Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

The Perfect Material

In Classes, Craft on October 30, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Psst…Hello–you there, NOT doing NanWrimo, let’s talk.

You wouldn’t build a chicken coop out of straw, a car out of wood, a house out of plastic blocks…(If you would, don’t bother reading on) right?

The perfect material exists for every structure, and this is also true in writing. The perfect material unit for building a narrative is… the scene. I can turn this into an advertisement if you like:

The Scene!
A sexy simulacrum of real time…a self-contained unit that never fails to make a story when stacked one after the other. Now bigger, sleeker, with 50% more.

Okay, so maybe not. Still, I cannot repeat enough how powerful a tool the scene is. And lest you think it’s optional, like alliteration or deus ex machinas, let me disabuse you of this notion. Scene. Not. Optional. That would be like building your house without the framework. Scenes are an integral part of the structure of any narrative (don’t get me started, however, on the exceptions, from Beckett to Saunders).

A quick snapshot:
You’re in scene if your characters are engaged action, whether big or small. Make that action meaningful and plot relevant, with a small but vivid ldose of visual setting and detail and you are more than on your way. Remember to begin and end your scene in a compelling or suspenseful way, and you’re there, baby. You’re there.

So whether you’re doing NanoWriMo next month or not, don’t forget your friend the scene. If you’d like to learn more about scenes, take my crash-course, Fiction’s Magic Ingredient, beginning Nov. 2, and again in the New Year.

I’m also launching a Scenes for Non-Fiction Writers course in December.

Intro or Extro?

In General, Musings on October 25, 2009 at 10:40 pm

cave photoI know that folks prefer easy categories–publishers sure do. Agents are partial to them, too. Of course what I like to write often defies easy categorizing, a flaw I have not yet been able to reconcile. When it comes time to pitch my work, I shove it into the most similar category I can find, like one might stuff a large foot into a gorgeous but too tight pairof shoes for an occasion.  This may be a result of my personality. Most people who know me would probably call me an extrovert. I’m good at socializing, I crave it, and I never go very long without some of it. But that would also overlook the introverted side of my nature. I am, I have decided, an introverted extrovert.

Say what?

Well, for example, I’ve just returned from a weekend of socializing. First at the wonderful Redwood Writer’s Conference (Kudos, y’all, for a job well done, especially for a 1st year!), then visiting half a day with friends, then my mother’s birthday party.

And now, home again for the first time since Friday, I don’t  want to visit my social network, forums or Twitter, where interaction is involved. I need to replenish. I’m socialized out. And this is also the place from which I write.

The extroversion is the “collection” side of my nature–I go out into the world and take in stimulus and impressions, stories and characters, but then I must hole up, sometimes even withdraw, to this inner cave or I will have nothing at all to write, and no energy with which to write it.

Yet many writers are professed introverts through and through–they prefer the silence and solace of their own company How about you? Does socializing add to, or take away from your writing? Can you be easily defined as an introvert or extrovert, are are you a shade of gray?

Redwood Writer’s Conference

In 1 on October 23, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Saturday morning Jody Gehrman, author of some hilarious novels including Tart and Triple Shot Betty, and I will be teaching a workshop on Scenes, and then I’ll be hanging out for several hours at the Redwood Writer’s Conference in Santa Rosa. I have to leave early, unfortunately, but I hope to see some of you there!


Hie Thee to a Network of Social Origin (That does what you love)!

In Craft, General on October 22, 2009 at 10:14 pm

I tire of labels pretty quickly, and I already find myself bored when I hear the phrase “social networking.” It’s not the actual thing I take issue with–I quite enjoy my networks, social and professional–but I’ve always had a little bit of the nonconformist’s tendency to eschew something I hear over and over.

I hope this makes me a good cliche killer in my writing, too.

Anyway, my point–I swear I have one–what new thing can be said about social networking that other sites like aren’t saying already?

Well whether or not what I have to say on the subject is fresh or new, I’ve responded to a striking number of emails and phone calls lately from writers, some completely starting out for the first time, and others who are newly on the path, asking for direction and guidance. And I’m finding myself giving the same advice over and over:

Hie Thee to a Network of Social Origin (That does what you love)!

When I first started to get serious about writing, before Twitter and Facebook were megabytes in their founders’ hearts, I joined the Zoetrope Writer’s Studio–where writers critique each other’s work for free and join groups to discuss the craft. The writers there are 100% responsible for teaching me how to write a bang-up query letter, which ultimately scored me an agent (two, actually). They are responsible for helping me polish every short story I published up until about 2003. Several of the friends I made there are STILL my go-to critique buddies when I have finished a draft of something. It was the single most profound virtual experience I have had to date…I credit much of my writing success, both fiction and non-fiction, to the people who supported me there.

So first, of course, all non-luddites should use Facebook and Twitter and Ning and Linkedin and the bazillion social networking sites I’m totally clueless about. But it’s also really great to find networking sites that specialize in what you love to do, a gathering of the specific geeks and freaks of your trade/hobby/craft, people of your ilk, who will support you to do what you love.

Intrepid Dreamers

In Business of Writing, Interviews, Profiles, Musings on October 21, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Most of the freelance writers I know are talented dreamers, who took to the field through a variety of unusual paths–many giving up jobs that sucked the life out of their souls, many taking huge leaps of faith to launch themselves.

Recently, one of these intrepid dreamers, Brandi-Ann Uyemura, looked me up after reading some of my work. It turns out she lives less than a half hour from me, so we decided to get together for coffee, to talk about the writing life. For freelancers, who no longer have offices, it’s a good thing to get together in person, step out of the isolation of our desks, put on something other than pajamas (you know who you are!), and talk shop.Brandi

The visit was such a pleasant reminder that not everyone in the freelance world is in competition with each other, that some of us work better together, in fact.

She has since interviewed me for her blog

She’s a talented and inspiring writer who deserves to thrive!

In Praise of Zeal

In Business of Writing, Classes, Craft on October 20, 2009 at 4:24 pm

writing woodblockThere are many kinds of writers, but a certain breed of them is gathering energy right now, building up storage for the long month of November, when they will eschew family, jobs and social mores to write 50,000 word novels just because. The fact that “Nanowrimo” is now a word more often recognized than not, is a testament to the power of creative zeal.

It is the zealous who madly whip out novels in a matter of months or days, who carve out new paths toward publication with the mighty power of “whythehellnot!” in their pen. Not only have I been lucky to interview tons of these folks during my time as a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine, but the fact is, I am one of them. And you probably are, too.

The revised product of my first round with Nanowrimo garnered me an agent and changed how I looked at “free time to write.”

The second round produced a book that I wrangled with for over a year before eventually abandoning it for what it was: a mess that would take a lot of breathing room to figure out. But it taught me a lot about novel writing that I’ve taken with me into what I’m working on now.

Both results were worth the trouble.

Now, I’m 225 pages into a novel that has been written most often in 20 minute bursts since the birth of my first and only child 16 months ago.

Both Nanowrimo and motherhood have taught me the same thing:

  • You have far more time to write than you think you do.
  • Writing done hastily is still better than no writing–all writing can be revised
  • The sheer power of creative zeal is often enough to get you knee deep into a very worthy project.

So go for it.

But if you don’t do Nanowrimo this year and are looking for something else to do with your November, I’ve still got a few spots in Fiction’s Magic Ingredient!

A New Home

In Business of Writing, Classes on October 16, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Maria Schneider over at  has been offering great resources for writers on the state of publishing, social media, and more since she launched her site a year ago.  Has it really been a year? Maria and I met some years ago now when she was Editor of Writer’s Digest magazine and I was the persistent, hounding, perpetual writer who pitched her probably weekly, if not daily, until she finally decided that the only way to keep me off her back was to take me on as a contributing writer. I honestly don’t think I have ever had more fun writing than under her tenure for those glorious years. I interviewed some of my favorite writers, followed writing trends , and felt part of something great.

So when she, well, unleashed herself, and launched her own writing site, I knew it would also shine brightly, and the community of thousands of writers who have followed are a testament to this.

So I’m honored and thrilled that once again I get to be part of Maria’s world, as she’s made a home for my writing workshops in the EU forums. All the group participation will take place there, and you’ll benefit from the wonderful existing forums already there. I hope you’ll join us!


In Business of Writing, Classes, Craft on October 15, 2009 at 4:34 pm

This week, students in my online course “Finish What You Start” have been encouraged to strike up a relationship I call the “accountabilibuddy.” (Yes, I borrowed that from an animated tv show).  This is someone, preferably another writer, whom you both respect, and  fear a little. By “fear” I mean that you will listen to this person’s admonishments and criticism. You take them seriously. The accountabilibuddy’s job is to hold you to the goals you set for yourself as a writer. I have my students write a letter to this person using the following template:

Dear x

You know that I’m a writer, and frankly, I am a damn fine one! But I need support to help me finish my writing goals so I don’t whittle away my time trying to find naked pictures of Johnny Depp online when I should be writing. I respect you, trust you and know that you can help me be accountable to myself and my writing. My goals for myself are as follows: I will write x hours or words, x number of days per week on Project X until I finish a draft. I would like to send you my log each week. If I completed my goals, please cheer me on and tell me that Mother Theresa has nothing on me, for I am great. If I did not, please remind me that life when I am not writing is as bad as a forced marathon of Steven Segal movies in which I am not allowed to take a bathroom or snack break.

 Your buddy,X

So what are you waiting for? Go get yourself an accountabilibuddy today!


Meanwhile, there’s still time to REGISTER for my next 1 week online course, “Learn to Layer Scene Types.”

Self-paced. $49. Begins Oct. 19

Image Building

In Business of Writing, Classes, Craft on October 13, 2009 at 4:22 pm

subconscious-mindEven though I am a sucker for a good plot even if the author has not been as careful with the prose, what I am most seduced by in a book are the images that arrest me along the way, and for which I am glad to have been stopped.

Betsy Cox, one of my grad school mentors, was the first one to really drive home for me the evocative use of images, one involving flies sipping on milk foreshadowing death in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. Before then, I’d been unconsciously aware of these stylized visuals designed to conjure emotion and to ping on the tinny submarine of the subconscious.

Since then, I look for them in everything I read, often disappointed when they aren’t there, and giddy when they are. Images may at first seem to be mere setting description, but they hit us below the conscious mind and are  incredibly powerful in fiction and non-fiction alike. They speak a symbolic language, and conjure layers that plunge a reader deeper than the sentences at hand.

Here are a few examples:

From Scented Gardens for the Blind, by Janet Frame:

…If only she were sitting now in her desk at school, turning the pages of Shakespeare…observing the stain of creation where word had joined word, blood had been shed, and the letters were lying tangled and asleep, bound by their dark cages upon the cloud-white paper.”

From Veronica by Mary Gaitskill:

On Animal Planet, people are putting computer chips under the skins of beautiful lizards in order to help save them from extinction. The camera zooms in on the writhing creatures. Their eyes bulge; their hinged red mouths fiercely gape. One strikes the air with a stiff webbed claw. Joanne presses the mute button to say grace.


If you’re interested in honing your own image building skills, I’m teaching a 1 week online course in the subject.

Image Building. 1 week online class. REGISTER
Nov 30-December 6, 2009. $49.

The visual world of your novel or story is a powerful way to evoke mood and feeling. There may be nothing more effective than using “images”—stylized, poetic visuals that specifically conjure a feeling, a mood, or a theme. Images are different than mere descriptions in that they speak to the reader on the unconscious and emotional level. They bypass the logical mind and resonate in your reader’s mind and heart long after the page is turned.

Learn to create and use images in your fiction.

The Left Brained Writer Learns to Show, Not Tell

In Craft, Interviews, Profiles, Musings on October 10, 2009 at 3:48 pm

Guest post by Mike Fine

I suspect I may be one of the most “left-brained” writeMikers out there. After 20+ years as a software engineer and managing technical teams and technical projects, I discovered—lo and behold—I love writing! How strange is that? Well, probably not very strange to you if you’re reading this post, but it was certainly strange to me when I first realized it about 10 years ago.

There’s a great deal about being educated and trained as an engineer that works against me as a writer. First, while all of you were probably reading the great works—Austen, Bronte, Melville, Tolstoy—you know the list better than I do—I was taking the easiest Language Arts classes I could find. I had all of these advanced math and science classes, you see…

Second, and more seriously, engineers are trained to distill an issue to its core. The essence of a thing is what matters to engineers; we like to simplify and abstract, to get right to the point. The good news is that because of this, I rarely struggle finding a theme or central idea for my writing. I rarely fear that I’m going to write some long-winding run of flowery prose with no point. I am rarely without a solid outline. The problem is, readers don’t want to be hit over the head and be told the morale or theme, they want to feel it, to experience it. Stories are supposed to immerse the reader in a detailed world with believable characters so that they—the reader—infer the message(s) from the story. And, of course, sometimes, readers will infer things we never intend as writers. I have to force myself to remember this—something I think comes more naturally to most other writers with their predominately right-brained brains.

 Third, because I’m focused more on the essence of the primary arc of the story and the critical characterizations of the main characters, my writing often feels rushed, too much like a treatment than a story. The structures of my stories are usually sound; I struggle with adding enough detail. My wife often says that I’ve painted the trunk of the tree and the larger branches, but none of the smaller twigs or the leaves. Again, I suspect others with different educational backgrounds and personalities have an easier time with this sort of “inside out” nature of writing. I have to constantly remind myself: show the leaves in all their splendor, and let the reader infer that there’s a tree holding them up.

 Like many writers, I struggle to ensure that my writing follows the old maxim, “show, don’t tell.” For years, I couldn’t get my weak engineer brain around this concept. Then, finally, I came up with a way to think about this. I think even you non-engineers out there might benefit from thinking about things this way.

 When we’re guilty of “telling” instead of “showing,” what’s really the problem? It’s that we’ve summarized too much. If I tell you that “Abe and Ben fought,” your experience is much different than if I describe the right crosses, the chipped teeth, and the broken tables. I get that. You get that. Most everyone gets that. But how do we ensure that we don’t fall into the summarization trap? Simple: engage your left brain a little bit.

 Here’s the idea: allocate a certain amount of space—words, paragraphs, or pages—for a scene. Say to yourself, this scene has to take X pages. Let’s take our fight scene. Imagine it’s important to our story. We want to slow time down and stretch this conflict out for all the drama we can milk out of it. So, how many pages should the fight take up on paper? Three pages? Five? Ten?

 Once you decide how many pages (or paragraphs) you want the fight to last, you simply cannot summarize “too much.” If you do, your writing will stop short of your allotted space! If I write that “Abe and Ben fought,” I have to stare at the remaining 9 ½ blank pages for the scene. I have to fill them up. How can I do it? I can start to describe what happens in more detail and by slowing down time. I cannot stop editing and improving my scene until it fills up the space I’ve allocated for the scene. Is it possible I can introduce other kinds of problems into my writing—dialogue that drags, character descriptions that are too lengthy, etc.? Sure. But one thing that’s almost certain: my writing is much more likely to slow time down so that I provide enough details. And that’s something my readers will hopefully enjoy.


Mike is the co-creator of the Young Writers’ Story Deck Writing Program. He writes technical, marketing, and educational pieces for high tech companies and school districts. He has written novels, short stories, screen plays and stage plays. His stage play “Building a Bridge” was produced in the 2008-09 school year in Sebastopol and received rave reviews. See  for more information about the play. His short screenplay “Time Capsule” is slated for production for some time in 2009 or 2010. In February 2008, Kansas student and forensics competitor Taylor Montgomery performed Mike’s piece “Pushed”, placing 2nd out of 40 competitors and qualifying for State Champs. Mike’s creative writing can be found at Mike is an active volunteer in the Mount Diablo Unified School District, and has been an active volunteer in the Morgan Hill Unified School District and at Rocketship Education in San Jose, California.