“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.

Overwhelming Genre Choices

Is your project a cross-over genre, a blend, or hard to categorize? As a writer, I thought a lot about this over the weekend. Here’s why:

From Pippin on Broadway http://www.pippinthemusical.com/ (Joan Marcus)

From Pippin on Broadway http://www.pippinthemusical.com/ (Joan Marcus)

Saturday evening I went to see Pippin at Artis Naples (formerly The Phil) with a friend. I knew the basic storyline from the 1970s Bob Fosse musical. (Pippin, a young man from Charlemagne’s court searches for purpose in his life. The journey takes him from war to wandering to love and home again.) This revival, which just closed on Broadway in January, takes on a surreal telling that blends the excitement and showmanship under the big top with dance and song, acrobatics and illusion. During the opening number I was stunned, not expecting the overwhelming display of costumes, different activity (from dance to acrobatic stunts) and music that blends circus and nightclub with jazz and Burlesque. It was not what I’d expected but I was definitely entertained. In fact, I immediately wanted to see it again because there was so much going on around the stage. One number even included a sing-along complete with projected chorus lyrics and the bouncing dot to help the audience keep up as we participated.

Charles and Fastrada (from http://www.pippinthemusical.com)

Charles and Fastrada (from http://www.pippinthemusical.com)

Throughout the show I laughed my “arse” off but was also moved nearly to tears. I watched in awe at illusions and knife-throwing routines. I also gasped at trapeze and acrobatic stunts. It had something of everything it seems.

At the end of the show my friend and I discussed the overwhelming blend of entertainment. “How would you classify that?” I asked. “I don’t know how to explain what I just saw.”

Now I know where the term “entertainment extravaganza!” comes from. We both agreed that we were glad we attended the show. We were definitely entertained. And, like the promise of the circus announcer during that opening act, we did see feats that would haunt our dreams, that we would never forget.

As I thought about it all, I considered how the “hard to categorize” quality might work for this show, but not for our writing. (Actually, this revival initially received flack that it detracted from Bob Fosse’s vision with the original.) Unlike writing, the audience for this performance is clear: if you regularly attend the theater, attend musicals, like comedy and spoof, appreciate all types of dance and music, and are mesmerized by illusion and the strength and skill that go into acrobatics, then you would enjoy Pippin. (The couple next to us did not return after intermission.)

genreBut as readers, genre–the classification of the writing–helps us find and select our next reading material. We tend toward a genre–a specific type of writing, a category within fiction to aid in narrowing our selections. Bookstores and libraries are set up to display books grouped by category and topic.

I always assumed that a writer who read voraciously would pick up on the categories and sub-categories (or genres) within each type of writing. The story’s plot and key events are different when the detective is a cop vs. a private eye (hard boiled detective) vs. an amateur (cozy mystery).

But after teaching and coaching writers for several decades, I have come to realize that may newer writers don’t think about genre details. They simply write the story. I guess they assume that the decision about where to file it is up to the publisher or bookseller.

readinggenresHow wrong they are. Knowing the category or genre is important when you’re ready to submit a manuscript to an editor or agent. Like knowing our audience, writers need to know where the idea fits and then mold the story to fit the genre. (I will admit, I often do this during the revision stage, but it is a consideration.)

When you’re subbing a story, being able to state the genre provides info to the editor:

  1. It shows you’re serious enough a writer to: a) know that there are sub-genres or sub-categories; and b) have taken time to learn about the craft (and industry) of writing.
  2. It makes their work easier. You’ve sent historical fiction but their list (the books releasing soon and/or previously published) is inundated with historical fiction. You’ll receive a “thanks, not at this time” form rejection. Likewise, if they are seeking books in the genre you’ve submitted, they’ll give your manuscript a closer reading.
  3. It will be your job if you plan to self-publish. In this case, identifying the genre and sub-genre is even more important. Without an accurate classification, how will your readers find the book among the tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) out there?

Apparently, writers aren’t hitting the target, at least based on the tips some editors shared recently on the Writers in the Storm blog. Chuck Sambucino provided tips and insights in a guest post, “Agents Explain Book Genres” which is worth a look. In it you’ll find comments from agents about mystery v. thriller or high fantasy v. urban fantasy. What is crime fiction or the different types of romance.

This whole issue gets trickier when you write genre fiction (as opposed to literary fiction ) because the genres are broken into sub-genres (or types of fantasy, types of mystery, types of romance). Then there’s the issue of “cross-over” where the main story is one genre but a subplot crosses over into another genre. For example, you might have science fiction or urban fantasy or mystery with romance elements.

Yes, especially for new writers it can become overwhelming or cause confusion. But, if you read, especially in the genre you want to write for, you’ll begin to distinguish the differences. Begin to notice how the books you read are categorized. Read blogs and books about writing craft, too. And, if you’re in the Southwest Florida area, I do teach a mini-course called “Genre Details.” Two are upcoming, April and May 2015. Check out my class listings for details. (Or, let me know if you’d be interested in an ecourse.)

 

Breaking through Blocks

Alcott-sailDuring a recent creativity for writers workshop I presented, it occurred to me that the publishing industry is riddled with negative phrasing and insinuations. Editors send rejections in response to submissions, people talk about “failure,” and both pre-published and published works get critiqued. During writing workshops I often address the anxiety and fear newbie writers experience and discuss the “inner critic” (or “gremlins” as my graduate professors labeled the negative self-talk). Both these gremlins and publishing terms can cause blocks (for writers at all levels) and delays in getting started. Many writers fear what others will think of the finished piece though there is not yet anything to shape into a polished product).

In fact, for this creativity workshop, one of the first activities (which I have adapted successfully with writers from grade 4 through college freshman) was to create a visual representation of that inner critic. (I wrote previously about this activity in “Gag the Inner Critic.”) Later we were to write a letter to that critic, and after more activities and info (at the end of the workshop) I planned to have them write a response to that letter in the voice of the critic. The idea was to work through the blocks to creativity and put a positive spin on the “negative” views we often place on the creative process. We never got there–because one participant didn’t want to do half the activities and another took issue with the “negativity” behind the label critic/gremlin. The idea behind all the activities was to allow inhibitions to drop away and OPEN ourselves up to the ideas and creativity we each possess.

“Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart & to turn on your creativity.
There’s a light inside you.”
~Judith Jamison

In order to tap into our creativity, most of us need to learn to silence the inner critic (or whatever label you want to place on the editor in your head). During the initial creative stages, we need to be free to play with ideas (without yet deciding whether they are worth pursuing or not). We need to knock down the obstacles in our path, whether they are believing in our own creativity or wrestling with finding time to write (or draw, or paint, or sculpt, or find new solutions to old dilemmas). In the midst of the workshop, I didn’t realize that despite getting stuck on the label I used for one of the biggest obstacles writers face (the inner editor or critic), one participant was mired in “self-limitations” (essentially a block to creativity, perhaps even a gremlin scampering beneath the surface and inhibiting creativity).

“Any little bit of experimenting in self-nurturance
is very frightening for most of us.”
~Julia Cameron

Using a long list of activities, from looking at the world around us with fresh eyes to playing with nouns and verbs and words, the participants worked with tools designed to spark creativity. There are two types of thinking important to creativity and which easily deepen our writing : divergent thinking (in which we see new uses for common objects) and associative thinking (in which we link two thoughts, experiences, items, words, etc to create new ways of seeing something). Associative thinking, especially, is important for writers because this is the type of thinking we use to create analogies and paint vivid pictures using few words (think metaphor, simile, and comparisons for description).

 ducklingsIt’s easier to let go of fears we have about our writing or being “good enough” to get published if we focus on  the joy behind creating and do what’s needed to stifle the gremlins, inner critic, or joy snatchers. (I previously covered this topic in Find Your Writing Joy.) Having writing and creativity exercises on hand to get the juices flowing doesn’t hurt either. Some of my favorite activities come from the following books (dog-eared and within easy reach on my bookshelf):  Writing Done the Bones by Natalie Goldberg;  Pencil Dancing by Mari Messer; and The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron.

May you break through your blocks for happy writing (or creating)!

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!

With a Writer’s Eye

Wow, August zipped by in a flash so I had to remind myself how much I got done. More organizing, more planning for both career and business (including an itinerary to submit to a few contest and launch some ecourses), and more refilling of my creative well. I’ve blogged about some of these topics before and you can click the links to read more if you’re interested.

On way I refilled my creative well during August was through extensive reading and watching movies. Not only was I entertained and inspired with ideas for my writing, I had the chance to study how stories were pieced together to engage the reader (or the viewer). Reading with a writer’s eye is one of the best ways for a writer at any level to improve his or her craft. It’s what made the difference for me (more than 25 years ago, now) in moving forward to repeatedly selling manuscripts.

The idea is simple and on the first day of my writing workshops, I suggest all participants pursue it. In fact, at their request, I taught a course in June called Reading with a Writer’s Eye. Basically, after enjoying a piece of writing, go back and study how the author helped you so enjoy it. How did the author use sensory detail, metaphor, string words together into vivid and engaging sentences? In essence, dissect the piece and then ask how you might do the same in your own writing.

During the course, I joked that in the past year I hadn’t read as much as I did in the past though I did watch a lot of movies and TV series. In fact, I’d signed up for Amazon Prime and so I was able to do “marathons” of entire TV seasons. And in viewing episode after episode, I saw how and understood story arc as I never had before. I noted how the writers left the viewer hanging until the next episode (which I was luck enough to be able to immediately watch). As I joked about it, the entire group realized that this, too, could be an aid in improving plot and character development. The class sessions soon included sharing of the story elements we discussed for each short story we covered during the 6-week course, but each week people compared the stories to favorite TV programs as well as favorite authors. It was organic and thought provoking todiscuss story a different levels.

So, during August, when my body was exhausted but my mind was restless, I discovered that Amazon Prime also allows one free pre-release ebook per month and free borrowing. (If the author publishes using Kindle Select, he or she still receives a royalty.) Thus, my month of marathon reading and viewing to refill my creative well with stories and spark new ideas and motivation for my own writing. If you weren’t aware of this service, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial. It’s made a huge different in my life and writing.

Fresh Step Forward

I always enjoy this time of year. Granted, it comes earlier here in Florida, but back-to-school time is ripe with fresh starts. As a kid I loved buying new clothes and school supplies. As a writing instructor I stocked up on pens, pencils, markers, highlighters, and paper for my own use as well as to offer to my students who needed them. As a freelance writer I find uses for quirky and unusual office supplies.

InsectPaperClipsMore important than these things is the mindset for a fresh start. This year I prepared by refilling my creative well during a week during which I “retreated” from social media and distractions. My intent was to give myself time to create new routines, but I now realize it allowed me to take a fresh step forward.

Like a true retreat, my aim was to quiet my mind so I could make decisions on which direction to take my coaching/teaching business as well as my writing career. To quiet my mind and refill my creative well, I spent time:

Devour books!

Devour books!

Reading. Not only did I devour books from one of my favorite services, Book Bub, but I discovered Overdrive, the service my local library system uses for ebook borrowing. I read so much there were a few days I only ate, slept, and read. When the stories began to merge together, I knew I needed to slow down–and work on some of my other goals for the week.

A coloring page from my Weekly Bloom e-mail.

A coloring page from my Weekly Bloom e-mail.

Reorganizing & Planning. This was another key goal for my “retreat” and an important step toward creating new routines. (Not to mention releasing the clutter so I could make decisions to move forward, which I blogged about earlier.) I also returned to diligently using my planner. This year I bought it from May You  Bloom and love the quotes and petals on the “life wheel.”

Fun with watercolors.

Fun with watercolors.

Tapping into my inner child. I love the May You Bloom site and weekly Blooms I receive by email. One of the best parts about this site is the “permission to be playful” and do something for ourselves every day. So, I embraced that idea and pulled out paints, colored pencils, and markers. I colored as if I were still a kid. Then I painted quick and simple quirky angels to place around my office. They inspire me.

Meditating and relaxing. You can’t “retreat” without tapping into the quiet. One of my favorite guided meditation coaches is Max Highstein. I love the Healing Waterfalls and others, which I used during my downtime. It helped me find calm center from which to make these important decisions and to work toward goals.

Two weeks later I’ve maintained a balance of work and relaxation that is both creative and energizing. Though I’ve cut back on all my teaching (dropped the college level altogether), I still keep my hand in through local workshops. So, technically, I’m not facing a new school year. Still, it’s gratifying to to put a fresh foot forward toward new goals. And my “retreat” helped make it happen. What are you doing to create a #freshforward this autumn?

Itching for Change

I have to confess a habit acquired from my mother. I get the itch to move about every 4 or 5 years. When I was growing up, if I came home from school to find furniture rearranged or I would now live in a new bedroom, it was a sign a move was in our future. It meant our large (and growing family) had, as Mom would say, “outgrown the neighborhood,” but it really meant we needed more space, or more space on a sprawling one-level (to save my mother’s bad legs from having to climb stairs).

It was also a convenient time to sort our toys and clothes and books and belongings to settle into our new home in a streamlined and organized manner. I recall finding games and toys that had been forgotten and choosing to keep those over frequently played items.

Ironically, we stayed in the same school district so I had the pleasure of attending 7 schools before heading off to college (instead of the 3-4 the average student attends). The good thing about this arrangement is that I knew so many more kids when I went to the district’s high school campus.

Once I headed out on my own, that “itch” followed me. I truly thought I would buy a home and stay put but I didn’t. And, like my family, I kept moving, first to larger apartments, then to more conveniently located homes. Like my family, I also used each move as an opportunity to thoroughly sort, toss, and reorganize. Then, as I settled into a new space, I created fresh routines in that different living environment.

Now I’ve been in this location for 5 years and am feeling that “itch.” But, having just cleared out my dad’s condo, the thought of packing up and moving my condo leaves me with sudden fatigue. Instead, I’m channeling that “itch” into reorganizing and creating new routines. (Okay, I’ll admit that I did rearrange my office.) It feels great to take action. It feels even better to clear out unused items (including new school and art supplies from children’s programs) and donate them so someone who can use them will benefit.

And while I’ve been busy doing all of this, I’ve been thinking about transition. Transitions in life are moments for growth. Taking action to create positive change in our lives. Most of us can’t grow without some change taking place. Of course, those changes we choose are certainly easier to navigate than those forced upon us.

Like real people, characters need to take action too. What is it your character needs to do? Readers also itch for change within characters. How do your characters grow? Or, at least your main character. How is he or she different at the end of the story than at the beginning? The growth part isn’t difficult since gained knowledge equates with growth but once the character takes action, real change is in store.

Think about yourself as a reader. Do you want to invest your time in a story only to discover at the end that there is no growth, no action taken, no realization on the part of the character? So, as a writer, think about all the times in your life that you’ve chosen to make a change (get married, buy a car or make a major purchase, attend college) or those times when you’ve been forced to make changes (find a new job, go through divorce, get transferred out of state). You survived, but whatever the source of the transition, you grew and changed and your characters can too. Hope you’re itching for change as much as I am!

For more on the story/character arc, see Veronica Sicoe’s blog  or Scriptlab on Character Arc.

Click the links for related posts on change and character:

Hello to Autumn’s Change

Out of Character

Summer Buzz