Monday, November 29, 2010

Writing a book: How hard could it be????

Let's get the week off to a jolly start, shall we? Skip on over to the blog of Laraine Herring (novelist, writing craft book author, college writing program director, witty gal) and watch this hysterical short video titled, "So you want to write a novel?" and read her equally funny short post.

That's it for today. Carry on. (P.S. That's code for: get back to writing.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day Jobs: Cook, Eat, Write

Every Thanksgiving for the past several years, in between assembling the sweet potato casserole, I've written. Thanksgiving Day is a writing trigger, for me anyway, which means I find myself wanting to – no, make that feeling forced to – write something. I've talked before on the blog about memory triggers, but to me a writing trigger is something different.

A memory trigger is some object or situation, some visual or aural stimulus, something you experience or witness which usually takes you by surprise and catapults you back to a time in the past which pries loose a memory. Memory triggers are extremely useful to memoir and personal essay writers, who usually stumble into them, or could actively go in search of a trigger.

For me, a writing trigger is something else -- almost always a situation, experience or sensory input (hardly ever a physical object) which causes me to want to write something very specific.

Thanksgiving day, for example, with its confluence of gathered extended family members who don't know one another that well and therefore often engage in stilted, odd or upsetting conversations, is one of my writing triggers; I know that before the pumpkin pie, I will excuse myself (yes, often to the spare rest room, notebook carefully concealed), and I will write about something specific. There is a different quality to this writing – it's not just a list or the collage of random notes and thoughts I jot down when hit with a memory trigger. What I write when confronted with a writing trigger is almost always more formed, more directed, and more linear.

Some of my other writing triggers are:

- long car or train rides through terrain different from my usual suburban views (mountains, beaches, farms)
– weddings and graduations
– listening to the musicians I loved (and who "spoke to me") during my high school or college years
– reading about someone who advocates for a child with special needs
– the smell of New York City train stations
– the Las Vegas skyline from above just before landing
– news of, or meeting up with, old friends from the horse show world
– running into someone who once knew my late father, especially someone who knew him as a young man
– a long walk, usually when I'm away from home
– waking up from a nap in an unfamiliar place (hotel room, friend's house)
– a long, nonstop, night time flight
– any B/W movie which evokes my parents going out in the evening when I was a child
– a visit to the cemetery.

Writing triggers are more personal than memory triggers. A horse show ribbon I find in the attic while looking for something else can remind me of riding, but only running into a riding buddy I haven't seen in 25 years will have me thinking (and writing) once again about how horses influenced my life. Any scrap of mid-1970s music might get me reminiscing about high school, but only listening to the Jackson Five and Stevie Wonder can get me thinking (and writing) about what it felt like to sit out the senior prom because my black boyfriend wouldn't be welcomed.

Sometimes I like knowing a writing trigger event is approaching, especially if I've been in a writing rut (or drought); but other times it's a bit annoying (maybe I'd like to watch the dumb in-flight movie, but I know I'll be writing). I often wonder if other writers also have – or recognize – these triggers which spur writing, and view them as different from random memory triggers. Other times I think I shouldn't analyze it all too carefully, and just be grateful about anything which aids the writing process.

Today is a good day to be grateful.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Guest Blogger Vanessa Wright on An Unexpected Journey: The Writer’s Winding Path

One of the pleasures of having one's work included in an essay anthology is the connection to the other contributors. If you're lucky, you find an entire new group of like-minded writers, expanding your writing community. This has happened, happily, for me several times, and that is precisely how Vanessa Wright and I found one another – as contributors to Why We Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives, published by Seal Press last May. Vanessa's artistry is expressed in many ways – as a photographer, writer and teacher, whose work "celebrates the human-equine bond."

Please welcome Vanessa Wright.

Particularly in October, any leaf in New Hampshire will tell you: inspiration can be a dangerous thing. For as long as you can remember, you have been clinging to the same tree: dancing in the wind, glowing in the sunlight, and growing into the lines and arcs of your unique and perfect shape. Life is warm and good. The days always grow longer, and the world grows full.

Then comes the tingling, the cool breeze that riffles the newest, tenderest, and greenest edges of everything that you are. Like laughter between lovers, it is the secret that can never be told, the call not to your heart but to your clear, swift-running blood that cries, “Become!” Become what? “Shh. Let go.” How? Why? And what will happen? No answer comes, except a harvest all crimson and gold, a shortening of days, and a brisk, northerly certainty that change is in the wind.

I was a writer once. I researched and wrote thousands of words each week: fiction, nonfiction, instructional text, history, literature, nature, myth. I was fearless and, thus, full of stories. Fairy tales and lesson plans dropped into my hands, ripe and plump as strawberries; the grand dance of nations, inventions, and ideas twirled itself out in chapters among the wildflowers as my horse and I lolled in his pasture.

I could have lived in that summer country forever. But those silver fingers brushed my drowsing eyelids; that golden bell shattered the dam holding back the clear river from my veins. A strange and terrible story coursed through me – a story unlike anything I’d written, a story of glowering skies and trees turned to flame. Summer turned to autumn in a moment, and that blissful pasture withered beneath my feet.

For a thousand reasons as complex and common as the lace on an aspen leaf, I could not write it. That story, it was not who I was – it was not the fairy tale I wanted it to be. My own heart failing me, I leaned upon the one heart that never had: my horse’s.

The stories came – and went to print – quickly. “Rope Trick,” an essay about my horse’s near-magical abilities to make food appear and disappear, was published in Dr. Marty Becker’s Ultimate Horse Lover. “Under the Wings of Pegasus” tells the true story of my horse's midlife calling to become a foal-sitter for rescued, orphaned and challenged young horses, and opens Allen and Linda Anderson’s Horses with a Mission: Extraordinary True Stories of Equine Service. Of course, “Great Grand-Mare,” the mane-raising tale of his sprint with my 92-year-old grandmother, appears in Verna Dreisbach’s Why We Ride.

Yet writing about my horse produced results I did not expect. My focus turned from the past to the present moment, from the world to here. I realized that legendary horses and their people – Pegasus and Bellerophon, Greyfell and Siegfried, even the Pie and Velvet Brown – had their equals in compassion, courage, and heroism in my own horse and in the lives of those he touched, and those who touched him.

I decided then to travel, across America and around the world, collecting the stories of today’s heroic horses and horse-people, novices and Olympians alike. I photographed them and paired the photos and bios with quotations from classic books. I offered the collection to libraries, and added educational materials I created drawing upon my experience as a teacher of history and literature and as a director and manager of a children’s theater program. Before I knew it, it had become The Literary Horse: When Legends Come to Life, an exhibit touring public and school libraries worldwide through 2012.

More than 150,000 children, teens, and adults have visited The Literary Horse exhibit since its debut in May 2008. It has appeared at libraries to celebrate national and international events ranging from Children’s Book Week to the World Equestrian Games, and it has trotted into the pages of national media outlets including EQUUS, The Blood-Horse, Horses in Art, and

Though I have walked a winding path, not only am I still a writer, I am more of a writer than I was before. The kindness and generosity of the equestrians and horses of The Literary Horse were my harvest of crimson and gold. Learning of their journeys beneath glowering skies and through trees turned to flame, reminded me that all days are short, and that change is how we meet each moment – that it is a blaze and a leap to be embraced. Simply walking among them inspired me to become, and to let go. And that story I could not - would not - write began to write itself.

So, like any leaf in New Hampshire, I too will tell you that inspiration is a dangerous thing: follow it, and you may become more than you ever dreamed you could be.

To learn more about Vanessa Wright's The Literary Horse: When Legends Come to Life, which pairs photos of today’s novice through Olympic horses and riders with quotations from the world’s great books, visit the website. Vanessa also recently started the blog Great Books for Horse Lovers.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, November 19th Edition

Lots of links for my lovely readers this week. Enjoy!

► Ever wonder, as you're revising, if you've overused a particular word? WordCounter can help. (hat tip 10,000 Words).

►One of my favorite concepts surrounding the personal essay is where the *I* on the page intersects with the writer, and where it departs. Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Carl H. Klauss, author of The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (University of Iowa Press), has this to say.

►I'll let the title of this New York magazine article, which could double as a warning to hopeful young novelists, speak for itself: "James Frey's Fiction Factory." [Someone call the Crappy Contract police.]

►On the other hand, some first novels are getting big bucks deals in Hollywood. One of the books in The Wrap's round-up is none other than one produced by Frey's venture, but guess who gets most of the money AND can't even put it on his resume? See above, under Someone Call the Crappy Contract Police.

►Have you seen the new online magazine Talking Writing?

► Over at Publishing Perspectives, book editor turned agent Betsy Lerner has lots to say about the relationship between authors and their own book publicity efforts. Here's a bit, but do read the whole piece:
"The writer who can marshal her forces and promote her book wherever and to whoever might actually get the word out is a secret weapon…Whether you should tweet is a little beside the point. The task at hand is to decipher what is most powerful in your work and connect it to every person, institution or media outlet who will listen. It’s not the form, it’s the content…Lately, when selling books, I’ve had editors ask, does the writer tweet, blog, or have a Facebook presence. It isn’t about jumping on every available piece of internetworking.
Nor do you have to put on some pasties and swing yourself around a pole. It’s about finding the nerve your book strikes and going after it."

►The Wellesley Centers for Women have an interesting Women=Books blog.

►Women writers who are mothers are talking about a post titled "My 10 New Ground Rules for Writing in Public About the Kids" over at SheWrites. I'm not in total agreement with the author's rules. In the piece, Hope Edelman has perhaps the wisest advice: that the "rules" for each individual mother-writer usually change over time.

► The New York Times will now publish an ebook bestseller list.

► Finally, it's good for a writer, every once in a while, to step outside the comfort zone. I'm talking here about topics, not genre, though that's another great craft expander. Last week, I wrote an entire piece about something I rarely mention in an essay – sex. It felt kind of good.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Stuff My Writing Students Say -- Part Six

"I find that I am so excited to write and write that I fear for my day job. At the moment I am reviewing a contract concerning asparagus - how can that compete with writing class?"

Here's something interesting (well, interesting to me): In the dozen or so different writing classes I have taught or workshops I have led over the past couple of years, there has almost always been a student who is an attorney.

The common thread seems to be a particularly affecting desire, longing, yearning, to write -- to write creatively, to shed their logical, linear, clinical mind-sets, and indulge an interest in creating prose that explores messy boundaries, unclear scenarios, emotional complications, oblique approaches, and the intersection of imagination and reality.

What's cool for me, as I help these sometimes very frustrated attorneys navigate a place in their lives for creative writing, is that I can point out to them a few traits which they see as a disadvantage, but I assure them are benefits: how their skills as legal thinkers can help their creative nonfiction writing. I'm talking about an attention to small details (and how those small details can affect something larger), an understanding of how to utilize punctuation to intended effect, an ability to consider situations, people (and by extension, themselves) from many perspectives, and – my favorite – a way of taking in and engaging with feedback in a calmly logical, ordered way.

The newish writer I quoted above doesn't just speak for attorneys of course. I've had others – in jobs that have included physician, truck driver and caterer – who tell me more or less the same thing: writing lures, teases, tempts them when they should be paying attention to something else.

To which I can only reply: Welcome to the dark side. There is no turning back. Better stash a notebook in your white coat, on the passenger seat or behind the spice rack.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Essay Lovers, I Have Your Evening Reading

Writers interested in discussions about the literary, narrative and personal essay may want to check out the free download of the proceedings from Welcome Table Press's first symposium, held at Fordham University last Spring, "In Praise of the Essay: Practice and Form." There are five meaty pdf files, with topics and tone ranging from the formal to the more frolicsome.

Consider this, the opening to Brian Doyle's paper, "Playfulness: A note" --

"Thesis: The essay is the widest, fattest, most generous, open, glorious, honest, endlessly expandable form of committing prose, not only because it cheerfully steals and hones all the other tools and talents of all other forms of art, and not only because it is admirably and brilliantly closest to not only the speaking voice but the maundering, shambling, shuffling, nutty, wandering, salty, singing voices in our heads, but because it is the most playful of forms, liable to hilarity and free association and startlement, without the filters and mannered disguises and stiff dignity of fiction and poetry and journalism, respectively."

While you're over there, note that there is a call (though scant on details) for submissions to a planned anthology of essays written in the second person. And if you're the advance planning sort, their second essay symposium, with a terrific line-up of speakers, is set for October 2011.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Typing Does Not Equal Writing, and other not-so-funny advice via David Sedaris

As I mentioned last week, I'm working my way through the book And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft. I found much of what David Sedaris had to say in his interview answers went beyond humor writing, right to the heart of writing craft and process.

Here are a few insights I especially liked:

"Q: How long does it generally take for you to write a story?

A: It can take years. With the first draft, I just write everything. With the second draft, it becomes so depressing for me, because
I realize that I was fooled into thinking I'd written the story. I hadn't – I had just typed for a long time. So I then have to carve out a story from the 25 or so pages. It's in there somewhere – but I have to find it. I'll then write a third, fourth, and fifth draft, and so on."

When asked about how he sometimes edits his existing essays for reading to an audience, Sedaris described his preparation process, which also applies to the essay when it's still in revision. I believe this is good advice whether or not you will ever read your work aloud (although most writers will at some point read to a group). I read everything out loud, when I'm home alone, always standing up:

"When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don't hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I'm trying too hard, or I'm being repetitive, I make a mark. An editor can tell you those same things, but you don't necessarily believe the editor. So it's good to just learn those things on your own, and then to fix them as much as you can before you turn in the piece to the editor."

About how reading and writing intersect, a favorite topic of mine, he says, in part:

"…On the other hand, I also became a reader around this time (when he was studying art), which is so important for a writer. If I read a story in The Atlantic, I would be in a daze afterward. It just meant so much to me. When I later taught at the Art Institute (of Chicago), I could very easily spot the students who never read. Their stories would be shit. I would point to their work and then to a published work. I'd ask, 'Do you see a difference between these two things?' A lot of student couldn't see the difference. For them, there was no hope."

And, within a much longer answer to a question about the empirical truth, exaggeration and re-creation in nonfiction, he notes: "Memoir is the last place you should ever look for the truth."

I agree with that statement, in this way: My interpretation of his implication is that the only "truth" a writer can infuse into memoir is not centered on accuracy, factualness, or provable history; but only the writer's "truth" which is more about meaning, perception, recollection, and an honest personal and emotional exactness.

I highly recommend this book as so many of the other interviews are wonderful, too. By the way, I don't know this book's editor and haven't been asked by anyone to write something nice about it. Just passing on what I find useful, and hoping you find it of interest, too.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers - November 12th Edition

A little light on links this week. Hope you enjoy what's here.

► Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, what happened when one experienced journalist worked a few weeks for a content mill.

► Natalie Whipple at her Between Fact and Fiction blog, on the "agreement" writers makes with readers, and how and when to break it.

►Literary agent Nathan Bransford, whose blog and online forums are wildly popular, is leaving the biz.

► Writers who have something to say about sports, check out Sport Literate, the print literary journal which publishes nonfiction and poetry. An essay about tennis from a recent issue is currently available online.

► What do you do when you're Facebook-exec-rich and still very young? You start a venture like Quora, a "continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it."

► Finally, The printed word, already endangered, seems to have a new foe: folks who want to ban magazines in certain places because they spread germs. Yep.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: Events for Local Writer Folks

If you live or work in the NJ-NY metro area, here are a few of my upcoming events:

> On Wednesday evening, November 17, I will be among a group of people experienced in writing, editing, publishing and other literary pursuits, as one of the guest "experts" at Networking for Word Nerds, in Manhattan. The format's akin to speed dating, but without the veiled judgment, awkward silences or the need to dress to impress. More information is here. P.S. It's so low cost, you'll have plenty left over to spend at the bar (oh, sorry, I mean, at the book store the next day. Ahem.)

> A few days after that, you can catch my presentation/discussion/interactive "mini-class" on memoir and creative nonfiction at the Tom's River, NJ branch of the Ocean County Library, part of their Write @ The River Series. This one is free, and it's filling fast. Info here.

> Looking for something a little meatier? The 8-week Memoir and Creative Nonfiction class I teach in the Rutgers continuing education department begins again on January 25, 2011. We meet three Saturday mornings on campus (New Brunswick) and cover the other five weeks online. Details are here.

> And if you're really right in my backyard (Northern NJ/Essex County area), and need a little (or a very big) push to get or keep yourself writing in the new year, consider I Should Be Writing! It's five weeks of boot-camp-style sessions, designed to dramatically move projects along for writers who need some, shall we say, group guidance. (Notice how I didn't even mention the word procrastinate?) For more details, email me.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

This post is not funny. But it is about humor writing.

I've done some humor writing, and love to read it. This week, in my online nonfiction class, it's all about the funny. My students are gamely grappling with full-on humor pieces as well as the subtle deployment of a bit of humor in an otherwise not-so-funny piece of writing. In addition to a number of other resources, both online and not, I've been passing along wisdom from two books.

In How To Write Funny: Add Humor to Every Kind of Writing, editor John B. Kachuba gathered craft tips and writing exercises from 14 humor writers, and interviewed 15 others. Some are names most readers recognize – Dave Barry, Roy Blount, Jr., Bill Bryson. Others are names known just as much for their own work as teachers of the nonfiction craft – Dinty Moore, Robin Hemley, Denise Duhamel.

In "The Seven Laws of Comedy Writing," David Evans notes, "Character is 98 percent of comedy….and timing is the other 98 percent." He's talking initially about movies and stand-up, but the idea is the same for nonfiction – if the narrator isn't a character a reader is compelled to listen to, funny won't matter. As for timing, Evans emphasizes the importance of letting humor unfold, gradually, "like a time release capsule." He goes on to discuss repetition and the "rule of three" – something every skilled humor writer uses – three funny examples, three pratfalls, three funny phrases in a row.

A newer book, And Here's the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft, edited by Mick Sacks, presents question-and-answer interviews with 21 accomplished humorists, including David Sedaris, Jack Handey, and (the perennial) Dave Barry. More specific to each writer's particular resume, the interviews range wide and dig deep. I'm loving every minute making my way through this book.

Even after publishing dozens of pieces in The New Yorker's humor column, Shouts & Murmurs, Jack Handey says he still get rejected about one-third of the time. In another repeated section of the book where editors, agents and others offer "quick and painless advice for the aspiring humor writer," his New Yorker editor, Susan Morrison, guesses that the one-third stat "sounds a little high for Jack," but that yes, she does sometimes say no, even to her most prolific humor writers.

Handey's New Yorker pieces generally take him, "A long time. The hard part is coming up with the ideas, letting the idea simmer, then going back and seeing if there's anything there. It can take months or even years for an idea to click. I am usually suspicious of any idea of mine that I love right away." He wasn't kidding.

Do you have a favorite current humor writer? I'm partial to Bill Bryson, who, in the Kachuba book, reminds writers that readers should come across funny bits in books, "...little by little rather than be inundated by them. They should be a spring shower rather than a deluge…people can only laugh so long. You get tired of laughing. Even if you're really enjoying it, the idea of spending five hours listening to even the funniest comedian in the world begins to feel like torment. You don't want to keep on laughing, you want to relax. Everybody's heard of comic relief, but actually you need a straightforward relief from comedy. It took me a while to realize that, but I think it not only gives the readers a relief, it makes the jokes, when they come, that much more effective."

Which is good news because how many of us can be funny all over the page? The writers featured in these two books actually can, but they know just how often and just when and just how much to let loose.

Readers, do you write any humor? Or try to incorporate humor in your regular writing? What's great and awful about it?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers. November 5th Edition

► Even if you're not a poet, a rhyming dictionary can be fun. This one is online and free (hat tip Pimp My Novel's fabulous and always funny Friday Round-up by Laura).

►What are the economic realities of being a novelist? Catherine Ryan Hyde shares. Warning: you may wish to be seated, drink at hand.

► Authors setting up a Facebook fan (sorry, "Like") page should consider delivering a "signature experience" according to this advice from Amy Porterfield (via Arielle Ford on HuffPo).

► I've done my share of fact-checking at numerous jobs and couldn't help but feel a mix of nostalgia, indignation and resignation when I read this piece (WAY back in August) about what passes for fact-checking at many online venues today.

► The pro/con Is An MFA Worth It? debates continues. This one runs down the pro side of the list, from an instructor's perspective. Here, another look at the question, with links to some of the most relevant screeds, endorsements and tips.

Puking. Hot-blooded. Alligator. What do they have in common? Oh, my liege, you need to brush up on words Shakespeare invented. Be warned: This one's from Cracked.

► Chuck Sambuchino on "writing for love and money." Are there any other reasons?

► Finally, when an agent or editor says sure, send it along, that amounts to "requested materials." How to send them? Probably not like this.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A cliche by any other name would deleted.

Most of the time, writers strive to eliminate cliches from our work, because they speak to a lack of original creative expression. They're generally vague and nonspecific. They seem to shout: this writer can't be bothered to write exactly what she means, so this overused hackneyed phrase will just have to do.


I DO think cliches serve a purpose, and so that's why when I'm writing a first draft, I let them fly. I'm not the sort of writer who can sit, fingers poised above keyboard, for long periods until I come up with the most interesting word or phrase -- at least not when I'm trying to get down the bones of a first draft.

I do that later.

When I'm making a first draft where none existed before, I tend to move quickly. So I write the danged cliche into the piece, and move on. And keep moving. Yeah, I know those stupid cliches have to go...but not now. Now, I'm busy getting a first draft out of my head and onto the page.

For now, that cliche is a place-holder.

Soon enough -- when I get the first draft to resemble something at least partially intelligible -- I will print it out, and grab my highlighter and mark each and every horrible cliche. (I do this for for adverbs too, but that's another blog post.)

Meanwhile, while they are still in place, I think about those cliches (figures of speech, euphemisms, etc.) and I ask myself what I really mean to say instead.

What is it I mean, precisely? When I can begin to understand and to answer that question, I can delete that horrid stale place-holder with something (I hope) more elegant, accurate and interesting.

Cliches can be a writer's friend, if only we can think of them as having found their way into our messy first drafts because they tell us something about an elemental truth we are trying to convey. They are good markers. They tell me - Hey, you over there, writer: here's a hint about what you mean to say, but egads, you can do a whole lot better than this!

I'm curious what others think. Readers, do we see eye to eye on this?