Writing: Critiquing Mayborne Manuscripts

I’m in the middle of critiquing book manuscripts for the Mayborn Conference on Literary Non-fiction (it has some long official name that I can never remember) which is in Dallas weekend after this one.

The writer-in-residence and also doer of anything remotely related to the conference, George Getschow, asked me to come up with guidelines for critiquing.  He already had one set of evaluation guidelines for essays in place, so I worked off that and adapted it for book manuscripts. 

Thought it might be interested for everyone to have a look at.  Bear in mind that this is designed specifically for book-length literary non-fiction.  Here you go:

1.  Does the first chapter–the opening of the book–draw you in by teasing your interest, creating a mystery, a puzzle or a question that in some way grabs you and holds your attention?  Does the opening immediately present a conflict?  Or do you get the impression that the author is just warming up?

2.  Does the story deliver sufficient proof to make it credible?  Does the story demonstrate that the writer has done his/her research?  Does it contain telling details, facts, statistics, quotes and other material from a variety of primary and secondary sources to validate the main themes and sub-themes of the story?  Does the manuscript provide historical context?

3.  Does the story have a beginning, middle and end?  Does the manuscript have a clear overall structure?  Are you able to identify a narrative arc for the story?  Does it start in one place and end in another, with logical steps in between?

4.  Is the story presented in scene (showing) or does the writer rely solely on exposition (telling)? Does each scene accomplish a purpose? Does each scene contribute to the whole? Do the scenes, taken together, have a cause and effect flow that adds up to a plot?

5.  Are the people in the story well presented?  Do they come across as multi-dimensional characters or talking heads?  Do they come across as human beings that think, feel, laugh, and cry? Do the characters have an arc?  Do they change and grow over the course of the story?  Is the protagonist clearly identified?

6.  Does the writer use specific, concrete detail and facts that are fresh and relevant, or resort to vague/abstract generalities?

7.  Does the writer employ metaphor, scenes, dialog, and other storytelling devices to make the story more vivid and help it to come alive on the page?

8.  Does the story possess a lyrical quality?  That is, does the story give the impression that the writer has considered the tone of the story, the sound of the language, the rhythm, the rhyme, and the pacing of the prose?

9.  Is there enough material to sustain the story over 300 pages?  Does the story being told warrant a book, or is it better told in an essay?

That’s it!  Pretty extensive, huh? 

Now I better go actually read some of the manuscripts.  In truth, I’ve looked through all 10 submissions to the workshop I’ll be leading and I’m very excited.  The work at the Mayborn is generally at a very high level, and this year looks no different.

Power Writing and Creativity Finale: The Last Three Keys

622pxdry_martini And so now it is Friday, and I’ve been on the go all day and I’m about to go to Happy Hour.  But could I leave to drink a Martini without finishing up the series on creativity?  No, I could not.  So here are the last three keys.

(You’ll find links to all the previous posts at the end of this one.)

10.  Keep going.  I know.  Duh.  But it is depressingly easy to quit when a block arises or a rejection comes in the mail or someone says something mean about your work.  But don’t let the bastards get you down–writing all the time is the best revenge.  Not writing well, or publishing well.  Just writing.  So keep at it.  You’ll break through that block, the next letter will be an acceptance to a prestigious publication and the mean person will get hit by a car–not injured, because we can’t wish ill on people.  Just shaken up enough so that they are no longer mean.

11.  Take a break.  Just the wee-est bit contradictory today, aren’t I?  Well creativity is a contradictory activity, too.  While you must commit to keeping going in the face of all odds, you must also learn to take breaks once in awhile.  Let the work compost.  Don’t force it.  Sometimes walking away for a few minutes or even a whole day (see Anne Wayman’s post on taking time off here) can be the pause that refreshes.  Just don’t let a break turn into procrastination.

12.  Let it go.  Ah, how good it feels to finish a piece of work, know that you’ve done all that you can do, and then release it out to the world with no attachments or expectations.  At least that is the ideal. Doesn’t always happen that way, but we can continue to try.  It is all too easy to hang on to a creative project and not let it take its rightful journey into the world–whether it is a novel seeking a publisher, an essay needing a home in a magazine, or a blog post.  It is all too easy to find yourself slowing down as you near the end of the project, or for blocks to suddenly appear when all was smooth sailing before.  Sometimes this can happen because of a reluctance to let the pages go.  But what good are they going to do the world locked away on your computer, or in a drawer where nobody can find them?  Send you babies out and let them find their homes.  The energy of that will come back to you in surprising ways.

Letting go is a suitable stopping point for this series on creativity.  Its a favorite topic of mine, however, and so I’ll no doubt be posting on it again from time to time.  Here are the links to the first five parts:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

You know where I’m off to now.

Power Writing and Creativity 5: The Next Three Keys

Coming down the home stretch here with this series on creativity.  This is part five.  I’m going to provide the links to the first four parts at the end of this post.  In part four, I talked about the power of momentum.  Utilizing today’s first key is a great way to keep the momentum going.

10.  Use Your Subconscious

Put your subconscious mind to work for you.  Think about your project or read a few pages from it right before you go to sleep–then prepare to pay attention to your dreams when you wake up.  Command your subconscious (you won’t hurt its feelings, promise, it likes to work for you) to figure out the details of the next scene you have to write.  Once you get in the habit of allowing your subconscious to work for you, you’ll be amazed at how helpful it can be.  I wrote an earlier post that goes into this in much more detail.  You can read that here.

11.  Don’t Talk About It, Do It

Too many people talk about the novel they are going to write, or the art they are going to produce.  Too many people relate the whole damn story of the screenplay they play to get down on paper.  But I believe talking about it too much is a big mistake.  It dissipates the energy of the project, takes the air out of it.  So don’t talk about it.  Do it.

12.  Refill the Well

This is especially important when you are finishing a long project.  Working on an extended creative piece takes not only time but energy.  Have you ever had the experience of intensely focusing on your writing for a few hours and suddenly realizing you are starving?  That’s because using your brain burns calories.  It takes energy.  You need to keep yourself going by constantly refilling the well.  Julia Cameron advises taking Artist’s Dates, which are scheduled times when you consciously do something that pleases and replenishes you.  When I’m writing a lot, I like to read a lot–words out, words in.  Its as if I need to replenish the supply.  It is vitally important that you figure out what nourishes you and commit to doing it often.  Its not selfish, because it is paving the way for you to bring your creative gifts to the world.

Stayed tuned for the last, rousing post of this series on Friday.  Meanwhile, here are the links for the earlier posts:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

BlogCatalog Community Organ Donation Awareness Campaign

Organ donation?  I know, I know, it has nothing to do with writing.  Unless you happen to be a writer in need of an organ, or perhaps a writer who is planning to donate an organ.

Anyway, the reason I’m writing a post about organ donation is because the blogging directory and network BlogCatalog is doing this really cool thing today.  They have organized bloggers to raise awareness about the issue of organ donation.

Why organ donation?  Perhaps because of figures like these:  170,000 in Europe and the United States waiting for organ transplants; 1,700 in Australia; 50,000 in Latin America; 2 million in China.  The sad truth is that without an organ transplant, these people will die.  For more information on the breadth of the problem, go here.   

If you’d like to read an interesting piece about the growing problem of the black market for organ donation, read this article in Slate.  In some parts of the world, poor people are being encouraged to sell their organs on the black market.

It’s so easy to become an organ donor.  In many places, all you have to do is note your intentions on your driver’s license AND be sure to tell your family your intentions.  For more information on organ donation in the United States, click here.

Many thanks to the great people at BlogCatalog for organizing this blogging campaign!

Writing: Good Article on MFA Programs

The latest issue of Atlantic magazine apparently has an article about the rise of MFA programs in this country and what it all means.  Actually, it doesn’t tell us what it all means because nobody really knows what it all means.  There seems to be much consternation around the idea that scads more people are getting MFAs, but fewer and fewer people are reading literature.

Well, duh.  It’s because we’re all reading blogs.

No, honestly, I didn’t read the whole article, but I read the article about the article on the Atlantic website.  The fact that we now read online articles about print magazine articles says something about the state of writing and reading in this country, doesn’t it?  I’m not sure what, but something.

Having read the article about the article, I don’t feel compelled to read the actual article, so if that was their tactic, they failed.  The article about the article made some good points about MFAs, though.

"Trying to assess graduate programs is like rating the top ten party schools," the author of the original article, Edward J. Delany says.  (For the record, the online article is by Jessica Murphy.  I just saw a post on plagarism on one of the fifty millon blogs I read yesterday and I don’t want to inadvertently engage in said practice.)

Delaney also says that 30 years ago there were 50 MFA programs, now there are somewhere around 300.  (When I started the brief-residency MFA program at Spalding in 2001, there were, like, 7 brief-residency programs.  Last time I counted, which was a while ago, there were well over 25.)

One of my favorite ideas in the article is voiced by D.W. Fenza, the director of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (which used to be just Associated Writing Programs but apparently has broadened its scope;it has a kick-ass conference every year and next year it will be in New York City so everyone should go).

Fenza says that there are now so many MFA recepients that we are "part of a great democratic experiment in public access to higher education and the arts.  [They] are part of a new plurality."

Damn!  I always wanted to be part of a plurality and now I are.  All kidding aside, it is fascinating to ponder what the droves of newly minted MFAs, mean for literature and the arts. 

Anyway, the article is worth taking a look at, and you can do that here. 

And thanks to my buddy Roy Burkhead for sending the article to me in the first place.

Power Writing and Creativity 4: The Next Three Keys

Happy Monday…and welcome to the next installment of my series on creativity.  You can read Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.

So…Monday.  Some people may have awakened this morning and groaned at the thought of another work week beginning.  Others may be excited and happy at the thought.  Hopefully you fall into the latter group.  I like to believe that we creative types approach life, including Mondays, with zeal.  What’s that?  Do I hear you groaning again?  Perhaps you need some more Keys to Creativity to perk up your day.  Here you go:

7.  Small Steps

Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Rome really wasn’t built in a day, and your creative projects won’t be either.  Don’t get so caught up in the big picture that you forget to take the small, repeated steps.  Make them as small as possible.  Don’t think about the entire novel, think about the next scene.  Don’t obsess about the entire canvas, focus on the next color of paint.  Break things down into their smallest components.  This seems so obvious–and yet I have to remind myself of it again and again.

8.  Make It A Habit

The self-help experts say it takes 21 days to create a new habit.  Thus, if you make a date with yourself to write your novel or plan that garden, or work on that song you’re writing, and keep the date every day for 21 days, at the end of it you’ll have established a new habit.  Don’t know if the 21 day thing is true or not, as I always forget to keep track, but I do know that consistency and the dreaded D word, discipline, are actually bedrock elements of creativity.  This is counter-intuitive, but true.  As I’ve said (over and over, to the point of causing retching) creativity is active.  You’ve got to just do it.  And the more you just do it, the easiest it gets. 

9.  Use the Power of Momentum

The really cool thing is that once you are consistently using your creativity, critical mass kicks in and you get momentum on your side.  Momentum is what happens when you get the perfect idea for chapter ten when you’re in the middle of writing chapter nine.  It’s what happens when you "hear" the perfect line of dialogue for your screenplay while you are writing the description for the scene.  Once your mind is engaged with the work on a regular basis, it will help you by sending you messages and ideas.  Apparently, the mind likes to be kept busy.  The flip side of this is familiar to anyone who has set aside a creative project–it takes awhile to get back into it.  You have to go back and re-read the entire novel in order to remember what you wrote, or you have to go back and review all the instructions on that sweater you are knitting.  It is ever so much easier to just stick to it. 

More keys to come on Wednesday and Friday!

Reasons Not To/To Write On A Hot Summer Saturday

To write or not to write on this beautiful day?  Let me detail the pros and cons:

5 Reasons Not To Write on A Hot Summer Saturday

1.  Because it’s hot, duh.

2.  Because I want to go play.

3.  Because I have an appointment with a trainer to kill, I mean coach, me at the gym.

4.  Because I have a party to attend!.

5.  Because I’m LAZY.

5 Reasons To Write on A Hot Summer Saturday

1.  Because I’m obsessed

2.  Because I can’t seem to stay away from my computer.

3. Because Emma Jean, the protagonist of my novel is calling.  She insists her novel be finished by the end of the summer.

4.  Because the blogosphere never sleeps.

5.  Because by saying I’m writing I can get out of so many things…like paying bills.  Or doing dishes.  Or grocery shopping.

After much thought and deliberation, I have to say–writing wins!   Obviously.  Since I just wrote this post.

Power Writing and Creativity 3: The Second Three Keys

Ta-da: the next three keys to ceaseless creativity (Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?  Ceaseless. Creativity.  Isn’t that what we all crave?  Well, besides the usual other suspects.  Which, come to think of it, generally distract us from ceaseless creativity.  Ah well, one cannot live by creativity alone.  Though one can try.  Until one gets hungry….for any number of things.

Enough.  Here are the next three keys.

4.  Just Do It.

This goes hand in hand with Key #3: Do It Badly.  The truth of the matter is, you gotta just do it.  And do it again and again.  It is that simple and that difficult.  Sometimes just doing it is the easiest thing in the world, and sometimes it is the hardest.  I do not know why this is so.  Sometimes I wring my hands and emote and pace and get down on my hands and knees and scrub the floor, all in an attempt to not just do it.  And then when I finally get around to doing it, I wonder why on earth I whined and moaned for so long.  Because once I’m in the middle of doing it, I love it more than anything on earth.   So why I have to re-convince myself to go back to it over and over again, I do not know.  If this happens to you, take heart and know that it is normal, at least in the realm of writer normal.  Which, I have to say is not the same as normal normal, if you know what I mean.

5.  Process, Not Product

When my daughter was getting her post-bacc certificate in photography, which was close to getting a MFA, this was one of her mantras.  It has always been one of my mantras, too, and I have the hand-painted pillow to prove it.  I actually wrote about this in another post recently, but it is such a bedrock tenet of creativity that I have to mention it again.  Just remind yourself that it is not about the finished product, it is about the process of doing it.  It really is.  Trust me.  Ironically, by focusing on the process, you’ll end up with a much better product.  It’s another one of those mysterious creativity things.  I don’t pretend to understand them, I just obey them.

6.  Do The Work, Don’t Judge It

Goes along with #5.  If you are focused on product while you are in the process of writing, you are likely to be judging it.  Don’t do that.  Just do the work.  It is akin to learning to be in the moment.  I will confess here that I am a meditation slacker (I know, I know, I’ve got a slacker list a mile long–Buddhism and yoga and meditation being tops on it.  What does that say about me?).  But when it comes to writing, there’s nothing I love better than kicking into that flow and being so in the moment that time passes without me even noticing it.  That is only possible, my friends, when you are in the moment, one with the words, and Not Judging them.  Judging is for later.  Its hell when its judging time, but we are not talking about that now.

Stay tuned.  On Monday I will present three more Keys to Creativity.

5 Writing Rules To Break

While writing my series on creativity, I started thinking about breaking rules.  (Click here to read Part One of the series, and click here to read Part Two.  Part Three will be posted tomorrow.)  So, today, I want to talk about breaking writing rules.

In yesterday’s post on creativity, I mentioned that one key to creativity is that there are no rules.  When it comes to writing, however, you’ll find plenty of rules.  Way too many, in my opinion.  In writing, you’ll find rules about grammar, rules about style, and rules about publishing. 

I, however, believe that rules are made to be broken.  And so, without further ado, here is the Official Word Strumpet Guide to Rules That Can (And Should) Be Broken:

Rule #1:  Use Semi-colons.

My Word grammar checker is forever trying to force semi-colons on me.  I am strong, though, and I refuse to let those little buggers have their way with me.  The semi-colon is just a wee bit too formal and proper for my taste.  I like my grammar a little looser and wilder.  You can have your semi-colons, I’ll take a comma any day.

Rule #2:  Obey "No Simultaneous Submissions" Guidelines.

Puh-leeze.  I could have grandchildren living in a colony on Mars by the time some editors and agents would deign to get back to me about a submission.  Meanwhile, I’m supposed to be a good girl and not send my work anywhere else?  I don’t think so.  Editors say they hate it when they find a good story, only to contact the writer and learn its been accepted elsewhere.  So?  Then get your butts in gear faster.  As for the poor writer who has the awful dilemma of a story being desired by two editors:  We. Should. All. Be. So. Lucky.

Rule #3:  Don’t Use Adverbs. 

"I really, truly, love adverbs," I said affirmatively.  Okay, over usage of adverbs is bad, I agree, but then over usage of anything except red wine at the end of a long day is bad.  It is an egregious sin to use adverbs with dialogue tags, but a few adverbs sprinkled here and there in other parts of your prose never hurt a thing.  She said positively.

Rule #4: Write What You Know.

Excuse Me?  I wouldn’t have a job if I always wrote about what I know.  In the last few months I’ve written about global warming, Voodoo, quilting, spiritual leaders, selling good on ebay, kitchen remodeling, bathroom accessories, roof racks, astrology, and piano music, to name only a few.  I knew a little about some of those topics when I started, but certainly not very much.  Let’s face it, roof racks are not something I’ve ever thought much about, let alone know anything on.  T

This writing commandment clearly (you see how well that adverb works there?) came about in a simpler time, back before the internet, in the days before we had Wikipedia.  Those were the days before it was possible to learn everything you need to know about any subject by Googling it. 

And, let’s face it, if you write fiction about only what you know, ie, your life, you’re going to end up hurting a lot of people. 

Rule #5:  All SEO Writing is Fluff.

I will grant you that most of it is, indeed, fluff.  And some of it is just plain crap. However, my rule when writing keyword dense copy is to give the content some value, no matter how minor.  I admit, sometimes the value is minuscule.  But approaching the writing of SEO copy is this manner helps raise it overall.

Anybody else have a sacred cow they want to slay?

Power Writing and Creativity 2: The First Three Keys

On Monday, I wrote the introduction to this series on creativity, and it came out rather longer than I had originally anticipated. Hey, it’s a topic I’m passionate about. (Further proof of this, if you need it, is that I originally was going to present 12 Keys. But I kept thinking of more that are vital.) To read the intro first, click here. To read the Three-Fold Writer’s Path, in which I detail how creativity fits into overall scheme of the writing world, click here. And now, ta-da, the first three keys:

1. Be A Beginner.

The Zen Buddhists talk a lot about beginner’s mind. I am a buddhism slacker, but this concept is called Shoshin, and it is a good one. The idea of it is to be eager. Be open. Don’t have expectations. Don’t think, do. Have a sense of wonder. This is an especially vital key for the professional, who may develop a mind-set that everything he does must be perfect the first time out. Banish those thoughts. A beginner wouldn’t expect to be perfect. Nor should you—no matter where you fall on the beginner to expert scale.

2. There Are No Rules (but make some for yourself if it makes you feel better).

Who says you can’t write a novel in 100 viewpoints? The result may not work, and it may not be particularly publishable, but it might lead to something that is. Forget everything you know about the rules (see #1) and just go for it. See what happens. Sometimes this key is a bit much for people. The lack of rules is scary. So make some up for yourself–like, every sentence must start with a word that is capitalized. There, does that make you feel better?

3. Do It Badly.

The idea that everything has to be perfect is a huge creativity killer. So, go for the opposite. Write one bad page. Draw one crappy sketch. Sing a song off-key. The world didn’t stop, did it? And go back and take a look at that dreadful page you just wrote. Hmmm, might you not be able to use that first sentence? With a few changes, does the third paragraph work fairly well for the opening? I thought so. Writing badly is an entry point into your work. Put something, anything, down on the page. Then you have words to work with. And that is a wonderful thing.

Okay, those are the first three keys. I’ll have the next three for you on Friday. See you then–and if anyone has any tips or thoughts about creativity, feel free to share.