The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘writing exercises

My 90 day fast draft novel challenge is done! I finished up last week. I ended up with a little under 55,000 words. Not bad for a first draft. I had a few setbacks though, including losing 6,000 words (!) due to a computer glitch in a recent Microsoft Word update for the Mac. Losing that much material really sucked, but overall, I feel inspired about the progress I’ve made on my nascent horror novel.

Why This Challenge Worked for Me:

-I love a good writing challenge! Doing a fast draft appeals to me for the same reason that doing NaNoWriMo appeals to me. Both challenges provide structure and encourages and rewards daily effort. I love stretching past what I think I can do. With NaNoWriMo, you also get community through numerous online support via their website. Since I was posting my word counts on my author Facebook page, many folks cheered me on there.

-I also love the first drafting process. The first draft, as Jane Smiley has said, “only needs to exist.” In first drafts, I can put all my crazy ideas, flights of fancy, strange characters, and meandering subplots in. Although I was thinking some about the reader experience while writing, I was mostly writing to discover what I thought about the setting, the characters, my themes, etc.

-It gives me something to revise later. In Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass he said that when revising, you should look at a first draft and figure out the themes and ideas you were interested in exploring and then in the next draft to consciously write toward them.

-Writing 800-1,000 words five days a week was demanding, but also doable. I took Mondays and Tuesdays off which gave me some time to mull over what I was writing. NaNoWriMo’s daily word count of 1,667 words is not for the faint-hearted. This lower word count was just enough of a challenge to keep me focused, but it wasn’t so demanding that I had to keep the breakneck pace that NaNoWriMo requires.

-This challenge requires writing all the way to the end of the story. It forces you to construct some type of ending, no matter how provisional.

The only thing that I didn’t like about this challenge was that the research, writing and reading in the field was so all-consuming I couldn’t work on much of anything else during the 90 days. My submission rate plummeted. So, if I do this again, I will be more intentional about using one of my off days to stay on top of my submissions.

What’s next?

This big messy draft exists somewhere between an extended outline and fully fleshed out scenes and chapters. I’ll sit down in the middle of October, read it, make a new outline and write the next draft.

Want to know more about 90 day fast drafting? Check out Racheal Herron’s inspiring video.

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Two conversations, in the past few months, has me thinking a lot about readers and the lengths they will go to for the authors they love. And, as writers, how do we put our attention even more squarely on creating an amazing reader experience.

This author has created very loyal and responsive fans

One of my colleagues recently shared a story with me about how completely determined she was to obtain the latest release of a Louise Penny novel. At the time, she was traveling in Michigan and the bookstore that she usually visits while there had already run out of LP’s novel. She was scheduled to take a plane home later that day. She was so determined to get this novel that she called several bookstores in the area and then wound up driving over 45 minutes to a bookstore that still had the novel in stock. * She almost missed her plane in search of this book. That’s devotion.

One of my dearest friends and I were recently discussing what we were reading. Since I knew that my friend was also a fan of LP, I mentioned that my colleague was looking forward to diving into the latest LP novel. My friend paused and said with intensity, “Louise Penny is the only author that I make sure I do a pre-order for, so that the day of her release, the book arrives at my door. And, then I drop everything for a few hours to read it.”

I was struck by both conversations. Also, on a recent episode of the fantastic ‘The Writer’s Well’ podcast with Rachael Herron and J. Thorn, Rachael mentioned that a writer she knew had fans who would call in sick on the day of a new release. That’s commitment!

Having fans that make it a priority to read your work is every writer’s dream. It made me think about the question posed in the blog post title: What Lengths Are Readers Willing to Go to Read Your Work?

The deeper question is: How do we craft stories that readers can’t put down? Stories that keep them coming back for more.

This, as you already know, is a million-dollar question and there is no magic answer. I do think a piece of the answer is consistently thinking about one’s ideal reader. Over the years, I made an important realization—I am ultimately writing for reader experience and engagement, not just my own personal pleasure. Twenty years ago, I really didn’t think much about reader satisfaction or engagement—it was all about MY MESSAGE. Or, it was all about HOW CLEVERLY I USED LANGUAGE. This sounds so dumb and pretentious as I write it here, but it is the truth. Now, for me, managing and heightening reader experience is where the gold is and is always in the forefront of my mind. The first draft of anything is still just for me, my flights of fancy and risk-taking. Each subsequent draft though, I try to hone the kinds of emotions I want the reader to feel in each scene and across the whole manuscript. I also pay much more attention to where I might lose the reader in a story.

While teaching at the Table Rock Writers Workshop a few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing a fantastic book talk by Emily Nunn, author of The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart and former writer and inventor of the “Table for Two” column in The New Yorker.

She shared the grueling writing process she went through her after book proposal for a memoir (based on her experiences being in a psychiatric facility) was sold with relative ease. Her book is about the circumstances that got her into the facility and after leaving, how she healed by traveling to see friends and cooking together. She shared with us that she really wanted to include a chapter about her time in the psychiatric facility and someone on her team (I can’t remember if it was her agent or editor), said no and told her to take the chapter out. She was very upset with this advice. She had labored over that chapter and to her it represented the heart of the book. They, however, felt that the tone of the chapter was completely out of sync with the rest of the overall upbeat feel and transformational tone of the book. This same person said something along the lines of, “You don’t want to eject the reader from the book.” And, that chapter, in their opinion, though well-written would have created such incongruities for the reader, there was a potential of ejecting them out of the book. Thinking about what ejects the reader out of our work struck me as a useful bit of advice. We never want to eject the reader from our work! Ejecting the reader can look many different ways, right?

For example: Sloppy dialogue, a wandering plot, undeveloped characters, shoehorning one of our darlings into a book that just doesn’t fit (Nunn made it clear that the chapter she was being asked to cut was one of her favorites and she considered it important). Nunn added though that in retrospect, the advice was solid—the chapter didn’t fit in the current version of the book and could work instead as an excellent essay. Her team was thinking about the reader’s experience.

Many writers don’t read their reviews for a variety of reasons. I have found it helpful to look at the reviews of my work and pay attention to emails I receive or in person responses. What they like (or don’t like) are hints to their reader experience.

Sometimes when soliciting feedback on a draft, I will ask someone to mark in the text, exactly where they were able to out the book down. I go to that spot(s) and ask hard questions about what is either not working, or what is working but in a very uninteresting way.

No one starts out writing something that they know readers will devour; if you’re lucky you grow into a gifted storyteller over time. The writers who consistently create work that makes people stay up late, almost miss planes, and tell others about it have cracked something valuable about reader experience. The answers are out there in others’ work and our own, if we are brave enough to dig for them.

How do you understand the role of the reader’s experience? Are there questions you ask yourself when rewriting that focus on reader experience? I’d love to know!

*You may be wondering why she didn’t order it on Amazon—she doesn’t use Amazon and prefers to support independent bookstores.

Photo Credit-Louise Penny

Photo Credit-Emily Nunn

I’m winding down from a terrific and transformative week co-leading a workshop called ‘Opening the Writer’s Heart’ with the amazing Marjorie Hudson. We integrated yoga, mindfulness, breath work and prompt writing.

We were at the Table Rock Writers Workshop in the mountains. It’s held at the Wildacres Retreat Center. It’s a special place that encourages generosity of spirit, conviviality, and community. Loved connecting with our workshop participants, the many writers and creatives in attendance and the faculty. Gratitude to organizers Georgann Eubanks and Donna Campbell for saying yes to our proposal.

I’ve been to a number of writing retreats and residencies and this one is incredibly special and I totally understand why it is both beloved and kind of a secret!

The Prep

Showing off our blue toes as we get in the car to drive up to TR. We didn’t even plan on having the same color!

Marjorie teased me about how much stuff I was taking, but I reminded her that I was taking workshop materials, my own work, books to sell, clothes (didn’t know how cold it was going to be–turns out it wasn’t cold at all), and snacks!

Great stop in Little Switzerland for a bite to eat on the way up to Table Rock. I told Marjorie, I’d have to restrain myself if I went into the used book store. I have a ‘situation’ at home with books piling up behind the door in my office. It’s a fantastic bookstore though!

What Makes Table Rock Special?

I had heard about Table Rock for years, but knew little about before Marjorie and I pitched our workshop. It is a week-long retreat that many writers attend year after year. When we arrived everyone made us feel welcome and told us how much we would love the experience. People were pretty emphatic that we would love TR. I nodded, smiled and thought, OK, people are really into Table Rock. Not that I didn’t believe them, but I needed to just allow the experience to unfold. After just a few hours there, I felt a shift and by the end of the first full day, I knew what everyone was talking about!

Here are some things that struck me about Table Rock:

-The workshops are kept small, both in class size (no more than 12 people; we had 6 participants) and overall number of people. The size leads to an intimacy over meals and gatherings. It also contributes to community-building.

The wonderful dining hall where connections deepened over meals. And, what a gift to not have to cook for a week!

-there’s a daily social hour and people hang out and really get to know each other

-the faculty have been teaching there for many many years. These are people working at the top of their craft and teaching at an extraordinarily high level. Participants raved about their instructors, and many participants come back and take the same workshop with their favorite instructor. That’s high praise! They also enjoyed experiencing new teachers (such as myself and Marjorie). We were the new kids on the block. The faculty made us feel so welcomed (as did everyone)! They also shared tips about the writing life and their own journeys. We were so honored to be part of this group and add our own special sauce, so to speak. One of participants, Cyndy gave us the nickname M-squared!

This year’s Table Rock faculty (left to right): Philip Shabazz, Joseph Bathanti, Abigail DeWitt, me, Judy Goldman. Back row: John Claude Bemis, Dawn Shamp (editor in residence), Marjorie Hudson (photo credit: Judy Goldman)

-The Table Rock ethic is to support each other’s writing and to recognize we have a lot to learn from everyone in the room, not just faculty. It’s not about competition. Established writers and newbies get to mix it up at TR. People are interested in who you are, not just what (or where) you have published. People are encouraged to listen deeply to each other.

-Participants get to read their work and so do faculty. Folks in the audience are attentive and supportive.

-It’s a beautiful space that both inspires and restores.

A wonderful space to read, write and enjoy the natural beauty.

-It’s a creative hub. Not only are fiction, poetry and memoir writers at Table Rock, there are also a dozen or so songwriters attending their own workshop. Both groups get to hang out, cross-pollinate and the songwriters also perform for the community on Thursday eve.

A rocking concert by performers who had written and scored songs just that week!

Our Workshop!

Our participants were fabulous! They were a mix of emerging and experienced writers. All had prior yoga experience (though that was not a requirement). All opened their hearts to each other. We were blown away by the quality of their writing and how deep they went with the prompts we offered.

The table was set! The space we taught in was spacious and we had plenty of room for yoga. Flowers from Marjorie’s garden adorn our table.

Our sessions were from 9am-12pm and we opened with yoga and gentle movement, a brief meditation and then launched into writing exercises (people would write anywhere from 5-15 minutes). Folks would read aloud from what they wrote and the group would note what struck us and where they could go next if they wanted to develop the piece. Sometimes, Marjorie and I would read selections aloud from poetry or a novel in preparation for a prompt. We’d provide another prompt, take a stretch break midway through, do another exercise, read aloud some more and offer homework to continue with the prompt. They were always free to scrap the prompt and write something else.

Our themes for opening the writer’s heart and qualities you need on the writer’s path included:

-practicing courage

-practicing connection

-practicing gratitude

-practicing silence

We also allocated some time for ‘instant coaching’ about the writing and publishing life.

A prompt for you!

We spent time talking about what kinds of things open the heart (e.g. courage and dealing with fear) and what closes it (e.g. lies, secrets). This is one of the prompts I offered:

“I didn’t tell the truth for the first forty years of my life. I thought that reason I lied was that I thought I was protecting other people, but the truth is, it was to cover my own behind. I lied to my kids to get them to do what I needed them to do. I lied to my friends to get whatever it was that I needed. I lied to myself but I would never have known they were lies…This is what I realize: Being able to tell the truth makes being able to write the truth easier. And writing the truth is the beginning of healing the heart.” (emphasis in original) —
–Nancy Aronie

-Write about a lie you have told (5 minutes)

Then for homework, I suggested the following:

“Take a situation or topic or an event that you haven’t talked about honestly yet; something that is still stuck in your throat, like a tiny fishbone, small enough not to choke you to death but big enough to let you know it’s still there.

Work on it in small amounts. Truth is all you need to write. No gorgeous phrases, no sparkling syntax, just truth. Write until you’ve written the whole story.” Nancy Aronie

Write for 30 minutes.

Or: write about a major lie told to you

Our group went deep with this prompt! This prompt is adapted from Nancy Aronie’s Writing from The Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice (a writing book that has a similar feel to Bird by Bird; also very funny and very poignant; Nancy Aronie came to writing late in life and I really identify with her journey.)

Our workshop participants doing our last exercise where we invite them to dream big about their writing life. They name their accomplishments, writing skills they want to strengthen during the coming year, and identify allies and mysterious sources of support. It involves colorful post-it notes!

 

Love this picture of Marjorie practicing Lion’s Pose, a great refresher for the face and tension reliever. (photo credit Donna Campbell)

We provided participants with easy, sustainable exercises to support their back, shoulders and hands during the labor of writing. Check out these poses for hands and wrists:

https://www.webmd.com/osteoarthritis/ss/slideshow-hand-finger-exercises

The Last Day

A quick pic with faculty member John Claude Bemis before we get down to selling our books!

 

Books, books and more books! Faculty and participants get to sell books on the last day. Humbled that my Reenu-You novella was on the table next to so many authors that I admire.

Overall, a very soul-refreshing adventure. I love teaching with Marjorie. And, because we had a week to teach the material (unlike our previous weekend teaching gigs), there was more spaciousness built into the experience. I was also able to stay on my own writing schedule!

And, of course I couldn’t leave with out some books! Can’t wait to dive into these books by the faculty!

I don’t know if we will get the chance again to teach at Table Rock due to schedules, etc. I hope so! I can also see myself taking a class at TR, too. Table Rock definitely made an impression on me.

Doesn’t this look like a really happy face? Taken on the last day of the workshop by the fantastic Donna Campbell.

Check out more about them and their schedule here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo and loved it. I set a goal in July of writing 20,000 words on new WIP. I’ve been posting my daily progress on my Author FB page. My final count was 22,813! I love the challenge of doing a fast draft and breaking things down into a doable word count.

I am grinding hard working on my WIP and trying to find time to submit my work and read (and see) as much in the horror genre as I can. Whew! I decided to take a break today, have some fun and do some freewriting related to summer themes. I came up with some cool ten minute prompts. I thought you might enjoy taking a break from your normal writing schedule and give these a go.

These prompts can work while writing about yourself or a character:

–big hair/what do you do with your hair? (humidity during the summer can wreck just about any hairstyle)

I’m always looking for more ease with my hair during the summer. I got my hair done in ‘false locs’ (i.e. dreadlocks) a few days ago. The last time I got my hair braided or did anything besides what I usually do with it was more than a decade ago…and it would take 4-6 hours. Now there are lots of new techniques and I was in and out in 2 hours! This style will last about 5 weeks. You know one of the things I enjoy writing about is hair and its meaning in society. So, I engaged my stylist about cosmetology school, hair shows, the business of being a stylist and other good stuff that will probably one day end up in a story!

-the first time I ate a snow cone

-my first summer job (I handed out flyers on Christopher Street in the Village)

-when the lights went out

-the sexiest person in shorts

-your first summer crush

-a beach party gone wrong

-watching fireworks

-a fight at a backyard gathering over who makes the best BBQ

-a girl that gets lost at an amusement park

– a kid who wins a strange item from a seaside arcade

-the time you almost drowned

-a crush on your summer camp counselor

-a couple goes to see the summer blockbuster movie and when they emerge, the world has changed in some dramatic way

-who *is* the man that owns the ice cream truck?

Enjoy!

 

 

 

Hi folks,

I’ve heard from several of you that you’re curious about MasterClass and been interested in trying it out. I’ve written about how much I have loved taking Margaret Atwood’s MC. I’ve now started Neil Gaiman’s Master Class and am enjoying that, too. I’ve also dipped into the scriptwriting class taught by the brilliant Shonda Rhimes. I love fashion (and am finishing my mystery that centers on a eco-fashion designer), and took Marc Jacobs’s class which was amazing. I’m super impressed with the quality of instruction across the different courses.

I have an ‘all access pass’ that gives me access to all the classes (on everything) for one year. MasterClass sent me a link to share–this provides you with a $30 discount on the all access pass. If you sign up for it, they’ll send me a $30 Amazon gift card. We both win!

https://share.masterclass.com/x/eMFdnr

I did it. I couldn’t resist. I gave myself the gift of a MasterClass with the amazing Margaret Atwood! MasterClass brings online learning to you from experts in everything from cooking (e.g. Alice Waters) to tennis (e.g. Serena Williams). They have a number of writers to choose from including R.L. Stine, James Patterson, Malcom Gladwell and Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood’s a writer I absolutely adore! Truth be told, she’s the kind of writer that if I met a trickster spirit and they offered me a deal like, “You can write like Margaret Atwood, but you’d have to give up a limb.” I’d seriously consider it. Well, yes, I know…never trust a trickster spirit! I imagine though you, too, have writers whose work you adore and strive to emulate.

I thought how can I pass up an opportunity to study with her? I decided I couldn’t. I plunked down about $200 for an “all access pass” (which allows you to have year-long access to the videos and lifetime access to all the materials + access to other classes). She has 20+ pre-recorded videos that explore a variety of topics including writing through roadblocks, structuring a novel, revealing the world using sensory imagery, revision, etc.  Also included is a workbook crammed with exercises, additional thoughts, reading lists, etc. The first few videos I watched I could barely concentrate because I was TREMBLING while viewing Margaret Atwood right there in front of me talking about our shared passion—writing! I broke out in glee blisters (OK, so there’s probably no such a thing as a glee blister, but you do understand my level of enthusiasm).

The videos are infused with her wit, humor and wisdom. I think the MasterClass presents a unique opportunity to study with world class teachers. [BTW, I’m not getting paid to say this!]

I learned tons—so much so I am still digesting it all. These three tips below have stayed with me and they might be useful to you, too.

1) “Story is what happens. Structure is how you tell it.” Master simple chronological storytelling before tackling complex narrative variations. In one of the lessons, Margaret Atwood riffs on the different ways one could structure the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

The story would be the same but you could tell it a variety of ways using a different structure:

–beginning to end; starting in the middle (e.g. “It was dark inside the wolf. The grandmother who had been gobbled whole couldn’t say a word, because it was quite stifling and full of old chicken parts and plastic bags that the wolf had eaten by mistake”); using time jumps (“Little was Little Red Riding Hood to know that in two weeks’ time she would be looking back at one of the most definitive events of her life.”); start with a flashback; tell it from a different perspective, etc.

I can see that while writing my first novel, my ambition exceeded my skill level. I didn’t know how to tell a multiple viewpoint story, some of which took place in the past and also involved a number of time jumps. I just wasn’t a skilled enough writer back then to pull that off. I finally did find a path forward by excerpting material in what became my novella, Reenu-You. It is still complex for a novella in that it has two first person narrators and uses journalistic devices (i.e. emails, commercials, etc.) to tell a layered story.

Can you apply Atwood’s insight to a piece that you are working on that feels too complex and isn’t working? Can you find a way to simplify the narrative structure so you can tell the story that you want?

2) Writers have to think about narrative order. Margaret Atwood says that writers have to figure out who knows what and when in a story. And, you have to consider what effect your decisions, about the order of what is revealed, will have on the reader.

“One question you can ask yourself, if you’re writing: Does the reader know more than the character, or does the character know more than the reader? Or do they both know the same amount? Because it’s going to be one of those three.”

-When the reader knows more than the character that can create suspense.
-When the character knows more than the reader that can create narrative irony.

Atwood said it took her three attempts to figure out who would tell the story in The Blind Assassin!

I’m the process of revising a mystery, so this insight has been highly relevant to figuring out when to reveal what detail to the reader.

What about you? Is there a story where you can play with the narrative order to create more tension and suspense in the story?

3)“Print out your work, read it aloud and while reading, use a ruler. Read slowly.”

This is how Margaret Atwood revises her work.

Now, I absolutely am a proponent of reading one’s work aloud, but I had never tried doing it slowly and with a ruler. Sounds simple, right? I had a story that I was prepping to send to a magazine and I decided to try her method —I used a bookmark as I didn’t have a ruler. Wow, was this a revelatory experience! I noticed everything, the rhythm of words, word choice, when sentences were too long or short. I loved this process and will use it for final revisions moving forward; it gave me such a bigger and richer perspective on editing.

Do you have a piece that you’re about to submit and think it’s ready to go? Try Margaret’s technique and see what you discover.

It’s the end of the first week of July. We’re in the third quarter of the year.

As I look back over the first two quarters, I can count some successes:

Two pieces of mine are out circulating in the world!

My novelette “Doll Seed” appears in the recent issue of FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. FIYAH is a quarterly, digital publication of fantasy, science fiction, and horror by Black writers. It is about dolls, magic and civil rights! You can read excerpts and even hear a playlist for the issue, as well as buy the issue here.

My essay, “The Poison Our Grandmothers and Mothers Drank” is reprinted in this gorgeous new book whose cover I love:

Available for purchase at all online booksellers.

My goal for the next 90 days include producing a fast draft of my horror novel. I’m aiming for around 60,000 words. I was inspired to do this by Rachael Herron’s YouTube video about why it is a good thing to fast draft a book. Rachael Herron is an author and podcaster. She said doing a fast draft ensures you are the same writer from roughly start to finish. As a writing instructor she said she witnessed many students struggle with projects that were undertaken over many many years. She said these kinds of projects can be beasts to revise because the writing was completed in very different stages of ability. That makes so much sense to me as someone who has had to mine a 400,000 word unfinished novel over the years!

She gives great suggestions on how to fast draft a novel (but could work for memoir, too), including how to outline and how to stay motivated with the writing. Herron backs up her ideas by describing the success stories of her students that she’s taken through this process. In some ways producing a fast draft over 90 days is like doing an extended NaNoWriMo, but without the exhaustion and frantic energy.

Beginning July 1, I committed to writing between 800-1,000 words a day, 5 days a week.

To give me a little more incentive and accountability, I decided to post my word counts on my Author Facebook page. Knowing I am sharing it with everyone there keeps me honest–public accountability = heightened private results.

It’s funny how quickly one can establish a new normal when you commit. I made my goal this week and have almost 5,000 words. Fast drafting is by far the hardest part of my day and so I try to get to it before the afternoon. This pace hopefully will be my new normal for the next 90 days to produce a draft.

I’m also doing Camp NaNoWriMo, a virtual writing retreat that takes place in July. If there’s a project you’d like to set a goal to move toward completing in July, this might be a fantastic way to get support.

Thinking about and writing a fast draft of the novel is going to take up most of this quarter. I’ll still actively submit work, but I won’t be producing a lot of new work. I’m also judging a literary award for the North Carolina Humanities Council and a writing fellowship for the North Carolina Writers’ Network, so I’ll be busy with those service commitments. It’ll be busy but really fun!

What are your third quarter goals?


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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