead, soft, but not prone to breakage. The Faber Co. launched the Blackwing 602 in 1934 with the slogan, “half the pressure, twice the speed.” Stephan Sondheim was a huge fan of them and stockpiled boxes of them when they were discontinued some 50 years later. Today, you can buy a box on eBay for $30 to $40. When I’m feeling flush, I’ll have to check this out!

According to James, people in many walks of life have been moved to invent writing gadgets. Take the ballpoint pen, which was created by an innovative fellow named Laszlo Biro in the 1930s. I’m relieved to know that author Jack Ward feels optimistic about the survival of stationery. Long live paper! “Long live the pen,” Jack enthuses — my sentiments exactly. Are there other writing stuff enthusiasts among you? If so, I hope you’ll give me a shout out! Write on!

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Conference Tips

Attending a writing conference can be so exciting and empowering! It’s also a wonderful way to signal to yourself and to those around you that you are committed to writing dangerously and taking your work to the next level. That’s why I was so excited when my wonderful friend and gifted writer Wendy told me she was attending a major conference. Valuable resources, exciting new connections, inspiration, fresh creative and marketing ideas — all this and more can be the fruit of the hours spent among industry pros and fellow writers, both aspiring and established. At one conference, I met a fellow writer who later sent me the entire list of agents she’d compiled for her own children’s novel — what a generous gift!

Just in case you might be planning to attend a conference yourself in the near future, here are some helpful tips from a Writer’s Digest online story, “How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Conference,” by Zachary Petit. Since his tips are concise and timely, I’m quoting them directly:

1. Arrive early to scope out everything, get settled and make friends. It’s incredibly bracing to have someone you can eat with or wave to as you enter a room.

2. Be on the lookout for faculty hanging around during downtime. Strike up a conversation, not about yourself and your work, but about them, because you’re here to learn. Try questions like, “If you were just starting out today, what would you be writing?” or, “What’s the best attribute an author can have?”

3. Carry a full-sized notebook for the full-sized ideas you’re going to write—not a tiny one for tiny ideas.

4. Focus sharply on what you want. Make a mission statement: “At this conference I intend to learn how to write better suspense / organize my nonfiction project / figure out an ending to my novel.”

5. If you’ve submitted work for critique, be open and receptive. Never argue or try to justify anything. Ask for more explanation, but don’t take notes—it’ll only distract you. As soon as it’s over, write full notes.

6. Make up your mind you won’t be judgmental, easily offended or needy. Remember, it’s not about you—it’s about your writing.

I especially like the idea of #4 — setting an intention for what you want to come away from an event with. This is a great way to keep yourself focused and to determine which workshops to attend. I also think #2 is also very insightful — instead of feeling compelled to “pitch” your work, focus on learning more about what industry pros have to share.
Write on!

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Something Wonderful

“A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom,” the great Robert Frost once said. And here’s a delightfully wise poem of his — all the more amazing because he actually wrote it in July (see Snowy Evening for the full story). Seems just right for a heat wave:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping hee
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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Be True

“I think so much of writing is about the courage to express ourselves, to be true to our own voice, to find our vision, our voice, and put it out there. Also, allow yourself too write badly in the beginning. That’s good tried and true advice. And then let it evolve as you rewrite.”
Sue Monk Kidd

Author of The Secret Life of Bees, her highly acclaimed debut novel set in the South in the 196o’s, Sue’s most recent novel, The Invention of Wings, is set in 19th century South Carolina and focuses on the lives of the Grimke sisters, legendary abolitionists. In an interview in The Writer magazine (August, 2015), she talked about her writing process:

Incubating ideas: “An idea comes to me from the inside out, and I will play with it. If I play with it awhile and it really starts to sprout a story, then I know it’s a novel I can really write.” The Secret Life of Bees started with the image of a girl lying in bed and bees flying around the room. Her imagination took off and she “just played with it fro a long time, and it really started to create a story.” For more on how her novel evolved, see Help Found.”

Writing strategy: Sue likes to let her ideas simmer, but once she starts writing, a disciplined approach kicks in: “I keep banker’s hours. I work every day, immersed in the whole thing, really working with my craft in a disciplined way but allowing for spontaneous, mysterious inspiration to come.”

Inciting questions: “My novels usually start with two questions: ‘Who is my character?’ ‘What does my character want?’ The whole story will flow out of the answers I’m able to bring to those two questions.”

Researching: Sue did about six months of research before she began writing The Invention of Wings — traveling to historic sties, reading primary sources and biographies. “In writing a historical novel, detail is everything. You want to create this authentic world where readers can feel lie they can see it, feel it, hear it.”

Revision: I rewrite as I go. It’s a slower process, but somehow that works best for me. I allow myself to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite a chapter, and then I have a certain moment when I realize that yes, now, it’s exactly what I want it to be and I can go on.”

Wow — fascinating revision approach, isn’t it? Something to ponder and play with as we all write on.

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Star-crossed Story

“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world; and that is an
idea whose time has come.”
Victor Hugo

Abe Books recently sold an original, Russian language copy of Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, Doctor Zhivago, for $11,000. As part of the sale, the bookseller researched the tortured history of the book and found a story almost as tragic and star-crossed as the novel itself. Pasternak penned his novel in the early 20th century, but wasn’t published and made available to readers until 1957.

Though it’s been called “the greatest literary event of postwar Russia,” Doctor Zhivago wasn’t published there until 1988, more than 30 years after its Western release. Censors feared its revolutionary impact, blocked it from publication, and expelled Pasternak from the Soviet Writer’s Union. His controversial novel was rescued from oblivion by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian publisher who discovered Doctor Zhivago through a litery scout and after reading it, felt a deep responsibility to see it published.

It was originally planned for release in both Russia and Italy, but the Russian publication was blocked. Feltrinelli had the manuscript smuggled out of Russia and into Milan, where it was released in Italian in 1957. Less than a year later, more than 1,000 copies were secretly published in the United States in the original Russian. The novel went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958; intense pressure from the Soviet government — including the threat of exile — forced Pasternak to refuse the prize. In 1965, it was made into a popular film which won five Academy Awards and as of 2014, adjusted for inflation, remains the 8th highest-grossing movie of all time.

The US original edition was actually published by the CIA, which distributed copies in 1958 to Soviet citizens visiting the Brussels World’s Fair as part of a Cold War propaganda campaign aimed at undermining the USSR.

Why did Doctor Zhivago strike such a chord with the Italian publisher, Feltrinelli? Some speculate that Yuri Zhivago’s background mirrored his own: As a wealthy, privileged young man, he found himself increasingly disillusioned with the status quo in his country just as Pasternak’s fictional hero did.

What a fascinating story! And how amazing to think that the American government “recruited” the poet Pasternak to help fight the Cold War. Write on!

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Pushing Past

“The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.”
Jimmy Johnson

It’s a scorcher here in New Jersey. It’s Tuesday morning and one of my two running days. When I started out, it was 73 degrees; by the time I came back, the temp was 83 and rising.

Being of sound mind, you may well be asking, “Why, Karin, didn’t you chug a cool glass of lemonade and skip your run?” I have no rational answer. Here’s what I’ve got: It could be my obsessive streak — a trait my family knows well. Frankly, I prize it, because it’s a very useful, even essential, quality in any creative pursuit, writing included (see Happily Obsessive). It could be that my two runs help anchor my week and I need that structure. It could be my fear of slippage — if I fall off the wagon, it takes more energy to get back on than it does to stay on it in the first place. Or, it could just be that I’m crazy.

In any case, I wasn’t the only one out there on the track in a nearby park, heaving and sweating. As I loped round one curve, I saw two people stretched out next to each other doing push ups. The man was counting in Spanish, “Uno! Duo! Tres!” and both he and a woman were doing the push ups in synch. I assumed he was a personal trainer (wow, I could use one of those!). Now, this guy could have been lounging in the shade, sipping water, counting in comfort. But no, he was right in there with the woman, counting and pushing and encouraging her. What a guy!

OK, Karin, what’s the point? Here it is: I loped around the track once and when I started my second lap, these two troopers were still at it — pumping their push ups — impressive! On my third go round, they had taken off, but there were two big sweat marks on the track marking the spot where they had labored so mightily.

I’m sure that woman was hot and sweaty like me — even in their shady spot. I’m sure her muscles were burning and she felt like giving up again and again. But having someone alongside her gave her an energy boost and helped her push past her own self-imposed limits. What a gift! Because every time you push past the point where you want to stop in some endeavor — whatever it is — there’s a pot of gold waiting: You realize that you can actually push past the obstacles you face and that you have more gas in the psychic tank than your mind tells you you have. What a gift!

OK, here’s the deal: We can all push past whatever seems to be stopping us. When you hit a thorny paragraph, that just isn’t working, don’t throw up your hands and move on. Play with it! Rework it once, twice, again, until it’s closer to what you want to say. If you do, chances are good that the next paragraph you write will be golden. Hit a plot snag? Challenge yourself! Jot down three or four alternative ways to untangle it — even the crazy ones! You never know what might pop out.

I was so excited thinking about this on the way home, that I jumped through the sunbeams and into the shade — I should have been punked from my run, but instead, I was energized. Was it worth it? Sitting here, still in my sweaty T-shirt, dashing this out, the answer is, YES! On my way back home, I passed two rusty angels perched on a lawn — I think of them as my literary angels (see Writing Angels) — and I asked for their help — and they gave me this to give to you. Write on!

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Active Readers

“There’s an old Chinese proverb that says: ‘One demonstration is worth more than a thousand words.’ A good rule, I learned, is never to say anything you can dramatize. Better yet: never dramatize anything yourself that you can get the customer or prospect to do. Let the customer perform. Put him into action. In other words: Let the customer help you make the sale.”
Frank Bettger

This gem of wisdom comes from Frank’s classic guide, How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling. When I read this nugget of advice, it jumped out at me: I realized that this principle applies to involving readers in our stories just as it does to customers in a sales pitch. Here’s what I mean: When we create active readers — when we make them “perform” and put them “into action” — they become more committed and engaged.

Ever since I made this connection, I’ve been thinking about the different ways in which we can transform our readers from passive absorbers of our stories into active, fully engaged “performers.” Here are a few techniques I came up with:

Sketching details: In our earnest desire to help our readers see the worlds that we see in our own heads, we often overload our stories with so much color and description that we rob them of the joy and pleasure of imagining that world in their own unique way. I think this is one reason that books made from movies are so often disappointing — often, the graphic images in a film aren’t as emotionally satisfying as the pictures we create ourselves. So a deft, light touch in sketching details may prove more provocative.

Enliven the action: Action sequences and high drama offer rich opportunities for giving readers an adrenalin rush and hooking them emotionally. Combining “headlongedness” (love this word, I made it up!) — that breathless sense of forward momentum with just the right pacing can really put your reader into the thick of things.

Push the pause button: While action sequences can help hook your reader, if you pile them on too quickly or without giving the reader the time to process them, the result can be distancing rather than involving. So consider giving your reader moments to reflect and integrate what’s happened.

Sprinkle clues: The enormous and continuing popularity of mysteries is proof positive of a compelling tendency we can use to our advantage: Many readers love to solve puzzles. With this in mind, consider creating mysteries within your story and then peppering it with clues. I’ve done this in my children’s novel — it’s loads of fun and has added some extra zing and zip.

End chapters with cliffhangers: This is an old tried-and-true way of keeping your reader actively engaged in your story — but since its works, why not use it? Crafting these little verbal pushes from page to page is challenging, but very satisfying. Why not give it a go?

I’ve come up with five “active reader” techniques here, but I’m sure there are tons more. Any approach you’ve used that’s worked well for you? I’d love to hear about it. Write on!

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