8 Billion Shades of Gray

The Power of Voice

If you’ve ever submitted anything for publishing, you already know that a ‘meh’ piece of work is unlikely to get into print. Literary mags get far more submissions than they can fit into a few issues a year. Agents and publishers get far more manuscripts than they can read in ten lifetimes.

The biggest single antidote to a meh reading experience is creating a compelling voice—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

Back in 2016 or so I sent the third draft of a complete novel to my agent. I thought I’d told a pretty good story. Then we talked about it, and she said it was, you know, okay. She liked the characters. But she didn’t love the manuscript enough to be able to sell it. It lacked oomph.

I knew immediately what she meant, and she was right. I hadn’t dug deep enough into the POV character’s psyche. I was holding back. This made for a boring reading experience. The novel’s voice was not compelling enough to carry the reader through the story, and the story wasn’t compelling enough to make up for a pedestrian voice.

So What About the 8 Billion Shades?

The other  morning I got dressed in gray pants, a gray tank top, a gray button-down shirt, and gray socks. I was halfway to work when I looked down and realized that none of the grays matched. They weren’t even close. One had more blue, one had a pink cast, and one was greenish-gray. Considering they were all the “same” color, they couldn’t have been more different.

This is true also of the nearly 8 billion humans on planet earth: There are no identical views on life. There isn’t even a broad consensus on what constitutes reality. If you could somehow transport into another person’s head, let’s say someone in the same socioeconomic group, in the same town, with the same job as you–heck, let’s imagine they share your partner and kids!–you cannot really know their experience.

That’s because everyone has their own way of experiencing the world. Anyone who believes other people think exactly the same way they do is doing what the psychologists call “projecting.”

If we could really get inside each other’s heads, we would understand that each person’s way of perceiving and deciding is a completely individual experience.

It’s the same with voice

You might have five novels with the same characters and plot (what happens, in what order, from whose POV). Or five memoirs, five essays, five transformational self-help books on the same topic.

Even if the writers have the same skill level and information and approach to the book’s elements, each book will be different because the writer’s voice is different.

Those books that are the most fun to read are those where the writer has no interest in sounding like everyone else. Where the voice is unmistakably theirs alone.

Voice is amorphous and deep and kind of fragile at the same time. Some readers might love a particular novel’s voice while others find it galling. It’s not just flashy tales with a crazy narrator that have voice, but everything you read.

We can all hope that one day we’re writing and the “voice” of the piece will seize us, so we can spew out a terrific draft with complete confidence and verve, as if receiving divine dictation, knowing exactly  how to get it on the page and transport the reader fully into the experience we want them to have.

A Shining Example

Last year I read a novel about an abandoned and abused nine-year-old boy desperate for human connection, who lived in a broken-down bus on the edge of a farm inhabited by a family of psychopaths. His only help came from another child from that same family, and she was afraid to help him. Then winter hit. Then the boy stumbled across a deformed baby sasquatch whose mother had died. Then the sasquatch’s father came back to the territory and took an interest in his son. Then…well, I won’t spoil it for you.

The horror of this child’s ordeal made for an intense reading experience. The writer sometimes showed the boy in scene, in action, with no interior monologue, and at other points let the reader deep into the boy’s thoughts; sometimes he closed up psychic distance to give minute observations from the boy’s perspective and at other times moved out into a much larger perspective.

He showed time passing both in increments and in great leaps, always returning to the boy’s present-day reality of the story.

He interwove “oral histories” from other perspectives to tell the psychopathic family’s story.

Finally, he told some events from an antagonist’s POV, building suspense as the perspectives and the timelines converged toward the climax.


And what made it possible for me to read this harrowing story was the writer’s skill in using every one of the elements named below.

Tips to combat ‘meh’

Here are some of the things you can think about when you’re staring at a ‘meh’ draft of your own work and wondering what to do.

Look at point of view

See where you can give it some wiggle room. Even in a novel or memoir that’s mostly first person, you can experiment with omniscience (at chapter openings, for example). This can help create meaning.

In fact, in a story with harrowing or violent incidents, zooming out in space and time might be essential to helping the reader stay with it long enough to get to the end and have the experience you want them to have.

Look at psychic distance

Psychic distance is about whether we are deep inside the people in the story’s (or memoir’s, or essay’s) heads and privy to their thoughts, at arm’s length, a block away, or seeing them only by what they do and say, with no access to their thoughts at all.

Any one piece of fiction or narrative nonfiction can roam the territory between close and far psychic distance. Knowing when to move in and out is part of creating the story’s voice. If you want to let the reader deep inside the person’s experience in a particular moment, limit the details to only what that person would see or notice.

And if you want the reader to pay more attention to the facts than the emotions of an event, you can enlarge out of the person’s immediate experience into a more distant set of observations or facts. Even when you are not relaying interior monologue, the reader can know how the people in the piece feel through what they do, what they say, and how others react to them.

We can also know them through the language of the story. We might not get a character’s thoughts in (say) a scene set in a hospital, we can know if they hate hospitals through the words the writer chooses to describe the setting.

Vary narrative modes

Look at the narrative modes you’re using to relay events (scene, scene fragment, exposition, narrative summary etc.). Exposition and narrative summary can telescope time and bridge scenes, create cause and effect, or give the reader essential information about the piece’s world.

If you have “scene, scene, scene,” with the people in the piece locked into the present-time experience and no pauses for reflection, no chance for the character (or reader) to absorb the meaning of what happened in the scene or consider what that meaning implies for their next move, or to zoom out to the larger picture, the reader can feel like they’re in lockstep, in a claustrophobic experience that doesn’t let up.

Look at tense and time.

Writing in present tense is a completely different reading experience than the same story in past tense. “I pick up the saw and move to the autopsy table” feels different than “I picked up the saw and moved to the autopsy table.”

Get the truth on the page, no matter how weird

Positive or negative, smart or dumb—let the reader in on everything you know.

I try to remind myself every time I sit down in front of my computer that deciding to  become a writer means giving up the rights to any kind of withholding; a good story—a true story—doesn’t have anything to hide.

Aria Beth Sloss
Writers Ask, Issue No. 64, Summer 2014

From Idea to Project

A Writer’s Roadmap Thursday Postcard

The Idea Itself

The first step in any writing project is to create a container. The “container” consists of:

  • Your Inspiration—the idea itself
  • Your Why—why you, why now, why this book
  • Your Ideal Reader—who you see enjoying the book
  • Your Schedule and Systems—how you see yourself getting it done

All of these matter. But the first thing to look at when you’re writing a book is your inspiration—the idea itself. And the time to start looking at that is at the beginning.

“Of course,” you might say. “What kind of person would start writing a book without looking at the idea first!”

[Raise hand.]

And more than once, too.

When I start a new project, or pick up a stalled one, my unconscious way of operating sometimes sets certain things in motion that blind me to the idea itself, and how it could best show up in the world.

Case in point: Over a five-year period, I wrote three drafts of a novel about the Salish Sea severed feet and sibling estrangement. Lots of fun scenes, but it never gelled. Then I realized that a novel is one of the most complicated ways to explore any question, because the novel form brings so many layers of scrutiny—character arcs, world building, plot incidents, everything. If I’m trying to figure out something specific, it’s easier to write an essay or a blog post.

So why hadn’t I just written an essay about the severed feet, or about sibling estrangement?

Because it never occurred to me. And that was because I hadn’t thought deeply enough about the idea to begin with. My way of operating took over. My obsession with writing novels made me overlook that this was not an idea I could explore effectively in a novel, given my skill set at the time.

From Inspiration to Project

How do you get to the root of a project? How do you know what shape it should take?

Here is a step-by-step process you can use for fiction, nonfiction, short pieces, long ones—just about any idea:—Schedule in some time to think about it. 

—List your inspiration(s): words, other books, films, ideas from the current zeitgeist or from history–anything you’re into lately, even if you don’t know why or how it relates.

—Notice what’s new to you, or seems accidental. It’s no accident that weird things come into your life at particular times. [Example: The postal service accidentally started delivering “Sky and Telescope” magazine to my house. Coincidentally, I was thinking about writing a cleaning lady in outer space. The magazines, with all their cool info about the universe, made me write the stories.]

—Be aware that you might have blinders on. That’s good sometimes with writing, but not at the start. You can put them back on later, when you’ve locked into the project and just need to STRAP IN AND GET ‘ER DONE.

—Consider alternatives to the form you have in mind. What if your short story needs to be a memoir, or your essay a how-to book? What if you wrote it as a play? The nonfiction book you’re thinking about might be good as an e-course first, to zero in on the core ideas. No idea is too wacky to entertain at this early stage.

—Work with your strengths. Maybe you’re a hard worker, or super-punctual, or obsessive. (Yes, those are strengths!) If you’re obsessive, you might find ways to use one idea for several different forms. EFFICIENCY IN ACTION.

—Question your own beliefs about what you’re capable of. One of my beliefs is that I am slow when writing fiction. When I take that belief into the back room and interrogate it relentlessly, it folds like a cheap tent. Yes, I can be slow, but I can also be fast. I’m fast every Labor Day weekend, when I join the insanity known as the 3-day novel contest.

—Fool around with the idea for a few sessions before you actually start chipping away at the writing. Write little bits around it. Think about it when you’re not writing. 

Then when you have a form in mind, proceed with enthusiasm. At the very least, you’ll learn more about writing that particular form. Once you’re writing, accept that no thought is too weird to go into the piece. Those weird thoughts are what make your stuff different from everything else.



Recommended Read:

Writing Badly: The True Source of Inspiration

Craig Morgan Teicher on the crucial skill he’s proudest of: writing badly

“If I feel like it.”

These are five dangerous words for someone who wants to write a book (or story, essay, blog post, etc.). They’re right up there with “if I have time.”

“I’ll work on my story today…if I feel like it.”

These words are especially dangerous if you’re rusty, new to writing, or tend to procrastinate.

The key to writing anything is making yourself feel like it.

We’re not masochists, here. Or if we are, that’s a separate thing! Most of the writers I work with have a complete manuscript before they approach me. It might be full of holes, or need substantial rewriting, but they’ve actually done the writing of the first draft.

I like working with writers who’ve finished a draft, because then I know that they know it’s not super-easy to write a book. My experience is that the ones who write the most, with the least self-flagellation, approach writing with self-compassion.

They help themselves get to the project on a regular basis, and to keep getting to it even when it gets complicated.

Just because you don’t feel like it doesn’t mean it can wait.

Writers know that to get to the end, they have to keep going. If you’ve published a book, or even read this post on project management principles for writing a book, or this one on writing more by starting small, or this one on getting published, you’ll know that writing the first draft is only part of what a writer does on any given story or book. It’s not even the first task! But it’s the most important one. Without a first draft, you can’t do the other necessaries.

You might be thinking, “Surely experienced writers don’t say, “If I feel like it” about working on their books!”

Yes, they do. I said it yesterday. I write a lot, and I don’t always feel like it. I would say I feel like it about 10% of the time. So I use certain interventions.

3 clever interventions to make you feel like writing:

1.            Remember that action comes first

Only what you do matters, not what you think (e.g., about how life will be when you have written the book / story / etc., or when you’re in tip-top physical condition). If you want to get in shape, you have to get regular exercise and take some care in what you eat. The actions required for writing are different, but they’re still actions. Thinking about writing and actually writing are two different things.

2.            Lay out your tools

Writing has a few tools—a computer, or a pen and paper. A chair. A desk or table. Sometimes other stuff. Here’s the list of stuff I’m using to write my current novel’s first draft:

  • 100 index cards
  • a stack of lined looseleaf paper
  • A bunch of handwritten notes, also on looseleaf paper
  • two books (Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker and Mastering Plot Twists by Jane K. Cleland), where I’m doing the exercises to help generate a stronger plot. I’m more of a pantser with fiction but it hasn’t been serving me well.
  • 7-10 library books on mental asylums, electricity, and the history of medicine (don’t ask)
  • pen, pencil, eraser
(It’s a two-step process)

Laying out my tools is a two-step process, because writing makes me nervous a lot of the time. That’s why I don’t usually feel like it. It’s pretty normal. I teach writing, I’m in writing groups online, I write a LOT for work, and I know a lot of writers, so trust me on that–it’s normal to feel nervous or weird when you sit down to write, or even think about sitting down to write.

A great way to avoid this nervous feeling is to pretend that I have a colleague—basically, I’m two people. One of them, the administrator, sets out the tools with zero nerves or interest. Just gets the stuff out of its spot and puts it on the table.

About fifteen minutes later the OTHER person (still me), the writer, puts the kettle on, sets the timer for 30-60 minutes, sits down with a cup of tea, looks through the tools, then does something.

The “something” doesn’t have to be what we might think of as “writing.” Not every stage of writing is actually stringing sentences together. Sometimes it’s looking at an idea from every side, sometimes it’s research, sometimes it’s reading and fixing stuff already written. Sometimes it’s writing new stuff. Your writing self will know what to do when they sit down. Maybe immediately, maybe not. But if you never sit down, forget about it.

Yesterday morning, after employing these first two interventions, I sat down and wrote scene cards (one of my first-draft processes) sketching out the plot of my work-in-progress from its midpoint to the climax. I mean, that’s no small cheese. That’s quite a feat. I feel very good about that. It took me less than 30 minutes. I got to tick off an item on my “to do” list. And they’re solid ideas. I like them and I know the next step, which always makes it easier to get back to the table after “the administrator” lays out the tools.

3.            Be prepared for discomfort

Yes, you may get frustrated. It would be weird if you didn’t. That is life. It happens at bus stops and in cafeterias and at sporting events and even when watching TV. One of the traits of humans it that we get frustrated. It happens with home improvement projects and learning the piano and … well, you get the picture. It’s definitely going to happen with writing.

Discomfort never killed anybody. As writer Joyce Carol Oates said in an interview:

One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. … I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes … and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.

Joyce Carol Oates, The Paris Review Issue 74, Fall-Winter 1978

Part of preparing for discomfort could be looking at your life. What do you do a lot of that’s very easy for you? What do you do a lot of that’s hard? If there’s an imbalance (more easy than hard), you might need to set that right. Here’s one idea on YouTube, a 14-minute animated video called “How I tricked my brain to like doing hard things.”

You could try this dopamine detox to make complex tasks easier to approach. Why not? If you do, drop me a line through the contact form and let me know how it goes!

True Confessions of a Project Hoarder

Image used for eye candy

A Writer’s Roadmap Thursday Postcard

Let your stuff go!

Turns out I’m a hoarder. Not of material goods (ahem, unless we mean certain books), but of my own writing. 

Fourteen projects, to be exact. Two novels (one a 76,000 word novel about which my agent kindly said, “it lacks oomph”), eight short stories, three novellas, and a poem about my mug.

Each piece of writing is a complete draft and was created at some point over the last five years. Some have gone through 2 or 3 drafts and are pretty polished.

But despite their surface glimmer, they all need deep work. I felt sure that one day I would dive back in and make them publishable, one piece at a time. I felt it would be irresponsible to start something else with all that old work lying around.

The problem was, there was another book I REALLY wanted to write. Only I’d been stopping myself, because I was raised to finish what I started. I didn’t want to be that person who just hops from project to project, leaving a trail of almost-done stuff in my wake.

Finally, one day in June, I asked myself, “Why? Why do I have to make everything publishable? Is that even realistic? What if those projects can just form part of my experience, like parties I’ve been to then left, or trips I’ve come back from?”

To my why, I heard crickets in reply. Those crickets were telling me that I didn’t want to try making old projects publishable.

Writing is too intense a pursuit to waste time perfecting stuff I’m not interested in any more. In fact, there’s a reason I’m not interested in it now. It lacks oomph, it’s meh, it’s not what it’s supposed to be…because there’s a wrong turn in it somewhere, or it was an experiment, or it was practice.

These experiments aren’t worth cluttering up my creative life and stopping me from doing what I want to do. And nobody is in charge of me now except me.

Unlike many people, writers have choices about what we work on. We can finish every project, or we can cut ourselves loose from the experiments and move on. We can focus on doing the thing we really want to do. And we can get ourselves to complete a draft of that, then reassess.

But we can’t move forward if we don’t move, period.

Are you hoarding any projects? If you are, what might they be keeping you from?



Recommended Read:

Go ahead and write that book, but what’s your system?

Lawrence Matthews shares the system that worked for him to write his first novel.

How to Change Your Novel’s POV

In my editorial experience, fiction writers go through more trouble nailing point of view (POV) for a piece of writing than almost any other topic I’ve come across. The only real test of POV is whether it works. By “works,” I mean whether it is basically invisible to the reader and gives them the experience …

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Caution signs: When to stop querying!

Have you been querying for a while and not getting any results? If you’re new to the business of book publishing, you might not be aware that literary agents (and acquisitions editors at publishing houses) are facing an unprecedented tsunami of writing. Along with that, the operational model for traditional publishing is as screwy as it gets, and there are a ton of problems. 

What’s so different about now?

  • The sheer volume of manuscripts being pitched to agents and acquisitions editors is rising every year as more people write, some of them boomers who have retired and now have more time, some of whom took up writing during the pandemic, some of whom would have been writers no matter when they lived.
  • Querying an agent costs nothing but time. There’s no barrier to sending out a query letter.
  • That would be okay, except that most writers query before their work is publishable.
  • There’s a lot of misinformation and delusional thinking about what it takes to get a novel published traditionally. 
  • Many writers are not researching adequately before they pitch to agents. 
  • [On the opposite end of the spectrum, I know some very good writers who have given up. They write novels but don’t want to self-publish, so those manuscripts sit in a drawer. Nobody feels good about it.]
  • The querying system is ridiculous at such high volumes. Non-fiction has a more streamlined system, with the submission of a book proposal to test “proof of concept”–quicker to read; easier to see if the writer is professional about what’s required.
  • Judgments about fiction are highly subjective. So even a great novel, one your agent or editor loves and works hard for, can go unsold.
  • The publishing industry (now the Big Four, since Penguin Random House bought Simon & Schuster), are big businesses that keep merging and conglomerizing (is that a word?), cutting editorial staff, resulting in fewer people able to make decisions about whether to purchase a manuscript. 
  • The norm for business communication in publishing is not to respond. That intensifies the soul-crushing aspect and makes it hard to know whether your work is even getting seen.
  • Plus in the last 18 months, there’s been a pandemic. New York was hit hard and an already overwhelmed profession (agents & editors) had their lives turned upside down.

OK, so what can you do?

What you do depends on where you are at with your writing project. 

If your novel isn’t finished, don’t query.

If you’ve completed a draft but have yet to get feedback, don’t query.

If you’ve gotten feedback but haven’t acted on it, don’t query.

If you’re sure your novel works but don’t know who publishes that type of book, don’t query.

If your novel works and you have some publishers in mind but haven’t studied which agents represent your type of book, don’t query.

If your novel works, you have some publishers in mind, but don’t have a strong query package (letter, synopsis, first 10-50 pages), don’t query.

If your novel works, you have some publishers in mind, have a strong query package, have researched agents, and know they’re open to submissions…query!

If you don’t hear back, don’t take it personally. Traditional publishing is a fragmented, screwy, strange business, but it’s full of people who love books. Everyone I know in the industry is running as fast as they can. 

Improve your chances of publication by doing the work, doing your research, and approaching the business only when you have done all the work that comes AFTER you write the book.

Book Review: The Happiness Advantage

In the writer’s quest to understand ourselves (and thereby avoid extinction), reading about how to improve your mood and your productivity, thus increasing the odds that you’ll get things done (even better, done well) can be useful. The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor is one in a long line of positive thinking texts that go …

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Book Review: Wake Up & LIVE!

The cover of this little self-help book, first published in 1936, says {A formula for success that really works!} Or, “What would you do if you knew it was impossible to fail?” The premise is that we fail (or don’t reach our potential) because we’re always second-guessing ourselves. We might be busy, but that doesn’t mean …

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What are my book’s chances?

What are my book’s chances?

The question writers need answered

Recently, one of the novice writers I worked with (we did chapter-by-chapter editorial coaching through an entire draft of his novel) asked me to rate his chances of getting the book accepted by an agent or publisher, on a scale of 0 to 5. Five would mean I thought it “very likely,” and zero would mean I thought it had “no chance in hell.”  

Why there’s no answer

It’s a reasonable question, in some ways. But it’s impossible to answer because of the nature of the publishing industry. Even if I reread the novel again in its entirety (rather than chapter by chapter), I wouldn’t want to give a number from 0-5.

I can’t give a number from one to five on a book’s chances of publication, because those chances depend on a whole bunch of factors, some of which are beyond the writer’s control. 

The factors within the writer’s control:

  • understanding who their reader is (this particular novel was middle grade fiction)
  • making sure the story’s complexity and stakes are interesting enough for their readership–neither too complex nor too simple 
  • making the novel the strongest possible version of itself
  • knowing what the ‘comparable titles’ are so they can pitch the publishers and agents most likely to buy it
  • writing a description of the story that sparks deep interest
  • being aware that traditional publishing is an extremely tough, lengthy and competitive process
  • being prepared to spend time researching, querying, and waiting to hear back

The factors outside the writer’s control:

  • whether agents think they can sell the book to publishers
  • whether publishers think they can sell the book to readers

Unfortunately, the factors outside the writer’s control are the ones that dictate whether the book will be picked up by an agent or a publisher. 

How to work with things within your control:

If we look at the list of things under the writer’s control, they take some work. Over the course of my 10-month exchange with that writer I saw him really improve issues around the prose and scene dynamics–dialogue tags, showing vs. telling, adverbs, head-hopping (POV shifts), passive voice, distancing language–many of the things that would make an agent or publisher say no immediately. 

 What I didn’t know was whether and how thoroughly this writer had applied the big-picture suggestions I made from time to time: if the concept was as honed  and “high interest” as he could make it, if the premise was clear and interesting, if the stakes and complexity were on par with books his readership loves, if the cause-and-effect chain was strong, if the protagonist had internal conflict and growth as well as the external quest, if the emotional complexity in later packets had been woven in throughout in her POV… all that stuff.   If he had wrestled with all those big-picture suggestions and made changes accordingly, he’d be in a good position to start querying.  

If he hadn’t, he needed to go back and do those things first. (And that’s just one  or maybe two bullet points in the list of factors within the writer’s control–numbers 2 and 3,) He’d still need to do the following four bullet points before he’d be in a good position to start querying. 

The takeaway:

I’d love to see this writer’s book get out there and I thought he told a good story. But if you’re in a similar position and wondering if you’re book’s ready, remember that the amount of work it takes to get traditionally published is almost as much work as it takes to write the book, just a different kind of work.

 That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go ahead! It just means you should be prepared to commit yourself wholeheartedly.

World Building in Historical Fiction

If you write historical fiction, taking apart the novel of a master of the form can be illuminating. For example, how does Peter Carey convey historical information in his novel, Parrot and Olivier in America. (The novel is reviewed by Thomas Mallon in the NY Times here, and by Ursula K LeGuin in the Guardian …

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How to Write a Novel in 3 Days

That crucible of invention known as the 3-Day Novel Contest takes place every Labor Day weekend. Billed as “The World’s Most Notorious Writing Contest,” it originated back in the dawn of time, aka the late 1970s. Read the story of its birth here. My 3-Day Story: I entered the 3-Day Novel Contest in 1989, when I …

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How to Run Your Writing Group

There is nothing so precious and productive as a good writing group. Why? It gives a writer: If you have not belonged to a writing group and are wondering what happens, read on. The Red Notebook Society The writing group I most recently belonged to (for fifteen years or so), is a highly secretive coterie known as …

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Recommended Craft Books

Sometimes you come across a book about writing that contains exactly what you need, exactly when you need it. Here is a closer look at five excellent books that will deepen your understanding of the craft of fiction. From quick reads (the Hugo book) to weighty tomes (The Rhetoric of Fiction), they are worth dipping …

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The Joy of Self-Editing

And How to Find It The edit is where your novel goes from good to great―where you learn your own foibles and develop your skills. It is where serious writers are made, and great works born. Martin Stewart As a developmental editor by day (and sometimes by night), I love a writer who loves editing …

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Riding a Wild Tiger

Sometimes projects get a little scary. This happened to me on the third draft of a novel called LIQUID WORLD, when it started to take on a feral quality. I was worried that if I came at the revision from the wrong angle, the novel might disappear on me–or worse, turn into something lifeless. What to …

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Book Cover Conspiracies

The Humanity Project was published by Plume (a Penguin imprint) in 2014. The Sky is Falling was published by Thomas Allen in 2010. Do you notice anything about these two covers? Could it be a coincidence that their book covers are so similar? Do garden gnomes in the grass mean something in the world of …

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How to Write a Manifesto

In an hour

Manifestos are an excellent tool for getting clarity about your life, or about a particular aspect of your life…like writing. Writing a manifesto reminds you a) your experience is valid, and b) if you don’t know where you stand on something that matters urgently to you, how can anyone else?

What’s a manifesto, and why would you want one?

A manifesto states your beliefs about something. The US Declaration of Independence is a type of manifesto, and so is the aptly named Communist Manifesto. It can be long or short. It’s both personal and public.

A personal manifesto is not about the rest of your life, or about what happened before. It’s about right now.

The website 1000manifestos.com has examples of manifestos ranging from Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech to actor Charlie Sheen’s 11-point “life manifesto” (which might be a joke) to Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell’s dead serious “Notice to the world,” advocating the end of nuclear weapons and starkly defining the choice facing humanity: renounce war or become extinct.

Writing a personal manifesto can clarify your “why,” that essential first step to being able to carry through any long endeavor, like writing a book or founding a business or living a meaningful life.

Since this is a blog for writers, let’s look at some of the main issues writers face, where having a manifesto can help. Every writer I know has flailed around from time to time, having trouble with any or all of the following:

  • Deciding what to write
  • Mustering the impetus to start
  • Deciding what form your creation should take (length, structure, etc.)
  • Making time to work on it
  • Getting to work when you sit down to write
  • Stopping before you reach the point of diminishing returns
  • Dealing with burnout from trying to write and work your day job and do other stuff
  • Creating and maintaining momentum until you have a complete draft
  • Revising that draft to bring it up to publishable quality

These are not small issues. In fact they probably make up a large part of what stops people from finishing books, stories, blog posts, screenplays, poems—you name it, writers have gotten bogged down on it.

A writing manifesto can be extremely helpful when you’re doubting yourself and doubting this writing thing. When you’re thinking that the time on energy you spend on writing could be better spent on other things, like your job or your friendships or your partner and kids, or your financial and emotional survival. Or when you need some courage to get back into the manuscript that’s turned into a bloodbath of bad decisions.

Why write a manifesto now?

Now is a good time for manifestos. The world is a volatile place. We need to remember who we are and what matters to us.

So if you’ve realized lately that you’ve been blindly striving in the cult of productivity, or been passive when you should have acted, or let bigotry and systemic inequity go unchallenged, writing a manifesto can give you a north star to guide your daily life.

Also, if not now, when? The idea that we’re going to live to old age is just an idea. If you’re stuck on something that feels integral to your well-being, as writing does for most writers, then you need to sort that out now, not five years from now.

Knowing where you stand on something that matters to you is the first and most essential step for engaging with that thing successfully.

Nobody else’s manifesto can be your manifesto, because nobody else is living your life.

Three steps to your manifesto:

You’ll need 40 minutes, paper, pen, scissors, and tape or glue. You will break your 40 minutes into three phases:

  • Phase One: thinking (10 minutes)
  • Phase Two: writing (20 minutes)
  • Phase Three: revising (10 minutes)

You will employ restrictions to produce a draft in a limited time, which is what writing always comes down to.

First restriction:

The manifesto form itself. Make it a short one. You’re aiming for ten to twenty declarative sentences in a particular order that flows well and makes sense. A declarative sentence is something like: “Walking is never a waste of time.” Or (from The Typewriter Revolution Manifesto) “We affirm the written word and written thought against multimedia, multitasking, and the meme.” Look at some of the manifestos on 1000manifestos.com to get a sense of the variety and scope short manifestos can have.

Second restriction:

The time frame (forty minutes). Ten minutes to think, twenty minutes to write, ten minutes to revise. Between the phase two (writing) and phase three (revision), you can put it away for a day or two if you like, but you don’t have to.

Third restriction:

Make this manifesto a collaboration between you now, the age you are, and yourself as a kid. Pick an age when you knew what you liked doing and saw no reason why you shouldn’t do it. Good ages might be seven, ten, or twelve, but any age could work. Think about what mattered to you at that age. What did you know or see clearly about the world and yourself that you were talked out of, somehow, as your life progressed?

Fourth restriction (optional but potentially lifesaving):

Pick five words at random from the nearest book, sign, or website and write them down.

1.         Begin Phase One—Thinking

Set a timer for 10 minutes. Brainstorm / bullet point a list of your values, thoughts, and passions around your writing life or the topic of your manifesto. This is mostly thinking, though it does involve writing down your thoughts. But it’s generative writing–brainstorming. You are not censoring yourself or trying to make sense. There is no idea too stupid. There is nothing too ‘out there.’ Take dictation from your child self and your now self. Maybe as a kid you liked stories about dragons. Write “Stories about dragons are cool.” Just open the channel and take whatever comes through. When the timer goes, STOP. You can take a short break or go straight to phase two.

2.         Begin Phase Two—Writing

Set a timer for 20 minutes. Focus on what this manifesto is about (i.e., your writing life). Use your bullet points from Phase One and write complete sentences on a piece of paper, leaving half an inch or so of white space between each sentence. When you write these complete sentences, focus on the now. It can be tempting to write something like: “I will finish my novel this year.” But that’s not a manifesto sentence. A manifesto sentence is more like, “My novel matters more to me than my job.” That doesn’t mean you’ll quit your job to write the novel, it means that when you need to choose between really killing it at work and perhaps easing off so you can leave on time, you’ll choose to leave on time.

If you are having trouble starting a sentence, use one of the five random words you culled in the preparation phase. Anyone can make a sentence if they are given a word, and you will be surprised at how interesting those sentences can be. Or if your Phase One points need fleshed out, think about your Who, Why, and What. Who are you? Why does writing matter to you? What do you know works, or used to work, in your writing life?

It’s just a draft.

Remember, they don’t have to be good sentences. Put them on the page any old how. It’s a draft.

Once you have your sentences written down, cut up the piece of paper so that each sentence is on its own strip. Lay the strips of paper on a flat surface and move them around, aiming for a good flow and progression—from the small to the large, from the particular to the universal, from the fact to the opinion flowing from that fact, from the child to the person you are now.

When the timer goes, stop moving the strips around. Type or write the sentences out a second time, in the new order. If you’re using a computer, print it out.

Optional: You can put the sheet of paper in a drawer and leave it alone for a couple of days, or you can proceed to the Revision phase. I like to give drafts a rest because it’s a simple way to create distance and avoid unnecessary tinkering. But if you like your sentences the way they are and want to keep going, begin phase three.

3.         Begin Phase Three—Revision

Set a timer for 10 minutes. Read your manifesto. If it feels right to you, write “My Writing Manifesto” or “My 2021 Manifesto” on the top and stick it somewhere you’ll see it on a regular basis. If it doesn’t feel right yet, work on it for ten minutes. Reorder, polish, cut, or add sentences. Don’t try to change it too much, just give it a fluff and fold, as they say in the laundry business.

When the timer goes, stop and call it done.

Now you have a manifesto.

It probably won’t be perfect, but you might find it surprisingly helpful when you need some perspective on your writing life, or need to make a decision about what to do with your life in general.

What to do with your manifesto:

  • Look at it regularly
  • Whenever someone gets in your way around writing or around your personal boundaries & convictions, take it out and speak the sentences to them in a powerful voice. You and they will know exactly where you stand.
Take an hour and write your manifesto today.

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