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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
Think of your favorite childhood stories. How many include a pet or other animal who is integral to the plot? You might be surprised at the answer.
First of all, I use the term "pet" in broad terms. There are magical creatures, domestic pets, animals that are hunted, farmed, and tamed. There are animals that transform into people, animals that turn on people, and animals who will die for people.
Although there are numerous stories that feature animals as central characters, I want to focus on those who work alongside a main character. In some cases, I will highlight a story with "talking" animals. You will have your favorites, and I'd love to hear about them. Please share in the comments section your beloved animal adventures.
Here are a few great books to study:
Magical Creatures: Think Hedgwig in the Harry Potter stories and all the other messenger animals. Of course, there is Hagrid's slobbering dog Fang and Norbert the Dragon. Visit this wiki page for some fun exploring all of the HP creatures.
Domestic pets: I date myself with this story, but IT'S LIKE THIS CAT is a great example of how to use a simple house cat as a plot device. When teenager Dave brings home a cat to his dysfunctional family, life changes for the better.
The hunted: Herman Melville created the most famous man v. beast battle ever in his classic, MOBY DICK. Humble fisherman Ishmael finds himself in the middle of a vengeful battle between the egotistical Captain Ahab and the great whale.
Farm animals: Many of us will think of George Orwell's political satire, ANIMAL FARM. However, this story features animals as humans--an entirely different blog topic! A more useful study would be EB White's CHARLOTTE'S WEB. Each critter carries his own human foibles and conflicts. I think it's one of the best animal-human relationships in literature.
Heroic animals: One of my favorites is Buck in Jack London's CALL OF THE WILD. This is a great story to study if you want to create a pet or farm animal who exemplifies the greatest good within human and animal nature.
The Loyal: LASSIE is perhaps the most beloved classic pet who would warn his family and neighbors when danger was a foot.
The Tragic: I still feel a pang when I hear someone mention WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, OLD YELLER, or SOUNDER. These stories feature a dog who meets a tragic end. The stories serve to connect readers to deep emotions as characters make difficult decisions.
Comic relief: There is Toto from THE WIZARD OF OZ who serves as Dorothy's companion and who warns her of danger.
Animals can move your plot forward, relieve tension, highlight character traits, and help readers connect to your story. How do you use pets or other animals in your stories? Please share!