Category Archives: The Writing Life
I like using the tag line “pondering poetry” because pondering is often how a poem forms: I sit (or walk or swim or run), asking myself questions about something or another (or sometimes both something and another). When I answer the question, I try to think my answers in images. In other words, if I as myself, “What is a cat?” Instead of thinking “Grey, fur, small…” and so on, I try to picture a grey-furred, small cat sitting next to my desk. I then write out the image by describing it as well as I can using metaphors, sensory description, and other figurative language. It’s a basic process, and maybe I’m slow but it’s one that took me some time to arrive at after through years of trying to think my answers in words that created an image, not the other way around.
Sometimes a poem results from one of the images right away. Most of the time it does not, and I play around with the images, placing them next to each other and on top of one another in different ways, ways that interest me or make me sit up straighter. I then keep pondering those images and brainstorming and riffing off them, often using stream of conscious-like writing, until the poem forms. It always does. It isn’t always amazing, but those less-than poems I set aside for a day when I want to work from old exercises.
I recommend giving it a try – if it works, you may end up with poem; if not, at least you tried and completed your writing/writing warm-up for the day!
- Freewrite a list of at least 10 questions. Don’t think too hard, just write some questions. Here are a few examples: What are cats? Why do people marry? When will I die? How are flip-flops made? You get the idea. Just write the first questions that come to mind until you have at least 10 but no more than 15.
- Choose one of the questions. You can choose at random, closing an eye and tossing a paperclip and going with the question on which it lands, or you can go with the one that tugs at you the hardest.
- Now start answering the question in images. Don’t question the pictures that pop into your head, don’t worry if they’re weird/creepy/sexy/scary – just focus on them one at a time (it’s okay to tell a pushy one to wait or to skip right to it – this is your exercise!). Start with the obvious, and keep going following the images that come. For example, if when you think of an answer to “What is a Cat?”, you see a small, grey kitten sitting by your desk – write about that. Then follow the cat if it decides to move. If it doesn’t, think about what else a cat is, and let an image come to you. Write it out, then follow where it leads. And so on.
- When one answer leads somewhere really interesting, see if there’s a poem in it and write it! Write the first draft and let it sit before rewriting it. See if you can keep thinking in images even during the revision process.
Good luck and happy writing!
When your work involves being creative, it can be hard to come up with new ideas day after day, hour after hour. To maintain a creative life, you need to feed your creativity. Visit new places, look at new works of art, eavesdrop on new conversations, read new
books/articles/posts, try your hand at a new kind of project … the list is endless.
But sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we get stuck. We need a little help to keep that creative fire burning. I use three million and ten different tricks to help myself out of
sticky situations. Okay, that might not be the exact number. But as I’ve mentioned before, I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve. In fact, I stuff them into every pocket, hat, bag, and even undergarment that I own! The one I’m about to share may seem strange at first. You might wonder how what results will possibly work with your particular project. That’s okay. Let it sit and simmer for a while. Keep it on the back burner because I promise that at some point when you’re stuck (which happens to the best of us) it’ll be ready and waiting for you to turn up the heat.
So what is this different little trick? It’s called “On This Day…” and its inception came from my many years of homeschooling and teaching writing to children. When my girls were in grade school, I made it a habit of having them start each day with a journal entry. Young children almost always benefit from a prompt to help focus their wide-ranging thoughts. Heck, many adults do, too. During school hours, at least once per week I used the “On This Day”-prompt where I took an event (or offered a list of events and let them choose one) and asked the girls to use it to write creatively in their journals. Being a writer, I always joined in during journal time and wrote my own entry. I found that sometimes the historical event filled in a blank spot in a story or essay I was writing. I didn’t necessarily use the event itself, but rather the idea it sparked.
Because it was so helpful, I’ve returned to this trick whenever I’m stuck in a story and need a little help lighting the creative fires again. During NaNoWriMo last year, I used my “On This Day”-technique when considering what might be going on in the world around my characters. It helps me to have a picture of possible events in their lives, even if they don’t all make it into the story. I also use it to spark questions and thoughts for my characters – where might this or that lead? And, I’ve used this trick to inspire drawings and encaustic paintings. For example, reading about an event in history during Prohibition led to a wax painting involving wine and dancing.
Finding information for “On This Day” is extremely fast and easy. I have several daily journal books I used when homeschooling that had interesting and different kinds of information for the day (e.g., Today Hershey produced its first chocolate bar!), and sometimes I still pull them out. But more often, I use the internet because it is simple to gather additional information on a topic if it strikes a chord. I can see this being especially helpful for historical fiction writers who might want specific historical details.
- This Day in History (from History.com) – categorical (e.g., Art, Hollywood, War); contains links to more information
- This Day in History (from InfoPlease.com) – chronological (short list)
- Today in History (from HistoryNet.com) – chronological (short list); includes a “born on this date” list
- On This Day (from the NY Times) – choose a date; includes more recent history than many other sites
- This Day in History (from the International World History Project) – chronological; no hyperlinks except for selected topics; includes lesser-known historical events
Once you have the list, how does it work? Let’s take today. October 10th. Many things happened on this day throughout human history. I like to look at a long list of possible events because usually something strikes me and my brain is off and running. Today, the event that jumps off the page at me is that on October 10, 1935 Porgy and Bess, “the first great American opera,” premiered on Broadway.
Whoa. I love this opera. I used to sing songs from this opera in middle school concert choir. How did I forget that today was the day it premiered? Okay, I probably never actually knew what day it premiered, but nonetheless… reading about this event triggers a host of thoughts and creative avenues for me – even though on the surface it is not at all related to my current writing project.
As I follow the thoughts, I jot notes to myself. Many don’t get used, but I write down – without judgment or too much thought – everything that comes to mind for 5-10 minutes. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote for today:
- In middle school, I learned “Summertime” (song from P&B) for concert choir – I then got into the opera and insisted on seeing it in person; led to trip to the city where we got lost – what if the main character does similar… what happens when she’s lost?
- What if the main character wants to play Bess in the high school production but she isn’t black? Or maybe it’s not P&B but some other show … What happens? How does she go about getting the part? How do others react?
- What if the main character is trying to write an American opera and uses P&B as the basis/inspiration – what could this be about? What is relevant today from P&B? What has changed? How can I change the opera to be new? How does impact the M.C.’s life?
You get the idea.
I think everyone can benefit from trying this technique at least once. It may not find its way into your story or art the first time, but the brainstorming process that results from looking at “On This Day” forces your brain into creative mode. And in creative mode is always a good place be.
If you try this technique, let me know how it goes! And if you do something similar, please share! I’d love to read about it in the comments so I can tuck it up my sleeve or into a pocket when I need another trick!
One of the best things about being writers is that we get to play with reality. When we craft fiction, poetry, and even creative nonfiction, we can bend and twist the boundaries of our identity, the identities of our speakers and characters, and even the world around us.
Of course, there are varying degrees of reality contorting. One could tell the first-person account of the life of a three-winged dragon in the fictional land of Ingatek, or one could write a poem that relays a factual account of an observation but simply tell it from the perspective of a different person.
“Playing” like this can be fun, exciting, and it works the creative muscle in our writers’ brains that makes us stronger writers. Even hardcore nonfiction writers can benefit from the cross training taking on different perspectives provides. Being able to see the world and events from another’s point of view forces us to notice different details, make different interpretations of events and relationships, and possibly reconsider our own place in the scheme of things.
So today I offer a simple writing exercise in perspective. Use it as a quick warm-up for the day’s writing, or take it and run with it as far as your imagination (and time) will allow.
Exercise: Consider a locale you frequently visit – it could be the library, a bar or restaurant, a park, or even a neighbor’s house. Create a list of at least twenty-five descriptive words associated with that particular place. Write fast and try to complete your list in 3 minutes or less. Using your list, write a short story or poem about being in the place from the perspective of a young child. Keep in mind appropriate vocabulary, how children relate to adults and other children, how a child’s breadth of experience (or lack thereof) might impact what/how he or she experiences in the same place as adult. And have fun with it! You never know where a writing exercise might lead…
Do you often write from different perspectives? Is there a specific process you use when “getting into character” that helps your writing feel more authentic? I’d love to hear about your method in the comments! And if you try the writing exercise, let me know how it goes!
I’m not currently looking for an agent, but merely thinking about the process makes me break out in a cold sweat. Finding a good match, writing a stellar query, knowing how to spot a fake… Never mind actually having a polished manuscript to submit!
Fortunately, there are many great resources to help writers along. Websites galore, how-to articles, Facebook groups, manuals, agencies … And every year, Writer’s Digest puts out a new guidebook to help connect writers and agents.
So if you’re in the market for an agent, check out Chuck Sambuchino‘s blog post, which includes a giveaway for the new 2017 Guide to Literary Agents! Entering is easy – simply comment on his blog. And if you are on Twitter, you can tweet about the giveaway for an extra entry.
Are you looking for an agent? If you’d care to share about the process, let us know in the comment section below!
This year, November for me means not only all of the usual busyness of Thanksgiving, family, and work because in addition there is a 100% chance of (FINALLY) moving into our new house. It’s been delayed and delayed and delayed, and we’ve been moving from temporary housing to temporary housing. But finally – in November – it will be done. And right smack in the middle of it all? NaNoWriMo.
So with these immense tasks looming large, I need all the motivation I can get. Little things can get me pumped when I’m feeling intimidated, so this morning instead of focusing on the writing, I thought I’d focus on something easier:
Creating a book cover for NaNoWriMo.
I have no plan when it comes to NaNo. I don’t plot – as much as I want to be the writer with the outline, character sketches, and full-blown plan for novel writing, I am a pantser through and through. In fact, I don’t have a clue as to what this year’s NaNo book will be about. Or at least I didn’t until I started making a cover. It’s one of my tricks up my very tricksy sleeves. I force myself to complete the first step, and the rest follows. Eventually. And if I change my mind or the Muses gift me with another story? I’ll change the cover. Easy as pie.
So for anyone who would like a nudge in the pants(er), here is a quick and painless way to create a NaNoWriMo book cover to display with pride (or any other emotion you choose) on your dashboard…
(1) Log in to Canva.
Canva is a free, online site that comes fully loaded with easy-to-use tools that make it possible for everyone (well, maybe not my mother but she still can’t figure out her email) to design graphics, presentations, social media bling, headers, buttons, and yes, NaNo book covers. For free. Just register with your email address and you’re good to go!
(2) From your Canva dashboard, click “Use custom dimensions” and enter 230 x 300 pixels. It will look something like this:
You’ll then end up on the layout page with a blank slate, like this:
(3) From here, you can get as creative as you’d like OR keep it as simple as you like.
Simple cover – For a crisp, clean cover, simply add a background color and lettering, like so:
All I did here was select existing text from the left sidebar and edit it. For the author’s name, I used “Add a little bit of body text.” You can change the colors, size, etc., by simply selecting the element. Playing around and experimenting is the best way to find what you like.
Fancier cover – Or add photos (choose from free stock photos, pay $1 to use protected images, or upload your own photos), graphics, fancy fonts from your personal library, and other elements. Here’s an example using a free stock photo:
I selected “Elements” from the left menu bar, picked “Free photos,” then entered “train” in the search box. To make the photo fit the cover, I dragged the corners until the image filled the 230 x 300 pixel template. Then I added text as above.
(4) After you’ve played around and are happy with the cover, click “Download” from the top menu bar and save the file as a JPG or PNG, the forms compatible with NaNo.
(5) Finally, all that’s left is to visit your author dashboard over at NaNoWriMo and upload the cover!
I promise this is a very easy process and was actually faster than the time it took to write this post! I created my 2016 NaNoWriMo cover this morning after deciding to take the plunge. And while I didn’t know going in what my book would be about, the creative process got the juices flowing and an idea sparked. Now let’s hope it catches!
Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Let me know if you create a NaNoWriMo cover! And if you have a different technique or use different software please feel free to share in the comment section – it’s always good to learn different ways to accomplish the same task since you never know what you’ll like best until you try it!
If you’re anything like me, you start writing because a character (or an interesting situation) comes to visit your brain. And you write and write and write and begin to bring to life the story. You start to get excited about your wonderful writing so you share bits and pieces of the project with your friends and/or fellow writers. And then, inevitably the question arises:
“So … what’s the title?”
And you pause for a never-ending-moment before answering, “Uh … n-n-nothing yet.”
You say this even if it is titled because you only have a working title and no one in their right mind ever wants to share a working title because it is usually embarrassing or silly or unimaginative or anything but the perfect title you know your masterpiece deserves.
Speaking from experience, I can say this traumatic title trouble also happens with poems, flash pieces, works of nonfiction both long and short, essays, research papers, academic works … and yes, even blog posts.
So what’s a writer to do?
Well, I wish I could give you a one-sentence magic answer … but sadly, I have yet to master that mystical power. However, I can give you a list of some pretty nifty websites that have helped me tack title trouble in the past. Here they are in no particular order:
- Of course, the folks over at Writer’s Digest offer some insightful tips. Be sure to check out Chuck Sambuchino’s post, How to Choose Your Novel’s Title: Let Me Count Five Ways.
- Don’t forget the value of old-fashioned brain picking – friends, family, even strangers in the supermarket might have the perfect title on the tips of their tongues. My husband was instrumental in helping me figure out the title to a nonfiction piece I recently wrote for a workshop and the first thing everyone commented on was the amazing title.
- And when all else fails, keep in mind that if you decide to publish your baby via a publishing house, the editor and marketing peeps may make the decision for you! So sit back, relax, and keep writing. The title will appear, one way or the other. At least that’s what I keep telling myself!
Do you have any tips for title choosing? I’d love to read them and add your wisdom to my writing arsenal! So please – share away in the comments section!
The cost of attending writing conferences can range from my all-time favorite, FREE, to hundreds (and hundreds) of dollars. Additionally, a writing conference can last one day or multiple days, which, unless you live relatively close to the venue means a hotel room and meals out. How do you know which conference to attend in order to get the most bang for your buck?
I’ll be honest. When I first started my year of writing conferences, I had no idea what to look for to answer that question. I lucked out with my very first conference being a grant-funded (read: free admission) conference that happened to have amazing speakers and workshops. But after that, I ran the gamut of reasonable to ridiculous in pricing. And spending more money did not necessarily ensure a better conference.
So please. Learn from my mistakes. My lost money is cash in your pocket. Here are some tips I found useful when determining how to get the most for your conference dollar:
1. Do your homework.
Spend some time looking at upcoming conferences, the list of presenters, the schedule of sessions and workshops. Are there critique sessions? Pitch sessions? Networking activities? Who is the keynote speaker? If a conference costs $300 but three of the four sessions rank as an “eh” in your book, you’re probably better off at a different conference or waiting until next year. Not sure where to find conference listings? Poets & Writers has a database as does New Pages. In addition, START LOCAL. If you don’t need to get a hotel room, eat out as much, etc., you’ll automatically save hundreds of dollars. Check with your state’s writing associations, community and local colleges, bookstores, and libraries. That conference I mentioned above? The free one? That was run through a joint state and library grant program.
2. Know what you want to get out of the conference.
There are general writing conference, genre-specific conferences, writing retreats, pitch conferences… The list goes on. Are you looking to land an agent? Improve a specific part of your craft? Rub elbows with other writers? A little of everything? Knowing what your goal is can save you money and more importantly, it can save you time. There is nothing worse than feeling like you spent a day in a conference that wasn’t worth your money when you could have spent that time writing. So my advice is to look for a conference that best meets your needs. Just getting your feet wet? A general conference is probably the best bet. Looking to grow in your chosen genre? Check out conferences run by your genre’s organization (e.g., SCBWI, Romance Writers, Mystery Writers, Christian Writers, Sci-Fi & Fantasy Writers, etc.).
3. Consider add-ons carefully.
Many conferences have optional “add-ons” that writers may choose to attend or not attend. These can be extra sessions, workshops, one-on-one critiques or feedback sessions, and so on. I’ve had good experiences with the add-ons and not-so-good experiences. The difference? Careful consideration of the added value. They may cost a few extra dollars, but they can also make the difference between a wonderful conference experience and a “blah” experience. The best money I spent was for an add-on at an SCBWI conference – I got more out of those three hours than I did the rest of the two-day conference. But be cautious – not all add-ons are created the same. I researched before adding on that extra session at the SCBWI conference, and in fact did not register for the other add-on even though it was on the same day. I used that time to write.
Writing conferences can be a wonderful way to grow as a writer and to network with people who can potentially change your writing life. But unless you are independently wealthy, the cost of attending is something to carefully weigh against the benefit. I hope that some of these tips help when you decide which conference(s) to attend this year!
Do you have any other thoughts on how to get the most bang for your writing conference buck? Please share with us – we all like to spend money wisely!
Many conferences offer critique sessions in a group setting or one-on-one feedback meetings with a professional writer, editor, or agent. Is it worth missing out on another session to attend a critique?
Even if you are in an MFA program or have a phenomenal writing group, the feedback you receive in those critique session – while valuable – is often geared toward first (or near-first) drafts. The piece(s) you bring to a writing conference critique should be close to what you perceive as publishable. As such, the feedback you receive from publishing experts will help you fine tune your work so that it is marketable and ready to be sent out for queries or submission. It’s unlikely that the other ten or so MFA students (and even the instructor for that matter) can offer you the kind of insight that seasoned publishing professions can. And while your local writing group is invaluable for helping develop your work, the input from a professional can make all the difference.
There are some things to consider …
- Be prepared to receive feedback. Even brilliant stories and poems can benefit from another pair of eyes and seasoned input. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Listen, take notes, say thank you, and let the feedback simmer for a few days. Don’t try to argue your perspective or explain why you are right.
- Do your homework. Make sure that the person(s) who will be giving the critique is a good fit for your work. In other words, if you want feedback on a romance piece and the only available time slot is with an editor who specializes in sci-fi… consider waiting until next time.
- Bring everything you might need. In addition to the requested number of pages, come ready with business cards, additional work, a bio, a synopsis and/or elevator pitch, and breath mints (hey, you’ll be in close quarters!). You never know where a critique session will lead and don’t want to scribble your email on a napkin or the corner of a piece of paper. Be ready for anything.
- Don’t forget – you’ll hear the good things about your piece, too! Critique sessions are designed to provide constructive criticism, and constructive criticism includes elements in the story, poem, or essay that work well for the reviewer. It helps to hear about what you’re doing right so you can keep it up in the draft you’re presenting and in future work.
If you can’t attend a conference that has a critique opportunity, I recommend joining a writing group (either virtual or in-person) or asking a trusted writing friend for feedback. While it can be difficult to listen to feedback and criticism, it can also make the revision process easier and more focused.
How about you? I’d love to hear different experiences with critiques and feedback! Plus, sharing stories and advice will help other writers as we look for new opportunities to grow. So share away!