Retreating to Reconnect

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

April and May are reflective times of year for me. I often dwell on goals and achievements still unreached so I can set new goals, prioritize, and move forward. Interestingly, it has become a time to reconnect with past publishers. Not quite a week ago, I received an email from an educational publisher I worked with regularly for many years. The same happened with another publisher about a year ago. It’s even more interesting (and amazing) that this happened just before I left for a retreat and—perhaps due to the events/activities at the retreat—I received a

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

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

Arriving at the retreat house.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Feeling pulled in many directions and needing a moment (or many) of clarity, I made last-minute plans to car pool with a small group of friends also headed to Our Lady of Florida Retreat Center on the east coast. It was the best weekend I’ve had in five

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like "monks" holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like “monks” holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

years. (That’s about the time my father became so ill and much of my time centered around writing, teaching, and getting meals to him, or simply spending time with him.) I needed the break. I needed the peace, the fellowship, the downtime (no WiFi and I chose to limit phone use). I had time to think through life (and writing) puzzles and returned home restored and ready to reconnect—on a fresh frequency.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

Those who follow my writing and workshop info know that I am drawn to nature to recharge. The grounds of this retreat center were beautiful. So was the architecture and art throughout the retreat house, dormitories, and grounds. I came away fed–physically, mentally, and spiritually. I cannot wait to go back!

Notes of Spring in the Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Tune in to Improve Craft

 

 

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Tune in for info and advice.

To remain productive, creative people need “downtime” to mull over and develop ideas. In those moments when I step away from my desk, I turn to other creative outlets. Those who know me, regularly follow my blog, or attend my workshops have heard me refer to this as “productive procrastination.” I like to paint, bake or cook, or sometimes clean the house, and while I’m “putting off” writing, I’m accomplishing something. Often, I’m plotting and planning my next writing session. Lately, I’ve used this time to listen to writing/authorship podcasts. Double points on the “productive” part of my creative procrastination.

What us a podcast?

Think of it as an online radio show. They are weekly or regularly recorded audio programs on a specific topic. Many are interviews or discussions and those centered around writing feature authors, illustrators, editors, and agents. You listen using your phone, an app, or the Internet.

Some of my recent favorites include:

Writing Excuses — leave your excuses behind with this audio show on a variety of topics and interviews for aspiring authors. Shorter than average podcast at 15-20 minutes rather than 60+ minutes. Hosts include Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal.

TheCreativePenn — wealth of info for writers at all levels. I like it for tips about marketing, promo, and advice for indie authors/entrepreneurs. Hosted by Joanna Penn.

Let’s Get Busy — interviews of children’s book authors and illustrators hosted by f librarian Matthew Winner. Fun insights into the creative process around featured books.

Odyssey SF/F Writing Workshop — podcasts of lectures and talks from the well-known annual writers workshop and conference. Variety of craft talks and author panels.

The best part of podcast is that–unlike a radio show–you can listen to any past episode or subscribe to the podcast and listen to the most recent session whenever you have the time.

I’ve also found several that are like magazines and focus on audio fiction. I enjoy listening to these as a change from the usual audio book. My favorite us Clarkesworld.

What are some of your favorites? Please share! I’m always on the hunt for fresh info and new ways to be productive as I “procrastinate.”

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

“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.

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)!

Looking Back to Move Forward

I’m making my list and checking it twice. Yes, I know Christmas is over. No, I haven’t overindulged in eggnog. And, no, I haven’t bumped my head and now think I’m Saint Nick. But I am creating goals for the coming year.

Reflecting on where you’ve been in order to make plans for where you’d like to be is something I learned to do right out of college. I landed a job at a mid-sized corporation that was rapidly growing (and have management in their early thirties), and every year we had “Make It Happen” days to plan corporate, department, and personal goals.

An article I wrote based on what I learned at those "Make It Happen" corporate events.

An article I wrote based on what I learned at those “Make It Happen” corporate events.

I learned to begin by making four lists: accomplishments, failures/misses, big dreams, SAM goals (that last stands for specific, achievable, and measurable). Over the decades I have adapted this “process” to include a fifth list. It’s my first list.

1) Begin with gratitude. List everything you can think of–great and small. Challenge yourself to make this as long as possible. Aim for 25 items. For example, I list:

  • the silence of the early morning on a dew-covered golf course (I can see Tee 3 from my lanai)
  • an abundance of westerly sunshine in my living room every afternoon
  • books in every room
  • my health (no meds)
  • watching wildlife on my walks
  • listening to birdsong in the mornings
  • listening to frogs and crickets in the evenings

Once you have a few things on paper it becomes easier to think of things and add items.

Think of all the "victories" great and small you achieved this year. Challenge yourself to think of several dozen.

Think of all the “victories” great and small you achieved this year. Challenge yourself to think of several dozen.

2) Make an accomplishments list. Again, list any size achievement (and you can look at goals lists from other years to do this). And, I get silly–listing minor events just for the fun of it. For example, I have a variety for my list:

  • interviewed about The Right To Counsel for CitiesTour program on BookTV/CSPAN2 (a highlight of my year)
  • getting involved in Marco Island Writers group
  • conducting seven summer reading program library visits
  • reorganizing my office
  • finally recycling my dad’s cellphones
  • finding a new venue for writing workshops

These two lists alone can go far in setting a positive mind frame for the next steps. Making these lists are quick ways to reflect on the past year. They also help in jogging memory, especially small items from early in the year. (Of course, I have the benefit of reading these items in my journal and planner.)

3) Make a Dream Big list. Spend time thinking of and listing what you’d like to accomplish in the new year. Think of this as a preliminary goals list. This is for your eyes only, so dream big. Write each as if it has happened, (as if this IS your accomplishments list for 2015.) Don’t allow the inner critic to tell you your dream is impractical, unattainable, a pipe dream. (This IS the dream big list.) For these second and third lists, I challenge myself to come up with more than 15 items on each. In fact, I try to outdo the year before, so this year I’m aiming for 25.

4) Disappointments List. Now you’ll make a list of the goals you didn’t reach. While this may not be as fun as the previous lists, it should be enlightening. Just do yourself a favor and do not judge. (Gag that inner critic.) This list is easy for me since I have a journal ornament which has become a tradition. Each year when I take down the tree, I list my hopes for the new year. Sadly, a few of the SAME goals have been listed for the past four years. Don’t dwell on the negative–this list is to help you gain perspective. The point of all these lists combined is to help you reflect on the past year–the ups and the downs. The misses and disappointments can help you create both realistic goals and the desire to follow through.
Since I have done the above for several years, I have the benefit of looking at past lists to see that I have made progress–a LOT of progress n fact.

5) Create New Year’s Goals. Now that you’ve made all four lists, from the fanciful (dreams) and fun (accomplishments) to the misses and disappointments, you should now set five goals. But this is key: not only will you get a goal, you will also decide what steps are needed to achieve each goal. And you will then create an action plan for each step. It helps to think of this as creating short-term and long-term goals. The action steps help make each goal achievable. (If you can’t figure how you will take steps to meet a goal, it is probably not attainable–at this point.)

Dream

The difference between a dream and goal is the ACTION you take to make it so. (Advice shared with my college FYE students.)

It also alerts you to a goal that is dependent upon other people for you to achieve it. For example, getting an agent and receiving a huge publishing contract is dependent on a lot of factors out of your control. When you create the actions steps to meet this “goal” you’ll realize that you can do a lot of things that will move you toward achieving publication (polishing your manuscript, researching agents who rep your type of book), but they have no guaranteed results. NOTE here that these “unrealistic” goals can remain on the dreams list. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming of getting a great agent and a huge contract (and according to The Secret, daydreaming about it creates the positive vibrations to help it manifest). But the point of setting clear and attainable goals is so you can take action to achieving them.

Once you’ve created action steps, your goals list will be longer than 5 items (another reason I aim for a smaller list of goals). They will also likely be specific, attainable, and measurable because you’ve used your four lists to reflect on the past year to ensure your make progress in the new year.

Have fun, happy writing, and best wishes for productive and prosperous 2015!

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!

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.