It’s that time of year. As the old year fades away, we spend time making resolutions, creating New Year’s intentions, or setting goals. I’m big on goal-setting with the added detail of creating action steps toward reaching those goals. At first it seems like more work, especially when those action steps seem to lengthen the to-do list, but the end benefit is a sense of satisfaction in seeing the steps toward a goal accomplished. I like the gratification of crossing an item off my to-do list (or when I click the “done” button on my List App).
In addition to the goal-setting, I spend time in June and in December assessing progress on those goals. One method for tracking progress has become a holiday tradition. Something similar may help you in setting writing goals for the new year.
Years ago, I was given a blank book ornament as a gift. With my love of journal writing, I turned it into a holiday journal. Each year when I decorate the Christmas tree, I make an entry that includes a list of favorites: new authors found that year, current favorite TV shows, movies I’ve enjoyed throughout the year, hobbies I’ve taken up or enjoyed. Then, when I take down the tree and pack away ornaments, the last is the journal ornament. Before returning it to the storage box, I record a New Year’s entry that includes a few goals and intentions for the coming year. It’s eye-opening to read old entries—both the “favorites” at the end of each year, and the “goals” at the beginning of each year.
Reading through old entries is a fun way to conclude the year. Sometimes the favorites list are books or programs long forgotten. A few have prompted new writing projects. Sometimes the goals lists from the beginning of each year repeat, year after year, often simply in different wording. When this happens, it provides a greater push to find the action steps needed to accomplish that goal.
So tonight I’ll be gearing down the old year, re-reading past entries in that journal ornament, and then thinking about my goals for the new year.
Wishing you all a wonderful and productive new year!
It’s that time of year again. Fueled by our Thanksgiving feasts we’re ready to begin the holiday dash. We enter the frenzy of buying, wrapping, shipping, stamping, mailing, cooking, baking, and battling the long To-Do list for preparing a “magical” holiday for family and friends. It seems impossible to find a spare minute to focus on putting words on paper. I’ve discovered that THIS is the time of year to read or plan a project. I feel I’ve accomplished SOMETHING during the holiday season when I focus on WORDS.
Reading about writing craft in magazines, on websites and blogs IS part of a writing career.
It’s not so much about putting words onto paper but on keeping a pulse on the rhythm of words. When I focus on words, I’m able to embrace the holiday dash—and feel I’m made a little progress toward my writing while crossing off items on an ever-growing To-Do list. These tips may help you too:
Tune into language. You can do this two ways. Listen to holiday songs and note the phrases that paint images as well as evoke emotion. Songs and poetry rely on specific word choice to get a meaning/scenario across to the listener very quickly. Or while reading, notice vivid verbs or phrases that conjure images and/or emotion. For example, while reading a fantasy novel recently I made this list:
enormous iron beetles
stabbed up from the earth
wreathed in smoke.
In another story, I listed strong, vivid verbs and modifiers:
When you tune into language like this, you’ll soon find yourself reaching for a more vivid and creative phrase, rather than relying on the first word that comes to mind.
Return to the Pre-Writing Phase. As a nonfiction author, I can make progress by reading for research and then planning an article or section of my book project. But fiction writers can also use this time to plan and pace out story scenes. Remember that the phases in the writing process are recursive. This is NOT like baking cookies. (Though I use time spent mixing, rolling out, cutting, and baking sugar cookies to play with story pacing or focusing a nonfiction topic.)
People watch. Rely on a writer’s power of observation by watching people while you’re stuck in line or waiting somewhere. (If you’re not already a keen observer, now is a great time to develop this skill!) Make a mental list of specific actions. What do they reveal about personality? Note outfits and how people interact with those around them. What clues would these provide a reader about a character’s inner workings? How might you spring-board from these observations to enhance your work-in-progress?
All of these things can be done while you’re working on crossing off items on December’s lengthy To-Do list. I’ve found it balances out the frenzy of the holiday dash.
May you cross the “finish line” to happy holidays and make a little progress in the pre-writing phase in the coming month.
You’ve finally set aside a chunk of time for your project. Your writing area is set up and all distractions eliminated. Now you’re ready to make progress on your work-in-progress. Yet the words have fled and the blinking cursor mocks your writing goal.
What happened? you wonder. All the usual elements are in place. You’ve followed all the advice from the pros you’ve read or heard. Why isn’t it working?
Don’t allow frustration in. Trying to force creativity isn’t the answer. Even if it worked for another writer. Even if it usually works for you. Sometimes you need to approach it from a different angle.
This is one of the toughest things I had to learn about writing full time. There is no wrong way to tap into creativity. If you want to make regular progress, you need to have several methods in place to ease yourself into a productive writing session. Try the suggestions you’ve discovered in reading blogs or books, listening to podcasts, or attending conferences. Learn what works for you and adapt whenever necessary.
For example, I like to begin my writing day with my journal. As I jot down thoughts, it helps “clear” my head so I can focus on the day’s writing. When this doesn’t work, I get moving (physically) until scenes play like a movie in my mind. Going for a walk usually works but so does doing housework.
But, sometimes neither of these work. Sometimes it seems to take hours to “settle” into what works on a given day. I’ve learned not to beat myself up when this happens and to instead be grateful when the words begin to flow. I try to keep these “off” days in mind and try whatever worked then whenever I face another “restless writing day.”
Remember, we all have off days. Think back to your routines at work. There were plenty of days when no items got crossed off the To-Do list. But creative endeavors are different. When we prepare and align all the elements and still don’t reach a short-term goal, it’s a real let down.
Some might consider this writer’s block—the well of words has dried up. Often writing anything—even your name, or typing out the issue of not being able to tap into your idea—will free up your mind and eventually lead to writing a sentence, a paragraph, and the next scene.
The result will help you create your personal writing (or creativity) process. Remember when I talk in class about the stages in the writing process? I also emphasize that they are recursive. There is no single step-by-step path. There is no “right” or “wrong” way. There is only what works in the moment. (And this will vary by project as well as by writing session.)
So, don’t despair; simply try something else. In time you’ll know how to tap in on demand and, except for occasional “restless writing days,” you’ll find making progress on a regular schedule is possible.
At some point in our development as writers, we compare ourselves to other writers and our confidence suffers. I see it written across the faces of students after someone shares beautifully written prose in writing classes. From their expressions I can almost hear the negative self-talk broadcasting in their minds of the other participants. “Well forget reading today; I’m not going to follow that” or “It took me hours to get this chapter just perfect and it stinks” or “I knew I would have felt a better sense of accomplishment if I cleaned the shower yesterday instead of working on this writing assignment.”
It’s natural to compare ourselves to others. As children we were conditioned to do this as a way to improve behavior or performance. But writing is very subjective and our journeys are personal. If you’ve taken my workshops or classes, you’ve heard me caution against this. You’ve likely heard me say: “Only you can write your story” or “Remember, we are all at different levels and places with our writing, so learn from the skills of one another and ask yourself, ‘How can I apply dialogue or description like that in my writing?'” You’ve comparing then only in relation to what you can learn–and what you have to other the participants. It’s more positive than comparing for accomplishment.
Many of us are still training our families to understand our need to write or we’ve sequestered ourselves in the den instead of going to the beach. So, when we emerge to hear that a neighbor, acquaintance, or writing friend has published, it’s difficult to avoid comparison. “I should have accomplished that by now.”
Instead of wallowing in the negative self-talk replaying like “local developments” on TV news, create a few goals: By the end of summer I’ll have the last chapters of my draft completed. During August I’ll finish this latest round of revisions. By September 1, I plan to add another 25000 words to my novel-in-progress. I’m revising and writing query letters so I can submit my book to agents by Oct. 1
If needed, break your goal into “stepping stones” to keep yourself on track: By the end of the week I’ll find 5-10 possible agents for my manuscript. I’ll write 5000 words a week to finish my draft by September 1. I’ll find the answers to the missing facts for chapters 5-7 of my latest book.
Reaching your goals is the true measure of how YOU are coming on YOUR project to tell YOUR story. If you plan to compare yourself to any other writer out there, it should be based on yourself and your own writing progress.
How do you measure your writing progress? Do you count words or pages? If you do, then what happen when you’re revising? Do you count pages or hours? Then again, what if you write children’s books? A children’s picture book is generally less than 750 words. Each title in my Kids Throughout History series is 800 words. But neither type of book is written in one sitting, one afternoon, nor even in one week.
This is probably the hardest detail for new writers to understand. You make progress on your writing when you are inching toward your goal. You cannot compare yourselves to other writers and how they measure “progress.” As creative writers, we also need to consider the hours that go into thinking about and planning the scope of the story—or the research and organization necessary for writing nonfiction.
It’s not clear-cut and each project is different. So, how do you know whether you are making progress on your project? It’s subjective. Only you can decide. Are you satisfied that the story or book idea is developing? Has a pattern emerged—or a regular routine—for the steps necessary to reach your goal of writing a book, story, or article?
Remember that many tasks are part of the writing process. Not all of them involve putting words to paper or screen During prewriting, for example, you work with ideas, plan scenes, sketch out characters, create plot points, think about the best sequence for the story conflict and resolution. You might also need to do research and—for nonfiction—plan the best approach for sharing facts and details about a topic. During drafting you’re getting words onto paper, but the number of chapters or words you are aiming for is an estimated range which will change while you’re revising. During revisions you’re working with the words already there, and this involves rearranging, rewording, deleting, and adding words. You might also move back to the prewriting (planning/researching) and drafting stages as needed. At any stage in the process it’s a good idea to begin looking for potential publishers or agents. So, aiming for a goal is far better than trying to track progress by counting words.
When you think about the tasks involved in writing—and the many tasks that have little to do with actually putting words to paper—it’s easy to become frustrated about “missing” a daily or weekly goal to generate a specific number of words. You need to align the idea of “writing progress” with the many stages in the writing process.
Making progress on your writing is very subjective. For me, it is also dependent on the project scope. How I approach a project (my process) and how I track progress changes with the project. In the long run, it’s truly up to you; only you can decide if you are making progress in your writing. So, continue plugging along toward your writing goals.
Has your creative energy run out? After a strong opening, you may find yourself floundering. Some writers refer to this as the muddle of the middle. Others simply feel stuck. They call it writer’s block. What’s really happening is you’ve taken off like a rocket and now your creative energy is running on fumes. So, how do you re-energize?
Personally, I like to take a break and read or listen to music to to refill the creative well. Sometimes I go for a walk or a swim. These provide a rest for my brain, but somehow ideas emerge. I’ve even used housecleaning to stir up a “need” to return to my desk and write. (I really dislike housekeeping, so I think I “daydream” while I’m working and that triggers ideas.) But, another way to regain writing momentum is to consider how you might twist up your plot.
Here are a few tricks to help you break the block or get unstuck:
What is your character’s greatest fear? How might he or she suddenly come face-to-face with that fear? How does he or she react?
If you’ve written yourself into a corner so to speak, use it to your advantage. How will your protagonist get him or herself out of a tight spot? What action will he or she take? What tough decision will he or she need to make?
How does he or she react when another character calls him or her a nasty name, or simply uses the wrong name?
Send your character somewhere new. (Change the scene.) Keep in mind that this action can often lead to another problem. Perhaps he or she misses the train, or ends up in the wrong place. NOW what does he or she do to correct this “temporary problem”? Such events keep the plot twisting and turning, which keeps the reader interested.
Notice that ACTION and REACTION are key in the above suggestions. Your main character needs to DO something toward solving a problem or reaching a goal.
Next time you feel your creative energy begin to lag, take a few minutes to toy with the character and the story situation. Shake things up and see how that twists up the plot. This will keep you—and the reader—more engaged.
Summertime. Freedom. More time for fresh air, sunshine, outdoor and leisure activities. Many of us focus on watching what we eat and getting healthy. Why not put your summertime writing on a diet too?
Drafts can be padded with excess phrasing and vague or unnecessary words. The point of the draft, after all, is to get thoughts to paper. But, once a writing session is completed, I like to go back and trim the empty calories–the “filler”–then focus again on drafting more. (Later, during revision, I’ll rethink and rearrange, but I’ll spend less time wading through the excess.)
Just as we focus on shedding winter weight, reread your MS and learn to cut the empty words. Keep your prose as lean and energized as possible. Each phrase should add substance to your story or article, otherwise it adds nothing but padding. Think of empty words as empty calories. They ruin good writing; they pull true talent out of shape.
Cut to trim the filler. Here are a few things to look for:
▪Hedging Words: These show insecurity, uncertainty, lack of confidence
▪Weak Modifiers: a modifier is a helping word. It adds detail or intensifies meaning, but weak modifiers dilute the meaning.
▸just, so, such, very, really, even, at all, certainly, all, definitely, exactly, right, anyway.
▸avoid this and that in excess
▸for ‘just’ to have the impact it has in spoken form (often provided through inflection) use it sparingly in written form
If you use the above in dialogue, they can show an insecure or boring character. If this is not your intent, trim from dialogue as well.
The more aware you are of unnecessary words during the draft, the cleaner and clearer your draft becomes. This allows more time during revision to focus on content, plot and character development for instance, rather than editing for clarity.
A few weeks ago I joined a book discussion called “Books and Bagels” that meets at a parish down the street. When I discovered we would be reading C.S. Lewis this summer I was thrilled. While it won’t include his children’s book, The Chronicles of Narnia, I do love his writing and am eager to read titles by Lewis I haven’t yet read.
This got me thinking of favorite classics, then simply favorite books I read as a kid. Finally, I headed to my bookshelves to see what titles I might suggest to my niece as well as grand nieces and nephews. I was surprised to find several classics by Leo Lionni as well as these gems. I own these books because I wrote reviews for them years ago for Christian Library Journal and others. Then I hunted up the reviews to share here. Enjoy!
Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers / written by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Yan Nascimbene (Sleeping Bear Press)
Award-winning author Gloria Whelan crafts a rich historical tale in Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers. Lyrical prose vividly weaves details and customs of ancient Japan into a story of a young girl using observation and impressions to ease homesickness. Yan Nascimbene’s watercolor illustrations suffuse muted backgrounds with vibrant kimonos and foregrounds to evoke the time period. Yuki’s mother instructs her to pack for a long journey. Yuki does not want to leave but does as she is told. Her teacher gives her lessons to complete on the journey. She must write one haiku each day. So in a basket she packs brushes, ink, and rice paper for her assignment.
They travel the historic Tokaido Road on their 300-mile journey between Kyoto, the city of the emperor and imperial court, and Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Japan’s political center. Shouters head the long procession. They announce the passage of the governor, Yuki’s father. Next come the samurai, then Father on his horse. Six men carry the palanquin sheltering Yuki, her little dog, and her mother. Lastly, one thousand men carry the family’s possessions.
Yuki’s haiku are sprinkled through the story and share her growing delight in the places and events she experiences. “We are a dragon / Our one thousand carriers / the dragon’s long tale.” They stay at 53 inns, she sleeps using a wooden pillow, and learns “Fuji is a sacred mountain were spirits live.”
Beneath the story lies several benefits to readers. The book is entertaining but also provides information on ancient Japan. Values of honoring parents, showing respect, and finding joy in present circumstances are reinforced through this story. A note from the author precedes the story, supplying background on the topic.
Many Moons / written by James Thurber, illustrated by Louis Slodobkin (Voyager Books/Harcourt Brace & Company)
We sometimes complicate issues when using common sense is the answer. This is the message Many Moons by James Thurber shares in a classic storybook originally published in 1943. After eating too many raspberry tarts, Princess Lenore feels ill. Hoping to make her feel well again, her father offers to bring her anything her heart desires. When she asks for the moon – literally – the king calls on the wisest men in his court. The Lord High Chamberlain, the Royal Wizard, and the Royal Mathematician each balk at the request, reminding the king of the long list of items they have found when asked. The king worries about his promise to – and the health of – the princess. Calling on the court jester to ease his sorrows, it is the jester who makes a logical suggestion – asking Lenore exactly what she is expecting. The solution to the king’s problem is simple and the jester succeeds in giving Lenore the moon.
This story is as charming today as it was when it won the Caldecott Medal in 1944. Louis Slobodkin’s ink and color illustrations, though at a glance sketchy, are rich in action and hint at the ornate detail of Lenore’s royal life. Though story groups will enjoy the simple solution to such a demanding request, this book is especially appropriate for one-on-one sharing. It shows the appeal of childish logic along with imparting the message that parents or adults really do wish to give children “the moon.” More importantly, it shows that what is wished (or prayed) for may be answered in an unexpected way.
The dragon’s child : a story of Angel Island / written by Laurence Yep with Dr. Kathleen S. Yep. (HarperCollins).
In The Dragon’s Child: A story of Angel Island, Laurence Yep weaves a quietly suspenseful tale packed with information on the Chinese immigration experience in early twentieth century California. His niece Dr. Kathleen S. Yep discovered immigration interviews while researching family history and the two crafted a story based on them. Each chapter opens with questions posed to Gim Lew Yep in the present followed with the story through the eyes of the ten-year-old boy.
Lung Gon Yep was born in America where he lives and works. When he visits his wife and children in China, Lung Gon decides his youngest son will return with him to California. Gim Lew is torn between leaving his mother and disappointing his father. For the journey he must prepare for the interrogation all Asian immigrants undergo. But Gim Lew stutters. His father worries the immigration officials will believe it is because he is lying. So Gim Lew must memorize family facts and details and work to tame his stutter.
As they journey, first to Hong Kong and then on a ship to San Francisco, Gim Lew’s insights provide comparisons between American and Chinese customs. Issues of prejudice against Chinese are woven throughout the plot. When they reach Angel Island, sometimes called the Ellis Island of the west coast, Gim Lew’s anxiety intensifies. He has not yet tamed his stutter, which builds tension in the story.
The book concludes with facts about Chinese American immigration and photos of Yep’s father and grandfather. This story is a wonderful way to introduce family heritage and early twentieth century history and to launch discussion about prejudice and treatment of immigrants.
Queen Esther Saves Her People / retold by Rita Golden Gelman, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Scholastic)
Bright and lively illustrations portray the intensity of this bible story, which is closely based on the Book of Esther, in a folk art style that provides a sense of the Persian time period. This retelling of the Purim story portrays the courage and clever thinking of young Esther who risks her life to save the Jewish people. When Esther is chosen, Cinderella-like, to be the Queen of Persia, she discovers that her husband, King Ahasuerus, would rather drink and play cards and allows his prime minster, Hamen, to take care of business. When Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, refuses to bow down to Hamen, the prime minister is infuriated and vows that Mordecai, along with every Jew in Persia, must be killed. Esther gathers her courage to approach her hot-tempered husband who doesn’t know until that moment that Esther, too, is Jewish. Through clever thinking Esther succeeds in thwarting Hamen. The book includes a “Purim Notebook” at the end that provides information on the holiday and the noisy, joyous celebration.
This has been a whirlwind month. I am shocked by how many things I successfully juggled. While excessive busy-ness often warps my attitude, the month of May felt like a marathon I had been conditioning myself for. (Good thing I went to that retreat the end of April!) I managed to keep my focus and juggle a rush job on top of regular clients, editing, teaching, and my own writing deadline. I’m pleased to say I plowed through problems and projects alike. Like running a marathon, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment—and this was all happening those first three weeks of the month!
By May 25th I was ready for the lull before the next push toward the finish line. As often happens after a huge achievement, I spend time “recuperating” by resting, replenishing the freezer (need quick and healthy meals in order to keep up break-neck writing/editing sessions), and refilling the creative well with wonderful books and movies.
I also like to use music. It feels the silences and when I’m writing, I focus on the melodies at first, but soon typing thoughts to screen takes over and I no longer notice the music. It’s as if I have to ignore it so I can focus on writing. I often listen to either music of audio books as I work in the kitchen or do housework.
But this month, I found myself skipping the audio input. I relished the silence and as I worked straightening up or making meals. I allowed both thoughts and silence instead. It was refreshing, much like my recent retreat. I liked to hear the ticks and creaks of my house displace the silence. As my thoughts settled, and like drowning out the music with writing, I found myself generating new scenes or cobbling together new story ideas.
The silence became rich with meaning and words. Now I’ve been spending time each day in the stillness and silence. I cherish the peace and lack of busy-ness, then allow the words to take over.
In my writing, I have kept the reverence of the silence in mind for a few characters. Silence—the lack of sound—does count as targeting the sense of hearing within our manuscripts.
April and May are reflective times of year for me. I often dwell on goals and achievements still unreached so I can set new goals, prioritize, and move forward. Interestingly, it has become a time to reconnect with past publishers. Not quite a week ago, I received an email from an educational publisher I worked with regularly for many years. The same happened with another publisher about a year ago. It’s even more interesting (and amazing) that this happened just before I left for a retreat and—perhaps due to the events/activities at the retreat—I received a
Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.
new assignment from this company two days after I returned home.
Arriving at the retreat house.
Feeling pulled in many directions and needing a moment (or many) of clarity, I made last-minute plans to car pool with a small group of friends also headed to Our Lady of Florida Retreat Center on the east coast. It was the best weekend I’ve had in five
Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like “monks” holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.
years. (That’s about the time my father became so ill and much of my time centered around writing, teaching, and getting meals to him, or simply spending time with him.) I needed the break. I needed the peace, the fellowship, the downtime (no WiFi and I chose to limit phone use). I had time to think through life (and writing) puzzles and returned home restored and ready to reconnect—on a fresh frequency.
What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.
Those who follow my writing and workshop info know that I am drawn to nature to recharge. The grounds of this retreat center were beautiful. So was the architecture and art throughout the retreat house, dormitories, and grounds. I came away fed–physically, mentally, and spiritually. I cannot wait to go back!