How do you get into a creative mindset?

John Cleese, who writes, acts and does comedy, says that creativity is not an ability or a talent. It is unrelated to IQ. It is simply an ability to play. It all starts with spending time in what he calls ‘open’ mode, where you enjoy curiosity for its own sake. It’s humor-inclined and playful, with …

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Use the Mind-Body Connection to Write Better

Thursday Postcard May 12, 2022 “The writer’s path lies, always, on the road of feeling.” Stephen Harrod BuhnerEnsouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life Everyone has a body made up of cells, organs, bones, vascular and neural systems, et cetera (my medical training was cut short in kindergarten, so that’s all …

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Starting a Book with Panache

Sometimes I think about how I should start the book I’m working on. Right now I have about 23,000 words written, so when I say “start,” I’m not talking about the process. The process of writing a book is separate from the book’s starting point, which is its first sentence.

The first sentence assumes ridiculous importance because it’s ridiculously important. But you can’t always blurt out a great first sentence when you start the actual book. I usually need to get to the end of the first draft.

A different kind of ABC test

In another post (Raising Questions) I floated out four book openings and asked
a) which are fiction and which nonfiction
b) how they make you feel
c) whether you’d want to read on

Here they are:

1: The greatest hunger in life is not for food, money, success, status, security, sex, or even love from the opposite sex.

a) This one is nonfiction, from The Book of Secrets by Deepak Chopra.
b) It made me feel annoyed, because of the (we hope) unconscious bias in “love from the opposite sex,” which leaves out everyone who loves their own sex.
c) But it also posed a question, which made me want to read on. The question being “what does the writer see as the greatest hunger in life?”

2: The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.

a) This one is fiction, from Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. [The link on the title will take you to Morrison’s own thoughts on what she was trying to do with that opening line, which is on a very interesting website called On Lines (onlinesonline.com), whose tagline is “Connecting story and song, one line at a time.”]
b) It made me feel mildly curious. I was suspicious of insurance agents, which is a terrible generalization, I know, and one born of ignorance about what the job entails. I knew Morrison was a great story teller. Yet the job itself seemed to form a barrier to my interest, and I was on the fence about whether to keep going. A bunch of considerations flew around inside me–the prose, the size of the book, my own feelings.
c) I wanted to keep going because I like Toni Morrison’s writing and because it posed a question: “why did the agent promise, and who was the promise to, and how did he plan to keep the promise?”

3: The French painter and writer Paul Gauguin–by most accounts mad, bad, and dangerous to know–suffered acutely from cosmological vertigo induced by the work of Darwin and other Victorian scientists.

a) This is nonfiction, from A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright.
b) It made me feel extremely interested–the juxtaposition of the cliche “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” followed by the words “suffered acutely from cosmological vertigo” were like a tasty treat for my brain.
c) I felt an interesting mind at work and wanted to read on.

4: I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the Night.

a) This is fiction, from Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Toczarcuk, translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Here’s a review from The Guardian that reflects my own experience of the novel.
b) It made me feel like pulling up a chair and eating the book immediately. I loved it. I love feeling surprised and interested by a book’s first sentence.
c) I couldn’t wait to read on (so I didn’t). I read it first from a library copy, signed it out again a month or two later, then bought it at the legendary Pulp Fiction Books in Vancouver. It’s one of my inspirations for a novel I’m writing because it’s so highly entertaining yet has so much depth. BTW, it’s high time I thanked my friend, award-winning writer Hilary Zaid, for texting me one day out of the blue saying she thought I’d like this book. Thanks, Hilary!

I’d love to hear your own first sentences, or those in books you love. Send them to me at info [at] awritersroadmap [dot] com, and if possible, include your answers to the abc questions above.


Is now the time to write your book?

Books written during the pandemic are appearing on library shelves. It seems almost inconceivable that it could happen so quickly. It’s only 2022! And these are traditionally published books, ones that have had to make their way through many steps following that first draft.

I guess this shows us that it does not take a long time to write a book, or it doesn’t have to. Some books take a while, others don’t. Every year at least 200 people write a novella in three days. Thousands of people write a novel in one month. But an actual complete draft, revised to a point of being sellable can take a while. Or it can just, you know, take a few months. Writer Colson Whitehead, in his keynote speech at AWP in 2019, said he writes 8 pages a week. To see how that adds up, check out this list of Colson Whitehead’s books. He also works and writes articles and goes to writing festivals.

It’s not just the writing, OF COURSE

After you write the book, the next step can be another whole learning curve, if you’ve never been published before. For self-publishers, it takes resources and time and sweat equity to put a book out yourself. New writers aiming for traditional publishing have even more barriers to getting their work out, which can be an onerous and demoralizing process that often stops at the first stage: figuring out who to send it to among the thousands of agents and hundreds of publishers and their imprints in the world.

Yet first books come out regularly.

So we have what seems to be a dichotomy. Books are complex and not that easy to write. But they can be written in a fairly short timeframe, and they can be published within a couple of years of that (or less, if you publish yourself). Even if it’s your first published book, and even if you go the time-consuming traditional route.

How do we explain that? I think it’s because books are art. And because people need books. Not every person, but enough of us that we keep the whole industry afloat and new books coming out.

As a writer, what do you do with this information?

Thinking about all the steps after writing that first draft could light a fire under you to get started. Or paradoxically, it could have you putting off until tomorrow the page you might have written today. Writing, in my experience, can involve a process of self-management that I think really relies on letting go of managing yourself and just committing to doing this thing you want to do.

Zen priest Katagiri Roshi said:

Human beings have an idea that they are very fond of: that we die in old age. This is just an idea. We don’t know when our death will come.

quoted by Natalie Goldberg in Long Quiet Highway

[Natalie Goldberg writes about Katagiri Roshi in two memoirs: Long Quiet Highway (1993) and The Great Failure (2004)–about which she is interviewed here.]

Personally, I don’t write because I’m not sure when I’m going to die. I write because it makes me feel better in a whole bunch of different ways. Whether I’m writing fiction, nonfiction, my so-called diary, an editorial letter–it doesn’t matter. There’s something in the act of writing that moves my soul.

So yes, writing your book now might mean it can get out into the world in a couple of years or less.

But more importantly, writing it now means you can explore yourself now, the way you are. And that exploration can add a whole new level of insight into how you live your life. Plus, it’s fun.

Since now is all we ever have, let’s write!