Writers on Writing: Gillian Flynn


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…“the plot is the least intriguing part of a book. I start writing because of certain characters or themes or events I want to explore, but I’m often not sure what form that will take. So I do float along a bit. I probably write two novels for everyone I end up with—lots of deleted scenes as I try to figure out what it is I’m really interested in, what it is I’m actually writing.”

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Constantly aware of the need to avoid cliché, Gillian Flynn is the author of the incredibly popular Gone Girl (over 6 million hardcover copies sold since its debut in 2012, available in paperback from April 2014). Flynn admires Joyce Carol Oates for being an “inventive, brilliant, curious and creative writer” as well as Stephen King and Margaret Atwood. An avid reader of all genres – Westerns, graphic novels, sci-fi, fantasy, etc – she dislikes it when people are close minded about a genre as a whole because they are proud of being “poorly read.” She particularly likes unreliable narrators because a great thriller, one with more suspense than violence, creates a sense of uneasiness – the feeling that something is not quite as it seems to be – and figuring out that the narrator – whose job it is to guide you through the tale – is not to be trusted is both unnerving and wonderful.   As a child, she loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series and the puzzle mysteries by Ellen Raskin such as The Westing Game. A self-proclaimed book hoarder, she has a variety of favourites including an extensive Tolkien collection and the lurid 1979 best seller Flowers in the Attic that she had read when she was twelve. She is currently writing a screenplay for Gone Girl.

–       From NYT Review of Books May 11, 2014 & Interview “How I Write” Daily Beast 21st November, 2012




M’athchomaroon, Do You Speak Dothraki?


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Did you know that there is a Klingon translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Having watched every episode of Star Trek in all its incarnations, I would probably recognize some Klingon if I heard it, but I only comprehend a single word: Qapla. Only 20 people on the entire planet are fluent in this language. Ironically, its creator Marc Okrand, is not one of them.

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(photo, right, of Worf from Star Trek, Next Generation)

My mum tells me that I used to translate television shows for my gran before I started primary school; I remember that her favourite shows were wrestling matches, I guess because she didn’t need me to translate those that much. The only English phrase she ever learned was “one ticket for Camden Town” so that she could get the tube to church. Being bilingual (English and Greek) and just-about-fluent-enough in French to travel comfortably in any French-speaking country, I definitely appreciate the accident of birth that enabled me to be more than monolingual. I just wish I had cultivated the opportunities I’ve had to learn a couple more languages when I had the chance to learn German and Spanish. I’ve admired those early 20th century comparative literature scholars who could read texts in ten, twelve, fourteen languages. The passion to learn a language that isn’t “real” is even more impressive.

Just as for national languages, sharing a common, fantasy language like Elfish acts as a linguistic handshake between people; it’s about feeling that one belongs to a group of like-minded others; it speaks to a desire for camaraderie, for a self-chosen family. Besides Klingon for die-hard Trekkies, for Tolkien aficionados, there are 13 other languages to study besides the melodious Elfish,as well as Na’vi, spoken by the indigenous blue inhabitants of Pandora from the movie Avatar, and, now, thanks to Game of Thrones, there’s Dothraki. Those in the know might greet each other with Hajas (pronounced hah-DZHAS and used as a toast to mean “be strong”) or M’athchomaroon (“hello”). People from all over the world can talk to each other in a fan-based, country-neutral language, crossing cultural boundaries (the fan who maintains dothraki.org is German).

At 3,250 words, the language is obviously not fleshed out, no where near as expansive as English’s over 200,000 words. Still, its creator David Peterson, a linguist, or, more particularly, a colanger (one who constructs a new language), applied logical premises and linguistic rules to his process that gives insight into how we learn and build our own vocabularies and structures in our Mother tongues.

First, it was important not to include words that would not be useful or be current or applicable to everyday situations faced by the Dothraki. Certain words would never have been invented given the context in which the Dothraki live. Next, it was important to figure out basic, significant words that could become roots for other words. For example, given that the Dothraki are nomadic warriors who value their horses and who live their lives travelling constantly across grass plains, there was a need for many words for different kinds of horses that then became the root for related objects or ideas. Viewers of the show read the translations of Dothraki into English at the bottom of their screens, giving an air of authenticity to the language.

Jason Momoa, who plays the Dothraki leader Khal Drogo, was both excited and intimated by the idea of speaking an invented language. In commenting on how he came to learn that he would have to act entirely in a language that he did not understand, he said that he would think of each line of dialogue as if it were a piece of music.

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With the Season Four premiere of Game of Thrones tomorrow, Sunday, April 6th, fans of the show will be introduced to more cultures and languages as we follow not only Daenerys, after her destruction of the city state Astapor, when her hidden knowledge of the language High Valyrian was of great use in her overcoming an obnoxious slave trader, but now also two more main characters (no spoilers!) who find their way to Essos across the Narrow Sea

Languages haven’t only been invented for books, movies, or TV shows but to meet particular needs. For instance, the science fiction writer Suzette Haden Elgin created Láaden as a language better suited to express women’s points of view, including how one feels about what one is saying as with the word “bala,” which means “I’m angry for a reason but nothing can be done about it.” The language was used in Elgin’s book series Native Tongue. She said that she created the language to test out Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis that depending on one’s mother tongue one tends to think and behave in a particular manner – to see the world in a specific way – based upon that language than those who speak a different language.

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There have also been attempts to create a global language before English ended up becoming the world’s linga franca. Most are familiar with Esperanto (which happens to be a very good Scattergories game language category word to remember that begins with an “E,” most players inevitably writing down “English”). Its inventor L.L Zamenhof, a Polish native, created it over 125 years ago, hoping it would foster harmony between people of different nations. He was inspired to create the language because of the politics of his home town of Bialystok; in his small town, Russians, Germans, Poles, and Jews were each others’ enemies.

Interestingly, the nation that showed most interest in Esperanto was China. Just recently, one of China’s new museums has put together an extensive exhibit of over 26,000 items written in Esperanto. The language had been introduced in China in 1909 where it gained favour because it was not the language of any imperialist nation, like English, but, even at its peak, only 400,000 Chinese studied it, and no more than 2 million speakers exist worldwide. Only a few thousand could be termed “fluent.”

There are more benefits of bilingualism than being able to converse with a wider range of people. It improves cognitive skills, particularly those involved with problem solving and with mentally-demanding tasks that might require ignoring distractions, holding on to information as tasks are switched, or remembering sequences. It has even been proven to stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s. With only 18 per cent of Americans who are bilingual compared to the 53 per cent of Europeans who can speak a second – and even a third – language, perhaps it is time to consider picking up a new one, even if it might be Asshai.

– Eleni Anastasiou

The History of Sports Slang


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Ever wonder where phrases like slam dunk and March Madness came from? Well here’s a little history of some familiar sports slang. Before I get started, I think it’s only fair that I publicly admit I’m not the biggest sports fan. Granted, I loved playing sports in high school. I was on the JV basketball team. I ran track and field for three years and tried my hand at volleyball until I realized that it wasn’t my forte.

Another guilty admission is I live in one of the biggest, fanatical sports towns in the U.S.—Pittsburgh. There are Steelers’ bars around the world! The other day I drove past PNC Park where the Pirates, affectionately called The Bucks, were playing a home game. The stadium was packed. That isn’t usual for Pirates games but apparently they’ve been doing quite well.

The season for cheering fans, fantasy baseball and football teams and some heated screaming at the television during important games has begun. It’s nearing fall and our Steelers are taking the field again. The Bucks are drawing in record crowds and The Pittsburgh Penguins will be hitting the ice to start their 2013-2014 season soon.

There have been times that I feared for my safety when a local Pittsburgher asked me if I owned any Black and Gold paraphernalia and I sheepishly replied, “No.” So I’m probably not convincing anyone that I’m a perfect candidate to write about the history of sports slang, but a friend of mine posted this article on Facebook: Boom Shakalaka, Beast Mode and the Origin of Popular Sports Phrases and it caught my attention.

So here’s a list of my favorite sports slang and its history

1. No Holds Barred-–the holds part refers to wrestling holds that were typically illegal and sometimes dangerous, but now this phrase has entered the everyday lexicon and generally means ‘anything goes’ or ‘having no restraints.’

Here’s a few sentences that show the everyday usage of No holds barred: “I intend to argue it out with Mary, no holds barred. When Ann negotiates a contract, she goes in with no holds barred and comes out with a good contract.”–from The Free Dictionary.com

2. Win One for the Gipper—an inspirational phrase to rally a team. It originated from a speech made by a Notre Dame coach in 1928 referring to one of the school’s all-time best players, George Gipp. Ronald Reagan played ‘The Gipper’ in the film, Knute Rockne, All American.

3. Put Up Your Dukes—apparently not all Dukes of the Royal British Family are privileged weaklings. Prince Frederick, the Duke of York (1763-1827) took up boxing and hence the origin of this phrase.

From The Free Dicitonary.com: “He’s telling you to put up your dukes. Put up your dukes and be a man!”

4. Second String—this phrase has a literal meaning which refers to the second string that archers carried with them in case their first string broke. Everyone knows the meaning of this phrase in sports. It refers to backup or substitute players. This phrase even has its usage outside of the sports world, and it’s not flattering.

Now you can be one of those annoying people at The Big Game Night Party and regale everyone with trivia about the origin of the most popular American sports slang.

—Erin Dougherty

Writers on Writing: Sue Grafton


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“The books are getting harder, to my great dismay … and I’m thinking I do not want to write if the juice is gone. I’ve seen writers who go on when they should have been put out to pasture. So, when I start a new book and I’m dismayed and distressed and can’t find the story line, I’m always thinking, “Uh-oh—maybe the juice is gone, and that’s why this is so hard.”

I recently met Sue Grafton at a cocktail party for volunteers and faculty at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I didn’t realize who I was talking to until someone called out her name. I nearly fell out of my chair. I have a good excuse for not knowing who she is, and no it’s not that I’ve been living under a rock, but I’m not a huge mystery novel reader.  We chatted for a half hour about travel, writing and Southern accents before I realized who she was. She was the nicest, most down-to-earth person at the party.

In case you don’t know who Sue Grafton is, she’s the author of the Kinsey Milhone Alphabet mystery series. Grafton’s getting close to Z but as the quote above conveys, the books aren’t getting any easier to write. Writing, even for someone who clearly knows her characters and has found a genre that fits her writing style, can still be a challenge. It’s tough to continue to create compelling stories with characters readers want to follow, but writers like Sue Grafton keep writing, of course, until the juice runs out. Let’s hope that’s not until the end of the alphabet.

–excerpt from the Writer’s Digest online April 6, 2010

– Erin Dougherty

Writers on Writing: Jonathan Franzen


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“[Writer’s block] happens when I’m trying to write something that I’m not ready to write, or that I don’t really *want* to write. And there’s no way to discover my unreadiness or unwillingness except to try and fail…I might then discover that I’m trying to write about a character I don’t actually like, or that I’m trying to live up to someone else’s expectation of my writing, or that I’m not yet psychologically prepared to enter the emotional territory I’ve staked out for myself. Whatever the problem is, the solution is always to find my way back to love, to desire, to pleasure.”

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Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom, was an avid reader as a child, visiting the public library weekly to lug home stacks of books.  He enjoys fiction in which writers are examining their lives and the environment in which they find themselves, writers, he says, who have “skin in the game.”  Having admired the work of Don DeLillo, Franzen was pleasantly surprised to receive an autographed copy of Libra.  Of all possible literary historical moments, he would have loved to have been present when Kafka read “The Metamorphosis” to his amused friends just to hear how Kafka used his voice to infuse the piece with humour.

–          From Gotham Writer’s Workshop & NYT Review of Books, April 28 2013.

Eleni Anastasiou

The Zombie Millennium


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pride and prejudice and zombiesI’m not the only one who’s noticed.  Zombies are everywhere.  And sometimes in the most unexpected places.  I mean, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?  Who would have ever thought that that would be available?  (The cover is really cool, but there really is a disappointing lack of zombie carnage.)  There are even high-school courses on Zombie Preparedness.

Living in Pittsburgh, of course my zombie awareness has been heightened by George Romero’s zombie cult classics Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, movies that have defined the genre.  I still can’t walk through a graveyard without thinking of the possibility of zombie attack.


Zombie storytelling has even branched out into what might have seemed an impossible direction: romantic comedy, Warm Bodies being quite a smart update of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – honestly, I didn’t see that one coming….

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So given that I am a die-hard Walking-Dead-fan-from-episode-one, I am eager to read Max Brooks’ World War Z, more interested in the book version than the movie given that a) Brooks did not write the screenplay, b) Brad Pitt’s character does not exist in the book, and c) zombies really should NOT be moving at crazy lightning speed.  Besides, I was intrigued that the book is a series of oral (yes contradictorily written down) survival tales, post-apocalypse.

Last week, I read an article in the New York Times that interviewed Brooks, who also wrote The Zombie Survival Guide about a decade ago.   “I’ve never seen a zombie movie where someone drank from a puddle and died of explosive diarrhea,” he point out.  He is adamant that most of us would not die from a bite but rather would die very quickly from lack of clean water.  Or from the inability to outrun someone else.  Remember the opening scene from Zombieland?  If not, check out this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KO9ZwrANzlI.

Perhaps the fatal effect of dehydration is not so unexpected.  What did surprise me, however, was learning that the former president of the US Naval War College had put W.W.Z. on a reading list and that Brooks himself had lectured at many army bases.  He also has lectured at colleges and other locations over the past decade around the world.

Brooks takes the possibility of apocalypse very, very seriously.  His novel is, despite the presence of zombies, considered by NYT writer Brodesser-Ankner, to depict an “elaborate, chilling, too-real world.”  Brooks has stated that his books should be in the Self-help section or the How-To section and not in Humour, where they are likely to be found.  Still he is grateful that they were not placed on the horror shelf.  He abhors horror because he cannot understand why someone would believe themselves safe enough, comfortable enough, or bored enough, to want to be jolted and terrified by imaginary monsters when real ones exist.

For Brooks, we wrestle with enough monsters.  While he was writing W.W.Z., there were complications during his son’s birth, an emergency C-section and a collapsed lung leaving both his wife and son, respectively, in hospital for many weeks.  Brooks divided his time between them, writing his tale at night as he sat next to his sleeping son.  At the same time, his mother, the actress Anne Bancroft, was undergoing chemotherapy for uterine cancer.  “The zombies aren’t comedy.  It has to do with life-and-death survival, the modus operandi for the need to survive.  Not to be happy – that’s something else. To survive,” says Mel Brooks, Max’s father.  Bancroft died two months later.  The zombies are those things that come into our lives and rip them to shreds.

– Eleni Anastasiou

The Art of Imitation


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Each June, I pack my bags and head out west to Santa Barbara California to visit friends and attend an intense 6-day writers conference. Each year, the nightly speakers inspire, amaze and encourage fledgling and expert writers to hone their craft, to bounce back from rejection and to most of all have fun writing.

Last year, I saw Dorothy Allison who wrote Bastard Out of Carolina. T.C. Boyle captivated us with his special brand of storytelling, reading from a collection of his short stories.

Each year I grow a little more confident in my craft, less daunted by criticism and ready to stand by the aspects of my story that I believe in. The writer’s life is at once fulfilling and lonely. Workshop leaders talk about “finding your voice.” which is both a literal and symbolic act for it requires a journey into the unconscious, and what we bring to the page after that journey gives our stories life.

It’s easy to spot a writer who hasn’t found her voice, but when you find a writer whose voice is strong, you can’t seem to turn away from the page. Voice is everything in life and in storytelling.

Speaking of a voice that captured millions of readers, I met Steven Chbosky this year. He was the opening evening’s speaker, and he was absolutely gracious to every fan who stood in line to have The Perks of Being a Wallflower signed.

Being a Pittsburgh native, we bantered a bit in Pittsburghese to quizzical onlookers. My mother, who is also a writer, interviewed him on stage. He discussed the symbolic meaning of the Fort Pitt Tunnel, a symbol that showed up in the book several times.

Charlie, Sam and Patrick rode through the tunnel on their way downtown. I thought maybe it symbolized their transition from adolescence and the limited world of high school to young adulthood and college life. But my interpretation was too narrow. Chbosky told the audience that he thought of the tunnel as a birthing canal, representing the potential rebirth of the three main characters.

At the end of the fifth day of the conference, I was bleary-eyed and overstimulated being a typical introverted writer, but I didn’t want it to end. Being in the company of other storytellers and creative thinkers sparked a renewed interest in me to write every day. Now if you ask any of my friends, they’d probably tell you that wouldn’t last long since I abhor assembly-line time when it comes to creative acts.

But, I also realize that to become a better writer and storyteller, I have to put in the hard work. I’m trying a new way to keep writing every day even if inspiration doesn’t come. A friend of mine recommended a writing experiment in which you find an author you admire and you copy passages of their writing by hand into a notebook for several months. This is just rote copying, nothing more.

Apparently, after doing this for several months every day, your own writing changes. Part of the experiment is to re-write something you wrote before the experiment and see what comes of it. I’m just on day 1, but I’ll keep you posted on my progress and what I learn.

Today, I copied a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, and I already feel the cadence and poetics of his writing affecting my own.

Happy writing—Erin Dougherty

Writers on Writing: Hilary Mantel


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“Memoir’s not an easy form.  It’s not for beginners, which is unfortunate, as it is where many people do begin.  It’s hard for beginners to accept that unmediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing.  If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene.  The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record: this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint.  But she has to make it as true as she can.  Writing a memoir is a process of facing yourself, so you must do it when you are ready.”

–       Taken from The New York Review of Books, May 19th 2013

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Mantel is the author of the acclaimed novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two parts of a trilogy focused on the rise and fall of Sir Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII (both novels won the Man Booker Award). Mantel has a wide interest when it comes to reading, citing Kate Atkinson’s new novel Life After Life, the psychological works of Alice Miller, and the book Religion and the Decline of Magic as texts she is currently reading or rereading and Shakespeare’s plays as having influenced her most. Overall, she prefers action and fighting over sentiment, sensibility, and love. On a very British note, she has tons of books on cricket and its history on her shelves, being fascinated by games played long before the First World War.

– Eleni Anastasiou

The Science of Creativity


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We all know that feeling when a creative idea or a spontaneous desire to finger paint with our kids overtakes us. There’s a rush of something akin to adrenaline but this is not the fight or flight response, and inspiration and creativity aren’t always birthed by stress, although sometimes great stress can lead to periods of greater creativity. The point is when we’re reading a good book, getting into the flow of writing or just enjoying the quiet beauty of a summer sunset, time disappears and our bodies feel lighter, more energized and there’s a whoosh of joy that washes over us. This is a wonderful state to find yourself in. Many people try to retain that feeling, to remain inspired and creative, but sadly for many of us this state is elusive.

There’s a reason for that. In a recent article in Psychology Today magazine, Art Markman went on the hunt to uncover what spurs on creativity. You’ve all heard the slightly annoying phrase ‘think outside the box’. Well, this advice actually doesn’t tell you anything of value. Markman writes that real creativity requires a leap into the unknown. We don’t know that we have to come up with an idea outside of the norm until we come up with the idea first.

Basically, memories are the culprit. When asked to think of a new animal to populate a strange planet, most people will unconsciously call upon all the animal forms they remember or are most familiar with. Then they will use that existing form and try to add on to it in order to make it different. But this isn’t real creativity.

Real creativity comes from changing what you are focusing on. For example, if your boss asks you to come up with a creative solution to a problem, you need to describe it differently or in a fresh way. So examining how we describe problems or creative challenges can end up unlocking new doors to more inspired solutions.

Another way to get in the flow of real creative thinking, change what you’re thinking about. Markman suggests thinking about different things not just thinking differently. What does that mean? Well, let’s take the animal example again. If you wanted to write a science fiction story and populate it with strange creatures that aren’t just weird adaptations of what is already familiar, you just think about all the different definitions of animal. Most people will think of familiar concepts of animal such as lions, bears and other creatures with arms and legs and snouts. But if you wanted to be really creative, you need to expand your thinking about animals. Go more abstract. Markman mentions single-celled organisms, then play with that form, innovating on it.

The Big Creativity Killer

Failure. “Fear of failure narrows vision.” So while fear of failure is a big challenge to overcome and many of us would rather stay safe in our comfort zones than risk humiliating or self-esteem crushing failure, the fear itself kills creativity.

Harvard Business School psychologist Teresa Amabile studied the conditions that nurtured creativity. In several experiments, she told some participants that their creative products would be evaluated by a panel of judges, another group that their products would be entered into a contest and a third group was told nothing.

Guess which group produced the most creative products? The group that was told nothing before they set out to create. They had no fear of judgement or failure, so they took more risks, innovated and yes, ‘thought out of the box’.

The Creative Space-Cadet

When trying to let the creative juices flow, concentration is your enemy. Yes concentration is good for many things like slicing an apple or building and engine but it does not help you be creative. Why? Because the mind needs to wander and be free to make odd associations in order to find creative solutions to problems.

So when you’re stuck on finding a solution to a nagging problem or can’t seem to overcome writer’s block, get out and walk, smell the flowers or put on some Madonna and dance around your living room in your underwear. Anything to break up the routine and get your mind to free associate.

—Erin Dougherty

Writers on Writing: Isabel Allende


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“Books for kids need to be very entertaining.  No preaching, no hidden messages, no condescending tone, no didactic stuff.  Kids are smart: don’t underestimate their bull detector.  Contemporary kids have access to a lot of information, so don’t even try to fool them.  I have never been more nervous about my research than when writing for young adults because they pick up every single error.  Kids like fantasy, imagination, humor, adventure, villains and suspense.”

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– Comment taken from the New York Times Review of Books April 7th, 2013

Isabel Allende is a Chilean writer who has incorporated elements of Magic Realism into her stories, having been influenced to become a writer by Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Her most well-known work is The House of Spirits filmed in 1993 with a stellar cast including Meryl Streep and Vanessa Redgrave.  The most recent book read that Allende recommends is The Death of Bees by Lisa O’DonnellMark Twain is the writer she would most like to meet; she imagines a sexy, energetic, and principled man- one who is a larger than life storyteller and liar.  While noting that Magic Realism is no longer a trend since the 1980s, she sees elements of it in works by Salmon Rushdie and Toni Morrison. Magic Realism is for her the acknowledgment that the world is indeed a very mysterious place.

– Eleni Anastasiou