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Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Year of . . .

We should all take heart in the books I've been seeing on the library's "New Nonfiction" shelf: people have written about the year they've "lived biblically," read the Oxford Unabridged, gone without buying anything made in China . . . The take-away message is that if these guys can snag a book contract, well, by gum, so can we. Now, if I could just find the thing to spend a year doing.

This week I read A Year Without "Made in China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy by Sara Bongiorni. On little more than a whim, Sara convinces her husband to go along with the idea of not buying anything made in China to see how difficult it is to do for a family of four (having two kids brings up the issue of Christmas a lot). The book chronicles the year's struggles with finding sunglasses, deciding how to classify a product that has a Chinese-made component, and other people's reactions to the boycott, etc.

I remain unperturbed about China's place in the world economy, but it struck me how important the reader's perception of the narrator is in these "year of" books. I'd rather not spend an entire book with a narrator I consider ho-hum. I've worked out a rough formula, along these lines:
  • If you like the narrator, the topic doesn't matter much.
  • If you're obsessed with the topic, you care only that the narrator is competent and credible.
  • If you don't care much about the topic, the narrator ought to be funny or brilliant or beyond ordinary in some way.
As writers, we have to recognize that not everyone is going to like us. If we tried to be universally liked, I expect the result would be blandly pleasant (as opposed to pleasantly bland). To write this "year of" sort of book, a person puts herself on the line. Way too much like high school, unfortunately. With any luck, however, we focus on an honest portrayal and take our chances with who likes us.

Nieman Suspends Narrative Conference

Ouch! Journalism's financial woes are spreading to peripheral organizations. Money troubles have led the Nieman Foundation to suspend its annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. According to the Boston Globe, the foundation will get 8 percent less in endowment payments for its next fiscal year, beginning July 1. The foundation is taking other cost-cutting measures as well, such as having fewer Nieman fellows and scaling back its Nieman Reports.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.
A. A. Milne

In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.
Carl Jung

Hang in there until the story makes sense to you--and your reader.
Lois Baron

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Oh, That Web Site We All Need

Here's a surprising statistic: According to the Make Information Pay seminar,* 5.3 percent of sales are made from awareness raised by an author’s Web site.

The Book Publicity Blog has a post and lots of excellent comments on why you should have a Web presence NOW (or no later than four months before your book comes out). My first impulse is to grouse about yet another thing to do. But, speaking for all the writers who are shy, miserable at small-talking and glad-handing, and otherwise antisocial, we should be relieved to market ourselves in the vast halls of the Internet where we are a step away from real people.

*To learn more about this seminar, see the article on the Southern Review of Books.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Gaping Void Art

The illustration posted on my blog is on an automatic feed. I don't choose each day what art to put up, but normally I find this artist witty. He draws these pieces on the back of business cards. Occasionally, I'm offended by his work, such as the art I find today ("Pussy"). I grant that some men may have this world view, but I hate that word pussy, even if it refers to cats. I'd block the feed, but--embarrassing but true--I'm afraid I won't figure out how to unblock it later.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Just Ask Yourself . . .

Raymond Obsfeld, in Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, advises
When you finish reading a scene, ask yourself, "So what?" Is this scene necessary?" Read the scenes before and after the one in question and ask yourself if it really matters. Does whatever happens deserve its own scene? Could the information be placed in one of the neighboring scenes?

category: craft

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

10 Mistakes to Avoid

The blog Holt Uncensored has useful list of 10 mistakes writers make a lot.

Pat Holt, the author, also has an interesting take on The Horse Boy's father being so media savvy--the story of a father who takes his autistic son to Mongolia for, um, horse therapy.

category: craft

Friday, May 01, 2009

The 4x6 Scene

The hallmark of creative nonfiction is the scene. Any fool journalist can give you anecdote. James V. Smith Jr. in The Writer's Little Helper advocates listing each scene in your story on a 4x6 index card. These cards can be shuffled around to decide how to you tell your story.

  • On each card, jot down what happens in the scene--action, players, and setting.
  • State the purpose of the scene: (1) move the story line ahead; (2) introduce or develop character(s); (3) introduce or worse a problem; (4) solve a problem; (5) set up later scenes; (6) create atmosphere or develop setting; or (7) present information or data.
  • Identify a singular element to highlight: action, conflict, imagery, invention, irony, dialogue, or suspense.
Later in the book, Smith explains the last bullet item, calling it the ACIIIDS test. It's his contention that each scene should contain all these elements, with one dominating.

Action--the level of movement or activity ("impending," "incidental," "overt," "urgent," "frenetic").
Conflict--the level of argument or contention ("tension" to "fatal").
Imagery--the level of visual cues ("suggested" to "determinate").
Invention--the level of creativity in a scene ("cheap trick," "blink-blink," wondrous smile," "expletive," "WOW!").
Irony--the level of wit, or sense of humor, in a scene (from "subtle" to "take your breath away").
Dialogue--the level of conversation ("internal" to "imbroglio").
Suspense--ranging from "invisible" to "nail-biter."