Archive for the ‘Writing tips’ Category

Josh Rolnick posted a great article on “The Millions” advising new writers on how to send out their stories. He writes with humility (hard not to when the rejections pile up) and practicality. Most interesting were these statistics: He sent out 225 submissions, received 219 rejections, but he received some kind of note of encouragement from 1/3. This inspires me to start licking those stamps!  The Millions : Ten Things I’ve Learned over 12 Years of Sending Out Stories

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In Speak, Memory Nabokov links the memory of watching his son bring him shells and pebbles at the seashore to his own childhood experience collecting shards of pottery at the seashore.

I do not doubt that among those slightly convex chips of majolica ware found by our child there was one whose border of scrollwork fitted exactly, and continued, the pattern of a fragment I had found in 1903 on the same shore, and that the two tallied with a third my mother had found on that Mentone beach in 1882, and with a fourth piece of the same pottery that had been found by her mother a hundred years ago — and so on, until this assortment of parts, if all had been preserved, might have been put together to make the complete, the absolutely complete, bowl, broken by some Italian child, God knows where and when, and now mended by these rivets of bronze.

I love the notion of reassembling this broken piece of pottery by reassembling shards gathered over generations. Continuing with the seaside theme, I experimented with this concept in my own writing by comparing the thrill of finding sea glass during my childhood on the beaches of Cape Cod with the treasures my daughter found across the world on a beach in Australia.

‘Look,’ Corinne says pointing at thousands of tiny shells that have been washed ashore, ‘We’re rich!’

Indeed the beach is filled with an assortment of miniature conch shells, about the size of Corinne’s baby toe. Mother Nature has given them patterns detailed enough for a man’s suit — herringbone, tweed and plaid.

I look down at my daughter’s white-blond curls and the newly sprouted freckles sprinkled across her nose and it feels as if I’m looking back at myself on Nauset Beach, oceans and years away. We bend down to start collecting her little treasures. We share the most beautiful ones with each other before tossing them into my overturned baseball cap. I wonder how Corinne will choose to display them when we get home? On a shelf, like I used to do? In a tiny box. Probably more likely.

Thanks to Sven Birkert’s for pointing out Nabokov’s obsession with joining what appear to be scattered elements of time in, The Art of Time in Memoir

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Trying out Literature and Latte’s writing tool, Scrivener. It allows you to edit multiple documents in one place. It also has a corkboard with ‘index cards’ where you can write notes about each chapter of your book. Another section allows you to gather research on your work. Becky Levine, a friend who wrote The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide recommended Scrivener to me and I wasn’t too sure what she was raving about. But, she kept on raving on her blog, so I finally gave it a try and it makes so much sense. It will allow me to lose the notebooks and outlines I have plastered all over my desk.

I’m still a beginner with Scrivener, so I don’t have much more to say other than give it a try. If any of you out there have tried it and have anything to teach me, please comment!

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In her review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, Melissa H. Pierson describes in two paragraphs much of what we writer’s of narrative nonfiction should cover:

The reasons the reader loves Frazier’s work are easier to name. For one, there’s his irrepressible humor, which arises unexpectedly to provoke outright laughter (on encountering no fewer than five weddings in an afternoon of driving, Frazier notes, “I couldn’t tell whether the bridal couples had actually been married on the highway or were just having their receptions there”) and displays his credentials as one of our finest comic writers, which he also shows in the New Yorker. For another, there’s the way he paints himself winsomely into the corner of the picture; no matter how majestic the scene, there he is down there, winking. For a third, there’s his absolute mastery of narrative prose, its rhythmic propulsion and digressive powers. There is little he is not interested in, and little he does not cover (Russian literary history, lunch, purges, landscape, the Revolution, economics, fishing, ballet, the tsars). He is the tour guide who talks your ear off, but who fascinates anyway.

Indeed, when was the last time you heard someone get at the essence of a place just by examining its smell? Frazier made the country more real for me than a whole stack of Kodachrome postcards (or even the author’s own pencil drawings, sweet though these are) in describing the Russian national smell as made up of sour milk, diesel, cucumber peel and several other disparate items. Then there are colors (lots of cement-gray, apparently, and man-made chemical tones), flavors — berries and mushrooms — and, overwhelmingly, people’s faces, bodies, clothes. This is a book made of textures.

Time to take another pass through my work. Am I looking at the funny side of things? How am I ‘painting’ myself into the scenes? Are we all remembering to use our senses? What does your location smell like? What colors do you see? What are the ‘textures’ in your work? Whew, back to it!

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My writing group has been telling me to insert more about my friends in Australia into my memoir, but I haven’t quite known how to do this without compromising confidentiality. It has been a little over a year since we left Australia and I have finally found the courage to give it a try. I gave myself permission to write anything I wanted. I told myself I would go back later and edit to preserve privacy and dignity.

Philip Lopate in Writing Creative Nonfiction writes:

In order to turn ourselves into characters, we need to dramatize ourselves. I don’t      mean inventing or adding colorful traits that aren’t true; I mean positioning those  that are already in us under the most clearly focused, sharply defined light.


I would add that this dramatization should be applied to other characters in one’s work. For example, our worldly Aussie farmer friends make wonderful characters. Part of what makes them dynamic is that they can act crazy or be self-indulgent at times (who isn’t?). Although some of this behavior can be annoying or unattractive, when placed in the context of an entire friendship, they are lovable, fun characters.

Interestingly, the writing I’ve inserted into various chapters ends up presenting my ‘characters’ in a balanced (human) light. The flaws or rough patches in friendships that loomed large in my mind often wound up being one-liners in the text. The really personal stuff (like a friend’s nasty divorce) doesn’t really have a place in my work so I didn’t end up writing about that. I guess that’s her story to tell. Perhaps my writing group was trying to say, ‘enough about you Beth, let’s hear about some other people in your story.’ Perhaps they should have been more direct, because they were absolutely right.

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Are you a person who loves routine? Do you like to know what to expect the following day when you go to bed at night? If you answered, yes then how are you coping with social media? How do you keep up with the bleeps and tweets that dart around your office everyday while you’re trying to get down to the business of writing? Yes, I know I could shut down my email, stop logging into Facebook and turn off my phone, but I might miss something!!

Do you have a stack of books on your bedside table waiting for you to read them? I do AND I have a backlog of recommendations from brilliant people like Nancy Pearl and The Book Bench : The New Yorker and Huff Post’s new page on books Books News and Opinion on The Huffington Post and many more, but if I keep going on this track I’ll never get back to my work.

What happened to the good ‘ole days, like when I was eight years old and I got up every morning, twisted my hair into two braids, ate a bowl of Raisin Bran and read Beverly Cleary for twenty minutes before school. How do I go back? Of course, I understand I’m an adult who’s lived several decades and that this is impossible, but I’d love to know if there is a way to get on top of all this information? My mind is cataloguing like crazy, organizing my bookmark bar into categories — literary agent blogs, publishing blogs, writer’s blogs — you get the idea.

Maybe Jonathan Franzen has the right idea. On NPR he said he shuts himself in a room with no phone, no internet, blinds drawn and puts on large earphones. Maybe I’ll indulge myself one day. Will you?

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Jon Winokur, author of The Daily Curmudgeon and a dozen others, chooses his favorite books for writers for “Writer Wednesday” on HuffPost Jon Winokur: Advice To Writers: The Best Books On Writing Books (Writer Wednesday) I already own four of the books on the list. The starred books would like to join the illustrious crowd on my shelf (a hint to any of you looking to buy me a present ;))

The Elements of Style – William Strunk and E.B. White

On Writing ~ a memoir of the craft – Stephen King

The Careful Writer ~ A modern guide to English usage – Theodore Bernstein

Bird by Bird ~ some instructions on writing and Life – Anne Lamott

** Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

** The Paris Review Interviews

** The Writing Life – Annie Dillard

Story – Robert McKee

How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar – William Safire

In the past I’ve quoted from the Paris Review interviews and I think Winokur has excellent taste to include this collection. Have any of you found books on writing helpful? Which ones?

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I read an excerpt from my memoir at my other writer’s group run by Lou Ann Walker at the John Jermain Library in Sag Harbor last week. Given that it has been 17 years since Dad died, I thought I would have my emotions under control. Well, I didn’t! It probably didn’t help that I linked the experience with my friend Kate’s experience of losing her Mom to cancer. I’ll have to work on my composure if I ever get lucky enough to go on tour.

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It is never stated, but by process of elimination I think it was Peter Hessler, staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing writer for National Geographic who interviewed John McPhee for the Paris Review. Throughout the interview, McPhee talks about his career, publishing more than thirty books, working at The New Yorker and teaching nonfiction at Princeton for the past thirty-five years. McPhee is known to be a private man who grants few interviews, but where we are lucky enough to have a glimpse into his life he comes across as a warm and thoughtful person. He talks about his writing process, so wonderfully described in Richard Gilbert’s NARRATIVE. This involves typing up his field notes, coding them into structural categories, transferring coded sections to index cards and writing from these cards, which he posts onto a bulletin board. I might try this next time!

Although I enjoyed reading about McPhee’s life, what I was most interested in were his ‘nuggets’ on writing. Once McPhee has typed up his notes he describes this body of information as ‘analogous to cooking a dinner. You go to the store and you buy a lot of things. You bring them home and you put them on the kitchen counter, and that’s what you’re going to make your dinner out of. If you’ve got a red pepper over here — it’s not a tomato. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got. You don’t have an ideal collection of material every time out.’

When McPhee lays out his coded index cards on a table he looks for good juxtapositions. ‘If you’ve got good juxtapositions, you don’t have to worry about what I regard as idiotic things, like a composed transition. If your structure really makes sense, you can make some jumps and your reader is going to go right with you.’ This is one of the most exciting parts of writing for me. These creative breakthroughs.

At the end of the interview, Hessler asks: ‘But the writing itself hasn’t got any easier?’ McPhee acknowledges that experience helps, he says he still experiences what Joan Didion calls ‘low dread’. He says each day he has to go ‘through some kind of change from being a normal human being, into becoming some kind of slave.’ He finds it a constant struggle to get going. He says he goes hours before he’s able to write a word. He’ll make tea or sharpen pencils. Then around 4:30 he begins to panic and by around 5:00 he starts to write. For me, by around 11:00 in the morning, after I’ve checked every writer’s blog possible and caught up on world events, I think, the school bus is going to pull up in four hours, I still need to go grocery shopping and I haven’t written a thing. Then the words begin to flow. Eventually it adds up. As McPhee notes:

And the routine of doing this six days a week puts a little drop in a bucket each day, and that’s the key. Because if you put a drop in a bucket every day, after three hundred and sixty five days, the bucket’s going to have some water in it.

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Writer’s Block

Last night at my writer’s group, Helen confessed that she was stuck at page 185 in the sequel to her first book. This woman has already published a book and she has made it way past the first hundred pages of her second book and she’s stuck. This gave me such comfort as I struggle to reach a solid fifty pages in my memoir. Oh, I have more than fifty pages, but I only count those that are fit to release to the outside world.

Eryka, also in the group is writing a memoir about growing up in Hungary during the Holocaust. She admitted that she was tired of writing such grim material and she wanted the reader to see a happier side to her. She put the book away thinking she may never return to it. A month later, she was hit with an idea out of the blue. She would juxtapose some happy childhood moments with the grim details of escaping the Nazi’s.

Here are some suggestions the group made to Helen:

1. Write the last chapter

2. Put the manuscript aside and start something else

3. Flesh out your characters more thoroughly, write their backstory

4. Go out and buy a bikini and sunblock and get ready to hit the beach. Summer is just around the corner. (That’s my idea)

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