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Packing for your summer sabbatical
[SUMMER 2011]

Public domain image: "Tessiner Landschaft" by Ferdinand Hodler (1893).
I'm taking a summer writing sabbatical. Care to join me? Here are some things to consider packing daily to make it a productive journey.

Take only what you can or want to carry. A light backpack is good if you'll be on foot; a great beach bag with lots of pockets works if you're on the road. Keep it packed and ready to go daily.

Even if you're not going anywhere (I'm not going anywhere this summer for my sabbatical)... consciously wear comfortable clothes in layers when you dress in the morning so you can adapt to changing conditions. You never know where writing will take you. Also, wear comfortable shoes. High heels are probably not the best choice if you are on the move, tracking inspirations.

What to pack (in no particular order):

A compact overnight bag with a few days' worth of prescriptions, spare contacts and other comfort items: just in case you decide to stay somewhere that's not home. Don't forget your vitamins, and while you're at it: add CoQ-10 to your diet. Trust me. It keeps your brain sharp.

Money: for coffee, snacks, bus fare, cab fare, lunch, writing supplies, parking fees.

Passport (Really? Yes, really): if you live near a foreign border, you don't want to say no to a day trip because you don't have proper ID.

Eyewear: whatever you already wear all the time, if you do, plus eyewear for reading as well as for reading in the sun.

Portable reusable coffee mug and water bottle: you can hydrate and save the planet at the same time.

Transit pass: we have one here in Puget Sound that covers buses, ferries, trains, etc. Worth its weight in gold and saves you gas money!

Books: references, pleasure reads, magazines... whatever you do, pack reading! This is where an e-book reader is PERFECT. If you're bringing one, don't forget to keep it charged!

Journals and writing instruments: even for laptop writers... you never know when you'll need to capture something while your machine is off.

Reading light: in case you're out past dark or in a dark place where light isn't great (like a Greyhound bus you might have boarded spontaneously!).

Yoga mat, walking shoes, swimsuit, or some other accoutrement to physical activity: moving around stimulates creativity, saves your back from fatigue and strain, and makes you feel good.

Deodorant, a hand towel and a change of clothes: for after you sneak in some of that physical activity; you may not be able to shower afterward.

Earplugs: sometimes the sounds of the world around you can be too distracting. And if you're like me, listening to music is not a solution, just another distraction. (Earbuds and a silent Mp3 player work in a pinch.)

Mp3 player and earbuds: for those of you who like to listen to music while writing.  am also inspired by podcasts while I'm walking. Keep it charged!

Shelf-stable snacks (low fat, low carb, high protein): quick bites for on the go; having a few on hand will save you money, too.

Sunblock and chapstick: please try to do some of your work outside. You need the vitamin D. But wear your sunblock and chapstick.

Library card: you never know when you might need to check out materials, right?

Membership cards: for places where you might want to visit that require an entrance permit, like a private writing house for a literary organization or a country club you belong to or a university library or a museum.

Camera: because sometimes inspiration is best captured as an image. Keep it charged!

Audio recording device: because sometimes inspiration is best captured as a sound; also, you might want to capture your thoughts while walking using Dragon or some other voice-capturing recording app. They work better than you think! Keep your device charged!

Smartpen: if you have one, it's great for audio recording while taking notes and can be a huge timesaver when it comes to transcription later. Also perfect for capturing exact quotes. Keep it charged!

Smartphone: the repository of all personalized information. Bring a backup charger (fully charged), just in case. If you don't have a smartphone, take your cell phone. You can always phone a friend if you need to know something.

Laptop: for all the things your Smartphone doesn't do. Keep it charged and bring a power supply.

A deck of cards and/or sudoku: word games are great but number games exercise other parts of your brain. You don't want to have a lopsided brain, now, do you?

Passwords and phone numbers: the former so you don't lock yourself out of your own cloud and the latter in case you need to call someone.

Bandanna or hat: for added shade or if you want to take a nap or hide. (I am narcoleptic, so sometimes not napping is not an option.)

Story as both entertainment... and enlightenment
[MAY 2011]

Creative Commons image:
"Tailor shop in Nashik, India"
by Andi Hefti (2007).
This file is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-
Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

I just saw the film, Slumdog Millionaire, for the first time. I'd been warned by so many people about the movie: how depressing it was, how horrible the beginning was, etc. When I actually sat down to watch the film, I found it riveting: the cinematography was gorgeous, the actors were convincing, the situation was believable and the ending was hopeful.

I love-love-loved the movie, so how is it that my peers had such a different reaction?

I give Rohinton Mistry the credit. I'd read his novel, A Fine Balance, about 14 years ago and it still remains up there in my top 5 favorite books.

That novel gave me a ton of historic and sociological understanding of the days of the Partition in India back in the mid-20th century. I had no real knowledge of the region until I read Mistry's epic tale of four strangers coming together during a critical time in India's independence from British rule. From that book, I learned about the tin-roofed slums, the lack of plumbing and running water, the intricate racket of forcing orphaned children and the disabled into slavery and human trafficking, the oppression of the caste system, which is no longer supposed to be practiced, but which is, all the same. After reading this (also hopeful, I think) novel, I was more than prepared for the horrors of Slumdog Millionaire.

Writing and subject matter are not the same thing
Interestingly, after reading the many reviews of AFB at Amazon, it became apparent to me that all the 1-star reviews more or less said the same thing: depressing story, horrible situation, great writing. Which tells me something every writer needs to keep in mind: people will give you 1 star if you write a really good book if they can't handle the realism. And that's definitely what these readers were rating: not the work of fiction itself, not the craft by which Mistry penned the story, but the raw, realistic details that readers with considerable privilege could not hope to stomach and certainly will not, with rare exception, experience first hand for themselves.

This is one thing that really bothers me about Amazon reviews: until readers can learn to understand the difference between the craft of novel writing and the actual subject matter, they will always be using the review system for the wrong purpose. Writers always have to negotiate that fine line between realism and fantasy in any kind of fiction; it's hard work and a fine balance, all its own (pun intended). But until readers bring some wisdom to the discussion so that their comments about a book are not "I think shantytowns are horrible" (who doesn't? really?) but "I think this author captured the realities of the shantytown in a way that is emotionally evocative," there will continue to be this challenge for authors to determine whether their job is to educate, edify and influence or whether their job is to entertain.

Why do any of us read?
This question came up in a panel discussion at Norwescon over Easter weekend. "Can We Change the World through Science Fiction?" prodded the elephant in the room at this year's mostly fantasy convention when the panelists tossed around theories for why people just aren't reading hard science fiction anymore. One grown man in the audience made it clear that the only purpose for reading (for him) was to be entertained. "I don't want to be taught anything, I reach for books for pure escapism... Don't try to teach me anything!"

I wanted to ask him: "Really? That's all you want from a book?" Because as a reader, I want to read a puzzle, really, not a book. Saying you don't want to learn anything as a reader is like saying you know everything already. I hope that's not what the man meant, but I have a sneaking suspicion that's precisely what he did mean. I wish I had thought to say to him in that moment: "If I wanted easy-to-consume, meaningless story, I'd watch TV." (And maybe that should be what he does. Call me a snob, but writers work too hard at what they do to try to please readers like him.)

Two sides of the same coin?
I think the job of story production (whether it's based in film or print or performance art or whatever) is about doing both: entertaining and edifying. Something logically inscrutable or morally repugnant (in other words, lacking in any entertainment value whatsoever) seems hardly worthwhile. Fine. But most story is not about shock value, it's about illuminating the vagaries of the human condition so we can learn how to surmount the odds and overcome despair.

Why this can't be an entertainment aspect for story in any form of media is beyond me. Books that are only produced to entertain, but not to enlighten, make for crummy reads. Why, in the time-strapped life I lead as a working mother, would I read a book if I could not take something away from it long after The End has come and gone? Again, I get that in spades every time I turn on the TV.

The fantasy of a problem solved
Which is my circuitous argument for the creation of movies like Slumdog Millionaire and books like A Fine Balance. Because I had read AFB, I was more than adequately prepared emotionally for the realities presented in SM. Because I wasn't shocked by the realities presented in the film, I could focus on the extraordinary beauty that Danny Boyle captured in some of these terrible landscapes, I could enjoy the actors' performances and appreciate the framed structure chosen to tell this story about both past and present. Both stories took me outside my own comfort zone, where I wandered in a wilderness that actually exists (and which I will likely never experience first-hand) and I am a better human being for it.

In the end, the messages in both stories are universal to me as well as to anyone else willing to look past all that makes these stories uncomfortable: that human beings are amazingly resilient and will endure some of the worst conditions in order to make their lives and the lives of their loved ones better. Hope is the word that sums it up for me, and that's not only inspiring to me, but yes, entertaining.

My day-to-day life does not resolve so easily. There are teenagers to raise, my writing life to squeeze in between the day's mundane chores, the ailing parents to care for with their physical and mental health dysfunctions, my own health concerns, and the doom and gloom of the larger world (the recession, human rights crises, a polarized political landscape, natural and manmade disasters coming from all directions).

I count on books and films (all vehicles of story, really) to alleviate the weight of my life by showing the fantasy of a problem solved. No, Jamal's life in India after winning his millions in SM is not going to be easy for him, even if he did get the girl and the rupees. But at least he has that moment, then and there, with Latika at his side. Parenting, caring for elderly relatives, eking out a career as a writer: these are not situations in my life with guaranteed happy endings. Fiction, for this reason, is my escape.

Why writers need to know this about readers
As a writer, I think it is also extremely important for myself and for other writers to watch these challenging kinds of film, to read these challenging books in order to broaden our perspectives, to learn about the world in a way that can't be taught in school, and to maintain the relevance of our writing lives. The more widely we read across the landscape (by reading literature and watching film from outside the US or otherwise produced by people who are different from ourselves), the more universal we can hope our own stories will be for our readers.

Still, there are going to be readers who don't want to go there, like the fellow at the convention. And that's his prerogative. As writers, we need to acknowledge these kinds readers, then we need to get back to work. I suppose that if you want to write purely for the purpose of entertaining, that is also your prerogative. But think about it: why should literature (and film) achieve only one or the other? Why can't storytelling, regardless of media, be about achieving both?

Spring Cleaning
[April 2011]
Public domain image: "A Monday washing,
New York City, 1900"

I just came off Spring Break after ten days of... cleaning. I don't think I made it off the island once this week, except for shopping in the county. Most of my time was spent helping my girls clean out their rooms, or cleaning out my office, or updating and organizing our earthquake kit, or cleaning out my walk-in closet, or cleaning out the bathroom linen closet, or cleaning out the coat closet, or cleaning out the pantry, or cleaning out the refrigerator and freezer, or cleaning out my car...

It feels great finishing up these things, though we all know there will come a time I will need to do it all over again. And I'm not even done with my cleaning projects. In the next month, I have a medicine cabinet and hallway closet to clean out, plus we're renovating our kitchen, which will require some kitchen cabinet cleanout, and there is the laundry room, which could use a good once over, and the bathroom cupboards.

And let's not forget the flower beds outside and all the potted plants that need a fresh new haircut as well.

One other thing I did with regard to the writing life: I sat down one day and dumped out my brain in a document I call WIP (works in progress) 2011. While there I updated my submissions log, I updated my goals for all of my different projects, I offloaded a bunch of new ideas, thereby committing them to the page and freeing up my brainspace. I even took some time to clean up my blogging calendar so I have a clearer idea where to put my energy in the coming months.

Now I feel ten pounds lighter. (If only I was!)

We often forget, as creative people, that we really ought to clean out the clutter of our minds, not only of the daily worries and concerns, but about the proliferation of ideas that bounce around in our personal attic spaces without any sort of focus or intent. I cannot express enough how important it is to catch those bouncing little fireballs and put them in a journal or other documenting device (MS Word file, audio recorder) so that you can clear your mind. It's akin to opening the windows on the first warm, sunny spring day, to flush out the stagnant air and bring in the fresh scent of living things outside.

Other ways you can clean up your writing life include:

Cleaning out email.

Updating your social networks (add or subtract friends, update status messages, find newer tools for automating and crossposting).

Upgrading blogs and websites, especially time-sensitive sections like calendars.

Cleaning out bookshelves of unwanted books.

Going through your writing tools (pens, journals, recorders, cameras, laptops, notebooks, software) to see what you need, what can be thrown away and what should be upgraded.

Revising manuscripts that have come back with rejections and/or revising manuscripts you've let sit on the shelf for a while.

Cleaning out your tools (take cleaning wipes to your keyboard and other gadgets, for instance) or refilling ink or toner cartridges, even run a cleaning sheet through your printer.

Writing something new, even if it's only a little journal entry everyday, so that you can keep those creativity muscles well greased. For me, writing is like burning fuel, the fuel being ideas that are just waiting for the chance to burn into existence. Putting them on the page, however imperfectly, is very much the same as scrubbing my mind clean of all that intellectual detritus. (Like burning leaves in the fall, eh?)

Have some other tips for cleaning out the writing life that you'd like to share here? Leave them in a comment; I'd love to hear what others do to achieve their own writerly spring cleaning.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that cleaning can be mundane and tedious while you're doing it, but the payoff will make you a more focused, more energized writer. Isn't this what we all want, anyway? To have a stronger focus and more time and energy to write?

Trying Matters
[March 2011]

Creative Commons image: "Immoveable" by Lowell
Bowers (2009). This file is licensed under the Creative
Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
 "Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong."—Ella Fitzgerald, African-American jazz singer

"No one can give you your subject matter, your creative content. If they could, it would be their creation and not yours."—Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

This month is National Women's History Month, so I had a great time finding quotes to support today's dispatch. Many of my favorite writers are women. Not because they are women, but because they are writers whose voices, visions and intentions resonate with me.

Ironically, though, my thoughts turned to this occasion not because of something positive or amazing that a woman did... but rather because of something a woman did that was negative and unacceptable to me.

Several years ago, I culled together a poetry manuscript to deliver to a woman I knew as a published poet and creative writing instructor at a local community college. She had expressed an interest in helping me to develop this manuscript and, because I still felt rather new to the whole concept of poetry publishing at the chapbook/book level, I trusted she would use her skills as both a poet and as a teacher in earnest to help me get there.

No such luck.

When I received her manuscript critique, it came in a large envelope she handed to me before we sat down for lunch at a restaurant at the Pike Place market. But that manuscript never left the envelope. Instead, she shared a lot about her background, a move which, I now think in hindsight, was her way of establishing her legitimacy as a critic.

She never once mentioned my manuscript during our live meeting.

I took the ferry home afterward, opened up the envelope and found my manuscript, well, in a shambles (figuratively). There was not one single positive comment on the entire manuscript. Not only that, but she had marked, more than once, and in large, dripping script across many pages, "You are not qualified to write this!"

These were intensely personal poems, many with a political slant to them that I now know to be at the heart of who I am as a writer.

I was furious with that comment! What, is there some sort of test a person must take in order to qualify to write poetry?

Of course there isn't.

I've been through the critique wringer before... starting my creative writing life in the greater Chicago area afforded me plenty of opportunities to take my work to what was frequently known as "the killing floor" for feedback. But for all that experience, I was quite unprepared for the harsh cowardice unleashed upon my manuscript by this woman who I had approached with trust and good faith (and heck, I think I even bought her lunch that day).

I was incensed enough to take one of the poems she really despised, tweak a single line, and submit it to a publisher all in the same day. Within a month it was accepted and published and still resides at The Pedestal. In their Political Anthology, no less.

That was gratifying, sure, but not as gratifying as the moment I tore up the entire manuscript with her inky vitriol bleeding all over it.

The lesson learned? Be more careful choosing who you place your confidence in; try to discern their motives for helping you. While the vast majority of writers I know are compassionate, smart and generous to a fault, there are some who are far too competitive to put aside their insecurities in the name of giving back.


"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow.' "—Writer-artist Mary Anne Radmacher

"Supposing you have tried and failed again and again. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call Failure is not the falling down, but the staying down."—Mary Pickford, film actress


Not long after, I ran into this same woman at a poetry festival and noticed her behavior toward me was nothing if not ice cold. I reminded myself that I had published one of the poems she'd hated, after all; maybe she was angry with me for that reason. Maybe she knew through the grapevine how I'd chucked her critique. Whatever. I tried to be civil. I tried to start up friendly small talk, though the Ice Queen would have nothing of it. But I kept trying.

We ended up sharing a table at a restaurant with a number of other poets. That took some of the awkwardness out of the situation, though I still sat directly across from her and she was having nothing to do with me. The conversation evolved, eventually, to this same woman sharing some concerns about a project of hers that she was having an ethical dilemma about. It boiled down to whether she should try to pursue the project in the first place, as it involved the writing of other people who, because of political restrictions in their lives, were unable to freely express themselves.

Okay, I get that. I am a journalist by trade. I have belonged to PEN America and Amnesty International, I was railing in letters to the local newspaper about the importance of free, unrestricted speech at age 16 when the public school district was taking novels like Huckleberry Finn off library shelves.

Maybe this would be the common ground the poet and I could share in an otherwise uncomfortable social situation.

Why not try? I said. Trying matters.

Her dark eyes flashed back at me. Don't be so naive, she hissed back. Trying doesn't count.


"You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don't try."—Beverly Sills, opera singer

"It is the intention that moves energy."—Unknown


I'm here to tell you, the road to Hell is NOT paved with good intentions. Intention is what gets you where you need to go. Without intention, without trying, the world is no less than a road filled with hellish potholes.
Do you, as a writer, want to spend your life teetering between hellish potholes?

If you boil down your writing career only to those things which are pure successes, you fail to acknowledge all the trying that got you there in the first place.

Kevin Larimer, in the Winter 2011 edition of Poets & Writers magazine, wrote something that resonated with me in his Editor's Note: "No writer worth her salt needs to be reminded that underneath nearly every successful piece of writing there is a veritable mountain of 'failure' upon which it stands... Rather than get discouraged, consider each derelict passage—the mishandled metaphor, the broken logic—as another step further along in that hard slog toward a good, solid piece of writing."

While I couldn't agree more, Larimer is wrong. There is one writer out there, regardless my personal opinion of her, who is worth her salt who has clearly forgotten how she got where she is today.

O! the tragedy of hypocrisy! There is no such thing as a writer who pens perfection in one sitting. Writers with even the cleanest, boldest work had to start somewhere inside what Anne Lamott calls "a shitty first draft."

I'm reading Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit right now and loved her passage about the way Mozart's genius has been misconstrued. The world has incorrectly identified him as a natural born genius. Of course, the concept of genius is subjective to begin with, but let's all be honest: geniuses are not born, they are made, through lots of hard work. Mozart put in his fair share of labor, as evidenced by the arthritic condition of his hands after years of both constantly playing piano and composing music with a quill pen.

Tharp also writes that "if art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge." She presumes, correctly, that failure must be part of the creativity equation. After all, a writer must aspire, then learn, then try (there's that word again), then fail, then repeat this entire process again, as many times as it takes to achieve completion.

So go ahead and try, I say. Try and fail, then try and fail some more. Trying matters and, eventually, you will, as Larimer says, complete that hard slog that brings with it a manuscript finished to your satisfaction, one you can be proud of. In doing so, you also take that many more steps closer to the mastery of your creative life.

And while you're at it, think of all those people in your life who have been unsupportive of your efforts as a writer. Human potholes. Then imagine a thick manuscript being torn in half and tossed in the round file for imminent recycling. Imagine that torn manuscript encloses all your fears and insecurities as a writer. Then move on. I did, and you can, too.

"We all have our own life to pursue, our own kind of dream to be weaving. And we all have some power to make wishes come true, as long as we keep believing."—

"I am not an island
I am not alone
I am my intentions
Trapped here in this flesh and bone."
—Melissa Etheridge, musician

Listen, and Ye Shall Hear
[February 2011]

One of the advantages I think I enjoyed as a student at Columbia (without realizing it was an advantage) was the special emphasis some of my teachers placed on the development of listening skills.

I studied journalism. Of course, listening is a critical skill in the interviewing process; reporters must be able to maximize their ability to "hear between the lines" in order to gain their best "scoops."

But we also did a lot of listening in my Story Workshop fiction writing classes. The opening sequence for nearly every class began with: "Listen to the sounds on the street."

Seriously. And not just for five or ten seconds, but for minutes... and more minutes... it could be a car siren or a smattering of voices or the sound of a fire escape sliding down or a flock of pigeons cooing just outside the window... and then we'd take our little personal aural pathfinders beyond the street and straight into those internal stories residing in the backs of our minds or the marrow in our bones or the webs between our toes... you know, those dark places where stories linger, waiting to be found? We found them, yes, by listening.


Listening is a skill that the American public, in general, needs to hone. Sure, we may listen to a lot of music, but that is a one-sided listening practice. Listening to a lecture, or to a speech, or to an argument from someone with whom you don't agree... now that's a different story. It requires that we become active accomplices in communication.

Part of our collective problem with political division in the US is due to our failure to listen. Our culture doesn't encourage it, frankly: we are subject to noise from every angle of our lives, through every medium we interact with. Noise that comes at us full throttle but which does not sincerely invite a reply. We can't often reply anyway because we're simply not there. Being there is part of the challenge that the Media Age brings to bear on us all: how do we engage in active discourse when our favorite media venues (television news, streaming video, electronic books, i.e.) are built to be noninteractive?

Listening requires an attention span. It requires that you focus on the presenter and absorb every word they convey. It requires that you resist the urge to talk back until the time is appropriate, or the urge to think about something else entirely, or the urge to allow your mind to drift to tangents--however related--that might yet steal your focus from the presenter.

It's said that thoughts travel at four times the pace of spoken words, so it's easy to lose yourself to your own thoughts during a lecture. Taking a few notes to capture those stray thoughts on the page can help keep you on track.

You may have noticed that good lawyers and debaters make a fine art of listening. When they listen to their opponents, they look right at them, jotting quick notes from time to time. But they stay largely inside the discussion without losing their focus. These are active listeners. Not only are they hearing the other side of an argument, they are processing it by actively listening.

Reporters still wet behind the ears are usually not sent out to do interviews with complicated social figures because, let's face it, they need more practice listening. A reporter can arrive with a set list of questions to ask, but will they be prepared to "hear between the lines" and arrive at a new set--a better set, a more targeted set--of questions based on the context, even the subtext, of what they receive from their interview subject? It takes a lot of practice to get a good interview out of a subject for this very reason.

Barbara Walters has also made a fine art out of interviewing high-profile people due to her ability to actively listen. She practically hears locked doors opening inside a person when she asks her questions, and when she opens those doors, she keeps on asking questions until she's completely inside. That is active listening.


Creative writers, and artists in general, might be better served to learn this art for similar purposes. Maybe the writer or dancer or artist isn't interviewing a known figure... but they are still making inquiries, aren't they? Won't a sculptor ask What does this clay want to be? or a poet ask Where is this line heading?

The answers to these, and the bazillion other, questions a creative mind asks throughout the course of a project can only be arrived at if the artist is listening to the "source," whether it be listening to the way clay responds on the wheel, or listening to the naturally occurring enjambment in a line, or listening to the way the body wants to move out of one dance step and into another. There are ways of listening that requires less "hearing" than they do "feeling," after all. I like to think of it as using my "inner ear."

A novelist, because he uses words as his medium, may listen to the fluidity of a dialog to get it right, or he may listen to the pacing of a chapter to discover where it is too slow or too quick, or he may listen to the landscape as he constructs a setting to make sure he tends to the right measure of detail. These are kinds of listening which are, actually, experiences in active focus.

Like the lawyers listening intently to their opponents, the writer can listen intently to the contents of his fictional universe as a way to understand it, clarify it and perfect it.


To break it all down, the writer who wants to be a stronger listener will aim to achieve three things:

Accurate hearing. Background noise, room position, thick foreign accents and outside interruptions can make hearing problematic. Be wary of visual aids that might actually distract from what the speaker is saying (even if the visual aids are meant as helping devices). Sometimes it is better to listen and avoid visual aids or notetaking completely so you can focus specifically on what the speaker is saying. Keeping your eyes focused on the speaker is also very important, not only for you to retain your focus, but so that the speaker knows the audience is paying attention. It helps to nod when you understand something (see the next point) or otherwise give the speaker visual feedback so they know whether they've conveyed what they'd intended.

How this translates to the creative life: Make sure you have a quiet writing space and ample time to work inside your universe without interruption. Limit distractions as much as possible. Capture notes in a journal when you are inspired by a tangential thought. Read your work out loud, if you're writing, to hear it flow. What you're doing is tuning that creative inner ear so you can hear on a dimensional level. Meditation can help achieve this skill, as well.

Understanding. This is where the listener processes what she hears in a way that makes sense to her. It's often more effective to write down the ideas heard in one's own words, and not verbatim as delivered by the presenter, in order to achieve understanding. Understanding does not require that you memorize every tidbit of fact presented, but that you focus on the main points being presented. Also, keep in mind that, if you let your mind wander, you'll never achieve understanding because understanding requires the full engagement of your mind in that moment.

How this translates to the creative life: Recognize when you are outside your known universe. Research those ideas that you have limited knowledge of. Use mindmaps when ideas seem incongruent. Ask yourself, what is important about this part of my work that I still haven't mastered? Ask experts, look up words to make sure you understand their meanings. Remember to remain focused on the work at hand so that you don't fall into "idea sidebars" that take you away from your main project.

Judgment. The listener then must inquire about the following: Do I believe what the speaker has just said? Does this information seem complete, or do I need more details? Do I think this speaker has the expertise to make these claims? Does the speaker share my system of values? Why does the speaker want to make these claims? This is the time to take quick notes so that you can ask questions later. Remember, a good listener waits for the speaker to finish his points before interrupting the presentation; after all, the speaker may actually answer those questions in the later part of his speech.

How this translates to the creative life: Understand why your setting, your characters, your timeline have to be the way they are. Always begin with a theme and cleave to it as consistently as possible. Change up the elements of your work if they don't serve your larger theme. Remember who your target audience is and ask yourself: What do they expect? Ask others to give you feedback after early drafts are achieved, then use their ideas to revise and refine your project. Always, always try to remember why you are writing this book in the first place.

Ultimately, what you're hoping to achieve, overall, is the ability to let the story--and all its elements--speak to you in a way that you can master using words on the page (or paint on a canvas, etc.). It means "listening" not only to voices and the music found inside the words and phrases, but also "listening" to the stories inside objects and actions and themes, even inside the historical and sociological concerns that arise from your subject matter.

It means training that creative inner ear.

Public domain image: "Marktfrauengruppe" by Ingo Koblischek

Show Some Resolve
[December 2010 - January 2011]
Believe it or not, now is the time to start thinking about New Year's resolutions. If you wait until later in the month, you'll be making plans in the middle of the hectic holidays, when you'll more likely be wrapping gifts, shopping, mailing out gift cards or, in a more sedentary environment, sacked out on the couch eating cookies, watching movies or playing board games. I love to do all these things, too, but they leave my planning mindset in a bit of a calorie-fattened stupor.

Which is exactly why you need to starting thinking about your 2011 writing goals now.

Here are ten ways you can resolve the challenges of your writing life in 2011. The simplest way to complete this task is to find a piece of paper and write down your plans, your goals, your resolutions (to me, they are all the same thing) and post them somewhere in your working space as a way to remind you what you want to achieve in the next 12 months.

You could also address your resolutions more extravagantly (readers of this blog have seen my resolution mobile, for instance, which still hangs in my office right in front of my laptop station), but this year I think simplicity will be a ruling factor in the design of our individual and collective lives. Yes, that's my prediction for 2011, in a nutshell: Revert to KISS (keep it simple, stupid).

So have at it! Find ten things you can do or not do, improve or ignore, reach for or let go of. It's your writing life, you may as well have it the way you want it. I'm including my Dec 1 preliminary resolutions now so that I can take a look again on 1.1.11 and decide if these are realistic, desirable goals for me. I suggest you do the same.

1. Monitor reading habits. Plan for regular reading that you can realistically achieve. A book a day isn't really do-able. But a book a week might be. Don't forget newspapers, magazines, blogs and other nontraditional forms of reading as well.

I RESOLVE to continue reading one daily newspaper every morning plus nonfiction at lunchtime (usually in the form of blogs) and fiction at bedtime. I would also like to make a better effort at reading my Kindle magazine subscriptions, maybe aiming for one magazine a week?

2. Generate new writing. How much new writing do you have in your inventory? If you have little to none, then 2011 might be the year you set aside a certain amount of time a day/week/month to generate new work. If you have scads of new writing, like I do, you may want to cut yourself off from any new writing until you've achieved some revision and completion of the work at hand. Maybe reward your hard work with revision by writing something new and fresh after you've sent new work out into the world for publication?

I RESOLVE to avoid writing any new fiction until I have A/completed my paranormal mystery novel revisions and B/sent my short story collection manuscript out to Beta readers. I would also like to start generating the nonfiction manuscripts I've been champing at the bit to write these last few months.

3. Work at revision. Are you great at generating new work, but dread cleaning it up later? Maybe your resolution should be to revise-revise-revise... after all, it's the number one piece of advice editors historically hand out to wannabe writers. Revising will move you past the stage of wannabe, as well; it's where the real writing actually begins, after all.

I RESOLVE to revise my paranormal mystery novel and my short story collection, then take a couple of weeks off from writing completely!

4. Get organized. You can be a fantastic writer, generating and revising to your heart's content, but if you can't find your document files or clear a path in your office or make sense of notes you've taken, you may need to focus some time on organizing your writing life. This includes straightening up your computer folders, cleaning out your writing space, outlining or listing your current projects (published, ready to submit, in progress), outlining all the ideas you have for future projects, etc.

I RESOLVE to collect all my published work in one binder, marking original and reprint dates and homes, any accolades I've received, plus word counts, so that I have a nondigital go-to folder to physically show me where my work has been. I would also like to mindmap several new nonfiction projects and start folders for each of them so I can tame the paper trail as it grows.

5. Study markets. There's no point to sinking all your heart and soul into your writing if you don't have some sort of end game for it, specifically a goal for publication. How to get from A to B? Start with looking at all the various publishers who may be interested in your work; study their guidelines to make sure you are submitting something correctly so you don't neuter your prospects going into the submission. Keeping a binder, a notebook, a database are all great ways to achieve this.

I RESOLVE to nail down the guidelines for a half dozen markets for my short story collection so that, when my Beta readers get back to me with their comments, I can take one more revision pass at the manuscript and ship it on its merry way. I would also like to look for a handful of agents who specialize in representing paranormal mystery fiction.

6. Build the platform. What is that? In short, this is how you can be "found" as a writer. Your web presence, your traditional marketing strategies, your networks all feed into this larger universe that surrounds you and your book or books. If this is all new to you, begin with simple things like constructing an email list of all the people you know (personally, professionally) in a database. You might wish to start a blog or, at the very least, create a static web page featuring you and your writing. And becoming more active in your live literary community is a great platform building exercise.

I RESOLVE to continue with my blogging, to organize my social network contacts into one cohesive list, and to make better use of Twitter.

7. Maintain yourself. This sounds cheesy, but taking care of yourself physically, intellectually, and spiritually is an important part of strengthening one's creative life. I'm talking about those classic resolution chestnuts, diet and exercise. I'm also suggesting some sort of practice (meditation, gardening, walking, yoga) that helps you to find an intuitive zone where fresh ideas can flourish.

I RESOLVE to improve my exercise regimen and to incorporate more meditative practices in my day to day life.

8. Fill the well. Readers want stories which feature characters living out in the world, not characters who are sitting in cabins in the woods, writing about sitting in cabins in the woods. Live your life! Try out one new experience a month, or reconnect with some old passions (music, movies, friends, cooking, geocaching, birdwatching) as a way to add color, substance and texture to your daily life. By doing this, you refill your "well" with new inspirations you can use in your writing later.

I RESOLVE to work less and play more. Specifically, more trips off island (but local) to take in the richness of my life here in the Puget Sound region, plus I want to look into learning a new instrument or returning to singing as well as training for a half-marathon (walking it)...

9. Experiment with new media. So you might have started a blog at one point... maybe you need to return to it and try to make it work, or work better. Or, maybe you are dying to know what the experience of self-publishing an e-book is all about. And what about podcasting and vidcasting? Are these areas you are curious about but have no idea how to get started? Make 2011 the year you give them a go. Start small and simple; remember that these efforts are experimental and, as such, require you to fail more often than you succeed. Regardless, at the end of every experiment, you will have gained a collection of new wisdom you didn't have before.

I RESOLVE to self-publish one book using both the Kindle/CreateSpace format and Espresso Book Machine technology.

10. Shake your maker. What I really mean by this is to test your process. Do you have a time of day, dedicated space, regular writing practice in place? You might want to add something new to freshen things up, like a writing group, or a research-only day or a monthly mindmap session. If you don't have a reliable process, maybe your resolution this year will be to apply just one of these options to see how well it serves you (i.e. stick to the same writing place for a change, or try to write daily at 6am, or write on the commute to and from work, or use a journal instead of a laptop).

I RESOLVE to write full-time this year. Writing full-time is not, by my definition, writing 40 hours a week. Writing full-time means giving up the work-for-pay scenario I've had since 1998 so I can concentrate 100% of my attention on my own writing projects. Meaning that, yes, I am leaving behind the working life in order to wear just one hat at my desk: the hat of a writer. (This is a big move and you'll learn more about this in the coming weeks)

Public domain image: "Dreams" 1896 by Vittorio Matteo Corcos

[November 2010] 

This is my third National Novel Writing Month experience. I'm at 5576 words as of today, which is day 3 in my month-long journey. That puts me at about 575 words ahead of schedule.

I'm happy to share the following ten tips for keeping the word count going while you tackle 50k in 30 days. All of these are things I've learned directly from the experience. For all of you trying this challenge on for size in 2010, good luck and have fun!

  1. Always leave your writing in the middle of the action of a scene. This gives you something to pick up with upon returning to the manuscript.
  2. If you don't know something, don't fall into what I call The Deadly Research Switchback. Mark, right inside your manuscript, the areas where you need to research with XXX and go back to that place after you've written your word count for the day. Don't stop writing forward for the sake of research. The facts will be there, waiting for you, after you're done.
  3. Write a mini outline for the next scene or chapter after completing your word count for the day. That way you go into the writing with the ideas already on the page.
  4. If you feel like your word count is wimpy, from day to day, continue to try to generate new writing every day regardless. Then, every few days, go back over the whole batch and insert sensory details where there are opportunities to build in taste, smell, texture, shape, flavor, imagery, emotion, drama and color. If you're short on dialog, find a key section in every scene or chapter where dialog might naturally fit, and get characters talking. If you're short on plot, start writing the skeleton of what is actually happening, leaving the descriptions for later (often you can take the thoughts out of a character's head and turn them into actions... or, you can locate telling--passive expository writing--that you could easily turn into showing--active narrative writing).
  5. Don't stop reading. Read 30 minutes in the morning (during breakfast), 30 minutes at lunchtime, and 30 minutes at bedtime. Minimum. Your interactions with words outside the practice of writing only serve to hone your usage while in the act.
  6. Switch up your process if you feel you're getting stale. Take your laptop out of your home writing nook and visit a coffeeshop. Take a notepad and pencil and write outside on a sunny day. Audiorecord your story as you take your daily walk. All of these efforts count toward the end result. You may discover a process that really works for you in this way, as well.Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Your intent to write a novel in 30 days invites these opportunities to better understand your writer's intent, as well.
  7. Track your writing buddies as a way to amp up your own motivation to keep writing. It also helps to join an official WriMo team (I belong to TEAM SEATTLE, for instance) because then you feel better about doing the work not only for yourself but for the region you are representing.
  8. Attend group "write ins" when you can. A formal effort to do the work in a public way that will be acknowledged by other writers can be a very powerful solution for keeping you on course.
  9. Get your sleep. Seriously. Anxiety, lack of sleep, sedentary living are not good practices for people wanting fruitful creative lives. Get out and walk. Breathe. Wear a sleep mask if it helps you get a few more minutes in.
  10. Watch your diet. Eat spinach, lean protein, yogurt, raw fruits and vegies, in particular. Caffeine above and beyond your usual intake isn't recommended. Avoid fast food, carry out or junk food. Your brain needs its vitamins and minerals just as much as your body does. NaNoWriMo image courtesy of

Just because it's in the trunk doesn't mean it's made of junk
[October 2010]

Trunking a Novel... I've heard the term frequently over the last couple of years. By and large, it's what it sounds like: a book manuscript which you've put away because it's just not coming together.

I have many so-called trunk novels, though it never occurred to me that having trunk novels might be considered a negative. I've put away every one of those novels because:

a) I just wasn't up for the work that the idea required
b) I was burned out by the story (even if I still liked the story)
c) I wanted to work on something else

Working on a novel is a huge commitment; I don't disparage anyone who gets in deep--say 100k words--only to put the beast away. Sometimes the beast calls for a cage for the writer's own sanity.

So let's see... my first trunk novel was an epic fantasy I started when I was 21. More than half my life ago. It's still an awesome idea, and if I could only find all those old notes and maps and research... let's just say, they didn't survive the 5 relocations that followed and, besides, whatever I did write, I wrote on a Commodore 64... but if I could unearth all of it, I might be persuaded to give it a go.

Then there was my second book, my first "serious" novel, which inhabits trunk-like space in the Maxtor storage box. It's a multiple POV account of the death of an unlikely heroine which sets off a chain of events in the small town which, at first, ostracized her, then accepted her in her posthumous state. Listen, I still want to write this book. I set it aside after about 50k words, abundant research and an outline all the way to the end because I knew intrinsically that I didn't have the skill set yet to write the book I wanted to read. Hey, it hasn't grown legs and walked away: the characters still have their allure, the subject matters continue to fascinate me, and the setting is one I've been developing for nearly two decades (via other writing projects).

A third novel, what I call the "road trip" book, also resides in the Maxtor. It has alternative POVs between two characters who are one the same path but for different reasons. Again, I like this book, too, and hope to return to it soon, as I now think I'm ready for it. I wasn't when I started it back in 1993. I have outlines and 40K in word count to help me reclaim that track.

A fourth novel was actually written to the end, a coming-of-age piece I wrote while my daughters were still much younger than the protagonist. Now they are in the same demographic, and I feel like I could actually pull this book off. I have begun, again, to entertain random thoughts about its plot, a sure sign that I'm champing at the bit to get going again. This one is in complete first draft form.

Then there's the book I've struggled with in revision that I started in 1995, about a woman who inherits family acreage and all its dark secrets, to boot. I feel quite confident in this book but had to put it away. Why? I kept promising my writing group I was finishing it and a couple of years of empty promises shamed me into setting it aside. (I should not have let that happen, given the writing group at the time was primarily poets and, with all due respect, what can they know about the challenges of writing a novel?) The truth is that this book has been done for a while now, and I believe it's actually in its final draft and needs one more pass through with the red pen. Excuses for not finishing? Full-time motherhood, a steady influx of short story and poetry writing that put me on the literary map (who doesn't live for positive feedback?), and my busy working life (at the time, as an anthology editor). It's just that...

I also wrote two NaNoWriMo novels! Yay... or y-a-y? One is a trunked children's book which I adore, which I wrote to the end, and which I still want to finish (finishing meaning, of course, revising). The other is the book I'm working on now (not trunked!), which I also adore, and which I am going to get out into the world in 2011.

I've made my peace with the notion of trunked novels because the biggest reason why all of these books are stashed away is because I believe in the value of distance from an unfinished manuscript. I also believe that human beings grow a little every day and that the experience of living and learning can only help to make the trunked novel a better work in the long run. And I do not think that writing is a footrace, but a long, dedicated path that demands a lifetime of passion and discipline.

I suppose it's worth mentioning that I'm also an editor. Editors who write are perhaps their biggest critics ever, imposing much higher standards on themselves than even the world at large cares about. After all, there are tons of published books out there which have employed zero craft and care. Certainly, the amount of perfection I've demanded of myself suggests I'll have a better shot at publication in the company of such books. And yet, it's not about just being published, for me: it's about writing a damn fine book, the best I can possibly write.

So that's a total of seven books: five in the trunk, one lost in space, and the manuscript I'm polishing right now.

I'm telling you all this because "trunking" a book is not the same thing as quitting (though I've definitely quit the poetry life... too many negatives to that experience, even if I found writing and publishing poetry relatively easy when compared to prose).

Quitting is intentionally dropping the ball. Trunking is archiving with the intent of returning to the work at a later date.
 Neither is shameful: quitting while one is ahead of the game is considered a positive behavior, after all; quitting because you can be objective and realistic about your odds is also considered honorable in the business world. And trunking is just saying you're going to let things rest a bit before returning to them (just like fine wine, eh?). Nothing wrong with that, either.
 Here are a couple of links you can peruse if you're struggling with the idea of quitting a project or trunking a novel (or un-trunking it, as the case may be).
 Upon Retiring a Manuscript to the Trunk (The Running Writer, August 2009)

Upon Retiring a Manuscript to the Trunk #2 (The Running Writer, September 2009)

The Proper Care and Feeding of a Trunk Novel (The Running Writer, October 2009)

Hubris / Peter V. Brett Interview (I Should Be Writing #155, September 2010)
Listen to the first part of this podcast, in which writer Mur Lafferty laments her trunked manuscript. (The whole show is great, so listen to all of it! But this first part is where Mur talks about her own writing life, and she nails the painful aspect of the trunked novel in a way that all writers can identify with.)

Trunk Novels (Writing Excuses, August 2010)

From their show notes: "Recorded live at Dragons & Fairy Tales, this episode is for anybody who has a novel or two (or more) sitting in the bottom of their trunk. What are the best ways to re-use old material you’ve set aside? We talk about rewriting entire novels, repurposing plots or characters, and moving stories from one place to another. ... Sometimes we do this because an idea is just too good to let sit, but the execution on that idea (at least the first time around) wasn’t good enough. And sometimes we shouldn’t do it at all."

Finally, write to me. Do you have a novel or two in the trunk? How does it make you feel? Why did you trunk it? Do you still like the book? Are the forces behind the decision to trunk it external or internal? Let's talk about this!

Creative Commons image:

Tools you might not know about
[Back to School 2010]
Luddites will probably not like this post because I'm going to recommend to writers that they think beyond pen and journal when considering how they get the words on the page.

I've toyed with some writing "toys" that have proven to be pretty useful for me in the last year. They aren't necessarily devices or programs intended for writers, but they sure have come in handy nonetheless, and I recommend you consider trying them out if you can.

1. Smart Pen. I've written about LiveScribe before, and I'll keep writing about it until enough of you realize what a great tool it is! The LiveScribe smart pen does a bunch of things, but the most important thing it's done for me is capture, by way of my written notes AND live audio recording, lectures and conversations and discussions where getting things down precisely matters (such as when you are trying to record someone else's quotes).

It works by digitizing your handwritten notes by way of a nifty pen which, when applied to a special kind of paper (or by way of a simple navigation button you can draw yourself on any old type of paper), can transfer your handwriting to your computer via USB, then turn it into type.

You don't have to write super neatly, you just have to be able to read your notes, though I recommend you write as neatly as you can so your digital notes, in file, will need the least amount of spellchecking.

But what's really great is that, if you miss something in a conversation while taking notes, and the pen is recording, you can tap on that empty spot right in your notes and the pen will play back what you missed.

This pen is a must-have for journalists and students. You can buy different versions of the pen based on memory (I have a mid-range one) and you'll need to download the digitizing software online (it was around $35, when I bought it). Et voila, you are seriously ready to get precise, comprehensive notes into your computer without all that tedious transcribing later.

2. Dragon Dictation. I had a flurry of writing projects to complete in a short period of time recently and, at one point, I had so many ideas banging around in my head that I thought I would go mad. I went for a long hike instead and, along resting points, used this iPhone app to capture all the ideas that were in my head. After "clearing my brain cache," I emailed them to myself, kept hiking until the well refilled, and repeated the process. When I got home, I cut and pasted all my digital notes to the manuscripts where they belonged and saved myself a ginormous amount of time reconstructing my thoughts (having captured them already via Dragon).

My app is the free version (I rarely buy apps, at least not until I've used them enough to know they're useful, and then only if I've maxed out the free versions' services). Dragon isn't 100% accurate, so you need to talk slowly enough so words aren't shoved together and turned into something else. But other than that, I found this to be a huge time saver. Also, I've learned over the years that walking and hiking are some of my most creative periods: the juices are flowing, the best words are forthcoming, the environment around me tends to inspire more depth in the concepts I'm mulling over as I walk.

This app is simple to use. When you call it up on your phone, a window that says "tap and dictate" appears. Press the red button below it to start recording your voice. Watch the red bars bounce as you speak, then press "done" to finish the program. A new screen comes up to show what you've just said. Click on the bottom right arrow icon to select your transmission options (text, email, copy, Facebook, Twitter). That's also the place where you can adjust your settings. The little keyboard icon on the left is where you can make edits, if you're not planning to wait until you get home. (I'd recommend that, if you are voice recording just to offload your brain, don't go into Edit mode; let the ideas flow and handle the edits later, when you can switch brains without distracting you from your creative mind.)

Listen, I hate the sound of my recorded voice. It sounds like somebody else. (For what it's worth, others say I should do voice overs, but aside from some auxiliary work in podcasting, I doubt I'll ever make a career of voice recording as it's just way to weird for me.) But Dragon is great because it digitizes your words, sends them to you, and you never have to listen to any of it.

By the way, this is an excellent, must-have tool for podcasters who are conscientious enough to offer their audience show notes in text as well as the audio recordings (they should ALL do this, but many podcasters don't, sadly). Doing a live podcast? Dictate it as you go. You have an automatically digitized set of show notes that, with a quick spell check and a little formatting and link love, are ready to go.

3. Relax frequencies. What is it with people and their cell phones IN LIBRARIES??? The last three times I've gone to the library to work the phones were going off like it was the airport and everyone was trying to find everyone else. Unbelievable. Not a generational thing, either. People of all ages speaking, full voiced, in the Quiet Zone areas, literally right next to me. And when others shushed them, they got up and walked about 5 feet away. Like we wouldn't be able to hear them there, too?


I've found a way around it. You see, I can't listen to music while I'm writing. Lyrics are distracting and get in the way of my own composition. Instrumentals are wonderful but often emotionally evocative and, if they don't match the tonality of the piece you're writing, they can inspire it into another, and usually unfavorable, direction as you're writing.

But frequencies don't do that.

I use Relax Melodies on my iPhone for meditation already (I liked it so much I bought the premium version, which is $3.99, far less than any meditation class you'll ever pay for). It has a lot of great sounds from nature and gentle music to get you into the zen zone. (For this alone, I highly recommend this app.) But one day I was playing with the app and discovered the frequencies page.

There are two options: "Concentration" frequencies are Beta waves at 20Hz which can activate focus when you're trying to solve a problem. "Relaxation" frequencies are Mid Alpha waves at 10Hz which can subdue an overactive brain without putting you to sleep. In either case, the frequencies come across as low tones, similar to the experience you get from a white noise machine. You can adjust the volume to suit your tastes.

I found when setting frequencies while I meditated that, in both cases, my goals were achieved (I became more alert or I became more relaxed). Typically, I ran the frequencies underneath the music or sounds I'd cued up (birds, waterfall, chimes, etc). You almost don't even notice the frequencies, and that's the point. They're not really for listening to, they're there to stimulate brain waves.

How does it work?

I'm no scientist and recommend you Google "therapeutic sound " if you want the full technical explanation. But in a nutshell... everything in the world is in a constant state of vibration, and the most basic state of vibration is (duh) sound. Resonance is when these vibrations achieve harmony. The vibrations in different parts of the body respond differently to different kinds of frequencies: for mental states, there are specific frequencies that work to balance the energies in the brain. By listening to them, you can optimize their resonancy and reclaim your focus. The concept's not hard to grasp: music does this to our hearts and our minds everyday.

Well, I went to a coffeehouse to work the other day and there were lots of chatty patrons there as well, which is the way it should be. I plugged in my earbuds, chose the "Concentration" frequency, and amped it up just enough to cover the sound of a little boy who was having a crying fit. It worked. I tuned the little fella out completely (winked and smiled at the mom..."I have so been there!" I wanted to tell her) and got back to work.

What a lifesaver. I can't recommend this option enough.

4. Thumb drives. Still using CDs? Why? Thumb drives (also known as memory sticks or flash drives) are cheap and nearly destructive little mini-storage devices that you can stick in your pocket. I keep mine in the USB on my laptop at all times, and store it with my power cord when I'm on the go. Get one and liberate yourself from things that can be easily scratched, corrupted or lost. I learned it the hard way back in 2008 and my internal CD drive stopped working. Seriously.

(I post this only because I ran into someone who didn't know what a thumb drive was. Technology can be pervasive in our culture but we all run the risk of falling through the cracks, at times, when it comes to new tech.)

5. Virtual Thesaurus. I've used this off and one for a couple of years now. Thinkmap's Virtual Thesaurus a mind-map inspired thesaurus, in which a search term is presented in a visual cluster. You can click on all the various synonyms and see their clusters as well. It's $20 annually for the online edition, a bit more if you want it on CD. I pay for the online edition and it has served me well.

If you're not a thesaurus user, because you think a thesaurus is a cheap writing tool, you are missing the point with this tool, by the way. The cluster design is very much a tool for stimulating ideas, as much as it is a tool for finding the right word. Don't knock it 'til you try it.

6. Speaking of mind maps, here's another iPhone app I adore. SimpleMind (the express edition) is a mind map program you can use right on your phone when you're tossing around ideas and need to map them all in a single place.

The first mind map I think any writer should create is their WHAT I WANT mind map, in terms of their writing life. I turn to mine about every month in the year to see where I am, where I want to be, and what I've already achieved.

The mind map program is pretty simple to use. You can use different color schemes that will show levels of obedience between ideas. For instance, under WHAT I WANT, which is purple, the key "answers" are in other colors: "Publication (yellow), Free Time (green), Happiness (orange), Focus (blue), Health (red) and Bonds (aqua). In each color cluster are all the ways I have indicated I could achieve or define these things.

Yes, I know, you could do this with colored pens and a notebook, but I don't carry colored pens and a notebook with me everywhere I go (I started packing light when I got rid of the diaper bag 8 years ago). I always have my phone, however, and the program works wherever I am (no need for a cell tower). So, while chauffeuring kids, commuting by ferry or bus, on airplanes, I can always turn to my mind map to check my progress.

This tool is especially great for writers putting together book-length projects. The mind map can serve to visualize the conflict of a novel's arc; it can also be useful in determining short story or essay order in a collection. Memoirists can use it for creating a kind of alinear timeline of events to look at their memories in a fresh, quantifiable way.

6. Kindle. Yes, I love my Kindle. Not because I want to put bookstores out of business, but it's a great tool for me as a writer. One thing people forget about the Kindle: it supports multiple formats (.mobi, .prc, .txt, .jpg, .gif, HTML and Word files). You can actually download private files and read them on the Kindle.

Why would that be useful?

As an editor I have learned that, when a manuscript arrives in text (as a galley, for instance), the words read differently. Mistakes leap out. Vague areas suddenly become red flags that something in the language is wrong. If revision matters to you at all (and it should matter to ALL writers), looking at your manuscript through a Kindle is like putting on a pair of newfangled truth glasses--you'll see all that you couldn't see before. It's like being your own Beta reader.

Another useful application for the Kindle: you can download all your favorite references and take them everywhere you go. I'm not talking about pulling up on your iPhone here, I'm talking about a food writer being able to pack LaRousse Gastonomique (which weighs about 20 pounds in dead tree form) anywhere they go (and be able to search it easily).

Don't forget, you can search online via your Kindle, as well. Not as fast as a computer, but if you're somewhere without your laptop, you can still search via Google for anything under the sun. (And you can search through all of your own private documents there as well, if you've stored them there.)

Creative Commons image: "Old Hand tools - for woodworking, or others - 1910's years, South-Hungary (Hódmezővásárhely)" (2010) by Takkk. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Stay Active (and I don't mean you should go jogging)
[Early Fall 2010]
One of the biggest challenges for newer writers resides in their ability to write actively. What does it mean to write actively?

Avoid passive constructions.

Here's a quick lesson in what that means.Passive constructions include a variety of sentence structures that weaken, dilute or otherwise diminish the strength of sentences. Below I'm going to post a simple sentence and show how it can be strengthened (or activated).

Example: She was about to go to the store because she knew she should get some milk.

Try it again: She walked to the local dairy to buy a gallon of 2%.

Several changes have turned a sluggish, wimpy sentence into something crisp and active. Here's what's been done to improve the sentence.

AVOID PASSIVE VERBS. The frequent use of so-called "be" verbs (is, are, was, were, be, being, been, am) and related words has, had, have and would, should, could can often be replaced with stronger verbs to make sentences more declarative.

AVOID TENTATIVE LANGUAGE. She was about to go to the store may suggest that the character in question is waffling over the decision to go. If this is what you want, for your character to hesitate, you might be better off rewriting the sentence to show her hesitation more actively. Otherwise, activate the character within the sentence: Instead of She was about to go... simply write She walked...

CHOOSE STRONG VERBS: Going to the store is... well... okay, but walking to the store or driving to the store or skateboarding to the store is a lot more descriptive and active. Avoid wimpy verbs whenever you can; the more specific the verbs, the more visual and active your story can be.

CHOOSE SPECIFIC NOUNS: What kind of store is it? Be specific. Getting your milk from Wal-mart is different from the local dairy, which is different again from the corner market with the bars on the windows. Also, a gallon of 2% is far more specific than some milk.

SHOW, DON'T TELL: Anytime you write that your point-of-view character is thinking, believing or sensing anything, you are getting in the way of the action. Commit to the action, don't hedge on it. It's passive to write She knew she should get some milk because the character's thoughts are implicit in her actions; if you write She walked to the local dairy you have already implied she's thought of it.


Some other rules:

AVOID THROWAWAY WORDS: These are words like really and very and great. If you use a verb that shows action in the extreme (panting versus breathing very really hard), you're much better off.

AVOID -LY ADVERBS AND ADJECTIVES: Sometimes you can get away with using these, but the most of the time they can be replaced by stronger verbs and nouns. Be ruthless; do a global search in your document and seek out the -ly words and find a way to replace them. Angrily, he threw the ball at the man reads more actively in context when changed to He chucked the ball at the man.

AVOID PREPOSITIONAL PHRASES PREPOSITIONS WHEN NOUNS AND VERBS WILL DO: These often lag behind predicates in sentences in order to provide back-ended description. She climbed up on to the top of the house reads more actively when changed to She climbed to the roof.


I know I haven't even begun to cover all the ways that you can activate your diction from sentence to sentence, but these are a few solid rules to get started. One of the biggest differences between a new writer and an established one has everything to do with the active quality of writing at the sentence level. Practiced writers inherently know to revise the passivity out of their work whenever possible.

If you want more attention for your writing, if you have submitted work that's just not getting published, look more closely at it, sentence by sentence, to see where you can breathe new life into it.

For additional help, I recommend that writers consult Priscilla Long's new resource, The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life. Check the index under Passive Voice.

Public domain image: "Speed" (2009) by Paolo Neo

Summer Reading: The Guilt Trip
[July 1, 2010]

How many books do you have on your nightstand? How many of them are you actively reading right now?

In this digital age, I suppose it's important to also ask: how many books do you have downloaded to your e-book reader, and of those, how many are readings in progress for you?

If you answer "none" to either question, and you're a writer, I'd like to reveal a dirty little secret about the writing life: summer is never a time to take a vacation from reading. In fact, no season qualifies for that distinction. You should be reading. All the time.

It may be that you have a bunch of books on your nightstand but you haven't cracked a single spine in weeks. It happens. Life gets full from time to time, or you've lost interest in the particular title or writer you started last spring.

Still, this is a disservice to you and your writing life. Maybe even to your writer's karma. After all, you want people to read your books, don't you? Maybe you should think of incessant reading as good karma in the bank, for the day when you get your just writer's reward: voracious, appreciative readers who will come back for more.

Writers should consume books constantly, just as athletes must always be training and farmers must always be tending to their crops. When you drop a reading habit, you run the risk of losing your connection to words or letting your ideas choke in the weeds or grow fallow.

One of the most frequent and disappointing laments I hear from agents, editors, writing teachers and publishers is the ongoing trend away from reading, and especially from writers. It's worth saying that while films are also "story," they use cameras and images and sounds to convey the story and really do not provide a quality substitute for the package of bound words also known as a book or magazine.

(Newspapers count, sort of... but let's face it: most creative writers are not working journalists, they are storytellers. Newspapers should be read daily, in addition to other kinds of reading.)

It's often said by certain writers that they don't read while they write for fear of acts of unintended ventriloquism. Fine, if you're writing a mystery and you don't want to have Sara Paretzky's distinctive style bleed into your voice, then read something else. A book of food essays would be a nice choice, or a memoir of a famous Indian leader, or a fantasy novel set in a make-believe world, or a collection of literary short stories set in a small town in Maine. Why not go down the list of Pulitzer Prize-winning novels for titles you've never read? Or bone up on young adult fiction to see what your soon-to-be teenagers might be getting into over the coming years?

Whatever you do, don't use writing as an excuse for not reading. If you step away from a steady diet of words, you'll run the risk of starving yourself of inspiration, technique and vocabulary.

Since it is the summer, however, this doesn't mean you have to be reading books that are high on someone's specialty intellectual canon. Paperbacks from the grocery store can be fun to read while at the beach. Airport bookstores have plenty of great summer titles to choose from. Check out your local library used book sale or make a swap with a friend. Quick downloads for free or very cheap electronic books are easy to gobble up. Go for easy and breezy if your brain is already fatigued by your writing practice, if you must. Just don't quit reading.

I personally have a little bit of everything waiting in stacks wherever I am most likely to read. The mixture is eclectic: literary novel, short story collection, anthology of themed essays, popular NYTimes bestseller titles, a book on writing, a couple of Dover Edition classics. My Kindle runneth over with variety as well. My nightstand, my computer bag, my pool bag and my car (I often read during my ferry commute) all possess a couple of books for "just in case."

Right now I've got one book going and that's plenty. These days, I'm reading clients' manuscripts fairly regularly, so it helps that I limit my own reading to one title at a time to keep things straight in my mind. This particular book is a NYTimes bestseller from the 80s with a supernatural edge to it, popular pulp fiction that, while not particularly well crafted in the literary sense, is still a fun story with interesting characters, a fascinating plot structure and colorful landscapes. It counts, even if it isn't Shakespeare.

For July, inventory the books you have on hand to determine the title for your next active read, then get cracking! If you don't have any books at your fingertips (though what real writer can say this?), get thee to a bookstore or a library pronto and don't come home until you've got a spine (paper or digital) to crack by the end of the day.

End of guilt trip.

Public domain image: "Reading Glasses" (2006) by Dori.

Make your writing life a Sekrit Projekt

[June 1, 2010 dispatch]
Often, writers are advised to let the world know about their writing projects as a way to hold them accountable for finishing what they start.

This isn't, on it's face, a bad idea: peer pressure from writing groups is a powerful tool for motivating individual writers to make more progress on their manuscripts on a regular basis.

But what happens if you announce to the world (and not just to your writing group) that you are writing the next great American novel, and then you don't finish it? Or it takes a really long time?

You'll have lots of "'splaining" to do, for one thing. Nonwriters, in particular, are not likely to understand why you can't just sit down and write the whole darn thing in a day or a week or even a month.

We've all had the experience of revealing what we're working on, only to discover that the neighbor or aunt or college friend we shared that information with continually ask for a progress report. That can be very discouraging for the writer who has been writing regularly on their book manuscript--for as many as five years (or more). Among writers, putting in more than five years on a novel is not a big deal; in fact, it's pretty normal. But to nonwriters, the expectation is typically that you should be done by now, that books are somehow written overnight.

I get a headache just thinking about what it would take to explain to an inquisitive fan-in-waiting why my book's not done. After all, I have three novels, a short-story collection, and a children's chapter book under my belt which are still in revision. But the words, "in revision," mean absolutely nothing to a nonwriter.

Such pressure to discuss the challenges of the writing process with nonwriters can turn writers sour on their own progress, even when they're moving right along because, let's face it, the nonwriting public only believes in the book that is already published.

Otherwise, we all know what they're thinking: It's just a pipe dream.

Another approach might be to simply NOT tell anyone about what you're working on. At all.

Some writers I know refer to work in progress as their "sekrit projekt." It's not a bad idea.

It relays that they are, in fact, at work, but that it's not ready to be discussed. Nonwriters seem to respond better to this idea and are largely accepting of the notion of privacy.

However, the larger benefit for the writer who uses this tactic while discussing their writing life is that saying so removes an unrealistic pressure to produce and become part of that completely unrealistic "overnight success" time frame that most nonwriters expect from all artists.

There are no overnight successes in the creative writing life, only progressions and plateaus that mark the development of the lifelong writing practice. Publication may or may not even be part of that practice (which dumbfounds some nonwriters).

I recall seeing Joyce Carol Oates speaking in Chicago at around the time her boxing book was coming out. She had struggled, believe it or not, with writer's block, and it got so bad for her that she even entertained the idea of suicide.

Instead, she turned her book into a "sekrit projekt" of her own (though she didn't call it that) and slipped around, luridly, stealing snatches of writing time and space when no one was looking. In this way, she finished the book on her own terms and let go of some of that suffocating pressure to perform that all writers suffer from time to time.

For June, think about how you respond to external pressure to become an "overnight success." Does it motivate you to finish, or does it just highlight what you haven't done? If you get more work done by announcing your goals as a writer, then the tactic works for you. However, if your response is the latter, rethink your writing life as a series of "sekrit projekts" and you may just reinvent your writing life in a way that allows you to progress without undue pressure from folks who, however well meaning they are, just don't
get it.

Creative commons image:
"Asian Woman Shushing" (2008) by Kim Beok, Seoul, South Korea. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

De-clutter your writing life in May, just in time for summer!
So why let the nonwriting public have that kind of power over your writing life?

[May 2010 dispatch]

The spring has always been a time well suited for cleaning. There are garages that need sweeping, closets that need organizing, flowerbeds that need weeding, haircuts to arrange, and automobiles that need a good scrub down. Why not take advantage of the added energy that comes with sunnier days by cleaning out your writing life? If you can achieve this, you will lay down a wonderful foundation for a productive and prolific writing summer.

Here are some suggestions for clearing away the chaos of creativity so you can make room for a more productive practice:

1. Go through your personal library and remove books you no longer need. These can be resold at used book stores, donated to public or special-interest libraries or given away to friends, family or other writers. This includes ARCs (advanced reading copies) which, when sold, typically benefit literacy councils.

2. Provide general maintenance for all your office technology. Backup files, clean out printers, replace toner cartridges, update software, upgrade hardware, sync devices, clean up old digital files, reorganize your storage solutions.

3. Tend to the Piles. You know what the Piles are. Manuscripts in various stages of completion. Unanswered mail. Notes from workshops or writing groups. Notebooks you're currently using. Books you're currently reading. File folders that should be put away. Not to mention the detritus of regular life: bills, grocery lists, paperwork from your kids' schools, unread magazines, etc. The Piles are an inevitable part of the writing life but they don't have to be omnipresent. File away what you can. Straighten your In Progress pile. Use paper clips and folders to contain what needs to stay at hand. Throw away or recycle all the stuff that no longer matters. Transcribe notes. Remove the detritus of regular life to another room, if possible.

4. Update your calendars. Time to start thinking about how you want to build your writing life into your summer plans. Look for favorite reading venues and check out their calendars; pencil in those which are not to be missed. Mark deadlines for various projects, whether they are for drafts, submissions, revisions, or other writing-related work. Look into taking classes or meeting other writers for networking and educational experiences. Plan your reading list for the summer and mark it on the calendar to ensure you'll stick to it. Schedule a brief overnight retreat, or prepare to attend a week-long literary conference by making plans for what you'd like to be working on at that time.

5. Do a clean sweep. That's right! Dust everything. Vacuum. Wipe down the counters and the shelves. Feed the plants. Wash the windows. Launder any lap blankets or throws you might have used to keep warm over the winter. Remove any dirty dishes or coffee cups or empty water bottles. Adjust the height on your chair. Check that your lighting is adequate. Rediscover other methods for making your writing space user friendly, such as including music or employing aromatherapy or building a small section for yoga and/or meditation.

6. Take inventory of all of your writing projects. I tend to keep four files going: Published, Ready to Submit, Work-in-Progress, and Unpublished. Of these files, consider those projects within each which most capture your heart and mind, then commit to them for the summer. Be realistic. Don't overschedule yourself, but don't give yourself permission to take the entire season off either! Give your projects priorities, assign specific deadlines for specific tasks, and formulate long-range goals for each. Taking stock should be a regular part of your writing life so that you don't miss opportunities or forget what you have on hand (especially if you're prolific and work on multiple projects).

7. Finally, think about cleaning out more than just your office and your working mind. Consider meditating to achieve more serenity. Even just a few minutes a day of breathing can do wonders for the creative mind. Other strategies that help connect you with the universe include gardening, exercise, walking, swimming, yoga, cooking, and making other kinds of art. Keep in mind that writing is not particularly kind to our eyes, necks, wrists and backs, so the more breaks the better. And don't forget good eating habits and lots of water to keep you in tip-top shape.You'd be surprised at how much more clearly you'll think with just a little more attention paid to physical activity.

Creative commons image: "Brooms from Japan" (2005) by Angie from Sawara, Chiba-ken, Japan. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

10 tips for writing a novel in a month
[November 2010]
"Trunk" (2006) by Lianki. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Author Louisa May Alcott