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

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.

 

A Measure of Productivity

measure-success How do you decide–day by day or week by week–whether you’ve been productive? When we work for someone else, the tasks are spelled out one way or another. Meeting deadlines, reaching the bottom of an in box, completing a project, preparing for a presentation. We often spend the day answering phone calls and emails and leave at 5 (or 6) p.m. knowing we’ll be paid for a full day of work.

pieces-add-upPerhaps, as I once did, you spend your evenings and weekends writing (or pursuing some creative project) hoping one day you’ll eventually get to quit your “day job.” Or, perhaps you are now a self-employed or freelance writer (or artist or musician or …) and so your progress fall squarely on your own shoulders.

How do you measure that your time is well spent? Writers often talk of word count. When I coach writers this concern for daily output seems to cause tremendous anxiety. It’s true that a book length project is especially daunting. (Not to mention the misconception that it’s completed in two rounds–draft and revision–when my published projects have taken anywhere from five and up.)

It’s rare that I track my word count during each writing session so when asked, “How much do you write each day? Each week?” I have no idea. I write as I always have–allowing sentences and paragraphs and pages to stack up. In the end, you are not “done” when you reach the 70,000 word target for your novel anyway. You simply have your draft and then can begin the real work of shaping it into a finished product.

onestepjpgIt wasn’t until I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November and then CampNaNoWriMo, that I realized why my coaching clients were stuck on this word count thing. For NaNoWriMo the goal is to draft 50,000 words in 30 days. That equates to 1667 words per day. That amounts to 6 or 7 manuscript pages (double-spaced) each day.

onestepattime Now I get how overwhelming a focus on word count can be to new writers. Now I understand why the thought of sitting down to write can be daunting. Now I see how important it is to place output into perspective. Do this: First, sit down to write. Write a scene and note how long it took. One hour? Thirty minutes? Fifteen minutes? Now, look at the output. How many pages? How many words? It’s true that every scene and every writing session will vary. But knowing what you accomplished in whatever time it took will help you see the words adding up. Second, ask yourself how many sessions you can fit into your week. Two? Three? Even one will help you make progress.

During CampNaNoWriMo in April, the word goal is flexible. It’s the end of season for me and very busy so I selected the lowest goal: 10,000 words. I wanted the challenge to make time to work on a new novel idea even in the midst of other commitments. Putting this into perspective, I needed to write 334 words per day to “win.” That’s only 1.5 pages (double-spaced MS format) OR not even a full single-spaced typed page. But, I didn’t plan to write every day. The first weekend, I wrote as I normally did and produced just over 2,000 words in one sitting of several hours. That was 1/5 the month’s goal and the equivalent of writing for 6 days. Setting time aside twice per week, I met my goal. (Actually, I ended up meeting this goal plus wrote scenes for a second work-in-progress for over another 5000 words.)

wordstackI put this into perspective, thinking: If I can write everyday (on this one project), imagine what I’d accomplish in a month! When you do the math and put your productivity into perspective, it’s a lot easier to see what you’re capable of–which makes it easier to commit to writing on a regular basis. In the end, it’s not how many words or pages you write per day or per week; it’s that the paragraphs, scenes, and pages add up. Getting started is the hard part. Once you do, it becomes easier. Until you do, commit to writing just one sentence a day. (I’ll bet you’ll find it hard to write just one.)

File under: Encouragement

SmileI found it, though I hadn’t realized it was lost. It was tucked in the back of an infrequently used file drawer and browned with age at the edges. The label had long ago dried and peeled off. I was weeding and shifting files anyway and tossed the entire thing toward the recycling bin. Luckily, I missed and the contents spilled onto my office floor.

A few greeting cards and photos caught my eye. This was enough for me to paw through the other papers, some still inside the brittle folder: jokes that had circulated around the office I’d worked in (back before we began “spamming” friends on email with such things), MSS with encouraging comments from my crit group, champagne rejection letters, print outs of emailed messages with an author I’d met at a conference, and a copy of my first ever acceptance letter–for two items at once, to appear in different issues of a children’s magazine.

perseverenceI gathered the spilled contents, returning all to the worn folder and placed it in the “keep” pile. This was my “smile file,” as the faded ink indicated, and I’d long ago forgotten about it. I remembered creating it when I was just starting as a freelance writer. I got the idea after reading an article in a writing magazine by an oft-published writer who had created a “warm fuzzies folder.” She placed in it any items that would boost her spirit when repeated rejections got her down.

In my folder, I added whatever would bring a smile to my lips and create a metaphorical flotation device for the storms of publishing.

After I’d shifted the file drawers and thinned their contents, I returned to the smile file to look more closely at the items within. It was interesting to see how they changed over the course of a decade as technology became more a part of our lives. Handwritten notes left by a roommate or co-worker, motivational quotes, an encouraging card from my mother gave way to computer print-outs or flyers for a crit group or book signing to photos and name tags from writing conferences and presentations. Tucked in the bottom near the back was the file label that had fallen off. “Forward File” was neatly typed on it.

what-nextYes, this file had provided the smiles and encouragement to help me continue moving forward as I acquired publishing credits and built my freelance career. The contents kept me going.
I closed the folder and filed it at the front of the two-drawer cabinet next to my desk. I’ll add some recent items to it and make a mental note to flip through the contents occasionally. After all, we can all use a little encouragement now and again, a reminder to keep treading water toward warmer currents.

What do you do to keep your spirits up when life’s storms rain down?

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)!

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. 

Reclaimed Writing Sanctuary

My office is my sanctuary, my refuge. It’s a safe harbor when facts and ideas, when scenes, characters, and plot twists bombard me. It’s where I get to choose which distractions to allow in, where I’m able to sort through the jumble of thoughts and ideas to make sense of them. It’s where I translate it all into black words on white paper with hope my reader is informed and/or entertained.

It’s not only the stuff of imagination I need to corral in order to, as Hemingway said, “sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It’s also the quotes and images I collect to remain inspired. It’s keeping track of the files–research, clippings, or projects. It’s all the paperwork related to the business side of things, from contracts to promo ideas and details for presentations. (Not to mention the research, contracts, and supplies to create and manage those presentations.)

Quotes & photos surround writing space at edge of living room.

Quotes & photos surround writing space at edge of living room.

So, a defined place–a sanctuary–is vital to maintain a writer’s life. As Virginia Woolf called it, “a room of one’s own.” For the past 28 years, as I have devoted whatever free time I could find to learning and practicing my craft, I have had a spot in my home dedicated to my writing. At first it was a cool L-shaped bookshelf desk I had in high school and brought with me to my first apartment. Later, at a bigger apartment, I used a 5-foot space at the edge of my living room partitioned off with that bookshelf desk plus a computer nook. (Remember those?) Each move resulted in more space seized for my writing area. Until this move. It was a big deal. This condo has an extra bedroom that became the office. My office, my sanctuary.

But my writing refuge had become invaded in the past year. It was my fault. A too busy life caused me to dump book bags and art/writing supplies after each teaching gig or presentation. I moved files and clippings into piles for later, when I’d have time to pursue them, and I worked around the clutter. Until a few months ago when I realized I never wrote in my office anymore.

I realized I’d been chiseling out a space in other areas of my condo and writing mostly on my laptop. My office became a dumping ground. When my father passed away, more stuff got dumped there. Each time I decided to get it uncluttered and organized, I would walk in and promptly walk back out. It was too overwhelming.

View behind desk of stacked files and clutter.

View behind desk of stacked files and clutter.

It wasn’t until I decided that I truly missed the reverence I used to have for my writing that I was able to tackle the clutter and get organized. And truly, that’s what it was about. Reverence. My office really was a sanctuary–a chancel, a bema–for both my writing and myself. It was a place to retreat from the distractions of life and get lost in the world of my fiction projects or imagine sharing information with young readers and getting them fired up about a nonfiction topic.

The hard part was how overwhelming it had become. A friend suggested just tossing everything but I knew there were gems hidden among the files. There had to be a way to succeed without feeling I had murdered viable ideas by burying them in the recycle bins. So, I rearranged my office. I moved the file cabinets next to each other and did the same with the bookcases. I had to move the desk and furniture so that meant everything got moved. It took a lot of time. Then it took a few more months to sort through stacked boxes piled in one corner and decide whether to keep the contents, file some, or toss it all.

After sorting and reorganizing. Still a lot of stuff but racks and in-boxes keep it organized.

After sorting and reorganizing. Still a lot of stuff but racks and in-boxes keep it organized.

But the effort was worth it. First, within a few days the furniture was rearranged. Though I still had tons to sort through, the books were all on shelves and the desk and computer were functional. Second, I was immediately able to work again, in part because the piled boxes were behind my line of vision. (There was a lot of junk shoved in the closet, too, but clearing that out came later.) I love looking up, across the top of the monitor and seeing my writing/reference books long with cards, photos, and objects. On a nearby wall I have a cork board–a visual arrangement of inspiring quotes and images. Just beyond that are my character and story collages.

Inspired while writing by "wall of books" and knick-knacks across the room.

Inspired while writing by “wall of books” and knick-knacks across the room.

 

Finally, I spend far more time in my office. I’m happy here, and productive. More importantly, the space is dedicated and “sacred” again. It’s devoted to creativity and writing. Once again, it’s my writing sanctuary.

What’s your space look like? Have you carved out a spot? Have an dedicated room? If so, do you treat it–and your writing–with reverence?