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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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