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.)

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.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Structure Advice for Wordsmiths: Why Good Writing Comes After Good Structure When Developing Your Book

We all admire wordsmiths, those who can sharpen and hone words until they sing. I have the pleasure of working with many top-notch wordsmiths in my book-writing classes:  writers well-published in magazines, blogs, newspaper columns, reviews.  You'd recognize their names, you'd admire them too.

Two such wordsmiths attended my workshop last week at the Loft.  Both are working on books and have learned from editors that they need to beef up their book's structure.  

Friday, October 31, 2014

Self-Promotion versus Creating Community--Where Is the Line for You?

Fame has always been a hot topic of discussion among writers.  An unsavory one.  A necessary one.  If we long to be published, we ask those who are published:  How did you get there?  We read the bestseller lists and wonder about the process of climbing to such recognition.  Once we have that contract, that great agent, we still must struggle to get our work received, recognized, reviewed.  It gets wearying.

Because, for many of us, all we really want to do is make art.  We want to write.  We want to sink into the worlds on our page. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Self-Publishing: No Longer Just the "Vanity" Option for Today's First-Time Authors

Can you really self-publish?  Or is it career suicide for a writer? 

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

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

Learning versus Performing Mode: How Each Influences Your Writing Right Now

As a writing teacher, I deal with discouragement every day.  Not about my teaching, although that can certainly arise.  I face the discouragement of my students, as they learn new skills.

Most challenging of the skill-building classes I teach is the advanced-level online book class.  Twenty writers from all over the world gather to learn the art of revision.  

Revision is truly the long-distance drive of writing a book.  You've got the draft, you're enthused (astonished!) to have actually completed it, and now you want to make it sing.  But revision skills are totally different than drafting skills.  Even if the person is a good writer, they might not be able to revise.  And it can lead to deep discouragement.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Detail That Matters and Detail That Doesn't: Why the First Makes Your Writing Come Alive and the Second Dulls the Shine

Some people love lots of sensory detail in writing.  I'm one of them.  If a writer shows me the place, what the people wear, the smells and sounds, I'm right there with the story.

But I've learned over the years that detail only works if it's relevant to what's happening.  One of my teachers called it "salient detail."  In other words, if the character or narrator isn't experiencing shifts because of the detail, it's irrelevant to the reader.  It can even derail the story's pace and purpose, dulling its shine.

Example:  In my current novel I'm writing about a small plane pilot who deliberately crashes her plane to stage her own death.  With the help of a writing colleague who is a flight instructor, I researched the details inside the cockpit of a small plane.  I got a lot of details!  Maybe twenty.  I knew I didn't want to list all of them.  Too many details definitely drop the tension of the crash scene. 

What Details Do Inside Your Reader's Brain
Each time you add a detail, the reader has to imagine it.  (Or skip it--which many readers do!)  They literally have to go to a different place in their brain, away from the processing of words and into the processing of visual or sensual memories, for an instant, to do this imagining. 

This only takes an instant, but it's an instant for each detail!  If I used twenty different descriptive details about the interior of the Piper Cub cockpit, it would be a long, long imagining.  The reader would probably put the book down, having forgotten why we were in the cockpit in the first place.  (To crash the plane.)

So I put myself inside the character's head.  I thought about what she would see or experience that would have relevance for someone in this panicked state, about to stage her own death.  I chose three of the twenty that echoed this panic:
1.   Her breath fogging the windshield because it is very cold outside. 
2.  The yoke (steering wheel) of the plane, stained from years of flying, which she has been gripping for hours.
3.   The cramped space that causes her to have to twist a certain way to get her jacket.

It was hard to jettison all the great details I'd researched, but they really didn't pertain directly to this moment in my story.  Details must be relevant.  Otherwise, they are just detours from the purpose of your scene.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Take a scene or a chapter or even a paragraph of your writing and consider the use of sensory details:  what can be seen, touched, smelled, heard, tasted, or felt texturally (like temperature or roughness/smoothness of a surface). 

If you aren't using any details, add a few.

Look at what you've chosen and ask yourself if the details are relevant.  Here are the questions I like to use:

1.  Is the detail being directly experienced by the narrator in that moment?
2.  Does the detail have an important meaning for the narrator, opening up more of the inner story just because it's present?
3.  Is the detail tactile, sensory strong?

Try to eliminate any generic details and replace them with relevant ones.   

Friday, September 26, 2014

Getting Started Again: Writers' Tips for When You Get Stuck

I'm rerunning this post from last winter while I launch my fall semester of online classes this week.  Enjoy!

Over the years, despite thinking I was the only one, I've learned that almost everyone who writes, professional or not, faces a time-out occasionally. 

Time-outs are just the creative self needing a break.  Most are useful--they give us time for processing next steps in our writing.  We can consider whether it's going where we want it to go, we can muse over a dilemma that needs heightening or a character that needs fleshing out.  Every creative activity needs these kinds of time-outs, what some call "filling the well." 

But getting started again--that's another story.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Getting Time in Your Every Day for Eminent Creativity: How It's Different from Everyday Creativity (and Understanding the Demands of Each)

Do you know the difference between eminent creativity and everyday creativity?   Do you care?  You should.  Each makes a huge impact on your life as a writer.

In Mark Runco and Ruth Richards' book, Eminent Creativity, Everyday Creativity, and Health, the authors discuss these two kinds of creative impulse in humans ( a topic also beautifully addressed in The Creativity Cure, written by one of my former students, Carrie Barron, M.D., and her husband, Alton.)  Eminent creativity is what we do as writers when we work on our manuscripts; everyday creativity is our daily efforts to bring the original creative impulse into our lives at home, at work, and in relationships.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

When You're Making Radical Manuscript Changes: A Helpful Technique for Writers

This week I'm both teaching and taking a retreat.  I'm teaching a wonderful group of fifteen book writers on Madeline Island, one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior.  Island life is naturally isolated and perfect for focusing on creative work without too many distractions.  Since my online courses are on break between summer and fall semesters, I decided to use my after-class time on the island to focus on my own stalled novel.

Spring and summer derailed me creatively.  Two beloved elders in our family took seriously ill, requiring much attention, travel, and help.  I kept one toe in the water of my novel-in-progress, writing when I could. I put aside all radical changes; no time or head space to consider them--and their implications for the rest of the manuscript.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Placing Backstory: When It Helps and When It Hinders

This week's post is in response to Shirley, who viewed my storyboarding video on You Tube and sent me a photo of her storyboard.  The entire second act is backstory, she said.  How do I work with that?  How do you place backstory?

When we begin writing our books, we feel an urgency to catch the reader up, bring them over the hurdles of history in our story. We have a lot of past to pass along. We think this past is essential:  If the reader doesn’t know Jane was traumatized as a child, how will she understand why Jane is so careful with her adult relationships?  If the reader doesn’t know the entire history of the Scout troop, will he get why the boys are intensely loyal to each other?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Teaching Yourself to Write Better Dialogue: Three Steps That Will Make All the Difference

When one of my advanced students wanted to sharpen his dialogue, I gave him the task of modeling from a favorite book.  His dialogue improved dramatically in just weeks.  

Tuning the ear, and the creative brain, to the rhythms of written dialogue makes all the difference.

Here's a variation on that exercise, perfect for travel, vacations, and car listening.  You'll need a favorite book on CD or downloadable audio.  Two exceptional titles for listening and learning:  The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich and Nora Ephron's memoir I Remember Nothing. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Importance of Action: Do You Have Enough Happening?

All week, struggling to revise an early chapter in my novel-in-progress, I realized what was wrong:  nothing happens.  It's what I call a "traveling chapter."  After a plane crash, the character tries to get to a main road.  She walks through a forest at night.  She discovers she's lost an important item from her pack.  She can't go back, she panics, she keeps on. 

No matter how I massage the words, the result is the same.  Not enough is going on.  It's way too early in the book for a pause.  I decided to ditch the chapter--and everything worked so much better!

Friday, August 15, 2014

How Chapters Are Built--What to Include, What to Skip, and How to Know If You Actually Have One

This week's post is part of a weekly lesson in my online book-structuring classes, Your Book Starts Here, Part 2, sponsored by the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  To find out more about the fall session of this class, click here.

My approach to teaching book-writing is built from my years of publishing, working as an editor, and teaching thousands of writers.  I used to think books were built from outlines.  I used to believe that books are most easily constructed when the writer knows exactly where he or she is going at the start.   

I don't buy that anymore--too many writers never finish their books.   

So I teach a different approach:  let the random, creative self explore first.  Then organize the explorations into a rough map to get the big picture.  Then build skills to refine and expand the material.  Finally, create your chapters.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Taking Back Control of What We Write--and Read: Moving Past Our Training and Culture

Voice and theme were the topic of a recent workshop I taught at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  We had a lively discussion about the way we are writing--and reading--today.  A writer from the class emailed this week with more thought-provoking ideas.  

My premise:  We are being taught to write a certain way, in school, in business, a way that goes for appearance over substance.  It's changing the way we approach creative writing (books) and also reading.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Crafting Pathways in Your Book: Internal Conflict, External Conflict, and How They Form a Story

Some of the nicest moments in my life happen when nothing happens.  I think of kitchen conversations with friends, sitting in my garden, watching a sunset, taking a walk in the country with my sweetheart.  Peace is the reigning atmosphere, and it nourishes me.  It's what I most crave in my life.

But not in my writing.

A writing teacher once told me:  "If your story is too peaceful, if nothing happens to force change, it's not a story."  The definition of story is something happening and someone changing because of that event. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Overwriting, Purple Prose, Sentence Fragments, and Other Things You May Not Know You're Doing--Until Your Writing Gets Rejected

I've been compiling a list I wish I had years ago, when I started writing books.  These are red flags to editors and publishers--signs of an amateur writer.  We've all been there, or are there now.  We make these kinds of goofs because we don't know any better.  I learned the hard way.  

As an editor, I easily saw these mistakes in other people's writing.  Easy to catch from that distant view:  the writing seemed off, the author intruding or not trusting the story, and closer examination revealed one of these problems. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

When Is It Time to Send Out Your Manuscript? How to Be Smart about Next Steps

A blog reader from New York recently emailed me:  "I've finished my novel (again) and I'm thinking about what to do next.  My critiquers have been very helpful.  Should I now run it through beta readers, copy editors, etc., before I pitch to agents and editors?  I'm rather sure I'll self-publish, since the money (however much a pittance) is better than going through agents and editors.  However, I'd like to see how my book stacks up in the eyes of the pros and whether or not it's ready for (Amazon) prime time."

I only speak from many years of making mistakes.  First, we usually think our manuscript is more ready for prime time than it is.  I've sent mine out too early, in a rush of "I'm sick of working on this" or enthusiasm from recent writers' group feedback, with bad results.  I lost the goodwill of an agent I was courting.  I turned off at least one publisher.  The war wounds were hard to recover from.  So my advice, however hard to hear, is take your time. 

An experienced author once told me:  "You want to be proud of this book ten years down the road, after it has been published.  You don't want to pick up a dusty copy and cringe."

I followed his advice with my last three books (takes me a while to learn) and they are still in print, and I am still proud of them. 

So when do you know?  When is it really time to hit the streets with your hope?

1.  Hire an editor.  When you've done as much as you can, when you're cross-eyed with reading the manuscript yet again, shell out some money to be sure.  Editors are not cheap but they are happy additions to the process.  Two great resources:  Grub Street writing school in Boston and The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  Both have listings of faculty who hire out as manuscript readers.   Find out their terms, test them with one sample chapter, see how the exchange feels to you.  Are their comments useful, encouraging, giving you the next step?  Or do you feel deflated and ready to ditch the project? 

2.  Spend time with the editorial comments.  I often take the hired editor's comments back to my writers' group or a writing partner to discuss.  Then I make a to-do list--and ask the editor for clarification if I cannot get a clear next step from the suggestions.  For instance, "This character is not quite coming alive on the page for me" translates to what?  What next step would you take?  If you're not sure, you'll stall out.  Discuss with your buddies, email the editor for ideas.  Get something solid to step on so you don't flounder.

3.  Go through your revision checklist again, after you've made the changes.  Remember that small changes in one chapter will ripple into others.  Pages added mean page references (in appendix, table of contents) are changed too.  Click here and here for past blog posts about my revision checklist.   Very important is the step of printing it out and looking for balance of white space and text (point #2 on the checklist).  Mark the changes on the printed manuscript this time, not in your computer--hold off on that step.

4.  With the same printed, marked-up manuscript, do an outloud read-through.  This is my most important tool.  After I've marked the new changes, gone through the revision checklist, and feel the changes I will make are solid, I read it aloud.  To myself.  Or to a tape recorder.  I use a yellow highlighter to mark ANY moment when I stumble, have to reread, feel something is missing, or hit an awkward passage/word/chapter.  I try not to be too frustrated by this--there is bound to be stuff I find, and I just have to accept that's the nature of the book writing process.  We miss our own mistakes.  This catches 99 percent of mine, usually.

5.  One more round.  Make a to-do list again of the places that need more attention.  Do the work.  Go through the revision checklist, read aloud once more.  The goal is to have it sail along completely smoothly when read out loud--the big test!

6.  Now find your beta readers.  These long-suffering friends are exchange partners--you do it for their books, they do it for yours.  Write a list of questions you want them to focus on.  Give them time to read and respond (I usually ask for 6-8 weeks turnaround, but that's not possible sometimes, so do your best).  Be sure to write their names down in a safe place for (1) mention in your book's acknowledgements page and (2) a thank-you copy of the printed version after publication. 

7.  When you get feedback from the beta readers, start with step 2 again.  This may send you running and screaming, but you're almost done!  Often, after this much work, the manuscript is very close to being ready.

8.  When it passes the final read-through out loud, it's done.  Ship it off!  And take yourself out for a celebration (or sleep for a week).  You've earned it.   

Friday, June 27, 2014

Working with Unexpected Character Questions: Finding Your Character's (or Narrator's) Inner Story

My summer writing goal is to bring one of my favorite characters to vividness on the pages of my novel-in-progress.  I've gotten good feedback about her, but she has a ways to go.  I haven't been listening to her as much as I ought, and it's showing in her scenes.  Some are sluggish, repetitive, and she's hiding much of her inner story from me still.

So this week I decided to ask her (I know, this is weird) to help me out.  Give me some clues.  Maybe in a song or a snippet of overheard conversation, let my creative brain hear some ideas on how to bring this character into more relief.

One of my recent music favs is a singer/songwriter named Gretchen Peters.  I was driving to Vermont, listening to one of her CDs, Hello Cruel World.  And a favorite song, "The Matador."

Love that song.  Circles in my brain over and over, but since I asked my character for help--whoa.  Something clicked in these lyrics.   They may not speak to you, but did they ever speak to me!

His rage is made of many things: faithless women, wedding rings
Snakes and snails and alcohol, his daddy’s fist thrown through the wall
Ah but he’s beautiful when he’s in the ring, the devil howls, the angels sing
Sparks fly from his fingertips and words like birds fly from his lips

Read more here. 

These two concepts--my character's rage and when she's beautiful--really woke me up.  I've never imagined asking about these.  They are unexpected character questions.  They open up worlds inside.

When I got back to my writing office, I sat down at the computer and began to brainstorm.  I pretended I was interviewing my character on the page.  I asked her:

What is your rage made of?
When are you beautiful?

And I let it rip.  I got images, ideas, and enough material to build several new chapters and rework others.  Somehow, this dichotomy of rage and beauty--something that is in all humans--brought me the inner story.

Try it this week, if you have a reluctant player on your story's stage.  It works for memoir too, especially if you're writing a secondary character you think you know, but may not know as well as you think.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Writing Strong Transitions: Scene to Scene, Chapter to Chapter, How 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 was 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."

Most writers in revision--and some in early-draft stage--come to a point where they begin to look at transitions.  Transitions are the small but essential bridges that lead your reader from the end of one scene, one thought, one idea to the next.  Whether within a chapter or between chapters, unless transitions are solid, the reader will choose that moment to set down your book.  And maybe never pick it up again.

Transitions of Chronology
These are the simplest and easiest to write--but not always useful unless you stay in strict time sequence in your scenes.  Chronological transitions are phrases like these, placed in the next scene or chapter to indicate the passage of time, change of location, or change of point of view:  "By the next morning, he . . ." or "Two days later . . . " or  "It had only been three weeks since she'd last . . . "

Chronological transitions can feel clunky to the reader after a while.  They are like reading a chart of time passing, unless done well.  I use these, but sparingly.  More often, I play with word and image transitions.

Word and Image Transitions

A simple way to transition is to repeat an image or word.  In The Hours, Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel that tracks the lives of three separate women, he uses the image of yellow roses.  In one scene, yellow roses are being arranged in a vase for a party; in another, they are being piped on the top of a birthday cake.  The reader doesn't consciously go, "Oh, yeah, yellow roses again," but the image is registered and a sense of smoothness results.  We note it subconsciously and read on because the tiny bridge is there, making our transition easier.

Whenever I move within a chapter to backstory, or a memory, I will craft a transition.  Possibly I'll repeat an image, like the yellow roses.  One scene might have oranges on the table in a bowl, and the character or narrator as a child is staring at the strange light playing across them.  The next scene might have someone juicing those oranges the next morning. 

Senses are another excellent way to transition.  Say you are writing a book set in a doctors' offices.  What is common to these?  The paper on the exam table (repeat the feel of it under the skin, the crackle as you slide).  The antiseptic smell.  The well-used copies of Outside or People magazine that feel so worn as you turn the pages.  The cold air.

You would choose one of these and see if you can repeat it.  Use it in one scene, then again in a slightly different way in the next, to create the transition.  Smells and sounds are particularly strong transitions in a reader's subconscious.

Dialogue or Gesture Transitions
You can also use repeated dialogue or gestures.  Lighting a cigarette, coughing, picking at a torn cuticle, or a certain phrase repeated--these are embedded as transition in so many books!  We readers, again, don't necessarily notice them, but don't think they are placed by accident.  Skilled writers work hard at this.

Object of Obsession Transitions
If a certain object--in my last novel, Qualities of Light, a stolen jackknife--becomes the object of obsession in your book, carry it through as a transition tool.  Repeat mention of, or a sensory note about, this object as you move between chapters and from present time to backstory.  The reader will feel the smoothness of this repetition back and forth through time.

Beware of using the same language each time, though.  Brainstorm ten ways to describe aspects of this object, for instance.  Jackknife had "sharpness," "cutting edge," "shiny steel," and other descriptors.  I didn't always say the word jackknife, but when I used these knife-like images, it created the transition.

Transitions, when first created, may have a mechanical feel.  As if you are manipulating the language and it will be obvious to readers.  This is where feedback comes in handy.  I felt my transitions were awkward and obvious when I first wrote them in, but my editors loved them. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Make a list:  read the current ending of each chapter and the beginning of the next, and note key images, words, objects, gestures, or dialogue you have in place that could serve as a transition.

2.  Do any transitions already exist--aside from time chronology?  How can you strengthen them?

3.  Where are transitions completely missing between your chapters?  How can you add them in? 

Once you have crafted strong transitions for the chapters, begin work within the chapters.  Each scene within a chapter ("islands" of writing) requires a good transition to keep your reader engaged.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Pros and Cons of Feedback on Your Writing: Finding Out What You REALLY Need (and Getting It)

I teach all levels of writers, and I especially love working with brand-new writers.  Someone who has just gotten an idea for a novel.  Or a parent who has been meaning to write a nonfiction book about their special needs child and what this writer learned while navigating a difficult school system.  Or a beginning memoirist who is still reeling from childhood but driven to get the stories on paper.

They all want me to tell them how to write, but in the same breath they say, "And be sure to tell me what's not working.  Don't hold back."

This approach is a mark of new writers, I've learned.  Most experienced writers learn what makes them keep writing--and it isn't always critique.  But a new writer is still high on the energy of the idea.  They can't imagine the long haul ahead.  They think writing is easy.

One stand-out memory from a past class was such a new writer.  He was in one of the online classes I took before I began teaching.  When he introduced himself to the group, he said he was new but used to criticism.  He told us, "Give me all the critique you have!"   

In other words, don't just give constructive feedback but also what was totally wrong, what really sucked (his words) in our humble opinions.   

I watched, not really knowing yet about this phenomenon.  The group took him at his word.  They told him how much he still had to learn.

The writer lasted about 2 weeks before he stopped writing altogether.  He dropped the class, I think.  I wasn't surprised.   I was surprised that the teacher didn't step in, but maybe she felt it was good to weed out the weak early?  It's not my way, as an instructor.

I learned a lot from watching this feedback process.  It reinforced my approach, which is based on the stages of a writer's growth, finding the best level of feedback for where you are, so you keep writing.   
Stages of a Writer's Growth--and Feedback Needs
In the early years of our writing journey, we need mostly constructive feedback.  We need what will help us thrive, figure out our unique voice, explore story ideas without too much negative self-talk or external critique.  Our own critical voice is usually strong as we struggle through our learning curves.   

Best now to hear what's working.  Also, what can be improved, but via suggestions and questions given in a constructive way.  In my classes, I ask questions that open doors for the writer. 

Each time I read one of my student's pieces, I see (always!) things that are strong.  Things that are unique to that writer's experience, perspective, voice, and style.  I point them out.  Knowing what works, will help the writer at this stage.   

Then I look for areas where I want more, as a reader.  Where I felt things were missing.   

I want to know more about the setting, for instance, where this event is occurring.  What the narrator is actually doing physically in the scene as they reflect on their past or future challenge.  That's called the outer story (the outer details of what is happening) and grounds me, as a reader, in the inner story (the thinking or feeling).  So I might ask about this.   

Or I might ask to read more about the sensory details--what the character or narrator is smelling or hearing at that moment.  These elements bring out the inner story too and make the scene more intense for me as a reader.  That's a good thing.
Two steps to giving feedback:  (1) look at inner and outer story, and ask myself what could be developed more.  Then (2) ask a question or two about that missing area.   

Questions ignite ideas in the writer's mind and bring more good stuff to the page.

No use, truthfully, in saying to someone:  "This really didn't work for me."  What does this do for the writer?  Mostly, they begin to question if they should be writing at all.  Maybe they are stupid and (on and on) . . . The Inner Critic has a field day.   

The writer slinks off and becomes what we call in online classes a "lurker," if they even continue writing.  No way they will share their writing again.

We're trained in school to get criticized more than we get encouraged.  I was, at least.  When I was at revision stage in my MFA, I got a lot of critique and at that advanced level, I needed it.  But when I was beginning each of my books, I mostly needed to hear what was good, strong, and working.  Constructive feedback kept me going and opened the creative door wider and wider into new ideas.

Everyone's writing has strong areas and weak areas.  My teaching style is to first build up the strong areas until they are solid enough to stand on, so that when you do face your weak areas, your whole foundation won't collapse.   

What are you getting as a writer, right now, in terms of feedback?  Is it appropriate to where you are in your book journey?  How might you get more of what you really need?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Raise the Emotional Stakes: Strengthening Alchemy between Setting, Character, and Conflict

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

Sunshine and spring in New England today is no help.   In my fictional scene, it's chilly October in the northern mountains of New York state.  I'm sitting comfortably in my chair, laptop in front of me, spicy tea and good music and sweet air at hand.  My character, in her scene, has just crashed her small plane--on purpose.  She's bleeding, shaken, and starving.

So our situations couldn't be more disparate.  How do I have the gall to attempt such writing--to capture the desperation of this person who only exists in my imagination?

Because I know such desperation.  I've never crashed a plane, but I know well the survival instinct that my character rides on in this moment of the story.  To access my own memory of this, I use the writing techniques of alchemy.

Alchemy simply means a combination of elements to create something magical.  In writing, these are three:  setting, action, and the character's physical state.  Combined in certain ways, they manufacture magic for the reader.  That magic that all good literature offers--where we readers can lose ourselves for a few hours in a different world. 

The Alchemy of Place
Place details are either wholly ignored by most writers--"too slow for me," one of my students once said--or used too much.  Some writers dump a lot of setting details in the beginning of each chapter, the start of each scene, as if "setting the stage."  Setting must be placed where the alchemy actually occurs.

Use of the senses is the first element to successful settings.  Especially smell and sound.  These access the reader's own memories of place, make your job almost effortless.  In my online class, Strange Alchemy, we begin by studying famous writers' work--how do they place the sense of place in each section of a story, chapter, scene?  George Saunders, Judy Blundell, Flannery O'Connor, and many more teachers help us learn that placement is everything!  When we give feedback each week on excerpts from writing by fellow students in the class, our eye is already tuned to whether the placement is strong.

Place is the backdrop used by professional writers to depict emotion.  Whatever the character notices--or doesn't notice--tells the reader about their emotional stage:  their distractions, their memories, their angst.  It's too good a tool to ignore.

The Alchemy of a Character's Physical State
Next is the character's external self--not what they are thinking or feeling, which could be unreliable, but how they present themselves in the world, consciously or unconsciously.  A twitch, a certain favorite piece of clothing, a way of moving their hands, an itchy ear, all reveal emotion. 

As with place, it's good to have enough but not too much.  In Judy Blundell's award-winning young-adult novel, What I Saw and How I Lied, she introduces the two main characters in the first page via certain physical details that completely show their future trajectories in the book:  the mother who smokes in the dark and whose lipstick-covered lips catch on the cigarette paper with every drag--a tiny but revealing sound heard by her not-sleeping daughter; the young girl who carries Baby Ruths in her bike basket to the foggy beach each morning to eat breakfast alone there.   

I make a list this morning of my downed pilot's physical state--what is she wearing, what is moving or held still in her body as she waits, what aches and itches, what she does with her hands. 

Combined with place, these physical elements of character create the first step of alchemy.

The Alchemy of Action
Place and physical attributes are only useful, though, if they are juxtaposed with action.  Dennis Lahane, author of Mystic River and other works, talked about this in an interview I read many years ago:  If a character is in the same room for more than one page, get them out of there.   Stillness is a pause, a valuable pause, but it doesn't move the writing forward.

So instead of my downed pilot being able to sit and starve silently, reflecting on the wilderness around her, she must be doing something within a page.  Action is the final element of alchemy.  It's only by seeing a person in action that we really know them. 

Put together, these three create magic. 

When I begin a scene, I often will work on each element separately, to make sure I've covered it, then combine them in paragraph or chapter in good proportion to each other.  Action usually takes the most space, then the physical state of the character, then the setting.  Each is crucial to alchemy, but they work in a hierarchy. 

Intrigued?  Consider studying the attributes of alchemy with me this summer in my online class which begins on Monday, June 9.  We spend four weeks on action (specifically, raising the stakes in your writing), four on character development, and four on place/setting.  Each week includes short readings in memoir and fiction by well-known writers, to study and learn from, as well as some very helpful writing exercises I've developed from my own work.  To learn more or register, click here.   

Friday, May 30, 2014

Emotional Gateways--How They Help You Write and Revise Your Book

On June 2, next Monday, I begin teaching my summer online classes.  In both the beginning and intermediate level classes, we examine how scenes, chapters, and whole books are built to deliver the exact meaning the writer wants. 

Katherine Dering, a writer in past classes, just had her first memoir published.  She wrote me this week: 

Your classes were very helpful to me finishing and getting Shot in the Head, a Sister's Memoir, a Brother's Struggle published:  where to start, what to cut or add, finding central images, rising and falling tensions, inner and outer story, inviting the reader into the all helped.   People tell me they couldn't put it down.  Mary, you must have gotten through to me.

Not an easy process.  But intensely rewarding when your book is finished and published, as Katherine now knows.  Those readers who can't put her book down are engaged because of the story's drama, of course, but also because of the emotional gateways this writer has crafted so expertly.   

What Are Emotional Gateways?
Most good books offer a series of gateways where the reader's own past, thoughts and feelings, memories and values, can connect with the story on the page.  Imagine them like entrances into the secret world of the book.  Emotional gateways are responsible for that blissful experience of getting lost in a story, thinking about it for days afterward, feeling rage or sorrow or joy as you read about someone you'll never meet but whose world is entirely real to you.

Emotional gateways are openings into a book's meaning.  They are more powerful that intellectual delivery of ideas and concepts; they hook into more primal centers in the brain.  They depend on images and senses.  There is no effort to retrieve the memory, unlike the work it can take intellectually.

Crafting strong emotional gateways is a skill every writer can learn, and I'm fierce about its importance in creating strong writing.  In my classes, we work on first expanding use of the five senses.  Involuntary memory evokers, the senses are the simplest way to open emotional gateways for readers.  (Remember Marcel Proust and his rhapsody on the tiny French cake called a madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past?)

After expanding use of the senses, what's next?  Practice relaxing the linear side of the brain and engaging the image-based mind. 

I use many exercises in my online classes to help writers learn this.  I offer the excellent resources of Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream (see below for blog post on this book) and Robert Boswell's The Half-Known World--two writing books that clear the way to image-work I also recommend daily freewrites based on images and collage work (Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees, and many other writers use cut-out pictures to prompt the image brain). 

Most vital:  train yourself to not censor the images that come onto the page, even if you have no clue how they connect to your chapter or scene.

A writer from Canada emailed me recently.  She asked how I approached my own writing after learning about emotional gateways.  What changed?  Everything. 

I still write and revise with my lists, my charts, my character timelines and other linear tools.  But I give equal time to image work.  When my writing feels stalled out, I freewrite--just for 20 minutes--on a random image.  I know that "stalled out" feeling is just the linear brain becoming too active, critical, and disengaged from emotional gateway work. 

Truthfully, for most of us, it takes re-awakening the part of ourselves that is so little used in daily life.  Once we do, it makes a tremendous difference in our writing.  

For more information on my online book-structuring classes, where you can learn and practice emotional gateways, click here. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Cheryl Strayed on Jealousy, How to Keep Writing, Getting Famous, and Other Great Stuff--Interviewed by Elissa Bassist

 I loved this flippant, educational article by a favorite writer, Cheryl Strayed.  She's reached fame and fortune lately, since her memoir, Wild, became a movie.  Well worth reading, a solid reality check on the writing life.  Originally published in Creative Nonfiction magazine, the link is here. 

Enjoy--and get inspired--as this week's writing post.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Resources for Writing a Potent "Inner Story" in Your Book

{This post also appeared earlier this week as a guest blog on Grub Street Daily.}

Vivian Gornick talks about “the situation and the story”—the two elements of good prose.  What happens and why it happens.  Because of her simplicity in describing this complex idea, The Situation and the Story became one of the first truly influential writing books in my life.  Carol Bly’s The Passionate, Accurate Writer came next, teaching me about writing of consequence and how to stay unembittered while working with difficult material.  Finally, I found Kenneth Atchity’s innovative A Writer’s Time, which transformed the last five manuscripts I completed and published. 

For years, I wholeheartedly recommended these three books to my writing buddies, coaching clients, and students.  I know there are many very good writing books available—and shelves of them line my office—but only a few, such as these, have really taught me how to grow as a writer. 

A friend’s discovery recently added another transformative writing book to my small collection.  From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2005), is a series of lectures to his graduate fiction students, transcribed and edited by Janet Burroway (of Writing Fiction fame)Although geared toward fiction writers, From Where You Dream answered my question on how to bring out the deeper meaning of any piece of writing, especially when writing a book.

I teach online classes and workshops on how to structure your book in any genre.  In the workshops, writers learn about and explore the two levels of story that Gornick describes:  (1) the situation presented in outer events (“outer story”) and (2) the real story, or the inner changes that come from these events (“inner story”).  For most, a successful outer story is the easiest to write; it does not require opening a vein, being as vulnerable on the page, staying at risk. 

A successful inner story requires all of this.  It asks the writer to be present, vulnerable, delve into her own life for emotional truth, and bring it all back to her book.

(By the way, “inner story” also applies to any small anecdote illustrating change or growth or new understanding in essays, informational books, travel books, and biographies.)

Butler gave me good clues to writing inner story.  He proposes that to write successful emotional moments, a writer must dwell in the sensory elements of that moment.  It requires a full immersion into the senses. 

I tried this idea first on my own work and then in my workshops.  I worked for weeks with the techniques in Butler’s From Where You Dream.  Slowly, I discovered what Butler was suggesting:  that by fully dwelling in a sensory moment, space is created that the reader can enter.  Emotion emerges, almost organically.

Most writers believe the reader needs some interpretation (the “telling” that often precedes “showing”) but Butler warms against this.  He counsels the writer to just stay in the sensory moment—a very difficult task, especially in early drafts of a book.  The rational mind loves interpretation.  We want to make meaning of everything.  Few readers need that in their literature—it actually can be an irritant.  Readers want to be drawn into the “dream” of the experience, as John Gardner wrote about.  Interpretation may be needed later, once the emotion is transmitted, but rarely is it needed early on.  An inner story (meaning) must evolve organically to be believed. 

Most valuable to me were Butler’s five main ways to transmit emotion to the reader.  I used these within the sensory experience, each became true gateways for my book’s inner story.  I began using them whenever I wanted to enhance a chapter, a scene, whenever I came across a moment in my story that needed enlivening. 

I recommend adding From Where You Dream to your writerly reading list this spring.  And try this simple exercise whenever you want to enliven your own inner story. 
  1. You’ll be describing an event during your childhood, one that evoked strong emotion.  Write about this event, using the sense of sound as much as possible.  Your writing may encompass the other senses, but really focus on how things sounded, as much as you can recall. 
  2. Add the sense of smell.  Continue writing about the event, keeping the emphasis on these two senses.  The writing may feel artificial or forced, but don’t let that critic stop you.  Try not to interpret, just create as strong a sensory experience as possible.
  3. Now ask yourself, How is my body feeling as I write this?  Close your eyes and perceive your breathing, heart rate, tightness of muscles, any fatigue.  Do you feel irritated, bored with your writing, sad, angry?  Write about your inner state and your physical sensations—add this information to the writing you’re doing, as you remember this past event.
  4. Next ask yourself, What don’t I remember hearing during this event I am writing about?  Asking yourself this question often brings back memories you may have forgotten—or wanted to forget. 
  5. Then ask yourself, What was I afraid of smelling during this event I am writing about?
  6. Finish the exercise by writing how you feel now, looking back on this event. 
What has changed in your perception?     

This exercise often brings out a theme, emotional resonance, or inner story that can be used in your book writing.     

And if you'd like to explore your book's inner story (and outer story) further, join me in Boston on Saturday, May 31, 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. at Grub Street.  This class often sells out, so click on the link above (Grub Street school) to find out more or register.