Quote of the Moment:

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.

- Madeleine L'Engle

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Letter From John Steinbeck

Dear Writer: 
Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.
      The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all – so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.
      So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher’s side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.
      It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.
      If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.
      It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.
      I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic ’20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.
      I was told, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”
      “Why?” I asked.
      “Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”
      It wasn’t too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time – a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.
      She told me it wouldn’t.

                                                                                 ---John Steinbeck

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How do you know when you're done with your book?

I wrote a post on this a few years ago, when I was finishing up my last book.

I think the main thing I have learned since then is this: if you think you're done, you're probably not. You probably need to send it off to another few good critique friends and get more feedback, then ponder the advice you get, and overhaul the damn thing. Again. I guarantee it needs it. And then do it again. And maybe again. As many times as it needs. It's not as good as you think it is.

Sorry if you thought so.

And when you get your novel
all perfect and polished into oblivion, and an editor loves it, that's when the real editing begins. Because it won't be perfect then, either.

But that's ok, because it's the rewriting that makes a book good. It will never be perfect, but it can be wonderful. Enchanting. Exciting. Brilliant. Magical.

Writing is like that. Excruciating and wonderful. Exhausting and invigorating. And if you love it, like I do, it's totally worth all that.

Happy re-writes!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Confessions of a (Sort of) Hobbit

I have decided I am a hobbit.

I'd really rather stay home by the fire with my books and my laptop and garden (even though it happens to be dead because it's February) than go anywhere at all.  Even to the grocery store. Even for an adventure. Not that I have many adventures at the grocery store, but that isn't the point.

The point is: I don't like to walk out the door.

Unless Gandalf shows up and pushes me out. Er, not necessarily Gandalf. Maybe just a crazy wish to publish my crazy books. And the cat randomly biting me. Hiss! Grrr! Go to New York!  I took it as an omen. Or, something.

So last Wednesday, yes, I did leave my poor children in the care of my poor husband and also a severely disturbed cat, and I walked out the door and got on a plane to a children's book-writing conference in New York. No, Gandalf didn't come. My daughter did, which was almost as good, except she doesn't carry a magical staff--only her phone with a subway app--and her hat isn't pointy.

Running out the door

First mistake: taking the red-eye flight. What was I thinking?
Second mistake: taking Dramamine 45 minutes too late. Four hours of sick and not sleepy enough to sleep upright from 12 am to 4 am.

The result: a woozy Thursday that only an enormous double-dark-chocolate cookie from Levain Bakery could fix. Yes, it worked. Everything got better from there. Especially the food. New York bagels for lunch and Indian food for dinner. Delicious.
View out my window
Friday: 45 minutes on the treadmill plus intensives with an agent and a publisher and two groups of lovely people who also happened to be great writers. Plus Cuban food for lunch and New York pizza for dinner, with a little MOMA in between. Umm, yes. Good thing about the morning run.

Saturday: 35 minutes on the treadmill and an inspiring keynote by Jack Gantos, former drug-smuggler-turned-children's-author, then agent Daniel Lazar on getting and communicating with an agent. Shake-shack burgers, fries, and chocolate shake for lunch.

Editor Nancy Siscoe talked about middle-grade novels in the afternoon, then Elizabeth Wein gave a powerful speech on a writer's responsibility to her audience and to the people she writes about. A little scary, considering what I'm writing. But it was good to ponder.
Me, eating again

I skipped the panel on book-banning next because, yes, of course I agree books should not be banned. You don't have to convince me. I'd rather go eat. Preferably at The Eatalian. So delicious.

Oops--missed the buffet dinner and social. But my daughter was meeting friends later and it was our only time to hang out. And eat really good food, as opposed to light banquet food. Which I'm sure was lovely, but I'll bet not as lovely as what I ate instead. Then back to the hotel and a good book, because I was pretty jet-lagged by then and also socially burned out. I'm used to my evening books by the fire. After all, like most writers I know, I am a thorough introvert.

Sunday we slept in and didn't attend anything but a hot shower and church and the top of the Rock and Le Pain Quotidien for lunch. Seriously delicious. And then a sick-making taxi ride to the airport because I forgot to take my Dramamine again.
Anna and me on top of the Rock. Except you can't see the view. Huh.

We were early. Really early. Which meant dinner in the airport. Food could have been worse. Could've been better, too. Had a yummy green smoothie at Jamba Juice. And then fell asleep on top of my book and leaning over a counter because the Dramamine finally kicked in with a vengeance.

Top of the Rock, with view
The upside of the earliness: we didn't miss our plane and I was never sick the entire flight, thanks to even more Dramamine. Finished reading my book and we didn't die, either--always a worry for a person with anxiety disorders, like me. And for my kid, who's way too cool and old now to say, the way he always used to: "Have a good trip, Mom, and don't die!"
What do you say to a send-off like that, anyway?

I could never think of anything but, "Ok, honey. I won't." Which always prompted the obvious: "How do you know?"

Well, um, I don't.

But somehow I managed. I went to New York and back and I didn't die. Not even from good-food overdose, which might have been a miracle. I'm not sure. Still too strung out on Dramamine. I'll tell you tomorrow when my brain is back. After I've curled up by the fire for awhile with my books...

Blog Archive