Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Whit Burnett

This is my best?

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Paul Auster

In 1942, Whit Burnett, the legendary editor of Story magazine, asked a representative selection of America’s most famous writers—ranging from Richard Wright to H.L. Mencken—to select what they considered their single best work. The result was a fascinating anthology, This is My Best, which more recently inspired a pair of enterprising editors, Kathy Kiernan and Retha Powers, to put together a new collection of the same name, drawing on such varied contributors as David Sedaris, Arthur Miller, and Scott Adams. (The latter anthology, which was published only ten years ago, is already a period piece in another way: it refers to “a field trip to the New York City booklovers’ paradise Coliseum Books,” which, alas, is no more.) Both are wonderfully enticing books for browsing, both for the quality of the selections themselves and for the authors’ thoughts on their choices. Every writer thinks occasionally about what his or her best work might be, and the process resembles editing and revision on a higher level: instead of pruning a rough draft to pick out the strongest parts, you’re looking back over a career that may have lasted for decades, pulling out the pieces that stand out from the rest and for which you’d most like to be remembered.

Facing such a choice can be simultaneously enlightening and humbling. Paul Auster, writing in the more recent collection, expresses more than a little ambivalence about the entire enterprise:

I have nothing to say about my choice. Writers know nothing about their own work, and the less they talk about it, the better…Out of so many thousands of pages, why these ten? No reason that I can think of. Forgive me. I apologize for my ignorance.

And it isn’t hard to understand his mixed feelings. When you go back over your own published stories to see which ones were better than others, you’re implicitly raising the question of why your work isn’t always this good. The answer, as uncomfortable as it might be, involves a word I normally try to avoid: inspiration. If there’s one theme I’ve tried to emphasize on this blog, it’s that writing is craft, writing is a learned skill, writing is a job that has to be pursued as systematically as any other. For all that, though, there’s no denying that on some days, the words are better than on others, and when you try to figure out why, it can seem like magic, or a mystery. (Although it goes without saying that those moments of inspiration only come if you’ve developed the habit of writing day in and day out, regardless of how you feel.)

Daniel Keyes

When I think about the work of which I personally feel the proudest, I’m similarly conflicted. On a technical level, I don’t think there’s any denying that Eternal Empire is my strongest novel: it’s the book in which I finally deployed all the lessons I learned from the previous two, and to my eyes, it’s the most suspenseful and satisfying book in the series. Yet The Icon Thief benefits both from the energy of a first novel and the extensive polishing it received: I spent twice as long on it as on the second two books, and I think it shows in every sentence. And City of Exiles is the book during which I felt I was becoming a real novelist. On a more granular level, my best writing tends to appear during a book’s climactic sections, since they’re paying off what the rest of the novel has set up so laboriously, and also because I’m putting everything into them that I can. (For those keeping score, I think the best passages of writing I’ve published in book form are Chapter 47 and Chapter 58 of The Icon Thief, the climactic chase in Chapters 49-52 of City of Exiles, and the whole concluding section of Eternal Empire, especially the scenes on the yacht and Wolfe’s solitary raid on the dacha in Sochi.)

With short fiction, it’s a little easier. My clear favorite of my published stories is “The Boneless One”: some of my happiest memories as an author were spent in its research and writing, and after it finally appeared in print, after many wrong turns, it also received the warmest reception of anything I’ve written, regardless of length, although “The Whale God” may eventually challenge it. I’m also very fond of “Kawataro,” which is one of those rare stories in which everything—plot, atmosphere, the closing twist—all seemed to come together in an inevitable way. When I compare these stories to the ones that don’t read quite as well, like “The Voices,” I can’t really say what happened. Maybe one more revision would have brought my weaker works up to the same level; maybe not. All I know is that writing comes down to playing the odds, on the level of a single day’s work and of an entire lifetime, in hopes that one page out of ten will end up being something that lasts. I’m reminded of the time Daniel Keyes won the Hugo award for his novelette “Flowers for Algernon,” one of the finest stories ever written. As Keyes came up to the podium, Isaac Asimov, who was serving as master of ceremonies, asked the crowd: “How did he do it? How did he do it?” And when Keyes took his award, he said: “Listen, when you find out how I did it, let me know, will you? I want to do it again.”

Written by nevalalee

October 23, 2013 at 9:00 am

A writer’s routine: Honoré de Balzac

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All writers have heard somewhere or other that Balzac had a horrendous routine. Two weeks to two months were spent on a book. During this time he went to bed after eight after a light dinner with white wine; he awoke and was back at his desk by 2 A.M., where he then wrote until six, drinking coffee from a pot kept permanently on the stove. At six he took a bath for an hour, than drank more coffee until his publisher came with proofs and took away corrected ones from the day before and new manuscript pages. From nine until twelve he wrote again, then breakfasted on eggs and more coffee. From one until six he worked at corrections.

When a book was done he then saw friends or mistresses, or disappeared from sight.

Hallie and Whit Burnett, Fiction Writer’s Handbook

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2011 at 7:36 am

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