Inspiration Words Writing

I Walk the Line (with apologies to Johnny Cash)

There’s a fine line between creative and commercial writing, and I find myself trying to walk it every day. I work on fiction at least four days a week, and I write non-fiction every day. My goal for each polished piece is to write the best prose I can with the information, knowledge, and resources I have at that moment. Even when I do so, I’m aware that when I look back at any piece from a few month’s distance, I’ll see things I could have done differently. It’s all in the growth of a writer. Blog posts are ephemeral thought collectors that don’t receive the same attention as polished pieces, but they too remind me to be aware of words and how they’re used.

I recently spoke with a budding author who was lamenting the need to find a job, though her novel wasn’t quite finished. Because I know she writes well, I suggested that instead of getting a job, she earn could earn what she needed through copywriting. I wasn’t surprised when she demurred, commenting that she didn’t want to ruin her writing voice.

It’s a fear I’ve encountered many times, but I believe it’s a bogey without much substance. There are creative elements in almost any writing, including all types of commercial writing. Budding ad writers everywhere are probably still advised to be creative and “sell the sizzle, not the steak” (that onomatopoeia is a bit of poetry in itself). Compelling prose is an art form, no matter where it’s found.

If you focus on each assignment, whether commercial or literary, as an opportunity to sharpen word choice, increase sentence fluency, and generally improve your craft, I believe your writing voice will be strengthened by the additional practice. And quite frankly, I feel wickedly gleeful at the thought of being paid to practice an art I love. Yet why not? Master craftsman often serve paid apprenticeships while learning their craft, and it’s a time-tested training method.

As I go back and forth between projects, I’ve found that the greatest challenge is to retain a touch of freshness in everything. Whether I’m reading a how-to or a whodunit, I want to be captivated a deft turn of phrase and charmed or chilled by a precise word choice. That’s an experience I’d like my readers to enjoy as well. Dull prose with a written-by-committee flavor is a good cure for insomnia, or for puppy training, but not for much else.

It may take a moment’s extra thought to choose a vivid word or bypass a worn-out cliche in favor of an unexpected zing, but it’s a moment well spent. I’m not always successful at meeting the freshness challenge (those pesky deadlines and the occasional bouts of verbal laziness catch up with me sometimes), but it’s something I strive for, no matter which side of the proverbial line I’m writing on.


I’m reading Robert Hartwell Fiske’s little gem, Silence, Language, and Society: A guide to style and meaning, grace and compassion. It’s a vividly personal compendium of brief observations, prescriptions, and imprecations, all related to the art of words. So far, the overall theme of the book might be summed up in a single phrase: “You are what you say.” I like that thought, as it acknowledges the power of words to shape reality.

Fiske is the editor and publisher of the wonderful Vocabula Review. If you have a subscription, don’t miss Richard Lederer’s wonderful article on “The Word Magic of Lewis Carroll” in the current issue. (One of NAIWE‘s benefits is that members may subscribe free, and it’s one benefit that I’m thoroughly enjoying!)

I’m inspired to write better by reading great writing and reading about the art of words. What inspires you?

Inspiration Writing

National Poetry Month- Write a Poem a Day!

National Poetry Month 2010April, once called the cruelest month, is National Poetry Month. The Academy of American Poets is sponsoring a wonderful celebration this month, with a stunning poster, suggested activities, and more. You can even sign up to get a poem a day sent to your inbox.

I know several people who plan to celebrate by writing a poem every single day of the month, and I am just deciding that perhaps I’ll try it this year as well. Even if there are days when I don’t feel inspired, there’s always haiku. Not that it’s less difficult than longer poetry, but it does have the virtue of being short. I don’t write poetry often, but it’s a wonderful way to focus sharply on the craft of writing. A challenge is usually fun, too.

What about you? How will you celebrate?

And if you need to get back in touch with T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, you can find it at at the site, with both text and a recorded segment. Enjoy!

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. Read more…


To Publish or Self-Publish? An Unexpected Quandary

I’ve been working on a book proposal, and as it takes shape I find myself in an unexpected quandary. It’s a good book (in my completely unbiased opinion;-)) on a popular topic, and it’s built on many years of practical experience. Although I have a publisher who specifically requested this proposal, I’m hesitating over the question of whether or not I want to go through traditional publishing channels or self-publish.*

You see, I’ve done both, and I know how to self-publish properly– doing everything that a regular publisher would do, including using my company’s own ISBN and hiring experienced specialists for editing, copyediting, indexing, cover design, proofreading and all the other details. I have access to a high-quality pool of experts in NAIWE, the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, and I’m not worried about the mechanics of the process. Because I have a reasonably well-established online presence and a solid platform as a writer, speaker, coach, and director of NAIWE, I’m not worried about the marketing.

The reason I’m wavering is twofold: First, I know the vast difference in profit margin between the two methods, and second, I highly value the speed, flexibility, and control of the self-publishing process. For a non-fiction book that is carefully targeted to a specific audience, a competent self-publisher with a high-quality book can easily reap a profit of at least 50% of the sale price per book, and often quite a bit more. If the same book were traditionally published, the author would be extremely lucky to receive royalties of 10% of the wholesale price.

With traditional publishing, authors also lose flexibility. There’s no way to easily update information or release a new edition; the publisher usually keeps the rights to publish the book in alternative formats; and authors must purchase books at the wholesale price rather than cost if they want copies for marketing. Worst of all, if the publisher lets the book go out of print, all ongoing potential income is lost unless the author regains the rights (which is something I’d be sure to specify in any contract I signed). The traditional publishing process can take well over a year, while the length of time between manuscript and book-in-hand for a self-publisher–even one who outsources many steps– is usually a matter of a few months at most.

So if self-publishing is more profitable, faster, and more flexible, why is there even a question of going the traditional route? First, there’s the lure of handing it over and having an editor take charge and direct the editing and publication process. Like most writers, I’m busy. I always have other writing projects going, plus work with the association, so sharing responsibility with someone else is alluring. I know that authors still end up doing a lot of work, but it’s reassuring to have an expert at the helm.

Second, traditional publishing has more street cred. People still regard it as the holy grail for writers, and I respect that. Self-publishers, even those whose books match traditionally-published books in quality, are treated like pre-transformation Cinderellas. There’s a certain cachet in being one of the chosen, but from a practical standpoint it’s the equivalent of marrying for social position. Very few people argue for marriages of status anymore, and publishing for status may be destined to become equally archaic. Right now, though, traditional publishing still holds many of the credibility cards, and depending on what the author wants to accomplish with the book, that added credibility can be important.

What to do? I’ll decide in the next few days. I still believe in traditional publishing for fiction, but for non-fiction, it’s a quandary: money and control vs. time and credibility in the traditional publishing world. Hmmmm…

*The term “self-publishing” is being co-opted by some vanity presses, which are using incorrectly using it to describe what they offer. An author who pays a fee to have his or her book “published” under the ISBN of a “publishing company,” is simply paying to have the book printed by a vanity press. This is not self-publishing, and to call it self-publishing is misleading and inaccurate.


The Luxury of Silence

Storyteller Louis L’Amour said he could write in the middle of a busy intersection with his typewriter on his lap. Not necessarily a good idea, I would think, but I envy his concentration. Once started, I can focus like nobody’s business. My family knows that if I’m writing, they have to work hard (aka “be obnoxious”) in order to derail me. However, it’s the getting started that’s occasionally a challenge.

Ambient noise– the ticking of the clock, the wren’s repeated “Sophia” outside my window, the UPS truck in the driveway– doesn’t bother me. If I can start the day quietly, read a bit, check the priority list, and settle into my office around 9:30, all tends to go well. It’s when something interrupts the quiet start that silence seems elusive.

Silence ranks as one of the primary luxuries I crave. When I have a delectably silent day (rare), it’s hard to emerge from the blissful solitude and have to start making noise. I’d rather put thoughts on a page than try to respond to small talk. It’s rewarding to find a voice on paper, but much harder to mine worth from the spoken word.

I dream of taking a solitary vacation to someplace quiet. For once I might reach a surfeit of silence, and find myself looking forward to noise. I can scarcely imagine it, but I’d be willing to experiment– all in the name of scholarly investigation, of course.

Yesterday, I got a lot done on my book proposal. Today, not so much, due to a disrupted morning. I wonder if it’s possible to request a year of silence as a birthday gift? I’d have to wait until June, but perhaps it takes that long to gather a good supply and get it gift wrapped. Let’s see if I can add it to my Amazon wishlist….

Inspiration Words

March 4th- National Grammar Day- A Song is Worth….

A song is worth a thousand words, (though it’s still Words Matter Week, so words are worth something too).

It’s a downright singable song– I can see it playing in schools across the land, with good grammar breaking out like a rash in its wake.

Whatever you do, celebrate National Grammar Day, and SPOGG, the Society for the Preservation of Good Grammar.

Books Words

Words Matter Week Blog Challenge: Writers That Make My Heart Sing

Wednesday’s blog challenge question for Words Matter Week is:

Writers are people who take isolated words and craft them into memorable phrases, stories, poems and plays. Who are the writers who make your heart sing? What is the magic ingredient?

Different writers appeal to me at different times, and the magic ingredients can be found in different proportions in most of my favorites.

Here are the magic ingredients for me:

  • A sense of possibility
  • A big idea
  • Humor
  • A worldview that I can believe in
  • A wonderful setting (usually foreign)
  • Something unexpected

Writers who make my heart sing:

I love C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien anytime, all the time.

Other authors who’ve had the magic touch at some point in my life (and usually still do– I tend to remain loyal):

  • Madeleine L’Engle (Crosswicks Journals, as well as her middle-grade fiction)
  • Rosemary Sutcliff (Dawn Wind)
  • Edith Wharton
  • Dorothy Gilman
  • E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • Mary Stewart
  • Edward Ormondroyd (David and the Phoenix)
  • Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun)
  • L. Frank Baum
  • William Butler Yeats
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea; Journals)
  • Laurie Colwin (Home Cooking)
  • Annie Fellows Johnston (Little Colonel books; Mary Ware)
  • Clair Blank (Beverly Gray series)
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Isak Dinesen

Of course, there’s always a flip side– things you couldn’t pay me to read. I won’t read anything in which an animal is harmed, and I am dismally bored by whiners, navel-gazers, chronically-depressed characters, and insecure people in unhealthy relationships. I confess to a completely low-brow desire to spend my reading time with characters, ideas, and settings I find interesting. Life’s too short to tolerate bores!

You can visit the Words Matter Week website and blog to find more posts from the blog challenge. They’ve been a lot of fun to read.


Don’t Write What You Know

Write who you are.

Write who you want to be.

Write where you want to go.

What what you want to know.

Write what you want to write.

Write to spend time with people who entertain you.

Write what you want to read.

Write to find out why you write.

J.D. Salinger successfully wrote what he knew, but remembered angst isn’t a necessary ingredient for success. Writers write for many reasons: some to ponder, some to explore, and others to reveal. It isn’t necessary to transcribe actual experience to paper– writers harbor pockets of deep knowledge that can be expressed in many shapes, forms, genres.

Few books are truer than the Lord of the Rings, and while Tolkein know his world well, he’d never physically experienced it–never traveled with a hobbit or sung with a dwarf. He conveyed truth because he transposed who he was and what he believed into a coherently created universe where logically imagined consequences followed creatively imagined events. Tolkein pondered and explored in his work, and through the medium of Middle-Earth, he revealed touchstones of deep truth. He must have written what he wanted to know.

When I write, I write what I want to read and I write who I am. I find the two inextricably bound together, because what I want to read is based in who I am. I write non-fiction because gaps in knowledge niggle at me until they’re filled in, so I write so that others won’t be frustrated. I write fiction because I love the sudden transport of imagination, the vanishing of the present into the possible. I write because I read. I write because I must.

Why do you write?

Inspiration Publishing Writing

SCBWI NYC 2010- Final Thoughts

I enjoyed my first national SCBWI conference in NYC a couple of weeks ago. It was exhilarating to be in the same room with so many creative people–writers, illustrators, publishers, agents, editors, and other children’s book enthusiasts (Jane Yolen!!!). While there, I was conscious of the fact that just being there conferred an advantage on each hopeful writer or editor in attendance. There’s nothing quite like the synergy of being present, networking in person, and hearing first-hand from others in the field.

I tweeted many of the tidbits I picked up during the conference, but several things have lingered with me. Here are a few of them:

The most memorable thing I brought home: Literary fiction can be commercially successful; some commercial fiction has literary merit. Lines blur… just write. It’s easy to get caught in the web of trends and traditions, and lose sight of what you need to be writing. Don’t look around; look within and write.

Author Jacqueline Woodson read her work with such beauty and passion that I was too caught up to write down much. However, she quoted author Madeleine L’Engle, and that bit of wisdom has stayed with me: “Write for the children we once were, not the children we have. You know only your own internal struggles.”

Illustrator Peter Sis offered a fascinating overview of his career path which stretched from communist Czechoslovakia to a lengthy, successful, and ongoing career in the United States. He vividly conveyed a sense of the danger of being involved in the arts in a repressive regime, and the importance of perseverance.

Agent Sheldon Fogelman emphasized the need for a detailed, prioritized plan if you want to make a career of writing. Establish a goal, then create steps for reaching it. Other tips: read endlessly in your genre; learn about the business aspect of being a writer; be open to suggestions from your editor or agent; and don’t be distracted–this is a business for serious people.

Jim Benton, The Compulsive Creator, shared more than one memorable line, but my favorite was: “Rewrite it; there are no first drafts in the library.” He also discussed the financial advantages to licensing your work. The numbers were impressive!

Prinze winner Libba Bray spoke of the power of the unexpected and the imporatnce of creating characters that are fully human. She emphasized that it’s important to ignore trends and write your own truth. The most memorable line for me was, “First you jump off the cliff, then you build the wings. The leap of faith is the beginning.” I do believe that.

Agent Susan Raab offered a peek into the future– what is selling and what is not. The most encouraging bit of news is that the children’s book market has held up well when compared to the adult market. She offered many other helpful hints, including encouragement to 1) Advocate for yourself; 2) Reach out personally to readers through your website; 3) Look strategically at the whole picture and build an effective platform; 4) Focus on a specific aspect of the market and become an expert; 5) Be proactive in reaching out to the media.

I attended workshops with three different editors, and was once again reminded that publication is a subjective process. As I listened to each editor talk about the ideal book he/she would like to see, I was able to mentally sort the manuscripts I’ve written and match them to an editor’s style and preferences. Market guides and editor listings just can’t compete with the in-person experience.

The final speaker was someone I’ve long admired– Jane Yolen. She spoke eloquently of the joy in storytelling, and shared the Biblical tale of the Pharaoh’s dream of 7 fat and 7 lean cattle as an apt metaphor for the state of the publishing industry. After offering twenty writer rules she has found important, she reminded us that “The working writer writes. Rules are useless without doing the work. Use anything you have– just go home and write!”

I’ve been re-reading Yolen’s outstanding Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie, and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood since I got home, and it remains one of the best books I’ve read on the subject. If you’re not familiar with it, be sure to look for it.

My final thought on the conference? It’s important to be at events like this. Not only do you reap the practical benefits of rubbing elbows with others who understand what you’re doing, but you will also come away inspired, refreshed, and equipped to meet your goals.


Telephone Rules for Writers

What’s worse than sitting down at the typewriter and not being able to think of anything to write? Sitting down to write, finding your words flowing easily and well, then being interrupted by a phone call that completely derails your train of thought.

One of the best things I ever did for my writing career was to create a telephone policy. By setting a few simple boundaries, I eliminated an enormous potential source of distraction and frustration, and noticeably increased my daily word count. My rules are tailored for my life and preferences– yours may be different. Whatever boundaries you choose, I recommend setting at least a few. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can get done!

My Telephone Policy

  • Answer no calls during writing time–I have voice mail for a reason.
  • Make all outgoing phone calls at one time during the marketing/administration part of the day.
  • Encourage week-day business and social contact via e-mail rather than by phone (easier and more convenient).
  • Return inquiry calls with an e-mail when possible. It’s much faster, and you have a record of your response.
  • Any call to my personal number that is from an unknown source goes to voicemail (where is usually discovered to be a telemarketer if anyone ever checks the messages).

In what may seem the most curmudgeonly rule of all, I advocate turning off cell phone ringers when you’re out on an artist date (as Julia Cameron recommends in The Artist’s Way), when you’re doing errands, eating out, or any other time you don’t need to be talking. As a writer, it’s important to be present in the moment, seeing, hearing, and feeling all that is going on, and that’s impossible to achieve with a remote person talking at you. And few things are more rude than ignoring the people you’re with in order to talk on the phone.

If you have children or are a caregiver, you’ll have to be somewhat accessible, but other than those needs, try not to let yourself to be controlled by the phone. It’s a major time-waster, and can ruin a perfectly good writing session in no time. If you’re firm, friends and family will grow accustomed to your eccentricity (and if they don’t, you’ll develop a remarkable tolerance for ringing;-)). Business calls can be returned or answered with an e-mail each afternoon, which is usually soon enough. Very few calls are urgent or time-sensitive, so an occasional phone check should be all you need.

Becoming a writer means writing, and one of the things that makes it possible is setting boundaries around your writing time. The phone is often the last intruder to be banished, but when it is, I believe you’ll find yourself more creative and productive. Enjoy!


Whose Memoir Is It, Anyway?

Memoir: A record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation.

From Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (accessed: January 12, 2010).

Every time I browse through the reviews of a memoir, I notice that some of the amateur reviewers seem to have a grave misunderstanding of the definition of the literary form. Rather than realizing that a memoir contains the selected personal memories of a single person, some reviewers seem compelled to point out–often in a snide or superior tone–that the memoir they are reviewing is not a comprehensive study of the people, places, or events that touched the author’s life.

In one particularly amusing review of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, an anonymous reviewer rants that “There are no poor people in Mayes’ book, nobody unemployed, nobody mentally ill or physically disabled. No word on the tragic swathe that heroin and cocaine addiction has cut through even the smallest and most remote Italian towns. Nothing about the intractable problem of illegal immigrants flooding the Italian peninsula from Eastern Europe and Africa…”.

It makes me wonder exactly what this reader thinks a memoir is supposed to be. Mayes was writing a memoir about the purchase and restoration of her home in Italy, not a textbook on modern social conditions in Tuscany.

In choosing to read a memoir, the reader elects to walk down memory lane with the author, seeing people, places, and events from the writer’s perspective. Unlike an autobiography (a history of a person’s life written or told by that person), which usually provides a more linear and comprehensive narrative, a memoir is deeply personal, and often focuses a single theme or time period such as Isak Dinesen’s years on her farm in Out of Africa or Frank McCourt’s childhood in Angela’s Ashes. The author chooses a theme and mood and selects the events that will convey the memory. Although the reader of a memoir will often come away with a strong sense of personality and place, it will be shaped by what the author chose to share, chose to leave out, and his or her skill in shaping prose.

One popular memoir put-down often includes the offering of an alternate recommendation for something to read if you want to “know more about the REAL” person, place, or event. The implication usually seems to be that if a memoir isn’t dark, ugly, or negative, or if the writer has a different perspective than the reader, the memoir can’t be true or worthy. The reality is that good things do happen, and many readers find sunlight, travel, humor, and good conversation much more engaging than peering into the dark closets and dank basements of another’s life.

I don’t advocate hagiography in place of biography, and I believe that dark, tragic tales have their place– we need King Lear and Jean Valjean just as much as we need Pratchett’s Vimes. However, it must be either ignorance or hubris that causes a reviewer to reject a memoir on the grounds that it doesn’t reveal the “real” person, place, or event.

I’ve been a caregiver for my grandparents for nearly twenty years, and if I wrote a memor about the experience, it could certainly be focused on frustration and depressing scenes of diapers, dementia, and drool. But because those aren’t the things I find interesting or choose to remember about my sweet grandparents, my hypothetical memoir would focus instead on the funny moments, the poignant times when another ability disappeared and we were able to get through it with love and laughter, despite grief for the losses.

Would my memoir provide a look at what caregiving is “really like”?  Yes and no. On one hand, yes– it would share what caregiving has been (and is) like for our family. On the other hand, no– it wouldn’t address what caregiving is like for other people in other places. A memoir is one writer’s memories, selected and shared. If you want to go along for the ride, read memoir for what it is, and don’t critique it for not being what it never pretended to be.

1.18.09- Addendum: When Frank McCourt died in 2009, several distinguished contributors offered commentaries on McCourt’s impact on the art of memoir. Read Memoirs and McCourt on the New York Times “Room for Debate” blog.

Here’s a quote from Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States, that sums it up nicely: “McCourt fully recognized that what a story is about depends on who is telling it.”