Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween For Writers

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

Happy Halloween!  Our home was bustling with all kinds of creepy excitement this morning as my kids went through their morning routines (on less than their usual amount of sleep since we stayed up late to watch our favorite baseball team—The Boston Red Sox—WIN THE WORLD SERIES against St. Louis last evening) loaded with ideas on how tonight would be their best ever Halloween.

I’ve got to be honest—I’ve never really been a “Halloween” person.  Though autumn is the richest and most sensual season of them all to me, I’m just not smitten by ghouls, goblins and everything else “Halloween”.   My 8 kids, however, are so because of their steadfast enthusiasm, I always jump on board each year with frighteningly, festive decorations, ghoulishly sweet treats, and of course—anything goes on Halloween—“tricks and treats”, lots of pumpkin carving, and yes—delicious candy.

What I do love about Halloween is the opportunity it presents to dive into a genre I normally tend to shy away from—horror! 

For starters, let me share that one of my favorite writing books is On Writing, by best-selling author, Stephen King.  (Thank you to my blog partner Kate for recommending and giving me my treasured copy of this book!).  While some of his guidance is not exactly revolutionary (he recommends The Elements of Style as a must-have reference), other revelations that vindicate authors of popular fiction, like himself, as writers, such as his preference for stressing character and situation over plot, are engrossing. He also offers plenty of commonsense advice on how to organize a work space and structure one's day. (Truly priceless)  King's strongest recommendation, however, is that writers must be readers so today I’m going to share a list of some “Halloween worthy” books that my kids and I have enjoyed over the years.

Ghost by Katherine Ramsland   With the same open and personal style that won her much praise for Piercing the Darkness, bestelling author, Katherine Ramsland turns her keen and curious eye to the phenomenon of ghosts to uncover the truth behind a number of supernatural sightings.  On the track of an authentic “haunting” she encounters psychics, shamans, voodoo practitioners, and high-tech ghost hunters eager to reveal how to contact spirits.  But it’s the author’s daring experiments that penetrate her inspired paranormal investigations worldwide making this such an interesting read.

Confessions of a Werewolf Supermodel by Ronda Thompson is another eerie favorite in our family.  Supermodel Lou Kipinski seems to have it all, but as we find out early on, beauty is only skin deep—and sometimes Lou’s porcelain complextion can get a bit hairy!  A fun and timely read during the Halloween season.

The Shining by Stephen King.  No Halloween would be complete without the nail biting read—The ShiningThe Shining is probably his best known novel and of the first twenty or so novels that King wrote, and it seems to me the one he wrote at his happiest. He wrote part of it at the Stanley Hotel near Estes Park, Colorado—a place near to my heart because we adopted our oldest daughter nearby in Colorado 20 years ago! Compared to The Dead Zone, Cujo, Pet Semetary, Misery it just seems like a book he enjoyed writing more than any of the other early works. The irony is that The Shining has become synonymous with horror fiction.

And that's the way The Shining works on you. Jack Torrance is a flawed man with a drinking problem, a violent temper, but a sense of humor and a genuine love for his wife and child. He's a guy we want to root for! And that's why his descent into madness is so powerful. (and so chilling) To some degree, we all can relate to him.

How does Halloween influence your writing?  Or is there a particular horror novel that makes your skin crawl and your writing juices flow?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Reads for Writers: J. Butcher & CE Murphy Provide Masterclasses

Homage to Halloween

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 within their books.

        Masterclasses take place when performance artists and 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, backstories, plots, settings, voice and/or creativity.

        Since it is October, I'm recommending fiction that relates to Halloween. The paranormal genre may not appeal to everyone, but I've found reading strong writing in any form helps improve my writing. Both of the series I'm recommending show excellent examples of all of the reasons I listed in the introduction plus humor and action scenes.

Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series features Harry Dresden, the only wizard Private Investigator in Chicago. He has made his share of mistakes and enemies, but is always willing to work hard when hired or help when needed by friends or the police. However, he's having a tough time making a living at the moment.

Human residents live their lives discounting most things magical, but the police know better. To keep order in the city, a Special Investigations unit has been set up led by Lieutenant Karrin Murphy who calls on Dresden whenever the inexplicable plays a role in a crime.

The series, beginning with Storm Front, works well on several levels. There are new crimes for Harry and friends to solve in every book, but there is also an over arcing theme of the greater battle of good and evil.

Butcher's writing is so gripping at one point in the series I was holding the book so hard my knuckles hurt. I generally don't enjoy being scared—for the most part these books are more exciting than scary—but the anticipation of one magical creature's entrance into Harry's life took me back to the vibrating water cup scene in Jurassic Park, the movie, announcing the arrival of the terrifying T-Rex.

There are 13 books in the Dresden series currently. I didn't like Book Three as much as the rest of the series. I'm reading Book Ten now.

C E Murphy writes The Walker Papers series. The captivating eight book series centers around Joanne Walker, a police officer who discovers she is a shaman. Along with friends, family, fellow cops, and some supernatural allies, she defeats foes to save Seattle and, at times, the world.

It's hard to put these books down with the author's signature page-turning pace, twisty plots, and fearless, funny, and frightening characters. The romantic tension between Officer Walker and her boss, Captain Morrison, offers another layer to this series that begins with Urban Shaman.

        One of the most endearing characters we meet is taxi driver Gary Muldoon on page 15. He is gallant, loyal, recently widowed, and ready for anything—the perfect sidekick for a shaman-in-training who needs all the help she can get.

Summed up on the back of his own book, No Dominion, ninth in the series: [Since meeting shaman Joanne Walker] "Gary has trifled with gods, met mystics, slain zombies…But now Gary must…fight a battle only he can win…because it becomes clear that it was not illness that took his wife's life, but their enemy's deadly touch."
        Enjoy becoming a better writer by reading!      

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Creative Places to Find Story Ideas and Writing Topics

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

On days that I am chomping at the bit to sit down and write, but for one reason or another (I'll spare you my excuses) I simply can't make it happen, I find the next best thing is to look for interesting topics to write about for my family column, or to pitch for an idea for a magazine article, or especially to breathe new life into the novel I'm writing.

Many times I just let my imagination wander (not too difficult while caring for 7 kids on a daily basis) to see what ideas will come to me, but on days that creativity escapes me completely, I've found the ideas below to be a tremendous resource for fun and unexpected writing fodder.



The conversations you can "quietly" observe on facebook are endless.  The best part is, you can do so from the comfort of your own home, and no one needs to know what you're up to.
For instance, last week I was reading dozens of posts on my news feed, and I read one that made me laugh out loud.  A mom posted that her 6-year old son gave their cat a bath in the toilet because he didn't want to waste water and fill up their tub.  Another friend commented that her kindergarten daughter used an entire box of maxi pads for her Barbie dolls to use as air mattresses in her Barbie Town House!  The comments that people left about each incident were even funnier than the actual post, which resulted in giving me a fun idea for a future topic for my family column.

Classified Ads or Sales Flyers

Classified ad sections (either online or in print) are happy hunting grounds for story ideas.
An online ad site I looked at recently popped up with an index of things for sale, which included toe nail jewels.  Seriously?  I had no idea that the average pedicure was now becoming so glamorous.  I was curious as to who was going the extra mile and buying jewels for their little piggies--teens, college kids, senior citizens?  As I started doing a little research to satisfy my curiosity, it sparked an idea for my novel--a mystery story that revolves around a funeral director.  One of my characters is now going to have toe nail jewelry--but there will be a twist to why he is actually wearing it!   So without having glanced at the classifieds, I never would've come up with that little addition to my story.


The book section of Amazon is like a well-stocked fish pond.
Punch in a few key words such as parenting or child development, choose the department you want to search in and then opt to have the results arranged in date order. Presto! A ready-made list of story ideas and expert authors to check out.
Our PTO is giving a special presentation on kids and the latest trends in social media and my search on Amazon unveiled how facebook uses advertising to reach tweens and teens by strategically placing ads on their news feeds to match a key word that they posted about.   This opened a whole new avenue for our group to explore for our presentation.
The next time you're feeling like your idea bank needs a few deposits, check out these places for some rich ideas.
Where are some different places you've found ideas to write about?  

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Magic of Creation

From Kate's Writing Crate…


        I have the TV on or music playing when I write. This keeps me entertained until I hit my writing stride. Then I hear nothing.

I can't tell you how many times I turn on the news to hear tomorrow's weather, start to write, and the next thing I know, the news is over and I didn't hear a word of it.

        Worse yet, I cannot sit down and write if anything is on the stove, in the oven or the toaster unless I set a timer. I have boiled water for spaghetti down to an inch in depth only to have to start again and eaten cold toasted bagels more times than I can count. I don't mind as I'd rather be writing, but I do worry about burning food hence the timer.

        Is writing a trance? Where am I when I am writing? Clearly others would see me sitting at my desk, but I have no real sense of that. I am far, far away in another…what?...dimension? level of consciousness? astral plane?

        I don't respond to the noise from the TV or the lyrics of the songs. However, I do respond to the beeping of a timer, the touch of a dog's nose or paw on my elbow, a phone call, doorbell, or someone calling my name. 

When I am interrupted, I feel the way hypnotized people on TV seem to when fingers are snapped and they wake up. For a split second, I'm not sure where I am. And I couldn't tell you where I was, but I have written. It's the magic of creation—a connection to the Universe or the muse or my deeper self.
"When you write, you go to heaven or some other place that is almost divine," said actor Ted Danson to his songwriter wife and actress Mary Steenburgen.
This is why writers and artists of all kinds have to show up on a regular basis. Get into a routine. Welcome the work.
If you miss making the connection, there's no creation.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Newly Found Notebooks


From Kate's Writing Crate…


        Rejoice with me! I've found replacement notebooks!

        If you've been following this blog, you know I have a favorite pen to write with, the blue Pilot V-Ball fine point; a favorite pen to edit with, the red Pilot V-Ball extra fine point; and a favorite notebook, the college ruled Composition Book #730000 Fay-vo-rite made by Fay Paper Products, Inc., to write in as I fill one a month a la Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. (See my September 17, 2012 post "My Favorite Writing Tools." These posts aren't paid endorsements, just my favorite choices. I read the IRS wants this made very clear in blogs so I am complying!)
Fay Paper Products, Inc. went out of business leaving me with only 15 notebooks left of the 200+ I had bought for school and writing over the years. I've been searching for an acceptable replacement, but without much luck. Other notebooks were too flimsy and not as simply beautiful with full marbled-color covers in red, blue, yellow, green, purple, and gray.
I've been writing more with my computer than my pen lately as I didn't want to run out of my beloved notebooks, but overall writing less as I'm not always near my computer. Not an ideal situation.
In my journey to find these perfect replacement notebooks, I've tried a dozen different brands. Also different sizes, but I prefer 11" x 8 ½" or 11" x 8 ¾". I also prefer 80 pages, but up to 100 is acceptable. Filling a notebook a month is a big commitment so 20 extra pages makes it tough when I am on deadline for other projects.
I was ecstatic when I found a notebook I liked even better—the Oxford 1 Subject Notebook College Ruled which comes in deeper shades of green, blue, red, yellow, gray, and light gray. The reason I like them better is the back cover is thicker so the notebook is sturdier. (Again, not a paid endorsement.) I am starting to stockpile them as I hate not having writing tools I love and depend on.
I love to write by hand throughout the day even as I do a majority of work on my computer. When I am writing using a pen, I feel freer to jot down ideas, words, and phrases to come back to later. I also copy quotes I enjoy from books I'm reading into my notebooks for possible use in essays and posts.
 Finally, I'm back in my writing routine which includes having a notebook handy at all times. As Natalie Goldberg states, "You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination."
I'm not superstitious. I don't need these particular pens and notebooks; I just prefer to have tools I'm comfortable with so I can slip into my writing zone quickly. Writing is hard enough so it's best to use any tools that make it easier.
What tools make writing easier for you?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Million Little Ways to be Inspired

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

Columbus Day weekend is upon us, and not only do I get a kick out of all the stories my elementary school-aged kids come home with about how and why Christopher Columbus discovered America (“Mom, did you know that By 1492 most educated people knew the planet was not shaped like a pancake—but Christopher Columbus really liked breakfast so he wanted to prove it?”) but it also marks a pivotal point in the calendar year for me—we have less than three months remaining in the year—by golly—how are those “writing goals” coming along?

I’m coming clean here and now—as of October 10, 2013 I’m not anywhere close to completing the novel I’ve been working on for the past 18 months, and I know exactly why—I got lazy!
Not the kind of lazy where I haven’t sat down with my journal or laptop and worked on bringing my characters to life or fleshed out the plot 20 times or so—I’m talking “not honoring the pact I made with myself during my New Year’s Writing Goals” kind of lazy.  The only resolution I made in early 2013 in regards to my writing was to WRITE EVERY DAY—no matter what!

Of course I knew that things would come up—occasional sick days for myself or my kids, family or work commitments that would take precedence over my writing or other important things like making time to exercise or even take a hot bath, and even unexpected setbacks like car trouble or appliances that would go kaput—but what I didn’t count on was that I would get complacent during so many “ordinary days” thinking that my writing time would just “happen” on a whim whenever I could fit it in around “life”. 

As I write this post, I am chiding myself a wee bit for slacking off on something that is so important to me—making time to write on a daily basis.  I’ve been down this road several times before, but this time it feels different.  There is a subtle change in the air—perfect as I watch the luminous auburn, crimson and buttery yellow leaves begin to flutter across my yard as autumn works her magic.  But it’s not just the change in seasons, or the calendar announcing that the end of the year is on its way—it’s the way my inner voice and I have been connecting lately—about my writing and all kinds of other important things.

My next birthday will be a milestone one—I’ll be 50!  I’ve got two kids in college and another one graduating this spring.  Many of my friends are already grandparents, one is even taking an early retirement next year because he’s decided he needs to “live life” for a change and not “do life” as so many of us do.  My inner voice has been trying to get my attention for quite some time now, and it’s not that I don’t want or think I need to listen, it’s that I’ve become too accepting of the fact that busy people always seem to get it done, and somehow, I always get things done.  But my “writing” has casually fallen into the category of “getting a task done”—instead of being treated like a sacred ritual that is so important to me that I deserve to spend the time enjoying the process, not treating it like another item on my “to do” agenda.

I recently stumbled upon a book called A Million Little Ways written by Emily P. Freeman.  This book has reenergized my passion for writing as well as helped me stay excited about the little things in life that make up our ordinary, everyday lives.  I enjoyed it so much that I picked up two copies for my daughters for their Christmas stockings.  If they both walk away with one thought that will make them see how important it is to take the time to nurture their creative soul on a regular basis, I will be thrilled.
We all have 24 hours in a day, so how do you find the time to feed your creativity on a regular basis?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Time Well Spent


From Kate's Writing Crate…

Last week, I wrote a post only 463 words long. According to Word Properties, I spent 172 minutes writing and editing it. Looks like I wrote about 2.7 words a minute. That would be embarrassing if I actually wrote at that rate.

The reality is I wrote the post in 78 minutes. The word count was 528. But I revised as I wrote so I probably wrote 700+ words and then edited and revised down to the 528 by the time I finished. This took about 45% of my total time on this piece.
It's hard to get an exact breakdown of writing versus rewriting as I write until my thoughts stop. Sometimes I lean back in my chair and stare at the ceiling while thinking. Sometimes I stare out the window. Then I reread what I wrote, rewriting as I work down to where I left off and then I'd start writing again. I don't know how to quantify the writing versus rereading and rewriting, but I'd guess about 15 of the 78 minutes was reading and rewriting.
It's more interesting to me that I then spent another 94 minutes over the next two days to create a finished post that was 65 words shorter through rewriting, editing, and polishing my work.
The final post was worth working the extra 94 minutes. My first draft had every idea I wanted to include. It wasn't in terrible shape, but it wasn't ready for publication. Waiting for a day or two gave me a better perspective on what worked and what did not. I could cut sentences and paragraphs out more easily, expand on others, and add new ones as well as change the title.
If asked, I would have guessed writing versus rewriting a post was about a 50/50 proposition. But I have been tracking myself with Word Properties while writing the last three posts and discovered writing runs between 35-40% of my time and rewriting, editing, and polishing 60-65%.
This proved to me that:
Writing is really rewriting—making the story [or, in this case, post] better, clearer, truer. –Robert Lipsyte
If you haven't revised, you're not finished. –Patricia T. O'Connor
Being a writer is not just writing, but honing our thoughts and words, refining them. Writers write—and then they rewrite.
How much time do you spend rewriting?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Keeping Your Writing Fresh

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

In my post last week, I shared my self-imposed writing exercise about creating a very “out of the box” scenario where I unexpectedly found diamonds in the butternut squash area at my local farmers’ market.

This idea came about out of sheer frustration due to a temporary string of bad luck—several broken appliances, sick kids, and even my son’s 2-week old new (well, used, but new to him) car broke down, twice, within the 2 weeks he owned it.  I was feeling a tad overwhelmed and admittedly a little bit sorry for myself because my personal writing routines had fallen through the cracks, and at the rate I was going, I could only imagine my laptop crashing (oh, but wait—it did!) and my muse would be buried alive amongst all the mishaps that were going on all around me.

Rather than sitting in a corner and crying (a luxury a mother of 8 doesn’t have time for) I decided to head to the farmers’ market to shop for some seasonal fruits and veggies all while bringing my journal and creating a short-story about something as outrageous as finding $100,000 worth of diamonds in a butternut squash bin!
Because this was something I had never challenged myself to do before, it got me thinking about how life’s challenges and pressures can many times be turned around into something positive if we’re willing to focus on the bright side, rather than the dark side.

I enjoyed that creative exercise so much, I decided I would try and remain as open-minded as I could these next few weeks so that I wouldn’t miss any unusual writing opportunities that might come my way.

I have to be honest—it didn’t work as well as I had hoped.  Sure I encountered some situations such as our Pomeranian, Gracie’s, misfortune of sitting her gorgeous, fluffy tail on a wad of chewing gum that one of my younger kids didn’t throw away, but after spending nearly 2 hours trying to get it out without having to cut too much off her diva-silky fur, the only thing I wanted to do was head to a luxurious bubble bath and soak my frustrations away—not write something amusing about the entire experience.

So that’s exactly what I did—I relaxed in the Jacuzzi for 30 minutes and when I got out, I snuck over to my “Writer’s Crate”, which is now in my new bedroom, and I pulled out one of my files labeled “Keep Your Writing Fresh”. 

This is one of the many files I’ve crafted for myself that relates to my passion of writing.  I have at least 25 such files that cover various topics on all things writing.  I randomly grabbed this one, although I am a believer that information presents itself at the right time in one’s life when it needs to be seen.
This collection has over 50 ideas on how to stay inspired and keep one’s writing fresh and exciting.  I’d love to share two of my favorite ideas, both credited to the wonderful copy blogger, Jonathan Morrow.

·         Unlock your unconscious mind      The longer I write, the more I realize it’s largely an unconscious process. You could be taking a shower, washing the dishes, sleeping — regardless of what it is, your mind is ticking away in the background, figuring out what to say and how to say it.  Sometimes though, our minds are so cluttered that we can’t hear our intuition, and when that happens, writing is a struggle. The only way I know to solve it is to sit still and meditate, deliberately quieting your mind and doing your best to listen instead of think.  Many times, a fully developed idea will just pop into your head, and you’ll know exactly what to write and why. 

·         Look at magazine covers    The writers who think up the headlines for magazines like Cosmopolitan and National Enquirer are some of the highest paid, most creative people in the world. So why not piggyback on their work?  Whenever I’m feeling stuck, I’ll go to the bookstore and read all of the covers until an idea for a great headline of my own strikes me.  (Hint: this often works best when you pick magazines that have absolutely nothing to do with your own topic.)

How do you keep your writing alive and fresh?