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.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Lonely Hunter

It's been about two weeks since my last writing here — the phrase has the air of confession about it, although it's less confession and more an effort to find someplace to begin. It has been about two weeks since I last wrote here, and with the advent of another year, you would think that returning to the written word would be an anticipated and longed-for event. It's not; it's drudgery. There is no romance this morning at all, none, so that the act of writing feels like the prying open of the writer's private parts, an affront, an assault, violence to the inner being that should be against some law, somewhere.

This is the reality of writing, an effort perhaps made more servile and grievous for having been put aside for a while, making it hard to get back into, although I have been writing elsewhere. Yet, regardless of where and when the writing occurs, there are days like this, whether mamma told us there would be or not, although, in truth, my mother did warn me. On these days, when there seems no redeeming value in the act of writing, we still write. Although lonely, we still hunt, don't we, and peck, and strut and fret our words upon the wretched page. Why? Because we have committed to it. For me, writing days here are set. I've set them, not in stone, but in my heart, that wellspring of life from which all real commitment comes. Yet, it's lonely hunting today, in the grayness of winter, where the days are getting longer, but only on their backsides. Mornings are still dark and short and reluctant.

The irony is that writing on these days where the anger and bitterness show in every line make the writing clearer, crisper and more real, more realistic, like the acid necessary in a good meal, if Top Chef is to be believed. On these days, if the reality of emotion is admitted and transcribed onto the written page, the writing is better, more believable, honest. Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, a must-read for every writer, aspiring or otherwise, admits as much. Encouraging to hear from someone whose legacy to the art and craft of writing endures, that loneliness doesn't have to destroy the work but can actually serve to strengthen it.