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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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.

Cheers,
Pat


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.

Cheers,
Pat


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?

Cheers,

Pat


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


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.

Cheers,

Pat


“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]


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.

Cheers,

Pat


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?

Cheers,

Pat


Recommended Read:

Real Courage

William Kenower on the illusion of shame.


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.

Cheers,

Pat


Recommended Read:

Writing Badly: The True Source of Inspiration

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


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?

Cheers,

Pat


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.