It’s not intelligence. It’s skills, to write.

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I have a favorite writer in my life who’s a good storyteller. Great imagination, vivid characters, passion for the drama of a story. This writer is practicing skills. This isn’t a matter of intelligence. It’s a matter of skills.

acrylicsIn other words, being smart will not ensure storytelling success as a writer. Practice of writing skills gives a better shot at that success. You still need imagination, passion, a vivid way of seeing things. You can coax out imagination through playing. You can develop vivid visions by focusing on sensory details. The color. The odor. The feel. That noise. The flavor.

The passion? You can keep that alive by returning to the story, like my dog Tess returns to my chair each night between 6 and 8. I developed a habit of walking her at that time. So now she returns to my desk, passionate about a walk, putting her big-poodle snout under my arm or her paws on my leg.

You don’t have to be smart as a Jeopardy winner to write a story. You only need to dream, to observe, to practice, and have that poodle’s passion for the walk that you take with your story.

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Writer’s Block Number 1: Who would read it, anyway?

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A fledgling memoir writer asked me about the prospects for transforming his work into a book. Within a couple of messages on LinkedIn, he squelched his own efforts. His book idea, about a single year of biking 5,207 miles, seemed too dim to work on. “I just doubt many would read it, even if published on Amazon. If there’s no audience, what’s the point?”

It’s a great question, one we pose all the time while we create any work of art. Without a likely audience, why write for publication? The question often surfaces before the serious effort has a chance to get underway. I don’t see how this could be compelling for anyone but me. The question that should follow is, How do I make this story compelling?

We all work through doubts when we create. How well we do this is influenced by our imagination and our storyteller’s spark. You can imagine your book as a success, a vision you can populate with specific victories. The book opens with a great story right at the top, not just backstory. The book displays awareness and humor, even in the face of tragic events. The book has honesty, imagery, and passion.

What we’re afraid of, sometimes, is unrequited love. After going all-in to love a book they’re writing, authors can be afraid their writing won’t love them back. Imagine the story telling you, “What a godsend you have shared me. You have been honest. I brim with imagery and passion.” Give the relationship a chance, instead of a too-savvy squelch.

We’re often looking to the rest of the world to hear affirmation about our stories and our books. Contests can help deliver a small kudo, but only after some serious work in done. The writing of a book is a wonderful tonic as well as the haunting drink we fear to taste. “Just do it” has become a trite cheer. That command is the open door to experience creation, though.

There’s no way to determine how many people will read a book until you start to create it and share the work: with a group, a coach, or a trusty beta reader. If you doubt that many will read that unfinished book, what are you prepared to do to change that? The answer to that question becomes the point, one that compels you to finish and share your story.

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.

You Don’t Have to Write Every Day

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But you do need to be faithful to your writing practice, as if it is a lover or a friend.

I love youWhile I was finishing my novel Viral Times, I thought of the incomplete book as it if were a lover. One who I discovered in delirious delight, who I had left by the wayside, revisited with joy, then lost touch with again. Viral Times was patient, waiting for me. We all love that kind of love, don’t we? Because creating things has its challenges, we deserve that kind of love.

Jessica Strawser, editor of Writer’s Digest, wrote about the not-every-day practice on the magazine’s blog. She interviewed Patricia Cornwall, author of the amazing Kate Scarpetta mysteries. The novelist said

Treat your writing like a relationship and not a job. Because if it’s a relationship, even if you only have one hour in a day, you might just sit down and open up your last chapter because it’s like visiting your friend. What do you do when you miss somebody? You pick up the phone. You keep that connection established. If you do that with your writing, then you tend to stay in that moment, and you don’t forget what you’re doing.

Usually the last thing I do before I go to bed is sit at my computer and just take a look at the last thing I was writing. It’s almost like I tuck my characters in at night. I may not do much, but I’m reminding myself: This is the world I’m living in right now, and I’ll go to sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.

You only need to be faithful to your writing this week, and every week. Every day doesn’t work for everybody.

5 Practices for Living a Writer’s Life

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You can find a lot of advice on how to live a life as a writer by using your notebook, laptop, or keyboard. But how about away from the writing itself? What do practiced writers do when they’re away from the work? They keep it in their minds and their hearts. They use five practices.

Magic Paintbrush1. They read. Everything you read, as a story or a book, helps your writing. Once you start to write, you look at every story differently. While you do that, you’re looking for parts of stories that are just like yours. The premise, like a priest falling in love or a reporter fighting a pandemic. Or a character with a trait like yours. Or just writing: good that you want to emulate, not-so-good you want to avoid.

2. They study the craft with guide books. There is so much to learn about the craft of making stories. You will be reading as long as you love to learn how to be more skilled in your writing. Find books on making scenes. Find books on point of view. Find books on creating beautiful settings, or vivid places where evil lives. Fellow novelist Margo Raab told a story about writers working on craft. Her friend went to a food-writing course, and who should sit down next to her but Julia Child. “What are you doing here?” she asked. Julia replied, “Well, when you love doing something, how can you ever learn too much about it?”

3. They make Artist’s Dates. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron includes one fun practice. Reward yourself with an Artist’s Date. Go someplace and make a date with your muse. A park you don’t usually visit. A museum. A concert or a library. Even a coffeehouse. Drink in the setting, the colors, the new sounds. Feed your artist with new experiences, once a week.

4. They look for characters in life. Every time you’re in line, in a crowd, attending an event or even a party, look around. People who could live in your stories are all around you. The looks on their faces, the clothes they wear, the gestures they use. Someone could look just like you’ve imagined your heroine to be. People you see in person are the most vivid.

5. They listen for stories — everybody has one. While you talk to people, encourage their stories. Learn and listen to their lives. Even at a coffeehouse (see above) stories are right at your elbow. Practice gentle eavesdropping, listening. Every story has a way of working into your own storytelling.

If you practice your writing regularly, much of what you see and live will have a chance to pop up in your storytelling. Live to be a writer by letting your non-writing time enrich your story.

What have you done, away from the page, that’s helped your storytelling?

Getting a Strong Start on Your Memoir

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pumping iron therapyMy advice to the writers in the Workshops I run is to find a half hour in the morning, before your day gets upon you, to write. It’s one of the best creative times of the day — because you can carry forward your subconscious dream work into the writing. Plus, the interruptions of the day that can pull you off your creating haven’t surfaced yet.

— How to start if you have not begun? Think about this: What is the question you are trying to answer with your memoir? The question can change, and it usually will. My own memoir started with “How did I make that happy two weeks of baseball with Nicky? Where did my optimism emerge from?” It has evolved to “What lessons from my father changed my fatherhood route with my son? How did I change the rules for a perfect game?”

If you’re free-writing now, that’s good. Prompts that are helpful are “The story I want to tell is…” and “These are the things I remember. These are the things that I don’t remember.” Believe it or not, even the latter has a way of unearthing memories that make up a memoir.

— You always want to write a memoir from the perspective of I. It’s a story where you are the heroine or the hero. A lot of writing may emerge that uses “we” in family situations and scenarios. Let that unspool, yes. Then look at it again and see where you can experiment with sensory writing — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch — to bring you into the scene as the person experiencing it. Some family events and behavior have to be chronicled, yes. But don’t let yourself, the I, ever drift too far away from the writing.

It helps to know where you’ll go next, too. Write toward the white-hot. More

Don’t despair: A novel takes awhile

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The novel, nearing completion

I’m in the final stretch of my novel Viral Times, doing the Ultimate Edits based on the reading and revision notes that I received from Jill Dearman — last summer. For a very fair fee, she read and marked 350 manuscript pages of the Summer, 2009 version of the novel. (I also got a five-page summary of the weak areas and the strengths of the writing.)

I am just doing the calendar math here, and June of 2009 — when I was pulling together and slashing down 144,000 words to 98,000 — is, yeah, about two and half years ago. There’s reasons as well as excuses about that span of time. A growing writing workshop practice, reading hundreds of pages of Manuscript Group books. It could have gone more quickly.

But I’m using the collective energy of National Novel Writing Month to get the end of this Ultimate Edit. It’ll be ready to read on Dec. 17. Just in time for flu season. Have a look at the work in progress — complete with a log of how the work progressed — at viraltimes.net. Leave me a comment, too.

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