Valentina Nesci

Author's details

Name: Valentina Nesci
Date registered: May 26, 2011
URL: http://www.valentinanesci.com

Biography

Editor in Chief Valentina is a writer, journalist and editor who enjoys nursing creative works to life. She graduated from Stanford's journalism Master of Arts in June 2011, after earning a B.A in Communication from the American University of Rome in 2010. At Stanford, she contributed to The Peninsula Press, the Bay Citizen and SFGate.com. If you are interested in learning more about Vale's work in Italy, your best bet is to look for her articles on Italian Notebook. If, instead, you love Human Resources, you can check out her blog at Procter & Gamble. In her free time, Vale likes to turn visions into reality, problems into opportunities and words into magic. She currently works at Uniiverse, a platform for collaborative living, where she is the City Manager of San Francisco. Contact Info: vnesci@write-a-holic.com

Latest posts

  1. Seven Years — September 10, 2012
  2. Writing, NaNo and Meditation Pratice — July 1, 2012
  3. Rage Against the NaNochine — November 8, 2011
  4. Interview With Luke Geraghty, author of Torrodil — November 8, 2011
  5. No Plot? No Problem! — October 31, 2011

Most commented posts

  1. Anatomy of a Writer – Part 1 — 10 comments
  2. No Plot? No Problem! — 9 comments
  3. Nobody Tells This To Beginners — 7 comments
  4. Enchantment — 5 comments
  5. Rage Against the NaNochine — 4 comments

Author's posts listings

Sep 10

Seven Years

“You are late and, therefore, you suck!” she greets him.
He chuckles. “And you are even  more late than me,” he observes. “And as sweet as always.”
She looks at him through squinting eyes. “And you are uglier than usual” she retorts.
He squints back. It’s their thing – the expression they always use when they are “pretend-pissed” at each other.

Then, a smile forms on their lips, and all mock-anger leaves their eyes. His eyebrows soften, his chin relaxes, and she can feel her own face loosening up, as their eyes become livelier… lighter. It’s almost exactly like it used to be, except the rest of their world feels so much heavier now, she thinks.

That’s when the first, innocent raindrop hits the bridge of her nose. She peers at the sky, her tiny eyebrows furrowed, her blue-green eyes turning grey. Fantastic, she tells herself. The one day she gets to go on a walk with him, and the weather sucks.

During the weeks before this moment, she had spent the better part of her evenings fantasizing about what seeing him again would have been like. She had envisioned the two of them lying on the grass after a long, satisfying walk, their faces turned towards the blue sky, their skins soaking up the sun, birds chirping all around and the faintest smell of jasmine flowers tickling their noses.

She had accepted that reality would have differed from her dreams somewhat, but not this drastically: the streets are quickly turning the color of cement, as the light gets sucked out of the sky, and the air around them becomes stickier and gloomier.

“It’s only a little rain” he reassures her, tugging at her skirt, gently. Just like that, she feels a tad less pessimistic, and the two of them start walking, in silence. He keeps his hands in his pockets. She keeps hers crossed over her chest.

“You are not going to be intimidated by a little rain, right?” he prods her. She ignores him, her eyes skeptically evaluating the large black sheet of clouds steadily mushrooming above their heads. The drizzle quickly turns into a light shower, tickling the surface of their skin.

“Do you know how to swim?” she asks.

“Do I have to remind you that I’m a certified scuba-diver?” he replies.

“Then perhaps you should have brought your gear…because you’ll need it,” she tells him, ominously.

Seconds later, it’s pouring.

“Rain in August!” he exclaims. Frankly, he’s almost as pissed as she is. He had been looking forward to this walk for months now, maybe years. And, now, the whole day is ruined.

“This is not rain,” she complains. “It’s a monsoon! It’s…. it’s like Fantozzi’s cloud – Bad luck literally follows us around!”

He looks at her closely, trying to detect early signs of disappointment in the almost invisible line on her forehead.

“What are you staring at?” She quickly places a hand over her forehead. Although she is only twenty-three, she feels old.

“Your boobs” he replies, shrugging his shoulders.

“Ha… ha… Very funny.” Out of nowhere, she covers his face with her hand and presses hard enough to make a point, while being careful not to hurt him. She then pinches his nose, sighs loudly and calls him “peste,” which is a cute way of saying that someone is being a pain in the ass. Seven years ago, she would have reacted in the exact same way, the only difference being that she wouldn’t have been self-conscious about wrinkles, but about a bad grade she got, or having a big pimple on her forehead. Even though he never understood why, he had missed her slightly overblown reactions, the “pestes” and the nose-pinching. A lot.

“We are getting drenched.” She observes, taking him back to the present moment.

“Should we take shelter inside a cinema or something?”

“You are wearing white pants, and I want to see your underwear, so no!” she replies, her eyes glittering with energy and a shade of malice, which he finds terribly sexy.

“I don’t care: it’s nothing you haven’t seen before,” he shrugs.

“Great then. Let’s go!” She grabs his hand and pulls him decisively towards the darkness, the rain now beating furiously on their faces and backs.

They are walking towards the center of Rome. More than walking, it feels like swimming. Water drips from their hair and eyelids, collecting in the creases of their clothes, soaking into his socks, and making her shirt stick to her body. Seven years, and her figure has retained the slenderness of youth. Her breasts have grown, however, he observes. (Or “matured,” as she puts it.)

He, instead, is heavier around the belly. “Long gone are the days in which I could eat junk food all day!” He complains. Then, he gives her a longing look, with those deep, almost black eyes of his. “I remember those days,” she says, placing her hand comfortably around his waist. Organically, perhaps unwittingly, their feet adjust to each other’s pace. Soon, they are moving in unison, warmth irradiating from their bodies, protecting them from the cold.

Apart from getting completely drenched, they don’t do anything special. One of her sandals breaks in the middle of an intersection, so he is “forced” to carry her, like a newly wed bride, down the crowded street of Cola di Rienzo. People stare at them and laugh openly, but that’s okay, because they are the first to find this situation hilarious.

At the store, the only sandal that fits her is a size 40 (which, in case you are not familiar with European sizes, is something that only one of Cinderella’s evil sisters would wear.) He teases her. She calls him “peste” again, pinches him, and threatens to kick his ass. They look at each other in that way, with lust, with brightness, with the faith that you have in someone who has loved you deeply, hungrily – not like the others.

But, this small episode aside, nothing transcendental happens.

——

They talk about light things:

“Only because a chandelier fell over my head once, that doesn’t mean che sono sfigato!” he says.

“What about the time you fell from the never-ending flight of stairs at Piazza del Popolo, crashing into a poor old lady?”

“I only almost hit her… I didn’t crash into her. And she wasn’t that old,” he protests.

“And the time you got hit by a taxi?” …

“That was not bad luck – just the consequence of living in Italy!”

“Fine, but the monsoon…” she says, pointing at the sky “this is bad luck! Pure sfiga!”

——

They talk about heavy things:

“I’m relieved that you are single, you know?” he confesses. “Every time you sent me a message or called, I was always terrified you were inviting me to your wedding.”

“Oh, he would have rather cut his balls than married me,” she says, dismissing the whole thing with a light wave of her hand, as if she were shooing a fly from under her nose.

She is acting tough, but he knows that, inside, she is hurting. Although he wants to stop, turn to her, take her by the shoulders, look straight into her eyes and state the simple truth – “the guy’s an idiot!” – he keeps his mouth shut. That’s what you do when you love someone: you don’t say anything bad about the people they love. Not even when it’s true. Especially if it’s true.

Instead, he changes the subject. “Seriously, I think about it sometimes. Wouldn’t it be funny if…” They are walking near St. Peter’s now. She is wearing her Cinderella’s evil sister’s shoes, he is carrying a box containing her old sandals, and, perhaps not so trivially, they are holding hands.

“If the two of us ended up getting married, you mean?” she says, gently squeezing his arm.

“Yeah.” He nods. And, simultaneously, a thought occurs to him: this is one of the things he likes about her – how she delicately brings unspoken dreams into the realm of the real, by simply having the courage to acknowledge them.

She doesn’t say anything, and, for some time, they walking in the most noisy of silences, overflowing with blaring horns, angry drivers cussing each other, and the annoyingly high-pitched voice of a tiny guide trying to sell her private tour of St. Peter to a group of clueless tourists who probably don’t understand a word of what she is saying.

Amidst the Roman chaos, the two of them are incredibly quiet, their souls incredibly close, their attention focused solely on the warmth of unspoken possibilities.

“It would be funny… but strange,” she says, finally.

“Why strange?” he asks, in a whisper. Honestly, he’s almost afraid of the answer.

“I mean, after all these years… “ she turns around, places her free hand on his shoulder, to stop him. “We were teenagers when we got together.” She makes sure to focus on his dark, deep eyes as she speaks to him. “Now we are adults. It would be insane if the first person we loved ended up being the person we finally end up with!”

“Not insane…more like a fairytale…” looking right back at her. He hopes that, if he looks hard enough, he will not just see her eyes, but know what she thinks, what she feels…

She holds his gaze for about a millisecond, then looks away. He can see she is frowning.

“What’s wrong with fairytales?”

Her usually blue-green eyes, now still greyish, look beyond him now, as if they were piercing through his body.

“Nothing” she finally brings herself to say.

Maybe, she reflects, there isn’t anything wrong with fairytales. After all, the time they are spending together has a surreal quality to it – almost fairytale-like, if you wanted to be cheesy about it.

She pulls his t-shirt forward gently and, just like that, they resume their walk.

——

They buy an umbrella.

Photographer: Krista Guenin

——

Then, capriciously, the rain stops.

——

For the rest of the day, it’s as though nothing has ever changed. She leans on his shoulder while they watch a movie; he whispers sweet things to her ear. She gets tipsy on raindrops of wine; he offers to carry her purse. Simple things, really, ordinary gestures of affection that have been exchanged between billions of other people already, for hundreds of years. But, when they hug goodbye underneath the stairs that lead to her house, he tells her: “I am here for you.”

Just like that, her tough façade breaks, and she starts crying.

Her reaction is not out of the ordinary. After all, she has had a rough year. No, the extraordinary thing is that she feels comfortable enough to cry in front of him because, when he tells her that he is there for her, he means it.

With him, she doesn’t only feel safe: she is safe.

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Jul 01

Writing, NaNo and Meditation Pratice

Last year, I wrote a post about National Novel Writing Month, expressing my reservations as to whether focusing on quantity at the expense of quality  – hence the slogan: “No Plot? No Problem!” – could ever be a good thing.

Then, just recently, I received a comment that posed a very interesting question: “But anyways, isn’t a bunch of words strung together in an over-all messy story better than no story at all?”

If you are interested in my opinion, you can read my reply to that comment. But, today, I want to go deeper than that, and answer the question: Why is it that NaNo became so popular in the first place?

I think there are plenty of reasons, and some of them are good. For instance, NaNo creates a sense of community between writers: it makes us feel closer, and gives us the warm feeling that “we are all in this together.” Additionally, having a deadline and a goal pushes us to write even when we don’t feel “inspired,” or when we would rather be doing something else. Basically, it ensures that we get something done, and something is better than nothing, right?

However, I also suspect that there are other, less benign reasons for participating in NaNo, the most dangerous of which is that NaNo feeds off of our modern belief that we should do things quickly, that the goal – getting to the 50,000 word-limit at the end of the month – is a lot more important than the result – writing a novel – or the process – what happens to you as you go through all of the steps of writing that novel.

Thus, writing becomes just another thing we check off our to-do-list: “Writing 1,666 words for the day…check!” This attitude easily extends to all other aspects of life, even some that, like writing, should be more about the process than about the final result. “Earning degree…check!”… “Finding girlfriend…check!”

Photographer: Sean Kelly

The most ironically dramatic example of this was given by Bhuddist teacher Gil Fronsdal, who once told a story in which the Dalai Lama was talking to a large audience, and someone asked him a question. The question was: “What is the fastest way of becoming enlightened?” The Dalai Lama stopped for a long time… was just really silent,” said Gil.  “And then, apparently, tears went down his cheeks. […] At some point, he said something about how sad it was: this drive, this ambition, this greed, to get results as fast as possible.”

We can all agree that someone who starts practicing meditation with the main purpose of becoming enlightened as quickly as possible is probably very far more obtaining enlightenment. But what does this have to do with writing? The thing is, I am starting to learn that meditation and writing are very similar. Both can be painfully slow, both should be practiced regularly, and both can make you a truly happier human being – provided that you pay more attention to the process than to the end result.

If we meditate with the main purpose of becoming enlightened, we will be immensely frustrated whenever we sit down to do our however minutes of breathing, and come out with no further understanding of anything. In the same way, if our purpose as writers is reaching those 50,000 words, or publishing a novel, or becoming the next Stephen King, writing will never be a truly enjoyable activity for us.

We will not be able to get peacefully engrossed in the act of writing itself because we will always have our goal in mind, and our preoccupation with reaching that goal or the fear of not being able to attain it will take away from our ability to become aware of how the simple act of writing can enrich our lives.

Instead, if we meditate or write without a goal, we can do it calmly, without expectations, fear or time constraints.

How would writing without a goal be?

Everyone probably has their own answer to this question, and you are welcome to leave yours in the comments. I, for one, know that I would enjoy it more. I would write exactly what I want to write, without worrying about whether someone would be interested in publishing it or reading it. I would also write what is meaningful to me so that, if I feel the need to let go of my novel for a day or two, and write a short story that popped into my mind, I can, without experiencing the pang of guilt that sometimes accompanies such decisions. Most importantly, I would write without fear or rush, putting exactly as much time as I need, not worrying if I have to re-write the same page 2, 10, or twenty times, but resisting the urge to rewrite it twenty-one times. For once, I would not let myself be guided by the fear that what I write “will never be good enough,” because I don’t need it to be good enough to attain something. I just need it to be.

Writing without a goal can be difficult and I can’t promise that it will allow you to become a famous writer, or enable you to write 50,000 words a month. Nevertheless, I’m sure that you will still be able to write something, and that the final product you end up with will be more than  “a bunch of words strung together in an over-all messy story.”

 

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Nov 08

Rage Against the NaNochine

At its best, NaNo will make you fall in love with writing, help you unlock your hidden talent, and challenge you, making you a better, more daring and confident storyteller.

It can also, however, be a ticket straight to the land of NaWriWhoNoSu and, although the word “NaNo” is in there somewhere, you don’t want to enter the club of Narcissistic Writers Whose Novels Suck. Believe me, it’s already way too crowded.

Alternatively, if narcissism isn’t in your nature, NaNo could simply ensure that you become – or remain – a bad writer. Nothing wrong with that, provided you keep the unwieldy, blabbering creation to yourself…

If you would like to avoid falling into one of the previous two categories, but you still want to participate in NaNo, I offer you the following observations to ponder, possibly disagree with, but at least consider.

 

Observations To Ponder, Possibly Disagree With, but At Least Consider

 

1. Crash Diets Always Fail

Photographer: Helga Weber

If you think that drinking lemonade for 3 weeks will help you lose the 50 pounds you put on by stuffing your mouth with Doritos and S’Mores for the past 3 years… you are wrong. And you know that.

Similarly, beating the keyboard like a madman on crack for the next x days (where x = however many days you’ve got until the end of NaNo) is probably not the best shot you can take at becoming a good writer.

And yet, we always fall for these easy fixes: you lose 10 pounds in 5 days, or write your first 10,000 words, and you feel an enormous sense of accomplishment. Soon enough, you reach your 50-pound goal, or the 50,000-word limit. You tell yourself: I can be skinny! I can be a writer! I can do anything!

Then, basking in the glow of success, you inevitably start to drift off course.  You find yourself munching on potato chips while watching Dancing With The Stars, and tell yourself that “I’m only going to eat a couple;” or you neglect your writing for a week, and reassure yourself that “I’m going to start writing again next week. I deserve a break…”

Two months later, you have gained 60 pounds, and your word count has plateaued to absolute zero.

If you ask yourself what went wrong and how to prevent it, know that…

 

2. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

And it stinks.

One of my greatest friends used to say, “Only the weak tread the easy paths.” The problem is, we are all a little weak, and we all sometimes need a little encouragement. And, lo and behold, here comes SuperNaNo, pledging his support from the cyber clouds, telling us that he will love our novels unconditionally, that quality doesn’t matter, that we only need to reach the 50,000 goal and we’ll all be winners.

To me, NaNo talk is disconcertingly reminiscent of the Italian saying, “Ogni scarafone e’ bello a mamma sua,” meaning: every cockroach looks beautiful to his own mother. But – unless your are Gil Grissom from CSI – cockroaches probably don’t seem particularly appealing to you. Similarly, if you give birth to a novel that is the literary equivalent of a cockroach, you can’t expect anyone but your parents -and maybe your partner, if his/her senses are muddled enough by love – to think it’s worth reading.

How can you avoid the Cockroach Effect? (which. by the way, is almost as misleading as the Cheerleader Effect). Easy! By reconsidering the importance of…

 

3. NaStoPlaMo

The inventor of National Story Planning Month very appropriately writes that no one forces you  “to suddenly leap out of bed on November 1st, crack open your head with an ice ax, and let the story come pouring from the cleft.” That would not only be painful – and, in all likelihood, lethal – but might very well lead to a meandering work with inconsequential characters and an “open-ended” conclusion.

NaNo believers often argue that there are some successful authors who have completed their novels in 30 days or less, and I don’t dare contradict them, because they are right. However, even the article 6 Famous Novels Penned in Under a Month stated that the writers had not mechanically sat in front of a computer come November 1st. According to the piece, Kerouac had taken detailed notes for seven years before sitting down to write On the Road, and some, like Elizabeth Jenkins, were writing about an event that  had so deeply affected them that they had felt the urge to write about it immediately. Additionally, many of the authors on the list, such as Fyodor Dostoevski, were experienced storytellers, so writing already came naturally to them.

Hence, if you are not an experienced writer and you have no particular desire to rewrite 90% of your novel later, it might be a good idea to plan ahead. Use the months before NaNo to think about a topic, research, write an outline, cover the corner of your notebooks with nonsensical scribbles, go through the Insanity Workout series…. and, in general, do whatever it takes to put yourself in the right frame of mind to write.

 

4. Writing and Shitting Are Not The Same

I know. They bear many similarities, and it’s easy to get confused. A writer can get constipated, or have diarrhea (there’s even a term for it, it’s called hypergraphia) and writing can hurt just as much as the other activity. One of my favorite singer/songwriters, Daniele Silvestri, even admitted that his best ideas come while sitting on the John, and I know lots of artists who second that, although, sadly, I’m not among the “lucky few.”

Nevertheless, unleashing your innermost, darkest and smelliest secrets in an endless stream of consciousness of autobiographical reverie is no novel (unless it’s Incubus, by Giuseppe Berto. But then again, he is Italian, and Italians like to read unreadable things. It makes us feel cultured.)

What you need to do instead is to write whenever you genuinely have something you want to say… and stop whenever you find yourself just twaddling on, completely out of ideas but unwilling to quit until you reach the 1,666 daily quota dictated by NaNo. (And, by the way, isn’t it a little disquieting that the number 666 is also the Devil’s?). This brings me to my next point:

 

5. Writer’s Block Is Your Friend (Sometimes)

The internet is replete with articles on how to combat the nemesis of writers, that unnameable force that mysteriously draws us towards reading other people’s work, listening to NPR, cleaning our roommate’s dirty dishes, taking our imaginary dog out for a walk…. basically, engaging in any activity that will forestall the inevitable: the moment in which groggy-eyed, sleep-deprived us will be confronted with – and almost blinded by  – the endless white of the page.

But, at least for me, procrastination and writer’s block have often proved useful. That’s because the hesitation to write is different from the Absolute Paralysis and Abject Terror to write. We all agree that the latter is bad, and should be fought bravely, through yoga lessons that may or may not leave you physically paralyzed, or by sifting through the myriad articles dispensing advice on how to combat writer’s block.

Writer’s hesitation, however, should not be fought against, because it can be greatly beneficial to your novel. The reason is that the hesitation to write is an instinct of self-preservation that takes hold of us when we have depleted our creative reservoir; when we find ourselves writing disturbingly repetitious content, Shining-style. Too Much Work and No Play don’t only make Jack a Dull Boy (and a killer), they also make him a poor writer.

If you find yourself needing a break, don’t panic.  Go for a walk, set the project aside to work on something new, spend time with friends, read and, most importantly, have a life! We all know that, although you don’t need to be a firefighter or a drug addict to write an engaging story, it’s also true that the world can be an invaluable source of inspiration. I thereby invite you to consider ol’ Chuck Palahniuk’s advice: “Have your adventures, make your mistakes, and choose your friends poorly — all these make for great stories.”

As for me:

During my most recent “period of hesitation,” I read Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, collecting invaluable little nuggets, such as the fact that listening to audiotapes of a medical encyclopedia is not the best way to learn French.  I also cooked parmigiana for all my house-mates, and even the ones who didn’t like eggplants – the main ingredient – still enjoyed it a lot! Lastly, I had the “brilliant” idea of cutting the hair of the Assistant Editor of this website, while cunningly omitting the fact that none of my “ample” hair-cutting experience had involved the use of actual scissors… Anyway, after a few minutes of utter despair, he did mention that he “digs this hair-cut,” so it mustn’t have been all that bad! You can admire the Before and After pics below.

Silly prattle aside, I have actually never stopped writing – I couldn’t! But I have focused on other endeavors. I have edited other people’s work, brainstormed for a co-authored piece entitled Invisible Barriers, written two rambling posts for this site, and simply let my novel further develop in my subconscious. It seems like I haven’t accomplished much in the way of completing my book, but if I can sit down tomorrow and surprise myself by noticing new connections I hadn’t seen before, coming out with interesting plot twists and completing another decent 10,000 words before my next creative burnout,  my break will have served its purpose.

 

7. NaTaTheMeMo

Although the creator of NaNo cogently said in an interview that you can’t edit a blank page, it’s also true that you can’t not edit a first draft. Neglecting this key process will send editors crawling in a corner, while beating their heads against their laptops and wishing they had listened to their parents, and studied law. Thus, even if you have rushed through to the finish line, and even if you hate editors, you should still set some months aside to Tackle The Mess that is your NaNovel.

Why put yourself through such torture, you ask me?

To which I must ask you: why did you put yourself through so much trouble writing a novel in only a month, then?

If the point of NaNo is to unleash the writer in you, then you can’t just stop once the game gets rough. Otherwise, you’ll become a NaNo addict, churning out new black-on-white disasters each year, and never actually finishing any one project. Most importantly, don’t be discouraged if your first manuscript is far from perfect. As author Luke Geragthy explains in The Madness that is Editing, revisiting your novel, although not necessarily a fun process, can greatly enhance it.

(On the other hand, if the cliches in your book make The Bold and The Beautiful pale in comparison, and your plot is as insubstantial as that of Crossroads of Twilight, Wheel of Time, Book 10 – FYI, You can read reviews  of the book here – you should probably put your entire novel on a USB stick and smash it to smithereens with a hammer.)

 

8. NaNoAno – Nanoer’s Anonymous

I’ve done some research online, and have made a troubling discovery: many writers participate in NaNo each year, “win” it, and later righteously decide that their novels are utterly unpublishable. Although I appreciate the fact that they have the common sense to not flood already exasperated publishers with the sketches of a novel come December 1st, it saddens me to think that those novels who do have potential get relegated to a corner of one’s hard-drive, incapable of fighting against the allure of a New Novel, a New NaNo, a New possibility to complete another 50,000-word first draft the following year.

If you have participated in NaNo a couple of times and nothing good has come out of it, chances are that the NaNo method simply doesn’t work for you. Don’t give up on writing, but don’t continue going down an unsuccessful road, quieting your fear of incompetence with the intoxicating excitement that takes hold of you every time you reach the 50,000-word finish line. Too many writers go back to NaNo each year, erroneously believing that, if your liver doesn’t explode and your teeth don’t fall out, you are not self-destructing. However, by trying to impose a formulaic approach to writing on yourself, instead of finding the rhythm and method that work best for you, you are not only self-destructing: you are also throwing your dream of becoming a published writer out the window.

 

The Solution?

Rage Against The NaNochine!

No, I don’t want you to crash the NaNo site with a deadly computer bug (though that could be fun, I guess), to stop donating your money to a hopefully well-meaning Chris Baty, or even to abstain from participating.

But I do want you to stop writing on NaNo’s terms. The objective of writing a novel should not be to win 50% off of Scrivener (although I admit that  when I saw that offer on NaNo’s website,  participating suddenly started to feel mysteriously attractive.)

However, don’t let shiny offers sneakily take away  the joy of writing for the sake of sharing a part of  yourself with the rest of the world. You should write on your terms, with the aim of developing a habit of dedicating a sizable chunk of your life to words, instead of  limiting yourself to a November tour-de-force.  If you try NaNo once and you end up with a wonderful novel…well, then do it every year, you have my blessing! But, if you discover that you do your best work when you write 500 words a day, or when you write 2,000 and take a break once in a while, then don’t worry about NaNo. Most importantly, if you participate in NaNo and lose, don’t let that bring you down. You might have 10,000 words of a promising novel there, and you don’t want to leave it collecting dust inside your old computer, hidden shamefully away in a musty garage. Know that the only losers are the ones who give up after NaNo, the ones who don’t put in the work to turn however many words they have into a readable novel.

And the winners? Well, the real winners are those who can go through the seemingly endless revision process, sift through a pile of rejection letters, finally get a contract or self publish something they can be truly proud of, and touch other people with carefully chosen words, thought-out plots and unforgettable characters… however long it takes them to do so.

 

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Nov 08

Interview With Luke Geraghty, author of Torrodil

Luke Geraghty, author of Torrodil

Luke Geraghty is the author of Torrodil, a fantasy novel about Anna Gray, an ordinary woman who is the unwitting repository of an extraordinary gift. To learn more about Torrodil, Anna’s terrible boss and how her adventure into the wild began, you can take a peek at the first chapter of the book here. If you want to learn more about Torrodil‘s author, read on. You will discover the strategies Luke employed to write his novel and publish it, how he  managed to survive the grueling editing process, and more. We hope the story of a young talented author will inspire you to keep writing, and to have faith in the power of your words.

Interview:

Valentina Nesci: Writing a first novel can be very tough. When you have never accomplished such a feat before, you need to figure out how to do so by trial and error. Could you tell us about some of the things you learned while working on your first book?

Luke Geraghty: When I started writing Torrodil in September 2010, I don’t think it crossed my mind that I was doing something new. I assumed that, since I had churned out essays for the past eight years, I could churn out a book. I thought to myself, This is what writers do. They sit at a computer typing frantically with papers all over the floor. They arrive at the end, print off the pages, and send them through the wardrobe to a mystical world where books are bound and editors never run out of red ink.

Let me say this loud and clear: you cannot churn out a book. You will go to bed at night thinking you are the next Michael Ondaatje and wake up to discover prose so laughable your ribs hurt for the next day and a half.

But always continue writing. I try to write a thousand words a day, often fail, but go to bed knowing I’ve written more than if I hadn’t set myself a target. Write and allow yourself time to read and refine.

VN: Going off of the last question: writers often disagree on what the best way to write a novel is. Some, like Stephen King or J.R.R. Tolkien, write without necessarily knowing where they are going – they let the story unwind itself at their fingertips. However, other writers like to concoct elaborate “Outlines” of their novels, and don’t leave a lot of room for their creativity to go “unchecked.” How did you go about writing Torrodil? Did you create an outline of the book, or did you just write, and let the book create itself?

LG: Torrodil was entirely spontaneous. I did keep a notebook to write thoughts and one-line zingers as I went along, but other than that I was at the computer, writing. With a fantasy novel, the difficulty is not using your imagination but reigning it in; so, there were definitely times when not having an outline meant I was riding high on wild tangents that ultimately lead to nowhere.

That said, when I first finished I did go back to edit the book. Though I edit as I go along – as opposed to writers who just plough ahead – I was a different writer by the end of the book. Sometimes that meant I disagreed with the brevity of a paragraph. Other times it meant writing entirely new scenes. I was very critical of myself.

VN: Many writers say they always knew they wanted to be writers. They were the kids who loved spending days with their noses stuck in the pages of a book while everyone else was out to play. Where you one of those kids, too? When did you begin to realize that you loved words enough to fill an entire novel with them?

LG: I know, that seems to be the thing, doesn’t it (on writers knowing they had to write from an early age)?

Honestly, I had no clue. I wasn’t a massive reader, but I was good at reading and wouldn’t shun the notion of delving into a new book. Book fairs sometimes came to my primary school and I would tug at my mum until she agreed to buy me a new Goosebumps. I have to say I was one of those kids exploring, running around, riding my bike, and committing random acts of violence on street corners.

Kidding!

No, I didn’t appreciate words until I started writing essays in high school. My English teachers got successfully better over the years while my Math teachers got worse, so I got pulled into writing and learning the basics: structure, punctuation, style.

In college (equivalent to the final two years of high school in America), every one of my A-Levels was essay-based. I discovered that I loved academic writing. I lived and breathed it.

I moved on to university, got a First in Linguistics, moved into work and had a writing drought. I started writing Torrodil because I physically had to write.

VN: In my humble opinion, fantasy novels are the hardest to write, because they require you to create an entire world, and truly stretch the limit of your imagination. Why did you decide to write a fantasy novel? Did you already have a world in mind?

LG: I’m not a big planner, as you might be able to tell by now. I didn’t decide to write fantasy. I had written other things before Torrodil and they didn’t pan out because I wasn’t invested in the characters.

When I started writing Torrodil, I had no idea of its length. I had this idea of a girl, and I wrote in her perspective, and I liked her. That was it. I wanted to know where she was going, and to do that I needed to have a world for her. Suddenly, I would be walking down the street, a list of groceries in my hand, and a quirky-sounding town on a sign would catch my eye and I’d think, That would be the perfect name for my farm in Chapter 4.

Anna Gray pulled me into this novel. She became real to me.

VN: The female characters in your story are very realistic, and it is easy to empathize with them. How did you go about trying to write in the female perspective? Are there any authors that inspired you? Any people you modeled your characters on?

LG: I appreciate that.

For me, Anna was a character. I didn’t define her by gender. I’m not a fan of female-driven YA novels in a post-Twilight world because too many weigh down their books with an almost primeval sense of lust, so I think I strived to focus on more gender-neutral issues: family, friendship, adventure, loss. There’s romance, sure, but I think there’s a lot more to a woman than who she wants to shack up with.

Most of my female characters aren’t based on anyone in particular. Mary Munslow is loosely inspired by a boss from Hell. She didn’t want to do her job, I didn’t want to do her job, we argued, she ratted me out to a higher-up, and I got fired in a blaze of glory. It was your typical Tuesday afternoon.

VN: Once a writer finishes working on his/her first draft, the editing process begins. You talked a little bit about how you edited Torrodil in the article The Madness That Is Editing. Could you expand on this by telling us what you learned about editing, which strategies worked for you, and what – if anything – you would try to do differently if you were to write another book?

LG: I was very brutal with Torrodil. I finished what I’d call my first draft in January 2010, and I spent the next three months editing. With hindsight, I can safely say it was necessary because that first draft was a rough mess.

My advice is: be careful what you kill. Writing and reading are very subjective. You wake up one morning, you read, your book sounds like a piece of crap, and you consign a paragraph or two to the wastes of oblivion. Maybe it’s the time of day. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep from the night before because you’ve been worrying for two weeks straight about a presentation you have to give tomorrow.

I’m writing a psychological thriller entitled The Flood right now and my editing experience has been a lot more relaxed because I’ve stopped trying to make every paragraph a lyrical masterpiece. You have to accept that it’s the sum of your parts, the breadth and scope of your book, that makes an impact on the reader. Edit, yes, but move on.

VN: One of the toughest things writers have to handle are rejection letters. You work so much on your novel that having it ripped apart or thrown away by others can hurt deeply. How did you handle rejection letters? What advice would you give to fledgling writers who are terrified of having their work torn apart by “invisible” editors?

LG: I sympathize with any newbie author. I have enough rejection letters filed away to wallpaper a large bedroom, and sometimes I get them out to ponder possible executions (fire? rain? cattle stampede?).

It didn’t help that the first rejection I received was both polite and addressed to me personally. You know in those moments if you have an ego. If you don’t have one, you probably dismiss the first rejection, toss it away. Otherwise you cradle it, keep it under your pillow, mope around the house on weekends screaming bloody murder and asking, ‘Why me? Was it my pitch? The sample chapters? Synopsis?’ Generally, you get form rejections, which means it’s a ‘no’ but they’re not going to give you any insight as to why – mildly traumatic at best. Agents have gotten very good at sending would-be authors seemingly personalized rejections, but Google is your best friend, and truthfully that cherished personalized rejection has likely been to every Tom, Dick and Harry from Edinburgh to Beijing.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t regret sending my self-published book to agents. They’re not sharks. They’re people trying to do a job and sadly not all books can make it. I learned a lot about Torrodil by communicating with them, and ultimately I developed a much thicker skin in the process. Every fledgling writer should travel the traditional publishing road. I promise you that even if it doesn’t pan out you’ll still gain a lot of invaluable tools.

VN: You chose to publish your book online. What brought you to this decision, and what are the pros and cons of publishing a book this way? If you wrote another novel, would you try to publish it through the conventional route, or would you continue to self-publish your work through the internet?

LG: It was a natural progression for me. We’re living in an age of digital media, booming eBook sales, and self-published millionaires like Amanda Hocking. It’s not a bad time to be an indie writer. My next book The Flood will definitely be self-published.

The biggest con is you have to do everything yourself. You are the writer, but beautiful words don’t sell themselves. You need a great cover, decent reviews, and a lot of help from blogs and social media. Exposure is key. You have to work at it.

On the flip side, you decide everything. If you are a control freak like myself, it’s perfect because you’re the one coming up with the design for your front cover, or deciding on the spiel for your product description on Amazon. When all’s said and done, if you make it big you did so on your terms and not because you had a marketing team behind you.

VN: Every author has his own “writing schedule.” Michael Lewis, for instance, said in an interview: “Left to my own devices, with no family, I’d start writing at seven p.m. and stop at four a.m. That is the way I used to write. I liked to get ahead of everybody. I’d think to myself, I’m starting tomorrow’s workday, tonight!” What does your writing schedule look like? Do you prefer writing at night, or in the morning?

LG: I can’t say I have a fixed time for writing. I think if writing is your sole occupation, you are part of a lucky few. I fit it in when I can. Generally, that’s towards the end of the day. My computer faces out onto fields and sheep so I type, stare idly, and eventually get into a rhythm. I know I’m in the zone when it’s pitch black outside and I’ve yet to draw the curtains.

VN: Alessandro Manzoni worked on The Bethroted from 1821 to 1842, when the final version of his novel was published. When did you start writing Torrodil, and how long did it take you to go from the raw idea of the story to the final product?

LG: Firstly, twenty one years? Wow.

Secondly, I started Torrodil around September 2010 and the final book was finished sometime in April 2011, with minor cosmetic changes (extraneous commas, chapter titles) made before it was self-published in August.

Not Manzoni-slow but getting there.

VN: Some writers, like the aforementioned Manzoni, only complete one or two novels in the course of their lifetime. Others instead are very prolific, and seem to come up with new material each year. What type of writer are you? Have you already started working on a new novel, or do you plan on letting your creative mind rest and regain some energy before tackling another long-term project?

LG: See, I think most writers have some kind of order to their writing life, whereas I have none. I’m lost in a sea of half-baked ideas. I published Torrodil in August and a month later I was working on a book I’d been unable to write up until that point. Most of my new novel The Flood is told through flashbacks and there are multiple POV shifts; a year ago I simply didn’t have the ability to tell the story the way I wanted to.

I aim to complete The Flood, try to get it out in December, probably fail miserably, then move on to a sequel to Torrodil.

When I was writing my first book, I would think, This is it. This is the novel. This is the thing that’s going to prove to the world that I can write. It was very intense. Now I breathe a little more. I don’t edit my writing to death. I’ve proven to myself that I can write a book, and I don’t need anything more than that.

Overall, I’m just a much happier writer.

VN: Thank you so much for accepting to be interviewed on Write-A-Holic. It was a pleasure to have you share your experiences with us. It is hard to approach something we are extremely passionate about calmly, because we usually want to be successful doing it. Therefore, it is comforting to see that it is indeed possible to overcome the anxiety and perfectionism sometimes linked with being a writer,  and learn to simply enjoy doing what you love.

 

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Oct 31

No Plot? No Problem!

National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, is hailed by many as an opportunity to try their hand at writing and complete the entire first draft of a novel. The goal? To finish a 50,000-word, original novel in the rainy, grey and otherwise not very impressive month of November. Now, although this is theoretically a competition, I would put the words in quotes, because:

– No one reads your manuscript

– Quality doesn’t matter – hence the slogan: No Plot, No Problem!

Photographer: Nick Veitch

– According to Chris Baty, the creator of the event, most people don’t even go on to revise their manuscripts.

– Out of the myriad would-be writers who have participated in the last 12 years (200,500 in 2010 alone) only a handful have been published.

Consequently, I suspect that at least some of you are raising their eyebrows, thinking:

Why Bother, then?

To quote the inventor of NANOWRIMO, the “competition” is built on the premise that “you cannot edit a blank page. Unfortunately! I would love to edit a blank page, it would be so much more practical!” However, in his interview to Writer Unboxed, Chris noted that, since most people who wish to be writers are also usually avid readers, by the time they start writing they expect every sentence to be as lyrical, descriptive and grammatically correct as those of the last draft of a novel on the  New York Times bestseller list. And so many people quit, or never even bother to try.

By giving you a chance to put both your brain and fingertips into the challenge of writing an entire novel without the pressure of having to write anything good (or even remotely coherent), NaNo releases word lovers from the fear of trying to be a successful writer… and failing. To “win” NaNo, you don’t have to be a good writer, you just need to be able to put words together and make sure they reach the 50,000 mark by the end of the month. Anyone who is diligent, persistent, or enough of an insomniac to find the time to type away at a computer until their fingers bleed can “win.” And, if you end up with something publishable, so much the better for you.

Being Published After NaNo

Although the percentage of writers who do get published is so abysmally small that it seemed too depressing to calculate it, some writers, like Anna Sheehan, do make it into paperback. Sheehan participates in NaNo every year and, in 2008, her NaNo novel A Long Long Sleep was published by Candlewick Press. Today, the book is sold also in Germany, Russia, France, Brasil, and the UK. In an interview on the NaNo blog, Sheehan promised that she will participate in the “writing marathon” also this year. “I need my monthly pilgrimage to another world, worshiping at the alter of the computer screen, to keep myself sane,” she said.

Sheehan herself, however, admits that not all the novels she has rushed to write during the NaNo frenzy have turned out to be as good as A Long Long Sleep. “Sometimes” she said, “at the end of NaNoWriMo I have 60,000 words of disconnected, incoherent prose that will never, under any circumstances, see a bookshelf.”

My Humble Opinion

I have been working on my novel since July, trying to write at least 1,000 words a day. As of now, I have 26,000 words, divided into 7 chapters, most of which have already been revised multiple times. As I am preparing myself psychologically for NaNo, in the hope of being able to write the next 25,000 or 30,000 words necessary to finish my novel, I am painfully aware that I will need to work on it for a lot longer than 30 more days to turn it into something publishable.

On one hand, I think that Chris Baty’s idea of getting that messy and spotty first draft out of the way as quickly (and, therefore, painlessly?) as possible is a great idea.

On the other hand, I am wary of writing without placing particular attention to language or plot. At least for me, this strategy doesn’t work, because part of the joy I derive from writing comes from the careful choice of descriptive words and creative plot twists.

Ok, so the cat’s out of the bag – I’m a perfectionist, one of those people who is constantly rewriting the first chapter, while procrastinating on getting the first draft finished. So, maybe, something like NaNo could be useful, just to force me to get more fresh writing done, instead of spending so much time revising the old stuff until it becomes almost impossible to find the most recent of 561 slightly different versions of the same passage.

Still, I also know that being a slow writer has its advantages: leaving a passage “to rest” for a week or so triggers a surreal, almost miraculous process. I come to the text afterward with a fresh eye and, suddenly, new ideas start to emerge, new links to form, and everything begins to come together more smoothly. Thus, I think that a writer needs both: the NaNo period, to write feverishly and get something out there, and the reflective period, to edit away and think about how all of the different fragments, adjectives and characters can come together to form a novel. Although the NaNo period is important, writing non-stop for 30 days is too much. By the time the 30th day arrives, you have likely just been spewing crap on a page for the last x* weeks. You are an exhausted marathon runner chasing a word count, instead of the observant writer who follows his/her characters calmly, watching to see where they go.

I am therefore not fully convinced that writing a novel as quickly as possible, and without too much care, is the recipe for success. But, maybe, NaNo is not necessarily about becoming a published writer. Maybe it’s just about finding the courage to try to pursue a dream, or to celebrate, at least for a month, the power of words, and the joy that writing can bring to our lives .

*  where x = one month – however long it takes you to run out of ideas

What do YOU Think?

I am really curious to know what other writers think of NaNo. If you have any opinion about the topic, or want to share your experience about participating in NaNo, please leave a comment!

 

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Oct 10

The Pianist, The Writer

When he plays, Marc’s fingers move feverishly, but also playfully, hitting the notes with a deliberateness that seems almost reckless. From my privileged position, propped onto the stool to Marc’s right, I listen, and watch, in awe. How can anyone move their fingers so quickly, almost carelessly,  yet produce such clean, harmonious sounds?

The answer is undoubtedly complex, but you can get a glimpse of it by looking at the pianist’s body become possessed by the music as he performs. Right now, I’m so close to Marc that I can feel his shoulder brushing up against mine whenever he needs to hit the higher keys of the piano, and I eagerly take in all of the nuances of his playing: The subtle changes of expression, the way his shoulders relax before a particularly slow and heartfelt sequence, or the way his lips form an imperceptible smile, and his eyes close, to savor an especially beautiful sequence… These are just some of the things that make Marc a great pianist.

His technique is not perfect, mind you, and he has given up on becoming a concert pianist years ago. Nevertheless, Marc continues practicing, albeit “only” for two hours a day. And I wonder, where does he find the discipline to sit in a stuffy room day in – day out, even during the sunniest days of summer, or the morning before an exam, when all the other students are studying? And where does he find the energy to play late at night, at times foregoing dinner, to return to a house that has long been enveloped by the comfort of slumber?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I realize that a writer has a lot to learn from a pianist, especially someone who is deeply devoted to his art, like Marc.

I, for one, learned that I had to practice, that I wouldn’t just wake up one day and become a great writer. I should have probably woken up to this realization earlier, but I hadn’t. My perfectionism had led me to believe that a real writer should be wonderfully eloquent from day one. Hence, I lived by the dogma that everything I wrote had to be good and, when it wasn’t, I got discouraged… and stopped writing.

Now, I’m “forcing” myself to sit down and churn out at least 500 words of my novel every day. Sometimes it’s incredibly hard, even though I know that 500 words is actually not very impressive – this short post is a lot longer than that! And yet, by becoming more forgiving towards myself and finding the courage to write, I am slowly learning to love the creative process, to lose myself inside the world brought to life by my words. When that happens,  time passes by without me noticing, until I have 700, 900, 1100 new words  on the page. Of course, not all of those rapidly, almost recklessly typed words hit the mark, in the same way that Marc’s fingers sometimes miss the right keys. But I keep going, knowing that it is only by giving myself the permission to write “crap” that I allow myself the possibility of – perhaps accidentally – ending up with a string of almost-decent sentences.

Another precious lesson Marc taught me is to be accepting of the unpredictability inherent in art. Since a pianist is not a robot, his performance is always unpredictable. Sometimes you play wonderfully, other times less so, and you can never be entirely sure that, when you sit down on that stool, in front of the audience, you won’t suddenly forget half of the piece and completely humiliate yourself. The only factor that can counterbalance your performance anxiety is the love for playing. If you can stay present with what you are doing, and forget about the audience, or your future readers, you will be able to enjoy the act of playing the piano or, in my case, writing. I noticed that, if I concentrate on enjoying what I do, rather than letting every sentence be smothered by the fear of writing a mediocre novel, my fingers finally feel free to dance on the keyboard, and the terror which had formerly paralyzed them finally subsides.

This leads me to the third crucial lesson Marc taught me: the importance of relaxing, of enjoying your work as much as a child enjoys play. Today, I was reminded of this as I listened to the speech Steve Jobs had given during Stanford’s commencement ceremony in 2005.  He had talked about death, and its uncanny power to put everything in perspective; to remind you to follow your dreams today, not tomorrow.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs

This is one of the parts that most resonated with me, and it has acquired a further sense of gravitas now that Steve Jobs has sadly passed away. Although it might be tempting to postpone putting your most ambitious hopes on hold as you pursue easier, but less satisfying goals, don’t do it. It’s better to confront your fear of failure, and put all of your energy in doing what you love. This way, when you wake up in the morning, you might be a little nervous, but you will at least be able to say that, if this were the last day of your life, this is what you would want to be doing.

 

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Jul 17

10 Easy Ways to Never Get Published….

… And One Simple Way to Ignore Them All.

Raise your hand if, in your writing career, you have ever thought something along the lines of: this pompous moron of an editor, he has no idea what he’s doing! He has completely misunderstood/ruined my piece with his edits, he has clearly not gotten the underlying meaning of the narrative, and the work he ends up publishing sucks!

Okay, I might be exaggerating, but I do remember one instance in which I had to tie my hands to my refrigerator to prevent myself from writing an angry email. After a glass of black tea with milk – my greatest addiction –  I sat down in front of the computer screen, and resumed working on my novel, alternating between thinking “that editor is an incompetent idiot!” and “who am I kidding? I suck!” followed by: “I should have listened to my parents, and studied medicine”…

***

 

Photographer: Valentina Nesci

Years later, having switched from a black to a red pen, I assure you that it’s almost as stressful. Since I know how painful it can be to get rejected, my instinct would be to salvage any piece that is posted to the site. The last thing I want is to instill self-doubt in anyone who shares my dream of being a writer. But, seriously, some of the work we receive is almost irredeemably unpublishable…

Even in those cases, I try to help. However, I noticed that, while some writers accept my edits/advice with grace, others would rather start a verbal World War than change a word of their already perfect manuscript.

If you want to learn how to create a constructive, peaceful collaboration with editors, you shouldn’t yield to the temptation of poking their eyes out with your pens. Instead, you should follow the ten tips laid out below.

Or not. If you are convinced that you are much too talented to listen to an editor, then jump directly to 11., and you will never have to deal with us again…


1. Annoy The Editor.

The easiest way to never get published is to make your editor so frustrated that he/she will write an article like this one or this one. So, you don’t want them to have the impulse to rip their hair off their heads, burn your copy, or make a voodoo doll of you and throw it into a shredder every time they hear your name…right? The editing world is smaller than you might think. Hence, it’s  never a good idea to upset an editor so much that they end up gushing about what a horrible person you are to work with to all of their colleagues. Be polite, be respectful, and be patient. If you do need to vent, write! You might even churn out something entertaining. (Check this out, for instance.)

2. Riddle Your Work With Typos, Inconsistencies & Grammatical Horrors

I know that the act of writing can be exhausting at times,  and that it’s liberating to just hit the send button and let someone else deal with it, thinking, I can’t have made that many mistakes…

This kind of amuses me, as I have a tendency to do it myself. However, it annoys the hell out of editors. Let me wear my editor hat, and tell you what it makes us feel:

– If you are so lazy that you don’t even take the time to proofread your piece once, why should I, or anyone else, a) take you seriously and b) lose my mind trying to figure out what you really meant to say, only to email you and be further disappointed when your reply is that you don’t know/rememeber/care. What do you expect me to do, make it up?

– We all have spell-checkers, don’t we? And they are FREE. So do everyone a favor and use them, pretty please? BUT, here’s the catch. You still have to read through your piece, because spell checkers don’t necessarily pick up every mistake, and can lead to embarrassing typos. I once found myself writing the word “bank” page instead of “blank” page. My father thought it was a hilarious Freudian slip, as  I was talking about writing being an “extremely lucrative career…” (Yeah, right.) But I digress. Point is, reread through your work, and find someone else to read through it, too. Even the near-sighted eyes of your Italian father, who never studied English, can be better than just your own.

– The hilarious part last: if the name of the protagonist changes thrice during your story, that can become slightly confusing for your editor. Same if you mention something, like the fact that character so and so is dying of cancer, then never refer to it again. (For an amusing example of this, see this clip, or watch the whole movie. It’s a great example on how not to construct a plot.)

Which leads to my next point:

3. Write hackneyed patchworks of other stories, and predictable plots

To a writer’s credit, this is such an easy trap to fall into. And here, I’ll take your side for a second. Writers are told that we should stick to the three-act structure, and other b.s. like that.  To make things worse, we are bombarded with books which purport to teach us how to write, and  given step-by-step guidelines on how to write a “best seller” in 2.5 weeks…

In other words, first everyone tries to put us in cute little boxes…and then they complain that we are unable to conceive anything outside of them!

Similarly, everyone tells us to READ…but no one bothers to tell us how or what to read. So we read, and go to the movies, and listen to songs… and you know what we find? An inordinate amount of incredibly successful unoriginal remakes of Cinderella, The Three Little Pigs and The Hunchback of Notre Dame!

If you stick to pop culture, it seems that sex, drugs, violence, vampires, cars, heroes with super powers, special effects and, for some reason, cheating, are necessary to success. In other words: give us shiny things, and we’ll follow. We just want shiny things. And please, don’t surprise us with anything too new or daring; then we would have to actually pause for a second, and be forced to reflect about art, instead of passively consuming entertainment.

All this being true, what is an artist to do?

Well, first of all, look beyond the bestseller list. Go to the library and, when inside a bookstore, ignore all the books displayed prominently at the front, and browse through the shelves yourself. If all else fails, lock yourself up with a pile of classics, and supplement them with foreign literature. I’m Italian, so my first instinct is to point you to Italian authors – I will have a post about this soon – but anything from a different culture will do the trick. It will be different from your preconceived idea of what “works” in a story, and it will help you to more confidently walk away from the rest of the pack, and get away with it.

You know why I am telling you this? Because, if you submerge yourself solely in pop culture, you will not be able to transcend it, and write something that is yours and new. You will help perpetuate the illusion that the only things that work are those that have worked before. Instead, a true artist seeks the new, goes against the current… A true artist breaks the box and is proud of it.

4. Write an autobiography of your life, sprawl the word  “fiction”  all over the cover of your book, and hope to get away with it.

Fledgling writers do it all the time. And, I mean, there is nothing intrinsically bad in letting real-life experiences color your plot. But don’t try to pass your diary as fiction. Firstly, you might get into trouble and, secondly, you might be disappointed to find that your story just doesn’t work as fiction. The problem with reality is that it can either be too boring, or too incredible, to be turned into literature. Plus, you might even end up getting sued, if one of the people you write about recognizes himself in your work.

Does this mean that you shouldn’t borrow from real life when you write? Not at all.

Good writers steal. All the time. But they are stealthy thieves. They don’t just copy reality, because that would be boring. Instead, they play with it, as if it were just a piece of clay. Once their work is dry, they paint over it, too, until the new product has little resemblance to the original event that inspired it. It’s a new creation. And, most importantly, it’s FREE. Free from the burden of sticking to the facts. Free from the burden of being credible. Free to be truer than life. Because, after all, the surface reality of what actually happens is no more true, wise or credible than fiction.

5. Make It Impossible for An Editor To Contact You

I wouldn’t have believed this could actually happen… if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. If an editor has to hire a private detective to find you, chances are they won’t! (Or, if they are like me, they would but don’t have the money to do it.)

6. Don’t Accept Anyone’s Feedback (Especially not the editors’!)

In The Anatomy of a Writer – Part 2, I explain the importance of humility. Now, I’m not a belligerent person, so don’t expect me to fight back over an edit. But allow me to be amused when “writers” defend their grammatical mistakes and other horrors with vehemence. “There is an explanation for this!” they say. Or “I still like it more that way.” Can’t you just accept the fact that even a seasoned writer might make a blunder or two at times? No. You are perfect. You don’t make mistakes. And you don’t need to make any corrections. You are going to write whatever you wish. You, the misunderstood genius. And if I can’t appreciate your writing, someone else will.

What can I say? Read number 11, and continue doing what you believe is best. But don’t complain if nobody reads you, or if editors ignore you when you come crawling back. (As we say in Italy, “uomo avvisato mezzo salvato”  – a man who receives advice is already half-saved.)

7. Don’t Follow Submission Guidelines

Usually, a competition/magazine/website etc. will have specific submission guidelines. Read them! Personally, I don’t care too much about how something looks – but that’s because I myself am horrible at following directions! However, I know that other editors won’t even bother reading your work if it’s not properly formatted. After having spent months or years working on your manuscript, you don’t want an editor to throw it away because you have forgotten to double-space it, or because y0u haven’t enclosed a query letter with your submission. For guidelines on how to format your book, you can check this website.

8. Tell, Don’t Show

Don’t write, “she was angry/sad/intelligent and blah blah.” That belongs to OK Cupid profiles (and, even in that case, saying that you are “a happy person” who “likes to have fun” doesn’t really tell us anything about you, or grab anyone’s attention.)

Instead, take the reader by the hand and help him to immerse himself into your world; to see it for themselves. One of my favorite examples of this technique comes from the Italian author Dino Buzzati. In his short story The End of The World,  Buzzati never mentions the words that unfailingly cross my mind every time I read it – human beings are selfish, hypocritical, cowards. He never says it.  Instead, he completely abstains from judgment, simply describing the end of the world as if it were happening in front of his  apartment window.

The entire story is barely two pages long, and yet it leaves a lasting impression in your mind, because you feel as though you had been there yourself. With your mind’s eyes, you can see the formerly prude couples making love everywhere, without restraint, thousands of people running after priests to get a last-moment absolution, and money “strangely” retaining its appeal, just to further prove how ridiculous human beings can be. You can see it, it’s almost as if you were there, next to that “well-informed man” who looks at his watch and “authoritatively” declares that there are only ten minutes left before the end of the world. Similarly, you sympathize with the poor priest who, besieged by a crowd of sinners, is forced to absolve them all. He looks “feverish,” and starts panicking. But even then, does Buzzati use the word panic? No. He describes it:

“It was clear that the wave of confessions came to [the priest] as no more than a confused murmur devoid of sense; he made signs of the cross one after another, repeated Ego te absolvo mechanically.”

Not once does Buzzati use the words “panic” or “fear,” and yet the image he portrays suggests just that: the priest is so panicked that he barely knows what he is doing.

When you finally come to the end of the story, you have the image of the poor priest imploring the crowd to let him leave stuck in your mind. He is “on the brink of tears” and keeps asking the people: “And me? What about me?” But the crowd is too “voracious of Paradise” to let him go, and no one pays attention to him.Your stomach is queasy and, although the end of the world never happened, and Buzzati never said anything negative about humanity, you can picture the event so vividly inside your head that it doesn’t even seem that incredible anymore.

9. Never publish your work for free, and never share it with anyone for the sake of it.

I’m not saying you should sell out, or let people trick you into writing for free or for ridiculously low amounts of money, a la Huffington Post. But, when I approach a writer and they tell me that they would rather not publish anything on Write-a-holic because their oh-so-precious story might win this competition or other, I cringe. (Okay, it happened only once, but still.) Seriously, if you think that your creative output is exhausted after one story, then you should try doing something else. Write-A-Holic aside, I believe that generosity is an important quality for writers to have. After all, it’s the desire to share, to communicate, that drives many of us to get our work published. (If that’s not the case for you, jump directly to 11.) Additionally, working for projects other than your own can help you to combat writer’s block, according to this article from Stepcase Lifehack.

10. Don’t try to publish your work

This might seem like a silly thing to point out. But, considering that Kafka had requested that his manuscripts be burned, and that many writers – me included – have an inordinate amount of unpublished words hiding in every corner of our house, I thought I should take the time to state the obvious. If you don’t even try to submit your work, or to show it to people, the chances of it ever getting published are very slim.

11.

So… You don’t want to bother with any of the rules outlined above. Maybe you tell yourself that you don’t care if anyone reads you, or you are just writing for yourself.  Very well then, I will let die in obscurity, having indulged in fantasies of posthumous success.

But what if complete irrelevance doesn’t appeal to you, and yet you don’t want  to deal with judgmental editors or myopic publishers? Then, just…

11. Self Publish. Or, better yet, Publish Online!!!

It’s easy, it’s free, and… and… some writers make it big! Yes, okay… But, as outlined in this article by David Carnoy, it’s not all “roses and flowers” as Italians like to say. In other words, there are downsides to publishing online. Firstly, self-published books don’t usually sell much. Making your book stand out among the hordes of other works that get published online is far from easy,  and you can’t count on your Facebook friends or Twitter followers to buy it and spread it virally across the internet. That is….unless the book is really, really good. But if it was, then why did all of those publishers reject it? Why did editors adamantly tell you to change it?

I am not saying this to discourage you, but I do want you to know that self-publishing a mediocre, roughly-edited and hackneyed plot of a story is not the best way to go. If I were you, I would self-publish my book as a last resort,  and only after ensuring yourself that you are not simply contributing to the deterioration of art to satisfy your grandiose ego. Ultimately, if you have skipped all the way to 11., bypassing all of the other points, I advise you to go back and at least skim through them once. But this is just a thought. After all, “uomo avvisato…”

 

 

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Jun 29

The Anatomy of a Writer – Part 2

In The Anatomy of a Writer, I argued that being a great writer does not necessarily correlate with fame, success, or even getting published. What does it mean, then, to be a writer?

In my first post, I wrote about the importance of embracing chaos, then stepping back from it to give it meaning. I also wrote about the insatiable curiosity that is common to most people who write, our passion for the details that others find trivial, and the irresistible appeal that putting our thoughts on paper has for us. Today, I will write about other characteristics that I associate with the writers I know and/or admire.

6.  STUBBORNNESS

As is exemplified by Proust’s example, writers need to have a thick skin in order to keep believing in the value of their work despite the criticism they receive. If you are still skeptical about the validity of this statement, just consider the conspicuous list of bestselling authors who were initially rejected. It includes such names as Beatrix Potter (who self-published her first book), Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Rudyard Kipling, Madeline L’ Engle, Anne Frank, J.K. Rowling, Richard Bach, Stephanie Meyer and Jon Kerouac… Many of the rejection letters received by these authors are hilarious, ludicrous, or downright preposterous. If we were to listen to editors, Kipling doesn’t “know how to use the English language,” “Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback,” and G.H. Wells’s War of The Worlds is “an endless nightmare.” Anne Frank’s Diary sold more than 31 million copies, and Seagull Jonathan Livingston sold more than 1 million copies in 1972 alone. But, perhaps, the examples that should be worth highlighting are the most recent ones. Stephen King’s Carrie, for instance, was rejected with the statement that stories about negative utopias “do not sell.”

Does this mean that you have to completely disregard an editor’s comments? Absolutely not. Sometimes, you can actually turn rejections into a way to improve your writing, as explained by Nathan Bransford in The Art Of Reading Rejection Letters. But don’t let rejections discourage you, and keep them into perspective. After all, editors are human beings and they, too, make mistakes.

7. HUMILITY

Since I have just expounded on how a writer should not let nearsighted editors discourage them, I would like to highlight how vitally important it is to remain humble. No matter how much success we may or may not have as a writer, we must remain teachable. There is always room for improvement and, unless we are receptive of other people’s feedback, our creative energy will stop flowing, and never reach the sea of our readers. Like water, stagnant creativity is doomed to become filthy and lackluster, turning into a muddy, bacteria-invested version of itself. If you want your writing to be clear, if you want fish to be able to live in it, dolphins to make love inside it, and human beings to refresh their souls by tipping their toes underneath its surface, then your acceptance of the world around you must be even larger than the ocean.

While some writers cling to every word as if it were a life-raft, I encourage everyone of us to seek feedback, no matter how good or accomplished of a writer we think we are. You will find that it doesn’t even matter whether or not you follow everyone’s advice. You might choose to ignore 50 percent of it, or even all of it, but your subconscious will still assimilate the feedback,  and your gut instinct will help you pick and choose which advice to follow and which to discard.

8. GENEROSITY

One of the responses to my post on Enchantment was a quote from Brenda Ueland: “Writing is not a performance, but a generosity.” Some writers responded to the quote by arguing that they write solely for their own pleasure. They don’t need anyone else to read their work. To me, these people are missing out on one of the greatest pleasures of writing: touching people’s lives, keeping them company when they can’t sleep, inspiring them, provoking them, waking their spirits when they fall into the slumber of a monotonous life.

Sure, I greatly enjoy writing for myself, and I don’t feel the urge to share every thought I put down on paper with the rest of the world. Also, I write because I love to do it. I would do it even if nobody wanted to read it, or even if some of the readers took my words and distorted them, giving them a meaning I didn’t intend.

However, I will never forget the night in which one of my stories moved my father to tears, or the first time I read my poetry out loud, and was approached by a girl who thanked me for putting her feelings into words. When others respond to my writing, my spirit somersaults (I know it’s not a word, but this is how it feels.) In these moments, nothing else matters, and even though I’m not making any money, I’m not a published author, and I’m no Proust, I still feel that I’ve been a successful writer that day.

I would like to end this section with a quote from an interview with the Chilean author Isabel Allende: “I will take the risk of offering one word to sum up, at least what I felt, about Isabel Allende. The word is generous. She is generous as a storyteller and a memoirist and as a person. She opens doors and shares herself—her thoughts and feelings—yet with the discipline of an artist. Implied is the assumption that in doing so she is showing what will heal and illumine life for others and also for herself. This generosity explains, at least in part, her worldwide popularity.”

9. BEING A “NIGHT OWL”

This one refers to the weird and, to me, somewhat unexplainable fact that so many of the writers I know seem to work best at night, when the rest of the world is asleep. Although there are ongoing debates as to which times work best for writers, and, rationally, I would argue that writing in the morning is what makes most sense, I inexplicably but inexorably find myself warming up a cup of black tea when I should be burying my head on a pillow.

I tell myself that I’m too tired to write anything that makes sense, and then I sit down in front of the screen and write, until the morning light forces my already aching eyes to close, and birds chirping themselves awake become my lullaby. The following day, I’m exhausted. I reprimand myself for staying awake, and swear that I will never, ever do it again. But we all know that these kinds of promises are made to be broken. My only consolation, then, comes from my readers, who tell me that they really liked that sentence, or that word, or that story I wrote in a sleepy-delirium. For some reason, my 4 a.m. writing is always the one that readers appreciate the most.

The reason? Maybe the silent, seemingly endless night liberates your mind from distractions, so that your reality becomes the page, and the page becomes the world. Or, to use the expression of singer Luciano Ligabue, it’s because people who are awake at night  “are only half-awake, with one’s dreams always open.” Whatever the reason, being a night owl is undoubtedly a key aspect of being a writer. Unless you are a vampire. Or you understand that I’m as serious as I am awake.

10. LIFE

Nothing in your life prepares you to be a writer, but everything in your life might.

To me, being a writer is an attitude, a way of experiencing and interpreting the world we live in. For a person, events are just that: something that happens to you. They might change your life or not. They might be forgotten or end up in your diary. Occasionally, they might even be turned into a sort of story to be shared with a friend, or a stranger sitting next to you on the airplane.

A writer uses events, and reality in general, as the spark which gives light to literary fireworks. Anything from a breakup, to cancer, to a walk around the park or a newspaper headline might get thrown into the basket of ideas and feelings that a writer draws on, more or less consciously, when sitting down in front of a blank page.

If you have ever found yourself thinking “I should write a story/poem about this!” then you have already taken a big step towards becoming a writer.

IN CONCLUSION

So, then, what does it mean to be a writer? Is a writer all of the things I talked about, or is this just an idealized, romanticized account of being a writer? Maybe a writer is none of these things, or, most likely, a writer is a little bit of all of these things. Like Oscar Wilde so wisely said, “the truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”

Regardless of where the truth lies, I still felt the need to write about the Anatomy of a Writer, because it’s too easy to put people who write in different boxes, and say: “these are the writers,” while “those are just amateurs.” Hopefully, even if you disagree with everything I have written up to now, you will take a second or two to reconsider your own definition of what it means to be a writer.

My definition?

Writer: someone who can touch the soul of the world using only their fingertips.

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Jun 26

Anatomy of a Writer – Part 1

The superficial world divides writers into two categories, really – those who get published, and those who don’t. Although the internet has blurred the boundaries between professional writers and amateurs, the divide is still there. Published writers have the luxury to dedicate themselves to words for days on end, while others do it as an act of rebellion, at night, on the train-ride to work, or during breaks.

Like the protagonist of 1984, who risked his life to purchase a notebook and signed it away by filling it with words, writers sometimes find themselves huddled in a corner, crouching onto their guilty pleasure protectively, hoping that their spouse or friends won’t catch them at it. Even those of us who “come out” and courageously tell others that all we want to do is write, even we have a little voice whispering in our ears, coming back to torment us every time someone criticizes our work, or rejects it altogether. Because, secretly,  we all share the same fear:  that what we are pouring our very soul into might never be useful to anyone…that it might be just a waste of time.

But we are wrong.  Differentiating “real” writers from the rest through the amount of money they make, the popularity of their work or even whether or not it gets published is not only inaccurate, but also an insult to what writing really is and should be: a subjective art form. As such, the words we write have an intrinsic value that goes beyond the way others perceive them. Sure, being recognized while you are alive might have its advantages – who would turn down a nice, fat check from an editor? But not getting any recognition at all is perfectly normal, and shouldn’t get you discouraged. It might just mean that, as Nietzsche wrote in Human, all Too Human, readers are just not refined or enlightened enough to be able to appreciate you.

This shouldn’t give us the license to consider ourselves “misunderstood geniuses.” It might be that some of us are, but there is also the small chance that your work might just totally and objectively suck. As I wrote in Nobody Tells This To Beginners, sometimes you have to accept that not everything you write will be good, and keep refining your “crap” until it becomes something you can be  proud of.

The point is, however, to not let publishers have the last word on whether or not you are a writer. The reason? Editors are human beings and, as such, they make mistakes. Let’s no forget that Emily Dickinson, now a widely acclaimed poet, was largely ignored during her lifetime – she only published a handful of her almost 1,800 completed pieces. Other writers were even less fortunate, and were rejected so many times that they decided to self publish their work. One of the most notable examples is Marcel Proust. His masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, wasn’t simply trashed, but utterly deviled by editor Alfred Humboldt of Ollendorf Publishing.

“My dear fellow,” wrote Humboldt, “I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.”And yet, Proust kept writing, revising his work up until his death.

Photographer: Valentina Nesci

***

We have now established that some of the artists who keep us awake at night, almost breathless from awe, were utterly alone during their lifetime.

They, like so many of us, had every reason to give up, but didn’t. Something kept them going, and that resilience – the stubborn, idealistic and wildly irrational hope of someone who has no reason to hope – that is what we read behind their words today. Those are the subtexts that so grip our subsconscious. Because a real writer pours every inch of energy into his words. Because when he writes, he doesn’t simply lay words down on paper; he becomes the page. He goes beyond the grounded reality and bends it, his illusions so strong that they would fool anyone into believing they are real; the emotions he exposes so true that readers instinctively recognize them as more fundamentally relevant than any of the words they might read on a newspaper.

So what is the Anatomy of a Writer? Which are the characteristics that turn common mortals into Prousts?

1. CHAOS

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “you must have chaos within yourself to give birth to a dancing star.” Creativity is the daughter of chaos, because it is only when a person stops to see the world as predictable and orderly that he can discover something new, a different way of doing what has already been done a thousand times before, a solution to a problem, a story, a poem.

2. STRUCTURE

Most of the artists I know are extremely messy, disorganized, and, to use an Italian word I adore, “sconslusionati,” which literally means “without conclusion.” This lack of order is a double edged sword. While it enables the artist to see beyond the surface and reach into incredible possibilities that others don’t see, it also hinders him, making it sometimes almost impossible to write (or to finish his stories.) This is why it’s so essential to be able to find the eye of the storm and rest inside it. Why the eye of the storm? Because you need to be able to see all the objects, events and emotions that twirl inside it to be able to write about them, but you also have to be calm and patient enough to be able to order them in such a way that your readers will appreciate them. A chaotic person might be wildly creative, but lose themselves so much in their own train of thoughts as to not be able to create anything that others can appreciate or understand. A highly structured person, by contrast, might function perfectly in society, and might even be an  eloquent writer…but they may never be able to surprise, shock and move you.

The solution is to find the perfect equilibrium between chaos and structure, to have enough chaos to give birth to a dancing star…but sufficient structure to not give birth to an alien from Mars!

3. COMPULSION TO WRITE

I once read an article which connected obsessive thinking with creativity. The article surprised me, as it was right on target. During my most creative periods, I am literally haunted by my stories. The characters accompany me through the night, greet me when I wake up, and continue developing as I shower. They follow me around, like faithful friends, whispering dialogues, suggesting plot points… I sometimes get so engrossed in my imagined reality that I walk right past my destination, or lose my way, or -rarely, but surely – run into something, like a sign post.

I mean, I’m not crazy – I don’t “hear voices” or anything of the sort. But I do sympathize with the writers who confess that they can’t put their characters to rest, that their book doesn’t seem to abandon them until it’s written. If you have ever found yourself scribbling an idea in a napkin, afraid that you will forget it, or if you have ever felt the need to write through the night, or as soon as you wake up in the morning, your fingers almost aching to get your idea onto the page… If you have ever experienced this compulsion to write, even just once in your life… Then, in that moment, you made it: you were a writer.

4. LOVE OF THE SUPERFLUOUS

When one of my friends justified his purchase of moleskine notebooks with one sentence – I love the superfluous –  I didn’t know him enough to understand what he meant. At the time, I dismissed the matter with one value judgment – he was just a snobby writer. Later, however, I realized that the love of the superfluous is not born out of superficiality.

Truly great writers astound us by giving life to the most minute and apparently inconsequential of details. They talk about how a character rolls his pants up before wading into a muddy river, and that gesture might seem trivial to you at the time. But it isn’t. Because the author knows that there will be a point in which that character, whose anal orderliness is made blatant up until chapter 8, will crawl into a muddy hole, ruining his precious pants, to rescue his best friend. And the fact that he had rolled up his pants at the beginning of the novel will acquire a new significance. This attention for the minute detail is a skill that is hard to develop and, as such, is often overlooked by writers. It is precisely for this reason that you should hone it. Train yourself to focus on an object you are extremely familiar with, such as your favorite sofa, a picture of you, a gift your grandmother gave you when you were three – and try to see it, really see it. You might be surprised to find that Gustave Flaubert was right: “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.”

5. INSATIABLE APPETITE FOR STORIES

I was reading Gladwell’s Tipping Point yesterday, and was surprised to find in it the perfect description of a writer. Great writers are Connectors. When they sit next to you, they don’t just see a person. “They see possibility,” writes Gladwell. To paraphrase him, while most of us are busy trying to evaluate whether or not we should spend energy in getting to know a person, a writer is curious about everyone. Let’s take one of my friends as an example. J. is not famous, but is definitely a writer at heart. And the funny thing is that this realization occurred to me not after reading what he had written, but over dinner, as a result of a phone call.

We were at a nice Italian restaurant, ostensibly engrossed in our meals while, in reality, we were both eavesdropping on a stranger’s conversation, our forks suspended in the air and our ears raised, while our plates turned cold. That same curiosity that made us walk out of that restaurant with a hole in our stomach and our minds filled with conjectures of who the woman was talking with and why is also the reason that J. is a great storyteller. He is the type of person that will stop to talk with the homeless man everyone walks past on their way to work. The kind of person who will want to know the poor man’s entire story, and will then be so fascinated by it that he will tell all of his friends about it.

Living in the United States,  I miss getting his excited phone calls about the conversation he had had with “that amazing girl” who sold newspapers on the streets to support herself as she studied Chinese, or the “incredible” story of a professor who had read a book that had changed his life, leading him to drop out of a Computer Science degree in order to study English literature. I was always astounded at J.’s almost uncanny ability to discover interesting people, and it took me some time to realize that the reason he was able to make everyone seem interesting was that he was fascinated by them. Similarly, I suspect that the reason why some complain that “people are boring” is because they never give them a chance to show how interesting they are. Anyone can surprise you, if you don’t just walk by, but actually take the time to sit down with them long enough.

That is the thing about writers: they have a way of earning your trust, of becoming not simply your friends, but your most trusted confidants. They listen, ask questions, give thoughtful advice and nod in all the right places, as if your love woes, your childhood, or whatever it is you chose to tell them, was the most interesting story they had ever heard. You know why they are so good at it? It’s because they are not feigning. They honestly do find your story fascinating. As a matter of fact, they see in it so much value that they remember and treasure it until, sure enough, you will see a nuanced version of it in one of their stories.


Note: This post has been divided into two parts. Stay tuned for Part 2, and send us your comments!

In Anatomy of a Writer, Part 2, I will explore 5 other characetristics common to great writers: Stubborness, Generosity, Vision, Humility and… the last one is a surprise. You can post your guesses and comments below!

 

 

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Jun 22

Breakfast On Pluto

In three words or more: Turning this Serious World into a Fairytale

Take Voltaire’s Candide, place him in a 1960’s Ireland plagued by the Irish Republican Army , throw in a couple of high hills, a dozen flamboyant dresses, and don’t forget to add a touch of Alice in Wonderland‘s folly. The result is Patricia “Kitten” Braden (Cilian Murphy), the irresistible transgender protagonist of Breakfast on Pluto.

Framed as an autobiography of her life, the movie opens with Kitten’s deep but gentle voice explaining the circumstances under which she was born. I usually consider the presence of narrators a sign of laziness on the director’s part, and am skeptical of their use, as it distracts the audience without contributing to the plot. However, Kitten’s performance surprised me: Her voice is authentic and unique, captivating the viewer and ushering him into her world.

Photographer: Filippo A. Nesci

The autobiographical quality of Breakfast on Pluto is enhanced through the use of chapter headings that divide Kitten’s life into sections, similarly to the chapters of a book. Coincidentally, Breakfast on Pluto is based on the homonymous novel by Patrick Mc Cabe, who collaborated with director Neil Jordan in writing the screenplay. However, the movie lacks the overt sexuality of the story: while the original Patrick liked to be called “Pussy” and engaged in all sorts of immoral activity, the more prude Kitten doesn’t even dare to kiss the people she loves. Nonetheless, she makes up for it by concocting wacky side- stories. For instance, Kitten imagines herself transforming into a leather-dressed spy which defeats I.R.A. bombers with the help of a Coco Chanel perfume.

For those who have seen one of Neil Jordan’s previous works, The Crying Game, some of the themes discussed in Breakfast on Pluto will sound familiar. However, Breakfast is far from being “the Crying Game redux,” as Stephen Holden had dubbed it in his review on The New York Times. While the two movies both narrate the story of a transgender character and use the I.R.A. as a backdrop, the Crying Game lacks the talent of Cilian Murphy. The actor’s performance as Kitten puts a new spin onto Jordan’s repertoire, turning what could have tasted like stale bread into a refreshing laughing game. Incredibly at ease in his role, Cilian bolsters the script with sensuality and startling blue eyes, never lapsing into the stereotype of the effeminate freak. Additionally, this role confirms him as one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, considering that he had last appeared on screen as the evil –and masculine –  plane hijacker in the Red Eye.

Ultimately, Cilian Murphy is not the only reason to see this movie, which stands out for its cinematic techniques. For instance, Kitten’s emotions are enhanced through the use of soft focus, which consists in the blurring of the frame or parts of it. Another aptly used device is overexposure, a technique which creates a light hue brightening each shot, imbuing them with a heaven-like quality.

Aesthetically, Breakfast is also notable for its editing, which is well thought out and demonstrates the director’s familiarity with the Kuleshov effect.  Inspired by the Russian directors of the 1920’s, Neil Jordan cuts from disparate images that seem to have no spatial or temporal connection, but are linked on a deeper level that speaks to the viewer’s subconscious. This device enables the emotional tension to reach its epitome, and might shed a tear from even the driest and most stoic eyes.

If there is a soft spot in this movie, it’s definitely the length: (2 hours and 9 minutes). Fortunately, however, the combination of Jordan’s unorthodox creativity and Cilian’s charm bend reality – and time – as easily as they were made of play doh. Birds talk through the aid of subtitles, and priests make love with cleaning ladies who resemble the famous American actress Mitzi Gaynor. Then there’s Praticia “Kitten” Braden, who doesn’t let herself be worried by this “serious, serious” world, thus incurring into serious, serious trouble. For instance, she has the “brilliant” idea of throwing  her lover’s guns into a nearby lake during a burst of “spring cleaning.” Too bad the weapons belong to the I.R.A., who is ready to kill to get them back. Unsurprisingly, Billy is terrorized, and runs for his life. Surprisingly, however, Kitten’s life is spared. Have the I.R.A. become tender-hearted? Not really. The reason? I guess you’ll have to watch the movie, if you want to find out…

Unscathed, Kitten then proceeds to explore London, the city in which her mother supposedly lives. There, our hero gives yet another demonstration of her unworldliness by bickering with a woman who argues that the pavement has got her name on it. “What is it, Concrete?” inquires Kitten, oblivious to the fact she’s talking to a prostitute. She then unwittingly steals Concrete’s next client, who almost strangles her, but is saved by quick reflexes and her lucky weapon – perfume. At this point, the audience is righteously worried that Kitten won’t survive the journey, and they cringe when she trusts the umpteenth stranger. Will Kitten meet her mother, and will she ever find someone who truly understands her? Maybe, like Candide, Kitten and her audience will have to admit that ours isn’t the best of possible worlds. But give this movie a try, and you might discover that, although this world might sometimes be intimidating, or utterly disappointing, there’s a rich breakfast waiting for you…

…on the “icy and mysterious wastes of Pluto.”


Enchanted?

The Movie: Breakfast on Pluto

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