Wednesday, August 26, 2015

No ballerina simply straps on her toe shoes and dances Swan Lake. Nor does an Olympic sprinter roll out of bed and walk directly to the blocks. These pros know you can't perform your best unless you first warm up and stretch.

Photo credit: kakisky from morguefile.com 
Writer friends, we can learn from this. If you find yourself endlessly procrastinating when you know you should be writing, consider adding a period of low-pressure warm ups and stretches to your routine. You may find that like that sprinter, it enables you to go faster when you do "hit the track" (aka work on your manuscript) and like the ballerina, it enables you to move with greater ease and grace.

Move 

For some, the warm ups should be physical. If you suffer from maladies of the hand or wrist joints--carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, or arthritis, gently warming up using doctor/PT-approved exercises will delay or even prevent typing from becoming painful.

Taking a fifteen minute walk to clear your head can be the perfect precursor to sitting down to write. In this post, I mention research that found creative benefits coming immediately after a walk.

Some basic stretches can improve blood flow and energy levels, always helpful for transitioning to any new activity.

Wordlessly create

To access your creativity, it can be helpful to do things that put you in a relaxed state. Here are a few worldless warm ups to try

  • Color. There are loads of cool coloring books for adults on the market now.
  • Doodle. See this post for story-related doodling warm ups.
  • Sculpt with Play-doh or clay
  • Play and instrument or sing

Freewrite

Freewriting is the most obvious transitional tool to get you into a writing groove. Choose one of the following prompts, set a timer for 10 minutes, and scribble, on paper with a pen or pencil, whatever comes to mind. No wordsmithing, just let the ideas flow fast and sloppy.

Freewrite about your own life and feelings

  • What I remember about holidays, siblings, gifts, favorite plaything, best teacher, worst teacher, favorite class, best accomplishment, scary moment, weird neighbor, unapproachable cool kid, first crush, awesome friend, grandparents, family trips, collecting things, birthday parties
  • What I wish for: accomplishments, relationships, dream trips, belongings, people I'd love to meet, superpowers and how I'd use them, future inventions
  • How I feel: what makes me angry, sad, impatient, frustrated, lonely, excited, content


Freewrite about elements of your story

  • How you characters feel about story events from the most recent scenes
  • What your character what is worried about
  • Your characters' hopes or plans
  • What your characters wish others knew about them
  • Unspoken "rules" of your character's family, school, other institutions
  • Scenes that are almost ready, and how you might polish them
  • Problem scenes and how you might repair or replace them 
  • Your hopes about this manuscript
  • Your concerns about this manuscript
  • What I want to work on today

Do you typically warm up before you write? Which of these ideas do you want to try?

2:15 PM Laurel Garver
No ballerina simply straps on her toe shoes and dances Swan Lake. Nor does an Olympic sprinter roll out of bed and walk directly to the blocks. These pros know you can't perform your best unless you first warm up and stretch.

Photo credit: kakisky from morguefile.com 
Writer friends, we can learn from this. If you find yourself endlessly procrastinating when you know you should be writing, consider adding a period of low-pressure warm ups and stretches to your routine. You may find that like that sprinter, it enables you to go faster when you do "hit the track" (aka work on your manuscript) and like the ballerina, it enables you to move with greater ease and grace.

Move 

For some, the warm ups should be physical. If you suffer from maladies of the hand or wrist joints--carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, or arthritis, gently warming up using doctor/PT-approved exercises will delay or even prevent typing from becoming painful.

Taking a fifteen minute walk to clear your head can be the perfect precursor to sitting down to write. In this post, I mention research that found creative benefits coming immediately after a walk.

Some basic stretches can improve blood flow and energy levels, always helpful for transitioning to any new activity.

Wordlessly create

To access your creativity, it can be helpful to do things that put you in a relaxed state. Here are a few worldless warm ups to try

  • Color. There are loads of cool coloring books for adults on the market now.
  • Doodle. See this post for story-related doodling warm ups.
  • Sculpt with Play-doh or clay
  • Play and instrument or sing

Freewrite

Freewriting is the most obvious transitional tool to get you into a writing groove. Choose one of the following prompts, set a timer for 10 minutes, and scribble, on paper with a pen or pencil, whatever comes to mind. No wordsmithing, just let the ideas flow fast and sloppy.

Freewrite about your own life and feelings

  • What I remember about holidays, siblings, gifts, favorite plaything, best teacher, worst teacher, favorite class, best accomplishment, scary moment, weird neighbor, unapproachable cool kid, first crush, awesome friend, grandparents, family trips, collecting things, birthday parties
  • What I wish for: accomplishments, relationships, dream trips, belongings, people I'd love to meet, superpowers and how I'd use them, future inventions
  • How I feel: what makes me angry, sad, impatient, frustrated, lonely, excited, content


Freewrite about elements of your story

  • How you characters feel about story events from the most recent scenes
  • What your character what is worried about
  • Your characters' hopes or plans
  • What your characters wish others knew about them
  • Unspoken "rules" of your character's family, school, other institutions
  • Scenes that are almost ready, and how you might polish them
  • Problem scenes and how you might repair or replace them 
  • Your hopes about this manuscript
  • Your concerns about this manuscript
  • What I want to work on today

Do you typically warm up before you write? Which of these ideas do you want to try?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

You regular blog readers may find this hard to believe, but I am not a naturally optimistic person. My inclination is to always look on the shadow rather than bright side of life. (Listen carefully to the Monty Python song, though, and my inner moroseness seems positively cheerful in comparison.) I could blame my upbringing or my birth order or a host of other things, but what ultimate good would it do? Our culture loves to keep us stuck in these blame games, and has industries dedicated to helping us wallow more.

Photo credit: GaborfromHungary from morguefile.com
But tossing on a clown costume and faking perpetual cheer isn't going to be sustainable either. I believe we have to own our temperaments and figure out how to be functional within them. We need to develop adaptations, like the deaf with sign language, rather than remain cut off in some way.

(BTW, I'm not talking about clinical depression here. That's a bigger, more deeply biological problem than mere pessimism.)

The pessimistic outlook often presents itself as "realism." A hope or dream begins to form, and the pessimistic mind will quickly devise an elaborate deconstruction project, bent on showing you how that hope or dream is unrealistic.

A pessimistic mind has to be combated with affirmations based on tangibles before any truly optimistic thoughts can make headway. It's one of the reasons I love the Psalms so much. The psalmists have their share of Yippee, yay, hallelujah moments, but usually in the midst of reminders of things God's people have endured with God's help. Our memories are short, so actively reminding ourselves of our own histories can be a helpful way of getting a grip on hope.

So when your inner pessimism responds to "Yes, you can!" with "No, I can't!" try mulling these thoughts.

  • I am really struggling with fear of ___. I'm going to journal about that, consider worst-case scenarios, and come up with a plan to take small steps anyway.
  • I don't really know where to start with this, but I remember other times I was a newbie, and eventually I got more competent. Who taught me then? Who in my life could teach me now?
  • I haven't done this exact task before, but I did this other hard task ___. What lessons can I take from that?
  • I don't know if I have the stamina for the hard work. But I know that stamina grows, and that the biggest effort is just starting. I remember another time I had to overcome inertia and what I gained.
  • If this fails, I don't want the effort to go to waste. How have I become stronger, wiser, or more compassionate from setbacks I've suffered before?
  • I struggle to believe in myself, so I am going to ask these people who care about me, [NAMES], to check in on me and affirm me.
  • I am struggling to be patient and wait for results. What other good things in my life came later than I'd hoped, but were perfectly timed just the same?
  • I feel like a failure compared to ___. But everyone struggles with this. Who could I encourage today who is younger, less resourced, less experienced, less skilled, etc., to keep on keeping on and see hopeful signs in the progress they are making?
  • I worry that I am becoming jaded and bored with this, but I might find it more exciting if I helped a newbie gain skills and confidence. What younger or less experienced person in my life would I like to mentor?
  • I feel stuck today. What skills do I have that I didn't a year ago? Five years ago? Ten years ago? What skills do I hope to have in five years? What small steps might help me gain them?
  • I'm scared of doing this alone. What other times have I faced hardship and got unexpected support? How can I better ask for support instead of expecting it to magically appear? 
As you can see, pessimism requires thoughtful answers, not chirpy quips. Pessimism wants to go deep. So maybe we should stop calling it "pessimism" and give it a new name. Any suggestions?

Which of these affirmations speak most to you?
8:03 AM Laurel Garver
You regular blog readers may find this hard to believe, but I am not a naturally optimistic person. My inclination is to always look on the shadow rather than bright side of life. (Listen carefully to the Monty Python song, though, and my inner moroseness seems positively cheerful in comparison.) I could blame my upbringing or my birth order or a host of other things, but what ultimate good would it do? Our culture loves to keep us stuck in these blame games, and has industries dedicated to helping us wallow more.

Photo credit: GaborfromHungary from morguefile.com
But tossing on a clown costume and faking perpetual cheer isn't going to be sustainable either. I believe we have to own our temperaments and figure out how to be functional within them. We need to develop adaptations, like the deaf with sign language, rather than remain cut off in some way.

(BTW, I'm not talking about clinical depression here. That's a bigger, more deeply biological problem than mere pessimism.)

The pessimistic outlook often presents itself as "realism." A hope or dream begins to form, and the pessimistic mind will quickly devise an elaborate deconstruction project, bent on showing you how that hope or dream is unrealistic.

A pessimistic mind has to be combated with affirmations based on tangibles before any truly optimistic thoughts can make headway. It's one of the reasons I love the Psalms so much. The psalmists have their share of Yippee, yay, hallelujah moments, but usually in the midst of reminders of things God's people have endured with God's help. Our memories are short, so actively reminding ourselves of our own histories can be a helpful way of getting a grip on hope.

So when your inner pessimism responds to "Yes, you can!" with "No, I can't!" try mulling these thoughts.

  • I am really struggling with fear of ___. I'm going to journal about that, consider worst-case scenarios, and come up with a plan to take small steps anyway.
  • I don't really know where to start with this, but I remember other times I was a newbie, and eventually I got more competent. Who taught me then? Who in my life could teach me now?
  • I haven't done this exact task before, but I did this other hard task ___. What lessons can I take from that?
  • I don't know if I have the stamina for the hard work. But I know that stamina grows, and that the biggest effort is just starting. I remember another time I had to overcome inertia and what I gained.
  • If this fails, I don't want the effort to go to waste. How have I become stronger, wiser, or more compassionate from setbacks I've suffered before?
  • I struggle to believe in myself, so I am going to ask these people who care about me, [NAMES], to check in on me and affirm me.
  • I am struggling to be patient and wait for results. What other good things in my life came later than I'd hoped, but were perfectly timed just the same?
  • I feel like a failure compared to ___. But everyone struggles with this. Who could I encourage today who is younger, less resourced, less experienced, less skilled, etc., to keep on keeping on and see hopeful signs in the progress they are making?
  • I worry that I am becoming jaded and bored with this, but I might find it more exciting if I helped a newbie gain skills and confidence. What younger or less experienced person in my life would I like to mentor?
  • I feel stuck today. What skills do I have that I didn't a year ago? Five years ago? Ten years ago? What skills do I hope to have in five years? What small steps might help me gain them?
  • I'm scared of doing this alone. What other times have I faced hardship and got unexpected support? How can I better ask for support instead of expecting it to magically appear? 
As you can see, pessimism requires thoughtful answers, not chirpy quips. Pessimism wants to go deep. So maybe we should stop calling it "pessimism" and give it a new name. Any suggestions?

Which of these affirmations speak most to you?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Not every writer is ready to participate in a critique group. That requires you to have a manuscript at some state of completion that you need help improving through rewrites, revisions and editing.

Photo by Seemann, morguefile.com
For some, just getting a manuscript started is a huge task. That's where a creativity circle can be a great boon. I recently started one after hosting a writing workshop at a church event. Overwhelmingly what participants wanted most was to simply gather with others on a regular basis at a set time and write side by side.

The concept of a "write in" comes from the organizers of NaNoWriMo, who provide infrastructure to connect a group to accountability features of their November program (or DIY "Camp NaNo"). Members arrive, get logged on to the NaNo site with a username and word count, then get busy with the group, adding to that word count. "Word Wars" or writing sprints are encouraged at each site, with participants competing to write the most in the set time.

The new group I'm working with are mostly beginners. Making writing competitive would likely cause many of them to be even more anxious, rather than more driven. So we focus primarily on collegiality rather than competition.

At our first meeting, we spend the bulk of the time getting to know each other, and discussing what kinds of projects we have in progress or would like to work on. The remainder of the time was spent actually writing seated at the same table. Participants loved the experience of sharing the activity and said they were less apt to procrastinate or daydream with other writers present. Hearing the scrape of pens on paper was energizing and a powerful goad to just keep putting words on paper.

While we chose a venue with WiFi and people were encouraged to bring devices, most chose paper and pen. (Another reason sprints seemed a bad idea--typists have an unfair advantage.) I made available a stack of books containing writing warm ups and prompts, which only one person made use of. The others were excited to dig into the dream projects they had discussed.

That opening mingle time was especially valuable for building rapport, idea sharing, and getting folks into a relaxed state (not the fight-or-flight feeling one has when writer's resistance sets in).

Want to start a creativity circle that meets for write ins? Here are a few suggestions.

  • Meet somewhere with WiFi, so people can access documents in the cloud
  • Limit the group size to under 20; spawn new groups as needed
  • Invite people in a range of ages, from teens to seniors, and enjoy both exuberance and wisdom 
  • Encourage folks to bring guests
  • Be very no-pressure about regular attendance; guilt leads to avoidance
  • Affirm everyone wherever they are in their creative journey
  • Include open sharing time in every meeting
  • Encourage every participant to set a personal goal
  • Provide spare tools like paper, pens, and writing prompts

What sorts of accountability and support do you have? How might a creativity circle help you? 


7:00 AM Laurel Garver
Not every writer is ready to participate in a critique group. That requires you to have a manuscript at some state of completion that you need help improving through rewrites, revisions and editing.

Photo by Seemann, morguefile.com
For some, just getting a manuscript started is a huge task. That's where a creativity circle can be a great boon. I recently started one after hosting a writing workshop at a church event. Overwhelmingly what participants wanted most was to simply gather with others on a regular basis at a set time and write side by side.

The concept of a "write in" comes from the organizers of NaNoWriMo, who provide infrastructure to connect a group to accountability features of their November program (or DIY "Camp NaNo"). Members arrive, get logged on to the NaNo site with a username and word count, then get busy with the group, adding to that word count. "Word Wars" or writing sprints are encouraged at each site, with participants competing to write the most in the set time.

The new group I'm working with are mostly beginners. Making writing competitive would likely cause many of them to be even more anxious, rather than more driven. So we focus primarily on collegiality rather than competition.

At our first meeting, we spend the bulk of the time getting to know each other, and discussing what kinds of projects we have in progress or would like to work on. The remainder of the time was spent actually writing seated at the same table. Participants loved the experience of sharing the activity and said they were less apt to procrastinate or daydream with other writers present. Hearing the scrape of pens on paper was energizing and a powerful goad to just keep putting words on paper.

While we chose a venue with WiFi and people were encouraged to bring devices, most chose paper and pen. (Another reason sprints seemed a bad idea--typists have an unfair advantage.) I made available a stack of books containing writing warm ups and prompts, which only one person made use of. The others were excited to dig into the dream projects they had discussed.

That opening mingle time was especially valuable for building rapport, idea sharing, and getting folks into a relaxed state (not the fight-or-flight feeling one has when writer's resistance sets in).

Want to start a creativity circle that meets for write ins? Here are a few suggestions.

  • Meet somewhere with WiFi, so people can access documents in the cloud
  • Limit the group size to under 20; spawn new groups as needed
  • Invite people in a range of ages, from teens to seniors, and enjoy both exuberance and wisdom 
  • Encourage folks to bring guests
  • Be very no-pressure about regular attendance; guilt leads to avoidance
  • Affirm everyone wherever they are in their creative journey
  • Include open sharing time in every meeting
  • Encourage every participant to set a personal goal
  • Provide spare tools like paper, pens, and writing prompts

What sorts of accountability and support do you have? How might a creativity circle help you? 


Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Summer is an innately frustrating season for working moms who write (people like me), because the usual routines that help us keep some balance between roles are mostly gone. The kids are at home, there's no homework to fill the evenings, and night owl sleep patterns of the rest of the family can keep one from getting one's usual rest. I often struggle with being perpetually grouchy in the summer months because my writing time gets squeezed more than usual by family needs, and when I can eke some out, it is often interrupted.

By Alex (Flickr: [1]) via Wikimedia Commons
I recently had another layer of frustration added on. Both neighbors with whom we share walls had workmen in--basement repair guys on one side, demo and rehab guys on the other. Between the squealing saws, booming hammers, grumbling cement mixer, and pounding hard rock radio station, I thought my head would split in half. Headphones and music didn't help, because some of the pounding was my own rising heart rate making blood thump in my ears.

I wanted to scream. Throw a tantrum, Or snap my fingers and mute the world.

But I'm a writer, so I didn't do any of these things.

Instead I sat very still and listened. Listened to what my body was telling me, listened to my inner monologue--both what I did  and did not want.

Why? Because frustration is one of the key emotions that drives fiction, one commonly triggered by an unmet desire.

And we all know what unmet desires are, don't we? They are the driving force of tension. And tension is what moves stories forward. (For more on this helpful definition of tension, see Steven James's Story Trumps Structure.)

So the next time you feel like punching someone because you are stuck in traffic, or the dog ate your shoes, or the kids won't give you ten minutes of peace to write, stop. Pay attention to how your body feels. Listen to the words screeching in your head. This is an emotion you need to know inside out, because it will help you write stronger scenes.

And when you're out and about and witness someone else about to explode, watch (from a safe distance) and record what you observe.

  • What facial expressions does a frustrated person have?
  • What postures, gestures, and motions does the person use?
  • How does the frustrated person talk about his/her feelings?
  • What colorful phrases and idioms come out?
More ideas on observing and journaling emotions for use in fiction can be found in my new book Emotions in the Wild: A Writer's Observation Journal.

How might you use your writerly mind to turn everyday experiences into fiction fodder? 
7:00 AM Laurel Garver
Summer is an innately frustrating season for working moms who write (people like me), because the usual routines that help us keep some balance between roles are mostly gone. The kids are at home, there's no homework to fill the evenings, and night owl sleep patterns of the rest of the family can keep one from getting one's usual rest. I often struggle with being perpetually grouchy in the summer months because my writing time gets squeezed more than usual by family needs, and when I can eke some out, it is often interrupted.

By Alex (Flickr: [1]) via Wikimedia Commons
I recently had another layer of frustration added on. Both neighbors with whom we share walls had workmen in--basement repair guys on one side, demo and rehab guys on the other. Between the squealing saws, booming hammers, grumbling cement mixer, and pounding hard rock radio station, I thought my head would split in half. Headphones and music didn't help, because some of the pounding was my own rising heart rate making blood thump in my ears.

I wanted to scream. Throw a tantrum, Or snap my fingers and mute the world.

But I'm a writer, so I didn't do any of these things.

Instead I sat very still and listened. Listened to what my body was telling me, listened to my inner monologue--both what I did  and did not want.

Why? Because frustration is one of the key emotions that drives fiction, one commonly triggered by an unmet desire.

And we all know what unmet desires are, don't we? They are the driving force of tension. And tension is what moves stories forward. (For more on this helpful definition of tension, see Steven James's Story Trumps Structure.)

So the next time you feel like punching someone because you are stuck in traffic, or the dog ate your shoes, or the kids won't give you ten minutes of peace to write, stop. Pay attention to how your body feels. Listen to the words screeching in your head. This is an emotion you need to know inside out, because it will help you write stronger scenes.

And when you're out and about and witness someone else about to explode, watch (from a safe distance) and record what you observe.

  • What facial expressions does a frustrated person have?
  • What postures, gestures, and motions does the person use?
  • How does the frustrated person talk about his/her feelings?
  • What colorful phrases and idioms come out?
More ideas on observing and journaling emotions for use in fiction can be found in my new book Emotions in the Wild: A Writer's Observation Journal.

How might you use your writerly mind to turn everyday experiences into fiction fodder? 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Theme, simply put, is the Why of your story. James Scott Bell calls it “the meta-message”: the insight, lesson, or new way of seeing things you want readers to take away from your story (Story and Structure, 130).

Theme wants to be heard (photo by SQUAIO / morguefile.com). 
To use a cooking metaphor, theme is a powerful flavor that should be able to be tasted all through a work.

Theme is woven though the shape of the story arc, through ethical dilemmas characters face, through which characters are given the role of hero and villain, through key characters’ attitudes, through characters’ conversations (including their word choices and allusions to other artistic works), through setting and description, through pacing the plot to emphasize some actions and characters over others.

And yet, theme is one of those aspects of fiction that seems to deeply divide the writing community.

Some say you should know your theme and be able to state it as a sentence. Others say if you can state a theme as a sentence, then it’s probably a pretty lousy one that’s poorly crafted and about an inch deep.

Some believe you should have the theme fairly firmly cemented in your mind by the time you go from rough to second draft. Others say you likely won’t recognize the theme until you’re many drafts deep in the process.

I suspect some of these arguments fall along the planner/pantser fault line in the writing community.

The planners would want to know what the overarching thematic thrust is before they commit much to paper. And being tidy, they might even go so far as to draft a dozen versions of their statement of theme early in the process.

Pantsers are more likely to let the story unfold and see where their imagination takes them. Multiple themes might emerge that must then be winnowed until the best remain. Pantser themes that grow out of this process are more likely to be multi-faceted, not easy to sum up in a sentence.

Of course, there are also those who question whether you “need” a theme at all. Donald Maas, in Writing the Breakout Novel, argues you will regret avoiding the issue of theme. He compares stories without a theme to a conversation with a horrible bore at a party. You walk away wondering what the point was to his ramble, and remember almost nothing of the content--only the discomfort of having to hear it (229).

I struggle to think of a single story that doesn’t some thematic content, even if it’s a bit unshaped. Humans are meaning-making beings. Even elementary students’ rambling, episodic tales have thematic elements. They express an underlying ethic that values some things and repudiates others, deems traits worthy of reward or punishment, shows goals as worth pursuing or avoiding, characterizes relational patterns as positive or negative.

The question therefore becomes not whether one will have a theme, but how much will you shape it? At what phase of the process?

As you contemplate theme, here are some key ideas to consider.

What is this story actually about? Love? Risk? Healing? Community? Individualism? Maturation?
What is the nature of my hero’s journey? Away from what and toward what?
What virtues will I advocate and reward? What vices will I criticize and punish?
What symbols best illustrate my theme?
What other literature or films can I allude to that have elements that could support my theme?

How actively do you shape your stories’ themes? At what phase? 

7:00 AM Laurel Garver
Theme, simply put, is the Why of your story. James Scott Bell calls it “the meta-message”: the insight, lesson, or new way of seeing things you want readers to take away from your story (Story and Structure, 130).

Theme wants to be heard (photo by SQUAIO / morguefile.com). 
To use a cooking metaphor, theme is a powerful flavor that should be able to be tasted all through a work.

Theme is woven though the shape of the story arc, through ethical dilemmas characters face, through which characters are given the role of hero and villain, through key characters’ attitudes, through characters’ conversations (including their word choices and allusions to other artistic works), through setting and description, through pacing the plot to emphasize some actions and characters over others.

And yet, theme is one of those aspects of fiction that seems to deeply divide the writing community.

Some say you should know your theme and be able to state it as a sentence. Others say if you can state a theme as a sentence, then it’s probably a pretty lousy one that’s poorly crafted and about an inch deep.

Some believe you should have the theme fairly firmly cemented in your mind by the time you go from rough to second draft. Others say you likely won’t recognize the theme until you’re many drafts deep in the process.

I suspect some of these arguments fall along the planner/pantser fault line in the writing community.

The planners would want to know what the overarching thematic thrust is before they commit much to paper. And being tidy, they might even go so far as to draft a dozen versions of their statement of theme early in the process.

Pantsers are more likely to let the story unfold and see where their imagination takes them. Multiple themes might emerge that must then be winnowed until the best remain. Pantser themes that grow out of this process are more likely to be multi-faceted, not easy to sum up in a sentence.

Of course, there are also those who question whether you “need” a theme at all. Donald Maas, in Writing the Breakout Novel, argues you will regret avoiding the issue of theme. He compares stories without a theme to a conversation with a horrible bore at a party. You walk away wondering what the point was to his ramble, and remember almost nothing of the content--only the discomfort of having to hear it (229).

I struggle to think of a single story that doesn’t some thematic content, even if it’s a bit unshaped. Humans are meaning-making beings. Even elementary students’ rambling, episodic tales have thematic elements. They express an underlying ethic that values some things and repudiates others, deems traits worthy of reward or punishment, shows goals as worth pursuing or avoiding, characterizes relational patterns as positive or negative.

The question therefore becomes not whether one will have a theme, but how much will you shape it? At what phase of the process?

As you contemplate theme, here are some key ideas to consider.

What is this story actually about? Love? Risk? Healing? Community? Individualism? Maturation?
What is the nature of my hero’s journey? Away from what and toward what?
What virtues will I advocate and reward? What vices will I criticize and punish?
What symbols best illustrate my theme?
What other literature or films can I allude to that have elements that could support my theme?

How actively do you shape your stories’ themes? At what phase? 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I'd intended to blog once I got back from Florida, where I was helping my mother prepare to move from independent to assisted living in her retirement community. What I didn't anticipate was arriving there with a toothache that turned out to be an abscessed molar. Fortunately, mom's dentist put me on an antibiotic, and we had so much to do that tasks rather than pain occupied most of my thoughts. But I kind of crashed when I got home. A root canal has alleviated the worst pain, and I'm slowly returning to normal.

Photo credit: sideshowmom from morguefile.com 
The primary task while in Florida was to help my mom choose a small portion of her copious belongings to move to her new studio apartment. Oddly enough, most of the purging process was pretty painless, because Mom hadn't even looked at some of her belongings in a decade, or realized she had no use for some items in her "new life" in which all meals are served in a dining room--no more meal prep or clean-up.


For over a year, she had resisted making the move, even though she was painfully lonely and isolated, because she falsely believed she needed a bigger apartment. All this stuff was holding her back from moving ahead, being in a better environment.

The whole experience got me thinking deeply about my relationship to not only stuff, but also ideas that can keep a person stuck. To extend my moving-prep metaphor, first step to overcoming the junk crammed in the closets is to open the door and actually look at it.

Here are a handful of ideas that can limit you, keep you stuck.

  • No one cares what I have to say; I'm a nobody.
  • No one else is writing about ___, so it must be a stupid idea.
  • Everyone is writing in __ genre, so I should, too.
  • That's way too complicated.
  • If I try this new thing, it will be such a time-suck, I'll go under.
  • I can't build a new routine, it's just too hard.
  • I can't afford ___ (to attend a conference, a pro editor, a computer that doesn't crash). 
  • This technique worked for me in the past.
  • All the experts say ___ will guarantee me success.
  • I'm scared of ___ (rejection, public speaking, not having a steady income).
  • My family needs X, Y, Z from me.
  • I can't ask so-and-so to pitch in, they'll just say no and make me resentful. 
  • My one experience doing ___ was so bad, no way will I try it again.
  • I can't approach X or Y, they are way too busy.
  • I don't have a head for ____ (marketing, social media, business).
  • What if I do this new thing at the wrong time and it flops?
  • What if people read my work and think I'm ____ (weird, unhinged, a heretic, a bad parent)?
  • I didn't do such-and-such perfectly the first time, so I might as well quit now.
  • This is really hard, therefore I must not have any natural talent and should quit.

Wow, that was kind of frightening, wasn't it? But I've had a lot of these thoughts, or heard them in some form from writer friends.

I don't have a quick fix for self-sabotage. But I know for sure that remaining in denial isn't going to resolve the problem any more than refusing to see the doctor about that weird mole will prevent you from having skin cancer.

So take the time to open that metaphorical dark cabinet where you've stuffed your worries and fears. Bring them into the light, examine them. Then consider how they might be false and need to be trashed, pronto. Or perhaps they seem true, but tell only part of the story. The unwritten part might involve a creative work-around, a challenge you just need to contemplate for a while, and a solution will come in time.

Do you ever emotionally "clean house"? What negative thoughts plague you that you'd like to jettison?
7:00 AM Laurel Garver
I'd intended to blog once I got back from Florida, where I was helping my mother prepare to move from independent to assisted living in her retirement community. What I didn't anticipate was arriving there with a toothache that turned out to be an abscessed molar. Fortunately, mom's dentist put me on an antibiotic, and we had so much to do that tasks rather than pain occupied most of my thoughts. But I kind of crashed when I got home. A root canal has alleviated the worst pain, and I'm slowly returning to normal.

Photo credit: sideshowmom from morguefile.com 
The primary task while in Florida was to help my mom choose a small portion of her copious belongings to move to her new studio apartment. Oddly enough, most of the purging process was pretty painless, because Mom hadn't even looked at some of her belongings in a decade, or realized she had no use for some items in her "new life" in which all meals are served in a dining room--no more meal prep or clean-up.


For over a year, she had resisted making the move, even though she was painfully lonely and isolated, because she falsely believed she needed a bigger apartment. All this stuff was holding her back from moving ahead, being in a better environment.

The whole experience got me thinking deeply about my relationship to not only stuff, but also ideas that can keep a person stuck. To extend my moving-prep metaphor, first step to overcoming the junk crammed in the closets is to open the door and actually look at it.

Here are a handful of ideas that can limit you, keep you stuck.

  • No one cares what I have to say; I'm a nobody.
  • No one else is writing about ___, so it must be a stupid idea.
  • Everyone is writing in __ genre, so I should, too.
  • That's way too complicated.
  • If I try this new thing, it will be such a time-suck, I'll go under.
  • I can't build a new routine, it's just too hard.
  • I can't afford ___ (to attend a conference, a pro editor, a computer that doesn't crash). 
  • This technique worked for me in the past.
  • All the experts say ___ will guarantee me success.
  • I'm scared of ___ (rejection, public speaking, not having a steady income).
  • My family needs X, Y, Z from me.
  • I can't ask so-and-so to pitch in, they'll just say no and make me resentful. 
  • My one experience doing ___ was so bad, no way will I try it again.
  • I can't approach X or Y, they are way too busy.
  • I don't have a head for ____ (marketing, social media, business).
  • What if I do this new thing at the wrong time and it flops?
  • What if people read my work and think I'm ____ (weird, unhinged, a heretic, a bad parent)?
  • I didn't do such-and-such perfectly the first time, so I might as well quit now.
  • This is really hard, therefore I must not have any natural talent and should quit.

Wow, that was kind of frightening, wasn't it? But I've had a lot of these thoughts, or heard them in some form from writer friends.

I don't have a quick fix for self-sabotage. But I know for sure that remaining in denial isn't going to resolve the problem any more than refusing to see the doctor about that weird mole will prevent you from having skin cancer.

So take the time to open that metaphorical dark cabinet where you've stuffed your worries and fears. Bring them into the light, examine them. Then consider how they might be false and need to be trashed, pronto. Or perhaps they seem true, but tell only part of the story. The unwritten part might involve a creative work-around, a challenge you just need to contemplate for a while, and a solution will come in time.

Do you ever emotionally "clean house"? What negative thoughts plague you that you'd like to jettison?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Image: TubeRadioLand.com
A trip yesterday to the Philadelphia History Museum got me thinking once again about people and their stuff. The museum is a small one, focused on Philadelphia's "material culture"--an archeology term that means physical evidence of a culture in the physical objects and architecture they make or have made. It's a study of objects to see what stories they tell us about people.

For instance, what does it tell us about an era to know it made horrid iron harness devices with a bell to be worn by enslaved people as punishment (as if being enslaved weren't punishment enough)?  What value did people in the 1940s place on radio, that they housed the ugly tubes and wires in mahogany cases called "cathedral style"?

If you write about historic eras or other worlds of the imagination, you have to think through these overarching, meta-level relationships between people and the objects in their environment in order to recreate the past or to create a compelling story world.

But how people relate to their belongings is significant on an individual level too. I'm perhaps more steeped in this aspect at the moment.

A character in my work-in-progress is someone who hoards aspirationally. He fills his home with things he thinks will enhance his image. But he's not wealthy enough to collect macho sports cars or hire marble sculptors to enshrine him in stone, so his collections are more modest but just as unable to satiate his underlying emotional need.

Next week I head south to help my mother purge belongings and pack for a move from independent to assisted living--going from six rooms, six closets to two rooms, two closets. It's not the physical work of packing I dread most, it's the emotional minefield I'll have to navigate as Mom contemplates parting with stuff she doesn't need but nonetheless can't imagine not having. Some deep ties will have to be severed so she has room to move in her new home.

We develop strong ties with objects over the course of a lifetime. Those ties in a sense can define our character. Perhaps it is a childhood toy that seems to hold all the magic of innocent, happy times (Rosebud in the film Citizen Kane comes to mind). Perhaps it's an inherited tool that confers familial blessing on an endeavor, like a pastry chef who relies on her great-grandma's rolling pin to create award-winning pastries. Perhaps it is a long-coveted object that once possessed gives one a sense of having "arrived" in the land of success, like a gold Rolex watch.

As you develop your story world, both large scale and small, consider the power of material culture to build and enhance your characterization.

What special objects in your life hold significance for you? Have you used significant objects in your writing to illuminate a culture or a person?
12:22 PM Laurel Garver
Image: TubeRadioLand.com
A trip yesterday to the Philadelphia History Museum got me thinking once again about people and their stuff. The museum is a small one, focused on Philadelphia's "material culture"--an archeology term that means physical evidence of a culture in the physical objects and architecture they make or have made. It's a study of objects to see what stories they tell us about people.

For instance, what does it tell us about an era to know it made horrid iron harness devices with a bell to be worn by enslaved people as punishment (as if being enslaved weren't punishment enough)?  What value did people in the 1940s place on radio, that they housed the ugly tubes and wires in mahogany cases called "cathedral style"?

If you write about historic eras or other worlds of the imagination, you have to think through these overarching, meta-level relationships between people and the objects in their environment in order to recreate the past or to create a compelling story world.

But how people relate to their belongings is significant on an individual level too. I'm perhaps more steeped in this aspect at the moment.

A character in my work-in-progress is someone who hoards aspirationally. He fills his home with things he thinks will enhance his image. But he's not wealthy enough to collect macho sports cars or hire marble sculptors to enshrine him in stone, so his collections are more modest but just as unable to satiate his underlying emotional need.

Next week I head south to help my mother purge belongings and pack for a move from independent to assisted living--going from six rooms, six closets to two rooms, two closets. It's not the physical work of packing I dread most, it's the emotional minefield I'll have to navigate as Mom contemplates parting with stuff she doesn't need but nonetheless can't imagine not having. Some deep ties will have to be severed so she has room to move in her new home.

We develop strong ties with objects over the course of a lifetime. Those ties in a sense can define our character. Perhaps it is a childhood toy that seems to hold all the magic of innocent, happy times (Rosebud in the film Citizen Kane comes to mind). Perhaps it's an inherited tool that confers familial blessing on an endeavor, like a pastry chef who relies on her great-grandma's rolling pin to create award-winning pastries. Perhaps it is a long-coveted object that once possessed gives one a sense of having "arrived" in the land of success, like a gold Rolex watch.

As you develop your story world, both large scale and small, consider the power of material culture to build and enhance your characterization.

What special objects in your life hold significance for you? Have you used significant objects in your writing to illuminate a culture or a person?