Monday, July 16, 2012

Susan Orlean's writing tips

My mind is on fire since listening to Susan Orlean's interview with Jason Boog this morning. Great interview! I have not been able to get access to the recording of Orlean's MediaBistro's Literary Festival interview. When I do I will post some verbatim quotes. Meanwhile, here are my notes.
  1. Ideas are the source, the fuel that writers need.
  2. You have to "pull" at an idea until you find the story. (The story and the idea are not the same thing.)
  3. Stories are the writer's job.
  4. "Pretty sentences" are not the most important thing (in a story or a book). The story is the most important thing. Without the story, you have nothing.
  5. Stories are in demand. They will always be in demand, no matter what happens to the publishing business.
  6. You have to constantly ask yourself, "What is my reader looking for? Why would he or she pick this (book) up and read it?
  7. Orleans keeps researching until the subject "goes flat" for her. She knows something is going flat when she finds herself going over the same material twice.
  8. When the research starts to go flat, it's time to start writing.
  9. She works extremely hard on the openings of her books and articles. If people don't like the first three pages (of a book) it doesn't matter how good the rest of the book is, they won't read it. She said she worked for (how many?) months on the opening of Rin Tin Tin.
    (Note: Journalists call the opening the 'lead'. When someone talks about the lead, they are talking about the first paragraph or two of an article, or the first few pages of a book. Sometimes spelled lede. Both words are pronounced with a hard e as in 'leed'. Writing a good lead--one that captivates the reader--is generally considered to be the hardest, most important part of writing anything.)
  10. Orlean said that she uses magazine articles as a way to test an idea to see if it's possible to 'open it up' into a book. Jason Boog replied that he uses blog posts as a way to find out if an idea is 'big enough' to turn into an article or book.
  11. Find a system (for both researching and writing) that works for you and stick with it.
    (Don't waste time learning new software and tools when you have something that works.)
  12. Orlean uses index cards to record her research. 
  13. She spreads the completed index cards out on a table as a way to organize and structure her books. 
  14. She is a Scrivener user.
  15. Find writers that you admire. Create a scrapbook of their solutions to problems. Turn to them when you have a writing problem to see how they solved it.
  16. If you need an agent, consider going to New York for a few days and meeting agents in person. Call young agents. Tell them you are in town, and would like to meet with them for 10 minutes to introduce yourself. Take a couple book ideas with you. Personal contact is important, and not to be under-rated. (This has been my experience, too.)
  17. Orlean doesn't believe in writing nonfiction books on spec.
    (Writing a book 'on spec' means writing the book without having an agent or publisher. This is a complicated issue. Sometimes, you should write a free ebook. It can be a good way to build a following and develop your book-writing chops. Seth Godin wrote 17 (and counting) free ebooks and as a result became an international best selling author.)
Personal observations:
Orlean's comments about ideas and their relationship to stories feels hugely important. Understanding this is a Big Deal for any writer.  I have plenty of ideas. I just spent two years trying to turn one of them into a book. The project failed, because I didn't pull at the original idea until I found the story!

An idea is a starting point for research and exploration, but it is not a story. In Orlean's words, you have to "keep pulling at the idea" until you find the story.

I recently spent two weeks living in the Peruvian Amazon rain forest. Since then I have become fascinated with  Peru, the ecology of the Amazon rain forest and the extraordinary travelers and adventurers attracted to that part of the world. That is an idea. It could even become a passion. But it is not a story.

A story is something human and specific. Like the story of Dervla Murphy, who with her nine-year-old daughter Rachel and a mule named Juana walked the length of Peru. (Murphy tells this story in her book Eight Feet In the Andes.)

Orlean has said in the past that her books are really personal education projects about subjects that interest her. (I can't find the link to the Orleans quote! Grrr)

In a New Yorker interview, JUAN PABLO GARNHAM asked Orlean, "What’s the key for making things like orchids or chickens into an interesting story?"

Orlean replied, "I think the key to making things like orchids and chickens interesting is having a real passion in the writer for understanding them. I really write out of an authentic curiosity, and I get excited about telling readers about something I’ve learned about. I think that excitement is what draws people in, especially to subjects they might not naturally have an interest in."

Here's another Orlean quote at GoodReads that expands on her idea of caring about things, and having a passion for what you are writing about. This particular quote rings very, very true for me.

“The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.” 

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