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The Wordstrumpet Last-Minute Guide to Nanowrimo

nanowrimo-badgeNanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) starts next Tuesday, November 1st. Are you ready? I did it a few years ago, resulting in an early draft of my novel, Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior.  And I’m planning to do it again this year to knock out a draft of a romance novel I have in mind. I think I have a pretty good plan for completing it, she said, modestly, which I shall share here.

First of all, loosely, here are the rules: you can prep as much as you want before November 1st, but you can’t actually write anything until that date.  Write 50,000 words and you win! Prizes include a button for your website and a certificate (at least that’s what they were last time I checked). You can sign up on the Nanowrimo website to get support and encouragement. If you’re a social type, many cities hold Nanowrimo write-ins that you can participate in.

All this is great, but the most important thing about Nanowrimo is that it encourages you to fling words at the page with abandon. You kinda have to if you’re going to meet that 50,000 word goal.  And please, please, please remember that THERE WILL BE MUCH REVISING NEEDED after November 30 has come and gone.  But you know that, right? (Its surprising how many people don’t.)

But, here’s the deal, guys, you only have a few days to prepare.  Like, three. But its not too late! You can totally get yourself in the right headspace to do this in three days. (Trust me, the right headspace is half the battle.)  And, I do highly recommend it.  Nanowrimo is a lot of fun, it  totally gets you over any fears you have about writing a novel, and it helps you learn how to silence your inner critic.

So here goes, the Wordstrumpet Last-Minute Guide to Nanowrimo:

  1. Come up with an idea. Maybe you already have one? Maybe you’ve had an idea for a novel for forever? This is the time to do it.  Here’s a little secret about writing a novel: you can use any idea you want. Really. Its all about how you put it together on the page. Just remember that all novels that work are based on conflict. Somebody (your main character) wants something, but forces array to prevent him from getting it.
  2. Do some prep work. This doesn’t need to be extensive, but it will help if you know your settings (main character’s home and work place, plus her hang-out at a minimum),and some things about your most important  characters (email me if you need a character dossier for this).
  3. Create a loose outline for your plot. (Quit cringing, pantsers.)  This can be as simple as a list of scenes or you can make it more complicated if your brain works that way. (Mine does not.)
  4. Write notes. Ponder things like theme, motivation, the above-mentioned conflict and write your thoughts down. These will likely change as you progress through the pages, but it is good to have some initial thoughts. I like to create a little binder or use a spiral for this, so I’ve got everything together in one place.
  5. Figure out a schedule.  I like to get up early and write, so that my most important thing is finished first. I set a goal of 2,000 words a day. If I stuck to it exactly, I’d end up with 60,000 words after the 30 days of November. But life does intervene. There’s Thanksgiving, for instance. And that’s a time suck if there ever was one.  With my 2K a day goal, I’m good if I lose a couple days to emergency grandchild watching or whatever.
  6. Monitor your habits. This is a good time to forego that nightly class of wine. (Brahahahaha. Like that’s going to happen.) Make sure you eat well and get enough exercise and sleep.
  7. Write like the wind.  Make freaking forward progress! Your goal is to hit 50K words, not obsess over every word. If you’re going to win this, you’re going to have to write fast.  The time for rewriting is when you are finished
  8. Be aware you might not finish. Winning Nanowrimo means completing 50,000 words on one single novel project in a month. You might choose, from the start, to write more of a novella, or know that you’re not going to be quite finished at 50K. And that’s okay–because you’ll have most of it done.
  9. Have fun. We don’t do this to torture ourselves. Do we?

So, are you going to do it? C’mon, let’s! Leave a comment and let’s chat about it.

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Fall Planning, A Special Offer and Off I Go

I’ve been working hard getting clients set for my absence while I’m in France, and I’ve found myself with a bit of time this week. And so I’ve been planning. If there’s one thing I love to do in this life, it is to plan.  Give me a calendar or a planner or a workbook or a template and I’m a happy camper.

When I get home, I’ll have three months left to make my mark on this year. Three short months! And I’ve got tons I want to write, novels, books, blog posts and newsletters.  So in order to accomplish it all, I’m going to need to be organized.  Hence the planning. (Never mind that sometimes I get so enraptured with my planning that I never get to the actual action-taking.)

But here’s the deal.  In all that planning, I know the unexpected will happen. Like people wanting to hire me.  And so I had an idea. (Those are my husband’s most dreaded words in all the world, by the way. Because when I utter them it usually means he’ll be moving furniture or painting walls or digging up a garden bed to create a sculpture garden.) What if I could get an idea who might want to work with me now, to aid me in my planning.

Just think, in the final three months of this year, you could:

–Write the first draft of a novel (Nanowrimo is coming right up)

–Start a blog

–Write and submit article and essay ideas

–Complete a couple of short stories or a novella

–Write a book proposal

The sky’s the limit! Wouldn’t it be great to end this year on a high note, knowing you’ve accomplished your biggest goals? (Because if you are like me, writing is always the biggest goal.)

So, in order to entice you to sign up  and pay, I’m offering a special deal. I’ll add in one session to my one-month package, which brings the total to five sessions, and I’ll add in two session to my three-month, paid-in-advance sessions, bringing the total to 14 freaking sessions! Geez, people, this is  smoking hot deal.

And yes, you are correct, there is a catch.  Because I don’t want to worry about administrative things while I’m in France, to take advantage of this offer, you need to sign up by the end of Labor Day weekend.  That’s midnight, Pacific time on September 5th.  And here’s the other catch: I’m not going to have time to chat with you beforehand. We can communicate via email, but no phone calls. Oh, and one more catch, which is that our coaching will begin in October.

But you can use the sessions any time you want, over as long as you want. And we can work on whatever you want. (For the record, each session is one phone call and me reading up to 20 pages of your work).

Here are the pay buttons. I look forward to working with you!

Three months coaching + two bonus sessions for $1200



One month coaching + one bonus session for $450


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What’s On Your Desk

(My inspiration for this post comes from a list penned by Anne Wayman.)

What’s on your desk?        LT on chair

  • My computer, a small Dell laptop
  • A cat (just about always)
  • A yellow legal pad with notes on it
  • Two books about writing
  • The little journal in which I keep my to-do lists and make notes in all week
  • A pen. Or often several.

My desk is small, like an old-fashioned letter-writing desk, and I like it that way. Until a few months ago, I worked at a massive Ikea desk that had all kinds of room on it.  Too much room, because give me a flat surface and I will stack paper on it. And that is exactly what I did. I stacked paper and books and notebooks and files and all kinds of things all over it.

This did not make me happy.  It cluttered up my mind and made me feel guilty. And then last summer, I started carrying my computer outside every morning and working at the table on the back deck.  Most mornings, it was just me and my laptop, with maybe a pad of paper for notes and a pen, nothing more. I realized I loved this and that what I really needed was a small desk so that I would not have the problem of so much room to stack things on.

For the most part this has worked. The areas surrounding me have crap all over them, but it stays out of my line of vision and doesn’t distract me quite so much.  I positioned this desk so that it is facing into my office with bookshelves behind me, and windows to each side.  My last desk faced the wall.  I like this better because I’m also facing the door and it always feels weird to have your back to it.

I find it amusing that it took me so many years to figure out what worked for me.  And it is also fun to think about how many different places I’ve written. The kitchen counter, the dining room table, a corner of the bedroom, you name it.

Where do you write? Does this location work for you? Why or why not?

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Otherwhere: March 7

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The writer’s life is a mad carnival ride

No snappy titles today, but I’ve got lots of great writing links for you. So let’s get right to it.

Are you trying to ride the news cycle with your current novel? Might not be the best idea.

I gotta admit, sometimes I wonder about this: is writing fiction a worthy endeavor?

What is your story about? When an editor asked me this, it clarified everything. (But then, I can be a bit slow on the uptake.)

How to read more!

Ever thought about applying for a grant for your writing?

The writer’s outlook on life.

Sharing is caring.

Marketing, then and now.

Maybe this is what’s wrong with my current WIP.

My son and daughter-in-law saw Hamilton last November and have been obsessed ever since. What you can learn from it.

Larry Brooks on structure and other things.

Do you need a pen name?

And finally, the seven things a writer needs to make a living.

What have you been reading around the web this past week?

 

Photo by manitou.

 

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Otherwhere: Only One Day Late This Week!

It appears that Christmas is kicking my ass.  Appears that way, because it feels like I’ve been crazy xmas_christmas_miniature_109097_lbusy, so busy that I’ve not collected my usual round-up of links.  But I’m not running around shopping like crazy because I refuse to spend time in malls and do most of it online.  And I gave up writing Christmas cards years ago.  I do, however, decorate the house and spend tons of time with family.  This past weekend we rode the Holiday Express train in the pouring rain, which is a blast.  And today we’re celebrating the four-year-old’s birthday with corn dogs and mac and cheese. And let us not forget the cheese cake I made last night that has so much cream cheese and peanut butter in it that it weighs ten pounds, I swear.  You so want to come to dinner now, don’t you?

Anyway, I didn’t save links for you but I decided that I could still do my weekly Otherwhere post by sharing some of my favorite places on the web and you can go soak up all the richness of them yourself.   So here we go:

Writing

Writer Unboxed is a blog written by a variety of people, some better than others, but it is always worth checking out.

Jane Friedman always has the inside scoop on publishing.

Janice Hardy writes Fiction University.  I think she publishes every day, which is astounding, especially because her posts are usually full of useful information on writing.

For you freelancers, Anne Wayman’s long-running blog About Freelance Writing has a bunch of great stuff, always.

Food

I just discovered Center Cut Cook and have founds some great recipes on this blog.  The author of it has her hands full with a husband suffering from cancer and a child with a serious medical problem so I always click on a few ads while I’m there.

I’ve been reading Kath Eats Real Food for years, and I’m not quite sure why because the constant perfection of the author gets a bit wearying.  But I do like her take on healthy food, so…

Okay, you really have to have a taste for rich food to follow The Pioneer Woman.  She’s become an industry onto herself with product lines at Walmart and a Food Network show, but I like her photos of the cattle on the ranch.

Knitting and Stitching

Of course I couldn’t resist adding a few under this category.

There’s Mason-Dixon Knitting, which just started up again after a few month’s absence.

And I love Fringe Association.  She’s got fabulous items in her store.

Alabama Chanin speaks for itself. Swoon.

And Sublime Stitching always has interesting things going on.

Farming

Yes, farming.  I’m a confirmed city girl, but I love reading about people mucking about in the mud.  I really only have one favorite under this category and that is:

Celi’s The Kitchen Garden. She runs a small family farm in Illinois and blogs daily, with tons of photos.  I marvel at her energy and fortitude and live very vicariously through her blog.  Though I’d love to go stay in her cabin and write for a week or two some time.

General

Oh, there’s BuzzFeed, which is aimed at a demographic much younger than me as far as I can tell, but I enjoy it anyway.  Sometimes their stories make me howl with laughter and that’s a great thing in anyone’s world.

And there’s Brain Pickings, which is an incredible weekly labor of love.

And Jezebel, also for younger women than me, but hey, I write women’s fiction, I need to know what’s going on in the minds of the younger generation. (Having a daughter and a daughter-in-law helps, too.)

Okay, honestly, I didn’t expect the list to get this out of control.  I’ve got more, but I’ll spare you and myself.  In the meantime, what are your go-to blogs?

Image by Jeff Belmonte, from Every Stock Photo.

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Five Things on Friday: July 17, 2015

Ngfood_ngobj_food_228316_lIt's another Five Things on Friday post.  Admit it, you woke up this morning just dying to hop on over here and read the latest one.  Well, here it is.

What I'm Reading:  Still working on a couple of books from last week, including Leaving Time. Don't tell them, but its due today at the library and its going to be late.  I would say it is pretty good, but I'm skimming a bit here and there in order to get through it.  I've been doing that with books more and more lately.  The impatience of old age (see below).  I'm also still working on Alexandra Fuller's  Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and I still haven't forgiven her for not having a website.   The lack of forward motion in that one has slowed me down.  I am, however, reading her most recent one, Leaving Before the Rains Come, which came in at the library and liking it better.  Because there's conflict aplenty, as in money trouble and divorce, and we all know that lots of conflict makes for great reading.

I'm also reading Stones of Consciousness, for research purposes, and Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach.  Yeah, I've got a million books going at once.  I see a book I want to read and put a hold on it at the library and then all the holds come in at once.  Haven't quite figured out how to get the flow working better.

What I'm Thinking About: My novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery, which is currently being considered by a list of 20 excellent publishers.  Think good thoughts!  And I'm pondering my next novel.  I finally, as of yesterday, figured out a loose outline of the first segment.  I've been writing and writing, wondering how it would all come together.  More like praying it would all come together.  This is a testament to the idea that you should just keep writing, because it does work eventually.

What I'm Watching: I bet you're expecting me to wax poetic about some golden age of television show.  Ha! Not a chance.  I'm currently totally into American Ninja Warrior and America's Got Talent.  Summer nights, I need something light and frothy.  I also have the Woody Allen movie Vicky Christina Barcelona in the queue because we will be in Barcelona in September for a few days.

What I'm Complaining About:  Well, nothing at the moment.  It's summer.  Life is good.  Okay, maybe I'll bitch about the fact that my son's dog, who is here for the day, barks at EVERYTHING OUTSIDE THAT MOVES. And maybe some things that don't.  This is a dog who barks at jet contrails, after all.

What I'm Celebrating:  My birthday.  It's today.  I'm old.  And I love it.  As I always say, the alternative, being 6 feet under, is worse.  I take issue with all those people who say aging is awful. Yeah, the body has its issues, but the mind and emotions are better than ever.   I intend to live to be 100 and love almost every minute of it.

 That's it.  That's all I've got.  What's going on with you this Friday?

Photo by ngould.

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Author Interview: Kayla Dawn Thomas

I'm happy to share an interview with my friend, Kayla Dawn Thomas, today.  Actually, Kayla and I have only met through social media (primarily Twitter and Instagram), but that is about to change. Because this summer, she and her family are visiting Portland.  And on July 23rd, the two of us will be doing a reading at a cool local bookstore, Another Read Through on Mississippi, one of Portland's happening neighborhoods.  I love this bookstore, and I love that the owner, Elisa Saphier, is a huge supporter of local authors.  So come on out and join us on the 23rd at 7 PM.  And even if you can't come that night, please do drop into the store if you live in town or are visiting. And now, without further ado, let's find out more about Kayla Dawn. KaylaDawn

Tell us a little about yourself. I’m a family, book, wine lovin’ lady. My husband, daughter, and I are living a mostly peaceful, quiet life in Eastern Washington (Go Cougs!) 

How and why did you get started writing novels? 

It was something I wanted to do since about second or third grade. That’s when the reading bug really bit me, and I wanted to make cool books like the ones I was tearing through. I wrote stories in one form or another all the way through high school. Some harsh college professors slashed my writing confidence, so there was about a decade where I didn’t write anything. Then one day in my early thirties, I started journaling. I was battling anxiety and depression. The idea was to work through that, but what ended up happening was a novel! My childhood dream came true in the midst of that darkness. It’s amazing how life works.

Please tell us a little bit about each of your titles.

Swept Up is my first novel. It was the result of scribbling in that journal. The process of writing broken characters and working them through healing, and of course, falling in love was very cathartic.

TS Cover finalThe Jenna Ray Stories have been a hoot to write. It all started when a Twitter friend posted a picture of a note he found in a library book that read: Have a stranger come to the bar-tell her he loves her-asks her to go to Chicago with him the next weekend-she doesn’t go. I let my imagination run wild and created a woman vigilante who’s life’s mission is to put an end to wandering penis syndrome (AKA cheating husbands). After writing Narrow Miss on a whim, my husband encouraged me to make it a series. Currently I’m working on the fourth installment. At the moment, I believe there will be five total.

 Tackling Summer is my newest novel. It’s very near and dear to my heart as it takes place on a cattle ranch very similar to the one I grew up on. It was fun to revisit childhood memories and the beautiful mountains that left their indelible mark on me. There are so many adventures one can have out in the sticks. I have a feeling there will be more books in this type of setting. 

 Why did you decide to go the indie publishing route?  Do you plan to continue in this arena? 

Ahhh, the million dollar question. First off, I’ve always wanted to work for myself. After doing LOTS of homework and realizing I could turn my passion for writing into a viable business, there was no question of the direction I would take. The idea of skipping over the gatekeepers and doing things my way was beyond exciting. At this time, I plan to continue with indie publishing.

 Who inspires you?  In the same vein, who do you like to read? 

 It’s tough to narrow down who inspires me the most! First off, my mom and sister. They are both successful entrepreneurs in different fields, and it’s been very inspiring to watch them grow their businesses. Toby Neal and Shanna Hatfield are the two female indie authors I want to be when I grow up. They’re producing great work, run impressive businesses, and are downright good people. They always make time to answer my newbie questions and have been so encouraging to me.

I read a little bit of everything except horror. I hate being scared and/or grossed out. I like happy endings. I turn to Shanna Hatfield when I want something light and friendly. Janet Evanovich is my got to when I want to laugh. Toby Neal and J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts oftentimes take care of my need for a mystery/romance combo fix. I guess there’s a common thread running through that list. I like a good love story, and they can take many forms.

 Writing plans for the future? 

I’m working on the fourth novella in the Jenna Ray Stories. I’m hoping to have that out in early fall. I’m also sketching an outline for a novel based around Webb Baker’s sister, Celeste, from Swept Up. I knew the moment I typed “the end” on that manuscript that Celeste had a story to tell.

Where can we connect with you? You can find me over at my website www.kayladawnthomas.com. My monthly newsletter is the best way to keep up with my new releases, sales, events, special giveaways. I also spend a fair bit of time on Facebook

Kayla Dawn Thomas writes general and women’s fiction, as well as chick lit novels and novellas. Her mission is to give her readers an escape, from a chronically busy, overwhelmed world offering them the opportunity to settle in and discover someplace new, maybe crack a smile, and find a little romance. She’s been a storyteller all her life. Before she knew how to write, she told stories to a jump rope. Thankfully that stage ended once she learned how to work a pencil. Now she’s blessed to be able to write full time and looks forward to sharing her crazy ideas with readers. Always a romantic, Kayla managed to marry her high school sweetheart. They have a very bright, active nine-year-old daughter.

When not writing or being mom, Kayla can most likely be found in a cozy spot with a good book. Reading, sunshine, and hanging out with family and friends bring her joy.

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Inventive Writing Prompt Round-up #48

Ah, yes, better late than never.  It is Saturday, albeit nearly time for Happy Hour in my neck of the woods, and here is my latest collection of writing prompts for you.  I've not been dallying around, I've been teaching all day–a fine group of local students who showed up despite forecasted temperatures of 102 degrees.  The good news is that the temps haven't been quite that high and all the attendees were wonderful.  So here are the prompts:

#330 She grabbed the envelope, tore it open and then shrieked in ______________ (delight, horror, sadness, laughter, etc.)

#331  The explosion woke her from a sound sleep.

#332  I once knew someone who ate a candy bar and washed it down with a Coke every afternoon. This ended when he was diagnosed with diabetes.  And then there was the friend who I watched eat a whole half a pie one night.  He was a recovering alcoholic.

Does your main character have a sweet tooth?  How does this manifest in his or her life?

#333 Ocean or mountains? Which does your main character prefer?

#334  Life’s a bitch, and then you die.  True, or not true? What does your main character think?

#335  If your main character were to choose one word that would sum him or her up, what would it be?

#336  Choose yourself a council of mentors.  They can be dead or alive.  Write about why each one of them inspires you.  Now do the same for your main character.

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Book Review: Step Out of Your Story

Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman

Bookcover1-194x300Once again, the wonderful folks at New World Library have offered me a book to review.  And once again, I'm making slow progress through it because I keep stopping to ponder and do the exercises. I found the receipt of this book particularly serendipitous because shortly before it arrived, I announced that I was pondering offering a class on a similar topic.  (And I'm, um, not anywhere near being done with that little effort.)

So, I bet you're dying to know what the book is about, aren't you?  It is called Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman.  (While it cursorily discusses the various aspects of writing a story, this book is aimed at you rewriting your own life story, not the Great American Novel.)

Since I'm making slow progress through the book (a good thing), I decided to offer you and interview with the author, who can talk about it better than I can!  Here goes:

 What does it mean to “step out of your story?” and how does one do that?

As I write in the opening chapter of my book, “every life is an unfolding story, a dynamic, unique, purposeful, and potentially heroic story with bright spots, turning points, and abounding opportunities for personal growth and transformation.” Most people, when I present this idea to them, accept this to be true. And yet, many people don’t think about what that means. Until something happens that challenges their outlook on life, few take the time to explore the character they’re playing, what their story is about, who’s writing their script, and how the challenges they face can help them develop the insights and skills they need to move to the next chapter.

Stepping out of your story means being able to step outside your life to view it from a novel perspective, both literally and figuratively. That means seeing yourself as the hero of your story, and understanding how all of the classic story elements, especially your antagonists, might be conspiring to help you grow, as many protagonists do over the course of the narrative. Looking at your life this way can also help you embrace plot twists as opportunities to change your life.

Does how we tell our story matter? And if there are infinite ways to tell our stories, is there a best way?

Absolutely. Telling our story is a fundamental way that we come to know ourselves and make meaning of our live. We are constantly sifting through various competing narratives to make sense of our world for ourselves and others. Whether you consider yourself a heroic figure overcoming obstacles or a tragic victim of destiny often depends on how you choose to read the text of your life and the way that you tell your story. We might even describe suffering, in part, as the result of a storytelling deficit, a failure to find a good filing system that organizes the details of one’s life into a meaningful cause-and-effect narrative, which results in an incoherent or distorted story.

While there may not be a best way, there are certainly better ways to tell your story than others. My book proposes telling your story as a personal growth adventure, using the classic story structure to reframe challenges as stepping-stones to a more authentic self and richer life. The classic story elements – protagonist, antagonist, plot, climax, etc. – serve as the architecture of a story. Once we understand how each element of the story scaffolding supports directs and supports the protagonist’s character development, we can use “the story lens on life” to reconstruct a powerful, coherent narrative from the raw materials of our lives.

What does it mean to become a good reader of the text of our lives and how can that help us?

How we “read,” or rather interpret, our story affects how we feel about ourselves, which can influence how our lives unfold. For example, reframing the story of a cancer diagnosis as a tale of finding new sources of resilience and deeper connections with loved ones feels very different from telling the story as one of divine punishment or meaningless misery. In fact, studies show that a positive narrative, and the feelings they engender, can influence prognosis. Similarly, seeing a failed relationship as a lesson in intimacy, resilience, and humility will make us feel a whole lot better, and emotionally ready for our next relationship, than shaping the story as one of self-sabotage and personal worthlessness.

This interpretative lens implies that we value character development in ourselves as much as we value it in the books we read and movies we watch. It entails seeing every person and situation that shows up in your narrative as a personal growth opportunity and recognizing the subtle, often unrecognized personal victories that build character — such as facing a fear, changing an attitude, or kicking a bad habit. This is not necessarily how society traditionally measures success. But or psychotherapists and writers, these kinds of changes mark meaningful progress in someone’s lifelong development, whether that person is a client or an imagined character.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re unemployed, and you tell yourself the story that this is just another crappy situation that defines your very difficult life. You ask yourself, “Why does this always happen to me?” Then you finally land a job interview. What happens? If you haven’t eradicated your victim story, it may unintentionally seep out during your interview through your tone and word choice, or you may secretly sabatoge yourself. This may lead you to botch the interview, which causes more suffering and only confirms your negative story.

However, what if you saw the antagonist (in this case, unemployment) of the current chapter in your life (a chapter you might entitle “A Thousand Resumes”) as the necessary force that is pushing you to grow in new ways: perhaps that you are in fact ambivalent about this career path or that you tend to get easily discouraged. In a way, this antagonist is like a personal trainer, and this conflict is the force challenging you to develop your confidence or to become clear about your career direction.

Suddenly, as you exercise control over how you view your situation, the time between jobs becomes an invitation to work on yourself and build your muscles. Through this lens, you might say to yourself, “If I were reading this chapter in a book about the story of my life, I might appreciate that unemployment is nudging me — the protagonist — to get more organized and keep persevering in the face of adversity. I can choose to embrace that challenge, and forge ahead, or drain myself of valuable energy by sinking into discouragement.” Cast in this light, the power of interpretation via the story lens on life offers a powerful elixir for heartbreaks, disappointments, and existential angst.

Does putting a positive spin on your story make it less truthful?

We spin our stories all the time. Every time we open our mouths we make choices about how to tell a tale. Depending on your audience, we may emphasize certain aspects of the story over others, or omit certain details that seem irrelevant, inappropriate, or too complicated to explain. As we tell it over and over, we might remember certain parts we had forgotten initially, or new insights might lead us to spin the story in a totally different direction.

Is one version more truthful than another? Who’s to say? And how does one define truth? Is the objective experience of the things that happen – what I call the “outer story” any more truthful than the feelings we have about what happens – what I call the “inner story?” Some people tend to favor one of these two storytelling styles. But both are “true,” as far as they are meaningful, when it comes to understanding the totality of a person’s experience. That’s why for me, it’s less important whether a story is truthful, than whether it’s personally constructive.

Finally, there are ways to find the redemptive storyline without whitewashing over unpleasant circumstances, repressing feelings, or discounting important life lessons. By reframing your story as a personal growth adventure that identifies the ways you’ve grown as the protagonist of your narrative, there is room for all manner of feelings and experiences, which imbue the story with richness and texture. And the fuller the story, the more it approximates something resembling the truth.

Is there any research to support the efficacy of the third-person storytelling exercises in Step Out of Your Story?

A number of psychological studies in recent years illustrate that recalling past events or thinking about yourself in the third person helps you see yourself through kinder, more compassionate eyes. The reason is that the third person voice creates emotional distance between you and the circumstances of your life, enabling you to see the larger story with greater objectivity. For example, University of California and University of Michigan researchers used a psychologically distancing vantage point when asking participants to reflect on negative memories. Not only did participants report less emotional pain, less rumination, improved problem solving, and greater life satisfaction when discussing matters in the third person, they also gained new insights into those memories without feeling as emotionally overwhelmed. Similarly, in a Columbia University study, students were asked to describe recently upsetting thoughts or feelings, and these bad memories were recalled with less hostility by those using the third-person perspective. In an Ohio State University study, students who recalled humiliating moments in high school in the third-person narrative were more likely to describe themselves as having overcome obstacles than those who recalled similarly embarrassing moments from a first-person perspective. The study concluded that feeling like you’ve changed gives you the confidence and momentum to act in ways that support a perceived new and improved self.

It’s also worth noting that all of this research is aligned with narrative therapy technique known as “externalization,” which uses psychological distancing techniques to prevent people from over-identifying with their problems.

Do people need to be good writers to do the exercises you offer in your book?

No. As I tell my students, your masterpiece of living doesn’t have to be a masterpiece of writing. The exercises are designed for anyone who can compose a simple sentence. The goal is not writing well; the goal is self-discovery. The goal is to write powerfully and authentically. In my experience facilitating workshops, I’ve noticed that the written equivalent of stick-figure drawings may actually teach us more about ourselves than carefully crafted (and controlled) adult sentences. Words-smithing can be about the ego, which I’m trying to help people transcend via the third person narrative. That being said, people for whom writing comes naturally sometimes use the exercises as prompts to get really creative, and have subsequently written some beautiful pieces.

Obviously, no one can predict the future. How then is it possible to predict your own character arc?

One of the ways I help readers get a sense of their character arc is by completing a character sketch of themselves in the third person narrative, assuming the role of both author and protagonist. A character sketch is a technique that helps authors flesh out the personalities and interior world of the protagonist before embarking on a novel. It involves answering a series of imaginative questions that paint a holographic picture of how the protagonist might evolve over the course of the plotline. The character sketch presumes that the protagonist is the soul of every narrative and the engine that runs the story. So, too, I want my readers to understand more deeply who they are as evolving protagonists. The more they understand about who they are, what they’re made of, and what’s driving them, the more they’ll get a sense of where they’re heading.

How can the antagonists of our stories help us grow? Can’t they also bring us down?

Many of us don’t think twice about pushing ourselves to the point of pain and exhaustion at the gym. Yet when life pushes us to exercise our emotional, spiritual, and mental muscles, we often would prefer lighter, gentler, no-impact routines. However, until we are willing to build these character development muscles, we will remain somewhat stunted in our growth, unable to actualize the full strength of what we are capable of, whether in our career, relationships, or communities.

That’s why antagonists are an important part of our story. They are like the personal trainers who push us beyond our perceived limitations to develop our flabby, underutilized emotional muscles. As with a personal trainer, we might openly swear or grin through gritted teeth. We might assign the person sadistic aspirations, thinking the trainer wants to harm or destroy us. But if we read between the lines, whether we like it or not, our antagonist can help us strengthen the underdeveloped areas within ourselves. By definition, they force us to stretch beyond our perceived limitations to discover the true depth of our own capacity to love, succeed, and overcome obstacles.

That’s not to say that we should seek out conflict for personal growth’s sake or use character development as an excuse to endure chronically painful or unpleasant circumstances. Constant pain is a sign that something is amiss. Yet any workout should include a little discomfort so we increase our flexibility to handle more intense situations with greater degrees of ease. It reminds me of something a dance teacher once told me: “Sometimes, when you begin to stretch, your muscles scream ‘no, no, no’ — they don't think they can handle the tension because it's never been asked of them before. But as you gradually ease into the pose, they relax and discover an untapped capacity for elasticity.”

Why do you ask readers to focus on the current chapter, rather than asking them to reframe something that happened in the past or look at their whole life?

While exploring the influence of the past on the present can help us understand ourselves better, we can also get bogged down in old storylines — instead of visiting the past, we might pitch camp there or continue to circle the same old beaten tracks.

The present, however, is the place where change becomes possible. It is the precise moment in the story when you, as the protagonist of your story, can take action and grow. One of the foundational exercises I ask readers to complete is to name and describe the current chapter. From there, I help them reconstruct their story element by element. Eventually, they reassemble these pieces into an empowering new narrative about where they are and where they’re heading. And here is the beauty of this process: once we name our current chapter, distinguishing it from previous chapters within our larger narrative, we may see how the present moment offers possibilities to embrace a new reality and further develop our character. This new awareness can help us get a fresh perspective on areas where we might feel stuck, reframing life's inevitable trials and tribulations as purposeful experiences that won't last forever.

Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW, is the author of Step Out of Your Story. She counsels in private practice and teaches as a professor and guest lecturer at venues including New York University. She also writes a biweekly advice column for Metro Newspapers and blogs for Psychology Today. Visit her online for more information.

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Never Underestimate the Power of a Writing Prompt

Promptbox

The prompt box

I've been writing again–this morning, 2,000 words in an hour, words that came easily and almost effortlessly.  This, after noodling around, trying to decide which novel idea to pick up next.  (I've got four of them churning around in my brain.)  

I'm also a tad bit distracted, because my agent is sending my current novel,The Bonne Chance Bakery out to publishers this week.  No big deal. Not. (I don't expect to hear anything for quite awhile, because one thing I'm learning about this process is that everything takes longer than I think it will.  Sort of like home remodeling.  But I will keep you posted, I promise.)

Anyway, it feels so good to be writing again.  So freaking good.  And for it also to feel like I'm working on a project that is flowing, if you know what I mean.  I've made starts on the other novels and while I have made some progress they didn't quite have the feel of this one–the feeling that the story is right there at my fingertips, that my hands can't range across the keyboard fast enough. I get an idea for something else in the chapter and pause only to make a quick note because I'm going so fast I'll lose the thread otherwise.

That kind of writing.

And guess what? It all came from prompts.  I've written three chapters so far and when I looked back on them this morning I realized they had all started with a prompt.  I'm sort of like the Prompt Queen, because I push them on others so much (including publishing a weekly collection of them here), but sometimes I forget to use them myself.  (The shoemaker's children have no shoes.) But recently, in going through a cupboard in my office, I found a box of prompts I'd made long ago.  I rescued it and stationed it on my desk and I've been pulling prompts as starters for this novel.  Clearly, it's working.

Here are a couple thoughts on the process of using a prompt to make forward progress on a WIP: 

1.  Choose at random.  Close your eyes and metaphorically pull a prompt from whatever kind of prompt box you keep.  Or run your finger down a selection of prompts and use whatever one it lands on.  And then don't change your mind!  Just use it!  One of my best pieces–what will likely be the opening of the novel–came from a prompt I hated.  I almost put it back and chose another one, but decided to use it.

2.  Start fresh every day.  I've been easing myself back into writing the next novel.  If I think too hard about it, I freak myself out.  As in, this one has to be better than the last!  Now that I have an agent, everything I do has to be top notch! And so it kinda works better to pretend that I'm just goofing around.  I open a new file every day and I don't call it anything like a chapter.  I label it Daily Writing and then the date.  Then I write the prompt and go for it.

3.  Use prompts from previous writings.  (Can't call them chapters, remember.)  This morning I used the last line of the previous day's work.

4.  Let your brain wander where it will.  That's the beauty of prompts–yours may be about flowers in the garden and you end up writing about sailing on the sea.  That is a little less likely to happen when you're attempting to make forward progress on a long project, but your hands may still take you unexpected places.  Let them.  Those often turn out to be the jewels.  And God invented the delete key for those times when they don't.

5.  Do timed spurts.  I'm still a huge believer in this.  Set your phone timer for 30 minutes and when it goes off, get your ass up and take a stroll around your office.  Or do a couple lunges.  Or stretch.  It's important to get up.  When things are not going well, 30 minutes seems like an eternity and when I'm done, its, yay, now I can quit.  This morning, I promptly (ha!) thought, I'm going to do another one.  And then another.  2,000 words later I was a happy writer.

I think I'm going to add some prompts to my prompt box, maybe cutting up old manuscripts or cutting out lines from magazines.  I like having it sitting on my desk because then I, um, remember to use it.

So, I've probably asked you this before, but what the heck, I'll do it again: do you use prompts for your writing?

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