Saturday, September 13, 2008

How to write a novel -- the Henning Mankell version

Today we had the Marino Family International Writers Workshop at Georgetown, and those of us fortunate enough to teach had the opportunity to guide groups of first-year students through a discussion of Swedish author Henning Mankell's Before the Frost. Mankell's 40 novels have won numerous awards, including two Swedish Crime Writers Academy Awards, the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger, and the Nils Holgersson Prize.

During his talk, he elucidated some of his thoughts on how to write a novel. In at least one aspect his observations echoed those of Sebastian Junger last year -- he believes in writing what you don't know, and he enjoys challenging himself to write about things he didn't previously understand.

This is a not-quite-word-for-word-but-close transcription of what he said. English is not his first language, although he communicates comfortably in it: "There must be something about something that I don't know. Then I start to plan the story [until] I know what it is going to be about. Then I do the real, real structure. Most of the work is done before I [actually sit down to] write the book. People ask, 'Before you write, do you know how the story will end?' And I ask, 'On Friday night when you go out with your friends and you say "I have a story to tell you," do you know how that story will end? Of course you do!'"

He cited two main requirements for what he considers meaningful storytelling. First is an ability "to tell the story for someone else than yourself." Second, he believes "you have to have your own language," rather than imitating other writers or even sounding precisely like your speaking self. He didn't mention authorial "voice," however, and I was pleased because it's an over-used term that has become entangled in disparate ideas.

Mankell is fascinated with actual language -- words, foreign languages (he speaks and reads five, including fluency in Portuguese that rivals his native Swedish), printed pages, the meaning of religious texts, and more. The notion that he would prescribe "your own language" for a fiction writer makes sense given his world view (he lives half the year in Mozambique), in which he views global illiteracy rates as one of the greatest tragedies.

When he discussed global illiteracy earlier at a faculty lunch, he also told us what he considers the most important book in the world, and now I think I agree with him. It's the A-B-Cs.

The book journal, part five: more about the file box

Enthusing about a file box may seem a bit like Steve Martin in The Jerk shouting as he runs up the driveway "The new phonebook is here!" But I'm really impressed with what I now call the Twyla Tharp Filing System (to go with the Alastair Fowler Writing Method) as a way to organize a book. Setting up the file folders is similar to dividing a book into chapters. Each of my red hanging files equals either one chapter or one portion of a chapter. The manila folders within each hanging file correspond to sub-sections of the book. If I decide to intellectually re-arrange the furniture, it's simple: just pick up and replace a file folder. The whole thing ends up as a 3-D representation of the book itself, something that my little brain understands much better than stacks of paper, or even paper put into other file systems.

When I write tidbits of the book (what I guess I'll have to call the Anne Lamott Picture-Frame Strategy, to go with the other two), I print them out, note their computer file names, and drop them in the box.

Okay, okay, I know that's what the computer is supposed to be for. But to my concrete-and-real-world-representation-loving eye, this works better, and I can tote it around the house like my special friend. It's sooooo cool.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The book journal, part four: how do you start writing, and when?

Knowing when and how to start writing a book is a skill acquired over time, honed through the actual writing of books. Every author is different. Some prefer to research the entire thing thoroughly before settling down to a draft. Others write things up as they go. There are many disparate methods, but this is a journal, so I'll tell you mine. It is a method developed in the writing of my first two books, and it is one I will refine and use for this third book.

Instead of starting the story chronologically, or making myself write preliminary matter before getting to the meat, I like to dive right in with a bit of the story that interests me and that I understand now. It doesn't matter what I don't yet know -- those things will come in time. What does matter is that I know one tiny piece of the thing, and that I feel good enough about it to start drafting it.

In graduate school I was initimated by the academic writing process, so I knocked on the door of a famous scholar named Alastair Fowler, who is now Regius Professor Emeritus of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He taught at the University of Edinburgh half the year and at the University of Virginia the other half. Lucky us. I don't know what came over me that day in 1990, or why I thought he of all people would help me given his international standing in Renaissance studies, nor do I know why I was so blunt that morning, but when he asked why I had come I blurted out "I don't know how to write a paper for graduate school." He laughed and motioned for me to come in and sit down. "I wish," he said, "that more of your colleagues would admit it." Then he gave me a 40-minute talk on getting your thoughts on paper without putting them in straight lines or any particular order (he preferred using oversized white paper that allowed you to write all over the sheet, be circular, etc.), not setting them in concrete too soon, but allowing your written musings to naturally coalesce into meaning. "Ideas are like sheep," he said, indicating that they want to wander and to a certain extent should, "but then you have to put a pen around them." He showed me his method of circling related ideas and gathering them into intellectual units that would eventually become paragraphs and chapters.

It worked so well that I yammered about it to all of my friends, and a number of them went traipsing to him. Eventually he began offering it as a talk for graduate students, and last year I noticed that he published a book with Oxford called How To Write. Some like to say it's for novices, but I laugh at that notion. Many of the most seasoned writing veterans keep about them the "novice mind," and accept instruction willingly from new sources. I think anyone should read it, no matter how well-published, because Dr. Fowler's insights are unlike any other.

NB: I have no idea if my blurted-out question eighteen years ago actually inspired this book, but I like to flatter myself and think so. At the very least I believe I contributed to it by helping blaze a path for other graduate students to his door.

So how do I start writing? Simple. I take the aspect of the story that interests me the most, and I map it out with the Alastair Fowler Writing Method, hearing his words all the while in my ear "Ideas are like sheep..." I don't pressure myself to make this written bit long or short -- it's just a bit. Some pages. I don't even worry about where it will go in the book. Instead I marshall the research for that tidbit, read it, think about it, map it (mindmaps are also good for this, and I used them often), and then in straightforward prose write it up. Those few pages are just a snippet, but they represent what I can see now. It's like Anne Lamott's concept of the one-inch picture frame from Bird By Bird. She says that her only job is writing down what she can see in that tiny space, nothing more.

So today I'm writing about the day my author went to prison. I don't even know how she got out, but it doesn't matter. I simply know that she went, and I'm sticking to the documented facts of the case (what we have from newspaper accounts and judicial records). I'm writing my one-inch picture frame, using Alastair Fowler's insights, and standing on the shoulders of these two giants.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The book journal, part three: choosing a press

What? I'm choosing a press now? But the book isn't even written yet! Shouldn't an author choose a press after writing the book?

Absolutely not; many successful authors aim for particular presses, and even specific editors, long before they begin to write. Here's a simple example: if I assign you the task of building a ship to sail to a destination, you would logically ask "Where are we going?" One takes a different sort of vessel to Belize than to the Arctic Circle. In many ways a book is a vessel -- it is a paper repository of thoughts expressed as words that somehow must find its way into the homes and hands of readers. Many never complete that journey, but happy is the ship builder whose literary vessel sails true. Choosing a publisher early makes sense in this analogy, because different slants and styles of books work at different publishers.

Typical authors, especially first-time academic authors, write whatever they want to write, and then go knocking on doors trying to find someone to publish it. Seasoned authors, however, are aware that presses have specific characteristics, and that the more one knows about presses and even individual editors, the better the chances that the book will communicate with those professionals, and through them to a precise audience. Also, many editors see themselves as partners in the shaping of the final book -- their jobs are intellectual, not clerical, and they are there to help you craft your work to fit in that artful collection known as their list.

How can you get to know presses? The simplest way to start is through their official self-representation in their catalogues. Publisher catalogues are often works of art in themselves (I collect attractive covers), and they reveal much about the identity of a press over time. If you want to see a lot of them at once, make friends with a bookseller and ask to view back catalogues. Many publishers have good web sites as well, and you can peruse these sites for more than a simple roster of authors and titles. You're searching for editorial identity -- what makes one house distinct from another. In the case of university presses this is often an extension of the university's own stature and image.

I have chosen a press, although for the purposes of this online journal I won't name it until/ unless my proposed book gets in. What I will say is that it is a press where (1)I have visited in person; (2) I have studied its catalogues going back ten years; (3) I have chosen a target editor based on her/his stated editorial interests and upon the output over time that I respect (this is so important -- you need to know what an editor has done -- look at the final product and read her or his books!); and (4) although it is a university press, it has a strong track record of books that have been successful in the big bookstores. Only a handful of university presses fit this last description.

Whether or not my book makes it in at this press, I am improving my chances simply by knowing where my boat is supposed to go. If I do get in, it will be partly because research and forethought pay off. If I don't get in, I have still improved the chances that my book will find a home elsewhere because I have crafted it to actually fit a stated and successful editorial need.

(Hint: It's not the press in the photograph!)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The book journal, part two: setting up a file box

In Chapter 5 of her 2003 book The Creative Habit, one of a handful of books that I re-read, award-winning dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp writes "Before you can think outside of the box, you have to start with a box." She then explains how each of her dances begins as a cardboard file box with a lid (the kind you buy at office supply stores and assemble yourself). "I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.... If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes." One Broadway show can fill as many as twelve boxes. She cites other artists such as Maurice Sendak who have different but also organized systems, but she loves hers as order among the disorder.

She puts certain iconic things in each box, for example blue index cards with her stated goals for the project. She tries to make these goals simple and clear, such as Tell a story or make dance pay for the dancers. For the show Movin' Out (for which she won a 2003 Tony), she included the first line of the Iliad, "Sing to me muse of the rage of Achilles." She adds copies of movies or music that inspire her, notebooks that she fills with thoughts about the show, even meaningful tchotchkes. "That's how a box is like soil to me. It's basic, earthy, elemental. It's home. It's what I can always go back to when I need to re-group and keep my bearings. Knowing that box is always there gives me the freedom to venture out, be bold, dare to fall flat on my face."

I'm not exactly Twyla Tharp (she just received the Kennedy Center lifetime achievement honor). But I grew up with the idea of her, and I've paid attention since age nine when I first learned her name. So in honor of her, I started a file box for this book I'm writing in public. Books are more paper-based than dances, so I put red hanging files in it, and manila file folders carefully labeled (using the Brother P-touch 1180 labeler) as I begin to grow the materials for this new book. I also included the first of what will probably be several file cards for goals, blue just like hers. Upon the first one I wrote clearly: Tell a story.

The book journal, part one: why write?

Over the next few months I'll publicly track my progress conceiving, pitching and writing the book that I need in order to justify my job. No one has said that publishing a third book is mandatory, but ongoing publishing is part of my personal value system. It has always been my firm belief that teachers should be current practitioners, and I bristle (or become outright hostile) when I hear ignoramuses spout the line "Those that can't, teach." Ahem. Some of the finest practitioners I know in various fields also teach, and do so wonderfully. Teaching is an honor, and it should be the fruit of a thriving career, not the refuge of a failing one. Now my goal is to publish a third book in order to justify this great privilege.

Thrashing about like this in public feels a bit odd, given that I don't even have a contract yet, but in another sense it is quite freeing. Public accountability is an important part of productivity, at least for me, and many of the authors who come to Booklab also say that they want and need someone or some thing to answer to. A university tenure or full-professor-promotion committee can function as that taskmaster. But university life can also become a "velvet coffin," for once you pass a certain level of acceptability (publishing a couple of books, getting tenure, receiving the acknowledgement of peers), it's easy to put it on autopilot for the next twenty years.

Career autopilot is not what Booklab, or Georgetown for that matter, has ever been about. A global university that aims not just for relevance but for essential status in the 21st century requires active, publishing scholars. Publishing in this model becomes not merely a tool for getting tenure (ack, what a low bar!), but a means of participating in public intellectual life in a powerful and life-changing way for author and audience. As Sartre pointed out in his 1947 essay "Why Write" -- an essay I've taught undergraduates at Georgetown so many times I can almost recite it by heart -- the author requires a reader in order to exist. "Since the creation can find its fulfillment only in reading, since the artist must entrust to another the job of carrying out what he has begun, since it is only through the consciousness of the reader that he can regard himself as essential to his work, all literary work is an appeal" (emphasis added). In this sense both writing and reading are bound inextricably together in what he terms "the greatest act of pure freedom."

So I will celebrate pure Sartrean freedom on this blog by mapping a new book project, writing a proposal, and sending it to publishers, all in public. Onward.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

How a book on plotting thrillers helps with scholarly nonfiction

Okay, here's a revelation (or at least it was for me and two other academic author friends who tried this). A good book on how to structure a plot can work wonders with the organization of your scholarly work. Why? Because any narrative -- whether fiction or nonfiction -- benefits from the application of some basic storytelling principles. Just because you're writing about something that really happened, and just because you've heavily end-noted it, doesn't give you a license to bore us silly, or for that matter to confuse us. A crucial element of what we know as readability has to do with your book's basic structure.

Chronology -- the "structure" that most academic authors initially use when outlining their books -- is almost never the best choice for a literary plan. How many dull biographies have begun with "So and so was born on a wind-swept day," yacketa, yacketa. And how many first chapters of books have begun with prehistoric humans and their cave paintings as the "background" to a subject that begins millennia later? (I have an odd habit of looking in the first chapters of various nonfiction books to see how many start in prehistoric times... quite a few!) Many of these same books save the information on the exciting, relevant cultural meaning of the person or phenomenon until the last chapter or even an epilogue, in the naieve belief that readers will actually make it that far. In those cases, if I'm editing the book or if the author asks my opinion, I usually pluck that material wriggling from its shell and plop it down as Chapter One. Much of the time, this simple re-structuring works.

But now I'll have even better ideas. The book that helped me and my two author-buddies so much is Plot and Structure by lawyer-turned-author James Scott Bell ("The suspense never rests"), better known for fast-paced thrillers with titles like Deadlock than anything having to do with university presses. So why am I gaga over his book in this context? Because more than any other that I've read on plot (and Lordy, have I struggled with a few), this one provides strategies you can actually use to make more sense of any story you're trying to tell. It solved a problem that I was having with a narrative about an 18th-century author, and it did so in such a simple and straightforward manner that I could not believe the challenge had vexed me for two years! Give the book a whirl, and post comments about it here.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Creating a list of works cited? Ask a librarian BEFORE you start!

I keep forgetting what an amazing resource professional reference librarians can be, but then life rises up to remind me.

Of course, being a good introvert, I started work on my new book alone in an upstairs office. Zzzzzzt! Shoulda asked a librarian. After spending hours compiling a cut-and-paste bibliography and remembering what a mess it was to advise a fellow faculty member on how to format hers for the University of Pennsylvania Press (they wanted Chicago style, and hers were all MLA-from-memory, many with typos), I started searching online for endnote software. I found several competitors, and began to get excited. The best ones not only format your notes in whatever professional style you request (changing formats at the touch of a finger), but they also collect the data from online research resources directly, without you having to re-type a thing. They can even use full-text resources online to provide you with archive .pdf copies of articles. Amazing.

Thinking I was hot stuff, I started to sign up for one of the most popular of these. Then a tiny voice inside my mind whispered "Have you asked a librarian yet? Maybe Georgetown's library professionals have already solved this problem." Hmmm. First I sent e-mail to my friend Jill, the Humanities Reference Librarian in Lauinger Library. Jill and I have known each other since 1997, but still I often forget to ask her questions in a professional capacity.

While waiting for Jill's reply, I fuzzily remembered that the library probably already had answers to questions like these listed. So I looked at the Research Help tab on its home page, and voila... a link to RefWorks that the university supports and has already signed up for. There's a free tutorial available either at the library or in my office (I'm going to the library as a fun excuse to take a break). By the time I found the answer, Jill had gotten back to me confirming that yes, that was the answer. Oh, why didn't I just contact Jill weeks ago?

Total time I spent futzing around with my own cut-and-paste bibliography: about seven hours spread out over several weeks.

Total time I spent search for endnote software online when I thought there must be a better way: about one hour earlier today.

Total time it took me to find the answer once I consulted the library's research resources: one minute, rendering my e-mail to Jill redundant/unnecessary.

Um, next time I'll check online to see what the library offers instead of trying to re-invent the wheel all alone, and if I don't find it, I'll ask a librarian.