My review of The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll can be found on page 6 and an article on my experience competing at CPE agility nationals with my dog, Bailey, can be found on page 14.
My BookEnds column review of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale can be found on page 6, my article on rattlesnakes is on page 15.
Earlier this year I was a judge for this National writing contest. So wonderful to support youths on their writing journey.
My book review is on page 6.
1. In one paragraph, can you give us some highlights from the favorite book you’ve written.
I find it interesting that my favorite children’s manuscript hasn’t been published, though I’ve submitted it a number of times. Maybe this is because, as some say, artists are generally poor judges of the quality of their own work. But maybe it’s because it’s actually a very good manuscript and just needs someone to take a chance on it. In any case, it makes me think about something basic to a writer’s life. If you write only for yourself, your life as an artist will be relatively uncomplicated. But if you offer your writing to other people, you have to be ready for all the natural complications involved. If only it was as straightforward as “Write something good”! My The Great Snail Race relies on the simple humor of such slow animals in a race, the racers seeing themselves as amazingly swift. That cracks me up, and I loved developing the idea. So I keep submitting it.
2. How important do you think it is to incorporate personal experiences in writing?
This is one of those classic bits of writer advice, isn’t it? “Write what you know.” Like a lot of such advice, it’s profound, but it doesn’t always apply. Again, things aren’t always that simple. Some of the best writing comes from people who know, for example, a certain job or field really well, and who present that in their writing in a powerful way. Richard Russo’s Straight Man is set in a college English department, and Russo clearly writes about that world from the inside; he himself taught in a similar department. This profoundly enriches the book (and is, by the way, the source of a lot of its comedy). On the other hand, a book like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is science-fiction; it describes a trip to another planet, something Russell obviously hasn’t experienced herself. But each of these books is powerful, each is believable, and each captured me, sucked me into its world. So writing what you don’t know can work too.
On the other hand, it’s probably impossible NOT to include personal experience in some form or another. It leaches into your art whether you want it to or not. Russell, for example, left the Catholic Church at age 15, but The Sparrow is, for all its spiritual questioning, a very Catholic book.
3. Describe your path to publication.
What continually surprises me about my path was how unconscious it was. I started writing in sixth grade (due to the encouragement of a teacher, to whom I’m deeply grateful), and pretty much kept writing from that point on. But I never thought of myself as a writer, and even through early adulthood never even considered submitting my work; publication just wasn’t part of my thinking. I feel very blessed in that obliviousness, since it allowed me to develop as an artist in a pretty “pure” way; I followed my own nose. To me, writing wasn’t different from living, any more than eating or singing or seeking romantic love were. It was as if I was an apple on a branch, ripening at no other pace but the slow pace of summer itself. In time I began to feel—again, very naturally and almost unconsciously—a desire to have readers. So I began to submit. During a trip to Hawaii I learned about two Hawaiian fish with very long names and, thoroughly charmed by those syllables, asked myself: If the humuhumunukunukuapua’a married the lauwiliwilinukunukuoioi, what would they ever name their child? That led to Let’s Call Him Lauwiliwilihumuhumunukunukunukunukuapua’aoioi!, my first book, published in 1990.
4. How did being the oldest in a family of eleven children influence your writing?
What a wonderful question—I haven’t really thought about that before! It would seem that my writing for children was a direct result of that. I basically write for adults; I didn’t become a children’s writer till I began telling stories to my own kids. But the oldest of 11 is in something of a parental relationship to younger siblings, and that happened to me. I loved thinking about this question—it gave me one more example of how a writer is given so much simply by life itself, if he or she pays enough attention to such gifts.
5. Poetry and children’s books seem like the require very different skills. Are there similarities in your writing process for both genres?
Interestingly, writing a poem and writing a picture book, at least, are quite similar. In each case you’re working with a lower word count, working with compression of language, and every word counts in a big way. Of course every word counts in all writing—but a novel, for example, doesn’t pressure you with the same intense focus as a shorter work usually does. I began writing as a poet, wrote almost nothing but poetry for a long time, and have three books of adult poetry out; I found that that was excellent preparation for writing picture books.
6. And you writes songs too! How does that fit in to your writing journey?
This is a perfect question to follow #5, since the answer is a variation on that theme. Of course there are plenty of longer music formats, but I mostly write individual songs, three or four minutes long. This makes a song lyric very much like a lyric poem, and in a number of ways. Again, every word is critical, and saying a lot with a little is the name of the game. And, of course, working effectively with language rhythms is essential to both a poem and a song lyric.
There are two main differences, though. Some songs, like ballads, have very normal and predictable line rhythms in their lyrics, which are easier to write. But some melodies jump all over the place, which means the lyricist is, essentially, writing a new poetic form for each song of this kind. It can get very tricky rhythmically, and you not only have to make your lines flow naturally with the beat—you also want to them to sparkle, to forcefully pull listeners in, and then to work in all the ways good poetry does.
The other difference, though, is an astonishing advantage, and it’s a huge part of why I can’t resist songwriting. Music is to a song lyric as a score is to a movie. Whatever I’m trying to say in the lyric, if the music is right it lifts and empowers the words in a way that constantly surprises and delights me. When you get it right, music and lyrics seem to combust together, making magic. So, again, just as writing picture books goes hand in hand with writing poetry, so does songwriting.
7. What tools do you use when you are choosing words for your poetry?
I love this question. I love it because it’s at the heart of my life as a writer, an artist of language. I choose words for all my writing with a passion and attention that come from knowing how utterly important those choices are.
The great English painter JMW Turner, like many painters, was constantly experimenting with new colors and developing his palette. As one expert says, “Pigments found within his water colours include Gamboge, Quercitron Yellow, Vermilion, various iron oxides including Ochres, Umbers and Siennas, Indian Yellow, ‘Green Lake’, Prussian Blue, Indigo, Cobalt Blue, Blue Verditer, Rose Madder, other red lake pigments possibly Carmine, Bone Black, and Mercuric Iodide (genuine scarlet).” I love the names of those colors—because a writer loves words like a painter loves colors. Part of my word choice is intellectual. But a lot of it is from the heart, and from that strange but powerful sense we all have, to whatever degree, of beauty. I don’t mean that all word choices should be “beautiful” in the usual sense, but that all must have the force that comes not only from an exact choice but also from an inspired one.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Tim J. Myers. To learn more visit his website: http://www.timmyersstorysong.com/TM_Website/Homepage.html. He’s also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TimJMyers1 and Twitter @TmyersStorySong.
Page 9 includes my review of Dead Wake. And a wonderful historical piece co-written with my daughter Lindsay on page 11.
1. In one paragraph, can you give us some highlights from Finish Your Book in Three Draftss
It’s not just marketing, I swear! You can Finish Your Book in Three Drafts whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, whether you’re an outliner who meticulously scripts every writing session or a pantser who pilots solely by feel. Because you don’t want to be writing the same book for the rest of your life.
Three drafts. That’s all you need.
• The messy draft: which is all about getting it down.
• The method draft: which is all about making sense.
• The polished draft: which is all about making it good.
You can Finish Your Book in Three Drafts provided you approach each
draft in the right spirit, and know what action steps to take between drafts. And that’s what I can’t wait to talk about at Mt. Diablo!
2. Describe your most memorable moment as an author.
I’ve now completed over 80 tour dates throughout North America in the past four-plus years. But no matter how exciting life post-publication has been, it has never gotten better than those champion writing sessions where I was achieving the height of my flight. When someone says, “Your books are so original; I have learned more from you than anyone else” — I am happy, of course — but it is like I am hearing about a trip they’ve taken when I got left home.
Nothing will ever beat those rare nights when I knew I nailed it. When I had prepared for a writing session, and executed, while welcoming the unexpected. And then went to go smoke a cigar in the heart of Providence. I might have been thinking about the people who inspired me, but sitting there it was just me, myself, and I.
So my point is that we need to take writing and separate it from publishing. What writing has done for me exists outside of what has been published, and far exceeds it in value.
3. What authors have most influenced your writing?
This is a hard question to answer. I mean, it probably numbers in the hundreds, right? I will just say when I saw a bibliography and my name appeared between Hesse, Hermann and Kafka, Franz, I thought. I am ready to die now in peace. Except for the kids I still have to raise and not wanting to leave a widow, that kind of thing.
4. What are the biggest mistakes you see in author’s manuscripts?
This is a big question! I’d say the following five are the biggest structural mistakes I see — as I spend a lot of my time thinking about structure:
1. What you’re writing isn’t what you think you’re writing.
Not that it’s that far off, necessarily. Let’s say you’ve set sail—to use an extended marine metaphor—heading for an island. Everyone needs some “sea room,” and now you’ve landed on some neighboring coast. Writing is a largely unconscious activity. At some point, we need to become conscious enough to see how we might get the reader and ourselves safely home. Some writers don’t want to be made conscious at any point during their process. In my experience, more often than not, they drift.
2. You have not generated enough material to begin revising.
One of my clients was delighted with her first assignment, which was to generate fifty pages of crap. Her next assignment was to generate another fifty, making a hundred pages of crap. There is no substitute for not having generated enough material before you begin revising.
3. You want to put too much stuff in.
A chef whose cookbook I worked on called it the “kitchen-sink” syndrome: a beginner makes a marinara sauce by using every vegetable in the refrigerator, and every spice on the rack. They use seventeen ingredients when there really should just be tomatoes, garlic, and like four other things. You want to be able to taste the parmesan shavings.
Writers think, How am I supposed to fill up a whole book’s worth of pages unless I include everything I can think of? Unity, the sense that your book is only about one thing—that the reader can trust you know how to drive this thing—cannot be achieved by trying to make things comprehensive.
4. You let too many people read it before it was ready.
Why is this a structural problem? Because when you involve beta readers (people who read your draft when you know it isn’t done), you are far more open to feedback than you will be at a later stage. You may lose time and focus by pursuing a direction that someone else recommended rather than discovering the path which you really want to travel.
5. Your narrator is too much like you.
In fact, basically, it is you. This is not as much a problem in certain non-fiction genres (like a blog), when it is considered great to sound as much like yourself as possible. Sounding like yourself while opening out to universal experience, is called “finding your voice.”
In fiction, however, you need maximum flexibility to explore emotions and imagine events that will embody those emotions. If your narrator is bound by only who you think you are, as opposed to who you might become, your writing can go stale.
5. Who is your idol?
My idol is my cat. He recently got in a fight with a fishercat — vicious animals that live in the Northeast that are like wolverines, and he had to have an eye removed.
While the procedure was going on, he was licking the doctor’s hand, giving him love because he knew the man was trying to help him.
Me? I come from a family where when we have a fever of 99 degrees we’re “in bed with a little something.” So I want to be more like my cat.
P.S. He has been getting along tremendously well without an eye and his hunting skills have not diminished in the least. Except every now and then he bangs into a chair and then makes off across the room like nothing happened.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Stuart Horwitz. To learn more visit his website: http://bookarchitecture.com where you can sign up for his newsletter.