Last night I read through that little gem, The Elements of Style. Updated, its core nonetheless remains as sound as a ninety-year-old yogi.
In today’s children and young adult books, there is a fixation on “voice.” “Voice” is what is most often referenced when agents are asked what they look for when reading a manuscript. “A fresh voice” they say, whatever that means. Based on the books I review, “a fresh voice” is often on par with the flat, loud volume of commercials or the exaggerated drama of reality shows. It exhausts the reader with its neediness.
Here, by calming contrast, is Strunk and White’s advice in the chapter titled “An Approach to Style.”
Place yourself in the background. Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.
If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background.
A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.
Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.
There is a pervasive myopia, and it is, that talent and success come to fruition solely by the genius of the person in question.
No one has ever done anything that is worthwhile alone.
There is always someone or someones who maintain the foundation of—lets call it that incubative stuff they put in petri dishes—that matrix, so that the cells can grow, unimpeded. There is always someone who provides one or more of the following: financial support, child care, housework, emotional support, intellectual support, physical support.
Leaving out this other half —and it is at least half—of the story in a profile of a successful person perpetuates the tired, and let’s face it, untrue trope of the solitary genius.
Walt Whitman had, not only his sister, but a wife to wait on him and take care of his every emotional and physical need so that he could create in petri dish splendor. Edward Weston had Tina Modotti. And so on.
I am looking forward to the day when a profile of a successful person—of any gender—includes the other half of the story, which is, of course, the whole story.
Exciting news for me! My website, debpaulson.com is up and running. Although a website launch is about as noteworthy these days as a new memoir, when it’s your own, it’s special.
My web designer Adam Stemple, took my vision of a clean, spare, but not “which way to radiology” look and turned it into an awfully pretty, uncluttered website. In it, you will find a great many of my watercolors, searchable and organized in a drop-down menu, a little bio, and my “other” writing—articles, thoughts, and literary criticism pieces that appeal to a specific audience, rather than general (but I encourage you to read them anyway, even if you don’t think you want to know why the children’s book, The Borrowers, may be an affirmation of British colonialist mentality, or how photography was invented. You never know.) “Writing” will update monthly, so check back regularly. In the queue: liminal and mythic time in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (Admit it. You can’t wait.) And of course, I will add new paintings as I complete them. (I’ll be doing the illustrations for my picture book, The Prunes, over the winter and will show them first on the website.)
My blog also lives in the website, although I will also continue to publish it under my word press site, so my followers don’t have to migrate over.
So take a look. Share. Stop back often. And thank you for reading.
Remember back when I posted about my work schedule in Stephen King is my Boss? And how I said I sat down at 9:00 am and wrote until 1:00 pm (except for my elevenses break) six days a week?
I’m a big talker.
About a month ago, the thought of sitting down at 9:00 am to slough through a morning of revision made me real, real tired. My brain did not want to revise. It wanted to make some jewelry—so I let it. I hauled out my beads and little pliers and wire cutters and those tiny but essential findings and had at it.
I spent a happy two days in my “pop-up jewelry store” as the hubby called it, creating with color and texture, letting my writing brain rest. Sure, I had a twinge of guilt for not writing, but not enough to stop me. And after the jewelry, I needed to work with color some more, so I did a few watercolors, completely unconnected to illustrating anything. Just five little watercolors for a show at a gallery in Connecticut. I called it my “glowy animal series.”
A few days ago, a friend sent me an article by Maria Popova on her Brain Pickings blog that made me realize why I so enjoyed those non-writing days. It was an article about a book called “Uncommon Genius,” published in 1991. The author, Denise Shekerjian, interviewed forty recipients of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants about their creative process. Lo and behold, a very big component of the creative process for them was downtime, drifting-around time, unconnected-to-your-work time. Ta-da! Validation.
Now I’m ready to write again. Nay, I’m eager to write again.
A change, as they say, is as good as a rest.
I’m on a deadline for a book review and I’m also on a deadline for holiday want-to’s.
Yesterday I sat down and wrote out a first draft of the review. My first drafts are rambling things where I try to include all the themes I want to cover as well as the basics of the plot, as well as my judgment about how successful the book has been in relaying it story.
So this first draft was a loosely structured bunch of ideas and hundreds of words too long for my word count, but it was okay for now. I saved it. Then I got out the needle felting foam and fiber, my gourd inspiration and got to it. Needle felting consists of jabbing a barbed needle over and over into the wool until it takes on the shape of what you want. Maybe you can see the connection here. Just finished first draft. Phrases and themes are floating around in my head; questions are rising to the top like feeding fish. Do I use “sardonic” or “wry” to describe the narrative voice, or just “precocious.” Is “engaging” too ubiquitous? —The sorts of thoughts that need to mull and stretch as I jab a pointed needle into felt.
The motion, smallishly aggressive, is just enough to let off the steam created by so much critical thinking—it fills the same purpose as nervously jiggling your knee, except that you get a cute little felted thing at the end. So I finished the green gourd—it didn’t take that long, maybe one-half hour, and then I put it down and went on to the second draft.
In the second draft, I’ll start stringing sentences together, picking the exactly proper verb and adverb and paring down my word count. Probably there will be another gourd break (they are to be Thanksgiving gifts after all, so that is a deadline too) then a third draft. Heck I might get the whole dang cornucopia done by the time I submit the review. Now that’s multitasking.
I’ve been sending around my YA novel to agents in the hopes of representation. While no one has yet expressed interest, I have received a handful of rejections. They all express the same sentiments: they are regretful, the book world is so subjective, I deserve an agent who is as passionate about my work as I am, I should continue.
I am delighted to know about this world of polite “no’s.” I’m not unperceptive and I know these are more or less form letters, but I enjoy their courteous encouragement. And for people as busy as agents—in this world of instant electronic submissions—just receiving a reply can be interpreted as a form of success. But having run the gamut of iterations of “no” for a while, I now want to know why. To that end I have an idea: How about a form rejection letter that would have suggestions or comments built in that the agent would underscore or make bold or put an X next to. It could look something like this.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to review your work. However, I am not going to offer you representation based on this manuscript because:
X Your writing needs to be tightened up
Your characters are flat/tropey
Your plot lacks sufficient development
X This subject is not selling right now
Best regards, Agent
Does that seem too harsh? I think it would be helpful and I don’t think it would take up any more of the agent’s time than cutting and pasting a form letter. I know brusque is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I prefer it to bland vagaries. (Well, I like to think I do.) I belong to a writing group that gets straight to the point. I review books professionally and I’m a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Yes, I sometimes get that “ouch” feeling when I get critiqued, but I always, eventually, appreciate it because it always makes my work better.
Stephen King wrote that it was a game changer for him when an editor scrawled a note on his rejected manuscript that it was too puffy and that the second draft equals the first draft minus ten percent. He took that advice to heart, pared down his stories and started getting acceptances.
Agents want to get good books out to the marketplace, and what better way to help that process than to give serious writers a teeny signpost, included in a form letter, that reflects the agent’s perspective?
I got a friendly, helpful note back from an agent this week. While she declined to take me on, she did tell me she found my story line intriguing, however it started off too slow.
Zing! I knew she was right. I moved the manuscript into Scrivener and started re-arranging scenes in Corkboard. Moving the scenes around allowed interesting gaps to develop—gaps that sparkled. As I was rearranging, part of my brain delighted in this freedom and part of it was aghast. “You can’t do that!” it said, “no one will look at it if you do that.” Well, let’s be honest, no one is really looking at it yet anyway, as far as I know. And besides, at 56 years old, at least two thirds of my life is over, so what is there to be afraid of? I’ve already experienced rejection and lived through it. I’ve already taken chances and succeeded or failed—and lived through it.
Fiction writing is a fairly new skill for me and I’m learning the craft daily. Even when I think I’ve written something lovely and amazing that really ought to win the National Book Award, or even better, a MacArthur grant, I remember how it was when I first started making baskets. I loved them too—those first ones—every crooked, sad, little lump of them. Then I got more polished and more polished still. And when I looked back at the first ones, I liked their gallantry, but let’s face it, they weren’t salable.
I think the same thing will happen with my writing. I am persistent. My stories will get more and more polished and one day my turn will come and I’ll get what I think I most want right now—a published book.
Even as I think this, though, I remind myself of something that I intuit is true: that the thrill of publication will never equal the satisfaction of the days I have now—of trying, failing, discovering and polishing—in a word, living.
Regular followers of my blog may be wondering why:
A) I am posting on a Monday and
B) what this blog post is about, anyway.
I’ve been tagged by the wonderful Sharon Roat sharonwrote.blogspot.com for the My Writing Process Blog Tour, and when tagged, the tagee answers four questions in a blog post about their writing process. Here goes.
Stephen King is not technically my boss, and, actually, I haven’t even read any of his fiction because when I saw the movie “Carrie” it scared me so badly that I swore off reading anything by him. Until I picked up his memoir of the craft: On Writing. I’m a sucker for plain speaking because it respects and assumes intelligence in the recipient. On Writing is plain speaking—honest, confident and funny. It was a book I could believe in, and a work ethic I could respect (minus the early drug abuse) so I modeled my working day after his.
What am I working on?
I’m working on three things:
—a young adult novel told in three voices that includes a terrifying sailing adventure, some betrayal, some seriously bad decision-making—but is ultimately about the transcending individuation brought about by courage.
—A middle grade mystery featuring a twelve-year-old boy, his younger sisters, a missing father and a bunch of quantum physics.
—And a picture book that I am also illustrating about a suburban girl who finds a home in the natural world after being relocated to the woods by her wacky new-age parents.
How does my work differ from others in its genres?
The YA is mostly in verse and as my writing group likes to point out, it is a verse novel with tension (!!). I pitch it as Out of the Dust meets The Perfect Storm.
The middle grade has the quantum physics aspect that can almost be interpreted as magical realism, but not quite. I ran it by my older brother (who, in the ‘80’s, was completing his PhD in artificial intelligence at Stanford when he was wooed away by a dot com company. He doesn’t have to work anymore) and the science, weird as it is, he says is legit.
In the picture book, Iris, the protagonist, is the straight-man to her parents wackiness; she’s got agency up the wazoo and it also has the theme—near and dear to my heart—of getting kids out into nature.
Why do I write what I do?
I’m no spring chicken and I’ve had a lot of life experiences.
The YA is, as they say, “inspired by true events.” I knew it would make a good story the moment all the (real) pieces fell into place. The MG was an experiment. Mr. Stephen King told me (through his book) that he writes 2000 words a day; he just forges ahead, day after day. So that’s what I did. I had one image—three kids in a canoe find a blue artifact in a swamp—and from the there, I just wrote.
And the PB: “inspired by true events.”
I guess I write what I do because I like to think and I’ve got a lot of raw material.
How does my writing process work?
At 9AM I sit down in front of my computer and work until 11AM, when I have ‘elevenses.’ After elevenses, I go to work until 1PM, by which time I have hopefully written 2000 words, or I must continue to work. That’s it. Six days a week. Sometimes I draw if it’s a picture book I’m working on. Sometimes I’m on a deadline for a book review and work on that instead. But I find writing consistently is a better schedule for my muse.
“I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy. These sprites are both old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, skeptical and credulous, and so on, and what’s more, they’re completely amoral. . .the story-sprites are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale.”
I’m afraid I don’t remember who wrote that, but don’t you just love it.
For next week, I’ve tagged Heather Knight Richard, gal extraordinaire.
Heather grew up near the banks of the Connecticut River in Western Massachusetts, quite literally in the family’s pizza shop. Her historical novel in verse, FLY TO THE HILLS, is the story of a mill girl who works downstream from a faulty reservoir dam, and it recently earned Heather the SCBWI Student Writer Scholarship. In May Heather graduated with an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. She lives and works in the same town where she once sold pizza, now as the parent of five young children (including two sets of twins!). www.hknightrichard.com
I attended all three days of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) last weekend. Exhausting. I’m not used to being around hundreds of people for thirteen hours a day. I attended a few stellar workshops—Nancy Werlin’s cutting and revising presentation stands out—and a few mediocre ones. There were quite a lot of presentations on the “getting-your-book-published” side of things and a friend of mine noted that this conference is always an uneasy mixture of craft and marketing. Because of course, books need readers and from the publisher point of view the more the better.
But what makes a book sell? No one really knows, oddly enough, hence the headlong rush to copy the style of the latest best seller. But I think there is a thread that that runs through all extraordinary books and that thread is authenticity. The author has something to say and says it: truthfully, honestly, and often, painfully.
Authenticity sells because authenticity connects and the one thing that connects us all is our human condition. If a story is written authentically, readers connect to it. They sense its inherent honesty and by transmission, its inherent value to their lives.
America’s timeless stories—The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind—burn with the author’s passion. John Steinbeck and Harper Lee wrote from their hearts, not from the publishing pulse. They wrote because they had something to say and they said it. Authenticity, in both these books, rings like lead crystal tapped.
When we write authentically, we write from the very base of human longing and it is that longing which not only connects us all, but to which we long to be connected.
photos by Dorothea Lange