The Benefits of Anticipation (A Love Letter)

In ten days I’ll board a plane to Paris (well, I’ve got to get to L.A. first). And I’m excited. Through some great, amazing stroke of good luck, this will be my second trip to France this year. (The first one was for a writing retreat, and this time is to teach.) I think, because it’s been only five months since I was last there, I’m anticipating my return trip with even more excitement.

But I’m also madly scrambling around, trying to get things done. As one does. But even the mad scrambling is tinged with excitement and anticipation. And that has me thinking about anticipation—and its usefulness. Because anticipating something you’re looking forward to can be as pleasurable as the event itself.

“Anticipation alerts all of the pleasure centers in the body and says wake up, which can create happy feelings,” says Stacy Kaiser, Editor-at-Large of Live Happy magazine, and a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles. “A lot of times people are afraid to anticipate because they don’t want to be disappointed, but I think they’re missing out on learning and moments of joy. (I snitched this quote from an article in Spirituality and Health Magazine.)

So that’s cool but think also how this applies to our writing. First reading (which is an integral part of writing). Think how you anticipate when you read. What’s going to happen next? Will the main character accomplish her goal? How will he overcome the obstacles in front of him? Doesn’t it all give you a pleasurable thrill? In a really good book, the anticipation is so exciting you can barely turn the pages fast enough.

And you can use this very human trait in your writing. As a matter of fact, you should. Anticipating in writing is sometimes called suspense and even if you are not writing a mystery or a thriller, you should have it in your novel. You want your reader to be desperate to find out what happens next.

Easy for me to spout off about, but how do you accomplish this? One word: conflict. The more the better. I know you know this. So do I. But it is one thing to know it and another to make sure your writing has enough of it. We fall in love with our characters and don’t want to make them suffer. But do it! The more conflict you heap on them, the better—you’ll make your readers so full of anticipation they won’t be able to put your book down.

Leave a comment and tell me what you are anticipating!

Also:

And, speaking of France, we had a last-minute cancellation for the workshop in Collioure, so there’s an open spot! C’mon, live adventurously and join us!  A week in France, devoted to camaraderie, hiking, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating delicious fish and bread and cheese and drinking wine? Plus a transformational writing experience? Yes, please.

And don’t forget to join the Facebook group.  Participating in groups is the only way I like to be on Facebook and this one is good. It goes quiet periodically, but then it perks up again. I try to post something of interest every day (or at least every few days). Do join us!

What to Do When You’re Fresh Out of Ideas (A Love Letter)

The summer doldrums are here—and I’ve been fresh out of ideas. For anything. I haven’t posted on this blog, besides putting these newsletters up, in a couple of weeks. I was going great guns on Medium, posting a lot, and then I suddenly stopped.  I couldn’t think of anything to say in either place. And let’s not even mention the word fiction, okay?

This happens sometimes. You may have the will to write, as well as the time and the energy, but no ideas. And with no ideas, the will to write withers away.  I also think that this happens a lot for new writers. I remember wanting to write so badly, but not having the first clue what to write. So, in case you are in the same situation, and for my own sake as well as yours, I’ve assembled some ideas about how to come up with ideas in this newsletter.

Technique for Producing an Idea. There’s a classic old book written by an advertising guy back in the golden age of advertising, called, Technique for Producing Ideas. I read this book in journalism school and often follow its precepts. The basic one being: fill your brain up with every single bit of information on your topic, then set it aside. Go weed the garden or play with your kids or take your dog for a walk (see below). Just forget about it. And after a while, the idea you need will pop into your head! The book is still available and it is only $1.99 in Kindle. A quick read, really worth it.

Prompts. This is the tried and true way. Get yourself a prompt (there’s tons all over the internet or you can buy my prompt book) and write. The best way to use prompts is to choose one (without wasting a lot of time obsessing over which one), set a timer, and write for 15-20 minutes, without stopping. And I mean without stopping, people.

Make lists. For some reason, making lists is a great brain jogger. List ten things you did yesterday, ten people that interest you (famous ones, friends, family members, doesn’t matter), ten locations that intrigue you, and so on. List anything you can think of and then put the list in your writer’s notebook so you can refer to it any time and use items from the list as prompts.

Brainstorm. James Altucher, who is one of those people that is all over the internet but I’m not sure who he is, says to write down ten ideas every day. It is not bad advice.  Similar to list-making, just write down ten ideas about anything. You never know which one will develop into something.

Go for a walk. Something about walking jogs loose ideas for me. It is helpful to walk mindfully and engage your five senses to observe your surroundings. Take a notepad or your phone so you can make notes.

Go for a drive. I love driving, and it also often inspires new ideas to flood in. Again, be mindful. I find these days that I love the quiet when I’m driving, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago—I always had the radio or music on. But now I like the silence and time to think.

Quit worrying about it.  Yes, we live in a fast-paced world where you’re only as good as the most recent thing you wrote, but it is also okay to take a break. I was on the phone with one of my favorite clients yesterday and she shared how at the moment, she’s just letting things to do with her business go. She’s got a lot of distractions (good ones) in her life and so she’s just not worrying about things. I believe sometimes our brains need a break. And if we give them one, they will reward us with tons of new ideas.

Those are some ideas that might help if you, like me, are experiencing the summer doldrums.  How do you come up with new ideas? Leave a comment!

It’s Summer, You Should Be Reading (A Love Letter)

It is summertime, and it is hot and nobody feels like doing anything. So, in my book (hahahaha) that means it is time for a lot of reading.  Hot summer afternoons are made for lying on a hammock, or in air-conditioned comfort, giving yourself over to a book.

Who has time for such things? You do. You must. Please don’t tell me you don’t have time to read. Because if you are a writer and you’re not reading, then you are not a writer, period. Writing is your first job. Reading is your second. And it is almost as important.

I think most writers come to writing because of their love of reading. I know I did.

When I was a kid, we lived about five blocks away from the library. My sister and neighborhood friends and I used to walk to the library (back in the days when you didn’t need as much adult supervision) and stagger home carrying huge stacks of books. Then we’d lie on cots under our car port and while away hot afternoons reading, every once in a while stopping to run through the sprinkler to cool off. I still go to the library—but now I walk to my car with stacks of books cradled in my arms.

These trips to the library drastically influenced my future career. Thank God. I don’t remember the moment when it occurred to me that all those books I loved to read were actually written by somebody. But I do remember thinking there ought to be a career for readers. And guess what? There is. It’s called writing.

Because one of the best things about being a writer is that reading is actually part of your job. During my first semester in my MFA program, I remember lolling on the couch reading a novel that my mentor had assigned me, luxuriating in the feeling that I was actually working.

 It’s no surprise that many MFA programs base their programs on reading, because it is one way you can teach yourself to write. And it is no surprise that writers like Inglath Cooper say, “Everything I know about writing books I learned from reading books.”

Lately I’ve been trawling the pages of Amazon (it’s too damn hot to get to the bookstore) looking at best book lists for two reasons:

–We are looking for a suitable title for our book-in-common for the France workshop

–I’m looking for a couple of books I can study that have good twists and turns.

Here’s why:

During the France workshop we always select a book to assign everyone and then we use it as a teaching tool. For some reason this year we are having a hard time coming up with one that Debbie and I agree on. Some titles we have read before include Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and They May Not Mean To But They Do by Cathleen Schine.   Any suggestions?

And I’m looking for examples of books with twists and turns, preferably not too dark, because I got notes from my agent. She’s happy with my novel the way it is and we could go out with it this way….but she also thinks that if I added a twist or two, we could go bigger. And I’m all for bigger! So, people, tell me—books with twists and turns?

So, upshot of the story—if you have any recommendations for either of these categories, do hit reply and tell me. Or just leave a comment and tell me what you’ve been reading!

Do Me a Favor and Go Easy on Yourself, Okay? (A Love Letter)

Hey guys, in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s summertime! Today in Portland it is a perfect summer day: blue sky, not too hot, a nice breeze. I’ve been taking regular breaks outside to read and knit, shooing yellow jackets away (we have a nest on the driveway).

But last week it was hot, beastly hot. And on hot weather and perfect summer days both I like to relax. I like to indulge myself with the afore-mentioned knitting, my new hobby of rug hooking, a little reading. On hot summer days I want to eat popsicles and fruit and drink chilled white wine and have dinners under the stars that last until bedtime.

None of which is conducive to writing.

Which makes me beat myself up something fierce.

Like: why are you wasting your time knitting? Why are you drinking that glass of wine? You’ve not gotten your word count yet? Why are you reading? Why are you taking time to do the crossword puzzle? Why are you relaxing? Why aren’t you writing.

Like that.

If you are anything like me, I bet you do the same thing. And to you (and to me) I had two words to say: stop it! Stop it, stop it, stop it! Just stop it.

Because: it is summertime and we’re supposed to be distracted. We are supposed to be enjoying long, lazy afternoons lazing about. And also: believe it or not, relaxation and, dare I say it, self-care, actually help you get all your important things (like writing) done. Truly. A relaxed mind is a productive mind.

Truly, it is. Over and over again I notice that on the days I allow myself some ease, a few breaks out back or time with the grandchildren, I get more done. And this is because I’m not frantically trying to stuff every little thing into my day. Try it. You’ll see.

Your assignment this week, if you choose to accept it, is two-fold. First, quit beating yourself up about how lazy you are. And second, give yourself the gift of some summer time off.

Then leave a comment and tell me how you are going to let yourself off the hook this week!

Set Your Brain and Your Creativity Free

Being a writer is a tough gig, as previously noted. Hugely satisfying, and the only thing you can do if you are called to it, but it is a demanding task mistress and at all but the highest levels, the pay is low.

So you might as well have fun while you are doing it.  I’ve been pondering how, exactly, we creatives might have success setting the brain free. And below are some tips. Some of these may be familiar to you, but often it takes reading something several times before it really lodges in the mind. And some might be new to you.  Consider them all and think about how you can put them to use in your writing life.

Write hard and fast for the discovery draft. Throwing words at the page with abandon, when time passes, and you don’t even know it, and afterward you’re in love with the world—this is why, I believe, most writers start writing. It is wonderful experience. It gets harder to achieve this state when you are writing professionally, but….you need to. This is when the magic happens.

Don’t confuse writing with rewriting.  Don’t labor over every word as you write. Let the words rip. And also, don’t labor over the first chapters of the book, going back over it and over it. This is a sure way to get blocked. Write your discovery draft from start to finish and then you can begin revising. You’ll know much more about the book when you get to the end, trust me.

Write bad. If you are well and truly blocked, this is an exercise that will help set your brain free. Write one bad page. Force yourself to write the worst crap you can think of. Here’s the thing: you won’t. Because you are basically a good writer, so writing bad doesn’t come naturally. But once you allow yourself to write bad, that takes the pressure off.

How do you keep your brain and creativity free?

A (much) longer version of this was first published on Medium, which is a site that encourages longer reads.  You can read that version here. I’ve got other posts on writing up there, too!

 

It’s My Birthday Soon–And I’m Giving Away Presents!

Photo by Stephanie McCabe on Unsplash

This Tuesday is my birthday. No, I won’t tell you how old I am going to be. Suffice it to say I don’t feel as old as I am. And, because it is my birthday, I’m giving you presents!

Here’s the deal. It is hot here in Portland at the moment (98 degrees) and I hate the heat. I think it melts my brain, making it difficult to think, let alone write. (And I just read on my app that the heat wave will continue through Tuesday! Ack!)

So, I was going to write a blog post about tracking time (like years) and other things, as it relates to writing, but I don’t have it in me. And then I remembered (told you the heat melts my brain) that I just posted one on Medium. I’ve been trying to post a lot there, both new and revitalized older posts. So, here’s the one about tracking words and time.

And, besides, what you really wanted was to get to the presents anyway, right? Right. So here you go.

Photo by Audrey Fretz on Unsplash

Present #1: A copy of a book I wrote a few years ago called Set the Words Free: Ideas, Advice and Guidance for Smashing Writer’s Block.  It’s a 42-page PDF full of info and prompts about how to write regularly. If you’d like a copy just hit reply and let me know. I’ll send it to you straight away.

Present #2: I’m offering a steep discount on coaching sessions. You can nab one hour of my time for $64. (There’s significance to that number but I’ll let you guess what it is.) And you can buy several. Or just one. Usually I charge a lot more than this, but I’m feeling magnanimous.  If you want to take advantage of this deal, again, email me,  and we’ll get it all set up. But do it by  midnight on July 17, because the deal expires then.

Each session includes a 30-minute phone call (or Skype, or Zoom), and reading up to 10 pages of work. If you don’t want to discuss work, I can help you get your writing mojo going (or get it back), or we can discuss creativity, productivity, publishing, how to prep for a novel, really anything related to writing and the writing life. You can use them now, or you can buy them now and use them later. (Be aware I’m in France all of September.)

And that’s it, that’s all I’ve got. Now I’m heading back to sit in front of the air conditioning unit (we only have the window kind). Hope it is cool where you are.

Oh, and by the way:

 –We have a couple last minute spots open for France. It is not too late to buy plane tickets—prices have been holding steady for awhile now.  A week in France, devoted to camaraderie, hiking, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating delicious fish and bread and cheese and drinking wine? Plus a transformational writing experience? Yes, please.

–Join the Facebook group.  Participating in groups is the only way I like to be on Facebook and this one is good. It goes quiet periodically, but then it perks up again. I try to post something of interest every day (or at least every few days). Do join us!

 

 

7 Reasons to Write While on Vacation (and 3 Reasons Not To)

I’m a firm believer in writing every day, even if it is just jotting down a few notes or writing a journal entry. Writing regularly has so many benefits to your writing career, including:

–keeping the writing muscle strong

–keeping the momentum going (more on that below)

–staying on track with a project such as a novel or memoir

–aiding in writing fluidity–the more you write, the easier it is

–improving your writing–the more you write the better you get

I could go on. But I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of life events leading you away from your writing. When you return, it feels awkward. You’re not sure what to write. The words won’t flow. You wonder why you ever wanted to do something that is so, so hard.

One major life event we all experience (hopefully regularly) is a vacation. And I’m here to encourage you to keep writing when you go on vacation in order to prevent the writing angst when you return.  You can make actual progress on a long project, write notes about it, or simply write in your journal. But I honestly think you’ll be a happier writer if you make an effort to throw at least a few words on the page. Because a working writer is a happy writer.  And writing while on vacation has more benefits as well:

Why You Should Keep Up The Writing

–It will help you with the afore-mentioned momentum, which is a delicate, fragile, thing, easily broken.  When you have momentum, you arrive at your computer every morning knowing what you’re going to write next and the words just come. It is a glorious thing, not to be tampered with.

–You can (and should) note all the new and wonderful things you are hopefully observing and enjoying.

–If you’re like me, writing makes you happy. And you want to be happy on your vacation!

–It will be so, so much easier to get back to that book when you get home. It is not only that the writing will be easier when you return, but just dragging your ass to open the computer will be easier.  (If you’ve had a long break, you know how hard it is to get started again.)

–On vacation, your brain will be roiling with fresh, new ideas. Capture them!

–It will help you remember and process the fun you had.  I remember and process things through writing, period. If I need to remember something, I write it down, even if I never refer to it again. If I’m in a class, I take notes, or else my mind wanders. Keep it focused.

–All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy.

Okay, and in the interest of fairness, here’s a few reasons why you shouldn’t write on vacation.

Why You Shouldn’t Keep Up The Writing

–Because all work and no play also makes Jack a dull boy.

–Because you don’t wanna, and you’re on vacation, damnit.

–Because sometimes it is good to give your story brain a break, for God’s sake.

Which side do you fall down on? Are you going to try to keep writing this summer on vacation? Leave a comment!

And, for my money, the best kind of vacation combines writing and fun. Right? That’s why I love teaching in France every year.

 

A Day in the Life of a Writing Workshop in France

You wake up in a decently comfortable bed in room in an old, old house. And then you remember: I’m in France! Yes, you are. You took the train down from Paris the day before and arrived here just in time to wander the town and then meet the other workshop attendees for wine and cheese.

Because, yes, you are here for a writing workshop. Here to write! In France. How romantic that sounds. You dreamed about it for so long, and now you are here. And the reality is way more romantic and far better than you’d ever dreamed.  You jump out of bed because you want to explore the town a bit more before the workshop starts.

In the updated but ancient old kitchen one of your housemates has made a pot of coffee. And wonder, of wonders, another writer has gone to the corner patisserie and come back with chocolate croissants. As you chew, you ponder, which is better–the French wine or the French croissants? Luckily, you’ll have lots of days to decide the answer to that as the week stretches out ahead of you.  Seven more days!

Wandering a narrow cobblestone street you admire the doors and shutters painted in bright hues of yellow and turquoise and lavender, many adorned with pots of colorful flowers. Your walk ends at a row of shops, and right across the street is the water. The Mediterranean is especially blue today. Boats bob at a marina, and farther out, you spy commandoes from the fort on the hill executing training exercises in the water. Your stroll into town takes you along a path next to the water that skirts a huge stone fort. Vendors are setting up paintings and musicians are tuning their instruments.  Farther along, the town is coming to life, with stores opening for the day and cafes bustling with patrons eating breakfast.  

Back at the house, you shower quickly and sit around a huge table with all the other workshop attendees and the leaders. You’re a bit nervous about this, as its your first writing workshop, but it is a really fun morning! There’s lots of laughter, good talk and instruction about writing, and some interesting writing exercises. You leave with a brief assignment you’re excited about doing.

But first–lunch. All that writing talk made you hungry. You head to a cafe by the water with a group from the workshop and eat the best fish you’ve ever had, followed by dessert, of course. It is Creme de Catalan, a specialty of this region and it is delicious. A cup of expresso will help you keep you alert to do your writing. So will another walk. This time you walk up a path behind the town that leads through well-tended vineyards about to be harvested. The views of the sea are spectacular.

At home, you sneak in a petite sieste, then attack your assignment with vigor, finding a shady spot outside in which to write. The afternoon sails by as you focus on your work, and before you know it, it is time for Happy Hour. The whole group meets for local wine, cheese, bread, and pate, along with scrumptious tomatoes and olives.  Dinner is served outside at a long table and the talk is about what everybody did that day, and of course, writing.

There’s time for one last stroll to the water to see the lights twinkling in the harbor and then–happily to bed, to read, to write in your journal, and sleep. Tomorrow is another happy day in France.

 

Sound good? This is possible for you to experience, too! I teach writing workshops in France every September. Want to come with us? We still have a couple slots open for 2018.  Visit our Let’s Go Write website here to learn more. Or email me at charlotte@charlotterainsdixon.com for more info.

Depending on Your Point of View (A Love Letter)

You live for adventure and global travel. Or you love to stay home by the cozy fire. You can’t stay still—you have to be doing something. Or everything you love to do involves sitting. You love gardening. Or you hate getting your hands dirty. You agree with everything our president says, or you take to the streets to protest him. You love kale. Or hate all vegetables. You love summer. Or you hate being hot.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

My point is this: there are many points of view in this big, wide, wonderful world of ours (and now more than ever, it seems).

And, as I like to remind you incessantly often, as in life, so in writing. (Or vice-versa.)

We writers talk a lot about point of view (or viewpoint, if you prefer) and it has been much on my mind recently because of a book I’m reading. The book is Women in Sunlight, by Frances Mayes, and man oh man does she do strange things with viewpoint.

The story has a lot of characters, but the main ones are Kit, a woman who lives in a small town in Italy, and Julia, Camille, and Susan, all of whom have had recent upsets in their lives. They decide to move for a year to the same town where Kit lives.

Kit’s viewpoint is in first person and all the rest in third. But Mayes head-hops between them. Constantly. All the time. Sometimes it is impossible to tell which character is narrating.  At one point, Kit related something that happened to one of the other characters when she wasn’t there. It is massively confusing.

Despite all this, I’m absorbed in the book and I am almost finished with it. (I will confess to skimming a lot of her excessive descriptions. But if you love Italy cuisine and travelogue, you’ll likely read every word.) I decided to check the Amazon reviews to see if others had similar reactions to mine. And, yup, readers range from lukewarm to ecstatic about it. But one thing that struck me was how many mentioned their confusion over who was speaking when. (Doesn’t help that all the characters sound alike, and talk in long speeches.) Some had a hard time keeping the characters straight.

And, here’s the deal, people: when it comes to viewpoint, your average reader doesn’t know if you’re doing a point of view violation. But they do know when they get confused. And a confused reader is a bored reader. And a bored reader is a reader who puts the book down.

So, a couple of simple viewpoint reminders:

–Omniscient is really hard to pull off. Don’t do it. Just don’t.

–To maintain viewpoint sanctity, just remember to be in your character’s head. What she can see and hear and touch and smell you can report. Nothing else!

–It doesn’t matter what viewpoint you choose. Some people love first, some hate it. Some like single viewpoints, others prefer multiple. Doesn’t matter! Just stay consistent. And stay in whatever character’s head you’ve chosen at the moment you are writing.

Have you ever read a book whose viewpoint turned you off? Hit reply and tell me. Also—might you need help with viewpoint? Need a supportive coach to help you with your writing? Hit me up. I’ve got room for one client this summer.

This post contains affiliate links.

Is Your Writing Caged or Free?

To my American readers–Happy Independence Day! And to the rest of you, I hope you find something of use in this post on writing and freedom.

Here’s my question–are you caging your writing or setting it free? There’s been a spate of posts and articles on freedom this week, maybe more than usual because of the divided situation we’re in here in the states.  Oh, for the days when we took our freedom for granted. (And never did I think I would be writing those words.)

But this post is not about politics, it is about writing. So, answer me these:

–Are you caging your writing? 

By this I mean–are you trying to follow someone else’s process or style? Are you forcing yourself to get every single aspect of the plot figured out when really what you want is to let the words fly? There are so many experts on the internet and they all have their own opinions.  Read them and ponder and then come up with your own way. Learning how you best operate can be life changing.

–Are you locking yourself into a worn-out publishing paradigm?

I’ve got no skin in this game. I’ve got an agent shopping two novels and I’ve also indie published (well, one short story). I’m passionate about the possibilities of indie publishing but still also desire the cachet of traditional publishing. But that’s what’s right for me. It may or may not be right for you. Don’t box yourself in, just because.

–Are you dealing with a tired old mindset?

This may be the most important aspect of looking at your freedom. Is your brain awash in negativity and worry? Are you constantly second guessing your ability to write? Stop it. Just stop it, right now. You can do this. You need to remind yourself of this often.

So there you have it–and happy Fourth.