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Archive for practices

Use NaNoWriMo to get your book to finished

Halloween will deliver more than costumes, debauched parties and tons of candy corn. On that day at midnight it’s also the start of National Novel Writing Month, a worldwide 30-day event where the goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Those are aimed to be words for a novel — although you can hijack this event to fill the pages of your memoir, since that form uses so many techniques of fiction.

You can sign up for free, and register your book in progress, at the NaNoWriMo dashboard. The roots of this event are aimed at novel writers, but the collective creativity month serves any long project. You see, memoir, creative nonfiction and novel all share the same powerful elements. Characterization. Scene. Dialogue. Setting. Metaphor. Theme. Structure. Story. Plot. Dramatic arc. Transformation.

All of the above are tools to use in telling any story. It doesn’t matter if your book’s bones have elements of fact for memoir or the long-form essay, or stand up as a fabricated tale that is, like all great ones, “based upon a true story.” The point is that the community of NaNoWriMo is at your beck and call.

Your goal is to write 50,000 words. They’re unpolished, rough-draft words. You don’t edit during NaNo. That’s work for EdiMo — not really an official event, but there should be a National Novel Editing Month for December. Don’t look for EdiMo. Just look for the delicious experience of drafting all those words without making it perfect. Pat Conroy, who wrote The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, said “Write like you are a lover. Edit like you are in charge.”

November is a month for lovers, those lovers of storytelling. You will draft faster if you have a simple list of scenes that go into your story. Plan a little in the week to come.

Sign up at the NaNoWriMo website, so you can log your writing as you go. Once you’re at 50,000 words you’re done. You upload your file to the organizers who do a blind word count on it. It’s scrambled, so it makes no sense and is secure. All they require is 50,000 words. What you get out of the month is the experience of how it feels to write, on average, about 1,700 words a day.

Writing 50,000 words makes you a winner. But getting any big chunk of writing completed in even a rough draft in a month’s time is the real victory.

The 12 Disciples of Creativity

Creativity requires faith, and sticking to your creative faith is easier with exemplary practices to follow. I’m a Catholic boy if you go back far enough. We learned our faith in part by studying the lives of the disciples. The root of the word disciple means to show a devotion, so these 12 practices are the devotional work to do as we create stories.

Simplicity: Focusing on the immediate action at hand. Breaking the mission into the smallest parts, and doing them one at a time. Making each creative act look obvious and inevitable. Because writing a sentence is not complex, when done one at a time. Because creating an outline card is not hard if you only do it one at a time.

Regularity: To make the act of creating as essential as waking from sleep each morning. To consider creating part of the day that can no more be skipped than the sunrise. To know you can’t leave the house without clothes, and to know that you can’t leave a morning without creating something, not in full. But a draft.

Solemnity: To light a candle, to close the door, to silence the phone, to feel as it you’re entering a church of a faith that propels you. To know and believe, in your soul, that what you’re about to do in creation is important, because it delivers meaning. To feel like a priest in prayer at a mass, or a minister in a sermon, or a pastor giving a benediction before an important event.

Honesty: To do, as Hemingway said, just write one true sentence. By true he doesn’t mean built of fact, but a sentence that delivers the essence of its intention. To be aware, always, that you’re an imperfect creation yourself and that only change and time will deliver your desires for your work. And to carry that awareness to your creations, imperfect always, full of the wabi sabi that makes them your signature. To be honest about your energy and your desire, know when it has flagged after good creative work.

Self-Direction: To understand and believe that you can master the course that you set out to complete the creations. Gifts of the sea come your way when you swim in a direction, and it’s always a direction you choose. Take actions. Know that it may not be the eventual course, but any movement you make toward the sometimes-distant light of your complete creation is an act of the self.

Intensity: To sit and write just a little longer. Go beyond where you are afraid. To allow nothing to break your dream state of conjuring. The practice characterization in performance, aloud, to see yourself as that person in the story, or as your genuine self standing before an audience, with your inner eyes locked on an immutable and immovable image, like Rushmore.

Presence: To be utterly in only one place, unreeling that spool of line into the water of creation, then to study the line while you wait for that fish of an idea to bite. To be in the very moment your fingers and your arms and your legs are dedicated to anything which is not the effort of the past, or the work in the future.

Ceremony: To embrace the act of creating with little talismans and icons and regular friends of habits. For example, “I always light this candle. I always play this music. I never allow my phone to ring. I always stand up to stretch after 25 minutes. I always bring a glass of water in with me. I always write one good sentence first, even though it has nothing to do with my creation. I always read the last thing I wrote, aloud, before I make my next passage. I always do toning with my voice, vocal exercises. I always stretch with a deep bend, then add my two favorite tai chi movements.

Joy: To love a life with less certainty than others because mine always holds unexpected pleasures. To revel in the persona that I create for myself as an artist, a creator, seeking meaning. To give thanks for an existence that can feed me and feed others’ hearts with one dedicated effort. To smile when I think of getting away with doing this as my life’s mission, because I play as my work.

Discipline: To love what I do, because discipline is getting what you want. To believe I am a disciple of my affection and devotion to my craft. To work with focus to make my mastery hours meaningful, not just ticks of the clock of life. To return to my creativity on a schedule and respect deadlines.

Self-trust: To make the doubtful moments a regular part of the life of creativity, and believe in their ability to make the work a thing I will craft to my intention. To know that I am making productive choices when I say no to an effort that I’m delivered, and to believe in the parts of my creations I adore because they’re essential to making meaning of life, especially mine. To trust in the future because no one knows what it will become, and so the confidence will carry me through times that look bleak or blurry.

Primacy: To make my life about creating, the thing that keeps me alive, the most vital and essential element of the human who is me. To make all other things serve my creation, even while I’m walking the dog or washing dishes or paying bills or changing a diaper. Everything is in my life like a handhold along a staircase or tread on tires — to deliver me to the moments and hours and days of creativity.

I do my creation early in the mornings, and I can pull from each of these 12 things, these essentials. I love the feeling of having created, because I’ve eliminated the dread of failing to create, erased it before I do anything else. Being a working creative person makes everything else, all the dreams of finding and sharing meaning, possible. Being fresh as a morning blossom encourages the bees of ideas, of scenes, of chapters, to pollinate me.

In the morning my strength of resolve and devotion is greatest. I ride my bike in the mornings with fresh legs. As a boy I served Mass in the mornings. My favorite meal is breakfast, breaking my fast. And morning is the place closest to the theatre of my dreams, the majestic stage of my unconscious.

7 shopping tips to buy into a writing group

Would you like to workshop your book? People call these writing groups, too. The idea is to get some other authors, all working on their books diligently, to gather in person to review and respond to the book you’re writing. Published authors swear by them. Other authors can vouch for the help which a good workshop brings to a book, too. What’s the smart way to get started in one? If you haven’t met this challenge yet, there are shopping tips that lead to a good investment. Because no matter what you spend, you’re always investing your time.

Is there a size limit? Every writer who appears at the table will bring pages for you to review. A group of eight, of course, means seven sets of pages you must read. So you’ll then shift gears six times, into somebody’s story, out and then on to the next. It’s a rare thing to be able to mark with comments on more than 3,000 words an hour. Do the math. Figure that a big group means hours and hours of reviewing. Groups work best at four writers.

Is there vetting, or an introduction? Everybody wants to be in a writing group with an author who’s got more advanced skills. Or the same level, at least. Someone’s got to be judge and jury on this, though. Personal groups form between writers who know one another already. The first writing group I joined had no vetting for skills. Or courtesy, either. The next came from a Writers’ League of Texas Advanced Fiction class. The late, great novelist Karen Stolz told us, after our eight weeks of classes, “Form up groups, you guys.” The Square Table writers were off and running for the next seven years. We ran with four writers at first, then three.

I’ve got Austin’s only paid writing group. Since 2006 we’ve been open to any author who’s writing a book. No vetting, but there are limits and practices. Someone has to lead, and that means a lot more than watching a timer to be sure limits are enforced.

How much will your group read? Can you submit 15 pages, or even 20? It can be a challenge to say something useful in response to six pages of writing. You can critique a scene for the mechanics, or find a way to ask questions about what’s not on the page but intrigues you. A page count of 15-20 is 4,000-6,000 words. That’s a chapter, maybe two—the unit of the idea in a book.

Do you read before you meet? Very few authors can edit live, unless they’re only doing a line edit. It takes time to write comments, especially longhand. Legibility matters. A group with pre-submitted pages will give its members time to read closely and say what’s confusing, compelling, or dragging. A group which shares pages using email also gives members the means to look backward in a book to recall what a reader might have overlooked. Those prior chapters are right at hand, on your laptop.

Is it easy to connect personally with a member? Unless you’re entering a group linked via email, it’s so much harder to strike up a relationship with another member who really shows a connection to your work. Not everybody will “grok” your creation (the Stranger in a Strange Land verb from Robert Heinlein that means “to understand something’s soul.”) Writers might be shy in person but gregarious online. Email is essential. A group with a driving need for privacy makes such connect more work. Email is the means that professional writers use to share ideas and critique, query and trade editorial notes. A leader should make email available for every member.

How long do we meet, and where? Critique and response is careful work done best in a private space. A member’s home gets the job done, but only if there’s no distractions there. Meeting at a bookstore worked pretty well at first for us Square Table Writers. We were only four members big so we got a table well away from store cafes (Steaming milk! Lots of music!) or Saturday’s shoppers (I want that book!). Nobody had much more than three hours to meet, but each book got 45 minutes of airtime. We had time to talk about our book after critiques, too.

What’s the comfort and leadership level? Critiquing is real work with genuine payoffs. This isn’t a workout at the gym. Does you host do snacks or a demi-brunch, give breaks to stretch, encourage people to get to know one another? Such things make a space and a group personal and unique. Somebody’s going to have to ask for pages to distribute to a pre-reading group; otherwise someone forgets. A regular meeting schedule is important, too, so people can protect the time they will devote to making books better.

Yes, authors can bring their own water bottles or a venti Starbucks to a group. And whoever goes first can be determined by a lottery, tarot cards, or just whoever’s turned in pages first. Try to avoid your arrival time to the table as a way to choose who goes first. The Traffic Gods shouldn’t have a seat at your group.

There’s a lot to consider when finding a group to critique your book in progress. You do get what you invest in, though. Efficient and effective groups make good use of time in meetings. That means you have more time available for writing and revising your book. Think of how much sooner that will finish it. Finishing, after all, is at why we help one another in groups. Those outsider insights should save us time.

Writer’s Block Number 1: Who would read it, anyway?

A fledgling memoir writer asked me about the prospects for transforming his work into a book. Within a couple of messages on LinkedIn, he squelched his own efforts. His book idea, about a single year of biking 5,207 miles, seemed too dim to work on. “I just doubt many would read it, even if published on Amazon. If there’s no audience, what’s the point?”

It’s a great question, one we pose all the time while we create any work of art. Without a likely audience, why write for publication? The question often surfaces before the serious effort has a chance to get underway. I don’t see how this could be compelling for anyone but me. The question that should follow is, How do I make this story compelling?

We all work through doubts when we create. How well we do this is influenced by our imagination and our storyteller’s spark. You can imagine your book as a success, a vision you can populate with specific victories. The book opens with a great story right at the top, not just backstory. The book displays awareness and humor, even in the face of tragic events. The book has honesty, imagery, and passion.

What we’re afraid of, sometimes, is unrequited love. After going all-in to love a book they’re writing, authors can be afraid their writing won’t love them back. Imagine the story telling you, “What a godsend you have shared me. You have been honest. I brim with imagery and passion.” Give the relationship a chance, instead of a too-savvy squelch.

We’re often looking to the rest of the world to hear affirmation about our stories and our books. Contests can help deliver a small kudo, but only after some serious work in done. The writing of a book is a wonderful tonic as well as the haunting drink we fear to taste. “Just do it” has become a trite cheer. That command is the open door to experience creation, though.

There’s no way to determine how many people will read a book until you start to create it and share the work: with a group, a coach, or a trusty beta reader. If you doubt that many will read that unfinished book, what are you prepared to do to change that? The answer to that question becomes the point, one that compels you to finish and share your story.

How to Attend Finishing School

Finishing School begins November 29 at the Workshop.

We lie about our writing. Most of us do, with the best intentions, to make up the stories about how much we’re working on our books. It becomes a story that a writer tells when they say “I’m working on my novel.” If you’re working on a book, and writing too little, it’s time to enter Finishing School.

The concept is at the heart of a new book by Danelle Morton and Cary Tennis. The book Finishing School shows us where we get in our own way about completing our works in progress. Six Emotional Pitfalls stretch out in front of us. Doubt. Shame. Yearning. Fear. Judgment. Arrogance. Not everyone feels all of them, but these are the reasons why we do not finish our work. Get a few writers together and their eyes brighten when they can be honest about pitfalls. “I’ll never be as good as Hemingway,” (Doubt) or “I never finish anything.” (Shame). Or “I get annoyed by writers’ groups, those losers.” That’s Arrogance, which is probably not your problem since you’re reading an article on being a better writer.

We struggle separately, alone with the pitfalls. There’s a way out and a way up, say Morton and Tennis. You learn to finish together, without judgment or even reading each others’ work. You make a schedule for one week, getting specific about what you’ll do. Details help. Then find a partner who does the same. You meet in person because it’s personal work. You promise to text or email them the moment you begin working. You meet seven days later and share how your plan worked. Or how it didn’t, but you’re honest now. You plan again, meet again. We become masters of Finishing because, as Cary said over Skype from Italy, “Finishing School throws into relief the conditions of our actual lives.”

We start with overly ambitious plans. We begin with little awareness of our hurdles. It feels so good at first. Later, the writing plan haunts us when we fall short. Better to make room for your real life, foresee the hurdles, plan for them. Cary and I have one thing in common. It’s not that we’re both successful advice columnists (that was Cary at Salon). We got training in the Amherst Writers & Artists practice. “I needed Finishing School for myself,” he says in his book, adding, “I had a panic attack while writing and ended up in the hospital.” Tennis built Finishing School from his AWA training so “workshop participants would crystallize their time; schedule time to work toward it with mutual support; and work steadily to get that writing finished, polished, and published.” They also add accountability without judgment by attending the school.

It’s a school you’d hope to see opened by a man who wrote advice from the heart for more than a decade. We can enter it with a group as small as two writers, artists of any kind, really. The book is powerful, the process transforming. Finishing School might not be the last school you attend. It’s a good bet it will be the most important one.

Your registration includes a copy of Cary and Danelle’s book, e-book or paperback.