Every writer working on a story can tell you about the time she woke at 3AM with the key to fixing a failing plot. Or maybe it was a brand new story idea that interrupted a peaceful slumber. Perhaps, it was just before sleep took over, and he was distracted with that scene in chapter whatever about the guy and that situation...
Whatever it may be, a writer's mind thrives when it's quiet, and it's no quieter than the middle of the night.
If you want to tap into the midnight creative juice pool, take the time to quiet your mind.
As we are sensory input and output machines, there are a variety of ways to discover your inner peace. Here are my two favorites.
Tune Out. Do your best to create a silent world around you. Buy some inexpensive squishy earplugs used to drown out snoring partners or spend more money on sound-reducing headphones. If they sound of your own breathing is too much. Plug yourself into the music of someone like LIQUID MIND.
Black Out. I'm not suggesting typing with a blindfold--but if you can do that, try it! At the very least, place yourself in a space with no art work, no windows to the outside world, and no Internet. Rid your outer mind of external visuals and fall deep within your own imagination. Remember when you were little, and you would hide under your bedcovers to read or draw? Recreate that child's world if you can.
Try both of these suggestions for a week or more and share your results. Is your writing any better? Any easier? Any different at all?
Sometimes, we need sensory input. If you are seeking that help, try these previous blogs:
Employing the senses
This past week, my students explored the wonderful use of personification in their writing. When not overused, this form of figurative language can enliven tired writing. The trick is knowing when to employ it.
December has been a month of writing exercises. We've written about who we are not and--with the assistance of Kobe Bryant--taken time to say goodbye to something in our lives.
This week, let's play around with personification (attribution of a personal quality or human characteristic to something nonhuman; representation of an abstract quality in human form).
As soon as my new crop of young writers turn in their permission to be published forms, I'll share their clever lines. In the meantime, it's your turn to try.
Before you tackle the usage in a current piece of writing, practice. Our parents and coaches told us "practice makes perfect," and they were right. Nearly. Practice makes the game easier. Perfection is a whole other story.
1. Have a seat in your favorite writing space with your favorite writing tools (pen and paper work well for this exercise).
2. Create a T-chart on your paper (or simply draw a dividing line down the middle).
3. Look around the room and select one object that's not alive (a book, clock, floor tile, painting, curtain, chair...).
4. Record that object at the top of one side of your T-chart.
5. Beneath it, list the item's traits and/or actions (one per line). For example, if you choose a clock, you might list: face, hands, quiet, numbers, glass, ticks, tocks, hangs.
6. On the other side of the T-chart, list human traits and actions--again, one per line. It helps to think of one person when you do this. For example, using myself, I might write: laugh, stand, cry, listen, ponder.
7. Now, consider the two lists, and find a trait from each side that complement each other. In my examples, I might pair face and ponder: The quiet clock listens to the children's conversation.
Some examples to get you started:
The tired leaves dropped to the ground.
The empty paged mocked me.
The angry sea tossed the boat.
Still stuck or want a challenge? Study the picture above and write your best personified line. Share it below.
Considering sharing your personification practice or other writing tips with us.
The turn of weather is a great time to take your writing through a poetic carwash. Fall is my absolute favorite season, and I love the poetry inspired by the leaves' changing colors, the biting cold that whips through my hair, and the dulling sun in the late afternoon sky.
Take a moment to visit these sites, read some verse, and give your writing a seasonal lift.
Here are my go-to sites and a few seasonal writings that offer dimensional imagery and language to my writing.
1. The Poetry Foundation
Grace Paley's Autumn.
2. Academy of American Poets
Noah Falck's from "You are in Nearly Every Future"
3. The Poem Hunter
John Keats' Ode to Autumn (I recommend you mute the computer-generated narration)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's The Autumn
If you are participating in NaNoWriMo and need an infusion of color and life or if you simply wish to take in the beauty of this season, discover again the color of poetry and let it drench your prose with folly.
Share your whimsy here. Do you have a favorite verse or site you like? I'd love to know.
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?
What happens when you have nothing to say but you've committed yourself to saying something?
That's when you write crap.
That's when you need to write like you're at the edge of a cliff, like you're scared, like you're about to die, like you don't know what's going to happen next.
This isn't about writer's block. This isn't even about finding your muse. This is about unleashing your passion, firing up your writing, releasing that sludge of unimaginable creative juice clogging your critical writer's mind.
However you do it, whatever you call it, every artist--writer, poet, painter, sculptor, etc.--needs to find a way to stick his hand down his throat and withdraw that hairy, slimy, gritty clog of filth that's blocking the juice of his work.
Try it. Close your eyes. Shut out the world. Hide inside a closet. Drive to a remote patch of dirt far from lights, sounds, people, animals. Crawl inside a cave. Whatever you can manage. Get there. Go there. Now.
Are you there?
Did you bring a journal?
No. No. No. Where we're going, we don't need any journals.
Sit inside your proverbial cave, melt within the darkness, shut out the world. What do you most fear? See it. Smell it. Go further. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Go deeper. Get pissed. Fight for your life. Fight for your family. Fight for what you love. Curse, yell, scream, punch, spit.
Keep your eyes closed.
Unmelt. Find a light inside. Who is it? What is it? Feel its warmth. Offer your gratitude. Sense a peace. Let this love, warmth, and calm wrap around you. Feel yourself as whole.
Open your eyes.
Find your way back to your writing place. Tell your story to you. It may be a few sentences, a few paragraphs, a page or more. It may be a poem, scraps of sentences and words, or an essay. Structure and form are unimportant. This is for your eyes only.
Now go back to your project. Who wants this energy? Who needs it? Let your experience breathe new life into your writing. Don't judge. Don't expect. Let it have its own path.
Make this part of your writing ritual.
Share your journey.
Whether you're a writer, artist, bus driver or parent, you have some kind of rhythm in your life. However, you might not be totally aware of it.
Saturday morning, my daughter sat down for her usual piano lesson. Despite the rising summer heat, her teacher sat on the couch in his typical attire, a three-piece suit and tie. Beads of sweat pooled on his forehead, but he was as jovial as ever. Daniel had a rhythm in his life, and he knew it.
He enjoys connecting with his students. It's evident in the laughter and banter exchanged with the eye-rolling youth who sit before him plucking away at black and white keys. Daniel either does not notice their indignance, or he ignores it. Maybe, he's just too busy sharing his own stories.
Daniel loves to tell stories almost as much as he loves teaching piano.
In between errant notes, he shares tales of "when I was your age". I sit upstairs, my ear tilted toward the doorway. I love Daniel's stories. At first, I thought, why is he wasting my daughter's time with his silly memories. Then I realized his stories had a purpose. His stories connect him to his students. They make him real, fallible, and vulnerable.
Deep down, my daughter adores her piano teacher. I don't know if she'll remember his stories; I do know that she'll take his passion and joy with her.
Piano teaching is his passion, but the stories that connect him to his students are his rhythm.
If writing is my passion, what's my rhythm?
It could be the joy I receive from writing, the connections I make to the reader, to myself. Writing can be a solitary task; you need to connect to those you write for. Otherwise, you lose the passion, the joy, the rhythm.
Whether it's a contemporary piece or genre specific like a horror or fantasy, you need to find that connection to your readers' lives. People love stories, but they want them to mean something.
How do you connect to your readers? What's your passion in life? What's your rhythm?
I have been working on my third YA novel for nearly seven months. About four weeks ago, I reached a pivotal point, just over what I believe is the halfway mark. I’m still there. Okay, maybe I’ve added another 700 words or so.
Basically, I’m stuck (was stuck).
I usually have lots of tricks to unstick myself, but none of those seemed to be helping. Not until I tried something new.
I knew that.
Thing is, there’s no formula that works for every story. So although #8 worked this time, it might not work in my next roadblock. I’ve read some great ideas from fabulous writers that worked on other pieces, but not on this one.
That’s because I needed to do something different.
I plan on getting stuck again. In anticipation of this inevitable event, I decided to make a list of possible unstickers; more importantly, I wanted to share them with you.
1. Introduce a new character – major or minor, doesn’t matter; someone who will interact with your protagonist (or antagonist); could be a store clerk, a cop, long-lost cousin, former teacher, mailman.
2. Change the weather – move in storm clouds or clear them away; feel a sudden gust kick up; notice a funnel cloud in the distance.
3. Hear something – a dog bark, a siren, a scream, a laugh, glass breaking.
4. See something – a child’s bike, scattered playing cards, a woman’s scarf, the back of someone’s head, a red car turn the corner.
5. Smell something – burning, sweet, bitter.
6. Remember something – someone’s birthday, a dental appointment.
7. Forget something – locking the backdoor, charging a cell phone, someone’s birthday, a dental appointment.
8. Have your MC do something ordinary - ring the doorbell or the phone.
9. Have your MC do something unordinary – order a redeye instead of a decaf, stop in the dollar store instead of the usual liquor store.
10. Have your MC do something extraordinary – run in the street to save a kid from being hit, chase a purse-snatcher, scare away a bear.
Once you begin this new event or action, let it unfold. Continue adding detail – sensory detail – and watch where it takes your plot. You might be surprised.
I’m sure your wheels are turning and you’ve already thought of another handful to add to this list. Please do! Add your ideas in the comments section. What works for you?
Kids love to share memories. Nothing beats a 10-year-old saying, "When I was little...". Memory defies time; even though as we age, we define our memories by time.
When I was a kid...
Last year, I remember...
This reminds me of when I was in college, and...
Memory defines us. Memory is experience, emotion, friendship. It is the collection of moments that form who we were and who we have become. There is an importance to memory.
So it shouldn't really surprise me when a young child wants to share her memories. Memories connect us.
This past month, I've been fortunate to spend several hours visiting and reading to elementary students. I have shared various chapters from my middle grade narrative, "This Girl Climbs Trees". In one class, I was moved to laughter and tears as students shared memories of trees in their lives. One girl told of a beautiful lemon tree that sat in the yard, from which they did not remove the fruit but which offered a place of shade and beauty until her father cut it down. Another boy told of a tree at his former home that the neighbor insisted be removed due to its invasive roots and dead leaves on their property. This injustice troubled the boy, and he insisted his family's next home have a tree further from any neighbor's yard. They just planted a Birch.
They have a wide front yard.
The students' stories inspired me. I had no idea that Eliza Mills (the central character) had so much in common with real live kids. I made up Eliza. I made up the entire story. Yet real children (and adults) continue to share with me their memories of a favorite tree.
So I'd like to offer this challenge: In 150 words or less, write a memory of your tree. How did you connect with it? What do you now observe as the importance of this tree, this memory? Post your short passage here or on your own site. Paste a link in the comments below so that we can read it.
You might be surprised what comes up as you explore the importance of memory. I'll post mine this week. You have forever, but I will shout out my favorite on Twitter next Sunday. Please connect with me there and leave your Twitter handle here. If you are under 18, please let me know so you can get your own awesome shout out!
Thanks! Good luck.
Sitting down to write for hours sends many authors into a prison-like world. We fall into a spiraling abyss of fantasy and imagination as we search for the right words to convey our stories. More often than not, these tales began in the real world. Yet as writers we shut ourselves out of this world in order to dive deeper inside our imagination. We push away what's real in order to create our own realty. We become more and more detached.
We can't push it all away, though; we need to take much of it with us.
It's true that artists need to create a sensory deprivation in order to allow rich creative juices to flow freely; but at some point, we need to return to the here and now. We need to restock our library of imagination.
When I'm not writing - when I'm living my daily life - I try to be present to the sensory input around me. Each smell, taste and sound is a potential element in my next chapter. I try to take full advantage of this reality. Part of writing is observing what's real so that we can embed it in our stories of fiction.
When outside, be present to the sun's warming rays on your cool skin; embrace the vibratory rattle of a passing car's bass; savor the sweet squirt of juice as you bite into a tender orange; behold the bitter stench of skunk as it wafts through the backyard air. Writers must embrace each sensory experience so that we can recall it when needed in our stories. Try these ideas to heighten your senses.
The next time you are stuck in your story, step outside and feel the warm sun or bitter chill. Stand there and absorb it, embrace it, taste it, smell it. Bring it all into your tale so that your story comes alive.
Out west, over here on the left coast, in the dry deserts of California, we're having a drought. Oh, we had some torrential rains a few weeks back, but that was merely a drop in the bucket. Snow levels are at record lows, reservoirs are evaporating as we speak, and politicians are drafting water ration rules.
Droughts aren't fun. And for some reason, they seem to spring upon us water users like a tiger from the jungle. We heard about you, Ole Man Drought, but we never thought you'd actually show.
Sitting by my window as the sun filters gently across my writing desk, I realize there's something to learn here. Something to infuse my writing. Something to feed my plot.
How might a drought change events in my story? What would happen if there were a terrible rain storm that flooded the streets? What if my MC found herself caught in a rainstorm without protection? Who might show up to protect her?
I have a list of 27 possible scenarios from this "drought seed".
Nature has always played a role in my writing, but I failed to realize its ability to turn a plot. Nature is not a simple backdrop. Rain, drought, winds, snow can each play a role in the story. Nature is a character.
If we treat Nature as a character, imagine its possibilities. It no longer sits quietly in the background. It now has voice, dimension. Nature can have its own destiny. Nature does not need to be your central character, but it can show up now and again to place an unexpected twist or turn in your story.
Today, my character will walk outside in her summer attire expecting nothing but sunshine. She will be unpleasantly surprised as afternoon clouds arrive dark and heavy. Where can this sudden rainstorm take my plot? Where will it take yours?