Using the Five Senses

Descriptive writing provides words that allow a picture to develop in the reader’s mind. With a focus on the fives senses, a writer can use a few, well-placed details and let the reader fill in the rest. The five most recognized senses are sight (ophthalmoception), hearing (audioception), taste (gustaoception), smell (olfacoception), and touch (tactioception).

Smell. The sense of smell is often considered the most nostalgic sense.

A remembered scent can take the reader back to a specific time or place.

The scent of lilacs (or a description of lilacs) places me in the side yard of my childhood home watching my mother collect an armful of lilacs to fill a pitcher set on our dining room table.5-senses-web

Sound. The sense of sound is often considered the most important sense.

The foundation of communication, sound allows us to relate to others and to nature.

As we set a scene, we know there is always some sound. Sitting in the library, I hear the obvious sounds (voices, a child crying, the telephone ringing, the click of computer keys) but I also hear the sounds below the obvious (change clanking in the copy machine, the soft shuffle of feet along the carpet, the low hum of a mechanical system and the rustle of a newspaper page being turned).

One suggestion to add sound to your work is the use of an onomatopoeia—a word whose sound suggests the sense. Buzz. Hiss. Clatter. Words related to water might include: splash, spray, sprinkle, squirt, drip, and drizzle.

Running Water, an onomatopoeic poem by poet Lee Emmett, illustrates this technique:

Running Water


water plops into pond

splish-splash downhill

warbling magpies in tree

trilling, melodic thrill


whoosh, passing breeze

flags flutter and flap

frog croaks, bird whistles

babbling bubbles from tap

Sight. This is the easiest sense to incorporate into your writing.

Use it to “show” your reader.

What does your character see? What doesn’t your character see? Why?

Sight can flash back or foreshadow.

Taste. Think of eating and drinking, or kissing.

Convey the use of mouth and tongue

A reader can taste the warm blueberry muffin that the character is thinking about for breakfast tomorrow morning as he drives to Maine.

Touch. It can be gentle or harmful, and your reader should “feel” the touch.

Touch can be used to just describe “itchy skin.” Actual touch can be a vital moment in a scene. Consider:

“Hands that hug me. I feel the pressure of his arms as they encircle me and his palms are pressed against my back as he draws me in. He hugs me a bit longer and a bit tighter than in the years past as he knows time is limited.”— Steady Hands by Donna Woods Orazio

Blogger Orly Konig-Lopez (writersinthestorm blog, May 14, 2014) notes that your readers need to hear what your characters are experiencing. She suggests both the expected sounds (the twang of an accent or the jangle of keys) but also the unexpected “the sound of a house settling when the air conditioning is shut off” or the “otherwise invisible sound of air bubbles snapping as the guy in line behind you chews his gum.”

Here are a few suggestions to increase your awareness of the five senses in your work:

  • Pay attention to the world around you.
  • Sitting still, in a coffee shop, at the mall, at your child’s soccer game, or at work, try to connect with all five senses around you.
  • Working from a draft of your current project, take one colored pen/marker and add sound details. Choose another color and add details of smell. Continue with different colors and add in sight, touch, and taste. You will not incorporate all the added words, but a few well-placed ones will improve your work.
  • Create a list of favorite or unusual “sense” words or phrases.

You are setting the scene. What extra details can you insert so that your reader will fully experience this moment in your story? Rather than using broad descriptive words (ugly, great, beautiful, loud), provide your reader with a detailed image that allows them to know and feel what your character is experiencing. Chose your sense words carefully. Your writing shouldn’t be contrived, rather very specific, intimate, and relevant to the story. Surprise your reader.

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio

Photo by Beth Poe. Used by permission.


Published in: on October 24, 2016 at 12:18 pm  Comments (4)  

Mastering the art of fine writing

Writing-craft manuals never cease to impress the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) with their penchant for coining new names for timeless elements of storytelling, and for enumerating those elements.

Consider these colorful, random vocabulary lists, compiled from three favorites: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story and the newest addition to the FWB’s collection, Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid.

Snyder: “Break Into Two,” “Fun and Games,” “All Is Lost,” “Dead Night of the Soul,” “Break Into Three,” “Final Image.”

Truby: “First Revelation and Decision,” “Second Revelation and Decision,” “Scene Weave,” “Gate, Gauntlet, Visit to Death,” “New Equilibrium.”

Coyne: “Beginning Hook,” “Middle Build,” “Ending Payoff,” “The Best Bad Choice,” “Value Shift,” “Polarity Shift,” “Resolution.”

As for enumeration, Snyder prescribes that you follow a 15-step beat sheet. Truby’s book is subtitled 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, and one of its chapters is “The Seven Steps of Story Structure.” Coyne’s chapters include “Genre’s Five-Leaf Clover” and “An Editor’s Six Core Questions,” and Part 5 of the book defines six “Units of Story.”

Admittedly, the FWB’s copies of these three guides abound with dog-earred pages, underlined passages and scribbled annotations in the margins. They all offer hopeful advice, at least to this still-aspiring novelist.UKLbyMarianWoodKolisch

Nevertheless, it was refreshing indeed to come across a jargon-free, common-sense blog post by renowned fantasy and science fiction author and poet Ursula K. Le Guin (right, photo Copyright © by Marian Wood Kolisch) at the website Book View Café, via a link on the U.K. newspaper The Guardian’s Books homepage. Le Guin’s post was in answer to a question from one Nancy Jane Moore: “How do you make something good?”

Not by following a step-by-step, “check-that-off-the-list” progression, Le Guin writes.

Here are some short excerpts. After reading them, the FWB strongly recommends clicking through to read Le Guin’s entire text.

“Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

“Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time. . . .

“Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it. . . .”

—Alex McNab

Creative Writing: The Power of Limits

Once-we-accept-our-limitsHello to all you writers out there. This is Adair Heitmann writing to you about constraint.

I’ve just finished reading Biz Stone’s, Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind. Stone is the co-founder of Twitter. As a writer, you probably either love or hate the social media giant, but we’ll leave that conversation for another time.

Stone’s book encouraged me to examine how my own mind works and I’ve come away inspired. In his chapter, “A Short Lesson in Constraint,” Stone tells a few real-life stories to illustrate his point.  One is a story about his mother’s answer to his continuous query when he was a child, “What should I draw?” When she finally said, “Draw a dump truck,” limiting the options gave him a place to start.

Writers can take away a writing tip from this kind of thinking.  Instead of your character asking, “How was your day?”  Which is almost always answered with, “Fine.” Put restraints on the question, such as “How was your lunch with Steve?” This will yield a far more interesting answer.

One story tells about a Silicon Valley billionaire who invented the perfect microchip for mobile devices by accident. He gave his team no money, no time, and no resources. They came up with the technology that powers the chips that are in practically all cell phones.

Each story talks about the power of limitations. How many of you are writers who have full-time jobs outside the sphere of your personal writing? Welcome to my world. While my life is filled with what others may view as constrictions, I’ve learned to accept them. It’s exhilarating to be drafting this blog, sandwiched between work and picking up my son at cross country practice. The limits force me to think clearly about what I want to say, focus on that and that alone, then type fast. I’ll publish this blog later tonight after washing the dinner dishes.

Biz Stone says, “Embrace your constraints, whether they are creative, physical, economic, or self-imposed. They are provocative. They are challenging. They wake you up. They make you more creative. They make you better.”

Until next time, keep on writing.

Lessons from a novelist-in-progress

Shortly after you retire from your government job in Washington, D.C.—writing congressional testimony about economics and finance for a federal agency—you make your initial foray into fiction. You enter the first 50 pages of your debut novel, The Last Monument, in the 2011 Maryland Writers’ Association Novel Contest, subtitled “Great Beginnings,” in the mainstream/literary category. You win! (And collect $200.)

You query agents. After sending out requested pages you establish a dialogue with one of them (though you do not become an official client). From that rep and others, you hear the same thing; they cannot sell a novel that has an unlikeable protagonist. When the book indeed doesn’t sell, you realize that the naysayers are most likely talking specifically about unlikeable female protagonists in commercial fiction. It is, you conclude, an easy thing to say.

Now what? If you are Valentine “Missy” Craig (below)IMG_0256 from Bethesda, Md., you go right back to work on novel number two. And to make sure it works, after you finish a first draft you hire a freelance editor in Westport, Conn., who spent his career at many prominent publishing houses. After he’s read a couple of revisions of your Book Two, you travel to Westport to meet him in person. And you stay overnight with a longtime friend and her nosy husband, who happens to be a regular contributor to the Fairfield Writer’s Blog.

The blogger won’t let you leave for your writer-editor lunch until he’s picked your brain for the lessons you’ve learned that other aspiring novelists might apply to their own creative writing.

Book One, by the way, tells the story of a woman who is contacted by a daughter who she gave up for adoption many years ago and how things develop. Book Two is about a woman who is dealing with the loss of her husband and child in a house fire, and incorporates the historical topic of burking, or murdering someone for medical use of their body parts.

So here they are, 10 lessons from award-winning, though yet unpublished, novelist Missy Craig:

Lesson 1. It’s all practice. “Book Two is much better written,” Missy says. “Even the second part of my first book is better written than the first half. You don’t believe it, but it is practice. Writing dialogue. Doing things subtly. It’s all practice.”

Lesson 2. Summarize your contents. “The organization [of a novel] can be tremendous, and nobody tells you that. Keeping track of all the plot lines and personalities, keeping the tone consistent. I’m now a better person at keeping track of stuff. I don’t really outline. But I have a table of contents. Each chapter is [summarized] in one or two sentences. It helps me decide where something has to be done, or expanded, or where it shouldn’t be, maybe where something is really out of order. So it’s a great organizational tool for me.”

Lesson 3. Join a group. Being part of a writers’ group “makes you sit down and write.” And try to write well, Missy adds. “You don’t want to write something really crappy and have everyone think that’s the best you can do.”

Lesson 4. Take a class. “So many people say they’d like to write a novel and they just never do anything. I’d tell them to take a course.” Missy applied for and was accepted into a dialogue class at the Washington Writers’ Center. “It was absolutely wonderful. How many times in new writers’ work do you read, ‘Pass the salt.’ ‘Here’s the salt.’ They feel like they have to describe everything that happens. First off, my teacher said, ‘I never want to hear any character say, “Pass the salt.” ’ He said, ‘Cut that out. Dialogue should be either for character development or to move the story along.’ ”

Lesson 5. Make your characters human. “What I like about novels is the character identification and caring about the character,” Missy says. “It’s very important to me for people to understand why people are the way they are, that they’re not as they appear. If I can do that, and do it subtly, that’s what I’m looking for.” In Book One, Missy held back on taking the reader inside her protagonist’s head: “I wanted the woman to be someone hard to figure out, so I didn’t want to show much interior.” There’s more inner processing with the main character in Book Two, and “it does make for greater depth,” she says. On the other hand, her independent editor “thinks the man I have in Book Two is too good to be true. Which is very interesting, because every woman who’s read it has said, ‘Oh, where are they?’ ” The editor has suggested that her male lead needs some faults, that the protagonist and the male lead are too harmonious and that the characters do too much thinking and talking and too little engaging in action scenes.

Lesson 6. Finish like you mean it. “My father wrote plays when he was young, and he never finished anything,” Missy recalls. “And he wrote novels, and he never finished them. Working for the government, people think that you don’t complete things. Believe it or not, you have to do it—on time. If I were writing a 40-page thing for the head of the agency to present before the banking subcommittee, all hell would break loose if it was not on the Hill in 40 copies Saturday at midnight. So that was very good discipline for finishing” a work of fiction. “I have to finish things. . . .It’s like a compulsion.”

But that compulsion can manifest itself as a weakness, she learned. Her independent editor said that in the final third of Book Two, “I was shortcutting a lot of stuff. He said the writing was variable. . . .It was like an outline.” And the story itself was “too pat. He said, ‘You just crossed everything off. Closed that, closed that, closed that. Everything’s been closed down. Finished. That’s not how things are.’ After awhile, you start realizing, yeah, this could be longer. Needs more explanation. More context. . . .I may need to explain some things a little more.”

Part of the unsatisfactory finish was because Missy had to deal with a health issue. But there was also her method of re-reading her drafts: “I start doing editing as I go. I have to limit myself to marking problem passages with stickies or check marks and just go back to them later. Instead of taking care of them then. But I just keep on taking care of business again and again. I can’t stop myself. That’s why my ending is not that great, because I don’t get there as often.”

Lesson 7. Be alert to boredom. This tip concerns to that familiar cliché about balancing scene and exposition. In Missy’s words, “Typically I know I’m doing too much telling, and not enough showing, if it gets boring. Telling can be boring. Often you don’t become aware of it until reading [your copy] two or three or four times later.”

Lesson 8. Read your chapters by theme. Book Two has three major themes, and, “I’ve got them separated like that” for reviewing, Missy says. “I pull out those chapters and print them—because I think it’s important to read the manuscript on paper. I review and revise the one that’s worst, the least developed, first. If it’s the mystery theme, let’s say, 10 chapters, I have them all in a row, even though they’re not in the book all in a row, so I can follow the theme through and see if it’s developing properly, see where I perhaps repeat myself. Of course, then when you put the entire book back together, sometimes you have to change other stuff.”

Lesson 9. Hire an editor. When Missy sent Book Two to the agent she had been in contact with, “She liked it, she said. But she said, ‘I don’t think I can sell it.’ It was complete, but pretty much a first draft. No doubt, I sent it too early. So she gave me the names of three editors,” and Missy hired the man from Westport. “He’s read two drafts so far. I think he really gets it. And he’s nice, too.”

In addition to telling her she needed to improve the last third of the story, the editor has helped her with characterization, such as flagging a character’s behavior with a note asking, “Where did that come from? That’s just too out of the blue. You have to expand it.” He’s also advised her to kill her darlings: “I wrote a good scene with a coyote that comes out and surprises the protagonist and her dog. The editor said, ‘That’s very nice, but what is it all about?’ It was a very nice five pages of prose, and it set mood, I thought. He wants me to throw it out.”

In case you were wondering, the editor also read Book One. In answer to agents’ objections that they could not sell a book with an unlikeable protagonist, he told Missy, “I don’t think that’s so. I’ve bought books that had unpleasant people in them.” One of the issues he had with Book One was its point of view, specifically that it sometimes had a secondary POV although it was written in third-person limited. “He told me he liked the first one,” Missy says, “but to go do something else. Which means, he gave me an answer” about its ultimate viability as a publishable work.

Lesson 10. Approach agents at conferences. “I have gone to several writers conferences,” Missy says. “I go only when I’ve completed a novel, and the only reason I go is because agents are there and they are actually looking [for writers with good books]. If you go talk to them, I find that about 80 percent of them will say, ‘Give me 50 pages.’ I think it’s very efficient. Whereas if you send a cold query, 95 percent you never even hear back from. I have sent cold queries out that moved forward, though.”

So, what was the outcome of Missy’s lunch with her editor? He asked to see one more draft of Book Two, with the idea that after that it will be ready for line editing. And then, presumably, successfully querying and signing on with an agent, followed by submissions to publishers and the next stage of its successful journey to a bookstore near you.—Alex McNab

Published in: on July 7, 2014 at 3:53 pm  Comments (2)  
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Balancing drama with levity

On May 28, the Library and Fairfield University sponsored a joint author appearance with thriller writers Terry Hayes and Andrew Gross. Hayes, a veteran screenwriter (“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior,” “Dead Calm,” “Payback,” et al.), is a first-time novelist whose I Am Pilgrim, just published in the U.S., is already a bestseller overseas. Gross, whose new title is Everything to Lose, is a veteran on American bestseller lists. One attendee was JoAnn Kienzle, a longtime member of our twice-monthly Saturday writers’ group, who writes novels and short stories and has worked as a credited scriptwriter on TV series. Here she elaborates on a storytelling point Hayes made during the discussion.

In “Regarding Happiness,” one of his many essays on writing, Charles Baxter wrote, “We all understand intuitively that reading about the happiness of others is often boring.” Baxter wrote the essay in response to readers, including his own mother, who said they wanted to read happy pieces. Why would readers seek storiesTHayesPilgrim about happiness if it is, by nature, boring?

Because, though happiness itself is boring, drama is taxing. Reading something sad, or frightening, or thought-provoking, can exhaust the reader. While creating happy stories isn’t the answer, creating levity is. Last week, when Terry Hayes (above) spoke about his new thriller, I Am Pilgrim, he explained that, while drama is critical to interesting storytelling, lightness is also an important element in writing. He pointed out you occasionally need to use something—a heart-warming moment, a funny scene—to give your reader a break from the heaviness.

When I worked in television, my agent told me something similar. He also said a key distinction between dramas is how they handle comedy. If you think about the television dramas that you enjoy—Mad Men and Breaking Bad are great examples—you’ll realize how many of the moments you remember are funny, though the shows are anchored with very dramatic scenes.

And it’s the same for novels. Writers don’t need to be able to create jokes or one-liners to create relief, they just need to be able to let their characters have moments of levity. As you are writing your next piece, pay attention to the emotion you are trying to elicit from your reader in each of your scenes and make sure there’s a balance. It will both help your reader stay engaged and make your writing more interesting.—JoAnn Kienzle

Published in: on June 3, 2014 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Is that all there is? The aspiring novelist’s to-do list

So you want to make a full commitment to your effort to become a successful, engaged writer of long narrative fiction? Consider the following elements of the job description.

Story Organization

• Determine your story’s three-act structure.

• Chart your plot points/story beats, including but not limited to:

Inciting Incident

Establishment of the Stakes

Attacks on the Hero


Reversals and Revelations

Recalibrating the Stakes

All is Lost Moment

Hero’s Pause for Dark Reflection

Final Battle



• Review the hero’s journey, desire, agenda, quest, path of change.

• Ditto the antagonist’s.

• Go through and outline your entire first draft before beginning revisions.


• Make daily stops at the best online story aggregators and discussion boards about your subject.

• Check relevant topics on Wikipedia.

• Take whatever field trips are necessary to get the “real feel” of your story world.

• Tune into TV shows about that world on the NatGeo, History, Biography or Spike TV channels, even if you’ve seen the shows several times before.

• Keep checking for any new books about your subject, then try to read them when your purchase arrives.


• Download and take a class in Scrivener, even though you have already written thousands of words in Microsoft Word.

Social Media

• Post regularly on two blogs of your own: a personal one and a writerly one, where you might even consider posting excerpts from your work-in-progress.

• Comment regularly on Twitter, post and share on Facebook, and keep your profile updated on LinkedIn—the minimum in terms of social networking.

• Establish a presence on GoodReads.

Publishing Planning

• Learn the difference among an Elevator Pitch, a Log Line and a Premise.

• Research the surefire three-paragraph query letter and file away some examples thereof.

• Seek out, similarly, the ultimate guide to crafting a winning synopsis. Be sure you can write it in 1-page, 3-page and longer versions.

• Collect the names of reputable freelance editors who can review your manuscript, if and when you finish it.

• Begin compiling a list of agents you’ll approach about your completed manuscript, with a reminder about each one as to why she or he is receiving your letter.

• Bring yourself up to date about the burgeoning world of self-publishing, in case you opt for or must go that route.

Writing Advice

• Read the three writers’ magazines (Writer’s Digest, The Writer and Poets & Writers) when the new issues hit the mailbox or newsstand.

• Surf the websites of writing gurus and agents (i.e.,,,,, Janet Reid (, etc.

• Explore going away to a multi-day writers’ conference or writer’s retreat, or both.

Local Writing Community

• Attend the semi-monthly writers’ group and the monthly Writers’ Salon and Writers Read sessions at your public library.

• Read the library’s Writer’s Blog, and contribute a post if invited.

• Take part in your own or a neighboring community’s One Book One Town celebration, depending on which town has selected a book that interests you and that you want to or have read.

• Join a fee-based ongoing weekly workshop/critique group with a veteran college professor or published novelist.

• Collate the suggested edits/questions/areas-needing-improvement-or-cutting that you agree with from all of the reading copies of your work that you handed out in the library and fee-based workshops/critique groups.

• Attend local appearances by touring novelists. Strongly consider buying a copy of their new book and getting it signed, perhaps after telling the author that you’re working on your own novel, so she or he will write a pep-talk inscription for you along with her or his autograph.


• Heed the words of Stephen King: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

• Read fiction while writing fiction to keep your creative pump primed.

• Don’t read fiction while writing fiction so you don’t subconsciously fall into the style of the authors you are reading.

• Read the latest Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner.

• Read the widely acclaimed first novel by a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

• Read the just-published second novel of another graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because you so enjoyed her first novel.

Updike• Read the widely acclaimed new biography of a great American writer, John Updike, even if the only works by him that you have read are some of his essays about golf.

Current Events

• Stay abreast of key writerly issues, such as the latest developments in the MFA-vs.-NYC and unlikeable-vs.-likeable-main-characters debates.


• Keep sending out the two or three short stories that have been collecting rejection slips.

 And, Oh Yeah, Don’t Forget

• Set and adhere to a daily writing schedule—using an elapsed-time, word-count or page-count quota—so you can, once and for all, finish composing and revising your book.—Alex McNab

A local guru’s writing tips for 2014

A lot of us in this Connecticut town got our start as creative writers in one of Carol Dannhauser’s Writers’ Workshop of Fairfield groups. Carol is an award-winning magazine writer and TV producer, author of three books, a former big-city newspaper reporter, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University, a dedicated foodieCarolD (that’s a persimmon gelato cone she’s eating in the photo on the right, incidentally) and a determined if fledgling fencer. She also is an indefatigable, effervescent writing coach of groups and individuals of all ages and levels of experience.

So when she appeared as guest facilitator at the Library’s first monthly writers’ salon of 2014, the turnout overwhelmed the capacity of the lovely writers’ room and the group had to move upstairs to a much larger space. Carol’s topic was “tips, tools and techniques for actually writing the pieces you need/want to write this year.” In her inimitable idiom, here are highlights of what Carol told us:

“Have a deadline.” Read on to learn why.

“Figure out your motivation.” Writing, Carol says, “is fun. And it’s hard. It’s fun and hard at the same time. What is it about this project of yours that will help you derive satisfaction? What makes you do it, on top of whatever else you do, when your kids are still sleeping, when you get up an hour before everybody else gets up, when it’s Wednesday night and everybody else is watching ‘Modern Family.’ Something has to be nudging you along to pick up the pen. The fact that maybe you should do it isn’t the right answer. I make my living as a writer of nonfiction. I dabble in fiction. . .[but] I am determined to finish a draft of a novel this year.” Why? “I want to see if I can do it. And it’s a great story. It’s a great story and I think I can do it, but maybe I can’t.” Of course, that thought process gets in the way of every writer, she says. So…

“Get rid of the judgment.” Carol admits she’s a terrible fencer. “But every single week I devote a certain amount of time to becoming a better fencer. I get my ass kicked, by children, including my own. I will leave and go, ‘I’m terrible.’ Then, in a couple of more days, I’ll try it again.” Many of us don’t approach writing that way. “There’s all this judgment that comes with writing,” most of it from yourself. “You write it and, ‘Oh, it’s terrible.’ It’s terrible now. Every single thing I write is terrible—until it’s not.” That’s why. . . .

“You have to have the faith that it will get better.” Writing takes practice. “If you do it long enough, sooner or later it will get better. Yes, you go on a wing and a prayer sometimes. Try really, really hard to tell your inner critic, ‘I know it sucks. Give me some time, and it will suck less,’ and less and less. And then maybe it won’t be so bad. Then maybe pretty good, then good, then maybe it’ll be great. But you can’t give up. How many people have half-finished projects? A third finished? That’s my big one. You just can’t give up.” Eventually, though. . .

“You need to be done.” Why? “Because if you wait for you to be done, you might not ever be done.” So refer back to her command about a deadline.  “I would suggest making a deal with yourself: ‘Self, I’m going to finish this piece of something by March first. Maybe it’s not going to be perfect. But it’s going to be finished. And then I’m going to do something with it by April first.’ If you are a perfectionist, you will never finish it.”

“Give your writing respect.” That means writing something every single day. It “needs to get the same little bit of respect as your other projects in life. It doesn’t have to be a whole production. But it has to be a commitment to writing in some way on a regular basis.” One way to do that is to keep a log of every time you write. “Not that you read about writing, or read someone’s blog. That’s all great. [But] you’re not writing.”

“Make your goal smaller.” Carol says, “Yeah, I want to write a novel. But my goal yesterday wasn’t to write a novel. My concrete goal was to figure out how time was going to elapse in this little novel of mine, and how to split it up.” Over the course of a two-day writers’ retreat, she did just that, as well as figure out how to amp up the conflict and reach a resolution in the last quarter of her story. Again, your goal “doesn’t have to be, ‘I’m going to write my whole memoir.’ Like Legos, you don’t have to build the whole thing in a day.”

“If you’re stuck, skip over that part.” As she says, “What do you do in traffic? Detour. You can sit there all day, and it’s not happening. Go around. Skip it. [If you want to], put some piece of crap on the page. The beauty is, you can go back and fix it. I think of poor Michelangelo when he was sculpting. ‘Oh my God! You wrecked the nose. You’re screwed.’ And I just cut and paste.” Once again. . .

“You have to stick with it.” Mixing her artistic metaphors a little, Carol says, “In creative writing, you have to understand that it’s going to be a piece of clay for a long time. Maybe you don’t get the nose right 15 times. You try it again. How many guitars did Picasso paint? Again and again and again. How many horses? Again and again and again. Till he got it right? He never got it right. And every one was a masterpiece. People will spend a million dollars on one of his sketches. So try, try, to let the judge go.”

Deal with procrastination. “The first thing I’d do was play Scrabble against my computer,” Carol confesses. “I would not begin writing until I had won. Sometimes 25 minutes would pass and I’d think, ‘Well, this is good. It’s words. It’s priming my brain. Like warming up at the track.’ No, it’s not. It’s playing Scrabble. I have quelled my Scrabble habit. Not like going cold turkey. Since January 1, now I play after writing 500 words.” If procrastination is your problem, Carol told us, Hillary Rettig’s website may help. It offers an online newsletter with tips and tools for overcoming procrastination. Carol took a two-hour writers’ workshop with Rettig at Hartford’s Mark Twain House (a very writer-friendly locale with a calendar of events worth considering) and says, “Go check her out. And if you ever contact her, tell her I said hello.”

“Get a partner.” Before we left the room, Carol asked us to introduce ourselves to a person we didn’t know and exchange email addresses.  “Tell them what you’re going to write, then check in later,” she advised. The focus should be on what you plan to do next. As for what you accomplished between check-ins, a simple, “Did it,” will suffice. “Because I have promised my partner that I will be writing, that’s what I do,” she said. “Or you can meet up. But the commitment is what’s important. It’s so helpful. Writing is so solitary. That commitment to somebody, it’s magical.”—Alex McNab

Some final thoughts on writing, 2013

On December 28, 2013, our Library writers’ group completed its fifth calendar year of twice-a-month workshops. That’s a lot of reading, listening and critiquing. At each meeting, I distribute a handout of writing advice culled from myriad blogs, websites, books, newspapers, magazines, author appearances and more. All told, I have passed out 106 such digests during those five years. Extracted from the 2013 handouts, on this last day of the year, I’d like to share a few of the thoughts on writing that I came across in books I read—not all of them books about writing—during the past 365 days.

• From The Liar’s Bible: A New Collection of Essays on Writing by Lawrence Block (via Kindle from Open Road Media):

Block“Sometimes I think it takes guts to write fiction. And other times I think what it really takes is arrogance. Consider the effrontery of the fictioneer. He sits down at his desk and makes up a story, assuming that the product of his own imagination will keep other people, total strangers to him, interested and enthralled. He invents characters and trusts that these strangers will care mightily about what happens to these made-up people. The flip side of all this arrogance is anxiety and insecurity. Why should anyone waste his time reading my made-up stories? Why should people care what happens to my characters? And where do I get off deciding what happens next? How do I know what my characters think/feel/believe? What entitles me to decide how their fabricated lives will turn out? It helps if I can learn to operate less on arrogance and more on humility.”Burke

• From Light of the World: A Dave Robicheaux Novel by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)

“At a certain age, you realize the greatest loss you can experience is a theft you perpetrate upon yourself—the waste of days given us. Is there any more piercing remorse than the realization that a person has thrown away the potential that resides in every sunrise?”

• From Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (Warner Books):Goldman

“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”

• From Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (Random House):Kidder

“That you can learn to write better is one of our fundamental assumptions. No sensible person would deny the mystery of talent, or for that matter the mystery of inspiration. But if it is vain to deny these mysteries, it is useless to depend on them. No other art form is so infinitely mutable. Writing is revision. All prose responds to work.”

• From The Double by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown & Co.):

Pelecanos“[Spero Lucas] had too many books in his apartment and he liked to pass them on to the wounded soldiers and marines who had little to do beyond their rehab. Some of the books were biography and history, and some were considered literary fiction, whatever that was. But like most people, the recovering veterans enjoyed a good story told with clean, efficient writing, a plot involving a problem to be solved or surmounted, and everyday characters the reader could relate to.”

• From Elsewhere: A Memoir by Richard Russo (Alfred A. Knopf)

Russo“It didn’t take me long to learn that novel writing was a line of work that suited my temperament and played to my strengths, such as they were. Because—and don’t let anybody tell you different—novel writing is mostly triage (this now, that later) and obstinacy. Feeling your way around in the dark, trying to anticipate the Law of Unintended Consequences. Living with and welcoming uncertainty. Trying something, and when that doesn’t work, trying something else. Welcoming clutter. Surrendering a good idea for a better one. Knowing you won’t find the finish line for a year or two, or five, or maybe never, without caring much. Putting one foot in front of the other. Taking small bites, chewing thoroughly. Grinding it out. Knowing that when you’ve finally settled everything that can be, you’ll immediately seek out more chaos. Rinse and repeat. Somehow, without ever intending to, I’d discovered how to turn obsession and what my grandmother used to call sheer cussedness—character traits that had dogged both my parents, causing them no end of difficulty—to my advantage.”

[Thanks to my wife, Diane Melish, for reading the book and sharing the quote with me.—AM] 

• From Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro (Atlantic Monthly Press)17465707

“Sit around a scarred wooden table in a writing workshop for enough hours and you’ll hear write what you know, along with show don’t tell, never use adverbs, and other guidelines. And know that every rule you’ll hear in a writing workshop is meant to be broken. You can do absolutely anything—tell, not show, make excellent use of an adverb—as long as you can pull it off. Get out there on the high wire, unafraid to fail.”

“. . .If beginnings are leaps of faith, and middles are vexing, absorbing, full of trap doors and wrong turns and dead ends, sensing an ending is your reward. It’s better than selling your book. It’s better than a good review. . . .There will be a moment—today, tomorrow, three weeks or two months from now—when you’ll write a sentence and then stare at it, dumbfounded. It has caught you unawares. You can’t be on the lookout for it. You can’t will it, or force it, and you don’t have to, because it will feel inevitable. Everything has led to this.”

• From The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P: A Novel by Adelle Waldman (Henry Holt & Co.)Waldman

“Sure, writing his book hadn’t been entirely easy.. . .[S]omething that existed only as a Microsoft Word document, a sprawling tale of a young immigrant family grappling with life in the American suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, [it was] a work he’d been revising and rewriting since he was in his midtwenties without ever having earned a penny from it. But writing his book—at least after a certain point, years in, when, by shifting its focus from the son to the parents, he’d finally seemed to find the thing’s pulse and the novel began to take shape almost of its own accord—had also been the greatest pleasure of his life. That a publisher was willing to pay him for it, pay him generously, was nothing to complain about. He’d do it again for free, in a minute. Many of those late nights, when he’d paced his apartment, his mind roaming the world he’d painstakingly created and could finally inhabit—moving within it from character to character, feverishly distilling into words thoughts not his own but theirs—had been ecstasies of absorption and self-forgetfulness.”

“. . .It could be difficult to stay motivated sometimes—he knew that—especially when you were unhappy. But he also knew that you had to push through. He had. He had written his book even on days when it was the last thing he felt like doing.”

Finally, all best wishes on writing well and with success in the New Year.—Alex McNab

Dani Shapiro’s book for writers

Joanne Hus, a member of our Saturday writers’ group at the Library, was the first person to bring our attention to Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing. Joanne’s story “We All Fall Down” was published in Venü magazine. She sent us this post:

A number of books about writing and creativity sit at my fingertips to inspire me: Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird among them. The most recent addition to the inspiration kit I keep at my desk is Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.

Shapiro (right, photoDSJH by Joanne Hus) has written bestselling novels and memoirs. She has a lot to teach us (in fact, she has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, The New School, NYU, and Wesleyan University, as well as being cofounder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy), and I found Still Writing to be singularly generous. This is not a book about writing technique; rather, it is a book about the writing life. As she says in her introduction:

“The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail—not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime.”

What makes Still Writing so useful is Shapiro’s honesty about how hard it is to create something out of nothing. She names the temptations that threaten to derail any creative endeavor, especially what she so accurately calls the “crack cocaine” known as the Internet.

I was fortunate to catch up with Shapiro at Hickory Stick bookstore in Washington Depot, Conn.—in Litchfield County, where she resides—in October. She began her presentation with a brief explanation of why she wrote the book. Like many books, Still Writing started off as a blog. Shapiro’s readers kept asking her to write one, so she asked herself what topic she could write about “that wouldn’t make me want to shoot myself.” Lucky for us, she decided to write about “what it takes to be alone in a room with nothing but a blank page for company.”

Shapiro is disarmingly honest about her own wrestling with creativity. For aspiring writers like me, it is at once reassuring and sobering to realize this struggle doesn’t get easier with practice. Indeed, according to her comments at Hickory Stick, the struggle is “harder and harder—in a wonderful way.”

She told us, “The most treacherous part of my day is the walk from the kitchen to my office. On that walk, I can get into so much trouble!” For example, on that walk one day she noticed that the curtain rods in the living room needed updating. When she got to her computer she decided to check Restoration Hardware’s website to look for replacements. Somehow, an entire morning vanished. Shapiro shares similar stories in Still Writing, and I found it especially encouraging (if a little frightening) that even someone of her stature and accomplishment is sometimes thrown off course by the Internet and other distractions. Like anyone else, she struggles to get out of her own way.

Most of us are alone when we create something, if not literally then metaphorically. I am happy to have Dani Shapiro next to me at my desk, whispering words of encouragement as I do battle with the blank page:

“Sit down and begin. Act as if you might just create something beautiful, and by beautiful I mean something authentic and universal. Don’t wait for anybody to tell you it’s okay. Take that shimmer and show us our humanity. That’s your job.”

Joanne Hus

Published in: on December 3, 2013 at 8:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Laura Lippman’s four little words

You’ve read them here before.

They are my favorite four words of writing advice.

They also haunt me.

“Finish the damn book.”

Go to the website of author Laura Lippman. lauralippman The words are right there in bold type, in the “Self Help” and “Son of Self Help: The Sequel” areas, under the “Letters” menu heading. Lippman (right) is the Baltimore-based, Edgar Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling crime novelist who writes a series about private eye Tess Monaghan as well as acclaimed stand-alone titles including, most recently, And When She Was Good. On February 14, 2014, After I’m Gone, another stand-alone, will be published by William Morrow. aftergoneUS-199x300It is Lippman’s 20th book, the first of which was published in 1997.

I’ve been trying to meet Lippman’s charge for a long time.

At this point, I have written a long first draft of what I call a literary tough-guy novel. I have read most of the chapters in critique workshops over the years, and I’ve revised much of what I’ve written. That, however, isn’t the same as reimagining and rewriting the parts that need it. I still wrestle with the plot and the characters’ motivations. Also, I need to strengthen existing scenes and add missing ones in the domestic subplot, which I find hard to do. (Who would have guessed? I’m a guy, after all.) And at one point or another, I’ve fallen victim to almost every one of the following 10 reasons I’ve come up with for why aspiring fiction writers don’t finish the damn book.

1. Laziness;

2. Fear—of the book being too lousy; too self-revealing; too offensive to family, friends or an interest group; etc.;

3. Paralysis by analysis because the novice novelist studies too many craft books and feels his/her story misses too many beats of the prescribed story-structure formula;

4. Failure of imagination in coming up with an ending that meets the ideal, that it be both surprising and inevitable;

5. Losing one’s way in the story;

6. Perfectionism;

7. Inability to stop doing research;

8. Self-inflicted internet interruptions;

9. Lack of compelling need or desire to finish;

10. “Not enough time.”

At this point, while I can see a path toward the finish line, I seem to lack the confidence that I can invent what it will take to get there.

There seemed to be one thing left to do to try to overcome the dilemma: Reach out to Laura Lippman for her insight behind those four words.

When an initial email to Lippman came back as undeliverable, I contacted Joe Meyers, the Ellery Queen Award-winning book critique at the Connecticut Post, who had just seen Lippman at the Bouchercon mystery writing conference in Albany, N.Y., where the above photo of the author was shot. He suggested I contact Sharyn Rosenblum, the ace publicist at HarperCollins, of which William Morrow, Lippman’s publisher, is an imprint. Rosenblum forwarded my general query to Lippman, which I planned to follow up with a more detailed message. Before I could do that, Lippman wrote me back with answers that anticipated everything I planned ask her. Here is what she said:

“People don’t finish for a lot of reasons. Some don’t finish because a book is like a marriage or a new relationship. There’s a lot of giddy excitement in the early going, but then it requires work and patience and good habits and showing up—if not every day, pretty regularly. You can’t neglect it. Some people just don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s not hard, relative to a lot of jobs, but it’s harder than it looks.

“People also don’t finish because of fear. What if it’s not good? What if I don’t get published? What if I get published and people say it’s not good. A lot of perfectionism—the tendency to rework the same pages over and over—is a way of masking those fears. There’s a line in the musical ‘Company,’ about marriage/relationships: ‘Don’t be afraid that it won’t be perfect. Be afraid that it won’t be.’

“Every external dream we have about publishing has the nutritional value of cotton candy. I’ve been lucky enough to see some big dreams come true—prizes, making The New York Times list, having one of my books adapted for film. And that’s nice and that’s lovely and I tried to enjoy those moments, but they were moments and they didn’t really feed me.

“The work is what feeds us. So when you’re down in the dumps and trying to finish, imagining money or red carpets or even the Nobel Prize ceremony isn’t going to take you there. Because none of those things can nourish you.

“You try to make the book better. The book tries to make you better. Together, you struggle toward the finish line. Sometimes, the book will be urging you on, pacing itself. Sometimes it will be the other way around. The book wants to quit and you have to do whatever you can to keep it going. There are lots and lots of tricks. Have a character write you a letter. If you know the end of the book, start writing it and work backward, see if you can make it connect to what’s already written. Rewrite what you have until your characters do what you need them to do. (I had to rewrite a book three times or so before I could get the characters to go to Delaware for the climax.)

“The reward for finishing is finishing.”


Those six words are my new second-favorite piece of writing advice.

My thanks to Laura Lippman.—Alex McNab  

Published in: on November 17, 2013 at 10:55 pm  Comments (2)  
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