Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Do Some Great Research--On Your Characters!

Your book has a major and minor cast, whether you're writing fiction, memoir, or nonfiction. People move stories, illustrate theories and ideas, and rumble in the background of all great literature. It's up to you, the writer, to get to know them.

This week, interview your main players. Find out some important details about them. You can start with the questions below, which I use whenever I need to get deeper into my story and the motivation of my players.

1. What’s your height, weight, eye color, hair color?
2. What do you like or dislike about your looks?
3. How old are you really?
4. How do you feel about your age?
5. What three things are in your refrigerator?
6. What sort of work do you do?
7. What’s your favorite possession?

Just take good notes. Be a researcher for your own book. You might learn some new things!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Disguises and Masks: A Great Way to Understand and Uncover Your Book's Characters

What's behind the veil? If everyone in literature wears a disguise or mask that veils their true self, what are your book's major players hiding behind?

This week's writing exercise asks you to unmask these folks through a series of nitty-gritty questions. Spend about 20-30 minutes on this exercise, if you can. Be prepared to dig and learn!

Pick one of your characters and write an answer to one of these questions, as if you were interviewing them.

1. What broke your heart?
2. What do people who know you think of you?
3. Who would you eliminate from your life?
4. What do you wish never happened to you?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mixing Things Up--A Recipe to Break the Block

Alison McGhee, writing instructor and author of many wonderful novels including Shadow Baby, once taught a very effective exercise in a writing class I attended. She had three lists on the whiteboard: people, different ages (such as 13 year old, 2 year old), and different objects. She asked us to choose one from each list and write a scene.

I loved it. It led to the pivotal theme for my new novel, Qualities of Light, which will be published in 2009 by Spinsters Ink.

Here's an adaptation of Alison's idea. You can try it this week, if you want. It's very effective for getting out of a writing rut.

Set a timer for 20 minutes. Write a scene that takes place in one of these places:
in a bus stop shelter in downtown Minneapolis
at O'Hare's airport security
streetside cafe in Gordes, France
laundromat in Gillette, Wyoming
riverside picnic area

Where there's an argument about one of these objects:
silver coin
piece of sea glass
cell phone that doesn't work

Mix them up--one from each list--and see what happens!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Great Exercise from Listen to Me's Lynn Lauber

In her excellent book on writing craft, Listen to Me, memoirist Lynn Lauber writes: "If you find yourself telling the same story over and over, but in a way you don't find satisfying, try changing person or point of view."

I've used this technique to get a new viewpoint on my characters, especially when I feel the icy chill of writer's block.

Try it right now. Take a story you know well, from your life or your writing, and tell it from someone else's point of view. Tell it anew, seen from your dog's eyes. Or your grandfather's. Or, instead of the fictional character Jason's, try his partner Monique's. Write for 20 minutes or two pages' worth. See what happens when you break out of the known voice or view.

Can you catch a new image of where the writing could go from here?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Slowing Down--and Engaging the Creative Brain?

Sometimes the best writing comes when we're slow, dreamy, not thinking about accomplishing anything. Does this happen to you?

Maybe it's because the right brain engages, that non-linear side of our creative selves. This week, I spent many lovely hours immersed in a book that talks about this right-brain gift to creative folks: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. Dr. Taylor is a brain scientist who wrote about having a left-brain stroke that changed her entire way of being in the world. Suddenly without any linear perception or abilities, she came to appreciate the "wholeness" of her right-brain self. Of course, we need both sides of ourselves to function, but in today's world, we tend to use one or the other predominantly.

Open a blank document right now, on your computer, or in your writer’s notebook—wherever you’re reading this post. Call it Random Right-Brain Ideas. Begin a list of ten things you think of, smell or hear, see as you look around your room or office.

Sometime later today—or right now, if you can—set a timer for 20 minutes and pick one of these to write about. Do a “freewrite” where you don’t edit, just let yourself go into slowness and see what’s hanging out there.

Later, look at the writing and ask yourself how it connects to anything important in your life, a question you’ve been wondering about. Or your writing project?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ongoing Spirit of Gratitude--A Thanksgiving Writing Exercise

A book-writing client talked with me this week about having an ongoing spirit of gratitude for her characters. She regularly notes on paper what she appreciates about them. She also works as a newspaper reporter. Her interviews are always full of understanding of the people she profiles and their situations.

She believes this spirit of appreciation sparks unspoken cooperation between writer and subject—whether that subject is memory, imaginative, or factual.

Make use of the annual holiday of Thanksgiving for your writing exercise this week, by writing each day for 2-3 minutes about what you appreciate. This is sometimes called a gratitude journal.

Writers use gratitude journals to unblock their creativity. Gratitude is simple, easily forgotten, more powerful than expected when you practice it. With our creativity, it fosters a kind of deeper understanding and appreciation about our lives, what we specifically offer the world, what’s unique about that offering and why it matters.

Each evening before bed, list three things you felt grateful for that day. You can focus, as the book writer above does, on what you’re grateful for about your book, your characters, the topic you’re exploring. Or just your life.
Keep going with this exercise for seven days. Regular practice is key to it working.

A week from now, see what changes have come. Sometimes you’ll noticing a lightening of spirit. Maybe there will be new opportunities. More awareness of what’s actually working, what you’re doing well.

This sounds like a lightweight activity. It’s not. It’s potent. I’ve keep a gratitude journal for many years. When I forget to write in it each evening, and the days slip by without appreciation, my Inner Critic begins to strongly affect my writing. I’ve learned to appreciate this simple exercise as a way to keep myself on track as a writer and as a human being.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Writing Exercise--Pace Yourself via Expansion or Contraction

Pacing—a delicate affair in writing a book—depends on a balance of expanded and contracted moments. Good pacing creates a rhythm between the two. This week’s exercise lets you notice your natural (often unconscious) tendency of either expanding or contracting too much. If you adjust, correct, and balance, your writing will soar.

1. Set a kitchen timer for fifteen minutes. Begin to write about a childhood event that influenced you greatly. Don’t overthink this exercise, just let it rip. No editing along the way!

2. Read the piece out loud. Whenever you get interested, as you read, highlight the paragraph that pulled you in. (It’s essential to read out loud—you’re switching from a writer’s viewpoint to a reader’s.)

3. Contract (condense) the paragraph into one sentence, as short as possible, without losing the essence of the larger paragraph.

4. Now expand this one sentence into five new sentences (a new paragraph).

Which was easier for you, expansion or contraction? Think about whether this short exercise helped you see anything about your natural tendency as a writer.

5. Return to your original freewrite about the childhood experience. Select your favorite section, a paragraph or two.

6. Apply the aspect (expand or contract) that was the most difficult for you in steps 3 and 4. If you had trouble with expansion, expand the section to three or more paragraphs. If you had trouble with contraction, condense the section to half its length.

Read the new writing out loud. Can you notice the difference in flow, in music, in pacing?

Monday, November 10, 2008

John Truby: Why Writing with Images Is More Powerful Than Writing with Words

Hollywood script doctor John Truby says that successful movies are written with images first, words second.

We are such a visually oriented culture. But we are trained in school to communicate with words first. Images are considered random, illogical, somewhat dangerous. In my experience, writer’s block occurs when we become too word-based. Freeing ourselves requires tuning into our natural, childlike ability to perceive images.

This week, explore the two languages we use as writers: the language of words and the language of images. Both are necessary to a good book.

For ten minutes, pay attention to images around you. What can you perceive when you remind yourself of details perceived via the five senses?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Building a Bridge between Your Writing and Your Life

How closely do your writing and life intersect? How can they support, even feed, each other?

This week's exercise can be transformational. You begin by listing your personal minimum requirements for staying healthy and balanced in your life. Look at these arenas:

physical (health, sleep, exercise, food)
emotional (relationships with family and friends, self-care, private time) intellectual (learning and growing, staying current)
spiritual (faith in self, belief systems)

Ask yourself, What is required in my life to feel in control, balanced, and healthy?

Make a second list or chart of what you need to have in your life, to get your book written. Be very specific:
working equipment?
good scheduling?

Rate the two lists as far as reality. What do you have in place? What is missing?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Your Weekly Writing Exercise--Pick One Memory

A writer from Minneapolis emailed me: "I just came across an idea for your writing exercises. You may have heard of it already, but it's a new one to me and has me quite intriqued as to how I'll write about it. It was in the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune under theatre performances."

Here's the exercise, from Workhouse Theatre Company: "You are passing through to eternity, and you must select one memory you can take with you--of everything you've ever done, felt or thought. You have one hour. Choose."

Cool idea. Use it for your writing this week. What memory--of everything--would you take with you? Write about it. Click here to learn more about Workhouse.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Does Your Writing Show or Tell? Learn from Robert Olen Butler

Anton Chekhov wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Showing is a demonstration of emotion through specific details. Telling can bring in an almost intellectual assessment of what happened. Showing, the opposite, requires very little intellectual language. It relies instead on sensory detail (smells, sights, sounds).   While telling backs away from the moment, summarizing feelings from a distance, showing places the reader squarely in it. 

The key to showing is to demonstrate. This means not interpreting the things you are placing in front of us.

Robert Olen Butler, author of many wonderful stories and novels and instructor at this writing at Florida State University’s MFA program, talks about this in his book From Where You Dream (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2005). To deliver emotion in its purest form, don’t dilute it with interpretation. Butler observed that emotion can be delivered to a reader (shown, versus told) generally in five ways. Here is my translation of his terms:

• what I am feeling inside my body (goosebumps on my arm, itchy foot, tight throat)

• what I am observing in your gestures and movements (tearing a small paper napkin into bits, jiggling foot)

• specific memory

• fear, anticipation, desire (projections into future)

• sense selectivity (during moments of extreme emotion, all but one sense goes away)

During the developing stage of book writing, whenever I need to change a scene to more “showing,” I will go through Butler’s list and ask myself how I can bring in one of these.

This week, translate a passage that "tells" into one that "shows," using one of the above techniques.  What happened?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Your Creative Vocal Chords--How to Warm Them Up

William Wordsworth said, "Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart."  We're not all poets.  But all of us have these breathings of the heart, which some call voice.

Voice is your passion, your style, the things you must write, the way you must write them.  But voice can easily be squelched.  It can go through silent passages, coming out in a mere whisper.  The biggest problem in silent passages is that you don’t know they’re happening at first. They start innocently—a tiny bit of boredom with your characters, a chapter that feels rough with no inspiring fixes. These pile up and an overactive Inner Critic can make them seem worse. Slowly the silence inside the writer grows, until words trickle to a stop.

Educator Steve Peha from Teaching That Makes Sense http://www.ttms.org/ says voice is a combination of choices a writer makes. In other subjects, we all learn the same rules and theories.  Think:  math equations, history facts.  Creative writing is supposed to showcase the individual and how individual they can be and still communicate well.

“Everyone’s writing needs to be different from everyone else’s,” writes Peha. “The set of all the different choices a writer makes, and the collective effect they have on the reader, is what is often called ‘voice’ in a piece of writing.” Choices include your style of language, the words you use, the length of your sentences and paragraphs, tone.  Just like in conversation.

And conversation--with yourself--is the key.  Having a regular writing practice is the single most important way to gain and belief in yourself, and keep the writing voice warmed up.

This week, try writing every day for 5 minutes.  Just 5 minutes.  Observe the excuses and grumblings that might float (or thud) in during the first few days.  Then observe what happens once your voice gets warmed up. 

Check in here to let our book-writing community know how your 5 minutes/day went. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pace Yourself: An Exercise to Create Rhythm in Your Writing

Like changing seasons that move elegantly into each other, a good book has an almost invisible rhythm called pacing.

Excellent pacing creates music a reader can resonate with. Pacing makes writing memorable.

An Important Tool for Your Writing
Pacing is one of the most complex and exciting tools in book writing. It’s the speed of the story, the balance of anecdotes and concepts, the ebb and flow of the writing. Pacing determines your paragraph and sentence lengths, where you put in a line of dialogue, where you muse, where you wax lyrical over a setting.

Two-Page Squint
To study how different writers deliver pacing to a reader—find a favorite book.  Open it, hold two pages up, squint at them, and see the balance of white space to text. Notice how conversation sections have more white space, description has less. So dialogue usually equals faster pace, and description (summary) equals slower pace.

Studying the Pacing in Your Own Writing
Now study the pacing in your own work.  For this week's exercise, find two favorite pages of your writing.  Read it aloud. 

Freewrite for 10 minutes on these questions:
What rhythm do you perceive?
Is the pacing fast or slow?
Where does it vary?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It's Often What You Don't Say That Counts--A Weekly Writing Exercise about Negative Space

Painters know the concept of “negative space.” I learned it in art school. Negative space is everything that is not the main object in a still life or portrait.
(If you can't imagine this, picture a painter getting ready to capture three yellow apples on a fuscia plate, with blue cloth as background. To the painter, the apples are the main objects. Plate and blue cloth are negative space.)

Negative space is kind of like what's not said in your book.  Sometimes this speaks louder than your words.  The silences, the spaces between things.  The hum of what's unspoken brings more tension.  Especially true for memoir and fiction. 
You have to have the main object and the negative space in constant conversation in a painting; although some experimental artists disagree, I’ve found one doesn’t work as well without the other. The apples in my painting above, without plate or cloth on the table, float in space, unanchored and possibly unbelievable. And without the plate's intense background, the apples' luminous golden color would not be as sharply defined and contrasted. Negative space serves to define and illuminate the main focus.

So it is in book writing.

Consider a chapter of your book-in-progress this week.  List everything that's not being said.  Is it creating absences of tension or omission? 

Then ask yourself about the negative space in your life:  How does your book writing co-exist within your life? Is there a conversation going on?  What kind?  One of harmony and back and forth acceptance?  Or one of conflict, avoidance, irritation?

Spend 10 minutes writing about negative space, both in your book and in the relationship between your life and your writing.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Brainstorm Your Way to a Book! Simple List-Making Technique Works for Fiction or Nonfiction

A book could be just a list away.  This week's exercise encourages you to start a simple list in your writing notebook:  possible topics you could write about. 

Ask yourself, What could become a scene or section or small moment in my book?

Your challenge:  add three items to your list each day this week.  Watch your book build.

Go wild:  Allow yourself to include things that don’t seem to fit, like a color, image, snapshot memory, dream, desire, smell, favorite meal. Use your own special shorthand and descriptors to jot these ideas down. Choose image-rich words, if you can, so your imagination will be triggered when you read them. The most successful brainstorming lists immediately put the writer into a scene full of senses.

Examples from my current novel's list:

red stain in the carpet
nighttime trees in the orchard behind Molly's (main character's) house
Molly saying no to Lisa--finally

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Do Book Writers Need the Right Brain More Than Other Writers?

How do you use your right brain as a book writer?  The right brain brings a writer ideas for theme, emotion, and deeper levels of meaning in a book. The challenge is to activate it.

This week's writing exercise:  Take five minutes to watch this amazing video.  Let your right brain follow the shapes and movement, then write for 10 minutes.  Do new levels emerge?  Does your writing change (and your blood pressure lower)? Click here to try this exercise.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Writing Exercise of the Week--Ethan Canin's Storyboarding

A blog reader from Minnesota sent in this great link to an interview with author Ethan Canin (America, America)--where he talks about his writing process. He storyboards (one of the main techniques I teach in my writing classes). She writes, "He uses color-coded index cards on a big piece of foam core. Neat!"

Click here to view and listen.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Weekly Writing Exercise--Your Minimum Daily Requirements for Getting Your Book Written!

It's back-to-school time. I can smell those sharpened pencils. Are you set up for getting back to your book?

This week, think about what you would need to have in place, in your life, to get your book started, to keep going, to finish it. Be very specific.

Examples from writers in my book-writing weekly classes:

privacy (where my daughter can't use my computer)
dedicated time to write each week/each day
kind and helpful feedback (not from my mother or spouse!)
supplies--pens that work, legal pads, computer paper
resources for research and inspiration
a laptop that works
writing schedule I can live with
respect from my family--permission to be alone
better goals

Pick one area you could improve on this week. What's one small step you could take? Even a small movement forward helps free us up on this amazing book-writing journey.

Share other mimimum requirements you've discovered.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Are Most Writers Introverts? Nancy Okerlund's Excellent E-Newsletter on the Subject

Nancy Okerlund, of The Introvert Enegizer newsletter, studies how the introvert brain works--and how writers who are introverts often feel better after they spend time writing.

"Compliments of the way we use the parasympathetic nervous system," Okerlund says, "introvert bodies are designed to let our busy brains focus and concentrate deeply for long periods, which makes them feel alert and happy. . . .In the practical everyday world of communicating, writing is a good tool for introverts. Writing a note - or even a letter! - or sending an email allows our characteristic thoughtfulness to come out in a way that may feel easier than speaking. "

To read this article, click here.

Writing Exercise of the Week--Music to My Ears

To access theme in your book, you may need to talk with the nonlinear side of your brain, sometimes called the right brain. So do something nonlinear: For this writing exercise, listen to a favorite piece of music without doing anything else.

Write for twenty minutes about what you heard and felt as you were listening. Then write anything that comes that answers this question: How does my book's theme connect with what I just wrote?

Be non-logical, nonlinear as you explore this on paper. Be prepared for VERY COOL surprises...

What happened? Post it here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Writing Exercise of the Week--with thanks to Carol Bly

List your most important life values (refer to Carol Bly's wonderful book, The Passionate, Accurate Story, for more information on this exercise). What means the most to you? Are these values represented in your writing? Are they demonstrated in your book?

For me, writer's block can come from not aligning my book writing with what I hold dear in my life. Writing about something superficial, for instance, when I am in deep pain feels very incongruous. When I realign, I write better.

What do you think of this idea?
PS Carol recently passed away but her writing (and teaching) lives on. She was a profound influence on my writing life.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Red Smith's "Opening a Vein" versus Stephen King's "Do It for Joy"

When Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,” he was talking about the vulnerability a writer must bring to the page.

What does that mean? Vulnerability for writers is how much they reveal, show, let the reader see about themselves. Some writing teachers call it “showing up at the page.” Many of us struggle with this vulnerability—how much should be shown, how much should be hidden, and how much “letting it all hang out” will cause the rest of our lives to fall apart.

Last year, when I began writing another nonfiction book--this one about how to write a book, since I'd written and published twelve and was asked so often if I had one on my writing methods--I was also working on two others. They were at various stages of drafting and almost-completion. My novel was being shopped to publishers, who were giving me feedback and suggestions for changes. The novel's sequel was in second draft, with all the sections written and pasted together; it did not yet resemble a book but it held promise. The third, the nonfiction monolith, was in the proposal stage and I was beginning to draft chapters.

One fine day, the novel got accepted by a small publisher with a good editing team. I was thrilled, called my friends, cried with my family, and went out to celebrate. When I got back to my office the next morning, the other two manuscripts looked at me reproachfully, as if to say, “We still need work. Don’t forget you’re a working writer.”

I write and teach full-time, so I have the luxury of many days alone in my writing studio with just my words to keep me company. Finishing the last rewrites of this soon-to-be-published novel was like being in a dream state. Some days, I found it hard to “wake up” and greet the normal world. So I wanted a few minutes with normal activities, like watering the garden and cleaning the bathroom—believe it or not!

The successful writer’s life is all about this balance between creative time and our normal life.

A big myth: writers (and other creative artists) must be financially distressed alcoholics who can’t keep a relationship going. In fact, many writers in the past have been, but today’s book writer has other options. It’s a matter of finding that edge where you can walk in some comfort, produce good work and get your book written, and still be a responsible member of your community.

As Stephen King says in On Writing: "If you do it for joy, you can do it forever."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

When You're Stuck--Here's a Unique Way to Get Yourself Moving!

A writing friend sent me this great video. Watch it for a break from your book today! It's sure to get you moving.

Click here, get on your dancing shoes, and turn up the volume.

Then let me know:
What unique things do you do...
to get yourself moving when you're stuck on your book?

Writing Exercise of the Week--Waiting for Inspiration?

This exercise only takes 10 minutes. Try it right now.
First, list 5 reasons you don't take time for your writing. Anything that comes to mind--other people's demands on your schedule? not enough privacy? feeling stuck? eating too much ice cream?
Remember: write whatever you think of--no matter how small or silly.
Pick one of these reasons. Write 3 antidotes to it.
Let these 3 antidotes simmer in your writing brain today. Imagine them like lone trees on the horizon--signifying an oasis ahead. How might you bring one of them into your life?
What brings you inspiration in your writing life? Post a comment below.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Weekly Writing Exercise for Inspiration! Favorite Quotes on Writing from Maya Angelou, Brenda Ueland, Albert Camus...

Spend a few minutes writing about your response to one of these inspirational quotes. How does it pertain to your book writing this week? Do you believe it's true for you? (The photo at the left is from Maya Angelou's wonderful website. Click here to visit and see more of her inspirational writing.

There is no greater agony that bearing an untold story inside you. --Maya Angelou

A person’s life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art, or love, or passionate work, those one or two images in the presence of which his heart first opened.
--Albert Camus

Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say. --Brenda Ueland

When literature works on you, it does so in silence, in your dreams, in your wordless moments. Good words enter you and become moods, become the quiet fabric of your being. --Ben Okri

There is no hard and fast rule about structure; you can invent your own. --Abigail Thomas

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Good Advice If You're Looking for an Agent--from Chuck Sambuchino and Victoria Strauss

Is your book ready for an agent? There are some great web sites out there, to help you find the right person--and to educate you on all the pitfalls.

A favorite is by Victoria Strauss. Click here to visit her website.

Another great site is the Guide to Literary Agents--click here.

Or Chuck Sambuchino's WritersNet's agent directory lets you search by your genre and topic. Click here.

What other great sites have you found?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Writing Exercise of the Week--with Thanks to Carolyn See

Write a thank-you postcard (just a few lines) to five people whose books you really loved. Tell them how they changed your life. You can mail it to the publisher's address or google the author to see if you can get a real address for them.

I did this when I was eleven, for a book called The House of Thirty Cats by Mary Calhoun. I loved cats (and still do). I was astonished when I got a hand-written letter back! That book--and its author--changed my life.

As an adult, I've often found this little exercise frees me up to write better. Maybe it's because I am less concerned with competition when I feel grateful? Or I acknowledge that there's plenty of success out there for all of us?

Thanks to Carolyn See for this exercise. Her book Making a Literary Life is fun and very informative.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Writing Exercise of the Week

Imagine a year from today. Write about your book, in the present tense, using as much detail as possible, with as much loving attention as you can muster.

What would you like to have happen with your book, by then? What dreams could you imagine being fulfilled?
How clearly can you imagine it?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Do You Have Book-Writer's Block?

Do you relate to this question, from reader Eleni Turner? "Please write about writer's block--I'm currently suffering from lack of inspiration on the storyline I'm most serious about. I know exactly what I want to write, but when I try, it becomes either too boring or too rambly."

What's your best technique for handling writer's block?
Is it real? (Some writers poo-poo the idea, but those of us who have experienced it might say otherwise.)
What makes writer's block visit you--and what makes it finally leave?

Post your ideas, tips, and suggestions below.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jane Levin's New Poetry Chapbook

Jane Levin's new poetry chapbook, Legacy, has just been published. Jane was a student in my writing classes and began publishing her poetry with great success.

This is her first book. Congratulations, Jane! I've reviewed her book in The Alsop Review. To read this article (and some great poetry), click here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Writing Exercise of the Week

Begin a dialogue on paper with an aspect of your book that you dislike or don't "get" or can't move forward with. A reticent character? A chapter that won't come together? Something you just can't write, no matter how hard you try?

Ask it why it is in your book--and your life. Write down whatever comes as an answer.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Writing When You're Traveling--How Do Book-Writers Do It?

So far it's been a summer of intense travel, living out of a suitcase, and trying to write in internet cafes, sending book chapters-in-progress to myself by email.

Each trip, I try not to leave behind these books I'm writing. A colleague once said, if you stop writing for three days you have to start over again. I get that. Losing the flow of my characters' voices, losing the ideas of how to structure a section of my book just so. Does this happen to you? Or can you "hold" the book for longer in your head without showing up on the page?

How does travel affect your creative life? How do you keep going with your book-writing when you're on the go?

Post a comment by clicking below--let us know!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Get Those Ducks Moving! A Poem-Writing Exercise of the Week for Book Writers

Step 1: Create one sentence for each of four plot points in your book (peak moments, external movement, change).
Step 2: Create one sentence for each of four different character’s shifts (internal change in the character, realization moment).
Step 3: Create one sentence for each of four different setting details (with something from the five senses associated with each).
Step 4: Create one sentence for each of four objects or memories associated with the book.
Step 5: Find one musical detail in the book (sound or rhythm).

Take all the above musings and write a four-stanza poem about your book. Use one plot point, one character shift, one object or memory in each stanza. Then try to get something rhythmic or musical in each stanza.

Thanks to Stuart Dybek's interview in Novel Voices (edited by Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais) for the inspiration for this exercise. My book-writing class loved it!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Fabulous Writing Books to Help You Write a Book

Vivian Gornick talks about “the situation and the story”—the two elements of good prose. What happens and why it happens. Because of her simplicity in describing this complex idea, The Situation and the Story became one of the truly influential writing books in my life.

Carol Bly’s The Passionate, Accurate Writer taught me about writing of consequence and how to stay unembittered while working with difficult material. Kenneth Atchity’s innovative book-gathering ideas in A Writer’s Time transformed the last five manuscripts I completed and published.

For years, I whole-heartedly recommended these three books to my writing buddies, coaching clients, and students. I know there are many very good writing books available—and shelves of them line my office—but only a few, such as these, have really taught me how to grow as a writer.

A friend’s discovery recently added another transformative writing book to my small collection. From Where You Dream, by Robert Owen Butler (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2005) is a series of lectures to his graduate fiction students, transcribed and edited by Janet Burroway (of Writing Fiction fame).

Although geared toward fiction writers, From Where You Dream answered my question on how to bring out the deeper meaning of any piece of writing, especially when writing a book.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Exercise of the Week for Book Writers

Here are some questions to think about, as you work on your writing and your book this week:

What kind of reader do you see in your mind's eye or heart, as you write: Women over fifty? Boys under fifteen? Guys who love fishing?

Is your language, tone, and style going to engage this particular reader?

Is the pace of your narrative (how fast it moves) going to make them want to read more? Or will it make them stop reading?

Most book writers think all they have to do it is write. Why consider these questions at all? These days, if you’re thinking of being published (or if you want your book to be read by more than four or five of your close friends or family), you have to make people want to turn the page.

You have to consider the reader.
The agent will.
The publisher will.

This week, spend a little time making notes about your reader. Really think about how best to serve them, while keeping your own vision about your book.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tuning Your Ears--First Step in Developing the Right Pacing for Your Book

My first visit to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, I saw Puccini’s Turandot. There wasn’t a moment during Puccini’s music or story when my attention wandered.

That’s exactly what good pacing does. It doesn’t let the reader wander.

Start tuning your writer’s ears by re-reading books you love. Pick three in the genre of your book.

● To study how the writers deliver information—where the pacing is fast, where it is slow—hold two pages up, squint at them, and see the balance of white space to text. Conversation sections have more white space, description has less. So conversation (dialogue) usually equals faster pace, and description (summary) equals slower pace.

● Study the pacing at the end of a suspenseful or exciting chapter in one of these favorite books. How short are the sentences? Are the verbs particularly vivid?

● How does the writer transition to the next chapter’s opening paragraph? Is there a change in pace (usually, there is—so the reader can take a breath)?

● Read two pages aloud. What rhythm do you perceive? Is it fast or slow? Where does it vary?

● Look at the internal parts of the writing—what is being revealed by the author when the pacing is slow? Is it an emotional moment where the author might want us to linger? When the pacing is fast, is an event happening that’s very tense? Is there a slower-paced section later in the chapter, where the meaning of the event is presented?

● Practice writing fast-paced scenes to fast-paced music, slow scenes to dreamy music. How does your understanding of pace change as your writing changes?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bits and Pieces--Is That OK?

Is this how you are feeling about your writing sometimes? Like you're in a forest of bits and pieces where nothing makes sense enough to be a book?

A reader wrote me about this common dilemma: " I feel like a have a big mess!" she said. "I like what I have written, but I don't know how to add to it at this point. I'm constantly thinking about writing. Constantly putting it off. My question is.....is it okay to keep writing this way? Is it okay to have bits and pieces? Do writers of memoirs (etc.) ever give a handful of pages to a 'writer' or editor to be written? Do/can these writers work together to create a wonderful story?"

Making Sense of the Mess
Many writers in my classes encounter this. It's very normal. The random part of you might love the bits and pieces you are producing, but the linear part wants it all to look like Something Good. It's the time-honored struggle between the two creative sides of ourselves. The trick is to acknowledge both as useful, and know when to switch.

If you get that itchy feeling that there is too much mess, it's time for some structuring. My favorite is the storyboard. Used in film production, a storyboard is a giant blank cartoon--boxes waiting to be filled with steps of your story.

So here's what you do:
1. Give a title to 10 of the bits and pieces you've written. You can do more if you want--eventually, you'll do them all but this is a nonthreatening way to get your feet wet.
2. Draw a storyboard on a large piece of butcher paper. Just create blank boxes, row after row, until you have 10 or more.
3. Look at your list of titles. Imagine how they might logically or intuitively be placed on the storyboard. What order could they go?
4. Write one title per box.

This is a very basic storyboard. What does it do? It begins to calm that frustrated part of you that wants to see progress and order in your book writing journey. It begins to show you what might be missing--what you still need to write about, are avoiding writing about, have written about too much and avoided other areas more vital.

Let me know what you think, or if you have more questions. Please post your comments by clicking the little envelope below.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Exercise of the Week for Book Writers

Book writers (and all writers!) need to be able to hear both the random, illogical side of their creative selves, as well as the structuring, logical part. Clues about how to improve our writing come from both. If you have some difficulty listening to all parts of your creative self, ask the questions below. If you find one of the questions harder, it might tell you that you are using an unfamiliar part of yourself (maybe your work and family life demands more of your logic than intuition, so the random side is underused).

1. What do I think I should write about?
2. What am I most afraid of writing about?
3. What can’t I write about?
4. What won’t I write about?
5. What’s a sound or smell or taste I remember, but I don’t want to

write about?
6. What is the most logical thing to write about?

7. How do I feel when I think of writing about that?

Let yourself go into these questions in 10-minute segments of freewriting (no editing, crossing out, or even stopping writing), by setting a kitchen timer for 10 minutes and trying one question at a time. Try to keep the pen moving the entire 10 minutes, even if it’s just to write “I don’t know, I don’t know” until something comes.
When you feel you’ve exhausted this exercise, look over what you wrote. Ask yourself which question brought up the most unexpected material, what you new insights on why you are writing this book. And where you are not listening to yourself completely.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Great Group for Creative Writers Opportunities

About a year ago, I joined a free Yahoo group called CRWROPPS--B (Creative Writers Opportunities List). Agents often encourage book writers to get their novel excerpts, short stories, poems, essays, articles published ahead of time (before submitting their entire manuscript) to help develop that "platform" and this e-list is a good resource for writing contests and journals looking for submissions.

You simply join to get regular emails about opportunities:

See more about platforms in the last post (scroll down to bottom of page).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Exercise of the Week for Book Writers

John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction, wrote, "We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images." Ask yourself, what's the primary image in my book so far? It may be an object (a favorite pen, jackknife, vase, wooden toy), part of the landscape (a river, cliff, apple orchard, path through the forest, side of a graffitied building), something worn by a person in your story (sunglasses, black leather jacket, tattoo). Spend 20 minutes writing everything you know about this image.

For more about The Art of Fiction, visit http://www.amazon.com/Art-Fiction-Notes-Craft-Writers/dp/0679734031

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Art of Persistence--Advice on Agents

A writing colleague just emailed me this wonderful site for information and advice on agents. Check it out for lively discussions, then post your comments below on my blog.

BookEnds, LLC — A Literary Agency: The Art of Persistence

Make a Good Map for Your Book-Writing Journey

Writing a book is a lot like taking a long trip down an unknown river. It's beautiful, exciting, and slightly dangerous--but entirely worth the effort. Especially if you have a good map.Maps are easy to create. I use the three questions below as a start. As you answer them, you'll begin to chart your particular book-writing journey.

Why do I want to write this book?
Why do I think a reader will want to read this book?
What is this book’s purpose in the world? What greater good or mission could it fulfill?

Why do these questions help you create your personal map for the book-writing process? Maps give confidence. They tell you where to go next if you get lost.

Answering these questions tells you about your reasons for making the trip. That'll sustain you later--during editing, rewriting, and revisioning your manuscript so it can be successfully published.

In my workshops, I've learned that if a writer considered why she wanted to write this particular book, and name the reasons on paper, she was much more likely to succeed.

What do your answers mean?
Here's what I've learned, working with many writers over many years:

1. If you can only write easily, at length, about why you
would be satisfied writing this book, you’ve ignored the
reader and the book itself—what it wants to say that’s
beyond your current knowledge. If the book-writing
process only satisfies you, I promise it’ll be similar to
journaling. And that’s not very publishable, except if you
are famous.

2. If you know your exact reader but you don’t include your
own wishes and needs as you write the book, it will
gravitate toward formula writing. I promise you it will be
hard to overcome the real work ahead because you may
not have the stamina to finish it or include the essential
“inner story” which requires you to show up on the page.

3. If you only write to expound on a strong conviction
without taking your reader into consideration, the book
will tend to sound preachy. The reader may not trust you,
may feel you’re trying to “sell” an idea. You must be
present on the page to deliver the sense that you’ve been
through this too, that you are invested in what you are
writing about. And if the writing satisfies only a
community who are already convinced, it's the same as
promotional writing.

When you first explore these questions, you may not have good answers to all of them. If you can’t answer the second and third question, your first assignment is to get out there and discover what’s in bookstores right now, what readers are reading, what topics are important. In your writer’s notebook (see below for more about this notebook), begin to jot down what means something to you that might also touch others.

If you’re missing a good answer for the first question, do some soul-searching. What are you afraid of revealing on the page? What scares you about putting your heart into a book?

Some writers, certainly, churn out book after book in a formula method, but usually they must have had one success—usually a big success—in order for that formula to work. For your first book, you need to invest yourself on several levels.

“As I worked on these questions, I got stumped on #2. I realized that I’d never considered a reader at all. I had no idea why anyone would want to read my book, but when I began thinking about this, it was a revelation.”
--Workshop attendee

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why in the world am I writing this book?!!

I once lived in Paris--the photo at right is the Eiffel Tower at night, all lit up for summer tourists. I learned the streets and shops and favorite places to get cheese and a baguette for picnics in the park.
My most important guide was Plan de Paris, a small red book with detailed maps. With these maps, I could navigate the city with ease. A no-brainer, perhaps, for a journey through a foreign country. But how many of us use maps for the journey of writing a book?
Maps are essential in book-writing. It's a process of mapping out a dream, a belief, a story, a theory. You're mapping it for yourself, first. Then for a reader.

And the most important question you need to ask yourself, to create this map for your book?

Why am I writing this?
Sounds unimportant, perhaps. But in my experience teaching over 2000 writers how to plan, write, and develop their books, it's become one of the most important questions. It helps you create a map because it gives you clarity on your own reasons for writing the book.

Books are long-term committments. Find out the reasons for the trip, before you begin to travel, and you'll have a great map to refer to if you get lost.

So, why are you writing this book? Some initial questions might be:
Is it for fun?
For the family legacy?
For money?
For credentials for your job?
To have a book to sell at your workshops or business?
Because you have an amazing story to tell—one that won’t let you alone?

And here are the most important questions to ask
Now you have begun to think about your deeper reasons for beginning this journey. It's time to home in on three aspects of the book-writing: self, reader, and the larger mission of your book.

Take a minute to consider the questions below.
Why do I want to write this book?
Why do I think a reader will want to read this book?
What is this book’s purpose (greater good or mission it could fulfill)?

Read posts below for more information about these three questions and what they mean to your book.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Right brain, left brain, which is the most creative brain for book writing?

When you go about your day, you use both sides of your brain. Perhaps your analytical, left brain balances your checkbook and navigates the road when you drive your car.

Your more random right brain might enjoy a painting, daydream a garden design, plan the flavors of a meal, or replay a conversation with a friend, trying to sense the meaning behind it. You’re listening to yourself, using all of yourself.

And just as you do this naturally during your every day, you must also listen fully to yourself as you write your book.

It’s not a new idea.

But it’s really not used consciously by most book writers.

I found that when I deliberately trained both sides of my creative self—the practical and the random, the editor and the creator—my book grew stronger and more able to touch a reader.

Then a writer passed along this link to a very cool article about the way we switch back and forth.

Let me know what you think! Especially if you try writing while watching the lady spin.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Exercise of the Week for Book Writers

E.L. Doctorow said, "Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon." Set a kitchen timer for 10 minutes and write from one of the five senses: smell, taste, touch (texture and temperature), sound, sight. Underline your favorite sentence from what you wrote, one that "evokes sensation." Can you add it to a page in your book draft?

More about Doctorow's books and background: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/writers/writer.asp?cid=702302

Thursday, May 8, 2008

My story--thirteen books in thirty years

I’ve written and published thirteen books in thirty years--novels, how-to books, memoirs, self-help books, and technical books. Each was a journey. There are so many benefits to being a published author:

* seeing your name on books at your local bookstore
* sharing your expertise with the world
* having a reader say, "This book changed my life!"
* telling your story
* creative self-expression

Everyone always asks me, How did your first books get published?
I'm a bit of an unusual case. Publishers came to me for my first three book contracts because I was an expert. I owned a natural foods gourmet cooking school. It was reviewed in USA Today.

There weren't many such schools in the early eighties. The first publisher called me up. She was interested in a book about my healthy cooking methods. I wrote it with a lot of help. The book, Healthy Cooking, had all my favorite tips and ideas and great recipes. People loved it. And so did the cooking professionals. To my great delight, it won second place, best cookbook of the year, in the health and diet category of the IACP/Julia Child Awards, the largest awards for food publications. It was also the publisher's best seller that year out of 30 books.

This success led to another book contract. . . and another
At the time, I didn’t ask myself why I wanted to write books. I was busy teaching and the books were a side project I was thrilled to do. Because the benefits were obvious: money and credentials. The books enhanced my career and helped pay my way for several years.

Then I got hooked on writing books!

I began writing other kinds of books (I co-authored Cholesterol Cures, published by Rodale Press, for example). Technical books were similar in format to food books—both were nonfiction, both expert-based. I became a good researcher and interviewer. I wrote about topics I learned about, from my unique research and perspective.

A big life change--and change in my book-writing
Then I had cancer, a business bankruptcy, and a divorce within a short period of time. Life changed!

I used my writing as therapy but I also realized I wanted to share my outlook on life (how to handle such changes and trauma) with a reading audience.

So I pitched a memoir/self-help book to a small publisher and got another book contract.
Switching genres--and a much harder book to write
This book was called How to Master Change in Your Life and it was about my many experiences with changes in my life--plus interviews and stories from people about fear of change, how we can befriend change, and how inner guidance helps the entire process.
Click here to see more about this book: How to Master Change in Your Life by Mary Carroll Moore

It was much harder to put together. I had no experience writing in this new genre. When I asked myself why I was writing this book, it was because the experiences I’d lived through were life-changing. I knew others were going through such experiences. I wanted to help.

I had all these stories, all these ideas. A writing friend suggested I try just writing these out, without worrying how to organize them. Even after ten years of book writing, with many published books behind me, I was still stymied by the book-writing process, but her suggestion freed me up from the more rigid outlines I’d used with the food and medical books. A memoir was less rigid, in essence, and I loved the flexibility.

Memoirs also demand much more of you, personally. I had survived many hardships and learned much about the miracle of spiritual community. I wanted to write about this in a book about my life. This genre requires a writer to show up on the page and reveal beliefs, thoughts, weaknesses, failures, victories. I liked all my previously published books, but I hadn’t been as involved in them. I was the expert, I had good information to share, but I didn’t need to be vulnerable on the page.

Doing my homework about the craft of book-writing
I began to speak with other writers who’d published memoirs. What did it take? Most didn’t know. Almost all of them told me the same thing: you sit down in front of the computer, you wait, and you hope for the best.

It sounded too hard. But the memoir idea persisted. Besides, I was hooked now. I liked seeing books on a bookstore shelf with my name on them. I wanted to write more books.

So I wrote. I wrote small snippets. I didn’t worry too much about how they would go together. I photocopied sections of my journal where I’d recorded something that seemed to relate to my book idea.

Two helpful books I discovered along the way
My method was improved when I came across a writing book called A Writer’s Time, by former UCLA creative writing teacher Kenneth Atchity (W.W. Norton and Co., 1995). Atchity called my snippets “islands.” He validated my idea of keeping these islands separate during the exploration of a book idea. Then, after a certain number of words (or islands) was written, structuring could begin.

My snippets were coming from both outer events I’d lived through and also the meaning of these events. I would come to call these the “outer story” of a book and the “inner story.” Soon I came across another writing book that confirmed my grass-roots idea: Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001). Gornick analyzed essays and talked about the important two sides to any good story, whether fiction or nonfiction—the situation or events (what I was calling the “outer story”) and the story underneath those events, their impact or effect or meaning (what I called the “inner story”).

If a writer doesn’t make room for both the outer and the inner world of their book, the book will not touch a reader in a satisfying way.

The story will not linger.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

What are the inner and outer story of your book?

I'm a painter, too (one of my still life paintings is to your left), and I remember my favorite painting teacher once saying this:

What's around the object in a painting is as important as the object itself.

Artists call this area around the object "negative space." Whenever I got stuck painting the object itself, I trained myself to look at the negative space and see if putting attention on that would bring the object into focus. It often did.

And this painting technique taught me a lot about how the inner story and the outer story work together as you're writing a book.

Snippets ("islands") let the inner story evolve organically
In the post above, I talked about Kenneth Atchity's book, A Writer's Time, and Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story. They gave me excellent ideas to improve my book-writing method. I became skilled at pacing myself, writing in snippets ("islands"), and--most of all--restraining my need to organize until I had exhausted the random side of my writing self.

This random side produces the inner story, the emotional juice, the creative leaps in literature. Just like the negative space in a painting, it usually isn't the thing a writer focuses on. Luckily, it comes out organically if you write in snippets.

You'll probably be most familiar with your book's outer story. It's the structure of your story (the framework, the building).

The inner story is the life lived inside the events. It's what we remember long after we finish a great book. So, you can see how necessary it is!

Learn to let the inner and outer story grow naturally
The outer story grows from obvious outer specifics--like plot, setting, characters, your prime theories and techniques, the conflict your book presents. Many writers are naturally strong in outer story. If you tell a good story (orally) or you find plot easy, you're an "outer story" writer.

People who mull over meaning, think about motive, consider psychological reasons for actions are often "inner story" writers.

Both are good, both are necessary. We all start from one of them as our strength. It depends on our temperament, our introversion or extroversion to the world. It depends on our way of approaching our writing.

So neither is more or less important. But they are essential to the reader--both of them.

Each has a specific question
I decided the outer story could best be answered by the question, What happened?

The inner story was best answered by the question, What’s the point?

The inner story is demonstrated (remember "show, don't tell"?) from the book's outer events or main topic. To be believable, it must emerge naturally, organically. Not be tacked on. I found it was a process. As I wrote, the inner story began to peak through--almost unconsciously. My best stories and books had this organic feel.

I found that a writer must discover the inner meaning of her own book as she writes it, to produce a compelling inner story. In a reader's mind, that makes a book worth lingering over.

Inner story isn't always easy, but it is very rewarding
As I worked on learning about the inner and outer story, I began to see patterns. Themes were emerging within the sequence of outer events. Patterns and echoes are delightful in literature. They bring out emotion. The inner story was showing itself in an organic way—and I realized it had emerged because I let myself create my book in snippets, accessing not just the linear writing self but the random one as well.

Both Atchity and Gornick had taught me something very valuable and now I had discovered another level of each concept: Atchity’s idea of writing in snippets, letting myself be random, had allowed many new possibilities to emerge. It also had organically developed the subtler aspects of my book (Gornick’s "story" of The Situation and the Story).

Without one, the other was much more difficult.

I saw how the inner story—the meaning, transformation, or discovery—is born of the process of risk, of showing up on the page.

What it meant for my writing
My last two published books, a novel and a self-help inspirational book, contain very developed inner and outer stories. Because I paid particular attention to developing both of these, the two books are my favorites of anything I've published.

Not to be immodest, but I think it's wonderful that they still bring me delight when I read them—and that odd (but not uncommon) experience of wondering: Did I write this?

And being delighted when I realize the answer is yes.

Writing a book--and the stamina it takes

You may already know this--but writing a book takes a lot of stamina.

Because unlike writing a story, poem, essay, or article, completing a book-length manuscript is like a long-term relationship. You and your book will share head and heart space for months, even years.

What books demand
Ever hear of "platform"? It's what today’s competitive publishing arena demands from book writers in any genre, especially new authors. Books are needing more upfront time--getting to know the book concept, planning and exploring that concept long before the first draft.

Too bad! But it's the reality of publishing now.

Few good books are written by someone just sitting down at the computer and letting it rip. (Unless they have already written ten books and know how to do it.)

What I love most--and why I have taught book-writing for so many years

My favorite experience, often a year or two after they took the class, is when one of my former students appears with a copy of their published book in hand. “Here,” the writer says, handing the book to me with an intensely satisfied look on their face. “Because of your class, I finally finished this. And it was just published.”

This can be your dream come true, too. But I've learned not everyone can do it. It takes work, belief, stamina to realize any dream, and especially it's true if you're trying to manifest a book.

Here's what to ask yourself, a kind of self-test to see if you have the stamina to write (and publish) a book:

1. Are you willing to spend actual time--regular time--on your
2. Do you feel passionate about your topic?
3. Are you willing to explore, not know, "dwell in the unformed"
as a writing friend calls it?
4. How are you about receiving feedback? After the initial
ohmygod, do you rally and renew your vision?
5. How are you at negotiating with friends, family, job--and
yourself--for the privacy and dream time you need to write a
6. Do you have support for your journey?

I hope this blog will provide a good map on your journey through the foreign territory of planning, writing, and developing your book. I hope the tips, tools, encouragement, and practical advice will give you the momentum and confidence you must have to finish your journey.

In the meantime, check out the exercise on the side of this page. Let me know how you like it.