Friday, December 11, 2009

Why Bad Decisions Make Good Stories--A Cure for Writer's Block

Still life--it doesn't make for good stories. Bad decisions? They do.

A friend from Florida just emailed me a list of random thoughts, truisms to laugh at or shake your head over. Here's the one that grabbed me for this week's writing exercise: "Bad decisions make good stories." Funny, but really accurate. A good motto for writers.

Bad decisions are one of the only ways plot is furthered in memoir and fiction. If you're stuck in a rut, chances are your writing is staying too safe.

This week's discussion and exercise looks at a simple question. Why are you keeping bad decisions out of your book?

Staying Safe
A student in my classes complained about her writer's block. She wrote several chapters that just flowed out. Then, about chapter 5, she got stuck. Nothing happened--either on the page or with the pen. I suggested she look at the bad decisions in her chapters. Try to find something that made everyone uneasy or got them into trouble.

What you're after here are the qualities of risk. What does the edge feel like? What does it feel like to "up the stakes" in your writing?

This writer was working on her storyboard (see post two weeks ago) so she went back to it. As she reviewed the plot points, she realized nothing big had happened. She was saving the big stuff for later. No bad decisions yet, so very little momentum. Very little energy to propel the plot.

I asked her why not. As she explained, I saw that this writer is a very nice person. She believes in a world where most people are good at heart. She just couldn't see getting her characters in trouble, painting them as anything but good people too.

I like her, who wouldn't? And I also believe in that kind of world. But not on paper. Not in fiction or memoir, especially if you want to publish today.

I'm not suggesting you have to make murder and mayhem. Bad decisions can just be telling a white lie, and watching the consequences unfold. I asked this writer if she'd ever told a white lie, and she said, "Of course, who hasn't?"

"Find your bad decisions," I suggested. "List them, then transport one into your story."

Finding Bad Decisions--This Week's Writing Exercise
We've all made bad decisions. We've been on the receiving end of other people's, too. They are hard to forget, no matter how hard we try. Think of what your "story" was after the decision. It probably had drama, movement, energy, and consequences. That's what you're after in your writing.

This week write about one really bad decision you made in your life. Write about it in all its glory. I like to set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, to limit the agony. Maybe you're far enough away to not feel the pain of it again, but if you do feel some embarrassment or unease as you write, good thing--because it'll make the writing that much more emotionally grabbing for a reader.

Now look at your book draft. Where are the bad decisions? If you don't have many, make a list of 10 things your character would never do. (Use this equally for memoir or fiction.) Now write one scene, one moment, using one item on the list--imagining it happening.

See if this provides momentum. Gets you unstuck. Out of that "still life."

PS We'll carry this one step further next week, with an update on storyboards. I've been learning a lot as I work on my novel's sequel, and I'm feeling far from stuck now--hooray!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Working with Unsavory Characters

A reader recently posted this excellent question: "I have many stories in which the characters are not easily appreciated. I am sure many of my stories will be filled with hints of resentment, bitterness and disdain. Many players acted badly, and hurt the lives of many people. I guess forgiveness is due, but the facts are the facts. How do I deal with that?"

Another reader wrote me the same week, very disappointed in the ending of a popular thriller which let the bad guys triumph. Why'd the author do that? he wondered. Such a let down, after a great story.

So here we have the same dilemma, from both sides.

What do you do, as a writer, when one or more of your characters is not very likeable (at best) or downright horrible (at worst)? You'll be spending time with this person. A negative character isn't like a downward turn of plot. Plot changes. People often do, but they don't always, especially if their nastiness is part of who they are.

And how does a negative character affect a reader? Will they stop following your story, or will they read to the end and be so disgusted, they won't want to recommend your book to anyone?

An Example from Tobias Wolff
Tobias Wolff wrote a fabulous short story called "Bullet in the Brain." I teach this story in one of my one-day workshops because it's complex, amazing, and gives writers so much information on working with unsavory characters.

Wolff presents a character, Anders, who is thoroughly despicable. So much so that he gets himself killed halfway through the story. But the way Wolff continues the story, revealing Anders beneath the anger, boredom, and frustration that makes him a really bad guy, is brilliant.

We end the story actually feeling the depths of humanness, even in this miserable person. How is this possible? How does the process work, for the writer, while he or she is putting the story together?

My Challenge with Melvin
Melvin Fisher is the main male character in my novel Qualities of Light. He's the first character that "came" to me, nine years ago, and was the subject for a short story published many years before the novel. Melvin was a pest; he didn't let me stop writing about him, even though I grew to really dislike him.

He's everything you don't want in a friend or relative: self-absorbed, terrifically talented but pretty mean-spirited about it, short with loved ones, a betrayer at his worst. A painter, who hasn't actually had affairs, Melvin falls in love with his models and does everything but sleep with them. Somehow he believes this is OK, justified by his need to "absorb beauty."

Bleech. My writing groups, three of them over the years Melvin has haunted me, agree. The first one actually told me they really didn't want to hear more Melvin scenes until he got nicer.

So what's a writer to do?

I would've dumped Melvin like a bad lunch date if he hadn't presented some interesting writerly problems for me. I needed to learn how to make him less evil. In other words, if my basic belief in life and in writing is that human beings have many sides, not just bad or good, where was Melvin's compassion, beauty, shades of gray? Could I show him as vulnerable, learning and growing? Who in my story would help me do this?

It turned out to be Molly, his teenage daughter. She saves the entire family in Qualities of Light, but mostly she saves her dad. From himself.

One reader told me, "I loved your book, and by the end I even got to like Melvin." That was my biggest complement.

This Week's Exercise: Write a "Good" Bad Character
Find someone bad in your story, be it a real person or a fictional one, and interview them on paper. Pretend you are a very skilled interviewer who knows how to get to the truth about someone. First ask them what bad stuff they've done. Get them to be specific--who have they cheated, lied to, stolen from, or worse? Then begin asking them about good stuff they've done--even small.

Finally ask your character about their missed chances, their longings, what they wanted from life but never got. Go beneath their bitterness if you can, into the innocence they once had.

If you can, get ahold of "Bullet in the Brain" (search for it online, or better, get ahold of the short-story collection--you'll love Wolff's other stories too). Read it as a writer, asking yourself how Tobias Wolff allows us to see a bad character in a good light.

The ending lines are particularly important, so pay attention, but don't read ahead. It's a great surprise.

Monday, December 7, 2009

What Makes Strong Writing? Something to Think about as You Work on Your Book

How does a book writer create writing that pulls a reader in, that engages us so well, we can't stop reading? A favorite nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, spoke about this in the preface to his book What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures.

Gladwell's topics are potentially dry. I love his ability to present his material in an amazingly engaging way.

"Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade," he said. "It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be."

Each book writer has their topic, the thing they must write about. Some write about flowers, some write about addictions. No matter your topic, the trick is to make it engaging. It's harder than it sounds. The key is something called "container."

On Sunday I taught a one-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis called "Self-Editing for Book Writers." We spent all day on this question: How does a book writer move from the writer's view to the reader's? How do we get the reader engaged in our work? It usually happens in the crafting stage, or editing stage. In the class, I guide writers through a series of exercises that let them move to the reader's chair, instead of the writer's.

This is the first step to producing the engaging writing that Gladwell is talking about.

Tough Material, Great Container
In the class, we read an essay by Susan J. Miller, excerpted from her book Never Let Me Down. Miller's father was a well-respected jazz musician who hung out with the likes of George Handy and Stan Getz. But he was also a heroin addict, and her life was terribly affected by this. Her memoir is heart-breaking.

Some of the class members were really repulsed by the essay. Some couldn't even finish it. Others loved it. No one was nuetral. We had a lively debate, trying to understand why the essay affected us so much.

In the end, we concluded it was because of her extraordinary "container," the living environment of her story.

Container Equals Emotion
This is the key to engaging writing. Container, the enviroment of your book's story, delivers more emotion than plot, characters, topic, structure, or all of these combined.

"It's counter-intuitive," said one class member. You would think that good plot, exciting action, would create emotional response.

Good plot creates momentum. It drives the story forward. Container creates emotional response. It's what makes us feel hit in the gut by a story's tender moment or feel our hearts racing with anticipation by a twist. Without container, plot is just a series of events, like a newspaper report.

Why else would I, as a reader, become so engaged in the healing of a crime-ridden neighborhood, the comeback of Hush Puppy Shoes, and other examples from Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point? I don't care about Hush Puppies. Really. But I did when he talked about them. Same with Susan Miller's work. Heroin addiction is not on my list of fun things to read about. But I was totally engrossed by her tale.

Because both Gladwell and Miller are masters of writing container.

How Is Container Presented?
Container is presented in writing in several ways. Here are a few from just one paragraph of Miller's essay:

1. physical setting (being on a speeding subway train, watching the night flash by outside the grimy windows)
2. use of the five senses (screech of train wheels, whisper of her father's voice against her ear)
3. physical sensations (the rocking of a train causing nausea, felt in the body)
4. word choice ("screech" and "whisper" echo the sounds of jazz being played--Miller's overall container for the essay)
5. paragraph length and flow (a series of clauses, separated by commas, giving the impression of movement and jerkiness while on the subway train)

The effect of this paragraph--one where her father takes her on a train ride then gleefully whispers that he just dropped acid--is one of terror. A young girl is aware that her father might at any moment decide the train car is a tomb and try to jump off. What can she do? Not much. She just has to ride out the ride.

It's an astonishing container.

This Week's Exercise
Choose a dead spot in your writing--a paragraph or a page. Insert one of the above tools to increase container. See if you can let go of your preferences as a writer and be willing to see your work from the reader's view. Does more emotion come through?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A New Way to Do a Storyboard for Your Book

I really dislike storyboards. They tell me what I don't want to know--where I have too much or too little, where I've written on track or on a tangent. Where my book isn't yet working well.

A writer needs to know placement in time and space--where things will be, in her book. It's not just enough to flow out the words. You need to have a sequence that readers can follow. Storyboards provide this. They are used a lot in publishing and the film industry. Imagine a giant blank cartoon--a row of empty boxes lined up on a page or wall or posterboard. You insert ideas, then you move the boxes around until the sequence of ideas equals a reasonable flow for your book.

What you learn: All the things I grumbled about above. What is working, yes. Also what is not working. It's not uncommon to emerge from a storyboarding session with many blank boxes. Stuff you know you need to write, transition chapters or sections. Research still to do. It's also not uncommon to feel discouraged. All that writing done, but it's not yet a book. Sigh.

Why even bother? Storyboards are the absolute best way I've found to see if I have a working book, to force myself to structure the flow of ideas, to see what's left. I usually get kind of squirrely (imagine a squirrel twitching in agitation) when I have written too much to really see my book anymore. When I get squirrely, I know it's time to storyboard.

After the Meltdown, Even though I Really Hate Doing It...
If you read my pre-Thanksgiving post below, you know I had a nice little meltdown after my recent book tour, when I got back home and tried to storyboard my next novel, the sequel to Qualities of Light.

It just didn't track--the new book's flow, that is. Too many dramas, too many characters, not enough cohesion. So I rescued myself from myself by putting the storyboard aside and making a character plot chart for each of the three main players. After screaming under the covers for a while.

That plot chart was fun. It reminded me how much I love Molly and Zoe and Kate and Anna and Sammy and even bad-tempered Melvin, my continuing characters. From the plot chart, I began to approach storyboarding again.

I did it a new way this time. I went to Staples and bought a foam core posterboard, clean and white. And three colors of Post-It notes. My main players are Molly, Kate, and Melvin. A different color for each. Using my plot chart, I wrote Post-It notes for the beginning and ending boxes. The plot chart had told me where I want each of these three characters to begin their story and where I want them to end. Then I began to imagine what could go in the other boxes.

This was very different from past approaches to storyboarding. I pretended I hadn't written anything (I've written about 100,000 words already) and let myself take the three stories wherever I wanted. New ideas came through--better ones than I'd already written scenes for.

When they were laid out on the storyboard in their rows of boxes, I saw very nice connections between the three characters' individual plots, as well.

Then, Back to the Manuscript
I liked what I created. But there were 100,000 words waiting to be used, if possible, and I'm too economical to toss everything and start over. So my next step was printing out my manuscript pages, in all their rough and raw glory.

So many errors, I winced when I read it over. So I tried not to. I just scanned each chapter, each island, each section. I thought about where it might be placed on the new storyboard.

60 percent of the pages made it. They fit nicely, they filled in blanks. Some will be heavily reworked or repositioned in time. But I can do that now; I know what goal I'm shooting for.

The rest? They go into my "extras.doc" file.

I created the extras.doc file when I was working on Qualities of Light. The extras file was about 30,000 words at its peak, but almost all of the pages got used in Qualities of Light's revision. Sometimes an idea or setting, only. But little was wasted.

My new storyboard is complete. I finally have a working map for my next book.

This Week's Writing Exercise

This week, get yourself to an office supply store. Buy a posterboard and some Post-It notes. Go home, take a deep breath, and try creating two boxes on a storyboard: just the opening and ending moments of your book.

First ask yourself: Where will you begin? What moment do you see launching your reader into your topic or story? Write a note about this on a Post-It and place it on the storyboard.

Then, what moment ends your book? Where would you like the reader to be at the last page--with what new understanding, hunger, idea or feeling? Write a note about this too.

If you get brave, if you get enthused--as I did--see how many of the other boxes you can fill.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Next Week--Join Me for a Wonderful Book-Structuring Workshop

I'll be at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis next weekend, December 4-5, teaching my two-day book-structuring workshop. Please join me! The workshop is almost full but a few spots remain. You'll get a real workout with your book idea, taking it from tag line (focus statement) to islands to storyboarding to working plan for finishing it.

For more information or to register, call the Loft at 612-379-8999 or visit and search for "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book."

Hope to see you there!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Finding Your Story's Pathways--The Art of Rethinking What Your Book Is About

Today I had plenty of creative energy, so I decided to tackle a big project: storyboarding my new novel. It's the sequel to Qualities of Light, which was published this fall. I've been working on this sequel for five years and I love the story, but it's gotten complicated. Three characters, three separate plot lines. In desperate need of a storyboard.

I've taken this new book through NaNoWriMo twice, so I have a decent first draft. I just haven't tested the draft for logical flow. Which is the purpose of a storyboard.

So I set about it. Got tea, a piece of homemade pie, and closed the door to my little office. Began to note the main points for each chapter and the islands (separate dramatic scenes) within each chapter. Arc them on a flow chart as a series of cartoon boxes. Test their track.

They didn't. Track, that is. Boring, boring, boring.

The critic got real happy. "You're a one-novel author," it shouted. "Yes, your current book is getting lots of great reviews and people are loving it. But that's it, baby. Nothing more to come."

After a pretty discouraging two hours fighting my storyboard and this ruthless inner voice, I went back to bed. Screaming under the covers does help, especially when someone who cares a lot about you is listening and can give good advice.

Such as, "What story are you really wanting to tell? The one you have sketched out so far?"

No. Not really.

"Then how do you rethink it?"

I talked it through. I went through each character's main plot points, or story arc, and let the words out into the air. As I spoke them, I could hear the strengths--there were some!--and the flaws. "What does she really want?" I answered that question. "What about this idea?" It was a good one. Suddenly I had to run back downstairs and write it all down.

The result wasn't a revamped storyboard--that will come later. It was a character plot chart. One for each of the three people I'm tracking. As I wrote down their initial longing (that opens the story), their main challenges (that provide meat for the story), their crises (that peak toward the end), and the results, I saw the overlaps. I realized I needed to do three separate storyboards, one for each of these characters. Then weave them together.

Whew. Saved from my own self. The critic stood back, nodded, said, "Maybe you do have another book in you, after all."

This Week's Exercise--for Novelists and Memoirists Make a plot chart for each of your main characters. Keep their passageways separate until you get each uniquely on paper. Then place them side by side and see where there's overlap.

If you feel extremely brave after this, try storyboarding what you learn.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ever Seen Your Name in Lights? I Just Did!

When I did my book signing last week at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, a friend said, "Check out the marquee. Your name is in lights." Luckily, someone had a camera. My mother will never believe this otherwise. It was a first, there for all the rush-hour traffic on Washington Avenue to see.

Book tours are strange experiences. I've been very lucky on this one. Minneapolis's book signing drew 90 people, and they listened to my 20 minute reading then asked such good questions about writing, I wanted to stay and talk with them all night. I've been on book tour events where only a few people showed up, and I've spoken to other authors who've experienced the same thing. So thank you, if you came to listen and support a fellow writer. It's a solitary profession and we need all the support we can get.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Three Aspects that Make Writing Healing--And Create Good Books

This past weekend I taught my trio of one-day workshops at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. One of them, the most difficult to teach and the most rewarding for me, is called "Writing through Healing, Healing through Writing."

Twenty-eight writers of all skill levels, genres, and ages gathered in one of the Loft's beautiful classrooms for a day. We explored what made our writing go deep enough to be healing--for us as well as for a reader.

I've taught the class for about ten years, using ever-growing research about the healing effects of certain types of writing. James Pennebaker, from the U of Texas, Austin, launched my interest in this topic. He clued me into the amazing medical documentation on creative writing's benefit in reducing physical illness and emotional stress.

One of my favorite books on this subject is Louise De Salvo's Writing as a Way of Healing. De Salvo talks about Pennebaker's research and how important it is that writers use all three of the elements that make writing actually heal. I've journaled for years and was very interested in hearing that venting into my journal, for instance, doesn't have healing effects on me. It's good for processing, not healing.

To heal us and touch the reader, writing must have:

1. specific details (senses-rich images, rather than concepts)
2. how the writer or narrator felt about the event when it happened
3. how the writer or narrator feels about the event now

De Salvo cites the research of Pennebaker and others, noting that it is the combination of these three elements that makes writing a healing process. Not one alone, not even two.

In my workshop this weekend, writers asked themselves which of these three aspects they naturally favored. A person who writes about thoughts and feelings will use doorways #2 or #3 to enter her story--reflective, conceptual writing. The third aspect, specific image-rich detail, is the missing element. When it's added to the piece of writing, the magic happens. The writing becomes healing. Same with a writer who lists events and specific details with no trouble. But the missing element is the feeling, the "what does this mean to me?" analysis of the experience. Some writers believe that the events should speak for themselves. But there needs to be some reflective writing to make it mean something to both writer and reader.

Why don't writers naturally incorporate all three aspects, giving themselves a healing boost from their own art?

Because it causes them to re-experience strong events, re-feel the strong feelings.

I wrote many times about my experience with cancer. I could reflect for pages on my feelings and thoughts about what happened. But it wasn't until I began to add the specific details--describe the room and the chair where I had chemotherapy, tell about the movie I went to each week as a treat to keep myself from throwing up too much, talk on the page about what it looked like when I lost my eyebrows--did I begin to heal.

This Week's Exercise
List 10 turning points in your life, events or moments when you experienced a big change. Pick one. Set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes. Write about it as it comes, then read it over. Ask yourself which of these three doorways did you go through? See if you can fill in the missing aspects. Does it make the writing more healing for you?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Beginning and Ending Chapters--Bookends You Can Work on First

My weekly book-writing classes at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center are wrapping up their six-week fall session this month. We're reviewing what we've learned about first and last chapters. In my teaching, I've learned these are essential signposts, bookends to keep a writer going forward with a book project.

Many writers start with outlines. An outline seems the best way to manage a huge project like a book. Outlines stall me. I use an outline, like I use notes cards and a writing notebook, but outlines can't form the basic structure of my book. It becomes too linear, too predictable. If it doesn't surprise me, it won't surprise the reader.

I use islands to start a book. Kenneth Atchity (author of A Writer's Time) introduced me to the concept of "islands," although Natalie Goldberg and others use them too. Islands are nonsequential units of writing, dramatic moments in fiction or memoir, teaching moments in nonfiction.

I begin my book in islands, not worrying how they're going to link up. I just let myself write freely.

Freedom's great. But have you ever noticed what happens when there's too much freedom? Islands become hard to organize. The writer starts to lose perspective on her project. I use another tool, storyboarding, to help this. But even more effective is the exercise of first and last chapters.

Your First Chapter Must Have . . .
In our summer session, my writing classes worked on their first chapters. I asked them to consider these "must haves" in a first chapter:

1. Introduction of main players (narrator, others) via anecdote
2. Introduction of main dilemma or conflict (fiction and memoir) or main questions or need (nonfiction) that the book will answer
3. Placing the reader in a relevant container (physical and emotional and cultural setting) that will echo throughout the book

The goal of the first chapter is just to create a tension cord, tight enough to pull the reader into the second, third, fourth chapters, and so on to the end. You don't give everything away yet. But you create a triggering event that triggers the reason for the rest of the book. You create an engaging place and time for the story you're going to tell--even nonfiction books must do this via their opening anecdotes.

We workshopped (shared with discussion) our chapter drafts and crafted them during the summer session. I saw huge improvement in everyone's writing--it was as if the focus on a small part of the book, one essential chapter, helped the writers see strengths and weaknesses in their overall writing.

By fall we were ready for the last chapter. Even though nothing in the middle had been written yet.

Your Last Chapter Must Have . . .
Ending chapters are not where everything gets wrapped up neatly. In fact, you must leave the reader with some hunger, some unresolved emotion, some longing to go back and read your book again. That way they will think about the story for days, talk about it with their friends. Lining up all the ducks is satisfying for you, boring for the reader.

This isn't to say that you can leave large sections or questions unanswered. If you're writing a mystery, you need to solve it. But perhaps your memoir isn't going to reveal a happily-ever-after. That's just fine. Leave with a call to action or a relevance to the reader's life. Make them think and feel a lot, and you have a good last chapter.

What else makes a good last chapter? Not introducing new dilemmas, or main conflicts. It's too late. The reader will go, "Where'd that come from?" You can hint at one, if you're writing a sequel. But main dilemma is rarely wrapped in the ending chapter. More often you need to finish tying dilemma threads in the next-to-last (penultimate) chapter.

What really needs attention in the last chapter are the main relationships. How did the narrator change? How did the method you're teaching shift your way of approaching life? How did the character realize something? Show us how the primary players changed, how something new was realized or achieved or lost. Demonstrate a new state of being and you'll have the reader hooked, hungry, and happy.

This Week's Exercise
Spend time with your first chapter, your last chapter, in whatever shape they might be. Craft them if you haven't already--brainstorm possible beginnings, possible endings. Then, using the notes above as a checklist, analyze the chapter drafts for what's missing and what's too much.

Any time you spend on your bookend chapters will teach you a lot about your writing in general.

And if you live near the Twin Cities, consider joining me for a writing workshop on this subject. It'll be on Thursday, November 5, 4-5:30 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center. The workshop is called "Container, Dilemma, and Players: Three Essential Elements for Making Your Writing Come Alive," and we go into more depth and try writing exercises for these important chapter elements.

Registration is limited. For more information or to sign up, go to and search for the workshop title.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Book Signing--Sunday, November 1, 2:00 p.m. at Hickory Stick Bookshop, Washington Depot, CT, for directions

Please join me!

Pushing vs Resting--Why We Need Both Will and Vision to Complete a Book

Today I am sitting still. I'm visioning, listening, waiting. It's the opposite pace of these last few months, when my novel Qualities of Light was released into the world. When a book gets born, there's nonstop activity.

Publicity, the book tour, interviews, good reviews if you're lucky. I've been deep in all of this. Today is different.

Outside my window are sunlit fields and the fiercely gold last-ditch efforts of three fading maple trees. Inside, a vase of flowers is catching the light. I haven't noticed this beauty lately, because of the pushing, the pace, the will needed to move my project out into the world. Like birthing, it takes that push. It's essential.

Today I am resting from the pushing, to let bigger visions filter in and bring their welcome creativity and renewal.

Balance of Visioning and Will
Visioning and will balance each other in book writing like two ends of a seesaw. If you don't have an initial vision for a book, you really don't create something that goes deep enough to touch readers, make them tell their friends and family and writing group about your writing, even change lives if you're lucky. Visions change as the book evolves. For Qualities of Light, I started with a vision of unexpected romance. As it evolved, as more characters got developed, the vision changed into healing of a family. Both stories made it into the final book. I like to think the pauses, the visioning I did, helped them weave together into a whole.

It's hard to book time for visioning. The sequel to Qualities of Light is cooking. It needs the visioning help to take it to the next step--I have a solid draft, some edited sections, but not a sense of the whole picture. While I'm working on my publicity, I can't seem to slow down enough to vision. I have to book a visioning day.

Today, the end of October in peak leaf-changing New England, it feels like a cycle shifting, a perfect time to vision. New possibilities, the season changing. Ideas are starting to come, faint pictures that will make a wholeness for this next book. I am committed to taking notes today.
I enjoy the golden trees, the flowers indoors. The pushing mind empties, the attention is freed up.

When You Know You Need Visioning Time
I usually don't accept the need for visioning time until I'm maxed. Yesterday it hit me as a wave of sheer exhaustion: I needed visioning time like oxygen. I'm very happy about all that's happened but the pushing it's required has stressed me way beyond my comfort zone. I'm grateful for the cheers and congratulations, but I'm an introvert (like many writers) and it wears me out after a while. I'm really excited about my booksigning this weekend, November 1, in Washington Depot, Connecticut, and my booksigning Thursday, November 5, at the Loft in Minneapolis. I'm really thrilled with the reviews coming out, the buzz happening. Releasing a book is the realization of a dream: wonderful, joyous, overwhelming. But it needs the balance of visioning. Otherwise we lose sight of why we're doing it. Don't we.

I was driving back from teaching a writing class when things reached critical mass. The cell phone rang, I couldn't locate my headset in time, and for some reason this felt like the last straw. I was on the very rainy Saw Mill Parkway, a twisty highway in western New York, and Chris Pureka was on the radio. Her melancholy voice perfectly reflected the rainy fall day. I felt myself let go inside. Let the call go to voice mail. Let myself just listen and drive, sink into the slow motion.

Then it happened. I suddenly got a picture, a new idea, a wholeness. As my pushing self let go of all the efforts, creative ideas came fast. Ideas to solve some dilemmas in my next novel, things I'd been struggling with.

Planning for Visioning
Take advantage of the change of seasons to set up a visioning time for your writing project this week. Maybe you've noticed the difficulty in talking yourself into this need--and the effect of dried up writing that comes when you don't have an overview of your project? And maybe you've noticed the serendipity that comes through, the originality, when you let yourself stop pushing and start visioning?

This week's exercise: Take your solo self and your writing notebook someplace for an hour, an afternoon, a morning or a day. Let yourself look at changing leaves or mountains or the ocean. Sketch, doodle, or write what comes. Take notes. Maybe you'll get the overview of vision, worth gold to the book writer.

Also: Write down what you'd really like from the project you're working on. What vision do you have for it? Why are you doing it, really?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Five Things You'd Never, Ever Do for Yourself

One of my favorite writing exercises is to list five things I'd never do, or I'd never make a character do, then write a scene imagining that very thing happening. It's an edgy exercise. But it always gets me out of a slump.

This past week, I did something on my list--stand in front of about 70 people and read from my new novel. The novel is edgy, and I'm always aware that the subject matter might be seen as, to quote my wonderful mother, "not my cup of tea." But it was what I felt compelled to write. I'm proud I pushed past my fears, that I did something that scared me. Because the results were so very worth it.

The picture above was taken by photographer Bruce Fuller ( see his amazing work at If you look closely, you'll notice I'm not fainting or stumbling over my words, but really having a pretty good time. You'll see people listening and not walking out in boredom or disgust (a common fear of authors at readings). It's a SRO crowd (the empty seat was even taken).

Most important to me, this photograph captures a moment where I was facing my fear and doing what was in my heart.

This week's exercise is about pushing past your limits and fears. Want to try it?

This Week's Exercise
Make a list of five of the most frightening or impossible things you can think of doing to further your creativity, your book, your writing in general. Buy an expensive pen or laptop you want? Take a workshop you can't imagine being brave enough to try? Spend a weekend at a writing retreat to get peace at last?

You can also try this with your character, especially a stubborn character who refuses to evolve. What five things would this person never, ever do? Have them do one.

Warning label: Results of this exercise might feel astonishing, freeing, and joyous. The process might make you tremble before it helps you fly.

But look at me, in the photo. I'm actually having a blast. No problem that I couldn't sleep the night before, worrying about every little thing. It was worth it. And afterward, I slept like a baby. Very satisfied that I'd tried something that a few years ago I would never, ever do.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Creative People Have Two Jobs

In a roundabout way, I learned of a new book on creativity: Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod. Then I learned of some fascinating notes on the book at Derek Sivers's website.

Sivers is no slouch when it comes to creativity--he knows whereof he speaks, having created the awesome that helped so many independent musicians stay independent.

One of Ignore Everybody's main points is that most creative people have two jobs. Ouch, my friends say. Can't I make a living at what I love?

Well, yes, if you really really want to. That means (1) amazing luck, (2) incredible hard work, and (3) sometimes years of not earning enough to rent a teepee. I've watched so many writers quit their day jobs when The Book Idea comes along. I've watched them suffer with the pressure of trying to write to make that six figure advance, when they never wrote a word before. Better to take that pressure off your creativity, not flatiron your book into being. Books don't like that.

You may not like this post this week. You may be a worthy dreamer who hates your cubicle life and wants to break out into the wealthy world of published authors. Most of us aren't. We're midlist, which means our books sell OK but not enough to pay all the bills. The most I ever earned from royalties in a year was about $30,000. I loved my book which earned that, but it was written without the pressure to earn big bucks.

I was able to, because of my day job, stay creative. That's the point, isn't it? How to stay creative in a world that doesn't really like it.

That's why MacLeod's book is so timely.

This Week's Writing Exercise
This week's exercise is pretty simple. Read the book review for Ignore Everybody on Derek Siver's site then write your own list of what it takes for YOU to stay creative.

Is it about ignoring everybody?
Is it about paying attention to a few trusted people?
Is it about a room of your own, a la Virginia Woolf, or a kitchen table a la J.K. Rowling, or a great Internet cafe that keeps you bubbling with stolen dialogue lines?

Enjoy making your list. Let it simmer all week.

Responding to What's Out There--Writing Letters to the Editor

In my novel, Qualities of Light, there's a triangle of love interests. Boy likes girl, girl kind of likes boy, girl falls in love with another girl. Not so unusual these days. To make matters even more tangled (a key element of novels), the love affair begins during a family tragedy, an accident that causes the girl's young brother to fall into a coma. The accident, of course, is caused by the girl. Or so she believes. And her belief causes the main dilemma of the story.

Considering the questions exercise from last week, I was intrigued by this one, and it became the pivot for my book: Is love something you can expect, something you can delight in, when you are in deep trouble? When you have almost caused someone you love to die?

My novel has several layers of these kinds of questions. I enjoyed not knowing the answers, exploring the topics.

One topic that fascinates me is how gay or coming-out teenagers cope with their lives. So when a colleague pointed me toward an amazing article in last Sunday's New York Times magazine, I had to respond.

I decided to write a letter to the editor. My experience sparked an idea for the writing exercise this week.

Writing Your Passion
The article was called "Coming Out in Middle School" and author Benoit Denizet-Lewis interviewed some very interesting teens who did this and had various experiences. Molly, my heroine, struggles with the same issues real-life gay and straight teens face--acceptance and rejection, self-identity, the beauty of falling overwhelming in love at last. In writing the book, the struggles of my heroine and other kids like her became my passion. So I wanted to send a passionate response to this wonderful writer, Benoit Denizet-Lewis.

Letters to the editor are a chance for low-risk passion statements. They may never get published, of course, but they're a chance for you, the book writer, to get your ideas, thoughts, and words to readers who might not otherwise touch them.

My letter isn't a model of great Letters to the Editor, but here it is:

Dear Editor,
"Coming Out in Middle School" by Benoit Denizet-Lewis spoke eloquently of the challenges teens and pre-teens face when they discover they are gay. Finally our society offers support for GLBTQ youth, the necessary emotional shelter they need as they come to terms with who they are. I especially enjoyed reading the discussion of how old youth are when this awareness happens--much younger now, and thankfully much more supported.

However, the author did not cover a huge and essential aspect of teens coming out: What happens when a teen finds out they are gay because of a sudden love interest? I explore this topic in my new young-adult novel, Qualities of Light (October 2009, Spinsters Ink). Perhaps the teen has always dated boys and suddenly falls in love with a girl. What happens when the teen's friends, who are heterosexual, make fun of the new pairing? Is it safe to tell parents, who may not support the sudden change?

Unlike Denizet-Lewis's subjects, these teens may not know how to make the transition. When researching for my novel, I found few books treated this subject, few served as literary mentors for teens falling in love with their best friends, as my heroine Molly does. A vastly different experience than the gradual coming out of the profiled teens in Denizet-Lewis's excellent article.

It's timely that this article comes out at such a ground-breaking moment in our history, when states are legalizing gay marriage and accepting that love is love. What we need is more literary models for teens who experience the sudden awakening of the heart and wonder how to reorient their lives to its truth.

Mary Carroll Moore

Stand Up in Print--A Way to Practice Your Book-Writing Passion
Do you feel it's important to stand up for something in print, be heard--before your book sees its readers? Find an article to praise and comment on. Editors of publications like both. They work hard to find good material and they love it when readers notice that.

Scan your local newspaper or a monthly magazine this week and find something that connects with your book topic. Craft a response. Mention your book (in progress, if that's true). Send it off. See what happens.

PS Most Letters to the Editor can be sent by email nowadays. Just follow the guidelines--they usually need your name, address, and phone, although the last two items are usually not printed.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Power of Unanswered Questions

As someone who loves it when the ducks are lined up, I used to hate unanswered questions. Problems I couldn't solve, dilemmas unresolved, drove me nuts. I worked hard at applying solutions to every problem.

I felt great when the issue got fixed. I tallied up answers like gold.

Then I began writing books. Books are large, unweildy events, worse than organizing a family wedding. Hard to predict what will happen. Hard to plan entirely. Full of unresolved problems and big questions that may not get solved until the final draft. My first books were nightmares, partly because of my need to solve every problem right away. Luckily, back in the olden days when I began publishing, I worked with patient editors who taught me the power of the unanswered question.

This may not be your issue--at all! But if it is, read on.

Love the Questions Themselves
Rainier Maria Rilke, the German writer responsible for the beautiful volume Letters To A Young Poet, said, "Have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them."

Rilke's point was that hanging around with questions leads to the best answers. You need time to live your way to the answers. There's real gold in the questions themselves because they open up the creative self.

I've often asked my book-writing classes to begin a list of questions about their books-in-progress. Add to the list, one question daily, and let yourself muse and wonder about what the answer could possibly be. Once I became patient enough to try this myself, I saw great improvement in my writing. It was as if a creative faucet got turned on.

I wasn't just working my problems to find solutions; I was creating something new. My random, creative, wondering and wandering writer inside was excited.

Does Unanswered Equal More Creative?

Why are unanswered questions so helpful for book writers? Why do we need NOT to know everything before we begin our writing process?

Theme, subtext, and inner story all emerge from the random, creative side, not the linear left brain of the writer. You can't get good theme by going after it directly. It bubbles up. It surprises you. A writing mentor once told me: "If it doesn't surprise you, it won't surprise the reader." You'll have a too-predictable plan, leading to an unoriginal and uninspired book.

This week, make a list of unanswered questions. Things that are worrying you about your outline or theory, plot or characters, theme or beginning or ending. Let the list simmer. Let the questions become part of your breathing and living each day. When you get the bubbling up of a possible creative idea that addresses your question, listen and take notes.

Your muse is talking.

PS This exercise isn't just limited to writing. I've used it to create answers to tangles with family and friends, health issues, everything under the sun. It's fun, creative, and it works.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

So Your Book Is Finally Written and Published--How Do You Launch It?

If you're in the very lucky position to have (1) finished writing your book, and (2) sold your manuscript to a publisher, you'll soon be facing an exciting question:
How do I want to launch my book?

You're about to be on stage--and that's a good thing. Long ago, publishers did this work and writers stayed behind the scenes, but readers of this blog who are savvy to the changes in the book publishing industry know that publishers no longer launch a book for you, unless you're a proven best-seller. You do your own singing. Often there's very little publicity budget once your book is published, and most publishers depend on writers to do the legwork, find the reviewers, and set up their own book events to help readers find out about their books. You can't be shy now--you have to believe in your book enough to design, dream, and deliver a successful launch.

I can hear those trigger fingers moving, but before you click away from this post ("I am nowhere near launching anything!"), read a bit further. Even beginning book writers might have fun with this week's exercise. It's a way to design your book launch but also work with a tried-and-true universal principle of thinking from the end. In other words, what you put your focus on, manifests. Put your focus on publication, and it might work.

This week's exercise is in two parts, and we begin with famous cartoonist Scott Adams.

Scott Adams Did It
Dilbert's creator, Scott Adams, was said to have penned a positive statement about his cartooning career each day. He wrote it fifteen times. The theory is that his focus was shifted, over time, to the potential instead of the fears. I don't know what he wrote, but it was something like, "I will be a famous cartoonist." And so he was.

I love this exercise. I use every time I am wanting to manifest something really good--like an excellent book launch--and remind myself of the potential rather than the fears in this crazy life of writing books. The exercise works best if you keep the statement beneficial to more people than yourself (another universal principle).

Some examples of this exercise from my writing students: "I'm delighted with my published book." "My published book is everything I've dreamed it could be." "Readers are loving my book and it's changing lives for the better." "My book is practically writing itself--and I am thrilled at how it's coming together." "My writing feeds my soul."

As I prepare for three book events for my new novel, Qualities of Light (see below for dates--please join me!), my positive statement is: "My book events are easy, delightful, and full of joy, and people are so inspired by my novel."

It focuses me on the highest dream. Try it yourself, at whatever stage in book writing you are right now. Make sure to write the statement fifteen times--because something shifts around the tenth or eleventh time you pen that statement. It starts to click in the change of attitude.

Part 2 of the Exercise
Once you've set the tone of your book launch, it's time to get specific. Ask yourself:

1. What venue would I enjoy most (a bookstore, a writing school, a gathering in a community center or art gallery)? No limits nowadays. Just be sure you can accomodate the crowds you hope for, there's plenty of parking, and the venue is open to the public.

2. What format would make my book shine? At a minimum, authors will often read an exciting excerpt (about 10 minutes max), answer questions from the audience, and sign books at a table. But you can also conduct a free workshop on your book's topic, talk about how you wrote it, offer a panel discussion of contributors, etc. Think about your best result (see part 1 of exercise) and what would bring it.

3. What publicity do I want to do ahead of time? Are you up for radio/TV/print interviews? Posters and postcards? Email to friends and family? Publicists say that people need to hear about something six times before they are hooked enough to buy or show up, so spread the word in more than one way.

Using the inspiration from your positive statement, written fifteen times, brainstorm on the specifics. Spend 10-20 minutes on this part of the exercise. Benefit: You focus on the potential, not the fears.

Please join me for the book launch of Qualities of Light, my first novel,
if you're near any of these locations:

Tuesday, October 13, 7:00 p.m.: Hudson Valley Writers' Center, Sleepy Hollow, NY (Westchester County, on train line from NYC), for directions.

Sunday, November 1, 2:00 p.m.: The Hickory Stick Bookshop, Washington Depot, CT, for directions.

Thursday, November 5, 7:00 p.m: The Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis, MN, for directions.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reading My Own Novel--A Lesson in What Happens When You're Not Looking

The week I got my first copy of my new novel, Qualities of Light, I was like a raft floating in serene blue water. It had happened at last. Holding it in my hands was a thrill. I didn't even open it for a few minutes. Then I gave myself two days and read it cover to cover.

A wonderful editor accepted the book and a wonderful press has published it, but I spent a year trying to sell it before that happened. I'd kept notes from agents and editors who'd seen the manuscript that difficult year. These agents and editors sent me brief or beautiful rejection letters--and I kept many of them. The helpful ones encouraged me. The agents and editors who were kind enough to take time from their busy workdays to tell me why they rejected my manuscript, what they'd recommend changing. This kind of information is gold to the writer struggling to publish.

The most constant comment: "Begin the story in chapter 5." Chapter 5 is where the main character begins to fall in love. I couldn't figure out why everyone thought this was the main story of the novel. To me, the main story is the complex relationship Molly has with her artist father. But everyone else disagreed.

Eventually, I heeded the advice. The last helpful editor sent me detailed suggestions, including the now-familiar "Begin with chapter 5." So I jettisoned the first four chapters. I put them into my "extras" file on my computer and wove the best bits into other chapters. Now the book starts right in with the love tangle instead of the family tangle.

Rereading it this week, I saw why it works. As deeply as I was interested in the family tangle, most readers love a love story. That's what they wanted.

Why We Writers Need Readers
These agents and editors--and my writing partner and writing groups--did me a great service. Their comments forced me to go back to what I was originally excited about in this novel when I began writing it nine years ago. It was the unlikely romance. The family tangle came later, when I was searching for a subplot to give tension to the story.

Once I rediscovered, via helpful advice, the real center of my story and rearranged it accordingly, I sold it within a month.

We writers want to keep our ideas "pure" and untouched by others' opinions. This is downright snobby, a typical ego-driven artist viewpoint. I'm there often, and it never serves me. Most readers, if they're intelligent and kind, will point the writer back to her original focus. They will help the writer weed out the sidetracks that don't serve the story.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Make a list of feedback you've gotten so far about your book. What's the most consistent comment? Is it, like with my novel, to begin somewhere else, with another focus? Why have you listened or not listened to this feedback? What has changed in your writing because of it?

Then make a list of the readers in your life--people who have read your work and given you feedback. Send the most important one a thank-you note. Tell her or him why you appreciate the feedback, what it's taught you.

Monday, August 31, 2009

How to Use Your Writing Notebooks to Feed Your Book

Sarah Tieck, a fellow instructor at the Loft Literary Center, emailed me with a great question about writing notebooks. I've heard the same question from other writers.

"I was remembering a recent blog entry where you talked about how you work with your exercises in your notebook on a weekly basis," Sarah said. "I'm wondering what you do with older writer's notebooks. . . I've got dozens and their current format isn't useful. I almost never return to them because the information is not organized or easily retrievable. How do you handle your archives? Any tips or thoughts would be appreciated!"

Writers produce writing. And if you're a writing geek like me, you love to write longhand in notebooks, not just on the super-fast computer. Notebooks let the right brain ramble slowly, and the writing I do longhand is often pensive, full of imagery. I notice things I'd breeze over.

My just-released novel, Qualities of Light, started from a notebook full of tiny scenes scribbled while vacationing at a lake cabin in the Adirondacks. It was too hot to think, so I filled one notebook with random images: weedy lake smells, sounds of loons yodeling, fast-moving clouds, a girl in a bright-red tank suit racing across the lake on water-skis. This slow cooking got me started. I moved to scenes where the girl falls in love, her six-year-old brother almost drowns, her artist father betrays her, her entire family tries to orient itself after the near-tragedy.

Each tiny snippet became a chapter. And now it's all become a published book--thanks to my notebooks that summer. So I believe in these notebooks. Big time. The question is: How can you make the best use of yours?

How to Use Your Notebooks
Claire-Fontaine notebooks are my favorite. I fill them up pretty fast--every two months if I'm cooking on a new book. New books require lots of freewrites, bad writing, shitty first drafts as Anne Lamott calls them. Notebooks are private, so they are perfect for these SFDs.

But notebooks become unusable if you let them languish on a shelf. Right?

So I set up a system. On a writing day soon after I complete a notebook, I set aside two hours for reading and marking. I try to take myself out to lunch or dinner or to a museum or public garden, make this a little artist's date, a la Julia Cameron, have some fun. I bring along a yellow highlighting pen and a stack of Post-Its in different colors, snacks and tea, my iPod with no-lyrics music, and headphones. I plug into my wordless music (lyrics are too distracting when I'm reading). I plug into my word-filled writing.

Mark Anything You Can Use
Reading through the freewrites, ideas, notes to self, and character sketches, I first mark the ones that seem possible for my current book. These get a yellow highlighter stripe down the margin. Even if I don't know how I'll use the material, I mark it as possible.

Post-Its are for ideas to follow up on. In my writing notebooks, I gather lists: books to read, topics to research, people to contact, websites to visit. The Post-Its become the logging system. Different colors for different tasks.

The key here is to be as nonjudgmental as possible about your work and ideas. Treat anything as possible--and view your raw writing as if you've never seen it before. Like a reader would. Look for sparks that could possibly ignite something bigger.

Back at the Desk
When I get back to my writing desk, I begin the hard work: transferring the highlighted sections into a computer file called "extras." This is tedious work (for me). But so necessary. Otherwise, I'll never, ever use the writing I've just delighted in.

I also make a list on a legal pad of my to-do's. Sometimes, if I'm feeling particularly organized, I'll keep separate lists of tasks by type. This actually helps the tasks get done. And before I'm finished for the day, I select three tasks and put them into my calendar with dates to tackle them.

Then What? What to Do with the Pile of Past Notebooks
I never throw out my writing notebooks. Yes, this means dedicating an entire file drawer or shelf for them. But too many times I've been stuck for an idea and when I browse one of the old notebooks, I find it.

Then there are the stacks of past notebooks that, once filled, haven't yet been opened. Milking them requires a steel will and a full day or more. When I was working on my last nonfiction book, How to Master Change in Your Life, I forced myself to go through old journals. Too many words to read carefully and still be home for dinner, so I just skimmed and place a Post-It on pages that seemed promising. I visited a photocopy store and Xeroxed the pages. Then put them into a folder. Planned an artist's date. Read through them and did the highlighting work.

These became the backbone of my nonfiction book--believe it or not. All my best stories came from these notebooks. Even though they were old and reading through them was nothing short of embarrassing, I tried to keep that nonjudgmental attitude and be open to what might work. A lot did.

Your Exercise This Week
Get one of your writing notebooks, even one you haven't finished, and try the highlighting and Post-It exercise above. Take an hour and transfer the most promising into your computer file. Name it "extras" and save it where you can find it again.

Two more ideas: See the new post below for a step you might want to take--using your notebooks to advantage by pairing them with a weekly class.
And visit Sarah's website at

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Path of Least Resistance

What's the path of least resistence, when it comes to writing and publishing a book?

I've found you need three things: persistence, support, and inspiration. This blog was started to provide them all--the accountability that comes from regular writing, showing up at the page (whether in your notebook or on the computer) with practice; a forum for book writers to gather online; and inspiration via stories from those who've published.

But sometimes you need another step, a real-time gathering of writers like yourself.

My next round of weekly book-writing classes begins Monday, September 21, at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center near NYC. These three-hour classes meet Monday afternoons for 6 weeks each fall and spring. We go through the basic steps to organizing and manifesting a book in any genre: writing "islands," storyboarding, editing, theme--all the keys you'll need.

Plus you get weekly feedback on your writing from me.

Cost is $355 for 6 weeks, 3 hours a week. The Writers' Center is a beautiful writing school in Sleepy Hollow, NY, near Tarrytown. Sound like a good fit? Please email me ( or call the Hudson Valley Writers' Center at 914-332-5953. You can also email them ( or visit for more details.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Keeping It Contained--Why Writing Short Can Help You Write Long

Sometimes we have to get small to get big, with our books. But it can also feel like a sidetrack away from the "important" writing. A writer from one of my book-writing weekend workshops wondered about this. She wasn't sure if the short stories she was suddenly drawn to were valuable detours or derailments.

"I'm working on Week 7 toward a January 1 rough draft date," she wrote, referring to a goal-setting plan each writer sets up for herself in my workshop. "I have a nag buddy, which has been a great driver for me and for her. I'm doing well meeting my committment but I veered off into writing a short story, which will somehow end up as part of the book. I wonder if this has happened to you. Have you gone to something else just to keep writing? It irks me to have to ask this question, but I don't want to be diverting myself from the book writing, and I don't want to kid myself. On the other hand, all writing can go toward something, and I don't know where this book is going."

Are you a memoirist who's working on essays as a relief from The Book? Even publishing a few in advance of finishing your longer work? A novelist noodling around with short stories? Believe me, this is normal--and a lifeline during the book-writing journey. I began my writing career as a newspaper columnist. Columnist write each week, on deadline, and their output is intense but brief. When I slid into fiction, I started with short stories. They were also intense but brief. Short pieces of writing taught me so much--about pacing, dialogue, the tension arc, the beginnings and endings.
Lessons I learned for my novel Qualities of Light, which began as a series of short stories about the same group of characters. I was working from small to large, and an agent gave me timely feedback, pointing out the most compelling of the stories and saying the manuscript could become a novel centered around it. And so it did.

In the long years of writing my novel, I needed breaks of brief intensity. I consciously diverted to short stories each summer. It was too much during the hot weather to think about 350 pages, so I thought about 20. Each summer I'd come back from my "vacation" into short form fiction refreshed and ready for the long haul.

So short is good. It's not derailment, it's valid detour. Most writers need to write short in order to stay with the longer work. So I'll propose this writing exercise--which will seem to some like a total diversion. It's not. It's going to inform your book, I'm sure of it.

Poem Exercise
Create a haiku or short poem about your book, as it is now. Try to have the beginning, the ending, and the main conflict included in a few brief words. Then add a line about the main setting. And a line about the emotional container (see post below, two weeks ago).

Like short stories, poems are great ways to refresh yourself, get new perspective, take a much-needed break for the creative brain. Thanks to writer Stuart Dybek for the idea. And to answer my student's question: Yes, by all means write short stories. Dive into them for a month or two, then bring what you learn back to your book.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Persistence--What You Learn When Your Book Is Finally Published

This week my long-awaited (to me, at least) novel will be published. I began writing it nine years ago while vacationing at a lakeside cabin with friends. To acknowledge the hard work it took, today I listed my activities of persistence--what it took to finish it.

1. I hired two coaches
2. I went to five series of writing classes
3. I enrolled in two years of an MFA program
4. I joined three writers' groups
5. I wrote every day for many months
6. I found a great weekly writing partner

All this helped. But in the end, it got finished--and published--because of one small writing exercise, which I'll explain below.

Belief and Persistence
I've worked with thousands of book writers. Many finish their books. Some don't. They are sometimes very talented writers with great stories to tell. Stopping mid-process puzzled me. But as I worked with more writers, I learned how persistence shapes creative work. How book writers need to keep going, even when the going is very tough.

I learned to value persistence and a healthy belief in oneself and one's creative expression. Unless you love your writing, who will? This isn't to say you are ego-driven. You acknowledge what's not working as well as what is. But to constantly doubt, that's dangerous. That will lead to endless revising, endless questioning, and not holding your published book in your hands.

This week's writing exercise is a list. It's a belief-boosting exercise that a fellow MFA student once gave me. We'd just left our morning workshopping session and I was beyond discouraged about my novel (the one that's being published this week).

"I'll never finish this," I said. I was quite certain. "I'm not meant to. I don't have it in me."

"Nonsense," she said. (I love people who use this word.) "You'll finish and you'll publish. It's a good story. It just needs your love."

She told me to go back to my dorm room and start a list of anything I liked about the book so far. Keep the ongoing list in my writing notebook. Add to it, look at it as a reminder. Like a Valentine card to my emerging creative work, it would help me remember to love it.

Here's what I wrote that day:
Molly (the main character)
Zoe (her best friend)
when they first meet at the Boat House (the local dive)
Chad's glasses
the still life painting
how Molly felt driving the motorboat that morning
the lake at sunrise

This exercise reversed my discouragement. I went back to work. I regained my persistence and belief. Since that day, I added to my list as I learned more about my book and fell in love with it again.

Start a list about your writing. What do you especially love about it, believe in? What gives you the persistence to keep going?

If you'd like to join me in celebrating my novel, please consider visiting today. They're offering a special pre-release price of $10.17 plus shipping. Hard to beat. Click here to read Molly and Zoe's story.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Your Book's Container--And How to Write It

A coaching client with a great story to tell is working on her memoir. She asked a very good question about her book's container. It sparked this week's writing exercise.

I had asked her to incorporate more container in her chapter, by taking out the sections of thinking and feeling. Whenever the author talked about her feelings and thoughts, the writing grew abstract and distant and the container was lost. This confused her--as it does many writers. "It was my understanding," she told me, "that 'container' is the place where everything happens."

That's true. I call it "container" because it's much more than just setting. It's both inner and outer atmosphere, both physical and psychological/spiritual/emotional environment of your story.

That's also where her confusion started. "Outwardly as setting and inwardly as emotional or cultural environment," she said. "Therefore, it is two part. If I take out all feeling and thinking it would seem that one part would be missing. I don't know what to put in its place."

Such a good question--and a situation that stumps many writers, especially in memoir and fiction. How do you create emotional container without telling us what emotions are being experienced? How do you create a psychological container without telling us the thoughts of narrator or character?

You show. It's an old axiom in writing: show, don't tell. Showing reveals container as subtly as a butterfly landing on a late-summer dahlia--without any interpreting. It just presents the situation and lets the readers perceive the effect.

A pretty hard thing for us writers to do! But not impossible. Here is how I suggest this talented writer go about refining her story's emotional and psychological container (feelings and thoughts).

First, Do Your Outer Container

The first container you need to always address is the outer container. This is what is traditionally called setting--and it's shown to readers via outwardly felt things. Such as weather, time of day or night, where we are in a room or garden or other specific location, how the light falls on an object or a wall or someone's arm, what smells and sounds surround us. Amazing how many writers omit these details, thinking they're boring or slow or unnecessary. But they actually are the main transporters of emotion for a reader. They set the stage.

Imagine a play set on a blank stage--no backdrop, no furniture, no atmosphere. OK, maybe nothing is an atmosphere, but only if the actors are very talented and can create something from that nothing. It's much easier for the audience to perceive, say, an 1850s interior farmhouse if there are furnishings and a woodstove and windows with eyelet curtains.

Same in your story. Outer container is shown via your surroundings, what your narrator notices. It's transmitted to a reader most easily via the five senses: smell, sound, taste, touch, sight. And it's best done without interpretation, no qualifiers, nobody telling us what the sights mean. In other words you may write, "The dahlia was pink and gold and filled with summer light." You don't have to add "It was beautiful." We already get that.

Outer container is used by all kinds of book writers--even nonfiction writers who share ideas and techniques via personal stories need to make use of container to engage their reader in the setting. We engage most when we can "be" in the place you're describing.

Then Do Your Inner Container

We also want to "be" in the emotional, cultural, and intellectual container of the situation, but we want to be shown (not told) this as well. Readers are smarter than the writer thinks, most of the time. They can perceive inner container via nuances of gesture, body sensations felt by the narrator or character, memories.

Say we're writing about a woman looking at a butterfly on a late-summer flower. She's sad because her father just died. The writer might choose to tell this sadness by having the woman think, "Looking at that perfect flower makes me so sad." Or, in third person, "Joan felt sad suddenly, not knowing why." But these statements are abstract. They tell, they don't show. So the emotion of sadness is not conveyed. The emotional container is a blank stage.

To convey the emotional container, the writer needs to find a way to demonstrate Joan's sadness. Not speak it or tell it, but show it. Maybe the woman picks the flower and shreds it in her fingers. Maybe she creates a trail of flower pieces along a sidewalk or windowsill. Maybe she goes outside at the same time each morning to watch the flower as it fades and dies.

Much harder work to notice these actions and write them, than to just say "Joan was sad." But that's how good books are made. By hard work, by good noticing, by careful writing.

When I'm stumped on how to write emotional container, I go back to Pulitzer-Prize winner Robert Olen Butler's wonderful book on writing, From Where You Dream. I use two of his suggestions for enhancing emotion in story. This works in every genre, although Butler's book is geared to fiction writers. Here's a recap of his two suggestions, in my own words:

1. Have the narrator feel something in their body. This is a physical sensation that's not interpreted. It has to be felt by the body, not thought or observed by the mind, to convey emotion to readers. "Joan's throat tightened and her eyes stung." "Flashes of heat traveled across my skin." "My stomach was suddenly hollow."

Specific and felt sensations, these happen in the body and are not interpreted. Let the reader perceive what this means. Most of us would understand what emotion is experienced by tight throat and stinging eyes (sadness) or flashes of heat on skin (fear, excitement). We'll read on to find out if we're right!

2. Have the narrator access a brief memory of a similar time that contrasts or connects in some way with the emotional container now. "Joan remembered her father's hands picking dahlias from the garden, arranging them in a cobalt vase, bringing them to her room. Only three dahlias, but always perfect." We don't need to add "He loved her very much." We read on to find out if he did--because the emotional container hints at it--or if he was obsessed with her or what. No interpretation needed.

This Week's Exercise
Take a thought or feeling--any sentence in your work where you've written the "told" feeling or thought, such as "Joan was sad."

For 10 minutes, brainstorm all the ways the surroundings could reveal this sadness. How can you transmit sadness without using the word sad?

Then replace the telling with showing. See if the emotion is heightened.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Writing past the Summertime Blahs

When I first came across Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, I loved her morning pages but was stymied by Artist Dates. Cameron recommends we stuck creative artists spend an hour a week out and alone somewhere new, exploring a museum or craft store, walking in a park or by a river, just to fill the creative well.

Sometimes writers face a flatness in summer, when it's hot and the writing is not. I've found NOT writing a great way to get started again--but the NOT writing has to contain something to fill the well, a la Julia Cameron's Artist Dates.

This week's exercise encourages you to go on an hour's vacation from your normal life--work, family, home, endless to-do lists--and visit a creatively inspiring place. Let your racing mind slow down. Stare at museum exhibits or paintings. Watch the breeze in the trees. But don't write. Not a word. Force yourself to stop your output and just input for a while. Instead of all the endless exhaling of energy, fill yourself with new breath.
Sounds silly, simple, stupid? Not at all. Your right brain will start engaging, seeing and hearing and smelling things your busy left brain has forgotten to notice. These small details are what fills the creative well.
Part two of the exercise: After you come back from your Artist Date, sit for ten minutes and record impressions. Nothing big, just little ideas, sensations, thoughts, memories that come now that you're refreshed. Scribbling is good. Drawing is even better. Let the images flow onto the paper. Make it fun, easy. No pressure here.

I've come to my best writing ideas by doing this deliberate break. It takes me off the production wheel and really fills the well.
See if it works for you! It might help you write past the summertime blahs.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Linkage--A Great Technique to Beat the (Writer's) Block

Like boards on a fence, sentences tie together thoughts. But too tied up, they lead to blocked creativity. Enter linkage, a technique that beats the block and keeps the gate open.
I learned about linkage years ago. Maybe in a writing class, maybe from a colleague. Since I heard this simple technique, I've read that it's used by many professional authors. Try it this week--it'll help you keep momentum between writing sessions. Here's how it works: Simply leave your last sentence of the day unfinished.

For example, instead of ending a writing session with a complete sentence, which leaves no "linkage" to the next day's work, I leave the sentence hanging.

Not "Molly looked out the window and saw the blue Ford Escort." But "Molly looked out the window and saw..."

Why does linkage work so well? Because the mind hates a vacuum. Overnight (or over several days, if you write less often) your creative mind will explore options for ending this sentence. It will drive you a little crazy--a good thing! You will itch to get back to the page to finish the thought.
Simple, huh? Harder than it looks. You'll want to finish the thought and wrap it up. Clean as you go. But repress the urge and leave it hanging.

Along with a little crazy, linkage will drive you back to your writing faster than anything I know.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Entering Your Story through the Smallest Detail--an Exercise with Buttons

I'm moving to a new home and office this month, so I'm cleaning out forgotten closets and cupboards and files. I found a large jar of buttons collected from friends who love to sew.

So when a writing colleague passed along this great exercise, I had to try it. It's by writer Roz Goddard, and it uses the tiniest of ojects--a button--to get deeper into a story. I tried it in my classes and many of the writers found it helpful for uncovering aspects of character that had eluded them.

Click here to try it out.

Imagine using it for one of your main players in your book. Let your limitations go, and see what comes. For memoir or nonfiction writers, use your imagination while trying the exercise, then ask: How is this person I've just written about similar or different to someone in my book? (This brings your freewrite back to factual truth, which is essential for these genres. But the imaginative qualities of fiction-writing will open doors you won't believe!)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Dilemma, Players, Container--Three Essentials for Chapter One

My summer session writing class is climbing mountains! They're working on chapter one of their books--perhaps the hardest chapter to write. It has to establish three essential elements that pull the reader into your story. These elements are key to successfully placing your manuscript with an agent. If you don't have them securely in place, you won't get a contract. They exist in any genre of book, if you know how to find them.

Three Steps to an Eye-Catching Chapter One
Chapter one is often the chapter agents request, if you're lucky enough to write an eye-catching query letter. So this initial chapter is a make-or-break experience. If an agent loves it, they'll ask for more. If not, "Sorry, it's not for us."

I've found most great books--in any genre--hint at these three elements in chapter one. Dilemma (the conflict, the question). Players (who's on stage, who should we care about). Container (the place everything happens, both outwardly as setting and inwardly as emotional or cultural environment).

These elements create a kind of tension cord. It pulls the reader through your book to the last page. If they are not all in place, the cord is slack.

Entering Your Book via Your Natural Strength
Every writer has one of these as a natural, almost unconscious, strength. A mystery writer might think up plots--dilemma. She would enter her story from the question What happens? But she might overlook the place it happens, and the characters who are complicating things and getting deeper into trouble. So her story is interesting but the agent or editor might say, "Your prose needs tightening." Read: "Two elements are missing here; plug them in." Or, most important: "Make us care!"

A medical memoirist might also think of dilemma first--the accident that left him in a wheelchair, for instance. Event is what matters most to him, but the reader engages through first caring about his dilemma--or character. So the memoirist must begin to reveal himself on the page, more and more. Not always comfortable, but essential.

A psychologist writing a book on mental illness might think first of players--the people she counsels at the clinic or hospital, their personalities. She presents their background, their case histories (disguised or with permission), but she can't figure out how to place them in a setting that's believable. She begins to write the setting--a hospital--and suddenly we see the frailty of these people because we smell the antiseptic or hear the intercom paging doctors.

Your job is to think of all three, no matter which strength you build from. And they all must appear in chapter one.

How Does Chapter One Reveal Dilemma, Players, and Container?
I just read the opening chapter--only three pages long--of Judy Blundell's What I Saw and How I Lied. Blundell won the National Book Award for this novel. Her first chapter made me want to buy the book. Because it covers all three elements.

We learn of the main players first--a mother who smells of cigarette smoke and My Sin perfume, the young daughter who pretends to be sleeping beside her, the brother who may have died tragically, the father who left, the mysterious friend. We learn of the dilemma--a small reference to the beach town and how everyone knows the family's faces because they've been in the news recently. Blundell also creates an amazingly engaging container, both physically and emotionally, with lines like "The match snapped, then sizzled, and I woke up fast" or "I heard the seagulls crying, sadder than a funeral, and I knew it was almost morning."

This Week's Writing Exercise
Want to join my writing class--at least virtually--this week? Try focusing on chapter one. Can you draft it--or look it over if it's already written--and check it for these three elements. What's missing? What's already present?

Then find a favorite published book in your genre. Read it to learn how the writer presents dilemma, players, container in the first chapter. How were you hooked into reading on?

How can you change your chapter one to be as successful?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Keeping Your Book Project Alive--While Living a Normal Life

Michelle Goodman is the author of two really good books, helpful to writers and anyone seeking a creative life. First, she quit the 9 to 5 and wrote a guide on how to do it--The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Then she wrote another book on how to be a successful freelancer--My So-Called Freelance Life--that gives practical advice to anyone trying to earn their living by doing what they love.

I interviewed Michelle about her book-writing journey. Hopefully some of her ideas will be useful to you too--as they provide the idea for this week's writing exercise.

MCM: What do you do to keep your faith in your book projects during the tough times that hit every author?

Michelle Goodman: Enlist a couple of close writing friends to read my pages for major gaffes or holes and to talk me off of the ledge as necessary. Tape reminders of what I want to accomplish with the book to the wall behind my computer, along with any pep talks and publishing-related jokes friends have sent me along the way.

Get out of the house for some blood-pumping exercise to clear the creative mental cobwebs that seem to appear at least once a week.

Make sure the house is stocked with really tasty health food that requires little preparation, as well as several pounds of chocolate. When too spent to complete another sentence, hit the hay, even if just for an hour.

MCM: What's the funniest learning experience you've had while working on a book?

Michelle Goodman: I'm not sure how funny this will be to anyone other than me, but YouTube really saved me while writing the last book. I'd watch my favorite Buffalo Springfield, Woodstock-era CSNY, and early 70s Genesis videos as a reward after finishing each section of a chapter. Who knew Steven Stills and Peter Gabriel would play such an important role in the book-writing process?

MCM: When you are working on writing a book, how do you juggle your bread-and-butter work (regular job) around creative time?

Michelle Goodman: My regular job is being a full-time freelance writer (articles, columns, blogs, and sometimes, corporate copy). When I was working on my two books, I had to clear the decks of all other projects. It's too difficult for me--and most people--to write/edit a book 6-8 hours a day and think that I'm also going to have the time, energy, or brain juice to write something else that day.

For my first book (The Anti 9-to-5 Guide), the advance was so small that I just lived off savings during the six months or so I spent writing it. Fortunately, the advance for my second book (My So-Called Freelance Life) was a bit more substantial. Of course, things never go quite the way you plan: I landed both a regional and a national column while writing My So-Called Freelance Life and had to work on meeting weekly deadlines for both during the last couple months of writing the book.

I was working all the time, sometimes not even sleeping more than four hours a night. It was hell, but I'm glad I did it. Those columns now help sell both my books.

MCM: Thanks, Michelle, for this real-world advice. To learn more about Michelle's books click here (My So-Called Freelance Life) and here (The Anti 9-to-5 Guide). You can also read her great ideas on using a blog to boost a book proposal by clicking here.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Making your writing dream happen--what does it take? Magic, hard work, belief, all of these? From Michelle's comments, you saw how much a professional writer supports her dream--with music, chocolate, reminder notes that boost the spirit, good writing friends.

It takes a willingness to put into place this kind of good support. But it also takes a willingness to let go of something that might be blocking you, taking up too much time, or wearing down your energy.

This week, look at your life. Either chart one day, as one of my coaching clients does, to see where support is and where time is disappearing into stuff you really don't get much out of (her support list included a weekly writing group; her energy drainers were nightly evening news, long phone calls with her sister, and too many potato chips).

What are you willing to put into place for support?
What are you willing to let go of?

Stop the magical thinking about your creative dream with this book. You can do it. Just make room for it in your life.

What do you think of this? Do you agree with Michelle's suggestions--or have ideas to share with other readers about your own experiences with juggling your writing and your life?