Monday, April 27, 2009

Being Stuck--Ideas on How to Work with Your Inner Critic

A reader wrote: "I'm sure you hear this often--I'm stuck! I am great at first drafts, in fact I'm submerged in them. They never get anywhere. I found your site online and performed the "Ophra" asks exercise and it helped. I would love to attend your classes however geography does not permit. The internet may. Please let me know your thoughts. Thanks so far--it worked."
Being stuck. How familiar that feeling is. Like trying to pass through a high-walled canyon. No way to travel easily.
It happens to most of us, no matter how many books we write. I've published 13, and I still run into the frustration of writer's block with every new project. The difference is: I know it's happening. I prepare for it. I have a bag of tricks.

Inner Critic
In each stage of writing your book, you’ll meet a most unsavory part of yourself: the Inner Critic. Single-handedly, the Inner Critic causes more cases of "I'm stuck!" than anything else.

Some find themselves stuck in too much structuring, too tight a focus, and the book journey loses freedom. Others are stuck in the opposite arena--too much writing and no way to organize it. As you explore and plan your book, the Critic can even help you worry that you don’t have a good enough idea--so your writing never even gets started. Later on, it will hint you are seriously lacking in the skills to pull it into a book.

And here's another one: As you write your book and form the chapters, it will convince you the draft is definitely good enough to show your best friend—right now, today! (This, of course, is a not-so-subtle sabotage attempt, made real when your friend asks about missing parts and you crumble with the realization that you have omitted half your story.)

Even as you revise, the Critic will get bored with your book's inner story, theme, pacing--those essential fine-tuning steps each book writer must implement. It will begin to say things like, "Edit out this part; all your friends and relations will shun you when they read them."

I'm at the final stages of the book journey with my novel which will be published in August. I'm still facing this Inner Critic. Now the message is: Everyone will know what your life is like, what you are! Hide now!

Writers beware. Get to know your own particular Inner Critic and how it delivers its sabotaging self-talk. Learn to feel the fear and write anyway.

Here's a first step. Write a letter to the Inner Critic. Get to know it, what guise the Critic takes, how it stops you. Name it, describe it. Make a sketch of it. We'll tackle more Inner Critic tools in future posts. But let me know how this one worked for you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why Books Aren't Just about Shooting in the Dark--And a Writing Exercise to Prove It

Five weekends each year, I travel from my home in Connecticut to Minnesota, to teach book-writing structure at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis ( I gather thirty-five would-be book writers who want some light in the darkness. We spend two days together in a classroom and come out with our personal book-writing plans, a workable structure and step-by-step method to creating and crafting a novel, memoir, or nonfiction book.

I love teaching at the Loft. The Loft is unique. I've taught at university and college, art center and private school, but nothing is like the Loft. It's the largest nonprofit writing school in the U.S., offering hundreds of classes and writerly events each year. I've been proud to be part of the Loft's teaching artists staff for nine years.

Two of my own books have gotten healthy beginnings from Loft classes. My novel, Qualities of Light, which will be published this August, was launched via a class with Loft instructor Alison McGhee (author of Shadow Baby and other novels).

I'm packing today for my workshops at the Loft this coming weekend, April 24-26. Friday and Saturday, I'm teaching the most popular of my Loft workshops, a two-day intensive on "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book." I wish I'd had this workshop when I began writing and publishing books in the 1980s. I didn't have much back then, just hopes, fears, and book ideas. Somehow I published, but it wasn't easy. It's still not easy but at least now I have a method, a strategy. It's not just shooting in the dark.

I want to make book writing simpler for any writer. In my Loft workshop, this group of 35 book writers will be mixed, in skill and achievement. Some have manuscripts drafted, some only have an idea. During the two days, we create the structure of our books via tested writing exercises. We start with tag lines, move to writing segments that develop the inner and outer story, then craft linear and nonlinear storyboards.

By day 2 of the workshop, writers are jazzed. That's when their books become real. They are really going to happen.

Maybe you'll be joining me this coming weekend. If you'd like to, call the Loft at 612-379-8999 and get your name on the list. There are 9 places left, as of this writing. You'll be among the greatest book writers in one of the greatest writing schools. It's fun, inspiring, and creative.

Mostly, it's a wake-up call about how books are really written. Writing a book is not just about hoping for the best--although hope does factor in. There's a real formula, a real strategy. I've seen very beginning writers follow this strategy and come out with a good, solid book. One just published last month. She is not alone. My favorite experience is when a writer appears at my workshop, someone who took the class a year or two ago, and hands me a copy of their published book. I love the look of pride on their face.

Books take hard work, of course, and dedication. But having a strategy makes it possible. Otherwise, you're just shooting in the dark.

Writing a Focus Statement

Here's the opening exercise from the workshop. It's easiest if I am there to coach you through it, but try it on your own if you can't join us this weekend at the Loft. Set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes and write three paragraphs about your book--everything you think it's about. Then read it outloud to yourself. Find the sentence that is most interesting to you, that speaks to you, that maybe surprises you. Underline it.

Using this sentence, craft a statement about your book. This is your focus statement, elevator speech, tag line. Your answer to Oprah's question, "What's your book really about?" Make sure you create a statement that contains the book's outer story (event or method) as well as its inner story (answer to a quest or question).

Post it where you can see it. Let it be your light during the book-writing journey. It will be simpler to navigate the trip.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Beauty of Regular Writing Practice--Watching Your Book Grow

Writing practice is like walking a path and not knowing exactly where you're going, but enjoying the journey. To paraphrase my yoga teacher, writing practice is not writing perfect.

Perfect means you have it all under control. Practice means you're willing to make mistakes to get to a goal. Practice is about sitting in the chair, putting words on the page, letting mistakes happen. Letting miracles happen too.

In Thunder and Lightning, Natalie Goldberg wrote of a time when she and a friend were in the dumps. They first tried a long hike to cure it. That didn’t work. They sat zazen (meditating), but both women still felt bad. Finally, Natalie suggested writing practice. “We wrote for half an hour, read to each other, wrote another half hour, read aloud,” she said. “By the end we were both beaming. Writing practice had done it again—digested our sorrows, dissolved and integrated our inner rigidity, and let us move on.”

Goldberg adds “Writing practice lets out all your wild horses. Everything you never dared to utter—didn’t even know you thought—comes galloping and whinnying across the page. This is good. You become connected with a much larger force field, one where you’re not in control.”

Not being in control: that's what practice is all about.

In my writing class today, we practiced practice. We did three 10-minute freewriting exercises. I asked the writers to pick a line from their homework that stood out in some way, write it at the top of their page, then write for 10 minutes--nondirected practice. They tried it again. The third 10-minute freewriting session, writing got looser, more interesting. Discoveries were made.

Writing practice has worked for me more times than I can count—and I certainly often can’t remember what I wrote about during these freewriting sessions. Although they have produced many books, stories, and articles, that wasn’t the point of the practice. The practice itself was the point, the rhythm it gave to my writing life.

This non-directed practice is called automatic writing by Peter Elbow (author of Writing without Teachers) and Lynn Lauber (author of Listen to Me), freewriting by Natalie Goldberg and others. Try it yourself this week. Pick a "prompt" (starting phrase or sentence) from your favorite piece of writing. Set a kitchen timer for 10 minutes, and go for it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Why Book Writers Need to Hang Out Together

I teach weekly writing classes for book writers at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Westchester County near New York City. The beginning class, meeting each Monday afternoon for six weeks, draws a range of skill and experience levels. Some writers come in with a good idea, encouragement from friends and family ("You should write a book!"), expertise in a topic, or a group of characters who won't leave them alone. I take the group through a series of writing exercises to determine where their real story lies.

It's the tools in the class that start the process of discovery. But it's the gathering of other writers, those specifically working on books, which lends clarity and inspiration. The class discussions, the helping of each other, bring very interesting results which reveal to the writer (and me, the teacher) where the real stall-out is.

One woman in my class, a brilliant ex-journalist (and I've changed details here to protect her privacy), was writing about an entertainment world legend. She had put together ten chapters then stopped for some reason. Nothing moved the book forward, so she came to my class to figure out why. Over the six weeks, she discovered that she was deeply afraid of ridicule from fellow reporters and of making some monumental mistake in reporting accuracy. Her award-winning newspaper and magazine were pieces of cake compared to a book. How could she ever create copy that was interesting enough to hold a reader for 300 pages? More importantly, how would she keep all those piles of research accurate?

Navigating this writer's block came about through discussion with thirteen other struggling book writers and ended her procrastination on her manuscript.

I've taught this weekly class for many years. I'm fascinated, at the beginning of each session, how varied the group of writers is. We are usually between twelve and fifteen people. We meet for three hours once a week for six weeks. By the end of the session, we are often changed inside. The books we write reveal ourselves, our deepest fears and longings, whether they are fiction, nonfiction, or memoir. Good books put the writer on the page. They can't help it--they have to.

I'm starting a new session in May. Already writers are signing up, coming from around the East Coast. Some drive in for an overnight to attend the class, and when I am amazed at this, the writer tells me, "There aren't very many classes like these. My friend took it last year and raved about it. And her book is actually finished now." I hear many stories like this, because we, as a group, are unique. We specifically address the strange and wonderful needs of the book writer.

I know these classes keep me writing! I have two books coming out this summer, and I am thanking my classes for the inspiration and momentum to keep going on them over the past few years.

If you want to join us for the next session of "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book," here are the specifics: 6 Mondays, 1:30-4:30 p.m., May 4-June 22 (skips May 18 & 25), $355, at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY (near Tarrytown). Visit, email, or call 914-332-5953 to register. Class size is limited, and this one usually sells out. So call soon. Maybe you'll find the missing key to finishing your book, as you are supported and encouraged by this wonderful group of fellow writers.

If you're too distant to join us, try an exercise from the class. Consider the writerly support in your life. Write for ten minutes about how you are encouraged, motivated, and appropriately mirrored in your efforts to write your book. Where does your support come from--and where might it be missing?

Writers, especially book writers, need each other. It's essential to hang out together so we realize (1) we're not going crazy in this book-writing process, (2) it actually demands more of us than we might first believe and there are specific tools to get stronger, and (3) we can keep going when the going gets tough.