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Writing Tip Wednesday: “The Missouri Review » Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize”

Discovering the best in fiction, essays, and poetry

Source: The Missouri Review » Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize

27th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize

$5,000 Fiction | $5,000 Nonfiction $5,000 Poetry 

DEADLINE: October 2, 2017

Winners receive publication, invitation to a reception and reading in their honor, and a cash prize.

Guidelines

  • Submit one piece of fiction or nonfiction up to 8,500 words or any number of poems up to 10 pages. Please double-space fiction and nonfiction entries.
  • Multiple submissions and simultaneous submissions are welcome, but you must pay a separate fee for each entry and withdraw the piece immediately if accepted elsewhere.
  • Entries must be previously unpublished.
  • Entry fee: $22
  • Each entrant receives a one-year subscription to the Missouri Review in digital format (normal price $24) and a paperback copy of the first title of our new imprint, Missouri Review Books, The Trail of the Demon by Jane Gillette (normal price $14.95).

Eligibility

  • Previous winners of the Editors’ Prize and current University of Missouri students and faculty are ineligible.
  • Previous Editors’ Prize finalists are welcome to enter again.

Submit

Winners will be announced in early 2018.

Questions? E-mail contest_question@moreview.com.

Read a prizewinning story by Melissa Yancy, an essay by Peter Selgin, and a selection from poetry winners Katie Bickham, Kai Carlson-Wee, and Alexandra Teague.

27th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize$5,000 Fiction | $5,000 Nonfiction | $5,000 Poetry DEADLINE: October 2, 2017Winners receive publication, invitation to a reception and reading in their honor, and a cash prize.Guidelines Submit one piece of fiction or nonfiction up to 8,500 words or any number of poems up to 10 pages. Please double-space fiction and nonfiction entries. Multiple submissions and simultaneous submissions are welcome, but you must pay a separate fee for each entry and withdraw the piece immediately if accepted elsewhere. Entries must be previously unpublished. Entry fee: $22 Each entrant receives a one-year subscription to the Missouri Review in digital format (normal price $24) and a paperback copy of the first title of our new imprint, Missouri Review Books, The Trail of the Demon by Jane Gillette (normal price $14.95).Eligibility Previous winners of the Editors’ Prize and current University of Missouri students and faculty are ineligible. Previous Editors’ Prize finalists are welcome to enter again.Submit Online By mailWinners will be announced in early 2018.Questions? E-mail contest_question@moreview.com.Read a prizewinning story by Melissa Yancy, an essay by Peter Selgin, and a selection from poetry winners Katie Bickham, Kai Carlson-Wee, and Alexandra Teague.

Source: The Missouri Review » Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize

 

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Writing tip Wednesday: “How to find free classic books online — Quartz”

How to access free and legal copies of English and American classic literature online

Source: How to find free classic books online — Quartz

Add up all the textbooks and calculators that students need to buy and September can be rough for American parents and their children. While schools require purchases of the latest textbook editions each year, parents can acquire some books that never go out of date—and cost nearly nothing.

Many of the American and English literary works that are required reading are available online. You don’t need to know how to torrent, or hurt your eyes reading poorly scanned illegal PDFs, either; these books are available legally through publisher licenses. Here’s a few resources for finding To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, 1984, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, and other commonly required reading for free:

Your library and a device

If you’re not a member of a public library, join one. Many public libraries use OverDrive, an app that lets you borrow ebooks and audiobooks. Download OverDrive on a device, or use the site on your computer browser, and log in with your library card number. You could also try Libby, an app recently released by OverDrive with the same functionality and a better interface.

Availability depends on your branch, but there will be tons of classics. Some of the most popular may be on hold, but here are some currently available at my libraries in New York City and central New Jersey.

Available: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club; George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm; Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye; Lois Lowry’s The Giver; The Elements of Style; William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies; John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Project Gutenberg (Australia)

Project Gutenberg collects ebooks in the public domain in the US. Its Australian counterpart does the same thing for books in the public domain in Australia, where laws are more lax than the US.

Available on the US site: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma; Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities; Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace; Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis; James Joyce’s Ulysses; Beowulf; Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray; Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein.

On the Australia site: George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm; Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own, and To the Lighthouse; Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night.

Open Library

A project of Internet Archive, Open Library plans to catalog every book in existence. A subset of the books in the database are accessible for free right now; others you can borrow after you join a waiting list. Below are some of the ones perpetually available.

Available: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, and Daisy Miller; Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome; Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility.

For any work by Shakespeare

All of Shakespeare’s poems and plays are in the public domain. MIT has a complete database.

Available: Every written work.

Scribd

Scribd is a subscription-based database of books and audiobooks, along with articles from paywalled sites like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. It costs $9 a month, but if you’re in a bind for one or two books, you can get a free 30-day trial.

Available: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms.

Google Books

Google once had huge ambitions for a massive digital library of all the world’s books, but got defeated by copyright battles. If you choose “Free Google ebooks” when you search, you can find a few that are old enough to be in the public domain.

Available: Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; George Eliot’s Middlemarch; Dante’s The Inferno.

Read.gov

The Library of Congress’s site has a few classics if you don’t mind reading directly in your browser.

Available: ‎Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables; Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

 

 

Source: https://qz.com/1064159/how-to-access-free-and-legal-copies-of-english-and-american-classic-literature-online/

 

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Writing tip Wednesday: “Agents offer advice”

16 Agents Share 34 Tips for Success: From Studying the Market to Proper Querying

Source: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/16-agents-share-34-tips-success-studying-market-proper-querying?utm_source=wir&utm_campaign=wir-nl-cmf-gla&utm_content=961824_EDT_GLA170809&utm_medium=email

Computers can be a pain to get to work rightBelow, 16 of our agents share tips that didn’t make the issue. Continue reading for advice on doing agent research, working with beta readers, establishing yourself as part of a community, writing query letters, and more:

The Market:

  • Read, read, read! The best way to become a successful writer is to be a passionate reader. —Susan Hawk, Upstart Crow Literary
  • Study the market and submit your best story for that market. Read the type of books you want to write to get a feel for the type of voice, story, and tone those publishers want. Put together the best proposal you can, including a professional head shot with your author biography. Write the proposal in third person. —Tamela Hancock Murray, The Steve Laube Agency
  • Read as much as you can in your genre. —Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, Liza Dawson Associates
  • Be aware of the market, but don’t spend too much time worrying about it – write the story that only you can write. —Susan Hawk, Upstart Crow Literary
  • Walk into a bookstore. Go to the section you think your book would go in. If you have a hard time deciding what section your book belongs in, you probably have some editing to do. It’s always better from a marketing standpoint if you can concretely place your book in a genre, or in this case on a shelf. —Vanessa Robins, Corvisiero Literary Agency

Research:

  • Do all the research you can. There are so many brilliant sources out there for free on how to pick an agent, how to write a query, and how to stay positive in a business that can be stressful and (at times) discouraging. And there are a lot of very friendly people in the community who like to give back and offer advice. —Jim McCarthy, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret
  • Do your research. You want to learn as much as you can about publishing, from how to query agents to how to promote your debut. —Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, Liza Dawson Associates

Beta Readers and Critique Groups:

  • I think the best thing a writer can do when they finish their first or second draft is solicit the help of fellow writers, critique partners, and beta readers in revising the manuscript. Agents can always tell when a book has or has not been workshopped and polished with the help of other writers and editors, so this is not a step to be missed! —Hannah Fergesen, KT Literary
  • Join a writer’s group. Getting supportive feedback on your work is invaluable. And, writing can be lonely. Finding your writing family is key to a long-term writing career. —Susan Hawk, Upstart Crow Literary

Community:

  • A literary community is probably your strongest ally. Join writing groups, go to open mic nights, follow other authors online, and just be present. —Vanessa Robins, Corvisiero Literary Agency
  • Writers should get in the habit of giving back to other writers as often as possible. It’s good karma, and it makes you a part of a community that, when you do publish your book, will help you support it. Your end game isn’t just to be published; it’s about having a career and about being a good member of the community you’ve chosen. Writers are amazing people, and you don’t need an agent or a book deal to be a part of the writing community. —Jenny Herrera, David Black Agency

Platform:

  • Try to have an online platform. You don’t have to have ten thousand followers or know how to market inside and out, but just seeing that you have a workable start helps! —Kaitlyn Johnson, Corvisiero Literary Agency

Editing:

  • A clean query is the mark of an attentive writer. While a small typo probably won’t lead to an automatic “no,” getting the agent’s name wrong from the get-go might. —Amelia Appel, Triada US
  • Put your differences aside and become besties with editing. Even when you polish the thing shiny, your beta readers will have edits, then your agent, then more beta readers, then your agent again, then editors, and more editors. Basically, even when you think you’re done editing, you’re probably not. —Vanessa Robins, Corvisiero Literary Agency
  • Your manuscript is your resume. It should be as polished as possible and show exactly what your talent is as a writer. —Quressa Robinson, Nelson Literary Agency

Queries:

  • If you’re querying you should be making regular trips to bookstores. There’s so much to learn just by browsing displays. —Steven Salpeter, Curtis Brown
  • When it comes time to query, make sure your pitch is crystal clear and to the point. It’s said over and over again, but it’s true that agents won’t have the time or patience to read a long wind-up to the book’s description. —Rachel Vogel
  • Once you’re ready to query, try to remember you’re attempting a working relationship with someone. It’s no different than a job interview: practice respect, give your best work, and follow directions given. Agents notice when a writer proves they’d be great to work with, but they also take note when they see the opposite. —Kaitlyn Johnson, Corvisiero Literary Agency
  • Make sure you are ready to query and make sure you know what you’ve written. There’s nothing as disheartening for an agent as requesting a full manuscript only to be told it isn’t ready yet. —Joanna MacKenzie, Nelson Literary Agency
  • When mapping out your sections on marketing and promotion, think outside the box: Who is this book written for? Who will those readers recommend it to? Don’t limit your readership by believing only one type of reader would be interested in it such as “romance readers” or “history buffs.” Readers are hungry for new experiences and your book could be just what they’re looking for—but they need to find it first. The more options you add to your proposal, the better armed your editor will be to go in and fight for your book in the war room. —Stacey Graham, Red Sofa Literary
  • I don’t read queries that aren’t specifically addressed to me; that are written in the voice of a character; that admit the manuscript isn’t complete (for fiction only); that are intentionally disrespectful. Your goal is not to shock me with your query, but to get me to read your sample pages. And in those pages, novels that begin with a dead body, a sweeping panorama of an exotic locale, a first person introduction (“Hi reader, my name is…), a character waking up, commentary on the weather or a dump of expository information are not interesting to me. —Noah Ballard, Curtis Brown
  • Even if you’re not certain something would be of interest to me if it falls within my ranges of interests I would always rather see something and decide for myself. When in doubt, query me. —Steven Salpeter, Curtis Brown
  • Agents are notorious for having a wide variety of guidelines. Oftentimes they will be in correlation to the overall guidelines for their specific agency, but they can also be guidelines that the agent has specifically created to further help writers with their submissions. It’s important to remember that these guidelines are there to help you. I understand that it can sometimes feel like a lot of hoops to jump through, but having guidelines allows for you as the writer to be able to create stronger and more impactful queries. When you’re working on your queries, always remember to include the submission guidelines within your overall research. The lack of effort when following submission guidelines is one of my biggest pet peeves as an agent, and if I can tell that a writer blatantly disregarded my guidelines, it results in an automatic dismissal of the query. —Justin Wells, Corvisiero Literary Agency

Agent-Author Relationship:

  • Whether you receive one offer of representation or ten, ask questions of the offering agent to make sure you are a good fit. Speak to them via video call in you’re not in the same city and don’t be afraid to ask for references. An author-agent relationship is a lot like a marriage and you want to make sure you’re partnering with someone who can sell your book and who you trust to advocate for you. —Joanna MacKenzie, Nelson Literary Agency
  • The Call is when you and the agent assess each other. Do you fit? Are they really offering what you’re looking for? They are wondering the same things. This is a business partnership and like after any interview either party can decide that they aren’t a good match. But when the stars align, you both know it’s a good match, and now you have an agent! —Quressa Robinson, Nelson Literary Agency
  • Be polite and professional. When an agent takes on a client, they do so knowing that there is going to be a lot more to that relationship than just the written work. If an agent wants to work with you, it’s because they believe in your writing, but also in you. Agents want to take on clients they can see themselves successfully working with throughout their career. Given that, keep in mind that your query letter is your first impression, so it’s to your benefit to make it a good one. —Amelia Appel, Triada US
  • Be prepared to be a partner in your success. Your work as an author isn’t finished when you type, “the end.” It’s not over when you sign a publishing contract, either. Publishers love authors who are willing to learn how to be on social media, who will bring promotional ideas and opportunities to the table, and who can network. Don’t worry, if this sounds daunting, your agent will be there to walk you through it all. —Joanna MacKenzie, Nelson Literary Agency

Perseverance:

  • Patience is by far the most important thing, for agents and authors. Even if you finally snag your dream agent, the process can be like a sloth using crutches, slow and painful (okay, only slightly painful). —Vanessa Robins, Corvisiero Literary Agency
  • Just like with finding a job it can be a long road before you get an offer and find the right spot, but it happens. Perseverance, dedication to your craft, adaptation, and a bit of gumption will lead you to success. —Quressa Robinson, Nelson Literary Agency
  • Hang in there! We completely understand that querying can be a nerve-wracking process and that rejection can be extremely disheartening. But, this is a super subjective business—what’s not right for one agent might be perfect for the next. Be open to feedback and don’t give up! —Amelia Appel, Triada US
  • Prepare for rejection. It happens to everyone, authors and agents alike (editors tell us no, too) and is part of the process of being published. As clichéd as it sounds, this is a marathon, not a sprint—this is especially true if you want to be a career novelist. —Joanna MacKenzie, Nelson Literary Agency
  • Rejections are opportunities. They teach us about the marketplace, and sometimes reveal insights about a manuscript that can be used to make a book better and bring an author to another level in her or his career. —Steven Salpeter, Curtis Brown
  • As with any job, an agent may read your query letter and decide from there that they are not interested in moving forward to your manuscript (typically a partial). This could be subjective. It doesn’t speak to them. Or you may not have conveyed your knowledge and story in the best light. If an agent does move onto the manuscript and still decide to pass, again this is the subjective part of the job. Your writing could be solid, the story well plotted, but if the agent doesn’t connect to it, if they don’t have passion for it, if they don’t love it, then they know they need to move on. And you should want them to! If they pass on your manuscript this means that you don’t get to move on to the interview stage of the process, which is the call. —Quressa Robinson, Nelson Literary Agency
  • As cliché as it might sound, I will always encourage writers to never give up. I discuss the subjectivity of publishing, and the agent world a lot with other agents. Once you get your manuscript to the point where you start seeking an agent you really need to remain determined throughout the entire process. The idea that all agents look at manuscripts differently can never be stated enough. Don’t let an agent passing on your manuscript keep you from pursing your goal. I’ve heard of quite a few cases where agents have passed on manuscripts because it personally wasn’t a good fit for them, and another agent felt it was a great fit and was able to land a deal for the author. It all comes down to finding that one agent who falls in love with your manuscript, and will work to get it out there to editors. —Justin Wells, Corvisiero Literary Agency

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Writing tip Wednesday: “Agent looking for YA and mysteries”

Source: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/new-literary-agent-alert-joanna-mackenzie-nelson-literary-agency

 About Joanna MacKenzie: Joanna joined the Nelson Literary Agency at the start of 2017 following a tenure at a Chicago-based literary agency where she successfully placed numerous manuscripts that have gone on to become critically acclaimed, award-winning, and bestselling novels. She represents a wide-range of writers, from YA (Kristen Simmons) and romance (Shana Galen) to mysteries and thrillers (John Galligan). Joanna loves working with authors who embrace the full publishing process (read: love revisions) and is committed to the stories her clients want to tell both with the words they put on paper, as well as with the careers the build. At the Nelson Literary Agency, Joanna is looking to expand her list in both adult and YA.

She is Seeking: Joanna is looking for literary-leaning projects with commercial potential and epic reads that beat with a universal heart (think The Secret History or The Namesake or Geek Love). In particular, she’s drawn to smart and timely women’s fiction as well as absorbing, character-driven mysteries and thrillers –Tana French is a particular favorite. She has a weird obsession with, what she calls, “child in jeopardy lit” and can’t get enough kick-ass mom heroines—she’d love to find the next Heather Gudenkauff. On the YA side, she’s interested in coming of age stories that possess a confident voice and characters she can’t stop thinking about (Morgan Matson is on her forever shelf).

How to Submit: Send a query via email to queryjoanna@nelsonagency.com. Please remember:

  • In the subject line, write QUERY and the title of your project. This will help ensure that your query isn’t accidentally deleted or caught in our spam filter.
  • In the body of your email, include a one-page query letter and the first ten pages of your manuscript.
  • No attachments Because of virus concerns, emails with attachments are deleted unread.

 

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J.K. Rowling Just Gave The Best Advice Any Aspiring Writer Will Ever Receive

“Just because it didn’t find an audience, that doesn’t mean it’s bad work.”

Source: J.K. Rowling Just Gave The Best Advice Any Aspiring Writer Will Ever Receive

She went on to explain that, even if a particular piece of work doesn’t find an audience, the things you learn while creating it will be invaluable to you in the future.

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And that just because something doesn’t find commercial (or critical) success, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be proud of it!

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“Once you’ve done it, you’ll know you can do it again,” she wrote. “So do not ever quit out of fear of rejection.”

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Top 7 Ways Authors Are Using Instagram – The Book Designer

Follow Other Authors Especially if you are a new author, following more experienced authors certainly can’t hurt. Even the most experienced author is not exempt from gaining insight from other authors. Networking with other authors as a new or previously unpublished author can be eye-opening and present you with opportunities you may not have otherwise come across.Instagram is one of the best social apps you can use as an author, because not only does it give us a rest from all those words, but it can be used in so many ways—personally or professionally. You just have start thinking less in words and more in pictures.

Source: Top 7 Ways Authors Are Using Instagram – The Book Designer

By Adrienne Erin (@adrienneerin)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often wondered if the very popular but visually-oriented social media sites like Instagram are a good place to market books (over 300 million visitors a month, more than 70% of them from outside the U.S.). After all, books are words, not pictures (usually). Adrienne Erin knows that authors can get a lot of attention they might not otherwise get for their books with some savvy tactics in hand. Here’s her report.

Words are for us as writers what computers are to office workers. They are the lifeline to pretty much every facet of our work. Not only do we use them to communicate our art form, but we obsess, play, hate, love and need them in order to do what we do. Sometimes we need a rest from all the word playing—and hating.

Where can we find that rest without cutting ourselves off even further from social exchange, but also without having to use even more words? It can be done—with Instagram. Not only can you use Instagram, but as an author, you should be using Instagram. For more than one or two reasons.

Why You Should Use Instagram as an Author

There are a lot of authors who use Instagram in ways that may be entertaining. It’s entertaining in the same way the crazy lady in the grocery store is who pulls out every gallon of milk from the dairy cooler in order to get the one that has the furthest date of expiration. Yeah, it’s weird and maybe a little funny, but mostly kind of pathetic.

There are plenty of famous authors who evoke that kind of reaction on Instagram. Don’t be one of those authors. Instead, consider some of the following rational ways to use Instagram to help further your author name and influence.

  1. To Follow Bloggers Who Review Books
    This reason really shouldn’t have to be explained. I mean, duh – if you follow enough book-bloggers, you increase the chance that one or more of them will review your book, which is read by said blogger’s audience. Whether that audience is 100 or 100,000 – isn’t it worth it to reach that amount of potential buyers of your book for free?
  2. For Self-Promotion and Marketing
    Instagram can be used for promoting your name or your newest book. You can host a contest with a free copy of your book as the prize. You can ask for photo submissions that revolve around the theme of your book or you can just use photos to connect to your fans and readers. As BuzzFeed’s article on book covers altered to include James Franco shows us, humor can be a great marketing strategy.
  3. Inspire Yourself and Your Fans
    Visual imagery can be the source of inspiration on a daily basis. All you need to do is catalogue it and you have your own visual diary for defeating the worst case of writer’s block. Not only can these photos inspire you, but they may equally inspire your readers and fans, who will in turn, recommend their network to follow you as well. Many writers use inspirational tweets and Facebook posts to reach their readers. Your followers will respond well to inspirational messages that reaffirm their beliefs.
  4. Collaborate with Your Fans
    This could be a marketing project or it could be research for a new novel. Projects can range from social research to just-for-fun, to things like #100HappyDays, which seems to be a combination of both. 100HappyDays is inspirational, fun, challenging and engaging. Hosting a project like this could provide you with tons of material for your next book, or it could simply attract a ton of followers — aka, readers.
  5. Cover Art Photos = Free Book Promotion
    What better place to advertise your stunning new book cover than Instagram? Book covers are certainly one of the most powerful tools you have in your arsenal for attracting a new reader. I don’t know about you, but if I come across an author I’ve never heard of, but they write in a genre I like to read and they have a fantastically interesting book cover – I am much more likely to purchase that book. By the way, this is also another reason to never cut any corners on your cover art.
  6. Give Fans/Readers an Inside Look at Your Life
    You don’t have to reveal all the skeletons in your closet, but a few pictures of your most recent vacation, your adorable pets, a weekend trip to the harbor and a ride on a boat will get you noticed — people love this kind of stuff. The more you draw in your readers and fans by showing that you’re just like them, the more they will be inclined to follow you and interact with your more professional work.
  7. Follow Other Authors
    Especially if you are a new author, following more experienced authors certainly can’t hurt. Even the most experienced author is not exempt from gaining insight from other authors. Networking with other authors as a new or previously unpublished author can be eye-opening and present you with opportunities you may not have otherwise come across.

 

Instagram is one of the best social apps you can use as an author, because not only does it give us a rest from all those words, but it can be used in so many ways—personally or professionally. You just have start thinking less in words and more in pictures.

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Writing tip Wednesday: “Writer and writing”

George Saunders: what writers really do when they write

A series of instincts, thousands of tiny adjustments, hundreds of drafts … What is the mysterious process writers go through to get an idea on to the page?

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

George Saunders

 

 

by George Saunders

 

1

Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it.

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.

The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.

2

A guy (Stan) constructs a model railroad town in his basement. Stan acquires a small hobo, places him under a plastic railroad bridge, near that fake campfire, then notices he’s arranged his hobo into a certain posture – the hobo seems to be gazing back at the town. Why is he looking over there? At that little blue Victorian house? Stan notes a plastic woman in the window, then turns her a little, so she’s gazing out. Over at the railroad bridge, actually. Huh. Suddenly, Stan has made a love story. Oh, why can’t they be together? If only “Little Jack” would just go home. To his wife. To Linda.

What did Stan (the artist) just do? Well, first, surveying his little domain, he noticed which way his hobo was looking. Then he chose to change that little universe, by turning the plastic woman. Now, Stan didn’t exactly decide to turn her. It might be more accurate to say that it occurred to him to do so; in a split-second, with no accompanying language, except maybe a very quiet internal “Yes.”

He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.

An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”

How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.

And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.

3

Revising by the method described is a form of increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing. This, in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader. As text is revised, it becomes more specific and embodied in the particular. It becomes more sane. It becomes less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading. It loses its ability to create a propagandistic fog. Falsehoods get squeezed out of it, lazy assertions stand up, naked and blushing, and rush out of the room.

Is any of this relevant to our current political moment?

Hoo, boy.

When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.

But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.

Or we could just stick with “Bob was an asshole,” and post it, and wait for the “likes”, and for the pro-Bob forces to rally, and the anti-barista trolls to anonymously weigh in – but, meanwhile, there’s poor Bob, grieving and misunderstood, and there’s our poor abused barista, feeling crappy and not exactly knowing why, incrementally more convinced that the world is irrationally cruel.

4

What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she’s already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs. I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “came into the room” and “down” and “blue” (Why does she have to come into the room? Can someone sit UP on a couch? Why do we care if it’s blue?) and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch – ” and suddenly, it’s better (Hemingwayesque, even!), although … why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane”, which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.

But why did I make those changes? On what basis?

On the basis that, if it’s better this new way for me, over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.

This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man”, you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead.

Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you – he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.

Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion.

We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.

5

I had written short stories by this method for the last 20 years, always assuming that an entirely new method (more planning, more overt intention, big messy charts, elaborate systems of numerology underlying the letters in the characters’ names, say) would be required for a novel. But, no. My novel proceeded by essentially the same principles as my stories always have: somehow get to the writing desk, read what you’ve got so far, watch that forehead needle, adjust accordingly. The whole thing was being done on a slightly larger frame, admittedly, but there was a moment when I finally realised that, if one is going to do something artistically intense at 55 years old, he is probably going to use the same skills he’s been obsessively honing all of those years; the trick might be to destabilise oneself enough that the skills come to the table fresh-eyed and a little confused. A bandleader used to working with three accordionists is granted a symphony orchestra; what he’s been developing all of those years, he may find, runs deeper than mere instrumentation – his take on melody and harmony should be transferable to this new group, and he might even find himself looking anew at himself, so to speak: reinvigorated by his own sudden strangeness in that new domain.

It was as if, over the years, I’d become adept at setting up tents and then a very large tent showed up: bigger frame, more fabric, same procedure. Or, to be more precise (yet stay within my “temporary housing” motif): it was as if I’d spent my life designing custom yurts and then got a commission to build a mansion. At first I thought “Not sure I can do that.” But then it occurred to me that a mansion of sorts might be constructed from a series of connected yurts – each small unit built by the usual rules of construction, their interconnection creating new opportunities for beauty.

6

Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems. A book has personality, and personality, as anyone burdened with one will attest, is a mixed blessing. This guy has great energy – but never sits still. This girl is sensitive – maybe too much; she weeps when the wrong type of pasta is served. Almost from the first paragraph, the writer becomes aware that a work’s strengths and weaknesses are bound together, and that, sadly, his great idea has baggage.

For example: I loved the idea of Lincoln, alone at night in the graveyard. But how is a novel made from one guy in a graveyard at night? Unless we want to write a 300-page monologue in the voice of Lincoln (“Four score and seven minutes ago, I did enter this ghastly place”) or inject a really long-winded and omniscient gravedigger into the book (we don’t, trust me, I tried), we need some other presences there in the graveyard. Is this a problem? Well, it sure felt like one, back in 2012. But, as new age gurus are always assuring us, a “problem” is actually an “opportunity”. In art, this is true. The reader will sense the impending problem at about the same moment the writer does, and part of what we call artistic satisfaction is the reader’s feeling that just the right cavalry has arrived, at just the right moment. Another wave of artistic satisfaction occurs if she feels that the cavalry is not only arriving efficiently, but is a cool, interesting cavalry, ie, is an opportunity for added fun/beauty – a broadening-out of the aesthetic terms.

In this case, the solution was pretty simple – contained, joke-like, in the very statement of the problem (“Who else might be in a graveyard late at night?”).

I remembered an earlier, abandoned novel, set in a New York State graveyard that featured – wait for it – talking ghosts. I also remembered a conversation with a brilliant former student of mine, who said that if I ever wrote a novel, it should be a series of monologues, as in a story of mine called “Four Institutional Monologues”.

So: the book would be narrated by a group of monologuing ghosts stuck in that graveyard.

And suddenly what was a problem really did become an opportunity: someone who loves doing voices, and thinking about death, now had the opportunity to spend four years trying to make a group of talking ghosts be charming, spooky, substantial, moving, and, well, human.

7

A work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them. This intuitive approach I’ve been discussing is most essential, I think, during the first phase: the gathering of the pins. This gathering phase really is: conjuring up the pins. Somehow the best pins are the ones made inadvertently, through this system of radical, iterative preference I’ve described. Concentrating on the line-to-line sound of the prose, or some matter of internal logic, or describing a certain swath of nature in the most evocative way (that is, by doing whatever gives us delight, and about which we have a strong opinion), we suddenly find that we’ve made a pin. Which pin? Better not to name it. To name it is to reduce it. Often “pin” exists simply as some form of imperative, or a thing about which we’re curious; a threat, a promise, a pattern, a vow we feel must soon be broken. Scrooge says it would be best if Tiny Tim died and eliminated the surplus population; Romeo loves Juliet; Akaky Akakievich needs a new overcoat; Gatsby really wants Daisy. (The colour grey keeps showing up; everything that occurs in the story does so in pairs.)

Then: up go the pins. The reader knows they are up there and waits for them to come down and be caught. If they don’t come down (Romeo decides not to date Juliet after all, but to go to law school; the weather in St Petersburg suddenly gets tropical, and the overcoat will not be needed; Gatsby sours on Daisy, falls for Betty; the writer seems to have forgotten about his grey motif) the reader cries foul, and her forehead needle plummets into the “N” zone and she throws down the book and wanders away to get on to Facebook, or rob a store.

The writer, having tossed up some suitably interesting pins, knows they have to come down, and, in my experience, the greatest pleasure in writing fiction is when they come down in a surprising way that conveys more and better meaning than you’d had any idea was possible. One of the new pleasures I experienced writing this, my first novel, was simply that the pins were more numerous, stayed in the air longer, and landed in ways that were more unforeseen and complexly instructive to me than has happened in shorter works.

Without giving anything away, let me say this: I made a bunch of ghosts. They were sort of cynical; they were stuck in this realm, called the bardo (from the Tibetan notion of a sort of transitional purgatory between rebirths), stuck because they’d been unhappy or unsatisfied in life. The greatest part of their penance is that they feel utterly inessential – incapable of influencing the living. Enter Willie Lincoln, just dead, in imminent danger (children don’t fare well in that realm). In the last third of the book, the bowling pins started raining down. Certain decisions I’d made early on forced certain actions to fulfilment. The rules of the universe created certain compulsions, as did the formal and structural conventions I’d put in motion. Slowly, without any volition from me (I was, always, focused on my forehead needle), the characters started to do certain things, each on his or her own, the sum total of which resulted, in the end, in a broad, cooperative pattern that seemed to be arguing for what I’d call a viral theory of goodness. All of these imaginary beings started working together, without me having decided they should do so (each simply doing that which produced the best prose), and they were, it seemed, working together to save young Willie Lincoln, in a complex pattern seemingly being dictated from … elsewhere. (It wasn’t me, it was them.)

Something like this had happened in stories before, but never on this scale, and never so unrelated to my intention. It was a beautiful, mysterious experience and I find myself craving it while, at the same time, flinching at the thousands of hours of work it will take to set such a machine in motion again.

Why do I feel this to be a hopeful thing? The way this pattern thrillingly completed itself? It may just be – almost surely is – a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system. But there is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you, the writer, and also beyond you – something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.

 

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