Monday, July 27, 2015

Reads for Writers: Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li Provides a Masterclass

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

            Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice and/or creativity.

First pages are usually the best written in a book—highly polished and edited—so I always want to see if the author sustained that level throughout his or her book.

When I’m in a bookstore, I pick up books and flip through them stopping at random pages to see if the writing style grabs my attention. I only read a sentence or two, not many words to convince me to buy in, but if the author is good, they are enough.
When I’m viewing books online, I can’t do that as only the first pages are available. To be honest, I’m more disappointed in the books I buy this way when I know nothing about the author. However, while online I can view many more books than are in a bookstore so I discover more gems this way.
The latest gem I’ve read is Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li. Her book caught my eye as I looked for something new to read online. I loved the title.
I opened to the first pages and read the first paragraph. Based on that paragraph alone, I decided to buy her book. I also knew if the book lived up to that paragraph, I would use it as the basis for a masterclass post. I’ve never made this decision based on 93 words before, but Li captured the absurdness of human nature during one the most solemn of occasions. She made me think and she made me laugh.
Read the same paragraph for yourselves. If it appeals to you, read the rest of Li’s book. Her insights into human nature keep coming—fresh, true, eye-opening, and heartbreaking.
The plot of the book is sparse: The four main characters grow up in China, but, after a slightly mysterious tragedy, two relocate to America. It’s the author’s voice and the creativity of her insights that made this a masterclass for me. Here are a few examples:
…believing, like most people, in a moment called later. Safely removed, later promises possibilities: changes, solutions, rewards, happiness, all too distant to be real, yet real enough to offer relief from the claustrophobic cocoon of now.  (page 33)
She had never been much of a reader of fiction before, but these [Russian or French] novels, whose characters bore long and unmemorable names had comforted her: even the most complicated stories offered a clarity that she could not find in the world around her…  (page 134)
No, solitude she did not have; what she had was a never-ending quarantine.  (page 229)
While these and many other lines appealed to me, I especially loved the phrase claustrophobic cocoon of now—four words that capture life when difficult perfectly.
Solitude a never-ending quarantine? I never considered solitude any kind of quarantine, but it is whether imposed or chosen.
The clarity of Yiyun Li's insights is why I recommend writers read Kinder Than Solitude. It’s also why I’ll read the rest of her books.


Monday, July 20, 2015

New Bookcases I've Discovered

From Kate’s Writing Crate…
 (This is NOT a paid endorsement! Just sharing thoughts on bookcases.)
          I’m surrounded by books which are well organized in bookcases if I’ve read them or they’re reference books. However, books I’m reading/reviewing are in piles on my desk, next to my reading chair, and next to my bed.
I’m one of those readers that have twenty books, usually many more, going at the same time. I switch between them depending on my mood or deadlines. They include: the books from my Personal Writing Classes, reference books for writing projects, and books I’m reading for fun or reviews. Then add in books recommended by family and friends, books I’m rereading, and new books I’ve chosen for myself.
I want all these books nearby so I can grab the one I want easily. I’ve tried a table on wheels, but the piles fall over. Bookcases on wheels are expensive and not built for paperbacks so there’s a lot of wasted space.
Then I saw a shoe rack on wheels and realized it would solve my problems. Paperbacks are displayed beautifully spines out at a downward angle—I can quickly find the book I want. The top shelf can hold taller books. No piles. No toppling over. Easy to move. I love it!
The four-shelf shoe rack works well in my office and by the bed. The larger 10-shelf shoe rack is great for paperback storage. The books can only fit on every other shelf, but it’s big enough (57” tall, 35” wide, and 9.5” deep) to hold over 200 books—30 to 50 paperbacks per shelf on five shelves or the top shelf can hold taller books. Because the rack is easy to move, it doesn’t have to sit against the wall facing out. If you get more than one, you can have them face each other or put two or three in front of each other and pull them out to find the book you want.
I also discovered Origami bookcases. These metal bookcases are fully assembled, but arrive flat. You unlock the latch at the bottom and pull the sides apart and lock the back support and the top shelf into place to use. They are 67” tall, 24” wide, and 10.5” deep.
Like most fixed-shelf bookcases, they are not designed well for books. Paperbacks can only be stacked, two deep to fill the depth space or five stacks across with no titles visible, and can easily fall out the back. Even for taller books, there is a lot of wasted space as each shelf is about 12” tall. I found the best usage of space is to have two piles of taller books stacked at each end of each shelf with three to five books upright between the piles.
What I do love about these bookcases: they are fully assembled, easy to move when folded up, the shelves don’t buckle like particle board, and they are a great price for the quality.
 I’m always looking for good bookcase ideas. Let me know if you have any.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Reads for Writers: Two Books Filled with Quotes for Writers

From Kate’s Writing Crate…
          Summer is a busy time—beach, pool, visitors, BBQs, vacations, and, hopefully, writing. While writers should read as much as possible, there isn’t always time to settle down with a novel so I’m recommending two books of quotes for writers. They are easy to pick up and put down and filled with support and wisdom.        
          A Writer’s Commonplace Book by Rosemary Friedman offers quotes in eight categories: On Writers and Writing; On Literary Endeavour; On Knowledge, Discovery and Travel; On Creativity and the Arts; On the Human Condition; On Love, Marriage and Family; On Life and Death; and On Random Thoughts.
          Some of my favorites:
                    A writer knows more than he knows. He has a subconscious
ability to read signs.
                                                                   --Nadine Gordimer  (page 13)
It is a delicious thing to write, whether well or badly, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creation.
                                                          --Gustave Flaubert  (page 75)
The aim of literature was to write a book that would reveal to the reader things he had never thought of before.
                                                          --Simone De Beauvoir  (page 82)
All normal people require both classics and trash.
                                                          --George Bernard Shaw  (page 84)
Learning, thinking, innovation and maintaining contact with one’s own world are all facilitated by solitude.
                                                          --Anthony Storr  (page 164)
There is power that works within us without consulting us.
                                                          --Voltaire  (page 208)
In The Writer’s Quotation Book: A Literary Companion edited by James Charlton some of my favorites include:
In a very real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read…It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.
                                                --S. I. Hayakawa  (page 12)
There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island…and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.
                                                --Walt Disney  (page 16)
When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.
                                                --Clifton Fadiman  (page 19)
Literature is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.
                                                --Jules Renard  (page 55)
Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust your own judgement, learn inner independence, learn to trust that time will sort the good from the bad—including your own bad.
                                                --Doris Lessing  (page 73)
Nine out of ten writers, I am sure, could write more. I think they should and, if they did, they would find their work improving even beyond their own, their agent’s and their editor’s highest hopes.
                                                --John Creasy  (page 94)
          Take time to read, but keep writing!

Monday, July 6, 2015

My Writing Schedule--Inspired or Not

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

When inspiration strikes, I grab a notebook and scribble down my thoughts. Inspiration is unpredictable so a notebook is always nearby, but this kind of inspiration is fleeting. It doesn’t allow for a regular writing schedule.

A better schedule: I sit at my writing desk every day, inspired or not. If I sit there, I’ll write. As I write, I become inspired. I have time to start and stop, to try new things, and to toss out what is not working. There’s pressure to do my best and to meet upcoming deadlines, but it doesn’t affect me the way it can when I’m off schedule and deadlines are looming.

          My daily writing schedule doesn’t require a certain number of hours or pages. I simply sit at my desk five or six or more times a day and work—sometimes for half an hour, usually for an hour or two, and sometimes for three hours or more at a time. (A comfortable chair is essential. Thanks for my gift, Dad!)

Life doesn’t run on a precise schedule nor does my writing, but writing is always on my schedule. I start early, around 6am. I sometimes work late, especially during monthly deadlines for the magazines I write for and edit and for this blog with its weekly midnight Sunday deadline.

          Every writing day is different depending on deadlines, but, if forced to give hard numbers, on average I write about four hours a day and edit about three hours, but not in solid blocks. I start off writing, but if my thoughts and ideas falter, I switch to editing or planning other writing projects.

When I need a break, I take the dogs out to play ball, work around the house, complete what’s on my To-Do List, read books to review, or organize my freelance projects. Then I return happily to my writing desk. Writing is not only one of my jobs, it’s my calling.

This schedule sounds idyllic, but writing and editing are hard work. Fresh eyes are needed so breaks are necessary. Also, I’ve given only average hours for writing.

In reality, during the monthly deadline week for the magazines, I often work fifteen hours a day for four or five days writing, editing, and proofing to get the issues to the printer on time. If I waited until the last minute to write my blog post, I write and edit just that for four or five hours straight. I also have to meet deadlines for my freelance projects whatever time that takes.

Add to that, I’m human so when there is too much going on (visitors, a sick dog, a broken refrigerator, etc.), I sometimes rebel by putting off writing—a double punishment to myself as I’m not doing something I love/need to do and then I feel more pressure which makes writing harder.

Don’t make writing harder for yourself. Include it in your daily schedule.

Writers write. That’s the true writing schedule I live by every day.

Monday, June 29, 2015

My Personal Writing Class--Songwriting

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          Songwriting without Boundaries: Lyric Writing Exercises for Finding Your Voice by Pat Pattison is set up as a two-month class. I’m three weeks in and I highly recommend it.

The first two weeks are timed writing exercises. Each day, one exercise lasts for 10 minutes, one for five minutes, and one for 90 seconds. In less than 17 minutes, you can meet your daily writing goal—a fantastic feeling—and it’s fun! It’s also easy to double up so you won’t fall behind when you have a busy day planned.

          The point of the exercises is to put your five senses to work, along with body and motion, when writing about objects or characters. You can read other writers’ descriptions for inspiration before you write or you can read them after you write to see which senses were stronger for them.

          The exercises seem easy. For example: describe an elevator (what writing), a sailor (who writing), six in the morning (when writing), a park bench in the city (where writing). It’s capturing all your senses in your answers that is hard. The pressure of a timer, especially one that ticks, helps squeeze words out.

          If you have kids old enough to write, you can include them in this class. Look at Taylor Swift—songs she wrote in her early teens became hits. You never know. Plus it’s fast and fun!

          Week 3 moves on to metaphors.

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.

–Orson Scott Card


          After a discussion of different types of metaphors on pages 49-51, you start with Adjective-Noun Collisions. On Day 1, the adjectives and words are given to you in the ten 90-second exercises. (example: Lonely Moonlight) On Day 2, you are given the adjectives; you get to choose the nouns. (example: Boastful _____) Day 3 you are given the nouns and have to provide the adjectives. (example: ______ cottage)

          The more you do these exercises, the more writing you can fit into the 90 seconds.

          Even if you aren’t planning on writing songs, these exercises would be useful to complete when you are having a hard time starting your writing day. Three or four exercises will jump start your brain.

          Writing is writing. Trying different genres gives you a new perspective—always a good thing for writers!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Reads for Writers: Time and the Art of Living by Robert Grudin Provides a Masterclass

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

          Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.


          Breaking facets of time into thirteen categories in his book Time and the Art of Living, Robert Grudin shares thoughts that make you reconsider how to spend your hours. Some of these thoughts are only a sentence or two, some almost fill a page, but they all make you ponder your perspective on the past, present, and future.

          This is one of my favorite books. I have underlined and marked many passages over the twenty years I have been rereading it—and this is a book meant for rereading.

While Grudin’s thoughts reveal time to me in new ways, I don’t remember these insights when overwhelmed by daily chores and deadlines. Habits are hard to break. Rereading is the best way for me to retain these life lessons that are essential as life equals time and how you choose to use it.

Chapter IX “Achievement” and Chapter X “Time and Art” are especially meant for writers and artists. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

·        IX.8 The list of time management hints, especially: Ensure that every important activity receives a large and uninterrupted period of time. (page123-124)

·        IX.30 Anyone who applies himself regularly, lengthily, and energetically to a single project is certain, no matter what else happens, to encounter days of profound delight or unprecedented inspiration. (page 133)

·        X.22 If you are planning to write fiction, do not sit around too long trying to think up a good story. If you work hard, the story will come to life as you are writing it. Remember also that all decent fiction has the same inner story: the story of discovery. (page 143)

·        X.25 [Journal of This Book]…shares Grudin’s thoughts and writing schedule as he worked on this book including:...Now, after about 500 entries and six months, I am still in the confused beginnings and have successfully cultivated an oblivious attitude toward writing in which one day’s work is immediately forgotten, and each day the whole book starts anew.


However, there are many other thoughts in other chapters that apply, too, including:

·        II.10…Learn the art of planning and, more generally, the art of extending will through time. (page 21)

·        II.23…For although minutes spent in boredom or anxiety pass slowly, they nonetheless add up to years which are void of memory. (page 27)

·        VI.30…We have gotten so used to looking at time’s rear end that we no longer realize that it has another side as well. We rightly see life as a series of challenges but do not see that, in a more profound sense, it is also a series of preparations. (page 89)


The lesson I most need to learn is:

VII.20: Every time we postpone some necessary event…we do so with the implication that present time is more important than future time…Disrespect for the future is a subtly poisonous disrespect for self, and forces us, paradoxically enough, to live in the past. (page 101)

What do you think of Robert Grudin’s thoughts on time, art, and living?

Monday, June 15, 2015

My Personal Writing Class--Screenwriting

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

The fun has begun. I picked the books I’m using as textbooks and I’ve read the two books I’m using as reference guides.

I read Story by Robert McKee a while ago so I could review it. It’s inspiring so in the back of my mind I decided I would try screenwriting at some point. I have it on my desk for reference along with The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby which I read recently. The overview information from these books helps clarify my thoughts as I complete the exercises in my textbooks.

I started my personal screenwriting class with 90-Day Screenplay: A day-by-day guide through the process of getting your screenplay onto the page by Alan Watt. (I enjoyed following his 90-Day Novel workshop even though I’m not a novelist.) He makes writing entertaining and challenging. All the questions he lists makes you dig deep and discover surprising things about your characters.

As Watt points out on Day 7 on page 39: We are less interested in our protagonist getting what he wants than we are in seeing how he gets what he needs.

The exercises on page 42 ask you to write as your protagonist from six different points. If you let yourself go, your character will “speak” telling you things you didn’t know, hadn’t considered, and/or that explain his/her motivation.

One of the prompts is “The last time I cried was when…” Well I had never considered my protagonist crying. As I started to complete the exercise, I realized he had teared up while driving on the main road back into his hometown after almost a decade away which is at the beginning of my screenplay, but he had cried when he left suddenly without explanation to some important people in his life then, people he wanted back in his life now. I may or may not put that he cried in the screenplay, but it gives me insight into a vulnerability of my character.

I will be honest and share that sometimes I do the 90-Day exercises for two or three days at a time in the beginning because they are short (20-30 minutes) and engaging. This makes me feel I’m immersed in my project quickly. As the exercises take more time, I may only complete the exercises for that day.

I have a notebook dedicated to this book so I can see my progression. It also makes it easy to refer back to my answers as I move forward.

I’m alternating reading chapters from Now Write! Screenwriting with Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson and Writing the Romantic Comedy: From “Cute Meet” to “Joyous Defeat”: How to Write Screenplays That Sell by Billy Mernit.

I’m using one notebook for the exercises in these two books. Each entry is headed by the initials of the book and the page number of the exercise. I’m also using blue ink for the exercises in Now Write! and black ink for Writing the Romantic Comedy. This makes referring back to answers a bit easier.

My favorite section so far (I’m on page 38 on May 31st when I wrote this post) from Now Write! is on pages 3-5. Mardik Martin, who wrote Raging Bull, discusses that audiences identify more with the conflict than the character. Observe people around you as they deal with conflicts. Collect anecdotes. But he also states on page 5: Remember, you can only steal so much from real life. The great writer uses ingenuity to combine characters and their situations.

On page 25 of Now Write!, Paula C. Brancato, who wrote Subterfuge, discusses that writers have many more ideas than they use. I enjoyed the exercise on page 27. There is a story setup then you are asked to jot down as quickly as possible 20 possibilities of what happens next. Find out how creative and clever you can be.

Writing the Romantic Comedy is more of a big picture viewpoint of your screenplay at the beginning. Lots of details and examples about screenplays: Point of View, Characters, Plot & Structure, Dialogue, Settings, etc.

Exercises start on page 29 and they are all about your screenplay so you need to have a good idea of your plot and characters by this page.

My screenplay plot and characters are taking shape.

I hope your projects are going well, too!