Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean Out – Links for Writers, New Year's Eve Edition

► Kindle books can now be loaned out to friends. Sounds a bit complicated, but I don't have a Kindle, so what do I know?

► Are you a fan of Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns)? His KH Foundation has accomplished so much for the people of Afghanistan. Find out more and sign up for the newsletter here.

► This writer learned a lot by not accomplishing a recent writing goal.

►The Pub Crawl at Beyond the Margins lists upcoming book publishing dates for fiction and literary nonfiction, and useful links for each. A great place for authors to publicize their impending pub dates, as well as for book and writing bloggers interested in covering those authors/books.

►Interesting thoughts from Nicola Morgan on voice.

► Tweet much? The old Twitter is fading out and you'd best be ready to deal with the new format and functions. Some good tips here.

► Speaking of Twitter, the hashtag #litresolution is serving up an interesting stream of tweets. I like this one myself: "@Deborah Freedman In 2011, I am determined to eat less chocolate per word written."

►Do you make notes in the margins of the books you read? Sam Anderson does, and he shared 12 examples in his installment of The Millions' Year in Reading series of posts by noteworthy literary folks.

► The Writer's Digest Conference is scheduled for Jan 21-23 in Manhattan.

►I admire people who forge a writing life when everything else in their life seems to suggest otherwise -- like the cop a few towns over from where I live, who's written critically acclaimed books about Frank Sinatra, Phil Ramone and the Beach Boys. I knew of him for a while, and loved writing this feature about him.

► Finally, one for fun: Don't let your teenagers grow up to be writers (video), and the lovely Laura's year-end round-up over at Pimp My Novel.

Have a great weekend and a fabulous 2011. I recommend all writers opt for fear in the new year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Note to (Writer) Self: Who do you think you are?

Occasionally, like all writers I think, I waste time (and energy) talking myself out of some major project I'd like to tackle.

Self, I say, you simply don't have enough time to write that. Pathetic little self, you don't yet have the credibility you need to get that project sold. Little nobody self, what makes you think you can get access to those interview subjects? Insignificant little writer self, how do you plan to execute such a vast project, the likes of which you've never even tried?

Delusional self, I continue, that just wouldn't contribute to the bottom line, so stop dreaming. Sorry old self, I say, that idea is just too big (or too different or too much of a reach); you shouldn't try it until you have more (take your pick) experience, publishing credits, contacts.

Finally, I say to myself (by this point I'm on a pretty good self-defeating roll): Who do you think you are anyway?

It's pretty easy to see how quickly I can go from the above to….procrastinating, hedging, avoiding, delaying -- and forgetting all about it. Eventually, I put the BIG idea in a mental drawer, sigh, and move on -- to projects I know I can handle, those that come with guaranteed paychecks, those I know (based on past performance) I can complete with relative confidence.

The funny-sad part of all this is that I don't (ever, really), become unproductive on a daily basis. I keep on producing words and pages and finished pieces, like I always do. I keep taking on new editing clients and ghostwriting projects and workshops, as I always do. I don't stop writing new material or stop teaching, or stop coming up with good ideas for the work I'm already doing. I don't stop querying for freelance assignments or stop submitting my work to literary journals, like I'm always doing.

But then, that's the problem right there: What I'm already doing. Not reaching. Not stretching. Not thinking about or doing something about even one of the bigger solo projects that I both hunger for and recoil from.

I try to ignore and deny this tendency I have to push aside my own BIG goals and just keep doing what I do. I reason with myself that there's no DIShonor in that, in continuing to write, teach, edit and otherwise work hard at a writing life I've carved out through hard work and perseverance, is there? No.


Sometimes I forget. I drop the smiley face, and the sunny everything's-fine front, and let someone see what it is I keep shoving aside as a writer -- that raw, empty spot I want to fill in with the work of that BIG idea, that hole I keep covering over. That happened a few weeks ago when I shared a meal with a writer friend who told me, simply and firmly, to get over it, to get on with it.

Writers, this is the kind of writer-friend you want. You want this kind of friend even if, at the moment, you want to toss your Caesar salad onto her lap.

Since that lunch, I've been thinking about the bigger picture, my BIG ideas, and for the first time in a long time, there's no attendant Greek chorus of Oh-No-You-Can't and Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are playing an endless loop in my brain.

And now, here comes 2011. Time for me, a list lover, to make the planning list I do every January, of what I'd like to accomplish writing-wise (or at least work on, diligently and with conviction) over the next year. Looking back at last year's list, I can cross off 7 of the 10 things I listed, and that's pretty good.

But nowhere on that list was there even one BIG idea, one project that beckoned and also scared me.

In 2011, I plan to scare the hell of out myself.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Just for Fun for Writers and other Word Geeks

For your entertainment today, head over here and see how many of the holiday-related songs you can guess by looking at these slightly silly graphics. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, December 24th Edition

►From an interview over at GalleyCat, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff, author of the recently released Cleopatra: A Life -- "Q: What advice can you offer for biography writers?A: Leave a great deal on the cutting room floor. (Lytton Strachey talks about lowering the little biographer’s bucket into the great ocean of material. Allow a lot to slop over the edge.) Talk to everyone who knew your subject in any context. Keep your subject front and center — and in trouble whenever possible. We want always to know what he’s thinking. It will take a year longer than you think." Read the rest of the Q/A here.

This poem, "When I Am in the Kitchen," by Jeanne Marie Beaumont, struck a poignant nerve for me yesterday, as I read it just before prepping the kitchen for an afternoon of baking with my sons. It made me want to stop and touch all the objects in my kitchen which I recall seeing for the first time in the kitchens, and hands, of my (and my husband's) relatives.

► Guess which online venue: "As of this writing, there are 59 writers, 16 editors, 15 image designers, 24 fact-checkers, 11 copy editors and four editorial recruiters. They've hired 40 writers in the last six months." How about Groupon? The Atlantic looks at their writing-centric practices and some of the writers who provide the words. Be sure to read the comments, too.

► Twenty years ago, I did PR for an art supplies manufacturers group, and got into the habit of checking in every December with the folks at Pantone, the color experts, to see what they say will be the "color of the year". They're remarkably adept at forecasting (and influencing) color trends in decor, fashion, make-up, design, graphics, marketing and more. For 2011, they're going with honeysuckle pink. One reason why: “In times of stress, we need something to lift our spirits. Honeysuckle is a captivating, stimulating color that gets the adrenaline going – perfect to ward off the blues.”

► Finally, in this essay I look back at overcoming a personal trauma 14 years ago this month.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Clue: Crossword Inventor (8 letters). Answer: Neighbor. Bing! Story idea.

Every morning I sit at my kitchen counter in a sleepy New Jersey suburb and work the New York Times crossword puzzle, with varying rates of success (and failure). How many times I've sworn in frustration, "Who invented this damn puzzle thing anyway!"

Well, if it were 1913, I could have confronted the chap, who lived just a few blocks from my house. Had I been able to stroll right over, would I have belted him or kissed his face for providing me (and millions of others) with so much tortured pleasure?

I settled for writing about him since on this day 97 years ago, the first crossword (then called a "word-cross") appeared.

P.S. I love how this illustrates what I so often tell new (or frustrated) freelance writers -- that story ideas are absolutely everywhere, even in the places we so often overlook. And, that eavesdropping and just hanging around letting others talk are two prime ways to find new leads. I first learned of this journalist/inventor (who is now largely forgotten) at a community picnic when I lingered at a table staffed by members of the local historical society, who were only too happy to ply any patient listener with "And did you also know...." stories.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean Out – Links for Writers, December 17th Edition

►Guess I'm getting old, but I love this: Defunct: A Literary Repository for the Ages. It's a new online destination for great writing about great (or odd, or just memorable) stuff that was loved (or just ubiquitous) and is no longer around. I love it even more because it's edited by Robin Hemley, a nonfiction author I love, and the director of the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa. Is that enough love for ya?

► Do you have a Moment? The deadline had been extended (to Jan. 15) for this compilation (from the editors of Six Word memoirs) of 750-word nonfiction pieces about a moment that's impacted your life.

► Matador offered a glimpse of what some other online sites are paying for freelance pieces. While we're on the subject, The Awl has announced it will begin paying writers in 2011.

►On Twitter, spammers most often find people to follow based on searches for certain words and phrases that appear in tweets. Here's a quick list of a few words that attract spammers. Authors apparently, might want to think twice before announcing a book DEAL.

► Brevity Journal's nonfiction writing craft essays are all at your fingertips here.

►No one wants to think about losing all those words written and now living in a computer file. Here's some sound back-up advice for writers, over at the Mystery Writing is Murder blog.

► Finally, poet and University of Texas writing professor Dean Young is in need of a heart transplant and the funds to finance it. If you can donate, Tony Hoagland provides the details here.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Deadlines and Why I Love Them

A whine, overheard while writers were at work in a local café: "Is there any cure for chronic self-editing?"

"Yes," I thought. "It's called a deadline."

How much do I love deadlines? A deadline is every writer's best friend, even when we think it isn't. Deadlines are what keeps me sane, and more important, what keeps me honest. Deadlines are sometimes the only reason a project moves off my desk (and out of chronic self-editing hell) to where it's supposed to go. Deadlines are what makes it possible for me to organize my work life, do cash-flow projections (also known as depression charts!), plan for family needs.

Deadlines might be traditional (an editor or client tells me when he wants a piece of writing, a conference sets a date when panel proposals are due), or what I call reflexive (a class begins on a certain day, which causes me to set a deadline X days ahead for getting my notes, lecture and hand-out materials ready).

Any way I can get a deadline, I'll take it. Because deadlines do more than keep me moving along.

Deadlines also force me to continue to grow as a writer, editor and writing teacher.

I get kind of nauseous thinking about all of the things I would never have accomplished (or completed) if not for deadlines.

Which is why I advise editors and clients who are easy-going, who trust me, or who maybe have flexible deadlines themselves, that I want a deadline; no matter what, there must be a deadline.

No deadline for me can translate into a project – no matter how excited I may have been about it initially – falling to the bottom of the to-do list. Often that's because the project itself, which seemed like such a good idea at the time, is something that scares me a little, something that's a stretch, maybe something which causes me to thwack my forehead and groan, "What was I thinking when I took this on?"

A deadline forces me to just do it.

I'll tell you the deadlines I don't like: the ones warning me my holiday presents won't arrive in time. That's it. All other deadlines are my friends.

A writer friend in the early stages of a (non-writing-related) dissertation, told me her (respected, lovely, supportive) faculty advisor kept saying things like, "Just get me the next chapter draft in a reasonable amount of time…." This was driving her nuts, so she proposed a deadline.

"How about January 28?" she suggested.

"No," the professor said. "January 20. Don't be late."

Was my friend happy? Of course not, she was upset that her "deadline" had been moved up.

Writers. You just can't please us.

Monday, December 13, 2010

That Time of Year: List Making for Writers, the Kindness Version

Last week I was corresponding with a writer who has signed up for my January Boot Camp class, and she was lamenting how she hadn't accomplished all she had set out to do as a writer back in early 2010. Couldn't we all say pretty much the same? Who gets it all done? It doesn't have to be a new calendar year to rededicate ourselves to achieving writing goals, though any outside impetus that helps get us started again is probably a good thing.

But what bothered me about this writer's attitude was that in fact she had made some solid strides in her writing efforts over the last 11 months and I was concerned that she was shortchanging herself, and more importantly, that her mind-set – disappointment, guilt, frustration – was not really going to be much help when she undertook in early 2011 to purposely rev up her writing muscles again.

In my experience, guilt, self-flagellation, regret and feeling as if you've fallen so far behind you may never catch up, may spur some initial action, but are rarely good motivators in the long run.
By now regular blog readers know I am a bit of a list-making fanatic, and each year around this time, I try to remember to make two lists surrounding writing. One is the standard What I Want to Accomplish Next Year list, only I make it a little bit forgiving (practical?) in the sense that instead of listing, say: Get published in X magazine, I'll put: Break into X tier of magazines (and then I'll list several that fall into the same general category in my mind). That way, I avoid feeling let down if I didn't land in my number one choice, but if I do get published, even once, in any of those on that list, I'll be able to see that I made at least some progress toward that goal.

The other list is What I Have Accomplished This Year, a private brag list of what I did do, what wonderful things happened for me, and what's significantly different for me, in a positive way, since this time last year. Here, I tend to go from the very specific and tangible ("landed an ongoing paid column at a website", "designed several new classes") to the task-oriented ("improved my digital photography skills") to broader more creatively nuanced areas ("wrote more prose poems", "read more good quality fiction", "wrote about X, a topic that previously scared me.")

I suggested to this writer that she especially tackle the second kind of list, giving herself credit for all that she'd done in 2010, to improve her craft and move her work along – all the ways in which she took herself seriously as a writer, the publication milestones (she'd forgotten or discounted several!), and how she'd taken steps to organize her writing life to fit around her day job.

It's great to have goals, and if New Year's resolutions are good motivators, then go for it. I just hope that writers everywhere – we are so tough on ourselves – can also take the time to look back, write down what's gotten done, and give ourselves a little pat on the back while we're at it.

Not too long ago, I wrote about how I'd recently come to terms with my tendency to constantly demand more of myself, and the need to balance that with recognizing what's already pretty darn good.

I'd love to hear how you approach the new year as a writer.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, December 10th Edition

► I admire the work of Los Angeles Times writer and engaging essayist Megham Daum and was relieved to learn she was well again after a surprising and nearly lethal infection. She chronicles her ordeal, beginning here.

► Nonfiction writers Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner have launched a new blog, Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour. I'm a huge admirer of Roorbach's nonfiction writing craft books, as well as his wit. Gessner is a widely respected essayist, memoirist and author of reported nonfiction about the natural world.

► Over at the Huffington Post, Delia Lloyd offers "Five Tips for Productively Editing Your Writing," and I was so pleased that she included a link to this blog. The commenters over there have some good ideas, too.

► At Daily Finance, a successful ghostwriter speaks, about the job, the money, the frustrations, and all the rest.

Figment, a rich new interactive site for teen writers and readers, got off to a huge start this week. It's the work of a New Yorker writer and a Conde Nast magazine editor.

►The standard (and wise) advice to writers – Don't quit your day job! – takes on a new meaning for this author whose new day job pays a bundle and demands every ounce of his time Oh, what's an author to do?

►Reminder - book give-away: Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, by Rob Sheffield. Go back to this post and leave a comment over there by midnight tonight.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The unexpected mental work of working (and writing) at home.

While teaching and occasional client meetings get me out and about and among other humans from time to time, I work at home and alone much of the time. Mostly, this is a terrific arrangement; I tend to work best on my own, love the quiet, and appreciate the ability to control my schedule, taking care of family obligations and scheduling personal appointments without worrying about whether or not I can explain the missed hours to a boss. Most of all, I like working in sync with my own somewhat skewed mental and physical body clock (which explains why those who know me are not surprised to see cogent emails time-stamped 2:30 a.m.).

If this wasn't the case, I wouldn't have chosen, back in 1990, to leave a lucrative, normal job and "go freelance." Nearly every day since, I've spent a few or far too many hours in my home office. Before devoting myself almost entirely to writing, editing and teaching, my independent working life had a few different incarnations – I ran a tiny but profitable public relations agency, conducted research for a major real estate company (basically spied on its sales force to see who was doing their jobs well, or in many cases, abysmally), and planned events for nonprofit organizations. All of these projects involved a good deal of time on the telephone, at in-person meetings, and otherwise interacting with real humans in real time.

And you know what, I miss that. Well, I miss parts of that. I don't miss needing to go out to meetings every single day, always being available from nine to six, or knowing that the phone will ring almost non-stop most of the day. But I do miss knowing that the otherwise cherished calm of my week will be reliably punctuated by appointments with other working adults at someplace other than my dining room table, where we will talk about something other than how badly my current writing is going.

I'm full of crap, of course.

When I do have a week when I glance at the calendar on a Monday and see that nearly each day I'll need to put on real clothes and go out into the world more than twice, I immediately panic and worry, "Damn, now when will I get any writing done?"

Yet, I've noticed that on the weeks when I do venture out of that home-office, away from my dining room table, whether it's to teach, to work with an editing or ghostwriting client, or even to have lunch with a friend who works in some unrelated field, or occasionally when I take myself somewhere busy just to get the hell out of my own way, I find my writing lurches forward in a more energized way once I crawl back into my office.

When I was a teenager, I used to think my father was a little bit crazy because he liked to sit someplace with a cup of coffee and do what looked like nothing. It usually wasn't by choice; often he was waiting for my mother to finish shopping, or had arrived hours early for a flight (in the days before airport security measures). I thought he was a bit daft for not doing something productive with his time, like reading. After he died and I discovered the short stories he'd written but rarely showed anyone, I realized his people watching had a purpose after all.

Maybe that's what I'm missing mostly, that rich experience of observing other humans, whether they're sitting across the table from me, or swirling about at a crowded conference. Lately I've realized that the first drafts of what later turns into some of my better work, tend to originate after a period of unusually frequent out-of-the-office experiences.

Any (non-writing) semi-intelligent person can probably see the logic in that: sit at the same desk long enough and nothing seems interesting; get out a bit and the whole world suddenly seems worth examining. Any writer should also understand that gobs of uninterrupted time don't necessarily translate into more words on the page; often it's the other way around.

I've been thinking about this recently probably because it's nearly winter again in the Northeast, where I live, and the temptation is great to stay home, warm but alone, to avoid going out when an email exchange might do the trick, to decline invitations that aren't strictly necessary.

I'm going to try to swim against that tide this year.

I'm going to see if I can get myself out more often, and how that affects the rest of my work life, and my writing in particular. Today I'm meeting a writer friend for lunch for no real reason other than we haven't seen each other in a while. I'm hoping to get there a little bit early.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, December 3rd Edition

► I know that many blog readers participated in National Novel Writing Month in November. If you hit the 50,000 word mark,and thus "won" – congratulations! Even if you didn't cross that threshold, but managed to keep the momentum going on your writing production, then kudos too. A round-up of links to some of the best tips NaNoWriMo issued during the marathon, suitable for any genre, are gathered over at GalleyCat. Another great resource, at the NaNoWriMo site, are the "pep talks" sent out weekly from writers including Dave Eggars, Aimee Bender and others.

► Deonne is a southwestern writer, recent MFA graduate, former lit journal editor and all around cool gal who's taken to the road. Her blog is "Gone Scamping: One woman, a tricked-out trailer, and miles and miles of two-lane." It's not typically about writing, but many of her witty, off-kilter and absorbing posts are writer-centric, like this one.

► Well, I'm still shuddering at this confessional piece, by a soon-to-be-former writer employed by a custom term paper writing service, to which college (mostly graduate) students pay thousands of dollars for completely, shall we say, "ghostwritten" materials which they turn in for credit (and often, A's). Ick.

► I'm so proud of my former writing students when their work is published. Uli H. wrote this intuitive essay for the New York Flyers running club blog – about her current (and unusual for her) non-runner status.

► I haven't read Decoded, the new memoir by Jay-Z, but I am curious. It's likely he had a ghostwriter (in a Rolling Stone interview months ago, he notes that the writing process involved being interviewed); yet I have a gnawing sense that anyone who can work with words the way he does in his music, might have something interesting to say. The release of his book has many asking, as others have in the past, if hip hop is poetry. What say you?

►Book give-away. Want to win a copy of Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, by Rob Sheffield (of Rolling Stone, MTV, and author of Love is a Mix Tape)? This 1980s music orgy of a memoir is built around iconic 1980s songs and artists -- and the author's angst. If you'd like to be in the drawing, please leave a comment on this post by midnight Friday, December 10 (and be sure there's a way for me to contact you).

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Gift of Reading: The Gift of an Ordinary Day

A few months ago I had one of those wonderful reading experiences, both as a reader for pleasure, and as a writer-reading-as-a-writer: a mixture of admiration for the prose, a deep connection to the story, and a boatload of those head-nodding, tear-wiping moments when I wondered if the author had been stalking my daily life, reading my mind.

The book is The Gift of an Ordinary Day, a memoir by Katrina Kenison, who for seven years edited the Best American Short Stories annual series. When that job ended, coinciding with her family's move to rural New Hampshire, Kenison began writing this deeply felt narrative about the transitions in her life as a mother.

Surely one of the most significant reasons I loved this book so much is that Kenison, like me, is the mother of two sons; hers were born three years apart, mine a little over four. It is her sons' passage from little boys into adolescents and then young adults, which forms the backbone of her generous reflections on what it means, as a parent as a woman, to both hang on and to let go.

Though I wasn't planning to, early in my reading of the book, I grabbed a pad of those page-marking sticky notes. Before long, the edges of the book resembled a fringed throw rug.

One of the first things I marked is this: "Whether we choose change or it chooses us, the only thing we can know for sure is that security of any kind is an illusion. The life we know is always in the process of becoming something else."

There are dozens of others. Some strike me as beautiful examples of lovingly crafted nonfiction, while others speak to me more directly. Like me, Kenison struggles with making choices for one child, whose needs and aspirations are slightly off center, and worrying about how it will affect the other.

Once, distracted by too many mothering demands in one direction, she'd forgotten about the pet hermit crabs. Later, she writes, "And though the shells have been empty now for almost three years, each time I look at them, these humble relics of our former life, my heart clenches a little, with an old sadness that still comes when I wonder if, at a tender and vulnerable time in his life, we let our younger son down by trying so hard to do right by our older one."

Another passage which grabbed me: "And so I gather up the monotonous winter days, the snow days, the mundane weeknights, the hours we spend together watching a silly TV show, and I string them together in my mind like matched pearls on a thread, finding satisfaction in their very sameness. Ordinary days. The days in which nothing momentous happens, no great victories are won, no huge disappointments suffered, no milestones achieved. Most of our lives are made up of days just like this – if we're lucky, that is…"

And finally, my favorite sentence of all in the entire book:

"It would be so easy to forget to love this life, to just go through the motions, doing what needs to be done, as if it's all going to last forever."

I hope you will watch Kenison read from her book to a group of parents gathered in a living room, and/or visit her blog.