Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Where the Story Starts

In Craft on May 27, 2010 at 6:10 pm

A voice whispers in my ear about fire and how it can teach you lessons you might not want to learn. A setting unveils itself between my eyes: a broken, gaping fence revealing a muddy yard and a forlorn dog. Stories (well, mostly novels) come to me like tiny, cryptic visions promising great things, but I must pin down their frail butterfly beauty and hope they remain beautiful.

We often struggle to find where the story really starts. A character in the present is grappling with a compelling back-story that competes for energy and attention in the front-story, whispering: “Pick me! I am your true starting place.”  Or we feel that urge to explain: See, first you need to know this and that and the other thing before you’ll join my characters on their journey.

The story starts where there is the most potential for conflict and change. Where, as the character emerges through the open door of a new fate, there is no turning back, change will be thrust upon them, and it will be painful and wondrous.

The story starts where there is little to no need for explanation, where the action is enticing and mysterious enough to draw us forward, tempted by the tiny morsels of intrigue.

The story starts at a juncture where your character cannot help but step out onto that tight rope, with no net below her, whether she does so of her own free will, or she is pushed.

I challenge you to start your stories at that dangerous, enigmatic edge of uncertainty, right in the middle of something that will transform your characters, and hopefully your readers.

The Heart Rebels Against Absence

In Musings on May 25, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Grief is a strange thing.  Just like when it first rains and you feel the drops unevenly, at different intervals.  My 95 year-old Opa, Naphtali Rosenfeld, I believe the last of 7 brothers, died yesterday. The night before, he had a heart attack and went into the hospital, only to be pronounced “stable” and told he could be released in a couple of days under hospice care. Several hours after, my father called back to say, “I’m sorry I have bad news.”

People die all the time. Every day, in natural and tragic ways. People too young, people with unfair illness, people in unfortunate accidents. Ultimately, the death of a man who lived 95 years and died peacefully is less a thing of sorrow and more a thing of rightful endings. We should all be so lucky.

And yet. The heart–it is a notoriously illogical organ. It does not care about time and space. It loves. It goes on loving after the person is gone, even rebels against the notion of absence.

One Christmas years ago, my husband put five photos into a frame for me. Each photo is of me perched at a typewriter, from about the age of 7 up to adulthood. All but the last photo is set in the same place: the cottage Oma and Opa rented in Shelter Island, New York, where I spent my childhood summers. The typewriter is my grandfather’s.

While I will take most of the credit for the hungry little spark in me that has always needed to write, I give a great deal of credit to my Opa, who saw a fellow lover of words and nourished/nurtured it in me as though it were a rare and precious plant that needed special care and he was the gardener tasked with the job.

My Opa and I came from vastly different life experience. He grew up in a large, orthodox Jewish family in Germany, presided over by a fearsome and affectionless father. But when the family couldn’t afford to feed all their children he was sent to a children’s home, where his world bloomed open. Out from under the thumb of that oppression his intellect and curiosity began their first urgent explorations. Just as the first tiny tremors of Hitler’s plans for Jews began to ripple in his community (and others), he left with a youth group to Palestine, to a kibbutz, where he eventually married Tamar Weingarten and produced two sons, my father, and my uncle. He fought in the war that resulted in the State of Israel. And then, upon pressure from my Oma, he eventually immigrated to New York when my father was six.

And that’s how I could come to be. I think often of the great work of chance involved in my father coming to the United States and meeting my mother–and every time I thank my grandparents for making that enormous journey.

My Opa dearly loved me, even though he showed his tenderness in a removed and intellectual way. I spent most of my childhood summers visiting them, and during the year he wrote me monthly letters, sometimes as many as 10 pages long, in a handwriting that required study to read carefully.  I’ve been looking through some of his letters this morning (my heart clenching at the sight). Here is a choice line I found from a letter in 1994, when I was in college: “When I read your class work I feel moved back half a century to the time when I grappled with the tantalizing questions you so vividly describe in your work.” He was a steady and constant presence. Reliable, sturdy.

He regarded me, I always felt, with a tiny bit of bemusement and awe. I had all the independence and freedom to live my life that he had not. I was probably a rash and self-righteous teen, but he listened to my rants. I was a girl, but not a quiet and subservient one. I challenged him. He challenged me. He interrogated me lovingly. He was always, always there.

And now he’s not.

Not physically. He’s permanently lodged inside me, of course, and in my words, his hand linked with mine, even now, as I type.

There’s so much more to say, and maybe I will continue saying it. For today, simply: Opa, I love you.

Assemble Your Team

In General, Musings on May 19, 2010 at 3:14 am

In the past year of working on my novel, which I am STILL working on, and probably will be until it arrives at that miraculous place known as “right” or “done” I have been beautifully reminded of the need for other writers.

Because writing is a solitary act, I think many of us writers start to believe it HAS to be solitary–that we aren’t allowed to join forces, that we shouldn’t muck up our process by inviting others into it. Some have competitive issues. Some don’t know where to find other writers. But let me tell you: if you try to do it alone, you will…be…lonely. By “it” I mean every stage of the game. If you’re a new, struggling writer just working on a first draft, quite possibly the loneliest kind because everything ahead of you is uknown and dark and seems so far away, you NEED people to carry you forward.

If you are close, perhaps you have an agent or maybe even your first book deal, you need people to remind you that you’re good enough and deserve this, and that all those changes your agent/editor wants you to make are for the best good of your work.

If this is your fifth or eighteenth novel, you need people to remind you why you wake up every morning and put words to paper when it feels like drudgery, or when it scares you, or when you can’t even remember writing those other 18 novels and you STILL feel like a fraud about to be exposed.

The point is: you need a team, maybe a small 1-2 person team, or a huge network-wide one of supporters, constructive critics, and cheerleaders. These people will talk you down off ledges, will comb through your twenty-fifth draft as though it was your first, will hold you when you cry, and brag about you when you succeed. Maybe you will be lucky enough to have one such person, or maybe you have ten. If you have none yet, get on it.

Writers only pretend to be loners. Truthfully, we need each other desperately.


When is Done, Done?

In Business of Writing, Craft on May 17, 2010 at 10:52 pm

I’m an editor; I should be able to tell you when something is done, right? But admit it, you find things in published books you would change, sentences you want to tweak, character notes you’d like to flesh out. As I make my way through my revision, I’ve stopped numbering my drafts, because it’s become a process of such constant change that there is no single, complete pass through. It’s more like a dance number. The hokey-pokey. I put my right foot in and put my right foot out…and, well, you know how the song goes.

Most of the time when a client comes to me I say, “No, you’re not done. You have (at least) another draft in you. There isn’t a book out there that can’t stand another pass, if only for pesky adverbs or streamlining of sentences.

So yes, I’m with the masses: I want to call my finished book “done.” I want to send it off into the world. But I recommend, before you do the same, that you give it one more pass.

And if you want to take my 6 week class, Revise for Publication, beginning June 7-July 16 ($169), I’ll extend the early registration discount through the 31st of this month. Register at:

When it’s Nice to be Mean

In Craft, Musings on May 13, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Fiction is a strange thing. Where else can you do terrible things to people and not only get away with it, but have people ask for more?

The essence of a good plot is raising those ever-loving stakes on your characters up and up and up, pressing them to the very edges of their being, so that what oozes out the sides is some kind of messy, wild truth, right? And hopefully a cool and twisty story.

Sometimes when I’m grappling with plot and character (like every time i sit down to write), I try to remind myself of why I read fiction. Yes, entertainment is right up there, but reading a novel is a lot like eating cracker jacks (when you were a kid) to get that prize at the bottom. I want to discover something. A feeling, an idea, a way of looking at the world that maybe already exists inside me, but not in that way.

So go ahead: be mean and terrible to your characters. Really lay it on thick. So long as you bring out a little redemption at the end.

Give Them Heart

In Craft, General, Musings on May 12, 2010 at 9:28 pm

I’ve written about building believable characters before, and there are hundreds of great articles and books who’ve gone before me that do it in eloquent ways. But today, as I formulate a critique, these are the words that came to me about character:

You can learn how to write great dialogue, give your character a snappy voice, and follow a character arc through a transformation. But beneath all of that, and really in order for all that to be true, your characters must have heart. Heart so real you believe them. What do I mean? They must, at some point in your writing journey, morph from paper creations to real people. You must see them as real. You must find yourself wondering what they might do in situations. Notice clothes in a store that would look good on them–or that they might covet, being unable to afford them. Your characters have to become alive to you so they can become alive to readers.

And the only way I’ve found to do this is multiple drafts and lots of reader feedback. As well as keeping notebooks in which you write down things about them.

In fact, try this on: Try writing a journal, for as few days as a week, or as long as you’re writing your book, in your character’s voice about his or her life. See how this process takes you deeper into your characters until they are so alive you can hear their hearts beating at night, just beneath your own.

Bad Mothers

In Craft, General, Musings on May 9, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Trolling Facebook today I’ve been surprised to find some anti-Mother’s Day sentiment. There’s a lot of, “Nobody should be excluded for not having kids,” and “Mothers aren’t the only ones who work hard!” As a mother of one who waited 12 years with her husband to have a kid, I agree that being a parent does not elevate one to some kind of saintly status. But really people, is there really anything wrong with appreciating mothers. Whether you love or despise yours, where the heck would we be without mothers?

More importantly, where would great literature be without them? (and great cinema. Cough. Mommy Dearest. Cough).

In graduate school, my last mentor professor, Alice Mattison, accused me of writing stories that, if collected, could probably bear the title “Bad Mothers.” This made it into my graduate lecture as I explored why certain themes reappeared in my life when, frankly, my own mother wasn’t really all that bad.

I’m not going to go into the breakdown here, but I ask you this question, writers: how has your relationship to your mother, or your own children, played into your writing?

Write Free and Realize Wild Dreams

In Classes, Craft, Write Free on May 8, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I am so excited about this retreat that I can’t wait to post it! Becca Lawton and I declared 2010 the Year of Realizing Wild Dreams in our Write Free e-letter. And now we’re going to help 20 people do just that in a spectacular day-long retreat in September on the gorgeous California coast.

Realizing Your Wildest Writing Dreams Day-Long Retreat

September 18, 2010.  10 to 5

 Join Jordan E. Rosenfeld and Rebecca Lawton in beautiful Bodega Bay for a day of inspiration to realize your wildest writing dreams.  Includes craft workshops, lunch, and Write Free activities.

 Limit 20 participants.  $175.  $25 discount to first 10 registrants who send a check to:

Wavegirl, P.O. Box 654, Vineburg, CA 95487. 



Say Yes! On Being Self-Producing

In Business of Writing, Musings, Publishing on May 4, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Today I’m taking author Christina Katz’s charge in her wonderful newsletter The Prosperous Writer (check it out, you’ll be inspired), to write about “being self-producing.”

Her topic made me think about what I would have to very loosely call my “mantra” on my own publishing/writing journey. Put simply: “What do I have to lose?”  That coupled with, “I wonder if I can…” pretty much sum up everything I’ve done in my career. I’m not saying that strategy is bad–it’s good, it’s very good–but no harm in throwing yourself at goals either.

This parallels with the talk I’ll be giving at the California Writer’s Club Marin branch on May 23rd, “My Wild and Wooly, Stumble and Bumble my Way to Success Story.” What it’s really about is how you can be published  and have a thriving career/writing life,  by saying YES to opportunities, even if they don’t pay money at first. If you take them seriously enough, they will!

My approach has always been to either join or create those adventures I wanted to be part of. Literary salon. Radio show. I’m not saying I produced these things out of nothing–but you’d be amazed what’s available if you look and ask.

And on that note, the wonderful Amber Starfire has interviewed me about my path at her blog  Writing Through Life. You have a chance to win free copies of my books by posting comments there and “buzzing” about what you read through various social networking sites. She’s really awesome!

Losing Beauty

In Business of Writing, Craft, Publishing on May 4, 2010 at 3:38 pm

This experiment of opening my own words up to an audience, in which many readers demanded a paring back and carving down,  made me think about, well, my audience. How does a writer balance the advice of agents and published writers: “Write your best story, the one you have to tell,” with a hungry reader’s desire for a good story with a quick plot? Is it true that in a day when just about anything can be downloaded to a phone or an e-reader in seconds, we writers will have to carve out even more than usual? Will literature tumble down that steep slope of quality in favor of something fresh, hot, and fast (anyone who doesn’t hear Michael Scott saying “that’s what she said”…I pity you)?

I certainly don’t believe that books will disappear, though I do agree that publishing will continue its digital evolution, some of which will be for the better.  But I can’t help but fear that as books try to compete with TV and the internet (wait, aren’t those two the same thing yet?), some inherent essence of quality, the ecstasy of lingering over a phrase for its sheer gorgeousness, might get lost.