30 Years of Creative Coaching

The Writers Studio, which I’ve covered previously on this site, celebrated its 30th anniversary this weekend. To mark the occasion, there was a sold-out, standing-room-only reading at the Strand Bookstore in NYC last night, followed by a party for faculty, students and guests at a private apartment overlooking Union Square. There was even a 30th anniversary cake.

Mark Peterson, the Studio's San Francisco Director.
Mark Peterson, the Studio’s San Francisco Director. Photo: Thomas Pletcher/Writeside.com.

Philip Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who founded The Writers Studio, kicked off the evening’s remarks at the Strand. He seemed very pleased by the Studio’s durability and growth, if somewhat astonished by how quickly three decades have gone by. Schultz was followed by a parade of writers associated with what the New York Times has called “the most personal of the [writing] programs.” Perhaps my favorite piece of the evening was by Therese Eiben, the Studio’s Hudson Valley Director. This was a funny and frightening take on the perils of flying today, and all too evocative.

The Writers Studio at 30, Epiphany Editions.
The Writers Studio at 30, Epiphany Editions.

In addition to the reading and the party, The Writers Studio has commemorated the occasion with the publication of The Writers Studio at 30 (“Fiction and Poetry from the First 30 Years of the Landmark School of Creative Writing and Thinking”). The paperbound volume is 500 pages and contains a wide range of work from writers associated with the Studio, including the Studio’s advisory board and friends, teachers and students. Starting today, you should be able to order a copy directly from the publisher.

A Focus On Writing

Sometimes I wonder which category has grown fastest: the number of people aspiring to write in one form or another, the number of MFA or independent writing programs designed to serve them, or the number of writing applications created to address their every need—particularly their need to focus.

Ever since WriteRoom began the focused writing craze many years ago, its imitators and progeny have expanded exponentially. From direct copies like JDarkRoom and PyRoom to Markdown-enabled programs like Byword and iA Writer to full-scale writing environments such as Scrivener (and even Microsoft Word), virtually every writing software program available today offers a full-screen, “distraction-free” mode to aid writers’ ability to concentrate. Many take this a step further by enabling one to focus on individual paragraphs or sentences.

However, just as with MFA programs (and writers themselves), these programs diverge significantly in their overall capabilities. Some (Scrivener, Storyist, Ulysses) aim to fill the many diverse roles involved in creating longer works, including research, note-taking, formating and so on. Others seem intent on streamlining and doing one or two things well, and these latter programs tend to specialize in creating an aesthetically pleasing environment in which one can concentrate and be productive.

Write!, one of the newest programs tailored for writers.
Write!, one of the newest programs tailored for writers.

Write!, a program I had been aware of but not yet tried, is in this mode, but with some distinctive new twists of its own. Last week, a member of its marketing team reached out to inquire whether I’d consider doing a review. Intrigued, I decided to investigate further. I saw enough promise in the program to purchase a license and give it a test drive. A quick overview follows below.

Let’s start with what is immediately obvious: Write! is a beautifully designed piece of software. On purely aesthetic grounds, it rivals anything else in its field and surpasses most of its competitors. If you’re looking for a program that will get out of your way and let you focus on drafting your story, this is as good as anything out there. It’s also much more capable than the WriteRoom-style editors.

This is the light theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.
This is the light theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.

Write! began life as a Windows program; subsequent versions were quickly released for macOS and Linux. Since I write on Mac and Linux, this cross-platform compatibility is a big plus. The program looks and behaves the same on both platforms, as it should. (And it’s easily the best-looking writing program on Linux.) It also syncs your work seamlessly between platforms, thanks to its own, built-in cloud integration (which costs $4.95 per year, starting one year after the purchase date). The program itself costs $14.95. Rather than a traditional license, Write! sets up an account for you—you need to set up this account before you can download the software. There is no trial version, but you can cancel your account and get a refund within the first seven days, should you so choose.

The program is under very rapid development and the developers are quite responsive to users’ suggestions. For example, the program originally defaulted to saving documents in the cloud; there is now an option to save locally. I’m told that, very soon, there will be a localized version of the Cloud panel, which will make the program much more flexible in terms of organizing your work.

This is the dark theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.
This is the dark theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.

Write! is a text editor that supports Markdown, Wiki and Textile syntax. It can export to any of those formats, as well as to .docx, .odt, plain text (.txt), PDF or HTML. A unique feature of the software, visible in both of the above screenshots, is a pure prose take on the Sublime Text coding editor’s “Minimap,” running down from the upper right corner. This bird’s-eye view of your text shows you where you are in your document and you can use the map to navigate up and down.

Here’s a quick rundown of the program’s other features:

  • Tabs and writing sessions—you can save groups of tabs as a session and return to it later.
  • Thanks to Write’s built-in cloud storage, you can create links to your documents for sharing with others (NB: Write! uses AWS and 256-bit encryption for cloud storage).
  • Again thanks to cloud storage, there is an unlimited undo feature. Not that most of us would need that (I hope), but it is a unique feature nonetheless!
  • Productivity counters, which you can tweak.
  • Native spell-checking (in multiple languages!), plus online access (via links to your browser) to a thesaurus, Google lookups, translations and Wikipedia.

And here are the quirks and drawbacks, some of which the developers are already working on:

  • Proprietary cloud storage, as opposed to Dropbox or Google Drive. There are advantages to this, as noted, but you’ll need to determine whether it works for you.
  • Limited functionality with local files (this will soon be remedied, according to the developers).
  • Limited import capabilities (though export capabilities are quite strong).
  • Limited functionality for longer works. Documents can only be combined manually, which would make for extra work in something as long as a novel.
  • Style restrictions. The built-in styles are gorgeous, but you’ll need to export your work and reformat it to industry standards before submitting.

To summarize: Write! is a relatively new entrant in the highly competitive field of distraction-free text editors and it is already quite strong. The program has a great look and feel, and new features and functionality are being added regularly. If you’re okay with the caveats cited above (some of which are already being addressed) then you’ll find this program provides a satisfying and productive writing environment.

Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel from George Saunders, probably America’s premier short story writer, is nothing short of an event. It has reached #1 on the New York Times hardcover best seller list, and the Times has produced a ten-minute “immersive narrative short” based on excerpts from the novel. The book’s publication has been accompanied by a spectacular audiobook version with a 166-person cast. Lincoln in the Bardo has received very strong reviews, both here and in the UK. And, it is the author’s first novel, which is yet another reason why so many people are so eager to read it.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
A novel from America’s premier short story writer.

Saunders’s short stories are phenomenal works of art. I think “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” from Tenth of December, does as fine a job as anything I’ve read of capturing the pre-Trump American zeitgeist. In fact, all four of Saunders’s short story collections are believably absurd renditions of life in America in recent years, poignant and heartfelt, with great empathy for those who are struggling and savage satirical depictions of the powers that be. Many of the dazed and confused characters in these stories would have no doubt voted for Trump, believing (like their real-life counterparts) they had nothing to lose.

It’s a long way from Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, just as it’s a major transition from the concision of a short story, no matter how brilliantly rendered, to the larger canvas of a novel. Saunders used this analogy to describe the task: “It’s like I’ve spent my whole life making custom yurts and someone said, ‘Can you build a mansion?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I could link a bunch of yurts together.'”

But Saunders has done much more than string his yurts together. He has done extensive research on Lincoln at the time of the Civil War, and on the unexpected death of his beloved son, Willie. The quotes unearthed have been used strategically to propel the story, alternating with the narrative of his characters in the bardo (Saunders is a practicing Buddhist). These are extraordinarily well done.

There are three principal narrators, in addition to Willie Lincoln, and each is trapped, for reasons unique to him, in the bardo, unable to move on. They don’t want the same fate to befall Willie, so much of the narrative consists of their efforts to persuade the lad to leave his transitional state, in a “matterlightblooming” phenomenon. Lincoln’s grief at the death of his son, and his heavy responsibilities as President in a time of national emergency, contribute to the novel’s elegiac tone. This is very different from the atmosphere of most of Saunders’s stories.

The unusual way in which the story is told somehow reflects the transitional state in which it is set, and does so with growing power throughout the novel. The characterizations, both historically based and invented, are wonderful. This is a book you will remember and think about long after you finish reading it.

Writing & Technology

Mathew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2016) will delight a certain kind of readership: those who, like myself, are interested not only in what a writer has to say but in the tools the writer employs to say it. Readers who are keenly interested in both literature and technology are undoubtedly a minority but I’d wager there are more of us around than you might think. Certainly word processing itself has been around long enough, and become mainstream enough, to warrant a history of its development.

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
A fascinating study of writers and the technologies they employ.

Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, does a fine job of describing how writers came to terms with (or chose not to come to terms with) word processing technology. In fact, as the author points out, word processing is just another point on the spectrum of writers’ methodologies. It did not replace longhand, nor did it completely replace the typewriter. Writers are a versatile lot.

Here are a few examples: George R. R. Martin, whose series Song of Ice and Fire became HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” writes with an antique word processing program called WordStar, using a DOS-era computer which is not connected to the Internet. (Philip Roth also used a DOS machine, in his case with WordPerfect.) Joyce Carol Oates, an incredibly prolific writer, sticks to longhand (and a typewriter).

At first, the ease and fluidity promised by word processing (for those writers who chose to embrace it) were thought to threaten literary quality. It was felt the machine and its software would wind up doing too much of the writer’s work. Some early adopters even tried to conceal their use of word processing because of the perceived stigma. The writer Gish Jen describes fellow students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop working at mainframe terminals and then deliberately “doctoring” their printouts—adding annotations by hand, rumpling the corners—before sending their work out for consideration. “Real writers,” their instructors said, used pencils or typewriters. Yet for Jen the personal computer (in her case an early Apple) overcame such prejudices. “Computers coaxed out of me an expansiveness the typewriter never did,” she said. “What came out … was not further from the human heart; it was closer. It was looser, freer, more spontaneous—more democratic, too.”

Kirschenbaum’s history runs the gamut from do-it-yourself personal computer kits to early Kaypros and Osbornes to the latest “artisanal” software tools like Scrivener. He nominates Len Deighton‘s Bomber as the first published (in 1970) novel written with a word processor, the IBM MT/ST. The book is nicely written, with an appealing tongue-in-cheek humor. If you’re at all interested in how writing gets put together, this is highly recommended.

The Writers Studio

I mentioned recently that I was taking a workshop at The Writers Studio. I’d like to expand on that a bit and tell you why I find it worthwhile.

In general, I’m in the camp that finds creative writing courses of any type to be of limited value. I’ve taken courses at august institutions, such as Columbia, which only reinforced this belief. The Writers Studio is different, and it is different because it focuses specifically on craft and the narrative voice. The method is to offer a fiction or poetry example each week (usually alternating between the two) and analyze it according to the voice of its Persona/Narrator (“PN” in Writers Studio parlance). Tone (“the surface,  the sound of language on the page, like sunlight glinting on the ocean”) and mood (“the undercurrent that draws you in”) are also examined.

The Studio’s goal is not to network or score an agent, and not to focus on publishing one’s work per se. Instead, the intent is to help students by experimenting with and trying to emulate the craft involved in a wide range of other voices, with the ultimate goal of discovering one’s own voice(s). I find it it quite helpful and thought-provoking, and the weekly deadlines are also important in producing “kernels” of work (short poems and two-page story beginnings) throughout the workshop.

The Writers Studio was founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz (the prize was for his collection Failure, published in 2007). You can read more about the history and philosophy behind the Studio here, and elsewhere on their site.

To give you an idea of what the workshop is actually like, consider the narrative voice, tone and mood of T. C. Boyle’s widely anthologized short story “Greasy Lake,” available here. Then read my two-page work derived from it following the break. (NB: the goal is not literal imitation but rather inspiration derived from materials in the original.)

Continue reading “The Writers Studio”

Some Timely Reading

I’d wanted to write about craft today, in conjunction with a workshop I’m taking at the Writers Studio. However, in light of Donald Trump’s illegal, immoral and un-American ban on refugees entering the United States, I’ve decided to focus on other fiction instead. Dystopian fiction. Fiction perfectly suited to today’s “post-truth” environment and the Trump administration’s “alternative facts.”

1984 by George Orwell
1984: the best-known dystopian novel.

First up: George Orwell’s 1984, the dystopian novel. It gives me some hope to tell you that the paperback version is temporarily out of stock at Amazon; I’ve linked to the Kindle version instead.

There are very good reasons why so many people have felt compelled to read or re-read this book—its depictions of the obliteration of objective truth and the destruction of fundamental human rights are very much in keeping with Trump’s first week in office.

Next, two classic alternative histories portraying a fascist America. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935 (and also out of stock at Amazon), still retains the power to shock. So too does Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), which describes a fascist American government run by Charles Lindbergh. It too is out of stock. With hate crimes on the upswing and swastikas popping up around the country, you’ll find both books resonate strongly.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World has entered the language.

After 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may be the best-known dystopian novel. Amazingly, the paperback version is currently available. This is a masterful portrait of psychological manipulation writ large, at the service of a totalitarian state. Helping to preserve order is a wondrous new antidepressant and hallucinogenic drug, soma. Today’s American equivalent would be opioids in the impoverished rural areas and social media among the chattering classes.

Finally, a title of special interest for those who participated in the Women’s March on Washington: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. This 1985 novel concerns the subjugation of women in a totalitarian theocracy. Many would argue that Mike Pence and the desire to destroy Planned Parenthood are steps in that direction.

In this dark time, it’s heartening that many Americans can see the distortions and deceptions of Trump’s administration reflected in classic titles. Together with the continuing protests around the country, it suggests that resistance may eventually produce change.

Fiction in the Post-truth Era

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” the saying goes, and this poses a real challenge for fiction writers. More so than ever today, in our post-truth era. Yet it’s a challenge that’s being met, often brilliantly.

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.
Post-truth and reality in a modern thriller. Photo: Post-Gazette.com.

Noah Hawley offers an excellent example. Not only is Hawley a gifted novelist—his latest, Before the Fall, made the New York Times 100 Notable Books list last year—he is a masterful screenwriter as well, as exemplified by the first two seasons of “Fargo” in particular.

Much of Before the Fall concerns the 24-hour news cycle and the ways in which appearance vies with reality. In fact, the novel’s denouement revolves around these issues. But the book is such a gripping, suspenseful read that you’re only concerned with turning the pages. The issues raised do resonate after you put the book down, though.

Fargo
“Fargo,” from FX. Photo: Backstage.com

The story (not the plot) is similar in “Fargo.” Set in the Upper Plains, the series contrasts the (mostly) polite and plain-spoken people who live there with the violent and chaotic spin of American social and political change. It does not do this overtly; both seasons are set in the past. Yet it’s there, and you become aware of it as you go along.

In both the book and the TV series, Hawley does what writers are supposed to do: dig inside his characters to present their truth. That’s one thing that has not changed in our current climate and it means that truth continues to have a bright future—at least in fiction and film.

What Are You Reading?

Are you reading at all? Too many Americans aren’t, at least where books are concerned. And that goes a long way toward explaining the current state of the country. After all, reading expands one’s mental horizons and encourages understanding and empathy, both of which are in short supply these days.

To underscore the need to read, the New York Public Library and others have launched a #ReadersUnite campaign on social media. You’re encouraged to post photos of the book(s) you’re currently reading, along with your thoughts on the importance of same.

I’m currently reading a novel called The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Australian writer Richard Flanagan.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

It’s not directly related to our current situation, concerning as it does Australian POWs in WWII, but it certainly encourages empathy. It’s a well-written page-turner, as well.

I tend to organize my reading in lists, to try to keep things manageable (this doesn’t always work). The lists are divided into “Classic” (e.g., The Brothers Karamazov), “Current” (e.g., the book described above and other recent books, both fiction and non-fiction) and “Craft” (e.g., The Best American Short Stories series)— anything else goes into a free-floating catch-all category. I try to read at least a book a week and usually succeed.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand — as an aspiring writer, I read a lot and as widely as I can. If you’d like to become more proficient than the average social media post at expressing your own thoughts and feelings, then pick up a book! Pick up many books and keep reading. You’ll be the richer for it.

Ulysses Sails Through NaNoWriMo

As a writer with a technology background, I find apps designed for writing of more than ordinary interest. I’ve tried a huge number of them and have quite a few still installed. For the 2016 edition of NaNoWriMo, however, I basically chose one app and stuck with it most of the way through: Ulysses.

Most of my writing is done on a MacBook Pro, although I also use Linux from time to time (Ubuntu on a Dell XPS 13). The Mac has a huge number of writing apps available, more than any other platform. Scrivener and Ulysses are probably the best known and most widely used.

For NaNoWriMo, I found Ulysses to be virtually ideal. The chapter summaries (in the middle column) keep you oriented as you work through your plot development. Progress toward your daily word count is graphically shown in the upper right hand corner, which is quite motivating. The application is streamlined and powerful, but not overly complicated. It can be configured in any number of ways to suit your preferences (full-screen mode is especially nice).

Ulysses screenshot
Note the graphical word count widget in the upper right corner—when the circle completes and turns green, you’ve reached your daily target.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Linux, unfortunately, lacks the Mac’s variety of writing programs. Still, there are options. For two or three days last November, I used FocusWriter, a nicely designed and versatile open source program available across platforms. It too offers a nice full-screen mode and a daily word count progress indicator, albeit text-based.

Ultimately, though, I felt most comfortable and productive during NaNoWriMo while using Ulysses.

NaNoWriMo 2016

I’ve recently completed my first NaNoWriMo, winding up with a 50,000-plus-word draft of a novel I’ve tentatively titled The Divide. I found it a worthwhile endeavor in a number of different ways.

First, there is the event’s quantity-over-quality vibe that is designed to overcome writer’s block—it works. In fact, I found incorporating the production of 1,667 words into my daily routine much easier than I would have imagined. So much easier, in fact, that at the end of 30 days I found I had mild withdrawal symptoms.

Second, if you successfully complete NaNoWriMo you wind up with a large chunk of text that you can rework as you see fit. Of course, your rapidly produced November draft is bound to be somewhat uneven (although I think the relaxation fostered by the event actually produces some worthwhile results).

Reworking your rough draft is what the “Now What?” months of January and February are for, apparently. NaNoWriMo says it supports the revision and publishing process “with the added aim of helping you fulfill your novel’s potential: from first draft to final.”

If any of you have gone through the “Now What” process I’d love to hear from you, either via a comment or an email (write to tpletcher [at] writeside.com).