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!

A Sense of Place: The Power of Observation

I don’t know exactly how it began, whether it was training for my goal to become an author or not, or due to journalism classes in which we focused on the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why), but I notice details everywhere. The pattern of tile in grocery store. The flap of wall covering coming down in the corner of a room. The cut design of crown molding or the texture of plastered walls. The color of front doors, or a burst of color in flowering shrubs in landscape.crown-molding

These are important to writing because one such detail can provide a clue about a character or situation. When I was a new writer, I carried around a notebook and recorded names of people and streets and towns. I recorded brief scenarios and and bits of dialogue because I was told to. As a writer it was important, but I didn’t really “get” how this was going to help. Then the little things I noticed of someone’s home (such as those listed above) just appeared in a draft. They were brief and,like using an analogy, helped paint an image in the reader’s mind.

big-shoes-to-fillSoon I began noticing the things people did that hinted at their emotions or personality. The nervous clicking of a ballpoint pen, or the jiggling of a leg. As I began to teach, it was fun to notice how people controlled personal space—clutching a backpack on their laps, spreading books across the table into the next seat’s space, parking rolling bags in the aisle so no other student can easily pass to the seats behind. While I’m sure some of these students did these things unconsciously, I found them curious and intriguing and they provided insight into the anxiety these students must have felt (I taught remedial English and pre-comp writing and after the first class at least one student nervously approached to inform me he or she was “mistakenly placed” at this level. Sadly, they were not.)

Such details for both a setting and a character SHOW a lot. All can be provided in few words. They enrich the story. Now I cannot seem to turn off this observation. I often look around at the people, decor, and objects in a restaurant even as I carry on a conversation with those I’m with. It’s filed in my mind, even if I don’t pull out my writer’s notebook to jot them down.

blackbird-amcr7Sometimes a detail I notice triggers the next scene for one of my WIPs or an entirely new story idea. For instance, as I sit at a café a cacophony of crows (or some such bird) is out of my line of sight but not my hearing. They sound as if they are having a discussion, an argument, with a back and forth volley of calls that sound like a gruff “haha-ha” punctuated with a single “awk-awk.” This might trigger a fanciful children’s story or suggest the cadence for dialogue in a current story. Since it’s beginning to get on my nerves, it’s gone on long enough, it reminds me that the back-and-forth of dialogue shouldn’t drag on the reader. It’s a reminder to limit and ensure the dialogue adds to the story.

What details do you notice that can slip into a story to make it feel more authentic? For some writers it’s easier to practice with people we know well. What mannerisms offer insight into their personalities? For other writers, the unknown is an easier place to begin noting details that help show both place and personality. Whichever type of writer you are, take this challenge: For 3-4 hours, note at least one detail about every person or place you encounter. Once you begin, it becomes easier. Expand the length of time and the number of details (2, 3, 5?), or at the end of the day make a list of each new place and person and include as many details about each as you can recall.

Soon, these observations will become second nature and filter into whatever you are writing. Feel free to leave comments about how this challenge has improved your writing.

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

Write Through the Holidays

The holidays have arrived. Allow me to wish you a most merry holiday dash! For many people, CharlieBrownTreemyself included, the holidays herald the added stress of a longer to-do list, too little time, and frustration at fitting in writing time. When I was still working full-time and freelancing (instead of writing full-time), it was even more stressful because I’d offer myself an early gift of making more time to write. Disaster. Over the years, and especially since transitioning to full-time writing, I’ve learned to balance writing and all the holiday prep using four guidelines:

broken-orn First, 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. You have twice the work load with holiday shopping and prep (especially if you’re hosting family for dinner or celebrations).

Second, make a list of writing-related activities and target achieving those instead of adding word count to your work-in-progress. What is one thing you can do daily (or four times a week, or whatever your goal) to make progress with your writing? Items for this list might include, reading, 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 about will help you with your writing after the holiday prep is completed.

Third, keep a notebook with you. When I was starting out, I wrote magazine articles so I kept a notebook with me at all times, making notes and jotting ideas based on my experiences with family and friends. An article about what women do while men watch football? Tips for faster clean up to get out of the kitchen and back to the gathering? Ideas for occupying little ones during “boring grown-up talk”? I recorded them all, without judging the quality or feasibility. (Those decisions were made later.)journal Likewise, I noted mannerisms and details that could be used to make fiction characters come alive.

Four, journal more frequently. This is still my trick for making writing progress during the holidays. I faithfully wrote daily in my journal (though I frequently skip days at others times of the year). This gave me the chance to clear ideas from my head and record plot and scene summaries for current writing projects. It also served as a way to put words to paper on a regular basis, even if I only wrote a few paragraphs. After the holidays it’s easy to look at these summaries and plan, then get back to a regular writing routine. Like working out, it was easier to get back into full swing because I kept the muscles warmed up with daily short writing.

If you do not normally journal, now is a great time to take it up. At the very least, jot thoughts and ideas in a notebook for use later. It may provide an added “gift” of creating a regular writing routine to build from after the holidays.

HappyHoliday

Nature-inspired Meditation

It’s Season in south Florida and for me that means teaching a lot of different writing workshops. I enjoy it but life becomes quite hectic.  One of my favorite ways to begin the day is to slip outside while the coffee’s brewing. I have an incredible view of a pond surrounded by greenery—trees, shrubs, and tropical vegetation—and a multitude of wildlife. The sun rises in the front of the building and I’m able to watch as it slowly illuminates the pine trees just beyond my lanai.

Squirrels play tag in the trees, causing the scales of pine bark to crackle and the needles to rustle as they bounce from branch to branch. Meanwhile birds sing and call as egrets and Louisiana heron stalk fish in the pond. I’m grateful for this natural serenade and beauty of dawn.

Once my coffee is ready, I sip it as I listen and watch, allowing my mind to ponder the drape of the long white pine needles or the patterns in the fanned palmetto fronds. It’s sort of a meditation, this routine; a quiet but energizing start to my day. It’s a luxury now, but one I can indulge more frequently during the summer. After this ritual, I’m ready to put pen to paper as I record in my journal the day’s beginning and then turn to filling a blank screen with words.

In Search of the ‘Perfect’ Journal

Questions continue about writers and journals. Since it’s a tool for your writing, it can be used in whatever manner helps you. Some writers simply keep a notebook to collect quotes, ideas, intriguing names, and record bits of dialog or scenes. I have one of those, too, which I take with me to the park, pool, and beach. Other writers think of a journal as a book with entries to collect thoughts and ideas or recollections.

Along with dwelling on the purpose and content of the journal, new writers ask me what kind of journal to use. Again, it’s your personal preference. Whatever works for you.

Any notebook will do for your writer’s journal. You can use a spiral notebook or composition book from the school supplies section at your favorite store or visit the bookstore for a selection of blank books. The variety is impressive, from lined or unlined sheets to various sizes (and
shapes). The important thing is that you feel comfortable with the book so you’ll enjoy writing in it often.

You might even prefer to use your computer to journal. Many writing friends insist this is the best method because of the “search and find” features on most word processing programs. I prefer a portable, handwritten journal. If this is your choice, too, choose a writing instrument with as much care as the journal itself. Do you want to hear the scratching of a pencil or marker on the page or feel the glide of a gel-ink or fountain pen? I like the feel of smooth, thicker paper and the fast, flowing ink of a Roller Ball. But, I also prefer different colors to help me designate different days at a glance. The choice is yours.

Whichever method you choose, be sure to keep the first few pages blank. Record favorite writing exercises or prompts on those opening pages. You’ll be able to quickly find writing prompts whenever you want to write during unexpected spare time. Each time you complete an exercise,
you’ll gain something more from it. Draw from these completed exercises, just as you’ll glean from experiences recorded in each journal entry in developing writing ideas.

Writer’s Basic Training

This week several new workshops started so it was an especially busy week yet also quite enjoyable. I love meeting new writers and guiding toward a writing goal. I also receive a lot of questions about journals. The topic causes anxiety for some people, especially when I encourage them to begin (or continue) journaling.

Keeping a journal is the best way to harness thoughts, memories, ideas and dreams. Those penned experiences will provide plenty of details to add realism to your stories. Journaling also serves as “training,” to help you find your writer’s voice, among many other writing skills. The more you write, the more developed your natural writing voice becomes. Because journals are private, we let our subconscious guard down and allow thoughts to flow and so our natural voice emerges.

You don’t need to write daily, and the entries you make may be of any length you desire. One page or ten? It’s up to you (and what you have to say about whatever you write about). Your journal entries do not need to make sense as far as transitions or sequence either. I often use // in the margin of my journal to indicate a change in thought or when I’ve returned later in the day to add new thoughts or ideas. I put an asterisk next to ideas or dreams that I think have story or article potential.

I usually reread entries every few weeks to add idea notes in the margins or highlight pieces I think may be useful in the near future. Sometimes entries during the course of several weeks or months show how an idea slowly developed and I’ll start a new entry commenting on this, which then reminds me where the idea sparked and where I see it is possibly leading. Usually a lack of time prevents me from outlining or drafting these ideas right away, so using the journal helps me document them for later development.

I also do writing exercises in my journals, practicing different story elements – dialogue, description, sensory details. I find it helpful to clear my mind by writing ideas down before bed-time. When I’m under deadline, journaling helps me clear my thoughts so I’m able to focus on the project at hand. It’s an essential tool for many writers and fun “basic training.”

New Year’s Gratitude Walk

With the same eagerness and excitement that sends me to the foot of the sparkly, light wrapped tree on Christmas morning, I wake on the first day of a new year eager for my gratitude walk. It’s simply wandering through my home and giving thanks for everything in my life. It’s about taking time and allowing photos, knickknacks, and other mementos to trigger gratitude for the life I have today.

I begin outside, and move indoors, then eventually to my journal and reviewing past entries. Sometimes I need to begin with strong coffee (if my celebration to ring out the old was exuberant). Clasping the hot mug of black coffee, I sit on my lanai watching the steam rise into the crisp air and am grateful that my condo has this spacious screened porch. I notice how the rising sun slowly brightens the long wispy needles of the white pines. I’m grateful that the air is chilly here but not enough to bring snow. I’m grateful for the birds I hear squawking at each other and the relative stillness of the morning as my neighbors sleep off their celebrations. White Pine

As I move inside, I wander from room to room looking at photos and cards, trinkets and keepsakes on shelves and recall the experiences and memories behind them: the career-changing conference, a vacation that involved riding Harley motorcycles, excursions to obtain swan photos, a arrowhead found in a Michigan sink hole. I give thanks, whether uplifting or simply constructive, in these experiences; they’ve shaped the person I am today.

I even express gratitude for the furniture and decoration: how I found a favorite torchiere lamp, how I acquired each painting on the walls and other artwork, why I selected the office desk I use. I silently give thanks for the beauty and joy all these “things” add to my life. They represent my past goals and what “achievement” meant to me at that point in life–and they make my current life comfortable. For that I am grateful.

My journey draws to a close as I settle in my favorite journal-writing chair and begin to flip through last year’s entries looking for pages I’ve marked, reading partial chronicles, and reflecting on how all my past experiences–good and bad–shape my future. I find bits and gems of new ideas in the pages and make plans for which to develop and which to allow to “simmer” longer.

I’ll admit, my gratitude walk itself is one of the things I am grateful for. It evolved out of heartbreak, when I took down a Christmas tree after a long-term relationship ended. As I wrapped each ornament I thought about where it came from: a trip to Bronner’s in Frankenmuth, Michigan in the middle of summer, the crystal unicorn ornament from my college roommate and the others she and I exchanged for 10 years, the annual 24-carat gold-plated ornaments from my first post-college employer.Image

I realized that each held a memory–mostly pleasant–that were a part of me. They could not be erased but they did help shape me. That annual reflection was recorded in my journal and eventually evolved into my gratitude walk. It’s a great way to begin the year because it focuses on the experiences of the past and how they’ve shaped the present. It’s a means for reflection and positive thoughts in moving forward into a new year. A fresh new year, with no mistakes.

I’m looking forward to my journey. I hope you are too. Happy New Year! May 2013 be the year all your plans and dreams come true.

Good Morning, Season!

It’s officially here. “Season” in southern Florida. The grocery stores are crowded with people trying to find the aisle they need. It now takes twice the time to travel down the road than it did just last week.

Snow birds have landed in my town! With them they bring “paradise weather.” The mornings are cooler with lower humidity and warm breezes. This is welcome relief after the thick and heavy humidity and brain-melting heat of July and August. The best part is the sunshine and the rising warmth–around 20 degrees by late afternoon.

Arrival of “paradise weather” is equivalent to the anticipation of spring’s arrival in the northern states. When I was growing up in Michigan, I recall my mother throwing open all the windows at the first of the sunny, warmer weather of April and May. She then commenced “spring cleaning” after being “cooped up” during the winter months. The same is true here, though delayed by months. Everyone retreats during the heat of summer and, now that the climate changes overnight (weather and influx of people and vehicles), we throw open doors and windows, allowing the breeze to blow through the house. Then, sigh with the knowledge that this is the beginning of several months of beautifully sunny days.

So, as I make plans to reorganize my house, commence a thorough cleaning, then a purging of closets, I am also revising my attitude and schedule. Thank you to the snow birds who have alerted me that “season” has arrived. I may need more time to commute to the workshops and classes I teach, but I certainly no longer need to confine my “office hours” to the desk and A/C. I’m looking forward to venturing with notebook and keyboard to the lanai, the pool, the beach, the café, and the many outdoor seating areas at local restaurants.

Good morning, Season. Welcome to Paradise.