Overcoming those bare-page blues, or, getting those wheels spinning productively

spinning lady

One of the things I miss most about no longer being able to blog on a consistent basis — if not every day or week, then at least as often as I’d like — is constant interaction with aspiring writers and their questions. The Author! Author! community asks such trenchant questions, you see. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are not always seen by the excellent many with the time to read only the most recent posts.

One misses quite a lot that way, from a blogger’s perspective: even when I’m not posting fresh material, I’m often answering questions quietly behind the scenes. Reasonably enough for a blog with archives this extensive, great questions frequently appear in the comments on posts weeks, months, or even years old.

That doesn’t mean that the issues raised might not be of every bit as much interest as those upon which I have written more recently. Take, for instance, a comment reader Firma asked some months back:

First of all, I want to say superb blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.

I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out. I truly do enjoy writing; however, it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin.

Any suggestions or hints? Thank you!

A very good question about a problem that plagues a great many writers, right? Indeed, it may well sneak up upon all of us from time to time: hands up, everyone who has ever staged at a blank screen or page, feeling it taunting you to fill it up.

I do indeed have a number of suggestions, but first, let’s talk about why this species of writer’s block annoys so many, and why it’s so hard to overcome. Heck, while we’re at it, let’s also take a swing at why, compared to more major forms of I just can’t seem to write today! syndrome, it’s comparatively little discussed in writing circles. And when it is, the sufferer is very often made to feel that a lack of dedication, patience, or even story must be at fault.

Just to clear the air: none of those explanations is necessarily apt, in practice. Plenty of highly dedicated aspiring writers with the patience of medieval saints apply themselves to stories that would knock your socks off — and still find themselves staring helplessly at that blank page for the first twenty minutes of every writing session.

Darned frustrating, even if you didn’t have to fight tooth and nail, as so many committed writers do, to free that writing time from other obligations. No one needs to remind you that you could have used that time more productively. So I have an idea: let’s all agree that informing a writer acutely aware of a ticking clock is, at best, redundant.

At worst, it’s kind of cruel, isn’t it? Good writers, after all, tend to be rather sensitive people: to paraphrase H.G. Wells, it takes a mind unusually open to stimulus to produce strong sensations on the page. (Actually, he was talking about matters below the waist at the time, but it’s still a useful principle, is it not?)

Instead of nagging Firma — who, I think we all can agree, has been doing an awfully impressive job of nagging herself — to use her time better, let’s dig into why she and hundreds of thousands of other writers experience difficulty jump-starting that writing session. Part of the problem, in my experience, lies in the expectation that every last second a writer spends with a manuscript should be productive, as if the writing process consisted solely of slapping words on a page. To be fair, there’s certainly a lot of external validation of that attitude; heck, there’s even a month every year devoted to exhorting folks who haven’t found the time to sit down with their stories for the past eleven months to write a whole novel in thirty days.

Why, that month is coming up very soon, isn’t it? What a remarkable coincidence.

As any established author chafing under a deadline can tell you, pressure to produce X number of pages within a short time frame has a nasty habit of exacerbating writer’s block. Even if the deadline in question exists only in the mind of the writer — an obligation that can be as nebulous as plan to finish that chapter by the end of the week, or a commitment to try to write X number of words in any given writing session — finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer may not the hardest part of the process by a long stretch. For many, many writers, the biggest challenge emerges from the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.

It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. Almost invariably, those newer to the game blame themselves, as if falling prey to writer’s block were a question of character. (Experienced writers know better: they blame the unreasonableness of their deadlines. But that’s another story.)

The demons of self-doubt can be deafening, can’t they? Especially for a creative mind looking for an outlet. Stumped writers worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to justify taking time away from all of their other obligations. So they just don’t start, or if they do, once they do clear the time from their busy schedules, they feel guilty for not utilizing every nanosecond of it with productive keystrokes.

Obviously, you’re never going to find out for sure how talented, interesting, or important you are as a writer if you don’t make the time to write in the first place, but ultimately, I suspect this fear isn’t a rational phenomenon as much as a matter of conditioning. Americans are, after all, trained from birth to work as hard as possible, and to feel that there is virtue in slogging through quotidian workplace tasks, because there is a paycheck attached to them. By contrast, since the rewards of writing tend to fall into the very, very long-term range, writing feels like a luxury.

Which, as any lifetime writer can tell you, it isn’t. Not if the storytelling urge is really in your blood.

That last sentence made half of you feel guilty, didn’t it? I’m not surprised: in the throes of writer’s block, even encouraging statements can induce guilt or feelings of inadequacy. “If I were really meant to write,” the blocked writer scolds herself, staring in frustration at the blank computer screen, “my fingers would be flying right now.”

Not necessarily. Blank screen-staring is a vital part of any successful writer’s job description. The pros call it processing.

So do not, I beg you, conclude from a few isolated bouts of block that this is not the life for you or stop trying to write after merely a week or two of effort. Do not conclude it even if it goes on for weeks or months at a time, or if you find yourself making excuses about why you can’t write today. This type of block is common, I tell you, and transcends boundaries of talent.

As does coming up with creative ways to prevent oneself from sitting down to stare at that infernal screen. Heck, about a third of the working writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until after every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason they can’t quite define, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you –- if you find that you’re not cozying up to a computer on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of leisure time available to give free rein to their creativity.

Again, I could parrot other writing advice-givers, blaming every difficulty upon a lack of willpower. I could, for instance, order you crabbily to turn off the TV/DVD/DVR/iPod/TiVo/other electronic distractions, but honestly, we live in a world. Things happen. I would be the last person to advise you to be less aware of what is going on around you.

Mr. Wells’ sensitive nervous tissue, you know. Anyway, chances are that by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, and so forth.

I could also echo William Faulkner’s famous advice to Eudora Welty, when she complained about how difficult it was to find writing time while taking care of her ailing mother: I believe his plan involved a window and a flinging action. Somehow, however, I can’t feel that urging you to defenestrate your nearest and dearest would free your mind from clutter when you next pulled up a chair to your writing desk.

Besides, where would that leave you when you wanted to take Mr. Wells’ advice literally? After a productive writing session, some human contact can be very nice. Best to keep supportive folks on this side of the sill, I say.

That being said, and as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. Even professional writers, the ones who are making a good living at it, seldom have huge chunks of completely untrammeled time at their disposal. Life is obtrusive, after all.

If you can afford to take such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)

But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention the need to pay your bills throughout this theoretical retreat.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have – and to make a commitment to using it productively.

If you have been able to carve out an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! Yet the need to make the most of every second can in and of itself can be intimidating; as I mentioned above, if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible, right? (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. It may seem suspiciously simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music at the moment you sit down to write.

As in every time you sit down to write. Not just the same album — they still make those, right? –but the same song. Preferably one that reminds you in some way of the project at hand.

Do select something you like, because it’s going to be your book’s soundtrack for a while. And do pick more than one song to play — always in the same order, please. It’s fine to create a playlist, or you can listen to the same CD beginning to end. You’re going to want at least half an hour’s worth of music, enough to play in the background until well past the point at which your brain generally starts switching into writing mode.

Here’s the trick, though: if inspiration does not come winging to you immediately, don’t do anything else but write. Stay there in front of that blank screen and think about your story. It’s fine to write something other than the scene you planned, as long as it remains within the world of your book. Go ahead and write character sketches, if you like. Brainstorm an outline for a future scene. Write a hunk of dialogue that doesn’t currently have a place in the storyline. Picture taking your protagonist and antagonist out to a four-course meal at the restaurant of their choice. It’s up to you.

Oh, stop groaning: it’s better than berating yourself in silence for those first ten minutes of trying to write, isn’t it?

What you may not do, if you want to give this experiment a valid try, is plan out other books in your series. Don’t write on another project. And, of course, don’t give up and start answering e-mails. Don’t surf the net. Don’t check Facebook.

I’m serious: don’t do anything else for at least half an hour. The time is going to pass slowly, but don’t give up. It doesn’t matter if you’re bored — in fact, for the purposes of correcting the problem, it would be great to bore yourself in this manner.

Why, you ask in horror? You’re prompting the creative part of your mind to get cracking — and that you’re willing to sit there until it stops resisting getting to work on the darned interesting book you’re writing.

“But Anne,” I hear the blocked cry, and who could blame you? “Won’t this take a lot of time? I mean, I’ve already been flogging myself mentally for not beginning to write the instant my writing time begins — won’t this just feel like punishing myself further?”

Ah, but isn’t part of the problem that your creative urges have been taking their time to start flowing? This is a way to make it pellucidly clear to those pesky Muses that you are indeed committed to your writing process — not merely to the story itself. There is a difference, you know, on the composition level, necessarily so if what you are writing is a book-length piece.

Why? Well, contrary to what the hobgoblins may have been hissing at you in the wee hours, no author, no matter how gifted, writes an entire book in one sitting. (Not a good one, anyway.) Nor do talented authors typically whip off a first draft that’s published as is. That means, in practice, that committing to writing a good book entails a long, hard effort over time.

“Aha!” the part of your brain eager to procrastinate announces triumphantly. “In other words, what I do today doesn’t matter. Maybe, if I resist plunging into the task of writing for another three minutes, the rest of my mind will get frustrated and decide to do something else.”

Sound familiar? And see why it might take a firm resolve to keep staring at that blank screen to convince that truant portion of your mind to stop skylarking?

Both the wait time and the musical repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing — and with spending some serious time not doing anything but writing. That in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. Be consistent, and do be prepared to keep it up for a good dozen writing sessions, to set the pattern.

“But not forever, right?” you ask nervously. “I’m not committing myself to a lifetime of listening to nothing but John Denver’s greatest hits, just so I can write productively, am I?”

Naturally, you can play other music later on, but I would recommend always beginning with the same song for at least a few months. Until your brain has become accustomed to snapping immediately into creative mode, not yielding to the temptation of playing something else in those early minutes. You want the message to sink into every synapse: hearing this means it’s time to write.

Stick with it. And do be aware that if this trick works — and it usually does, if a writer gives it a solid chance — you will forever associate that music with the book. There are worse fates. Even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s Upstairs at Eric’s without falling into musings about my long-completed dissertation.

Do I see some timid raised hands out there in the ether? Yes? “But Anne,” some of you murmur, “I’m already pretty easily distracted; that’s part of my problem. Hadn’t it occurred to you that if I don’t write to music, that might have been a sensible, deliberate choice?”

It did, actually; thus the swiftness of my snappy comeback: it actually doesn’t matter what your getting-started-writing ritual is, so long as you perform it consistently. The point is to provide all of that sensitive nervous tissue with a set of nonverbal clues that it’s time to get down to writing.

You’re a creative person — experiment. If music’s not your thing, try lighting the same scented candle just before you sit down to write, if you can do it safely. (Make sure it’s set in a fireproof holder.) Burn some incense. Drink a particular flavor of tea. Always wear the same pair of socks.

At least for the duration of that particular writing project. You might want to set up a different set of stimuli for your next book. Why? Well, it will help you at revision time: a fringe benefit of establishing a ritual for the first draft is that it can make getting back into that book’s mindset a snap.

“Oh,” the creative parts of your noggin will shout, “that’s Alice Cooper singing Cheek to Cheek. It must be time to write about the planet Targ again.”

And another forest of hands has sprouted. “But Anne,” timorous writers everywhere protest, “I’m willing to try these wacky things, because I’m desperate. I can’t even begin to imagine how crazy it’s going to drive my spouse/significant other/neighbors/particularly judgmental cat to hear All the Single Ladies six times a week, but I’ll risk it.

“I’m scared, though: what do I do if this doesn’t work for me? Hand myself over to the hobgoblins of self-doubt then and there?”

No, no, fearful ones; this certainly isn’t the only way of approaching the problem. My sleeves are positively stuffed with fresh cards to toss into the game.

Before I start whipping ‘em out, though, I would like to ask of you coping with the writer’s-block blues: what other ways have you been experiencing it? Dead-of-night self-critique? Backspacing over half of what you’ve written in a day? The impulse to toss completed manuscripts into the nearest geyser?

There are many different strains of the phenomenon, after all, and sometimes, coming up with a specific diagnosis provides half the cure. In the meantime, pressing forward — and not just because you resolved to do it, or because a calendar told you so, but because you believe in the story you have to tell and your ability to express yourself well.

And, as always, keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part II: consistency, consistency, consistency. And did I mention consistency?

partial trees

A quick reminder before we get begin today’s free-for-all: this coming Monday, May 31, is the deadline for the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. To allow each and every one of you to squeeze every last second of productive time out of your Memorial Day weekend, entries do not need to be date-stamped until midnight in your time zone.

I would especially love to see entries from those of you who have spent the last couple of weeks reading my super-close analysis of a reader’s opening pages and slowly turning bright green with envy: here is your chance to subject YOUR first page to similar scrutiny, free, gratis, and without charge. And not only my scrutiny, either: the quite genuinely fabulous Phoebe Kitanidis, author of the newly-released YA novel WHISPER, has graciously agreed to join me in this critiquing venture.

The complete rules, should you care to take a peek at them, may be found here. We shall now rejoin the blog already in progress.

Yesterday, as sometimes happens, the universe obligingly stepped up and provided me with a simply delightful metaphor for what we were already in the depths of talking about here at Author! Author! Accompany me, if you will, to the wildlife-harboring, honeybee-attracting, neighbor-annoying thicket of blackberry bushes that spans the wee creek running outside my house.

Okay, so maybe the snapshot above doesn’t really give you much of an idea of it. If you squint at that mass of green behind the trees, though, you may see the yellow glint of raccoon eyes.

Due to a brisk little bout of rezoning a few years back, all of the land above us on our hill has been concreted or asphalted over, so we like to keep some of our yard wild for the sake of the critters. (Also, so the abundant local rainfall has someplace to go — hasn’t anyone else noticed that as more and more land is paved and built over, overflowing rivers have less and less ground to suck up excess? Why is anyone surprised that flooding ensues?)

Not all of our neighbors are crazy about our impromptu wildlife sanctuary. Why, only last autumn, one set of civic-minded folk expressed their aesthetic opinions by flinging a large wooden pallet formerly used for their building materials into the aforementioned blackberry bushes.

I was all for moving it immediately: it was partially on public land. What if, I asked my significant other, the city suddenly took it into its collective head to cut back the part of the thicket that impinges upon the road, as it occasionally does? Once the blackberries grew over the pallet, wasn’t a sleepy public employee only too likely to run his mower smack into it? And since I was neither physically strong nor raccoon-repellent enough to extricate the pallet from its green grave myself (wildlife interprets my cries of “Shoo!” as “Here’s your dinner!”), was my SO not the logical candidate to head off that municipal disaster by moving the silly thing before, say, any city-owned machinery were permanently incapacitated and we were fined?

In the time-honored tradition of inter-spouse communications all over this great land of ours, my SO chose to regard these questions as purely rhetorical. He must have found them interesting food for thought, however, if not action, as the pitter-patter of tiny raccoon feet on wood slats prompted me to repeat these questions roughly once per month. I can only attribute his not actually doing anything about the pallet to a great and abiding love of the sound of my voice — and to an oft-expressed opinion that the neighbors should clean up their trash themselves.

Yesterday, about a month after the neighbors in question had moved away (much to the relief of local wildlife), I was startled from my daily creative reverie by the immistakable racket of heavy machinery being driven up our hill by someone rather unused to the task. The clipper attachment dragged on the ground.

I went running into my SO’s study. (Actually, I limped slowly, due to my recent back injury, but allow me a bit of creative latitude here.) “They’ve come for our blackberry bushes! Did you ever manage to move that pallet?”

He admitted that he had not; the neighbors, he said, should have taken care of it. Upon further questioning and a spirited discussion on the nature of reality vs. wishful thinking and the annoying imperatives of linear time, he was heard to opine that it was now too late now to do anything about it.

Well, as long-time readers of this blog are, I hope, quite well aware, I’ve never been a big fan of letting fixable problems just lie there. Upon my repeated urgings, he begrudgingly invested the roughly 2 1/2 minutes required to shout at the operator to stop, free the pallet, and moving to our garbage bin. He explained glibly throughout about the nature of linear time and our deadbeat ex-neighbors’ ethical shortcomings.

The municipal handyman was effusively grateful. “I never would have seen that. It would have smashed up my machine.”

“Naturally,” my SO said, with a perfectly straight face. “Anyone could have predicted that.”

What does this little domestic homily have to do with our ongoing discussion of necessary manuscript revisions, you ask? Why, I should have thought that was obvious: if you wish to please a professional reader like Millicent the agency screener, there’s just no substitute for taking the time to learn the rules of grammar, spelling, structure, and formatting, incorporate them consistently into your text — and then, before you submit your manuscript, double-checking how you have implemented those rules by reading your submission IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Oh, that wasn’t your first thought after reading that anecdote? How puzzling. What about if I put it this way: if you know the rules but don’t implement them every time, you should expect Millicent to be annoyed when she stumbles over them in your submission.

But most of us writers don’t expect that, do we? In fact, even the submitters of the most egregiously error-prone manuscripts and contest entries are both astonished and hurt when agents, editors, and contest judges respond as though not unprofessionally-presented writing were bad writing, or as if an apparently unproofread first page were an infallible indicator of a manuscript rife with spelling, grammatical, and logic problems.

To spare anyone reading this any shocks in future: they will respond that way, predictably. In their minds, it’s the writer’s job to free a manuscript of distracting errors, rather than a professional reader’s job to try to see past those errors in order to discover new writing talent.

And it’s not enough to present your writing professionally in some parts of your manuscript and not others, either; a pallet hidden deep in the weeds is as likely to wreck the machinery as one left out in the open. But if the inflexible rules of spelling, grammar, and connective logic are the necessary foundation of a strong submission, consistency is the hallmark of a strong authorial voice.

Just in case I’m being too subtle about what this means for submissions: the Millicents of this world just abhor inconsistency in manuscripts, whether those gaffes lie in the realm of format, spelling, grammar, story details, style, or tone — and with good reason. People who read manuscripts for a living are trained to spot and deplore unevenness.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: as a result of this necessary but rather pedantic focus, a manuscript whose voice is sure and consistent tends to strike Millicent’s tired eyes like the sight of a cool river on a blazing summer day.

Why is it such a rare sight? Well, think about it: very, very few of us, no matter how talented we might happen to be, find our authorial voices the first time we sit down to write a novel. Or memoir. Or any other type of book, for that matter. It’s not even all that uncommon for a good writer to finish the first draft of her first novel, only to discover that her voice is significantly stronger, or even quite different, at the end of the book than at the beginning.

That should not surprise us very much, should it? After all, no one is born a technically perfect writer. And even after a writer has honed her professional toolkit, consistent authorial voice requires work to produce — and usually quite a bit of revision and re-reading.

Those of you who write only when you feel inspired are squirming right now, aren’t you?

I’m not astonished by that reaction — all too often, we writers talk about voice as though it were more or less synonymous with talent, as if it were something a writer is either born with or not. I don’t think that’s true. Oh, it’s true enough that talent can’t be learned, but craft can be, and many a great sentence-builder has missed becoming a great writer because she relied too much on the former at the expense of developing the latter.

Here’s a novel thought: consistent voice is almost always the product not of original inspiration, but of conscientious revision.

Let that one sink in for a moment. I’ll wait. I’ve got this pretty view to ponder.

Voice is more than self-expression, a way of writing a sentence, or even inspiration: it’s tone, level of detail, analytical perception, sense of humor, rhythm, and all of the other hyper-personalized ways in which one writer tells a story differently than another. Learning to wield these weighty tools to produce a consistent and seemingly effortless result takes practice, patience, and much trial and error.

Or, to put it another way: it’s a whole lot harder to write a good book than a good individual sentence, paragraph, or scene. Why? Because the alchemy doesn’t need to come together only once, as it does in a well-written sentence; it has to come together every time, and in a similar way.

On an artistic level, I’m always thrilled when a client (or any other talented writer, for that matter) finds her voice, but as an editor, I know that in the short term, it means a lot more work to come. Because, you see, once a writer discovers the right voice and perspective for the story he’s telling, he will have to go back through the rest of the book with a fine-toothed comb, to make the voice that now has emerged sound consistent throughout the entire story.

Which brings me, rather neatly, back to the Frankenstein manuscript, doesn’t it? Funny how that worked out.

A Frankenstein manuscript, for those of you joining us late, is a book that meanders in voice, tone, perspective, structure, and/or style so much that it sounds as though it had been written by a committee, instead of an individual writer. All of these are cobbled together, like the body parts of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, may create the illusion of a whole entity, but it lacks the spark, the true-to-life continuity of a story told from beginning to end by a sure authorial voice.

To forestall your getting blank looks at writers’ conferences, I should hastily add: this is my personal nickname for such a book, not an industry-wide moniker. (Although since this blog has readers in circles in circles that might surprise you, the term has been gaining currency over the last couple of years.) I assure you, however, every single agent and editor currently working in North America is aware of the phenomenon and dreads it — because they know, as I do, that its appearance heralds months and months of fine-combing to come.

The sad thing is, the Frankenstein tendency is almost always accidental, and generally goes entirely unnoticed by the writer. Especially, alas, a writer so excited by an agent’s request for materials that he simply prints out the latest version of his manuscript and sends it off right away. Regardless of where it might happen to be in the revision process, getting it out the door before the requesting agent changes her mind seems more important than taking the time to make sure that each and every revision has been implemented consistently all the way through the manuscript.

I won’t make those of you who have fallen into this trap, only to kick yourself later, raise your hands. You know who you are.

The fact that aspiring writers generally don’t realize that their manuscripts are uneven should not surprise us unduly, right? Writing a book takes a long time: authorial voices, preferences, and even underlying philosophy can change radically over the course of a writing project. As revision is layered on top of revision, many writers become too absorbed in the details of the book to sit down and read it straight through AS A BOOK — which, unfortunately, is the only way to recognize a Frankenstein manuscript.

Let me repeat that, as it’s awfully important: there is absolutely no way to diagnose and treat a manuscript’s Frankensteinish tendencies without sitting down and reading the whole darned thing. Preferably IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, in as few sittings as possible.

If the prospect of improving artistically is not enough to set you running for your comfy reading chair, pronto, here’s an excellent marketing incentive to send you scurrying in that direction, manuscript in hand: unfortunately for writers of Frankenstein pieces, reading a manuscript straight through, at least the first part of it, is how agents and editors determine whether they want to work with an author.

Translation: if you don’t catch the problem, they will. If you have a Frankenstein manuscript on your hands, you are far, far better off recognizing the fact yourself before you submit it, because from the diagnosis of professionals, there is no appeal.

Again, not precisely a surprise, is it?

But for most aspiring writers, tackling an entire manuscript, even if its their own, is a rather overwhelming prospect — so much so that many simply dismiss the idea of reading their own manuscripts in their entirety, much less fixing them, as impracticable. To assuage some of those fears, let’s embrace the old-time editors’ trick of attacking only one manuscript megaproblem at a time.

Seriously, revision is a process, not a one-time deal: breaking up that immense task into bite-sized pieces and eating them one at a time is far more sensible than trying to force your psyche to think about every conceivable problem in a 400-page manuscript simultaneously. Worry about the totality of the diagnosing and revising down the line — just for now, focus on only one easily fixable gaffe and repair that.

You can read through your work, searching for only a single problem, can’t you? Piece o’ proverbial cake.

Then, after you are positive that your manuscript is perfect in that respect, pick another megaproblem and work on that — for every page of the manuscript, so you may be absolutely positive that you haven’t missed anything. Repeat as often as necessary. When you are pretty sure that you’ve systematically rooted out all of the ongoing problems, sit down and read your manuscript — wait for it — IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, to catch any remaining Frankenstein tendencies.

Sound time-consuming? It is. But it’s far, far less likely either to drive you mad or lead you to throw up your hands in despair and abandon the book altogether than trying to tackle a universal revision in one fell swoop.

Don’t shrug off the latter danger as improbable, please: revision burnout is a very real phenomenon. I’ve seen many, many more promising manuscripts tossed into trash cans by their writers out of despair over how long revision might take than out of anger at rejection.

In the spirit of incremental progress, let’s begin with a single, extremely common manifestation of Frankensteinery with an eye to rooting it out of the manuscript: the text that hasn’t yet really decided which tense it is in, and so meanders back and forth between (usually) the present and the past.

In fiction, the explanation for this phenomenon is usually pretty straightforward: the writer thought at one point that it would be nifty to write the book in the present tense, realized part-way through that it’s darned difficult to tell a story that way (how does one writing in the present tense of events that have been in progress for some time, for instance?), and changed to the past. Only in the transition process, not all of the verbs got changed.

Oops. What an annoying-yet-easily-fixable problem.

Spotting this particular Frankenstein problem is great practice for sharpening your editorial eye, because once you’re on the look-out for improper tenses, they will just start leaping off the page at you. (Hint: don’t try to catch them on your computer screen; sit down with a hard copy of your latest draft and a highlighting pen.) Quite quickly, you’ll begin to regard those tense slips in the same light as Millicent does: like an indicator that the writer did not take the time to sit down and re-read his work after revision.

Hmm, where have I heard before that such a course of action really isn’t the best strategic move? I’m sure it will come to me…

Fair warning: sometimes tense slips are intentional. Sometimes — and this one is more common in nonfiction, notoriously so in memoir — the writer just thinks it’s cool to present past events in the present tense. It sounds more colloquial that way, she reasons, the way someone might tell an anecdote verbally.

The trouble is, flipping past actions into the present tense can rapidly become darned confusing for the reader. To illustrate how and why, let’s take a gander at a favorite (and kind of surprising, from so usually consistent a writer) example of mine, Sarah Vowell’s THE WORDY SHIPMATES:

Williams in Salem is such a myopic researcher of biblical truth he doesn’t care who gets hurt. His intellectual fervor, coupled with a disregard of practical consequences, reminds me of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, running his secret Manhattan Project lab in Los Alamos with a single-minded zeal, then quoting the Bhagavad Gita as the first test of his atomic bomb lights up the desert. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he said.

Now, this paragraph makes perfect sense, on one level: an intelligent reader could figure out that the narrator is in the present, talking about Oppenheimer and Williams in the past. But quick, tell me based upon this passage alone: who was born first, Oppenheimer or Williams?

If you said Oppenheimer, you were following the hint given by the tense choices in this passage. Since Oppenheimer is clearly speaking in the past, and Williams is presented in the present tense, the implication is that Williams is the more recent trodder of the earth’s crust, right? Perhaps even a contemporary of Vowell’s?

So would it astonish you to learn that Williams was obsessing in 1635, not 2008, when the book came out?

For some reason best known to herself, Vowell chose to describe the actions of Williams and his fellow Puritans in both the present and the past tense, sometimes within the same paragraph. Since her background is in radio (by definition a speaker’s medium), I am forcing myself to conclude that this was a well-considered authorial choice, not merely the result of a reluctance to re-read her own work (which she does regularly on NPR) or an editorial oversight.

As a well-established nonfiction writer, she was, obviously, able to get away with this choice, but that does not necessarily mean that the writer of a first book could. As we have often discussed, the standards for breaking into the biz are quite a bit more stringent than those for the folks already in it. So it would behoove you to consider this authorial choice very carefully before submission: when most aspiring writers slip around in time, it’s because they’re trying to mirror the patterns of common speech or believe that actions described in the present tense are more immediate to the reader.

While you are weighing your revision options, you might want to bear in mind that Millicent (a) tends not to be all that big a fan of narrative text that reads just like the spoken word UNLESS the manuscript is written in the first person singular, and (b) very few professional readers believe that ordinary readers are sufficiently now-oriented to prefer the present tense to the past. (“Wait — this isn’t happening right now? Why should I pay attention to it, then?”)

And then there’s the very real possibility that Millicent will simply assume that any slips between tenses are not a narrative choice, but a mistake. A mistake made by — chant it with me now, readers — a writer who did not bother to read his submission IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, to make sure that the tense choices are consistent.

I like using THE WORDY SHIPMATES as an example of this dilemma, as it is one of the rare cases where reviewers were as uncharitable to a well-respected author’s efforts as Millicent would have been had THE WORDY SHIPMATES crossed her desk as a submission from a previously unpublished aspiring writer. “As a whole,” the New York Post’s reviewer commented dryly, “the book reads like an unedited manuscript.”

Like, in other words, a Frankenstein manuscript.

In Ms. Vowell’s defense, I can think of a number of strategic reasons the frequent tense changes might have seemed like a good idea at the composition stage. Casting so much of the Puritans’ story in the present tense might have been a deliberate attempt to draw a parallel with current political conditions at the time the book came out, for instance (which may be why the book already seems a trifle dated). Or perhaps it was an effort to make the lives of our long-dead forebears seem more immediately relevant to the reader.

But whatever the motivation, I don’t think it worked — which irritated me, as this is an author for whom I harbor a great deal of ongoing respect. As a reader, though, I have to say that I found the frequent temporal shifts jarring every single time they occurred in the book. I thought they made the historical tale she was telling significantly harder to follow on the page.

But some of you out there share the belief that writing in the present tense is inherently more grabbing than writing in the past, don’t you? Certainly, those of you who feel this way are not alone: there has been quite a bit of literary fiction over the last 20 years (particularly short stories) that has embraced that notion that placing a narrative in the now is more immediate.

Personally, I don’t think it’s true, largely because anyone who reads on a regular basis is already well versed in the not-very-difficult mental process of becoming absorbed in a past tense story as though it were happening in present time. A reader has to be awfully darned literal to perceive himself to be distanced from action simply because it is presented in the past tense. I also know from experience that writing an entire book in the present tense necessarily entails quite a few technical difficulties that may be avoided almost entirely by placing it in even the most recent of pasts. Even the most minimal tense slip-up runs the risk of yanking the reader out of the world of the book and back into mundane reality.

All that being said, tense choices are entirely up to the author — if you love the present tense and feel it’s the best means of telling your story, by all means write in it. I ask only one thing, for your own sake: if you’re going to write in the present tense, do it consistently.

Again, if you’re not willing to heed this advice for artistic reasons, embrace it because it’s good marketing. Manuscripts that tense-flip for no apparent reason tend to get dismissed as poorly proofed, at best, and poorly revised at worst. So unless a reader has a pretty darned good reason to assume that your authorial choices are deliberate — like, say, Sarah Vowell’s extensive track record of excellent published writing — assume that he’s going to interpret tense inconsistency not as a matter of style, but as a mistake, and an easily preventable one, at that.

Am I suggesting that you might want to save the major experimentation until after you’re already an established writer? Well, I hate to seem cynical, but it’s usually simpler to break into the book market that way. (The norms of the short story market remain quite different, I am grateful to report.) Many a well-respected literary luminary has cut his teeth on less radical ways to make English prose interesting, then moved on later to challenge the language.

Hey, Nobel laureate José Saramago wrote an entire book devoid of periods. Do you honestly believe that a first-time writer could have gotten away with the same trick?

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unfair that the already-published should be judged by less exacting standards than those just breaking into the biz, but I’m not going to lie to you: that’s how it works. I don’t think that THE WORDY SHIPMATES would have made it past Millicent had it been written by a previously unpublished writer.

Which would have been a shame, as it’s an interesting book with some wonderful insights and some very memorable sentences crammed into it. But plenty of interesting books with wonderful insights and memorable sentences don’t clear the first hurdle at agencies or in literary contests.

Why? Often, because those insights and sentences come across as flukes, occasional narrative bright spots not entirely integrated into the overall narrative. The voice is not consistent.

Cue the monster; he’s on again.

Don’t despair, however, if you fear your manuscript has Frankenstein tendencies. Next time, I shall go into what happens to a Frankenstein manuscript when it reaches an agency or a publishing house — as well as methods you can use to catch and mend the problem before it passes under professional eyes. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Hobnobbing with the famous, however briefly

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No time for a long-winded missive today, I’m afraid: you’d be amazed at how much the work can pile up while a writer’s on retreat. I’m fairly confident that my desk is in fact underneath all of the papers in front of me, but it’s going to take another week or two of digging to confirm that.

Since I’ve been back from my writing retreat, I’ve noticed that acquaintances’ inquiries have been falling into two basic categories. Non-artist inquirers, without exception, ask about the touristy aspects of getting to and from a medieval village in the mountains of southwestern France; they want to be regaled with photographs of ruined castles. Admittedly, they probably don’t actually want to hear as much about the 12th-century Albigensian heresy as I tend to tell them while showing them the requisite pictures — I was in the part of France where the Cathars ran to escape folks who wanted to burn them at the stake for their beliefs — but they’re very nice about it.

Mysteriously, artists seem less interested in who got massacred where and if I have a photograph of the church built upon the spot. They ask, “Did you get a lot of writing done?” and, if they’re savvy about artists’ colonies, “Were there any famous artists/writers at the retreat?”

Don’t laugh — the answers to neither are foregone conclusions.

As anyone who has ever been on a lengthy group retreat could tell you, it’s far from uncommon that writers and other artists show up on a long-anticipated retreat — and then don’t work much on their art. There are plenty of reasons for this, of course, ranging from having unrealistic expectations about how much one can get done in a week, two, or a month; being totally exhausted due to working double shifts in the weeks leading up to the retreat, in order to be able to afford to come (it’s really, really rare that even a top-flight, highly competitive residency will give you money to pay your bills while you’re taking time off your day job), wanting to hang out with all of the other fascinating people who tend to turn up at artists’ retreats, and/or just needing a vacation really, really badly.

And then there’s the most common reason of all, writer’s block.

Did that giant collective gasp I just heard indicate that some, most, or all of you weren’t aware that even well-established writers who win fellowships to luxurious artists’ colonies sometimes fall prey to writer’s block? Of course they do: all writers do, from time to time; it seldom has anything to do with talent.

So what does it have to do with, you ask? Usually, in a retreat situation, the kind of elevated expectations I mentioned above: the prospect of writing/starting/finishing a big chunk of a book (or a short story, or a proposal) within a short, intense period of time can be darned intimidating.

Whether a time-challenged writer is at a retreat or at home, the very notion of wasting so much of a second of time and space that was so hard to carve out can be paralyzing. And if the writer in question has, as so many first-time retreatants do, been putting off working on a particular piece of writing until he’s safely ensconced, the pressure to write quickly roughly triples.

If this happens to you, take a deep breath. Remember that part of what artists do on retreat is think — and that thinking is a legitimate part of the artistic process.

After you’ve taken a nice, long walk and thought about your project, come back to your writing space (which, I hate to break it to you, will probably be much, much smaller than the palatial digs I enjoyed at my most recent retreat; chandeliers are in fact optional), take out several sheets of scratch paper, and diagram your story or the argument you’re making in what you’d planned to write. (Everyone knows how to do that, right? If any of you don’t, drop me a line in the comments on this post, and I’ll do a short how-to.)

Once you have a visual representation of your project in front of you, circle or highlight the bits you have not yet written. Which parts would be the easiest or quickest to do? Which would be next easiest, quickest, least emotionally jarring, etc.?

Once you’ve decided which would be least challenging, sit down and start there. Don’t even think of tackling any other part of your writing project until it’s done. Once it’s completed, move on to the next on your list.

Repeat as often as necessary until you get into a writing groove.

Do I hear some sounds of scoffing out there? “But Anne,” some folks who have dreamed long about running away on retreat protest, “I could work incrementally at home. If I have a big, unbroken chunk of time free of distractions in front of me, shouldn’t I be using it for, you know, something more ambitious?”

Not if you’ve come down with a bad case of writer’s block, you shouldn’t. Demonstrating to the frozen creative part of your psyche that it’s also productive to chip away at smaller portions is a great way to loosen up the writing muscles.

That’s not the only strategy for overcoming writer’s block, of course, or the only one that would work in this situation. For more suggestions, check out the aptly-named WRITER’S BLOCK category on the archive list at the bottom right-hand corner of this page.

The second question, the one about running into anyone famous, arises from the fact that many artists’ colonies will offer residencies to well-established writers and other artists as an inducement to the less-established to cough up the change to come to the retreat as well. And that’s not just my cynical take on it, either: just as writing workshops and conferences use the famous names for marketing purposes, many retreats are perfectly up front about selling access to big-name artists-in-residence.

Don’t believe me? Check out the grants, fellowships, and residencies section of Poets & Writers magazine, one of the best sources for tracking down same.

A quick caveat emptor to those of you who find the prospect of hobnobbing with the illustrious tempting: check the fine print. Just as a famous author’s speaking at a conference doesn’t necessarily mean that any individual attendee is going to have one-on-one time with him, being in residence simultaneously with a literary bigwig doesn’t automatically translate into long literary lunches and impeccable feedback on your work. Unless the retreat’s promotional materials actually mention that God’s Gift to Literature will be offering classes or critique to co-residents, assume that the answer is no.

Remember, established authors occasionally like to go on retreat for precisely the same reason that any other writer does — to get some time alone with their manuscripts. Unless they’re specifically being paid to help out those struggling along the earlier steps of the path to publication — as many retreats do — they’re under no obligation to invest their retreat time in reading or critiquing your work.

Or in providing you with contacts, finding you an agent, writing you a blurb…

I always feel a little funny saying this point-blank, as this just seems like basic courtesy to someone who grew up around famous writers, but established authors are not required to help the aspiring. Yet writers trying to break into the biz rush up to the famous all the time, essentially demanding their attention and a leg up, as if it didn’t take a darned long time to read a total stranger’s manuscript. If you want their assistance in a situation where they’re not being paid to provide it, approach with the awareness that you are in fact asking a pretty darned big favor of someone you’ve just met.

As luck would have it, an extremely well-known Irish poet was in residence with me at La Muse, but thankfully, everyone was too polite to thrust poems-in-progress at him. (Although not everyone was similarly restrained when they learned that I edited professionally, unfortunately. It’s amazing how single-minded writers can be in pursuit of publication.)

The good news is that if the retreat is indeed paying the lauded one to help out the other residents, they’re not going to make a secret of it. Since it’s actually rather difficult for the average mid-list author to make a living out of book sales alone (again, hate to be the one to break it to you), plenty of very good writers supplement their income through teaching gigs, conference presentations — and, yes, hanging out at residencies.

Do be aware, though, that being a well-known — or even brilliant — author doesn’t necessarily render one a good teacher of the craft. Or a good reader and feedback-giver, especially outside of one’s own particular book category.

Heck, it doesn’t even guarantee being a nice person who won’t gratuitously hurt an aspiring writer’s feelings. As I believe I may have pointed out 1700 or 1800 times before in this venue, professional feedback is harsh, and standards do in fact vary a bit from genre to genre.

Again, this may be self-evident, but before you take the emotional risk and plunk down the cash for cohabitating with, taking a class from, or showing your manuscript to a famous writer, make sure that that the illustrious one has at least a passing familiarity with your type of book. Otherwise, you’re not likely to get as much usable feedback as you have a right to expect.

If it’s part of what you’re paying to receive at a retreat, that is.

The best way to assure a good fit, of course, is to select a residency (class, conference) that features a laurelled one with a consistent track record of publishing in your chosen book category. Preferably recently, as being treated to long, well-meant lectures on what agents and editors were looking for thirty years ago may not help you please them now.

Even then, you may need to take what you hear with a grain of salt.

Many years ago, I spent a month at an artists’ colony that routinely imported both well-established sculptors and painters to give emerging artists feedback on their works-in-progress and a famous author or two every couple of weeks to impart wisdom to those treading the earlier steps of the path to greatness. Excited at the prospect, but aware that I would get more out of the feedback if I were familiar with these authors’ most recent work, I naturally rushed right out and indulged in an orgy of literary preparation.

The first of these authors, a well-established author not yet a household name and the one whose work I preferred of the two, spent a week on-site. She read excerpts, gave constructive feedback, helped writers over manuscript difficulties, and even gave a couple of impromptu lectures on craft.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice that not all of my fellow retreatants were as happy with her input as I was — but then, she wrote comedy, and so did I. She liked the chapter I submitted for critique, so we spent a charming hour chatting about my work, hers, and how I could make my writing more marketable.

Those whose work was less similar to hers did not fare so well, I’m told.

This mixed result is far from unheard-of at retreats that offer brushes with the Great — or at conferences, workshops, or even literary contests judged by them. There’s no way to assure that you are absolutely exempt from falling victim to it, but doing your reading in advance can certainly help. If your writing style is radically different from the critiquing author, consider seeking feedback elsewhere.

In any contest with celebrity judges — i.e., famous writers who make the final selections from amongst the finalist pool — this goes double, or even triple. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

I can feel you wincing. Crunching a few dry crackers should help with the nausea.

Back to our story already in progress. A couple of weeks later, the Living Legend scheduled to shed her effulgence on the residents sent word that she would be arriving a trifle too late for the meetings the retreat organizers had insisted that we book a week in advance, but in the meantime she was reading the excerpts we had submitted to her industriously.

One forgives such things in National Book Award winners, naturally. Good-naturedly, all of the writers in residence rescheduled our appointments with her to the next day. And then to the day after that.

When she arrived late in the afternoon of day 3 of her week-long residency, again too late for any but the last of the scheduled meetings, she announced that she could stay for only a couple of days — the absolute minimum, the cynical speculated, to collect her honorarium for meeting with us.

She wanted, she said, to meet with each of us right away. As in could each of us drop what we’re writing in mid-sentence and genuflect at her feet now?

Because I was — believe it or not of a writer on retreat — deep in the midst of a chapter, I signed up for one of the latest of the possible appointments. The Great Lady didn’t like that much, but one-on-one meetings we had all paid for, so she couldn’t just give us feedback in one big group, could she?

Seriously, could she? She honestly wanted to know — and seemed annoyed when we all demurred.

Now, I have to be honest here: I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from the much-delayed meeting, and not just because she had been, well, not delivering what we had been told to expect. I was prepared to be very diplomatic about it, but the fact is, I didn’t find her writing very engaging. Not to blow my own horn, but this restraint did require some near-heroism on my part, as my extensive reading binge had revealed that her literary output since 1957 had consisted largely of telling and retelling the (apparently autobiographical) plot of her first critically-lauded novel in slightly different forms.

None of which evinced the smallest modicum of humor. So I was quite prepared for her to dislike my chapter, of course, but I made the mistake of assuming that as long as I didn’t let her feedback vex me into blurting out some version of, “Why on earth did anyone ever consider you for the Pulitzer?” I would survive the occasion with aplomb.

You can feel the impending doom, can’t you? Wait — it’s even worse than you’re imagining.

Practically the moment I walked into my scheduled meeting — yes, it did eventually occur — She Whose Name Will Live Forever launched into a vigorous diatribe about the inherent weakness of a particular scene in the submitted chapter. The only trouble was, I hadn’t written the scene that had so upset her sensibilities; another writer in residence had.

Entirely disregarding my polite, gentle hints that perhaps she had mislaid my manuscript, the august lady proceeded to blast my fellow writer’s work for a good ten minutes. As nearly as I could tell from her tirade, she had decided that I must have written the short story in question — although I do not write short stories — because the character in the story looked a bit like me. ( As do literally millions of adult women of Mediterranean extraction, I might add.)

I had absolutely no idea what to do. Surely, when the other writer came for her session (which, because Nemesis has a dandy sense of humor, was scheduled for immediately after mine), the grande dame would realize her mistake — and something in her regal bearing gave the impression that she was not overly fond of admitting her own mistakes.

It took me several minutes to convince the Grande Dame of Literature that I was telling the truth about who I was and what I had written — she actually ARGUED with me about whether I’d written the chapter she’d been lambasting. By the end of our brief argument, both of us had realized that she had not yet read my piece at all.

Embarrassed for her — far more than she, apparently — I offered to reschedule our appointment on the following day, but she was adamant that she was only prepared to give me (her phrase) an hour of her time, period. As about 35 minutes of that time had already elapsed, I proposed that we should devote it to chatting about the writing life in general; again, no.

Somehow, this was my fault; if the writing in the piece in question — i.e., the one by somebody other than me — had been better, she implied, she never would have been confused at all.

After an intensive five minutes of rooting about in her battered Serious Literary Person’s satchel, she finally managed to dig up my submitted pages, mangled and folded into an intriguing shape that resembled a failed attempt at an origami swan. With a sigh of irritated relief, she plumped herself down to read them in front of me.

I sat uncomfortably, marveling at her speed-reading prowess. Fortunately for my ego — or unfortunately; I’ve never been able to come to a satisfying conclusion on the subject — she evidently did not find any error glaring enough to point out. I suspect it would have been a relief to her if she had, because then she would have had an excuse to dismiss me, or at any rate to vent her evidently copious spleen.

About two pages in, she gave the kind of titter that frightens dogs and small children, then announced with finality, “Well, you have some good lines here. But Greeks have been done.”

Because I have been to graduate school — the untrained should not attempt this level of logical gymnastics at home — I was able to translate this to mean that she’d seen MY BIG, FAT GREEK WEDDING (which had come out a year before) and had decided that single point of view represented the experience of every Greek-American currently roving the planet.

Clearly, she was not the ideal audience for this particular chapter.

But did I fight with her about the reasonableness of rejecting writing about an entire ethnic group at one fell swoop? Did I take her to task for not having read what it was her obligation to read? Did I dip into my well-justified dislike of her literary output to point out that she had been writing about her Irish-American family since the late 1950s — and that, in fact, had been done once or twice before, too?

No — because the literary world is small enough that if I blew up at that moment, I might end up as the butt of an anecdote about how bad writers are at accepting honest critique, the last thing I needed while my agent was shopping a book of mine around to editors.

(Did a light bulb just switch on over your head? Yes, it can be that easy to get a reputation as a feedback-resenter.)

Eventually, I talked her into reading the remaining 15 pages. After she finished, she glanced up at me warily. “It’s good,” she conceded, clearly cudgeling her well-laurelled brains for something constructive to advise.

Having been well brought-up, I waited politely for her to continue — and I must say, I’m still waiting. To fill up the remaining five minutes of our meeting, we chatted about the writing life in general, as I originally suggested.

Specifically, I engaged her in a discussion of the relative merits of the writing of David Sedaris (whose work she reported disliking, presumably because it is humorous) and Jeffrey Eugenides, that’s what. I didn’t even bother to point out that they are both Greek-Americans who write habitually about, you guessed it, Greek-Americans; I trusted that the irony of the situation would strike her in a week or two.

True, I didn’t glean any useful feedback from the exchange, but we did part on cordial terms (overtly, at least), which is more than merely maintaining a stoic, frozen visage or screaming at her would have achieved. To this day, in fact, she says hello to me by name at literary events. She has even introduced me to other authors as “an unbelievably good sport.” I doubt she divulges what made her draw that conclusion.

And that, boys and girls, is how flexible a new author sometimes has to be.

I wish I could state positively that La Belle’s behavior was uniquely horrible, but the sad fact is that one frequently hears similar stories about write-your-way-in conferences and artists’ retreats that offer on-site professional feedback from well-established authors as an incentive for writers to apply for residencies. It just goes to show you: not all feedback from professionals is professional feedback, nor will all of it be helpful.

But I’m relatively certain that had I not already sought out and received scads of genuinely thoughtful, well-informed critique of my work before I watched the Famous Gentlewoman unsuccessfully trying to critique my work on the fly, I would have been crushed by her lack of professionalism.

The moral: just because someone famous reads your work doesn’t necessarily mean that their feedback is going to be useful; just because a conference brochure touts a critique opportunity doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your manuscript. Do your homework, invest your conference-going dollars carefully — and accept that sometimes, you’re going to encounter a dud. That’s the nature of one-size-fits-all critiquing.

All of which is to say: retreats can be marvelous things for a writer; so can feedback from the famous. But if you walk into both expecting something less than perfection, you’re probably going to end up happier with the overall experience.

Okay, that’s enough terrifying you for one day, I think. Caveat emptor — and keep up the good work!

The tragedy of the self-silenced writer

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I had planned to write my own post on subtle censorship today, as it’s the first day in quite some time that I’m not going to be yammering at you about the rigors of standard format and I’ve been dying to jump into the conversation. Over the weekend, however, a couple of the comments on guest blogger Shaun Attwood’s post — who knew it would generate such a plethora of responses from readers? — got me thinking about a deadly form of censorship: the kind writers sometimes impose upon themselves.

Since I’ve depressed myself into a stupor thinking about it (not the best state of mind while on a writing retreat, alas), rather than write about it afresh and be-glumming myself still more, I’m going to re-run an earlier post on the subject. Some of you may remember the story; I try to honor Marc’s memory by telling some version of it here about once per year.

This is the story that Marc did not live to tell. He censored himself in many, many ways, including the ultimate one, before he could.

A moment of silence, please: I’m giving a eulogy today.

My friend Marc, a genuinely gifted poet and playwright, died a few years ago, and I, as one of the few people in our college class who was reading his writing hot off the keyboard, was asked to give his eulogy at our reunion. One of the liabilities (or joys, depending upon how one looks at it) of going to a reunion-happy school lies in the inevitability of, as time passes, more and more of one’s classmates requiring eulogies.

Today, it’s my turn to step up to the podium.

Marc was only 39; I had known him since we were both 18. Brilliantly talented, he lost faith in his own writing before he could find the right agent for his work. And so, out of respect for him, I am going to step aside from our ongoing series and devote today to urging you to maintain faith in your own writing talent.

Marc was one of those writers whose promise was obvious to everyone early. Year after year, all throughout school, he won poetry and essay prizes; his English teachers adored him as the kind of super-creative, insightful student who comes along only once in a blue moon; his basketball coach praised him as the ideal of a hard-working athlete with natural talent. Confident in his abilities, he never doubted that triumph would continue to follow triumph for the rest of his life.

Yet as every high school hero is shocked to learn, the rules change radically after graduation.

The talents that spelled success within the sheltered confines of a private school are not automatically lauded in the world outside, and as many a crestfallen college freshman can tell you, there are always more than enough highly-praised high school Juliets on campus to fill all the roles in a college production of ROMEO AND JULIET forty times over.

Big fish, welcome to the ocean; you’re not in your little pond anymore.

At Harvard, Marc was surrounded by brilliant young writers from all across the country and all around the world. His work was appreciated, because it was very good, but no longer was he the outstanding talent. While some writers might have embraced a new-found community of very talented people, Marc went the more common route: in the midst of such stellar competition, despite the fact that he was clearly able to hold his own with the best of them, he started to doubt himself.

Heaven help us, he started to wonder if he could really write.

Oh, if only we could all rewind our lives back to the point before we started to question our own talent! To before the demons of self-doubt and endless internal criticism started to nag us! How many among us have not been turned away from our computers at least once by the fear that our best was just not good enough?

Marc did keep writing, but increasingly, he kept his work to himself, thus reducing to zero the chance that it might see publication. He ceased entering contests; he gave up querying magazines; his writing resume languished. Like so many aspiring writers, he began to believe that the slightest defect poisoned an entire work, so he stopped being able to incorporate good criticism.

So what did he do with all of that pent-up creative energy? He wrote a solid first draft of an interesting novel — I know, because I’m one of the few human beings he allowed to read it. It would have been very marketable after a single revision, news that should have brought joy to his heart.

Instead, after only one or two rejections from agents, he stuffed it in a drawer, never to see the light of day again. As thousands of aspiring writers do every day.

He next turned his talents to writing plays, but there, too, even the most minor criticism seemed to make his confidence wilt. Eager at first, he soon came to regard attaining finalist status in a competition as evidence that he had failed abysmally.

Like so many aspiring writers, he fell into the trap of expecting every word that sprang from his fingertips to be perfect without revision. As, again, do thousands.

It’s very seldom the case, even with the most brilliant of writers, but it’s an easy trick to play on yourself: if you were truly talented, the imp of perfectionism whispers in our ears late at night, you wouldn’t have to struggle. The world would be beating a path to your door, unasked, to read your work.

This isn’t plausible, of course. It is utterly impossible to sell work that you don’t send out, just as it is impossible to win contests that you don’t enter. Yet self-doubt would rather not try than to risk defeat.

Because I’m a generally upbeat person, Marc and I frequently argued over our respective expectations of the literary market. He was astonished that I just kept plowing ahead, regardless of rejection, until agents and editors started saying yes; having attained success so easily in the past, he was suspicious of incremental gains made through persistent effort. Yet by insisting that his own work had to be born perfect before he would allow others to see it, he made it harder and harder to get himself to sit down and write at all.

This is a very common logical conundrum for writers, one I tried to understand at the time by incorporating an analogy gleaned from Neil Fiore’s excellent book on procrastination, THE NOW HABIT (without which, truth compels me to state, I probably would not have completed my master’s thesis). Fiore compares any major task to walking the length of a ten-foot board that is six inches wide.

When the board is sitting on the ground, getting across it would be an easy task, right? Yet the procrastinator worries about crossing the board perfectly — and thus waits until conditions are perfect. As the deadline nears, it becomes clearer and clearer that the task is getting harder to do well — thus emotionally raising that board until it feels like it is stretched between two five-story buildings.

Now, crossing the board is terrifying, as the stakes of failing are much more severe. What a procrastinator does to end this situation, Fiore argues, is to set fire to his own end of the board, metaphorically speaking: with absolutely no time to spare, perfection in execution does not matter nearly so much as simply scooting across the board as fast as possible.

For Marc, as for many, many writers, a similar logic applies to completing a book — or a play, or a poem, or a contest entry. They do not want just to walk across that board — they want to do so in such a memorable style that the admiring multitude will be telling their grandchildren about it for generations to come.

With such lofty intentions, that board is not just stretched between adjacent buildings; it is wavering in the wind between the Empire State building in New York and the Transamerica pyramid in San Francisco.

No wonder it’s terrifying: effectively, every sentence the writer produces has to be the greatest since the invention of the pen.

Marc, and writers like him, expect inspiration to waft them into a state of such divine creativity that all of their latent promise as artists will undergo some sort of instantaneous alchemy that produces the philosopher’s stone of writing, the book that is perfect with no revision.

Then, and only then, will they believe in their hearts that they are genuinely talented.

Every single time that inspiration, as is the way with muses, comes and goes at its own sweet pleasure, the self-doubter comes to doubt his own talent more. And even when, as in Marc’s case, inspiration does hit hard enough to produce a stellar short piece, that success apparently does not count as proof: it could have been a fluke, or it wasn’t a big enough success.

Or it was a short story, rather than a novel, or it was a genre work instead of literary fiction, or it was literary fiction and unlikely to appeal to a broad mainstream market. Any excuse will do, because there is no one more voracious for justification than a talented person in the throes of self-doubt.

Painful? You bet. And painful to watch? Absolutely.

I am telling you this, not to criticize Marc — that’s not usually the point of a eulogy, is it? — but in the hope that his story might help inspire those of you out there who are afraid that you’re not talented enough to start the book you’ve always dreamed of writing, or whose fears have paralyzed you into stopping in mid-draft or mid-revision to give yourselves a bit of a break.

Instead of abusing yourself for not producing perfection every time you sit down at a keyboard, why not reward yourself for sitting down there at all? Instead of berating yourself for being in the midst of writing a novel for a year or two or ten, why not break the task up into manageable smaller goals, and celebrate those achievements as you reach them?

There’s no better cure for self-doubt than tangible evidence of talent, and you’re more likely to convince yourself that you are indeed gifted if you don’t demand that you produce THE DIVINE COMEDY every time you sit down to write a poem.

Regardless of how talented you are.

Start small — remember, even the best-upholstered ego is a fragile thing, and it needs to be rebuilt with care. You could start by setting time goals for your writing, logging in the minutes as you go, or set yourself a page goal for each writing session. Keep track of your successes, so later on, when you start to berate yourself for not writing as often as you should, or as much, you can look back in your log and say, “Hey! I wrote for ten hours last week!” or “Hey! I have been averaging three pages per day!”

Start there, because no matter what the imps of doubt whisper in your ear, there’s never been a book written yet without the author’s sitting down day after day and writing.

So there.

If these goals seem too tiny to you, requiring too many added together to reach the goal of a completed book, remember this: prolific writer Graham Greene wrote only 147 words per day.

Which, I suspect, is why his dialogue exchanges are so short. Most of us can easily expend 147 words in debating where to go for lunch.

Greene carried around a little notebook, and (the story goes) would not allow himself his first drink of the day until after he had penned word 147. Now, I wouldn’t recommend emulating the drink part, at least not on a daily basis, but his strategy was basically sound: those words, few in and of themselves, added up to many very highly-respected novels.

Oh, and a Nobel prize in literature.

However you decide to go about it, please start easing up on yourself soon, because there isn’t always time to change.

I tell you this from experience, because I shall never be able to wipe from my mind that saddest of literary sights: a brilliant, partially-revised novel sitting in a drawer, awaiting the beneficial touch of a writer who can never come back to it again.

Keep up the good work, my friends. Your talent is worth it.

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part X: where you stand depends on where you sit, sometimes literally

In my last post, I lingered on the desirability of making physical space in your home — or somewhere else, if you can afford separate office space — specifically dedicated to writing. Like playing the same music every time you sit down to write, lighting your desk area more brightly than the rest of the house in midwinter, or painting your kneecaps bright green as a pre-writing ritual, setting aside a space where you do nothing but write can be very helpful in fending off writer’s block, seasonally-induced or otherwise.

Why, you ask? Well, like the other sensual cues mentioned last time, walking into a dedicated writing environment makes the transition from mundane (non-writing) time to creative time clear to not only your daytimer, but to your body. Just as nice, clean towels coming out of the dryer tell my cats that it’s time to curl up and have a nap, walking into my writing space tells me that it’s time to get to work.

You can TELL your body that it’s time to write until you’re blue in the face, but let’s face it, we’re animals at base, and creatures of habit to boot. That pancreas of yours will need a non-verbal hint or two, and when’s the last time your T2 vertebra listened to reason?

You’ve probably already noticed the stimulus-bodily reaction phenomenon manifesting in less positive ways. The body’s no fool. When you have a job you hate, merely walking into the building raises your stress levels markedly, doesn’t it? The smell of baking bread or cookies cheers most people up, regardless of what else is going on, and incessant holiday music following one from store to store so stuns the nervous system after a while that one begins to buy frantically in self-defense, just to get out of there.

(No one can tell me that last effect isn’t calculated. I was in a children’s choir for many years, doomed to wander puckishly from rest home to shopping mall to stage to insane asylum all throughout the holiday season, piping carols at the top of our childish voices. The sounds we were yelping were generally considered high-quality, but let me tell you, spectators’ eyes glaze over like Santa’s swimming pool before the end of the second verse of even the most beautifully-rendered carol. They’ve been hypnotized by sheer repetition.)

Having a dedicated space usually helps with that other common writerly tendency, jumping up after only a minute or two to do something else. The less comfortable your writing area, the more likely that urge is to overwhelm you.

(Confidential to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver who might still be snuffling around for meaningful means to mark a Hanukkah evening: have you considered giving an office chair with really good back support? Not a generic office chair, but one that fits the writer’s body specifically? Or a copy of THE NOW HABIT, psychologist Neil Fiore’s excellent and accessible book on breaking procrastination patterns?)

A solid fit between computer user and furniture can help avoid all kinds of writing-delaying problems, as many of us now know to our cost. Business offices are notorious for trying to force every body type into identical chairs, as are colleges. When I was an undergraduate, my college saw fit to equip each and every dorm room with large, square wooden desk chairs like the one above, emblazoned with the school’s insignia — so, you know, if we forgot the school’s motto, we could just turn around and read it. My friends who happened to be 6’2” hockey players claimed that the chairs were most comfortable.

Everyone else ended up with sore backs and overworked arms. And in my day, whippersnappers, those chairs did not come equipped with that festive pillow, so after an hour or two of studying, what I shall delicately call the end of the spine began to complain as well.

Perhaps because there is no such thing as a good, supportive one-size-fits-all desk chair, one can surprisingly often find quite decent barely-used ones at thrift stores, I’ve noticed. You may need to canvas your entire city to find one that suits you and take a carpet-cleaner to it before you use it, but the eye-popping discounts are often worth it.

To return to my previous point: once you have established a space, song, lighting condition, specific chair, etc. as THE signal to begin serious writing, your body will soon come to understand that it’s time to stop distracting you with minor matters like the desire to eat, sleep, or have meaningful human contact and get down to work. Perhaps equally important, having a dedicated space — particularly one with a door that closes firmly on loved ones’ noses — tells everyone else in your household that you are not to be disturbed.

So it’s not only your habits that we’re hoping to recondition here. When intensive writing schedules work, EVERYONE in the household is cooperating to make that happen, starting in babyhood.

Oh, you laugh, but having grown up in a family of writers, I can tell you with absolute confidence: a career writer’s kid learns to go to sleep by the sound of typing (and speaking of conditioned reflexes, the sound of a manual typewriter still makes me distinctly sleepy). To this day, I seldom raise my voice above quiet conversational level, lest there be someone writing in the next room.

It’s habit, like everything else.

It’s also absolutely necessary, incidentally, for the household of a writer working on a deadline — and lest your kith and kin be harboring any fond illusions on the subject, the more successful you are as a author, the more deadlines you are going to have and the tighter they are going to be. It’s just a fact that at some point, no matter how nice a successful writer is, s/he is going to have to say to loved ones, “My writing needs to be my #1 priority right now. Which, by definition, places your needs slightly lower on the list.”

And mean it. So why not avoid the proverbial Christmas rush and start getting your kith and kin in the habit of hearing it now?

Did the last few paragraphs make you a trifle uncomfortable? If so, you’re certainly not alone: many writers are too sweet-tempered or too responsible or too habit-bound or just to gosh darned nice to expect their family members to change ANYTHING about THEIR schedules in order to make room for Mama or Papa or Sissy’s writing. Mama or Papa or Sissy simply give up sleep or recreation or dating in order to finish that book in spare moments when nobody else is making demands upon their time; Mama, more often than not, trains herself to drop her train of thought in mid-sentence the nanosecond anything remotely resembling a request for assistance or care falls upon her distracted ear.

Since this is the season of giving, may I suggest that this would be an excellent time to reexamine that attitude just a little?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers’ children should be taught to stifle their cries over their bleeding, severed limbs (although admittedly, writers’ kids of my generation often did). I’m merely throwing out the notion that everyone in the household might make supporting the writing project a top priority on an ongoing basis, rather than leaving the poor writer to struggle with trying to carve out time and space alone.

Why, yes, you may pause in your perusal of this post at this point to read that last bit out loud to your significant other, children, upstairs neighbor, or dog. I’m perfectly happy to wait. Tell ‘em it’s my idea, not yours.

While I’m being subversive — and to wrap up my series on gifts that the average writer would love to receive — FNDGG, why not give the writer in your life the gift of TIME TO WRITE on a regular basis?

After all, a few hours a week is a gift that even fairly small children could give to an overworked writer-parent. Maybe Santa could be induced to whisper some suggestions during that usually one-way communication on his lap; I know many, many writers to whom a pack of hand-made gift certificates, each good for an hour of uninterrupted time, would be the best stocking-stuffer EVER.

Monetarily, it would be hard to find a less expensive present — or New Year’s resolution, for that matter. In most aspiring writers’ households, though, it would require some fairly significant reshuffling of priorities to institute.

Which brings me to another very, very good reason that you might want to speak up about desiring dedicated time and space now, rather than holding your tongue until the happy day that you land an agent, sign a book contract, or see your nom de plume jauntily topping the New York Times’ bestseller list. Remember how I mentioned at Thanksgiving time that the vast majority of North Americans have absolutely no idea how books come to be published or how long it typically takes? Until they see the bound volume for sale at Borders or Chapters, even the most habitually kind and considerate of these well-meaning souls is prone — nay, likely — to express puzzlement and even disappointment at the most exciting tidings falling from their writer friends’ lips.

It’s usually expressed through hoping they’ve misunderstood you. “You signed with an agent?” they will say, uncomprehending smiles playing about their faces. “Great — when is the book coming out?”

They don’t do it to hurt you, honestly: they just don’t understand how many stages (or how much work) is involved in shepherding a book from first bright idea to successful publication. Or even unsuccessful publication. From the outside, a writer who isn’t being paid to sit and tap at a keyboard can look an awful lot like an unusually obsessed hobbyist nursing repetitive strain injuries.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because practically everyone in the English-speaking world, or at any rate English-reading one, mistakenly believes that when a genuinely gifted writer adds the last bon mot to any book worth reading, agents, editors, and scouts for the Oprah Winfrey show magically and spontaneously appear on his or her (usually his, in this fantasy) doorstep, clamoring to bring the magical book out tomorrow.

In the face of that preconceived notion, anything less than instant, massive literary recognition for the writer one actually knows personally is bound to seem like a bit of a letdown.

To be fair, plenty of aspiring writers buy into this fantasy, too — at least until they learn how the publishing industry actually works. In reality, even the writer of a book destined to be a classic a hundred years from now will often spend years querying, pitching, submitting, and revising before being picked up by an agent. Even after that legitimately thrilling achievement, there’s no guarantee that the agent will be able to sell the book to a publisher, or if s/he can, how soon it will be.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but I’ve met literally hundreds of authors who didn’t attain any serious recognition of their writing until their third or fourth books, not third or fourth month marketing them to agents.

I’m bringing this up not to depress you (although I could see where it might conceivably have that effect) but so that you will not talk yourself out of considering asking for more time, space, and support for your work just because you’ve been looking for an agent for a while — or talking yoursel into making one of those lamentably common New Year’s resolutions that demand landing an agent or a publishing contract by the end of the year.

You’ll be happier in the long run — and, dare I say it, less likely to fall prey to writer’s block — if your view of what a good writer can hope to achieve in the short run is realistic.

These days, even the IRS recognizes that ultimately very successful authors often expend years of effort without making a profit at their craft before hitting the big time. (It’s true; look it up.) If the government can accept the unappetizing fact that they’re going to have to wait to tax your book sales, is it really too much to expect those who love you to do the same?

Astonishingly often, it seems to be, but again, try not to blame your kith and kin too much. When everyone one knows seems to believe that an unpublished book must be by definition inherently flawed — because if it weren’t, it would already be published and featured on Oprah, right? — one is likely to look a trifle askance at a dream that takes a long time to come true. Or which appears to be coming true in small increments whose importance the observer doesn’t really understand.

All of which is to say: if you were planning to wait until your writing caught a break before politely requesting that your kith and kin

(a) stop nagging you to get published and go on Oprah,

(b) arguing that other activities are inherently more important than preserving your writing time and/or space,

(c) installing fitness equipment in the only logical space in the house for your desk,

(d) interrupting your scheduled writing time with the crisis du jour,

(e) interrupting your scheduled writing time for phone calls, and/or

(f) interrupting your scheduled writing time because someone just said something funny in a sitcom (improbable, but within the realm of possibility, certainly),

it might not be worth the wait. What is to a writer a major event — the realistic possibility of completing a novel within the next three months, for instance, or an agent’s request for materials, or finally selling that book proposal to a small publisher — may not be to them the unanswerable argument for support you’ve been expecting it to be. They may not respond as you would like, because after all, if your book were REALLY destined for greatness…

Well, you know the tune by now, don’t you?

And that, to slip into the vernacular for a moment, is going to suck, because at that point, you’re going to want to drop everything and devote yourself to your art. Trust me, because I speak from long, long experience and observation: at that ostensibly-joyous-yet-practically-stressful juncture, even the most sweet-tempered author is bound to feel bubbles of ulcer-inducing resentment welling up against her solar plexus.

Consider, then, the alternative. There are many advantages to gathering one’s significant other, paramour(s), children, parents, grandparents, friends, coworkers, pets, and anyone else who might be at all likely to disturb your writing time and announcing, “Now hear this! Starting this very minute and until this project is complete, I’m going to need all of your help. Raise your right hands and repeat after me: ‘Unless the house is actually on fire, I shall not interrupt my beloved writer while s/he is working…”

I’m feeling waves of panic floating from the timid at the very notion of saying such a thing. “But Anne,” I hear some of you kindly souls squeak fearfully, “isn’t that a little, you know, drastic? After all, they do leave me alone to write sometimes; I don’t want them to think I’m not grateful for that. I’ve got a much, much better idea: what if I don’t say anything at all, and just hope that they’ll take the hint?”

I understand your reluctance, oh gentle souls, but I have one question to ask in response: how has that strategy worked out for you so far?

As lovely as it would be if one’s families, roommates, and friends would spontaneously cry, “You know, honey, I’ve been thinking, and you would have two and a half hours of clear extra time per week to work on your book if I did the grocery shopping for the next six months. Please let me do this for you!” in my experience, it doesn’t happen all that often. Habit is habit, unlikely to change without somebody laying out some awfully good reasons that it should.

(Although for the benefit of any Significant Others, paramours, cats, etc. who may be reading this: anyone who DID murmur such words under the mistletoe — and actually followed through on them — would be exceedingly likely to find by spring that every writer of his/her sweetie’s acquaintance is bright green with envy. I just mention.)

Call me a cynic, but I believe that one is far, far more likely to get what one wants if one asks for it, rather than waiting for those in a position to give it to read one’s mind. Especially when, as so many aspiring writers do, you’ve probably been juggling your writing and the rest of your life well enough that from the outside, it might not look like the strain it undoubtedly is.

So instead of relying upon your loved ones to realize that you could use a bit of extra time, why not come out and request it? Or — don’t faint on me here — decree establishing time and space to write as your holiday present to yourself?

Your writing is important to you. You are NOT being selfish to ask for time and a place to do it.

Before any of you tell me that you are far, far too busy for this to be practicable — I can tell which ones intend to make this objection by the loud guffaws of disbelief and tears of mirth running down your faces — let me hasten to add that I’m thinking about some fairly small increments of undisturbed tranquility. What if, say, you were no longer the one doing the laundry? Or your teenager cooked dinner twice per week? Or you stopped playing canasta with those neighbors you never really liked in the first place? Or — and I suspect this one might resonate with some of you at this particular season — you opted out of hosting your thirty-person family’s holiday dinner next year?

How much time would that free for your writing? And, more crucially, just what message would such a step send to your kith and kin about precisely how important your writing actually is to you?

Because, if you don’t mind my asking, if you’ve never asked them to sacrifice anything for it, even momentary pleasure, are you positive that they honestly understand that you consider it your real life’s work, your genuine passion, regardless of whether your writing ever actually gets published?

Assuming, of course, that you feel this way. Most of the dedicated writers I know do.

Yes, working up the nerve to convey this to non-writers is hard, but anyone who ever told you that being a writer is easy was — well, let’s say inadequately informed. I’m going to talk more next time about how one might go about expressing this to one’s kith and kin, as well as some practical means of figuring out what can and cannot be altered in order to make more time and space for writing in your life. Before you groan, believe me, the rewards of self-expression are massive and ongoing. It is well worth reassessing the demands upon your time and space to make room for you to try.

At least think about it, please: even writers with great support and lovely, comfortable, well-lit writing spaces can usually figure out where there’s room for improvement. As Emily Dickenson wrote so charmingly, “We never know how high we are/till we are called to rise.”

She was talking about something completely different, of course, but it brings me back to a question I asked you to start considering way back in October: what do you actually need in order to write happily and well?

You didn’t honestly think that I was going to content myself with a mere pep talk today, did you?

To render subsequent discussions of October’s burning question and today’s modest proposal both more useful and more interesting, let’s expand that general question into a number of more focused ones:

(1) What conditions would you actually need in order to write productively for a significant, unbroken chunk of time? What are your necessary minimum conditions — not just generic ones, but yours — for retreating to write, even just for a day?

(2) What specific factors — ambient noise conditions, lighting, seating, height of monitor, being able to lock a door, whatever — are of tangible assistance in your creative process, and what is merely nice?

(3) Is there anything that you currently use that you could do without? If you could snap your fingers and replace a neutral factor with a useful one, what would it be?

(4) Conversely, what conditions render the actual act of writing more difficult for you? Be as specific as you can, please: cold drafts blowing across your keyboard, telemarketers calling every fifteen minutes, a bookshelf that threatens to dump its contents onto your head as you attempt to type next to it, fear of rejection? Write ‘em all down.

(5) If you believe taking a writing retreat of any length to be impossible or well-nigh impossible for you, why? Again, the more specific you can make your reply, the better.

(6) What feels like support for your writing? What are others in your life already doing that’s helpful to your writing progress, and what seems like a stumbling-block?

Yes, yes, I know: these are some pretty weighty questions, downright fundamental to who you are and how you write. That’s why I’ve given you a couple of months — and the upcoming weekend — to ponder them. They are questions that every successful professional writer has to face sooner or later, not as daydreams, but as practical realities that can be changed as necessary.

Usually, the answers become apparent about three days before a major deadline, but I think we can do better than that, don’t you? Give ‘em some thought — and keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part IX: desirable alterations of the space-time continuum

All right, I’ll admit it: I love all forms of temporary public decoration, the more bewildering, the better. Take, for example, the wee park above, seasonally fraught with enigma. The bench urges one to pause and enjoy the view, while the snow argues for walking on swiftly. The garland clambers far overhead, yet somehow neglects to finish the shape inherent to that lamppost; it simply cries out, “Make me into a candy cane,” does it not?

Which naturally begs the question: had the person who selected the decoration perhaps never seen the lamppost before (or own a tape measure), but merely went on a mad garland-purchasing spree whilst in a state of ignorance? Or did s/he have a traumatic childhood experience with sweets that caused the bare sight of a candy cane to be hideously painful?

Finally, whatever does that semi-permanent banner mean? Are the wave shapes intended to alert the inattentive viewer to the fact that there is a body of water just a few steps away? Is that something anyone of reasonable intelligence is likely to miss at any time of year? More mysteries of the season, I guess.

Speaking of which, I spent a small-but-significant portion of yesterday’s post on the dreaded subject of writer’s block, or at least that species of it that leads to seemingly perpetual procrastination. Not entirely coincidentally, last week, I began talking about that reliable annual writer’s block-inducer, the winter blahs.

And no, I’m not just talking about depression induced by hearing the same fifteen carols, often in precisely the same versions, in EVERY store into which one has the misfortune to wander between Halloween and the after-Christmas sales. Admittedly, after an interminable decade singing in children’s choirs, I have a lower-than-normal carol tolerance, but geez, I don’t know how retail workers stand the sheer repetition.

I’m digressing again, amn’t I? Back to seasonal writer’s block.

Annually, light-deprivation, overtaxed schedules, family demands, and constant invocations to be overtly jolly and spend lots of money leave many aspiring writers too blue — not to mention too tired — to write. This year, with grim news about publishing hitting us every time any of us pass within a few yards of anything remotely related to the media, I’m betting that even writers normally suffused with seasonal cheer are finding their vim fading a trifle faster than usual.

Ho, ho…hum.

With the new year approaching swiftly (and with it, perhaps, the consciousness of another year’s having slipped by without landing that yearned-for agent and/or book contract), the temptation to turn off the computer and cry, “Oh, the heck with it — I’ll start writing again in January!” can become downright overwhelming.

I want to concentrate today on techniques designed to fend off that state of mind, before any of us find ourselves glancing at our dust-laden manuscripts on Valentine’s Day, murmuring, “Will it REALLY make a difference if I don’t get back to the book until Groundhog Day?” or “Can’t I get away with not sending another set of queries until Easter?” And if I happen to mention in passing a few helpful and not-very-expensive gifts for writers to suggest to the FNDGGs (Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Givers) in their lives, well, let’s just say that I shan’t be terribly surprised.

If you thought you were the only writer who ever thought like that — about delaying getting back to a regular writing schedule, that is not about peppering one’s FNDGG with hints — let me assure you, you’re not alone. I’ve known authors with lucrative three-book contracts in hand who still habitually burrowed under the covers in the morning because they couldn’t imagine anyone paying to read anything they might conceivably write that day.

Listen: talent doesn’t just dry up. But motivation can and often does. The good news is that with effort, it can be revivified.

Earlier this autumn and again last week, I mentioned the possibility of refreshing writerly momentum by scheduling a writing retreat, a time when you can leave all of your everyday duties behind and just WRITE for a while. But realistically, absent a very generous gift-giver (hint, hint, FNDGG) or suddenly acquiring the independent income and a room of one’s own Virginia Woolf recommended, for many writers, the very idea of arranging quotidian life to disappear for a month, week, or even a day seems like an impossible dream.

Believe me, I understand this feeling: you’re a responsible person with obligations, after all, someone who is going to have to keep paying bills throughout this retreat.

And let’s face it, other people’s demands and schedules would need to be disrupted. If you have kids, it may be hard even to imagine disappearing for as much as a week before they graduate from high school. If you have a demanding job, even the suggestion of being absent for a few days running may be enough to induce hearty guffaws in your boss’ office.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have.

If you have been able to find an hour or two per day for writing, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! You need to make the most of every second – which in and of itself can be intimidating; if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible.

(Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s a strategy I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. Like the light bulb trick from earlier in this series, it seems disappointingly simple at first, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music EVERY time you sit down to write.

Not just the same CD, mind you, but the same SONG.

The repetition may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent; pretend you’re working in a mall during the holidays and can’t change the music, or one of Pavlov’s dogs waiting for a bite to eat. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with writing — which in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly.

After a while, you can put on other music later in your writing sessions, as long as you always begin with the same song. Your brain will already be used to snapping immediately into creative mode.

I do the music-repetition thing myself, so I can give you first-hand assurance of its efficacy. For the novel my agent has allegedly been circulating for me recently (one never knows, does one?), I put on the same Cat Stevens CD (hey, I was writing about hippies) literally every time I sat down to write – and now that I have finished the book, I can’t hear THE WIND without moving instinctively toward my computer. And even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S without starting to think about my long-completed dissertation. For the novel I’m currently writing, set at Harvard in the mid-80s, Berlin’s FOR ALL TOMORROW’S LIES is destined to be forever associated with a keyboard for me.

So I can tell you from experience: it works, if you give it a chance.

(So yes, Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: installing a small stereo system in a writer’s designated workspace WOULD be a delightful surprise, now that you happen to mention it. How clever of you.)

If you are a person who needs to write under conditions of complete silence, try lighting the same type of incense or scented candle seconds before turning on the computer. Always wear the same socks, or pull your hair into a specific type of ponytail. Do twenty-five jumping jacks immediately before sitting down to write, or lock the door and belly-dance for a few minutes.

It actually does not matter what your ritual is, as long as it is a sensual experience that occurs ONLY when you are writing – and is repeated EVERY time you sit down to write, so your body will come to recognize it as a signal that it’s creativity time.

Or you could institute a ritual in reverse, rewarding yourself for staying a set amount of time in front of your computer, even if you are feeling frustrated. Graham Greene, I’m told, forced himself to write 147 words prior to taking his first drink of the day.

While that may not sound like much — the preceding three paragraphs add up to 146 — don’t underestimate the value of cumulative endeavor: Mssr. Greene’s enormous daily thirst added up to a very successful 30-year writing career.

Okay, so he wrote mostly about alcoholics, but still, you’ve got to admit that it’s impressive.

It’s also helpful, when you find yourself avoiding writing, to take a good, hard look at your writing space: can you in fact concentrate there? Is there a way you could make it more comfortable — or more private?

Or — and I find this is often the case with struggling writers — do you not have a space dedicated to writing at all?

Yes, you CAN write in a crowded café at a table immediately adjacent to a bongo band while babysitting a hyperactive rhesus monkey. And Antonio Gramsci wrote a major work of political philosophy entirely on toilet paper while imprisoned in a small, dark cell, but that doesn’t mean that either is an environment particularly conducive to long bursts of concentrated creative thought.

Frankly, I think the advent of the laptop, however laudable in itself, has resulted in a general lack of recognition that writers tend to be more productive if they have their own spaces in which to write. (Not that a laptop wouldn’t be a pretty great present for a writer, Furtive NDGG.) Or at least more space than is taken up by a standard-sized placemat, sans silverware.

Call me overly reliant upon symbolism, but a writer’s home that does not contain at least a few square feet of floor space set aside ONLY for writing has always struck me as more likely to induce writer’s block than one that does. Not to guarantee it, mind you — plenty of authors have typed up a storm in cramped spaces — just to be conducive to it. Like a schedule too jam-packed to permit a few hours of quiet meditation at a stretch, not having space to write renders the likelihood of being able to take immediate advantage of an attack of inspiration considerably lower.

And yes, Virginia, I am deliberately mentioning this at a time of year when some of you have whisked your notes into desk drawers so relatives can bed down on an air mattress in the room where you normally write. That alone might well tempt even the most hospitable writer into shelving the novel or book proposal until January.

Or, if the seed I’m trying to plant here germinates successfully, to try to figure out a part of the house or apartment where one can retreat to work, even with guests in the house.

Hey, Furtive NDGG: what about committing to converting a spare attic, bedroom, basement, or corner of the living room into a comfortable writing space as a present? How about improving an existing one to make it more ergonomically friendly to its user — good desk set-ups are definitely NOT one-size-fits-all — or a more cheerful place to be?

Remember, though: lighting, lighting, lighting. And did I mention lighting?

In smaller living situations, how difficult would it be to install a screen to create a private space for a writer? Or, if even that is spatially impossible, investing in a really good pair of noise-blocking headphones?

Seeing a pattern here, FNDGG? Anything you can do to alter space and/or time to render concentration easier is a dandy gift for a writer.

What about you, writers? All too often, we writers assume that the only possible reasons for feeling stalled in our writing are problems within ourselves: lack of willpower, lack of commitment, an unwillingness or inability to restructure our lives in order to write rather than fitting writing into already overcrowded lives, limited talent.

Or just a book idea that’s not as spectacular as it originally seemed.

While either the actuality or the fear of any or all of these can certainly stymie a writing project, it’s worth considering practical steps that may make the physical act of writing easier — and creating long-term habits that will encourage us when the words are not coming easily.

Give it some thought. Or don’t, and wait until I come back to this absorbing topic next time — which, judging from the dirty looks the relatives have been popping into my writing space for the past fifteen minutes to give me, is going to be after a certain holiday that shall remain nameless.

Either way, have a merry one, and keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part VIII: have you considered giving learning experiences?

For the last few posts in this series on gifts a generous, sensitive, and smart Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (did I mention attractive?) might want to bestow upon a writer, I have been concentrating upon engaging the services of a professional editor. Since that can be a pretty expensive endeavor, I’m going to spend today talking about less costly learning experiences that writers might appreciate — and, still better, ones that might help move their work toward successful publication.

Good writers, and I don’t care who hears me say it, usually tend to be more open to learning experiences than your average bear. Why? Well, it probably has something to do with having a brain that’s wired to notice telling details more than other people’s. To paraphrase HG Wells’ THE WIFE OF SIR ISAAC HARMAN, a writer is an Aolian harp upon whom the winds of society blow, causing us to sing. We have, as Wells said, unusually sensitive nervous tissue.

Aolian harp, in case you don’t happen to have a good mythological dictionary handy, is a fancy term for wind chime.

I love this analogy, because it pinpoints something that the kind folks who attempt to live with us who write must come to understand and accept: we often react more intensely to external stimuli than other people. We’re born extrapolators. You may find this hard to believe, but apparently, non-writers can sit in a restaurant without eavesdropping on nearby tables and creating elaborate life histories about the speakers based upon an excerpted sentence or two.

Or so I’m told. Anthropologically fascinating to hear how other tribes think, isn’t it?

Since we writers work overtime developing our listening skills, taking advantage of them through taking classes makes perfect sense — a common enough view that writing classes tend to be a terrific place not only to learn something new, but to meet other writers at all stages of their careers. Call it a two-for-one deal.

So here’s an idea for writers up for making suggestions about what they’d like to receive as presents: why not seek out a good writing class, either at a local teaching facility or online, and ask your FNDGG to spring for it?

If you immediately thought, “Oh, I don’t have time to take a class — I barely have time to write as it is!”, well, you’re certainly not alone. It makes perfect sense to give some advance thought to the level of time commitment you could realistically devote to a class without eating into your writing time. Allow me, however, to suggest that the less time you have to write, the more benefit you might derive from clearing some time in your schedule to take a class.

How so, you murmur? Well, at the risk of sounding pedantic, it can be beneficial in addressing a broad spectrum of writerly problems. Most literally, a class can give a writer the specific skill-polishing s/he needs to help write better, faster, stronger, etc. There are also plenty of good classes out there — and in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I teach some of them — that will assist a writer in constructing a query, synopsis, or book proposal.

Slightly more nebulously, classes also exist that will help writers revise their work to render it more marketable — agent Don Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel class pops to mind — conform more closely to the parameters of a particular genre, and yes, just write better sentences.

Price tags vary as much as offerings do. As with any other professional advice, however, the buyer should beware: not every class actually delivers what it promises. Marketing help to writers is big business these days, as anyone who has taken a gander at the many, many books offering writing advice of late can tell you, but it’s not as though there is a writer’s guardian angel out there making sure that only those with a proven track record assisting writers improve their work are allowed to advertise.

So it’s in your interest to assess claims carefully, rather than blithely sending off a check to the first class that sounds appetizing. Find out precisely what your potential teacher’s background is and how it relates to what s/he is offering to teach you.

There’s a third reason that I like to recommend that the super-busy and the writing-blocked (two groups with quite a bit of member overlap, I’ve noticed) carve out some time in their schedules to invest in a class: to get into the habit of finding time in their schedules to devote to writing.

Some of you just guffawed, didn’t you? “Um, Anne?” I hear a few cynics point out. “Aren’t you suggesting that people solve a problem by solving it? Just a touch tautological, no?”

Hear me out on this one, oh guffawers. Those who diagnose themselves as too busy to write on a regular schedule and writers experiencing certain types of writer’s block usually share the problem of finding themselves unwilling or unable, for any number of perfectly legitimate and not-so-legitimate reasons, to sit down and write on a regular basis. The hyper-occupied will rush off to do all of the other, higher-priority things they have to do before they can devote time to writing; the blocked will frequently come up with other things to do to avoid the pain of staring at a blank computer screen.

As a result, members of both groups tend not to budget a whole lot of time purely for writing, at least not on a regular basis: all too often, they will put it off until some hypothetical day when they are either not busy with something else or spontaneously inspired. Over time, that mythical day’s planned agenda can become downright terrifying: from merely a day (or week or month) to devote to writing, it devolves into feeling like THE day (or week or month) in which one has to complete the ENTIRE project. The bigger the task looming in the mind, the more tempting to put it off.

Then these well-meaning souls wake up three months later and realize that they haven’t made much progress on their writing projects. At that point, they have every incentive to blame this results on being too busy or galloping writer’s block — and once again to put off sitting down with the project. And so the vicious cycle continues.

Now admittedly, there are a million causes for writer’s block, and many millions of obligations that might conceivably render budgeting time to writedifficult. But from a working author’s point of view, the underlying problem above is that the writers have not made time to write and stuck to a schedule. This may or may not be attributable to factors within the individual’s control, but whatever the specific reasons, sitting down and writing somehow isn’t near enough to the top of the writer’s priorities to make it happen on the regular basis necessary to complete a book project.

With me so far? Excellent.

Due no doubt to early childhood training, most of us are better at maintaining a formal commitment (such as showing up for a class) than an informal one (such as a promise to oneself to sit down every day and write a few thousand words). We tend to perceive sticking to something we do with other people (or something we are paying to do) as involving less willpower than keeping a private vow.

In actuality, that’s often not true, but there’s no reason not to put the impression that it is true to good use.

Here’s a proposition to consider: a writer who can figure out how to attend a weekly two-hour class is very likely to discover at the end of it that s/he has two hours per week no longer budgeted for something other than writing; by adhering to an already-established schedule, then, that writer has gained a couple of hours per week to devote to writing. Similarly, once a writer has managed to clear a weekend to invest in a seminar, or a few days to attend a conference, s/he can probably repeat that achievement in order to devote that time to writing.

Will those couple of hours or few days be enough to write an entire book? Almost certainly not. But if repeated frequently, could the fruits of regular writing time add up? Absolutely.

And don’t throw up your hands, please, if you felt uncomfortable in classrooms growing up — writing classes turn up in a lot of forms, from traditional composition classes to paid critique groups run by established authors or editors to weekend seminars on plot complexity to once-a-week online give-and-take. The more specific you can be about what you would like to learn, the easier it will be for you — or your FNDGG — to find a class you’ll enjoy.

One reliably fruitful source of course offerings for writers lies on the conference circuit. Good writers’ conferences tend to be crammed with classes on craft, querying, submission, marketing, you name it. They’re also often wonderful places to meet other writers to swap tips and share sympathy. You might even make a friend or two with whom you’ll feel moved to exchange manuscripts for critique, or to form the nucleus of a writers’ support group.

Not to mention the fact that many conferences offer the opportunity to meet agents and editors and hear about what they like to see in a submission. At some conferences, you can even pitch your book to them, neatly sidestepping the querying stage.

Which brings me to another gift suggestion: why not ask your FNDGG to subsidize a trip to a well-constructed conference? If not to underwrite the whole thing, at least to chip in?

If you choose your conference carefully, you may also derive another fringe benefit from attendance: manuscript feedback. As clever and intrepid reader Susan wrote in yesterday to remind us, some conferences offer manuscript critique sessions relatively inexpensively — relative, that is, to employing the services of a professional editor.

Conference-based critique comes in a number of different flavors; there is no such thing as a generic conference critique, so do make sure before you register which is being offered. Here is a field guide to a few of the more common.

The public examination. At this type of event, feedback is offered during short classes within the conference itself in a manner reminiscent of American Idol: both presentation and expert feedback take place in a public forum. Attendees are invited to show up with a very short excerpt — usually a page or two, either from the text or in some cases, a query letter — dissection and discuss.

The few shy souls out there who just exclaimed, “I’d rather stick my hand into a meat grinder!” need despair: because critique is a time-consuming business, these classes usually attract far more feedback-seekers than time to take a magnifying glass to their work. Most of the time, those who sit by quietly and take copious notes on what the pros say about other people’s pages are more than welcome.

The small-group intensive. Here, critique sessions are couched in multi-hour or even multi-day group classes, often lead by an established writer or editor. An intensive class is generally offered either just before or just after the regular conference offerings, and usually entail an extra charge over and above the regular conference registration fee, so do double-check before you register.

Intensive sessions usually concentrate on a short excerpt — the first chapter is a common choice — or require participants to write fresh material in class. Again, if feedback on material already in hand is your goal, check.

The professional assessment. Sometimes these are group endeavors where a dozen people will sit and confer with an agent, editor, or established author, but they are more commonly one-on-one. Almost invariably, though, these sessions are touted as a big selling point for a conference.

Attendees are invited to submit a short manuscript excerpt — usually the first 5-20 pages, although some conferences will allow an entire chapter — which the agent, editor, etc. will undertake to read prior to the meeting. The feedback is usually quite a bit less intensive than what a freelance editor would provide (you’re unlikely, for instance, to receive commentary on particular lines of text), but if you’re looking for an uninterrupted five-minute conversation about how a professional reader like Millicent might respond to your opening pages, this can be a terrific place to start.

The pitch meeting. Pitch meetings rarely involve anyone reading manuscript pages and giving feedback on them, but I thought I should include them on this list, as conference brochures sometimes give the (often false) impression that a professional assessment is a pitch opportunity, and vice versa.

At a pitch meeting, a writer gives a verbal presentation to an agent or editor, a sort of verbal query letter, in the hope that the pro will be so taken with the pitch that s/he will request the writer to submit pages for later consideration. Face-to-face pitching is a learned skill, so if you are considering attending a conference where writers have the opportunity to pitch, please take a gander at the PITCHING BASICS category on the list at right.

As you may see, these types of conference-based feedback opportunities differ widely. The trick to benefiting from these sessions is to do your homework before you get there — which is important to know before you start looking for events to attend, since this is homework that generally needs to be done not only before the conference, but before one even signs up to attend it.

Why so far in advance? Well, several reasons. First, as I mentioned above, conferences usually require writers to submit pages for critique well in advance, generally at the time of registration. Sometimes, the deadline for submission is months before the conference, so do try to send in pages that are not likely to change radically in the interim, if the rules allow it. (Most don’t: the first chapter or 10-20 pages plus a synopsis is a fairly standard requirement, as those pages require less set up to follow, by definition.)

Also, since virtually every critique-offering conference fills personalized feedback slots on a first-come, first-served basis, you may have to be speedy to take advantage of this perq. At a conference that offer many critique opportunities, you may be able pull off registering in the month or two immediately prior to the conference, but for the vast majority of such conferences, the number of slots available is in the low double digits. They tend to go fast, so once you’ve picked your conference, register early.

One caveat to bear in mind while you’re conference-searching: as with feedback from critique-offering contests and every other source, the quality of the feedback varies by the experience level of the critiquer — and more specifically, the critiquer’s familiarity with the submitted manuscript’s book category. Even if the scheduled feedback giver has been editing romance at Harlequin for a decade, s/he may not be able to give you insight into why agents have been rejecting your thriller.

As with finding a freelance editor — or an agent, for that matter — fit between the feedback-giver and the manuscript is important. Some conferences randomly assign writers to feedback-givers, but most of the larger conferences will allow registrants to express preferences. Do a bit of background checking before you commit; you’re far, far more likely to walk away from a critique session with feedback you can use if your critiquer has a solid track record in handling your type of book.

Another factor that radically influences the quality of conference-based feedback is how much time the critiquer has actually invested in reading the pieces before commenting upon them. I don’t mean to frighten you, but do be aware that advice clearly based upon barely-skimmed submissions or, even more hurtful, only the first paragraph or two of a chapter-length submission is a perennial complaint voiced by writers attending such feedback sessions, especially those conducted by agents and editors: the habit of simply ceasing to read as soon as they’ve made up their minds about a submission can be pretty firmly ingrained.

Before anyone out there takes umbrage at the notion of paying a conference for this level of feedback — which doesn’t necessarily entail a more solid reading than Millicent might give a first chapter; the difference lies in hearing specifics about why the screener stopped reading — lack of familiarity with the materials to be reviewed is not always the critiquer’s fault. It’s not at all uncommon for critiquers to be culled from the speakers, agents, and editors invited to the conference, some of whom may not receive the pages for critique until they actually arrive at the conference.

Or — brace yourselves — on the day of the meeting.

And yes, this frequently occurs even at conferences that require writers to submit their pages months in advance. Why? Beats me; organizational acumen seems to be wildly unevenly distributed across conference-giving groups. When I’ve inquired about it — say, at a conference where I had been engaged to give such feedback, but did not actually see a syllable of the writing involved until a couple of hours before I was supposed to meet with the people who wrote them — I’ve heard every explanation from shifting schedules to lost paperwork to an elaborately polite insistence that giving me the pages early enough to spend some real time with them would have inconvenienced me.

They didn’t want to impose, they said.

I’ve been on both sides of this particular phenomenon, actually: some years ago, I was in residence at a New England artists’ colony that shall remain nameless. as well-established sculptors and painters dropped by to give emerging artists feedback on their works-in-progress, the colony had taken the trouble to import a famous author or two every couple of weeks to impart wisdom to those treading the earlier steps of the path to greatness.

Or, slightly more cynically, the colony helped supplement the established’s income by offering informal teaching gigs. The first of these authors spent a week on-site and was quite charming, at least to those of us whose work she liked. She read excerpts, gave constructive feedback, helped writers over manuscript difficulties, and even gave a couple of impromptu lectures on craft.

A couple of weeks later, the feedback environment altered considerably. The Living Legend scheduled to shed her effulgence on the residents sent word that she would be arriving a trifle late, but she was reading the excerpts we had submitted to her industriously. One forgives such things in National Book Award winners, naturally. When she arrived late on day 3 of her week-long residence, she announced that she could stay for only a couple of days — the absolute minimum, the cynical speculated, to collect her honorarium for meeting with us — so she wanted to meet with each of us right away.

Practically the moment I walked into my scheduled meeting, she launched into a vigorous diatribe about the inherent weakness of a particular scene. The only trouble was, I hadn’t written the scene that had so upset her sensibilities; the writer with the appointment after mine had. As nearly as I could tell from her tirade, she had decided that I must have written the short story in question — although I do not write short stories — because the character in the story looked a bit like me.

As do hundreds of thousands of adult women of Mediterranean extraction, I might add. But I digress.

It took me several minutes to convince the Grande Dame of Literature that I was telling the truth about who I was and what I had written — and for both of us to realize that she had not yet read my piece at all. Embarrassed for her, I offered to reschedule our appointment on the following day, but she was adamant that she was only prepared to give me (her phrase) an hour of her time. As about 35 minutes of that time had already elapsed, I proposed that we should devote it to chatting about the writing life in general; again, no.

After an intensive five minutes of rooting about in her briefcase, she finally managed to dig up my pages. With a sigh of irritated relief, she plumped herself down to read them in front of me. I sat uncomfortably, marveling at her speed-reading prowess. Fortunately for my ego — or unfortunately; I’ve never been able to decide — she evidently did not find any error glaring enough to point out. I suspect it would have been a relief to her if she had.

After she finished, she glanced up at me warily. “It’s good,” she conceded, clearly cudgeling her well-laureled brains for something constructive to advise.

Having been well brought-up, I waited politely for her to continue — and I must say, I’m still waiting. To fill up the remaining five minutes of our meeting, we chatted about the writing life in general.

I wish I could state positively that La Belle’s behavior was exceptional, but the sad fact is that one hears similar stories about write-your-way-in conferences and artists’ retreats that offer on-site professional feedback from well-established authors as an incentive for writers to apply for residencies. It just goes to show you: not all feedback from professionals is professional feedback, nor will all of it be helpful. But I’m relatively certain that had I not already sought out and received scads of genuinely thoughtful, well-informed critique of my work before I watched the Famous Gentlewoman unsuccessfully trying to critique my work on the fly, I would have been crushed by her lack of professionalism.

The moral: just because someone famous reads your work doesn’t necessarily mean that their feedback is going to be useful; just because a conference brochure touts a critique opportunity doesn’t mean it will be a good fit for your manuscript. Do your homework, invest your conference-going dollars carefully — and accept that sometimes, you’re going to encounter a dud. That’s the nature of one-size-fits-all critiquing.

Oh, dear, I meant to spend today’s post recommending conference attendance, not repeatedly hissing, “Caveat emptor,” let the buyer beware. Well, I suppose that’s not a complete surprise in a blog that so frequently cautions caveat lector, let the reader beware.

On that dubious note, I shall sign off for today. More gift-giving tips and general chat about the writing life follow anon. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

When even the weather seems to conspire against you, or, what to give a writer for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, winter solstice, Epiphany, or really, anytime it’s dark

I’m suffering under the slings and arrows of the current version of that annual plague known locally as That Thing That’s Going Around. Not bad timing, actually, since outside, it’s about as cold as it ever gets in my part of the world: I believe yesterday’s 19 degrees Fahrenheit shattered an all-time record for December in these parts. Or at any rate for December 15ths.

In short, I’m staying inside, well bundled up.

The snow on the ground has resulted in some quite uncharacteristic light conditions for these environs in the winter — you know, clear, merry, and bright. We Seattlites hardly know how to handle the glare; if this keeps up, we’ll have to dig out our long-buried sunglasses.

Why? Well, let me clue you in to what our midwinter days are usually like: I took the picture above at 3 pm, and my poor kitty looks as though she might be carried off by vampire bats at any second. Even if the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (ho, ho, ho) were standing right next to her, handing her a nice piece of sashimi-grade tuna and a bucket of catnip, nothing about this photo would remotely suggest a season of joy.

It’s just too dark.

Ah, the charms of a Pacific Northwest winter, light gray for a few hours in midday, dark gray or black for most of the time, and drizzly pretty much all of the time. For the edification of those of you with the good sense to live farther south, this is the time of year when Seattlites who hold a day job droop visibly, because they are going to work AND coming home in the dark.

It can be depressing, making getting out of bed feel like an outright burden, even when That Thing That’s Going Around has already come and gone. Not the best environment, in short, for doing sustained creative work.

Yes, the gloriously long days of summer do compensate for the blahs of a northern winter, but that’s awfully hard to remember in mid-December, isn’t it? Try to remember the kind of September when grass was green and…

Well, admittedly, the grass does stay pretty green around here all winter — or did before Mother Nature dumped all of that snow on top of it — but still, you know the song, right? My point is, back in September, you could glance lawnward on your way to work and still SEE that the grass was green without whipping out either a pocket flashlight or a shovel.

Seattle is, after all, where those clever doctors DISCOVERED seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — just nanoseconds after, one presumes, having figured out that those maps schoolchildren are encouraged to color give quite a skewed sense of the relative positions of Washington and Maine with respect to the North Pole. We’re far enough north that my shampoo and toothpaste labels boast directions in both English and French, for goodness sake.

As much as I love being a three-hour drive from Vancouver, I’m a Northern Californian by birth and upbringing, and let me tell you, I spent the entirety of my first Seattle winter fuming at my sixth-grade geography teacher for leading me so far astray.

I believe Mr. Werle is now inadvertently running his fingernails over that great chalkboard in the sky (oh, did his chalk ever squeak!), so it’s no longer possible to ask him what the heck he was thinking back then. Didn’t it ever occur to him that someday, one of his wee charges might conceivably need to drive from Seattle to Montreal — but that he’d mistakenly trained his students to figure on driving northeast, instead of southeast?

I was lucky not to end up in Banff, Mr. W. And I was one of your better students.

So if those of you up my way been feeling sluggish lately, you have a perfectly good excuse — no, not your sixth-grade teachers (although I’m sure some of you had some lulus; please don’t get me started on Mrs. Oswill’s literary tastes), but the lack of light. We who live north need to take better care of ourselves in the winter.

Which, presumably, is no surprise to the good people of Manitoba. Or to the elves in the workshop of the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver.

The late dawns and early dusks of winter are particularly hard on writers, I suspect. No matter whether you tend to get up early or stay up late to snatch your precious daily writing time, the fast-waning winter light is bound to cramp your schedule a little.

And let’s face it, the longer it takes to ramp up your energy to write, the less time you have to do it.

I write and edit full-time, so I am spared the pain of the pitch-dark two-way commute, but let me tell you, when I look up from my computer and notice that I have only an hour of daylight left, I practically have to lash myself to my desk chair to keep myself at work.

Fortunately, there is a tool that makes this time of year easier: the lightbox, which, as the name implies, is a great big box on stilts that shines oodles of non-burning noon-aping light on the user’s face. They’re spendy — $200-$400 for a medical-quality one, although one can find reasonable facsimiles online for less, in case the Furtive NDGG is planning a shopping trip for the benefit of writers in Fargo (which is, incidentally, SOUTH OF HERE, Mr. Werle) — but sitting in front of it for 45 minutes a day does tend to trick the body into believing that it should not go into hibernation just yet.

With practice, you can read or even work on a computer in front of it; I know ambitious souls who have arranged theirs to shine upon them while they walk on a treadmill or ride an exercise bike.

Me, I’m more sedentary these days: I plop myself in front of it with my laptop and a few selected houseplants (oh, like THEY don’t resent the winter’s loss of light?) to read my voluminous e-mail and scan comments posted to the blog. At least until the cats displace me.

It puts me in a good mood while I am deleting the hundreds of spam comments posted here daily — which, for my money, is as high a recommendation as one can give a depression-lifting device.

I just mention this, in case any of you out there are blessed with the kind of kith and kin susceptible to suggestions for good gifts to give a writer for any major holiday that might be coming up. You have my full permission to print up this post to stuff into Santa’s pocket the next time you sit on his lap, as a gentle hint.

But this year, most of us are on tighter budgets, aren’t we? Fear not, impecunious generous folks: installing full-spectrum light bulbs (as low as $5-$10 apiece) in your writing space can also be very helpful.

Are you listening, Furtive NDGG? Properly wrapped so they will not smash coming down the chimney, that’s a pretty stellar stocking-stuffer.

Yes, they are a bit more expensive than your average light bulb, but they do undoubtedly help fight the November-February blahs. And if you use them strategically, you need not spend a fortune to improve your mood.

They really are worth the investment. US-based writers who file Schedule Cs for their writing careers might even be able to write ‘em off as a business expense; have a chat with a respectable tax advisor familiar with artists’ returns. It’s potentially legitimate: most writers do find that they are more productive in the winter months with adequate lighting.

Don’t believe me? Okay, I’m about to share a trick of the full-time writing trade, one of those professional secrets that you always suspected the published shared with one another in clandestine whispers: in the winter months, have your writing space be the ONLY room in the house equipped with full-spectrum lighting, and plenty of it. Make it blaze.

“That’s it?” I hear you cry in frustration. “Light my studio differently from the rest of the house?”

Yes, oh scoffers, that is indeed what I said. Do it, and make sure you spend at least an hour per day in the room for the first week with the new lighting. (Hey, why not spend that time writing?) Soon, you will find that your body actually CRAVES being in your writing space. You will automatically gravitate there.

As will, as I can tell you from experience, any pet mammal you happen to house. Unless you happen to cherish moles, they’re probably missing the light midwinter, too.

You think I posed my cat for that picture? I had stepped away for thirty seconds to refill my tea, and she displaced me.

Naturally, the full-spectrum strategy alone will not necessarily turn around a deeply entrenched writer’s block, but it’s a start. For a lot of aspiring writers, finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer is not the hard part: it’s the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.

It’s conquering the fear of starting. Or, in some cases, of finishing and the result’s not being perfect. Either way, it can be pretty paralyzing.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. They worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to take time away from all of their other obligations.

For instance, about a third of the writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded T-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you — if you find that you’re not sitting down on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. Good books are seldom written overnight.

If you are waiting until an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations pops up spontaneously, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most US citizens work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of unused leisure time.

And yet somehow, we find the time to shop for presents this time of year. Astonishing, isn’t it?

I could parrot other advice-givers, and order you crabbily to turn off the TV/radio/IPod/Internet connection/Facebook/my blog, but my God, have you seen the economic news lately? I would be the last person to advise you to be LESS aware of what is going on in the world around you. And chances are, by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, etc.

But, as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a tastefully-appointed mountain cabin with hot-and-cold running servants who will see to your every whim while you dash off a first draft in its entirety. Perhaps with the addition of a qualified massage therapist to rub your tired wrists nightly and nymphs playing the lute and lyre softly whilst you compose.

Oh, all right: spend a few moments daydreaming about it now. I’ll wait.

If you can afford such a retreat, great. As I mentioned some weeks back — could it be as long ago as the end of October? — there are plenty of artists’ colonies that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. Such formal retreats may be less costly than you expect; many hold competitions for free or inexpensive residencies — which, as a fringe benefit, also look good as a credential on a query letter. (A good place to seek out such opportunities is the back of Poets & Writers magazine — an excellent publication which, last I heard, was more than happy to let a Furtive NDGG buy a gift subscription for someone, incidentally.)

While admittedly it can be very nice to squirrel yourself away in the company of other artists, communal dining halls are not for everyone — the social dynamics of some of them make recess after Mr. Werle’s geography class seem positively urbane by comparison — and you don’t necessarily need a full-fledged artists’ colony to replicate the retreat experience. There are plenty of secluded bed-and-breakfasts and hotels that are delighted to cater to people who never want to stick their noses outside their rooms. Heck, when I’m on a short revision deadline, I’ve been known to lock myself in a downtown hotel room for a week, just to get away from the phone.

In case I’m being too subtle for any non-writer Furtive NDGG who happens to be eavesdropping: the best gift anyone can give a serious writer is a chunk of unfettered time to write.

Seriously, you might want to consider asking the less-furtive NDGGs in your life to consider donating toward a retreat — or banding together to help construct one from available resources. It needn’t require subsidizing a couple of weeks’ worth of room service; think creatively.

And, ideally, become intimate friends with people who own far-flung cabins and under-used second homes.

I’m only half-kidding about this, actually. Housesitting for vacationing friends can make for a lovely retreat; many a novel has been completed by the dog-sitter. Even if it’s for only a day or two, scoring some unbroken time can go a long way toward pulling the stuffing out of a seemingly insurmountable writer’s block.

Just don’t forget to bring some good lightbulbs along, okay?

More tips on beating the dark winter blahs follow tomorrow — and if, in outlining strategies, I should happen to stumble across a few more items for you to add to your favorite Furtive NDGG’s shopping list, well, that won’t be my fault.

Don’t say I never did anything for you.

Before I sign off for today, let me just set a few minds at ease: yes, I shall be returning to my half-completed series on constructing one’s own writing retreat, probably early next week. I wanted to whet your appetites again first — and give those of you who haven’t had a moment to spare in the interim a few more days to come up with that list of your personal requirements for a writing retreat (as opposed to a generic one that might suit anybody) that we discussed back in October.

Even if you are absolutely convinced that you would never be able to get away from your quotidian life for even an entire day, please do give a little thought to what you would actually need in order to write productively and intensively. As I mentioned back when I began writing about retreats, figuring out what ambient conditions help you write can be very, very useful even in everyday writing situations.

Besides, do you really want to state positively that you’ll never have time to take even a brief retreat? The Furtive NDGG might hear you.

After all, rumor has it that he sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake, etc.

Keep up the good work!

PS: hey, speaking of furtive gift-giving, would you mind humoring me by making a back-up of your computerized manuscript files right away? Thanks; I’ll sleep better at night.

Why am I requesting this? Well, I spent a couple of hours in a computer store over the weekend, and I ran into that saddest of human creatures, a writer whose hard disk had disintegrated, taking the only copy of his Great American Novel with it. Please let his misfortune prevent something similar from happening to you. If you would like tips on how to back up something as large as a manuscript, please see the BACK-UP COPIES category on the list at right.

Author bios, part III: reporting YOUR uniqueness well

Happy Veterans’ Day, everybody. Isn’t it fabulous that we (or at any rate I) live in a country that still cares enough about World War I to stop mail delivery, close banks, and throw mattress sales to commemorate its armistice?

My father was a child during WWI (no, I’m not that old; he was when he had me); he recalled the day when the local doughboys came home. He would tell vivid anecdotes about watching protest marches in the streets, rationing, how his mother’s views on military service varied markedly as her only son approached draft age.

It was from him, and not from my school’s history books, that I learned that here in the States, it had been quite an unpopular war; years later, it was his stories of the home front that I would contrast with H.G. Wells’ brilliant 1916 description of the British home front, Mr. Britling Sees It Through. (In case you missed my oh-so-subtle plug for it above, here goes: if you’ve never read it and are even remotely interested in how human beings respond to their countries’ being at war, you might want to have the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver* add it to his list for you this year. I just mention.) It’s one of the great examples of why write what you know is often such great advice.

Not that why write what you know is as self-explanatory and all-encompassing a piece of advice as many writing teachers seem to think. As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a good, long while are already aware, I’m no fan of one-size-fits-all writing advice — beyond the basic rules of grammar and formatting restrictions, of course. What works in one genre will not necessarily work in another, after all, nor are the stylistic tactics that made ‘em swoon in 1870 particularly likely to wow an agent or editor now.

Write what you know in particular has been over-used as writing advice, I think. All too often, it’s been used as a battering ram to deprecate the genuinely original and exciting work of science fiction and fantasy writers, for instance. “Stop being all imaginative,” WWYK-mongers have historically snarled at those who have eschewed slice-of-life storylines. “Stick to what actually happened; it won’t be plausible otherwise.”

Don’t you just hate it when someone uses imaginative as an insult? In some genres, it’s one of the highest compliments a writer can get on her work.

As a freelance editor, I see a heck of a lot of manuscripts in any given year, and I hate to tell you this, WWYK-huggers, but being lifted from real life most emphatically does NOT render something plausible on the page. Or even enjoyable. And who said that holding the mirror, as ’twere, up to nature was the only way to produce good writing, anyway?

Well, perhaps most famously, the renowned editor Maxwell Perkins, for one. I imagine that many of you who have spent much time in writing classes have already been bored by the oft-repeated story of how Perkins browbeat poor Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings into abandoning her first love — historical romance, if memory serves — to delve deep into real life and produce THE YEARLING, so I’ll spare you.

And yes, I’ll grant you, THE YEARLING is a very good book; it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and I’m quite fond of it. Rawlings was an exceptionally talented writer, by virtually everyone’s admission.

So why is it that one NEVER hears this particular write-what-you-know story told as though Rawlings were a talented enough writer to genre-jump, or as evidence that even the greatest editors harbor personal tastes that may or may not have anything to do with the actual demands of the marketplace? Literally every time I have ever heard a writing teacher share this anecdote, it’s always been told with sense a smug satisfaction that Rawlings hadn’t managed to gain literary recognition until she stopped fighting her editor.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to rewrite history so THE YEARLING was never written. But aren’t you just a bit curious about what might have happened if Rawlings had bumped into a publisher who actually liked historical romance?

Instead of one who rolled his eyes over her manuscripts and sighed, “”Stop being so imaginative, Marjorie.”

Why do I bring this up today, other than because the overuse of write what you know is, as you may perhaps have noticed, a pet peeve of mine? Because the author bio is one instance where Perkins’ advice to Rawlings is indeed quite applicable: in an author bio, you should absolutely write what you know — and only what you know — rather than trying to inflate your background into something it is not.

Didn’t see that conclusion coming after all that build-up, did you? I like to keep my readers on their toes, conceptually speaking.

Before I get too carried away on the vital importance of sticking to the truth in your bio, let’s define what we’re talking about for those of you joining us in mid-series: an author bio is an entertaining overview of the author’s background, an approximately 200-250 word description of your writing credentials, relevant experience, and educational attainments, designed to make you sound like a person whose work would be fascinating to read.

Go back and re-read that last bit, because it will prevent your making the single biggest mistake to which first time bio-writers fall prey. If your bio does not make you sound interesting, it is not a success. Period.

Aren’t you glad that I asked you to come up with a list of all the ways that you are fascinating before I mentioned that last little tidbit? I thought it might make you feel better at this juncture.

While you are going to want to hit many of the points you brainstormed earlier in this series (if you don’t have a list of your book’s selling points handy, please see the category at right that I have named, with startling originality, YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS), you will also want to include some of your quirks and background oddities, especially if they are relevant to the book.

I can hear the wheels of your brains turning, reeling at the possibilities. While they do, let me get the nitty-gritty out of the way:

(1) Use the third person, not the first.

(2) Start with whatever fact on your fascination list is most relevant to the book at hand, not with “The author was born…”

(3) Mention any past publications (in general terms), columns, lecturing experience, readings, as well as what you were doing for a living at the time that you wrote the book.

(4) Also toss in any and all educational background (relevant to the book’s subject matter or not), as well as any awards you may have won (ditto). But naturally, if your last book won the Pulitzer Prize, for instance, this would be the place to mention it.

(5) If the most interesting thing about you is not even remotely relevant to the book, consider mentioning it anyway. You want to be memorable, don’t you?

(6) Bios are virtually always single-page documents. Don’t make it longer unless an agent, editor, or contest guidelines ask you to do so.

Did #6 make some of you choke? To put the length in easier-to-understand terms (and so I don’t get an avalanche of comments from readers worried that their bios are 15 words too long), what we’re talking about here is 2-3 paragraphs, a 1/3 – 1/2 page (single-spaced) or 2/3 – 1 full page (double-spaced). And, as longtime readers of this blog have probably already anticipated, it should be in 12-pt. type, Times, Times New Roman or Courier, with 1-inch margins.

(If that last sentence read like Urdu to you or just seemed like micro-managing, PLEASE hie you hence to the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category on the list at right with all possible speed. Trust me, your work will be better received if it conforms to the norms of the biz.)

I sense some restlessness out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear the conscientious rule-followers out there murmur, “haven’t you misspoken here? I could have sworn that you just said that the bio could be single-spaced — but that’s absurd, because you’re always telling us that everything that passes under professional eyes MUST be double-spaced with standard margins.”

Well-caught, rule-followers: this is indeed an exception to the general rule. Stand back, and I’ll shout it: unlike positively everything else you will ever produce for passing under an agent or editor’s beady eyes, it is sometimes acceptable to single-space an author bio.

Generally speaking, though, bios are only single-spaced when the author bio page contains a photograph of the author, and…wait, did I just feel the photo-shy amongst you just seize up?

Don’t worry; it’s optional at this stage, and I shall talk about this contingency later in this series.

Got that length firmly in your mind? It should seem familiar to you — it’s approximately the length of the standard biographical blurb on the inside back flap of a dust jacket. There’s a reason for that, of course: increasingly, the author, and not the publisher’s marketing department, is responsible for producing that blurb.

So busy writers on a deadline tend to recycle their author bios as jacket blurbs. Chance favors the prepared keyboard, apparently.

(I told you to stop tensing up about that photograph. No one is hiding in the closet, ready to leap out and snap a candid shot that will dog you on your book jackets until the end of your days.)

Before you launch into writing your own bio, slouch your way into a bookstore on your day off and start pulling books of the shelves in the area where you hope one day to see your book sitting. Many of my clients find this helpful, as it assists them in remembering that the author bio is, like a jacket blurb, a sales tool, not just a straightforward list of facts.

Don’t just look at books in general; be category-specific. Find books like yours.

If you write tragic romances, read a few dozen bio blurbs in tragic novels already on the market. If you write cyberpunk, see what those authors are saying about themselves, and so forth. Is there a pattern?

In good bios, there tends to be: the tone of the author bio echoes the tone of the book. This is a clever move, as it helps the potential book buyer (and, in the author bio, the potential agent and/or editor) assess whether this is a writer in whose company she wants to spend hours of her life.

For two FABULOUS examples of such matching, check out ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER author Bob Tarte’s bio, as well as Author! Author! guest blogger and comic genius Jonathan Selwood’s. Both of these writers do an AMAZING job of not only giving a genuine taste of the (wildly different) senses of humor inherent to their books, but making themselves sound like no one else on the face of the earth.

(Which is, should the FNDGG be interested in more book-buying suggestions, one of the reasons that I enjoy these authors’ books very much indeed. I just mention.)

Yet if you read their bios closely, apparently, the Code of Hammurabi itself was written as a precursor to their bringing their respective works to the reading world. Now that’s a great author bio.

Why? Because it’s a terrific way to establish a credible platform without hitting the reader over the head with one’s credentials — yet, true to the bio-writing author’s brief, it presents the author as he actually is: interesting. REALLY interesting.

Don’t believe me? Think a stodgy list of credentials might have done it better? Take another gander at Bob Tarte’s. His animal-related background is genuinely impressive and might well look good just listed, but doesn’t this:

“Bob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell…Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, rabbits, doves, cats, hens, and one turkey.”

make you more likely to pick up his books than a simple, straightforward list of credentials?

Clever authors often tailor their bios to the book being promoted — because, let’s face it, the personality traits and background that might help a writer push a dead-serious political book would probably not be all that useful if the same writer was trying to sell chick lit. Fortunately, most of us are pretty darned complex people; few writers have so few quirks in their backgrounds that they cannot afford to pick and choose the bits most appropriate to the book being promoted.

Are you not believing me AGAIN? Okay, you asked for it — here’s the opening to the bio Jonathan Selwood posted on his website to promote his serious comic novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE, a story of pop art, dinosaur bone theft, and partying with billionaires punctuated by a massive earthquake, LA style:

I was born in Hollywood, California. In other words, the first time I played doctor as a kid was on a neighbor’s circular fur-covered waterbed with a mirror on the ceiling. The girl’s parents and two younger siblings were busy out by the pool hosting a nude cocaine party.

Not a traditional author bio, admittedly — but do you believe that Mssr. Selwood might have just a bit of insight into the partying habits of that part of the world? Absolutely.

And that’s one of the reasons that I really like these two authors’ bios: they have not — and this is unusual for an author bio — leaned on their formal credentials too heavily. In fact, I happen to know (my spies are everywhere, after all) that one of these gentlemen holds an MFA from a rather prestigious writing program, but you’d never know it from his bio.

And no, I’m not going to tell you which it is.

Why might he have left it off? Well, this is just a hunch on my part — my spies may be everywhere, but they’re not mind-readers — but I would imagine it’s because he’s a savvy marketer: mentions of Ivy League MFAs generally conjure heavily introspective books of exquisitely-crafted literary short stories about tiny, tiny slices of life in the suburban world. (Such exquisite little gems are known in the biz as “MFA stories,” a term that is often spoken with a slight, Elvis-like curl of the lip. Since they tend not to sell very well, they have as many detractors in the industry as enthusiasts.)

In short, I would imagine that he left off that genuinely impressive credential so he wouldn’t send the wrong single about the book he is trying to sell NOW. Because an author bio is, ultimately, not a cold, impersonal Who’s Who blurb, designed merely to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, but a piece of marketing material. If it doesn’t help sell the book, it’s just book flap decoration.

Happy bio hunting, folks: ferret out some good ones. Next time, I shall talk a bit about what makes a less-effective bio less effective, and then delve further into the mechanics of constructing your own.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

* For the benefit of those of you who weren’t reading this blog regularly throughout holiday seasons past, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (FNDGG) is a jolly elf who regularly graces this page in the winter months, ho, ho, hoing his way toward the end of the year. Better not pout, better not cry — and better get used to hearing about him, because he’s bound to pop up in the months to come.

I want candy!

We begin today with great news about a member of our little Author! Author! community, campers: reader Jake La Jeunesse’s OLD FRIENDS has taken an Honorable Mention in the Stage Play category of the 2008 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. Congratulations, Jake! Way to build up your ECQLC!

That’s short for Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, for those of you joining us late.

Ah, ECQLC, those lovely little tidbits that make Millicent the agency screener’s weary eyes light up in the biographical paragraph of a query letter. Placing in contests (particularly ones known to attract many entries and stiff competition, like Writers’ Digest’s), acceptances to writers’ residences (such as the ones I discussed yesterday, which also usually involve one’s writing fighting its way through heavy competition), writing programs (either degree-granting or of the intensive workshop variety), public speaking experience, even consistent participation in a well-established critique group — all of these are legitimate professional credentials for a writer, every bit as much as previous publications.

Make sure to mention ‘em in your query letters.

If you are in the querying stage of your writing career, or plan to be there within the next year or two, it’s definitely worth giving some thought — and entering the occasional contest — to building up your ECQLC quotient. Credentials generally take time to accumulate, after all; heck, a three- or four-month turn-around time for a contest entry is positively abnormally quick. And it can take time to convince the editor-in-chief of your community paper to let you write a couple of book reviews, even if you do it for free, in order to be able to list it as a publication credential.

Do I sense some squirming discomfort out there from those of you who have read my last couple of posts? “But Anne,” I hear a harassed few exclaim, “you’ve just been telling us that we need to make time for our writing, so I thought you understood. I have a full-time job, family, friends, obligations — as it is, I feel as though I have to fight tooth and nail to carve out any time to write at all! Come to think of it, one of the things I resent most about the querying process is how much time it sucks away from creating new work.

“Given the choice,” these intrepid souls continue, “why would I — or any sane aspiring writer — place our books on a back burner in order to devote still more of that scant time to entering contests or writing free pieces for local papers, just so I’ll have clippings?”

Interesting point, time-pressed many. For the most part, I’m with you on this one: marketing (which querying certainly is), learning about craft, attending conferences, making connections with other writers who may help you improve your writing now and/or help you down the line — these are all time-consuming and often expensive. As you say, you could be using those resources to complete your book-in-progress.

See? I do get it.

For that reason, I wouldn’t advise letting the pursuit of ECQLC make serious inroads into your writing time. You don’t, after all, have unlimited amounts of it, and all of the marketing classes and networking in the world won’t make a particle of difference if your book is not well-crafted.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration: we’ve all stumbled across volumes in the bookstore that made us gasp, “Okay, who does THIS author know” (to put it politely) “to have been able to land an agent for THIS?” But presumably, if you were already a celebrity or had connections that would permit you to bypass — again, putting it politely — the craft-related steps of the production of the book, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?

Oh, don’t deny it. You’d be off hobnobbing with your fancy friends, with no thought for those of us who nursed you as a pup.

For those of us operating under the normal restrictions of landing an agent and getting published, I would consider it reasonable — better than that: cleverly career-minded! — of you to set aside deliberately, say, 5% of your writing time for professional development activities like contest entry, taking classes, going to book readings to meet local authors, etc.

Why 5%, you ask? Because if you write on a regular basis, it’s enough time actually to accomplish something, yet it’s not a high enough chunk of your writing time to prove a major obstacle to the progress of your book. Think of it as a smart investment in your future.

Before any purists out there start screaming that I’m mercenary-minded, allow me to add quickly: for the sake of our art, I wish I could tell you that the publishing world routinely rewards single-minded writers who rigorously refuse to be distracted by the less creative aspects of the business. But I’m not going to lie to you — over the years I’ve seen many, many, many truly talented writers passed over by agents and their Millicents.

Why, you cry to the heavens? Because it’s far, far easier to dismiss an uncredentialed writer than one with some ECQLC.

Yes, regardless of the quality of their respective writing. Long-time readers, take out your hymnals and sing along with me: if you can’t get an agent or editor to READ your manuscript, the quality of the writing isn’t going to help get it published.

Sorry about that. If I ran the universe…well, you know the rest. In the universe I don’t run, here is what I hope is a pleasant flashback to your childhood, to help cheer you up:

All nice and calm again? Excellent. Let’s get back to the topic at hand.

Toward the end of my last post, I suggested that it might behoove you to make a list of the conditions you believe you would need in order to have a productive writing retreat. All right, everybody, hand in your homework, so I can grade it.

Just kidding; no need to post your lists as comments. But your breath caught for just a moment out of long-ago school habit, didn’t it?

I do hope that you’ve been giving some serious thought to what should be on your list, however. If you haven’t started, or if you’re having trouble even beginning, let me rephrase the question: what is the absolute minimum you would need to have with you/over your head in order to dig in for anywhere from a long weekend to a couple of months and to literally nothing but WRITE.

Did you catch the logical problem with what I just said? Obviously, no human being can write 24/7, with no breaks at all. Eating, for example, is more or less indispensable to the maintenance of human life, contrary to what some of us thought in the mid-80s. So, I’m told, is sleep.

You’d be amazed by how frequently writers forget to budget time or money for either when they’re planning to retreat.

Completely understandable, of course: it’s not all that hard to picture a gleeful writer, pleased almost to the point of disbelief at the prospect of being able to devote unbroken time to a writing project, packing in unseemly haste, muttering, “6 days — that’s 144 hours of work. I can finish my revision in 144 hours, if I don’t take breaks and live on protein bars stuffed in my cardigan pockets, so I don’t have to move even a few feet in order to feed myself…”

Stop right there: trust me, you can’t. And you will be (a) completely miserable, (b) quickly become unproductive, and eventually (c) make yourself sick if you even try.

So promise me you won’t, so I don’t have to stay up at night worrying about you. Thank you.

The impulse to overtax oneself on retreat is, I suspect, part and parcel of a mindset that often afflicts time-strapped writers, whether they are lucky enough to be able to go on retreat or not. See if this scenario sounds at all familiar:

Stephanie so yearns for sustained writing time that when she is finally assured she’s going to have an entire day (or two, or twelve…work with me here, people) to herself, she’s beside herself with joy. In a frenzy of excitement, she spends the week prior to her writing day(s) feverishly making lists of everything she plans to do: finish Chapter 12, write Chs. 13-15, compose a new and improved query letter from scratch, compose synopsis…the list goes on and on. As the day itself approaches, Stephanie finds herself doing housework and running errands during her regularly-scheduled normal writing time: ah, well, no matter; she can make it up later.

Once her planned writing intensive begins, though, Stephanie sits down, makes sure everything around her is perfect — and two hours later, is in tears because she can’t seem to write. What happened? she wonders angrily.

What did happen to Stephanie? Any guesses?

If you suggested that perhaps she had raised her expectations of what she could achieve in her allotted time, give yourself a gold star for the day. Aspiring writers do this all the time — they build up the pressure on themselves to perform that they set themselves up for…well, not necessarily failure, but at least for disappointment in themselves.

The common name for this is writer’s block.

Allow me to share a professional writer’s secret: in the long run, it’s far more sensible to set small, reasonable tasks, eating away at a big project like completing a novel in ladylike little bites, rather than trying to write an entire book in a sitting.

Oh, you may laugh, but at every formal writing retreat I’ve ever visited, I’ve met at least one writer who was attempting to polish off her long-neglected novel during a week- or month-long residency, because she just didn’t know when she’d have time to get back to it again, driving herself crazy in the process. Or who was trying to start one and get halfway through it before he left.

Keep your expectations about what you can achieve during your writing time reasonable. Really, you’ll accomplish more in the long run, I promise.

For those of you who would like some extra credit, here’s a follow-up question: Stephanie did something else that made her intensive retreat time less likely to be successful. What was it?

35 points (on a scale of what? Who can say?) if you immediately piped up to point out that she stopped honoring her usual daily writing time. Why was this a poor idea, since she knew she had some spare time coming up? Because that raised the expectations for her own productivity during her intensive writing time even higher, rendering falling short of them even…class?

That’s right, even greater. Help yourself to a lollypop on your way out the door after the bell rings.

On that candy-related note (I knew I’d get back to it somehow), I’m going to wind down for the day, but before I do, allow me to place the proverbial bug in your ear while that lollypop is in your mouth: when planning intensive writing time, it’s a really, really good idea to budget in — over-budget, even — thinking time into it.

Or, as your horrified mind probably just referred to it, time when you’re neither writing, eating, or sleeping.

No, I haven’t gone mad, nor am I nudging you surreptitiously toward lowering your performance expectations even more. (Although, hey, I wouldn’t stop you from doing the latter, by any means.) I’m talking, my friends, about what the pros call processing time.

That being said, I’m going to wind up today by repeating my question from yesterday: what factors would you actually need to have in place in order to work productively on a writing retreat? May I suggest adding to your list time to eat, sleep, and just plain think about things?

Hey, let’s run with that and add a secondary set of goals to our list: tweak it to include conditions you would need in order to do these not-writing-yet-necessary-activities happily and well. Because, believe me, planning for those will assist you in the pursuit of your primary goal, scoring yourself some prime-quality intensive writing time.

So, at the risk of sounding redundant across blog posts, give some thought to what you would need. I promise you, we will put your homework to good use.

Keep up the good work!