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Archive for the ‘Writing Tips’ Category

There’s a lot of advice for writers out there, and though most of it boils down to write – revise – revise again, somehow this instruction never gets old.  Most writers I know own at least a half dozen books on writing, and I think it’s because we all wish there were rules we could follow, secrets we could unlock, that would make it easier.

And actually, there are.  Or rather: ideas can resonate and inspire.  It can be useful to hear how successful writers balance discipline and inspiration, self-doubt and confidence, craft and creativity.  And it’s endlessly fascinating to hear how others work.

Several months ago The Guardian asked 29 well-known contemporary writers for ten rules on writing.  Some are practical (Richard Ford: “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting”), some are no-nonsense (Neil Gaiman: “Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down”), and some are – as to be expected from writers – cranky (Jeanette Winterson: “Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect”) and sardonic (Colm Toibin: “If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane”).

Here’s my own highly subjective top ten list of the Guardian’s top tens:

1.  Margaret Atwood: “Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own.  Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

2.  Helen Simpson: “The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.’”

3.  A.L. Kennedy: “Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.”

4.  P.D. James: “Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.”

5.  Andrew Motion: “Think with your senses as well as your brain.”

6.  Esther Freud: “Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.”

7.  Anne Enright: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.”

8.  Joyce Carol Oates: “Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.”

9.  Geoff Dyer: “Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.”

10.  Hilary Mantel: Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.”

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In anticipation of the paperback release of my latest novel, Bird in Hand, my friend Gretchen Rubin invited me to answer some questions about happiness for her wonderful blog, The Happiness Project.  One of her questions is, “Is there a happiness mantra or motto you’ve found very helpful?” I do have one — which I’ll write about for Gretchen (and link to here!) in a few days — but I love the answer to this question given by Larry Smith, creator of the brilliant Six-Word Memoir Project (“Fall down. Get up. Repeat process.”):

“My motto for writing (which is a big part of my daily existence and own happiness), one that I think applies to life as well: “Write drunk, edit sober.” Not that you should actually be drunk (the inebriated writer is a silly, antiquated idea, among other things), but that you should just get the words down whether you’re writing a letter, a report for work, or the story of your life, in six words or 60,000. Put the words down, don’t obsess over them, just effusively spill them down onto the page. Then step away—for an hour, a day, a week, whatever you need. And then edit. Edit like crazy. Be hard on words and yourself and make it better. And when you think you’re finished, edit it one more time.”

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Recently I shared some exercises I use with my students at Fordham for revising fiction and narrative nonfiction.  But a lot of us need inspiration at the other end of the process, too — right at the beginning.  So below are some of the best writing prompts I’ve used over the years.  Some I made up, some I gathered from other writers, and some I found in books.

You can approach these any way you wish: write about yourself, another person, or a character you’ve created.  Don’t think too much — just start.  Here’s an idea from Monica Wood, in The Pocket Muse:  “Set a timer for forty-five minutes, and don’t get out of the chair until the timer dings.  Even if you sit staring at the page the entire time, you’re ingraining the habit.”  And another piece of advice from Monica: “Tempted to quit early?  Make yourself this promise: One more sentence.  Say this every time you want to quit early:  One more sentence.”

So — to write!  Here you go:

  • Write about your hidden talent.
  • Write about the first time you felt dispensable.
  • Write about a disagreeable person who, for whatever reason, you have an attachment to.
  • Write about a photograph that means something to you, and why.
  • Give me your morning.  Breakfast, waking up, walking to the bus stop.  Be as specific as possible.  Use the five senses.  Take it slow.
  • Write about “leaving.” Approach it any way you want. Write about your divorce, leaving the house this morning, a friend dying, packing for a trip.
  • Everyone has a secret — some dark only because hidden.  Give a character a secret and a reason for hiding it.
  • Write about a family story.  The one you don’t like.  The one your mother always tells on a third glass of wine.
  • Write a story about two overlapping triangles in opposition, the most obvious being two lovers and their four parents.
  • Finally, a great one from The Pocket Muse: Almost any situation includes insiders and outsiders.  Most human beings, no matter what their stations, consider themselves outsiders.  Write about being an insider.

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Sometimes when you’re revising it helps to have a specific assignment.   Last week in this space I listed some exercises that my fiction-writing students find useful.  Here are some revision ideas that my memoir and journalism students particularly like:

1) Write down three adjectives (beautiful, aggressive, haughty) that describe a character in your narrative/memoir. (Be sure the adjectives describe different qualities, not the same ones.  For instance, handsome, well-groomed, muscular are too similar, as opposed to handsome, talkative, and mechanically inclined, which reveal different aspects of the character.)

Without using any of the adjectives (or synonyms), write a half-page scene or passage that shows the character engaged in action and perhaps speaking some dialogue that will suggest the selected qualities.

2) List 10 objects in your main character’s bedroom, car, living room, or other place. Make these objects as specific as possible, giving titles of books, contents of photographs, kind of junk food, etc.  Three of these objects should be connected to the story.  Using this list, write a half-page description of the character’s space, mentioning the objects or other elements of the décor (such as paint color) that will give readers clues to character.

3) Cut your story into scenes, summary, and flashbacks. Number each piece in the order in which it appears.  Then lay these pieces out on a table or floor and see what you’ve got.  How many scenes are there?  Is every scene necessary?  Can some be combined, deleted, or summarized?  Are important scenes buried in sections of summary?  Are there missing scenes?  Is the material from the past in the right places?  Try rearranging the sequence of events.  Experiment.  Move beyond fiddling with sentences to this kind of re-envisioning and rearranging.

4)  Choose a moment from your story-in-progress that could benefit from intensifying a character’s emotional or physical experience.

Focus on the place: the sights, smells, and weather.  For three minutes, free-write sensory details as rapidly as possible in present tense.  Look back and select the most striking or significant sensory details.  Look for places they might fit into the original passage.  Rewrite the opening paragraph, moving slowly, incorporating some of these details.

5) Write three different endings. Think about what is resolved and what is left unresolved with each ending.

6)  And finally — this is so obvious I hesitate to put it on the list, and yet I’m always amazed at how many of my students consider it a novel idea.  Retype at least one full draft, “making both planned and spontaneous changes as you go,” as Janet Burroway advises.  “The computer’s abilities can tempt us to a “fix-it” approach to revision, but jumping in and out of the text to correct problems can result in a revision that reads like patchwork.”

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A page from James Michener's rough draft of his novel The Covenant

This week I’m working on revising fiction with my undergraduate and grad students at Fordham. Below are some of the tips and ideas I’ve collected over the years that my students find most useful. (Next week I’ll talk in this space about the best exercises I’ve found for revising nonfiction.)

1) First, answer these questions:
What is my story about? Another way of saying this is: What is the pattern of change? Once this pattern is clear, you can check your draft to make sure you’ve included all the crucial moments of discovery and decision. Is there a crisis action?

2) Write three new openings. Each one should be at least a paragraph long. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end.

3) For a dialogue scene in your story/novel: go back and ground it in the physical world by adding:
a. two actions or gestures that will help us see another important character
b. two physical descriptions of another character that will help us visualize him or her
c. two setting or atmosphere details that will help put readers in the scene

4) The dramatic elements of a story/novel – crisis, power shifts, emotional connections, and withdrawals – are often mirrored on a smaller scale within a scene.

Try analyzing one of your own scenes, asking yourself:
a. What kind of power does each of the main characters have?
b. Where is there at least one shift in power – or even a failed attempt to take power?
c. Where is there at least one moment of making or breaking the emotional connection between the characters? Does it raise the emotional temperature?
d. Is there a mini-crisis or turning point? Something that is said or done, however minor, after which things cannot go back to quite the way they were before?

5) Are your most important lines in direct dialogue, or summarized? Generally, these should be direct. Is information or idle chatter direct or summarized? Generally, these should be summarized. Revise to make sure that the most important moments are in direct dialogue.

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A-list Hollywood screenwriter Kristen Buckley (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, 102 Dalmations) tells you all you need to know about writing a successful screenplay:

When people talk about fiction they usually mean novels and short stories, but a screenplay is also fiction.  It’s fiction with labyrinth-like structural constraints. Within these parameters, however, there is infinite room for creative maneuvering. The key is to understand five essential truths:

#1:  Size matters.  Screenplays need to be about 110 pages long.  Why?  Because screenplays become movies, and movies need to be between 90 and 120 minutes so that the theaters can get in enough daily showings to make money.  It doesn’t matter that most screenplays never become movies, or that most screenplays aren’t ever sold.  The rule applies to all of them.  You must think economically in every sense of the word.

#2:  The story has to be compelling. It also has to be original, and you must love it because you’re going to be living with it for a while.  I know this isn’t much to go on, but it actually leaves you a great deal of room creatively.  Make sure to have a beginning, middle, and end.  You also need obstacles.  Without obstacles, there’s no tension.  No tension equals boring.  Boring equals death.  Make sure it moves.  Get in the scenes late, get out early. Take leaps.  You don’t have time to fill in all the blanks (kind of like this paragraph –- get it?).

#3:  You will write many drafts. You will not have a true sense of your characters until you have completed your first draft.  It is only then that they will begin to appear to you in any real light, and probably only in the last few scenes.  Now you can really start writing.  In each consecutive draft (realistically speaking, you are looking at a minimum of five drafts), you must connect feeling to behavior. Also, in terms of motion, remember that the reason for walking is always destination. No one ever paces or walks (anywhere) for no reason.  Think about it in terms of your own life — you’ll see that it’s true.  Apply this to your characters; always know their destination within a scene, and always know the feelings behind their behavior.

#4:  Contrary to popular belief, description matters. Show, don’t tell’ is a writing cliche.  It’s true for screenwriting, sort of:  Yes, screenwriting is a visual medium, after it’s been turned into a movie.  But before that it’s something that is read, and it’s read by impatient people (producers/studio execs/agents) who HATE to read scripts, because that’s all they do and frankly, it gets tiring – especially when the bulk of them are crappy.

Therefore, you need to make sure that it’s a ‘good read,’ which means that in addition to fantastic characters and a story that captivates, your descriptions must be compelling.  To accomplish this, you must devote an entire draft to tweaking descriptions.  So how do you write great descriptions?  You spend hours honing sentences.  There is no shortcut. But before you struggle trying to make your opening paragraph brilliant, consider this: most people never read screenplays.  They see the movie, but they don’t read the scripts.  You need to familiarize yourself with great screenwriters, just as you would great novelists.  Find your favorite screenwriters and imitate them. Transcribe their work. Nora Ephron learned to write screenplays by transcribing William Goldman.  I did the same with Ron Bass.  Re-writing the work of others gets your brain moving in the right direction. It teaches you how to convey tone and how to hone construct.  You will, of course, need to find your own voice, but at least you’ll have a solid foundation to build from.

#5 Like a fine wine, your screenplay needs to breathe. Toss your index cards, and don’t overly outline.  Let the story breathe.  Hash out a short two-page synopsis, then start writing.  Write quickly, maybe five pages a day – but try not to do more than that.  You can’t rush it.  No one writes a screenplay in three days.  They’re lying if they say they did.  It’s a slow process.  Let your brain have time to play with things.

A good script can take anywhere from three months to a full year (10 days? Hah!), and at some point you will get stuck. The story will fail you, or rather, you will fail the story.  This is when you may sit for days unable to figure anything out.  This is to be expected. Stick with it; let the characters talk to you.  Let them tell you what they think.  If a strange idea occurs to you that involves slashing twenty pages – try it.  It’s probably the right instinct.  If it isn’t, it will take you down another road that may provide an answer.  Just keep searching.  The answer is there.

Kristen Buckley’s upcoming movies include Shoe Addicts Anonymous and We’ll Be Out By Christmas. She has written a novel, The Parker Grey Show, and a memoir, Tramps Like Us. Her essay, “What I Am Is What I Am” appeared in Christina’s co-edited collection About Face and her horribly embarrassing personal tale, “Escape from Downtown” was included in Larry Doyle’s novel I Love You Beth Cooper. (Larry now owes her.)  She is also a frequent contributor to The Nervous Breakdown.

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Write what you know?  On second thought …

“Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words ‘Write what you know’ is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad, how much combat do you think he saw?”  — P. J. O’Rourke

“It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know; I write in order to find out what I know.”  — Patricia Hampl

“Writing what you know ignores the whole purpose of creative writing. Writing is an act of the imagination. Good writing is generally bigger than the writer — if we only write about ‘what you know,’ our work will never be more compelling than we are.”  — Willie Davis

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Last month I received an early copy of Dawn Raffel’s new story collection, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, which officially debuts this week.  Reading it — a slim, spare set of 21 stories in just over 100 pages that Publishers Weekly calls “a model of economy and grace” — I was struck by how well Raffel writes dialogue.  So I asked her to articulate how she does what she does.  And here’s what she said:

Before I was a fiction writer, I was a journalism student, a theater student, and a fiction editor. All three pursuits taught me some lessons about dialogue:

People almost never speak in perfect sentences. In journalism school, I spent hours writing down verbatim what people said. Real people mix up tenses and subject/verb agreement, repeat, trail off, and go off on tangents halfway through a sentence. Too much of this on the page would be annoying, but a little goes a long way toward establishing authenticity.

Conversations are rarely entirely logical. One person asks a question and the other gives an answer that doesn’t quite match. One makes a comment and the other changes the subject. This happens when we’re obfuscating and when we’re genuinely trying to communicate. We invariably have our own agenda, our own distractions, our own inner drama playing loudly in our head.

Words carry only a portion of the meaning of dialogue. When you study a play, you realize how much is conveyed by tone of voice, by timing, by physicality. On the page, you can utilize the cadence of the dialogue to convey mood (i.e. Is it percussive? Fluid and languid?), and you can make use of a character’s body language (Is she looking at the door while she’s talking? Picking at food?). What’s not said can be important. And colloquial dialogue juxtaposed with a lusher, more expressive narrative voice can convey the sense of a rich inner life behind the words.

“Said” is your friend. “She declared, she exclaimed, she cajoled, she fulminated, she shrieked….” These just call attention to themselves and feel manipulative; they’re cheap ways to conjure emotion. As a fiction editor, I saw how “said” disappears on the page and allows the dialogue and action to stand out.

Using dialogue as a delivery system for lots of exposition is also a cheap shot. People don’t give each other a ton of back story in real conversations (“Remember when we got married ten years ago…”).  Let dialogue advance the story.

Having one character tell another character a story can establish character. In my novel Carrying the Body, one of my characters keeps trying to tell the story of the Three Little Pigs; the way she corrupts the fairy tale is a way of showing the reader who she is.

My best piece of advice is this: Always read your dialogue aloud. If it makes you cringe (which happens to me often on the first round), if it comes out sounding like words no one ever spoke, you know you have your work cut out for you.

Dawn Raffel’s newest book, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, is a collection of 21 very short stories (several made up almost entirely of dialogue). She is also the author of a novel, Carrying the Body and a previous collection, In the Year of Long Division. Her fiction has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories and numerous journals and anthologies. She has taught creative writing in the MFA program at Columbia University and at the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is a longtime magazine editor. Her website is DawnRaffel.  Her YouTube video is Further Adventures in the Restless Universe.

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Just in time for the new year, the fabulous C. M. Mayo shares her strategies for writing – and finishing – your book:

Last spring my latest novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, was published. This was not a go-to-the-cabin-by-the-lake-and-churn-it-out kind of experience.  No, my novel is a nearly 500-page historical epic based on extensive original research, every line of prose polished to shine like the lighthouse in Alexandria, with more characters than you could pack into a Starbuck’s.  Is it any good?  You be the judge.   What I know for sure is that over the more than seven years it took me to write it, I hung in there.  And eventually I finished.  And then I sold it.  How did I do it?

Herewith one dozen tips:

# 1. Before you begin, state your intentions
It’s important to write them down, stating them specifically, and in present tense.  For example, I write a novel that… you fill in the blanks.  I don’t mean, write down what your novel is about; you might have to fiddle around for a few hundred pages before you figure that out.  But ask yourself, do you want to write a novel that places you among the immortal literary stars?  Or achieve a modest success that might help you get a teaching job?  Or do you just watch to check “publish book” off your “to-do” list?  And how much time and effort are you willing to put into the enterprise of finding a publisher?  It might be easy to find one, or it might take a few years, a bundle of postage, and a mountain of paperwork.  Not to mention heartbreak.  Whatever your path may be, it will be more difficult if you have not clearly identified and acknowledged your intentions.

# 2. Be here now
If you are regretting the past (“I should have started sooner …”) or worrying about the future (“Will they laugh at me?”), you are not writing. And if you are waxing nostalgic about the past (“How wonderful that they liked my short story!”) or daydreaming about the future (“My agent will sell it to the movies for a million dollars!”), you are not writing.  To get the book done, you have to be writing.

# 3. Treat yourself kindly
If you do, your artist self will show up more frequently, and play more freely.  If you bully and criticize yourself, you can sure you’ll end up blocked.

# 4. Keep a pen and something to write on with you at all times
When you’re out and about – driving, at the dentist’s, walking the dog – you just might capture the perfect fragment of dialogue, or hear the opening line of the next chapter in your head.  I don’t recommend those lovely bound “writer’s” journals because they are too big to carry around easily.  I use Moleskines, index cards and sometimes even a small pack of Post-Its.

# 5. When you are writing, always keep your pen resting lightly on the page (if at the computer, keep your fingers on the keyboard)
If you sit back in your chair and lift your hand to your chin, as so many people do, your body is signalizing to your writing self, no, I am not ready. This can contribute to a bad case of block. It’s such a simple thing to always keep your pen on the page, yet very effective.

# 6. Music helps
I find that drifty, New-Agey music in a minor key works best for bringing on the Muses. There is a large literature about music and creativity. I offer a couple of blog posts (with links for more information) on this subject here and here.

# 7. Mise-en-place
This is a French term chefs use that means, more or less, everything in its place. Briefly: start clean, then assemble utensils and equipment; then assemble all ingredients; then wash, cut, chop; then cook. Doing things out of order makes the whole process take longer; the product often come out mediocre (or ruined), and can cause needless stress for the cook and the diners.

This explains why many of the most productive writers write in coffee shops and the rest of them do a lot of housecleaning, n’est-ce pas? It’s not the easiest thing to write a novel when your desk is cluttered with phone bills and stacks of unanswered letters, the dog needs to be walked in five minutes, and, by the way, you’ve left the phone on and your Facebook page tab open. There are people who can work amongst piles and general chaos, but I am not one of them, and I cannot recommend it.

# 8. Learn from other novels
The novels you have already read and love can be your best teachers. But don’t read them passively, for entertainment; neither should you read as an English major might, ferreting out “interpretations.” Read them as a craftsperson. How does Chekhov handle endings? How does Austen handle transitions? How does Hemingway describe food and clothing? Any question you have about your writing conundrums is probably answered, right there, in the books you already have on your shelf. And continue to read, and read actively, with a notebook and pen.

# 9. Learn from books on creativity
Why reinvent the wheel? Whatever your problem (block, confusion, utter despair), you can be sure another writer (or artist) has wrestled with it and has something helpful to say about it in a book. The cost of a book is lentils compared to that of needlessly painful experiences. You’ll find my list of recommended books here.

# 10. Get feedback on your writing
From a writers group, a writing teacher, a freelance editor, workshop participants. You’ll find my 10 tips to get the most out of your writing workshop here.

(For some years I was in a writing group with novelist Leslie Pietrzyk; read what she has to say about it here.)

# 11. Get to know other writers
This is how I found my writers group (thanks, Richard Peabody!), my publisher (thanks, Nancy Zafris!), and my agent (thanks, Dawn Marano!).

Go forth with a spirit of generosity. You never know who will help you, and you might be more helpful to someone else than you realize. So go to readings (they are almost all free!); take workshops, attend conferences, and stay in touch.

# 12. Consistent Resilient Action
Again, why reinvent the wheel? Writers are not the only ones who grapple with their emotions in the face of rejection, failure, criticism, and indifference. There is a large literature on sports psychology. The book I recommend most highly is The Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum. Consistent Resilient Action (CRA) is what sports champions do:  Dropped the ball?  Well, pick it up.  So your first draft is crap?  Write a new one.  An agent rejected you?  Send your manuscript to the next one.  Take a workshop, get feedback, re-read Proust, go write a poem— and so on.  In response to anything negative, instead of wasting your energy in anger, it is crucial to take a positive step, however small, and immediately.

P.S. Many more resources for you here.

And good wishes.

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last-prince-cover-smaller (2)Award-winning writer, translator, and editor C. M. Mayo explains the power of the five-minute exercise:

“I don’t have time to write.”  Everyone and their uncle who has that bodacious idea for a screenplay, it seems, leans on this one.  Do you?

I’m a writer, but that doesn’t mean I always have the time I’d like for writing – the big luxurious swaths of peaceful solitude that, as arts colony-goers know, enable a writer to swan through six months of work in a mere week.  But on any given day I do have some scrap of time I could dedicate to writing.  In the crush of things, it may be only an hour, maybe half an hour.  Maybe less.  No matter what your life looks like, even if you have two jobs and eight screaming kids, you, too, have time to write – though we’re talking five minutes and I know, you may have to lock yourself in the bathroom to grab that much.  But grabbing such scraps of time can make the difference between being a writer who writes and a writer who isn’t.

So here’s a trick: take out an egg-timer (or use the countdown feature on your cell phone) and set it to five minutes. You would be amazed how much you can write in a mere five minutes, and at how much momentum you gain, so much in fact that most people – I say this based on my experiences teaching workshops – find it painful to stop.

What to write? Back in 2006, as an exercise to help my students and also myself, as I was in the midst of long slog (The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, my nearly 500-page historical novel), I posted one five-minute writing exercise every day for 365 days. These cover dialogue, plot, beginnings, characterization, body language, weather, imagery, synesthesia, and more. You’ll find “Giant Golden Buddha & 364 More 5 Minute Exercises” arranged by month and with a thematic index here.  Most of the exercises are mine, but a number are by other writers and poets who contributed their favorites. Help yourself – and have fun!

And one last tip: when you do these exercises, or any other writing, always keep your pen resting lightly on the paper, or your fingers resting lightly on the keyboard.  If you raise your hand, say, to scratch your chin as you contemplate what to write, your body has alas, powerfully, told your writing mind that it does not want to cooperate.  So cooperate.  With your pen resting lightly on the paper, or your fingers lightly on the keyboard, you’ll see, something will come into your mind and you will write.  And that’s it – you’ve broken the block.  Now may your writing flow.

C.M. Mayo is the author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, which is based on a strange and powerful true story.  Her other works include Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, The Other Mexico, and Sky over El Nido, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award. She is the editor of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, a portrait of Mexico in works by 24 Mexican contemporary writers. She teaches in the San Miguel Workshops and the Writers Center, and blogs at Madam Mayo.

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writers_block2Gretchen Rubin is the guru behind the phenomenally successful blog (and soon-to-be book) The Happiness Project.  In this post she shares an inside glimpse at her process.

One of the challenges of writing is … writing. Here are some tips that I’ve found most useful for myself, for actually getting words onto the page.

1. Write something every work-day, and preferably, every day; don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Staying inside a project keeps you engaged, keeps your mind working, and keeps ideas flowing. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it’s often easier to do something almost every day than to do it three times a week. (This may be related to the abstainer/moderator split.)

2. Remember that if you have even just fifteen minutes, you can get something done. Don’t mislead yourself, as I did for several years, with thoughts like, “If I don’t have three or four hours clear, there’s no point in starting.”

3. Don’t binge on writing. Staying up all night, not leaving your house for days, abandoning all other priorities in your life — these habits lead to burn-out.

4. If you have trouble re-entering a project, stop working in mid-thought — even mid-sentence — so it’s easy to dive back in later.

5. Don’t get distracted by how much you are or aren’t getting done. I put myself in jail.

6. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that creativity descends on you at random. Creative thinking comes most easily when you’re writing regularly and frequently, when you’re constantly thinking about your project.

7. Remember that lots of good ideas and great writing come during the revision stage. I’ve found, for myself, that I need to get a beginning, middle, and an end in place, and then the more creative and complex ideas begin to form. So I try not to be discouraged by first drafts.

8. Develop a method of keeping track of thoughts, ideas, articles, or anything that catches your attention. That keeps you from forgetting ideas that might turn out to be important, and also, combing through these materials helps stimulate your creativity. My catch-all document, where I store everything related to happiness that I don’t have another place for, is more than five hundred pages long. Some people use inspiration boards; others keep scrapbooks. Whatever works for you.

9. Pay attention to your physical comfort. Do you have a decent desk and chair? Are you cramped? Is the light too dim or too bright? Make a salute—if you feel relief when your hand is shading your eyes, your desk is too brightly lit. Check your body, too: lower your shoulders, make sure your tongue isn’t pressed against the top of your mouth, don’t sit in a contorted way. Being physically uncomfortable tires you out and makes work seem harder.

10. Try to eliminate interruptions — by other people, email, your phone, or poking around the Internet — but don’t tell yourself that you can only work with complete peace and quiet.

11. Over his writing desk, Franz Kafka had one word: “Wait.” My brilliantly creative friend Tad Low, however, keeps a different word on his desk: “Now.” Both pieces of advice are good.

12. If you’re stuck, try going for a walk and reading a really good book. Virginia Woolf noted to herself: “The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw.”

13. At least in my experience, the most important tip for getting writing done? Have something to say! This sounds obvious, but it’s a lot easier to write when you’re trying to tell a story, explain an idea, convey an impression, give a review, or whatever. If you’re having trouble writing, forget about the writing and focus on what you want to communicate. For example, I remember flailing desperately as I tried to write my college and law-school application essays. It was horrible – until in both cases I realized I had something I really wanted to say. Then the writing came easily, and those two essays are among my favorites of things I’ve ever written.

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prizeWords of wisdom from renowned book editor and literary agent Betsy Lerner:

“For most writers, writing is a love-hate affair. But for the ambivalent writer who cannot attempt, sustain, or complete a piece of writing, the ambivalence usually shifts back and forth from the writing to the self. The inner monologue drums: I am great. I am shit. I am great. I am shit. But the writer with publication credits, good reviews, and literary prizes is not immune to this mantra either; in fact, the only real difference that I have been able to quantify between those who ultimately make their way as writers and those who quit is that the former were able to contain their ambivalence long enough to commit to a single idea and see it through.”

Betsy Lerner is the author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers and Food and LoathingAfter working as a book editor for 15 years, she became an agent and is a partner with Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency.  This quote is from from The Forest for the Trees. (Thanks to novelist Alexandra Enders for suggesting it.)

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romeo-and-juliet1At the Globe Theatre in London last week, a professor from Rosehampton University gave a short lecture about Romeo and Juliet before the production began.  In discussing the origins of the play the professor said, as an aside, “Of course, as we all know, Shakespeare didn’t invent anything.  All of his plays were based on stories that would’ve been familiar to audiences at the time.”

I was musing about this when I got the following email from a novelist friend:  “I am struggling so on my new novel … I cannot find my way into the story, which breaks my heart, but I cannot give it up, either.  Do you have any tip for finding your way into a very thorny story?”

As everyone knows who has read this piece about the trouble I had writing my new novel, I am quite familiar with this problem.  So here’s something that worked for me.  While writing both The Way Life Should Be and Bird in Hand, I studied novels that successfully achieved something that I wanted to do – and essentially copied their strategies.

When I was writing The Way Life Should Be I wanted the story to move really quickly; I wanted to begin scenes in the middle.  I’d just read The Lovely Bones and admired how Alice Sebold varied her chapter openings and seemed to jump right into the action in each new scene.  So I literally wrote the first few words of each scene in Sebold’s book in a notebook.  Then, when I was stuck, I looked at the list of scene openings for inspiration.  I didn’t actually copy her words, but I found that this list of phrases triggered my own ideas for starting in the middle.

Here’s another example.  Writing Bird in Hand, I was obsessed for a time with Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours.   I loved the multiple points of view and the paradoxically intimate but slightly detached voice(s).  Bird in Hand is nothing like that book, but I was influenced, in writing it, by how Cunningham achieved a kind of patient unfolding.  The scene in my novel with Ben in the flower shop is my secret homage to Cunningham – and of course to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway … which provided the inspiration and the source material for The Hours.

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butterfliesLast night, reading Anthony Doerr’s lovely essay, “Butterflies on a Wheel,” in a recent issue of Granta, I came across this line: “The brain contains, always, two opposing desires: the urge to stay and the urge to run.”

I read it again. The urge to stay and the urge to run. The phrase echoed in my mind: I had encountered this idea somewhere before. Then it came to me. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert says, “Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains.”

That same word: desire. Stay/restrain, run/impel. Flaubert’s idea is larger, encompassing as it does the notion of social mores and expectations. But convention might as easily come from within as without, and the fact that these forces are in constant tension within us is both a truism and an idea that bears repeating.

It really doesn’t matter whether Anthony Doerr remembered the line from Madame Bovary. I imagine he didn’t. This idea – doubtless repeated in different ways by countless writers over the years – is perennially interesting. Reshaped for a new time and circumstance and refreshed by context, it becomes new again.

(The title itself, “Butterfly on a Wheel,” is an allusion to a line in Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot: “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” about the foolishness of expending great effort on an inconsequential task. Same conceit, new iteration …)

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Jungian psychologyYou never know where you’ll find inspiration – or where inspiration will find you.

Sitting on an airplane in the summer of 2005, on the way to Fargo, North Dakota with my family to visit my husband’s mother, I came across an interview with the novelist Sue Grafton in Northwest Airlines World Traveler magazine, of all places.  She spoke so eloquently about the source of her creative energy that I copied it in my notebook and later posted it on the bulletin board in my office.

“It’s from Jungian psychology,” she said. “Our dark side, our shadow, [is] where all our creative energy is. If you spend your life looking perfect and doing everything you’re supposed to do, you shut down the part of you that is most energetic. For awhile, I was concentrating on being good, on doing what people expected, and lost track of that energy to do the work itself.”

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Joe Meno's latest novel“For me, almost everything starts off as a short story,” the novelist and short story writer Joe Meno says in the June 30th issue of One Story magazine.  “All of my novels have been built around material that’s been explored or published as short stories, because it forces me to get to the character and action quickly, and helps me figure out what the story is actually about. I usually write a few short stories and realize that they feature similar questions or characters and decide that there’s a novel there somewhere.”

Meno adds, “To write one good short story, you’re probably going to write about nine bad ones. You have to enjoy the mistakes and failures and misfires and realize writing is all about one thing: trial and error.”

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george-orwellIn his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell made a list of six rules for writers. “These rules sound elementary,” Orwell wrote, “and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.” Though he compiled this list in 1946, it’s as relevant and useful today as it was then:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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A writer friend, Cindy Handler, asks: “A few posts back [Writing Tip #3: Use a Monkeywrench] you mentioned that you like to give your characters a trait that goes counter to their basic nature and makes it harder for them to get what they want (if I understand correctly).  Could you give an example?  The main character in my novel is so controlling that it works both for and against her, but I don’t think that’s the same thing.”monkey-reading book

So here’s an example.  In my novel-in-progress there’s a 17-year-old tattooed, pierced, tough kid named Michelle who’s in trouble for stealing.  But she steals books.  She loves to read; libraries became a refuge when her home life was in chaos. And her love of reading gives me access to a more interesting inner life for her.

I don’t mean, necessarily, that this kind of contradiction makes it harder for characters to get what they want, only that by working against type I can deepen and expand who they are.  I find, especially at the beginning, that the more complexity I add, the more my characters surprise and intrigue me and the more I have to say about them.

Cindy adds, “And the more real it makes them seem, because real people are full of contradictions.”

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glass of water“Make [your] characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

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monkey_wrench

When I’m developing a new character I often throw a monkey wrench into the works to create internal tension.  I give this person a trait (an obsession, a habit, a fixation, a physical peculiarity or mannerism) that seems to cut against the grain of his or her personality.  I find that these contradictions usually add depth and dimension, and stimulate me to think about my character in new ways.

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writing spaceA novelist friend has an index card with these four words on it taped to the wall above the computer in his study:

CHARACTER
CONFLICT
CHOICES
CONSEQUENCES

Sometimes it helps to remember: it’s that simple.

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five sensesThe problem of beginning …

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a story (or a chapter or a scene) you should use all five sentences right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph:  touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight.  Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

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