Category Archives: advice

New website BACKLIST.net (News, publishing, biz, entertainment…& they interviewed SPB!)

The Barker Center at Harvard: Where We Am Civvers Be Based At

Today is the launch of Felicia Pride’s newly-revised Backlist.net, and she asked me to talk about making the transition from working journalist and writer to PhD student. It turned into a great interview/conversation.

Please go see it here, and bookmark Backlist.net…it’s a good place to be!

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Filed under Academia, advice, books, business, culture, entertainment, PhD, writing

The SCOTT TOPICS™ Mailbag: On Blogging, Stephen King, & other assorted heartthrobs

“I really want to start a blog but I don’t know how. What should I write about? What if I can’t find something to write about every day? How do you do it?” ~ A.C.

Most bloggers I know of do not post every day. I don’t. I can’t, and don’t think I would if I could, time-wise, or wanted to. More power to those who do blog every day, but I believe that one should give your readers time to breathe, to recover from your pretensions and go enjoy someone else’s every so often, ya know? Nah, but seriously: write when you have something to share, about things you feel passionate about. I got another email from someone who asked why I didn’t post more “political” entries at Scott Topics™. It’s not that I don’t think about politics—in the “refudiate,” “health care as reparations,” snookered NAACP sense—it’s just that I don’t write that well about it, so why expose the world to my limitations like that when there are so many more peeps out there willing to do it? If you want to blog about books, do that; if you wanna blog about sports, do that. If you wanna mix it up, do that.  Or, here’s an idea: get a buddy or two and start a blog together. Neither one of you would be pressured to be on the grind every day, and you can switch off responsibilities. I blog, mainly, because I don’t have an outlet like journalism anymore, and because it’s such different writing from the main, “scholarly” work I’m doing now, blogging sorta clears my intellectual and emotional palate (or is it palette? can’t one of those be cleaned too?) before going back to that work. In other words I guess blogging is like a nice mint at a restaurant for me, only without everyone else’s germs all over it.

“I see that you’ve mentioned Stephen King often at your blog: So what’s your favorite Stephen King novel?” ~ R.T., Austin

The Stand. Sometimes I think its because, in Mother Abigail, it has the best Magical Negro of all of the ones that have Magical Negroes (or at least Good Morally Centered Negroes) in them, like The Shining, IT, The Green Mile, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (King can even make a real live person into a MN! That’s talent!)—heck, Misery opens with the words “Goddess / Africa.” But back to business: Yes, The Stand is my favorite: it’s epic in scope, just the way a good apocalyptic tale should be, yet has incredibly tender, intimate moments; it might show off King’s gift at building believable, relatable characters better than any of his books (other than maybe Christine, which is actually a quite touching book in some ways, mainly because of the finely-wrought teen-aged characters), and it has a hurtling sense of inevitability to it, like a prediction of things you only think you’d like to see come, if only just to say it was cool. I also think that The Stand contains one of King’s best characters in Harold Lauder, perhaps the most sincerely tragic figure in all of the SK novels that I’ve read.  Thanks for this note. I think it’s time to re-read The Stand again. Like I have time.

“I saw your tweets about James Franco. What’s your fascination with him?” ~ H.J. New Jersey

Um, I’m guessing, since you sent me this email last night, that you are alive, right, that you have a pulse? How’s this for a reason to be fascinated: He’s fine.  (Please don’t tell my girlfriend I said that.)

“On Facebook, you list your political views as “heteroflexibility” and your religious beliefs as “homoflexibility.” What do those words even mean????” ~ F.K.

See answer to the question above.

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Filed under advice, books, Mailbag, writing

The SCOTT TOPICS™ Mail Bag: Writing Advice, VIBE, & What I’m reading these days…

{I get a lot of email from readers—of VIBE, of HUNG, of the blog—and many of the questions I get in them overlap. I do try to get back to everyone who writes, but sometimes things, as you kn0w, get crazy—doesn’t help that I’m a full-time grad student now! So I decided to just answer a bunch of the questions I’ve gotten right here at SCOTT TOPICS™, that way I answer my mail, but also provide answers to questions others might have but haven’t gotten around to writing. Hope these answer some of your questions…!}

“Can you recommend a really good book on learning to write?” ~ T.K., Seattle

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever read any “how-to write” books! I used to love to read Writer’s Digest magazine, but that was mainly to read the interviews with writers and the invaluable business-y stuff that they publish. Oh, I did really like Stephen King’s On Writing, but that might be because I was his biggest fan from around 1979 til about 1993. He makes some good points about style and the writer’s life, but I don’t know what “lessons” I got from it per se.

That said, if I was forced to name the books that “taught” me how to write, I’d probably say these:

Anything by Joan Didion or James Baldwin or Truman Capote (for both journalistic and creative style and clarity)

Anything by Judy Blume or John Irving (for emotional truth)

Anything by Jackie Collins or Stephen King or Ross McDonald (for ace plotting and storytelling acumen)

Anything by Toni Morrison or Charles Chesnutt (for ambition)

In other words, I guess what I’m saying is, to be a good writer, I had to be a good reader. I had to pay close attention to the things that made me want to re-read them, to the books and writers who made me want to put them down and go straight to the pen or typewriter or computer. I also learned to listen to the written voice of writers,  to the rhythm of their prose, and how that rhythm informed the language to create something wonderful on the page.

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5 things you should know before dating a journalist

Wish I’d had this list to hand out back when I was a journalist…and when I was dating…5 things you should know before dating a journalist.

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Filed under advice, drama queens, life, writing

Tricks of the Trade…

“Dear SPB,  I saw an article on the Internet about you going back to college. Good for you, I think that is wonderful and I’m proud to have an African American man like you make news for doing that. I’m writing because I need some advice to give my 17-year-old son, who wants to be a writer like you. I gave him your book HUNG to read and he loved it. He is going to college next year and is trying to decide what to major in to be a writer. His college offers writing courses and a major but there’s a debate in our house. His father believes he should major in something practical and practice his writing on the side while I think he should be a writing major and pursue it fully. What do you think?”

Well, first of all, I’m hoping your son is not completely corrupted by reading HUNG at such a tender age. That said, thanks for buying the book and passing it on. Regarding your son: writing is a hard profession, as you can imagine. I wish I knew what kind of writing he wanted to do so I could give you more specific advice. But I’ll try. Many colleges allow students to double-major, I believe. Perhaps he can double major in Creative Writing alongside something more “practical”? That way he’ll get the basics of writing under his belt and still get a full education that might allow him to get a “real job”–which he will probably need to pay the rent and bills until writing can do that for him–once he graduates. I actually concentrated in American Studies in college–not necessarily practical, no, but I liked that it informed my writing and didn’t have writing as it’s core discipline. I don’t think American Studies helped me get my first job as a writer but it did give me the discipline to pursue the jobs that I wanted. In other words, whatever your son majors in, once he gets out into the world, pounding the pavement for writing assignments (or, um, jobs?) he’ll need perserverance, a strong sense of himself and his abilities, and a thick skin more than any particular degree in hand.  Oh, yeh, he’ll also need tons of support from his family. Financial support perhaps, but DEFINITELY emotional support. That will help him as a writer more than almost anything else, knowing his family supports his decision to attempt such a profession in the first place. Hope this helps!
“Dear Scott, I think it’s cool that you’re moving from non-fiction to fiction writing. Who is your all-time favorite writer. No, actually, who do you think is the greatest living American novelist?”

Hmm. Why do you wanna know? Just kidding. Well, my tastes in novelists are pretty varied, to say the least. James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Judy Blume are my Holy Trinity–in other words, they are the writers who made me wanna be a writer in the first place. So maybe that answers your question? Maybe not, cause Baldwin and Didion both inspired me more as a non-fiction writer. I LOVE popular fiction, and on that front: I think Jackie Collins is a plotting genius (read Chances and tell me that I’m wrong); I think Lee Child writes you-are-there action scenes that leap right off the page; I think Peter Robinson writes some of the realest characters I’ve ever encountered in mystery novels; and I think Walter Mosley writes the best dialogue I’ve read in a long time, simultaneously telling story and providing trenchant cultural analysis of race and class that blows most writing out of the picture. But if I had to pick the greatest living American novelist? I’d probably pick Toni Morrison. And not for the books that you’d think. I’m not a fan of Beloved, to be honest; at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s a whole lot more than a really elegant and historically palpable ghost story. And I don’t really love The Bluest Eye, though there are tragic elements to it that move me. Interestingly, those two seem to be the Morrison books that get taught everywhere, that have been canonized and praised the most. I think Morrison’s best novels are Sula, Song of Solomon, and Paradise. They are the ones that feel full of life to me, resonant to the point of myth, and also most generous in the creation and treatment of the male characters. Sula and SOS feel connected to the real world, both through the damaged characters that people them and the layered, purposeful prose that tells their stories–Morrison hadn’t yet started with that gothically ornate style that, I think, mars Beloved and Jazz. In Paradise, however, she  perfected it to chilling, bracing effect. (So much so that in the course of the book she can play a trick on you: the first line is “They shoot the white girl first.” And you never find out which character is, in fact, the “white girl”. Brilliant!) The three I love are also, for me, the ones that stand up best to re-reading, constantly revealing facts of life and love with almost biblical compassion. Yeah, Morrison’s the best…it’s scary to me how great she is.
If you have any questions about writing or publishing or want my half-assed opinion about something literary, email me at TheSPBQ@aol.com.

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