9 Ways to Write Short Sentences Better

I love short sentences. I really do. In any book filled with a series of long, expansive sentences, a short sentence arrives like a gift.

Short sentences rarely have the ambiguity or mystery of a long sentence. They rarely have twists or swerves or switchbacks, because that requires the length of a longer sentence. They rarely win your admiration for verbal virtuosity, the way that a long sentence can astonish you.

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James Tate Dies, Leaving Poetry World in Mourning

JamesTate_NewBioImageIt’s a sad day for the world of poetry. James Tate, a poet who won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, died today. RIP. He was 71.

His poems have been described as “tragic, comic, absurdist, nihilistic, hopeful, haunting, lonely, and surreal.” (The Poetry Foundation).

His death will leave his many readers in mourning. He is survived by his wife, the poet Dara Wier, who is a professor in the UMass English department.

Tate wrote more than 20 books of poetry. His collection “Worshipful Company of Fletchers,” won the 1994 National Book Award, while his “Selected Poems” won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Early in life, he planned on being a gas station attendant. He also disliked reading when he was young. Thankfully, he wised up and abandoned those ideas.

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Musical Creative Writing Prompts

Creative Writing Prompt with SongsThere are lot of creative writing prompts out there, and even some image-based writing prompts, but I think this is new: Musical Creative Writing Prompts.

In the righthand sidebar there’s a link to a new page I’ve recently created with 30 song-based writing prompts. Each prompt has a song paired with a specific writing exercise based on that song.

When composing writing prompts, there’s always a tension between giving enough specific information to inspire the writer, and giving so much information that the writer feels like the imaginative work has already been done for them. I tried to find a nice compromise between those extremes.

If you’re looking for easier prompts, keep to the ones at the beginning. Advanced writers: you should be challenged by the later prompts.

If you like any of them, please tell me! List your favorites in the comments section of that page.

Benjamin Percy on How Genre Can Help Literary Writers

percy_si-303x335Benjamin Percy on writing in Poets & Writers:

“Consider this. Picasso trained in realism before he shattered our way of seeing. Patricia Smith can rock a sonnet or villanelle as well as experiment with free verse. Can you say the same? Can you write something that is scene-driven and as tightly fitted as a Lego castle and then turn around and write something masterfully nonlinear that artfully employs summary? Or are you exclusively “artful” because it’s easier to excuse your sloppiness as purposeful? Oh, the fact that nothing happened in my story? That’s because I was trying to capture the nothingness of the modern condition. Uh-huh. Good luck with that, smart aleck.”

Slideshow of “In Search of Lost Time” Graphic Novel

French artist Stephane Heuet has visualized a book long thought to be beyond visualization. Over fifteen years he offered six installments of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” in French, and now this graphic novel has been collected and will be released in English.

Faithful Proustians will surely make an uproar about how much has been lost, but at least for all of us who struggled to get through the seven-volume book, the graphic novel will be a great reading aid.

Stylistically, the clean faces of the younger characters remind me of The Adventures of Tin-Tin, plus the way the visuals are presented in a relatively simple manner.

Norton will release the book on July 15. [Pictures after the jump]

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A Punctuation Video Game: All Praise to the Adventurous Colon

I love this right-scrolling video game with punctuation. So reminiscent of the early 90s Nintendo games.

Flannery O’Connor Honored with U.S. Postage Stamp

Flannery O'Connor Stamp Small

Anne Enright

Anne EnrightEnright_Anne_credit_Domnick_Walsh_libguide in conversation with Diane Prokop at The Millions:

“Well, I wrote out beyond the end of this book, and then I brought it back in again. I wanted the characters to be on the brink of something new, without actually going into that territory. You get out early in your ending. I sometimes write for an editor who takes out my very carefully crafted first paragraph and my very wonderfully rendered last paragraph, and runs the piece without any other alterations. You realize you often don’t need that explaining bit of getting up to speed at the beginning or you don’t need to over finish the end. You don’t need to make many big bows as you walk out the door.”

J.M. Ledgard: Submergence

Screen-Shot-2015-02-25-at-10.41.34-AM-2 copyIf you haven’t yet read J.M. Ledgard’s novel “Submergence,” you should. Ledgard is wonderfully worldly, veering between microscopic jellies of the ocean to intricate knowledge of Somalian culture and the psychology of al-Qaeda jihadists. It’s hard to come up with a comparable author who demonstrates such widespread and intricate knowledge of the world. Although it’s a disservice to the book to write a summary, because it falls far short of what Ledgard accomplishes in this book, a plot summary goes like this: a deep-sea science who repeatedly plunges thousands of meters in a submersible falls in love with a secret service agent who ends up captured by Somalian terrorists. Ledgard has wonderful metaphors comparing cityscapes to “scans of a damaged brain” and says that in a moment of tension between potential lovers time is “folded tightly … wadded like origami.”

The erudition on display in this novel is incredible. Bruegel the Elder’s and Hugo Simberg’s paintings are dissected, religious habits predating Islam are discussed, and microorganisms that preceded humanity by billions of years are invoked, ostensibly to induce humility in the flash-in-the-pan uppity human species. He describes the color of magma burning in seawater. How finger length marks Islamists the way mustaches identified Nazis.

One of the things I like best about this book is the way Ledgard moves from small scale to large scale. He’s always contextualizing the story of these two people with distances — the distance of space, of time. He sets this story inside a context of geological time, evolutionary time, and historical time; he also sets the story on multiple continents, and moves freely between them, sometimes inside the same paragraph. For instance, when the oceanographer Danielle Flinders buys a cabin, she buys one high on a mountain overlooking the Ligurian Sea, and thinks “if she were immortal, she could sit on the mountain under the moon and stars — the snow globe — and not get her feet wet in a million years.” When she bikes along valley floors, she “visualized the day they would be at the bottom of a new sea.” Ledgard doesn’t miss the chance to use historical time, either. When James More, the secret service agent, visits Kismayo, we learn this:

“Kismayo is famous for its magicians and for the refreshing breeze blowing in off the Indian Ocean at night. The great Muslim travelers visited the town, so did Zheng He and his Chinese fleet. The Portuguese built a fort there, which the Omanis captured. The Somalis drove out the Omanis, then yielded to the Italians.”

All of this has the effect of endowing these small careers and tiny love story with cosmic significance. This is a novel that wears its ambition on its sleeve, never missing the chance to remind us of the transience of our species, our minuscule size in the universe, and how human consciousness might be a curse.

 

Tournament of Books Longlist — And the Shortlist They Should Pick

The Tournament of Books released its longlist — 62 books (!). They will narrow it down to 16 in January. In case you can’t wait until January, here are the 16 I would love to see compete come March. You can view this either as a prediction or as a recommendation — take your pick.

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
  • Friendship by Emily Gould
  • My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgård
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink
  • An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
  • The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
  • Euphoria by Lily King
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Christopher Beha in Harper’s

Christopher Beha in Harper’s:

“The publishing industry in this city tends to view the introduction of religion into contemporary realist novels as a willful act that must have some strong rhetorical justification. From where I stand, the exclusion of religion is the willful act. Novelists never get asked why they don’t include religion in their books, or why the religion they do include — often just a species of madness — bears so little resemblance to religion as it is practiced by the majority of Americans. If they were asked, I suspect, most of these writers would not have a very good answer. It simply doesn’t occur to them. Whatever one’s beliefs, this seems like a basic failure of verisimilitude. Reality includes religion; realism should, too.”

March Reading

So I made it a public goal to read twenty books during the month of March, and I did it! I facetiously riffed off National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) by calling it NaNoReMo. Here’s a list for those curious about what I read. It’s mostly stuff I picked up this year at AWP. It’s rather eclectic, honestly. I think my goal for future reading is to choose an author and read seven or eight works by them (frontrunners: Don DeLillo or Michael Ondaatje or Ngugi wa Thiong’o). This list has 11 fiction titles, 6 nonfiction titles and 3 literary journals.

  1. MFA vs NYC by Chad Harbach
  2. The Blue Fox by Sjon
  3. Fight for your Long Day by Alex Kudera
  4. Send Me Work by Katherine Karlin
  5. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory by Randall Balmer
  6. Tin House Writers on Writing
  7. Three Scenarios Where Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail by Kelly Luce
  8. Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolano
  9. Speedboat by Renata Adler
  10. Nazareth, North Dakota by Tommy Zurhellen
  11. The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard
  12. Vox by Nicholson Baker
  13. The Fun Stuff by James Wood
  14. Cimarron Review
  15. Image Journal
  16. How to Read a Novel by John Freeman
  17. Out Loud by Anthony Varallo
  18. Coyotes by Ted Conover
  19. Arts & Letters Journal
  20. Din in the Head by Cynthia Ozick

Of all of those, I would especially recommend The Blue FoxThree Scenarios Where Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, and The Odditorium. But many others were excellent. Happy reading!

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard in The Guardian:

“The critical reading of the texts always resulted in parts being deleted. So that was what I did. My writing became more and more minimalist. In the end, I couldn’t write at all. For seven or eight years, I hardly wrote. But then I had a revelation. What if I did the opposite? What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing.”

Ann Beattie on Interruptions

Ann Beattie on interruptions in fiction:

“Often I use a non sequitur or a stranger saying something out of the blue as a way to change the emotional register. My students make fun of me for saying, I’ve read this carefully now, and you’ve written it carefully — too carefully. The phone never rings, people get to talk for four pages without interruption. We’re used to daily life being the fire truck coming by with its deafening siren. To put that siren in fiction — and not at the convenient moment, but maybe a minute before the convenient moment, or way after the convenient moment — is a kind of acknowledgment to the reader that you’re aware there’s another life out there that’s out of control. As a writer, it’s an advantage to work within open-ended, messy moments.”

Jason Porter Narrates a Kiss in “We Were Down”

Jason Porter has a story in Electric Literature called “We Were Down.” I love his narrator’s description of a kiss:

She says, “Would you like to kiss me?”

I say, “That is not fair.”

She pulls on my pockets, forcing me to lean into her. I am close enough to smell that she has never sweat. Never in all of her life.

I let her let me kiss her.

It is a spangled microscopic world. Entire villages are dancing and roasting pigs on spits. Families gather around old clanky pianos and sing songs that bring tears to the elders. All of the children playing games in all the streets are scoring goals in a flickering continuum of identical moments. Galaxies gladly collide. There are no tongues. Just four shy curious lips. It lasts about four seconds.

A Year in Reading

Did I read less this year? Well, yes, unfortunately. But did I write an entire novel this year? Absolutely yes!

According to my end-of-the-year accounting, I’m going to believe that my novel success counterbalances my reading shortcoming.

Some favorite books of the year: I continued my Orhan Pamuk streak with Istanbul, The Black Book and The Museum of Innocence. He impresses me with his range — each book traverses vastly new territory in terms of genre, structure, and concept.

Both George Saunder’s Tenth of December and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove deserve your attention. I also read Russell’s Swamplandia, which perplexed me. It’s  an enjoyable, masterfully written book, but for a magical realism writer this is an anti-magical realism book. All of the strands of the story which verge on magic end up being pulled back into strictly realistic storylines, as if to tease the reader with the potential of magic just before reaffirming the world as non-magical.

After being disappointed by some of Paul Auster‘s current work, I finally read his New York Trilogy, and it more than lived up to expectations. I loved the playfulness, the genius of his moves.

Some nonfiction suggestions: If you’re interested in the way your city constructs public space, I would recommend Walkable City by Jeff Speck, a wonderful exploration into how tiny elements like lane width, sidewalk construction, and parking availability can either estrange us from our neighbors or shape strong communities. The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver about the science of predictions will make you reexamine the predictions you hear on daily basis as well as make you reconsider your personal predictions. The Outsourced Self by Arlie Russell Hochschild looks at the drawbacks of  outsourcing so many private parts of our life. It’s the type of book that you know is right but is hard to live by.

This year I also read all 1800-or-so pages of the four collected Paris Review Interviews. The overlap between what authors say is just as instructive as the differences. When you read all of them at once, themes emerge, such as the near universal agreement that professional critics are not helpful to their artistic journey.

I read Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas and re-read 2666. I’m glad New Directions pumped out another dozen or so of his titles, because it means I can read a few a year and have more to look forward to.

Mating by Norman Rush is the book that has lingered the most in my memory. Such a powerful depiction of desire and the lack of desire in Botswana. But I resisted reading Subtle Bodies, his novel which came out this year, because of Michiko Kakutani’s review in the NYTBR. In that review she nails exactly what irritated me in Mating — his characters fight about such trivial things. It makes me wonder if  Rush’s famously good marriage has sabotaged his ability to write about truly fractured relationships.

Lastly, the most talked about book of the year: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Is it as good as everyone claims? Well, the simple answer is yes. It is impressive. You should read it.

Don DeLillo

From Don DeLillo’s Paris Review interview:

INTERVIEWER

How do you begin? What are the raw materials of a story?

DeLILLO

I think the scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor—something I see in a vague way. Then sentence by sentence into the breach. No outlines— maybe a short list of items, chronological, that may represent the next twenty pages. But the basic work is built around the sentence. This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look. The rhythm of a sentence will accommodate a certain number of syllables. One syllable too many, I look for another word. There’s always another word that means nearly the same thing, and if it doesn’t then I’ll consider altering the meaning of a sentence to keep the rhythm, the syllable beat. I’m completely willing to let language press meaning upon me. Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence—these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger—I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way the words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed.

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