My wife and I caught a pre-screening of the documentary “Obit” last night. It introduces the general public to the people and the process of crafting the obituaries of both famous and significant people who have died.
Now from that lede, you’re probably thinking this must be a yawner of a movie. In fact, it’s not only one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in years, it’s also an illuminating commentary on writing. In the picture above, New York Times reporter Margalit Fox fields questions from the audience. She’s the “baby” of the obituary staff, and gets much face time in the documentary.
She shared a few insider jokes that reveal much about writing. One involved a talented newcomer to the news business. He was not only a gifted writer, but took pride in thorough research. Despite his heroic efforts, he kept getting angry calls from readers about inaccurate statements in his stories. When he sought the advice of an old-timer, the pro sat back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and said, “Kid, it’s real simple. Quit putting in too many facts.”
Margalit offered a useful example of what the old pro meant. In one of her first obits, she identified the deceased’s father as a “Democratic congressman from Illinois.” An irritated relative informed Margalit that her uncle had in fact been a Republican. “I assumed he was a Democrat because he was from Illinois,” confessed Margalit. “But my obit would’ve been just as good if I’d only described the deceased’s father as ‘a congressman from Illinois.'” Lesson learned: Less is better.
Another joke was about an experienced reporter whose editor told him to write a short report on a breaking story. “I can give you a 5,000-word story,” said the reporter. “I don’t have enough time to write a short report.” He had a point — short works are hard to do.
Bottom line, don’t miss this documentary. The characters (starting with the madcap manager of the New York Times’s morgue), the tension created by meeting deadlines while treating the bereaved family with respect and sympathy, and the fundamental difficulty of “getting the words right” make “Obit” a must see. Highly recommended.
Anne R. Allen observes that the art of fiction is constantly evolving, and that the alert writer must adapt to the times:
Fiction writing has gone through vast changes since Tolstoy’s day.
In fact, it has changed a good deal in the last decade.
Amy Collins at The Book Designer reports the average NYT Bestseller is now half as long as it was in 2011.
And the brand new Smashwords survey shows bestselling romance novels have decreased by 20,000 words since 2012.
The fastest growing fiction form right now is the novella.
If you want to sell books in the 21st century, you need to write books for the 21st century reader.
Whether we want to write potboilers or a future classic, we all want more people to read our work. So it only makes sense to learn what folks want to read. e.e. cummings once noted that poets not only have to compete with other fine poets for their readers’ attention, but also with “flowers and balloons and mud puddles and train rides.” And in the Internet Age, there are countless other contenders for increasingly brief attention spans, so Anne’s advice is crucial.
And there’s an added benefit to learning to say more with less: It makes you a better writer. Writing short stories, and then flash fiction — a form I once thought I’d never enjoy reading, much less enjoy writing — no doubt taught me to make every word count. And this week, I tried my hand at microfiction, with a story weighing in at less than 500 words. The process of selecting and marshalling your words within strict restraints is a demanding challenge and illuminating joy. Try it!
By the way, you’ll want to read all of Anne’s great article. As usual, she’s peppered it with links to fantastic resources and examples for both the beginning and seasoned writer.
I must confess I am not familiar with Jamaica Kincaid or her works, but this collection of her quotes in Literary Hub makes me hunger for more. Here’s a small sample:
- A professional writer is a joke. You write because you can’t do anything else, and then you have another job. I’m always telling my students go to law school or become a doctor, do something, and then write. First of all you should have something to write about, and you only have something to write about if you do something.
- Life has a truth to it, and it’s complicated—it’s love and it’s hatred. Love and hatred don’t take turns; they exist side by side at the same time. And one’s duty, one’s obligation every day, is to choose to follow the nobler one.
- I want to write until I die, and I hope to live a long time. I don’t want to reach a plateau; what I am interested in is living, living.
Ha! Love it. Want to read more? Check out the rest at Literary Hub.
Have you ever wondered just who this guy is? Here’s a page with links to the brave souls who wondered the same thing and asked him.
Cathleen Townsend’s Author Interviews is a respected online treasure. I’m honored to be included in the company of Dan Alatorre, D. Wallace Peach, and E. E. Rawls, just to name a few of the authors Cathleen has featured over the years.
Frankly, I had to dig deep to answer some of her questions, which revealed genuine insight and appreciation for the writing process. Cathleen asked me about projects that took me out of my comfort zone, my writing heroes, and about my latest book, The Genie Hunt. Here’s Cathleen Townsend’s Interview with M. C. Tuggle.
The best fiction and writing blog posts from around the ‘net, all guaranteed to make you a literary legend. Compiled by flannery.
D. Wallace Peach – Writers’ Critique Groups
Cathleen Townsend – Pinterest–Tips to Get Started
Sean P. Carlin – Foundations of Storytelling: The Logline
Annabelle Troy – Fiction Gets Brainy
Dave Astor – It’s Earth Day in Some Parts of Literature
Nicola Alter – Getting The Last Line
J. C. Wolfe – 16 Redundant Phrases You Should Simplify in Your Writing
Jay Dee Archer – Genres Helping Other Genres