What’s On Your Desk?

Thursday Postcard I’m reading a book by Gretchen Rubin called Outer Order, Inner Calm. I’m finding it hard to read this particular book, mostly because I keep rolling my eyes. It’s like getting advice on quitting alcohol from someone who’s never had a drink. Rubin’s modus operandi is systematic. She’s organized. Every action is considered. A case in point Here’s a …

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Thank God for Statistics!

Thursday Postcard Happy New Year!!! If you’re a recent subscriber who found me by way of Amber Petty’s newsletter course, I’m glad you’re here! What a course, what a teacher, what a coach. Over on the blog I’ve been writing a series of posts called “6 Key Principles for Writing a Book.” Writing blog posts is good …

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6 Key Principles for Writing a Book: #5

“It is much more valuable to look for the strength in others. You can gain nothing by criticizing their imperfections.” Daisaku Ikeda I’d extend this to include ourselves. And that brings us to … Principle #5: Focus on strengths and resources rather than weaknesses and deficits This principle is a game-changer, because it balances you …

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Resolutions, Schmesolutions

Thursday Postcard Remembering Dad Every year as it drew to a close, my dad would invent a motto for the next year. “We’re gonna thrive in ’95!” The mottos made me laugh, and they captured a truth about life that I’m getting more convinced about, which is that you often get what you deep-down expect. …

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Art and Compromise

Thursday Postcard What the hell just happened? “Oh, the humanity!” as the reporter said when the Hindenburg crashed into a field right behind him. That’s how I feel about my art these days. Case Study #1: Pottery We might as well call Beginners Wheel pottery “Humble Pie Spinning,” because that’s what it is: humbling.  Here’s …

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6 Key Principles for Writing a Book: #3

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein Principle #3: The Solution and the Problem Are Not Necessarily Related This principle suggests that no solution can be ruled out for any writing problem until the problem can be identified. Let’s say the problem is that you …

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6 Key Principles for Writing a Book: #2

“In general, minimally invasive surgery is associated with less pain, a shorter hospital stay and fewer complications.” Mayo Clinic Principle #2: The Simplest and Least Invasive Approach is Frequently the Best Wouldn’t it be great if we could just…write a book. Spray the thoughts or narrative directly from frontal cortex to page or screen and have …

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My Old Friend, Resistance

NaNoWriMo bites back! Thursday Postcard Every time I engage with the writing event known as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), it goes sideways pretty much immediately. For those who’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo, it’s a massive undertaking by thousands of people who get together online in various ways and attempt to write a novel in the …

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Very Superstitious

Thursday Postcard – Hallowe’en Edition Very superstitiousWriting’s on the wallVery superstitiousLadder’s ’bout to fall13 month old babyBroke the lookin’ glassSeven years of bad luck,The good things in your past When you believe in things that you don’t understandThen you sufferSuperstition ain’t the way Stevie Wonder, “Superstition,” 1972 What an elegant description of superstition: believing in …

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Should I self-publish my book?

Self-publishing is exploding! One bazillion books are being self-published every day! Indie publishers are raking it in! Kidding about the last one. To answer the question above, I must ask YOU a few questions. 1. What’s your goal? Early on, your goal might just be to write the book. But at some point the publishing …

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Writing Groups: Yes or No?

Thursday Postcard I’m in a new writing group. Well, new to me. I was in my previous group for 14 or so years, up until 2019, and it was fantastic. We met in person–at first weekly, then biweekly–and became excellent writing friends to each other. Nothing beats access to writers who want to read your …

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Book Review: Pastoralia

Pastoralia: Stories and a Novella, by George Saunders. I’ve never read anything like these stories: interior monologue so skewed and entertaining that the action seems secondary. But there is action, and it’s pretty intense: [SPOILER ALERT] A boy dies riding his bike, a poor swimmer plunges into a fast river in a possibly doomed attempt …

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In praise of binging

Binge writing, that is. Especially for a first draft, or for tricky sections where the ideas are slippery, and the only way to grasp them is to write like a demon until your subconscious is persuaded to loosen its grip on your deepest stuff. “Though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the …

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A Feast of Feelings

Here at A Writer’s Roadmap we believe that writing a book is one of the greatest ‘learn by doing’ pursuits you can engage in. Part of its greatness is that to really learn how to write a book, you must complete the project. You can’t go halfway and call it done. The only way out …

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Caring about Hazel Motes

A geek-fest on POV in Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD. I’ve read a lot of books and I plan to read a lot more, and what I want from each book is to feel interested in the characters. I don’t need to like them, or feel similar to them. I just need to care about what …

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Rituals and Tools

Thursday Postcard Writers don’t need much…or do they? A pen, some paper…a computer…power…coffee… Shouldn’t writers be able to work anywhere, at any time? In theory, yes.  But Mason Currey’s entertaining book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work shows the sheer variety of things writers have relied on to get going. Pipes, cigarettes, nudity, a special bathrobe, apples, sex, …

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The best way to learn to write

Here at A Writer’s Roadmap we are all about inhaling the stench of failure. Normalizing it, making it a valid part of our experience, and bringing it into the light. Forget the shiny carapace of success…let’s look at the crazy machinery underneath it. Because that’s where the learning is. I started writing so long ago …

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The Writer’s Magic Cattle Prod

What a paradox: the freedom created by restrictions! When I teach fiction, I will do a five-minute timed writing early in the class to get everyone sweating and full of joie de vivre. Shit’s getting real! Is it artificial pressure? Yes. Does it work? Yes. There’s a high in the room afterward and people are …

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Curiosity vs. Second-Guessing

Thursday Postcard June 9, 2022 When you’re writing–a story, an essay, a book–it is easy to get partway in, then start second-guessing. Second-guessing can look like, “This is awful. I should write something else.” Or “My novel’s antagonist CAN’T be the patriarchy…maybe I should make it a mystery instead!” Or “This book should be about …

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World Domination Through Writing Books

Are you looking for clarity around something important? Maybe it’s something you’re thinking of doing, or something you already did but now aren’t sure why you did it, or if it was the right thing to do. LOOK NO FURTHER, IT’S MANIFESTO TIME. An example of how to write a manifesto…the story behind the dream, …

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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!

The Antidote to Productivity Pressure

Thursday Postcard April 28, 2022 You might have seen a YouTube ad with a man shouting “Serial procrastination affects 80% of adults!” Ignore this person. He cannot possibly know what percentage of living adults are affected by this fake issue. Procrastination is not a syndrome. Sometimes we dick around a little before we get to …

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#1 Strategy for Finishing a Book

A Writer’s Roadmap Thursday Postcard

April 14, 2022

“If you wait until you got time to write a novel, or time to write a story, or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read – if you wait for the time, you will never do it. ‘Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”

Harry Crews

This postcard is brought to you by the number 1.

Books, stories, essays, articles–whatever you’re writing, or want to write: how do you get it done?

You get it done by making it #1 at some point every day, or five days a week, or whatever your writing schedule is. Make it the most important thing for even 30 minutes. Make it your absolute #1 task that must get done. 

To do that, it helps to think about what makes you prioritize certain things.

Maybe your house is cleanest when you know someone’s coming over. You get that done to save face.

Maybe you get your finances the most organized they’ll ever be right before tax time. You get that done to file taxes on time and avoid the government’s cold eye on your back. 

As Harry Crews points out above, we need to choose where to put our time. I’m working on a novel and procrastination was making it into this big hairy deal that I didn’t want to face. Nor did I want to NOT write it.

Then my older brother Chris told me about 750 Words, an online place to get some writing done. There’s a free 30-day trial, then it’s $5 a month.

I did not expect to love it, but I do. Somehow it’s got me writing 5,000 words a week (1100 M-Thu, 750 on Friday). It showers the page with confetti when I reach 750 words. I get a spirit penguin  badge for showing up.

But what really floats my boat is this unexpected side benefit–it analyzes my language, gives me a word cloud for each session, and has revealed to me that my novel so far has more thinking than feeling, and completely ignores the sense of smell. 

I recommend it!

But there are other ways to put writing first. Swap manuscripts with a writing buddy, join a writing group, find a contest and get your stuff ready to send.

Accountability, support, hitting a deadline, saving face–whatever motivates you, attach that to your writing to make it your #1 thing for a few minutes each day.


An Editor’s #1 Writing Tip

As a book editor, I often see writers use too many words–more words than are needed to create the moment or make the point.

Every piece of writing needs white space. This gives the reader a chance to pause and let the ideas resonate.

Wordiness can consist of:

Repeating. Saying the same thing in two different ways. Saying something one way, then saying it a different way. Expressing the same idea more than once. Saying the same old thing over and over. Being repetitious.

There are…that. Often you can lose those flabby words. “There are three components that this system relies on.” Better as: “This system relies on three components.”

Overexplaining. Not stopping at the end of a sentence, but going on with more words. I could have made that, “Not stopping at the end of a sentence.”

Editorializing. Commenting on the action (in fiction) right before or right after it happens. You don’t need showing plus telling–just one or the other. Example: “In the chaos of that day’s scene, they did not notice her secrete the tiny metal blade from the surgical table. Ironically, her luck had not run out.” The last sentence is editorializing. Let the reader have those thoughts.

Stage direction. Overexplaining unimportant actions. “She walked across the room and reached out her left hand to turn on the light.” Better as: “She turned on the overhead light.”

What is wrong with extra words?

#1 If you qualify and overexplain even small moments, the reader does not feel trusted.

#2 Wordiness is tiring to read. Over the course of a book the words slow the reader’s pursuit of the story or information and make them NOT want to turn the page.

Trust the reader. Always assume the reader is at least as intelligent as you are. Then your book can speak to the people it’s meant to reach.

Forget About the Barbie!

A Writer’s Roadmap Thursday Postcard

Writing a book? Here are 4 no-fail shortcuts to a good first draft:

1. Make it true. Fiction or nonfiction, capture the truth as you understand it. 

2. Make it clear. You’re talking to someone when you write. Who is that? Use words that are easy to understand and remember. It’s not the words that make a piece deep, it’s the mind behind them.

3. When the draft is done, separate your intentions from the piece itself. This can be sad. Like Christmas morning when you wanted a Barbie and you got a dollar store fashion doll. You can still play with her and have fun, but first you have to FORGET ABOUT THE BARBIE.

4. Go back and make it graceful. This involves omitting needless words.


Raising Questions

Want a good way to start your book?

Sometimes, seeing a book’s opening unfiltered through the act of choosing it (reading the blurb, seeing the cover and the author’s name) reveals its essence more directly.

The following quotes are openings from four books. Two are novels, two are nonfiction.

As a fun exercise, see if you can identify a) which of the four following quotes are from fiction, and which are nonfiction, b) how they make you feel, and c) whether you’d want to read on.

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

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

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

#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.

How did you do?

I’ll post the sources next week, or if you’d like to know sooner just drop me a line: info[a]awritersroadmap[dot]com
or, sign up for my newsletter and you’ll get the answer in your mailbox next week.

Is Idleness the Mother of Invention?

A Writer’s Roadmap Thursday Postcard

…Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble.”

Agatha Christie
An Autobiography

Ain’t that the truth?

Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time. She also lived an interesting life. In the first world war she worked as a nurse and became a certified apothecary. Her books started coming out in 1919, and aside from the jigsaw puzzle plots, for the history buffs among us they shine a weird light on the interwar years.

Her son in law said of Christie, “You never saw her writing.” But she did write, obviously!

She used a Dictaphone and school notebooks to work out plots. She got ideas by paying attention. Eavesdropping in a tea shop, hearing a name, reading a newspaper article about a swindler. Embracing what might seem like life’s idle moments.

Whether you write full time or on the side of a day job, here is something to ponder: How can you be idle this week?



Photo & quote credit: Bookish Santa: Spreading Books With Love

The Myth of Talent

If what you’re writing isn’t the quality you wanted or hoped for, it’s easy to think, “I’m not good at this.”

I don’t have the talent

I don’t know how

My stuff is boring

This sucks. What’s on Netflix right now?

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay
There’s always something on Netflix! So let’s put that whole idea aside.

The myth of talent is that people become masters of their job, sport, or art, because of an innate skill or inborn trait. And in fact, according to this article in Scientific American, it’s true that professional basketball players have significantly better-than-average visual acuity—a physical trait—and that prodigies score high on working memory, which is substantially heritable.

But they have also spent thousands of hours focused on building skills in their area of interest. We might wonder what came first—the useful trait, or the hours spent practicing what they wanted to do?

With writing, it doesn’t matter. If you like sentences, you can learn to be a great writer.

All you need to do is write a lot, read a lot, and learn a lot.

It’s a bit like gardening in that way. Anyone can garden, just like anyone can write a book. But if you see yourself as a black thumb, which I did for years, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Image by Markus Spiske from Pixabay

All my plants died, some slowly, some quickly. Inside, outside. It didn’t really matter, they died.

My history with tomatoes
  1. I’d plant the seedling and then forget I’d done it and do nothing. It would die quickly.
  2. I’d plant the seedling and water it once. It would die a little slower.
  3. I’d plant the seedling and take care of it regularly enough that it actually grew, but then I wouldn’t pick it. It might as well have died, because it just rotted on the vine.

The pattern is apparent (death of the plant), and so is the reason for it (lack of persistence). To be a green thumb, one must persist beyond the first stage of planting the seedling.

It’s the same with writing

Steady attention and skill building, project after project, is better than talent in the end. The writers who succeed are the ones who don’t give up.

Mentors Over Metaphors

A Writer’s Roadmap Thursday Postcard

“Writing is like driving at night. You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

 E.L. Doctorow, in interview,
Vogue magazine (Nov. 1984)

Good metaphors like Doctorow’s express a truth, and can help guide you through writing a few pages or chapters, or even an entire book.

But sometimes you want more than helpful quotes. Novelist Jenny Shank writes:

“Perhaps you could win a writing contest and the illustrious judge could pluck you out of obscurity. Or maybe you could attend a workshop taught by a writer you admired and try to dazzle them. Once you had a mentor, they would guide your development, recommend your work to their agent and editor and, voilà, you have arrived.”

None of that happened. Shank’s mentor, Lucia Berlin, eventually came to her not through being brilliant in the right places, but rather through what seemed like a series of obstacles and setbacks.

My own mentors have been night school and MFA teachers, other writers (online and in person), and books that were doing what I wanted to do–what one of my students described as “books that make a hidden part of me feel seen.”

Helping a writer through an entire project is not usually what mentors do. Mentors are more of a “how to be a writer” assist. They confirm that it (writing) can be done. If they’re in a position to give you feedback, they can bolster your belief that your stuff is worth the time it takes to read. Or they can tell you about things they learned the hard way. They can share opportunities, give you a reality check, and steer you toward books that do well what you’re trying to do with yours.

If it weren’t for mentors, whether in books or in real life, I might have stopped writing a long time ago. We’ll never know, because one always appeared when I needed them. Sometimes money changed hands, sometimes not. As my skills and experience grew, new mentors showed up to help me through the next phase.

If you don’t have a writing mentor at the moment, or you’ve never had one, I recommend keeping your eyes open. You’ll recognize them when they cross your path.



“The best mentorship is not a kind of leading, but a kind of being with.” 

Jenny Shank

Lucia Berlin: My Mentor in Being an Outsider

by Jenny Shank, Poets & Writers Nov./Dec. 2021
[photo credit Buddy Berlin; Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin]

The Need to Choose

Writing’s biggest challenge?

Writing any book-length work is a deep dive into complete freedom. You have utter freedom because the blank page holds limitless possibility.

Aside from genre requirements (thrillers need good pacing and high stakes, romances need a Happily Ever After—or a Happily For Now), you can tell the story using any character you choose to invent, going through any set of experiences you can devise, in any environment you can design.

A superintelligent banana piloting a spaceship? Yes. A bad father running away from his son? Sure. A veteran of two wars founding an organic farm? Absolutely. The only job you have as the writer is to make it work. To rephrase that, you have only one job as a writer, and that’s to make the reader turn the page.

The hard part is decision fatigue

This is where it gets tricky. Getting the reader to turn the page involves many decisions, and making these decisions—even knowing what these decisions are—can take an extraordinary amount of time and anguish if you’ve never done it before.

If you have been afraid of making the wrong decision when you work on your project, rest assured:

You will make plenty.

They will be obvious later.

They will show you the way.

Every decision you make sends you further along a particular path. Once you decide your hero’s a banana, you can’t have him doing tasks that require arms. Once you decide the son is nine, you can’t give him the ability to buy a plane ticket and chase his delinquent father across the globe. You have to work with the situation and the characters you’ve set up.

But there’s no alternative, so get in there and do it!

Making no decisions would be like trying to create a sculpture of “everything”—it can’t be done. When creating any piece of art—painting, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, dance, theatre—you have to choose, narrow things down and decide what to include in the thing you’re making.

Taking a long time to choose doesn’t make for better choices. So give it a bit of thought, then choose and see what happens. Decisiveness saves you time, and time is one of the writer’s biggest allies.

Bloody-Minded Writers

A Writer’s Roadmap Thursday Postcard

“What continual rejection did…was drive me back into the basics of who I was”

Pat Barker

Pat Barker worked hard on two novels she described to Valerie Stivers of The Paris Review as “sensitive middle-class-lady novels, the kind of thing the person who bumped trolleys with me in the supermarket would have been quite happy to think I was writing.” 

When publishers turned both novels down, she asked herself what she would write if she knew for sure she’d never get published. She said to an interviewer for Five Dials:

“I was getting more and more bloody-minded all the time. By the time I was writing the third I was very much writing what I wanted to write without any kind of references to the publishing industry at all. That’s not a bad attitude.”

This third novel was the prize-winning Union Street

After that, Barker went on to write and publish more books–her best-known work possibly being the stunning Regeneration trilogy (RegenerationThe Eye in the DoorThe Ghost Road). She won lots more prizes and was eventually made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

What can we learn from this? 

If you’re writing fiction, write first for yourself.



On Not Going Bananas

When live readings come back, will you be ready?

A few years ago I was at a nonfiction reading where the writer at the podium kept asking what time it was and leafing through his book, muttering “OK…OK…OK.” He panicked halfway through his time slot, yelled “that’s it!” and bolted for the door.

In a way, seeing a well-published writer go bananas in public was comforting. Being a weirdo is not the end of the world. He lived. I still like his writing.

People are not going to stop liking your work just because you give a bad reading. But why not try to give a good one?

Let’s say you’re comfortable talking to groups of people, say to teach them something or share your perspective. Getting up in front of a crowd to read part of your story or book to people isn’t like that. It can be stressful. After all, it’s your stuff!

And important questions will arise as you prepare. If it’s a scene you’re reading, do you need to act both parts? Should you change your voice or stance, depending on who’s speaking? If it’s exposition, is the bit interesting enough? Does your voice drone on, or end every sentence on an up note? WILL YOU NEED TO SELF-MEDICATE just to stop your hands from shaking?

Famous writers, or writers in specific situations (conferences, MFA program craft talks) will often read alone as the “headline act,” but most readings have a roster of writers with a limited time slot for each. At these group readings, at least part of the audience won’t have heard of you or read anything you’ve written. They’re there perhaps to support another writer, or just because they like the “live theatre” aspect of live readings and are looking for a night out.

Some things are under your control

One of the great things about live theatre is that anything can go wrong. In a reading, what goes wrong is not usually the tech or the set, which are very simple, but things under the writer’s control, like:

  • What they choose to read, and for how long
  • How they read
  • How the audience feels about the experience

Some of my favorite writers are entertaining readers and lecturers. Former punk rocker Jonathan Evison is extremely funny. He dresses cool, and as a long-time beer lover, I was glad to hear that he will sometimes (often?) hand out beer at readings. Writer Jess Walter is effortlessly hilarious. He could probably have a respectable standup career. Margaret Atwood tells good stories and sometimes makes acerbic comments about real people. Ouch! Karen Russell is goofily funny, in a highly entertaining way. Storyteller Ivan Coyote has taken readings to a whole new level–his events are deeply engaging and profound.

It could be that writers who don’t enjoy reading in public tend not to do it. I was in that camp for years, mostly because I thought my writing was crap. I’d sit through weeks of a night school writing class and never raise my hand to read something I’d written.

But at some point I had to figure out how to do it, and came to understand that reading your work is a skill, and it can be learned.

So here are some tips for readings or other events that will help your readers encounter you at your best—most relaxed, funniest (if you’re funny), entertaining, even inspiring or moving:


If you’re reading from your own published work, try to memorize as much of it as you can. At Tin House Writing Workshop in Portland. OR, I watched Luis Alberto Urrea tell an entire story without reading out of a book or manuscript—he memorized the whole thing. We’re talking more than 15 minutes. I’ll never forget it, because it was incredible.

Spread the joy

Try to organize a joint reading with one or more writers who work in a similar vein, or sit on a panel. You won’t have as much of the spotlight and the other presenters might be nervous too, so at least you’ll have company. Plus, you’ll be exposed to their readers and they’ll be exposed to yours.

Tweak the format

If you have any control over the situation, think about turning your reading into a lecture. If you’re writing about a little-known aspect of history, you could speak about that to history buffs. Maybe show slides (or the modern equivalent!). Have a Q&A. And tack on a 5- or 10-minute reading from your book.

Gather your information

Think about the introductions, the Q&A period, and the book signing table. Know the protocol of thanking the reader before you, or the MC. Know how to introduce yourself and your story succinctly. Prepare a few answers to obvious questions, so that if someone asks them you won’t be staring slack-jawed at the approaching headlights. If you’re supposed to introduce the writer after you, find out what you need to know, maybe by saying hello early in the evening.

Practice, practice, practice

My MFA program had student readings for every residency, and I never signed up once because I really didn’t want to read my work aloud. The people who signed up got a lot more comfortable with reading their work. The best way I’ve found to practice outside of actually reading live is to film myself reading it and watch the film. The first time I did that, I discovered that I was shifting my weight from foot to foot, darting glances at the door, and generally looking like I’d just gotten pulled in for interrogation.


Can I still say Chillax? I kind of like how it sounds. Anyway: Get physically relaxed, preferably not by quaffing martinis. If you’re not relaxed, your audience can’t relax either. Nervous readers make people nervous. So find a few minutes to do a body scan, deep breathing, one-armed pushups, or whatever else it takes to bring your anxiety down a level.

The more you know how to do, the more likely you are to get invited to fun stuff

You can help give yourself and the audience a good experience by choosing an entertaining or moving section of your story, reading it as if you like it, sticking to the event’s time guidelines, and delivering the reading in a relaxed manner.

Even if you don’t take any of the advice above, any exposure to reading helps. So take every opportunity you get to read your work to other people. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll come across a weirdo. Is that so bad? Weirdos rule!

What better time to get good at reading your work than now, as we get used to living in the endemic pandemic? By the time live readings come back and your book comes out, you’ll be ready to burst out of the gate, relaxed and secure in your skills.

Playing the Next Card

A Writer’s Roadmap Thursday Postcard

Have you ever played solitaire and hedged your bets, keeping a card in your hand until you see a definite progression with the ones you’ve already laid down?

My experience is that at least half the time, the progression won’t show up until you lay down the card.

The urge for certainty before we do something can be strong, but it can also trap us in the same-old, same-old.

With solitaire, the worst-case scenario is that we’ll lose and have to deal another hand.

With real life, it can feel riskier to play the next card when we’re not sure it’ll work out.

But with writing, at least, the worst-case scenario for most of us is an ego-bruising if it doesn’t go the way we hoped.

In Fluke: The Math & Myth of Coincidence, Joseph Mazur writes:“Most of our daily events or circumstances don’t come to us in simple ways, but are connected to so many other events and circumstances that are beyond our notice. Any single event is a result of many others, along with complex concepts beyond our reach.”

Or, as his Uncle Herman told him, “Everything that happens just happens because everything in the world just happened.”

Is there a card you’re holding back? A move, a new pursuit, writing the first sentence of something you want to try…even if you don’t know why?



Recommended Read:

Real Courage

William Kenower on the illusion of shame.