Tag Archives: Writer’s block

GREAT WRITERS ON THE ART OF FICTION, edited by James Daley

The title says it all.  GREAT WRITERS ON THE ART OF FICTION:  FROM MARK TWAIN TO JOYCE CAROL OATES  is a book I’ve wished existed for several years now.  Imagine my joy when I discovered that James Daley had edited together a collection of essays by famous 19th & 20th century writers from North America and Great Britain.  I consider the book a major bargain at a cover price of only $8.95 from Dover Publications.

The list of writers in the book reads like a who’s who:  Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Kate Chopin, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler, Eudora Welty, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, Wallace Stegner, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood.

This is not a “how to” book on writing.  It’s more a broad survey about what famous writers in North America and Great Britain have thought about the art of writing over the last two hundred years.  The essays vary from simple advice to new writers, to complex analyses of style.   So each reader will find that a different set of essays appeal most to him or her.  There is something here for everyone–no matter where they are in their journey as a writer.

For me on my first reading of the book, Sinclair Lewis’ “How I Wrote A Novel On The Train And Beside The Kitchen Sink” was the one that spoke strongest to me this time.   I am glad I purchased this book so that I can reread this essay at my leisure.    I’ll share a sample, but I encourage reading the entire essay to savor Lewis’ acerbic commentary.

…”I think my present life is intolerably dull, and I do want to write.”

“Very well then, I’ll tell you the trick.  You have to do only one thing: Make black marks on white paper.  That little detail of writing is one that is neglected by almost all the aspirants I meet.”

He–and especially she–is horribly disappointed by my cynicism.  He–and often she–finds nothing interesting in making marks on paper.  What he, she, it, they, and sometimes W and Y, want to do is to sit dreaming purple visions, and have them automatically appear: (1) on a manuscript; (2) on a check from the editor.  So he, and the rest of the pronouns, usually finds the same clever excuse:

“But I simply can’t seem to find the time…”

Mr. Lewis then goes on, in a blunt manner, to demonstrate the inherent weakness of this excuse.  As far as he’s concerned, one needs only 1 hour day of writing, six days a week, to get started as a writer.   And if one can’t get an hour, then seize whatever is available, even if it’s only 15 minutes a day.    For the writer who writes 15 minutes a day, gets far ahead of the wanna-be writer who does zero.

How to get back into writing after a long hiatus

Sometimes illness or tragedy or severe writer’s block can result in a work-in-progress grinding to a halt.  It’s happened to me, it’s happened to other writers I know.  The best piece of advice I ever got for coming back after a long hiatus was:

Set the daily word count goal absurdly low.  25 to 50 words/day max if the situation is particularly severe.  Do that writing goal for 5 days the first week.  Slowly ramp up the word count each week (unless you’re chomping at the bit to do more).  If you grind to a halt, cut the goal for the number of words per day in half and start over from there.

I’ve tried out this advice in the past, and found it did the trick to get me back into the swing of things.   So I wanted to share it in case someone else out there is dealing with this writing issue.

Pushcart’s COMPLETE ROTTEN REVIEWS AND REJECTIONS

I think what I love most about Pushcart’s COMPLETE ROTTEN REVIEWS AND REJECTIONS, edited by Bill Henderson & Andre Bernard, is that it lifts the veil of mystery between writers and the publishing world, and shows us just how human we are all are despite our attempts to become omniscient.   Mistakes get made.  Critics and editors get cranky and misunderstand an important book.  Writers insult other writers.

Any writer who is feeling timorous about submitting his or her work should consider reading this book.  Reading the nasty reviews and rejections other writers have received was an excellent antidote for self-pity.  The book also provides a peek into history, since Bill Henderson made an effort to include rotten reviews going as far back as 411 BC.

I don’t want to spoil the fun of what is inside, so instead I’ll quote from the back cover:

Alice in Wonderland was greeted with “a stiff overwrought story.”  Reviews of Moby Dick cited Melville for “tragic-comic bubble and squeak.”  Classic rejection slips were delivered to John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold: “You’re welcome to Le Carre–he hasn’t got any future,” and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: “I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years,”…

My one gripe is that the book has no index, and since the excerpts are not arranged chronologically or alphabetically, I have to randomly flip around to find the author or quote I’m looking for.

This book combines the three separate Pushcart editions of ROTTEN REVIEWS, ROTTEN REVIEWS II, and ROTTEN REJECTIONS.  So you’re getting three books for the price of one.  A great bargain.

Dealing with Submissions Block

As I’ve talked about before in previous posts, I’ve had trouble with writer’s block and submissions block, which is why I like to post about them in the hopes of helping some other writer down the road.

The writer’s block problem I was able to successfully deal with a couple of years ago.

My final steps in dismantling submissions block only happened about a month ago.  Until then, I could count the number of submissions I’d done to fiction editors over my entire life on my fingers (no toes needed).   This blockage continued for years despite getting requests to see more of my work from former editors at Asimov’s and Tor.   Instead I ran away as fast I could.

The truth of the matter is that I had a phobia about showing my work to other human beings, and until it was dealt with, I wasn’t going to go anywhere.

In the end, it took what psychologists call “desensitization.”  Like someone afraid of spiders, I had to to develop a detailed campaign to slowly dismantle the submissions block.

And so I did.   I started this blog as a way to deal with the problem, and as the block fades away, I suspect this blog will change.   I fell silent here for almost two months as I dealt with the severe stress of getting queries out in an organized determined manner for the first time ever.

I find that rejection itself is okay, and I can deal with it fine.  The mundane reality of rejections is much less frightening than the bizarre phobic fears I once had.

Laura Resnick’s REJECTION, ROMANCE & ROYALTIES

I think what I value most about Laura Resnick’s essays in REJECTION, ROMANCE, & ROYALTIES: THE WACKY WORLD OF A WORKING WRITER is her brutal honesty.   This is not an essay collection for the faint of heart.

Let me provide an example from her essay “Passion” in the book:

Editors have told me that my advance is more than I’m worth; my work isn’t that good; I should write more like so-and-so; my work is “shit;” I don’t know how to write; my work is an “insult” to them; and I don’t “appreciate” them enough.   Agents have told me that I’m “not worth” their time; my query is an insult to them; I’m “self-destructive” (based on my choosing to fire that agent); they “hate” my work; and I’m lazy (I wrote a mere 1,400 pages that year).

Resnick covers a variety of topics in her essays, such as writer’s block, editors & agents, contracts, readers, horror stories about publishing, horror stories about book tours, nerves, cash flow, rejections, etc..

Because this is a collection of essays, certain thoughts get repeated over and over.   This becomes a mild irritant if one sits down to read the book in one sitting.  I found it better to stop for the day after reading four to five essays.

Resnick makes her living as a fiction writer, and she does not spare the reader details about the ugly side of the business.  However, she also has a wicked sense of humor.  Here’s a sample from “It Can Happen Here–And Often Does:”

Trish Jensen, writing under the pseudonym Trish Graves, sold them a novel called Just This Once in which the hero, among other things, mentors a teenage boy, steering him away from street gangs and toward organized sports.  So you can imagine the author’s shock when, upon reading her galleys, she discovered that the editor had changed the boy into a raccoon.

(I think I speak for everyone here when I say, “What?”)

You’ll have to read the essay to find out if the novel was published with the raccoon character change.