Tag Archives: writing

making of harry potter common room

Staring is necessary.

My IB students are reading The Things They Carried now and just finished The Great Gatsby. The order in which you teach books brings to light different aspects of them. I don’t believe I’ve ever juxtaposed these two titles before. So, as we read each vignette of The Things They Carried, the burden of being an observer in war is the thread I keep being drawn to. Both Nick and O’Brien seem to exist as a lens through which to view the story, take little part in the action, only rarely turn that lens on themselves. They are both writers. Go figure, I’m drawn to this persona, the observer. I know just what I’d do if I ever stumbled upon an invisibility cloak as Harry Potter did.
“Stare hard, retard,” people used to say when they caught me staring. And sometimes on my walks to work, I get so caught up in the physical details of the world around us that I just want to keep walking right past work, spend the day collecting images. I did this when I was in high school quite a lot. I’d walk to school, reach the building, decide to keep walking. I grew up in sister cities and I’d walk to the edges of them both, walk between them.
This is at least a part of why I prefer to walk to school even though Chris drives and works at the same place. This is why I prefer spring and summer days, because I can walk and walk without the extra weight of an umbrella or the inconvenience of getting cold or wet. I used to at least try to keep a journal collecting some of my impressions from the day. It’s been difficult to find time lately, but I’d like to try to get back to that practice, just a little writing before bed. *moves journal to night stand
I’ve sometimes felt ashamed of my observer personality (“Stare hard, retard”), but reading O’Brien I’m embracing that part of myself, feeling part of a tribe of storytellers. So, dear writer peeps, if this sounds like you, I have a challenge for you this week:

Spend 10-20 minutes sitting in public just observing everything you can.
Observe and record a conversation between two people you eavesdrop on.
Stare at an object. Stare again. Keep staring until you’ve written a two paragraph description of the thing.

 

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cell phone that says "my phone is my castle" on the screen

It is called a mobile, after all.

We had an unexpected dumping of snow in Olympia that afforded me a Monday snow day yesterday. This allowed me to easily and leisurely meet my word count for the day and also to reflect on the week, writing, the sheer size of the flakes floating down out the window. And that’s not even the whole of the day. I also read some of The Circle, which is turning out to be a page-turner and two chapters of A Moveable Feast which Chris and I are reading out loud to each other in preparation for the Book-It performance in March. It felt decadent to have the day, since the weekend had been so satisfying, and that, or at least the reason for the satisfaction is what I want to write about here.
As I’ve mentioned in past posts, weekends are the hardest times for me to get my word count in. This is counter-intuitive since I teach high school Monday through Friday and have weekends off. Shouldn’t I have more time on weekends and therefore write more? One would think so, but the opposite is true. I write less on weekends.
What made the difference this weekend? I turned off my cell Friday before bed and didn’t turn it on again until Sunday at noon. Lo and behold, I wrote double my goal and broke through two barriers in my story.
How can I explain this?
On weekdays I do my writing early in the morning while the house is still asleep, before picking up my phone or checking my email. It’s this sweet little pocket of solitude and leisure before I am standing in front of a classroom of sometimes reluctant always skeptical students. Always skeptical because they are high school age and they should be. (It’s the unskeptical ones I worry about. What innocence shaking novel should I slip them to shake them up and get them on track? Back to the point–) The weekend; however, is an unstructured free-for-all time wise and it’s easier to passively gawk on social media than struggle with creating fiction. So, I cave to my impulse to check in with the world of digital interactions and eye candy my phone has to offer off and on all weekend which makes it difficult to focus and relax, two things we need to write.

What will I do with this new-found self-knowledge?
It is called a mobile, after all, and I’d like to start treating it like one. A great device to connect outside of home. At home, I want to keep it turned off more often. Like from Friday nights to Sundays at noon, except when I’m out on the town. Also weekday mornings before eight and as soon as I get home on weekday evenings. This not only feels like a good tweak to my writing life, but a tweak that is consistent with how I’ve been feeling for a long while about how we come home and sink into our social media threads when we should be interacting with our families, cooking a good meal, reading a book, or just sitting and letting the day sink in. Resonates with how I feel about how we bring our phones to bed, to the table, to the easy chair. This feels like a right tweak, like an I should have thought of this long ago tweak, and I’m excited to see the effects.
I know that after a day and a half break, my shoulders were more relaxed. I was breathing more freely. I wrote with more ease and without distraction.

What habits are working for you to keep you focused?
What are your writing goals for the week? the month? the year?

Sneak peak: Next month I’m kicking off the daily writing warm-ups a little early. You know we’ve got poetry in April and scenes in May, so what’s in store for March?
In March, we will travel to a new place each day with a prompt to describe a place in 200 words or less. Stay tuned!

 

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yoga frog

Don’t push it. That’s my advice this week. Happy writing!

Much better this week. Not perfect, but better. I wrote six of seven days. Slowly, but that’s my pace right now. I mostly got to bed by nine on the weekdays, save one or two restless nights. I hope do the same or better this week, but I’m not attached to that result. It doesn’t equal success or failure. Those are long-term, future-focused words that when you break down get pretty muddy in their true meaning. I gave this advice to another writer in my weekly critique group last Monday. I asked her what her goal was for her work and she said to finish it and get published.
Seems like the obvious goal, right?
In my experience, that goal will leave you hamstrung and miserable.
I choose joy.
Each day I sit down to write for all the time I have to offer the work. I am working on a first draft of a second novel in a trilogy of books that take place in Olympia and all feature a central character who is struggling to find his/her path. Around that main character is a cast of quirky characters who sometimes recur between books.
Of course, I want to finish them and publish them.
But I’ve learned not to think of that when I am drafting and revising. I try to take each chunk of writing time as it comes. I try not to set deadlines for when I should be done, because what I’ve found is that I will reach those deadlines. Even when I shouldn’t. Even when the work isn’t ready to be done, I will finish on time. And then after a couple of weeks away, of maybe sending the work out to the world, I’ll read it and see what I didn’t see before, face the truth. And sometimes my forcing the work to completion will have created more problems to fix than before.
I’m learning to trust the work to tell me when it’s done, to not push it with imposed deadlines. I am working on a first draft of a second book, trying to write every day, getting feedback on the first book in my critique group, and when I finish this first draft, I’ll set it aside and start in on draft two of the first book. Then I’ll write the first draft of the third book. I have no idea when any of this will be done.

Happy writing week to you, my friends. May your words flow freely and your heart be light.

 

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One day spent chaperoning debate nerds. Two insights about writing fiction.

I say nerds admiringly. After all, I was one of them back in highschool when I regularly skipped other classes to work on my debate cases. Am one of them, really. I no longer geek out on arguing the ethics or efficacy of various philosophical schools, all of which I was  learning solely to build my rhetorical arsenal. All of which were making me more befuddled as to what I really thought and believed. Now, for me, it’s books and the things that make up books. Precious sentences!

For the two judges sitting across from me in the judge’s lounge that day it was crossword puzzles. To be precise, four of them. Another judge they knew, a tall bespectacled man carrying a fresh copy of the New Yorker, noticed they were currently working on the LA Times and proceeded to rib them. How could ladies of their caliber deign to do any crossword puzzle than NY? They laughed. They had that one too, tucked under the LA Times. This was the seed of my first insight of the day into writing fiction. It has to do with character, specifically archetypes and models. As I was sitting there drinking the coffee but trying to avoid the white sugar parading as mini bagels by munching out of my baggie of trail mix, it occurred to me how far one can get in developing a character’s identity by first figuring out what social sub group they belong to. You can sketch a lot about what they wear, what they do in their free time, what topics of conversation they lean toward, what books they might read, even what they value. The danger of course is to stop there. And since I had ten hours of basically just sitting around watching people that day, I did a lot of sneaky staring and character sketching. I eavesdropped on stories and began to see the individuals emerge in this group that at first seemed strikingly aligned. What emerged for me from this exercise was that it’s useful to begin sketching a character by identifying a model. The danger is to stop there. Perhaps a more pervasive danger exists in fearing models that are out of our own social comfort zone We must push past the judgement that emerges when values clash to create human characters who inhabit ways of being that are difficult for us to empathize with. Because, in the end, characters should be individuals, not models.

At one point I grew bored even of people watching and decided to go for a walk around the University of Puget Sound’s campus. I had no idea where I was going, no destination. That became part of the fun. As I walked, I began to build stories in my head, urged on by what I was seeing with my eyes. A persistent yellow rose, a bit weary, but persevering winter. An old style chalkboard on wheels, some unknown equations written across it. A fountain with the head of a fish next to the head of a lion, the leo and the pisces locked in natural conflict. A rooftop fire escape. I even hopped onto an elevator at one point and pushed the button for the floor I thought was the one I started on. The doors closed, but the elevator didn’t move. I almost panicked, then browsed the buttons again, selected my second choice. The elevator lurched, moved. The doors opened right where I began. What had been on the floor it wouldn’t let me out on? My imagination scrolled through story possibilities for what was on floor M. And here’s where the second insight into writing came to me. Be present as you adventure into the world. Collecting images of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Taking photos and writing descriptions in our journals or recording our own voices describing these things on our mobile phones. This builds the muscles of our imagination.

 

Here’s a prompt and a challenge for you. Take one of the images below and turn it into a poem or a short work of prose. If you’re willing, share it.

 

I’m wishing you all another week of flowing words. As for me, I’m just past the half point in the first draft of a novel I’m writing called It May Look Like Disaster, the first in a series of three Olympia novels. I’m waking up at 4 AM on weekdays to write and trying to edit stories and type in handwritten pages in the evenings. I submitted stories to three journals last week and my goal is to submit every week of 2016.
Blessings to you. Make time.

 

 

 

elevator gargoyle fountain yellow rose         escape spider web

 

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nanowrimo novel writing

Reflections on Nanowrimo at the midpoint, plus the not-so-sexy-after-all struggle

Yesterday morning I made it to 25,800 words on my Nanowrimo novel. My writing morning went as usual, with one significant difference. My alarm blared Bryan Adams “I’m Gonna Run To You” (Jack FM) at 4 AM and I slammed down the snooze button. Twenty minutes later “Come On Feel The Noize” and I slammed down the snooze button again. I got dressed, made coffee while the dogs ate fresh heaps of kibble, then donned my faux fur lined jacket for a walk which only a few months ago I took wearing shorts and flip-flops. Now it’s dark and cold and even the dogs want to just get down to business.

I pour two cups of coffee with cream, placed a plate over the top of one to keep it warm, because although Chris’s alarm will go off any  minute, he’ll also want some snooze time. I sit at my writing desk, set my electric blanket across my lap (thank you, Carrie), then I start a session of freedom.

What’s freedom, you ask? It’s an internet blocking service I’ve known about for a while, but didn’t use. I choose a sixty minute session. This is my fourth day of freedom and I have seen the light. True, I can’t fact-check as I go, can’t look up synonyms to get the wording just right, can’t check my email “real quick”, can’t find the perfect pop culture reference for the time or browse books published the year my story takes place.

I have no choice to keep writing forward.

I’ve known for a long time that this was a good way to write a first draft, but for me struggle is the sexy dark horse. Meaning, it would be too easy to take that good advice I’ve come up against again and again. I am that person who when the yoga instructor says to pay attention to how it feels in your body, I think it’s a “good stretch” when there is a dull throbbing pain up and down my leg. Because I tend to stubbornly persist through whatever quagmire I find myself in. Because I am a person who works hard and perseveres and is resilient. Why would I take an easier way out? Plus, I can be a bit of perfectionist with my sentences, reading them aloud until they’re just so.

Why has it taken me so long to understand two thing that I teach high school students all the time?

 

  1. Have a process.

 

As I teen I was fascinated by ritual, terrified by the idea of falling into too many patterns, imprisoning myself. I was obsessed with trying to force spontaneity. The paradox I’ve discovered in writing (and perhaps it applies to life too) is that the more ritual I have, the more spontaneous my writing can become. There is a freedom in the space of writing when the creative mind is familiar with that territory, has been there before, when the process is clear. Also, patterns will emerge, with or without your input. Don’t you want to have input? Don’t you know better than your fear? Your laziness? Your self-loathing?

 

Be as specific about your process as you can. Borrow from others. Don’t worry about whether it’s perfect for you. Pick something and try it for a while. Your process can and will change, but you’ve got to have one.

What times and days will you write?

What are the rules for writing your first draft?

What will you look for in your first revision?

At what point will you invite other people into your work? For what purpose?

 

Keep a logbook and/or spreadsheet of each time you write or edit to track your work over time. Include in your logbook notes about struggles that emerge for you in your work.

 

  1. Time, place, manner.

 

Have a process and trust it. Draw boundaries for the steps of your process. What parts of your writer self will you invite in with the first draft? Will you kick the editor out? What will it take for you to do that? What will you focus on for the second draft? The third?

My process for the past 20+ years has been to sit down and write, then go back and revise. It was a miracle when I sat down to write at all, and when I did, it was often a battle with aspects of myself, particularly the one who wants to write the story and the one who wants to pick it apart along the way. While I’m writing the first draft of the novel I’m working on now, I’m making a list of revision consideration for the second draft. Writing them on that list is my way of setting them aside for now. I am learning to hold myself to the idea of a first draft. I’ve heard this advice over and over again. The struggle was too sexy. I couldn’t resist. But I’m getting it now. I no longer think cool boys in leather jackets are enticingly mysterious and I get that writing can be more or less difficult. More difficult if you don’t follow a plan, including to show up every day. There is a time to pick apart your sentences. It isn’t in the first draft. Just like there is a time to talk about your grade in my class. it’s not in front of the whole class, in the middle of explaining a new present moment assignment. Oh, and put your phone away. You should have checked your grades before you came to class.

 

What’s your process? How do you make it happen?

 

 

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feedback

Regarding Feedback: Why you don’t have to have thick skin.

 

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Yesterday a writer friend asked my advice on an awkward situation he’d gotten into where he’d given another writer feedback that was not well received. Shocked by the negative emotional response, he wondered what he’d said or done wrong. I’m not going further into that story. It’s his story to tell or not tell, but his bringing me into the question about feedback helped me solidify my own ideas, ideas I’d been mulling over for a long time.

There seems to be a pervading myth that if we want to be taken seriously as writers, we have to develop thick skin, be open to receiving feedback from anyone and not take it personally. I reject this notion. Even considering other questions, such as when a piece is ready to be let go and be commented on by others. Receiving feedback prematurely from anyone is a risk. I wrote a short letter about that a while back after handing a trusted editor a story that had just been born.  Yet, I believe, even when you have worked your piece to a vibrant gleam, you do not have to be thick skinned regarding your work. You shouldn’t be. Fitzgerald said that as a writer “you’ve got to sell your heart.” This is validated in everything I know about the writing process. The way we slip into the skins of our characters in order to feel what they feel. The way we weave a story in time and space into strands of universal meaning. The way we work and work arranging and rearranging words. Why should we have to be willing to give our hearts away to anyone?

The best critiques I’ve gotten are from friends who are truly interested in helping me become a better writer and who understand that I know my work needs work and, from them, I’m willing to hear some possibilities as to how I might go about improving that work. I’m in a critique group now with writers I know and trust, and I feel grateful for that. During the MFA program I graduated from in 2011, we were placed in random workshop groups with people who we often didn’t know, sometimes didn’t trust. I think these types of feedback groups are the worst idea ever.  You give everyone in the group your heart and trust that they like you, aren’t the type of person who is more worried about impressing a faculty facilitator than helping you, and is wise enough not to allow their own aesthetic bias to seep into their comments.

Now, you might say one ought to be prepared to take that kind of feedback too, especially if the plan is to get the work out into the world where anyone is free to stomp on it as they please. But a work sent out into the world is a finished work, you’ve let it go. A work you’re working on should be shared with only people you trust. Believing that thick skin garbage was easy for me. I’ve spent a life time learning to toughen up. Being vulnerable is human and necessary. You do not have to be thick skinned to be a writer.

 

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goldfish

A defense of prompts, an opportunity, and a goldfish

The other day I may have bought a few books at the Half-Priced Books 50% off sale. While the checker was scanning each book (took a while), one book (John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction) sparked a conversation about writing. Would this be a good book for creative writers?, the college-faced checker wanted to know, blowing his blond bangs off his face from one side of his mouth. Chris, who was standing eagerly behind me, said oh, yes, the prompts are fantastic. Hmmm. The checker, replied. I never write to prompts.

At that point we gathered our books and left, never knowing the real story of the HPB checker, who clearly had some aspirations to write creatively. But the moment made me think about prompts and why and what we use them for, how I feel about them. Look at the writing section of any bookstore and you will see oodles of books full of nothing but prompts. I’ve owned a number of these books. One that influenced me greatly as a young writer was Writing Down The Bones, a narrative with prompts meant to help you write fluidly and freely without fear.

Between the ages of 17 to say 25ish, I was part of several writing groups, some more successful than others, one or two at least that never grew beyond me sitting alone in a coffee shop writing to prompts, sure that next week some other writer eager to connect with other writers would join me. During this time, I wrote often to prompts. Sometimes those prompts became stories.

Now, I’ve written four novel-length stories and more stories than I can count. I’ve also learned the art of editing, the most important part of the writing process. Yet I still think it is important to write to prompts. To write without regard for what will come of what you’re writing. As writers we should have notebooks full of writing that is just for us, just for practice. That practice is how we become better writers. Use prompts to warm up. Use prompts to get unstuck. Use prompts to spend some time simply playing with words without the pressure of how those words hold up in service of the work you are doing for real, the art you are hoping to send out to the world.

So, today I give you a prompt. Write something with the word goldfish in it. If you send me what you wrote and your mailing address, I will send you a thank you for playing with me. In case you can’t find it anywhere else on this page, my email is eatyourwords,lizshine@gmail.com.

goldfish

Photo courtesy of fishtankbank.com

Now, having written for twenty minutes, including a line of dialogue in which a girl asks her parents “Well, can we at least get a goldfish?”, I am getting to my work of the day, picking up the novel I’m working on to see if I can find my way to the resolution of Chapter 3.

 

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The importance of place.

I’m four pages in to chapter two of my new book, a book I’ve outlined, made character sketches for, and even bought markers and big pieces of white paper to make visual maps of motifs and character relationships. I feel so ready to write this book!
Until, I don’t.
I’m on my second week of getting up at four in the morning to write, and I’m in the thick of chapter two. This morning I was writing a scene in a kitchen with two teens and their Dad, a primary setting in this story. As I visualized the scene in my head, moved the characters in space, rendered their words, thoughts, and actions, I realized a piece I had forgotten to plan.
I hadn’t planned the layout of the house my characters lived in, or the individual rooms. The story takes place in Olympia, but I hadn’t even planned what part of town, let alone the details of the house. For that matter, there’s a chunk of it that takes place at a school. What does it look like? In 2005?
Without an intentional plan, in order to write forward, I picked a house I used to rent as a model for my story. The point here is, though, that I did this without any awareness. Once I realized what I had done, I had to decide whether the choice was a good one or merely a familiar default. Should the story be in a different place? Where?
It is in this way that we continue to plan our stories, add to our outlines as we get deeper and deeper into the writing. The key is to recognize when to pin down the details. I noticed where I had placed my story because I was struggling with some of the details. You see, I hadn’t committed to that old house, that particular setting. I just used it to keep writing.
I have committed to it now, but I could just as easily have moved the story to a different house, across town. Two understandings emerged for me in this moment of attention. The first is that when you are writing about people in a place, you should know that place in as much specificity as possible. What color are the curtains? Does a faucet leak? Whether it’s a real place or imagined—set your story down somewhere with walls of a certain color and doors that creak, with smudges of dirt on the light switches. Draw it or pick a place you know, or both. The second thing?
Welcome these moments that demand that you add to your outline as a critical part of the process. There is such an urge to write, let nothing get in the way, because writing is hard enough. But I think I’ve caused myself more trouble than necessary writing this way.
When I print out first drafts of chapters to edit, I highlight all the specific details that emerge, mostly as a tool to keep them in the visual landscape I move through in my mind as I put words to page. Shouldn’t we welcome these breaks to draw, list, and diagram as part of creating a place for your story that seems real?

 

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house

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A Room Of Your Own: Wake Up Early

A few days ago I was whining to my best friend (also a writer) about how I lack discipline and am not writing consistently.

We have this conversation quite often. We both teach high school and have families. We both have a tendency to want to solve everyone else’s problems before our own. We both really want to publish a book some day.

Now, we know that means sitting down to write on a consistent basis. Daily, really. We just don’t always do what we know we need to do. Sound familiar?

It’s summer and if I choose to I can sleep in every day.

I really want to sleep in every day. I love sleeping in. I could sleep through anything.

The problem is than when I sleep in, by the time I get up, I am drawn into the daily grind and too distracted to settle in to write. I go through my day promising myself that I will get to it later.

Later, I am too tired.

The early morning is a writer’s paradise. The world is quiet and no one needs anything or wants to talk to you.

I didn’t exactly wake with the roosters this morning, but I did set an alarm and was ready to leave the house before 9.

My friend and I drove to Bayview Market downtown Olympia and sat outside trying to write to the squawking of seagulls (a nice soundtrack for writing, I think).

I struggled. It had been days since I’d really gotten into a flow. I was beginning to doubt everything. I considered leaving after writing only a page (it had been an hour). Look what you did! I told myself. You wrote a whole page! That’s good for a day, right?

But when I looked over and saw my friend, hands on home row, focused and still writing, I stayed on for more.

In the end, I had finished a chapter I felt good about and written an outline.

*reluctantly sets  alarm*

What sacrifices are you willing to make to achieve your writing goals?

 

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A Room Of Your Own: Write one sentence

The end of a school brings a flood of emotion. Woo-hoo! Summer-time–Cooking outside–Sleeping in–Reading whatever I want.I’ve started three lists of all the marvelous ways I’m going to spend my summer time this year. (Yes, writing is on it.)   But everything must be graded before that last day and you need to check out with EVERYONE and they sign your paper saying that you don’t have any overdue library books and everything that you were supposed to check in is checked in and the asset number on everything you want to check out has been properly documented. You may or may not know what classes you are teaching next year and either situation gets your mind reeling.

After school today, I found it hard enough to string words together into sentences, let alone muster the energy and inspiration to sit down to write. I took the dog for a run, a measly two and a half miles (cut down during the run from four). I dragged my body along, conscious of every step.

It was on this run that I conceived the idea for this blog.

When you can do no more, just write one sentence. Then, write one more. And one more. And one more. Until you have a page. Maybe more?

I have wasted so much time living under the myth that sitting down to write constitutes a major commitment of time and energy. When I’m feeling tired or vulnerable, thinking this way makes it virtually impossible to write.

On these days, I tell myself that I must only write one sentence today. I tell myself this one sentence at a time.

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