Saturday, July 20, 2013

What Is Beautiful Writing?

We all want to write beautifully. We know beautiful writing when we read it, but being able to do it is a whole different animal. What, exactly, is it? Is it lyricism? Is it simplicity? Is it dramatic, deep insight?

For me, beautiful writing can be summed up in one word: heartfelt. Any of those things above (and plenty of others) can be beautiful if they meet this criterion.

When the writing reflects a natural, deep, organic connection to the feeling the writer is attempting to express, it's incredible.

Not too many people achieve that, at least not consistently.

We are self-conscious about our words, not wanting to sound too sentimental or too unsophisticated. We massage our words to make them better and better, and sometimes the effect is just the opposite—they lose resonance because the 'heartfelt' has been massaged right out of them.

Maybe, as adults who work at being writers, we need to go through this stage to come out the other side where we can reach for fewer and more succinct words that beautifully express our most heartfelt feelings and ideas. The way we would have done when we were very young.

Below is a short piece of prose poetry that shows what I mean about heartfelt writing far better than I can describe. It was published by Seattle Arts and Lectures along with pieces from other children and teens in their Writers in the Schools Program.

The author is Harlow C. Knoerlein, 3rd Grade, B.F. Day Elementary School.


     When you draw my portrait, do it with colored pencils. Draw me in the sand with my hair flying in the wind and waves crashing down on rocks. Draw me wearing a light blue long silky gown with a tiny bit of ruffles at the end. Draw the sun setting on the ocean. Draw the artist's name in the sand. Draw flowers flying in the wind.
     Please don't change anything about my face.
     Draw me running in the sand, with all the crabs crawling right next to me. Draw me singing, and the ocean singing with me.



I don't know about you, but I'd like to take a page out of Harlow's book, and let my writing be as fresh and immediate and heartfelt as this. I noticed that, in the publication this was in (IN THE SLIVER OF A SECOND), even the 8th and 9th graders had become self conscious, even when their writing was really, really good. And that's when it hit me that finding our authentic voice as a writer might just require finding a way to let go of what we think we've learned about life, love, loss etc., so we can burrow down to our most authentic selves.

What do you think? And, do you have favorite beautiful writers?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Elizabeth George's Writing Process: From Idea to First Draft

I just listened to Elizabeth George speak about writing. She was the featured speaker at a wonderful brunch held each year by the Seattle7Writers—a collective of (now about 60) well-published Northwest authors devoted to promoting literacy in their communities. The brunch is held to raise money for literary support for young writers in underprivileged circumstances, and is always fun and enlightening.

Elizabeth George is the author of the famous Thomas Lynley crime novels set in England that were made into a PBS series. Since the brunch audience was made up of book groups, writers, and others involved in the book business, she answered a question that is often asked of her: how does she go about writing her novels?

Her process (I'm liberally paraphrasing and interpreting here, because I did not take detailed notes!):

1. Every author, she says, first "is struck" by something—something in the news, something in their community, an idea, that rivets them. So, the first thing that happens for her when she's going to write a new novel is that she's struck by something that she wants to write about.

2. Once she has the idea, she focuses on place. For her, that involves going to that place and doing voluminous picture-taking, exploring, focusing on physical detail, and asking the place to speak to her--to tell her what there is about it that she will include in her story. She claims to be seriously unimaginative and so finds it critical to get as much concrete detailed info as she can for her story development.

3. The third step, which she might do on the airplane home or shortly thereafter, is to write up a short statement of what the book is about—about a page long.

4. Next come the characters. She jots down a list of characters who would be involved in the story. This first list is broad, and characters might be identified loosely, like witness one—milkman, witness two—mailman, investigators—police sergeant and inspector, etc. There may be fifteen or so characters on this list, who would be involved in the crime, the investigation, the subplots, etc.

5. She develops the characters in more detail—writes briefs on them and their involvement in the story she's writing, including some quick scenes. From this she is able to identify which of the characters are the strongest and will become the main characters in the book.

6. She writes brief descriptions of many or most of the scenes that will make up the story, including subplot scenes. Included are things like who's in the scene and what happens. She lets the characters tell her those things, rather than controlling the characters. They are the source of the storyline at this point.

7. From this she develops a quite detailed outline of the entire book.

8. Now, she feels secure in where she is in her story development and can finally do what she loves, which she says is the part where her soul gets involved and soars—she writes the first draft.

It's always fascinating to me to listen to authors talk in such detail about their writing process. Writers are all over the place on this topic, from not being able to write a story if they know what's coming next, to not being able to write a story if they don't know everything that's going to happen before they start.

I'm in between, and find that detailed outlining ahead of time totally kills my creative process—I've tried several times because authors I admire sing the praises of detailed outlining. It just doesn't work for me. But knowing some detail ahead of time is HUGE for me. It helps me visualize all sorts of scenes and interactions.

So a couple of the things Elizabeth talked about really spoke to me: exploring place in detail to obtain concrete information on the setting you're going to write . . . ruminating on those concrete details and letting them speak to you; and I also love that idea of sketching out all the characters you can think of that might be in your story and then developing their involvement in plot/subplot lines before you decide where the story is going. Let them tell you where it's going.

Are there things in Elizabeth George's process that you find work for you?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Subway Pop-Up Newsstand

I read a lot of trade press these days, just trying to keep apprised of what's happening in the book business and aware of the important issues affecting writers and readers.

My top news item pick for the past week is a brief on one of the most innovative and promising developments I've seen: pop-up newsstands. It's like a grown-up version of the neighborhood lemonade stand we all had as kids. The stars in our eyes back then were powered by mom and dad's generous support and our own entrepreneurial fantasies.

But this new development could actually have profitable legs for all involved (and serve a need), as long as participants stay satisfied with 'small.' As in small space, small number of offerings (but well-chosen for target customers), small time commitment in leases, small, shared profits. Awesome.

from shelf pro, July 3, 2013:

Brooklyn Gets Pop-Up Subway Bookshop

Newsstand staffers Eddie Goldblatt, Lele Saveri and Jamie Falkowski.
photo: Robert Wright/NYT
The Newsstand, a pop-up shop located at the Metropolitan Avenue subway station in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn until July 20, "has transformed an ordinary subway space into a store for independently published magazines, books, comics and zines. In a digitalized world, it is a small haven for printed media," theNew York Times reported.

Offering "a kind of 'staff picks' for the tight space," the Newsstand carries selections from McNally-Jackson Books in SoHo,Dashwood Books on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Desert Island bookstore in Williamsburg and Ohwow in Greenwich Village, the Times wrote. The shop, which opened June 15, splits profits with the bookstores.

"I was trying to find a way of supporting that scene without stepping on their toes," said manager Lele Saveri of the stores he asked to participate.

Although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority usually leases spaces by the year, it was open to a short-term tenant for the Newsstand. "They had an interesting and innovative proposal for how to have an amenity in there for our customers and generate a little revenue for us," said Adam Lisberg, an authority spokesman.

Have you seen anything like this? If you live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or nearby, have you perchance seen this one? Would love to hear about it!