Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

August 15, 2013

The steps of writing a book

My cousin’s twelve-year-old daughter loves to write (and is already a wonderful writer).  For the past three years, Elizabeth and my author mother have had their own long distance writers group.  My mom is one of the wisest people I know, and I’m lucky to have her as my mentor.  Here is a recent exchange between Mom and Elizabeth that I thought might be helpful to writers of all ages.

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Hi Aunt Penny,

I have been wanting to write lately, but I don’t know what to write about. I was wondering if you could tell me the steps you go through when you write a book.

Thanks, Elizabeth

 

Dear Elizabeth:  I’m so glad to hear from you, and I am happy that you have been wanting to write lately.  Sometimes the hardest part of writing is deciding what to write about.

The first step I go through when I write a book is choosing what to write about. I try to listen to my head and my heart.  I need to know what I THINK about a subject, and what I FEEL about it.  If I’m not excited about writing about my subject, chances are good that readers won’t be excited about reading about it.

When I am deciding what to write about, I think about these two things:
Writing about what I already know a lot about.
Writing about what I don’t know much about yet.

I believe you already know a lot about your family; your pets; dancing; snowy winters; writing, especially detective stories; other activities you enjoy; your feelings about having a brother and a sister; your feelings about different teachers you have had; your feelings about growing up– and lots more things.  I think readers your age and grown-up readers will be very interested in reading what you write about any of these things.

I’ve written five books about people.  I didn’t know much at all about Carl Sandburg or James Earl Jones or Edward Steichen or Thornton Wilder when I started writing about them– but I did lots of research and learned more and more.  It was an adventure to learn about them and then to write about them.  Is there a person or a place or an event or an invention or a discovery that you’d like to know more about?  If you are excited about something, you can be a detective and learn as much about that subject as you can, and write about it.

As you probably already know, you have to be excited about what you are writing if you are going to do your best writing.

Your cousin Jennifer is a writer, and she says she loves to write books that she would like to read.

I suggest that you make a list of things you’d like to write about or stories you’d like to tell.  Set a timer and see how many ideas you can put on your list in 5 minutes.  Take 10 minutes if you want to.  Maybe something will pop out on that list that gets you excited to write about it.

I enjoyed your detective/spy stories so very much.  Maybe you’ll use the same character, or invent a new character, and write another one of those.  Maybe you’ll try writing poems.

You are already a wonderful writer, Elizabeth, and you have lots to say and lots to tell.  You have a great imagination and an excellent vocabulary.  Most writers have times when they don’t know what to write.  Just listen to your mind and your imagination and your  heart, and you will find what you want to write.

Lots and lots of love– Aunt Penny

August 7, 2013

Literary snacking — the food that helps me write

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When you spend hundreds of hours at your desk each week (or so it seems), you need the inevitable snack to keep you company.  By the time lunchtime rolls around, I’m usually so deep in the writing flow or smack in the middle of wrestling the creative alligators (as Hemingway called it) that the last thing I want to think about is how to feed myself.  And you have to feed your brain because you cannot write hungry.  At least, I can’t.  I mean technically I can, but it’s not the kind of writing that makes sense.

For some reason, walking three blocks to Robeks is easier than stopping to make a salad– there’s just something so nice about taking a short stroll in the California sunshine and having someone else do the preparing.  But most days of late I can be found with a little army of sustenance lined up by my computer so that I don’t even have to move if I don’t want to.  Raw almonds, Trader Joe’s Just Mango Slices, my 32 oz. purple water bottle, some lemon ginger Yogi tea, and raw carrots.  I know– yuck.  I’d prefer popcorn, my favorite snack ever, but that’s more of an end-of-the-hard-hard-writing-day reward, and besides, it doesn’t give me the brain energy I need to write.

I’m not alone in literary snacking.  My brilliant and beautiful writer mother has a weakness for chocolate malted milk balls– especially the ones that come from here— so much so that she won’t let herself keep them in the house except on very special occasions.  (Stocking the pantry with foods you love is VERY dangerous when you work at home!)

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The New York Times wrote a fun piece on “Snacks of the Great Scribblers,” that reveals Lord Byron drank vinegar (which had the added effect of keeping his weight down), Truman Capote favored mint tea and martinis, and Emily Dickinson snacked on her own homemade baked bread.

The trouble happens when you plow through your regular snacks and find yourself rummaging through the refrigerator and cabinets for ANYTHING– the last few stale Triscuits at the bottom of the box, the apple sauce you bought last Christmas which is probably still good, the half eaten energy bar floating in the bottom of your purse.  This is when you need to go to the store and stock up again, except, of course, that there isn’t any time for that.

What keeps you going at your desk?

February 4, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Our Town!

My mom’s brilliant biography of Thornton Wilder debuted in October of last year, and today marks the 75th anniversary of his most enduring work, Our Town. Here’s a little something Mom wrote up for the Wall Street Journal in honor of the play, the day, and the man himself.

Why Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ is 75 Years Young
By Penelope Niven

When Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” opened on Broadway February 4, 1938 – 75 years ago today — no one was more surprised by its success than Wilder himself. He did not foresee that the play would win the Pulitzer Prize, or that well into the 21st century, “Our Town” would survive and thrive on and off-Broadway, and in theaters across the United States and around the world. As the play went into previews, Wilder was afraid it would be a failure. In January 1938 he wrote, “OUR TOWN, opening in Boston, had such bad reviews that a second week was canceled, and the manager engaged a New York theater which was free for only a week and a half.”

But 75 years later, people are still watching the play. Ford’s Theatre in Washington is hosting the national celebration of this anniversary with an “Our Town” production that runs through February 24. There are 75th anniversary stagings around the country and abroad. “Our Town” was borne out of the American experience, yet other countries import it as their own. The play still speaks across cultures, across time zones, across languages. By some accounts it is the most produced American play ever.

I discovered “Our Town” as a teenager in Waxhaw, North Carolina, population nearly a thousand. I was positive the play was written about Waxhaw. This was 1957 in my town, not May 7, 1901 in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, Thornton Wilder’s mythical town. In a 1938 preface Wilder wrote that his play “sprang from a deep admiration for those little white towns in the hills and from a deep devotion to the future. These are but the belated gropings to reconstruct what may have taken place when the play first presented itself — the life of a village against the life of the stars.”

He went on to clarify the “unremitting preoccupation which is the central theme of the play: What is the relation between the countless ‘unimportant’ details of our daily life, on the one hand, and the great perspectives of time, social history, and current religious ideas, on the other?

“What is trivial and what is significant about any one person’s making a breakfast, engaging in a domestic quarrel, in a ‘love scene,’ in dying?”

Wilder the dramatist was writing, he said, for and about everybody, for and about each one of us. “Since my play is about Everybody, everybody is in my play,” he reflected in later years.

He had been writing plays and acting in them since boyhood. In the fall of 1938, he briefly played the Stage Manager in “Our Town,” filling in while actor Frank Craven took time off from the very successful Broadway run that would ultimately total 366 performances in ten-and-a-half months. Wilder was nervous about memorizing the lines he had written. He “wasn’t very good,” he wrote to his sister Isabel after one performance. He got better, however. “I went through my paces without a single fluff, ‘tho’ I perhaps didn’t put quite enough umph into the prelude to Act III,” he wrote. He took the criticism in stride when reviewers assessed his performance: “I see in the paper. . . that I was no ball of fire.”

But he got mostly stellar reviews as a playwright, including a recent tribute from Edward Albee: “If I were asked to name what I consider to be the finest serious American play, I would immediately say Our Town– not for its giant Americanness but because it is a superbly written, gloriously observed, tough, and breathtaking statement of what it is to be alive, the wonder and hopeless loss of the space between birth and the grave.”

Albee’s words go to the heart of Wilder’s intentions for the play. Wilder wrote, “In the last act of ‘Our Town’ the author places upon the stage a character who – like the members of the audience – partakes of ‘the smallest events of daily life’ and is also a spectator of them.

“She [Emily] learns that each life – though it appears to be a repetition among millions – can be felt to be inestimably precious, though the realization of it is present to us seldom, briefly, and incommunicably. At that moment there are no walls, no chairs, no tables = all is inward. Our true life is in the imagination and in the memory.”

Seventy-five years ago, having poured his imagination, his memory and his heart into his play, Wilder grew more confident about the future of “Our Town.” He wrote to a friend, “At all events I do not mind from critics the charge of immaturity, confusion, and even pretentiousness.” The play was “a first sally into deep waters.” He hoped “to do many more – and better – and even more pretentious. I write as I choose; and I learn as I go; and I’m very happy when the public pays the bills.”

December 27, 2012

HOME for the Holidays

One of my dearest friends, Angelo Surmelis, is a brilliant designer. I’ll be featuring him in a post to come, but here’s what you need to know for now: he’s a genius. He’s talented beyond measure. And he’s an amazing person. Angelo and I “knew each other When,” as we say– years before he was designing full time and I was writing for a living, back when we were paying our dues and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming of things to come.

Now his Angelo: HOME line is sold in some 100 stores nationwide, everywhere from amazon.com to Overstock.com to QVC, but a little over two months ago, he opened his very first HOME store, right here in downtown Los Angeles inside the historic Eastern Building. I couldn’t be prouder.

In addition to his gorgeous (and affordable!) line of furniture, bedding, and pillows, Angelo also sells books from the Jennifer and Penelope Niven library. Last week, Angelo: HOME hosted Mom and me for a special mother-daughter author holiday event. We discussed how we got our starts and how we came to write the books we’ve written. We also talked about our latest books, Thornton Wilder: A Life and Becoming Clementine.

Briana Harley was our musical guest, and for those who don’t know her, she is brilliant and talented beyond measure herself. Briana first read Velva Jean Learns to Drive when she was fifteen years old, and found in Velva Jean a kindred spirit– Briana, like Velva Jean, is from North Carolina. Also like Velva Jean, she is a guitar player and singer who’s been playing music since she was a little girl. I first met Briana when she wrote a song inspired by Velva Jean– “Live Out There,” the song that now appears at the very end of Becoming Clementine.

In honor of the recent holiday, Briana wrote a lovely, poignant, cozy-round-the-fire tune called “A Fair Mountain Christmas,” which captures the spirit of Velva Jean and her beloved mountain home.

Listen to it here!

And why not browse and shop Angelo’s designs while you’re at it? He has some wonderful sofas and chairs, perfect to read a book in…

In the meantime, here are some pictures from the event. Happy Holidays!

November 13, 2012

My mom is a rock star

“I want my epitaph to testify that I have been a loving mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend; and I have taught, written, and lived with joy.”  — Penelope Niven

I’m the twenty-second great-granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, long heralded as the “Father of English Literature,” so I like to think being a writer was predestined. But I know where to give thanks. The person who has influenced me most is, without a doubt, my mom, Penelope Niven.

She is the author of numerous award-winning and critically acclaimed biographies: Carl Sandburg: A Biography, Edward Steichen: A Biography, and Voices and Silences, co-authored with the actor James Earl Jones. She has also penned a memoir, Swimming Lessons, and a book for children– Carl Sandburg: Adventures of a Poet— which was awarded an International Reading Association Prize “for exceptionally distinguished literature.”

As she says, she is a writer of lives.

She has been awarded two honorary doctorates, three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Thornton Wilder Visiting Fellowship at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, among other honors. She received the North Carolina Award in Literature, the highest honor the state bestows on an author.

Her latest book, Thornton Wilder: A Life, was released October 30 by HarperCollins. It’s the first biography of the novelist and playwright (best known for Our Town and The Matchmaker, which inspired Hello, Dolly) since 1983, and it is also the first to be based on “thousands of pages of letters, journals, manuscripts, and other documentary evidence of Wilder’s life, work, and times.”

For the past twelve years, Mom has worked with unprecedented access to Wilder’s papers, including his family’s private journals and records. Edward Albee calls the result “a splendid and long needed work.” At 848 pages, it’s a big book, but its 2.2 pound weight doesn’t begin to encompass or represent all Mom went through personally to produce it– not only the long, arduous hours bent over papers and sorting through materials, the outlining and structuring and writing and editing and footnoting, but the time she spent contending with life stuff that inevitably causes challenges along the way of any writer’s journey.

My mother isn’t just a distinguished and celebrated writer. She is the most inspiring, brilliant, beautiful, insightful, wise, warm and funny person I know. She is the one who taught me I could be or do anything. She is the one who taught me the importance of story, and how to see the story in everything. She is the one who taught me grace, good manners, humor, compassion, joy, the importance of being silly, and resilience. She is my hero.

So join me in celebrating my mom, Penelope Niven. Buy the book (or books), listen to her latest interview on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” watch her on the PBS series American Masters in the film The Day Carl Sandburg Died, and read the recent front page rave from The New York Times.

February 7, 2012

Behind the Book — Writing Advice from My Uncle Bill

My mother, Penelope Niven, and I are both writers, and because of this my family often participates in our author events, traveling with us on tour (when possible) and purchasing multiple copies of our books to give to everyone they know. When my grandmother Eleanor was alive, she would call up bookstores in the greater Charlotte, North Carolina, area and ask if they carried the latest books by Mom or me. If they didn’t, she would say, “Well you should!” and hang up.

While most of my family members, wonderful as they are, don’t understand the actual day-to-day process of writing a book, they are our greatest and most enthusiastic fans.

My mom’s brother, Bill, however, seems to get it. Bill isn’t a writer, but he is creative. He is brilliant, possessing a wonderful kind of downhome, folksy wisdom. He’s tall and rambling—and, at 65, is the same big-hearted country boy who, at least once a week, used to “find” stray animals in the bushes outside the house where he and my mother and their two sisters grew up. He has a North Carolina accent a mile wide.

Historically, Mom writes very long books. Her biography of Carl Sandburg, the definitive work on his life, is 843 pages and her biography of Edward Steichen, the definitive work on his life, runs 808. Her upcoming, hugely anticipated biography of Thornton Wilder, due out in October from HarperCollins, is 836 pages. (Voices and Silences, the book she wrote with James Earl Jones, is a mere 394 pages.)

As I am in the thick of edits/copy edits of my upcoming novel, Becoming Clementine (from Plume this fall!), and as I prepare to return to the researching and outlining of the novel that will follow it (title still to be determined), I keep Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing nearby, along with a picture of his daddy, my granddaddy, who also had wise things to say about the writing process, namely: deadlines are really lifelines and, when editing, you can almost always lose the last sentence of every paragraph.

While most of Bill’s comments originated with my mother’s work, they are certainly relatable to my own, especially as I am faced with editing and cutting and trimming down the length of Becoming Clementine, and trying to think of alternate ways to say “like,” “said,” and “just,” all of which I tend to overuse.

Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing

1. A book should not be so long and big and thick that it has to be hauled around in a wheelbarrow.

(Case in point, each first draft of each Velva Jean book has been cut down drastically, and my first draft for The Ice Master was 813 pages long. In the end, I cut 300 of those pages before it ever went to print.)

2. You have to remember that there were parts of Carl Sandburg’s life that were boring even to Carl Sandburg.

(Or Velva Jean’s life, or Ada Blackjack’s life, or ice master Robert Bartlett’s life, or my own life, goodness knows, as told in my high school memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries. In other words, you don’t need to relay everything that ever happened to your character/subject. Pick and choose the moments to write about.)

3. If you are bored writing something, people will most likely be bored reading it.

(I remember this every time I conduct research or write a new scene and find my attention wandering off in the middle of it, or, most recently, when I reread Becoming Clementine and feel the slightest bit restless.)

4. It must be easier to write short than to write long.

(Even as I’m stripping out words or lines or paragraphs or whole chapters of Clementine, I’m thinking to myself: Why didn’t I just leave these things out the first time around? The answer, for me at least, is that even when I remove sections of a manuscript, I know the material was once there. I think writing long to end up writing short helps the book seem deeper and more layered, even if you’re the only one who knows what’s missing.)

5. A lot of people seem to think that just because they can write the alphabet they can write books. From what I’ve seen of your work, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

(It is, truly, but it’s surprising how many people don’t realize it and how astute—I would even say profound—this observation is. I work all the time. ALL the time. Yet one of the things I hear most often from well meaning people is: “I’ve always thought I would be a writer if only I had the spare time,” as if we are talking about Canasta or kite flying or crossword puzzles. My mother hears this frequently too, and once, at a party, she heard it from a prominent brain surgeon. When he said, “I’ve always thought I would write a book if only I had the time,” she replied, “That is so funny. I’ve always thought I would practice brain surgery if only I had the time!”)

6. I remember the little girl who looked at one of your mom’s books and said, “Wow! I didn’t know anybody knew that many words.” And your mom said, “It’s not so many. I used a lot of them more than once.” Still it must be hard to keep track of them so you don’t repeat words too often and get on your reader’s nerves.

(It is hard to keep track of them, particularly when you write two nonfiction books about Arctic expeditions and have to describe ice again and again. This is one reason Mom and I love to read the dictionary because even when you use a lot of words, there are still so many to learn.)