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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

There’s something artificial about any numbered list of “bests.” Criteria are fluid and subjective. You can cheat by allowing for “ties” and end up with more than the stated number. Or heck just make it the “50 best” say, rather than the 10 best or whatever. My own list of 10 all time favorite novels is constantly changing. I add new ones as I read them. I remember ones from the past that need to be included. But, for what it’s worth, here’s the list as it stands right now, in NO particular order.

flowers-cover

 

Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keys

night flight

 

Night Flight, Antoine de St. Exupéry

tree brooklin

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

 

 

 

 

color purple

 

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

 

age of innocence

 

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

 

The Circle

 

The Circle, Dave Eggers

 

 

The Wall 2

 

The Wall, John Hersey

 

grapes of wrath

 

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

 

Pere Goriot

 

Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac

 

 

cry beloved

 

Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton

 

 

 

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Ivan IlychHaving made all those comments encouraging each of us not to compare ourselves with other writers, I admit to being the worst offender. It seems to be human nature to do this, and maybe there’s not really much we can do to control it in ourselves. In “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” Tolstoy (that genius) writes “. . . the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, ‘it is he who is dead and not I.'” (Emphasis mine.)

DesiderataMy favorite quote in relation to making comparisons, however, is from “Desiderata,” Max Ehrmann’s classic poem. “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater or lesser persons than yourself.” In fact, nearly every line of this poem can be taken as advice for writers. It’s worth re-reading from that perspective, interpreting those lines as advice to authors. Try it.

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love machineThere is a famous incident about Jacqueline Susann. She was on an episode of The David Frost Show, which aired on July 16, 1969, promoting her novel The Love Machine. After a discussion of Susann’s appeal and business tactics, a critic, John Simon, spoke up. He demanded to know whether Susann was trying to write art or trash. Jackie did the best she could to counteract his apparently hostile challenge and the exchange became heated and snarling. What I wished then, and now, is that someone had brought up the obvious point. Those are not the only two choices and I refuse to be trapped into thinking they are. I refuse to accept what is a false dichotomy. John Simon, it seemed to me, was just trying to create a stir. Whether he intended to hurt Ms. Susann, I have no idea. But I would have wanted to ask him, “Okay, in which category do you place Kipling? Douglas Adams? Maeve Binchy? But mostly, why is there a need for categories at all?” compareVery few of us writers will end up in the same class as either, say, Toni Morrison on the one hand or [fill in the name of some trashy writer here] on the other. There’s a ton of great writing out there in between the extremes that will never win the Pulitzer or the Nobel but is still worthy and entertaining. My last post counseled all of us writers not to compare our output with others. Likewise we need to avoid denigrating the quality of our own work by wishfully comparing ourselves to Jane Austen or Philip Roth. I had a writer acquaintance a few years ago who had a very successful career writing romance novels. Yet she fell short of her own ambitions. “The novel I wish I could write is ord pepe 3Ordinary People [by Judith Guest].” Meanwhile, most of her friends would have killed to have had her level of success. Sure, we all want to be the best writers we can be. But writing quality, like quantity, is all on a continuum and we each have our place on it.

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compare1Occasionally my electric company sends me a charming, colorful letter informing me that I am using far, far more electricity than most of my neighbors who live in dwellings of a similar square footage to mine. The flyer includes “tips” on how I can use less. I can only surmise this is the same tactic employed by traffic control officers when they put those “your speed” signs along surface streets. Studies have shown that those signs do indeed cut down on speeding. But if this electric company letter is meant to shame me or increase my self-monitoring of electric use, and thereby help me cut back, it’s not working. We’re all for saving energy, but we’re already doing all we can, including the measures suggested by the flyer. But, consider this: I know my neighbors. Many of them are single. We, on the other hand, are a two person household. All of them work at jobs outside the home, so they’re gone all day during the week. A couple of them travel extensively, sometimes being away for a month at a time. Of course they are using less electricity at home than we are. If any of them retires, or adds a partner or other person to the household, their home usage will likely increase. Suddenly it will appear as though I have “improved,” relative to others, when in fact I haven’t changed a thing. Comparisons, with little or no context, mean nothing.

This is a long way of saying, when you are a writer, don’t compare yourself to anyone. I see messages frequently on the forums that I belong to about other people’s output. This one writes four books a year, or that one has published 80 stories in her career. My production seems piddling by comparison. But I don’t know the details of those writers’ lives, what circumstances they have, where or what they’ve published, or under what conditions.

On the other hand, I don’t want to compare myself to my other writer friends who are still struggling to publish their first piece, and maybe have been for years.

It’s like the old gravestone verse:

gravestone“Remember me as you pass by, As you are now so once was I, As I am now so you will be, Prepare for death and follow me.”

We’re all on the same path, just at different points along the way. You (and I) are ahead of some and behind others. Accept that. Then take the next step, whatever that may be for you. I’ll have further thoughts on this in my next post.

 

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subjectivityA couple of years ago I entered a short story contest. There were three anonymous judges. Since they were anonymous, I have no idea whether they were editors, fellow writers, agents, writing teachers or other. Even though this was a no-fee contest, each entrant still got a summary of the scores. I did not win. But it was the scores that were illuminating. One judge loved the story and gave it the highest marks on all criteria. Another judge felt the opposite and gave it all low marks on each point. The third judge graded the score right down the middle, halfway between excellent and not worth the paper it was printed on.

I told this to a writer friend of mine and he had the perfect response. “It just goes to show how subjective anyone’s response is to any piece of writing.” It didn’t mean it was a bad story. If it appealed strongly to one person, it will appeal strongly to some other editor down the road. So, as I said in the last post Turnaround, the only appropriate response is to take another look to see if it can be improved, then find another market and send it off.

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turnaround2I got another story back a few days ago. No surprise. I had sent it to a top market where there’s a ton of competition from big name authors. Nevertheless it’s always worth a try. (Well, almost always.) Within days of the rejection, I had that story out to another publication. This is one case where I know the advice from successful writers is spot on, and I act on it as conscientiously as I can. Know the markets, keep your best work circulating and keep good records of where stories have been. It’s about increasing your chances of acceptance. It’s about keeping hope alive.

 

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impatienceThe writing life has changed radically since the onset of electronic submissions. Mostly this is a good thing. No more trudging to the post office, weighing large envelopes so you don’t attach too much or too little postage, having to re-type manuscripts that come back damaged, or keeping a supply of various sized envelopes, for queries, manuscripts, and  SASE’s. Sure, there are a few markets that still accept submissions by mail, and even a few that still insist on them. But these are rare. Another big advantage of online submissions, is that in most cases, you get an instant acknowledgement of receipt. No more wondering if the package has gotten lost in the mail.  One thing, however, has not changed one whit: the waiting for a response, either an acceptance or a rejection, whether by mail or online. Some markets give a rough estimate of their response times. Others don’t. My biggest fault is impatience, and I start checking my virtual inbox within minutes after I click “send.” My impatience is out of control with other writing- related activities as well. Last week, I applied to join another online forum with restricted membership. Even with something that wouldn’t really affect my success as a writer, I checked my email obsessively until I got my acceptance one week later. I know I’m not the only one who suffers unnecessarily with raging impatience. For help, read Michael Bracken’s take on the whole impatience thing. Unless and until you can train yourself in serenity and detachment, his cure is the still the best one going.

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