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.