Can you Put it in a Single Sentence?

Writing is never easy, but with your purpose distilled, it gets easier. Once you know what you’re doing, and can put it in a single sentence that isn’t painful to your own ears, you’re on you way.

One reason the single sentence is so necessary is that you’ll have to talk about your work sooner or later and—of course, and most urgently—to sell it. But there’s another reason it pays to really work this out and that has to do with the day to day.

It’s crazy, I know, but once, for example, when wrestling with a single sentence description of what was on my desk, the entire project shifted into something entirely new.

I had tried for some time to capture the essence of my novel in one neat description but it kept moving on me. A war story, a memoir, a history, a cultural biography, a holocaust tale, a coming of age—all of it was right, and none of it was right. And then, when I finally got down to it—the single line, so accurate, I was willing to own it aloud—I was shocked to realize that my answer bore little resemblance to the work in progress.

I wanted to write a love story. What I had written was not that. And so, I deleted it all. Six hundred pages in the trash—no regrets. I had found freedom.  And sure enough, the next ninety came like the wind and ushered in a new age of writing.

Every writer needs to know, for the benefit of his working self and for his public face, the answer to the question: “What are you working on?”

Perhaps, it goes like this:

I’m writing a . . . [a what? A novel/mystery/fairytale/sci-fi thriller/confession . . .?]

It’s about . . . [name your dramatic situation, the conflict you explore. It’s about a woman who raises a lion cub, which she reintroduces into the wild. It’s about a would-be king who forms an unlikely friendship in his struggle to overcome a stutter. It’s about a bum, who washes up on a beach, his memory impaired, and  . . . .]

What are you working on?  Can you say? Can you put it here, in the comments?

Photo credit: jet stream – Rudecactus; light bulb – J. Burg

Nine Ways to Done

This blog runs Fridays, which means written, illustrated, formatted, and “publish” hit with my first cup of coffee.

Some posts come along quickly and others not so much. I can throw six away before I get a good one. But come Friday, flying-high-day, it has to be done, and so it is.

I do other kinds of writing, however, for which there is no specific deadline. It’s done when I say it is. When’s that?

After a few decades of writing, here are my guidelines:

1.  If you write year after year, most likely you will see common themes surface in your material. There are just some things that obsess you, and so you try again, and again it’s not exactly what you hoped to achieve, and so you’ll be back. Done really means “done for now.”

2.  Accept that all writing is a draft, even when you think it’s a finished piece and even if it’s published. There isn’t a single thing I could pick up from the thousands of pages I’ve written and fail to see the need for editing. Just give me a pencil and watch the words drop off like my neighbor goes at my hedges.

3. Perfection is the enemy of the really good. The really good is hard to come by and a job well done.  

4.  An independent read by someone, preferably a seasoned editor, is helpful. If you’re looking to get done, specific advice on problem areas is a shortcut to finished.

5.  Sleep on it. In the morning, if you’re obsessing once again over the same things that have occupied you for days, nothing new here, just the same old agonies, it’s done.

6.  Failure, mistakes, and “delete file” all count as done.

7.  If you procrastinate more than week, abandon it and move on.

8.  If you can’t raise the passion for it, you’re done.

And finally—

9.  Done means you get to do more. So what’s keeping you?

Photo credits: Finish line race left – theoctopussolution.com; Racer, right – www.tobifairley.com
“Flying high day” courtesy of the one and only Rookie Manning.

How to Find your Passion

The other day, the newspaper carried a story on Pakistan with a photo of a bricklayer on the front page. There he was, a young man in the dust of a street, a pile of bricks up to his elbows, and a serious, tired look to his face. At 18, the article said, he is what he will be, as there was no greater dream for the young man.

No greater dream for a boy just now a man? He is what he will be, forever?

This is a tragedy, but at least the young man could feed himself by laying bricks. If he were a writer, on top of the other indignities, he would have starved.

There’s not too much in the way of mechanical work for a writer to fall back upon. The distances are long. Endurance is essential. The sprints, when they come, are pell-mell furious. Outcomes are unpredictable. How could a withered spirit make it to the end of the working day, let alone produce a serviceable line or two?

Passion, for a writer, is vital. If you’ve lost yours, how do you find yourself a new and robust sense of your future?  The answer is within your reach.

Seek what nourishes you:  Something new. Something different. Something physical. Something deviant.  Play the tourist. Play the fool. Play the devil’s advocate. Walk in the park. Walk in someone else’s shoes. Do something nice. Do something earth-friendly. Get in nature. Get social.  Immerse yourself in other art forms. Especially this, as other creators, by virtue of their very differentness, none of them writers, have a way of shaking up your sense of the usual. This is exactly what a withered spirit needs—a reorientation toward the possible, the new, the surprising.

In due course, in time . . .  Hear that?  It’s your heart beating, blood quickening. It’s your awe building at the growing realization that your best work is still ahead of you.

What do you do to nourish yourself?  Comment here and now. Share the wealth. The more ideas, the better.

How to Conduct an Interview

The Preliminaries

Use names. Establish ground rules. If you’re taping, get permission on tape.

Be honest. You don’t want to trick or trap.

Be fair. What’s identified as “off the record” stays that way, but you can try to redraw the boundaries. How about if I put it this way . . . ? Perhaps, you’d be comfortable with . . . ?

No matter what, take notes. Be nice. This is a relationship.

The Questions

Do your homework. Ask interesting questions—things you’d like to know. Ask, even if you think you know the answer to something, for you may hear that you have it wrong. Look for the open-ended territory. Look for reflection and story. Take notes on how your subject speaks. If it is a live interview, notice everything about him and the setting.

Batch your questions. Sort them by early life, professional life, romantic life, disappointments, advances, rivalries  . . .

Think through the narrative structure to your interview. What will you use as a warm-up and where will you go from there, and from there? But be prepared to deviate to follow something of interest that occurred in the moment. Be nimble.

Put your questions in writing. Keep them brief. Start with the easier ones and move to the more difficult. You probably won’t ask them all. And you will ask things you only just thought of.

Ask one thing at a time. Compound questions like Why did you do this and do you have any regrets? usually result in the second half left unanswered.

Seek clarification. Why do you say that? What makes you so sure? Excuse me, did you say . . . ? I just want to get it right.

And then? is a good way to keep it rolling.

The Presumptions

Everyone is busy. Don’t waste time.

Talk as little about yourself as possible. It’s about him, not you.

The more famous the personality, the nicer and more giving I’ve found them. (Less insecure, is my theory.)

And if you act like you know what you’re doing, you’ll be given the benefit of the doubt. This is not an excuse for ignorance, bluff, or bravado. It’s confirmation that serious people will be taken seriously.

The Potential Problems

Those who are used to being the subject of attention can be quite skilled at answering something different than what was asked. You have to stay the course and redirect them to your questions.

Those who are new to attention might be nervous, even guarded. The challenge is to establish trust.

If you’re worrying about the next question, you’re missing out.

Uncomfortable silences have an upside. If your subject hesitates or averts his eyes in an awkward moment, do not help him out! Stay silent. Likely he will rush in to fill the gap, and most often, this will be with valuable, unscripted material.

If a subject seeks approval of your final product, the answer is no. I have, however, agreed to “Just don’t make me look like a fool.” In that instance, there was little danger of it, so I opted to build trust.

And as for running direct quotes by a person before use, I rarely do it. Hindsight is too sanitizing. I will, on the other hand, assure my subjects that if I run into confusion, I will follow up to ask for clarification, as it’s in both our interests to get it right.

If it all goes bad—and it can happen—close your notebook and walk away. Politely. Quietly. There’s always another way at the material.

The Mop Up

Finish well. Send a thank you.

And if you’ve promised the finished piece, be sure to send it.

Photo credit: RCA microphone – H. Michael Miley; other mic – Arbyreed