Posts Tagged ‘susan sutliff brown’

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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At the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference

February 26, 2012

San Miguel de Allende

Last week I went down to the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference. All I can say is: Wow!

After selling books my whole adult life, I still don’t understand this  one mystery: Why do writers write? I’m fascinated by all writers, from Pulitzer Prize winners to old geezers puttering around with  memoirs of their exploits at The Battle of the Bulge.  In particular  I’m puzzled and amazed at the minds of fiction writers. I can’t imagine   inventing stories. It’s hard enough to lie to Leslie about how I let  the gold fish die while she and Hayley  were visiting  Disneyland for the weekend.  Almost all the novelists I speak with say that the stories keep pouring out of their heads like water from a broken faucet. I think it must have something to do with the subconscious. When I try to understand it, the phrase that keeps coming into my mind is “touched by the muse”.  I don’t even believe in the muse. But I don’t know how else to explain it.

Fascinating and exciting though they may be, most writers conferences – how shall I say this? – aren’t easily monetized. Not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t usually come away with a lot of new clients. But I have to tell you. To paraphrase Mitt Romney, there was some severe talent down in San Miguel de Allende.  I asked  to read  a lot of manuscripts from the writers down there. And I know that some of them are going to end up on the front tables at Book Passage.

A lot of writers conferences have their primary  focus on how to get published. Pitching to the agents is always  the highlight of the conference.  Prior to the pitch sessions, participants go to workshops where they are instructed  with excruciating detail on the nuances of the  perfect pitch.  I would imagine it feels a little  like learning the rules of etiquette at the court of Louis the XIV.   I don’t believe in any of this. I tell the writers that I just want to have a conversation about what they are writing about. I like to think that a bad pitch won’t kill a good project and a good pitch won’t save a bad one.

San Miguel de Allende  was more about writing than learning how to get published and networking with agents.   The agents played a more subordinate role, which was all for the best.   There were only four agents there. We did have the usual agent panel where we tried to explain the ins and outs of getting published. Before the panel started, I introduced myself to the agent sitting to my right, Kathleen Anderson. She’s a very successful agent in New York. I decided to try to impress her by telling her that I sold a book earlier in the day. She responded that she did as well.  Hers was the collected unpublished writings of James Joyce.  Mine wasn’t.   So ended the conversation. It turns out that Kathleen was not your usual snooty New York agent though. We’ll get to that in a few minutes.

Speaking of James Joyce, I spent a lot of time talking to Susan Sutliff  Brown. Susan is a freelance editor – book doctor – ghost writer.  And a very good one too. She’s  also a retired James Joyce scholar. Susan told me entre nous (and I really shouldn’t be repeating this in a blog) that she loves reading junk fiction. I attended her fiction workshop where she attempted to explain  what Joyce, William Faulkner,  and  mystery writer James Lee Burke have in common.  More than you might imagine, according to Susan. She also brought up Scruples  by Judith Krantz. I was doodling on my legal pad, so I wasn’t paying attention at that moment.  Susan might have been saying that Krantz’s first novel had a lot in common with Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, but I might have heard it wrong.

I went to another fiction writing session conducted by C.M. Mayo, an award winning writer living in Mexico City. She talked a lot about first lines in literature. At the end of the class we all attempted to compose a great first line.  A lot of them sounded like bad imitations of Henry James.  I took a different approach. I wrote something about diarrhea at the art opening.  More  Charles Bukowski than Portrait of a Lady. And, like Bukowski, my genius was not understood or appreciated at the time.

I  was off and on engaged in a running conversation/argument with Rikki Ducornet  about  how writers write and how story tellers tell stories.  Rikki has written 8 novels and has won about a zillion literary awards. Right now she is writing a libretto to an opera based on The Gilgamesh Epic. I can’t exactly remember what  we talked about but I do recall  bringing up Nietzsche’s notion of the union of the spirit of Apollo and Dionysus in Greek tragedy. It was as if I was back in my sophomore year at Brandeis.

The highlight of the entire conference  was an over-top-fiesta that conference director Susan Page put on in a huge 18th Century mansion. There was a phalanx of mariachi players. A few of them looked suspiciously like retired Jews from New York. Whatever.  My favorite thing  there was a real burro wearing a straw hat with plastic flowers.

La Cucaracha Bar

At the Fiesta, Kathleen Anderson, Kristen Iversen, Christine Wettlaufer, and I decided it was time to act like real writers and head for the bars. Christine had spent some time in San Miguel de Allende and insisted that we go to La Cucaracha, a bar with certain literary pretensions. It is said that Neal Cassady had his fatal accident on the train tracks outside of town after getting drunk at La Cucaracha. Legend has it that the bar has one of the 10 skankiest ladies’ rooms in the world. We ordered some margaritas there, and looked around at the clientele. Some of them  seemed like they might be over the hill “D” rated  Hollywood actors. There were a lot of TVs around the room. But instead of showing football, they had looping videos of go-go dancers in g-strings.

We decided it was time to move on, so we left and walked along the cobblestone streets to the plaza and found another bar, a little less, how shall we say, picturesque.  This time I ordered  the  true beverage of great writers — a scotch on the rocks. The waitress couldn’t speak English and none of us could really explain what we wanted in Spanish. Finally  I asked for Scotch con helado, which I later  discovered to my dismay meant “scotch and ice cream”.

Kristen Iversen is the director of the MFA program for writing at the University of Memphis. She was one of the keynote speakers at the conference. She was also once the student of Rikki Ducornet. Kristen’s forthcoming book is called Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. 22 publishers bid on it at auction. It’s being published by Crown Books this summer.   Of course, all of us wanted to know how much money Kristen got, but we were too embarrassed to ask. When Kristen went to the bathroom, though, we talked about it a lot. Christine is Kristen’s star student and probably knows how big the advance was, but she wouldn’t tell us except to say that Kristen probably doesn’t have to teach any more. Christine has written a memoir about her 24 years in the military. She’s good and I told her I wanted to represent her, but the book is a finalist for the Bakeless Award. If it wins, it automatically gets published by Graywolf  Press. So there isn’t much help I can give her.  Of course if it loses……

We all went bar hopping again on Saturday night along with some other authors whom I think I would like to sign up as well. We went to Harry’s Bar. It was “Bikini Night”. Anyone coming to the bar in a bikini got in free. They had a 12 foot high bare breasted papier-mâché female figure at the entrance. Somewhere in Kristen’s camera is a picture of me fondling it. She tells me the picture may have gotten lost. I hope she’s right.

I loved that writers conference. It was a lot of fun. I made some good friends. I got to hang out with writers. Life doesn’t get much better than that.