Archive for November, 2013


November 14, 2013, 1:26 am

Every book is different. Some authors, especially those who write for the mass-market, write in a very fast-paced, active voice. For example, Janet Evanovich, almost never uses backstory. In other words, her entire book is forward motion, driven by plot. Other authors employ quite a bit of backstory. An author like Anne Tyler could run a parallel story throughout her entire book just by using backstory. I tend to fall into this camp. I love using backstory to get at the motivation of my characters. In other words, why they are the way they are. What happened in their past that made them into the people they are today.

However, pacing is very important, and a writer needs to be careful with how much backstory he uses. The writer must always remember that it is the forward motion of the book that keeps the readers glued to the page. As a writer, I’m always learning. A few years ago, I was reading Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One. I was reading on my Kindle, so instead of page numbers, it showed percentages. In this story, a terrible tragedy occurs, and when it did, I looked down on my Kindle and saw that I was at exactly 50%. So in this case, the author decided to place her major climax smack in the middle of the book.

That doesn’t always work, for my book, Acts of Contrition, there is a major secret that is the premise of the book. At first I tried the Quindlen approach and placed the “grand reveal” at exactly halfway through the book. But as I begun to work with my editor, he pointed out that I was making the readers wait too long and in doing so I was, in a way, deceiving them by withholding the truth. I needed to maintain my authenticity as a storyteller and by keeping the secret for too long, I put that trust in jeopardy. Ultimately, I moved up the “grand reveal” to about a third of the way through the book and this worked better.

Writing is Recursive

November 14, 2013, 1:03 am

WRITING IS RECURSIVE – Writing requires that we repeatedly apply function to our work. There’s no two ways about it. Writing is hard work. Seldom does it come out right on the first try, or even the second try, or even the third try. This point cannot be stressed enough: the quality of your writing is a direct reflection of the number of times you work on it. In other words, the more times you touch your work, the better it will be. I firmly believe this.

Other than a few outliers who would say differently, most professional writers will absolutely say that writing is rewriting. There are numerous books written on this topic alone. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird discusses this in her chapter Sh*&% First Drafts. Here she says that it is a misconception that writers sit down and churn out beautiful prose. Every writer has the obligatory starting point of a terrible first draft. If you allow yourself to dismiss your perfectionism, and grant yourself permission to “go big” and perhaps even “go sloppy” in that first draft, your creative juices will flow and you’ll provide yourself with a grand starting point.

Perfectionism comes later. And that’s the essence of rewriting. And rewriting.

The thought that you must rework and rework your same piece of writing sounds like pure drudgery, but it isn’t. There is great satisfaction in each and every draft. I have a theory about the brain: it’s stingy in what it gives us and when. I don’t know why the brain doesn’t give us everything we want the first time we sit down, but it doesn’t. Each day it delivers a little more—a puzzle piece here, a puzzle piece there. Ultimately, after you’ve reworked a piece—whether it is an entire passage or just a sentence—it’s almost like magic. It’s better because of all your reworking, and there’s nothing more satisfying than reading your own work when it’s written well. So the work is required, but it’s satisfying work, akin to building something.

Rather than dreading another day of rewriting, open up to it and marvel in the new material that’s provided to you each and every day.

Writing One’s Truth

November 14, 2013, 12:29 am

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” ― Red Smith

This quote (and variations of it) has been attributed to many authors (Red Smith, Mark Twain, Hemmingway). The point of it is to say that writing one’s truth is draining. I often wonder why it is so hard to make myself sit down and write. After all, it is the thing I claim to love. And here I’ll quote another famous quip attributed to various writers: “I don’t love to write; I love having written.” Again, this is because writing is hard. It requires us to be truthful and honest with ourselves. This is necessary, no matter what kind of writing you’re doing.

Some professionals will tell you to “write what you know,” and others will tell you, “write whatever you want.” Either way, with writing, you are inventing space, you’re transporting people, you are putting them under your spell. Whether you know your subject matter or not, I believe that you are always writing “what you know” because at the heart of every good story, are the motivations of the characters. Thus, we return to “one’s truth.” Writers are always going to refer to what they know, what they remember, based on experiences they’ve had. So whether you’re writing a literary novel or a fantasy fiction story, you will return to “what you know,” thus, your truth. For example, if your main character has done something wrong and therefore she is dealing with a boatload of guilt and shame, you’re going to dig from your own well of experience, what it feels like to be shameful. Whether your character takes on your exact feelings is up to you. What matters is the baseline which is drawn from your own experience.

Ultimately, if you’re writing for yourself, your truth will shine through, and thus attract readers. So go at it from that angle: write for yourself, rather than trying to pinpoint your audience and write for them. If you try to guess what’s in demand, what’s popular, you will lose your authenticity, and your writing will come across as false. Write for yourself and you’ll find your audience

Important People in our Lives

November 8, 2013, 12:58 am

In the essay “Grown Men” by Barry Lopez, he recounts his memories of influential men in his life. About them he notes,
“I was, of course, very fond of them, as young men are fond of their grandfathers by blood or not; I realized just before they died that there was something of transcendent value in them, fragile and as difficult to extract as the color of a peach.”

The way he struggles to pinpoint the influence these men had on him, “as difficult to extract as the color of a peach” is one of my most favorite lines. To me, it captures perfectly his inability to express how important these men were.

Think of a person who has/had value in your life and DESCRIBE this person. Be descriptive in your telling: how he/she looks, sounds, feels, acts, talks, etc.
1. Go through the writing process: brainstorming, free writing.
2. Then construct a paragraph or more. Start basic, add layers, watch it grow.
3. Then, each day, go back and make it BEAUTIFUL. Replace bland and boring words with descriptive words.
4. Find the perfect simile or metaphor.

Before long, you will have a beautiful tribute to a valued person in your life.

Wrestling with Uncertainty – My Favorite!

November 8, 2013, 12:55 am

“Your beliefs are in jeopardy, only when you don’t know what they are,” said Jay Allison. However, beliefs can change, and they often do. As John Updike observed, “A person believes various things at various times. Even on the same day.” Therefore, if our beliefs can be changeable things, we need to understand their part in our lives.

Think about a time in your life when your beliefs were challenged—throwing you into a “moral dilemma.” Your beliefs steered you in one direction, but your actions led you in another. What made you “cross that line?” What was the justification for stepping over it? And were there repercussions in doing so?

The term cognitive dissonance refers to the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.

Cognitive: concerned with acquisition of knowledge: relating to the process of acquiring knowledge by the use of reasoning, intuition, or perception
Dissonance: inconsistency: lack of consistency or compatibility between actions or beliefs

Dissonance increases with:
• The importance of the subject to us.
• How strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict.
• Our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict.

Dissonance is often strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief. For example, if I believe that I am a defender of the downtrodden, but then turn a blind eye to someone in need, the discomfort I feel as a result is cognitive dissonance.

To release the tension we can take one of three actions:
• Change our behavior.
• Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.
• Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.

Think of the factors that influenced your decision in such a moral dilemma. What made you step over your boundary (or to side with one side of your beliefs, over the other).

As a writer, I love wrestling with such uncertainty. How one justifies, or comes to terms, with this cognitive dissonance makes for some great writing. Think of a time when you faced an internal conflict and write about the motives for the decisions you made: personal, circumstantial, social, political.

This is the set up for some great writing! Good luck.

What’s Your Truth?

November 8, 2013, 12:49 am

Write a list of 10 things you know to be true.

Writer’s Block

November 8, 2013, 12:48 am

Writer’s Block? No such thing! There is always something to write about. Challenge yourself to chart out “things you’ve changed your mind about.”

Categories: moral values, political beliefs, religious beliefs, cultural values, personal/life priorities, ambitions/goals, people. Return to this list every day for a week or so. This is good material!!

Once you have a list, choose one. Ask yourself: Why do beliefs change? What made you change your mind from a previously held firm belief? How did society/peers/teachers/family influence you? Think of people in your life. Did any of them influence your beliefs?

Or perhaps your opinion on an important person in your life has changed. Look back on your list. Is there something/someone that you used to value/prioritize much more or less than you do now. Try to think of beliefs/issues that you used to have a “black and white” stance on, but now you have a more nuanced opinion.

Writing Tips

November 1, 2013, 4:06 pm

Writing Tips

In my role as teacher, I have shared these tips with students:

WRITING IS EXERCISE FOR YOUR BRAIN.  Some writers might be lucky enough to have ideas just pop into their heads.  For me, I have to decide to write.  This means, making the conscious effort to put my brain in a writing mode.   For me, my brain is usually “idling,” like a car: it’s on but it’s not really moving.  When I’m ready to write I have to tell my brain: think about this!  When I do this: actually put my thinking cap on, I can feel my brain change; it goes to a deeper level.  Almost always, I come away some nugget I can work with.

WRITE IN THE MOST BASIC TERMS.  Do NOT take the time to come up with the perfect word or the perfect image.  If you’re imagining an old gnarled tree swaying its bare limbs in the dark gray of a storm and at the moment all you could think to write is: It was dark and there was a scary big tree, then write that.  You will have many opportunities to come back and work the magic of words and phrasing.  What you don’t want is to lose the image you have in your mind.  You want to be able to recall that dark afternoon with the tree.

WRITE BIG – Delete nothing at first.  Save everything, you never know when you might need it.  On your laptop, create a file that’s called: “extra” or “dump” or “deletions.”  One day you might decide to cut an entire paragraph because you don’t think it’s serving your main theme and that’s great, you want to pare down your writing but you never know when you might need something you’ve deleted.

READ YOUR WORK THREE WAYS.  Use your laptop to create, move your text around, even edit.  It’s your main writing utensil.  But every now and then, print your story on paper and read it.  Your mind reads off of a computer much differently than it does off a piece of paper.  I ALWAYS find more edits when I’m reading off of paper rather than my computer.  THEN, and this is most important: read your story OUT LOUD.  There is a definite rhythm and poetry to how your writing sounds out loud.  On paper, you might not notice that two or three words together are fighting for the same sound.  Reading aloud also alerts you to word repetition.

REWARD YOURSELF FOR GOOD WRITING.  Each day when you pull up your work, before you dive into the parts that need work, reward yourself by reading a paragraph or sentence that you think came out really well.  It will put your mind in the right spot, make you think: oh, yeah!  I can do this.  Let’s write more like this.

LET YOUR WRITING SIT.  Whenever possible, let your writing sit.  When you let it sit for a day or two and then come back to it, you see all sorts of things that you had missed previously, and new ideas flow forth.


The Six-Word Memoir

November 1, 2013, 3:52 pm

Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a novel in just six words. His heartbreaking result:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

The constraint, it turned out, fueled rather than inhibited creativity.  The six-word memoir is now a common exercise for students, challenging them to encapsulate a story in just a few words:

“Sometimes lonely in a crowded bed.”

“My life made my therapist laugh.”

“Wasn’t born a redhead — fixed that.”

“I still make coffee for two.”

“Said he loved me, he lied.”

“Two girls, both of them me.”

“Big dreams, big heart, big mouth.”

“Life is better with headphones on.”

At its core, the six-word memoir offers a simple way for anyone of any age to try to answer the question that defines us all: Who am I?

Chef Mario Batali certainly did when he wrote, “Brought it to a boil often.”

Others try to capture one aspect of their life such as, “According to Facebook we broke up” or

“Mom’s Alzheimer’s: she forgets, I remember.”

The six-word memoir takes a basic human need—self-expression—and makes it accessible, easy and often quite addictive.

Give it a try!