Archive of Tips for 2002
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copyrighted material without my written permission. Thank you.)
for December 2002:
I'm at the late-revision stage of a new
novel, so revision strategies are on my mind this month. I'm a
great believer in index cards as a way to "see" a long
work. I use one card per chapter or section, write up a one- or
two-sentence summary, and then lay the cards out on the floor and walk
through the book. This method helps me find redundancy,
repetition, lost threads, flat spots, and other problems without having
to read the entire manuscript. (It's more like a shortcut
read-through.) Then, once I've worked on the areas
that need attention, I read the manuscript in earnest, and the book as
a whole seems fresher to me because at this point it will have been a
while since I read it straight through .
I repeat this process many times until the book feels done.
for November 2002:
It's fall. Time to rake the leaves,
figuratively speaking. Gather up all those old drafts and put them
in a metaphorical lawn bag. Then start something brand new.
Working and re-working old stuff is a creepy form of writer's
If you need a starter, try this: A man walks into a
bar, but it's not a bar. Good luck!
for October 2002:
I am back in my studio full time at long
last, after a summer that consisted mainly of book promotion.
Yippee! Now I am facing a mess of a new novel, but the usual dread
has been thoroughly usurped by gratitude.
This month's tip: So, your draft is finished
and you're fretting. Something's off, but you don't know
what. Could it be that the narrative through-line -- the
"story" of the story -- is too short? In other words,
have you ended your story at exactly the place where it should
begin? If at the end of the draft your character arrives at a
moment of truth, try writing past it. Just a little ways.
Never mind that it's a gorgeous ending, maybe the best writing you've
ever done. Its very gorgeousness is the reason you haven't dared
mess it up before now. Add one more teensy-weensy paragraph.
Then another. Have somebody walk in and say something, and make
your character say something back. You may discover that your
ending is in fact an arrival that sets something else into motion
-- something more urgent, more fascinating, and most likely harder to
write. It is entirely possible, even probable, that you wanted so
badly for your mission to be accomplished that you failed to notice the
rocket still sitting on the launch pad.
for September 2002:
Sometimes I get stalled by having to
write so many damn sentences. Just for today, write
fragments, and only fragments, connected or not. Give yourself the
freedom to roam the possibilities even if what you're working on is well
underway. Names, dates, phrases, titles of unwritten books,
inventories of closets or dresser drawers, misremembered quotations,
random character traits, lines of dialogue, sketches of neighborhoods or
room interiors or family trees -- anything goes. Think of it as a
joyride and make it last until the writing cops finally pull you
for August 2002:
Two jumpstarts for the summer doldrums:
1. Think of two objects that are seemingly
unconnected -- a house for sale and a model plane; a storm drain and an
office window; a mantel clock and a yellow slicker -- and make a
connection. Any connection at all, no matter how vague, will get
2. Write in the voice of a person talking as
fast as he can. Why is he in such a hurry?
for July 2002:
My apologies to those of you who looked
in vain for a June writing tip -- I was, ahem, in Italy, meeting the
translator for one of my novels. Needless to say, I adore her:
she's the only other person on the planet who worried over every single
word of my book.
Which brings me to this month's writing tip.
Address yourself to something that is more or less finished, and select
one small part of it -- a paragraph, a scene, even a sentence.
Worry over it. Think rhythm, think syntax, think
clarity... Pretend you've just translated it from another
language. Do the words say what you truly mean for them to
say? Is the passage worth reading, even out of context? Are
the words themselves engaging, interesting? You'll feel really
good afterward, knowing you've replaced a so-so passage with something
Usage tip: Never say "Between you and
I...." I hear this everywhere lately, a veritable
epidemic! The correct usage is "Between you and me...."
If "between you and me" sounds wrong to
you, then you're probably committing the same error in other
contexts. For example, "She gave the dog to Bob and I"
is wrong. The problem is a confusion between the nominative and
objective case, but you don't have to think of it that way.
Instead, look at the sentence logically. You would never say
"She gave the dog to I," right? Of course not.
Therefore, you would never say "She gave the dog to Bob and
I." You would say, correctly, "She gave the dog to
Bob and me." Then you might continue on, correctly, by
saying, "She also took Mary and me to the movies. When we
got to the theater, the ticket guy gave her and me half-price
tickets." If these examples sound wrong to you, recite
the sentences your way (using "I" instead of "me"),
only omit the other person: "She gave the dog to I. Then she took I
to the movies. The ticket guy gave I half-price
tickets." See how nutty that sounds? It's a foolproof
trick that ensures you'll never make a case error again.
When two pronouns appear in the sentence, the usage
gets even more egregious, such as, "Bob gave the dog to she and
I." This quite literally hurts my ears. Omit either
pronoun and the light will dawn: You would not say "Bob gave the
dog to I" and you would not say "Bob gave the dog to
she." Therefore, you would have to say "Bob gave the
dog to her and me." Some people remember this by silently
repeating the preposition or the verb, i.e., "Bob gave the dog
to her and (to) me. Then she took Mary and (took) me to the
for May 2002:
First tip: The Pocket Muse is
available in a bookstore near you!
Second tip: If you found yourself on your deathbed
tonight (let's say you got hit by a bus on your way home from work) what
is the one subject you'd most regret not having written about?
Start now--there could be a bus out there with your name on it.
Usage tip: "Irregardless" is not a
word. Use "regardless" instead.
for April 2002:
It's April Fools Day. Every child
you know will try to convince you that you've got a spider in your hair
or that your shoes are untied. Go with the flow: write a scene in
which one character plays a trick on another character. What
happens? Laughter or disaster?
for March 2002:
For years now, I've been keeping what I call a
"word notebook." It's
a tiny spiral notebook with lined pages, six by four inches, in which I
keep lists of words. Not
phrases, not quotations, just words.
The notebook accompanies my reading; whenever I
stumble upon a word I like, I transfer it to the notebook.
Sometimes I record words I have to look up, but mostly I record
common words that I haven't used in a while, or words I simply love the
My word notebook travels with me from my
reading area to my writing area. I
use it on days when words come hard.
Sometimes I check my notebook for a zesty word that can replace a
dull one. Often, I'll
combine words pulled from the notebook until a good sentence appears out
of the mist. I also do
word-association exercises with words taken from my notebook, allowing
one good word to engender another until I hit upon a decent idea.
Today's entries: sylph;
rabble; snug; styptic; freckled
for February 2002:
A good scene--in fiction or nonfiction--contains layers. In
other words, more than one thing is going on, no matter how
straightforward the scene might appear. To find those layers, keep
asking yourself, "What else?" For example, you
might think the scene you're writing is about a man discovering his
wife's affair. He's furious that she's been unfaithful. What
else? He's a bit smug that his suspicion turned out to be
right. What else? He's disappointed that his wife didn't
choose a more attractive, interesting lover. What else? He's
insulted that his wife didn't choose a more attractive,
interesting lover! What else? He wonders, maybe a little,
whether he himself might be unattractive and uninteresting, exactly the
sort of man to whom his wife seems to be attracted. What
This kind of interrogation helps you get to the heart of the matter.
Tips for January 2002:
Why not take advantage of having been forced to listen to forty
thousand versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" last
month? Write something that exploits one of the twelve
lines. Begin a scene with nine ladies dancing, or write about
somebody who is missing five gold rings. A partridge in a pear
tree might be a bit much, but you could make a little hay with twelve
guys on drums.
And how about this for a writer's 2002 resolution? Finish
something, no matter how small.
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