Category: The writing life

Finding quality writing time

By Midge Raymond,

“I’ll never have it as good as prison again,” said author Dewitt Gilmore once told New York Times. “For writing, anyway.”

This New York Times article, “Street Lit With Publishing Cred: From Prison to a Four-Book Deal,” seems to be  proof that writers do need rooms of their own: Gilmore (whose pen name is Relentless Aaron) began writing his street-lit novels in 1996 during a stint in a federal prison in New Jersey; eventually, he got a six-figure book deal with St. Martin’s Press. He’s written thirty manuscripts, has printed ten of them himself, and will publish his next four with St. Martin’s.

As Gilmore told the Times, referring to the time he spent in the solitary confinment of an eight-by-four cell, “Nothing could match solitary for writing.”

I couldn’t agree more. What I recommend, however, is not a trip to prison. Instead, I’ll suggest a few ways to create your own “solitary confinement” — especially for writers who need to fit their work in among day jobs, families, and other things that might otherwise make writing time a challenge.

Think of yourself as a writer. If you don’t see yourself as a writer, how will you allow yourself the time to write? First, tell yourself that your work is important. Remind yourself that you have things to say. Be adamant about setting aside time to say them.

Remind your friends and family that you are a writer. When you create time in your schedule to write — especially when it takes time away from them — make it known that you are working. Because you are working — no matter what pleasure writing brings you, it’s also hard work.

Create your own writing space. Even if it’s just a tiny desk in the smallest corner of your home, make it your own. Get rid of anything that might distract you, and keep near you the things that inspire you: books, candles, artwork.

– Schedule your writing time. My friend Stacey is a life coach who offers this amazing advice: Take your writing time as seriously as any job. If you work at Starbucks, she points out, you’d have to clock in, right? And so it should be with your writing time: Get it on the calendar, show up, and complete your shift.

– Find a writing buddy. Having a good support system is essential for all of us, and especially for writers. Join a writing group that forces you to show up with written pages on deadline, for example — or find a writing buddy to meet at a cafe for an hour of freewriting. The nice thing about a writing buddy or group is that you’re accountable: you have to show up (or you have to have a good excuse for why you didn’t).

Happy writing.


On cover art, translation, literary drunks, and more

By Midge Raymond,

While most writers know that book titles can’t be copyrighted, we have yet to see another Moby-Dick or Gone with the Wind. What’s far more common, as this site shows, is using same cover art for many different books.

Doesn’t every writer love a good malapropism? This NY Times article reminded me of my days living in Taipei, when I’d encounter various bizarre English translations. Visitors to Shanghai won’t be able to enjoy similar mistakes much longer, thanks to the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use, which is fixing everything from menus to street signs. So long to menus listing “monolithic tree mushroom stem squid” and restroom signs reading “urine district.” Check out the Times slide show for a few hilarious examples, including the one below.

Speaking of being lost in translation: From Jhumpa Lahiri to Chuck Palahniuk to Donald Barthelme, authors’ names are often mispronounced with such authority that soon even the correct pronunciation sounds wrong. Click here for a guide.

I rather enjoyed this Life magazine slide show entitled “Famous Literary Drunks & Addicts.” If nothing else, it made me feel pretty healthy by comparison.

Having trouble jump-starting your latest story? The American Book Review lists the best 100 first lines from novels here … it’s inspiring, if a little intimidating.

And finally — and definitely inspiring — is this blog from Alan Rinzler on finding courage as a writer, with such advice as not being afraid to talk to yourself, to let things simmer, and to start over.



The physical act of writing

By Midge Raymond,

I can still remember the first story I ever wrote, when I was maybe eight or nine years old, on school notebook paper in what was then my fairly neat, legible handwriting. I think it may also have been illustrated. Perhaps because, back in my day, we still wrote high-school English papers by hand (I had a word processor in college but didn’t get my first computer until graduate school — and yes, that does make me feel old), I still often write out scenes by hand. I find writing longhand especially helpful when writing a first draft, or when polishing a close-to-final one. I’ve always loved what Natalie Goldberg says about writing by hand: “Arm connected to shoulder, chest, heart.”

But I do remember taking both computer and typing classes (on actual typewriters). And these days, nothing makes you feel quite as old as admitting you used to write by typewriter. Often, while visiting the Seattle Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, I would hear people younger than me wondering what this odd sculpture is:

(Note to young people: It’s a typewriter eraser. We use to employ these to get rid of typos before we had backspace buttons and the delete key.)

Eventually, the keyboard took the place of the pen and the notebook in my academic life, and even in my writing life. But not for long: I always continued to write by hand, whether taking notes during an interview or scrawling out an outline. And now I use some combination of the two.

Many writers are particular, even superstitious, about the way they get their words on the page. I enjoyed discovering this site featuring Authors A-Z, “an ongoing project featuring the lives, works, and typewriters of the most outstanding authors around the world.” Here, you’ll find out that Harper Lee wrote on an Underwood portable. That Joseph Heller used an SCM Smith Corona Electra. That even Joyce Carol Oates has rejected the computer: She writes in longhand, then types her notes into scenes using “a Japanese made Swintec 1000 electronic typewriter with ‘a little memory’ but no screen.”

And if you’re interested in owning a piece of these antiques, here’s even an (expensive) online store where you can browse old typewriters and jewelry made of their keys. (Check out eBay and flea markets, too.) Over the last few years, my husband and I have been picking up typewriters here and there (we have three Underwoods and and have recently added a Remington), and will probably keep adding to the collection, at least until we run out of space. Only one of ours is in any sort of working condition, but that’s not why we bought them. Even bent and broken, with sticky keys and dried-out ribbon, we think they’re pretty cool — maybe because they always look as if they’re smiling.


Author photos: A Q&A with photographer Rosanne Olson

By Midge Raymond,

Perhaps some authors love having their photos taken, but I’m not one of them. In fact, I was planning to use my current author photo until the end of time … until I discovered the lovely photographs of Seattle photographer Rosanne Olson.

I first encountered Rosanne’s work in her beautiful book, This Is Who I Am, a collection of images and essays on women, body image, and compassion that Kate Winslet called “an absolutely wonderful book” and declared, “Every woman needs to see it!” As well as an author, Rosanne is an award-winning photographer and photojournalist who also has more than thirty years’ experience as a teacher and lecturer. She is particularly passionate about telling stories through portraits — of women, families, business professionals…and, yes, authors.

Rosanne generously agreed to chat with me about author photos, and already I’m looking forward to working with her on my new author photo (if I ever finish my next book, that is).

What do you think makes a good author photo?

The photograph needs to convey how the author wants to portray himself/herself. Usually that means approachable, intelligent, engaging. Some people are more dramatic in how they want to be seen. Some are more friendly or sophisticated.

What advice can you offer to writers who are nervous about having their photos taken?

People come to me with varying degrees of “nervousness” about how they look and how they “photograph” (“No one has ever taken a good photo of me” is a common complaint). This is very natural. My approach to get people to relax is to spend time talking to my clients before I pick up my camera. I also will likely read some of their work prior to the session. I make recommendations about clothing and makeup, and then, as the session proceeds, share some of the digital images with the client. I like to make them feel that they are in competent and compassionate hands with something that is very precious to them. After the session, I get them to sit with me to edit the photos to make sure they get the look they want.

What are the biggest mistakes authors make when it comes to their photos?

Sometimes people come here with too much makeup on. Or they bring their clothing stuffed into a bag so everything is wrinkled. Believe me, not just authors do this but lots of people. It is actually pretty amusing except for the fact that clothing then needs to be pressed or steamed here. Aside from that, people are usually willing to trust me to do the best possible job that I can with them. It is an exquisite collaboration.

What should an author expect to pay for a professional author photo?

Photographers’ fees vary across the country, but most charge somewhere between $150 and $2,500. If you pay the least amount possible for a photo you may get something okay. Or even just fine. But will it work for years to come? I try to work with people and their budgets. It is definitely an important investment.

Do you recommend color or black-and-white for author photos — and why?

Things are shot digitally these days so all images come out in color and it takes an extra step to convert them to black-and-white or sepia. That said, I think color conveys more because it is, well, color.

Do you have any recommendations for authors who are looking for a photographer? What questions should they ask?

An author photo is an important piece of one’s “brand.” If you have a photo you like, you can use it for years. When people see it they will think of you and of your work. I think of some of the famous, famous photos of people like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver and how they convey so much at a glance. Pick your photographer by looking at the photographer’s web site and perhaps talking on the phone. Also, ask for references from other artists and authors who have been photographed by that person.

For another recent conversation with Rosanne, visit poet Susan Rich’s blog (Rosanne’s photo of Susan is directly above…and above that is author Wendy Call) — and simply post a comment at the end of the article to win a copy of This Is Who I Am.


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On debut novels, short stories, and more

By Midge Raymond,

Given the way our culture celebrates youth (including writers), I really enjoyed this post by Randy Susan Meyers in the Huffington Post: a list of 41 writers whose debut novels were published after they turned 40 (among them: Meyers’ own book, The Murderer’s Daughters, as well as National Book Award winner Julia Glass and Pulitzer winners Paul Harding, Edward P. Jones, and Elizabeth Strout).

For those of you who love short stories (and who doesn’t?!), check out Storyville, an iPhone/iPad app that brings stories directly to your device. It’s $4.99 for six months’ worth of stories — one each week. And even better news for short story (and literary novel) readers: Andrew’s Book Club is back! And there’s already a new pick for the new year. And for both readers and writers, be sure to check out Ashland Creek Shorts, which are available on the Kindle for 99 cents — and we’re now taking submissions!

Maybe it’s our diminishing attention spans, but stories seem to be getting shorter and shorter and shorter. Along with flash fiction, micro fiction, and prose poems, we now have “hint fiction” (check out this NPR story for samples).

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, The Paris Review has made its interviews available online — an amazing series of author interviews all the way back to the 1950s.

If you draw inspiration from seeing where writers work, in the U.S. there are 73 writers’ houses open to the public, including Norman Mailer’s and Edith Wharton’s.

And did you know that for 90 percent of what we communicate, we use only about 7,000 words? We’re losing words from the English language every day, and Oxford University Press hopes to save them with Save the Words, where you can visit with long-lost words and offer up your own words for safekeeping.