Read, damn it!

(The fourth in a series of writing tips you don’t need and didn’t ask for, but are going to get, such is my insanely selfless altruism.)

Writing Tip #4

Many years ago, I went through a state of Salinger addiction. Anyone who has ever been a fan of the late stylist at an impressionable age likely goes through something like that with reading Salinger. His sentences are just so good. Can’t say I much re-read him these days, but there’s a moment in one of the Glass family books when he offers some really good writing advice.

The writer of the stories is allegedly Buddy Glass. His older brother, Seymour, is a saint too good for this world. In (I think) a note to Buddy about one of his early stories, Seymour (I’m paraphrasing, here) tells Buddy something to the effect that he’s trying too hard. He tells him that he was a reader long before he was a writer, and so he should write that thing that he most wants to read.

I think it’s exceptionally good advice, and I got similar advice from my professors over the years. I remember going to Richard Bausch, one of the earliest of my teachers, who (unbelievably) may have been unpublished at the time and asking how to end a story.

At the time I was maybe 18 or 19 and wanted to write more than I knew what it was I wanted to write about. The real problem was that I had no idea how to set up a conflict so that it could be resolved. (I was kind of hooked on Kerouac at the time, and just wrote, figuring that by doing so, I’d get something worthwhile.

He said something like read other writers. See how they end stories. I also needed to see how they began them, but the real point was reading.

Several years later, I taught an undergrad fiction class at the University of Houston. It was an evening class, at one of the satellite campuses, and it was pretty full, the first night. I handed out the syllabus, assigned the book (Burroway’s)

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft), and stood hopefully in front of the class and asked what these hopeful young writers were reading. Few of them actually were, aside from the books they were assigned to read for their other classes.

I won’t say that I was shocked but I sure as heck was chagrinned. But the reality is that a whole lot of folks who take undergrad creative writing courses just plain aren’t interested in the idiotic life that being a fiction writer can be. They just needed an agreeable elective.

Part Two

Read poetry. One of my professors when I was an undergrad, Peter Klappert, said something to the effect that fiction writers ought to read poetry, and lots of it, to get the latest news on what language can do. I could not agree more.

Get Naked

(The third in a series of writing tips you don’t need and didn’t ask for, but are going to get, such is my otherworldly generosity.)

Writing Tip #3

Get [to the] Naked [Truth}

The old workshop saw is that you should write what you know. I don’t much care whether you agree with that. But at least in one sense it’s true: only you know what you’re passionate about, and only you will be able to figure out how to turn that passion into good writing.

Not long ago, a young writer whose dad is a scientist I much admire, came to me for advice, as most of us do when we’re utterly clueless how to get started (oversimplified advice: Start.) and what kind of writer we want to be.  Continue reading

Do the Work

(The second in a series of writing tips you don’t need and didn’t ask for, but are going to get, such is my otherworldly generosity.)

Writing Tip #2
Do the Work

Novels, stories, poems, memoirs—whatever your pleasure—sometimes may seem to write themselves. But they don’t. You have to get your butt into the chair and in front of the keyboard or however it is you write, and do it. I have known writers, or people who wanted to be writers, who liked talking about writing better than they liked to write. Not a good plan.

If you’re a morning person, a night owl, or an overstressed mother of four young children, you have to be ruthless and steal time to, as Nike has it, just do it. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you, but just as I did, you have to find what works for you. How do you do that? Continue reading

Fiction and Loneliness

I’ve read it more than once that for David Foster Wallace, whose work I admire tremendously, and for Jonathan Franzen, whose work I also admire tremendously, fiction was/is (Franzen said in an elegy to Wallace) “‘A way out of loneliness’ was the formulation we agreed to agree on.” Since the first time I heard that idea, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about it, specifically if it were true for me. If I write and read fiction as a way out of loneliness.

I don’t think so. Continue reading

Disintermediation will not make publishing as we know it go down the tubes [U]

In a recent interview with The Rumpus, Laura Miller of Salon (her work also appears in a lot of other places), was asked what she sees “as the major challenge facing book publishing today.” In response, she laid out a number of concerns and issues, all of which are worthy of more discussion (and it would be cool if she did an essay on this, because I’d love to see her expand her thoughts).

[It should also be said that she says a lot of other stuff that is worth reading—about personality and reviewing, and reading outside of her comfort zone—and totally worth reading, regardless of what you think of her reviewing habits. There being, as one old friend used to put it, no taste accountants. But I love this remark: “trust me, there is no joke so broad that there won’t be someone out there who’ll think you mean it seriously.” Happens every day.]

Each of the following “concerns” are direct quotes from her response in the interview. I’ve put what she likely just rattled off informally into a more formal structure, which means I could be seen as taking her out of context.  So be it.

Concern #1. The whole stratum of expertise embodied by agents and editors and booksellers might be lost in the disintermediation currently going on.

While this is a legitimate concern, to a certain extent, it’s a nonissue. I think Tim O’Reilly has it right when he said that “isn’t necessarily the old economic models that survive, but economies survive, and new players and models arise.” Read his post here. Continue reading

Thanks @PENamerican

Stephen Stark reading in Jack Dowling's apartment

Stephen Stark (i.e., me) reading in Jack Dowling's apartment for the Pen American Fall Literary Tasting

I want to thank the great folks from the Pen American Center for their Fall Literary Tasting event last Thursday, and Jack Dowling, in whose apartment I read. What a great idea, and what a great setting for a reading, or series of readings. In a lot of ways, I wish I could have been a spectator as well. My daughter saw Lev Grossman read in her pair of “tastings” and really enjoyed it. Wish I could have seen that. Think I would have liked it, too.

First time I’ve ever read from my work on my iPad, which worked out pretty well.

Is it Final, or Does it Just Appear That Way?

Now and then a well-meaning, experienced publishing-type person has asked me, apropos of  The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door, ‘Are you wed to the title?’ Or something approximating the same sentiment. (Which seemed to indicate the sentiment that a), It’s so long; or perhaps, b) I don’t get it.)

To which my response has been, Yes. Totally. (With the unstated ‘Can we not talk about this any more?’ implicit in it.)

Yes, it is a long title. But it is the title. It is the only title that would do the novel justice. I tend to refer to it in casual speech as ‘Final Appearance,’ which is more convenient for someone like me who likes to talk at great lengths. Appearance and finality are two huge parts of the novel. I hope the thinking reader will come away from the novel wondering what the final appearance actually is, or if it is any one thing at all. At least in terms of this story, appearance means a whole slew of things — plain old looks, an ‘appearance’ on a tv show, a false front — you (I hope, as a thinking reader) get the point. Continue reading