Writing

At Some Point, You Just Have to Deal with the Painting in Front of You

 

Several years ago, I took a class with Qiang Huang, an amazing oil painter from Austin. We were all painting from still lifes set up next to our easels. His work is both beautifully precise and also loose and imaginative. That balance of accuracy and abstraction was what we were all after.

At one point he said, “Your still life setup is just a reference for the design you want to create. You’re not here to copy it.”

In other words, a still life setup or a reference photo or the landscape in front of you should just be a jumping-off point for the painting that you’re going to make. If you find yourself struggling to make an exact copy, you’ve lost the thread of the thing.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I think there comes a point in a painting or a drawing where you almost have to set the reference aside. At some point, you just have to deal with the painting that’s in front of you. What it needs next may not be found in the reference you’ve been using. It becomes a matter of stepping back, squinting, maybe taking a black-and-white photograph to check the values, and making a decision about what the painting itself needs, not whether it matches the thing you’re trying to paint or not.

This is true of writing as well. You might start off with a very fixed idea of what sort of book you’re writing and what you want it to be like when it’s finished. But at some point, the book becomes its own thing. At some point, you have to deal with the book that’s in front of you, not the one you had in your head when you started out.

Ann Patchett said something like this when she wrote about book ideas being like beautiful butterflies drifting around in the air. “I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down on my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book.”

She’s talking about learning to live with the disappointment that inevitably comes when you compare the book you’ve written to the way it looked in your imagination before you started. And that disappointment is real.

In the case of a painting, though, I’d say that I never have a fixed idea, when I start, of how the painting’s going to look. I have my reference (a photo, maybe), and I know I’m going to make something out of it that somehow speaks to whatever drew me to the image in the first place. But I’m just as surprised as anyone else to see what it looks like when I’m done.

Here’s the painting that’s on my easel right now, along with the image I started with. It’s a tricky photo to copy as a painting, because of the way the headlights are blown out and the halos around them. I’ve made a lot of changes and I’m still tinkering. But there’s no point, at this stage, in looking at the photo anymore. The painting’s become its own thing.

Rewrite, Revise, Revisit: A Guide to Editing Your Book

 

Have you finished a first draft? Congratulations! Now the fun begins.

Every writer knows that editing is the most important part of the writing process. This is where all the really important, meaningful work happens.

It’s where you have the most control, and the ability to really carry out your intentions and make this into the kind of book you set out to write in the first place.

In this class I’m going to give you a toolbox for approaching every edit, and every revision, of your book, including:

  • What you can do in the early stages of editing
  • What’s better to leave for the final stages
  • How to handle the edits you get back from your editor
  • What happens in the copyediting and proofreading stages

This class is for anyone who has finished a first draft, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, memoir, an essay collection, a how-to guide—no matter what kind of book you’re writing, a top-notch edit will get it ready for publication.

You can take this class now on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style platform for online classes. This link gives you a free trial.

This class pairs well with Write Your First Draft.

You can also take my writing classes on Udemy, where you pay per class for only the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled this class with another course of mine, Write Your First Draft, and renamed the whole package Finish Your Book. You can take them both together for one affordable price. Go here to check that out.

At Last–My Research Class is Here

 

The question I get asked most often is how I do my research. It’s a tricky question to answer–every book is different, every research question is different, every source is different.

But I did my best to boil it down into one half-hour class!

Whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, reported journalism, essays, or memoir, you’re probably going to have to do some amount of research.

We’ll look at how to use scientific and academic sources, and how to track down experts in any field. We’ll look at historical sources, like old newspapers and archives. We’ll talk about genealogical resources, like Census records and other public documents. I’ll show you how I conduct interviews, and when I hire expert help. I’ll tell you how to spot faulty information and keep it out of your work.

Finally, I’ll teach you to be a skeptic! How do you know what you know? How do you verify your facts?

Whatever kind of writing project you’re embarking on, this class will help you up your research game.

You can take this class now on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style platform for online classes. This link gives you a free trial.

I recommend taking this class along with Organize Your Research in Evernote.

You can also take my writing classes on Udemy, where you pay per class for only the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled this class with my class on using Evernote to keep track of research. Go here to check that out.

Learn All My Evernote Tricks!

 

If you’re about to dive into a big research project, whether it’s for a book, a dissertation, or some other kind of writing project, you’ll be so much better off if you set up a good system for organizing it all before you jump in.

This class will teach you how to keep track of all your research in Evernote. Writers can also use Evernote to brainstorm book ideas, organize a plot, and keep track of ideas for other professional projects, like teaching workshops.

You can take this class now on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style platform for online classes. This link gives you a free trial.

I recommend taking this class along with Research: A Step-by-Step Guide for Authors.

You can also take my writing classes on Udemy, where you pay per class for only the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled this class with my class on doing research. Go here to check that out.

Create Your Own Book Video

It’s here! I’ve created a step-by-step guide for authors who want to make high-quality videos about their books. The class is live on Skillshare now, and this link will give you a free trial to access to all the classes Skillshare has to offer.  

As the author of over a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction, I’ve found that book videos can be useful at every stage of the publishing process, including:

Pre-publication marketing meetings with the publisher
Press kits and media pitches
Marketing to bookstores and libraries
Lining up speaking engagements
Reaching readers and book clubs
Promoting backlist titles years after publication
Fortunately, the technology is so easy that anyone with an iPad or other tablet or smartphone can shoot a high-quality video, add photos or video footage, make simple edits, and publish to online platforms.

This class walks through every step of the process that I use to make videos to promote my books. I’ll show you all the equipment and free software I use, and walk you through every step of the process I use.

For those of you who have different equipment and software, I’ll suggest alternatives. The basic concepts are the same no matter what you use to make your video.

This class will also work for anyone who wants to make a talking head-style video interspersed with photos and video clips on any subject at all, but my examples are all going to be specific to book videos.

Story Structure is a Thing We All Wrestle With

 

My next class is live and it’s on the beast we all struggle with, both fiction and nonfiction writers: story structure. There are lots of people out there peddling complex, intricate techniques for writing a hit novel or screenplay. Honestly, I get a little overwhelmed by all that stuff. So I made a class about the methods I actually use when I write my own books. I encourage you to try these out, see if they work, and try some other approaches if they don’t! I include a resource list for further study at the end.

I’ve loved teaching these classes and I especially appreciate your comments, projects, questions, and reviews.

You can take this class now on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style platform for online classes. This link gives you a free trial.

You might also like Build Great Writing Habits and Start Your Book Today.

You can also take my writing classes on Udemy, where you pay per class for only the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled Shape Your Story with these two other writing classes, to create a package designed to get you on the road to writing your book. Go here to check that out.

 

Start Your Book Today!

When I’m on book tour, the question I hear most often from aspiring writers is: “I have an idea for a book, but where do I begin?”

I get it! Starting a new book is daunting for all of us. In this class, I’m going to walk you through the three steps I take to start a first draft. I promise it’ll be easy, fun, and low-pressure.

–You’ll get to hang out at your favorite bookstore or library.

–You’ll get to tear open a fresh new package of index cards.

–Best of all, you’ll start filling a notebook (or a computer screen!) with pages.

E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I want to help you get started on your journey! Think of this class as the headlights that will guide you down that first mile.

You can take this class now on Skillshare, which is a Netflix-style platform for online classes. This link gives you a free trial.

You might also like Build Great Writing Habits and Shape Your Story.

You can also take my writing classes on Udemy, where you pay per class for only the classes you want to take. I’ve bundled Start Your Book with these two other writing classes, to create a package designed to get you on the road to writing your book. Go here to check that out.

I’m An Aspiring Author. Do I Need a Website?

Every month in my newsletter, I offer readers a chance to win the book of their choice if they ask me a question. I pick a question to answer in the next newsletter, then I send them their book.  This month, an aspiring author asked me, “I have 2 novels being shopped by my lit agent, at the moment I’m trying to decide whether a website is worth my time, energy or financial investment. Do you think an author’s website is worth having before they have anything published?”

The answer is YES, YES, YES, a thousand times YES! Here’s why.

It shows agents and publishers that you are a professional and that you are capable of doing simple tasks on the Internet. This sounds silly to say in 2019, but some publishing professionals are still suffering PTSD from the days, not too long ago, when authors refused to even get an email address. You have to show them that you can handle some business basics.

A website allows those agents and publishers to get a glimpse of you from another perspective. Yes, they have your manuscript/proposal, your cover letter, and whatever else you’ve put together. But if they Google you, they can just see you in a slightly different light. Even if your website gives them the same information they already have in front of them, it just helps to see it out there, in the world.

Your website is your calling card. It’s your doorstep. If you’re an aspiring author (or artist of any kind), you have ambitions to put yourself out there in the world. This is the first step. It doesn’t matter how new, inexperienced, or aspiring you are. Grab that domain name and build yourself a home online, even if it’s a rudimentary, temporary home.

A few years ago, I taught creative writing in an MFA program. I asked how many students had a website, or had even registered a domain name. Only one or two had. I was astonished. They were spending a fortune to earn a degree in writing, with the hopes of making it their career, but they hadn’t taken the simple step of a single-page website?

So. Put on some nice music, pour yourself a drink, and get this done in an hour. Here’s what you do.

First, register your name as your website domain if it’s available. If you can’t get your name, try for YourNameAuthor.com or YourNameBooks.com or YourNameWriter.com or something like that. (Don’t bother with .org, .biz, etc. Just get a good .com site) Do this today.  At GoDaddy, you can register your domain for about $10/year.  You can set up this domain anywhere, not just at GoDaddy. GoDaddy simply handles the registration and ownership. (and lots of other companies do this, too.)

Second, build a website. This does not have to be a massive, awful project. Pick a template. Do not spend hours looking at templates. Pick the first clean, simple one you see. Upload your photo, your bio, a contact form, and your social media links. You can quickly set up a page like this on GoDaddy, Squarespace, Wix, and many other sites. This is going to cost about $10/month no matter where you do it. Don’t agonize over which service to use. You might change your mind later once you have some books to sell. That’s OK. Just get something up there.

Third:  Once you’ve recovered from that phase of the project, dive back in for another hour. Add a second page or section called Projects (or something like that. Writing. Painting. Articles. Stories. Whatever your work is called). On that page or section, at the very least, make a list of links to whatever it is that you’ve already done.  Even better, add little thumbnail photos so there’s something nice and visual to go along with this list. It can include articles or stories you’ve published, interviews you’ve given, YouTube videos, a pie-eating contest you won…whatever you’ve got.

Ultimately, yes, you will need a more robust website kind of like mine. You might have to build it on a different platform, like WordPress. You might want to pay someone to do the basic construction so that you just go in and add text and pictures and updates. That’s what I do.  (and by the way, my website is a straight-up copy of three famous authors’ websites. I took ideas from each, sent screen shots to my designer, and told her to adapt those ideas to my site. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.)

If you haven’t found her yet, Jane Friedman is a great resource for website questions and everything an author might want to know about the business side of things.

Just get it done! Good luck!

 

Develop Your Internal Tutor

I just picked up this book at Powell’s. In the introduction is the most extraordinary passage–it could apply to any creative pursuit, so I’m sharing it here:

“Develop an internal tutor. When you begin drawing, often you’ll find you’re accompanied by an internal critic, pointing out your mistakes and making you question your drawing. This can be more restricting than a lack of ability. You need time to look and draw without internal criticism. Instead, try to develop an internal tutor, allowing you to stand back and look objectively at your drawing, picking out its best qualities and what can be improved upon.”

Imagine–an inner tutor! A voice inside your head that can give you a friendly nudge, encourage you to sharpen a detail or rethink the direction of a line.  What a helpful and handy voice to have on board!

Everyone wants to silence their internal critic. But have you ever thought of cultivating an internal tutor?

My Favorite Writing Exercise Comes from Southpark

I watch this video at least once a year.

Southpark creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone give this fantastic piece of writing advice about how they put their stories together:  They write up all of their story beats, and make sure that each idea, each moment, each action, can be connected with the words “but” or “therefore.”

If they find they can only connect their ideas by using “and”…well, they’re in trouble.

I can’t tell you how much this has helped me over the years, especially because I’m writing books based on a true story. I know what the events are, I know the order in which they occur. But what I don’t know is WHY everything happened the way it did.

By writing out, and forcing myself to put a “but” or a “therefore” between every scene/beat/action/idea, I start to see cause and effect. Often I move characters around so I can put them at the center of the action, where they belong. I make sure they CAUSE things to happen, or fight AGAINST them.

Basically, it’s another way of thinking about cause and effect.

I even do this late in the process, after the book is written, when I’m deep into revisions. I’ll go back to index cards, summarize every scene on a card, and make sure I can link them with post-its that say BUT or THEREFORE. I always find the holes in my story this way.

Caveat: If you have more than one plot line going, do a different BUT/THEREFORE for each subplot. When you hook the whole thing back together again, there’s just no way around the fact that you’re going to have some MEANWHILEs in there.