Monday, October 14, 2019

9 Tips for NaNoWriMo

At a recent writing workshop I led, everyone was talking about NaNoWriMo with varying degrees of panic and excitement. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month or, as non-writers call it, November.
            NaNoWriMo has become a global phenomenon with thousands of writers participating, joining in online communities, charting word counts and progress, sharing stories of success and failure, and providing pep talks for each other.
So what’s the deal? You try to write a novel in one month. Can it be done? Sure. At least a first draft for fast writers. Writers who move to a different beat may not get a complete draft down, but they can get an overview of the novel and quite a bit written, often more than they thought they could. At the very least, it’s a catalyst that gets your ass in chair and your mind moving. It also forces you to focus on narrative momentum and getting the story in gear.
To that end, I’ve put together a few tips that writing colleagues and I have found useful, and that I hope will help put this journey in perspective. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo before, and I’m going to do it again! I’m at the tail end of one novel and hoping to plant the seeds for a new one.

Here goes!

1. Prewrite!!! Start prewriting now, if you can. Write a tentative outline, draw a map, brainstorm circles and connections, list key scenes and beats, motifs and symbols… whatever it takes to help you envision the big picture.

2. Clear the decks of other obligations as much as you can. But hey, life goes on. Families, jobs, responsibilities—we’re not islands. Do what you can with what you have. Make that enough, and it will be enough.

3. Dive right in and write what excites you, what you’re dying to write, the reason that drives you to write this novel. You can work your way out from there, and back and up and forward. Start at the throbbing heart of your story.

4. Maintain a regular writing schedule. Whatever your lifestyle/work habits, wherever you are-- train/bus/coffeeshop/library/your own study—create a time that is yours, preferably the same time everyday, devoted to writing. But make it realistic, the kind of schedule you can keep up for a month.

5. Try to get the big research issues dealt with before you start writing, but inevitably questions will arise. You can sink into the quicksand of google and spend days looking up details. Keep it to a minimum. Wherever I need to research, I type: XXX. When I’m looking back over the manuscript, that’s easy to find. I tell myself: “I’ll XXX it now and look it up later.”

6. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t get too precious with your words. There’s a time for that. It’s called December.

7. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t expect perfection in a first draft. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not a speedy writer who races to the finish line. Focus on getting as much done as you can.

8. Don’t stop writing on November 30th. Be thankful you’ve started a great practice. Try to maintain it, with modifications of course. The reason diets don’t work is because they’re intense and exaggerated for a brief period, and impossible to maintain over a long time. What does work is changing your attitude and lifestyle. If you make writing a part of your daily life, NaNoWriMo will simply intensify what you’re already doing.

9. Have fun with it! Don’t get so tense and obsessed with daily word counts that you can’t be playful. Think of this month as an adventure, a voyage you’re embarking on. Look at the blank page as a place where anything is possible, your Queendom or Kingdom. This is the beginning—every road beckons, every door is unlocked, and your imagination is the only limit.

Here’s my writing mantra:

            Say it hot.
            Say it short.
            Say it you.
            Say it now.

Writing is such a solitary practice that whenever we can connect with other writers and form a community it helps on many levels. If you’re in a writing group, you may decide to work on NaNoWriMo together, sharing encouragement and experiences as you go through the month. If not, you may find it helpful to get a writing buddy, online or in person, with whom to compare notes. The most valuable part of this experience may be the heightened awareness that although we write alone, we are not alone.   

Good luck and happy writing, you wizards and witches! And if you have any tips to add, please share them in the comments!

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Guest Post: The Reader and the Writer’s Imagination

Hello, friends! Back with another guest post by a wonderful writer and dear friend, Miryam Sivan, whose new novel, Make It Concrete,  just came out last month. It's a beautiful novel, and I highly recommend it! By the way, I took the above photo during one of Miryam's and my long walks, during which we talk about everything under the sun. This one was taken in Central Park on a hazy summer afternoon, a good time to brood over the power of the imagination.

In this post, she poses fascinating questions about points where "reality" and our lived experiences intersect with the imagined experience of "fiction." Where does one end, and the other begin? And does it matter? These questions are in my mind as I navigate the final stretch of my novel-in-progress. More on that in the next post! For now, enjoy Miryam on The Reader and the Writer's Imagination!

Recently I read a book review that praised the writer’s autofiction.  That got me thinking about that genre and what we once called autobiographical fiction. After a little reading I realized there’s a bit of a muddle. To some degree the new name (since the 1970s) of autofiction has added cache to the older familiar genre of autobiographical fiction. Autofiction sounds sexier and often includes the voyeuristic meta aspect: writers writing about writers writing. I get it. And I like it, if, like with Philip Roth’s Zuckerman trilogy, the writing itself is superb. And in general, since I don’t read to mine a writer’s private life, I don’t care what’s auto and what’s not. I care about the quality of the sentences themselves, the story being told, the larger philosophical or political concerns of the text.
Not caring about sources is reflected in my own fiction. I do not have an agenda to use or not use my life’s experiences. And I do and don’t use them. For the most part though, I don’t, at least not in terms of plot and characters. The most deliberate mining of my own life comes in the emotional lives of my characters. Which is also where the deepest motives for writing a story are revealed. Example: if I write about violence against women, then I will use the feelings I may have had in relation to a specific incident (either a news item or from someone’s life I know) to express my character’s pain, fear, anger, helplessness, etc. What exactly happened, to whom, and how I make up, imagine, if you will, but the emotional landscape is often already known. Though even then it’s blended with the imagined….
I am less interested in what happened and more interested in what might happen. Sticking to a character based on myself, seems to me infinitely boring, limiting, and frankly I don't think I could pull it off.... I would be hyperconscious all the time of how I was molding and resisting strands of what I think are true, want to be true, want to erase – both from memory and certainly from the page. I know how profound influential unconscious bias is and would track it in my sentences. This would compromise my great pleasure in the freedom of making stuff up. And while I believe in the wonderful work of psychotherapy, I don’t want it to become part of my writing process.
The irony of course is that no matter how imagined, readers who know me think much of the material in my fiction is autobiographical. In my recently published novel, Make it Concrete, my protagonist, Isabel, has a boyfriend, a lover near home, a lover in a foreign country, and is capable of picking up a sexual adventure in her travels depending on her mood. Not only have certain readers expressed discomfort with her sex life (another subject I intend to write about soon), but they assume it reflects my life style. “I wish,” I respond, not going defensive on Isabel’s account. Je ne suis pas Isabel Toledo! And stop looking at me like I’ve invited you into my bedroom. Same goes with many details of the book. Isabel has 3 children. I have one. One person actually asked me how I was able to write about this. Huh? Or how about Isabel’s dog? She has a small Jack Russell terrier while I have always had large dogs. Someone said to me that they knew I’d put my dog in my book. Guess all dogs look alike to some people.
Back to emotional mining. I am the mother of one and can easily imagine being the mother of three. I am a dog lover and size in fiction or in real life doesn’t matter. I know this emotional bond very well. It’s not hard to put it on the page and it’s certainly not hard to imagine loving a dog with a very different temperament than the ones I’ve been lucky to live with. Luckily for many writers their readers are not always people they know personally, so they’re not subject to this kind of personal scrutiny.
I say all this stridently, but I don’t feel this way. I actually find it amusing, not upsetting. Even when I write imaginatively people assume I’m writing autofiction. And in Make it Concrete  I confuse them even more since the novel is about a writer who writes! Isabel Toledo is a ghostwriter for Holocaust survivors… something I did once years ago. Isabel has been doing it for twenty years and is on her sixteenth book…. like one child versus three…. So heck, let readers think I’m having fabulous erotic encounters with gorgeous men in unusual sexy locations. Yippee!

Originally from New York City, Miryam Sivan has lived for over twenty years in Israel. She is a Ph.D. and teaches literature and writing at the University of Haifa. Many of her short stories have come out in American and British journals and two were staged. SNAFU and Other Stories, was published in 2014 (Cuidono Press), and her novel, Make it Concrete was published in 2019 (Cuidono Press). Sivan is currently revising a novel, Love Match, a Romeo and Juliet story set in Haifa, and is working on a screenplay about Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Ode to My Library: Guest Post

It's been a long day's night of a summer, working on a couple of projects which I'll tell you about in my next post, but today Kate Racculia is here! Kate is a wonderful writer whose new book, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, will be out next month. I can't wait! In the meantime read on to find out about her relationship with her books. Impossible not to relate! You've got me thinking about my shelves and their crazy "organization"....

Here's Kate...

Ah, books and their shelves...

My books and I, we have a problem.
When I say “my books” I mean, of course, the many, many volumes—primarily of fiction, but a smattering of poetry, plays, and nonfiction—I have amassed over my lifetime. The books of my childhood: The Westing Game, The NeverEnding Story, anthologies of Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. The books of my teen years—a copy of Jurassic Park with SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE emblazed on a red starburst—and of college (Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare), graduate school (Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, A Room of One’s Own), and beyond, up through the past decade of my life as a professional novelist. The problem my books and I have now isn’t so much that I have too many of them (I do), or even that I have a problem getting rid of them (I don’t, when I bother to weed), but that I possess enough now to comprehend the flaws in my initial organizational system.
This system, if you want to call it that, is a mishmash of circumstance and affection, maintained by a mix of habit and laziness. Eternal favorites go here. Current reads are here, and travel back and forth between living room and bedroom. Books I was reading when I moved are shelved here, vintage mass market paperbacks are stacked there. Books I’ve borrowed and intend to return but admittedly probably never will are stashed there. Books that I can feel exerting that special kind of gravity, that I’ll end up writing about someday, even if I’m the only person who will ever be able to trace their influence—are stacked, precariously, there. I am both a re-reader and a used bookstore magpie, and go to my own shelves to revisit gems or discover un-read treasures. The result is that my apartment, which is quite big enough for one person and two cats, is full of not only overstuffed bookcases but random stalagmites of books (from my vantage on the couch, I count five) that I admit are trending less “cozy” and more “cluttered.”
But now comes the problem: if I am, as Marie Kondo suggests, to pile all my books into one room, sort through and only keep the ones that give me joy—where and how on earth am I going to put the joy-givers back, and ever hope to find them again? I’ve Kondo-tidied other parts of my life, my kitchen, my closet, so I know the delight and freedom that comes from only surrounding yourself with objects intentionally chosen. And humans better equipped than I have already come up with plenty of useful organizational schema: Melville Dewey gets points for complexity. The alphabet—a classic. I half attempted, several years ago, to make a bookshelf of favorite authors, snuggling my Barbara Pyms up to my Stephen Kings, and plan to return to it (probably around the same time that I read and return those borrowed books). Bookshelves organized by spine color give me hives, though of course this is essentially how my books are organized too: by a design entirely of my own making, based on my recall both of the book’s physicality and when it came into my life. The Scarlet Pimpernel was a gift, is a TV movie tie-in with Jane Seymour on the cover—it’s in the mass market stack. Beloved was a used book sale score, missing its cover: a rough linen spine on the eternal favorites overflow shelf. In order to organize my library in such a way that any human other than me can find anything in it, I need to surrender the very particular ties I have to each of my books as objects. I need to depersonalize it, in other words. Which is probably why the idea feels so uncomfortable, and why I’ll get around to re-organizing as soon as I return those books I’ve borrowed: they’re already organized just so, as the library of my life.
Kate Racculia is a novelist living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She is the author of the novels This Must Be the Place and Bellweather Rhapsody, winner of the American Library Association’s Alex Award. Her third novel, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2019. She teaches online for Grub Street, works at her local public library, and sings in the oldest Bach choir in America.          

Visit Kate at:
Here's information about her latest novel:

Monday, June 17, 2019


I have always loved the idea of literary salons, in which creatives from all disciplines gather to discuss issues, challenges, inspirations, and joys in their work. One of my greatest pleasures in maintaining this blog is the chance to create an online version of the salon with guest posts by people I admire and love.
Today, I'm delighted to welcome my friend, sister writer, Janice Eidus, and her daughter, Alma.
The ways in which Janice and Alma, whose photos illustrate the post, connect through their art inspires me. I hope it will inspire you too!
Take it away, Janice!

            I marvel at the intensity and craft of the photographs in my daughter’s portfolio. Now 16, Alma has wanted to become a professional photographer since she was in middle school.
            I marvel too at the deep connection between her work and mine as a writer. For instance, a while back, Alma took a series of photographs of her close friend Natalie. Tall, thin, and doe-eyed, Natalie is conventionally attractive by society’s standards. But Alma’s intention was to reveal her friend’s inner beauty: her loyalty, generosity, intelligence, and empathy. In one photo, Natalie is surrounded by lights seemingly suspended from the sky. In another she walks dreamily through the rain.

            My intention too is to explore the inner lives of my characters. When the husband in my comic novel Urban Bliss cheats on his wife, I delve into his past so that readers will understand why. In my short story Vito Loves Geraldine I examine what underlies teenaged Geraldine’s unconditional and undying love for Vito, the cutest boy in their Bronx neighborhood.
            One afternoon on impulse Alma took a photo of a young girl alone in a playground. The girl’s back is to the camera. Unmoving, she sits on a swing, appearing disconnected from the world around her. My story Davida’s Own was similarly inspired by my sighting of a girl the same age alone on a beach, staring at the water.
            In her self-portraits, Alma limns her transformation from a shy 13-year-old to a poised high school junior. Her tentative expression and stance at 13 are determined and confident at 16. In my autobiographical essays, I reveal myself as a woman grappling with a difficult past while delighting in current joys. I describe how as a child I scrawled short poems, plays, stories, and “novels” about my life with a charismatic yet violent father and a depressed mother. Like Alma’s friend Natalie I was sometimes surrounded by light and sometimes by storms.
            Recently, Alma shot a black-and-white series of a woman’s hand. The woman appears to be sitting at a table with a copy of The New Yorker, an energy bar, and a cup of tea in front of her. As the photos unfold, the woman’s hand turns the pages of The New Yorker. She takes bites of the energy bar. She sips from the cup of tea. Here, Alma is paying homage to Andy Warhol, an artistic hero of hers and mine. Like Warhol, whose subjects range from sleep to soup cans, Alma brings together seemingly quotidian details while analyzing the texture of contemporary life and art. And by the way, it’s my hand, magazine, and cup of black tea in Alma’s photos, which makes me feel a heightened and profound connection to them.

            Alma’s current subject is shadows. With intricate lighting and meticulously arranged vases, flowers, and everyday items like fabrics, she captures with her camera shadows of various shapes and sizes. These shadows remind me that my writing – even the most comical – contains dark and shadowy truths. In Urban Bliss, the husband’s illicit affair is painful for both himself and his wife. In Vito Loves Geraldine, I look not only at the pleasures of unconditional love but also at its implicit heartaches.
              Many photographers inspire Alma, including Martin Schoeller whose portraits of both celebrities and non-celebrities are un-posed and natural, evoking their genuine personalities. She also loves the work of the young British photographer Juno Calypso whose photographs subvert the meanings of the words “feminine” and “romantic” as she embarks on a solo world tour of honeymoon hotels.
            As for me, I’m influenced by numerous writers. Angela Carter’s stunning, elegant prose and fierce feminist vision show me how fiction can transform readers’ worldviews. Edgar Allan Poe’s unreliable narrators have intrigued me since I was a little girl reading Annabel Lee for the first time.
        Day by day, Alma inspires me as well. I’m confident that she and I will continue on our respective artistic journeys. Along the way, we’ll learn more and more about the power of the imagination, the thrilling and rewarding artistic process, and our own deep – and ever-deepening – connection.
Photo by Alma Kastan

Alma Kastan is a rising high school senior. She studies photography at The International Center of Photography and New York Film Academy, and plans to become a professional photographer.
Janice Eidus is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and a writing coach who works one-on-one and in small groups. She’s twice won 

the O.Henry Prize as well as a Pushcart Prize; her novels include The War Of The Rosens; Urban Bliss; and The Last Jewish Virgin. Her short story collections are Vito Loves Geraldine and The Celibacy Club. Her website is