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 Leave me a comment, too.

Writing Instructions

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1. Write your book every day

2. Make a plan. Schedule, make sacrifices.

3. List 25 books you could write yourself; include something specific about each

4. List 100 books you need to read (that one could take up an afternoon)

5. Make a slow notebook (try in pencil; nothing’s slower than that). Note the changes in your writing when you slow down with this notebook.

6. Make a group of writers who write the kind of book you’re writing

7. Surround yourself with 20 little assignments. Things as small as “Write paragraph about Sarah’s dog.”

8. Do your best. But learn to let The Good overcome The Perfect

9. Read aloud, then assess the fit. Write in your truest voice. (We practice this every morning and evening the Writer’s Workshop meets.)

10. Make a list of things that drain you, plus a list of things that feed you. More

Prescription for writers

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From a morning seminar I took with Lee Smith, a writer of short stories and novels:

Most people who come in here don’t have the possibility of entering into any story other than their own. You do. To do this, write fiction every day. Just sit in the chair and put one word in front of the the other. This putting one word in front of another is to put the world in order. It’s theraputic.

Good interview with Smith at the Writers Write site, written about the time that I heard her give the above prescription. I’m going off to sit in my chair and put the world in order.

Make a note to keep writing

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I was reading Joan Didion’s fine, stately memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. The phrase jumped out at me from the page. Didion’s husband (the writer John Gregory Dunne) had died suddenly on her, right after dinner. What she recalled later on was that he couldn’t remember his notecards as they were leaving for the restaurant. He reminded her to take her notebook along, so someone would have something to write a note that came to them.

It’s a habit lots of good writers have — to take down the sudden note, the idea that just comes to you. It’s a habit to practice, for good reason. “Had he not warned me that the ability to make a note when something came to mind was the difference between being able to write and not being able to write?” She examines whether her husband sensed he was about to die.

Notes can be the difference, indeed. These phrases or snippets or ideas come from your right brain, the side that doesn’t keep good notes, but has great ideas or associations. If you need a simple tool to write with on the go, check out the Cross Ion pen. We’ve got a picture and a link about it on the Writer’s Workshop Tools page. As for the notecards above, they’re dead simple and easy to carry. Order yours online at, or look for them in the local office supply store. The eight bucks could be worth a fortune later, when you’re looking at a blank page.

Exercise your faith in the power of practice

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“Success has ruined more writers than failure,” said Frank Conroy, the late director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.” If you want to proceed toward either of these outcomes, however, you must practice your writing. Exercises give you the chance to practice, a slight shove toward some specific direction. Your mind quiets when it’s given a task in an exercise; it stops interrupting the flow of words.

Exercises are everywhere, especially on the Web. My mentor in Amherst Writing and Artists training Patricia Lee Lewis has a raft of great exercises at her Web site, Patchwork Farm. She has compiled this fun list of exercises over the past three years. She also points out a link to another site, The Writer’s Resource Center, which has even more exercises.

At the Resource Center’s site, John Hewitt explains that writing imperfectly is good for your practice. Exercises let you write without any expectation of publication, at least at first:

One of the great benefits of private writing exercises is that you can free yourself of fear and perfectionism. To grow as a writer, it is important to sometimes write without the expectation of publication. Don’t be afraid to be imperfect. That is what practice is for. What you write for any of these exercises may not be your best work, but it is practice for when you will need to write your best work.

Let me offer a couple of exercises from these teachers for you to try today. From Patricia:

Make a list of ten verbs. Add “ing” to each verb. Before each verb, add “not.” Write whatever comes for 25 minutes.

From the Writer’s Resource site:

Remember an old argument you had with another person. Write about the argument from the point of view of the other person. Remember that the idea is to see the argument from their perspective, no your own. This is an exercise in voice, not in proving yourself right or wrong.

Setting a time limit for yourself makes exercises work hard for your practice. It also keeps you from getting spooked about getting started writing — you can be sure the effort will be over in awhile!

Our first workshop meeting: bios, pockets and more

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Tonight we met for the first time at The Writer’s Workshop, our home studio in Northwest Austin. Four of us gathered around the brand-new writer’s table, built by hand from birch, pine and Douglas fir, then stained and just coated the day before our group meeting. We had our light supper together at that table, with the ceiling fans spinning to bring the balmy springtime air into the studio through our screened door.

We began by writing a seven-minute biography of ourselves, longhand on the notebooks everyone had brought to the class. Cynthia had forgotten to bring her reading glasses; we turned up a spare set for her. (We also have notebooks and pens on hand, so people can really just turn up. But the first meeting we passed out our Rotring Core pens, included as part of the tuition.) I’d given the group our set of AWA guidelines before we began to write: Everything is treated as fiction, it’s all confidential inside the group, and we always refer to the narrator or the speaker when we respond to the writing. It’s all designed to honor the safety of the group. “We leave the judge outside,” I said. People can learn how to write better by focusing on what’s working in their early drafts.

That seven-minute bio needed to contain one lie. A few of us got past three guesses with our lie, but others didn’t. It proves that all writing really is fiction, when you can’t tell the difference just by listening or reading.

Later we wrote about things we might discover in the pockets of a loved one. Maybe somebody who has died, and we’re going through their clothes before giving the garments away. Or a partner of ours whose laundry we’re doing. Looking at each item in the pockets, then writing about that person, using those items. Great writing emerged out of that one.

Then there were my brownies, using the recipe from Chris DeLorenzo of the Laguna Writers Group in San Francisco. He was one of our instructors at the Amherst Writers and Artists training last fall. I’ve made those brownies three times now — an AWA group tradition — but every time I need to head to Chris’s Web page to look up the recipe. I always mislay the printed paper. Now that we’re in a 10-week session, I bet I get the recipe down without the cheat sheet.

Afterward we wrote from postcard prompts, going deep into our imaginations or recalling sharp memories. Every exercise gave us a chance to praise the work for what was memorable, vivid, alive or notable. We talked about psychic distance during one set of responses. More on that tomorrow.

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