Tag Archives: Sandra Tsing Loh

Advice for Writers Struggling with Genre: Ask This Question

bookshelf

bookshelfIf you’ve ever thought about writing a book, the very first thing anyone will tell you is to figure out which “shelf” it will sit on in a bookstore. It’s not enough to simply have a topic, or even an angle into a topic. You need to know who’s going to buy this book. Because book publishing, like anything else, is a business and the key to a successful business is knowing your market.

I knew all of this, of course. Over the years, I’ve been in enough writing groups and consumed enough resources devoted to the art and science of getting published that I knew that were I someday to approach an agent with an idea for a book, I’d need to be able to provide a cogent answer to this question.

And then someday arrived and I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to answer it.

Let me back up. I’ve been working for several months on a book about…drumroll please…swimming and adulthood. After more than 25 years as a “casual runner” – someone who ran three times a week to stay fit – my body was telling me that that I could no longer run. The reasons why I needed to stop running aren’t all that interesting. (Well, OK, something called Piriformis Syndrome, if you must know…) But the upshot was that, on the advice of my doctor, I began – somewhat reluctantly – to swim.

This obviously not an entirely new topic for me. This blog’s strapline – “Finding Yourself In Adulthood” – is all about conceptualizing adulthood as a journey, not a destination. But whereas the blog tackles topics ranging from work and parenting to therapy and the arts in a much more general way, the daily act of swimming enabled me to analyse these subjects through a single prism. In essence, swimming serves as a metaphor through which to explore what it means to be a grown up in the contemporary age.

But even after I started writing this book, I still struggled with where it fit on the proverbial bookshelf. Was it an extended meditation on swimming itself, Like Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies?  Was it a sports memoir a la Gerald Marzaroti’s Late to the Ball about picking up a new skill (tennis) in midlife? Was it a humorous, loosely themed take on daily life, modelled on David Sedaris or Sandra Tsing Loh?  Or a was it a collection of more serious essays like Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable?

On alternate days it felt a bit like all of these.

It didn’t help that when I showed my précis (2 page overview) of the book to a few friends I got very different advice. One friend thought that it needed to be funnier, more like my daily status updates which I post on Facebook recounting the cast of characters I run into at my local swimming pool. Another friend thought that it should be a novel. Someone else advised me to convert it into an inspirational journey, the sort of Eat, Pray, Love of swimming.

Instead of writing the book, I began to obsess about genre.

And then, one day, at the tail end of a dinner party while chatting about this problem with a friend, I had my Eureka moment. My friend is a novelist who has written several novels in the Lad Lit genre and is on the cusp of becoming a sensation with his latest work-in-progress, which has already been snatched up by a major New York imprint. (He’s also sold the film rights. As he put it so beautifully, “Who knew that becoming an overnight success took so long?”)

After I regaled him with all of my anxieties about what the book could and should be, he looked at me and simply said: “Write the book that only you could write.”

It wasn’t rocket science. Nor was some dark, heretofore unknown secret of the publishing world. But for me, it was sort of like that age-old adage: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” And just like that, I immediately felt better.

Because I realised in that moment that I actually *had* been writing the book that only I could write all along. While it had elements of several different styles, at the end of the day the book I was writing was essentially a self-help book, albeit one very much rooted in my own experience. (I’ve since learned that there is a name for this sub-genre – self-help memoir or prescriptive memoir. Thank you, Jane Friedman.)

For me, my friend’s throwaway line (heartfelt, to be sure, even if infused with a few glasses of red wine), was clarifying: I need to stop obsessing over what other people think my book is meant to be. That comes later. For now, the book is already what I need it to be: a place to bring my voice and my insights to a topic I’ve long been passionate about with a fresh angle.

In a year where my new year’s resolution was to embrace authenticity, that feels pretty good.

Image: Bookshelves by Hernán Poo-Camaño via Flickr

Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

Every Friday I point you towards some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

1. I loved this novel take in the Chicago Reader on “having it all” by a single, child-free woman.

2. From Roger Ebert: a tribute to his wife, Chaz. So touching you can barely believe he really feels this way. But I bet he does.

3. Over on Gabion, Hugh Pearman provides the best take I’ve seen yet on London’s new architectural monstrosity: The Shard. Funny and insightful in equal measure. (Hat tip: Brainiac)

4. Have I told you lately how much I love Sandra Tsing Loh? Here she is on her weekly podcast The Loh Life talking about being on Facebook with her 12 year-old daughter. Be sure to listen to this first installment and then tune in to segments two and three.

5. Finally, for no reason whatsoever, here are 20 bizarre pictures drawn by kids over on Buzzfeed. Enjoy!

Have a great weekend, everybody.

Tips For Adulthood: How To Edit Productively

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve got writing on the brain these days. I’ve recently joined a writing group and I’m about to turn back to my own manuscript in a few days. (Drumroll, please…)

So I’m thinking again, about the craft of writing. Not the initial creative burst that yields a blog post…an article…a novel. But that potentially stomach-churning, roll-up-your-sleeves and stare-the-beast-in-the-face process commonly known as editing. (I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases best when he said: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”)

Fortunately for me, many of the blogs and e-zines I regularly peruse are devoted to precisely this topic: the craft of writing. So I’m constantly being bombarded with new ideas about the writing process, which I dutifully file away for when the time comes.

Accordingly, this week’s tips list goes out to all of you fellow travellers who have something you need to edit – it could be a poem…a short story…heck, an office memo…and, like me, you need to find your mojo.

Here are five things to keep in mind when you edit:

1. Take time off after the first draft. This crucial piece of advice comes from Stephen King in his fabulous, incredibly useful, not-to-be-missed book, On Writing. (Did I tell you how much I liked it?) King recommends that novelists take 4-6 weeks off after finishing a manuscript so that they can come back to it fresh. But I’d say that – if you can manage it, subject to deadlines, etc. – take even longer than that. The reason for waiting to begin the re-writing process is that you want to be able to open your ms. up and read it like anyone else would. You don’t want to be able to recite it line by line. And there’s another reason to let your story sit. As a friend of mine who’s a screenwriter once told me, “You’ll surprise yourself. There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse.” And that’s exactly the point:  to be surprised. Because that’s the only way you’ll figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin.

2. Find ways to make the material new. If you’re like me, you find writing the first draft of anything far more fun than slogging your way through the edit. That’s natural. The first draft is all about throwing stuff out there, while the second (and third…and fourth…) drafts are about refinement. (See again, Hemingway.) So when you’re in re-write mode, it’s really important to come up with devices that help you make the old draft feel new. If you’re writing fiction, you might decide to write a biography of all of your characters to make them come alive…again. One of my favorite writer/bloggers, Christina Baker Kline, has a host of suggestions for how to jumpstart a revision. My favorite? Write three new openings. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end. Wow! What a great idea!

3. Trim excess words. One of the best writing assignments I ever got was in a high school English class. We were told to write an essay of 1,000 words on a given topic. The next week, we came in and the teacher told us to write the same essay, this time in 500 words. But while we all *know* that cutting excess verbiage is one of the cardinal tasks of the second draft, how to wield the axe is another story entirely. In a guest post on the amazing Write To Done blog (a must for all you writers out there), Fekket Cantenel offers very specific advice for how to clean up your narration. Under trimming excess words, she offers the following remedy: Start with the first sentence. Take out the first word and read the sentence. Does it still make sense and carry the same idea across? Yes? Then leave it out. Repeat. Skeptical? Try it. I just went up to the intro of this blog and cut out several words.

4. Read your writing out loud. This tip is brought to you by none other than David Sedaris, whose views on the writing process were generously shared by another great writer/blogger, Lisa Romeo Writes. On the topic of reading your work aloud, Sedaris says: “When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don’t hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I’m trying too hard, or I’m being repetitive, I make a mark.” Another reason to read your writing aloud is that it also helps with voice. You not only hear the repetition and the over-writing. You can also hear whether or not you sound too stilted, too casual, too funny or too sharp. I think this is why I like Sandra Tsing Loh so much as a writer. (Not incidentally, both she and Sedaris frequently perform their work on radio.) They are writers who have really honed their voice. And I’m sure that it took a lot of re-writing to get there.

5. Don’t send it off too soon. Stephen King has a great metaphor for the writing process. He talks about writing “with the door open” vs. writing “with the door closed.” I think what he’s getting at is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page however they come out. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to read what you’ve got and offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make (Lord knows I’m guilty of this) is to spend endless amounts of time on the “closed door” phase of writing, but fail to spend enough time on the “open door” phase. And this can be catastrophic. Here’s the blogger/writer/editor, Victoria A. Mixon, with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon, taken from her own life. Read it and weep (I’ve set it apart because it made that much of an impact on me):

You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel?

“I love this paragraph.”

Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified.

I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”

 

Yikes.

What works for you when you’re editing something?

*****

I’m over on www.PoliticsDaily.com today talking about the British Government’s latest initiative: measuring citizens’ happiness.

 

Image: How well I could write if I were not here! by Madampsychosis via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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Friday Pix: Recommended Reading For The Weekend

Every Friday I point you to some recommended reading around the blogosphere:

1.Well, folks. Sandra Tsing Loh has once again knocked it out of the park. Here she is in The Atlantic, talking about how women these days are married to their houses.

2. One of the main ways that I stay connected to U.S. politics (and American pop culture) is by watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. If you’re also a fan, then you’ll also love this interview with Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee in Salon about Bee’s new memoir.

3. Like Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project fame, I also embrace novelty and love working with others. Be sure to read Gretchen’s post on the power of creative collaboration, which includes a link to the comic she co-created with Chari Pere entitled “Gretchen Rubin in The Quest for a Passion.” Lovely.

4. If you follow the World Cup – and even if you don’t – you must watch this hilarious rendering of last week’s famous World Cup match between England and USA…in lego. (Courtesy of The Guardian)

5. Finally, another must-see video of what the help desk was like in the Middle Ages.

If you enjoy my Friday pix, please do follow me on Twitter! I’m there posting links like these all week long!

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The Gores' Break-Up: Why I'm Not Sad

I think it’s best if I just come out and say this up front: I’m not really sad that Al and Tipper Gore split up.

Yes, I know. I’m an outlier. Nearly everyone I know — and certainly everyone I’m reading — is outright depressed by this separation.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a shame. And it’s a shame because — as my colleague Melinda Henneberger wrote recently — they seemed like a couple who were genuinely in love. Between the 40 years of marriage and the four beautiful kids and the whole high school sweetheart thing and, yes — the kisses — they really looked like they were in it for the long haul.

But somehow, I was much sadder when Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins split up. I was also sadder when — gulp — writer and public radio commentator Sandra Tsing Loh split with her man (and then went on an anti-marriage crusade.)

Why is this?

Read the rest of the article on www.PoliticsDaily.com

Image: But It’s Over Now by Electronic Eye via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons We All Need A Wife

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

You know when you read something and it really doesn’t resonate right at the moment. But then – I don’t know – an hour later…maybe a day…maybe even a week later you think: “Ah yes! Precisely!”

I had one of those experiences the other day after reading Sandra Tsing Loh’s hilarious and spot-on reaction in the New York Times to the recent Pew Study about marriage, education and income.

Read about it here on PoliticsDaily.com

Image: Sasspony’s Pretty Bra by Hysterical Bertha via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Why The Whole "Bad Wife/Bad Mother" Thing Is Bad For Feminism

Two articles out this week are creating quite a storm of comments among lady bloggers. The first is an article by Sandra Tsing Loh in The Atlantic Monthly talking about why – in addition to being a bad wife – she’s now also a bad mother. The second is an article by Elizabeth Weil in The New York Times about her year-long experiment in trying to see if she could improve her not-so-bad marriage and the painful lessons learned along the way.

Yesterday, a bunch of us over on the Woman Up page of PoliticsDaily.com weighed in on these two treatises about contemporary parenthood/marriage. Here’s how mine begins:

*****

Well, ladies, I must say I’ve been having a jolly old time here in London reading your takes on the Loh and Weil articles. On a day when my combined maternal/spousal duties left me thoroughly winded and already jonesing for that third espresso before 9 a.m., I take comfort in the fact that:

a. Unlike Weil, I actually like French kissing and
b. Unlike Loh, I’m not trying to raise my children in a car.
But before I tell you what I found worrisome in both of these articles, let me tell you what I liked.
Read the rest at PoliticsDaily.com
Image: Wife and Mother by Michael Batfish via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Stay Monogamous

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood. This week’s topic is Five Ways To Stay Monogamous.

I think we all know that this hasn’t exactly been the summer of matrimonial bliss. From Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to author/radio personality Sandra Tsing Loh to our about-to-possibly-be-impeached Senator Mark Sanford, marriage has taken a real kick to the groin. In all of these cases, infidelity was the alleged culprit.

Not everyone’s bothered by infidelity, of course. Newsweek recently ran a story about poly-amorous couples and how people make it work when there’s more than one partner involved.

And some people are more bothered by it than they arguably should be. In this month’s in Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan rants against the cultural trends leading to the likes of John Edwards’ mistress Rielle Hunter. (See also Amy Benfer’s deliciously scathing review in Salon.)

But assuming you count among those who are interested in sticking it out with one person, here are some tips for keeping it real – as opposed to Rielle (sorry, couldn’t resist):

1. Acknowledge That Monogamy is Totally Unnatural. Face it, it is. Which is probably why so many people have affairs. Polls show that although 90% of married people disapprove of extramarital relationships, 15% of wives and 25% of husbands have experienced extramarital intercourse. This doesn’t mean monogamy isn’t noble, enviable, worthwhile, efficient, healthy, and any other adjectival “good” you wish to throw at it. But it is not a natural state of affairs. So begin by acknowledging that with your partner and you’ll be way ahead of the game.

2. Choose a Partner With Whom You Share Many Interests. In my humble opinion, one of the main reasons people wander is that they don’t have enough in common with their partners/spouses to begin with. While you don’t need to have completely overlapping interests (see below), with so many things clamoring for your attention – work, children, aging parents – you do need to enjoy doing the same things in your free time.

3. Keep a Private Space. At the same time, don’t suffocate one another. It’s healthy to have your own space and to enjoy the freedom to pursue interests that your partner doesn’t share. My husband likes watching concert videos. He also enjoys eating sushi. I like pop-tarts and going to musical theatre (though not at the same time). We don’t try to do those things together. Thank God.

4. Develop an Adult Crush. This is perhaps the best recipe for staying faithful. Just as you had crushes in junior high, it’s OK to have them in adulthood as well. It’s a safe way to feel like you’re still alive outside of your main relationship. I used to have a crush on my son’s first pediatrician. These days, it’s a staffer at one of the local book stores. I only see him once every other month or so, but there’s always a small frisson when we exchange pleasantries (most recently, over his hatred – and my love – for The Sound Of Music.) And because I only see him every so often, and don’t even know his name, it’s no big deal. Plus, my husband knows all about him.

5. Avoid Situations That Allow for Infidelity. If you really don’t want to have an affair, don’t put yourself in a situation that allows one to occur. I have a good friend who developed a crush on a bartender. She found (per #4) that she was frequenting his bar more and more on her own to chat with him. Then one day she actually brought her laptop to the bar and started working there. And at that point she realized “What am I doing? I’m working in a bar!” She fled the scene never to return. Good for her.

Image: Rings/Yüzük by Caucus via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Oh Come All Ye Unfaithful: Why Silvio Berlusconi's Marital Problems Should Make Americans Happy

It’s been a bad month for fidelity in America, folks.

We’ve had Jon and Kate’s split-up on reality tv, Sandra Tsing Loh’s devastating indictment of “companionate marriage” in The Atlantic, and of course, the ongoing saga that is Governor Mark Sanford’s marital melt-down. (As comedian John Stewart put it so well:  “Another case of Conservative Mind, Liberal Penis…”).

As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes, American marriage  – or at least marriage in the over-educated, hyper-achieving America that Loh writes about – has become a place where pragmatic concerns (read: mortgages, parenting) over-shadow passion and romance. Hence, all those affairs. And what’s worse – at least according to Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory – it’s not clear that those couples who survive infidelity end up all that happily married.

But cheer up folks. There’s a silver lining here. After all these years of being mocked by the Europeans for our prudish sexual norms, Italy, of all places, finally has a bonafide sex scandal. You think Mark Sanford has problems? Try being Silvio Berlusconi caught cavorting with a not-quite-18 year old and allegedly paying an escort to have sex with him.

As I write about today in my very first post for the Woman Up column at Politics Daily, even Italians seem put off by the latest round of accusations about extra-marital shenanigans by their Prime Minister. Read it here.

It’s not that Italians were ever immune to infidelity. Quite the contrary. They seemed to welcome it as an inevitable if not excusable part of long-term marital relationships. Which made America’s quite public and anguished contortions over monogamy seem both exaggerated and ridiculous.

No longer, America.

Somehow, knowing that even in Italy, infidelity is now getting a bad rap made me feel a teensy bit better about the state of affairs – pun intended – back home.

Image: Infidelity by fmarq via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Friday Pix: Recommended Reading for the Weekend

This Friday I point you to some engaging reading around  the blogosphere:

1. Before I moved to the UK three years ago, I’d never read The London Review of Books. Like its cousin on the other side of the Atlantic – The New York Review of Books – it just seemed too daunting a task to squish into my overly-crowded week. But then a friend gave me a gift subscription and I started to read it. Sure, it has its share of slightly-too-long reviews of books you’ve never heard of. But it also has some real gems that are well worth the effort. In last week’s issue, I was especially taken with Andrew O’Hagan’s analysis of car culture in America, as well as Jonathan Raban’s expat take on the expenses scandal roiling British parliament.

2. I am a HUGE fan of writer/performance artist/radio commentator Sandra Tsing Loh. (Never read Mother On Fire? Get thee to a bookstore!) So I was saddened to read her account of her divorce in this month’s Atlantic, which is at times funny, moving and just plain sad. Read Salon’s Amy Benfer’s thoughtful piece on why Loh’s fans will really take this split to heart.

3. Lest Loh’s article inclines you to give up entirely on marriage or long-term partnership, have a look at Emily Yoffe’s brutally honest but uplifting essay about her husband’s first wife in Double X.

4. Finally, I was delighted to happen upon this blog – The Frugal Chariot – which highlights the author’s favorite books, music, films and plays. Just eyeballing the selections, I know he’ll have some good pix for me.

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