Wednesday, April 24, 2013

6 What I Might Say To You if We Were Sitting Together Having Coffee by Charles Price

Good writing advice inspires me to sit down and fit words on paper. Bad advice makes me nervous that I’m doing something wrong.

Good advice sings, makes me want to hum its tune like Jerome Stern’s MAKING SHAPELY FICTION, Stephen King’s ON WRITING, and Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD.

Bad advice tells me what to worry about --- Do you know what kind of toothpaste your character uses? Does the setting you’ve chosen have the proper tone for the story’s trajectory? Have you culled those pesky adverbs? If I want that kind of advice, there are thousands of “how to” articles that cover every pixel of writing craftsmanship.

What published authors would like to give new writers is the confidence to write your own stories . . . the tales that excite you or trouble you or baffle you. Not tales retold exactly as they happened in your life, not tales that dutifully report an actual experience, but tales that explore what you see happening in school, at home, at friends’ homes, at work, in the bodega on the corner. Not a photograph, but a painting. You transform your authentic experience into fictional characters and settings.

Based on your own memories and imagination you might invent stories about ---

• what it’s like to play on a girl’s losing softball team,
• what it’s like to dread going to school where you’ll be picked on,
• what it’s like to meet someone you’re attracted to,
• what it’s like to be rejected,
• what it’s like to confront your mother about her oxy habit.

Each of us has thousands of personal experiences that bother or delight us. And each of us is inescapably creative. (We make hundreds of barely noticed creative decisions a day from the mundane -what kind of milk to put on our cereal, to the unusual -what nickname we can use to tease a good friend.) Each of us is inescapably unique like our fingerprints. Our secret perceptions, the details we notice when we enter a party, the meanings we attribute to a conversation, are similarly unique. Each of us has tons of raw material to write original prose or poetry and we have the potential to illuminate the ordinary.

When we sit to write, we cultivate our inspiration. The book we’re reading or a movie we’ve just seen may give us a new idea. A dream may kick-start us, or the thoughts that were floating around our brain before we got up this morning. Or, where our mind wandered while we were sitting someplace quiet . . . who knows what will swim to the surface of our curiosity?

Like many writers, my favorite is asking the “what if” question. I wonder what-if and begin picturing a scene, watching it unfold like a movie . . . What if a girl volunteering at a congresswoman’s office found evidence of bribery and corruption that implicated her own father? What if a space ship made its first earth landing near a boy’s tent in a homeless camp?

When I talk about inspiration or imagination I use words like picturing because I rarely think my way into writing. As soon as I begin cogitating I’m often overwhelmed with options, decisions, possible problems. Instead, seeing works for me. I imagine looking through a window and watching people, and the more I look, the more real and more complete my imagined characters become. It happens for any of us when we wonder about something. What are those girls doing over there? Our brain always creates a temporary memory pool (examines our memories and experience) in order to develop a plausible answer to our question. They’re uh, I think they’re probably . . . It’s automatic -- if you get out of the way of your own brain’s ability to imagine.

The what-if question and those what-will-she-do-next questions that follow lead your characters through your story. Listen to your curiosity about what could happen and develop your intuition about what the reader might want. If you imagine a scene that makes you laugh, tell it. If you imagine a scene that causes you to cringe, go for it. Intense confrontations are delicious. Don’t get so involved in the sequence of a tale that you skate over the juiciest parts.

When you’ve written something you feel is solid, share it with a carefully chosen writer or reader. Pick someone whose written work you admire, someone who can understand what you’re trying to do, someone who will candidly give you with feedback. Such observations help us hone our “eye” and “ear” that will continue to inform our writing choices.

There are ways to more quickly grow your own effectiveness:

1. Participate in a weekly peer-group with four or five people whose writing you respect.

2. Choose authors you admire and parse their different styles to see what elements you can learn how to incorporate in your own work.

3. Practice every chance you get. Mastery of any activity seems to require about ten thousand hours. (4hours/day, 5 days/week, 48 weeks/year for ten years or so) So make everything you write count -- emails, articles, journals -- pay attention to your word choices, sentence structure, phrasing. Write intentionally. Put your best prose forward each time.

We might have a fantasy that writers are born, not made. Balderpoppy! Decent writing requires persistent focused effort. Talent? Probably separates good from great. But first let’s work on good. Learn how to sing your own song. Craftsmanship and technique are learned when we’re dying to describe something or someone and we don’t yet have the skill to do it to our satisfaction. Now that’s motivating!

Effective writers LOVE WORDS. They love making things up. They love to hear and tell stories. They write from this sense of pleasure. Sure, everybody has blah times. On a given morning, it might not seem fun to be clunking along, failing to bring energy to your characters or descriptions, but it’s possibly more enjoyable than, as a friend described yesterday, scraping up tile on the bathroom floor to find why her toilet is leaking. Wouldn’t you rather be writing?

Ask yourself -- How can I feel excited about today’s opportunity? What situation comes to mind that makes me want to start typing? My first editor Deborah Brodie told me to write “dessert first.” Write what pulls you out of bed in the morning and makes your fingertips itch for a keyboard.

About the Author

Charlie Price graduated from Stanford and has lived in Italy, New York City, Oakland, and Mexico before settling in Northern California. He went to high school in Montana where his most recent novel, DEAD GIRL MOON, is set. His third book, THE INTERROGATION OF GABRIEL JAMES, won the YA mystery Edgar award.

His thirty-five year’s work with adolescents ranges from teacher in street schools in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, to group therapist on locked psychiatric units, to Academic Dean in therapeutic boarding schools. He is also an executive coach and leadership consultant.

Charlie has been delightfully married to psychotherapist/artist Joan Pechanec for the past thirty years and has a 29 year-old daughter, Jessica Rose, living in Portland. In spite of abundant flaws, he’s a decent guitar player and fly-fisherman who lives on a river in Northern California.

Charlie's Website
Charlie's Blog

About the Book

As their hardscrabble lives intertwine in a small, corrupt Montana town, Grace, a scheming runaway, JJ, her drifty fostercare sister, and Mick, the son of a petty thief, discover the body of a young woman. Afraid to come forward, the teens try to hide their knowledge of the crime, because they believe the murderer is one of the corrupt officials and businessmen who rule their town. But after a series of false moves and dumb mistakes, the teens are soon suspects themselves in a murder investigation threatening their freedom—and maybe their lives.

Buy Dead Girl Moon on Amazon
Find Dead Girl Moon on Goodreads


  1. Love the title of the book!

    I used to think writers were born. And since it was obvious I wasn't born a writer, I avoided it for many many many years (other than when I had to write for school). I wish I had realized the truth sooner.

    I'm still waiting to get an idea from a dream.

  2. An inspirational post! This is a great reminder that it's all about a love of words and story. Love your first sentence: "Good writing advice inspires me to sit down and fit words on paper. Bad advice makes me nervous that I’m doing something wrong."

    And I especially love that you used the word "balderpoppy." That made me smile :)

  3. Definitely very inspiring! So refreshing to focus on the positives and "do's" than the "don'ts" or a daunting checklist. Writing should be an adventure, a love affair, an enjoyable experience (especially in the first draft)!

  4. I love, love, LOVE this post. :)

  5. Love seeing Charlie's post here! It's true. His emails are indeed works of art in themselves. Thank you for reminding us to focus on the creative process and not get bogged down in rules and don't's.

  6. " . . . Not a photograph, but a painting . . . I loved that! These reminders were inspiring. Thanks.


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