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I’ve got the NaNoWriMo Blues…again

I probably have my priorities screwed up in this month of no shaving and writing novels and thanking veterans and giving thanks…

Because here I am again…two weeks into NaNoWriMo, completely behind the word count goals, and pining for the freedom to spend all day writing.  But, given the chance, I am still not going to steal away and write to hit a word count mark.  I end up singing the blues for the “woe is me” situation of my writing practice, because…

See, I’m what they call a “long-hander.”pen and paper

I write on paper.  Preferably with pencils, but also with pens when there is no sharpener readily handy.  I write fiction this way, because I write crap when I don’t.  There is something too easy about typing directly onto a screen.  Stream of consciousness exercises are better with a keyboard, true, just for speed, but I have a direction and characters and a world I am crafting, and to do that I, personally, need to get my hands into it.  I feel a stronger connection with my story when I am scratching it out by hand than when I am typing.  I must have some better hand/mind connection when I write this way, because I feel like what gets crafted directly into a computer is kind of…soulless*.  And forcing the soul in there after the fact is ever so much difficult for me.  Surely a creator must start with a soul, right?

*Disclaimer:  I am not saying that all people who write on computers are writing soulless stories…this only applies to me, as far as I know.  Maybe you can relate, though. Maybe?

My first draft of anything is almost always on paper first.  Transcribing my handwriting into the computer is the second draft.  And I am usually happy to share this version with my writing friends, because it has the soul of the first draft and the roundness of the second draft.  It’s my method and it works for me.  It does not work so well for NaNoWriMo, though.  Instead of trying to long-hand write 1,667 words a day, this year, I am trying to transcribe 1,667 words a day–not really true to the spirit of the challenge, but hey, it works for me.  I’ve done a pretty sizable chunk of writing over the summer–everyone in my “Sit Down, Shut Up, and Write” group sort of rolls their eyes at me and my wonky composition notebooks and collection of pencils (I need about 3 sharpened pencils to get through an hour of writing). So what if I’m retro? Does it make me a hipster to write this way?  I don’t really care what other people think of my process.  I have lived long enough trying to do this magical alchemy called to writing to know what method works best for me.

Today’s writing challenge, then, is one focused on YOUR method and finding it.writing at computer

First, pull out some paper and your favorite writing utensil and do some of your work on paper for at least 15 minutes.  Try a stream of consciousness exercise and see where it takes you.  If you are NaNoWriMo-ing, work on your next scene.  For those of you who have terrible penmanship, maybe use this time to block out the next chapter.  Consider the actions your character could take and draw a map.  The point is to just get your hands into “crafting” a piece of work rather than just keyboarding.

Second, find your favorite computer, open a freshly blank file, and try a 15 minute stream of consciousness exercise again.  You may want to pick up where you left off on the last exercise, or start anew.  If you really like what you just wrote, and want to use it, spend about 10 minutes transcribing it.  Spend the next 5 minutes adding more details.

When you are done, consider the two works you produced.  Which method *felt* better?  Which method produced better writing?  Did you like meshing the two methods into a unified piece of work?  Or did you just find paper to be a nuisance?  Did the computer “disrupt” your paper-method thinking?  Did you think about anything in a different way when you were “disconnected” from an electronic device.  Did your writing seem richer in one method or the other?

I know some (most?) of you will eschew the low-techness of longhand writing, but it’s a very green method that requires no electricity, it’s cheap, portable, and incorruptible by viruses or power outages.  On the other hand, you do have to use trees to get paper and pencils, you’ll need to find a computer someday, anyway, to produce the document for professional submissions, and you must be able to read what you wrote.  Try to stay green by using recycled products, or writing on any “left over” paper you can find.  I have a purse full of scribbled-on bill envelopes.

Use this exercise to jump start you on a writing day, or save it for later when you aren’t trying to hit a word count.  Hopefully it helps you figure out your best creativity style and aids you in your next story.

Good luck!

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Go Through Any Door

You were gruff and unapologetic and funny and smart and a spitfire and I admire your moxie. Goodbye, funny lady.

Write Under Your Nose

On “making it” into the world of comedy.

Sage advice from a comedienne who started her career writing bits for a puppet (Topo Gigio on the Ed Sullivan Show).  You cannot afford to wait around for the perfect situation.  Get your foot in the door and then your elbow and then, like the hokey pokey, your whole self.  I’ve been waiting for a very long time for the stars to align, my writing room to be completed, my favorite pencils to be on sale…yadda, yadda, yadda.

Once you have decided that you aren’t going to wait around anymore, be vigiliant for those cracked doors just waiting for you to insert yourself.  You are the only one who puts limitations on you.  And, likewise,  you are the only one who can strip them away.

Get to stripping, do the hokey pokey, and get in the door!

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Making it a Practice

Ever since I left grad school, writing fiction (my favorite kind of writing) has become a thing I do fleetingly–when I can spare the time–when I happen to be inspired–when I have run out of TV shows to watch.  Needless to say, all of my fumbling towards “being a writer” has been more like half-remembered dreams than like a vocation to which I am dedicated and committed.  You know.  Life gets in the way.

But life only gets in the way because I let it.  Because I don’t intentionally carve out time for the writing to happen.  Because I don’t have a set time to write.  Because I don’t have a dedicated space to write.  Because I don’t have a goal or a deadline.  Man, I am lame.

So.  If this business of being a writer is ever going to become something real, it’s time to make a change. And I will be following in the footsteps of many a writer who has had to do that same.

Of John Grisham’s routine (from a San Francisco Chronicle interview): “When he first started writing, Grisham says, he had “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important. The alarm clock would go off at 5, and I’d jump in the shower. My office was 5 minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week.”  His goal: to write a page every day. Sometimes that would take 10 minutes, sometimes an hour; ofttimes he would write for two hours before he had to turn to his job as a lawyer, which he never especially enjoyed.”

So, Mr. Grisham disliked his day job, too.

And Alice Munro:  As a young author taking care of three small children, Munro learned to write in the slivers of time she had, churning out stories during children’s nap times, in between feedings, as dinners baked in the oven. It took her nearly twenty years to put together the stories for her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, published in 1968 when Munro was thirty-seven. (From The Atlantic)

This gives me hope and pause, alike.  I am a step mother and wife and all of the chores outside of my “day job” really add up into something like a black hole into which all of my wherewithal disappears.  But if Alice can do it, can’t we?

When I started scheming up this plan to create a daily routine, I thought back to an interview I once read in The Paris Review about Toni Morrison’s practice (forgive the long excerpt):

Writing before dawn began as a necessity–I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama–and that was always around five in the morning. Many years later, after I stopped working at Random House, I just stayed at home for a couple of years. I discovered things about myself I had never thought about before. At first I didn’t know when I wanted to eat, because I had always eaten when it was lunchtime or dinnertime or breakfast time. Work and the children had driven all of my habits… I didn’t know the weekday sounds of my own house; it all made me feel a little giddy.

I was involved in writing Beloved at that time–this was in 1983–and eventually I realized that I was clearer-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent in the morning. The habit of getting up early, which I had formed when the children were young, now became my choice. I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.

Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was–there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard–but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call nonsecular… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.

I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are at their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?

I found these at Daily Routines, by the way.  It is truly fascinating to see how other people work.

So many authors seem to prefer writing in the morning or mid-day, but I guess I’ve never had a place and time in my “real” life (aka outside of being a full-time student) that I had the luxury to figure out what time of day is the best for me to “make the contact” with my craft.  I’ve always had to beg, steal, and borrow from time I’ve meant to spent doing something else.  But here I am, now vowing to find time everyday to write.  In all honesty, I am not even going to try for the morning.  I am a recovering night owl and sleep has become a friend of mine.  So often, I let work spill into a post-5pm place in my world, but I don’t really have to do that on most days.  So, this week, I am shooting for 5:30 – 6:30 PM as my writing time.  It’s a nice lull in the day when my brain is still “on” but I don’t want to think about work anymore.

I predict the hard part will be pulling myself away if I get in the groove of writing.  But how about dealing with that problem when it presents itself? And if this time ends up not working for some reason, I’ll reassess.

The challenge I’m setting for myself, then, is at LEAST one hour a day, write as much as possible during this time.  I want to have the equivalent of a chapter at the end of every seven-day period (eek!).  No backing up midweek to edit.  Just writing.  I have a plan for a space in which to write, so I’ll try it out and see how it works.  If it doesn’t work, I’ll move.  My first instinct is to just grab a pencil and loose paper and lean against a tall desk and start.  I might need music.  I might need it through headphones, even.  But I’m going to give it a shot and see how it goes.  But it WILL go.  And hopefully this will be a way into the dream.

Set your own daily practice goal and give it a try.

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Finders Keepers

I’ve been dreaming up some writing exercises and trying to suss out which one I want to post first.  And then it dawned on me…what last happened in my own life to make me pick up a pen with a sense of urgency?

It was a found object.  I literally found a ring in the gutter on one of my night-time walks around the neighborhood.  It’s engraved inside and out, and seems to have once been cherished by someone…so what was it doing in the gutter?

I put a lot of internet snooping into finding the owners of the names engraved inside the ring.  As luck would have it, the combination of these two fairly unique names resulted in a couple who no longer seem to be together.  Which is sad, of course… I found a picture of them together.  They might have been high school sweethearts.  It seems that their paths diverged at least four years ago, though.

And then I began to wonder how this ring came to be in the gutter of my neighborhood some four years after these folks parted ways.

So.  I began to write.

It seems like the perfect exercise to me.  What would you do if you found such an item?  What IS the story?  Or, bring your own found object to the exercise and use it as a jumping off place into a new story, or as a character building exercise by writing from the point of view of one of your characters…what would s/he do with a found ring? A found…key, pocketwatch, shoe, sweatshirt, pen?…It can be anything!  OR have one of your characters be the one who lost, threw away, or intentionally left behind this object of curiosity.

So many possibilities!  I might start this exercise over again to go into another story already in the works.  Hm…exciting!

Good luck!

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What Lola Wants…

Maybe this is particular to a certain subset of the population, but I know more than one person who has another name for who they become when they are…er…drunk.

One friend becomes “Dwayne,” a bullish, brute of a redneck.  Another turns into “Kitty,” who purrs and swishes an imaginary tail.  And me?  Well, I’m Lola.

And it’s definitely a farce for me.  I don’t get so drunk that I don’t KNOW that I’m pretending to be Lola.  Lola who has red hair (even though mine is really blonde) and speaks in a terribly hit-or-miss (and shame on me, stereotypical) Puerto Rican accent.  Who dips her fingers into other people’s drinks (usually just my significant other’s), and dances way more provacatively than I ever would.  Who sometimes bums a cigarette from a perfect stranger and takes a few puffs, but mostly lets it burn down,  so she can flick ashes like punctuation marks in her conversations.  Ha ha, right?  Ahem.

But Dwayne, he borders on being my friend’s alter ego.  Like a “Jeckyll and Hyde” alter ego.  Like “The United States of Tara” alter ego.  Dwayne likes to fight.  My friend does not.  Dwayne likes to smash things.  My friend has zero idea how his knuckles got busted up.  Dwayne doesn’t talk much.  My friend makes a living by talking.  Okay, so my friend might have a drinking problem, but it is still interesting how much a person can change “under the influence.”

This scenario can lead to a variety of exercises…here are the ones that come to my mind:

  1. Who is your alter ego? (If you don’t have one, make one up now!)  Who are they and what do they do that is different than you?  What does this “person” do that you would never do?  Create a new character based upon this “alter.”
  2. Does one of your characters behave differently when they are “under the influence?”  Do they transform into a monster or a pussycat?  Do they like to drink?  Do they never drink?  Why or why not?  Or, conversely, are they even more themselves when imbibing.
  3. Create a situation where a character encounters a Dwayne or Kitty.  Are they amused, frightened, disgusted, indifferent?  Do they set up Dwayne to get into a fight?  Do they play along with Kitty and her imaginary tail?  Are they completely bewildered, demanding that the “real” person answer them?  Does the “real” person oblige, or continue to hide behind Dwayne’s fist or Kitty’s purr?

Have fun with this one.  Use one or more of these exercises to explore a new character or create conflict in a scene.  Deepen a relationship between two characters, or create a giant rift.

Lola is off to paint her nails, now (I have a date for Valentine’s Day).  Good luck!

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Food for Thought

If you have read “Like Water for Chocolate,” by Laura Esquivel, or “Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously,” by Julie Powell, or “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien, or…I could just keep going…you know how important food can be to a story.  We have it around us every day, we all have our partiuclar favorite dish, idiosyncratic flavor combinations, and favorite (or least favorite) family recipes.  If your house is anything like my house, the food I make is what makes it smell like “my” house.

Since taste and smell are two of the five senses, including a food description in a scene can help bring it alive and place your reader into your story.  This is a good way to “show, don’t tell” that will make most scenes more relatable.  You can also set mood and tone with cooking smells and flavors.  You can explain a whole culture by its food.  And you can use it in negative or positive ways.  Too much, too little, too rich, too salty, or…just perfect.

For an exercise, put food in a scene.  It can be prominent or mere background.  It can be the focus of a character’s emotion, or a way that two characters relate to one another.  It can be life or death.

  • If you have trouble finding your way into this one, try thinking about a favorite food from your childhood and how that food made the moment perfect–how do you react now when you have, or even just smell, that same food today?
  • Or, think about your favorite food now.  Do you go the distance to make it perfect for yourself?  Or do you make a special trip to that restaurant to get it once a week?  What would happen if you introduce this deliciousness to someone else?  Would they think you are crazy for liking it?  Would they share your enthusiasm and demand the recipe?  Would you share it?
  • Or, think about a trip you took and how the food made it an even exceptional experience, or how the food ruined everything for you.  What did it smell like?  Where where you?  Why was it so amazingly good or bad?  What did you find yourself “homesick” for?

Bon appetit!

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Gone Missing

Your character has been kidnapped!

What is his/her first reaction?  Is it a scary situation or just confusing?  Maybe it was a pleasant aside that turned sinister, or maybe your character knows the kidnapper and doesn’t even realize what is happening?

Try to create a beginning, middle, and end to the situation…if it ends.  Does the character lose his/her identity or sense of what is real?  Does s/he dream about her “real” life?  Does your character try to escape?  How? 

Or…switch it…

Your character has kidnapped someone!  Who? Why?  What happens?

Even if you don’t use this writing exercise in a story, thinking about your character’s reactions and choices can really help shape them into a more “real” entity with a better-defined personality.  And, if you can really take yourself into such a scenario, you might just have a new story on your hands! Good luck!

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