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

No Wrong Way to Tap Into Creativity

You’ve finally set aside a chunk of time for your project. Your writing area is set up and all distractions eliminated. Now you’re ready to make progress on your work-in-progress. Yet the words have fled and the blinking cursor mocks your writing goal.

What happened? you wonder. All the usual elements are in place. You’ve followed all the advice from the pros you’ve read or heard. Why isn’t it working?

Don’t allow frustration in. Trying to force creativity isn’t the answer. Even if it worked for another writer. Even if it usually works for you. Sometimes you need to approach it from a different angle.

This is one of the toughest things I had to learn about writing full time. There is no wrong way to tap into creativity. If you want to make regular progress, you need to have several methods in place to ease yourself into a productive writing session. Try the suggestions you’ve discovered in reading blogs or books, listening to podcasts, or attending conferences. Learn what works for you and adapt whenever necessary.

For example, I like to begin my writing day with my journal. As I jot down thoughts, it helps “clear” my head so I can focus on the day’s writing. When this doesn’t work, I get moving (physically) until scenes play like a movie in my mind. Going for a walk usually works but so does doing housework.

But, sometimes neither of these work. Sometimes it seems to take hours to “settle” into what works on a given day. I’ve learned not to beat myself up when this happens and to instead be grateful when the words begin to flow. I try to keep these “off” days in mind and try whatever worked then whenever I face another “restless writing day.”

Remember, we all have off days. Think back to your routines at work. There were plenty of days when no items got crossed off the To-Do list. But creative endeavors are different. When we prepare and align all the elements and still don’t reach a short-term goal, it’s a real let down.

Some might consider this writer’s block—the well of words has dried up. Often writing anything—even your name, or typing out the issue of not being able to tap into your idea—will free up your mind and eventually lead to writing a sentence, a paragraph, and the next scene.

The result will help you create your personal writing (or creativity) process. Remember when I talk in class about the stages in the writing process? I also emphasize that they are recursive. There is no single step-by-step path. There is no “right” or “wrong” way. There is only what works in the moment. (And this will vary by project as well as by writing session.)

So, don’t despair; simply try something else. In time you’ll know how to tap in on demand and, except for occasional “restless writing days,” you’ll find making progress on a regular schedule is possible.

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.

 

Keep Progress in Perspective

 

How do you measure your writing progress? Do you count words or pages? If you do, then what happen when you’re revising? Do you count pages or hours? Then again, what if you write children’s books? A children’s picture book is generally less than 750 words. Each title in my Kids Throughout History series is 800 words. But neither type of book is written in one sitting, one afternoon, nor even in one week.

This is probably the hardest detail for new writers to understand. You make progress on your writing when you are inching toward your goal. You cannot compare yourselves to other writers and how they measure “progress.” As creative writers, we also need to consider the hours that go into thinking about and planning the scope of the story—or the research and organization necessary for writing nonfiction.

It’s not clear-cut and each project is different. So, how do you know whether you are making progress on your project? It’s subjective. Only you can decide. Are you satisfied that the story or book idea is developing? Has a pattern emerged—or a regular routine—for the steps necessary to reach your goal of writing a book, story, or article?

Remember that many tasks are part of the writing process. Not all of them involve putting words to paper or screen During prewriting, for example, you work with ideas, plan scenes, sketch out characters, create plot points, think about the best sequence for the story conflict and resolution. You might also need to  do research and—for nonfiction—plan the best approach for sharing facts and details about a topic. During drafting you’re getting words onto paper, but the number of chapters or words you are aiming for is an estimated range which will change while you’re revising. During revisions you’re working with the words already there, and this involves rearranging, rewording, deleting, and adding words. You might also move back to the prewriting (planning/researching) and drafting stages as needed. At any stage in the process it’s a good idea to begin looking for potential publishers or agents. So, aiming for a goal is far better than trying to track progress by counting words.

When you think about the tasks involved in writing—and the many tasks that have little to do with actually putting words to paper—it’s easy to become frustrated about “missing” a daily or weekly goal to generate a specific number of words. You need to align the idea of “writing progress” with the many stages in the writing process.

Making progress on your writing is very subjective. For me, it is also dependent on the project scope. How I approach a project (my process) and how I track progress changes with the project. In the long run, it’s truly up to you; only you can decide if you are making progress in your writing. So, continue plugging along toward your writing goals.

Allowing the Silence in

Finish-lineThis has been a whirlwind month. I am shocked by how many things I successfully juggled. While excessive busy-ness often warps my attitude, the month of May felt like a marathon I had been conditioning myself for. (Good thing I went to that retreat the end of April!) I managed to keep my focus and juggle a rush job on top of regular clients, editing, teaching, and my own writing deadline. I’m pleased to say I plowed through problems and projects alike. Like running a marathon, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment—and this was all happening those first three weeks of the month!

By May 25th I was ready for the lull before the next push toward the finish line. As often happens after a huge achievement, I spend time “recuperating” by resting, replenishing the freezer (need quick and healthy meals in order to keep up break-neck writing/editing sessions), and refilling the creative well with wonderful books and movies.

I also like to use music. It feels the silences and when I’m writing, I focus on the melodies at first, but soon typing thoughts to screen takes over and I no longer notice the music. It’s as if I have to ignore it so I can focus on writing. I often listen to either music of audio books as I work in the kitchen or do housework.

FloridaAtlanticBut this month, I found myself skipping the audio input. I relished the silence and as I worked straightening up or making meals. I allowed both thoughts and silence instead. It was refreshing, much like my recent retreat. I liked to hear the ticks and creaks of my house displace the silence. As my thoughts settled, and like drowning out the music with writing, I found myself generating new scenes or cobbling together new story ideas.

The silence became rich with meaning and words. Now I’ve been spending time each day in the stillness and silence. I cherish the peace and lack of busy-ness, then allow the words to take over.

In my writing, I have kept the reverence of the silence in mind for a few characters. Silence—the lack of sound—does count as targeting the sense of hearing within our manuscripts.

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.