Monday, July 31, 2017

Is Your Writing Good Enough?

A few days ago I asked someone what stalled her in her fiction writing. The first line of her reply struck a chord with me: "Deciding that the writing isn't good enough."

Deciding that the writing isn't good enough! That's it, isn't it? It happens so often. I've been wrestling with the same thing in my own project this week, and asking myself why I would let this thought get in my way for even a second.

The person I was corresponding with happens to be a very good writer, and graduated from a top MFA program. But that doesn't stop the doubts. And also isn't even the point, because writing that you put your heart and soul and self and time and effort into will almost always become good enough, if you stay the course with it.

The process of finding your voice may take you down a path you didn't choose. You may discover you're a romance or YA writer when you wanted to be "literary" (or you could be both); or that you're "literary" when you're trying to churn out a potboiler to pay the bills. (That's what happened to Melville when he wrote Moby-Dick. And here's a great essay from the very literary Emily Barton about trying to write a potboiler: How a Dare Morphed Into a Full-Fledged Novel.) But no matter what your destiny is as a writer, it's not dependent on coming up with something magically "good enough" to earn you the right to go on to the next sentence. It's by keeping at it that you'll begin to hear your own voice and, eventually, enable your work to find its place in the world. 

It was interesting when Rob Spillman of Tin House magazine came to speak at the Yale Writers' Conference, where I've taught for several years, a couple of summers ago. He talked about the Vida count, a study done by Vida re: gender imbalances in publishing. He said one thing they found was that when women sent work to magazines and got a reply saying, "this is not for us, but we like your writing; please send more in future," they would often send no more to the magazine, treating the letter as if it had been a polite brush-off. Whereas men, receiving the same response, were much more likely to follow up immediately with new submissions. And this was part of the reason more men were being published. Tin House began to word those letters more strongly when addressing women, and it actually helped correct the imbalance in their magazine. I always think of this when I hear women (including myself) question whether their writing is good enough or whether people might actually want to read it. 

I often tell my students, especially those who belong to groups that tend to be marginalized in publishing: We have not only a right but a duty to the world to counter those doubts in our hearts and forge ahead. Otherwise the world of words will be full of Trump and Scaramucci tweets, and nothing else, because the most confident and blustering will be the ones who get their words out there. 

Describing how she helped change the landscape of the famously white male-dominated field of science fiction by giving life to realistic characters of color and female characters, Octavia Butler explained, "I wrote myself in, since I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing." 

Don't spend your energy asking if your writing is good enough to even be bothered with. Spend your energy writing yourself in.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Two Flash Fiction Contests from the Hudson Valley Writers' Center

Deadline for both: August 15

The Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York, is seeking flash fiction and nonfiction for their upcoming show, This Is Where I Lost It. Details here

They are also partnering  with lohud for this:  
"Local writers: Send a maximum of 500 words of fiction or non-fiction somehow relating to the idea of bridges. Whether you are inspired by our local Tappan Zee Bridge or more by the metaphor of a bridge, we want to hear from you. We will choose a select amount of submissions for a culminating multi-arts bridge themed reception and reading with lohud in September. Send your submission to by August 15 to be considered. We look forward to reading your work!" 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Evil Twin

Yesterday, in my brick-and-mortar IRL class, we were talking about the fun of writing "bad" characters. Sort of the way actors enjoy playing villains. One class member who's writing about a war photographer in Vietnam said, "She's such a fuckup, I love her." I thought: this is a character I want to read about. 

So often, part of the baggage with which we burden our main character is the demand that they be likable, or reasonable, or good. Sometimes, I think, because we see them as stand-ins for ourselves. It can be so freeing to let go of that.

Later that day, I asked one of my online students, whose main character was very hemmed in by expectations (those of other characters and maybe also, I suggested, those of the author): What do you think his evil twin would do?

If you're not ready to let your main character be unlikeable, can you imagine their evil twin? Take a scene in your current work that feels boring or static, set the timer for ten minutes, and let that evil twin handle the situation. What happens? 

Monday, July 24, 2017


A student wrote to me today with an interesting problem, one that I see a lot. Her story is about a character who is dealing with some important issues that the writer is interested in putting into a novel. Yet the character won't seem to come alive and dramatize those in the way the author wants her to.

This points to something I think of as a character's "baggage." Not in the sense of the character having problems, but in the sense that there are suitcases and backpacks they've been instructed to carry by the writer. We all have characters like this; so often they're our protagonists. "Enact the story of my grandmother's life," we tell them, or "help people understand that war is evil." The weightier these burdens are, the more they slow down your character. 

It's difficult to let these things go. Sometimes they're the reason we (thought we) started the story in the first place. But sometimes they're the very things we have to let the characters drop so they can move through the story and have their adventures, instead of trudging, head down, from the beginning to the end, dragging a 75-pound wheelie bag that actually belongs to someone else: the author. 

The interesting thing is, once you do allow your character to let go of those, they often do the thing you wanted them to do anyway. Just not in the way your conscious mind was expecting. 

But regardless of whether they do or don't, if you let them drop your baggage, they will find out what their own destiny is, and they will come alive. And that, more than anything we impose on them, is what makes a good story.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Daily Exercises 7/24 through 7/28

These Daily Exercises classes are so much fun. Only one fifteen-minute assignment per day, but it's an intense week, and your story will grow.

This class is for anyone who's working on a story or novel, or wants to be. You can be at any stage, from the idea phase (it does help if you have some ideas about a character) to revision. 

It will get you moving again, help you see your story from different angles, and leave you inspired and energized to continue. 

Daily Exercises Online class
All levels welcome!
Monday 7/24 - Friday 7/28

Use the CONTACT ME form on the right to email me and sign up.

Want a sample of what we do in class? Click here. In class you'd share the result, and your current project/idea, with me and others and hear our (friendly, encouraging) responses. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Tarot Card Exercise

The Tarot Card Exercise 
The Hand Fate Deals You

I'm posting this today for my new Daily Exercises class, but anyone can do it.

This exercise is a perennial favorite in my classes. It might look complicated, but the very specific parameters can be unexpectedly freeing.

Here's the exercise:

Write down three numbers between one and fifty.  (If you like, use this random number generator.)

Now click here. Write down the three words or phrases associated with your numbers.

This is the hand fate has dealt you. (In class, they'd be on cards sitting in front of you.)

Set your timer for fifteen minutes. Keep writing until the timer goes off.

The first word or phrase should be included in your first sentence
The second goes anywhere in the middle
The last one must be included in the last sentence

Remember: Keep writing until the timer goes off. It does not have to be "good." It does not have to be "right." It does not even have to make sense. Just keep putting words on the page.

That's it!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Daily Exercises, Week Two, starts 7/17

Wow, the Daily Exercises class last week was intense. Only one fifteen-minute assignment per day, but I almost felt like I was seeing people's stories evolve at time-lapse speed. There was so much great energy in all the work.

I'm offering another this week, and the price, which I set earlier, is still $50. But this turned out to be a LOT of (really fun) work, so the next one is going to cost substantially more so that it's an accurate reflection of the time I put in. Get the cheap one while you can!

Daily Exercises Online class
All levels welcome!
Monday 7/17 - Friday 7/21

Use the CONTACT ME form on the right to email me and sign up.

Want a sample of what we do in class? Click here. In class you'd share the result, and your current project/idea, with me and others and hear our (friendly, encouraging) responses. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

New exercise: your character from three points of view

I'm posting this exercise for my new online class, but anyone can do it.

This exercise is about exploring your main character. Write down her/his name, and the names of two other important characters in your novel or story. You now have three names on your page.

All of these people will tell us about your main character. We'll see her first through her own eyes, then through the eyes of the other two.

Go to this random number generator. Set max to 60. Get a number. Find that word on the list and write it next to the name of your main character.

Do this for each of the other two characters.

Now set the timer for five minutes and let your main character describe herself. The word next to her name must go in the first sentence.

Do the same for the other two characters. Remember each character is giving their own take on your main character.

Don't think too much about this; just write until the timer goes off. Have fun!

At the end, what have you discovered about your main character and her relationships? How might this inform the next scene you're going to write or rewrite?

1 ice

2 rain

3 light

4 sparks

5 flame

6 crack

7 flare

8 earth

9 alight

10 untouching

11 mechanical

12 sorrow

13 pressure

14 name

15 sweet

16 thief

17 storm

18 early

19 echo

20 bone

21 desire

22 blood

23 salt

24 orbit

25 drive

26 glimmer

27 touch

28 voices

29 flood

30 beast

31 tiny

32 alive

33 human

34 accident

35 eyes

36 liar

37 teeth

38 birds

39 slide

40 snow

41 murder

42 nerve

43 path

44 tunnel

45 branch

46 break

47 begin

48 call

49 lift

50 blaze

51 flare

52 shadow

53 leaves

54 pity

55 doorway

56 moon

57 dust

58 insomnia

59 dark

60 stars