Friday, April 9, 2010

Ten Tips for Writers

My final post for The Well-Read Donkey:

While I'm relatively new to the world of blogs, much of my work as a creative writing instructor has taken place online.  For the past three years since its inception, I have been teaching creative writing workshops through Stanford's Online Writer's Studio.

I help facilitate this program, planning the curriculum and training instructors, as well as leading my own workshops in both fiction and creative nonfiction every quarter.

The program started when I was pregnant, and it was a job I was able to keep doing even when my son was a newborn (sometimes holding live chat hours while nursing--a fact which I didn't share at that time with my students).  I had taught writing in the classroom before that, and I enjoyed the chemistry of a live interaction, the crackle of excitement when a class is going especially well.  But I was surprised and pleased to find that I love teaching writing classes online just as much.  It's not the same, and you do miss certain aspects of the live classroom, but there are definite tradeoffs.  I enjoy being able to work at odd hours in my pajamas, a glass of wine by the computer and my feet propped on my desk.  I also like the intense focus of getting to know my students through their writing, and I do feel like I get to know them as people, which was confirmed when I met a group of them for dinner before the Kepler's reading. They were even more remarkable in person than on the page, which is saying a lot.

For my final post, I thought I would share some tips or suggestions that I give students in my writing workshops, for those of you out there who are beginning writers, or struggling with some stage of the process (as we all do from time to time).

1.  Make and stick to a regular writing schedule, and keep that time sacred--no email or checking facebook.  It doesn't have to be four hours per day, seven days per week.  In fact, setting a goal that's too lofty might doom you to fail, and that feeling of failure might keep you from picking up and trying again.  Be ambitious but also realistic.  If you're busy with a job and family, but you can carve out one hour each morning before the kids wake up, then try setting your alarm clock an hour early--even just two or three days per week.  If you go from zero hours per week to three hours per week, you'll be accomplishing three times more than you were before.  If you have Sunday afternoons free, then try setting those aside.  I just read an interview with a young adult novelist who has written three books using one weekend day per week to write.  The point is that you don't have to make it a full-time job, but you do have to set aside time to do it, and regularity and consistency tend to work wonders for writers.

2.  Whether you are in a writing workshop or not (and I definitely think they're a good idea, especially for those just getting started, to learn craft basics) find a writing friend, someone at about the same stage as you are, and trade work on a regular basis.  Having a close reader, and hearing that person's take on your work, will help you to be able to revise it.  Without a reader, it's very hard to have any objective sense of what's working well and what could still use improvement.  You can definitely use readers who aren't also writers, but I find that fellow writers tend to be better at giving constructive feedback.  It's nice to hear, "This is fabulous," but only hearing praise won't help you to grow or your writing to improve.  (Yes, I'm a big believer in revision.  Without it, I wouldn't be a writer).

3.  Do exercises.  I love prompts.  I love to give them to the classes I teach, and I love to be given them as well.  The secret about writing prompts is that it almost doesn't matter what they are.  You might be staring at a blank page, with no idea what to write, feeling utterly uncreative, and if I were to say, "In your first paragraph, make sure that there is a prosthetic arm, an animal and a hot beverage," I have no doubt that you would soon pick up your pen and a story would start to flow.  In grad school at Iowa, my friend Chelsey and I used to give each other arbitrary prompts like this, and it never failed both to amuse us and to trigger our imaginations.  The point of a prompt or exercise should never be to force you to do an assignment "perfectly."  There is no "wrong" way to follow a prompt.  The point is to trick your mind into forgetting about self-consciousness and perfectionism, and to get you free associating and imagining things outside yourself, and writing and enjoying writing.  You can make up your own exercises, or pick up a book like What If that's full of great prompts.

4.  Read four times more than you write.  This was the advice given by Frank Conroy (rip), the legendary former director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, when I was a student there.  It can be hard to follow when you're frantically busy, trying to hold a job, raise kids, walk the dog, exercise--oh yeah, and write.  That said, it is crucial that you read at least as much as you write, and that you read both in the form that you want to write in, and also in other forms.  You will not learn to write amazing short stories unless you are actively reading as many short stories as you can get your hands on, seeing all sorts of variations on the form, figuring out what works for you and also what you're not enamored of.  You won't be able to write a mystery if you don't read mysteries, or have a good idea of the goals and limitations of young adult fiction without becoming an expert reader of the genre.  But also read nonfiction, magazines, histories, biographies.  Saturate yourself in the written word.

5.  Take in other art forms, as many and as often as you can.  When I'm really stuck on a piece of writing, I've been trying and trying to figure out how to fix it, and the hours of applying the seat of my pajamas to the seat of my chair just aren't doing the trick, sometimes the thing that helps me most is to take an afternoon off and use it to go see a matinee or go to a museum or listen to music while taking a walk.  Visual art is especially helpful and inspiring to me, as is movement.  I've had story breakthroughs while jogging and listening to a favorite song on repeat.  After a lot of struggle, it's often when I surrender and stop trying so hard, and so consciously, that I'm able to figure out what I need to do to make a piece of writing work.

6.  Try the accordion approach to revision.  If one draft is really long and expository, with way too much backstory and lengthy asides, try making the next draft as streamlined as possible, cutting out everything that could possibly go without making the story overly opaque, perhaps sticking mainly to dialogue and just a few stage directions.  Then, on the revision after that, add back in the lines and details that you really miss and don't want to live without.  In other words, grow a long draft, then shrink it to the bare minimum, then grow it again, then shrink it...  After doing this a few times, you'll probably land on a final version that is just the right length.

7.  When you're learning how to write--and even after you're a seasoned writer, if possible--try not to think about getting published as long as you can possibly stand it.  Write as if no one were going to read your writing, allowing yourself to be fearless with the feelings and details that you put on the page, vulnerable and brave and experimental, even ruthlessly honest.  Take every risk that tempts you as a writer.  There's certainly nothing wrong with wanting to get published, but my perception is that most people who focus on this too soon actually hurt their writing and (ironically) their chances of eventually finding their way into print. 

8.  When I was at a stage with my novel where I had been working on it for a few years but couldn't yet see the end, I was laboring to make pieces come together, and I didn't know if they ever would, I started to feel incredible resistance and resentment toward writing, and I actually made a header for my manuscript that said, "Remember that you choose to write, and try to have fun."  For me, it was helpful to remember that no one was forcing me to do this.  I could have been spending that time doing something to earn money, or out at a restaurant or walking on the beach.  No one had a gun to my head. 

9.  Have a boring job or have a baby.  I say this somewhat jokingly, and yet I found that a lot of that resentment or resistance that I just described went away after I had a child and suddenly found myself with a lot less time to spend on my writing.  Furthermore, the writing time I did have were costing me a lot in childcare, not to mention time away from my kiddo.  I no longer felt that I could afford to waste that time, but also--interestingly, because I hadn't anticipated this--I appreciated that time more.  I was less likely to torture myself over revising and re-revising the same paragraph over and over.  Having less time in which to write made me want to use what little time I have more efficiently.  I am a bit less precious and perfectionistic about my writing, more willing to move forward, to call something finished in order to move on to another project.

10.  Write the poem/story/article/book that you wish you could be reading, but that you haven't found out there in the world.  This is my favorite piece of advice, that I always come back to as a writer, and pass along to writing students whenever I can.  You will do your best writing if you feel passion for your subject, and if you're saying something that you think needs to be said, and hasn't yet, at least not quite the way that you want to say it. Don't copy someone else's book, even if it's a book you love.  That book already exists, and doesn't need to be rewritten. 

If anyone feels like commenting, I'd love to have other people add to the list of tips for writers.

What inspires you, keeps you going when it's going slowly, or helps you out when you're stuck?

And since I mentioned the fact that I was pregnant when I started teaching online, and then the way that having a baby proved unexpectedly useful (not to mention challenging) to me as a writer, I thought I'd post a picture of said child holding my book.  Shameless, I know.  But he'll never let us get away with forcing him into cute poses like this later on, or let me write about him either, I suspect.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Whom?

A change of scenery, for once.

Just for fun, I wrote this piece on an earlier experience abroad that I had as a 16-year-old on AFS, placed with a completely crazy (and rather wonderful) family in the suburbs of Paris.

The Accidental Blog Tourist

Last month, while I stayed home, my novel went on a “virtual tour” of book blogs. The person who set this up encouraged me to visit the tour stops and contribute to each comments thread, to thank the bloggers and answer potential readers’ questions. I found this a little embarrassing, as if I were eavesdropping on conversations about me (which I was) or obsessed with people’s opinions about the book. I’ve heard some writers swear that they never read their reviews, good or bad, and while I’m not sure I believe them, I can understand why this might be wise.

The tour started with a book blogger who didn’t want to read “another depressing book about suicide,” and resented having to read about a woman in a relationship with another woman. She doesn’t like reading fiction in which the characters make “objectionable lifestyle choices,” a point she made more than once, carrying it into her comments thread. “The lesbian thing was the icing on the cake!” (Um—that sounds kind of good).

While I knew that I should just brush it off—clearly this wasn’t the right reader for my book—her review irritated me. She is entitled to her opinion, and her politics too, I guess. Still, her criticisms struck me as odd, coming from someone who apparently wants to review fiction, if not for a living then at least for free ARC’s and a public platform. When I write book reviews, I’m sometimes assigned novels that aren’t exactly my thing, books I wouldn’t necessarily choose to read in my free time, but I try to approach them on their own terms, not to contrast them with books closer to my taste.

I was tempted to remind her that fiction represents the spectrum of human experience, and that homosexuality and suicide both occur fairly frequently within that spectrum. But I figured she didn’t want to hear it from me. Besides, I didn’t want to be accused of recruiting. I chose not to post a comment on that particular blog post.

But aside from that first stop on the tour, the book bloggers who took the time to read and write posts on my novel were generous and insightful, measured in their varied opinions, which interested me greatly. Before the advent of book blogs, I don’t think that writers had the chance to see how readers (not just professional book critics) were responding to their choices on the page. Aside from that lingering feeling of voyeurism, it was cool to follow the comments threads, to see how something that one person mentioned especially liking could spur another reader to want to pick up a copy, or how the same thing could make a different reader decide this probably wasn’t the book for her.

The book bloggers and their followers were clearly passionate and close readers, and they made me doubt all of the fear-mongerers who have been dourly predicting the death of the novel, and the collapse of the print media as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it’s an easy market for fiction writers—especially literary fiction writers. The print media is struggling, and book reviews in particular are dwindling or getting cut with disappointing frequency. I hadn’t realized how little print space there is for book reviews, compared to the number of books being published, until I paid a recent visit to the basement of the San Francisco Chronicle, a labyrinthine space devoted to the storage of galleys, most of them gathering dust before getting boxed up and donated to the library. There is precious little space left in print journalism for book reviews, most of which go to authors with established reputations and readership, making it hard for beginning writers to get attention paid to their books, so that they can find their readers.

But book bloggers are definitely working hard to compensate, and they’re doing a great job, not just filling a niche but creating something new and dynamic on their interactive sites. One of the things that I love about some of the book blogs that I only recently discovered, like Sasha and The Silverfish (, and The Constance Reader's Guide to Throwing Books With Great Force ( is that there’s no market-driven pressure behind what they can choose to review, no need to satisfy advertisers or a particular demographic. They can blog about adult and young adult books, literary and genre fiction, just-published novels and classics. They also have space to do interviews or run pieces by guest bloggers. With readers able to leave comments (and authors encouraged to chime in on the comment threads) it fosters a real literary community, and gives me hope that the novel will survive and even thrive, in spite of (or maybe even because of) the changes in publishing.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why I Wrote a Novel, Not a Memoir

This is the first of three guest posts that I have agreed to write this week for the blog of Kepler's bookstore, in Menlo Park:

* * *

“Wait,” the woman cut me off, after I mentioned that my husband’s family had connections to the bookstore where she worked.  “Your husband?  When did that happen?” She looked bewildered and (was I imagining it?) irked.

“Five years ago?”  I said, my voice rising in a question the way it does when I get nervous.

“So when did you write the book?"

“Um...  I started it in 2000 and I guess I finished it about two years ago?”

Upon hearing this, her scowl deepened (no, I wasn’t imagining it), which was disconcerting since until the conversation took this detour, I had been enjoying speaking with her.  She had told me that she’d begun reading my book earlier that week, and that she planned on recommending it to customers at the bookstore.  I was thrilled.  This was the week that the book came out, and I was still getting used to the fact that strangers—people aside from my mother—might actually choose to read my novel.

“You do realize that it’s a novel,” I said on a whim, figuring that of course she must.  After all, the words A Novel were printed on the spine.

“What?” she practically sputtered.  

“It’s a novel?” I sounded as if I doubted this fact myself.

“I had no idea,” she said, shaking her head.  "I'm really sorry."

“That's okay,” I rushed to try and put her at ease.  “There’s a lot that comes from real life.”

Let me stop and tell you a little bit about the book, which will help explain her confusion.   

My novel (and it is a novel—I swear), If You Follow Me, is about a young woman who moves from Manhattan to a small town in rural Japan.  She is in her first relationship with another woman, and is following her girlfriend, who wanted to teach abroad, on a Japanese government program.  When they learn that they’ve been placed in a remote and conservative region—in the nuclear power plant town of Shika—they decide to keep their relationship a secret for a while, so as not to scare people.  Unfortunately, this creates pressure that contributes to the erosion of their relationship.  Even though they’re not “out,” they both find plenty of other ways to alienate themselves from the senior citizens who preside over their neighborhood—mostly to do with their inability to follow the Kafka-esque garbage laws about how to dispose of things.

The novel follows the narrator, Marina, over the course of a year, as she struggles to adapt to this new culture and job, and to come to terms with her father’s death.  He killed himself during her senior year of college, ending his life right when hers was about to begin.  While she tries to set her grief aside and move on as if nothing had happened, her sadness and confusion and guilt follow her to Japan—they’re as hard to “throw away” as the trash.  The novel is also, as the back of the jacket says, “a strange kind of love story,” as she starts to fall for her Japanese supervisor, a karaoke aficionado who writes her letters that are initially intended to teach her how to obey garbage laws, but grow increasingly personal.

So why might that woman have mistaken my novel for a memoir?   

For starters, the main character’s name is awfully close to my own.  “Marina” is what I was called when I lived in Japan, because “Malena” was nearly impossible for most native Japanese speakers to pronounce.  The Japanese characters Ma-Ri-Na were etched on my hanko, the bamboo stamp that was registered at Shika’s town hall, that I used to “sign” bank statements and bills.  Like my fictional namesake, I lived for a year in the nuclear power plant town of Shika, where music did in fact pump from speakers aimed at every house, “to test the PA system in case of some emergency evacuation,” according to my supervisor.  I taught at a vocational school not unlike the one in the novel, where the classes were split by gender.  I also followed someone to Japan, where the relationship unraveled for different reasons, not so dissimilar from what happens in the book.

But I took plenty of liberties with the story as well.  In Shika, I lived not with my girlfriend in a rickety old house, but by myself in a postage-stamp-sized apartment that was largely made of plastic.  The house featured in the novel was actually in Kanazawa, the small city where I lived during my second year in Japan, with two other women—one of them a semi-professional fencer from Canada.  We did bury a cat, but he died of natural causes, not at the hands of a furious shut-in, as happens in the novel.  No such shut-in lived across the street.  However, there was an obese boy who happened to be the only male student in my all-girls class back in Shika, who had allegedly been living in his room throughout junior high, and who was bullied by other kids.  I taught him for a year, but never got to know him.  My lingering fascination provoked me to want to write about him, to imagine what had motivated himself to hide from the world and why he’d come out again--but so tentatively.

Sometimes I feel like I should have a checklist, where the parts of the book that are true are listed on one side, and the parts that aren’t are true appear on the other, that I could bring as a visual aid to readings.  It might simplify things for readers, and satisfy their curiosity, which I get.  Whenever I read a book that is semi-autobiographical, I always wonder which bits came from real life and which were invented.  I don’t have a particular preference for autobiographical fiction, but I do like to read something where the emotions of the characters (especially the narrator, in a first person novel) feel fresh and spot-on, where the writer is using fiction to explore complex and nuanced feelings, often about difficult things.  A reporter asked me recently if I could say what percentage of the book is true and what percentage is made up.  I said that the emotional core of the book is largely true, or as true as I could make it.  While writing, I was trying to sift out and find language to dramatize feelings that are still murky for me.  But the story is largely made up.  A lot of the characters are inspired by people I knew, or who captured my imagination when I lived in Japan.  But they didn’t do the things or say the things that happen in the novel.  

“So why did you write this as a novel and not as a memoir?” a woman asked at a reading--a question I'm getting used to, although I still can't give a quick answer (as you can see).

“Because I like to lie,” was the first response that came to me, tongue-in-cheek but also at least partly true.  I’m the kind of person who, when telling an anecdote from real life, can’t help but embellish the details a little (or a lot) if it makes a better story.  This is why I love fiction, why I mostly read stories and novels instead of memoirs, and why I want to write it as well.  During the James Frey scandal, I was struck by the fact that he’d written his book first as a novel, which he failed to sell, only succeeding in finding a publisher after he turned it into a memoir.  When Oprah attacked him, one of the issues she had was the seeming randomness of some of his lies, which seemed needless and exasperating.  The reason for this, I’m sure, is that he’d grown attached to the fictionalized version of events, the one he struggled to find while crafting the dreary or disconnected bits of his life into a novel with a coherent story line, a book with a structure and a plot and themes, an arc and some kind of resolution--things we ask for in a work of fiction and seldom get in real life.

In this book, I wanted to have it both ways.  I wanted to be able to write in almost documentary detail about this incredibly surreal place where I lived in Japan, and also to capture the feelings, ranging from claustrophobia to wonder, that I had while living there.  I started the story that turned into the novel while I was in graduate school at Iowa.  For a year I'd been inventing characters, jumping from one perspective to another, never quite satisfied that I’d nailed these fictional people or captured their voices.  Before that, I’d worked in journalism.  Writing essays and articles, I found it easier to capture a natural or authentic sounding voice, partly because I could imagine the reader.  I knew who I was speaking to.  When I started writing about Japan, I wanted to tap into that voice, the one that I use when I write nonfiction, but I wanted to use it to tell a story.   That was my chief goal: to give readers the satisfaction of a story, rather than just stringing together a series of vignettes from my two years abroad, where I would have been unable to resist the temptation to exaggerate—and gotten in big trouble after getting caught, I have no doubt.

Now, when I get caught, I can always point to those words, A Novel, written on the spine of the book.  It's true, sort of, just like the book itself.