Freewrite Newsletter

One of Marian's favorite author gigs is the biannual BooksNJ Festival, organized by the invaluable Bergen County Cooperative Library System (BCCLS).

One of Marian’s favorite author gigs is the biannual BooksNJ Festival, organized by the invaluable Bergen County Cooperative Library System (BCCLS).

My free, quarterly e-newsletter is the place to find creative writing exercises, news of upcoming workshops, interviews with local writers, and my sometimes-contrarian opinions about books and publishing. Registration is easy and doesn’t require any private information except your email address, which is kept private and never shared with anyone else. Freewrite is issued via MailChimp. Read the latest issue of Freewrite here and subscribe to Freewrite here.

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Marian Calabro's 9 Favorite Books About Writing

Marian Calabro's 9 Favorite Books About Writing

Marian Calabro’s 9 Favorite Books on Writing

This is a highly arbitrary list. I like these books because all of them have helped me in one way or another. I am always looking for good writing about writing to share with the writers in my groups. Please pass along your recommendations via the contact page on my website anytime.

Writing Alone and With Others  by Pat Schneider / Oxford University Press, 2003
Although it was published by a university press, this is not an academic book. It overflows with wisdom and exercises from the woman who created a new way of writing in groups when she burned out on MFA-style workshops, which can be nitpicking and lifeless (MFA = Master of Fine Arts degree).

A House of My Own: Stories from My Life  by Sandra Cisneros / Knopf, 2015
Not a how-to book about writing, but definitely a how-to memoir about finding your own voice and having the guts to live a writer’s life.

The Playwright’s Guidebook  by Stuart Spencer / Faber & Faber, 2002
The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry 
by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux  / W. W. Norton, 1997
Ordinary Genius  by Kim Addonizio / W. W. Norton, 2010
All these books transcend the boundaries of a single genre and have lots of good exercises.

The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain  by Alice W. Flaherty, M.D. / Houghton Mifflin, 2004
Quirky, dense….The author is a neurologist and highly original writer who asks: what underlies the human ability, desire, and compulsion to write? The answers have to do with our individual brain chemistries. Her discussion of hypergraphia–the compulsion to write–is even more fascinating than her take on its opposite, writer’s block.

Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity  by Ray Bradbury / Capra Press, 1990
Like a life preserver, this book once helped get me onto shore during a bad patch of mental storms in my life. I have little taste for science fiction and fantasy, Bradbury’s main genres, but anything he writes just about leaps off the page. Don’t miss his formula for writing fiction (p. 7), his noun list idea (p. 17), his discussion of “quiet stories” (p. 43) …. his passion is contagious.

The Artist’s Way andWalking in The World
Julia Cameron / Tarcher, various dates
Along with Bradbury’s Zen, these books rank high as creativity starters and confidence builders for me. You’ll know right away if you like them. The exercises are a little wacky but worth doing. I find myself rereading one or both of these books yearly, usually in the autumn.

I also like Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Walter Mosley’s This Year You Write Your Novel, and William Sloane’s out-of-print classic The Craft of Writing. Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and Natalie Goldberg are hugely popular but they do not ring my bell. Browse in your library at Dewey Decimal No. 808 to see which writing guides appeal to you.

In the end, I always paraphrase Pat Schneider: The only worthwhile test of any book, class, leader, or workshop is whether it makes you want to write more.

10 Ways to Cultivate a Writing Routine

10 Ways to Cultivate a Writing Routine

10 Ways to Cultivate a Writing Routine

  1. Say yes, not maybe. “I’ll write for 10 minutes before bed” (and doing it) is better than “Maybe I’ll write this week.” Pick whatever time of day, or whichever day of the week, you can carve out.
  1. If email absorbs your time, use it. Do a writing exercise and send it a writing buddy or to yourself. Have your character write and send an email to you or to another character.
  1. If you get lost in research, backtrack. Some of us can’t be on a computer or smartphone without losing ourselves in the Web (sometimes disguised as “research”). If this is you:
    a) Write by hand.
    b) Or, type up your writing when you don’t feel like writing. While typing, you will almost automatically start rewriting. Yes! That counts as writing.
  1. Write by hand anyhow (it’s more portable), and go back to step 3B.
  1. Measure your output. What gets measured gets done, as my corporate friends say. Set a timer and write for X minutes. Or resolve to do X number of words today/this week/this month. (Word count in Microsoft Word: Alt-T-W)
  1. Chunk it down. I have written whole nonfiction books (after doing research), and rewritten a full-length play, by saying “I have 8 chapters (or scenes). I want to finish in 4 months. That’s 16 weeks. OK. I can do a chapter or scene in 2 weeks.”
  1. Turn down a social invitation. “Sorry, I have another appointment.” The appointment is with yourself.
  1. Be inspired by one of these quotes: “Creativity unexpressed turns to poison.” – Deborah Bluestein. “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” – Pablo Picasso. “It’s essential to create when the spirit is dying. It doesn’t matter what.” – Sandra Cisneros
  1. Write it first! Edit it later! Respect craft, but don’t get hung up on it at the expense of spirit.
  1. Find or start a supportive writing group (one that isn’t hung up on craft at the expense of spirit). Commit to it. Don’t beat yourself up if you write only in the group. You’re writing!

Writing can shake you up, energize you, and heal you—sometimes all in the same day, and certainly over the course of years. Even when you don’t write, you are observing. At the same time, your writing is patiently awaiting your return. It may act grumpy when you finally get back, but it is always secretly glad to see you again.

8 Tips on Revision

8 Tips on Revision

8 Tips on Revision 

  1. Why revise at all?
    Literature rarely flows off the pen intact, although individual sections may. And we often don’t see our own strengths. What may seem old to us is a new story to most readers. “Poet Margaret Robison taught me that ‘the only purpose of revision is to get more deeply to the truth,’” says Pat Schneider in Writing Alone and with Others. “She said that she always asks herself, Is there more that I have not yet seen? There is a certain purity in that kind of practice of revision. It has nothing at all to do with the marketplace, with the opinions of others, with cleverness, or with rules. It has only one goal: to tell the truth of what has been experienced or what has been imagined.”   
  1. Should I ever not revise?
    “Doctor, spare that knife,” advises my former playwriting teacher and story analyst Stuart Spencer in his excellent The Playwright’s Guidebook. “Your first rule in rewriting must be that if you like the work, if it is what you want it to be, leave it alone. Don’t start applying the tools [in Stuart’s book] or any other ideas for their own sake. As Duke Ellington said, ‘If it sounds good, it is good.’ Or as John Cheever, the short-story writer, used to say in his classes, the most important criterion for measuring a work’s worth is: ‘Is it interesting?’” The latter is a loaded question, natch. What’s interesting to me, or would have been to Cheever, may not be to you.When you’re writing specifically to be published or produced, however, your play’s director or your book’s editor may insist that you revise – even if you’re content to leave your work alone.In writing for one’s own gratification, I’ve found that revising for revision’s sake can be a form of procrastination. Easier to play with the old stuff sometimes than to move onto something new.
  1. What’s the difference between revising and editing?
    Revising is bigger than editing. That said, certain kinds of editing do involve revision. A developmental editor (sometimes called a substantive editor) reads a piece that’s largely or completely first-drafted and asks big questions like: “What’s your theme? Who is your main character? Have you thought about adding this? Or thinking more about that? ”That kind of editing is done toward revising the piece as a whole – as opposed to line editing and copyediting, which focus on consistency, grammar, punctuation, and other fine points.
  1. Don’t revise too soon.
    Remember thou keep holy the First Draft. Edit a bit as you write, or the day after, if that’s your style. But ignore well-meant advice to “omit needless words” and such at that point. Many pieces in early stages need more material – often much more material! – not less.
  1. Save your first drafts.
    Writers can easily revise the life out their work.Let me be clear: I mean we sometimes kill the good parts.Seems incredible, but I see this happen again and again. It can occur when work is critiqued by others too early – taking the cake out of the oven after 10 minutes. Other culprits include “too many cooks” who don’t know the writer’s voice and strengths.Let’s give ourselves and our critics credit: we go straight to the hot spots. Problem is, we get scared and try to stomp out the fire. Timid clients do this to bold advertising copy all the time; no surprise there. But writers do it to themselves, too.One remedy for this syndrome is to keep your first draft and to refer to it later if you’ve gotten too tidy. Emotional neatness doesn’t count for much in writing.
  1. Consider your readers.
    “It is only good manners to do so. Are you giving them a good time? Are you confusing them, upsetting them, boring them? Maybe you are and this is part of a deliberate poetic strategy. Just be sure you know what you are doing.” – Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled
  1. “I can’t tell where I’m at. Help!”Here’s where two practices from Amherst Writers groups really pay off. In listening to the work of other writers, you are developing a strong ear. Every writer is, or should be, half an editor. And in treating all work as fiction, you are creating a kind of moat around the castle that offers perspective and balance.Let me turn it over to Stuart Spencer for another astute observation: “It’s not good enough for you to be self-deprecating and say, ‘I just don’t know whether what I do is any good.’ By saying that, you’re abdicating a primary function of the artist. Besides, it’s probably not true. I’ll bet you do know what you think of your work—if only on a gut level. Chances are you’re either being modest because you like it a lot, or you’re embarrassed to admit you can’t stand what you’ve done. Either way, face up to your feelings. They’re one of your greatest assets in writing your play.” Or book, or story, or memoir, or poem.
  1. What are some specific steps to start with?I like these, offered by poet Kim Addonizio in her book Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within. They apply across the board, not just to poems. The italicized items are Kim’s; the glosses are mine except where in quotation marks.Leave it alone. Let it sit. Don’t be in the same mood when you read it as when you wrote it.Find the heat. Circle the sizzling stuff. Identify the core of what the piece wants to say.Diction. What’s your tone? Is it consistent? (It doesn’t always need to be.) What matters here: word choices, pace, point of view.Detail. As Kim says: “Usually you can go much further into an image than you think.” At the same time, don’t throw in detail for detail’s sake. “Revise toward significant detail.” Rhyme, rhythm, sound. This applies not just to poetry but to good prose.Tension and surprise. Strive for this across paragraphs, units of structure (book chapters, play scenes, poem stanzas), and the entire work. “Only trouble is interesting,” says Janet Burroway in her excellent if academic Writing Fiction, a textbook that has additional ideas for revising works as a whole.

First Lines I Love

First Lines I Love

First Lines I Love

Riffing on famous first lines can help jumpstart your own writing.  Send me some of your favorites via my website. 

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.
–Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That”

It happened every year, was almost a ritual.
–Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
–J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Catastrophism, a geological theory championed by zoologist Georges Cuvier, holds that time lurches forward in sudden disasters.
–Lauren Redniss, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie

I am not at all sure whether I should be telling you this.
–Alexander McCall Smith, “Intimate Accounts” (a short story)

When I was three, I decided not to have children.
–Molly Peacock, Paradise Piece by Piece

When I was thirteen years old, a knock came on my door.
–Pat Schneider, Wake Up Laughing

At the age of 80 my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time.
— Russell Baker, Growing Up

After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother’s womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954.
— Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.
— Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

I arrived in the Alice at five a.m. with a dog, six dollars and a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothes.
— Robyn Davidson, Tracks

The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses.
— Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus

Henry got hit about six a.m.
— Janet Burroway, Opening Nights

The two women were alone in the London flat.
— Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

21 Ideas for Finding the Just-Right Title

21 Ideas for Finding the Just-Right Title

21 Ideas for Finding the Just-Right Title

We writers often can’t title own our work. We’re too close to it. That’s why I was delighted to discover a whole section on titling in Will Dunne’s book The Dramatic Writer’s Companion (for full info, see All the material below is drawn from it; I’ve paraphrased and presented just a few of many examples.

Actually, Dunne suggests using the naming process not mainly to name, but “to explore the big picture of your story, figure out what matters most, and maybe even find a title.” Here are his 20 takes on the subject; he points out that some titles overlap categories. Brideshead Revisited, for example, covers #1, #10, and #17 (I just had to add that, because it’s one of my favorite novels).

What would your title be if it . . .

  1. Summed up your whole story in a single word? (Proof, Cats, Rent, Hairspray)
  2. Used so many words we could barely remember them all? (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad)
  3. Asked a question? (Isn’t It Romantic? What Price Glory?)
  4. Issued an order, warning, or advice? (Play It Again, Sam; Don’t Drink the Water)
  5. Named your main character? (Hamlet, Tiny Alice, Anna in the Tropics, Captain Phillips, Philomena)
  6. Described your main character? (The Miracle Worker, Lord of the Rings, Psycho, Wolf of Wall Street)
  7. Issued a statement from the main character? (I Am a Camera; I Married a Werewolf)
  8. Named your two most important characters? (Romeo and Juliet, Thelma and Louise)
  9. Described a set of characters? (Angels in America, The Odd Couple, Dallas Buyers Club)
  10. Highlighted the setting? (Our Town, Avenue Q, Little Shop of Horrors, Cabaret, Nebraska)
  11. Highlighted the date or era? (Twelfth Night, The Year of Living Dangerously)
  12. Focused on something physical? (Schindler’s List, The Diary of Anne Frank)
  13. Highlighted a certain feeling or mood? (Wicked, Desire Under the Elms, American Hustle)
  14. Combined two elements? (Arsenic and Old Lace, Cries and Whispers)
  15. Suggested a lesson? (How the West Was Won, How to Succeed in Business…)
  16. Used a metaphor? (The Silence of the Lambs, A Doll’s House, The Lion in Winter, Gravity)
  17. Summed up the main event? (Waiting for Godot, Death of a Salesman, 12 Years a Slave)
  18. Identified the subject of the story? (Betrayal, Six Degrees of Separation, A Beautiful Mind)
  19. Identified the genre or category of your story? (Pulp Fiction, Love Letters)
  20. Made a literary allusion? (Of Mice and Men, A Raisin in the Sun, and the thousands of stories, books, poems, and plays based on phrases in Shakespeare)
  21. Drew on a key phrase from the text? (A Streetcar Named Desire, A Wrinkle in Time)