Sunday, March 13, 2011

A View from the Water’s Edge: Deborah Brodie

After twenty-two years at Viking and six years as co-founder of Roaring Brook Press, Deborah Brodie is now a freelance editor, book doctor, and writing coach for publishers, literary agents and writers, as well as a visiting faculty member in the MFA program at the New School in New York City and an MFA Mentor for writing students at Simmons College in Boston.

As a prominent editor in publishing for more than a quarter-century, Brodie has worked with an amazing array of authors, including David A. Adler, Sarah Dessen, Patricia Reilly Giff, Dan Greenburg, Esther Hautzig, James Marshall, Milton Meltzer, Susanna Natti, Zibby Oneal, James Stevenson, Jane Yolen, and even mega-bestselling author Stephen King, who, despite his fame, was open to many of her suggestions.

She loves working on books for young readers, but she has also edited bestselling fiction and nonfiction for adults. No matter what she’s editing, she sees her main responsibility as asking questions — the right questions — that can lead an author to new insights and practical new approaches to plot, characterization, pace. Often she’ll suggest writing exercises to help a writer shake things up and take him or her in a new (sometimes more productive) direction.

She was kind enough to grant wordswimmer permission to reprint the advice that she gives over-committed writers when they ask her how they might find the time to write:

In all my years of working with writers—published and not-yet-published—in all the workshops I’ve led and courses I’ve taught, one question always comes up:

How do I make a place in my over-scheduled life for my writing?

Man or woman; married or not; with young children, grown children, or no children; working a full-time office job or freelancing from home or retired; with a dedicated work space or a makeshift spot on the kitchen counter—everyone struggles to achieve some semblance of balance.

Unless writing is your day job, these tips are for you. And if you have other ideas, and the time to write them down, please send them to me so I can share them with others.

Do backward housekeeping

Kathleen V. Kudlinski, author of many works on science and nature, taught me the concept of Backward Housekeeping. In the morning, she doesn’t make the beds or wash the breakfast dishes. She goes straight to her desk—to write. Then she squeezes in the most essential housework in the half hour before dinnertime.

She strongly recommends that writers should not have plants. No ironing, no silver polishing, that’s obvious. But why no plants? I asked her. They require too much upkeep, she replied, watering, repotting. Oh, I said, what about plastic plants? No, she answered, fake plants have to be dusted. You can imagine her stance on pets. . . .

Nonfiction writer Elaine Fantle Shimberg took this idea one step further: “If no one notices it, don’t do it. If you have to dust, water, polish or feed it, you don’t need it. Don’t clean your house, strip it.”

With children younger than school age, some writers share babysitting. Rebecca O’Connell says, “My friend Clare saved my writing life when I was a new mother. Clare’s baby was two months older than mine, and she called me and suggested we trade childcare two mornings a week. Tuesday mornings, she would watch my baby while I wrote, and Thursday mornings, I would watch her baby while she wrote. It worked! It freed up just enough time that we could both keep writing, even when we felt our time was not really our own.”

So, once you carve out a bit of time to write, here are five practical tips to help you use that time well.

Go to a coffee shop or laundromat

If you can’t bring yourself to ignore the unmade bed, the unpaid bills, or the unwashed dishes, change your point of view, literally. Sometimes a change of scenery inspires new ideas. As a bonus, the rhythm of the washing machine spin-cycle just might creep into the read-aloud rhythm of poetry or dialogue in your work.

Dress for success

For writers who work at home with children underfoot, Ellen Braaf, nonfiction writer, journalist, and researcher, advises, “Pick a hat—any hat—a purple beret, beaded beanie, felt fedora, tweed deerstalker, straw sombrero with pompoms dangling from the brim. The wackier the better. Or get creative and craft your own.

“Enlist your family’s help. Tell them it’s a wearable Do Not Disturb sign—a gentle reminder that says, It’s my time to write, and I take my work—if not myself—seriously. Talk about what your children can do to entertain themselves while you write. Maybe they’ll opt to have some creative time of their own.

“Start slowly. Don your hat and work for fifteen minutes. If all goes well, gradually extend your writing time until you discover the limits of their tolerance. Plan fun family activities on a regular basis to reward cooperation. Hey, it’s worth a shot. And it beats locking yourself in the bathroom. If it fails, take heart. You’re all set for Halloween.

“Remember, when your kids are grown and out from underfoot, you’ll miss the interruptions and peanut-butter fingerprints on your manuscripts. (Or not!)”

Light a candle in your work space

Not a symbolic “light at the end of the tunnel” or the metaphoric “burning the candle at both ends,” but an actual candle.

If you’re tempted to leave your writing to answer the phone, the door, or—greatest distraction of our civilization—read e-mail, you won’t be able to do so for long. You’ll always have to return to the candle to check on it and make sure you’re not burning down the house!

Take a mini-sabbatical

You don’t have to be an academic to be the beneficiary of a sabbatical, nor do you have to be religious to find a comfortable way to incorporate the underlying principle of Sabbath observance. Just pick one day out of seven or even part of one day not to write. No typing, no e-mail, not even any work-related reading.

I have a big, comfortable chair in my living room designated for leisurely reading—no work or phone calls related to work while I sit in that chair. Even half an hour there provides a break and results in renewed focus when I return to my desk.

By moving away from the intensity of constant work, even in a small way, you allow your unconscious to do its job, unencumbered by your intensity.

A few months ago, I had a challenging conversation with an author I had worked with for many years. We had already been on the phone for more than an hour, and I had asked him to revise and remove, change and fix, and … well, as tactfully as I could, I had encouraged him to do away with a major plot thread and—gasp!—even to commit character-icide. He saw the logic and actually embraced the concept. In theory, anyway.

But it was easy to see that he was becoming overwhelmed by the amount of work involved in making all this happen. So I said, “I’m going to ask you to do one more thing, something hard, even harder than what we’ve already talked about.”

Now this author and I have worked together for a long time, and there is a lot of trust between us. Even so, there are limits to trust. A deep intake of breath. Then he said, “Um. What is it?”

Go to the movies, I said. Meaning, let it go, let the work wait, distract yourself today, let your unconscious take over. Come back to the work, fresh and refreshed, tomorrow—one of the principles of a traditional Sabbath or an academic sabbatical. But more than just passive rest, an effective break involves nourishing different parts of your brain and moving beyond your everyday activities. The means can be praying, having a meal with friends, looking at art, quilting, going to a concert.

Kent Nagano, an orchestra conductor, agrees that expanding your activities and interests beyond your work is good for the work itself. He says, “It’s like food. You’d get pretty strange if you ate ice cream all the time.” But the occasional scoop….

Take a deep, cleansing breath

For a micro-sabbatical, try deep, deep breathing. It’s an easy and always-available way to relieve stress. It helps you focus, and that can make you more productive. It's a mini-break, with some of the benefits of a power nap and without the sleep lines.

Remember, we are all in this together. Take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed, in longing to win the lottery or the National Book Award.

For more info about Deborah Brodie and her editorial work, visit her website:

And to read interviews with her, visit:

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