Category Archives: Advice

When Projects “Hatch”

chicken, basket, bookshelf

chicken, basket, bookshelf

Several months ago, I wrote about my ceramic chicken, the one I use to store projects that are on hold. Sometimes I am waiting to hear from a publisher, sometimes a piece is just plain stuck, sometimes I need to gather additional materials, sometimes another deadline interrupts. Sometimes I just give up. In all of these situations, I find it helpful to put the project in a flat basket on a bookshelf, and set a large ceramic chicken on top.

Yep. I really do. It serves as a visual reminder that sometimes things just need a little time. Even though I am tempted to fret or feel discouraged, when I see that a project  under the chicken it helps me to remember that it’s not over, it’s not hopeless, it’s not ruined, it’s not wasted. It’s just not ready yet. It needs more time.

The hardest ones for me to deal with are those projects that have gathered up a stack of rejection slips.  When I am trying to pitch a book, I usually start with a list of 20 or so preferred publishers, then I put them in order of preference, then I print out a list of addresses and prepare a stack of envelopes, then I print out two copies of the proposal.

A rejection letter comes in; a new cover letter gets printed and slipped into the next envelope and a new proposal goes in the mail to the next address on the list the very next day.

But sometimes I run out of addresses. That’s what happened in the case of my devotional book “Clay in the Potter’s Hands.” Stacks of rejection letters, hours of pitching it at writers conferences, all kinds of trouble and nary a nibble. So that particular book manuscript has been sitting under the chicken for a very long time.

Today it hatched.

Here’s how it happened. I am working on two scholarly articles at the moment, one for a conference and one for a book. Both are due in a couple weeks. Today was a writing day: Wake up, take Sierra to school, come home, sit down, write, write, write, pick Sierra up from school.

The day was going great. Until I got to the “write, write, write” part. It wasn’t exactly writer’s block. It was more like writer’s restlessness. I didn’t mind sitting and writing. I just had absolutely no juice whatsoever for the projects I was working on.

I pushed words around for a while, took a walk, pushed, fiddled, did some laundry– hey, if you’ve ever written anything, you know just what it looks like. Except underneath the “I don’t wanna write” part there was another part that whispered, “I DO want to write. I just don’t want to write THIS.”

In frustration, I looked under the chicken, saw the pottery book, pulled it out, sat down. And started writing.

The whole process of re-reading and re-vising was so fluid, so alive, so engaging, so exciting. I was late picking up Sierra from school because I was having So Much Fun. I lost track of time.

A publising plan, a timetable, and a thousand and one other decisions are waiting in the wings. I’ll get to them. Later. For now, I’m having an absolute blast watching as this new hatchling breathes the breath of life. And feeling the profound privilege of being present as it does.

The New Writer’s Handbook, Volume 2

The New Writer's Handbook, Vol. 2

“It surprises and satisfies,” declares the cover, and it turns out the cover is right. The New Writer’s Handbook: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft and Career, Volume 2 is well worth your time.

I was concerned that the short chapters and multiple authors would mean shallow content and a bumpy ride. Largely due to the skillful editing of Philip Martin, the whole thing holds together very well. More than 60 short articles on a variety of writing topics are carefully grouped and sequenced. They are practical, clear, varied, and economical.

I tried a quick skim, and I found myself reading it instead. I thought I’d be restless, and I found myself immersed. I figured it’d be same-old same-old, and I found good information, strong voices,  and fresh perspectives throughout.

I should add that I contributed one of those short chapters, a look at Lewis and Tolkien as collaborative writers.

I like this book. I am proud to be part of this project.  


How Do You Solve a Punctuation Puzzle?

I recently had the chance to lurk during a heated debate about the use of the apostrophe– I know, I know, that may not count as “heated” where you come from, but among some English teachers and writing coaches, these things matter more than the Super Bowl and World Series combined.

I’ll add another post or two about apostrophes later; right now, I want to comment on the process that people used to try to argue their point and break the deadlock.

1. Some folks argued that one usage LOOKED BETTER than the other. That’s making usage decisions based on aesthetics.

2. Others said that when they googled a certain word, MOST PEOPLE did it a certain way. That’s making usage decisions based on consensus.

3. Then there were those who appealed to their fourth grade teacher, their best friend’s first cousin, or some HANDBOOK or style sheet they dug up somewhere. That’s making usage decisions based on authority.

4. Finally, there were a few stubborn stalwarts who insisted that whatever THEY HAD BEEN DOING for the last upteen hundred years or so had to be right because, after all, that’s what they’d always done. That’s making usage decisions based on habit.

Aesthetics? Consensus? Authority? Habit? When we are not sure what is correct when it comes to matters of punctuation or usage, what should we do? Or, more to the point in this post, what guiding principle do we use to make the decision?

This one:

5. The debate was broken when someone (dear old “anonymous”) pointed out that what is correct depends entirely on what MEANING you are trying to convey. That’s right. Punctuation, like other matters of usage, is intended first and foremost as a servant of meaning.

In short, it doesn’t make any sense to ask whether it is better to say students’ or student’s: the question is, how many students do you mean?

Commas, semi-colons, periods, all that stuff: it doesn’t have to do with needing to take a breath, to look good on the page, to pay attention to Ms. Turabian, to sound right, to fit in the the crowd, or do it again the way you’ve been doing it  for time out of mind. The first thing you gotta know is exactly what you are trying to say. Then you do your homework and get the best information possible to help you say exactly that.

What I Do When I Should Be Writing

I participated in a panel at LOSCON called “What I Do When I Should Be Writing.” The confessions included the usual: blogging, emailing, eating, shopping, channel-flipping, furniture moving. One surprise: a lot of us find that washing the dishes (really) helps when we get stuck on a writing project. Warm soapy water, a pile of clean dishes, and all of a sudden, the phrase we were looking for or the concept that moves the plot along just floats up to the surface and is there for the taking.

One of the most important comments was the simple affirmation that everyone, and that means everyone, has a hard time committing to seat time, to actually getting into the chair and staying there long enough to actually produce text. The best advice? The last thing you do every writing day is to make sure that it is super easy to get started the next day.

One way to do that is to set it up so that you are twitchy to get back at it. Stop in the middle of a sentence. Deliberately typo a few words in the paragraph. Sketch out the scene in a quick draft so that all you are doing first thing next morning is siting down and filling in details.

For me, the key is to leave specific instructions for myself on a sticky note (“START HERE!”). To make sure that the first task of the day is small and easy. And to make sure that all of the materials I need (books, papers, calculator, sharp pencil, whatever) are set out at the writing desk.

When you know what the next task is, sliding into the writing day is like sliding into your comfy slippers. When all your materials are assembled, you are less likely to shatter the flow by rumaging around for some piece that you need.

Another good point that came out of the panel is that fiddling around (aka procrastination) can sometimes be good for a project. Instead of banging your head against the keyboard, it might be more productive to go for a walk, work in the garden, run an errand. The key seems to be to keep it short and also to avoid words: walking is good, tv is not; pulling weeds or taking a shower or organizing a closet is good; reading a magazine is not. Set it up so that the word-making part of your brain is still simmering on the project while your physical attention is turned to something else for a bit.

Just be sure that you are really clear about the difference between incubating an idea and avoiding one.