Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ten Tips for Writers

I want to start my final post for The Well-Read Donkey by saying thanks so much for letting me participate in this wonderful bookstore's wonderful blog.  It has been a lot of fun.  While I'm relatively new to the world of blogs, much of my work as a creative writing instructor has taken place online.  For the past three years since its inception, I have been teaching creative writing workshops through Stanford's Online Writer's Studio.

I help facilitate this program, planning the curriculum and training instructors, as well as leading my own workshops in both fiction and creative nonfiction every quarter.

The program started when I was pregnant, and it was a job I was able to keep doing even when my son was a newborn (sometimes holding live chat hours while nursing--a fact which I didn't share at that time with my students).  I had taught writing in the classroom before that, and I enjoyed the chemistry of a live interaction, the crackle of excitement when a class is going especially well.  But I was surprised and pleased to find that I love teaching writing classes online just as much.  It's not the same, and you do miss certain aspects of the live classroom, but there are definite tradeoffs.  I enjoy being able to work at odd hours in my pajamas, a glass of wine by the computer and my feet propped on my desk.  I also like the intense focus of getting to know my students through their writing, and I do feel like I get to know them as people, which was confirmed when I met a group of them for dinner before the Kepler's reading. They were even more remarkable in person than on the page, which is saying a lot.

For my final post, I thought I would share some tips or suggestions that I give students in my writing workshops, for those of you out there who are beginning writers, or struggling with some stage of the process (as we all do from time to time).

1.  Make and stick to a regular writing schedule, and keep that time sacred--no email or checking facebook.  It doesn't have to be four hours per day, seven days per week.  In fact, setting a goal that's too lofty might doom you to fail, and that feeling of failure might keep you from picking up and trying again.  Be ambitious but also realistic.  If you're busy with a job and family, but you can carve out one hour each morning before the kids wake up, then try setting your alarm clock an hour early--even just two or three days per week.  If you go from zero hours per week to three hours per week, you'll be accomplishing three times more than you were before.  If you have Sunday afternoons free, then try setting those aside.  I just read an interview with a young adult novelist who has written three books using one weekend day per week to write.  The point is that you don't have to make it a full-time job, but you do have to set aside time to do it, and regularity and consistency tend to work wonders for writers.

2.  Whether you are in a writing workshop or not (and I definitely think they're a good idea, especially for those just getting started, to learn craft basics) find a writing friend, someone at about the same stage as you are, and trade work on a regular basis.  Having a close reader, and hearing that person's take on your work, will help you to be able to revise it.  Without a reader, it's very hard to have any objective sense of what's working well and what could still use improvement.  You can definitely use readers who aren't also writers, but I find that fellow writers tend to be better at giving constructive feedback.  It's nice to hear, "This is fabulous," but only hearing praise won't help you to grow or your writing to improve.  (Yes, I'm a big believer in revision.  Without it, I wouldn't be a writer).

3.  Do exercises.  I love prompts.  I love to give them to the classes I teach, and I love to be given them as well.  The secret about writing prompts is that it almost doesn't matter what they are.  You might be staring at a blank page, with no idea what to write, feeling utterly uncreative, and if I were to say, "In your first paragraph, make sure that there is a prosthetic arm, an animal and a hot beverage," I have no doubt that you would soon pick up your pen and a story would start to flow.  In grad school at Iowa, my friend Chelsey and I used to give each other arbitrary prompts like this, and it never failed both to amuse us and to trigger our imaginations.  The point of a prompt or exercise should never be to force you to do an assignment "perfectly."  There is no "wrong" way to follow a prompt.  The point is to trick your mind into forgetting about self-consciousness and perfectionism, and to get you free associating and imagining things outside yourself, and writing and enjoying writing.  You can make up your own exercises, or pick up a book like What If that's full of great prompts.

4.  Read four times more than you write.  This was the advice given by Frank Conroy (rip), the legendary former director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, when I was a student there.  It can be hard to follow when you're frantically busy, trying to hold a job, raise kids, walk the dog, exercise--oh yeah, and write.  That said, it is crucial that you read at least as much as you write, and that you read both in the form that you want to write in, and also in other forms.  You will not learn to write amazing short stories unless you are actively reading as many short stories as you can get your hands on, seeing all sorts of variations on the form, figuring out what works for you and also what you're not enamored of.  You won't be able to write a mystery if you don't read mysteries, or have a good idea of the goals and limitations of young adult fiction without becoming an expert reader of the genre.  But also read nonfiction, magazines, histories, biographies.  Saturate yourself in the written word.

5.  Take in other art forms, as many and as often as you can.  When I'm really stuck on a piece of writing, I've been trying and trying to figure out how to fix it, and the hours of applying the seat of my pajamas to the seat of my chair just aren't doing the trick, sometimes the thing that helps me most is to take an afternoon off and use it to go see a matinee or go to a museum or listen to music while taking a walk.  Visual art is especially helpful and inspiring to me, as is movement.  I've had story breakthroughs while jogging and listening to a favorite song on repeat.  After a lot of struggle, it's often when I surrender and stop trying so hard, and so consciously, that I'm able to figure out what I need to do to make a piece of writing work.

6.  Try the accordion approach to revision.  If one draft is really long and expository, with way too much backstory and lengthy asides, try making the next draft as streamlined as possible, cutting out everything that could possibly go without making the story overly opaque, perhaps sticking mainly to dialogue and just a few stage directions.  Then, on the revision after that, add back in the lines and details that you really miss and don't want to live without.  In other words, grow a long draft, then shrink it to the bare minimum, then grow it again, then shrink it...  After doing this a few times, you'll probably land on a final version that is just the right length.

7.  When you're learning how to write--and even after you're a seasoned writer, if possible--try not to think about getting published as long as you can possibly stand it.  Write as if no one were going to read your writing, allowing yourself to be fearless with the feelings and details that you put on the page, vulnerable and brave and experimental, even ruthlessly honest.  Take every risk that tempts you as a writer.  There's certainly nothing wrong with wanting to get published, but my perception is that most people who focus on this too soon actually hurt their writing and (ironically) their chances of eventually finding their way into print. 

8.  When I was at a stage with my novel where I had been working on it for a few years but couldn't yet see the end, I was laboring to make pieces come together, and I didn't know if they ever would, I started to feel incredible resistance and resentment toward writing, and I actually made a header for my manuscript that said, "Remember that you choose to write, and try to have fun."  For me, it was helpful to remember that no one was forcing me to do this.  I could have been spending that time doing something to earn money, or out at a restaurant or walking on the beach.  No one had a gun to my head. 

9.  Have a boring job or have a baby.  I say this somewhat jokingly, and yet I found that a lot of that resentment or resistance that I just described went away after I had a child and suddenly found myself with a lot less time to spend on my writing.  Furthermore, the writing time I did have were costing me a lot in childcare, not to mention time away from my kiddo.  I no longer felt that I could afford to waste that time, but also--interestingly, because I hadn't anticipated this--I appreciated that time more.  I was less likely to torture myself over revising and re-revising the same paragraph over and over.  Having less time in which to write made me want to use what little time I have more efficiently.  I am a bit less precious and perfectionistic about my writing, more willing to move forward, to call something finished in order to move on to another project.

10.  Write the poem/story/article/book that you wish you could be reading, but that you haven't found out there in the world.  This is my favorite piece of advice, that I always come back to as a writer, and pass along to writing students whenever I can.  You will do your best writing if you feel passion for your subject, and if you're saying something that you think needs to be said, and hasn't yet, at least not quite the way that you want to say it. Don't copy someone else's book, even if it's a book you love.  That book already exists, and doesn't need to be rewritten. 

If anyone feels like commenting, I'd love to have other people add to the list of tips for writers. 

What inspires you, keeps you going when it's going slowly, or helps you out when you're stuck?

And since I mentioned the fact that I was pregnant when I started teaching online, and then the way that having a baby proved unexpectedly useful (not to mention challenging) to me as a writer, I thought I'd post a picture of said child holding my book.  Shameless, I know.  But he'll never let us get away with forcing him into cute poses like this later on, or let me write about him either, I suspect. 

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