Joyce Carol Oates Writing Advice

Filed under: The Writing Process — joy at 9:29 am on Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I’m reading The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates right now. After a bad review for one of her books, she wrote the following:

If younger writers could anticipate what lies ahead after their years of arduous labor and their hopes and fantasies and sacrifices (if anyone still “sacrifices” anything for their art) … would they believe the effort was worth it? If it weren’t for the satisfaction of writing as an end in itself, apart even from the money involved, I wouldn’t advise anyone to write. Not at all. Therefore I’m at a loss about advising writers who are modestly gifted but who find writing very hard work, not really enjoyable. I really don’t know what to say. I look at them and think, But why do you want to writer if, in fact, you suffer so …? The rewards won’t compensate for the suffering. The “rewards” are so mixed, so ironic. Why do you want to write if you really don’t want to write?

This strikes me as true. Publishing is hard. Always has been, always will be. So the act of writing has to be important and enjoyable to the writer to make it worth it. I have seen other writers struggle like she is describing and I often wonder why they are forcing it. Why write if it is such a struggle? There are a lot of easier pursuits out there, that’s for sure.

Dickens Editing “A Christmas Carol”

Filed under: The Writing Process — joy at 11:40 am on Friday, December 4, 2009

word pirates looking at dickens

I love this picture of three little girls looking at “a heavily marked-up manuscript for “A Christmas Carol” that Charles Dickens wrote, and rewrote, in 1843.” It’s from a NYTimes piece about Dickens editing the famous Christmas tale, focusing on some of the smaller changes of the manuscript and its publishing history.

The NYTimes was also allowed to scan 66 pages from the book for their readers to view on the web, although I found them hard to access.

It shows how much a book can change, even up to the last minute. For example:

At least one change did not occur until the book was at the printer. You will note that the manuscript is silent on whether Tiny Tim lives. But before the first editions went out the door, a line was curiously inserted on page 65 noting that “and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father.”

Citing a 2004 book by Michael Patrick Hearn, “The Annotated Christmas Carol,” Mr. Kiely said Dickens added that line as “an afterthought.”

Aren’t we glad he put that in?

Want Thesaurus

Filed under: The Writing Process — joy at 9:36 am on Tuesday, October 27, 2009

word pirates thesaurus

As soon as I saw the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, I had a serious case of book lust. It has 800,000 meanings for 600,000 words in more than 230,000 categories and subcategories. It took 44 years to make. It also costs $400, which is sadly out of my price range for a reference book. A girl can dream…

Anyway, I was interested to learn that the longest entry in the thesaurus is the word “immediately,” with 265 synonyms. Why so many words for immediately? It all gets down to the nature of human procrastination:

According to Professor Christian Kay, who has worked on the project for the past 40 years, it is down to the human tendency to procrastinate. (Procrastinate: foreslow, adjourn, proloyne, protract, tarry, defer, delay … ) “A lot of the words that once meant ‘immediately’ came to mean ‘soon’, so you then needed another word that really meant ‘immediately’. ‘Soon’, for instance — its original meaning was ‘immediately’.”


Falling out of love with love?

Filed under: The Writing Process — marcia at 7:06 pm on Sunday, March 2, 2008

“Mail & Guardian” has a commentary by Tim Lott called “Whatever happened to literary love?” In it he says that stories about love are becoming rare, though they were once the standard of great literature.
Richard Curtis, screenwriter of “Four Weddings and Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually,” brings the point home:

“If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it’s called searingly realistic, even though it’s never happened in the history of mankind. If you write about people falling in love, which happens a million times a day … you’re accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental.”

I am assuming Lott means love as the sole plot for a story, because tons and tons of books have a love relationship as a part of it. (Heck, you could easily argue “Fight Club” is a love story, but I’m sure that’s not the kind of book he means.)
A good love story is hard to write. You are writing about a universal experience, so it has to resonate as true. But you also don’t want to bore people with cliches. You want to say something new. You want to be original.

The New York Times best seller list is topped by mystery and suspense books. Was there a time when it was topped by romances?


What is the opposite of a sellout?

Filed under: The Writing Process — marcia at 2:23 pm on Saturday, February 9, 2008

Kelly Spitzer of “SmokeLong Quarterly” and Ellen Parker of “FRiGG” ask a group of writers about money … Do you only write for publications that pay? Do you pay reading fees and contest entry fees?

They seemed to agree that pay wasn’t a concern when considering where to submit their stories.
Dave Clapper, also of “SmokeLong Quarterly,” said of reading fees:

When working as a stage actor, I never had to pay to audition (and the potential pay there dwarfed these prizes, while the potential audience was smaller). Why should writing be different? Do painters pay galleries to have their work considered? Sculptors? Dancers? Singers? Maybe I’m wrong and some of these disciplines do require fees to be considered, but it seems like literature is the only artistic field where this is the accepted norm. Why?

Me? I’d prefer to submit to places that pay, even if it is a token payment that simply acknowledges that you gave them something of value. However, I wouldn’t call it a hard-and-fast rule, and it would depend on how much I loved the publication.
As far as reading fees, I feel like “labor of love” goes two ways. OK, publication, I concede that you aren’t in it for the cash either. But if you want to be a publication, you have to process the submissions that come your way. I realize it’s not a racket. These literary publications aren’t laughing and rolling in piles of money on round, velvet-covered beds. But if you are using writers to fund anything, your publication will probably go under soon anyway.

Reasonable contest fees are a little different, since this is a competition for a prize. There will be a winner and, if you win, you will get something. (Unless the contest is judged by Zadie Smith, see previous post) As long as it’s not some literary Ponzi scheme, these fees can be a way of ensuring a contest remains manageable with serious entrants, in addition to providing some funding. (This differs from a reading fee in that fewer people will submit something without the promise of a financial pay off)

What do you think?


Memoir disclaimers

Filed under: The Writing Process — marcia at 2:00 pm on Saturday, December 29, 2007

Memoirs are tricky business. As someone who writes almost exclusively about things that have happened to me, I am interested in the ethics and conventions of the memoir. James Frey aside, there was also the whole hullabaloo with Augusten Burroughs settling with the foster family portrayed in “Running With Scissors” and changing the author’s note in the book after publication. And there’s been talk that there is just no way in hell that David Sedaris’ family is that concisely funny. (Although, Amy has publicly proved herself funny, so you never know)
The LA Times book blog points out a pre-emptive move made by another memoirist:

Robert Leleux’s “The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy” … A note to readers is prominently displayed on the page preceding the table of contents. Here’s an excerpt: Memoir

“This is the story of my Texas life. And while (essentially) true to my experience, I must warn that it often reads better (as in funnier, or happier) than it was lived. This service I’ve performed not merely for the sake of your sensibilities, but also for my art. After all, how does the old song go? A hat’s not a hat till it’s tilted. Well, mea culpa, I have tilted hats throughout….”

Is this the literary equivalent of a warning label that serves only to invalidate legal claims? Or is it a sign that our expectations for truth and accuracy in memoirs are changing?

I have always been cynical about memoirs and assumed that they were a fiction/non-fiction hybrid more than an accurate retelling of events. It’s frequently left me wondering what all the fuss in these ‘scandals’ is about. Of course, I’ve also never been written about in a published book. I’ve never had anyone put words in my mouth I didn’t say or attribute someone else’s personality quirks to me to save time and keep the pacing quick.


Translating poetry

Filed under: The Writing Process — marcia at 10:57 am on Friday, September 28, 2007

The Guardian Unlimited book blog has an interesting post about translating poetry. Really, I think it pertains to translating most writing that is not soley instructional or informational.

Some people would disagree, saying poetry in translation is the wrong side of the tapestry – it just can’t be done. But they are talking about replication, not translation. It is perfectly true that you will never get a replica of the original – nor would you wish to. The way it works, when translator and original are in tune, is that a third poem is created. It is the child of two parents and simply couldn’t exist without them.