Traditional Publishing

Here are the 7 tools that will make you a better writer – Saturday June 18, 2022

I spend a couple hours each day typing out emails, documents and journal entries. In this post I’m sharing some useful little writing aids I like, following up an earlier post spotlighting useful writing resources.


Writing requires motivation. If you like setting targets, you might appreciate 750 Words. The site encourages you to type out 750 words a day as often as you can. It tracks your daily and monthly progress, like a fitness tracker marking your walks or runs. Its tagline: “private, unfiltered, spontaneous, daily.” You can copy and paste whatever you write here into an email, a Google Doc, a newsletter, blog or wherever else you want. To benefit from a cohort/peer pressure, you can join the monthly challenge for December to write 750 words per day. 750 Words is free to try — then costs $5 per month.

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The Constellation of Possibilities: An Approach to Writing Historical Fiction – Wednesday June 15, 2022

The poet David Kirby once said that “only shallow people and charlatans begin with perfect knowledge of what it is they mean to say.  An honest writer begins in ignorance and writes his way to the truth.”

The word “truth” is a bit controversial when it comes to historical fiction.  Some authors of historical novels claim they only “stick to the facts,” while others acknowledge and celebrate their expansive creative license.  When I wrote Oleander CityA Novel Based on the True Story, I did so with the understanding that our notions of “truth” are complex, and that what we accept as historical actuality is often incomplete or misguided.  We all know about eye-witness testimony.  Even the best efforts at recorded history, such as newspapers, letters, diaries, government records, books, etc., can be specious at best, in many cases mixed with many decades of rumor, myth, ignorance, personal bias, and deliberate manipulation.  My first historical novel, The Wettest County in the World (titled Lawless in the movie tie-in edition), taught me a lot about this problem.  I learned that in order to create a compelling narrative (the end goal for any fiction writer) I would need to be vigilant and unsparing while researching.  I also learned to lean into my personal motivations, which was to seek out the gaps between what I call “the points of light,” or the moments that “really happened.”

But why do it as a novel at all?  “If this story actually happened, then why didn’t you do it as non-fiction?”

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When Writing a Novel, Forget the How and Focus on the What – Saturday June 11, 2022

Back when we were running How I Met Your Mother together, my writing partner Craig Thomas and I had a sign hanging on the wall of our shared office, one of those little needlepoint samplers you can order on Etsy and personalize to say anything. Ours said, “WRITING’S HARD.”

Because it is. Writing is so hard. And there’s a peculiar amnesia attached to it—the mere fact that it’s hard always, always comes as a surprise. You sit down at your computer expecting a good time, and whammo, it’s work. Why is this so hard? you ask the blinking cursor. It should be fun! After all, every novel, movie, or show you love is, in some way or another, fun.

When you watch or read something great, the fun radiates from within, like heat from a furnace, so much that you assume there must be someone behind the scenes feeding it fun in great shovelfuls. And in a sense you’re right. Fun is one ingredient in the recipe of writing. Unfortunately, the other ingredient is writing. And writing’s hard.

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Publish and be cancelled – Wednesday June 8, 2022

Unreadable and insufferable woke academics are boycotting the publishers that grudgingly print their inane work

Why do publishers publish the books they do? The answer seems obvious: they publish what they think will sell because they have to make money, unless they have the luxury of being some heavily subsidised university press, or a publisher of poetry (“the invisible link that connects literature and poverty”, to adapt Hazlitt). Most will, to some degree, specialise in certain areas — be it in terms of subject matter, type of book or both — because one needs to know a market well and establish one’s presence in that market before one can realistically expect to make money, or at least keep afloat.

Ultimately, however, that is really no answer. Inevitably, the personal interests, contacts, judgement and worldview of the editors and publishers involved will be the most fundamental factors that shape the output of a publisher, even if commercial considerations always remain a limiting factor.

Any press needs its share of bestsellers, but it’s far from unknown for publishers to take on individual books that they calculate are likely to lose them money, or at least are unlikely to be very profitable, for a whole number of reasons: perceived prestige or reputational enhancement, personal commitment to a cause, whimsy — and so on. Certainly, a pure, abstract desire to make money is not the major factor (if riches beyond the dreams of avarice are one’s aim, then publishing will be a life-long disappointment).

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Why I Make Rules for My Writing Students—And Why I Break Them – Wednesday June 8, 2022

The legendary golfer Jack Niklaus has an unorthodox philosophy when it comes to teaching kids how to play the game. Most instructors want to build a young golfer’s swing from the bottom up, drilling them on the fundamentals, but Niklaus recommends letting kids swing as hard as they can. Don’t clutter their minds with rules. Don’t tell them how to grip the club or how to stand. Don’t demand that they keep their front arm straight, their head down. There will be time for all that.

When they’re just starting out, what’s important is that they have fun. Let it rip. They might miss the ball, top it, slice it, hook it, but who cares—they’re learning what works for them. Their muscles are figuring out their own way to swing. They’re developing their own style.

When I started teaching high school English ten years ago, my plan was to be the Jack Niklaus of writing instructors. I’d let my students let it rip. I’d give them the freedom to write what they wanted, in whatever genre they wanted, in whatever form they wanted. Which I did. And which I still do, more or less. I teach an advanced Creative Writing class to seniors, and they can submit prose, poetry, drama—whatever they’re into, we’ll workshop it.

But here’s what happened over the years: my students kept making the same mistakes, using the same broken tools. It was like watching a seven-year-old golfer shank the ball into a pond again and again, scaring all the frogs. The golfer gets frustrated. You get frustrated. The frogs get frustrated.

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Trauma is everywhere. Write about it anyway. – Sunday June 5, 2022

Every day—through TikTok, Instagram, and Zoom—the internet forces us to think about how we present ourselves to the world, giving us endless opportunities to construct our identities anew. Little wonder, perhaps, that the personal feels ubiquitous in contemporary writing, too, with a slew of publications that draw from, or appear to draw from, the lives of their authors. (Think of the novels of Douglas Stuart, the essays of T Kira Madden, and the poems of Ocean Vuong, all writers who mingle personal experiences with exceptional creative writing.) But in the past few years, I’d argue that another driving force has been behind much personal writing: the many traumas of recent vintage, including the pandemic, racist violence, and the mental-health crisis. As these events have piled up, my writing students have become more interested in rendering their own experiences—especially the painful ones.

Melissa Febos is at the vanguard of this particular boom in confessional writing, and she is the guide I point my students to when they want to write in this style. She’s best known for her nonfiction: Whip SmartAbandon Me, and last year’s Girlhoodmasterful analysis of growing up female, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Febos is an engaging, cerebral writer who mingles what might seem like familiar ingredients—research, interviews, cultural critique, and personal anecdotes—in surprising ways. Her latest book is Body Work, an essay collection that sets out to teach the craft of personal writing by not only showing us how to capture the difficult, intimate details of our lives, but also arguing for why we should pursue the practice in such a challenging time.

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3 Best Tips From Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ – Friday June 3, 2022

There is no one right way to write, but to write well requires some semblance of a structure. The process of writing, the tools at a writer’s disposal and combating the dreaded scheduling pitfalls are all at the discretion of the aforementioned writer. Before taking on the monumental task — in the eyes of any aspiring author — of typing the first sentence of a story, there lies the inescapable (at least for now) dilemma of how one could even begin to write.

The physical necessities for writing are all there: a computer or for the old-fashioned, a pencil and paper, a quiet room calibrated to any atmospheric preferences and zero interruptions. But without a set-in-stone process or pre-established idea of a story’s premise, there’s little point in writing at all, at least, according to Stephen King’s 2000 memoir and how-to-guide, “On Writing.”

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How to write a novel in Ulysses on iPadOS – Thursday June 2, 2022

Writing a book, whether it’s fiction or fact, is a challenging and daunting task, and it makes sense to use every tool at your disposal to make the job easier.

While traditional word processors have always been a popular choice, we now have apps more tailored to large and complex writing projects, and one of the premier examples is Ulysses.

Ulysses(opens in new tab) is a Markdown(opens in new tab) writing environment, which means you write in plain text, using some simple punctuation to apply styling. The syntax will be familiar to almost anyone who’s written a text message or a tweet; for example, you can surround a phrase with underscores for emphasis, use double-asterisks for boldface, or use hyphens to make a bulleted list. Ulysses also offers controls to apply the styling for you but it's all easy to learn.

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Wallace Stegner and the Trap of Using Other People’s Writing – Thursday June 2, 2022

For years, troubling charges—appropriation, plagiarism—have hovered over Wallace Stegner’s famous novel, “Angle of Repose,” the story of a mining engineer and his wife living in the American West during the late eighteen-hundreds. There’s no question that Stegner used the life of the writer Mary Hallock Foote as the basis for his novel, nor that he used passages of her work without attribution, but at first few people knew it. In 1971, when Stegner’s novel was published, Foote’s memoir was unpublished. When her book came out the following year, Stegner’s novel had won the Pulitzer Prize, and it was protected by a halo of esteem.

But charges began emerging in the late seventies. In 2000, in an introduction to the novel, Jackson Benson, Stegner’s biographer, defended Stegner’s inclusion of thirty-eight passages from Foote’s letters, “approximately 61 pages,” all without attribution. It’s “a brilliant tactic,” Benson says, that creates “an invaluable part of the novel” and provides “depth and authenticity.” As to Foote’s life, Benson says the family had encouraged Stegner to use the material, believing that Stegner would tell the story of Foote’s productive career and happy marriage. In a preface, Stegner wrote, “This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.” But it was recognizably a family history—one that distorted the lives it described. More recently, a persuasive essay by Sands Hall, in the journal Alta, accuses Stegner of plagiarism, the appropriation of Foote’s life, and the slandering of her name. Instead of hewing to the historical facts, Stegner fabricates an adulterous liaison for the character based on Foote, a transgression that costs the life of a child and destroys her marriage. Some people who knew about Foote assumed that’s what happened in her own life, when it did not.

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Publishers scared of cancel culture made me rewrite my book, says Anthony Horowitz – Sunday May 29, 2022

Anthony Horowitz was told to rewrite his latest children’s book and remove jokes because publishers were terrified of cancel culture, he has claimed.

The best-selling author said children’s publishers were “more scared than anybody” about causing offence, and he was given a list of things he “could and couldn’t say” regarding gender or ethnicity.

He suggested that the industry take inspiration from Ricky Gervais, who has defied the “shrill voices” of Twitter to make jokes about the trans debate.

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