Category Archives: Genres

Great (F.) Scott!

Sooo…this is going to be one of my nerdier posts. I’ve been a creative writer since I was a kid, but it really wasn’t until recent years that I devoted substantial time and effort to it. Before I was writing novels, I was writing essays, and sure enough I think the latter is a big obstacle I’ve been working through in order to improve at the former.

I had a professor once in grad school who’d given me an A on my biographical essay on Henry James. But he’d written something to the effect of, “You are a good writer. You could be a great one if you loosened your writing a little.” So no surprise that among initial feedback on a super-early draft of novel manuscript #1 was that its language was very “erudite” and needed relaxing to appeal more to readers. My writing has also been described as “dense” where one of my short stories is concerned—not necessarily meant in a bad way, but, well, I wasn’t really sure how to take it. My years in academia and business certainly did nothing to help my writing take a chill pill, so every new story I write, every revision I make (in my or others’ work) has been an exercise in smoothing and tightening my wording—which I’ve finally learned is not dumbing it down.

Anyway, with Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out now, I’ve been reminiscing about the ol’ days as a student and teacher. Having approached this particular novel from both sides, it’s long been on my Top 5 list of favorite books; the pages of my paperback copy are covered in my chicken-scratchings, the well-creased binding falling readily open to certain scenes.

So needless to say, I was prepared to be critical of the film. (I viewed it in the apt setting of Notting Hill’s Electric Cinema, an opulent and crazy-cozy experience on the Portobello Road—I’m talking leather chairs with ottomans and a bar in the back. I could have fallen asleep from wine and comfort if I weren’t so dazzled by the film.) I’d seen early reviews disappointed in Gatsby as yet another miss in trying to bring the story to the big screen, but I have to say that, for what I personally take away from the book, I was satisfied. My vote is that Luhrmann captured its essence–including beating you over the head with its symbolism just like Fitzgerald does (hence, why it’s such a good book to teach in high school!). I even forgive the diversions it makes. Film is a different medium that requires different approaches, for one, and just because a film can’t be perceived as the definitive interpretation of a great story doesn’t mean it can’t be appreciated as an interpretation. And I adore the timelessness it evokes in blurring past with present, akin to Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which is yet another of my faves.

So what does this have to do with my stodgy academic writing? Well, after watching the film and mouthing along to lines I knew by heart, I went digging through my archives and found an essay I’d written about Gatsby in grad school. It compares Fitzgerald’s themes and characterization to another American novel, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! And providing the thematic framework for this analysis is a third book we’d read that quarter: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. O’Brien when he did a reading as part of the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” initiative. I also got rather intimate with Willa Cather for a literary research class, spending many hours curled up with her primary documents—many personal letters written and received—at Chicago’s Newberry Library. So for all these reasons, even ten years later, this essay still holds a special place in my heart.

Allow me, then, to share this Ghost of Writing Past with you. Below is only the intro paragraph, but the complete essay can be found at this page: http://wp.me/PLJnP-Ys

The Things Men Carry Inside

“It was very sad…The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.”—The Things They Carried (TTTC), p. 25

The above quotation from Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried, provides a philosophical commentary on the inner struggles of mankind that transcends the war context. Addressing the universality of the human condition, O’Brien’s tales depict soldiers who, while facing a different physical landscape than that encountered by the characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, nonetheless map out an emotional frontier tread upon by their Western pioneer and Eastern society counterparts. Specifically, Emil Bergson and Jay Gatsby embody all the hope and ambition characteristic of the American spirit, yet also the fear and despair that can accompany fleeting ideals in the face of unrelenting reality. Such dreams prove the torment of not only their beholders, however, but of the other men upon whose lives they encroach. Frank Shabata, Tom Buchanan, and George Wilson likewise grapple with their own vulnerabilities, and, when they are crossed with Emil and Gatsby’s parallel romantic aspirations, primal instinct conquers civilized decency. As these five men do what they feel they must in order to achieve or thwart their dreams and fears, they become a study in what brings happiness and value to one’s life. [Read more…]


The Lazy Way to Write a Blog Post…

…copy/paste something you’ve already written. 🙂

Okay, so we’ve established by now I’m not the most reliable of bloggers, and now I’m not following through on my promise for this post to be about 1st-person narration. Fact is, I haven’t prioritized time for thoughtfully compiling thoughts/excerpts on that topic, but I will, I will…

What I have been prioritizing lately—FINALLY!—is my second manuscript. I’ve been close to the end for months now, but, just like with my first manuscript, the characters’ voices went quiet. I probably should have pushed through anyway, but I didn’t, and now I’ve got them all screaming in my ear. So, when I have free time (or blow off work to create pseudo-free time), I am writing the rest of my novel. And giving advice to friends to get them started writing theirs!

Which brings me to my lazy post today. The novel-esque email responses I just inundated my dear friend with this week as she prepares for NaNoWriMo as a first-time writer. Here goes:

Q: How do you narrow down an idea? I have a million…

A: [First of all, I thought, “Lucky girl!” It took me ages to generate even one idea for my first manuscript.]

Evaluate each one for how easily you think you could run with one for an entire novel. Do some have nicer complexity than others? Are they more appealing for you to research and live with for a long, long amount of time whereas others you might tire of or not be able to develop very far? And is there just that one that really, really speaks to you from the inside…you can’t get it out of your head, it gets you excited because it’s so original/meaningful/interesting/etc., you can already see the setting and hear the characters, it is THE book you were meant to write?

You can also try writing little vignettes for each idea and see which one takes off, inspires the most possibilities. Foregoing an idea at one time doesn’t mean it can’t be revisited at another, either as another book or as a short story.

That’s always another avenue—write several short stories and compile them in an anthology. With short stories, you can also submit them individually to contests and publications (e.g., magazines, anthologies, e-zines, etc.), which builds a publication history you can cite in your novel’s query letter down the road. It’s a great way to earn credibility. I only wish I could be more prolific that way. 🙂

One blog that I follow is www.milo-inmediares.com. The guy (Milo) is a maniac about writing/submitting stories based on Ray Bradbury’s early discipline of writing and submitting one story a week to get his start. Milo helped create the Write1Sub1 blog, too, to encourage others to write one story a week or month so that, at the end of the year, you have a large collection to work with, not only because getting published is such a numbers game but also to have that accomplishment for yourself. It’s a proper repertoire. Anyway, in either his April 2011 or April 2010 archives, he blogged every day about one new publication to submit stories to, in case you wanted to explore the short story option with all your different ideas.

Regardless of what length you write, just remember every story has an arc: exposition builds to rising action, which reaches climax and descends with falling action toward a resolution. The major climax occurs late in the story (and resolutions shouldn’t be too dragged out). There must be some sense of ongoing internal/external conflict that builds and builds before getting resolved in the end, but minor conflicts along the way help build tension, too—subplot helps add complexity/depth. I’m hoping to blog in the coming month about some stuff on story progression. Oh, and the NaNoWriMo organizers are so awesome—they provide so many great resources and pep talks along the way. It’s such a special experience, and I’m so happy you’re doing it!

Q: So much to take in, I feel far from prepared for this. The issue is I have no actual ideas, I have had no time to even think about them, develop them.

A: [Okay, so I obviously misunderstood her first question, thinking the exact opposite. And, yeesh, leave it to me to overdo it regardless…here was my attempt to backpedal.]

Oh no! I didn’t mean to flood you with info. There are just all sorts of options for wrestling down an idea. How to approach it varies for everyone. It’s really just a matter of what makes you tick.

When I first considered ideas, I didn’t have one to hold on to either. I started with what I loved to read—and that’s a top tip I’ve heard from authors since: write the book you want to read.

So I thought about how I love ghost stories of the Gothic variety, yet also liked the modern edge of supernatural stories like The Time Travelers Wife. I also thought about how whenever I read or watched a ghost story in a book or on film, the story always went a different way than my expectations had hoped for. So then I thought about what consistently caused my disappointment and jotted down in a journal all the elements I would love to see in a story, what, for ME, would be intriguing, atmospheric, and frightening. I just had pages and pages of all this related and random stuff, and then I started to research the topic from different angles and recorded my findings in the journal, too. Then, as slices of story started to occur to me based on what I’d brainstormed/researched and really wanted to feature in the story, slowly but surely the dots started to connect.

And a lot of it comes from just writing it. I told you about subplots before, but sometimes those just occur as you go along. Secondary characters appear out of nowhere because you start to see them or instinctively know that your main characters would meet them in a certain situation or whatever. I at first created this one gal simply to give my protagonist a friend at school as it seemed unnatural for her personality to not at least form an acquaintance. But then as I wrote this other person, suddenly she started behaving oddly and became a mystery unto herself. That was purely spontaneous writing, and then the strategy and planning came in afterwards when I had to determine why she was acting that way, what new role she could play in the overall scheme.

My point is, so much comes to you when you finally just start to write. That’s the spirit of NaNoWriMo—it doesn’t give you time to think about it much; you just have to write and keep going, keep pushing forward and forward and then sort out what you’ve got when you’re done. No one comes out of it with a polished and complete novel. And it might not even be a novel but a free association of ideas that spins off in tangents. The ideas could first come through THAT process, and it could serve as a way of finding your writer’s voice, too, so you can determine what tone to approach your book with.

You just don’t know until you write, so forget what I said for the time being about story arc and outlining and whatnot. Just take what time does come to you on a day to scribble out something. Practice describing your daughter as she plays with something. Write an entire paragraph about her disgusting boogers now that she’s sick! Pretend your house is the setting of a story and describe it for a reader to “see.” Maybe write about a funky dream you recently had. If you get in the habit of writing a little something creative every day, it really warms you up and gets you into a groove. It’s exactly the same thing as exercising, you know? The more you do it, the more energized you feel and the more you want to do it. And just like there’s a runner’s high after pushing past a certain distance, there’s a writer’s one—that’s why I keep harping on this one point: write! If you can tap into that weird mode where it’s almost like the story already exists independent of you and you’re being chosen to tell it (it’s a little haunting but so wild!), you’ll get it and so many inhibitions about the task will drop away.

So what do you think, have I steered her okay? Is it better for a first-time writer to go into it with more structure or less as they find their voice and creative footing? What other advice would you give?


No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” – Part III

Right. So, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t live up to my end of the bargain at the end of my previous post. I haven’t completed any creative writing since then, but I did get through another round of edits on someone else’s super-fun paranormal romance and am taking on some additional freelance work writing/editing commercial documents and web content for a couple small businesses. Hey, it pays the bills. I do find myself in a peaceful sort of limbo today, though, that should allow me a chance to crack open manuscript #2 and crank on its final chapters. But first things first: in getting psyched and inspired to write by those who’ve already done it so well, it’s time to wrap up my little literary miniseries here with some final quotations from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

On peer critique:

He liked the works of his friends, which is beautiful as loyalty but can be disastrous as judgment.
from “Ezra Pound and the Measuring Worm”

We still went under the system, then, that praise to the face was open disgrace.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

That fall of 1925 [Scott Fitzgerald] was upset because I would not show him the manuscript of the first draft of The Sun Also Rises. I explained to him that it would mean nothing until I had gone over it and rewritten it and that I did not want to discuss it or show it to anyone first.
from “Hawks Do Not Share”

Every writer is different, but hopefully we all understand the value of actively soliciting constructive criticism of our work. That said, I totally share the reluctance Hemingway had when it comes to handing over an early draft, the desire to give yourself the opportunity to critique it first before letting other eyes judge what is surely not yet your best. There does come the time, though, to fork it over, and I’m still steeling myself for this step…I do know a select few friends whose loyalty wouldn’t impair their judgment; they would tell it to me straight without fear of hurting my feelings, which is fortunate and terrifying all at once as I endeavor to shape what I do into something truly good by any measure…but what defines good writing?

On good writing:

[Fitzgerald’s] talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think. He was flying again and I was lucky to meet him just after a good time in his writing if not a good one in his life.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

He spoke slightingly but without bitterness of everything he had written, and I knew his new book must be very good for him to speak, without bitterness, of the faults of past books. He wanted me to read the new book, The Great Gatsby, as soon as he could get his last and only copy back from someone he had loaned it to. To hear him talk of it, you would never know how very good it was, except that he had the shyness about it that all non-conceited writers have when they have done something very fine, and I hoped he would get the book quickly so that I might read it.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

When you first start writing stories in the first person, if the stories are made so real that people believe them, the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you. […] If you do this successfully enough, you make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what you are trying for, which is to make something that will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory. There must be things that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which, without his knowing it, enter into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do.
from “On Writing in the First Person”

Then I started to think in Lipp’s about when I had first been able to write a story after losing everything. […] It was a very simple story called “Out of Season” and I had omitted the real end of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood. […] And as long as they do not understand it you are ahead of them. Oh sure, I thought, I’m so far ahead of them now that I can’t afford to eat regularly. It would not be bad if they caught up a little.
from “Hunger was Good Discipline”

I feel the strong need to emoticon that last one, but will do it here so it doesn’t look like Hemingway stooped to my level. Here it is: 🙂 I think that observation speaks (to an extent) to the debate in my first post in this series about writing to the market…I think sometimes you do have to throw the reader a bone and hand-hold just a little if you want them running along with you and cheering you on—rather than giving up on you because you’re trying to be a profound and abstract literary genius, sitting up there on-high in your little turret all alone but for the company of a story only you could love. 🙂 (There, I emoticoned again! It’s a modern disease!) But to continue…

In writing there are many secrets too. Nothing is ever lost no matter how it seems at the time and what is left out will always show and make the strength of what is left in. Some say that in writing you can never possess anything until you have given it away or, if you are in a hurry, you may have to throw it away. […] They say other things too but do not pay them too much attention. They are the secrets that we have that are made by alchemy and much is written about them by people who do not know the secrets or the alchemy. There are many more explainers now than there are good writers. You need much luck in addition to all other things and you do not always have it. This is regrettable but nothing to complain about as you should not complain of those explainers who tell you how you do it and why, if you do not agree with them. […] Good writing does not destroy easily…
from “Nada y Pues Nada”

I must say, I’m touched by Fitzgerald’s humility regarding The Great Gatsby, as well as the esteem he was held in by his contemporary Hemingway (even when other aspects of Fitzgerald’s life hardly impressed him). What a fascinating time to be a writer back then, when there was still uncharted territory—hell, when there was still un-agented submissions!—and classic American literature was given new voice. So many pioneering and influential artists, right there in Paris at the same time and toasting cocktails to one another…no wonder Woody Allen wanted to pay homage with his recent film Midnight in Paris. An era idealized in nostalgia? Sure. But there’s no questioning the contribution that those people at that time made to what so many of us continue to aspire to today; it was a recipe for greatness whether they knew it themselves yet or not…a wonderful alchemy of talent and ambition that not even the explainers can explain.

In closing:

“Hem, you won’t forget about the writing?”

“No,” I said. “I won’t forget about the writing.”

I went out to the telephone. No, I thought. I would not forget about the writing. That was what I was born to do and had done and would do again. Anything they said about them, the novels or the stories or about who wrote them was all right by me.

from “Nada y Pues Nada”

PART I

PART II


No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” – Part II

Yikes, have I taken long enough to follow up on this? Busy days, folks, busy days, and I clearly lack Hemingway’s discipline…for writing anyway. His discipline seemed to stray when it came to women…

Right, moving on. I left off last time with commentary on how Hemingway’s autobiographical yet “fictional” book A Moveable Feast might have been called The Early Eye and The Ear had its author let himself live to see its publication. To continue:

The Early Eye and The Ear gets at the need to hone your craft, something Hemingway truly believed in and worked at all his life. It implies talent, for you must have a good eye and a good ear to begin with if you are to be successful, but it also suggests that you need experience to develop your abilities as a writer, and Paris at that time was for Ernest Hemingway the perfect place to do this.

Indeed, I imagine Paris isn’t too shabby a place to do it. Especially back then when being an expatriate really would have felt exotic as opposed to today’s globally minded society that shuffles the likes of us in and out the door with more frequency. Not that moving to London wasn’t a massive inspiration for me and my own writing, but I probably hear North American accents here as often as any, and the likes of Starbucks is everywhere (which I’m at peace with because I very specifically love their chai lattes and granola bars).

At any rate, any place is fitting for a writer—or human being in general—that can introduce you to new perspectives, cultures, aesthetics, interesting, worldly if not quirky people, and allow you to expand into a sense of self you might not have realized you could be back home. I’ve learned firsthand how moving away helps you see that home with sharper clarity; as Hemingway said, “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.” Let’s hear more of what he had to say about those days when he first endeavored to become a novelist…

On starting to write a novel:

I knew I must write a novel. But it seemed an impossible thing to do when I had been trying with great difficulty to write paragraphs that would be the distillation of what made a novel. It was necessary to write longer stories now as you would train for a longer race. When I had written a novel before, the one that had been lost in the bag stolen at the Gare de Lyon, I still had the lyric facility of boyhood that was as perishable and as deceptive as youth was. I knew it was probably a good thing that it was lost, but I knew too that I must write a novel. I would put it off though until I could not help doing it. I was damned if I would write one because it was what I should do if we were to eat regularly. When I had to write it, then it would be the only thing to do and there would be no choice. Let the pressure build. In the meantime I would write a long story about whatever I knew best.
~ from “Hunger was Good Discipline”

Since I had started to break all my writing down and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

Now, as he alluded to in that first quotation, Hemingway had lost not only the entire manuscript of his first attempt at a novel but also the majority of anything else he had written, and he didn’t have any copies. He then went on to write The Sun Also Rises. Talk about rallying! That must have taken tremendous drive, patience, and discipline to simply sit down with pencil and notebook and start writing again. Fortunately, he was seated in the midst of life, buzzing around him with inspiration…

On writing from life:

In the early days writing in Paris I would invent not only from my own experience but from the experiences and knowledge of my friends and all the people I had known, or met since I could remember, who were not writers. I was very lucky always that my best friends were not writers and to have known many intelligent people who were articulate. In Italy when I was at the war there, for one thing that I had seen or that had happened to me, I knew many hundreds of things that had happened to other people who had been in the war in all of its phases. My own small experiences gave me a touchstone by which I could tell whether stories were true or false and being wounded was a password.
from “On Writing in the First Person”

A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek. / I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere […]. The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. […] I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
from “A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel”

So, it seems Hemingway had found a sweet spot in a café where his writing could flourish. I had to laugh, then (but with as much pity as humor), at his agitation when other people disrupted that peace…

On less-than-ideal writing conditions:

The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of café crèmes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed. […] Some days it went so well that you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber to come out into the clearing and onto the high ground and see the hills beyond the arm of the lake. A pencil-lead might break off in the conical nose of the pencil sharpener and you would […] sharpen the pencil carefully with the sharp blade and then slip your arm through the sweat-salted leather of your pack strap to lift the pack again, get the other arm through and feel the weight settle on your back and feel the pine needles under your moccasins as you started down for the lake. / Then you would hear someone say, “Hi, Hem. What are you trying to do? Write in a café?” / Your luck had run out and you shut the notebook. This was the worst thing that could happen. […] Now you could get out and hope it was an accidental visit and that the visitor had only come in by chance and there was not going to be an infestation. There were other good cafés to work in but they were a long walk away and this was your home café. It was bad to be driven out of the Closerie des Lilas. You had to make a stand or move.
~ from “Birth of a New School”

It appears he made a stand. It wasn’t pretty. But he made his point. Then there’s that friendly chap F. Scott Fitzgerald, fellow member of the Parisian literati who invited Hemingway and his wife Hadley to join them in the French Riviera.

It was a nice villa and Scott had a very fine house not far away and I was very happy to see my wife who had the villa running beautifully, and our friends, and the single aperitif before lunch was very good and we had several more. That night there was a party to welcome us at the Casino […]. No one drank anything stronger than champagne and it was very gay and obviously a splendid place to write. There was going to be everything that a man needed to write except to be alone.
~ from “Hawks Do Not Share”

I was getting tired of the literary life, if this was the literary life that I was leading, and already I missed not working and I felt the death loneliness that comes at the end of every day that is wasted in your life.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

Not that Ernest couldn’t whoop it up on his own terms, but, when he wore the writing hat, it was all about productivity.

On the discipline of writing:

I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day. But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.

It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when you had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.
~ from “Miss Stein Instructs”

And now that Hemingway has made me feel thoroughly guilty, it’s time to go get some work done. You should, too. Let’s say we write ourselves proud for a while and meet back here when I post the last installment of this series. Deal? Good. Now keep those eyes and ears open…

PART I

PART III


No “Hem”-ing and Hawing About It: Hemingway Speaks in “Ernest” on Writing – Part I

“It is not that things should be published. But I believe now that it is important that they exist.”

Ah, and that quotation wasn’t even Hemingway; it was his friend Evan Shipman. But I figured it made a good segue from my previous post about “When Not Being Published Doesn’t Feel Too  Shabby,” no? Who was Evan Shipman? Alas, perhaps if he hadn’t held the views on publishing he did, his name would be as household as Ernest Hemingway’s by now.

Evan Shipman, who was a very fine poet and who truly did not care if his poems were ever published, felt that it should remain a mystery.

“We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem,” he once said to me. “The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.”
~ from “An Agent of Evil”

Ah, sustenance. Indeed. Well, it doesn’t seem  even the published can necessarily count on that anymore. But this is how F. Scott Fitzgerald did:

He had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into salable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoreing. He said it was whoreing but that he had to do it as he made his money from the magazines to have money ahead to write decent books. I said that I did not believe anyone could write any way except the very best they could write without destroying their talent. He said he had learned to write the stories for the Post so that they did him no harm at all. He wrote the real story first, he said, and the destruction and changing did him no harm. I could not believe this and I wanted to argue him out of it but I needed a novel to back up my faith and to show him and convince him, and I had not yet written any such novel.
~ from “Scott Fitzgerald”

[After Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby:]

I was trying to get him to write his stories as well as he could and not trick them to conform to any formula, as he had explained that he did.

“You’ve written a fine novel now,” I told him. “And you mustn’t write slop.”

“The novel isn’t selling,” he said. “I must write stories and they have to be stories that will sell.”

“Write the best story that you can and write it as straight as you can.”

“I”m going to.” he said.
from “Hawks Do Not Share”

Hm, and did he? Was Scott a sell-out? Or was he just doing what he needed to do to make a livelihood of his craft? It raises the question that hits me time and again—to what extent do writers need to write to the market if they ever want to be published? Just at the start of their careers to get a foot in the door? Throughout their careers to keep earning a living? Is there a happy medium? And could writing to the market harm your writing if it’s any less than your best? Questions I don’t feel the need to answer at this time. (But see my post “To Market, To Market” if you want to further chew on it.)

Moving on, the bits that I’m quoting here are from one of my latest reads, Hemingway’s posthumously published book, A Moveable Feast. The title, though chosen by his wife after his death, bears Hemingway’s stamp, taking liberties as he did with spelling and punctuation out of an innate grammatical logic of his own—in this case, the “ea” in “Moveable.” In any case, I used to read so much Hemingway in my teens and twenties and had neglected him for a while until recently reading Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife about his days in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife Hadley. This led to reading A Moveable Feast, his own accounts of what transpired in those ol’ Paris days, and then re-reading The Sun Also Rises, which is essentially autobiographical of a group trip at that time to Pamplona, Spain. It’s funny how we readers bring so much to a story’s meaning depending on our evolving frame of reference, because first reading that novel a decade or two ago was a different experience for me than reading it now as a fellow American expat in Europe—especially different after attending a bull fight in Madrid last year (and sobbing like an infant, I might add. I’m not going to run out and join PETA or anything, but I’ll say this: Never. Again.)

Anyway, that’s the side of literature I’ve been embracing again: being a reader. Nonetheless, as I won’t be entirely foregoing the trials and tribulations of being a writer (as implied in my last post), I thought I’d share some insights on writing Hemingway gave throughout his Paris memoirs—Paris being where he was still cutting his teeth on his pencil. I’ll break it up into separate posts as this is already getting long, but before I close up shop today, I’ll share this from Seán Hemingway’s introduction to the book. Regarding how A Moveable Feast was originally going to be titled The Early Eye and The Ear:

The eye, a term usually used in the connoisseurship of fine art, draws an interesting comparison between writing and painting […] Hemingway first developed his eye, his ability to discern the gold from the dross and turn his observations into prose, in Paris in the twenties. The ear, which we think of as more pertinent to musical composition, is clearly important to creative writing. Hemingway’s writing typically reads well when spoken aloud. When complete, his writing is so tight that every word is integral, like notes in a musical composition.

Hemingway’s writing isn’t for everyone. I, too, fluctuate in my response to it sometimes. But I’ll never question my overall love for his storytelling if only for For Whom the Bell Tolls. He brought something different to the table, and even if it isn’t the style other writers or readers want to embrace, the discipline and the principles he abided by were universally sound. Until next time, when we’ll hear more of what Ernest has to say!

PART II

PART III


When Not Being Published Doesn’t Feel Too Shabby…

First of all, I’ve got nothing to whinge about because 15 submissions in over a year is hardly attacking the publishing world with my A-game. God-willing that I can light the fire under my arse by this summer. I have to laugh, though, because right on the heels of my earlier post about the ever-so-lovely rejection letters I’d received from a couple small publishers (I mean it; they were nice!), I got this one from an agent:

“Thanks for sending your manuscript. Sorry it’s taken so long for me to get back to you. Unfortunately, I’m going to pass. It’s just not for me.”
*

And then soon after that, I received the same ol’, same ol’ form letter rejection from another small publisher. Not very phased, although I’ll admit I felt the brevity of that first one in my gut a bit, as it followed reading my manuscript in its entirety. I appreciate that this agent gave the time to doing that, honestly; I know these people are outrageously busy, and I truly hate to sound ungrateful, but I can never help but wonder…if you’ve surely articulated the thought in your own head as to why a manuscript’s “not for you,” wouldn’t typing even one sentence’s worth of specific feedback only take another few seconds? Or how about just a bulleted phrase or two (e.g., “pace too slow,” “main character not developed”) and we’ll call it a day?But whatever. I’ve also been reflecting on what happens once one is published. I just attended the London Book Fair last week, sitting in on sessions aimed at assorted industry folk across the board. Interestingly enough, the bulk of the author-focused ones were about self-publishing; it’s like they bypassed the actual creative process of writing a novel to just cut to the chase with live infomercials on e-books and how to sell yourself. Disappointing. Hats off, nonetheless, to Acorn Independent Press, which offers a self-publishing platform that’s seems almost as good as being traditionally published if you’ve got the dough to shell out—if not as good if they deem your manuscript good enough for their highest-end services. There’s a range of packages, but all provide professional copy editing/proofreading, cover design, distribution, and marketing to an extent; if you qualify for their elite imprint, they’ll roll out an entire publicity campaign on your behalf. It’s really a brilliant model run by well-connected professionals from the industry who were frustrated at seeing only a handful of books a year being chosen from hundreds of manuscripts submitted per week. And yet in giving other manuscripts a chance, they want to ensure it’s a high quality product hitting the market.

So that’s nice they give a helping hand at promotion, but it all just got me thinking about the tremendous burden of marketing placed on authors these days. Session after session at LBF, agents, publishers, and authors admitted that when you’re not the crème de la crème publishers know they’ll bank serious money on, mid-market authors just don’t get the support from traditional publishers like they might have back in the day; the budgets allocated to them sounds piss-poor. And of course self-publishing leaves you on your own unless you enlist professional help. Which leaves writers to hoof it even though we’re not necessarily equipped with the marketing savvy and resources we need.

And do I want to be? Book-signings/readings and other in-person events actually sound like a lot of fun, but from a social media perspective, working full-time tweeting and Facebook-updating and blogging and commenting on others’ blogs hoping they’ll comment on mine and obsessing over Amazon rankings and otherwise Me-Me-Me-ing all over the internet just doesn’t entice me at all. To be frank, I believe in my writing, but I can’t stomach the self-promotion it takes to get others to read it. So maybe I’m not cut out to be a published author. Maybe I don’t want to be. Maybe I’m only meant to write as an outlet of personal pleasure as well as means of honing the skill and insight I can offer as an editor. Maybe it’s enough helping others see their work in print.

Because I’ll tell ya, not being published myself certainly doesn’t feel too shabby when I receive an email like this (yesterday) from someone who is:

“I absolutely LOVE working with you. ❤ I have learned so much from you, not only about editing and the technical aspect of it, but about my own writing. The editing process is so much fun for me because of that; I try to learn and retain what you’ve fixed and how I might implement that in my next manuscript.”

Or others I’ve received:

“If I haven’t said so, I wanted to let you know how wonderful I think you are! Your points are always excellent and I’m amazed at how much you can catch each time you go through the book. That trait of being able to see beyond the story is amazing.”

“I don’t know if I told you, but after one of my critique partners finished reading [my novel] she made it a point to tell me she loved all the changes and how the final version turned out. The finished novel being what it is today has a lot to do with your incredible editing skills. So thanks!”

“I really feel that you did such a wonderful job with the editing. As I’ve been reading the finished version, it’s so polished and reads so well. I couldn’t be happier with the work that you and [the managing editor] have done.”

Hey, so maybe I’m not so bad at this self-promotion thing after all! Hardy-har… Well, after undergoing the incredibly humbling process that is writing and querying—as all you other writers well know—I do need to toot my own horn now and then, gol’ damn it. 😉

So I don’t know. There are a lot of us in this together, so I hope my sentiments here haven’t put anyone off who has been working so very hard to promote themselves. If you’ve got your work out there, you gotta do what you gotta do—hey, my commissions hinge on my authors peddling their books, so God speed! I’m only judging myself here, feeling out if I’m expending energy toward something that might not, in the end, suit me. It’s a personal matter, and yet I ask you:

Can you relate to what I’m talking about? Any similar frustrations or advice for overcoming such that you can share?


Writing What You Know – My Date with Daphne, Part IV

Alas, today we shall conclude our long walks on the beach with our gal Daphne. If you joined me for Parts III, and III of this series, I hope it’s been worth your while and that you’ll indulge me for one last post full of odds-n-ends on du Maurier’s corner of Cornwall. We’ve covered some key real-life settings of her novels Rebecca, The King’s General, The House on the Strand, and My Cousin Rachel, as well her novella The Birds, and today a few more tales have a chance to make their appearance, along with other sites significant to the area’s notable inhabitants.

To start, if we backtrack a bit from Menabilly and Gribbin Head to look out on St. Austell Bay, we’re amidst the stretch of coast where Daphne du Maurier walked her dogs daily:

This last one I have to throw in as my beloved “Goonies shot.” Tell me it doesn’t totally look like the end of the movie! Sing it, Cyndi: “Good enough…for me, it’s…good enough…for you…it’s good, good enough…”

The views over the bay from these cliffs are described in The House on the Strand and Rule Britannia.

Retracing our steps along the coastal path toward Polridmouth beach and beyond, we wind our way through more farmland (and might have to dodge some horned cattle like it’s Pamplona) until the town of Polruan comes into view on the hilltop as we approach the Fowey estuary. Before descending all the way into Fowey, though, let’s cut over to where St. Catherine’s Castle keeps watch over the sea:

This fortress was commissioned by King Henry VIII as part of his south coast defenses, and it was utilized yet again during Victorian times and WWII. It is here that Janet Coombe frequently climbs in du Maurier’s debut novel, The Loving Spirit, to look out to sea, watching the ships and seeking freedom—for it’s here that she feels “Nearer to something for which there was no name, escaping from the world and losing herself, mingling with things that have no reckoning of time, where there is no today and no tomorrow“…

*sigh* I confess that I myself tucked into a hidden, grassy spot here to sit and rest my weary feet as I, too, felt the freedom of seeing nothing but the water’s expanse, hearing nothing but the wind and waves. Ahhh…but it’s time to hit the trail again, so join me as I return to the path and descend into Fowey. At this point, it leads us right into Readymoney Cove—from the looks of the homes here, you might assume the name has something to do with the seeming affluence of this joint. But, actually, “readymoney” derives from a Cornish word meaning “pebbly ford”:

The cove was historically a landing place for goods shipped to Fowey and is where Lady Dona flees in Frenchman’s Creek. Directly inland from the cove is the Readymoney cottage where du Maurier lived with her children in the early 1940s prior to moving into the Rashleigh family’s Menabilly estate:

Isn’t it so cute? It was here that du Maurier wrote Hungry Hill. And if we venture into Fowey along the Esplanade that begins here, we’ll ultimately pass the lovely Fowey Hotel (a favorite of du Maurier’s with a stunning view from its tea garden) with the house of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (a Cambridge professor of English Literature known as “Q”) just across the street:

It was here that du Maurier established a good friendship with Q after Sunday tea, and, when Q passed away in 1944 having left his novel Castle Dor unfinished, his daughter asked du Maurier to complete it. The real Castle Dor is also located in this area around the River Fowey.

Before I conclude this literary journey of Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall, I would be remiss not acknowledge, with the utmost of reverence, two special sites also to be found in the vicinity of the coastal path we’ve followed. The first is located not too far from where we’re standing in Fowey—if you’ll kindly backtrack with me to Readymoney cove, up the hill toward St. Catherine’s Castle, and just up a little further, I’ll show you a little, easily-overlooked trail heading steeply uphill into the thick of the trees and brush here…bringing us to the quiet, rather hidden resting place of the Rashleigh family who once owned all this land and each house that du Maurier occupied here:

And if we walk further back along the coastal path, it’s not too far inland from the inlet of Polkerris (which we explored in Part II) where, behind a rusted gate and along a short wooded trail, we’ll chance upon Tregaminion Church. This was the Rashleigh family chapel (originally part of the Menabilly estate) and where Daphne du Maurier’s family held a private memorial to mark her passing in 1989:

As seems so fitting in light of how much we’ve seen this area meant to the author and her life’s work, du Maurier’s ashes were scattered on the cliffs near her Kilmarth home.

If you’re a writer, I hope that this series has inspired you to look around your own stomping grounds more closely in case you’ve taken them for granted as a valid setting for your stories. Your local environment has perhaps not struck you as enthralling or inspiring, but try digging into its history more deeply, looking at it through a different lens as you evaluate what about it makes it home in your heart (or what could make it a heaven or hell for someone else). You never know what story-worlds could be built upon the foundations of your real one.

Or, at the very least, hopefully I’ve inspired you to visit Cornwall. 😉

I owe a HUGE debt of gratitude to Encounter Cornwall for providing the self-guided walking tour that led me not only through this fascinating Cornish terrain, but the dynamic landscape of Daphne du Maurier’s imagination.

PART I

PART II

PART III


Writing What You Know – My Date with Daphne, Part III

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Ah, the famous first line that lured me into the Hitchcock film, then to the novel it originally came from and had me dreaming of going to Manderley…

Well, I got pretty darn close.

As you may already know from Part I and Part II of this series, I’m playing unofficial-cyber-tour guide through Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall this week. Yesterday, we hiked through the old marshland and priory of du Maurier’s novel The House on the Strand. Today, we’ll venture uphill and onward into Rebecca and The King’s General territory.

Our tour picks up from where we left off in Tywardreath. Hoist that backpack and make sure you have plenty of drinking water and something healthy to snack on as we climb this hill to venture into those in the distance…

Once we make it out there and follow the coastal path a ways, we’ll again pass beneath du Maurier’s Kilmarth home, from which all this gorgeous rolling farmland dips down into the sea.

For a while it appears it’ll just be the grass, dirt, livestock, sweet air, and sea keeping you company, until eventually you round a bend and lo and behold: Polkerris.

Polkerris goes by “Kerrith” in Rebecca and makes for a lovely little beach spot (and bathroom break because this is your last chance for a while…). The Rashleigh Inn there is named for the family that owned all this surrounding land as of the 16th century and who had originally utilized Polkerris to house old pilchard cellars and the fishing fleet. In The King’s General, this is the site of Richard Grenville’s escape to France on a boat, only to return ashore to be with Honor Harris.

Continuing south on the coastal path, some ups and downs and twists and turns will bring the Gribbin Head tower into site (built in 1832 for the safety of mariners). Standing below it, if you turn your back on the sea, you can take in the vast expanse of land surrounding Menabilly:

Now, what’s the big deal about Menabilly that I strained my eyes close to popping trying to find that large Elizabethan manor hiding in the trees? To start, Menabilly is the main Rashleigh family estate where du Maurier lived for about 25 years. She adored the home and raised her children there, but, alas, had only been able to lease the property, as the Rashleigh descendants never put it up for sale. I believe it wasn’t too long after du Maurier’s husband passed away that she likewise received the heart-breaking news she had to vacate Menabilly so the Rashleighs could reclaim it. It was then, in 1969, that du Maurier moved to nearby Kilmarth.

Walking from the Gribbin Head tower toward Menabilly and Polridmouth beach.

These fields and valleys between Gribbin Head and Menabilly feature in du Maurier’s Rebecca, The King’s General, and My Cousin Rachel. The farmland to the left is where du Maurier was inspired to write The Birds when she saw a flock of birds swarming around a farmer on his tractor. Menabilly itself inspired and featured in The King’s General as a Royalist stronghold during the 17th-century English Civil War. It was centuries later in 1824 that renovations commissioned by then-owner William Rashleigh uncovered a skeleton in Cavalier clothing of the Civil War period; it was the remains of a young man who had evidently been in hiding in a chamber at the base of a buttress. This is the skeleton I mentioned yesterday that’s buried in the Tywardreath churchyard (where there’s also a memorial to the real-life Honor Harris) and gave du Maurier the idea for her novel’s dramatic ending.

But also…Menabilly is Rebecca’s “Manderley“! And it’s back there somewhere in that cluster of trees, but I’ll be damned if I could find it; it’s just as concealed as Manderley is described in the book, though not nearly as large and extravagant as depicted in Hitchcock’s film:

What I could get right up close to, however, was further along the coastal path, which leads down to Polridmouth beach. It was at the boathouse here that the infamous Rebecca of the novel of same name carried on her infidelities and ultimately met her death (not a total spoiler there—you know she’s dead from the beginning). The shipwreck where Rebecca’s body was found was also in this bay:

Polridmouth beach (left) and Rebecca’s boathouse (right).

View of the bay from Polridmouth, with Gribbon Head in the distance.

An actual shipwreck that can be seen at Polridmouth at low tide.

Polridmouth is also the beach at which the Roundhead foot soldiers amass and await rescue in The King’s General. Alas, they are left at the mercy of locals, including those from the Cornish town of Fowey, where we’ll travel onward to in my next post.

In the meantime, sit for a spell at the beach, perhaps fix yourself a lovely picnic, forget the darkness of our dear Daphne’s tales, and just enjoy the breezes and waves. Ahhh…

PART I

PART II

PART IV


Writing What You Know – My Date with Daphne, Part II

If you were so kind as to join me yesterday for Part I of this “My Date with Daphne” series, lace up those hiking boots for a literal and literary journey through Daphne du Maurier’s old stomping grounds in Cornwall. Today we’re hitting the trail for her novel The House on the Strand.

Our tour begins in Tywardreath. Tywardreath—pronounced tower-dreth—derives from a Celtic word that originally meant “house on the sand”:

The Benedictine Priory of St. Andrew was founded in Tywardreath in the 12th century, and the parish church (pictured below) was dedicated in the 14th century. The church/priory accounts for much of The House on the Strand’s early description and is the stopping point for one of protagonist Dick Young’s drug-induced travels in time. While his consciousness is exploring the old priory back in the 14th century, his body is physically wandering the 20th-century churchyard, where the Vicar taps Dick on the shoulder and wakes him to the present.

This church also figures into du Maurier’s novel The King’s General—in the book, its graveyard serves as a cache for weapons during the Cornish revolt against Parliament, and it’s the actual burial site of a skeleton discovered in du Maurier’s Menabilly home, which in turn inspired The King’s General’s ending.

For those of you who haven’t read The House on the Strand, its main character Dick and his friend Professor Lane frequently take an experimental drug that causes the mind to time-travel, if not the body. It consistently takes the men about 600 years back in time, and their 14th-century wanderings lead them into awkward if not dangerous circumstances in 20th-century places. In addition to the churchyard, below are a couple more such locations:

The house on Polpey Lane where Dick (soaking wet from wandering through the marshes in his drug-induced state) awakes to a very confused modern-day postman.

Treesmill Farm, where Dick frequently returns trying to find the lovely 14th-century Isolda where she lives in the House on the Strand. Once an old ford when the original southern Cornish coastline extended much further inland, Dick crosses the water only to wake up in the middle of a modern-day road, where he’s almost hit by a car.

The train tracks just down the road from Treesmill where Professor Lane’s “time traveling” inadvertently leads him into the path of an approaching train.

The changing coastline and landscape over the centuries was a fascination for du Maurier, so The House on the Strand gave her ideal opportunity to research this and play up the contrast as her main character travels between two time periods. The locations below are examples of areas that were once underwater:

The old marshland has left behind a residual creek, which you cross when following the Saint’s Way path north out of Tywardreath.

Following the creek-side trail west toward Par leads you to the vicinity of the 14th-century shoreline where Dick Young witnesses Oliver Carminowe’s ambush and murder of Otto, Isolda’s love interest.

Par Beach, located just below Tywardreath and which was once part of a broad estuary. It since clogged up with silt from mining waste to create this barrier against the sea that helped reclaim much land from the seabed.

From Par Beach, we continue south along the coastal path to pass below Kilmarth, where Daphne du Maurier and her character Dick Young lived at the top of the hill. Dating back to the 14th century, the house’s original owner (Roger Kylmerth) and the occupant just prior to du Maurier (a scientist, who left behind a basement full of odd jars containing things like embryos) provided key inspiration for The House on the Strand. Roger is fictionalized as Dick’s “guide” through the past, and Professor Lane is the fictional present-day owner of house who allows his friend Dick to holiday there and whose experiments in the basement include the time-travel drug in question.

Kilmarth, as viewed from the road high above the coastal path.

Time to depart The House on the Strand and continue along the coastal path to the real-life influences of Daphne du Maurier’s other works…if you’ve stuck with me this far and are keen for more, see ya tomorrow!

PART I

PART III

PART IV


Writing What You Know – My Date with Daphne, Part I

Young Daphne du Maurier (about 1930) Русский: ...

Daphne du Maurier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, it’s April, and the Monkey has climbed back up its tree. The branches up here are budding, and I’m likewise hoping to turn a new leaf and make this spring a productive one of blogging and creative writing. Until now, travels, hosting, and craploads of editing have derailed me; I recently finished my first freelance edit and am presently juggling two simultaneous manuscripts for the publisher. Having to donate my eyes and brain to others’ work makes it difficult to write my own stuff, but it’s always a learning process and always satisfying to at least be working on something that’s getting published.

In any case, last August when I’d found myself in a similar predicament, I’d whisked myself away to Cornwall for a solitary writer’s retreat (“A Cage of One’s Own“). I found myself doing more hiking there than writing, but even that activity was steeped with literary inspiration. I was walking in the footsteps of British author Daphne du Maurier and her characters, you see, and learning a great deal about how a writer’s environment can effectively influence the settings of his/her stories. I’d promised way-back-when to blog about this and totally flaked out, but now I really have no excuse considering I just returned from an Easter holiday weekend spent at the very same location in the very same room-with-a-view! I brought my husband this time so he could also hike the trails and find much-needed respite after completing one hell of an intense graduate program. Thus, ’twas a time of needed togetherness, not for me to go all reclusive-artsy-fartsy and climb into my turret to write.

Yet the breezes off that dynamic coastal landscape still carried the sweet inspiration of Daphne, so, starting this week, I’ll finally share with you my summer photo-journey of the real-life settings featuring in so much of her work. du Maurier lived in three homes between Par and Fowey (Menabilly, Kilmarth, and Readymoney) that were not only the places where she wrote, but also where she wrote about. Menabilly and Kilmarth housed her characters as well, which I find really validating considering my own two manuscripts are set in actual apartments I’ve lived in. I at first viewed that as a rookie comfort-zone, writing-what-you-know in the extreme, but the fact is, my stories are set in these places because these places—their distinctive features and histories—are what initially inspired my stories. So, why not? Daphne did it.

I’ve admittedly only read three of du Maurier’s novels, but her writing resonates with me. Weaving dark tales with beautifully crafted language, she managed to write commercially appealing plots with literary merit—which, in my opinion, is the ideal to aim for. Of the novels I’ve read, my hands-down favorite is Rebecca, which I first experienced through Alfred Hitchcock’s faithful screen adaptation of same name (du Maurier’s novella The Birds was likewise adapted into another not-as-faithful Hitchcock film of same name). A few years ago, a random stroll through Daunt Books in London resulted in leaving with Jamaica Inn in my hands (which takes place at the actual inn in England’s Bodmin Moor), and my return to Daunt soon after for The House on the Strand is what ultimately led me to choose the wee village of Tywardreath (the book’s setting) for my Cornish holiday.

And Tywardreath is where we’ll begin tomorrow as we travel a bit of southern Cornwall to view the inspiration behind du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. Dress warm, pack light, and wear some comfortable walking shoes. 🙂

PART II

PART III

PART IV


%d bloggers like this: