Posts Tagged ‘Stephen King’

This was never the way she planned — not her intention.  But journalist Cindy Schweich Handler wrote some fiction.  And she liked it.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. And since I was an avid reader of fiction as a kid, that meant being a novelist. I was in fourth grade when I wrote the vaguely titled “Castle of Things,” a blatant rip-off of “Alice in Wonderland.” A year later, I followed this up with “Queen Elizabeth Alive,” a “Bewitch”-inspired imagining of the Tudor ruler coming forward in time to hang with a grade-schooler who happened to be a lot like me. Writing for fun was … well, a lot of fun.

As I neared college-age, though, and considered how I would eventually make a living, I decided to become a journalist. That way, I reasoned, I could consistently get paid to write, I’d experience the relatively instant gratification of seeing my work and byline in print, and I would learn about a variety of subjects while covering them. I ended up working in magazines for years and freelancing for them after starting a family, and I never regretted the decision.

That is, until years later, when I wearied of reading the final, heavily edited versions of my service pieces—those articles in women’s and parenting magazines that tell you, in strictly formatted, nearly style-free prose, how to raise a child, budget your time, or achieve any number of perennially visited objectives. Writing them paid well, and (before the market crash and digital revolution smacked the publishing industry) there was a demand for them. But I started to feel as if my writing was merely meat fed into a hamburger grinder. And it wasn’t satisfying.

It was at this point that I started hungering for a more enriching writing experience. Coincidentally, a friend who’s a successful fiction writer suggested that I attend a class for beginning novelists she was teaching in her home. With some trepidation, I took her up on her offer.

That was four years ago. Since then, I’m gratified to report, I’ve written one novel and nearly completed a second, scored a world-class agent whom I adore, and I continue to meet with my extremely supportive fellow students of fiction. (I wish I could say I’ve sold my first novel, but despite three near-misses, I haven’t. Yet.) What I’ve learned during this time, with the guidance of my excellent teacher, is that the leap from nonfiction to fiction is less about blind faith, and more about understanding what all good writing has in common. Among the observations I’ve internalized are:

  • What Stephen King observed in his wonderful guide, On Writing, is true:  the magic of writing lies in successfully transferring a thought as it exists in your head into someone else’s. That is, when you visualize an image or scene, no matter what genre you’re writing in, you need to convey it exactly the way you see it, as economically as possible for maximum clarity.
  • Always keep your theme in mind. This is true whether you’re writing an essay on, say, why cell phones are evil, or a novel about a woman who discovers that her dead son was a sperm donor (my current project). Your writing is an argument, basically, and you’re trying to persuade your audience of something. With non-fiction, of course, you do your research upfront, whereas with fiction, it’s an ongoing process of discovery that takes place in the course of the writing itself. But in both instances, there’s a lot of trial and error before it’s clear what’s extraneous and what gets you closer to your goal. The longer the work, the more arduous this process will be. Which brings me to:
  • Trust the process. A short story might be comparable in length to a long non-fiction piece, but a commercial novel probably averages around 90,000 words. It can take so long to write that first draft that it’s easy to look at the thing, after a year or two of effort, and think, “Wow, this sucks.” Maybe it’s helpful to remember an analogy I read by an online writer. The first draft, he said, is akin to your kitchen sink after you’ve washed off the Thanksgiving dishes: After a thorough going-over, there are bits and pieces that survive, and you go on from there. Sounds harsh — but it’s not, because that realization makes it easier to continue, and the next draft will work itself out a lot faster.

Commercially, fiction is harder to sell, since fewer people read it. And in my experience, it requires more focus and attention to write, because it’s more personal. But in that respect, I find it more rewarding. And not a mysterioso, you’re-born-with-it-or-you’re-not phenomenon, but rather a process that can be learned, and savored.

Cindy Schweich Handler is a former magazine editor whose nonfiction has been published in The New York Times, Newsweek, O: The Oprah Magazine, Redbook, and many other print and online publications.  She writes about politics for The Huffington Post and is currently at work on her second novel, Disaster Recovery.

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Tips on Networking 140 Characters at a Time, From the Guy Who Brought Me Pizza Oncetwitter_logo

(Not really.  I began following Chad Taylor on Twitter after reading his witty repartee with writer Susan Orlean.  Awed by his ability to be insightful, pithy, and clever within Twitter’s haiku-like restraints, I invited him to write a post revealing the secret of his success.)

I’m not a writer.

Well, using this blog as Exhibit A, a pretty strong case could be made to the contrary.  It’s true: I do write and it could even be argued that I don’t write badly.  But I’ve never published.  Nothing with a by-line or anything, at least.  I’m working on a book (who isn’t these days, right?) but I haven’t actually added anything meaningful to it in almost a month.  So, seriously, the guy who makes a living delivering pizzas is the last person who should be writing a guest blog trying to tell you anything about being a writer.  This irony is not lost on me.

What I am qualified to talk about, however, is why writers should use networking sites like Twitter, how they should use it to maximize its potential for them and what average Joes like me look for when we’re searching out new people to follow (read: new writers to read).

Everyone—or, everyone who isn’t delusional with self interest, that is—feels a little silly using Twitter at first because you’re walking the fine line between inundating your followers with every tiny detail of your lives (Carlos Mencia, I’m looking in your direction), or deciding that nothing you have to say is quite important enough, and not doing it at all.  But there are some easy guidelines.

First: Don’t resort to license plate shorthand or drastic measures like eliminating pronouns just to make a thought fit into 140 characters. In my own Twitter feed, I’ll often take an extra minute or two to restructure and re-write an update in a way that fits, rather than resort to a single “2” or “u.”  Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley‘s approval rating (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) dropped 15 points since the beginning of the year, which is about the same time that he started Twittering things like:

“We in congress hv been agitating china for Tibet for decades Right! We need to b just as agitated abt Chinese treatnent of Uighurs NOW” (8/9/09)


“Saw Glenn Beck on Fox last and got his pt abt govt and the missing airplane engine but I need explanation photograghic dishonestyWhere engin” (8/2/09)


“Plsnt conv. w sotomyr. 1 hr mtg. Look frwd 2 hrg and mre details abt recrd.” (6/8/09)

Great for the “unintentional hilarity” file; not so great for much of anything else.  Which brings us to the first reason that Twitter is good for the writer:  Twitter forces us to think and write succinctly.  In his book On Writing, Stephen King likes to say that a 2nd Draft = a 1st Draft – 10%, which is a quasi-mathematical way of saying that every idea can lose a little weight.  There are few real-world situations where a writer can hone the skill of economical communication and make professional and personal connections at the same time.  Hello, Twitter.  Compare the Senator’s updates above with San Francisco monologuist Josh Kornbluth: “I am feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of being away from my family – trying to breathe, listen to music, avoid pull of narcoleptic bed.” (8/6/09)

Or (is this even allowed?) from my own Twitter feed: “Putting coupons on doors. They could literally train a monkey to do this job, but don’t because a trained monkey would cost more.” (8/12/09)

Another tip for effective Twittering (I refuse to call the updates ‘tweets’) is to remember that people are following you not only because you’re (ideally) funny and interesting, but because you’re you. The good thing about Twitter from a follower’s point of view is that it’s a way for people who might otherwise never come in contact with you to get to know more about you.  The good thing from the Twitterer’s standpoint is that you have control over how deep that access goes.  The more you allow your followers to see, the more successful you’ll be.  Giving the people following you insight into your thought process; taking a self-deprecating look at minor faults; even just venting personal frustration all open you up to readers and allow them to connect more intimately than a dust jacket bio or blog interview could.

Great examples of this can be seen from New York based memoirist Janice Earlbaum: “FINALLY finished a long-overdue freelance piece; doing a smug little happy dance in my chair. Lunchtime!” (6/5/09)

The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean: “Spent last night talking to a nice editor of HuffPost, thinking she worked for Daily Beast & gossiping accordingly. She looked…puzzled.”

And MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow: “I think I might be the only Real Time with Bil Maher guest to have ever brought mom and dad as entourage to the backstage party.” (8/1/09)

Which, finally, brings us to the second big reason a writer should want to use Twitter: if applied properly, the networking possibilities are enormous. For beginning writers, Twitter can introduce you publishers, editors, other writers, fans, potential readers, reviewers…you see what I’m getting at.  For established writers, Twitter is an additional medium to advertise a new novel being released or, as in the case of our gracious host, to link to your own blog or website.  Each person who finds your Twitter feed is potentially a new set of eyes to look over a draft of that manuscript.  Or someone who knows someone at Harper Collins.  Or someone who might wind up loving your last novel and now can’t wait for the next one.  There’s work involved (when isn’t there?) but by following the right people and—more importantly—getting the right people to follow you, Twitter can be a powerful addition to your networking repertoire.  For an excellent example of this, look no further than this very page: this blog post is a result of a connection made over Twitter.

Chad Taylor (33, Capricorn)  has spent time as a pizza delivery guy, security officer, telephone salesperson and itinerant malcontent.  He is widely viewed as one of the great underappreciated writers of our time (citation needed) and is a frequent contributer to both his Facebook status bar and ESPN.com’s “user comments” section.  Voted “Great Catch” by his mother for 22 non-consecutive years.

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