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.