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Recommended Books
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    To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
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    by Steven Pressfield
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    Plume
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    The Writer Got Screwed (but didn't have to): Guide to the Legal and Business Practices of Writing for the Entertainment Industry
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    Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers
    by Ambrose Bierce, Jan Freeman
  • The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century's Preeminent Writers (Modern Library)
    The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century's Preeminent Writers (Modern Library)
    Modern Library
  • The Writer on Her Work, Volume 1
    The Writer on Her Work, Volume 1
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  • The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition
    The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition
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    The Writer's Legal Companion: The Complete Handbook For The Working Writer, Third Edition
    by Brad Bunnin, Peter Beren
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    A Writer's Reality
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    Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Paperback)
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    Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular
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    Writing for Your Life
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  • The Writing Life
    The Writing Life
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  • The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Work
    The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Work
    by Marie Arana
  • The Writing of Fiction
    The Writing of Fiction
    by Edith Wharton
  • Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print
    Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print
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    Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life
    by Bonnie Friedman
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    You're a Genius All the Time: Belief and Technique for Modern Prose
    by Regina Weinreich, Jack Kerouac
  • Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You
    Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You
    by Ray Bradbury

 

ATW INTERVIEW

Tuesday
Sep162014

Rebecca Onion

How did you become a writer?

I assume every “Advice to Writers” reader loved English classes and worked for the literary magazine in high school and college, so that’s a given. I’ll answer this question by describing how I came to be paid for writing. My first “real” job was as a staff writer at YM Magazine, in the early 2000s. I freelanced for a while between leaving YM and going to graduate school in 2005. I completed a Ph.D in American Studies, at the University of Texas at Austin, in 2012. In graduate school I got into historical research in a big way, which totally changed the set of things I thought of as “My Subjects.” I freelanced a bit during graduate school, and am just now returning to full-time paid writing. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

My freshman-year English teacher, at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, helped me turn an elementary-school love of reading and words into an ability to analyze and explore the workings of poetry and prose. (Shout-out, Jim Connolly!) That class, and Milton’s other great English classes, brought me together with people who loved writing, some of whom are still close friends today. With them—Sarah Bennett, Elanor Starmer, Cristie Ellis, and Julia Turner (who’s now the editor at Slate)—I learned the joy of passing around poems, making word-nerd jokes, and writing loooong emails. 

In college, many late-night discussions of submissions to the Yale Literary Magazine instilled a healthy fear of cliché and overwriting. Christina Kelly, my favorite editor at YM, taught me a lot about specificity, accuracy, and a sparing approach to prose. My advisors in graduate school, Julia Mickenberg and Janet Davis, imparted a love of research and an infectious sense of historical curiosity. My editors at Slate—I’ve primarily worked with John Swansburg—are great at framing and developing stories, noticing lapses in argument, and generally suggesting shape for my shapelessness.

And my dad, Perry Onion, writes with a dry wit that’s inspirational.

When and where do you write?

I try to treat it like a full-time job: 9-7, M-F, with time out for lunch, exercise, and appointments. Of course, I’m not actively writing all of that time; I’ve got research, interviews, email, and Twitter to break up my bouts with Word. If I’m on deadline, I use the program Antisocial to cut the cord to the Internet and dive into the topic at hand. On the weekends (unless I’ve got a big deadline) I read magazines and novels, cook, and send out my newsletter

As for place: If I’m at home, in Ohio, I write at my desk, by a sliding door that looks out on a forested gully. Suet hanging from the window attracts birds, which, in turn, attract our cat; watching her watching them makes for a great break from the desk. If I’m traveling—at my parents’ house in New Hampshire, or in a hotel room or an Air BnB—I write from whichever desk is free, behind as many closed doors as possible. I used to write well in coffee shops, but I’m now addicted to using more than one computer monitor, which really helps when you’re doing work that draws from a plethora of documents. 

What are you working on now?

My history blog for Slate, The Vault, is a five-day-a-week job, so that’s constant. I’m in the middle of completing some bits of academic writing that I committed to before I decided to transition out of academia for a while: an article on chemistry sets and the toy safety movement of the early 1970s, and a few book reviews, including one of a set of graphic novel biographies of scientists that I’m really excited to write. I have a bunch of pitches that I’m working on, around the edges of those larger projects. And I’m finishing up revisions on an article for Slate, about the digitization of historical medical images. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I think “writer’s block” works differently for people who write heavily-researched nonfiction. I tend to sublimate my nervousness about a given assignment into research, so that I find myself following more and more leads, rather than just sucking it up and getting started with the writing part. That way I can fool myself into believing that I’m moving forward. (In graduate school, we called this “productination.”) I also get “blocked” about revisions—even revisions that I know won’t be too painful. In every single case, if I can force myself to open the Word document and get going, I’ll feel much better within fifteen minutes. (Knowing this fact doesn’t help me do it, though.) 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Again, this is probably much more useful to people writing nonfiction, but I argue that new writers should strive to be as curious and well-read as possible. Develop some core competencies, but also diversify your interests; try a lot of different approaches. Don’t get hung up on any one failure. Pitch as widely as possible, with an attitude of detached striving. 

I have a few quotes on post-its over my desk. One is from Pat Kirkham’s biography of Charles and Ray Eames. Kirkham writes that Charles often referred to this quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender.” +1 to that. 

Bio: Rebecca runs Slate.com’s history blog, The Vault, and writes about history and culture for publications including Slate, the Boston Globe Ideas section, Aeon Magazine, and Lapham’s Quarterly’s Roundtable blog. (An archive of clips is available on her website.) She holds a Ph.D in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Her first book, Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Public Science in the United States, is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press.

Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @rebeccaonion.

Tuesday
Sep092014

Maria Konnikova

How did you become a writer? I think I've always known I wanted to be a writer--or at least, I've known for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first "book" in first grade and never really stopped. Professionally, though, I started in the least creative writing environment possible: as a copywriter at an ad agency. That didn't last very long; I was out in under a year and never looked back. I next worked in television--a much better fit--but kept coming back to print and writing smaller pieces on the side. And it kind of snowballed from there.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). I've been lucky to have some amazing teachers and mentors along the way. There was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Parker, who retired the year after I was in her class. Five years later, when I was already in junior high, she came back for a day to visit with her old students. When she saw me, she asked, "Are you still writing?" Somehow, I've never forgotten that moment. There was Mr. Murphy, my AP English teacher, whose passion for all literature, from William Goldman's "Princess Bride" to James Joyce was contagious in all the right ways. There was--and still is--Katherine Vaz, my undergraduate creative writing instructor, a brilliant writer and teacher who has continued to mentor me through the years and has been one of the lasting influences in my life. As for my other teachers: I wouldn't be a writer without W. H. Auden and Joseph Brodsky. Their prose and poetry are two of my constant companions.

When and where do you write? Mostly at home, in my "office"--a corner of the living room that has my desk and books. I write first thing in the morning, until lunch. I like to take an hour break, to walk around and let my mind wander a bit. And then I write until seven or so. Unless I'm on deadline. Then, I don't keep normal person hours.

What are you working on now? I'm working on two books: my next non-fiction book, "The Confidence Game," is on the psychology of the con, and will be out from Viking/Penguin in 2015. And my first novel is waiting in an impatient stack on my desk, complete with my agent's revisions. I won't be tackling that until "Confidence Game" is turned in, though.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? No. I don't believe in writer's block. Truman Capote once said that he was never bored. Whenever he found a person boring, he would start to catalog details of his face, his manner, his voice, his conversation, to figure out what it was that was so off-putting. In the process, he would realize that he wasn't bored any longer. To me, writing is the exact same way. If you feel blocked, just start writing anything, and before long, you're writing something that makes sense. 

What’s your advice to new writers? Write. Then write some more. And never be afraid to revise, scrap, or take criticism. That's the only way to learn.

Maria is a contributing writer for The New Yorker online, where she writes a weekly column with a focus on psychology and science. Her first book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking/Penguin, 2013), was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into seventeen languages. It was nominated for an Agatha Award and an Anthony Award for best non-fiction. Her second book, on the psychology of the con, is scheduled for publication by Viking/Penguin in 2015. Her writing has appeared online and in print in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Observer, Scientific American MIND, WIRED, and Scientific American, among numerous other publications. Maria formerly wrote the “Literally Psyched” column for Scientific American and the popular psychology blog “Artful Choice” for Big Think. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government, and received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Columbia University.

Tuesday
Sep022014

Garth Stein

How did you become a writer? I think I was born a writer. I tried to do other stuff for a while and be normal, but then I just gave up.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for sure. Tennessee Williams, definitely. Eugene O’Neill. Ken Kesey.

When and where do you write? I write like writing is a job. I have an office. I go to it. I fart around in the mornings, tending to business, editing, reading. In the afternoon, I look at the clock and think, "oh, crud, I have to get something done! It’s almost time to go home a fix dinner!” So I write furiously until I go home and fix dinner.

What are you working on now? My life right now is all about doing book business for my new book coming out on September 30th. I don’t have time to start new writing. So I’m just jotting down notes and ideas that come to me until I’m done with my tour in November and can put my energy into a new book.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Who hasn’t? But you have to look at your story and say, okay, what comes next. Something HAS to come next. So write it. Even if it sucks, write it. Even if you’re going to throw it away, write it. Only by writing will you get yourself free of your stuck-ness. Only by writing will you discover your story and your characters. So quit moaning and write something!

What’s your advice to new writers? Take acting classes. Actors need to know all about the motivation of their characters. They need to know where the character is coming from and where he is going to, what he wants, what he needs, what he will die without having, etc. Actors are trained to create this world of the character, even though it might not all be in the text. It has to be in the mind of the actor playing the part. I think often novels fall slack or seem unrealistic or unbelievable because the author hasn’t done the homework on the intention and motivation of his or her characters. So I believe all writers should learn to be actors; it will improve their writing.

Garth Stein is the author of the soon to be released ghost story, A Sudden Light. His last novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, has been on the New York Times and other bestseller lists nation-wide for more than three years, and is published in 35 languages. He is the producer of a number of award-winning documentaries, and the author of the novels How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets and Raven Stole the Moon, and a full-length play, Brother Jones, upon which A Sudden Light is based. He is the co-founder of Seattle7Writers, a non-profit collective of NW writers dedicated to strengthening the ties between readers, writers, booksellers, and librarians. He lives with his wife and three sons in Seattle.

Visit www.garthstein.com or twitter.com/garthstein or

www.facebook.com/garthsteinauthorwww.garthstein.com

.

Tuesday
Aug262014

Steve Albrecht

How did you become a writer?

I was a bookish child, so having skipped a grade and not being very big, all types of literature were my companions. My parents were big readers and my dad was an aerospace engineer and a skilled writer. They always bought me books, took me to the library every weekend, and encouraged my short stories. I sent crime stories to the Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines in the 70s, when I was about 12 or 13, to no avail. I went to the University of San Diego and as an English major, I thought I knew how to write. Outside of college, I learned that comparing and contrasting the literary themes of Chaucer’s General Prologue was not going to be needed everyday. When I was working as a San Diego Police officer, I started writing a monthly column on officer safety for the Police Officers Association newspaper. I wrote that column for 14 years. That gave me the discipline to freelance to other police and specialty magazines. I left police work after my workplace violence book, Ticking Bombs, started to gain momentum in 1999, which was right after the tragedy at Columbine.    

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I still have the mystery novels I read as a kid and a young adult, including Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. I re-read Mark Twain’s works and consider him and Ernest Hemingway to be two of our greatest American writers. Twain’s use of sly humor and Hemingway’s power and brevity had a big impact on my writing style. I re-read Roughing It and the Tom Sawyer / Huck Finn books from Twain and The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms from Hemingway every few years. On the modern side, I envy Sebastian Junger’s machismo on the page and Jon Krakauer’s take-you-there skill. I’ll grudgingly admit I learned something from every book editor I ever worked with; the best being my father, Karl Albrecht. We co-wrote several books together and he taught me early not to write in the passive voice, a bad habit I developed in college. My dad wrote an entire book in E-Prime, which is the absence of the verb form to be. He continues to be my biggest influence, especially with his ability to organize an entire book before he begins, which I do for each of mine as well.

When and where do you write?

I have an office in San Diego where it’s quiet and I can think. I have a table fountain and with some classical music I can write for long stretches on my Mac, while photos of Twain and Hemingway stare down at me. I also work out of my home on an ancient Windows XP computer with an old version of Word, which works just fine. My usual habit with book deadlines is to go to a cabin we have in the eastern San Diego mountains and write to completion for a week. The cabin schedule is quite Spartan: get up, write, eat, short nap, write, hike for an hour, eat, write, sleep, repeat, for a week. It sounds noble but it’s mostly because I procrastinate when the book deadline is months away and then I have to crash it to finish on time. A lot of genius words don’t make it into the final manuscript. Cutting chapters is not a bad thing.  

What are you working on now?

I have written several books for police officers over the last 25 years, and I just finished my last officer safety book this week. Patrol Cop will be out next year and that will be the end of my writings for cops. I write a blog for PsychologyToday.com, which I find rewarding. My topic area is in their “Law and Crime” section, which is fun because I’m not a lawyer or a psychologist, so I can write about crooks, human conflict, workplace violence, and school violence issues, which are my primary training workshop subjects. I enjoy the blog process and do two or so a month at about 1000 words each. People don’t want to read stuff that goes on forever. I find the people who write vicious comments about my blogs to be tedious since they never argue from a position of facts, only their sourness. I’m also finishing a niche book for the American Library Association on library security. Most people don’t realize how tough it is in our libraries, with the aggressive homeless, thieves, sexual predators looking for kids, mentally ill patrons, and entitled people who give the library staff a hard time. They really have to be part-time social workers as well as full-time information providers.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Once, for about 18 months and it was agony. I had a contract to write a small book on business ethics (never an easy subject) and one to write for the popular Complete Idiot’s Guide series on customer service. I had to send back both contracts — and the advance money — with my apologies that I just had nothing in the tank. Going back to writing articles broke me of the block and I learned to trust my notes on what I want to write about. They don’t have to be perfect, but they do give me a place to start instead of a blank screen.

What’s your advice to new writers?

I’ve had lots of people tell me their life story would make a great book. Fortunately for all of us, that’s as far as the conversation went. I believe you know you have the talent to write fairly early. I teach business writing workshops and some people enjoy them and others find it a miserable experience. I’m not convinced the desire to write can be taught, although we can all improve our techniques. Real writers write and when they aren’t writing they are thinking about writing. I have a tattoo on my inner left bicep that says, “Cacoethes scribendi,” loosely translated to mean “the burning desire to write.” I can see it every day as I type.     

Steve Albrecht is based in San Diego and has written professionally since 1985. He co-wrote Ticking Bombs in 1994, which was one of the first business books on workplace violence, and featured his prison interview with a double workplace murderer. Steve worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and retired to write and teach. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration; an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English. His 10 business books include Added Value Negotiating; Service! Service! Service!; The Timeless Leader; Fear and Violence on the Job; and Tough Training Topics. His six books for law enforcement include Streetwork; Surviving Street Patrol; and Contact & Cover. He is finishing his first police novel.

Tuesday
Aug192014

Caryl Avery

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer by default. De fault was my mother’s. Well, partly.

I always loved writing, even as a kid. I started writing parodies and light verse (which I’m pretty sure back then I called “funny poems”) when I was around 10, and stopped when I was 11 or 12. Because whenever I wrote something that my mother found amusing, she would say, “Ca, go get your poem and read it to Mrs. Pianin,” the neighbor four houses down. I’d be mortified, but the more I protested, the more she insisted. Out of self-protection, I hung up my yellow No. 2 pencil.

Although writing always came naturally to me, I never contemplated it as a career until I had to: After throwing in the towel on art history (too low paying) and on practicing psychotherapy (too depressing), I realized I needed a job that would be “just right.” When I asked myself what I could do, the only thing I could think of was write.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.)

Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, e. e. cummings, Don Marquis, W. S. Gilbert, Tom Lehrer, Franklin P. Adams, E. B. White, Edward Lear, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Noel Coward, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Anonymous.

While flirting with the idea of becoming a writer, I had the good fortune to discover On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which in 1976 had just been published. I was so stunned that a book on writing could be so engaging that I instantly knew that was the career for me. With each expanded edition, I seized the occasion to reread it beginning to end, and each time it was like running into an old love. If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat. You might want to follow it with The Writer Who Stayed, a compilation of Zinsser’s weekly essays published on the website of The American Scholar. (“Zinsser on Friday” won the 2012 National Magazine Award for Digital Commentary. He was 87.)

In addition to William Zinsser (with whom I had the pleasure of spending an hour last fall), four other teachers—who couldn’t have been more different—helped make me the writer I am: Miss Dillback, my seventh grade English teacher at Valley Stream South High School, who was scary strict but who hammered grammar into my head so I’d never forget it. Sandra Berwind, Professor Emeritus of English at Bryn Mawr College, who as my Freshman Comp instructor introduced the concept of critical thinking. (She was the toughest and most generous teacher I ever had.) My former boss and medical editor at the Globe (yup, the supermarket tabloid—we all start somewhere), who did the same for not thinking when you have to research and write two medical stories a day. (He: “Caryl, what are you doing?” Me: “I’m thinking.” He: “In this business, you don’t think; you write.”) And the late, great Phyllis Starr Wilson, founder of Self Magazine, who taught me as an editor and writer how to let go of articles: (“Remember, 90 percent of people read this stuff sitting on the toilet.”)

When and where do you write?

I write mostly in my head, often on the bus. Then when I get to my office, I transcribe these noodlings—quick, before they disappear. If ideas or turns of phrase pop into my mind as I’m trying to fall asleep, I force myself to get out of bed to write them down (usually as notes on my iPhone). Otherwise, forget sleeping.

What are you working on now?

I’m adding some finishing touches to Eggs Benedict Arnold, a book of culinary light verse, and putting together a team of investors and producers for CUTS: An Uplifting Musical, an irreverent parody revue that skewers plastic surgery and our national obsession with looking young and beautiful. A developmental production recently played to sold-out houses at The York Theatre in New York. For a sneak peek at four songs from the show’s initial presentation, visit www.carylavery.com, click on CUTS, then Preview. Or Google “Joan Rivers from CUTS” to see international singing sensation Christina Bianco’s version of the song.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I’ve experienced it, sure, but it hasn’t made me suffer. Writer’s block is a writer’s best friend; it tells you you don’t know where you’re going. (“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) Once you figure that out, you’re home free. Writer’s block simply saves you the trouble of writing until you do.

What’s your advice to new writers?

1. Write with your ear.

2. Run your work by a few people you trust who are smarter than you.

3. Pay attention to criticisms, but not to proposed solutions.

4. Remember that the urge to edit other people’s copy is greater than the urge to procreate. Your work is your baby. Don’t sell it down the river.

5. Make sure that everything you write has one elegant sentence.

6. Evolve. Try new forms.

7. Don’t write near a refrigerator.

Caryl Avery (www.carylavery.com) has been an award-winning journalist, magazine editor, advertising copywriter, poet, and creative writer for over 30 years. In addition to an eight-year stint as senior editor/psychology director at Self Magazine, she has written extensively for more than 20 consumer magazines, including Self, Glamour, Vogue, Ladies Home Journal, New York Magazine, American Health, Psychology Today, and Reader’s Digest, as well as for such websites as Women’s Voices for Change.  In recent years she has put her experience as psychologist, writer, and editor to work as a creative marketer/advertising copywriter in the cosmetic industry. After a decade as Executive Editor at Clinique, where she wrote national advertising for more than 75 countries, she set up shop in New York where she provides marketing direction, branding, advertising and website copy to a variety of consumer product companies and ad agencies.

In addition, she has returned to two old loves—light verse and lyric writing. Her poems have been featured in Light Quarterly, Alimentum, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, The Classical Outlook, womensvoicesforchange.org, and anthologized in More Women’s Wicked Wit. Plus, she is nearing completion of Eggs Benedict Arnold, a book of culinary light verse. Her parody revue CUTS: An Uplifting Musical about plastic surgery and everything else we do to look young and beautiful has had a successful developmental run in New York and is gearing up for a commercial production.