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Lessons from Harry Potter

I will admit here and now, before the world, that I’m not a Harry Potter fan. I don’t dislike the books; I just don’t love that genre of fiction. But I admire writers like J.K. Rowling, especially writers who are at the end of their ropes and then have a vision and get that vision onto the page and become a raging success. I wish I’d have a vision like that.

So, here is a speech Cheryl Klein, continuity editor of the U.S. Harry Potter books, gave. See what you think.

When’s the last time you did something writerly?

I’m not talking about sitting down to write, or going to your writing class or workshop, or reading a good book. I’m talking about going away, just you, to be with other writers and take part in workshops. It might be a writers’ colony or a weekend workshop or a writers conference.  I just returned from the ASJA writers conference in New York City.  It’s a conference we put on every year and every year it’s a good one.  (The weekend prior was the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which I always enjoy.) At the ASJA conference, I met with agents and I spent time with writers I only see when I’m in New York.  I haven’t laughed so much or hard since I can’t remember when.  I returned charged up and motivated.  Summer is almost here and along with it are so many writers conferences and events.  If you want to do something nice for yourself and your writing life, attend at least one.  Promise?

Like collecting sea glass, little by little, the words add up

My son Travis and I gathered the sea glass collected over the years–mostly by me, a little bit by friends–since moving to a cottage a few long blocks from the beach, and in unison said, “Whoa!” There was a lot there. Brown glass, green glass, white and sea foam, and a few stray shades, anomalies. The most I bring home from a walk are a few pieces at a time, and not every day. Maybe an average of once a week. And sometimes weeks will go by, even months, without looking for it, or finding any.

I was thinking how the sea glass adding up is so like writing. It’s not uncommon for people who want to be writers, or who feel they have a book in them, to dream of having that year or month or even two week uninterrupted span when they have nothing else to do but write, and when that time comes, they will get the book written, or the short stories or essays.

What works better for me and for most successful–or productive writers, for who can truly say what success is?–is chipping away at projects. And I was reminded of collecting sea glass, and how the sea glass you see here was collected over the years–about 20. You’d never find this much in a couple of weeks, or months, no matter how you tried. This is why you can go on eBay and buy bags of “sea glass style” pieces (not truly sea glass but glass tossed in a rock tumbler to resemble sea glass): because it’s ain’t easy to find it. The conditions have to be right; the tide has to be low.

I look at our containers of sea glass and I remember. This is how words pile up: over time, little by little, bit by bit.





Photo credit: Travis Barrett

A stack of books on writing, style, and living the creative and literary life

I just read a wonderful new writer’s second draft of her novel and one of my suggestions for strengthening her prose was to substitute weak adverb/verb combos for more compelling adverbs/verbs.  Unlike certain famous authors who disdain adjectives and modifiers, I believe they have their place, and if modifiers and adjectives are good, they hook the reader’s attention. So here are my go-to books on verbs and style that sit on my bookshelf and should sit on yours as well (plus a few more on creativity).

Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives is fun and enlightening, with an incredible array of fresh superlatives that get your brainwaves and creativity churning.

Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose is a book on style that I constantly recommend to my students. I’ve read it a couple of times, especially before I went into the revision of Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within.

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, 3rd Edition and Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know about Writing contain all those rules of usage you become confused about, like when to use lay/laid/lie/lain or who/whom, and so on.

And of course The Elements of Style Illustrated. I love this edition because it’s illustrated by one of my all-time favorite illustrators, Maira Kalman.

I don’t know which came first, my show or this book, but it’s the one book of essays about writing that I return to time and again. It contains two of my favorite writing essays, one by Walter Mosley and and one by Roxana Robinson. It is Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times.

Speaking of Walter Mosley, he’s known mostly as a crime or mystery novelist, but I love his little book on writing a novel called This Year You Write Your Novel.

You don’t have to be a dancer to appreciate The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. There’s so much here on creativity that applies to artists in all genres, and I especially like what she has to say about mirrors.

When I was teaching at UC-Irvine Extension, Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within was on my required reading list. The author, Dennis Palumbo, is a therapist as well as a writer, and former screenwriter, and he understands the inner workings of the creative mind, what hangs us up, how shame translates into procrastination or writers’ block, and more.

Making a Literary Life was also on my required reading list. I love Carolyn See’s voice and wisdom and humor about writing.