Maggie Frank-Hsu

On writing: Allowing the magic to unfold naturally

Once I told a French person that we keep our Camembert in the fridge. That, ahem, actually, you can’t buy unrefrigerated cheese in any grocery store in the U.S. (None I know of, anyway.) She said: “A cheese is alive. The refrigerator is a murder of the taste of a cheese.”* … A few years later, I was in a writing class. A fellow student (not the French person) was telling the class about the story she’d written, that she was about to read aloud. Her eyes flashed and she grinned and chatted and held our attention. That’s why it was so striking when, as soon as she began to read her piece, she turned into a refrigerated cheese. She read beautifully loud and clear. But the writing itself did not reflect the aliveness of her speaking pattern nor her idiom. The charming way …

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Writer, are you taking time to listen to yourself?

I was dawdling in my inbox when I came across this line in Esther Perel’s newsletter: “We have to remember,” my peer told me, “that when people aren’t listening, it’s because they don’t feel heard.” … Great thought, right? It applies to our writing efforts in lots of ways, but here’s one way you might not think of: Do you listen to you? Specifically, some of you, like me, have many different tiny people running around on the inside of your brain. Some are brave and kind, many more are anxious and scowling. In an attempt to calm them, you might be telling these freaked-out minis things like, “Don’t worry! I really want to write my book draft. I have the motivation! This is the year we get it done!” You may even attempt to order them around: “When you pipe up it …

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The right place to start your book

“Alex wheeled the Range Rover into the parking lot of MNY Bank. He grabbed his portfolio from the backseat and sprinted to the doors. A quick check of his watch made it official: 9:06 a.m. He was late—again. ***That’s the first paragraph of Built to Sell, a business book that could have been dry as dust. It’s also an example of beginning in medias res. In medias res just means starting in the middle of the story. “Plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events,” as Britannica says. Maybe the book begins in the heat of an argument during a war that has already started (like the Iliad). Or it begins with the protagonist already in financial trouble, like the paragraph above. *** The opposite of in medias res is ab ovo—”from the egg”—starting the story at the earliest chronological point. …

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Writing motivation from Ira Glass

​“Do it now,” says Ira. ​ Don’t wait until you have the right support or even the right idea. “Just start making it now.” Shoot the arrows now, Olav Hauge might say.* But one of the reasons I find a lot of would-be authors don’t just do it now is that it’s really, really hard. What exactly is it that’s so hard? Is it the writing itself? Finding the time? Maybe. Here’s what’s hard for me: if I start, I have to make choices. Choice after choice after choice. As long as I don’t write my book, my potential is limitless. The thing I’m creating is nothing, so that means it could be anything! From the moment I make my first choice, I whittle down that endless potential. And it’s not just that the potential narrows from limitless to limited. (That should actually feel good, right? It’s taking shape.) …

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The imprecise art of writing and parenting

Years of Experience with Bows and Arrows by Olav H. Hauge, translated by Robert Hedin and Robert Bly What you are supposed to hit is the bull’s eye, that black spot, that precise spot, and the arrow is supposed to stand there quivering! But that’s not where the arrow goes. You get closer to it, close and closer; no, not close enough. Then you have to go out and pick up all the arrows, walk back, try it again. That black spot is highly annoying until you finally grasp that where your arrow stands quivering is also the center of something. ​ from The Dream We Carry, Copper Canyon Press, 2018. Shared with me by Holly Wren Spaulding. ​​ **** One day, I was home with my son Morgan and who has spent the day either – refusing to play …

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Your book can’t be for everyone: the importance of defining a niche

It’s easy for me to tell you, “If you get unsolicited feedback on your writing don’t listen to it.” But do you want to know what I do when I get feedback? If you selected “Ignore myself!” … yeah. I got a lot of feedback on Be About Something, the book I wrote last year. All of the feedback that was not full of rave reviews made me question everything. Every. Single. Time. I was a thin-skinned MFer. Until I realized something. Some of the feedback that was making me feel insecure was from people who told me they wished I had included this or that element in the book. Those people were not beingnegative. They were asking for something that Be About Something doesn’t provide. That’s not the same thing. ​ *** ​Suddenly, an analogy popped into my head: If I walk into a Volvo dealership …

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How will I know when I’m ready to write my book?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about mindset. When it comes to struggling with writing, it’s true: mindset is a big factor. Working on my own mindset helped me complete two books over the past 18 months. But also. After working over the past few years with many clients who are first-time authors, I’ve realized that mindset is not the problem. It’s that they don’t know the next right step to take after they come up with their book. So, they dive into writing. And there they encounter gremlins. Not the cute Ewok-type ones. The slimy, green, haunt-your-nightmares ones. Like… My idea isn’t original enough, or that it’s not something enough to deserve to become a book. I’m not experienced/expert/successful/wealthy/wise enough to write this story. My first, unedited attempts are not as good as Becoming/Untamed/Educated/Small Doses, (even when they know darn well that each of …

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What makes a page-turner?

When I first started helping people write their books, I focused on their ideas. “Your ideas are brilliant! Let’s just get them down,” I’d say. It’s fun to help people articulate their ideas clearly. Not only fun, of course, but absolutely necessary to writing a book. Non-negotiable. And… Books filled with ideas but no story are unreadable. *** If you’re writing a book, you need a story. The first step in outlining your narrative structure (story) is to accept this fact: A story is not a collection of things that happened, told one after the other. It’s not!? It’s not. A story requires causality. Meaning: the thing that happens causes the next thing to happen in the story. Of course it’s not just books that tell stories: movies do it, too. Something like: Woman goes to bed. A freak lightning storm rages outside. The …

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The Retinol method: too much, too soon

I just started using Retinol last week. It’s an anti-wrinkle skin cream. Yes, I know, they are all “anti-wrinkle” skin creams. But Retinol actually works moderately well. Magic in a tube. And on that tube itself is written the following recommendation: “If you have never used Retinol products, begin use two evenings a week, then gradually increase frequency to every other night, and finally once an evening as tolerated.” I’ve written before about people who go too hard too soon, exhaust themselves, and quit. Retinol is apparently aware of this phenomenon, too. Retinol knows I want results. AND Retinol knows that if I start by applying Retinol to my skin every night, my skin will sting and peel and I’ll quit using it. (It’d be more precise to say that whoever makes Retinol knows these things, but for the sake of argument let’s just attribute this intelligence …

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Is mindset really the problem?

The other day, a mentor of mine brought up that as professionals (especially professional women+) when we’re struggling, we tell ourselves and we’re told it’s our “mindset.” We’ve got the wrong energy. We’re not focusing on the right things. We’re “in our own way.” When it comes to struggling with writing, it’s true: mindset is a big factor. Working on my own mindset, taking leaps, having courage, are all great things that have helped me complete two books over the past 18 months. But also. After working over the past few years with many clients who want to write, I’ve realized that mindset is often not their problem. A lot of them have a book idea but just don’t know what exactly what to do next. So, they dive into writing. But their idea is often missing key components, and without …

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#Doubleduty and Use of Suspense in Nonfiction

Hola, I don’t believe in multitasking; I believe in tasks that do double-duty. Multitasking is like slightly injuring one bird with five stones. Double-duty is killing two birds with one stone. Double-duty is probably one of the big reasons I’ve stuck with cycling for so long. Exercise + transportation = 2 (birds). Bike = 1 (stone). # Doubleduty all day every day. Double-duty is why I’m speeding through the book Profit First by Mike Michalowicz after I had avoided coming anywhere near this book for the past three years. Despite the fact that no less than 12 small business owners recommended it to me over that time. All kinds of blocks stopped me from taking their advice. “I’m just a freelancer,” I would tell myself. “That sounds like a thing you need if you have employees.” Well finally, I started it. I am hurling …

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Book writing lesson from a poet

I heard Margaret Atwood (both a novelist and a poet) on the New Yorker’s poetry podcast with Kevin Young. She said: “Novelists look as if they’re working. They are working. Poets, when they’re working, don’t look as if they’re working. … Staring out the window, going for a walk, sitting in a cafe. ‘What are you doing? Why aren’t you, you know, working?’​ “I am working.” *** My book-writing clients don’t like to hear me prattle on about white space and looking out the window being part of the work. Of course they don’t like it! They want to get their book done. They’re not here to be poets. I know. ​ But I think that we book-writers can learn something from poets who stare out the window that can help us get that book done, too. Particularly in this season of summer. For instance, if we’re …

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Can you answer this question about your book?

I give a presentation called “The 5 Things You Need to Start (and Finish!) Your Book.” Thing #1: You need an answer to this question: Why does this book need to exist? I do worry that telling people this off the bat will discourage them. It sounds like an intimidating question. But I don’t ask it to talk anyone out of anything. I ask it to talk them into continuing. * The name of that presentation is “Start (and Finish!)” for a reason. Starting is hard and finishing is also hard. (And also the middle is hard. 🙃) Which means, as writers working on a book-length project, we’re often finding ourselves about to quit. When that happens, the answer can often be to take a break. Sometimes, after the break’s gone on for a few days, you want to beat a path to the place …

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Excavating every little thing you love for your readers

Alright, I just started Rivka Galchen’s new book, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch. As I’m reading, I’m noticing Rivka Galchen clearly loves her main character—the mother—to pieces. In fact, I’m starting to suspect this entire book came into existence so that Galchen could construct NOT the most perfect or best mother literary character ever, but a literary character who embodies every single thing Galchen herself loves about mothering and loves about other mothers and about the qualities Galchen loves seeing in herself when she mothers. Every loving thing. Imagine writing a whole book just so you could spend a year immersed in all the details you love about some person, or about some concept. Or about yourself. Fuckin’ eh, right? What’s that book? And sure there’s conflict and pain in Rivka’s (can I call you Rivka, Rivka?) novel. Events escalate. Drama ensues. But …

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Artists are MADE, not BORN

Hey, Do you think you suck at writing? Periodically when I work with a client, before we can really get going, first we have to talk about all the reasons they can’t write a book. Usually one of the reasons is that someone told them they suck at writing. I wish I could say this story was less common. Whenever they tell me, I feel for them. Then recently I realized the same thing had happened to me. Not with writing (although I carry plenty of writing baggage, too), but with visual art. High school, freshman year, I took a studio art class with some older kids. I dreaded it because 1. it was required and 2. I already knew I was “bad” at art. Teachers had always winced at my drawings. I’d stick-figured my way well into fourth grade. I’d made …

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