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 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

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: