Gearing Down & Building Up

gearsIt’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.

fullsizeoutput_daYears 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!

Embracing the Holiday Dash

Southern Christmas decoration

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

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.

Read-magazine

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:

  • hulking machines
  • enormous iron beetles
  • stabbed up from the earth
  • billowing smoke
  • snorting steam
  • wreathed in smoke.

In another story, I listed strong, vivid verbs and modifiers:

  • swirled
  • twisted
  • blooming
  • sprouted
  • jagged
  • crumbling
  • loomed.

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. HappyHoliday

No Wrong Way to Tap Into Creativity

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.

Make No Comparison

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.

 

Running on Fumes

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.

Allowing the Silence in

Finish-lineThis 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.

FloridaAtlanticBut 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.

Tune in to Improve Craft

 

 

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Tune in for info and advice.

To remain productive, creative people need “downtime” to mull over and develop ideas. In those moments when I step away from my desk, I turn to other creative outlets. Those who know me, regularly follow my blog, or attend my workshops have heard me refer to this as “productive procrastination.” I like to paint, bake or cook, or sometimes clean the house, and while I’m “putting off” writing, I’m accomplishing something. Often, I’m plotting and planning my next writing session. Lately, I’ve used this time to listen to writing/authorship podcasts. Double points on the “productive” part of my creative procrastination.

What us a podcast?

Think of it as an online radio show. They are weekly or regularly recorded audio programs on a specific topic. Many are interviews or discussions and those centered around writing feature authors, illustrators, editors, and agents. You listen using your phone, an app, or the Internet.

Some of my recent favorites include:

Writing Excuses — leave your excuses behind with this audio show on a variety of topics and interviews for aspiring authors. Shorter than average podcast at 15-20 minutes rather than 60+ minutes. Hosts include Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal.

TheCreativePenn — wealth of info for writers at all levels. I like it for tips about marketing, promo, and advice for indie authors/entrepreneurs. Hosted by Joanna Penn.

Let’s Get Busy — interviews of children’s book authors and illustrators hosted by f librarian Matthew Winner. Fun insights into the creative process around featured books.

Odyssey SF/F Writing Workshop — podcasts of lectures and talks from the well-known annual writers workshop and conference. Variety of craft talks and author panels.

The best part of podcast is that–unlike a radio show–you can listen to any past episode or subscribe to the podcast and listen to the most recent session whenever you have the time.

I’ve also found several that are like magazines and focus on audio fiction. I enjoy listening to these as a change from the usual audio book. My favorite us Clarkesworld.

What are some of your favorites? Please share! I’m always on the hunt for fresh info and new ways to be productive as I “procrastinate.”

Make Peace with Holiday Writing Progress

sun tree“Christmas is the season for kindling
the fire of hospitality in the hall,
the genial flame of charity in the heart.”
~Washington Irving

I hope you are giving yourself a gift of time this year: time to spend with family and friends, time to sit and dream (i.e., pre-write & plan), time to be kind to yourself.

Perhaps you’ve been very motivated all year and focused on your writing projects. Now, it may be frustrating to feel you’re making little progress due to the “holiday dash.” Or, perhaps you’ve thrown yourself into the holiday celebrations BECAUSE you’ve made little progress this year. In either case, the following writing-related activities will keep your head in your project with a few snippets of time throughout the week. They are all related to pre-writing, which is an important stage in writing. If you can find time now to do a few of these, you’ll have that pattern established once the holidays end and your time frees up a bit.

1. Back off on your expectations (and this applies to non-writing parts of life, too). This is NOT the time to set outrageous goals to get your family to support or encourage you as a writer. Be realistic. If you normally make time to write four days a week, aim instead for two or three days per week during December and early January. You have twice the work load with holiday shopping and prep (especially if you’re hosting family for dinner or celebrations).

2. Select 2 writing-related activities in lieu of adding word count. Items for this list might include:

  • reading (especially in the same genre as your project)
  • exploring publishers
  • finding authors similar to your project (for the pitch letter)
  • drafting a project summary or cover letter
  • making outline notes (or even thinking about how your character will face the next obstacle)

These are all related to writing and your current project, even if some do not include putting words to paper. For example, reading articles about writing craft in a magazine or on a website will help you with your writing after the holiday prep is completed.

The challenge of writing "on demand" pushes beyond the comfort zone.

3. Keep a notebook with you. Jot thoughts about your work-in-progress. (How do your characters celebrate the holidays? Which holidays occur during the course of your story?) While you’re in the holiday crowds (or at family gatherings), note mannerisms and oft repeated phrases. These could become character tags in your story, or provide a detail to make a character come alive. Note memories triggered during holiday activities. Then, journal about them.

4. Journal. If you don’t normally journal, now is a great time to begin. Journaling is a way to put words to paper on a regular basis, even if it’s only a few paragraphs or a summary of your busy days. (These details can come in handy when you return to your regularly scheduled writing routine.) Journaling can also help clear your mind and allow you to focus on tackling the holiday to-do list.

Think of the above as similar to working out. It’s much easier to get back into full swing after the holidays when you’ve kept the writing muscles warmed up with writing-related activities.

WhitePineSeason’s Greetings, and happy writing!

This is my wish for you:
peace of mind, prosperity through the year,
happiness that multiplies, health for you and yours,
fun around every corner, energy to chase
your dreams, joy to fill your holidays!
~D.M. Dellinger

Writing to Deadline: Theme lists and Contests

deadlineA great way to stay motivated to write regularly is to create deadlines. This gives you a goal or target to reach for in completing a manuscript. It also helps new writers develop the discipline to write regularly. I’ve never been able to fool myself with “false deadlines” but when I was starting out I often wrote to theme lists published by magazines.

Theme lists are exactly that—a list of upcoming themes by issue with a “wish list” of possible stories and articles that fit the theme. Along with the theme is a deadline for receiving queries (pitches) and/or completed manuscripts. Many children’s magazines provide theme lists, but alternatively following editors’ blogs can provide similar info. For example, Fun For Kidz, a popular magazine for children has scheduled a theme around water for the July 2016 issue. Pockets, a Christian children’s magazine published by The Upper Room includes an upcoming theme on friends for the June 2016 issue due 11/1/2015. Find theme lists (and guidelines) by entering a search string of publisher (or magazine) plus “theme list” or “guidelines” into your favorite browser.

writing-a-deadlineAn alternative is to enter contests. Again, the benefit is a goal and deadline to aim for and whether you win or not, you have a manuscript to submit to another market in the future. Many contests include an entry fee, which often includes either a subscription to the publication or a copy of the issue in which the contest winners are published. Still, a few contests are free. You can find upcoming contests for writers at Poet & Writers magazine, The Writer magazine, Ralan.com  and Writers-Editors.com  Please be sure to read and follow the guidelines.

“Quiet Mind” Writing Days

Other types of creativity can help awaken story and get the words flowing.

Other types of creativity can help awaken story and get the words flowing.

I’ve created several creativity programs for writers within the past six months and I’ve noticed something interesting among the participants: they try to jump into the “words on paper” part. Sometimes we need to quiet the mind first to allow ideas to surface.

Why do writers think they aren’t writing if words are not flowing onto the paper? Sometimes we simply need to sit, think about our stories or projects, or even brainstorm with friends. If you’re a writer, it is okay to sit and stare off into the day and consider possibilities for your characters or plot. It’s okay to find the best events in a personal experience you plan to craft. In fact, current neuro-research suggests that quieting the mind is how we allow ideas from our subconscious to surface. (This is why you might get great ideas while you’re doing something monotonous such as washing dishes, gardening, or scrubbing the shower.)

Take a clue from Rodin's The Thinker.

Take a clue from Rodin’s The Thinker.

Where does this idea come from that writers shouldn’t think about our stories or craft in our heads before heading to the computer? (Even my college students jump to the drafting stage too quickly.) Pre-writing is important, and while students learning how to write are expected to show their pre-writing in the form of mind maps or outlines, professional writers often do all that planning in their heads. I think this idea that we should not sit quietly may come from a need to be taken seriously as writers. If we look busy and are clicking away on the keys, maybe our families will allow us to make progress on our novel or project. If we look busy, maybe life won’t get in the way. Or, perhaps staring into space and thinking about plot events for a work-in-progress doesn’t feel the same as having something to show for the time and so busy work keeps you from actually writing.

I know that my own life gets busy too quickly and then that frantic pace sets in. Sometimes it’s not even frantic action but simply frantic thoughts. I used to clear my mind every morning by dumping all my thoughts and worries every morning. Then I could focus on my project or making progress on contracted work. Some may recognize this as “morning pages” suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. I followed that advice when I worked full time and tried breaking into print part-time.

Now that I write full time I need to take breaks to recharge during the day. Sometimes I need to quiet my mind and I use painting or music or cooking, or what I call productive procrastination. People may think the character collages I create are simply a way to avoid writing but I’m making progress on a specific book project. In actuality, these “arts and crafts” activities help me clarify details for my story.

 

A sample character collage for a YA novel work-in-progress

A sample character collage for a YA novel work-in-progress

While I am actually making these collages, my mind is quieting and I have time to pre-write or plan plot details and so on in my mind. When I return to the keyboard, I’m mentally refreshed. The progress I make doing this is far exceeds the results when I force myself to sit in front of the computer screen until I reach my “word or page quota.” In the end it’s about making progress toward a completed manuscript. Some days our work is easier to show than on other days, than on the “quiet mind” days.

The next time you hit a wall with your writing, try sitting and quieting your mind. Think about options for your narrative, or how you might shape the story. If you can’t shake the feeling that you aren’t writing if you think about your project, consider it “pre-writing.” Since the writing process is recursive, remind yourself that you’re going back to “stage 1” to develop the idea and settle into the plan for the next chapters or scenes. Project do benefit from “quiet mind” days. You’re still working; you’re still writing.