Chunk It

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”
Robin Williams

Whatever you’re working on, you may have hit a rough patch or you may be about to pass into one. When you land in one of these spots, by its very nature, you feel bogged down and sluggish: Moving forward seems overwhelming. When you find yourself in one of these ruts, “chunking” can really help.

Basically, this involves breaking down whatever you’re working on into small, manageable pieces and then tackling each of them in separately, in isolation. Instead of feeling distracted and fragmented, this approach helps you focus by giving you a limited amount of text to work with.

Here’s an example: Just recently, I was making extensive changes in a key chapter in my YA novel. Instead of adding them in piecemeal, I decided to rewrite it from start to finish, so that I could get a feeling for the new narrative flow of this portion of my story.

Since it was a long chapter with a lot of action and dialogue, to make the revision more efficient — and more enjoyable — I took a pack of 5 x 8 index cards and rewrote the entire chapter on them. Each card was just large enough to hold a few sentences: about a paragraph of text. Sometimes I rewrote the same passage on several cards in succession, until it had more sparkle and snap. Occasionally, I decided to try a different text sequence by re-ordering the cards. This was fun and in a couple of instances, the new order definitely worked better.

Bit by bit, card by card, the chapter started coming together. I numbered each one and stacked them in a satisfying little pile. As it got bigger and fatter, I felt more focused and more determined to push through to the end.

I remember reading that Vladimir Nabokov wrote on small index cards, building his stories card by card. There’s something very encouraging and easeful about this approach: Instead of facing a whole page, you are just filling a rectangle with text. Why not try it and see if it works for you? Write on!

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Fast Drafting

“To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself.”
Anne Rice

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

This November, tens of thousands of people around the world will take part in National Novel-Writing Month and take up its brain-crunching challenge: Writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. While this whole idea may or may not float your boat, there’s one clear advantage to focusing on word count as a primary goal that may be worth looking at: It inspires (actually impels) fast drafting.

Fast Drafting is exactly what it sounds like: You set a writing goal and push through until you reach it, no matter what. The benefits of this approach can be impressive:

Fast Drafting encourages you to write every day, whether you feel like it or not, whether your muse is in or out to lunch or vacationing in the Bahamas.

Fast Drafting strengthens your writing muscle: When you keep moving through a draft, no matter how bad it seems or how difficult a day’s output turns out to be, you’re proving to yourself that you can write through tough stuff — and this builds your resolve and your ability to do it again. And again.

Fast Drafting helps you get your story down on paper: You create something with sense of wholeness: It has a beginning, middle, and end. Once you have the bones of it in front of you, you can give it guts and heart.

Fast Drafting gives you momentum: Immersing yourself in your story from day to day as you keep moving through it will ignite your ingenuity and put your brain in overdrive. The payoff: new ideas and insights.

So if you have a story rumbling around inside, why not give fast-drafting a go and get it from your head to your hand so you can see if it has legs and a heart? Or if you’re stuck at a pivotal moment in your current draft, why not try the fast-draft strategy and just barrel through that thorny patch until you come out on the other side and see what emerges? Write on!

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Grub Street

“Creative writing explores and documents the human condition and creates meaning in the lives of those who practice it. We believe the act of writing can change both ourselves and the world.”
Grub Street, statement of philosophy

Grub Street is a nonprofit organization and the second largest independent creative writing center in the United States. Founded in 1997, it has a simple mission: “To be an innovative, rigorous, and welcoming community for writers.” Based in the heart of Boston, it offers hundreds of classes annually and also hosts a highly popular three-day annual conference called the Muse and the Marketplace.

The GrubStreet National Book Prize is awarded once annually to an American writer publishing his or her second, third, fourth (or beyond…) book. First books are not eligible. Each winner receives a cash award of $5,000. This year’s deadline is October 1 (postmarked) and the submission process is now under way for the GrubStreet Book Prize in Fiction.

While GrubStreet’s top criterion is literary merit, the award committee is especially eager to support writers publishing with small presses, writers of short story collections, and writers of color — and encourages them to apply. Self-published books and books available only in digital format are not eligible. Debut fiction is not eligible, unless the author has published a previous book of poetry or non-fiction.

Books eligible for submission include novels, short story and novella collections, and novels in stories published between January 1, 2014 and May 1, 2015. The author must reside in the United States. 

The fiction winner will be invited to Boston in May 2015 for the Muse and the Marketplace conference, where s/he will give a public reading and lead a craft class. Grub Street will also hold a reception in the winner’s honor. Grub Street pays all travel and accommodation expenses.

Publishers may submit books on behalf of authors, but applications must include all the required materials. The winner will be notified by March 1, 2015. For full submission requirements, visit: and write on!

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Wayfaring Words

“And do you think,” said the first swallow, “that the other call is not for us too, in its due season? The call of the lush meadow-grass, wet orchards, warm, insect-haunted ponds, of browsing cattle, of hay-making, and all the farm-buildings clustering round the House of the perfect Eaves?”
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Here is something worth pondering: How do we fashion images in our writing that entice our readers to come along with us to some place that’s far away in time and space from where they spend their days? Perhaps travel with us to some enchanted place that’s really a world or two away from all that’s known and remembered?

Enticing images – ones that delight and startle our readers, inviting them to see the familiar with fresh eyes: Where do we find them? To my mind, among the best sources of inspiration are classic stories for children. Their language is often playful and unfettered, rhythmic and lyrical. There’s an undulating, wayfaring quality to it that seems to carry you forward.

This weekend, I picked up a copy of Wind in the Willows at a yard sale. What a gorgeously written story! Every page sparkles and snaps with wit and and original, evocative word choices. I plan to isolate a few of my favorite passages and challenge myself to bring the same brio and surprise to my YA novel as I’m rewriting it.

There’s so much to learn from wonderful writing! Wherever we find it, let’s savor it for both the pleasure it gives and the ideas it engenders. Write on!

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Re-commiting Ourselves

“…the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.”
William Hutchison Murray

When we’re working on a long-term project, it’s easy to get bogged down and to lose our way. Sometimes we even lose touch with the original creative impulse: the wellspring of our idea and our enthusiasm. When this happens, we’re especially vulnerable to waves of discouragement and self-doubt. At least, this has been my experience.

When I’ve faced moments like these — and I’ve had may fair share of them! — I’ve found that the single best step I can take is to re-commit myself to my original vision. Doing this energizes and emboldens me to go on. Here’s why I think this helps: It gives us a touchstone. When we rededicate ourselves to our original concept, we:

Reconnect with our source of creativity: Reigniting that spark, finding the pulse of our original intention once more is often all we need to re-energize ourselves. There’s something refreshing about cutting through all the confusion, all the false starts, all the trappings of our trade — and just focusing on what we started out to do in the first place.

Refresh our sense of the possible: When we revisit our touchstone moments, we rekindle the sense of excitement we had at the beginning of our journey, our quest. And when this happens, once again, we feel expansive and hopeful, not hidebound and constrained.

Receive gifts from the universe: When we renew our passion and make a commitment to being true to our original vision and seeing it through to completion, no matter what, the universe takes note. Time and again, in these moments, I’ve received wonderful ideas and inspiration — often from unexpected sources — and I’m sure that you have as well. All this shows us that we’re on the right path: We’re in the right place, at the right time, and doing the right thing. Write on!

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Something Wonderful

Here. to inspire us all as we relax and recharge, is a thoughtful meditation on the power of the written word. I found it in my cherished copy of One Thousand Beautiful Things, which came to me from my beloved mom, Dorothy:


“Consider what you have in the smallest chosen library.
A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be
picked out of all civil countries, in a thousand years,
have set in best order the results of their learning
and wisdom. The men themselves were hid and
inaccessible, solitary, impatient of interruption,
fenced by etiquette; but the thought which they
did not uncover to their bosom friend is here
written out in transparent words to us, the
strangers of another age.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Be Kind

“Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

“What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?”
George Eliot

“Have you had a kindness shown? Pass it on.”
Henry Burton

Here’s a cautionary note from a seasoned author that we might all pay heed to: Choose the people who give you feedback on your writing with care. This advice isn’t really surprising when you consider how hard it can be to find really constructive insights and advice. And how hurtful people can sometimes be — often mistakenly.

This is one reason why a solid, serious writing group is so valuable. And why you need to take just about everything that anyone says to you about your writing with a grain of salt. Or, as Walt Whitman put it so well: ‘Re-examine all you have been told…Dismiss what insults your Soul.” In other words, trust your own intuition and stay true to your own intention.

When I started pondering all this, a few simple “rules of the road” came to me. These might prove helpful whether you’re giving or receiving feedback:

Be kind: Writing is hard work and anyone who takes on the challenge should be treated tenderly and worthily — and given the full measure of our attention and support.

Be balanced: One of my writing buddies said that in her MFA program, people were encouraged to refrain from trying to “fix” someone else’s work. Instead, they were asked to say, “Here’s what worked for me in this piece — and here’s what didn’t.” This seems like a good approach, doesn’t it? It’s personal, but neutral at the same time, without resorting to, “I didn’t like this or that.”

Be upbeat: If you have an idea for a more powerful ending or a better transition, then, by all means, pass it on. Just avoid couching it in terms of “fixing.” Instead, you might talk about strengthening a passage or increasing its dramatic impact, or about considering another approach. You get the idea.

As you share your insights with your fellow scribes, take this thought from Jean-Jacque Rousseau as your touchstone and all will be well: “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” Armed with these wise words, let’s all write on!

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