Thursday, April 23, 2009

Guest in Progress: C.M. Mayo

C.M. (Catherine) Mayo is one of my most inspiring writer friends. She’s:

--a marketing whiz (early to author web sites, early to blogging, early to Twitter, handing out her beautiful cards so deftly at a party that you don’t realize she’s “networking”)
--a smart and wonderful writer (I had the pleasure of reading through the lyrical drafts of her new novel in my writing group; watching her build that novel was like the magic of watching someone spin cotton candy)
--a fantastic editor (in that writing group I became so accustomed to her concern about my manuscript, “Leslie, I can’t see this scene,” that now when I’m revising I ask myself if Catherine could “see” this scene and then write until I think she can)
--a great teacher (her travel writing classes at the Writer’s Center and other venues are consistently popular, and do check out her year-long supply of 5-minute writing exercises here)
--a generous person (always quick with a suggestion about the perfect place to send your work or happy to recommend other writers for a speaking engagement)
--an excellent person all around (see for yourself at her book launch party on May 12; details here)

I’m so pleased that she has agreed to share this piece here. Listen…and learn from a master!

How to Hang in There and Finish Your Novel: 12 Tips
by C.M. Mayo

On May 5th, my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, will be published by Unbridled Books. This is not a go-to-the-cabin-by-the-lake-and-just-churn-it-out kind of novel. No, it is a nearly 500 page historical epic based on extensive original research, every line of prose polished to shine like the lighthouse in Alexandria, with more characters than you could pack into a Starbuck's and a plot that could only be described as labyrinthically Arabesque. Is it any good? You be the judge. What I know for sure is that, over the more than seven years it took me to write it, I hung in there. I never gave up. And I finished. And then I sold it. How did I do it? Herewith one dozen tips:

1. Before you begin, state your intentions clearly
It's important to write them down, stating them clearly, and in present tense. For example, I write a novel that... you fill in the blanks. I don't mean, write down what your novel is about; you might have to fiddle around for a few hundred pages before you figure that out. But ask yourself, do you want to write a novel that places you among the immortal literary stars? Or achieve a modest success that might help you get a teaching job? Or, do you just watch to check "publish book" off your "to-do" list? And how much time and effort are you willing to put into the enterprise of finding a publisher? It might be lickety-split easy to find one, or it might take a few years, a bundle of postage, and a mountain of paperwork. Not to mention heartbreak. Whatever your path may be, it will be more difficult if you have not clearly identified and acknowledged your intentions.

2. Be here now
If you are regretting the past (I should have started sooner) or worrying about the future (will they laugh at me?), you are not writing. And if you are waxing nostalgic about the past (how wonderful that they liked my short story!) or daydreaming about the future (my agent will sell it to the movies for a million dollars!!), you are not writing. Now is the only time you have to write.

3. Treat yourself kindly
If you do, your artist self will show up more frequently, and play more freely. If you bully and criticize yourself, you can sure, you'll end up blocked.

4. Keep a pen and something to write on with you at all times
When you're out and about, driving, at the dentist's, walking the dog, you just might capture the perfect fragment of dialogue, or hear the opening line of the next chapter in your head... I don't recommend those lovely bound "writer's" journals because they are too big to carry around easily. I use Moleskines, index cards and sometimes even a small pack of Post-Its.

5. When you are writing, always keep your pen resting lightly on the page (if at the computer, keep your fingers on the keyboard)
If you sit back in your chair and lift your hand to your chin, as so many people do, your body is signalizing to your writing self, no, I am not ready. This can contribute to a bad case of block. It's such a simple thing to always keep your pen on the page, yet very effective.

6. Music helps
I find that drifty, new agey music in a minor key works best for bringing on the Muses. There is a large literature about music and creativity. I offer a couple of blog posts (with links for more information) on this subject here:
and here:

7. Mise-en-place
This is a French term chefs use ( )that means, more or less, everything in its place. Briefly: start clean, then assemble utensils and equipment; then assemble all ingredients; then wash, cut, chop; then cook. Doing things out of order makes the whole process take longer, the product often come out mediocre (or ruined), and can cause needless stress for the cook and the diners. This explains why many of the most productive writers write in coffee shops and the rest of them do a lot of housecleaning, n'est-ce pas? It's not the easiest thing to write a novel when your desk is cluttered with phone bills and stacks of unanswered letters, the dog needs to be walked in five minutes, and, by the way, you've left the phone on and your facebook page tab open. There are people who can work amongst piles and general chaos, but I am not one of them, and I cannot recommend it.

P.S. Read my ForeWord Magazine on-line blog post, "10 Tools for Organizing the Novel in Progress":

8. Learn from other novels
The novels you have already read and love can be your best teachers. But don't read them passively, for entertainment; neither should you read as an English major might, ferreting out "interpretations." Read them as a craftsperson. How does Chekhov handle dialogue? How does Austen handle transitions? How does Hemingway describe food and clothing? Any question you have about your writing conundrums is probably answered, right there, in the books you already have on your shelf. And continue to read, and read actively, with a notebook and pen.

9. Learn from books on creativity
Why reinvent the wheel? Whatever your problem (block, confusion, utter despair), you can be sure another writer (or artist) has wrestled with it and has something helpful to say about it in a book. The cost of a book is lentils compared to that of needlessly painful experiences. You'll find my list of recommended books here:

10. Get feedback on your writing
From a writers group, a writing teacher, a freelance editor, workshop participants. You'll find my 10 tips to get the most out of your writing workshop here:

(For some years I was in a writing group with Leslie Pietrzyk, hostess of this blog; read what she has to say about it here:

11. Get to know other writers
This is how I found my writers group (thanks, Richard Peabody!), my publisher (thanks, Nancy Zafris!), and my agent (thanks, Dawn Marano!).

Richard Peabody:
Nancy Zafris:
Dawn Marano:

[Editor's note: I wasn't exaggerating Catherine's generosity in my intro, was I!?]

Network with a spirit of generosity. You never know who will help you, and you might be more helpful to someone else than you realize. So, go to readings (they are almost all free!); take workshops, attend conferences, and stay in touch.

12. Consistent Resilient Action
Again, why reinvent the wheel? Writers are not the only ones who grapple with their emotions in the face of rejection, failure, criticism, and indifference. There is a large literature on sports psychology. The book I recommend most highly is The Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum.

Consistent Resilient Action (CRA) is what sports champions do: Dropped the ball? Well, pick it up. So, your first draft is crap? Write a new one. An agent rejected you? Send your manuscript to the next one. Take a workshop, get feedback, re-read Proust, go write a poem--- and so on. In response to anything negative, it is crucial to take a positive step, however small, and immediately.

P.S. More resources for you here:

And good wishes. ~~C.M. Mayo

About: C.M. Mayo is the author of the novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, as well as the widely-lauded travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, and Sky Over El Nido, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Founding editor of Tameme, the bilingual Spanish/English chapbook press, Mayo is also a translator of contemporary Mexican poetry and fiction. Her anthology of Mexican fiction in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, was published by Whereabouts Press in March 2006.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.