Archive for November, 2009

Mourning the Big Bad Bookstore

Posted in From the News on November 30, 2009 by Lizzie

 

Remember watching Tom Hanks battle out Meg Ryan as Fox Books took out all the little independents in You’ve Got Mail (1998)?  Well, the opposite seems to be happening in real life.  Borders is dying out in the United Kingdom, surrendering its customers over to smaller and cozier bookshops. 

What do you think?  Yes, large chains are impersonal and lacking in charm, but they do tend to offer books at more affordable prices.  And then there’s just something about spending hours in an independent store with friendly staff and sliding ladders.  While living in Boston this past summer, I spent more time in the small cellar bookshop streets away than in the Borders directly across from my building just because the atmosphere was warmer and more . . . bookish.  Will we be losing something if Borders closes its doors?

Read Rachel Cooke’s “Beyond Borders: the future of bookselling.”

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The Master of Suspense

Posted in Advice from the Pros on November 23, 2009 by Lizzie

A few months ago I stumbled across a book sale at my county library and picked up a silverfish-nibbled copy of Stories to be Read with the Lights On, compiled by none other than the magnificent Alfred Hitchcock.  My obsession with British crime dramas – film or print – led me to this quote by the ego-driven genius himself:

With a characteristic lack of modesty I have allowed myself to be billed as a Master of Suspense.  The description is indeed accurate, and you must admit, fully justified.

As with all so-called experts my counsel is often solicited by interviewers seeking definitions.  Just what is this business of suspense, they inquire.  Well, years ago I consulted one of those massive unabridged dictionaries one lifts only with the aid of a derrick.  It defined suspense as uncertainty accompanied by apprehension.

Fair enough.  In my films I try to intensify this apprehension to a point where it becomes unbearable.  That is the name of the game.

With monumental films like Rear Window and Psycho, Hitchcock undoubtedly deserves the Master of Suspense title in film, but his advice can be easily adapted from movie reel to printed page.  He insists the key to writing suspense is in architecting spine-tingling anxiety until it becomes “unbearable” to the reader.  So many authors build and build their complicated plots only to rush the endings and ruin the books.  Hitchcock’s method is tried and true.  Build the suspense slowly . . . and deliberately . . . until your audience cannot take another moment . . . and then give them a real Hitchcockian ending.

The Undisciplined Writer’s Dream

Posted in The Writing Climate on November 17, 2009 by Lizzie

My childhood memories are sepia toned: I climbed trees with the boys, downed pixie sticks with birch beer, and wore ridiculous pink high-heeled pumps with my pajamas.  While I still like to pair heels with flannel, I’ve pretty much accepted that I’m getting smarter. 

That was until I read Dave Caolo’s post, “Setting Up a Writing Mac.”  He advises dragging that old computer out from the basement and actually using it again – for writing only.  No web browser for convenient procrastination or iTunes for those distracting dance parties (exactly what I did for the last hour instead of writing this post). 

My first electronic love was a prehistoric typewriter that hummed like a mosquito when I plugged it in.  I would type away for hours, pretending to be famous and pumping out the most pathetic plots possible.  When I moved to Jersey, I graduated to the Mac, biking over to the public library if I needed the Internet or printer.  The computer was bigger than the desk it was on, but it served a purpose, and I still have some of the stories I drafted on that desktop.

What do you think about recycling an old computer?  Would your writing benefit from less distractions?

The Gypsy in Us All

Posted in Advice from the Pros on November 11, 2009 by Lizzie

Only those closest to me know what makes me quake in my boots.  Spiders are merely an annoyance and are easily dealt with under the heel of my shoe.  Skydiving is on the top of my to-do list.  A solitary stroll down a dark alley sounds like great material for a murder mystery.  Not too many things in life scare me, but my palms sweat and my throat constricts at the thought of staying in one place for too long.  Irrational but true.  Blame it on my personality, my age, or my love affair with atlases, a life of travel writing sounds like paradise.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that dreaming is easier than putting dreams in action.  Small steps are small, but at least they get you somewhere.  Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, understands this fact, and he’s distilled travel writing advice into ten practical tips for those starry-eyed individuals just waiting for the opportunity to hop a plane to the Amazon (read: me).

1. Travel a lot. There’s simply no way to write about travel with any kind of authority unless you get a basic sense for what life on the road is like. Also, it will help if you travel in a dynamic way—opening yourself up to the unknown and interacting with the local cultures. I also advise—for anyone who is really serious about travel writing or even just experiencing the world in a more vivid way—to work a few years in a foreign country (keep reading Transitions Abroad for information on how to do this). This kind of expatriate experience immerses you in a culture in a way that mere travel cannot. Plus, it conditions you to interact with folks, even if you don’t fully understand their language or customs.

2. Write a lot. The best way to get published is to write well. The best way to write well is to write often. And, even if you don’t get published, you’ll have the satisfaction of capturing your experience on paper and intriguing your friends.

3. Read a lot. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and you can’t write good travel stuff unless you read good travel stuff. Definitely study your history books and your guidebooks—but don’t overlook literary travel narratives, be they in books or magazines. Pay attention to technique as much as content, even when reading novels or general nonfiction.

4. Don’t quit your day job. Very few travel writers support themselves entirely on their writing—and those that can support themselves rarely get rich in the process. Find (or keep) a “real world” job to keep yourself in the black. The secret, of course, is to find work that allows you the freedom or option to travel. My own travel-writing budget was initially augmented by funds saved from two years of teaching English in Korea.

5. Read up on the trade. For the basic nuts and bolts of travel writing, go to your local library or bookstore and check out titles such as The Travel Writer’s Handbook by Louise Purwin Zobel or Travel Writing by Louisa Peat O’Neil.

6. Surf up on the trade. Good practical information on travel writing is only a click away. Be sure to check several search engines for a breadth of travel writing information. A good starting-point for beginning travel writers is Jen Leo’s Written Road blog (www.writtenroad.com).

7. Research your destination. Travel writing always benefits from a good knowledge of the region or culture. Even if you don’t use specific information in your article, research can help you write about a place or culture with confidence. Once you’ve arrived in the country, read the local English-language newspaper for details, quirks, and tidbits.

8. Research your markets. If you are writing for friends or a weblog, you probably know your audience already. But if you’re writing for magazines, newspapers, or web sites, make sure you’re familiar with the publication and its needs. Never approach an editor with an unclear or inappropriate story. Target small, non-paying markets first to build up a body of work. Publishing stories at online travel communities like BootsnAll (www.bootsnall.com) can be a good way to get started and find an audience.

9. Be patient. A travel writing career is something that develops over many years. Grow a thick skin and get used to having your stories rejected or ignored. Remember that editors are extremely busy people, and don’t take their indifference as a personal insult. Once you establish a relationship with an editor, don’t let it slide. Be friendly, show your competence, work hard, and don’t take things for granted.

10. Nurture your passion. Whatever you do, remember that travel—not travel writing—should be your priority. Always keep traveling and experiencing new parts of the planet. Even if you never get a single story published, you’ll most likely discover that you have fallen in love with the world and made your life richer in a way you never could have imagined.

Read Rolf Potts’ full article, “Advice to Travel Writers.”

Writing Humbert Humberts

Posted in Crafting on November 5, 2009 by Lizzie

This is something I’ve struggled with for years: is a character always reflected in the author?  And even more precisely, is a morally starved character always a mirroring of the author’s own subconscious?  In the past, I’ve written characters who have startled those closest to me.  Those same nasty fictional beings put to page caused a widespread probing into my morals, my inner life.  But was that fair?  Is it common knowledge that a character will be a direct reflection of the author?

Consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.  In “Lolita at 50,” Stephen Metcalf poses the poignant question, “Why did Nabokov choose to inhabit Humbert Humbert, a pitiable half-mad émigré suffering from acute nympholepsy, in the first place?”  Here is a character tormented by his consuming lust for a twelve-year-old girl.  Did Nabokov himself harbor pedophilic tendencies because he was able to so completely inhabit the mind of a sexually perverse man?  Metcalf argues for the writing genius:

To inhabit a pedophile—and not just a pedophile, but a European pedophile, on an American soil Nabokov had himself grown to love!—was to torture in extremis his faith in the sanctity of the exquisite inner life.

Nabokov was nothing more than an accurate recorder of life’s dirty realism, and Humbert Humbert was a creature independent of his creator.

Not everyone feels the same with this topic.  What do you think?  Can authors separate themselves from their characters?

Writing in Time

Posted in Inspiration on November 2, 2009 by Lizzie

I love words.  Period.  I love novels and poems and magazine articles.  I love the way newspaper print comes off on your fingers.  I love pulling out the old dictionary to sort out a definition and getting lost somewhere between recherché and sauvignon blanc just because the words roll off the tongue in such an interesting way.  In much the same way, I love listening to the lyrics of songs on and off the radio.  In my opinion, it’s where the best poetry can be found, and today my pick comes from U2’s 1984 album, The Unforgettable Fire.  There’s a reason why U2 is my favorite band.

Bad

If you twist and turn away
If you tear yourself in two again
If I could, yes I would
If I could, I would let it go
Surrender, dislocate

If I could throw this lifeless
Lifeline to the wind
Leave this heart of clay
See you walk, walk away
Into the night
And through the rain
Into the half-light
And through the flame

If I could, through myself
Set your spirit free
I’d lead your heart away
See you break, break away
Into the light
And to the day

To let it go
And so to find a way
To let it go
And so find a way

I’m wide awake
I’m wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no, no

If you should ask, then maybe
They’d tell you what I would say
True colours fly in blue and black
Blue silken sky and burning flag
Colours crash, collide in blood shot eyes

If I could, you know I would
If I could, I would let it go

This desparation
Dislocation
Separation
Condemnation
Revelation
In temptation
Isolation
Desolation

Let it go
And so to find a way
To let it go
And so find a way

Oh, no
I’m wide awake
I’m wide awake
I’m not sleeping
Oh, no no

Edge, Bono, Adam, and Larry