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Posts Tagged ‘Discipline’

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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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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Waiting to pick up my son after his play rehearsal, I sit in the car and grade student essays. I listen to podcasts as I drive over the George Washington Bridge to work. When the phone rings at home and it’s my sister, I get up from my desk to make beds, put in a load of laundry, start the dishwasher.  I make sandwiches for school lunches while fixing dinner.

I have come to realize that I rarely do one thing at a time.  And that’s the problem.

When you write, you can only write.  You can’t do laundry or wash dishes.  You can’t make sandwiches or talk on the phone.  You can’t even listen to music (or I can’t – unless I’m in a coffee shop, where for some reason ambient noise doesn’t usually bother me).  It’s just you and the lined paper – or blank screen – in front of you, and any distraction will not only affect your writing that day, it may change the course or the tenor of the work you’re trying to do.

But multitasking is a hard habit to break, even temporarily.  I sit down to write and items for a “to do” list march through my head.  I suddenly remember that I never called the dentist; I forgot to pick up a package at the post office; we’re out of milk.

In almost every other aspect of my life, my ability to multitask is a good thing.  Doing several things at once is how I’ve learned to juggle my various responsibilities:  mother, wife, editor, teacher, volunteer.  It’s the only way to keep all the balls in the air.

But writing is not about keeping the balls in the air.  It’s about letting them drop.  To unspool a story is to inhabit a different space altogether. You have to let the world in your head grow until it becomes more important than the world you inhabit.  You have to calm your heartbeat, slow your skipping brain, become comfortable with silence.  You have to accept that you will get nothing done except this one thing – this one paragraph or page or, perhaps, on a good day, a chapter – and possibly not even that.

You have to stop worrying about the fact that you’re wasting time.  Of course you are.  That’s what writers do.

And when you emerge from your writing fog you will have accomplished nothing tangible.  You will have checked nothing off your list.  Your teeth still need cleaning.  The package awaits at the post office.  There’s no milk in the fridge.  And your book isn’t finished – far from it.

But perhaps you had a moment of clarity, of insight, about your story.  Maybe you understand it a little better.  And if you really want to be a writer, these moments are more than enough to keep you going, to give you strength to push back against the many-headed hydra of tasks and responsibilities that threatens to devour the precious time you have to create something. Something light-years removed from your ordinary life.

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Bonnie Friedman writes about the lure of (and cure for) the endless novel:

I just finished my first novel.  This isn’t the first novel I tried to write.  Before publishing a book of essays and then a memoir, I’d been a devoted fiction writer.  I’d written hundreds of pages of two vast novels, one when I was in my twenties and one in my thirties.  But this last one is the first novel I’ve finished.  Those other novels were a great pleasure and torment to work on — I got to explore internal states that haunted me, and I got to wander amongst skeins of gossamer prose sticky as butterfly wings, and I got to understand (among other things) aspects of my childhood with my sister, who had been a grand volcanic, wounded girl.  But I didn’t know how to finish either of the books I started.

They were all middle and no end.  They were all sprawling, surging second act.

I didn’t know that I was allowed to figure out where my characters ought to end up, and then explore how they might get there. I didn’t know how conscious I was allowed to be during the writing process.  I didn’t know that if I focused on one particular problem that a character was trying to solve, myriad others would snap into clarity.

I’d grown up reading experimental writers — Woolf, Stein, Barnes, Joyce — and really didn’t understand the least thing about novel structure. For me, reading a novel was a state of immersion.  I read slowly, savoring the serif type and the glow of the linen page (I’m thinking of a certain paperback of Mrs. Dalloway that I was given for my 21st birthday, and which I read munching Mint Milanos and sipping sweet instant coffee from a tin).  “How true!” I’d write in the margins with a coal-soft pencil.  I’d assumed that to write a book one must simply get immersed.  And I liked immersion.  It was less scary than decision.  “Discover, discover!” I told myself — the mantra of writing schools in those days.

I wrote in order to set on the page certain internal states.  I wanted to see what they meant.  I didn’t yet know how useful it is to give one’s traits to a character who is a bolder version of oneself.  I didn’t yet know that a novel must involve a character who changes by the end. At a certain point I recognized with this last novel that it too might go on forever accumulating pages and becoming less and less publishable if I didn’t impose a bit of discipline on myself.

I bought screenplay writing books, playwriting books, and even a novel-writing book or two — those dreaded texts I was convinced would flatten all my originality, what there was of it, to mere formula.  And all proved useful.  I hadn’t understood that the effect that a novel creates isn’t the same as the technique used to create that book.  Nor had I understood how entirely I merely loved the dream-state of adding to my novel.

Now what’s thrilling is pacing through other people’s novels and seeing how they’re hinged and braced.  Noticing the decision points.  And allowing my own characters to make decisions.

Gone — I hope — is some of that sticky enthrallment that kept me caged in mammoth manuscripts for so long.  Each writing temperament, I’m convinced, has its own perils.  The peril of mine was to remain for epochs in a prolonged inchoate state of mazy inconclusiveness.  The heroine of my novel altered, as did I by writing her.  Now I see a book as a device to discover more than one could have known beforehand.  And that acquiring technique is essential.  It is the artifice that, like eyeglasses, lets the world become clearer.  I’m all for it now, when once upon a time it was anathema to me.

Bonnie Friedman is the author of the Village Voice bestseller Writing Past Dark, Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, a widely anthologized book of essays.  She is also the author of the memoir The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy.  Her essays have been included in The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Writing on Writing, The Best Spiritual Writing, and the Best of O., the Oprah Magazine.

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Beginning a story or a novel, Alice Munro says, is the easy part …

“Endings are another matter.  When I’ve shaped the story in my head, before starting to put it on paper, it has, of course, an ending.  Often this ending will stay in place right through the first draft.  Sometimes it stays in place for good.  Sometimes not.  The story, in the first draft, has put on rough but adequate clothes, it is “finished” and might be thought to need no more than a lot of technical adjustments, some tightening here and expanding there, and the slipping in of some telling dialogue and chopping away of flabby modifiers.  It’s then, in fact, that the story is in the greatest danger of losing its life, of appearing so hopelessly misbegotten that my only relief comes from abandoning it.  It doesn’t do enough.  It does what I intended, but it turns out that my intention was all wrong.  Quite often I decide to give up on it.  (This was the point at which, in my early days as a writer, I did just chuck everything out and get started on something absolutely new.) And now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur.  I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them.  I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth.  I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem.  Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this. A big relief, then.  Renewed energy.  Resurrection.  Except that it isn’t the right way.  Maybe a way to the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard.  New angles are introduced, minor characters brought center stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake.  Out they go.  But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out.  I know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.”

From the Introduction to Selected Stories.

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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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For this writer, the creative process happens in stages – and the final one makes all the difference:

Stanton essayThe first is the molecular stage, that early collection of bits of information, what I find fascinating, unusual, funny or poignant at the time it occurs, whether I retain it in memory or in a physical form on pieces of paper.

The critical mass stage is next.  The particles are vibrating on their own in proximity to one another until they reach a critical mass and a reaction occurs.  The writing begins in a fury, raw data, raw memory, stream of consciousness writing.

Incubation happens throughout the writing when I walk away from the piece and it sits inside me, silently arranging itself, so that when I next visit it, I have made important connections. Then I edit and rewrite.  The placement of events and observations creates irony, mood, pathos, humor.  Events are taken out of the chronological or random order and purposefully placed, refined, commented on.  Incubation can happen over a period of months or years, but also during the active writing periods, each night when I turn off my computer and go to bed with an essay on my mind. This seems important, that the essay is written only partially at the desk.  Much of it is written while I garden or walk or lay in bed mulling it over.

Insight is the last thing to come, what the story is really about. I often don’t know until very late in the process, and the story is frequently about something other than I intended, if I let the piece take the path it wants.  The telling phrases, observations, and reflections I add at this stage give the narrative facts a luminescence that only distance and learning can yield.  I can look with relative detachment at my experience and see it for what it really was, and in subtle ways, infuse these small epiphanies into the essay.

Distance.  Perspective.  It can take years to learn how an experience has sculpted me, to tell the story, to locate its pulsing heart.

Editor’s note: I discovered these observations in Stanton’s essay, “On Writing ‘Zion,’” in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, which I’m using in a creative nonfiction class at Fordham. Stanton’s insights were so helpful to my students that I asked her for permission to adapt them here – something I normally don’t do.

Maureen Stanton’s essays have also appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Iowa Review, and American Literary Review, among other places. Three of her essays were listed as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays; her work has received a Pushcart Prize, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award in Creative Nonfiction, The Penelope Niven Award in Creative Nonfiction, and The Iowa Review Award in Creative Nonfiction, among other prizes.  She has twice received an Individual Artist grant from the Maine Arts Commission, and a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and grants from the Vogelstein Fund and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund.  She teaches creative nonfiction writing at the University of Missouri.

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Red Water pumpMondays are hard.  All weekend you’ve been doing laundry, taking family bike rides, reading the Times in bits and pieces, going to your kids’ soccer games, and then it’s Monday morning and they’re all out the door (except the dog, who is lying on your feet), and it’s hard to know where to begin, how to pick up where you left off.

When I was growing up in Maine, my professor parents bought an A-frame on a tiny island on a lake.  The house had no electricity or heat, and a red-handled pump was our only source of drinking water.  When we arrived on the island (having paddled over from the mainland in our evergreen Old Town canoe), we had to prime the pump with lake water to get it started.  One of my sisters poured the water into the top while another pumped.  The well water took a while to emerge, and then it was cloudy, rust-colored, for at least a minute or two before running clear.

This reminds me of my own writing on Monday mornings – or anytime I’ve taken a substantial break from it.  As with the pump, I’ve learned to prime my writing.  I might read a chapter or two of a book on my nightstand, or perhaps turn to one of my ‘touchstones’ – those dog-eared, broken-spined, oft-read volumes I’ve defaced with marginalia and underlinings, and which I know I can count on for inspiration.  (I’ve talked about some of those books here and here.)

Then I start to write, knowing that it may take some time to reach the deep, cold source of inspiration, but trusting that sooner or later my words will run clear.

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[Editor’s note:  Yesterday, on her terrific blog about writing, writer/editor Lisa Romeo talked about Louise DeSalvo’s piece in this space and added some tips of her own.  Thanks, Lisa, for giving me permission to post them here as well.]lisa romeo blog

Just the other day I was passing along tips to some writing class students who have school-age children and were explaining (that is, complaining) how little time this leaves them to write. Then today I came across this tough-love post by Louise DeSalvo.  To her advice, I’ll just add a few of my own tips; some are different, and some amplify what she advises:

  • No (more) volunteering for school activities that take more than an hour or two a month. Or how about just: NO.
  • Accept that you will have a dirtier (or at least a messier) house than you probably would like – OR hire someone to clean it.
  • Write anywhere. A lot of my stuff has been rough-drafted on the bleachers at baseball games, in the car waiting for kids to finish up at an activity, on the patio while the kids (when little) were playing nearby, even in the ladies room at insufferably long school and family functions!
  • Decide what you can slice out of your parenting life in order to get a writing life. Five years ago, when my youngest was in first grade, I decided I could do without the daily chats with other moms while waiting for our kids at pick-up time after school. I still had to arrive 15 minutes before the bell rang to get a parking space, but I decided to sit in my car and write – bingo, an extra hour or so a week.
  • As DeSalvo says, ALWAYS call it “work.” I realized this important distinction when asking a non-writing relative to watch the kids; and get the kids used to that terminology too. Mom’s working. Period.
  • Break free of the idea that you always have to write…at the keyboard, in your office, seated in that great armchair, with your favorite pen.
  • Get a writing accountability buddy – another parent writer who will exchange daily emails consisting of just one line about how many words or pages you each wrote that day; no venting allowed.

Now – what are you still doing here?

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philip seymour hoffman7To get a book underway, you have to fully commit to it.

This is less obvious than it may seem.  One of the hardest parts of starting a book is committing to an idea.  Because … what if the story isn’t big enough?  What if it isn’t compelling enough?  What if there isn’t enough of an arc; what if it’s the wrong perspective; what if there’s a better way to tell the story?  (Or should you be telling another story altogether?)

Committing to a story can feel almost as momentous as getting engaged.  The questions you ask yourself aren’t so different.  Willl I really be able to live with this person day after day, year after year?  I really like X about him, but I can’t stand Y.  Things I like about him in small doses might become intolerable over time. And how will he age?

In an interview in The New York Times Magazine, Philip Seymour Hoffman addressed this issue of committing to an idea.  He was talking about how he starts from scratch every time he becomes a new character, but it struck me that the creative process he describes is similar to a writer’s. “Creating anything is hard.  It’s a cliche thing to say, but every time you start a job, you just don’t know anything.  I mean, I can break something down, but ultimately I don’t know anything when I start work on a new movie.  You start stabbing out, and you make a mistake, and it’s not right, and then you try again and again.  The key is you have to commit.  And that’s hard because you have to find what it is you are committing to.”

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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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A candid exchange between novelists Andrew Davidson (The Gargoyle) and Karen Essex (Stealing Athena) in which they compare their writing processes,  talk about what it means to be a career novelist, how having a “readership” can change the way you work, and share other writers’ weird process stories.

stealing athenaAD: How are you so unbelievably prolific?  [Karen’s new novel is due in November.] Stealing Athena was only two years after the book that came before it, is that correct?  Seriously I am in awe. How did you get another book out of your body so quickly?

KE: I’m not sure how to answer that question, because people always ask me what my process is, and I always say my method is the obsessive-compulsive method of writing. Which is that once I get going on something, I almost don’t let it go. In a weird way. Someone once asked me if I took weekends off, and I just laughed, and I said, “I take my work with me to the bathroom.”  And I wasn’t kidding.

AD: The interesting thing is that I write, I think, by that obsessive-compulsive method a bit as well, but what it ends up doing for me is dragging me off down alleyways that are incredibly fascinating, and I write twenty or thirty pages about, but I discover that it ends up being one paragraph in the finished work.

The GargoyleKE: Right. Well, The Gargoyle was your first novel. Correct?

AD: That’s right. Yes.

KE: And you wrote it without a deadline.

AD: Without any deadline whatsoever.

KE: Right. So I had the same experience. My first novel was Kleopatra, it took me about  seven years from the time I thought about it and began to research it to the day I sold it, to what was then Warner Books.  I did a lot of research that took me down fascinating alleyways, which had nothing to do, in the end, with the finished book. But I’m here to inform you that now that you’re a big success…

AD: Yeahhh….

KE: … you’re going to have to learn to write faster. And you will. My experience has been that you now have a readership, and your readership is waiting for you.

AD: My feeling in my case is that, umm, I mean I’m certain that I could put something out in two years, but I don’t know if my readership would be happy with it, because I know I wouldn’t be.

KE: I think this is one of the issues that we novelists deal with.  This is what separates what I would call, for lack of a better word, a “career novelist,” you know, from someone who has a story or two in them. I think that it takes a brain-shift, almost, to transform oneself into a person who can write to satisfy a readership. And I don’t mean that that’s the primary goal, that we should be feeding product to our readers, but I look at people who are writing thick, idea-driven books like Philip Roth, and John Updike, and the late Iris Murdoch – these are all incredibly prolific people. So at some point I think they made that shift. And I think that you’re at the beginning now, so I bet you that if we had this conversation in five years into the future, you wouldn’t be so concerned about it.

AD: Well, you know, I think it’s interesting. Because I don’t think it’s necessarily – I completely understand what you’re saying, first of all – but I don’t necessarily know that it’s exactly what you’re talking about, as much as it’s just the different ways that people create. For example, I mean, in music, you’ve got, say, Leonard Cohen versus Bob Dylan. And at some point Bob Dylan was putting out an album every fifteen minutes, and Leonard Cohen puts one out every four years if we’re lucky.  And that’s just how they approach it. And recently, I’ve been going through the work of John Fowles. And I’m absolutely loving his writing, and the books are so different, and he, I think, produced only seven novels in his life. Well, I mean clearly here’s a “career novelist” who is just not somebody who writes in quite that quick way. And it’s not better or worse, obviously.  The one thing I’ve discovered in this last year and a half, where I’ve actually been meeting professional writers, because I didn’t know anybody before that, is just that everybody works in ways that absolutely surprise me. When I talk to other writers and they say, “Well, this is my method, this is my process,” sometimes it’s all I can do to keep from blurting out: “REALLY? That works for you?”

KE: I think my favorite weird process story is that of Graham Greene, who got up early every morning, put on a beautiful suit, wrote exactly five hundred words, would stop mid-sentence, once he had reached his five hundred words, was often done by breakfast time, and then would go sort of be a social butterfly, go and hang out with his wealthy friends on yachts in the Mediterranean.

AD: Which is not a bad process at all.

KE: No. Why can’t I learn that one?

AD: Yeah.

KE: I don’t really see it forthcoming, but that’s the process I would most like to learn.

You can read the rest of this conversation – in which they discuss the sometimes numinous, sometimes laborious procedures by which they create stories and bring their characters to life – and/or listen to the podcast, here.

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… or What I Learned About Writing from Eating Candy

Breaking the bank - 12-22-08A long time ago, before I wrote my first novel, I despaired of ever having the time to undertake such a large and arduous project.  I had two small children and my days (nights too, come to think of it) seemed hopelessly fractured; my time, or what there was of it, felt like it had been broken into the small, useless increments: fifteen minutes here, twenty there.  An hour that was all my own was a rare and prized occurrence.  How I was to cobble together a writing life from all these pieces was inconceivable to me.  I could not work in shards, I thought.  I needed some great and unbroken expanse of time, time like a freshly opened bar of chocolate:  smooth, rich, and mine, mine, mine.  But it was not to be, not then, and maybe not ever.  If I wanted to write, I was going to have to readjust my thinking and my expectations.  Instead of that glorious, unblemished chocolate bar, I had a bag of M & Ms:  discrete nuggets of time that I would have to learn to use.

And I did. While my kids were at school or sports or play dates, I worked on a novel. I did plenty of other things too:  wrote for magazines and the occasional newspaper, did freelance editing, worked on a children’s book.

But my mantra was two pages a day, five days a week. Two pages a day was manageable and doable; two pages was bite sized, like a Raisinette.  And even though it didn’t seem like much, two pages would begin to add up:  to ten pages a week, forty pages a month.  Eventually a novel, which was published in 2002.

My children are older now; one is off to college this fall and the other will be a freshman in high school. Yet the chunks of time are still M & M-sized: small and finite.  It doesn’t matter.  Two pages a day is all I need.

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of the novels The Four Temperaments and In Dahlia’s Wake; her third novel, Breaking the Bank, is coming out today from Pocket Books.  Yona has written 18 books for children, the most recent of which are also being published this month: The Doll Shop Downstairs (Viking) and Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott (Henry Holt).  [Ed. note: I think that’s called a hat trick!]  Visit her at http://www.yonazeldismcdonough.com.

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Unlocking the Forest“To have begun is to be half-done;

dare to know; start!”

— Horace

(Thanks to Tasha O’Neill for her image of a doorway at the Rockefeller Gardens in Seal Harbor, Maine,“Unlocking the Forest.”)

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Bestselling* author Marty Kihn reveals the secret of his success:

How is it possible to get something done without a deadline?  An easy question, really.

Get a dog.  I’m totally serious. My beloved Bernese Mountain Dog, Hola, has for the past five years awakened me every morning at 6 a.m. and not a moment later. She won’t leave me alone until I physically vacate the bed.  She even adjusts for Daylight Savings Time (don’t ask me how) – but, sadly, she has no concept of weekends, holidays, snow days, sick days or mornings when I’d just rather not bother.  Every day is the same day, and so in the inexorable logic of dog ownership (meaning, the dog owns me), every day of my life starts the same way.Hola3-new

Most writers require routine. In this way they are similar to children – and dogs.

Once I’ve rounded the Trinity Church graveyard (“Manhattan’s Only Active Cemetery”) with my four-legged love child, it’s not possible to go back to sleep, especially since I’m also a very weak trainer and can’t seem to stop her jumping up into my spot with her head on my pillow. So what can I do? Go get some coffee and write something.

Although it has proven pretty effective for five years now, my method does have a flaw. Sooner or later, inevitably, a certain theme started to invade my work, nuzzling its way gently into page after page. Yes, I’m writing about my dog. And I’m reading the work to her as I finish it.

Luckily, she loves everything I do. Unconditionally.

Martin Kihn is the author, most recently, of A$$hole: How I Got Rich & Happy By Not Giving a Damn About Anyone.  *Although blacklisted by a cowardly media elite in America when it came out last year, A$$hole is a breakout bestseller in Germany, where it is currently in the Top 20 in paperback. Martin is proud to be known as the David Hasselhoff of satirical non-fiction.

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Some words of encouragement from two writers who seem to know exactly what they’re doing:

headlights“In beginning a story I know nothing at all: surely not where I am going, and hardly at all how to get there.” — Cynthia Ozick

“Writing a novel is like driving across country at night.  You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” — E. L. Doctorow

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I used to agonize over each word and phrase in a first draft, doubtful that when I came back to it, weeks or months later, I would be able to see, much less fix, the things that didn’t work. But while I was writing my third novel, The Way Life Should Be – and editing other people’s manuscripts at the same time – I had an epiphany.

(Yes, it took three novels to figure this out.)

Here’s what I realized: My editor-self is surprisingly clear-headed, even ruthless.  Hyper-critical and exacting, she is capable of transforming a freewheeling, messy draft into clear and lucid prose. And she likes doing it. red_pencil

This realization freed my writer-self to have more fun. My first drafts have become more spontaneous and energetic; I feel free to try out a range of ideas, follow tangents in odd directions, write a scene of dialogue three different ways – all with the knowledge that my editor-self will step in when needed.  With a red pencil and a roll of the eyes:  What was she thinking?

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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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Thursday, 11:15 a.m.  The phone rings.  I look up from my writing and squint at Caller ID:  PUBLIC SCHOOLS.  And just like that, my work day is over.thermometer

In the office of the school nurse at Hillside Elementary School, Eli sits slumped in a chair, his face pale, pupils dilated.  His forehead is hot.  “He’s 102.  This fever is going around,” the nurse says.  “Could be a virus.  Or …”  She doesn’t finish the sentence, but we both know what she’s thinking.  A child at another elementary school in our town has Swine Flu.  “You’ll need to get him to a doctor right away.  And even if it’s only a virus, he can’t come back to school for a week.”

I make an appointment for 2:15 p.m.  By 3:45 Eli and I have spent an hour in the pediatrician’s waiting room surrounded by other pale-faced, feverish kids, and half an hour alone in a sterile examining room.   Finally the doctor arrives to take Eli’s temperature (still 102), administer a flu test (negative), and send us home with a prescription for plenty of liquids and sleep.  Yep, it’s “only” a virus.

I relate this story because it is a small illustration of how my best-laid plans can evaporate in a moment.  Four single-spaced, handwritten pages — my daily goal — may not sound like much, but some days it’s impossible.  On Wednesday, before Eli got sick, I’d started writing about a new character; my hand flew across the pages.  Thursday was a different story: the two pages I managed to eke out before the school called were painstaking and hard-won.  Friday, with Eli home and miserable, I didn’t write at all.

Sometimes it’s the life of the mind.  Sometimes it’s just life.  And knowing when to give up, to let go of my expectations for myself and simply exist in the moment, watching “Mythbusters” with Eli, is a lesson I’m still learning.

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