Brighter World

“The one thing you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”

“Write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”

“The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.”
Neil Gaiman

My sister Steph loved Neil Gaiman’s novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which won the National Book Award. I’ve also heard raves about his children’s story, The Graveyard Book, which garnered a Newbery. Our boy Neil is not only an award-winning author, he’s also prolific and protean. He’s written short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, and screenplays. In an online interview he offered some inspiring advice on writing:

Where ideas come from: Desperation, deadlines, daydreaming. Ideas often turn up while you’re doing something else. Confluence is a big factor: two things flowing together and converging can trigger an idea. Everyone gets ideas all the time, but most people let them slip away. As writers we “train ourselves to notice when we get an idea” — when we find or hit upon something that might be mined.

First drafts: Neil likes to write by hand in notebooks, because until he puts his work on the computer, it’s “not real” and somehow, “it doesn’t matter,” so it takes the pressure off and frees him up. As he puts it, “No one really cares about your first draft but you. Whatever you’re doing can be fixed.” So get it down and see what you have.

Read outside your comfort zone: Whatever the genre you want to focus on, make it a point to read outside of it. When you read widely, you get ideas, you make connections, you see fresh angles. “Go and learn things” — it will make you a stronger writer.

Tell your story your way: “There are better writers, smarter writers than you. But you are the only you — so start telling the stories that only you can tell.”

Bravo, Neil — write on!

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Powerful Story

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are gone, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.”
Carson McCullers

“Green wind from the green-gold branches, what is the song you bring? 

What are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?
Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still, 

But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.”
Fiona Macleod/William Sharp

It’s late. I should have written this post hours ago, but I heard a wonderful interview with Alan Arkin on TV and stayed up to watch him star in a wonderful film adaptation of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. What a powerful, moving story — and how amazing to think that Carson penned it when she was only 23.

A good novel-to-movie translation is tough to pull off: So often, they’re more disappointing than satisfying. In this case, along with superb acting, there are classic story elements that contribute to a successful leap from page to projector:

A strong sense of place: The small Southern town in which the story takes place is steeped in tradition and prejudice.

An unusual hero: The main character, Singer, has a distinctive quality that sets him apart and commands attention: He can neither speak nor hear, yet he radiates sympathy and soulful compassion.

A colorful cast of outsiders: Mick, the young girl who befriends Singer, is a lonely outsider with a frustrated passion who yearns to be understood and loved. There’s also a roustabout; Singer’s childlike friend who’s institutionalized; and an African-American doctor struggling to survive in a threatening world.

A compelling, fast-placed plot: The story has a strong emotional arc and artfully weaves together universal themes: loneliness and loss; the deep-seated need to be heard and valued; coming-of-age confusion and pain; familial demands and disappointment.

Every good story is unique in its own way, yet shares a handful of fundamental elements with every other good story: Memorable characters, a powerful sense of place, timeless themes, compassionate witnessing. How amazing to think that there are infinite ways in which these basic ingredients can be mixed and matched! Something to ponder as we all write on.

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Dawn Wall

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
Sir Edmund Hillary

“Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Something amazing: Not long ago, two young climbing partners, Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell, did what many of us would think is impossible: They became the first to free-climb El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, a 3,000-foot vertical span of smooth granite in Yosemite National Park. Free-climbing, using only hands and feet — scaling walls without ropes or anchor pins — is about as risky an endurance sport you can find: It takes mental and physical stamina, strength and flexibility, precision and patience.

When Kevin and Tommy completed their monumental 19-day climb, they set a world’s record that it will be hard to beat using only strength and guile, not ropes or equipment. Getting there wasn’t easy. Every year since 2009, the two determined climbers spent weeks and months on the Dawn Wall, scouting holds and practicing their technique, fueled by the vision of climbing the granite rock face in one gigantic push.

One phase of the climb, a sideways traverse called Pitch 15 smack in the middle of the climb, almost ate Kevin’s lunch. “I’ll always remember that battle,” he said. Over seven days, he attempted to climb the pitch 10 times and failed 10 times, shredding the skin on his hands so badly he had to wait two days for it to heal. By the time he tried again, he’d analyzed his failed attempts and figured out the problem: “A millimeter change in the angle of my right foot on the exact same piece of rock” did the trick.

Kevin said of his feat, “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will. We’ve been working on this thing a long time, slowly and surely. I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day and maybe they can put this project in their own context.”

What’s all this have to do with writing? A lot, to my mind. To complete their feat, Kevin and Tommy had to dream big and keep their dream alive over years of planning and persistence. They had to sustain their goal in the face of naysayers who didn’t believe it was possible. They had to screen out distractions and stay focused so they could find the time and energy to map out a strategy and execute it. They had to believe in the value of what they were doing enough to find the resources to make it happen. And when Kevin hit Pitch 15, he had to find the inner strength to try again and again to make it across. After failing, he had to be open and ingenious enough to find a new way to do what he couldn’t do before. What’s your personal Dawn Wall — your Wall of the Early Morning Light? Why not start hatching a plan to climb it — and write on!

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Helpful Advice is a great free site that offers timely resources and updates on a wide range of contests for poets, essayists, novelists, and short story writers. It also sponsors the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction and Essay Contest:

• Top prizes: Best Story, $1500; Best Essay: $1500.
• Length Limit: 6,000 words
• Subject: Open
• Previous publication: OK
• Winning entries published on Winning Writers website
• Deadline: April 30

Arthur Powers, an award-winning author and the contest’s judge, offered some advice on fiction writing to entrants that I believe we may all find helpful:

“All the rules you have ever learned about writing are important. You should know them, master them, then work around them. People will tell you it is important to show, not tell; they are right—yet sometimes you should tell, not show. People will discuss whether to write in first or third person, from a specific or more omniscient viewpoint—all this is interesting but, in my experience, it is the story that tells the writer what viewpoint to write from, not the writer who tells the story. People (including me) will tell you never to write in the second person—yet I once wrote an entire novella in the second person and it worked (won an award and was published).

“In his wonderful novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok says much the same thing about painting: “This is a tradition…Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to add to it or to rebel against it.”

“I tell my students that character is the most important element in fiction. You should know and love your characters. Plot is what happens when characters interact with one another or situations. This is true not only of psychological and literary stories, but of science fiction, thrillers, westerns, even mysteries (where the temptation to distort characters to fit the plot is particularly strong).

“Atmosphere may also be important to a story—the way a place, a situation, and the story itself feel. Texture may be created through a few key phrases…

“Walter Pater said that all art strives toward music, and there is a great deal of truth in that. The rhythm of a story—pacing, timing, speed—is very important. I find it sometimes helps to think of my stories in terms of musical composition.

“Avoid clichés—not only in words, but in thoughts. Try not to be too self-absorbed—take your craft seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Pointers to ponder as we all write on!

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Something Wonderful

Inspiring words are everywhere! These come to us by way of an old Celestial Seasonings box of tea, which featured a wonderful quote. I am copying it from the back of the box, which I cut out and saved:

Treasure House
John Ruskin

“Make yourselves nests of pleasant thoughts. None of us yet know, for none of us have been taught in early youth, what fairy palaces we may build of beautiful thought — proof against all adversity. Bright fancies. satisfied memories, noble histories, faithful sayings, treasure houses of precious and restful thoughts, which care cannot disturb, nor pain make gloomy, nor poverty take away from us — houses built without hands, for our souls to live in.”

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Way Finders

“In writing, forward motion is everything.”
Michael Korda

We are all wayfarers: fellow travelers on the literary life’s highway. But we’re also way finders: We’re each finding a way to craft our own unique path to the writing life. That’s why I’m always heartened to hear about the many creative approaches people come up with to make their writing a priority in the midst of all the demands they face.

In a recent post called “Playing Around,” there was mention of making a commitment to writing just 10 minutes a day. Martha Moffett (, one of my cherished community of KWD readers, often leaves me inspiring comments. She recently sent me a note which I wanted to share with you here:

“Karin, your post rang a bell with me. When I embarked on my first novel, I literally had NO TIME; I had a full-time job and two young children, and I did all our housekeeping, shopping and cooking. At that time I rode a bike to work, from the upper West Side to East Side midtown, where I was copy chief at Ladies’ Home Journal. It dawned on me that if I gave up my bike ride and took the subway, I’d have 45 minutes twice a day in which to write.

“I bought a lined book and a good pen and started. Within a few days, I could enter my “zone” and pick up where I’d stopped the day before. I was writing with intensity; neighbors on the train told me that they spoke to me, even tapped my shoulder, and I was oblivious–was I mad at them? No, I was just writing my first novel.”

What a fantastic example of creative problem-solving! Even with a job and family to care for, Martha found a way to make her personal writing project a part of her day. When I heard Michael Korda speak years ago, someone asked him how he managed to write novels and nonfiction while holding down a high-powered job with a major publisher. He gave a no-nonsense, straightforward answer: He got up early and wrote before he went to work on week days and then spent time writing on weekends as well. Then he added the comment above: “In writing, forward motion is everything.” To me this means: Just keep writing, keep going, push forward, make it happen.

One of my writing buddies is giving this her own twist: She’s getting up earlier, beating the traffic, arriving at work before everyone else, and spending a quiet hour or so writing in her office. Another writing buddy and I have come up with a strategy to support each other: We’ve just started meeting the first and third Thursday of every month at 8 at a local coffee café and trading pages. She’s casting a fresh eye over my story, which is very helpful to me — and having a set timetable is helping her jump start her own YA novel in the midst of a full work schedule and an active family life.

My friend and mentor Coach Tully says that life isn’t a talent game, it’s a strategy game. So why not play around and come up with a strategy that works for you? Bravo, Martha — write on!

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Quietly Satisfying

“Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.”
Lorraine Hansberry

“What another would have done as well as you, do not do it. What another
would have said as well as you, do not say it. What another would have
written as well, do not write it. Be faithful to that which exists nowhere
but in yourself — and thus make yourself indispensable.”
Andre Gide

Has this ever happened to you: Sometimes, no matter how carefully you’ve planned the latest stage of a writing project, a new idea crops up and suddenly, your day’s work goes off in a different direction? That’s exactly what happened to me today. I was all set to tackle a thorny section at the very end of my YA novel when I happened to pick up a short article I’d printed out about the hero’s journey based on Joseph Campbell’s book, Hero with a Thousand Faces.

In the article, there was a reference to a pivotal moment that’s important for the reader to experience emotionally along with the hero/heroine in a quest story. This really struck a chord with me and I began thinking about that moment in my story and how I could make it bigger and more exciting — and raise the stakes emotionally so that it would be more satisfying both for my little heroine and for readers as well.

The result? I threw my revision plan for the day overboard: Instead of rewriting a key section at the end of my novel, I went backwards and revisited an earlier part of my story. While this disrupted my forward momentum, something in that article rang true for me and triggered a realization about how to make my story better that demanded a response right away. Here’s what happened:

First, I decided not to panic about getting off track and taking myself someplace new for the day. Second, I gave myself permission to “just sit a while and think,” and started playing with a few ideas in my head. Third, out came a fresh pad and pencil, which always helps me think more clearly. Then, I just sat quietly again and let my mind range over the event that I wanted to re-envision. After a while some ideas about how it could unfold more dramatically started bubbling up. Pencil hit paper and a rough new sequence to part of my story emerged.

By the end of an hour or two of noodling all of this around, I had outlined a whole new approach and jotted down a page of notes for what promises to be a much bigger defining moment for my main character and my reader. I’m excited about this improvement and happy that I was open enough to spot a weak link in my story and come up with a way to make it stronger. All in all, it was a quietly satisfying day. Quiet time to sit and think. Sometimes that’s all we need to give ourselves, isn’t it? In these moments, magic happens. Are you giving yourself enough quiet time to reflect and re-envision? Write on.

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