My friend Alex McNab writes a blog for writers in Fairfield County as I do, but we don’t seem to cover the same turf, which is why I subscribe to his blog.. I particularly liked this recent post, which suggests several different sources for particular writing tips – sources you may not have thought of. Alex helps run (free) writing groups at the Fairfield Public Library, and is working on revisions of his own novel. He turned to fiction after a career in journalism, including being the Editor of Tennis magazine, and writing for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Westport Magazine. His nonfiction books include The Tennis Doctor and, as co-author, Arthur Ashe on Tennis. So when he writes, I listen.
Here’s what he had to say about looking for writing help on the web:
Type “writing advice” into Google’s search box, hit the Return key and in a few seconds you’ll be looking at the first page of a list that goes on for “about 284,000,000 results.” That’s a lot of how-to about the writer’s craft.
As an old-school print magazine veteran, I’d like to suggest you monitor the digital offerings of four legacy publications for a while.
First, check out The Wall Street Journal’s weekly Word Craft piece. Every Saturday, a different well-known writer contributes an essay on a different aspect of storytelling. Some recent examples: Jeffery Deaver on writing thrillers, Hilary Mantel on historical dialogue and Carol Edgarian on desire as the driving force of fictional characters.
Second, stop in at Draft, a blog at The New York Times’ “Opinionator” area. Written by different grammarians, journalists, historians, novelists and others, it covers everything from punctuation to the value of diagramming sentences…
I love literary festivals. That’s to say, I love the idea of them. I love the thought of rubbing shoulders with my favorite writers, mixing with other bibliophiles and generally indulging my taste for reading and writing for a glorious few days without interruption. Actually, though, I’ve never been to one, which considering what an author groupie I am, is surprising. Maybe the reason is that I live in the US and most of the English language literary festivals take place in the British Isles. (British Isles – how quaint! That’s because I’m including Ireland). You can find a comprehensive list of these festivals here and there are still plenty left to visit this year.
At least it seems that they’re all in Britain. I Googled literary festivals USA and got a couple of individual ones, but no comprehensive list. If you know of such a list, do let me know and I’ll be sure to add it to this post. There are plenty of book fairs, but I don’t think they’re the same thing, and most of them aren’t open to the public.
Britain has approximately 135 of them a year, a staggering number for such a small country. The grand-daddy of them all, the Hay Festival, is celebrating 25 years this week, and the authors that have been lined up for it include Martin Amis, Ian Rankin,Michael Morpurgo and Hilary Mantel, among many others. The Festival is sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, and you can follow it on their live blog
Hay-on-Wye is normally a small Welsh town of fewer than 1500 people, once famed for having 39 bookstores, mainly selling second-hand and antiquarian books. (That’s one bookshop for every 36 residents, in case you care…) The bookstores are still there, of course, doing a brisk trade all year with collectors all round the world, but when the festival is on, 80,000 people visit the town. Heaven knows where they stay…
Other British Newspapers sponsor literary festivals too. The Times supports the Cheltenham Literature Festival (October), The Sunday Times does the Oxford festival in March,
My question is: why? Why so many? I know that more books are sold in the US, (over 3 bn! versus 230m in the UK), although almost as many are published (just under 250,000 in the UK and just over in the US). So you’d expect that there would be more festivals like this in the US to cater to those readers. Maybe it’s the distances that put people off. After all, in Britain you’re never more than about 3-4 hours away from anywhere, so these things are accessible. But that can’t be the whole story. Maybe they bring up the Brits to be writer groupies. Maybe knowing our favorite writers live just around the corner (metaphorically speaking) makes people think of them as personal friends, whom they want to visit periodically. I don’t know. But I’m thinking I might visit a festival next year. After all, so long as I don’t visit in December, there’s always a literary festival going on somewhere.
I was lucky enough to meet Charlotte Rogan the other night at an event hosted by Write Yourself Free, in Westport, CT. Charlotte is a local resident, and kindly spent a couple of hours talking to local writers and fans about her recently published book, The Lifeboat, described by Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times as “a really accomplished first novel”. The novel takes as its premise a group of 39 people stuck in a lifeboat after their liner sinks in 1914. The lifeboat is too small, and, unlike the passengers of the Titanic, these people are not rescued for three weeks. Some have described the book as harrowing, but I found it fascinating, as well as beautifully written. The power struggle between the two main characters (other than our unreliable but intriguing narrator, Grace Winter) hinges on the male and female styles of leadership. There are moral dilemmas aplenty, and I predict this will be a firm favorite with book groups.
The book hit #12 on the NY Times hardback fiction list and has been on the extended list for 7 straight weeks – an amazing achievement for a debut novel. And it’s being translated into 24 languages. What’s interesting about this is that Charlotte has been writing for 25 years, and has several (unpublished) novels under her belt. She took a creative writing class with Harold Brodkey, and then simply wrote and wrote and wrote, improving as she went along. Judging by The Lifeboat, this method seems to have worked. (Memo to self: write more…) When I interviewed her, I asked Charlotte what had made her decide to publish at last.
GC: What made you decide to try and get the book published?
CR: I think all writers want to be published, but I was busy with my family and I didn’t like doing the things it took to try to find a publisher: searching out appropriate literary agents, writing endless query letters, writing short pieces in the hopes of breaking into print through magazines, making contacts among publishing professionals. Still, I knew I was getting better with each novel I wrote, so when I looked into the future, I could see two equally reasonable scenarios: one where I continued to write only for myself and one where I finally found an audience for my work.
GC: How did you find an agent? CR: Over the years I occasionally set my mind to finding a publisher, but none of them came to anything until my children were seniors in high school. One day I got a call from a journalist who was writing an article on the challenges for multiples (Charlotte has triplets) of applying to college. Over the course of things, she and I became friends, and after reading one of my manuscripts, she introduced me to her literary agent, who sold The Lifeboat to Little, Brown (note: publishers of J.K. Rowling’s next book. GC) in the fall of 2010.
GC: How much help have your publishers given you in promoting the book? I notice that you have great quotes on the back cover (from the likes of J.M. Coetzee, Hilary Mantel and Emma Donoghue), and interviews/reviews with all the main newspapers/publications.
CR: Little, Brown has a phenomenal publicity department, which has been wonderfully effective at getting The Lifeboat in front of various media outlets. Of course, no one can control which books the reviewers choose to read of the many thousands they receive each year or whether or not they like a particular book. As for the blurbs, I was shocked to discover that finding authors to write them was my responsibility. I didn’t know any authors! I decided to use the opportunity to write letters to my literary heroes and thank them for their books, which are really the things that taught me how to write. Out of fifteen letters, five authors agreed to write blurbs for me: among them two Booker Prize winners, an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award winner, and a Nobel laureate. I will always be grateful to them for taking the time to help a new-comer.
GC: And as always, writers want to know how a typical day goes…it seemed to me, hearing you speak, that you’re a pretty disciplined person. Is that right?
CR: I am quite disciplined, but how a day goes really depends on the other elements of my life. My family has always come first, and I find that even twenty-something children require a certain amount of time. One of the first things established writers will say to you is to treat writing like a job. That means blocking out distractions and saying no to a lot of things. I am a morning person, so I like to use the morning hours to work. Ideally, I fit exercise, errands, and household tasks into the afternoon, with more work before dinner if time allows. I find it impossible to do more than 2-3 hours of really creative first-draft writing per day, but there are always other writing-related tasks I can do. These include editing, research, and reading books that are inspirational for my work. When I am editing a more finished piece, I might work for 8-10 hours a day if life allows it. Finally, taking care of your physical needs is an obvious but sometimes overlooked element of productivity: eating right, getting enough sleep, and regular exercise pay huge dividends when it comes to writing.
GC: You seem very self-possessed. Do you feel pressured to produce your next novel?
CR: Oddly, I do feel pressure, but only some of it is related to worry about finishing the novel I am currently working on. That’s probably because there are so many new tasks vying for my time. Fiction writers tend to be introverts, but once published, they are given a microphone and asked to speak, set to writing essays for magazines, and interviewed on live radio. Those are things I have never done before, and they have taken a lot of time and energy. But the next big challenge is to balance my time more effectively because I do want to get back to working on my book. GC: On behalf of my readers and myself, thanks, Charlotte for such an encouraging interview!