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So You Want To Be A Writer – Prof. Colum McCann

So you want to be a writer? Attend, then, to creative writing professor Colum McCann!

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Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody,” said Rainer Maria Rilke Letters To A Young Poet more than a century ago. “There is only one way. Go into yourself.”

“This most of all,” he says. “Ask yourself in the most silent hour of night: must I write?”

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To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you had better at some stage make something happen. To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.

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A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again.

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Don’t write what you know, write towards what you want to know.

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You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.

A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.

Good writing will knock the living daylights out of you. Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again.

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Nabokov says that his characters are just his galley slaves – but he’s Nabokov, and he’s allowed to say things like that. Let me respectfully disagree. Your characters deserve your respect. Some reverence. Some life of their own. You must thank them for surprising you, and for ringing the doorbell of your imagination.

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And always remember that what we don’t say is as important as, if not more so than, what we do. So study the silences too, and have them working on the page. You soon find out how loud the silence really is. Everything unsaid leads eventually to what is said.

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Structure should grow out of character and plot, which essentially means that it grows out of language. In other words, the structure is forever in the process of being shaped. You find it as you go along. Chapter by chapter. Voice by voice. Ask yourself if it feels right to tell the story in one fell swoop, or if it should be divided into sections, or if it should have multiple voices, or even multiple styles. You stumble on through the dark, trying new things all the time.

Sometimes, in fact, you don’t find the structure until halfway through, or even when you’re close to being finished. That’s OK. You have to trust that it will eventually appear and that it will make sense.

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Plot matters, of course it matters, but it is always subservient to language. Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens. And how it happens occurs in the way language captures it and the way our imaginations transfer that language into action.

So give me music then, young maestro, please. Make it occur the way nobody ever made it occur before. Stop time. Celebrate it. Demolish it. Slow the clock down so that the tick of each and every second lasts an hour or more. Take leaps into the past. Put backspin on your memory. Be in two or three places at one time. Destroy speed and position. Make just about anything happen.

Maybe in this day and age we are diseased by plot. Let’s face it, plots are good for movies, but when over-considered they tend to make books creak. So, unbloat your plot. Listen for the quiet line. Anyone can tell a big story, yes, but not everyone can whisper something beautiful in your ear.

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It’s not a throwaway thing to tell you the truth. It’s not a throwaway thing, to tell you the truth.

Punctuation matters. In fact, sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence. Hyphens. Full stops. Colons. Semicolons. Ellipses. Parentheses. They’re the containers of a sentence. They scaffold your words. Should a writer know her grammar? Yes, she should. Don’t overuse the semicolon; it is a muscular comma when used correctly. Parentheses in fiction draw far too much attention to themselves. Learn how to use the possessive correctly as in most good writer’s work. (Oops.) Never finish a sentence with an at. (Sorry.) Avoid too many ellipses, especially at the end of a passage, they’re just a little too dramatic … (See?)

Grammar changes down through the years: just ask Shakespeare or Beckett or the good folks at the New Yorker. The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse. It’s the difference between the prescriptive and the descriptive. So much depends, as William Carlos Williams might have said, upon the red wheelbarrow – especially if the barrow itself stands solitary at the end of the line.

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Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry. We have to know the world beyond our own known world. We have to be able to make a leap into a life or a time or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race, time. This requires deep research.

Yes, Google helps, but the world is so much deeper than Google. A search engine can’t hold a candle to all the libraries in the world where the books actually exist, live, breathe, and argue with one another. So go down to the library. Check out the catalogues. Go to the map division. Unlock the boxes of photographs. If you want to know a life different from your own, you better try to meet it at least halfway. Get out in the street.

Talk to people. Show interest. Learn how to listen. You must find the divine detail: and the more specific the detail, the better. William Gass . . . [is an] American author who says quite beautifully that a writer finds himself alone with all that might happen . . .

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. . . In the end there’s only one real failure – and that’s the failure to be able to fail. Having tried is the true bravery.

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Sometimes . . . you just have to have the cojones to wipe the whole slate clean. Occasionally you know – deep in your gut – that it’s not good enough. Or you’ve been chasing the wrong story. Or you’ve been waiting for another moment of inspiration.

Often the true voice is not heard until long into the story. It might be a year of work, hundreds of pages, or even more. . . But something in you knows – it just knows – that everything you have written so far has just been preparation for what you are now about to write. You have finally found your north, your east, your west. No south, no going back.

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Gogol said that the last line of every story was: “And nothing would ever be the same again.” Nothing in life ever really begins in one single place, and nothing ever truly ends. But stories have at least to pretend to finish. Don’t tie it up too neatly. Don’t try too much. Often the story can end several paragraphs before, so find the place to use your red pencil. Print out several versions of the last sentence and sit with them. Read each version over and over. Go with the one that you feel to be true and a little bit mysterious. Don’t tack on the story’s meaning. Don’t moralise at the end. Don’t preach that final hallelujah. Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where they have been. They know what they have learned. They know already that life is dark. You don’t have to flood it with last-minute light.

You want the reader to remember. You want her to be changed. Or better still, to want to change.

Try, if possible, to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward. Never forget that a story begins long before you start it and ends long after you end it. Allow your reader to walk out from your last line and into her own imagination. Find some last-line grace. This is the true gift of writing. It is not yours anymore. It belongs in the elsewhere. It is the place you have created. Your last line is the first line for everybody else.

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(The following quotes taken from the full article found here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/13/so-you-want-to-be-a-writer-colum-mccanns-tips-for-young-novelists?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Bookmarks+base&utm_term=225927&subid=22099271&CMP=EMCBKSEML3964 )

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About Writers

Twenty-Three Rules for Writers

The muse babbles, as she usually does. Crouched on my kitchen table, she scrapes a long crumpled feather smooth, then clacks the stony hinge of her beak.

I retrieve a pair of mismatched tumblers from the drainboard and crack open a bottle of J.T.S. Brown. Straight up, no ice. She never takes ice. I wait, sipping, while she slurps, her black tongue lapping in noisy swipes. Once, I would’ve waited with pen clicked, notebook ready. Now I just wait, knowing better.

These late night sessions used to be more frequent. It seemed I could almost conjure her appearance by act of will. But they were never what I thought they ought to be. Like a lot of writers, I always imagined the muse dictating stories in my ear, using me as a vehicle for her divine inspiration. Only my muse isn’t like that. I have to be the one who, between drinks, coaxes her back to the table and gets her talking again. But nothing she says ever really makes sense. Her stories are tangled skeins; her language is an obscure bramble. Half the time, it’s pure gibbering. I’m never entirely sure that she isn’t just yanking my chain.

And that’s the problem with divine beings. To her, you are the illusion, you are the dream. It’s no certainty that she’s even noticed you.

So I don’t hope for stories or sense anymore. I don’t take notes. I don’t toil long into the night after she leaves, burning with vision. Maybe, days later, I’ll remember some phrase, some notion which seems to have no point of origin, no history. Maybe she didn’t even say it, but it had to come from somewhere. I only know it might be important because I can’t quite put it out of my mind.

So I thought I’d share a few here, in this pleasant purgatory. Frangible axioms of dubious origin. Inscrutable proverbs. I collect them, doncha know. I figure they might prove useful one day, when I’m beating my head against some stubborn hedge of verbiage, or trying to thread an impossible prosodic needle.

Apply at your own risk.

Twenty-Three Rules for Writing:

1. Holes. It needs more holes.
2. Time is an exquisite, aching mirage.
3. Celebrate evanescent things.
4. It is, just maybe, possible.
5. Hew doggedly to the wrong path.
6. Make mouths in the wall so it can speak more light.
7. All desire is holy—and indecent.
8. Jump off the cliff.
9. Admit nothing.
10. Crack the door open; don’t go in.
11. Only details.
12. Defend the indefensible.
13. Sneak out the back door; re-enter through the skylight, shattering.
14. You don’t have to give them anything.
15. You have to give them everything.
16. Words will waste you, pal.
17. Gather tiny miracles.
18. It’s already broken. You can’t make it any more broken.
19. Add clutter.
20. Vamp for a while.
21. Sing into the handsome demon’s mouth.
22. Dream in the face of oblivion.
23. End it here. End it now.

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book promotion, writing technique

Add clutter. Vamp a while. Thanks, Atthys.

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John Dee, Elizabeth’s Royal Astrologer, said by some scholars of the period to have been one of Francis Walsingham’s undercover operatives. (He is, in my book.) See that globe there? On my website (still in progress) I am going to replace it with a period engraving of a cat’s head. A very special relationship has a confirmation in the historical record!

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Well explored territory here, but my Sly-addled brain isn’t kicking in right now.

I’m hammering away at a very difficult chapter. I’m trying to organize it into a logical progression of conversation, A leading to B leading to C, making sense of a stack of sticky notes, my low-tech method of story-building.

So, how goes it with your work? We haven’t talked about that for a while, have we? What have you written new? What are you pleased with? What are you bummed about?

I am optimistic about my latest nonsense, but also saying to myself, Crap, girl! You’re digging another hole for yourself. I see a place to insert some astrology, way prior to the point at which I thought I’d need to start reading my huge, historical (first published in the eighteenth century, I believe) definitive work. I’ve flipped through that monster, it’s dense, it’s a bit like reading Chaucer, trying to figure out what’s being said. But all I need for now is a good line or two that I can run with.

Also: after my husband’s stroke, our budget must reconfigure. I had planned to buy a full line edit of Sly. I’m having second thoughts on that now. Here’s what I’m going to do:

I work at a place lousy with editors. I’m going to post a help wanted sign in the break room, find someone to give me a line edit, piecemeal, of areas I am concerned about. I already spent nine hundred dollars on a developmental edit. At this point, all I can bring myself to pay for is general guidance that I can absorb and carry on with myself.

I look forward to Kris’ post on promotion. My big strategy is still the bumper stickers, and related stick-em-up materials. My sister in Tallahassee volunteers at a community theater, she can put up a poster there. A guy from my group house in Boston still lives up there. Maybe I can get him to roam the subway system, plastering stickers around. I have a brother with connections, he’s a well known figure in Asheville NC. I myself will tackle NYC, I’m an hour north.

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A grinning cat head has to get a lot of attention. (This isn’t Sly. This is R. Crumb)

Whether anyone reads after the first page, que será, será.

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Pulp Fiction: The Golden Age of Genre

 

 

 

Okay, gang, we seem to be a little light on new blog posts at the moment (notwithstanding Kris’ grand-slam right out of the analytical park last time at bat here in Story Country), so I’ll throw this out there for those interested in watching, not reading, something new. PULP FICTION: The Golden Age of Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Adventure. Please comment afterward as the spirit and/or jarred (or should that be “jaded”?) intellect moves you. . . .

Heigh-ho, The Golden Age!

 

 

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Stories, writing technique

How to Master Your Craft and Write Wonderful Books

I’m sure you read the title and thought to yourself, “Duh! Thanks for the info, Captain Obvious.” Even so, this post is for the dozens of authors I’ve talked to who take years to write (and rewrite) their work. Continue reading

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