7 Tips for New Writers

Last year, I was invited to give a commencement speech at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA graduation—advice for writers heading out into the world. Here’s the text of that speech; I hope some of what I said rings true for you:

***

As we prepare to send these ten graduates off into the wilderness, I’m honored to stand up here and share some of what I’ve leaned about the writing life with you all. Please note that I’m going to sprinkle some concrete pieces of advice throughout this speech, which should take exactly 12 minutes and 23 seconds, some of which has already elapsed.

My first piece of advice: When you’re invited to read on stage, stick to the allotted time!

Second Piece of Advice: Pick the right verb and you won’t need an adverb.

This is the rapid fire part of the speech, so here comes . . .

THIRD PIECE OF ADVICE: You do have time to write.

If you feel like you don’t have time to write, I suspect that your problem is that you have a life. So, do away with that.

Like, adios to yoga and the gym. Facebook is not helpful, also quit knitting, sky-diving, stamp-collecting. Most personal relationships are overrated, so do the bare minimum to maintain civil relations with the people you value. TV’s out, of course, unless it’s late and you’re comatose after writing a lot—no, wait.

No TV. Instead, read a few pages of good stuff. Take long walks with great music in your ears. Let your thoughts about writing take over crazy amounts of real estate in your mind. It’s a love affair, a very dangerous love affair.

Good news. You’ve got time to write! Isn’t that nice?

***

Okay, back to this speech.

News flash: Writing is not an inherently brave act. But showing your writing to strangers, or worse still, showing it to loved ones? That’s brave AF. It’s personal, even when it’s not, even when you’re writing about vampires, or whatever. Your subconscious sneaks in, anyway, revealing your weird joys and proclivities and vulnerabilities.

And after opening that vein, failure is the norm. That’s the kicker. Only a massive sense of humility will allow you to withstand an inevitable waterfall of rejection—it’ll be raining down on your head all day and night.

I would love to tell you that you will not have to deal with a waterfall of rejection, but that would be a lie, and you’re not supposed to lie during commencement speeches.

Personally, I applied to 13 MFA programs and got into one, which awarded funding to students based on our “literary merit.” No pressure. Bad news: I received the least amount of funding from my cohort of 10 fiction writers.

Almost everyone else in my group got a full ride their second year, with a small stipend for living expenses. I got a pat on the back: “Good job, keep trying!” I exited the program with about $28,000 in student loans. It was humiliating.

On the upside, I left the program with a draft of a novel. Isn’t that nice?

Alas, that novel didn’t sell. No takers. Sent it around, no bites.

I’d also written a novel before I started at the MFA program, and showed it to a friend, who said to me, with a commanding seriousness, “Show this to no one else.” He was right.

Writing is an outrageous thing to do, if you think about it, and not just because of the certain vulnerability and failure. It’s a rough situation to get into on purpose. It takes a kind of bravery, I dare say. And you graduates embody that.

When you do publish something, you’re asking strangers to pay for the privilege of reading your poems or prose. A full book can take like 20 hours to read—so you’re asking this stranger if you can bend their ear for 20 hours, and by the way, they should pay about $30 for a hardcover version of this experience. And if they don’t mind, maybe they could write a nice Amazon review.

That’s some hardcore hubris we’ve got here, friends.

But that’s not the whole story. When you get past the craziness of this undertaking, a piece of writing is an offering to a reader. The act of reading puts that fellow human in a deep collaboration with you. You’re in cahoots, but the experience happens entirely inside their head. Every person who reads your writing brings their own motley collection of personal baggage to that experience—your subconscious is talking to their subconscious. As David Foster Wallace said, of fiction, “We all suffer alone in the world. But a piece of fiction can allow us to identify with a character’s pain, and imagine someone else identifying with ours. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”

Every person who reads your work will experience something different. It’s magical. As writer Heather McCue said: “I began to write because I was too shy to talk, and too lonely not to send messages.”

***

Okay, Fourth piece of advice: Writer’s block is no excuse for not writing.

When faced with a seizure of creative energy, some writers turn to alcohol, or Adderall, but please follow the prescription directions under medical supervision. Most  writers I know don’t drink and write, actually, but do what you must. End of the day, you need to sit down and write sentences. Sentences self-propagate through asexual reproduction like amoebas. So try writing a bad sentence, the worse the better. Then another. Another. Keep going until they’re not so bad.

Once they’re not bad, try to keep them that way.

***

Back to my speech. The reason I wasn’t able to publish the first two books I wrote was that they were awful.

A few months ago I exhumed the second one and quickly hacked 50 pages out of it—the ease with which they were cut was, perhaps, a red flag—and sent it to my agent. She’s very polite, so after she read it she said, “When you’re famous, this will be of great interest to academics.”

By the time I finished my MFA at the age of 30, I’d also written and revised and submitted about 20 short stories, and had received—I kid you not—approximately 1000 consecutive rejections. I’ve kept them all in two large boxes.

But at some point my writing improved. I’d read my peers’ work closely, and kept writing and writing and writing, and reading and reading and reading. For YEARS. The thing that really accelerated my improvement was specifically sitting around with the other writers in my MFA program and talking about writing. Through the process of reading their work critically, and having them read mine critically, I began at long last to have a real sense of control and purpose on the page.

Fifth PIECE OF advice is something that I saw on a poster, it was a picture of a cute kitten, or maybe Winston Churchill, but it said, “If you find yourself in hell, keep going.”

Because at some point you find yourself exiting hell.

By the time I graduated from my MFA program, despite being in many ways at the lowest place in my professional life, and feeling humiliated and foolish, I was able to write with a sense of aliveness and intentionality. I made craft decisions on purpose. Before that, if something was good, it was just a fluke.

These days I still get rejections, but most of what I’ve written since I graduated has been published—two novels, fifteen essays, about as many short stories.

What happened was I realized—here’s concrete advice #5, or maybe it’s #6—I realized that you must win over the reader, sentence by sentence.

This is, after all, an offering to them. It’s not for me. It’s for them. And I started to accept that readers are not naturally inclined to care about what I’m saying. I have to make them care.

They’re eager to watch The Walking Dead, which is understandable, and I’m trying to convince them to stay and read the next sentence. It’s a tug of war. Me versus those flesh-eating zombies. You’ve got to try hard, of course. I fail all the time, still. We all do. But it’s helpful to know what you’re up against.

Another piece of advice—this is #7, I think: There are always more words.

Most emerging writers assume a failed attempt—maybe it was too long, or scribed in Klingon, or no one likes it, not even their mom—but tossing that failed work in the trash means you’ve lost something precious.

This notion is born of a sort of "scarcity mentality," as opposed to an "abundance mentality." That is to say, emerging writers understandably feel that their "pile" of writing is small, and it is: because they haven't written much yet. They feel overly protective of those pages because they don’t have a stockpile of pages.

Instead of hoarding your iffy Klingon romances, try to just assume that there’s much more where that came from, and it won’t take long to write now that you know how to write. Keep building the pile and don’t look back. And once it’s ready, send it out and expect rejection, and keep your head down, don’t stop.

Here’s the thing: You are going to fail a lot, and you have to continue anyway. As Dory says in Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming.” But Dory is blessed with the inability to remember anything.

Which is your final Tip—number 8 if you’re keeping track: Amnesia is helpful.

Because I tried quitting writing. Honestly, I did. But living without writing is not living. Colors drain. I get dumb. As Joan Didion said, “I don't know what I think until I write it down.” If I’m not writing, I’m not thinking.

I’m unable to stop myself from writing. I love the exhilaration of actually composing a piece of writing—usually I would rather write than go to a party, and I like parties. I love how the prose comes alive. It’s the one truly mystical thing I know of.

My characters are often funnier and smarter than I am. How is that even possible?

It has to be magic. The subconscious mind out-singing the conscious mind. I’m so delighted to hear that voice, which isn’t supposed to be audible.

Publishing is fine, it’s nice, but it’s a means to the end. The end, for me, is having the time to write. I don’t write to publish. I publish so that I can write—so that I don’t have to get a day job.

But writing is lonely, and it’s almost impossible to improve without community. You have all been blessed with this beautiful community here—keep in touch with each other, even if it’s difficult. These people will be your core literary community for the rest of your life. Make new community, too, of course, and lean on each other, offer to read your friend’s work, and read with generosity, but also read critically. But most important of all, please, please…beware of adverbs.

They’re not your friends. Just find the right verb.

Peter Mountford Consulting offers writing coaching, classes and speaking services in Seattle, Washington and beyond. I work with clients to develop a writing approach, revise work and submit writing for publication. I help you develop your unique writing strengths, and offer the writing tools and assistance you need to become a successful writer.

A Changing Port Townsend (for the WITS Blog)

Port Townsend.jpg

(Note: this was originally written for the WITS Blog for Seattle Arts and Lectures in January 24, 2019.)

For the seventh year in a row, I’ve been fortunate to be part of a group of WITS writers who’ve gone to Port Townsend for two weeks in December. While Seattle has gone through some dramatic changes in these last seven years—to the extent that I sometimes get lost in my own neighborhood—Port Townsend’s changes come far more slowly, and subtly, which is a big part of its charm.

This year, there was one significant change in the school district, which was that our host school, Blue Heron, transitioned from serving elementary and middle schoolers to being purely a middle school (the new Salish Coast Elementary School opened). A couple of the WITS writers were off in the new school, but since I work with eighth graders, I still didn’t see a dramatic change: I was in the same building, same classroom, with the same wonderful teacher, Ms. Schroeder. But the school lost all of its littler inhabitants, and it was interesting to note the subtle shift in the atmosphere as a result.

It was, in a sense, a classic Port Townsend alteration: so subtle that you might miss it if you don’t pay close attention.

In Port Townsend, you’ll rarely see a building getting knocked down to make room for a large multi-use building. The one Starbucks in town is still in the Safeway. Several years ago, we arrived to find a new bistro and bar on Fort Worden—but, of course, it was housed in a century-old building that used to be the fort’s brig.

Still, things at year Blue Heron felt slightly smoother and clearer. Maybe it was because there were no kindergarteners—adorable as they are—turtling down the hallways with those giant backpacks. The eighth graders might have felt more distinctly aware of themselves as adolescents, not little kids, because they worked hard and wrote so many wonderful stories. This year, I also had five classes, two more than usual, for a total of 120 students, and all of them were enthusiastic about their writing.

The profusion of extraordinary ideas was remarkable: historical fiction, science fiction, experimental fiction, monsters, psychological torment, side-splitting comedies, and one very memorable story about a teenage girl with loving parents who desperately want her to succeed in school, but in their zeal for her to do well, are unable to see the struggles she’s working through. Until, that is, she finally sits them down and asks them to hear to her, until she tells them about what she wants and what she’s concerned about—then, they finally do listen, and it’s as if they’ve woken up and finally understood the person they’re trying to raise.

It’s a Port Townsend kind of end: not flashy or dramatic, but it is powerful and meaningful, everything is a little different in a subtle, but important, way.

Upcoming Classes: Never Be Boring, Advanced Personal Essay, Fiction III

Rule #1: Never Be Boring (There are No other rules) — at Hugo House (feb 2019)

There is no rule to writing great fiction and creative nonfiction except to “never be boring.” Also, please try not to be confusing or vague about important information. We’ll focus on compelling openings of stories, essays, memoirs, and novels through a combination of discussion, reading, and workshop.

More info HERE.

Advanced Personal Essay: Finding a Way Through — online class through Creative Nonfiction (April-June 2019)

“If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene.” - Hilary Mantel

Transforming actual people and events into characters and plot elements in an essay can be disorienting, but this is how we turn what would otherwise be journal entries—written for the author’s benefit—into literature, which exists for the benefit of readers.

This class is designed for those who have already explored the basics of personal writing and wish to explore specific techniques for turning a personal anecdote into a publishable essay.

Specifically, you will look at some typical structures of the personal essay, and how those formats help authors avoid common pitfalls of the form, such as getting lost in a giant pile of information and/or coming off as solipsistic/maudlin.

More info HERE.

Fiction III at Hugo House — online class through Hugo House (May-June 2019)

This class will build upon craft learned in Fiction I and II. Students can expect advanced readings, regular workshops, and feedback from their classmates and instructor. This course takes place online through our partners at Wet Ink, and classes can be done at your own pace throughout the week.

Register HERE

Is Your Book Doing Improv?

"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."

-Robert Frost

There is, generally speaking, no "correct" way to outline, and no correct amount to outline. But it's a question we all wrestle with, and you’d be wise to formulate a plan, one way or another.

Some authors, like Lee Child, generally have no outline whatsoever. They sit down to write a book without knowing what’s going to happen. At the other end of the spectrum is someone like the mystery writer Elizabeth George, who prepares meticulously with hundreds of pages of notes on characters and the crimes at the story’s center, and the approximate shape of the book.

Hollywood films, likewise, are remarkably tightly structured narratives. This is why biopics are so often rife with exaggerations and distortions, elided details, combined characters, and so on: reality never really conforms neatly to the very precise structure that a Hollywood narrative requires. The first plot point at page 27, the mid-act turning point, etc. Life isn't like that. So the "true" story in Hollywood’s hands is always, it turns, only vaguely true.

As writers of books we, fortunately or not, don't have to obey such strict narrative laws. We get to play and improvise, to follow our story blindly … to some extent. 

Like many writers, the thing I love about writing is the joy of writing something unexpected and shockingly alive (shocking to myself, first and foremost). As Lorrie Moore said in her second-person short story "How To Become A Writer": "The only happiness you have is writing something new, in the middle of the night, armpits damp, heart pounding, something no one has yet seen." That’s what keeps me writing, basically.

Or, as Joan Didion put it: “I don't know what I think until I write it down.” The process of writing is a process of discovery. 

Often, when writing dialogue, I’m delighted and totally surprised by what the characters are saying. They’re more witty and interesting than I am. This is the only magic I really know in the world — that what happens on the page is almost literally beyond my capacity. 

The heat in the story comes from the heat within you, the excitement and the unknown. 

When I follow a strict outline, that heat can be impaired. Because I’m filling in blanks, not improvising. And while the structure I imagine in the abstract might be interesting and a good story, somehow it fails to achieve the excitement and energy of that improvisation. 

But if I ONLY improvise, and have no plan—then I'm in really big trouble. It’s fine for a short story, perhaps, but if a piece becomes longer than 30 pages I can no longer “see” both sides of the piece at once. I can’t remember the text outside of what I have recently been working on, to be precise.

Writing a book is like creating an enormous painting, 50 feet tall, and equally wide, and you can’t ever get more than two feet away from the canvas. And you have a small paint brush. How are you supposed to work on the overall composition? It’s almost impossible without some kind of map to guide you, and the outline is that map.

There are many templates to choose from. You can imitate the structure of a book you like, or you can go with a more archetypal structure (a Faust story, or a “man comes to town” story, or a “rags to riches” story — more on these structures later). Some people call this approach “scaffolding” (e.g. Zadie Smith), and others call it “structure,” there are a million ways to talk about what we’re talking about, but it’s really the big plan that you’re following.

In any case, all of these templates or scaffoldings or structures are helpful with longer texts like novels, but they don’t guarantee that the book will be good. As a consultant I help authors develop a sensible plan and also accept the limitations of that plan. We’re trying to find a way to be both forward thinking, and alive to the moment, and present with the story in front of us today.