Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Set Writing Goals for 2009

We all have dreams. But how do you achieve them without a plan? That's where goals come in. And a new year is a great time to put your plans into action.

Set Your Goals
Most of us are not full-time fiction writers. We have work, family, and a buffet of other demands and responsibilities. So be reasonable. Set goals for yourself that you can actually reach. Think about your other, more important responsibilities and set goals that work with those limits, not against them. When you work with the time and energy that you do have, you'll be more likely to succeed.

Here are some goals that I came up with:

Start and finish a book
Finish a book you've already started
Write everyday for at least a few minutes
Write the rough draft of 12 short stories
Complete two short stories (revisions and all)
Write one piece a month that takes you out of your comfort zone
Write in an unfamiliar medium (for example, a play)
Write in a genre you've never written in before
Take one piece you started in 2008 and finish it
Fill one notebook, front to back, by December 2009

Some are more challenging (starting and finishing a book), others quite attainable for almost anyone (finishing one piece from 2008). Work with your circumstances and you will attain your goals.

Create a Plan
Pull out your notebook or open your word processor. What is your long-term goal or dream as a writer? Write it down at the top. With that in mind, what small steps can you take in the next 12 months that will get you closer to that dream?

For example, your dream might be to get a book published. The first short-term goal might be to get ideas for the book (see "Six Ways to Get Ideas"). Break that goal into writing regularly, using prompts and exercises (see "Get Writing With Prompts"), and brainstorming (see "Brainstorm Away With These Three Fun Techniques") to generate ideas. Once you have the idea (you've met goal one!), the next goal might be to explore it, do some more brainstorming, and really flesh it out. If you're an outliner, that might be a goal. Then, you might plan to write x amount of words or pages by the end of the year. Break that down by month, week, and day and you have a perfectly achievable goal.

Stick With the Plan
Hold yourself accountable. Make an attractive chart for each week or month to post on your fridge or bulletin board. Give yourself gold stars (or another fun shape) for each goal you achieve. Reward yourself when you achieve short-term goals: buy a book (better yet, get one free from the library), cozy up with a good novel, or splurge on a caramel macchiato. Whatever butters your muffin. Most importantly, when you miss a day of writing or don't quite make a deadline on a goal, don't throw out the chart. You can always make things up and start over. It doesn't mean you've blown the whole year.

So set your goals, create a plan, and stick with it. Your best year for writing is just a few days away.

Get Writing!
1) Set your writing goals for 2009. 2) Create a plan with short-term goals that will help you reach your main goal. 3) Think of rewards that will remind and help you as you reach for your goal.

What are your writing goals for 2009? What will you do to reach them?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Dreams and Writing Ideas

Do you write down your dreams? Because dreams can be so random, they can be full of story potential. While flipping through an older notebook, I found a ton of dreams I'd recorded, which inspired this blog entry.

The next time you remember an intriguing dream, write it down immediately, including every detail you can recall. A while ago, I had a dream about evil fairies who captured me and kept me imprisoned on a ship that sailed on the power of their wings. There was an entire fleet of these airborn ships. I wish I could remember everything as it was in the dream but I had enough to write down. I haven't used it yet but it's one of those ideas that keeps haunting me. I'm sure it'll go somewhere eventually.

What intriguing dreams have you had?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tweet A Book Challenge

Are you a Twitter user? Are you unsure of what to do with Twitter? I found something that's good for both types.

Earlier today, one of my tweeples posted a link to Tweet A Book. It's a Twitter-based writing challenge running from December 21-31. It's free to join, and for those who are not already Twitter users, sign-up is free and takes about a minute. I'm planning to participate just for the fun of it. I think it will make a good exercise as the requirements present certain challenges.

If you need a boost or just want to participate in something unique, check out the rules and get your Twitter account going.

P.S. While you're there, feel free to follow me on Twitter - http://twitter.com/amy_saunders.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Engage Readers With Concrete Words

It's always been my impulse to write in vague, generic language. In my older works (especially going way back), I had little to no concrete language. It can still be oh-so-tempting to choose the blanket expression rather than spill blood to get the word that conjures a concrete, sensory image. But the more specific examples you use, the more enticing and engaging your writing will be.

Take a paragraph from a story I wrote a while ago. The first version uses generic words:

The following afternoon, Saphira escaped outside to collect flowers while her
mother directed household matters, preparing for the banquet they hosted that
evening. Meat roasted on a spit since the day before. Servants gathered
vegetables from the kitchen garden while others set up tables in the main hall,
adorning them with candelabras brought in from the private chambers.

What would you do to improve this? Take a minute to think about how you could make it more concrete.

What did you come up with? Here is the version used in the story:

The following afternoon, Saphira escaped outside to collect flowers while her
mother directed household matters inside, preparing for the banquet they hosted
that evening. A wild boar roasted on a spit since the day before, and chickens,
geese, and lamb roasted since the morning. Servants gathered carrots, parsnips,
and asparagus from the kitchen garden while others set up tables in the main
hall, adorning them with candelabras brought in from the private chambers.

Can you see the massive boar spinning over an open fire? If you've ever smelled a pig roasting, you no doubt remember it. And now with the list of other animals and vegetables, you get an idea of the size of the banquet. Even this version needs improvement. It's been a while since I read the story, and the first thing I wanted to know was what kind of flowers? If you wonder, so will your readers.

So say Honda Civic over car. One-level ranch over house. Golden retriever over dog. Do you see the difference? Readers will get more out of your writing when you give them concrete images to go on. Sweat and bleed for those specific words. If you make it a practice, you'll soon find concrete comes just as easily as generic.

Get Writing!
Take one paragraph from a story you're currently working on. Read it and circle every generic word. Then replace those generic words with concrete substitutes. Your goal: To focus on writing (and thinking) in specifics.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Get Writing!: Reading, Rec Rooms, and RVs

Why would a man who is on vacation at an RV park go to the community recreation room to read? Give yourself about 20 minutes to explore this idea.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Get Writing With Prompts

Do you use writing prompts? I find they're not only great for igniting ideas but they can really help you get writing when you don't really want to. You don't have to think of what to write, and once you get rolling, you may write for longer then you planned. I've started several sessions kicking and screaming and finished with my mind buzzing over an idea - all because of one good prompt. I've gone on to complete several stories that began because of prompts. And because they tease the words out of you, they make a good warm up before other projects.

So where do you find prompts? You may have your own favorite books or websites that feature or include prompts. Writing magazines, including Writer's Digest, often include prompts in-print and online. Below are a sampling of books and websites brimming with writing prompts.

The Writer's Book of Matches
The staff of fresh boiled peanuts, a literary journal
(I keep this one in close reach.)

The Pocket Muse
Monica Wood
(Another standby. She also includes photographs with captions as prompts.)

The 3 A.M. Epiphany
Brian Kiteley

Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge

1000 Songwriting Ideas
Lisa Aschmann
(It's not all writing-related but the prompts are very cool and the approach quite different from other writing forms. My sister and I have a blast using this book.)

Creative Writing Prompts
(I use this site all the time to kickstart my writing.)

Dragon Writing Prompts

The One-Minute Writer

If you don't already, I highly recommend using writing prompts. If you do, keep using them and build a collection of favorite prompt spots. Writing from prompts, even when you write begrudgingly, may lead you to wonderful things. Have fun!

Get Writing!
Pick one of the above books or sites (or another you know of). Flip or search until a prompt strikes your fancy. Then set the timer for 20 minutes and go to it! If you wind up going longer and love what you've done, excellent! If not, it's still excellent! You wrote and that's what counts.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Get Writing!: Once Upon a Time at a Health Food Store

It's singles' night at a health food store. Write one paragraph describing the scene from the perspective of a store employee, a man there for singles' night, and a customer who stumbles upon the gathering.

Let's see what we come up with....

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Writing Challenge

Write a story about an evil knight - in exactly 100 words.

Have fun!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Take Time to Get to Know Your Characters

Sometimes we get so excited by an idea or in such a hurry to finish that we go too fast and don't spend enough time delving into the characters. I've certainly been guilty of this. But knowing the intimate details of your characters gives you the power to portray them accurately for your readers. And there's nothing more satisfying in a story then a fully developed character.

Let's start with basic personal details. Creating a character profile can help, especially with background and family information. For instance, you might list his or her name, date of birth, height, weight, eye and hair color, hometown, current residence, parents, siblings, marital status, children, occupation, religion, hobbies, interests, activities.

Then you can get even more specific. What car does she drive? (Or does she drive at all?) Who are her friends? Neighbors? Does she live in a house or apartment? How far does she go to work and how does she get there? Does she like her job? What about her coworkers? What does she eat for breakfast? Does she have time to eat before leaving the house or does she scarf it down en route? What's her favorite dessert? What does her living space look like? How does she dress?

If you're so inclined, you may want to make a form with basic questions like these. Each time you start a new story, fill it out for the new characters. At the very least, answer some of these questions in your head.

After you get a handle on the character's personality, dig deeper. Let's take the mother from last week's character perspective article as an example. You'll remember that her daughter attempted suicide. As the writer, what should you know about the mother?

Start by asking questions related to the story:
How close is she to her daughter? Is the attempted suicide a complete shock or did she see it coming? Does she like her daughter (like and love are not necessarily the same)? Do they have a lot in common? Do they communicate? What are her plans and desires for her daughter? Do they clash with what her daughter wants? What is her relationship with her husband? Who are her parents? What was her growing-up experience like? Would she be able to relate to her daughter's feelings in this instance?

How about interviewing your characters? It may sound strange but I've found this to be an effective way to learn how they feel about what's happening in the story. Going back to the mother from the suicide attempt story, you might ask her some of the questions listed in the previous paragraph. For example, How do you feel about your daughter's attempted suicide? Did you worry about her? Did anyone else ever tell you they were worried about her? What will you do now?

I know, I know. It seems ridiculous. This is not a real person blah blah blah. But when you read, don't you forget that the characters are not real people? I do. To some extent, when you're the writer you must forget that too. So trust me on this. At first, you will feel silly. But as you go, the character will start talking because you're thinking like that person. And that's when characters really come to life.

So take some time out from the story and ask questions about your characters. Find out who they are and what they're doing in the story. Learn details about their background and day-to-day life. Even interview them to get to the emotions and opinions that will make them real to your readers. Whatever methods work for you, do take the time to get to know your characters.

Get Writing!
1) Take one character from a story in-progress and create a profile based on the elements and questions in this article and any others you think of. Alternatively, make up a new character and create a profile for him or her. 2) Interview this same character, asking questions that will help you know how they feel about the conflicts or people involved in the story. Your goal: To learn more about the characters than the actual story may reveal. Ultimately, you want to know more than you'll ever tell in the story.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Writing Prompt

In 500-1,000 words write a story with the title "The Waiting Room."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Have Fun With Character Perspective

The last two weeks we talked about point-of-view. This week let's delve into a related topic: character perspective. Equally important, this can be a challenging but also fun choice to make.

Let's say you write a story about a teenage girl who attempts suicide. Your first inclination may be to write it from the girl's perspective. But who else is involved/affected? Potentially several people: parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunts/uncles, friends, teachers, classmates, neighbors, doctors/nurses, police offers, EMTs. That's just a start.

Who are these people and why do they care? What could they bring to the story? Good questions. Let's take the mother, a sibling, and a nurse and see what they bring to the table.

The mother: What might the perspective of the mother do for the story? For starters, she's intimately connected and has an emotional stake in the matter. This is her baby. Imagine how she would feel realizing that her daughter is suffering enough to go this far. The mother can also offer a larger family portrait, including insights into the father and the parents' relationship and their relationship with the children. She may give us vital clues as to why things came to this point.

A sibling: Siblings may be closer than parents and children. Or they may be equally distant. However, it's likely he or she would know things about the sister that the parents would not. And there is the affect on them whether good or bad. If you have a sibling, just imagine if they attempted suicide, especially as a teenager. How would you feel?

A nurse: Despite possibly seeing a lot of terrible things, could this case make more of an impression? Absolutely. Such a character could add a lot of objectivity, seeing the family and others associated with the girl from an emotional distance. And such objectivity could add a special meaning and depth to the story, revealing things that might remain hidden with a character closer to the circumstance.

Do you see the possibilities blossoming? Before you decide on character perspective, do some searching. Make a list of the people who are involved or who could be. What is their involvement? What do they know or not know that could serve the story well?

Don't just think about the possibilities, write them. There's no harm in writing a story from more than one perspective. Regardless of who you go with, you've learned a lot more about your characters and the situation. And such knowledge is invaluable to writing a complete story.

So as I am fond of encouraging, explore your options. Don't settle because it's the first idea or the easy idea or the comfortable idea. Give other characters a chance. And give your story a chance to be more.

Get Writing!
Let's go with the scenario above. A teenage girl has attempted suicide. It's been discovered and she needs to go to a hospital. In 500 words, write this scene three times from the perspective of

The father
A neighbor
A police officer

Feel free to try it with any of the other possibilities as well. And don't hesitate to come up with your own. Your goal: See how a basic plot might be taken to new heights with different characters.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Visiting the Homes of Famous Authors

Do you live near or are you visiting a place where a famous author lived? A little off-track, I know. But visiting the homes of famous authors can be a fun and enlightening experience. You may learn a lot of fun things about their habits and hear anecdotes about how they worked. And it can motivate you to get home and write!

I've had the chance to visit a few authors' homes in my region and one abroad. I've toured two houses associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne - the House of Seven Gables in Salem, MA, which Hawthorne based his book on of the same name, and the Old Manse in Concord, MA. According to the guide at the Old Manse, Hawthorne's wife kept him in tow, yelling for him to get back to work if she heard the floorboards creaking above stairs. Even master novelists need a kick in the pants sometimes!

Also in Concord, MA is Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House. There you can see the original desk she wrote at (sometimes for 14 hour stretches!) and original drawings on some of the walls done by her sister May.

In Connecticut, the houses of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe sit side-by-side. They're quite a contrast. Twain's home is a fusion of Victorian and Gothic styling. Can't say I loved his taste but I found the bookshelves that hugged every inch of the inside delightful. And there is a beautiful sun room on one side of the house. The Stowe house is a fairly plain 19th century home but our guide was fantastic.

Out in western Massachusetts I got to see Edith Wharton's estate, the Mount. She personally oversaw the design of the classical revival house and was very particular about it. It was quite the removal from her New York life. That entire region is beautiful but her estate is quite romantic. Between the airy design of the house and the gardens and lawns it overlooks, I understood why she loved it so.

I also had the chance to visit Charles Dickens' London residence several years ago. While it's primarily Victorian, I remember part of the interior was surprisingly modern. But I'm a sucker for black and white tile.

Writers are everywhere. So are their abodes. See who lived in your region and plan a field trip. Or if you're going away, do a search to see if any writers lived there. It can be quite the experience, taking you into the past and into the heads of some of the most renowned writers. And don't forget many historic homes need support. By visiting, you make it possible for their homes and legacies to stay open for everyone.

Authors' Homes
Here's a short list of some famous writers whose homes are now museums.

Edith Wharton
The Mount, Lenox, MA

Mark Twain
Hartford, CT

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Hartford, CT

Louisa May Alcott
Orchard House, Concord, MA

Nathaniel Hawthorne
House of Seven Gables, Salem, MA

The Old Manse, Concord, MA

Charles Dickens

Herman Melville
Arrowhead, Pittsfield, MA

Ernest Hemingway
Key West, FL

Henry David Thoreau
Walden Pond, Concord, MA

Birthplace and other homes associated with him, Stratford-upon-Avon

Anton Chekov

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Choosing the Best POV

As discussed last week, point-of-view (POV) offers quite a few options and even options within the options. You may not know what's best for your story or you may tend to default to a certain POV. So let's review some ways to get around these issues.

Go With Your Gut
A lot of writing decisions seem to be made instinctively. There is no calculation. Things come about because they feel right and a lot of times we don't question it. Sometimes instinct knows better than we do and the first choice is the best choice. So if the POV feels right, then you may already have your answer.

But what if the first choice is really just the safe choice? It might be instinct because it's what we're comfortable doing. If so, let's see how we can spice things up.

Test the options. Go ahead and start the story with your gut POV. But don't necessarily settle for it. Rewrite it (or part of it) in a different POV. In fact, go a little nuts and try more than one by using variations on the different points-of-view. For example, if you initially wrote it in first person try third person limited omniscient. Have fun with it. See where things go. While you may be more comfortable writing in one POV you may discover opportunities exploring a different one.

Making a Choice
So you've gone with your gut and you've pushed personal boundaries and experimented with POV. Now what? Stand back from your writing for a second and ask these questions: How does the POV help the characters? As a reader, are they easier or harder to get involved with? Do you feel what they feel? Are their personalities more or less distinct? How does the POV affect the storytelling? Is it flexible enough? Can you show what you need to or are you too limited? Or maybe you're not limited enough?

Ultimately, think about what's best for the story. Don't limit your options because of fear. Experiment. Enjoy the process of finding your POV. Something may happen in the middle that changes everything. And isn't that one of the joys of writing?

Get Writing!
Take a story you've already written or are working on writing. What POV are you using? Pick the opposite POV and write at least one page. What happens to the story? Do you see things emerging that didn't with the original POV? Are your characters showing sides you've never seen? Your goal: Go outside your comfort zone and see what the alternatives have to offer. Even if you stick with the original, you may learn some things that will serve you well later. Plus, you may find a new POV to use for another piece.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Read to Learn to Write

We often learn best by example so as writers what better way to learn how to write than by reading?

Choosing well-written novels and stories and analyzing as you go can help you to improve your own writing. Pay attention to the point-of-view and how the writer developes it; to the setting and the effect it has on the story; to the use of imagery and description; to how dialogue is written and what information is revealed through it; to how emotion is portrayed; to how background information is woven into the story; and to what method the writer uses to tell the story.

Keep track, even in writing, of things that stand out. It's especially easy to jot down images and descriptions. I saved this line from "The Bride from the Village of Deaf-Mute" by Brigid Pasulka: "He took Sasha's hand in his, and it shook like a baby bird fallen from a nest." I read that story for the first time a few years ago and it still randomly comes to mind. That is a writer I can learn from.

Are you working on a certain aspect of your writing? Seek out literature that does it well. Do you write in a specific genre? Find the masters in that genre and learn from what they've written. Then, go to work practicing what you've figured out.

For example, in historical fiction it's challenging to weave in details about real people or events without it turning into an exposition fest. So while reading Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir, I'm paying attention to how she does it. This story involves some complex political situations so I'm getting a lot of tips on how to handle it.

Most importantly, read as much as possible. Expose yourself to the many ways writers interpret their craft. Learn the rules of writing and see how they're broken effectively. Mimic the masters to get a grip on how to apply certain techniques. In the end, you'll see your own writing improve just by imitating some good examples.

Get Reading and Writing!
Choose one thing you'd like to work on in your writing. For instance, dialogue. Search for writers (or specific pieces) that excel in this area. The dialogue in Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and Julia Glassman's "Tenses" are good places to start. Think about why the dialogue is great. Why does is flow so well? Why does it make such an impact? Why do their words convey so much emotion? Spend some time analyzing your choices, picking them apart to get to the techniques behind them.

After you've learned a little something about good dialogue, apply it. Rework an old story using the new techniques. Or start afresh with the aim of putting your newfound knowledge to work. Your goal: For one, use your reading skills to learn on your own what makes good writing. Second, turn that new understanding into a skill you possess as well.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Point-of-view: Your Options

Point-of-view (POV) determines who tells the story. At its best, it can help reveal your characters and intensify emotions. At its worst, it can confuse readers and leave them detached from the story. If you read a lot of fiction writing books, you'll find many ideas about point-of-view and many in-depth explanations about the choices. In this article, we'll talk about two basic points-of-view: first and third person.

First Person
In first person, one of the character's tells the story. You know their thoughts and feelings and see things happen from their perspective. He or she may be right in the middle of the action or simply watching it. This method opens the way for an intense emotional journey. There are many good examples but one of my favorites is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Her ecstasy, despair, confusion, and obsession with Grace Pool would not be the same in another POV. The mystery and gloom that lingers throughout the book is due in part to our narrator. She's not clued in so neither are we.

The downside to first person is that you're limited to one perspective. Or are you? In Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir several characters take the stage and tell their side of things. Each chapter title reveals the narrator and Weir does a great job in creating unique voices for each. You don't even really need the titles to know who's speaking. Stevenson uses a similar approach, though more limited, in Treasure Island. This type of storytelling won't work for everything but it's certainly something to keep in mind.

Third Person
Third person uses an unnamed narrator who never enters into the story. This is where things get tricky. You can break third person down into many variations. For the sake of length, I'm boiling it down to three: limited omniscience, full omniscience, and objective.

Limited omniscience gives you the story from one character's perspective whether central to the action or not. This POV can work like first person in that you see right into the character's soul. But because they're not telling the story there is more objectivity and you can also see things that they don't, which can be very handy. "The Story of An Hour" by Kate Chopin uses limited omniscience. It can feel very much like first person. But Chopin could only produce such an ending with third person.

Full omniscience broadens the perspective to more than one character. This POV enables you to tell more than one side of the story. But it must be handled carefully to avoid confusion, especially when shifting between several characters. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell takes advantage of this method. Though primarily Margaret's story, it often switches to John's perspective. We see him struggling to keep his business from falling to pieces along with his longing for Margaret and his pain at her rejection. We would not have such sympathy or understanding of him if the story only relied on Margaret's perspective.

Objective third person is completely outside the characters and relies totally on dialogue and description to reveal what's going on. There is no one else interpreting the story but the reader. This obviously poses challenges and it may be difficult to remain that outside of the characters. However, masterful stories can be written this way. Carson McCullers did it with "The Jockey." There are some tense undercurrents in that story even though you never know for sure what anyone is thinking.

Now that we've tasted the options, which POV is right for your story? We'll delve into that conundrum next week.

Get Reading!
Sample the points-of-view by reading a variety of literature. You'll notice different authors favor different points-of-view and how they handle them varies. It may give you ideas for your own writing or help you use a certain POV more effectively. Here are some novels and short stories to get you started:

First Person
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
"The Third and Final Continent" by Jhumpa Lahiri
"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe
"Out of the Girls' Room and Into the Night" by Thisbe Nissen
Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir
"Brownies" by ZZ Packer

Third Person
"Wunderkind" by Carson McCullers
"The Jockey" by Carson McCullers
Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
"Boule de Suif" by Guy de Maupassant
"Xingu" by Edith Wharton
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
"The Story of An Hour" by Kate Chopin

Friday, November 7, 2008

Get Specific With Object Writing

Object writing is a fun and simple way just to practice or to warm up before a writing session. This is how you do it:

Pick an object. Something around your house, outside, in your office, anything. Write it down. Set a timer for 10-20 minutes and start writing. No editing and try not to stop for too long at a time.

Like freewriting, the point is to loosen things up in there and get the creative juices flowing. When I do object writing, I work at producing concrete images and zoom in on the finer details of my subject. Doing this on a regular basis will help you be more concrete in all your writing and teach you to pay attention to details.

Get Writing!
Do one object writing a day during the next week for fun or to warm up. Here are five to get you started: fortune cookie, locket, paper shredder, sunglasses, kitchen cabinets. Your goal: Describe the object using concrete imagery. Flex those muscles and dig for specifics!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

About the Lack of a Tuesday Entry...

First of all, I apologize for the missing Tuesday article. I'm back online after two days without Internet service. (Yay!) So I'm publishing Tuesday's article along with today's. Also, I'm publishing a bonus entry this week to make up for it. :)


Build a Solid Vocabulary

Words are your friends. Having a word arsenal at your disposal makes writing easier, more enjoyable, and spicier. There's nothing like knowing the word that aptly describes what you want. How do you build a solid vocabulary?

The Studied Approach
You might pick a word from the dictionary or elsewhere and then make a point of using it in speech and writing. Or keep a word-a-day calendar on your desk (they also make fun calendars that feature out-of-use words). But you must make an effort to use the words to retain them.

The Casual Approach
When someone uses a word you don't know, look it up to learn the exact meaning(s) and then start using it yourself. Then there's reading. I learn most of my new words this way. When you come across something you don't know, look it up and then use it yourself.

You may even want to add words to your notebook as you go, especially words you love. Or make a note of words you want to look up later as you read or hear them in everday life. A few of my favorite words (earth shattering or not) that I draw on in life and writing are nonplussed, pontificate, hankering, expostulate, and heinous.

What are your favorites?

Get Writing!
Over the next several days while reading or listening, pay attention for words you don't know or rarely use. Look them up and conscientiously use them in your own speech and writing. Alternatively, choose interesting or descriptive words from the dictionary and make use of them. Keep a log of these new words in your notebook. You never know when it might come in handy.

How to Choose Between Several Ideas

You may have many ideas swimming around your head or your notebook. In fact, you may have so many you feel confused about which one to pursue. You may feel pulled in several directions, starting many ideas but finishing only a few. You may end up frustrated because it seems you're working an awful lot but not getting too far. Sometimes as writers we worry we'll run out of ideas. But in this case it's the opposite problem, you have too many.

Not too long ago, I wrote an entire story during a successful writing exercise. I had a significant personal breakthrough because of it, so I felt compelled to keep going with the idea. But I had already started another story that was taking me in a new direction and I was excited to see where it would go. When it came time to write, which one to pursue? I dove into the new story and played with the storytelling. Then I felt guilty for neglecting the other idea because I felt it had so much potential. In the middle of all of this indecision and guilt, I rediscovered some other gems in my notebook and felt even more torn. What's a writer to do?

I realized I had to choose one to work on first. I couldn't concentrate on anything and therefore nothing got the time and devotion it deserved. So I analyzed my candidates. I thought about the stories, the characters, how original and interesting they were, and how original it was for me. Have I written this story before? Are these characters reprised roles of others I've already explored? Am I taking any risks writing this? After thinking about it, I chose the story I'd started before the exercise. Why? A few reasons:

1) It was entirely unlike anything I'd ever written. I saw techniques I'd practiced melding in this story unlike ever before.
2) It was original. I had these unusual characters in an odd situation that stood out as different.
3) I couldn't wait to get on with it. I wanted desperately to finish that story, find where my characters were headed, and see what the end would bring.

With those three realizations, I had my winner. The story from the writing exercise served a purpose but it lacked the spark and originality of the first story. It may become something more someday but for now it is what it is.

There are many reasons you can choose to work on one idea versus another. My sister remarked that some of her ideas just had something about them "that [wanted] to be written" and she couldn't let go of them or they wouldn't let go of her. That's the way I felt about the story I chose. It wouldn't let me go.

So when you're torn ask yourself:
Do I love the idea?
Am I dying to write it?
When I put it down, does it keep coming to mind or do I let it go?
Is it original - in general or to you?

Analyze your ideas based on these suggestions and the mist will part in no time.

Get Writing!
If you're torn between ideas, spend some time analyzing them. Are they original? Or at least original for you? Are you excited by the direction it's taking or that it's taking you? Out of them all, is there one that just insists you write it? Which idea intrigues you the most? Remember, you can always return to an idea later. It will still be there.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Get Some Practice With This Writing Exercise

This is a terrific exercise to do with a friend but also perfectly fine to do alone. It can really stretch the imagination and warm up your brain to work on that novel or short story.

Here's how it works:

Randomly choose five nouns and five adjectives or verbs. Both are fun though the noun/verb combo is particularly challenging. This is where a friend comes in handy. One of you picks the nouns and one the adjectives/verbs. Then, share your choices and combine the nouns and adjectives/verbs in the order given. You want the combos to be as random as possible.

You should have two columns: five nouns on one side and five adjectives/verbs on the other. Now, write five sentences, one for each combo. The adjectives and verbs must modify the nouns they're paired with.

Here's an example of one I did with a friend:



The farm dipped into the horizon as we drove up the hill.

The results can be silly but also rewarding. And it's great for getting down to details and honing your craft.

Get Writing!


Your goal: Don't worry about being too serious. Focus on writing creative, well-crafted sentences. Have fun!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Brainstorm Away with These Three Fun Techniques

Now that you have an idea, where do you go with it? Some ideas may blossom all on their own but others may need some time and a little prodding. To help you out, I've reviewed three of my favorite brainstorming techniques.

I love this technique. There's something about the circular thinking that gets ideas to connect. This is what you do:

Write the initial idea in the center of the page and circle it. Branch off of that circle and write the first thing you think of related to the first idea. Then, if you think of something related to the second one, branch off of it. Or, continue branching from the first idea. As you spread across the page, you may find it's hard to stop. Ideas can come rather quickly with this method, and with all of them before you in no particular order you may see things come together that will surprise you. But that's the fun of it.

Below is a small example of clustering I did for one of my older stories. It's a lot of fun so go crazy.

My mom was a master lister and often approached problem-solving by making lists. I tend to default to list-making, especially when I'm in a time crunch (I listed for this entry while at a friend's house). But it works equally well when you have all the time in the world, and can help you access connections that are buried deep. This is what you do:

Write down the main idea. Start writing (underneath or next to it) all the things you think of without editing or second-guessing. Even if it sounds preposterous - write it down. Even if it doesn't seem at all related - write it down. Never dismiss anything at this stage. You don't know where ideas will take you. Trust your instinct to take you where you want to go.

In the process of searching for examples to show you, I found a lot of lists in my notebook. This is one good example from a couple of years ago.

This is one of the very first brainstorming methods I ever used. By free associating and not thinking too hard, your first idea may take you to surprising places. This is what you do:

Write down the first idea. Set a timer for however long, say 10-20 minutes. Start writing. Don't think, don't edit, don't follow grammatical rules. As my mom always told me, just put pen to paper and go. Don't let your mind inhibit the process.

When you start out with one of these techniques you may feel uncertain about where to start. But once you get going, idea will lead to idea and you'll be turning pages before you know it.

Next week: Maybe you've come up with several directions to take your story. Or maybe just ideas for several different stories. Which do you choose? Some tips to help you along next week.

Get Writing!
This week use one of the brainstorming techniques above that you haven't tried before or one you don't use often. Your goal: Discover one idea that takes your story in a surprising direction, or one story idea that takes you in a surprising direction.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Animals (and Writers) at Play

I did this interesting writing exercise a while back from Josip Novakovich's Fiction Writer's Workshop. He asks you to write one paragraph, throwing a few animals together into a scene involving an odd action. I don't usually focus on animals in my writing so it was a bit challenging. This is what I came up with:

The wolf corpse sagged across the fence, its head lolling to one side. Flies covered its body and scavengers had torn away chunks of its flesh. The cats made a game of taunting it. One would tap its nose and dart back but once they were sure of its death, they struck at its nose and paws, slicing and gashing in turn.

Practice your craft and try this exercise for yourself in the next few days. What interesting paragraphs have you written from writing exercises or prompts? Email me with one and I may include it in a future entry.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Six Ways to Get Ideas

In the dressing room of a mall store, I once heard a woman say to her friend in the middle of discussing the pitfalls of clothing stores, "Jane and John are having problems. They're seeing a marriage counselor." The serious turn in the conversation caught my attention. I made a point to remember it and wrote it down first chance I got. There are many moments like this - moments that could be scenes in a story or at least a place to begin - in everyday life. So let's look at 6 easy, effective ways to find them.

1. Listen to and watch the people around you.
Observing others can easily fill your notebook with ideas. Once while stopped at a traffic light, I saw a guy walk across the street holding his shoes but still wearing his socks. Why did he take his shoes off? Why didn't he take off his socks? Where was he heading and how far? Lots of questions that could lead to a story.

You're surrounded by people all the time. At work, school, the market, the department store, the coffee shop. Do all these people have something to offer? Absolutely! Train your ears and eyes to pay attention to people. You never know when they'll say or do something intriguing. Watch how they interact, what they do while talking, how they eat, what they buy, who they're with when they buy it. If you do, you will have plenty of interesting things to add to your notebook.

2. Listen to the experiences of others.
Grandparents and other relatives may have hidden gems in their past. Ask questions. Get people talking. In the midst of an entirely normal conversation you may find something to use in your writing.

3. Remember your own experiences.
Reliving the past through writing exercises and prompts can lead to interesting discoveries. You may find characters for stories or events to place them in. Flannery O'Connor once remarked that living for 18 years provided enough experiences to write for a lifetime. No matter how old or young you are, you have plenty to pull from in your own past. Just spend a little time exploring it.

4. Write about your travels.
Whether you go near or far, write about the places you visit - in detail. Write down what the houses look like, how people live, what you smell when you take a walk. Write it down as you go, or take time to write it later. You won't remember things as vividly as time goes by so write all the details you can while it's still fresh in mind.

5. Learn new things.
What else are you interested in? Develop that interest. Between magazines, books, television, and the Internet, there is an abundance of education out there. Find something that interests you and go with it. I love history (especially certain periods) and I watch and read pretty much anything I find related to it. Because of that I have a lot of interesting tidbits I would never have found otherwise.

6. Read or watch the news.
I've gotten a lot of ripe ideas from news reports. There's a lot of weird stuff that goes on, as well as surprising and just plain intriguing. So while a lot of it may seem plain, paying attention can lead to original ideas.

In short, write down anything that strikes you, no matter how small. You never know where it will lead. So use one of these suggestions or all six of them and you will find more than enough ideas.

Next week: So now that you have an idea, how do you develop it? I'll explore some effective brainstorming techniques to get your ideas moving.

Get Writing!
As you go about life this week, make a conscious effort to listen and watch wherever you are. Your goal: Fill one standard notebook page with observations: a conversation between a mother and daughter, an interesting group across from you at a restaurant, or that decorated VW Beetle you parked next to. Pay attention to the details, and you may fill it and then some.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Stories in the Shadows

In September, I toured the Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, USA. This vine-covered arbor was one of my favorite parts of the garden. Don't you see a story in these shadows? It could be romantic. Or it could be suspicious. And with deeper exploration, it might be something unpredictable. A picture may be worth 1,000 words but it may also inspire as many.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Entering Through the Fireplace

I wrote this run-on sentence story as a challenge a couple of years ago. If you're in the mood for something a little off and a bit pointless, read on.


My dress lit on fire, probably because I came in through the fireplace, which those insolent girls set ablaze without my knowledge, though it’s seventy degrees outside and clearly too warm to roast marshmallows, plus it’s daytime and no one roasts marshmallows in daytime, and now I have a blackened, crispy rear end so I’ll have to walk like a crab during the party, which I’m guaranteed to hear about tomorrow.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Prowling for a fresh character name?

Whether you're writing an historical novel or need a modern name with a twist, this week's list will go down in your name collection. They're a sampling of the best from my favorite cateogry - English. You can smell smoke and pine and roasting meats with these names. Take a look below to see what I mean.



What fiction writer doesn't need a good stock of first and last names? You must have some of your own. Send 1-6 of your faves and I'll share them in a future entry. Categorize them (like this entry) or randomize them, it's up to you. But do tell me why you picked them or even how you've used them before. And feel free to include how you choose character names and tips you have for other writers.

Monday, September 29, 2008

New Short Short Story

What happens when two nineteen-year-olds talk about their relationship? I explore an idea based on something that happened between my sister and her husband before they married. It's a quick, lighthearted read. Enjoy!


There are three ways I can win this fight, Terry thought. He could pretend he hadn't heard her. He could pretend he didn't understand her. Or he could say something completely irrelevant.
"Let's get married," he said.
"Why talk about our relationship when we can do something about it?"
"It's way too early. I just want to know if we're staying together."
"If we get married, you don't have to worry about it."
"I'm sure our parents will see it that way."
"So you're thinking about it?"
Felicia looked out the car window. Frost crawled up the metal onto the glass, blurring the cars pulling in and out of parking spots around them.
"It's not a good idea," she said.
"Why not?"
"We're 18!"
"Yeah? It gives us more time together."
"Sure, to screw up."
"You're the one who wanted to discuss our relationship. I'm discussing it."
"No, you're turning my sincere question into a joke! You don't really want to marry me."
"Yes, I do."
"If I say OK, you'll go to the altar. That's what you want?"
"OK what?"
"OK, I'll marry you."
"You're joking."
"I've thought about it. Let's go."
"Why not?"
"It's Friday."
"People get married on Fridays."
"Yeah. But there's licenses and stuff. And the government shuts down at 4 p.m. It's 3:45."
"I think they take blood too."
"I hate blood tests."
"It was your idea."
"You asked me to marry you."
"I didn't know they took blood."
"So you're taking it back?"
Terry sighed.
"You're taking it back."
He shrugged.
"They won't change the blood test thing."
Terry watched a woman with two kids place grocery bags into an SUV. Felicia drew "F Heart T" on the window, the glass squeaking as she rubbed away the frost. Terry squinted to see through the slits of clear glass.
"You frustrate me," he said.
Felicia looked back and smiled.
"That's sweet."
Terry kissed her.
"Does this mean we're still together?" Felicia said.
"Yeah, babe. We're still together."

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