This week, I’m sharing some recent posts and articles that I’ve found interesting and provocative. They, of course, have to do with my twin passions- writing and creativity. Enjoy!
250 words vs. 500 words a day
So, I’ve been writing quite a bit about the Magic Spreadsheet and the transformational effects of writing 250 words a day. Speculative fiction writer Jamie Todd Rubin has a slightly different take on what target word count works and shares his wisdom on the power of writing 500 words a day. He’s on a streak of writing 373 consecutive days straight (!) and gives excellent tips about how to keep going. I love his idea of having an “emergency scene” as a stash for the times he needs it the most. Check out his post ‘How I Kept a 373-DayProductivity Streak Unbroken’.
Do you need a writing app?
I’m a professor and the semester has started. I know that I will have to adapt my creative writing schedule to accommodate being back in the classroom and juggling various research projects. At this time of year, I’m always open to anything that will help keep me on track. I have discovered the world of writing apps! And, it is quite a world. These writing apps can help you with story structure, organization of files, and idea generation. Below are two excellent posts on writing apps. You might want to try one out to add to your writer’s toolkit.
Diversity in publishing is an important topic. NPR did a story this week looking at the Twitter activism of a group of writers (#WeNeedDiverseBooks), that began as a conversation to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in children’s literature. The NPR story delves deeply into the structural issues that contribute to the lack of diversity in most aspects of the publishing industry. It’s a sobering piece.
Move around and get creative!
I had the distinct pleasure of conducting a creativity workshop this week for local United Way leaders. They were a lively audience. One of the participants, Chris Holleman sent me his blog post about the importance of moving to stimulate creativity (especially in the workplace). Thanks Chris!
Posted August 11, 2014on:
I admit it—I’m crushing hard. Two months ago, I wrote about a free motivational tool called ‘The Magic Spreadsheet’ developed by Tony Pisculli. This is one of the most helpful writing ideas I’ve come across in a long time and I can’t speak highly enough of it.
Here is a link to my first post that goes into detail about the Magic Spreadsheet, its origins and how to find the links to join.
Since I’ve become such a fan, I thought I’d report back about why I think the ‘MS’ is so great and what it’s has been like to use it.
Recap: The ‘MS’ is a fun way to get past the twin challenges of motivation and momentum regarding writing. The commitment is to write 250 words every day (you can always do more) and to enter your word count into a public Google spreadsheet. The program keeps track of your daily word count (like magic). And, you get awarded points and levels along the way for consistency and higher word counts. The points and levels add a cool element of ‘gamification’ to the Magic Spreadsheet. And, if you write 250 words a day, in a year you’ll have a draft of a book.
Motivation: It can be very hard to stay motivated to write, especially when working on long projects. Think about the chapter, report, or essay you are trying to finish right now. It’s hard to get up the motivation to tackle something so big. But, writing 250 words a day feels very easy to sustain. Most of us can muster up the motivation to write 1-2 paragraphs that will take about 15-20 minutes. If you do more, that’s great. But if you don’t, at least you’ve got your 250 words done for the day and you’ve moved some project along.
Momentum: Momentum is such an important component in a writer’s life. It makes the difference between finished projects and unfinished ones. How does one develop momentum? It’s much easier if you are consistent, which means writing frequently.
Walter Mosley in his essay, ‘For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day’* makes this point with care: “Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. Images appear. Connections are made. But even these clearer notions will fade if you stay away more than a day.”
The MS helps to strengthen your momentum.
When you get too far away from a project (days, weeks or even years), it’s harder and harder to muster the motivation to pick up where you left off. Once you fall out of a writing rhythm, it becomes harder and harder to recapture the momentum that you once had. I also find that steady momentum helps keep those pesky inner critics at bay. They see you doing the work and shut up (or at least pester you about other things).
More: I love the ritual that I have gotten into in using the MS. When I’m done with my words, I go and log them in to the MS. This act now completes my writing ritual. I also enjoy looking at other people who are on my page (each page or tab has hundreds of people). Although I don’t know them, by occasionally scrolling down through their entries, it reinforces a feeling that we are all in this crazy writing business together. Everyone has challenges getting motivated and sustaining momentum. I feel less lonely looking at all the other people attempting their 250 words a day like me. And, I’ve even looked up some the writers to find out more about them.
I decided to use the Magic Spreadsheet to track my creative work only. Some people are using it to track their dissertations, academic articles, etc., and the MS works well for that, too. I also knew I wanted to work on multiple projects. Many people use the spreadsheet just for new writing or moving forward on a first draft of a novel, memoir, etc.
My 7-days a week, 250+ words practice has generated:
-One essay submission
-One poem that I had in draft form for two years
-A new short prose poem. I wrote this the same day I revised the other poem.
-Three columns for the Chapel Hill News
-Revisions on 4 short stories
-A conclusion to a story that I was having trouble with for several months
-Several blog posts (including this one)
-Two 3 page synopses of possible novels that I’m auditioning for in preparation for NaNoWriMo
-6 character sketches for one of the above possible novels
-Drafting and outlining for my old unfinished novel
-30,000 words in 65 days
Some of these pieces might have written because of standing deadlines, but most would not have been written without the nudge of the Magic Spreadsheet. And, much of the work has felt effortless.
I’m a believer. I’m a convert. I’m in love with the MS. Try it. It just might change your writing life.
*You can find Mosely’s essay in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (2001).
What does an editor want? How can I make my work stand out when submitting to anthologies? What counts as too much backstory to include in a short work of fiction? Writers constantly wrestle with these questions. I’ve asked Karen Pullen, friend and mentor, to share some insights as editor of a new and successful anthology.
Last August, a batch of short stories arrived in my inbox. I had promised to edit an anthology written by members of Sisters in Crime who lived in the Carolinas. The anthology was a project of the Triangle chapter of SinC, and its theme was sex. Yes. Crime stories motivated by lust, love, and longing.
I am a fiction writer too, and I empathized with the writers of these stories. Each writer had hunched for hours, even days, over her keyboard. She wriggled, sighed, scribbled notes, talked to herself. Typed, deleted, typed, deleted. Moved sentences, changed a word, changed it back again. Eventually she had a draft. She showed it to her critique group, wrote a revision. Wrote another. She submitted it for consideration in our SinC anthology, and it was accepted, conditionally: subject to a satisfactory revision.
Now her story was in my hands. My goal was to work with her to make the story more – more polished, more engrossing, more true to the writer’s vision, more satisfying for the reader. Without changing the writer’s style and voice.
I spent the better part of two months working with the nineteen authors. Here is what I discovered about myself as an editor: I’m a wriggling mass of inconsistencies. The top five:
1) I loathe backstory, except when I don’t. Ordinarily I recommended the excision of every speck of backstory; it’s a digression, a drag on forward motion, and usually unnecessary. Unless . . . it isn’t. For example, backstory that explains a character’s behavior or mood can be sprinkled in judiciously.
2) It’s a short story. So shorten it. Delete the second scene with the cops, delete one of the multiple points of view, delete characters that only appear once. Unless . . . you’ve taken shortcuts. Instead of telling us the soon-to-be-murdered boss is a jerk, show us how he treats his employees. Instead of telling us the busboy is in love with the stripper, write a scene where she invites him to her apartment. A full page of pure undiluted dialogue? Ask your characters to interact with the setting. Add emotional reactions, a bit of interior monologue.
3) Plot. I like organic plots. Give me characters who want something, put obstacles in their way, and conflict will ensue. The story will almost tell itself. Unless . . . the characters are passive victims of external forces. So light a fire under your character, make sure there’s something at stake for him, and set him loose.
4) Surprise me. I love a good reversal, a twist, a surprise, a shift in a character’s perception or the reader’s understanding. Unless . . . it comes out of nowhere, results from an impossible coincidence.
5) Language. Clarity and precision, people! Eliminate empty words, phrasal verbs, words ending in –ness and –ing, lazy adjectives like lovely, wonderful, beautiful, adorable, horrible, nasty, terrible, pretty, silly, tautologies. Make the thesaurus your friend. Unless . . . a florid writing style overwhelms the story with its cleverness. Then it must be dampened, a little. Also, I don’t hate adverbs as much as I’m supposed to.
The authors were troupers. They re-wrote then re-wrote some more. They may have gnashed their teeth, pulled out their hair, and stuck pins in my likeness, but they did the work.
I couldn’t be more proud of the result. Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing was published by Wildside Press in paper and e-book formats. It’s available through online retailers and these bookstores in the Raleigh-Durham area: McIntyre’s, Quail Ridge, and Flyleaf. Many of the authors will be reading at Flyleaf in Chapel Hill on August 9 at 2 PM.
*Fifteen months gestation.
Karen Pullen’s stories have appeared in Sixfold, bosque (the magazine), Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Spinetingler, Every Day Fiction, and anthologies. Her first novel, Cold Feet, was published by Five Star Cengage in 2013. She lives in Pittsboro, NC where she occasionally teaches in Central Carolina Community College’s creative writing program.
Check out an interview that I conducted with Karen about her first novel, Cold Feet.
Tip 5: Hone Your Performance Skills
A few weeks ago I wrote about how important it is to practice being a ‘public writer’, especially getting comfortable reading one’s work. I got comments both on the blog and by email about how challenging it is for some of us to read our work and claim our writing identities. I wanted to return to this subject and I first went to my bookshelf to see what insights other writers have shared. I have many many writing books and to my surprise most of them are completely silent on how to cultivate our performance skills as a writer. This is so striking given that writers labor to bring our work before an audience. Dare I say, many of us dream of that time when we will stand in front of an audience reading from our published work. How interesting then it is that we have gaps in preparing for that dreamed of day. Most writing guides will say ‘practice’, but often leaves out the ‘how’.
So here are some things that may be useful in honing one’s skills for readings, specifically at open mics:
1) Practice what you will read. OK, you already know this, but I’ll say it anyway. Practice for the rhythm of the words. Feel free to eliminate some words, if that makes for a smoother reading. Practice at least ten times. And, usually when people are nervous, they read faster. Try to get a sense of what reading faster will look like for your piece.
2) When you get up to the mike, pause and smile. It relaxes you and the audience. Remember, they are on your side. Don’t get freaked out if you have to adjust the mike, take a moment to get it right.
3) Don’t use up your time by going into a long detailed account of yourself and your work. I’ve seen many writers use a third of their time going into a lengthy biography. We can’t possibly grasp the complexity of you or your work in 5-8 minutes. Think seduction and foreplay. Less is more. Make them want more. Keep it short and they will. They will come up later and ask you plenty of questions.
When I read, I’ll usually say something like: “I’m Michele Tracy Berger [say your name even if the announcer has said it. People are often talking or drinking in between one writer leaving the stage and another coming to it ], I’m a fiction writer and I’m working on a collection of speculative fiction short stories. I’m reading from an excerpt from the story….” Let people know if you are reading from the beginning, middle or end.
4) Dress nicely—whatever that means to you. Remember, you are cultivating yourself as someone who wants to paid for their writing. A professional. You never know when a potential editor, agent or buyer is in the audience.
5) Nerves are fine, but if you are super anxious, think about drinking some calming tea beforehand or investigating some homeopathic remedies that deal with anxiety (e.g. Bach Flower Rescue Remedy).
6) Choose a piece that you can be a clear channel for when you read it to the audience. You need some emotional distance from a piece in order to convey the power of it. Ironic, I know.
7) Print out your piece in a large font, so it is easy to read. Decide whether you want to staple it or slide the pages across the podium (if there is one). Practice your technique. I’ve seen people who get their pages out of order, fumble and/or drop their papers.
8) Bring some cough drops (e.g. Fisherman’s Friend or Hall’s or Ricola). [this tip I learned from Marjorie Hudson]
9) Have a bottle of water with you. Nervousness closes up the throat.
10) Know the piece well enough so that you can look up and engage the audience periodically. You may want to have 1-2 lines memorized.
11) Be aware of your posture. Stand up straight.
12) Time your piece and find the most appropriate place to end. Try not to get caught by the buzzer, bell or emcee. End at a juicy and interesting place. I actually like to go 30 seconds under time.
13) Smile when you finish and remember to say ‘Thank you’. Someone just witnessed your work and tried to be present for it. Also, thank the organizers of the event (or, you can also do this when you introduce yourself). Hold the space as people are applauding (even if the applause is just polite).
14) Don’t hustle out of there after you read—that’s bad open mic etiquette. Stick around and be that supportive presence for other writers.
Got tips on this topic? Please share.