Writing inspiration

Dissertation Advice from Miriam Posner

From Zadie Smith:

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

The Maeve Binchy System:

"I love to read at my desk when I should be writing.

In fact, I give myself little rewards. If I finish my own four pages, then I give myself an hour to lose myself in someone else's book.

I much prefer to read sitting up at a desk rather than lying back in an armchair or reading in bed, when I invariably go to sleep; no matter how good the book, I find myself dropping off. But not at my desk in a sunny upstairs room with lots of glass, a little roof garden outside and a good work atmosphere. I sit here with my husband, Gordon Snell, also a writer. It's very peaceful and a great place to read.

At the moment, I am reading Room by Emma Donoghue. When I heard that it was a story told from the point of view of a five-year-old who had been born in captivity to a mother who had been kidnapped, I hesitated. Would it not be very sad and frightening and gruesome?

But a friend assured me that it was amazing and absolutely gripping with no violence and that you care so much about Jack and his mother that the rest of the world slips away. This is totally true.

I am completely involved in the story, and even though I am outwardly going on with my ordinary life, I keep going back to see what will happen to Jack and Ma. The child has accepted his situation as normal, since it's the only one he ever knew.

Will they escape? If they do, what will Jack make of the real world? I can't wait to get back to my desk each day to find out."

From Scott McLeod:

"Dissertations are difficult things. There are multiple reasons why most folks don’t have one. Here are some words of wisdom that I’ve heard from others and now pass along to my own doctoral students…

A. Big ideas are good but you’re not going to save the world with your dissertation. Scale it down. Bite off something manageable and doable and save the rest of it for future work – by yourself or others.

B. Along those lines… the best dissertation is a done dissertation. Get it done. Put the ‘Dr.’ in front of your name. Celebrate yourself for completing a large, hopefully-worthwhile task. Move on with your life. Go do great things!

C. The key to the successful completion of a dissertation is to treat it like a regular course that you might take. Block off the time that you’d ordinarily take to a) drive to and from class, b) be in the class, and c) read and/or do outside work for the class and then make that time REGULAR AND INVIOLATE (to yourself, your family, your friends, your employer) just as you would a traditional course. Pretend you have face-to-face accountability even though you don’t. Otherwise too many more-immediate and less-amorphous events pop up and you’ll never, ever finish. The percentage of students who are ABD is appalling…

D. Chunk it. The idea of writing a 150– to 250–page book is awfully intimidating. The idea of writing 2 pages is much more manageable. Set small, achievable goals for yourself (in the next hour I will write 2 paragraphs…; during this session I will find 5 new sources…).

E. A dissertation always takes longer than you think it will. Get used to that idea now.

F. Pick a topic that really interests YOU, not someone else (like your employer or your advisor), because no one’s with you at 1:00am on a Saturday night when you’re ready to tear your hair out. Pick something that hopefully will sustain you through the tough times.

G. And, finally… I always tell my advisees that at some point in the process they will hate me. It all will be good in the end, but there will be moments when they curse my name. I’m okay with that: my job is to get them successfully past the entire committee."

From Anna Quindlen:

"I hate to write. I have to force myself every day to sit down and begin. This is the first thing that I always tell students, who have absorbed the peculiar modern notion that if you are practiced at something you must find it effortless and pleasurable. Sometimes they ask how I continue, and I reply, glibly, "Because of contractual obligation." But I only manage because I live a humdrum life, in which the drama takes place mainly on the page.

The day begins with a period of mindless and repetitive activity. My one-hour power walk is nominally cardio, but it's actually composition—scenes, characters, even dialogue. (There must be people in my neighborhood park who think I'm a lunatic since occasionally I move my lips while composing on the fly.) One of the reasons I so fear the over-scheduling of today's children is that most creative thought happens when you are staring into the middle distance, doing nothing at all.

"Inspiration comes during work, not before it," Madeleine L'Engle once wrote, and for that to happen you must sit down in a chair. I don't believe in writer's block. It's not that sometimes you can't write, it's that you can't write well. Experience has told me that writing poorly sometimes leads to something better. Not writing at all leads only to reruns of "Law and Order." Which I love, but still.

When I am writing a novel, I have a totem that helps me to fall back into its world, like the old Hamilton wrist watch with the sepia face that I imagined on the wrist of my protagonist in "Blessings." Stephen Sondheim says that his writing utensils are unvarying: Blackwing pencils, yellow legal pads with precisely 32 lines, both so essential that he has laid in a lifetime supply. For my part, I need Sondheim in the background. It's not so much the music as the familiarity of it, like wallpaper in the workroom of my imagination.

My schedule, too, is set to music. I've heard endless stories of young mothers rising at 5 a.m. to fit in a few hours of writing before the children were up, but I can barely make coffee at 5 a.m. My productive hours are between 9 and 3, an elementary school schedule, once the only predictable part of my working day (unless one of the children got an ear infection and then all bets were off). If I go out for lunch and interrupt my rhythm, I'm sunk. I think that all of those lunches were what diminished Truman Capote's output.

Or maybe it's that he talked too much about his work. If you talk it, you won't write it; it's as though the words turn into vapor in the air. If you write other stuff, you won't write it either. One of my Barnard writing professors, B.J. Chute, used to tell us not to take jobs that included writing of any kind because there was no chance we would then go home at night and take up our own material. But she predated the Internet, which is more dangerous than a copywriting gig.

I'm convinced that there are only so many words per day in the human body: If you do some longish emails and a few tweets, you feel done.

Finally, how you start each day depends on how you finished the day before. I never knock off at the end of a chapter, or the end of a paragraph, or even the end of a sentence. I always stop in mid-sentence. Starting a new chapter or a new paragraph first thing in the morning might be too much to bear. But I can always manage to finish a sentence. And one sentence has a way of following another if everything else around me is routine enough."

Julia Green, author of teen novels and the course director for the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, explains how to bring a story into being:

"Sometimes it seems as if the story I'm going to write already exists, somewhere out there. If I can only sit still and patiently enough, listening intently, watching and waiting, it will come close enough for me to 'hear' the words and 'see' the pictures vividly enough for me to begin writing. The story comes in fragments and glimpses, a series of scenes. Ted Hughes wrote about this process in his poem 'The Thought Fox'. The story comes into being as you write, trusting your instincts, your imagination, the deep and mysterious process of the subconscious. However, this does not mean I spend my time simply sitting at my desk, waiting! It's part of a longer process which happens day by day in my notebook: a daily ritual of writing which is as natural as breathing."

These are my tips on how to bring a story into being this way:

Tip 1: Buy yourself a notebook
It should preferably have plain rather than lined pages and paper thick enough so you can write on both sides with a pen without it showing through: follow your instinct to choose the right colour, size and shape for you. Not too grand – this will make it feel as if every word has to be perfect; this is a book where the writing is entirely for you, and you won't show its contents to anyone. Write every day, freely and without censoring or editing your thoughts, ideas, images, feelings, dreams and wishes. Write about the stories you are reading – you are always reading something, of course – reflecting on what you read, or observe, or think. Write about the ordinary things that happen to you as well as the extraordinary ones. Practise writing about the real world around you: look, listen, touch, smell, taste. Find the right words to describe these things: pay attention. Be precise and detailed. Make this part of your life. This is not about writing stories or poems, but about a process, about connecting to your real self, the part from which writing has to come. It's about finding your voice.

Tip 2: Explore your characters
When several ideas seem to be coming together – for me it's usually a place, a character, and a situation – you know the story is coming closer. This is the story that only YOU can write. Spend time thinking and making more notes about these things. Spend time on each character. What do they look like? Note down details of clothes, shoes, hair, skin, eyes, age, name etc. Next, ask more searching questions: what are they like on the inside? What do they love/hate/ fear? What do they really want? Why? Perhaps they have a secret, or have lost something or someone. What do they dream? An early memory? A special possession? Trust your first thoughts. Put yourself into their shoes for a while: write as if you "are" this person, in the first person.

Tip 3: Where does it take place? Why here?
Do the same process of thinking and making notes about the setting for your story. For me, the setting is more than simply the place where events happen. It adds layers to a story, it establishes an atmosphere or feeling and keeps the story anchored in a physical world so it seems real and believable. The place may even begin to influence the plot – what happens in your story. Choose places you know well, can really "see" and imagine, so that the writing is detailed and accurate. Use all five senses. Go to the place again and listen, watch, smell … write down those things in your notebook. Get into the habit of writing in different places.

Tip 4: Let go
If you plan too rigidly, a story can get stuck because you are shutting off other possible directions it might take. Instead, use the mind-mapping method: take a big sheet of plain paper and write down the ideas you have, all the different possibilities, and keep adding new thoughts and ideas and images as they arrive in your mind, so that these are recorded as possible options. Some of these notes will begin to link up, to make sense as a story. Others don't belong in this story and you can let them go. Keep asking questions about your story and characters. Trust the deep power of your imagination to provide the "answers" you need.

Tip 5: Revise and redraft
Writing a novel is a process that needs a lot of time, patience and quiet determination. No one writes a perfect story first time. You revise and change and get rid of sections or add new scenes. You do this over and over. Redrafting is about re-seeing your story, scene by scene, to make it more vivid for a reader. This is the process of shaping and structuring a story, making it work. The more stories you read, the more you will understand what makes a story satisfying. But there are many different kinds of stories, for different kinds of readers. Write the book you would like to read.

How to Write Faster by Michael Agger

Hunched over my keyboard, I'm haunted by anecdotes of faster writers. Christopher Hitchens composing a Slate column in 20 minutes —after a chemo session, after a "full" dinner party, late on a Sunday night. The infamously productive Trollope, who used customized paper! "He had a note pad that had been indexed to indicate intervals of 250 words," William F. Buckley told the Paris Review. "He would force himself to write 250 words per 15 minutes. Now, if at the end of 15 minutes he hadn't reached one of those little marks on his page, he would write faster." Buckley himself was a legend of speed—writing a complete book review in crosstown cabs and the like.

I remember, too, a former colleague who was blazingly fast. We would be joking at lunch—"Imagine if David Foster Wallace had written a children's book"—and there it would be in my inbox, 15 minutes later. Not a perfect draft, but publish-it-on-your-blog good. He could sit down at the keyboard and toss off Chopin or Ragtime, while I was banging away at Chopsticks and making lots of mistakes. Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-du-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-du-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-DAH!

It's no secret that writing is hard … but why can't I be one of those special few for whom it comes easily? What am I doing wrong? Why haven't I gotten any faster?
In search of the secret of quickness, I started with a Malcolm Gladwell passage that's always piqued me. In Outliers, he discusses the now famous 10,000-hour rule—the amount of time it takes to achieve true mastery—and quotes the neurologist Daniel Levitin: "In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concern pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again." Fiction writers? Really?
Had MFA students been sent to a lab and force-fed scones while they typed on their laptops? Or had some intrepid grad student done field research in the Starbuckses of the Eastern seaboard? Alas, nothing so interesting, but something ultimately more fascinating. Gladwell led me to a chapter in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance—the much-cited but little-read (by regular people) academic tome. "Professional Writing Expertise," by Ronald Kellogg, contains enough writerly insight to fuel a thousand Iowa workshops. And the opening words could not be more comforting: "Writing extended texts for publication is a major cognitive challenge, even for professionals who compose for a living." See, Dad! This is hard work.
Kellogg, a psychologist at Saint Louis University, tours the research in the field, where many of the landmarks are his own. Some writers are "Beethovians" who disdain outlines and notes and instead "compose rough drafts immediately to discover what they have to say." Others are "Mozartians"—cough, cough—who have been known to "delay drafting for lengthy periods of time in order to allow for extensive reflection and planning." According to Kellogg, perfect-first-drafters and full-steam-aheaders report the same amount of productivity. Methinks someone is lying. And feel free to quote this line the next time an editor is nudging you for copy: "Although prewriting can be brief, experts approaching a serious writing assignment may spend hours, days, or weeks thinking about the task before initiating the draft."
The scientifically-tested fun facts abound. Ann Chenoweth and John Hayes (2001) found that sentences are generated in a burst-pause-evaluate, burst-pause-evaluate pattern, with more experienced writers producing longer word bursts. A curly-haired girl on a white porch swing on a hot summer day will be more likely to remember what you've written if you employ concrete language—so says a 1995 study. S. K. Perry reports that the promise of money has a way of stimulating writerly "flow." Amazing! One also finds dreadful confirmation of one's worst habits: "Binge writing—hypomanic, euphoric marathon sessions to meet unrealistic deadlines—is generally counterproductive and potentially a source of depression and blocking," sums up the work of Robert Boice. One strategy: Try to limit your working hours, write at a set time each day, and try your best not to emotionally flip out or check email every 20 seconds. This is called "engineering" your environment.

Kellogg is always careful to emphasize the extreme cognitive demands of writing, which is very flattering. "Serious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task," he declares. It requires the same kind of mental effort as a high-level chess match or an expert musical performance. We are all aspiring Mozarts indeed. So what's holding us back? How does one write faster? Kellogg terms the highest level of writing as "knowledge-crafting." In that state, the writer's brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what's being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience.

Since writing is such a cognitively intense task, the key to becoming faster is to develop strategies to make writing literally less mind-blowing. Growing up, we all become speedier writers when our penmanship becomes automatic and we no longer have to think consciously about subject-verb agreement. It's obviously a huge help to write about a subject you know well. In that case, the writer doesn't have to keep all of the facts in her working memory, freeing up more attention for planning and composing.

The modern multitasking style of composing next to an open Internet browser is one solution to limiting writing's cognitive burden. There are experimental programs that will analyze what you are writing and attempt to retrieve relevant definitions, facts, and documents from the Web in case you need them. Like many writers, I take a lot of notes before I compose a first draft. The research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don't look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.
Alas, the cognitive literature offers no easy solutions. The same formula appears: "Self-regulation through daily writing, brief work sessions, realistic deadlines, and maintaining low emotional arousal." My old enemy, self-regulation. We meet again.
Kellogg does offer a few takeaway hints for would-be writers. First, if you haven't been writing stories since you were a little kid, give yourself a break since you are actually a "late bloomer." Second, read everything, all the time. That's the only way to build the general knowledge that you can tuck away in long-term memory, only to one day have it magically surface when you're searching for just the right turn of phrase. And, lastly, the trickiest part of writing—from a cognitive perspective—is getting outside of yourself, of seeing your writing through the eyes of others.
Most writers spend their entire careers happily avoiding such an emotional root canal. But not me! I'll read each and every one of your comments. After I go get coffee and a muffin. "Maybe banana nut. That's a good muffin."

"How to Write Flash Fiction" by David Gaffney (from The Guardian)

It's National Flash Fiction Day on Wednesday – the first one ever – and it's an exciting day for me and many others who specialise in this particular truncated form of prose. A few years ago, I published a book of flash fiction called Sawn-off Tales. But until only a little while before that, I hadn't heard of flash fiction or micro-fiction or sudden fiction or short-short stories. Then, on poet Ian McMillan's recommendation, I parcelled up a manuscript made up entirely of this stuff and sent it to Salt Publishing, a poetry specialist. Fifty-eight stories, each exactly 150 words long. The odds were entirely against me. No one wants to publish short stories, least of all by an unknown. And stories that took less time to read than to suppress a sneeze? I was chancing it, I knew.

I began to produce these ultra-short stories – sawn-off tales, as I call them – when I was commuting from Manchester to Liverpool: a 50-minute journey, often elongated by windscreen-wiper failure, fights on the train, or getting stuck behind the "stopper". But I had a book, as did most passengers. One day while ruminating on the number of train journeys it took to read a novel, I began to wonder how long it would take to write one. I decided on 500 words a trip – there and back was 1,000 words a day – taking just four months to reach a respectable novel length of 80,000 words.

So the next day I boarded the 8.12am at Manchester Piccadilly, rushed for a table seat, and, instead of whipping out my paperback, set up my laptop and began tapping away. But after a couple of weeks it was clear that the novel wasn't working. What I'd produced was a set of separate stories each around a 1,000 words long.

I was about to ditch the idea when I heard about a new website called the Phone Book, which needed 150-word stories to send out as text messages. All that was needed was a bit of editing. Initially, as I hacked away at my over-stuffed paragraphs, watching the sentences I once loved hit the floor, I worried. It felt destructive, wielding the axe to my carefully sculpted texts; like demolishing a building from the inside, without it falling down on top of you. Yet the results surprised me. The story could live much more cheaply than I'd realised, with little deterioration in lifestyle. Sure, it had been severely downsized, but it was all the better for it. There was more room to think, more space for the original idea to resonate, fewer unnecessary words to wade through. The story had become a nimble, nippy little thing that could turn on a sixpence and accelerate quickly away. And any tendencies to go all purple – if it sounds like writing, rewrite it, as Elmore Leonard said – were almost completely eliminated. Adjectives were anthrax.

It worked. By the time I got to Birchwood I had it down to 500 words, by Warrington to 300, at Widnes 200 and as the train drew in to Liverpool Lime Street there it was – 150 words, half a page of story; with a beginning, a middle and an end, with character development and descriptions, everything contained in a Polly Pocket world.

These stories, small as they were, had a huge appetite; little fat monsters that gobbled up ideas like chicken nuggets. The habit of reducing text could get out of hand too; I once took away the last two sentences of a story and realised I had reduced it to a blank page.

Luckily the Phone Book liked my stories and published them, and I continued to churn them out each day on the train, while the train guard announced the delays, the tea trolley rolled past, and a succession of passengers sat next to me, reading over my shoulder.

A week after sending the manuscript to Salt Publishing I got a call from Jen, their editor. They wanted to publish it, and quickly. All I needed was a quote for the cover, a photo for the sleeve, and we were off.

I don't commute that route any longer – my new job covers the whole north west of England involving train trips to Blackpool, Lancaster, east Lancashire, west Cumbria and Cheshire, so my stories have grown quite a bit longer. But last time I was on a train to Lime Street the guard's identity badge took me right back – because that's where I got the names for all of my characters.

How to write flash fiction:

1. Start in the middle.
You don't have time in this very short form to set scenes and build character.
2. Don't use too many characters.
You won't have time to describe your characters when you're writing ultra-short. Even a name may not be useful in a micro-story unless it conveys a lot of additional story information or saves you words elsewhere.

3. Make sure the ending isn't at the end.
In micro-fiction there's a danger that much of the engagement with the story takes place when the reader has stopped reading. To avoid this, place the denouement in the middle of the story, allowing us time, as the rest of the text spins out, to consider the situation along with the narrator, and ruminate on the decisions his characters have taken. If you're not careful, micro-stories can lean towards punchline-based or "pull back to reveal" endings which have a one-note, gag-a-minute feel – the drum roll and cymbal crash. Avoid this by giving us almost all the information we need in the first few lines, using the next few paragraphs to take us on a journey below the surface.

4. Sweat your title.
Make it work for a living.

5. Make your last line ring like a bell.
The last line is not the ending – we had that in the middle, remember – but it should leave the reader with something which will continue to sound after the story has finished. It should not complete the story but rather take us into a new place; a place where we can continue to think about the ideas in the story and wonder what it all meant. A story that gives itself up in the last line is no story at all, and after reading a piece of good micro-fiction we should be struggling to understand it, and, in this way, will grow to love it as a beautiful enigma. And this is also another of the dangers of micro-fiction; micro-stories can be too rich and offer too much emotion in a powerful one-off injection, overwhelming the reader, flooding the mind. A few micro-shorts now and again will amaze and delight – one after another and you feel like you've been run over by a lorry full of fridges.
6. Write long, then go short.
Create a lump of stone from which you chip out your story sculpture. Stories can live much more cheaply than you realise, with little deterioration in lifestyle. But do beware: writing micro-fiction is for some like holidaying in a caravan – the grill may well fold out to become an extra bed, but you wouldn't sleep in a fold-out grill for the rest of your life.

Off you go!

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