Susanne Dunlap

Archive for the ‘The writing life’ Category

Signs and symbols, messages and meaning

In Random thoughts, The writing life on April 5, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Lately I’ve been reading James Gleick’s important book, The Information. Before I launch into my observations about it I have to say that anyone thoughtful who lives in our world must, I repeat, must, read it. I don’t say that often. Books are generally a matter of taste, and something I like might seem silly or stupid or unimportant to someone else. But in this case, whatever your feelings about non-fiction, I urge you to make an exception.

Why do I feel this way? Because Gleick pieces together the elements of communication and meaning that we, as a species, have evolved over time, and reveals a continuum, a trajectory, that makes sense of so many things.

He starts with the language of African drums, progresses through the way that written language changed everything about how human beings thought of the world, to an examination of the early steps that identified information as something that can be measured and analyzed. Simple concepts, like the blossoming elegraph wires in the nineteenth century being described as a “net-work” traversing the landscape, suddenly make sense of our immensely fast and complicated way of interrelating to each other through words and encoded electronic impulses.

The very fact that I’m able to write this, now, as I sit in a lovely restaurant in Dumbo, Brooklyn (Superfine, if you want to know) simply wouldn’t have been possible without all those trailblazers and their sometimes outlandish, abortive attempts to make the next great thing, to find ways to send messages faster. For instance: the very idea of standardized time depended on faster communications. Not to mention the concept of a weather report! Imagine when weather was something that simply happened suddenly, without warning, with no relation to any nearby place. Or when time was dependent only on the local moments that defined it: when the sun was at its highest point defining the noon hour. Would it surprise you to know that no one minded much about that until standardized time was essential to ensure that trains didn’t collide?

I’m not going to summarize the entire book, but as a historical novelist as well as a normal human being, I find all these matters extraordinarily important.

So, read the book. You won’t be sorry you spent the time


The Elevator Pitch

In Random thoughts, The writing industry, The writing life on March 30, 2011 at 11:32 am

Recently I’ve had to tell a lot of strangers what my upcoming book, In the Shadow of the Lamp, is about. I’ve got a reasonable, one-to-two-line pitch that gives a rough idea of what to expect:

A young parlormaid in Victorian London loses her position, and stows away to go with Florence Nightingale and her nurses to the Crimea, where she learns to nurse wounded soldiers and falls in love—with two different men.

This morning, a friend’s Facebook post directed me to this article by the ever intelligent Laura Miller in She discusses the potentially conflicting skill sets of great writing and first-rate self-promotion. Her examples are the recent bits of big news in the publishing world: Amanda Hocking’s 4-book, $2 million contract with St. Martin’s, and Barry Eisler turning down a $500k deal with the same publisher and deciding to self publish.

Those issues have been thoroughly explored in the various book media and on many blogs, my personal favorite being Nathan Bransford’s. What I started thinking about in the middle of the night was how the great authors of the classics might face the daunting publishing world of today, and give an elevator pitch for their books.

This is not a novel (excuse the deliberate pun) idea: I think I’ve read some fanciful pitches before. But with recent discussions, it somehow seems more relevant. Some authors might be good at it: The ever-commercially minded Dickens, for instance. But as I thought about my favorite classic novels, I had a really hard time coming up with selling lines that I thought might actually appeal to publishers—or even the reading public—today.

Here are a few of my attempts:

An unhappily married woman falls in love with a dashing officer, losing her sense of self and abandoning her social circle, and ultimately destroying everything she holds dear. (Anna Karenina)

A young man is encouraged to count on his inheritance to bring him a better life—without any guarantee that he’ll get that inheritance in the end—and makes a series of bad choices. (Great Expectations)

A woman with fragile health remembers her youth while she prepares to give a party, and a parallel tragedy of a shell-shocked WWI soldier plays itself out at the same time. (Mrs. Dalloway)

So, those are not sparkling and witty. What they do is demonstrate to me how difficult it is to distill the essence of a work of literature in a few sentences. I’m reminded of a famous Woody Allen quote (paraphrased here): “I decided to read War and Peace. It’s about war, and peace.”

Got any good elevator pitches for your favorite classic novels? Let’s see if we can make one or two of them appealing to today’s market! And then, let’s appreciate that promotion and writing are two different things, both necessary to either traditional or self publishing in this current world.

Standing here, now

In Random thoughts, The writing life, Writing Craft on March 19, 2011 at 1:38 pm

I sometimes get bogged down in stupid things. Unproductive thoughts. Obsessive worries. Things I really have no control over, but that for one reason or another seem to matter too much to ignore.

Today, I started out that way. I’ve long postponed switching the platform on which I create my website to something where I could integrate this blog. I’m partway there, but I don’t have the necessary background skills to make it easy, and I’m tearing myself apart with frustration.

For me, frustration is a visceral pain that sits just below my sternum. When I experience it, the pain washes over every other emotion. It completely engulfs my psyche, making it impossible for me to enjoy anything until I have managed to solve the problem or issue that’s frustrating me. I can’t even write fiction when I feel that way.

So I’ve decided that I need to set out on a course of self-improvement to overcome this annoying failing I have. I need a way to be able to set aside things I can’t control, a way to put the task that refuses to be conquered into the background, behind a screen where it will not raise its ugly head and taint the rest of my life.

While I was standing on the train platform, up high above Atlantic avenue, waiting for the 12:49 to Long Beach, I looked out over the semi-industrial, dilapidated commercial buildings that line that main Brooklyn thoroughfare, and I tried to empty my mind of bad thoughts, frustrations, and sadness. I stared across into the cloud-dotted, pale blue sky. I felt the cool breeze through the sweater I optimistically wore as my only coat on this early spring day. I noticed the horns honking, the car and truck engines roaring. I saw a plane go by on its way to JFK.

I repeated to myself, “I’m standing here, now.” I couldn’t think of anything better.

The result? Nothing much I’m afraid. I still have that knot in my stomach. I’m still going over and over how to solve the knotty problems I seem to be having at the moment. But I think I might have had some moments of calm while I was actually doing the exercise. I suppose it’s a little like meditating, which is something I’ve never successfully done before.

Now, I will try the supremely zen exercise of interacting with my grandchildren. I’ll let you know if that works any better.

And if you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.