Writing Tip: The Feedback Sandwich

Before the current Sydney lockdown, in the Saturday feedback group, we began talking about the ‘off with his head’ or ‘out-it-goes’ part of writing.  We acknowledged that as a group we’d always been very supportive and encouraging of each others work.  That was because we were all in it together.  Our critiquing was not telling lies; it was from a place of open-hearted acceptance.  Everything you put on the page is acceptable.

Sometimes someone says, ‘I want a rigorous no-holds-barred assessment of my work.’  But what do you say to them when the writing is dull and boring?  Don’t give up your day job?  It doesn’t sit comfortably with most of us to be directly critical of someone’s writing.  It’s like telling someone how ugly their baby is.  All of us find it hard to separate our writing from ourselves, and are prone to take criticism personally.

The feedback sandwich is a widely known technique for giving constructive feedback, by ‘sandwiching’ the criticism between two pieces of praise or compliments.

hamburger with cheese and two beef patties

Yesterday, as we passed around copies of our work (just a page or two) we started to address what William Faulkner famously said:

‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’

First of all, we looked for the juice in each piece.  Where did the writing come alive?  ‘Get rid of the rest,’ we said.  ‘Off with his head—out it goes.’   It’s very difficult to be this honest, and not everyone wants to hear it.  ‘I simply want gentle support and a few corrections,’ some of us might say.

Be willing to have the courage to look at your work with truthfulness.  It’s good to know where your writing has energy and vitality, rather than to spend a lot of time trying to make something come to life that is dead on the page.   Keep writing.  Something new will come up.    You don’t want to put your readers to sleep by writing a lot of boring stuff.

Do you have a writing group? Do you find it useful?

Writing Tip: Story Beginnings

hands typing on typewriter

According to ‘How to Write a Good Hook & Start Your Novel with a Bang!’ by BookBub:

  1. Startle readers with the first line. …
  2. Begin at a life-changing moment. …
  3. Create intrigue about the characters. …
  4. Use a setting as the inciting incident. …
  5. Up the stakes within the first few pages. …
  6. Introduce something ominous right away. …
  7. Set the mood. …
  8. Make your characters sympathetic — and relatable — immediately.
  9. Draw in the reader with a strong voice
  10. Start at a moment of confusion
  11. Don’t get bogged down with exposition
  12. End the first chapter with a killer cliffhanger

Author Jerome Stern writes in ‘Making Shapely Fiction‘:

‘In the first draft of a story, no rules apply. You write and write, ideas come, characters change, situations grow, dialogues take off, speeches become scenes, and surprises occur. … After this first draft exists, then you can bring to bear some of your critical faculties and see what you can see about your creation.’

The Art of Fiction’ author David Lodge asks:

‘When does a novel begin? The question is almost as difficult to answer as the question, when does the human embryo become a person? Certainly the creation of a novel rarely begins with the penning or typing of its first words. Most writers do some preliminary work, if it is only in their heads. Many prepare the ground carefully over weeks or months, making diagrams of the plot, compiling c.v.s for their characters, filling a notebook with ideas, settings, situations, jokes, to be drawn on in the process of composition. Every writer has his or her own way of working.

Hope you find this post useful. Let me know in the comments if there’s something you’d like to add about your own experience of writing a story beginning.

Writing Tip: Things Raymond Carver has said about the short form in writing

uncapped fountain pen on page

‘My attention span had gone out on me; I no longer had the patience to try to write novels. … I know it has much to do now with why I write poems and short stories. Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.’

‘Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.’

‘It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent.’

‘Isak Dinesan said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.’

‘”Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing,” Ezra Pound.’

‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine – the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me.’

‘That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say.’

‘I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories.’

‘I made the story just as I’d make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next.’

‘V.S. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” Notice the “glimpse” part of this. First the glimpse.’

‘The short story writer’s task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things – like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry, if used right, they can hit all the notes.’

Raymond Carver, Fires, Vintage 1989

So who is Raymond Carver?

Raymond Carver, in full Raymond Clevie Carver, (born May 25, 1938, Clatskanie, Oregon, U.S.—died August 2, 1988, Port Angeles, Washington), American short-story writer and poet whose realistic writings about the working poor mirrored his own life. – Encyclopedia Britannica

Writing Tip: Finding the Writer’s Magic

So much advice out there on writing process but these three books, old ones but good ones, are my favorites. You can see how well-loved they are by how many pages are marked with stickers. I’ve used the books many times when teaching my ‘Writing from Within’ course where we try to harness the unconscious by falling into an artistic coma.

1.

Have you ever longed to be able to draw or paint, write or compose music? In ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron you can discover how to unlock your latent creativity and make your dreams a reality.

‘The Artist’s Way’  provides a twelve-week course that guides you through the process of recovering your creative self. It dispels the ‘I’m not talented enough’ conditioning that holds many people back and helps you to unleash your own inner artist.

‘The Artist’s Way’ helps demystify the creative process by making it part of your daily life. It tackles your self-doubts, self-criticism and worries about time, money and the support to pursue your creative dream.

2.

In ‘Writing Down the Bones’ by Natalie Goldberg, the secret of creativity, she makes clear, is to subtract rules for writing, not add them. It’s a process of “uneducation” rather than education. Proof that she knows what she’s talking about is abundant in her own sentences. They flow with speed and grace and accuracy and simplicity. It looks easy to a reader, but writers know it is the hardest writing of all.’ – Robert Pirsig

‘Writing Down the Bones’  Natalie Goldberg’s first book, sold millions of copies and has been translated into twelve languages. For more than thirty years she practiced Zen and taught seminars in writing as a spiritual practice.

3.

‘Becoming a writer’ by Dorothea Brande is a reissue of a classic work published in 1934 on writing and the creative process. It recaptures the excitement of Dorothea Brande’s creative writing classroom of the 1920s. Decades before brain research “discovered” the role of the right and left brain in all human endeavor, Dorothea Brande was teaching students how to see again, how to hold their minds still, how to call forth the inner writer.

‘Refreshingly slim, beautifully written and deliciously elegant, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer remains evergreen decades after it was first written. Brande believed passionately that although people have varying amounts of talent, anyone can write. It’s just a question of finding the “writer’s magic”–a degree of which is in us all. She also insists that writing can be both taught and learned. So she is enraged by the pessimistic authors of so many writing books who rejoice in trying to put off the aspiring writer by constantly stressing how difficult it all is.

‘With close reference to the great writers of her day–Wolfe, Forster, Wharton and so on–Brande gives practical but inspirational advice about finding the right time of day to write and being very self disciplined about it–“You have decided to write at four o’clock, and at four o’clock you must write.” She’s strong on confidence building and there’s a lot about cheating your unconscious which will constantly try to stop you writing by coming up with excuses. Then there are exercises to help you get into the right frame of mind and to build up writing stamina.

‘This is Dorothea Brande’s legacy to all those who have ever wanted to express their ideas in written form. A sound, practical, inspirational and charming approach to writing, it fulfills on finding “the writer’s magic.”‘ – John Gardner

I hope these recommendations are helpful. Do you have useful books on writing process you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.

Writing Tip: Rejection

If you are a writer, rejections aren’t just inevitable, they are a way of life — no matter who you are. Unfortunately, dealing with rejection is part of becoming successful as a published author.  

It’s really hard to handle rejection, to keep a lid on crippling self-doubt and to keep going.

We can easily play down just how hard it is to write through fear.  Fear is made much louder and much larger by rejection.

Rejection feels like a kick in the gut. We have shared our writing and shared are deepest thoughts and so it hurts like hell when we are told it is not good enough.

Writing, of course, is subjective. It may only be one person’s opinion of our work. So we have to keep putting our writing out there in front of different readers, publishers or agents.

Tell yourself as often as you need that you’re not the first writer and won’t be the last to have had a book, a short story, or a poem turned down.

Here is a list of authors who have been treated almost as badly as you have been. It’s sure to make you feel heaps better. It comes from the American literary publisher Knopf’s Archives at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas:

Jorge Luis Borges

‘utterly untranslatable’

Isaac Bashevis Singer

‘It’s Poland and the rich Jews again.’

Anais Nin

‘There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic.’

Jack Kerouac

‘His frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so.’

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence

‘for your own sake do not publish this book.’

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

‘an irresponsible holiday story’

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

‘an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.’

Watership Down by Richard Adams

‘older children wouldn’t like it because its language was too difficult.’

On Sylvia Plath

‘There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.’

Crash by J. G Ballard

‘The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.’

The Deer Park by Norman Mailer

‘This will set publishing back 25 years.’

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

‘Do you realize, young woman, that you’re the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex.’

The Diary of Anne Frank

‘The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the “curiosity” level.’

Lust for Life by Irving Stone

(rejected 16 times, but found a publisher and went on to sell about 25 million copies)

‘ A long, dull novel about an artist.’

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

‘The grand defect of the work, I think, as a work of art is the low-mindedness and vulgarity of the chief actors. There is hardly a “lady” or “gentleman” amongst them.’

Carrie by Stephen King

‘We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.’

Catch — 22 by Joseph Heller

‘I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say… Apparently the author intends it to be funny — possibly even satire — but it is really not funny on any intellectual level … From your long publishing experience you will know that it is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities.’

The Spy who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

‘You’re welcome to le Carré — he hasn’t got any future.’

Animal Farm by George Orwell

‘It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA’

Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde

‘My dear sir,

I have read your manuscript. Oh, my dear sir.’

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

‘… overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.’

So remember, ‘For writers, rejection is a way of life.’ – author, Erica Verrillo.

Writing Tip: Beating Resistance

How many wonderful ideas have we had in our lives that never became anything more than ideas?  What stopped them from becoming reality?  Probably lack of drive, or fear, or both.

If the idea of writing a story, writing a memoir, or writing a blog lights a spark within you, sets off a signal, causes you to drool—or fills you with unspeakable anxiety—then you are ready to write.  What is holding you back is not lack of drive, but fear.  Unadulterated, stark fear.

  • Fear of what?
  • Fear of being unable to write well and being criticized by others?
  • Fear of being unable to stay on track long enough to get to an ending?
  • Fear that you just don’t have what it takes to maintain focus to tell a good story?

Research into the way the brain operates has revealed that there are two sides to the brain, left and right.  Much of our fear of writing comes from the way these two sides do or don’t work together.

“We might term the right brain ‘the creator,’ for apparently it allows us to do creative things—make connections, manifest ideas, imagine situations, see pictures of events.  The left side analyses, categorizes, recalls words, and performs its learning functions in a step-by-step manner,”  Bernard Selling, Writing From Within.

The analytic left brain has a compartment that houses the “critic.”  He or she is the person in us who says,

  • Watch out!
  • You can’t do that!
  • You’ll fail, so don’t even try.
  • You know you’re not good at that!

“If those two voices in you want to fight, let them fight.  Meanwhile, the sane part of you should quietly get up, go over to your notebook, and begin to write from a deeper, more peaceful place.  Unfortunately, those two fighters often come with you to your notebook since they are inside your head.  So you might have to give them five or ten minutes of voice in your notebook.  Let them carry on in writing.  It is amazing that when you give those voices writing space, their complaining quickly gets boring and you get sick of them,” Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

It’s just resistance.

Sometimes, the harder you try, the more you become stuck in your own negativity.  It can feel like car tyres spinning in a bog and you just can’t move forward with ‘the work’.  Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write.  That’s when you need to say ‘stop’ and put it aside for now.  Look for another outlet for your energy before starting again.  Take a break and read books by wonderful writers.  When I get stuck I turn to contemporary poetry for inspiration – thoughtful and passionate poems about living in the modern world.  Some of my favourite poets are:  Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Les Murray and Joanne Burns.

Sometimes I start another writing project before going back to the original one to get more perspective on things.  Other times I will study the beginning and endings of books to get inspiration for a new beginning or a new ending, or sometimes work backwards from the ending as a way to restart.

But don’t get caught in the endless cycle of guilt, avoidance, and pressure.  When it is your time to write, write.  Put yourself out of your misery and just do it.

Writing Tip: The Writing Process

At a literary event I heard someone say, “The thing to do is put the idea in your subconscious.  Your brain will do the work.”

It takes time for our experience to make its way through our consciousness.  For example, it is hard to write about a journey while you are still in the midst of the adventure.  We have no distance from what is happening to us.  The only things we seem to be able to say are “having a great time”, “the weather is good”, “wish you were here”.  It is also hard to write about a place we just moved to, we haven’t absorbed it yet.  We don’t really know where we are, even if we can walk to the train station without losing our way.  We haven’t experienced three scorching summers in this country or seen the dolphins migrating south along the  coast in the winter.

“Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.  I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast  (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964).

So we take in experience, but we need to let things make their way through our consciousness for a while and be absorbed by our whole selves.  We are bower birds, collecting experience, and from the thrown away apple skins, outer lettuce layers, tea leaves, and chicken bones of our minds come our ideas for stories and poems and songs.  But this does not come any time soon.  It takes a very long time (three to ten years in the case of literary fiction).  We need to keep picking through those scraps until some of the thoughts together form a pattern or can be organised around a central theme, something  we can shape into a narrative.  We mine our hidden thoughts for ideas.  But the ideas need time to percolate:  to slowly filter through.

Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi poet, summed up what could be the creative process when he wrote “The Guest House”:

This being human is a guest house.

Each morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing and invite

them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Jalaluddin Rumi, in The Essential Rumi

Translated by Coleman Barks, 1999

Our work is to keep rummaging through the rubbish bins of our minds, exercising the writing muscle, in readiness to answer that knock at the door when it comes.

As the author Vivian Gornick said, “The writers life is the pits.  You live alone and you work alone, every day I have to recreate myself.”  She paused and laughed.  “But when the work is going well there is nothing that compares.”

What about you? Are you ready to answer the knock at the door?  

Writing Tip: Use Your Inner Critic


It is essential to separate the creator and the editor, or inner critic when you practice writing, so that the creator has plenty of room to breathe, experiment, and tell it like it really is.  If the inner critic is being too much of a problem and you can’t distinguish it from your authentic writing voice, sit down whenever you find it necessary to have some distance from it and put down on paper what the critic is saying, put a spotlight on the words—“You have nothing original to say, what made you think you could write anything anyone would want to read, your writing is crap, you’re a loser, I’m humiliated, you write a load of rubbish, your work is pathetic, and your grammar stinks …”  On and on it goes!
Say to yourself, It’s OK to feel this.  It’s OK to be open to this.
You can learn to cultivate compassion for yourself  during this internal process by practicing Mindfulness Meditation.  Sit up straight, close your eyes, bring your awareness to your inner experience.  Now,  redirect your attention to the physical sensations of the breath in the abdomen … expanding as the breath comes in … and falling back as the breath goes out.  Use each breath to anchor yourself in the present.   Continue, concentrating on the breath for several minutes.  Now, expand your field of awareness to include the words of the inner critic.  Turn your attention to where in your body you feel the unpleasant thoughts, so you can attend, moment by moment, to the physical reactions to your thoughts.
 “Stay with the bodily sensations, accepting them, letting them be, exploring them without judgment as best you can.”—Mindfulness, Mark Williams and Danny Penman.
Every time you realise that you’re judging yourself, that realisation in itself is an indicator that you’re becoming more aware.
The thing is, the more clearly you know yourself, the more you can accept the critic in you and use it.  If the voice says, “You have nothing interesting to say,” hear the words as white noise, like the churning of a washing machine.  It will change to another cycle and eventually end, just like your thoughts that come and go like trains at the station.  But, in the meantime, you return to your notebook and practice your writing.  You put the fear and the resistance down on the page.
*
Do you struggle with an inner critic?  Any words of wisdom you’d like to share?

Writing Tip: Spirituality and Creativity

What is the relationship between spirituality and creativity? The discipline and focused attention cultivated through meditation help us do one thing at a time, totally and absolutely, which greatly enhances our writing.

‘Contemplative practice, daily nature walks, and still, silent listening can be among the best natural meditations. They help clarify our minds and uplift the heart, dissolving our ordinary preoccupations and mental states that dissipate the fertile spirit within. Such daily disciplines are also excellent tonics for our agitated, febrile brains and weary bodies. When we ease into the realm of non-doing–what Chinese Buddhists called wu wei–there is more room for our mysterious, unfabricated inner self to naturally emerge.’ – Lama Surya Das

It’s tough being a writer. Very tough. As Thomas Mann says, A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

Dinty Moore, in his book The Mindful Writer, Noble Truths of the Writing Life, says his lifelong pursuit of writing and creativity has helped to open him to the path of Buddhism:

‘Find inspiration and insight on writing as a spiritual practice through astute quotes, thoughtful advice, and productive exercises on both mindfulness and craft.  This isn’t your typical “how to write” book. Author Dinty W. Moore, a well-respected writing coach and teacher, thoughtfully illuminates the creative process: where writing and creativity originate, how mindfulness plays into work, how to cultivate good writing habits and grow as a person, and what it means to live a life dedicated to writing.’ – The Mindful Writer

Here’s to Mindfulness and Meditation to help us on our way through our roller coaster lives as creative writers.

Writing Tip: Use the Senses

Sounds, sights, and smells are all part of  creating an atmosphere.

‘The creation of the physical world is as crucial to your story as action and dialogue. If your readers can be made to see the glove without fingers or the crumpled yellow tissue, the scene becomes vivid. Readers become present. Touch, sound, taste and smell make readers feel as if their own fingers are pressing the sticky windowsill.

‘If you don’t create evocative settings, your characters seem to have their conversations in vacuums or in some beige nowhere-in-particular. Some writers love description too much. They go on and on as if they were setting places at the table for an elaborate dinner that will begin later on. Beautiful language or detailed scenery does not generate momentum. Long descriptions can dissipate tension or seem self-indulgent. Don’t paint pictures. Paint action.’ – Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction

Bringing in sensory detail is a way to enrich a story with texture to create the fullness of experience, to make the reader be there.

using all five senses quote on green board

What about you? Do you use the senses, apart from sight, to create atmosphere?