"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Happy birthday Norman Mailer
Who wrote: It's very bad to write a novel by act of will. I can do a book of nonfiction work that way — just sign the contract and do the book because, provided the topic has some meaning for me, I know I can do it. But a novel is different. A novel is more like falling in love. You don't say, 'I'm going to fall in love next Tuesday, I'm going to begin my novel.' The novel has to come to you. It has to feel just like love." He carried a small, spiral-bound notebook with him at all times, in case inspiration struck. Source: The Writer's Almanac

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"It’s this simple. The writer is the person who stays in the room. The writer wants to read what she is in the process of creating with such passion and devotion that she will not leave the room. The writer understands that to stand up from the desk is to fail, and to leave the room is so radical and thorough a failure as to not be reversible. Who is not in the room writing? Everybody. Is it difficult to stay in the room, especially when you are not sure of what you are doing, where you’re going? Yes. It’s impossible. Who can do it? The writer.” ~ Ron Carlson
"We know very little even of the persons we know most intimately; we do not know them enough to transfer them to the pages of a book and make human beings of them. People are too elusive, too shadowy, to be copied; and they are also too incoherent and contradictory. The writer does not copy his originals; he takes what he wants from them, a few traits that have caught his attention, a turn of mind that has fired his imagination, and therefrom constructs his character."
— W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up (1938)
"I usually have a perception around dawn when I wake up. I have what I call the theater of morning inside my head, all these voices talking to me. When they come up with a good metaphor, then I jump out of bed and trap them before they're gone." ~Ray Bradbury

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Summer in Words 2011
Dates: June 24-26
Theme: Truth, Risk & Lies
Location: Cannon Beach, Oregon 
Registration opens April 1
"Learn to reverence night and to put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity. By day, space is one with the earth and with man - it is his sun that is shining, his clouds that are floating past; at night, space is his no more. When the great earth, abandoning day, rolls up the deeps of the heavens and the universe, a new door opens for the human spirit, and there are few so clownish that some awareness of the mystery of being does not touch them as they gaze. For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars - pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time. Fugitive though the instant be, the spirit of man is, during it, ennobled by a genuine moment of emotional dignity, and poetry makes its own both the human spirit and experience." ~ Henry Beston

Friday, January 28, 2011

Best Magazine Articles
Skies are the color of frosted blue and the sun is due for an appearance soon. It's been spring-like and soft all week. I've got narcissus bulbs popping out of the ground and I'm ready to start planting again. I was talking with an editing client yesterday who lives on  Long Island and was spending the day rewriting her novel because two feet of snow in her driveway had her stranded.  I reminded her that spring was a mere 52 days away and I suspect that she was stifling a growl.

I've been reading an essay or two every day because I'm working on several and want to improve my skills. So I was happy when I ran into this site that lists the Best Magazine Articles. I cannot recommend Gay Talese's Frank Sinatra has a Cold enough. I read it years ago and rereading it was a distinct pleasure. Meanwhile, if you're writing in a specific genre or format are you reading like crazy too? Analyzing what the writer or author does right or wrong?

A few notes my Between the Lines workshop in Portland has been rescheduled for February 26.
I will be teaching workshops in Snohomish County, Washington on March 19--details to come.
Plans are underway for Summer in Words on the Oregon coast and I'm lining up the keynote speaker and instructors. Dates are June 24-26. Details will start popping up on the Summer in Words blog soon.
I've also got a bunch of talented authors scheduled for interviews on this blog so watch for them in the coming weeks.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Thursday, January 27, 2011

For details follow this link. You've got until April 30th to send in your submission.
Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. Eudora Welty

I have secrets. How about you? My secrets, closely guarded, are often tied to regrets and tinged with a fair dose of shame. They have to do with times I didn’t live up to my personal standards, was humiliated or embarrassed, or made a promise I couldn’t keep. I also carry other people’s secrets, and try to guard them as if I’m carrying a baby across an ice field, although when I was younger, the baby hit the ice more than once.

Let’s think for a few moments about secrets and revelations in what we write.  People read with a desire to discover something important, perhaps something that has been craftily concealed until just the right moment, because curiosity and intrigue make the world go round. Humans are naturally curious, and they long to uncover secrets and delve into the hidden areas of life.

Although you might believe that revelation belongs only to genres such as mystery and suspense novels, it is at the heart of every memoir and novel. Unraveling revelations is part of the narrative drive that pushes the story forward. Unmasking people and revealing some essential or hidden truth can provide the story’s high marks and surprises.

But as we know from real life, there are secrets, and then there are secrets. In fiction and memoir there are smaller concealments, but usually the secret, truth, or fact not yet exposed must be worth knowing, must impact the protagonist’s or memoirist’s life, and must affect some key element in the story such as character arc or outcome. Important revelations are foreshadowed or hinted at, and are carefully crafted, layer upon layer to give lend them meaning.

When foreshadowing is inlaid into a story, suspense is enhanced and the reader needs to keep reading to find out how things turn out and to quell the uneasiness that the foreshadowing induces. Once hints or forewarnings have been whispered to the reader,   they tingle with appreciation when the truth or surprise is sprung.   Thus, before the payoffs, including revelations, in fiction and memoir, lay the groundwork so that they are believable and credible.

A gradually unfolded revelation is at the heart of many compelling stories you have likely read. In Daphne Du Murier’s Rebecca it was a series of searing truths about the antagonist. In Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery it is about a grisly yearly ritual. In Colin Harrison’s psychological thriller The Havana Room it is about a secret rite in a secret room and a character’s past  cloaked in riddles and subterfuge. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest McMurphy learns that most of his fellow patients choose to live in the asylum of their own free will. In the film Romancing the Stone the glittering, huge and oh-so dangerous emerald is at heart of the story, but isn’t revealed until we’re well into the adventure.  In To  Kill a Mockingbird the reader must read the entire book to discover Bo Radley's true nature.

Trust me on this one—the more you hide, the faster your reader will turn pages. I like to imagine both characters and storylines as Russian stacking dolls. You keep opening up the doll to reveal one after another, and then another, until you reach the tiniest doll nested in the center. And there is a little thrill to opening up the final doll just as there is in uncovering a series of revelations while reading a good book.

Readers love to work undercover and their need to know is part curiosity, anxiety and apprehension. This potent mix is a form of arousal and it causes them to want to solve puzzles and enigmas, delve deep into a character’s most sheltered heartbreaks and fears, and learn the ugliest facts about humankind.

If you can craft a story that has mystery or secret to unravel, along with people or characters who would rather you didn’t know everything about them, you’ll have won half the battle in creating suspense and tension. The structure of most book-length fiction and nonfiction is about events that are going to be uncovered as we go along and subterfuge is simply part of writing. Readers also like being teased with possibilities, and they will enjoy a bit of misdirection and experiencing reversals along with the character or memoirist.

Revelations can occur in many shapes in a story. And, while, a revelation can provide profound and important information and insights, each doesn’t necessarily need to change the character or the course of the plot. Now some revelations will be life-changing, such as if a character learns the identity of his birth parent or discovers that he was adopted when he always believed his adopted parents were his birth parents. A character discovering that a child was born as the result of a rape would be another dramatic and difficult realization. A revelation can be almost anything-- the identity of a murderer, a lie, a denial, a longing for vengeance.

Here’s what I think: all secrets matter. If you can, use them to drive your stories. If you can, think about all the secrets you’ve known, their pain, the fallout, the shame and the consequences. Write about secrets in dialogue, stage them in bedroom scenes, in hospital rooms and foxholes. Think about the pressures that lead up to revealing a secret and craft a scene or two around these pressures. Then lead your reader slowly, slowly to the truth. 

"A writer needs 3 things: experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others." ~ William Faulkner

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pale blue skies here this morning and the weekend will feature spring-like weather. I'm teaching my Writing Recharge workshop this afternoon and I'm going to sprinkle it with u-rah-rah quotes including this one by Alan Watts: 
"Advice? I don't have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you're writing, you're a writer. Write like you're a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there's no chance for a pardon. Write like you're clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you've got just one last thing to say, like you're a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God's sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we're not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don't. Who knows, maybe you're one of the lucky ones who doesn't have to." 
And I'm going to tell my students that writing chooses us.  Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Friday, January 21, 2011

Start with the Tangible
I want to suggest a foundation from where we can all begin writing.  All fiction and nonfiction must start with the artifacts of everyday life. For you see, if the reader cannot somehow enter the world you’re describing in the same way that he enters a restaurant or party or foreign country in the real world, then he or she cannot understand the ideas, emotions or truths that you’re revealing.
Thus all writing starts with the tangible because descriptive detail is the writer breathing life into the story. The weak December light seeping in from the north window, the peculiar, musty smell of your grandmother’s attic, the dailiness of wearing an insulin pump. So for now, let’s ignore the many adages about writing and technique and simply concede that art is in the details.
          The real world is made up of things—Cumulus clouds, paperback books and ladderback chairs, champagne flutes and good Bordeaux, Sharpie® pens, red boots, a purple sofa, a belching city bus, the metal-colored winter sky. Because the power of our stories lies in tangible details. Details pull in readers, create a sense of place, reveal people, action and tension, making experiences and thoughts poignant, sensory, and alive.
        The trick is to choose tangible details that are so vital that the writing will suffer without them. Details should affect the outcome of the piece and make us understand theme and meaning. But herein lies the rub. Which details do we choose? Sometimes it seems like there are a blizzard of choices to be made. So choose carefully and choose details that add mood, atmosphere, and tension whenever possible.   
            Let’s begin by noticing, by practicing active awareness, by honing in on the ordinary, the real, the minutiae and sifting it onto the page. But let’s also gather details with a freshness of vision. Try to see the world as new when you describe it, and of course, notice the unusual, the quickly dismissed truth, the unguarded expression, the small gesture that speaks volumes about the person.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Thursday, January 20, 2011

To write a story you need five or six days, during which time you must be thinking about it every moment, otherwise you’ll never be able to frame good sentences. Before it reaches the page, every sentence must spend two days in the brain, lying perfectly still and putting on weight. It goes without saying, of course, that I’m too lazy to mind my own rule, but I do recommend it to you young writers, all the more so because I have experienced its beneficent results firsthand and know that the rough drafts of all true artists are a mess of deletions and corrections, marked up from top to bottom in a patchwork of cuts and insertions that are themselves recrossed out and mangled.
—Anton Chekhov in How to Write Like Chekhov, edited by Piero Brunello and Lena LenĖ‡cek.
Best Mysteries of 2010
This alphabetical list combines the Edgar nominees from these categories: Best Novel, Best First Novel by an American Author, Best Paperback Original, Best Fact Crime, Best Critical/Biographical, Best Juvenile, and Best Young Adult. The Best Novel nominees are listed in bold.

The Wire: Truth Be Told by Rafael Alvarez
Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complicity
by Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry
The River by Mary Jane Beaufrand
Zora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon
The Buddy Files: The Case of the Lost Boy by Dori Hillestad Butler
The Haunting of Charles Dickens by Lewis Buzbee
Caught by Harlan Coben
Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making by John Curran
Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva
The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron
Sherlock Holmes for Dummies by Steven Doyle and David A. Crowder
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Faithful Place by Tana French
Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard
The Serialist: A Novel by David Gordon
The Queen of Patpong by Timothy Hallinan
The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton
The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in Jim Crow South by Alex Heard
Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendevouz with American History by Yunte Huang
Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
Griff Carver: Hallway Patrol by Jim Krieg
I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman
7 Souls by Barnabas Miller and Jordan Orlando
Thrillers: 100 Must Reads edited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner
The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn
Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
The Interrogation of Gabriel James by Charlie Price
Hellhound on his Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr and the International Hunt for his Assassin by Hampton Sides
The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr
Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski
Vienna Secrets by Frank Tallis
Snow Angels by James Thompson
Ten Little Herrings by L.C. Tyler
Dust City by Robert Paul Weston
The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman by Ben H. Winters

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fog is still in control of the sky here this morning and I'm beginning my winter semester today. Recently Norma, a reader of this blog wrote to me about disruptions this week in her writing routine."My cocoon has too many escape hatches.  For me, the  month of January is perfect to write, without the beckon and lure of pruning, planting and pitching of blackberry vines."

Here's another peek at a writer's routine. What's yours?

Simone De Beauvoir
People say that you have great self-discipline and that you never let a day go by without working. At what time do you start?
I'm always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o'clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o'clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I'll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it's a pleasure to work.
When do you see Sartre?
Every evening and often at lunchtime. I generally work at his place in the afternoon.
Doesn't it bother you to go from one apartment to another?
No. Since I don't write scholarly books, I take all my papers with me and it works out very well.
Do you plunge in immediately?
It depends to some extent on what I'm writing. If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I've done.
Do your writer friends have the same habits as you?
No, it's quite a personal matter. Genet, for example, works quite differently. He puts in about twelve hours a day for six months when he's working on something and when he has finished he can let six months go by without doing anything. As I said, I work every day except for two or three months of vacation when I travel and generally don't work at all. I read very little during the year, and when I go away I take a big valise full of books, books that I don't have time to read. But if the trip lasts a month or six weeks, I do feel uncomfortable, particularly if I'm between two books. I get bored if I don't work.
The Paris Review, Spring-Summer 1965

Monday, January 17, 2011

Unlikely Equal
In case you're not keeping up with Bill Kenower's daily editor's blog at Author magazine, here's his latest post: 

"For many years I worried that my work, by which I really meant me, would not be perceived as special. This worry was the source of much torment, as I rode the highs and lows of my perceived self-worth. One day I was God Almighty, the next a forgettable clown. Eventually I understood that my unhappiness had been caused by a small misunderstanding. It wasn’t that I was worried that I wouldn’t be special, I was worried that I had to be special—because, of course, no one is special.

Don’t misunderstand. Everyone is unique, but no one is special. By which I mean, no one is more unique than anyone else. Of course, certain people that we know or know of have garnered extraordinary attention. When this attention comes as a result of work that person has done, it is tempting to see them as special – specially talented singers or writers or designers or basketball players.

Yet all that these people who appear special have done is allow that which is unique about them through. That, perhaps, is special, but anyone can do this. Most people don’t, but they could. When it happens, the result, whether to your taste or not, is always marked by a certain clarity, because that which has been let through is un-muddied by fear. These people certainly know fear, but they have set it aside at least for the time they have spent making the work.

In this job I have had the opportunity to talk with many writers I consider authentic and distinct—Richard BachAlice HoffmanTomie dePaola, and Byron Katie, to name just a few. All these men and women have created very different work, and they are all very different people, but in my experience they all share one trait in common: humility when talking about their work.

There is a good reason for this. Whenever you let your authentic self through, you view yourself as you truly are—a portal. You cannot be any more or less of a portal than anyone else. An opening is an opening; it varies only in size and shape, not in openness. So you need never worry about being special. Allow that which is you fully through, and you will perhaps feel closer to all those people who are not you than you ever have before."
"We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading is the search for a difficult pleasure." ~ Harold Bloom

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Three-Minute Short Story Contest
Quiet here this morning although flooding is expected over the weekend. 

NPR is running round 6 of their three-minute short contest. Here is a link to the rules. The judge is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (bet you cannot say that fast three times in a row) and the deadline is January 23. The parameters for this contest is that the Story must (i) have one of the characters tell a joke and (ii) have one of the characters cry.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Moment to Moment
After an ice storm on Tuesday it's already in the 50's here this morning, the sky the color of an overused chalk board. One of the hardest things about being human is really experiencing the whole gamut of human emotions, especially the extreme ones, and then staying with those searing feelings. Many of us want to blunt them, to avoid them, to medicate them with whatever is at hand. But the worst and best times in being alive are, of course, what writers need to mine and transport to their writing. As I'm writing this I'm thinking of the day my daughter was born, the deaths of people I loved, the deaths of relationships, estrangements, and all the acts of cruelty and kindness and times of bliss that have flowed through my own time line. And another momentous event took place a few days ago, and it was hard and it was beautiful and it was powerful, so here it is.  

 I sat with a woman dying on Tuesday, and held her hand until her final breath. She was my boyfriend’s mother and we were not well acquainted because J and I started dating last summer. The first time I met Carol she asked me if we were getting married and I needed to explain that we hadn’t been together long. We were visiting her in a nursing home where she was being treated for emphysema and other problems. I’d heard his growing-up stories about her and his worries about her and we’d stop at a nearby Jack-in-the Box and order her a cheeseburger and vanilla shake with whipped cream, no cherry and a spoon and try to arrive around lunch time because she hated the food served there. At Christmas we exchanged gifts and she kept telling me she loved me. But she hadn’t been doing well and a week later she started refusing food and then sometimes pulled out her oxygen tubes and thus was losing oxygen to her brain.

I was home working on Tuesday when a person from the nursing home called looking for her son. Carol had taken a turn for the worse and it was suggested we come to say our goodbyes. After making phone calls trying to locate him since he wasn’t in his office, I drove to her nursing home, worried that he wouldn’t receive my message. The home is located in a tony neighborhood and I imagine as far as nursing homes go, it’s a nice place. The staff is cheerful and competent, the walls are lined with paintings, there is an activities room, the residents are clean, and everyone knows your name. 

I was escorted to her room where it was explained she was comfortable because of morphine, but she wasn’t getting oxygen into her lungs any more. Carol slept in the middle bed of a room that housed three women. When I sat next to her, her breathing was a labored rasp, her skin pale as alabaster; and I captured her hand in which a rosary had been draped and told her she wasn’t alone. She was facing me with her eyes open and unseeing and wearing a hospital gown for the first time since I’d known her. I explained that I was trying to find her son and started talking with her a bit. Telling her I’d be there for him, meeting her vacant stare. She squeezed my hand, or at least it seemed like she did.  J phoned that he’d received the message and then later that he was on his way and the vigil continued.

Aides came in to shift her position and I walked the hallway giving them privacy. There was the familiar Alzheimer’s woman, both taut and hunched as ever, who walked the halls blank-faced all day. Another woman in a wheel chair who kept losing her way to her room.  The white-haired man in jeans looking like he should be strolling in a suburban mall.

When I returned she now was turned from me, so still holding her hand, I started stroking her arm more so she’d know I was there. I had turned off the fluorescent light over her bed so it wouldn’t glare down at her, pulled in the curtains for more privacy. Raechel Ray was on the television behind me with cheerful banter about curvy women looking their best and skin care products, and a recipe for a mushroom tartan. Three aides dressed in rustling blue came into the room to check on her, lifting the thin blanket to inspect her legs to see if blood was pooling. We whispered among us about her oxygen levels and breathing, they touched her feet, and there was murmurs and concern. One young Indian or Pakistani woman with a rich accent kept saying how sad it was.

The tiny woman in the bed on the right hadn’t yet made a sound, but it was the quiet where you know the other person isn’t sleeping, is perhaps on high alert like a child in the middle of the night. Barbara, the one-legged diabetic on her left who always spoke in a loud, imperious tone was feeling nauseated and requested a basin but refused medication and I was worried at her proximity to death.

For years now I have struggled to meditate, to live only moment to moment without thoughts and in the quiet of the overheated room, I was finally there, still, with only Carol’s breaths in my head, our hands warm together, as I stroked her arm and hummed snatches of lullabies. Then her son arrived and he said his farewells and kissed her and said all the sweet things I would want to hear in her place.

The nurse on duty was consulted about her status. “I’ve seen this before. There’s not much time left.”  We stayed on.

J left the room because he needed better cell phone reception to call his son and now I was alone again with her. In the time in her room I’d been facing the wall and her bedside table that held the plant we’d bought her a few weeks earlier. The magazines I gave her too late. Her bulletin board-collage crowded with pictures of grandchildren and remembrances, the ornament I’d given her along with other geegaws.

I was singing a lullaby now, louder, although not too loud because of her roommates and a deep stillness that seemed to belong, and then switched to “Sweet Molly Malone.” It’s an old Irish ballad about a young fishmonger who sells on the streets of Dublin and I first learned it from my grandmother. Somehow the haunting lyrics seemed just right for the occasion and then her breathing stopped. “Carol?” I walked to the other side of the bed and felt her neck for a pulse, leaned my ear to her mouth. Then stepped out into the hallway to find someone. The nurse was coming toward me. “I think she’s gone.”
“Let me get my stethoscope.”

And then it was determined she was indeed dead and I gave the news to her son and then his son and after our final good byes the machinery of death began as the mortuary was contacted and we discussed what to do with her belongings and J donated her television and clothing to the nursing home before we left the building and the staff’s sympathies and moved out in the cooling air and drove away into a sky the color of steel.

Late that night J came to me in bed and thanked me and asked me what I was singing to his mother when she died. And I started singing, “In Dublin’s fair city, where girls are so pretty. I once met a girl called sweet Molly Malone. As she wheeled her wheelbarrow, through streets broad and narrow, calling cockles and mussels alive alive-o….”

When I finished the first verse and chorus he sighed, “That’s beautiful.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I have several places available in my fiction critique group that is held in Portland on Wednesday afternoons. The group is limited to five participants, the feedback is first rate and WILL help your writing. A lot. Contact me.
From an editor's desk:
Use as few point of view characters as you can get away with to tell the story. 
Think of viewpoint as both the camera lens and character through which we see the story and measure of distance. If you want your readers to identify with your protagonist, let them draw close to that character only (by being privy to only that character's thoughts and feelings and perceptions). The protagonist is the character most changed and hurt by the story events. Letting readers in on many characters' thoughts doesn't create intimacy with all characters equally, as you might think. Instead, it creates distance from all of them, because the reader doesn't know who to pull for or get close to.

Guidelines for your viewpoint character:
1) The VP character must be present at main events.
2) He/she must be actively involved and not just a chance observer.
3) He/she should have a personal stake in the outcome of the story even if the outcome depends on the main character's actions.

Monday, January 10, 2011

I've sent out my January issue of The Writing Life newsletter via email. If you haven't received a copy this means that there is some problem with your email address, so please contact me.
Meaningful Description

Sunny skies in Portland today and the whole state seems geared up for the Ducks-Auburn game tonight. Yesterday I was out walking with a friend on a  park trail near the Sandy River and along the trail ferns and moss were an almost fluorescent shade of green. It was a "this is really a rain forest" moment to find such an intense hue in January.

I've been working with writers lately and trying to give them suggestions about when a story needs more or less description. While there are no hard-and-fast rules about when to add description, usually you do so to imply meaning or importance. For example,  when a setting is going to be used at least several times in a story, or where some trauma or crisis has or will occur later in the story, make sure the reader has an adequate orientation to the place.  Try hard not to create inert blobs larding your story with passages that stop the action, instead keep things moving by revealing details through a viewpoint character's eyes, or by traveling to or through a place.

Also use when the reader meets an antagonist it often works to provide descriptions of this important character through a series of observations, remarks, details.  And then stretch as a writer and make sure that the reader can feel something about the character, can sense his importance in the story. Here's an example of one bit of description of a young barista who is the antagonist in Jane Ratcliffe's What Do You Need?  a short story published in the December issue of The Sun. "He went by "Mick," short for Michelangelo. He was Italian--or part Italian, at least. His other parts were some kind of wild blood that made his eyes shine, and I knew in the dark he would smell like the woods your parents told you not to go into at night."

Now isn't that a character you want to meet?
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Friday, January 07, 2011

"Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become that path himself." ~ Henry Miller

A Writer's Routine: Gustave Flaubert
The fog still thick as chalk dust out there and the morning feels peaceful and promising. I've been thinking about and writing about the rituals and routines for writers lately and am going to post some here. I hope in this new year you'll create a nourishing routine that sustains your writing.Picasso probably said it the most succinctly: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

Gustave Flaubert

Days were as unvaried as the notes of the cuckoo. Flaubert, a man of nocturnal habits, usually awoke at 10 a.m. and announced the event with his bell cord. Only then did people dare speak above a whisper. His valet, Narcisse, straightaway brought him water, filled his pipe, drew the curtains, and delivered the morning mail. Conversation with Mother, which took place in clouds of tobacco smoke particularly noxious to the migraine sufferer, preceded a very hot bath and a long, careful toilette involving the regular application of a tonic reputed to arrest hair loss. At 11 a.m. he entered the dining room, where Mme Flaubert; Liline; her English governess, Isabel Hutton; and very often Uncle Parain would have gathered. Unable to work well on a full stomach, he ate lightly, or what passed for such in the Flaubert household, meaning that his first meal consisted of eggs, vegetables, cheese or fruit, and a cup of cold chocolate. The family then lounged on the terrace, unless foul weather kept them indoors, or climbed a steep path through woods behind their espaliered kitchen garden to a glade dubbed La Mercure after the statue of Mercury that once stood there. Shaded by chestnut trees, near their hillside orchard, they would argue, joke, gossip, and watch vessels sail up and down the river. Another site of open-air refreshment was the eighteenth-century pavilion. After dinner, which generally lasted from seven to nine, dusk often found them there, looking out at moonlight flecking the water and fisherman casting their hoop nets for eel.In June 1852, Flaubert told Louise Colet that he worked from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.. A year later, when he assumed partial responsibility for Liline's education and gave her an hour or more of his time each day, he may not have put pen to paper at his large round writing table until two o'clock or later.
Frederick Brown, Flaubert: A Biography

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Reminder most writing, unless you're creating reports, memos and such for your job needs an emotional undercurrent. Your job as a writer is to make readers feel.
"The best writing comes when we "tell it slant" as Emily Dickinson advised. Our emotional undercurrent is always there. When we don't try to directly describe something emotional in our lives, but just describe what's in front of us, our emotional view of the world comes out, making what we are saying interesting." Sheila Bender

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Evening of the fifth day of the year and the cold, crisp weather that I so appreciate is now gone, replaced by our usual rain storms. Earlier I was walking along the Clackamas River near where it meets the Willamette. As I stepped out of my car near dusk, I noticed a huge white bird sailing over the river. At first, since  it looked so white against the dimming sky, I was puzzled, thinking that a snowy owl was somehow out early and prowling the river. Then I spotted a few gulls, and kept looking back at the original white bird, which was not gull shaped or had gull-like wings. It looked like a small osprey but didn't have the dark markings. A Snowy Egret?  So I was left to imagine its species since my bird watching/identifying skills are still not up to par. I decided to invest in a bird book for the car and then wandered (well, that's an overstatement since it was wet  and I was walking along at a brisk pace) along the river in the rain and mist and in the strange silvery light that comes with winter.

I was mostly thinking about good things and a client's manuscript and a writing project I'm working on and how I'm feeling surprisingly happy for early January. This realization of happiness was enhanced as I observed the river--it's wide and deep and fast these days. And when I reached a certain rapids I realized that the sound of water was drowning out all other sounds and often when I feel best I can hear only water.

But again  to clarify that happiness thing---I don't know about you, but I'm still tired from the holidays and need more time to enter this new year (I just finished dismantling my Christmas decorations and spreading tree boughs on flower beds) and I'm behind in my projects, as usual. However, I feel more balance in life, especially now that  I'm back at my routine of reading poems early in the morning, brewing a cup of tea, lighting a candle or turning on a lamp. In other words, my writing routine. Letting in the ideas to simmer in the slow-coming dawn. Paying more attention to dreams which seem to proliferate in these dark months. Thinking about what I want to accomplish in the coming year.

So here are my questions for you: What is working in your life? What is not working? What is working in your writing? What is not working? How can your writing routine remedy things?
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

All literature, but especially literature of the weird and the fantastic, is a cave where readers and writers hide from life. ... It is in just such caves -- such places of refuge -- that we lick our wounds and prepare for the next battle in the real world.
Our need for such places never subsides, as any fan of escapist literature will tell you, but they are especially valuable for the potentially serious reader -- and writer -- going through those vulnerable years when the child's imagination is evolving into the more sophisticated and organized adult imagination. ~ Stephen King

"If you wait for inspiration you're not a writer; you're a waiter." ~ Dan Poynter
Inspiration usually comes during work, not before it.” Madeleine L’Engle

Monday, January 03, 2011

"If we want to write, it makes sense to read—and to read like a writer. If wanted to grow roses, we would want to visit rose gardens and try to see them the way a rose gardener would.”~ Francine Prose

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Sage Said So
To get 2011 off to a rollicking start here is a post from the wise and amazing Sage Cohen.
Practice Deliberately (And Hit Your Target)
A guest post by author Sage Cohen
“The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call ‘deliberate practice.’ It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron three hundred times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day—that’s deliberate practice.”—Geoffrey Colvin, senior editor-at-large, Fortune Magazine

Have you ever gotten halfway through a piece of writing and found yourself floundering about what you were actually trying to accomplish in the first place? This is where the concept of deliberate practice comes in. When you set your sights on specific goals for a piece of writing, then you’ll know exactly how close you come to achieving your goal.

Try writing out as many of these details at the top of your piece, or on a Post-It note that you attach to your computer screen or your working file folder. For example, I wrote this at the top of a recent piece I’d been contracted to write:

·       Target word count: 1,500
·     To appear in: Poet’s Market 2011
·     Audience: Aspiring poets with varying levels of publishing experience
·     Topic: Self-publishing—my path and process

I challenge you to name and claim the key objectives of every piece of writing, even a blog post, short story, essay, or poem, regardless of whether you’ve been hired to write it or if you ever intend to share it. Here are a few tips to get you started:

1.      Choose a listener
When you know the audience you are writing for, you can start to imagine their needs, questions, objections, and level of interest. The simplest way to define this audience is by choosing a single person who is representative of this group, and write it “for them.” Maybe this person can even be available to read and give feedback about your work, to help you learn if it was received as you intended.

2.      Name the objective of what you are writing
If you are writing on assignment or for a client, this is where you’d articulate exactly what goals you’ve been hired to accomplish. If you are writing something for a themed contest or publication, define the topic or parameters within which you must perform. And if you are writing creative nonfiction, poetry, or fiction that is not driven by particular submission requirements, try setting your own standard for what you expect this piece to do/be/accomplish and then observe if this makes a difference in your writing and revising experience.

3.      Write! You know everything you need to know about this, already! [This is the sound of me shaking my pom-poms.]

4.      Revise!
Anyone who’s ever spent years revising a single piece of writing knows all too well what hitting an eight-iron three hundred times might be like. Now, get out there and start swinging.

5.      Evaluate whether you have achieved your objective
When your piece feels finished, revisit the goals articulated in numbers one and two, and see how your writing measures up. If there are discrepancies, return to number four, and then repeat. If you didn’t hit the mark the first time, don’t worry. Remember, this is all practice. And the only way we improve is through repetition. Practice shapes us, so we can most effectively give shape to our writing.

[Excerpted from The Productive Writer by Sage Cohen]

About Sage Cohen
Sage Cohen is the author of The Productive Writer (just released from Writer’s Digest Books); Writing the Life Poetic and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. She blogs about all that is possible in the writing life at pathofpossibility.com, where you can: Download a FREE "Productivity Power Tools" workbook companion to The Productive Writer. Get the FREE, 10-week email series, "10 Ways to Boost Writing Productivity" when you sign up to receive email updates. Sign up for the FREE, Writing the Life Poetic e-zine. Plus, check out the events page for the latest free teleclasses, scholarships and more.