Monday, September 28, 2009

Support Systems

I'm going to dive right in and ask a question: Do you have friends or members of your family who don't "get" your writing? Treat it as a silly hobby? Or even mock you for spending hours upon hours on something that may or may not ever get published?

I think, sadly, all of us do.

Certainly, I have many family members and friends who are incredible supporters of my writing. They actually listen when I go on and on about my characters and plots - or, better yet, they READ what I write and seem to enjoy it (and no, I don't bribe them). But -- there are also those whose eyes glaze over when I talk about writing. Or worse, they never - I mean, never - ask about how my writing is going or what project I'm currently working on. In fact, I've had people who knew about an article I published in a national magazine, but never bothered to read it. It was 3 pages long and would've taken them 5 minutes' time. But they didn't really care.

Sure, it's frustrating and even hurtful when people seem not to care about our passion - our writing. But I guess I've learned to shrug my shoulders at them and feel sorry for them, for missing out on a VITAL part of who I am, of what's important to me. I understand that writing isn't everyone's cup of tea - that they might not share my level of interest in it. But I guess I hope for the same courtesy that I give to them, showing interest in things they are passionate about (whether I'm equally passionate about them or not). Is it really too much to ask for a mutual exchange?

Bottom line, writers need support and encouragement. It's why we go to conferences, log on to writer's messageboards, pour our thoughts into blogs (*wink*).

So, today, whoever's reading this - consider yourself encouraged. Know that for every person in your life who doesn't support your writing, there are dozens upon dozens of writers out there (like me) who DO.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What's in a Name?

Choosing a character name can be a difficult task - one that requires much thought and deliberation. If you're lucky, names come to you instantly, through some cosmic channel, and you don't have to work so hard. But, for the rest of us, it can take a lot of time to decide on a name.

The names are important because you, as a writer, have to live with that name for a long, long time. Names can be symbolic of something, or can cleverly fit the personality of the character. Or, they can also just sound great rolling off the tongue.

Some advice I've learned throughout the years:

1) Keep the first name down to minimum syllables. If the name is 3 or more syllables, it can be a little daunting to read over and over again. If you want, develop a nickname which makes it easier on the reader. For instance, one of my character names is Dorothea Farraday, but I call her "Dora," for short.

2) Try not to have character names that look the same on the page. Having them all start with a different letter can help. It can be really confusing for the reader to try and juggle names like Arthur, Alan, Angie, and Antonio. Their eyes have to stop and determine which character is which. It's much better if they're Ronald, Guy, Lenny, and Amanda.

3) Don't be afraid to experiment, to change character names, even later on as you edit the book. Just be sure you catch all of them when you're replacing them in the manuscript! :-)

4) Use the internet for help. I use, oddly enough, baby naming sites to help me figure out character names. This one is my favorite. There's also a last name site that's fantastic.

So, what's your advice/experience when choosing character names? Any tricks of the trade that help you out, make things easier?

Thursday, September 24, 2009


I'm sitting here, working on my re-writes, and listening to this gorgeous compilation CD I put together last year, which I entitled, aptly enough, "Writer's Music." I adore music of all kinds - but I find I can only listen to a certain type as I write. Soft instrumental or slow classical, that's about it. Movie soundtracks are an ideal choice for me. Little Women, Sense & Sensibility, How to Make an American Quilt, Still Breathing, Unfaithful - these are my personal writing favorites. Ones I never, ever tire of hearing. They're soothing and lilting, but not distracting.

Speaking of distracting, I cannot write while watching t.v. or while listening to music with lyrics. It's too "busy" for me, and I can't focus. My mother, on the other hand, must have something going on while she writes. Loud t.v., loud music with lyrics, rock music - none of that bothers her. We often laugh about our opposite tendencies. But that's the beauty of it. We're all different people, just as we're all different writers.

I think the most important thing is figuring out, as a writer, what suits you best. Quiet background music? The noise of t.v.? The bustling of people at a sidewalk cafe? Or simply silence? Whatever facilitates and helps your writing, do it. Because finding something, no matter how small, that gets the best out of ourselves as writers is a goal we should all be seeking on a consistent basis.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What If...

That's the title of a wonderful book of writing exercises that I use at the start of every class (the authors are Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, two creative writing teachers).

I give the students a creative prompt, and they write for 20 minutes. Then, if they wish, they can share theirs aloud. This seems to be the favorite part of the class for most students. Creativity-on-the-spot, I call it...

So, every now and then, I thought I'd post a prompt here for fun (I sometimes change things up a little from the book and put my own spin on it). If you're experiencing the dreaded writer's block, these exercises can help to jump-start your creativity in just a few minutes. Or, they can sometimes hold the potential seeds for a future story or book.

So, here's one for today: Write a short scene using these 5 words: pyromaniac, tuna sandwich, bowling pen, polyester, infinity.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Great Quote

I'm honestly too tired to blog today (after teaching, grading 20-something essays (one that contained 22 run-ons, ack!), and attempting to do my re-writes). So, I'm taking the easy way out and letting a genius writer do the work for me. Here's the quote I read to my Creative Writing class this morning, from Joseph Dougherty, a writer for "Thirtysomething" (before you roll your eyes at me, lol, that show had some real quality writers - one of them being no less than Oscar-winner Paul Haggis!). Anyway, I think there's such truth in this quote and I wanted to share:

The more you write, the less you censor, and the more comfortable you become trusting your instincts. You learn to get out of your own way, and start to experience that sense of spirit-writing, where scenes create themselves and characters find their own voices. . . I believe the most satisfying work a writer does is that for which she or he feels the least conscious responsibility. It simply flows from somewhere. You don't write it down so much as the paper is there to catch it. Ego is lost and you become transparent, something through which the story is seen and focused. For a writer, this is a state of grace.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


They're everywhere. Every day.

For me, specifically today, they are:

* My Sheltie - she's bringing me toys, saying, "Play with me - you're neglecting me," with those pathetic brown eyes.
* Facebook - entirely too much fun. Chatting, quizzes, status reports, time wasters. Facebook is eeeevil, but I love it.
* Essays - they're sitting on my laptop (online classes) and on my desk, begging to be graded.
* Laundry and other daily must-do's around the house
* New Fall t.v. - this is a silly one, but all summer, there's been NOTHING on t.v. Now, suddenly, when I have nothing but work in front of me, there are dozens of new shows starting this week that I'd like to at least take a look at. Thank goodness for DVR's.

So - what are your distractions from writing, and how do you handle them? I guess for me, the first step is stopping and noticing them - realizing they are keeping me from my work (currently, my revisions for the agent). And once I recognize them, I apparently blog about them first (*grin*), and then I make myself GET TO WORK.

With that, I'm signing off, to get something productive done today. Well, at least that's the plan... ;-)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Quote of the Day

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else.

~Gloria Steinem

Friday, September 18, 2009

Writers Supporting Writers

Almost nothing warms my heart more than being part of a COMMUNITY of writers. Writers who support and help each other - that's a beautiful thing.

I see it in my creative writing students each semester - the warm respect and support they display as they timidly open themselves up and share their writing. I see it in brand-new online friends who are fellow writers - the lovely encouragements we give each other, never even having met. And most recently, today, I see it in perfect strangers who are also writers. In this case, the very special online company, Ninth Moon - Gifts and Tools to Inspire.

No, this isn't an advertisement, and I'm getting nothing from Ninth Moon for mentioning their site. But in the spirit of sharing information and supporting MY fellow writers (readers of this blog), I wanted to let you know about this company.

As you might know, I'm working hard on revisions for a potential agent. Well, she wants to see the entire revised manuscript - in hard copy form! So, I needed a professional-looking, sturdy manuscript box (nesting boxes, so that one fits inside another, to serve as a SASE). Last week, I found these boxes online, at Ninth Moon, and received them today.

But I didn't just receive the boxes. I received a LOVELY hand-written note, from writer to writer. The note presumed (rightly) that I was an author, buying the boxes in order to send my material "out there" to a potential editor/agent. The note then encouraged me and wished me success. You should've seen the smile on my face, reading such inspiring words from a perfect stranger.

But that's what I mean about "community." Writers understand each other. They speak the same language. They recognize in each other the ups, downs, heartaches, and exhilaration of what we do. Even writers who've never met face-to-face can form a bond of sorts because of their love for the craft of stringing words together on a page. How cool is that?!?!?! (<--not eloquent or poetic, but I think it's spot-on, lol). I'm so proud of writers who put aside any competitive tendencies and choose to support one another. Because, goodness knows, this is a solitary, sometimes lonely occupation. And we need all the support we can get. ;-)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Show, Don't Tell

It's a writing rule most of us have heard before. And it's a good one. No reader wants to be "told" a story - readers want to SEE the story for themselves, make up their own minds. It's more interesting and entertaining that way.

A student asked me yesterday to explain this concept of "show, don't tell," and here's what I told her: Pretend you're sitting in a movie theater, eager to see the latest Vin Diesel action movie. You've got the popcorn, the Milk Duds, the Coke. The lights dim, and on the screen in front of you, Vin Diesel appears, with a black background behind him. Nothing else. He says, "This film had a low budget. I mean, really low. Because of that, I'm going to have to tell you the movie." He points to his left, at nothing. "Imagine this - over here, we have a car chase. One car tries to stop too suddenly, slams on his breaks, and flips 5 times." He points to his right, at nothing. "Then, over here, a building explodes. There's a 'bang' and smoke starts to billow and people run scared."

You'd leave the theater, wouldn't you? You wouldn't want to be told the plot. You want to SEE the action for yourself, make up your own mind about it.

Carrying this concept over to writing - instead of "telling" the reader that a character is angry, "show" it by having him/her pick up the nearest glass vase and smash it up against the wall. The reader will see, by that one action, the anger of the character.

I think a particularly dangerous area where we're tempted to "tell" rather than "show" is when we give too much background information (exposition) of a character. Instead of making broad, sweeping statements about a character's difficult marriage of 5 years, try to pinpoint a single moment in time - one fight or particular confrontation - and take the reader BACK to that moment by using a flashback. Suddenly, the readers are inside the scene with the character, seeing for themselves how bad the marriage was. And suddenly, things have turned from "telling" to "showing."

I struggle sometimes with "telling." I tend to over-explain plot or characters, wanting so badly for the reader to understand the emotions involved, etc. Maybe it's because I'm a teacher, and much of my job is to explain. But it's a bad habit for a writer - one I'm constantly working on. In the end, I know it makes a world of difference to show a story, rather than tell it. And, it gives the reader a stronger connection to the story and characters, which is what it's all about...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


It's bubbling, flowing, overflowing, sparking, igniting, leading - and I'm following.

This is one of those rare evenings, thank you God, that the Muse is speaking to ME. I'm not having to chase after her or hunt her down and beg her to make me creative. I'm grateful, because ever since that agent's email, I've been frantic, trying to juggle work and writing - trying (too hard) to create the exact revisions she's expecting. I hope/think this might, just might be what she's looking for. In any case, what I've written tonight has improved the book. And that is success by any standard!

Still, I've got a loooong way to go...*fingers still crossed*

Monday, September 14, 2009

Quotable Quotes

I adore quotes. I keep a file of them on my computer. I write them on the board before my Creative Writing classes. They inspire, entertain, and say so eloquently what I feel unable to express. So, from time to time, I'd like to post a some quotes here in my blog.

If you have any favorites, feel free to leave them in the "comment" section. I love it when writers exchange little gems with each other that way.

Anyway, here's a favorite of mine. (I can totally relate, in terms of waiting and hoping and praying to hear good news - finally - from an agent/editor!):

Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody. ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ahh, the Joys of Editing...

So, here's the truth. I find editing a generally tedious and tiring process. I understand how vital it is, and that the result will be a polished piece. But tweaking and tightening and trimming the fat takes enormous brain power. It doesn't feel creative to me. It feels like "work."

Something that's made it a bit easier, though, is a quote I wrote down years ago, at a writer's conference at North Texas. I wish I could give this person credit - it was some agent or editor or writer giving a lecture, and I didn't write her name down. Here's the quote: "A word or sentence must earn the right to live." So powerful. I tell this to my students. I write it on the board and tell them that sentences must be valuable, productive, worthwhile. That they must have a reason to be on that page, to "breathe" on that page. A good rule of thumb is this: if that word or sentence can be removed without it changing the content, then it should probably be taken out altogether.

As much sense as this concept makes to me, I still find editing difficult. Not only because it's tedious. But because it's personal. Because the word whose fate I'm trying to determine - should it stay, go, or be replaced with another? - is still MINE. I spent time and energy putting that particular word on paper. So, sometimes it's agony, hitting the delete button and watching it disappear. But, I know it must be done. And if I keep my eyes on the prize - a better product, a more-improved and polished piece of writing - I know it's ultimately worth it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Not-Quite Rejection!

I opened an email from an agent this morning who'd requested my entire manuscript (I write women's fiction). She gave lots of feedback, said she enjoyed the book, but that she wasn't certain it had a strong enough "hook." I know exactly what she means -- the publishing business is soooo competitive, and in order to sell a book, it must stand out, be unique. It sounds like I'm close, but not quite "there," yet.

The good news is, she said that if I'm willing to consider revisions, she'd be glad to take another look at the manuscript!

Willing?? Absolutely!!

Nervous?? Absolutely. Because the pressure is immense. Realistically, this could very well be a make-or-break situation. A getting-an-agent or not-getting-an-agent situation. What if she doesn't like my new ideas? What if I'm still "close," but not close enough? What if she sees the revision and decides it's a definite, "NO?" These are the thoughts running through my head. But I mustn't let them cripple me, stop me from trying.

So, with that, I've got lots of work ahead of me. I'd better get busy! Signing off for now...

Saturday, September 12, 2009


"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." ~Jack London

Writing is hard work. It just is. Sure, I live for those moments when I'm buzzing with creativity and my fingers can't dance across the keyboard fast enough to catch the words fluttering around in my head. But when that doesn't happen, writing feels like a job.

I think the hardest part about writing is getting into the habit of it, the routine. Forcing yourself to simply sit down and write, even when you don't feel like writing. It's a common tale in an author's life, treating writing much like a job: Before John Grisham was "John Grisham," he was a hard-working lawyer. But he carved out time in his day to write. He woke up at 4am, and wrote for an hour every morning. Now, that's dedication. Or insanity. I'm not sure which...

My proudest moment as a writer, as far as dedication goes, was this past summer. I had exactly 6 weeks left of summer before my classes started, and I knew that once school kicked in, I would not have the time/energy to write. I know myself too well. So - I knuckled down. I brainstormed, threw ideas around, formed a rough outline, and BEGAN. A nearly-400-page novel was my goal. It seemed impossible, but I was determined. I set a goal of 10 pages of writing per day. I didn't always meet that goal, but I got very close. The weekend before my faculty meetings, I wrote 60 pages. I was mentally fractured and exhausted. But I had done it. I met my goal and finished my rough draft. And more than anything, I proved to myself that I could do it.

Three things helped me more than anything else, during those 6 weeks. One was Stephen King's advice (from his book, "On Writing," I believe): Paraphrased from memory -- Never end a chapter at the end of a writing day. Always at least start the next section or chapter - even just one sentence - so that when you come back and sit down the next day, something new is there. Something you can work with. That advice was immensely helpful.

The second thing seems simple and even a bit silly - I rewarded myself. I told myself that IF I completed a scene or a chapter or met my goal for the day, I could have chocolate, or could go to a restaurant, or could even watch a t.v. show I'd been eager to see. Anything, no matter how insignificant, will do. As long as it's something desirable. Hold it like a carrot above your head as you write and know that when you meet your goal, you can take a nice, big, crunchy bite out of it.

The third thing that helped me was that on those days when I didn't feel like writing a single sentence, I let myself off the hook a little. I made a pact with myself, that I wouldn't have to write that day -- but, that I would have to sit down and at least read what I'd written the day before. And do you know what happened? Every single time I sat down and opened my laptop to glance at yesterday's work - inevitably, I would find myself writing. I would get absorbed back into the story and characters and new ideas would start to form. And my fingers would dance again.


I love corners. They represent something small, something safe. They allow you to sit with two adjoined walls at your back and quietly observe the rest of the room. Corners are solitary places. They can only fit one person. Not that I go around sitting in corners, mind you. No, they're a metaphor for a writer's life, which is why I've named my new blog "Writer's Corner."

Writing requires solitude. It requires detailed and careful observation of human nature, of habits and non-verbal communication and real-life drama going on around you. And, writing needs to feel safe. Because when you write, you're exposing parts of your inner self. Sometimes big parts. Sometimes scary parts. And if you don't feel safe, you'll hold back. And you'll cheat yourself and your audience out of something real.

So, when you write, think of corners. Squatting down, knees to your chin, quietly people-watching, gathering ideas. Then, go off into your own little writing corner, wherever that is...and write.