Friday, December 31, 2021

Writing Goals--Clearing Your Path for Creativity in the New Year

Some writers set goals religiously. Some haven't the interest or time. I'm one of the first group, but my goal setting is done in a slightly different way than the traditional. I like to use both the linear and random approach to goal setting.

I do this because I want to make room for changes and growth along the way, because what I aim for now might be limited to what I currently see as possible. I've learned the hard way that the universe surprises, constantly. Goals can be derailed by unexpected life changes.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Two Amazing Resources for Writing Inspiration This Month

Two writing friends sent along links I have enjoyed so much, I wanted to share them as this week's post.

One is from the often-amazing Lit Hub. It's written by Rebecca Solnit and it's called "In Praise of the Meander," about a different way to shape your creative nonfiction. The link is here. If the link doesn't work, go to and search for Rebecca's name. Highly recommended read! (Thank you, Colleen!)

The other resource came from a playwright friend who, like me, loves the writing of two British authors: Helen Macdonald and Jeanette Winterson. If you're also a fan, just imagine those two literary heavy-hitters in conversation!

Well, here you have it, in this podcast sponsored by The Guardian. The link is here. If it doesn't work, go to and search for either of their names. (Thank you, Barbara!)

Great input for your creative self this week--enjoy.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Can Self- or Hybrid Publishing Land You on the Bestseller List?

My indie-released songwriter friends never understood why writers are so hung up about self-publishing. Or the more recent hybrid version, where a publishing house helps you create the book and you fund it. Musicians have long separated from the labels and ventured out on their own, releasing their own CDs and working with indie distributors.

Even today, writers are told that unless we get an agent and go the traditional route, we'll never be taken seriously. We'll never make it as a writer, whatever that means.

I've played both sides of the court. For years, I went the traditional route--agent, large publisher, small press, radio and TV marketing paid for by my publicity budget with the publisher, even book tours back in the day. I also have self-published twice, creating a professional book with hired help (typesetter, cover designer) and promotion.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Alchemy of Place: How to Create Tension through Your Story's Setting and Atmosphere

Morning: writing at my sunny desk. Task: revise a stubborn scene. Advice from recent feedback: bring more tension and emotion into it.

Sunshine in our New England autumn today is no help. In my fictional scene, it's chilly rain in the northern mountains of New York state. While I sit comfortably in my chair, laptop in front of me, spicy tea and good music and sweet air at hand, my poor beleaguered character has just crashed her small plane--on purpose. She's bleeding, shaken, and starving. Around her is a circle of dark, forbidding mountains, misted by the rain.

Our settings couldn't be more disparate. Yet I'm trying to conjure emotion in hers and capture the desperation of this person who only exists in my imagination.

Friday, September 24, 2021

The Delight and Danger of Using Dreams, Journal Entries, Texts, Letters, and Other Passive Devices in Your Book

Ever been with a friend who wants to tell you a dream? It starts with a circus, then they're fishing off the coast of Mexico, then someone is in a diner listening to bad C&W music. On and on the telling goes, one weird scene after another. If you're like me, you begin to feel like you're watching bad home movies.

Dreams are super important in my personal life: I've recorded my dreams since I was in college and still do it faithfully. I know my dreams are often quite meaningful to me. But I don't impose them on anyone else. Hard to make sense of if you weren't there.

Have you also noticed that dreams aren't used a lot in published writing? Maybe because they are part of the backstory of a character's life, but a wobbly, illogical part of that backstory, which readers rarely can make sense of.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Don't Really Like Your Characters? Tips on Working with Unsavory--or Outright Bad--People in Your Stories

A reader once sent me an excellent question. You know those characters in your story--memoir or fiction, especially--who turn out to be less than appealing? People we'd normally avoid in real life (and perhaps have), but who somehow made it onto the pages.

"I have many stories in which the characters are not easily appreciated," this writer told me. "I am sure many of my stories will be filled with hints of resentment, bitterness and disdain. Many players acted badly, and hurt the lives of many people. I guess forgiveness is due, but the facts are the facts. How do I deal with that?"

Friday, September 10, 2021

The Surprising Benefits of Writing Every Day--Why Practice Gets Us Closer to Perfect

A writing colleague once said: "If I'm away from my book more than three days, it's like starting over again."

Have you experienced this? I have. It's no fun.

The desire in many creative artists--and why we're so frustrated when our regular lives interfere--is for a practice. Something that we can show up to every single day and feel connected with, some ritual that feeds us at the soul level. A practice we have permission for, with our other obligations, including family, friends, and work. That doesn't feel like we're stealing time from other, more important things.

I personally believe this is why Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writers Month, is so popular. We make a commitment to write every single day, about 2000 words. We join virtually with thousands of other writers in a strange and creative global community. We give ourselves permission to do this for one month (or, if you join nanowrimo camp in summer, more often). We don't care how rough the writing is--we just show up and do it.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Writing from the End: How Endings Create Satisfying Beginnings in a Book

Many years ago, I read a debut novel by M.L.Stedman, called The Light between Oceans. It taught me something important about endings and reader satisfaction.

The gorgeous title and very interesting premise called to me--a lighthouse keeper and his wife who live on a remote island off the coast of Australia find a baby in a boat that washes up on shore. The wife, desperately childless after three miscarriages, argues to keep the baby. The husband wants to contact the mainland and let them know, thinking that some mother there will be equally desperate. But the wife wins, they keep the child, and their world cracks in unexpected ways.

Although I love reading just for reading's sake, I have been reading as a writer for a very long time now. I have a writer's high expectations. I found the prose lovely, with generous use of images and tense character interaction. The setting of the rocky island and its isolation, the keen details about the lighthouse, were amazingly crafted.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Rest Breaks for Book Writers--Feeding the Inner Artist--and When to Get Back to Work

We packed up our camper van and headed to the beach for four days. The puppies are very happy in the camper; it's a contained space, so monitoring their housetraining is easier.

The first two days, I had planned to write. I was enjoying--so much--editing the final chapters of my new novel from my agent's suggestions. But, to my dismay, I could barely open my ipad or laptop. Instead, I found myself sitting in the sunshine, watching the dogs play.

I lay in our travel hammock and stared at pine trees, wondering where I was.

More important, who I was. Clearly not the writer I'd planned to be during this trip--far from it.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Approaching Summer Reading--Like a Writer

Back in the day, I came across a book on writing by the renowned teacher and author Francine Prose. Reading Like a Writer changed how I approached my reading. I still read for the pleasure of being immersed in a story, of learning, of becoming inspired. But now I took something else away from my reading time: techniques I could use in my own books as a writer.

Prose's book is one you've no doubt read yourself--if you haven't, be sure to!--and I learned much from her step-by-step unraveling of story.

It was a similar change in awareness that happened when I discovered storyboards and the five turning points of well-structured stories. I remember watching a film not long after my first storyboard immersion. My family grew very tired of my muttering "a perfect point #2" or "there's the all is lost moment." But my admiration for good structure and my new understanding of how writers achieved it did change my take-away from good movies.

Friday, July 30, 2021

When to Research, When to Write: How to Balance the Different Kinds of Book-Writing Tasks

Starting a new book is always a great adventure. The idea comes--so many different ways that can happen, from a dream, some intriguing research or a news article, a question ruminating, the image of characters, even a conversation playing in your head. Some writers begin with a storyboard, some with an outline, some launch right into scenes and chapters.

Most books require research, no matter the genre. Take my current novel, located on an island I once visited and never forgot. I spent a half day online verifying facts about the geography and climate, so I could pepper the narrative with realistic details (not quite as delightful as another visit but necessary). A writing colleague is working on Civil-War historical fiction--tons of research about place, era, clothing, even speech is essential to create a believable setting. Memoir might need rereading journals or diaries, interviewing family and friends. Nonfiction is often the most research-intense, with hours or weeks of fact-searching and checking to make everything accurate.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Memoir's Primary Argument: Making Sure Your Memoir Is Universal, Not Just Personal

I've always loved this quote by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: "The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality. It's tapping in to your universality."

That's confused a lot of my students, though. What's universal have to do with anything? This is a story about me, my journey, my pain and discoveries.

Yes, in the early drafts, it is. Your conversation is a bit like the character from Stranger Than Fiction who talks to himself in the mirror. I mean this in the best possible way: we have to talk to ourselves to get the true story on the page. If we bring in invisible readers too soon, to member will lack authenticity.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Imagine Actually Finishing Your Book--A Three-Part Visualization Exercise (That Works!)

Summer can be a distracting or deepening time for writers--depends how much you are pulled away by the plethora of activity and energy in warm weather. I've got gardening and travel and now puppies on my plate, so it's easy to forget my book entirely. I've learned to keep it in my attention with a great three-part exercise, using visualization.

Visualizing your goals used to be a woo-woo exercise. Now sports teams and creative types use it a lot. A painter standing in front of a blank canvas might imagine the sketched-in composition. That's visualizing. A tennis pro imagines lobbing the ball to the perfect place in his opponent's court. Nothing weird about this, nothing at all.

Many pro writers use this "thinking from the end" idea--novelist Roxanna Robinson mentioned how she writes to an image when she begins a book. Sue Monk Kidd used an image board to create The Secret Life of Bees. All forms of visualization. I use it in the hot months as a creative exercise. Right now, am thinking about the end of my current book. I'm imagining the corrections done and it actually being finished!

This three-part creative visualization exercise can keep you brainstorming your book's completion, no matter where you are in the journey.

Step 1:
Grab some paper and a pen or your laptop. Set the kitchen timer for 20 minutes.

Write, without editing or censoring anything, about how you might feel when your book is finished. When it is published. Write your thoughts about how your life or sense of yourself as a writer might change. Write your fears and even terrors about others reading your work. Write any memories you have of other times when you've failed or succeeded in realizing a big goal.

Let the writing go wherever it goes--even if it brings up dark thoughts and feelings, which it might, as well as excitement. It's great to get it all out on paper where it can be seen for what is it.

Step 2:
Find a piece of 8-1/2 inch x 11 inch white paper that you can fold in half lengthwise to resemble a blank book cover. You're going to make a prototype of your cover. I love this exercise's power to really bring home the image of the published book.

You can do this with online images or pictures torn from magazines. If you decide to search online, a great free site is You may know of others. If you decide to do it more tactilely, you'll need 4-5 magazines and a pair of scissors, some glue or tape, and a big sheet of paper.

Set the kitchen timer for 30 minutes and scan the magazines or online site for the perfect image for the front of your book when it is published.

Print the image or cut it out and paste it to the front of your book cover. If you're savvy with Photoshop or another software, change and tweak as much as you want.

Feel free to grab a copy of a published book you love and study its cover for ideas.

Next, create your blurbs. Blurbs are the short testimonials on the back and front cover. In your wildest dreams, who do you want to write a blurb for your book? Which reviewers from The New York Times, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly might read your book and rave about it? Draft some stellar reviews for your book and paste them to the back cover or below your cover image.

Want to do one more fun step? Some of my students go all out with this exercise, adding a bar code and back cover copy and even a spine. Get into it--it'll actually help you feel like you might someday finish!.

Put the completed cover on the wall of your writing space or take a photo and use it as wallpaper on your computer or device.

Step 3:
Design your publication party.

When books are published, someone (friends, relatives, book clubs, even the publisher sometimes) will throw you a publication party. When my first novel, Qualities of Light, was published, I had two parties! Lots of people came and I signed many copies of the book and read aloud from my favorite chapter. It was a blast.

Imagine your pub party. What would you just love to have as part of it? Music, food, literary stars, speeches, thousands of books sold? Set your kitchen timer for 20 minutes and list all your wishes.

Put these up where you can see them, too, in your writing room or on your desktop or phone. They are big boosts for days when you can't seem to find time or make any headway on your book this summer.

And pay attention to how they charge up your writing in the next week. Maybe they'll work for you like they did for me.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Pros and Cons of Workshopping Your Writing--How to Survive It, How to Gain the Most from It

Years ago, I attended a summer writing conference at one of the most renowned colleges in the US. A friend lived in the town, invited me to stay the week, and spend five days workshopping my short stories in a small group of writers from all over the country. I said yes. It sounded perfect for where I was in the process: I liked my stories and so did my writer's group, but I hadn't really opened the door to wider feedback.

It was a terrible experience.

Friday, June 25, 2021

What I've Learned about Great Dialogue from Thrillers

I love literary fiction, rich nonfiction, travel memoir, all kinds of books, actually, that take me places. Every now and then, I also love a good thriller. I learn from those authors, mostly about tension, pace, and dialogue. It's high-wire stuff, and the dialogue is honed to a sharpness i don't find in a lot of other genres. Sometimes I skim over the visceral parts, but I always study the dialogue.

Dialogue isn't usually the vehicle for momentum in story. Its purpose is to deliver undercurrent, reveal what's not being said. Often, dialogue will let us into the underworld of a character, showing whatever is hidden and secret. Not because this is stated in the dialogue itself, but because it's communicated by the tags (he said, she said) or lack thereof, by the pauses and beats, by the dialect or tone.

In thrillers, the dialogue contributes to pace. The dialogue kicks things into gear.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Honing Your Process of Receiving Feedback and the Revision It May Require

I've only slowly gotten used to my own stages of writerly reaction when I receive feedback. Positive feedback generates a warm satisfaction, almost glee, inside. A victorious feeling. Something worked, especially satisfying if I put in a huge amount of effort. Sometimes, I'm amazed--I don't quite believe it--but I'm basically over the moon.

Harder, though, is feedback that suggests the need for revision. What I do with that kind of feedback often determines whether the piece progresses or not.

I think of all the years I flailed over feedback. I didn't yet trust my own sense of what was correct and useful to my writing and what was just the reader's opinion and had nothing to do with the story I wanted to tell. It was all murky. Either I accepted everything, because who was I to know better. Or I got mad and hurt and stomped away, vowing never to share again.

Both responses were pretty useless.

Friday, June 11, 2021

How to Find, Develop, and Let Your Writing Voice Shine--Three Tips

One of my long-time students asked a great question: how does a writer develop voice?

I wanted to make sure she was talking about the writer's voice. Because there are two kinds of voice in books: the voice of the narrative, the writer's unique authenticity, and the voice of the characters. They are very different in how they are found, developed, and realized on the page.

Writer's voice comes as a natural process of maturing in your writing--as you begin to recognize what makes your writing unique and different in style and texture, as you begin to let go the fear of needing to fit in or sound like another writer you've long admired. It takes time, for most of us.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Special notice to my feedburner subscribers


Thanks for following my blog posts each week!  I've just learned that Feedburner will be discontinuing the automatic send to each of you as of July 2021.

If you'd like to continue receiving my weekly blog posts, please email me at mary[at]marycarrollmoore[dot]com and I can subscribe you.  The blog posts will arrive in your email inbox each Friday morning if you do.

Keep writing!


Friday, June 4, 2021

Theme: The Undercurrent of Meaning in Your Book and Why It's Vital to Publishing Today

When we finish a good book, something lingers with us. We have coffee with a friend and she notices we're distracted. It's not life--for once. Only the story we just read.

"I can't stop thinking about this book," we might say. "I almost miss it."

She asks, "What was it about?" and we try to answer. "It's about a woman who travels to India," we say, "but it's much more than that. You have to read to understand."

That's theme.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Finding the Best Comp Titles--What Your Query Letter to Agents Should Include

One of the most challenging parts of assembling a good query letter--beyond the sheer difficulty of writing it--is deciding on your comps.

Agents need and want and almost require good comp titles. These are the two or three titles of other books in your genre that will help yours sell to a publisher.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Why a Smart Story Location Matters--and How It's about a Lot More Than Setting

Realtors know that smart location is everything in buying or selling property. Try to sell a house that's near a busy highway or high tension wires, and you'll learn this. In story, a good location is also really important--I wouldn't say it's everything, but it's as vital as good characters and strong plot.

Unfortunately, it's the aspect of writing that many writers tack on or ignore altogether. Mostly due to impatience, I've learned. Or the belief that once you've described the weather and how a room looks, the reader can retain than for 300+ pages.

I don't know if the analogy really works, but I see smart location like a smart phone--it is where the reader taps in, to orient, to learn more, to feel the character's communication with her life.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Facing the Fear of Finishing Your Book

There's a kind of romance that happens between a writer and the book they have been working on for months or years. A relationship, at least, if not romance. They begin to have feelings for each other, a certain fondness, from all they've gone through together. It hasn't often been an easy road but it's been all-consuming. We live with our books, day and night. In waking moments, we're mulling over plot ideas. At night, we may dream solutions.

This bond forms ever more strong as time goes by and the book is still in progress. Sometimes, as an editor, I see writers hanging onto their manuscripts, fixing one more thing, not wanting to let them go. As a writer, I get this--my characters and the place I'm writing about and the situations all occupy so much of my interior life, I am loathe to release them.

Friday, May 7, 2021

How to Keep Writing When You Have No Time--or Energy or Enthusiasm--for Your Book. Or Do You Need To?

My spouse and I just adopted a puppy. He's adorable at 14 weeks, and full of energy and sharp growing-in teeth. He is slowly, after a week with us, learning how to use the yard for his bathroom duties rather than our rugs. He sleeps a lot, which is a blessing.

But my writing life has been upended. Not to mention sleep. Not to mention every other aspect of my every day.

We chatted with a woman this week who works with animals. She said some of her clients swear than raising a puppy is harder than raising a kid. I've done both and I'm not sure I agree, but it's certainly causes a lot of upheaval. Puppies are bundles of energy. They demand attention, care, love, as they should. They create havoc, happily. They are full of joy and curiosity.

I'm exhausted.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Pros and Cons of Using Present or Past Tense--What's the Effect on Your Reader?

A client told me about a recent meeting of her writing group. They discussed using present versus past tense when writing memoir. What were to pros and cons of each, what effect did they have on the reader?

Interestingly, one group member had spoken to her editor about this. The editor strongly encouraged her to switch her present tense chapters to past tense. She was confused about the virtues of each.

We're talking verb tense here. Past tense of your verbs or present tense--and what's the difference. Just to review, here's how a sentence looks with the verbs in past tense: John went to the game and arrived late. If you use present tense for the same sentence, here's how it would read: John goes to the game and arrives late.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Crafting Stronger Mechanical and Emotional Transitions to Keep Your Reader Turning The Page

I learned about the importance of transitions during my MFA study. One of my thesis advisers, a talented novelist, read my novel-in-progress and liked it but felt my background as a newspaper writer hampered my transitions. "You end each chapter like you would a journalistic piece," she told me. "It's complete, nothing left to push the reader forward into the next chapter."

She was right. As a syndicated newspaper columnist for twelve years, I had been trained to keep my thoughts short and wrap them up with a flourish.

The goal was reader satisfaction, a sense of completion. Closure.

"Closure is the last thing you want in the middle of a book," my adviser said. "You want to keep your readers turning the page."

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Joys of Scrivener--My Favorite Software for Organizing Your Book-in-Progress

Before I wrote books, I wrote stories, essays, and poems, columns and articles. Short stuff. Short stuff doesn't require that much organization. I had a friendly relationship with Word and Pages. I kept files of the multiple versions of my short stories, for example, in separate files within Word--not so hard to scan and use if needed. I often printed hard copies and kept a file folder until the piece was published. I used an Excel spreadsheet to track where I sent writing and what happened to it.

Totally manageable.

Then I began writing books. Within months, pages accumulated. Way beyond anything my short stuff generated. I was swamped in paper, with no great way to organize it.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Power Positions--How to Increase the Tension in Characters and Locations

"Who's on first?"

We're not talking baseball. We're asking: Who is the power person in a particular scene? Who is the character that holds the control over present and future outcomes? Who will most easily score the home run?

Once I identify that player, I can begin to work the elements of tension in my fiction and memoir more skillfully.

To create tension, two or more elements of power combine, and one wins out. Just like people try to exert control over their lives every day. so must characters on the page. Story is about that give and take, that gain and loss of control over oneself and one's circumstances.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Enter Late, Leave Early--A Great Piece of Writing Advice for Chapters

Not everyone wants to pay for an MFA degree, and I didn't either, for a long time, until I started writing fiction and realized I knew nothing about it. I'd been published for years in memoir and nonfiction, but fiction was truly another animal. I researched schools, found one, got accepted, and began. In those two years, I learned a lot I didn't know, but one particular piece of advice reshaped my understanding of chapters, scenes, and books.

It was this: Enter late, leave early.

I learned, after graduation, that this slogan is widely known among screenwriters. Less so among novelists or short story writers, although it's just as valuable to us. William Goldman and David Morell wrote it as "jump in late, leave early." It applies to scenes, to chapters, to the entire book, in my mind. But I find it most useful in chapters.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Finding the Shape of the Forest-- Learning How to Read Your Own Work

I'll never forget the writer who approached me many years ago, asking me to read her work. "I can't read it myself," she said. "It makes me too upset."

I asked her, out of curiosity, how she went about reading it.

"On the computer, of course," she told me. "I edit every sentence as I go." She shook her head. "I haven't made it past chapter seven."

Over the years since, I've spoken to other writers who literally hate to read their work. They want someone else to do the deed and tell them what to fix. Totally understandable. A client emailed me this week about how she "can't see anything anymore; it all looks like mush." We do get blind to our book's strengths and weaknesses. We've been studying the leaves so long we forget how the forest should look.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Revising for Meaning--Beyond the Basic Revision Checklist

With the long winter wrapping up, it seems many of us are also wrapping up book projects.

I'm hearing from quite a few writers in revision. Behind progress reports and exhaustion lies the usual self-doubt: Are we there yet?

And more importantly, How do I tell?

Friday, March 12, 2021

Making Your Scenes Rock--Seven Tips for Stronger Scenes

One of my favorite writing-craft guides, often recommended to writers who want to hone their scenes in fiction and memoir, is The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield.

Not all writers know how to write scenes, truthfully. Neither did I, for many years. My scenes began as "islands," or unorganized snippets of writing that kinda felt like what a scene should be. They were a far cry from what I learned as I studied scene-making. Scenes are the backbone of a book, at least in the fiction and memoir genres. I knew my scenes had to move the story along, had to take place onstage in front of us versus in the character or narrator's head. But other than those two rules, I had no guidelines for how to write them.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Learning New Tricks from Published Writers--What Advice to Make Your Own?

I learned early in my writing career that just because a writer was brilliant--well reviewed, published, and capable on the page--that didn't mean they were the best teacher. Or even a reliable dispenser of advice I could use. The lesson came hard.

I'd signed up for a weeklong class with a short-story writer I admired intensely. His story ideas were amazing, his execution of them even more so. I anticipated the workshop for months, rereading his work and listing questions to ask. I wanted to get the most from the week.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Summary Tells, Scene Shows--How to Use Each in Fiction and Memoir

I've been thinking a lot this week about the ways we tell stories. Some writers come from a background of oral storytelling, as in gathering round the fire and relating tales. A tradition of vocal rhythm, handed down from culture or place or heritage, crafts their stories almost unconsciously.
Stories are something told, not necessarily something shown.

There's much beauty in this. Much to value.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Dealing with Rejection Close to Home: When Family and Friends React to Your Writing

A reader sent me a poignant email a few months ago. She's writing a memoir and happened to show segments to her family--for all the best reasons. She wanted her sister and brother to verify facts from their turbulent childhood. She wanted them to validate what she remembered. And she, naturally, wanted their support as she went forward with the book.

It's a hard story to write, and support would be so very welcome. But instead of confirming her memories, this writer's siblings reacted strongly against them, horrified that she'd open the vault of family secrets.

Another writer wrote me this week about her own family rejection--she'd put together a group of her stories and created Shutterfly books as holiday gifts. They were lovingly made, with photos tucked into the narrative. But she received only silence from most of the recipients, just one acknowledgement. That hurt!

I've heard similar stories in my classes, experienced it myself. I was once married to an editor, like myself. When I showed him my novel-in-progress, he took great care to mark all the punctuation and other errors in his trademark red pen, then handed it back to me. I asked him what he thought of the story itself, since that's what I was really after. "I don't read fiction," he told me. And I knew that. So why did I expect differently?

I've come to believe there are two main reasons we decide to share writing with those closest to us.

One reason is to get their feedback, blessing, or approval if we are including them in our stories in some way (even fictionalized or with identity mostly hidden). That's reasonable and often wise. A recently published memoirist worked with me on this very issue when she was writing about a mentally ill brother. She sought unofficial release from him, his permission, and he gave it. It relieved her immensely to know that at least she'd done her best to include him in the decision. Another writer I worked with carried a completely different view: her writing was nobody's business but her own, her story was hers to tell, she needed no approvals. You have to find your own side of this line.

For me, I decided to get signed releases from those whose stories I included in my memoir/self-help book years ago, and I'm glad I did. A few years after publication, one of the contributors wanted his story removed. I approached the publisher but the book was not able to be reprinted on just this request alone--too costly. And I had the signed release. I went back to the contributor and shared the news. Not entirely what he wanted, of course, but nothing he could do about changing their decision.

On the other hand, I didn't run family stories by my siblings before including them. Neither sib was mentioned in the story--only our grandmother--but it still caused friction for about a year after publication. All's well now, but that was a good lesson. I don't know if I'd have done anything differently, though. I leaned towards the "this is my story" when I made that decision, and I stand by it now.

The other reason we share our writing with those closest to us is as a gift. Like my reader who made the Shutterfly books, we are giving something from our hearts to theirs. And writing, given as a gift, is precious indeed. We expect, even if we haven't said it even to ourselves, some reaction, some thank you, some praise. We want our beloveds to love it as we do.

In my experience, this rarely happens. Sad to say. I am extremely choosy about who I share my writing with now. I learned from my ex (the editor mentioned above) that praise is not automatically granted even if we're married. I've also learned from sharing with close friends that they can be bewildered by my expectations and not really know how to react. Whether they love the writing itself or don't, it's a bit like someone painting a picture for another person and giving it with the expectation that it'll be appreciated. I also remember doing this with a dear friend, many years ago. Gifting her with one of my paintings, then never seeing it hanging in her house. Eventually I asked. She said it wasn't her taste. We remained friends but I learned a hard lesson there.

My choosiness now, around sharing my writing, means I have a group of writerly friends and colleagues. I share with them. If I share writing with a friend, I make sure they know what I want from the gesture--I tell them directly what kind of feedback I'd like, if any. That helps them. I also tell them that if they'd prefer not to give feedback, to just let me know. A big relief for everyone.

My spouse is a working singer-songwriter. We have discussed this topic so often, because it impacts both of us. When to share, with whom, and what to expect. Sometimes, one of us wants to share just because an exciting milestone has been reached--a gnarly lyric completed, a hard scene. We've given each other feedback for works-in-progress in the past, very usefully and with goodwill. Now, we tend to wait until something is show-ready. In fact, I haven't even shared a word of my current novel, wanting my agent to comment first.

There's something good about waiting. I call it creative tension. In my early career, I had very little of it and shared with everyone. I'd find the energy or good tension around a project collapsing fast. I learned to wait, let the tension build, let it generate momentum. More got finished.

There's no single right way, in my opinion. You find your own side of the line. But just one small piece of advice: be sure, before you share, why you're sharing and if the people, those dear to your heart, are the best receivers.

Friday, February 12, 2021

A Different Way to Work with Revision for Your Book--Segments and Reverses

Revision is the final stage of the book journey, after the gathering of material and the forming of a rough draft, after the structuring that happens next. Revision is hard, but essential if you want to publish. And there are so many ways to go about it.

I think I've tried them all.

Some approaches to revision are so daunting, so discouraging. The worst one I've experienced is this: start with chapter 1 and go through the book, line by line. That is great for the final fine-tuning. But if you're trying to revise larger problems, such as structure, it'll bog you down in no time. Lots of writers come to me at this stage, saying how stuck they feel, how they hate their book, and how they want to give up. No wonder. I would too.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Unspoken Agreements and How They Drive Characters in Fiction and Memoir

In real life, people operate under unspoken agreements that try to keep the status quo--whether that status quo is calm or the opposite. I'm enjoying a winter novel by Frederik Backman, author of A Man Called Ove, that brilliantly depicts a group of characters acting in an unspoken agreement to preserve a town that's rent by scandal. Although a young girl is raped, there's also a hockey final coming, and the star player is the perp. Everyone, except a very honorable few, chose to ignore what happened and keep the team forefront. Backman ratchets the tension higher and higher until everything breaks apart and people have to face the falsity and injustice square on.

Unspoken agreements drive story. There's a real difference in how a character, or group of characters, "presents" to the world and how they really feel. The dichotomy is what creates that wonderful tension that keeps us reading.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Sinking into Winter: The Power of Rest and Retreat in the Writer's Life

I've just sent the revision of my third novel to my agent, and I'm at a loss. I sit, watching the snow fall outside my office window, wondering if I should pick up another project, read a book on writing, call someone. My agent is backlogged; she says she hasn't had so many manuscripts to read in a long time--thanks to the pandemic, we're all writing. So she may not have comments for a few weeks, if not longer.

It's been a huge push, I can fairly say, to get this manuscript ready for her. I'm disappointed not to get immediate feedback, but I also know better. I've worked on it for three years, after all, writing, revising, workshopping, and revising again. I can wait. Her feedback is always excellent. I estimate some parts of the novel have gone through thirty iterations and she'll have more to suggest, most likely.

Living with a book in process is not unlike having a three-year-old in your office 24/7, always chattering away, needing your attention. I resent it, I love it, I require it to stay creative.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Making Peace with Your Inner Critic: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Writing Life and Get Moving on That Book

If I had a way to capture the self-talk inside most writers' brains, as they sit down to do their writing practice, here's what I might hear:

“You need a lot more backstory here.”

“This section will take months of research. Stop writing and get started. It’ll be a good distraction.”

“You need to explain what your character is thinking here. Your writing isn’t good enough to just let the action show it.”

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Magic of Showing Up at the Page: How to Design or Refine a Writing Practice That Works for You

What's the difference between a writer who gets a book finished and a writer who never does? A writing practice.

Believe it--there's nothing more important.

Not talent, not a great idea. It's down to basics: putting self in chair, putting hands on keyboard or taking up the pen, and staying there past all the internal whining and doubt and misery to actually put words on the page.

But we all whine. We all get up and sharpen every pencil in the house sometimes, instead of writing. 
Or we toggle to Facebook and check our "likes." Or we watch the news, which is enough to put anyone off their creativity.

When this happens to me, as it has often in the past chaotic, upsetting weeks, I go to my bookshelves for motivation.

My favorite go-to books include Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. So this past week, as temps got wackier and the news more difficult to watch, I sat to read them again.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Strange Alchemy--Creating the Weave of Conflict, Character, and Place in Your Fiction or Memoir

In pre-Covid times, I regularly visited friends in Boston to hear the legendary Boston Cecelia chorus perform each holiday season.

At one performance a few years ago, I remember how a soloist with a particularly liquid voice sang a few pieces, then disappeared into the rows of the alto section. I strained to hear her voice rise above the other altos--but it was impossible to distinguish. She blended so well, the group became one voice. Then she came to the front of the stage for another solo, and we fell back in astonishment once again.

In a way, her ability to stand out as well as blend into a larger voice is exactly what writers are trying to achieve with the three elements of conflict, character, and place.