Take Ten for Writers: 1,000 Inspiring Exercises (Bonnie Neubauer)

So you might remember that I have a bad attitude about Writer’s Digest Books, but this is a second exception to my rule.

If there are many more of these (see “taking that back” here, too), I may have to revise aforementioned attitude. [Note: this was the beginning of a trend.]

In the introduction to Take Ten for Writers, Bonnie Neubauer states that “if you are not putting pen to paper, you are at rest”, and she proceeds to explain the set-up of the book, which is designed to start the flow of creative energy, get the momentum going.

She also includes five rules, but begins by clearly stating that they’re there for those who like rules, and there to rebel against for those who don’t. Ha!

But let’s get down to the math. The book has 100 exercises, each appearing on the odd-numbered page.

After you read through the page, you are to choose a number between one to ten, which will correspond to the variation (one of ten choices) on the flip-side of the page.

So that’s how you end up with one thousand exercises. (See, she even makes math accessible.)

Some of the exercises’ variations are more varied than others. For instance, the one which gets you to continue a story begun on the first page by adopting the voice of a food in the fridge. Well, that one just didn’t sit well with me and, anyway, the scope of the exercise is relatively limited compared to others.

But, for another example, take being asked to make a selection from 1 to 31 and use the word that appears beside the figure you’ve chosen to launch a freewrite. Next,  choose another number between 32 and 62 (the idea being that you can use the date and double it, if you’re not random-minded). Then you are to write a second freewrite that begins with the word next to your second number, a freewrite which is connected to the first in some way.

Well, you can see how that kind of open-ended set-up could hold months worth of writing. (But, yes, that math was hard. S’why I’m in the letters game.)

Regardless of the scope of the exercises, however, the book’s design is also worth mentioning. Each page has its own style (with a slim border around each contributing to a sense of continuity) and contains contrasting and striking colour usage and also a wide variety of supporting media. The presentation alone stimulates the creative juices.

For me, the kind of prompts in Take Ten for Writers are of a different sort than those included in Elizabeth Berg’s Escaping into the Open (which I’ll chat about in a few weeks), which are more open-ended.

Neubauer’s is not a book that I would turn to when I’m sitting down in the morning to write but can’t easily pick up the threads of the manuscript I’m working on; when I’m living with a book or story but can’t get into the right space to move ahead with it, a looser kind of prompt can be easily adapted to suit what I’m working on, and it’s like a tool with a purpose.

Bonnie Neubauer’s prompts are the sort that I would turn to when I`m not focussing on a specific project, when I want to get my head out of what I’ve been working on, or when I don’t have something on the go.

They are the kind of prompts that can work into something new for me. It’s like deciding that you want to exercise but you don’t want to do the usual pilates or aerobic routine, so you decide to go dancing instead.

Inspiring Stuff for Writers.

Bonnie Neubauer’s Take Ten for Writers: 1,000 Inspiring Exercises. Writer`s Digest Books, 2009.

A Writer’s Time (Kenneth Atchity)

Setting aside the question of word processors being a novelty, much useful advice remains in this volume, particularly about time management and getting your butt in the chair and making the most of the time you have it there.

You can’t always be productive and Kenneth Atchity doesn’t make you feel terrible about that. “Knowing the moment to quit is the key to reorganizing your writing time.”

He suggests that you work with what you have. “If you want to be a writer, don’t hope to displace your anxiety. Instead, find ways of coping with it, tricking it, transforming it.”

His underlying theme is to assure the writer that s/he can realize her/his vision. And why not believe in it? “Treading on your own dreams is truly insane.” Overall, the tone is encouraging and supportive, and I prefer his approach to that offered in Kelly L. Stone’s Time to Write.

Atchity’s work also offers something beyond the common sense, nose-to-the-grindstone advice; he has his own ideas and suggests his own techniques. His suggestions are practical and you don’t need any of those fancy-schmancy word-processors to put them into action. (I don’t mean to make fun of the dated bits: they add flavour.)

Here are a couple more quotes:

“You must stop editing – or you’ll never finish anything.”

“Style is what happens when characteristic energy shapes mechanical precision. It’s not something you create: style is what you are.”

It’s not page-shattering, but it’s useful stuff for writers.

Kenneth Atchity’s A Writer’s Time (1988) Norton, 1986

The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again (Sven Birkerts)

You’ve probably already heard me say how much I enjoy Graywolf’s series on creative writing.

If you aren’t famililar? You should check the Art of series out, here.

They’re terrific. (They’re much more valuable for me than the Writer’s Digest series, although I do understand why those appeal to other writers.)

Part of the reason that I think I’m partial to the books in this series is that I have the sense, while reading them, that they are written by writers who actually love to read (and write) fiction, love to read with a passion. These are not the writers who say that they don’t read other writers because they don’t want to be influenced. These are the writers who love to read, love words and what you can do with them, love the printed and handwritten page.

At least that’s how it seems. Reading through (and in between) the lines. (Though, admittedly, I usually come to the writers who pen these works without having known them in another context.)

The Art of Time in Memoir is no exception. Sven Birkerts early on discusses Marcel Proust’s The Remembrance of Things Past, suggesting that it, of all novels, is the closest to memoir in form.

Birkerts states that Proust mined his life in a thousand ways and applies the memoirist’s sense “of the true scales of mattering”. This pushes the boundaries of the novel, and it means that a relatively minor character could receive more attention in the prose than Marcel’s father.

As a reader with considerably more experience reading fiction than reading memoir, I was relieved to be drawn into the subject through relatively familiar territory. And Sven Birkerts made me all the more comfortable by referring to other familiar works, like Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood and Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past”.

Memoirists, he explains, look to their work to discover the way in which various events in their lives make a different kind of sense over time, as the years pass. Dillard finds continuity among change, an underlying self among the versions of self that growing up requires. Woolf theorizes that certain incidents and perceptions from the past act as shocks to the system demanding reflection.

These are big ideas in a slim volume. I’m really only hinting at it here, and I’m leaving out the majority of the references he makes, but it’s all good.

It’s definitely good stuff for writers.

(And here’s a quote: “The writer must represent as faithfully as possible what memory has shaped inside — memory and feeling.”)

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (Vivian Gornick)

Though freshly infatuated with Janet Burroway’sWriting Fiction volume, I’ll be randomly plucking other books from the writing shelves to read alongside. If my affection for WF is sustained, I’ll offer quarterly updates on my progress but, meantime, I’ll be reading and re-reading more familiar fare.

Sometimes I discover a new writer by pulling a book from the writing shelves in a bookshop; this happened with Charles Baxter’s essays, which led me to his fiction. But I discovered Vivian Gornick’s book on writing long after I’d discovered her Fierce Attachments and The End of the Novel on Love.

So I was pleased to find The Situation and the Story, but, at the time, I was far more interested in reading fiction than in reading memoir or personal narrative, and I suspect that I scanned the long excerpts of classic personal narratives that I wasn`t keen on (likely everything except Marguerite Duras’ The Lover).

So re-reading The Situation and the Story was like a first reading in many ways. And one which will lead to other first readings. By now I’ve read the fiction of many of the memoir writers whose non-fiction output she examines, so even if Vivian Gornick’s commentary wasn’t enough to pique my interest, I am that-much-more intrigued by works like Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” and Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth.

If I really did skip these parts on my first reading, I was missing out. (I’m not always a lazy reader: I really did read all the poetry in A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession.) Gornick does not quote needlessly; she has carefully selected segments which illuminate the observations she is making about these works.

These extracts do contribute substantially to the reading experience of The Situation and the Story, but, if you are worried about spoilers (sometimes her reflections reveal an outcome you might not have garnered from reading the specific work in isolation) you might still take away something of value from her commentary even without reading those.

It’s a short but fundamentally worthwhile work; the subtitle indicates that its audience is intended to be writers, teachers and students (though I wish it had included readers in there too). It is unquestionably valuable to writers, however, particularly those writing personal narrative, who seek advice on how to avoid  the “pits of confessionalism”, “therapy on the page” and “naked self-absorption”. 

Her observations on how various writers have cultivated a detached empathy which is necessary for personal narrative to work for the disinterested reader are clear and well-illustrated. Ways in which other writers have developed a persona which enabled them to convey their stories (to varying degrees of success) are instructive and thought-provoking.

It’s Good Stuff for Writers (the long excerpts too).

Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. 2001. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Janet Burroway)

You’ve seen them too, right? The countless references to Janet Burroway’s classic text?

Maybe you’ve had a reaction similar to mine? At first, intrigued.

Then, overwhelmed.

Then, doubtful.

Then, curious.

Curious enough to suss out a copy.

Then, smitten.

What began as casual perusal has developed into deliberate interest. And, because it’s January, I’m inclined to call it a beginning. Maybe I will add a monthly post devoted to it (but I’d like to continue posting about other resources as well).

In the meantime, below are some quotes from the many that I’ve pulled from the first chapter.

On journal keeping:

A major advantage of keeping a journal regularly is that it will put you in the habit of observing in words. (3)

On freewriting:

Freewriting is the literary equivalent of scales at the piano or a short gym workout. All that matters is that you do it. The verbal muscles will develop of their own accord. (5)

On the importance of exercising for all writers:

Stories do not begin with ideas or themes or outlines, so much as with images and obsessions, and they continue to be built by exploring those images and obsessions. Seemingly unrelated prompts can help you break loose that next page. (6)

It’s Good Stuff for Writers.

Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft 8th Edition (Longman, 2010)

The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook (Edited Daniel Alarcón)

As I mentioned in my introductory post to this volume, the following subjects are considered: Reading and Influences, Getting Started, Structure and Plot, Character and Scene, Writing, Revision, and The End.

The format presents a variety of questions within the overarching subject and not every writer who is included in the collection responds to every question. Below are some of the responses that stood out for me.

But a great novel is not the one that transforms the character but the one that transforms the reader.
-Rabih Alameddine

I want a novel that isn’t afraid to follow a story to its true end, even if what is discovered there isn’t good news. 
-Tayari Jones

On Ideas:

Heartbreak usually gets one going, heartbreak for a love that didn’t work out, for a homeland that has lost its way, for a generation that didn’t quite make it.
-Gary Shteyngart

I can’t move on from a bad sentence; it gets more and more painful, like leaving a child behind you on the road. 
-Anne Enright

A first chapter must have a web you want to fall into. 
-Rodrigo Fresán

I think of the book or story as a space. I enter it, spend time in it, arrange the furniture, paint the walls, get out, leave it to the people who will live there. 
-Aleksandar Hemon

On outlines:

I hold everything in a nice mush in my head.
-Chris Abani

On re-writing:

It’s what gives me pleasure and when I can work with more enthusiasm – with the knowledge that the story I want to tell is there in the raw material. 
-Mario Vargas Llosa

On characters:

Niceness is not compelling.
-Claire Messud

I know what I like about different endings of my favourite books. They always make me want to reread the book right away.
-Yiyun Li

Writing to me is very much about discovering the meaning of my life. 
-Amy Tan

This collection is Great Stuff for Writers.

Daniel Alarcón (Ed.) The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook (Henry Holt, 2010)

The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook (Ed. Daniel Ararcón)

Imagine three-hour-long sessions in which a panel of writers is asked a series of questions about the writing process in front of an audience of 50.

Now imagine that bits and pieces of those sessions have been reassembled in an edited form, arranged by topic, with the responses of 54 writers.

Or, rather than imagining that, you can pick up a copy of The Secret Miracle.

Here are the writers who have appeared in sessions at 826 National (yes, proceeds from this book benefit youth literacy):

Chris Abani, Chris Adrian, Alaa al Aswany, Rabih Alameddine, Paul Auster, Tash Aw, Mario Bellatin, Michael Chabon, Susan Choi, T Cooper, Ann Cummins, Edwidge Danticat, Roddy Doyle, Jennifer Egan, Josh Emmons, Anne Enright, Aura Estrada, Rodrigo Fresán, Nell Freudenberger, Rivka Galchen, Christina Garcia, Glen David Gold, Francisco Goldman, Allegra Goodman, Andrew Sean Greer, Daniel Handler, Yael Hedaya, Aleksandar Hemon, A.M. Homes, Shelley Jackson, Tayari Jones, Stephen King, Laila Lalami, Jonathan Lethem, Yiyun Li, Adam Mansbach, Dinaw Mengestu, Claire Messud, Susan Minot, Rick Moody, Haruki Murakami, George Pelecanos, José Manuel Prieto, Santiago Roncagliolo, Akhil Sharma, Adania Shibli, Gary Shteyngart, Curtis Sittenfeld, Mehmet Murat Somer, Saša Stanišić, Amy Tan, Colm Tóibín, Mario Vargas Llosa, Alejandro Zambra

It’s quite a collection of writers, discussing the following topics:

Reading and Influences
Getting Started
Structure and Plot
Character and Scene
Writing
Revision
The End

Those who are looking for a prescriptive text will be disappointed. As the editor explains, “This book is not a how-to. No such book exists because it cannot be written.”

That’s actually one of the reasons that I so enjoyed this collection. No sooner had one writer said “Of course I write with an outline — a very detailed one, in fact — and I can’t imagine ever writing without one” than another said “Outline, schmoutline: I can’t imagine anything more stifling creatively”. It certainly emphasizes the precept that what works for one writer does not work for the next, that there is no “silver bullet” for crafting a novel. “They, like all of us, have good days, bad days, and days where it is more useful to sit quietly and read, to let the writing itself wait.”

Instead, the editor’s intent is that this volume “inspires, consoles, frightens, prods, angers, and excites many of you who pick it up.” It accomplished all of that in my books. Well, except for the anger: nothing in here made me angry. I wonder what did rouse that emotion for other readers.

Another hope of the editor is that the volume leads readers “to the work of the fine novelists who have given so generously of their time and wisdom to make this book a reality, and if not to their work, then to that of the many writers they have recommended”; I definitely added several names to my TBR list.

One thing that I found especially interesting is that I expected to find some authors’ comments particularly useful and had no expectations at all of the authors whose works were unfamiliar to me, but in fact I found that some of my favourite authors had little to say that made me want to note their passages, whereas I found myself constantly marking passages by some authors whose works I hadn’t read (say, Aleksandar Hemon, Chris Abani, Ann Cummins).

In the next post, I’ll share some of my favourite quotes from this volume.

It’s Good Stuff for Writers.

Daniel Ararcón (Ed.) The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook (Henry Holt, 2010)

A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words (Phillip Sexton)

Often, I’ve heard about a book from Writer’s Digest, gotten my hopes up, and been disappointed in it. I had a contrasting experience with this book; I approached it cautiously (thanks to countless photo-prompts that haven’t inspired me in the least), but I was ultimately quite pleased.

The first book that Phillip Sexton gives thanks for is Jack Heffron’s The Writer’s Idea Book, one of the few Writer’s Digest Books I’ve purchased. (Most, but not all, of the books listed in the Further Reading section are also Writer’s Digest Publications, but I suppose that’s to be expected.) Not surprisingly, the two complement each other: Heffron’s is decidedly text-based and Sexton’s clearly image-based.

Wondering what sets this volume apart from other books like it, which are also marketed to writers in search of exercises to get the pen moving or, more concretely, ideas for stories and novels if those are lacking? Not a lot. There are many similar resources and although they do date easily (particularly when image-based), the concept remains the same. So what ultimately sets this one apart is Phillip Sexton’s voice.

There’s not a lot of it, but beyond the introduction and afterword, each photograph is accompanied by a paragraph or two, which often include a snippet of another writer’s opinion on the subject but fundamentally rely upon Sexton’s exposition. And, if you like his approach, you’ll probably appreciate the commentary that accompanies each image.

Sexton is obviously a reader and instinctively recognizes storytelling inspiration in abundance (story ideas are everywhere, not just in prompt books or pet subjects). Not only does he refer to Shakespeare, Mark Haddon, Tom Robbins and Ann Hood, but also to Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Dan Brown, and also to well-known scripts for film and television (inspiration also lies in other storytellers’ works, and not only works published by Writer’s Digest).

Ultimately the exercises will repeat others that you’ve seen in other similar books, but beyond Phillip Sexton’s approach, A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words has Tricia Bateman’s photographs to recommend it. Sometimes the images in similar books feel a little contrived, but these photographs are unusual; sometimes they even have blurry bits (perfect for imagining stories into those foggy bits) and there are tonnes of ideas lurking there.

Good stuff for writers.

Phillip Sexton’s A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words with Photos by Tricia Bateman (Writer’s Digest Books, 2006)

A Novel in a Year (Louise Doughty)

A Novel in a Year gathers together a series of articles previously published over the space of a year although I read the chapters a few at a time which worked just fine as a reader, although if I’d been reading along as a writer, I would have had to set it aside more frequently to do my homework.

Doughty’s tone is one that I warm to immediately. She offers ideas without a sense that she alone possesses a wisdom about storytelling that nobody else has. And she freely admits that although she does have some good ideas, she knows that she doesn’t always practice what she preaches.

“What advice people need in the early stages of their writing depends so much on their level of skill and experience — not to mention personality type — that I wouldn’t dream of being proscriptive. I make no larger claim than this: this book gives you an idea about how I do it, and here are a series of exercises that might help you have a go at it more or less my way.”

There is a slight cheer-leading quality, which might work well for those who endeavour to work along with the exercises: “Forget for a moment the loneliness and fear, the paranoia and financial insecurity, Being a Writer is great fun.” And given that rejection is a vital part of any writer’s life, who’s to say that some encouraging words are not only ‘nice’ but necessary. “Your only concern right now should be to write. Write your book, write it well, then rewrite it even better.”

And it’s not all encouraging chatter by any means. Doughty has some concrete advice. Some of it is very specific, which suits the premise of the book, but some of it is more general.

On reading:

“Read. Read as if your life depended on it because your life as a novelist does. Read for sheer enjoyment — what sort of books you enjoy reading provides a pretty strong clue as to what sort of book you should be writing. But also learn to read critically. If something that a particular writer is doing rings your bell or gets your goat, why? As a reader, you may favour a certain style or genre; as a critic, you should be an omnivore.”

On characters:

You should always know more about your characters than you can possibly include in your book.

On plot:

A plot is not an idea, it is a whole mass of ideas, often in conflict with each other, which are expressed by a series of events. To have enough material for a whole novel, you have to be prepared to look way beyond your original idea, beyond yourself, to give it context and development, and above all to introduce the possibility of change.

On writer’s block:

I wouldn’t dignify it with the phrase writer’s block. Writer’s sludge is more like it.

On multiple narrators:

There has to be a cast-iron reason for that kind of stuff otherwise you won’t get away with it. Readers aren’t fools.

And sometimes she’s just plain sassy: I like that.

“We could all live perfectly useful lives if we didn’t write novels. Think of the hours we could spend with our families or hoovering the stairs — I’d have awfully clean stairs if I didn’t write books.”

If you’ve seen the dust bunnies that have colonized our stairways at home, you’ll understand why I truly warmed to Doughty’s book.

Good Stuff for Writers. (Especially for writers whose stairs need hoovering.)

Louise Doughty’s A Novel in a Year 2010 (Pocket Books – Simon & Schuster 2008)

Time to Write (Kelly L. Stone)

Here’s what I wanted to find between the covers of Kelly L. Stone’s book: “You have hereby been granted the equivalent of your current annual earnings in exchange for agreeing to spend the same amount of time that you currently devote to your 9-5 existence at your desk writing, just as you have always dreamed of doing.”

Well, I know, it’s ridiculous. But really, I don’t know what I could have expected from a book titled Time to Write. Although I know, now, that I was expecting something more. Which really isn’t reasonable, of course, because the simple act of reading a book on this subject does not increase the number of available hours in a given day. 

The author consulted more than 100 writers for this book, asking for the secrets behind the writing time they found. None of them had managed to find more than 24 hours in any given day either.

Here’s one such bit of advice which, appropriately, appears on the final page of the book: “The number one thing you must do is write. You have to write, write, write, and when you can’t write anymore, write some more.” 

This is courtesy of Steve Berry, New York Times bestselling author (most of the writers quoted herein are bestselling authors, writers of commercial fiction who set quotas of 20 pages a day) and yes, it’s good advice to deliver as readers swallow the last page of a book about writing. Go forth, now, and write. Yes, yes. 

And there’s nothing wrong with this advice. Nothing wrong with the advice of any of the writers quoted herein. But there’s also nothing surprising in it. And certainly no magic certificate that let me off the Monday-to-Friday reality of my work-a-day life. 

What Kelly L. Stone offers is practical advice, simple suggestions to help you determine where, during your busy week, there are untapped reservoirs of time that you might be able to use for writing, and then techniques to help you make the most of that available time. It’s organization and planning: it’s simple stuff. You know: watch less TV and set your alarm an hour earlier, snatch available moments and carry a notebook, trytrytryandtryagain.

I’ve already done all this:  identified the pockets of time that can hold writing if I rearrange other responsibilities and pleasures, itemized and set my short-term goals in pursuit of my long-term goals, established my habit of writing weekly, considered how terrible and culpable I feel and am when I let myself and my craft down. There’s nothing else to be done, other than what I’m already doing. I should have struck this task from my commute and taken the time to write instead.

Good stuff for beginning-beginning writers or for those people who think they might like to write a book someday if only there weren’t so many good shows on HBO.

Kelly L. Stone Time to Write (Adams Media, 2008)