Getting Back on the (Writing) Wagon

I’d like to take an unscientific poll here.  I’m curious to know what you do if you haven’t written creatively for a while but want to get back into the groove of it again.  Choose one of the options below to participate in the poll, and leave a comment to discuss these options or any others you might do:

 

What Are You Reading Today?

I always found it interesting that people would say it was important for writers to be readers.  But now that I’m old(er) and wiser, I can see that over the years my writing output went down as my To Be Read pile got higher and dustier. Somewhat this is just because of that nasty, four letter word:  Time.  I don’t have any more time to read than I have to write.

I have done a few beta reads for writers I know, so I haven’t completely stopped reading, but I simply haven’t read enough books solely for pleasure in recent years.  Last year I listened to some books on CD:  “Wherever I Wind Up” by R.A. Dickey, “I Am America (And So Can You!)” by Stephen Colbert and “Heat Wave” by Richard Castle (because, why not?).  I also read the comics page in the newspaper every day, but I don’t think that really counts, does it? But in all seriousness, that’s not enough reading for me to be doing in a year.

Time is an excuse. So I am going to blow the dust off of my To Be Read pile and get started on it.  I have one more book on CD which I’ll start this week:  “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls” by David Sedaris.  I know nothing about this book, but I received it as a gift some time ago so I should give it a go.  After that, I’ll have to tackle a real book.  I don’t know if I will go with an old standby like Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, or start with a book in my To Be Read pile that I have never read, such as Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book”.  I’ll let you know what I decide.

In the meantime, I’d like to know what you are reading and whether you think reading is an important part of writing.  Let me know in the comments.

A Change in Perspective

logs

Logs in my yard

Continuing on from my post last week in which I suggested we should try taking a look around us and just write a scene with whatever pops into view first, I have another simple experiment we can do to try to kick start our creativity for 2015. I have used this strategy a lot, actually, when I want to brainstorm or try to generate new ideas.

The concept is simple:

  1. Find an object in your yard, in the room, in the parking lot, or wherever you might be.  Note what it is.  For example, I’m currently looking at a round slice from a tree that was cut down.
  2. Now, in your mind or on paper, think of this object as we perceive it today and describe it and how it is used, where it came from, what it smells like, tastes like, feels like, etc.
  3. Next… say “What if…” and look at the object from a different angle.  For example, my round slice of tree could be stood on end and now it looks like a wooden wheel.  What if this wooden wheel had been part of an early vehicle? Who rode in that vehicle? What was the ride like? What did the passengers in the vehicle talk about?  Where did this wheel take them?
  4. Repeat step 3.  What if my slice of tree was actually a pedestal from the Town Center and had a history of people standing upon it and delivering famous speeches? What if it was one of many tables at a neutral meeting place where peace treaties, political alliances and other major decisions were negotiated?  What if secret messages were encoded in the rings, like some sort of wooden record?

You can do this with anything.  Take any ordinary object and change your perspective on it.  You can use your camera and take a picture of an object, then pull that picture into photo editing software and change the colors, the backgrounds, the contrast.  Invert the colors or apply a sepia filter to it (or both).  Perhaps rotate it 90 degrees in one direction or another.  When you change the perspective, even just a little bit, the whole object becomes new and different. What new stories will you tell about an old, ordinary thing?

Logs with colors inverted

Logs with colors inverted

Logs with inverted colors and a sepia filter

Logs with inverted colors and a sepia filter

Sometimes You Just Need to Start Writing

busy excuseI have no free time.  I get up at 4:37am every day and I’m running all the way until I collapse into bed sometime after 10pm.  Between the day job, kids’ events, yard work, house work and any other multitude of things, my “free” time is that which I spend at the gym in the morning, running or lifting and making myself miserable for some reason I haven’t yet defined.

What that leaves me with is no time to write.

And that’s okay.  I mean, I have a day job that pays the bills, writing is a hobby at this point because I can’t make that leap to where I’m ready to try to make a living at it.  So I know the world isn’t going to end just because I can’t find an hour to write today.  Not very many people will lose sleep over the fact that I haven’t published a story to my blog in a while. The sun will likely still come up tomorrow morning even though Microsoft Word didn’t get pulled up and typed into for something other than the daily TPS Report at work.

But, as I thought about typing that paragraph releasing myself from the guilt of not writing, it dawned on me that the more I thought about reasons why it was okay for me to not write today…the more reasons I could come up with for not writing today.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy to some extent: my schedule is full, so I can’t write. I can’t write because my schedule is full.  My schedule says I can’t write.  My schedule…. Hmm… I can’t write.

I know I am not the only person suffering through thoughts and schedules like this.  And I also recognize that every day I am finding it easier to just let the “I have no time” excuse wash over me and become my default, go-to excuse for writing, for listening to music, for watching the game on TV…for anything I *like* to do but know I probably shouldn’t do because of all the other things I have to do. Admit it: you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So today, I want to take a stand against this thought pattern.  Today, I want to write. Even if just for a few minutes.  Sometimes, the key to getting a story started is, well, to start it. So my challenge to myself and to you is simple:

Wherever you are right now, be it on a train commuting to work or school, in a cubicle at the office, at a table in your favorite local coffee shop, or on the spot on your living room couch which is shaped perfectly for you and no one else to sit in… wherever you may be, look around you.  Look out the nearest window and then write down what you see. Look at the desk next to you and describe what’s in the mug in the corner. Take note of the person who is sitting alone, who never talks to anyone at all and write about what he or she is thinking about.  Do this and write it down.  Write a paragraph or a page, 50 words or 100 words or 1000 words.  This challenge isn’t about the quantity or even the quality, it is about getting the first words down on the page.

So who’s with me?   What do you see outside your window today?

Two Years

Today marks two years since the first post went live here at Today’s Author. In that time, we’ve built a strong, vibrant community of writers and readers. We’ve shared stories and experiences, ideas and feedback. We’ve grown to a community of thousands!

We have been told that our posts have helped in many ways: breaking through writer’s block, kick-starting a series of stories… even completing a college thesis.  With every post and every writing prompt we publish, we hope we are bringing useful and helpful content and ideas to help each of our community members reach their writing goals.

As we look forward to another exciting and creative 2015, we want to know what types of things you, our community, would like to see in the coming months.  Is there a topic you’d like to see us address? Do you have an idea for an exciting new feature for the site?  We welcome feedback as we continue to build this site and this community. Feel free to leave your ideas here in the comments or use the Contact Us form if you’d prefer.

We are excited to be part of your creative life and are happy to have you with us. Thanks for sharing with us for two years so far and here’s to the next two years and beyond!

NaNoWriMo Tips and Tricks for Success

We are just over two days away from the start of NaNoWriMo 2014.  It’s exciting and terrifying for NaNoWriMo veterans and rookies alike.  As someone who is doing this for the ninth time, I thought I’d share some of my tips and tricks for how I’ve been able to get through the month of November without abandoning the novel or the writing when the going gets tough.  Many of these ideas can be used not just for NaNoWriMo but for any writing endeavor you may take, and some of these tricks may be useful for overcoming a spell of writer’s block as well.  In the comments, share your favorite tips for getting the words on the page.

  • Have your character write a diary/blog post — When I get stuck, especially in NaNoWriMo, it usually means one of two things:
    • I have not gotten to know my character(s) well enough to know what they’d do in their current situation
    • I’ve completed the character’s current task and don’t know what he or she will do next.

    In either case, one solution to this that has helped me a lot is to have the character write a diary entry/blog post/give a speech/etc. Writing this type of thing gives the character a chance to talk about what they did, why they did it, how they did it, when they did it, and anything else they feel like discussing about the situation.  It gives an opportunity for the character to tell you, the writer, what they are thinking about things.  The benefits of doing this include: gaining a deeper understanding of the character; finding new events or situations to explore in another chapter or story with the character; defining back story or making connections to the character’s past; and, specifically for NaNoWriMo: bolstering word count.

    The result of writing these diary (etc.) entries can also be expanded into what happens as a result of them.  Does a boyfriend read his girlfriend’s diary and learn something important about her that she was trying to hide?  Does the blog post result in social/political problems for the character? Does the audience react strongly in one way or another to the speech the character gives?  So many possible avenues can get opened by writing a simple set of paragraphs directly from the character’s perspective.

  • Timeskip — There is no rule that you have to write your story in order, whether it’s for NaNoWriMo or not.  Specifically thinking about NaNoWriMo, getting bogged down in the details of a dull, boring or languishing scene is a bad thing because there simply isn’t time to waste on that. So, put a placeholder in, something like {fill in the details of why it is so darn important that he ordered a decaf soy mocha-latte later}, then start the next scene.  I’m not proposing that this is something you’d do routinely, just that if you’re stuck, sometimes jumping to the next scene, where the problem is already resolved, will help you figure out later how to actually resolve the problem.  Alternatively, you could skip backwards in time and write a scene that leads up to the one you’re stuck in.  Understanding how your character got to where they are can help you understand how to get them out of that situation, too.
  • Secondary plots — Presumably, you’ve got more than one character in your book.  So, if your main character isn’t cooperating, how about adding a chapter that focuses on someone else for a while?  At some point you will have to deal with the issues you face with your main character, but in the meantime the secondary story of what your non-primary characters are doing can bolster your word count for NaNoWriMo, open up new storylines within the main character’s story and, perhaps, change your perspective as to who the story is actually about.
  • Use a prompt — There are plenty of writing prompts out there. We have hundreds of prompts here on Today’s Author and also on our Facebook page. Sometimes just finding a simple sentence to use as a starting off point for a new chapter or scene is all you need.  So when you’re stuck, hit our Write Now prompt archive (right at the top of the page), visit our Facebook page and use one of the Micro Prompts, find a plot generator on the internet or  find another writing site’s prompts.  Prompts can be a fantastic tool for getting the creative spark going.
  • When all else fails, add a burrito or a monkey or some underwear — Sometimes nothing helps more than throwing a random object or instigator into the mix. It may just be me, but I find frozen burritos to be funny when they are used as a tool to solve a problem (I actually wrote a story in which the character used a frozen burrito to save the day).  Monkeys, squirrels, angry cats… they’re all funny, too, in that people and characters react to them.  And as much as we all like to claim otherwise, underwear remains funny no matter how old you get.  So, throw your character into a situation where he has been sent to the store to buy underwear for his wife or daughter.  Maybe while he’s there a squirrel breaks through a ceiling tile and runs around causing havoc. And after all of that, he finds himself in a 7-Eleven waiting for his favorite burrito to warm up…

 

There are many ways to get through the doldrums of a long work.  The ones I’ve mentioned are my favorite ways and they work well for me as a seat-of-the-pants writer.  Maybe you can use them to help you succeed at NaNoWriMo or at whatever your current work in progress is.  I’m sure, though, that you also have tips and tricks for getting through the rough patches and I’d love to hear them in the comments. So, share away and remember to just keep writing.

The stories all around us

bathroomladderWe are in the midst of remodeling the bathroom (the only bathroom) in our house.  Like anyone who owns an old home, I had my fears about this project — what horrors would we find with the plumbing or the electric or the subfloors or the joists or the structure. In fact, the first day of the project, every time the contractor came out to get something I assumed it was the time he was going to say, “Sir… we’ve gotta talk…” and then proceed to show me that the room was held together with toothpicks and superglue.

Thankfully, that conversation hasn’t happened (so far, though we’re almost done so I think we’re okay).  What did happen, though, is that opening the walls, ceiling and flooring of the bathroom opened up a history that we had previously not known. It also  opened up a set of possibilities for us to come up with some quite interesting stories about what we found.

First… there was the ladder.  We opened up a wall which seemed from the outside to be just empty space.  Inside, we found an old, wooden ladder.  What is that ladder’s story?  Why was it left in the wall? Was it there for safekeeping, locked away for “a rainy day”?  Was it placed there absentmindedly and then ignored as the plasterboard was put up? Was it the only thing that was holding that portion of the house up at some point (goodness, I sure hope that isn’t the case!)?

Then there was the insulation. Apparently, the best insulation around was newspaper. As we touched it, it disintegrated immediately, turning into dust right in our fingers because, apparently, newspaper really isn’t all that good to use as insulation.  I was able to gently pull one sheet of newspaper out of the ceiling and it stayed intact long enough for me to see the date — December 29, 1963.  So, we learned that the last time this room had work done on it was 51 years ago. Imagine what we might have been able to discover about an era long ago had those newspapers been just a tiny bit more stable. We could have read the articles and learned about the local politics of the day, or the national and world news the local paper thought was important.  What if every home used the ceilings and walls of its bathroom as a time capsule and through this method of archival a society’s entire history was recorded? Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Next, we found a wall full of razor blades. Now, this explained a few things for me, specifically why I would find random old, rusty razorblades in the basement every so often over the past twenty years.  But more importantly, I learned something.  I had not known that they used to put a slot in medicine cabinets into which old razors were discarded.  Apparently, this was common and when you were done with the razor you would stick it in the slot and it would “magically disappear”.  Well, now I know where the razors re-appeared.  But imagine if such a technology did exist…stick your unwanted stuff in a slot and have it whisked magically away… perhaps re-appearing in a similar slot somewhere else where a person may need the item, or perhaps just falling away into a landfill (or my bathroom wall).

This remodeling job has provided the seeds for a lot of stories. Perhaps my 2014 NaNoWriMo novel has been waiting in the walls of that room for the past 51 years.  We cleaned up everything we found there in those walls and we’ve sealed it up nice again, but I wonder if in another 51 years someone will open these same walls up and learn something new about life in 2014, or find a new set of stories to tell.  The biggest thing this job has done for me creatively is reminded me once again that there are millions of stories to be told, all of them sitting there waiting to be discovered in the things we do and encounter everyday but don’t think twice about.  So, what’s your every-day normal world telling you to write about today?  I’d bet if you look carefully, you’ll find some really exciting stories to tell.

On Fresh Starts and Writing Adventures

Today, October 1, marks the traditional start to the official NaNoWriMo season. In years past, this entailed a day of anticipation while the event’s websites would be brought down, updated, refreshed, renewed and ultimately re-launched, unveiling new functionality and a fresh, clean slate for the several hundred thousand enthusiastic aspiring novelists to use to begin their new noveling adventures.

2014 may or may not see that extended, pulse-stimulating downtime of anticipation today, but nonetheless when the calendar flips to October 1 the hardcore NaNoWriMo enthusiasts among us can’t help but feel just a little bit more excited than normal. This is The Beginning, the start of something potentially new, something potentially awesome, something definitely not easy but something absolutely amazing.

Lest I get ahead of myself, let me provide a quick introduction to NaNoWriMo and my own experiences with it. For those who don’t know, National Novel Writing Month started in 1999 as a quirky challenge to encourage (read: provide plenty of guilt motivation) to finally write that book we all say we’re going to write someday. I won’t attempt to re-record the complete history of NaNoWriMo, as this has been done for us already: NaNoWriMo History

The rules were simple: Create a new, lengthy (50,000 word) work of fiction.

Oh, and do it in 30 days (November 1-30).

“Winning” is defined as completing that 50,000 word challenge by the last minute of November 30th.

Over the years, the rules have changed slightly from time to time, allowing for “NaNo Rebels” to continue works-in-progress or allowing for a more relaxed definition of the word “novel” or even “fiction”. The goal, however, has always been the same: write, write, write!

Personally, I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo since November, 2006. That first year, I crossed that 50,000 word threshold just before midnight on November 30 (less than 15 minutes to spare) and it was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life (I kid you not). Sure, the novel I wrote wasn’t great, and isn’t ever going to be great, but that’s not really the point. The point was to write it. When I started the novel, the idea felt amazing and workable. It felt like something I’d like to write someday. Rather than keep thinking about doing it someday, I wrote my amazing, workable idea into a novel. When I finished it… well, some novels just don’t work out, I suppose.

I’ve had various levels of success each year since then, with 2014 marking my 9th year of participating. I’ve “won” every year, but of the 8 completed novels, I’d say only two or three have any shot of going anywhere beyond the Microsoft Word documents that currently contain them. That said, they ALL have sections which may work (or have worked) as short stories or as launching points for a different novel someday.

Today we at Today’s Author kick off our annual NaNoWriMo Prep Month. Over the next four weeks, we’ll be putting together posts to help you prepare for your noveling efforts in November should you choose to tackle this event. But make no mistake: the things we are talking about are not related solely to NaNoWriMo. In fact, several of our authors have never and will never participate in it. Our goal is to help you plan for any project, short or long, to help you prepare for writing your next big first draft, to help you complete your first draft. It doesn’t matter if you are planning to write 50,000 words in November or 13,000 words, the goal is the same: start, write, finish.

So, let’s look at our calendar and take advantage of the clean, new month. If you’ve been working through a rough patch of writer’s block, let’s look for a renewal. Clean the slate and take a step back. Over the coming weeks, consider ideas you perhaps put on the backburner in the past and pull them out again. If you’ve been thinking about taking a stab at writing in a genre or style you don’t usually write… start learning the rules of that genre and generating ideas.  Give yourself permission to take a chance on these ideas, different styles, different formats… Stretch yourself and you may find a part of writing you’ve been missing (my example of this would be that in 2007 I wrote a novel that falls into the fantasy genre… a genre I never had interest in writing.  It is my favorite novel so far and has spawned a whole set of fantasy stories and ideas.  And it was on a whim that I decided to do that for NaNoWriMo 2007.)  We’ll help provide you with the tools to outline your new work (if outlining and planning are your thing) or to figure out where you’re going to dive in and start writing by the seat of your pants (if that’s your preferred writing poison). Either way, you’ll come out of this effort with ideas, plans and hopefully an enthusiasm to try NaNoWriMo for the first time, to do it again for the 3rd or 9th or 15th time, or to just write something new.

We can start right now, today. Here in the comments, anyone who has attempted NaNoWriMo in the past can share successes and failures. Those who haven’t tried it can discuss their successes and failures with writing anywhere or any time – Are you a seat of the pants writer who gets lost and can’t finish the story when it gets long? Are you a planner who loses interest after spending weeks outlining plots and characters? Do you have trouble keeping the idea that your first draft is a first draft and instead of just writing it you get bogged down in the details of editing it? Throw your questions, ideas and concerns out here in the comments – our community will definitely have ideas or answers and perhaps a post later in the month will address them in more detail as well.

T-Minus 30 days to NaNoWriMo 2014!

Looking for the Idea Lost and Found

It never fails.  I’m running on the treadmill or mowing the lawn or standing in the shower…and an idea for a story comes to me.  Not just “an idea”, but The Greatest Idea Ever.  The Idea which would lead to the best new novel/poem/story/script ever imagined ever!

It happened again this morning, the idea coming to me as I finally got my aching muscles loosened up after a long weekend of abusing them.  The idea was so simple, so perfect… it was going to write itself.  I had opening lines, the number of chapters, the main characters all there in my mind.  I kept going over the idea as the machine counted my steps and I was sure I’d get home and be able to transcribe it.

I got home, fired up the laptop, went to wake the children, took care of the dishes, let the dog out, fed the cats, watered the plants, started the coffee, drove the teenagers to school, updated the grocery list, sorted through some laundry issues, wrote a couple checks for school events…  When I finally sat down at the laptop, the idea — my perfect, amazing, fantastic, almost-going-to-write-itself idea– was gone.

Obviously, we can all see my mistake here: I shouldn’t have come home.  But getting past that, I sit here and wonder how many ideas have come and gone simply because Life with a capital L demands that we prioritize work, school, kids,  paying the bills, etc. above all else.  I certainly wish I could just close my eyes and do a Bing search in my brain to find that idea which just this morning felt like it was The One.  If there’s an idea lost and found, I’m sure it is full of stories that have not yet been told but are there just waiting for someone to reclaim them.

It’s funny or sad or…something…  I never put pen to paper on this story that came to me this morning. Never really got to know the characters or their world. And yet, the feeling of loss is big because they are gone.  I mean, they’re still “in there” somewhere, but the whole thing is out of reach.  On the good side of the ledger, it’s been a long time since I felt like a creative idea that good was there for me.  Now I just need to find it again and hope that it’s while I’ve got a laptop or a pen or my phone nearby.

What tricks or methods do you use to help remember ideas that come to you when you simply cannot record them immediately? I’d love to hear what works for you.

 

Coffee Talk: Let’s Talk about Writing

brainstormingSeveral members of our community wrote in and suggested that we have an occasional post where we simply talk about writing.  New or less-experienced writers often have a lot of questions about crafting stories or editing or publishing and can benefit from hearing from more-experienced writers and their efforts in those areas. Similarly, experienced writers can get stuck in a rut where writing is more of a chore than a joy and they can benefit from new ideas, tools, methods and energy from other writers.

So, let’s take today to just talk about writing.  Do you have trouble with some aspect of writing? Do you struggle with a particular tool you use when writing? Are you lacking a tool for some aspect of it?  Do you have a particular tool or writing process you’ve found to be a tremendous benefit to your writing efforts?

We have a vast community of writers with many levels of expertise and experience, and each of us has something to offer and something to learn.  So, grab a cup of coffee or tea or whatever your beverage of choice is and let’s share some ideas, questions and answers here in the comments.