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Writers Are Writers

Posted on Monday, September 29, 2014 at 9:45 PM

Valuable advice from books with a different audience in mind.

By Peter P. Jacobi

In my persistent quest for books on writing, I come across those I believe you, as readers of Editors Only, should become aware of, and numerous past columns have dealt with them. Often, I also come across books on writing that are addressed to brothers and sisters in the trade who aim for different markets: fiction writers, poets, children's book authors, academic journal scribes. These I will pass on to you, unless I find some sort of link that I think might be of value.

And to be honest, most every book on the subject of writing is likely to include, within its pages, some piece of advice that might be of assistance. Here are a few examples.

Fiction-Focused Collections

The Writer's Notebook, Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books) -- a fiction focused collection.

From an essay, "Performing Surgery without Anesthesia," by Chris Offutt, short story writer: "The process of revision ... is draining the sink and seeing what's in there, which is usually a mess. Revising requires a cruel and ruthless objectivity.... One of the ways that I do it is to go away from the work, leave it alone. If you get some distance and time from the first draft, you can look at it objectively. It's the same with a broken heart. Think about it: a little distance and time will heal your broken heart; a little distance and time will allow you to look at a draft and figure out what it is you're doing.... I think the word revision means to see again or to look again. Most people don't do that; they polish. You must learn to re-see your work. And that often means noticing what the story is really about, what it's become. Not what you thought it was, or what you wanted it to be."

An eye-opening reminder.

The Writer's Notebook II, Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books) - again, a fiction-focused collection.

The beginning of an essay titled "Beginnings," by novelist and memoirist Ann Hood: "I cannot write an essay, a short story, or even a novel until I know my first line. At night, I put myself to sleep rearranging words, inserting a comma and then taking it out again. I edit and revise that one sentence while I cook dinner, wait in the car for my kids to walk out of school, do the laundry. The pressure of getting that sentence right is enormous. In fact, not just that sentence, but the opening paragraph -- no, the opening page -- has to do so much that in some ways it is the most important thing to write.... When the writer John Irving told me that he always knew his first line before he began writing, because by knowing his first line he then knew his last line, I understood yet another burden of the beginning: it puts into motion the events that will drive the story to its resolution."

The conclusion of the concluding essay in the book, "Endings," by Elissa Schappell, fiction and magazine writer: "It all comes down to this: endings are a bitch. The best ending is one that leaves readers with a profound sense of awe and wonder, not only at the world the author has created but also at the considerable skill with which the writer has pulled it off. The truth is, the best endings don't feel like endings at all. The best ending is one in which the world gets larger, not smaller. It's not an ending at all. It's the beginning of understanding the world and ourselves in a new way."

Solid advice about two critically important elements in an article's structure and development.


Handling the Truth, On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart (Gotham Books) -- the title identifies market.

Kephart has authored five memoirs. In Handling the Truth, she goes through the whole process of writing in this genre. In a chapter on "Tense," she says: "Past or present? Present or past? It's going to make a difference. Tense announces predilection and instinct. On the one hand: sense and detail, anecdote, in-your-face, it's happening, you're with me. On the other: cogitation, meditation, speculation, consideration, the sense of something measured. The heart and the mind. The eye and the I. It's still, in some fashion, alive, or it was. One or the other is going to appeal. One or the other will be right."

Immediacy or reflection. History reclaimed or just history. The reader present or the reader brought in after the fact. Decisions. Decisions.

Children's Literature

Writing from the Heart, How to Write for Children by Joy Cowley (Boyds Mills Press) -- as the title proclaims, for writers who seek to satisfy young readers.

This acclaimed and revered New Zealand author concludes her book with a chapter, "Putting on Your Editor's Hat." She offers ten "time-tested hints that may help you," among them, in abbreviated form:

"Have you included all the information that the story needs?"

"Is the information in the right order?"

"Next we check our beginnings and endings."

"Pacing. A story is like music. It has movement and moods -- fast and slow, gentle and hard, words that have rhythm, words that clash in discord. You can say a lot about what is going on in the story by the words you choose and the length of sentences. Long sentences slow a story to a relaxed pace. Short sentences give a sense of tension and breathlessness. If we tell a story all in the same way, it can sound to the readers like a monotone."

"Spelling, punctuation, syntax. At this stage, we look through our stories to check these three. We are not only concerned with correct spelling, punctuation and the arrangement of words. We are also looking for repetition. Do we have too many sentences structured the same way? Do we have words that clash or are repeated, when we don't want that effect? Remember that every story written for children will be read aloud. Read your story out loud. Words are different to the ear and to the eye."

How often have I written of this? Well, I don't know, but it bears repeating.

Important matters for you to think about again, expressed by authors who didn't have you in their mind's eye when they verbalized their teachings. But remember: writers are writers.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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