Smash the oligarchy, finish your novel, de-clutter your workspace and make new friends: Here’s how!

Listening to Rachel Maddow this morning, I HAD AN INSIGHT:

Finishing School can be a powerful tool for political action!

Think about it: In Finishing School we break down big goals into little tasks.

Then we agree with someone else to do these things at a certain time.

Then we watch with pleasure as all these little completed tasks turn into major accomplishments.

It began as a method for writers. But has been used for all kinds of things.

In fact, it’s ideally suited for political activism.

Political activism is a big project that depends on many small discrete actions. Some of these are, frankly, not all that exciting to do.

Say you need to call your congressional representative but you haven’t done it yet. You can connect with your Finishing School buddy and say,

“at 1 o’clock on Thursday I am going to make a phone call to my representative.”

That’s the Finishing School method in a nutshell.

Get the book and learn more.

You will learn things like, why we schedule more time than we think will be needed.

Here are some reasons:

  • Maybe you are a little nervous about doing it and need a few minutes to get settled in.
  • Maybe you want to make a note of exactly what you’re going to say.
  • Maybe you want to get a cup of coffee.
  • Maybe you do it right away and then get fired up after the first call and want to make more and so you have some extra time to keep going.
  • Maybe you find that you don’t even know for sure who your representative is or what their number is and you have to find that, and in finding that you call someone with whom you then chat for 15 or 20 minutes and then something happens and your two hours is interrupted.

But you still have time!

Danelle Morton and I wrote a whole book about this method but it’s really very simple: Set a time, notify a buddy, and do the thing!
Oh—and when you’re done with the time period you have set, then you also contact your buddy and say you’re done. That’s it.–ct

I’m done!

I woke up this morning and realized I’m done with the novel. It came like a revelation: I’m done!

That is, a good draft is done. There is more work to do. But this is a milestone worth celebrating. And it came to me as if from a dream, on the last day of the year.

To be honest, I really wanted to create a beautiful, brilliant, polished, publishable draft of a complex and demanding novel by the deadline of Jan. 10, 2017. I really wanted to be the solitary artistic hero who creates masterful works of genius in complete isolation, who emerges from hermetic solitude with a gleaming perfect masterpiece.

That was my wish. At times, I believed I could do it. I knew, however, that such wishes are not always realistic. They are, in fact, one reason I created Finishing School in the first place.

As Jan. 10, 2017, approached, I saw that if I rushed, I might be able to solve the structural problems and make the right decisions. But many of those decisions require real thought and reflection. I was concerned that if I rushed it, I might make changes I later regret. I needed more time. And I needed an outside opinion.

Now I know. Indeed, the draft is finished. It’s a good draft. But it’s not ready for publication yet.

So my next step is to find the right independent editor. I have identified a few whom I will contact privately and I will look around a little more.

I know what questions to ask. I know what to do next. I’m eager, actually, to put certain fascinating and demanding structural questions in someone else’s hands for a while.

So … I’ll keep you informed about Famous Actress Disappears.

Meanwhile, and more to the point: Happy New Year! Buon Anno!



Each piece of the novel must have energy

I have to focus on what is in front of me.

I get lost in the intricacy of the structure. I have to remember that at any given moment, the reader is in the present, reading the text, and if the text is engaging, if there is energy there, that is the crucial thing. The totality of the novel experience, the ultimate outcome, is the sum total of all these moments.

Meanwhile, the reader and I must each have some faith. I must have some faith in the reader, that the reader is attentive and generous. The reader must trust the experience of the prose and by extension must trust me, the teller, that I’m not a total jerk, that I’m not being arbitrary, that I have a plan.

In order to move forward with the writing day by day, I have to have faith that if each scene is worth reading then the work as a whole will hang together even if, at times, I lose sight of every detail and every twist, every nuance and heartbreak, every betrayal and victory, every back story and every motive …


Does checking in with Twitter work just as well?

In using the Finishing School check-in method, I wondered if using Twitter be just as effective as checking in with my one creative buddy.

My conclusion: Nope. Tweeting a check-in is not as effective as checking in with one individual and having it reciprocated.

For the check-in to work, it has to be acknowledged and reciprocated. Someone has to read  or hear your check-in and acknowledge it and then do the same thing. Otherwise, you’re just sending something out. The behavior is not reinforced. You don’t get acknowledgment and reciprocation. The energy is not reflected back to you.

When someone checks in with you and says, “I’m doing this creative work and I’m starting now,” and you acknowledge that, bang, in that moment, you experience the knowledge that somebody is doing a thing that is a good thing, a thing you support, a thing that is the very thing you also want to be doing. You experience a moment of hope: If this person is doing it, then I can, too. Moreover, since this person is doing it, I sort of feel like I should be doing it, too. I want to be in the game.

Responding is key. Do I hear back from the Twitter world? Not really. It’s not a one-to-one thing. Do I know who is reading that tweet? Not really. Do I know it’s a person who knows me and knows what I am up to and supports me in it, and is doing the same thing? Not really. It’s not a definite, clear transaction.

Pairing off with a creative buddy and communicating one-to-one works best.

So get a creative buddy who will notify you when he or she is beginning work, and agree to notify each other. It doesn’t have to be a long thing. Just, Hey, I’m starting work! And then, Hey, I’m done for now, I did my thing, I’m logging off!

Should my creative buddy in Finishing School be a friend?

In using Finishing School to stay focused and motivated, to finish a creative project, to beat writers block and avoid procrastination, the creative buddy relationship is key. And here is something interesting: The creative buddy doesn’t have to be your friend.

Finishing School works by elevating and highlighting the one creative activity you want to enhance. We focus on it and give it time and energy. We make space for it in our lives.

If your creative buddy is a friend with whom you share many other activities and interests, you may become sidetracked when you check in. Having a creative buddy whose only role is to support your creative work helps focus your attention on that one thing.

So it is best if the creative buddy check-in is the main activity you do together. You are creative buddies. That’s the paramount thing. Keep it simple.

Checking in with a creative buddy: It works, so I do it

Checking in with a creative buddy as part of the Finishing School method might seem corny to a cynical bastard like me. But it works. So I do it.

It’s a method. It’s not cool or beautiful. It’s more like putting gas in the car. It works. It gets you where you’re going.

Checking in with a creative buddy in Finishing School strengthens the will to finish. And finishing is important. So I do it.


Five Holiday Tips for Writers Writing About Their Families

If you are writing about your family, gathering for the holidays can be a real test of nerves—especially if you have not yet told them you are writing about them!

It can also be a golden opportunity, great for your work. You have a chance to interview your “characters,” test your assumptions and freshen your dialogue.

Herewith, five ways to alleviate the dread by using these encounters in your work.

  • Write down your expectations. You may be certain than your aunt always reacts one way, always says the same thing. Write those assumptions down before you her so you can test them out at holiday encounters.
  • Ask questions. You are in a unique position for a writer: you can ask questions of your “characters.” They may surprise you when they respond. You can ask about their pasts, their opinions, their values. You may not use this information in your work but it can stimulate you to take the story in a new direction
  • Listen carefully. The best way to write good dialogue is to listen carefully for the way people phrase things.
  • Pay attention to your body. The body always tells the truth. If you are with a character who angers you, note how that anger or that fear shows up in your body. These descriptions will enhance your storytelling, taking reaction out of the mind and into the physical.
  • Take notes. Writing down what you see and feel gives you some sense of control in circumstances where you may have felt ignored or like a victim. You can take out your notebook while things are going on to remember you have a point of view and do not have to be swept into someone else’s drama. If anyone asks you what you are doing you can say truthfully, “It’s so special to be together at the holidays, I don’t want to miss anything.”



Splitting one novel into three

I realized that I had three novels joined like Siamese triplets and had to begin the awful work of snipping, disentangling, hoping each one would eventually breathe on its own.

I kept looking for ways to make them work as one. Only abject failure after long labor could persuade me how impossible was the task.  I so wanted it to be possible that I tried and tried to make the material work. Again and again I saw that it would only be a murderous, insulting, hideous journey for readers, and they might well hate me for it, as it would feel as though I had ruined three perfectly good novels trying to knit them into one.

I love each of them. The first, Famous Actress Disappears, which I am currently finishing, is the most accessible and fun. I have merely entertained myself in the way I imagine others would want to be entertained–with a mordant wit, darkly satisfying, and snappy dialog part Chandler, part Shaw, part my own dark-night self-murmurings. I pray it is well-received but it is a vicious world out there. What I consider fun others may see as self-conscious, pandering, faux-ribald showmanship, boring and self-involved.

The second novel is a whole dark jungle redneck saga and the heart of the three, called Burning the Rain Girl; at its heart lies the fulcrum of reality and fiction.

The third, which might be called How Lives Intersect in Desperation and in Grace, is a long meditation on the two fictions that precede it and the nature of this thing we take for reality. It might end up more as a novella.

Also, not to be disregarded: There are perhaps 60,000 words of the protagonist’s therapy sessions that may form the basis for a fourth novel. That’s some favorite stuff that I love that I just cannot really make work in the current format. Sheesh. The things you learn when you commit.

Finishing a novel under pressure: Am I choking?

I don’t do well under pressure, creatively speaking. External rewards are known to sometimes impede rather than inspire creativity. I need to remember that as I struggle to reach completion on this novel by January 10. I don’t want to do it. It is hard work and requires me to evaluate my own work carefully and make hard choices and think in an organized way and remain somewhat distanced from the heart of it, the voices I love, the textures, the word-pictures, all the delicious stuff that I love. And this is not easy. Imagining it being evaluated by agents, editors and then by the public fills me with dread. It makes me want to hide. I do not comfort myself with fantasies of receiving awards and accolades. In fact, such fantasies do not appeal to me; were they to occur, I do not know that they would make me feel good. What makes me feel good is the idea that I will be able to continue to do this work at my own pace and in my own way. So this current situation, where I am not working at my pace and in my own way, is not really great.

So I have had to take some of the pressure off and admit that it is not the end of the world if I do not finish by January 10. I may not be capable of finishing by January 10. Will that make me a liar, as I have claimed, publicly, that I will be done? No, it will only make me an optimist. An optimist whose claims are occasionally overly optimistic.

The more troubling fear I have is that this temporary experience will become permanent, that this momentary feeling of losing the love of it, losing the life-giving involvement in the production, the juicy part of it, that this will cause me to lose interest in the work itself. Permanently. And that could make me not finish.

If this sounds bleak, it is because over a week has passed without significant progress. I got to a point where I saw how it needs to fit together, and then I blanched at the sheer amount of drudge work my insight requires. Plus I had many distractions. I am, after all, living in Italy, in an apartment, and trying to move into a house, and at the same time doing a lot of other things … like this blog for instance.

This is the stuff we work through in Finishing School. All I really need to do, today, is set aside a couple of hours to make some progress on the novel. All I really need to do, today, is keep moving forward. I may feel panicked, hopeless, fearful, angry, tired, disillusioned, restless, uninterested. But all I really have to do is schedule a couple of hours to work and get to it.

So that’s what I’m doing now. Post this thing, tweet my check-in, spend a couple of hours mucking around in there, trying to move the rock forward a few inches.

Writing is an unnatural act

Staying at it, persevering, finishing, overcoming obstacles, sitting in the chair alone in a room, writing chapter by chapter, problem-solving, concentrating … if you ask me, these are unnatural acts. Especially if you know people are outside having fun, and you’re inside, editing, revising, counting words, solving plot problems, flouting or observing genre conventions as you see fit, you, the lord of all words, this is all deeply unnatural and strange.

So why worry when you don’t want to do it or you find yourself devising strategies of escape from writing? It’s quite natural not to want to do it. Especially if you have to do it alone. Writing in a newsroom is distracting but at least it is not isolating. You don’t feel like you’ve been abandoned. It is pointless to pretend that you’re going to enjoy this process, or that it is going to bring you health and happiness. It isn’t. It is going to annoy you and put you in a bad mood. Not to mention the effect on your personality and sociability of spending hours at a time controlling an imaginary world. This intoxication of omnipotence must be left at the writing table. But no. The intoxication persists; the delusion persists; you leave the table and encounter the world and everything in it defies your will, that will so willingly obeyed by the subjects of your fiction. It’s startling how resistant store clerks and wives are to your imperious will, especially when the phantoms of your prose have been bending in your wind for months and years.

When you emerge from your throne as the ruler of all your kingdoms, you really need to get a grip.