Blog Away

I have become a great proponent of the blog. To blog you must write after all, and writing is writing, however informal. On a purely professional level, the benefits are many. First, it’s free. It’s also easy. Blogger, Google’s free blogging site, is quick. You can be blogging ten minutes after logging on.

If you’ve already got a book you’re promoting, a blog is one way to keep in touch with your readers. Blog about where you’ll be reading, about where you have read, about where you’ve been interviewed. You can have contests to give away free books, and you can interact with your readers through the blog’s message board. Blog’s are also handy if your book has been bought but the publishing date is still a year away. If you start blogging ahead of time, you might be able to generate a little interest in your project before it hits the shelf. I don’t think a blog is going to necessarily make a book a bestseller, but I do think it’s one more valuable tool in a writer’s publicity tool kit.

But I also think the blog is just as important to the unpublished writer. In fact, it may be more important. When you blog you are deciding to be read. It is very important to be read if you want to be a writer, and not just for the paycheck readers generate. I have wanted to be a writer since I was a boy. When I was a teenager, I wrote story after story and showed them to my parents, my teachers, sometimes even my friends. This was a very forgiving audience. I never felt I was trying to communicate something with them. Rather, when I showed them my stories I was merely showing them what I was capable of. They read the stories out of love for me, not the stories themselves.

Then my high school’s principal died during my senior year, and we dedicated our yearbook to him. Since I was editor, it fell to me to write something commemorative to read at the graduation when we presented his widow with a special copy of the yearbook. Suddenly, what I would write would not be for my friends and loved ones—it would be heard by hundreds of strangers. For me, that changed everything. It was like the difference between singing in the shower and singing on a stage. I wrote the best two paragraphs on my young life.

This is what the blog can do for the beginning writer.  By publishing yourself you begin to feel the charge of writing for an actual audience. At first the audience might only be your friends and family, but eventually strangers will find their way to your blog. Because it’s one thing to ask, how do I get published? It is another thing altogether to ask, what would I write if I knew I was going to be read?

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The Block

I have now had three writers who worked in the newspaper or advertising industry prior to becoming fulltime novelists say virtually the same thing about writing as a daily discipline: you can’t tell an editor or a creative director you’ve got writer’s block. And yet in his book Adventures in The Screen Trade William Goldman, one of the most successful screenwriters Hollywood has ever produced, describes suffering with a long and agonizing bout of writer’s block. Apparently this bugbear can visit the best of them.

I’ve certainly never had writer’s block the way Goldman described it. From him, chemotherapy would be preferable to a prolonged case of writer’s block. But who can say that they have never been blocked on anything?  Unfortunately, being blocked is virtually a human condition. That is, questioning yourself; that is, believing you can get it wrong.

So here then are a few quick tips if you are feeling blocked, which I have culled from my own experiences and my conversations with other writers:

  • Free write. Write anything and everything that comes to your mind as quickly as possible without judging it. This gets you back into the flow.
  • Keep a journal. Write down everything you’re afraid of in it. Get it out of you. Look at it and see how silly it is.
  • Write something different.  Move to a different part of your story that you are interested in.
  • Step away. I’ve learned that if it’s not coming this day, it might come the next.
  • Write on a different project. Move to poetry, blog, write a letter.
  • Talk to someone. Find a friend and unload.

Finally, and most importantly, be kind. Be as kind as you can possibly be. Even if you can’t write anything, be kind. The whip will get you nowhere. It’s only fear that’s ever blocking your way, after all, and fear is always an illusion, a nightmare we’ve chosen to believe.

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We Are Not Alone

Ernest Hemmingway described writing as the loneliest profession. Ivan Doig told me the first thing a new writer must ask him or herself is if they are willing to be alone for long stretches of time. True enough, I suppose. As I write this blog I am alone at my desk, and must remain so if I hope to finish it. And it is easy to look out at the other arts, at the filmmakers, the musicians, the dancers, to say nothing of carpenters, businessmen, waiters, bankers, teachers, and lawyers who practice their living every day in the company of other people and feel a tinge of longing for a friendly face to toil beside.

Given their propensity for shyness, plenty or writers, I’m sure, can only grouse—good riddance. Give me my solitude, my quite desk, and my imagination. All else is distraction. Except that nothing you do you really do alone. Even this blog required my webmaster to construct this wonderful environment, to say nothing of those men and women I’ll never meet who created HTML, and java, and all else stretching back technologically to Gutenberg and his Bible, the Greeks and their alphabet, and the first cave man to understand that by scraping one rock against another he could leave a mark for future cave people to live by.

And more to the point, this blog did not spring out of a literary void. I’ve learned, I’ve borrowed, and I’ve stolen from all the writers I’ve read, from Tolkien to E. E. Cummings. My mother told me stories, my father told me stories, my sister and brother and friends and teachers and co-workers, everyone told me stories, and when I sit down to write, conscious or not, I am reaching back through all those stories I have heard to cobble together one of my own.

Small comfort perhaps, when the quiet is closing in on you and your blank page. Where are all those stories now? Well, they can’t have gone far. They can’t be any further away than they ever were. Must be that in those dark hours that some name writer’s block we are keeping those other helpful voices away, because we have convinced ourselves we are alone and must remain so to do this supposedly solitary work.

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I’ll Know When I Get There

I believe I have been thinking about outlining so much of late because I am right in the thorny middle of a new novel.  This is a big novel (big for me at least), much bigger than anything I’ve written recently.  As I have said, I don’t use outlines, and so, while it is chugging along and taking shape and I think I know where I’d like it to go, there is no denying it is a beast at the moment with a dozen dangling tentacles waggling nowhere. 

So it must go for me, apparently. Jonathan Evison, who, like myself, doesn’t do much outlining, advised me to, once I know something I have written must be changed, go back and change it immediately. “All right,” I told him. “By Jingo, I shall.” But I couldn’t. I simply must get to the end to know why I started writing the book in the first place. And though I only just told you that I think know where this book is going – I don’t. I never do until I get there. But when I get to the end I think, Yes, this is where I wanted to go. And then I go back and change everything around so the story actually leads where it’s supposed, namely in one direction. 

This is why my advice to new writers is always – finish the first draft. Even if you do outline, you won’t know what the book is really about until you get to the end. Even if it’s a murder mystery, you might get to the end, only to realize the cat burglar didn’t kill the heiress’s cousin, it was the heiress’s cousin’s cousin. You never know until you get there. 

As if you ever can with anything anyway. I’m as guilty as the next fool of trying to plan out my future.  I am always wrong, and, like it or not, the future is always surprising.  All the better, I say.  Would you buy modeling clay that came pre-shaped? What would be the fun in it?  No, the blank page of our books, of our days, of our lives, is as it should be.  The nothingness, the absolute entirety of possibility, is the wellspring of all creativity. 

Dive in. 

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Andre, Pooh, and Me

First of all, I had a fantastic interview with Andre Dubus yesterday afternoon. He’s touring for the paperback release of the of The Garden of Last Days, and we had great chat.  Look forward to it in our July issue.

One thing he and I talked about was outlining. Like myself, he rarely plans out where he’s going, and we had a fine time agreeing that it was good not to have everything laid out ahead of time.  However, I do not want to give the impression that I think people who do outline are going about it all wrong. Indeed they are not. Indeed there is no right way. Jeffery Deaver writes 200 page outlines. Alan Jacobson also outlines in great detail, so much so, that he finds himself writing his novel in the outline.

What is interesting is this penchant for outlining does not always bleed over into a writer’s life. For instance, in this month’s issue I spoke to YA bestseller D. J. MacHale. He outlined the entire arc of this ten book series in one shot. And yet, if he goes on vacation with his wife, she plans everything, and he wants to go wherever the wind takes him.

It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you trust. If you outline meticulously because you don’t trust that your imagination will be there for you in your hour of need, then in all likelihood it will not be. Your imagination would like nothing more than to help you all it can, but it needs all the latitude you can grant it.  Likewise, you can’t feel constricted by structure.  Sooner or later, your book, story, or poem is going to have to take some kind of shape. Here you’ll have to be less of an artist and more of a craftsman. Enjoy it. Give your right brain a rest and let your linear left brain do what it does best – organize. 

But trust, trust, trust. A central theme of my interview with Andre Dubus circled around this very subject. He agreed that one must let the book happen. As A. A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh notes: A hum must come to you; Rabbit, on the other hand, never let anything come to him and would always go out and fetch it.

Embrace your inner Pooh.  

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What’s Next?

I Am Not Alone

My biggest mistake as a writer? Thinking I know what’s coming next. Or, I should say, thinking I must know what’s coming next. Oh, I’ve tried. As I was wrapping up my last novel, I took the unprecedented step of sitting myself down and outlining the damn thing because I had too many loose ends and it was high time to get every flap nailed down.

So I did it. Plot point by plot point I laid it all down. Mind you, this was five drafts in, all of which had been written without so much as a note card’s worth of forethought. Nonetheless, with a few months of writing still to do, outline I did – and that was it: I was a changed man. I marched triumphantly into my kitchen and declared to my wife (also a writer) that I had seen the light and I was a convert. Henceforth I was an outliner, by God, and I would repent the willy-nilly days of misspent youth.

And so, as I finished my now-outlined novel, I began planning my next, imagining the meticulously detailed outline I would craft for myself, and which I would follow strictly, thereby removing all the fear and doubt that comes from sitting down at the computer and not knowing what is going to happen next to my characters. I would always know, because I wrote it down ahead of time, which is what any sensible person would do.

Then, the moment of truth. It was time to start the next novel. Watch me outline. I opened my computer, opened a new file . . . and nothing. All my ideas about the next novel—smoke. It felt like trying to act in front of a mirror. Still I plugged away, burning thousand of killobites of memory on great meandering, looping, twisted storylines, until I turned dropped the outline file, opened another, wrote, Chapter One, and started writing. That was 400 pages ago, and I’m happy as kitten in a yarn shop.

So that’s me. I don’t know. I like to pretend I do, but I don’t. I just know I want to write, which I do. Just as I wake up thinking sometimes I must know what to do this day and then of course only end up doing what I actually do, so too with the writing. Because if I listen closely, there is always something waiting beyond the next paragraph, the next sentence, the next word. I’m just a translator, after all. Fortunately, whatever I’m listening to keeps talking.

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Your Daily Dose

Welcome to the Editor’s Daily Blog. Because writing is a daily discipline, I thought it was time to begin writing to you regularly also. As I sat down to write this I felt a tiny ember of dread that sometimes burns as I head to my desk. Strange that, as if this day would be the one where the well would finally run dry.

But I don’t believe in dry wells. There are wells that can be punctured with self-doubt and self-criticism, but no hole is too wide that cannot be patched with love. I love to write, for instance, and I love to talk to people, and I love telling people this: Everything Will Be Okay.

I’d like that chiseled on my tombstone, now that I think of it. You maybe think hearing, “Everything will be okay,” could get tiring, but you’re wrong. There are never enough ways to say it. The universe is nothing but a million ways to say it, and so I will say it to you again: Everything will be okay.

As for the blog itself, I promise to be a bit more practical. My monthly entries, thus far, have been soaringly impractical. No more, however. There will be talk of editors and agents and writing techniques, plus things I’ve learned listening to the writers I’ve had the pleasure to interview, plus anything else publishing-ish that gets shot across my bow.

And don’t be afraid to chime in yourselves. You can do so below, by clicking on the comments link, or by going to Author Speaks. The boards have been rather quiet so far, but I’m hoping you folks will liven them up now. Plus, if you’re feeling particularly communicative, feel free to drop me a line at with your questions, comments, cranks, or whatever.

Reach out. Write back. Writing is a solitary life—there’s no way around it—and writers are notoriously shy by nature. But that’s why there are magazines like this, and that’s also why there are people like me, writers who love to write to other writers. So reach out—if not today, then someday soon. Don’t worry. Everything will be okay.

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