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Monday, October 31, 2011

"Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything good."—Willlliam Faulkner

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, you will need a mantra (or three) like this one to pull yourself over the rough spots. If you hit a snag don’t stop writing. Shrug your shoulders and dive back in and write whatever crappy sentence you can as a placeholder to get you to the other side. It’s not about making a gorgeous first draft. It’s about writing as fast as you can, leaving the editor and the critic in the dust. Just get the story told first. Then you can go back and clean it up, polish it, dress it up for company. Focus on the story, not the specific words. If you get to a scene you can’t see clearly, write a few sentences about what you think goes there, and then move on to the next scene.

If you’ve never written this way before, give it a try. It’s exhilarating. It’s like flying. And believe it or not, the editing process isn’t any harder than it would be if you took lots of time to carefully craft each sentence. Yeah, the sentences may be beautiful, but the story may demand a whole different direction. If you sprint, you don’t spend a lot of time polishing sentences, paragraphs or whole scenes that you’ll end up throwing out later. Once you have the story out there, you can decide what to keep and what to toss, and then focus your energy on polishing only the parts you want to keep.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

“I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done.”—Steven Wright

(If this is where you’re starting, email me. We need to talk.)

This quote is actually in honor of NaNoWriMo. Tomorrow is the deadline to sign up, and you can officially start tomorrow night after you put your trick-or-treaters to bed. 12:00:01am to be exact. There’s still time to join the fun and accept the challenge. You’ll have to spend more than five minutes a day, but you could probably do it in an hour or two a day. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and November 30. That works out to be about 1,700 words a day. That’s about 2 ½ pages a day if you use standard margins and don’t double space, or about 7 formatted pages.

The point to this type of writing is to focus on getting words on the page. Rough draft. The plan is to come back later and edit. Your inner editor cannot be part of this sprint. Your pace should be fast enough to outrun the editor and the critic, and to keep up with the muse. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation. If you don’t know where the commas go, just poke them in wherever you feel so moved and weed them out later. Paragraph breaks, sentence structure, research for place names or location details – all that can wait for your second pass. Teach yourself to use brackets to note where you need a [tree] and you don’t know that what you really want to say is ‘eucalyptus’. You can come back in December and search for ‘[‘ to fill in the blanks.

Last year more than 30,000 participants crossed the finish line. Sign up, join the fun, and you could have a completed novel to edit before the end of the year.

“I think the scene—full of smack-talk and muffin crumbs on our keyboards—would have rightly horrified professional writers. We had taken the cloistered, agonized novel-writing process and transformed it into something that was half literary marathon and half block party.”—NaNoWriMo website

“We called it noveling. And after the noveling ended on August 1, my sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed. If my friends and I could write passable novels in a month, I knew, anyone could do it.”—NaNoWriMo website

Saturday, October 29, 2011

“Nobody cares much whether you write or not. You just have to do it” ― Natalie Goldberg

If you don’t show up at work, there will be consequences. If you don’t pay your bills, someone’s gonna notice and something not so great will happen. If you don’t do a yearly physical, someone will bug you about it. There are lots of things in life we do because we must, because something bad will come of not doing it. Our spouse may pester us to make a doctor appointment, the kids will ask us to come to their games, the cats will not let you forget to feed them, to dog will ask to go out . . . but no one is going to make you sit down and write. You either make the time to do it, or you don’t. No one will care (except maybe your muse).

If you are a writer in your heart, you will feel the lack, a restlessness perhaps, or a frustration. Or maybe a vague dissatisfaction with life.

Take some advice from Nike: If you want to write, “Just Do It.”

“I write for the same reason I breathe - because if I didn't, I would die.” –Isaac Asimov

Friday, October 28, 2011

“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones”.—Stephen King

Good writing isn’t about a fancy vocabulary or poetic turns of phrase. It’s about communication. Your words shouldn’t call attention to themselves, but rather disappear into the fabric of the story so that your reader feels as if he has experienced what you’ve written and not seen it performed.

Good writing is about the images it evokes, the emotions it stirs up, the cadence of the language as it lulls with a soft rhythm or excites with staccato sentences. Play with how language fits together but avoid using fancy, frilly words in place of solid ones.

Stop and ask yourself: “Who is the narrator? What is her education and experience? What word would she use?”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”—Michelangelo

When I first started writing I thought once I had learned the craft, I would be able to outline and draft a book without a lot of wasted words. I actually believed that for a fairly long time (I’m talking years). I still catch myself behaving as if this is true and it interferes with getting words on the page.

It interferes with lots of people I work with in the form of writer’s block. They stare at the blank page feeling as if they could only find the ‘right’ opening line they could avoid having to edit or rewrite. I’ve seen this with people writing fiction, nonfiction, a dissertation, an essay, a technical article or an obituary.

Although I’ve seen Michelangelo’s quote above (and more often the one below) used regarding writing, it wasn’t until today when I read an article on that I suddenly understood just how it applies to writing. The author of that blog added this: “As the writer, you must first create the block of stone. Only then will you be able to see the statue waiting to be released.”

This article says to write about four times more than you plan to have in your finished piece. Sounds like a lot, huh? I don’t know that my numbers are quite that high, but I’ve written a boatload of words for each story that didn’t make it to the final cut. Often times I write something that I know won’t be in the final cut merely to inform myself about the story. No words are wasted. If they don’t make the final draft, they are still part of the iceberg that helps weight the story and make it real.

Show of hands – who has heard of the iceberg theory on writing? (Here’s a great article explaining it in a bit more depth.) In short, an iceberg shows only about an eighth of its total mass above the water.

When you face the page, remind yourself that every word your write is information. Even if it doesn’t make the final draft, it is part of what gives your writing depth and history.

Writing practice (yep, I'm waving the ‘write every day’ banner again) helps to create the block of stone from which you chisel your angel. Instead of random writing prompts, choose prompts to fill in the history and the below-the-surface details that make your writing rich. When you face the blank page, remind yourself to start anywhere, don’t wait for the ‘right’ words, just use some words. If you decide this piece belongs in the final version you can come back later and polish it.

“I saw an angel in the marble and carved to set him free.” –Michelangelo

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

“Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.” —Anne Lamott

Depending on where you look, there are claims that there is only one plot, or three, or seven, or twenty two. But even if it’s a hundred and twenty-two, that’s still a pretty small number considering the number of books that have been written. The challenge then isn’t coming up with a story that’s never been told, but a new way of telling the same old story. The differences will be in the details filtered through your unique personality and experiences. Like bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope, the same plot can be retold a hundred, a thousand times, and still have a new angle, a fresh feel, an emotional connection to readers.

Writing practice is collecting all those bits of colored glass to be used to give your story its own flavor

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” –Sylvia Plath

A common mistake regarding this advice is to take whole chunks of life and try to turn it into a story. Even if you’re writing memoir, a whole chunk is indigestible and very often it is also flat. Thinking in generalities creates a distance from the reader because of the lack of detail.

We may say something like “I had an idyllic childhood.” But how did that look? What made it idyllic? Was it truly perfect? In my workshops I recommend Anne Lamott’s 1” picture frame as an antidote. If you want to show me your childhood was idyllic, pick a single example. Zoom in and crawl over every nuance of the scene like the ant mentioned yesterday.

This level of detail is useful in fiction because even invented characters and stories and scenes are made up of a variety of specific moments we have experienced previously. They are sliced thin and spread out over lots of stories and scenes, used in different contexts than we may have experienced them in reality, but because we are using real detail, they will have the ring of truth for the reader.

Employ a bit of creative license in memoir and combine this level of detail from two or three similar experiences into a single scene that underscores the illustration you are aiming for. Or use real sensory details from other memories and layer them into a memory that has mostly dialogue or emotion to bring it to life.

An actor portraying a character experiencing the death of a family member is encouraged to dig into their personal experience for a place to draw the emotion from. If the only death they’ve experience is the death of a pet when they were nine, they take that and extrapolate it into the emotion they are portraying. In fiction, we do the same thing. Even in fantasy, in a totally made up world, the characters (even the non-human ones) will experience recognizable emotions.

Writing practice is a good way to fill up your repertoire. Write about emotions and experiences and people. All of it will be useful no matter what you are writing.

“I took notes on the people around me, in my town, in my family, in my memory. I took notes on my own state of mind, my grandiosity, the low self-esteem. I wrote down the funny stuff I overheard. I learned to be like a ship's rat, veined ears trembling, and I learned to scribble it all down.” —Anne Lamott

Monday, October 24, 2011

“The aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what you mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.”― Natalie Goldberg

In an art class a number of years ago, we were given an assignment with two parts: Take off your left shoe and set it on the table in front of you. Draw it.

Then we were told to draw the same shoe a second time, but this time not to think of it as a shoe. Think of it as some unfamiliar object and ourselves as an ant, crawling over each and every line and shadow.

Once the drawings were all turned in, the instructor put them up on the wall. Without fail, every shoe that had been drawn as a shoe, was a sad imitation, and sometimes had more resemblance to the black ovals on Charlie Brown’s feet than to a real shoe.

The other group, the ones drawn without a label in mind, were many times better. They had shadows and highlights, scuff marks, stitches, crease in the leather, knotted or frayed laces . . .

Empty your mind of clich├ęs and stereotypes. They are good for generalizations, but not for authentic renderings of anything – shoes, people, or ideas.

Next time you are writing, try to write as if you were an ant tracing every line of the scene. Sure, you’ll have to edit it, but you’ll also have a wealth of rich detail you might never have discovered if you had glossed over the details and described a generic scene without individuality. Write the scuff marks and knotted laces.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

“What I've learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there's the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, "Well, that's not very interesting, is it?" And there's the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there's William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant . . .” —Anne Lamott

Have you ever listened to the voices in your head? Not the characters. If you write stories if goes without saying you listen to your characters. But those other voices, that committee in your head that offers opinions on pretty much everything you think or write about.

I heard someone once describe that committee as the seven dwarves. There was a television sitcom a number of years ago that was mostly made up of the aspects of the main character’s personality, all weighing in on the events of his day. Stephen King referred to his Muse, or possibly his council of Muses, as ‘the boys in the basement.’ If his Muse is a group of rough guys hanging out in a basement, what must the rest of his committee look like? When you are writing and you think “this stinks. I should delete the whole thing”, assign that voice to one of your committee members, possibly the critic, who never has anything good to say about your writing or anyone else’s (unless he’s comparing your atrocious scribbles to someone else, because even though they stink, they don’t stink as bad as you do).

Then there’s the voice that tells you to put a comma here, break the paragraph there, stop and pick a better word. That’s the editor, and his job is useful, but he has to be made aware of his boundaries because he often thinks he has more authority than he does. He and the Muse often can’t work together without arguing, at which point the writing grinds to a halt.

There may be other voices, too, like Anne Lamott’s Reader Lady. Or maybe your mother pipes up now and then when you write a particularly graphic scene of some sort, cautioning you to mind your manners.

Pay attention to the voices that speak up while you’re writing, and if necessary, call a meeting and hand out pink slips to a few. To those you keep on, make sure they’re aware of their boundaries. Make them work for you, not against you.

Who is on your committee?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.” –Vita Sackville-West

I discovered a blog I started last year after the death of my friend and writing partner Patty. I can’t tell you why it suddenly came into my mind to go look at it, and then to read each of the ten or so posts I wrote. But I did. It was comforting to see that much of what I said then is almost identical to what I teach now about writing. What was even better, was to read those distant words, aware that they were mine, but distant enough that I could not remember writing them or feel the immediacy of the emotions I felt as I was typing those words, and yet have them stir up fresh emotions, almost as if I were reading and reacting to the words of some other writer.

In writing about our present, we capture the moment and offer it to others as a sign post – “I’ve traveled this way and felt about it this way” – as a reassurance that they aren’t alone on their journey.

If you’d like to read a few early writing blogs from me, go here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

“I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do---the actual act of writing---turns out to be the best part. It's like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.” —Anne Lamott

I think sometimes the goal of publishing, or the actuality of publishing, gets in the way of being able to enjoy the process. It clouds the reason you started writing in the first place. If publishing is your goal, or if you are already published, take care to separate that from the process of writing. This is part of being able to write with the door closed: Just you, the page, and the Muse.

Schedule time for the ‘tea ceremony’ – to engage with the written word. If you have deadlines or a busy schedule (who doesn’t?), it may not be as long as you like, but you can still schedule it. This is what writing practice was meant to be. Writing for the sake of writing. Playing with words, reveling in language and images and ideas. Consider making part of your writing ritual a few minutes of focused thought on the tea ceremony aspect before you begin writing. Time enough later to jump back into the fray and keep up with your social media networking and marketing and pitches and outlines and synopses.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.” —Anne Lamott

There are several applications for this quote, so don’t be surprised if you see it from me again sometime.

Whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or a report for work, beginning a project can sometimes be the hardest part. We sit down and start the blank sheet of paper or the empty document and are so overwhelmed with the idea of the finished project that we are paralyzed. Ideas might swirl around in your head or maybe there are just a few lonely tumbleweeds rolling past.

Take the fear out of the blank page. Scribble at the top. Draw a stick man in the margin. Change the font to something quirky. Use colored paper or the back of a shopping list. The less ‘official’ it looks, the better.

Now jot some ideas. Don’t think about the finish product. Just focus on what’s immediately in front of you. Do you have a topic? Scribble 5-10 ideas you could talk about on the topic. Brainstorm. See if you can come up with 15 ideas. If you have the luxury of time, stop here for now. Reread the list, then go do something else. If you’re on a tight deadline, reread your list, then see if you can come up with 2-3 points for each idea. Some will have a bunch, some may have one or two, or even none. Doesn’t matter. Just brainstorm for now. Let these ideas simmer in the back of your mind for an hour or a day. Maybe reread the list once or twice and see if any other items come to mind.

When you’re ready to work on it again (don’t let more than a day or at most two pass before facing the page again), skip a few lines, or get a new sheet of paper if you need to, and play with organizing the ideas you came up with yesterday. Is there a particular order they should go in? Is there a beginning, middle and end? Do some ideas lead into others? If you have time, write each idea on a separate index card along with the points you came up with for each. Deal them out on the table, move them around, look for a logical and pleasing order.

Now, start writing, but only on the first idea. Just rough draft, brainstorm, as if you’re talking out loud to someone about what you plan to write about. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, or sparkling vocabulary. Write a few lines under each point if you can. Keep it in outline format still, partly for organization, partly to fool your brain into thinking this isn’t “for real”.

Set a goal each day, either time or number of points, depending on your deadline. Write about each point independently from one another if you like.

Once you have something written for each point, take a look at the whole collection again. Are the ideas still in a good order? Does one feed into the next? Or do you need to do some rearranging? Play with it until you like the order.

After you have it in order, go through it from start to finish, and smooth it over. Don’t worry about making it perfect, just get the obvious stuff in shape. Then read it out loud to yourself or to someone else. The reason for this is your ear will hear things differently than your eye sees them. You’ll pick up on awkward phrasing, wordiness, even punctuation errors sometimes. Tweak things, then let someone else read it over. Have them make notes if you want.

One last pass and it’s ready for review or submission.

Tada! You’ve ‘driven’ the entire journey by looking only at what you can see directly in front of you. Anne Lamott calls this the ‘1” picture frame.’

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

   “You -- with all your doubts and fears, joys and sorrows -- are enough. You -- the one reading these words at this very moment -- have everything you need to become the writer you want to be.
   'Me?' you may be asking. 'Just as I am?'
   Yes, you, who may, at this moment, be feeling scared, frustrated, blocked, discouraged. If so, join the club.    Because so does every other writer in the world, even the most successful ones, who, after all, were once struggling writers themselves.
   And now that they're successful, guess what? They still struggle. They have the same doubts, fears, longings, worries. They just don't give these feelings the same negative meanings you do. Smart writers recognize their feelings as important information about their inner lives, as the raw material of their writing craft. Just grist for the mill.” —Dennis Palumbo

It may seem that I’m continually on the same writing bandwagon, waving the flag about priorities and daily writing. Rather than a bandwagon, I would challenge you to consider it as the foundation of being a writer. Everything else will follow once you are able to clarify your priorities, and once those priorities include writing on a daily basis. Notice I said “daily basis” without specifying a minimum amount of time. Although the more time spent writing the better, I believe it’s more important to write every day than it is to write reams every day.

Successful writers also deal with time management issues, families, housework, holidays, company, persistent pets, illness . . . . The main difference is that writing is one of their top priorities. They treat writing as a job. A commitment. They set a time, put on their game face, punch the clock, sit down, and work. Of course the amount of time they spend producing words is also an important factor, but once your butt is in the chair and you’re writing, increasing that time isn’t as difficult.

If you are unable to rearrange your priorities to spend lots of time writing, commit to writing for small increments – every single day. Do you brush your teeth every day, even when you’re tired, even when you have company, or it’s a holiday, or you’re on vacation? Consider writing to be at that same level. Five minutes. If you don’t have a project you’re working on, or are having trouble figuring out what to write for those five minutes, use writing prompts. Pick one, set the timer, and forget everything else for five minutes. When you are able to set writing as a priority, you will already have a habit established and an open pathway to your writing.

"Every worthwhile accomplishment has a price tag attached to it. The question is always whether you are willing to pay the price to attain it - in hard work, sacrifice, patience, faith, and endurance."—John C. Maxwell

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy."~ Dale Carnegie

This is the primary reason for writing practice. Whether you have a WIP (Work In Progress), or you are using random writing prompts, writing every day increases your confidence as well as your ability to take literary risks.

As I said yesterday, fling words at the page with abandon. Maybe only ten out of every hundred will stick, but those ten will be ten more gems than you would have had if you had spent your time just thinking about writing.

"Confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong."—Peter T. Mcintyre

Monday, October 17, 2011

“Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough – that we should try again.” –Julia Cameron

How many times do you stop to read over what you’ve written and cringe at how awful it is? How often do you stop writing because of that?

First off, don’t reread something you’ve just written if you can help it. If you must transcribe longhand to the computer, do so by focusing only on the keys you need to hit with your fingers to get the words accurately recorded, then close the file and wait. Preferably a week or two. Or a month. When you go back, you will be able to be more objective.

Secondly, even if your writing legitimately deserves a cringe or at least a scowl, don’t give up. Bad writing begets good writing. Here’s a bonus quote for you: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

Blog “Strangle Your Muse” author Sandy Ackers compares writing to mining. You have to dig through a lot of dirt to find a single diamond. So happily scribble junk, garbage, crap, anything at all. Fling words at the page with abandon, spend them frivolously, and at the end of the day, sift through them for the gems.

“Embrace your mediocre writing and your pieces that fizzle out. Because the more rock you chisel through, the closer you get to a diamond.” –Sandy Ackers

Sunday, October 16, 2011

"You don't have to change that much for it to make a great deal of difference. A few simple disciplines can have a major impact on how your life works out in the next 90 days, let alone in the next 12 months or the next 3 years."—Jim Rohn

You don’t have to spend huge chunks of time writing, you just have to spend a little bit of time writing every day. Don’t wait for the magical time when you’ll have a whole day to spend writing. Start now, write when you can as often as you can, and make it part of your daily routine.

"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race." ~ Calvin Coolidge

Saturday, October 15, 2011

“The things that make you a functional citizen in society - manners, discretion, cordiality - don't necessarily make you a good writer. Writing needs raw truth, wants your suffering and darkness on the table, revels in a cutting mind that takes no prisoners...” ― Natalie Goldberg

This is one if the reasons for writing with the door closed, for needing a safe place to write. You need to be free to explore the dark places without the fear that your mother will peer over your shoulder and shake her head at you. “I thought I taught you better than that. Why can’t you write something nice?”

Even Disney movies and fairy tales have their dark side. What good is the light unless it is in contrast to the dark? Just because you don’t write the literary equivalent of cotton candy doesn’t mean you can’t write a Happily Ever After. Just put your characters through hell before they get there. Let them be real people with real faults and fears, facing the consequences of bad choices and surviving—and thriving—anyway.

“The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis, and we'd have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.” ~William Styron, interview, Writers at Work, 1958

Friday, October 14, 2011

“Nothing is impossible; there are ways that lead to everything, and if we had sufficient will we should always have sufficient means. It is often merely for an excuse that we say things are impossible.” Francois De La Rochefoucauld

Yesterday I preached about making the time to write no matter what. A writer writes. If there are things in your way, consider what they are, and of what importance. I say I have no time to write. What I mean to say is writing isn’t as high on my priority list as some other things are. Job, relationship, family time . . . . Once today is gone you can’t get it back, and there is no guarantee how many tomorrows you’ll have. Be sure to spend your time each day doing things that matter to you.

I’ve seen any number of acknowledgements in books thanking spouse and children for surviving on frozen pizzas for two years while a book was finished. That’s probably an exaggeration and more about taking shortcuts on things that aren’t priorities than it is about locking yourself in the study for two years. In 10 years no one will remember what you had for dinner, but your kids will remember if you weren’t there for their performance in the school play or their winning touchdown.

It’s all about priorities.

Make a list of all the activities that you spend time on every day.

Now make a list of your priorities in life as they are today. (You will need to revisit this occasionally.)

Are your priorities the things you spend your time on? Or do you spend time each day on things that don’t matter? Consider what you could simplify to make more time in your day and use that extra time writing. But also be honest – maybe this season of life is not when you will be able to be a prolific writer. Keep practicing, keep in touch with language, and write when you can so you are ready to pour some energy into your writing when the season changes.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

“Writing everyday contributes to continuity of your thinking and generating the ideas you need to write. Your mind will function differently when you write every day. We all think about our writing every day. But the cognitive processes involved in writing are different from those involved in thinking. Your project moves forward when you write…even if you write a gosh-awful first draft.” –Columbia Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Note to self:

I say don’t have time to write. I say it pretty much every day and I mean it. Anyone looking at my calendar or hearing me describe my to-do list agrees with me. “You don’t have time to write.”

But what do I do if writing is what lifts me up? What if writing is what I was created to do and not writing makes me unhappy and frustrated with myself?

The truth is, no matter how busy you are, no matter what demands there are on your time, you can probably find 15 minutes. The hard part about that is wanting the luxury to sink into a world you’ve created and spend hours with your characters. It’s not easy dipping in and out of your writing in 15 minute increments here and there with no predictability. But it’s better than not writing. Or deferring writing until life is less busy (will it ever be less busy?)

So maybe your writing takes on a different shape while the kids are little. Maybe you write short stories or articles during soccer practice. Stay up fifteen minutes later or get up fifteen minutes earlier and write only what you can see through Anne Lamott’s 1” picture frame. The opening of one scene. One short description of a character or setting. One snippet of dialogue. A single paragraph. Instead of journaling about how little time you have or how much your coworkers annoy you, turn it into a character sketch (about an annoying person, or someone who is annoyed by a coworker). Create characters that do not yet have a story. Write a one paragraph snapshot of a memory you plan to use in your memoir.

There are a hundred ways to turn fifteen minutes into writing.

“. . .all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.” –Anne Lamott

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

“It is like this: there are wonderfully gifted people who write a little piece and then write it over and over again to make it perfect, - absolutely, flawlessly perfect, a gem. But these people only emit about a pearl a year, or in five years. And that is because of the grind, the polishing, i.e., the fear that the little literary pearl will not be perfect and unassailable. But this is all a loss of time and a pity. For in them there is a fountain of exuberant life and poetry and literature and imagination but it cannot get out because they are so anxiously busy polishing the gem.”—Brenda Ueland

I’ve known a few writers over the years who have spent months writing and rewriting chapter one and never getting any further. They are determined to ‘polish’ this chapter before moving on to the next, certain that if they ‘just get it right’ they won’t have to come back and change it. They are sure they can avoid having to edit this way.

There are several pitfalls to this approach. One is, as I mentioned last week, constant editing is a form of procrastination. What Brenda Ueland didn’t say in today's quote is that constant editing very often dulls the spark, the life of a scene, almost as if it wears the finish off. It becomes grammatically perfect, but it loses immediacy and sparkle.

There are lots of quotes out there about this subject, and they all seem to agree – write the first draft without stopping to edit. The “don’t look down” draft. The "discovery" draft.

Just fly thru the pages as fast as the Muse can take you. If you hit a snag, a scene where you don’t know what should happen, skip it and continue with the next chapter as if you already figured it out. Chances are the Muse does have it figured out and All Is Revealed as you continue to write. An outline is no guarantee you won’t hit a snag, or have to go back and add something in, or change a detail to match something that comes up toward the end. If a gun is fired in the last chapter, you have a chance to go back and put it on the mantle in the first chapter. (Bonus points to anyone who can provide the quote and attribution I’m referring to).

Once you have the story on the page and it’s starting to gel, that’s the time to edit. Then go back and fine tune nuances, choose details to highlight the tone or theme or character. Like an artist who first sketches the portrait, then blocks in the colors, then adds the delicate shading that brings the portrait to life.

Unless you’re writing a dissertation or thesis, writing is messy. And, I would argue, even a dissertation or thesis will have its messy stage before it’s ready to go to committee.

“Clutter and mess show us that life is being lived…Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation… Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.” –Anne Lamott

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

“Storytelling is healing. As we reveal ourselves in story, we become aware of the continuing core of our lives under the fragmented surface of our experience. We become aware of the multifaceted, multichaptered ‘ I ‘ who is the storyteller. We can trace out the paradoxical and even contradictory versions of ourselves that we create for different occasions, different audiences… Most important, as we become aware of ourselves as storytellers, we realize that what we understand and imagine about ourselves is a story. And when we know all this, we can use our stories to heal and make ourselves whole.”–Susan Wittig Albert

Storytelling is healing. Writing is healing. (Did you notice how cleverly I recycled yesterday’s theme? It is worthwhile enough to bear repeating.) Whether you are writing fiction or memoir or a blog, if you write what calls to you, if you write honestly about the light places and the dark places, you will learn to understand yourself, and you will start to untie knots in your perceptions and feelings. If you are courageous enough to explore those dark places within yourself and then share those discoveries, others will benefit from your experience.

“I write because something inner and unconscious forces me to. That is the first compulsion. The second is one of ethical and moral duty. I feel responsible to tell stories that inspire readers to consider more deeply who they are.”—David Guterson

Monday, October 10, 2011

“You must be able to step inside your character's skin and at the same time to remain outside the dicey circumstances you have maneuvered her into. I can't remember how many times I advised students to stop writing the sunny hours and write from where it hurts: "No one wants to read polite. It puts them to sleep."—Annie Bernays

Sometimes when I am feeling down or overwhelmed or hopeless, I think “Why bother writing? No one wants to read something depressing.” When I am feeling this way, I forget that writing is the way out. Writing can entertain me, but more importantly, writing can lift me up and give me perspective. All it takes is handing my worries and fears and frustrations over to a character, or even divide them up among several characters, and then taking a step back to ‘watch’ them work through it. It makes whatever I am dealing with seem more manageable and it releases (vicariously) many of the emotions I’ve tried to keep under control.

I say it so often, it has become my mantra: Writing is healing. Now if I can just remember that when I need it most.

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” ― Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Sunday, October 09, 2011

“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” ~Arthur Polotnik

Write first, edit later. Follow the Muse and write your first draft without looking down. Whether you write from an outline or discover the story as you go, don’t stop to rewrite until you’ve reached the end. The risk in editing too soon is that you may just edit the best parts out thinking they don’t fit, and then discover a hundred pages later, the Muse had a reason for the image she handed you.

Another big reason for waiting to edit until you’re done – rewriting is a form of procrastination. Editing doesn't count toward your writing goal for the day. If you must edit, set a writing goal AND an editing goal.

“Don’t begin rewriting until you’ve finished the piece. Not necessarily the whole of a thing, but a scene, a section, a chapter. Since you don’t know at the beginning where the writing might take you, to begin rewriting too soon could dam the stream before it has a chance to find its natural course. Also, rewriting before you’re finished is a way to keep you from the actual writing. “—Judy Reeves

Saturday, October 08, 2011

“The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax.” ~Alfred Kazin, Think, February 1963

Focus on the process, not the result. You spend a lot of time alone at your desk writing to hate the process of writing. If you are in it only to publish, you may want to reconsider your desire to be a writer. Enjoy the journey, savor the process, write what inspires you, what intrigues you, what entertains you.

“You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist. You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time. You can do it the way you used to clear the dinner dishes when you were thirteen, or you can do it as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.” —Anne Lamott

Friday, October 07, 2011

“Books want to be born: I never make them. They come to me and insist on being written, and on being such and such.” ~Samuel Butler

Sometimes stories come to us nearly fully formed. Characters with names and histories and needs and motivations come to us and demand to have their story told. Sometimes it is only a persistent thought or question that nags at the back of our mind. Once we turn toward it and open our mind and heart and start writing, the words pour out of us as if they come from somewhere else.

If you have not yet experienced this wonder, keep freewriting, keep relaxing and following your Muse, keep letting your imagination lead you, no matter how far afield you think it’s going. When you let go and become a channel, you might just be amazed at the words that show up.

“It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.” ~Joan Baez

Thursday, October 06, 2011

"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." -Howard Thurman

Don’t ask what is selling and go write that. Look inward to what draws you, things that seem to want figuring out, questions that called to be explored. If you write what draws you in, it will draw readers in, too.

Don’t write only what you already fully understand, write what you need to learn to understand. As you process—in journal, memoir or fiction—you will experience insights you can discover no other way.

“If you want to write you must have faith in yourself. Faith enough to believe that if a thing is true about you, it is likely true about many people.” –Real Live Preacher

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

“Sometimes people say to me, “I want to write, but I have five kids, a full-time job, a wife who beats me, a tremendous debt to my parents,” and so on. I say to them, “There is no excuse. If you want to write, write. This is your life. You are responsible for it. You will not live forever. Don’t wait. Make the time now, even if it is ten minutes once a week.” ― Natalie Goldberg

If you want to write, make the time to write. Make it a priority in your schedule. Don’t wait for a big chunk of time, or the muse (she is fickle, remember?), or inspiration or anything else. Just write.

Decide on a reasonable amount of time you can regularly commit to, whatever it is. Then make it a priority. Click here for a wonderful analogy for time management.

Take a look at what the important things are in your life and schedule them first. Everything else will fall into place.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader - not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”—E. L. Doctorow

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~Anton Chekhov

Look at me, spending quotes like there’s an endless supply . . . I admit it, I have an addiction—to quotes. (I bet you hadn’t noticed.) I love it when someone is able to put something into words that captures a wealth of meaning in a sentence or two. I especially love it when they are able to convey a thought or belief I’ve held without being able (or taking the time) to put into words.

Today’s quotes are more craft related than most and call for very little commentary from me. They stand on their own. The only more succinct advice I’ve heard on this topic is “show don’t tell.”

Read to identify authors who use description effectively, both with ordinary everyday language and with language that sounds like written music to the ear, and practice, practice, practice.

“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It's not just a question of how-to, you see; it's also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.”
—Stephen King

Monday, October 03, 2011

“Writing practice is showing up at the page. It’s running the scales, executing the moves. It’s writing for the experience of it, forming the words, capturing the images, filling the pages. Like an artist’s sketchbook, a writer’s notebook is filled with perspectives, character sketches, shadings, and tones. A writing workout is trying out phrases and auditioning words, letting the imagination have free rein while the editor in your head takes a coffee break. One of the best things about writing practice is that it is practice. It’s not supposed to be perfect. You’re free to make mistakes, fool around, take risks.”—Judy Reeves

I have always been a fan of writing prompts and freewriting. Even when I’m working on a particular story, I take time for writing prompts. Of course, my characters may insist on getting involved, but that just makes it more interesting and often times I learn something new about the characters or the story.

One time, after sharing a random writing prompt, one of the writers in my writing group asked “what’s the take away from this? What’s the point? Although I personally understood the value of freewriting on any random prompt, I hadn’t ever put it into words before. Writing practice, freewriting on a random prompt, is the sandbox you can play in. Build a sand castle, knock it down, build another. It’s play. It’s discovery. It keeps the ideas flowing freely from your imagination through your fingers to the page. No matter what prompt you start out with, if you write long enough, you’ll discover what you really want to say.

“When you show up at the page and put in the time day after day, you learn to trust your pen and the voice that emerges as your own. You name yourself Writer. “—Judy Reeves

p.s. If you haven't yet experiences A Writer's Book of Days by Judy Reeves, take a stroll through her website:

Sunday, October 02, 2011

“Every writer experiences bad days and sloppy, swampy writing. Sometimes you get the handsome prince and sometimes you get the frog. The point is, no matter what, you show up at the pond. “—Judy Reeves

“Some days are diamonds, some days are stones,” as the old Neil Diamond song goes. That goes for writing, too. But don’t use that as an excuse not to write. Writing every day serves a purpose beyond getting a useable scene or a completed chapter.

Writing every day helps keep the self-consciousness at bay—if you write every day you spend less time worrying about what to say and more time just getting words onto the page.

Writing every day reduces the anxiety of the blank page—facing the blank page every single day is a form of desensitization therapy so that the blank page becomes so common it becomes a part of the landscape.

Writing every single day whether you feel like it or not teaches you to rely on discipline rather than inspiration for motivation—it becomes a habit like brushing your teeth so you no longer think about ‘if’ you should write, you just do it.

And writing every day also teaches you faith. Because sometimes, even on a ‘swampy day’, it’s the prince that shows up and not the frog. I could easily quote a dozen writers who echo this advice, but will restrict myself to just two well known authors:

“Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.”—Ernest Hemingway

“Write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you are writing, and aren't writing particularly well.”—Agatha Christie

Saturday, October 01, 2011

“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.” —Anne Lamott

‘Real’ doesn’t always mean nonfiction. I think there is sometimes more truth in fiction than there is in fact. Whatever you write, be truthful without regard to how it will be accepted. There is time enough after the first draft to decide if there are sometimes things better left unsaid, but don’t leave them unsaid only for fear of what people will think. Truth is sometimes scary. When someone points out a truth, it encourages us to look at our own truths. And sometimes our own truths feel uncomfortable out in the open.

Maybe this is one of the reasons certain books are so often challenged – they point out uncomfortable truths that people would rather not face. It’s easier to ban the book, perhaps, than deal with what they see in the mirror.

“I suppose that writers should, in a way, feel flattered by the censorship laws. They show a primitive fear and dread at the fearful magic of print.”—John Mortimer