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March 27, 2007

Your Guide to Writing the Next Artsy Fartsy Blockbuster

By Sarah

As a reader and aspiring writer of high quality literature, probably you've been asking yourself this The_thinker question: What the hell am I doing reading this blog?

No, wait. That's the other question. The real question is this: How do I, an intelligent, aspiring writer of serious literature, write the next quality blockbuster? You know the kind of novel I'm talking about - The Time-Traveler's Wife, Empire Falls, The Secret Life of Bees, etc....If you're thinking Shopaholic and Baby, immediately click on my website. You are definitely in the wrong place here.

Now, with this handy-dandy guide, you - yes, even you - can outline and write the next "heartbreaking, stunning" story about "life and loss, hope and redemption." It will be the kind of novel in which reviewers will use such glowing terms as "brilliantly crafted" and "deeply moving." But mostly they'll use heartbreaking, though they will have trouble remembering if heartbreaking is hyphenated or one word.


This will be your most important step. Imagine yourself at a dinner party with intellectuals undoubtedly like yourself. All conversation stops as your hostess (aka, the jealous shrew from your writer's group) turns in your direction and with her sharp tongue says, "Yes, Percival, do tell us the title of this heartbreaking, stunning novel you're writing during your lunch breaks at Taco Bell."

At this point replying, "Spongebob: Dude with the 'Tude," will pale in comparison to, say, "The Lives and Spongebob Loves of an Optimistic Invertebrate." (Later people will ask each other enthusiastically, "Have you read Invertebrate? It's so heartbreaking! Also, very stunning!!")

Speaking of hyphens (not sure we were), you might be tempted to employ a silent one in the title of your next heartbreaking blockbuster. In this day and age, a lame ass title such as Moby Dick is not nearly as compelling as The Whale Hunter's Prey. In fact, insects and animals are very en vogue, though sub-cellular organisms might be the next big trend. (Note to self: Like Golgi Bodies for Chocolate? Just a thought.)


This is the annoying "crux" of the story, what editors will mean when they ask, stupidly, "What is this novel about?"
Do not confuse theme with plot as there DEFINITELY WILL BE NO PLOT in your heartbreaking stunning novel. If you find you have a plot, back step. You have taken a wrong turn. Instead, toy with ultimately depressing human conundrums (teenage drug use, circus antics, abandoning babies at church steps, shooting up a crowd or, preferably, all four), though avoid child rape, incest, wife beating and birthing babies at Wal Mart as those were done during the glorious Oprah-Loves-Live-Authors years. (A moment of silence, please.)

Also, you will want to steer clear of the paranormal - this has been claimed by the mass market and you, snort, are certainly not writing for the masses. (Though you hope and pray Costco will sign you on bigBetter_shakespeare   time.) Exceptions to this are: time traveling (when used metaphorically) and ghosts (because Shakespeare got away with it, the hack.)


Finally, your most important step (after title, natch.) Imagery and your (over)use thereof will be what sets your heartbreaking, stunning novel apartment from, say, James Patterson (and Michael Ledwige, though no one ever notices his name at the bottom of the book, do they?). There will be no act so ordinary, so mundane that it will not be described without all five senses. Especially smell. Reviewers LOVE stinky stuff.

From this point on, grass will cease to be grass and will become "the sharp, pungent blades of spring's hopeful rebirth" upon which your character's "smooth, silken feet" will carefully tread. Blood will become "a bright, pulsing red life source" and your character will be "surprised" to see it spreading over her "white hands with their perfect nails and moon-shaped tips." The glass that will undoubtedly shatter will not simply break but "cascade into a million crystal snowflakes" just like her life.

Hedge_maze Many walls will go up. Hedge mazes are helpful, too. Insist that your married characters become separated in them. Do not mind that no one, but no one, grows mazes in their back yards.


This is where the "hopeful, redemption" part comes in, though do not spend too much time on this step as few, if any, readers will stick around long enough to find if your character, Julia, ever meets up with her senile husband, James, lost in Wisconsin where he has escaped with his orphaned and slightly crippled pet elephant in search of a decent cheeseburger. Focus on the readers' questions that the publicist will require you to add.

For example, many readers will be curious to know this: Why Pittsburgh? Think of something pithy now. Monkey_thinker

I hope this guide has been a help. Of course, you will need an excellent cover. Fortunately, there are many obscure 17th century paintings that can be ripped off. (Copyright laws are so awesome.) And do not forget your author photo: hair graying, straight. Eyes squinting. Mouth as if you just consumed a sour pickle. Preferably, "a pungent fruit of vinegary goodness bursting with the memories of summer afternoons, when Julia stood barefooted on the worn wooden floors surprised by the red life source spurting from her perfect white feet near the shattered glass...."

Well, you get the idea.

See you on "the list"!



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Feel better, Sarah?
The Sleeping Beauty Proposal rocks............................this is just Sarah getting hers off while gearing up to write another winner.

mary alice

Isn't one also meant to join the MLA or something? Also, can you give me a few tips on proper attire for the aspiring pretensionist? Is rumpled tweed still in, or am I showing my age?

This gaggle of writers, who have nothing to say but are just dying to say it with great poignancy? They should forget books and take up free-verse poetry. New Yorker'll publish their pieces.

At long last, a blog that speaks directly to the very pretense of the pretentious. Indeed, in their own lexicon, it calls to the gents of the intelligencia - the pomps of the pompous - why, the very asses of the assholes. Or was it the holes? I can never remember.

Bloody brilliant, Lady Sarah of the Blogness.

Also - those Oprah books were a straight route to despair. Hated them.

Charlie - I think you get a free beret with that.

I forgot to say that any humor will be blue-penciled.

The book that inspired this, uh, rant was notable for its lack of both reality and humor. Though I did burst out laughing the other night when a key character, while fighting with her husband, repeatedly said, "Oh, David...."

Then again, this book's selling like hotcakes. Go fig.

Sitting here, reading this, fingers find their way to a thing made of cohesive plastic parts and begin moving in established patterns as I marvel over the connection established through bits and bytes brought together via the inconceivable route of fiber optics and technology that never existed just a short time ago.

My mind reels as I read this again, letters on a phosphor screen patterned into words that can touch anyone on this planet of ours, the planet that once seemed so large but now with today's technology is shrinking all the time.

The author of this thing, this thing called a "Blog", is obviously someone of great style and intelligence, a soupcon of humor just below the surface of the words, words that can reach across the globe, and possesses the capability to make any reader reflexively contract facial muscles into the combination known as a 'smile' as one absorbs and reacts to the wit and wisdom conveyed here.

(English translation: Sarah, you've done it again! You're amazing...:))

You just proved you could write that stuff if you wanted to, Sarah. Funny blog!

What I object to is not the content of the books, since -- let's face it -- there are plenty of bad books in genre fiction, too. It's taking this gig too seriously. We're not working with refugees fer chrissakes.

This reminds me of a flow chart about Science Fiction plots that I discovered my first semester at Florida State. It basically revealed that there were basically 5 plot threads that ALL Science Fiction narratives follw. Kinda ruined that genre for me after reading that.

I dod like Kathy's comment about "the very pretense of the pretentious." In both Cinema and Literature, most elitist critics seem to love misery and they want a lot of company.

Oh, Sarah, thank you for this handy guide. I can't wait to write my first literary novel. Then I can go to the literary festivals and ask all the mystery writers, "When are you going to write a real novel?"

Um, Sarah, Frolic Weymouth has a maze in his yard, just a few miles from my house. Some drunken wife we sat with at a Yale alumni function seemed surprised that we had never been there.

I am reminded of a lovely little computer program, way back in the day (when mainframes had less computing power than most modern cell phones), that would compose random science fiction stories. Short but pithy, they -- my favorite was "Mars needs women. So they came to Earth and took some."

Sarah, you clearly have a rich future ahead of you, not only as a brilliant Author of Important Heartbreaking and Stunning Novels of Love, Loss, and Redemption, but as a serious Conductor of Meaningful Writing Workshops. You go!

All I have to say is, Frolic Weymouth?

Now see? She's gone and done it. Why pay for the MFA when Sarah can reduce those tens of thousands of dollars and years of workshop flagellation into a single blog?

I do like literary novels. Not the pretentious or the wallowing-in-despair ones, but I do love Michael Chabon (Mysteries of Pittsburgh!) and Alice McDermott and Elinor Lipman and Jane Smiley. (I worship Jane!) But these literary authors have managed to write plots--yes, plots!----that aren't too mechanical, and the prose isn't dopey. Wonderful books, but none of them Oprah types.

(Frolic is probably in character in MY books!)

Okay, I don't get Michael Chabon. Maybe it's the cartoon thing. I do like Elinor Lipman and the last thing I read of Jane Smiley was 1,000 acres. But I was not referring to them.....Hey. I should go read Elinor Lipman right now. Or, should I read Incubus Dreams?

Decisions, decisions.

This made my morning, thank you.

I don't get Michael Chabon either! I thought I was the only one.

Sarah, thank you, finally someone has revealed the secret to successfully hitting “the list.” I immediately came up with my NYT Best Seller Title, “The Pseudopodium Ascension.”

Must go work on my pithy responses after scrapping the plot, dropping in random angst filled moments, and working in enigmas.

Brilliant, just brilliant, Lady!

You rock, Sarah. I read this blog, but I didn't get it...sort of like all those pretentious books. When I read the NYT reviews on Monday, I shudder. I don't want to read those books. Same with Oprah's choices. Tried one. Avoided every one after that. I read FOR FUN. If I want to be depressed, I can just spend time looking at all the dust on my shelves, or the vacuuming that needs to be done!

I do have a friend who I adore, but she did sort of "sneer" at my writing. She informed me that she only read things like The Zen of Motorcycle Repair, or something like that. Her loss, IMHO

One of the best 'literary' novels I have ever read is "The Next Step in the Dance" by Tim Gautreaux. I'm not sure the man has a pretentious bone in his body. According to a friend who knows him, he is shy, only attends seminars because he teaches both lit and writing at a Louisiana college, and doesn't do enough to promote his own works. He started his writing career with several books of short stories, also some of the best I've read in a while, so perhaps that accounts for his lack of flowery prose. He describes the bayou and her people so well.
(Maybe I'll send a copy to Oprah :o)!)
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I liked Seibold's "Lovely Bones" as well but in general don't find a lot of literary fiction that grabs me. Hmmm...maybe I'm a reverse snob!
Great blog, Sarah! I thought I was the only one who believed phrases like 'glass cascading into a million crystal snowflakes'were just a way to show the author's way around a thesaurus. :o)

FYI, for Elinor Lipman fans: And Then She Found Me is being made into a movie starring Helen Hunt and (drum roll, please) Colin Firth. Yup. Mr. Darcy's going librarian on us.

Good idea, sarah. I think I'll go read The Dearly Departed. Joey the cop makes me...smile.

Well done and thank you.

If you choose Incubus Dreams, have a bath ready, you may need to wash.

The neighborhood book group imploded between the people that read for pleasure (re: genre) and the people that wanted to read the current "great works", a term I use very loosely.

Michael Chabon's WONDER BOYS. If you're a writer, I defy you to find a more hilarious novel. Just saying.

"we're not working with refugees, fer chrissake." Brilliant, Michele. Hard for the pretentious to "craft" a comeback to that!

I enjoyed Wonder Boys, maybe because I liked visualizing Katie Holmes as the sexy, virginal, coed who was boarding with the main character. In the movie. I thought he should have made a move on her, before he figured out what the hell to do with his life, which I seem to recall he did better in the movie than in the book.

Hasn't Chabon's wife posted here as a guest blogger? We should be nice to spouses of friends, even if they are over the top.

Ayelet can hold her own. And I'm not being mean to Chabon...In fact, I can probably state with 100% certainty that he did not care for Bubbles or for The Cinderella Pact. Though, you never know. Maybe he secretly is an overweight woman dying to find her inner princess.

You never know.

Hey, Maryann, I've met Tim Gautreaux. He's a great guy. Same Place, Same Things is a nice collection of his short work. In one story (I'm not giving anything away) he describes the weather as hot as the doorknob to hell. I've always wanted to share that--and now I have.

I like both Michael Chabon's books and Ayelet Waldman's books - totally different. Both good. Both nice people too, for what it's worth.

And Pittsburgh? I Love This Town.

Josh - loved the movie too. Filmed here - cool to see familiar places.

And I think you have to wear cardigans on the Book Tour. Do I have that right, Sarah?

ramona,he does write great descriptions. :o)Thanks for reminding me of that one. I may just have to pull one of the collections out and re-read. Glad someone else knows aboout him. I've handsold several copies of Next Step and everyone has enjoyed the plot and the characters. Not a wasted word in the book. I actually e-mailed him a 'fan' letter.

I loved the movie, too, Kathy and Josh. CLEARLY set in Pittsburgh -- it's raining in almost every scene! Every time a scene opened onto a rainy front porch, I cracked up. I thought it was a great inside joke for the Pittsburghers in the audience.

As my pensive green eyes read your blog today I felt a strong mix of unfamilar emotions surge through my body. Oh yeah I remember now in my house we call it laughter. Thanks for the great blog.

Sarah--Sweet lord that was one of the funniest blogs I've EVER read. You were on it, girl.
;-) Bella

Okay, you Pittsburghians, don't get your knickers in a twist over my casual question, "Why Pittsburgh?" Yes, we know you're fanatical about the town. The rivers! The bridges! The cultural, uh, culture! Michael Chabon! The Steelers, for crissakes!! I didn't mean nuthin by that....It simply pertained to the book which inspired this blog.

Gawd. What is it with you P'burg people?

Sarah, they have an inferiority complex, based on towns with more going for them, such as Buffalo, Cleveland, and Steubenville. That doesn't even count places that have a right to look down on them, such as Altoona, Reading, and, yes, dare I say, Bethlehem.

I don't know what book you are alluding to, so I just took it as a hormonally charged rant.

Josh, are you going the way of Sienna Miller or was that a joke? What are you talking about? Pittsburgh is a fantastic town -- cosmopolitan, beautiful AND unpretentious.

It's his lame attempt at humor, Michele. Don't give it another thought.

Okay, now I'm reading the Year of Magical Thinking and all I have to say is, holy shit is it good.

I don't think it was lame, but then, I wouldn't, would I? It turns out that not only Dean Martin, but Traci Lords, is from Steubenville. Who's from Pittsburgh, other than Iris Steensma?

What did Sienna Miller do, other than stay with that guy who slept around on her?

She said mean things about Pittsburgh and got smacked down by irate Pittsburghites.

Yeah, Josh. I wouldn't mess with P'burghians/ites. I think they still have steel there, which is more than I can say for our hometown.

Also, I understand Margie has relatives there - if you get my drift.

Who's from Pittsburgh?? WHO'S FROM PITTSBURGH??? Only Gene Kelly, Jeff Goldblum, Fred Rogers, Michael Keaton, Andrew Carnegie, Roberto Clemente, Martha Graham, Franco Harris, the entire Heinz family, JONAS SALK FOR CRISSAKES, Andy Warhol, August Wilson and Nancy Martin!!

Top that, Steubenville.

Sarah is right. I have people in Pittsburgh. Good people.

People who will, with just a phone call, make things happen, say, in other parts of the state. Just saying.

POittsburghers......not to mention Gertrude Stein, Mary Cassatt, Annie Dillard, John Edgar Wideman, Westinghouse, Anne Morrow Lindberg, Romare Beardon, Willa Cather thru idlife, Rachel Carson, and Mary Roberts Rinehart!

mary alice

Loved, loved, *loved* The Year of Magical Thinking.

And I think Roberto Clemente was from PR, Cass. But he lived here for a while.

But also: Joe Namath, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Mike Ditka.

Great read! Thanks for sharing this wonderful tips.

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