Friday, January 30, 2015

Writing in "Islands"--How I Wrote My First Memoir in Forty-Five Days

A novel in a month?  A memoir in six?  I never believed those promises, tooted by many writing books.  Not until I came across the concept of writing in "islands."

I'd already published five books, with the help of great editors, when I first heard of  "islands."  A writing friend knew I was struggling--a publisher was interested in my memoir and I had to deliver in three months.  I'd honed my skills in nonfiction, even won some awards, but memoir is a whole different animal. 

I was moaning to this writing friend about how to even get started, with such a deadline looming.  She suggested I check out a book by writing teacher Ken Atchity.  Called A Writer's Time, rereleased many years later as Write Time,  the book was not at all about time management but about the two-part process of book writing.  Atchity had noticed over the years of working with new authors that those who actually finished their books allowed random-access writing before any organizing happened.

In other words, nobody used an outline.

For my nonfiction-writer self this was heresy.  All good writing comes from thoughtful organization first, right?  But Atchity was proposing, with years of evidence to back him up, that our creative brains need to explore before they organize.  Right brain holistic before left brain linear. 

Atchity called the process writing "islands" before forming them into "continents."  Write random islands, he suggested.  Let yourself go anywhere.  Start with an idea for chapter 5, instead of trying to figure out chapter 1 first. 

I was stuck, so I had nothing to lose.  I decided to try it. 

I knew my memoir would be roughly twelve chapters.  So I got twelve file folders and on the cover of each, brainstormed islands (scenes, ideas, descriptions, events, people) that might be in each.  I was able to loosely group the islands I came up with.  Since I wanted my memoir to also give good information about handling change, I made copies of research and added it to different folders.  When I began writing, I would scan the island ideas, pick one, and write.

My deadline imposed a quick timeline.  I wanted to write two chapters a week, which turned out to be about twenty islands.  But I promised myself I could write islands from any chapter (file folder) on any day--I didn't have to stick with one chapter until it was done.  Just accumulate the three hundred pages of islands that would form my manuscript.

It was the most amazing writing process ever, for me.  I finished the draft, all three hundred pages, in forty-five days.

There's nothing quite so joyous for a book writer as seeing that stack of printed pages on the desk.  Yes, it was a shitty first draft (as writer Anne Lamott calls our first efforts), but it was a draft.  Much more than I had in hand when I began.

I've gone on to write and publish seven more books using Atchity's island method.  Since then, I've seen parallels with Natalie Goldberg's freewriting logic, and other writing systems, but I am so glad I discovered Atchity.  His book is available used, and it's worth picking up, if you'd like to try the method.   Or check out how I used it for other books--and how the editing process (next step after islands) takes the book to the finish line--in my own writing book, Your Book Starts Here.

I firmly believe in this method, although I have changed it over the years and books, taking what I learned from Atchity and adapting it to better fit all genres of writers.  If you can, check out Write Time and see what you think!  Maybe it'll help you write your draft in much less time than you imagined.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Growing Out of Your Rootbound Pot--Why Bravery on Demand Can Help Your Writing

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

This comes from her 1965  book Force of Circumstance, which is one of many published works during her long literary career.   New book writers might read this in astonishment.  How come such a prolific and experienced writer had such beginner's emotions?

Does it never get easier?  Do we ever feel like we know what we're doing?

Maybe not.  That's what writing communities are for.  I see it happen each semester when I begin a new online class and the group of writers find companionship, support, and accountability in each other.  We keep each other on the edge of learning, where creative bravery resides.

The need for bravery in our art is not limited to writers, of course.  I once asked a professional speaker about this.  I wanted to know if he ever got stage fright, felt that beginner's nervousness.   This man has delivered hundreds of talks to audiences of thousands.   He said he always feels jittery before he goes on stage. Every time.   He has come to expect tense shoulders, butterfly stomach.  He likes the opportunity to be brave on demand.

I asked why he still gave speeches if he didn't feel he'd conquered fear in his art. "I'm glad for the fear," he told me. "It keeps me from falling asleep creatively."  If he starts taking his creative expertise for granted, he loses any freshness and edge--the elements that makes his performances memorable.

So this week, as my classes begin, I thought about what next step in my personal writing life would require bravery.   I thought about a new software program I've been stalled out on but longing to try.  Learning new software demands time and brain power, two things I haven't had much of this winter so far.  But I took a step:  I called a writing buddy who loves this software and she talked me through first baby steps to try it.

Not only did I feel instant glee at my own bravery--the simple act of trying something new--but as I practiced the new software, new ideas came through for my book.

So many writers, even published writers, hold themselves back.   They stick with what they know, be it a favorite template for stories, a certain plot idea, or even similar characters, because it is safer.    They don't want to be a beginner again.  It could be quite humiliating! 

Especially if The Book has become a huge haunting presence, with so much still unknown--like how to finally finish it!

One reason taking a new class is a helpful step for so many writers is that it is all about courage and not knowing.  You go into learning mode, not "already knowing" mode.  It's scary, but a great way to avoid writer's block and ongoing discouragement about a writing project.

What's a scary project you might embrace this week?  Or, if not embrace, just consider? 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  List three scary and exciting new things you could try that would take you new places in your writing.

2.  Pick one.  Take a small first step toward trying it.

3.  Post your results here in a comment on this blog.   

Friday, January 16, 2015

Enough Already! Is It Really Time to Start Revising or Are You Just Bored with Your Book?

Poems, articles, columns, and short stories are all creative commitments, to be sure, but even if they linger unfinished for a while, they are short relationships compared to 350 pages of manuscript.  With a book, you regularly re-evaluate your progress, your purpose, and your plans.  You recommit again and again.

 But is it ever done? When is enough, enough?  These questions come up at two particular stages,
I've found.  One marker is when the writer is ready for revision.  The other is when revision is finished and the book is ready for final editing.

A writer from New York, who has been working on his nonfiction book for several years, sent a very good question about this:   "At what point does one realize what they are trying to write is the final 'version'?" he emailed me.  "My subject/point of view has changed several times.  When do I stop?  I know the book evolves but it seems like I'm always evolving.  I struggle with having new ideas that change my point of view."

As You Evolve, So Does the Book
Unfortunately, there's no predicting exactly how long it will take to really "get" your book.  And then, after you do "get" what you're really writing about, how long it'll take to manifest that on paper.  Most first-time book writers (as well as veterans) can relate to the question When will it ever end?  There are certain ways of telling where you are in the continuum.

How much time have you really put in on the book?  Two hours a week?  Less?  After two years at two faithful hours a week, it would be possible to have a good rough draft.  But unless you have a lot of writing experience already, you may only have that--a rough draft.  Why?  A writing colleague put it this way:  "After three days of not writing, it takes a while to get back into my story."  The book disappears from your consciousness after three days, so you may not be able to spend the next writing session actually moving forward.  Rather, you may be spending half or more of it reacquainting yourself with the book.  That's OK--as long as you're aware of it and don't expect miracles.

When I began writing books in the 1980s, I expected miracles.  But I was lucky back then--I worked with editors at the publisher's office.  They helped me evaluate where I was in the journey.  I learned from them, wise souls that they were, about the re-acquainting time that's required after not writing.  I learned that more time goes in to building the first draft than new writers prepare for.  They told me not to be surprised if my books, all nonfiction back then, took two to three years before a solid draft was formed, one that could stand up to revision.  I learned with each book I published that most need at least a year or two of attentive planning and writing, discovery and exploration of both voice and topic, before a writer has enough of a manuscript to begin revision.

Obviously, if two years goes by, you won't stay the same.  Why expect your book to?  If you're prepared for that too--and I wasn't, for my first books, but editors wised me up--you won't be frustrated with the changes that naturally occur.  Because during this planning and writing stage, books are supposed to change.  They evolve as we get to know them better, as our skills grow, as we get clearer about what is the book and what is not.

Each time I felt my book was ready, each time I got to that point when I thought to myself, Enough! Get the thing out the door, I had an editor to check in with.  Most of the time, he or she pointed out the blind spots that I'd overlooked in my inexperience.  Slowly I let go of my cherished idea: that a book took just months from inception to publication.  When I cited writers who churned out two volumes a year, my editor said I could probably do that after I had four or five books under my belt.  And that became true.

So how do you find out, without a publisher's editor, whether your planning and writing stage is indeed over and you're ready to move on to revision?

Revision Is Not Just Editing
First you need to understand just what revision actually is.

This is another lesson I learned the hard way, working with a publisher's editor:  Revision is not simply substantive or copy editing:  cleaning up sentences, fixing typos, and massaging the passages a little.  My editors taught me that copy editing is like the final touch.  It comes just before publishing, only after a manuscript is strong and complete in its content, structure, and language.

Before the editing, comes the revision.  Although it's very important to create clean copy, if a writer tackles  technical work before the book is solid, it's like embroidering curtains on a barely framed house.  Not at all a useful exercise. 

I learned that revision literally means "re-seeing," and this all-important stage is about taking what you've created and seeing it anew, from a new viewpoint.  Whose viewpoint?  The reader's.  Revision is where writer invites reader into the room where the book lives.  Then, once the book and the reader get acquainted, the writer leaves.

Robert Olen Butler, who wrote the well-loved writing book From Where You Dream, talks about how hard it is for most writers to actually leave the reader alone with their stories.  Most writers feel the strong need to interpret and tour guide their work to the reader.  You can just feel the presence of a hovering person, wanting to make sure you really understand what this or that passage means.  In revision, this has to go.  You as the writer must let your work live and breathe on its own.    

It's very hard for most writers to tell when they are hovering, interpreting, and otherwise annoying their potential readers.  For this, most of us need feedback.  When I am questioning if my manuscript is ready for revision, I will find three kind readers and formulate three questions for each reader to answer.  I don't need to know if the writing is good or bad--that's irrelevant at this point.  I need to know where the reader stumbles, senses too much of a hovering presence of the writer, loses interest.  These passages exist in all early drafts and readers, if asked, will help you find them.

Then you look at these passages and try to "re-see" them.  What were you intending just there, in the manuscript?  Why didn't your intention reach the reader?  Did you get scared, omit something important, bluster your way through to try to hide it?  This is very common.  Finding these unconscious places is the first step to revision. 

These places are where you lost heart.  You need to go back and put it in, before you go any further. 

Early Drafts Come from the Heart, Revision Comes from the Head
One of my favorite scenes of writing instruction comes from the movie, Finding Forrester.  Forrester, the famous recluse writer, played by Sean Connery, puts a typewriter in front of the young writer Jamal.  Forrester begins to type.  The young writer doesn't.  So Forrester asks, "What are you waiting for?"

"I'm thinking," says the young writer.

Forrester shakes his head.  "No, no.  No thinking.  That comes later."

As they start to type in unison, Forrester slips in these simple instructions.  They explain so clearly the difference between drafting and revision:

"You write your first draft with your heart," Forrester says.  "You revise with your head."

So many of us get this backwards.  We think so much about our early drafts that the pages don't actually contain any heart.  We get down plenty of words, often good words, but unless the writing has meaning, unless it reveals the heart of the writer, we're not going to reach our readers. 

Feedback prior to revision lets me know if there is more heart needed, more revealing that can be done.   It's only after I have given everything I have to the manuscript, that it's ready for the head part, the thinking.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Rent the movie, Finding Forrester.  Watch it again, from a writer's point of view.  What can you learn from this fictional character about the process of writing?

2.  If you have a completed draft and you wonder if you're ready for revision, take a deep breath and find three readers to help you.  Avoid choosing immediate family and close friends, especially those who know your book pretty well.  Look for people who can give you an overview.  You're going to ask them to read the manuscript and mark in the margins any place where they (1) stumble or (2) want more.  Tell them you aren't looking for fixes, you just want to see where you've lost heart, lost the reader's perspective.  You're asking them just to respond as readers. 

3.  From this review, you'll learn a lot about your book and where it is in the continuum.  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Building on What's Working: A New Approach to Setting Writing Goals for the New Year

Some writers think writing a book is just this:  sit down, write, and hope for the best.  Goals are a waste of time, because in a purely creative world, it's the flow that matters.  Just keep the flow going and you're golden.  Your book, too.  Right?

Not really.  Goals are valued by most professional writers.  They give markers and deadlines.  Writing is easily put aside in favor of a thousand distractions.  Goals give accountability.  A way to see if your writing process is actually working for you. 

When the morning email delivered Cheryl Richardson's weekly post, I took a break to read it.  Richardson always presents a fascinating twist on goal-setting, and I look forward to her new year's articles.  Most often, they deliver ideas I can really use.

In anticipation, I've already jotted down what I want most to accomplish with my writing in 2015.  I work with learning goals as well as tangible (production) goals.  My current writing group is helping me align descriptive passages with character growth--a cool new skill I've been learning these past months.  More of that went on my 2015 goals list.  I also have several final chapters of my novel twisting in revision, trying to find their purpose.  Discard or rework?  Another goal.  I also need to find better feedback, maybe through a class.  I enjoyed taking classes in 2014, and there are some great ones I'd like to try in the new year.  Most looming, I've promised an interested publisher my manuscript by March. 

All of these goals feel important--to me.  They give me energy when I think about them--a sure sign that I'm crafting goals that are aligned with who I am now as a writer.

But before I set these goals, I began a different kind of list--and here's where Richardson's post was timely.  I thought about what I've learned and accomplished in my writing life in 2014.  What strengths have I built this past year?  How can I use them as jet fuel for my next steps?

Richardson proposes that we build from our strengths.  It creates firmer ground for the next step if we acknowledge our progress.  We look back on the year to see what is working--and we set our new year's goals from there. 

Writers don't naturally do this.  About time we begin, eh?

So here's your writing exercise to launch into the new year.  Two steps, both delightful (or so they have been for me).  Find what worked, then find where you'd like to go from there.

New Year's Exercise for Writers
1.  Grab your calendar or journal, whatever would give you clues about your progress this year.

2.  Begin jotting down both your tangible accomplishments (pages or chapters written, classes taken, feedback received, tangible outer progress made) as well as your learning accomplishments (skills, understandings, learning, practice started and maintained, feedback groups built).  Don't censor this list--everything counts!

3.  You may also want to jot down what your writing has given you this year.  I loved doing this--and got some surprising answers, such as the chance to be part of a creative community, something in my every day that is only for me, and right-brain food). 

4.  Look ahead at the twelve months of 2015.  If you imagine yourself at the end of 2015, what would you most want to have accomplished during the year, in terms of your writing?  Again, include both tangible results and learning results.   

Friday, December 19, 2014

Imagining Your Finished Book--A Three-Part (and Very Encouraging!) Brainstorming Exercise

Winter can be a bluesy or beneficial time for writers--depends how much you enjoy holing up with your words and ideas.  Sometimes it helps me to think from the end, visualize where I am heading, especially when the days are gray and my writing feels just as blah.

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.  But you can also use it like creative visualization, thinking about the real end of your writing journey, when your book is finished!

So, with the blog taking a holiday break next week, here's a three-part creative visualization exercise to keep you brainstorming your book's completion.  I hope it'll feed your writing right to the New Year.  (It's from my part 2 online class, which still has some spots open for January term, if you'd like to join us--to keep your book alive and kicking until the sun shines again.)

Three-Step Creative Visualization Exercise for Book Writers Who Want to Actually Finish Their Books

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.

Let the writing go wherever it goes--even if it brings up concerns and fears about this, which it might, as well as excitement.   

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.   Find a published book you love to use as a guide. 

Grab 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 for the perfect image for the front of your book when it is published.  You can also do this online with images from google or 

Print the image or cut it out and paste it to the front of your book cover. 

You know those blurbs that are on the cover of books after they are published?  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.

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's really fun (and actually helps you feel like you might someday finish!).

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.  What would you just love to have at yours?  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, in your writing room or on your desktop or phone.  They are big boosts for doldrum days.

Happy holidays and see you again toward the New Year!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Take a Break from Words: How Image Boards Help Your Writing

One of my workshop students with her image board.
Flummoxed by the main character in my novel-in-progress, I got the idea to browse internet photos to see if I could capture her in image rather than words.  What might she look like?  If my novel became a movie, who would play her?   

Scrivener, my all-time favorite writing software, allows cut and paste of online images.  I found my main player, then I went on to create a gallery of faces of everyone in the book.  Once I saw them, they came alive in a new way. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Unexpected Therapy: Need to Get Over It? Write about It!

Writing is unexpected therapy--more and more studies are finding this true.  We get healthier the more we write.  

How can that happen?  (Especially if you're stuck right now, your writing may feel far from a healing act!)

One of my students, who recently published his first novel, sent me an article in the Harvard Business Review this week.  Writing is being featured in leadership development workshops now; it's helping executives "digest" difficult experiences in their careers. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

A Letter to Your Inner Critic: How to Stop the Invisible Sabotage to Your Creativity

This week, my beginning-level online class is facing the Inner Critic.  I think it's great timing, with the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving, to offer ourselves a little creative forgiveness by getting to know this inner voice that can so often derail us from our book writing efforts.

Everyone faces the Inner Critic, no matter how experienced they are.  Professional writers, even those who have published widely and won awards, even give it names.  Sue Grafton calls hers "the ego," the part that's always concerned with "how are we doing?"  Some Inner Critics are funny, joking with you inside your head about taking it all so seriously.  Most are discouraging, even menacing. 

But rarely is this inner voice truthful--its job is to sabotage our efforts to make art, to do our writing. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Reflecting Surfaces: Using the “Landscape” to Make Character Come Alive

A memoirist in one of my online classes was trying to write about the sadness she felt at her father’s unexpected death. Her feedback group gave her an unexpected response: while it was clear she was very sad, when they heard her speak of his death, her feelings on the page were abstract, hard to really grasp.

“They don’t feel any of the sadness I feel,” she told me. She cried as she wrote, so this bland response confused her.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Character Cards--A Cool Way to Enhance Your Storyboard (and Story!)

Three elements are essential to all books, no matter the genre:  there must be conflict, there must be believable character (real or imagined), and there must be place, or atmosphere.  Characters are fun to work with.  Even if you're writing a real-life tale with people who existed in history or as your potential readers, you need to know them.  The reader depends on you to present your characters well.

Tracy Sayre, founder of Writers Work, runs writing conferences in New York City and the Catskills, among other location.  Tracy recently watched several of my youtube videos and designed a very unique W storyboard using character cards.  She said she watched the storyboarding video many times while writing her novel and came up with this version of the traditional storyboard.  The photos below show her character cards and how she places them on the storyboard as the characters enter her story.