Week twenty: Tell me a story

It is week twenty of 2019. How’s the writing coming? Here at the garret, it’s been a week of cold rain and sick kids and disrupted schedules. A stale, shut-in feeling has been threatening to close in all week, but I’ve managed to keep it at bay by focusing on stories. 

Perhaps it was the funk, but I found this week’s book, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, uncongenial. I respect it and I trust much of its wisdom – but I did not like it. I spent a lot of time this week mulling over why, and I’ll circle back to that at the end of this newsletter, but let’s start with the nuggets of wisdom I excavated.

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Week nineteen: Walk into the white room

It is week nineteen of 2019. How’s the writing going for you this week? I can just see my two-week summer road trip starting to appear over the horizon, which is helping me focus on what I want to accomplish before that big juicy break.

This week’s book is The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, by Twyla Tharp and Mark Reiter. (Because the narratorial “I” in the book is clearly Tharp’s, I’ll be attributing the ideas to her in this piece.) As a choreographer, Tharp’s work only comes to life if she can communicate her ideas to her dancers, and those finely honed directorial skills come through in The Creative Habit. Tharp’s voice is sharp, fierce, and honest. This is a woman who has developed the self-described “steeliness of character” and creative confidence to audition nine hundred dancers in order to hire four.

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Week eighteen: Consider the novel

It is week eighteen of 2019. How’s the writing going for you in these bright and beautiful days of spring (or fall, for my southern hemisphere readers)? If you are feeling stuck or jaded, this week’s book might be the antidote, so let's get right into it.

Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel is not, as far as I can tell, very much read. I haven’t come across it once in all the lists of recommended books for writers I have scanned while planning this newsletter. Yet Jane Smiley is a well-regarded novelist. A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer in 1992, and she has written in a remarkable range of genres, from historical fiction to mysteries to comedies of manners. 

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Week seventeen: Relish every word

It is week seventeen of 2019. How’s the writing going? Here at the garret, it’s been a busy and productive week. Reviewing my calendar, I see that I’ve worked on ten different books this week, doing everything from intensive developmental editing to simple cheerleading. I love this work, and I will always be an editor first and a writer second. But I’ve come to treasure the hours I spend writing this newsletter, when I, too, get to face the freedom and the terror of the blank page.

This week’s book is the wonderfully titled Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose by Constance Hale. I realized this week while reading it that I have been unconsciously searching this year for The One Book to Rule Them All.

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Week sixteen: Find the balance

It is week sixteen of 2019. How’s the writing going? My work has mostly been on hold this week as I played tour guide for visiting family. It was a giddy highlights reel of sights and sounds and tastes. But the image that sticks with me is one that I stored away at the very beginning of the week.

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Week fifteen: Keep reading

It is week fifteen of 2019. How’s the writing going? Here at the garret, things are humming along. This period of the year is always one of my most productive, and I’ve got a lot of exciting professional and creative projects lined up for the next two months before the distractions of summer set in. Maybe it’s time for you to do a sprint too? What could you get done in the next eight weeks if you shuffle your schedule or your priorities? 

This week’s book – Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print – is one you’ll want to turn to when you are ready to tackle the little details that make a novel sing.

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Week fourteen: Build a transformation machine

It is week fourteen of 2019. How’s the writing going? If you are stuck and need some creative solidarity, check out the Camp NaNoWriMo threads on Twitter (@NaNoWriMo). You’ll find hundreds of other writers sprinting or stumbling along, trying to find their path.

I’ve been hearing buzz about Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You'll Ever Need since it came out last fall. While this is almost certainly not the last book on writing you’ll ever need, I do think that you should have it in your collection.

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Week thirteen: Words do matter

It is week thirteen of 2019. How’s the writing going? Did you try shaking up your writing routine last week? If so, I’d love to hear about how it went.

I’m writing this on my long journey back to San Francisco from the American Copy Editors Society conference in Providence, Rhode Island. My brain is stuffed to capacity with everything I absorbed, and it’s going to take me a few weeks to process everything, but here are my immediate takeaways.

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Week twelve: Look for the blank walls

It is week twelve of 2019. Spring has sprung, and the brain-wrecking jostle of the time jump in the US is behind us. How is the writing going? This new season is a good time to evaluate your writing routine and make changes if you are stuck or the words feel stale. If you’ve been writing inside, get yourself outside. If you’ve been writing on a computer, grab a notebook and pen. If you’ve been writing in the mornings, try writing at night. Run an experiment for a week and see what happens.

This week’s book, The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell, is all about change – big change. If you’ve never substantially revised one of your drafts, or if you live in fear of being told (by an editor, a reader, or your own brain) that your manuscript needs substantial revision, this is the book to reach for.

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Week eleven: Burnishing the words

It is week eleven of 2019. It has been a wrenching week in the world, and that can sometimes stop your words. Let yourself be silent or send your words elsewhere for a time, but then guide them gently back to your book. Books are solace, and we will need yours in the world someday.

Some of my happiest hours this week have been spent with the words of Benjamin Dreyer, the Random House copy chief, who has distilled his decades of experience in Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. As you can sense from the title, Dreyer wears his wisdom lightly. He is quick to admit to his own crotchets and idiosyncrasies, and his advice is delivered with disarming humor.

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Week ten: Burning through the fog

It is week ten of 2019. Of all of the fifty-two weeks of the year, week ten might be my least favorite, followed closely by week nine and week eleven. My internal weather is always stormy in March. Here in San Francisco, it’s been rainy and gray for weeks, and when the sun does make a brief appearance, it feels too sharp and bright. 

Maybe it is the same for you? I hope not. I hope that you are sailing through calm seas under gentle blue skies and that the words are piling up in your document or notebook. But if not, I’ve got two tonics to offer you today, for this or whatever season you need them.

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Week nine: Filling up the well

It is week nine of 2019. It’s that tricky period when the shine of the new year has worn off and the calamitous Ides of March is looming. Whenever possible, I try to change my longitude or latitude at this time of year to shake up my routine and refill my creative well.

This year’s trip – a meander through London and Edinburgh – was especially wonderful because inspiration for writers and readers is thick on the ground. Here are a few of my favorite discoveries.

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Week eight: Let's talk about our word problem

It is week eight of 2019. How was your week in writing? Were the words stubborn or shy, or did they come skipping right out of your brain and onto the page?

Writers have a lot of problems with words – coaxing them out, controlling their erratic behavior, choosing which ones to axe and which ones to spare. But for novelists, I think the biggest problem may be that there are so very many of them. Masses of words. Giant heaping piles of words. 

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Week seven: Of taxonomies and tools

It is week seven of 2019. How are the words treating you this week? Tenderly, I hope, in honor of Valentine’s Day. If not, kick ’em to the curb and throw their cheap, stale drugstore chocolates after them. Maybe learn some new words? In a different language even? Here are a few Italian words I prize: eccoci qua (here we are), allora (well, then), and piano, piano (slowly, slowly). You can throw these in most anywhere.

Now, let’s get down to the Serious Business of Story. One glance at The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know will show you that Shawn Coyne takes Story very seriously indeed, or at least that's the implication of his capitalization style. But you’ll have to get over the capitalization because I think this book is worth your attention if you are a novelist.

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Week six: Give yourself permission

It is week six of 2019. How is the writing going for you? Here at the garret, I wrote myself out of that tangle I was in last week. It was just a simple little job description, and I had expected it to take maybe an hour. But an evil little demon called imposter syndrome snuck in and started whispering,Who do you think you are, acting like a boss? And that’s all it took to stop the words – or to stop them from sounding like mine.

Reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic this week helped me shake off that demon by reminding me that I can and do give myself permission to be a business owner – and a boss.

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Week five: Watch the bird, not its shadow

It is week five of 2019. How is the writing going for you this week? Here at the garret, I’ve just shelved a piece of business-related writing I had been trying to check off my to-do list because I could not find a voice for it that felt both professional and authentic. I’m going to let it sulk in its Google folder for a few days while I turn to this newsletter, where I’m beginning to feel at home. 

If you were an English major, you may have encountered E.M. Forster’sAspects of the Novel in college. Perhaps, like me, you read the “People (continued)” chapter, ruthlessly severed from its antecedent and bound into a photocopied course reader, and learned Forster’s distinction between “flat” and “round” characters.

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Week four: Wired for pantsing

It is week four of 2019. How’s the writing going? Here at the Blue Garret, I’ve settled into the pleasant routine of writing these newsletters each week, and I’m beginning to contemplate what’s next. I think I’m just about ready to open up the drafts of my two barely begun novels and see what’s what.

This week’s craft book, Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story, made that moment feel just a little bit more daunting because Cron is a firm believer in advance plotting and… y’all, I’m a pantser. This may surprise those of you who know my deep love for planning in general and spreadsheets in particular (I’ve got a very nice one going already for this summer’s epic road trip). But when it comes to writing, I generally show up to the page with a direction and a few ideas about stops along the way and then feel my way forward bit by bit. 

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Week three: Put your desk in the corner

It is week three of 2019. Have you settled back into a comfortable writing routine? Or are you still on pause, waiting for a reason to begin? Perhaps your story just hasn’t found you yet. As Stephen King points out in On Writing, you can’t just go out and dig one up:

“There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

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Week one: Have a plan. Hold it lightly.

It’s week one of 2019. Here at the Blue Garret, it’s a windy, wintry day. The seagulls have come inland from the ocean to wheel around the park I can see from the kitchen window, which means we’re in for a gorgeous gusty rainstorm. 

I love the start of a new year and the feeling of embarking on new plans and projects. While I enjoy setting and tracking goals (Virgo, hello), this year I’m trying to keep a piece of advice from Frank Ostaseski, the co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project, front and center: Have a plan. Hold it lightly.

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