Monday, August 29, 2011

The Writing Prompt Project Returns for Fall

It's Prompt Project time again.

For those who are new here, the nutshell: A few times a year, I email a daily writing prompt to anyone who signs up. It's typically a short prompt (sometimes even just one word), and useful for writers of most any genre. There are no rules, expectations or guilt: You get the prompts, and do with them as you like. Unless you tell me or anyone else, no one need know whether a prompt inspires an award-winning piece of work, or if they all molder in your email inbox.

The next Prompt Project begins September 7 and will run until October 31. If you want to join the prompt mailing list, contact me. You can opt out at any time. I'd love it if you would include your real name in your email, but it's not required.

For those who haven't worked with writing prompts in the past, some tips and my personal reasons why I love prompts, can be found here, here and here.

By the way, if you have a writing blog, or are connected with other writers via social networks, I'd love it if you would pass on this post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Stuff my Writing Students Say, Part 12: It's been done already, so I can't do it

Here's one I get a lot:

"Other people have already written about this. I guess I'd better write about something else."


People have been writing about the same topics for centuries – love, hate, desire, relationships, crime, food, birth, death, deception, dogs, aliens, friends, enemies, you name it (okay, maybe not cell phones, but you get the idea). If writers were to stop writing simply because someone else beat them to the topic; well, most every bookshelf would be empty, magazine or newspaper pages and websites would be blank.

The point is that what you write will be different because you are a different writer from all the others who have already mined the same material. Or at least, you'd better be. If on the other hand, you have nothing new to say, if the only way you can manage to write about X, if the only thing you have to contribute about X simply mirrors what others have already done, then by all means, stay away from X and write about Y instead.

If abandoning your chosen topic is more about marketplace concerns, then I have even better news: Forget it. If you make choices about what to write based on what's selling at bookstores TODAY, you will be in for a lifetime of disappointment. Let's say you notice that books about twins are hot, and you are working on a novel or memoir about twins, you'd be mistaken to decide either that you'll be too late to the party by the time your manuscript is done OR that you if you write really fast, you can get in on a hot trend.

Either may turn out to be true, or neither – like so many other once-hot subjects, the topic may slip from its pinnacle, but remain a healthy but smaller part of the book market anyway. The thing is, you won't know while you are still writing which scenario will play out, and anyway, do you really want to determine what you write about based on something as fickle as readers' tastes? I'm not being na├»ve; I realize that writing a new vampire or wizard series is probably not going to generate huge interest right now. Except -- I could be wrong. (On the other hand, if you can reliably predict what will be hot in a literary sense, say, two to three years down the line, then I take it all back. And, can I get your number?)

This goes for short pieces of writing, too. So many writers have seen an essay or feature in a particular media venue – usually a publication or site they greatly admire and aspire to being published in, with a huge circulation, top freelancer pay rates and mucho prestige – and thrown up their arms. "Ugh. So-and-So just wrote a column about X. So I guess it's been done. "


Who cares if So-and-So wrote about it? You know what? It may be a really good thing that So-and-So raised awareness about X, introduced X into the conversation, put other editors on alert that there's something to be said about X. Now you can approach editors at venues other than the admired, highly valued one, high paying, prestigious one you aspire to, and concentrate on those that – let's face it – are probably more likely to publish your work.

And if that isn't what you want to hear, then there's this: Next time, stop dawdling over your pretty-damned-good essay or manuscript or query and hit send, instead of worrying over every comma (for the 14th blessed time) and talking yourself into the idea that it's not going to fly anyway, so why submit it? Be first next time. But if you can't, being second, tenth, or 203rd is okay too. It's a pretty big literary world out there and chances are very good you can find a place for your work where what you have to say about X will be fresh, and first, for them.

Meanwhile, you could also just stop reading so much! (kidding, I think)

Note: Your can read the rest of the Stuff My Writing Students Say series here.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Summer reruns from writers worth a second look.

It's August. In New Jersey. Land of the Triple-H weather forecast – hazy, hot and (horribly) humid. While I'm at the pool, here is a list of suggested blog reruns for you: all author interviews or guest posts which get a fair share of traffic, and in my opinion are all worth a second look.

Writing memoir – Sue William Silverman

A poet in nonfictionland – Susan Lilley

Lessons learned while writing a novel – Christina Baker Kline

The mind of the essay writer – Candy Schulman

How to interview scientists – Jennifer Gresham

Book publicity journey of a first time author – Vicki Forman

Planned productivity – Sage Cohen

And, here's a guest post I wrote for a friend's blog, about how writers often say no to ourselves before we even give others the chance to say yes.

Happy reading. Poolside, I hope.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Are the Benefits of Organization Overrated?

I like to be organized. Apparently I was born that way. Mostly, I've grateful, though at times, I'd rather be brilliant instead, or stunningly creative, or gorgeous, at least wildly successful. I've written here before about why it disturbs me to have a reputation as an extremely organized person, even though I understand that having this inherent trait is enormously helpful – in work and life.


Sometimes I get carried away. I over-organize, which isn't a bad thing by itself I suppose, except when it is. Lately I'm asking myself if the time it takes to organize things could be better spent DOING things.

Does it really pay to spend time organizing a spread sheet -- by type, deadline date, word count and other criteria – for the publications, online venues and contests where I want to submit? Or would a simple (less time consuming) list do the trick? Does the time I invest in meticulously mapping out future marketing plans and dates for my classes make sense, or should I really just be blasting out links whenever and wherever I can? Will the way I organize my in-development writing, into electronic files and sub-files, and the way I gather and organize my rough handwritten drafts and notes -- by carefully sliding notebook pages, ripped out articles, photos and other paper stuff into carefully marked old-style file folders -- really help in structuring the memoir-in-progress, or should I instead just be writing and editing and revising like mad?

How to know when one's highly toned organization muscle would be better off going just a little bit slack, in favor of just getting on with things? Can organization be a procrastination tool? Hmm. This is interesting – and unsettling – to me, because I have never thought of myself as a procrastinator, and in fact, others tell me I'm pretty darn productive. There's not much evidence that I do put things off. I get things done.


Getting things done is not the same as getting the most important things done. The things that will matter more over the long haul. The things I may not have time for because I'm spending that time you know, getting organized.

I’m nothing if not self-critical. And lately, I've noticed that not only do I spend what I think might be too much time organizing, but that I also have grown rather annoyed with my highly organized self. She just seems kind of bothersome lately. Who cares? I want to yell at her, shake her by the shoulders. Who cares? Do I really care any longer if everything is color coded, cross-referenced, totally updated, crossed-off, linked up, mapped out? Do I really need a monthly list, weekly lists, daily lists, and then – oh, I'm so sorry, but it's true – a morning, afternoon and evening list?

No? No kidding!

Changing an ingrained habit is difficult, especially when that habit is, mostly, a good one. But it can be done. As I'm sure you can guess, my organizational tendencies spill over into non-work related areas. Just ask my kids how many lists I make before a trip, how intricate the itinerary is, how often I explain where the tickets, hotel confirmation emails, GPS and antibacterial hand gels are to be kept. On an upcoming trip, I've decided to test my ability to be less organized and more spontaneous, and hoping that if I can live through it, maybe I can transfer those newfound (non)skills back to the office.

We might get lost, delayed or dirty. It's a start.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, August 12, 2011 Edition

►Excerpts from books short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, as well as those nominated for a number of other prestigious awards (such as the PEN/Faulkner, National Book Critic Circle, and Edgar, among others), can be found through this list of links.

►If you're planning to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Chicago in 2012 (and even if you're not), you might want to check out their recently released list of just-approved panels, seminars, readings and other sessions.

►A lot of people may opt to take down their own status photo and upload something benign instead, after reading this piece about how facial recognition software and Facebook photos can lead to unsettling results.

►Mediabistro just announced an Authors Who Visit Book Clubs directory; writers can post their information, and clubs can search for nearby authors willing to make an appearance.

► Quill & Quire, which tracks the Canadian book scene, posts a links round-up once a week. The two most recent entries are here and here.

►The next U.S. poet laureate has been named.

►My sort-of-quarterly newsletter was just sent out. If you are not on the mailing list and want to be, please let me know.

►Finally, do authors sometimes get a little (or a major) attack of schadenfreude? You bet.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Not exactly qualified for that writing award? Apply anyway.

This is a story about freelancing, a wild chance, nostalgia, looking back in order to go forward, friends with blogs, and a little luck.

A few months ago, I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship (in the category of Nonfiction Article Writing) by the Education Foundation of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), to attend ASJA's annual three-day conference in Manhattan.

I knew I would gather plenty of terrific advice, tips and knowledge from the panels and seminars, and I looked forward to spending a few days around fellow freelancers, exchanging inside info and trading (a few) horror stories. But the real reason I wanted to go to the ASJA conference was that I hadn't been to one in about 20 years. Before that, attending the ASJA event had been an annual outing for me, beginning with my first, the year after graduating from college with a journalism degree.

At the time, I was struggling to support myself as a freelance writer, and saw the conference fee as a necessary investment. I was right – from that first conference, I made important contacts with editors who sent work my way for many years. After that first attendance, I made the ASJA meeting a fixture on my calendar, even after I began working in public relations a few years later (another story!).

The conference slid off my annual agenda at some point. Until this past winter, when I got the idea in my head that, living just across the river, and wanting to expand the freelance journalism arm of my career, I really had no excuse not to attend again. Except of course, the fee. I visited the ASJA site a half-dozen times, filled out the registration form, and then let it languish. That money, I kept telling myself, would be better spent on my son's tuition. Or the other son's cello lessons. Or groceries.

One late winter morning this year, I was doing one of the online things I do every day – reading my friend Erika Dreifus's great blog, Practicing Writing. That day, she reminded readers that the deadline for the ASJA Education Foundation scholarships was that very afternoon. I thought for a moment about applying, but immediately dismissed the notion; I figured the selectors were probably looking for someone either (take your pick): younger, with less (or more) publishing credits, in worse financial circumstances, with less (or more) experience.

Then I remembered something I'd read a while back on another great blog, where novelist Tayari Jones wrote a post meant to encourage young writers to think big and be a bit reckless in seeking out opportunities. Tayari passed along advice she was once given (and I'm paraphrasing here): Every day in the writing world, someone is awarded something for which he or she may not seem especially qualified. The trick is to keep applying for things, because one day, why can't it be you?

The ASJA application, including links to published articles, a CV, and cover letter explaining why the scholarship was being sought, was due in a few hours.

Why can't it be me? I hit send.

Here's what was so interesting to me, sitting in on ASJA discussions again, some 30 years after having attended my first conference: How much has not changed, and how much has. On the one hand, everyone was discussing the very same things that we worried about in 1982 – the best way to query editors, how to attract an agent's attention, negotiating rights and fees, interviewing difficult people, keeping clips organized and presentable. But that was fine, because in the intervening years, everything else had changed, and so doing all of those basic things that propel a freelance career, now requires an entirely different set of skills, tools, technology.

Back in 1982, I recall wide-eyed, eye-rolling, grudging reactions in some sessions to certain ideas of changing up the way one does business. In 1982, a panelist suggested that five years hence, everyone in the room would own at least one computer on which we'd all be writing our articles. Having seen computers being installed in the journalism classrooms at Syracuse University just before I graduated the year before, I believed it, but I noticed quite a few crossed arms and shakes of the head around the room.

It was a similar scene several years later, when in those same ASJA sessions I heard another speaker declare that in just a few years, we would no longer be printing out word-processed articles and stuffing them into envelopes to send off to editors. At another ASJA I attended, probably around 1990 or so, I remember someone said the words electronic communication and web page. Some people seemed excited, but others clearly were not happy to contemplate the coming changes.

Fast forward to this past April, when there was a lot of talk about online activities -- creating a great website and blog, building a Twitter following, knowing how (and how not) to use Facebook and other social media, writing for online venues, SEO skills, developing e-newsletter lists, building an online portfolio of clips. Mostly, audience members welcomed information on these topics. But then in some sessions, where the conversation veered to video blogging, podcasts, writing for phone apps, formatting ebooks, and other issues, I could sense some reluctance (could some of that have been coming from moi?), and suddenly it felt just like old times: Can all this newness really be coming our way, be here already? Yes, and how wonderful. Yes, and oh no!

One way the conference also felt familiar, for me at least, was in the way these gatherings are good for one's career, and the soul of the work-at-home freelancer. I got to talk, in the flesh, with other writers – some with more experience than I, whose tips I appreciated, some with less experience, whose questions I was happy to answer. I met editors face-to-face and gathered useful intel on what might get an assignment nod. I was able to listen to others ask the questions I was either too hesitant to ask, or would never have thought of – and heard the answers in real time. I shared a meal, a drink, a coffee, with people I might not have sought out – a design blogger, a pet columnist, an education writer -- but whose company, and insights, I enjoyed.

And, I got to write this blog post – which I hope will encourage other writers to go ahead and ask for that scholarship, apply for that residency, enter that contest, go after that job. Why can't it be your turn next?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, August 5, 2011 Edition

► Over at Shelf Awareness Pro, young adult novelist Mal Peet talks about the necessary musicality of prose and how reading one's work aloud can help a writer develop rhythm. "A sentence that clots in your mouth is unlikely to flow in your mind," he notes.

NPR Books has a short interview with Marion Roach Smith and an excerpt from her new book, The Memoir Project.

► Kerry Cohen's helpful article from The Writer, "Not Hurting People With Your Words," is now available over at Gotham Writers' Workshop.

► At HTML Giant, Blake Butler shares "22 Things I Learned From Submitting Writing." He's blunt.

►A puzzle constructor whose creations often appear in the New York Times, talks about his craft. Puzzle lovers, follow the other links in the piece to more great stuff, too.

►Tired of glare on your computer screen while writing outdoors? (You do write outdoors sometimes, don't you?) Not sure if you can buy this computer sun shield in the U.S., but it looks interesting. (And I'm betting you can also rig up something similar for a lot less.)

► Consulting editor Alan Rinzler with some new thoughts on – yes I'm going to write that dreaded word: platform.

►When that "complementary" hotel newspaper isn't really free. Yikes.

►Finally, what ensues when a college journalism class attempts to put together a newspaper 1970s style, sans computers, digital cameras, etc.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What I'm reading, perusing, studying, scanning, dipping into, skimming, leafing through and poring over.

In my experience most writers love dictionaries and thesauruses, some love style manuals, others even adore grammar guides. I love them all, which explains my pleasure reading this week – The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus, by Joshua Kendall.

I guess it didn't surprise me that Roget probably suffered from what today would be called obsessive compulsive disorder. He spent nearly his entire childhood on the tasks of categorizing, listing and codifying everything that comprised his world – people, events, nature, scholarly subjects, animals, gardens, body parts, books, relationships, vegetables.

I haven't finished the book yet, but the other day, when I heard something about promising new treatments that would maybe one day eradicate OCD, I couldn't help but feel a pang of – well, I don't know quite what.

Surely I wouldn't want anyone who must deal with an OCD that impairs their life to continue to suffer when a treatment is one day available. Yet I could not help but also think that the world is probably a richer, more creative place because of the books, films, inventions, ideas, and artwork produced by those who had/have OCD, as well as many other disorders. What would writers have done for two centuries without Roget's Thesaurus? Aren't we all enriched a little bit because of his contribution?

Likewise, I thought of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who has worked tirelessly over the last 40 years to redesign the modern American slaughterhouse based on her uniquely visual thought patterns, an intuitive sense of what calms herd animals, and an innate geometry ability. Her book about life as an autistic child and adult (recently an award winning HBO film) has also contributed greatly to people's understanding of autism.

The world seems to need all kinds of minds.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Writing Quirks and Bad Habits

Writing quirks. We all have them. Sometimes a writing quirk is just a bad habit, one we should take extra care to extinguish – or at minimum become acutely aware of and question ourselves about. For me, one of my quirks is a tendency to get list-y: "Hello my name is Lisa and I am a serial comma and semi-colon abuser." Another I've mostly eradicated from my prose is the one-word paragraph comprised of the word still or yet.

Over the last few months I've advised students, editing clients and writers I coach about their individual writing quirks. A few involved dialogue tags: One writer loved adverbs (Bob said heartily), another seemed unable to use the verbs said or asked (Mary enthused; he entreated), and a third writer combined both (Sue heartily enthused; Joe entreated smugly).

Other bad habits I've seen recently include memoir writers beginning nearly every sentence with the pronoun "I"; overuse of one particular favorite (usually hackneyed) phrase ("and so with that," "not that it mattered"); starting a new paragraph every few sentences whether it makes sense or not; continually referring to an important secondary character in terms of their relationship to the main character rather than by name ("my mom" instead of Mother, Mama, Mom; "her brother" rather than Joe); and – one of my particular favorites – repeatedly using the exact same word or descriptor for an item that is central to the story ("the red dress" 10 times in one page; if it's not to make a poetic point, couldn't that item at least once or twice, be a frock, outfit, garment, piece of clothing, silky confection, or depending on its design, a sheath, gown, sundress, cocktail dress?).

Oh dear. Was that list-y of me?

Some writers are so overly enamored of a single word, they will find ways to use it far too many times in one piece; a few recent ones I've encountered: superior, blanch, quibble, obstreperous.

Then there's "it".

I once challenged a writer to do a spell check and count how many times he used it in a 1200 word essay. Answer: 46. My pet peeve with *it* is that very often the reader won't immediately know what *it* refers to precisely; or the meaning shifts, from one *it* to the next; and more importantly, that using *it* substitutes for bringing readers closer in to the story and further inside a character's head.

Example: It was a glorious day so John called in sick even though it would get him in trouble. It didn't matter. He'd already decided that it was no longer worth it. Fix: Monday morning's glorious sunrise convinced John to call in sick. He knew Mr. Morgan would make a negative note in his performance review folder, but that didn't matter. By then, John had decided he'd been humiliated by a demeaning job long enough and would no longer worry about the consequences.

Many writing quirks can be solved by awareness and practice with alternate ways of expressing ourselves. Sometimes I challenge a writer to produce something without a single adverb, or using only said or asked, or writing sentences longer than five words, or never longer than 12 words. Once, I limited a memoir writer to no more than three uses of *I* per page.

As for me, when I revise I am keenly aware of my terrible friend the serial comma and my tendency to want to list things. An instructor once told me: periods are free and for a while I kept a sticky note on my computer with that written on it.

Another way to kill your quirks is by constantly striving to be more precise, because many bad habits have to do with avoiding precision. Unless we are being purposely imprecise or ambiguous for metaphorical, style or poetic reasons, we need to work hard to help a reader see and understand our exact, specific, precise meaning.


Some writing quirks are actually good habits, just gone a little (or a lot) awry. Think of the writer who is a master of interesting description: Terrific when we're reading about the main character's new house, or the place he's traveled, or the office she's coveted and is now hers; maybe not so great when we're asked (for no reason related to plot or character development) to read paragraphs of description of a pot, blouse or pencil.

One writer I worked with wrote stunning dialogue. But not every story she wanted to tell could be done best via conversation. Another created richly innovative metaphors; but after reading five in a row in a single paragraph, fatigue set in (for me at least). One writer whose work I otherwise particularly liked, took too much to heart the typically good advice about ending a paragraph with a striking or powerful image or word, and began ending every paragraph with a word that sent me running to the dictionary.

I would continue, but that might be list-y of me.