Monday, June 27, 2016


I could use a few dreamy, idle moments--how about you?

Here's how I spend mine, as recorded in my monthly YAOTL post, this one my favorite things about summer.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Finding an ending

I've been working on a project whose ending has been elusive. I wrote toward a specific ending, but when I got there, it seemed a bit--off. Underwhelming. But I wasn't sure what else to do with it. I tried this and that. I went back and seeded certain things earlier in the story, to set up the ending better. I rewrote the ending scene. I made it longer. I made it shorter. It got better, but I was still plagued by nagging doubts.

I usually have trouble with endings, much more so than with beginnings. Here's how I have solved a few of them:

--Look back at the theme. What's this story really about? That gave me the ending of one of my short stories, "Feed the City."

--Go back to the beginning. Have I fully explored everything that was present in the opening scene? Where else can I take it? These questions led me to an entirely new climax and ending for Try Not to Breathe.

--Lop off material that seems to be starting a whole new story. Get into the character's head in order to give him emotional resolution. Go all out emotionally, and then dial it back just a touch. That's how I wrote the final scene of The Secret Year.

For my current project, I took an idea from a novel I just finished reading. That novel's author had written a climactic scene full of sparks and confessions and consequences, a real payoff for the tension that had built up over the course of the book. As I read it, it reminded me of the way movies often end; I could really visualize that scene happening in a movie. So I looked at my own story and asked whether it could end with a bang instead of a whimper. In my latest draft, the main character takes an important, but quiet, step. I started looking at what kind of step could have the same meaning, but be much more interesting and significant, involving more characters and a bigger emotional payoff. How could my own book have a movie-style ending? And I've come up with an idea. It may or may not lead to a better ending, but after several hours of thinking it over, I'm still enthusiastic.

Basically, I conclude that brainstorms come from anywhere and everywhere. That's one reason to develop a large writing toolbox; you never know which tool a project is going to need.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A for Effort

"The effort of writing itself is nothing. It is that intense concentration, the imaginative heave before I can write a word that is exhausting."
--May Sarton, Recovering: A Journal

Writing is at its easiest when I can see the scene unrolling in my mind's eye. But getting that mental film loaded into the projector is the hard part.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Whatever works now

A writer friend and I were talking about process today: how much time to sit at the writing desk, and when, and how to fit in everything else, and how to end a writing session. I noted that my process has changed over the years: I do more writing in the morning now than at night, for example, and I write more regularly rather than in the occasional binge-like sessions of my college days.

Both of us realized that marriage had correlated with more productivity at the writing desk. We could think of a few possible reasons--more stability, happiness, less need to invest emotional energy searching for potential partners and navigating the uncertainty of the dating world--but of course there's no guarantee it works that way for everyone who marries. We just found it interesting.

One thing I have observed is that many writers' processes change over time. Life happens, medical conditions happen, our day-job and family circumstances change. Beyond that, we change as writers: we try new things, learn what works, explore new genres and formats. And then, technology changes, too. I used to write primarily in longhand; now I write primarily though not exclusively on the keyboard. Whatever works now is my motto.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The slowness of words, the illusion of immediacy

"When I write, I am trying through the movement of my fingers to reach my head. I'm trying to build a word ladder up to my brain. Eventually these words help me come to an idea, and then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite what I'd already written (when I had no idea what I was writing about) until the path of thinking, in retrospect, feels immediate. What's on the page appears to have busted out of my head and traveled down my arms and through my fingers and my keyboard and coalesced on the screen. But it didn't happen like that; it never happens like that."
--Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock

This is one of the most apt descriptions I have found for how I myself write, and revise, and why I am often unable to write about events until long after they happen.

Friday, June 10, 2016

On author newsletters

For a while, every writer "had to have" a Myspace page, and then you "had to have" a blog, and then I lost track for a while--maybe it was Facebook or Twitter you had to have. Nowadays, a newsletter seems to be the thing to have.

The trouble with these must-have platforms is that they tend to work best for the early adopters. Then the audience becomes saturated, then oversaturated, and people decide something else is the new must-have.

And I suspect that is what will happen with newsletters. More and more writers seem to be doing them. I don't send one out myself, but I do get a few, and I thought I'd share FWIW what I like and don't like as a reader.

I am currently very careful about signing up for any new newsletters. I get a lot of email as it is, and by far the best email falls into two categories: 1) personal messages from people I know; and 2) messages about my writing (fan mail, communications from agent, acceptances from editors, etc.). I get tons and tons of spam, and fundraising requests, and political-action messages, and I'm not eager to add new email to my box unless it's more like categories 1 and 2 than like the spam.

Some of the newsletters I most enjoy getting (not in any particular order) are from: Powell's bookstore; Brent Hartinger; Beth Kephart's Juncture; my local library. There may be a couple of others I'm forgetting at the moment. But here's why I like them:

--I asked for them, either by actively signing up or by initiating contact with the writer. One thing I really dislike is when authors with whom I've had no contact add me to their mailing lists, or when companies start bombarding me with messages when I haven't actively signed up for their lists. A few authors have sent me newsletters that had me scratching my head: Who is this person and why is he announcing his new books in a genre I don't even read?

--They include interesting information beyond just "buy my book!" Powell's has author interviews and essays that are about interesting topics. My library's newsletter lets me know what is going on: upcoming workshops, for example. Beth Kephart invites a conversation with her readers, most of whom are also writers.

--They have a unique flavor and a personality. Beth Kephart and Brent Hartinger both address their readers in tones that are typical of their author voices (Kephart's thoughtful, intimate, poetic; Hartinger's fun and often funny), and that show an awareness of audience. Too many newsletters just seem to be slick, slapped-together commercials that are being flung out into an anonymous universe: an ad for an upcoming book, with perhaps a favorable review quote, and maybe a short, generalized message to readers that could just as easily appear in any other author's newsletter. I like knowing that a favorite author has a new book out; I'm not saying that an author newsletter has to coyly sidestep that fact. But a book ad is not the same thing as a newsletter.

--They are fairly brief; any longer material is click-to-see-more. Nobody can spend all day reading newsletters. The ones I've mentioned are succinct. Powell's is the longest, but it's formatted so that you can see at a glance which features and interviews are of enough personal interest to click through and read the whole thing.

I have absolutely bought or checked out books that I found out about from newsletters. But I still find most of my books in other ways. I think a newsletter can work well for authors who really want to do them (rather than feeling obligated to), who can think of ways to put their own personal spin on them. But I also think newsletters are not "must-haves" for those who'd rather not do them.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Real life stories

I have been watching several of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's bird webcams this spring. At one end of the spectrum, we have the happy tale of the redtail hawks: three eggs laid, three birds successfully hatched, three juveniles well fed and tended by their experienced parents. The first hawk fledged (took its first flight off the nest) last night. From here, the young hawks will face riskier lives as they learn to fly and hunt, but they have had as good a start as young birds could have.

On the other end of the spectrum was the disaster unfolding at the barn owl nest box: rainy weather that kept the parents from providing enough prey for their six hatchlings; the disappearance of the male parent; attacks on the nest by another owl; the gradual loss of the owlets until only one was left; and then the injury and disappearance of the female parent. (It was hard not to wish that the redtail father in New York, who provided an abundance of food for his young, could also provide food for the hungry owlets in Texas. But nature doesn't work that way.) The remaining owlet appears to be the lone survivor of her family. She has been relocated to a wildlife rehab center, having begun life in just about as difficult a manner as possible.

Nature deals the cards unevenly. In every life is a story: unpredictable, riveting, and leading us to ever more questions.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The wall

Katie M. Stout just posted eloquently about "hitting the wall," and it has become such a familiar story that I think it may just be a phase in many (most?) writers' lives. Which is not to say it's easy, or trivial. It can last a season, or years, or anything in between. It can be brutal while it lasts. I've gone through my own version of it.

But what I've seen happen to so many writers is that the well refills, one way or another. As Katie Stout says, the writers' goals often change. What the writer writes, or for whom, or how, can change. There is a door in the wall--invisible as it may be for a while--with new territory on the other side.