Category Archives: Writing Coach

Long Story Short

Gazebo in the main square, Canary Falls

I’ve asked around, and it seems normal not to want to look at something you’ve created after it’s finished—though I’d hate to think Shakespeare read Hamlet just the once. The subtext here is that I finally completed a writing project! My creative coach, Ziva, had tasked me with entering the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. I was still drafting, editing, and proofreading thirty minutes before the deadline.

After I submitted the piece, I never wanted to see it again—which didn’t stop me from tossing and turning that night as I reflected on its flaws. These gyrations were purely mental, as there was a 45-pound dog lying across my legs. While my feet fell asleep, I lamented numerous aspects of the work I had delivered with my entry fee:

  • Length. The composition was based on a synopsis I had written for a story intended to be 3,000 to 5,000 words. Contest entries, however, were limited to 1,500 words (hence, “short short”). Telling the tale was like trying to squeeze a size-ten foot into a size-six shoe.
  • Word choice. Every time I proofed the story, I would change certain words—and then change them back in the next pass. I should have changed them one more time.
  • Perfectness. I had only two weeks to write the story, so I wasn’t able to craft it to the level I desired. Ziva had advised me to take my perfectionism down to 70 percent, even speculating that 70 percent could turn out to be 100 percent. I still don’t get the math.

The result of the exercise described above appears below. Should you decide to read it, please forget the negative things I just said about it. To pique your interest (or save you seven minutes), the story is about a combat journalist who experiences a close call in the field and returns to her hometown.

Canary Falls

Thirty-seven-year-old Leigh Forrester had been scared before: When she started prep school mid-semester. When her first boyfriend asked her to have sex. When a 1974 Ford Cortina collided with a black bear, making her an orphan. But as a cable news reporter from the globe’s conflict zones, she possessed a preternatural composure. Untrained to deal with dangerous situations, and protected only by a helmet and bulletproof vest, she never considered she could die. Her determination to capture major world events, sustained by adrenaline, insulated her mind from such thoughts. Nor did she worry when her lover, Michel, a war photographer, hadn’t made contact since Christmas; he always resurfaced.

Embedded with U.S. Marines in the volatile Helmand province of Afghanistan, Leigh confronted her vulnerability. On a bright, brisk morning, as she recorded footage outside a reopened clinic in a district liberated from the Taliban, rocket fire from the city limits spread mortar bombs over the area. One landed on the hunter-green Afghan police truck in which she had traveled, sending shards of metal and glass in all directions. Shaken, Leigh realized she needed a respite from peril. She didn’t even wait for the network’s approval. Rather than return to the Notting Hill flat she shared with other combat journalists, however, she wanted to feel the comforts of home.

Leigh walked into town carrying her duffel bag as the sun, still below the horizon, started to color the sky. She barely remembered arriving in Canary Falls, though she knew she must have taken planes, trains, and a bus to get there. She feared she had a concussion from the blast and made a mental note to visit the physician—for as much as a mental note was worth to a person with a brain injury. She had heard Dr. Starr passed a while back and was replaced by a young woman.

The local diner, Logan’s, hadn’t opened yet, but Leigh noticed activity inside. Approaching, she marveled that the business looked just as it had in her youth: mint-green walls, mismatched tables and chairs, tchotchke-stuffed shelves. The eponymous proprietor, who already seemed old when she was a girl, unlocked the door and led her to a hickory stool at the counter, next to an antique cash register. He gave her a big breakfast free of charge.

Leigh set off toward the Dandelion Inn, where she planned to spend a week under a floral quilted bedspread. The breeze carried spring’s freshness, with a hint of summer’s warmth. “I used to love a day like this,” she thought. “In this picturesque New England burg,” the correspondent in her added. After a few minutes, she stopped in front of a two-story, sky-blue house with a wraparound porch. Fifteen years earlier, she had sold the dwelling, furnished, to a young family. She wondered if the Kims still lived there and, if so, why “FORRESTER” still appeared in faded black letters on the white mailbox. Aware she might be committing a felony, Leigh eased the metal door toward her; it creaked a tune she recalled from childhood. Inside was an envelope bearing a single word in a graceful hand: “Leigh.” She slid her thumb beneath the barn-red wax seal, impressed with a calligraphic C. A shiny key fell into her palm. She must have sent word ahead and forgotten.

The walls were still buttercup yellow with white molding. Vintage rugs still dotted the maple floors. Leigh recognized her grandfather’s cushioned rocking chair, beside the brick fireplace with a built-in niche for logs. Her gaze lingered on a framed photograph of a radiant couple on a beach, holding hands as they ran in the surf; she always thought of her parents this way. Leigh crossed the living room to a lampshade painted with violets, which she recalled “improving” with a purple crayon; she fingered the fabric, which was unmarked.

Upstairs, Leigh filled the claw-foot cast-iron tub from a faucet mounted on the rim. She stripped, lowered herself into the steaming water, and closed the pink pinstriped curtain around her. Settling back, she sought to understand how her home from ages eight to eighteen had remained intact and immaculate since she exchanged it, following her grandmother’s death, for enough cash to leave her comfortable. Did the Kims never move in? Do they rent the place out to vacationers? She would go into town and question the selectman or the gossip, whichever she encountered first. Back downstairs, in her old bedroom off the kitchen, she dressed in khakis and a white button-down shirt; in the field, she would add a scarf or jacket as necessary.

Through the textured glass of the double front door, Leigh thought she saw a carriage, drawn by two white horses, waiting at the curb. Indeed, roses, tulips, irises, and dahlias filled the spokes of the wheels. A plume of white feathers adorned each steed’s head. “Welcome home, Leigh!” the townsfolk shouted upon seeing her. When the team reached Main Street, Leigh found herself in a parade. The thoroughfare was lined with people displaying congratulatory signs and shaking ribbons on sticks; they smiled, waved, and yelled her name as she passed. Leigh viewed a truck-drawn float decked with streamers up ahead, and heard a marching band behind. She never expected such a reception, despite being a television personality. She laughed, her eyes filling with tears, and blew kisses to the crowd.

The procession ended in the main square, where lemonade was served, and a three-piece band played Dixieland. Leigh joined former friends and acquaintances, though none could provide insight into the old Forrester cottage. A message spread that a community barbecue would take place at five o’clock. Exhausted, Leigh excused herself; she was hoping to see the new doctor. On the walk over, she mused at the demographic shift in Canary Falls. The inhabitants seemed generally older, with a smattering of middle-aged folks and hardly any children. Perhaps others of her generation had also moved away.

The name on the shingle confused her: “Dr. Richard Starr.” She should have checked her sources; the doc’s wavy hair was still carrot-colored, without a trace of gray. “You’re the picture of health,” he announced, after examining her, “and will probably live forever.” He attributed her mental lapses to the trauma she suffered. Strolling home, Leigh noticed a familiar-looking dog with a curly brown coat. “Babette!” she called out. The mutt trotted over for an ear scratching and went on her way.

Burgers, ribs, chicken, trout, and vegetable kebabs cooked on innumerable grills. Side dishes—corn on the cob, zucchini, asparagus, sweet potatoes, coleslaw, baked beans, biscuits, ambrosia—were ubiquitous. Assorted pies, cakes, and cookies blanketed a long table. Donning the sleeveless plaid-print red dress she wore under her gown at her high school graduation, Leigh wondered if this cookout was being held in her honor. Her answer came after sundown, when Zack St. James, the town selectman, invited her up to the central gazebo, its columns wrapped in garlands of white stargazer lilies. Zack directed everyone’s attention to a theatrical screen hung on a building bordering the square. “Leigh Emily Forrester, this is your life!” his voice boomed over the mic.

The highlight reel mesmerized her: Running around the house in Dad’s gigantic shoes. Getting a shot, slurping a milkshake. Swinging on the veranda with Gramp while it rained. Riding in a car, blindfolded, with members of a secret society. Crossing into Darfur on a moonless night. Making love with Michel in his Paris apartment. Lying on the dusty ground in Bost, bloody, unmoving.

The final image faded, but Leigh remained transfixed. “Could I be dead?” she murmured, staring at the blankness.

Zack held the microphone to her lips.

“Am I dead?” she demanded.

“As a doornail, dodo, or mutton,” he replied, garnering laughs from the audience.

Someone squeezed Leigh’s right hand. She turned to see her mother’s sparkling eyes. When her knees gave way, her father caught her on the left. Behind each parent stood a set of grandparents. A sweeter reunion could not be imagined.

“While you get reacquainted,” Zack interjected, “I’d like to thank the former residents of Canary Falls for making this homecoming possible. You all got together and, through collective concentration, created this remarkable replica of the hamlet we cherished on earth. Sudden transitions can be difficult, but as you can see, Leigh is doing wonderfully.” The assembled souls applauded. “Soon you will be returning to your usual forms and roles, but for now, enjoy the party!” They cheered. To Leigh, he added perfunctorily, “Your guides will be in touch.”

Assuming she had eternity to catch up, Leigh took her leave after a while. In her mind, she still needed sleep. As she neared the house, she was startled by a shadowy figure on the steps.

“The village is adorable.” He used the French pronunciation. “Just as you described.”

“I am a journalist,” she responded. “Or was. You know you’re dead, right?”

Michel grinned. “C’est la vie.”

Hand in hand, they went inside.

Yes, Coach!

Seven months ago, I started a writing project: a collection of short stories. I surprised myself by completing synopses for 10 short stories in 12 weeks; the synopses average a little over 1,500 words. Following such a promising kickoff, my plan was to spend a month writing each of the 10 stories. But I got stuck on the first one (“Story 1”), a redo of a piece I had submitted for an online course a few years ago. I logged approximately 4,500 words of a projected 6,000+.

I knew I needed to see my creative coach, Ziva.

We met two days ago in her white Dodge camper van, parked with the windows down in the scenic lot of the local natural history museum. (Ziva was hosting houseguests, so we couldn’t conduct our session at her condo.) I thought she would tell me how to get “unstuck” so I could finish Story 1 and move on to the other nine. But turning to face me in the cab of the vehicle, she blew my mind with a quick-and-dirty way to produce my entire first book (“Book 1”): a curated compilation of my blog posts.

I loved her idea for speedily transforming content (that already exists!) into a publication. I will pull my 77 blog posts off the Web, put them in Word, organize them into sections, cut the ones that don’t fit (or that suck), write an introduction and maybe section intros, do some editing, format the manuscript, and distribute the document through CreateSpace (Amazon’s self-publishing tool). I assume this activity is meant to be psychologically liberating and affirming, and to provide a sense of accomplishment.

Before my 90 minutes with Ziva were over, I had enthusiastically accepted three additional assignments, none of which was to complete my partially written story:

  1. Hone one of my synopses for the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. (That’s two “Shorts”s; entries must be 1,500 words or less.) The deadline is two weeks away.
  2. Write synopses for 4 additional short stories for “Book 2,” my short story collection (with a new target of 12 to 14 tales total).
  3. Set up an underutilized room downstairs as a writing den for myself. I am tempted to enlist a professional organizer to tame the space—or “kill the monster,” as Ziva puts it.

I’ll get back to Story 1 eventually, possibly in the spring. I kind of miss it already.

Back to Square One

HopscotchIn a recent session, my writing coach, Ziva, blew my mind. When I stopped resisting her suggestion (after about 30 seconds), my mind was blown. So I am back to square one with my novel—sort of.

Some sources put a negative spin on the idiom: “If you are back to square one, you have to start working on a plan from the beginning because your previous attempt failed and the progress you made is now wasted.” Ouch. I prefer this kinder interpretation: “returned to the beginning.” It sounds almost poetic. As a side note, Square One was also a restaurant in Santa Barbara; it’s closed now, so no one can go back to it.

Actually, I don’t think we really can go back to square one, because we have learned what doesn’t work. For example, it is said that Thomas Edison made thousands of unsuccessful attempts to invent the electric light bulb. In the midst of these trials, a young reporter asked him if he felt like a failure and should just give up. Edison replied, “Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.”

Indeed, returning to the beginning has exhilarated and energized me. Perhaps starting over appeals to the Aries in me—good at launching projects, not so good at finishing them. As I conceive of my novel anew, ideas from the first beginning start to find their proper places. I envision cozy compartments, in an expansive structure, for all the things I want to say. If everything goes as planned, this work could very well be my “magnificent octopus.”

Or maybe my incandescent new approach is just platinum wire on the road to a carbon filament.

Conservation of Creative Energy

Light Bulb in the Sky

Last week, I calculated that I had written almost 6,500 words of my blog—on top of the 5,000 words I logged on my novel. At first, these statistics gave me a sense of accomplishment. I had met the goal I stated in my first blog post, on October 2, 2012: to put together at least a few paragraphs devoted to my novel on a regular basis, in order to convince it to “take a chance on me.”

Looking at the numbers, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should be devoting more time to my novel and less time to my blog. A session with my coach last week confirmed that I was channeling too much of my writing energy into the blog. Furthermore, my coach, Ziva, sensed that putting attention on myself via the blog was “distracting my energy.”

The objective of the session had been to figure out how I could regain my motivation on my novel. I hadn’t written anything new since November 30. In fact, I had lost 50 words to editing! Ziva advised that I could build momentum by “protecting and concealing the process”—which I think would preclude yacking about it on the World Wide Web.

Ziva provided me with profound insights into how to bring the first draft into form. I will take notes throughout this process and possibly report on it later. In the meantime, I’m not sure if I will continue to maintain this blog (but not talk explicitly about my novel), post less often (again, not about my novel!), or take a break.

Maya Angelou has remarked, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Right now, that sounds like the smartest thing anyone has ever said.

My Predictions for 2013

Frost Cupcakes According to statistics on New Year’s resolutions, 8 percent of people are “successful in achieving their resolution.” This figure seems dishearteningly low. Yet people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t. In other words, non-resolution-makers achieve their not-formally-expressed objectives only four-fifths of 1 percent of the time! This statistic would seem to support the time-honored tradition of making New Year’s resolutions.

Unfortunately, at least to me, a resolution connotes a dispiriting sense of responsibility, requiring a firmness of purpose to which I’d rather not have to commit. Therefore, in the spirit of self-fulfilling prophesy, I have decided to make predictions this year instead of resolutions. A prediction has an element of fate to it, as if it is inevitable and somehow supported by the universe. An individual might play a role in its occurrence, but there is the suggestion of co-participation with an invisible agent.

So here are my predictions, inspired by a combination of intuition and wishful thinking. In 2013, I will . . .

  1. Make good progress on the first draft of my novel.
  2. Schedule more sessions with my coach.
  3. Set up a writing studio.
  4. Really push myself to increase my belly-dance workout from 15 minutes to 20 minutes a day.
  5. Stop saving leftover frosting for snacking.
  6. Have a nice dinner with my husband in New York City.
  7. Resume drinking pumpkin spice lattes around October 1.

If you are looking for ideas for your own resolutions (or predictions), you might want to check out this generator I came across. One of the first suggestions it gave me was, “I will frost cupcakes”—so I think it might actually know something!

Dear Prudence: Time Waster or Idea Machine?

In my first session with my writing coach, she asked me to identify things I was doing that were wasting time; eliminating these productivity killers could free me up to do some writing. Two of my distracting behaviors were being on Facebook and looking out the window. (Damn, I just stared at the trees for half a minute.) I was a bit embarrassed to reveal a third habit: reading the advice column Dear Prudence. In addition to devouring the semiweekly installments, I had been delving into the Dear Prudencearchives all the way back to 2007. At one point, I even considered writing to Prudie herself for guidance on how to overcome my obsession.

Prudence (Emily Yoffe) fields queries regarding social etiquette, relationships, family, and the workplace. So what was it about the column’s questions and answers that merited hours of my time? For one thing, I enjoyed comparing my own reactions against Prudie’s. Often, we were in agreement. Yes, a man who asks his girlfriend to get a nose job and then wants to dump her when she is disfigured by the procedure is kind of a jerk. Yes, it is bad form for a bride to ask the groom’s mother not to wear a dress with spaghetti straps because she finds the look age-inappropriate. In other cases, I was enlightened by Prudie’s point of view.

I also saw a distinct benefit to reading the column, one with a direct application to my writing: The situations people described were fantastic fodder for fiction! For example, here are some story ideas based on actual letters:

  • Relationship drama: A husband and wife are having trouble conceiving when she finds out he is having an affair with her sister. After a traumatic confrontation, the couple moves away to make a fresh start. A few weeks later, the sister announces her pregnancy.
  • Psychological: A school bully becomes a young mother. When her daughter experiences some minor bullying, she is prompted to track down and make amends to the classmates she once tormented. She finds out that one girl, who switched schools because of her, committed suicide.
  • Thriller: A couple moves to the town where the husband’s bachelor brother lives. The husband, who travels frequently, encourages his brother to watch out for his wife. She catches the guy peering in through the bedroom window. Then he lets himself into the house while she is showering.
  • Romantic comedy: A woman discovers that she and her daughter are dating a father and son. Both couples have been talking about marriage.
  • Legal: A man who works at a small company finds out there is a plot to oust the controversial CEO with a false claim of sexual harassment. The human resources department is in on it. Should the employee warn his boss? Or just hope that truth will prevail?

If you are a writer, feel free to use these scenarios as prompts! After the exercise with my coach, I decided to limit my reading of Dear Prudence to just the new ones. I have successfully stayed out of the archives, except to research this post.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check Facebook.

Ten Random Things about My Novel

Well, I met my goal to write 5,000 words of my novel in the month of November. It feels pretty good to open up the file and see a word count of 5,078. My husband asked if the words were good ones, which is a fair question. I believe a sampling—portal, secrets, it, gold, sauerkraut, grammar, taxi, her, the, marveled, apricot, stretch, chimney—shows a range from banal to mildly intriguing.

In the spirit of randomness, here are some additional observations about the experience of starting my novel:

  1. I wrote the second chapter first.
  2. There is a sex scene in the very first chapter. Who saw that coming?
  3. I kept misspelling the heroine’s name (not a good sign). Then I stumbled upon the perfect name, the meaning of which is virtually the working title of the novel. (Home˃Replace)
  4. Dark and StormyI had a general outline in mind, but I didn’t know what I was going to write from one paragraph to the next or even from one sentence to the next. I often thought, “Okay, now what?”
  5. Because I was writing for volume, there was the temptation to be wordy. I admit to using the word very eight times (though not in a row).
  6. On a related note, I avoided editing, because editing almost always shortens.
  7. I discovered that you can research the small things as you go.
  8. Okay, now what?
  9. I am very, very, very pleased with my novel so far.
  10. Publicly stating my goal motivated me to achieve it. (Humiliation is one of the five basic fears.)

The big question is, “Okay, now what?” I should probably call my writing coach. She’s the last person who would think I’d ever write something.

My Writing Guides, in Form and Spirit

Earlier this year, I was experiencing a digestive disturbance. After several visits to my acupuncturist, it occurred to me to wonder what this rather common malady might be telling me about my life (besides not to consume spicy food, chocolate, wine, and everything good). I arrived at the conclusion that I was failing to express myself and follow my purpose (as simultaneously trite and momentous as those things sound). I knew I was supposed to be writing, and it was time to get down to business.

SorceressI found a local life coach specializing in creative empowerment. In my complimentary phone session with her, I received what seemed like a staggering challenge: to create a table of contents for my book . . . within 24 hours. Pieces of the story had been floating around in my head for a while, and by the deadline, I was able to come up with 17 rough titles—which the coach correctly assessed as “more than rough” when she saw them. Exactly who was this sorceress who had beguiled me into action?

For my first in-person meeting with Ziva, I made sure to wear a collared shirt and freshly laundered jeans. She had looked rather professional in the photo on her Web site, and I wanted to appear to be taking my creative empowerment seriously. I felt immediately overdressed, however, as Ziva met me outside of her building sans footwear. I made a mental note to wear a T-shirt and tennis shoes next time (when, as it turned out, she went business casual).

IncenseI shouldn’t have been surprised by what I found inside Ziva’s condo, given that one of her titles is “intuitive coach.” As she opened the front door, I could smell incense burning. Ogling the extensive collection of mind/body/spirit books, I almost bumped into a draped reiki/massage table. Devotional art hung on the walls. Now, I wouldn’t call myself the New Age type; I am not “love and light” (at least not both at the same time). But the décor told me I was in the right place to develop a novel that had a metaphysical bent.

“How can I adjust my schedule to have more time to write?” “Should this material be presented in one, two, or three books?” “How much research do I have left to do?” A writer and her coach might tackle such questions analytically, discussing them at length and using up much of a 75-minute session. Or the coach could close her eyes, tune in to her guides, and share her psychic hit—informed by her extensive experience shepherding would-be authors. The latter system was working for me.

Spirit guideNear the end of our third in-person meeting, I noticed that Ziva was staring above and behind me. “You have a friend,” she stated. Glancing over my left shoulder, I saw an image of Jesus on the wall. I turned back to Ziva, bemused, and realized she was gazing not at the painting but at a being I could not see. Ziva said she perceived immense love coming from this smiling entity. “The being with you feels to be someone you knew, so a deceased loved one,” she explained. A warmth spread around my heart.

Ziva conveyed a message to me from my spirit friend: “Create characters as human beings.” The advice was apropos, as I had recently been struggling with the idea of portraying a Nazi officer as a real, sympathetic person. Ziva also sensed that angels and other guides were prompting me to tell my story. In fact, a popular intuitive had once told me that a group of guides, called “The Council,” was helping me with my writing.

Now that sounds like an audience for which you’d want to wear a collared shirt.