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

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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.

 

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.

Learning Never Ends

journalPD (professional development) is a new buzz word, especially for educators. Yet, the idea of continuing to learn and develop in business has been around for decades and even longer for medical/health professionals (often called continuing education or credentialing to maintain licenses). For writers, and many creative types, it is part of the business and has been forever (though it was given no trendy label). To share and learn with others in the field, to keep up on latest trends, to continue developing and honing skills, writers and illustrators attend conferences, read industry journals (magazines about writing and illustrating), reading books, and meeting to network and share.

Take a clue from Rodin's The Thinker.

Take a clue from Rodin’s The Thinker.

When I taught at the local college, most of the professors were upset with a new mandate for annual teaching portfolios with a section on professional development. I was one of the few people complaining, so the faculty coordinator asked me why. I shrugged. “It’s not a big deal,” I said. Professional authors do this all the time, so it’s not a stretch to move from writing development to teaching of writing and meet the portfolio requirements.” Besides, I thought, I’m a lifelong learner which is why I wanted to teach at the college level. All the grumbling made me wonder about my colleagues though.

Why PD?
In a way, simply considering what it stands for answers this question: professional development = building on skills to improve performance; personal development = learning that aids growth. Both place you at a level higher than before the PD. For writers, learning really never stops. There is always more to learn and new trends or markets to keep up on.

Types of PD

Reading about writing craft in magazines, on websites and blogs IS part of a writing career.

Reading about writing craft in magazines, on websites and blogs IS part of a writing career.

Opportunities to continuing learning and developing are everywhere. For many occupations, not only writers, these might include:

  • Reading and/or individual study to increase knowledge and skill.
  • Video or audio recordings or presentations about specific topics to increase knowledge and skill.
  • Seminars or Webinars (online seminars) in which a lecturer shares expertise about a specific area/topic or skill set.
  • Conferences and workshops. In person opportunities to network with others and interact with attendees and presenters while building on knowledge and skill.

Where to Find PD Opportunities

  • Tune in for info and advice.

    Tune in for info and advice.

    Professinal Associations often sponsor workshops and/or conferences. Sometimes you must be a member or attend as a guest. I’m a member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) which hosts conferences plus numerous online (webinars). Local colleges, schools, churches, and community centers often offer personal enrichment classes. (Some gated communities or senior living facilities offer programs too, often opening them to the public for a fee.) Check newspaper listings for authors or presenters visiting bookstores or libraries, too.

  • Online programs and courses + Podcasts and internet radio. Look up favorite authors to see if they have websites, are affiliated with any learning programs or association (then check those). See what is mentioned on social media.
  • Newsletters, magazines, websites (books, both phsical and ebooks). Industry news, textbook publishers, magazines.
  • DVDs and video/audio recordings.
  • Associations and libraries/websites. Many writing conferences offer recordings of specific sessions. You do not usually need to be a member to purchase them. Check for options on Netflix or Amazon Prime (or your favorite streaming/rental service).
  • Some of my favorites. I’ve participated in webinars and podcasts this year sponsored by Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Education Week. Check their websites or social media sites for announcements (or get on their email list). I found 3 webinars through email announcements/newsletters about using social media, Sciviner, and doing book promo and blogging. I’ve taken ecourses through Daily OM, online courses through Gotham Writers Workshops and Udemy, plus courses on DVD from Elephant Rock, Master Classes SCBWI, Teaching Company. Opportunities are out there, and many of the above I’ve taken for free or under $15.

In addition, I teach writing workshops through local adult learning/enrichment programs. News for these are on my website (see the “At the Podium” page), through course catalogs, plus on the web and in local newspapers. Explore, search, connect. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find and what you’ll learn.

Writing is Like an Iceberg

icebergOnly the writer knows all that lies beneath the surface.

As northern weather begins to cool, the mention of icebergs may feel like hitting below the belt; however, it really is the best analogy for crafting a solid story or informational article.

For nonfiction, a great deal of research goes into every article, and more so for a book. The writer cannot possibly share every fact and thought about the topic, though. The goal is to share information and insight, not overwhelm the reader. When I research for a nonfiction book, perhaps 75 percent of the research ends up in the finished product, sometimes less. Yet the percent “unused” is not wasted; it is essential to my understanding of the topic and so it is “present” beneath the surface.

The same is true for fiction. Though the author may not need to conduct research (unless writing historical fiction or centering around a real event) there is still a great deal of information, planning, and thought that goes into a novel or even a short story. Everything the writer knows about the characters’ personalities, back stories, relationships (past and present), events that shaped the “person,” how the characters act and react (and why), and even their futures is important to the story. Yet only a small percentage of that information is provided to the reader. (In comparison to my nonfiction, when I write fiction, perhaps 25 percent of research and background goes into the story.) The majority of all the writer knows is below the waterline, providing a foundation for what appears above the water. The reader must become engaged with the small portion visible.

King-good-booksjpgThis is one of the hardest concepts for new writers to understand, especially when writing fiction. This is also where the “show; don’t tell” rule-of-thumb arises. Inexperienced writers want to provide every detail about a character, want to ensure the reader “gets” what they have created, and want to be recognized for being clever. As they gain more experience, they realize that writers can reveal a lot and hint at plenty of background without sharing every detail and nuance of a character’s history or personality.

Truly, holding something back and providing hints at a character’s past makes the story more engaging. If the foundation is there, the story will stay afloat. Keep icebergs in mind as you write–and trust your ability to reveal details as needed for the reader to understand each moment in the story (scene by scene).

After the Draft

Many new writers confuse editing with revision. Editing is one of the later stages and is focused on cleaning and polishing of your prose. During this stage you (try to) catch typos, misspellings, incorrect grammar, and ensure you have clean presentation (check formatting) and have carefully followed the guidelines for your submission. Editing is often completed by someone at the publishing house. But it should also be completed by the writer and is often possible in a single pass.

onestepattimeRevision, on the other hand, comes a bit earlier in the writing process than editing. It is also completed in numerous passes and/or various attempts. During writing workshops when someone asks, “How many times do you revise?” I tell them it depends. I revise as many times as it takes to ensure it’s clear and the best prose I’m capable of writing at this point in my career. This is never what the participants want to hear but it’s a reality of the writing world. If you want to publish, this is what you do.

It helps to think of revision as “rethinking” your story. Now that you have your draft–your story framework and basics–on paper, you can shape it, like clay; refine and rework it as you ask yourself questions about characterization, point of view, use of dialogue and detail. Perhaps you’ll even try a different approach in plotting or viewpoint for a scene or two. Revision is about refining but also developing and deepening the story so the reader has the best possible experience.

not-writejpgMost writers break revision into section or passes. How you approach it is up to you; it depends on your creative approach. Some writers draft and then revise a bit, draft and then revise, but eventually, they reach a point where they are focused on reshaping and rethinking (rather than adding chapters and pages to the manuscript). I’m in the camp of getting a complete draft on paper and then playing around with the writing elements, expanding and deleting scenes, rethinking, shaping, looking at the draft with fresh eyes: re-visioning.

REVISION CLASSES:
If you’re ready to learn more about “looking again” at your draft and revising, I have a revision class starting Wednesday, October 28 through ACE (Adult and Community Education) in Naples, Fla. Find details on my website workshops page.

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.