Tag Archives: writingfiction

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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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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nostalgia

Nostalgia is a funny thing.

Summer is ripe for nostalgia. As children, upon the arrival of summer, we become suddenly free to choose. Choose our own books (in my case by the armload taken from the library along with a summer reading program log), choose our own camps or classes from a range of options, mostly extracurricular, therefore feeding a mode of personal expression. Certainly there is an economic divide in terms of this option, but even kids who grow up drinking powdered milk as I did have options to ride horses, make art, and go to camp. We have more time and more freedom, more opportunities to create memories to be nostalgic about.

And nostalgia is a funny thing, if you think about it. Defined as a sentimental longing or affection for the past, we feel many types of nostalgia, but tend to tie that nostalgia to a particular thing and that fascinates me. What I really feel nostalgic about cannot be touched. I long for a time when I enjoyed greater leisure, when my child depended greatly on me and every day I watched him reach a milestone of some sort in his journey to become independent of me. I long for a time when I took time to hang out with my closest female friends, when that that was my top social priority, and we shared everything. I feel nostalgic for my need to rebel against authority (before I became the authority to rebel against).

But how does this nostalgia manifest itself? Certain moments caught in a single photographic image. Candy cigarettes. The onesie he came home from the hospital in. The smell of baby oil used for tanning. Those colored tassels for bike handles. Library check out cards, the date due stamped in blue ink. These are the carriers of nostalgia. A sight, or sound, or taste, or touch, or smell can transport us to the past at any time. So much of who we are is made up of a life time of sensory experience, and thatGloria went on a hike with us. We are still driving back and won’t be to town until around 10. She’d still like to come see you and wants to know if that will be too late. experience is deeply connected to our thought and emotion. The fact that certain things tend to be prevalent in certain times tie us to our age. Walkman. Need I say more?

As writers we must pay attention to nostalgia in our selection of detail. I find this to be true in at least two ways when editing. Nostalgia can lead to cliché because you choose the detail that emerges strongest, not the one that most accurately fits the moment of the particular fiction you are building. Also, if we’re writing a story that takes place in a time you lived through, you might be tempted to embed objects of your own nostalgia even though they are not the objects that best create the character you are writing about. In essence, nostalgia can lead us to be always writing ourselves into stories. Now I’m not saying objects of your own nostalgia have no place in your fiction. t I am saying that you must pay attention to each particular detail you choose and be sure it serves your story, not merely your own longings.

 

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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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A celebration of the pause.

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I can be an intensely goal-oriented person, and mostly this has served me well. I wrote a semi-autobiographical novella in part about resiliency, or at least that was the seed. You see, directly and indirectly I have heard all my life that for me, success was unlikely, that my success is a particular miracle, unexpected. So I wanted to explore how it is that I don’t feel particularly resilient at all. I wanted to put a character in a situation somewhat like mine and see just how she might come to save herself. It’s true I was a welfare kid, a victim of childhood abuse, an intensely shy child who suffered severe allergies for all of my pre-adult life. It’s also true that genetically I am predisposed to self-destruct through addictive behavior and that I have suffered anxiety as long as I can remember.
My ability to set goals and work toward them has enabled me to manage anxiety without medication, to go from being unable to run at 24 years old to running my first marathon at 30, and to be a now National Boards Certified Teacher, 15 years of teaching experience behind me. I am a compulsive list maker and goal-setter. I can read through old journals and see that this pattern established itself early. But I’m not writing this blog as a celebration of goal-setting. I’m writing in celebration of the absence of moving toward a goal, a celebration of the pause, something I’ve come to appreciate these past few weeks.
Certainly my lists and goals serve my writing. It is this tendency that has inspired me to wake up at 4 and 5 in the morning to write first each day, that allows me to add practices to my work that keep me moving forward, like keeping a writing journal on my desk and writing down short and long term goals. But what I’ve discovered in this early morning writing time is that in the writing itself, I am best served when I can let go of all goals and give myself up to the writing itself. When I try to write fast, when I try to finish a work before it is ready to be done, when I rush editing, I ruin the work. I’ve done this over and over again.
Fortunately, I am a fan of Whitman’s insight about contradictions and I too believe I contain multitudes, thus am capable of writing slow, pausing to take walks or just stare out the window in spite of the anxious, goal-oriented me. Practices that strengthen my ability to pause include the writing itself, yoga and meditation, and time spent in nature. As I write this, I am thinking of this work we do as writers as a kind of dance where we are called to move through many aspects of ourselves to do our best work.

 

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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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