Category Archives: All I Know About Writing

Writing Prompt & Free Offer: The Things I Carry

Have you ever read Tim O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried? It tells the story of a platoon of soldiers in the Viet Nam war through the things that they carried in the knapsacks. I used to assign it when I taught Comp & Lit at Lehigh. For one, I wanted my overindulged students to get their minds around something other than their latest hookup. Even more, though, I love the idea that we tell our own stories by the things that we feel we need to have with us every day.

  • Empty your purse, backpack, briefcase, or shopping bag and look at what you’ve taken out. Now choose the things that for whatever reason are always with you.
  • Describe them.
  • How are they related? How are they not? What does it say about you that these things are necessary to you?

This is an exercise in three things:

  1. Your powers of description.
  2. Your ability to analyze, to move from the concrete to the abstract, to see the patterns (or lack of same) in things that seem unrelated.
  3. Your willingness to come to a conclusion about what the things you carry say–or don’t say–about you.

 

Bonus offer: Want to know what it’s like to get an Intensive Critique from me? I’ll give a free Mini Intensive Critique to the first five people who send me their drafts. Just save and copy your draft to the Comment section on the form below.

Writing & the Freedom to Fail

A client once said to me,

“Writing this story feels like I’ve set out on the ocean with a lot of heart and grit and a general sense of direction, but I don’t want to spend months rowing hard to get to France only to learn that I’ve landed in Texas.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond.

  • Was she feeling insecure about her writing overall and needing me to reassure her that if she had planned for France, and worked hard to get there, she would definitely see the Eiffel Tower?
  • Or was she expressing some subconscious uneasiness that she was actually on the wrong plotting track?

There was no right or wrong answer here. The first speaks to the general anxiety writers all feel from time to time. We’re sitting alone creating worlds out of thin air; how could we not feel insecure from time to time?

The second speaks to a more complicated issue: where does our writing come from? Whose ideas are these, if not mine? So why do they sometimes turn on me and take me to a place I never thought of–or wanted–to go?

When that happens to me, I’ve learned to listen to my silent self and, at least for a while, give it rein to move at will. Eventually, I either write myself out of that place–or I find that it actually is where I wanted to go. It means, of course, that I have to allow myself the hardest freedom of all–the freedom to fail.

Grammar! Punctuation! Spelling!

How do you feel about grammar & punctuation? Is it the writer’s responsibility, or can it be off-shored to a paid editor?

That’s the going debate on a private Facebook writer’s group I belong to. The responses, which seem to be running fifty-fifty, are passionate in both directions.

All that grammar stuff stifles the creative urge

versus

Words and the correct use of them are an essential part of the writer’s toolbox.

I say both of those are true, and what we’re really talking about is…

The crying need for a First Draft.

  • First Drafts, which I affectionately refer to as the Vomit Drafts, are where you just pour it all out without a thought for whether it makes sense or is legible.
  • The First Draft is the draft that only you, the writer, see; therefore, you can spill your guts with impunity.
  • In First Drafts, you can leave blanks to fill in later when you can’t come up with the words you’re looking for now.
  • You can write notes to yourself in your First Draft remind you of something you want to describe but aren’t quite ready to.
  • To treat the First Draft as a Final Draft in which you focus on correcting grammar, punctuation and spelling is to deny yourself…

The essence of the First Draft,

which is the freedom of discover.

 

Is What I’m Writing Too Long or Too Short?

That’s a question I’ve gotten in one form or another over the years I’ve been working with writers. I’ve come to realize that it’s just one aspect of the obsession we can create around our writing. Let me not worry about whether this thing I’m working on is any good, makes sense, says what I intend; let me instead worry whether there are the right number of words in it.

The quick answer is this: if you’ve been given a word count–write a five page essay….a short story of no more than twenty pages–then follow this formula.   Industry standard for publishing and academia is: one inch margins all around; double-spaced; 10-12 point font. If you do the math, you’ll see that 5pp=1,250 words and 20 pp=5,000 words.

The more convoluted answer is:

A piece of writing, whatever the genre, should be long enough to say what you want to say, with no extraneous material.

That doesn’t seem complicated until you realize that the devil is in the details–and the object of that preposition: long enough to say what you want to say, with no extraneous material.

This is the tricky part, the place where most writers go off the rails. You must always keep in some part of your mind that you’re not talking to yourself. There’s a reader out there, several or many of them, and they’re not you. They don’t have access to the workings of your mind–your history, both real and emotional; your political leanings; what’s important to you as you live your life; and what’s not. Your audience only knows what you’re telling them. That means you need to make sure you know what specifics you’ll need to tell them to so that they “get” whatever it is you’re saying.

We’ve all been in situations where a story is being told, but it doesn’t hang together. Some information is missing. Some detail, some nuance–there’s a gap somewhere and it drives us crazy because we know that we’d get it, if only that detail wasn’t missing.The other side of that is where the narrator keeps going on forever. He tells you every little detail he remembers, the color of the pants he was wearing and where he bought them. He explain things that seem totally off the point to you.  It drives you crazy because you wish he’d shut up already and stop confusing you with this avalanche of details.

How do you, the writer, avoid making your reader crazy? First, you need to know what you want to say. Is it a concept you’re explaining or a point you’re making? Is it a scene you’re describing or a story you’re narrating? You  need to know enough about whatever it is to determine what your audience needs to know in order to get the point. Does that seem like a mystery to you? Easier said than done? It’s what Roger Angell meant when he talked about the relationship between writing and thinking.

For the second part of the object of the preposition, the no extraneous material part, beware that this is a trap the best of writers fall into. We love the sound of our voice; we confuse clarity with repetition. There are a variety of ways we can get in trouble going on and on and on. For this, the only answer is a firm editing hand when you’re on your second or third draft to make sure that you’re not committing one of the The Sins of Overwriting. I’ll write about them in my next post.

 

When Do I Get To Call Myself A Writer?

Okay, so the little Q&A is obviously somewhat tongue in cheek. But–this is an issue that I hear a lot from writers I work with. Hell, it’s an issue that I dealt with way back when I started my career. I definitely felt that calling myself a writer was a privilege earned. But what was the privilege that earned it? Hence, the four points of the Q&A above. As I recall, however, the whole issue for me was resolved when I applied for a new passport and had to fill in the blank marked “Occupation.” Since my days pretty much consisted of writing, I guess I felt the truth trumped whether or not I had earned the privilege.

The fact that this is an issue for others has something to do with the ambivalent view the outside world has of writers. We do something most people can’t imagine doing. Yet, anyone who is capable of holding pencil or tapping a keyboard can do it. It doesn’t require any education, even if the MFA Writing Programs would have you think so. We tell secrets; we make our version of the story stick; and oh, it doesn’t pay very much, if at all.

In fact, of all the things that make people disparage writers, it’s the money thing. As I wrote the other day in What Real Writers Know, we are a culture that values product over process. The worth of a particular product is determined by how much money it has made. For those not part of our world, the financial end of the writer’s life–who pays us, why they pay us, how much they pay us–is very murky.  And for many, if they can’t put a dollar value to an activity, then it has no value. 

The other day on a Facebook writers group that I belong to, this was part of a long conversation: how do you deal with family and friends who question your being a writer? There were a lot of opinions that ran the range from “Fuck anyone who questions you” to “Do your writing in secret.” Both responses seem extreme to me. The middle ground–have confidence in yourself without needing external approval–strikes me as therapeutically correct, but, damn, hard for a person with a normal amount of self-esteem to do.

Valuing yourself and valuing your writing, no matter what–is it really so hard to do? What do you think?

 

Morning Pages: How do they work for you?

In a comment last week, I responded to Laura of Wordgrrls suggestion about doing Morning Pages with one of my quip-like responses: “I had done MPs for ages (okay, not really, but it’s so cutely alliterative) and was quite successful then. At least doing the Morning Pages; I’m not sure what the rest of my productivity was.”

Every morning, I would sit outside in my garden, with my coffee and cigarettes, and write my three pages in longhand. I amassed a notebook full, and much of it was devoted to a story I had been chewing over for a while based on my version of the life of my mother-in-law. We’re talking Grapes of Wrath with a feminist twist.  I still have that notebook. I still think the story is worth telling. I don’t do Morning Pages anymore.

For one, I no longer have that peaceful brick-walled garden, and I no longer smoke. For those of you who have never smoked, you can’t imagine how those of us who were smokers found our writing process intwined with cigarettes.

So that time and place in my life is over, and with it seems to have gone the urge to do daily Morning Pages. Now I do free-writing of the Morning Pages-type when I’m trying to  dig down as far as I can go into my thoughts and feelings. I just write and write whatever without judgement until…

I’m not sure what follows the until: I get tired…hungry…bored. Or maybe until I’ve gone as far as I can with the topic. Then, whether my three pages are done or not, I start wanting to shape the thing I’m writing and make it presentable for publication.

The unconscious writer leaves home and the editor takes over. I’d like to think the editor is a consequence of forty years of shaping words professionally. That’s part of it; the other part, I think, is that the editor is more concerned with the turn of a phrase or an interesting story line than the utter truth of the moment. 

I have all sorts of responses to myself here. The part of writing that is fun for me has to do with putting the words together that speak the thoughts intended. However, the me who has a grad degree in psych says, “hmmmm, what were you actually working on when the editor takes over? Is it something that you’re uncomfortable getting into?” That’s the me that understands there is a psychodynamic of writing, and I best be aware of it if I want to do more than just go along to get along.

Will You Self Publish?

Used to be, self-publishing was known as vanity press. It was the course of last resort for authors who couldn’t get a legitimate house to publish their work. These days, thanks to Web 2.0, self-publishing is the choice of a number of authors who used to call the brand name publishers their home. This article in the NY Times explains why.

When writers ask me about self-publishing, I direct them to Guy Kawasaki’s book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur. It’s my guide of choice for laying out what you can expect if you go that route. Turns out, Publisher is probably the easiest part of the process, thanks to the multiple avenues for actually getting your manuscript into book form. Author, angst-ridden as it may be, is not far behind in the process. The hardest part, then, is the Entrepreneur end of the deal, and it’s the one that trips up many writers. Being an entrepreneur for your publishing effort calls for marketing savvy that is often beyond the ken of those not actively involved in the world of marketing.

Thus, as part of my working with writers on the Entrepreneur part of their publishing, I’m always on the lookout for information on this rapidly growing field. Today I’m sharing Book Marketing Techniques That Don’t Work Anymore to add to your file folder labeled Publishing Info.

If you want to talk to me about any part of the self-publishing process, here’s the way to contact me: 

#1 Rule To Better Writing: Learn to Love Your Process

How do you actually do this thing called writing? What are the habits, quirks, must haves and cannot do’s that are an essential part of your productivity as a writer? And do you allow yourself to have them? Or do you reject them as Not Right?

Interviews with successful writers almost always include some version of the question: how do you write?  People make careers (if not fortunes) out of parsing their particular process and then spinning it into a formula.  

However, the fact is that the writing process is not a One Size Fits All.  Do you get up early? Or stay up late? Do you write in huge chunks of time? Or spit it out paragraph by paragraph?  Are you an outline person or do you just follow your inner guide?  Do you write in pencil? Pen? Computer? Yellow pad? Loose leaf? Napkins?

Continue reading… →

What Real Writers Know

The first thing I know about writing is that it’s a process. Writing is not something you have done; it is something you are doing.

Sound nitpicky?  Actually, it’s a radical idea, which is blasphemous to the mindset of our culture. Think of it: inherent in my statement is the assumption that the product of your writing should not be the singular point of your writing.

Unfortunately, we in the Western world have been trained otherwise.  We are a product-centered culture.  Our tendency is to think that the things we do don’t matter until and unless they’re finished.  Even more, for many of us, the things we do don’t matter until someone else values them.  So we focus on our product, on getting it done and making it worth someone else’s approval. It doesn’t really matter what it means to us, whether we value it. Our opinion is not enough to count. It’s like when our mothers told us we were pretty.

So if that product, that piece of writing, turns out to be less than we imagined?   Or, it doesn’t achieve the end we intended, get the comments, provoke the compliments, make the sale?  Then we’re dealing with the soul-sucking notion that our whole effort was a failure.  Our goal was not met, our time was wasted, we let ourselves down. Clearly the fault is ours: we’re not talented enough. Or we didn’t work hard enough. Or….

…Maybe it’s that we weren’t inspired to begin with. Maybe real writers are always filled with inspiration. How can we ever be real writers if we have such trouble being inspired? That leads to magical thinking that involves lucky pens and shaman-blessed stones, maybe some incense as well. It also leads to a work ethic that is choppy at best. We don’t sit down to work unless we’re sure the inspiration is there, waiting to flow over us. As a result, we never get into the groove of writing. We never learn that some days are inspired writing days and some days suck, and some days are just mediocre. We never learn the secret of the “real writers”, that the aggregate of your writing practice is what counts, the median, not the high and not the low

It’s called putting in the time. Writing

  • …no matter what you’re feeling
  • …no matter whether you want to
  • …no matter if you have nothing to say

Who among us hasn’t been there?  I dare you to raise your hand if you’ve never sat in front of the screen or paper and just thought, shoulders slumped, I don’t wanna.  Fact is, however, that those of us who are writers do it anyway.  It’s our job, and if it sometimes feels like Monday morning on the assembly line, well, so be it.  That means, deal with it.

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