Tag Archives: Writing

Freedom of speech means defending people whose views you find deplorable

Will the Left Survive the Millennials? – Lionel Shriver at The New York Times describes the backlash he experienced after giving a university address criticizing the idea of “cultural appropriation” and defending the right of fiction writers to write from other ethnic points of view.

In my youth, liberals would defend the right of neo-Nazis to march down Main Street. I cannot imagine anyone on the left making that case today.

He makes good points here, but gives the 2016 right an unearned free pass.

Update: A friend informs me Lionel Shriver is a woman. Guess she won’t appreciate my gift of a year’s subscription to Dollar Shave Club then.

Writer in 29th year of solitary confinement barred from reading his own book

Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing:

William “Billy” Blake is serving a 77-to-life sentence, and has been in solitary for 29 years, since he killed a guard in a failed escape attempt. He is one of the contributors to 2016’s Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, a book he’s never seen, held or read….

Journalist Philip Caputo remembers his landmark Esquire profile of William Styron

Caputo set out to profile Styron in 1985, when Styron, “one of the towering figures in American letters,” was working on the novel “The Way of the Warrior.” The two men shared an experience as Marines — Styron had praised Caputo’s 1977 Vietnam memoir, “A Rumor of War” — which proved stronger than their common bond as writers, according to the Esquire Classic Podcast.

Styron fell into a deep depression during the reporting of the story, which changed the nature of the profile radically. And Styron never finished his novel, instead writing a 1990 mediation on depression, “Darkness Visible,” that “remains one of the most lucid and illuminating accounts of the illness,” according to the notes for the podcast.

“Caputo joins host David Brancaccio to discuss Styron’s greatness as a writer and how [Styron’s] struggle against depression—and his ability to articulate it in print—stands, in some regards, as his ultimate literary achievement,” according to the notes.

Styron’s Choices, by Philip Caputo – Esquire Classic Podcast

Journalists need to collect “string:” fragments of ideas and information that might turn into stories later

Laura Shin at Poynter.org describes how several journalists build their string collections, and organize them — or don’t:

Fleeting thoughts and observations that seem interesting, if not directly relevant to your article, could someday lead to another story, whether that’s a quick blog post or a book.

Capturing these random thoughts in an organized fashion is challenging. That could be why few writers do what is sometimes called collecting “string” — or, random threads of thought that could someday be spun into a larger story. (When reporting this article, I approached many writers who said they do not collect string. Some even asked me how to define the term.)…

Whether you decide to go with a detailed organization scheme or a looser method, the emphasis here is that you should collect random thoughts and observations that seem interesting, whether or not you end up using them later. And you should have a method for reviewing them to make sure that the ideas you’ve collected don’t gather dust.

I’m thinking about trying out DevonThink, which now has an iOS app. Among other things, it seems like a good way to organize a string collection.

And this blog is of course a big string collection. Which might be a good tagline for it.

David Hewson: Mistakes to avoid when writing a series

The British mystery writer weighs in:

Like most series writers, you see, I never set out to go down this path. I wrote the first Costa book as a standalone and was then asked to turn it into a series by my publisher. After which I made it up as I went along, mistakenly sometimes though I’m pleased to report the errors I committed were by no means rare.

Here, when I set out to write the Amsterdam series, are some of the pitfalls I told myself to avoid.

One of the mistakes he cites: Failing to plan for how the series will deal with the passage of time, as the years go by between books in the real world.

Different series writers handle the passage of time in different ways. Spenser and the other characters in the Robert B. Parker series aged at a rate of 1:2 for the real world for a decade or so, then it appeared they just stopped aging. In the early books, written in the 70s, Spenser referenced being a Korean war vet and an ex-boxer who once fought Jersey Joe Walcott. In the last books by Parker, written in the 2000s, those references are left out.

In the Nero Wolfe books, the characters stay exactly the same age throughout 30 years, while the outside world progresses. In the first book, Nero is in his early 40s and Archie is about 30 and they’re toasting the end of Prohibition. As the series hit its prime, Archie is enlisted in the Army during World War II — fortunately assigned to stay home in Manhattan. In the last book, Nero is in his early 40s and obsessed with Watergate, and Archie is about 30.

By the way, both the Spenser and Nero Wolfe series were continued by other writers after the original author’s death. I read one of the Spenser novels by Ace Atkins; it was pretty good. Surprisingly, it was better and more true to the characters than the later Parker novels were.

I also read one of the Robert Goldsborough Nero Wolfe novels, and found it disappointing. He had the details right, but the voice was off. For example: The book was written and set in the 80s, and the mystery revolved around some detail of personal computing technology. Archie had become a PC expert by then, and provided a clue to solve the crime. Nero Wolfe was portrayed as an antiquarian who disdained PCs.

But I thought that was precisely the opposite of the spirit of the books. Archie, as a man of action, would have disdained PCs in the early years. He’d have learned to use one, because he did Wolfe’s office work, but he would have no particular affinity for them. However, the sedentary genius Wolfe might have taken to PCs, because they are logical like he is, and he can use one while moving nothing other than his fingers and eyes.

Novelist David Hewson: How to start writing a book

The opening should conclude with “a surprise” or “revelation that something we’ve come to suspect is actually true.” The surprise or revelation “will pose a problem which the characters I’ve introduced will have to tackle.”

Hewson describes how the opening of “Treasure Island” follows that formula.

“The setup is the fuse for the book to come,” Hewson says.

How to start writing a book – David Hewson

Generate a random city or town name for stories and role-playing games

More than five million place names from more than 100 countries. Here are five random place names from the United States:

  • Wewoka
  • Knox
  • Gray
  • Scottsbluff
  • Wethersfield

Five from the Dominican Republic:

  • Guazabaral
  • Borojol
  • Sumbí
  • Charabiscal
  • Cajuiles

Also: Gygaxian anagram name generator: “The GAE utilizes Gary Gygax’s methods for producing character names.”

Tavern Names:

  • The Dryad Arms
  • The Tiny Doe
  • The Juicy Bee Inn
  • The Ronin Inn
  • The Leopard & The Lizard Tavern

Modern City Block Generator, Old West Names, and more!

Today’s creative writing: 778 words on “The Reluctant Magician”

866 words total. I’m just getting started.

Rather, I’m just getting started for the third time. I made a couple of false starts.

Then I read this essay from Michael Moorcock on how to write an adventure novel in three days.

I do not plan to write this novel in three days. If I can finish it in a year, I’ll be satisfied. But the essay got me thinking about outlining.

Moorcock doesn’t outline exactly. But he does have situations and locations worked out in advance, at the ready, like a metaphorical briefcase into which he can dip and pull out whatever he needs to keep the writing going.

I’ve never tried creative writing with an outline. I always thought outlining was the opposite of creative, and looked down on it. But after reading the Moorcock essay I realized that’s just a silly prejudice. Some excellent writers work from outlines. Others work freestyle. It’s just a matter of what works best; outliners are no better than non-outliners. Maybe outlining would work for me?

I did some research on outlines and came across the snowflake method. You’re outlining your novel by starting from the center and working outward. Like a snowflake — get it?

You start with a one-sentence summary, build that to a paragraph, expand further to studies of your secondary characters, and so on. I started with the snowflake method but abandoned it immediately after the one-sentence-summary stage, because it wasn’t working for me. But outlining was working for me.

I don’t mean a formal outline, with roman numerals and all that. I mean I just started writing down notes about the novel, in sequence. Who were my main characters, what was their problem, how were they going to solve it?

I also remembered a tip from Cory Doctorow on how to structure a novel: A character gets in trouble, does something intelligent to solve the problem but that only makes the problem worse. Repeat that several times until all is very nearly lost, and then the character does one more intelligent thing to solve the problem, and this time it works

Or something like that. I can’t find where Cory said that; the closest I can find is this article on InformationWeek that I wrote nine years ago but have no memory of writing. (That happens sometimes. I write a lot of articles.)

I worked on my outline for a couple of weeks and ended up writing 3,178 words, which I think covers the whole novel.

I think an outline is great for me for a couple of reasons: First, it allows me to forget about the big picture for a little while. I don’t have to hold the whole novel in my head every day, just whatever bit I’m working on at the moment.

The outline is also helpful because the novel I’m working on is a cross between a caper story and urban fantasy, in a fantasy city resembling 1970s-80s America in some ways, and drastically different in other ways, with a lot of background that needs to be explained in a lively fashion and moving parts to keep track of.

I’m not going to claim “aha! I’ve solved the problem of creative writing and will just keep plugging along and producing one novel after another!” I’ve thought that was the case many times before.

Bruce Weber, an obituary writer for The New York Times, moves on

We’re accustomed, my colleagues and I, to saying that an obituary is not about a death, but a life. This is true, but really, we’re reporters and you can’t avoid the news, which is, of course, the same news every time. That’s one thing that distinguishes writing obituaries from anything else in journalism.

Another is that we start at the end and look backward. There’s some reward in this, in the excavating we do that often unearths interesting, long-forgotten facts.

But it’s melancholy, too. We had a movie made about us recently, a documentary called “Obit,” and in it my former deskmate Doug Martin, who effected his own exit from the obit business a couple of years ago, made a comment of encapsulating rue. He often admired the people he wrote about, he said, but he never got to meet them.

He never had to come up with a story idea and hardly ever left the office.

How to get good at note-taking

Interviews and presentations are the raw materials of journalism, and good notes are the tools. Here are a few tips on taking good notes, based on my own experience and a couple of articles I Googled recently:

  • Use a laptop, or tablet with keyboard, where appropriate for note-taking. When interviewing an executive for an article about their business, keyboarding is very appropriate. When infiltrating a prison, not so much.
  • For most of my career I tried to be discreet about taking notes. I felt notetaking would make them uncomfortable. Now I’m the opposite. People are there to be interviewed, let them see your fingers and elbows fly. If they say something great but you don’t get it, don’t be shy about asking them to repeat it.
    • Except when they’re nervous about being interviewed.
    • Sometimes when they’re nervous, you can’t take notes at all, or they’ll freeze up. This is what bathroom breaks are for. Drink plenty of iced tea.
    • Just because you closed your notebook doesn’t mean you’re off the record.
  • There are many methods of shorthand other than the classic Gregg. Probably worth learning. I never have.
  • It’s a good idea immediately after an interview to review your notes and retype them, adding details that are fresh in your memory. I never do.
  • Don’t try to take down every word. Listen for quotes, summarize the rest.
  • Avoid recording interviews unless there’s a specific reason to do so. Transcribing recording is slow, slow, slow. Also, recorders fail.
  • Computers fail too. Best to take notes with pen and paper. I don’t — I use electronics.
  • Lately I’ve been using Notability with the Adonit Jot stylus to take handwritten notes on my iPad mini during face-to-face one-on-one interviews. I like it, but I’m not sure I’ll stick with it. Typing is faster and I feel like it’s more reliable.

A couple of good articles with more tips:

Taking Good Notes: Tricks and Tools – The Open Notebook

12 basics of interviewing, listening and note-taking – Roy Peter Clark, Poynter.org

Link

Word processing has transformed the way writers work, a transition from typewriters to electronic writing that happened in a  few short years, starting in the mid-70s and ending by 1984 and 1985. The transition has been largely overlooked by literary historians, but now Matthew Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, has written a history, “Track Changes” (great title!). He talked with Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic: How to Write a History of Writing Software

Writers of genre fiction — particularly science fiction — adopted word processors long before literary writers. That’s not necessarily because science fiction writers are technology focused (I’ve been surprised myself by how Luddite science fiction fans can be in their real-life use of technology), but because genre writers need to work fast, and turn out a lot of work at high volume.

Robinson writes:

[Kirschenbaum’s] new history joins a much larger body of scholarship about other modern writing technologies—specifically, typewriters. For instance, scholars confidently believe that the first book ever written with a typewriter was Life on the Mississippi,by Mark Twain. They have conducted typographical forensics to identify precisely how T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was composed—which typewriters were used, and when. And they have collected certain important machines for their archives.

One day, a similarly expansive body of work may exist for writing software—and Kirschenbaum will be one of its first builders.

In the interview, Kirschenbaum addresses the question of which author was the first to write a novel with a word processor.

We can’t know with absolute certainty, I don’t think, but there are a couple of different answers.

If we think of a word processor or a computer as something close to what we understand today—essentially a typewriter connected to a TV set—there are a couple of contenders from the mid- to late-1970s. Notably Jerry Pournelle, who was a science fiction author. He is probably the first person to sit and compose at a “typewriter” connected to a “TV screen”—to compose there, to edit, and revise there, and then to send copy to his publisher. That was probably a novella called Spirals.

But there are earlier examples. Len Deighton, a highly successful author of British high-tech espionage thrillers, bought an early IBM word processor in the late 1960s. It wasn’t recognizably related to the word processors of today; the user typed on an IBM Selectric MS/ST typewriter that simultaneously recorded text on magnetic tape and conventional paper.

Kirschenbaum notes that secretaries, usually women, were the first to use word processors. Indeed, I remember that in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, successful men couldn’t type — typing was clerical, menial work, something that most men simply did not do. The transition to personal computers led to a brief bloom of typing classes — although the word “typing” had girl-cooties, so these classes were called “keyboarding,” or even “executive keyboarding.”

Me, I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer, and even in the late 70s it was obvious to many of us that personal computing was the future. I taught myself to touch-type when I was about 12 years old, and I took a typing class in high school to brush up on those skills, along with a few male friends who were also active in the computer club.

Back to Kirschenbaum: Even though the MS/ST lacked a screen, he calls it the first word processor because it stored the text electronically.

Your “screen” was the sheet of paper you had in your Selectric typewriter. You did your typing on the Selectric—which is the same typewriter, for example, we see in Mad Men; it’s a famous ’60s-era electric typewriter—and if you made mistakes, you would backspace. You would get a mess on the sheet of paper that was currently on the Selectric, but the correct sequence of character strokes was being stored on the tape. Then you would put a clean sheet of paper into the typewriter and it would automatically print out, sort of player-piano fashion, the text stored on the tape’s storage.

This unit sold in the 1960s for $10,000. That’s obviously quite a lot of money, and IBM used the term word processing as a marketing device.

Deighton wrote on a conventional Selectric, then handed the typescript to his secretary, Ellenor Handey, to retype it using the MS/ST. Therefore, I call shenanigans on Kirschenbaum’s classifying Deighton as the first author to use a word processor, simply because he wasn’t the one using the MS/ST. Still, it’s an interesting anecdote — Deighton was on the edge between non-word-processor users and word-processor users.

And importantly, Kirschenbaum says the essential thing about the word processor isn’t the screen, it’s the fluid, electronic nature of the text.

Microsoft Word is still the gold standard for writing software; even people who write primarily for the Internet — including most of the technology journalists I know — use Word. That absolutely flummoxes me. Even today, Word  seems to me to be software designed primarily to produce printed hardcopy, often ornately formatted in ways that writers don’t care about. It’s not designed for articles, blog posts, or books; it’s designed for corporate annual reports.

Until recently, I preferred to write in text editors designed by and for software developers. Now, there’s a new generation of word processing software developed primarily for people who write electronically; Ulysses for Mac is one of those apps, which is the one I use. Scrivener is a more well-known example.

A lot of writing today gets done in email applications and web browsers — specifically the text entry box of Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m writing this post in the composition window of WordPress. I’m writing on a plane (Kirschenbaum discusses how word processors have changed WHERE we write, as well as how), and I don’t currently have an Internet connection. I really, really hope I don’t lose my work, but WordPress is pretty good about that.

And of course, writing on mobile phones is hugely popular. Maybe the people who are toddlers today will never learn to keyboard; they’ll just thumb-type.

Kirschenbaum also talks about writers he calls “refuseniks,” who were adults in the 70s and 80s and who refused to use word processors. Harlan Ellison is possibly the most outspoken example, still pounding away at a typewriter. Cormac McCarthy is another example.

Another example, not mentioned by Kirschenbaum in this interview: Our friend the science fiction writer Joe Haldeman, author of “The Forever War” and a couple of dozen other, excellent novels. Joe is no refusenik; last time I talked tech with him he was a user of a Mac, iPad, and iPhone. But he likes writing his first drafts in fountain pen on bound, blank books. He says he just writes better that way.

I’ve added Kirschenbaum’s book to my Amazon Wishlist. And, hey, there’s another idea for a book: How digital technology changes the way we read. When I was a teen-ager back in the 70s, I could easily read two or three books every week. Now, I read a half-dozen books a year, if that. I have to make a conscious effort to set aside some time every day to read books. Most of my reading time is taken up reading articles.

 

Link

Byline | Field Notes

I’ve always liked tall, slim reporters notebooks with the binding on top. You can easily hold them in one hand while writing with the other. They fit nicely in a suit jacket pocket or the back pocket of your jeans.

Now Field Notes, the favorite notebook manufacturer of mustache-waxing hipsters, is making a reporters notebook.

I’m tempted but I haven’t priced them against the variety I prefer, which is pretty much whatever kind of notebook I can get cheap on Amazon. Also, I do 99.99% of my note-taking electronically nowadays. Mostly I can find a flat surface to type on and when that’s inconvenient I thumb type on my iPhone. I’ve gotten pretty good at that.

Still, these are nice-looking notebooks, and I love the marketing copy. “When the very last print run of these was complete, we got to do something that we’ve always wanted to do. We yelled ‘Stop the Presses!” That was very satisfying.” Ha!

Moleskine (former favorite notebook for mustache-waxing hipsters) also makes reporters’ notebooks — $11 each. These must be for reporters who have inherited trust funds.

I just checked: A 12-pack of Portage 70-sheet reporters’ notebooks is about $18 bucks on Amazon. Two Field Notes Byline reporters notebooks are about $13.. That’s a lot of mustache wax.

Field Notes’ “stop the presses!” joke reminds me: In the pre-mobile-computing days, when you were filing a story from the field, you called it in and dictated it to your editor. Bigger newspapers had “rewrite men” who did nothing but take reporters’ phoned-in notes and turn them into articles. Sometimes when I was phoning in a story — standing at a payphone with a stack of quarters in front of me — I’d open a conversation with my editor by putting on a fake Brooklyn accent and saying, “Hi, honey, get me rewrite, dis is a doozy!” That never got old.

Back to Evernote

I’m getting back into using Evernote more. Primarily for interview notes and research materials for articles. I haven’t found anything as good for mixing media types (plain text notes, PDFs, and images), and I like the synch between multiple platforms. The recent price increase doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t look like much money, frankly.

I had nearly abandoned Evernote in 2014 or so because it was bloated and slow on my then-primary computer, a 2010 MacBook Pro. And I really didn’t like the public statements by then-CEO Phil Libin about the way the company was going to go. It looked like Evernote was going to get worse, not better, adding more useless features in an attempt to steal Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information.

I’m encouraged by comments by the new CEO that they’re looking to refocus on note taking, rather than being a company that sells socks and software to take food selfies. Maybe they’ll even kill work chat, which nobody likes.

I’m still writing in Ulysses, though I’m not using it to take notes anymore. One thing I liked when I was taking notes in Ulysses was that the notes and article would be together in a single folder. My solution now that I’m using different apps for research and writing: Tags. I tag each article, starting with the letter n to be sure all the tags are grouped in the list, followed by company name or keyword, short code for day of the week, followed by the date I start work on the article. Example: “n Microsoft Thu 2016-06-30”. I use the same tag for every document, Ulysses sheet, and Evernote note related to that article. Seems like that will work. Ask me again in a year.

I found a note in my journal from three years ago saying I’m getting back into Evernote. So this is not my first turn on that merry go round.

Link

His life ambition was to accomplish good works that would have people telling his story after he was gone, says the Presidential podcast:

This week’s episode focuses on Lincoln’s love and gift for language, both the written and the spoken word, and how that skill not only helped him bind together a country in the midst of civil war but also forever changed our understanding of presidential leadership.

“What I saw in Lincoln that becomes almost a trademark attribute I look for in other presidents is that sense of empathy and humanity,” says Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin is a featured guest in this week’s episode along with Michelle Krowl of the Library of Congress, who discusses many of Lincoln’s rare handwritten poems, letters and speeches that the library has in its possession.

Link

“I’m thoroughly disgusted that I alone must bear the burden of my observations.”

“The Voyeur’s Motel” is a brilliant and disturbing “New Yorker” article from 84-year-old journalist Gay Talese:

I know a married man and father of two who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur. With the assistance of his wife, he cut rectangular holes measuring six by fourteen inches in the ceilings of more than a dozen rooms. Then he covered the openings with louvred aluminum screens that looked like ventilation grilles but were actually observation vents that allowed him, while he knelt in the attic, to see his guests in the rooms below. He watched them for decades, while keeping an exhaustive written record of what he saw and heard. Never once, during all those years, was he caught.

The voyeur, Gerald Foos, says in his 30 years as a peeping Tom, he witnessed a murder that he unwittingly instigated. He never reported it to police.

30 years of voyeurism made Foos a cynic.

… basically you can’t trust people. Most of them lie and cheat and are deceptive. What they reveal about themselves in private they try to hide in public. What they try to show you in public is not what they really are.”

Foos considers himself a scientist.

“I hope I’m not described as just some pervert or Peeping Tom,” he said. “I think of myself as a pioneering sex researcher.”

Talese also did a little peeping while visiting Foos to verify the story, although he does not describe himself as being aroused by it. Like Foos, Talese no doubt considers himself a dispassionate observer working for a greater cause. The difference between the two is that Foos worked in secret, while Talese has as worldwide audience, respect, and acclaim.

Link

That’s a screenshot above.

A lot of people are going to be happy about this, but not as happy as when it actually ships.

From Alpha to Beta [KB – Literature and Latte: The Cellar Door]