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.

 

Keep Progress in Perspective

 

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.

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.

Retreating to Reconnect

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

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.

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

new assignment from this company two days after I returned home.

Arriving at the retreat house.

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.

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.

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!

Notes of Spring in the Air

IMG_0184This morning I woke from a restless dream but once I inhaled the fresh and dewy air and heard the birdsong, I felt renewed. Memories of the dream evaporated on the wind. It’s no wonder I push my writing students to incorporate sensory detail into their stories and memoir—it is something I notice in my everyday life. Scent and sound are especially important to me and these are two of the little used senses in prose. Too often writing focuses on the visual. Sure, it paints a picture, but to give a sense of a situation, the reader needs more—and sound, scent, or taste can provide it.

I especially love spring mornings. This is the time of year in Florida when the greens are varied shades and vibrant from morning dew. The air is fresh and clean, and the winds are gentle, warm, and dry. A nest of squirrels live in the pine tree near my lanai screen and as they scurry from the branches to the trunk, the bark crackles.

IMG_0183This morning, though, the scent is less pleasant than usual. We had heavy rain showers most of the day yesterday and so my first few breaths smelled like worms. This is not entirely bad; it reminds me of where I grew up in Michigan. The wormy scent soon subsided but a lingering fishy odor wafted up from the huge pond along the golf course. Thankfully, after only a short time, the wind replaced this with the scent of rich loam, wet earth, which again reminds me of home.

Somewhere nearby, a spring-break visitor is either playing music or has his or her cellphone on speaker. The sound is faint, like murmuring, but I know it’s not a neighbor’s TV because it wavers as if this person is walking (likely around the pond).

IMG_0277I’ve lived here long enough to tell when the clink of a golf club from the 3rd tee is a solid stroke. If not, I’ll hear a clunk, thwup, or ping. If the palms and pine trees didn’t hide the tee, I might be able to connect those sounds with where the club struck the ball.

But these observations, noted as I drink a cup of dark French roast, do not merely help me wake. They prime the creative pumps. Whether I record these sounds and scents in my journal or not, they WILL make their way into my stories and personal experience pieces. Because they provide more than just the visual, they will enrich the scene. Sound and scent and taste (when that can be woven in) add depth to a scene and sometimes clues and hints about a character’s personality.

So listen to the world around you and note the details. Inhale deeply and note the scents and odors. Now draw on these details when you’re writing. Your readers will thank you.

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.”

Don’t Kill Time: 9 Tips for Writing Workplace Organization

I’m trying something different–a guest blog! Freelance writer and blogger, Emily Johnson, shares tips for making your work space efficient. This is an essential tool for writers. (Learn more about Emily and her work in the bio below.) 

Do you want to be more productive with your writing?

A productivity boost could help you work more efficiently and, therefore, complete tasks in less time. It also means having time to spend with family, relatives, and friends. In short, productivity is a key to success.

Even though it’s hard for writers to measure a level of productivity, you should bend over backwards in order not to kill time.

In fact, it is easy to boost productivity. The first thing to do is to organize your workplace.

Here are nine tips for workplace organization. 

  1. Keep your writing desk clean.
  2. Provide a proper illumination.
  3. Use digital gadgets to increase productivity.
  4. Put in live plants to clean the air and boost spirits.
  5. Use stickers to write down useful notes.
  6. Upgrade your computer.
  7. Find an inspirational corner.
  8. Pick up an ergonomic office chair.
  9. Add some comfort and health.

 If you want to change your life once and for all, take a look at this infographic about writing place organization by OmniPapers. It is a step-by-step guide for organizing a workplace, so you can learn more nuances of about this art. Plus, the infographic is easy to save, print, and reveal key moments later. Don’t be greedy; share it with your friends and colleagues, as it might be helpful for all writers (and workers). 

There is no better feeling in the world than living a happy life. It’s not a tricky thing to boost your productivity and start a better life right now.

your writing cabinet organization

 

Bio: Emily Johnson is a passionate blogger and content strategist at OmniPapers blog, who shares tips and tricks with fellows, helping them improve writing skills. You can always find more works of hers on G+.

When My Mother Dared to Let Me Choose My Own Books

“I do not believe that any book should be denied to the man who possesses the wisdom to understand it, Bruno, but that does not mean I am confused about where truth lies.”
~S.J. Parris, Heresy

The summer I turned 11 was a turning point for me. As an author who opposes censorship and advocates for our many freedoms, that summer is etched in my mind. It was the summer my mother trusted my decisions. It was the summer I experienced the positive outcome of a freedom to read what I chose. It was the summer that had a lasting impact on my life, values, and beliefs.

As we prepared to enter middle school, my friends all opted for a big summer camp finale which left me to a long and boring summer alone. Having read all my library books, I rummaged through the basement in search of books or games cast off by my sisters. They were 6, 8, and 11 years older. I found several that looked promising, but one was especially intriguing. When Debbie Dared. The hardback book had no dust jacket so there was no book summary. I read a few pages, as the school librarian had taught us, and it seemed interesting. A girl moves during the summer and hopes to make a few friends before she begins Jr. High.

DebbieDaredI took the book to my mother. “Is it okay for me to read this?” I asked.

She was preparing a cup of tea, something she’d done at this time of afternoon—our former nap time—for decades though we were all long out of preschool. Glancing at the book she said, “Looks like it belonged to one of your sisters.”

I nodded. “Found it in the basement. It’s called When Debbie Dared.” I paused. No reaction. “So, can I read it?”

She studied me for a moment and took a sip of tea. “Why couldn’t you? Did you read a few pages?”

“Yes. The girl in the story is a little older, going into Jr. High. What’s Jr. High?”

“It’s similar to middle school. Jr. High included grades 7-9. Grade 6 was still in elementary.” I wrinkled my nose thinking that I’d still be in elementary next year with this set-up. “Your eldest two sisters went to Jr. High, but then they restructured the grades.”

I thought about that and looked at the book, wondering what Debbie dares doing?

Mom calmly watched me, sipping her tea and unwinding. “So tell me, why do you think you shouldn’t read it?”

“Well, the title—When Debbie Dared. There’s no summary.” I showed her the blank back of the book. “I don’t really know what it’s about.”

“What do you think it’s about?”

I shrugged.

“What do you think the ‘dare’ is about?”

My throat tightened. Again I shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you remember?”

Mom laughed. “Honey, I probably never read that book. If I did, or if your sisters told me about it, it was so long ago, I don’t recall.” She patted my hand. “What do you think? Why are you worried about this?”

“I don’t know. What if . . . what if it’s about . . . about dating or . . . or sex?”

illustration by Stephanie Piro

illustration by Stephanie Piro

I could tell this was something she hadn’t considered. But, in hindsight, how would my sisters have read a book about such things? The book had to be about a decade old, give or take a few years.

“I see,” Mom said, then sipped her tea. “Why don’t we do this? You read the book and if you get to any parts where you think you shouldn’t read it, then stop. Or, if you get to parts you don’t understand, bring it to me and we can read it together and talk about it.”

“Really?”

“Really.” She patted my hand and I ran off to read, my conscience greatly unburdened.

During the next day or so I read and gave her the plot summary. Sure, the story was outdated but I enjoyed it. It turned out the big decision Debbie needed to make was about shoplifting. She wanted friends before school started and two popular girls befriended her. But, to prove her loyalty to them, she was supposed to steal a bracelet from a jewelry store in town. She agonized over it, but in the end stood up to her so-called friends.

Later Mom noticed I was sprawled on the couch reading a different book. “Did you get to a part in the other book and stop reading?”

“No. Finished it.”

“So, what was Debbie’s dare?”

“Shoplifting a bracelet. She didn’t.”

Mom moved my legs to make room for herself on the couch. “So, do you plan to shoplift now?”

I put my book down and scoffed. “No. Debbie stood up to her friend. I liked that. Now I know how I could do the same thing if someone tries to get me to do something I don’t want to do.”

Mom patted my leg as she got up. “You know, you can always come to me if you don’t understand something you read, or hear, or see somewhere.”

“I know. Thanks, Mom.” She kissed my forehead. “That title was pretty unfair, though. It wasn’t what I expected at all.”

She smiled. “But it got you to read it, didn’t it?”

She was right. And I learned something from that book that stayed with me until this day. And, itt did help me say “no” when pressured to smoke cigarettes or try drugs or whatever. And if my friends didn’t respect that, then I knew they weren’t really my friends.

We-should-have-the-right-to-think-for-ourselves-540x720

quote by ALA President Roberta Stevens

Most importantly, because my mother was brave enough to allow me to read that book—when neither of us knew what it was about—she gave me an opportunity to learn and to grow. She trusted me to choose. What if she had denied me that right? Worse, what if someone else—a stranger somewhere—had made that decision for me? And that’s why I advocate against censorship, against taking away such a right. We have no idea how and when our fellow readers are ready to deal with the ideas presented through the intellectual property of authors. Everyone should have the right to choose his or her own reading material. Stand up for this right.

Yes, children are impressionable but their parents—not any other parents or teachers or adults—are responsible for monitoring their child’s reading material. This idea is supported by the “Library Bill of Rights” (the American Library Association’s basic policy concerning access to information) which states that:

“Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.” Censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, whether for protection or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment.

Censorship by anybody, violates the First Amendment.

To learn more about challenged and banned books, visit the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom page.