The Giant But

Nope. I didn’t miss a “t”. And this isn’t a self-reflective rant about the aging spread going on behind me. Today’s blog is about excuses, dare I even say… self-imposed limits.

I believe I’ve talked about the dangerous ‘but’ in terms of how we love one another, and how we limit feelings by making excuses from perceived imperfections. However, today’s talk is more about the detrimental “but” that gets between us and our dreams.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from friends, colleagues, and even acquaintances the exact phrase:

“I’d love to write a _______ but…”

But…I have no time. But…I just can’t get started. But…I’m not very good. But…It’s hard to publish these days. But…people may not like it.

 

No.

Nope.

Stop it, no.

Nuh uh.

Not valid (and who cares if they like it?)

 

Article done! BAM!  Shortest blog ever. Happy writing!

 

Okay…I’m kidding.

Those big buts up there don’t lie. They are all valid excuses. Excuses that we build like walls in front of our potential. Walls of excuses to keep us from even attempting the loving art of writing because it also keeps us safe. Safe from rejection, safe from the work, safe from the expectation. Safe from failing. Safe from succeeding.

But is a wall builder.

But builds walls based on fear and hatred and not scientific, psychologically proven facts.

(Maybe I am missing a couple of T’s up there and a title…like President Butt…ahem. *Awkward throat clear*…back on topic.)

Same principle.

But keeps you away from ever having to actually start.

Now I’m sure there are people out there saying they want to write a novel to make me feel like I’m not so strange, all wholed-up in my pajamas, afraid of the general public. Maybe people tell me they’d “love” to write more, to make polite conversation.

This blog isn’t for those small-talkers (but bless your heart for trying to make me feel comfortable about my chosen/driven profession despite its financial drawbacks).

This blog is for those whose eyes shine with longing when they talk about that book they want to, need to, would love to write. This is your permission slip to the great unknown outside your stuffy, self-imposed safety.

No more buts.

Try this:

Say it outloud…softly “I would like to write a book.”

Little bit louder now: “I would love to write a book!”

Say it like you mean it!: “I want to write a book!”

So the people in the back can hear!!: “I WILL WRITE A BOOK!”

Deep breath you crazy loon.

And rejoice in not using the but.

You will write that book.

Stop looking at the world as a place of excuses waiting to trip you up and make you fail and start looking it as the beautiful, messy experiment that has no wrong turns, only lessons.

Need help starting? Great! Let’s strike while your fire is hot!

If you have an idea for your novel, or article, or short story, write it down. Loose outlines are great but if you are a type-A outliner, then give yourself an hour or two to adequately plot it down. There are some great computer programs if you’re that kinda nerd. Or if your MY kind of nerd, post-it notes on a wall or story board are awesome.

Chances are if you’ve been thinking about a book then you already have some characters in mind. Spend twenty minutes (or whatever you can spare at kid’s practices or boring meetings) writing down your main and sub characters’ physical attributes, their strengths, their weaknesses. Write about their childhood, their friends, their parents…none of which needs to go into the book, but it will help you understand their motivation so that when you write the story, they behave in ways coherent with their core.

Join a writing group and take the classes they offer. Todd Mitchell (Todd’s Website) once offered an amazing four week class on writing a novel that covered everything from plotting, to dialogue, to genre, and story arcs. It was maybe the most profound and important class I’ve taken and I highly recommend you start with something like that if you are struggling at the start. Plus going to classes and joining groups helps to build the immensely important network of friends and cohorts who will help you along in your process.

Stock up your library. One of the first things I did after scribbling down a rough outline was lay in the fetal position in tears (well, not quite that dramatic but it makes for a better story) and wonder how someone actually created a functioning plot. Enter the Write Great Fiction Series. They’re some of my favorite resources and they offer everything from plot and structure, dialogue, character and viewpoint etc.

Final bit of advice. Don’t let the but come back into your process. (I’d love to edit my novel but the laundry needs doing– the vacuuming, the scope of work meeting notes, the kids fiftieth soccer game this month.)

Nope. Fuck that noise.

There is time in your life to write a novel. You just have to want it and learn to say no to buts.

giggle
Come on. It’s a but joke…

 

You have to make your word count your priority. And no cleaning for god’s sakes until your daily goal is met. No video games or puttering around either.

If you want the novel; if you want to unleash the story burning inside of you, then stop giving yourself the excuses to not write it.

Make the time. Make the novel. Banish your but(t)… to the chair.

To write your novel.

Go.

 

Conferring on Conferences

 

 

Okay, so I promised two weeks ago that last week we’d be talking about writing conferences. Then my squirrel brain shouted “I do what I want!” and flicked its squirrel brain tail and stole some nuts and ran off on a tangent.

 

Adult Sarah remembers. So without further prodding, let’s get into the meaty goodness of writers conferences and why you should strive to attend at least one a year.

If you’ve never been before or even if you are old-hat in the world of conferences, here are a few tips on how to choose the right one for you, how to get the most out of it, and how to not feel completely overwhelmed in the process.

 

How do you choose which one to attend?

 

  • If you are anything like me, you’re wealthy in creativity but strapped for cash. One of the biggest deciding factors, for me, is the cost of the conference (including travel and accommodation expenses) against what classes, speakers, and agents will be there. Getting to pitch to an agent, or multiple agents for publishers specific to your genre is a boon. Classes that are not just interesting but will help expand your craft are also good factors to consider.

 

  • Some conferences are genre specific and if you are a comfort-hugging archetype who doesn’t flirt around outside your style and subject matter, then definitely consider something specifically geared to your genre. The Romance Writers of America is hosting its annual conference in New York City this year…but, as my first bullet point states, it’s a little too much expense for my budget. Plus, I like to flirt… (outside of my genre, that is *wink)

 

  • If you’re stuck deciding between two, look at the courses offered, the speakers presenting, and if they are offering pitch sessions, especially agents suited to your work. Pick the one that gives you the most opportunity for growth and stretches your creative and ambitious goals.

 

 

How do I get the most out of my conference?

 

  • Here’s what I’ve learned. Plan ahead but be flexible. Conferences don’t just start the minute you pin that snazzy name badge on your seldom-used dress clothes. They start the year before, during writing when you (hopefully) self-reflect on the issues you have with your WIP, your style, your grammar, or even the steps you want to take next. If you have trouble with dialogue but are a whiz at plotting out the perfect story arc, then use your conference to build up your weak points. Even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone. Which leads me to my next point:

 

  • Sit it on at least one session that is outside of your genre, comfort zone, or even interest. Look, conferences can be amazing experiences but if you’ve been through sixteen hours of various takes on the query letter, trying to perfect your memoir pitches, you’re not growing as much as you could be. “But Sarah, why do I need to grow as a writer? I’m practically perfect as is!” Of course you are…but I ask you this: why does an athlete cross train? Why does an engineering major still have to take social science classes? Because learning about the realm outside yourself will make you better. Try a sci-fi world-building class or screenwriting. I guarantee, you will get something new out of it that will help your project and your craft.

 

  • Push your limits. Talk to people you wouldn’t normally, share your story, your success, and your pitfalls. This is an awesome opportunity (I’m talking to you little introvert from up there) to commiserate, vent, and rejoice in the craft you love so much. Pitch your novel, article, or story. Talk to the larger-than-life keynote speaker (here’s a hint: every single one of them I’ve had the pleasure to meet has been the kindest, most down-to-Earth and supportive writer). Come away feeling like the weekend/day was an experience that has changed you in some fundamental way.

 

How do I not get overwhelmed?

 

  • For goddess’ sake, take a break in the midst of it all. I’m the worst at this. I paid the money and I’m going to hit every single class. I will volunteer, pitch, hit up the speakers at the dinner table, and stuff every bit of information into my head until explodes! Then by day two, nothing makes sense in my mind, words are blurry, I’m not sure what my name is, and I’m crying into my mashed-potato tower, while wearing Underoos on my head that clearly are not my own. Take the breaks between sessions or even forgo a session and find a quiet corner or go for a walk outside. You need it to recharge, allow time to absorb the information and be refreshed for the next round.

close-encounters-of-the-third-kind-mashed-potatoes

 

 

  • If you are pitching to an agent or editor, polish the shit out of that thing. Take your pitch to your critique group, your friends, random people on the street before the conference and learn how to deliver it with confidence and clarity. Know your story, your characters, and your plot, inside and out. That first page should sing the sweetest siren’s song anyone has ever heart and lure the tepid agent from the afternoon lunch lull into something exciting they want to read more of. The more you practice your pitch, the more it will feel like a conversation with a good friend instead of an interview.

 

  • If you are pitching, don’t be intimidated by the agent or editor. Remember they are people. They are there, specifically, to talk to you. To hear your story. To find the next big thing. Most of them are also just like you…they may even be wearing Underoos and like mashed potatoes. The point is, it’s okay to be nervous, but don’t go in assuming they relish the idea of shooting you down. Be polite and always thank them for their time and any advice they have to give.

 

  • Sleep before. Sleep after. Eat nutritious food, take walks outside whenever you can, and watch the caffeine and the booze. Free coffee stations are like crack for me (okay, I’ve never been addicted to nor have I ever even tried crack but…you get the idea) and cash bars are a tempting mistress at the end of a long, people-filled day. But you have things to do tomorrow and Underoos stay safely tucked in if you can avoid that third cocktail.

underoos1

 

Well, good luck out there writer. Go find you a conference and learn to mill about in the wealth of knowledge and inspiration. Leave any comments or helpful hints you’ve gained over the years here, or even your worst experiences. I can’t wait for you to jump into one and discover how decadent it feels to immerse yourself in the craft you love.

 

Edit Somber

Nope, that’s not a typo. You’ve all heard the adage (or if you’re a writer worth their Peter DeVries salt you have…)

“Write drunk, Edit sober.”

I’m not going to recommend you write drunk. You can… It’s totally possible, and more often than not, highly amusing the morning after. Unlike the headache you’ll be nursing.

DeVries’ meaning was simpler. Write with abandon, in love, fervent and without inhibition. Lower your boundaries and kiss the words you wouldn’t normally, dance with phrases you’d been afraid to hold in your arms. Grab the lampshade of crazy plot twist and wear that son-of-a-bitch as a hat while you twirl through the story.

But in the morning…edit like you’re highly regretful and aiming to pinpoint every mistake you’d made the night before so as to never repeat the debauchery again. Be remorseful. Be judgemental, and like the Spanish Inquisition, show no mercy.

I’m in, let’s say the twelfth round of editing on my WIP. A round that was inspired by a recent submission editor’s advice. This time I’m proceeding with a more somber attitude, one that knows I wrote it, in part, like a drunken idiot and now have dropped my ego enough to be receptive to the advice.

Never before have I been so close to getting a traditional publishing contract for one of my books. Part of this is due to a more polished product (it’s not my first rodeo…or book kids), a more general genre and subject (why do people shy away from paranormal romances and hot ghost sex?), and, I like to think, a cute, relatable plot that’s just enough dark to be interesting.

So, I’m buckling down and doing what I was told to help get this baby off the ground. I’m about thirty pages in and catching some of the ‘problems’ that were brought to my attention. But as I work, I have a concern:

How much of myself and my voice am I taking out of this thing to appeal to the personal likes/dislikes of one editor.

So we come back to somber. Serious. Earnest. Grave. Unsmiling.

Sometimes there are hoops we have to jump through to get to where we want to go. Sometimes we have to shelve our pride and ego and be willing to see past what we love about our work to what could be better.

How do we make sure it’s not just some dime-store novella like the fifty other ones on the shelf? How do I make sure, with all the dead darlings lying beside my computer, that its still my story?

I don’t know those answers exactly, but I’ll tell you what I do know.

I know my characters and the way they react to situations and each other. And where my grammatical prowess may be lacking, I will always stay loyal to them first. When the critique is centered on prepositions or wordy description, I can be earnest in cutting it clean. And not only will my story be stronger, it will be easier to read…hopefully to the point where hands don’t want to let go of it until they finish “just one more chapter”.

So my advice for this week is this:

Take good advice from people in the industry who know when it comes to the technical mishaps of your work. Take the advice to tighten your writing from people who have to spend hours of their lives sifting through the slushiest of slush piles.

But always keep true to the drunken passion of your story that made your heart dance and giggle while it awkwardly pulled that plot line in for a kiss. Keep your story’s heart, but don’t be afraid to pluck it’s wayward eyebrows and wipe its nose.

Good luck, in whatever step you are of your process. Editing, writing, or contemplation of either.

Next week is my homage to writer’s conferences, with some good advice on how to spend your time and get the most bang for your buck.

Happy writing, kids!

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Undiscovered You

 

Now, I know last week I talked about taking life down a notch, enjoying the time we have and not stressing about impressing others. And I was honest in my expression of those thoughts.

Then what did I do? I turned around and signed up for a writing challenge last weekend, sponsored by the lovely folks at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, a volunteer group based in Colorado. The challenge was done through a dedicated page on FaceBook and the aspiration was to reach 25,000 words in 4 days, with daily check ins.

Novelrama

 

I know. I know. I said I wasn’t going to push beyond what I needed and no one needs to finish a novella or half a novel in four days. That being said, of the few things in life that bring me true joy, writing is one. So to have a challenge that gives me reason to put my writing first above all other priorities was very good for my practice and for my mental health. I had a justifiable reason to get on the computer, shut out the world and work. I had a goal to get to!

And here’s what I learned:

1.) Sometimes a thing seems impossible; until it’s not.

That is to say, that mountain looks insane and unclimbable when all you’re doing is standing at the base looking up at the top. But if you start walking and focus on the trail ahead of you, taking on the obstacles in your present moment one at a time, soon you’ve found you’ve reached the next rise… and the next, and the next.

Large things aren’t accomplished in one step. They are accomplished by persevering through all of the little steps on the way.

2.) My family didn’t fall apart when I retreated into my writing for a while.

Sure…eventually if you lock yourself away in hermitude, giving everything you have to your craft, your children forget they had a mom, your spouse doesn’t remember what you look like, and all your houseplants will die.

But nine times out of ten, when you need an hour to focus on your work in progress, your kids and family and houseplants will manage just fine. They might even be better for it, having been so bored for so long that they had to go and make their own fun.

In your life, the laundry can wait, the e-mails, the FaceBook updates, the schedules etc, can take a back burner temporarily while you work on a dream.

3.) Writer’s block sort of disappears when you don’t have the time to self-edit or doubt.

Now listen, this thing I wrote is rough. I mean ROUGH.

The spelling, the punctuation, the grammar, the inconsistent plot line and character flaws… the total lack of reasoning in some cases…it’s a bonafide mess. But it’s also raw and flowing. There were no stutter stops or abrupt changes because I didn’t have time to stop and rethink. Character’s said what they meant, and did it efficiently because I had a story-line to build. And I think my ability to follow the character’s lead improved, letting them do what they do without my intervention led to a more interesting twists, and brighter characters.

4.) Never underestimate the power of having people in your corner

Ya’ll…I didn’t even know the people who participated in the Spring Novelrama either to write, or to mediate writing sprints, or to send memes and inspirational videos. And yet not a single one of them, from what I read, had a disparaging word for their fellow writers. When the word counts were paltry, or life was distracting us, or if someone had gotten caught up editing and *gasp* lost words, every response was that of “I’ve been there, I know it, you’re gonna get through this! You’re doing great!” And getting told that three or four times a day by writers more experienced and talented than you can really start to make you feel like:

5.) I’m kind of awesome.

Now listen, I know that sounds cocky. But if any of you know me in real life, you know that I’m not very generous when it comes to dolling out self-esteem. I’ll be the first to tell you all of my flaws and give you a detailed list of why I’m the least capable person in the world for anything.

But when you get to the top of a mountain that you once thought was impossible to climb, you learn a lot about yourself. How dedicated you can be. How well you can step up when something matters to you. So the next mountain over still might be scary but now you know you have the determination and persistence to conquer it. And knowing that is half the battle in recognizing your awesomeness.

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So big picture message here is this: Don’t not try something just because it seems hard or even impossible. Mastery is achieved by accepting difficulties. Living in the moment and taking the steps we can until the impossibility passes beneath our feet like rocky ground. Go do something amazing today, startle yourself, challenge yourself. Whether it be in your work or in your passion (I would love if, for all of us, that was one and the same), take a little leap and trade the fear for faith that it will all work out.

Surround yourself with good people who are sympathetic to your struggle but won’t be enablers to your pity party.

Thank you to all that participated and helped run the contest. Thanks for my quirky new novel that has everything from deep-rooted government conspiracies, to genetically modified super soldiers, to in depth conversations about leg shaving.

Go on now writer. Set a goal, give it a timeline, and get on with discovering who you can be.

You’ve got awesome written all over you today.

Shooting The Curl

Something changed in the last month, my friends. Something kind of big. I didn’t really feel it at first, much like a solar flare or an earthquake a thousand miles away. The gentle flap of a butterfly’s wings somewhere in Malaysia. That’s how it began. Just an itch. A bit of a tickle…

You see, for the past seven or so years I’ve been on this track, inspired by the loss of a friend who left this dizzying ride far too soon. The day his light went out, I vowed to shine mine brighter; to burn out if necessary, but to always, always push towards my desires and passions.

And I succeeded in many respects. I achieved goals I had set, I went forth, even with paralyzing fear, to put myself and my work out there, to try new things, to live each day as if death might snatch me in my sleep.

And it’s a beautiful way to live. But no one mentions how hard it is to burn that intensely for so long. It’s nearly impossible to sustain in any healthy way. And I ended up sustaining it in not so healthy ways. Losing sleep, detrimental coping mechanisms, the overwrought sense of always being tired and worn out. Damage to my physical body. Damage to my mental health.

That’s when the butterfly fluttered somewhere in the distant neurons of my brain, and inspired this rising tsunami.

Living like you might die is a great way to get shit done. But I think I’m coming to grips with the idea that I might not go out like a candle extinguished, surprising and fast. That maybe, I’ll make it to 98…and if that’s the case, I have to slow my roll enough to make those fifty-some years just as beautiful and full.

Well, watch the wave come in…

I have to learn to slow the moments down. I am learning to say no to what doesn’t bring me joy. I am learning that not every day, week, month, year is the day, week, month, year that will see startling changes and massive accomplishments.

Sometimes I won’t get out of my pajamas all day. Sometimes, even after being a meticulous worker for most of my life, I won’t take the extra shifts. I may even put on a few pounds and kick my fucking scale to the curb.

Because I’m learning to save my effort for the things that really matter.

I’m committing myself to the things that fill my time with meaning.

This life-altering shift has helped me take a hard pass on things that have only been important because they mattered to the other people oscillating nearby. It’s got me skipping out on the mundane shit that doesn’t serve the purpose of my joy. Most importantly, it’s giving me permission to let go of people who don’t deserve my time or energy.

Does that mean I walk around being an asshole to everyone, shirking my commitments, and letting the laundry and bathroom scum build up to disgusting proportions? No. Because I might not die tomorrow, but if I did, I’m not going to leave a dirty mess behind me.

But does it mean if the bathroom looks fine but for a few spots on the mirror and some toothpaste in the sink I’ll put aside my ten pages of editing to clean it up?

Not any more.

Does it mean I’ll take all the jobs I can get, pro bono, because my platform ‘needs’ the solid underbelly from it?

Not any more.

My time is worthwhile, my craft is worthwhile. And if I don’t get any more of those little side jobs because they cost even the kindest, well-intentioned acquaintances then at least I will have the time that they took for me. And that’s priceless.

Does it mean I’ll drop my precious hours of writing, or family time, to take on a few extra shifts at my part-time jobs?

Not anymore.

Does it mean I’ll sign up for the time consuming races that guarantee I’ll end up with some injury, just for the ‘glory’ of bragging rights and the ‘challenge’?

Not this year.

I think I’m done with bragging. I’ve proven I can rise to challenges and I think I’m good with getting over giant accomplishments. I think I’m going to shoot the curl of this tsunami and ride it out…let it take me past all of the underlying reasons and expectations of others and do what’s best for me.

After all, I’ve only got half my life left. I spent a great deal of the first pleasing others, trying to anticipate and follow through with what they expected and needed of me.

I think it’s time I shook up some of those misperceptions.

 

Turning Point

No one likes to be rejected. Well, I can’t generalize, maybe there are those that get a kick out of it. Maybe for some, it serves as a driving force to continue with even more fervor. Maybe they’ve never had a problem with self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy.

I’m not one of those people.

My rational brain knows that there’s nothing personal meant. My rational brain knows that it’s just one opinion in a sea of possibilities. But day after day, letter after letter, even the most devoted to their art have to ask…did I miss my calling as a waitress?

Or a forensic anthropologist, or an archaeologist, or a pilot, or a teacher, or an EMT, or…ANY other job that doesn’t require me to put my heart in the hands of someone else to be judged and weighed to justify doing what I love?

Wouldn’t it be nice to just go into a nine-to-five, perform some task that doesn’t have to have any of my heart in it, go home, and get a paycheck and possibly health insurance if I’m lucky?

Writers…man, we’re a strange breed.

Rising in the dark early hours, still up at dark late hours, scribbling on napkins and notebooks. Our mental faculties always distracted to some degree by the dialogue in our heads. We write, we pour out, we mull over, and edit, and form, and shape, and create. We fester and brood. And when it looks, to our over-thinking eye, that it might be something worth sharing we throw it out into a world that’s saturated with thousands of other ideas worth sharing.

And we wait. And we hope. And we fester some more.

So it should be a relief when we get the rejection…the thirtieth or first, because now we know. And It’s better to know.

Isn’t it?

So you can go back to the drawing board and change your heart all over again. Mold it into something someone wants to read…make it something that’s acceptable.

Sometimes, you do everything they ask and find you hardly recognize your own voice afterwards.

So one has to wonder; if we take our hearts and cut them to fit the trend of the market, how much of us are we really offering to the world? And is it worth selling out to get our name on the front cover? And what makes that any different than a nine-to-five, heartless job with dental?

Except there’s no dental…

So much time, effort, and tears spent trying to tell the world a story, or explain the feelings of our hearts only to be told it isn’t enough. That if we change our story, that if we change our hearts we might be able to garner a $2.50 royalty someday.

Sounds like madness to me.

Sounds like unchecked mental disease.

At some point, don’t we have to admit, that maybe, our thoughts, our stories, are just not good enough, and maybe it would be less painful to just stop trying.

After all, life’s plenty painful enough on its own.

Soul Food

 

Sometimes opportunity knocks on the door…sometimes it knocks the door down.

 

Gentle readers, this week I’ve been filling my life up with a few new opportunities though time is sparse and energy is waning.

 

Times like these often make me question my ever-lovin’ sanity.

 

I know that we’re all busy. I know that we’re all overworked, and underpaid, and hanging on to the ledge by our fingernails. But sometimes…

 

Sometimes a light breaks out of the storm clouds above you and shines on a seemingly small and inconsequential moment. Everything else around it falls away… And you just know that this is something worth exploring.

 

This, a diamond in the rough.

 

When that kind of light shines in your life, the reason you tend to drop everything else is that what you’re looking at isn’t just an opportunity; it’s something more.

It’s food for your soul. In a world where we’ve been starving our spirit for lack of genuine sustenance, these moments and opportunities strike a stark contrast.

And we have to re-learn what we so often forget; that the soul will not be dissuaded.

Despite that fact, sometimes we fight the idea. We shy away. It’s too brilliant, it’s too bright; it could burn us or illuminate all of our own shortcomings. It will be too much work and presents a slippery a slope.

It could be our downfall.

It’s the sun and we, Icarus.

T’was ambition that killed Caesar… and all that jazz.

 

 

But what if this light is something so much bigger than you and your human fears of failure? And what if it’s not just an opportunity for you but for a better world, a small piece at a time? What if it’s a hand to someone who’s been too long forgotten. What if this dangerous journey, hard-pressed and gritty, means more than just your own happiness?

What if it’s a chance to use your voice to change the world?

 

Well then, you chase that light. You open that goddamn door.

 

You don’t hesitate, you don’t reconsider. You fling it open and feed your soul.

 

Times in this country are pretty fucking dark. I’m not even kidding, ya’ll.

We’re spiraling down the bowl of a very large toilet. Hate, hurt, injustice, anger, suicide, depression, gloom…it’s all a shadowy mass, constantly pressing in.

I’m asking…nay, tell you—chase the light. Find a way to be of some use…not for the perpetuation of hate and hurt but for the healing of our country, our world, and our place in history.

How do you want your grandchildren…your great grandchildren to remember your actions in this time? Will they remember your hatred? Will they look back to see disgusting and disrespectful behavior towards your fellow human beings?

 

If that’s your idea of legacy, you can go kick rocks, kid…I don’t want your kind in my playground.

 

It is no longer enough to sit idly by and just do no harm. It is time to actively participate in doing good. In lifting the downtrodden, and striking out against those who keep us all underfoot.

 

So go out there, find your brilliant light, your opportunity to make a difference, and throw yourself into the fire of it. Feed your soul.

Can I Get a Prompt?

Pssst….

Hey there kid, want to do something different?

Well, if you read this blog I’m willing to bet that part of your time is spent on creative endeavors of some kind. And I thought it might be a good time to remind you about improvisation exercises as a healthy and fun part of your writing routine.

Whether you are a novelist, a poet, a technical writer, historical non-fiction guru or children’s phenom, everyone’s creativity waxes and wanes with the progression of our career and lives. It is, therefore, important that we spend some time practicing in different ways to jog the old idea factory into an efficient, work-producing machine.

This particular exercise is about improvising (on the fly you might say) with one sentence prompts. You may have had to do this at conferences or class and present your material after the allotted time. As an introvert it might have be akin to a claustrophobic getting stuck in the kiddie tube slide at the park (Breath, Sarah…breath…just keep squirming.)

So, in defense of all of those out there not wanting to share their words yet but in need of something that boosts their creativity, I’m going to give you some pointers on prompts and let you go to proverbial town on them.

The important things to remember with these kinds of exercises are:

  1. DO NOT (repeated it after me) DO NOT, censor yourself or edit. Let yourself run with the idea, no matter how stupid or silly.
  2. Stay true to the character you’re given to work with or the situation, this is not about what you’d do, it’s about what they do. And they’re crazy bastards. So let their freak flag fly.
  3. The funnier the better. The sadder the better. The more horrific, the better. Improvisation should be a lot of things but none of those is BORING. Make it snappy, or if it must be reserved, do it to build tension for a whiz bang ending.
  4. Emotion is important. The only time to pause in writing for a prompt is to ask yourself, what’s the most intense thing this person feels in this moment and how does that look on the outside. How do I make my reader jump into the character’s skin and feel that intensity?
  5. Challenge yourself with prompts that may not seem interesting or your ‘type’ of writing. You will surprise yourself at what comes out from behind those locked doors.

 

I’m going to give you three prompts. I could give you a length requirement, but we’re not middle schoolers here (though my humor sometimes digresses to such a level). Get dark, get dirty, get freaky, get sweet. Make it something that shocks you. Share it in the comments if you want to or in a private message to me.

At the end of this article I’ll link some really amazing references for doing more of these kinds of exercises on your own. If you are gripping your computer screen, shouting at me with spittle flying, that you “DON’T HAVE THAT KIND OF TIME!!” calm your tits…this will take five minutes tops. You can do it while you wait at the doctor’s office for your appointment for excessive salivation. You can do it in the car while you wait for your kids to get out of school. You can do it over your first cup of coffee…

Think of it as the second-most-fun form of “quickie” you get in life.

(Come on…I warned you about the seventh-grade humor, don’t look shocked.)

Ok…. Here’s your prompts. Pick one, or two, or make it a trifecta. In a perfect world, quickies are not limited. (And, yes, I mean that in all the ways)

  1. A rancher comes across a mutilated cow in her field, and all of the organs have been replaced by…
  2. A man is dared by his friends to ask the next woman who walks through the bar’s door to marry him. The next woman who walks through the door is…
  3. A child finds an ordinary rock on the playground that begins to make his wishes, big and small, come true. He brings it home and his mom finds it in the wash and puts it in her pocket without thinking…

 

Go play.

Here’s some books you should read or apps (for you tech savvy geniuses) you can download to help bring a little fun and playfulness to your art.

 

“A Writer’s Book of Days” by Judy Reeves

“Pocket Muse” (1 and 2) by Monica Wood

“The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice” Kelli Russell Agodon

Apps:

Prompts for Writing

The Brainstormer

WordPallette

 

 

Writer vs. Idioms

 

Biting the Dust and Chewing the Fat: A Word About Idioms

 

My daughter is learning about idioms in school. With new eyes on them, these expressions and figures of speech can range from all-out ridiculous to so over used that we barely notice them. Keep your eyes open, I’m about to idiom all over this place.

 

The conversation with my daughter got the ball rolling in my head, thinking about the idioms that pepper my own work. Writing coaches and how-to books tell you constantly to watch out for these little story killers, and with good reason. They dull your dialogues. They’re cliche, they’re drab, and boring and are the written word equivalent to a speaker saying ‘um’ and ‘uh’. Idioms are skipped over by the reader’s eye because they are so common as fixtures of language and culture. In other words, they’re time and space wasters.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Now, I don’t want to steal someone’s thunder or throw the baby out with the bathwater because sometimes idioms can be useful. Occasionally a specific phrase used in dialogue can denote or solidify where your character comes from or give us insight into their personality.

 

Saying ‘that dog won’t hunt’ or that someone ‘doesn’t know shit from Shinola’ (oh, and ‘please excuse my French’) are phrases one expects from a certain region or even generation. But unless it is something your character is at home saying, or that paints them in more vibrant colors to the reader, avoid them like the plague. After all, do we really need to swing a cat in a room to see if it’s big enough to do so?

 

It’s hard to cull the herd of idioms in our language; to make our work more precise and original, but it is part of fighting the good fight. When editing, ask yourself if the line has a double meaning. Ask if it’s the best possible way to say what you mean. If it’s an obvious idiom, what could you use instead? Does it contribute to the scene and charm of the moment, or distract from it?

 

So don’t beat around the bush or cry over spilt milk. When the ball is in your court and you’re back to the drawing board, remember; although idioms can be a cloud with a rare silver lining, it is always better to hit the nail on the head and kick overused phrases to the curb.

 

Now, if I can get the use of the Oxford comma right and stop double spacing after periods, I may just level the playing field.

 

If it’s not one thing…it’s another.

 

What are some of your common (or favorite) over-used expressions?

 

Half-Way To an Unknown Destination

Good morning fellow readers, writers, and friends. This morning marks nearly the half-way mark of NANOWRIMO.

In the month of November a gauntlet is thrown, where in writers of all types, genres, and experience levels attempt to write 50,000 words in 30 days. While this ain’t my first rodeo (fourth year participant) I’m quickly finding that every year is different.

Most notably this year’s project has been a study in what happens when I let my “pantser” out.

Before you call the authorities and request a restraining order, what I mean is that usually I have a rough idea of what my novel will be about, some basic plot points, a shady little arc where in I can fit most scenes with relative smoothness. I’m not an all-out “plotter” I don’t have graphs, or charts, or beat sheets. Usually later in my process I come up with something that formal if it helps me fill in the gaps.

But this year–

This year I just started writing about a girl who’d suffered a horrifying assault, ran away, and returns to her childhood home with no intention of staying past the point of handling her grandfather’s affairs.

That’s it.

That’s all I had.

Oh…and a murder has been committed.

And there’s this seasoned old detective who’s lovable but grouchy as shit.

Oooo, and lets make him a divorcee, trying to quit smoking while raising a curious 12-year old boy.

And let’s say he doesn’t deal well with horses. Or heights. And he’s got a paunch, because he’s over forty and can’t get rid of it no matter how many weeknights he plays rugby.

And she gets panic attacks. Bad ones.

And what happens when the lady in question has a panic attack while driving just ahead of the cop and his son on their way to rugby practice?

And her sisters hate each other, and are polar opposites hippie versus yuppie.

And I need to learn Greek. And I gotta start looking into regional varieties of grapes and how rare the Andravidas horse is…and what’s the shape and size of a typical head wound from a roncola…

See what I mean? I’m all over the place. And this book, ladies and gents, it might be the messiest first draft I’ve EVER written. I jump from scene to scene, character to character, out of time, out of place, sometimes contradicting myself within the same paragraph. I’ve never had such a mess of a project.

I’ve never worked on a book that I wasn’t sure I would absolutely finish and make into something better.

But this fella, he’s a different breed.

He’s a quirky little story and I’m sort of hopeful that all of the pants-ing going on here is going to produce some really raw and gritty emotion, boiled down description, some complex characters in tender situations that will amount, later and with a lot of elbow grease, to a decent and intriguing novel.

The point, (yep, there’s one–it’s coming. Wait for it–) is that by jamming out words, even in their flagrant misuse of proper grammar or form, even with complete disrespect for story arc, has allowed me to explore a genre I’ve never written in before without the halting self-doubt that might have stopped me before. I’ve discovered characters who are more than a little fucked up (*gasp* where’s the romance in that?) and may or may not find out the truth let alone a happily ever-after. And that might be okay this time around.

If you’re in the middle of it, and have a day that knocks you back, jump ahead, jump behind…write the characters ten years in the future or what their sixth-grade year was like. The words don’t have to be in order, they just have to be there.

Good skill writers. 16 more days, and you are all over this like a bunch of bacchantes on Dionysus.

Get to it.