Happy Writing!

All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”
EB White

“I think of myself as an enormously lucky person. I get to tell stories for a living.”
Kate DiCamillo.

“But much more vividly I remember living in the book and making up what happened every day. Making the country and the people and the things that happened I was happier than I had ever been.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

“It’s a delicious thing to write. To be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating.”
Gustave Flaubert

Delicious indeed! Coming across these quotes today made me think about how important it is to celebrate the joys of writing. While there are plenty of “blood, sweat, and tears” comments in my files, it’s the upbeat, inspiring words of writers who find true pleasure in their work that I cherish most. 

To be taken out of yourself and transported to another world as you write — what an amazing feeling this is!

To “move in an entire universe” that you’ve invented out of your own imagination is a little like flying through space. All around you, bits and pieces of yourself are whizzing by. Something you saw, a phrase that floats into your head, a beloved one whose beautiful eyes you remember, a trip to the sea, long-forgotten words of wisdom, a moment of disappointment and pain — all these are woven into a story that is a part of you and yet wholly apart from you. Magic! Write on!

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Character Speak

Dialogue in stories or screenplays can be tricky. It can sound wooden or contrived, or natural and unstudied. As writers, we need it to keep our plots moving and our characters real. A few dialogue tips from pros:

“Every person in a conversation has an agenda, and you need to know what each agenda is.”

“Dialogue is not a break in the action, it’s an intensification of action.”

“[Dialogue] is not the way we speak. Dialogue must appear realistic without being realistic. It’s not natural, but must suggest natural less. It is speech that is distilled, refined, and controlled.”

From John Dufresne, “The Lie That Tells a Truth:“”

“What is the trick to writing believable dialogue?” The screenwriter Andrew Bujalski was asked. His answer”Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., ‘I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.’) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.”

Elizabeth Bowen on dialogue: It should be buried, it should add to the reader’s present knowledge; it should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation; it should convey a sene of spontaneity; it should reveal the speaker’s character, directly and indirectly; it should depict the relationship among the speakers.

E.M. Forster speaks of certain literary characters—he calls the “round” characters—who “surprise us each time they reappear. When conversing, such characters “draw one another out without seeming to do so.”

Margaret Drabble says: People have sometimes asked me why I have never written successfully for the theater. It’s because I need a lot of exposition, I need a lot of interior monologue. I need description. Ican’t actually do dialogue just as dialogue; it has to be the result of everything else that’s happening.”

When our dialogue sings, our stories dance. Write on!

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Snappier Sentences

Sentences with muscle and verve carry our writing forward. How can we make them work harder and smarter? A few easy-to-apply ideas:

Treat a sentence as a mini-story: It can help propel your prose if you think of each sentence you craft as a story in and of itself. After all, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Make each part count.

Put your subject center stage: Using the passive voice, a habit many of us fall into all-too often, reduces your subject to an also-ran and saps its energy. Passive prose should be a choice, not a default. As you revise, turn passive sentences into active ones — your readers will thank you.

Go ink-fishing: “Ink-fish,” that‘s what poet and performance artist reg e gaines calls those pesky little words—articles, prepositions, and such. If we sprinkle too many of them in a sentence it can dilute the power of our “essentials”—nouns and verbs. When you rewrite, try ink-fishing.

Choose rich, robust verbs: We all know that verbs are the engines of writing: They propel our prose by creating action, by making things happen. Weak verbs are wispy-washy. Pump up your prose with peppy, provocative verbs, and you’ll drive your story forward.

Express complex ideas simply: We’ve all read convoluted, confusing sentences that seem to take a simple idea and dress it in fancy prose to puff it up and make it seem bigger and more insightful than it really is. One measure of good writing is the ability to craft sentences that express complex ideas simply. Work to make your sentences sing!

Vary your sentence length and rhythm: you craft and revise your sentences, be mindful of how they fit together. Sentences with the same rhythm lull your readers and hijack their attention. Varying sentence length in a paragraph keeps a story moving.

What approaches do you find most helpful for energizing your prose? I’d love to hear and share them as we all write on!

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Stronger Scenes

Robert McKee is considered the master of movie storytelling. For more than 25 years, he’s given a wildly popular three-day intensive seminar around the world, from LA to Lisbon, and coached hundreds of aspiring and veteran screenwriters. His book, Story, is a bestselling classic and has only added to his reputation. His former students have written successful films like A Beautiful Mind and the Lord of the Rings trilogy and hit TV series like Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs

In an information-packed interview, he described three common flaws that he finds in many of the scripts he reads and films he sees: 

“Dull scenes:  For reasons of weak conflict or perhaps poor shaping of beats of behavior, the scene falls flat. The value-charged condition of the characters’ lives at the tail of the scene is exactly what it was at the head of the scene. Activity never becomes story action. In short, nothing actually happens, nothing actually changes.”

Awkward exposition: To convenience the writer, characters tell each other what they all already know so the eavesdropping reader/audience can gather in the information. This false behavior causes the reader/audience to lose empathy.”

“Clichés: The writer recycles the same events and characters we have seen countless times before, thinking that if he or she writes like other writers have, they too will find success.”

While McKee is talking about screenplays, these weaknesses are also found in plays or novels. I especially like his comments on dull scenes. Creating scenes where there is action, not just activity — scenes that actually advance a story’s plot are the kind we want to craft. Write on!

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Something Wonderful

To You

Walt Whitman

Let us twain walk aside form the rest;
Now we are together privately, do you disregard ceremony,
Come! vouchsafe to me what has yet been vouchsafed to none
— Tell me the whole story,
Tell me what you would not tell your brother, wife, husband,
or physician.

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Tucked Away

I’m betting this sounds familiar to you: Tucked away in drawers or in an almost-forgotten computer file are projects with exciting potential that you haven’t looked at in a while. When I pulled one of these old, and long-languishing pieces out, I was surprised at how far I had taken it. I tucked it away after it was rejected because the timing wasn’t right, but today it’s a different story.

I’m sharing my fruitful reactions to revisiting this piece because I’m hoping to encourage you to do the same with something you lavished care and attention on, but haven’t yet put out into the world. Here goes:

First, I was surprised by how far I had taken the story. It had some rough patches here and there, but overall it was surprisingly polished. Thinking back, I remembered how much fun I had writing it and how energized and jazzed I felt when I actually sent it out. All that pleasure was there in my pages, waiting to be recognized and saluted.

Second, I realized that there was a way I could breathe new life into the piece — and that it actually wouldn’t be that difficult to do. There are whole swatches of the story that read well and say exactly what I want to say. If I can come up with a fresh opening gateway to my tale and give it a sunset ending that brings the reader home, it will ready to resubmit. It will take work, but it’s definitely doable.

Third, I had a flash of pride—this was an idea worth developing and I took it and ran with it. The timing many not have been right, but I gave it my best shot in the moment. I really pored some brain cells into conceiving and crafting the piece— I put it all on the field.That made mine feel good about myself and my work.

And finally, I felt a sense of urgency. This piece is good, I realized. Really good. It deserves to be out in the world. It deserves to be read. It deserves more time and attention from me, its creator. I can make it better. I can update it. I can give getting it published another shot. And I should. I must. This piece is worthy and more timely than ever.

OK, so right here, right now, I am committing to revising and resubmitting this story—to writing dangerously by putting it out there and risking rejection yet again.

How about you? Is there some long-forgotten piece of work you should cast a fresh eye on—something that’s been waiting patiently for you to remember and revive it? If so, why not give it a second chance as we all write on?

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Finding Wings

This brings a smile to my face — it reminds me of Alex, my beloved, intrepid son, who knows all about the joys of of flying on two wheels!

Going Down Hill on a Bicycle
A Boy’s Song

Henry Charles Beeching

With lifted feet, hands still,
I am poised, and down the hill
Dart, with heedful mind;
The air goes by in a wind.

Swifter and yet more swift,
Till the heart with a might lift
Makes the lungs laugh, the throat cry:
“O bird, see; bird, I can fly.

‘Is this, is this your joy?
O bird, then I, though a boy,
For a golden moment share
Your feathery life in air!’

Say, heart, is there aught like this
In a world that is full of bliss?
‘Tis more than skating, bound
Steel-shod to the level ground.

Speed slackens now, I float
Awhile in my airy boat;
Till, when the wheels scarce crawl,
My feet to the treadles fall.

Alas, that the longest hill
Must end in a vale, but still,
Who climbs with toil, wheresoe’er,
Shall find wings waiting there.

My son Alex’s focus, discipline, sense of adventure, and willingness to go all out on his bike are a constant source of inspiration to me. Let’s find our wings today as we all write on!

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Foggy Days

“I feel fine. I am quite prepared to swim back.” Brave words from a brave woman—Florence Chadwick. In 1950, the American swimmer became the first female swimmer to cross the open waters of the English Channel, finishing her epic quest when she stepped onto the beaches of Dover.

But there’s a story behind the story. Just a short time before her epic victory over cold, time, and distance, Florence failed. In the water for 14 hours, she gave up just a half-mile from the shore. What made her quit? It wasn’t the bone-chilling cold. Or the long hours in the water. Or the sharks that were circling around her and had to be fended off.

It was the fog.

After many long hours in the water, Florence was defeated by the foggy weather which made it impossible to see the shore. Discouraged, she simply couldn’t go on.

But not long after her fruitless attempt, Florence stepped into the icy waters of the French coast and set out across the English Channel again. There was fog all around her this time, too. But this time Florence ignored it, knowing and trusting that her goal—the Dover coast—lay ahead, just waiting for her.

What an inspiring story! From crushing defeat to courageous triumph!

There’s a message here for us. We may not be long-distance, open-water swimmers like Florence, but as writers, we have goals of our own—shores we want to reach. And just like Florence, we have all kinds of obstacles in our way. And sometimes, like Florence, we lose sight of our destination. Fog descends. We feel confused and uncertain.

But, just like Florence did in her second swim, we can find the shore if we just keep swimming in the right direction, stroke by stroke. Word by word. Trust and courage will see us through as we all write on!

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Making Mistakes

One who is ready to go on the exploration called truth has to be ready to commit many errors, mistakes — has to be able to risk. One may go astray, but that is how one arrives. Going many many times astray, one learns how not to go astray. Committing many mistakes, one learns what a mistake is and how not to commit it.
Knowing what is error, one comes closer and closer to what is truth. It is an individual exploration; you cannot depend on others’ conclusions.”
Osho, Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously

When I read this passage tonight, I felt a swift sense of relief pour through me. Why? Because, I have been laboring mightily — and making tons of mistakes, it seems — in my struggles to come up with a first chapter to my YA novel that sings and dances. 

So it is heartening to read that making many mistakes is the only way to get to where I need to go. If this is true, then the only wise thing to do seems to be to keep on making mistakes and moving closer and closer to the heart of what I want to say.

By now, I’ve lost count of how many versions and variations of an opening I have come up with. I think I’m getting closer, but my latest draft, which I was feeling very hopeful about after pulling it together, still doesn’t “feel” right. I remember reading an essay by EB White in which he said that he was a constant reviser, but that when he finally hits the mark, the pieces seem to “click” into place.

I think I know what he means: After many false starts, when you finally capture what you want to say, it’s as if you’ve been working to crack a safe and suddenly all the tumblers fall into place and the safe pops open to reveal its riches.

So if you’re in the same boat with me — floundering around and trying to stay afloat — then here’s a plan: Let’s keep writing, keep playing, and keep making mistakes until as Osho puts it, we come “closer and closer to what is truth.” Deal? Then let’s write on!

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Personal Independence

Just as July 4th ended, the idea to create my own Declaration of Independence as a writer occurred to me, so I’m going to declare July 5 as my own personal Independence Day. As a source of inspiration, the July 4, 1776 version is unbeatable: bold, forthright words, which sparked a revolution and changed the world:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.“

Quoting this statement, I was struck by the phrase “unalienable Rights.” and in particular, the word “unalienable,” which is variously defined as “incapable of being surrendered or transferred,” “non-negotiable,” and “sacrosanct.” “Sacrosanct” means sacred,” “respected,” “untouchable.”

What sacred, untouchable rights do I want to endow myself with as a writer on my personal Independence Day ? Let’s start with these:

I endow myself with the right to believe in my work and its intrinsic value.

I endow myself with the right to honor and nurture my desire to devote the
time needed to pursue my craft and push my writing to the next level.

I endow myself with the right to put my creative writing center stage and to
do whatever it takes to create forward motion each day.

I endow myself with the right to pursue any ideas, tools, training, and experience
that will help me improve my craft.

I endow myself with the right to see myself as part of a long and joyful tradition of
storytellers and myth makers who enrich the world through words.

Well that’s what I came up with. How about you?

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