Book Review: Step Out of Your Story

Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman

Bookcover1-194x300Once again, the wonderful folks at New World Library have offered me a book to review.  And once again, I'm making slow progress through it because I keep stopping to ponder and do the exercises. I found the receipt of this book particularly serendipitous because shortly before it arrived, I announced that I was pondering offering a class on a similar topic.  (And I'm, um, not anywhere near being done with that little effort.)

So, I bet you're dying to know what the book is about, aren't you?  It is called Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman.  (While it cursorily discusses the various aspects of writing a story, this book is aimed at you rewriting your own life story, not the Great American Novel.)

Since I'm making slow progress through the book (a good thing), I decided to offer you and interview with the author, who can talk about it better than I can!  Here goes:

 What does it mean to “step out of your story?” and how does one do that?

As I write in the opening chapter of my book, “every life is an unfolding story, a dynamic, unique, purposeful, and potentially heroic story with bright spots, turning points, and abounding opportunities for personal growth and transformation.” Most people, when I present this idea to them, accept this to be true. And yet, many people don’t think about what that means. Until something happens that challenges their outlook on life, few take the time to explore the character they’re playing, what their story is about, who’s writing their script, and how the challenges they face can help them develop the insights and skills they need to move to the next chapter.

Stepping out of your story means being able to step outside your life to view it from a novel perspective, both literally and figuratively. That means seeing yourself as the hero of your story, and understanding how all of the classic story elements, especially your antagonists, might be conspiring to help you grow, as many protagonists do over the course of the narrative. Looking at your life this way can also help you embrace plot twists as opportunities to change your life.

Does how we tell our story matter? And if there are infinite ways to tell our stories, is there a best way?

Absolutely. Telling our story is a fundamental way that we come to know ourselves and make meaning of our live. We are constantly sifting through various competing narratives to make sense of our world for ourselves and others. Whether you consider yourself a heroic figure overcoming obstacles or a tragic victim of destiny often depends on how you choose to read the text of your life and the way that you tell your story. We might even describe suffering, in part, as the result of a storytelling deficit, a failure to find a good filing system that organizes the details of one’s life into a meaningful cause-and-effect narrative, which results in an incoherent or distorted story.

While there may not be a best way, there are certainly better ways to tell your story than others. My book proposes telling your story as a personal growth adventure, using the classic story structure to reframe challenges as stepping-stones to a more authentic self and richer life. The classic story elements - protagonist, antagonist, plot, climax, etc. - serve as the architecture of a story. Once we understand how each element of the story scaffolding supports directs and supports the protagonist’s character development, we can use “the story lens on life” to reconstruct a powerful, coherent narrative from the raw materials of our lives.

What does it mean to become a good reader of the text of our lives and how can that help us?

How we “read,” or rather interpret, our story affects how we feel about ourselves, which can influence how our lives unfold. For example, reframing the story of a cancer diagnosis as a tale of finding new sources of resilience and deeper connections with loved ones feels very different from telling the story as one of divine punishment or meaningless misery. In fact, studies show that a positive narrative, and the feelings they engender, can influence prognosis. Similarly, seeing a failed relationship as a lesson in intimacy, resilience, and humility will make us feel a whole lot better, and emotionally ready for our next relationship, than shaping the story as one of self-sabotage and personal worthlessness.

This interpretative lens implies that we value character development in ourselves as much as we value it in the books we read and movies we watch. It entails seeing every person and situation that shows up in your narrative as a personal growth opportunity and recognizing the subtle, often unrecognized personal victories that build character — such as facing a fear, changing an attitude, or kicking a bad habit. This is not necessarily how society traditionally measures success. But or psychotherapists and writers, these kinds of changes mark meaningful progress in someone’s lifelong development, whether that person is a client or an imagined character.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re unemployed, and you tell yourself the story that this is just another crappy situation that defines your very difficult life. You ask yourself, “Why does this always happen to me?” Then you finally land a job interview. What happens? If you haven’t eradicated your victim story, it may unintentionally seep out during your interview through your tone and word choice, or you may secretly sabatoge yourself. This may lead you to botch the interview, which causes more suffering and only confirms your negative story.

However, what if you saw the antagonist (in this case, unemployment) of the current chapter in your life (a chapter you might entitle “A Thousand Resumes”) as the necessary force that is pushing you to grow in new ways: perhaps that you are in fact ambivalent about this career path or that you tend to get easily discouraged. In a way, this antagonist is like a personal trainer, and this conflict is the force challenging you to develop your confidence or to become clear about your career direction.

Suddenly, as you exercise control over how you view your situation, the time between jobs becomes an invitation to work on yourself and build your muscles. Through this lens, you might say to yourself, “If I were reading this chapter in a book about the story of my life, I might appreciate that unemployment is nudging me — the protagonist — to get more organized and keep persevering in the face of adversity. I can choose to embrace that challenge, and forge ahead, or drain myself of valuable energy by sinking into discouragement.” Cast in this light, the power of interpretation via the story lens on life offers a powerful elixir for heartbreaks, disappointments, and existential angst.

Does putting a positive spin on your story make it less truthful?

We spin our stories all the time. Every time we open our mouths we make choices about how to tell a tale. Depending on your audience, we may emphasize certain aspects of the story over others, or omit certain details that seem irrelevant, inappropriate, or too complicated to explain. As we tell it over and over, we might remember certain parts we had forgotten initially, or new insights might lead us to spin the story in a totally different direction.

Is one version more truthful than another? Who’s to say? And how does one define truth? Is the objective experience of the things that happen - what I call the “outer story” any more truthful than the feelings we have about what happens - what I call the “inner story?” Some people tend to favor one of these two storytelling styles. But both are “true,” as far as they are meaningful, when it comes to understanding the totality of a person’s experience. That’s why for me, it’s less important whether a story is truthful, than whether it’s personally constructive.

Finally, there are ways to find the redemptive storyline without whitewashing over unpleasant circumstances, repressing feelings, or discounting important life lessons. By reframing your story as a personal growth adventure that identifies the ways you’ve grown as the protagonist of your narrative, there is room for all manner of feelings and experiences, which imbue the story with richness and texture. And the fuller the story, the more it approximates something resembling the truth.

Is there any research to support the efficacy of the third-person storytelling exercises in Step Out of Your Story?

A number of psychological studies in recent years illustrate that recalling past events or thinking about yourself in the third person helps you see yourself through kinder, more compassionate eyes. The reason is that the third person voice creates emotional distance between you and the circumstances of your life, enabling you to see the larger story with greater objectivity. For example, University of California and University of Michigan researchers used a psychologically distancing vantage point when asking participants to reflect on negative memories. Not only did participants report less emotional pain, less rumination, improved problem solving, and greater life satisfaction when discussing matters in the third person, they also gained new insights into those memories without feeling as emotionally overwhelmed. Similarly, in a Columbia University study, students were asked to describe recently upsetting thoughts or feelings, and these bad memories were recalled with less hostility by those using the third-person perspective. In an Ohio State University study, students who recalled humiliating moments in high school in the third-person narrative were more likely to describe themselves as having overcome obstacles than those who recalled similarly embarrassing moments from a first-person perspective. The study concluded that feeling like you’ve changed gives you the confidence and momentum to act in ways that support a perceived new and improved self.

It’s also worth noting that all of this research is aligned with narrative therapy technique known as “externalization,” which uses psychological distancing techniques to prevent people from over-identifying with their problems.

Do people need to be good writers to do the exercises you offer in your book?

No. As I tell my students, your masterpiece of living doesn’t have to be a masterpiece of writing. The exercises are designed for anyone who can compose a simple sentence. The goal is not writing well; the goal is self-discovery. The goal is to write powerfully and authentically. In my experience facilitating workshops, I’ve noticed that the written equivalent of stick-figure drawings may actually teach us more about ourselves than carefully crafted (and controlled) adult sentences. Words-smithing can be about the ego, which I’m trying to help people transcend via the third person narrative. That being said, people for whom writing comes naturally sometimes use the exercises as prompts to get really creative, and have subsequently written some beautiful pieces.

Obviously, no one can predict the future. How then is it possible to predict your own character arc?

One of the ways I help readers get a sense of their character arc is by completing a character sketch of themselves in the third person narrative, assuming the role of both author and protagonist. A character sketch is a technique that helps authors flesh out the personalities and interior world of the protagonist before embarking on a novel. It involves answering a series of imaginative questions that paint a holographic picture of how the protagonist might evolve over the course of the plotline. The character sketch presumes that the protagonist is the soul of every narrative and the engine that runs the story. So, too, I want my readers to understand more deeply who they are as evolving protagonists. The more they understand about who they are, what they’re made of, and what’s driving them, the more they’ll get a sense of where they’re heading.

How can the antagonists of our stories help us grow? Can’t they also bring us down?

Many of us don’t think twice about pushing ourselves to the point of pain and exhaustion at the gym. Yet when life pushes us to exercise our emotional, spiritual, and mental muscles, we often would prefer lighter, gentler, no-impact routines. However, until we are willing to build these character development muscles, we will remain somewhat stunted in our growth, unable to actualize the full strength of what we are capable of, whether in our career, relationships, or communities.

That’s why antagonists are an important part of our story. They are like the personal trainers who push us beyond our perceived limitations to develop our flabby, underutilized emotional muscles. As with a personal trainer, we might openly swear or grin through gritted teeth. We might assign the person sadistic aspirations, thinking the trainer wants to harm or destroy us. But if we read between the lines, whether we like it or not, our antagonist can help us strengthen the underdeveloped areas within ourselves. By definition, they force us to stretch beyond our perceived limitations to discover the true depth of our own capacity to love, succeed, and overcome obstacles.

That’s not to say that we should seek out conflict for personal growth’s sake or use character development as an excuse to endure chronically painful or unpleasant circumstances. Constant pain is a sign that something is amiss. Yet any workout should include a little discomfort so we increase our flexibility to handle more intense situations with greater degrees of ease. It reminds me of something a dance teacher once told me: “Sometimes, when you begin to stretch, your muscles scream ‘no, no, no’ — they don't think they can handle the tension because it's never been asked of them before. But as you gradually ease into the pose, they relax and discover an untapped capacity for elasticity.”

Why do you ask readers to focus on the current chapter, rather than asking them to reframe something that happened in the past or look at their whole life?

While exploring the influence of the past on the present can help us understand ourselves better, we can also get bogged down in old storylines — instead of visiting the past, we might pitch camp there or continue to circle the same old beaten tracks.

The present, however, is the place where change becomes possible. It is the precise moment in the story when you, as the protagonist of your story, can take action and grow. One of the foundational exercises I ask readers to complete is to name and describe the current chapter. From there, I help them reconstruct their story element by element. Eventually, they reassemble these pieces into an empowering new narrative about where they are and where they’re heading. And here is the beauty of this process: once we name our current chapter, distinguishing it from previous chapters within our larger narrative, we may see how the present moment offers possibilities to embrace a new reality and further develop our character. This new awareness can help us get a fresh perspective on areas where we might feel stuck, reframing life's inevitable trials and tribulations as purposeful experiences that won't last forever.

Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW, is the author of Step Out of Your Story. She counsels in private practice and teaches as a professor and guest lecturer at venues including New York University. She also writes a biweekly advice column for Metro Newspapers and blogs for Psychology Today. Visit her online for more information.


Book Review: Wild Women, Wild Voices

WildWomen_CvrWild Women, Wild Voices: Writing From Your Authentic Wildness

by Judy Reeves

I was provided this book by the publisher, New World Library (whom I adore, because they always give me wonderful books to read) to review.  And then I promptly forgot about it.  Actually, the book got buried under a pile of papers on my desk and only was unearthed when I started cleaning up.  I wish I'd found it sooner, because its a wonderful book.

And here's my problem with writing about it: I start reading it and then stop to go do some of the exercises and follow the prompts.  And so I am slowly--very slowly--making my way through it.  And in this case, the slowness is a good thing.  There is a ton of material to absorb in this book, and for anyone wanting to explore the wild side of their writing (something to which, really, we all should aspire) it is well worth it.

You may be familiar with the author, Judy Reeves,who calls herself a "writing practice provocateur," through one of her other books.  The one that's been on my shelf for years is The Writer's Book of Days.  (It really has been years--I looked up the pub date, and it was 1999.) She, like me, encourages discipline as a path to letting the wild woman out--discipline as in writing every day.  Besides that, what I really like about the book is that her exercises encourage digging deep and cutting loose.  It is this kind of attitude toward writing that leads me back to the utter joy of it.

Wild Women, Wild Voices grew out of a workshop Reeves taught, about which she says, "And though I've been a lifelong daily journaler, it was the prompts, questions, and explorations initiated by our work that took me into the deep waters of memory and experience."   

Here's a look at what the book covers, which is based on the cycles of a woman's life:

--Claiming the Wild Woman--rediscovering the deep connections with ourselves and others

--Mother/Sister/Daughter and family connections

--Loves and Lovers

--Friendship--the wild woman in community

--Artist/Creator--the authentic work of wild woman

--Life Journeys--quests and pilgrimages 

--Death and Legacies--the unveiling of the wise woman

And, just for fun, here's a couple of examples of exercises (which she calls "explorations") from the book:

--Write the story of your name.  Where did it come from, what does it mean, how does it fit you?  Or how doesn't it?

--In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey wrote, "Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary."  

Write about your "right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary."

--Have you ever met someone on a journey, and did the connection change your life, even though you may never have seen or heard from the person again?

 Have fun with these explorations and do check out the book.  

What kind of writing books do you like to read, if any?

 


Book Review: Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents

Cache_240_240_0_0_80_16777215_jh-guide-2015-frontSo, there's this thing called the internet.  And we use it for nearly all our research into anything these days.  This is especially true for research on topics that have to be current, such as, well, agent and editor listings.  When you have a story or novel to submit, you hit the interwebs to find a spot for it, right?

Believe it or not, back in the old days, writers had to rely on books for such research.  Like real, physical books.  And most of the time when you were doing research the books you needed to reference were huge and unwieldy tomes housed in the library.  There were also books published by Writer's Digest and others, extensive, expensive listings of publishing contacts that were out of date by the time you bought them.  Overall, it was a royal pain. So, thank God for the internet.  When I was submitting Emma Jean to a gazillion publishers I used internet agent listing sites extensively.  

(Alas, I'm having a hard time finding any current ones I can link to.  There used to be an amazing one that listed everyone, compiled by a guy with a serious case of sour grapes, who posted every single rejection letter he ever got, and the agent contact info, too.  It was a fantastic resource--but also bordered on libelous at times.  I suspect he got shut down.  Anybody remember this site or have a link for it? NEWS FLASH--I found it!  Here's the link to part one, of seven.  Check it out.  The guy is relentless.)

Anyway, I digress.  I hadn't paid much attention to agent listings lately (this will change soon, as I'm finishing the rewrite of my second novel--agents, I'm looking at you, yes, you, soon) and had assumed that the big guidebooks were a thing of the past.  But, oh how wrong I was.  Because towards the end of last year I was offered the chance to review Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents.   And, having my own agent search in mind as well as the needs of my loyal readers, I said yes.

I have to say, the book is pretty great.  The bulk of it is a directory of publishers, literary agents and independent editors.  Since I'm most interested in agents at this point, that's what I focused on perusing.  And what I like about the listings is that besides the basic info about email and address, they also include a Q and A interview the agent has filled out, which really gives you more insight into them.  

And that's not all--there are numerous essays throughout the book.  These are written mainly by Herman and his wife Deborah.  Some, like the one on digital marketing, are useless.  But others, like the chapter on how agents work and how to find one are quite good.  (I'll be talking more about that chapter in a future post, because as I was writing this up it occurred to me that a How to Find an Agent post would be an excellent idea.)

There's also info on writing book proposals and query letters, definitions of publishing terms, insider tips, and so on.  It's quite the comprehensive book.  And it's got a price tag to match--$29.99 (a bit less on Amazon).   

So, the question is whether or not I would recommend this book.  And the answer is....yes, if.  What I mean by that is yes, if you are a newbie to the writing and publishing world.  (Though do bear in mind that Herman approaches these worlds with a very particular mindset.)  There's a ton of information here that will give you a good grounding in the industry.  If you have more experience in these worlds, check it out from the library.  Because it is fun to leaf through and read and of course, the directory part seems to be quite extensive.  (But also remember that the publishing industry is notoriously fluid.  You'd do well to double check any information in the book with a look at the internet.)

Do you have an agent?  Did you use a directory to find one?

(For the record, I received a copy of the book in order to write this post, but no other compensation.) 


Committed Giveaway, Review and Interview: A Wonderful Memoir on Creativity

Winner Announced! Using this random name picker, I fed in all the names, pressed go and waited for the winner's name to come up.  Ready?  Drum roll! The winner is J.D. Frost!  J.D., I'm emailing your email to Patrick so the two of you can coordinate.  Thanks to all who entered!

Contest Extended! I want everyone to have a chance to enter, so I'm continuing the contest until Monday, Nov 24!

Committed         CommittedCover2

by Patrick Ross

(Before we go any further, be sure to read all the way to the end, because, pa dum, we have us a giveway, yes we do!)

Several years ago now, I ran across Patrick Ross's blog, The Artist's Road.  Patrick had just returned from a cross-country trip wherein he had interviewed all manner of creatives and was posting videos and commentaries about each artist.  Well, this was right up my alley, and I started commenting with enthusiasm.  One thing led to another and Patrick and I became fast internet friends.

I've watched him as he totally and completely committed to an art-centered life, earned his MFA, and perhaps most exciting of all, published his memoir about the trip.  And so I am thrilled to introduce that memoir, Committed!

The book details his trip across country in quite a bit more detail than his blog posts did, with candid stories about his own search for a creative lifestyle interspersed as Patrick drives between interviews.   I found the interviews with creatives--ranging from writers to artists to musicians--fascinating and inspiring, but what I really loved was reading about Patrick's interior journey.

It's a compelling story.  The book begins with a scene you won't forget, detailing a family blow-up that ends with Patrick taking his two children, in their pajamas, away from his parents' house to a hotel. Throughout the remainder of the book, we learn of his troubled relationship with some of his family, and how that has impacted his own creativity in a negative way.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the segment as Patrick's daughter Marisa came along with him on the interviews as they also journey to SCAD (the highly regarded Savannah College of Art and Design).  Marisa, a devoted and talented artist, checks out SCAD as a potential college for herself--and learns a bit about her own creative journey in the process.

Because of my own interests, I've focused on the creative side in this review and interview, but Patrick also copes with--and is open and honest about--his bi-polar diagnosis.  This condition has a bearing on his creativity, as he struggles to create an art-committed life that also allows him balance.

The book is just wonderful.  It is a brave piece of writing and also a fascinating, meaningful one.  So go read it.  But first, have a look at the interview with Patrick below.

-How did you get the idea for this trip?  In the book you explain that you had funders concerned with copyright law, but I'm wondering if your creative self, as opposed to your lobbyist self, had something to do with the initial concept? I talk inCommitted about my love of driving, and how when I was about twenty-one years old I drove from L.A. to Washington, D.C., to begin my new life. I had always wanted to try the trip in reverse, but through states I hadn't driven before. When I realized the road trip would get me out of town during the build-up to the legislation, it seemed a perfect plan!

--I recall from reading your blog regularly that after you returned home from your trip you did quit your job and return to free-lancing.  Did that satisfy your creative desires? Largely, yes. I had to leave that job because they never would have tolerated me spending time writing for myself rather than the organization, nor taking the time to get an MFA. I gave notice to my board the moment the trip was over, but stayed on board about four months while they recruited a successor. In the spring of 2011 I was able to take classes at The Writer's Center and apply for MFA programs, and I started one that summer. By 2012 I was ready to return to full-time work (income needs) but I had developed enough of a writing discipline to continue to write while doing a day job. 

 

Patrick Ross--The trip was several years ago.  How have you changed since then?  Has your vision of an art-centered life changed? I've learned you can embrace your creativity without it automatically meaning that you're embracing mental instability. Seems an obvious conclusion, but it wasn't to me before the trip.

 --What impact did earning your MFA have on you and your creative life? Committed wouldn't exist without the MFA; it's as simple as that. Every chapter has the fingerprints of one of my instructors on it. That said, my book profiles some artists with rich educational backgrounds in the arts and others with no formal training; they're all producing art and living art-committed lives. I think the MFA came at the right time for me; leaving that job gave me an opportunity to indulge my muse a bit, and I know the lessons I learned in the program will carry forward into future books.

 --I found your personal story the most compelling part of the memoir.  Was it difficult to share it? Difficult would be an understatement. The original scenes I wrote were very journalistic; the narrator was not really a part of the story. When I first wrote about being bipolar I was already a year into my MFA, and while I shared it in a workshop I told myself at the time that it wouldn't actually be in the book. That's how I was able to first write about my family as well, by telling myself I was doing it solely to better learn how to tell the story but that it wouldn't be included.

 --Some of the personal parts you share were very brave--how did you family react to the book? My wife and children have been very supportive throughout the rocess. They were always invited to read any draft they wanted of any part of the book. I don't know how I'd feel about someone writing about me, but they have been great.

 --I am so curious to know what happened with your family.  Did Marisa get into SCAD?  She did! She's now a sophomore there, studying photography, and she now has a very nice camera. She took the author photo of me that's on the back of the book, and she has a photo credit on the copyright page. SCAD ain't cheap, however; it was her impending tuition bills that prompted me to return to a full-time day job.

 --And finally, in the book you describe a "failed" novel you wrote.  It sounded fascinating to me.  Any plans to return to it or fiction writing? Philadelphia novelist Michael Swanwick tells me in Committed that he wrote out his garbage before writing work that was publishable. When I returned from the road trip I dusted off that manuscript and read through it. I was surprised at how much I liked it. But the last four years I've focused on growing as a writer, so I don't think I'd want that manuscript published even if a publisher wished, because I'm not the same writer. I do plan to return to fiction someday, but there is so much for me to explore in the creative nonfiction space right now. My focus at this point is on historical biography writing, including an essay that will appear in The Montreal Review in January about a father-son cartography duo who created an amazingly artistic atlas, the Atlas Maior or Great Atlas, the most expensive book of the 17th Century.

Giveaway

Thanks, Patrick!  And now, here we go.  All you have to do to win a copy of Patrick's book is leave a comment, telling me which you read the most of--novels or memoirs?  I'll give you until the end of the week and then gather up names and use my handy-dandy random name generator to choose a winner. 

  


Book Review: The Novel Writer's Blueprint

Paperbackbookstanding-226x300I've got a new book for all you fledgling novel writers out there.  

It is called The Novel Writer's Blueprint: Start Writing Your Novel Today, by Kevin T. Johns.  I discovered the book when Kevin emailed me a wonderful query asking if I'd be interested in reviewing it. Since I'd just published a rant post about how often I got approached by people with terrible queries, I leapt at the chance.  

Kevin sent me the book, I read it, and now I'm reviewing it.

I like this book quite a bit.  It lays out in five steps the system that Kevin believes will allow you to write your novel.  (The genesis of the five-step system was Kevin's own struggle to write his first novel.  It took him eight years--and he swore he would not let that happen again.  Can you relate?)

The five steps are as follows:

1. Genre Selection--Learn to harness the power of genre.

2. Story Structure--Select a story structure already proven to work with readers.

3. Puzzle Work--Piece together your scenes into an indispensable beat-sheet.

4. Preparatory Regimen--Sharpen your writing skills.

5. Running the Marathon--Implement protocols to stay on track and beat the biggest challenges.

Not mentioned in this rundown is his introductory chapter, which has a lot of good information in it as well.

My favorite chapters were #2 and #4.  I love #2 on story structure, because I'm a story geek, and Kevin has a film background so he's well versed in various structures and he presents them clearly.  Chapter #4 covers a good collection of tips for writing, such as timed writing, mind mapping and brainstorming.  Kevin also mentions a technique called "Writing Down the Page" which it turns out I do all the time, but didn't have a name for.  It's when you write a sketchy outline of your chapter so you have the general flow down.

This book is perfect for the first-time novelist who wants a picture of the road ahead before launching onto the journey.  And seasoned novelists will find a few tips of use as well.  Check it out, guys.

Do you have a favorite book on novel writing?  Please share! 


Book Review: Fast Fiction

I was asked to review  this book by the publisher.  I received no money, though I did get a copy of the book.  The opinions offered are mine alone.

Fast Fiction          FastFiction_cvr_hires

by Denise Jaden

When I was offered the chance to review this book, I leapt at it.   I have a lot of story ideas that I'm working on (a novel, several short stories, another novel all lined up and ready to go when I finish the first one) and then there are other things (like making a living) that take up my time.

So, fast fiction?  I'm there.

The full title of this book is Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days.  The author, Denise Jaden, was inspired by her experiences writing a novel during Nanowrimo, helped along by the fact that the novel she wrote the first time she participated eventually got published. She's such an enthusiast of the process that she offers her own Thirty Day Writing Challenge on her blog.

I'm good with Nanowrimo--I've participated in it and I know a lot of other writers who have, too. But what mostly appealed to me about this book was learning Jaden's techniques for writing fiction fast.

Before I tell you more about the book, let's dispel one notion right off the bat--just because something is done quickly, that doesn't mean it is bad, okay?  I'm not sure how this idea got started, but it is prevalent.  For my money, writing a first draft as fast as you can often means you get your deep true voice on the page better than when you labor over a draft.   Of course, after completing said first draft  you then go on to rewrite, revise and polish it in future drafts--that is a given.

Back to the book.  So many writing books get me enthused at the beginning and then I get bored. But I've actually been working with the ideas in this one.  As those of you have taken my novel-writing class or read many of my posts know, I'm a big believer in doing prep work before you start the writing. (In other words, I am not a pantser, but a proud plotter.)  And this method is essentially Jaden's technique for writing fast.  In Part One: Before the Draft, she takes you through all the prep work pieces that will enable you to write a fast draft.  She includes tons of questions and prompts about character, setting, and plot that will help you lay out ideas for the novel. 

In Jaden's world, after you've done all of the afore-mentioned exercises, you are then ready to create a story plan which you will follow in order to fast draft.  I'm a sucker for anything with the word "plan" in it, so I decided to apply this to a novella I'm writing (it used to be a story but recently grew to a novella).  I had some sketchy notes and a first scene written for this novella.  I applied the 11 steps in Jaden's story plan(they include things like identifying what your main character wants and lining out each scene) to it, et voila, fast drafting is indeed much easier.  (I've said it before and I'll say it again, not only to you, but to myself--writing works ever so much better when you know where you're going.)

Part Two of the book is a day-by-day guide for the actual thirty day drafting process.  It's full of more ideas and prompts, the gist of it being that you refer to each page as you go along.  I'm not doing the thirty day drafting thing, so I'm mining this section of the book for inspiration in a more random way.  And Part Three of the book has some good thoughts on revision.

So, I give this book an enthusiastic thumbs up.  Even if you aren't a believer in fast drafting, or if you are, gasp, a pantser, I think you'll find a lot of value in it.

What's your favorite book on writing?  Do you have one that you go back to over and over or do you find yourself seeking out a new one?


Book Review: Travels in Elysium

Travels In Elysium Travelscoverjpg

by William Azuski

I was asked to review this book and I readily accepted because, well, there's nothing I like better than receiving random books in the mail and diving into them.  Here's the blurb the publisher and blog tour folks asked me to include:

Literary fiction blends with Plato’s tale of Atlantis is this metaphysical mystery that takes place on an archaeological dig on the island of Santorini. Travels in Elysium is written in an allegory style. If you would like to read an an online excerpt - we have one posted here. For more information or to get your own copy, visit the author's Amazon page. (Not an affiliate link.)

That starts to give you an idea about the book.  Here's a bit more: When archaeology student and world traveler Nicholas Pedrosa is given the chance of a lifetime to work with renowned archaeologist Marcus Huxley he discovers much more than he bargained for.  Set on the Greek island of Santorini, the book spans genres, including mystery, history and fantasy.

An island that blew apart with the force of 100,000 atomic bombs... A civilisation prised out of the ash, its exquisite frescoes bearing a haunting resemblance to Plato’s lost island paradise, Atlantis... An archaeologist on a collision course with a brutal police state... A death that may have been murder... A string of inexplicable events entwining past and present with bewildering intensity... Can this ancient conundrum be understood before it engulfs them all?

That is the question that our hero faces, and in answering it, he uncovers some long-held historical secrets, including the solution to the mystery of Atlantis.  

Info about the author: Azuski

William Azuski was born in the United Kingdom, and is of British and Yugoslav descent. Travelling widely through the Mediterranean since childhood, his frequent sojourns in Greece included several months on Santorini in the 1970s, an experience that provided firsthand experience for this exceptional novel’s local setting. Writing as William Miles Johnson, Azuski is also author of the critically-acclaimed The Rose-Tinted Menagerie, an Observer Book of the Year (nonfiction), and Making a Killing, an end of the world satire, both titles recently republished by Iridescent.

Have you read any rousing adventure books lately?


A Couple of Fun Reviews

Toes-kids-pedicure-1694963-lIt's Friday afternoon and it is hot here in Portland.  I'm feeling pleased with myself because I got a long-overdue pedicure and eyebrow waxing and I'm sitting here wondering why self care is so hard for me.  Which leads me to ponder why it is also sometimes difficult for me to receive...as in receiving love, receiving gifts (I'm always embarrassed to open them in front of people), receiving praise.

And, um, that last part, praise, is what this post is really all about.  You see, I had two great reviews get published this week and I wanted to share them with you.

What this is really about for me is that I want you to visit the sites of the women who wrote (and filmed) the reviews.  Because they took time, first, to read my book, and second, to put together a review and post about it. 

And I SO appreciate that.

The fact that both are glowing reviews is icing on the cake.  Or, since Emma Jean says I shouldn't be using a cliche, an extra present in the pile.  One more day of vacation.  Another glass of wine.  You get the idea.

So here you go:

I've known Samantha Gluck for a couple of years now and always appreciated reading her blog and tweeting with her. (She is known as @texascopywriter on Twitter)  Samantha not only wrote a review, she filmed a video!  It's hilarious, and anybody who has read the book will appreciate it.  Please go and watch it here.  It is worth your time, I promise!

I met Ionia Martin through sheer, dumb, luck when I cold-emailed her to ask if she'd be interested in reviewing my novel on her book review blog, Readful Things.  I've had such bad results in asking reviewers for reviews, I was stunned when she replied--and was gracious and friendly to boot.  She gave Emma Jean a 5 star review!

What I love about both these women is that, while both are huge readers, neither of them have much of a taste for women's fiction.  I'm so, so grateful that they gave Emma Jean a chance!


An Aid To Kicking it in Your Writing

KITW_400_wideThis is a book review for which I did not receive compensation, but did receive a free copy of the book.

"I would go as far as and I could and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations.  And then I met a fellow who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple.  When you hit a wall, just kick it in."  Patti Smith

Such is the advice that playwright Sam Shepard gave to singer, writer and all-around awesome person Patti Smith and it is this same advice that inspired Barbara Abercrombie's book of writing exercises and prompts.

The book is called Kicking in the Wall: A Year of Writing Exercises, Prompts, and Quotes to Help You Break Through Your Blocks and Reach Your Writing Goals.  At the top of each page, you'll find an inspirational quote on writing and then two or three writing prompts.  Abercrombie encourages writers to spend five minutes on each prompt.  At the end of the book, she includes examples of exercises completed by her students--which gives inspiration to see how far-ranging you can go in just five minutes.

Here's a sample of some of her prompts:

--Write what you know of your parents' courtsthip.  Is there one common story, or are their two versions?  Or more? Or no stories?

--Write about an apology that failed.

--Write what you are.  Start with "I am..."

--Write about a transformation you once had.  Or need to have now.

--Write an opening of a scene with someone asking a question about a pair of shoes.

As you can see, this book is not a book that you read for information on writing, there's none of that in it.  Rather, this is a book you keep beside your computer and use when you get stuck.  So often we writers tend to stare off into space when we're blocked, when really the best thing to do is figure out a way to get writing again. 

Prompts and exercises can be very useful to get words on the page, and I recommend using them in a variety of ways, which is why I think this book can be very helpful for writers from beginner to professional.  (I have my own page of prompts, which you can access here.  Mine are of a bit different type, simple made-up sentences which encourage creative responses.)

Kicking in the Wall is due out May 13th.

Do you use writing prompts to jump-start your work?

 


Adventures with Book Reviews

In my continuing effort to be as transparent as possible about the publishing process, today our topic is book reviews. Annabench-shakespeare-paris-1147326-h

As in, how to get some.

This will be a short post, because I'm not yet adept at this skill, apparently.  Kidding, at least about the short post part.

But book reviews are important because they sell books.  There are several places to get your book reviewed:

  • Amazon
  • Goodreads
  • Other book sites such as Shelfari and a gazillion I don't know
  • Book review bloggers

And, yeah, I know there's more places, like sites where you can buy reviews, but I'm not going to focus on them today.  I'm going to focus on book blogger reviewers.  Who are, as far as I can tell, very overworked and under appreciated.  They get inundated with requests to review books, probably mostly from people they've never heard of, and once they agree, they have to read the book and then write a review.

I don't know about you, but I think writing reviews is hard.  I ran a book review blog for awhile and took it down when it got overwhelming, which happened in about three months.  The minute I put that baby up (and bear in mind, it had like, 2 readers) I was bowled over by how publicists, authors and others hit me up for reviews.  Actually, I thought it was great and said yes to nearly every request, because--free books!  What's not to like?  But then you have to read them, and think about them, and write about them in a coherent way.  And give your opinion.  And this all takes time.  I always felt like I was behind with my reading, and half the time I was reading because I had to for the blog, not because I wanted to.

(By the way, every once in awhile publishers find me on this blog and ask me to review a book.  I've got a really good one coming up soon.  Well, I think its going to be good, I don't actually have the book yet.)

And my experience in running a book review site was a few years ago, before the current self publishing boom.  Which I gather has increased requests for book reviews exponentially, given the number of book review sites which will not consider self-published novels.  (Most of them are very clear that they have nothing against self-published novels, they just have to draw the line somewhere.)

I have to tell you, this process reminds me a lot of the process of submitting the book in the first place.  Yeah, bad news.  You have to go through it all again.  For real.  Not kidding.

So here's the process I'm going through:

1.  Research sites.  My publisher sent me a list of over 700 sites, and I've come up with lists through my own research.  This is a time-consuming part of the process.  You have to go to the blog and check it out.  Is it still current?  Does it cover your genre?  What is their review policy? I'm finding many, many blogs that are no longer accepting books for review, most temporarily, because they are so inundated.  And often I land on one that hasn't published in months.  I get this, because it happened with my book review site.  I just couldn't handle it anymore.

2.  Query them.  There's that dreaded word--query, the one you thought you'd never ever hear again once you were published.  Ha! I have a standard letter I use which I personalize for each blogger I write.  Part of this, for me, is to try to feel okay about asking complete strangers to do something for you--read your book and review it.   Of course, they get a free book, but they have to do a fair amount of work for that book.  In terms of man-hours, they'd probably be better off just to buy it.

3.  Wait for the replies to inundate your inbox.  Um, this part hasn't happened for me yet.  I've probably sent out 15 requests and gotten back....wait for it...one reply.  (Which was a yes, and its a good site.  This blogger is overwhelmed with review requests, but is going to interview me.  I will promote the hell out of her interview, I can tell you that!)

So that's the process, and as you can tell, I've not mastered it.  I think I feel more comfortable with guest posts, in that I take on part of the work--the writing of the post itself.  But I'm going to keep going with this review process in spare moments and see what happens.

What's your experience with reviews--both getting them and giving them?  Also, do book reviews influence what you read?  Where do you read most of your reviews?

**Are you struggling with even getting to the point of publishing, i.e., with your writing?  The best way to improve your writing skills is to work one on one with a mentor.  Like me!  I offer a variety of services around coaching writers, and you can check them out here.

Photo by austinevan.


Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

This is a paid book review for the BlogHer Book Club, but the opinions expressed are mine alone.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker

by Jennifer Chiaverini

After seeing the movie Lincoln, now nominated for a gazillion Oscars, I've gotten curious about all things Lincoln.  (The movie is that compelling--if you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it.) So I jumped at the chance to review this book.

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is historical fiction, based on the real historical character of Elizabeth Keckley, who was, as the novel relates, the dressmaker and confidant of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.  Keckley was a slave who bought her own freedom and consequently started her own dressmaking business in Washington City (now Washington D.C., of course).

There was a lot that I liked about this novel.  I soaked up all the historical details and loved learning about Elizabeth Keckley, who, in her later years wrote what turned out to be a scandalous memoir.  (It was scandalous because she revealed many intimate details of her friendship with Mrs. Lincoln.) To me, there's nothing like an historical novel to bring history to life.  I'll fall asleep reading a non-fiction history book, but hand me an historical novel and my bedside light stays on late.

While much of the book was well-written (and Chiaverini clearly is an adept writer, as she's had several New York Times bestsellers) and brought history to life for me, I did feel that an over-abundance of narrative summary slowed certain passages down.   During the years of the Civil War, for instance, there was much relating of the progress of various battles that were perhaps necessary to the book but not written in an engaging manner.

After we slogged through those years, the book picked up and I ended up liking it a lot.  So, I recommend it if you're interested in the Lincoln years.

Have you seen the movie Lincoln?  Are you interested in that era?  Leave me a comment!


Reflected In You: The Hullabaloo About Erotic Romance

This is a paid book review for the BlogHer Book Club, but the opinions expressed are mine.

Reflected in You, by Sylvia Day, is currently number one on the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list.  The reasons for this are a mystery to me, but then so is the popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray, and by many accounts the Crossfire Novels, of which Reflected in You is book two, is a Gray clone.

I thought it would be fun to review this book to see what all the fuss around erotic romance is about.  I do have a bit of experience with the genre, having endured a brief career editing it a few years ago, but I thought things might have changed since then. (Read a post I wrote about writing erotic romance here.)

As in, I thought maybe an actual storyline might have become important.

But, no.  Not so much.

Because in erotic romance, the story is all about the romance.  So once the two lovers have mated, there needs to be ways to keep them apart.  And therein lies one problem I have with this genre, which is that keeping two people who are attracted to each other apart can come across as contrived, to put it mildly. Very mildly.

The other problem is that the main story line is the romance.  All the rest of it--minor career issues, a roommate with love problems of his own--seems thrown in for seasoning, nothing more.  And honestly, watching two people histrionically come together and break up over and over again is not my exact thing.

But I am no doubt in the minority here, because erotic romance is a hot, hot genre.  If you're interested in writing it, I think the Crossfire series is probably an excellent introduction to the field.


Book Review: Daring Greatly

This is a paid book review for the BlogHer Book Club, but the opinions expressed are mine.

What is vulnerability?

If you are like most people, you probably answered weakness.

But shame researcher Brene Brown argues in her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, that vulnerability is actually not weakness.  Instead, she says, "It's being all in."  It's showing up and allowing ourselves to be seen. It's daring to share our authentic selves, instead of hiding in shame. This ability to show up and be who we are is daring greatly (the title is taken from a Theodore Roosevelt quote).

Sounds a lot like what we as creatives, do, doesn't it?  Which is exactly why I wanted to review this book.  And Brown does have a section on creativity, which I read avidly.  Brown argues that shame is the opposite of vulnerability and its shame that we feel when our inner critic (she calls it a gremlin) gets activated and says things like, "Dare not! You're not good enough."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?  We talk about variations on these themes all the time on this blog.  But I like Brown's approach of talking about the shame tapes that get played in our heads as we try to work.  She also reminds us that this shame may not even be the result of what we're currently doing, or the project we're working on: "Sometimes shame is the result of us playing the old recordings that were programmed when we were children, or simply absorbed from the culture."

There's more, so much more to this book, including discussions of narcissism (which is really just the fear of being ordinary), bullying, shame in our culture and how to parent in a daring greatly way.

It's a great read, with lots of thought-provoking ideas.

How about you?  Do you get consumed with shame when you are writing?  (We all do, some of just cope with it better than others.) How do you deal with it?


Review: Artist's Way Toolkit

This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club, but the opinions are mine.

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a huge fan of Julia Cameron.  I've done the program laid out in The Artist's Way on my own and in groups led by Julia herself (in Taos, New Mexico, one of my favorite places on earth).  I think that Julia's work on creativity is seminal and that nobody has beat it yet for its sheer power to get people creating.  I also believe that every writer and artist can benefit from her book.

So I leapt at the chance to review Julia's new site, an online collection of tools from the book.   There are all kinds of interactive goodies here, including a daily quote from one of Julia's books, such as "The reward for attention is always healing" and your choice of creative affirmations from Julia, like, "I love others for their true selves."

The site is cleverly laid out like a notebook with tabs featuring:

  • My Contract
  • Artist's Dates
  • Artist's Way Exercises
  • Creative Pages
  • Creative Notes

You'll notice that "Creative Pages" and "Creative Notes" both feature blank pages which you can fill with your own words, but there is not a space anywhere for Morning Pages (three pages written stream of consciousness first thing in the morning).   This is because Julia believes that morning pages should be written by hand, because the hand has a direct line to the brain and that is lost a bit when you introduce a keyboard to the mix.

There's a few more links across the top of the notebook, one called "My Creativity Library," which leads you to a page of where you can buy Julia's books.  Smart marketing. 

I really wanted to like this site and was excited to play around with it, but honestly, I've been less than thrilled with it overall.  The main value of it that I can see is access to the affirmations, quotes, soundbites and exercises. For some people who like to do creativity exercises on the computer, it would be a boon, but I'm old fashioned and I like to write them out by hand, just as I do morning pages.  And it is a bit of a shame that you can't do morning pages on the site, as they are one of the most vital parts of Julia's program.   Overall, I'd be nervous that all my notes and ideas that I'd collected on the site would be lost if I forgot to resubscribe or decided not to.  I'd rather keep such things in a journal where I know I can access it.

Have you read The Artist's Way?  What did you think about it? 


Book Review: The First Husband

This is a paid book review for the BlogHer Book Club, but the opinions are mine, all mine.

The First Husband

by Laura Dave

This book is snappy.  As in, it snaps right along.  Pick it up and begin reading and before you know it, you're fifty pages in.  The novel tells the story of Annie Adams, a travel writer with a glamorous column for a big-time newspaper (I'm imagining we're supposed to remember the days when such professions were actually still possible).  She's in a fabulous relationship with movie director Nick, whose career is just hitting the big time.  Life is good.

And then Nick dumps her. 

In her grief, Annie repairs to a bar late at night and meets the adorable chef Griffin, who she marries, abruptly and pretty much on the rebound.  Hilarity ensues.  It actually really does--the book is very funny, besides being snappy.  (Maybe funny makes it snap?) 

If you've guessed that this novel is not going to win any literary prizes, you are correct.  But I don't care, I liked it.  I like reading funny novels.  Plus, my novel is funny and many's the agent who told me they loved it but they couldn't sell comedy.  So I'm pleased to be reading a book that is funny.

Also, there's this.  The book is written in first person.  I had been reading it the night before I awoken with the directive to change my novel from third person to first person.  Coincidence?  Probably not.  So reading this novel gave me a creative charge, and I'm grateful.  (For the record, you as a writer should be reading every single damn thing you can get your little hands on and this is why.  Because it inspires you.  And teaches you.)

So that's my book review.  I'd love to hear from you how a book has inspired your writing.  Please leave a comment.


Excerpt: The Moon She Rocks You

For my Monday post, I have something different for you: an excerpt of a cool book called The Moon She Rocks You by Gurutej.

MoonSheRocksYouCoverIf you are a woman, knowing about The Moon Centers gives you power over your negative emotions. If you are a man, it gives you the key to understand women of all ages. You learn to listen to the voice of their emotions. Women – we can have control over those crazy emotional times in our lives. For more information, visit the author's website or her Amazon page.

What are Moon Center cycles and why should we as women care about them? Because these cycles have a direct and deep effect on us. Have you noticed that some days you feel strong and powerful and can take on the entire universe and other days someone looks at you cross-eyed and you want to find a bathroom to hide in? Why is that? This theory of Moon centers will shed some light on all this. This is not a shield to hide behind but information to make us more aware, informed complete with support tools that will make you more powerful.

Moon Centers unveil the hidden secrets to the inner workings of women. This is the next biggest leap after Men are from Mars Women are from Venus. Do you want to understand yourself as a women in your many aspects? Men do you want to be able to see and chart the emotional and devotional landscape of the women in your life? You will know when and how to support yourself and your women and when to move away from the firing line. Priceless information.

Moon Centers is a secret and sacred science: Do you want Greater harmony in your life? If yes then skip the text and just say yes buy it now. If you need more information carry on. If only all women and men for that matter could learn of these moon centers in their teens what a wonderful world it would be. This is an ancient secret science unveiled, how the moon affects women each day.

This is the secret code to women’s inner states. The positive, challenged and neutral aspects within each center, within each women. The moon moves into a different part of a women’s body every 2.25 days. Learn how to utilize the gifts of each center and recognize the moods that come from the challenged aspects ahead of time. Then turn them into harmony. Utilize the gifts of each center. All this can be yours

About the Author

To know Gurutej, you first need to know her name, which means “the one who brings you from darkness into light at the speed of light.” What she teaches emanates from her name and her purpose to lead others towards their inner self by mastering their own energy. Even at six years old, she already had the vocation to help others connect to their essence through healing, meditation, yoga, and chanting. She is a born leader, a creational genius, and a visionary. Her boundless energy enlivens the day and her gift for lightness, comedy, and humor radiates with every breath and every word of her powerful message. Gurutej is one of Yogi Bhajan’s original disciples and close collaborators. She is a true Master Teacher of Kundalini Yoga.