Changing Things Up (A Love Letter)

If there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that not all techniques work for every writer. Not only that, but what works for one writer one time may not work the next time.  The system you use to write your novel the first time out just doesn’t fit the next time out. The way you wrote your article, following a template you thought you’d always use, suddenly doesn’t work. Or any of a million variations on those themes.

And yet, if you’re anything like me, you might keep trying to do things the old, tried and true way. Because it worked once, so why shouldn’t it work again? (Because the muse is a mysterious and fickle creature, that’s why, but we forget this.) And you may also be as resistant to change as I am. But recently I’ve had an experience that is earth-shattering in its importance.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Ready for it?

I’m no longer exclusively writing my novel chronologically.

Let’s back up a bit. I’ve called myself a plotter (one who plans ahead) for years, but I’ve come to realize that I’m really more of a pantser (a writer who flies by the seat of her pants). I like a loose outline so I have an idea where I’m going, but if I get too technical, I’ll get bored. Be that as it may, I’ve been a strict chronological writer with every novel I’ve written. I tell myself it’s because one scene has to flow naturally from another. I need to know what’s come before so I can figure out what to write in the future. Right?

But two classes I’ve taken are changing that.  The first class I took last spring, and it was called Write Better Faster  by R.L.Syme  (highly recommended). The class takes the approach that we are all different (duh) so accordingly, different writing processes will work differently for each of us. I learned a lot from that class but my two biggest takeaways are that A. I am an external processor (which is why I like to talk out loud to myself) and B. I learn and create from the middle. Pantsers, unite! I really am one of you! And I can finally say goodbye to slavishly trying to fit my scenes into a precise order dictated by some structure expert who has probably never written a novel in his life.

Class #2 I’m in the middle of, and it is called the Devoted Writer, taught by Cynthia Morris. Cynthia emphasizes fun things like free writing (set a timer, and write without stopping) and mind mapping (a right-brained style of outlining), both of which I’ve used to varying degrees of success. But, I’m telling you, I have now drunk the Kool-aid big time. I’m a convert. I’m using mind mapping and free writing for everything I write, including this newsletter.

As I was working on my novel the other day, an idea for a new scene popped into my head. I duly made notes about it, as I do, but the feeling I needed to work on it would not go away.  “But it’s not in order,” I cried. “Tough,” I answered back. “Do it anyway.” And so, I did. You might have felt the thunder rumbling and the earth shaking, so big a departure this was for me. It feels very freeing, and also a little scary. Lighting out for new territory!

Photo by Jess Watters on Unsplash

So I’m starting to take a look at all the ways I do things, and try to keep myself open to new techniques and styles.  And, by the way, doing the free writing is fast becoming a foundational practice for me. It feels like a way to keep me connected to myself and my writing in 15 simple minutes a day. And make no mistake about it, most of what I write in my free writes is crap, plain and simple. It’s the process that is so mind blowing and illuminating.

(I wrote a blog post that tells more about free writing at the start of the week. Check it out here.)

So please do tell—have you made any changes in the way you approach your writing lately? Leave a comment and tell me. I’d love to hear about it. I’m open to more new ideas!

Your Priorities As A Writer

What are your priorities as a writer? Do you have a firm sense of them? Knowing what comes first in your career and life can help you take hold of your time management.

Photo by Renáta-Adrienn on Unsplash

I started thinking about this after reading an article in the May 2018 issue of the Romance Writers Report, the magazine of the Romance Writers of America. It was written by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who, as many of you may know, is a very prolific writer. Bear in mind that her priorities as a writer might be different than yours–but that’s the point. You need to figure out what works for you. (Also note that these priorities are for indie writers. She seems to take a somewhat dim view of traditionally published writers.)

Here are her priorities:

#1–Self-Care (getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well)

#2–Spend Time With Loved Ones

#3–Writing New Words

#4–Publish New Words

#5–Whatever Keep You Healthy and Happy

So…she lumps marketing, if it makes you happy, into #5. I should think a traditionally published author might want to substitute marketing for publishing new words in #4. And then, of course, there are those of us who teach and coach or, gasp, have a day job. That has to fit in there somewhere, too. Right?

But I feel like these guidelines are an excellent starting point for a discussion you might want to have with yourself, your spouse, or your family.  Think about it. Roll it around in your mind, talk about it. You don’t have to figure it all out at once. But I do think it is good to have a firm grasp of your priorities so you can pull yourself back when you deviate from them.

Don’t cringe at the words self-care. It is just about eating right, exercising, and sleeping enough, which are baseline activities that will do more for your writing than just about anything.  And maybe you are an extreme introvert who doesn’t give a rip about any damned loved ones, in which case you can knock that priority out.  But I do try my best to take care of myself, and I do love my loved ones, so I am pretty good with her outline up to #3, but after that I’d diverge, adding:

#4–Paid Work

#5–Marketing

#6–Things that Make Me Happy and Healthy

In truth, I’m pretty good about the latter, given that much of what makes me happy is spending time with loved ones. And going to France every year, from where I just returned.  Honestly, what tends to get shoved aside when things get overwhelming is my own personal writing–and I know I am not alone in that.

How about you? Do you have priorities firmly planted in your mind, or maybe even written down somewhere? Care to share them? I’d love to hear what they are in the comments.

(If you want to read more about this topic from Kristine, go to her site and search for “burnout” or “sustainability.”)

All You Have to Do is Write

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Writing, at heart, is simple.

All you have to do is put pen to paper, one word at a time. As Margaret Atwood says, “A word after a word after a word is power.”

And yet, we make it hard. We resist that power. We make judgements about ourselves and our pages. Which, of course, just makes it harder.

I’m pondering all this because I’m taking a class called The Devoted Writer from Cynthia Morris. The heart of the class is free writing for 15 minutes every day. She provides a prompt, and we write to it. Simple, right?

Well, yeah, it is, actually. There’s a lot of great supporting information about free writing and mind mapping in the class (I’m only two days in, so I’m excited to see what else she covers) but the heart of the class is, I repeat, free writing for 15 minutes a day.

I know free writing. You know free writing. You set a timer and move your hand across the page without stopping, no matter what. If you get stuck instead of stopping and staring off into space you keep writing. No matter what.

I’ve used free writing a lot for brainstorming and idea generating, warm-ups, stuff like that. But I’ve never used it for my “real” writing–when I’m working on a novel or a blog post (like right now). Because, you know, those things are real writing. Serious. Important. Too serious and important for silly ole free writing.

But here’s what Cynthia Says about free writing:

“This is the method to write anything, anytime, for any purpose. And, this practice powerfully, yet simply sets aside the inner critic to bring you into a writualistic space.”

(She adds a “w” to the word ritual, to make it writual, which I love.)

When I started the class, it was with the intention to do the free writing exercises to help loosen me up, nab ideas, all the usual suspects. I had no intention of using it for anything else. But Cynthia’s enthusiasm is contagious and so I’ve been experimenting with it.  I gotta tell you, it is pretty magical.

I’ve always been a proponent of fast writing–or at least the idea of it. But it is too easy for me to fall into the rut of fast writing for a few minutes and then taking a break.  Because there’s fast writing and free writing.  With free writing, you are committed to keep going until the timer goes off. With fast writing, you can stop yourself any time. But applying the guidelines of free writing to any kind of writing project is really quite liberating. And efficient. My God, with concentrated bursts you can get a hell of a lot of writing done.

You need a prompt to free write and there are tons all over the internet. You can also make up your own–which is especially helpful for when you are engaged in a novel or story. (This morning I needed insight into a character’s issue. I started with the prompt, Amos has a problem.)

So go try it right now, even if you’ve tried it before and think it is stupid, or only for journal writers, or whatever. The key is to keep your hand moving across the page or fingers clattering across the typewriter.  If you get stuck, I find a useful phrase is “and then.” Just write that over and over again until you get back on track. And remember, go with what comes out. Your words don’t have to relate to the prompt at all. It is just a starting point. Start with 15 minutes and then experiment. For writing chapters or scenes, maybe 20 or 25 minutes might work better for you. The key is to keep your fingers move across the keyboard, or the pen moving across the page. Do not stop! I cannot stress that enough.

And please do try it on whatever project you’ve got going. I used it for this blog post. Nailed it in one session–though of course I did need to go back and edit. Because, of course.

Let me know how it is working for you or if you have any questions in the comments. They’ve been wonky in the past but seem to be okay now. One note: you do need to click on the individual page of the post in order to comment.

Thanks for reading!

On Leaving..And Coming Home (A Love Letter)

As you might have guessed, I am home from France. Jet lag has not been terrible this time. We got home Tuesday evening and as I write this on Friday, I’m feeling pretty good. Which gives me time to dig into all the things that got put on hold while I was gone.  And, boy, do things pile up.

Some views of Collioure

I’ve got a ton of recommendations this month because I had a lot of time to read and also many confined hours on long flights in which to watch movies (which I’m usually bad at). But I did want to write a brief recap of the trip and encourage you to think about coming with next year. So here goes.

We landed in Paris on the last day of the month and spent an afternoon wandering about the neighborhood near the Gare De Lyon, which was surprisingly appealing.  Also, getting a good dose of daylight helps with jet lag. After a pretty good night’s sleep, it was on to Perpignan via the fast train, which is comfy and relaxing.  Dali called the Perpignan train station the center of the world, and while that seems a bit excessive, the city is growing on me. We stayed in the historic center, full of twisty streets and fun shops and a divine place to eat, Restaurant Le St. Jean.   (In case you ever find yourself there, it is right next to the Cathedral St. Jean and you actually eat in a courtyard right next to the church.)

The next day it was on to Collioure, our location for the next three weeks. That included two weeks of writing workshops and one week of leisure in between. There is something so special about sinking into one place for an extended period of time. Even though I was working two weeks out of three, it is infinitely relaxing. On workshop weeks, we meet every morning from 9:30 to 12:30 (except on Sundays and Wednesdays, which are market days, so we meet at 10 in order to give everyone time to wander the stalls). Our teaching is a combination of mini-lectures on writing, discussion of assigned books (see below), writing exercises and prompts, and discussion of the assignments everyone has completed the night before. You may think that people don’t make much progress on their writing when billeted in paradise, but the opposite is actually true. Every year we see writers make huge leaps in their works in progress, get re-inspired, and write more than they thought they would—all while enjoying the hiking, shopping, eating and drinking of the region.

But three weeks does fly by—and last Saturday it was back to Paris, this time to stay in a lovely Airbnb in Montparnasse , my favorite neighborhood in the city. It rained like a mofo on Sunday afternoon but once the rain cleared, everyone emerged, and we were able to celebrate the hub’s birthday at a fun restaurant. The next day we played tourist and went to the top of the Arch de Triomphe (there was an elevator, thank god—my poor hip couldn’t have done the stairs).  And then, sadly, the next day it was time to leave.

But leaving is made easier by knowing I’ll be back next year. And even more than that, by knowing that my family awaited me back home. Along with good friends, my own comfy bed, my crazy fat cats, the even crazier family dog, and good plans for the fall—not to mention crisp autumn days. (Temps in Collioure were in the mid-80s, but the humidity was very, very high and the mosquitos were killer.)

So that’s my story about leaving and coming home. Oh, while there, I read over my novel one last time and fixed a couple inconsistencies. My agent is submitting it even as we speak I write. And I made some good progress on my next book. So, there was that, too.

We should now be back to regular weekly programming here. So, I’ll see you next week—but please do leave a comment and tell me what you’ve been up to.  And see below for the links to September reading and watching, as well as a new feature, a weekly prompt or two!

A Prompt

We had such fun using prompts at the writing workshops in France, I thought I’d start a new series and give you a prompt thematically linked to the love letter’s topic each week. Here is this week’s effort:

Write about a time you hated leaving. Now write about a time you couldn’t wait to leave.

September Round-up 

Reading

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones.  This was one of the books we assigned in our France workshops (the other being Educated, by Tara Westover, which I highly recommend). I had decidedly mixed feelings about this novel and can’t help but feel it is over-rated. We did have lively discussions about it, though!

Pardonable Lies, the third Maisie Dobbs mystery, by Jacqueline Winspear.  I picked up #10 or #11, not sure which, of this series and liked it so much I’m reading them from the beginning.

The French Exit,  by Patrick DeWitt. I hate to speak ill of a fellow Portland writer, so I won’t. But I will say this book was just not my cup of tea.

Two books by J.A. Jance, both in the Ali Reynolds series. A friend finished Deadly Stakes in Collioure and gave it to me to read. I enjoyed it, so I downloaded the first in the series, Edge of Evil.  I’ll definitely read more.

Slain in Schiaparelli, the third Joanna Hayworth vintage clothing mystery, by my friend Angela Sanders. I love everything she writes, her capers and her kite mysteries written under the name Clover Tate, as well.

Watching

 A Wrinkle in Time. This was my favorite book growing up—my sister and I read it a million times. But the movie was terrible, awful, wretched. I hated it.

The Post. Conversely, I loved this one. It tells the story of the Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers, and how that turned the paper into the national publication it is today, as well as changing Katharine Graham from a D.C. socialite into a powerhouse publisher. Highly recommended.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The Mr. Rogers documentary. Proof that Fred really was as nice as he appeared on TV. Wonderful.

Book Club. Pure fun. Loved it. Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, and Diane Keaton.  So good.

Facebook Group

And of course, don’t forget to join the Facebook group if you haven’t already.  I post lots of good links and we often have lively writerly discussions going.   https://www.facebook.com/groups/1910275502543679/

 

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter. It  contains affiliate links.

 

 

 

 

Two Writing Exercises

Photo by Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

While I’m in France, teaching writing, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating good cheese and bread, and drinking lots of wine, I’m offering either a collection of writing prompts, story starters, or exercises each week. Today I have a couple of writing exercises for you. I hope you will use them to jump-start your writing!

Sometimes writers think that writing exercises are for beginners. Wanna-bes. Not for serious scriveners like you and me. And then the writing stalls. And you don’t know what to do with yourself. That is when, my friend, you pull out the writing exercises. Because they will help you.

It’s funny, because practitioners of other creative genres rely on exercises and warm-ups as an integral part of their practices–dancers and musicians spring readily to mind.  Yet we writers (because I don’t think I’m alone in my sometimes-disdain for them) are far too apt to dismiss them as irrelevant.

When you are stuck, when you have been away from your writing for a while, when you are fishing for ideas—pull out the writing exercises! Here’s why I think they work: because they give you some structure to hang your words on.  No longer are you facing the empty page (or screen).  You’ve got somebody telling you what to do.  Which is helpful when you don’t exactly know what to do.

And here’s my best tip for working with writing exercises: use them in relationship to your current project.  This helps me to convince myself that I’m not wasting my time, since I’ll be generating ideas and scenes for my WIP.  The other thing I find is that while doing this, ideas for other projects come up.  I just had a brilliant (she said modestly) image for a short story appear, for instance.

Here are two that I’ve used over the years. I hope you find them helpful!

The DaVinci Device

 

The Bluebird Canyon Special

I will return to regular love letter programming on September 30th.

Your Story Needs Something. How to Figure Out What That Might Be.

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

When my granddaughter Olivia was a toddler, just learning to talk, she used to suddenly stop what she was doing, say, “need something,” and stagger in a babyish sort of way to the kitchen.  When Livie said “need something” she always meant food, so it was easy to satisfy her.

Alas, it is often not so easy for writers.

I’m in Collioure, France, teaching the second of two week-long workshops.  We meet every morning for instruction and writing and most often the assignments we give are related to the writer’s work in progress. During the first week, my co-leader Debbie decided that one of the pieces “needed something.”

I immediately thought of Livie, of course, because it always amuses me to hear those words. But then I thought further–about how to figure out what it is that your work needs. Sometimes that can be quite opaque. You know it needs something, but what? And how do you identify that what? These are the kinds of thorny writer problems that can stop you for days–or weeks.

But “needing something,” doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks. Rather than let it do that, apply the cold light of writerly analysis to it, or at least as analytical as it gets around here (this being the province of a dedicated right-brain, ENFP, process-oriented writer).

Most often you’ll be asking yourself what is needed for a scene or character, but you can also apply some of these ideas to the big picture. You could try asking the following:

Collioure

Does it need a different setting? So often, a simple location shift can suddenly open up a scene.  Amazingly, nine times out of ten I find this to be the case. Changing a scene to a different setting is sometimes just what it needs. Sounds so simple as to be un-useful, but trust me and try it.

Does your character need more depth?  I am the type of writer who figures out the basics, doing some prep work in character, setting, and getting a rough idea of the story, and then plunges in. I learn from the middle what the story needs. And this often results in characters needing more depth. When this happens, I go back to the well, and learn more about their backstories and motivations. I look at their arc–where they start and where they end up–and study how that will affect events that happen in the novel.

Does the dialogue need more differentiation?  It is easy, especially in first draft writing, for all characters to end up sounding the same.  And, let me stress, this is totally okay in first drafts, because you’re just trying to get the story on the page. But if you’re feeling like your story needs something while you’re immersed in a later draft, take a look at the dialogue. Try giving your characters speech tics, or phrases they say repeatedly. Also remember that some characters might talk a lot, some only a little. Some might speak in long sentences, others in short bursts. Play around with it.

Does your scene rise or fall? Or, in other words, is it flat? A scene with rising or falling action starts in one place and ends in another.  Your main character may start out the scene feeling on top of the world–and end it as discouraged as she’s ever been. Or vice versa, in multitudes of variations. Examine your scene and see if you can give it some life by un-flattening it. An excellent book that tells about this in depth (maybe even too much depth) is Story by Robert McKee.

Do you need a second thing? Sometimes, a story, whether long or short, just needs another element.  We writers are often afraid to put too much into our stories, scared we’ll lose the focus. But often the opposite is true–we don’t put in quite enough. Is there a sub-plot you can add in? Something that

So as you can see, when your work needs something, you can view it through the lens of the fundamental aspects of fiction and figure out what is missing. I hope. Let me know how it works out for you.

And if you want to come to France for a writing workshop in an idyllic location next year, you can! We’ll have information about the 2019 event shortly.  In the meantime, you can check out our website for more information. But if you want to get on the mailing list, just email me.

This post contains affiliate links.

The Journal Chronology

While I’m in France, teaching writing, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating good cheese and bread, and drinking lots of wine, I’m offering either a collection of writing prompts, story starters, or exercises each week. This week, I have something a little different—a journaling technique you might find useful. Enjoy!

So here goes.  My current favorite type of journal writing is the Chronology.  This is my name for actually writing about the things that happen in your life, the people you run into, the day to day events that make up your existence.

The desire to write a chronology of our days is why many of us are drawn to journal writing.  It is the urge to make meaning of our lives, or perhaps the desire to leave something for posterity.  The chronology records history in the making if we’re lucky–witness the diaries of pioneer women that have been such wonderful records of that era.

The chronology is also fertile ground for practicing the writer’s craft.  In noting the details of your best friend’s outfit and how she never seems to wear things that match yet she always looks great, that you start to understand how to create characters that come alive on the page.  In writing a description of the coffee shop you visited the day before, the seeds of description and setting are created.  And so on, through all the aspects of observing a day to day life.

The chronology is what fills our journals with rich detail and interesting tidbits.  And yet, this kind of writing is what is often sorely lacking in my own diary.  Why?  Because when writing a journal on a regular basis, I tend to get lazy.  It is far easier to indulge in a whiny emotional outburst or write quick morning pages that are really more about the day’s to-do list than to really write about the what happened the day before: how the sun looked on the river as you crossed the bridge, or the way your son’s face lit up when he took a bite of chocolate.

I realized how the quality of my journaling had deteriorated when I read My Life in France, by Julia Child, after seeing the movie, Julie and Julia.  If you saw the movie, there were several scenes where Paul, Julia’s husband, is seen sitting at a desk writing letters to his twin brother back home.  Those letters were apparently so filled with detail and wonderful tidbits that they were used heavily by Julia and her nephew in writing her memoir (which is, by the way, delightful, and well worth reading).  Upon reading this I was struck by what a rich vein of gold letter writing results in, and then I realized that journal writing could be the same thing.  My journal writing could be a rich vein of gold, if only I weren’t so indulgent about all those whiny outbursts.  Or obsessed with to-do lists.

So, I resolved to actually write something of worth in my diary and began to sit every morning and write an account of the day before.  Yet this chronology meandered and lacked cohesion.  (I know, I know, it’s a journal, it is not supposed to be perfect.  But, as with all writing, I need to feel comfortable inside the form before it takes off for me.)  And then I read a charming article in O magazine.  I’m sorry I can’t point you to the exact month because I tore it out and gave it to my daughter, but it was sometime this past fall.  The article was written by a woman who had recently had a baby.  During her pregnancy, she wrote down every single item she had eaten and with whom, the idea being that her baby was the sum total of all of this food and company.

And from this I got my brilliant idea–keeping a Food Journal.  No, not the kind that nutritionists and diet experts tell you to keep, though that can easily be incorporated.  This kind of food journal notes not only what you ate, but where you ate it, who you ate it with and what they were wearing, what song was on the radio as you drove down the freeway with a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich in hand, whatever.  And then that leads to a paragraph about how, you guessed it, the sun shone on the river as you crossed the bridge over it and so forth and so on and before you know it you’ve written a chronology of your entire morning, full of lush detail and interesting anecdotes and now you’re onto lunch, which is a whole other story in itself, because your numbskull co-worker told that stupid joke and then your boss yelled at all of you while she had a piece of toilet paper stuck to her shoe.

What the Food Journal really does is give you an excuse.  It gives you an excuse to write about everything that happened in your day, and in giving you a structure, it makes it so much easier than to meander about in your brain and try to remember what you did.  Food is life, as we know, and it turns out that writing about food makes remembering life easier.

This kind of journaling takes a long time.  Writing about your entire day could easily take your entire morning.  So, you might want to limit yourself to one aspect of it.  Or not.  What I find is that this kind of writing, the loving attention to the detail of reality, leads me back into the writing that I truly love doing–writing novels.  And then the hell part is that I get so engrossed in writing novels that I don’t have time to keep a food journal or really any kind of diary.

But that is okay, because my journal will be there waiting for me, as it always is, when I feel the need to write morning pages to get myself back on track again.  Or to do some writing exercises because I’ve lost my way and feel blocked.  Or because something happened to me of such import that I feel the urge to write about it.  That’s the great thing about journals–they are always there for you.

Are you a journaler? Got any techniques you use that you’d like to share? Leave a comment!

I will return to regular love letter programming on September 30th.

How to Get Ideas for Your Writing

While I’m in France, teaching writing, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating good cheese and bread, and drinking lots of wine, I’m offering either a collection of writing prompts, story starters, or exercises each week. This week, I have suggestions for how to get ideas for you. I hope it helps you to generate all kinds of juicy ones!

Writers need an endless flow of ideas. We need ideas for big projects, like a novel or a memoir, that will keep us engaged over the long haul.  We need ideas for all the things that go into long projects. We need ideas for small projects like short stories and essays. We need ideas for content—blog posts, sales copy, newsletters.

How do you get ideas?  Do you struggle to find them, or do they come to you in an endless flow that is frustrating only because you can’t act on all of them? Although most creative types fall into the latter category, I think if we’re honest we’ll also admit that there are fallow times when ideas aren’t quite so forthcoming.  Your writing life will be a lot happier and less stressful if you realize that this is part of the creative cycle and don’t beat yourself up over it.

  1. Keep a list of ideas. I have a pretty little Amy Butler three-ring binder that I keep ideas for blog posts and articles in.  This morning I perused them as I pondered what to write.  Even if you don’t use an idea from the list, looking back over it will get your brain going.
  2. Go surfing. Spend a few minutes navigating about on the web and see what jogs your interest.  Warning: this can be dangerous.  As in, an hour later you’re still reading articles and posts, justifying it because you’re supposedly searching for ideas.  To avoid this, give yourself a time limit. Set a timer, if need be.
  3. Go for a walk. This is the antithesis of #2.  But it is amazing how physical movement can jog your brain and let ideas flood in.  I find it especially helpful when I need inspiration in the middle of a project.
  4. Just start writing.  Not for the faint of heart, because it can so often bear no fruit.  But if you’re really desperate for an idea pull out pen and paper and start writing.  See what happens.  You might surprise yourself.  You can also:
  5. Collect prompts. The reason why prompts are popular is because they work.  A prompt is a jump-starter for your writing, a sentence or phrase that you use to get going.   I like to use them to gather ideas for current projects as well as to just practice writing.  It is best to cultivate prompts the way you cultivate friends–keep a list of them handy so you can go to it when needed.
  6. Read a book. A real book.  Step away from the computer screen and pick up a book, any book.  Grab a volume of poetry and sit with it for 15 minutes.  See if that doesn’t get the juices flowing.
  7. Visit a museum.  Or an art gallery.  Or an art supply store.  Or a stationery or office supply store.  Or a book store.  Go somewhere that contains either the finished product of creative effort or offers supplies for said activity.  A location that showcases finished containers or offers empty ones.  Either will inspire.

Bonus Item: Meditate or pray.  Or if you don’t like any of that woo-woo stuff, get quiet and breathe.  Ask for an idea.  See what happens.  It might be magic.

What are your favorite ways to get ideas?

I will return to regular love letter programming on September 30th.

The Usefulness of Lists for Your Writing

Photo by Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

While I’m in France, teaching writing, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating good cheese and bread, and drinking lots of wine, I’m offering either a collection of writing prompts, story starters, or exercises each week. This week, I have suggestions on how to use lists in your writing. Please do make me happy and write while I’m gone!

Make lists! The best way to do this is to do it fast. Number a page from one to ten or twenty and go!

Drawing from your own life

1. Jobs you’ve had
2. Careers
3. Passions
4. Obsessions
5. Quirks
6. Pet peeves
7. Loves
8. Interests
9. Favorite authors and their themes
10. Habits
11. Places you’ve lived or visited.
12. Hobbies
13. Your daily routine
14. Family members
15. Pets you’ve had
16. Names of streets you’ve lived on.
17. Items of clothing you’ve loved
18. Cars you’ve owned
19. Lovers/Relationships
20. Dreams you remember
21. Favorite movies, their themes
22. Favorite phrases, where did they come from?
23. Your most-used cliches

Now take a look at your lists. Do you see any themes emerging? Do all your passions and obsessions coalesce around one main idea with offshoots? Can you start to write about items on your list? For instance, under places you’ve lived, write what you like and don’t like about them. Start to cross-pollinate. If you want to write a piece of fiction, you could transpose your daily routine onto living in a different place.

What would your current life be like in a totally new environment? Even changing none of the details of your daily routine, in a new place it would be different. If you moved to a small mountain town in the winter, for instance, suddenly you’d have to build in time every morning to shovel the snow away from your car. Of if you moved to LA from a smaller city, the morning commute would be much different. If you moved from LA to the country, you’d suddenly free up tons of time you used to spend in the car.

What if you crossed the authors on your list and imagined them writing about another author’s themes? What if a very macho male author wrote about domestic issues? What kind of story would result? For non-fiction, what kind of essay could you write linking several contemporary authors and exploring their themes in terms of a current social issue?

Drawing from the World:

1.   Places you’d love to go
2. Political issues that make you crazy
3. Social problems you’d like to solve
4. Politicians you love
5. Politicians you hate
6. Celebrities you love
7. Celebrities you hate
8. TV shows you love/hate

Other ideas:

1. What you’d buy with a million dollars
2. What you’d take on a round the world journey
3. What three items you’d want with you on a dessert island
4. What people from your life you’d want with you on that island
5. Would you rather be too hot or too cold?
6. Other deep questions from childhood (like #5)
7. The first three things you’d do if you ruled the world

You can think of numerous other ways to cross-pollinate from your lists, and you can also think of other things to add to it. Write new ideas for lists as they occur to you. Keep going back to the lists and use them as the basis of a journal entry or a free-write. The thing about ideas is once you start cultivating them, they come fast and furious.

Do you find making lists helpful in your writing? Leave a comment!

The Mysteries of Story (A Love Letter)

In a phone call with one of my beloved clients this week, we discussed stories and how sometimes you have to grab the while they are white hot in your mind, and how sometimes you have to let them rest. I firmly believe that every story has its own time to be told. If a story isn’t ready to go out into the world, it’ll block you. And fight you until you either wrestle it to submission or set it aside.

Don’t feel guilty about the stories you set aside. (I have many of them.) They’ll come back around again when the time is right, either in your brain, or the world. Or maybe their essence will turn up in your novel, or the short story that just popped into your brain.

One of my favorite characters of all time is a sixty-year-old self-help writer named Earl Wilson. He started out in one of the stories that lies moldering on my computer but then leapt into being as I wrote The Bonne Chance Bakery. His books make an appearance in the novel I just sent to my agent. And I have an idea for a short story featuring him. That first story he appeared in wasn’t his, apparently. And sometimes you just have to go with weird stuff like this. No matter how hard we study them, stories are mysterious creatures.

So, don’t stress if your story isn’t quite working out. Maybe it is time to set it aside and trust that its time will come. And don’t ever, ever, throw anything away. Nothing is wasted in writing. You never know where that bit you deleted out of your WIP will appear again.  Treat every element of your stories with respect and they’ll show you were they belong.  Don’t take it all so seriously. Stories lie deep within you and sometimes it takes a while for them to wriggle their way out.

I have new stories coming to me, I’m quite sure, as I embark on a month in France next week.  A scheduling note: while I won’t be posting my usual love letters every week in September, I will be sending out a newsletter. I’m assembled writing exercises and story starters each week, so you can get a ton of writing done while I’m gone.

Things to note:

— My dear friend Terry Price  and I are offering the second part of our Spark to Story workshop. Don’t worry if you missed the first one, this one will work fine for you! They are related, but separate. The workshop is November 2nd and 3rd. Please check out more here . Registration is open!

–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!