Thursday, May 27, 2010

wear a helmet & kneepads

“You’ve got to jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down.” Annie Dillard.

Sometimes you have to do this in writing. You can plan all you want but if you’re writing from the place I believe you should be writing from-- that place deep within you and below your conscious mind which is all too interfering in the intuitive connections stories require—then you will be jumping off some cliffs and building your wings on the way down.

Good luck.

Wear a helmet and kneepads.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


What makes people tense? Lots of things. But what makes them most tense is when they’re unsure about something. For example, they think they might know that their boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife is having an affair, but they aren’t sure. Once they’re sure, one way or another, they might feel a lot of things but the tension is different. I could be wrong about this but I think the peak of the tension is not knowing.

When your goal is to intensify tension one of the best ways to do that is to put your character in this place of not-knowing and carefully describe what he or she goes through when they’re there.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Along with this notion of the necessity of writing nearly every day for some length of time should be my confession that, however long I sit at my desk, I am writing during much of the day when I am away from it.

It’s a kind of disease or illness that can certainly lead to trouble for the writer. I’ve got a name for this disease. I call it WADD: Writers' Attention Deficit Disorder. How many of my brother and sister writers out there suffer from it? Very many. Perhaps most.

Here are some signs. You appear to be listening to someone talking to you—friend, spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, family member. You nod your head and smile (somewhat vaguely it’s true if one were to look closely) when you are actually thinking about what your character did that morning when you wrote or will do tomorrow or should do or shouldn’t do. There eventually comes the moment when the person talking to you says, “What do you think?” Naturally, you will be forced to say something broad and indefinite like “I think you should do what you think best” to avoid hurting the person’s feelings. WADD once again has reared its ugly head.

Here’s another example: let’s say you’re driving. You get in the car. You turn on the radio and start thinking about a plot point in your story. Somehow you arrive at your destination with no clear recollection of having driven there. You’ve been so lost in thinking about your work that you haven’t paid any attention to the road. You’re fairly certain you haven’t hit anyone, but you aren’t entirely sure. You take a guilty look at your car for dents or scratches.

I could go on. There’s no real cure for WADD. Writers simply have to live with the fact that their minds will often wander out of the moment. They have to try to control it so that they don’t agree to things they don’t mean to agree to. For example, you might not be listening and someone might ask you to marry them or move to Portugal and you might say, “Sure, whatever, “ when you really mean, “He** no.” We, sufferers of WADD, must be careful given the sometimes devastating consequences of this disease. Still just admitting we have it will help. Knowledge is power.

Friday, May 14, 2010


I read Stephen King's book on writing not too long ago. I admire his work ethic as a writer and his struggle to write the best he can. He says a writer should find three or four hours a day to do some combination of reading and writing. Of course, he doesn’t have a day job, so it may be that your job stops you from finding that much time. Some days mine does.

But you do need to find time to write. In my opinion it needs to be almost every day, even if you only find thirty minutes to write. Even if you only write a few good sentences. Notice, I say write. That has to come first. I write and read most days, but if I don’t have time for both, it’s the reading that I don't get to. You have to read, yes, but you shouldn’t allow reading to take the place of writing.

What I’m getting at it is there’s a trap with reading. Sometimes a writer will read a couple of hours and manage to convince himself that he’s done his writing work for that day by reading. He counts the reading as writing since he knows it makes him a better writer. But reading won’t fill pages. It will raise the quality of your work, but only writing fills pages. It’s great if you read a hundred books in a year, but if you want to be a writer the real goal is that you write one .

My other point about writing is that getting to the “writing place” where you can pour out words is easier if you open that door every day. The door begins to stick for me after only one or two days of not opening it. After a week, it can be a real struggle. Two weeks and I might need a chainsaw to get through it. Write and read fiction. It's simple in a way. Nothing will make you a better writer than to write and read fiction. Ultimately, though a writer is a writer because he or she writes. In my humble opinion, writing nearly every day not only leads to a finished manuscript it makes writing itself, getting to that place where writing comes from, easier.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sooner is Better

One thing that my last manuscript taught me is something I had heard Kurt Vonnegut say and something I’m trying to do in my new WIP.

Tell everything you can as soon as you can. Don’t hold back. Don’t try to keep things hidden in the hopes of adding suspense. Okay, there are plot points you may eventually realize can be hidden and their press against the story will help in terms of tension BUT too often we withhold because we think something is cool and needs to be set up with a lot of events that will lead to it. Often though, putting it earlier will force the story to push deeper earlier. You’re building a story. You need to throw everything in as early as possible and then, in revision, make decisions about pacing.

In my new manuscript I was going to withhold an important piece of information one character knew about another. I thought this would add tension. BUT my choice to put it in now, get it out there, makes me see where the story should go. This point is going to allow me to get on to more important things (I hope). If I’d withheld it, I’d still be focusing on building toward it and that would put a drag on my story. I’m sure there are exceptions to this idea of not saving information for later in the story, but it’s at least something to consider as you build story. In a first draft, sooner is better unless you have a very good reason for saving it.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Delusion can be a good thing for a writer.

You have to fool yourself into writing. If we didn’t fool ourselves, we would never start in the first place. You have to fool yourself when you’re a novice that you’re writing good fiction when, most likely, you’re struggling to find your way, learn technique, learn what works for you and what doesn’t. And every first draft, whether it’s the writer's first novel or fifth or beyond, requires that the writer fool himself into pushing on. In a first draft you have to feel your sentences are doing the job, you have to imagine that the (if you’re like me) fuzzy mess is actually insightful and has enough right words that it can be made, through revision, into something worth your time.

When you’re working on a new novel, you have to believe it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. Though you know deep down writers don’t usually write from worst to best over a life; some books are just better and sometimes they’re book number three or five or eight. But you can’t think of that. You have to believe what you’re working on is the best, the very best, work you’ve ever done.

So celebrate your delusion. Probably best if you don’t celebrate it too loudly or allow it to press its way into other aspects of your life, but in writing it can allow you to move forward. Let it. We need all the help we can get.