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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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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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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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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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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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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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.


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:

Overprepare

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.

Chillax

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.


“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!


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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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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