Writing Advice from Will Ferrell’s Dad

Okay, the title is a bit of a stretch. Will Ferrell’s father, a professional musician for thirty or forty years, was actually talking about show business. But his advice is applicable to all creative endeavors and every writer should hear it.

Ferrell told the story about his dad on Marc Maron’s podcast (which I’ve recommended before). The whole interview is worth listening to – it was ninety minutes with the “real” Will Ferrell, not one of his characters. And he’s just what you would hope: thoughtful, genuine, and funny. Underneath that bring-the-house-down persona, there’s a lot of gentle wisdom in that man.

Unfortunately I don’t have the transcript so I’ll have to paraphrase. But first, a little scene setting.

Ferrell had come home from college and figured out that he wanted to try comedy. He started doing some anxious standup in Orange County, then eventually made his way to the Groundlings. He was doing well, although this was still light years away from SNL and comedy superstardom.

Ferrell had lunch with his dad and he told him he wanted to pursue comedy as a career. His dad, who had watched him on stage, gave him some practical advice: Continue reading

My Dante, Part II

Profile portrait of Dante, by Sandro Botticelli

Yesterday I gave my advice for how to enjoy Dante and proposed a new translation. Today I put myself to the test, to see whether my approach to translating Dante is superior to the recent (highly accomplished) verse of Clive James and Mary Jo Bang.

Before we get to that, let me emphasize again the importance of reading the Italian first, even if you don’t understand what you’re reading. My approach assumes you get your fill of versification by reading the Italian for sound. Then you get caught up on the story by quickly breezing through the English.

Look, if you’re not interested in the Italian at all – if all you want to do is experience a long, Dante-like poem in English – you should probably choose the Bang translation or one of the others that attempt to give you both the meaning and the flavor of Dante’s poetry. But if you’re reading in Italian first (as I think you must! come on, it’s Dante!) then go for the easiest English you can.

I took a shot at the opening yesterday. Today I put myself to the test with the famous Paolo and Francesca scene. First, the Dante: Continue reading

Dante in Translation

Image Credit: http://www.famousauthors.org

In my shout-out to Graywolf press yesterday I neglected to mention their well-received edition of Dante, translated by the accomplished poet Mary Jo Bang. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Robert Pogue Harrison makes a strong case for Bang’s translation over the recent Clive James version. It does sound better. But frankly I’m not sure either is the way I would really wish to read Dante. So what do I want? Continue reading

Small Press Shout-Out: Graywolf Press!

Graywolf Press! We’ve looked at some great small presses recently (including the smokin’ hot Kaya Press and the medieval throwbacks over at Tiny TOE). Soho Press made me want to buy a bundle of international crime fiction for everyone I know.

But Graywolf… ah, Graywolf makes me want to move to Minnesota! You know Minnesota – the land of Charlie Brown’s wintry desolation, and Prince’s purple splash of cool, and all those sneaky-good writers holed up for the winter in their snowed-in lakeside cabins. And Graywolf, drawing on that literary spirit and bringing out title after title from authors we all should be reading. Not the titans of bestsellerdom but some of the most thoughtful and respected writers around, able to write interesting things because a nonprofit publisher like Graywolf is helping them to get out the news.

Do I need to run through the list? Well, why not? Graywolf authors include the extraordinary Charles Baxter (who once made a secret cameo appearance on this blog), Sven Birkerts, Elizabeth Alexander, Robert Boswell, Tess Gallagher, Tony Hoagland, Jane Kenyon, William Kittredge, Carl Phillips, Mark Doty, Alyson Hagy… and many, many others. As you can see, they actually publish poetry. Their catalog is like antimatter to an airport bookstore.

Graywolf is the sort of press where, when you learn that they published a book of poetry that won the 2013 National Book Award, you aren’t surprised at all. You just shake your head and say, “Well, of course they did.”

Where to start? If you love writing, or if you love a writer, I’d start with one of Charles Baxter’s contemplative gems, either Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction or The Art of Subtext: Beyond PlotFor poetry fans I’d recommend Elizabeth Alexander if you haven’t already enjoyed her works.

But really, the best thing to do is probably just head to the site and roam around… because if Graywolf stands for anything, it’s the spirit of discovery!

Small Press Shout-Out: Soho Press!

Today’s small press shout-out is the fabulous Soho Press! Soho has been pumping out quality books from New York City since 1986. They specialize in literary fiction and young adult books and I’m sure they’re all great, but… ah, there’s no point in denying it, I’m most drawn to Soho Crime, their international-themed crime fiction imprint.   

Soho Press has yet another gorgeous website, with one of the coolest features I’ve seen: a world map showing the settings of their crime fiction. Who’s the hardest person on your holiday list to shop for? Do they like traveling? Mysteries and crime fiction? If so, I recommend clicking on the country they love and/or have always dreamed of visiting, and buying them a few crackling good crime stories. 

Even cooler, if that’s possible, is Soho’s Passport to Crime bundle. For seventy-five bucks (sixty-five for e-books) you get 12 first-in-series paperbacks.  Again, a perfect holiday gift idea for anyone who might enjoy exploring new authors and new worlds. Soho also has a gift-ready subscription plan.

There are small presses and then there are small presses. Soho Press, with its long history of successful publishing, probably deserves something more than a shout-out. Maybe a plaque in the Small Press Hall of Fame?

More Free Fiction: The Race by Jacke Wilson

More free fiction below… Enjoy!  – Jacke

The Race: A Novella

Excerpt from Chapter Seven

When I was young, my class took a field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. On the way back from Chicago we stopped at a McDonald’s, and along with the meal everyone received a Monopoly game piece. It was a small square piece of cardboard with the monocle man – Uncle Pennybags – on the front and two perforated tabs running down each side. On the back were rules and the red text in the Monopoly font. And the magic words:

WIN $1,000,000

Everyone else tore theirs open. A couple of kids won – a small fries, an apple pie. I put mine in my pocket and got busy with other things. I had a meal to eat, friends to hang out with – I don’t know why I didn’t open mine. I just didn’t.

I was astonished by the reaction. On the bus, everyone went crazy with the rumor – I hadn’t opened mine yet! What was in there? What was I waiting for?

For some reason this made me decide not to open it. I didn’t want to be on display. I figured I’d open it later. So I refused.

By the time we returned to the school parking lot I was surrounded by other kids.

“When you gonna open it?”

“Yeah, when? Come on.”

“I might not,” I said. “I might never open it.”

“Come on. S’amillion dollars.”

They could not fathom my refusal. People got angry. They did not forget about it. I waited. Days went by, then a week, then another, until I began to realize that it meant more unopened than opened. It was a one in 80 million chance of winning the big prize – infinitesimal odds I could live with defying – and who cared about the smaller prizes? Not opening it was worth more than a small Coke.

I kept it in my wallet. I never brought it up. Once in a while a rumor would spread that I’d opened it, and I would produce the piece to verify that I hadn’t.

I became a freak: the kid who turned down a million dollars. The rumor spread to other schools. At parties I’d be pointed at – yeah, that’s the guy. The guy with the Monopoly thing. Never opened it. He’ll show it to us if we bug him about it.

The toughest kid in school grabbed me one day and shoved me against a locker. Continue reading

Self-Publishing and the Silicon Valley Fortune Teller

Surprisingly good interview with Netscape founder and Silicon Valley gazillionaire Marc Andreessen the other day. Andreessen thinks a lot about the future – not in a dreamy, techno-utopian way, but because every day he has the best and brightest inventors and entrepreneurs pitching their visions to him. And what does he see?

Newspapers, magazines, television. How are these companies going to make money? What’s the future for them?

So this has been—the media industry is a microcosm of the changes that are happening, and it’s been fascinating to watch. People are always going to love music, movies, TV, and news—it’s evergreen; people are always going to get value out of media. So it’s not a question of whether people want media or not. And in fact, global consumption of media is rising very fast. It’s a huge growth market.

Agreed! So how’s it going to change?

The challenge I think is that in newspapers, magazines, and television, in particular, and books to a certain extent, you had businesses that looked like they were content businesses but were actually distribution businesses. They had controlled distribution rights on the newsstand, on your front porch, on the cable or broadcast dial.

Absolutely right. And now… what do they do when even the lowliest scribblers can bypass their distribution business? Continue reading

Ordering Adjectives

Hmm. You’d think I’d have already known that adjectives in English follow a precise, well-defined order:

Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.

But then again, maybe not. After all, according to Mark Forsyth’s new book The Elements of Eloquence (reviewed here by Christopher Howse), apparently native English speakers have internalized the pattern. We know what’s barbarous and what’s not.

But now that I’m aware of the pattern, can’t I use the information? Maybe shift things around for effect? Well, no: the point of internalizing the pattern is that you already know how to do that too. There’s no gain in knowing what the pattern is. Your ear is enough.

That said, I’m sure I’d have put this little tidbit to good use when I was a teacher of English as a second language. But now? As a writer? Merely more useless knowledge, I suppose.

Ah, English. Has there ever been a more little cute maddening language?

What They Knew #16

(As a followup to yesterday’s post about Marc Maron’s mid-career renaissance…)

“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”

– Émile Zola

Marc Maron, Unlikely Inspiration

Anyone looking for a self-publishing success story doesn’t need to look far. The examples of newly minted millionaires (like Amanda Hocking and E.L. James) are highly Google-able.

But that’s not why I  decided to strike out on my own. No, if I have to point to one inspiration, it would probably be comedian and podcaster Marc Maron. Who is not a self-published author at all. The inspiration comes from something else altogether… Continue reading