Friday, December 16, 2016

The Myth of Going It Alone--Why Book Writers Need Community

My fall online classes are ending this week, and the groups are loathe to leave each other.  They've bonded terrifically this semester, which often happens in these classes.  Somehow, online learning can foster a kind of intimacy among writers that I don't always find in in-person classes. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Scrivener--My Favorite Software for Organizing a Book

Before I wrote books, I wrote stories, essays, poems, columns, and articles.  Short stuff.  Short stuff doesn't require that much organization.  I had a good word -processing software.  I kept files of the multiple versions of my short stories, for example.  I used a spreadsheet to track where I sent writing and what happened to it.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Pitch Conferences: How to Meet and Greet with Agents

Many of my students and clients are signing up for spring pitch conferences, where they hope to pitch their book to a few agents.  These "meet and greet" events are currently one of the best ways to get face-to-face with agents, hear them talk about their lists (the books they represent) and preferences, and learn about the publishing industry today.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Gratitude Game--Celebrate What's Working in Your Writing Life

These past few weeks, I've experienced an unusual stall-out in my writing.  I couldn't locate any still point inside, or that "necessary boredom" that writer Dorothy Allison says is a prerequisite to writing well.  It was as if my creative heart was too sore to create. 

I knew that writing could actually be the way to come back to myself, get away from the incessant barrage of crises.  But I was hard pressed to find the way in.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Tips for Making Your Characters Vivid Individuals on the Page

A MG (middle-grade fiction) writer in one of my online classes posted a great question this week:  How do I make my characters more distinctly individual?  Different from each other, enough to be vivid individuals on the page?

Developed characters, fictional or real, should be distinct from others in the story.  If they all blur together, it's hard to make them come alive for the reader.  Developed characters have backstory, a history that informs their story decisions.  They have certain quirks, a way of moving, a way of standing or using their hands. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back--Getting Your Work Out in the World

It's been an up and down week.  I got news on Monday of a student whose short story was accepted by a very prestigious journal and who'd been nominated for an equally prestigious award.  I also heard from three clients whose books were accepted for publication this month.  Very sweet. 

I also got an email from a student, raw from having pages of his manuscript critiqued by two colleagues at the university where he works.  He was soldiering on but underneath his good questions--how seriously do I take these comments?--I could hear the discouragement.  "It's like that old Bruce Springsteen song," he said.  "One step forward, two steps back."

Friday, November 4, 2016

Nonfiction Book Success--The Challenge of Telling Someone Else's True Story

One of my favorite kinds of emails come from past students in my book-structuring classes whose books are being published.  Three such emails came to my inbox this week, and I wanted to share the story behind one of them in this week's blog.

When I first met journalist Ed Orzechowski in one of my classes, his book project fascinated me.  It wasn't an easy task to write a true story about a patient at the infamous Belchertown institution.  But Ed persevered.  You'll Like It Here, the true story of Donald Vitkus, patient #3394, is being released this month from Levellers Press.  I asked Ed to share some of the process of building a book on someone else's true--and horrific--story. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Dreams--The Delight and Danger of Using Dreams in Your Story

Dreams are a big part of my personal life--I've recorded my dreams since I was in college.  But I use them very sparingly in my writing.  Why?

Friday, October 21, 2016

Using Poetry Even If You're Not a Poet--What Poems Do for the Creative Brain

I'm only a marginal poet.  I've had one poem published and written maybe ten others, kept in a drawer.  But I love reading poetry.  It does something weird and wonderful to my brain.

In honor of Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for "having created new poetic expressions," I wanted to share this poetry experience and an exercise for this week. 
Recently a poet friend moved.  I visited her and took home two bags full of poetry books.   Collections from some of my favorite poets but also books on why we write and read poetry.  I'd just sent in my novel and was waiting for agent feedback so I felt kind of dry--desert-like, actually.  I wanted to get moving on the next book, all set up in Scrivener and waiting for me.  But I needed a little inspiration.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Paragraph and Line Lengths--How They Affect Your Story's Pacing

I never paid much attention to paragraph or sentence lengths.  I just wrote, felt satisfied if I got the story down.  Then, in the late eighties, I got a job as a editor at a publishing company in the Midwest. 

As an editor, I noticed that I had a visual reaction to a person's writing:  how it looked on the page, how dense or light.  How much white space or how much text.  Even before I began to read, I had a sense of whether I would be engaged, just by how the text looked.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Kid Lit! Writing for Different Young Readers--Who Is Your Best Audience?

Many writers want to write for kids.  They raised their own children on books, maybe thought I can tell a good story, too!  Or they love to illustrate for kids and want to fashion a story around their illustration.  I get lots of questions about kid lit, what ages to gear a particular story to, how to sell your children's, middle-grade, or young adult book these days.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Jennifer Egan on the Dream State of Writing

This week's writing exercise is simply a link to a fabulous article, an interview in Brainpickings with the Pulitzer-winning author, Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad), about the weird and wonderful place we go when we write.  Check it out here.   You may relate!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Metaphors in Your Story--What Are They, How to Use Them, When to Use Them

I'll never forget the first year of my MFA.  I had a great adviser, a well-published writer, who was also a minimalist.  I am not.   I love lyrical prose.  So we were an odd match that turned out to be one of the best parts of my expensive education.

As my adviser, Rebecca required me to send her a packet of new writing every two weeks.  She would read the pages and mark them up, then return them to me.  her handwriting was atrocious but her comments were stellar.  She didn't hold back.  If she loved something, she raved.  If she hated it, she said that too.  She assumed, rightly so, that at this point in my writing career I was past coddling.  I just wanted the straight truth.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Can You Use Both First and Third Person Narrators in Your Novel?

A few of my private clients are playing with the idea of using both first person and third person narrators in their novels or memoirs.  It's a fairly radical approach to storytelling but not impossible.  I've gotten the question enough times in the past weeks--the idea must be trending!--that I wanted to address it in this blog.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Refresh Your Writing Brain (and Inspire Your Book) with an Image Board This Week

Writers gather around the big classroom conference table.  It's the first evening of my weeklong writing retreat.  I ask each writer to grab a stack of magazines and begin tearing out photos.  The room gets quiet as everyone moves into their image brains. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Finding Close Readers--How to Be Smart with Feedback on Your Manuscript

Feedback is a tricky process.  Lots of danger if you choose feedback partners that have something to prove--they're smart, literary, better than you could ever be.  Or if you exchange with readers who just don't put in the effort, time, attention.  Both extremes can wear a writer out, best case.  Worse case, they can cause you to lose faith in your book.

Friday, August 26, 2016

How to Crisp Up Your Writing--Revision Tools for Wordsmithing

I'm a lifelong learner--there's always so much new stuff to practice and absorb about making great books.  I take different online classes for accountability and to keep up with new writing ideas. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Tips for Surviving a Manuscript Read-Through (The Essential Last Step before You Send Out Your Book)

Most of my students and coaching clients know about the read-through.  It's a full-manuscript read that you do at several stages in the book journey:  after your draft is complete and before you revise, and before submitting your manuscript to an editor or agent.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Using Pause Breaks to Strengthen the Pacing of Your Story

Right now, I'm working with a writer who is studying pacing:  specifically, how to pace her chapters.  She tends to deliver too much--too many images, too many ideas, too much happening--all at once.   It feels like a freight train coming at the reader.

So we're studying the writerly device of pause breaks.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Writing against an Edge: How to Push Your Intimacy on the Page

On Sunday, I'm heading to Madeline Island, a lovely spot in Lake Superior that happens to house an equally lovely arts school where I've taught every July for the past seven years.  Because I have a group of very edgy and wonderful writers coming for the week-long retreat, I've been thinking about edges.  How they exist in our writing and our lives.  How we push against them to establish our authenticity and intimacy on the page.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Where to Begin Your Book: How to Choose the Best Opening

Lots of writers struggle with the opening to their books, no matter what genre.  I'm working with one client in my retainer coaching program who is writing a very large story--it spans thirty years or more.  It's a memoir, and a lot has happened to her in her long life, so choosing the starting moment is very challenging for her.

We begin by asking what this book is about.  "My life," she answers, and that's true.  But I ask again, "What's it really about?" 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Summertime, and the Writing Is . . . Gone? Five Ways to Fit Writing into Your Crazy Life!

This week, try one of these five ways to fit writing into a busy summer life.  They've all worked beautifully for me--and I still get time to enjoy that camping trip!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Writing More Than One Book? How to Storyboard with a Sequel in Mind

Annette from the UK recently sent me this question:  "I'm currently reading Your Book Starts Here, plus I've been watching your storyboard videos on YouTube. You've helped me come unstuck after years of block with my half-written 'epic', which feels amazing!  I'm writing to you because I'm struggling with how to apply the W structure to a two-book story."

Friday, June 24, 2016

Time Markers: How to Keep a Reader on Track with Your Story

A few months ago, I began exchanging chapters with a writer who has an incredible skill with something called "time markers."  I feel very lucky to have her reading my chapters with time in mind.  She has caught my natural sloppiness the way a good editor might, saving me and my reader from going off track and losing the story thread.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Push to Do Risky Things with Your Writing

Risk is a place where many creative writers live.  We may not enjoy it but we have to take risks to grow as writers.  It's a risk every time we send our work to someone for feedback, take a class, approach an agent, or even when we finally get our books published.  

Each risk
takes us outside our comfort zone.  But I find risk an essential element in my writing life.  Without it, I repeat and repeat.  I never get better.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Seven Days to Getting Unstuck with Your Writing

One of my students recently emailed me about being stuck.  He's worked on his novel for several years now, relying on workshopping feedback to keep him accountable.  Recently he got some feedback from a hired editor and, although he totally agreed with the comments and knew the editor had nailed one of his manuscript's major weaknesses, he got stuck.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Thematic Threads: How to Build Them in Your Fiction or Memoir

When we finish a good book, something lingers with us.  A friend notices how we're still wrapped up in the story we just read.  She asks, "What was it about?" and we try to answer.  "It's about a woman who travels to India," we say, "but it's much more than that.  You have to read to understand."

That's theme.

Friday, May 27, 2016

When Does Your Inner Critic Appear? Three Scenarios of Self-Sabotage and How to Renegotiate Your Contract

Scenario #1:  The new chapter draft is going pretty well.  You're writing steadily, enjoying a renewed commitment to your book.  Suddenly, from some dark place in your mind, a switch goes on.  An unrelated thought or feeling slips in.  Maybe something you forgot to do or say.  A small mistake or failure.  The thought distracts you and you slowly leave the story flow.  You begin to hate the writing--or at least, it feels less delightful. Even a little boring, unoriginal?  You're derailed.

Scenario #2:  You give a chapter draft to a friend, spouse, relative to read.   You're pleased with it.  You imagine they will be too.  Maybe even impressed.  They bring back comments.  Even if they say, "I loved it," a flood of (1) fear, (2) anger, or (3) shame hits you.  You can't bear to look at the writing, to use their suggestions.  It's all sucky anyway, and you really shouldn't waste your time.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Character Loops--Reader-Pleasing Techniques for Using Characters in Your Story

I'm getting ready to teach a new online class this summer (starting June 8) about characters, so I'm having fun going through all my techniques, tips, and exercises learned and taught these past twenty years, trying to find

Friday, May 13, 2016

My Favorite Tool for Checking Story Sequence

Two of my private clients are working on nonfiction books.  They have a ton of expertise to share, but they normally teach in person, so putting their techniques and theories into a logical sequence on the page has proven challenging for both.  They found my website and decided to work with me to check the structure of their books-in-progress.

I start them with basic structure analysis techniques, which I learned as an editor at different publishing houses.  Most writers just write--they don't necessarily know anything about structure.  Editors used to take care of that, but they don't anymore, so we writers must learn to analyze the structure of our own books and get them in shape before we submit the manuscript.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Writing versus Structuring--Why Both Are Important and How to Toggle Between Them in Your Writing Sessions

John, from Texas, is writing a memoir--his first book.  He's a good writer and he's accumulated about 30,000 words so far, writing in what he calls "flow writing," where he just sits down each day and lets the memories pour onto the page.

John's story is good--riveting, in fact.  But a few months ago he reached a point of being confused about where he was going with the book.  He'd written as much as he could remember, but now he felt stuck.  He found me through my website and contacted me for private coaching. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

How to Use Different Points of View in Your Story

Teri, a blog reader, sent in a great question about points of view.  I've gotten variations of this question often in my online classes.  Teri's two narrators switch back and forth, alternating chapters. 

She wondered if she needed to make their amount of chapters equal.  Does she need as many chapters from her male character's point of view as from her female's?

Variations of this question crop up often in my online classes. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Tips on How to Read Your Own Work Objectively

Mary Beth is working on a memoir and has taken my online classes and my week-long writing retreat in Tucson.  She's got a solid draft of her manuscript and is now going through the chapters, revising and tightening the focus.  She emailed me recently with a great question--something we all run into.

"How can a writer learn to read her own writing from a reader's eyes/brain/comprehension?" she asked.  "When I reread my work--it's me --how I write.  I'd like to be able to reread it and go 'You're doing the same thing.  Change this or that.'  Maybe I'm looking for a magical way to reread my work."

Friday, April 15, 2016

How Do You Find a Good Editor--When You're Ready for One?

Kathy, a writer who has attended my Madeline Island retreats and online classes, has almost reached the finish line with her memoir.  

I've watched her work hard over the past few years, creating a strong structure for her book, workshopping her chapters, and fine-tuning.  She wrote me this week about her recent trials, trying to find a good copyeditor who will help her catch errors and get the manuscript ready to submit.

Friday, April 8, 2016

How Do You End Your Story? Where to End, How to Decide, What to Make Sure You Include

Andrea, one of my online students, send me a great question this week:  "I haven't quite decided how my story is going to end," she wrote.  "I have been mulling this very question for months, and I cannot come up with an answer. It's really perplexing and I think it's keeping me from moving forward."

She also mentioned being worried about covering too much time in her novel (one whole year).  Funny thing, these two questions are related.  If you solve one, you can solve the other.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Planting Twists in Your Story to Keep Readers on Their Toes

You know that old saw about "nothing is certain except death and taxes?"  We expect unexpected twists and turns in our real lives.  Stories should be that way too. 

In life, we may dread the unexpected.  In story, we anticipate and delight in it.  It keeps us on our toes, as readers.  We're engaged, turning pages, wondering what's going to happen next.   Funny thing, though:  Writers who are living high drama in real time often avoid it on the page.  So their writing feels safe, predictable, an easy ride--everything we want our lives to be. 

Everything that writing shouldn't be.

How do you overcome the tendency to keep your characters safe, to tone down your plot, to avoid changing things up? 

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Never Give Up!"--The Inspiring Story of Elizabeth Di Grazia's New Memoir

Elizabeth came to my classes a few years ago with her memoir-in-progress.  She was obviously a talented writer, but what struck me even more was her determination to tell this story, and tell it as well as she could.

At my July week-long retreat on Madeline Island, I watched her dismantle her book as she knew it--much writing already completed, but the structure not yet working--and we talked a lot about her options with timelines, backstory and present story, the threading of her life now and her childhood.  She came up with a unique and workable structure during that week and continued building her book through classes and mentorships. 

Not long ago, I got the announcement that her memoir was being published.  House of Fire has just been released by North Star Press. 

I interviewed Elizabeth for the blog this week.

Friday, March 18, 2016

How to Avoid Middle Slumps--Maintaining Tension in Your Story

Tonight I'm chatting with one of my online classes.  Our topic is slumped middles--not in our bodies, but our books.  Many books slide down the tension scale in the middle, as the initial action subsides and the finish line is still far in the distance.

Keeping the middle active and interesting is not easy.  On our chat, we're talking about a few proven techniques for brightening up the middle of your story.

Becky, who reads this blog, sent a great question about slumped middles.  She called this the part where "your character rallies and makes some kind of decision after hitting a low point, and things get a little better."  Yes, that's true, I told her.  The character (or narrator in memoir) will usually fall for a while after the story starts.  Things often get worse.  The character hits a low point and there's a kind of leveling out.  Some writers call this the "first turning point" of the story. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Balancing the Three Key Elements of Story

I was talking with a songwriter friend this weekend about how his songs are put together.  An idea usually comes--about a person, a place he visited, or an experience he had.  He then begins to brainstorm ideas for the lyrics (some songwriters start with melody, but he goes forward from the lyrics).  They start telling a story, using his initial idea. 

If he begins with a person--say, he's writing a love song or a song about heartbreak--he knows eventually he'll also bring in details about where and when, as well as what happened. 

He says that there's a cool alchemy that happens when all three of these elements are in place.  They create synergy with each other.

If he leaves one out, the song just doesn't feel complete. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Essential Tools for the Writer’s Toolbox

This week's post is reprinted from Writer's Block, an online newsletter from the Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis.

As a beginning writer, I pumped friends who were published, trying to find the secrets to writing well. There were plenty, and there were none--depending who you talk to. Some writers say writing can’t be taught, only caught. If you have talent to catch well, you become a good writer.
Talent is a big help. But I’ve coached many writers who were amazingly talented yet never finished their books, stories, or poems; who never believed in their talent enough to send writing into the world. Those who did had more than talent. They had collected a toolbox of craft skills, tangible and intangible. The more complete the toolbox, the more successful the writer.

Intangible skills include stamina, persistence, an ability to release what you know to learn the next skill, and believing in yourself. Intangible skills are gathered through experience, risk, and good mentoring. The longer you write, the more of these you have.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Plotting and Pantsing--When to Plan and When to Write, and Why Both Are Useful as You Build Your Book

Erin, a blog reader who has taken my online book-writing classes, wrote with a great question:  "I'm struggling a bit of time management in terms of planning vs writing. Case in point, I get about 30-45 minutes of writing a day. I feel like this should be used towards actually writing my book. The planning exercises are helpful but they don't feel like real, actual writing. So on days where I'm planning and world building and working on character profiles, etc., I feel like I'm not writing or progressing in terms of my novel."
Erin wondered about the balance between what she called "actual writing" and all the planning and plotting that goes into building a book's structure.
"Right now I feel guilty planning but stuck writing," she said.  "It's a terrible place to be!"

Welcome to the world of structure versus writing, or plotting versus pantsing, as it's known in many writing circles.  Some writers love to know where they're going ahead of time--the plotters or planners.  Others love the discovery process of just writing and seeing what emerges.

Friday, February 19, 2016

False Agreements and Your Narrator's Epiphany

A blog reader from New England sent a great question, which ties into a discussion happening in one of my online classes right now, about the growth of a character in memoir and fiction.  How that character always starts their story with a false agreement.  How that agreement changes until the character realizes what's true.

The false agreement also happens in nonfiction.  We pick up a book to get new insights, to move from limited knowledge into wider understanding. 

So, imagine what false agreement your story starts with.  What is the status quo?  What does everybody put up with, to get along? 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Planting Sensory Details--What to Use, When to Use It--for Emotional Impact in Your Writing

Skilled writers use sensory details to bring emotion to the reader.  Oddly enough, emotion doesn't come from fast-paced action.  Our hearts may race, we may read fast, but all we feel is tension and speed.  Characters' thoughts and feelings don't bring emotion to the reader either.  We may relate, but it doesn't hit that part of the brain where memories reside, where our emotions slide past the logical mind.

Friday, February 5, 2016

How Long Can My Timeline Be? Story Arc Questions and Answers

Many first-time novelists and memoirists struggle with timelines, asking excellent questions in my classes.  Two favorite ones: 

* How long a span of years or months or days can my book cover?

* What should I condense, what should I expand (Do I have to relate everything in real time or can it be summarized)?

Friday, January 22, 2016

What Memoirists Always Ask: How Much of My Story Can I Tell without Hurting Others?

Anyone who has written creative nonfiction (memoir, particularly) has probably run into the question of story ownership.  How much of your experience do you really have the right to write about?  When your story crosses into other people's lives, is it still yours to tell?

I've long admired Patricia Hampl's approach in I Could Tell You Stories.  She discusses the lines she's crossed and what came of it.  Mostly, she lost people in her life.   I remember how angry one of my family members became when I wrote about my very religious grandmother's mugging and loss of faith in God because of it, her eventual death.  "That's not the way it happened," this dear relative said.  But it was the way it happened, from my experience.  And I wrote about it as honestly as I could, to the best of my memory.

Who is right, in terms of memory?  Brain science tells us that memory changes as soon as we remember something.  Just the act of remembering will shift the details. 

And are my stories always my own?  Do I write them without considering the others who were involved?  Sometimes, I do.  Sometimes, not.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Three Essential Tools for Getting through Any Post-New-Year's-Resolution Slump

Making New Year's resolutions about my writing is fun.  Energizing.  At New Year's, anything is possible.  I look at what I haven't managed in 2015 and set my sights high for 2016.

I ride the high until around mid-February, usually.  Then I need to have three essential tools in place to help me get through the post-New-Year's-resolution slump.

These three tools are the main reason I've managed to write and publish thirteen books in three genres. 

They are:  (1) accountability, (2) inspiration, and (3) determination.   They usually matter in that order.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Emotional Peaks: How to Make Sure They're in Your Scenes and Chapters

When you read a great story, you don't even notice how you're engaged.  You just are--right?  But skillful writers plant a rhythm into their writing.  Like breathing, there are peaks and valleys of emotion and tension through all great scenes, chapters, even whole books. 

In a class I taught, I drew a diagram of a river on the board to illustrate this.  "This makes it very easy.  I just put heightened moments of tension at each bend in the river," one student noted.  "Maybe a big decision, a change of heart, a new understanding.  Or an external shift, like a move or a marriage or a big loss."  It made a big difference in her book structure to finally understand these "emotional peaks:" to view her scenes, chapters, and manuscript like a flowing river.

Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year's Goal: Submit Your Manuscript! But First, Learn to Write a Killer Query Letter and Book Synopsis

Is one of your New Year's goals to finally get that manuscript submitted?  Get off your endless revision-hamster-wheel?  

For your New Year's reading pleasure, check out these three great articles--what you need to know before you submit.

How to write a killer query letter.  A guest article for Writer's Digest website, written by agent Barbara Poelle.  Click here.