We Welcome All Writing

image of the Lagoon Nebula

New stars are being created in the Lagoon Nebula. Detail from a photo by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/ R. Gendler, U.G. Jørgensen, K. Harpsøe. Used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

At Write to the End, we do two main activities: We write, and we welcome all writing. These two activities are the foundation of our group.

Welcome. I welcome you, and I welcome your writing. All of your writing, not just the parts you think are worth welcoming.

I use Natalie Goldberg’s method of writing practice, which is a practice of noticing and writing down first thoughts, “the way the mind first flashes on something.” This is a form of welcome. Writing practice is not choose what you receive but rather receive what you have already flashed on, even if it doesn’t make sense. All first thoughts are a gift. When we welcome them, we notice more first thoughts. When you welcome the tip of a thread of a story, it lets you pull it, and more story comes through. It’s scary to do, but don’t close off. I’m scared, too. I close off sometimes, too. But I’m always trying to improve my skill of staying open, of welcoming first thoughts, of allowing the thoughts to come through. (I am calling them thoughts. I don’t know what else to call them: visions, images, words—they come in many forms. You know what I mean, though: the things that arrive that aren’t you, that aren’t something you choose or make up or figure out. The things that come from the Place.) You don’t have to do anything with these thoughts later. You can choose what you turn into a piece; you can choose how you edit and what you publish. But if you welcome first thoughts and write them down, you’ll have something to choose from.

Steve DeWinter of Fiction Silicon Valley recently asked me what fiction I like to read. (I fished around in my brain and came up with Philip K. Dick and Julio Cortázar.) I welcome what I read because I choose it. But sometimes it’s necessary to welcome something you didn’t choose. You can turn off your biases and judgements, your desire to find fault with something in order to seem cool. For example, it’s easy to go into a new Star Wars movie in a defensive state, ready to complain about every tiny thing that doesn’t live up to our expectations. I might not seem cool for saying this, but I will tell you that I loved the Star Wars movie The Force Awakens. I was able to love it because I went into it blind on purpose. I turned off everything and just watched the movie as though I were a blank sheet of paper. I saw it for what it was, and even though there were a few moments of cheesy dialogue, and maybe some other things I could have complained about, I forgave it all and let myself love the movie. This is a beautiful and vulnerable thing to do. You should try it sometime. You don’t have to try it with Star Wars.

And here’s what else you should do: You should try it with your own work. Try turning everything off, all your judgement and smartness, all your desire for something to be a certain way, all your expectations of greatness or awfulness or anythingness, and just go in blind and see what you wrote for what it actually is. Let it affect you the way it wants to. Let yourself be defenseless against it. This is hard and scary. But you do it for others’ work. If you come to Write to the End, you practice every Tuesday doing it for others’ work, at least I hope you do. People write anything here, from disconnected notes to scenes of novels, from sonnets to To Do lists. And then they read these things out loud: what they just wrote, during the previous twenty minutes. And everyone turns off everything and listens; they take it in without context; they don’t expect anything from it.

When you sit in this circle, you listen to someone read something that you didn’t choose, and you appreciate it for what it is. You don’t try for it to be something else. If you aren’t doing that the first day, you learn from the example of people who have been here a while. If you start out faking it, pretty soon you’re really doing it. Write anything. Welcome everything. It’s hardest to do it for yourself, for your own writing, but try.

This time, when you read what you’ve written, turn off everything. Be blank. Be blind. Be nothing, and become what you read. Let what you read be all there is in that moment. We will support you. If you start to crack or even break, the structure of the group will hold you. And most likely, what you’ve written will become the glue that sticks the pieces back together stronger than before, and you will be a better writer for it. This is why we welcome all writing. This is why we welcome you.

Don’t Show Your Work to Your Friends

baby seal

Photo by Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps. (NOAA Photo Library: corp1516)

What’s the right thing to say to someone who has just shown you a manuscript of the worst prose you’ve ever seen, which they say is a story, but you can hardly even find a character let alone discern a plot?

Wait, I’ll make it worse: They’re looking at you expectantly, as innocent as a baby seal waiting to be clubbed.

Hold on a sec, it’s still not bad enough: You like this person very much and have known them for years. Maybe you even love them. Maybe you live in the same house.

Okay, now go ahead: What’s the right thing to say?

This is why you shouldn’t show your work to your friends.

(You’ve probably already made this mistake. Go ahead and use the comments section below if you’d like to tell us the terrible things people have said to you. Remember, they didn’t know what to do! They were trying their best to help! Let’s try to forgive them.)

But what if somebody really is showing their work to you? Seriously, what should you say?!

Everybody has to start where they are. Most people who eventually write amazing things at one point wrote horrible things. If you don’t believe me, and you like Harlan Ellison’s work, go find a copy of his collected stories and read the one about the snake. “But he was a kid when he wrote that,” you say. Yeah, and he was also a beginning writer.

What would you say to the nine-year-old Harlan Ellison, if he was showing you that story? I bet you have no trouble coming up with an answer this time, because you’re thinking of a kid (even if it’s Harlan Ellison). I bet you would say something like, “Wow, you wrote a story! How about you write another one?” And I bet you would mean it.

And you know what else? I bet it would be exactly the right thing to say.

Protect Your Reader’s Trust with Good Mechanics

line drawing of people boarding a sailing ship

Illustration by Henri Meyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone is always telling you that you need good mechanics, so why am I wasting your time talking about it too? Well, if you already study regularly and frequently in your never-ending and joyful quest to master grammar, punctuation, and word usage, then please skip this article. But if your motivation or practice falls below that level, I hope to inspire and encourage you by letting you experience from the inside one of the reasons you need to continually, on-purpose, improve your skills. And then I’ll give you a few ways that you can improve them without having to take a class.

Be Worthy of Your Reader’s Trust

Mechanics are a big part of your relationship with your reader. Every mechanical error you make reduces your reader’s trust in you. Every error takes the reader out of the flow of your writing and into a state of doubt.

This Is What It Feels Like

Let’s say you’ve sent me a text.

I follow the convention (very common) that “captain” is capitalized when it stands in for a name, but otherwise not. The following text follows this convention:

The captain stood on the deck. “Hello, Captain!” said Joe.
“Are we about to set sail, Captain Smith?” said Laura.
“Yes,” said the captain. Everyone started to get ready. The captain was proud of the crew’s efficiency.

If you were to write this text with “captain” capitalized all the time, it would FEEL like this when I read it:

The Captain stood on the deck. “Hello, Captain!” said Joe.
“Are we about to set sail, Captain Smith?” said Laura.
“Yes,” said the Captain. Everyone started to get ready. The Captain was proud of the crew’s efficiency.

See how distracting that is? See how it reduces trust (“Why is this person hitting me over the head with these crazy huge C’s?”)?

My point is not to teach you this particular convention, but to get you to consider: What if this type of experience is happening to people when they read your work?

So, What Can I Do?

Using good mechanics is a skill, and you can’t become a master in one day. That’s the trouble with most articles that tell you to “watch your mechanics. It bugs editors when you make mistakes.” You can watch your mechanics all you want, but if you’re not regularly and frequently improving them on purpose, then someday your work will do this to someone. It probably will anyway, so don’t worry about that! But you want to have a good enough foundation in place that your reader will trust you enough to keep reading.

I have very good mechanics skills. But there is a ton of stuff I don’t know. Just recently I was proofreading a manuscript, and I spent over half my time looking things up.

What to do, then? Here are some actions you can take and habits you can cultivate that will help you improve your skills, without investing a big chunk of time:

  1. Pick a style guide. If you don’t have one in mind already, take no more than 15 minutes, right now, to look around online and find a style guide seems to be pretty common for the type of writing you most often do. Get a copy of it (or an online subscription).
  2. While editing, rewriting, and proofreading, look things up! (I recommend using your own physical (paper) copy of reference books. It may feel slower, but I’ll bet what you learn in passing will save you time in the end.)
    • If you have any doubt at all about the precise use of a word, use your dictionary.
    • If you have any doubt at all about the precise rule/convention that applies to a sentence, use your chosen style guide.
    • Never, ever grab a synonym off a list without looking it up in a dictionary to make sure that’s what you actually mean. (Avoid the salad bandage!)
  3. Do real work. This will help you more than any “study” ever will. For example:
    • Beta read, and look things up.
    • Proofread the same document as a friend. (It’s best if you do this for the manuscript of another friend. That way everyone gets to learn, and you help someone’s manuscript as a bonus.) Talk about why each of you marked the things you marked. Find outside documentation to support each choice. (What if you thought “captain” was always capitalized, and you marked it, but your friend didn’t? You’d look it up in The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook, and you’d learn that a rule you thought you were applying correctly was not real, and you’d get to improve.)

P.S. I’m sure there’s at least one mechanical error in this article. If you saw any and want to point them out to me, I will fix them and be glad for the opportunity to improve my skills. Thanks!

Colorless Green Ideas Crashed My Car
Your Right to Say Things that Don’t Make Sense

green car

This image was created from a photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Fast and Furious 6 Premier 5 Uploaded by tm) Used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

Syntax gives us the power to say things that don’t make sense: Ideas can’t have color (or crash a car), and something colorless can’t also be green, but I can say “colorless green ideas crashed my car,” and you can understand me, even if you’re quite not sure what I mean.

The structure of a story or other piece of writing gives us a similar power. You can write about something that no one has ever experienced, and people will experience it through your story. This is not what I mean, and it makes my introduction about syntax sound like an analogy, when I’m trying to say something profound about the magic of language.

Let me try again. If I break the syntax—“green a the car colorless my”—you might not be able to follow what I’m saying anymore. You might say this string of words makes even less sense than “colorless green ideas.” However, with enough structure of other sorts, even such unconventional syntax can create deep meaning. For example, e.e. cummings: “anyone lived in a pretty how town / (with up so floating many bells down).”

What I’m trying to say is, write anything. You can change things later if it turns out you need to. Natalie Goldberg uses the example, “I cut the daisy from my throat.” This doesn’t make sense, but people’s minds will make sense out of it, and it will come to have meaning based on the context. If I say that colorless green ideas crashed my car, you’re going to start forming hypotheses about how this can happen: Maybe the “ideas” are aliens, and they are transparent but also green. That’s not what I mean either! The mind makes meaning. If you use syntax, you can say anything, and our minds will create it, even if it doesn’t “make sense.” If you use story structure, you can say anything, too. Story structure has underlying “bones” the way language does.

Here’s what I mean: Meaning is not dependent on making sense. Meaning exists even in things that “don’t make sense” in a conventional way. Look at the e.e. cummings poem I quoted above. Read the whole thing. It “doesn’t make sense” (the syntax is crazy, the words are used in ways you’ve never seen before), but its meaning is there nonetheless. In fact, we could argue that its true meaning and effect are only possible because cummings breaks the syntax and does things in this unconventional way. I’m sure it took him a long time and many revisions to get that poem into its final state.

I’m giving two pieces of advice here, for two different parts of the writing process:

  1. When you’re writing your first draft, write anything. Don’t care if it doesn’t make sense. Keep going. Write until you get to the end, and save the editing for later. (If you need a process to help you do this, I recommend Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice, detailed in her book Writing Down the Bones.)
  2. If you’re editing a piece, and the effect you want to create requires breaking syntax or creating an unconventional story structure, or doing something else that “doesn’t make sense,” DO IT! Your loyalty is not to some idea of social or literary convention, but to the entity you are trying to bring to life. You can trust your reader as the co-creator of this entity. Work hard. Make your language and structure ever more precise until what “doesn’t make sense” means exactly what it needs to mean.

“I want these but don’t know how.”

Screenshot of my special folder for stories I don't know how to finish yet.

Screenshot of my special folder for stories I don’t know how to finish yet.

What do you do with the pieces you don’t yet have the skill to finish?

I used to leave them around in notebooks and never finish them. Half-abandoned, half-forgotten, they were a source of nebulous anxiety, though I vaguely planned to get back to them someday. Sometimes I’d remember one and think, “Hey, I know what to do with that now!” but usually I wouldn’t be able to find it.

Since I started believing in myself enough to organize my writing, I have found a way to give those pieces a better chance at life. (I use Scrivener on my computer, but you can use this method with any computer’s file system or with paper folders and manuscripts.)

I keep my short stories organized in folders that correspond roughly to stages of completion, with later stages closer to the top (see image). For example, near the top is a folder for stories that are being submitted to markets, and below that is a folder for stories that are in beta. Below that come the folders of my finishing pipeline. But what I’m talking about today only requires a single folder, which I keep right below the finishing pipeline. It’s called “I want these but don’t know how.”

In it, I keep the stories I don’t yet know how to finish. The folder is right there, in the middle of my workspace, so every now and then I look into it and read through some of the stories, and every now and then I discover that I do know how to finish one of them. Or sometimes I’ve recently read something that gives me a new structure or technique I can try on one of the stories, and I try it. Maybe I still don’t know how to finish the story, but I learn a lot. Maybe what I learn helps me finish another story.

This folder is also important for its symbolic meaning. By using this folder, I declare, “These stories I’ve started are important to me, and I give them space in my life.” By using this folder I accept that I want something, even though I don’t know how to get it yet. By using this folder I take my work seriously, I act as though I believe in myself, and I thereby increase my confidence as a writer. I intend to write for my whole life, so I need systems that support that goal.

If you don’t have a place to keep the pieces you don’t yet know how to finish, you might try making a special folder where they can live. And if you have another method that works for you, I’d love to know about it! Please put a note in the comments (below).

P.S. I got the idea for this post because I just finished a story that used to be in “I want these but don’t know how.”

Get Great Titles from Shakespeare, Yeats, and Paul Simon

photo of the lake isle of Innisfree

The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by Kenneth Allen. Part of the Geograph project. (Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Here’s a fun way to get titles. You can use this method to title a piece you’ve already written, or you can use the titles as prompts and re-title later if you write something that doesn’t fit.

Titles from Poems: The Method

  1. Find the text of a song or poem you like. Prose doesn’t usually work, but you might have luck with a very dense and image-rich block of prose, such as something by Dylan Thomas. If you can’t think of a text you want to use, just grab anything by Shakespeare.
  2. Look through the text and mark the interesting phrases. (This means phrases you like, phrases that sound like titles, phrases that stand out for no apparent reason, or phrases that give you ideas.)
  3. Pick one of the phrases and use it for a title. (Or be inspired in some other way, follow your inspiration, and come back to the titles later.)

Example: The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I’ll do an example with “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by W.B. Yeats. Phrases I think could make good titles are marked like this. You will probably like different phrases, which shows what a good method this is.  (Note: Lately I am interested in longer, weirder titles such as James Tiptree, Jr.’s  And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” which comes from John Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci.)

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
By W.B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Do you like any of those? Want to go through this poem yourself? Or, better yet, how about trying this method with a poem or song you love?

If you come up with a few titles you like, please post them in the comments below! (Don’t post an entire poem unless you own the rights or it is in the public domain.)

The Serving Dinner Model of Publishing

hand serving a plate with a manuscript on itDo you have a pile of unfinished pieces? Would you like to find a way to finish more projects? Here’s a method I’m using that helps me. (Note: It’s normal for creative people to start many more projects than they finish, so please never feel bad about that pile again. But you can improve your rate of finishing.)

How Can I Finish More Projects?

When I decided to improve my rate of finishing creative projects, I thought I was bad at finishing. After all, I had only published four articles on our Write to the End blog in three years! But I began looking for “bright spots” – places in my life where I actually did finish things – so that I could try to duplicate any success that I found. I thought that I wouldn’t find much. I was wrong.

Bright Spot 1: Serving Dinner

The first bright spot I discovered was dinner. I produced and served dinner, every day, pretty much at 6 p.m. Here was an example of successful and consistent daily finishing! So I wasn’t bad at finishing after all; I was only bad at finishing creative projects. I continued to analyze the bright spot: Why did I succeed at “getting dinner published” every night at 6 p.m.?

Because people in my house needed to eat, and they couldn’t eat much later than 6 p.m. Aha! I’d discovered two project characteristics that help me finish:

  1. Other people counting on me to produce.
  2. An external deadline.

How could I use this discovery to help myself finish more creative projects? In particular, how could I help myself publish more articles on our blog? I didn’t know, so I went back to looking for bright spots.

Bright Spot 2: Our Newsletter

The next bright spot I discovered was even more valuable because it was related to writing. I’d been sending our Write to the End newsletter (in one form or another) for over 10 years. Here was another example of successful and consistent finishing, and it was actually an example of successful and consistent publishing! The newsletter had the same two helpful characteristics as serving dinner: an external deadline and an audience. I had discovered the Serving Dinner Model of publishing, and I was already using it successfully!

Applying the Model: Our Blog

I suddenly knew how I could help myself publish consistently on our blog. It was terrifying to commit to this, but I did it. I added a section for new blog posts to our newsletter, and I promised there would always be at least one new article in that section.

It worked! Ever since then, I have succeeded at writing and publishing a new article every month. (Yes, I do it at the last minute. But I do it. And now that I’m committed to it, I’m starting to find ways to move the last minute farther away from the deadline.)

Applying the Model: Instant Books

The Serving Dinner Model can also be applied to one-time projects. You just have to figure out how to cause other people to rely on you to produce the project by a certain date. Here’s an example of how this has worked for me.

As part of Thinking Ink Press, I’ve been making Instant Books (small books folded from a single sheet of paper). My first two ideas for Instant Books are still unfinished, but in the meantime I have produced two others plus a Flashcard (a postcard with a complete short story on it). Why did I not finish the first two projects, but I did finish the other three? It’s because I applied the Serving Dinner Model to the ones I finished. I caused the two helpful conditions to exist by saying to my partners, “I’ll make Jagged Fragments for Anthony to sell at the Clockwork Alchemy convention,” or “I’ll make Bees for Betsy to sell at Play on Words.” Boom! Instant deadline and audience.

My first two Instant Book ideas have never had an upcoming author event associated with them, so I have had trouble setting aside other things to work on them. But I want to finish them, so I will be looking for opportunities to apply the Serving Dinner Model.

Take Action

What about you? Would you like to try the Serving Dinner Model?

What’s one thing you’ve been wanting to produce? For that particular project, how can you get an external deadline and people counting on you?

If you like, go ahead and leave a comment to let us know your plan.

The Parable of the Salad Bandage,
The Thesaurus Is Susceptible to User Error,
You Actually Need to Find Out What Words Mean

photo of lettuce and bandages

Don’t let this happen to you!

When I studied Spanish in high school, we had an assignment to write a recipe and present it in class. One of the recipes was for Homemade Ranch Salad Bandage – you know, that white stuff you put on a salad when it skins its knee.

Yes, they actually meant salad dressing. But guess what. The English-to-Spanish dictionary entry for “dressing” listed venda (wound dressing) first. That dictionary, just like a thesaurus, didn’t include any definitions. And high school students are prone to copying down the first word they find.

How many times have you seen a sentence that uses the wrong word, and the wrong word is a thesaurus synonym of the right word? I see this all the time. It often happens when the right word has already been used in a previous sentence. I understand the desire to avoid repetition, but repetition is better than not making sense.

Okay, usually the wrongness of the word isn’t as terrible as “salad bandage,” but still. Don’t you want to say what you mean?

You have the power to keep your writing free of salad bandages. All it takes is a dictionary.

Do It More

mostly blue painting with too much purple in upper right corner

“The Lion and the Lamb Drink Sake #6: Clean Laundry” by Keiko O’Leary

When somebody tells you to take something out, sometimes the solution is to do it more. This often works in visual art: That area of purple in the upper right corner of your painting, the one that’s “ruining” the composition? Instead of removing it, put more purple in other parts of the painting. Suddenly it all comes together.

I think this applies to many writing situations as well. For example, I’m editing a story right now where the first-person narrator uses a few puns and plays on words. I’ve worked with this author before, and I know she loves this sort of thing, but for some reason I wanted to tell her to take out one of the puns. Then I noticed that the ending of the story hinges on a pun as well. Okay, I admit that I had originally wanted to change the ending, too. But I’m oversensitive to puns because I usually remove them from my own writing. This narrator probably should keep these two puns, but in order for them to work, she probably needs to have more. At least one more, toward the beginning, to establish this habit in her voice and character, and set us up to accept the ending.

Of course, this sort of free-floating advice must be applied carefully, because nothing works in every situation. I’ll see how I feel after the story is done. But I think it’s worth trying out.

What about you? Do you have a piece where some element seems out of place? Maybe a character, a certain way of talking, a scene? Why not try adding more and see what happens.

Keiko’s Gardening Tips

garden with tomatoes

How does gardening relate to writing?

I had a dream that I was in a workshop where we had to practice giving a presentation off the top of our heads. I chose gardening, even though I have not succeeded at that. Here is my presentation. I came up with the tips as I was talking.

“Have you wanted to grow a garden but you haven’t done it? Maybe you fenced off an area in your yard years ago, but that’s as far as you got? Or maybe all you have so far is the dirt that was there when you moved in? I was the same. But I’ve been watching my mom, who does have a garden. Here are three tips for how you can have one too.

1. Schedule specific times to work on it, including regular weekly hours AND a start date.

2. Don’t worry if things don’t turn out how you wanted. In fact, plant one vegetable you don’t like, on purpose, and then you will see that what comes out of your garden in any one season matters less than having a garden. (And you might be surprised – you might like that vegetable when you grow it yourself.)

3. Join a gardening group that meets regularly in order to get and give support, advice, and motivation to keep going.”

I considered and rejected: Give it enough water but not too much. Go organic. These may be important, but they are tips for people who are already gardening. My tips are for people who want to garden but aren’t yet doing it.

After I finished my presentation, I thought, “Hey, this would work for writing, too.”

Our “gardening” group meets on Tuesday nights. You are welcome to attend.