Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rest Breaks for Writers--Feeding the Creative Artist

I'm rerunning this blog from last December, since it is timely at this season.  To honor my artist and focus on my writing, the blog will be taking a break until the first week of January.  Feel free to browse the archives back to 2008 for inspiration--and consider taking a rest break and feed your own creative artist this month!

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 often rolls around with all of these symptoms, for me.  I'm finishing up my fall semester of teaching my online and in-person classes.  I adored them--the students were amazing, wonderful, and inspiring-- but I give so much to each group, holding the creative space for them when they can't see the pathway, it takes a lot of energy and time.  This week, as the classes complete and the last posts are made, I find myself sitting on the couch, staring at the mountains outside my living room window, wondering where I am.  More important, who I am.  I can't tell anymore.

Crying jags often accompany this, for me.  Wails of "I'll never write again" sometimes come too.  It's normal to dive even deeper as the tension releases and the stress lessens, as both body and emotions come forward with long-ignored needs. 

Don't get me wrong:  I eat healthily, I exercise regularly, I sleep reasonable hours, and I have good family and friends support.  I'm living a good life.  But in the realm of manifestation and creativity, which is what my work is all about, I had been stretched to the max these past months.  I didn't know any other gear to drive than Intense.  I didn't know how to get back to the "necessary boredom" that Dorothy Allison talks about, the place where my own creativity bubbles up.

Somehow, though, I'd managed to carve out three weeks in my calendar.  My spouse started a new job about that time, my son was visiting friends for the holidays, so I was alone.

Blissfully, frightfully alone, with nothing to do.  Or, let me rephrase, nothing anyone else was asking me to do.

So what next?  How do I make use of this nothing, and let it heal me, fill me up again?  I hadn't a clue how to begin.

Taking a Creative Retreat for the Inner Artist
I have a wonderful book for these occasions:  The Woman's Retreat Book by Jennifer Louden.  It's packed with ways to disengage and reacquaint yourself with yourself.  I found it on a back shelf, went back to my spot on the couch near the mountain view.  I closed my eyes and opened the book at random.  Of course, it opened to this section "Feeding the Artist."  I read the first line: "If there is one cosmic law I know the consequences of ignoring, it is this one:  you cannot create from an empty well."

Duh.  Why didn't I see this before I had my meltdown?  Well, obviously, when one is empty, it's hard to see that.  Many of us keep running anyway, fueled by adrenaline, and the joy of life gets dimmer and dimmer.  We lose track of where we are, who we are.  We get swept up with other people's lives (and creative needs--if you're a teacher).  It's all good, it's all important.  I love my work.  But there's a moment to say, "Stop!"  Let yourself go back to yourself.

I decided I would ignore both calendar and lists for these three weeks, as much as I could.  Even my visioning lists went into a nice blue folder and into my desk drawer.  I began to putter, to play.

The first day I cooked two soups.  I love to cook, and two soups in one day seemed lovely and extravagant.  Besides, the vegetable drawer was foreign territory and I could use up a dangerous-looking butternut squash (fine with the dangerous part cut off).  I took a walk and went to bed by 9.  The next day I listened to Christmas carols and wrapped a few gifts then read a lovely novel (Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann) and let myself nap.  Day three I got out the card table and started a jigsaw puzzle.  I cleaned out my clothes closet.  I took myself to lunch.

You get the idea.

One of Jennifer Louden's most important directives in this chapter on "Feeding the Artist" is not to create while you're filling the well.  Stop working on your project, stop trying to manifest anything.  Ugh, that was hard.  I hadn't had enough time to work on my novel-in-progress, so these three weeks were planned as full immersion.  But when I took out the manuscript and my editing pen, I froze up.  It all looked terrible--a sure sign of the Inner Critic's negative notions surfacing--and I couldn't bring myself to do anything.  Reading Louden's advice felt like a reprieve.

Funny thing.  As I began to fill up again, new ideas started coming.  I would be watching a movie or marveling at McCann's amazing prose, and I would find myself thinking very lightly about my own creative projects.  Images would come.  An idea of how to solve a sticky plot problem in the novel.  A place to get information I needed.  I didn't pursue these, just took notes.

I'm letting the creative tension build for another week.  It's getting fun.  I look forward to my empty days, I no long dread the thought of moving so slowly.

This Week's Writing Exercise 
1.  Take stock.  Do you need to feed the artist?  Is she or he starving from too much output and not enough input these past busy months?

2.  If the answer is yes, can you carve out time for a rest break?  Even five hours in a day when nothing is needed of you is amazing and precious.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Can Self-Publishing Land You on the Best-Seller List?

My indie-released songwriter friends never understood why writers are so hung up about self-publishing.  Musicians have long separated from the labels and ventured out on their own, releasing their own CDs and working with indie distributors like cdbaby. 

But we writers have been told that unless we get an agent and go the traditional route, we'll never be taken seriously in our writing careers. 

I went the traditional route for years--agent, large publisher, small press.  Each experience had its ups and downs and I worked with some wonderful editors and publishers and some not so.  I stayed away from the stigma of "vanity press," or self-publishing, because I believed it was a fast route to career suicide.

Besides, I wanted the marketing and distribution help a publisher could give.

Times have changed.  Advances are few and small now, most publishers don't have the same careful editorial procedures I benefited from as a writer starting out in the 1980s.  Manuscripts must arrive in pristine condition--the writer's responsibility.  Agents and publishers demand a platform, a solid marketing plan and media presence, from most authors they sign nowadays.  The writer must become more than just a wordsmith with a good story.  She has to learn to sell her book as well as write it.   

For this, writers get 7-1/2 percent of sales, which for a $14.00 trade size paperback amounts to about $1.13 per copy.  We do the marketing work, we hire editors before submitting it.  The publisher prints the book as orders come in (print on demand) in most cases, not wanting to carry inventory, or does a short run of less than 500 copies to see whether the book will sell.  Agents take 15 percent of everything.   

Some writers are thinking seriously about their options now.  Many are choosing self-publishing. 

They're figuring out the system themselves, they're crafting e-books and selling them for 99 cents a copy to drive up sales.  They're making money.  Even if they self-publish a printed book, through Create Space or Lightning Source, they can make up to $10.00 a copy after expenses are paid back (for typesetter, proofer, cover designer, and editor).   

Self-publishing requires money up front, for a printed book.  Less or none for an electronic book.  But if you're going to have to market it yourself anyway, why not make $10.00 a copy instead of $1.13?

What's your experience with self-publishing?  What are your thoughts?

Find out the potential, explore your options.  Don't be swayed by the traditional route when there are more opportunities for writers than ever.

Your writing exercise this week is to read all about writer Darcie Chan. She was rejected by over 100 literary agents and dozens of publishers, then went on to self-publish her debut novel and sell over 400,000 copies on Kindle.  Think this kind of story is a fairytale?  It's happening more and more.

The link to Darcie's story is here.

Self-publishing is still a controversial topic.  But as the industry takes one hit after another, it's an option many writers are considering--and succeeding with.

For more success stories about self-publishing also check out chapter 25 of my book, Your Book Starts Here.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Five Major Turning Points on the Road to Finishing a Book

Travelers in foreign territory often need good maps.  But book writers rarely have them.  We often don't know about the major stops--what I call "turning points"--in the book-writing journey.  It's hard to tell when we've arrived, when we're ready to move on, when the writing is finally enough.

These five turning points are often where we get stuck and frustrated.  Moving to the next level requires skills and a new approach,

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Embracing the Scary Project--Why Bravery on Demand Can Help Your Writing

Simone de Beauvoir once wrote, "Every time I start on a new book, I am a beginner again. I doubt myself, I grow discouraged, all the work accomplished in the past is as though it never was, my first drafts are so shapeless that it seems impossible to go on with the attempt at all, right up until the moment . . .when it has become impossible not to finish it."

This comes from her1965  book Force of Circumstance, which is one of many published works during her long literary career. New book writers might read this in astonishment. How come such a prolific and experienced writer had such beginner's emotions?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Saying thanks . . .

Just wanted to say thanks for writing books that share your passion with the world.  Seems appropriate on this Thanksgiving week to post this wonderful article by Derek Sivers.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Building a Questions List to Keep Writing Fresh

This month I've taken on an insane project--which I try to do each November.  I've signed up for National Novel Writers Month, or nanowrimo as it's affectionately called by those who know and love it.  Each year, hundreds of thousands of writers from around the world log on to the site and commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days.  That's about 1667 words a day, give or take a few.

Nanowrimo boasts

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Crafting an Agent-Catching Chapter One

I was given the news by the editor at my publishing company.  It was a shock, even in these shocking times in publishing.  "We only read the first two pages of chapter one," she said.  "If it doesn't grab me, it doesn't get further."
What intense pressure for writers these days!  To craft a chapter one that

Monday, October 24, 2011

Using the Short Form to Get to the Long Form--Two Fun Excercises for Your Book This Week

A good writing friend once shared this piece of wisdom:  Sometimes we have to get small to get big, with our books.  Books span large areas of time and space, and it's easy to get lost in the expanse of them, overwhelmed with all the details.

In my writing classes, I use two fun exercises to help writers manage the immensity.  One exercise is a poem, the other is an exploration of one of your main characters, your narrator, or your potential reader, by putting them in a five-page short story. 

These two exercises are such fun, they can feel like a sidetrack away from the "real" writing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How to Educate Yourself about Publishing in Today's Changing Industry

Publishing is changing so fast, it's hard for writers to keep up with the shifts.  A friend sent me this wonderful article from author Steve Pressfield's site, "What It Takes," featuring publishing-savvy Shawn Coyne talking about the profit and loss analysis that publishers make before accepting a manuscript. Fascinating to hear the inside scoop.

If you're game, educate yourself this week.  Scroll down to his article, "A Matter of Infinite Hope."

Feel free post your comments and questions.

Click here.

And for an even more eye-opening article, about how has just started signing up writers, click here for this week's New York Times article.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Finding the Perfect Writing Notebook--and How to Use It to Finish Your Book

A good friend just recommended, and another just purchased, the most beautiful writer's notebook, so I am posting this article from two years ago about how to use them to the fullest as you create and craft your book.  If you'd like to salivate along with me, check out the Leuchtturm writing notebooks.  I'm off to order mine right now.

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

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Change of Seasons--Visioning Time for Your Book?

Today it is wet outside, the start of our fall rains.  Everything looks saturated with September sun and now the moisture of this gentle rain, and it's a good day for sitting still. Something I don't do very often, but which my books crave at this time of year, as the heat of summer downshifts into colder weather.

Today I'm giving myself the gift of visioning.  Simply listening, and waiting.  Visioning brings

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What Makes a Chapter? What Makes a Scene?

A common question in my book-writing classes is the difference between chapters and scenes.  Both are pathways, bridges between one moment and the next.  But what makes a chapter work?  What makes a collection of scenes warrant it

Saturday, September 10, 2011

My Love (Hate) Affair with Storyboards

Storyboards, the visual map that filmmakers use, save my books. They are my primary pathway through my piles of material.  They are my best tool for organizing and structuring my novels, nonfiction books, and memoirs so that a reader can make sense of the story.

I love them. I couldn't make publishable books without them.

I also hate storyboards. They are like bossy mother-in-laws, telling me what I'm doing wrong. They point out exactly what I don't want to look at about my book-in-progress: where I have too much blah-blah-blah, where I've skipped a juicy opportunity for conflict, where I've stayed on track or gone on a tangent.

Essentially, it becomes clear as day where my book isn't yet working.

I teach storyboards, I have several hanging on my office walls, and I barely tolerate their linear know-it-all attitude. But I think they're gold.

The Golden Opportunity of Storyboards
A big question as you begin your book is this:  How are you going to know if your story flows when it's outside of your own inner worlds?

You can craft a draft, of course.  Get it typed out and printed, read through it.  But it's still hard to see if the idea you presented on page 31 will thread through to page 231 in a way your reader will track.

Some writers make long lists.  I do this too.  Facts to check, threads to follow.  The lists on my desk are as numerous as my printed drafts, after a while, and I start to go crazy under all that paper.  Here's where storyboards present a golden opportunity, like a good map out of a swamp.

A writer needs to know the structure of her story flow, the placement in time and space of each idea or plot point.  It's not just enough to churn out the words. The sequence matters, a sequence that readers can follow, and you need some method to clearly see sequence. Filmmakers use storyboards to provide this.

What's a storyboard look like?  Check out  this video where I demonstrate a storyboard.  

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Making Time for Your Writing--How Many Plates Are You Spinning?

Each choice we make, each change we bring into our lives, requires a certain level of attention.  Normal activities that are in a groove require a different kind of attention, because they are on a maintenance level.

But if we're tackling something new, like health or family changes, a shift in job responsibilities, a new exercise plan, new financial goals, it becomes like

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Vote for My New Book--NH Literary Award Finalist!

My new book, Your Book Starts Here, is now a finalist for the New Hampshire Literary Awards in the nonfiction category.  Pretty thrilling!
It's also up for a People's Choice award.  If you'd like to help me out by voting for Your Book Starts Here, please feel free to click here 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

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

I'm on a writing sabbatical this week so I'm rerunning a favorite post from December 2009--hope you enjoy it!

Still life--may be nice to look at but not the stuff good stories are made of.

Bad decisions? Ah, there you have my interest.  Friction and fracas--they are the real meat of the plotting craft.  Is enough happening in your book?  Are you stuck in a "still life" that's beautiful but not going anywhere?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Image List : A Great Way to Get Your Creativity Juiced

In mid-summer, my writing often takes a dive.  I feel the laziness of summertime and don't really want to work on anything, much less do the hard work it takes to be a dedicated book author.

I set myself a schedule, I set a timer, and still the stuff doesn't come out on the page.  Maybe

Monday, August 8, 2011

Transitioning to the Image Brain: Write a Poem about Your Book

Novelist and short-story writer Stuart Dybek (Coast of Chicago) was interviewed in Novel Voices about unique approaches to writing a book.

A most intriguing idea he presented was this

Sunday, July 31, 2011

That Tricky Balance of Show and Tell in Your Writing--How Do You Work with It?

One of my favorite quotes about showing versus telling comes from Anton Chekhov, who wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”  This seems to sum it up.  Readers get emotionally engaged in writing that demonstrates rather than delivers.

Not sure you agree?  Think of a book you may have read recently.  Did you skim any of it, skip some sections?  Go back and look at those pages, and perhaps you'll notice that the author went into her head a bit, perhaps.  Maybe she decided it was a good time to get on a small soapbox and explain something.  You lost interest, as a reader.  That's because telling contains less emotional charge, so we're less involved in the images of the story.

Showing brings image to the page.  It's a demonstration of scene through specific details. Most books need to have more showing than telling nowadays, partly because of our fast-moving culture.  We have a shorter attention span.  Even movies are changing to adapt to the new ways our brains work. 

That's not to say that telling isn't important too.  Once something is framed on the page by shown details, a small bit of telling can deepen the meaning, the understanding a reader gets from the scene.

This week I've been teaching a retreat with 11 writers from all over the world.  We're at Madeline Island School of the Arts, a beautiful art school located on restored farm on one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior near Bayfield, Wisconsin.  During class this week we were reading an excerpt from William Trevor's Cheating at Canasta, a short story about a woman who has Alzheimer's.  In this scene, the woman is playing cards with her husband, and although she can't really play cards anymore, he loves her so much that he helps her win.  After a page of showing this sad and beautiful relationship they have, Trevor ends with a line of "telling" that always knocks my socks off:  "I cheated at Canasta, and she won."  Because the telling is framed by earlier shown detail, we totally get it. 

So while telling at its worst brings an almost intellectual assessment of what happened, and showing at its best relies instead on sensory detail (smells, sights, sounds), telling is important. Telling lets us back away from the moment, giving us brief perspective on what's been shown.  While showing places the reader squarely in the moment, telling gives distance.

The key to showing is to demonstrate. This means not interpreting the things you are placing in front of us.

Robert Olen Butler, author of many wonderful stories and novels and instructor at this writing at Florida State University’s MFA program, talks about this in his book From Where You Dream. To learn how to show better, I like to pass along these tips from Butler's book.  They help me deliver emotion in its purest form.

Most important:  don’t dilute your moment with interpretation.

Butler observed that emotion can be delivered to a reader (shown, versus told) generally in five ways. Here is my translation of his terms:

• what I am feeling inside my body (goosebumps on my arm, itchy foot, tight throat)

• what I am observing in your gestures and movements (tearing a small paper napkin into bits, jiggling foot)

• specific memory

• fear, anticipation, desire (projections into future)

• sense selectivity (during moments of extreme emotion, all but one sense goes away)

During the developing stage of book writing, whenever I need to change a scene to more “showing,” I will go through Butler’s list and ask myself how I can bring in one of these.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
This week, translate a passage that "tells" into one that "shows," using one of the above techniques. What happened?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Creating the Most Engaging Environment--Working the "Container" of Your Story

Writing teachers often cite the trio of event, character, and setting:  major elements to keep track of in your manuscript.  This trio is key to any genre, memoir, fiction, or nonfiction.

All books have something happening, illustrated by scene or anecdote.  That's event.

There's always someone this event happens to, be it fictional character, real-life narrator, or reader.

And there's always

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Taking Along Your Writing: How to Keep Your Creativity Alive during Your Summer Vacation

I am packing my suitcases this week, wondering about where to fit my writing.  Clothes, check.  Great book, check.  Camera, check.  Teaching materials, check.  The pile is big, the suitcase is small.  Can I take my printout for the novel that's haunting my days and nights right now?  Will these characters, who are living with me every moment, fit in a side

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lessons from the Movies--Planting and Returning Images to Create a Satisfying Ending

There's a place in every book where all the assembled objects begin to balance.  They have slowly come together through many pages and form a cohesive whole.

Of course, this is the end of the story.  It's supposed to be satisfying, even if it leaves us with questions and aches to know more.  It should never leave us confused, however.  All the elements brought into play during the book must be accounted for.

I find that ending a story, especially a book's story, is hard.  Every book I finish offers its own particular agony in its ending.  Endings leave me really concerned--what sleight of hand to perform that will bring delighted gasps from

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Four Levels of Learning--From Unconscious Incompetence to Unconscious Competence

I am sharing a post I wrote last summer, because my Madeline Island retreat is coming up again in July, and I remembered this wonderful experience we had there. If you're interested in learning more about the retreat, click here. One spot just opened up for the July 18-22 retreat and four spots are still open for the July 25-29 retreat this year.  Writers who went there last summer still write me about how their books suddenly came together, just from the supportive community and great atmosphere of the retreat.  It's hosted by Madeline Island School of the Arts, which provides lodging and most of the meals.  Our classroom is large and airy, there's plenty of writing time, and you get feedback for your work.  Feel free to join me--it's truly an amazing week.

At my book-writing retreat on Madeline Island (Lake Superior) last 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

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mixing Things Up--Another Look at How to Break out of Writer's Block

Alison McGhee, writing instructor and author of many wonderful novels including Shadow Baby and Rainlight, once taught a very effective exercise in a writing class I attended.

Lists were written on the whiteboard: people of different ages and different objects. She asked us to choose one specific from each list and

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Forest and Trees--Balancing the Long View and Short View as a Book Writer

When you’re writing a book, you have to simultaneously hover over the forest, while you're noticing the tiny leaves of each tree.  Being in two places at once, you must keep in mind your overall book’s focus and structure, how you want it to come together--at the same time as you work on a tiny detail of one scene or chapter.

It’s often hard to balance these two viewpoints well.  Most new book writers

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Hands-on storyboarding workshop--get feedback on your book idea

Weekend book workshop, August 6-7, Manchester, NH.  For more information click here.

Reading from the End--An Effective Way to Troubleshoot Your Writing

A student in my current online class had written a wonderful chapter for her book.  It was working almost perfectly:  the tension was high, the characters were strong, I could see the setting and it enhanced the emotion of the moment very effectively.  But there was something not quite there.

The writing needed some help, and at first I

Monday, May 30, 2011

A Way to Study Outer and Inner Story in Your Favorite Books

Weaving the pathway of outer and inner story (what happens and what's the meaning of it) through a book requires knowing the different effect of each on the reader.  The best way to train yourself is to study outer and inner story in published books.

If you study books in different genres, you discover that each kind of book leans toward a different ratio of outer to inner story.  You can learn a lot about how to balance the two in your particular book.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Balancing Outer and Inner Story in Your Book

Outer story is the foundation for all good books. Outer story grounds the reader in your material, whether you are writing about people, politics, or potatoes. It creates structure, a logical sequence of information or events, a believable time and place. It lets the story track for a reader like a

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Gardening and Writing--Filling the Well by Following the Love

Last night, just as the moon was coming up (almost full!), I was out in the garden planting lettuce seedlings.

I started them from seed indoors in February:  three kinds of leaf lettuce--romaine, Tango, a French summer crisp.  I also started raddiccio seedlings, arugula, and spinach.  Today I will add

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Using the Storyboard W to Structure a Self-Help Book

One of my readers from New York asked if the storyboard W, which gives an easy way to enhance momentum in your story, could be used for nonfiction as well as fiction and memoir.  Specifically, could it be used for a self-help book?

I've written and published many self-help books, as well as how-to books, so I could easily answer

Friday, April 29, 2011

How Are You Spending Your Summer? The Value of Writer's Retreats

Like many creative artists who have jobs and families that demand attention, I sometimes dream of everything being quiet.  Of finally having time and privacy to get deep into my writing--without phone calls or texts or emails; with nobody to think about but my characters and the words they give me for the page.

Especially as we're coming out of a long hard winter here in New England, with the weariness that brings, I find myself dreaming of

Friday, April 22, 2011

Five Fundamental Practices That Keep You Away from Writer's Block While You're Writing a Book

It isn’t talent that makes an artist succeed. Talented people fail all the time. Success comes from belief in yourself, persistence with your craft, and a good routine—setting aside regular, sacred time to make art. To dedicate time, you must believe in your worth.

As the painter and author Frederick Franck wrote, “You shall not wait for

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Letting Myself Exhale--Celebrating the "Empty Nest" of a New Book

I've just finished a book.  No, I mean, really finished it.  The last change is proofed, the last word typeset.  It's on  It's being ordered by bookstores.  It's published.

It's completely out of my hands.

That's a relief, and it's also a worry.  No longer is

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Online Class--Your Book Starts Here--Begins May 16

If you're interested in studying book-writing with Mary, there are a few spots left in the Your Book Starts Here online class, beginning May 16.  Sponsored by the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, this 12-week course is entirely virtual, so you can access the weekly lessons, writing exercises, videos and articles on writing, and more 24/7 from anywhere.  Limited to 20 writers.  Includes weekly feedback from Mary on your writing and a wonderful online community of fellow book writers at all levels.  For more information visit the Loft at and click on Online Classes or call the Loft at 612-379-8999.  Register soon if you're interested!

Researching Your Book--How to Do It, When to Stop and Get Writing

A children's book writer sent me the following question:  "I am interested in writing a non fiction book for 11-18 year olds and wanted to know how to go about preparing myself to do the research for the book effeciently?"  This writer had a timeline for her book and wanted to complete it by the beginning of December.

Research is both a blessing and

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Preparing for Publication--Writing Your Book's Premise and Synopsis

A reader from Minnesota has gotten interest from a publisher, but the publisher has asked for a written statement of her book--often called a premise statement--and a longer synopsis with market analysis.  Hers is a nonfiction book that straddles memoir and investigative nonfiction, and she wondered about how to put these two items together. Her publisher was specific:

1. Descriptive statement. Please provide a 250-300 word description of your book that includes

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Writing More Vivid Characters--Borrow a Technique from Alec Guiness

This week, I'm going to share a technique I teach in my workshops on writing vivid characters.  If you're interested in learning more, you're welcome to join me on Monday, March 28, 1:30-4:30 p.m., at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY (Westchester county near NYC), for an afternoon workshop on writing strong characters.  The cost is $60 and you can register by calling the Writers' Center at 914-332-5953.

I was struggling with dilemma in my second novel when

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Wisdom from a Writing Master--Barbara Kingsolver on Her Writing Practice

A student in my online class shared this wonderful interview with Barbara Kingsolver from Kingsolver's website, and it has helped me through a tough writing week.  I admire Kingsolver's no-nonsense approach to the artistic life, and she has great tips on how to keep writing.

This week's writing exercise is to enjoy the article, and post your comments and insights. Click on the link below (Interview with Barbara . . . )

Interview with Barbara Kingsolver on Writing

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Good Books for Learning Different Writing Skills

For several years I worked via email with a small group of new book writers.  I'd just graduated from my M.F.A. program and I wanted to see if others would learn as much as I did from reading certain books.

One of the writers, working on his first novel, emailed me after our first year.  He had compiled my list of recommended books by what he'd specifically learned from each--about aspects of

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reading to Become a Better Writer

This past weekend I was reminded of the joy of reading good books.  This reminder came unexpectedly, via a small New England writing conference called Writer's Day, hosted by New Hampshire Writer's Project.

I've attended Writer's Day for two years.  Two hundred writers from all over New England gather each spring for really good workshops, intense networking, pitch sessions with agents and publishers, and a stellar keynote speaker.  Each time I go, I am impressed with

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wise Words about Passion in Writing

One of my students alerted me to this excellent NPR review of Stanley Fish's new book, How to Write a Sentence.  But even more fun is the excerpt from the book, which is below the review.

I'm posting the link here (click on the words "NPR review" above), to share with you one writer's passion for writing.  It inspired me to read it, and I hope it'll ignite your own passion for your words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages.  So for this week's exercise, enjoy this excerpt from How to Write a Sentence.  Maybe go out and buy or borrow the book.

Then spend some time reflecting on your passion for words.

Do you swim in the joy of them, as this writer does?
Why or why not?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Writing Dialogue: How People Really Talk on the Page

A friend recently sent me this wonderful article, published in the Wall Street Journal's Wordcraft column, about how people really talk on the page.  I like this column, I'm more impressed with the WSJ since it began including it to its usual lineup.  The article is short, like all of the Wordcraft essays, but gives good food for thought.

So many writers in my classes have questions about how to write dialogue.  It truly takes

Monday, February 14, 2011

Weeding through the Mess: How to Make Sense of Your First Draft

A reader from New York has been working hard on her first draft of a novel for over a year.  First drafts aren't easy.  Initially they require sitting down and writing a lot.  Not necessarily from chapter 1 to The End, but a lot of scenes need to accumulate.  This is the benefit of writing classes, writing marathons, and writing practice.  This is why Nanowrimo is so popular.  You can accumulate pages toward this first draft.

But after all the pages are written, you

Friday, February 4, 2011

Storyboarding--Using the W Storyboard Structure to Chart Stronger Conflict in Your Book

With the help of one of my students and the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, I created the video below.  Watch it to learn how to use the W storyboard structure to create a strong emotional arc in your book, via stronger conflict.


Interested in learning more?  I'll be teaching storyboarding in two-day workshops this spring:

Saturday/Sunday, April 9-10, at Southern New Hampshire University, sponsored by NH Writers' Project.  For more details visit

Friday/Saturday, May 6-7, at the Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis, or call 612-379-8999 for details.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

How to Work with the Four Levels of Transition in a Book: Smoothing the Reader's Ride

Successful transitions allow a reader to move through your book, from beginning to end, without getting frustrated or bored.  Or taking two steps back to reread something that wasn't clear.  But transitions are the last thing we think about when we're creating our books.  It's only when we read the manuscript at draft that we discover awkwardness, sections that jump around, or are too fast or slow.

How does a writer craft good transitions?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Finding Creative Balance: Making Room for Your Writing in Your Life

Years ago, I gave up on New Year's resolutions.   Lots of people promised themselves the moon, but everything fell back into stasis by February.  Me too, back then.  I couldn't ever figure out how to make real, lasting transitions from what I was to what I wanted to become.

But I am still attracted to the possibility of change, especially in my creative life.  So I love

Monday, January 17, 2011

How Tall Do You Want to Grow? Taking Risks toward Reaching Your Goals

I subscribe to an e-newsletter from life coach Cheryl Richardson, author of many books including one of my favorites, Stand Up for Your Life!  Cheryl sends out a weekly inspirational essay with an exercise.  This week was about the choice to take risks--or not.

She shared a story of a woman who took a relationship risk.  After two decades of being reluctant to step forward and start dating, this woman finally approached a man who lived in her building and suggested they go out for coffee.  It turned out well, and now

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Community and Rhythm--Two Keys to Producing a Book

It's deep winter here in northern New England, and I'm thinking about summer--quelle surprise!  As the furnace tries to warm my cold toes in their sheepskin slippers, I'm remembering a beautiful lake that stretched to the horizon, blue sky and warmth, and sitting in an Adirondack chair on farmhouse porch.  This wasn't just any farmhouse porch; it was on Madeline Island in Lake Superior, far from my normal life.  I had my laptop on my knees and I

Monday, January 3, 2011

Are You a Memoirist or a Novelist? More Ruminations on Proust, Memory, and Writing the Truth

I received an eloquent email from a reader in New York, who had some thoughts on my recent post on memory and truth.  I am sharing it in its entirety below, hopefully to stimulate some discussion among readers and at least get you thinking (and possibly researching on your own) the ever-changing and fascinating field of brain science and how it applies to us who are writing books.

I get this question so often in my classes:  How can I accurately write memories