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Fueling the Fires

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 fire-buring-public-domain
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.

journal-public-domainSo 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.public-domain-women-and-history

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.

So where do you look? I like History.com‘s This Day in History page, but there are many to peruse when looking for the day’s events. Here is a brief and very incomplete list:

Once you have the list, how does it work? Let’s take today. October 10th. Many things porgy-and-besshappened 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! 

An Exercise in Perspective

public domain dragon.pngOne 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.public-domain-child

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!

November Giveaway!

What If GiveawayGreetings from #NaNoWriMo Land!

I’m in the thick of things with my first ever NaNo, and it is going better than expected! Of course, it’s only Day 4 but so far, I’m ahead of my word count goals and I’m not getting caught up in my typical perfectionist trap.  Go me!  I’m also doing the #NovPAD (November Poem-a-Day) Chapbook Challenge from Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest.  I’m using NovPAD as a way to get the creative juices going each morning before diving into my NaNo writing after work in the afternoon.  So far, so good.  My Day 3 poem is kind of “eh,” but I’m looking at everything produced during the month of November as raw material and fodder for revision in the months to come.

In honor of all of this seat-of-the-pants writing, I thought I’d offer a #Giveaway focused on boosting creativity and getting you to step outside the comfy, familiar box that most of us find ourselves writing in whenever we’re pushed for time.  As such, I’m giving away a copy of my favorite book of writing exercises, What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.  Don’t worry, I’m not giving away my personal (well-loved, dogeared) copy – this is brand-new and shiny, straight from Amazon.com.

This book is the best.

I’m not saying this is definitively the best book of writing exercises and prompts ever.  Just that it’s a-mazing.  Phenomenal. Okay, yes.  I’m saying it’s the best.

My opinion may be due in large part to the fact that it is one of the first books I used when I embraced myself as a Writer with a capital “W” instead of a mere daydreamer.  But it’s also due to the fact that this book really is wonderful.  There are more than 75 exercises in the book, and unlike most prompt/exercise books out there, What If? provides explanations, objectives, and student examples.  It really is a gold mine for writers of all levels.

Even if you are thinking, “Great, a fiction book.  I don’t write fiction.” Don’t despair! Doing the exercises in this book will work that creativity muscle and the cross-training will result in improved writing no matter your genre of choice.  From poetry to memoir, this book will work wonders for you (if you do the work – you can’t just pet the cover and smile pretty … you have to write). And since it’s free, you have nothing to lose and much to gain!

“What do I have to do to win this amazing book?” you are probably asking.  It’s simple.  Here are the details:

  • You must be a resident of the US (or have a US shipping address).
  • Get one entry by commenting on this blog and telling us your favorite writing prompt or exercise (from any source, even one you dreamed up today).
  • Get another entry by posting about this Giveaway on Twitter.  BE SURE TO INCLUDE ME, @TheKatMcCormick, IN YOUR TWEET SO I CAN GIVE YOU CREDIT!
  • You can Tweet once per day until the Giveaway ends and earn one entry per day on Twitter. (If you start today (11/04) you could earn over 20 entries!!)
  • Do all of this before the Giveaway officially ends on Tuesday 11/24/2015 at 10pm Eastern.
  • I will select a random winner and announce the winner on Wednesday 11/25/2015 on Twitter and on my blog.

That’s it!  Easy as pie.  Good luck and happy writing!  I’m looking forward to reading your comments and Twitter posts!

The Writing Life: Get Creative for Halloween with Tombstone Prompts

TOMBSTONE EPITAPHS*Don’t forget to comment on my Giveaway and Tweet daily for a chance to win!  Ends 10/25!*

A few years ago, I was teaching a workshop-style creative writing class to middle school and high school girls and decided to focus on “horror” as the genre for October. I did a different warm-up exercise each week, and the one that turned out to be my favorite was writing short stories based on funny tombstone epitaphs. The girls had a blast and came up with some amazing material! I have kept this trick in my bag and use it myself from time to time. This exercise could be simply that – a writing exercise. Or you can take it further – it could turn into a poem, a work of flash fiction, a short story, or even a full-blown novel if you take it and run! Even better? This exercise is one that the whole family can do together. It can easily be adapted for younger children by having them draw a picture and only a few short lines, while middle grade and high school children can join in the short story fun.

I’ve included a few epitaphs (supposedly from real tombstones) to help the juices flowing. (Click on the image to enlarge.) Don’t see one that calls to you? No worries! Check out this list from BYUthis collection from Amanda Chatel at Bustle, or this list (also linked above) from My Time Matters for more inspiring (and funny!) words from the graveyard.

If you try the exercise, let me know – I’d love to hear what you think!