Week twenty-eight: Build an idea laboratory

It is week twenty-eight of 2019. How did the writing go this week? I’m settled back in at the garret after a two-week road trip from Vermont to North Carolina. The trip was glorious but almost too full of sights, sounds, sensations, and tastes. I wouldn’t have missed any of it – the maple creemees or the Pat’s cheesesteak or the Carolina barbecue; kayaking on Lake Champlain at sunset; listening to Jeff Tweedy sing “Noah’s Flood” in a sudden summer shower; visiting with aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and mothers from three different families; or traveling with five of my favorite humans in a giant white whale of an SUV – but it feels good to be back in my beloved San Francisco, which has been muffled in a deep, cool layer of soothing fog all week.

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Week twenty-seven: How to read a book

It is week twenty-seven of 2019. How is the writing going this week?

As I promised last week, this post is all about how to read a nonfiction book efficiently. Of course, that’s not always your goal. Sometimes you need to do a thorough, deep, concentrated read of a complex book that you already know will have a lot of impact on your work or life. And sometimes you just want to take your time and enjoy the material.

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Week twenty-six: Show your work

It is week twenty-six of 2019. My question for you this week: How has the writing gone this year? Take a minute to recognize what you’ve achieved during the last six months, even if it is less than you had hoped or planned – especially if it is less than you had hoped or planned. There are twenty-six weeks left in the year. What could you accomplish if you started something today and then spent time on it every week?

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Week twenty-five: Get in the magic boat

It is week twenty-five of 2019. How was the writing this week? Did you do anything to mark the solstice this week? Depending on whether you live in the northern or southern hemisphere, Friday was the longest or shortest day of the year. I love time markers of all kinds, which is why I always note which week of the year we are in at the beginning of these newsletters. It is a reminder that each week is a new opportunity to get something done, to reach a milestone, to start something new, or to just rest in the sun.

As Ursula K. Le Guin tells us in this week’s book, Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, we have to be ready when the stories find us.

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Week twenty-four: Master the mysteries

It is week twenty-four of 2019. How did the writing go for you this week? Here at the garret, I was still recovering from my bout with pneumonia, which meant that only essential work got done. The newsletter made the cut this week, but I had to throw out several pounds of cherries that I had planned to use to make jam. I thought a lot about the lost cherries this week and realized that they are a good metaphor for something that happens at a late stage in the writing process, so bear with me for a moment while I tell you more. 

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Week twenty-three: Know when to pause

It is week twenty-three of 2019. Remember how last week I advised you to try to keep going with your writing during difficult periods, even if you managed to produce only a little bit? Well, it’s also true that there are limits, and sometimes you have to admit it’s time to pause. Last week it was leaf blowers telling me to work through the noise, but this week pneumonia arrived and ordered me to knock it off.

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Week twenty-two: Ignore the leaf blowers

It is week twenty-two of 2019. How did the writing go for you this week? I’m writing this newsletter while trying to block out the sound of the leaf blower being wielded next door (puzzling, since we are more of a taco truck kind of neighborhood than a leaf blower kind of neighborhood), which is a fair metaphor for the kind of week it has been here at the garret.

Sometimes it takes a great deal of effort to block out the external or internal noise. Recognize the draw on your energy, then try to keep going anyway. Maybe the week’s work will have to be heavily revised somewhere down the line (you’ll encounter it again and remember, “Oh yeah, that was the leaf blower week”), but if you can keep the words flowing, even at a trickle, that’s better than stopping altogether because it requires exponentially more effort and willpower to start back up.

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Week twenty-one: See your story through

It is week twenty-one of 2019. How’s the writing coming along? A dear friend summoned the courage this week to show me a piece of writing that is trying to become something. She’s not sure exactly what kind of story she is telling or even who the narrator is yet, but I could see the promise – the authentic emotion, some vivid turns of phrase – shimmering behind the words. I told her to keep going, and that’s what I say to you too. Keep writing. Find the time, find the energy, find the words. See your story through.

Now, on to this week’s book, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey. (This James Frey is the Edgar-nominated mystery writer, not the author of the controversial memoir/novel A Million Little Pieces.) To be completely honest, I picked this book because I was curious to see whether Frey addressed the literary fiction / genre fiction dichotomy I saw in last week’s book, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction

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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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