Friday, December 16, 2016

The Myth of Going It Alone--Why Book Writers Need Community

My fall online classes are ending this week, and the groups are loathe to leave each other.  They've bonded terrifically this semester, which often happens in these classes.  Somehow, online learning can foster a kind of intimacy among writers that I don't always find in in-person classes. 


They are exchanging email addresses and committing to exchange work too, after we end.  I am glad--it's a strange myth among writers that we need to go it alone.

I believe writers need community to thrive.

A blog reader from New York wrote me last week about this.  She has joined two writing groups and loves the feedback, but she says she has a challenge.  It's hard to discipline herself to write.  "It appears to me that I might be a one-on-one person that needs a writing companion to be accountable to for my writing," she says. 
 
Many writers feel this way.  I've been in monthly writing groups and weekly writing groups, and I love the feedback, but I also need other structures to keep myself going as a writer.  One is online classes--I teach them, but I also take them.  I've just signed up for one starting in February.  The accountability of submitting work each week is precious. 

I also work with several writing partners who I met in online classes.  They don't live close to me, so we can't meet in person, but we like each other's feedback and we're determined to keep writing, so we send each other chapters or scenes each week. 

Why do we believe the myth that we need to go it alone?  As the blog reader said, "Things come up that detour me from writing."  For me, having that writing partner waiting helps me figure out what my next sentence will be.

For some of us, this is a season of giving
.  Give to yourself too.  Your weekly writing exercise is to make a list of 5-10 writers you could partner with.   Even just to check in every Sunday night by email or phone to say, "I wrote this week."  Or "I'm having trouble getting started.  Can you give me a prompt?"  You'll find this kind of simple sharing is a wonderful gift that busts the myth of artistic isolation.

We're all in a community.  Maybe you just need to find yours.      

The blog will be on holiday break for two weeks.  Have a happy new year!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Scrivener--My Favorite Software for Organizing a Book

Before I wrote books, I wrote stories, essays, poems, columns, and articles.  Short stuff.  Short stuff doesn't require that much organization.  I had a good word -processing software.  I kept files of the multiple versions of my short stories, for example.  I used a spreadsheet to track where I sent writing and what happened to it.


Then I began writing books.  Within months, pages accumulated.  Way beyond anything my short stuff generated.  I was swamped in paper, with no great way to organize it.
I began struggling with my trusty word-processing software.  How hard it became to keep track of each version, the corrections I made, and what I'd missed.  I literally had to print each draft to double-check it.  Sure, I could do a whole-document search for word repetition, for example, but it was beyond clumsy.  I began looking around for something more streamlined.
 
Twelve books got written and published before Scrivener came along.  It has saved my writing life.  And many of my students' and clients' as well.

There have been a lot of programs that try to help writers both organize and write.  Some of them include WriteWay Pro, Z-Write, WriteItNow! and Rough Draft.  Some writers swear by a program called Ulysses.  They offer a list of contents or topics on one side of the screen and an editing or writing desktop in the center.  But many are plain text, no formatting ability. 

Scrivener was developed by a writer in Cornwall, UK, who was unsatisfied with the mechanics of what was out there.  He wanted to be able to import images, different fonts and text, and other options into his documents--easily--and still have the ability to keep track of the overview via a sidebar list.

To me, Scrivener is light years beyond anything I've used--and you may agree if you've tried it.  It does take setup time, to import your current document, but for the way I write books, it's perfect.  I can craft "islands" or scenes and log them as individual documents on my sidebar list, then begin to group them into folders as my chapters build.  If I am missing a scene, I can easily create a placeholder for it on the sidebar list.  Best of all, if I decide scene 2.4 really belongs in chapter 10, not chapter 2, I can move it on the sidebar list and it automatically moves in the document itself. 

Scrivener also takes care of the multiple versions of any scene, chapter, or act.  The feature called "snapshot" allows you to take a picture of each version.  They are stored with the current version and can be accessed in a click.  You can decide part of an earlier draft was way better and paste it in with no trouble.  Try doing that in Word--yikes. 

Another thing I love about Scrivener is the ability to bring in visual or written research and view it either in the notes or in a split screen as you work. 

There are so many features of Scrivener that I haven't even tapped, even though I've taken four classes on it.  I use what I need, and when I'm ready to learn more, I go for another class. 

Scrivener for ipad recently came out.  I'm still learning it, but there are tutorials if you're interested.  All versions are available at www.literatureandlatte.com both for PC and Mac.  They offer a 30-day free trial, so you can test drive before buying. 

It's good to set aside 2-3 hours to set up your draft in Scrivener.  You are given different templates to start with (I use the fiction template).  Then you basically copy and paste in your islands, scenes, or chapters from Word or Pages.  It helps to sit with someone who knows Scrivener, as I did, while you get set up.  There are also some good tutorials here. 

I also recommend taking a class from Gwen Hernandez, who wrote Scrivener for Dummies.  Gwen is an excellent instructor and her online courses take you through basic setup and use of Scrivener tools, through advanced levels.  Check out her Scrivener Classes when you're ready to get started.     

I wish I'd found Scrivener many books ago--I've only been a fan for four years.  But it's changed my writing life.  I can't recommend highly enough (and I don't get paid to say that). 

Your weekly writing exercise is to download the free trial, if you haven't tested it out.  If you already use Scrivener, check out the tutorial link, above, and try working with snapshot or one of the other extras.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Pitch Conferences: How to Meet and Greet with Agents

Many of my students and clients are signing up for spring pitch conferences, where they hope to pitch their book to a few agents.  These "meet and greet" events are currently one of the best ways to get face-to-face with agents, hear them talk about their lists (the books they represent) and preferences, and learn about the publishing industry today.


When you're ready to market your book, and if you've decided you want to get an agent, there are a couple of ways to start.  You first need to research the agents.  There are so many right now.  Each specializes in a certain kind of book.  Just like a realtor shows houses in a certain price range or neighborhood, and knows their clientele in that area, most agents have a "stable" of editors they like to work with.  It takes time to build this stable, so more experienced agents are in more demand.

If you're sending out queries (requests that agents look at your work), you can do it cold, just by picking agents online or from the acknowledgements in books you love.  Agents receive hundreds of queries a week, sometimes.  Cold solicitation is a hard game--your chances of getting a positive response are about 1 for every 75 queries you send, according to a colleague in the business.  That's depressing.

At pitch conferences, you get much closer.  You're in the same room with agents you want to approach.  You get to hear them talk, maybe talk with them, even pitch your idea one-to-one in a pitch session.

You also get exposed to both experienced agents and newer agents.  New agents are trying to build their list, so they are often more willing to consider new writers. 

How Pitch Conferences Work
Most pitch conferences offer a program:  workshops or breakout meetings on different aspects of marketing your writing, plus pitch sessions. 

Pitch sessions are why most writers come.  They are brief but potent.  Each session lasts five to eight minutes, usually (varies by conference).  Some conferences offer each attendee three pitch sessions, some only one session--registration price goes up with more pitch sessions, of course.  You request the agents you want to pitch.  You prepare your pitch and any questions.

How do you decide which agents to request?  Before you register, browse the conference's list of attending agents.  Then go do your homework:  Look up each agent's website, see what they're looking for.  Some agents have great blogs and you can read about what they're seeking.  If their website is more generic (all memoir, all commercial fiction), it helps to read through their list of clients, then go to amazon or another online bookstore and search out these clients' books.  Don't just choose agents because they fit your genre--that's too much of a wild card.  Look for the style of writing they love.  Are any of the books they represented remotely like yours?

Study the first pages for voice or subject matter (you can do this free on amazon.com).  Compare your voice and subject matter. 

The goal is to first eliminate agents who are not a good match for your book.  Be ruthless about this.  You don't want just any agent--you want someone who will fall in love with your story.  The closer you get to matching your book to an agent who loves the same kind of writing as you write, the more successful you'll be.

Once you've chosen your agents, take some notes.  When you pitch them, it's helpful to refer to one or two books they've represented, so they know you've done your homework and have selected them carefully. 

What to Bring to the Pitch Session
Write out a premise (a short, three-minute pitch) for your story.  Work on it!  Read the back-cover copy on published books to get a sense of what a premise should be.  Usually, it's about four to five lines long, or three minutes if read aloud.  Polish it until it's friendly, interesting, tense, upbeat--whatever your story's tone might be.

Practice your pitch a loud.  Do this a lot, until you can say it without notes.   You'll be seated across from the agent, looking at each other.  Eye contact is good; reading from a page isn't as good.  This may well be your next business partner in publishing, so you want to see how the chemistry is, also.  

The agent will often ask questions.  How much have you written, how many words?  Is this your first book (nothing wrong with that--your "debut" novel or memoir or nonfiction)?  Do you have a platform (social media followers, a blog that is connected to your book)?  Again, if you don't, don't sweat it. 

Don't bring your manuscript or even a sample.  Agents usually don't want to lug anything home with them.  All you want from the session is an interest in seeing your query or sample pages after the conference.  They'll give you their business card, if they're interested.  When you get home, you email them with the subject line of "per your request at ________ Pitch Conference" or something like that.  Include what they ask for.         

If they say it's not a good match, thank them for their time.  They know what they can sell, what they can't.  You might ask them what they'd suggest, if anything, revising.  Maybe they'll give you a couple of pointers.  This is valuable! 

Even if you get a no, it's not wasted time; you've learned something.  You've gotten a chance to pitch your book and see how it feels. 

Your weekly writing exercise this week is to write a pitch.  Try it, even if you're not conference bound.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Gratitude Game--Celebrate What's Working in Your Writing Life

These past few weeks, I've experienced an unusual stall-out in my writing.  I couldn't locate any still point inside, or that "necessary boredom" that writer Dorothy Allison says is a prerequisite to writing well.  It was as if my creative heart was too sore to create. 

I knew that writing could actually be the way to come back to myself, get away from the incessant barrage of crises.  But I was hard pressed to find the way in.

Then I remembered a friend's game, something she likes to play when she's down and out.  She calls it the gratitude game.  It's pretty simple:  make a list of what you're grateful for.  Or find a partner and go back and forth, saying one gratitude item each, then another.

I thought, why not try it?  I wanted to get back to my writing!

So I began listing what was working, what was still alive and well in my writing life.  Here's the short list:

1.  I have three fabulous writing partners who exchange work with me.
2.  I've mastered Scrivener enough to not struggle with it--and it makes my writing easier.
3.  My second novel is done--although new feedback will cause some reworking, that's minor.
4.  I have a great space to write in.  Lots of sunshine coming in the windows, now that the sun travels lower in the sky.
5.  Winter is traditionally a great time for me to get a lot of writing done.
6.  I'm reading three great books at the moment, full of juicy images, and plenty of inspiration.
7.  My family supports my writing whole-heartedly. 
8.  I posted a notice on FB that my second novel was almost finished and I got tons of likes and responses, including a few people who pre-reserved it on my amazon page (wow!).
9.  I made a cool collage for one of my elusive characters.
10.  I have two really great ideas for my next books and have begun to pitch them.
11.  I pretty much adore writing.  Even when it sucks.
12.  I think I'm getting steadily better as a writer, which is heartening.

Your weekly writing exercise, in honor of the American holiday of Thanksgiving this week and the good spirit that resides in all of us, is to play the gratitude game with your writing--or your life. 

I hope it'll give you new courage, as it did me. 

Here's a quote by writer Ben Okri, to help you along:  "Stories can conquer fear, you know.  They can make the heart bigger."

Friday, November 18, 2016

Tips for Making Your Characters Vivid Individuals on the Page

A MG (middle-grade fiction) writer in one of my online classes posted a great question this week:  How do I make my characters more distinctly individual?  Different from each other, enough to be vivid individuals on the page?

Developed characters, fictional or real, should be distinct from others in the story.  If they all blur together, it's hard to make them come alive for the reader.  Developed characters have backstory, a history that informs their story decisions.  They have certain quirks, a way of moving, a way of standing or using their hands. 


In early drafts, characters can read eerily similar to us.  We give them our values, our music, our favorite foods or clothing.  Or we make them our ideals, what we'd be if we weren't so flawed. 

That's totally normal.  We look in the mirror as we begin to write.  It's how we get started.

Gradually, we begin to see our characters apart from ourselves.  We're curious about who they might be if they aren't like us.  That's when the characters begin to come alive on the page.  In my online class coming in January, we'll use questionnaires, writing exercises, discussion, and modeling to explore how different they can be, how we can push them further away from what we know and into who they are, uniquely as themselves.

That's when the fun begins!

Once you've begun to see them move, live, and breathe apart from what you can imagine, there's a next stage--and this is what my student was asking about.  How do you make your characters different from each other, not just different from you?

This week's writing exercise offers four steps to find out:

1.  Choose a published book you love.  Make sure it has at least three characters.  Find a scene where at least two of these characters are present, early in the book, preferably, when we are first meeting them. 

2.  Make notes on how the writer describes what each character looks like, how they walk across a room, what they do with their hands, what their voice sounds like.  What has this writer chosen to offer you, the reader, so the character comes across fast and effectively?  Skilled writers can capture a character's uniqueness in one or two lines.   

3.  Now go back to your own book.  Make a chart with three columns.  Write one character's name at the top of each column, so you have a separate column for each of them.  On the left side of the chart write these categories:  Hair, Skin, Clothing, Gestures, Movement, Objects, Voice.     

4.  Fill in the answers for each character for each category.  For instance, your character Joe might have black hair, olive skin, wear jean jackets and boots, talk with his hands, walk slow, carry a penknife, and have a raspy cigarette-smoker's voice.  Compare what you get for each of the characters.  Ask yourself:  are they different enough?  How can you make them more so? 

Friday, November 11, 2016

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back--Getting Your Work Out in the World

It's been an up and down week.  I got news on Monday of a student whose short story was accepted by a very prestigious journal and who'd been nominated for an equally prestigious award.  I also heard from three clients whose books were accepted for publication this month.  Very sweet. 

I also got an email from a student, raw from having pages of his manuscript critiqued by two colleagues at the university where he works.  He was soldiering on but underneath his good questions--how seriously do I take these comments?--I could hear the discouragement.  "It's like that old Bruce Springsteen song," he said.  "One step forward, two steps back."

Another colleague who just sold her manuscript to a very good publisher said she'd gotten feedback from her agent over the summer that depressed her so much, it took weeks to get over it.  Basically, a major rewrite, and she'd already spent years on this novel.  Was it really necessary?  She ate a lot of ice cream and eventually got back to her desk, made a revision list, and dove in.  "Lucky I did," she said, "because I didn't see the problems staring me in the face.  Now that it's going to be published, in this new version, I'm embarrassed I thought it was finished before."

We don't just get to learn the craft of writing a good book, which takes a long time (trust me!).  We also have to learn how to get it out into the world.  And the world isn't automatically a friendly place for many artists. 

This week, I joined a private Facebook group for rejection support.  No kidding.  These exist, and they're actually quite wonderful.  They are made up of mostly published writers who are needing help getting their new writing out into the world.  We post our rejection letters, one after the other.  I'm new to the group so still learning the ropes, but it has a feeling of hope, enthusiasm, and encouragement, despite the downer of a topic.

If you're planning to submit your work, there are skills to gain.  One is to become friendly with rejection. 

I don't think it requires a thick skin, though.  My best writing comes from a place of vulnerability and honesty about what I see and want to write about.  If I cover that over too much, I don't write as well.  So the goal, for me at least, is to view the process as a kind of game instead of a desperate search for acceptance and acknowledgment.  Because publishing can be that, for many writers. And the danger is, when publishing or not is tied to your self-worth as a creative person, you begin to die a little every time someone says no.

Why do that to yourself?

Easy for you to say, you might think.  Yes, I've published a lot.  But each time I send something out, I still have the butterflies.  I still feel the desperation.  The need for someone out there to love it, unconditionally.  I think a lot of published writers do.

I recently came across a method that I'm trying out, along with the Facebook rejection support group:  set a goal for a number of rejections, not a number of acceptances.  If you're shopping for agents, make a long list (maybe 100 to start) of ones you've researched and like, and be willing to (1) not hear back from at least 25 of them, (2) get no from another 50, (3) get comments and some small encouragements from 10, and (4) possibly have 15 who like your query enough to ask for more.  That's about the going average, right now. 

The theory is simple:  it's a numbers game, and the more you submit, the higher your chances on getting that "please send more" response.

You may not be close to sending out query letters, but if you are, here's a great article from the Kenyon Review on this method of accumulating rejections.  It's your weekly writing exercise this week. 

One step forward. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Nonfiction Book Success--The Challenge of Telling Someone Else's True Story

One of my favorite kinds of emails come from past students in my book-structuring classes whose books are being published.  Three such emails came to my inbox this week, and I wanted to share the story behind one of them in this week's blog.


When I first met journalist Ed Orzechowski in one of my classes, his book project fascinated me.  It wasn't an easy task to write a true story about a patient at the infamous Belchertown institution.  But Ed persevered.  You'll Like It Here, the true story of Donald Vitkus, patient #3394, is being released this month from Levellers Press.  I asked Ed to share some of the process of building a book on someone else's true--and horrific--story. 


Abandoned by his unwed mother during World War II, Donald Vitkus became a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was 27 days old.  Six years later as "Patient #3394," he was committed to Belchertown State School, where he was labeled a "moron" with an I.Q. of 41. Like hundreds of other institutions across the country, Belchertown was a de-humanizing environment of barred windows, locked doors, and brutal regimentation.
 
Resistant to authority, Donald refuses mind-numbing medication, smokes contraband cigarettes, joins an escape committee, and learns of the outside world on a black-and-white TV. He later serves in Vietnam, searches for his family, marries, and earns a college degree-all in a lifelong battle to convince others, and himself, that Donald Vitkus is not a moron.  You'll Like It Here is a story of the resiliency of the human spirit.

Interview with author Ed Orzechowski     

What's your background as a writer?
I'm a retired high school English teacher, and moonlighted for several years as a radio news reporter. As a freelancer, I've written many newspaper and magazine pieces, including columns, op-eds, and features.
How did you get interested in this story?
My wife and I are board members of an organization that advocates for individuals with developmental disabilities. My sister-in-law is severely autistic. In 2005 I arranged a book signing at a local community college for the founder of our organization. He had self-published a book about a federal class-action lawsuit he initiated over horrifying conditions at Belchertown State School in western Massachusetts and other institutions. At that signing, a 62-year-old student named Donald Vitkus told me he himself had grown up at Belchertown, and was looking for someone to write his story. That conversation evolved into this book.
How did you begin writing it?  What research did you take on?
Even though this wasn't the story of my own life, I took a couple of memoir writing courses. Our first assignment was to write just one scene, and that's what I did.
Most of the research occurred at my dining room table, interviewing Donald. I recorded our talks (nearly 24 hours in total), transcribed them, and worked from those notes. A major plus was that Donald had acquired detailed records from his years in the institution, many of which are reproduced in the book. I talked to his family, other former residents of the state school, a historian with the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, visited libraries and museums, read related books, and, of course, searched the web.
Describe your working relationship with Donald.  How often did you correspond?  What did you talk about?  How much artistic license did you take in creating a readable story?
We met intermittently over a few years. In our initial talks, Donald related incidents that occurred while he was living at Belchertown, many of them painful and disturbing memories, some of them humorous. He told me about his Vietnam service, his work, his education, and his family. He shared everything. It was difficult to establish a time line because his memories were scattered. I pursued whatever piqued my interest, and sometimes he cried. Over the course of these conversations, we became close friends.
The challenge was to reconstruct scenes and dialogue without compromising fact. This is a true story, told in first person from Donald's point of view. For lack of a better term, I call it narrative nonfiction. I made every effort to use Donald's voice, to remain accurate and faithful to his account. In the interest of privacy, I changed a few names. But there are no fabricated incidents because we both wanted to convey what actually happened in this community within a community, and how those eleven years locked away from society affected his entire life.
How long did it take? 
I laugh because the title of those initial courses was "Writing the Nine-Month Memoir." It took me eight years.
What were the steps to complete the book?
The interviewing was fascinating, and the transcribing tedious. At the same time, I needed to learn how to write a book. I had never written anything longer than a few thousand words, and knew nothing about structure, flow, dialogue, story arc, etc. I joined writers' groups, attended dozens of workshops and conferences, and took all three parts of your online class, Your Book Starts Here, through The Loft Literary Center. Your guidance and the feedback from other students were invaluable.
Anything else you'd like to share with readers here?
Two things. First of all, what a privilege it has been to be allowed intimate access inside the life of another human being. Second-now that our book is about to launch-the discovery that there's a lot more work involved in marketing a book after you finally hold a finished copy in your hand.

You're invited to meet Ed and Donald at the book launch on Sunday, November 13, at 4:00 p.m. at the Florence Civic Center, 90 Park Street, Florence MA 01062.  You can purchase the book here.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Dreams--The Delight and Danger of Using Dreams in Your Story

Dreams are a big part of my personal life--I've recorded my dreams since I was in college.  But I use them very sparingly in my writing.  Why? 


Have you ever been with a friend who is telling you about a dream?  On and on it goes, one weird scene after another, incredibly meaningful to the dreamer but hard to make sense of if you weren't there. 

That's why they're not used a lot in published writing.  They are part of the backstory of a character's life, but a wobbly, illogical part of that backstory, which readers rarely can make sense of.

Dreams ARE good to work with in early drafts.  If you ask a character about her dreams, you can get some cool images about her inner life.  I often plug them in as placeholders, markers for me to remember to bring in meaning just here.  I try not to lean on them to reveal meaning in final drafts because they read like a shortcut.  Like a device.

Devices are something a writer employs with certain purpose, to get a certain effect.  Used skillfully, devices are amazing tools.  But if the reader discerns the magician behind the magic of a device, it ceases to be magical and interesting. 

If you love dreams (like I do) and want to use them in your fiction or memoir, here are some things to watch out for:

1.  Since dreams read as shortcuts to meaning, they can feel to the reader as if the author is standing on the sidelines, telling us "This is what her angst is all about" or "Here's why he has to be a hero right now."  Ask yourself, Why do I need this shortcut?  Why not show the meaning through developed scene?  Granted, more work involved, but the payoff in tension and reader engagement is worth it.

2.  If you use dreams as placeholders, a kind of mental note that you intend to show meaning but can't think of how at the moment, be sure to add a clear note to your revision checklist to scan for all dreams.  Most writers don't realize how often they use them!  Plan to rework the majority into scene. 

3.  In some genres of fiction, and in some memoir, dreams can denote a bizarre parallel to reality--alternated states.  Or prophetic dreams can be useful for foreshadowing.  But again, watch out for overuse.  These stand out, and too many make your reader stand back and disengage.

Your weekly writing exercise is to check out this great article about the top ten uses of dreams in literature.  Note the kind of book cited.  If yours is similar, and you're eager to use a dream here and there, study how the author did it.  What transitions are used between the dream and the present-time story?  How long is the dream excerpt?  

Friday, October 21, 2016

Using Poetry Even If You're Not a Poet--What Poems Do for the Creative Brain

I'm only a marginal poet.  I've had one poem published and written maybe ten others, kept in a drawer.  But I love reading poetry.  It does something weird and wonderful to my brain.

In honor of Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for "having created new poetic expressions," I wanted to share this poetry experience and an exercise for this week. 
Recently a poet friend moved.  I visited her and took home two bags full of poetry books.   Collections from some of my favorite poets but also books on why we write and read poetry.  I'd just sent in my novel and was waiting for agent feedback so I felt kind of dry--desert-like, actually.  I wanted to get moving on the next book, all set up in Scrivener and waiting for me.  But I needed a little inspiration.

Rainy day, perfect for poetry, I thought.  I settled down with tea and the stack of books. 

Midway through the first volume, I had to get up and get a pen and paper.  Ideas for my own writing were flooding in--vastly different from the poems I was browsing but somehow inspired by them.  A small description of evening by Jane Kenyon made me remember evenings my character might have lived through, complete with the way the late summer light slanted into a room.   Stanley Kunitz urged me to look for the constellation of images that follow every writer, and I began to think of this for my characters too.  What images followed them around in their lives?

Your weekly writing exercise is to grab a poetry book and spend twenty minutes immersing yourself.  You may not like the poems--or any poetry, for that matter.  But the rhythm of poems may unlock something beautiful in your brain.

If you'd like to do this right now, click on these links:

30 great poems everyone should read

Friday, October 14, 2016

Paragraph and Line Lengths--How They Affect Your Story's Pacing


I never paid much attention to paragraph or sentence lengths.  I just wrote, felt satisfied if I got the story down.  Then, in the late eighties, I got a job as a editor at a publishing company in the Midwest. 

As an editor, I noticed that I had a visual reaction to a person's writing:  how it looked on the page, how dense or light.  How much white space or how much text.  Even before I began to read, I had a sense of whether I would be engaged, just by how the text looked.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Kid Lit! Writing for Different Young Readers--Who Is Your Best Audience?

Many writers want to write for kids.  They raised their own children on books, maybe thought I can tell a good story, too!  Or they love to illustrate for kids and want to fashion a story around their illustration.  I get lots of questions about kid lit, what ages to gear a particular story to, how to sell your children's, middle-grade, or young adult book these days.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Jennifer Egan on the Dream State of Writing


This week's writing exercise is simply a link to a fabulous article, an interview in Brainpickings with the Pulitzer-winning author, Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad), about the weird and wonderful place we go when we write.  Check it out here.   You may relate!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Metaphors in Your Story--What Are They, How to Use Them, When to Use Them


I'll never forget the first year of my MFA.  I had a great adviser, a well-published writer, who was also a minimalist.  I am not.   I love lyrical prose.  So we were an odd match that turned out to be one of the best parts of my expensive education.

As my adviser, Rebecca required me to send her a packet of new writing every two weeks.  She would read the pages and mark them up, then return them to me.  her handwriting was atrocious but her comments were stellar.  She didn't hold back.  If she loved something, she raved.  If she hated it, she said that too.  She assumed, rightly so, that at this point in my writing career I was past coddling.  I just wanted the straight truth.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Can You Use Both First and Third Person Narrators in Your Novel?


A few of my private clients are playing with the idea of using both first person and third person narrators in their novels or memoirs.  It's a fairly radical approach to storytelling but not impossible.  I've gotten the question enough times in the past weeks--the idea must be trending!--that I wanted to address it in this blog.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Refresh Your Writing Brain (and Inspire Your Book) with an Image Board This Week

Writers gather around the big classroom conference table.  It's the first evening of my weeklong writing retreat.  I ask each writer to grab a stack of magazines and begin tearing out photos.  The room gets quiet as everyone moves into their image brains. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Finding Close Readers--How to Be Smart with Feedback on Your Manuscript

Feedback is a tricky process.  Lots of danger if you choose feedback partners that have something to prove--they're smart, literary, better than you could ever be.  Or if you exchange with readers who just don't put in the effort, time, attention.  Both extremes can wear a writer out, best case.  Worse case, they can cause you to lose faith in your book.

Friday, August 26, 2016

How to Crisp Up Your Writing--Revision Tools for Wordsmithing

I'm a lifelong learner--there's always so much new stuff to practice and absorb about making great books.  I take different online classes for accountability and to keep up with new writing ideas. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Tips for Surviving a Manuscript Read-Through (The Essential Last Step before You Send Out Your Book)


Most of my students and coaching clients know about the read-through.  It's a full-manuscript read that you do at several stages in the book journey:  after your draft is complete and before you revise, and before submitting your manuscript to an editor or agent.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Using Pause Breaks to Strengthen the Pacing of Your Story

Right now, I'm working with a writer who is studying pacing:  specifically, how to pace her chapters.  She tends to deliver too much--too many images, too many ideas, too much happening--all at once.   It feels like a freight train coming at the reader.

So we're studying the writerly device of pause breaks.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Writing against an Edge: How to Push Your Intimacy on the Page


On Sunday, I'm heading to Madeline Island, a lovely spot in Lake Superior that happens to house an equally lovely arts school where I've taught every July for the past seven years.  Because I have a group of very edgy and wonderful writers coming for the week-long retreat, I've been thinking about edges.  How they exist in our writing and our lives.  How we push against them to establish our authenticity and intimacy on the page.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Where to Begin Your Book: How to Choose the Best Opening


Lots of writers struggle with the opening to their books, no matter what genre.  I'm working with one client in my retainer coaching program who is writing a very large story--it spans thirty years or more.  It's a memoir, and a lot has happened to her in her long life, so choosing the starting moment is very challenging for her.

We begin by asking what this book is about.  "My life," she answers, and that's true.  But I ask again, "What's it really about?" 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Summertime, and the Writing Is . . . Gone? Five Ways to Fit Writing into Your Crazy Life!

This week, try one of these five ways to fit writing into a busy summer life.  They've all worked beautifully for me--and I still get time to enjoy that camping trip!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Writing More Than One Book? How to Storyboard with a Sequel in Mind

Annette from the UK recently sent me this question:  "I'm currently reading Your Book Starts Here, plus I've been watching your storyboard videos on YouTube. You've helped me come unstuck after years of block with my half-written 'epic', which feels amazing!  I'm writing to you because I'm struggling with how to apply the W structure to a two-book story."

Friday, June 24, 2016

Time Markers: How to Keep a Reader on Track with Your Story


A few months ago, I began exchanging chapters with a writer who has an incredible skill with something called "time markers."  I feel very lucky to have her reading my chapters with time in mind.  She has caught my natural sloppiness the way a good editor might, saving me and my reader from going off track and losing the story thread.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Push to Do Risky Things with Your Writing

Risk is a place where many creative writers live.  We may not enjoy it but we have to take risks to grow as writers.  It's a risk every time we send our work to someone for feedback, take a class, approach an agent, or even when we finally get our books published.  

Each risk
takes us outside our comfort zone.  But I find risk an essential element in my writing life.  Without it, I repeat and repeat.  I never get better.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Seven Days to Getting Unstuck with Your Writing

One of my students recently emailed me about being stuck.  He's worked on his novel for several years now, relying on workshopping feedback to keep him accountable.  Recently he got some feedback from a hired editor and, although he totally agreed with the comments and knew the editor had nailed one of his manuscript's major weaknesses, he got stuck.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Thematic Threads: How to Build Them in Your Fiction or Memoir


When we finish a good book, something lingers with us.  A friend notices how we're still wrapped up in the story we just read.  She asks, "What was it about?" and we try to answer.  "It's about a woman who travels to India," we say, "but it's much more than that.  You have to read to understand."


That's theme.

Friday, May 27, 2016

When Does Your Inner Critic Appear? Three Scenarios of Self-Sabotage and How to Renegotiate Your Contract

Scenario #1:  The new chapter draft is going pretty well.  You're writing steadily, enjoying a renewed commitment to your book.  Suddenly, from some dark place in your mind, a switch goes on.  An unrelated thought or feeling slips in.  Maybe something you forgot to do or say.  A small mistake or failure.  The thought distracts you and you slowly leave the story flow.  You begin to hate the writing--or at least, it feels less delightful. Even a little boring, unoriginal?  You're derailed.

Scenario #2:  You give a chapter draft to a friend, spouse, relative to read.   You're pleased with it.  You imagine they will be too.  Maybe even impressed.  They bring back comments.  Even if they say, "I loved it," a flood of (1) fear, (2) anger, or (3) shame hits you.  You can't bear to look at the writing, to use their suggestions.  It's all sucky anyway, and you really shouldn't waste your time.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Character Loops--Reader-Pleasing Techniques for Using Characters in Your Story

I'm getting ready to teach a new online class this summer (starting June 8) about characters, so I'm having fun going through all my techniques, tips, and exercises learned and taught these past twenty years, trying to find

Friday, May 13, 2016

My Favorite Tool for Checking Story Sequence

Two of my private clients are working on nonfiction books.  They have a ton of expertise to share, but they normally teach in person, so putting their techniques and theories into a logical sequence on the page has proven challenging for both.  They found my website and decided to work with me to check the structure of their books-in-progress.

I start them with basic structure analysis techniques, which I learned as an editor at different publishing houses.  Most writers just write--they don't necessarily know anything about structure.  Editors used to take care of that, but they don't anymore, so we writers must learn to analyze the structure of our own books and get them in shape before we submit the manuscript.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Writing versus Structuring--Why Both Are Important and How to Toggle Between Them in Your Writing Sessions

John, from Texas, is writing a memoir--his first book.  He's a good writer and he's accumulated about 30,000 words so far, writing in what he calls "flow writing," where he just sits down each day and lets the memories pour onto the page.

John's story is good--riveting, in fact.  But a few months ago he reached a point of being confused about where he was going with the book.  He'd written as much as he could remember, but now he felt stuck.  He found me through my website and contacted me for private coaching. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

How to Use Different Points of View in Your Story

Teri, a blog reader, sent in a great question about points of view.  I've gotten variations of this question often in my online classes.  Teri's two narrators switch back and forth, alternating chapters. 


She wondered if she needed to make their amount of chapters equal.  Does she need as many chapters from her male character's point of view as from her female's?

Variations of this question crop up often in my online classes. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Tips on How to Read Your Own Work Objectively

Mary Beth is working on a memoir and has taken my online classes and my week-long writing retreat in Tucson.  She's got a solid draft of her manuscript and is now going through the chapters, revising and tightening the focus.  She emailed me recently with a great question--something we all run into.

"How can a writer learn to read her own writing from a reader's eyes/brain/comprehension?" she asked.  "When I reread my work--it's me --how I write.  I'd like to be able to reread it and go 'You're doing the same thing.  Change this or that.'  Maybe I'm looking for a magical way to reread my work."

Friday, April 15, 2016

How Do You Find a Good Editor--When You're Ready for One?

Kathy, a writer who has attended my Madeline Island retreats and online classes, has almost reached the finish line with her memoir.  

I've watched her work hard over the past few years, creating a strong structure for her book, workshopping her chapters, and fine-tuning.  She wrote me this week about her recent trials, trying to find a good copyeditor who will help her catch errors and get the manuscript ready to submit.

Friday, April 8, 2016

How Do You End Your Story? Where to End, How to Decide, What to Make Sure You Include







Andrea, one of my online students, send me a great question this week:  "I haven't quite decided how my story is going to end," she wrote.  "I have been mulling this very question for months, and I cannot come up with an answer. It's really perplexing and I think it's keeping me from moving forward."

She also mentioned being worried about covering too much time in her novel (one whole year).  Funny thing, these two questions are related.  If you solve one, you can solve the other.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Planting Twists in Your Story to Keep Readers on Their Toes

You know that old saw about "nothing is certain except death and taxes?"  We expect unexpected twists and turns in our real lives.  Stories should be that way too. 

In life, we may dread the unexpected.  In story, we anticipate and delight in it.  It keeps us on our toes, as readers.  We're engaged, turning pages, wondering what's going to happen next.   Funny thing, though:  Writers who are living high drama in real time often avoid it on the page.  So their writing feels safe, predictable, an easy ride--everything we want our lives to be. 

Everything that writing shouldn't be.

How do you overcome the tendency to keep your characters safe, to tone down your plot, to avoid changing things up? 

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Never Give Up!"--The Inspiring Story of Elizabeth Di Grazia's New Memoir

Elizabeth came to my classes a few years ago with her memoir-in-progress.  She was obviously a talented writer, but what struck me even more was her determination to tell this story, and tell it as well as she could.

At my July week-long retreat on Madeline Island, I watched her dismantle her book as she knew it--much writing already completed, but the structure not yet working--and we talked a lot about her options with timelines, backstory and present story, the threading of her life now and her childhood.  She came up with a unique and workable structure during that week and continued building her book through classes and mentorships. 

Not long ago, I got the announcement that her memoir was being published.  House of Fire has just been released by North Star Press. 

I interviewed Elizabeth for the blog this week.

Friday, March 18, 2016

How to Avoid Middle Slumps--Maintaining Tension in Your Story


Tonight I'm chatting with one of my online classes.  Our topic is slumped middles--not in our bodies, but our books.  Many books slide down the tension scale in the middle, as the initial action subsides and the finish line is still far in the distance.

Keeping the middle active and interesting is not easy.  On our chat, we're talking about a few proven techniques for brightening up the middle of your story.

Becky, who reads this blog, sent a great question about slumped middles.  She called this the part where "your character rallies and makes some kind of decision after hitting a low point, and things get a little better."  Yes, that's true, I told her.  The character (or narrator in memoir) will usually fall for a while after the story starts.  Things often get worse.  The character hits a low point and there's a kind of leveling out.  Some writers call this the "first turning point" of the story. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Balancing the Three Key Elements of Story

I was talking with a songwriter friend this weekend about how his songs are put together.  An idea usually comes--about a person, a place he visited, or an experience he had.  He then begins to brainstorm ideas for the lyrics (some songwriters start with melody, but he goes forward from the lyrics).  They start telling a story, using his initial idea. 


If he begins with a person--say, he's writing a love song or a song about heartbreak--he knows eventually he'll also bring in details about where and when, as well as what happened. 

He says that there's a cool alchemy that happens when all three of these elements are in place.  They create synergy with each other.

If he leaves one out, the song just doesn't feel complete. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Essential Tools for the Writer’s Toolbox

This week's post is reprinted from Writer's Block, an online newsletter from the Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis.

As a beginning writer, I pumped friends who were published, trying to find the secrets to writing well. There were plenty, and there were none--depending who you talk to. Some writers say writing can’t be taught, only caught. If you have talent to catch well, you become a good writer.
Talent is a big help. But I’ve coached many writers who were amazingly talented yet never finished their books, stories, or poems; who never believed in their talent enough to send writing into the world. Those who did had more than talent. They had collected a toolbox of craft skills, tangible and intangible. The more complete the toolbox, the more successful the writer.

Intangible skills include stamina, persistence, an ability to release what you know to learn the next skill, and believing in yourself. Intangible skills are gathered through experience, risk, and good mentoring. The longer you write, the more of these you have.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Plotting and Pantsing--When to Plan and When to Write, and Why Both Are Useful as You Build Your Book



Erin, a blog reader who has taken my online book-writing classes, wrote with a great question:  "I'm struggling a bit of time management in terms of planning vs writing. Case in point, I get about 30-45 minutes of writing a day. I feel like this should be used towards actually writing my book. The planning exercises are helpful but they don't feel like real, actual writing. So on days where I'm planning and world building and working on character profiles, etc., I feel like I'm not writing or progressing in terms of my novel."
Erin wondered about the balance between what she called "actual writing" and all the planning and plotting that goes into building a book's structure.
"Right now I feel guilty planning but stuck writing," she said.  "It's a terrible place to be!"

Welcome to the world of structure versus writing, or plotting versus pantsing, as it's known in many writing circles.  Some writers love to know where they're going ahead of time--the plotters or planners.  Others love the discovery process of just writing and seeing what emerges.