Friday, December 11, 2009
A friend from Florida just emailed me a list of random thoughts, truisms to laugh at or shake your head over. Here's the one that grabbed me for this week's writing exercise: "Bad decisions make good stories." Funny, but really accurate. A good motto for writers.
Bad decisions are one of the only ways plot is furthered in memoir and fiction. If you're stuck in a rut, chances are your writing is staying too safe.
This week's discussion and exercise looks at a simple question. Why are you keeping bad decisions out of your book?
A student in my classes complained about her writer's block. She wrote several chapters that just flowed out. Then, about chapter 5, she got stuck. Nothing happened--either on the page or with the pen. I suggested she look at the bad decisions in her chapters. Try to find something that made everyone uneasy or got them into trouble.
What you're after here are the qualities of risk. What does the edge feel like? What does it feel like to "up the stakes" in your writing?
This writer was working on her storyboard (see post two weeks ago) so she went back to it. As she reviewed the plot points, she realized nothing big had happened. She was saving the big stuff for later. No bad decisions yet, so very little momentum. Very little energy to propel the plot.
I asked her why not. As she explained, I saw that this writer is a very nice person. She believes in a world where most people are good at heart. She just couldn't see getting her characters in trouble, painting them as anything but good people too.
I like her, who wouldn't? And I also believe in that kind of world. But not on paper. Not in fiction or memoir, especially if you want to publish today.
I'm not suggesting you have to make murder and mayhem. Bad decisions can just be telling a white lie, and watching the consequences unfold. I asked this writer if she'd ever told a white lie, and she said, "Of course, who hasn't?"
"Find your bad decisions," I suggested. "List them, then transport one into your story."
Finding Bad Decisions--This Week's Writing Exercise
We've all made bad decisions. We've been on the receiving end of other people's, too. They are hard to forget, no matter how hard we try. Think of what your "story" was after the decision. It probably had drama, movement, energy, and consequences. That's what you're after in your writing.
This week write about one really bad decision you made in your life. Write about it in all its glory. I like to set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, to limit the agony. Maybe you're far enough away to not feel the pain of it again, but if you do feel some embarrassment or unease as you write, good thing--because it'll make the writing that much more emotionally grabbing for a reader.
Now look at your book draft. Where are the bad decisions? If you don't have many, make a list of 10 things your character would never do. (Use this equally for memoir or fiction.) Now write one scene, one moment, using one item on the list--imagining it happening.
See if this provides momentum. Gets you unstuck. Out of that "still life."
PS We'll carry this one step further next week, with an update on storyboards. I've been learning a lot as I work on my novel's sequel, and I'm feeling far from stuck now--hooray!
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
A reader recently posted this excellent question: "I have many stories in which the characters are not easily appreciated. I am sure many of my stories will be filled with hints of resentment, bitterness and disdain. Many players acted badly, and hurt the lives of many people. I guess forgiveness is due, but the facts are the facts. How do I deal with that?"
Another reader wrote me the same week, very disappointed in the ending of a popular thriller which let the bad guys triumph. Why'd the author do that? he wondered. Such a let down, after a great story.
So here we have the same dilemma, from both sides.
What do you do, as a writer, when one or more of your characters is not very likeable (at best) or downright horrible (at worst)? You'll be spending time with this person. A negative character isn't like a downward turn of plot. Plot changes. People often do, but they don't always, especially if their nastiness is part of who they are.
And how does a negative character affect a reader? Will they stop following your story, or will they read to the end and be so disgusted, they won't want to recommend your book to anyone?
An Example from Tobias Wolff
Tobias Wolff wrote a fabulous short story called "Bullet in the Brain." I teach this story in one of my one-day workshops because it's complex, amazing, and gives writers so much information on working with unsavory characters.
Wolff presents a character, Anders, who is thoroughly despicable. So much so that he gets himself killed halfway through the story. But the way Wolff continues the story, revealing Anders beneath the anger, boredom, and frustration that makes him a really bad guy, is brilliant.
We end the story actually feeling the depths of humanness, even in this miserable person. How is this possible? How does the process work, for the writer, while he or she is putting the story together?
My Challenge with Melvin
Melvin Fisher is the main male character in my novel Qualities of Light. He's the first character that "came" to me, nine years ago, and was the subject for a short story published many years before the novel. Melvin was a pest; he didn't let me stop writing about him, even though I grew to really dislike him.
He's everything you don't want in a friend or relative: self-absorbed, terrifically talented but pretty mean-spirited about it, short with loved ones, a betrayer at his worst. A painter, who hasn't actually had affairs, Melvin falls in love with his models and does everything but sleep with them. Somehow he believes this is OK, justified by his need to "absorb beauty."
Bleech. My writing groups, three of them over the years Melvin has haunted me, agree. The first one actually told me they really didn't want to hear more Melvin scenes until he got nicer.
So what's a writer to do?
I would've dumped Melvin like a bad lunch date if he hadn't presented some interesting writerly problems for me. I needed to learn how to make him less evil. In other words, if my basic belief in life and in writing is that human beings have many sides, not just bad or good, where was Melvin's compassion, beauty, shades of gray? Could I show him as vulnerable, learning and growing? Who in my story would help me do this?
It turned out to be Molly, his teenage daughter. She saves the entire family in Qualities of Light, but mostly she saves her dad. From himself.
One reader told me, "I loved your book, and by the end I even got to like Melvin." That was my biggest complement.
This Week's Exercise: Write a "Good" Bad Character
Find someone bad in your story, be it a real person or a fictional one, and interview them on paper. Pretend you are a very skilled interviewer who knows how to get to the truth about someone. First ask them what bad stuff they've done. Get them to be specific--who have they cheated, lied to, stolen from, or worse? Then begin asking them about good stuff they've done--even small.
Finally ask your character about their missed chances, their longings, what they wanted from life but never got. Go beneath their bitterness if you can, into the innocence they once had.
If you can, get ahold of "Bullet in the Brain" (search for it online, or better, get ahold of the short-story collection--you'll love Wolff's other stories too). Read it as a writer, asking yourself how Tobias Wolff allows us to see a bad character in a good light.
The ending lines are particularly important, so pay attention, but don't read ahead. It's a great surprise.
Monday, December 7, 2009
Gladwell's topics are potentially dry. I love his ability to present his material in an amazingly engaging way.
"Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade," he said. "It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be."
Each book writer has their topic, the thing they must write about. Some write about flowers, some write about addictions. No matter your topic, the trick is to make it engaging. It's harder than it sounds. The key is something called "container."
On Sunday I taught a one-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis called "Self-Editing for Book Writers." We spent all day on this question: How does a book writer move from the writer's view to the reader's? How do we get the reader engaged in our work? It usually happens in the crafting stage, or editing stage. In the class, I guide writers through a series of exercises that let them move to the reader's chair, instead of the writer's.
This is the first step to producing the engaging writing that Gladwell is talking about.
Tough Material, Great Container
In the class, we read an essay by Susan J. Miller, excerpted from her book Never Let Me Down. Miller's father was a well-respected jazz musician who hung out with the likes of George Handy and Stan Getz. But he was also a heroin addict, and her life was terribly affected by this. Her memoir is heart-breaking.
Some of the class members were really repulsed by the essay. Some couldn't even finish it. Others loved it. No one was nuetral. We had a lively debate, trying to understand why the essay affected us so much.
In the end, we concluded it was because of her extraordinary "container," the living environment of her story.
Container Equals Emotion
This is the key to engaging writing. Container, the enviroment of your book's story, delivers more emotion than plot, characters, topic, structure, or all of these combined.
"It's counter-intuitive," said one class member. You would think that good plot, exciting action, would create emotional response.
Good plot creates momentum. It drives the story forward. Container creates emotional response. It's what makes us feel hit in the gut by a story's tender moment or feel our hearts racing with anticipation by a twist. Without container, plot is just a series of events, like a newspaper report.
Why else would I, as a reader, become so engaged in the healing of a crime-ridden neighborhood, the comeback of Hush Puppy Shoes, and other examples from Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point? I don't care about Hush Puppies. Really. But I did when he talked about them. Same with Susan Miller's work. Heroin addiction is not on my list of fun things to read about. But I was totally engrossed by her tale.
Because both Gladwell and Miller are masters of writing container.
How Is Container Presented?
Container is presented in writing in several ways. Here are a few from just one paragraph of Miller's essay:
1. physical setting (being on a speeding subway train, watching the night flash by outside the grimy windows)
2. use of the five senses (screech of train wheels, whisper of her father's voice against her ear)
3. physical sensations (the rocking of a train causing nausea, felt in the body)
4. word choice ("screech" and "whisper" echo the sounds of jazz being played--Miller's overall container for the essay)
5. paragraph length and flow (a series of clauses, separated by commas, giving the impression of movement and jerkiness while on the subway train)
The effect of this paragraph--one where her father takes her on a train ride then gleefully whispers that he just dropped acid--is one of terror. A young girl is aware that her father might at any moment decide the train car is a tomb and try to jump off. What can she do? Not much. She just has to ride out the ride.
It's an astonishing container.
This Week's Exercise
Choose a dead spot in your writing--a paragraph or a page. Insert one of the above tools to increase container. See if you can let go of your preferences as a writer and be willing to see your work from the reader's view. Does more emotion come through?
Sunday, November 29, 2009
A writer needs to know placement in time and space--where things will be, in her book. It's not just enough to flow out the words. You need to have a sequence that readers can follow. Storyboards provide this. They are used a lot in publishing and the film industry. Imagine a giant blank cartoon--a row of empty boxes lined up on a page or wall or posterboard. You insert ideas, then you move the boxes around until the sequence of ideas equals a reasonable flow for your book.
What you learn: All the things I grumbled about above. What is working, yes. Also what is not working. It's not uncommon to emerge from a storyboarding session with many blank boxes. Stuff you know you need to write, transition chapters or sections. Research still to do. It's also not uncommon to feel discouraged. All that writing done, but it's not yet a book. Sigh.
Why even bother? Storyboards are the absolute best way I've found to see if I have a working book, to force myself to structure the flow of ideas, to see what's left. I usually get kind of squirrely (imagine a squirrel twitching in agitation) when I have written too much to really see my book anymore. When I get squirrely, I know it's time to storyboard.
After the Meltdown, Even though I Really Hate Doing It...
If you read my pre-Thanksgiving post below, you know I had a nice little meltdown after my recent book tour, when I got back home and tried to storyboard my next novel, the sequel to Qualities of Light.
It just didn't track--the new book's flow, that is. Too many dramas, too many characters, not enough cohesion. So I rescued myself from myself by putting the storyboard aside and making a character plot chart for each of the three main players. After screaming under the covers for a while.
That plot chart was fun. It reminded me how much I love Molly and Zoe and Kate and Anna and Sammy and even bad-tempered Melvin, my continuing characters. From the plot chart, I began to approach storyboarding again.
I did it a new way this time. I went to Staples and bought a foam core posterboard, clean and white. And three colors of Post-It notes. My main players are Molly, Kate, and Melvin. A different color for each. Using my plot chart, I wrote Post-It notes for the beginning and ending boxes. The plot chart had told me where I want each of these three characters to begin their story and where I want them to end. Then I began to imagine what could go in the other boxes.
This was very different from past approaches to storyboarding. I pretended I hadn't written anything (I've written about 100,000 words already) and let myself take the three stories wherever I wanted. New ideas came through--better ones than I'd already written scenes for.
When they were laid out on the storyboard in their rows of boxes, I saw very nice connections between the three characters' individual plots, as well.
Then, Back to the Manuscript
I liked what I created. But there were 100,000 words waiting to be used, if possible, and I'm too economical to toss everything and start over. So my next step was printing out my manuscript pages, in all their rough and raw glory.
So many errors, I winced when I read it over. So I tried not to. I just scanned each chapter, each island, each section. I thought about where it might be placed on the new storyboard.
60 percent of the pages made it. They fit nicely, they filled in blanks. Some will be heavily reworked or repositioned in time. But I can do that now; I know what goal I'm shooting for.
The rest? They go into my "extras.doc" file.
I created the extras.doc file when I was working on Qualities of Light. The extras file was about 30,000 words at its peak, but almost all of the pages got used in Qualities of Light's revision. Sometimes an idea or setting, only. But little was wasted.
My new storyboard is complete. I finally have a working map for my next book.
This Week's Writing Exercise
This week, get yourself to an office supply store. Buy a posterboard and some Post-It notes. Go home, take a deep breath, and try creating two boxes on a storyboard: just the opening and ending moments of your book.
First ask yourself: Where will you begin? What moment do you see launching your reader into your topic or story? Write a note about this on a Post-It and place it on the storyboard.
Then, what moment ends your book? Where would you like the reader to be at the last page--with what new understanding, hunger, idea or feeling? Write a note about this too.
If you get brave, if you get enthused--as I did--see how many of the other boxes you can fill.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
For more information or to register, call the Loft at 612-379-8999 or visit www.loft.org and search for "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book."
Hope to see you there!
Monday, November 16, 2009
Today I had plenty of creative energy, so I decided to tackle a big project: storyboarding my new novel. It's the sequel to Qualities of Light, which was published this fall. I've been working on this sequel for five years and I love the story, but it's gotten complicated. Three characters, three separate plot lines. In desperate need of a storyboard.
I've taken this new book through NaNoWriMo twice, so I have a decent first draft. I just haven't tested the draft for logical flow. Which is the purpose of a storyboard.
So I set about it. Got tea, a piece of homemade pie, and closed the door to my little office. Began to note the main points for each chapter and the islands (separate dramatic scenes) within each chapter. Arc them on a flow chart as a series of cartoon boxes. Test their track.
They didn't. Track, that is. Boring, boring, boring.
The critic got real happy. "You're a one-novel author," it shouted. "Yes, your current book is getting lots of great reviews and people are loving it. But that's it, baby. Nothing more to come."
After a pretty discouraging two hours fighting my storyboard and this ruthless inner voice, I went back to bed. Screaming under the covers does help, especially when someone who cares a lot about you is listening and can give good advice.
Such as, "What story are you really wanting to tell? The one you have sketched out so far?"
No. Not really.
"Then how do you rethink it?"
I talked it through. I went through each character's main plot points, or story arc, and let the words out into the air. As I spoke them, I could hear the strengths--there were some!--and the flaws. "What does she really want?" I answered that question. "What about this idea?" It was a good one. Suddenly I had to run back downstairs and write it all down.
The result wasn't a revamped storyboard--that will come later. It was a character plot chart. One for each of the three people I'm tracking. As I wrote down their initial longing (that opens the story), their main challenges (that provide meat for the story), their crises (that peak toward the end), and the results, I saw the overlaps. I realized I needed to do three separate storyboards, one for each of these characters. Then weave them together.
Whew. Saved from my own self. The critic stood back, nodded, said, "Maybe you do have another book in you, after all."
This Week's Exercise--for Novelists and Memoirists Make a plot chart for each of your main characters. Keep their passageways separate until you get each uniquely on paper. Then place them side by side and see where there's overlap.
If you feel extremely brave after this, try storyboarding what you learn.
Friday, November 13, 2009
When I did my book signing last week at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, a friend said, "Check out the marquee. Your name is in lights." Luckily, someone had a camera. My mother will never believe this otherwise. It was a first, there for all the rush-hour traffic on Washington Avenue to see.
Book tours are strange experiences. I've been very lucky on this one. Minneapolis's book signing drew 90 people, and they listened to my 20 minute reading then asked such good questions about writing, I wanted to stay and talk with them all night. I've been on book tour events where only a few people showed up, and I've spoken to other authors who've experienced the same thing. So thank you, if you came to listen and support a fellow writer. It's a solitary profession and we need all the support we can get.
Friday, November 6, 2009
This past weekend I taught my trio of one-day workshops at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. One of them, the most difficult to teach and the most rewarding for me, is called "Writing through Healing, Healing through Writing."
Twenty-eight writers of all skill levels, genres, and ages gathered in one of the Loft's beautiful classrooms for a day. We explored what made our writing go deep enough to be healing--for us as well as for a reader.
I've taught the class for about ten years, using ever-growing research about the healing effects of certain types of writing. James Pennebaker, from the U of Texas, Austin, launched my interest in this topic. He clued me into the amazing medical documentation on creative writing's benefit in reducing physical illness and emotional stress.
One of my favorite books on this subject is Louise De Salvo's Writing as a Way of Healing. De Salvo talks about Pennebaker's research and how important it is that writers use all three of the elements that make writing actually heal. I've journaled for years and was very interested in hearing that venting into my journal, for instance, doesn't have healing effects on me. It's good for processing, not healing.
To heal us and touch the reader, writing must have:
1. specific details (senses-rich images, rather than concepts)
2. how the writer or narrator felt about the event when it happened
3. how the writer or narrator feels about the event now
De Salvo cites the research of Pennebaker and others, noting that it is the combination of these three elements that makes writing a healing process. Not one alone, not even two.
In my workshop this weekend, writers asked themselves which of these three aspects they naturally favored. A person who writes about thoughts and feelings will use doorways #2 or #3 to enter her story--reflective, conceptual writing. The third aspect, specific image-rich detail, is the missing element. When it's added to the piece of writing, the magic happens. The writing becomes healing. Same with a writer who lists events and specific details with no trouble. But the missing element is the feeling, the "what does this mean to me?" analysis of the experience. Some writers believe that the events should speak for themselves. But there needs to be some reflective writing to make it mean something to both writer and reader.
Why don't writers naturally incorporate all three aspects, giving themselves a healing boost from their own art?
Because it causes them to re-experience strong events, re-feel the strong feelings.
I wrote many times about my experience with cancer. I could reflect for pages on my feelings and thoughts about what happened. But it wasn't until I began to add the specific details--describe the room and the chair where I had chemotherapy, tell about the movie I went to each week as a treat to keep myself from throwing up too much, talk on the page about what it looked like when I lost my eyebrows--did I begin to heal.
This Week's Exercise
List 10 turning points in your life, events or moments when you experienced a big change. Pick one. Set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes. Write about it as it comes, then read it over. Ask yourself which of these three doorways did you go through? See if you can fill in the missing aspects. Does it make the writing more healing for you?
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
My weekly book-writing classes at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center are wrapping up their six-week fall session this month. We're reviewing what we've learned about first and last chapters. In my teaching, I've learned these are essential signposts, bookends to keep a writer going forward with a book project.
Many writers start with outlines. An outline seems the best way to manage a huge project like a book. Outlines stall me. I use an outline, like I use notes cards and a writing notebook, but outlines can't form the basic structure of my book. It becomes too linear, too predictable. If it doesn't surprise me, it won't surprise the reader.
I use islands to start a book. Kenneth Atchity (author of A Writer's Time) introduced me to the concept of "islands," although Natalie Goldberg and others use them too. Islands are nonsequential units of writing, dramatic moments in fiction or memoir, teaching moments in nonfiction.
I begin my book in islands, not worrying how they're going to link up. I just let myself write freely.
Freedom's great. But have you ever noticed what happens when there's too much freedom? Islands become hard to organize. The writer starts to lose perspective on her project. I use another tool, storyboarding, to help this. But even more effective is the exercise of first and last chapters.
Your First Chapter Must Have . . .
In our summer session, my writing classes worked on their first chapters. I asked them to consider these "must haves" in a first chapter:
1. Introduction of main players (narrator, others) via anecdote
2. Introduction of main dilemma or conflict (fiction and memoir) or main questions or need (nonfiction) that the book will answer
3. Placing the reader in a relevant container (physical and emotional and cultural setting) that will echo throughout the book
The goal of the first chapter is just to create a tension cord, tight enough to pull the reader into the second, third, fourth chapters, and so on to the end. You don't give everything away yet. But you create a triggering event that triggers the reason for the rest of the book. You create an engaging place and time for the story you're going to tell--even nonfiction books must do this via their opening anecdotes.
We workshopped (shared with discussion) our chapter drafts and crafted them during the summer session. I saw huge improvement in everyone's writing--it was as if the focus on a small part of the book, one essential chapter, helped the writers see strengths and weaknesses in their overall writing.
By fall we were ready for the last chapter. Even though nothing in the middle had been written yet.
Your Last Chapter Must Have . . .
Ending chapters are not where everything gets wrapped up neatly. In fact, you must leave the reader with some hunger, some unresolved emotion, some longing to go back and read your book again. That way they will think about the story for days, talk about it with their friends. Lining up all the ducks is satisfying for you, boring for the reader.
This isn't to say that you can leave large sections or questions unanswered. If you're writing a mystery, you need to solve it. But perhaps your memoir isn't going to reveal a happily-ever-after. That's just fine. Leave with a call to action or a relevance to the reader's life. Make them think and feel a lot, and you have a good last chapter.
What else makes a good last chapter? Not introducing new dilemmas, or main conflicts. It's too late. The reader will go, "Where'd that come from?" You can hint at one, if you're writing a sequel. But main dilemma is rarely wrapped in the ending chapter. More often you need to finish tying dilemma threads in the next-to-last (penultimate) chapter.
What really needs attention in the last chapter are the main relationships. How did the narrator change? How did the method you're teaching shift your way of approaching life? How did the character realize something? Show us how the primary players changed, how something new was realized or achieved or lost. Demonstrate a new state of being and you'll have the reader hooked, hungry, and happy.
This Week's Exercise
Spend time with your first chapter, your last chapter, in whatever shape they might be. Craft them if you haven't already--brainstorm possible beginnings, possible endings. Then, using the notes above as a checklist, analyze the chapter drafts for what's missing and what's too much.
Any time you spend on your bookend chapters will teach you a lot about your writing in general.
And if you live near the Twin Cities, consider joining me for a writing workshop on this subject. It'll be on Thursday, November 5, 4-5:30 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center. The workshop is called "Container, Dilemma, and Players: Three Essential Elements for Making Your Writing Come Alive," and we go into more depth and try writing exercises for these important chapter elements.
Registration is limited. For more information or to sign up, go to www.loft.org and search for the workshop title.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Book Signing--Sunday, November 1, 2:00 p.m. at Hickory Stick Bookshop, Washington Depot, CT, www.hickorystickbookshop.com for directions
Today I am sitting still. I'm visioning, listening, waiting. It's the opposite pace of these last few months, when my novel Qualities of Light was released into the world. When a book gets born, there's nonstop activity.
Publicity, the book tour, interviews, good reviews if you're lucky. I've been deep in all of this. Today is different.
Outside my window are sunlit fields and the fiercely gold last-ditch efforts of three fading maple trees. Inside, a vase of flowers is catching the light. I haven't noticed this beauty lately, because of the pushing, the pace, the will needed to move my project out into the world. Like birthing, it takes that push. It's essential.
Today I am resting from the pushing, to let bigger visions filter in and bring their welcome creativity and renewal.
Balance of Visioning and Will
Visioning and will balance each other in book writing like two ends of a seesaw. If you don't have an initial vision for a book, you really don't create something that goes deep enough to touch readers, make them tell their friends and family and writing group about your writing, even change lives if you're lucky. Visions change as the book evolves. For Qualities of Light, I started with a vision of unexpected romance. As it evolved, as more characters got developed, the vision changed into healing of a family. Both stories made it into the final book. I like to think the pauses, the visioning I did, helped them weave together into a whole.
It's hard to book time for visioning. The sequel to Qualities of Light is cooking. It needs the visioning help to take it to the next step--I have a solid draft, some edited sections, but not a sense of the whole picture. While I'm working on my publicity, I can't seem to slow down enough to vision. I have to book a visioning day.
Today, the end of October in peak leaf-changing New England, it feels like a cycle shifting, a perfect time to vision. New possibilities, the season changing. Ideas are starting to come, faint pictures that will make a wholeness for this next book. I am committed to taking notes today.
I enjoy the golden trees, the flowers indoors. The pushing mind empties, the attention is freed up.
When You Know You Need Visioning Time
I usually don't accept the need for visioning time until I'm maxed. Yesterday it hit me as a wave of sheer exhaustion: I needed visioning time like oxygen. I'm very happy about all that's happened but the pushing it's required has stressed me way beyond my comfort zone. I'm grateful for the cheers and congratulations, but I'm an introvert (like many writers) and it wears me out after a while. I'm really excited about my booksigning this weekend, November 1, in Washington Depot, Connecticut, and my booksigning Thursday, November 5, at the Loft in Minneapolis. I'm really thrilled with the reviews coming out, the buzz happening. Releasing a book is the realization of a dream: wonderful, joyous, overwhelming. But it needs the balance of visioning. Otherwise we lose sight of why we're doing it. Don't we.
I was driving back from teaching a writing class when things reached critical mass. The cell phone rang, I couldn't locate my headset in time, and for some reason this felt like the last straw. I was on the very rainy Saw Mill Parkway, a twisty highway in western New York, and Chris Pureka was on the radio. Her melancholy voice perfectly reflected the rainy fall day. I felt myself let go inside. Let the call go to voice mail. Let myself just listen and drive, sink into the slow motion.
Then it happened. I suddenly got a picture, a new idea, a wholeness. As my pushing self let go of all the efforts, creative ideas came fast. Ideas to solve some dilemmas in my next novel, things I'd been struggling with.
Planning for Visioning
Take advantage of the change of seasons to set up a visioning time for your writing project this week. Maybe you've noticed the difficulty in talking yourself into this need--and the effect of dried up writing that comes when you don't have an overview of your project? And maybe you've noticed the serendipity that comes through, the originality, when you let yourself stop pushing and start visioning?
This week's exercise: Take your solo self and your writing notebook someplace for an hour, an afternoon, a morning or a day. Let yourself look at changing leaves or mountains or the ocean. Sketch, doodle, or write what comes. Take notes. Maybe you'll get the overview of vision, worth gold to the book writer.
Also: Write down what you'd really like from the project you're working on. What vision do you have for it? Why are you doing it, really?
Monday, October 19, 2009
Friday, October 2, 2009
In a roundabout way, I learned of a new book on creativity: Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod. Then I learned of some fascinating notes on the book at Derek Sivers's website.
Sivers is no slouch when it comes to creativity--he knows whereof he speaks, having created the awesome www.cdbaby.com that helped so many independent musicians stay independent.
One of Ignore Everybody's main points is that most creative people have two jobs. Ouch, my friends say. Can't I make a living at what I love?
Well, yes, if you really really want to. That means (1) amazing luck, (2) incredible hard work, and (3) sometimes years of not earning enough to rent a teepee. I've watched so many writers quit their day jobs when The Book Idea comes along. I've watched them suffer with the pressure of trying to write to make that six figure advance, when they never wrote a word before. Better to take that pressure off your creativity, not flatiron your book into being. Books don't like that.
You may not like this post this week. You may be a worthy dreamer who hates your cubicle life and wants to break out into the wealthy world of published authors. Most of us aren't. We're midlist, which means our books sell OK but not enough to pay all the bills. The most I ever earned from royalties in a year was about $30,000. I loved my book which earned that, but it was written without the pressure to earn big bucks.
I was able to, because of my day job, stay creative. That's the point, isn't it? How to stay creative in a world that doesn't really like it.
That's why MacLeod's book is so timely.
This Week's Writing Exercise
This week's exercise is pretty simple. Read the book review for Ignore Everybody on Derek Siver's site http://sivers.org/book/IgnoreEverybody then write your own list of what it takes for YOU to stay creative.
Is it about ignoring everybody?
Is it about paying attention to a few trusted people?
Is it about a room of your own, a la Virginia Woolf, or a kitchen table a la J.K. Rowling, or a great Internet cafe that keeps you bubbling with stolen dialogue lines?
Enjoy making your list. Let it simmer all week.
In my novel, Qualities of Light, there's a triangle of love interests. Boy likes girl, girl kind of likes boy, girl falls in love with another girl. Not so unusual these days. To make matters even more tangled (a key element of novels), the love affair begins during a family tragedy, an accident that causes the girl's young brother to fall into a coma. The accident, of course, is caused by the girl. Or so she believes. And her belief causes the main dilemma of the story.
Considering the questions exercise from last week, I was intrigued by this one, and it became the pivot for my book: Is love something you can expect, something you can delight in, when you are in deep trouble? When you have almost caused someone you love to die?
My novel has several layers of these kinds of questions. I enjoyed not knowing the answers, exploring the topics.
One topic that fascinates me is how gay or coming-out teenagers cope with their lives. So when a colleague pointed me toward an amazing article in last Sunday's New York Times magazine, I had to respond.
I decided to write a letter to the editor. My experience sparked an idea for the writing exercise this week.
Writing Your Passion
The article was called "Coming Out in Middle School" and author Benoit Denizet-Lewis interviewed some very interesting teens who did this and had various experiences. Molly, my heroine, struggles with the same issues real-life gay and straight teens face--acceptance and rejection, self-identity, the beauty of falling overwhelming in love at last. In writing the book, the struggles of my heroine and other kids like her became my passion. So I wanted to send a passionate response to this wonderful writer, Benoit Denizet-Lewis.
Letters to the editor are a chance for low-risk passion statements. They may never get published, of course, but they're a chance for you, the book writer, to get your ideas, thoughts, and words to readers who might not otherwise touch them.
My letter isn't a model of great Letters to the Editor, but here it is:
"Coming Out in Middle School" by Benoit Denizet-Lewis spoke eloquently of the challenges teens and pre-teens face when they discover they are gay. Finally our society offers support for GLBTQ youth, the necessary emotional shelter they need as they come to terms with who they are. I especially enjoyed reading the discussion of how old youth are when this awareness happens--much younger now, and thankfully much more supported.
However, the author did not cover a huge and essential aspect of teens coming out: What happens when a teen finds out they are gay because of a sudden love interest? I explore this topic in my new young-adult novel, Qualities of Light (October 2009, Spinsters Ink). Perhaps the teen has always dated boys and suddenly falls in love with a girl. What happens when the teen's friends, who are heterosexual, make fun of the new pairing? Is it safe to tell parents, who may not support the sudden change?
Unlike Denizet-Lewis's subjects, these teens may not know how to make the transition. When researching for my novel, I found few books treated this subject, few served as literary mentors for teens falling in love with their best friends, as my heroine Molly does. A vastly different experience than the gradual coming out of the profiled teens in Denizet-Lewis's excellent article.
It's timely that this article comes out at such a ground-breaking moment in our history, when states are legalizing gay marriage and accepting that love is love. What we need is more literary models for teens who experience the sudden awakening of the heart and wonder how to reorient their lives to its truth.
Mary Carroll Moore
Stand Up in Print--A Way to Practice Your Book-Writing Passion
Do you feel it's important to stand up for something in print, be heard--before your book sees its readers? Find an article to praise and comment on. Editors of publications like both. They work hard to find good material and they love it when readers notice that.
Scan your local newspaper or a monthly magazine this week and find something that connects with your book topic. Craft a response. Mention your book (in progress, if that's true). Send it off. See what happens.
PS Most Letters to the Editor can be sent by email nowadays. Just follow the guidelines--they usually need your name, address, and phone, although the last two items are usually not printed.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I felt great when the issue got fixed. I tallied up answers like gold.
Then I began writing books. Books are large, unweildy events, worse than organizing a family wedding. Hard to predict what will happen. Hard to plan entirely. Full of unresolved problems and big questions that may not get solved until the final draft. My first books were nightmares, partly because of my need to solve every problem right away. Luckily, back in the olden days when I began publishing, I worked with patient editors who taught me the power of the unanswered question.
This may not be your issue--at all! But if it is, read on.
Love the Questions Themselves
Rainier Maria Rilke, the German writer responsible for the beautiful volume Letters To A Young Poet, said, "Have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them."
Rilke's point was that hanging around with questions leads to the best answers. You need time to live your way to the answers. There's real gold in the questions themselves because they open up the creative self.
I've often asked my book-writing classes to begin a list of questions about their books-in-progress. Add to the list, one question daily, and let yourself muse and wonder about what the answer could possibly be. Once I became patient enough to try this myself, I saw great improvement in my writing. It was as if a creative faucet got turned on.
I wasn't just working my problems to find solutions; I was creating something new. My random, creative, wondering and wandering writer inside was excited.
Does Unanswered Equal More Creative?Why are unanswered questions so helpful for book writers? Why do we need NOT to know everything before we begin our writing process?
Theme, subtext, and inner story all emerge from the random, creative side, not the linear left brain of the writer. You can't get good theme by going after it directly. It bubbles up. It surprises you. A writing mentor once told me: "If it doesn't surprise you, it won't surprise the reader." You'll have a too-predictable plan, leading to an unoriginal and uninspired book.
This week, make a list of unanswered questions. Things that are worrying you about your outline or theory, plot or characters, theme or beginning or ending. Let the list simmer. Let the questions become part of your breathing and living each day. When you get the bubbling up of a possible creative idea that addresses your question, listen and take notes.
Your muse is talking.
PS This exercise isn't just limited to writing. I've used it to create answers to tangles with family and friends, health issues, everything under the sun. It's fun, creative, and it works.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
You're about to be on stage--and that's a good thing. Long ago, publishers did this work and writers stayed behind the scenes, but readers of this blog who are savvy to the changes in the book publishing industry know that publishers no longer launch a book for you, unless you're a proven best-seller. You do your own singing. Often there's very little publicity budget once your book is published, and most publishers depend on writers to do the legwork, find the reviewers, and set up their own book events to help readers find out about their books. You can't be shy now--you have to believe in your book enough to design, dream, and deliver a successful launch.
Some examples of this exercise from my writing students: "I'm delighted with my published book." "My published book is everything I've dreamed it could be." "Readers are loving my book and it's changing lives for the better." "My book is practically writing itself--and I am thrilled at how it's coming together." "My writing feeds my soul."
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Monday, August 31, 2009
Two more ideas: See the new post below for a step you might want to take--using your notebooks to advantage by pairing them with a weekly class.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
I've found you need three things: persistence, support, and inspiration. This blog was started to provide them all--the accountability that comes from regular writing, showing up at the page (whether in your notebook or on the computer) with practice; a forum for book writers to gather online; and inspiration via stories from those who've published.
But sometimes you need another step, a real-time gathering of writers like yourself.
My next round of weekly book-writing classes begins Monday, September 21, at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center near NYC. These three-hour classes meet Monday afternoons for 6 weeks each fall and spring. We go through the basic steps to organizing and manifesting a book in any genre: writing "islands," storyboarding, editing, theme--all the keys you'll need.
Plus you get weekly feedback on your writing from me.
Cost is $355 for 6 weeks, 3 hours a week. The Writers' Center is a beautiful writing school in Sleepy Hollow, NY, near Tarrytown. Sound like a good fit? Please email me (email@example.com) or call the Hudson Valley Writers' Center at 914-332-5953. You can also email them (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit www.writerscenter.org for more details.
Hope to see you there!
Monday, August 24, 2009
Sunday, August 16, 2009
1. I hired two coaches
Sunday, August 9, 2009
A coaching client with a great story to tell is working on her memoir. She asked a very good question about her book's container. It sparked this week's writing exercise.
I had asked her to incorporate more container in her chapter, by taking out the sections of thinking and feeling. Whenever the author talked about her feelings and thoughts, the writing grew abstract and distant and the container was lost. This confused her--as it does many writers. "It was my understanding," she told me, "that 'container' is the place where everything happens."
That's true. I call it "container" because it's much more than just setting. It's both inner and outer atmosphere, both physical and psychological/spiritual/emotional environment of your story.
That's also where her confusion started. "Outwardly as setting and inwardly as emotional or cultural environment," she said. "Therefore, it is two part. If I take out all feeling and thinking it would seem that one part would be missing. I don't know what to put in its place."
Such a good question--and a situation that stumps many writers, especially in memoir and fiction. How do you create emotional container without telling us what emotions are being experienced? How do you create a psychological container without telling us the thoughts of narrator or character?
You show. It's an old axiom in writing: show, don't tell. Showing reveals container as subtly as a butterfly landing on a late-summer dahlia--without any interpreting. It just presents the situation and lets the readers perceive the effect.
A pretty hard thing for us writers to do! But not impossible. Here is how I suggest this talented writer go about refining her story's emotional and psychological container (feelings and thoughts).
First, Do Your Outer Container
The first container you need to always address is the outer container. This is what is traditionally called setting--and it's shown to readers via outwardly felt things. Such as weather, time of day or night, where we are in a room or garden or other specific location, how the light falls on an object or a wall or someone's arm, what smells and sounds surround us. Amazing how many writers omit these details, thinking they're boring or slow or unnecessary. But they actually are the main transporters of emotion for a reader. They set the stage.
Imagine a play set on a blank stage--no backdrop, no furniture, no atmosphere. OK, maybe nothing is an atmosphere, but only if the actors are very talented and can create something from that nothing. It's much easier for the audience to perceive, say, an 1850s interior farmhouse if there are furnishings and a woodstove and windows with eyelet curtains.
Same in your story. Outer container is shown via your surroundings, what your narrator notices. It's transmitted to a reader most easily via the five senses: smell, sound, taste, touch, sight. And it's best done without interpretation, no qualifiers, nobody telling us what the sights mean. In other words you may write, "The dahlia was pink and gold and filled with summer light." You don't have to add "It was beautiful." We already get that.
Outer container is used by all kinds of book writers--even nonfiction writers who share ideas and techniques via personal stories need to make use of container to engage their reader in the setting. We engage most when we can "be" in the place you're describing.
Then Do Your Inner Container
We also want to "be" in the emotional, cultural, and intellectual container of the situation, but we want to be shown (not told) this as well. Readers are smarter than the writer thinks, most of the time. They can perceive inner container via nuances of gesture, body sensations felt by the narrator or character, memories.
Say we're writing about a woman looking at a butterfly on a late-summer flower. She's sad because her father just died. The writer might choose to tell this sadness by having the woman think, "Looking at that perfect flower makes me so sad." Or, in third person, "Joan felt sad suddenly, not knowing why." But these statements are abstract. They tell, they don't show. So the emotion of sadness is not conveyed. The emotional container is a blank stage.
To convey the emotional container, the writer needs to find a way to demonstrate Joan's sadness. Not speak it or tell it, but show it. Maybe the woman picks the flower and shreds it in her fingers. Maybe she creates a trail of flower pieces along a sidewalk or windowsill. Maybe she goes outside at the same time each morning to watch the flower as it fades and dies.
Much harder work to notice these actions and write them, than to just say "Joan was sad." But that's how good books are made. By hard work, by good noticing, by careful writing.When I'm stumped on how to write emotional container, I go back to Pulitzer-Prize winner Robert Olen Butler's wonderful book on writing, From Where You Dream. I use two of his suggestions for enhancing emotion in story. This works in every genre, although Butler's book is geared to fiction writers. Here's a recap of his two suggestions, in my own words:
1. Have the narrator feel something in their body. This is a physical sensation that's not interpreted. It has to be felt by the body, not thought or observed by the mind, to convey emotion to readers. "Joan's throat tightened and her eyes stung." "Flashes of heat traveled across my skin." "My stomach was suddenly hollow."
Specific and felt sensations, these happen in the body and are not interpreted. Let the reader perceive what this means. Most of us would understand what emotion is experienced by tight throat and stinging eyes (sadness) or flashes of heat on skin (fear, excitement). We'll read on to find out if we're right!
2. Have the narrator access a brief memory of a similar time that contrasts or connects in some way with the emotional container now. "Joan remembered her father's hands picking dahlias from the garden, arranging them in a cobalt vase, bringing them to her room. Only three dahlias, but always perfect." We don't need to add "He loved her very much." We read on to find out if he did--because the emotional container hints at it--or if he was obsessed with her or what. No interpretation needed.
This Week's Exercise
Take a thought or feeling--any sentence in your work where you've written the "told" feeling or thought, such as "Joan was sad."
For 10 minutes, brainstorm all the ways the surroundings could reveal this sadness. How can you transmit sadness without using the word sad?
Then replace the telling with showing. See if the emotion is heightened.
Monday, August 3, 2009
Monday, July 27, 2009
Monday, July 20, 2009
So when a writing colleague passed along this great exercise, I had to try it. It's by writer Roz Goddard, and it uses the tiniest of ojects--a button--to get deeper into a story. I tried it in my classes and many of the writers found it helpful for uncovering aspects of character that had eluded them.
Click here to try it out.
Imagine using it for one of your main players in your book. Let your limitations go, and see what comes. For memoir or nonfiction writers, use your imagination while trying the exercise, then ask: How is this person I've just written about similar or different to someone in my book? (This brings your freewrite back to factual truth, which is essential for these genres. But the imaginative qualities of fiction-writing will open doors you won't believe!)
Monday, July 13, 2009
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
I interviewed Michelle about her book-writing journey. Hopefully some of her ideas will be useful to you too--as they provide the idea for this week's writing exercise.
MCM: What do you do to keep your faith in your book projects during the tough times that hit every author?
Michelle Goodman: Enlist a couple of close writing friends to read my pages for major gaffes or holes and to talk me off of the ledge as necessary. Tape reminders of what I want to accomplish with the book to the wall behind my computer, along with any pep talks and publishing-related jokes friends have sent me along the way.
Get out of the house for some blood-pumping exercise to clear the creative mental cobwebs that seem to appear at least once a week.
Make sure the house is stocked with really tasty health food that requires little preparation, as well as several pounds of chocolate. When too spent to complete another sentence, hit the hay, even if just for an hour.
MCM: What's the funniest learning experience you've had while working on a book?
Michelle Goodman: I'm not sure how funny this will be to anyone other than me, but YouTube really saved me while writing the last book. I'd watch my favorite Buffalo Springfield, Woodstock-era CSNY, and early 70s Genesis videos as a reward after finishing each section of a chapter. Who knew Steven Stills and Peter Gabriel would play such an important role in the book-writing process?
MCM: When you are working on writing a book, how do you juggle your bread-and-butter work (regular job) around creative time?
Michelle Goodman: My regular job is being a full-time freelance writer (articles, columns, blogs, and sometimes, corporate copy). When I was working on my two books, I had to clear the decks of all other projects. It's too difficult for me--and most people--to write/edit a book 6-8 hours a day and think that I'm also going to have the time, energy, or brain juice to write something else that day.
For my first book (The Anti 9-to-5 Guide), the advance was so small that I just lived off savings during the six months or so I spent writing it. Fortunately, the advance for my second book (My So-Called Freelance Life) was a bit more substantial. Of course, things never go quite the way you plan: I landed both a regional and a national column while writing My So-Called Freelance Life and had to work on meeting weekly deadlines for both during the last couple months of writing the book.
I was working all the time, sometimes not even sleeping more than four hours a night. It was hell, but I'm glad I did it. Those columns now help sell both my books.
MCM: Thanks, Michelle, for this real-world advice. To learn more about Michelle's books click here (My So-Called Freelance Life) and here (The Anti 9-to-5 Guide). You can also read her great ideas on using a blog to boost a book proposal by clicking here.
This Week's Writing Exercise
Making your writing dream happen--what does it take? Magic, hard work, belief, all of these? From Michelle's comments, you saw how much a professional writer supports her dream--with music, chocolate, reminder notes that boost the spirit, good writing friends.
It takes a willingness to put into place this kind of good support. But it also takes a willingness to let go of something that might be blocking you, taking up too much time, or wearing down your energy.
This week, look at your life. Either chart one day, as one of my coaching clients does, to see where support is and where time is disappearing into stuff you really don't get much out of (her support list included a weekly writing group; her energy drainers were nightly evening news, long phone calls with her sister, and too many potato chips).
What are you willing to put into place for support?
What are you willing to let go of?
Stop the magical thinking about your creative dream with this book. You can do it. Just make room for it in your life.
What do you think of this? Do you agree with Michelle's suggestions--or have ideas to share with other readers about your own experiences with juggling your writing and your life?