"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.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Thought for the day:
"We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out" ~Ray Bradbury

Morning sky is sooty and bleak looking here in Portlandia. All the firs out my office window are still as sentinels and a flock of crows keeps circling around as if looking for trouble. I’m a person who sometimes writes about the bitter truths of the writing business. No starry-eyed romantic, I’m prone to depict the writing life with the bleakness of a frozen graveyard. In Minnesota. In January. And there’s been a rash of deaths in the land of the wind-chill factor (likely from pneumonia) and graves need to be dug. Or maybe we'll just need to store those corpses until a thaw...

And when it come to the elements of storytelling, I'm all seriousness. Good stories are balanced. No unnecessary digressions or complications, no skimpy endings, no added characters or subplots or silliness simply designed to fill in pages. It's hard to list what are the most important elements of stories, but stories live or die by their beginnings and endings. It's what editors buy and readers buy into. 

Laura Miller of salon.com has written an intriguing piece about how difficult it is to talk about a great ending here. Here's an excerpt:
"The trick of a good ending, of course, is that it must capture and equal everything that has gone before. The line “He loved Big Brother” (from a novel that ends as masterfully as it begins) means very little until you understand exactly who Big Brother is. A first line or opening scene need only arrest a reader’s attention and stoke her curiosity; a final scene or paragraph is expected to provide that sensation so rare in real life: completion. The better the book, the more nuanced and persuasive, the more difficult this is. We want a novel to swell with a sense of limitless possibility at the start and in the middle, but we also want it to zero in to a point of inevitability as it ends.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Thought for the Day:

Teach yourself to work in uncertainty.” ~ Bernard Malamud.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A poem a day. Alan Heathcock shares my sentiment about how reading a poem every day brings balance and inspiration. "The older I get, the more life passes in a harried traffic of cars and people and events. This world of shallow speed often sends me to sleep feeling I've been to battle. Battle at dance practice and the soccer game and the drive-thru window, battle to pick up the dry cleaning and get the kids new shoes before I have to attend parent-teachers conferences. Battles at work, battles in my relationships, battles with myself. If you're like me, you long for a bit of quiet, a morning in the chapel, a walk in the woods. If only I had the time to still my mind, take an accounting of myself, find my balance once again."
Toward a more complete measure of excellence The end of the year always means a slew of "best of" lists appearing. I'm a suckerfor these lists and best of anthologies, though I often want the editors to range further when they make their choices. The Rumpus has a thoughtful assessment of excellence with a link to Jeanette Winterson's essay in The Guardian on literature and readability.

After reading the New York Time's Top Ten Novels of 2011 I bought Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and have been reading it and am wowed by the language and imagination of the story. Set in Florida Everglades, you can almost hear the lethal mosquitoes buzzing around you as you read.
Here is the opening to the novel:
"Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chrief Bigree's idea, and it was a good one--to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the micorphone; to leave the stage lights' tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!'s star performer, the world-famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree. Four times a week, our mother climbed the ladder over the Gator Pit in a green two-piece bathing suit and stood on the edge of the diving borad, breathing. If it was  windy, her long hair flew around her face, but the rest of her stayed motionless. Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered--and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sappire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother's body ws just lines, a smudge against the palm trees."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Meaningful Life
My column about how writing leads to a meaningful life is at my website here. In it I imagine a town filled with writers....I fantasize, okay, I romanticize, about some aspects of the town, but cannot speculate on the murder rate...

Top Ten Blogs for Writers  2011/2012 is here....stiff competition and includes the illustrious Jane Friedman.

Don't forget about the Writing in Tough & Changing Times mini-conference on January 28th in Portland, Oregon. Space is limited and reservations are coming in.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
10 Tips for Good Storytelling
  1. My first rule was given to me by T.H. White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.
  2. Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.
  3. Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.
  4. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction.
  5. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.
  6. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.
  7. For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.
  8. If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.
  9. Carrot and stick—have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).
  10. Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say. ~ Michael Moorcock, from The Guardian For more on Moorcock, go here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Just for Fun:
The Elements of Style
Happy Boxing Day to all the Canadian and English writers out there...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Yuletide Wishes:
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkuh and may 2012 be a year of writing productivity,  vibrant health, laughter and happy memory making with family and friends, and peace within, and of course peace, on our small planet.

A book perfect for those who appreciate wonder such as my 8-year-old granddaughter Paige:  The Flight of Reindeer: The True Story of Santa Claus and His Christmas Mission

And from today's The Writers Almanac: 
It was on this day in 1914 that the last known Christmas truce occurred along the Western Front during World War I. In the week leading up to Christmas, soldiers all over the battlefields had been decorating their trenches with candles and makeshift trimmings when groups of German and British soldiers began shouting seasonal greetings and singing songs to each other. On occasion, a soldier or two would even cross the battlefield to take gifts to the enemy. Then, on Christmas Eve, the men of the Western Front put the war on hold and many soldiers from both sides left their trenches to meet in No Man's Land, where they mingled and exchanged tobacco, chocolate, and sometimes even the buttons from their own uniforms as souvenirs. They played games of football, sang carols, and buried fallen comrades together as the unofficial truce lasted through the night.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

8 Good Writing Practices according to Neil Gaiman
  1. Write.
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Just for fun:
(well, sort of) 10 Ways to Stay Sane When Frustrated with Your Writing from Writer's Digest

Thought for the Day: John Steinbeck's letter to beginning writers
Dear Writer:
      Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.
      The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all - so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.
      So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher's side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.
      It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn't, and maybe it's because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don't know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.
      If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.
      It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.
      I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic '20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.
      I was told, "It's going to take a long time, and you haven't got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe."
      "Why?" I asked.
      "Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor."
      It wasn't too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time - a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.
      She told me it wouldn't.
Quick Take: Formatting
One of the first things I notice about a writer is if he or she knows how to format a manuscript. I'm always concerned that if a writer doesn't take care with formatting, then he or she might not take care with other aspects of writing either. This is the one area where you cannot show your creativity. I'm serious as a heart attack here.  It's professional courtesy to make your manuscript easy to read and formatting rules are not arbitrary. Here's a link to accurate information on how to format a short story presented by William Shunn. And here are more tips on formatting novel-length manuscripts.

One thing that's changing in this digital age is that generally publishers or editors do not need you to underline italicized words. You also do not need two spaces after sentences--these practices are from the typewriter era. Realize too that publishers have their own standards for formatting and that British, Canadian, and Australian publishers differ slightly in formatting standards from American publishers. 

Also, insert a space break any time you change POV.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Timeless Advice from Kurt Vonnegut:
Here's a link to some timeless advice about writing from Kurt Vonnegut. Here is a sample:

5. Sound like yourself
The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was Conrad's third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.
In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Yes, and many Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect a majority of Americans cannot understand.
All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when your write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.
I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

6. Say what you mean
I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable --- and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.
Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thought for the Day

Do dialogue-let's say-between a hobo and a high-class hooker, then between an am­bulance chaser and a guy who sells scorecards at the ballpark-let's say-about the meaning of money. Between pints, get the arch of the dart down pat. Shoot foul shots day in and rim out. Pick a sentence at random from a randomly selected book, and another from another volume also chosen by chance; then write a paragraph which will be a reasonable bridge between them. And it does get easier to do what you have done, sing what you've so often sung; it gets so easy, sometimes, that what was once a challenge passes over into thoughtless routine. So the bar must be raised a few notches, one's handicap increased, the stakes trebled, tie both hands behind your back. Refuse the blindfold, refuse the final cigarette, refuse the proffered pizza. Do dialogue in dialect: a Welshman and a Scot arguing about an onion. Hardest of all: start over. ~ WILLIAM H. GASS

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book Christmas Trees
all the rage this season...to show love and support of books, book sellers, and publishers
If you want help in creating your own, here's some info
Photo by Patricia Pultorak

 Thought for the Day:
"Remember yourself, from the days when you were younger and rougher and wilder, more scrawl than straight line. Remember all of yourself, the flaws and faults as well as the many strengths. Carl Jung once said, "If people can be educated to see the lowly side of their own natures, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and to love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more tolerance toward oneself can only have good results in respect for our neighbors, for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures." ~ Anna Quindlen
commencement speech at Mount Holyoke College

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Reader's Advice to Writers: skip the scenery
Laura Miller the book critic at Salon.com penned this column a while ago, but the advice still rings true. It seems that her advice boils down to "trust the reader."  She begins:
"Recently, I was asked to speak to a class of writing students on what critics look for in debut novels. After canvassing my colleagues, I had a few answers — a distinctive voice, an interesting perspective, strong writing and so on — but they didn’t seem especially helpful. Presumably, every writer already starts out with the most distinctive voice and interesting perspective he or she can conjure. How about telling them what to avoid instead?

By far the most common gripe from readers was too much description, particularly environmental description — that is, of landscape, weather and interiors. This complaint struck me as especially pertinent because at that very moment I was trying to decide whether or not to recommend Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” in our weekly book column, What to Read. Obreht, recently named one of the New Yorker’s 20 best writers under 40, is undeniably talented, and the novel has much to recommend it. Yet no sooner does Obreht’s narrative work up a little momentum or present a masterful scene than it hits a patch of long, dozy paragraphs filled with way too much detail about the scenery."

And here is Miller's first column with solid advice for writers which includes:
1. Make your main character want something. Writers tend to be introverted observers who equate reflection with insight and depth, yet a fictional character who does nothing but witness and contemplate is at best annoying and at worst, dull. There’s a reason why Nick Carraway is the narrator of “The Great Gatsby” while Gatsby himself is the protagonist. Desire is the engine that drives both life and narrative.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Writer List: Favorite fictional characters
By Arthur Plotnik, Laura Miller, William Kowalski, Jessica Page Morrell
From Jane Eyre to Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, four accomplished writers weigh in on the skillfully imagined people who refuse to fade away in their memories. How do your choices compare?

If you're not a subscriber, go out and buy a copy of the January The Writer--it's a great issue.
Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Making It In Tough & Changing Times
Mini-Writing Conference
January 28, 2012
Portland, Oregon

At last, a practical one-day conference filled with just the information that you need to propel your writing career to the next level and muscle your way to publication.  We’ll cover everything from creating potent sentences and writing irresistible query letters that capture attention, to writing killer openers and making it as a writer in a media-saturated world. 
Details at my website
Keynote speaker: Christina Katz
The Prosperous Writer: Tips For Navigating The Gig Economy

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Quick Take: When there isn’t enough character development in a story, especially when a character lacks a back story, a reader feels ill at ease in the story. The emotional needs of your characters should drive the story. Is your character after recognition, redemption, justice? Is he or she emotionally scarred? Especially vulnerable in certain circumstances? These motivations and needs will stem from back story. 
     This lack of intimacy  can occur when a story features a lot of telling or reporting,  rather than dramatized in scenes. Readers don’t meet characters on a playing field where they can take their measure. Also, when a story lacks insights into the character’s thoughts and emotions, then the story lacks intimacy. Without intimacy, and readers don’t have a strong knowledge of the characters and why they do what they do, the story ends up seeming more like a game board than a living, breathing world. Fiction is a world of unease, a battleground of emotions with pressures and choices coming at the main characters from all sides.
Thought for the Day
"In the end, writing is like a prison, an island from which you will never be released but which is a kind of paradise: the solitude, the thoughts, the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you for the moment understand and with your whole heart want to believe." ~ James Salter

Monday, December 05, 2011

Quick Take:Find and eradicate your crutch words--the words you use too often in your stories so that they become annoying and/or intrusive. Lately I'm seeing these in various manuscripts I've been working on: exit, went, really, right, alright, literally, sweet, home, house,  headed, some, sort of, recently, just, seemed, especially, suddenly, actually, aware,journey, smile, grin, grimace ... (My main crutch word is deep.These days I try to delete as soon as it shows up on the page.Come to think of it, these days is another crutch expression I use...)
A tip: Listen to your conversation and notice
words and phrases that you repeat out loud. Consciously try to vary your language when talking.

Tip 2: And here's an online site to help you catch these stinkers.

Thought for the Day: A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.~ Edith Wharton

Friday, December 02, 2011


Thought for the Day:
Make your writing life a sustainable component of a broader living practice. Know what activities complement your writing work, and do them regularly. ~Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
Steal This List
Writing Advice that Saves You Five Years (from the Glimmertrain bulletin)By Janis Hubschman
A writer friend recently heard Colum McCann say he likes to give his students the kind of advice that will save them five years. As a fiction writer, I'm always struggling to figure out the rules, the most economical way to go about writing and revision. I have, in fact become a collector of "ten things you should remember" lists. I recommend Elmore Leonard's famous "Ten Rules of Writing," Laura Miller's "A Reader's Advice to Writers," and the Guardian's "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction." But here are the ten craft techniques, gathered from my notebooks, that have been most helpful to me. Many of them, I notice, address characterization, the element of craft that I most enjoy exploring. They've saved me a few hours of frustration, if not years.
  1. When the story stalls, ask: what is the character thinking now? Is she thinking anything? If not, why not? Characters need to learn something about themselves, about their values and assumptions.
  2. Characters reveal themselves under stress. Raise the stakes. Drive the character into a tight spot. What are the psychological crutches the character relies on under pressure?
  3. Readers like to learn about something when they read. The details of an unusual job or hobby, the day-to-day activities of a particular place at a particular time in history, for example, draw the reader in.
  4. Trust the reader. Remember Hemingway's iceberg theory: "you could omit anything if you knew you omitted it and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood."
  5. Take apart successful published stories (or the stories of writers you admire) to see how they work.
  6. Give the character something to do in the scene. It brings the character and the scene to life. A character soaking in the bathtub, thinking about her rotten marriage is boring. A character performing brain surgery, thinking about her rotten marriage is a different proposition.
  7. To gain insight into a character, consider her history: Think about what happened before the story, what tortuous path led the character to this particular moment?
  8. Allow the character to misinterpret another character's words or actions. In life, we often misread a situation, jump to conclusions. Interesting things can happen when characters make presumptions or project their own hang-ups onto others.
  9. Let the characters connect with others. Alienated characters, the whiney and self-absorbed protagonists that blame everyone else for their predicament have lots of precedent in literature, but can hold readers at a remove.
  10. Build tension by slowing down a scene. Let the scene unfold moment by moment. Linger on the details. Build silences into the dialogue.

Although saving time is the point of the list, an argument can be made for the value of all those hours we spend working through problems in our fiction. Remember Malcolm Gladwell's ten years or 10,000-Hours Rule for realizing success. While there's no guarantee that ten years will produce achievement, sustained effort and sometimes tedious application is necessary. For example, I revised the story that won Glimmer Train's Open Fiction contest numerous times over a four-year period. However, the story and the protagonist really started to reveal themselves to me in the final drafts when I focused on techniques #1, #3, and #6. So, in the interest of saving a few years, you might consider stealing this list.