Monday, January 26, 2015

Snow Day Exercises

For my Tuesday workshop group, who will be missing class this week, and for everyone else stuck inside during the blizzard who can manage to find an hour or two to write:

What are you working on right now? What's the main thing—the one you really want to get done? Whether you're in the planning stage, are hip deep, or have let too many days go by without looking at it, I'll bet there's some project on your mind. That's what you should spend your time on today.

Here are some exercises that might help. Choose the one/s that fit the stage you're at. Many of these I've posted before, and there are also some new ones:


Try these Exercises to Help You Draft a New Story.  Do them in order, or pick and choose according to your needs.

Here's more on planning and plotting.

Going full steam ahead:

You don't need an exercise. Just keep going.

Theoretically ready to go full steam ahead, but keep failing to make time to write: 

Try creating a tiny habit and building on it. After you spend your hour or two writing today!

Theoretically ready to go full steam ahead, but keep freezing up at the keyboard:

Dare to suck. That's all.

There's so much you want to put into your story; you just can't figure out how:

This again. (And read these later, when it's not writing time.)

Story seems okay, but you/your readers just don't care about it that much:

Maybe you're not writing naked.

You care about the story and the characters; you're just not sure what they should do:

Try adding some suspense.

You've finished your draft; you're ready to revise:

Try these Revision Exercises.

You're done with the draft, you've revised as much as you can, and you're ready to send out your story, or essay, or an excerpt from your novel:

Send it to this great new literary journal, Origins.  Call for submissions here.

Cuno Amiet, Winterlandschaft, 1910

Write Naked

I was lucky enough to have Denis Johnson as a teacher at the Iowa Writers' Workshop years ago. He said many wise and interesting things; the one I recall most often is, "Write naked."

He meant emotionally naked, of course. I could go on about what that might mean, but I think the phrase itself says enough. Plant it in the back of your mind. Sleep on it. Think about it next time you're writing, especially if you find yourself losing direction, or wondering why or how to care about the characters or their story. What might it mean to write naked? How might you try to do it?

Here's Johnson's story "Emergency," from the collection Jesus' Son, which was turned into this movie.

Can you see the nakedness in this story? I think it's in the way the narrator lets us have an honest look into a time in his life when he's very lost; not just accidentally lost but actively hiding from life, failing in his responsibilities, and worst of all, failing in ways that can and do cause harm to others. Do you agree?

What do you think the last section of the story means, beginning with the phrase in bold, "Some hours before that?" What about the very last line?

Maurice Denis, Spots of Sunlight on the Terrace, 1890

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Midwinter Announcements

A few announcements:

Call for submissions: Origins Literary Journal
I'm on the editorial board of this beautiful new journal. Send us your work!

Here's the official Call for Submissions:
Origins is seeking submissions of poetry and prose. 

We are particularly interested in identity and the ways in which it impacts/defines/arouses the artist. This should be broadly interpreted.

Submissions for the Spring 2015 issue close on Feb 15Click here for more info & guidelines.

Applications are being accepted for the 2015 Yale Writers' Conference.
I've been a resident faculty member since this program began in 2012, and will be teaching in Sessions I and II this summer. Every year it attracts a diverse, international, supportive and accomplished bunch of writers. Join us!

Hudson Valley Writers' Center Master Class: Get Unblocked. Coming up on Saturday, February 7. Bring all your psychological baggage; leave with the seeds of a new story and a road map for the rest of the journey.

I'm excited to be joining this new outfit in Westport, CT: Company of Writers. Check out their classes for young writers and adults.

Koloman Moser, animal motif for a picture book, 1904. Via 50watts

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Exercises in Revision #3: How to Fix It

Here are #1 and #2.

In Exercises #1 and 2, you and your readers made some notes about what needed to be fixed in the story, and maybe even roughly how to fix it: e.g., cut down on the back story, do more showing and less telling. You did that with your editing brain. In this exercise, you'll ask your writing brain to apply itself to the problems.

One good way to do that, I've found, is to distract your conscious mind with something else, so it gets out of the way and lets your subconscious do what it wants.

First, sit down and review your notes so they're fresh in your memory.

Now click over here and get three random numbers from 1 to 50.

Now click over to this list and write down the words or phrases corresponding to your numbers.

The first word or phrase has to be included in the first sentence of your revision. The second can go anywhere in the middle. And the last has to be included in the last sentence. 

This is a version of an exercise I do in class. You may have seen it here. It's interesting to use it for revision because you have the added challenge of figuring out how you're going to get those phrases to work with the story you already have.

For the first few moments, it will seem impossible. But try it. See what happens. Keep your revision goals in the back of your mind as you go. That's where you'll have to keep them, because the front of your mind will be busy doing something else.

Good luck!

How do I make these things fit together?
Poster for For a Few Dollars More, United-Artists, 1967, via 50watts

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Read This: "Savage Breast" by Elizabeth McKenzie

I have to warn you that this is a devastatingly sad, rip-your-insides-out kind of story. At least, that's how it was for me. If you're not up for that, don't start reading it.

But it's an amazing story. I came across it because my daughter, who just turned six, was paging through a New Yorker I had left on the dining-room table. She pointed out a Roz Chast cartoon; I looked at it with her and then went into the kitchen. Later, she called me over to look at something else. She had started reading this story. She showed me a description, near the beginning, of kittens dressed in clothes. "Look, Mama," she said. "It's cute." It's funny how a kid can be smart enough to read passages in The New Yorker and still be young enough to be charmed by the idea of a kitten in a top hat. I agreed the description was cute, and went away again.

Later, she called me back to look at something else. "This," she said. "Look. It's sad." She was now pointing to a paragraph near the end of the story. I doubt she read all the stuff in the middle; she was probably glancing through the pages and some words near the end caught her eye. Maybe "bloody" or "bones." She likes that kind of thing, just about as much as she likes cute kittens. This was the paragraph:
Some of the beasts were losing their claws and ripping their skin as they dug into the ground. Their toes were getting bloody, but it didn’t stop them. The little fur they had left was clotted with blood, and the sand was sticking to it, and they were wiping their paws on their sides in bold, bloody, sandy streaks and continuing on. The reddish-brown streaks on their fur and their foreheads began to resemble war paint. Frantically, they scratched on, occasionally finding a beetle in the cooler parts of the soil, or a ground rat’s tunnel, or a snake hole with bones in it.
I stood next to her and read it. "Yes," I said afterwards, "that is sad. Sometimes grownups like sad stories. And the people who write for this magazine are very good writers, so if they want to make something sad they can make it very, very sad. So that it haunts you." I wonder now if that was an odd thing to say to a six-year-old. But it was what occurred to me at the time. 

Of course, after she was in bed, I read the whole story, from dressed-up kittens to bleeding beasts. Then I went into the kitchen and sobbed for a minute, in a way I don't often. I wonder whether it will really haunt her. I don't know what she took from it, or whether she'll remember it at all. But I will.

I'm recommending it here not just because I think it's a good story, though obviously it is, but because, in the revision exercises, I've been talking about ways in which your writing brain—the one that deals in dreams and intuition, the spirit-world and eternity—can work together, as you write, with your editing brain—the one that makes order and sense out of things, and fixes all the typos. I think this story is an incredible example of those two working together in top form. If you read it, I think you'll see what I mean. Also read the short interview in which the author discusses how she wrote it.

"Savage Breast" by Elizabeth McKenzie, from The New Yorker, 12/15/14

Elizabth McKenzie talks to Willing Davidson about writing "Savage Breast"

Otto Schubert, Hoch die Republik, Vienna, 1928 via 50watts

Exercises in Revision #2: What's Wrong

A while back, I promised that after this series, I would post some exercises in revision. Here's the second one. (#1 here.)

Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
—Neil Gaiman, "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction" in The Guardian
So: You and your readers have identified some things that need fixing in your piece. If you've shown it to several people, to a workshop class or writing group, you've probably received lots of conflicting advice about how to make it better. What should you do?

I'm assuming here that you're working on a short story or a section of something longer, such as a chapter of a novel. Later, I'll talk about reading over a whole long work and seeing how it hangs together, but for now we'll focus on short sections—say anywhere from a few paragraphs to twenty-five pages (six or seven thousand words). The right size to read in one sitting.

I find it helpful to read over it one more time quickly, and make notes about what to change using my editing brain—that is, the conscious, logical part of my brain. (As opposed to the writing brain: the subconscious, illogical part that deals in dreams and magic and intuition.) These notes can be brief, but they'll be more specific than the Xs and ??s you marked down on the first pass.

These are the four areas I look at to see if there's room for improvement. Don't think about exactly how you'll make the improvements yet. Your editing brain might not know the answer, and that's okay for today.

You may resist these suggestions. You might think they're simplistic, that maybe they apply to people who are writing one-dimensional, stupid stories, but you are allowed to ignore them because your story is doing ninety-nine other fascinating, complex and important things, and you just don't have time to think about Fiction Writing 101 stuff like "show, don't tell."

All I can say is that I've seen a lot of works-in-progress over the years, by beginning writers, by accomplished and talented authors, by people in between, and it's surprising how many, across the board, wrestle with these issues (including me). Rare is the story that can't be strengthened by making improvements in these areas. If you're pretty sure your story isn't perfect, this is useful stuff to look at.

Clarity: Is the story clear on the most basic level: who's talking, what the characters are doing and why, where they are, how much time is passing? Frank Conroy was the head of the Iowa Writers' Workshop when I was there; he was a complicated, brilliant and demanding teacher. "Meaning, sense, clarity," were three of the things he demanded, over and over. They are the foundation your story stands on, he reminded us. If those things aren't in place, there is no story.

A Journey from A to B: Does your main character make an emotional journey from A to B? Can the reader tell what it is? Look at these two very short stories to see how the masters do it. In both of these, the changes are internal; you could call them subtle. And yet. They are huge. And you have no question, as a reader, that tectonic plates have moved, that something deep inside these two main characters is altered forever. And yes, this applies even if you're rewriting a chapter in a novel. The character should begin the chapter in one place and end it in another. The journey doesn't have to be huge, but there should be one and it should be clear to the reader.

Show, Don't Tell: Is your story firmly anchored in the world with lots of concrete, sensory details that reflect your characters' direct experience?  If you've ever heard a writing teacher say, "show, don't tell," that's what they were talking about. It's the difference between, "I was scared," and, "My upper arms tingled, as if all the little hairs were were trying to stand up under my sweater." The first tells us what the character is feeling; the second shows us. To come up with this kind of detail you have to put yourself inside the story, inside the character. Don't take shortcuts, using phrases you've heard a hundred times. ("My spine tingled.") Really feel the fear in your body. Pay attention. Write down the actual, specific feeling.

Stay in the moment: Is most of the story taking place in the now, rather than in flashbacks, exposition, or abstract speculation? This is a tough one for writers who've done a lot of research or a lot of thinking about their characters. It's tempting to put everything you know into your story (sometimes because you want to show everyone how much work you've done), but if you do that you'll wind up with a story that's diffuse and nebulous. We don't need to know everything about your character's past, or the history of the region in which she lives: we need to know which little shard of her childhood is sticking in her throat at this moment, which particular abandoned building she's walking past and what it feels like for her to look at it right now. These little bits of information are iceburg tips, and as readers, we'll know that; we'll feel the power of all you didn't say. Believe that. It's hard to cut away pages and pages of research and backstory that you labored over, but you have to do it. Keep the story focused.

It's amazing how far you can get by asking these four questions as you re-read. Again, don't worry about how you'll fix everything right now: just jot down some notes: "too much exposition this page," or "need more concrete details." Just let your editing brain give the orders. Tomorrow we'll talk about strategies for getting your writing brain to carry them out.

Next: How to Fix It

You're doing it wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
Eugen Osswald, illustration from The Animals' Ball, 1917, via 50watts

Friday, January 9, 2015

Exercises in Revision #1: You Are Not Going to Cry

A while back, I promised that after this series, I would post some exercises in revision. Here's the first one.

These are just things to try. Everyone works differently, and you'll have to experiment to figure out what's best for you. If I say, "just make brief notes and set the piece aside," but instead you get a burning urge to make extensive notes, start your revision right away, and stay up all night to finish it, then that's what you have to do. Trust your own writer's instincts, follow them and see what happens; that's the best way to hone them.

That said: the first step in revising is normally to read over your work, preferably after you've put it away for a while. For some people this means a couple of days, for some a couple of weeks or months. You should let some time elapse, even if you're on a tight deadline and that only means going out for a walk.

A great thing to do during this waiting period is to have others read it: a friend, a writing group, a workshop class or an editor. Listen to their comments, and take notes.

When you read back through it yourself after your break, it may be surprisingly easy to tell whether your piece is working well or not. Unfortunately the answer will usually be that it's not. That's okay. That's because it's a first draft.

Your first assignment is just to read it, and make very brief notes to yourself in the margins. Don't let the note-making break up the flow of your reading: you want to see it as an outside observer would.

There's a screenwriting book I love called How to Write a Movie in 21 Days by Viki King. Whether it can actually be used to write a million-dollar screenplay in three weeks, I'm not sure. Blake Snyder claims he did it. I'm sure there's some truth in that; my hunch is it was also a plug he offered by way of appreciation for all the inspiration it provided for his classic Save the Cat. (If you read both books, you'll see what I mean.) In any case, it's full of great advice. Here are King's instructions for the day you take that first draft out and read it over:
Here's what you are not going to do today:
You are not going to judge your script. You are not going to ask, "Am I a writer?" You are not going to cry. 
A word about good and bad. Your script isn't either of these and it's always both. You are not allowed to ask, "Is it good? Is it bad?" . . .
What you have is a work in progress. This day in the process is to see what's there and to begin to see what needs to be added.  
And then when you're done reading, she advises:
Now lie down on the floor. Let it hold you. Rest your bones. Is your neck stiff? Let it all go. You're finished writing. All you have to do now is rewrite.
And rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite . . .

But you're on your way.

Next: What's Wrong

You are not going to cry.
Optical illusion by Mprintochainis

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Set Writing Goals for 2015

For anyone who was interested in Tuesday's goal-setting class but was too far away, broke or busy to come, here are the exercises we did, along with a few extras that we didn't get to.

As I said in class, this is a mix of straightforward, concrete planning exercises, and a couple of others of a different kind, meant to help you touch base with your subconscious. 

Get a notebook, pen and timer, and answer these questions:

1. Set your timer for 3 minutes. Write down the things you have accomplished, writing-wise, in the past year. Where were you in January 2014? What have you done since then?

2. Set your timer for 2 minutes. How often do you write? For how long? Are you happy with this? Anything you'd like to change?

3. Two minutes: What's the biggest thing standing in the way of your writing as much as you want to?

4. Three minutes: Brainstorm how to get around this.

5. Five minutes: What are your goals for the year? Write them all down. Even the crazy ones. Censor nothing.

6. Three minutes: 
A. Choose three you most want to accomplish.
B. Choose the three that would be easiest to accomplish.
C. Ask yourself: which would be most fun—that is, if you could start one right now—right this minute—just for enjoyment—which would it be? It's okay if any or all of those overlap. 

7. 15 seconds: Choose at least one thing (more is fine) to let go of. Cross it off your list.

8. Here's one that's a bit different: You know that feeling you get when you really love a song, for example (or a painting, or a character in a book, or anything); when it touches something inside you—something private, close to the bone—maybe even a little too close? A little uncomfortable? A little embarrassing, even? But also a little thrilling? Maybe in a way you can't put into words, or wouldn't want to? If you know the feeling I'm talking about, great. If you don't, make your best guess. Now think of something that's given you that feeling lately, that's gotten its hooks into you in that particular, sexy, secret way. Do not ask yourself why you're taken with it, whether you should be, whether it's “art” or even whether it's “okay” to like it.

Now take a tiny piece of paper, something you can easily hide in your pocket or the corner of a drawer. Don't write the name of the thing on the paper. Don't even write a word. Give it a wordless name, a symbol, something simple. If it's a song about love, you could draw two stick figures, or just two parallel lines. Don't say its name. Don't talk about it. Put it away in a private place.

Over the course of the next week, find two or three more things that touch you in this way, and write their secret symbol-names on bits of paper, and hide them. Do not choose the “best” things, things you are not embarrassed to be taken by, “healthy” things, or even “significant” things. Just look for that tiny, tiny feeling like a little thrill, a little light. You might experience the process of choosing them as somewhat random. Better that than to overthink it.

Keep these pieces of paper with the symbols on them. Take them out and look at them sometimes. Especially when you're stuck or bored with what you're writing or when you seem to have gone off-track. If you forget what one of them represents, it has lost its power. Throw it away and replace it with another. Do the same if you fall out of love with any.

9. Go back to your list from #6. Remind yourself what's there: The three things you most want to accomplish; the three easiest; the one most fun; and one you've jettisoned. Now choose ONE of the three you most want to accomplish. Give yourself a deadline and write it down.

10. Choose a smaller goal, your first step towards the larger one. Give it a deadline and write it down. Make it no more than a month in the future, and make it achievable.

This smaller goal is set in stone and you have to keep at it. If you fall off the wagon, get back on. Keep going until you reach your deadline and your goal. If the way you're doing it isn't working, find another way. There will be times when you don't want to. There may be be times when you don't want to so much you'll feel like crying. You'll hate your writing, you'll doubt yourself, you'll doubt your goal. All that you have to push right through.

Once you reach that first, smaller goal, assess which parts of your plan worked and which didn't. Did you push yourself to write too many pages a day, so you didn't have enough time to think? Did you schedule writing for a time of day that's not really good for you, when you're too tired, or when other things tend to get in the way? Remember, the time to decide this is after you've given it your absolute best shot, for a week or a month or whatever you put on your calendar, not when you're halfway there and just feel like bailing out. Use this information as you set your next small goal on the way to the Big One.

12. As for the rest of the things on your list: You've marked the three things you most want to accomplish, and you're making progress towards #1. Put the list away for a week, and mark the day on your calendar when you'll look at it again. When you take it out, ask yourself if the Top Three Goals are still the same. If they are, think about whether and how you want to put them on your calendar. Do you want to work on these top goals simultaneously? Do you want to accomplish #1 before you plan the next two?

The important thing is to have one big goal on your calendar, to break it down and keep watching your progress towards it. If that works better for you than going for three big goals at once, it's fine to set the others aside for now. The fact that you've written them down and read them back to yourself will likely cause your subconscious to start working on them without your even realizing it. Or, if you've chosen the wrong goals, your subconscious will get to work on nudging you away from them and towards the right ones, and that's good too. You can let all that work itself out underground while you keep your eye on your progress towards Goal #1.

As for the others you marked, the "easiest" and the "most fun," think about whether you want to put those on the calendar at all, and if so, where. In my case, I often find that those will take care of themselves—I'd do them whether or not I had a deadline—so I don't need to clutter up my schedule with them. It's still nice to have them written down on a list of goals to remind yourself that they are things you're accomplishing and having fun with, at the same time you work towards the more challenging Big Ones.

13. Read this. 

14. Choose a Word of Power. Pick a number from 1 to 25. (Here's a random number generator.) Go to this list and find your word. This is your Word of Power for the coming year.

Maybe it's clear right away what it means and how it will give you power. Maybe it isn't. Think about it. Write the word down. Keep it somewhere.

In class, I passed around a stack of cards with the words written on them, and everyone chose one at random. We went around the table saying how we thought our chosen word might give us power. Then, I passed around blank cards, each with one person's name at the top, and we all wrote that person's word of power on the card. So for example, if there were a person named Joe whose word was "sparks," each of us would write that word on his card and he'd get it back with "sparks" written all over it, in different colors and different handwriting. All of us wishing him the power of sparks in the coming year—whatever he'd decided that meant for him.

That's it! Just some very basic list-making, deadline-setting, and a little everyday magic. It is magic—laying down your goals, gathering in a group to share them and get encouragement and good wishes. Even if you put away your list of goals, your secret-pleasure symbols, and your words of power, and don't take them out until months or years from now, you might be surprised to find that your subconscious has been working away on them without your even realizing it: that you've made progress towards goals you'd forgotten; that a pearl of a character has grown around the strange song lodged in your heart; or that just at the moment when you thought everything was dark and dead, you saw sparks.

Mikalojus Ciurlionis, Sparks III, 1906

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Map Your Writing Goals for 2015

Have you made a resolution to write more in the new year? Come to the Planning Class this Tuesday, January 6, from 9:45 to 11:45 a.m. at the Ajna Center, 75 S. Riverside Ave. Croton-on-Hudson, in Westchester County, NY. (Daytime doesn't work for you? Let me know.)

Bring a notebook and pen, as we're going to do exercises to clarify goals and make plans for achieving them in 2015.

These goals will be completely your own. If you want to draft a novel, or get a story published in a literary magazine, good; if you want to sit down twice a week and write with honesty, with no aim to "produce," that's great too. The point is to say your goals out loud, commit them to paper, and draw inspiration and encouragement from the company of other writers as you make a map for your writing journey. Drop in for just this session, or come back for periodic check-ins (I'll announce them) to talk about what's working and change what's not, so you can keep challenging yourself and moving forward.

The cost for this session is $40 for everybody. (Regular price is $50/class to drop in, $40/class if you pay for the month.)

Come join us!

(If you're feeling completely stuck, try this. Or one of these.)

 Happy New Year
Illustration by Rafael de Penagos, 1916, via 50watts