Notes in March 2019

In reading about writing, I’m dabbling in Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English. For grammar-related stuff. When i’m feeling more crafty, I’m reading Carl H. Klaus’ book about creating a persona for non-fiction writers.

In writing about writing, I continue making notes about my experience juggling the voices of seven characters, as I sink into approach the final stages of revising a book-length manuscript. Which aren’t so final, as I am still discovering layers of characterization to solidify those voices.

In reading about reading, I have been dipping into Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult (2017).

And, in writing about reading, I am working on a review of Nilofar Shidmehr’s Divided Loyalties. Revisiting Marjane Satrapi and Azar Nafisi, along with some other Iranian short stories.

March 3, 2019

***

“The city is covered in fluttering white snow. Moths on their hands, on their arms, on their upturned faces.”
Lisa Moore
Alligator

The Byline Bible (Susan Shapiro)

Bylines aren’t something I’m chasing right now. My focus is on booklength works, whether novels or themed essay collections.

If, however, my goal was to build a freelancer’s resume with a series of bylines, Susan Shapiro’s advice would be helpful. And not someday-when-I-get-around to it helpful. Rather, it is right-now-this-minute helpful.

One of the aspects of her approach which I most appreciate is her “Figure Out Your Main Goal” section, about ten pages into the body of the work. This is useful advice generally (but often the most obvious elements are overlooked in instructional works), but Shapiro delineates various goals and offers specific suggestions, which are both timely and informative.

And you can get started right away, with the first (of five) assignments, a 900-word piece about a humiliating moment. The irony of that appeals to me. After all, we’ve just met (although only on the page, of course), and here she is asking me to share something personal, to intensify my vulnerability right off.

Nonetheless, she includes many links to pieces that her other students have successfully published as a result of this assignment, in case you need incentive to do your homework.

In fact, throughout the work, Shapiro consistently refers readers to pieces authored by her students; this might annoy some readers, but I take it as an indicator of her success as a teacher, not only as evidence of her students’ publishing history (recent and topical) but as evidence of the good-will remaining between teacher and student, long after the course was complete. (And, if you don’t want to key in the links, there are several pieces reproduced in their entirety in this volume.)

The body of the work contains all the usual text boxes and lists, which makes The Byline Bible browse-friendly, but there is also a set of Top-Five Lists at the back, for those looking for a super-quick fix. (Consider: the Instant Gratification Takes Too Long list.)

And, at the very back? A glossary, which includes this definition of Nut Graf: “An abbreviated few lines at the beginning of a feature story that telegraph what the story is about.” So, maybe I’m not aiming for a byline any time soon. But at least I know what to call that little description above a feature.

Good stuff for nonfiction writers!

Shapiro, Susan. The Byline Bible: Get Published in 5 Weeks. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2018.

Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing (Anne and Nicholas Giardini)

For as long as I have been working to publish fiction, I have had sticky notes with advice from Carol Shields decorating my files and folders.

I pulled sentences from interviews, radio and print, and sometimes, after a particularly difficult rejection (you know the kind), I would sit and stare at one of those little scraps of paper until I believed that I could try again. Because the kind of advice that Carol Shields had to offer was the kind of advice that I most needed to hear.

Which is why, when I first heard of this collection, I was afraid to read it; I was afraid that it wouldn’t be everything that I needed it to be. But it is: it is everything that I hoped it would be.

Anne and Nicholas Giardini (daughter and grandson of Carol Shields) have gathered a variety of materials, from their personal papers as well as from Carol Shield’s archives, and they have carefully edited it into sections, which read in the author’s voice (and sometimes the materials are directly in her voice, pulled from letters to other writers, for instance, and an entire chapter of letters to creative writing students).

The book begins with a consideration of the significance of stories and storytelling, underscoring the need for writers to read widely and attentively. I began to make a lot of notes in this chapter but then recognized that each chapter is followed by a section which itemizes the key points for readers (very convenient).

Shields is not afraid to challenge conventional advice: “Write about what you know, people say, but how do you know what you know?”

Nor does she bother to fancy-up her advice: “You have to pay attention and have the patience to move the words around until they are both precise and allusive.”

She offers concrete and specific suggestions: “The use of public transportation can be extremely profitable to fiction writers, who are always looking to restock their supplies. And so are such public places as elevators or restaurants.”

And she also comments on how a writer should be: “Be willing to engage with vulnerability, including yourself in that vulnerability.”

And if I needed something else to scribble on a sticky note? There are plenty of contenders. Like this:

“The love story may have lost credibility, but consider the notion of a bird flying through life side by side with another, their wings almost but not quite touching, the two of them guided by an inexplicable binary radar, and an instinctive wish to join their lives together. That is a story worth risking.”

Great stuff for writers who are taking that risk.

Shields, Carol. Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing. Ed. Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini PRH – RHC, 2016.

The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write (Literary Arts)

This anthology is sourced from the Literary Arts organization, which was founded in 1984. A cornerstone of bookish culture, the organization began in Oregon as a lecture series and later combined efforts with the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts, which was founded by a lawyer (Brian Booth) and a group of writers.

One of those writers was Ursula K. Le Guin, who has an essay included in this volume: “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” The essay dates to 2000 but the content is still relevant today.

Some of it is standard: “Where do you get your ideas? From books, of course, from other people’s books. If I didn’t read, how could I write?”

Occasionally she pushes the envelope, playing both sides of an observation designed to provoke a response: “I am a human; therefore I lie. All humans are liars; that is true – you must believe me.”

This focus on truth-telling feels particularly salient now, with the current American government administration leading the United States into a “post-truth era”. But, then, I am drawn to Le Guin’s writing about writing; earlier this year, I considered her essay on writing at Hedgebrook and a few years ago I wrote about Steering the Craft (a longtime favourite writing resource) as well as The Wave in the Mind.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that I noted more passages from this essay than the others; yet, the shortest section in my notes for this collection corresponds to the essay by Margaret Atwood, from 1994: “Spotty-Handed Villainesses: Problems of Female Bad Behavior in the Creation of Literature”.

This surprises me: having returned to Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing several times, I would have expected to find more notable passages in this piece, but it is of greater interest to the reader in me than to the writer in me.

With as few notations as Atwood’s essay, Marilynne Robinson’s “On ‘Beauty’” (2006) urged this note in my file: “Fiction is narrative freed from the standard of literal truth. In effect, it is the mind exploring itself, its impulse to create hypothetical cause and consequence.”

So, it would seem there is a theme here. One which carries into the next piece, Wallace Stegner’s 1990 work “Fiction to Make Sense of Life”. (This was a potentially aggravating read, for it reveals the endings of some classic short stories and to illustrate the changing taste of readers, who are now less amused by resolutions with a twist.

In fact, however, the pieces in this anthology are a satisfying mix of concrete advice and musings upon the bigger issues (like the social and cultural responsibility of a writer, Aristotelian unities, and Rupert Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance – and you can turn to Robert Stone, Russell Banks and Jeanette Winterson if that trio calls to you).

Many of the contributors comment on the importance of reading in the development of a writer’s craft and both Zadie Smith, in “305 Marguerite Cartright Avenue” (2012), and E.L. Doctorow, in “Childhood of a Writer” (1991), speak about the fundamental importance of reading and libraries in helping them to discover their voices as storytellers. 

This was also true for Edward P. Jones, who states in “Finding the Known World”: “The reading was simply a means to building a novel. I had a goal – that of writing the novel – and to get there I had to go through this forest of reading.” (He, too, has an observation which fits with the initial theme I addressed above: “The facts and the truth of a world are what I make up.”)

These pieces are pulled from across two decades, from some authors who are no longer writing and others who remain fervently active, and are accessible to emerging and developing writers while still offering inspiration and focus to more experienced wordsmiths. But if you don’t want to know how William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” ends? Steer clear of Stegner’s piece.

Good stuff for writers.

Literary Arts’ The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write
Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2014

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (John McPhee)

If you’re a “New Yorker” fan, you probably already know what I’m going to say: John McPhee is a renowned non-fiction writer, nominated four times for the Pulitzer Prize (winning in 1999), who has been associated with the magazine since 1963.

There is a lot of detail in Draft No. 4 about essays and books he has authored, about his process and his craft, and those readers who are already familiar with his career will undoubtedly find that these references are both pleasurable and informative.

For those of us coming to Draft No. 4 as a writing tool, the anecdotes and examples feel like a constant reminder of what remains unread (or, maybe that’s just me and the chronic sense of never-having-read-enough), although his observations about the changes in process across a half-century-long writing career, simply from a technical perspective, remain fully accessible.

For instance, a discussion of how a writer’s use of a tape recorder can influence the interview process is not directly applicable, now that technology is ubiquitous, but it is still worth reflecting on how a subject’s overt awareness of the process can alter their receptivity and change how much or little might be disclosed if the process overwhelms their connection with the interviewer.

McPhee’s experience in a low-fi environment certainly influences his approach to the craft today. “Cumbersome aspects there may have been, but the scissors, the slivers, the manila folders, the three-by-five cards, and the Underwood 5 were my principal tools until 1984,” he writes.

A dozen pages later, he offers this advice: “Another way to prime the pump is to write by hand. Keep a legal pad, or something like one, and when you are stuck dead at any time – blocked to paralysis by an inability to set one word upon another – get away from the computer, lie down somewhere with pencil and pad, and think it over.” (This works for me, but I grew up pounding on a typewriter too.)

The book is divided into eight parts: Progression, Structure, Editors & Publisher, Elicitation, Frame of Reference, Checkpoints, Draft No. 4, and Omission. I made notes from each section and particularly enjoyed the anecdotes and advice about fact-checking (perhaps because I felt a little less pressure to make notes, being more of a make-it-up writer, so I didn’t pay such close attention).

He writes in a matter-of-fact tone. “When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.” There is no silver-bullet solution here, but the simple statement is true and the humour comes through.

I especially appreciate his comment on competition between writers: “No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing.”

On these issues, the straightforward tone is essential and powerful. Perhaps less so in more general observations: “For nonfiction projects, ideas are everywhere. They just go by in a ceaseless stream.” Then again, that’s true too.

As one who has long appreciated Anne Lamott’s shitty-first-draft directive, I also appreciated this classier way of describing the same process (and his of words like ‘nucleus’ and ‘interstitial’ elevates it even more):

“Blurt out, heave out, babble out something – anything – as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again – top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside.”

I’ve always called it simmering, and I’ve read other descriptions of it, but McPhee’s rings true for me. It’s not just putting the manuscript away in a drawer: somehow ‘interstitial’ captures a little of the magic I feel there, too.

Great stuff for John McPhee fans and really good stuff for other writers too.

McPhee, John. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday (Sharon Blackie)

Most of my reading about writing this year has been about concrete aspects of the craft, how to summarize your work for the pitching process, for instance, or how to prepare a book proposal.

Sharon Blackie’s book is not a to-do primer but a to-be primer. It’s about foundational rather than executional work.

Which makes it sound a little intimidating, doesn’t it? And that’s appropriate. Because despite the blooms and bunnies on the cover, this is a heavy read.

Heavy partly because of the style (the author is a “reformed academic”) but heavy mostly because it requires a lot of readers.

Sharon Blackie observes that we tend to focus on horizontality, on our positon on the ground, but she reminds us that we can change our two-dimensional way of looking at the world into a recognition of its depth and complexity.

One of the ways in which she became aware of her personal embeddedness in the world was to more fully inhabit the space in which she now lives (on the Isle of Lewis, in the northern Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland).

She came to realise that she inhabits a biosphere within a biosphere, that she is living in a ‘weatherscape’, not simply a landscape. Reading about her experience in this new space is interesting on its own terms.

“The wind and rain that I was railing against are the forces which had shaped its physical attributes over the millennia, and determined the nature of the land which I loved so fiercely – the water-logged moors and bogs, the hundreds of tiny lochs scattered like fragments of broken mirror across the peatlands to the north, the vastness of a vista that stretched for miles, and across which your gaze could travel uninterrupted by trees or shrubs.”

Blackie, however, presents her personal experience as a doorway through which readers can step to more fully and completely inhabit our own familiar spaces.

One important habit to readopt/nurture is the habit of play. (It’s easy to see how this connects with creativity to bolster a writer’s work on multiple levels.)

“Above all, no matter how foreign it has become to you, and no matter how challenging an idea it might be, learn to play again. We find so many things to occupy our days that have purpose, but unstructured play has no purpose other than pleasure. Practise it with a child, a dog, a cat, your lover, a friend. Or practice it alone: just learn to mess about, to fiddle with things, to splash in puddles, make sandcastles or snowmen, paddle in the shallows, like a child.”

She also encourages the art of attention. (Observation certainly strengthens creative work, adding to credibility and fostering fresh possibilities.) A set of exercises follows each chapter, encouraging reflection and sometimes requiring concrete work. This is not the kind of book which instructs you to go to the store and purchase a journal, but it is the kind of book that makes you think so much that you will want to write.

“Wonder is different from awe, which is usually defined as the sense of having an encounter with some presence larger than ourselves, something more powerful, and a little bit frightening. In a state of awe, we feel humbled. In a state of wonder, we feel possible.” 

There – in that state of possibility – that’s where the value of this work for a writer lies.

Sharon Blackie’s book is what I wished to find in Women Who Run with the Wolves; it is a book I will return to at intervals, perhaps even more often than those craft-oriented volumes.

Great stuff for contemplative writers.

Blackie, Sharon. The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday (Ambrosia, 2018)

“The Hope of Rabbits: A Journal of a Writer’s Work” (Ursula K. Le Guin)

The last of the pieces in Words Are My Matter: Writings about Life and Books 2000-2016 and one of the longer ones, “The Hope of Rabbits” is a record of the time Ursula K. Le Guin spent at Hedgebrook, on the coast of Whidbey Island north of Seattle.

She was invited there for a month, more than twenty years ago, and she agreed to stay for a single week.

“Seven days with no obligations, no routine, no society except at dinner time – but not exactly vacation days, not holiday: workdays for the real work, without any distractions except those I invent.”

Much of the week’s writing is filled with her observations about her surroundings, in particular – as one would guess from the title – the many rabbits that live there, watching the writers come and go.

Her writer’s eye also captures other situational details that invite the reader into her space there, like the type of wood from which a door is made or the sort of work done in the garden on the Saturday.

Living arrangements there are integrally connected to the natural world, which seems largely peaceful and contemplative.

Although there is room for some self-deprecating humour too.
“I suddenly realized that I can get rid of the flies in my windowseat windows, which come in the door and buzz and distract me, by opening the windows. The flies fly out. Ma che stupidezza!

(This is just the kind of “discovery” that I can imagine myself making, caught in the flurry of a draft, irritated by some detail, for which there is a simple solution that only later becomes clear to me in an embarrassingly obvious way.)

There is some consideration about the fact that only women writers visit Hedgebrook (and the introduction to the piece debates the merits of and need for such a space, in this patriarchal society) and about how a male writer who might have stayed in her particular cabin might have responded to the space therein.

She explains the process of decision-making which governed her packing, which books she chose to bring with her and which she left behind. And almost immediately she notices differences in her work habits which appeal to her.

“I think about the humane pace of longhand, and how one is constantly looking away from the notebook a things around it, near or far, changing position as one sits, doodling in the margin while working out a transition, half-consciously noticing the slant of the sunlight, the advance of shadows, the color of the sky, fully absorbed in the work, and yet open to the surrounding world, as we are not when working at a computer screen.”

The emphasis, overall, in on her interior experience of the week, with only brief mentions of social interactions (which made her anxious in advance but which were, ultimately, positive experiences).

“I am nearing the end of my story, which may be accommodating itself to my time here – I suspect it of doing so. But it’s 41 pages now and should not go on forever, surely? It leaps about strangely, as it is, I think I know what it’s about and then I am not certain.”

The emphasis is always on the work and she is not afraid to question and explore, not afraid to say that she still questions and explores even as an accomplished and decorated writer. (I’ve written about Le Guin’s about writing about writing here and here, as well.)

Good stuff for writers.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Hope of Rabbits: The Journal of a Writer’s Work” in Words Are My Matter: Writings about Life and Books 2010-2016 (Small Beer Press, 2016)

How to Write a Book Proposal, 5th Edition (Jody Rein and Michael Larsen)

One of the reasons that I enjoyed reading this volume so much, even though its structure is more “how-to” than “cover to cover”, is that it begins with a discussion of subjectivity. (This is the very element I craved in Sell Your Story In a Single Sentence by Lane Shefter Bishop.)

The work opens with a bird’s eye view of a conference scene in which various industry professionals (publishers and agents, primarily) are citing their requirements for proposals. One after another, they contradict each other blatantly.

What thrills one person is the very element which bores the next person. And although this has likely always been the case, with so many additional technological possibilities now existing, the ways in which one can be either – thrilled or bored – are even more numerous.

Acknowledging the diversity in requirements, the first order of business for Rein and Larsen (who have been wrestling with this dilemma for some time – this is the fifth edition of the work) is to explain how they established the general principles they present.

This is particularly important as How to Write a Book Proposal is designed for the broadest possible audience: cookbook authors and memoirists can look here for advice.

Despite the vast audience to which this volume should appeal, I am not an ideal reader. The volume caters to non-fiction writers, as it is unusual to write a proposal for a fiction.

Nonetheless, there is useful information here for fiction writers too. The discussion of assembling specific elements is readily transferable: assembling a biography, creating a virtual media kit, gathering book stats and outlining a marketing strategy which would support and augment a publisher’s efforts.

Advice offered is both general and specific. When it comes to formatting, for instance, the best formatting is invisible (it shifts all focus to the material) but one should also avoid asterisks and footnotes (anything with the potential to disrupt a reader’s engagement with the proposal).

One of the most interesting discussions is the way in which the basic structure of a proposal can be altered to reflect the individual project.

A pop psychology book’s proposal, for instance, could include these elements as follows: Pizzazz, Overview, Book Specs, Author Bio, Author Platform, Audience, Comps, Book’s TOC, Detailed Outline, Sample Writing, Supplemental Material.

Whereas a narrative-driven memoir could include these elements as follows: Pizzazz, Titlepage, Proposal Contents, Overview, Book Specs, Author Bio, Book’s TOC, Divider Page, Detailed Outline including Sample Writing.

Each element is considered in detail (Pizazz, Overview, etc.) before any discussion of how one might combine them; it’s fascinating to consider the benefits of ordering and expanding them differently, depending upon the nature of the proposal.

Although the elements required for the rare beast that is the Novel Proposal are limited (Author Bio, Platform, Personal Promotion and Supplemental Material), the general principles guiding the preparation of the other elements are useful for refocusing the writer’s attention to detail (for instance, any writer can keep in mind promotional elements and platform-related suggestions to help grow an audience).

The material is up-to-date and relevant for western writers, listing, for instance, the Big 5 publishers, and reminding writers of technical pitfalls which exist between well-known digital platforms and services, for instance, the risks of not previewing your email in various programs (i.e. how easily the formatting gets screwed up even when you’ve perfected it in the program you are using).

Jody Rein and Michael Larsen have assembled and updated a useful – some might even say indispensable – guide in How to Write a Book Proposal (Writer’s Digest, 2017).

Good stuff for (mainly non-fiction) writers.

Rein, Jody and Michael Larsen. How to Write a Book Proposal (5th edition Writer’s Digest Books, 2017 )

The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision (Sandra Scofield)

If you’re not prepared to invest as much time with your revisions as you have invested with your draft to date, this is probably not the book for you.

“The thing is, you’ve put in a lot of time developing your story into a workable draft, so this isn’t the time to hurry. Be open to discovery, chagrin, exuberance, fatigue. Be willing to take the time to think.”

If you’re looking for an exhaustive primer on revision and polishing, part-commentary and part-workbook, The Last Draft will fit the bill.

“Write fifty scenarios if you need to. Draw cartoons. (Seriously.) Write another draft. I can think of a lot of writers who took five, six, or more years to get their books written – and published.”

The introduction and the conclusion are filled with all the kinds of things one comes to expect in books about writing.

Some inspirational: “Write what you love; love writing it; hope for a readership; appreciate every reader.”

Some practical: “Line to line. Paragraph to paragraph. Page to page. All the way to the end.”

In between, however, is a wealth of detailed and considered advice for writers who seek not to simply complete a finished draft but hone their skill.

Throughout the book are exercises which could be completed as discovered but the commentary is extensive so the exercises are accompaniment rather than disruptions (I read straight through and then returned to select exercises for areas in the draft which I had already identified as needing extra attention).

Important concepts are explained clearly and immediately. For instance, the distinction between exposition and interiority.

  “Exposition should be interesting in its own right, even as it amplifies prior or later action. It is always clarifying, never obfuscating. Its appearance should never so interrupt action that dramatic engagement is lost.
  Interiority should deepen the engagement of reader with character. Its purpose is not primarily expository; it should not be necessary to the action, though it is usually triggered by action. It is enriching and emotional. When it explores a character’s emotional conflict, it adds to dramatic tension. And it brings the reader into deep empathy.”

There is a pleasing balance between commentary and examples, which showcase recent literary novels and stories (with the occasional example from the later decades of the 20th century), usually via summary rather than quotations.

Some craft concepts are familiar, included in books which are aimed at beginning writers, but The Last Draft nudges things a little further, inviting deeper contemplation.

For instance, a discussion of the struggle a protagonist faces  is common in books about the writer’s craft, but sometimes in superficial terms (which may be appropriate in an introductory volume); here, the matter of struggle is afforded a less tangible dimension.

“There should be two levels of struggle:
1. The need for something concrete that the protagonist is fighting to get (such as safe haven, a scholarship at ballet school, or the love of a partner),
2. The urgent desire to be better.”

Similarly, Scofield presses beyond the usual talk of summary and description in “What is the story?” by including this element in a list of items to consider: “State the vision or intention of your novel.”

Certainly one could complete the process of revision without considering this question, but an understanding of the answer would inform all the other elements of revision as well.

“So one way to think of vision in the novel is to ask yourself:
How should people treat one another?
How should the earth’s goods be shared?
What responsibilities do families (or strangers) have for one another?
What happens when such ‘goodnesses’ are violated?
What do you think an individual is capable of under great stress?
One way or another, you are inevitably making a case for how life works, so you might as well be conscious of what you are doing.”

Text-boxes summarize the key points Scofield will explore, and this framework makes it possible to use these lists to direct your attention to specific elements after a read-through.

For instance, the list under “How do I revise?” includes “5. Develop a scheme of lines of threads”, and several pages later that is considered in detail. (I was calling this element of my draft ‘patterning’, and Scofield’s series of statements offered another perspective on the element’s development and importance.)

Lines of Threads
5. Develop a scheme of lines of threads.
What are ‘threads’?
They are lines of action and meaning that run through the story.
But didn’t we just do that with plot and subplots?
Well, yes, but there are other ways to think of them.
What questions are raised that the story answers?
What motifs throughout the manuscript enrich meaning?
What are the major emotional issues in the story interiority?
What elements of backstory illuminate the story?
How does setting strengthen story?”

Granular and methodical, inquisitive and exuberant, Sandra Scofield’s The Last Draft is a valuable resource. (It also contains a useful list of other books on craft, most of which were new-to-me, even though I have nearly 600 books on the subject on my shelves.)

Terrific stuff for experienced writers.

Scofield, Sandra. The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision (Penguin Random House, 2017)

Sell Your Story In a Single Sentence (Lane Shefter Bishop)

Wandering through the 800s in the library, I spotted this book when I was feeling frustrated with my efforts to summarize a book-length project. So many hours spent on just a few sentences. So many ways to tell it slant. So few words at the end of a writing session. 

Lane Shefter Bishop’s book seemed the perfect match. As the CEO of Vast Entertainment, which specializes in screen adaptations from longer narratives, she has many years of experience hearing and shaping the elevator pitch.

Between 2011 and 2016, 45% of the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture were based on books: someone came up with an enticing pitch for each of these projects and Bishop points to the primary importance of a logline in that process.

A logline is a powerfully crafted single sentence that highlights the most unique element(s) of your work. In short, it shows others why they should want what you have.

In some ways, she spends more time discussing what the logline is not than what the logline is. It’s not the recitation of “one film title MEETS other film title”, which is open to misinterpretation. It’s not the back cover blurb, which is more generic. It’s not the movie-poster copy, which belongs in marketing team meetings. And it’s not a rehashing of the entire plot.

But the bulk of the book is comprised of examples of loglines, (and, later, exercises) accompanied by advice and suggestions for constructing them effectively.

Given her background, it’s appropriate that Bishop turns to the screen and stage (predominantly screen) for her examples. When it comes to “Wicked”, for instance, she is evaluating the musical stage production, not Gregory Maguire’s novel, which was the inspiration for it.

For prose writers, like me, who are all about books, this does introduce an element of distance, and overlooks the really interesting detail of how the logline for the novel Wicked might have differed from the logline for the stage production “Wicked”; nonetheless, the idea of crafting summary sentences is a skill required by a variety of professionals, so this did not put me off the work.

She nearly always includes a “Rough” logline which she then corrects (visibly, with strike-outs) into a “Redo”, and increasingly as the book progresses, she ends with a “Clean” version. (It’s puzzling why she doesn’t offer final versions of all of them. Why, for instance, not offer a clean version of “Pretty Woman”, when most readers would be familiar with the film and might find the development progress interesting.)

She focusses on three anchors in a logline:

Who is the protagonist?

What do they want?

What is at stake?

Each of these anchors receives some detailed consideration and Bishop does offer a rule-set. The challenge, however, is that ultimately it is a matter of taste and contradictions abound because human beings are contradictory creatures: we like what we like and that doesn’t follow a rule-set.  

So Bishop’s rule-set is ever-shifting. In one instance, a logline is rewritten to include new details, because “you can never go wrong by being more specific”. In another instance, a logline is rewritten to remove unnecessary details: “Notice by the way, that I removed all reference to the high school. That’s because it doesn’t matter where he delivers his speech.” So, apparently, you can go wrong by being more specific.

Bishop does not call out the subjectivity, however. She relies upon her years of experience to back her conviction about what makes a good logline and suggests that it is a matter of standards.

Perhaps this is wise on her part, because “selling is a way of life” and, as she observes, the world truly revolves around marketing. So, Bishop is selling herself as an expert, and she does so consistently.

For an experienced writer, however, the matter of subjectivity is key, and it’s disappointing to feel that it’s being shuttled into a corner, covered with a sheet like a piece of furniture in a cottage off-season.

Ultimately, there is no unique piece of advice here. Perhaps it was unfair to expect there would be, but the fact that an entire book exists on the matter of writing single-sentence pitches does suggest a particular expertise.

Actually, the unique piece of advice could exist for the writer pitching specifically to Lane Shefter Bishop. But my takeaway is that I simply must do all the things an experienced writer is already doing daily – tweak vocabulary, choose dynamic words, aim to be both accurate and succinct – but, this time, with a single sentence.

Good stuff for beginning writers.

Bishop, Lane Shefter. Selling Your Story in a Single Sentence: Advice from the Frontlines of Hollywood (The Countryman Press – W. W. Norton, 2016)