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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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5 Ways to Combat Author Anxiety | WritersDigest.com

Brynn Kelly, author of DECEPTION ISLAND (June 2016, HQN Books), shares 5 tips for moving past Author Anxiety and to keep writing.

Source: 5 Ways to Combat Author Anxiety | WritersDigest.com

It turns out Author Anxiety is a Thing. It’s not just me.

I discovered this on the eve of publication of my debut novel, DECEPTION ISLAND, when I was silly enough to Google my shiny new title. Up popped a Netgalley reviewer live-tweeting as she read it. Only she was hating it—pulling it apart chapter by chapter.

I’d had loads of great reviews—in Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, RT Book Reviews, on dozens of blogs—but this one hobby reviewer withered my fragile confidence. It was the intimacy of it. I could see what she looked like, I could see what page she was reading, I could certainly see exactly what she thought of the story. And I couldn’t stop refreshing. Because I’m an idiot.

I’ve been a journalist for two decades and I’ve published a bunch of nonfiction books, so public criticism is nothing new. Why, then, did this rattle me?

I did what any 21st century dweller does when faced with a 21st century dilemma. I Googled. And I discovered I wasn’t alone. Not only is Author Anxiety a Thing, but it’s such a Thing that, yes, it deserves initial caps. I set out to find a remedy before this vile feeling paralyzed me from writing another fictional word. In the interests of author solidarity, I’m sharing five of my best cures.

1. Find perspective
Many years ago, to finance my journalism degree, I worked as a TV publicist. A fun job but intensely shallow. (Ask me anything about “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place.”) Even so, like all jobs, sometimes it got stressful. The most important lesson I learned from that two years was from a boss who was fond of saying, “It’s entertainment. It’s not f***ing brain surgery.” Same goes for my novel. It’s a romantic thriller. It’s not important. My bad day at work is when a reader isn’t entertained or moved and I lose that reader. I’m not a doctor who has lost a patient or an air-traffic controller who’s lost a plane. The worst-case scenario? This novel tanks, everyone forgets about it, and I write another one.

2. Embrace imperfection
Don’t tell my publisher this, but DECEPTION ISLAND isn’t perfect. There, I’ve said it. What a relief. I could have spent three decades rewriting it and it still wouldn’t be perfect. There’s no such thing as perfection in creative endeavor. At some point—usually when a deadline hits—you must step away from your manuscript and say, “There, it’s done. It’s the best I can do right now.” That book has become your past, not your future. It’s not even your present, anymore. The only thing that remains wholly in your control is your next book.

3. Get productive
If I read a bad review, suddenly I don’t feel like writing. But you know what? A good writing day blows away my doubt and fear. And studies into motivation have found that the muse kicks in after you begin a task, not before. Don’t feel like writing because someone just told the (virtual) world that you suck? Open your WIP and start somewhere, anywhere. Tinker with a paragraph you wrote a year ago, write a random exchange of dialogue, change the font. Just. Start. Your brain will light up, the motivation will come and the angst will evaporate.

4. Log out
Only one thing will make you a successful novelist: writing novels. Let the virtual world live without you—especially if it drags you down. Forget the rules that you must regularly post on social media and engage online. If bad reviews on Goodreads or Amazon discourage you, don’t read them. If you can’t help flicking onto them—because validation is addictive— but you hate yourself for it, get a productivity app and block those sites, and any others that routinely make your heart soar and sink. (If a review falls in a forest…) Ray Bradbury once said: “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” And if you just want the boost without the pain? Ask a friend to email you only the great reviews, in a monthly digest. It’s not a cop-out. It’s sensible.

5. Escape
If that sniping little head of yours is not a pleasant place to hang out, get out of it. Do something immersive: play a card game with your kid, see a movie, whack a tennis ball around a court. When you return, you should find your mind is a more agreeable—and productive—environment. Keep it that way by throwing a little love into the world to offset the negativity. Tweet an author about how much you enjoyed her book—because she may be feeling Author Anxiety today, too.

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Writing tip Wednesday: “New agent to consider”

Quressa Robinson of D4EO Literary

Source: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/new-literary-agent-alert-quressa-robinson-d4eo-literary

quressa-robinson-literary-agentAbout Quressa: Quressa Robinson joined the D4EO Literary Agency in 2016 and is actively building her client list. Quressa was an acquiring editor at St. Martin’s Press, where she edited both fiction and nonfiction. Her acquisitions include Certain Dark Things (a Publishers Weekly Fall Announcement Top 10 Pick and October B&N Staff Pick) and The Beautiful Ones—both by Locus, World Fantasy, Sunburst, and Aurora Award-nominated author Silvia Moreno-Garcia; Spells of Blood and Kin (which received a starred PW review) by Claire Humphrey; and The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams, among others.

She is seeking: Science fiction/fantasy (including speculative/magical realism), nonfiction (celebrity, pop culture, pop science), upmarket and commercial women’s fiction, historical fiction, family sagas, contemporary young adult, and science fiction/fantasy young adult crossover. “I am particularly interested in OwnVoices and inclusive narratives. Genre bending is also great, i.e. epic fantasy romance or upmarket fantasy.”

How to submit: Send all queries to quressa@d4eo.com. Include the first fifty pages of your novel or full proposal and sample chapters as a Word attachment. If the submission is a simultaneous submission, please indicate that in your query. E-mail queries only.

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Writing tip Wednesday: “New Agent to consider”

Paula Munier of Talcott Notch Literary

munierPaula Munier (Talcott Notch Literary)

Notes: “High concept only.”

How to submit: E-query editorial [at] talcottnotch.net with “Query for Paula: [title]” in the subject line.

From their query page http://www.talcottnotch.net/index.php/queries:

What should an ideal query include?

Fiction
Your fiction query should include your genre, such as mystery, science fiction or mainstream, whether the project is for adults or for children, and the length of the complete project in number of words (for example, 86,000 words), not pages. The query should give us a brief overview of the book’s plot and main characters, but does not have to include a complete synopsis. For first-time authors, we do prefer that the project be complete before you query us.

Nonfiction
Your nonfiction query should include your subject area, such as history, biography or business, the main concept of the book, the word count you project the book will be when completed, and your credentials to write the work. Unlike many first novels, many first nonfiction projects do not require that the book be finished before it can be marketed successfully, and we’ll be looking to see that the book proposal and a sample chapter is available here instead. Let us know how long you feel you will take to complete the book. Be realistic with your estimations. It doesn’t matter if you give us an estimate that sounds good if you cannot deliver the book on that date.

Things that Make a Query Stand Out
Hook us in your first paragraph. What’s the most outstanding aspect of your book? Is it your characters’ conflict? Is it your protagonist’s background? Is it the completely surprising revelation you uncovered in your research for your new health book? Don’t assume that you have your entire query to get to your point. If you don’t hook your reader with your opening, your query could get pushed aside.

Show you know your market. Nothing says you haven’t given this a thought better than saying your book is for readers 8-80. But if you say your book is YA and would appeal to readers of two specific writers (particularly if they simply aren’t the two best-known at the moment!) and can even list reasons why, then you’re getting warm.

Don’t forget your ten pages. We ask specifically for the first ten pages of the manuscript and without those, we have to make a decision based solely on the query. Perhaps your query letter isn’t your strongest point, and your voice in your manuscript is amazing? Don’t lose out on the chance to convince us! Just be sure to paste those into the body of the email rather than add them as an attachment.

Things to Avoid In a Query
Don’t stress the fact you are a new writer if you are. Stress your qualifications to write the project and your ability to promote it successfully.

Don’t suggest a book length that is simply not marketable. Research the publishers’ websites, author guidelines and new releases to know what they’re publishing right now.

Don’t quote nice things other people told you when they were turning down your query or book. It might seem like a good idea to tell us that Fabulous Editor X or Amazing Agent Y told you your writing was compelling or your characters were complex, but the next person reading this is going to wonder why that editor or agent didn’t sign the book. In fact, by giving us the quotes from rejections, you’re making the book less appealing, not more.

Avoid insisting the book is going to be a bestseller, even if you feel certain it will be! Let your story and your writing speak for itself.

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Writing tip Wednesday: Agent to consider

New Literary Agent Alert: Maximilian Ximenez of L. Perkins Agency

max_agent-72dpi_5x6_4c-copy

About Maximilian: Maximilian Ximenez grew up within the New York publishing industry. Prior to joining the L. Perkins Agency, he worked at Blizzard Entertainment, creators of the popular Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo video game franchises. He is a strong believer in publishing and narrative as a central pillar of franchise and transmedia development.

He is seeking: Maximilian is actively pursuing clients for both fiction and nonfiction works. In fiction, he is acquiring science fiction, fantasy, horror, and thrillers, particularly cyberpunk and neo-noir as well as books with a uniquely deconstructive bent. For nonfiction, Maximilian is seeking popular science, true crime, and books pertaining to arts and trends in developing fields and cultures.

How to submit: For submissions, please send an email to maximilian [at] lperkinsagency.com with your bio, a brief synopsis, and the first five pages of your book or novel in the body.

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Writing tip Wednesday: “New agent to consider”

New Literary Agent Alert: Shana Kelly of Einstein Literary

Source: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/new-literary-agent-alert-shana-kelly-einstien-literary

Shana Kelly

Shana Kelly

About Shana: Shana started her publishing career in the literary department of the William Morris Agency, where she worked for ten years. She began in foreign rights in the New York office and later worked out of the London office for two years. Shana was the signing agent for many successful authors, including New York Times bestseller Curtis Sittenfeld, author of PREP and ELIGIBLE. For the past eight years, Shana has worked as a freelance editor and publishing consultant.

She is seeking: Shana is looking for novels with great writing and surprising plots; her favorite books fall between commercial and literary. She has a soft spot for well written thrillers and psychological suspense.

How to submit: Please submit a query letter and the first ten double-spaced pages of your manuscript in the body of the e-mail (no attachments) to submissions@einsteinliterary.com Please put Shana’s name in the subject line of your e-mail.

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Isaac Asimov: How to Never Run Out of Ideas Again – Personal Growth – Medium

If there’s one word to describe Isaac Asimov, it’s “prolific”.

Source: Isaac Asimov: How to Never Run Out of Ideas Again – Personal Growth – Medium

by Charles Chu

If there’s one word to describe Isaac Asimov, it’s “prolific.”
To match the number of novels, letters, essays and other scribblings Asimov produced in his lifetime, you would have to write a full-length novel every two weeks for 25 years.

Why was Asimov able to have so many good ideas when the rest of us seem to only have 1 or 2 in a lifetime? To find out, I looked into Asimov’s autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life.

Asimov wasn’t born writing 8 hours a day 7 days a week. He tore up pages, he got frustrated and he failed over and over and over again. In his autobiography, Asimov shares the tactics and strategies he developed to never run out of ideas again.

Let’s steal everything we can.
________________________________________
1. Never Stop Learning
Asimov wasn’t just a science fiction writer. He had a PhD in chemistry from Columbia. He wrote on physics. He wrote on ancient history. Hell, he even wrote a book on the Bible.

Why was he able to write so widely in an age of myopic specialization?
Unlike modern day “professionals”, Asimov’s learning didn’t end with a degree—

“I couldn’t possibly write the variety of books I manage to do out of the knowledge I had gained in school alone. I had to keep a program of self-education in process. My library of reference books grew and I found I had to sweat over them in my constant fear that I might misunderstand a point that to someone knowledgeable in the subject would be a ludicrously simple one.”

To have good ideas, we need to consume good ideas too. The diploma isn’t the end. If anything, it’s the beginning.

Growing up, Asimov read everything —
“All this incredibly miscellaneous reading, the result of lack of guidance, left its indelible mark. My interest was aroused in twenty different directions and all those interests remained. I have written books on mythology, on the Bible, on Shakespeare, on history, on science, and so on.”
Read widely. Follow your curiosity. Never stop investing in yourself.
________________________________________
2. Don’t Fight the Stuck
It’s refreshing to know that, like myself, Asimov often got stuck —
Frequently, when I am at work on a science-fiction novel, I find myself heartily sick of it and unable to write another word.

Getting stuck is normal. It’s what happens next, our reaction, that separates the professional from the amateur.

Asimov didn’t let getting stuck stop him. Over the years, he developed a strategy…

I don’t stare at blank sheets of paper. I don’t spend days and nights cudgeling a head that is empty of ideas. Instead, I simply leave the novel and go on to any of the dozen other projects that are on tap. I write an editorial, or an essay, or a short story, or work on one of my nonfiction books. By the time I’ve grown tired of these things, my mind has been able to do its proper work and fill up again. I return to my novel and find myself able to write easily once more.

When writing this article, I got so frustrated that I dropped it and worked on other projects for 2 weeks. Now that I’ve created space, everything feels much, much easier.

The brain works in mysterious ways. By stepping aside, finding other projects and actively ignoring something, our subconscious creates space for ideas to grow.
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3. Beware the Resistance
All creatives — be they entrepreneurs, writers or artists — know the fear of giving shape to ideas. Once we bring something into the world, it’s forever naked to rejection and criticism by millions of angry eyes.

Sometimes, after publishing an article, I am so afraid that I will actively avoid all comments and email correspondence…

This fear is the creative’s greatest enemy. In the The War of Art, Steven Pressfield gives the fear a name.

He calls it Resistance.

Asimov knows the Resistance too —
The ordinary writer is bound to be assailed by insecurities as he writes. Is the sentence he has just created a sensible one? Is it expressed as well as it might be? Would it sound better if it were written differently? The ordinary writer is therefore always revising, always chopping and changing, always trying on different ways of expressing himself, and, for all I know, never being entirely satisfied.

Self-doubt is the mind-killer.

I am a relentless editor. I’ve probably tweaked and re-tweaked this article a dozen times. It still looks like shit. But I must stop now, or I’ll never publish at all.

The fear of rejection makes us into “perfectionists”. But that perfectionism is just a shell. We draw into it when times are hard. It gives us safety… The safety of a lie.

The truth is, all of us have ideas. Little seeds of creativity waft in through the windowsills of the mind. The difference between Asimov and the rest of us is that we reject our ideas before giving them a chance.

After all, never having ideas means never having to fail.
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4. Lower Your Standards
Asimov was fully against the pursuit of perfectionism. Trying to get everything right the first time, he says, is a big mistake.

Instead, get the basics down first —
Think of yourself as an artist making a sketch to get the composition clear in his mind, the blocks of color, the balance, and the rest. With that done, you can worry about the fine points.

Don’t try to paint the Mona Lisa on round one. Lower your standards. Make a test product, a temporary sketch or a rough draft.

At the same time, Asimov stresses self-assurance —
[A writer] can’t sit around doubting the quality of his writing. Rather, he has to love his own writing. I do.

Believe in your creations. This doesn’t mean you have to make the best in the world on every try. True confidence is about pushing boundaries, failing miserably, and having the strength to stand back up again.

We fail. We struggle. And that is why we succeed.
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5. Make MORE Stuff
Interestingly, Asimov also recommends making MORE things as a cure for perfectionism —

By the time a particular book is published, the [writer] hasn’t much time to worry about how it will be received or how it will sell. By then he has already sold several others and is working on still others and it is these that concern him. This intensifies the peace and calm of his life.

If you have a new product coming out every few weeks, you simply don’t have time to dwell on failure.

This is why I try to write multiple articles a week instead of focusing on one “perfect” piece. It hurts less when something flops. Diversity is insurance of the mind.
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6. The Secret Sauce
A struggling writer friend of Asimov’s once asked him, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Asimov replied, “By thinking and thinking and thinking till I’m ready to kill myself. […] Did you ever think it was easy to get a good idea?”
Many of his nights were spent alone with his mind —

I couldn’t sleep last night so I lay awake thinking of an article to write and I’d think and think and cry at the sad parts. I had a wonderful night.
Nobody ever said having ideas was going to be easy.
If it were, it wouldn’t be worth doing.
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