Archive | Writing

How I Maximized My Productivity as a Writer

cell phone

cell phoneIf you’re like me, you can’t read enough about how to maximize your productivity: Deep Work. The Hunter Method. No Meeting Wednesdays. While the optimal time for achieving your best work varies across individuals, there’s a consensus that you need to have laser focus while you’re doing it.

For a while now, I’ve been following that advice. As soon as I decided that I wanted to write a book, I started to devote 15 minutes a morning to doing just that. Over time, those 15 minutes blossomed into 30 and then 45. Once I was laid off, I began devoting several hours a day to my writing.

Even now that the book manuscript is finished (though still not sold – sniff!), I still write every morning. These days, it’s often fiction. Or a blog post. Or my newsletter.

But a month or so ago, I discovered a fatal flaw in my system. No matter how dutiful I was about prioritizing my writing, I did one thing when I first woke up that was absolutely deadly for my flow:  I checked my phone.

To be clear, it was really more of a scan than a deep dive:  I’d quickly scroll through my emails to see if there were any burning platforms…I’d look at any updates on assorted social media platforms…I’d check personal texts and chats.

I told myself that this mini “phone time” was essential. After all, my mother is now quite elderly. Perhaps something happened to her during the night. I’m in close “What’sApp” touch with various friends back in the States, and often miss out on threads that happen while I’m asleep. I’m also self-employed. So I’m always at the beck and call of clients.

But the problem wasn’t the length of time I spent on the phone. It was how distracting it proved.

Because once I’d digested the updates from assorted platforms, I couldn’t turn them off in my brain, even once I put the phone down. I’d find my mind darting back to a meeting I needed to prepare for later that day… a funny tweet I wanted to share on social media…a text I needed to send a friend. Which, of course, defeated the whole purpose of having dedicated writing time in the first place.

Before I knew  it, my  carefully constructed “laser focus” was gone. Or at least diminished.

Then I read this brilliant article by New York Times technology writer Kevin Roose about his cell phone addiction. Roose went so far as to hire a consultant to help him “break up with his phone.” This person encouraged him, for example, to change the lock screen on his phone so that it displayed three questions: “What for? Why now? What else?”

Brilliant.

I didn’t feel that my problem was that serious. But I did know that I had a problem.

So I instituted one tiny change: I no longer allow myself to check my phone until I’ve finished my writing and executed some of the other key markers of my morning routine like journaling, meditation, and stretching. In practice, that amounts to not looking at my phone for the first 1.5-2 hours of my day.

It was really hard at first. Like an addict, I’d find myself making excuses to sneak a peak. But after the first week or so, I began to find this digital detox a relief.

Postponing my phone time had two other benefits. First, I’m an extrovert, so I love being connected to the world through social media. But – much like my rules about dessert – the joy of checking my phone is now all the greater for putting it off. Second, my writing time is also now that much more focused and productive. A win-win, as they say.

I’ve always prided myself on being the consummate multi-tasker. But I’m coming to question whether that personality trait is really an asset for productivity. So I’m wondering: what small habit have you changed that had a much larger impact on your life?

Image: Apple Cell Phone Facebook Google by Tracy Le Blanc via Pexels

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Teaching Writing: Editing vs. Coaching

Ballerina

BallerinaThere’s a scene in one of my all-time favorite films, All that Jazz, that addresses the perennial question about innate talent vs. learned ability. In the scene, the protagonist –  a choreographer modeled on the legendary Bob Fosse – confronts a ballerina in his company who’s crying because she knows she’s not as good as the other dancers.

“I can’t make you a great dancer,” Fosse consoles her. “But I can make you a better dancer.”

That’s how I feel when I work with writers.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as being a “natural talent” in writing. You can definitely see when a writer has a gift – David Foster Wallace, Amos Oz, and my new idol – Anna Burns – all come to mind. But, as we all know, years of half-written sentences and crumpled up drafts – not to mention gallons of self-doubt – lie behind any prose that looks effortless.

For most of us mere mortals, however, writing is mostly about putting your bum in the chair and being willing to write shitty first drafts. So then the question becomes:  how do you help people become “better dancers?”

Read the rest of this post over on The Writing Coach UK

 

Image: Ballet Ballerina via Wikimedia Commons

Life Lessons from Philip Roth: “Believe in Your Own Crap”

Philip Roth

Philip RothI was scrolling through my list of podcasts the other day – listening to podcasts being my latest hobby – when I came across a New Yorker podcast devoted to the late author Philip Roth.

Roth was a very controversial author, and not everybody’s “cuppa” (as my mother is wont to say). While I haven’t liked everything of his that I’ve read, I count American Pastoral among the most awe-inspiring books I’ve ever encountered. (My husband, who has read each and every one of Roth’s books, says When She Was Good is his all-time favorite.)

So I came to this podcast mostly to see if I would learn something about the recently deceased  author that I didn’t already know.

I did. But it was not what I expected. I expected a celebration of Roth by some of his contemporaries and a reflection on his contribution to the canon. There was that, to be sure.

At one point in the podcast, Radio Hour host and New Yorker Editor-in-Chief David Remnick asked Roth a question we should perhaps all ask ourselves as we get older: “What did age give you?”

Initially, Roth answers that age gave him “Patience. Patience to stay with your frustration. The confidence that if you just stay with it, you’ll master it.”  But then he goes on: “Over the years, what you develop is… patience with your own crap. And a belief in your own crap. That if you just stay with it, it will get better.”

Roth is talking about writing, of course. And in many ways he is merely re-stating what writer Anne Lamott famously described as one of two secrets of being a writer:  shitty first drafts. As a writer and writing coach, I wholeheartedly agree. You need to learn how to live with the utter rubbish you put down on the page and believe that somehow, with time, as you work on it a bit more, you will transform it into something better.

But Roth’s insight about what he has learned through time and experience is also applicable to life itself.  As someone who only recently  – 30 years in – figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I’ve often berated myself for not having sorted all of this out much earlier.

But applying Roth’s observation to my own professional journey, I now see that the entire process – every wrong turn, every partial fit  – was all part of learning how to be patient with the “crap.” By which I mean, learning to endure the series of “rough drafts” (read: jobs) that ultimately merged and metamorphosed into my current calling. Which I love.

As the man says, it’s all about trusting the evolutionary and organic process of self-knowledge and self-improvement, being willing to take risks, and then…waiting. (Could I possibly transform this into a pithy strap line to go above my desk, she wonders?)

And with that profound reflection, I wish you all a happy new year.

Image:  Roth photo by Bibliotechque Municipale de Beaune via Flickr

How and Why I Started Writing Fiction

I’ve started working on a novel.

It happened almost by accident. One day this summer – a day when I had way too much energy and not enough to do – I saw a link to an online fiction-writing course with an irresistible teaser like “Write a novel in one year.” And since the tip came by way of the amazing Jane Friedman, and it was free, I thought…why not? I’ll do the first one or two sessions, and if I don’t like it, I’ll stop. No harm, no foul.

Although I attempted to write a novel once before, I never thought I’d do it again. My major stumbling block wasn’t that age-old defense, “I‘m not sure I’ve got a novel in me.” (I’m not sure, but that wouldn’t stop me from trying.) Nor is it that I can’t find the time. Now that I’ve fashioned a creative space for myself – and spent a good part of the past year writing a non-fiction book, I’m now a pro at carving out at least one hour a day for creative pursuits.

My problem is that I’ve never felt like I really “got” how to write fiction. It’s easy for me to write about my life. I do it all the time. And Lord knows I’ve got enough material. (Cough.) But invent somebody else’s reality? Even though I read a ton of fiction myself, I just didn’t know how to do that.

Until I took this course. There are two things I particularly liked about it. The first is that it’s very explicitly about learning how to rewrite your life. That’s actually the name of the course, Rewrite Your Life. (Here’s the book version.) In other words, fiction writing is all about viewing your personal experiences – and particularly your personal pain – in a way that, as she puts it, “helps you forge new reactions to old traumas.” You get to “choose who you want to be; not who you ought to be.” Your life experiences are “personal treasure to be mined.”

That’s hardly a novel idea (no pun intended). But Lourey uses a variety of exercises to enable you to resurface some of that deeply personal material and refashion it into new settings/characters/plot lines. These exercises are great because they all start with you: your pain, your secrets, your hopes, your despair. So there is a lot of emphasis on writing as therapy in this course, right from the get-go.

The second thing I like about this course is that it makes writing manageable. It takes a few months to work your way through the course. (The ten sessions you’ll see on the e-course are deceptive; Each of them takes hours, sometimes weeks, to complete.). But by the time you finish, as I just did, you’ll have loads of material at your finger tips. Lourey says you need to write one 1500 word scene a week in order to complete a novel in 46 weeks (less than a year!). But if you’re writing 5 days a week, that really only amounts to 300 words a day. 300 words a day? Heck, I could sneeze and write 300 words – (not necessarily good words, but the editing comes later.)

I’m really excited to try this. In addition to Lourey’s course, I also have some other resources to draw upon this time around. First, I’ve reached out to a (now close) friend from my erstwhile writer’s group and we’re going to rekindle a new version of it. Second, I’m also now part of an amazing community of writers here in London – called The Writing Coach – where I’m consulting. We have both online and real-world meet-ups to exhort each other forward and to hold each other accountable. I even found a post I wrote ten years ago on tips for writing fiction that’s surprisingly useful. (Always great when you can give yourself advice…)

Most importantly of all, I have an entirely different attitude to the one I held when I first tried my hand at a novel. Back then, I was utterly focused on the outcome. So I wrote a draft, sent it out to agents prematurely, and then shelved it when I didn’t have a positive response. That may well happen again. Indeed, I may yet decide that this whole fiction thing isn’t for me. But what’s exciting this time around is the process – that of challenging myself to try something new.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Image: Once upon a time by Ramdlon via Pixabay

Designing Your Creative Space

flamingo

flamingoOne of the hardest things about being a writer isn’t finding the time to write. It’s learning how to set up a space – physical, emotional, spiritual – that enables you to be creative.

Accessing that creative space isn’t unique to writing. It’s something all artists need to do. I have a painter friend, for example, who begins each day with the following ritual: First, he cleans his pallet of the prior days’ work. This is the most important part for him. Having his tools fresh and clean and all laid out in front of him allows him to sweep away the toil and struggle from the day before, thereby opening up new artistic possibilities. Then he puts on some music. He also makes sure to always have numerous pieces in progress hanging in his studio. He takes some time looking at them until one catches his attention and then he begins work on that. When he gets really stuck, he tries something completely new.

My routine isn’t all that different. In order to “cleanse my pallet” of the prior day’s work, I spend one hour – but no more than one hour – editing whatever it was I was last working on the day before. This might be a chapter from my book, a blog post, or a personal essay. Spending one hour editing allows me to feel that I’ve “fixed” whatever it was that I allowed myself to leave on a loose end the day before. If other thoughts come to me while I’m in editing mode – sometimes it’s just a snippet of an idea or an image – I jot them down in a notebook so that I can remember to file them in the appropriate place later on.

Then I start the main project I’m working on and continue to pursue that for the next several hours. Even if it’s completely different from the piece I was editing, having spent an hour editing one project frees me up to be creative somewhere else. When I get stuck, I start a new chapter. And I never, ever listen to music while I’m writing.

I also have a few gimmicks I employ to get myself started. For instance, I never start writing until the minute hand is resting on one of the numbers on the clock face. So, for example, if I sit down at my desk at 9:17 a.m., I wait until 9:20 to start writing. Why do I do this? Lord knows. But I’ve been doing it for so long that, at this point, I need to do it in order to begin working.

Other writers have their own rituals. Some people need to face a blank wall in order to start. Others need to have a view out a window. One friend always eats an apple before she begins. Philip Roth famously wrote standing up.

Lately, I’ve been focusing less on my creative routines and more on my creative environment. On the advice of Julia Cameron – of The Artist’s Way fame – I’ve made sure that my physical writing space is an upbeat one. So I’ve taken everything off my desk that’s dull and administrative and left only a handful of objects that make me happy, including: a ceramic heart my son made for me when he was seven on Valentine’s Day…two pins that read “15 Today” which my husband and I wore out to a restaurant on our 15th anniversary…a miniature Big Ben trinket that someone gave me for my key chain when I moved to London for good luck.

I’ve also hung up some quotes – what Cameron calls “affirmations” – above my desk, that are there to remind me to feel confident as I embark upon my creative endeavours. When I left my job, a colleague friend gave me two cards – one that read “You are a flamingo in a  flock of ordinary seagulls” and one that read “You leave a little bit of sparkle wherever you go.” I look at those quotes every morning to  remind myself of what I can bring to the world.

Finally, I’ve even started to “dress” for writing. A friend of mine just published a (great!) book entitled Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore. It’s a book about the mutually reinforcing relationship between an author’s signature look and their writing style. At her book launch in London, my friend was asked if she had a “uniform” that she wore while writing the book. Turns out that she did: even if she was going to spend the entire day at home and never see a soul, she dressed up in a nice frock to inspire herself to tackle this material.

In a similar vein, right before I left my old job, a younger colleague whom I’d mentored gave me a necklace with the words @RealDelia inscribed on a small pendant. For me, that necklace symbolizes this blog, which I launched way back when as a way of rediscovering my voice as an adult and sharing those insights with others. I wear the necklace now when I’m writing my book to remind myself to always circle back to the authentic me.

The bottom line is that creativity isn’t just about having the talent or the time. It’s about being able to readily call up whatever it is inside you that draws that creativity out. And it takes awhile to figure out which routines and props are most conducive to that process.

How do you access your creative space? I’d love to know.

Image: Phoenicopterus ruber via Wikipedia.com

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons to Start Journaling

fountain pen

fountain penOn occasional Wednesdays I offer tips for adulthood.

Re-entry is always difficult. This is true when you’re coming back from a trip and you need to get back into your daily routine. And it’s equally true when you’ve been laid off and need to create a new space to accomplish your goals, whatever those might be.

In my own case, it meant returning to my book project on swimming and adulthood.

At first, I felt overwhelmed. I was terrified of even peeking at my book, let alone writing a blog post. All the familiar writers’ fears plagued me: What if I had run out of ideas? What if, when I dared to look back at my book draft,  it was all sh#$? What if, after all this, I really wasn’t meant to be a writer after all?

I knew that it in order to get back into the swing of things, I would need to create a system. And although I already had a fixed morning routine back when I was working full-time, in this new, uncharted territory, I felt like I needed something else.

And so, following the guidance of creativity Guru Julia Cameron – I’ve started keeping what she calls “Morning Pages.” Morning pages are three pages of longhand, morning writing about absolutely anything. They are to be written first thing in the morning, and shown to no one. As Cameron puts it, “I like to think of them as windshield wipers, swiping away anything that stands between you and a clear view of your day.”

So now every day, before I do anything else, I sit down and write three pages of whatever is top of mind. With a pen.

I’ll have more to say about what else I’m learning from Cameron another time. Today, let me focus on five reasons journaling can be so useful:

1. It’s therapeutic. If, like me, you often wake up in a panic-driven sweat, consumed by anxiety from your dreams, a current life crisis, or simply the latest episode of Homeland, keeping a journal helps. It lets you get out all of the bile that’s sitting in your system – not just your anger and frustration, if those are there, but also your fears and your worries. I often spend about half of my 3 pages on my dreams alone, just narrating what happened in them, how I felt, and which random characters from my 50 years of existence happened to wander in and pay a visit. Dear God, is it cathartic to get all that down on the page and out of my head and my body. If you can’t afford a therapist, journaling can help.

 2. It will stimulate your creativity. This is why Cameron recommends it. And it’s true. In the past two weeks since I started journaling regularly, I’ve not only had ideas for my book, but for blog posts, creative non-fiction, op-eds and short stories. They come to me, unbidden, without needing to brainstorm. They just jump out of my unconscious. And every time that happens, I jot them down and save them. It’s fantastic that by actually taking time away from writing, I am fortifying my writing. But you don’t have to be a writer for this to help unlock your creativity. It can apply to all manner of creative endeavours: sculpting, painting, dancing, singing. Whatever it is that’s inside of you and wants to come out.

3. It will make you more productive. This isn’t the primary reason I’m journaling every morning, though I suppose I am hoping that in sparking my creativity, I’ll also become more productive. But others swear by journaling as key to helping you prioritize, clarify thinking, and accomplish your most important daily tasks. It’s worked for the likes of Albert Einstein, Reid Hoffman and Leonardo Da Vinci. It might also work for you.

4. It will help you focus on the big picture. In my own case, in addition to all the writing ideas journaling is generating, it’s also helping me to zero in on what I really want to do next with my professional life. At this point, those insights come more in the form of verbs and feelings than in concrete job descriptions. But they are beginning to cohere and take shape, pointing me in the direction of me.

5. It’s fun. I mentioned earlier that one of the key, non-negotiable aspects of keeping a journal is to do it long-hand. That initially feels very old-school for we of the key-board generation, but once you get the hang of it, it really does help you to feel more connected to what’s on the page. Right before I left my previous job, my colleagues bought me a really fancy fountain pen as a good-bye present. While I was delighted with the gift, I didn’t initially know exactly how and when I’d be able to use it. Now I do.

So try it. And let me know how it goes.

Image: Fountain Pen via Wikimedia Commons

Advice for Writers Struggling with Genre: Ask This Question

bookshelf

bookshelfIf you’ve ever thought about writing a book, the very first thing anyone will tell you is to figure out which “shelf” it will sit on in a bookstore. It’s not enough to simply have a topic, or even an angle into a topic. You need to know who’s going to buy this book. Because book publishing, like anything else, is a business and the key to a successful business is knowing your market.

I knew all of this, of course. Over the years, I’ve been in enough writing groups and consumed enough resources devoted to the art and science of getting published that I knew that were I someday to approach an agent with an idea for a book, I’d need to be able to provide a cogent answer to this question.

And then someday arrived and I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to answer it.

Let me back up. I’ve been working for several months on a book about…drumroll please…swimming and adulthood. After more than 25 years as a “casual runner” – someone who ran three times a week to stay fit – my body was telling me that that I could no longer run. The reasons why I needed to stop running aren’t all that interesting. (Well, OK, something called Piriformis Syndrome, if you must know…) But the upshot was that, on the advice of my doctor, I began – somewhat reluctantly – to swim.

This obviously not an entirely new topic for me. This blog’s strapline – “Finding Yourself In Adulthood” – is all about conceptualizing adulthood as a journey, not a destination. But whereas the blog tackles topics ranging from work and parenting to therapy and the arts in a much more general way, the daily act of swimming enabled me to analyse these subjects through a single prism. In essence, swimming serves as a metaphor through which to explore what it means to be a grown up in the contemporary age.

But even after I started writing this book, I still struggled with where it fit on the proverbial bookshelf. Was it an extended meditation on swimming itself, Like Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies?  Was it a sports memoir a la Gerald Marzaroti’s Late to the Ball about picking up a new skill (tennis) in midlife? Was it a humorous, loosely themed take on daily life, modelled on David Sedaris or Sandra Tsing Loh?  Or a was it a collection of more serious essays like Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable?

On alternate days it felt a bit like all of these.

It didn’t help that when I showed my précis (2 page overview) of the book to a few friends I got very different advice. One friend thought that it needed to be funnier, more like my daily status updates which I post on Facebook recounting the cast of characters I run into at my local swimming pool. Another friend thought that it should be a novel. Someone else advised me to convert it into an inspirational journey, the sort of Eat, Pray, Love of swimming.

Instead of writing the book, I began to obsess about genre.

And then, one day, at the tail end of a dinner party while chatting about this problem with a friend, I had my Eureka moment. My friend is a novelist who has written several novels in the Lad Lit genre and is on the cusp of becoming a sensation with his latest work-in-progress, which has already been snatched up by a major New York imprint. (He’s also sold the film rights. As he put it so beautifully, “Who knew that becoming an overnight success took so long?”)

After I regaled him with all of my anxieties about what the book could and should be, he looked at me and simply said: “Write the book that only you could write.”

It wasn’t rocket science. Nor was some dark, heretofore unknown secret of the publishing world. But for me, it was sort of like that age-old adage: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” And just like that, I immediately felt better.

Because I realised in that moment that I actually *had* been writing the book that only I could write all along. While it had elements of several different styles, at the end of the day the book I was writing was essentially a self-help book, albeit one very much rooted in my own experience. (I’ve since learned that there is a name for this sub-genre – self-help memoir or prescriptive memoir. Thank you, Jane Friedman.)

For me, my friend’s throwaway line (heartfelt, to be sure, even if infused with a few glasses of red wine), was clarifying: I need to stop obsessing over what other people think my book is meant to be. That comes later. For now, the book is already what I need it to be: a place to bring my voice and my insights to a topic I’ve long been passionate about with a fresh angle.

In a year where my new year’s resolution was to embrace authenticity, that feels pretty good.

Image: Bookshelves by Hernán Poo-Camaño via Flickr

Should Fareed Zakaria Be Forgiven For Plagiarizing?

I’ve always thought that Fareed Zakaria was a bit too slick.

It’s not that I don’t like him. I share the pundit’s broadly liberal internationalist view towards world affairs. And unlike many wonks (the big exception here being the University of Chicago’s Austan Goolsbee), Zakaria’s actually got a sense of humor, which is always a plus.

But there was always something a bit too cute by half about this good-looking, well-spoken darling of the Center-Left with his million dollar smile.

So it didn’t come as a huge surprise when I learned that Zakaria had become embroiled in a plagiarism scandal that has – temporarily, at least – cost him two of his plum platforms: Time and CNN. On Friday, both news outlets suspended Zakaria while they investigated charges that he had lifted passages from an article by New Yorker writer Jill Lepore on gun control. He has since apologized to Lepore and taken full responsibility for the incident, which he described as a “serious lapse.”

Read the rest of this post on The Washington Post’s She The People website…

 

Image: Fareed Zakaria at the Newsweek Offices by barthjg via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Introducing: She The People

Hello everybody and Happy New Year!

I’m just back from Argentina, where I failed to learn the Tango and consumed far too much Malbec and red meat than could possibly be healthy for one person. Stand by for updates on all manner of things personal and political.

In the meantime, I wanted to share some really great news. Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time will remember that not so long ago, I used to write for a women’s blog on www.PoliticsDaily.com called Woman Up. It was a fabulous experience professionally, intellectually and socially and when it ended, there was a huge void in my life.

I’m therefore delighted to announce that as of this week, many of those same writers – myself included – will now be writing for a new women’s blog on The Washington Post, entitled She The People, where we explore “the world as women see it.”

I’ll be chiming in later today and tomorrow with a couple of my maiden posts on She The People, which will henceforth form part of my regular repertoire here on RealDelia.

But for now, please do stop by and check us out. I couldn’t be more excited to be writing with this talented group of women.

We rock. We really and truly do.

 

Image: We The People by Rishi Menon via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Improve Your Fiction

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

So I’m back working on my novel again. I’m not going to lie to you. It hasn’t been easy.

When I sat down in a café a few weeks back and read through the first 50 pages, I almost packed it in right then and there. When all is said and done, you can read all the “just-keep-at-it” narratives you want (including, most recently, Kathryn Stockett’s tale of how it took her 60 tries before selling The Help), but at the end of the day, when it’s just you and a big, fat pile of revisions staring you in the face it’s really easy to give up.

But I didn’t. I’d promised my fiction writing group that I would devote August to revising the beginning of the book. When you really need to get something done, there’s nothing quite like making a public announcement to hold yourself accountable.

I also kept at it because I want to see what – if anything – comes of this project. And summer is a great time for tackling big things.

And of course, that age-old adage always holds true:  which is that the fear of attacking something on your dreaded to-do list is always much greater than the actual task itself.

I’ve offered tips for how to edit productively before. This week’s advice tackles the craft of writing fiction. Whether you’re secretly aiming to be the next J.K. Rowling or you just dabble with fiction in your spare time, here are five posts that will serve you well:

1. Beginnings. Over on Copyblogger, writing instructor Jeff Sexton has a great post on how to hook your readers. Drawing on screen-writing guru Robert McKee’s concept of the inciting incident, Sexton advises readers to identify, up front, that moment or incident that’s gets the story rolling and lead with that. Most of us – myself included – do way too much throat-clearing at the beginning of our stories. Get rid of all that. Don’t underestimate what the reader already knows. And always have in mind the final mental image you want your readers to come away with and write towards that.

2. Character. Respecting your audience is also a theme driven home by Becky Tuch over on the fabulous writing blog Beyond The Margins. Like me, Tuch is a recently-converted enthusiast of The Wire. In her post What Fiction Writers Can Learn From The Wire, she notes that what makes this television show work so well isn’t just the complexity of the plot and authenticity of the dialogue. It’s that the writers consistently use little character traits to illustrate bigger themes (e.g. McNulty’s failed marriage to talk about failed institutions more generally). And they also create dangerous characters like Omar Little. A character whose very presence embodies the threat they pose to the other characters will be someone readers will be riveted to see.

3. Dialogue. Robin Black also writes eloquently about character and dialogue at Beyond the Margins in a post called You Don’t Say. Black points out that fiction’s real appeal is that it allows us to have unlimited access to the thoughts of other people. But dialogue isn’t the only tool for accessing those thoughts. Rather, she recommends writing scenes where you have your character think of saying something but then decide against it, have a character’s mind wander so that she loses track of the conversation, and/or insert a running commentary of what the character is actually thinking along side the real-time conversation. I’ve been trying all three techniques lately and really enjoying it.

4. Plot. One of my favorite bloggers on fiction writing is A. Victoria Mixon. Mixon is chock full of useful advice. But I really liked a post she did on plot. Mixon suggests that all novelists place four post-it notes above their desks: one that reminds them of the central “what if?” premise of their story line, one that reminds them of their protagonist’s over-arching, all-consuming need, another that reminds them of that protagonist’s conflicting need, and one that identifies the protagonist’s worst nightmare. So simple. Genius.

5. Originality. There’s an old writer’s saw that there are really only seven original story lines out there and everything you read or see is a re-working of one of those. That may be so, but if you’re hoping to peddle your fiction to an agent or a literary journal anytime soon, be sure to have a look at this list of plots, story-lines, techniques and situations we often see over-used or poorly executed at the Hayden’s Ferry Review. Ouch. (Hat tip: Practicing Writing)

 

Image: Write by the trial via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.