Magical Thinking: The Power of Story

In our interview, author Kate Moses raised the topic of magical thinking about the ways your writing can impact the events of the world or your life. We’ve been talking about this in the Book Writing World, discovering that we all have our superstitions about the power of story, of words, to influence outcomes in life: if you kill off the parakeet in your book, what will become of your own little Popo? If your protagonist is older than you are, will the book be published only once you’ve passed her age? On and on . . . This is the kind of worry that one often keeps to oneself, and it is a surprise to discover a lot of writers partake in this kind of magical thinking. On the other hand, words and stories have shaped our lives in very real ways as readers. Who hasn’t felt her sense of self shift, or even his mood alter because of the events in a book? Whose life isn’t made up of fragments of the stories we’ve imbibed as much as by those we’ve lived? It is because we are readers whose lives are shaped by books that we become writers. Little wonder, then, that we imagine that what we write might change our worlds, too. The key, as Kate learned thanks to a friend’s generosity (see all in my upcoming interview), is not to let these superstitions stop you from getting the truth (fictional or not) down on the page. If writing is a form of playing with fire, we don’t want to douse the flames in order to...

KateWalk: A Delicious Memoir of Cakes, Writing and One Heck of a Life

I just spent the morning with Kate Moses on the official publication day of her compelling new memoir, Cakewalk. We filmed our interview in the sunny kitchen, glass door open onto a backyard, three white cats circling and purring. I read Cakewalk in the days before our meeting, laughing out loud and also sobbing. Yes, sobbing. It’s a wild and delicious ride, replete with recipes. Kate’s sentences are delicacies themselves–rich, abundant, generous and exquisite. Rooted in a history of generations of Californians, White Russian treasure burning in a San Francisco dump, children tied to trees after the earthquake to keep them safe, Kate’s is the story of the making of a writer–for without waving any banners, this is a key part of the story and one that my writer self thrilled to read. I don’t envy Kate her harrowing childhood, even with its flights of sugary beauty, and I suppose many writers have a cauldron of a past that boiled us, left us raw, tender and observant. But what a memory–what prose, what images–drives this narrative. What characters people it and what a journey creates the writer who can transform the whole thing into a delicacy. I’ll be posting my video interview with her soon. Come join us in her...

How Do You Write a Book? Motivation and a Plan

“Do we have to go to Europe this summer?” a kid asks his mother. “Shut up and keep swimming!” she replies. This was a story my dad liked to tell, and it’s always seemed to me to describe perfectly the experience of trying to figure out how to write a novel while you are in the process of actually writing one. While I was writing my first novel (Shy Girl, FSG and Seal Press), I knew it was my “learning how to write a novel” novel. I figured after I’d written a publishable novel, I’d be set. Problem is, each book is original, replete with its own original problems, its own original learning curve. Meanwhile, I took a long detour trying to turn myself into a different kind of writer: one who didn’t do so much planning and outlining, for example. I’ve noticed that creative people put a LOT of energy into re-inventing ourselves. Imagine if, instead, we accepted ourselves and learned to be high functioning, productive writers just the way we are? I learned how to do this the hard way. But I’m willing to save you years of struggle and a heck of a lot of recycled pages. Check out my free, 12-minute instructional video, Motivation and a Plan, The Best Way to Write and Complete Your Book. Oh, and I’m offering free coaching to some of the people who leave comments at the site. Let’s set you up for writing success. Oh, and tell your friends who are writing books . . . or wishing they were!...

The Big Blue Beastie: Writing for the Market

I was sitting with a delightful group of published novelists recently and the conversation turned to complaints about the market: why must everything be novel-length? What if you’ve written a novella and don’t want to do more? Why must stories be linked to get any attention? Etc. etc. If you spend any time with writers, you’ve heard some version of the conversation. It boils down to a lament that the market wants a voice in shaping MY art. Look folks, said I. The Sistine Chapel masterpiece had to fit on the ceiling. Shakespeare’s plays had to have five acts and keep standing crowds happy enough that they wouldn’t throw tomatoes. Art has never functioned independently of the market. And most of the time, we are the market: we are those finicky readers who want to be pulled into a story as much as we want the language to thrill us, who go for the buoyant luxury of a full-length novel, rather than the crowded diversity of a gathering of stories. We writers want to be read but then we act as if our readers should be devoted in the manner of parents—indulgent, blindly convinced that we are brilliant. And yet, most writers I know are highly accomplished people who’ve found ONLY IN WRITING a place where they have never quite mastered it once and for all, where they can always do better, always do more. And much as we all complain, I venture to guess that it is that challenge that keeps us all here, sweating and bleeding onto the blank page. What inspiration do you get from the...

Practice, Practice, Practice: A Writer Joins the World

I’m writing 1000 words/ weekday on this second first draft of my novel. I’m constantly reminding myself that part of the purpose of early drafting is to write too much, to learn, discover, invent, to tell myself the story so that I can transform it into scene and figure out how to dole it out to my reader. Yesterday, on my class call, I went on a bit of a rant. But I was pleased with the truth of it and thought I’d share some of it with you. We have a horn player in a professional and well-respected symphony who is writing his first novel in our group. And he is often participating in calls on his way to rehearsals. And it occurred to me that writing is the only art where people want not to have to practice. We not only want this, we expect it, and are disappointed when much of what we write is not good enough for public consumption. We want everything we do to be performance—to be consumed (and paid for) with delight by our customers. Well, maybe we’d be okay with about a 90/ 10 ratio of performance to practice. If we had to cut 10%, we could deal with that. But as in any art and any sport, the ratio is something more like the reverse of that: 10/90. A runner doesn’t go a block or two here or there, saving up the real push for the Big Event Marathon. A pianist doesn’t insist that her seven-year-old lessons be included in her Carnegie Hall debut. Why then do we writers feel...

Five Ways to Keep on Keeping On

You are deep into drafting your novel. You can’t see land in either direction. You can’t quite assess how far you’ve come or how much farther you must go until you can climb out, shake the excess words off, and see the distance you’ve travelled. You can only keep swimming. Here are some tips to keep you going: 1)   Don’t tread water. Keep moving, ideally in the same direction. This means that you are not hitting the same point over and over again. Hit it and go on. What’s next? 2)   Go back and re-read what you wrote over the past couple of days. This takes a certain kind of discipline, because you are likely to hear the angry, frustrated voice of the inner critic telling you just what he or she thinks of what you’ve written. So you must find a way to read just for what’s there, for what’s working, if you must—but better not to even ask yourself if it’s working. Just see what is there and from that, arrive at what comes next. 3)   Put your hands on the keyboard. Close your eyes. Know, powerfully, that what is coming next will come to you. Trust the inkling. Grab it. Go. 4)   Make a left turn, if you can’t keep going forward. If you start to get stuck, just make something happen. Do it as an experiment. You are going to write many books, and many drafts of this book. There is no way to avoid  writing it wrong some of the time, unless you skip out on writing it right, too. So loosen up, get...

Brilliant. Genius. Mom.

I almost never blog about what I am reading. The reasons could form their own blog. Suffice to say, I am not a critic. I read too passionately, get too consumed by a book to want to pull myself out and be insightful, any more than I want to write about other private aspects of . . . my personal passions. However, I just read a book that enthralled me in a “shout it from the rooftops” way. I’d been laboring through a “thriller”—to learn something more about plot!—and just couldn’t get invested. I didn’t care about the protagonist. I actually liked her fine—it wasn’t about likeability. The stakes, even though they seemed to be life or death, didn’t matter to me because they didn’t really matter to her. A game had been thrust upon her, more as a matter of plot, of author convenience, than anything else, as far as I could tell. I accidentally left that book at home when I went away for the weekend! Hmm . . . Instead, I read a book by Yale Goldstein Love, the daughter of one of my brilliant mentors, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Warning: I am going to gush here. This debut novel (called Overture in hardback and The Passion of Tasha Darsky in paperback) is astonishingly mature, authoritative, evocative and gripping. The writing is gorgeous. I loved the character—not because she was likeable or not likeable, but because she was fascinating and because there was a dissonance between how she saw herself and how the world saw her that was apparent to me through the first person narration. That...

Three Plot Tips: Writing to the End

Three Plot Tips: 1) Ask, what do my characters (or I) expect to happen now? Make something utterly different happen. 2) Ask, what was true in the beginning of my book? What was the status quo? How is that changing? What would challenge that more? What would turn it on its head? 3) Ask, what else is going on, underneath what is going on? What else might be revealed? What do I assume? How might what I (or my characters) assume be absolutely not...

How to Force Your Character to Take Action

A member of the Book Writing World has written a terrific mystery, but his protagonist is a little slow about pursuing the clues he’s stumbled upon that indicate a murder has happened. I’ve had my own problems with protagonists who feel helpless, uncertain or just plain lazy. How do you get your characters to stop pondering, philosophizing or just buying donuts and start to make sh*t happen? Get behind your characters’ motivation. What would *you* do if you thought you had discovered evidence of a murder?! Would it haunt you? Writing can be like dreaming. I used to have dreams in which something bad was happening and I needed to run but couldn’t. Eventually I realized that this was because my sleeping body thought I actually wanted it to run and it refused to haul itself out of bed just because I was having a bad dream! A similar lethargy can haunt the writing process. We writers are sitting safely at our desks or wherever, and it seems far-fetched to jump up and start solving murders or actively dealing with major life problems. But if we were in the actual situation, you bet we’d be taking action–and that is what our characters must...