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Ask the editor: Breaking the “write what you know” rule

Q: I have a terrific story to tell, but it didn’t actually happen to me. Is it possible to write with authenticity about something you haven’t experienced firsthand? A: Many great books are written by authors who seem to have nothing in common with their character’s experiences. Different gender, culture, time in history, geographic location. [...]


Have you ever written something you later regretted?

I sure have. It was 1964 and I was on assignment for The Nation magazine to write a review of the Beatles at Carnegie Hall, their first live appearance in the United States. No Soul in Beatlesville There I was, standing on a shaky balcony seat trying to see the stage over a mob of hysterical, [...]


Staying connected: You’re not alone

When you’re writing in the zone, you feel confident and creative, ready for prime time, readers, agents, and publishers, right? But it doesn’t always come that easily.  When writers get stuck, those good feelings can drop away quickly. A lonely occupation Writing is a solitary business for the most part, with hours spent alone, day [...]


Too much vertical space in your manuscript?

In filmmaking, vertical space is shorthand for script pages with lots of white and not a lot of words. For scriptwriters it’s the rule. A script has dialogue, brief notes for action on the screen and not much else. It makes for quick reading and ensures a kind of textual scarcity that directors consider a virtue, [...]


How to grab, delight or shock your readers right from the start

“Every time mama came down on that shabby floor, the bullet lodged in my stomach felt like a hot poker.” Claude Brown and I hunted through his manuscript for two days to find that moment and move it to the opening of his classic Harlem memoir Manchild in the Promised Land. We wanted to detail [...]


Happy Birthday Tom Robbins! Time to revisit your advice to writers

I’ve never known a great author to give more generous and useful advice about the craft of writing than Tom Robbins has over the years in these pages. If you’ve yet to discover this fabulous author, Robbins has written many bestselling novels including Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Jitterbug Perfume, Skinny Legs and All and [...]


Ask the Editor: Memoir or novel for my true story?

Q. I have an amazing true story to tell, but publishing it may step on some toes. Should I write it as a memoir, and tell it exactly like it was? Or should I write it discreetly as a novel, so I can disguise the lurid details and stay out of trouble? If I don’t write [...]


Having trouble writing? Try this famous author’s technique

“Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall,” says Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee. “Blurt out, heave out, babble out something – anything – as a first draft,” he says  in an article called Draft No. 4 now in The New Yorker magazine where he’s [...]


Writing a memoir: Intersecting memory and story

Writing a memoir is one of the most stimulating but difficult literary challenges an author can undertake. Nevertheless, it’s a hugely popular genre. Five of the top ten hardcover nonfiction books on the NY Times bestseller list this week are memoirs. Aspiring memoir writers can find help in books and by searching online, but there’s [...]


From spark to story: How books get started

Where do stories come from? Are writers inspired from deep within the unconscious psyche by forces beyond their control? Or are they compelled by external cues that resonate without invitation – unexpected and accidental? As an editor, I’ve seen the muse arrive in surprising and mysterious ways. The creative spark, a blessed event to be sure, can [...]