Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

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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Lars Tunbjork image“The blankness of a new page never fails to intrigue and terrify me.  Sometimes, in fact, I think my habit of writing on long yellow sheets comes from an atavistic fear of the writer’s stereotypic “blank white page.”  At least when I begin writing, my page isn’t utterly blank; at least it has a wash of color on it, even if the absence of words must finally be faced on a yellow sheet as truly as on a blank white one.  Well, we all have our own ways of whistling in the dark.”

Memoirist Patricia Hampl, in an essay called “Memory and Imagination.”

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Nash, Jennie coverSome handy rules for when, why and how to ask readers to respond to a work-in-progress:

1.  Don’t Ask Too Early in the Process

Work that is still incubating is too fragile for critique. Wait until you have a clear vision of your project so that you don’t get swayed by what other people think. I usually ask for feedback when I’ve stopped wondering if people will like my story and start wondering about the way a specific part of the story will play itself out in someone else’s mind – i.e. will people empathize with my narrator in this scene, is this section of dialogue believable?

2.  Don’t Ask Too Late in the Process

If you think your story is perfect and that is has the potential to be short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize, don’t bother asking for feedback. You’re too late.

3. Don’t Ask Your Mother, Your Spouse, or Your Best Friend

Your first instinct may be to ask someone who you know will be nice; resist it. Nice is not useful to a writer who wants to be taken seriously. You can always invite your mother/spouse/best friend to rip apart your work – but beware: it’s a bit like letting the genie out of the bottle.

4.  Ask Someone Who Has a Keen Critical Eye

What you want is honest, precise and clear criticism. Look for someone who reads this way or approaches the world this way. Perhaps it’s another writer, or someone in your book club, or someone who sits with you on a community board and always has reasonable things to say.

5.  Ask for Something Specific

“Tell me what you think” will only get you vague responses.  I ask my sister to read my work when I need a reader to ferret out every single error in logic. My brain doesn’t work the way hers does, and I value her skill. I have another friend who can see the possibilities for humor in my work where I see nothing but earnest sentiment, and I ask her to note those places.

6. Include a Deadline

When I ask for feedback, I always include a deadline. If the person is swamped at work or in the middle of reading The Pillars of the Earth for book club, they will decline my request, which is best for everyone. There’s nothing worse than getting feedback on pages I deleted ten days ago.

7. Have a Plan in Place for Evaluating Feedback

I know feedback is good when I immediately think, Darn it! They caught me red-handed. It means my instincts were right about something being half-baked. If, on the other hand, I calmly think, Nope – I don’t agree, then I can safely ignore what my reader has to say. Conflicting comments – one person loves your main character, another loathes her – may simply mean you’re getting people’s attention.

8. Be Prepared for Heartbreak

You want it to hurt. You want to feel like crawling into a dark cave for several days and taking up basketweaving. But remember that it’s much better to know the problems now than to know them later. Later, the news will come from agents, editors, book buyers, book reviewers, and it will hurt much, much more. So take a deep breath, prepare for the pain, and bring it on.

9. Be Prepared to Work

The work I do after getting feedback sometimes feels to me like throwing a deck of cards up in the air and having to re-arrange the stack. I may end up having to jettison 50 pages or re-think a key relationship that doesn’t play out the way I expected it would. It’s hard work. I set aside time, clean out my inbox, roll up my sleeves and dig in.

10. Give Thanks

I couldn’t write nearly as well as I do without the kindness of the people giving me feedback and I try to make sure they always know it.

Jennie Nash is the author of three novels, including The Last Beach Bungalow, The Only True Genius in the Family, and, coming in May 2010, The Threadbare Heart. She is also the author of three memoirs, including The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming and Other Lessons I Learned from Breast Cancer. She is an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Learn more about her work at www.jennienash.com and visit her blog about creative inspiration at www.meetyourmuse.blogspot.com.

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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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Literary essayist, editor, and writing coach Lisa Romeo writes:

Writers tend to think of rejection as something done to us by outsiders. We paint it as something we cannot control, as something to be feared and avoided, when in reality, rejection begins with ourselves.  Early on.rejection-blog

Even before we start writing, we reject our own creativity.  We dismiss our ideas, our skills, our imagination before we give them a chance to work themselves out on the page. We squash the excitement that might otherwise go along with beginning a new project.  We self-censor before we have words to delete.

Pre-writing — that period from the moment an idea first enters our consciousness until we put words on paper — takes many forms.  It can be notes scribbled on the edges of a calendar, a photo we keep fingering, dialogue that springs into our minds just before we wake in the morning.  It is the sometimes mysterious, occasionally frustrating, often exciting or scary time when we are reading, thinking, imagining, and mentally tinkering with a writing project.

It can also be debilitating.  Because rejection is a big part of pre-writing.  Not the formal rejection associated with a “no thanks” email notification, but rejection that comes from having one-sided conversations with ourselves:

… Nah, it’s been done … so-and-so did it better than I could … it’s silly (stupid, dumb, derivative, old, weird, unusual, boring) … no one but me would want to read it … I don’t have the skill/craftsmanship/knowledge to write it the way it should be done … I’ve never written in this genre before … who would care? … I’ve written about this too many times already … I’ve never written about this before … my agent/last editor/mentor/MFA adviser/writing buddies won’t like it … this will take too long  … the reviewers will hate it … what makes me think I can pull this off? … I’m not the right writer for this … it doesn’t fit in with the rest of my writing career or goals … I’ll never earn any money with this … I’m not even sure how to begin ….

I once thought of myself as a workmanlike writer of the light, straightforward personal essay:  good enough for some markets but not nearly good enough for certain literary venues.  Then one day, swimming in grief and loss and angry with the world, I sat down and started what turned out to be a long, braided, literary essay. I’ve written and published many since.  So much for all the self-rejection banter previously bouncing around my brain.

We need to think of rejection as something organic to the writing process, something we can manage.  Popular advice to writers on handling rejection runs along the lines of growing a tough skin, ignoring it and moving on, learning from it, and – if you like symbolism and ritual – doing something tangible like printing out and lining the hamster cage with all the “no thanks” emails. Many writers have talked about the positive impetus provided by agent or editor rejections, an “I’ll show them” mindset.

But what about self-rejection?  Try this:  the next time you contemplate a new writing project, instead of entertaining that idea in a hostile atmosphere (see list above, and add your own mean-spirited recriminations), why don’t you consciously nurture a different kind of mental environment – an incubator of sorts, a place where ideas come to be nurtured and not nixed?

This shift in perspective can help us put rejection from the outside into a different context. If we recognize that we are constantly in a push-pull with rejection, that rejection is something inherent in and inextricable from the work we do, that it is something we can positively control during a major segment of the writing process, then the whole specter of rejection with a capital ‘R’ loses its power.  Imagine what could happen with your writing if only you stop treating yourself with the kind of harsh, frequent, and final ‘No’s’ that come from the outside.

Go. Write. Do not reject.

Lisa Romeo has been published in the New York Times, O-The Oprah Magazine, literary journals, and several essay anthologies.  A freelance editor and writing instructor, she is also at work on a memoir of linked essays. Her blog, Lisa Romeo Writes, has more on topics of interest to writers.

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When I’m working on a novel, ideas rise up at random times from the murk of my subconscious like pronouncements in a Magic 8 ball.  If I don’t write them down right away, these ephemeral thoughts can fade and disappear. FoggyMirror

Driving my 14-year-old son, Hayden, to summer camp in Maine on Sunday, I put him to work as both a DJ and a scribe. (After all, I was the chauffeur.)  He selected a Green Day song from his new i-Pod touch (an 8th-grade graduation present from an indulgent grandmother), then I was allowed a song by The Fray; he picked Ben Folds, I chose Dar Williams.  Every now and then I asked him to open my writing journal – a wire-bound, college-ruled notebook with a green plastic cover – and scribble a line:

Sea air in Galway

Fiction chooses the writer

Breath on the glass

Sea air in Galway. The Maine coastline in similar, in many ways, to the west coast of Ireland, 2500 miles to the east. With this note I was reminding myself to pay particular attention to the sensory details; I thought I might be able to use these impressions in a scene in my novel.

Fiction chooses the writer. This idea for a blog post sprung from an ongoing conversation with several novelists about how and why people start writing fiction.

Breath on the glass. As we drove in the rain, I saw Hayden turn his head to look out the passenger window at two guys on a motorcycle, both without helmets, grimacing into the downpour. Hayden’s breath fogged the glass. When he turned back to me, saying, “Wow, Mom, what were they thinking?” – I glanced over again, and saw that his breath had already evaporated.  And the guys on the bike were gone.

That’s how it is with these fleeting observations, and why I asked Hayden to keep a pen handy and the notebook on his lap. And he was happy to do it – as long as he could listen to Metallica and I promised to get him to Bar Harbor on time.

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Jackson Pollock once said,pollock.untitled#3 in answer to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings out of “accidental” splatterings, “I don’t use the accident.  I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it a useful way to think about my work-in-progress.  When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward.  The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction.  Why are you spending so much time on that character?  You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses.  Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work.  Not always, of course – sometimes an accident is just an accident.  But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of creation, gives me the audacity to experiment.

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I’m curious about how literary writers whose work is also commercial balance two often conflicting objectives:  telling a good story and exploring setting, theme, and character. One day this wee1118759_32303519k I was privileged to spend time with two terrific novelists, Alison Larkin and Marina Budhos, who had very different and equally useful takes on this question.

Alison told me that she reads the thriller writer Harlan Coben for plot. Coben is a master of building and maintaining suspense, she said; you can’t help turning the pages. Paying attention to how he withholds and reveals information has been instructive for her. Marina said that, for her, “a first draft is all about exploration, but at a certain point that exploration has to stop.” She talked about the challenges of revision: taking a first draft and pulling the threads of plot and character all the way through, while at the same time ruthlessly cutting and repositioning the prose so the story has immediacy and urgency. In a first draft, then, the writer should feel free to experiment and digress – and I would argue that the literary writer must do so, to remain open to the unanticipated byways of the creative process – but in a second draft the writer has to remember that the prose exists solely in service to the story.  As the writer Honor Moore says, “If you don’t put it in, you can’t take it out.”

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Our dog, Lucy, does it every morning.  She roams around trying to get a feel for whether anyone will be at home, and in which rooms.  She tries out one spot – splayed on the hall landing, a watchful eye toward the front door – lucy photo 2009 (3)but soon abandons it for another.  She jumps on an unmade bed and turns around three times, sinks down, curls into a ball.  After a while she stretches out long, her belly as rounded and freckled as a cow’s.

I have my own version of this routine:  a mug of hot coffee, a comfortable wingback chair – no, perhaps the old chaise in the sunroom window – a college-ruled notepad (faint blue lines on white paper, a firm pink margin), an old-fashioned micro-point Uniball pen.  Circle three times, curl in a ball, settle in deep.

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DSCN7684When you’re working on a novel, not writing is part of the writing process.  At least that’s what I told myself today.  It was a gorgeously mild and sunny day — Memorial Day; the park across the street from our house was filled with people biking, strolling, and listening to a military band that played for hours.  (The music wafted across the pond: muted patriotism.)  The kids were home from school, milling aimlessly around the house, and eventually I abandoned all thought of work and took them to a lake for the afternoon, where I sat in an Adirondack chair and read Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy’s exacting descriptions — his careful parsing of behaviors and attitudes, woven gracefully into the narrative — made me think of my own character, a 90-year-old woman with complicated responses to and relationships with everyone around her.  From Tolstoy I am learning (re-learning; I read this novel once before, in my early twenties) how to give an omniscient narrator immediacy and warmth.  And I wonder about the perspective I’m employing in my own novel-in-progress, alternating first-person and third-person limited chapters.  Perhaps the third-person perspective should be broader?  That would allow me to bring in other points of view — one in particular that I haven’t been sure how to convey.  I’ll be thinking hard about this question of perspective in the coming weeks.

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