Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean Out – Links for Writers, Jan. 28, 2011 Edition

►Novelist Nina Vida on how she resurrected a 20-year-old, traditionally published novel of hers, revised and independently rebirthed it as an ebook on her own.

► A lovely post by Ellen Meeropol on the writer's job of writing AND reading, over at Word Love, the blog of novelist Randy Susan Meyers. And another one over there by Karen Dionne, with the author's perspective on the making of an audiobook.

► Two writing sites I hadn't seen before: Life Story Writing and Extreme Writing Now. The latter, among other things, offers writing prompts, and you know how crazy I am about prompts.

► I mentioned his Chronicle of Higher Education essay here a few weeks ago, and now The Shadow Scholar, who earned a living ghosting college term papers and graduate theses, has, predictably, landed a book deal.

►Amazon is now selling Kindle Singles, short (10K – 30K words), priced at $2.99 or less. Interesting assortment of authors on their first offering list, ranging from Darin Strauss to Pete Hamill, Ron Rosenbaum to actress Claudia Lonow.

►Esquire magazine contributing writer Chris Jones (who wrote the wonderful piece on film critic Roger Ebert and his cancer battle last year) has a new blog, where anything might come up.

► I'm looking forward to seeing Andrew Rossi's Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, which recently captured much attention at Sundance.

► Finally, a hilarious digression -- submit to this "journal" and eliminate the agony of waiting to hear if your submission has been rejected.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stuff My (Writing) Students Say, Part VIII

"My work is just plain too wordy, especially when I'm writing in some backstory. The excess verbiage weighs down the pace in an unintended way, and I can almost sense a reader getting fatigued. But I can't seem to get around it. Maybe I'm just that kind of writer."

Or, maybe not. In any case, you're in luck. I have the *answer* and it's – get ready – more words. Yep, write a lot of them.

But then, cut at least half. Often more. Sometimes, a lot more.

If you find that you get wordy because you are trying to tell a complicated backstory, consider: Do I need all of it? Will a much more compressed version do? How about just a few key, vivid details? Would the backstory work better as narrator interior monologue, as a separate flashback scene, or as dialogue in an unfolding scene?

Or, how about: Can I do without it entirely?

This sounds counter intuitive, but you'd be surprised at what our pieces can live without.

This is an important consideration, and not just relating to being less wordy: What is left out of a piece of writing is very often more important, more telling, than what is included.

I cannot tell you how many times, usually in desperation, under deadline pressure and/or severe word restrictions, that I have simply hacked out an entire paragraph (or 2 or 3), written a new transition, and voila, the result is a far better piece overall.

At first there's a sense of "no way can the piece survive without this..." Then I make the big deletion anyway just to see how it works, and the next thing I know I'm thinking, "Why did I ever think I HAD to keep that in there in the first place?"

The above student also noted something else that's important -- that sometimes when he reads his own work he gets to a spot where he can sense a reader will feel fatigued or impatient. That's usually a clear sign that the real problem is very likely at a prior point in the text. By the time you can see that a piece is draggy, the reason is most often not what's on the page right there, but what's happening in the text that comes before that point. Everything we write builds on what comes before; so if by page 6 we're thinking, oh boy this is starting to get tedious, then we need to go back to page 5 or maybe even pages 4 or 3 and try to figure out where it loses its energy.

The rest of the Stuff My (Writing) Students Say series is here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Guest Blogger Elizabeth Buchan on Becoming (and Staying) a Writer

Elizabeth Buchan is the author of 12 novels, including the New York Times bestseller, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, which was made into a 2004 film, and was called a "shrewd and mature observation on marriage." Elizabeth also writes short stories and contributes to several major newspapers in London, where she lives. Her latest novel, Separate Beds, goes on sale in the U.S. today.

Please welcome Elizabeth Buchan.

If I had a dollar for every time I’m asked: how did you become a writer? I would be rich beyond a lottery win.

Here, I should admit that, twenty years on from the moment I announced to my ashen-faced family, that I was going to write full-time, I still have to shake myself. Am I really a writer? It seemed such an impossible dream, such a distant goal. But, you know what? I did become one.

I used to work in publishing – first as a blurb writer for Penguin Books. Later, I worked as a fiction editor for Random House. As an editor, you might reasonably assume that you know everything there is to be known about publishing – I should point out that I was the editor who turned down the opportunity to publish the paperback of the Bridges of Madison County in the UK. Clearly, I wasn’t that hot. But even had I been, I realised within twenty-four hours of resigning that I knew nothing about being a writer.

Virginia Woolf once wrote that a reader is more intimate with a novel than with human beings, and that relationship constitutes the living centre of writing fiction. As the writer, therefore, your business is to strive to create, sustain and infuse that relationship and it has nothing whatsoever to do with publishing.

Writing muscles are different from publishing muscles and moving from one to the other is like changing your gym and being told to work on a whole new set of muscles buried deep in the midriff. Not easy and, at times, painful. I am not sure that anyone who isn’t a writer quite appreciates the depths of neurosis, paranoia and irrationality to which a writer can sink as they wrestle with this birthing process.

As an ex-editor, I also suffered from a disadvantage because I was an expert on publishing vernacular. I knew exactly what that tiny sucking in of breath denoted when I rang up my editor to ask what they thought of the manuscript or for a tally of the latest the sales figures.

It was a question of stripping oneself down and returning to the basics. I soon discovered it was necessary to rethink the mechanics of concentration, to pace myself and to find hidden reserves of courage to carry on when all seemed bleak.

There were plenty of surprises ahead on this journey. I had no idea that, far from choosing subjects, subjects would choose me, arriving in my head and staying there until I was forced to write about them. As a result, I have learnt patiently to wait out the fallow period between novels (when agents and editors agitate).

Other rules include: do not waste energy on envy. One of the quickest ways to leach vital writing energy is to fuss over bestseller lists and to make negative comparisons with successful writer friends (or enemies). Don’t.

Rather, cultivate the art of observation. I think of it as walking into a dark room, switching on a bright light and looking hard at everything in there. Curiosity is what fuels a writer and I reckoned that, unless I was prepared to devote time to raising consciousness about this process, and to become good at it, then the writing would suffer. After all, the material for novels lies – to quote Virginia Woolf again – "all about one, in the drawing room and kitchens where we live, and accumulates with every tick of the clock."

What are my novels about? Thinking about it, I have concluded that I am trying to ask the questions: how do we live well? What do we do with the time between birth and death? How do we give our lives meaning? Putting it simply, I am trying to write novels that I would like to read – novels which climb into the reader’s head and take up residence. That is what great writers achieve with their novels and it is an aspiration which preoccupies me daily.

Twelve novels in I have not one second of regret, however hard it is at times – and there are days when I feel I am labouring in the salt mines. Then I remember what the writer Red Smith once wrote: "there is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit at a desk and open a vein."

He was right. It could not have been put more clearly or succinctly.

Note from Lisa: Viking Penguin is offering free books to two readers of this blog. To be eligible to win a copy, please leave a comment on this post no later than midnight, Monday, Jan 31. You must have a U.S. postal address for shipment (not a P.O box).

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, Jan. 21st Edition

► Over at The Millions, Cathy Day examines the workshop model, its over-emphasis on the short story, and why that's kind of awful for the budding novelist. A little funny, a lot on point and definitely worth thinking about.

► Canadian author Rebecca Eckler, interviewed in the National Post, on the editing process: "After reading your own manuscript for the 11th time, be it fiction or non-fiction, you think you’d be bored. Sometimes that’s how I feel, but then I realize it’s not boredom I’m feeling, it’s just, 'Oh God. Do I really have to read it again???' No, boredom is not the right word. Frustration? Maybe. Angry? A little. Bitter? Slightly. And, yes, sometimes during the editing process, I would rather clean my toilets. But that’s more procrastination than boredom."

►Is it really time to say RIP to…Dear?

► Great book publicity idea for a YA novel: For her book, Will Work For Prom Dress (due out Feb. 8), author Aimee Ferris is posting photos of other writers in (what else?) their prom attire. Readers guess who's who based on clues in the caption, and every day at 5:00 EST, Ferris links the mystery photo to that author's website.

► Finally, have some laughs – and I mean it! -- with these cartoons starring writers' neuroses, over at Bo's CafĂ© Life.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

When you get sick of hearing yourself, you can get back to what's important: Writing.

"The first law of holes: If you are in one, stop digging." – Lord Dennis Healey.

To this I add, from a writer perspective: And stop talking about that lousy hole, too.

I'm talking about that writing hole you say you have fallen into? You know -- that gaping, deep, black, horrible NON-WRITING hole.

Stop making it bigger.

You keep digging the hole every time you run that endless, boring, useless tape in response to others who ask how the writing is going. You begin talking (or emailing) about how ... your writing routine is MIA, you hate all your current ideas, your draft sucks, the revisions will never get done, you don't have enough time, you need a better system (and a new desk chair too), your husband/lover/mother isn't supportive of your writing, you got another rejection….and all the rest.

You're digging your hole deeper with all of that trash talk. Stop it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Stuff My (Writing) Students Say - Part VII

This email arrived from a former student concerning the role writing prompts played in his two online class experiences:

"Going into your courses, I had a question about what type of writing I might be good at. The writing prompts helped to reveal some of the answer – humor, definitely short (nonfiction) pieces and then a fiction impulse arose that completely surprised me.

"I had fun with most of the prompts. Three pieces stand out, but by far the most significant is the character who emerged and is giving me the opportunity to try my hand at writing fiction. That was a surprise. A good one.

"I also discovered how to make myself look foolish and clumsy. That's okay. There’s a book, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes, which warned me that to write is to reveal yourself on the page. How true. There were a couple of prompts that went off into strange directions, but I only needed to remind myself, 'Nothing ventured nothing gained'.

"Generally, I was delighted to catch a writing prompt in my teeth and run with it. The invitation to let the small universe of my imagination spill out onto the page was irresistible."

If you'd like to try some writing prompts, sign up for my Winter Prompts Project – 8 weeks of daily prompts in your inbox, from today through March 13 – by sending me an email with Prompts in the subject line.

You can read the rest of the Stuff My (Writing) Students Say series here.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, Jan. 7 Edition

► I suppose I always knew this about The New Yorker, but it took the recent flap online for me to truly take notice: Does the magazine have a Girls Don't Get (Many) Bylines policy?

►Interesting exploration over at Kim's Craft Blog for nonfiction writers challenged by the need to create vivid nonfiction scenes for events which they did not themselves witness.

►I'm not big on resolutions (everyone knows what happens to those), but I do like reading about what accomplished writers want to do differently – both serious and silly ideas for change from 37 writers are gathered in this piece over at Jacket Copy, the LA Times' literary blog.

► A coveted piece of journalism real estate for memoir and personal essay writers is the Modern Love column in the Sunday New York Times (even though the column's shrunk in word count and page space since a year ago). The column's editors detail the latest criteria and submissions detail here.

►For something different, catch a Filmpoem (hat tip New Pages).

► First a divorce section, now the Huffington Post has a dedicated comedy vertical. (Wonder if they'll ever have a We Pay Writers section?

►If you get there by January 10, you can snag a free e-reader download of a test prep book from Kaplan, which is offering them in 130 categories.

►You can now make a TweetMag from your own (or others') Twitter streams. The iTunes app, according to its developer "scans your Twitter stream and presents all links in a readable format".

► Have you ever checked out the PrePub Alert Blog over at Library Journal? There, the editors look ahead to what's going to be on the bookshelves, in every genre in a few months, and also include author interviews from time to time.

►I tend to get itchy all over when the topics of writing with SEO and keyword density in mind come up. Yet if you are going to write anything for the web (even if that's only copy for your own website), you'd best understand what these terms mean and how to do it, and this explanation over at WordCount can help (hat tip Steph Auteri).

► Finally, this very funny and snarky graphic Anatomy of a (Very Famous Magazine Company) Masthead (pdf).

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Guest Blogger Sage Cohen on: Naming Your (Writing) Paradise x 4

Today's guest post is extremely well-timed though it wasn't planned that way. When I invited Sage Cohen to contribute a post during January, she picked this date. It not only coincides with the start of my *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp class, but it closely follows my post from last week about how I’d like to approach 2011 as a writer.

Please welcome Sage Cohen.

Happy New Year, writers! I’m delighted that Lisa has invited me to share a few ideas from my new book, The Productive Writer.

As we face the blank page of 2011, I propose that we set some intentions for who we want to be in our writing lives this year and what we intend to create. Dave Ellis, founder of Falling Awake and author of Becoming A Master Student, suggests that since we generally accomplish 25 percent of the goals we set, we should aim for Paradise x 4 in order to ultimately arrive at Paradise.

I have found this to be one of the simplest and most effective strategies in my writing life. It gives me permission to dream bigger than what seems realistic. As a result, my experience of reality has expanded significantly as I’ve achieved the majority my Paradise x 4 goals. I have come to believe that the inverse of “That which we resist, persists,” is “That which we name, we claim.”

Try it, I think you’ll like it.

The questions below are designed to help you start painting your own Paradise x 4 picture. Remember to aim wildly, embarrassingly high. And keep in mind that you’re not expecting to get all the way to Paradise x 4—just to hold it in your sights as you appreciate where you are today and tomorrow. In other words, don’t let your ideas of what’s possible stop you from answering these questions with your Big Dreams.

What do you intend for your experience to be each time you sit down to write? (Inspired? Energized? Meditative?)

How many hours do you intend to write every week? What would the ideal pattern/rhythm be?

What are you striving to accomplish?

- How much work do you want to produce each day/week/month?
- How will you know when a piece is finished?
- What are your intentions for finished work? (Do you want to publish it? Share it with friends? File it away?)
- What steps will you take to fulfill those intentions?

How do you define success, in any or all of the following:

- Publication—how many times/which pieces per year?
- Money—how much per month/year/decade do you intend to earn?
- Awards—What awards or contests would you like to win?
- Leadership opportunities—What/how many teaching or speaking gigs are you striving for this year?
- Freedom/flexibility/continued time to write?

What kind of writing community do you intend to create?

What is the ideal mix of time spent working (at a job)/sleeping/playing/with friends and family/writing?

Now, take one last look at your answers to these questions. If there’s anything that sounds more like what you think you might be able to get, versus what you really WANT, please revise to include your true heart’s desire. Trust me on this one. The cosmic deck starts reshuffling somehow when we are precise as a pencil point about what we want to create and attract in our lives.

Keep in mind that your picture of Paradise x 4 will be continuously evolving. Throughout the year, you may have new ideas about what to expect from your writing life. Let your list be fluid as you clarify your vision and hone your aspirations along the way.

I’ll be stopping by back here on Lisa's blog throughout the day today and will be happy to answer any questions you might have – just leave them in the comments section.

Note from Lisa: Sage is offering a free, signed copy of The Productive Writer through a random drawing of folks who comment on this post by January 14.

Also, find more of Sage's thoughts on all that is possible in the writing life at her blog, where you can download a free "Productivity Power Tools" workbook companion to The Productive Writer, access other free tools and sign up for a complimentary newsletter. While there, also check out Sage's generous scholarship offers for her online classes.

Monday, January 3, 2011

17 (or 19) Words for 2011

I don't recall where I got this list, but I've been carrying it in my wallet for years. The idea is, when faced with difficult circumstances, one of these 17 actions is likely to be the key to moving ahead. It may not be particularly writer-oriented, but I've found it useful in both professional and personal situations. I'm passing it along in the hope it may help you in some way in your 2011 writing life:

17 Words


Since getting the original list, I've penciled in two additional words of my own: Rest and Ask.
From the original list, I often find Listen, Persist and Wait to be the most effective.

Have any words to add?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Winter 2011 Writing Prompts Project

Four times a year, for several weeks at a time, I send out a daily writing prompt to all who want to receive them. It arrives in your email inbox every morning, seven days a week. The Winter 2011 Prompts Project will run from January 10 - March 13.

In a nutshell, the idea is - use the prompts to write something (hey, it may be the only writing you get done that day!), pass them along to your writing group, stockpile for future days when ideas are scarce, jot them into your writer's notebook and see what happens, challenge yourself to incorporate just the prompt (usually one word or a short phrase) into that day's writing, or ignore them until one prompt comes along which really makes you start to think or imagine or remember, or makes you upset, intrigued, curious, inspired, angry...

To sign up at any time during the 8 weeks, send me an email, and please put Prompts in the subject line. (Note - if that link doesn't work, use the one in the left column.)

Want to know more? Read past posts here and here.