“Authorize” Advice from Pulitizer Prize Author Richard Ford

Last year, I was lucky enough to attend the  F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival. Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Ford was guest speaker and winner of the 2015 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature.

Ford is the author of five collections of short stories and eight novels, including the acclaimed Frank Bascombe series. The second novel in the series, Independence Day, won the Pulitzer in 1996

In his acceptance speech at the Fitzgerald festival, Ford was humorous and articulate, with a soft Southern sway to his voice as he described his writing journey from Mississippi to New York.

An author’s discipline

I took notes as he talked. Ford drew laughter several times from his rapt audience, but he had a message about writing that resonated for its gently forceful lesson for authors. Ford said that ordinary human beings can write great books but that it takes great discipline. His exact words were: “A sternness I live with and have learned to enjoy.”

As an example of this, Ford described how before he writes a book, he creates a tabbed binder full of research on characters, location, and events. All this research—which might take more than a year—is needed to get the book’s concept and setting firmly fixed in his head before he writes anything. Validation! I do something similar except that I use an archive box.

Ford also declared that as an author, he “authorizes.” For him, there is no such thing as the characters “taking over” the story. As a writer who writes to an outline, this really resonated with me. Ford also claimed that literature is most interesting “when the villain says something true.” I liked that pronouncement as well and have enough dialogue under my belt to that this type of writing cannot be achieved by letting characters meander “unauthorized” through the story. Bottom line: discipline.

“Sternness” matters because . . .

I pulled out my notes of Ford’s talk when I saw his article on assessing short stories in the 18 April 2016 edition of America magazine. After discussing how and why to define short stories, but cleverly managing to avoid actually doing so, Ford took the reader’s point of view to tell us why an author’s “sternness” matters:

“I like stories that understand they are husbanding my precious attention and need therefore to give me back something important. And I like stories that are up to telling me directly something important about life, something I did not know and in language I can understand.”

Thank you for putting it so perfectly, Mr. Ford!

You, dear readers, are sharing your “precious attention.” I hope that myself and fellow writers offer you valued entertainment–be it humor, excitement, curiosity, joy, or a tingle up the spine–in return.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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Anne R. Allen’s Essential Tips for New Authors

Anne R. Allen’s Essential Tips for New Authors

Lately, several emerging authors have asked me what to focus on as they start their careers. For a pro opinion, I turned to Anne R. Allen, author of How To Be A Writer In the E-Age. Anne writes the essential blog for today’s writers at http://annerallen.com/. When I asked her for a few tips, she shared this great advice:

1) Concentrate on writing short work (both fiction and personal essays).

Yes, you’ve got that novel or memoir you’re pounding away at, but spend at least half your time on short pieces. Short stories and essays will help you hone your craft and get you published in journals and anthologies. They might even make you some money. Some short story contests have big prizes.

And yes, you can write some of those short personal essays on a blog—either your own or as a guest—which will do amazing things for getting your name out there.

When you finish a short work, it gives you a wonderful feeling of accomplishment, and you can send those out to contests and journals and anthologies. There’s nothing more empowering than getting something in print and putting “published author” after your name.

2) Don’t write in a vacuum.

Take a class, join a critique group, find beta readers or a critique partner. You want to do this fairly early on. Writing in a vacuum can lead to bad habits and unrealistic expectations. Learning to write well is a long, steep learning curve. Don’t stay stuck at the bottom longer than you need to.

3) Read contemporary books in your genre.

If you only read the young adult books from your own youth or you read the regencies or mysteries you loved 20 years ago, you won’t be able to compete in today’s market. What was hot then will be clichéd now.

4) Network with other writers.

There are lots of great online social media groups and forums. (Some are fantastic and others not so much, so run if you see any trollish behavior!)

Blogging is a great way to network with other writers, and there are great blog networks for new writers like the Insecure Writers Support Group.

Simply commenting on well-known writing blogs gets your name into search engines and raises your profile. Get to know people and get known!

Genre groups that welcome both amateurs and professionals can be especially helpful, like RWA, SCBWI, and Sisters in Crime. They usually have online and in-person meetings.

You may be lucky enough to live in a community that has in-person writers clubs that meet at local libraries or bookstores. Network anyplace you find kindred spirits.  But you want to be online too. That’s where you’re going to make your sales and establish your career.

Online networking is a great way hear about agents who are looking for work like yours and to learn from people who are self-publishing and decide if it will work for you. This is where you’re going to find out about the business and learn the latest scams to stay away from (there are always scammers looking to pounce on newbie writers.)

5) Write everything down.

Don’t “talk out” your novel or story. Jot down your ideas—in notebooks, on Evernote, or whatever program works for you to save those thoughts, names, settings, weird stories that you can work into plots. Take it with you everywhere. They will be a goldmine later.

Thank you, Anne!

To learn more about Anne R. Allen and mine her trove of great advice, check out http://annerallen.com/ and her book How To Be A Writer In the E-Age.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

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