“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.

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Scent-sational Holidays

It’s no wonder I focus so much on sensory detail in my writing workshops (and in my writing) since I naturally key into sound and scent. I was reminded of this as I decorated for the holidays. It’s not just the tradition of listening to Christmas carols while we decorate either.

musicalMost of my ornaments and decorations trigger childhood memories, especially those items given to me by my mother, so decorating turns into time for nostalgia. But this year I realized that many of the ornaments make sounds–bells are most common–and I have more than a few decorations with wind-up music boxes that play tinny versions of Christmas carols. Many of the decorations also include potpourri or scented candles. I recall my college days when bayberry candles were a staple of gift giving and I still buy that scent for holiday candles.

This year, as I miss my father, I find myself also missing my mother and have been flooded with memories of her holiday preparations. These began with baking (and freezing cookies) in early November. While we were at school, she began baking and decorating dozens of pinwheels and sugar cookies. I still love the smell of entering a house and smelling the mild scent of crisped sugar, nutmeg and vanilla, with undertones of chocolate. There were always nibbles of cookies (which she claimed got broken or burned) as after-school snacks.

pumpkinpiesAs Thanksgiving neared, the scents of apples, cinnamon, pumpkin, and spices from pies and quick breads greeted us after a long day of math, science, social studies, reading, and holiday crafts. But my favorite days were those a day or two before Thanksgiving when the tang of tart cranberry sauce and brown sugar and cinnamon sticky buns wafted from the kitchen.

cookiescoolingAs December’s snow and chill took hold, holiday preparations continued but the scent of baking now mingled with the odors of Thanksgiving leftovers and hot, nourishing but easy meals such as vegetable soup or beef stew. They simmered all afternoon while Mom wrapped gifts to hide under her bed and at the back of her closet. Progress made daily for holiday magic to happen.

By the time school let out for Christmas break, we children were banned to the basement to play, and it was the perfect opportunity to sneak frozen cookies from the freezer in the corner. While I served as lookout, my brother peeled back the plastic cover of Mom’s massive Tupperware container and nabbed a few cookies. We shared them, breaking off pieces and savoring the chewiness the of mouth-thawed treats and tried to find the willpower not to sneak another and another. Oh, she always noticed that at least a dozen cookies were missing (by the time she pulled them out late on December 23rd), but it never prevented Santa from arriving to deliver presents to the cookie thieves.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Though I’ve updated the traditions of which cookies and quick breads to bake, I do make sure to have a pot of soup simmering in my slow cooker and fresh dinner rolls rising and baking as I put up the tree and untangle the lights. Sausage, carrots, and lentils mingle with the yeasty scent of rolls and the lingering aromas of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon as well as the tinkling of glass bell ornaments. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

So, when you’re writing, pull out the memories and use them as a springboard for ideas and events in your current project. Even if you’re writing fantasy fiction, consider what holidays your characters celebrate, how they react to them, what their happy (or unhappy) memories about them are, what they would change if they could. And don’t forget to focus on sounds and scents as you write those scenes.

Happy Holidays, and happy writing!

Distracted by Mother Nature

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Nature inspires me. It has since I was a child playing on dirt mounds surrounding the newly dug basements in my subdivision playground and exploring the fields and woods down the road. Last night I was inspired by the lunar eclipse.

They’re calling it the Blood Moon because this eclipse makes the moon appear reddish orange. (It’s also part of a tetrad–4 such events this year and next.) Reading about this phenomenon in the past few days has caused me to think about a YA fantasy WIP rather than complete revisions on an MG historical novel. (Again, Mother Nature distracting me.)

I’m glad I got to see this lunar eclipse though it wasn’t as “blood read” as I

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

expected. To me it looked more blush colored. But, I was fascinated by the up-wattage of the surrounding stars. I usually have a hard time seeing most of the constellations in the city, but not at 3:15 a.m. this morning. Good thing I got up to take a peek at Mother Nature’s nocturnal display.

That didn’t work out the way I’d planned, either. I originally set my alarm, based on a report I’d seen that this phenomena would be visible around 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. Then I fell asleep watching TV and woke around 3 a.m. Still half asleep, I noted that it seemed rather dark outside and that it was best to wait for the alarm to wake me — if I would even hear it. I powered off the TV and stumbled to bed but couldn’t settle. A nagging thought told me to get up and look out the picture window. I tried to ignore it, telling myself I still had 30 minutes to sleep.

I’m glad I listened. It was amazing and I fell asleep thinking, this is what Kaelyne sees one night on her quest — and this is how she knows she is close to a hidden magic only she can uncover.  I woke again around 4:20 a.m. and again that inner voice nagged at me until I got up to look again. The bright white moon was a crescent along the bottom of the eclipse but still the surrounding constellations where extra bright. They, along with the edge of visible moon, seemed to glow more intensely than ever.

This time I went back to bed thinking of a different project–Kaia on her SF world–and lapsed into vivid dreams about both settings. I’m glad I experienced this event, though it will frustrate my critique group. (They wish I’d stick to just one project at a time.) What can I say? “Please excuse the inconvenience. This round of revisions has been interrupted by a message from Mother Nature.” Based on what I’ve drafted, the distraction was worth it!

May you each find and draw inspiration from whatever source spurs on progress. Happy writing!

Reading with a Writer’s Eye

The best way to learn to write well is to note how published authors have applied all the writing elements and then trying to do the same in your own writing. Dissect published stories and articles to see how the pros assemble the writing puzzle.

Select your favorite novel, article, or short story from an anthology or magazine, then read it critically. Consider the following:

• Whose perspective is the story from?
• How is the conflict introduced?
• How does the main character react to the conflict?
• Does the main character solve the problem? How?
• How many scenes are included?
• With each scene is a new obstacle presented? If so, how is it resolved?
• If only one scene is used, how is the conflict escalated? Or, how do new problems arise as the main character deals with a problem?
• What is the length (duration) of the story? (A few hours, a day, several days?)
• How is the final problem resolved?
How quickly does the story conclude?

Sometimes it’s easier to reverse outline — that’s creating an outline based on what is already written.How has the writer drawn you into the piece? Underline each main point made in the article or key events in a story. Mark the anecdotes or facts used to illustrate each point in an article or note description in a story.

Review the “notes” on each piece you’ve analyzed. What have you learned? Try to emulate what you’ve discovered in your own writing. For example, suppose you notice how the author includes sensory detail. Ask yourself, have I includes sounds and smells as well as visual detail? How can I incorporate sounds? How can I weave in scent or smell? You’ll notice your own prose improving as you learn to read with a writer’s eye.

Testing Ingredients. Discarding Scenes

In addition to writing, I enjoy a variety of creative endeavors. Sewing, watercolor painting, counted cross stitch, crafting, making scrapbooks and collages are just a few.  I also like to get creative in the kitchen. I find a lot of similarities between writing and cooking and baking. Perhaps because I like to alter recipes as I cook. I call it “editing” recipes as I adapt them to my taste. Also, as I chop and pare, slice and mix, my mind is engaged on following a recipe while it is also plotting and planning my current project.

In fact, I usually spend a good portion of my weekend in the kitchen making meals for the coming week. This weekend, however, none of my recipes turned out. I tried to blend two muffin recipes to create a “harvest fruit” muffin. Dud! I think I needed more baking powder or perhaps some baking soda. And, I plain forgot to include an ingredient in one dish until it was in the oven. Too bad I couldn’t pull it out and add it (which is a wonderful revision technique for writing but doesn’t bode well with step-by-step instructions).

But, in the end, I wasn’t upset. First, not all the kitchen mishaps were inedible. Second, the time spent perfectly links with writing. Like these failed  recipes, sometimes we need to write scenes in stories, only to discard them later. It’s not that they are awful; it’s that they don’t work with the other “ingredients” in the story for the most tasty outcome.

I think this is one of the hardest things for newer writers to understand about revising. Sometimes we need to write a specific scene with a character but its purpose is to help us further develop that character. It doesn’t necessarily need to remain in the finished story. And sometimes, we need to add a scene (or ingredient) to boost suspense or keep the reader hooked. In the end, the reader doesn’t need to know all that you had to accomplish in the kitchen—or even how many attempts it took to get the “recipe” right. The reader only cares about how tasty the end result is.

So, test your ingredients and don’t be afraid to toss the “duds.” Happy writing!

Building Background

My writing students are often baffled when I ask questions about background for their stories. How did this come about? What is your character seeing at this moment? What sounds does she hear? What odors does he smell?  They want to know why it matters. It matters because the reader needs details to help connect him or her to the story. This creates reader engagement.

These writing students have vague ideas where their stories take place but the thought of “research” to build the background for their stories seems “wrong” to them. After all, they are the creators of this story—anything is possible, and everything they say “goes.”  True, but all the details need to make sense to the reader. It’s also true that fantasy and science fiction authors must make up every detail of their world while stories taking place in the present time need only mention a few details so the reader has some anchor point for painting the scene in his or her mind.  Fantasy and science fiction authors create the story setting and background by “world building.” But stories set in the here-and-now also need a little research. After all, if your character is in the woods of North Carolina and comes face-to-face with a poisonous snake, that snake had better exist in the North Carolina woods. If not, the writer’s credibility as a storyteller evaporates.

Whether I’m working on a contemporary story or one of my “other world” stories, I use sensory details to think about the setting and make decisions about the background for my stories. If I’m taking a walk and notice a particular tree, I wonder what type of trees my characters would see in a particular scene. What sounds would Kaelyne hear when she’s in training? What sounds and smells does Kaia hear at the compound, or while exploring outside? Does Kaelyne see squirrels or other small furry rodents that inhabit trees and chitter to each other? What strange species does Kaia see on her alien planet? Are they poisonous? Dangerous? How do made-up creatures (animal and insect) move? What do they eat? What are the native species of plants and animals? Are their invasive species, as we have here in Florida? What problems do they cause? (The answer to this question could lead to a subplot, especially if Kaia or the others in her compound are blamed for bringing those invasive species to the planet.)

I remind myself to look up, too. As a child I was a sky-gazer. I loved looked at the clouds and, during the evenings, at the night sky. So I think about both the day and night sky as I build the background for my stories. Clouds can alert characters—in any type of world—to weather conditions. Stars and moons in the night sky can immediately alert the reader that this is not Earth. But our stars have constellations with connected stories and legends, so what connections and legends do the stars in my other worlds have? How will this  help my characters as they work to resolve their story conflicts?

So, when a writer is creating a world for fantasy or science fiction stories, he or she has more details to sort out, but a writer with a story set in the here-and-now still has details to consider and decisions to make. The background he or she builds helps the reader engage with the characters and have a stronger story experience. Taking a moment or two to envision what the setting looks like, sounds like, smells like, and feels like and then weaving those details in as the characters notice them, will help make your story real no matter where or when it takes place.