Wonderful Game

“I have always been a good editor of my own work. I’ve tried to teach my writing friends that there are two arts: number one, getting a thing  done; and then, the second great art is learning how to cut it so you don’t kill it or hurt it in any way. When you start out life as a writer, you hate that job, but now that I’m older it’s turned into a
wonderful game, and I love the challenge just as much as writing the original… It’s an intellectual challenge to get a scalpel and cut the patient without killing.”
Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

One of the things I love most about Ray Bradbury is the absolute joy he takes in writing — he loves it — and it shows. You’ve got to love a guy who started out hating editing but came to see it as  a “wonderful game.”

In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray tells a story about writing the screenplay for his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (wow, what a great title!). When director Jack Clayton was working with him on the movie script, Ray, ever enthusiastic and prolific,
produced a 260-page screenplay. That would translate into a six-hour movie.

Here’s how Ray described what happened next: “Jack said, ‘Well, now you’ve got to cut out forty pages. I said, ‘God, I can’t.’ He said, ‘Go ahead, I know you can do it. I’ll be behind you.’ So I cut forty pages out. He said, ‘OK, now you’ve got to cut another forty pages out.’ I got it down to 180 pages, and then Jack said, ‘Thirty more.’ I said, ‘Impossible, impossible!’ Okay, I got it down to 150 pages. And Jack said, ‘Thirty more.’ Well, he kept telling me I could do it, and by God, I went through a final time and got it down to 120 pages. It was better.”

“It was better” — what a punch line! And how often that’s true of skillful editing: It reveals the true story inside a story. How did Jack help Ray get there with his film script. It all came down to what Ray called “compression” — tightening dialogue, and coming up with
“compact images” to show what he wanted to more succinctly. One of the things that Ray said helped him most in this massive cutting project was his knowledge of poetry, because poetry is all about  metaphor and imagery. As Ray put it, “If you can find the right metaphor, the right image, and put it in a scene, it can replace four pages of dialogue.”

So often, we think of editing as a chore — a self-inflicted hatchet job. But if we can approach it as our boy Ray came to — as “an intellectual challenge” and a “wonderful game” in which we get to play with metaphor, imagery, and compression, we can transform it from a difficult task to a delightful triumph. Write on!

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Focusing Fuel

Writing takes focus, mental and physical stamina, and will power. Research shows that the food has an enormous impact on our focus and follow through when working on projects demanding concentration and discipline. Foods that supply our brains with a steady level of glucose can boost our performance. As a rule, any low-glycemic food — lean proteins, vegetables, nuts and fruit — will all give you a healthy dose of energy.

Colin Robertson, in a recent post on his great site Willpowered.com called “THE 10 BEST FOODS FOR LONG-LASTING WILLPOWER.” Here are the 10 superstar, brain-fueling foods he’s identified:

1) Poultry/Fish: While all lean meats can help your performance, poultry and fish have the most protein and least fat — and offer the most benefits.

2) Free-Range Eggs: Eggs are back! As Colin notes, “Eggs are one of the most nutrient-rich and healthiest foods available – and they are almost remarkably good for your willpower! The mixture of protein and healthy fat creates a steady stream of glucose for your brain.” Free-range eggs are the best — they offer healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, food for your brain.

3) Tofu: A great choice for vegans who want a steady source of brain-boosting fuel. Make sure you eat it in the purest form; processed foods like tofu nuggets often contain high fructose corn syrup.

4) Split peas/lentils: These legumes have the lowest levels of natural sugar and are least likely to spike you glucose level. will have the most willpower benefits for you. Peas from the pod are best — and so tasty!

5) Almonds & Almond milk: Crave a snack food? Almonds are your best choice. They’ll ease your hunger and fuel your brain with a steady supply of glucose. Almond milk is also a great choice — it has less sugar than cow or soy milk — I love it in my smoothies!

6) Yogurt: Another great snack choice — full of nutrients. For the most brain power, Choose plain yogurt and add fresh fruit. Avoid processed yogurts premixed with fruit — they’ll lead to sugar spikes.

7) Berries: Strawberries! Blueberries! As Colin says, “Pick a berry, any berry. Berries are some of the best options for long-term willpower because of their lower sugar content relative to other fruit options like apples and bananas. They also have the added benefit of being high in fiber and antioxidants, so they are by far the best choice as far as fruit.”

8) Avocados: Another smart fruit option with relatively low sugar and high levels of healthy fats that help you absorb other nutrients more effectively. You can use them in smoothies and as an alternative to mayo when eating tuna or eggs.

9) Sweet potatoes: One of the most nutrient-rich foods around and probably the best source of carbohydrates, they may even help regulate your blood sugar levels. I love a baked sweet potato for lunch with a bit of butter and maple syrup — delicious!

10) Carrots: Another smart snack food. Carrots along with sweet potatoes, are rich in beta-carotene, which the body turns to Vitamin A for energy.

I love this list — I’m going to print it out and hang it in my kitchen! it’s filled with easy-to-enjoy choices that can help us all fuel our brains, improve our focus, boost our energy and get the most out of our writing day. For Colin’s full article and other wonderful advice on will power and high performance, check out Willpowered.com. Bravo, Colin. Write on!

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Fresh Seeing

“Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”
Henry James, from his essay “The Art of Fiction.”

Habit blinds us all: We fall into familiar byways without even noticing that it happens and begin to look at the world with a kind of sameness that can make both our days and our writing seem lackluster.

In Becoming a Writer, a classic work on the creative process, Dorothea Brande tackles this problem head on in a chapter called “Learning to See again.” In it, she suggests that one of the keys to fresher writing is to be in the moment when we are out in the world — to turn our “attention outward,” instead of constantly immersing ourselves in our problems or obsessive planning to the point where we miss what’s unfolding around us — the life happening right in front of us.

How do we become someone “on whom nothing is lost”? Here’s what Dorothea suggests: “By way of getting to that desirable state, set yourself a short period each day when you will, by taking thought, recapture a childlike ‘innocence of eye.'” Here’s how:

For half an hour every day, transport yourself back to the “state of wide-eyed interest that was yours when you were five.”

Even though you may feel strange at first doing something so deliberately that was once as easy and natural as breathing, if you stay with it, you’ll find that you can slip into that state of total curiosity where everything is being seen as if for the first time, fresh and sparkling. When you do, you’ll find that “you are able to gather stores of new material” that you can mine in your writing.

Don’t rush to use whatever these half-hour “fresh seeing” mental excursions bring you. If you do, you’re likely to find that they turn flat and factual — like a journalist’s notes. Instead, give them time to work themselves into your writing. As Dorothea says, “wait for the unconscious mind to work its miracles of assimilation and accretion on them.”

I love this notion of “fresh seeing” — of recapturing that sense of childlike wonder that made the world so exciting when we were kids. If we can bring some of that newness and fresh-born excitement to our writing, our words will begin to sing and dance. I’m going to give this a go. How about you? Write on!

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Something Wonderful

A sprinkling of Ralph Waldo Emerson to enrich and enliven your day:

“Waves are inspiring not because they rise and fall, but because
each time the fall they never fail to rise again.”

“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what other people think.
This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve
for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is harder
because you will always find those who think they know what is
your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live
after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own;
but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with
perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

from Self-Reliance

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Easy Riding

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Albert Einstein

We’ve all had those moments when we feel like our muse is on vacation and our creative juices just aren’t flowing. What to do, what to do? As my friend and mentor Rob Gilbert often says on his Success Hotline (973.743.4690), “you’re not lacking creativity, you’re blocking it.”

One of my favorite online sites, Copyblogger, which often focuses on innovation, recently shared an article on “3 Easy Ways to Expand Your Creativity,” by Chris Garrett. If you’re feeling a bit brain drained and blocked, maybe one of these creativity-boosting strategies will help you break out of your rut and think differently:

Make unlikely connections: A hallmark of creativity is the ability to make surprising links between ideas and things. Just think of some of the wonderful similes you’ve read that have helped you see with a fresh eye and mind. As this suggests, one of the best ways to stretch your mind and shake out the cobwebs is to find connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. Just think about the different ways kids use a cardboard box — as a spaceship, a lemonade stand, a log cabin, a clubhouse. One simple way to challenge yourself to creatively connect the dots is to pick three words randomly from a newspaper or a dictionary and spend 15 minutes writing a story about them. You’ll be amazed at what you come up with.

Come up with a new angle: Changing your perspective can be a fruitful way to jog yourself out of the creative doldrums. If you’re writing a novel, for example, you might rewrite a scene from your antagonist’s point of view instead of your hero or heroines. Or you might play devil’s advocate and try to talk one of you characters out of taking an action and see how he or she responds. You might also find inspiration by having an inanimate object or a creature without a voice share its view of what’s unfolding.

Switch gears: Sometimes all we need to get our creative juices flowing is a mental coffee break — a pause that refreshes. Since we work with words all day, grabbing some crayons or colored pencils and drawing free hand or in one of those new adult coloring books can be relaxing and reenergizing. If you’re a logical left-brainer, try daydreaming and see where it takes you; if you’re a right-brain intuitive, solving a complex puzzle can help your creative juices start flowing.

Creativity is a bottomless well, just waiting to be tapped: The more we draw from it, the more there is to draw from. Are there any creativity boosting techniques you’ve found especially helpful during a dry patch? Feel free to share them as we all write on.

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Savvy Submitting

“As an editor, it’s a thrill for me to read a piece of writing that grabs me in the first paragraph, carries me along, and moves me in some way – whether to tears, laughter, or amazement that someone could so clearly express powerful feelings, ideas, and metaphors that I can deeply relate to as a fellow human being.”
Katherine Mayfield, Editor of the Maine Review

As both an editor and a writer who frequently submits to literary journals, Katherine knows that “the process is fraught with anxiety, hope, and an occasional bit of dread. It’s sad that there’s no easier way for editors to discover excellent writing than through an impersonal submission process…” With the goal of making this process easier, Katherine shared some helpful advice in an article called “Tips for Submitting to Literary Magazines,” on the Book Baby blog. Her no-nonsense tips:

1. Scope out the territory: In a nutshell, do your homework. Review one or more issues of the magazine you’re thinking of pitching. You may be able to borrow copies through your local interlibrary loan system, or find previously published issues on its website. My reading group just ordered copies of a recent issue of the well-known journal, Glimmer Train, which we plan to analyze to get a feel for the types of submissions its editors might be receptive to.

2. Don’t hold back: “Go deep,” says Katherine. “Readers love to experience what they’re reading, to relate to it on a visceral or emotional level. Gutsy writing is always appreciated.”

3. Edit carefully: “Reading a piece through without noticing an error is a real joy for editors,” notes Katherine. She suggests having someone else edit your work before submitting: A piece riddled with typos creates a negative impression, no matter how strong the writing.

4. Read the instructions: Editors have created them for a reason and if you’re submitting to them, follow their lead. If you don’t, the editors can easily assume that your writing might not be any better than your ability to read their guidelines.

5. Retain your rights: When submitting, “offer first time rights or nonexclusive rights only – that way, when you’ve written enough short stories, poems, or essays, you can combine them into an anthology and publish it under your name.” Write on!

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Inspiring Journey

“What distinguishes a book is not what happens but the style. The characterization and the setting — all of this comes through the style.”
Tracy O’Neill

Hearing writers reflect on their journeys is always inspiring and instructive. And when the writer has managed to carve out a writing life by publishing both fiction and nonfiction, there’s a lot to be learned from her success.

Tracy O’Neill is a working writer in the best sense of the term. She was awarded an Emerging Writers Fellowship by the Center for Fiction, is the author of a well-received debut novel, The Hopeful, and teaches writing at CCNY. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Lit Hub, Guernica, and The Literarian. Her nonfiction appears in TheAtlantic.com, The New Yorker.com and RollingStone.com. In a lively give-and-take hosted by the Write Group, Tracy shared how she made the transition from short fiction to crafting her novel, The Hopeful. A few highlights:

• The genesis of Tracy’s novel was a six-page story, which she realized had a strong enough central character and unresolved issues to be expanded into a full-length piece of fiction.

• When her agent read the finished manuscript, he identified structural issues that had to be addressed. The result was a major revision in which Tracy condensed the first 200 pages of her story to 100 and then focused on building a stronger plot. The revised book took nine months to sell to a publisher.

• It’s all about the language: Writing is wordsmithing — the rhythm of sentences, the play of syntax, and playing with the rate at which information is disclosed. In her novel, Tracy mixed “abrupt paragraph breaks” that gave readers a “jolt” with “dreamlike sections that were rhythmically more fluid.”

• While Tracy had a strong sense of style, it was very compressed because of her short-fiction background. In writing her novel, she had to loosen up her prose and play with the rate at which information was disclosed to the reader. She learned that “a situation is not a plot” and had to work through a major restructuring to create a stronger story arc.

• Pursuing a writing career takes focus and planning — and action. Applying for and winning a fellowship from the Center for Fiction gave Tracy valuable exposure. The fellowship and short-fiction pieces she submitted and had published attracted her agent.

• Creating an author’s platform through a mix of fiction and nonfiction can be a fruitful path to building an audience and generating opportunities to cultivate new readers.

• A fluid writing process can be as productive as a regimented one. Tracy doesn’t focus on writing a set number of words or for a set period of time. Instead, she works project by project. On days when she doesn’t write, she focuses on reading and thinking about how other people make their craft choices.

Bravo, Tracy — Write on!

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