Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Collage Party

Create yourself a collage party tonight or tomorrow--and envision your 2011 creatively!  Go to the search box on this blog and type in "creative collages" to find out more and see samples.  Happy new year!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Rest Breaks for Book Writers--Feeding the Artist

There are some important signs of burn-out that writers need to attend to.  An overactive Inner Critic.  A feeling of the blues about one's work.  A sense of deep depletion, despite enough sleep and exercise.

December rolled around with all of these symptoms, for me.  I'd just finished up a four-month teaching marathon at three different writing schools plus a new online class.  All were amazing, wonderful, and inspiring, but I gave

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Last-Minute Gift Ideas for Book Writers

This week's exercise is to do something wonderful for a beloved writer in your life.  Maybe yourself!  Here's a short list of my favorite last-minute gift ideas for writers trying to get a book written.

Online subscription to the Wall Street Journal.  WSJ has some of the best articles on writing I've recently seen in mainstream media.  Cost $2.29 a week.  More information at

Scrivener.  A software program that's available now for Mac users, in 2011 for PC

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Road to Remembering: How Do You Recall Accurate Memories for Your Memoir?

Judy, a reader from Minnesota, sent me a very good question about her manuscript:

"I took your class this summer on 'how to write a book' at the Loft Literary Center.  I am working on the second revision of my story and remember so little about the time when I was at the home for unwed mothers.  I didn’t think about it much after I left, so the memory kind of withered.  Much has come back to life with recall and thinking and writing but my question is like this:

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hybrids: When You're Writing a Book That Straddles Two Genres

A reader from Virginia wrote me:  "I’m either writing a very boring memoir which is filled with the ME in memoir, or I’m writing some sort of self-help book which has stories filling in to illustrate my points. 

"I’m still writing 'islands' so I don’t have a clear structure yet. I just know

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Enough, Already! Is It Time to Start Revising Your Manuscript?

The relationship of writer with book-in-progress can be likened to a marriage as opposed to a date.  Poems, articles, columns, and short stories are all creative commitments, to be sure, but even if they linger unfinished for a while, they are short relationships compared to 350 pages of manuscript.  With a book, you regularly re-evaluate your progress, your purpose, and your plans.  You recommit again and again.

 But is it ever done? When is enough, enough?  These questions come up at two particular stages,

Monday, November 22, 2010

Three Writers on Writing and Creativity

Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate this week.  In honor of the holiday, when maybe we all can get a tiny bit more leisure time (ROFL), I'm sharing three videos and articles on writing.  So look, listen, and read . . .and enjoy!

I'll be back next week with a new discussion on revision--how to know when you're ready for it.

A video presentation by writer Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity:

Vivian Gornick, author of The Situation and The Story, on the writing life:

 Jill Bolte Taylor on the brain and creativity:
PS  Do you have favorite videos, podcasts, or online articles on writing that you'd like to share with me?  Send them along.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Preparing for Hibernation--Building a Winter Writing Rhythm

Where I live in northern New England, it's getting toward winter.  The trees have lost most of their leaves, and it got so chilly last night, we almost didn't open the window in the bedroom.  The change of weather is bringing to mind vast snowy landscapes, the uncluttered look of deep winter.  My best writing time of the year.

As a painter and a writer, I've

Friday, November 5, 2010

National Novel Writers' Month--A Crazy but Effective Approach to Making a Book

Right now, as you read this, hundreds of thousands of writers from around the world are focused on one thing, a  crazy but effective approach to making a book.  It's a kind of competition without prizes called National Novel Writers' Month, or "nanowrimo."

Starting November 1 each year, these writers pledge to write 50,000 words in thirty days.  The goal is

Saturday, October 30, 2010

How High Are the Stakes? Building Better Conflict and Dilemma into Your Book

Dilemma is the problem your book solves, whether it is how to plant a bonsai garden or who killed the victim in a murder mystery. Dilemma, also known as the dramatic arc, forms the path of your reader’s journey through your book. Without strong dilemma, there’s no story.

One of my students, Chris, was writing the story of her grandmother’s life, but she wasn’t happy

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Acceptance and Rejection--Balance in the Creative Life

One spring, I was wallowing in the discontent of rejection letters. I’d sent my first novel to agent after agent, publisher after publisher. No one wanted it. This new novel crossed genres—it was written from the point of view of a young woman but it was meant for adult readers.

I believed in the book and wanted to see it in the hands of potential readers. But my disappointment was so great that

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Finding Theme in Your Book: An Exercise in Searching for Repeating Patterns

After months of revising my novel-in-progress, I was still stumped as to its theme. My chapters hung together pretty well but the manuscript lacked that wonderful sense of wholeness that a theme-rich book delivers.

One evening I was reading a scene to my writers’ group. When I finished we talked about the characters, especially the main character, a search-and-rescue pilot. One of the writers, bless her, asked me that pivotal question that opens huge doors inside.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Feeling the Fear and Writing Anyway--Facing the Inner Critic

In each stage of writing your book, chances are you’ll meet a most unsavory part of yourself: the Inner Critic. It’s a negative self that delivers negative self-talk.  It casts its own particular light or shadow on your writing life, and it can stop you completely.

Many writers have different names for their critics. Sue Grafton, the mystery writer, calls hers ego. “Ego is the piece of me that’s going, How am I doing, champ?,” she says. “Is this good? Do you like this? Do you think the critics will like this?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Creating the Page-Turner: Tricks to Great Pacing in Your Books

For twelve years, I wrote a syndicated weekly newspaper column. I only had six hundred words each week, so I learned to wrap the column neatly. The ending was always tied up with a clever image, like a bright bow on a tidy package.

When I went back to college for my MFA in fiction and began my first novel, this search for closure no longer suited my writing.  Novels explore, they expand, they lead to deeper secrets and more adventurous events.  When one of my teachers noticed this tendency to neaten up my chapter endings, she decided to broaden my understanding of pacing.  How it differs in books--as opposed to short pieces

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Expansion and Contraction: The Art of Working with Scene and Summary in Your Writing

Every book balances immediate writing in present time and writing that feels more reflective, that shares a passage of time or an overview of events. “Scene” and “summary” create different effects. In revision they need to be considered for placement and quantity in your book.

Imagine a story with nothing but scene. It feels very close-up and personal, with everything happening right in front of us, right now, a string of individual moments, all important and vivid. The pace is so ridiculously fast, though, there is little time to absorb the meaning of what’s happening.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Building a Writing Practice That Helps You Realize, Access, and Sustain Your Creativity

Few books arrive fully formed. Rather they grow from regular, unflinching practice of our art and craft. Writing a book takes the same everyday hard work that tennis players put in practicing their volleys, swimmers their laps, violinists their scales.

Practice leads to developed skills.

I’ve found that approaching writing as practice, taking small steps rather than big leaps toward your goal, is a great soul-soother. It fosters the belief that

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Unconscious Competence

In my Madeline Island retreat on book-writing this past July, we were joined by a man who summered on the island.  He was retired from a very successful sales career and as he was a last-minute addition to the group and hadn't taken my book-writing workshops before, I wondered how he would do.

One sunny morning midweek, the class was struggling with the learning curve of three-act structure.  Suddenly Pete raised his hand with something to share.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Creative Innocence versus Creative Resistance

It's September again.  Crisp school supplies, clean classrooms, launching into a fresh cycle of learning.  September for me is about being a beginner, as much as possible.

In fact, it's something I try to cultivate at this time of year.

Most of us resist not knowing.  We hate being seen as rank beginners.  We love being seen as

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Creative Tension and Sharing Our Work--Is It Time or Is It Premature?

A reader from Minnesota sent me a good question.  She'd taken my two-day book writing workshop at the Loft Literary Center in July, and I talked about the value of writers' groups, how they help support the book-writing journey.  She wanted to know more about that.

"I'd like to continue working on my book on my own," she emailed me, "and I still have a lot of 'islands' to write. You talked a little bit about writers groups and I was wondering how one goes about choosing/ finding a group? I haven't been involved in such a group since

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dilemma in Three Acts--Story Arcs and the Big W

Almost the end of August, and the leaves are starting to change color here in New England.  I'm getting my teaching notes together for my new classes in September.  This year my classes are both virtual (online) and in person.  Both have me thinking about story arcs again.

August was a writing month for me.  I've been working on finishing my book about book-writing, Your Book Starts Here, which will be available later this year, and on editing the final act of my novel-in-progress, Breathing Room.  

Both books are built with the three-act structure of story arc that I teach in my workshops and classes.  I call it the big W.  It's a system that's

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Writing with Images or Writing with Words? Learn the Difference in Effect on Your Reader

One spring I took a month-long writing retreat. I went to a beautiful lake at the edge of the mountains and stayed by myself in a comfortable cabin. I was excited about all this time I had to write. I brought a pile of “stuck” writing to work on—I had a novel in a final draft, ready for revision.

On warm days I set my writing desk on the cabin’s wrap-around porch. From there, I had a great view of the lake, the blue sky. Birds skimmed the small garden, looking for bugs. Cedars swayed in the wind off the mountains.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Revision--How Do You See Your Own Writing from a Different Viewpoint?

Writers who lock onto one picture of their books, holding it fast, being unwilling to adjust as they receive new insights, rarely publish. Their books stay limited in the limited vision of early drafts.

Revising happens. It must, before publishing. So "re-visioning" requires looking anew, looking deeper, with a different viewpoint. The reader's viewpoint. What will the reader make of the words you've chosen, the images you're painting?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Writing Retreats--What Happens When You Are Alone with Your Creativity

I was alone with my writing this week.  So were fourteen other writers (see us in the photo at left).  We retreated to a beautiful restored farm on an island in the middle of Lake Superior, to dive deeply into our books.  Each of us was hoping to surface with new understandings.  Maybe new maps.     

Writers who take on a book learn that it is always connected to their lives, some way, somehow.  Even if the story is about another planet.  Even if the writer is making it all up.  We can't write completely outside of who we are, especially when we're spending 300 pages doing so.  This means we must face ourselves squarely, look at our motivation for our project, as well as any oh-so-personal obstacles to getting there.

It requires being alone with our creativity.  Writing retreats are great places for this to happen.

Necessary Boredom
Part of the luxury of a writing retreat is being able to slow down.  Madeline Island is

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Your Book Starts Here--Online Class *or* The Surprising Benefits of Online Learning While You're Writing Your Book

When my novel, Qualities of Light, was published last fall, I celebrated as anyone would, enjoying the readings, book signings, and kudos fully. The book did well, got some good reviews. I even had my brief moment in the sun, being interviewed on WNPR.

Then the furor died down. I unpacked my suitcases, went back to my writing desk, and faced my next book-in-progress.

Post-publication is a bit like the aftermath of a great party.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Emotional Truth--What You're After in Your Book, After All

Each book we write, each essay or story idea we decide to commit to the page, signals a kind of journey for the writer that is very personal and unique.  It's a journey of emotional truth, and because of this it has everything to do with the writer, very personally.

It's simplistic--even foolish--to think we're just scribing stories.  If our books contain any emotional truth, it's because we've learned about ourselves in the process of writing.

A reader from another country recently wrote me a beautiful letter about my novel, Qualities of Light, which was published last fall.  These communications always arrive when I'm discouraged about my writing life.  They are the real reason I write books.  I love the miracle of a topic I'm deeply concerned about also touching another soul.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What's a Successful Book Launch?

After you spend hours, months, years on your book, after it's ready for publishing, after you get that amazing phone call that says, "We'd like to publish your manuscript," or you successfully travel through the land of self-publishing, the fun begins.  It's called a book launch.

Mary, a former student who's been through my book-structuring workshops, recently got her memoir accepted for publishing.  This is great news for her and for her future readers, since it's a good story that needs to be out in the world. 

She's going through all the normal flurry that precedes a book launch and sent me a good question:  What exactly is a successful book launch?  The publisher has their ideas, and you have yours.  Will the two ever meet?  And how can an author tell if she's done everything she possibly can to get her book into the hands of readers?

How Publishing Has Changed--Now It's Up to You
I first began publishing books in the 1980s.  Life in publishing was very different then, a luxury adventure for authors compared to the working one now. 

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Looking Back: When Backstory Helps and When It Hinders Your Writing

When we begin writing our books, we feel an urgency to catch the reader up, bring them over the hurdles of history in our story. We have a lot of past to pass along. We think this past is essential: If the reader doesn’t know Jane was traumatized as a child, how will she understand why Jane is so careful with her adult relationships? If the reader doesn’t know the entire history of the Scout troop, will he get why the boys are intensely loyal to each other?

But what’s more important—to make sure your reader understands why you are telling this story?  Or to get that reader engaged so they'll keep reading?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Feedback and Critique--Finding Safety as Well as Good Growth

Writers need other writers.  I'm seeing this in action today, as my weekly book-writing class pairs off to exchange feedback on their storyboards.  The group is engrossed, the noise level in our classroom is high, and I'm listening carefully for enthusiasm and ah-ha moments.

When I eavesdrop on some of the conversations, I am impressed.  The feedback is s accurate, helpful, and kind. This class has been together for months and they respect each other.  A very necessary aspect of helpful feedback that opens doors for writers, rather than shutting them down.

In this corner of the room, I hear

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Following a Different Path: Is an MFA Right for You and Your Book?

Scan any writers' magazine, browse any writers' website, and you read about Master of Fine Arts programs.  Are MFA programs all they're cracked up to be?  Is it worth the time, the money, the sheer effort?  I changed my life to get my MFA.  But I could also say my MFA changed my life.  I'm forever grateful I decided to get it, despite the cost, the profound shifts it demanded of my routine.

Yet some writers go down this path and find it's not the be-all, end-all it's advertised.  How can you evaluate such a huge step, especially if you are aiming to get a book published in this lifetime?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Emotional Arc of Your Story--How Act 1 and Act 2 Create Rhythm a Reader Will Follow

I've been reading Amy Bloom's new book, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, a collection of interrelated short stories that form a sort of novel.  Although a few stories were published in earlier collections, this grouping takes the characters another step.

I like practically everything I've read of Bloom's work.  I appreciate the intricate weavings she manages, and I often recommend her to students struggling with character and pacing.

There's a trend in publishing right now of such collections, sometimes called story cycles.  Olive Kitteridge won much attention last year; it's a group of stories about a small town in Maine and a fierce retired schoolteacher.  It's tricky to create a story cycle that keeps the reader engaged as well as a novel, leaving us wanting to dive into the next chapter without hesitation once we finish one story.  Short stories by their nature are complete in themselves.  But a story cycle must release some of that finished feel and create a whole-book rhythm.

In Olive Kitteridge, author Elizabeth Strout stays with the traditional rules--a group of characters, a single place--which gives sense to the collection.  Olive builds a strong emotional arc and can be looked at as a three-act structure without much difficulty.  Act 1 sets the stage for

Sunday, June 6, 2010

When Bad Things Happen to Us or to Others--Dealing with Deep Emotion in Your Writing

I was in my forties when I experienced my first up-close-and-personal death.  Elderly relatives passed away when I was younger, but I was young, and although I missed them, often terribly, the deaths didn't have the same impact as when a close contemporary died.

Jan was not a close friend, but she was a person I admired.  She was intensely creative, a quilter and artist, and I liked how her creativity seeped onto everything she touched.  I felt privileged to know her.

She and I had lunch about six months before she died, quite suddenly, of cancer.  She survived treatments for breast cancer, was dealing with bone cancer, and carried a cane.  We met for lunch in a restaurant called the Good Earth, and each of us ordered a big salad.  I remember how Jan's cane hung across the back of her chair; I remember how its silver tip caught the overhead lights.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Writing Outside Your Story: Using Short Self-Assignments When You Don't Have Anything to Write About

I first learned about short self-assignments from Natalie Goldberg's well-known Writing Down the Bones.  Goldberg introduced the concept of "freewriting" to us with that book, and many writers discovered new energy to sail past writing stall-outs by giving themselves freedom to write small, short, and random.

Working on a book project often brings me a sense of being so overwhelmed, I can't think of anything to write about.  I make brainstorming lists of topics, and this helps.  But sometimes I have to write outside my story, just to get the momentum going again.

Short self-assignments help tremendously.

In her book, Thunder and Lightning, Goldberg told the story of a time when she and a friend were stuck, unhappy, and unable to think of how to move forward creatively.  They tried talking.  They tried taking a hike.  But nothing worked until they both sat down and did a timed writing session.  As I remember the anecdote, they picked a topic outside their current writing projects, something that had less importance or weight, and this freed up the stuckness.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Sneaky Way to Bring Joy Back to Your Writing

Albert Camus said a wonderful thing about why we write or paint or dance or make music: "A person's life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art, or love, or passionate work, those one or two images in the presence of which his heart first opened."

Many readers emailed or posted their reactions to the balance of practice and love in the writing life.  One, a creative buddy, shared her efforts with a writing project that has flatlined.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Does Practice Make Perfect--Or Even Contribute Significantly to Your Writing Goals?

It's gardening time in New England--despite the 20 degree weather we had last week that left my kale seedlings gasping--and I'm spending a lot of time out there. Soon my weekly teaching schedule will pick up again, leaving me little time to sit in the sun, so I'm getting my fingernails filthy now.

Gardening for me is a lot like writing. Both take tons of practice, trial and error, failure and misery. Both have some magnificent moments. If you're not into gardening, forgive this analogy, but for me plants and soil have taught me a lot about the practice of writing. The patience I need, the forgiveness of my own big bloopers, the times when I want to chuck it all and go work at McDonalds (not really).

I began gardening because three of my grandparents had the bug. My grandfather lived in Nyack, NY, right on the Hudson and he grew raspberry bushes and roses in a boxwood maze and flowers I could never hope to identify. We were both early risers. When I would visit, I could peer out my dormer window from bed and see him walking in the garden, so I'd get dressed fast and go out to join him. The raspberries were his precious spot. He pondered them like I ponder a chapter, scene, character.

My grandfather taught me to go slow with creating. It worked well to put in time, both fingernail filthy time (digging into the soil, feeling it, working it with your hands) and pondering time.

So that leads us to this week's topic: practice. Does it really make writing perfect? How does it contribute to real writing goals?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Small Steps for Continual Improvement--Work on Your Book-in-Progress

In my attempt to understand the balances and imbalances of the creative life, I've signed up for some e-newsletters. One of my favorites is The Introvert Energizer, written by coach Nancy Okerlund.
I met Nancy at one of my writing classes. She makes a study of the way introverts move through challenges, how they can live with more joy.

Since many of us writers have a rich inner life, maybe even think of ourselves as deeper-than-the-average bear, perhaps even consider we are more introvert than extrovert, Nancy's words often bring illumination to the journey of writing a book.
Small Steps--Kaizen
The Introvert Energizer's latest issue discusses the Japanese theory of "kaizen." Nancy calls it "small steps for continual improvement." I love this idea, because I'm a really a turtle disguised as a speedy rabbit. I wanted to mull over the concept of "kaizen" as it relates to my current book-in-struggle.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Cracking Open the Heart--The Triad of Healing through Writing

How recently have you cracked open your heart?

One of my favorite--and riskiest--writing classes to teach is called "Writing through Healing, Healing through Writing." It's all about cracking open the heart to reveal the inner story of our lives to ourselves and others. Not an easy process, but oh, so rewarding. I teach this class a couple of times a year at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

This past weekend I spent a day on the subject of writing through healing with a group of 22 amazing beings, all doing their best to move through life with consciousness. Via a series of writing exercises, we experienced the cracking of the heart and began to explore what possible gifts and learning our particular traumas held.

Not everyone was ready for this. I'm very aware, from my own experiences of cancer and loss of family members, moving and divorce and business failure, how hard it is to write when you're in the midst of BIG STUFF. Deep grief, and the resulting numbness, is not often a great jumping off place for writing. Especially when the transition is not expected or welcome, not something you initiated. But in each of my big changes, the writing has helped me heal.

Why Does Writing Heal?
Fifteen years ago people scoffed at the idea of writing being medically effective. Now we have documented medical studies that show it.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Three Steps to Crafting a Book: Content, Structure, Language

It's a rainy Saturday and I'm teaching at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Outside, trees are in full leaf, lilacs are blooming, signs of spring are everywhere, unheard of in Minnesota in late April. But because of the rain, my class of 25 writers is content to be indoors.

They've been working on their books all morning. Now I've sent them off to write. They are each going to travel the river that is their book.

Viewing a book as a river let me imagine it as a journey. I wonder which part of the river will make the most engaging focus for my story? Memoirists, unlike autobiographical writers, choose one or more sections. These must be filled with deep meaning. They must have good content.

So first we look at this question: What's the most interesting landscape the river passes? What content is the most relevant to the story I want to tell?

Step One: Content
Choosing content is a basic first step in crafting a manuscript, no matter what the genre. Memoirists look at the content of their lives, the events that happened, and try to select those with the most impact. While memoirists work from true events, novelists create story from fictional ones, but in the same manner--what engages the reader most easily? Nonfiction writers also do this. I may be writing a book on learning to play the piano, but the first essential question is What do I include and what do I omit?

Content is the outer story, the facts or events your book revolves around. You must have content, dramatic and engaging moments, to create any momentum. To keep us reading. A river always moves.

How do you begin gathering content?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Final Act--Are You Ready to Finish Your Story?

Sunset always happens. The day ends. So does your book, essay, poem, story. Eventually you have to tie all the loose bits into reasonable conclusion. Great books leave us in love with the story we've just read, excited about the ideas we've just heard. There's an effect of satisfaction and engagement. How does a writer achieve that?

I learned about it one summer long ago, when I took a writing course at the University of Iowa. My instructor taught me a concept that was new to me: earned outcomes. He referred to good endings, how they make sense because the hints are built in as we go along. Yet they are not overly predictable. I was attempting my first novel back then (one which will forever remain in the file cabinet) and I'd never before heard the question: Have you earned this outcome?

He advised going back through the chapters, seeing if each thread brought into the ending actually wove, unbroken, back through the book.

In that novel, there were so many broken threads, I couldn't finish it. Conclusions I planted in my ending chapters were not foreshadowed earlier, so readers would certainly feel unpleasantly surprised, not pleasantly satisfied. A good ending, or Act 3, of any piece of writing must be anticipated but not expected. In other words, you plant the hints and you deliver the result in a way that makes us think, Wow, that's great, and I suspected it might be so.

I learned a lot from that U of Iowa instructor. Ten years later, when I was writing Act 3 of my second novel, Qualities of Light, I asked myself this "earned outcome" question. I made a list of how I wanted the reader to feel about each character and major event by the last chapter. Then I brainstormed that outcome, working backwards.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Go to the Movies--And Learn about Structuring Your Book

This week I made soup, because the weather turned unexpectedly cold. It was hot, 89 degrees, in the beginning of the week, but it hit 31 by week's end. We pulled out vegetables and turkey, curry powder and tomato sauce, and let everything simmer until dinner.

After dinner, we watched a movie. It was part of my assignment for the week, as I work on Act 2 of my next novel and a nonfiction book-in-progress. I love movies, but I love them even more when I watch them as a writer. I've always found movies the best way to learn about structure.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Three Acts--A Way to Organize the Monster That Is Your Book Manuscript

A well- structured book is like a clear trail. The reader can follow it. So can the writer.

But many writers get bogged down during the process of planning, writing, and finishing a manuscript. A writing project as big as a book can make us confused and overwhelmed. We get lost, even forget where we are in the journey.

I ran into this pretty often when I was involved my first books. I saw that there was a real need in most book writers, no matter the genre. We wanted a system, an easier way to navigate a book-length manuscript, make the path easier to follow--not just for our eventual readers, but also for us, as writers.

Many writers think that books are just expanded shorter pieces of writing. I thought so too, at first. I came from writing short and sweet, as a newspaper columnist for twelve years, and short pieces fit my creative impatience. I liked the closure of writing something each week, limited and succinct. I could work hard, get the writing done, and move on. But I really wanted to dive into a book.

I was naive in those days, innocent enough to think a book would be similar to the process of writing weekly columns. Just longer, right?


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Being on the Radio--WNPR Helps Me Fall in Love with My Story Again

This week I had my small moment in the sun. A thrill for any writer, I was invited for an interview on WNPR about my new novel, Qualities of Light. I'd sent a copy of the book to WNPR in October, when the book was released, hoping but not expecting. The email came in February--We're interested in interviewing you. Yes! I said.

The host is a real expert at getting the story behind the story, no matter who she's talking with. Faith Middleton's show is in its twenty-ninth year, and it has won two Peabody Awards (broadcasting's equivalent of the Pulitzer).

I've spoken on over 100 radio and TV programs in past years, for my other books, and it should've been a breeze. But the novel felt much more personal, more risky to talk about. I prepared lots of notes, and even with all my experience, I was nervous as I drove to the studio in the rain that morning. I'd heard wonderful things about Faith's warm and engaging style, but it didn't matter. What if she asked me something weird? Or, worse, criticized my book in front of all those invisible listeners?

She asked me to sit across from her, in a cozy armchair. I asked for a table for my notes, and she said I wouldn't need any. Oh, boy, more jitters. But her smile and obvious enjoyment of the process of our interview softened everything. So did her first question:

Tell us about the image or moment when you began this book. Where were you, what were you doing?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Building Your Platform--Key to Selling Your Manuscript in Today's Publishing Industry

Do you want to see your name (or your book's title) in lights someday? You may need to get a platform.

What the heck is a platform? Writers in my classes ask this question regularly. Some are submitting their manuscripts and hear this back from agents they contact. Platform used to mean something to stand on, a stage. Now it means the place from which your book's message goes out into the world.

Platforms are built over time and eventually let you be visible to a wider readership. They let people see you and hear you above the crowd.

Not all writers--including me--feel comfortable with the idea of a platform at first. Can't we just write? Can't we just create something wonderful with words? Do we have to stand out? Platforms smack of being called a leader, an expert, someone who knows whereof she speaks.

In my decades as a published author, I've sold lots of books without platforms. Books were based on my expertise (nonfiction) or my experience (memoir), and that was good enough. Three years ago, I sold my novel without any platform at all. The publisher fell in love with the story.

But things have changed. I'm editing my next book, Your Book Starts Here, to be published later this year. It has propelled me into the world of platforms.

Think of a Platform as a Solid Place for Your Book to Stand
A very wonderful agent gave me some great advice.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Registration Now Open for My Summer Book-Writing Retreat--On an Island in Lake Superior!

I've been included this summer in an illustrious line-up of writing teachers, and we're all going to be offering specialized writing retreats on Madeline Island, a beautiful resort island in Lake Superior. What an amazing place to write! Join me July 26-30 for Creative Process: How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book--Taking the Next Step to Publication.

If you like what I've been offering each week in these blog posts, you'll love working one-to-one with me, and a supportive community of fellow book-writers, in this beautiful environment. Each day includes a four hour class, plenty of time to write, and sharing time for feedback. We'll dive into the three-act structure I'm so keen on, taking our novels, memoirs, and nonfiction books-in-progress through exercises like storyboarding, chapter pacing, character and setting development, and much more. A great gift to give your book--and yourself. Cost for the retreat is $410. Class size is limited. For more information, check out Or call them at 715-747-2054.

Spending your summer writing in a milkhouse, on a farm, in the middle of an island, on Lake Superior.
Come to the island, where prairie grasses, pine forests, and emerald green waters wait for your words.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Learning to Edit Your Own Writing

Painters carefully choose what to include, what to edit out. I learned this when I studied still life. You may see ten things but you focus on three because it makes the painting stronger.
Same is true in writing. It's called editing. Do you know how to edit your own writing?

Can you easily see what needs to stay, what needs to go? Can you tell when your tendencies, the places you go "unconscious" in your own work, take over, making the writing less strong and the writer more stubborn? In the final revision, do you have the detachment to let go of what's not working, even if you love it more than your first-born child?

Editing is a craft. Trained editors are truly craftspeople in their work. When a writer is able to self-edit, that becomes an art and a craft. Art, because what emerges is often transformative to both writer and reader. Craft, because it requires practice, discipline, and appreciation for how it improves your work.

My training as an editor came in the trenches of a small press in the midwest where I worked for eighteen years, and as I freelanced for other publishers throughout the U.S. as a book doctor. I learned the craft of editing different genres--what adult literary fiction demands, compared to a children's book, compared to a mystery or self-help or memoir. At the small press, a team of four very experienced editors suffered through my early years, as I learned ways to enhance, not erase, the original voice of the writer and bring out what the manuscript could be.

As I learned to edit other people's manuscripts, I noticed my own writing improving. I began to publish more: essays, a short story here and there, my first books. I didn't really connect my editing training with my writing success until a publisher asked me if I worked as an editor, by any chance. "I can always tell someone with editing background," she said. "The writing they send me is so clean."

Wow, I thought. Learning to edit means learning to write?

Self-Editing Toolkit

I began to put together a toolkit of techniques I used in editing, which might apply to my writing. This included my tendencies to expand or contract as a writer, where I went unconscious (usually during a highly emotional moment in the writing) and skipped over important details, where I was overwriting, where my love of sparseness got in the way of conveying a setting, where I explained too much of what was really obvious, where the pacing slowed too much or sped up and lost a reader.

This toolkit was really valuable. In my workshops, I began teaching special sections on editing. I wanted to give writers a new understanding of their own "unconscious areas" and a new appreciation for editing tools as the solution.

One of the favorite writing exercises, one that draws big "ah-ha's" from the class, is called Expansion/Contraction. It reveals, in very short time, where we get too expansive with our words, covering huge territory, and the reader loses track of the point. And where we are so careful with each sentence, crafting it so sparsely, that the story drops big pieces. It's different for each writer. This week's writing exercise shares part 1 of Expansion/Contraction.

Next Sunday, March 28, I'll be teaching Self-Editing for Writers, the one-day workshop I developed from what I learned. I teach this workshop twice a year. It's going to be at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., and it costs $78. There's still room. If you are serious about learning editing techniques, you may enjoy this workshop. More information below.

This Week's Writing Exercise

1. Choose a paragraph of your writing. Read it aloud to yourself and find the one sentence that really is the essence of the paragraph for you--be it action, character, information, or setting. Now rework that one sentence until you have condensed the paragraph effectively. The writing won't be better; don't try to get that. It's just going to help you see where your paragraph's main punch might be.

2. Now do the opposite. Take that one sentence and expand it to two paragraphs.

3. Which was easier for you? Practice again, with another paragraph, whichever was harder. This tells you a bit about your tendencies as a writer--are you more comfortable expanding or contracting?

Self-Editing for Book Writers
A fast-paced, hands-on workshop to explore how to edit your own work, refining it from draft to final revision. We'll cover the art of pacing, line and structural editing, substantive editing (filling holes), and much more. You'll leave with a new perspective on your work and a toolbox full of essential techniques for getting a manuscript ready for publication or submission to agents and publishers. Bring 2 double-spaced pages of your manuscript or story/essay draft to use in the exercises. For all genres and skill levels.

At the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Ave South, Minneapolis, MN,
To register, please call the Loft at 612-379-8999.
Day: Sunday
Date: March 28
Time: 11:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.

Mary is also offering this workshop:
How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book

Spend two intensive days getting to know your book—what it is about, how to structure it, how to plan to finish it! You’ll learn a step-by-step plan, including flexible timelines, chapter grids, storyboarding, and other techniques. You’ll look at ways to flow chapters, find holes in your material that need filling, organize research and concepts, construct plots, and bring your book into manifestation. You’ll also learn what editors and agents look for and gain essential tips on editing and evaluating your book in all its stages. Designed for nonfiction authors who have a book concept or a work in progress, and for novelists who need a fresh look at their material. Bring an SASE to Saturday’s class and up to fifteen double-spaced pages of work, and the instructor will mail you feedback.
At the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Ave South, Minneapolis, MN
To register, please call the Loft at 612-379-8999.
Fee: $146 for both days
Day: Friday & Saturday
Date: March 26 & 27
Time: 10:00am–4:30pm (both days)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Book-Writing Map Workshop--March 26/27 at the Loft Literary Center. Register now while there's still room.

Find out why writers have called it "the best writing workshop I've ever attended!" Fee: $146 for 2 information-packed days. Transform your book, finish it, get it published. To register, call the Loft at 612-379-8999. Loft Literary Center is in Minneapolis.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Discouragement as a Springboard into Higher Creativity

It was a discouraging week for one of my writing classes. We delved into a new level of information about books, and many writers crashed.

I was deluged with emails after a few days--"Help!" "I'm lost/stuck/floundering." "Not sure I really want to write a book after all." Big discouragement.

Discouragement means losing heart, losing perspective, and it happens to all us writers, no matter how often we've been published. It's a terrible moment when your work looks like dog meat, when you can't imagine how you're going to move forward, when you read other (wonderful) writers and sigh with the impossibility of being that good.

I got a couple of chapters back from a good editor in early January. I had thought these newly revised chapters were almost there. But my editor friend had much to suggest--and this was our third call-and-response session (I call out, she responds with edits). She's so good, she sees so well what needs work, that although I felt the discouragement keenly for at least the length of a long car ride home after our meeting, I knew better than to give up.

So I set about finding what was truth for me in her suggestions, and what she might be seeing that were my own blind spots and therefore invisible to me?

Make a List

The first thing I do with feedback that discourages or overwhelms me is make a list. List-makers for generations, my family instilled in me the beauty of list-making as a way of getting perspective. When faced with an onerous task, my mother made lists. Revising for the twentieth time is certainly onerous, so when I got home I took a sheet of paper and listed my editor's main suggestions.

It helped. A lot. As I listed them--the global changes, the smaller changes--I felt myself move into a different viewpoint. I saw how 90 percent of her suggestions actually made the chapter flow much more smoothly for a reader.

My stomach felt better too.

Perspective--Learning about Your Personal Learning Curve

Next, I put the chapter away for a week. I wanted to spend a little time away from the editing and get perspective (that word again) on my personal learning curve. Where was I in the process of this manuscript? I'd worked on it for four years, it had been through group and individual feedback, and I thought I was really there. But she was telling me that from a reader's point of view, things were still jumbly.

After a week I looked at it. My God, she's right, I thought. The temptation to get newly discouraged rose fast. Why hadn't I seen those things myself!

I reminded myself that blind spots are blind to us until we get perspective. Then we see what we didn't see before. Seeing new levels is a sign of growth, and growth is a good thing. She'd pointed out what was not visible to me before, and now it was visible. Lucky to have someone to help me see blind spots in my writing. Lucky too that she'd given me practical steps to fix them.

I went back to my list and began making the changes that made sense to me. Some of them were so big they caused tremors throughout the chapter--lots had to be rearranged. But I reminded myself that this was all good, this was all growth, and I wanted the chapter to be the very best it could be.

How This Process Makes Us Better Writers

After I corrected my chapter, I printed it out, got some Coconut Bliss, and let the chapter rest for an hour while I stared out the window and went into heaven with my bowl of ice cream. Then I read it aloud. Wow, was it better! So much better, I was amazed.

I felt grateful now, not discouraged. And curious--would this learning translate into changed skill? Would my attempt at the next chapter come out better because of what I'd just learned?

This is the goal--you gain skill from good editing, from good feedback. Yes, there's discouragement, losing heart, but there's also skill--if you keep on keepin' on.

End of story: The next chapter was indeed much better. When I went back to work on its revision, I saw much of the same problems as my editor friend had caught. Blind, but now I see. And I did see, a lot more, which means my skills as a writer had increased via this path of discouragement.

This Week's Writing Exercise

If you can get some feedback on your writing this week, do. Then try one of the techniques above. Make a list. Set the writing aside. Have some ice cream.

See if your learning curve isn't a springboard into higher creativity, in disguise.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Setting: The Best Way to Get Emotion into Your Stories

Author Annie Kelleher sent me a great question about setting in her upcoming mystery (she’s a well-published writer) set in the Florida Keys.

“I’ve tried to be more mindful of adding in atmosphere,” she wrote me, “to heighten the sense of being in Key West, but one of the things that struck me when I visited the Keys was how familiar they seemed, how much like the Jersey Shore town I was born and raised in: the landscape, marshy and swampy and riddled with bays and inlets in South Jersey, has long encouraged all sorts of the same activities that take place in the Keys.

“Even the architecture is similar,” she said, “and the tourist trade and the activities are all alike. How do I give the reader a sense of Key West while showing that, for my character, it feels so familiar?"

Setting Brings Out the Emotion

Setting is what brings emotion to the reader. Dramatic action creates momentum, makes your book a page turner. Good characters well depicted and vivid on the page, linger in our memories long after the book is finished. But setting, the way you frame your story in physical time and space, generates the emotion. Seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? But it's true. Just check it out in one of your favorite books--notice where the setting it, and what emotion is conveyed there.

Even if you know a setting well, your reader won't. Even if the character knows the setting, from growing up there or visiting, your reader won't. So place us in space, time, weather conditions, hot and sultry or cool and breezy. Place us in the intense greens of summer or the black-and-white landscape of winter. Place us in the time of day, letting us experience the light slanting across the floor or the way the night wind rattles the windows.

You can even mention the familiarity of it to the character, let us into that aspect. But we haven’t been there. Just like we’re not inside the writer’s head, we’re not yet inside the character’s either. So place us there, via how the character notices where she is, how it impacts her, what she sees and what she ignores.

You can’t skip this step. Or else we won’t feel your story.

Why Setting Delivers Emotion

I worked for several years with a promising new novelist who was coming from a nonfiction background and trying to learn setting. In nonfiction, setting is used effectively in the anecdotes that illustrate ideas, theories, or methods—you’ve probably noticed the small stories that accompany a diet book or a book on repairing communication in your relationship.

But setting is not primary in nonfiction. In fiction it is.

This new novelist was stumped with setting. At first he thought it was just plug and play: rather stiff (his words) descriptions of breezes, sunlight, and birds injected into a scene willy-nilly. I asked him why these setting details were placed just then in his scene, and he couldn’t tell me. He was just trying to check “setting” off his writerly to do list.

I explained that setting details must make sense with the moment when they are used. When his character, Jules, was struggling with a big decision, he might notice something in the setting that mirrored uncertainty. Not the clich├ęd dark and stormy night, but a small detail like a sweater buttoned the wrong way on an old man he’s talking to. Or shoes scattered in the front hall. A smoking pan on the stove.

The idea was to use the setting to echo the character’s emotion.

If Jules just thinks about his decision, it stays in his mind—and doesn’t reach the reader’s gut. If the setting, an objective part of the story, reflects Jules's indecision, the setting emphasizes what we’re supposed to be receiving from the scene.

A small example. It really helped the writer.

When Is Setting Too Much

You choose your placement of setting details. Nobody rushing to a hospital will notice many setting details. Maybe two or three short bursts pass by, but not long paragraphs of it.

Keep setting to where there’s a turning point, emotionally. Keep outer drama where you need momentum.

Setting slows, drama speeds the pace.

This Week’s Writing Exercise

Use the following checklist to help yourself enhance setting in a section of your writing where you want the reader to really get a punch of emotion. Choose three items and slip them in—not long sections but short (five to ten words) phrases.

1. What does the narrator smell at this moment?

2. What does the narrator feel on their skin at this moment? (air temperature, etc.)

3. What does the narrator hear close up? In the distance?

4. What three objects are in the room?

5. What’s the time of day—morning, afternoon, late evening, night? How can the narrator tell via the setting (without a clock)?

PS Be sure to visit Annie Kelleher's blog at

Friday, February 26, 2010

Let Me Know What You Think!

Visit a chapter-in-progress from my forthcoming writing-craft book, Your Book Starts Here, at

Monday, February 15, 2010

Envision, Think, Dream, Refine: The Four Steps to Manifesting

The process of manifesting a published book, whether seen from the starting gate or halfway to the finish line, demands a lot of trust. We often don't know how to get over the blocks and open stretches ahead of us. We hope that we are good enough writers with a good enough idea to make it to publication.

What if you knew there were four measurable steps that successful book writers pass through? Four steps that are far from magic, that don't demand unusual talent, that only ask for your belief and persistence to follow them. And if followed, result in a finished manuscript?

I came across these four steps by trial and error. And desperation. And getting lost and frustrated and overwhelmed by my book projects time and again.

But I'm a systems lover (as well as a creative person). And after successfully publishing thirteen books in three genres, I suspected a system might exist that could help book writers overcome the overwhelm.

I began looking for anything that dependably brought a book to the finish line. Looking in my own writing notebooks to see what I'd done with my own books, interviewing other published writers, reading writing articles and craft guides. What actually made the book journey successful? Was there any common experience between book writers, in any genre, who published their dreams?

Successful Book Writers Use Visioning
Most writers said they spent a lot of time, before they wrote much, just visioning the book. For some this didn't take place on paper. Others took notes while musing over their book idea, jotting down ideas and images that came through the creative right brain. Others discussed their ideas with friends and writing buddies, testing the waters (and this worked as long as the energy was not dissipated by the talking).

But more than just jotting notes or talking, writers who succeeded with this step actually "saw" the book in their imaginations. Some said they saw the book as a completed manuscript, a stack of papers on their desk. Others saw it in published form, on a bookshelf. In this step, the successful writers infused the journey ahead with confidence and belief in their project.

It's an ancient principle: As above, so below. As you vision, so shall it be. It's the basis for visualization, used in professions from sports to business.

No surprise that successful book writers use it too.

I love the visioning step of manifesting a book because it's so intensely internal and delightfully creative. I spend time visiting bookstores, seeing what else is out there, imagining my book and how it will be different and unique and speak to the readers' need. I also love drafting a mock cover of my book--complete with wished-for testimonials by famous writers. Collage is great in this step (scroll down to see book collages from other writers in my post two weeks ago). I also love writing a visioning statement for my book, asking myself, What's this book about?

Step Two: Thinking It Out
Successful authors often move directly from a solid vision to the action step of thinking. Once the book is alive and breathing inside, then it's time to plan the journey.

Planning feels very "uncreative" to many writers. But books take planning, because they are so large. Many writers spoke about planning including their research tasks, character sketches, drafts of scenes (also called "islands" or "freewrites"), or interviews.

For me, a writing notebook is necessary now. I use it to freewrite often, get deep into the idea of the book, try out ideas on paper. While visioning can be done completely internally, planning begins to externalize the process of manifesting a book. My goal during the planning step is to get my book thought out on paper, and create as much written material as possible so I have plenty of choices later.

This step can take months, even years, depending on how much time a writer devotes to the book.

Dreaming the Form
There's a moment when the material grows so plentiful, it must become organized or insanity might result! When a writer has so much written, then dreaming the form takes over. This is a fun step, as the book starts to look like a real manuscript.

I use storyboarding now, to pick and place, arrange and rearrange, until I have a good structure and can use that to cut and paste together a first draft. I'm looking for something that is still rough, but something that looks a bit like a book--it flows, it makes me proud or at least hopeful.

Few published writers omit this step. Many note that it's the place where manuscripts can feel like impossible journeys. Sometimes this third step feels like slogging through thick sand. But if the writer is persistant, the manuscript comes together.

Dreaming is about structuring, accepting the need to organize the material you've generated so that it makes sense to someone outside your writing world. The reader is very important in the dreaming stage--that's why I call it "dreaming." It's as if you are finally creating a world that can be entered fully and populated with witnesses who are also able to enjoy your story.

Finally, Refining
Many published writers love this last step, refining. I think it's the make-or-break moment for books. If a writer has no love, skill, or tolerance for refining, the book doesn't usually make it to publication.

Because refining can take up to 50 percent of the book journey, it helps to reach out for help during this step. I get feedback from writing colleagues and good readers, even hired editors, to help me see with fresh eyes.

Working as a Whole
These four steps are not separate from each other. Often, they weave together as the writer journeys forward. For instance, we revisit our visioning as the book shifts, as new ideas are explored midway through. It's normal that creative work doesn't travel a straight path. But it's also helpful to know approximately where you are in the journey at any one time.

That way you have a sort of map which can orient you if you get overwhelmed, frustrated, or just plain lost.

This week, take a look at your manuscript or writing project as a whole. Think about where you are with these four steps.

If you'd like, get out your writing notebook and dialogue with your book on paper. Ask it where it thinks you are. Write some notes to yourself about your next steps.

PS If you live in the Minneapolis-St Paul area, I'll be teaching this four-part process at my workshop, "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book." It's a two-day, very hands-on event held in the beautiful writing classrooms of the Loft Literary Center on Friday and Saturday, March 26-27. For more information, visit or my website (look under Writing Classes) at

Receptive Listening--How to Get to Know Your "Players"

We stand with our players, the souls who populate our writing, and we think we know them pretty well as we write our books. But do we? What if we're not really listening deeply enough to know the story behind their stories?

A reader from New York sent this wonderful comment:

"I was reading about one of my favorite subjects, something called Narrative Medicine. This is where doctors learn to listen receptively to their patients and frame their illnesses like a story. That means going beyond the clinical and getting into the whole person.

"And it struck me as curious that the techniques used in attentive listening, that docs are supposed to use to uncover their patients' stories, work because [these techniques] uncover what patients usually don't tell their docs. Thus the idea.... why not apply that to fiction?

"Listen receptively to your characters to learn what they haven't told you. Receptive listening leads to the truth."

Learning to Be a Better Listener to Be a Better Writer
How do you listen better in real life?

How do you use the same skills to listen better in your writing?

In real life, a good listener puts all attention on the person speaking, looks the person in the eyes, reads body language for what's not being said, even repeats back to them what's being said so they know we're listening well.

Most importantly, a good listener lets go of what they think they already know about this person--to be delightfully surprised, to let the speaker have the freedom to change.

In writing, we use similar skills. Full attention, repeating back, looking deeply. But most importantly, getting past our own reactions or beliefs about our stories and the players in those stories.

A challenge for many of us writers. We know who these people are--maybe we grew up with them, if we're writing memoir. We can predict every eyebrow twitch.

Fiction writers get equally stubborn about "knowing" their characters. "She'd never do that!" my students exclaim, when I ask about an idea to up the stakes in their novels.

But our current view is often limited, gives the person no freedom to change, and occupies only one perspective. So this week, try opening your perspective on your players, using the simple question I wonder...

This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Pick somebody in your writing you'd like to get to know better.
2. Make a list of 10 things this person would never do.
3. Pick one item on the list. Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes. Begin writing to answer this question: I wonder what would happen if this person did this? Let receptive listening begin.

Remember this is just an exercise; you don't have to include this in your story. In fact, you may not for many reasons. But it will very likely let you get a new perspective on the player who has been hiding behind what you think you already know about him or her, and you'll hopefully be surprised at what you hear.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Remedies for Writer's Block--How I've Been Using My Storyboard to Break Through

How you open your book determines whether it's read. What's opening your story right now? Is it compelling? Exciting, like a flower about to burst into bloom?

This week my on-going book-writing classes at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY, are working on this question. We're studying Act 1 of our books, asking ourselves if the opening chapter of Act 1 is strong enough.

I like working with the three-act structure in books, because it makes the hugely unweildy manuscript more manageable. But it means doing a storyboard. If you've been reading this blog for the past weeks, you know my love-hate affair with storyboards. They force a writer to structure the story, to know what it's about. And the opening chapter stares you straight in the face.

But the beauty of a storyboard is this: It is fluid, compared to an outline. Parts move around as you learn. Writers in my classes will bring in their storyboards this week and we'll rearrange stuff. Maybe chapter 5 will become chapter 1. Maybe the other way around.

Inner Story Comes Through in a Storyboard
Storyboards also reveal that serendipitous inner story. Inner story is the surprise element that emerges when we're not looking, and it's directly responsible for theme, voice, and elegance of manuscript--those memorable bits that delight both writer and reader. Inner story explores meaning versus event. Inner story can't be forced, and in my experience, outlines tend to make the book's structure rigid and hard to change, much as we want to.

Storyboards are very successful because they are organic. They evolve. But you still have to decide what you're really writing about. That's the other beautiful aspect of storyboards. They make us choose.

Choosing Act 1 Elements
Your storyboard of Act 1 should contain certain elements. If you look at three-act plays, at books that use a three-part structure, you'll see some very important elements in these opening chapters. From my study of Act 1, I've compiled a little list:

1. Act 1 needs an opening that's strong enough to launch the rest of the book. It delivers the main question or quest of your book and make us want to read on.

2. Act 1 also benefits from some parallel action or discussion or moment in its final chapter (say, chapter 7 or chapter 18). In other words, whatever you start in chapter 1 gets echoed in the final chapter of Act 1. This creates a very satisfying loop for the reader: we believe the writer is truly on the ball, because we recap what we've covered so far. Not in obvious ways, just as a parallel moment. For instance, letters received in chapter 1 of Act 1 could be revisited and then burned in the final chapter of Act 1.

3. This final chapter of Act 1 must launch more trouble, a bigger question, to propel us to Act 2.

4. It's helpful, especially if the book has multiple locations, time periods, or points of view in Act 1, to create a strong thread that runs through all of these, to hold all the chapters together. For instance, a recurring object in all chapters, or a metaphor or symbol.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Line up seven Post-It notes on your desk. Close your eyes and drift into the creative imagination. Of all the ideas you have for your book so far, what's the strongest possible opening? Jot it on the first Post-It. Close your eyes and consider what possible ending for Act 1 would echo that first chapter idea. Jot it on the last Post-It.

Now go back to your outline, storyboard, or book notes. Compare what you just came up with and the ideas you originally had for opening your book. Which is strongest?

See if you can fill in the remaining Post-Its. Add more if needed. Then look at your storyboard. Sometimes this exercise results in surprising openings. And the storyboard changes. Make those changes--see how they feel this week. Do new doors open for you? Does writer's block disappear?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Creative Collages--A Way to Get Deeper into Your Story and Your Life

I'm a huge fan of collage. Making a collage, from bits of magazine photos and words and sketches and pretty much anything that can be glued onto paper, is a way I lift myself out of what I already know into what's possible.

Two readers, Lynn and Carole, were inspired by a previous post on making a collage for your writing project. Collaging your writing goals, dreams, focus, or questions can help clarify and bring in new energy. Lynn and Carole said:

Before we got started, we contemplated and then we talked--about what we'd both like to understand about our characters in our stories, what our purpose for writing the story would be, things like that. Collages tend to take on a life of their own sometimes but it's always great fun and a nice reminder afterward to look at for inspiration.

They gave me permission to share their collages with you.

Here's Lynn's:

And here's Carole's:

See what variation there is, how free each collage is, how beautifully it speaks of individual creativity. Can you take on the assignment this week? Get together with a writing buddy. Bring some magazines, posterboard, glue or rubber cement, colored pencils, scissors.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Once you've created a collage, try the exercise below. It's great fun and oh-so-revealing about your writing project.

It comes from writer Sheila Asato of Monkey Bridge Arts, (her website is, who passed along some wonderful questions she uses to ask about collage.

I've taken Sheila's ideas and developed them specifically for book writers. When you've finished your collage, ask yourself:

1. Is there a pathway in my collage, a beginning point and ending point? If so, how do these relate to the beginning of my story and the possible ending?

2. Squint at the collage and find the place with most contrast, which jumps out at you. Ask yourself how it might reflect the highest moment of tension in your book, or the question that remains unanswered, or the unmet challenge your book speaks of.

3. Look at the types of pictures you chose. What are they, mostly--images of people, places, animals, landscapes, buildings, the ocean, the sky, abstracts? How does this predominant type of image tell you something about your book's main focus, the aspect you feel most comfortable with?

Send your writing collages, your questions, and I'll post the ones I can!