Friday, July 22, 2011

Methods to Get My Writing Juices Flowing

By Georgeanne Irvine

My absolute favorite aspect of writing is the research phase! Interviewing people, gathering and analyzing facts, searching for information, observing animals, visiting sites, studying archives, and shooting photos (an integral part of my research) are all very exciting and great fun—and I never begin writing until I feel my research is complete. Starting the writing phase of any project is almost always the most difficult part of the process for me. While all of that new information is swirling around in my head, I usually need to go through a series of “thinking phase” behaviors to jumpstart my internal writing battery and get into the “flow.” I know I’m not alone in this—all writers have quirky things they do to get started, don’t they? Here are some of the things I do, but I also hope some of you will share your methods to get your writing juices flowing in the comment section of this blog.

• Rummage through the kitchen cupboard to look for things to eat even though I’m not really hungry.

• Clean out my underwear drawer, wash windows, pull weeds, organize my closet, and sweep the patio. I’m actually working on the book in my head while I do all of those chores, even though it may look like I’m procrastinating. (OK, perhaps I am, just a little bit.)

• Immerse myself in an experience related to the storyline. For my Hurricane Katrina dolphin book, I shut myself up in my bedroom, closed the curtains, and watched hurricane videos in the dark.

• Take extra-long showers because the opening paragraphs for many of my books have been formulated under spray of the hot water.

• Long drives in the car are also helpful. I’ve learned to write notes while keeping my eye on the road.

• Dream about the book at night with a notepad by my bed. If I’m really stuck during the day, I lie down to take a nap but my mind still works on the book, of course.

• Sit on my bed with an old-fashioned pencil and notebook, handwriting notes and doodling. Often my first line comes to me during that process.

• Stare at my computer with a 20-stick pack of gum on my desk. Gum is a good thinking tool: I pop a piece in my mouth, chew it for 30 seconds to a minute until the flavor runs out, spit it out, and then replace it with a fresh stick. I repeat this process until the entire pack is chewed. Big Red cinnamon-flavored gum works best.

• Perform personal grooming tasks while staring at the computer and thinking about the book, such as filing nails and plucking eyebrows.

• Skim through other books I’ve written and remind myself that I really do know how to write and that sooner or later I’ll start this latest book, finish it, and possibly even like it!

San Diego native Georgeanne Irvine has devoted more than three decades of her career to raising awareness about animals and wildlife conservation. By day, she is associate director of development communications for the San Diego Zoo, where she has worked for 33 years. George is also the author of more than 20 children’s books plus numerous magazine, newspaper, and Web articles. George’s most recent work is the coffee table book, The Katrina Dolphins: One-Way Ticket to Paradise, which is a true story about 8 dolphins from an oceanarium that were washed out to sea during Hurricane Katrina and dramatically rescued a few weeks later.

Friday, July 15, 2011


by Kathi Diamant

Writing can be a lonely business, a solitary endeavor, requiring isolation and intense focus. It demands time and a quiet environment, with long periods of uninterrupted concentration. I find that if I so much as go out to lunch, my whole writing day is shot. To write well, I have to be alone.

My favorite writer, Franz Kafka once described his ideal writing situation as “an innermost room of a spacious locked cellar.” His food would be brought and left, far away from his room, outside the cellar’s outermost door. “The walk to my food, in my dressing gown, through the vaulted cellars would be my only exercise. I would then return to my desk, eat slowly and with deliberation, then start writing again at once. And how I would write! From what depths I would drag it up! Without effort! For extreme concentration knows no effort.”

Kafka also said that “the existence of the writer is truly dependent on his desk. If he wants to escape madness, he really should never leave his desk. He must cling to it with his teeth.” But even Kafka feared that the solitude he forced on himself in order to write was depressing him, driving him mad, while writing was his only weapon to fight it.

So what’s a writer to do? Join a writing group, or start your own writing community. You will discover you are not alone, others have walked this path before you, and have experienced loneliness and isolation, and found solutions. In a writing group, you will find encouragement, support and inspiration. A writing group can make all the difference between success and failure, between giving up in despair and holding the first copy of your new book in your hands.

I’m a firm believer. I have been a member of Writing Women since 1988, and credit WW for my book, Kafka’s Last Love, which would not have been possible without their sage advice and unqualified encouragement. San Diego Writing Women, who produces this blog, is an offshoot of that group. And I just joined She Writes (also open to men), the largest community of women writers online.

There are many ways to get started with a group. In San Diego, author and writing teacher Judy Reeves runs ongoing writing groups, and there are Meet Ups for writers all over the country. If you want more information on how to start your own group, drop me a line—I’ll be happy to share guidelines and SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) for writing groups large and small.

As Kafka also said, “You won’t do anything without others.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Writer's Art of Interviewing

By Caitlin Rother

I’m just starting to teach an advanced feature writing course this summer at UCSD Extension (you can still join until next week), and will be teaching interviewing and an advanced narrative non-fiction course this fall, so I figured this would be a good opportunity to pass along some interviewing tips. You are all welcome to join my classes, and you might want to read this blog post to the end for some juicy stuff about my recent five-hour meeting with John Gardner at Corcoran State Prison.

So you have a true story to tell, and it isn’t about you. Where do you get the information you need? Well, you have to ask for it. The trick is knowing who and what to ask, how to get them to talk to you, and if you don’t know all that, how to figure it out. Then, of course, how to write it in a compelling way so people besides your mother will want to read it.

Depending on the subject, the type of story and where you want to publish it, basic questions – such as who, what, where and when – are important, but they don’t always suffice. Narrative non-fiction or literary journalism, where you write true stories using fiction techniques, also call for emotion, action and dialogue, descriptions of sights, sounds, textures and light. You must go deeper to build a plot and good characters.

Bottom line is that stories are about people – people acting, speaking, thinking and feeling.

For the more journalistic issue-oriented stories about politics, crime, the arts or your community, you want to find the key players and ask them what they think, go watch them in action and write down what they tell you. But interviewing isn’t all about the questions, it’s also about being an active listener. Sometimes, silence can make your subject open up. But you need to be well prepared to do the best interview, to ask probing, insightful and different questions than your competitors. If you impress your subject with your knowledge of him/her and the issue at hand, he or she will want to open up to you.

For profiles about interesting people, you want to look for what makes them tick, who they are, what they’ve done, what they’re passionate about, and what makes them unique. They might not even know these things – or want you to know – so it’s your job to help them tell you. To slowly peel away their layers and get to the truth.

If you do your homework and build trust with your subjects, you may be surprised at what intriguing tidbits and unexpected details you can pull out of them. I always like to hear that I’ve asked the right questions, because it tells me that I will be able to convey my subject's thoughts and feelings accurately, which in journalism and non-fiction, is very important.

Some authors of non-fiction put their opinions and beliefs into their books. In mine, I generally try to get out of the way of the story and tell it to the best of my ability, but as a neutral observer, a conduit of information. Obviously, I make choices about what to include and whose perspective I use to convey that information, (usually from a character’s point of view), but that doesn’t mean I believe what that person is saying. Most of the time I tell it straight because I think the reader will be able to tell when one of my characters, who are all real people, is lying. When they are lying, I often stick in a contrary point of view or fact from someone or somewhere else to show the opposing view, which helps the reader figure it out.

Interviewing a killer is tricky. I’ve done this a few times in my career, and twice recently for my books: Skylar Deleon, who is on death row for tying Tom and Jackie Hawks to the anchor of their yacht and throwing them overboard alive (DEAD RECKONING), and John Gardner, who admitted to raping and killing Chelsea King and Amber Dubois (THE MAKINGS OF A MONSTER).

I want to hear what they have to say, but I don’t want to confront them or make them angry because they will stop talking. The trick is to ask my questions in a way that makes them want to reveal telling statements to me, but also to let them talk about things they want to as I guide them toward subjects I want to hear.

In Gardner’s case, we had no glass wall between us, so I was more than a little conscious about my safety and also keeping him talking for the five hours we had until visiting hours were over – without seeing that same instant anger we all saw during his sentencing hearing. I knew I would only get one shot, so I waited until I had done all of my other interviews and all my research, and knew his life story backwards and forward. Sex offenders are manipulative, so I was ready for that. I also knew that he told different stories to different people, depending on the situation, so I was ready for that too.

I was surprised at how well the interview went. As I’d been told, he was very talkative and friendly and didn’t take much prodding to answer my questions. Now, the problem is an unusual one for me: I have to decide how much of what he told me to pass on to my readers, and how much, if anything, to leave out. It was all very compelling, but not for those with weak stomachs. I’d love to hear your thoughts how much you’d like to know.

Other than that, if I didn’t know what he’d done, I wouldn’t have guessed from his demeanor, the way he carried himself or the way he talked to me.

Lesson one: Killers often don’t look or sound like they do on TV.

Lesson two: Keep your eye on the ball and make sure you let them know, subtly, that you know who they really are, and when they're lying, so they don’t try to mess with you so much.

Lesson Three: Sometimes you get to know your subjects as well or better than they know themselves, and you can use that insight to help pull emotions and secrets out of them. To even help them discover something about themselves. Because that will be fresh and interesting for your readers.

Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as a investigativer reporter for nearly 20 years, is the author or co-author of seven books: Body Parts, Twisted Triangle, Naked Addiction, Poisoned Love, Where Hope Begins, My Life, Deleted, and her latest book, Dead Reckoning, which is available in bookstores now. For more information, please check out her website,

Friday, July 1, 2011

Writing Copioussssly

by Laurel Corona

I have had three novels and one non-fiction book published in three years, and people often ask me how I have managed to be so prolific. Actually, if you count the YA (young adult) non-fiction I wrote between 1999 and 2004, I’ve published 23 books in 12 years, so I guess those are pretty good credentials to call myself an expert on keeping going as a writer.

I love words, of course, so I can’t help but notice that so many of the observations and advice I have on this subject can be summarized in words that start with the letter “S.” Here are sixteen of them:

Sitzfleisch—A Yiddish term for—well, you figure it out. It’s the ability to stay put in your chair for long periods of time without jumping up to see what’s in the fridge, or who’s sent you e-mail. I’m still working on this one!

Structure—A calendar with specific goals and deadlines (self-imposed are fine), and a work schedule (including quitting time) are really essential to keep from working too much. That’s a bigger problem for me than working too little, but I think it would work equally well in the opposite situation.

Stamina—Staying fit is crucial. I make time for exercise every day (well almost) since my overall health governs everything else.

Sanitation—Get out of the jammies and into the shower. Wash your hair, brush your teeth, and don’t forget to floss. Sssserioussssly!

Stretch–This is the opposite of sitzfleish but is also very important. Amazingly, even getting up and walking around for one minute to think through a phrasing or a plot detail can have amazing results.

Side interests—Sudoku? Step class? Shopping? Calling on different parts of your body and brain is restorative. I find I can’t read for pleasure when I’m working on a book--my brain and eyes are too tired--so I have come up with the solution of audiobooks, which I listen to while I’m out running. Very good motivation to exercise too!

Sunscreen—Take time out, even if it’s just for an hour or two. Find a pool to jump in or a patch of grass to sit on. Think “vacuoussssss.” Try not to think about what you’re writing, but even if you do, it will still feel like a change of pace.

Skin—As in “Superthick.” Learn to laugh at your reviews. Reading them aloud in a whiny voice helps.

Self-Confidence—writing well is never easy, but you can do it. Remember, it’s just a draft until it’s published.

Spellbound—This is something you have to be. You have to find your subject enthralling. Your curiosity needs to be boundlesssss.

Seniority—Writing is one of those things where it helps to have some years under your belt. Tell yourself that all that wisdom explains why you need a larger belt.

Say “When”—When you’re agonizing over commas, that’s a good clue you are really ready to launch your work into the world.

Supporters, Sidekicks, Soulmates—Self-explanatory! If you’re lucky, you have a supportive family and friends, like I do. Another source of support is a writing group. I don’t participate in these because I get too wrapped up in my own work to pay quality attention to anyone else’s, but many people find sharing works in progress essential to their productivity.

Sleep–I find that very often I wake up ready to rip with a new idea I must have been processing during the night.

Speak Aloud–-as a change of pace, especially late in the process, it works really well for me to read my work aloud, not to anyone else, but to myself.

And finally, perhaps my best piece of advice of all.

Shitty First Drafts!–Thanks to Anne Lamott for this one. Perfectionism is the biggest enemy of many writers. Give yourself permission to write badly when that’s the best you can do. I can always manage to write a preliminary version of something, because I know that the purpose of a first draft is just to get something on the page. You have to have something to work with. You will improve it again and again, but not today.

Fellow writerssss out there in the blogossssphere–got more?