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?
Before you continue, there isn't really an answer to this question.
No, that's not true. There is, but it'll be different for everyone. I've read so many articles by writers and editors claiming formulas to finding your story's best place to begin, but the truth is, you won't find it until you've written the end. Even then, you will need to go through several edits and revisions until you discover it beneath layers of pre-story.
So, if you do want one answer: write your story.
Below are several original openings to a stroy I'm working on. Each time I'd found a new opening, I was sure it was the right one. Then I'd edit and revise from that point only to discover a new place to start.
My current WIP is called STARS IN MY POCKET. It's a YA Dark Contemporary. Here's my current pitch: A teen believes he must replace his dad’s telescope if he’s to earn his dead parents’ forgiveness for the horrible thing he said when they died, but doing so puts his best friend in danger.
Here's how it went down for the first hundred.
A thorny bush wraps itself around our back railing like it owns the place. I used to believe the damn spiky she-devil stole my parents. I used to kick it, spit on it, yell at. Gran always says be careful around her. Her. Like the damn bush is alive. It is, I guess. It takes stuff. Its thorns grab hold, and if you go hunting underneath, you're bound to get hurt.
So of course when I finally fish my key from my back pocket and try to jam it into the doorknob, I drop it. Right into the bush.
"Damnbit!" I'm not exactly enunciating tonight. "Idiot."
What doesn't work: Too many female unknowns in first paragraph (bush, mother, grandmother). Flow is off.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world --anger, hurt, dysfunction.
Don't they know you can't see stars with ground lights on? Lame-ass skatepark. Those stupid street lamps have the park shut down for maintenance tonight, and I'm stuck dodging cars along the overpass with my dweeb of a guardian angel.
"Hey, Guy, watch it!" Jase grabs my shoulders and pushes me out of the path of a speeding semi, but I slip in its wake.
"Asshole!" I yell, flipping the driver the bird before I faceplant into a patch of dirt.
What doesn't work: Wrong place to start. We don't need the skatepark info first. That can wait.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world--anger, hurt, risk-taking. Dialogue sets tone and pulls reader into the scene. We meet MC and his pal, setting up friendship as a theme.
In fourteen days, I’ll make my sixth journey. Hah, “journey,” what a joke. It’s like a three-minute walk from my porch, but from where I stand right now that painful patch of dirt is as far away as Orion’s Belt.
Every year, for the past five years, I’ve trekked from my back yard to a patch of dirt in the town’s vacant wash land so I can leave my parents a gift. And every year I laugh at myself, this anonymous suburbanite who will do whatever it takes to see his dead parents one more time.
What doesn't work: The goal is unclear. Sarcasm isn't working. Why is he leaving gifts? How will they help him see his parents? Why does he need to see them--besides the obvious reason? Who is this kid, and why should we care about him?
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world-- hurt, regret. Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his pain and inner turmoil. We are clear he misses his parents, that they're dead, and that he's trying to accomplish something by leaving gifts.
Round Four (and current contender:
In seven days, I’ll make my sixth pilgrimage to that painful patch of dirt where my parents died, hoping to see them one more time. It's a journey I've made every November for the past five years that's gone from hope to hopelessness. I mean, to be honest, I only call it a pilgrimage because I think it'll bring me peace.
It never does, and from where I stand tonight, that chance might be as far away as Orion’s Belt. In real life, it's a three-minute walk from my back porch that I take because the book I keep under my mattress says leaving my dead parents gifts will give me the chance to say I'm sorry.
What doesn't work: (my question for you)
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world- hurt, regret, hopelessness, Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his inner turmoil: he misses his dead parents, and he's following some kind of legend or ritual in a book to help him earn their forgiveness.
Why this works best: We have a clear goal (earn parents' forgiveness), an obstacle (something magical needs to happen, and this is clearly an ordinary world), and sympathy (he's pained with regret for something). Finally, we have a reason to keep reading: will he achieve his goal? what will happen along the way?
What do you think? I'd love to hear which opening works and why. Please share your comments. Please also share your story's opening and why you think it does or doesn't start in the right spot.
That's my story, what's yours?
I haven't blogged here in so long, I had to look up my website's password. Not good.
But, hey, I'm baaack!
How is everyone? More imortantly, what are ya'all writing?
I have been busy these past two months on two projects. One, a dark YA contemporary, STARS IN MY POCKETS. After some awesome edits via the incomparable Judi Lauren, I believe my story's truly alive. It's out in query-form to a few agents. Fingers crossed.
My second project was my NaNoWriMo2016. Yes, I won. Woohoo! But you can sense the lack of enthusiasm there, I'm sure. I didn't get a chance to plot the story before writing, so it's just a bunch of formless words on the page right now. More than 50,000 formless words, nonetheless. It's my first attempt at historical fantasy. Working title: JACKY INDIANA WEARS PURPLE POLISH. It's for the middle grade or younger young adult audiences.
Like my 2015 NaNo, this will sit for the next few months, marinating in its magical juices, until I return to it for major revision work.
Unlike bears who are preparing for their winter hibernation about now, I'm preparing to come out of my writing cave because this time of year always makes me want to connect more. So here I am, and I really did miss you all!
Right now, I'm revising my 2015 NaNo : MAGENTA WISE: PLASTIC WRAP. It's a young adult mystery--also my first attempt at this genre.
Although I spent all last summer plotting the story, after I finished it last November, I realized it wasn't what I'd expected. I revised it some, shared it with my critique partners and beta readers. Then I let it sit again while I worked on those above stories.
This week, I spent time at OneStopForWriters where I plotted it again. And let me just say, people, I love Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. If you don't know OneStop, get over there! These ladies have put together an amazing closet of tools to prep and preen your pretty baby and make her shine.
So, enough about me. Tell me what you're working on. If you use OneStop, I'd love to hear what sparkles the most for you.
That's my story, what's yours?
As the darker months approach, I emerge from my summer writing cave, bleary eyed but invigorated. Because I am a teacher, I relish the off-time to work on my writing. This past summer, I spent ten-twelve hours each day editing and revising my current manuscript.
I'd like to share a little bit of my process with you, then I'd love to hear how you revise. Something I hear from other writers: how do you know when you're finished?
Revising is like running down hill: you have to put on the brakes at some point and try not to scrape your face. I think I am at that point. I think.
This post is not about setting up a new story. It's about what to do once you've written your first draft and combed through it at least once or twice to see what you've written. I don't consider those revision stages. That's still part of the writing. For me, when I'm pumping out my story, I just go. I have a plan, that's true, but I'm writing non-stop. When I get to the end, I go back, read it, fix stuff, read it again, fix more stuff. I do this until it feels solid.
Then I put it away.
When I come back to it--weeks or months later--I see it through fresh eyes. Now I'm ready to revise.
Here's what revision looks like for me:
1. Brew coffee
2. Drink coffee
3. Turn off social media
4. Gather resources nearby
5. Get chocolate
6. Eat chocolate; think about lunch; turn social media back on...
7. Return to step 1
8. Open my document (yes, there are distractions until I get down to business)
9. Send my document to my Kindle
10. Read my story like a book (this is an amazing trick I learned from an author)
11. Mark up awkward phrases, typos, grammatical errors, etc., using NOTES
12. Re-open my document (for me, this is in Scrivener); make corrections from my Kindle NOTES
13. Share my story, chapters, opening, whatever, with my Critique Partners
14. Review their feedback; decide what to take and what to leave (remember, it's your story)
15. Now I revise.
Revision is the tearing apart and reconstruction of your story. When you first sit down, you might not even know what the story is really about until you get to the end. That's how it is for me. Steps 1-14 are actually the foreplay to revising.
Revision is messy, heart-breaking, frustrating, really, really hard. You have to get rid of characters who are in the way, develop characters who are too thin, tighten plots, destroy plots.
It's not easy, but when you get through this process, you have a story. And that's a beautiful thing.
What is your process? I'd love to hear it.
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?
You've heard the terms plotter and pantser. Which one are you?
I'll give you a hint about me: I'm a Virgo.
In my own regular life, I plan my day, leave myself sticky notes on the bathroom mirror, set alarms to remind me about appointments or what to pick up at the store. I don't leave things to chance. Certainly not my memory.
I plot my day, so of course I plot my books.
Why? For me, it sends events in motion. If I know what's coming, I can lay the groundwork with intention. Instead of taking the fun out of writing, planing keeps me on point and my stories tighter. That makes me happy.
Here are my five plotter must have's:
1. Alarm Clock: you can't write if you're still in bed. I teach, so for most of the year, I'm working during my favorite time to write. What to do? I set my alarm clock thirty minutes or more before I need to get up. Since getting up is usually at 6:30, I try to get up at 6 or 5:30. Otherwise, I will write at night. It all depends on my day. You can't schedule creative, so I need to write when time avails me.
2. Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT: I discovered Snyder's easy to follow beats two years ago at a SCBWI conference. Three authors attested to it, gave us all a quick how-to and why-to, and I was sold. I outline my plot to the beats of Snyder's three-act outline, tweak what I need to, and follow this when I set up my chapters and map my character arcs. This saves time and frees me up to focus on the story and creative process.
3. Scrivener: Oh, how I love my Scrivener! This writing app puts everything I need at my fingertips (my keyboard fingertips). I have written many blog posts about this tool's awesome features; check them out if you want. The best part of Scrivener? I can't choose one thing, but I do love the character and setting templates and the ability to upload pictures for both. Right now, I'm editing my new YA mystery. The revision mode lets you write in a different color, which makes it easy to find your new ideas after hours of editing.
4. Critique partners: Of course you can have critique partners if you pants your way through stories, but I can't let a blog post like this go by without a shout-out to my dear crits Gwynne Jackson and Jessica Gruner. Critique partners are vital at each stage of your writing. Whether you are planning, writing, editing, or revising, these smart people will give you the feedback you need to make your story better. I brainstorm plots, pluck their brains when a plot point goes awry, and take in their suggestions when I finished my story and am preparing to edit.
5. A good kind of pressure: This can come from anyone and anywhere. Your family, friends, Twitter buddies, neighbors, or colleagues. But no one can apply that necessary pressure to get you writing and thinking about your story if you don't tell them what you are up to. Let the world know you are writing the next bestseller. Locate beta readers for feedback, too. Their feedback and suggestions or whoops and wows will motivate you to keep going.
Whether you plan your story scene-to-scene before you write or sit down in front of a blank page and let it flow, you need support. I love to connect with other writers. Please find me on Twitter or Facebook. Let's connect and support each other.
That's my story; what's yours?
So you are working on your novel, and you think it's pretty good. Then you start querying it, and agents tell you they aren't "feeling it." You open up your manuscript and look for the holes, find where to add the spice, pluck out the bad bits.
It's kind of hit or miss at this point. You've been working on this baby for more than a year, so what do you do now?
Put it away for a week at least.
Take it back out, and read the whole thing like a book. That's what it is, right?
Whatever you do, you do not give up.
Cue, LOCKER ROOM SPEECH:
You write this book like it's Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Sure you were down 3-1, but you came back, baby. You stormed onto the home-team's court and played like a boss. Even after many had villified you for changing teams, they loved you when you returned.
You don't know the word NO, and you are not a loser.
You have coaches and trainers who guide and mold you, but at the end of the day, it's all up to you. You have to write like you mean it, edit like there is no tomorrow, polish and revise to make room for that trophy. This is it.
I write because I have stories in my head. I write because I love it. Never do I sit down and think, damn, I guess I have to write today. There is no place I'd rather be than in front of a story I am creating. I love my characters, and I want them to find readers who will love them, too.
Writing can be a solitary game, but you must remember there are people out there to help: critique partners, beta readers, editors, and agents, Listen to all of the advice and feedback. Then use what feels right. Just because the story came out of your head doesn't mean it doesn't need a little massaging. Flowers grow because we feed them, give them sunlight and water.
Feed your story. It's Game 7, and the heat is on. (Sure, go ahead and mix metaphors.) Do not give up. That is not an option.
You got this!
That's my story, what's yours?
No matter where you are in writing your story, weather can play a part in moving the action forward, defining a character, or throwing a wrench in the path of good or evil.
Great writers from Shakespeare to Steinbeck have successfully used weather in their stories. If it weren't for the drought, the Joads might never have set out to California. In The Tempest, we can't forget how Prospero used weather for his own good.
Here's how you can hurl lightning bolts at your villains or paint rainbows for your protagonists and get away with it.
PLOT. If you are stuck moving the action forward, change the weather. When your MC steps outside without an umbrella and is caught in a sudden downpour, does he slip into a cafe for a fortuitous encounter with someone? Does he hop on a bus to avoid the weather? Does that bus crash? Is it the wrong bus, and he ends up late for (work, a date, picking up a child)? Insurance companies don't take responsibility for acts of God. Neither must writers. Use storms, landslides, earthquakes. These things happen without notice.
CHARACTER. How do your characters respond to different weather events? Use them to reveal moods, fears, hopes, or long-lost dreams. Maybe every time it rains, your character is reminded of the day his dog died. Or whenever she sees a rainbow, she makes a wish. Don't go overboard. No one likes a cliche. Subtlety is your best move.
SETTING. Last but not least, we must talk about the obvious. Depending on where your story is set, some weather events just won't come up. It's unlikely an earthquake will hit in Iowa or that a monsoon will flood Arizona. If you are writing realistic fiction, study the weather in the area where your story is set. You might discover some freak storm that hit years back. You could use that for a tragic backstory, or it could be the reason for your character's behavior or motivation.
That's my story. What's yours?
Please share your ideas in the comment section below! Happy writing :)
This week, my creative writing students listened to the accordion. Many had never heard an accordion before. They didn't know what it would sound like, and they had no idea what it looked like.
It was a new sensory experience.
To my surprise, several students enjoyed the chaotic old world hum and breath of this most unusual style of music. Of course, there were a few who shot daggers at me with their eyes. So I did what any writing teacher might, I told them to use what they were feeling and experiencing and put it in their story.
It's one thing to try to bring anger into a scene; it's quite another to feel it as you are writing it.
Music allows us to tap into our emotions on many levels.
Try this experiment. As you listen to each musical clip below, pause to write about what you are feeling, seeing, hearing, and imagining. See where the music takes you, your story, or your characters.
Polka Dots remix
Masego x Medasin
The Ballet Edition
Please share your experience with these tracks. I'd love to hear how they impacted your writing.
That's my story. What's yours?
Sitting in front of my laptop, day in and day out, tunneling inside my head to find the very last bread crumbs of creativity, I often wonder what I'm doing.
The short answer is: writing.
The long answer is much more complicated.
Telling a story is not easy. It's more than having an idea and some characters and a setting. There are layers. The idea needs to be complex, a conflict that branches off onto another path. The characters must be rich and flawed but believable. The setting requires details--but not too many--and imagery. It must all come alive before the reader's eyes and live within the reader's imagination.
Storytelling calls for all of this plus heart and movement.
Read all of the books you can on writing; study great writers; practice, practice, practice. It will still be hard.
No one said it would be easy.
Don't give up. Give in, and write. Every. Day. Every. Moment.
You are never not a writer. Even when you are doing the other mundane chores that humans must do, even then you are a writer. Writers must take out the trash, wash dishes, pee, buy eggs, carpool the soccer team, shop for new underwear.
You are human. Live your life, but always live it as a writer. Everything you do requires you to be on the alert for the next great line, quirky character, unusual plot, or brilliant setting.
This is not a pep talk, this is a shoulder hug, a you-can-do-it-stop-complaining self-talk, a remember-why talk. Don't write because you want to, write because if you don't, you would die, life would evaporate before your eyes, and you would disintegrate into a pile of dust to be swept under a rug.
Writing is the fire that burns inside me. I write for me. I write because I must.
That is my story. What's yours?