“Beret Man”

When I begin to write a book, writing my daily word count with my fountain pen in my hand, following one sentence with the next, struggling to find the tone and feel and thread of a book, trying to discover what might be discovered at the end of the line of words, I am Beret Man.


In those early days of writing a new book, the heady days, the days when I feel as though I am an actual artist, going to work wearing such a stylish chapeau is in order.


The first trick is to keep the artist working.


When I have my beret on, I do not look back at the work as I write. If I criticize and edit and point out the flaws too soon, I can dampen my spirit and discourage myself before I have a chance to discover what it turns out I am trying to make.


I already know better than anyone that much of what Beret Man writes at this stage will reveal itself to be not good enough to be read by anyone. But many of the holes the new book has can be fixed later. Right now nothing can be allowed to get in the way of this new thing.


I do not bother Beret Man with the hard work of craftsmanship required to turn a pile of scribbling into a book that someone might want to read. The time for rewriting will come soon enough but not until the man in the beret has finished.


“Writing anything,” as Gordon Lightfoot once observed about the art he made brilliantly for so many years, “is a fragile magic at best.” He and Mr. Updike may or may not have known each other, but they were clearly on the same page.


Criticize the man in the beret too often or too soon or too harshly in the beginning, and he will put down his pen, afraid and discouraged and hesitant. It is right to leave him alone a bit, let him believe the work is golden.


Soon enough the truth will be apparent.


– Robert Benson, from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”


Wildly Controversial

Erring on the side of audaciousness – trying to grab the customer by the throat – is partly why a lot of the projects we are talking about were wildly controversial and, in some cases, deeply upsetting when they launched. Think of Orson Welles combining fact and fiction in his famous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds – in that moment he was reinventing entertainment and deeply scaring people at the same time.  Think of Matisse’s Blue Nude being burned in effigy in 1913. (Today you can buy a print of it at Walmart.) Think of D. H. Lawrence’s novels banned for their obscenity. Think of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which invented a new genre of nonfiction – people were incensed; was it real or not? Think of the technology that is subject to protests and reactive legislation – from Airbnb to Uber. Eventually, they become a part of our daily lives, but at first there is something deeply shocking and forceful to them. “Either you’re controversial,” as the perpetually controversial writer Elizabeth Wurtzel advises creatives, “or nothing at all is happening.”


– from “Perennial Seller” by Ryan Holiday


In Praise of Revision

Every writer I know who’s worth a damn spends way more time “losing” than “winning” – if success means typing a polished page that lands in print as is. Scriveners tend to arrive at good work through revision. Look at Yeat’s chopped-up fixes in facsimile form, or Ezra Pound’s swashbuckling edits of Eliot’s Waste Land. Without radical overhaul, those works might have sunk like stones.


In fact, after a lifetime of hounding authors for advice, I’ve heard three truths from every mouth: (1) Writing is painful – it’s “fun” only for novices, the very young, and hacks; (2) other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision; (3) the best revisers often have reading habits that stretch back before the current age, which lends them a sense of history and raises their standards for quality.


– from “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr



Living By Lists

I list a lot. And I’m not alone. In the course of many kitchen-table conversations, I’ve discovered that we keep lists for a variety of reasons. People make lists to get organized, to plan the day, to set priorities, to clarify “pros” and “cons” as they make decisions, to explore their feelings, to dispel mental fog, to articulate goals, to identify their deepest hopes and purposes.


What I’ve also discovered about lists is that every time I make one, I learn something. Things come up. Sometimes it seems that the less I plan or try to foresee what might belong on a list, the more I find out. So I just start in: “Things to do before the weekend”; “Possible blog topics”; “People to get back to”; “Nagging anxieties”; “Things I’m grateful for.” Even if the heading seems rather ho-hum (“Things to do”) or borders on cliché (“Things to be grateful for”), the process brings surprises.


If I stay with it long enough to get beyond the obvious (buy the groceries, return the phone call, check e mail, get the oil changed . . .), something not so obvious occurs, and the list shifts from “list” to something more: take a walk by the river with no phone; pick up protein bars to keep in the car for homeless people; write to a grandchild about his science project. And I discover not only what I think I need to do, but what I want to do, what I’ve avoided doing, and what I don’t do because I don’t really want to.

– from “Make a List” by Marilyn McEntyre

The Importance of Branding

When Susan Cain published her book about introversion, she had a very specific audience in mind: introverts. This was also a traditionally underserved audience, which is even better from a positioning perspective (when supply is down, demand is high). The result was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a publishing sensation that has not only moved more than two million copies, but also spurred courses, leadership consulting, and a viral TED Talk that has been watched more than fourteen million times.  But imagine if she’d poorly branded or defined that initial product. Imagine if, in an early manuscript, she had not clearly defined what introversion was or provided enough practical tips and strategies – and her editor had allowed her to get away with it. Do you think she would have had the same kind of success?


– from “Perennial Seller” by Ryan Holiday


What Should be Included in the Platform Section of Your Book Proposal?

– by Christopher Ferebee


Everybody hates talking about platform. We get it. We do too. But the reality of publishing today is you have to be building one. For reasons we’ll tackle in a later post, the ability of a publisher to “make” a bestseller has diminished. The unfortunate reality is that most books are sold to the author’s audience. The platform section is where you describe how you intend to reach an audience with your message.


Your starting place is your own, actual platform. How many Facebook fans and friends do you have? How many Twitter followers do you have? How many Instagram followers do you have? Do you have an e-newsletter, and if so, how many subscribers? Started a podcast? How many downloads are you averaging?  Do you speak? How often? What size crowds? Basically, you want to describe in detail every point of contact you have with your audience.


To take this a little further, you should also drill down into audience engagement. What is the typical ratio of engagement with the things you share? Do some analysis into how engaged your audience is with your content. What’s the open rate on your e-newsletter? What’s the percentage of likes and retweets you receive on average per tweet? How many likes and reposts do you receive on your Instagram posts? A small following with significant engagement is far more valuable than a massive following with no engagement.


Next you want to provide information about the networks of influence you have access to. This is not a place to list every person you wish you could reach, or you hope will lend support. This is supposed to be the list of people you can count on. Provide their name, organization if applicable, and their specific reach.


Finally, where else have you written? Have you published previous books? Which books, what year, what publisher, and how many sales? Have you contributed articles? To what outlets? Have you written a chapter in another book? Which book and chapter. List your prior publishing here.


The tendency here is to be modest, or to downplay your actual reach. Don’t. You want to be as detailed and specific as possible. This is your chance to convince an agent or publisher that you actually can bring an audience to your idea.


Books Like These – by Frederick Buechner

The following meditation is from a talk on the occasion of the presentation of the Whiting Writers’ awards:


THE WRITERS WHO get my personal award are the ones who show exceptional promise of looking at their lives in this world as candidly and searchingly and feelingly as they know how and then of telling the rest of us what they have found there most worth finding. We need the eyes of writers like that to see through. We need the blood of writers like that in our veins.


* * *


J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was one of the first books I read that did it to me, that started me on the long and God knows far from finished journey on the way to becoming a human being—started making thahappen. What I chiefly learned from it was that even the slobs and phonies and morons that Holden Caulfield runs into on his travels are, like Seymour Glass’s Fat Lady, “Christ Himself, buddy,” as Zooey explains it to his sister Franny in the book that bears her name. Even the worst among us are precious. Even the most precious among us bear crosses. That was a word that went straight into my bloodstream and has been there ever since. Along similar lines I think also of Robertson Davies’ Deptford trilogy, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, George Garrett’s Death of the Fox, some of the early novels of John Updike like The Poorhouse Fair and The Centaur, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I think of stories like Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger” and Raymond Carver’s “Feathers” and works of non-fiction, to use that odd term (like calling poetry non-prose) such as Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm and Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception and Robert Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb or plays like Death of a Salesman or Our Town.


– Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry 

A Good Question

What makes a perfect question? Ironically, the best questions are not questions that lead to answers, because answers are on their way to becoming cheap and plentiful. A good question is worth a million good answers.


A good question is like the one Albert Einstein asked himself as a small boy – “What would you see if you were traveling on a beam of light?” That question launched the theory of relativity, E=MC2, and the atomic age.


A good question is not concerned with a correct answer.

A good question cannot be answered immediately.

A good question challenges existing answers.

A good question is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you cared before it was asked.

A good question creates new territory of thinking.

A good question reframes its own answers.

A good question is the seed of innovation in science, technology, art, politics, and business.

A good question is a probe, a what-if scenario.

A good question skirts on the edge of what is known and not know, neither silly nor obvious.

A good question cannot be predicted.

A good question will be the sign of an educated mind.

A good question is one that generates many other good questions.

A good question may be the last job a machine will learn to do.

A good question is what humans are for.


– from “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly



When Beginning a New Book

When it is time to begin a book, when the blank pages are waiting and the fountain pens have been filled, I recommend you make the barest of plans you can, just enough to aim at what you are setting out to do. Too little direction and you might miss Medicine Bow. Too much planning and you can talk yourself out of turning into the little unmarked road that leads to the left, along which may be the moment the whole journey will end up being about.


It helps to make a list of the stories you want to tell and events you want to describe or the things you want to say. I find it is better to make a list rather than an outline. A list makes me feel as though I am writing a book rather than taking a correspondence course.


I think it wise to leave enough room to ramble around between stops to see what is there to be discovered. Or perhaps to sit in a square and watch people go by. It will not hurt to drive down a long road and have to turn around.


I like to have enough of a plan to know when one might be well advised to turn west into the sunset or stop for the night. But I also need to give myself the freedom to add a chapter or throw one away, to add a story or save it for another day.


A writer can dutifully follow a well-reasoned outline and end up missing the point. A writer can complete the assignment she set for herself and still not write the work she meant to write.


– Robert Benson “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”


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