• One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.
    Jack Kerouac
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Outline, outline, outline!

We all know an outline is helpful, but it can seem like tedious work. And then there are those of you who feel such careful planning hampers your creative process. While I can't promise an outline will make magic flow from your pen, I can attest that the editing comments I make most often are about "narrative arc." Somewhere along the way, regardless of genre, stories falter or take several unhelpful detours. Tedious though they may be, an outline is the best safeguard against wayward narratives. So here are some outlines from famous authors to encourage your good habits (or to shame the rest of us):


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Just Write (17)

No page is harder to fill than the first. That blank page looms so much larger than the ones that follow. But, as the very wise Natalie Goldberg tells us, "if you give your mind too much time to contemplate a beginning when you sit down to write, your monkey mind might meander over many topics and never quite get to putting a word on the page." To combat this, she suggests dedicating a page in your notebook (or a file on your computer, for all you who reject the pencil) to ideas, topics, jumping off points. Grab anything small or large that comes to you and save it there for later. Until you're able to compile your own list, she offers you this to get things going:

"Visualize a place that you really love, be there, see the details. Now write about it. It could be a corner of your bedroom, an old tree you sat under one whole summer, a table at McDonald's* in your neighborhood, a place by a river. What colors are there, sounds, smells? When someone else reads it, she should know what it is like to be there. she should feel how you love it, not by your saying you love it, but by your handling of the details."

--Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala, 2005) 

*please don't

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Just Write (16)

Many of our writing exercises tend toward fiction. So today, we offer a prompt to hone your nonfiction chops. But after you write an amazing essay you can always answer the questions again with a story, in case you need to scratch that fiction itch. 

"What is public and what is private? What should be public and what should be private? What do these terms mean now?"

--The San Francisco Writers' Grotto, 642 Things to Write About (Chronicle Books, 2011)

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Some writing advice for today from Mary Pipher:

Every day, observe something carefully, and then express your thoughts about it in different mediums--a personal essay, a         poem, a story. Try different tones and styles, and take note of what sounds most natural for you. Eventually, you will be able to winnow out those that sound false. At the same time, you also can analyze your best writing, and ask yourself, What is working well in this piece?

--Mary Pipher, Writing to Change the World (Riverhead Books, 2006)

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The Writer's World: Confessions, Internet Tendencies, and You

Despite my presence here, I admit to being a bit of a luddite. I like books with pages, people who are actually sitting in front of me, and--perhaps most scandalous of all--I still edit on paper. I even have a preferred pencil (do not get me started on the glories of the Graphgear 500). But I know I'm a dying breed and that this new fangled technology has much to offer, so I dabble. I have developed feelings for my iPhone and MacBook Pro that could be deemed inappropriate. I even started tweeting recently--an experience I oddly like when I can get over my nagging sense that no one really cares "What's happening" in my day.

I know you all are better at this sort of thing than I am. You've long since figured out there are amazing resources for writers, and great writing out there on the internet.  But maybe you're a little like me, and you'd like some help wading through this morass...

...so here's a quick list of helpful online tools for writers:

Arts and Letters Daily is not full of helpful writing information, but it will make your brain bigger, which will make you a better writer. It's like a cultural cheat sheet--they sort through everything worth reading and give you a little nibble of it. You can, of course, be a good lad and follow their link to the full article. 

NewPages is a great resource for writers. It's essentially a guide to everything creative writers should know: MFA programs, submissions, independent and university presses, journals...

PEN Center USA: Because all writers should join and support PEN. 

Poets & Writers : NewPage's more serious and mature big brother. P&W is "the nation's largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers." 

....and here's some fun stuff:

Moby Lives! A blog that begat a publisher. They are irreverant, pertinent, and pretty much my favorite tweeters.

Bookslut Bitchy, smart, and amazingly well read. Get over the name and dive in. 

The Rumpus is an online (mostly) literary magazine. Also irreverent and very cheeky (I'm just noticing a trend...)

I'll keep you posted on my discoveries over the coming months. We'll also link to these sites and others we become besotted with on our facebook page. If you find something amazing out there, tell us about it!


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Just Write (14)

I always, always held my breath driving by cemeteries. It was just good sense. What about you?

"Write about your earliest superstition."

FromThe Pocket Muse: Ideas & Inspirations for Writing (2002 F+W Publications) by Monica Wood

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The Writer's World: Captain Underpants Does it Again!

The American Library Association released its annual report this week, which includes a list of the year's most banned books. The top ten list of frequently challenged books is never a proud moment (The Dirty Cowboy, really?), and the continual battle against censorship the report chronicles is frankly depressing. In America. In 2013.

But I try to be a glass is half full kind of gal, and I did find one little kernal of goodness in the report: Amanda Wong. Miss Wong is a high-school student who successfully fought her California school's efforts to ban Stephen King's novella "Different Seasons." After a school committee decided to ban the work, Amanda convinced the school superintendent tto reverse the committee's decision because it “opens a door to censoring other materials.” The school returned the book to the library shelves...where I'm betting it became the most frequently checked out book.  

Our friends at Melville House have, as always, a good blog posting about the list: http://www.mhpbooks.com/the-banned-books-of-2012-toilets-and-bondage/

And you can find the full ALA report here: http://www.ala.org/news/state-americas-libraries-report-2013/intellectual-freedom

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Just Write (13)

This week's writing prompt is a language seeking exercise. While this won't launch you into drafting a great chapter or story, it just may help make that story about a large rabbit, for example, a bit better. 

We all fall victim to the cliché, especially when stuck. For a way clear of this sinking ship I offer Roy Peter Clark's sage advice to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather than fleeing like rats from a sinking ship, he tells us "don't be afraid to a take a cliché and tweak it. A bit of improvisation can take a stale phrase and bring it back refreshed." 

Go back through whatever you're working on and seek out the clichés lurking in there. Write each cliché "on a piece of paper and list words or phrases that come close to the same meaning." Many of the options you craft will work while others will absolutely not. "No matter. You will need examples that do not work in order to find one that illuminates your meaning in an original way."

--Roy Peter Clark, Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces (Little, Brown, and Co, 2011)

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Just Write (12)

I have a friend who loathes adverbs. She denies them admittance into her prose. And here's the rub, for you fellow adverb lovers, she's a damn fine writer. Ursula Le Guin explains the wisdom of my friend's adverb aversion beautifully:

"I would recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it's going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat."

With that in mind, we offer a writing exercise from Ms. Le Guin's Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew:


Write a paragraph to a page (200-350 words) of descriptive narrative prose without adjectives or adverbs. No dialogue. The point is to give a vivid description of a scene or an action, using only verbs, nouns, pronouns, and articles. Adverbs of time (then, next, later, etc.) may be necessary, but be sparing. Be chaste....The first time you do the exercise, write something new. After that you might want to try "chastening" a passage you've already written. It can be interesting.


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A nice and short writing prompt for today:

Find a photograph. Write the story of what’s happening outside the frame.


--The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, 642 Things to Write About (Chronicle Books, 2011)


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The Writer's World: Writers on Writing

I am a total dork for books about books and writing about writing. I never fail to find something that I want to share with our writers or that informs my editing work. It's why we have included such a big resources section on our website, and based on the number of hits that page receives, you too are dorks for writing about writing.

Writing is such a personal experience that these books should really be of no use. But when someone pulls back their own curtains and reveals a bit of their madness (or shows that it's really just work, not madness), there's usually something to be gained. If you're feeling stuck, sometimes seeing that glimpse of process unsticks like no writing prompt, workshop, or nagging editor can. 

Just to prove its usefulness, my addiction to this strange genre has saved the NY Times Book Review for me. Each week, I dutifully read (cough..skim..cough) the Book Review. It's a moral obligation. It allows me to lament the dearth of printed book reviews in the country, the shuttering of culture sections in prominent newspapers, and to find hope in online publications....But despite the many fine writers who contribute to it, reading the Review brings me little pleasure. Often, the same books are reviewed in Vogue--and this is no slight against Vogue, another of my many guilty pleasures. But it suggests less risk is being taken at the Review. Little is being discovered that hasn't already swept through other literary outlets or been hailed by Oprah. But since the addition of By the Book, I find myself looking forward to opening the NYTBR again. I can even forgive them for including Arnold Schwarzenegger. But just barely.

If you too share my addiction, but especially if you haven't had the pleasure yet, here are a few gateways:

"By the Book" archive: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/03/books/review/by-the-book-archive.html

The now classic "Writers on Writing" by Elmore Leonard: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

...Which The Guardian turned over to other novelists: 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/10-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-two


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Just Write (10)

Here's a tough prompt for a cold morning--it should give you plenty of reason to stay inside and write all day:

What is the subject you're avoiding? Write it down. 

(That's all for now. Tomorrow maybe you'll be able to get a sentence out, and then a paragraph.)

--from Monica Wood, The Pocket Muse: Ideas & Inspirations for Writing (Writer's Digest Books, 2002)


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Just Write (9)

We are finally back from holiday chaos and vacations, which means it's time to dust off our pencils and start writing again.  Since we're all grudgingly returning to the grindstone, I thought something completely ridiculous was in order for this week's writing prompt:

Write a scene in which a very large rabbit is a primary character. 


It doesn't get much more ridiculous than that, but maybe this would be more interesting if it was not ridiculous...if the rabbit was just a character. Happy writing. 

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Just Write (8)

Today we offer a re-writing prompt for writers of all genres:


Take one of the minor characters in whatever you’re working on--novel, memoir, dissertation---and pluck them from obscurity. Give them their own scene, breathe a little more life into them. They’ll be much better behaved when you put them back in their small part.

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Just Write (7)

In a recent NYTimes book review, the great YA author Holly Black wrote, “Is there anything better than a smart retelling of a fairy tale--more rewarding than the way the familiar is juxtaposed with the unexpected, only adding to the story’s power? A fairy tale retold well is always good for that joyful shiver of transgression.” I couldn’t agree more. From Grimm to Jeanette Winterson, great writing has come from reworking these iconic stories.

Today, rewrite your favorite fairy tale, or rework your least favorite....


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The Writer's World: AWP

Today we're kicking off a new series for writers, The Writer's World. Through it, we will bring you news, information, and resources to help expand your writing community. We'll highlight organizations, web sites, blogs, prizes, and basically anything we love that we think will help writers. And how could we start with anything other than AWP?

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) is a great organization for writers of all stripes. Their mission is to "foster literary achievement, advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing." To that end, their website has great resources and information for writers, they host a the largest literary conference in North America each spring, and sponsor a variety of annual contests and awards.

Submissions for AWP's largest prizes, their annual Award Series,  start next month. The awards are granted to one work of creative nonfiction, one novel, one poetry collection, and one work of short fiction each year. Each winner receives a cash prize and publication a selected press. Get your submissions ready--they will only be accepted from January 1 to February 28: https://www.awpwriter.org/contests/awp_award_series_overview

They also offer scholarships to their annual conference. Submissions are accepted through March 30. 

If you've never been, it's a must (or at least worth the time it takes to apply for a scholarship). Thousands of writers, publishers, teachers, and book geeks attend hundreds of readings, lectures, panels, book signings, and general literary festivities over four days. According to AWP, "more than 10,000 writers and readers attended our 2012 conference, and 600 exhibitors were represented at our bookfair."

Exhibitors range from the big five publishing houses, to tattooed hipsters giving out whiskey shots while they sell their handmade poetry journal. The conference fills up fast--at  last check the main hotel was already booked for this year's confernece in Boston. So meet Randolph Lundine at this year's meeting and see how many clever stickers, buttons, and tote bags you can bring home: https://www.awpwriter.org/contests/wcc_scholarships_overview

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Just Write (6)

Rather than a prompt urging you to write something new, this week's writing exercise returns you to something you've already written. I like that this makes you examine your work when it gets stuck, which is likely to tell you much more about your writing than examining the sections that flow with grace and ease. I also find advice that impels you to let go a bit as you write extremely helpful. Too often, we get mired in the crafting of small things (words, sentences) and we end up making tortured and stilted big things (paragraphs, chapters, books). Go on, get unstuck:

Find a section of your writing that has no energy to it and rewrite it as one long sentence. Be sure that the sentence keeps expanding outward, don't worry about it being a run-on, and just let it flow--642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers' Grotto (Chronicle).

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Just Write (5)

A subtle non-prompt for this week from a non-writing prompt book...

Use It or Lose It

Raise your hand if you tell the same stories over and over: that tale you tell about your twentieth college reunion, the Thanksgiving debacle, the Seder-masochistic tale of woe. 

What if I said you could never tell them again unless you first wrote them down, that you'd lose them if you didn't use them? 

I think you'd write them down.

--Marion Roach Smith, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life

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Just Write (4)

Today's writing exercise is more of a personalized idea generator than a prompt. It comes from Natalie Goldberg's classic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambala):

Make a list of your obsessions. Although we may like to think otherwise, these are what we write about. As Goldberg tells us, "your main obsessions have power; they are what you will come back to in your writing over and over again....They probably take over your life whether you want them to or not, so you ought to get them to work for you." My favorite things about this exercise are that it's a sneaky way to tell yourself what to write about (which is always more meaningful than a prompt), and that it's a renewable resource, as your obsessions morph over time. Happy digging.  

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Just Write (3)

Today, sadly, I’m thinking about death. Write about a funeral, real or imagined, and for me, make it funny. Even if it so wasn’t. 

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