Craft Book Recommendation: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

by Ruta Rimas

July is coming to an end and so the back-to-school sales are on. These dog days of summer seem the right time, then, to recommend a back-to-basics text, one that plants the roots of good writing: The Elements of Style. It’s an informative, straightforward writing manual from the grandfather of writing instruction, William Strunk, Jr., and updated by one of his former students, E.B. White. Yes, E.B. White, author of the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. The Elements of Style is generally used in college or upper-level English courses to instruct young writers on how to clearly communicate.

The fourth edition of the classic writing book.

Though it’s an introductory text, it’s invaluable to those of us who have been writing for a very long time, too. “Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” says Roger Angell in his introduction to the fourth edition. It’s true. Writing is hard, and it’s smart practice to remind ourselves of the basics.

In this slim volume, Strunk and White take us through the rules of rhetoric. It’s not a comprehensive text, but instead offers easy-to-understand rules of usage, principles of composition, commonly misused words and expressions, and a list of approaches to style. Strunk and White remind readers to embrace the Oxford comma, use the active voice, and put statements in the positive form. My favorite edict, one that I share with the writers I edit, is to Omit Needless Words (S&W consider one phrase, “the fact that,” to be particularly excruciating to encounter, and offer a chart with other options to use).

This thin and mighty reference allows us to reflect on our own writing.  Are our sentences convoluted, complicated, or overstuffed? Are we more in love with the purple of our prose rather than the information we are conveying or the purpose of the passage?  S&W value definite, specific, and concrete language (ex: “He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward” is vague and wordy; rewrite that in definite terms and you’ll have “He grinned as he pocketed the coin.”). Word choice matters. Sentence construction is important. Style and mechanics go hand in hand.

After reviewing The Elements of Style, pick up Charlotte’s Web. You’ll notice that E.B. White takes to heart all that Strunk taught him. His storytelling is clear, written with deliberate precision, utilizes varied sentence length, and is never overabundant in its descriptions.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Consider this excerpt, when Charlotte, a spider, begins weaving a new web to praise her pig-friend, Wilbur:

And so, talking to herself, the spider worked at her difficult task. When it was completed, she felt hungry. She ate a small bug that she had been saving. Then she slept.

Next morning, Wilbur arose and stood beneath the web. He breathed the morning air into his lungs. Drops of dew, catching the sun, made the web stand out clearly. When Lurvy arrived with breakfast, there was the handsome pig, and over him, woven neatly in block letters, was the word, “TERRIFIC.” Another miracle. (p.94)

Perhaps find inspiration from the book’s arachnid star who weaves simple words into her web to describe her porcine companion. One word, sometimes two, was all she needed. Maybe it’s what your writing needs, too.

Reading About Writing Doesn’t Count as Writing

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I am a sucker for any book that promises a glimpse into “the writer’s life”—books that, in discussing the daily practices of authors, will (I hope) offer a clear and well-trodden path to I can follow to literary accomplishment.

There are plenty of books that offer this big-picture, life-of-the-writer perspective. I’m often dipping in and out of The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from The Paris Review Interviews. Each section opens with a question—“When Did You Begin Writing?,” “How Important Is Plot?,” “Are You Friends with Other Writers?”—and contains brief responses from a variety of writers. Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, devotes chapters to the value of writing partners, of keeping a journal, and of finding one’s own writing rhythm, interspersed with examples drawn from the writing lives of Virginia Woolf, Stephen King, and many others.

And then there’s Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography, a book not, at first glance, about how to write—and yet entirely about writing. In her early 50s, Levy is divorced, living in a shabby apartment with her daughters. She writes about lugging a space heater into the shed where she writes. She describes biking home from the grocery store with a chicken tied to the seat—only for the chicken to fall off and get run over by a car (she rescues it, brings it home, and cooks it anyway). She ruminates on the dissolution of her marriage, and the death of her mother, and she worries about paying the bills.

“I no longer had a study at the most professionally busy time of my life. I wrote where I could and concentrated on making a home for my daughters. . . . to be making this kind of home, a space for a mother and her daughters, was so hard and humbling, profound and interesting, that to my surprise I found I could work very well in the chaos of time. I was thinking clearly, lucidly; the move up the hill and the new situation had freed something that had been trapped and stifled. I became physically strong at fifty, just as my bones were supposed to be losing their strength. I had energy because I had no choice but to have energy. I had to write to support my children and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.”

Writing isn’t a part of life. It is a life. Levy is a woman, a mother, an ex-wife, a friend. She befriends an elderly neighbor, she reminisces about Greece, she rides a bike up a hill in London. She is cold, she is frustrated, she is elated. And always, she is a writer.

 

The Cost of Living doesn’t offer any tips or schedules. It offers a single, ever-shifting perspective on a specific life of writing. It reminds me that being a writer isn’t about habits or word counts; it’s in the living, and it’s in the writing.

Do you have a favorite book about the writing life? Comment below with the title for a chance to win a free copy of The Cost of Living!

Monogamist Writing: An Interview with Author (and GLB September Guest) Danielle Trussoni

by Julie Chibbaro

We are lucky to live in the Hudson Valley near the Hudson River, which attracts many artists and writers to its luscious shores. Danielle Trussoni, along with her filmmaker husband Hadrien and her two children, is a recent transplant. Danielle will be our Get Lit Beacon guest in September 2018.

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Danielle is a phenomenal writer; she’s an award-winning memoirist and novelist, the author of the New York Times and international bestsellers Angelology and Angelopolis, as well as the memoirs Falling Through the Earth and The Fortress. She has also written under a pen name. Her books have been translated into over thirty languages. In addition to writing, Danielle co-hosts, along with Walter Kirn, “Writerly,” a podcast devoted to the practical aspects of the writing life.

I recently had the chance to catch up with Danielle, and asked her about the monogamist approach to writing, how and if becoming a parent affected her as a writer, and what part giving birth played in writing her books.

GLB: Your fiction has a wonderful mix of history, mystery, magic, and the imaginary wrapped in a tight literary package. You’re quite prolific; along with fiction, you’ve written memoir and essays. Your latest, Home Sweet Maison, published under the pen name Danielle Postel-Vinay, is a handbook on how to create a beautiful home like the French. My question is: Are you a monogamist writer—meaning, do you work on one project at a time? Or do you dip into various projects all at the same time?5189JQ6eAAL._SX381_BO1,204,203,200_

Danielle: I am definitely a one project at a time kind of writer. I need to concentrate fully on whatever I am working on. I try to be very clear in my mind about what I am doing and when I will be doing it. I am a planner. I have a journal that I keep in which I write down the number of words I write each day. I give myself a timeline for each project, and work to stay within that schedule. I am rigorous when it comes to keeping myself healthy, both physically and mentally. That means that I don’t drink much (if at all) when I’m working on a book. I exercise. I get lots of sleep. And then I show up every day at 8AM at my desk, ready to see where the road leads me.

When you’re writing, you must create your own day every day. It is important to be realistic, but also to challenge yourself. I’m always impressed by writers who are able to produce great work consistently. I believe that happens by keeping focused through desire, discipline and a strict schedule.

GLB: You have a new baby. Do you find that the publishing world treats mothers differently, as a “woman writer” with a baby who is therefore somehow less focused? Did you notice that attitudes were different in France when you lived there toward the question of work-life balance?

Danielle: I chose to keep my pregnancy a secret for the most part. And now that my daughter has been born I don’t post about her or go into the details of motherhood on social media. I don’t believe that my choice to have a baby should affect my work, and I have never allowed it to stand in the way of what I’m doing. I wrote a novel while I was pregnant. I was back at my desk three weeks after my daughter was born. Being a mother has made me more focused. That said, this doesn’t seem to be the case for everyone. I have worked with women agents and editors who have disappeared or become less focused after having a child. This served to make me more determined to keep my career on track.81wdN9coEaL

Another added benefit of having a child is that it allows you to see the world from a different point of view. Suddenly, you are caring for and protecting a very vulnerable human being, one who cannot fend for herself. This shift in perspective is inherently good for fiction writing, as it allows you to examine your perceptions and how they alter.

GLB: You run the podcast “Writerly,” in which you discuss all sorts of subjects of interest to writers. Why did you start this podcast? What do you hope listeners will take away from it?

Danielle: I found that I wanted to talk about writing, but that I was so tired of formulating written sentences by the end of my writing day that I couldn’t begin a blog. I also really hate the word “blog,” and couldn’t bring myself to create something with such a horrible name. Starting a podcast was a way to free myself from the computer screen and still discuss my ideas about writing in language, without being tied to my computer. It is very collaborative, as I co-host Writerly with the author Walter Kirn, and every episode is a kind of riff on a theme related to writing.

My favorite part of the podcast is that it is giving new writers a window into what it is like to be a working writer. It is like sitting in on two professionals having coffee and talking about their days. I wish that I had something like this when I was an MFA student, as it would have given me such a different perspective about what I was doing. I love getting messages from listeners, and sometimes we even read them (and answer them) on the show.

We now have nearly sixty episodes and we’re still finding important topics to discuss. It seems that it will be a never-ending endeavor! You can find the podcast in your app store or at www.writerlypodcast.com.

 

Interview with Author Diane Lapis: Hot on the Trail of Cocktails Across America

by Julie Chibbaro

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We recently hosted author Diane Lapis who, with her writing partner Anne Peck-Davis, just published an unusual book that offers a unique overview of midcentury cocktail culture, featuring both recipes, and reproductions of the postcards used to advertise popular lounges and bars of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. But it’s more than a mere compendium of recipes and pictures. In Cocktails Across America, Lapis and Peck-Davis tease out the stories behind each postcard, revealing some mighty strange history in these United States. I cornered Diane to ask a few questions about how she wrote the book, working with a co-author, and her unusual (yet serendipitous!) path to finding not only a great publisher, but a great agent too.

GLB: At Get Lit Beacon, you read to us a story about an Atomic cocktail. Is that really true? Can you tell us how you dug that story up?

Diane: The stories in Cocktails Across America use postcards as a starting point. My coauthor Anne Peck-Davis and I used a variety of materials to learn about the origins of the cocktail, or the bar or city in which the drink was first introduced. Vintage cocktail books and menus, newspaper and journal articles and advertisements, books, and websites were our go-to resources. For certain stories, we contacted historical societies, postcard clubs, and specialty libraries.

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Two postcards depicting views of atomic blasts were featured in the Atomic Cocktail story: Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Club, and Vegas Vic’s Pioneer Club. I gathered information from the Nevada National Security Site, the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and various websites and books about popular culture in Nevada. Then I pieced together how the hospitality industry capitalized on the atomic blasts as a form of entertainment. Finding old photos of beauty queens sporting the atomic bomb style hairdo, convinced me that this story had to be told.

GLB: You also mentioned you decided to find an agent for the book once you’d written it, even though you’d already found a publisher. Can you say why you made that decision?

Diane: Anne and I were thrilled that Countryman Press (a division of W.W. Norton) was interested in our manuscript. Before signing the contract, I serendipitously met the CEO of the Curtis Brown Literary Agency. He took an interest in our project and suggested that we consider using his agency to help with the business side of publishing. I was reluctant, as we already had a publisher… what could we possibly need an agent for??? Everyone that we knew in the publishing industry highly recommended engaging the services of an agent. Anne and I then interviewed one of Curtis Brown’s agents and liked his attitude and personality. He was well versed in the field and patiently answered our long list of questions. We are so thankful that we signed with Curtis Brown! Our agent was helpful in negotiating the complicated contract and added value to it as well.

GLB: How did you work together with your writing partner? Can you share a story of when it didn’t work so well?

Diane: Working with a creative collaborator was a gratifying experience. Anne and I shared similar interests in postcards and 20th century cultural history. We readily agreed on content and the design of the book, thereby making it easy to achieve our goals. We were ready to jump into something new and bold, and delighted in stretching our horizons. We split the workload, edited each other’s writing, suggested pathways to follow, and discovered and shared new resources.

However, our biggest challenge was finding time to work together. We were free during opposite times of the day and live about a 45-minute drive from each other. Therefore, we had to carefully plan our meetings. We prepared agendas that kept us focused and ensured that we discussed specific and time-sensitive items. Sometimes we met at a bookstore or traveled to each other’s homes. We sent hundreds (possibly thousands) of emails and had many lengthy phone conversations. Scheduling telephone conferences with our editor and agent required additional planning. Anne and I both loved working on this project, so we found positive ways to deal with our time challenge.

 

Paul Lisicky: An Essay, a Poem, a Story, and a Song

By Flora Stadler

Author Paul Lisicky’s memoir The Narrow Door reads like a scrapbook elegy—its loss archived in love notes, fragments of feeling, snapshots of memory. The book (a New York Times Editors’ Choice) documents the death of his longtime friend and fellow writer, Denise Gess, and the disintegration of his relationship with his ex-husband, writer Mark Doty. There’s emotional enormity in his remembering, the placement of personal and natural disaster side by side—cancer and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen; isolation and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. I love the structure and sensibility of this book, and that’s why I asked him:

What was the one thing you didn’t want to do when writing The Narrow Door?


“This is a great question but a tough one for me too, because I don’t think I ever consciously write out of negation. With The Narrow Door in particular, I was trying to see how much life I could get on the page without destroying it, without making some incomprehensible mess. I say that knowing so many of my favorite visual artists and writers make amazing work out of subtraction—in other words, limiting their work to the use of a few terms. Think of songwriters who write songs built of two chords, or graphic novelists who use only black and white. I’m fascinated by that approach, but I seem to be after trying to accommodate my too-muchness, always asking myself how much can I put out there? Can this feel like an essay, a poem, a story, and a song all at the same time? Can I create a sense of simultaneity, a sense of the connections between disparate people, who are never really all that separate if we hold them side by side?

So I never really go into any project overtly thinking about what I’m not going to do. It’s much more intuitive than that. It’s more like writing thirty pages and thinking, maybe—hmm. This feels more like F minor when I need three chord changes here. Or: this feels bright yellow when it needs some darker yellow and gold and bright green. Or: my friend was a hell of a lot sillier than this self-dramatizing person I’ve conjured up. Start again. So a lot of different moods are tried on until I find something that feels remotely accurate. I’m sure at a certain point in The Narrow Door I must have been thinking of other grief books. I must have been thinking, Man, this could be an awful slog, some guy’s feelings in the wake of his friend’s death. Who would want to read that? Haven’t other people done that better? The shock was the book started evolving into its own creature over time. Even the most crushing stuff, say, the climate catastrophes, had a weird kind of awe and alertness about it, and the book was so much less about death and mourning than it was, well, the texture of going through the day in the middle of trouble. But that never felt chosen. What better way to kill a book before it’s even had a chance to breathe? At least for me, I should say. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m tossing out some maxim that should be true for everyone.

But back to your question. I think all of my work is written out of some desire not to write the book that’s already on the shelf, but I don’t want to repeat myself either, which is a hell of a lot harder to do than it sounds. Joy Williams says: ‘The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered.’ That’s sort of religion to me. Those words might sound scrupulous to the point of scary, but I don’t think there’s any better way to stay alive as an artist, a person.”

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, along with Paul Lisicky’s other books, is available at Indiebound. His next novel, Later, is coming in 2020 from Graywolf Press.