Monday, November 24, 2014

Top Ten Writings to Give Thanks For

"I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Happy Thanksgiving! In the spirit of the season, I'd like to give thanks to books, my friends old and new. Here are the top ten writings for which I'd like to give thanks for. What are yours?

1. One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, by Dr. Seuss

The first book I could read all by myself. I can still quote most of it verbatim.

2. The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris

Especially Chapter Two, which taught my 12-year-old self all I needed to know (at the time) about sex. It was a big hit at all the slumber parties.

3. Self-Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sister Esther introduced this essay to me when I was a sophomore in high school, and I fell in love with Emerson and the idea of nonconformity: "Whoso would be a man would be a nonconformist.". For an Army brat, this was a revelation--and a revolution.

4. All the President's Men, Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein

The news story that informed my adolescence--and the reason I was proud to be a reporter, back in the day.

5. Eye of the Needle, by Ken Follett

This taut novel marked the beginning of my lifelong fascination with spy stories.

5. Heartburn, by Nora Ephron

Which proved to me that my grandfather was right when he said, "It doesn't matter what happens to you as long as it makes a good story later." 

6. A Midsummer's Night Dream, by William Shakespeare

My introduction to the Bard, the writer who keeps on giving.

7. Two Happy Lovers Make One Bread, by Pablo Neruda

My favorite poem among many. I read poetry like some people read the obituaries--because it makes me feel alive.

8. Angels in America, by Tony Kushner

Because it's brilliant, and reminds me what art is supposed to do.

9. Emma, by Jane Austen

The Jane Austen novel I've read the most times--with the possible exception of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility or, well, you get the idea. Between Shakespeare and Austen, you can learn all you need to know about writing great characters.

10. Anything by Anne Lamott

Who reminds me that the best writers are as hard on themselves as they are on their subjects. And that humility--however hard-won--can be very, very funny.

Of course, there are countless works and writers to be thankful for--too many for this blog or a million blogs. But if you had to choose: What are your top ten?

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Speaking of Talking

Telling stories and selling stories—as a writer, editor, and agent—that’s how I spend my days. And most nights, truth be told.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I truly love my work—and would do it whether I got paid or not. (Which is just as well, since not getting paid is an occupational hazard. Few writers get paid in the beginning, and agents never get paid until we actually sell your work.)

What I love most about telling and selling stories is talking about telling and selling stories with other publishing people—writers, editors, agents, reviewers, publicists, et al—people just like you. That’s how I see this blog, as a lively discussion between friends and colleagues about the writing craft and the publishing business. So I hope that you’ll join the conversation….

Blah, Blah, Blah

“I talk to myself and have a good time.”--Diane von Furstenberg

You may not think of fashion icon and entrepreneur DVF as a writer (although she has just published her memoir, TheWoman I Wanted to Be.) But this quote of hers applies to writers everywhere. We sit all alone in small rooms all around the world and talk to ourselves, telling ourselves our stories as we write them. And when the work is going well, we, too, have a good time.

This is only one of the reasons people think writers are a little nuts. When I was a girl, I talked to myself all the time.  I had no choice, since I was an only child and an Army brat who was always the friendless new kid at school. So I often literally had no one else talk to besides myself. And like DVF, I had a good time.
Until the day my father, the Colonel, discovered me talking to myself alone in my room (just like the writer I was bound to become). The Colonel was not pleased.  “People who talk themselves are crazy,” he told me.  

I didn’t know if I were crazy or not, but I knew I was going to keep on talking to myself. So I disguised my self-talk in two ways:
1.  I made sure that my poodle Rogue was always close to hand, so I could slip in a quick “Good dog!” if my dad caught me unawares. The Colonel loved dogs, and approved of talking to them.

2.  If I knew my father was around the house, I switched to French, which Dad could not understand. He’d think I was practicing my foreign language skills, which indeed I was.

So I was still talking to myself, but now I had my first audience (Rogue), and my first translation deal (to the French).  It was a portent of things to come.
I still talk to myself. I’m talking myself now as I write this. I do my talking in English, as my French is a little rusty now, and my beagle Freddie is not necessarily a good dog— Rogue having long ago gone to that big Poodle Paradise in the Sky and the Colonel having long ago accepted the fact that his only child is a writer and as such will behave in inexplicably weird, writerly ways. Just like any other civilian.

Are You Talking to Me?

“A man speaking sense to himself is no madder than a man speaking nonsense not to himself.--Tom Stoppard

Over the years, I’ve come to consider the art of talking to one’s self as integral to the writing process. It’s good for storytelling—and also serves as an accurate test of a story’s emotional impact on the reader. If you can make yourself laugh out loud or cry real tears while composing your story, then you may very well be able to evoke that emotion in your reader as well. If you can make yourself laugh out loud or cry real tears when you’re on your tenth revision, even better.

Another reason to talk to yourself is that it’s often much safer than talking to other people about your work in progress. Many writers refuse to speak about their stories to anyone until after they are finished writing them, including Ernest Hemingway, who cautioned that “you lose it if you talk about it.” All the more reason to keep yourself to yourself.

If you are the rare writer who does not talk to yourself, don’t despair. You can still qualify as a real writer. But at least read your work aloud to yourself, which is the next best thing to talking to yourself as you write. More importantly, reading your work aloud allows you to hear your story in a new way. You can focus on the language itself, and catch all the awkward phrasings, run-on sentences, and arrhythmic patterns that clutter your prose.

So keep on talking to yourself. Take pride in your ability to speak and laugh and cry to yourself as you write. (And your dog, should you have one. Your cat will ignore you.)

Speaking of which, I gotta go. I have something to say…to myself.

You can read about it later.