Archive for April, 2010

Writing Life: Successful Debuts

The Writing Life:  Things worth noticing, thinking about, or just hearing once and then forgetting for writers of all kinds

Everyone wants to write the next bestseller and never work again (or to write the next bestseller and continue working, but at your own pace and without all that hassle with day jobs and paying the bills and never having shirts that aren’t all frayed at the cuffs).  Is that so much to ask for?  In many cases, yes.  But as an inspiration to us all, today’s “Writing Life” post highlights a few well-known authors who started out that way and never looked back — instant superstars who hit the magic sweet spot in public approval the moment their debut works rolled off the press.  At some point we’ll flip the coin and follow it up with a list of now-famous authors who died in impoverished obscurity, but for today, relax and enjoy the literary successes of…

Harper LeeTo Kill a Mockingbird remains one of America’s most beloved novels, and it was the only one Harper Lee ever wrote.  Perhaps that’s inauspicious for those of us hoping to enjoy a successful first novel and a long literary career…but she holds the highest civilian honor awarded by the United States government, so we could all do worse.

Margaret Mitchell – Another single-novel Southern woman (although experts discovered and verified an unpublished novel of hers years after her death), Margaret Mitchell defined the Old South for an entire generation in Gone with the Wind.  She also made a pile of money doing it.

Oscar Wilde – His first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was the cornerstone of his literary success, and the best-known of his works during his lifetime (which was short, and, securing him a place in the next list, ended in poverty and unhappiness).

Agatha ChristieThe Mysterious Affair at Styles launched a literary career for Agatha Christie that earned her a title, a fortune, and more sales than anyone since the Apostles.

Anna Sewell died only a few months after publishing Black Beauty, but that was enough time to see it shatter sales records.  It remains one of the best-selling books of all time, with over fifty million copies sold, and it spawned an entire genre of children’s literature.

F. Scott Fitzgerald – Not exactly a poster child for happiness in success, Fitzgerald nevertheless holds a place on the list of blockbuster debuts.  This Side of Paradise earned him enough success to convince Zelda Sayre to marry him, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ralph Ellison only wrote one novel – The Invisible Man – but he published essays on a wide range of subjects up until his death, making it the promising start of a successful literary career.

The Brontë Sisters (with Charlotte leading the pack) are poster-children for the successful first novel.  All of them captured audiences’ attentions with their respective debuts, and the ones who lived long enough capitalized on the success with quick follow-ups.

J. R. R. Tolkien‘s first books were academic, but his first novel, The Hobbit, sold out its first run in a few months and remained in high demand throughout the wartime paper rationing.

And, of course, whether you like the works that followed it or not, J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone put her on the Forbes list and the order of precedence.  We should all be so lucky.

Know of other first-time successes?  Got an author who needs to make it onto the “died miserable” list when it runs?  Drop me a comment!

Devil’s Details: Word Choice

Devil’s Details – Overlooked skills that every writer needs to have.

Last time I did one of these I talked about pacing — the skill of moving the actual prose at the speed you want, not just the plot and organization.  Today we’re looking at another under-appreciated skill, one that many writers seem to assume is handled at an unthinking or instinctive level:  using the right word for the right job.

Rhetoric Matters

If you’ve ever seen a politician or a celebrity castigated on the evening news for a careless slip of the tongue, you already know what a poorly-chosen word can do to you.  Well-chosen words, in the proper order, will be remembered for years — look to Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” the character King Henry’s “band of brothers” speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, or Pericles’s “Funeral Oration” for a few examples of the art at its finest.  Speeches make for particularly good examples because they stand on the merits of their rhetoric alone; there are no narrative considerations to secure their reputation as there are for novels and short stories.

Because their finished products tend to involve less total words than prose writers’, advertisers and speech-writers are particularly sensitive to the effect of each word on the whole.  This does not mean that writers of longer fiction get a write-off, however; pounding out words to get the plot on the paper only works for the first draft.  Even then, I find myself better served by a slower words-per-day rate that takes the wording of the story into greater consideration; the result is almost always less large sections discarded entirely during the editing process.  Choosing the right words as you go along will not only make the ideas you want to express clearer, it will make your authority as the writer (and therefore the dissemination of those ideas) much more secure:  yours will be the prose of someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Where to Care

Not every word on the page is going to be placed there as carefully as a stone in a Zen arrangement, but it’d sure be nice if your reader felt like it was.  Unless you have the instinctive rhetorical skills of another William Jennings Bryant, get used to picking your battles — focusing on word choice where it matters most, both during the initial writing and in the course of your editing.  You will certainly want to exercise the most care in any sections that present particularly crucial themes, or that impact the book in any other major way; at those points (and as much as you can everywhere else), pay attention to the roles your selection of vocabulary will need to play:

Dialogue is a crucial place to care about word choice, precisely because no one except practiced orators thinks about it as they speak.  Unless all your characters talk like you (they shouldn’t), you are going to have to make a conscious effort to pick words that fit their unthinking patterns rather than yours.  Most people use a tiny fraction of their working vocabulary for the vast majority of their conversations, so unless you’re trying to write a Mr. Smartypants, be sure to lay on the heavy repetition in dialogue — a man who calls his shoes “stanky” one day isn’t likely to suddenly switch to “overripe” the next, unless there’s a compelling reason (presence of a lady, perhaps).

Limited-perspective narration requires the same basic attention to consistency in word choice that dialogue does:  you are describing the internal workings of one individual, and he or she presumably perceives the world in basically the same way from one day to the next.  If you use lots of simple, common words, do it constantly and with plenty of repetition.  If the character is a complicated thinker, bring in more abstract words and philosophical terms — there’s nothing wrong with showing off your vocabulary, but don’t do it unless it illustrates something besides how smart you are.

Omniscient narration is your voice, so you’re no longer worrying about consistency as an issue that might break someone’s suspension of disbelief or interest in your characters (though you still don’t want to jump around the place too much).  What you should be focusing on in passages where the narrator speaks abstractly is the exact theme of that particular section — what do you want the reader to take away from this moment in the text?  Is it demonstrative of a key theme in the work as a whole?  (If it’s not, consider shutting your narrative voice up and just letting the characters do their thing.)  Pick words that are powerfully associated with the idea or ideas you want to communicate.

How to Start Thinking about Words

Most of us are like casual conversationalists:  we’re not in the habit of using our full vocabulary.  When we want to communicate an idea, we usually reach for the same words that have served us well before.  If you’re trying to write about something with real meaning, that’s a stumbling block you need to get over — you have to turn on the part of your brain that deals with hidden meanings and multiple definitions.

Wordplay comes up a lot in this blog, and it’s going to once more here.  Puns and other cheap word gags are funny because they take advantage of similar sounds or multiple meanings, and that’s exactly what you need to make your key passages memorable.  Don’t settle for any old word when you can use one that communicates your literal meaning and means something associated in a different context.  Shakespeare was an inveterate punner, and he didn’t just use them for the dick jokes — the famous opening of Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent/made glorious summer by this son of York,” riffs on the son/sun homonym to conjure the image of welcome change, imbue the newly-crowned King Edward with  solar majesty, and showcase the speaker’s own wit.  And people who’ve never even seen the play still quote the line to this day.

Word games in the more conventional sense, crosswords and so forth, will also help get you in the habit of trying to find multiple words that can fit the same definition (and multiple definitions that fit the same word).  Written versions of Exquisite Corpse, the surrealist party game, will also put the same part of the brain to work trying to come up with a logical antecedent to the very few words visible below the fold.

Poetry is in many ways the art of putting well-chosen words in the proper order, and reading a few favorites just before sitting down to write can have your mind in the right mood.  Try for authors who demonstrate a broad vocabulary, whether or not the other mechanics of their poetry are to your liking — Alexander Pope and Edgar Allen Poe have served me well as inspireërs of creative word choice.  Nonsense poems like The Jabberwocky take a different approach to word-choice by making up the best sound for a particular use rather than seeking the best meaning, and you may find value in their influence as well.  Our brains do make associations based on sound, and an otherwise-unrelated word can easily be tied to another concept by the use of a word that looks very much like it on the page.

And, of course, reading other author’s work with a conscious eye to the vocabulary they choose will serve you well — consider experts of the well-placed word like William Faulkner, Virginia Woolfe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and of course William Shakespeare.  Got any authors that you think always pick the right word for the right idea?  Drop a comment and let us know!

Writing Life: Google and Your Web Presence

Web Presence for the Writer – Short Articles on Improving Your Internet Profile for Authors

Readers of this blog probably have blogs of their own, so I’m assuming that the concept of “web presence” isn’t wholly a foreign one.  But being a writer who’s fond of his personal space — mental and physical — myself, I know that it’s not always the most comfortable arena for the quiet, creative sort to jump right into, either.  Having a well-maintained blog is just the tip of a very hard, chilly iceberg, as I’m discovering for myself.  So over the next few posts (likely interspersed with other things, as the blog usually goes), I’ll try to lay out some of the basic first steps that I’m stumbling through.

From a writer’s perspective, trying to keep up with the social networking explosion can be a painfully large time commitment — hours spent tweeting, stumbling, digging, and so on are hours not spent writing, and unless you’re successful enough to have quit the day job, those hours come from a pretty small reserve.  But the payoff is the leg up with potential publishers that previous generations never had, and that lets well-networked writers slip around the traditional process of desperately submitting “cold” until someone picks up enough of your stories to make approaching agents and publishers directly a possibility.  Web presence allows for a first impression that isn’t dependent on either knowing someone on the inside or cobbling together a sufficiently-impressive portfolio of random credits, freelance articles, and essay contests you won in college.

The catch here is that the impression can be a good one or a bad one, and no impression at all defaults to “bad” in most people’s books.  The web is huge and knows many things, so if it doesn’t know anything about you, there’s an automatic sense that you haven’t done much with your life.  This can be completely untrue and it doesn’t matter — realistically, the first thing anyone who wants to find out more about you is going to do is Google your name and see what comes up.  So be prepared for it:  Google yourself.

Make a Name for Yourself

People with less common names are obviously at an advantage here.  I’m the only “Geoffrey Cubbage” on the web (and probably the only one in the world), so most of the websites that Google turns up if you search for me are at least tangentially related to me.  People with more common names might do well to both write and maintain their various webpages using a middle initial or even the full middle name; if even that doesn’t set you apart from the masses, it may be time to consider a pseudonym.  Just be sure that everything you do is under the same name, whatever you choose it to be — since I go by “Geoffrey Cubbage” on the web, signing myself as “Geoffrey Alan Cubbage” makes the phrase a less-perfect match for search engines and pushes that particular hit lower on the results.

Move the Important Things Up

Once you’ve found yourself on Google, take a look at what it’s turning up, and in what order.  Odds are that your Facebook page will be first (and Facebook is something I’ll look at closer in another post), and if you’ve done your job on it, your blog or other personal webpage that you want people to see will be close to the top as well.  If it’s not, get to work making it a more relevant match for your name — and for the most part, that just means using it more.  If you can get it in an actual page header, so much the better; “Free Association:  the Blog of Jerusalem Keynes” is going to come up higher on a Google search for “Jerusalem Keynes” than “Free Association” would.  Slip the name in other places, like an “about the author page” or a contacts listing, and in the case of a blog, you can even consider simply “signing” your posts with a dash followed by your name.  No one is likely to notice it as terribly invasive of their reading, and it will tell Google that your website is more about you than other sites your name turns up on.

Improve Any Content You Control

After Facebook and a properly name-laden personal website, you may be looking at an awkward potluck of Google returns, depending on what you’ve been doing on the web.  Clean up any pages that you have editorial control over — no one is going to expect your Facebook page or a casual blog like this one to look like the front page of the New York Times website, but you probably don’t want pictures of you doing body shots at the strip club popping up either.  Since we’re talking about web presence for the writer here, be sure that anything you can add content to or edit a profile for mentions you as a writer in some context.  You want to seem like it’s a serious part of your life and how you identify to anyone who’s looking, even if they happen to be looking at your Cat Fancier forum profile.  Be a writer that fancies cats.

Add New Search Results

Once you’ve cleaned up anything you can, resist the temptation to say “it’s out of my hands” and let the other random junk — old sites that mention you by name, forums you may have defunct posts on, those random genealogical search engine scams, etc. — sit on the first couple pages of a Google search.  Even if it’s harmless content (a small newspaper article you were quoted in, for example), boring old stuff is just that.  It’s old, and it’s boring.  It’s probably an overall positive that I was the Illinois state champion in Lincoln-Douglas debate my senior year in high school, but do I really want people to think that I haven’t done anything worth mentioning since then?

Instead, load the web with newer, fresher things that use your name.  Join some forums and post under your real name (but only nice things, please).  Use a blog or a book reviewing service to put up occasional short pieces on what you’ve been reading lately.  Submit some replies to how-to sites, or write a “guest post” for another blogger (offer them the same opportunity, of course).  Keep dropping your name so that it appears more recently and more frequently than it does on the old junk pages that Google’s returning, and they’ll soon drop off the first couple pages (which is all anyone is going to look at, unless they’re a government employee running a professional background check on you).

What I’m finding as I go along with all this (and anyone who Googles my name will realize that I have work to do yet) is that web presence is a time-hungry beast with a lot of heads.  I’ll talk more about it in future posts, but for now, start out small — keep a blog or a webpage and work on getting it toward the top of the Google search returns for your name, clean up anything else Google pulls up that you have control over, and try to get some new content out there with your name on it to replace all the old, defunct stuff.  If nothing else, you’ll get to spend a day Googling yourself and calling it work!

- Geoffrey Cubbage (see what I did there?)

Writing Life: Words People Use Wrong

A short, late post on a busy, confusing day.  We’ve all been there!  But it occurs to me that, despite the wealth of books and articles out there that will tell you when to use “effect” and when to use “affect” (just for example), I’m still constantly tripping over slightly-inappropriate word choices that have made it into print.  I don’t have a system for fixing the errors, or even remembering all of them, but off the top of my head, here are some of the more typical offenders:

plethora – This always seems to show up as a polysyllabic replacement for “lots,” which runs into two problems.  First, the word has negative connotations — it contains an inherent implication of too much of whatever it refers to.  It also refers to variety as well as number; someone can only sit at the bar and make himself sick by swilling down a plethora of beers unless he’s switching brands.

dilemma – Much stricter in meaning than many people take it to be, “dilemma” refers specifically to a choice between multiple and undesirable possibilities.  Where to go for lunch is not a dilemma unless all your options are terrible.

peruse – I don’t know how the misuse got started, but I see this in a lot of (usually paperback) fiction to imply a short glancing-over of anything.  Quite to the contrary, “peruse” means to study in depth, and applies specifically to writing.  You can peruse a book, but not quickly, and you can never peruse the scene of the crime (except in a Jasper Fforde novel).

pristine – Why do all the ones that come to my mind start with “P”?  Whatever the reason, “pristine” doesn’t mean clean — it means untouched or unaltered.  The misuse is common enough that it might be excusable in a character’s dialogue, but it should never show up in the narrative voice unless the scene or object described is truly untouched.  A fresh snowfall can be pristine, but a well-scrubbed bathroom never can be.

hone – On its own, usually fine.  Just remember that you home in on things, not hone.  “Honing in” doesn’t mean much of anything, outside of some very odd usages:  “He honed the knife into a brittle sliver,” perhaps.

literally – This is a freebie, and I imagine most people already know to be careful of it, but still.  It means exactly what we were taught…the literal interpretation, the exact meaning.  Use “almost” or “figuratively” with your hyperbole, because you can’t have literally worn your fingers away working.  Or you could, but at that point you can probably get OSHA on the case.

eponymous – I misused this one for some time until it was pointed out to me.  The adjective literally means “named after itself,” meaning that it has to apply immediately and directly to the source of the name, not the object taking the name.  You can talk about Oasis’s eponymous first album, but you can’t say “Eddy strode to the front of his eponymous tavern.”

I’m reasonably sure there were more of these that I was going to take a swing at, but damn if I can remember them just now…oh well, I’m sure there’s other lists running around out there.  It’s the internet; there’s lists of everything.

Blogging Basics: Placeholder

This will be a real post later in the day.  There’s a few too many things going on in life right now, so it’ll probably be a few hours before I can get to the blog.  Sorry for the delay.

Blogging Basics: Addendum to Previous Post

Potentially of note — the previous post generated a particularly high-view day. Was it the “Beatles” tag, or pure coincidence? Your guess…but remember those inescapable influences!

Writing Life: Pandora and the Inescapable Influences

Long title for a “quick thought,” isn’t it?  But to summarize for the couple dozen people on the Internet that still don’t use Pandora, it’s a free internet radio site that categorizes its songs by a couple thousand criteria and, Digg-like, allows users to “thumbs-up” content they like and “thumbs-down” content they don’t.  The program behind the site plays the music it thinks the listener will like, and theoretically gets smarter about it every time you provide feedback.

Where this runs into trouble is when you start hitting what I think of as “the inescapable influences,” the songs and artists that are going to pop up no matter what you tell Pandora to do. It does allow you to completely scratch an artist by thumbs-downing three of their songs, but because the station often makes do with odd recordings or “Greatest Hits” sorts of compilations, it can take a while to find, say, three songs listed as being by “The Beatles” rather than by “The Beatles 1967-69″ or “The Beatles Live at Mucking-on-the-Creek” or whatever.

And the Beatles are a fantastic example of what I’m talking about.  Like alternative rock?  That’s got “rock influences,” “acoustic and electric guitar,” “major chord tonality,” “a strong vocal lead,” and all sorts of other categories that the Beatles also fit into.  And whadya know, so do some rockabilly sounds, until if you’re not careful you’ll hear The Beatles, Chuck Berry, and Alan Jackson all in a row on your “Smashing Pumpkins and Similar Artists” station.

At first brush it would seem reasonable to say that the most inescapable names are also the most influential.  Everyone after the Beatles was made possible by the Beatles, ergo the Beatles play on their Pandora station too.  It’s a comforting argument for Beatles fans, no doubt, but Johnny Cash also shows up everywhere, as does Bob Dylan — and, on my opera and classical attempts, Bizet’s Carmen, in all its innumerable permutations (sorry, “variations”).  And they’re often showing up on stations playing older music, the music that influenced those artists rather than the other way around.

The lesson to take away from this for your writing, though (other than “keep a close eye on your Pandora thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs), is that there are always inescapable influences and the inevitable comparison to them.  We’re all still writing the same basic novels as Henry James, and as the romantics before him — style has changed, subject has changed, and in some more extreme cases the mechanics are noticeably different, but the vehicle is still a narrative story.  People do things, say things, feel things; we the author tell the reader about it in words.  So don’t get too caught up in visions of your own originality, because even the Smashing Pumpkins needed the Beatles to put them where they got.  And the Beatles needed Chuck Berry, and Chuck Berry needed Muddy Waters, and so ad infinitum

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