Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Have We Met? When Characters Are Strangers

I recently read the draft of a novel where two-thirds of the way through, the characters were still unformed and unfamiliar. If I didn't know them, and I'd been trying to, how would other people? In this case, the characters were weak for two main reasons: They hadn't interacted enough, and they hadn't been put to the test—a lethal combination. Fictional characters are like everyone else; if they're never challenged, they don't grow. If they don't grow, they blend with the crowd.

Fortunately, there are several ways to address this problem.

Give the character(s) a past, one that's plausible. Give the main character a unique characteristic, not flying or the ability to see through things, necessarily, but a particular gift, interest or aptitude. Then frustrate that plan. Further raise the stakes by making it seem the dream is dead. For a realistic result, ask yourself what in the characters' past would cause problems now. Consider what ability or gift the character has that he/she would love to use, especially now, but can't. Consider a realistic way this desire could be frustrated. One good reason for doing all this is described well by stakes guru and literary agent Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel: "By risking what we most desire a novelist can show us how we are."

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Jumpstart Your Story: Change Your Approach

I tend to scavenge writing magazines and pull the articles that are worthwhile, separating them into "read now" and "read later" piles. The rest I chuck. I came across an article by author John Dufresne in "The Literary Life" column of Poets &; Writers' January/February issue. He has this great tip: "When you're writing, don't ask [yourself] what happens next, ask what happened next, and then see it and write down what did." Something about putting the question in the past tense boosts confidence that the question can be answered, and that it already has been.

To put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip below, and let me know how it goes.

Blessings at Christmas and always!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writing Past the Doubt: Breakthrough

You know what it's like. You suddenly break out in a sweat because your story isn't working. You tell yourself it's your imagination, that you're overreacting. But you're not. You know this because you can point to why you feel this way. The main character isn't working. The writing voice isn't distinctive. The plot lacks depth. Not only can you pinpoint the problem, you have ideas on how to fix it. Should you trash the piece, start over, take a break? Not usually. For shorter work, it can help to take a respite to note the problem and possible solutions to avoid ripple effects. For longer work, it's usually best to keep writing, making notes on what needs to change and, if possible, beginning the new tack from wherever the realization hit you. Of course, you'll have to go back and fix the problems starting where they do, but at least your momentum isn't lost, and that's key to finishing what you start, especially if it's a novel.

If like most of us you find it hard to keep working, consider this from Nathalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones: "If those characters [writer and editor] in you want to fight, let them fight … the sane part of you should quietly get up … and write from a deeper, more peaceful place."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Is This Real? A Study in Verisimilitude

Sometimes you wonder whether a story is fiction or whether it really happened. After hearing "The Mappist" by Barry Lopez on NPR's Selected Shorts, I wondered whether the program had detoured from its usual fiction fare to offer an essay. I was uncertain enough to look up a book mentioned in the story, The City of Geraniums, which I couldn't find on the Web. The book may be out there, but the point is that Lopez created such believable characters (main and supporting), setting and dialog because he knew which details to include and how deep to go with them. Both facets are key, especially in this story, which had some philosophical points for readers to consider.

For effective verisimilitude (from veri similis, like the truth) in fiction, it's important to include what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls "vivid detail," which really is the "lifeblood of fiction."

To put today's musing into action, see the writing tip at the top of the list and let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Stuck for Words? Tell Yourself a Story

Stuck for words? Who isn't at some point? One way to surmount this form of writer's block is to tell yourself (in writing) what you think the story should be until the real story comes.

One reason for writer's block is the seemingly endless number of ways to craft a scene. Should Harry and Sally have their hilarious explanatory scene in a bus station or a café? Should the scene end with Sally's exclamation, or should there be one more line? When a finished product works, the countless decisions (many subconscious) behind the scenes are invisible, and the effect is seamless. But when you're in the process of creating the scene or story, each word choice can seem like life or death. Rather than bog down in details or go off on a rabbit trail only to deal with a major rewrite later, explain to yourself — right where you're stuck on the page — what you really want to say, or what you think the scene should be. You'd be surprised, pleasantly, I hope, with the outcome.

Consider this from author and frequent Writer's Digest contributor James Scott Bell: "Your scenes are like the stones in an English wall. I prefer that image to bricks because bricks all look the same. You want your scenes to vary in shape and feel, but when you step back they should all fit together." Planning that stone wall in advance is key to it standing the test of time.

To put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list and let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Good News: Don’t Edit

I can feel people’s shoulders relax when they see they don’t have to edit. What a change of pace! But when is it acceptable not to edit? When you’re planning a story or working on your first draft. Experienced writers will say they do edit during these phases so as to save themselves work later. But it’s probably more accurate say that at these early stages they’re more careful about how and what they write. This approach can be beneficial because it can save time on later drafts. But for emerging writers, those who are working on a new project and those who are spreading their wings in a new genre or style, it’s still best to take your editing hat off, or more accurately, to shut off the right side of your brain during the early phases of the work. Consider this perspective from renowned editor and literary agent Betsy Lerner in The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers: “Writing demands that you keep at bay the demons insisting that you are not worthy or that your ideas are idiotic or that your command of the language is insufficient.” So, rather than be seized by doubt, seize the day, because time really is short.

The tip today is don’t edit, but do have a happy, healthy, blessed and restful Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Breakthrough: Writing Past the Doubt

Ever work on a story and know in your gut it’s not working. Of course, everybody feels that way sometime, but what if the feeling won’t go away?

The same happened to me, and will happen again, with the novel I’m writing. Weeks passed, and I couldn’t shake the sense that the story wasn’t working. Then it hit me—my plot was one-dimensional, and for a story to be worthwhile it had to be three-dimensional—the difference between a human being and a paper cutout.

If you’ve experienced the same unease, some will try to console by saying it may not be as bad as you think. But if it is, and feelings like this are visceral, it’s important to understand why the story isn’t working. I love that question of “why.” It’s a great drill-down you can keep asking until you can’t ask anymore. Then you’ve usually arrived at the problem. To fix my one-dimensional plot, I started asking “what if,” what if this or that happened? Once I asked the question, several options arose.

For these situations, Michael Neff of Algonkian Writer Conferences suggests the prose description questionnaire to prompt writers to “imagine the difference between an object [or plot or character] that is foreign to you and one that is familiar.” If you keep in mind the difference and strive for the latter, the writing and the work will improve.

To put today's musing into action, check out the tip at the top of the list, and let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Precision

Variety is the spice of life, so it’s been said. And it’s true. But when writers set out to laboriously vary word choices, the real meaning of a scene or story can be lost. Consider this from John Gardiner in The Art of Fiction: “Often the search for variety leads to another problem, the overloading of sentences and the loss of focus.”

That’s why it’s important to know exactly what you want to say, not just what sounds good, and to say it as precisely as possible. For people who recall the story of Goldilocks — a little girl looking for just the right everything — it’s important that the language of a story, especially description, not include too much detail or too little, but just enough. It also needs to be the right detail. Consider these two examples:
  • In a couple of weeks she would have another birthday, thirty, emerging from an odd number, twenty-nine, into a roundness, a fullness that seemed an unreachable, unbridgeable distance.
  • In two weeks she would be thirty, emerging into the fullness of womanhood, which seemed even now an unbridgeable distance.
To put today's musing into action, the writing tip at the top of the list is a bit more involved, since precision takes work. Take a look, and let me know how it goes.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Journaling: A Lost Art

My journalism teacher used to say, "Keep a journal. It'll get the garbage writing out." That mantra stuck with me because he was right — journaling frees you from the burden of thoughts that might be better left for your eyes only. But journaling is good for other reasons, too. It keeps your mind limber and keeps you in the habit of writing daily, or more often, if trends like Twitter are any example. Journaling also gets you in touch with who you are today, not yesterday or last year or ten years ago.

Maybe no writing is garbage writing — okay, some is — but some thoughts and emotions need a place, just not in your stories. Those are about others, unless yours is an autobiography. Journals give personal musings somewhere safe to go. And maybe they will become fodder for a story — the stuff memoirs are made of.

Journaling, like any discipline, also keeps your writing mind limber through regular use. The more we write, the easier, usually, writing is. Easier to start, easier to keep going and easier to see mistakes, provided we review what we've written.

Another perk of journaling is its ability to stop time, so that we can pause and reflect. Poet and professor John Leax said in his sabbatical journal, "I need to remind myself writing poetry is not a career … It is rather a vocation, a calling and a discipline." There's something about sitting down with whatever you use when you write for yourself — I usually use a pen and a spiral pad — you rediscover your life, who you are. And that's worth writing about.

To put today's musing into action, see the writing tip at the top of the list and let me know how it goes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Fire Away: Using Anger in Writing

In this day and age, we're afraid to discuss anger, but it's unrealistic to think it never occurs and is never justified. It's when and how to use and convey it that are key. If you're squeamish, think of anger as a passion — a strong emotion that gives depth to your writing, especially your characters. But know that there are two types of anger to deal with — yours and that of your characters. When you're angry, don't wait until you're "over it." Try writing through and with it. When I wrote a piece on Italy for a magazine, I was angry at having to be back in the grind. My anger oozed out in the form of zeal for the country, with all its annoying quirks. People still comment on that story.

As for your characters' anger, consider this from author Brandilyn Collins' Getting Into Character. "When you focus not on the general passion of your character, but on its component parts, its opposite, and its growth, your character will deepen in richness and represent human nature to its fullest." So, the reason to use anger is because it exists and, as Collins says and we all know, "it's with such passions that readers connect." Why do we make this connection? Because a character's response to a situation reflects who she really is. So put your characters in situations rife with conflict, even if it's subdued, and don't be surprised if you can't sharpen the scene until you're one-third through the first draft. That's when you begin to know what and whom you're writing about, regardless of how extensive your plot treatment. When you go back to edit, whether a short story or novel, sharpen the dialog to reflect what's going on within the characters; I like to call them people. You can trim the scene later if you need to, but don't be afraid to let your people get angry; they'll reveal themselves, maybe even to you.

To put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list and let me know how it goes.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Change of Scenery, a Change of Pace

You've heard it a thousand times — "you just need a change." For creative folk, a change of scenery and a change of pace are essential. I just returned from Italy and it did me a world of good even though I dreaded the trip for the upheaval it would bring to my well-ordered life. But upheaval is essential, like a good yanking away of all that safe stuff we cling to daily like a life raft. Before you get envious, this wasn't a pleasure trip, and I despaired of getting any downtime. Still, progress was made for collaboration with two Italian-based publishers, and there were two days of beach time — yes, it was that warm, even though we're now seeing snow in the alps of Connecticut. Speaking of Alps — I saw the real chain encircling Milan like a setting around this crusty jewel of a northern city.

There's no quote or tip for today, except maybe to get yourself away somewhere, even if only in your dreams, maybe with a movie or a picture book of your favorite place, or a place you'd like to visit, and let your mind wander …

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Branding for Writers Seminar: The Importance of the Platform — Sat. 10/17

On Saturday, October 17, at 10:30 a.m., I'll present "Branding for Writers: The Importance of the Platform," a seminar for fiction and nonfiction authors at Sycamore Hills Park Community Center in Avon, Conn. Sponsored by the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA), "Branding for Writers" explores the concept and importance of a platform, and how to create one that integrates and maximizes online presence. For questions or advance information, contact Ursula McCafferty at Or see me at Adele Annesi, Seminars.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Warm-Up: Planning Your Writing the Day Before

Like exercise (theoretically), writing needs to happen daily. One way to facilitate the process is by planning the next scene and how you'll write it. Hemingway used to stop writing before he finished a scene, some say before he finished a sentence. Another approach is to scan what you're planning to write next, consider how you'll approach it, and make notes on what you'll say and how you'll say it. Then when you return to the work, you have something to start with, like warm-ups before exercise or preheating the oven so that it's ready to bake when you're ready to cook. Preparing what you want to work on and how you'll approach it greatly eases the transition into your writing time and speeds the effort.

"The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that everyday when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck," from, Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

To put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list and let me know how it goes.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Who Are You: Editing for Voice

One of the hardest parts of novel writing, especially in a first draft, is voice. Two or more characters often sound similar, either because their personalities aren't fully developed, or because the writer doesn't know them well enough. It can happen even after a plot treatment and character sketches. If so, there are things you can do to bring out a character's true self. Begin by asking what the character really wants and why. Then ask whom this desire affects, where and when in the story it should appear, and how—in what form—with dialogue, an event, both? Then drill down with your questions until you can't ask anything more without repeating prior answers. Problems with similar voices can mean too many characters, in which case, you can consider combining several into a composite. This makes a tighter and more dramatic plot. Problems with voice usually arise about one-quarter of the way into a finished work. When in doubt, ask a trusted reader to review your writing, but keep control over your work. Peter Selgin, award-winning novelist and author of By Cunning & Craft, says that when someone offers a critique saying that more of something is needed, it usually indicates another problem, often that there should be less. Character is a good example of that.

To put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list and let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tell Me a Story, but Tell it Well

As part of a writing-improvement campaign, I've been reading authors from around the globe, including major prize winners. I've been surprised by two things — unimpressive writing and the lack of compelling stories. It probably doesn't help that I'm reading these at six-thirty in the morning, but I've read other work at that hour and been riveted. I was surprised by the importance of these two basic elements of writing — style and story — but maybe I shouldn't be. What would we do without salt and sugar? The culprit in these works was a certain distance in the writing that translated into a distance between the work and me as the reader. In cases where the work was compelling, I didn't just read the words, I felt what they were saying — big difference.

John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, comments on what makes fiction art. "Fiction seeks out truth. Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes. But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all, what values we can affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are." What's compelling about Gardiner's observation is that he validates the writer's daily struggle to make good fiction with eloquence and the appropriate zeal.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Fleshing Out the Bones

Maybe you've never thought of editing as adding or reworking detail, but under the headings of revision and rewriting (both part of editing) comes the concept that some aspect of the story isn't working because something is missing. Flannery O'Connor felt the same, especially about the strangely vivid people in her stories. "I can't allow any of my characters … to stop in some halfway position," she said. And she didn't. Her characters were fleshed out to the point where readers are often uncomfortable with them, but they're three dimensional and memorable, not clichés or caricatures.

Why do we do all this fixing? To make the work better, and to make the images we've created come alive. "Fiction is supposed to represent life," O'Connor maintained. "And the fiction writer has to use as many aspects of life as are necessary to make his total picture convincing." To achieve this end, perseverance is required. O'Connor felt that way even after working for months and still having to throw everything away. "I don't think any of that was time wasted," she said, believing that "something goes on that makes it easier when [the writing] does come well." And that's the sense of satisfaction and the purpose—for the writing to come well.

To put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list at the bottom of the blog, and let us know how it goes.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fractal Thinking: The Writer’s Thought Process

Do you see something of interest in the world around you and replicate it in your imagination so that you can analyze it? If so, don’t worry. You’re probably just a writer at heart—or maybe a mathematician. The other day I was waiting for the morning train, drinking coffee, finishing a chapter of John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction and listening to a new commuting buddy talk about her interest in literature. As my new associate was talking, I was thinking how much she reminded me of a writing friend and mentor. Then I began musing how much she might be like my other friend or different, about her perspective on life, her longtime interest in literature and how that might inform her thoughts—and the list goes on. Everyone multitasks and multi-thinks, but writers tend to observe something, replicate it in their imaginations and analyze it all in rapid succession. It reminded me of an episode of Nova on fractals, irregular geometric shapes that can be split into parts, each of which is a smaller, albeit uneven copy of the whole. Writers think like this all the time but in a certain context—as fodder for their work. Understanding events, people and human nature, and assimilating this understanding for later use, are part of a continual and often subconscious effort. It revives the argument for always carrying paper and a pen, since electronic stuff doesn’t always accommodate the “jot” of jotting things down. You never know when some revelation might enrich a story or character. It really is all fodder ...

Check out the tip at the bottom of the page, and let us know how it goes.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Way Life Works: Theme in Writing

What if the common effort to recapture youth isn’t as much about wanting to be young again (okay, sometimes it is), but about going back to that fork in the time-space continuum where development was arrested by vivcus interruptus to recapture the essence of ourselves so that we could enlarge on it?

Want to know what made me consider that highly philosophical question? It was this line from Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto: “Everything that Mr. Hosokawa had ever known or suspected about the way life worked had been proved to him to be incorrect these past months.” Patchett goes on to say what Hosokawa had thought before being taken captive by terrorists, and how those perceptions proved deceptive. My musing on a longstanding belief about life came from that one line. Patchett’s sentence is a great example of a thematic statement that doesn’t stand out as one, but still prompted me to think thematically about life.

Theme isn’t an easy concept to deal with, so I’ll defer to Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel, in the chapter on premise, where he says that fiction expresses “… our greatest purposes and our deepest desires. They are us. That is the reason we identify with them.” The best treatment of a writer’s premise or theme doesn’t stand out like a road sign, but rises to the surface like champagne bubbles — something to think about while revising …

Monday, August 10, 2009

Seeing Around Corners: The Bend in the Road Perspective

Sometimes you don't know your character's next move or your plot's next turn until you arrive at that moment in the story. Of course, sometimes you don't know until after, but we'll save that observation for another time. Have you ever walked a familiar path, thinking, I know the turn is here somewhere — I've been down this way before? The spot may be overgrown or hidden by a trick of the light, but for whatever reason you can't see the place until you're on it. So, too, with stories. Despite plot treatments and character studies, despite planning and research, sometimes it's impossible to see how to direct the story or depict a character until you're in the moment. It's the organic nature of storytelling. Since you last traveled your story, weeds have grown in the text or your mental landscape has changed. But don't despair; it happens to everyone, especially if you're a writer who takes the road less traveled. "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference," from "The Road Not Taken," by Robert Frost.

To find that bend in the road and not lose your way, check out the writing tip at the top of the list — and let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Editor and Writer Launches New Website

Forgive me for doing a bit of shamless promoting, but here goes ...

Award-winning writer and editor Adele Annesi is launching a new website, AdeleAnnesi, on the theme of place as inspiration to complement her Word for Words and Writing Linx blogs for editors and writers. Pass the new venue along to your writers’ group, and visit the site to leave a comment on the Contact Me page — it would be great to hear from you.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Settings: The Importance of Place

Prong, pavé, channel, bezel — how a diamond is set makes all the difference. It’s the same with the setting of a story. A setting isn’t there to prop up the tale, it’s there to enhance it, like black velvet behind a diamond. If you were showcasing a different stone, onyx or smoky topaz, the jeweler’s cloth would have to change. Otherwise there’s not enough contrast and the stone’s facets recede. Not only is choosing the right setting important, but so is selecting the aspects of it that best reveal your characters, enhance your story and subtly support your theme. Establishing a strong sense of place grounds readers with a feeling of “having been there.” To edit for setting, you need to know the place, but necessarily to have been there. Pulitzer prize winning journalist turned crime novelist John Sandford says settings don’t have to be exact, just “credible for [the] neighborhood.” Without the right details on geography, locale, season and time of day, it’s hard to imbue a piece with depth. Seasons are especially useful, as in spring for renewal, winter for death, summer for the heat of passion and fall for that ominous sense of “something wicked this way comes.”

To put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list, and let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Nose Knows: The Most Powerful Sense

A physician friend says the most powerful sense is the sense of smell. I’m not sure whether he’s right. I’ve heard that for women auditory is the strongest sense—hence the tendency to believe a man when he says, “I promise I’ll never do it again.”

But my friend is right about the sense of smell being the most evocative of memory. On Saturdays my mother sometimes brought home from the local grocery a mortadella, a cured type of pork luncheon meat that spared no fat and was laced with black pepper, nutmeg and pistachios. If it sat unwrapped on the counter, when I smelled it my first thought was—Italy. The aromatic smell instantly brought back my grandmother’s small off-white stucco kitchen in the agricultural Marche region of central Italy. Suddenly I was back in that kitchen, with its naked light bulb hanging over the rectangular table where we gathered with my cousins for meals. In those days I hated eating and would rather be playing hide and seek in the hillside grass in the gathering summer evenings.

The powerful sense memory that came form the mortadella was more than food and a recollection of Italy. What I actually thought when I smelled it was—home. That’s the wonder of sensory detail well-used.

To put today’s musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list at the bottom of the page and let me know how it goes.

Monday, July 20, 2009

When Words Sing: Editing for Voice and Style

When I read for pleasure I usually choose mysteries, well-written stories like Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries, which are set in England in the middle ages. I love the language, have to look up the occasional word (Peters, whose real name is Edith Pargeter, was a language scholar) and lose myself in Peters’ writing and voice. Unfortunately, once the editor, always the editor, at least with other people’s work, and I still find myself making mental changes to the text. But I do it differently than I would another style of writing. Peters’ language is lyrical and needs to stay that way, so the changes need to match her voice and the period in which her stories take place. The example is analogous to music. Jazz, pop, rock and classical are each different, and part of their beauty is their individuality. Any change would need to respect the parameters of the musical style and the composer so as to retain the integrity of the piece. To make the connection to editing, I'm reminded of advice from Revision and Self-Editing, where James Scott Bell says, “A good rule of thumb … is write hot, revise cool.” Write in the moment, not with the editing side of your brain. Then, when the work has cooled (more than a day is good), revise. You’re less likely to hack up what you’ve written or carve it in stone.

For a way to put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list, and let me know how it goes.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Milestones: Making Moments Count

Over the weekend I met with a local author who reminded me that creating deadlines is key to progress. I’m working on a new novel and had already begun to let the preparations slide. His story about a timeline he created for completing his book and how self-imposed deadlines enabled him to finish writing it were inspirational and a kick in the backside for me to do likewise. It’s not a glamorous approach, but it’s essential. Writing is a discipline best done consistently, and without direction and deadlines, it’s unlikely much will happen, even when there’s time. In The Writer’s Book of Hope, in the chapter on excuses, especially regarding time, Ralph Keyes says, “The very assumption that lots of free time is an asset for writers may be questionable. In some ways part-timers have an edge. Busy people organize their schedules more carefully and make better use of the few hours they do have to write.” So, where’s that schedule?

For a way to put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list. As always, let me know how it goes.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Difference a Conference Makes: Writing for the Market?

The short answer is, don’t do it.

I just got back from the Solstice Summer Writers’ Conference in Massachusetts, and boy did it help me get back on the writing track. Well, the truth is, the conference was the start. I have to credit Betsy Lerner as well. The first chapter in her book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers is “The Ambivalent Writer.” I never used to be ambivalent about writing; I didn’t have time. Lately, though, I’ve been spinning my wheels, and after finishing two novels, started three others. The one I decided to finish writing was the most market-driven. After half a dozen chapters, I bogged down. The subject (nuclear waste) was overwhelming and the genre (suspense) stifling. What was the problem? Mostly, that I was writing for the market.

While at the conference, I asked writers whether they wrote for the market. Essentially, the answer was no. Everybody’s aware of the market, and everybody knows there’s no room for schlock. But none of these writers was sitting there saying, hey, what can I write that will sell? There’s a word for that. When I got home and sat down to decide which of the three novels I would commit to, I recalled the chapter from Lerner’s book. When I reread it, here’s what struck me: “People who try to figure out what’s hot and recreate it are as close to delusional as you can get.” I recall laughing when I first read that. I wasn’t laughing now.

There’s no way to really apply this logic, except maybe to bear in mind that writing a novel is a long-term relationship. Integrity is key; so is involving yourself only if you can commit. If you don’t, it won’t work.

How’s it going with you?

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Tale of Two Stories: Alternate Realities

I just read Life of Pi and found it interesting on many levels, not the least of which is the two-story concept—if you don't like how one life story goes, make up another.

It struck me that we all live two lives—the one we actually live and the one we tell ourselves we're living. Of course, this translates to the writing life. If we didn't believe we'd be published, few of us would keep writing. Through the vehicle of our imagination, we tell ourselves how life will go and what its outcome will be.

Also in the writing life is the concept of creative duality, especially in endings. Charles Dickens originally wrote a different ending for Great Expectations but changed it on the advice of a friend to make it more satisfying to readers. In Life of Pi, the writer intentionally provides a second story for readers to consider. Why? Maybe so that we’ll see something of ourselves, as in a mirror darkly. It’s an interesting writing technique—this concept of duality, and one we can employ for contrast like a Rembrandt where light and dark are so clearly what they are because they’re presented side by side.

At one point, Pi, the overarching narrator in Life of Pi, asks the two men whom he has told his story which is better. Both say the more palatable story is better, the one easier on the heart. Pi responds, “And so it goes with God,” as if God has created two stories of our lives, one easier to take because it’s not real and one harder to take because it is. I, too, found Pi’s easier story better, maybe in part because it was the story I was told all along. Only in the end does suspicion arise that this was not what really happened.

One thing, however, is clear—duality makes for a powerful creative tool. The author used it to convey a truth that was evidenced in a paragraph on fear midway through the novel. “real fear … seeks to rot everything … so you must fight hard to express it … to shine the light of words upon it … if you don’t … you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

So, instead of being afraid to create, let’s shine the light of words on the next blank page.

For a way to put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list. As always, let us know how it goes.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Escape: Oh, to Fly Away

This has been a tough week, as weeks go, with deadlines and drama at every turn, and I continually found myself thinking — oh, that I had the wings of a dove, I would fly away and be at rest, far from the tempest and storm.

The words aren’t mine, though in a way I own them; they’re from the Psalms, 55 to be exact, and they capture that sense of angst that comes from being caught between a place one has to be and a place one longs to be. This week I longed to be almost anywhere besides in my own life.

The gut-wrenching emotional tug of war at times like this is that life doesn’t stop — it actually has the nerve to keep going. Now I know why my uncle kept murmuring, “Stop the world, I want to get off,” while he was getting a divorce. The words are from a 1960s musical, and a lot of people in those days wanted to get off the word, one way or another.

Normally, around this time of year I’d be visiting family in Italy. Instead I’m preparing for a writer’s conference where I’ll be working. I’m not sure it was the wisest choice, but at least I’m not presenting at this one.

The bottom line is, it’s simply not possible to live your life and stop to write, too — the age-old cake story. But it is possible to stop a moment when the sun does shine (it’s been raining for a lifetime in Connecticut). And with that pause that refreshes, I can go back to the business of living and writing, still feeling the tug of both, although a bit more bearable.

For a way to put today’s musing into motion, see the writing tip at the top of the list.
As always, let me know how it goes.

Monday, June 1, 2009

When the Writing Comes Well

I have a wonderful book called Flannery O'Connor, Images of Grace that never fails to encourage. It's clear that O'Connor's struggle with writing, lupus and matters of faith were intertwined, that cord of three strands not easily broken. Her honesty about illness ("I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired") and the hardship of writing ("Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away") have a purgative effect.

I guess I wasn't surprised to hear her attitude toward writing as a discipline (she wrote daily). It's not unusual to hear the word "discipline" attributed to a bygone era — but hearing someone who left a writing legacy say the obvious — that writing is work, is like hearing someone finally say, "Hey, you know what, the king has no clothes on." Everybody takes a cleansing breath.

So, writing is work. And so is editing. All art is work. And sometimes the only reward for work seems to be more of it. Still, O'Connor emphasized the importance of rigor when it comes to writing. The rest of the quote for June is that talent "… is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away." Habits like reading and writing continually. O'Connor wrote daily and was honest about how hard it was. "I write only about two hours every day because that's all the energy I have, but I don't let anything interfere with those two hours." She was right about the discipline — when I go more than two days without having written, I lose the thread of the story and the skill in weaving it.

Yet, O'Connor found it important to keep up the habit of writing, even amid the sense of futility, ultimately because she didn't believe the effort was futile. Even after working for months and still having to throw everything away. "I don't think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when [the writing] does come well." And that's the sense of satisfaction — when the writing comes well.

Friday, May 22, 2009

"Champagne and Strawberries," by Chuck Scott

We were drinking champagne and losing our shirts. Well, technically we were loosening our shirts button by button, but it was obvious to all around us that ultimately the shirts were on their way to becoming untethered to our bodies as we sat pool side in Puerto Vallarta drinking Veuve Clicquot champagne flavored with fresh strawberries.

Once upon a time, Veuve Clicquot was a premium champagne but then they sold out to a big conglomerate. Thus that once famous orange bottle, previously known as the best buy for carefully cultivated bubbly, is now known in the beverage trade as "agent orange" given how said conglomerate buys any-old grapes from any-old vineyard. Regardless, our bubblies were mildly chilled and a delight to sip on that hot afternoon.

Sharon actually liked the idea of losing her shirt as she was sporting a bright orange bikini under her gorgeously simple, white flowing shirt — one with a full column of ten handmade wooden buttons in the front. I had only three buttons on my lime green polo shirt. Obviously my torso could not compete with her perfectly sculpted curves endowed by mother nature and years of working out. But yes, one could say I too liked the idea of shirt losing provided it was mutual.

It was Sharon's idea to start a game of spin the empty Perrier water bottle while waiting for lunch. The premise started simply enough in that with each successful spin the opposing partner would loosen a button and when all buttons were open, off came the shirt. And yet each button held a mystical power that once loosened, started to reveal the increasing desires of flesh. Powerful desires that began to bubble to the surface akin to the bubbles in our fluted glasses — slowly, gently, freely, twinkling on their rise to the surface.

Luck was on my side that afternoon as Sharon had lost eight of her ten buttons while I still had two of mine. This luck might have had something to do with my right knee propped under the table in such a way that I was able to tilt the table a hair, thereby influencing the bottle spins ever so gently. So even though Sharon had started with a button head start, there we sat even with two buttons each to go when lunch arrived.

We ate our food, laughed with the oceans breezes, toasted our new record deal, then ordered another bottle of agent orange to go. We paid our bill, grabbed the new bottle and headed back to our private bungalow. Once there, we kept our focus for the next 20 minutes and penned our new song, then we lost our shirts and gave into desire.

Okay, the song title is still a work in progress but you get the idea, "We lost our shirts to set our minds free so our bodies could surf souls intoxicated with agent orange."

Friday, May 15, 2009

"A Subtle Good-Bye," by Lalitha Jonnal

Then I stopped in front of him for a moment, not being able to say anything. He sat on the cement bench that circled a shade tree, pondering, sitting in a lotus position, eyes gazing far away. Most of the people around me were teary eyed and sniffling away their sadness as the farewell music piped through all the loudspeakers in the yard. I looked up at his face…into his eyes…

"I will be back Babu," I said softly as my sorrow shut my voice. Tears that were hiding behind my eyes poured out, drop by drop. A brief nod was his only answer…no tears or words. But as I turned away, the corner of my eye caught his wink, just a glimpse. That was our secret for many years when I was growing up. Whenever I expressed fear or sadness, he would wave his palm over my head in a wide arc and murmur, "Shoo, shoo, go away. Never come another day."

The music made everyone cry…the song was about saying goodbye to a daughter as she went to her mother-in-law's house for the first time after her wedding. My husband stood by my side…part of him feeling the melancholy and the other part feeling angry about my crying, maybe. So many complicated emotions held in that moment. My mother stood aside…happily smiling that finally I got married, but crying too.

Father's nod had so many meanings, I understand today. He had to give his oldest daughter away and send her to a place ten thousand miles away, with a stranger. Somewhere in his heart he knew this stranger would take good care of his first-born.

I listened to this assurance and trusted him, to be taken away to America not knowing anything about America or my new husband!

Father's nod…such a subtle good bye! He knew that we maybe distancing ourselves but he would always be close to me. Maybe in his silence, many promises were held. Today after thirty years of that goodbye and twenty years of his passing away, I recognize his promises in hundreds of moments. "I will always be with you"… "Think of me when you pray and I will be there giving you answers" … "I will explain the universe to you so you will feel close to god"… "Tell me what makes you sad…I will help to ease it away"

I have physically felt his comforting assurance around me. His spiritual, philosophical words ring in my ears and bring a knowing smile in my heart. Sometimes I hear him laugh at my childish thoughts.

Now I understand why his goodbye was very subtle and simple…he never intended to say it…he could not say it… his love for me was too much for that…he was always going to be close to me. Yes, that was definitely a wink.

A Year Later

Kris suggested that we go celebrate...drink, dine and dance. I was new to all of this...never drank or ever danced. As tears filled my eyes with hesitation, he hugged me and whispered, "Sweet heart, this is a new country...a new way of life." A gentle man's gentle plea. So, I picked a red saree with little black flowers. My husband 'ooh'ed and sat on the bed to watch me dress, but I walked into our huge closet as he laughed at my shyness.

I came out a few minutes later and stood in front of him.

"You are gorgeous." His eyes smiled. I looked away shyly, avoiding the sweet desire in his eyes. He looked dapper in his suit.

We drove to the restaurant and sat at a corner table, overlooking the pond.

He ordered a bottle of champagne, winking at me. We ordered our favorite South Indian Thalis. Spicy aromas wafted from many small steel bowls filled with different dishes, around a mound of fragrant basmati rice. We ate it all.

Then we shared a bowl of mango ice cream, licking our spoons and smacking our lips. After paying the bill, he led me onto the back porch and we ended up at the edge of the pond. Dropping his jacket on a small rock, he whispered, "This is where we dance, away from the others, just you and me."

I was shy, but filled with a love so sweet! Taking my hands, he twirled me around, eyes roving with desire. I just followed him. After a while, we stood together, holding hands in silent joy.

He removed his shirt and then the T-shirt underneath. Hugging me close, he whispered, "traditions' and pulled the T-shirt down over my head. Taking out the half-done bottle of Champagne from his pants' pocket, he took a few sips and handed it to my lips. I drank. Then he took my hands and twirled me around as giggles burst out into the night from a light and happy face.

We were exhausted and giddy. He removed his shirt, and holding it high above his head, he threw it into the air. I took my T-shirt off too. A giggle escaped as I lifted it up and threw it as far as I could.

He lifted my chin. I thought, for a kiss. He lifted it higher and pointed to the bright full moon, showering us in cool splendor. As I turned back to his face, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the moon wink. Yes, I am sure of it. Just like a year ago, my father winked, telling me to be happy with a good man. How did the moon know that? Probably my father told the moon ten hours ago, that it was our special night and to look out for us.

That special wink! Could I ever forget?

A Few Years Later

When she thought no one was looking, little Maya softly toddled to my open purse and emptied it all over the kitchen floor. She took out the lipstick and marked all over her face… a hit and miss game at her lips. Vermilion squiggles and dots galore, she grabbed the soft Kleenex, wiped it around. Her face now looked like the sunset in sky. She dipped her fingers deeper into the purse and pulled them up high,

brought up nickels, pennies and dimes as her pudgy little fingers counted again and again, "One," "Two'", "Seven'," "Ten," and a jubilant "Hundred."

Pride, fear, joy and hope could be seen, possibly some dreams of turning the candy machine.

Picking up my key bunch, she ran to the door and jiggled and jaggled, cheeks puffed with such will. The door did not budge, so she came back to her till and picked a few hair things and played with her curls.

Then she opened my compact and looked at her face and the stranger in there scared the hell out of her. Tiny screams filled the air and tears ran down her cheeks.

"Mommee…" She ran blindly all over the house. I could not stop laughing and hearing my voice, my giggles and "Ohs," she ran to the curtain behind which I was hiding. I picked her up, hugging and kissing, her makeup and all.
We sat next to the window, rocking till her screams subsided and slowly smiles ran across her chubby mouth. I did not notice when she had fallen asleep and I too lazily leaned on the armrest of the couch and joined in her dreams.

The door opened and woke me up. My husband stood in front of us, looking down with much love and joy in his eyes. As a loud laugh escaped his lips, I put my finger on mine and hushed him. He bent over and kissed my lips and asked, "Mmm, which one is this?"

I pointed to my purse, where different lipsticks lay open with their creamy insides all flattened. Then I nudged my daughter's face that was hiding in my heart, toward him. He sat down and brought his arms around us.

Time passed and my daughter wiggled in my lap. Feeling daddy's hairy arms around her, she leaned over and gave a big smooch on his lips. He winked, the new thing he had been teaching her, to tease me together. She winked back with glee. I ran my tongue over my lips and 'Oooh'…the taste of all that lipstick…how could I ever forget?

And the winks! They remind me of the day I left my dad's home… of the night I threw away my shirt and danced in the moonlight as the moon winked back at me with the blessings of my father. And today's winks, of my daughter and my husband…they continue to remind me of the love that has filled my life.

Twenty Years Later

My little baby is all grown up and in her white wedding sari. My husband and I stand in front of her and my new son-in-law…ready for the big hug of the biggest moment in her life. She is happy and brimming with laughter. But her eyes are misted. The old mental image of the young me leaving my father's house, as he seat at the foot of the big banyan tree…came back to me, swift and sad.

What is it that makes this universe continue the way it does? Men and women…coming together…bringing more souls onto this earth to do the same things that they have done! I am happy too…but only for her. My sorrow is for myself…from now on, our conversations will not be only about the three of us that have been a family for the last two decades. Her husband will be the center of her heart, soul, conversations…everything. Just like it should be…for eternal love to grow into the strongest tie that will keep them together till the end of life.

I look at my husband and I see in his eyes, the pain of saying good-bye. I hold his hand tight, enough to hurt, to forget the pain.

He squeezes it back and his eyes tell me something more. They tell me that he now understands what my father felt for me…finally…his 'Aha moment'. It is funny how, all the lecturing I might have tried to do, to make him understand that I was not sad to go with him…that it was only for leaving my family of decades till then…was never enough. Only this moment was. I should have just waited. But I did not think of this till now. We all imagine only the sweet moments we all want to experience. Who really imagines the sorrows of life?

The newly weds stand in front of us and bend down to touch our feet for a blessing. The ancient Indian custom is filled with respect and love from both the giver and receiver of a blessing. My son-in-law is not from India, but somewhere deep inside in him, there is a reverence for all that is good and beautiful in this universe. He surrendered to that and to a happy future that would bring more blessings…of love, peace and joy.

My husband laughed through his tears as he picked them both up and hugged them together.

"Group hug, mom," my daughter gathered me inside…and winked. I think she remembered her grandfather doing it. I think his love has flowed into my heart once again.

I also felt that he conveyed one more message. No more winks from him. Now that has been passed on to my husband…he will be the one taking care of all my loving needs. Now that I have grown up, with a grown up daughter of my own, my husband will wink and that will mean his total and eternal love for me.

Aah…life is like this.

It passes as fast as a wink, but it brings fun and laughter.

Now, there is nothing to feel sad, I realized. She has brought all of us together, rather than walking away from the two who gave her life and helped her become the wonderful human being that she has.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Out My Window: Seeing Clearly

Generally, my writing space is pretty dismal. Oh, it's a nice enough room, as rooms go, but it's glacial in winter and blistering in summer. It used to be a porch, so there's no insulation. But there are windows. So, you’d think there would be light here. There is, but not in early morning.

If you're a morning person or even if you're not, you know the importance of that first hour. Especially if you're stumbling out of the bedroom (even after coffee) to sit down and write, hobbling into a cold, dark tomb of a writing space doesn't help. Because in those first hours, even with windows, my writing room is dark. My soul feels dark, too.

One advantage of this is that the inner darkness, partly inspired by, partly caused by the outer darkness, has a settling effect. It weights me, emotionally, to my writing chair. Since there's nothing else, I'm left to write, until the day opens up and the light comes, which can take hours, and in winter seems on some days not to happen at all. It makes me consider how important seeing, even when it's not with outward vision, is to writing, not to mention everything else.

In the book Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway writes this in the chapter on showing versus telling. "The points to be made here are two, and they are both important. The first is that the writer must deal in sense detail. The second is that these must the details 'that matter.'"

At the moment, it's midday and the sun is shining, the neighbor's white dogwood is in bloom, birds are singing and the row of hemlock bushes is greening. Amazing what you can see when there's light.

How does what you see, or don't see, in your writing space, whether it's a formal office or a space in Starbucks, affect you?

For a way to put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list.

Let me know how it goes.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Everlasting Vision, Ever-Changing View

I’d like to thank author and teacher Jamie Cat Callan for being our guest blogger and instructor for April. We’re looking over the contest entries and will choose a winner by the end of this month.

It strikes me as I read over Jamie’s posts and think back to the days when I studied with her at Fairfield University how important those first classes were. Those were fragile, special times when a budding writer and editor could easily have been crushed. Some of us were sharing our work publicly for the first time, but Jamie made it safe. She had a way of listening not only to what we writers of varied backgrounds and talents were saying, but what we wanted to say and often had trouble expressing. By listening with the heart, she would compliment us whenever we came up with something, anything, decent, then gently steer us out into deeper waters. Those were nurturing times and essential for writers who are starting out or starting over, with second or third or fourth careers.

Those times also were preparatory for tougher days, when competition would become stiff and sharp-edged, with no time to dwell on the writing over a cup of tea. The tea gets put aside and grows cold quickly as the many responsibilities of writing as a vocation or an avocation clamor to be met. Now it’s coffee on the go, because tea isn’t strong enough anymore, and coffee seems more portable.

That’s why it’s refreshing to rediscover the tools Jamie shared with us and the right-brain-ness of her technique. She found a way to encourage the outlandish while directing it toward something workable. She could take the threads of thought from our often tangled writing and show how they could be woven into an eclectically lovely tapestry. Then she taught us to see connections in the seeming randomness. It’s a wonderfully ethereal way to think that is easily suffocated in a puzzle piece culture where things seem like they always have to fit.

With wit and wisdom, Jamie’s ability to cultivate right-brain-ness became the essence of The Writer’s Toolkit. If you didn’t get a chance to check it out during the contest, take a look at the next time you’re in Borders. You’ll find within its quirkiness a way to approach writing that allows the work form but still lets it fly.

“My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue, an everlasting vision of the ever-changing view.” Carole King, from the album Tapestry.

Happy writing!

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Ah Ha! Moment

This is it, writers. You've only got 500 words to go, and your short short story is complete. Or perhaps, you've now realized you've got the beginnings of a full-length story or even a novel.

Whatever you're writing, you will now want to bring us to a moment of discovery. This discovery might lead to your epiphany—the ending of your short story. Or it could lead to a larger conflict and a bigger story. It's up to you. Whatever you decide, your readers want a "ah ha!" moment right about now.

How to do this? I would take a look at your first 250 words. Inside the text there's an image. Something a little quirky, perhaps. It's definitely sensory and a little mystery. It makes you a little nervous—this image. You've been tempted to edit it out, but it's a good thing you didn't, because now, I would like you to take this image and repeat it at the end of your climactic moment. Let it spin and twist the narrative. Let it blossom into something unexpected. Give your protagonist a line of dialogue that reveals something completely new and yet familiar.

Have fun with this. Don't stress over it. Enjoy. Breathe. And now, your story is done! I can't wait to see the winner!

With love and luck,

Respond by sending your entry to When the contest closes, we'll announce the winner and post the entry on the blog. The winner will receive The Writer's Toolbox.
This is it, writers. You've only got 500 words to go, and your short short story is complete. Or perhaps, you've now realized you've got the beginnings of a full-length story or even a novel. Whatever you're writing, you will now want to bring us to a moment of discovery. This discovery might lead to your epiphany-the ending of your short story. Or it could lead to a larger conflict and a bigger story. It's up to you. Whatever you decide, your readers want a "ah ha!" moment right about now. How to do this? I would take a look at your first 250 words. Inside the text there's an image. Something a little quirky perhaps. It's definitely sensory and a little mystery. It makes you a little nervous--this image. You've been tempted to edit it out, but it's a good thing you didn't, because now, I would like you to take this image and repeat it at the end of your climactic moment. Let it spin and twist the narrative. Let it blossom into something unexpected. Give your protagonist a line of dialogue that reveals something completely new and yet familiar. Have fun with this. Don't stress over it. Enjoy.Breathe. And now, your story is done! I can't wait to see the winner!With love and luck, Jamie

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Taste of Lipstick

Hi, Readers:

Here you are—in the home stretch. Your story is getting complicated, a little wild. Perhaps it even feels as if things are getting out of hand, and you are no longer completely in control of the narrative.

In fact, your characters are doing all sorts of unexpected things and my goodness—your protagonist is really misbehaving! It would seem that he or she has completely veered off course and is no longer following any preconceived plan that you may have come up with when you started this exercise. Things are downright crazy, and you feel as if you are lost in the forest and the sun is going down and you forgot your flashlight!

Well, congratulations! This is exactly where you should be in your story. You are reaching toward your climactic moment, the three-quarter mark. This is the time when most writers get a little nervous. And knowing that you only have one more exercise to go after this, may be leading you to want to wrap things up. Resist this urge! You will have next week to worry about tying up loose ends and creating a satisfying resolution. For now, for this moment, for this week—go wild. Allow your characters to say unforgettable/unforgivable things. Let them take action. Get physical. Push the story into dangerous places. Let the story surprise even you.

Here is your new prompt. I'm taking it from the "Sixth Sense Cards" in The Writers Toolbox. This is a visual and sensory image and you can do anything you want with it. But, be sure to have fun!

See you next week for the big finish!

"the taste of lipstick"

Respond by sending your entry to When the contest closes, we'll announce the winner and post the entry on the blog. The winner will receive The Writer's Toolbox.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A New Direction

Hello, Word for Word Readers—

First of all, congratulations! You've made the big leap and have begun your story! Characters have introduced themselves to you. Situations have emerged. Complications abound! And you are in the middle of it all. What an exciting time in the process!

Okay, so now that you've done all this, it's time to push forward into a new direction. I'm about to give you a nonsequitur sentence, which is simply a transition I've randomly pulled from The Writers Toolbox. It's designed to throw you a little off course. Don't worry, it won't be painful! However, it will get you to think outside the box and take your narrative into a new direction you couldn't have possibly predetermined. This is the whole point of right brain writing—to keep your story fresh and organic. It gets the writer's critical/analytical left-brain out of the way so that your story's twists and turns will surprise even you.

Okay, so here's what I'd like you to do. Take a look at the sentence below and then just "live" with it for a few days. Let it sink into your subconscious mind. Walk around with it in your head, but wait until Saturday or Sunday to begin writing. You're going to take this sentence and add it onto the first 500 words of your story. Don't worry about whether it connects or even makes sense right away. Go with the flow. Write quickly without overthinking. Don't censor yourself or try too hard to make it make sense. This is the part of your story that is still opening to the world, so anything is possible. It's time to take some literary risks, since you're approaching what screenwriters call "the midpoint crisis," so this is no time to be timid. Let it rip! And have fun! Now here's your nonsequitur:

We were drinking champagne and losing our shirts.

Write just 500 words. I'll be back next week with another prompt to add to your story.

Respond to the prompt by sending your entry to When the contest closes, we'll announce the winner and post the entry on the blog. The winner will receive The Writer's Toolbox.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Writing From the Right Side of the Brain

Hello, writers—I'm thrilled to be the guest blogger on Adele's fabulous site! I'm the creator of The Writer's Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the "Write" Side of your Brain.

Writing from the right side of the brain means writing from that part of your brain that's intuitive and nonlinear, and maybe even a little illogical. When you write from the right side of your brain, you're willing to make unexpected leaps and transitions in the narrative that doesn't always make sense—not at first glance, anyway, but later down the road, it does make sense. But all this involves a leap of faith and a willingness to take creative risks.

Actually, it's very similar to the technique improvisational actors and musicians use to create original scenes and unexpected riffs. You've seen it on Who's Line is It Anyway?, where a character playing, say, the part of a new doctor will get a line from the audience, and even though it would seem very odd for someone playing a doctor to pronounce, "There's nothing I like better than a ripe banana!" the actor makes it work, and somehow makes it make sense. That's the challenge and that's the delight of the right brain—whether you're acting or painting or making music or writing.

But rather than talking about it, let me show you. Let's get started on a game. Here's your first sentence, taken directly from The Writer's Toolbox:

Dad gave me a wink, like we were pals or something.

Now, you've got one week to write the first 500 words for the beginning of a short story. No more. Just 500 words. Next week, you'll get a nonsequitur sentence. Week three, you'll get another and, finally, a last prompt to take you to the end of your story.Oh, and have fun!

Respond to the prompt by sending your entry to After the month-long contest closes, we'll judge the entries, and the winning entry will be announced and posted on the blog. The winner will receive The Writer's Toolbox.

Friday, March 20, 2009

April in Paris: Writing in Blossom, With Noted Author Jamie Cat Callan

Mention Europe and my imagination takes flight. Mention Paris in spring and, well, mentally anyway, I'm there. So who could resist an opportunity to work with witty and wonderful author Jamie Cat Callan, whose latest book is French Women Don't Sleep Alone. For the month of April, Jamie will be our guest blogger, and we're inviting you to join the fun and win Jamie's acclaimed The Writer's Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the 'Write' Side of Your Brain.

Jamie is an amazing woman whose class at Fairfield University in Connecticut was my first taste of creative writing after a many year absence. One of the most amazing things about Jamie is her ability to truly weave a story, and she aimed to teach us the same. Her writing prompts still make me smile—she would come into each class with several of them to encourage us use our senses not only in what we wrote, but as part of the writing process. I still recall one prompt in particular. Each student reached into a grocery bag and selected an item or two, then from another bag, or maybe it was a hat, we chose a slip of paper. From the grocery bag I pulled an old 35 mm film canister, and on my slip of paper were the words, "I'm not sure, but I think someone put poison in my soup."

Now, the roll of flim and that phrase may not seem like a combination a person could make a story from, but that was the point—to create story from seemingly disjointed events or words or thoughts to get us to think out of the box, if not out of the bag, and it worked. My short piece was entitled, "Strange Brew." Sometimes we wrote with music playing in the background to learn how ambiance influences the mood of a piece (and of the writer) and its tone. Every class Jamie kept us guessing, and that kept our imaginations limber.

I'm sure it's her wit and penchant for story that prompted French Women Don't Sleep Alone, which Fear of Flying author Erica Jong calls "Adorable!” And Jamie's desire to pass along the ability to tell a story is undoubtedly what prompted her to create The Writer's Toolbox, wonderfully reviewed in The Writer as a kit that enables writers of all genres and stages to jumpstart their creativity. As mentioned, for the month of April, Jamie will be our guest blogger, and we're inviting you to join the fun. With each post, Jamie will offer a writing prompt. Respond to the prompt by sending your entry to

We'll judge the entries, and the winning entry will be announced and posted on the blog, and the winner will receive The Writer's Toolbox. To get to know Jamie's work in the meantime, visit her Web site

Monday, March 2, 2009

Take Down Your Scaffolding, Reveal Your Art

I’d like to thank Adele for asking me to guest blog for her. I’ve known her since we were in the Wellspring Writers’ Workshop, and I’m thrilled that she’s asked me to share what I’ve learned in my years of writing.

The topic I’m addressing is editing. Not the massive editing that happens after you complete the first draft of your novel. I’m assuming you’ve fixed the plot holes and gotten rid of unnecessary characters. What I’m talking about is much more subtle. Aspects we often overlook or excuse—things often referred to as “scaffolding.”

These instances may seem minor, and you may be tempted to think they're issues for a line editor once you’ve gotten “the deal.” That might have been true 15 or 20 years ago, but not today. Publishers and a very tight market demand nearly “perfect” writing. (We all know poorly written books that made The New York Times bestseller list, but these are exceptions, not the rule.) It’s no longer enough to have a great plot, because if the screener reading the first page of your novel spots enough “amateur” mistakes, your book goes into the rejects pile. No one will get far enough to even consider its other merits. A few days later, you receive the infamous, hateful much-copied rejection letter.

Even if you decide to hire a book editor, you need to learn how to discover amateur mistakes and get rid of them. To do this, I recommend a book called Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, by Chris Roerden. Chris is a former independent book editor for authors published by Intrigue, Midnight Ink, Rodale, St. Martin’s, Viking and others. She highlights which aspects announce that you’re a “beginner,” and gives examples of what to look for, how to fix mistakes and how to break the rules properly.

Here are some pointers I’ve discovered while editing my manuscript. One of the most important things to look for in your writing is “scaffolding.” Every writer uses words and phrases that support the story as they write the first draft. You can’t find the perfect word/phrase the first time around—you’re just trying to get the story on paper while the passion and energy are still hot. (If you struggle with this, I’d recommend Stephen King’s On Writing). But, once the story’s on paper, the scaffolding has to go. When art restorers finish their work, they have to take down the scaffolding; otherwise, the exquisite paintings are blocked from view.

Every writer has his/her structural supports, and here are some of mine. To provide the “beat” my dialogue needs, I often have the character make some physical movement. However, by the end of the first draft, there are so many instances of shook his/her heads that skulls should be rolling on the ground. And there are more look/looked/looking than I believed possible. Not to mention myriad mentions of he/she ran a hand through his/her hair. These all have to be dealt with. Often, they’re not easy to fix, because it’s not enough just to vary the phrases. The way to a beautiful novel is to replace these instances with texture. In other words, if a character is doing something, it has to have meaning—a significance that advances the plot or reveals the character. If not, it’s what I call a “cheap beat,” and it says “I’m an amateur writer” in big, neon letters. Then, you get a rejection letter before the agent has a chance to discover your bold, fascinating storyline.

If you learn to see these things in your writing, you can take them out and your story will shine through. Then, you’ll be on your way to getting that e-mail asking, “Hey, when can we talk about your book?”

For a way to put this method into action, see the top tip below. Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Limited Bandwidth: How Much Is too Much?

It's great to be busy, especially these days, until you're too busy to write or your energy is sapped by the realization that the writing field has nearly reached saturation point. I recently attended a group that just a year ago would have considered twenty writers a boon, especially on a weekend. This time there were seventy-five. I almost left. I didn't realize how important the uniqueness of writing is to me until it felt like part of my identity was being erased. It was like suddenly learning you have a twin. I decided to face the fear and stay, but as the speaker began I pulled out a pad and listed reasons why I write. Publication wasn't first on the list. I write primarily because I've always been drawn to it. I'm what Betsey Lerner referred to in Forest for the Trees as a natural writer. "The natural writer would almost always rather be reading, writing, or alone …" Thankfully, I got enough perspective to enjoy the talk. Good thing—the topic was how difficult it is to get published.

To put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list below. As always, let us know how it goes.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Flashpoint Inspiration: Rembrandt in Your Attic and Memoirs of a Geisha

What would we do without moments when inspiration strikes like cloud to ground lightening? I've had a copy of Memoirs of a Geisha on my shelf for, well, since author Arthur Golden was the keynote at a National Writers Workshop some years ago. I hadn't read the book and stuffed it into my bag. While waiting for the train (what else is there in life these days), I pulled it out, and as I sometimes do, turned to any page. Here's what I read on a dreary February morning. In Chapter 9, the protagonist is musing about a moth, really about her mother, who along with her father has died. She realizes she has felt dead, too, but that she's not—she's alive. " … I felt as though I'd turned around to look in a different direction, so that I no longer faced backward toward the past but forward toward the future." She wonders what the future will be. Suddenly, she realizes she will receive a sign, as a result of a man in a dream who tells her: "Watch for the thing that will show itself to you. Because that thing, when you find it, will be your future." The scene was so elegantly framed, the scenario so finely drawn, it was finding a Rembrandt in the attic and feasting on the wonderful placement of light.

To put today's musing into inaction, see the tip at the top of the list. As always, let us know how it goes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Without Glasses: Seeing the World With New Eyes

While driving the long and winding road to the train station before dawn, I realized I forgot my glasses. How would I see my laptop, besides zooming in so close I'd see about a word a page? Maybe I wouldn’t write, or read. Maybe I'd look out the window at the stands of pines along the track, watch the sunrise over the Norwalk River, see things I haven't seen in a while, or not at all. But to not write—after all those entries pushing people to write, no matter what? I felt decadent, but the more I contemplated taking that cheap vacation of looking out the window, the more enthusiastic I became. It doesn't take much these days to find a bit of happiness. Anything decent will do. When I reached the station, I found my glasses, but I decided to look out the window anyway. The result? A bit of living, essential to writing—and life. "From the time of Greek science till now, Western culture has usually had a lively, unselfish, and intellectual interest in the phenomenal world for its own sake." Annie Dillard, in Living by Fiction. Go ahead, indulge.

To put today's musing into inaction, see the tip at the top of the list. As always, let us know how it goes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Letting the Dust Settle: Settling Down to Write

The only thing worse than not having time to write is not using the time when you get it. In this fragmented, fractured world, where activities are sandwiched in like so many bologna slices, it's hard to stake out writing time, but it can be just hard to use it. Why? Because it's difficult to settle down to do the actual writing. I find it easier to write on the train than at home. The train is compartmentalized, literally, and I can close myself off to my surroundings because the space isn't mine; I'm not responsible for it. At home, everything calls my name, and there can be more than a little sense of guilt in taking time to put a word on paper, cyber or otherwise. But it has to be done, and we can't always wait until we feel comfortable enough to do it. "My cabin here on Remnant Acres is finished—more or less. As I sit at the table writing, I can see a few cracks to be sealed before the cold weather hits. And I must put a sealer on the exterior. But those are small tasks to be done later." Poet, John Leax in Grace Is Where I Live.

How does one approach the wide-open spaces, wherever they are, to settle down and write? To put this musing into practice, see the writing tip at the top of the list, and let us know how it goes.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Summer: You Have to Be a Happy Person

You have to be a happy person to enjoy summer—it's the season everything is "out there," our bodies on the beach, people in outdoor cafés, the sun in splendor, lighting and warming everyplace. It's hard for a melancholy type to enjoy such exposure. Though I was born in July, I was a winter baby. I enjoyed darkness, cold, hibernation. As time passes, I'm increasingly drawn to summer—light, warmth, people. I still enjoy solitude, but I enjoy it more in company. Sound like a non sequitur? Ever go into a café and see how many people sit alone, enjoying a moment of calm? Yet, they're out there in company, experiencing and observing—vital aspects of humanity, and the creative process. In a 2004 interview with the U.K.-based Independent, Bob Dylan noted that a vital part of his creative process evaporated when he was forced into seclusion to write. "Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn't work." Ideas, like seeds under snow, may be planted in dark days, but their full bloom comes in summer. As we in winter climes await the sun, we can imagine those days and use the experience that germinates from the light of our imagination to create.
Put today's musing into action with the writing tip at the top of the list, and let us know how it goes.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Old Conductors Never Die: Writing in Motion

Old conductors never die, so the saying goes; they just take the midnight train to Georgia. I'd like to take credit for that observation, but somebody else made it, someone on the evening commuter train from New York's Grand Central Station to the Connecticut suburbs. Not only did the comment give us all within earshot a good laugh—somebody picked up the thread of the comment and started singing "Midnight Train to Georgia"—it also gave me an idea, not just for this blog, but for an article or a short piece on conductors, maybe a sitcom about commuters. It also reminded me of the importance of listening to and reporting—my journalism roots are showing again—what's around me. Overheard conversations make wonderful titles, whether short fiction, articles or novels, and they are instructive in how people converse. This exchange was made by older people; you can tell partly because of how one topic split off to another, a fairly common tendency among older folk. Yet, if I hadn't had my writers' hat on (I was working on the novel), I might not have taken notice. Okay, I did need a blog entry, but taking note of the ordinary can make for something extraordinary. "Writers write about things that other people don’t pay much attention to." Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

To put this musing into motion, check out the writing tip at the top of the list, and let us know how it goes.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Espresso Writing

On a bleak late afternoon in winter I went into Starbucks and ordered a single shot. I ensconced myself in a tall-backed chair at the window and buried my face the cup to inhale the concentrated, heady, hearty, earthy aroma. Though the cup was too large, its shape funneled the supercharged scent, not of coffee, but of Italy, of my aunt's home there, time spent after mealtimes arguing politics, and the way cappuccino smells on an early summer morning the Marche region, those wonderful wakeups to the sound of the sea in my cousin's condo along the Adriatic, the yearning to return to that volcanic place. Suddenly I looked up and saw a man sitting in his SUV staring at my rapt expression (my eyes were closed), probably thinking, lunatic. I didn’t care; I had just been transported, for the price of an espresso. But there was something more—in that shot of earthen yield was the impetus to imagine, per chance to dream, not of death but of life. Ay, there's the rub, as paraphrased from Shakespeare's Hamlet.

For a way to put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list.

As always, let us know how it goes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

First Things

How you edit the first chapter of your novel is key. If you began the writing process by crafting a plot treatment, character sketches and a chapter outline, you're ahead of the game. This approach helps you determine what should appear in chapter one, and what should wait until later. Once you've done the due diligence, you're ready to edit. As you approach the process, ask yourself: "Do I open with some part of the story engine running? Or am I spending too much time warming up?" from James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing. Begin by correcting typos, confirming facts, rewriting unclear speech and eliminating any throat-clearing. Excise back story, but set it aside to make sure you address any essential aspects later.

To flex your editing muscles and polish that all-important first chapter, check out today's tip. As always, let us know how it goes.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Write With Your Experience, Not About It

Sound easy? Not if you're a nonfiction writer—of any kind. Still, the advice is good, albeit harder than it seems. Use your experience to found the basis for your work by informing the writing, making a starting place, but free your imagination to soar beyond it, starting by creating a sense of place. As Hemingway said, "Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time," from Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Good advice, and applicable to any genre.

Check out today's tip, and let us know how it goes.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cultivating the Capacity to Let Go

Ever get that nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach when your story seems as if it is taking a direction of its own? That may be just what's happening. When a work wants to be something other than what you thought, it's important to cultivate the capacity to let go.

The concept of cultivation means work, like gardening. In this case, we writers cultivate our ability to let go of the direction we thought our story should take. It could be a minor deviation, or a complete detour, but the ability to let go takes work.

Initially, the change in direction can feel like impending chaos. If the story doesn't go the way I thought, then how should it go? For times of doubt, and to enable the work to speak to me, I go back to the six journalism questions, the five ws and an h of what, who, where, why, when and how. The arrangement of the questions varies, depending on what I need to address. I ask what I need to change, who (which characters) will be affected by the change, where in the story (in one place, or throughout) the change should occur, why the change seems important, when it should take place, and how I will bring it about.

For the best way to answer these questions, go to the first tip at the bottom of this blog. As always, let us know how it goes.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fear of Freedom: The Bland Page, the Blank Page and Typos

Writing is a great privilege, except when the biggest worry is, well, worry. It's that blank page again, staring you in the face, or it's the blank section of the page that seems to go forever after whatever you've just written. The dilemma is reminiscent of those writing assignments where the teacher said, "Write a 500-word essay on a topic of your choosing." At first, the freedom to chose was intoxicating, then slightly nauseating, then just plain mind-boggling. Where was one to go with all that open space, on the page and in one's head?

Then, suddenly, in the face of all that freedom, such as, what should I write in this blog today, there is the serendipitous mistake, like typing "bland" instead of "blank." It's just a typo, right? Yes, but it's more than a typo, it's now a topic.

The blank page can be scary, but the solution is comparatively straightforward. Write something on it. I know that sounds simplistic, but believe me, I know what it's like to feel as if you're having to rearrange your brain to construct a coherent thought. Although I'm empathetic, the answer is, don't give into the temptation to not write. One reason is that there's something even more important to learn: how to deal with the bland page.

The reason bland is worse than blank is akin to Mark Twain's observation, "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt." When we write, we risk, and one of the biggest risks is not coming off well on the written page. Yet, the concern here is misplaced, and this is where personal distance is essential. It's not us on that page; it's our writing. I know it feels the same, and in a prior post I noted that writing is personal. Yet, the paradox is that writing must also be impersonal. In the end, it isn't us on that page. We're more than that, and, as dignified creatures, we need to get beyond fixing the blank page to fixing bland writing. How does one deal with and remedy this? Glad you asked—see the first item in the Tips and Prompts section at the bottom of this blog. And, by all means, let me know how it goes.