Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Photo credit: kakisky from morguefile.com
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.

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 an 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 26, 2015 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: kakisky from morguefile.com
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.

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 an 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?
Wednesday, August 19, 2015 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? 


Wednesday, August 12, 2015 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? 
Wednesday, August 05, 2015 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?