Writing resources

I have been thinking about a post describing how I began writing again after a hiatus of fifteen years. Writing journey stories always fascinate me, no matter how prosaic, and I feel like writing my own might be useful for me as well as potentially interesting to others. I sat down and began it — but it soon became evident that the story of my writing journey is not yet ready to be told. The right words aren’t available to me yet. Someday they will be, but at the moment the topic is, as Natalie Goldberg would say, “composting.”

Instead, I will share something related: a list of writing resources. The list below contains things – mostly books, but also a set of videos – that I have found useful in writing. Some of them were useful in the past, even transformative, but more recently have been less so (although maybe they will be again sometime). Some I revisit again and again, finding something new each time; some were more useful to me years ago than they are now, but they’ve stuck with me and are part of my canon. They are not all directly about writing, and they contradict each other. Some of them, even, are internally inconsistent. But they are all resources that have helped me on my writing journey, as my driving question has changed from, why do I write? to, how do I write?

In most cases, the links for books go to my local indie, Bookworks, but the books are available elsewhere too (most of them – Second Sight is hard to find these days!).

  • Writing Down the Bones and Thunder and Lightning, by Natalie Goldberg. Writing Down the Bones is a very well-known book, more than thirty years old now, which (despite my abiding love for writing books) I only discovered this past summer. Goldberg’s approach is all about writing practice; what she means by that is the topic of Writing Down the Bones, while Thunder and Lightning covers what to do with a writing practice, after you’ve established one. Goldberg has been instrumental in getting me writing again…or maybe it would be more accurate to say, in getting me to love writing again. In addition to her books, Goldberg teaches workshops, some online, one of which I attended this past June/July. If you have the opportunity to study with her, whether through her workshops or her books, I highly recommend it!
  • Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. This short collection of essays is an old favorite of mine. Although they are more personal essays than writing guide, they are filled with practical advice on how to write. And that advice is not dissimilar to Goldberg’s, although Bradbury and Goldberg are completely different writers. As someone who writes speculative fiction, I find the pairing of this volume with the two from Goldberg, above, extremely helpful.
  • Steering the Craft, by Ursula Le Guin. This one is a guide; it is a finer-grained look at writing than the Goldberg and Bradbury books, being full of exercises that focus on language. A class on how to use language from Ursula Le Guin – who couldn’t use such a thing? (Probably someone, but I can sure use it!)
  • Second Sight and The Magic Words, by Cheryl Klein. Klein, currently the editorial director at Lee & Low Books, self-published Second Sight, a collection of her talks and essays (out of print now, although Amazon lists some used copies) and then later went on to publish The Magic Words, a more formal writing guide, with Norton. Klein describes herself as a “narrative nerd” and these two books are my go-to guides for thinking about how to shape a narrative. Klein’s editorial specialty is children’s and young adult literature, but much of what she has to say applies to any writing – even non-fiction.
  • On Writing, by Stephen King. I was not really a Stephen King reader, though his books were wildly popular among my peers (I love this interview and most particularly Victor Lavalle’s description of his early Stephen King-influenced writing; I was busy writing similar knockoffs of Mary Stewart, which didn’t resonate so well with my friends). On Writing is part memoir, part guide, and just amazingly well-written.
  • Something to Declare, by Julia Alvarez. This book of autobiographical essays by Alvarez – one of “my” writers, writers who have written books that have become part of me – is more about her life (including her life as a writer) than about the mechanics of writing. It’s not a textbook, in other words. But writing and reading are the backbone of these essays, even the ones that are about Alvarez’s life as a child rather than writing per se, and I have learned much about writing from all of them.
  • Brandon Sanderson’s lectures from his BYU class. Links for these can be found here https://www.brandonsanderson.com/writing-advice/; there are other versions out there too. I listened to the audio from the 2014 version fully (these seem to have been taken down at this point), and have watched only some sessions from more recent years – but as far as I can tell, the more recent classes cover the same ground.

What I’ve been reading lately: searching for clarity edition

Not much to say, except doing a lot of reading (more than I’m listing here…I’ve been reading some things at the urgings of others and re-learning that I generally have pretty good instincts about what I like to read. Possibly I’ll post about that sometime) and writing (stuff that will almost certainly never see the light of day. There’s a lot of freedom in this kind of writing and I encourage everyone to give it a try). And listening. And watching. There is so much to hear, to see, to learn.

Into the new: reflecting on reading and writing in 2019

Lemon blossom, close up: a sign of December

December is, for me, the season of reflection. For the past week or two, as things have wound down at work, in the garden, everywhere, I’ve been thinking about reading and writing – what I’ve been doing over the past year, and what I’d like to change.

I didn’t get as much writing done in 2019 as I had hoped I would; there’s nothing new in that (does anyone ever get as much writing done as they had hoped?). I *did* have breakthroughs with a couple of different projects that were stalled at this point last year, and I know how I want to proceed with them now. The trouble is that I have too many concurrent projects going, and it’s not yet clear to me which of these I will pursue first and which will wait. This decision is at the forefront of my reflections right now. I will decide this, sometime over the next few weeks, and we will see.

On the positive progress side of things, I was able to return to reading in 2019. I read lots, and I wrote about reading, too (here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). I’m happy about this – both the reading and the writing about it. My reflective reading brain is slowly creaking to life again, it seems. I am so glad to have it back.

And yet, despite this, I’ve been frustrated by my reading lately. This has happened before (and it’s a not-uncommon experience), but, this year (and maybe in previous years also, I don’t know) and for me, I think my frustration isn’t a purely internal phenomenon. I think it has to do with what’s being published, at least in part (this and this and this contain some previous related reflections).

When I’ve felt this in previous reading slumps, I’ve pushed back against my instincts, telling myself it’s all internal. And maybe I was right; I did manage to get out of those previous reading slumps. But this time, I’m going to try something new to address this. Following up on some recent thoughts on self-publishing/small presses, I’m going to try to devote a majority percentage of my 2020 reading to works published by small and independent publishers, rather than by the big 5.

I’m still working out how I will actualize this, but I’ll write about it here as I figure it out.

What I’ve been reading lately, nascent projects edition

Books I've been reading, spread on a white background

Yes, that is a weird collection of books. No, they are not all for the same project. Yes, they are all related to ongoing projects – three projects, to be precise! One novel, one picture book, one cooking project.

Usual disclaimer: while some of the links above will take you to Amazon, they are for informational purposes only (when other sites associated with the books are available, I’ve linked to them instead). The links should not be taken as any kind of recommendation to buy the product from the linked source, and neither I nor this site receive any funds from links to commercial sources.

Mourning the blog

Grasses
Nothing to do with what I’m writing about – just some beautiful grasses!

I miss blogs.

I don’t mean I miss writing them. I have never been much of a blogger, as anyone looking over this particular site can probably guess. No, I miss reading them. There was something fascinating about that period when it seemed like anyone and everyone had a blog. It was a window into the minds of strangers. In contrast to Instagram, which I find to be largely about surficial presentation, blogs were (are?) about content. For this reason they were harder to fake.  One can, of course, write anything down and it may or may not be true. I could write here that I have a black belt in Judo and run a business deploying snakes as pest control, and the casual reader would not be able to know if it were true or not. (In my case, even a less-casual reader might have a difficult time tracking down the truth of any particular statement I make, as Maddy is a pseudonym.)

But what can’t be faked in writing (at least I don’t think it can) is the voice. The voice is what tells the reader, there is an underlying, substantial truth here, even if the superficial is false. It’s what Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, called quality.

Blogs were a window into quality of so many kinds. Of course, there were lots of low-quality blogs out there, but it didn’t matter; in the freeform days of early blogging, there were so many different blogs with so many different goals out there that it was easy to find interesting, unusual, and high-quality writing within them.

I am not an internet historian and I wasn’t even really a dedicated blog reader, so I don’t know what happened with blogs – I just noticed that many of the ones I liked to read went dark, or the authors stopped posting, and that I wasn’t finding new blogs that I liked to read. Some time after I noticed this, I discovered a lot of people (online and off) commenting that blogs are dead. Presumably people have written about why blogging died, and maybe I will try to track those writings down. But as a casual reader I wonder if it was monetization that killed the blog as an art form. There are still blogs, sure, but so many of them now are just marketing devices for the blog author or composed nearly entirely of sponsored posts (i.e., marketing devices for various products).

And so they are boring.

I guess it’s funny to write about this in a blog post. I didn’t start posting on this site until well after the golden age of blogs, and I sometimes wonder why I do it. I don’t do it for the traffic (which is good, since I get so little) and, as I write here as my reader/writer self rather than my professional self, I tend to neglect it when my professional life gets busy (hence the numerous long hiatuses in posting). But I keep coming back to it…perhaps because I miss reading blogs, and if I can’t find any to read, the only way to address that is to blog myself.

A few thoughts on pseudonymity and updates on reading and writing

I have a couple of longer posts brewing right now, but they are going to take a while to finish. They involve some big ideas, and writing (and thinking!) about big ideas takes time and space. But I wanted to link to this thread now, because these big ideas are related in an indirect way to pseudonymity, and @nycsouthpaw‘s posts on why he chose to use a pseudonym touch on some thoughts I’ve been having. (Another source that I think has interesting things to say on this topic is You Are Not a Gadget, though the world is a little different now than it was when that book was published.)

Maddy McBride is, in fact, a pseudonym. My reasons for using a pseudonym are somewhat similar to @nycsouthpaw’s, but unlike him, I’m not at a point where being pseudonymous is impacting my ability to do what this pseudonym was set out to do. I use a pseudonym to talk about a part of my life (reading and writing) that’s separate from my professional life, without worrying that what I post might impact my ability to do my day job.

But the dividing line between my professional life and my life as a reader and writer of fiction isn’t always so clear, and that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

Enough of that. Updates on reading: since I posted here last, I’ve read The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri (enjoyed it greatly up until the end – I’ll probably write about this at greater length at some point); Pacifica by Kristen Simmons; Raven Strategem by Yoon Ha Lee; and The Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book by Emily and Melissa Elsen (highly recommended for pie technique – specific recipes may or may not be to your taste, but they do a great job of explaining how not just to make a pie, but to create a new recipe). Currently reading, among others, The Death of Expertise.

In other news, I AM FINALLY WRITING AGAIN!!!! (Definitely deserves a few exclamation marks.) Or really, revising. The particular manuscript I am working on is in need of a lot of work, and I’ve had a horrible time making myself get to it – I have so many other writing projects and it’s been easy to put this off. It’s a novel (so it’s big); it will probably never be published, unlike other stuff on my plate; and I have been working on it, on and off, for SO LONG.

But I’d like to finish it, and so I committed to really working on it, at least one hour a day, for the rest of this month.

The first few days were terrible…

But after a few days, things did turn around. It’s funny how revising is a little like kneading bread: at first the words are stiff and resistant, but with some consistent effort usually they’ll become supple and malleable. Fingers crossed that this good stretch of revising continues!

Autumn

It is still August and the calendar tells me there’s another month or so left of summer. But even here in central New Mexico, where summer weather may persist into the first weeks of October, lived experience reveals the “technically” aspect of calendric facts. No matter what the calendar says, autumn is here. I can see it in the tomatoes heavy on the vine; I can smell it in the late summer wildflowers.

I love autumn but the older I get the more bittersweet it is. Some of this is because I’ve grown into a gardener, and watching the garden die each year saddens me. Some is increasing awareness of my own mortality. But there is sweet that comes with this bitter: the seeds of next year’s garden, the appreciation of my own life.

So too in my reading and writing. With summer’s end I have less time for reading. But I woke this morning re-energized about a ms. which has been languishing for some time. Perhaps the sweet of this autumn, for me, will be in the writing…

Zero draft done; on to revisions

After far too much time I have finally – FINALLY! – completed the zero draft of this unnamed project (it’s a novel, it’s historical fantasy, I am not sure about anything else about it other than that). Writing longhand is the only thing that got me through the last five pages. Pen-and-paper is my never-fail trick for dealing with blocks – when I’m stuck and can’t figure out where a story is going, pulling out a physical notebook always gets me back on track. (There are lots of other good reasons to write longhand – this article and this one both make strong arguments – but for me, getting unstuck is the most important).

In all honesty, though, it wasn’t stuck-ness that made this zero draft take so long. It was simply time: my life’s been busy (with writing other things, often). And once one’s out of the story, it’s difficult to get back into it.

For this reason I will be plunging straight into revisions. In an ideal world I’d take a little time between finishing a zero draft and moving on, but I know if I do that I’ll lose momentum. And, you know, I’m hoping to truly finish this thing before a decade passes…

Onward!

Sometimes it just takes time…

Last week I attended a webinar with Kendra Levin (hosted by SCBWI Europolitan as part of a run-up to their conference this year – wow I wish I could go, they seem like a great group) on the topic of rejection, what it means and how to deal with it. I don’t do a lot of webinars or writing events like this; I did when I first came back to writing, but I stopped after a while. I can’t honestly say why I signed up for this one. But I’m glad I did, not so much because the content was new to me but because, for whatever reason (whether Kendra’s manner, or the other participants, or just being at the right time for my mental state at the moment) it changed my perspective on my writing and where it is right now.

One of the “what rejection means” things that came up in the webinar was pacing. I have a pacing bruise – seriously, I wince when I hear/see the word – because of my experience with the first novel I ever wrote, which was also the first piece of fiction I wrote after a fifteen-year hiatus.

The thing is, when I started the novel, it was an experiment. Could I write a novel? I’d only ever written short pieces before. I started it based on a single image, completely pantsed it the whole way through, and got to the end and realized I loved it and didn’t want to stop. I’d fallen into the world I created. They always say don’t be too attached to your first novel, and I started off right – it was just an experiment, after all – but at some point I fell off that wagon, and I fell hard.

I sent it out to agents, got some interest, revised and sent it out again, signed with an agent – and then, the book got rejected, over and over again (this is not an even slightly unusual story, by the way). Why? You guessed it: pacing.

Despite my being attached to the novel, I wasn’t upset (or too upset) by the rejections. But I was upset by the consistent pacing critiques, because I wasn’t understanding them and I couldn’t figure out what I was missing. Soliciting feedback from other writers (and I hired an editor, too) got me advice like “what they mean is too quiet” and and “read The Hunger Games, that’s what sells.” Much as I love The Hunger Games, that wasn’t the kind of book I was trying to write. I thought maybe the problem was the market not the book. But while I could see that books that were more like what I was trying to write were rare, they were still being published (and in YA at that). So what was the problem?

My agent had asked me to revise to address the pacing issue. I did, but the only thing I could think of to do was to make the action more bang-bang-bang. I wasn’t happy with it; my agent didn’t think it was great either, though he did send it out; and guess what? The book never sold.

This all happened a while ago, but I still can’t hear the word pacing without feeling the sting of that experience, as well as sorrow for my poor first novel.

So – that was a very long introduction! – when another participant asked Kendra Levin about “pacing” rejections, I flinched. But I also listened. Kendra that for her, this often means nothing about the story surprised her – that there could be great characters, and plenty of action, everything could be fine, but nothing surprised her.

This was different, not what I’d heard before about pacing. It wasn’t a lightbulb moment, but I took the idea of “surprise” and stuck it in my keep-thinking-about-this file.

A day or two after I finished a book that completely fell flat for me. I finished, and thought about why it didn’t work for me – and the first instinctive answer that came to me was: pacing.

That was my lightbulb moment: I had become the enemy!

I do think I understand, now (after all this time!) where my first novel failed. It was a first novel, after all, and when I began it I had no idea what I was doing. The whole plan was to learn by writing. I didn’t realize that the learning would continue long after I had shelved the project, but it has.

Maybe I’ll go back and revise it again one of these days. I think I’d know how, now.

But then again, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just leave it as it is, for what it is: evidence of learning.

Met my goal!

Somehow, achieving this doesn’t feel as good as I imagined it might….

I don’t know if I’ll do this again. Definitely in the short term it’s not helping my productivity.

I’ll re-evaluate in a few weeks.

…and 30% there

This writing goal does make rejection easier to take overall, but the shiny is starting to wear off. It may just be getting another one in quick succession that’s bringing me down today.

But it may also be that this is only a positive writing goal if I keep producing, and I haven’t been recently….

Submissions

On the edge of this
chasm – wide and deep, opaque –
I cast pages forth.

***
(It’s been a while since I did this much submitting. It is scarier than I remembered. But on the upside, I am working towards that 2017 writing goal….)

Weekly photo writing prompts

Photo writing prompt, 7 January 2017 #amwriting #amwritingfiction

A post shared by Maddy McBride (@maddy_mcb) on

In a related attempt to get my writing productivity up, I’m trying something new: each Saturday this January I’m going to post a photo, which I’ll use as a prompt for a freewriting exercise. Here is today’s 🙂

PS – as you may note, I’m using my Instagram feed to do this – I’m new to Instagram and don’t know if I’ll stick with it, but figure it’s worth a try.

First of Ten for 2017

Naturally, right after posting about not liking to make specific writing goals, I read something that convinced me to give them (or at least one in particular) another go.

Cheryl Klein, executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic and author of The Magic Words, recently sent out her January newsletter. Among other things, she discusses New Year’s resolutions and writing goals – and among her suggested “experience” goals was one that resonated with me: get ten rejections. Klein talks about this goal in terms of bravery, which is definitely one aspect of it; but to me it also suggests productivity and perseverance, two qualities I’d like to cultivate in myself.

Plus, rejections are hard, even when they are expected; this goal turns at least the first ten into benchmarks.

So, without further ado: my goal for 2017 is to receive at least ten rejections of my creative work.

And I received the first today, 5 January.

New Year’s and writing plans

I’ve written elsewhere about why “productivity tricks” often don’t work for me with my writing (or with anything else I do, for that matter). So, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions and I don’t set specific writing goals either.

But I am thinking, right now, about what I’d like to be doing with my writing this next year. It’s partly the New Year, but probably more that I’ve had my first downtime in a long while over these past few weeks. I’ve finally had the time and energy to think about writing: what needs finishing as well as what comes next.

For this reason my idea file has been growing like crazy this past week. I thought I’d written about the idea file before, but I can’t find the link so perhaps I never have. Basically, it’s just a file into which I stick anything that strikes me as being the root of a story. And by anything I really do mean anything – there are fleshed-out story plans in there, and links to news articles, and random phrases I like the sound of, among other things. I used to do this on paper (and I still sometimes do) but my habit of simultaneously using many notebooks meant I lost a lot of ideas. So it’s a word doc on my computer these days.

This isn’t an original idea. I’ve heard of numerous other people who do this in some way or another. But it’s genuinely one of the most useful habits I’ve ever acquired. When I’m trying to get started on a project, I go to the idea file. When I’m attacked by a shiny new idea, it goes in the idea file. When I’m stuck and need a little inspiration, I go to the idea file. And when I’m thinking about what I want to accomplish in the New Year, I – you got it – go to the idea file.

After such a slow year, in which my time was gobbled by many non-writing tasks, it feels very good to have a growing idea file 🙂

Happy New Year, everyone – best wishes for 2017.

Winter solstice

I am writing again these days, after a long hiatus. More on this in 2017. But for now:

Peace, light, and hope to all, in this darkest time for the Northern hemisphere.