Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “On Writing”

A Space Of My Own

I pride myself in telling people I can write anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I write on the BART train, the bus, the airplane, the car (just checking if you are reading!). I can write early in the morning, late at night, and during my lunch break.

My desk at home is in the kitchen. I can swivel my chair and be sitting at the dinner table for a family meal. Usually I can cut myself off from whatever drama is unfolding around me.

This morning, after we dropped my youngest at camp near the Cal campus, my oldest (13) said he wanted to study at Cal. A half hour later we are sitting in a coffee shop at a big table. I am writing this post, my son is reading, and three Cal students are sitting discussing a paper and how to present themselves.

These students are articulate, enthusiastic and, well cool. I notice my son glancing over and wonder what he is thinking. Moreover, I am having trouble concentrating myself (I wasn’t planning on writing a post).

Recently, this has happened a lot, that I am having a harder time focusing. I wear headphones more often and allow the music to isolate me. But at home, in particular, I am more aware that I have a family around me, deprived of their father for long hours because of a demanding job.

I fantasize about owning a house and having my own office with big windows and a comfortable space. I can tell you what desk, chair, speakers, bookcases and filing cabinets I want. The door is closed and I am writing novels at a furious pace.

Stephen King, in his stunning book On Writing described his big, beautiful desk in his office. With the door closed he almost killed himself on drugs and alcohol. His wife kicked him out of the house until he cleaned up his act. She saved his life. He ditched the big, arrogent desk and replaced it with something more modest.

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” 

― Stephen KingOn Writing

Thankfully, I have never experienced the lows that Stephen King had to endure as a child and young man. But I also have a lot to lose. I am keenly aware that now is not the time to hide away in an office. True, every minute is precious to advance my writing career and my books, but a window is closing. My sons want to spend time with me, but already their heads are being turned by socializing, screens, and the fairer sex. It is just a matter of time.

So I will crave my sacred writing space with the big windows, desk and bookcases. But I will adjust my vision … and leave the door open.

Me and my boys writing a novel … really!

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Books For Writers and Bibliophiles

A colleague recently posted on our LinkedIn forum and asked what books writers read to learn and improve their craft. I would like to offer a few.

On Writing – Stephen King

I have the paperback, but once a year I check the audio book out of the library and listen to Stephen himself read it. Now I understand that he has been criticizing for reading one of his novels (never heard it myself), but since this is so personal, it is very intense. I feel as if he is a teacher.

But beware – he is the tough no-nonsense teacher. He lays out how it should be and brooks no dissent. There is no fluff, and no feel-good. This is a small book but packed with tips and direction.

 A must read – probably annually.

How I Write – Janet Evanovitch

I had never met Stephanie Plum (Janet’s protagonist) before I read this writing book, but she is a good friend now. Janet’s book is geared to e a reference. Much is presented in Q&A form (it is co-written with Ina Yalof) and there are lists and summaries.

I particularly learned a lot about writing a series and character development beyond one book.

Warning -You may find yourself reading a Stephanie Plum novel or twenty. Be prepared to set a summer reading space aside and get ready to laugh.

Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott

It is considered one of the classics. I haven’t read it in years and it doesn’t sit on my shelf to quickly check. But I remember it had a big influence on me and was mentioned in the LinkedIn list as often as any other book.

Sometimes The Magic Works – Terry Brooks

While fantasy writers will get more out of this than those who write in other genres there is a lot of fundamental stuff. However, such topics as creating a whole world are more unique to fantasy and SF.

Whatever you decide – the first chapter is unforgettable. If you have ever been where Terry takes you, you will understand what I mean!

Writing Down to the Bones – Natalie Goldberg

Natalie has written a number of inspirational books on writing (with plenty of practical tips. She writes from the perspective of one deeply in Zen practice. Her latest is about memoir writing.

Finally books mentioned by other writers:

Story – Robert McKee

This Year You Write Your Novel – Walter Mosley

Writing Basics for Beginners by Jeanne Marie Leach

The Weekend Novelist – a Writer’s Digest book

I want to share that I believe it is important to choose a couple of authors and read everything they wrote. This includes their novels, their how-to books, their blogs, interviews etc.

This is important for your own level of craft and how you market your work and present yourself.  We all write as individuals, but we can learn a lot from those whose company we strive to share.

Good Writing,

Alon

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

A Great Book for Writers

Whenever I speak to groups of writers, I have a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing on hand to wave in people’s faces. I personally own a paperback and the audio tape and dutifully listen to the latter once a year.

But I have just finished reading another great, thin and to-the-point book about the craft. Since beginning to write fantasy with my eldest son, I have been reading in the genre and Terry Brooks is considered one of the best. I have consumed four of his tomes thus far and was delighted to see that he has a book called Sometimes The Magic Works – Lessons from a Writing Life.

Sometimes The Magic Works

Brooks divides his book between an autobiography (he only relates to his writing career but it includes his writing the Star Wars novel The Phantom Menace) and a toolbox for authors. Like Stephen King, his advice for writers is no nonsense and straight-to-the-point. You can read it in a few hours and refer back in the future.

I want to share something from the beginning and something from the end. I read his opening chapter – I Am Not All Here – to my family. Brooks talks about living in two worlds and how he often zones out of this one and into the fantasy story that he is writing. I thought it was cute, and my family certainly found it familiar. Since then I have realized how often this happens. It can be difficult to leave the characters on the hard drive and not drive around with them.

Terry Brooks

The second part I want to share with you is at the end. There is a list of about thirty short sentences, decelerations of Brook’s writing philosophy. Here are a couple.

“If you do not hear music in your words, you have put too much thought into your writing and not enough heart.”

“If you are ever completely satisfied with something you have written, you are setting your sights too low. But if you can’t let go of your material even after you have done the best that you can with it, then you are setting your sights too high.”

“If you don’t think there is magic in writing, you probably won’t write anything magical.”

And his final words:

” If anything in your life is more important than writing – anything at all – you should walk away now while you still can. Forewarned is forearmed. For those who cannot or will not walk away, you need only remember this. Writing is life. Breathe deeply of it.”

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

An Author’s Code of Practice

Earlier this month I gave a workshop for the California Writer’s Club on Transformational Fiction and exploring fiction as a tool to change the world. It was a great session with a group of committed and serious writers all of whom provided insightful material.

At the end, I shared the following takeaway, though not part of the actual workshop, I believe it touches on many of the challenges that writers face. I would like to encourage people to create their own code of practice and hang it in full view from where they sit to write. If you do write your own, please share it with us.

THE SERIOUS WRITER: 9-FOLD CODE OF PRACTICE

These nine tips are inspired by the teachings of Stephen King in his book On Writing. The credit is his, the honor to pass it on is mine, the opportunity is yours.

1. Write Every Day

No excuses. None. If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up, but write the next day. If you can, set a consistent time of the day, but either way, this is a daily practice like anything else for which one strives for excellence. If you can, dedicate a place in your house purely for writing. When you are there, do nothing else. Don’t wait for inspiration. Write, write, write.

2. Write a draft. Then let it rest.

King recommends that you crank out a first draft (don’t stop to edit or contemplate) and then put it in your drawer to let it rest. You need to transition from creator to editor and a break helps build the correct perspective.

3. The Ten Percent Rule.

When you revisit your text it’s time to remove all the superfluous words and sentences. Kick out the clutter and your message gains clarity and power. King advises to cut by 10%. Tough to do, but you won’t regret it.

4. Sacred Space.

This is a profession, a business. If possible, have your own physical place to write. Treat it like an office desk. It should be clean, uncluttered, but you should own it. Just entering and sitting down, puts everything else out of your mind. If you can’t have a physical space, create a mental one. I have certain playlists on my iPod and wear headphones. Kids? Yeah, they are in the house somewhere.

5. Shut Up And Listen.

King has a professional network to back him up. Most of us use family, friends, writers’ groups, and other networks. Solicit honest, constructive feedback – compliments are nice for our ego but don’t advance our manuscript. You don’t have to take every piece of advice that every person suggests. But you do need to listen and consider.

6. Read a Lot.

When you read, you learn. It might remind you of what you should be doing: a cool technique, style or voice. Sometimes you learn what not to do. There are always lessons to learn. Read (or listen to it – the audio is brilliant) Stephen King’s On Writing annually. You won’t get bored.

King reads his own book - v. powerful to listen to.

7. Network.

Writing is only a solitary art if you want it to be. Meet writers at writers’ groups, clubs, conferences or online. Support others and you’ll find support (no leaching). Proclaim that you are a writer. Some may smirk, but you’ll discover new friends and contacts, often unexpected.

8. One-third:One-third:One-third.

Allocate your time to thirds: 1. market what you have published (or plan to), 2. edit what you have written, 3. write your next book.

9. Enjoy and Believe.

It’s the only sustainable way.

10. Deliver More Than is Expected. Always.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Stephen King just told me off!

Stephen King just told me off!

He did! There I was sitting in my car, coffee perched next to me as I negotiated the commute from SF State back to the East Bay, and Stephen said there are only two things a serious writer needs to concern himself with: writing and reading.

He then went on to tell me that if I succumb to watching TV every night, in my case, Star Trek or Seinfeld reruns, or The Daily Show, instead of either refining my own craft by writing or learning from those who have mastered it by reading, I am not being serious about being a writer.

He dismissed my claims that I don’t have time (hey, I get up at 6am to hit the gym and get to the office by 9am … and, and the kids go to bed at 9pm … and, and I need to sleep a good six hours … and, and, and …)

He then embarrassed me by discussing a number of great novels that all fiction writers should read. I hadn’t read any of them, and I couldn’t even write them down as I was driving.

I should have seen it coming. I know Stephen King very well, though I’ve never met him. I listen to On Writing every year. I’ve read the paper version, though nothing beats hearing the master telling it in his own uncompromising dialect.

Worst of all is that I know he is right. I know that I need to read. Whenever I share my work with others, they often ask if I’ve read such and such, and I invariably haven’t.

But I will. In fact, last night I went to bed at 11pm and read for half an hour. At least, I think I did. I fell asleep at some point … and when I woke in the morning and got back in the car, Stephen King was waiting for me. He talked about other things, but somehow, I am sure he knew.

Oh by the way, if you haven’t already read it and wanna be a writer, do check out On Writing by Stephen King, book or audio. And yes, I’ve read it, a couple of times!

Good Writing
Alon
http://www.alonshalev.com/

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