Reading: If You’re Going to Write, You Must Read

There was a time in my life I was such a knucklehead, I said I didn’t want to read too much, it might pollute my originality. So I postponed Ulysses, Mrs.Dalloway, Updike’s novels, Cheever, and so on, preserving my own special genius unsullied by, ahem, real genius. And missing much amazing inspiration, insight, and just flat out reading pleasure in my foolish abstinence. Or as a wag said, my obstinate abstination. 

Worse. I wasn't alone. I've heard students, but other soi-disant “writers” who have yet to write much more than a term paper, offer this "fear of pollution" fantasy to justify not reading literary books or screenplays. [Yes, screenwriters need to read screenplays, not simply go to watch TV claiming TV is the new cinema.]  

To assist in the project of writers reading, our classes for the next 8 weeks (starting the third week of March), will be reading a short, wonderful book: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid (who has recently published another book: Exit West, now in hardcover). It will surprise some of you that HTGFRIRA is a self-help book that has some detailed advice about, um, making money. It will surprise none of you that the self-help is a flimsy excuse to tell a story with grit and wit. 

I got the book in hardcover mostly because I thought the title was such a gas, and I liked it. But now, I want to re-read it because, while Hamid writes quite well in the McCord Method of Embodied POV, I recall he gets away with stuff I might steer other writers away from (like second person address to the reader), so I want to see how he did it. He’s also a writer who understands how to inject Complication—with a capital C and that stands for Cooked up Cock up Cwazyass—into a story.

And I’ll tell you quite candidly that as a teacher of many talented writers, I think the place where brilliant work becomes brilliant is with complexities and varieties of complication.

If you’re not in my classes, this blog post is an alert to the book(s) and the writer, and also to the really important part of reading: read twice. 

Let me repeat: read twice.

Complication is always a product of the protagonist's weakness meeting brutal antagonism. A really good writer can introduce and play out these antagonisms

  1. in such an interesting or exciting way, that when we’re reading the first time, we just gobble up the delicious story and accept them as “natural”; 
  2. to use them to pattern out complex problems authentic to the story-world to create a sense of theme without the simplistic “messaging” of the author intending an obvious message. The difference between excellent literature and this kind of turgid/condescending/irritating propaganda is the cleverness of the complications. (Including the complication of the protagonist’s character since the modern novel is all about how the protagonist is her own antagonist...)

As I said, the good writer gets us so interested in her storytelling that we forget we're reading words, we just want more story, please! 

But by reading twice, we slow down our appetite for plot and linger over the repetitions and designs of the story that are at the heart of its artistry; we can appreciate how the complications arise from some logical considerations the writer concocted. A good story may appear to have a feeling of “organic” confusion to it; in fact, it’s laser-focused with every word selected to condense and concentrate meaning. It's not a spontaneously generated telling, but a developed and designed artifact.

Let’s see how Brother Hamid does it. 

Pens n Stuff

For friends of WYF:

I have a dozen or more of reasonably good Chinese fountain pens that I’m giving away. If you want one, ask. In person. I don’t do mailings.

They are knockoffs of more expensive pens; the Jinhao 599 replicates the Lamy Safari and the Hero 616 is based on the legendary Parker 51: these pens are not nearly as good as those pens, but the were really cheap, they work and they’re fun. If you’re writing enough that you get occasional writer’s cramp, consider a fountain pen because they just glide over the page.

Couple things: I also have some cartridges to ink the Jinhaos, but these pens come with a “cartridge converter” by which you can load your own ink from a bottle. The Heros (the Parker 51 ripoffs), don’t accept cartridges, but have a syphon system build into them. You unscrew the body of the pen from the nib and, lo, still attached to the nib is a compressible metal and silicon apparatus: it’s the syphon, and if you dip the nib into a bottle of ink, squeeze the bar four or five times, you will have sucked about a milliliter of ink (what a single cartridge holds) into the reservoir.

If any pen I give away doesn’t work, let me know. They can be adjusted or replaced. It’s easy. Fountain pens are fun because they are simple, durable and respond to your tinkering with smoother, wetter (or drier), or otherwise improved writing.

Maintenance: Every other time you fill your fountain pen, you’ll need to rinse dried ink out of the nib. Just hold it under running water for a sec; if you can, remove the ink reservoir, and force some water through. And it’ll be much cleaner and happier.  Do the same thing if the nib dries out because you haven’t used it in a week or left it uncapped. For the most part, these pens should write immediately every time you uncap them.

To purchase ink, there are lots of online stores and hundreds of colors. We have a coupon from PenChalet at the bottom of our webpage: click on it, and you’ll go their site. It also has a code for 10% off at check out.  I’ve had very good service from them. And they have very good products. Your best buy in ink is Noodlers or Diamine, but there are lots of other excellent brands, just as there are other excellent outlets, like Gouletpens, Anderson Pen, Jetpen, and many others. Some have brick and mortor stores, but most are online operations and get you an order in a day or two.

When shopping for inks, look for the “Color Swatches” button on page. You’ll be amazed at the colors. Notice the variation in shading!

I mention Penchalet because they have the best prices, a “price match” policy, and free shipping you spend over the minimum.

Amazon will also ship free if you have PRIME, but beware, rare will their search engine show you the best price on the first search.

For more advice, this nutjob has lots and lots of useful videos, pen reviews, pen maintenance, how to adjust nibs, inks, papers, etc. He’s my favorite, but there are also others. More discount codes on his page (he lives in the Netherlands, just btw).

My favorite ink colors include:

Noodlers: Apache Sunset, Navajo Turquoise, Black Swan in Australian Roses

Diamine: Apple Glory, Ancient Copper, Sapphire Blue, Florida Blue;

and the Mercedes brands of inks is:

Namiki Iroshizuku Bottled Ink Fountain Pen Ink; the one bottle I own is actually a legendary color (fountain pen geeks lower their voices in reverence when mentioning it): Cerulean Blue (Kon-peki)

Being a Writer, Part Three: Autumn, The Best Time for Resolutions

Autumn, not New Years, is the best time for resolutions. 
If If you---the Writer Protagonist---are intending  on improving your writing, here's the thought experiment for you: What is the next smallest writing-step that you can (and will) take? 

For some of us, that could be starting on the novel, or for others, it could be that you need to take a class, to write very brief scenes, some dialog, get your character protagonist shouting... A small, doable, step you can complete. 

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Being A Writer, Part Two: The Notebook

Ok, we have to have this sidebar... you have to have a notebook with you all the time. And something to write with. Take notes. Doodle. Keep it near.
    And here you say: "A notebook, gorblimey, but I’ve got my phone/pad/computer. You mean paper? Lined paper? Cardboard cover? Bound-pages hard-copy notebook notebook? The kind of notebook will take up room in my bag or get lost or that someone else might read?”
    And this from the distaff side: “A lump of pages that will ruin the perfect curve of my jeans if I put it in a pocket? You can't possibly mean that kind of notebook!?"

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Story Basics

There are five necessary categories that organize every story. The writing of excellent stories
conveys a rich and specific sense of all five.

Storyworld ; Person ; Action ; Storyteller ; Design

These categories are programmed in our DNA: they organize human perception and even have appeals to specific brain areas. Moreover, they represent stages in our experiences as we develop from an in utero being, to being capable of complex associate thought.

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We're perceptually predisposed to see or infer closure; it's just in our neurology. You see in reading; half the fun is anticipating the ending: anticipating closure. We like to recognize patterns--- patterns of behavior, patterns of motifs, patterns of goal- seeking---and then to imagine how they continue and complete; that's why we will find the path through the maze, see the image in the stars, or even discover a logical conclusion as we're writing the end of a story. We actually get a pleasurable jet of neurotransmitters bathing our brains when we experience
closure. It could be in a crossword puzzle, in stories, movies, symphonies, after a meal, even after a productive day at work. On a larger scale, recognizing closure helps us assess our lives at year's end, with birthdays, or with memorial ceremonies.

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Answers To Your Memoir Questions

You might ask, "Why "memoir" and not "autobiography"?

A memoir has limits. It's a project or more exactly, the memory of solving a problem in a specific part of life. It's not advice, but confessional, honest; the voice of the teller has an attitude about events and people appropriate to the state of mind at the remembered time. Memoir works by connecting the reader to the lived experience on going problem solving; set aside lessons learned, moral or ethical advice, or grand sermonizing, let the events speak for themselves.

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Five Writing Tips

1. Writing is a habit. Don't wait for inspiration; inspiration is a myth. If you have a habit of writing 4 or 5 times a week, you will finish your projects. Just 15 minutes at a sitting will keep your story cooking on the stove of your pre-conscious imagination. But if you wait for once-a-week
inspiration, you'll find the story-stew has gone cold. Schedule your writing to create a habit and get projects finished. Waiting for inspiration will leave you with inspired beginnings, never finished.

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On Dialog

Dialog is a great way to move scenes along without explaining. Writing good dialog involves increasing activity in the brain areas involved with listening and speaking. If you practice using these areas critically and intentionally—as opposed to your normal habits of listening and speaking—you can stimulate your dialog imagination.

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