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)!

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The Name Game

What names have you given your characters? Do they fit the growth the characters undergo during the course of the story? What emotional reaction do you hope for from your readers? A character’s name, especially for the hero and villain, is a way to offer a hint at characterization with a single word. The name needs to fit the character’s personality. What character traits does the name “Wiloughby” conjure? What about Augustus or Samson? We can paint a strong or wimpy character with his or her name. This name can make the reader like (or dislike in the case of antagonists) that character. We want the reader to root for the protagonist and boo the antagonist.

More than simply a name that fits, it needs to be a name the character can grow into (remember that characters need to undergo growth during the course of a story). Do you have a hero with a weak name? How will the reader believe that the main character is capable of great things (especially if he acts wishy-washy and his name reflects those traits)?

I have a character in a dark paranormal/fantasy story named Constance. I wanted an old fashioned, family name, one that she felt weighed her down, made her stand out. I wanted her to possibly be teased because of it. Her father calls her “Stancy” a nickname that is also as old as that family name. Her roommate calls her “Con” for short—and these nicknames are as important as the principle name. As the story unfolds, it’s clear she is not all that stable (look at the “old” family history she’s been straddled with) and “Con” fits her perfectly. In this story, the main character (protagonist) is not endearing or likable, but she has redeeming qualities. I want the reader to see and hope that she can change—both her actions and her attitude.

After explaining this to a writing client I’m coaching, he says, “This is ridiculous. It’s just a name. You really expect me to believe you put that much thought into all these little details, especially just a name?”

“Yes!” I say. Especially names. Names are as important for characters as they are for real people. Why else do people repeat the name of a person she’s just met (to ensure she’s heard correctly)? Why do we  correct a misstep? “It’s Lisa, not Linda.” Because names matter!

Names have meanings. You can use baby naming dictionaries or lists to help in selecting a name that fits a character’s personality. Keep in mind that when writing historical fiction, fantasy, or science fiction, the name of characters can offer a sense that this is not the reader’s current time and place. Again, looking at baby naming lists or The Character-Naming Sourcebook by  Sherrilyn Kenyon (Writer’s Digest Books) to find origins of names and nicknames is very helpful. Sometimes spelling the name “phonetically” can aid the reader and establish a “genre.” In a writing workshop I led, I asked participants to pass their story excerpt to the person next to them. This person read the story aloud during the critique half. (It’s a great way to hear excessively long or awkwardly phrased sentences in your own work.) One woman became agitated when her work was read. “It’s not Steven!” she said. “The character’s name if Stef-AHN.”

“But it’s spelled S-t-e-v-e-n,” I said. “Reader’s will pronounce it like the name they are familiar with.”

“But that’s not his name! How do I make the reader pronounce it the way I want?”

We discussed options, and since this was a fantasy, I convinced her it would be okay to spell it S-t-e-f-a-h-n so the reader would likely pronounce it as she intended. In the case of fantasy, an alternate spelling like this also helps the reader paint a “different world” setting.

While we are not sitting on the shoulders of our readers to “guide” them through interpreting our stories as we intended them, we can help the reader along, providing clues to characters’ personalities with a single word—their names.

The Longest Night

“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.” –Steve Martin

winterwoods-MimiLuikIf you’re in the northern hemisphere, tonight (Sunday, 21 December 2104) is Winter Solstice. Winter officially arrives at 23:03 p.m. EST (that’s 6 o’clock in the evening on the east coast of the United States). The days now begin to lengthen. For those who love the snow and cold of winter, it’s time for rejoicing. Winter is here. For those who dread the frigid conditions and wild weather of winter, this is still good news since each days draws us closer to the warmer temps of springtime. (But, our coldest days are still ahead of us since the earth continues to lose more heat than it gains during “daytime” for several weeks yet. So just hang in there.)

Equinox-orbitsThis year, I’m intrigued by Winter Solstice for several reasons, one of which (no surprise) relates to research for a few of my fiction projects. (You know I love my research.) For one project, my characters need to know Latin (which means I need to learn some phrases) and while surfing the information highway, I discovered something I did not know: the origin of solstice is from the Latin solstitium meaning “sun (sol) stoppage (-stitium). During the winter solstice, the sun’s path reaches its lowest point in the sky. At noontime, the sun is directly overhead on Winter Solstice. But for a few days before and after the solstice, the sun appears to be in the same place each place. It looks “stalled” and this is how the name came to be.

sun treeThe other reason Winter Solstice has intrigued me is because of its history and celebrations surrounding it. Again, I have another fiction project that is fantasy based and so I’ve been creating holiday celebrations for these characters. Learning about Yule and Winter Solstice traditions led to exploring how Christmas is celebrated in different cultures. This led to other winter holidays and they all made me see connections–the springboard to creativity–for fictional winter celebrations in books, games, and other entertainment. For example, the Feast of Winter Veil and Greatfather Winter in World of Warcraft and Hogswatch from Discworld.

In addition to enjoying the preparations for this year’s Christmas (and New Year’s) celebrations, I’m having fun weaving traditions, customs, and repurposed details into the beliefs and festivities my characters will take part in. Even if your stories are set in the present world, note your own traditions (and those you’ve heard friends share) and select a few customs for your characters. Holidays and traditions (and a character’s reaction to them) are great ways to reveal a life-like character to readers.

Happy holidays, and have fun writing!

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!

5 Lessons From a Writing Challenge

In-class writing prompts are incorporated into all of my writing workshops. Depending on their creative style, participants either love the challenge or hate it. Some writers thrive on receiving a story prompt and having a time limit for coming up with a creative response on the spot. Others need to think about it, allowing the possibilities to simmer and evolve before they’re ready to write. These are the participants who grumble about “writing on demand.” Still, sharing afterward and hearing how each writer tackled the challenge remains one the most enjoyable parts of each session (according to the evaluations on the last day).

The challenge of writing "on demand" pushes beyond the comfort zone.

The challenge of writing “on demand” pushes beyond the comfort zone.

Stretching beyond our comfort zone often ends with positive results. It keeps us from stagnating. It can also serve as a creative shot in the arm. So, for writers, challenging ourselves–whether with a different writing style, new prompts, or a writing contest–is important.

This is one of the reasons I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year. I probably write more than the word count goal each month on all my projects combined, so the challenge for me is in drafting 50,000 words on a new, single project (in addition to what I normally write). I also tend to write to an outline–or at the very least use my “bullet and build” approach. But for NaNoWriMo I’m working as a “pantser” (that’s someone who writes “by the seat of the pants” instead of planning).

It’s the middle of week 2, not quite halfway, and I’ve already learned a lot. The lessons are important for new writers to remember, too:

1.  Just write. The idea is to get thoughts to paper and do it on a regular basis. I took on the challenge to make daily progress on my pet project. The key for new writers:

Create a regular writing routine and stick to it (even this means writing every Saturday or finding 20 minutes each day).

2.  This is clay. Drafts are meant to be shaped and reshaped. In my case (this hot NaNoWriMo mess), huge sections will be loped off and reassembled. But, not until later. So, don’t get too hung up on making scenes perfect–or even keeping all the writing “rules” in line. This is only the first step toward a polished manuscript.

Accept the fact there will be revisions (and likely more than one round). It’s part of the process.

Where does the ACTION take place?

Where does the ACTION take place?

3.  Think in scenes. In order to make the word-count goal for the month, I’ve settled into writing whatever scene is coming to me. (I’m not worrying about linear “order.”) As I focus on scenes, I consider what details about the characters, setting, and events the reader needs to know at this point the story. This helps eliminate writing out or “explaining” back story that will likely be cut later. I can always add during revision.

All stories and characters have a past but the reader doesn’t need to know every detail (and always sprinkled in, never all at once).

4.  Don’t get bogged down in technicalities. As a planner I like to have my facts in place before I begin. What snakes would they plausibly encounter in the woods of North Carolina? What is a typical day’s schedule like at a parochial school? At this point, though, it’s action I’m aiming for. What they ate for breakfast is not as important as what they do to move toward story resolution. Whenever I’m tempted to stop writing and check something on the internet, I instead use brackets and write a brief note to address during revision.

Description is good, but don’t get carried away (See lesson #3).

Create a goal and aim for it to grow from the challenge.

Create a goal and aim for it to grow from the challenge.

5.  Don’t compare your progress with everyone else. We are each individuals with unique voice, style, and creative approach. These writing buddies are not me with my goals (and juggling my life). Likewise, I don’t know what they are dealing with in their lives, so any comparison would likely be apples to oranges. Best to skip it. I’d rather focus on racking up the words to meet my goal (and with luck meet the overall goal of 50,000 words in 30 days).

Don’t compare your writing skill, progress, or ideas with other writers either. We are all different writers and different people. Embrace that.

Good writers never quit learning and developing their craft and growing in skill. Pushing beyond our comfort zone is a way to ensure we continue improving. So, embrace the challenge and write. 

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.

Settling in to Create

I like that Maya Angelo sometimes worked from the floor.

I like that Maya Angelo sometimes worked from the floor.

I find this interesting:  While I was working on reclaiming my writing sanctuary and simply de-cluttering my condo, I saw quite a few desk and office photos posted on Twitter and other social media. I recall thinking how messy some of the spaces were. For others, I could relate. They had that “organized piles” look I thoroughly understand. (I mean honestly, I didn’t take photos of the stacks of books and files under my desk or in other parts of my condo to share with my last post.) I get it. Creative people have their own methods that work for them (or they don’t last long in this business. Be messy if you need to be, but please make your deadlines).

It got me thinking, though, about famous creative people. I wonder what Michelangelo’s work space looked like. Did Leonardo Da Vinci fire the housekeeper for organizing his notes and sketches into neater piles? Beethoven did. According to Lee Silber, in Time Management for the Creative Person, because Beethoven didn’t trust them (and was a slob) he “spent enormous amounts of time hiring and firing housekeepers.” But what about famous authors? What were their spaces like?

I do recall a beautiful book published in the late 1990s of writers’ offices, The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz and John Updike. I was relieved and reassured by the variety of clutter and mess I saw within the pages (along with neat and ordered, too, of course). Obviously, I’m not the first to wonder. There are recent blogs and articles sharing the workspaces of highly creative people  or the desks of famous authors or–and I find these most fascinating–the
inspiring work places of the famously creative.

I like to see variety and degrees of neat and orderly balanced with stacks and piles along with a few who are the extreme of “disordered mess.”

Twain used a desk AND other areas in his home.

Twain used a desk AND other areas in his home.

Twain's billiards table spread with papers

Twain’s billiards table spread with papers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I was most surprised when I sought out photos of some of my favorites: Mark Twain, Rudyard Ripling, Isaac Asimov, and Ernest Hemingway. Numerous images exist of Hemingway’s office but it depended on where and when he was writing.

At Hemingway's home in Havana, Cuba. His office just as he left it.

At Hemingway’s home in Havana, Cuba. His office just as he left it.

I like my objects but Asimov has sooo many.

I like my objects but Asimov has sooo many.