Thursday, January 31, 2013

Writing When You Have Nothing To say

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

As January departs and we wait for February to make its grand entrance, I can think of nothing much except blowing my nose, keeping my fever down, and praying that I will have the strength to serve my family something other than cold cereal for dinner tonight.  

You've probably already figured it out--I have the flu!

No sickness is fun, but anytime I am hampered with a blocked nasal passage, runny eyes, and more body aches than shells on a beach, life as I live it stops dead in its tracks and  all my best-laid plans are temporarily shoved to the sidelines.  This of course includes daily household chores, extra-curricular plans and activities, shopping and running errands, and anything I have planned for myself--writing included.

Luckily, the flu has hit in between deadlines, so for that I am immensely grateful!  However, my early morning writing routine and some lofty goals that I've had in place to complete a novel in 90 Days, continue reading all my favorite authors, and just journaling and blogging (such as this one) for the sheer pleasure of it have taken a hit as well.  Although I have the energy to actually sit with my laptop or favorite writing journals, my brain (at least the creative side of it) has other plans for me.

Honestly, this morning when I tried to complete my grocery list for later in the week, I believe my tired brain said something like "You've got to be kidding, put that pen down before you write down that we need items like stewed tomatoes or strained peas!"   "Come back to it later, it can wait!"

I listened immediately, however, it did actually spark an interesting thought for me as a writer--how do I want to handle those times when I need or want to write but having nothing at all to say?

When this happens, I either just walk away and come back later, or I visit my treasure trove of writing bibles that offer up inspiration at just the right time.  Today, I came across an article I saved this past summer --"Quotes on Writing by Gore Vidal", which I've linked in case you're interested in reading it for yourself.

The article shared some of his very best quotes, many witty and thought provoking.

Here are some of them quoted from that article.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I did:

  1. Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head.
  2. Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!
  3. I sometimes think it is because they are so bad at expressing themselves verbally that writers take to pen and paper in the first place.
  4. Write something, even if it’s just a suicide note.
  5. How marvelous books are, crossing worlds and centuries, defeating ignorance and, finally, cruel time itself.
  6. Southerners make good novelists: they have so many stories because they have so much family.
  7. You can’t really succeed with a novel anyway; they’re too big. It’s like city planning. You can’t plan a perfect city because there’s too much going on that you can’t take into account. You can, however, write a perfect sentence now and then. I have.
  8. Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can’t read them either.
  9. I suspect that one of the reasons we create fiction is to make sex exciting.
Do you have any favorite quotes that pick you up and get you moving when you feel you don't have anything to say?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Reads for Writers: Cheryl Strayed Provides a Masterclass

From Kate's Writing Crate...

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide Masterclasses for me within their books.
            Masterclasses take place when performance artists or musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don't generally have this option, but I have found some books to be Masterclasses for characters, dialogue, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.
            I read Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed because of the numerous and glowing reviews it received—and I want to add another one here as her voice is true and clear and echoes within me.
            Strayed's story is sad, then tragic, then transformed. She is a strong woman who has dealt with adversity, made mistakes, learned from them, moved on, and, most importantly, kept going and kept writing through it all as chronicled in her bestseller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
            Parts of her life story are also told as she answered letters from people seeking help from Sugar through an online advice column at The Rumpus website. "Radical empathy" is how Steve Almond, the first Sugar, describes Cheryl Strayed's style in the Introduction. And it is. She jolts people with her takes on their situations by sharing her life experiences and brilliant insights.
            Strayed doesn't shy away from answering letters concerning difficult topics as she has had to deal with them since she was born into a home filled with domestic violence. Her father beat her mother starting just days after they were married. When the author was three, her paternal grandfather started molesting her and continued until her father left the family when she was six. Her mother worked hard to support the family. Still her children didn't have a lot, except when it came to love.
            Unexpectedly, her mother died of lung cancer at 45. Strayed was only 22. Grief swamped her, then multiplied as her stepfather and siblings scattered. However, she still had her mother's love within her as she set off to live her own life.
            It is this love that shines through her answers to people in need of support, guidance, or a kick in the pants. She suffers with them; dwelling on their situations for days at times in an effort to not only connect with them, but to write advice that will open them up to possibilities and different perspectives.
            Whether you have experienced the specific problems of the letter writers or not, we all have to deal with love or the lack of it, friendship, identity, finances, addiction, sex, jealousy, betrayal, violence, loss, and death. Sugar's answers, as penned by Strayed, are universal truths given to individuals.
            As a writer, I especially related to the letter Sugar received from a writer who can't write which appears on page 53. Strayed's experience of writing her own book—the story she couldn't live without telling—and advice to writers alone is worth the price of this book, but you get so much more.
It is Strayed's voice that captures readers. She is talking directly to each letter writer: concentrating on her; sharing with him. Strayed opens up and writes from the very depths of herself. It's painful, joyful and, most of all, hopeful.
What authors' voices speak to you?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Beauty of Writing Prompts

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

Writing is so many different things to me.  I have always enjoyed articulating my daily schedule into a written "to do" list.  Organized pagesI  of grocery shopping lists, household improvement lists, personal, professional, and family written goals are truly a part of who I am.

In addition, I crave my sacred, early morning writing time where I can focus on what makes me tick as a writer, therefore feeding my muse with wide-open time slots to journal, work on columns and articles, conduct interviews for articles that I'm writing, work on my novel, or many times just sit and write about a random thought just for the sake of writing.

When I decided that I wanted to take my writing to the next level, I started investigating as many creative and insightful writing books as I could find.  One that I came upon during the recent holidays was The Writer's Book of Matches, and it's truly helping me to change how I look at any ordinary topic by teaching me how to just "let go" and write without any inhibitions.

You'll Love This Book If:

  • You need writing inspiration
  • You're looking for writing prompts
  • You have a case of writer's block

The Writer's Book of Matches is packed with hundreds of writing prompts to jump-start your writing! Whether you have a case of writer's block, are looking for writing inspiration for your next story, or want to get back to writing regularly, you'll find tons of creative writing prompts.
The Writer's Book of Matches provides three types of writing prompts. Each prompt details a conflict, revelation, or unusual situation.
The first prompt is called a situation prompt. These types of prompts provide an obvious protagonist who finds himself (or herself) in an unusual or emotionally charged situation.
The second type of prompt is a dialogue prompt in which you have to create the context in which the dialogue is being spoken. This gives you more freedom to create a plot, while at the same time forcing you to deal with character interaction before anything else.
The third type of prompt is an assignment prompt. They present a shared context in which multiple characters find themselves. Your job is to create a situation or conflict for each character given the context. 
My prompt for this morning was:   At exactly midnight on New Year’s Eve you receive an email labeled “Open Immediately.” The really strange thing is that the email is apparently from your future self. What does it say?
I wish I had seen this on New Year's, but it still got me thinking and before I knew it I had written an entire essay.   The book suggests you write your prompts in 500 words or less, which is extremely helpful in helping a writer to hone in and stay detailed without rambling, but many of these writing prompts are quite cathartic in nature, and I'm finding them helpful not only for my writing, but for my own personal life as well.
I hope you'll check this book out if you are looking for similar ways to jump start your creativity, but if you have another book or way that you launch your creativity, please share with us what that is.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Life & Writing Guide: Harold and the Purple Crayon

From Kate's Writing Crate...

          I loved Harold and, of course, his purple crayon from the first time I read his story written by Crockett Johnson, a wonderful nom de plume for David Johnson Leisk. Not only is the Harold series a delight for children, it's a terrific guidebook for writers.

          In the books, Harold has all kinds of adventures. He travels comfortably in his footed pajamas accompanied by only his purple crayon and imagination.

          Once he chooses what he wants to do, Harold draws his own path. Seen only in profile he is either focused on what he is drawing or looking back at his creations. He decides who or what he wants meet along the way. With help from his crayon, they appear--although there are many surprises along the way.

          In the first book, Harold goes for a moonlit walk. He finds a spot he thinks would be perfect for a forest so he draws a tree. It turns out to be an apple tree. To guard the apples, he draws a draws a dragon that ends up frightening him. As he backs away with his hand shaking, he accidentally draws wavy water and then finds himself in over his head. He saves himself by drawing a boat and sailing until he made land. Finding himself hungry, he draws a picnic. And then...well you can read the rest for yourself.

          His adventures continue with trips to space, the circus, and to a fairyland complete with a king, a witch, a flying carpet, and, of course, a fairy. What an amazing life!

          I love that Harold decides what he wants to do and then does it. When things turn out differently than he plans, he quickly improvises. He never loses his focus. And he always achieves his goals. It made me wish my own purple crayon worked that well.

          Being a writer is the next best thing!

          I can, but don't, wear footed pajamas. With a pen and paper or a computer, I can follow my imagination along a path of my choosing, mostly. (As novelists know, sometimes characters have minds of their own.)

          Writing is more difficult than drawing with a crayon, but just as freeing when you are writing for yourself. (Of course, there has to be a paying job to stay afloat. If it is in the writing field, the assignments will help you improve your skills. If it isn't, use that as motivation to keep writing.)

          His last two qualities are the tough ones for me. I need to work on having absolute focus on my writing projects and career as well as on achieving my goals.

          To keep me focused, I have an oversized purple crayon in a ceramic mug along with my pens. It reminds me of how I truly want to live--writing creatively!

What children's books inspired you?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Setting Writing Boundaries

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

One common difficulty that most writers share is setting and sticking to boundaries in terms of protecting their writing time when it comes to their friends and family.  For those of us who write from the comfort of our homes, it is not uncommon for people to not take our work seriously.

Regardless of whether you’re working on deadline, writing for pleasure, or trying to get ahead on articles, blog posts, or columns the fact of the matter is people who are not writers just don’t get it.

That is not an insult to non-writers, it is merely a fact.  Because most of us have to juggle the rest of our life—family, work, pets, and household obligations in addition to our writing, making the time to write is imperative—if we don’t schedule it in, most likely it isn’t going to happen.  That is why boundaries are so important—if we don’t take our writing seriously, why should our family and friends?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my favorite writing books is Writer Mama by Christina Katz.  On Page 116 she discusses practicing good boundaries with the following great advice:

Set Limits on Your Time and Availability--  Don’t wait until you have a deadline looming to try and convince friends and family that your work matters and you deserve support in getting it done.  Enlist the help of a trusted friend or writing buddy who can help you see the importance of what you do and that your time is well-spent working daily on your writing career.
Ask for Help When You Need ItHelp might mean asking your spouse to pick up a pizza for dinner, do the grocery shopping, or take the kids out of the house for a couple of hours.  It may mean trading babysitting with a mama friend.  Eventually you will get the hang of it, and will reach out for help when you need to get your writing done.
Share A Bit About What You DoLet’s not forget that most people have no idea what it takes to be a mom and a writer.  You choose to combine writing with motherhood, which is your choice to make.  Don’t lose your sense of humor when other moms just don’t understand all that goes into being a writer.  Take the time to explain exactly what you do and why you write to make people understand how important this is to you.
Filters and Routines HelpA filter is a method of channeling your workflow to the appropriate place when it comes in so you can ignore it until you need it and then find it easily when you are ready for it.  Balancing writing with the rest of your busy life is easier if you have filters in place.  Examples are only checking e-mail twice a day instead of every 15 minutes, not surfing the net unless you are researching a topic for an article you are writing, trying not to read every on-line newsletter that comes your way unless it’s specifically targeted towards a subject you are writing about.  Figure out what your time drains are and set up filters so that you don’t get trapped into wasting precious writing time when you have it.

Writer Mama is definitely one of my writing bibles and has helped me formulate a better writing routine for myself over the years.  What boundaries do you rely on to help you achieve your daily and weekly writing goals?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Reads for Writers: The Writing Trade by John Jerome

From Kate's Writing Crate...

          I read books about writing for inspiration and motivation. I especially appreciate the ones that also include insights into the working lives of writers like The Writing Trade: A Year in the Life by John Jerome. It's also the perfect time to read it as the book begins in January. This is not a daily journal, but reflections by month on the author's work and life.

          At the start of a new year, Jerome's writing projects were at different stages. The Writing Trade was just beginning. He also needed to write 12 essays for a magazine column, correct book proofs, work on another book being reissued, and write two articles with midsummer deadlines, plus make pitches for articles and wait for more assignments to pay the bills.

          While Jerome wrote the book in 1989, he considered it a generic year in the life of a freelance writer. At that point, he had been in the writing trade for 30 years, 20 as a freelance writer. He survived that long by following these rules: "Don't do anything on spec, don't do anything you can't finish on up-front money, don't depend in any way on actual sales, or expect any outcome other than the receipt of the final check for the agreed upon price."

          Through the decades, he wrote eight books with varying success and a couple of hundred magazine articles. Jerome stated, "I am a competent, but essentially invisible writer, proof that one can earn a living from writing for years without ever breaking into the public consciousness...all I ever wanted was to write, quietly, for a living."

          His goal for this book was to "show how a writing life works: a book about the workaday process of making sentences for a living." Jerome shared how he got his ideas, his writing routine, his thoughts on book proposals, publication and reviews, and much more.

          I enjoyed learning about these things, but mostly I loved his thoughts on the writing process. Some of my favorite examples underlined in my reread copy include:

Page 3: ...ready to get back into the long, steady flow of real work, chasing ideas down the page.

Page 38: Writing is a process of going over and over the material endlessly, getting what you're trying to say driven into a corner.

Page 226: What's needed to produce a solid body of work is a solid body of time.

          Since this is a book about a writer's life, quotes from other writers appear at the beginning of each month's reflections as well as within the text.

          Jerome detailed his daily walks with his dogs, nature scenes, and talks with his wife as they all played a part in his writing. As he noted on page 62, "In the end, all writing is about turning experiences into words...there's a great deal more experience in our lives than we ever succeed in knowing."

          The exhilaration is in finding the right words while chasing those ideas down the page!

What writing books inspire you?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Ultimate Writing Guide for Students

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

As I journey into the second full week of the New Year, I am still as motivated and excited about all my writing goals for 2013.  I believe when we are passionate about something, that in itself keeps us full of high-octane fuel to keep moving forward each day as we work towards our goals.

I have several writing goals for this year including finishing my first novel, getting published in a national magazine, tightening my finished written pieces so they read sharper and fresher, improving my blogging skills, in addition to writing every day for at least an hour or so on anything that strikes my fancy.  Throw in a handful of invigorating, fun-filled, and inspired literary adventures with my amazing blogging partner, Kate, and my year will be beyond complete!

I get up each morning (well, most!) excited and determined which definitely helps to guide my days with joy and purpose.  Not only do I have writing goals for myself, I also have some for my newspaper club students.  I have been the adviser of The Mariners’ Catch Pier Middle School newspaper for five years now, and it is one of the most wonderfully, challenging writing jobs I’ve ever had.

There are many components that go into publishing a successful student newspaper, but the most important is having a group of students who are dedicated to the process of bringing the best paper possible to their student body and teachers.  We have to be a well-oiled machine to ensure that everyone meets deadline, something that is hard enough for adult writers, never mind 12-year-old kids!

Deadlines are a work in progress for our student staff, and probably always will be, but another area that our roving reporters are always trying to improve upon is their grammar and basic understanding of the do’s and don’ts of all those confusing rules about punctuation, parts of speech, adjectives and adverbs and so on and so on.

Luckily for them (and me) we have a fantastic resource that we rely on when writing stories, columns, essays and anything else that is associated with The Mariners’ Catch.  The Ultimate Writing Guide for Students written by my Macmillan Publishers Quick and Dirty Tips colleague, Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty), a New York Times Best Selling Author.

This book is not only easy to understand, Grammar Girl makes it fun for the students!  They each have a copy and we refer to it as their “bible”!  To be honest, I have found this book extremely helpful when I’ve come across a grammatical situation I wasn’t sure about, so it’s not just for kids!

I’m looking forward to enjoying all of my writing goals for the remainder of the year, and I hope if you’ve made any in regards to writing that you stay the course as well.

Do you have a favorite writing reference book that you consider your bible?  Please let me know in the comment section.

Monday, January 7, 2013

90-Day Novel Project Update 1

From Kate's Writing Crate...

          For this blog, I decided I would only write posts about books that I found helpful or inspirational. I had to make an exception in this case because I am comparing two books for the 90-Day Novel Project.

          It's Day 6 of the 90-Day Novel project. I have followed the schedules and exercises in both Alan Watt's The 90-Day Novel and Sarah Domet's 90 Days to
Your Novel--and they could not be more at odds.

          The first, and most important, difference is the tone in each book. Bestselling author of the novel Diamond Dogs, Alan Watt's tone is professional and supportive. His readers are colleagues. Each day's first page begins with Hi Writers. He always uses "we" and "our" as he discusses and shares his thoughts and ideas with fellow writers.

          Watt also allows for his readers to have different writing processes and to be at different stages in their growth as well as in their novels. He brilliantly addresses some trouble writers may have come across in the past along with solutions that include the importance of creativity on pages 4 & 5 and the role of the subconscious on pages 8 & 9.

          In the Preparation section (pp. 16-18), Watt discusses that characters need dilemmas, not problems. Problems can be solved. Dilemmas take transformation. Right then my whole relationship with my characters and novel shifted, became deeper and infinitely more interesting. I was excited and inspired to get back to my novel.

          Watt expects his fellow writers have stories to tell and characters in mind. His exercises for each day consist of open-ended questions about their heroes and other characters. In the 10-20 minutes I spent answering these questions each day, I have learned some surprising things about my characters' backgrounds, goals, and motivations. I also learned a great deal about my novel as a whole while answering the structure questions on Day 4.

          I can always tell that a book is inspiring and motivating to me when I flip through it and see many underlined sentences, marked passages, and comments in the margins. More than half the pages I have read so far have "spoken" to me.

          On the other hand, Sarah Domet's book with rigid thoughts and exercises might be appealing to beginning writers, but I think she turns her entire audience off with her "Gotcha" comment on page 41, before Day 1 exercises even started.

          In her book, we are not all writers in this project together. Instead, she writes as though she has all the answers and the readers are merely students. She does not give her readers credit for having much writing experience or different processes. I found this book uninspiring so I will not be following it any longer.

          I will update my 90-Day Novel Project again on Monday, February 4.

How are your novels coming along?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Art of Interviewing

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

As much as I enjoy writing first-person family columns, another favorite part of being a writer is when I have the opportunity to interview people for feature articles that I’ve been assigned.  I have met dozens of interesting people from all walks of life during the past decade due to conducting interviews.  I recall how nervous I was when I was just learning the ropes of interviewing, but now I look forward to each and every one because not only do I learn about new topics from the expert folks I’m interviewing, I have also expanded and improved my interviewing techniques with the experience I’ve gained.   Here are some of the techniques I’ve come to rely on when conducting an interview:
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·        <!--[endif]-->Research, read and obtain background information about the subject, source or topic at hand before interviewing so that you can ask informed questions.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·        <!--[endif]-->Make the subject comfortable: Before you start writing in your notebook, try to establish a connection and level of trust with the person you'll be interviewing. Putting him or her at ease before the questioning begins can make a big difference. And while interviewing people, if you can, have them in an environment that keeps them comfortable.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·        <!--[endif]-->Ask simple questions.  Keep your questions short, to the point and focused. Otherwise you risk distracting or confusing your subject, or allowing him or her to answer only part of a complex question. Break down complicated questions into shorter, simpler questions.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·        <!--[endif]-->Become an excellent listener.  You may be prepared going into an interview and have a list of questions you want to ask, but listen carefully to what you're being told. An interview may take you in directions you didn't see coming, and you don't want to miss out on opportunities for follow-up questions.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·        <!--[endif]-->Allow for silences; don't interrupt: Most people need some time to gather their thoughts and formulate responses. It's up to you to give them that space.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·        <!--[endif]-->Limit closed-ended questions and try to focus on open-ended questions that begin with “why?” and “How?” or use phrases such as “Tell me about…”
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·        <!--[endif]-->Admit what you don’t know:  You might think you’re very prepared for an interview, but if a subject comes up during the interview that you don’t understand, don’t pretend to know it.  The person you are interviewing will respect you more if you are honest and is generally happy to explain the piece you aren’t understanding so that you will be better informed.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·        <!--[endif]-->Ask follow-up questions.  Listen to the answers and probe further before moving on to your prepared questions. Often it is during a follow-up question that the right quote falls into your lap. “Following up” can also involve a non-question, like a sympathetic response or a gesture of surprise or admiration.
Engage the person you are interviewing to ensure the opportunity of gathering the most interesting information possible.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->·        <!--[endif]-->Take notes about anything that strikes you during the interview.   In addition to facts and statistics, you might also want to write down physical details about your environment and your subject’s appearance, facial expressions and voice. But be sure to look up from your notebook and maintain eye contact.
<!--[if !supportLists]-->·        <!--[endif]-->Last but not leastthank the interviewee for their valuable time in giving you the interview.  Time is a very precious commodity for most people, so be sure to thank the person/s you interviewed for their time and cooperation. 
What techniques do you find helpful when you conduct an interview?