How to Enter Finishing School

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We lie about our writing. Most of us do, with the best intentions, to make up the stories about how much we’re working on our books. It becomes a story that a writer tells when they say “I’m working on my novel.” If you’re working on a book, and writing too little, it’s time to enter Finishing School.

The concept is at the heart of a new book by Danelle Morton and Cary Tennis. The book Finishing School shows us where we get in our own way about completing our works in progress. Six Emotional Pitfalls stretch out in front of us. Doubt. Shame. Yearning. Fear. Judgment. Arrogance. Not everyone feels all of them, but these are the reasons why we do not finish our work. Get a few writers together and their eyes brighten when they can be honest about pitfalls. “I’ll never be as good as Hemingway,” (Doubt) or “I never finish anything.” (Shame). Or “I get annoyed by writers’ groups, those losers.” That’s Arrogance, which is probably not your problem since you’re reading an article on being a better writer.

We struggle separately, alone with the pitfalls. There’s a way out and a way up, say Morton and Tennis. You learn to finish together, without judgment or even reading each others’ work. You make a schedule for one week, getting specific about what you’ll do. Details help. Then find a partner who does the same. You meet in person because it’s personal work. You promise to text or email them the moment you begin working. You meet seven days later and share how your plan worked. Or how it didn’t, but you’re honest now. You plan again, meet again. We become masters of Finishing because, as Cary said over Skype from Italy, “Finishing School throws into relief the conditions of our actual lives.”

We start with overly ambitious plans. We begin with little awareness of our hurdles. It feels so good at first. Later, the writing plan haunts us when we fall short. Better to make room for your real life, foresee the hurdles, plan for them. Cary and I have one thing in common. It’s not that we’re both successful advice columnists (that was Cary at Salon). We got training in the Amherst Writers & Artists practice. “I needed Finishing School for myself,” he says in his book, adding, “I had a panic attack while writing and ended up in the hospital.” Tennis built Finishing School from his AWA training so “workshop participants would crystallize their time; schedule time to work toward it with mutual support; and work steadily to get that writing finished, polished, and published.” They also add accountability without judgment by attending the school.

It’s a school you’d hope to see opened by a man who wrote advice from the heart for more than a decade. We can enter it with a group as small as two writers, artists of any kind, really. The book is powerful, the process transforming. Finishing School might not be the last school you attend. It’s a good bet it will be the most important one.

Finishing School begins July 19 at the Workshop.

What You Need To Win With A Coach

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coachwhistleMaking a choice to employ a writing coach is an important step for an author. How do you choose? Ask a prospective writing coach how long they’ve been paid to write and edit. Ask about salaried writing and editing, editorial projects, articles, and books. Your coach should be able to answer the questions in years. Just like being an incumbent politician, that’s a record of work a seasoned coach gets to reference, and you get to check. That number of years is not any more important than those hard-earned Masters degrees. But it’s no less important, either.

I had the pleasure of working with Steve Adams to help coach me and develop my memoir Stealing Home: The Road to the Perfect Game. There’s the whole element of counseling and listening that turns out to be much more important than any Magic Famous Acronyms from a school. Steve had his MFA, yes, but he also had practical experience in working with writers. A Masters can be helpful, but being able to relate to an artist who’s finding the voice of their story — that is crucial. Some people want repairs to their work. Others like to have the way suggested. Your coach will know what you want because they will ask you, then do a test evaluation or a sample edit.

Like choosing a therapist, surgeon, or minister, it comes down to what kind of person your coach is at heart: you hope it’s someone with integrity and a following who’ll vouch for that integrity and the value of the coaching. There’s no certificate that says Writing Coach, not even an MFA. I like to say that doing your diligence about experience is the best way to find a winning match with a coach.

Discount training: worth all you won’t pay for it

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plasticflowersI have an old friend who’s embarking on a new book. His first, in fact, although he’s been writing for his business for many years. A book demands more of a writer than an article, of course. I brought more than 20 years of journalism editing and writing to my first day of creating fiction. Making a 4,000-word article is not enough experience to create an 80,000-word book. You can’t just create 20 stories and stitch them together. You need to practice skills you might not have polished yet.

The same kind of calculation is part of choosing a coach or a class for your writing. People go to the gym and pay $30 for a hour with a trainer. Ask them to pay more than $50 for a writing coaching session, and some will point to Udemy on the Web. “It’s just $40 for 35 modules of writing. I can do that.” Ah, the Web, the great discounter of all learning.

There’s been a revolution in buying and selling services. As writers, we now can choose the world over for our writing lessons. Coaching, too, if your coach provides you 1:1 time. Some of the lessons come from far away, places where English is not the common language. But it’s not just the native language that matters. Mistaking coaching for such instruction is commonplace. Instruction is only as good as the practice it triggers. If a $40 Udemy course doesn’t require you to write and turn in for an evaluation, you’re not going to pay for all of that expertise which reveals what you know—and what you still need to master.

“Why should I care about getting graded?” you might say. “I never liked that part of school anyway.” To avoid all that grading, we then audited courses instead of taking the tests. College systems didn’t discount tuition for audited courses, though. Remember, right alongside you were students working to prove they learned the lessons. Submitting work. Hearing evaluations. Seeing where you misunderstood, so you can master the skills.

I’m making a series of Write Skills videos this year. Just about one a week is my goal, and you invest about 4 minutes watching each one. When you finish each, you’ll have one more tool in your writing belt. Write Skills are free, but you won’t get your practicing afterward evaluated. (If you don’t have a plan for practice, you’re not growing your skills. Short lessons, yes. Longer practice.) That’s what coaching does, or sitting in a real class in-person, or online. You measure your training through evaluated practice. You won’t have to pay for that training when you buy a $40 writing course. You might be paying later on, though, when your writing hasn’t seemed to improve as much as you desired.

Desire drives genuine growth. It’s worth the investment to build a book that people will finish reading and remember. Other kinds of books are everywhere, of course. They’re set aside unfinished, or leave an impression that no writer wants. Whether you’re creating your first work, or just the latest, all of us need to keep growing our craft. I like to think of discount training like plastic flowers. They look great. But if you want the aroma of a genuine bouquet, then an arranger working with the fresh stuff gives you what you really desire.

The 12 Disciples of Creativity

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Stained Glass DiscipleCreativity requires faith, and sticking to your creative faith is easier with exemplary practices to follow. I’m a Catholic boy if you go back far enough. We learned our faith in part by studying the lives of the disciples. The root of the word disciple means to show a devotion, so these practices are the devotional work we do as writers creating stories.

I do my creation early in mornings, and I can pull from each of these 12 things, these essentials. I love the feeling of having created, because I’ve eliminated the dread of failing to create, erased it before I do anything else. Being a working creative person makes everything else, all the dreams of finding and sharing meaning, possible. Being fresh as a morning blossom encourages the bees of ideas, of scenes, of chapters, to pollinate me.

Simplicity: Focusing on the immediate action at hand. Breaking the mission into the smallest parts, and doing them one at a time. Making each creative act look obvious and inevitable. Because writing a sentence is not complex, when done one at a time. Because creating an outline card is not hard if you only do it one at a time.

Regularity: To make the act of creating as essential as waking from sleep each morning. To consider creating part of the day that can no more be skipped than the sunrise. To know you can’t leave the house without clothes, and to know that you can’t leave a morning without creating something, not in full. But a draft.

Solemnity: To light a candle, to close the door, to silence the phone, to feel as it you’re entering a church of a faith that propels you. To know and believe, in your soul, that what you’re about to do in creation is important, because it delivers meaning. To feel like a priest in prayer at a mass, or a minister in a sermon, or a pastor giving a benediction before an important event.

Honesty: To do, as Hemingway said, just write one true sentence. By true he doesn’t mean built of fact, but a sentence that delivers the essence of its intention. To be aware, always, that you’re an imperfect creation yourself and that only change and time will deliver your desires for your work. And to carry that awareness to your creations, imperfect always, full of the wabi sabi that makes them your signature. To be honest about your energy and your desire, know when it has flagged after good creative work.

Self-Direction: To understand and believe that you can master the course that you set out to complete the creations. Gifts of the sea come your way when you swim in a direction, and it’s always a direction you choose. Take actions. Know that it may not be the eventual course, but any movement you make toward the sometimes-distant light of your complete creation is an act of the self.

Intensity: To sit and write just a little longer. Go beyond where you are afraid. To allow nothing to break your dream state of conjuring. The practice characterization in performance, aloud, to see yourself as that person in the story, or as your genuine self standing before an audience, with your inner eyes locked on an immutable and immovable image, like Rushmore.

Presence: To be utterly in only one place, unreeling that spool of line into the water of creation, then to study the line while you wait for that fish of an idea to bite. To be in the very moment your fingers and your arms and your legs are dedicated to anything which is not the effort of the past, or the work in the future.

Ceremony: To embrace the act of creating with little talismans and icons and regular friends of habits. For example, “I always light this candle. I always play this music. I never allow my phone to ring. I always stand up to stretch after 25 minutes. I always bring a glass of water in with me. I always write one good sentence first, even though it has nothing to do with my creation. I always read the last thing I wrote, aloud, before I make my next passage. I always do toning with my voice, vocal exercises. I always stretch with a deep bend, then add my two favorite tai chi movements.

Joy: To love a life with less certainty than others because mine always holds unexpected pleasures. To revel in the persona that I create for myself as an artist, a creator, seeking meaning. To give thanks for an existence that can feed me and feed others’ hearts with one dedicated effort. To smile when I think of getting away with doing this as my life’s mission, because I play as my work.

Discipline: To love what I do, because discipline is getting what you want. To believe I am a disciple of my affection and devotion to my craft. To work with focus to make my mastery hours meaningful, not just ticks of the clock of life. To return to my creativity on a schedule and respect deadlines.

Self-trust: To make the doubtful moments a regular part of the life of creativity, and believe in their ability to make the work a thing I will craft to my intention. To know that I am making productive choices when I say no to an effort that I’m delivered, and to believe in the parts of my creations I adore because they’re essential to making meaning of life, especially mine. To trust in the future because no one knows what it will become, and so the confidence will carry me through times that look bleak or blurry.

Primacy: To make my life about creating, the thing that keeps me alive, the most vital and essential element of the human who is me. To make all other things serve my creation, even while I’m walking the dog or washing dishes or paying bills or changing a diaper. Everything is in my life like a handhold along a staircase or tread on tires — to deliver me to the moments and hours and days of creativity.

In the morning my strength of resolve and devotion is greatest. I ride my bike in the mornings with fresh legs. As a boy I served Mass in the mornings. As a man of marriage, making love in the mornings is always best. My favorite meal is breakfast, breaking my fast. And morning is the place closest to the theatre of my dreams, the majestic stage of my unconscious.

Roots of emulation essential to grow a story

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green tomatoesThe tomatoes in my back yard didn’t need to see other tomatoes to grow. They started from seed, after all. What good does it do to find something to emulate, while growing? The tomatoes are now small and ripening. Success is at hand. But just like a book, they arrived because of something that came before them. In the case of the tomatoes, it’s the tomatoes before them. For book writers, you arrive because of the writers who came before you.

It might seem obvious, but no writer of fiction can produce good fruit, even as small as a cherry tomato, without reading fiction. Or a memoirist succeed at telling their own story in creative nonfiction without reading memoirs. For the writer who doesn’t have learning-work of making stories, reading is the only apprenticeship they have.

You’re going to want to find some fiction to read. It’s essential to writing effective stories.

Novelists have to read novels. Emulating somebody is a good thing. You then have a model to study for voice, for structure, for characterization. New writers so often want to leap to the business of the writing, which we like to call publishing. You can follow this simplistic trail in your life as a writer — show me the money — and still see it lead to reading. What am I telling, a writer must ask, that people have connected with before? I tell writing clients who I coach to find a published book that feels like their own. At the back, read the acknowledgements, and query the agent who’s mentioned.

It’s a trick, really. To find that book just like theirs, they read work in their own field. Like a painter emulates other, more famous artists, trying to master techniques of creating dazzling visuals.

Many of us dream of writing a bestseller, lauded on the New York Times list. But here’s my truth about that list. Books rise up there which the Times doesn’t think much of. Its literary reviews were not good for some of those books. Some were not even Notable Books. Bestseller lists are about business, and some of that business grew up from the roots of good craft. The craft is the success that’s sure to be within our grasp. An apprentice learns craft. Bestsellers mean almost nothing during the pursuit of writing a good book. Wonderful, long-lasting novels never see the light of that list.

This is what we care about: writing the best book we can, and growing our craft while we do. We need to read whatever is out there as if it were seeds, the seeds of what we want to write.

Give Characters Agency to Drive a Story

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Action-and-IntentionWhen I coach writers on their stories, I advocate the relentless use of agency for their characters. It’s not a term that’s common to writing instruction. I first heard about agency in a seminar taught by novelist Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Shepard was dynamic in those classes, teaching from the balls of his feet, always moving and taking action.

Agency is the persistent taking of action or intervention. A rich and well-crafted character is always taking action to respond to challenges and improve their life. Things do not just happen to a good character. They make choices: tear down that fence, apply for the scholarship, take the ill-marked back road, give their coat away on the rainiest day of the month to a homeless person. Lie to win a job, and so on. As a reader I enjoy living with characters who take agency. Right choices or wrong, these are interesting people.

Things happen in a story where the characters have agency. They attempt to control their fates. The payoff is that as a writer, you get to create scenes. Building scenes is hard work, when it’s done well. Actions — even the fight that ends a relationship, or the interrogation of a suspect in a mystery — are the high-octane fuel of a story.

The alternative is a story that’s driven by feelings and musings. There’s a place for those stories, too. But maybe the most important part of good stories is that their heros and villains are acting. Not talking about what they once did, or remembering in a boozy stupor what someone said, or wishing for better fortune but doing nothing to gain it. Bad things should happen to the best of characters. But those things should flow from some choice or action that character makes.

Try it out with a character when you’re stuck in a story. You know what they want. Make them take an action to get it. They should be the person who acts to product a particular result.

A boatload of books on making fiction: tools to use on a cruise

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bookstoreA coaching client who’s developing a novel recently asked me a delicious question. What books would I recommend to a fellow fiction writer, one who’s setting sail for a cruise around the Pacific?

There are so many on my shelves here, and on my Kindle as well. Collected, curated and used over the last 12 years, these are the ones I’d grab if my boat was leaving the slip.

A list of fiction books to take on a sail around the Pacific. What a fun assignment

1. Gotham Writer’s Workshop: Writing Fiction. Great overview of the craft.

2. The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante. 650 pages covering every aspect. About 150 of them are writing, top-notch. Exercises in each chapter, too.

3. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. Get it in paper. Worth every glorious page.

4. Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham. How to flow between scene and sequel.

Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 1.26.29 PM5. Showing & Telling, by Laurie Alberts. Finally gives Telling its due in creating a story

6. The Scene Book, by Sandra Scofield. Everything you want to know about making compelling scenes.

7. The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. Crafting an opening to a book that agents want to pick up.

8. Story, by Robert McKee. Brilliant 400 pages on story structure, with movies as examples. Get the audiobook as a companion.

scene-structure bickham9. The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. Joseph Campbell’s classic story archetypes (like The Mentor, The Gatekeeper) illustrated with examples from movie stories.

10. Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maas. The master of making tension on every page. Has a dandy workbook as a companion novel, too

11. Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card. Sci-Fi master has a great style while showing the way to start a character.

12. What Would Your Character Do? by Eric Maisel and Ann Maisel. Psychologist to artists (and Creativity Coaching trainer) Maisel, writing with his wife, has great personality quizzes for your characters.

13. The Novelist’s Notebook, by Laurie Henry. (Another one you should buy in paper.) This one is special, a book with essential questions and rules you establish to explore for your novel. You write upon the pages of this hardback book, the size of a nice journal. I used one for my novel Viral Times, and now another for the forthcoming Monsignor Dad. A place to store ideas and get concepts for meta-writing — the scaffolding of your book’s structure.

14. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark. Great instruction on making anything more clear and compelling. Branch to the right, to put the noun+verb combo as close to the sentence’s start as possible, for example.

15. Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, by Sherry Ellis. My essential text for leading the creativity nights and mornings in the Workshop’s meetings.

There are many, many more. Inspiration takes up a whole shelf. Some others are focused on poetry, and still more on the art and craft of creative non-fiction. They say you have to make time to read if you want to write, and it is also true about reading these textbooks and guides. Grab a few from your library to audition them before you buy.

A list of fiction books to take on a sail around the Pacific. What a fun assignment. What are your go-to books to make your fiction glitter on the page?

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