Winter usually means hibernation time for several animals, including me. I've notice that two seasons force me to retreat for weeks in my writing cave: summer and winter. I can't say why, but it's a pattern, so I'm going with it.
Shutting myself away to pen voices and verse allows me to shed the real world and build fictional ones. There are so many rules out here and news events that stifle my creative mind. The more I'm detached from what's actually happening, the more I can focus on worlds I wish were happening.
This new year, I started a new writing routine. It was painful at first, but I've managed to get it to normal. I set my alarm thirty minutes earlier during the work week. This gives me 30-40 minutes of silent writing time. At first, I was working on my projects, but I found that it took me almost that much time to warm up, so by the time I got to anything juicy, it was time to go to work.
Plan B: exercise.
On my shelf, I found a writing book I'd bought but never read. (Actually, I found a few, but I chose this one for now.) The book has become my morning Bible. It's chock full of great writing exercises that give my imagination the jump start it needs. As my work day moves along, the exercises continue to do their magic. By the end of the week, I've completed a handful of them, and Saturday morning, there's no writer's block. I'm ready to roll.
The book: NAMING THE WORLD edited by Bret Anthony Johnston
Inside: Johnston collected a variety of writing exercises from known and unknown writers and teachers. Each writer introduces his exercise. The book is divided into sections that focus on things like, Getting Started, Character, Plot, etc.
Here's one to get you going. If you like it, I'll be sharing more, but I highly recommend this book. It's saved my writing life.
The first exercise in the book comes from writer John Dufresne.
Start with a line: "Most things will never happen; this one will." It's a line taken from Philip Larkin ("with liberties).
Try it out, and see where it takes you. You might be surprised. Good luck!
That's my story, what's yours?
Everyone has favorites: double chocolate fudge, purple, David Bowie, Peru, that scene in Contact when Jodie Foster's character meets her dad on the beach in the moonlight (only it's not a beach).
Sometimes we know why we love a certain ice cream flavor--it reminds me of my dad. Sometimes we don't. My favorite color has varied since I was a little girl (pink) to high school (black) to now (cinnamon orange one day, deep purple another). One thing we know, what we love will change and grow throughout our lives.
For me, my list of favorite books changes from year to year...because I've read new books that must be on that list. (If you want to see more of my reviews, look here.)
I know that if I want to improve my writing, I need to read good books. There's a pile TBR on my nightstand, a collection in my Kindle, and a list on my phone. One day, I might even read them all, and my favorites list will be miles long!
Today, these are my top five favorites, plus a little reason why.
ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT'S ME, MARGARET by Judy Blume - read it in elementary school. Margaret asked all the questions I had about life, and she taught me how to be tough and caring.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen - read in high school. While my classmates groaned, I engaged in one-on-one conversations about the Bennett girls and their interests in marriage. Yes, I was that girl.
THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers - read it freshman year of college. Drove around to every used bookstore in Los Angeles, buying all of McCullers' books and devoured each one. This one introduced me to a different kind of love: that between the two men and that between Mick and her world.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - read it senior year of college. Marquez' sprinkling of magic in all of his stories transports me to another time and place. The colors in this story still live in my mind.
THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt - read it as an adult. Tartt's writing is equisite. I've loved all of her books (all three?), but this is my favorite because of how lovingly she wrote Theo's story. My heart ached for him, but I also shook my head at his unrequited love, his dangerous friendship, his wayward path. Then I got to cheer a little in the end. Beautiful.
I haven't finished THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, but I'm halfway through it, and I'm sure it will be on my favorites list next. Why? Voice. I haven't seen the movie because I wanted to read the book first. I'm glad I waited. Wow. Again... Voice. This is a book I'm reading, laughing out loud, loving, but I'm also studying the writing (when I'm not lost in the story). Because he's nailed the voice of his MC so well, the technicalities in the story (I still don't have a clue what a Hab or MAV are entirely or how he can grow potatoes ) that are lost on me don't matter. This book is a classic. Mark Watney is a character to live as long as Sherlock Holmes or Holden Caufield. He's iconic.
What's your favorite book? What are you reading right now? Please share!
That's my story, what's yours?
As a teacher and mother of grown children (23 and 19), I love summer. Lots of time to catch up on writing projects, but most importantly: tons of lazing in the sunshine reading.
This summer, I managed to devour five delicious stories. Because I write contemporary young adult, I read books from that genre. However, I also gobble up my favorite adult fiction.
If you want to follow my reading rants, check out my Goodreads page, or click this link to reviews I post here.
Now, check out these five writing tips I learned from the books I read this summer.
High Fidelity: find a line or phrase that ties into your story’s theme. Repeat it throughout your novel. Nick Hornby makes lists. He has a Top Five for almost everything in his life. This works really well for the character (a lonely and serial boyfriend record shop owner) and the theme (finding happiness with one thing).
Al Capone Does My Shirts: make your setting do extra work. In this middle grade read, author Gennifer Choldenko uses 1950s Alcatraz as a backdrop to seventh grader Moose’s caged life looking after his autistic older sister. If she had set this story in the city of San Francisco—where some scenes take place—it wouldn’t have worked as well. The island prison says so much metaphorically for Moose and his family.
Misery: every summer needs at least one creepy Stephen King read. Since I never read the book—just saw the film—I decided I could handle the suspense while reading in the bright sunlight on a California beach. There is so much to learn from this man, but in the case of Misery, it’s all about characters. King knows how to make the most repulsive people likable. Annie Wilkes is a monster, but she’s also a tormented woman with a troubled past, a town against her, and a compulsion for sweets after she’s been BAD. If you write mean characters in your stories, give them a quality that makes readers say, “oh, well, yeah she chopped his leg off, but come one, she’s got those cute porcelain statues.”
That Time I Joined the Circus: like High Fidelity, this story has great recurring hooks and phrases that help us feel safe in an unfamiliar world. JJ Howard introduces us to a young girl who meets tragedy and must leave home to find home. She takes her quirks with her, though. Of course. One thing the girl likes is music. She’s always comparing an event to a song she heard. Howard uses the song title and a lyric in her chapter headings. As we journey from circus land to circus land, from New York to Miami, we always feel at home because of the music.
It Should Have Been a #GoodDay: if you are working on a story with multiple POVs, you might check this quick read by Natalie Corbett Sampson. There are four narrators, each taking us through the same day. As the story heats up, we use the varying perspectives to figure out how things might pan out. One of the narrators is an autistic teenager. His voice is stellar. Because we hear the other characters’ thoughts and feelings, we learn a lot about how other kids see those with differences. This is a perfect format to showcase autism and the fears and prejudices we can carry.
What are you reading? If you picked up a great idea for your writing, please share it in the comments below.
That’s my story, what’s yours?
When I think about my boring day, I wonder why I can't bump into John Cusack at the glove counter or come across an injured famous writer in a snowbank (not that I'd take him home and torture him). My life is neither a romantic comedy nor a suspense novel. My life is.
Yet that is where great story nuggets begin--in the mundane moments of our lives.
In my current agent-seeking YA manuscript, IN BLOOM, the story begins with an obssessive-compulsive teenager straightening her rug while her brother tries to share some strange news. That news plays out later in the story, but it's a fun way to introduce the two siblings and show their idiosyncrasies.
Consider three recent great tales and their openings:
- A boy suspended from school spends the day at the museum with his mom. (THE GOLDFINCH)
-A woman takes an interest in events outside her window on her daily train ride. (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN).
-A boy and a girl spend mundane mornings riding the bus to school. (ELEANOR AND PARK)
-A boy's attempt to kill himself is stalled when he spots a girl toying with the same fate. (ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES)
Each of these moments present a great way to open your story. Let's explore.
1. Transportation exploration. Putting your main character on a bus, train, plane, car trip, bike, or whatever is a great one to have her accidentally witness something, unexpectedly run into someone, or serendipitously find something.
2. Field trip. Whether your character is school-age or adult, a school field trip provides numerous opportunities such as those mentioned above. On a field trip, your MC can get lost, meet a stranger, find a strange item (in a bathroom, on the ground, in a gift shop), or learn something useful that might save her life later (i.e., how the ancient Egyptians stopped poisoning).
3. Beginning with an Ending. Start your story with your MC either trying to end his life or getting into an accident. Here, you have opportunity for another important character to enter. This character could be someone he later saves or who has another meaning to him (long lost... sister... brother... etc.).
Clearly, that last one is no ordinary life moment, but tragedy happens all the time. As a writer, you have the opportunity to turn those ordinary moments into something extraordinary.
Spend the day chronicling your life moments--the grocery store, bank line, work, lunch, phone calls--and find that catalyst that could turn dramatic.
That's my story, what's yours?
Every story has a theme even if the author never sets it there on purpose. The theme is an underlying or overarching message that might not be discerned until the story ends. A theme connects to the story's topic. It's what you want readers to understand about life after they've finished your book.
Often, the theme is the same as what the hero or protagonist discovers. In the Pulitzer novel, THE GOLDFINCH, Theo learns that you cannot hold onto what you love or you might destroy it. In other words, love means letting go.
Sometimes, it's too big, In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the theme centers around the fragility of innocence. Perhaps Harper Lee was saying that to be innocent meant risking your life.
On occasion, the narrator tells us the theme (or hints strongly), so we can participate in its development during the story. In Edgar Alan Poe's THE TELL-TALE HEART, the main character serves as the narrator and lets the reader know immediately that he's going crazy. We learn with him that even the mad can feel guilt. Guilt has no boundaries.
If you are in the middle of writing a story, or you are planning one, consider the message you want readers to take away.
Here are some common themes:
Beauty is only skin deep.
Believe in yourself.
Believing strongly in something is vital to its fruition.
Change is inevitable.
Good and evil can coexist.
Blood is thicker than water.
Love always wins.
Rules protect us.
Face your fears, and you will be stronger.
Truth can set us free.
Other themes can be found in old proverbs, the Bible, Torah, Koran, Baghavad Gita, or other religious works, Shakespeare, poetry, your mother's words, a prisoner's regrets. In short, a theme is a message, and we all have at least one we live by.
What is close to your heart? What messages will you leave with your readers?
Share your thoughts here.
While working with my creative writers recently, a student frowned and said, "I don't want to make a character people don't like."
I wonder what Alan Rickman would have said to that? Most definitely the author, JK Rowling, filled him in on the multi-dimensional character.
Every character in your story is important. If not, get rid of them. No character--as no human--is perfect. We are flawed. We love; we hate; we care; we judge. Your job as a writer is to build three-dimensional imaginative people who readers believe.
As for creating unlikable characters, those can be the most fun.
Villains, antagonists, creeps--all of them--help your hero figure out what she needs and how she'll get there. However, the antagonist and villain are not synonymous.
The antagonist is your hero's biggest adversary. Adversaries can simply be annoying pains in the neck. They can help develop your protagonist, but they are not vital to the plot. This obstacle might also be a phenomenon like the weather (GRAPES OF WRATH) or an institution (CATCHER IN THE RYE, ANIMAL FARM).
Classic antagonists in children's lit include Tinkerbell and The Queen of Hearts. They help the protagonist grow and learn, but they do not tie in directly to the main plot.
The villain is essential to the plot and prevents your hero from reaching resolution. The villain is one whose dastardly ways impede your main character. (In HARRY POTTER, Snape might be seen as an antagonist, whereas Voldemort is clearly the villain.)
Villains we love to hate: the Devil, Moriarity, Captain Hook)
Let's complicate things. The villain might also be your protagonist. This character seeks a goal, but he's not the nicest of people. Think: THE GRINCH, THE GODFATHER, MACBETH, or the TV show DEXTER. In these cases, you can see that a villain/protagonist reads more like a villainous protagonist.
That said, not every story has a villain, but every story has an antagonist. It often depends on your genre.
Whether you are in the middle of your story or just getting started, consider who or what impedes your hero's journey. That is your obstacle. If it's a person or being, they are either your villain or antagonist. If that character is essential to the plot, they are most likely your villain. Think of the fun Rowling had with Voldemort. Readers despised him from the get go, but we also learned more of why he was so tormented.
Without Snape, our antagonist, Harry would never have survived. This we know now.
Create characters with flaws, characters who annoy us, characters who do despicable things. It's your world. Whatever you do, put as much heart and time into developing these hated ones as you do your main character.
Side note: when I told my young writers to imagine a teacher or classmate who truly got on their nerves and turn them into a character in their stories, they each smiled and put pen to paper.
Remember, writing is fun. Have fun.
Winning NaNoWriMo is no small feat. Committing yourself to writing more than one thousand words each day (a 1.6k average is needed to 'win'), suggests you have what it takes.
But don't stop there. Words on a page do not a story make.
Now comes the fun part. Editing and revising and editing and revising and . . . Time to get to the root of your novel.
Your story is not complete until you've spent days, and weeks, and months combing through its pages, tweaking plot lines, and finessing word usage. The true nugget of your story is often buried deep within the middle of all those thousands of words.
Every writer has his own advice for how to tackle the revision stages. Google til your heart's content, and you can find half a dozen that make sense to you.
I follow Stephen King's: put your first draft away for a month to six weeks before you revise.
Here are six ideas for how to handle revising your first draft.
1. Listen to the King. Put it away and work on anything else but that manuscript for at least a month. You'll return with fresh eyes to discover the hidden beauty (buried deep in chapter six) or the rubbish you wrote to begin the story.
2. Before you revise, write a letter to a friend explaining your book. (You don't need to send it.) Try to get it right in a 35-word pitch. Then dig in revising, go back and read that letter and write a new one. Repeat this process until you've uncovered the true pitch.
3. Revise your draft as many times as you have important characters. Each time you revise, do it with one character in mind. Use his perspective. This is a great way to uncover loose storylines, catch missing or erroneous details (birthdates, eye color, favorite foods, etc.).
4. Cut or combine useless characters. Idea 3 will help you uncover who adds to the plot and who detracts from it. As Mr. King says: "Kill your darlings." (This is also a good time to study all the names used in your story. Be sure they are not easily confusing--too many single syllable names; too many names starting with S, etc.)
5. Create a storyboard of key scenes. Plotters will have already done this. However, do it again. I record each scene on a post-it that I can move around a board. Not all scenes need cutting; some need moving.
6. Share your draft with a trusted partner. If you haven't joined a writing group or located a critque partner, now's a great time to do this. Other writers understand what is a first draft. They won't nit-pick at grammar or spelling. They will tell you what works and what doesn't.
Now, stop reading this blog and get to revising. More tips on revising and editing in the future!
Please share your ideas here.
“There is freedom in being a writer and writing. It is fulfilling your function. I used to think freedom meant doing whatever you want. It means knowing who you are, what you are supposed to be doing on this earth, and then simply doing it.”
― Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
As I wind down my energy from the amped up NaNoWriMo writing sprints of November, I return to my usual routines. One of which includes my own writing exercises courtesy Natalie Goldberg's book, "Writing Down the Bones."
One of my favorite exercises in that book is one that has you focus on who you are not. I will be using this prompt with my new batch of creative writing students this week, so I thought I'd share the exercise with you as well.
Grab your writing notebook and favorite pen. Goldberg says the heart speaks best through a flowing pen rather than a computer. I often write on the computer because it's easier. Plus, I'm a messy writer. However, when it comes to writing exercises, I write freehand in my journal.
You have your notebook and pen. Now find a quiet space and set a timer for at least ten to twenty minutes. Get ready, set, write.
Who are you not?
Here's my unedited flow of words:
I'm not the kind of person to own a snake, ride a unicycle, be an astronaut when she grows up, order a burrito with extra hot sauce, dance naked in the street after midnight like my neighbor in college, wear orange tights, get a full sleeve tattoo (or any tattoo?), spank my child, not care what people think of me.
I'm not the the person who complains all the time, laughs when someone is hurt, or orders a different ice cream flavor every time she visits the ice cream shop. I am not loud or very quiet. I am not the smartest or dumbest person in the room. I am not sophisticated nor pedestrian.
I am not obscene or rude. I am not perfect or happy not being perfect. I am not the person you sit next to on the plane who talks nonstops or doesn't give you elbow room.
I am not likely to hurt myself, drive recklessly, or dive off a cliff. I am not likely to scale a building or walk a tightrope higher than one-foot off the ground, sky-dive, or learn to fly a plane.
Who I am not says as much about me as who I am.
Who are you not? Share with us.
No matter how far afield I travel, I always return to the senses. This past week, my creative writing students explored writing about sensory detail by describing their hair. (As soon as I have parent consent forms signed, you will be able to read their amazing work.)
We spent time old school talking about the five senses and listing words a writer might use to evoke these senses. Next, we took a color walk to capture all we could find around campus of a specific color. Finally, we closed our eyes and listened to the sounds in the building and room. We even plugged our ears and closed our eyes to see what me might smell.
By the end of the week, students were ready to hone in on one idea and explore their senses. I read them "Hairs" from Sandra Cisneros' THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET to inspire them.
If you want to help your writing come alive, tap into the senses. Five easy ways to add detail to your writing.
1. Sight: select one visual piece of your story (a building, bench, street, tree; something minor). List ten qualities that describe it. Choose three and exaggerate them. Come up with a metaphor to add dimension. (EX: In winter, her neighbor's tree bent like an old woman, dragging its limbs along the tired sidewalk.)
2. Sound: as above, but this time you are finding something your character will hear. (EX: The wheels thumped along the pavement, a steady heartbeat in the night.)
3. Taste: as above, but maybe applying taste to something one wouldn't normally put in their mouth. (EX: I could taste the assignment. Its bitterness coated the tip of my tongue, and I wanted to spit it out onto the just waxed classroom floor.)
4. Smell: as the taste exercise. (EX: His angry words burned in my nostrils; their ashiness wafted inside me.)
5. Texture: this sense offers a variety of options. (EX: Her jagged words cut through me. The night air caressed my cheeks.)
If you are in the middle of a project, find a scene that's lacking life. Infuse it with sensory detail. If this is your first draft, go crazy. Go overboard. Write drunk, edit sober. (Thanks, Mr. Hemingway.) Have fun.
Share your thoughts on the senses below. What works for you?
Every so often, I write this post. Why? I am constantly discovering great new books and sites that support, motivate, and improve my writing.
I want to share them with you.
Here are four of my current favorites:
1. The best punctuation book, period by June Casagrande. Every writer needs a great little book at their side where they can double check where to place a comma, capitalize a noun, understand how to use hyphens and en dashes. My copy editor recommended this book to me, and I am in love with it. It's easy to use, is written simply, and is less than 250 pages.
2. Writers Helping Writers with Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. These ladies are fabulous, and their website is filled with amazing resources for your writing. Soon, they will merge into a new site with incredible support for using Scrivener along with their books on Negative and Positive Traits. I've written previously about how I use these books.
3. The Enneagram Test. If you are building characters, this is a great place to help understand and craft their personalities. You might first take the online test to explore your own personality. Then try it as your protagonist and antagonist. The test takes less than three minutes. The results point you toward any of nine specific personality types (similar to Jung). It's a quick, fun, and scientific way to hone in on your characters' true selves. (Couple the results with Writers Helping Writers, and you have a fully developed character.)
4. Goodreads. A great writer is constantly reading other great writing. We learn from each other. If you want to write authentic and appealing middle grade fantasy, you need to read some. Read those getting good reviews and those getting panned. It's important to see what works and what doesn't. Goodreads publishes numerous lists where you can sift through books of all genres and authors. This is my go-to for locating the best (and worst) books because reviews are written by real readers.
What are your current favorite writing resources?
Share them in the comments below.