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Articles Tagged “writing”
Oct 8, 2019 Writing Tips

Working one-on-one with first- time memoirists and novelists at various summer writing work- shops over the past many years, I often find myself needing to de- liver the hard news. Perhaps the most difficult lesson I have to pass along is this:

Once you are done writing your book, you aren’t really done writing your book. When I say this, foreheads inevitably furrow. Faces fall.

Being reminded of just how much effort is required even after you’ve put a period on the final sentence of the final chapter of a multi-year project can be deeply discouraging.

Because yes, revision does take effort and time. It needn’t, however, be painful.

The blank page is a frightening void. An early draft, however, filled with words — all pointing in the right direction, but in need of some tender loving care — can be exhilarating. Words are like clay: You can push them around and make all manner of shapes with them. And clay reminds us of childhood. And childhood re- minds us of the time when we were the most playful, most creative, and least haunted by voices telling us we can’t do things well enough.

In other words, you can approach revision with your head low and your shoulders tensed, thinking, “Boy my sentences are so sloppy and wordy, and everything seems slow. All in all, I’m a pathetic failure.”

Or you can approach revision thinking, “Hey, here’s my chance to get it right. Let’s play around.”

Too many areas of life don’t afford you a second chance, but writing does, and you should see that as a good thing. So, here’s my advice:

FIRST: GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING

Once you’ve found an ending to your novel or memoir, look back at your opening impulse. These two moments should be connected, either by a direct line of action and reaction running through the entire book, or through the cur- rent of emotion. Sometimes these two moments may also be linked by setting, by imagery, or through a recurrent metaphor. There is no steadfast rule, except that if the be- ginning and ending don’t feel coupled in any significant way, you need to rethink plot and structure.

Remind yourself that a book begins with a question: “How will she overcome this unforeseen challenge?” or “Will this experience change him in some significant way?” The ending doesn’t always answer the question fully, but it should connect, and though the beginning doesn’t ask the question explicitly, it should plant the seed.

THEN: EVERYTHING IN THE MIDDLE

Yes, everything.

Locate the emotional undercurrent of your book — what I like to call the Invisible Magnetic River — and review every word, image, metaphor, scene, character, and chapter. Look for scenes, even those you labored over for days that may no longer have any utility to the story, or images and metaphors that — though not poorly shaped — don’t fit the overall flow. Though it is heartbreaking to delete twenty pages of honest effort, this momentary agony is far more desirable than settling for a book that limps or sputters somewhere midway.

FINALLY: THE SENTENCE LEVEL

This part is the most fun for me, honestly, though perhaps I have an odd sense of what is enjoy- able. I love reading the manuscript through from beginning to end, every sentence, one at a time, OUT LOUD.

Listening to each sentence, feeling it inside of my mouth as I speak it, identifying words I use too often, finding phrases that fall flat, is an opportunity I don’t have in every- day life, in spoken conversation. Getting it right just feels good.

Often I improve a sentence by speaking it out loud, then trying another pattern, substituting an- other word, and then speaking the revised sentence out loud. My ear is frequently more helpful than my brain in identifying simple awkwardness and in recognizing the more vexing problem of sentences that sound good but say little.

Of course, there are days that re- writing can be a slog, just as writ- ing can be. There are moments in revision that I think I’ll never find the solution, moments of despair and discouragement.

But overall the process is invigorating, and when working well, invigorating for both my prose and my story.

The difference, in my mind, be- tween writers who are successful in finding an audience and those who struggle, is when and where in the revision process a writer throws in the towel and settles for “good enough.”

Learn to be just a bit tougher on your own work than the toughest editor you can imagine, and you just might find that agents and editors suddenly love your book.

Sep 6, 2019 Writing Tips

When I teach, I like debunking the mythical dictates carved in the Styrofoam pillars supporting the shrine built to deify the Real Writer. (Picture the Lincoln Memorial, but it’s Ernest Hemingway up on that throne, fountain pen clenched in a fist as big as a Thanksgiving turkey.) There’s a reason, I point out, that novelists do not have to pass exams to practice their trade. Architects and sea captains, sure. Surgeons, you bet. Why not novelists? Simple: Our form of malpractice won’t kill anybody. The worst we can do is bore you silly, fail to suspend your disbelief, make you waste a little money. So we get to do this thing we do by whatever rules and rituals we devise.

Prominent among those dictates (close on the heels of Write every day) is Write what you know. Which holds true, admittedly, to the extent that every journey begins at home. But I like Grace Paley’s retort: “We don’t write about what we know; we write about what we don’t know about what we know.” Write what you want to know, and start out pretending you know a lot more than you do. Surmise, invent, and bluff your way through it as far as you can. Flex your imagination. Why else are you here?

One of the ancillary pleasures in writing fiction, however, is finding out stuff; “real” stuff; stuff you never knew before; stuff you need to know if the story you’re telling is to hold up as true. Curiosity is the apprentice to your imagination. Yet I have found that the longer I can put off my research, the stronger and tighter my stories are. This is personal, of course; maybe you, setting out to write the great modern Western, need to pack up and live as a Wyoming cowhand before you can write a single word. Herman Melville went on an honest-to-God whaling voyage — no luxury cruise — before sitting down to write Moby-Dick. I hasten to add that I am not writing historical fiction, so the broad context of my work is the world we live in now; nevertheless, I delve deeply into my characters’ personal histories, which means I’m facing history with a capital H. I may need to find out about, for instance, the rationing of farm equipment during World War II. (Wars of the last century have influenced the lives of my fictional people as dramatically as they have the lives of actual people.)

I won’t deny that laziness factors into my method. Years ago, I loved nothing more than a good excuse to roam the library stacks. Now, even heading down screen to Safari seems like a chore when all I want to do is hang around with my characters, eavesdrop on their secrets, and get them in trouble just to find out how they’ll endure (or not).

In every story, I challenge myself to create characters outside my know-it-all zone, but never arbitrarily. Though I may not understand why, I will have felt a deep curiosity to inhabit the psyche of a wildlife biologist, a pastry chef, a Guatemalan gardener, an elderly widower, a music critic, the devout Catholic mother of two gay sons, a cancer patient, a cellist, a lonely film star, an insolent young man bent on what he sees as constructive anarchy.

To know their passions, preoccupations, and afflictions, I have researched the infrastructure of wedding cakes, the culture of a 1960s summer camp for teenage musicians, the pathology and treatment of AIDS in the 1980s, the training of Border collies, the politics of water rights in the Southwest, the conservation of grizzly bears — but I began by writing from instinct and hearsay. The problem with doing research too soon is this: If I uncover too much captivating knowledge in advance, I cannot resist including it, nor can I tell when it dilutes or distracts from the story I’m trying to tell. If, on the other hand, I must pack it into the brimming suitcase of an existing story, only the pertinent details will fit. (The vast lore I uncovered on the variously eccentric traditions surrounding wedding confections was hard to leave behind, but because I was working to authenticate an existing scene, the narrative had only so much give.) The story must be the boss of the research, not the other way around.

I like doing my research live, using people as sources whenever I can. And sometimes those people find me. Years ago, while struggling to craft a character living with the after-effects of head trauma, after reading medical journals had left me more confused than informed, I was called for jury duty — where I happened to meet a stranger who In every story, I challenge myself to create characters outside my know-it-all zone, but never arbitrarily. had gone through an experience parallel to that of my character. I conducted some enormously fruitful “research” over lunch breaks from the courthouse.

Inevitably, you miss things. If you’re lucky, people who read your work early on catch those gaffes before it’s too late: the clam sauce with onions, the cello seated behind the flute; an idiom or a gadget or a popular song deployed before its time. Sometimes, however, alternative facts wind up in print. In Three Junes, I began by using memory and guesswork to describe the surroundings of a Scottish country home, an essential setting, knowing I’d fine-tune the details later. Several drafts later, I consulted a guide to British birding, overwriting my placeholder blue jays, robins, and cardinals with yellowhammers, chiffchaffs, and collared doves. Botanically, however, it turns out I wasn’t so thorough.

There I was, out on tour, closing my book after reading to a small audience, when a hand shot up, emphatically. “Excuse me,” said my questioner, “but please see page 117. It isn’t possible, you realize, for the women’s final at Wimbledon to fall within the month of June. And, on page 47, can you tell me what a dogwood tree is doing in Scotland? Dogwoods grow only in North America.” He was holding a copy of my book sprouting a thicket of Post-Its. He was my first of a certain kind of reader. I want to hug and slug these people at the very same time. They are, after all, devoted to the truth.

Okay, so he had me on Wimbledon — a necessary torquing of reality that I had hoped no one would notice. “But as for the dogwood,” I said, keeping my cool, “there were these American houseguests who, wanting to make a memorable impression on their Scottish hosts, and knowing how much they cherished their garden, smuggled a dogwood sapling in their luggage as a house present. The climate proved perfectly hospitable. The guests were invited back. Next time, they brought a pair of blue jays.”

Jul 18, 2019 Writing Tips

History that downplays individual experience — that focuses exclusively on movements, economic forces, social developments, and the like — can be worthwhile and enlightening, but it’s never going to make very compelling reading for non-specialists. People are interested in people, so they like to see how the larger forces of history shape — and are shaped by — recognizable, specific persons with stories all their own. As a narrative historian, I therefore face a lot of the same challenges that a novelist does. I’ve got to find characters whose life histories will allow me to express what needs expressing, and who are in and of themselves fascinating to read about.

As a former fiction writer (or, as Walter Isaacson teasingly called me in the New York Times a few years ago, a “lapsed novelist”), I’ve seen the task from both perspectives, and I can tell you that the narrative historian has, in some ways, the harder job. Yes, we don’t face the yawning terror of the totally blank page every morning (that daily existential crisis), but we also don’t have the luxury of creating elements from whole cloth to add dimension to a dullish character or enliven a lagging plot. We can only draw on the raw material offered up by the historical record. Of course, many popular historians of the past had no qualms about inventing freely — details, dialogue, scenes — whenever the historical record was lacking, but the new school of narrative history insists on higher standards of scholarship. In other words, we can’t just make it up.

So when deciding on what characters to focus on in my books, I look for people who (A), were at the center of the important issues of the day, (B), were complex and interesting in their own right, and (C), were also well documented in the historical record. That last criterion is important. Memoirs, letters, newspaper interviews, diaries — any kind of account in which a participant in the drama tells what happened in human, on-the-ground terms — are critical for me, since they give me the concrete details I need to bring people and events to life. (Incidentally, since a lot of my main characters are colorful types who frequently wound up in court, transcripts of trial testimony have been particularly useful.)

Naturally, all of these documents can be as unreliable as any other sources in the record. Accounts are only as trustworthy as the people who give them, after all, so I find myself constantly having to judge how much to believe in any given source. Often I’ll talk about this decision-making process in the end-notes to my books, which I see as a kind of running commentary on how I used the historical record to create the book, for those who are interested in seeing how the sausage is made.

The three criteria I mentioned were important considerations when I chose the main characters around whom to base The Mirage Factory. William Mulholland, D.W. Griffith, and Aimee Semple McPherson were all central to the story I wanted to tell, representing the three forces — which you might shorthand as Water, Celluloid, and Spirituality — that allowed Los Angeles to grow up in a place where no big city has any right to be. They’re also intriguing, multidimensional people with character flaws as big as their talents. And they were all extremely well documented in the historical record. All three wrote autobiographies of a sort (although Mulholland’s was very short). Each left behind a fairly comprehensive archive. And as highly visible public figures, they were covered extensively (in McPherson’s case, one might say “obsessively”) by the local press in their lifetimes.

So narrative historians have definite limits on what they can do, particularly when telling stories that involve people for whom the historical record is skimpy or incomplete. That’s why I sometimes have to take a pass on a book idea that might seem irresistible at first glance. If the material isn’t there to give the characters and events the kind of texture and dimension required, the idea won’t work, no matter how interesting the story may be in outline. Fortunately, though — thanks to the hard work of archivists who keep developing more sophisticated ways of cataloguing and searching their collections — the amount of raw material available just keeps growing. It’s up to the narrative historian to choose wisely. 

Jun 26, 2019 Writing Tips

I love it when readers say to me, “After I finished your novel, I went straight to Google to figure out what was true and what was made up!” That’s exactly why historical fiction is my favorite genre: In a good story, I become immersed in a different time period with people I’d never meet otherwise, who are living through situations that are unimaginable today. After I’ve turned the last page, I’m eager to discover the nuggets of truth buried within the work of fiction.

My fictional characters are built around the framework of historical fact. Once I have an idea for a setting for my book — The Doll- house is set in the Barbizon Hotel for Women and The Address takes place in the Dakota apartment house — I do a deep dive into the research of the time period (1950s for The Dollhouse and 1880s for The Address, although they both feature contemporary plotlines as well). I read everything I can from that era, including newspapers, magazines, fiction, and nonfiction. I also interview experts, like architectural historians who specialize in the Gilded Age, or women who lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women in the ’50s and ’60s.

That’s when the ideas start to pop. While researching The Dollhouse, I learned that when the Barbizon Hotel for Women was turned into luxury condos, a dozen or so long- time residents were moved into rent-controlled apartments on the same floor. Great set-up for a book, I thought.

I read a harrowing newspaper article from the 1950s about the rising heroin epidemic, which was often blamed on bebop jazz musicians. What a great contrast to the rarified world of the hotel, with its guests in pearls and white gloves, right? So in my plot, I sent one of my characters downtown, where she got mixed up with some seedy characters.

I used the same approach while working on The Address. I discovered that in the 1930s, a “lady managerette” ran the Dakota. That gave me the idea for one of my characters: a housekeeper named Sara Smythe who gets an unexpected promotion early in the novel.

In general, the characters in my stories are all fictional. That gives me room to play around with them, get them into and out of trouble, and not feel constrained by a true historical figure. Exceptions do occur, though. Nelly Bly, a fabulous reporter from the 1880s, makes a quick appearance in The Address. As a former journalist, I couldn’t resist. And both buildings were touched by famous, tragic figures. Sylvia Plath stayed at the Barbizon Hotel in 1953 and wrote about it in The Bell Jar, and John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota in 1980.

In both those cases, I felt it was important to mention the association, but not linger there. For example, I set the modern-day timeline of The Address in 1985, when Strawberry Fields first opened, as a way to respectfully touch upon the tragedy without making it a major part of the story.

A couple of times I’ve had to slightly fudge dates of real events in order to make the story work. When that happens, I mention it in the author’s note at the end, where I also list many of the resources I relied upon. My hope is that readers will continue on in their journey to learn more about the past, and enjoy it as much as I did.

Jun 4, 2019 Writing Tips

The novelist William Dean Howells once famously remarked that his friend Mark Twain was not a writer who performed so much as a performer who wrote. Perhaps surprisingly, this astute observation also holds true in Twain’s nonfiction, a form that would seem to put less of a premium on both invention and performance. To read the passages from The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi collected in this volume is to understand that Twain didn’t lose much sleep over the idiosyncratic demands of fiction versus nonfiction. Both offered numerous and varied opportunities to an inspired, indeed unparalleled, bullshitter. To be sure, many of the set pieces that are included in the Everyman’s Library volume of The Complete Short Stories — “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” “The Story of the Old Ram”—turn up in this volume as well. Classifying Twain’s work into fiction or nonfiction is something we do for our own convenience; his convenience was to ignore ours.

So, are the events chronicled in Roughing It — which details Twain’s journey by stagecoach to the Nevada territory, his stint there as a silver miner, and his apprenticeship to the newspaper trade — true? Once asked that same question about one of his own stories, David Sedaris replied, “They’re true enough,” and it’s easy to imagine Twain saying the same thing about his youthful adventures in the American West. We know he traveled to Europe and the Holy Land as a correspondent, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that at least some of what he reports in The Innocents Abroad actually happened. I suspect, however, that the literally true parts are those he wasn’t able to improve on through embellishment or outright invention. For Twain, “truth” was not just elastic but indeed designed to be stretched. He learned this lesson early on, writing for western newspapers. He explains the job to great comic effect in Roughing It, where, as a cub reporter, he wrote a story about a wagon full of immigrants attacked by Indians. At first, fearing that other reporters might recount the same story, he sticks pretty close to the facts, despite his conviction that the story could be improved upon by straying from them. Later, though, when he learns that the owner of the wagon meant to continue his journey the following morning (leaving no one to contradict Twain’s account), all bets are off . His next draft describes an Indian fight that “to this day has no parallel in history.” This is Twain we’re talking about, so it’s likely that he also exaggerated the extent of his exaggerations, but still. Buoyed by praise from the paper’s editor, he expresses a willingness to murder every immigrant on the plains with his pen if “the interests of the paper demanded it.” Thus the low bar of truth is established: true enough. For him. For his editor. For the paper’s readership.

ONCE ASKED THAT SAME QUESTION ABOUT ONE OF HIS OWN STORIES, DAVID SEDARIS REPLIED, “THEY’RE TRUE ENOUGH.”

His approach to fiction was basically the same. At the beginning of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck says that readers may have heard of him if they’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which “was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” That first assertion, it’s worth remembering, was both the truth and a lie. The book was actually “made” by Samuel Clemens, and the parts Mr. Clemens “stretched” were the parts that needed stretching, beginning with his own identity as Mark Twain. Again, Twain is not so much a writer, at least as the term is used today, as a storyteller whose primary duties are to the narrative and its audience. No story is likely to be instructive if it isn’t entertaining, and the best way to gauge whether it’s working or not is to watch it land with an actual audience, a lesson Twain learned long before he gave his first public lecture.

In A Tramp Abroad he recounts his first ride on a Mississippi steamboat as a ten-year-old boy. Falling asleep, he has a terrifying dream that the boat is ablaze, and he rushes into the ladies’ salon, still under the nightmare’s influence, screaming “Fire!” The ladies there knew better, of course, and they advised him to return to his cabin and dress, lest he catch cold. It’s a revealing memory. The humiliation of his story playing so badly, his audience rejecting both the tale and the teller, is still fresh in Twain’s mind twenty-five years later as he’s writing Tramp. Just as telling is the reason he recalls the episode in the first place. He’s in Germany watching a production of King Lear, where the actor playing the title role “raged and wept and howled” across the stage. Twain admires the performance but feels sorry for the actor, who has to wait until the end of the act for his applause.

Writers, by contrast, are used to silence. Their applause, if they’re lucky enough to get any, comes long after their “performance” has concluded, in the form of reviews. True, authors who publish serially may to some degree interact with their audience. When readers loved Sam Weller in an early installment of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was happy to expand his role as the novel progressed, but that’s hardly akin to telling the same stories on stage night after night, as Twain did on his public speaking tours. Each audience provided him with valuable insight into what worked and why, allowing him to revise the material accordingly. His first public lecture triumph near the end of Roughing It is described almost completely in terms of the crowd’s appreciation. The audience is with him from the start, he tells us, even the jokes he’d judged to be inferior faring “royally.” Near the end, though, the material grows more somber and serious, and Twain tells us that the “absorbed hush” that fell over the audience “gratified me more than any applause.” Indeed, he’s so pleased by the reaction that he can’t help but smile, which the crowd took as a cue to laugh, thus ruining the moment.

Later in life, Twain’s relationship with his audience would grow more complex. In Life on the Mississippi, he admits that being a river pilot was the best job he ever had, because the steamboat pilot has no master, whereas writers were “manacled servants of the public.” That said, no writer ever courted his audience more assiduously nor drew more confidence and pleasure from public adulation (Twain courted honorary degrees, too, and shamelessly.) Indeed, one suspects that it was from his audience, as much as the work itself, that Twain derived his sense of accomplishment and well-being.

WRITERS, BY CONTRAST, ARE USED TO SILENCE. THEIR APPLAUSE, IF THEY’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO GET ANY, COMES LONG AFTER THEIR “PERFORMANCE” HAS CONCLUDED, IN THE FORM OF REVIEWS.

It’s worth pointing out that the world has changed since Twain left it, and our attitudes towards “truth” and “fiction” have become more rigorous and stern. Mislabel your novel as a memoir (or allow your publisher to do so) and you’ll likely find yourself in a world of hurt. Twain was no great fan of fraud and deception, but like Melville he understood that the world was steeped in both, and moreover he harbored more than a little admiration and affection for its charlatans. Reading Huckleberry Finn I often wonder if I judge the King and the Duke more harshly than their creator intended. At the very least Twain would’ve understood that people who get conned are often complicit in their own deception. Just as important, he would have recognized the paradox inherent in labeling some stories “made up” ( fiction) and others “true” (nonfiction). Interestingly, audience often plays a role here, too. When you claim that a story is invented — especially one as elaborate as Twain’s were — people will naturally suspect you of telling the truth (Come on! You couldn’t have made that up!). Conversely, when you claim to be telling the truth, those same folks shift gears and suspect you of lying (Surely you embellished this!). Storytelling thrives in this fundamental para- dox and often resists any attempts at clarification.

Mark Twain’s Nonfiction” first appeared as the introduction to Mark Twain’s Collected Nonfiction: Volume 2 (Everyman’s Library, 2016)

Explore Richard Russo’s latest books:

 

Apr 26, 2019 Writing Tips

I’m an author. And an editor. But never at the same time.

I’ve traveled a lot — all over North America and to Europe as well — to talk to writers about the craft of writing. I’ve given talks about plot, about character, about voice, about emotion, and have had wonderful conversations about stories with tons of booklovers. But inevitably, at some point in the conversation, someone asks me how my editorial brain coexists with my writer brain — whether I’m always editing what I write. And the answer, of course, is yes, I do edit what I write, but I don’t edit it — I couldn’t possibly edit it — in the same way I edit someone else’s work. And I never edit it until I’ve finished a complete first draft.

In the first book I wrote, The Nina, The Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure, which is a mystery for elementary schoolers, I edited and edited the first chapter until I felt like it was as close to perfect as I could make it before I moved on. And then I did the same with the second chapter. And the third. The book — which is only about 20,000 words — took me nearly a year to draft, and then when I got to the end, I realized that I’d constructed the plot all wrong, and all of that painstaking editing was, while perhaps not a waste of time, extraordinarily inefficient, because now I had to rewrite half of those chapters and revise the rest so that they made sense with the new plot structure. So over the next couple of years, I devised a plan, a way to turn off my internal editor and write more efficiently. These are my writing commandments.

1. THOU SHALT OUTLINE:

Before I start writing, I go through the entire story, chapter by chapter, and decide what important plot and emotional events will happen in each one. That way, I always know where the story’s going and will feel compelled to move forward instead of working on the same chapter for months.

2. THOU SHALT NOT RE-READ EARLIER SECTIONS

With my first book, I would start every writing session by rereading everything I’d already written, revising all of that, and only then start on new material. That meant that the longer the book got, the more time I needed to set aside each day to write. I realized afterward that this made no sense, so now I don’t read over what I’ve written until I have a whole draft done.

3. THOU SHALT HAVE GOALS

I break down my writing goals into manageable tasks that I must complete. When I’m drafting, my goals are all quantity based: 1,000 words today, 1,500 words this weekend, etc. And then once I have a draft done, I give myself chapter goals: Revise four chapters this weekend, one chapter after dinner. When I have that target in my mind, I push through to get things done.

4. THOU SHALT NOT SHARE YOUR WORK UNTIL IT’S COMPLETE

I have an amazingly generous, perceptive writing group, but I try not to share pages with them while I’m mid-draft. I want their thoughts on the whole book at once, otherwise it’s quite likely I’d begin inputting their edits into early pages and work so hard on those that it would take me forever to get through a complete draft.

5. THOU SHALT ACCEPT THAT SOME THINGS CAN BE FILLED IN LATER

Sometimes I’ll be going along and a thought will strike me about a section I’ve already written. Instead of going back and revising that scene right then, I scroll back to that scene and make myself a note that says something like [REMEMBER TO ADD IN THE THING ABOUT THE PASTA POT]. And then when I’m up to the revising stage, I add that part in.

6. THOU SHALT REMEMBER THAT THIS MANUSCRIPT IS NOT WRITTEN IN STONE

I think the true key to turning off any internal editing is to remember that every book goes through multiple revisions in its lifetime. The words and phrases and sentences don’t have to be perfect right away — I spent four years writing and revising The Light We Lost. Some lines are the same as they were in the first draft, but many are not. In the end, understanding that I’d eventually be letting go of so much that I’d written is what made it easiest for me to turn off that internal editor and enjoy the act of creation inherent in writing.

Oct 25, 2018 Blog

This article was written by Lorraine Berry and originally appeared on Signature Reads.

 

As writers, we can be our own worst enemies. We may have dozens of reasons why we are not writing.  Sometimes, these barriers may feel insurmountable, but James Clear argues in Atomic Habits that those barriers can be breached through a series of one percent changes to our habits. “The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do,” he says, and he offers a series of small steps to developing a writing habit.

Clear provides methods that help pinpoint those habits that are ineffective, and a large variety of tactics to create effective habits that will change what we do. His book contains clear instructions on how to develop writing as a habit, one that will feel as automatic as brushing your teeth or that first cup of coffee in the morning.

Here are five effective habits.

Habit #1: In order to encourage inspiration to strike, set up a time to meet with it.

James Clear cites a British study that showed that those who write down specific times when they will practice their new habit have the highest success rate. For writers, creating such an “implementation intention” would involve writing down a sentence that looks like this: “I will write for (period of time) at (time of day) at (location).” So, for example, “I will write for 30 minutes at 3 p.m. at the kitchen table.” By sitting down each day at 3, you accustom your brain to this new habit. Once your brain can count on you to keep your new habit, you may find that new ideas and inspiration are waiting for you.

Habit #2: If writing is important to you, create an environment that encourages you to write.

Our environment can create barriers to practicing our new habits. If your habit is to sit on the sofa to watch TV, and you had intended to write while sitting on the sofa, then the TV may prove to be too big a temptation. Instead, choose a place to write that isn’t associated with another habit. If you live in a tiny space with few options, then designate a specific place to write. It doesn’t have to be a different room. In a studio apartment, you may decide to use a different chair or to set up a small writing corner. You will attach writing to that particular place, so if you’re in that space, your brain will expect you to write. Environmental clues can be used to help reinforce your new habit.

Habit #3: Create temptations that reward you for your new habit of writing.

Habits are developed because our brain has a dopamine-driven feedback loop. It is the anticipation of the reward that causes the release of dopamine that makes us feel good. In fact, anticipation releases more dopamine than actually doing the thing we craved or wanted. You can use a habit you already have (getting up early, taking the dogs for a walk, drinking coffee in the morning) to attach the habit you are trying to develop to a reward that your brain anticipates. In this way, the habit you are developing is sandwiched between a daily habit you do anyway, and is followed by something you want. Clear provides readers with methods for identifying both the already established habits and also the things that individuals consider to be rewards. His system might look something like this:

  • After (current habit), I will (habit I need to develop).
  • After (habit I need to develop), I will (habit I want).

So, if you walk your dog every day after breakfast, and you need to write, but you also want to spend time on social media, you could do this:

  • After I walk the dog, I will write for 30 minutes.
  • After I write for 30 minutes, I will go on social media.

If going on social media has kept you from writing, this creates a system where social media is the reward you use to encourage yourself to write.

Habit #4: Make it easy to practice the habit of writing.

Wasting time is easy: we carry distractions in our pocket or give it pride of place in our living rooms. If we want to develop the practice of writing, we have to remove barriers to our practice. One way is to prime your environment with cues to your habit. So, if your intention is to write in the morning at the kitchen table, before you go to bed at night, lay out your writing implements —laptop or pen and paper. I take it further by making writing easier all the time: I carry a small notebook in my purse, have one in my car’s glove box, and leave several throughout my house. This way, it’s as easy to write as it is to pick up the phone.

Habit #5: Start with the Two-Minute Rule for new habits and continue from there.

Maybe you’re afraid that you’ll fail in some way because your committed writing time is too long. Clear suggests creating a ritual and following the Two Minute Rule as a way to prime yourself for your new habit. If your goal is to write at night, you can help to cement the habit into your head by attaching it to a ritual of your choosing, whether that’s a cup of herbal tea or changing into comfy clothes.  Each evening, as you engage in the ritual, your brain will anticipate that you are about to sit down and write. Your ritual primes your habit. Next, write for two minutes. If you feel done, stop. Clear argues that two minutes is usually enough to get past any initial resistance.

Clear has filled Atomic Habits with hints like these that enable us to change the habits we dislike and replace them with habits that show who we are. In order to be a writer, you must develop the habit of writing, even if it’s one word at a time. As Margaret Atwood reminds us, “A word after a word after a word is power.”

Writing at the table © Andrew Neel/Unsplash.

Sep 11, 2018 Blog

This article was written by Alexa Martin and originally appeared on Signature Reads.

 

When I first started writing what is now Intercepted, my debut novel, I did it hidden in my basement with the intention of never letting it see the light of day, but as I kept writing — and, let’s be honest, deleting — I grew more interested in the craft, and more interested in what made the authors I admire stand out from the rest. One thought kept popping into my head over and over again: writing voice.

Yes, the term “writing voice” may seem like a simple enough concept on the surface, but what does it really mean?

As writers, there are so many things we consider as we put our words onto paper: filter words, dialogue tags, adverbs, and even show. Am I a plotter or a planner? Where does my manuscript belong in terms of genre and sub-genre? What in the world is a query letter? All of these questions can be answered concisely, but when it comes to voice, the explanation becomes more complex.

Voice can be a combination of your writing tone, sentence structure, patterns, and perspective. It is a stamp on your writing that makes your work personal and recognizable, so much so that your audience can identify a sample of writing as yours without ever seeing your name. As a debut author, that seems like a daunting task, but it makes all the difference in how you will be received as a writer. Presently, in the world of publishing, there are so many talented authors saturating the market that standing out amongst the crowd can seem almost impossible. This is one of the reasons why voice is so important.

For me, discovering my voice started well before the thought of writing a book ever crossed my mind. I blogged; it was not a popular one by any means, unless you ask my mother or best friend. It was just a means to stay in touch with friends and family and update them on the happenings in my life. However, as I continued to write my blogs, the comments from readers started to influence the way I wrote. I would get a thrill when someone would reach out to me and tell me how hard he or she laughed at my latest post. Even better was when I’d get an email from a reader stating how much they wanted to get together and have a drink after reading one of my posts.

After a while, I knew what I wanted my readers to feel when they read my words. I wanted my stories to be relatable and fun. I wanted my readers to feel like they were having a night out with friends. And that feeling of relatability transferred into my writing style once I finally became brave enough to start my manuscript.

Even if you don’t blog, there’s no way in this day and age that you aren’t writing to someone at some point during your day. And while I’m not sure anybody wants to read a book of tweets or Facebook statuses, you are still using writing to get your point across. Another great way to hone in on your voice is to grab a notebook or open a word document and go wild. Just write whatever your heart desires. A quick google search will yield you tons of writing prompts if that’s what you need to get your juices flowing.

Sit down and ask yourself what kind of author you want to be. Decide what experience you want your reader to have. Ask yourself what you can bring to the story that nobody else can.

Most importantly, be yourself. Find inspiration from your favorite authors and allow it to guide you when developing your style. Part of being a writer is being a reader. Knowing what draws you to an author is crucial in creating your own voice. Everyone has an influence, just don’t lose your voice trying to emulate someone else.

As writers, we all might be a little crazy to do what we do, so make sure you’re doing it in a way that makes you happy. Whether you’re writing a romantic comedy, thriller, or memoir, remember that yourstory is important and your voice is needed.

Writing/Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Feb 7, 2017 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!

Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? 

Yes. As a child, when people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say I wanted to be an authoress (that word certainly dates me, doesn’t it?). I used to fill notebooks with stories. When I grew up, of course, I discovered that I needed to eat so became a high school English teacher. Then I got married and had children. There was no time to write. I took a year’s leave of absence following the birth of my third child and worked my way through a suggested Grade XI reading list. It included Georgette Heyer’s Frederica. I was enchanted, perhaps more than I have been with any book before or since. I read everything she had written and then went into mourning because there was nothing else. I decided that I must write books of my own set in the same historical period. I wrote my first Regency (A Masked Deception) longhand at the kitchen table during the evenings and then typed it out and sent it off to a Canadian address I found inside the cover of a Signet Regency romance. It was a distribution centre! However, someone there read it, liked it, and sent in on to New York. Two weeks later I was offered a two-book contract.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

 Someone (I can’t even remember who) at a convention I attended once advised writers who sometimes sat down to work with a blank mind and no idea how or where to start to write anyway. It sounded absurd, but I have tried it. Nonsense may spill out, but somehow the thought processes get into gear and soon enough I know if what I have written really is nonsense. Sometimes it isn’t. But even if it is, by then I know exactly how I ought to have started, and I delete the nonsense and get going. I have never suffered from writers’ block, but almost every day I sit down with my laptop and a blank mind.

What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? 

You don’t have to know everything before you start. You don’t have to know the whole plot or every nuance of your characters in great depth. You don’t have to have done exhaustive research. All three things are necessary, but if you wait until you know everything there is to know, you will probably never get started. Get going and the knowledge will come—or at least the knowledge of what exact research you need to do.

Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?

Never consciously. I wouldn’t want anyone to recognize himself or herself in my books. However, I have spent a longish lifetime living with people and interacting with them and observing them. I like my characters to be authentic, so I suppose I must take all sorts of character traits from people around me. And sometime yes, I suddenly think “Oh, this is so-and-so.”

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

All the books of Georgette Heyer would fit here. She was thorough in her research and was awesomely accurate in her portrayal of Georgian and Regency England. At the same time she made those periods her own. She had her own very distinctive voice and vision. When I began to write books set in the same period, I had to learn to do the same thing—to find my own voice and vision so that I was not merely trying to imitate her (something that never works anyway).

Learn more about the book below:

Jan 24, 2017 Behind the Scenes

Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen, published by Penguin Press, was one of the literary events of 2015.  Garlanded with critical acclaim, it won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was named a book of the year by The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.  But as many critics noted, Ottessa Moshfegh is particularly held in awe for her short stories.

Homesick for Another World, on sale now from Penguin Press, is the rare case where an author’s short story collection is, if anything, more anticipated than her novel. And for good reason. There’s something eerily unsettling about Ottessa’s stories, something almost dangerous, while also being delightful, and even laugh-out-loud funny.  Her characters are all unsteady on their feet in one way or another; they all yearn for connection and betterment, though each in very different ways, but they are often homesick for another worldtripped up by their own baser impulses and existential insecurities. Homesick for Another World is a master class in the varieties of self-deception across the gamut of individuals representing the human condition.

In this interview, Ottessa takes us inside her world: 

How would you describe your writing regimen and routines?

Obsessive and neurotic and captivating. I wake up, I work, I dilly dally, work, take out the trash, work, pace around, eat, work, shower, work, read, work, go for a walk, call people, work, eat, work, sleep. Toward the end of writing a book, I often sleep with my computer under my pillow…

What differentiates your approach to conceiving a novel as compared with your short stories?

The motivation to write a short story often comes from an abstract, mysterious noise in my head, and I can take my time concentrating on that sound and experimenting with what words, voice, characters, and narrative movements are being described by the music in my mind. Writing a novel is that, plus a million pounds of pressure at my back, loaded with questions about how my life is being reflected in this writing process, and what I want to learn and say to the world. So, novels are more prolonged and intense journeys, although they can start out as playfully as a story.

ottessa quote1Where do inspirations for your characters and storylines come from?

 

They come from my life experiences, overheard conversations, dreams, the imagination, the ether…

It what ways has Penguin Press impacted your writing career?

Penguin Press has been a miracle in my life – this team has been so incredibly supportive, positive, and – I think – gutsy.  I tell everyone how blessed I feel to have a publisher that understands my work and sees its value today and the potential for the future.

Explore Moshfegh’s books below:

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