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!

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!

In Training for Writing: A Dozen Ideas

 

RansomnoteEvery night after dinner, I do a little work and then by 8 PM you'll find me cozied up on the couch beneath my favorite quilt, ready to watch the Olympics.   The Winter Olympics are my absolute favorite, so I've been in heaven since they started last week.

These athletes inspire me.    Ski jumpers, snowboarders, downhill racers, figure skaters–I watch them contort their bodies and think, I'll never know what it feels like to move like that, but it sure is fun to watch someone else do it. 

The other huge benefit is that it makes my job look easy.  Really easy.  (And it is, something we'd do well to remember on those days when the words aren't flowing so well and we're wringing our hands over writer's block.)

On the surface, we writers have little in common with Olympic athletes.  (Stop laughing–I know even the comparison is funny.)  They exercise their bodies, we exercise our minds.  They are super-fit and we are…well, I'll speak for myself here, but let's just say sitting at the computer all day is not the best recipe for fitness.

However, there is one arena in which we can compare ourselves and that is with our training regimen.  Olympians train hard for months out of the year, and when they aren't training in their specific sport, they are lifting weights, running, and keeping themselves fit.  And we writers train, too.

Right?

Um, maybe not.  Because who has time for training when there's real writing to be done?  When there's only one hour in the busy day in which to find time to write  that hour, by necessity, must be devoted to one's beloved WIP.

Well, hold on a minute.  Training for writers is not such a bad idea.  Just as Olympians rely on it to create muscle memory in their bodies, so, too, can we utilize the idea of training to facilitate ease and flow in our writing.  (And, if you are a beginning writer, you might focus solely on training until you have a few gazillion words under your belt.)  Think of training for writing as warm-up exercises, or practicing scales, or hitting a tennis ball against the wall five thousand times, or…you get the idea.

What follows are my suggestions for training.   Train for 5-15 minutes a day and see if it's helpful to you. If so, keep doing it.  If not, ditch it.  The idea here is to loosen up and have fun, get your fingers flying across the keyboard or page.  Train first thing in the morning, before your writing session, when you have a few minutes to spare, on your coffee break. Do what works, is my motto.  

1.  Free Writing.  The classic.  Set a timer for 10-20 minutes and move your hand across the page without stopping.   Don't worry about following any particular train of thought, just write. To engage in free writing, the following are useful:

2.  Prompts.  These are one-line starters that are either random sentences (Snow fell, covering the shoulders of her green coat), or sentences that make you think (Write about a time your character felt sorrow).  Write your prompt at the top of the page and have at it.  You can find prompts  under the Punch for Prompt tab, or by asking the Google.

3. Use your thesaurus or dictionary.  Open to a random page and choose a word.   See how many different ways you can use it in a sentence.  Or combine it with another word, make it into a sentence, and use as a prompt.  

4.  Write morning pages.  First thing in the morning (okay, you can get coffee) write three pages.  It's free writing on steroids.  Just write.  Get your yayas out.

5.  Write poetry.  Write bad poetry.  Write good poetry.  Play with images and symbolism in the poetic microcosm.   Even if you don't consider yourself a poet, you can learn much from arranging words this way.

6.  Write flash fiction.  300-1000 words, a complete story with all the usual elements.   Keep it loose, keep it easy, keep it fun.

7.  Keep a stash of writing exercises handy.  There's some on this blog–just scroll down and look in the left column under "Pages."  And you can also ask the Google for help with finding more. Here's a page that has some interesting ones.

8.  A to Z.  Start at the top, with A.  Write as many words that begin with A that you can think of in five minutes.  Then choose a couple of those words, make sentences, and write.  Or just use the word itself as a prompt.  Add to your list as you go throughout your business. The next day, move onto B.  (If you like to be contrary, you can start with Z and work backwards.)

9.  Make ransom notes.  Recycle old manuscripts by cutting them up into sentences and words and pasting those together.    Make these into a story or use them to kidnap your neighbor's dog or rob a bank.  Kidding!  

10.  Keep a God box.  I don't know where the name for this came from, but it's a box full of stuff. Like cool things you pick up in your travels–ephemera from trips or a night on the town, fun little things, found objects, bits of jewelry.  Open the box, pick an object, and write about what the object evokes.

11. Practice description.  Grab your journal, or your computer.  Close your eyes.  Now open them.  What's the first thing you see?  Write about it as if you're describing it to an alien from another planet who has none of the same references you do.

12.  The sentence game.  Write a sentence.  Now use the last word of that sentence to start the next sentence.  See how long you can keep this going.  You can also do this with first words of sentences.

Okay, these ought to keep you going for awhile.  Do you train for writing?  What are your favorite training routines?  Please share.

Photo by theloneconspirator.

The Creative Trance

Melbourne_victoria_australia_54546_hI'm working on a project that puts me into a trance.

My fingers fly across the keys and I'm totally and completely absorbed in it.  Time passes and I have no sense of it–if you asked me what the hour was, I wouldn't have a clue.  Dim thoughts that I should get up from my chair arise (I'm trying to stand up and move every 30 minutes) and they leave my brain again just as fast.  Because my fingers are moving across the keyboard, as if of their own volition.  It doesn't even occur to me to check email or see what's up on the internet. My fingers just keep moving.

When I finally come out of it, I'm wrung out–but in a cheerful, energetic way, if that makes sense.  I'm ready to take a break and I also cannot wait until I get to go back into the trance again.

This is what writing is all about.  This is how I like my creativity.

And, I recall, this is how writing used to be for me always.  Before I started worrying about how it sounded.  Or doing it right.  Or if the client would like it. 

So why is it suddenly happening for me again?

I think because I'm playing around with a different genre.  It's something new, I'm not worrying so much about the rules, and I'm allowing myself to have fun.   At the same time, I've got enough of a sense of mastery that I'm not second guessing myself all the time.

But also, I believe there's a sense of allowing myself to let it happen at play here.  I have to admit, in the past I've felt close to being in a trance state and talked myself out of it.  Got up from the computer, clicked over to check email, gazed out the window instead.

And I think I know why.  Because once  you're in the trance state it is the most wonderful place imaginable.   But it's also a bit scary.  You're out of control of your conscious mind to a certain extent.  You're in the grip of something bigger, something beyond you. 

What if you never come out?  What if you get so compelled by this trance state that you give yourself over to it totally–don't bother to shower, forget to pick up the kids, ditch cooking and cleaning?   What if you give yourself to it so fully that you become the madwoman who wanders around town talking to herself?  

Okay, so realistically, we're all pretty sure that's not going to happen.  But, still, it could, our inner critic insists.  And so we reign ourselves in, listen to that voice, attempt a more measured approach to writing.

But here's the thing: the writing I do while I'm in a creative trance is my best work.  It flows, it has a sense of authority, and at the same time, ease.  I wrote it effortlessly and it reads effortlessly.

So, I, for one, am vowing to allow myself more time in the creative trance in 2014.  

How about you?  Have you experienced the creative trance?  Do you like it or loathe it?  

Photo by Scott Sandars.

Beyond Free Writing

Letter-texture-imagination-43303-lI'm a huge fan of free writing ( writing to prompts, when you set a timer and write, not stare off into space, not think deep thoughts, write, just letting your hand move across the page), and I recommend it as a practice all the time.

I even have a page on my blog devoted to prompts.

And yet….

Sometimes free writing does not serve writers well.

Sometimes free writing can take you away from the subject at hand.  Sometimes free writing is hard to reconcile with your work in progress.  Sometimes it can feel silly.  And when writing time is so precious, who wants to take time to write on some random topic?

Or what if you're a new writer, free writing away, and suddenly you feel the desire to shape one of your free writes into a story?  What then?  How do you move beyond free writing?

Here are some suggestions:

–Use a sentence, line of dialogue or description from your current WIP (work in progress) as the prompt.  This can open up all kinds of avenues for your story.

–Use a random prompt, but hold the idea of your WIP in your head as you write.  I find that when I'm engrossed in a WIP, I automatically default to writing about it when free writing.

–After a free write, go through and highlight all the sentences you like.  Then use these as prompts. (Alternatively, you can cross out everything you dislike and use what's left.)

–Try transferring your free writes to the computer.   I always find this step pushes me to rewrite, revise and shape.  Before you know it, a story might emerge.

–Challenge yourself to write flash fiction during your free writes.  By letting the words flow freely and attempting to create a full story, you'll train yourself to think in story.

–Do a free write in the voice of your character.  Pretend it is her writing to a prompt instead of you.

–Free write a description of something in the room you're sitting in.  This marries free flowing words and directed writing.

That's all I've got for now.   But I bet my wise and wonderful readers have some good ideas.  How do you move beyond free writing to crafting your words?

My students and clients use free writing and all kinds of other exercises to get words on the page.  And it works!  I've got people ripping through books and stories at the moment, writing like crazy.  Wouldn't you like to be one of them?  Email me and let's talk.

Photo by svilen001.