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Write it Like Tin House

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Every year Tin House, a literary journal and independent publishing house, coordinates a Summer Writer’s Workshop, a “weeklong intensive of workshops, seminars, panels, and readings.” Together with today’s most respected American authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Tin House editors teach a small group the ins and outs of writing and publishing.

This year’s instructors include Steve Almond, Karen Russell, Jim Shepard, Dana Spiotta, Jess Walter, Cheryl Strayed and D.A. Powell–a dream lineup if you love independent presses and literary imprints.

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House is a collection that stems from these yearly meetings; essays on character development, pace, editing, and other elements of storytelling offer those who can’t attend a glimpse inside the classroom walls.

Steve Almond explains good and bad sex writing; Kate Bernheimer discusses the four elements of fairy tales and “the reductive spectrum of mainstream and avant-garde writing;” Dorothy Allison describes “place” as it relates to “All the stuff you’ve got that you don’t see;” and Chris Offutt talks about revising, a skill that “requires a cruel and ruthless objectivity” and, to him, is akin to performing “surgery on yourself without anesthesia.”

Instead of a “how-to” guide, The Writer’s Notebook is as Lee Montgomery, Associate Publisher and Editorial Director of Tin House Books and Executive Editor of the magazine, describes it in her introduction: “like intimate conversations, like a notebook.” She further explains:

I suppose there are those who find prescriptive advice about writing helpful, writers who can look at a project, identify a structure, use an outline, and get to writing One, two, threepoof! But I cannot imagine a world where this is true, a world where one creates great characters in five steps, a world in which one pops books out like laying eggs. In my world, writing is difficult and short cuts are few. The only real way to learn how to do it is to read the work of authors who write well and to, well, write–a lot. Along the way, of course, it is always helpful–and interesting–to talk or listen to writers discuss their process and the work of other writers.

In his essay, “The Telling that Shows,” Peter Rock says:

I very rarely understand talking about writing or writing about writing as discourses that intersect with writing itself. I don’t believe that wisdom can be dispensed to writers in this way. How lovely if it were so, and how boring. Instead, I’m always hoping to provoke, to let writers weigh my assertions or learn from my mistakes.

It’s this philosophy–or honesty–that sets The Writer’s Notebook apart from all others on the writing reference shelf. Here are a few excerpts that resonated with me.

Rick Bass, “When to Keep it Simple”

In “When to Keep it Simple,” Rick Bass explains what to do “when you get too wrapped up in a lofty thought and you can’t quite make the ends of a sentence or paragraph hook back up”.

Try cleaning up the words and diction first … and if that doesn’t work, then begin breaking apart the truths, or purported truths, which are probably shrouded in windiness … Say it straight … as if in conversation … Lay that much-simpler and less-ambitious sentence down like a tiny placeholder.

Susan Bell, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby”

Susan Bell’s essay, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby,” looks at the relationship between author and editor. While writing “The Artful Edit,” Bell read the biography of legendary editor Max Perkins, the man who worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe. She also reread The Great Gatsby, this time as a “tour de force of revision.”

She starts off, “Gatsby is what Michael Ondaatje called ‘that seemingly uncrossable gulf between an early draft of a book … and a finished product’–in other words, editing.”

The writer had gone far enough on his own with Gatsby and was ready for the latest editorial push–one he freely admitted he was incapable of envisioning alone … It helped to have an editor as astute and courtly as Perkins and who knew how to balance general commentary with specific suggestions. …

Many consider editing as either the correction of punctuation (copyediting) or the overhaul of a book such as Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. The editing of The Great Gatsby sits between these extremes–a testimony to a writer’s discipline to edit himself and his wisdom to let himself be edited by someone worthy: that is how he crossed the gulf.

Lucy Corin,“Material”

Generally, we are taught to value content over form, to have something to say and then “find a form for it” as if one part of what we produce is our stuff and the other is a suitcase we bought to put the stuff in. You find the form to “suit” your content, your material. This is not an unhelpful way to think about things, but it is not the only way.

Jim Krusoe, “Le Mot Incorrect”

According to Wikipedia, Gustave Flaubert “believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding ‘le mot juste’ (‘the right word’), which he considered the key [to achieving] quality in literary art.”

While Krusoe “understand[s] the great magnetism of ‘le mot juste,’” he says that there are advantages to using the wrong word:

Wrong words help us stray off the path, not by producing a new path, but by throwing us into the thicket … in writing, correctness not only stops the conversation between the writer and the reader, it also stops it between the writer and her or himself. To have no questions is to cease to explore. A poor piece with all the right words has nowhere to turn. Wrong words, however, put us into a different relationship with our sentences and our work.

Margot Livesey, “Shakespeare for Writers”

A more straightforward lesson to be learned from Shakespeare’s plots is the virtue of having subplots … a successful subplot is one that is interesting and compelling in its own right, resonates with the main plot appropriately, and intersects with it at the perfect moment.

I fear I can no longer avoid the most obvious and the most impossible lesson we can learn from Shakespeare: namely, what can be accomplished by the magnificent, melodious, rigorous, energetic, boisterous, vivid, inventive use of language.

The notion of a painter who isn’t interested in paint is baffling, but many writers (I exclude poets) don’t actually seem that interested in language. They are convinced that the interest of their work lies in characterization, plot, and theme. But the plays I’m discussing have survived, in large measure, due to the language Shakespeare invented and put in the mouths of his characters.

The Writer’s Notebook II is out this month and Tin House will be accepting applications for their 2013 workshop starting January 1st.

::[Links]::
Buy The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
Buy The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House
Apply for the 2013 Workshop (applications accepted starting January 1, 2013)
Tin House Podcast: Listen to authors discuss writing
Tin House website

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Written by Gabrielle

November 6, 2012 at 6:07 am

On the Shelf: NaNoWriMo!

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Beginning on the 1st and ending a second before midnight on the 30th, November is National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short.

Now in its 13th year, NaNoWriMo has grown from a small group of idealistic, aspiring writers in the San Francisco area to an organization with an office, 501(c)(3) status, international participation, and celebrity author recognition in just a few years.

In its first year, 1999, founder Chris Baty rounded up 21 participants. By 2010 involvement had grown to 200,000 with 30,000 writers making it to the end with the 50,000 word count goal.

“It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly,” the website says. By focusing on producing pages, the writer does away with the endless, sometimes obsessive, retweaking and editing that can stymie creative efforts.

While writing can often be a solitary experience, NaNoWriMo, for one month, makes it feel like a communal happening. Not only is the internet flooded with encouraging stories and helpful tips, there is also plenty of evidence of collective suffering: sleep deprivation, skipped dinners, unwatched television shows, and showers not taken—all in the name of word count.

The rules were developed, reluctantly, the second year as more writers signed up and demanded clarification, but they are simple: 50,000 words, from scratch, written within the month of November.

If you’re in the San Francisco area the organization puts on some great events throughout the month. If not, many bookstores and libraries around the country and across the oceans host write-ins. When you sign up for NaNoWriMo you receive pep talks from some great authors, including Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus.

Unfortunately, if you write nonfiction your work won’t count for NaNoWriMo but you can benefit from the month’s spotlight on writing—both on the process and philosophy of it: setting aside time to bang out a word count, not worrying about a perfect first draft, paying attention to bad habits like procrastination and working to fix them, and reading some great articles on the craft from fellow writers at all stages of expertise and development.

There’s much more information and interactive material on the National Novel Writing Month site including a detailed history of NaNoWriMo and a link to an article about NaNoWriMo’s participation jump in its 3rd year. I encourage you to check it out, even if you aren’t participating.

Around the Web:
GalleyCat is posting all month, you can keep up to date and scroll their archives here.
io9, has a great post on how to write a sincere first draft of a sci-fi novel or fantasy epic.
The Christian Science Monitor has five reasons why you should participate.
Mental Floss is there to taunt you with 6 famous novels that were written in under a month.
Watch a short interview with Erin Morgenstern about how her book came out of a NaNoWriMo session.
Lifehacker has tips on how to harness the mental, creative, and emotional benefits of regular writing.
Flavorwire has a slideshow of advice from history’s fastest and most prolific writers.
The Electric Literature crew came up with a mixtape to listen to for the month while writing.
And if anyone tells you you’re crazy or wasting your time, The Los Angeles Times has 12 reasons to ignore the naysayers.

Helpful Writing Sites:
Poets & Writers, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips, Merriam-Webster online, Daily Writing Tips, Beyond the Margins, Writer’s Digest, Grammarphobia, Center for Fiction, Terrible Minds

Writing Advice Podcasts:
I Should be Writing and Writing Excuses have regular episodes and Tin House magazine has a great lecture of Dorothy Allison’s where she talks about crafting dialogue

What’s on the Shelf:
Now that you’re all geared up to write, here are some books to help you along the way:

The Associated Press Stylebook
More people write for The Associated Press than for any newspaper in the world, and writers-nearly two million of them-have bought more copies of The AP Stylebook than of any other journalism reference. It provides facts and references for reporters, and defines usage, spelling, and grammar for editors. There are separate sections for journalists specializing in sports and business, and complete guidelines for how to write photo captions, file copy over the wire, proofread text, handle copyrights, and avoid libel. [via IndieBound]

The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation
In the no-nonsense, authoritative tradition of the best-selling AP Stylebook, the top editors at the AP have now written the definitive guide to punctuation. [via IndieBound]

The Chicago Manual of Style
Clear, concise, and replete with commonsense advice, The Chicago Manual of Style, fifteenth edition, offers the wisdom of a hundred years of editorial practice while including a wealth of new topics and updated perspectives. For anyone who works with words, whether on a page or computer screen, this continues to be the one reference book you simply must have. [via IndieBound]

Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark
I can’t recommend Roy Peter Clark’s books enough. I loved Writing Tools and refer to it on a regular basis. It’s also my most recommended book of all time—fiction or nonfiction. You can read my essay about it here.

Glamour of Grammar is his most recent book and in their review, The New York Times picked up on why I like him so much: “Clark wholeheartedly endorses breaking the commandments that make no sense, as long as in the breaking, the writing still holds up.” I’m a rule-breaker and Clark is an encourager of such practices—as long as it’s an informed breaking. They called it “a welcome addition to the bookshelf of anyone who cares about language — and is willing to argue about it.” You can read his Q&A with the Times, follow him on Twitter @RoyPeterClark, and you can find outstanding articles and archived live chats from him on the Poynter Institute’s website.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
“The secret of creativity, Natalie Goldberg makes clear, is to subtract rules for writing, not add them….Proof that she knows what she’s talking about is abundant in her own sentences. They flow with speed and grace and accuracy and simplicity….It’s the simple style of a Zen archer who looks like he’s not even aiming, yet sends arrow after arrow to the bull’s eye, time after time.”—Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” [via Natalie’s website]

Here’s an interview with Natalie on Beliefnet about what failure can teach us.

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty
Written with the wit, warmth, and accessibility that the podcasts are known for, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing covers the grammar rules and word-choice guidelines that can confound even the best writers. From “between vs. among” and “although vs. while” to comma splices and misplaced modifiers, Mignon offers memory tricks and clear explanations that will help readers recall and apply those troublesome grammar rules. [via publisher]

No Plot? No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty
As mentioned above, Chris is the founder of National Novel Writing Month and it only makes sense to have his book included here.
Chris Baty, motivator extraordinaire and instigator of a wildly successful writing revolution, spells out the secrets of writingand finishing a novel. Baty puts pen to paper himself to share the secrets of success. With week-specific overviews, pep “talks,” and essential survival tips for today’s word warriors, this results-oriented, quick-fix strategy is perfect for people who want to nurture their inner artist and then hit print! Anecdotes and success stories from NaNoWriMo winners will inspire writers from the heralding you-can-do-it trumpet blasts of day one to the champagne toasts of day thirty. Whether it’s a resource for those taking part in the official NaNoWriMo event, or a stand-alone handbook for writing to come, No Plot? No Problem! is the ultimate guide for would-be writers (or those with writer’s block) to cultivate their creative selves. [via IndieBound]

Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury shares the wisdom, experience, and  excitement of a lifetime of writing. Here are  practical tips on the art of writing from a master of  the craft-everything from finding original ideas to  developing your own voice and style-as well as the  inside story of Bradbury’s own remarkable career  as a prolific author of novels, stories, poems,  films, and plays. [via IndieBound]

On Writing Well by William Zinsser
If you’re searching for a motivational manifesto and how-to manual in one, this is it. Zinsser, a veteran writer and writing teacher with numerous books and magazine articles to his credit, lays it out straight in a refreshingly no-nonsense tone. [via Dailywritingtips]

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
In the years since its original publication, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life has become a staple must-read for aspiring writers of all walks. Perhaps this is because her approach to the creative process manages a kind of golden ratio, a balance of magic and pragmatism that continues to reveal its depths to writers of the 21st century. Plainly, this is not a field guide. Dillard does not draw a tidy map. She does the opposite, acknowledging the unknown and unknowable wilderness that every writer must face. [via Center for Fiction]

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
You’ve always dreamed of writing science fiction and fantasy—tales that pull readers into extraordinary new worlds and fantastic conflicts. Best-selling author Orson Scott Card shows you how it’s done, distilling years of writing experience and publishing success into concise, no-nonsense advice. You’ll learn how to utilize story elements that define the science fiction and fantasy genres; build, populate, and dramatize a credible, inviting world your readers will want to explore; develop the “rules” of time, space and magic that affect your world and its inhabitants; construct a compelling story by developing ideas, characters, and events that keep readers turning pages; find the markets for speculative fiction, reach them, and get published; and submit queries, write cover letters, find an agent, and live the life of a writer [via Writer’s Digest]

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House combines the best craft seminars in the history of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop with a variety of essays written by some of Tin House’s favorite authors, offering aspiring writers insight into the craft of writing.

Dorothy Allison, Jim Shepard, Aimee Bender, Steve Almond, D. A. Powell, and others break down elements of craft and share insights into the joys and pains of their own writing. This cast of deeply respected poets and prose writers explore topics that vary from writing dialogue to the dos and don’ts of writing about sex. With how-tos, close readings, and personal anecdotes,The Writer’s Notebook offers future scribes advice and inspiration. [via Tin House]

What are your favorite writing books? Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Do you have a favorite NaNoWriMo article? Comments are open. 

Written by Gabrielle

November 9, 2011 at 5:40 pm

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