March 2020 archive

How to Keep Going: A Writing Coach’s Lowered Expectations (now, with Writing Prompts!)

WELP.  MANY OF MY CLIENTS ARE SOLDIERING ON. In the face of global pandemonium, they are managing to get words on the page—and good ones at that! If you’re making significant progress on your book, I salute you! And, really, what else are we going to do? I mean, suddenly we have all that time we’re always saying we need to work on our big, ballsy writing projects.

On the other hand, if we’re following strict protocols, every single thing in our lives is taking, like, twelve times longer than usual. For instance, although I was a late adopter of the sanitizing-your-groceries-before-bringing-them-into-the-house routine, as of yesterday, I am fully on board! Which means it took three hours to conclude my “quick” face-masked, gloved, hand-sanitized grocery run yesterday.

And once every disinfected item was in place, I was exhausted! Partially by the close attention I was paying to NOT GETTING INFECTED and partially, I think, just from vibrating to the tune of others’ panic.

So, while I could be working on my book-in-progress, I find myself alternately consumed by mundane tasks—watering my new sod lawn for example (it’s hot as hell here in Central Florida)—or watching YouTube videos. (AMERICAN IDOL* is shaping up to deliver a series of nicely dramatic live shows this spring!)

I still journal most days, though, which helps me sort my anxiety from that of those around me. And (obviously) I’m continuing to write posts for my blog. But as for other writing? Nada. I just don’t seem to have the focus. And I’m coaching myself to be okay with that.

I’ve lowered my expectations, understanding that I may have maxed out my writing mojo for the week simply by writing this note to you.

How about you, though? if you’re channeling your energy into a writing project—big, ballsy, or otherwise—that’s great! It’s the perfect time to explore your vivid imagination and write about what you find there. The perfect time to follow your characters into the wilderness of stakes-raising adventures. The perfect time to organize the past events of your life into a meaningful arc for the encouragement of future readers.

However, if you need permission to just ride the roller coaster of our current reality—even if that means your creative output looks more like making to-do lists than it does completing your fantasy trilogy—here it is: Permission granted!

Low-expectations writing prompts

If your pen is itching for a little workout, though, here are a few less-is-more “writing opportunities” you might want to avail yourself of while waiting for the storm to pass.

1) Sending letters or greeting cards through the mail is a risky business these days. But you could write a newsy email to a friend, attaching a (virus-free!) image that illustrates your current state of mind.

2) There’s a curse attributed (rightly or wrongly) to the Chinese that says, “May you live in interesting times.” (Hmm. Think this counts?) In the face of so much to be “interested” in, you might write a haiku about living in such an interesting time. Have you forgotten the rules of haiku? Esther Spurrill-Jones reminds us in her article “How to Write Haiku,” which you’ll find on the very helpful, cool The Writing Cooperative.

Poet MK Swanson of Writing Dreamer was kind enough to share her call-and-response haiku, “Fifth Element,” written with this prompt in mind:

Fifth Element

Coronaviridae,
enveloped, positive-sense,
one-strand RNA.

Humanity, though,
we are made of stars
and fragility.

3) Not feeling poetic? Taking your cue from fishermen and -women who, famously, mend nets when they can’t go to sea, you might dig out some short pieces of not-quite-completed (or not-entirely-successful) work and, picking a likely candidate, spend a happy hour or two piddling with it to see if you can make it better do your bidding.

Of course, if all that fails, there’s always AMERICAN IDOL.*

* Oh, well, We’ll have to find something else to keep us busy, as I just learned AMERICAN IDOL has suspended its live finals. Of course. 

Writing inspiration

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, by Gabriel García Márquez

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Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

Cartoon by Maddie Dai, published on THE NEW YORKER cartoons Facebook page, March 23, 2020.

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A Writing Coach Weighs In on Writing to Connect with Oneself During a Time of Isolation

OKAY. THIS IS W-A-Y MORE THAN I SIGNED UP FOR! But here we are. Isolated. And spooked. (Or is that just me?) But that doesn’t mean we can’t connect. I sing the praises of my iPhone every day. It allows me to participate in online yoga classes, chat with friends while I walk (carefully maintaining a six-foot distance from all whom I pass), and feverishly check the latest updates from Italy to get a glimpse of our potential three-weeks-out future.

All of which is fine. Helpful, even. But I’ve noticed that—even during those virtual yoga classes—my attention is fragmented. Although I’m in regular communication with friends, I’m not sustaining much of a connection with myself.

Time, then, to get off my blessed cell phone and return to the simple practice of writing—in ways that have nothing to do with craft or publication and everything to do with creating that much-needed inner connection.

Writing to discover and connect

Many writers say they write to understand themselves better, to connect more deeply with their own thoughts and feelings. For instance, historian Daniel J. Boorstin said, “I write to discover what I think.

Natalie Goldberg also talks about understanding herself through the practice of writing. In the introduction to her first book on writing process, WRITING DOWN THE BONES, she says she made a pact with herself, “… to write what I knew and to trust my own thoughts and feelings and to not look outside myself.”

Writing prompts for inner connection

Because I turn to Natalie’s books time and again to remind me how to reforge my inner connection, I want to share a few of her exercises here with you. Any one of them might help you find your way in—into memory, into stories you’ve carried for a very long time, into the idea of a home that lives inside you. May writing provide you some measure of comfort and steadiness in these uncertain times.

I REMEMBER: In this exercise, Natalie Goldberg suggests we simply start writing from the phrase “I remember,” allowing it to trigger memories of a years-past event or one from just moments ago. The trick, as with all of Goldberg’s exercises, is to keep your pen (or fingers) moving for a full ten minutes—rewriting the phrase “I remember” any time you get stuck and allowing it to send you off in whatever new direction occurs to you.

OBSESSIONS: Writers,” Natalie says, “end up writing about their obsessions. Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be released.” Acknowledging the power our obsessions have—and the power we gain from accepting these aspects of ourselves—she invites us to list our current (or longest-lasting) obsessions. Name them. Bring them to light. Then, pick one and set out on the path it beckons you down. Tell all the truth you’re ready to tell—and not one word more.

WRITING ABOUT HOME: In this prompt from WILD MIND, Goldberg invites us to write about home—certainly an evocative topic and one that’s likely to bring us close to our own bone, which is exactly what we may be hungry for just now. Of course, we might want to write about our current home or one from childhood. But we could write about it “slant,” as Emily Dickinson would say. Or, as Natalie herself says, we could “Write about home and [don’t] write about any street, town, or city. Find another home.”

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It’s funny, when I tried Natalie’s slant version, I easily found a home with no street address to write about. But, in sharing it here, I see I inadvertently dived into what she would call obsession—haunting stories I’ve carried—as well.

I want to write about the orange groves when I was a kid—all the young years I lived in Florida, but especially when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, riding horses along dusty rows of cabbages, then slipping back into the shadowed orange groves, the aisles between the trees strung with citrus spider webs, the huge spinners swaying at the center of their webs, invisible to us, waiting for us to gallop through and forget to duck, and shriek and swat and swipe at our heads when their sticky webs got tangled in our long, teenage hair.

Looking back, all that memory is dim, less than a shadow, just a cataract over the present. But still, I wonder about those other kids. Ali and her brothers, Jake and Lyle—Jake, on whom I had such a crush.

And Pammy, round and always red-faced among all the narrow, jodphured adolescent girls; Pammy, who was too big for her small, light-boned Thoroughbred. Such a pretty little horse. And Pammy, so kind. She asked me once to hop on her small horse and take him over a jump he’d refused because she knew I’d be gentle with him.

(Oddly, although so much of my barn years is faded, disintegrating into dust even as I lift it to the sunshine of my attention, I can still hear Pammy’s nervous laugh. She, I imagine, became a lawyer, though I’m not sure why I think so. Still, I hope she’s happy.)

And the girl who took me home for sandwiches, and whose mom served us potato chips out of a brown Charles Chips drum. And the brother and sister who shared a horse—a big, bony chestnut. They were only a year or two older than me, but seemed so sophisticated. It was they who taught us, out behind the back barn, to hold our breath until we saw stars. That was their game. And smoking cigarettes.

And the steaming manure pile we feared would catch fire during the fierce white-heat of July. And the three-pronged metal hook that hung in the tack room, meant for cleaning straps—and the story: that one of its prongs tore through the white flesh of Jake’s upper arm, leaving a raw red scar. And the farrier—who noticed all the girls’ breasts and whistled softly at us while he trimmed our horses’ feet.

There was a bit of savagery at the barn. A bit of every kid for themselves—adolescent savagery and a hierarchy of adult alcoholics. And at the top of the heap was Mr. Reeves, with his huge gut and his rangy gray open jumper Storm Trooper, who left Mrs. Reeves and ran off with a stable hand and eventually broke his neck riding to the hounds in New Jersey.

A place like all the others in my world, where you had to look both ways before crossing—and it wasn’t the spiders that bit.

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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An Honor and an Opportunity: The Writer’s Craft Super Stack!

DEAR WRITERS,

I have some quarantine-friendly news!

I don’t know if you remember, but last year, I co-authored a book, PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK, with Tia Levings and Joyce Sweeney (foreword by Ryan G. Van Cleave, who wrote MEMOIR WRITING FOR DUMMIES, among a long list of other titles). Our book has been a success! It’s thrilling to see it help so many other writers!

And now we’re honored (and excited!) to have been invited to contribute our powerful little book to an incredible bundle of writing craft resources: The Writer’s Craft Super Stack!

This “Super Stack” is a bundle of excellent writing-related books and courses offered for just one week—for a really accessible price! (Their promo says it’s worth more than $4000! I dunno. I didn’t do the math, LOL. But I do know the entire kit and kaboodle of writerly awesomeness is available for just $49!)

Here’s some of what’s included:

  • 19 bestselling eBooks and 19 premium eCourses, masterclasses, and training programs that cover writing everything from picture books to romance novels to page-turning thrillers.
  • 8 exclusive trials for best-in-class software to help you outline your novel, plan your writing, and become a productivity machine. (Okay. That’s them talking, not me. Your mileage might vary. But if you try one of these out, let me know what you think!)
  • 3 exclusive coupons on writer-related resources, including half-off cover design, book formatting, and more, all designed to help your books fly off Amazon’s shelves.

Follow this link to see exactly which materials are part of the bundle: It’s great stuff!

So, this literary feast is available today, Thursday, March 19, through Thursday, March 26. And good news: There’s a 60-day, no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee. That means you can get instant access to everything in the bundle and take 60 days to decide if it’s actually useful for you.

Thanks for reading. I’m not (as you know!), usually very sales-y. But we were super-pleased to be asked to participate: It means people are loving our book and talking about it! And it’s a wonderful chance to share our plot-centric message with (at least a part of) the world.

Stay safe. Write happy.

Jamie

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Top Writing Coaching Tip #2: When You Wonder If Writing Your Memoir Is Worthwhile

DO YOU WANT TO WRITE A MEMOIR? If so, do you wonder if your story will have value for readers outside your immediate circle? Yes? Well, you’re not alone.

Often, I talk with folks whose experiences have been meaningful enough to them that they want to share what they’ve been through. They feel that, if published, their life story could benefit others—in part, by demonstrating to future readers that at least one person has survived the circumstances about which they want to write and also by offering others the wisdom they’ve gleaned in the process. These potential memoirists may have been subject to abuse or have hit a deep bottom after self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Perhaps they’ve had a serious illness or gone through the devastating loss of a child or spouse.

Whatever their story, having undergone a life-changing trial, they’re ready to share their experience of strength and hope. But faced with the long haul of writing a memoir, they may wonder: Will others really find what I have to say worth reading? (Then there’s the not-insignificant task of on-boarding excellent narrative writing skills!)

With all that in mind, I wrote a note—both in recognition of those who have shared their memoir-writing dreams with me and with the hope that, if I send it out on the ethers, it might reach the heart of someone hesitating at the brink of writing their story.

Dear Memoir-Writer-to-Be,

I understand you’re concerned that your story might not hold meaning for anyone else—that it might not be a valuable contribution to literature or society. But I want to assure you, if you can dig deep and excavate the shining core of your experience and convey it in a compelling way, readers will connect with what you have to say.

Of course, much skill and craft goes into writing a compelling memoir—but with patience and diligence, those can be learned. If you are really committed to the task, that commitment will be the reliable spark that will fuel the work of learning what you must to deliver the story you want to share.

Work hard. Find techniques that will make your story strong, that will convey the deepest meaning of it, that will showcase its worth, that will help you develop its shape and create of it a presence that will make its inherent value evident to your readers.

Tall order? Sure. But having lived through something so life-changing you believe you can impact others by sharing it, I bet you can tackle this, too.

Wishing you every inspiration and a basketful of determination,

Jamie

 

Memoir-writing inspiration

There are wonderful resources available to support you in writing your memoir. Among them, I recommend THE ART OF MEMOIR, by Mary Karr, and MEMOIR WRITING FOR DUMMIES, by Ryan G. Van Cleave.

If you’re looking for more suggestions, Meghan McCullough wrote an article for The Perch (the Penguin Random House blog), titled “The 9 Best Books on Writing Memoir.”

And for a shorter read, you might like my post, “Telling the Truth: A Memoir Writing Prompt.”

Writing coach

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review! And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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A Freelance Editor’s 5 Tips to Getting the Most from Your FREE Sample Edit!

TOM WALLACE IS A SAVVY EDITOR and an extraordinary ghost writer. I asked him if he’d be willing to share a useful nugget from his wide experience in the world of professional writing—and he delivered the goods!

The Sample Edit

Tom Wallace

Shopping for a freelance editor can be a nail-biter. You know you need one, but they have to be the right one. You want an editor who not only knows the principles of editing backward and forward but has the sensitivity and perception to edit your voice, to get what you’re saying. One of the most important tools to use in this epic search is the sample edit.

There are two kinds of sample edit. The first is the paid sample, usually of a good chunk of your writing—say, your opening two chapters or initial twenty pages. This is, frankly, not a popular choice, because, if you’re getting four paid samples, this search could get a bit costly.

The second type is free, so that’s what we’ll focus on in this post. Most freelance editors will be happy to do a free sample edit. They’ll jump at the opportunity to prove they’ve got the chops you’re looking for.

5 Tips to Getting the Most from a Sample Edit

Tip #1: A free sample will be about five pages. Get a sample of this length from three or four editors, so you have enough comparison material to make an informed choice between them. Have all your prospective editors work on exactly the same material—which should be the first five pages of your book. (Indeed, the three most important parts of your book are the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page. What’s in the beginning constitutes your best hope—quite likely your only hope—of hooking a reader.)

Tip #2: This sample should be done in Microsoft Word with the Track Changes function turned on, allowing you to see every revision and margin comment made by each editor.

Tip #3: Editors might deal with any number of issues: wordiness, spelling, punctuation, character development, pace, etc. So comparing these few sample edits can be very enlightening.

Look for things in the text like deletions of repeated words or ideas, the rearrangement of sentences and re-punctuation of dialogue, and the solving of grammatical problems like dangling modifiers. If two or three editors agree about the majority of these issues and one does not—well, then it’s time to remember what you learned on SESAME STREET: one of these editors is not like the others.

Also, if editors are revising for style, which does the best job of polishing your work without obliterating your voice. Are they really adding value, or are they just changing things to change them?

Tip #4: Look at the margin comments. These may contain information about why something was changed, suggestions to you about what you might add, or questions meant to clarify your meaning or clarify an idea in the editor’s head that will help her do good work on your material, should you decide to work with her.

Tip #5: Finally, if you don’t understand a choice an editor has made, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Remember that each editor is essentially auditioning for a part in the play that is your writing life. If they grumble at the idea of answering questions—or communicating with you in anyway—they shouldn’t be in your play.

Sample edits rock. They’re one of the best tools you have in your search for a talented editor.

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Thanks so much to Tom for sharing the ins and outs of getting a sample edit. Want to learn more about working with a freelance editor? Contact Tom Wallace!

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Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!
Want to know more about hiring a writing coach? Click to read Should I Hire a Writing Coach in THE WRITER magazine.

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A Writer’s First Year: How a Writing Coach Helped a Shadow Writer Step into the Light

FROM OUR FIRST CONVERSATION, I knew Mona was a writer … although that notion was in complete contradiction to the fact that she didn’t write! Still. There was something about her that just felt like a writer—and as someone who spends most of my waking hours talking with writers, I was pretty confident in my assessment.

Julia Cameron talks about shadow artists. These are folks who long to have a more creative life, but instead live in the shadow of other creatives. Perhaps they manage a gallery instead of painting themselves, or, in the case of writers, read voraciously, but rarely put pen to paper. Before this past year, Mona may have been living in the writing shadows, but not anymore. Since we met, she’s taken many steps into the light. I’m grateful to her for sharing both a bit about her journey here and a beautiful piece of personal writing that shows her writer’s soul!

A Writer’s First Year
—Mona Newton

My writing year started when a friend invited me to join a blog group in early January. Participants received daily prompts from the organizer, wrote posts, and shared them with the group. Thinking I could learn from others and maybe connect with fellow wannabes, I jumped in, although I felt really insecure about my writing.

I am a rule follower, so I wrote to the suggested topic each day, though no one else seemed to. In fact, only a very few of the twenty or so other participants wrote at all. After a few weeks of limping along, trying my darnedest to get into the flow, I read our leader’s post about her writing coach, Jamie Morris.

Jamie’s enthusiasm gave me a positive vibe—I could do this. I could explore writing in a safe, fun, educational environment with a writing coach! I had asked and the Universe had delivered something better than the blog group.

Then I broke my wrist while skiing. Immediately, my very active life became sedentary. It turned out to be the break (no pun intended) I needed to slow down and explore the short “writing opportunities” Jamie offered me. I wrote about a painting in my living room, about hotel carpet, about my long-dead fish, Beta (see story below). As winter melted into summer, I took walks and wrote about what I’d seen along the way.

And Jamie and I wrote together, too. In those sessions, I noticed how unfamiliar I am with spilling out my ideas. I keep circling authors whose books I’ve read and am in awe at how they are able to write hundreds of pages of really good words, all strung together, while the writing I produce seems still to be so elementary.

I struggle to imbue myself in the pieces I write, and I struggle to find the words. And I still have stretches where I just don’t write. But when I do, sometimes I am actually pleased with what I write—like I am with this piece.

Betta Fish

My friend Marcella was giving betta fish as party favors at her daughter’s high school graduation party. I decided to take one with me to my apartment, 350 miles away. Like my cousin Danette, my nephew Chris, and my niece Sonia, I took a bright red one. To make the fish’s trip as comfortable as possible, I carefully packed his bowl in a box with a towel around it. The temperature was in the 90s. Fortunately, my car had excellent air conditioning.

I’d never owned a fish before, but the idea of a pet in my little apartment put a smile on face. I named him Beta. Bettas are fighters; they don’t do well with other fish in their tank. Even when people stooped to talk to him at eye level, he’d do his aggressive dance, coming up to the side of his one-gallon tank, puffing out his gills to make his head look bigger, and attacking them, by swimming in reverse, then charging forward, stopping right before he hit the side of the tank.

But Beta was really friendly to me. He would greet me when I talked to him. I was convinced he recognized me! When he was feeling particularly friendly, he’d wave his little fins at me when I looked him in the eye. In the morning when I fed him, I would drop of couple of flakes into the tank; he would swim around one of them and then attack it, munching it down quickly. 

My neighbors Peg and Mike took care of Beta when I’d leave town for more than a couple of days. After watching him for over a year, they would joke when I took him over to their apartment that he was going to camp—Betta Camp. He was pretty entertaining for all of us.

One day, though, after he’d been in my care for three years, he started acting less frisky, looking a little gray below his mouth. After researching on the internet, I concluded he was sick, not dying. The guy at the pet store who sold me the Betta Fix, which was the medicine to cure him, told me a typical betta lifespan was about three years. The internet said two to five years. I was determined to get Beta past three, even to five.

I changed his water frequently, didn’t overfeed him, and of course I talked to him. But he didn’t make it. After a few days of hanging out at the top of his tank on a floating plastic plant, he died. I came home from work to find him standing on his tail leaning against the little Buddha in his tank.

For his final swim, I took him down to the Roaring Fork River and let him go in the current, thanking him for being my companion. Hopefully, in a complete cycle, he was food for another fish, or a bird that spotted his bright red body from high in the sky.

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In December, Mona asked herself, “Am I done with this experiment?” A gut check told her no, she’s not done. There’s more she wants to explore in this coming year. She reported that she’s signed up for two creative writing classes, one with Natalie Goldberg and one at her local college. She’ll  also continue working on a longer piece, about Georgia O’Keefe and  Mabel Dodge Luhan, that she started last year, hoping to find a place for its publication. But whether or not she gets that piece published, Mona told me she’ll keep going, approaching writing with perseverance and gusto, the way she likes to approach the rest of her life (especially skiing!).

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I hope you found Mona’s experience inspiring. Got a dream? Be like Mona! Go for it—even if you take it tortoise-slow and with the tiniest of baby steps. Just give it a year and see how far you’ve come.

Writing coaching

Need help with your book? I’m available for book coaching and manuscript review!
And check out Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.

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