Posts Tagged ‘mark twain’

Writers on Writing – My Favorite Quotes

July 9, 2012

I’m going to share some of my favorite quotes about writing. I know  it’s a little presumptuous on my part. I’m not a writer, unless you count this blog as writing.  But as an agent, I find myself doing a lot of editing. Publishers don’t have time to imagine how to make an imperfect manuscript perfect. So part of my job is to make sure it’s  pretty perfect before  it lands on their desk. That means I have to edit. And in order to edit, I have to think about writing that’s  good and writing that’s bad.  Telling the difference is pretty easy. I can usually do that on the first page. But  understanding why good writing is good and bad writing is bad, I  think that could take a lifetime.

I have a philosophy about editing. I like to come to  a manuscript with a “beginner’s mind.”  That’s a concept in Zen Buddhism that means  one should approach a subject with no preconceptions, techniques, or methods. In his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki describes it perfectly.  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”  So when I start to edit a manuscript, I try to put myself in the role of  the simple reader who is, after all, the only person that really matters. Writers aren’t always in the best position to understand the reader. I’d like to believe that I can help them out.

Now on to my favorite quotes:

  • “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  • “I don’t understand anything about the ballet; all I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.”
  •  “Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.”
  • “One should not put a loaded rifle onto the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

– above quotes by Anton Chekhov

“Show, don’t tell” has become a cliché.  But it is also fundamental. Not quite a law of nature. Great writers can break the rules. I think these wise words by Chekhov say it better than all the articles you read  on this subject in Writer’s Digest. Actually the quote about the ballet doesn’t really address this concept, but I liked it so much I decided to include it. And it’s only a little bit of a stretch to say that the stink of the ballerinas tells – no, excuse me – shows you a lot about their art.

  • ” The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” –Stephen King
  • “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” –Mark Twain
  • “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”  – Elmore Leonard
  • “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…he admonished gravely.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” –Elmore Leonard

When I was in New York last month for the book convention, I had dinner with Susan Sutliff Brown, freelance editor, Joyce scholar, and friend.  At some point in the evening, Susan stated pontifically that good writers of literary fiction don’t use adjectives and adverbs. I was astonished.  Of course, we all look down on  Tom Swifties, those ungainly adverbial tags used by the novice writer. (“Let’s get to the rocket ship, Tom said swiftly.”) But banishing adverbs and adjectives altogether? Unimaginable, even in an alternative  universe designed by Raymond Carver. Susan’s pronouncement ruined my reading for several weeks. Rather than getting lost in a good book, I poured over  texts counting modifiers.  But now I must admit that Susan was on the right track. Again, it’s all about “show, don’t tell.” Excessive use of adjectives and especially adverbs is a sign of lazy writing. Check it out yourself. (Now, I hope  this hasn’t ruined your experience of reading for the next few weeks.)

  • “Avoid prologues.” – Elmore Leonard

Editors believe  how you handle or mishandle “backstory” is a marker for your ability as a writer. Back in the 19th century when people had more time, you could get away with spending the first 50 pages, say, setting setting up the story. If you don’t believe me, check out Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. Jean Valjean doesn’t even come on stage until page 55. You can’t do that today. Backstory needs to be insinuated into the narrative, obliquely,  as it unfolds. And it’s devilishly hard to do. Prologues are the lazy man’s way of getting all the crap out and onto the page, so that the you can proceed to roll out the plot without any messy explanatory back tracking. Book editors call this an “info dump”.

You see prologues a lot in movies. And it makes sense.  Screenplays are much more compressed than novels.  A typical screenplay has about 20,000 words. A very short novel will have 70,000. A movie doesn’t have time to allow a backstory to subtly unfold and bore an audience. But you can’t do  that in fiction. Well, that’s not entirely true.  Looking for graceless, awkward, lazy, and inelegant management of backstory? I recommend The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown.

But on the other hand –

  • “Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.” –  Rose Tremain
  •  “Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.”

– Rose Tremain

Don’t laugh when I say that learning how to write  is a lot like learning how to play golf. There is a very profitable  industry out there of golf tip books, magazines,  and videos by the super stars. Millions of words written on how to execute the perfect swing or how to make your drive fade. But mastering this information won’t make you Tiger Woods. Similarly with writing, the great novelists are a practical group, always willing to give and receive tips. Here’s some quotes I like:

  • “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.” –  Baltasar Gracián
  • “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” – Agatha Christie
  • Try to be accurate about stuff. ” – Anne Enright

Ok. So the golf comparison is pretty sucky. And you might just perceive in these quotes a tone of  post-modern self-reflective irony that one would not likely hear at the British Open. But there is something about these sentiments that make me feel pretty good, like these writers are  experiencing the same struggles as we mortals. Compare this to:

  • “If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” –  Anais Nin
  • “To withdraw myself from myself has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all.”  – Lord Byron
  • “I am a man, and alive…. For this reason I am a novelist. And being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.” – D.H. Lawrence

No offense to the great Lord Byron and these other fine writers, but their characterizations of themselves as writers strike me as gaseous nonsense.

To be continued……

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Publisher Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler

February 13, 2010

When I became a literary agent three years ago, I simply wasn’t ready for the flood of publisher rejection letters flowing into my office in response to my submissions. It felt a little like my social life in high school. I can only imagine the shame and humiliation that my clients must experience from these letters. Four years of work on a novel reduced to a single line, a formula really: “I just didn’t fall in love with it.” Or: “We all felt it didn’t quite have the right narrative arc.” I decided to engage in a mental exercise of employing   the standard rejection templates as they might have been  used for some of the great  (or notorious) classics of Western Civilization.

Plato’s Republic

Andy,

Thank you so much for submitting The Republic by Plato. Certainly this book has much to recommend it. It asks some  serious questions and it doesn’t get bogged down in “jargon” like some of the philosophy books we see coming over the transom. That said, I am going to have to pass on this book. I’m not sure that the author has anything really new to say about the themes he discusses. The Good, the True, the Beautiful,  and the Just have been written about ad nauseum since the time of the ancient Greeks. There is really no new way to slice and dice this material. And although Mr. Plato seems quite adept at dialogue, I can’t help but wonder how he would hold up in the face of tough questioning by the likes of Bill O’Reilly.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Andy,

I don’t quite know what to make of this book. Six hundred pages of narrative about people in a tuberculosis sanitarium on top of a mountain, and for twenty years?  Really! I’m afraid that modern American readers need a little more action and excitement in their lives. They don’t want to come home and read about the over-ripe decadence of Central European culture in the early Twentieth Century. I certainly don’t mean to sound snarky, but in my humble opinion (and I have been  known to be wrong before), Herr Mann  is nothing but a gas bag.

 

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Andy,

Thank you for your submission of Mr. Sophocles’ drama, Oedipus Rex. Sophocles is an exceptional dramatist with many fine works to his credit  that have been both critical and commercial successes. And we feel privileged that you gave us the chance to consider this work. That said, I’m afraid we are not going to publish this book. Although I am a personal admirer of Mr. Sophocles, I feel that Oedipus is a minor work and, quite frankly, a little derivative. The  implicit theme, the idea that “from suffering comes wisdom,”  has become a little hackneyed and a little frayed at the edges, as it were. I think that after  seeing James Cameron’s Avatar, there really isn’t much left to say on this subject. But we would be delighted to look at anything newer and fresher that Mr. Sophocles might create in the future.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Andy,

I’m sorry. I just don’t get it.

 

 

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Andy,

Thank you for sending us Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Mr. Shakespeare certainly brings a fresh voice to the modern theatre and has a commendable mastery of plot and character. That said, I am not going to make an offer on this book. I think that Mr. Shakespeare has a certain  inelegance of style and his language skills could use some refining. I also noticed a number of careless misspellings in this work. The extensive “scholarly” footnoting with its endless references to “folios” and “quartos” was annoying and distracting.

I feel compelled to say, and I hope neither you nor your client take offense at this, that some of his “speeches” are just plain pretentious and not suited to the more casual sensibilities of our upscale readers. For instance:  Macbeth says: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Don’t you think this could be stated more clearly and succinctly? How about: “Life is pretty confusing. Sometimes I just want to shake my head and cry.”  Furthermore, I could not help but note an obvious unattributed locution from William Faulkner. Your author should try to be more careful.

Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

I am a big fan of Mr. Twain’s work. In fact, his novel, Huckleberry Finn, was one of the best books I read last season. So I approached your submission with considerable excitement. I’m sorry to say that I was not thrilled with Tom Sawyer. Compared to Mr. Twain’s other works, I felt that this was merely a bagatelle and perhaps a little (shall we say) jejune. Still I sent it around for some more reads and  I took it to the editorial meeting. The sales director pointed out that all of Twain’s novels since Huckleberry Finn have shown steadily declining Bookscan numbers. He felt, and the committee agreed, that it was unlikely that the chains would take a position on this book. But I encourage you to show us any new projects the author might develop in the future.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Andy,

Thank you for your submission of  Count Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I found it to be a very well researched and polished  novel. And I can certainly see how it would appeal to the  same readers who enjoy the works of Herman Wouk.  But I am afraid that I won’t be making an offer. As you know, our imprint is always looking for quality genre fiction. And certainly War and Peace falls squarely within the conventions of the historical novel. But, just between you and me, this manuscript just isn’t ready for prime time. For starters, it is a real door-stopper. 1500 pages plus change! I think the author needs to face the facts that he could do with some judicious freelance editing. Our readers lead busy lives and are looking for a more, shall I say, intimate reading experience. If the author could cut the plot by, say, 900 pages; if, for example, he could take out the sub-plot of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, we would be happy to review this submission again.

Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler

Andy,

I have to tell you that this one came pretty close. Personally, I loved this book. I took it to the editorial board. We almost had consensus. But the committee reluctantly decided to pass. There is much to admire in this book. We were impressed by the author’s passion, his strong sense of purpose, and his robust voice.. Some of us were moved to tears by the Youtube clips from the Nürnberg Parteitag rallys. Herr Hitler’s platform is most impressive, indeed. One of the editors said, only half jokingly, that it was too bad we couldn’t bottle Herr Hitler’s charisma and give it to some of our more pedestrian authors. And our marketing director was inspired by the book proposal that offered so many  innovative marketing strategies. The concept of   summarily executing any citizen of the Third Reich who didn’t purchase this book was  refreshing and indicates that your client is a very savvy marketer.

At the end of the day though, there was no agreement on how we could position this book in the marketplace. Some of us wanted to treat it as a kind of how-to book for people who were seeking to improve their public speaking and, at the same time, pick up some useful tips for world conquest. Others felt that the ideas were just a little too “weighty” for a trade house like ours. After some brain storming about possible merchandise spin-offs, we decided that we were the wrong home for this remarkable book.

We wish Herr Hitler the best of luck in his career as a writer and as a public figure and expect to see great things from him in the future.