Tag Archives: writingadvice

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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stepping stones

One true sentence? Considering Hemingway.

My seniors are reading Hemingway, so, of course, I am rereading him too. And thinking about him and his oft-quoted advice to writers. Just one true sentence? The truest sentence you know?

When I first read Hemingway with a writer’s eye (in college), I became enamored with his concision and tried to mimic it. The result was stories that were puzzling. All that human emotion and thought left unsaid, unthought, left for the reader to pluck from the tone of a line of dialogue, the selection of a particular noun or verb. What resulted were stories that were good in parts, but that didn’t satisfy my own sense of what I needed to convey in writing. They weren’t in my voice. Plus, I’m always a little suspect of a narrator who hides entirely, offers nothing to the conversation.

I’ve learned I’m  no Hemingway, don’t desire to be. But I do take his one true sentence advice for a particular use. That moment when you are stuck as to how to get from A to B, one moment to the next. Your girl is standing outside the door about to knock. You are trying to get her inside. The scene that matters is beyond the door. Now is the time to invoke one true sentence. Write a string of true sentences to get you where you want to go.

 

Becca knocked hard, shoved shivering hands in jeans pockets, waited. The neighbor’s mastiff came sniffing into the year, off leash again.

 

Becca stood, moved to knock, paused. A car sped by. She reread the notes she’d written on the back of a napkin. She put on a smile, shook out the nerves, pushed the doorbell.

Any time you are stuck, really. One clean, objective sentence of description. Then another and another. A true sentence? Hold on there, Hemingway. Truth is a funny word that holds power only until you start to probe it. One real sentence? Yes. That works. Write one clean, objective sentence located in the reality of your story. These sentences, for me, act as stepping stones. stepping stones

 

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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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dandelion

A reminder to Make Time.

Hello writer friends!
By this time of year I’ve normally posted an anxiety fueled post about the start of the school year, the subtext of which is always HOW IN THE HELL AM I GOING TO FIND TIME TO WRITE? The title of this blog is called Make Time for good cause. Make Time is a tip of my hat to a truth that’s taken me a youth to arrive at. We don’t find time for anything. If it matters, we Make Time.
What can really drive you crazy is when you can’t find time because you are making time to please and impress everyone else around you. Your laundry is folded on Sunday. Your lesson plans are hot enough to post on Teachers Pay Teachers (yet another potential distraction promising immediate monetary compensation for your ideas). And by crazy I mean dreadfully unhappy, jealous, and resentful. That is what happens when you don’t Make Time for the creative impulse that is calling you particularly.

Why have I not posted such a blog yet? When we’re now six weeks into the school year already?

Well, I’ve been busy writing. I just looked at my writing logs, and–WOW–I’ve been keeping a regular schedule since April 1. No fooling! I get up between 4 and 4:30 most weekday morning to write, plus I write Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and on weekends. When I wake up to write in the morning, I open a word file, not my web browser (distraction!)

When I stop to think about it, I fall to my knees and kiss the ground. I’ve been trying to find time since the 90s and much of that time has been me wishing time would fall in my lap while I dutifully went about making other people’s lives easier.

This morning, after writing, I spent some time sifting through old files on my computer, getting organized. I found this folder FULL of articles I’d downloaded from EBSCO Host in 1995, all on the craft of writing. I smiled to recall myself then, eager as now to write. That was the year my son was born. He’s twenty now. What other permission do I need than that to carry on? That’s no short lived impulse.

Writing exposes us, along with all our fears and doubts. Good writing requires solitude in the drafting, an audience in revision. You must take what matters to you and make it matter to readers. This is not something you find time for. You can do better than that, my friend.

Make Time.

 

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makeawish

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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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comfort zone

Get out of your comfort zone

This is easier said than done, yet this is the message I’m hearing loud and clear. A message without pretense or subtlety. Let me explain what I mean, and also how it applies to my writing life–and, perhaps, applies to you and the work you’re doing too.
I am a cautious person for good reason. There has been little security or stability in my life. Until now. In response to a tumultuous life, I have nurtured certain aspects of my character: strength, independence, and shrewdness among them. I am not comfortable in vulnerability, dependence, or non-judgment. Like everyone else I have zones of comfort I prefer to stay in. This is the nature of survival. Yet, as an educator, I understand that after basic needs are accounted for, we each have exponential potential for growth and the way to expand our potential as human beings is to get uncomfortable. This is how we get better at math and it’s also how we develop compassion.

So, back to this message I’ve been receiving. In these past couple of years I’ve gotten away from a regular yoga practice, and lately I’ve been trying to get back to the mat. I am not as strong, not as balanced, not as flexible, not as focused. Classes for me have never been a necessity, just an occasional treat. I began practicing yoga at fifteen and had no idea classes even existed. I’m sure in 1989 I wouldn’t have found one in Aberdeen or Hoquiam anyway. But I had books, and books are definitely my comfort zone. I’ve practiced yoga over the years with dozens of books propped open next to my mat. However, that wasn’t working for me this time. I’d lost the passion and curiosity, needed to be led back into practice. So I signed up for two yoga series, one with my husband, one on my own.

The series I’m taking on my own turns out to be way out of my comfort zone. It’s all women and what I call woo-woo. There’s hugging, chanting, and all sorts of verbal sharing, plus tea and conversation for an undefined length of time after class. I am introverted and struggle when called to make small talk. From the first class I knew this group would not be without awkward moments for me ( though I do like the class and the people in it), but being out of my comfort zone is precisely what is calling to me right now. I just figured this out, on a walk after my second class. And just as this insight came to me, my phone buzzed. Regarding a different matter, my Dad had texted me “thanks for stepping out of your comfort zone”.

Here’s where I come to the part about writing. As I walked on, my mind went to Suz, the central character in a collection of short stories I’m writing about food and body image, and how both are connected to love and happiness. As I walked, I imagined Suz in my new yoga class and understood whether that exactly needed to happen, it definitely needed to happen. Meaning I need to get Suz out of her comfort zone. You see what I’m getting at here? Good fiction demands we put our characters in uncomfortable situations. As writers, we’ll be better at that if we’re willing to do the same.

 

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Wake before the sun? Are you kidding me?

At the moment, I am flying high and nothing is wrong in the universe.
Why?
Because it’s 5:30 in the morning, I haven’t even started my work day yet, and I’ve already written 700 words on my novel.
Now, I know this feeling is temporary, but humor me. Can we just relish in how I got there for a bit?
In the past ten years, I have made hundreds of writing schedules, all of them avoiding the wee hours in the morning when I prefer to be sleeping. Then, last week I had a particularly scattered, brain-tired struggle of a writing session in the evening and I panicked, realizing that I cannot end the school year thinking that fall comes I’m going to go back to the same evening writing sessions and find success. I that moment of panic, I hit upon the idea that perhaps the trouble is that I’ve been trying to fit my creative time in at the end of the day when my mind is taxed and my energy low. How does that make sense? Wouldn’t it make more sense to write first when the mind is slow in a good way and fresh?
Yikes, though. That would mean—I calculated that I’d have to get up at 4 to make coffee and walk the dogs to be writing by 4:30. I’d also have to give up walking to school in the mornings. I like walking to school. I like the slow pace and the solitude. But I could walk home from school, right? And as far as getting the exercise, my evenings would be free to stroll all I wanted because I wouldn’t be sitting at my desk beating myself up to write three sentences. Or procrastinating sitting at my desk to write three sentences by sending Carrie pins or doing the dishes.
Then, I thought: What are you willing to change to prioritize writing?
Well, I’m on day two of rising at 4 am to write and I haven’t written like this in weeks. Today I wrote 695 new words on my novel and now I’m writing this blog. I took notes on how the writing went and made a road map for tomorrow. The quiet and solitude of the morning coupled with the stillness of my rested mind is the perfect place for writing.
I never thought I’d say this…
After all, I am a morning person.

 

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