Friday, December 6, 2019

Can You Use Real Place Names in Your Books? Can You Fictionalize Details?

Maggie is writing a novel about a group of people living in a made-up place, based on a real location.  She faced a dilemma this month about how much freedom she has, as a fiction writer, to use real places in her story. 

"The reader knows my novel takes place in Minnesota," Maggie told me. "I want to reference lakes, counties and towns that one of the characters--a realtor--covers.  These places are my real-world reference points."  

My first novel was based in a real-life place--the Adirondack mountains of New York State--and included real towns.  I made sure I visited those towns, used accurate information, but I also fictionalized parts and said so in my author's notes.  I know many writers do this.  But it is a good question to ask.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Finding a Writing Group or Writing Partner--From Afar (Online and On Demand)

Nikki, who travels a lot, took one of my writing workshops and recently emailed me with a great question:  how do you find a writing group or writing partner when you can't physically meet regularly?

I get this question a lot!  Mostly from experienced writers who know the value of writing partners and groups, but due to travel or family life or living too far from a city, they can't join a "normal" group.  

Writer's groups and writing partners provide a couple of benefits to a writer's life.  Writing is a solitary thing, and it's easy to get a little nutso when you've been on your laptop, deep in your story, for hours without interacting with another human.  Even a virtual interaction provides a way back to normal life, perspective on what you've been doing (even if it's a universe in itself), and ideally, some feedback along the way.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Wisdom from the Irreverent Anne Lamott--on Writing and the Writer's Life

We all need inspiration.  Writing can be a solitary, even lonely, process, often discouraging.  Thanks to my student Mary for this excellent inspiration break from the always-inspiring Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird and many other books.  She shares her wisdom in this TED talk.  Enjoy.  (And take notes!)  I promise it'll give you writing fuel if you're even a wee bit stuck this week.
Link is here.  

If it doesn't work, go to www.ted.com/talks and search for her name.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Should You Pursue Your Manuscript--Or Set It Aside--After Multiple Rejections (AKA Who Are You Writing This For?)

One of my students from Canada recently contacted me after the third small press rejected her memoir manuscript.  The publisher was seriously interested but, after some thought. changed his mind.  The press offered detailed feedback--in itself an encouragement--which she appreciated.


But it's her third rejection after serious interest, and she's losing heart.  "It's been seven years in the writing and revising," she wrote me, "and based on feedback the manuscript has definitely improved. But I'm not sure if I should pursue it anymore."

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Confusing World of Copyrights and Permissions--A Brief Overview for the New Author

Although I don't recommend spending much time on the legal aspects of publishing until you are close to that long-awaited time, there are some good rules of thumb to know about.  Here are a few questions I get regularly: 

1. Do you need to copyright your manuscript before submitting to agents or publishers? If you self-publish, is it a good idea to go ahead and register your book officially with the office of copyright?

Friday, October 25, 2019

On Hooks and Other Excellent Ways to Start Your Story

When I was shopping my first novel, Qualities of Light, to publishers, along with the rejections, I received an incredibly valuable piece of advice:  start the story later.  

Specifically, one editor said, start at chapter 5.  

That's where the hook is, where the book actually begins.  She declined the manuscript, as had others, but wished me all the luck in the world.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Four Favorite Tools to Organize Your Book Material--Before It Gets Overwhelming

Beyond the book-writing process itself, the reason we all do this, there's the need to stay sane about the piles and files and folders.  A book, unlike a short piece of writing, easily generates 1000-2000 double-spaced pages in the months or years before you publish it.  So I get the question all the time in classes and with private clients:  How do I keep the sheer volume of this book-in-progress organized?  

Friday, October 11, 2019

Writing with Authenticity--Why It's Important to Foster a Unique Voice in Your Art

Publishing is an interesting game.  Like all business owners, some publishers are wary of risk.  They want books that adhere to tried and true formulas of plot or purpose.  Fiction in certain genres--think romance--even have formulas to follow.  Agents who specialize in these books know the formulas and automatically reject manuscripts that don't follow them.  So uniqueness isn't necessarily a winning card in your submission game.

Yet it is.  More often, I've heard from agents about the boredom they feel with stories that repeat the same themes, the same trends.  They look for something that will "make them miss their subway stop"--a cliche I'm sure you've heard or read about on agency sites.  

Friday, October 4, 2019

Organizing Your Book: How I Learned to Love Scrivener

Books become unwieldy fast.  Unlike a poem, essay, or short story, a book may generate thousands of pages by the time it's revised down to three hundred and fifty.  Most writers don't realize or remember this when starting a new book.  But after a few revisions, there's just too much to keep track of.

I get this question in most of my classes:  how do you organize your book-in-process? 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Layers of Time in Fiction and Memoir: How Does a Writer Weave Past, Present, and Future into Scenes without Creating Too Much Exposition?

Your scenes have voltage, electric current, for readers.  But in most novels and memoirs, there are layers of electricity, because there are layers of time.  We move between past, present, and future in our real lives all the time, even more so on the page.  One of those times will have the most electricity, and it's good to know that.  But how do you bring in the less-alive times and make sure the reader knows enough about them, without delivering too much exposition?

Friday, September 20, 2019

Dialogue Engages--But What If Your Memoir Characters Just Don't Talk Much?

Candace is writing a memoir.  Her characters are the opposite of talkative.  She took my online dialogue class earlier this year and learned that dialogue in any books brings more reader engagement.  But she was confused about how to bring her particular characters to life and still stay true to their silent natures.

I read other writers to answer these kinds of questions.  Kent Haruf wrote six novels set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.  All of them have quiet characters, but each is unique and fascinating.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Are Your Characters Too Nice, Controlled, Predictable? Here's How to Bring Out the Tension and Make Them Vivid (But Still Not Serial Killers)

Annie, one of my readers, got surprising feedback from her writer's group.  One of her novel's characters, an abused woman trying to escape from controlling relationships (with parents and boyfriend) was unbelievable.  Her sadness and desperation to escape wasn't enough to make her vivid, memorable, engaging to readers.  Where was her strength, her resolution?

Problem is, Annie says, an abused person often lacks this kind of drive.  So what could she do to create more tension around this character, making her vivid and believable in her search to become her own person?

Friday, September 6, 2019

Lessons from Margaret Renkl: How One Memoir-Writer Circled Round Family, Nature, and Loss

How does a memoir writer weave family stories into a larger whole?  This is the perennial challenge.  Unless you already have a fan following, most readers won't follow your trials and tribulations just because you write about them.  You need to hook them into a universal truth, learning, or other bigger element. Something they can relate to their own lives. 

Friday, August 30, 2019

When a Writer Describes an Emotion You've Had (Without Quite Realizing It)--Power of a Book's Effect on Its Readers

Think your writing doesn't matter?  This week's writing exercise is to educate yourself (and inspire yourself) on the effect our words have on readers.  Click here for the podcast from writer Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project, The Four Tendencies) talking about her experience reading Isaac Mizrahi's memoir. If the link doesn't work: www.gretchenrubin.com (search for Isaac Mizrahi in her podcasts).

Friday, August 23, 2019

Breakdowns and Breakthroughs--The Sine Wave of Book Writing

One of my coaching clients, a very skilled writer, wrote me a few weeks ago about the temper tantrum she was having with her book.  It's in revision stage, a novel, and a good one--I've read parts of it and I was hooked on the characters, plot, and premise.  But she's been working on it for five years and she's tired.  "I'm going to toss it," she said, and I half-believed her, so I sent her a plea to wait.  Set the thing aside for a day, two, a week if she could.  Do something else.  Something completely unconnected to her book.  Then decide if it was ready to be scrapped.

Friday, July 19, 2019

When Your Book Wants to Be Something More: The Persistence Required as Your Book Reveals Its Real Story

One of my long-time students, Linda Zlotnick, recently published her memoir, Star Sisters. The core story is about the death of her twin sister from ovarian cancer.  It was a many year journey to allow herself to process the loss on the page, then begin to watch the memoir take on other topics, unexpected ones.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Great Resources for Studying Up: On How to Submit Your Manuscript to Agent or Publishers

One of my blog readers from Europe is preparing to submit her first book to agents and publishers.  She has plans to attend the International Book Fair in Germany in October, but she wanted to study up before then.  She asked for my best bets in books, blogs, and other resources.

I'm always delighted to share my favorites.  I have to credit friends, colleagues, students, and other writers in the trenches of submission for most of these resources.  Anyone who's been through it knows how challenging the whole infuriating, wonderful, discouraging, illuminating process can be.  It helps so much to study up beforehand.  Be not surprised or unprepared--you'll kick yourself and you'll probably lose any future chances with that particular agent.

So here's the best I've found, thanks to many helpers over the years.  I've used all of these myself.  

Friday, July 5, 2019

How Do You Create Section Breaks--the White Space Pause--in Your Chapters or the Whole Book?

A great question, simple but important, this came my way from a former student who is working on the first draft of her memoir.  When you construct chapters, when you look at the book as a whole, you do have the option to give the reader small moments of pause, usually created with a few paragraph returns and white space (in chapters) or a couple of blank pages (in the larger book).  

What are the rules around doing this?  How often, and why?

Let's talk chapter breaks first.  

Friday, June 28, 2019

Is It Too Late? Successful Publishing After Forty, Fifty, Sixty?

Writers can become successes at any age--we know that, and we know it's the quality and timeliness of their work that makes that success come true.  But older writers, many in my classes, often comment on how challenged they feel competing with younger writers who have decades ahead of them.  "Agents want to know you have books in your future," said one of my students last week.  "I'm not sure how many I can promise at sixty-five."  Another worried about her appearance--was it current enough to promote if her book did well?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Behind the Scenes: How One Well-Published Writer Structured Her Memoir

This week, I'm sharing another great article--very different from the words of Ira Glass, last post, but equally inspiring for anyone writing a memoir and confused about structure. 

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich has written a memoir not for the faint-hearted, about capitol punishment and her own difficult past, called The Fact of a Body:  A Murder and a Memoir.  This article from The Rumpus interviews her about the structure of her book and how she wove the two threads of frontstory and backstory.  Check it out here.  (If the link doesn't work, go to www.therumpus.com and search for the book title or the author's name.)  Thanks to Cherste for passing this on!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Bridging the Gap between Taste and Skill--Ira Glass Wisdom Revisited


Something must be in the water this week.  Maybe the air.  I'm hearing from discouraged writers, at every stage.  And by serendipity, I also came across the brilliant short film by Daniel Sax with Ira Glass speaking to this very problem.  So this week's writing exercise is short and sweet.  Watch, listen, take to heart these words.  (If the link doesn't work, go to www.ThisAmericanLife/extras and search for The Gap).

And for those who want to read/see more, check out this wonderful article from Brainpickings based on Glass's wisdom. (If the link doesn't work, go to www.brainpickings.org and search for Ira Glass). 

Friday, June 7, 2019

Getting Great Blurbs for Your Book--Three Published Authors and an Agent Weigh In on How, When, and Why

Blurbs are those snappy testimonials that line the front and back of published books, enticing readers to buy and read. Blurbs mean a lot to me as a reader--often I'll go for a new book because an author I respect has endorsed it.


Agents love when a writer approaches them with a few good blurbs in hand.  It's normal for blurbs to wait until your book gets closer to publishing, but it's also good to begin your list of blurb-worthy authors even as you approach final revision. 

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Importance of Comps (Competitive Titles) for Your Book and How to Find Them

Many years ago, when I was starting the search for my current agent (after my former one retired), I took an online course on publishing.  It was taught by an agent and her author.  One of our coolest classes they led was a Q & A session.  We got to ask them anything about publishing, about the process of querying, about what made agents say yea or nay to a manuscript.  The agent was somewhat familiar with our work by that point in the class, so her answers were relevant and specific.

I was curious about comps: are they needed?  Do agents require them?  Do they help your book in any way when you are querying?

Friday, May 24, 2019

What Is Narrative Voice and Why Does It Matter?

My last post was about agents wanting more than good writing.  This week, I'm going to give the other side of the story:  why a special something called narrative voice matters a lot if you want to attract an agent's attention.

One of my students emailed me about a discouraging response she got from an agent she queried.  The agent wrote back "the subject is so intriguing, but I just didn’t fall for the narrative voice as I’d hoped I would." Ouch.  

So what does this mean? What is narrative voice and why would an agent need to fall for it?

Friday, May 10, 2019

Beyond Good Writing--Two Agents Talk about What Else Matters If You Want to Get Published

Many of my students and private clients are good writers.  They've taken classes to hone their writing, learned to revise, are adept at choosing that perfect word or phrase to make the reader melt.  

But there's a lot more to writing--and publishing--a book than just expert wordsmithing.  In my classes, I teach the other side of books, the structure, because I've found it harder to learn and practice.  It's not taught that much in schools or even MFA programs.  Good writing is, but structure is not. But you know my concerns about (obsession with?) structure if you've followed this blog for any amount of time or taken one of my workshops.  It just matters so much, if you want to publish in today's market.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Setting as Character--How to Create Emotion from the Setting in Your Book

Rita is working on a MG (middle grade) novel. She wrote me this week with a good question about how much to use setting in her book.  What's not enough, what's too much? And most important of all, does a story's setting need to be as developed as its characters?
Her story is set on Mars, a hostile environment ("Think adventure movie," she says, "with avalanches and earthquakes." ).  The setting produces challenging events which cause her characters to react.    
She wondered if placing these events (the big earthquake, for instance) at the height of story's dramatic moments might also represent the character's strength or inner conflict.  "The stuff of myth?" she asked.

Friday, April 26, 2019

How Your Character's False Belief Weaves through a Storyboard--Creating the Narrative Arc

Character in fiction and memoir is built on the convoluted pathways of false belief. As readers, we witness the journey along these pathways: the unconsciousness of a character at the start of the book, the changes as they grow more aware, shedding their limited views of self and life.  It makes for a great structural model for story, both memoir and fiction, and this week I want to share how that false belief pathway is built, using the W storyboard.  

I began working with the concept of false belief, or false agreement, about eight years ago when I wanted to understand how my characters could show this growth.  If they started out unconscious, maybe victim to their limits, you could almost say they have a certain agreement with the status quo.  They follow certain ideas, beliefs, creeds, to get along. A story starts when that status quo begins to break up. That's the triggering event or inciting incident. (This video explains more.)

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Task of Writers to Awaken the Fresh View of Life--Like Traveling to a New Place

I remember pitching one of my novels to agents at a writing conference.  They'd read a few chapters ahead of time, a nice perk at that particular conference, and one of the best compliments I got as I listened to the feedback was:  "This is very fresh."

I asked more about what that meant.  From the response, I gathered that agents look for writers who present a fresh view of life.  Akin to the wonder we might have, traveling to a new place, readers also want to view life differently because of your memoir, novel, or nonfiction book.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Building Your Book Structure around Key Questions

Your writing exercise this week is a simple but powerful one that I teach in my storyboarding classes.  Ask yourself this:  What's the primary question of each chapter in your book? 

Then ask:  How do those questions transition, one to the next, creating a flow that easily carries your reader through the story?

Friday, April 5, 2019

Why We Procrastinate as Writers--A New Perspective

One reason I take classes or go to writing conferences or join a writing group is to set artificial deadlines for myself. I know, after years and many books, that although I'm fairly disciplined with my writing, I need external accountability to get a big project done.  No matter that I set goals, and often meet them, writing a book is a long commitment that is easily sidetracked. 

Like most of you, I can procrastinate like nobody's business when I want to.  With me, it shows up as either cleaning or food. I don't usually go in for internet or Netflix comas, but let me loose with a bag of chips, and watch out. 

Friday, March 29, 2019

Root-Cause Analysis--the "Why" Question for Your Characters

Maggie, one of my past students, sent me a fun email this week.  She has been using a great technique for getting deeper into her characters.  I wanted to share it this week, while I'm teaching on retreat, so you could try it.  

Friday, March 22, 2019

Reading as a Writer--Why Reading Other Authors' Books Helps You Learn Your Craft

This weekend, I'm traveling to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to join fifteen emerging (and already published) book writers for my week-long retreat. I've asked each to bring along two books in the same genre as the book they're working on. 

Sometimes this raises questions--"I want to work on my writing, not read other people's."

Friday, March 15, 2019

Creating Believable Characters on the Page--Tips for Fiction and Memoir Book Writers

I've been struggling with my antagonist. That might sound like a normal situation--antagonists create conflict--but my challenge is less about what he does than how believable he is on the page.

One editor told me:  "He's too much like the other nasty guy."  Another said, "It's just Bad and Badder."  My agent said, "The antagonists need to be as believable as the protagonist."

Friday, March 8, 2019

How Does Your Book End? Here Are Some Great Ideas

Thanks to Rita who sent the link for this week's writing exercise.  Scan these best endings and pick your favorite.  Why do you love those and what might it tell you about how you want your own book to end?


Do you prefer a lyrical ending, rich with image?  A factual wrap up?  An ending that hovers or one that really concludes?


If you assume an ending answers a question or quest posed at the start of the book, what might that question or quest be for these ending lines?

Friday, March 1, 2019

Finding Your Writing Community-Soothing the Solitude of the Writing Life

Writing a book--writing anything--is by necessity a solitary practice.  We are by ourselves with our words at first, generating them in a conversation between laptop and hands on keyboard, or pen and notepad.  It's not a bad thing.  I actually love the process of being in the worlds of my books, and I crave the solitude to immerse myself.  

But every now and then, it helps to have community.  Community is essential for feedback, when you get to the point of needing it, but it's also very helpful for support.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Interior Monologue Pros and Cons--How Do You Integrate Thoughts, Feelings, and Talking to Yourself?

Here's a great definition of interior monologue:  "a conversation a character is having with themselves, internally."  Read more here.  Some writers call it internal dialogue.  Or thought tags.  But whatever you call it, it's happening inside.  

As an editor, I have strong opinions about interior monologue. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Warning: Writer's Message Ahead! The Dangers of Platforms in Fiction and Memoir

One of my students is writing his first novel, a work of historical fiction that he has researched carefully.  He became interested in the real subject of this story many years ago and has been on a fast track ever since, learning how to create a strong and engaging tale while staying as true as possible to the facts behind it. 

When he attended my writing retreat last February in Tucson, we discussed ways to integrate the facts of the era and politics into his story.  So much good material, so many great bits to bring in, but how much is right for the story--and what's just for him, in his own fascination with it? 

Monday, February 4, 2019

How to End Your Book--What Not to Wrap Up

As a journalist for several decades, I was taught well by my editors how to wrap up an article, interview, or column.  Leave the reader with resolution but come to a definite conclusion. 

When I began writing books, I learned a different approach, which is especially common in memoir and fiction these days:  create an ending that hovers.  

In other words, the basic plot is wrapped up satisfactorily, but the inner story, or character's trajectory, is left with unanswered questions.  You may feel this is bad for your reader, but here's an article that might change your mind.  It's our writing exercise this week:  to read, consider, and examine your own endings to see if they reflect this idea.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Avoiding the Midbook Slump: Three Techniques to Keep Readers Reading

Marie, a blog reader, has been working on her storyboard and organizing her chapters, using the three act system that is so helpful for sorting out what belongs and what doesn't in early drafts and revisions.   She's concerned about the middle of her book, though.  
"Act I is comprised of chapters with progressive complications for my protagonist," she writes.  But in the beginning of Act II, Marie's protagonist begins recovering from her problems.  "These chapters are turning out to be much more tied up in a bow but I want to keep the reader interested until my protagonist gets smacked with a big problem at the climax of Act II.  How do I let my protagonist recover from problems at the beginning of Act II yet keep the reader wondering/questioning/guessing?"

Friday, January 25, 2019

Establishing Yourself before Your Book Is Published: Submitting, Platform, and More

Book journeys are divided into very distinct experiences:  the creation of the book and the selling of the manuscript.  Many writers struggle more with one than the other.  I worked with a private client who was aces in marketing; she already had a website for her book before she'd finished editing it.  Another had a background in graphic design and was all about the book's beautiful appearance--we mostly worked together on the writing, which came harder to him.  You may cringe at the thought of promoting yourself (selling your manuscript involves selling yourself too!) or you may be all over it.  

Friday, January 18, 2019

Location in Your Story: The Importance of the Inner and Outer "Container"

Realtors know that location is everything in buying or selling property.  Try to sell a house that's near a busy highway or high tension wires, and you'll learn this.  In story, location is also really important--I wouldn't say it's everything to a story, but it's as vital as good characters and strong plot.

Unfortunately, it's the aspect of writing that many writers tack on or ignore altogether.  

One of my students, Margaret, was working on her memoir about growing up in post-World-War-II Mississippi. The storyboard worked well: plot points were good and you could track the dilemma of her story. So Margaret confidently took a few pages to her writing group for review.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Revision Checklist: When You're Ready to Revise, What to Focus on First

If you have any love for the refining and shaping process of making a book, revision can be much anticipated.  I'm not talking about the early tweaking of individual chapters, which can result in rewriting your opening chapter 1 so many times, you get sick of the book and never write chapter 2.  (I've seen this so many times, and it's a sad thing.) Real revision, in my mind, is not that level of line editing but a whole-book reshaping, a re-visioning of the book's purpose, and an attempt to get out of the writer's chair and into the reader's.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Fantasies of the Writing Lifestyle: How to Get Real about What to Expect

A colleague sent me two fascinating articles recently about the reasonable and unreasonable expectations we writers have of the writing life.

The first is a funny-sad yet informative article by writers Rosalie Knecht from Lit Hub (link here) about the colorful fantasy some have of the writing life.