Tag Archives | words

What To Do When The Words Just Don’t Sound Right

(Note: I was going to call them damn words in the headline, because sometimes the words feel like they need cursing.  But then I censored myself, because this is going out in my newsletter, and I don't want to offend people.  Do words like damn offend people?  I don't know.  You tell me.  I wouldn't be offended, but you might be.  Anyway…)

Lettering_letters_close_260818_lI had an email this week from a young writer whose friendship I treasure.  She is in her early teen years and an avid writer.  Or has been an avid writer.  According to her email, all of a sudden, when she writes, nothing sounds, well, right.  It comes out cliched.  Doesn't ring true or feel authentic.  And she asked me what she should do.

It is a very good question, and a difficult one to answer.  When I think back to the answer I gave her, I'm not sure it was particularly helpful.  So this is my attempt to rectify that and maybe help some of you who've struggled with this as well.  (Who am I kidding?  I'm also doing it to help myself–because yes, this happens to every writer at some time or another.)

Process, not product.  We too easily get wrapped up in thinking about the end result of our writing.  The same impulse that causes writers to inquire of me, "I've got a great idea for a book, how do I get an agent?" (answer: write the book first) also causes us to worry about the end result.  When first you are starting a project, your job is to get words on the page and not worry how they may or may not be.

Do the work, don't judge it.  This goes hand in hand with the above.  Because if you're judging the work, there's a good chance you're not allowing yourself to get into the flow of it.  Again, write.  Throw words at the page.  Let yourself get swept away in the wonder of the creative process.  Fall in love with writing again.

Creativity comes in cycles.  This not liking your work is a stage, and probably a sign that you're onto a different level in your writing.  Because, in the past you might have been satisfied with the way these words sound.  But now you're not.

Mind the gap.  Riders on the London Underground are familiar with this exhortation to watch the space between the train and the platform.  But gaps happen in writing, too.  There can be a huge gap between the story you see in your head and your ability to get it on the page.  And this can cause frustation as you struggle to master your craft.  Of course the best thing to do is:

Keep writing.  In truth, at a time like this, you should write more.   Write journal entries, poems, flash fiction, political polemics, personal essays, character sketches, or anything else you can think of. It doesn't matter so much what you are writing as that you are writing.  Because the more words you throw at the page, the more understanding you will have of how to put them together so that they sound pleasing to you.

Don't second guess yourself.  Commit to something and write it.  Don't question whether you should be writing a novel or a memoir or a short story, just get started on a project and work at it. And please don't second guess you decision to be a writer.  

Finish things.  I will confess: I'm terrible at this.  I abandon stories when I can't figure out where they are going and I despair over longer pieces and give up.  (And you should see my yarn closet, it is full of half-finished pieces.)  However, I'm working to get over this tendency, which stems from bright shiny object syndrome, because finishing WIPs puts you in a different place.  You know more about your story when you get to the end and you've learned more about writing when you complete a piece.

So those are some suggestions that I hope you will find helpful.  What do you do when you find yourself in this situation?

Photo by clix.


7 Ways to Knowing What to Write

When I was the mother of two young children, I would beg babysitting time from friends so that I could write.  For awhile, I had a desk stuck in a back hallway in amongst the coats and baseball bats and mittens.  I'd take the kids to my my friend's house and sit at the desk and marvel at the quiet for a minute.  And then I'd pick up my pen…

And not write.


Here I suddenly and at long last had time to write and no words came.   No matter what I did, the words wouldn't arrange themselves on the page.  My brain was simply too frazzled from rushing about getting everything organized to have the ability to form sentences.

And this still sometimes happens to me.  Every morning when I first get up is the time I devote to my creative writing.  It is how I start my day–with a cup of coffee and my writing pad.  Usually, I know exactly what I want to work on and I get right to it.  But some mornings, like today (it often seems to be a Monday), I take a sip of coffee, stare at the page, then take another sip of coffee, stare some more…and not much happens.

It happens to all of us.  We set aside precious time to write and then once we get there, we can't write a thing.  Or suddenly it seems imperative to do laundry.  Or we write a few words and they don't sound right so we quit.  The problem becomes not finding time to write, but knowing what to write when we do make the time. 

Here are some ideas on how to avoid this:

1. Be Prepared.  I know this might not be a pleasant topic for us creative types, for whom the thought of preparation or organization or structure is anathema.  But a little advance planning can serve you well.  It can be as simple as reading over what you last wrote the night before or as complicated as writing up an outline for what you want to accomplish.

2. Make Up Your Own Prompts.  I have a love-hate relationship with prompts.  Sometimes I think they are silly and inspid, and others I'm grateful for them, because they've jump-started a writing session.  To me, the best prompts are the ones I make up myself.  Keep a list in your journal and add to it often.  You can use quotes, lines of poetry, first lines from published novels, a line of dialogue you heard, a phrase that is ringing about in your head.

3.  Maintain a List of Topics.  This is similar to #2.  Keep an ongoing list of topics that you want to write about.  They can be of a general nature or specific to a project.  For instance, if you want to write a novel, some topics might be character bios for each character, descriptions of locations, etc.

4. Work Your Subconscious.  Putting your subconscious to work for you can be a huge help.  The idea is to give it something to chew on, so read over your latest writing before going to sleep.   You might dream a new scene, or wake up with a line of dialogue on your mind. You can also ask your subconscious questions.  Then let the question go and do something else.  You'll be amazed at the answers that pop up.

5. Surround Yourself With Ideas.  Writing is an inner game and an outer game.  And if you're a visual person, like me, surrounding yourself with images really gets the juices going.  Create a vision board for your book, tack pictures on a bulletin board, get yourself a giant post-it notepad and write huge notes and lists on it.

6. Write When You're Not Writing.  Extend your writing time into thinking time.  Ponder your novel while cleaning house, or compose a line of poetry on the morning commute.  By keeping your writing front and center, it will be easier to access words when you do actually have time to write.

7.  Read.  You'd be amazed how many people I run into who want to write but can't be bothered to read.  Um, there's something seriously amiss with that picture.  When I'm heavily involved in a writing project, its words in, words out for me.  I feel I have to read a ton to absorb enough words inside so I have them available to spit out onto the page.  A little strange, I know, but there it is.  Reading will inspire you, and it is the absolute best way besides writing to teach yourself to write.

Those are my ways to assist yourself to know what to write.  Any other suggestions?


Photo by mmagallan, via everystockphoto.


The things That Bind You

I dunno. Rome-italy-vatican-748764-l

Sometimes, phrases just pop into my head.  I think this is a writer thing, but it may happen to everyone, even civilians.  The bad phrases pop in and pop back out again, but the good phrases hang around and bother me untile I do something with them.

Last week sometime, the things that bind you popped into my head.

So I've been pondering things that bind me.

These things can be good and bad.

Good Things That Bind Me

1. Family

2. Friends

3. Writing

4. Passion

5. Desire to help others

6. Creativity

Bad Things That Bind Me

1. Fear

2. Lack of Confidence

3. Tendency Towards Judgment

4. Impetuousness

5. Getting Bored Easily

I reserve the right to add more things to each list as they occur to me.  I also reserve the right to duck when you throw things at me because the phrase, the things that bind you, is now stuck in your head.   Since it is, why not list them in the comments?


Photo courtesy of stringbot, from Flickr, by way of EveryStockPhoto.


The Benefits of Retreating

I've been at a writing retreat all weekend.  It was at Scarritt Bennett, a center in the middle of the labyrinth that hosts programs on diversity, women's empowerment, and spirituality.  Labyrinthspring(That's a photo of the labyrinth at Scarritt Bennett to the right, though I focused more on the blooming Redbud and Dogwood trees when I took it, so you can't really see the labyrinth.)

Though I was hired to be the book doctor at the retreat and that kept me plenty busy, I did have quite a bit of time to write.  The way it works at Room to Write is that all meals and a room are provided.  So the retreat participants–11 of us–met for meals and bonding and talking about writing, and then heading back to our rooms to write.   A few other activities were planned, such as walking the labyrinth, meditation, a chat on publishing that Rabbi Rami and I gave, and some late-night excursions to nearby bars, but everything is optional.  So if you want to skip it all and stay in your room and write, you can, and many did.

Many of the writers at the retreat got crazy amounts of writing done.  A couple hit word counts of 10,000, or close to it. But I heard from others that they took the time to read, or think about their project.

And this, for me, was the best thing about the retreat this time.  I did get some writing done–about 2,000 words, which is nothing to sniff at–but most important, I had time to think.  Having space and time away from the concerns of day to day life allows the mind to open up and expand.  It is easier to conceptualize, and to look at the big picture.  And this, my friends, is sometimes just what the doctor ordered.

You don't have to go to an organized writer's retreat in order to find this.  (Though Room to Write is awesome and I highly recommend it!) You can take yourself away for a weekend or a couple of days.  Go to a cheap hotel in a nearby city, or if you don't share my love of cheap hotels, look for a retreat center or even a monastery, which often rent out individual rooms.  Try a bed and breakfast.  Whatever you decide to do, here a couple guidelines for making the most of a retreat:

1.  Go with a specific project in mind.  It is generally best to stick to working on one thing, but if you have a crazy right brain like me, you might want to bring several.  Retreats are great for making lots of progress on a novel, for instance, or for conceptualizing and get a great start on a marketing piece (which is what I did).

2.  Have a goal in mind.  We start out Room to Write retreats with an evening session in which every participant names their goals.  As with all goals, it is good to be specific.  Not, "make progress on my novel," but "write 8000 words on my novel."

3.  If the muse hits, go with it.  If you're in the flow, don't stop.  Doesn't matter if you are at a retreat with planned activities, go with the flow and get those words on the page.  That's the point, after all.

4.  Don't overlook the power of bonding.  One of the best things about organized retreats is that you'll meet other writers.  Connecting is vital for writers, and something we often overlook in our furious efforts to become good writers.  You can go to a retreat, have plenty of time to work, and still meet other people.

So there you have it–my ideas about writing retreats.  But bear in mind, any kind of creative artist or spiritual seeker can benefit from retreating.  So, what about you?  What are your experiences with retreats?  Do you have any advice or questions for others?

***Head on over to my friend Linda Busby Parker's blog and you'll find a guest post by none other than me.  Scroll down a little bit…it is the one titled Spring Check-up.  Thanks, Linda, for the guest post.


Top Takeaways from the Writer’s Loft, Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote part one in this series on things I learned at the Writer's Loft last weekend, and you can read that post right here.  In it, I talked about the presentations by Jimmy Carl Harris and Kory Wells.

Today it is time to turn attention to Richard Goodman's workshop, "5 Things to Learn About Writing in 90 Minutes."  (I also wrote about Richard's book in this blog post before I left Portland.) This was a great workshop that was really inspiring to me–as was his book.  Here are my top takeaways from it:

  1. "If you can focus, you can move the world."  Richard says that focus requires time alone and I tend to agree, though sometimes I can get in the zone writing when I'm in a crowded coffee shop.
  2. Always go for the exact meaning of the word you are using.  Richard talks a lot about finding le mot Juste, about checking the etymology of a word, and about looking up the definition of the word, even when you think you know it.  Because, you probably don't.  And the true definition can be a delightful surprise.
  3. To make yourself appealing as a narrator, share a fault.  (Some of the most entertaining pieces of the day came out of this exercise.)
  4. "At least 40% of really good writing is written by the reader."  Gotta admit, I'm still pondering this one. 
  5. Titles are under-rated.  They are where the book actually begins, how the essence of the book is communicated.
  6. The music of prose is the sound a writer makes on the page.

So, there you have it, good advice all.

Next up is a brief rundown of a talk by David Pierce.  Brief because he came at the end of the day and I was again, doing admin stuff.  However, it will be brief but powerful, I promise!


Top Takeaways from the Writer’s Loft, Part One

The Writer's Loft orientation weekend is over and here's a news flash for you:

I survived.

Actually, I thrived.

It was a wonderful, informative and inspiring weekend for writers, if a bit exhausting.  I've been laying somewhat low processing what I heard so that I can share it with you.   Turns out I heard a lot, and that was even with me missing some of the presentations while running around doing admin stuff.

So I'm doing the posts in three parts.  Here we go.


Jimmy Carl Harris started us off with a presentation on structure in short story.  Jimmy Carl is a former Marine, and great with structure.  But I didn't get to sit in much on this workshop, alas.  It was the start of the weekend, and Terry and I had things to do.  However, I do have one great takeaway quote for you:

"There are good stories.  There are safe stories.  There are no good safe stories."

Nifty, huh?  And very true, too.

After lunch, it was my turn.  I did a workshop on Writing Abundance: the Seven Practices of the Prolific and Prosperous Writer, which you can read more about on the Writing Abundance page.  At the Friday night reception, our wonderful student Alberta Tolbert graduated, yay! except we'll miss her.  Except we know she'll be around because all our loyal alumni come around as much as possible.  That night also, Kory Wells read her poetry, accompanied by her daughter Kelsey, who played the banjo.  Great show.  More about Kory in a minute.  Finally, Richard Goodman read from his book, French Dirt, and his soon-to-be-published New York Memoir.  More about him in the next post.

Saturday Morning

Okay, so here's the deal.  First thing Saturday morning, I did a Q and A with Richard Goodman about his books and writing.  It was awesome, and I mean that in the full sense of the word.  All I had to do was toss Richard the merest tidbit of a question and he was off and running.  Very inspiring.  I recorded the whole thing on my new digital voice recorder and planned to post it on this blog and also offer it to Richard for him to put on his website.

Alas, it was not to be.  You'll never in a million years guess why.

Because the dog ate my recorder.  Yes, indeed, it is true.  I'm housesitting at my home away from home, my dear friends' Sue and Walt's house and their newish dog, Gugi, a rescue from Emmylou Harris's pet rescue operation, ate my recorder.  She is such a sweetheart I couldn't even get mad at her.  I keep waiting for her to regurgitate some words of wisdom, but that hasn't happened yet.

So even though I don't have Richard on tape for you, I do have some nuggets from Kory Wells' talk on social media.  Kory is one of those rare birds who seems to be equally right-brained and left-brained.  She is at home in the techy world, which is where she works during the day, and an accomplished poet as well, with a fairly new volume of poems out called Heaven Was the Moon.  The perfect choice to demystify social media for writers.

Here are my takeaways:

  • You control the conversation online and you get to brand yourself.  Because of this, it is vital to pay attention to the profiles you set up on various social media, and the keywords you use.
  • Learn what people are saying about you online by signing up for Google alerts.  I used to do this; got tired of the volume of emails and un-signed up.   Let me make it clear that the volume of emails came from poorly defined search words rather than the fact that a lot of people are talking about me.  At any rate, yesterday I signed up again and it has already paid off.  I've discovered mentions of myself that I otherwise would not know about.
  • Find keywords to use to bring people to your site or blog by checking which words come up when you Google yourself.
  • Many connections can be made through "charming notes."  This is a concept Carolyn See promotes in her book, "Making a Literary Life."  She urges writers to write notes (notes, not emails) to people they admire.  Furthermore, she says to write one note a day.  Arrrhhgggg!  But I think we can pull this practice into the new decade and go for emails, don't you?  Kory told a story about how she found the artist for the cover of her book through a charming email.  So that works for me.

I'm currently trying to learn as much as possible about social media, and Kory's presentation was really helpful.

Tomorrow (or as soon as I have time to write another post) I'll cover tidbits from Richard Goodman's lecture, "5 Things to Learn About Writing in 90 Minutes."


The Joy of Adverbs

Awhile back I wrote a post called The Rule of Threes.

In re-pondering this again recently, the thought occurs that I'm not generally much of a rule follower.  In fact, you might even accurately describe me as a person who is incapable of following rules.  I break them like crazy in real life (which is why I have to free-lance; most jobs require employees who follow rules) and I break them in writing.

Here's just one example:  I use adverbs. 

There, I've said it.

I can hear your shocked gasps and the urgent whispering amongst you.  But it has to be said.  I use adverbs.  I use adverbs joyously, lushly, over-the-toply.  I like adverbs.  And I really don't want anyone telling me that I shouldn't use them.

Truthfully, mostly I edit them out after sprinkling my prose with them liberally (except in this post).  Why?  Because I want to follow the rules?  No, I edit them out because in re-reading my work I can see it will be stronger without them.  I'm doing it because I want to and not because someone told me to.

So when I leave adverbs in its for a reason.  Case in point: the lead character in my novel is an over-the-top sort of person who dramatizes and exaggerates everything.  For her, using adverbs in speech and thought pattern is as natural as a bird singing.  So she spouts adverbs prolifically.

The point here is that I know the rule against using adverbs (don't ask me to explain it, though) and I've internalized it so that I now can break the rule.  I am in a place where I can break rules with abandon.

Which is exactly where I like to be.


The China Cabinet Syndrome

A couple weeks ago my dining room table was covered with china, cut glass, pitchers, and an odd assortment of knick-knacks.  This was all stuff brought over from my Mom's house, which we were cleaning out before an estate sale.

I was really happy with all the things I'd claimed but the problem was that I needed to find room for them in my china cabinets.  A quick glance at the already bulging cabinets let me know that finding room was going to be quite the chore.  So I procrastinated.

I'd walk through the dining room, pause, look at the table, look at the china cabinets, and not see any way to make this happen.  It was going to take a massive reorganization and I simply didn't know where to begin.  So I procrastinated more.

Finally, as is so often the case, I was backed up against the wall.  We were having people over for dinner and so I absolutely had to get the china put away.  I opened the cabinet door and figured out a plan of action.  But then a funny thing happened.  Once I started working and putting the china away, I realized that my plan wasn't going to work after all.  However, by then it didn't matter because another, better, plan, revealed itself to me.  And all the china got put away with relative ease.

As I arranged tea cups and stacked plates, I thought about how often this happens in writing.  You start out desirous of writing something–a novel, an essay, a short story–but don't know how to begin.   You finally come up with a plan of action, and then you labor under the delusion that you will actually follow that plan.  But once you get going on the work, once you are in the china cabinet, so to speak, you realize that the writing wants to go a completely different way.

But here's the key: you would never have found that way if you hadn't just waded in.  Found a place to start and began.  My dining room table would still be covered with china if I hadn't begun following my initial plan of action.  Many a piece of writing would still be left unwritten if we all waited for the grand plan to reveal itself.

So remember the China Cabinet Syndrome and plunge in.  You'll find room in that cabinet for everything you need.



As in yoo-di-mo-nee-uh.Carrie's Graduation and Images of Word Book 045

I was ostensibly cleaning up my office just now when I came across my word book, (pictured, left), and decided that pondering words is infinitely more important than a clean office.  After all, what is the use of a word book if one isn't constantly leafing through it to see what one has?

Apparently one has words one has totally forgotten about.

Like eudemonia.

It means the following:

1.  A state of happiness and well-being

2.  In Aristotelian philosophy, happiness in a life of activity governed by reason.

(Ah, those ancient Greeks, all about reason)

I am in a state of eudemonia this morning because I finally sent out my first newsletter last night.  If laboring for hours to learn new software is not a state of activity governed by reason, I don't know what is.


Strong Verbs and Other Good Words, Part Three: The Word Book

In part one of this series, I talked about strong verbs.  Part two featured a rant essay about the thesaurus.  And now we come to part three, which is about the word book.  It could also be titled, write the word down, stupid.  (For those of you youngsters, or people with short memories, I'm riffing off the slogan that won Bill Clinton the election, way back in the days of yore.  The slogan, "Its the economy, stupid," was posted on election headquarters walls to remind workers what the key issue was.  The more things change, the more they stay the same. Except this time I'm pretty sure that Obama doesn't need reminding.)

Anyway, strong verbs and word books.  Carrie's Graduation and Images of Word Book 041
Carrie's Graduation and Images of Word Book 045

Behold, images of my very own word book:  I know, I know, the photos are not the best, but I am proud of them nonetheless, because I so rarely manage to illustrate posts with photos.  They are clear enough, I hope, for you to get the gist.  My word book is a cute little (5 by 8 ish) purple binder with A to Z tabs and in it I write down, wait for it, words. 

The genesis of my word book stems from my MFA years.  One of my mentors, Melissa Pritchard, gave a lecture in which she talked about a word book that she had begun years ago and now could not live without.  I had a writer's crush on Melissa and vowed to emulate every single thing that she did, ever.  And so I started my own word book, not having the first clue what hers actually contained.  I just liked the idea of having a book full of vital words that I carried with me everywhere.

At first I laboriously wrote new words in my word book, looked up the definition, and then wrote that down, too.  A nice idea, and I do love all the words I've defined in my book.  And even though it is fun to leaf through and admire the words, I find this approach is not terribly useful.  After all, how do I know what word I'm looking for?  I have to confess that this wee problem made me set aside the word book for a few, gasp, years.

But since I've been on my Verb Safari, I am reconfiguring the word book.  Mostly now I'm using it to write down verbs.  Strong verbs, weak verbs, verbs based on nouns, verbs I made up, verbs that don't make any sense.  The best way to find good verbs is to start becoming aware of them.  And once you find them, write them down.  Make your own word book.  Write them on index cards (my new favorite way to keep track of ideas).  Write them on scraps of paper, throw them in a basket, and look over them every once in awhile.  Doesn't matter where you write them, but do it.   And while you're add it write down other words that catch your fancy, also.  You'll find your verb use and your vocabulary improving drastically.

So that's it, my three-part series on verb use.  If you find any good verbs, share them with me, would you?  I'd appreciate it.