Late Night Reading: Steal Like An Artist

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: March 8, 2013
Categories: Craft, Creativity, Inspiration
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Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.

— Jim Jarmusch


The upside of insomnia is that I seem to get more reading done. And lately, as I’ve been working on revisions on the first draft of my WIP, I’ve been dipping into lots of craft novels. I just picked this one up at the library: Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative  by Austin Kleon. You can check out his website here. Here are his 10 things listed below. What would you add?


1. Steal like an artist

2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.

3. Write the book you want to read.

4. Use your hands.

5. Side projects and hobbies are important.

6. The Secret: Do good work and share it with people. (**Thanks Scrivas!**)

7. Geography is no longer our master.

8. Be nice. (The world is a small town.)

9. Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)

10. Creativity is subtraction.



Just in case you thought it was easy…

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: February 8, 2013
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…This video reminds us that it’s not. Jerry Seinfeld discusses how it’s taken him several years to write a single joke about pop-tarts. Fascinating!

Watch it here.

Happy Friday!


by Melissa Dalton
Published on: November 13, 2012
Categories: Other Topics
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“I sweat the stuff I can’t really control, even though I know there’s nothing I can do about it. Like reviews and publisher support or publicity stuff. I think there’s so much easy-access to book chatter, authors can get bogged down in career comparisons and stuff they really shouldn’t be worrying about. The most rewarding aspect has to be hearing from readers, especially reluctant ones. The first time a teen told me my book was the first novel she’d ever finished I cried. As a reluctant reader myself, knowing that I helped a person reach that kind of milestone feels pretty darn great. The other one that always gets me is when a teen tells me he or she feels less alone after reading one of my books. That’s really what it’s all about. Connecting.”

–From Young Adult Novelist Jo Knowles, in an interview with Libba Bray. Knowles has a new novel out, See You At Harry’s, that I can’t wait to read.

You can find the rest of the interview here.

A Fun Exercise in Writing Dialogue

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: August 12, 2012
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This weekend I finished reading The Fine Art of Truth or Dare by Melissa Jensen, which I enjoyed. She uses a variety of narrative devices throughout the novel such as emails, letters, and literary criticism. Occasionally, she also adds in super short chapters consisting solely of dialogue, even leaving out speech tags completely. I am always intrigued to see this narrative technique, ever since I took a nonfiction writing class and that was one of the assignments.

So I thought I’d pass the assignment on to you, to kickstart your writing week: Write a page of dialogue with less than 5 speech tags and only 2 sentences of context, at the beginning and the end. It can be fiction or nonfiction, whatever floats your boat. Extra credit if you leave out speech tags altogether, like Melissa. Good luck!

Rules of the Road

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: July 12, 2012
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Recently, Scriva Sabina asked which writing books we’d take with us on a cross-continental move (What a thought!). The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron would definitely make it into my suitcase.

The Artist’s Way, which I think of as a sort-of creative bible, is intended to be a twelve-week program to explore your creativity and your blocks. Cameron addresses all mediums, not just writing. Now I’ll admit, I’ve never finished the whole program — I always get stuck on the week that you’re supposed to do reading deprivation — but I do love to thumb through the book when I’m feeling overwhelmed or creatively-tapped.

Recently I did so and came across these, Cameron’s ten rules for being an artist. You’ll notice, she connects your creative path and nourishing your inner artist with a spiritual path, but it’s very generalized, so that you’re able to align what she’s suggesting with your own personal beliefs.

“In order to be an artist, I must:

1. Show up at the page. Use the page to rest, to dream, to try.

2. Fill the well by caring for my artist.

3. Set small and gentle goals and meet them.

4. Pray for guidance, courage, humility.

5. Remember that it is far harder and more painful to be a blocked artist than it is to do the work.

6. Be alert, always, for the presence of the Great Creator leading and helping my artist.

7. Choose companions who encourage me to do the work, not just talk about doing the work or why I am not doing the work.

8. Remember that the Great Creator loves creativity.

9. Remember that it is my job to do the work, not judge the work.

10. Place this sign in my workplace: Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity. You take care of the quality.”

Number 9 is particularly resonating with me these days, as I can easily allow my judgmental side get the best of me and block the writing I want to do.

How about it, do any of Julia’s rules resonate with you? What would you add?

Bringing Back the Magic

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: June 12, 2012
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Oftentimes, with the demands of my daily life, writing gets squeezed into very tight blocks of time, such as 9 am to 11 am on Wednesday or noon to 1:30 on Friday. With these constraints, the process can feel like a bit of a slog, like my goals are looming too large at the end of the hour. Will I finish this chapter, scene, conversation before I have to run my errand, go to work, fix dinner?

In all of this rush, it can feel like the magic of writing — that creative pull, that sense of wonder that made me want to write in the first place — is gone.

What a sad thought! So I wondered if perhaps there are ways to bring the magic back to the writing process, much like adding some romance into a relationship. And here is what I came up with:

1. Read a poem every night for a year.

My writing professor in graduate school made this off-hand suggestion in class once when a student asked him how one can improve their writing. What a romantic idea! He said that the best time to do this was before sleep, in order to let the language, the imagery, and the rhythm of the words work over your subconscious.

2. Write a pastiche.

You might be thinking, huh? Yeah, that was my reaction, too. That same professor would often give this to us as an assignment. “Write a pastiche in the vein of James Agee…” The first time he said this, I wrote “Pastiche?” in the margins of my notes and has to look it up after class.

Pas-tiche (noun): a literary, musical, or artistic piece consisting wholly or chiefly of motifs or techniques borrowed from one or more sources.

Yup, it cleared up a lot for me too. As far as I could tell, the professor wanted us to basically imitate another writer’s style in a short piece of our own. Adopt their tone, stylings, sentence lengths, etc. To do so pushes your own creative boundaries. You may not write something you’d ever want to show another person, but you may also learn a new technique and make it your own in the process.

3. Create a pillow book.

According to Wikipedia, a pillow book is a “book of observations and musings” that originated with a court lady in eleventh century Japan. I think it was also a kind-of racy movie with Ewan McGregor from the 90s. The original pillow book was a diary, so the form can include any and all observations about life, often incorporating the very things we tend to overlook in the rush of our day to day routine. Some suggestions might be to make a list of words that you like the sound of, to take a walk through town and take notes on everything you see, or to sit in a coffee shop and jot down an overheard conversation. Whatever makes you pause — just jot it down.

There you have it, my three ways for bringing the magic back to the writing process. They could end up being the equivalent of an empty romantic gesture. Or perhaps, an invitation to dream, which every person, and writer, can surely use at some point.

Re-thinking When to Say “Cut!”

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: May 3, 2012
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In a Scriva critique, it’s not unusual to hear me suggest: “You could cut this out,” or to get pages back with slashes through paragraphs of text. These kinds of suggestions can be incredibly helpful. “Cut” written in the margin of a manuscript lets you see where you’re losing the reader or going off topic.

However, I was recently reading Alice LaPlante’s book The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, and it’s making me re-think the suggestion to “Cut.” She says:

“Then there’s the fact that the kind of advice parceled out during workshops isn’t always appropriate for the stage that a work is in. You may be trying something new that doesn’t work — yet. But a workshop may well decide that a section that isn’t working simply needs to be removed. “Take it out!” is a common phrase heard in workshops. Yet the passage in question, when refined, could become a critical part of the story or essay or novel in question. Just because it isn’t working now doesn’t mean it won’t work in the next draft…or the next…or the next.”

Now, I’ll be asking myself the following questions when I want to suggest “Cut.”

1) What is the writer trying to do here?

2) Does she do it better elsewhere?

3) Do the ideas here just need to be broken up and inserted in other places?

If the information seems completely unnecessary, a suggestion to cut would be in order. But if it is information that is just slowing down the narrative pace or could use rephrasing, that is a better distinction to make for the writer rather than just “Cut.”

As a writer, I’ll also have to think about when I receive the suggestion, rather than just reaching for the delete key. Only you, as the architect of your story, can know if that particular section is really integral to the story as a whole. If anything, LaPlante’s is a good reminder to always be true to your creative vision, to listen to the little protest that might niggle at you when you see “Cut” next to a particular passage in your manuscript. Sometimes, it seems like, no matter how many critiques you receive or creative writing books you read, it is really that little voice that you have to heed the most!

Tales of Revision: Helpful Tips from THE INTERN

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: March 4, 2012
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THE INTERN is a blog that started in 2009. It is written by just whom the title implies, an anonymous intern at a big, unnamed, publishing house. (Though recently, THE INTERN unveiled herself because she signed a book deal for a YA novel. Congrats to her!) THE INTERN’s blog is hilarious, provides astute insights into the workings of the publishing industry, and often offers spot-on writing advice. Careful, though. She’s an addictive read. The only downside to reading the blog, as far as I can see, is that if I read too many posts in a row, I start narrating everything I’m doing in the third person, much like the snarky voice of her blog. And that’s just odd.

So, I am just beginning revisions of the “sh*tty first draft” of my realistic teen novel. I am about 20,000 words in and it’s…not going well. I have arrived at two chapters that I find to be, quite simply, a snoozefest. And if I’m bored writing them, what’s that going to be like for someone reading them?

But I think, I think that these chapters are necessary because they provide pertinent background information/context for the reader to better understand my main character. I know the Scrivas will tell me for sure if I need them. But in the meantime, I wondered if perhaps I could step back from the chapters and look at them a little differently.

That’s when I remembered this post from the intern. It breaks down the “formula” for the addictive prose that is The Hunger Games. (Or so I hear — I actually haven’t read it yet!) THE INTERN highlights a chapter of The Hunger Games in different colors. Each color corresponds to a certain category:

* LIGHT BLUE: Action/Description

* PINK: Dialogue

* DARK BLUE: Internal Conflict

* RED: External Conflict

* DARK GREEN: An action or decision that the character must make stemming from the internal OR external conflict

* GREY: Internal narrative: “telling,” memories, reactions

Now, I had heard of revising a text in different colors and having each color correspond to each sense (sight, smell, hear, taste, touch). And that seems like a good idea, perhaps further down the road when you are finessing things more and other things, like the plot, are solid. But this model just seemed to make wicked good sense to me. And INTERN’s conclusions after she finished highlighting the text are fascinating.

When I started to look at my own sleep-inducing chapters according to this paradigm, one thing popped out immediately: Too much grey and not enough dark green! Too much telling the character’s reactions and not enough decision making!! Could that be why I’m so bored writing and reading this???

Well, duh. Now it seems obvious. But it is hard to know these things when you’re so close to the text.

So now, I have to go back to these chapters and ask even bigger questions: What is my main character discovering here? What decisions does my main character need to make based on these discoveries? How does this contribute to either her internal/external conflict or both?

Whew. These are big questions begging answers that aren’t immediately apparent.

Hmm, that about sums up the revision process right now.

Thanks, INTERN!

When You Don’t Know How To Say It — A Quick Primer for Brainstorming Helpful Comments

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: February 3, 2012
Categories: Basics, Critique Process
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Sometimes, it’s hard to know how to phrase your critique comments so that they are helpful to someone else. Here is a little cheat sheet on critique language to help you get started…

1) Start with a positive: “I like the way…[the plot is advancing, this character is demonstrating XY, etc].”  You can then follow this with a related point, if you think there’s something that needs work: “But I am concerned about…”

2) Ask a question: “Do you want to think about…” “What’s the character arc?” “I ask because…” It’s good to follow this with a specific observation about the text and your points of confusion, to help illustrate why you’re asking this question.

3) State an observation and follow this with the reason your observation matters: “Sadie seems a bit non-reactive in this scene. This makes it hard for me to know where she is coming from.” Give examples from the text (i.e. Where is the character non-reactive?) to help your fellow writer.

4) Feel free to point out your own strong reactions: “Wow! Love this detail here!” “This is making me laugh aloud on the bus.”

5) Offer block suggestions for revisions: “You might want to trim here…” “Can you add some sensory detail here?” “I wanted to see more XY here…”

6) Commiserate. “I know it’s hard to rhyme, but perhaps looking at your word choices here and here will…”

7) Encourage, encourage, encourage: “Keep up the good work!” “This book is turning out awesome!” “I can’t wait to read more!”

What critique language do you find especially helpful?

Tip #212 for Getting Unstuck or Getting Inspired By Your Fellow Writers

by Melissa Dalton
Published on: July 7, 2011
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Me and My Manuscript

At the beginning of the summer, I got stuck in my manuscript.

For a while, I had a great schedule of writing once a week. I would meet up with a couple of my Scrivas in a local coffee shop every Friday morning. After catching up on our weeks and settling in with our pots of tea, we would bend heads to laptops and start writing. For these sessions, I always set a relatively low word count goal of 1000 words. I did this because I have learned, the hard way, that if I set my sights too high (A rough draft in a month? Of course I SHOULD be able to do that!), I inevitably fall short. This can be followed by critical self doubt and complete abandonment of whatever it was that I was trying to achieve.

So, having learned my lesson, I made my writing goals more manageable and stuck to a consistent schedule. And miracle of miracles, I started making progress on a manuscript. I reached 50 pages, then 80, now 142. This has never happened! Wahoo!

And then I stopped.

For weeks.

It probably started with a disruption to the schedule — a trip out of town, a doctor’s appointment. Whatever the first interruption to my writing mojo was, it was followed by challenges to the writing itself. The scene I was working through just felt awkward. Questions crowded out my ability to write. How did it fit into the whole book? Why weren’t the characters saying anything? It was as if my two main characters were standing there, staring blankly at each other. Friday after Friday I found myself just staring at my screen. I’d try to start the scene at different points. I shuffled the characters around. But everything I tried seemed to bring me back to the same stagnant place.

Oh boy, I was good and stuck.

I thought about ditching the scene all together but there was a problem with that — I liked it. There was build up to it. Things spiraled out from it. In the grand plotting scheme in my head, it worked. It just wasn’t cooperating on the page.

Then, I went to my monthly Scriva meeting — the first after a long absence. Mary had submitted the first chapter of a new YA novel she was working on and she had submitted it in two versions — one in first person and one in third. She wanted advice on which one she should proceed in.

The following Friday, I thought about this as I stared at my same-old defunct scene. Why not do as Mary did? So I opened the first chapter and started rewriting it in the first person. This instantly got me into my character more, which was the underlying problem to my stuckness all along. I needed to have a better idea of what she was feeling and where she was coming from in order to make the scene work, in order to giver her something to say. So I switched to the stuck chapter and restarted it in the first person. It probably helped that I opened a new document to do this and headed it up with this title: THIS WILL NOT NECESSARILY GO IN THE BOOK. NOTHING TO SEE HERE, FOLKS. JUST WRITING.

But write I did, and when I finally looked up from my screen, I had 3000 words under my belt. Chapter Sixteen was FINALLY done and my leg was twitching under the table from all the caffeine I’d consumed. Thank goodness for the awesome Scrivas. Inspiration from seeing their writing processes up close always seems to get me through. That, and copious amounts of green tea.

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