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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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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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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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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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.

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.



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.

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 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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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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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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Book Review: Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain Tidbits from Quiet: Open plan offices reduce productivity and impair memory. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated and insecure. Online collaborations can be very successful, but that doesn’t mean work groups are better in all situations. Your sweet spot is …

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