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!

Monday, January 25, 2010

How to Survive Writing a Book--The Blessing of Short Assignments

Finding a pathway through your book project can seem impossible at times. You haven't a clue where you're going, and what seemed like a solid outline or storyboard can shift completely, right in the middle of writing.

Despair sets in. Sometimes writer's block. Often overwhelm. How does a book writer survive?

First, we accept that books are organic in nature. They must change as they evolve. The best books always surprise their writers. A teacher once said to me, If the writer isn't surprised, the reader won't be either.

But there's still the factor of overwhelm and how to deal with it. My answer comes from years as a syndicated columnist: short assignments.

The Beauty of Short Assignments
When I was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times syndicate, I produced 600 words each week. Writing became a job in those years, not a romance. I had a firm deadline, I got a paycheck for it, and no excuses were accepted by my boss. I couldn't blow my deadline off even once, or I'd lose my precious slot in the Times lineup. So I did it.

Back then, I wasn't used to short assignments. Six hundred words was really hard to work with. So much to say, so little space on the page.

Over the years, I learned to love the beauty of short assignments. Most times, they reduced any overwhelm. They cancelled out writer's block.

I use short assignments to survive writing books. I break my books into small sections, most often three acts. Since it's impossible to keep THE BOOK as a whole in my head, working on each act individually keeps overwhelm at bay.

Short Assignments Show the Pathway Through
My current novel-in-progress is called Breathing Room. It's the sequel to Qualities of Light, which was published in October. Breathing Room is a much more difficult story. It's much easier to get overwhelmed.

Three point-of-view main characters rotate by chapter. It's very easy for me to lose track of the individual stories, much less weave them together into a coherent whole.

So I broke the story into three acts.

Working with three acts is the perfect short assignment. You focus only on one third of the book, making that act like a complete book in itself, with a beginning, middle, and end, but you create a sudden new beginning again in the final chapter. In other words, act one seems to take us to a nice settled plateau, but it really ends up raising the stakes. That propels the reader into act two. Get it?

It works beautifully in playwriting. I'm finding it works equally well in novels, memoirs, and other genres of books. I'm also using it on a nonfiction book I'm writing about how to write a book. I use a series of key questions, to keep me within my short assignment of each act:

1. Is the storyline for each character tracking well just within this part of the book?
2. Is the triggering event, what starts each person on their individual journey, exciting and dramatic?
3. Does each person go to some new place during act one?
4. What dramatic event ups the stakes at the end of act one, for each person and the group as a whole?
5. What main threads hold the three stories together? How do they intersect via theme, objects that repeat, places that echo in all three stories?

But it's important to give it all you can. Not hoard the best for later.

To Make a Short Assignment Work, Give It All You Got
I was sitting in the library Sunday afternoon, stuck in the final chapter, when I noticed I was holding back. No wonder my character, Mel, was feeling moody and blah on the page. He wouldn't risk anything, and I didn't want to use my "really great" scenes to propel his story into act two.

Then I asked myself, why was I saving these for later in the book? Within this short assignment of act one, or chapter 18 in particular, I needed to give it all I had.

So I took an idea from later in the book, inserted it in the chapter, and let it up the stakes for Mel. From that, three other ideas came forward. They grew into surprising new scenes, right on the spot. The "saved" idea actually fit much more successfully into act one.

When you work in short assignments, don't hoard the best stuff for later. The present is much more important than the future.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise--Two Options
1. Practice short assignments this week. How can you break THE BOOK into manageable bites?

2. Divide your book project into three acts. Use the questions above to analyze whether each act has enough energy. Then, using your storyboard or outline, see what you can rearrange to up the stakes.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pacing through Paragraphs

Imagine standing in a forest. This photo is from our family trip to see the California redwoods. Magnificent doesn't even describe them. Each is so different. They are naturally unique.

A writer's job is to bring out that kind of uniqueness in her or his own work. This comes from several arenas: content, meaning, voice, and pacing being a few.

Judith Hendin, PhD, author of the excellent book The Self behind the Symptom: Accessing the Healing Gold of Shadow Voices, asked me to help her with the editing of her latest revision. I'm a big fan of Judith's work, and her writing, so I was glad for the chance. I first looked at her material in terms of content, meaning, voice, and pacing. Judith's content is strong--she knows her material and she communicates her points very well. In earlier drafts, we worked together to add meaning to some of the examples she uses. It wasn't hard to adjust or add a sentence here and there to make the example more universal for the reader. Voice is already present; she uses interesting words and ideas and makes them her own.

Our last and biggest challenge was pacing. I suggested many pacing changes on her final draft last month, and when I returned it to her, she emailed me with a very good question. "I have just finished incorporating your edits," she wrote. "They were wonderful, so clear and helpful. I greatly appreciate that you read the entire manuscript. Can I ask you one question? In a number of places, you suggested making a new paragraph. I love the effect. Can you articulate how I can think about that in future writing? You know me, I love to learn."

I asked her if I could use her excellent question as a launch for this week's writing exercise, and she graciously agreed. I hope you'll check out Judith's new book at her website.

Paragraphs--How They Create Pacing
When I first started working professionally as an editor, I had good instincts about pacing. From being a passionate reader and a fairly experienced writer, I knew intuitively when a page bogged down from too-slow flow, when it moved too fast for a reader to keep up. I saw a few ways to correct the pace mechanically. Here are some easy ones:

1. Change sentence lengths. When you want a tenser, faster pace, use short sentences.
2. Change word choice. Use short words to get faster pace, longer words to slow things down.
3. Add in more description when you want the reader to linger or absorb more emotion.
4. Use dialogue to speed things up.
5. Use dialogue to reveal character and heighten emotional tension between people.

After a few years of working intensively with these basic pacing tools, I began to notice paragraphs.

A really good editor is the best training a writer can have, in my experience. For eighteen years, I worked with a team of really good editors at a small press in the Midwest. One of them was savvy about paragraphs and began training the rest of us. Here's what I learned.

Most writers are ridiculously unconscious about paragraph length. We find a rhythm, a pulse that feels good, and we repeat it. Over and over. For instance, five line paragraphs. In many manuscripts, page after page of five-line (or four- or three-line) paragraphs are unconsciously churned out from a writer's mind.

Result? Sleepy pace. No matter what excitement is happening, the same old stuff creates a sleepy rhythm. Imagine a symphony orchestra playing the same phrase for three hours. You get the feeling of drone? The visual rhythm of white space and text on a page imprints on a reader's mind and creates a strong effect that can overshadow the actual meaning of the writing.

Remedy? Vary your paragraph length. Break 'em up. A lot!

Breaking Up with Meaning
How do you to start breaking up your sleepy rhythms?

First, print out a chapter of your work. Lay the pages on the table. Squint at them. Study the patterns of white space and text. Do you see any similar sections? Now, be ruthless. Go in and change them, make them long here, short here. Five lines here, two here, seven there.

But break up your paragraphs consciously, designing it for the effect you want from your words. Short paragraphs, such as one liners, will have the effect of a tiny stop sign in the middle of your page. The reader will take notice. So choose well.

Let's take this quote from writer John Fowles, mess up the paragraphs a bit, and see what difference it makes in the writing.


You have to distinguish two kinds of writing: most important is first-draft writing, which to an extraordinary degree is an intuitive thing—you never quite know when you sit down whether it’s going to come or not, and you get all kinds of good ideas from nowhere. They just come between one line and the next.

Changed for Different Effect

You have to distinguish two kinds of writing: most important is first-draft writing, which to an extraordinary degree is an intuitive thing—you never quite know when you sit down whether it’s going to come or not, and you get all kinds of good ideas from nowhere.

They just come between one line and the next.

Doesn't make it better, perhaps. Who am I to argue with John Fowles's placement of his paragraphs? But it changes the effect. The singled-out sentence, the new paragraph, becomes more emphatic. The reader pauses longer on this one, digests it differently.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Try two things this week, using two pages of your own writing.

1. Print out the pages and use the squint test--see where you've fallen into unconscious rhythms in your writing.

2. Mess up a few paragraphs. See what effect you get, what different pacing happens, what tension and interest heightens.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Writing a Book? Here's a Workshop to Help You Structure It

I'm opening my book-writing weekly workshops to new writers, so consider joining me for the next six-week session, starting February 1. We meet on Monday afternoons, 1:30-4:30 p.m., at a wonderful writing school in Tarrytown, NY.

The six-week course is $355 and you'll get a lot from it. Past attendees have said, "This launched me to really complete my book," "Finally, I understand what my book is about," "I loved the structuring exercises, especially storyboarding, that we learned and practiced in class," "Best writing workshop I've ever taken, bar none."

I open my six-week classes to new writers twice a year, in winter/spring and fall, so take advantage of this offer if you're in the Hudson Valley area. Easy access via train line.

See more by visiting the Hudson Valley Writers' Center website and search for "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book." Or call the Writers' Center to register: 914-332-5953. Or email them at

Hope to see you there!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Quotes to Inspire Writers

A writing friend, Jean Sands, author of the newly released book of poems, Gandy Dancing, sent round a lovely collection of quotes from writers and others to inspire us as we begin our new year. Jean gave me permission to share them.
(Check out her new poetry book at

This week's writing exercise is to choose one of the quotes below and write for 15-20 minutes about what it means to you. If you're writing a novel, have one of your characters discuss it or think about it.

Quotes to Inspire Writers

“Out of the artist’s imagination, as out of nature’s inexhaustible well, pours one thing after another. The artist composes, writes or paints just as he dreams, seizing whatever swims close to his net.” John Gardner

“The novelist’s imagination has a power of its own. It does not merely invent, it perceives. It intensifies, therefore it gives power, extra importance, greater truth, and greater inner reality to what well may be ordinary and everyday things.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Before you begin to write a sentence, imagine the scene you want to paint with your words. Imagine that you are the character and feel what the character feels. Smell what the character smells, and hear with that character’s ears. For an instant, before you begin to write, see and feel what you want the reader to see and feel.” Othello Bach

“Poetic value is an intrinsic value. It is not the value of knowledge. It is not the value of faith. It is the value of the imagination.” Wallace Stevens

“The truth seems to be that we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them. If this is true, then reason is simply the methodizer of the imagination.” Wallace Stevens

“In literature, you know only what you imagine.” Carlos Fuentes

“You put yourself apart from yourself, and you enter the imaginary world.” Andrew Lytle

“The realm where the narrative you are working with becomes true and alive for you.” Madison Smartt Bell

“The composition of fiction can, at least theoretically, be broken into two stages. First, and most important, comes imagination. Next is rendering. Imagination is no more or less than a highly structured form of daydreaming. Daydreaming is fun, a form of play. Once the people, the places, the events you are imagining become fully present to your senses, then it’s time for rendering. . . . to express your vision in language.” Madison Smartt Bell

“I do find something distressingly amoral in the very nature of film and TV—possibly because the photographic image denies the spectator virtually all use of his own imaginative powers. Whereas reading requires a constant use of the reader’s imagination.” John Fowles

“The artist’s imagination, or the world it builds, is the laboratory of the unexperienced, both the heroic and the unspeakable.” John Gardner

“It [imagination] is the one thing beside honesty that a good writer must have. The more he learns from experience the more truly he can imagine. If he gets so he can imagine truly enough people will think the things he relates all really happened and that he is just reporting.” Ernest Hemingway

“The real man, the imagination.” William Blake

“There is something in the nature of nature, in its presentness, its seeming transience, its creative ferment and hidden potential, that corresponds very closely with the wild, or green man, in our psyches.” John Fowles

“The writer’s sole authority is his imagination. He works out in his imagination what would happen and why, acting out every part himself, making his characters say what he would say himself if he were a young second-generation Italian, then an old Irish policeman, and so on. When the writer accepts unquestioningly someone else’s formulation of how and why people behave, he is not thinking but dramatizing some other man’s theory: that of Freud, Adler, Laing, or whomever. Needless to say, one may make some theory of motivation one’s premise—an idea to be tested. But the final judgment must come from the writer’s imagination.” John Gardner

“A strong imagination makes characters do what they would do in real life. A subtler work of the imagination—a subtler way in which the writing of fiction is a morally serious mode of thought—is symbolic association.” John Gardner

“The bad writer may not intend to manipulate; he simply does not know what his characters would do because he has not been watching them closely enough in his mind’s eye—has not been catching the subtle emotional signals that, for the more careful writer, show where the action must go next.” John Gardner

“The imagination sees with the eyes of the spirit; the maker, finished with his making, must then see what he has done, like the reader, with corporeal eyes.” Guy Davenport

“Romantic theory: the imagination, wellspring of compassion, is an innate faculty but one which requires exercise and training.” John Gardner

“The intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does [the creative mind] review and inspect the multitude.” Schiller

“Ridiculous little parakeet faced woman; but not quite sufficiently ridiculous. I kept wishing for superlatives; could not get the illusion to flap its wings.” Virginia Woolf

“I began the making up of scenes—unconsciously: saying phrases to myself; and so, for a week, I’ve sat here, staring at the typewriter and speaking aloud phrases of The Pargiters.” Virginia Woolf

“Elvira and George, or John, talking in her room. I’m still miles outside them, but I think I got into the right tone of voice this morning.” Virginia Woolf

“A novel, as we say, opens a new world to the imagination.” Percy Lubbock

“All literary and dramatic enjoyment, whether of nursery tales in childhood or of moving pictures later on or of ‘great literature,’ appears to involve to some degree the reader’s imaginative identification of himself with the roles portrayed and his projection of himself into the situations described in the story. (At what age does the capacity for imaginative identification of oneself with the roles portrayed in a story begin? The writer would suggest, on the basis of very limited observation, that it begins around the age of two or earlier. An interesting test case is to read the story of the Three Bears to a very small child to see when he begins to identify himself with Baby Bear.)” S.I. Hayakawa

“The first conception of the work needs intuition and imagination more than the craftsman’s toolbox, and so does the final consummation.” Madison Smartt Bell

“The landscape that opens before the critic is whole and single; it has passed through an imagination, it has shed its irrelevancy and is compact with its own meaning. Such is the world of the book.” Percy Lubbock

“Safety is a crime writers should never commit unless they are after tenure or praise.” Pat Conroy

“Don Quixote does not invite us into ‘reality’ but into an act of the imagination where all things are real.” Carlos Fuentes

“If the writing is any good, it struggles free of you, and the feeling of being inside it just as it moves away is so brief; a sensual visitation, the brush of His hand.” Jayne Anne Phillips

“Throughout time great writers have always been able to transpose themselves imaginatively into not just the racial other, but the sexual other and also into other historical periods.” Philip Gerard

“I think you will agree that the good lasting stuff comes out of one individual’s imagination and sensitivity to and comprehension of the suffering of Everyman, Anyman, not out of the memory of his own grief.” William Faulkner - written in a letter to Richard Wright

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year's Resolutions for Writers--What Do You Want for Your Creativity This Year?

Traditionally, at this time of year, I like to set some goals for my writing. Winter, when things are stripped bare, makes it easier to see what I really want from my creative life.

I found inspiration this week from teacher and writer Emily Hanlon, creator of The Fiction Writer's Journey and Creative Soul Works. Visit her website at Emily sent out these wonderful new year's resolutions for writers. They also fueled this week's writing exercise.

Emily's resolutions are very inspiring because they locate the adventure and joy of writing rather than the production of pages or books or published articles. Her resolutions include (and as she notes, these are in no particular order):

1. I write for the passion and adventure of the journey.
2. Writing comes from my heart and the fire in the belly.
3. Writing is a craft. Craft supports writing, it does not define it.
4. I love my first draft writing for its fertility and uncovered gems.
5. I welcome the unexpected in my writing.
6. I will not think about being published until the piece is finished.
7. I go where my imagination takes me.
8. I will set up a writing schedule that supports, not defeats, my writing. Discipline is a necessary part of being a writer, but I will not use failure to keep to my schedule as a reason to give up.
9. I will write the story that is gestating within me – even if it scares me or makes me think I am losing my mind.
10. When I begin a new piece, I will begin without thinking, without planning.

How often do New Year's resolutions focus on the qualities of the writing experience, not the results? It's very refreshing. And accurate to my own experience. Goals set as qualities are much more likely to manifest. They make it easier to enjoy your writing journey.

They also tend to create better writing. Why?

Goals That Loosen Us Up--Rather Than Put Us in a Box--Work Best
When writers put all of their attention on publishing rather than the creation of something unique that expresses their truths and journey, they tighten inside. It's a great road to writer's block. But when writers put attention on the qualities of their journey, what they want as an experience, it opens them up creatively. Magic happens.

This week's exercise helps you loosen up your writing goals. You'll be crafting a few New Year's resolutions for your creativity. The exercise can be done over a series of days, as you think of something to add to your goal list, or in one session of about 20 minutes. Have pen and paper or your writer's notebook or computer at hand.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Close your eyes, relax, and imagine yourself a year from now. Project yourself into the future.

Focusing on your creative life as a writer, ask yourself:
What qualities are in place with my writing that have come about during 2010?

Maybe you trust the process more, maybe you created good writing habits, maybe you manifested a supportive writing group or partner. Begin to list these qualities, as if you are at the end of the year looking back. List anything that comes to mind, using Emily's ideas above, thinking about what's lacking in your writing life, dreaming some writing dreams, or even polling your writing friends about their goals to get some ideas.

Here are some questions to get you started:
What would you like to feel by the end of 2010 about your writing journey?
What changed with your creativity?
What did you learn--new skills, new habits, new ideas?
What manifested for you?

This exercise is fun, if you let yourself travel forward in time and use the visualization to create a new experience for yourself. It may bring you an unexpectedly fertile new year--your most creative, fulfilling one ever!