Category Archives: Advice

Yes, Coach!

Seven months ago, I started a writing project: a collection of short stories. I surprised myself by completing synopses for 10 short stories in 12 weeks; the synopses average a little over 1,500 words. Following such a promising kickoff, my plan was to spend a month writing each of the 10 stories. But I got stuck on the first one (“Story 1”), a redo of a piece I had submitted for an online course a few years ago. I logged approximately 4,500 words of a projected 6,000+.

I knew I needed to see my creative coach, Ziva.

We met two days ago in her white Dodge camper van, parked with the windows down in the scenic lot of the local natural history museum. (Ziva was hosting houseguests, so we couldn’t conduct our session at her condo.) I thought she would tell me how to get “unstuck” so I could finish Story 1 and move on to the other nine. But turning to face me in the cab of the vehicle, she blew my mind with a quick-and-dirty way to produce my entire first book (“Book 1”): a curated compilation of my blog posts.

I loved her idea for speedily transforming content (that already exists!) into a publication. I will pull my 77 blog posts off the Web, put them in Word, organize them into sections, cut the ones that don’t fit (or that suck), write an introduction and maybe section intros, do some editing, format the manuscript, and distribute the document through CreateSpace (Amazon’s self-publishing tool). I assume this activity is meant to be psychologically liberating and affirming, and to provide a sense of accomplishment.

Before my 90 minutes with Ziva were over, I had enthusiastically accepted three additional assignments, none of which was to complete my partially written story:

  1. Hone one of my synopses for the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. (That’s two “Shorts”s; entries must be 1,500 words or less.) The deadline is two weeks away.
  2. Write synopses for 4 additional short stories for “Book 2,” my short story collection (with a new target of 12 to 14 tales total).
  3. Set up an underutilized room downstairs as a writing den for myself. I am tempted to enlist a professional organizer to tame the space—or “kill the monster,” as Ziva puts it.

I’ll get back to Story 1 eventually, possibly in the spring. I kind of miss it already.


All Q, No A

I have spent a full month writing (but not finishing) the first short story of a planned collection of ten. (Eight, actually—I expect to ditch the weakest two. They don’t know it yet.) At this point, I can safely say I have more questions than answers. The opposite would probably be worse, though; having more answers than questions might feel like a multiple-choice test, and tests are stressful.

In the last four weeks, the following mysteries, among others, have presented themselves to me:

  1. QsHow much craft should go into a first draft? I’m a poet and I didn’t know it.
  2. Do they call it a draft because it has holes? Come on, I’m serious.
  3. Which is more important: sticking to the schedule, or taking the time to get it right? Within reason, as defined by a perfectionist.
  4. How much is too much backstory? Do you need a narrative providing the history of this question?
  5. Is it normal to crave frozen yogurt? Chocolate-vanilla swirl with rainbow sprinkles.
  6. Is it okay to write to entertain, rather than to be literary? My dream is to have a story published in a middle-school anthology.
  7. Literary magazines have length limits, so am I shooting myself in the foot (or accomplishing some other gory metaphor) by writing 5,000- to 6,000-word stories? Sounds like a job for an editor!
  8. How fully realized should the main character of a short story be? Same question for secondary characters. Screw the tertiary characters.
  9. How much time should I allow for research? Isn’t it easier to make facts up?
  10. How important is it to follow rules about writing? I’m not much of a lawbreaker.

I welcome answers to any of the above, and the sooner the better!

Taking My Umbrella

ray bradbury square

Ray Bradbury

Lately, I’ve been getting ideas for short stories, from things I see, read, listen to, or just find myself thinking about. Ray Bradbury suggested writing a short story every week. His reasoning was excellent: “It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” But I think a would-be author might find this advice difficult to follow, presuming he or she is employed in some other activity in anticipation of becoming an author. I might be able to write the synopsis for a short story in seven days, however. Extrapolating, I have constructed (concocted?) a 16.5-month time line for penning a 50,000-word compilation of 10 short stories.

poster edgesThere’s a 90 percent chance this is a false start like many others I’ve had. And I’m being generous giving myself a 10 percent possibility of success. (Please, no wagering.) Then again, when a meteorologist predicts a 10 percent chance of rain, you almost always find yourself running to your car with a handbag over your head. I am considering enlisting the support of my creative coach as well as writers at local meetups. And limiting my reading of short stories and my research about short story writing (tempting delay tactics), relying instead on the resources I’ve collected and internalized thus far.

Here are the best intentions paving my road to hell:

  • Week 1: Review the short story form
  • Week 2: Refine my list of story ideas
  • Weeks 3–12: Write synopses for 10 short stories (one per week)
  • Months 4–13: Write 10 5,000-word short stories (one per month)
  • Months 14–16.5: Edit 10 short stories (one per week)

I’m sure I’ll have to make adjustments along the way. Perhaps one story will want to be 2,417 words long. Another might need to be a novella. Maybe I’ve given myself too much time. (Ha. Ha-ha!) If my plan works, I’ll write a book about it. The title will be irresistible, something like, Crafting a Collection of Short Fiction in Just Under 17 Months.

Subtitle: Ray Bradbury Could Have Done It in 10 Weeks.

Conservation of Creative Energy

Light Bulb in the Sky

Last week, I calculated that I had written almost 6,500 words of my blog—on top of the 5,000 words I logged on my novel. At first, these statistics gave me a sense of accomplishment. I had met the goal I stated in my first blog post, on October 2, 2012: to put together at least a few paragraphs devoted to my novel on a regular basis, in order to convince it to “take a chance on me.”

Looking at the numbers, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should be devoting more time to my novel and less time to my blog. A session with my coach last week confirmed that I was channeling too much of my writing energy into the blog. Furthermore, my coach, Ziva, sensed that putting attention on myself via the blog was “distracting my energy.”

The objective of the session had been to figure out how I could regain my motivation on my novel. I hadn’t written anything new since November 30. In fact, I had lost 50 words to editing! Ziva advised that I could build momentum by “protecting and concealing the process”—which I think would preclude yacking about it on the World Wide Web.

Ziva provided me with profound insights into how to bring the first draft into form. I will take notes throughout this process and possibly report on it later. In the meantime, I’m not sure if I will continue to maintain this blog (but not talk explicitly about my novel), post less often (again, not about my novel!), or take a break.

Maya Angelou has remarked, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Right now, that sounds like the smartest thing anyone has ever said.

Easy Reading Is Damn Hard Writing

Nathaniel Hawthorne penned the pithy statement that is the title of this post. Over the years, famous authors have contributed to an incredible volume of eloquent writing advice. “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” George Orwell ruled. “Try to leave out the parts that people skip,” Elmore Leonard recommended. “Write drunk, edit sober,” Ernest Hemingway advocated. I wondered, with so many persuasive tips out there, how you know which ones to follow. Since you are more likely to take advice from someone you admire, I decided to focus on writers who had an impact on me at various points in my life.


When I read The Martian Chronicles in the fifth grade, I thought, “Ray Bradbury, where have you been all my life?” (He had been busily writing short stories, novels, plays, and poems.) In 1989, Bradbury published a collection of essays called Zen in the Art of Writing, which is now on my Amazon wish list. One of his oft-quoted pieces of advice was, “Don’t start out writing novels.” Oops. He also counseled, “You must write every single day of your life.” I will take this teaching to heart. And I like to think he was speaking to me when he said, “I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you.”

I became a fan of Shakespeare in junior high. I even had a Shakespeare pin, which I actually wore to school. You can imagine how popular I was. Here are some helpful hints gleaned from Shakespeare’s plays:

  1. Be brief. “Brevity is the soul of wit.” (Hamlet)
  2. Read a lot. “My library was dukedom large enough.” (The Tempest)
  3. Express sincere emotion. “Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears / Moist it again, and frame some feeling line / That may discover such integrity.” (Two Gentlemen of Verona)

“Be a literary genius” is also implied.

I discovered Woody Allen in high school, when I saw Love and Death (which I loved and subsequently quoted to death). According to Allen’s character in Husbands and Wives, “Some can write; others will never learn.” I suspect that may be true. Regarding his personal routine, Allen says, “I always write with a yellow pad and a ballpoint pen, on my bed. . . . When it works, I type it up afterward.” He describes the writing process as “wracked with anxiety” and a “battle for survival”—which I find oddly comforting.

Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer and The Assistant amazed me when I read them in college. When asked about his work habits, Malamud replied, “There’s so much drivel about this subject. You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing.” Touché.