Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Photo credit: DanielaTurcanu from morguefile.com
Another year is ending, which naturally tends to make us stop and take stock of where we've been and where we are hoping to go next. I've done well with some goals, less well with others.

Reflecting on what worked, I realized there were some influential articles and blog posts that were especially helpful to me. As my year-end gift to you, here they are:

Most helpful posts of the year


The procrastination doom loop, and how to break it via @TheAtlantic
It's very easy to become slave to your moods when you're doing creative work. This is one of the best explanations about how to overcome this. Truly a game-changer for me.

The Redemptive Arc via @DavidCorbett_CA
Really helpful discussion on how guilt and shame operate in a person's life, and how to harness these powerful emotional forces to build stories that resonate.

Five tips for making writing a daily habit via @premieressay
Some of the advice here will seem like old hat--goal setting, accountability. Other tips are unique to creative writing, like being always prepared to capture ideas when they come. Not putting parameters on what "counts" as output for the day is great too. Check it out.

Discovering our writing process via @JamiGold
Whatever gets you to "the end" is worth trying. Don't let the plethora of advice online paralyze you, or worse, make you waste your creative life chasing the Holy Grail of  "a perfect writing process." If the thought "I must be doing this writing thing wrong" ever crossed your mind, check out this post.

More than one adjective--Comma or no comma? via @CathleenTowns
This is my favorite editorial discovery of the year. I've never before heard the rules of how to order adjectives, even in graduate-level editing courses. If commas drive you batty, go check this out!

How POV can solve your writing troubles via @Janice_Hardy
This one crossed my Twitter feed when I was struggling to ensure my denouement would remain dynamic and dramatic, not devolve into a dull info-dump. It helped me with with more than this--I was able to revise several other scenes I knew weren't quite working yet.

"Can you make this worse?" Thoughts on rituals of self-care when the writing is hard via @gingermoran
Are you genuinely taking risks in your writing, daring to go deep when it would be easier not to? This post discusses teasing out the deep emotions that are difficult to access, and also how to not lose your mind while doing so.

The unfair truth about how creative people really succeed via @JeffGoins
A look at why networking is important, and helpfully gives tips on how to do it better. For the reticent and shy, this is good stuff. It's all about being supportive and trustworthy, not flashy.

My favorite writing books from 2015 


Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules by Steven James
At last! A writing craft book for pantsers that doesn't try to force you to become a plotter. James's approach is to help you develop more deeply what you do well--follow your instinct toward the most compelling direction a story can go. His chapter on "status" in character interactions is worth the purchase price. Pure gold.

Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance by Roseanne Bane
A great all-around resource for building better work habits while gaining a deep sense of satisfaction and creative joy. This book isn't just about routine and schedule, but caring for and feeding your muse. Her most powerful concept is the importance to entering a relaxed state in order to create. If you struggle a lot with writer's resistance (fear-based procrastination), you MUST read this book. It is hugely helpful. A great follow up to Pressfield's The War of Art.


Any powerful lessons you learned this year? Favorite links you'd like to share?
Wednesday, December 30, 2015 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: DanielaTurcanu from morguefile.com
Another year is ending, which naturally tends to make us stop and take stock of where we've been and where we are hoping to go next. I've done well with some goals, less well with others.

Reflecting on what worked, I realized there were some influential articles and blog posts that were especially helpful to me. As my year-end gift to you, here they are:

Most helpful posts of the year


The procrastination doom loop, and how to break it via @TheAtlantic
It's very easy to become slave to your moods when you're doing creative work. This is one of the best explanations about how to overcome this. Truly a game-changer for me.

The Redemptive Arc via @DavidCorbett_CA
Really helpful discussion on how guilt and shame operate in a person's life, and how to harness these powerful emotional forces to build stories that resonate.

Five tips for making writing a daily habit via @premieressay
Some of the advice here will seem like old hat--goal setting, accountability. Other tips are unique to creative writing, like being always prepared to capture ideas when they come. Not putting parameters on what "counts" as output for the day is great too. Check it out.

Discovering our writing process via @JamiGold
Whatever gets you to "the end" is worth trying. Don't let the plethora of advice online paralyze you, or worse, make you waste your creative life chasing the Holy Grail of  "a perfect writing process." If the thought "I must be doing this writing thing wrong" ever crossed your mind, check out this post.

More than one adjective--Comma or no comma? via @CathleenTowns
This is my favorite editorial discovery of the year. I've never before heard the rules of how to order adjectives, even in graduate-level editing courses. If commas drive you batty, go check this out!

How POV can solve your writing troubles via @Janice_Hardy
This one crossed my Twitter feed when I was struggling to ensure my denouement would remain dynamic and dramatic, not devolve into a dull info-dump. It helped me with with more than this--I was able to revise several other scenes I knew weren't quite working yet.

"Can you make this worse?" Thoughts on rituals of self-care when the writing is hard via @gingermoran
Are you genuinely taking risks in your writing, daring to go deep when it would be easier not to? This post discusses teasing out the deep emotions that are difficult to access, and also how to not lose your mind while doing so.

The unfair truth about how creative people really succeed via @JeffGoins
A look at why networking is important, and helpfully gives tips on how to do it better. For the reticent and shy, this is good stuff. It's all about being supportive and trustworthy, not flashy.

My favorite writing books from 2015 


Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules by Steven James
At last! A writing craft book for pantsers that doesn't try to force you to become a plotter. James's approach is to help you develop more deeply what you do well--follow your instinct toward the most compelling direction a story can go. His chapter on "status" in character interactions is worth the purchase price. Pure gold.

Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance by Roseanne Bane
A great all-around resource for building better work habits while gaining a deep sense of satisfaction and creative joy. This book isn't just about routine and schedule, but caring for and feeding your muse. Her most powerful concept is the importance to entering a relaxed state in order to create. If you struggle a lot with writer's resistance (fear-based procrastination), you MUST read this book. It is hugely helpful. A great follow up to Pressfield's The War of Art.


Any powerful lessons you learned this year? Favorite links you'd like to share?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Revisions. Love 'em or hate 'em, they're a necessary step to strengthening your work. But it's easy to get really overwhelmed by the prospect of fixing problems, or simply bounce randomly from place to place in the story doing small tweaks without tackling the bigger issues.

Once you have a manuscript that's complete, you can try to identify weaknesses yourself, after you've set the manuscript aside for a while. Or you can ask a few readers to give it a look. I've done both before digging into a full revision.

Your goal is to identify a set of major threads--perhaps character arcs or plots--that need to be shored up or perhaps re-conceived. Between reader feedback and my own re-reading of sections and scenes they identified as somehow lacking, I came up with four major threads. With this knowledge, I next do the following:

Gather supplies


I find it helpful to work with a printed version of my manuscript. It's easier to navigate than an electronic one and I'm less likely to end up with version confusion if I do the messiest marking up on a physical copy. For my method, you need

The manuscript printed, two pages per sheet (see example below)

A three-ring binder


A three-hole punch


Post-it flags
































Flag and list


Prepare your manuscript by hole-punching the pages and inserting them in the binder. I prefer the ring at the bottom of the page, with the back of the previous page as note jotting space. But punching the top would work as well, with note jotting space above.

Assign a colored flag to each of the revision threads you will be tackling. (I happened to have patterned ones, but plain, as shown above, work great too. Color coding is the key.)

Open a new document in Word and list the major threads. This will be where you keep a record of all your concerns, ideas and plans: a revision running list.

I like using the space below to jot notes.
Go through the manuscript, scene by scene. Look for opportunities to add or replace material for each thread.

Flag the scene with the appropriate colored flag. Jot a note in the margin or on the adjacent page about what's bothering you.

In your  running list Word document, under the appropriate thread,

~List the page where you see the opportunity.
~Describe what isn't working.
~Brainstorm possible solutions.
~Jot down dialogue or descriptions that occur to you

If ideas to fix later scenes involving the same thread occur to you as you read earlier scenes, describe them in your running list under the appropriate thread. When you eventually get to those scenes in the read-through, add flags to the pages and page numbers to your running list.

As much as possible, try to tackle this identification process in a linear manner, progressing from the beginning to the end of the story. Otherwise, you risk missing minor details that affect your revision threads and need to be changed.

Resist the urge to actually fix any of the problems. Simply list them. If you have a perfect solution, add it to the running list.

Conversely, if you don't have a solution, there's no pressure. You're aware of the issue and can come back to it later. Perhaps once you've tackled other things, a solution will come to you

Revise your manuscript


Print out your complete running list.

Tackle any revision you clearly know how to fix. Then remove the colored flag from that page in your notebook, and check it off your running list. (I find it helpful to also use strike-through on the electronic version of my running list as a back up, because I may end up adding to the list as I actually do the revisions.)

Move on to the more and  more difficult revisions and rewrites. If any revision will affect a later problem scene, add the information about what changes to your running list.

Continue until you've removed all the flags and crossed off everything on your list.

Print a fresh copy of your story. Set it aside for a few days.

Read through it aloud. Mark rough transitions, voice issues, repetition, echoes, wordiness, and typos.

Make those corrections.

Pass the manuscript off to beta readers or your editor, depending on how confident you feel after your copy-editing read.

How do you typically tackle revisions? 
Wednesday, December 16, 2015 Laurel Garver
Revisions. Love 'em or hate 'em, they're a necessary step to strengthening your work. But it's easy to get really overwhelmed by the prospect of fixing problems, or simply bounce randomly from place to place in the story doing small tweaks without tackling the bigger issues.

Once you have a manuscript that's complete, you can try to identify weaknesses yourself, after you've set the manuscript aside for a while. Or you can ask a few readers to give it a look. I've done both before digging into a full revision.

Your goal is to identify a set of major threads--perhaps character arcs or plots--that need to be shored up or perhaps re-conceived. Between reader feedback and my own re-reading of sections and scenes they identified as somehow lacking, I came up with four major threads. With this knowledge, I next do the following:

Gather supplies


I find it helpful to work with a printed version of my manuscript. It's easier to navigate than an electronic one and I'm less likely to end up with version confusion if I do the messiest marking up on a physical copy. For my method, you need

The manuscript printed, two pages per sheet (see example below)

A three-ring binder


A three-hole punch


Post-it flags
































Flag and list


Prepare your manuscript by hole-punching the pages and inserting them in the binder. I prefer the ring at the bottom of the page, with the back of the previous page as note jotting space. But punching the top would work as well, with note jotting space above.

Assign a colored flag to each of the revision threads you will be tackling. (I happened to have patterned ones, but plain, as shown above, work great too. Color coding is the key.)

Open a new document in Word and list the major threads. This will be where you keep a record of all your concerns, ideas and plans: a revision running list.

I like using the space below to jot notes.
Go through the manuscript, scene by scene. Look for opportunities to add or replace material for each thread.

Flag the scene with the appropriate colored flag. Jot a note in the margin or on the adjacent page about what's bothering you.

In your  running list Word document, under the appropriate thread,

~List the page where you see the opportunity.
~Describe what isn't working.
~Brainstorm possible solutions.
~Jot down dialogue or descriptions that occur to you

If ideas to fix later scenes involving the same thread occur to you as you read earlier scenes, describe them in your running list under the appropriate thread. When you eventually get to those scenes in the read-through, add flags to the pages and page numbers to your running list.

As much as possible, try to tackle this identification process in a linear manner, progressing from the beginning to the end of the story. Otherwise, you risk missing minor details that affect your revision threads and need to be changed.

Resist the urge to actually fix any of the problems. Simply list them. If you have a perfect solution, add it to the running list.

Conversely, if you don't have a solution, there's no pressure. You're aware of the issue and can come back to it later. Perhaps once you've tackled other things, a solution will come to you

Revise your manuscript


Print out your complete running list.

Tackle any revision you clearly know how to fix. Then remove the colored flag from that page in your notebook, and check it off your running list. (I find it helpful to also use strike-through on the electronic version of my running list as a back up, because I may end up adding to the list as I actually do the revisions.)

Move on to the more and  more difficult revisions and rewrites. If any revision will affect a later problem scene, add the information about what changes to your running list.

Continue until you've removed all the flags and crossed off everything on your list.

Print a fresh copy of your story. Set it aside for a few days.

Read through it aloud. Mark rough transitions, voice issues, repetition, echoes, wordiness, and typos.

Make those corrections.

Pass the manuscript off to beta readers or your editor, depending on how confident you feel after your copy-editing read.

How do you typically tackle revisions? 

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Melodrama. It might make for addictive daytime TV, but it tends to drive readers crazy.

It's a long, slow ride to the top (Photo by kconnors from morguefile.com)
Consider the following melodramatic scenarios:

  • Eyes lock across a crowded room and the hero will now spend 300 pages risking his life for a woman he has never spoken to.
  • The heroine's boyfriend sees her touch another man's shoulder in a conversation, A page later, he strangles the rival and disembowels him, then sends the organs to the heroine.
  • A knee-replacement patient wobbles during physical therapy and has a crying, screaming, furniture-tossing tantrum.
  • A destitute single mother receives a million-dollar check from a philanthropist she never met.

What do you notice is a common thread among these scenarios?

Suddenness. Instantaneous action. Emotionally going from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in two seconds flat.

In other words, what tends to convert a dramatic moment into a melodramatic one is lack of preparation.

Consider how each of the above scenarios could be converted from melodrama to drama with some preparation.

Scenario 1

Eyes lock across a crowded room and the hero will now spend 300 pages risking his life for a woman he has never spoken to.

~Eyes lock across a crowded room. That woman looks so much like his dead wife, the one he couldn't save. He'll do anything to atone for his failure on that mountainside.

~Eyes lock across a crowded room. That woman looks so much like his missing sister. Could it really be her? He'll do anything to find out, and to keep her safe.

~Eyes lock across a crowded room. He knows she's had nine drinks so far, and he won't let her out of his sight. Not like he did with his college roommate who didn't live to see graduation.

Backstory, parsed out at key moments, can give some preparation for a character's radical actions.

Alternately, you can use nonlinear narration to give us this moment that seems out of the blue, then gradually reveal how this character's reaction is inevitable, based on previous experiences. 

Finally, you can ratchet down the emotion, so it's not no connection to "die for you" in seconds. More on that with the next scenario....

Scenario 2

The heroine's boyfriend sees her touch another man's shoulder in a conversation. A page later, he strangles the rival  and disembowels him, then sends the organs to the heroine.

The heroine's boyfriend sees her touch another man's shoulder in a conversation. That's her brother, right? he thinks. No wait, who is that guy?

He ponders whether she tends to touch shoulders of anyone she converses with. He gathers data, watching her talk to women, children, men old and young. He notes that she rarely touches anyone but him.

He casually brings up the shoulder-touching incident in conversation with her, not mentioning the touch. "Who were you talking to the other day?"

When she gives an innocent spin on the story, he fears she is lying, and presses back. "You seemed awfully friendly."

Her protestation confirms his fear. The lady doth protest too much, as Hamlet's mom says. My girl is definitely lying.

He becomes fixated on learning more about his rival. Is he married or in a relationship? How long has he known my girlfriend? In what capacity? He asks friends' opinions of the rival.  Googles the rival. Stalks his Facebook page. Any data that confirms his suspicions will be worried over, repeatedly rehearsed.

When the heroine will next be put into contact with the rival, her boyfriend  tries to convince her to change plans. When she refuses to do so, his anxiety increases more. He will try to control her appearance, suggesting she wear more modest clothes, less makeup.

He asks a friend to keep tabs on her while she is in contact with the rival, and to call him if anything seems out of line.

While his friend is spying, the boyfriend torments himself. He imagines the heroine in passionate embraces, hotel trysts, a Vegas wedding chapel. He wonders what he did wrong in their relationship that would drive her to cheat. He re-imagines every happy memory they ever had together and looks for signs that she was somehow unhappy or deceptive.

When the friend reports back that he saw the heroine and rival whispering together in a corner, the boyfriend ups his game once again and begins stalking the heroine, the rival, or both.


I can probably pause here, as you likely see where this is going. Jealous rages do not come out of nowhere. They start from a small suspicious action that is misinterpreted and gradually magnified. The jealous one will work every possible angle to either disprove or prove his suspicions, depending on how trusting vs. insecure he is, or how healthy vs. narcissistic.

Likewise, jealous rages do not become homicidal in nature until the one cheated on slowly but inevitably comes to the end of his rope. He will try all kinds of other methods to part the lovers or protect his own feelings before he will resort to murder.

Skipping the long arc of emotional escalation will always feel unrealistic and melodramatic.

Your MUST slow it down. Think escalator, not bullet train. The increase in "height" (intensity) should be gradual. 

Dissect the emotion. Think through how suspicion becomes worry becomes paranoia becomes jealous heat becomes anger becomes rage. 

Too fast emotional escalation is one of the key problems I see in beginning writers. If you want to improve your craft, make it your mission to understand HOW emotions escalate. 

  • Study books and films that do it well and analyze how they did it. 
  • Read psychology books and self-help books that analyze emotion.
  • Observe emotional escalation in those around you and make notes about what you see and hear. 
  • Listen to your inner voice when your emotions are stirred. How does it feel to become gradually more angry, for example, or more hopeful?

Exercise

Take one of the remaining melodramatic scenarios above and consider how to rewrite it either by properly preparing or by slowing down the emotional escalation.


Do you struggle with melodramatic scenes cropping up in your story? How might you better prepare for dramatic actions?

Wednesday, December 09, 2015 Laurel Garver
Melodrama. It might make for addictive daytime TV, but it tends to drive readers crazy.

It's a long, slow ride to the top (Photo by kconnors from morguefile.com)
Consider the following melodramatic scenarios:

  • Eyes lock across a crowded room and the hero will now spend 300 pages risking his life for a woman he has never spoken to.
  • The heroine's boyfriend sees her touch another man's shoulder in a conversation, A page later, he strangles the rival and disembowels him, then sends the organs to the heroine.
  • A knee-replacement patient wobbles during physical therapy and has a crying, screaming, furniture-tossing tantrum.
  • A destitute single mother receives a million-dollar check from a philanthropist she never met.

What do you notice is a common thread among these scenarios?

Suddenness. Instantaneous action. Emotionally going from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in two seconds flat.

In other words, what tends to convert a dramatic moment into a melodramatic one is lack of preparation.

Consider how each of the above scenarios could be converted from melodrama to drama with some preparation.

Scenario 1

Eyes lock across a crowded room and the hero will now spend 300 pages risking his life for a woman he has never spoken to.

~Eyes lock across a crowded room. That woman looks so much like his dead wife, the one he couldn't save. He'll do anything to atone for his failure on that mountainside.

~Eyes lock across a crowded room. That woman looks so much like his missing sister. Could it really be her? He'll do anything to find out, and to keep her safe.

~Eyes lock across a crowded room. He knows she's had nine drinks so far, and he won't let her out of his sight. Not like he did with his college roommate who didn't live to see graduation.

Backstory, parsed out at key moments, can give some preparation for a character's radical actions.

Alternately, you can use nonlinear narration to give us this moment that seems out of the blue, then gradually reveal how this character's reaction is inevitable, based on previous experiences. 

Finally, you can ratchet down the emotion, so it's not no connection to "die for you" in seconds. More on that with the next scenario....

Scenario 2

The heroine's boyfriend sees her touch another man's shoulder in a conversation. A page later, he strangles the rival  and disembowels him, then sends the organs to the heroine.

The heroine's boyfriend sees her touch another man's shoulder in a conversation. That's her brother, right? he thinks. No wait, who is that guy?

He ponders whether she tends to touch shoulders of anyone she converses with. He gathers data, watching her talk to women, children, men old and young. He notes that she rarely touches anyone but him.

He casually brings up the shoulder-touching incident in conversation with her, not mentioning the touch. "Who were you talking to the other day?"

When she gives an innocent spin on the story, he fears she is lying, and presses back. "You seemed awfully friendly."

Her protestation confirms his fear. The lady doth protest too much, as Hamlet's mom says. My girl is definitely lying.

He becomes fixated on learning more about his rival. Is he married or in a relationship? How long has he known my girlfriend? In what capacity? He asks friends' opinions of the rival.  Googles the rival. Stalks his Facebook page. Any data that confirms his suspicions will be worried over, repeatedly rehearsed.

When the heroine will next be put into contact with the rival, her boyfriend  tries to convince her to change plans. When she refuses to do so, his anxiety increases more. He will try to control her appearance, suggesting she wear more modest clothes, less makeup.

He asks a friend to keep tabs on her while she is in contact with the rival, and to call him if anything seems out of line.

While his friend is spying, the boyfriend torments himself. He imagines the heroine in passionate embraces, hotel trysts, a Vegas wedding chapel. He wonders what he did wrong in their relationship that would drive her to cheat. He re-imagines every happy memory they ever had together and looks for signs that she was somehow unhappy or deceptive.

When the friend reports back that he saw the heroine and rival whispering together in a corner, the boyfriend ups his game once again and begins stalking the heroine, the rival, or both.


I can probably pause here, as you likely see where this is going. Jealous rages do not come out of nowhere. They start from a small suspicious action that is misinterpreted and gradually magnified. The jealous one will work every possible angle to either disprove or prove his suspicions, depending on how trusting vs. insecure he is, or how healthy vs. narcissistic.

Likewise, jealous rages do not become homicidal in nature until the one cheated on slowly but inevitably comes to the end of his rope. He will try all kinds of other methods to part the lovers or protect his own feelings before he will resort to murder.

Skipping the long arc of emotional escalation will always feel unrealistic and melodramatic.

Your MUST slow it down. Think escalator, not bullet train. The increase in "height" (intensity) should be gradual. 

Dissect the emotion. Think through how suspicion becomes worry becomes paranoia becomes jealous heat becomes anger becomes rage. 

Too fast emotional escalation is one of the key problems I see in beginning writers. If you want to improve your craft, make it your mission to understand HOW emotions escalate. 

  • Study books and films that do it well and analyze how they did it. 
  • Read psychology books and self-help books that analyze emotion.
  • Observe emotional escalation in those around you and make notes about what you see and hear. 
  • Listen to your inner voice when your emotions are stirred. How does it feel to become gradually more angry, for example, or more hopeful?

Exercise

Take one of the remaining melodramatic scenarios above and consider how to rewrite it either by properly preparing or by slowing down the emotional escalation.


Do you struggle with melodramatic scenes cropping up in your story? How might you better prepare for dramatic actions?

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Photo credit: danielemusella from morguefile.com
December is here, and with it comes a lot of rush and bustle. Shopping, decorating, parties, concerts, recitals, bake sales, visiting family and friends, preparing for visitors, more shopping, more baking, more parties, etc. All the festivities can be pretty draining, not only of your bank account and time, but of your creativity, too.

"Caring for your creativity" might sound a little strange, but think of it like a muscle. It needs both consistent exercise and protection from injury. Holiday busyness provides both unique opportunities and unique dangers for your creative powers.

Deeply engage socially


The times I've been most blocked with my writing have not been for want of time, but want of ideas--specifically interesting stuff for the characters to be doing that move forward their arcs of change. Busy seasons provide an opportunity to fill up with ideas. Getting butt out of chair and living life can help, as can being exceptionally curious and nosy.

During the holidays, you are thrown together with lots of people in all sorts of venues, so take advantage of it. Everyone who crosses your path has an interesting story to share, so make it your mission to access those stories. Some folks will be quick to share their best adventures, others have to warm up a bit. Here are some conversation starters that can help you get people talking:

  • What is your favorite holiday memory?
  • What happened on your worst Christmas ever?
  • What is the most memorable gift you ever received? 
  • What is the kindest thing anyone has done for you?
  • What unique traditions have been passed down in your family?
  • What do you love most about your family? Dislike most?
  • How are you like your parents? How are you different?
  • What was your most precious childhood possession?
  • Are you a collector? What do you collect and why?
  • What is the weirdest secret you ever discovered?
  • What is the funniest thing you’ve ever done?
  • What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? Was it worthwhile?
  • What is the coolest place you’ve ever visited? Scariest? Most disgusting?
  • What mishap turned out better than you ever expected?

Once you ask, listen, not only to story ideas, but also how the story is told. Note the storyteller's tone of voice and be alert to unique turns of phrase. Watch their expressions and gestures. Jot down the best stuff. Get a copy of Emotions in the Wild, a guided journal I created to help you collect data about how real people express emotions, and use it to keep your observations organized.

And if you're a party host, your guests just might love a structured time of storytelling, in which they take turns sharing a funny or touching memory with the group.

Seek pockets of stillness


Busy seasons also have a way of filling our minds with a lot of noise. This can be a big cause of post-holidays burn-out. The more you can give your mind pockets of quiet and stillness, the more mentally healthy you will feel during and after the holidays. Here are some ways to reduce noise and introduce peaceful moments into your day:

  • Pare back on social media. Most of what you'll find there is buy, buy, buy anyway,
  • Set your phone and computer aside more often.
  • Limit TV watching
  • Take far-away parking spaces and walk more
  • Begin and end the day with a few minutes of silent reflection or prayer
  • Journal: write away some of the noise of the day, then write about your childhood
  • Snuggle with pets and loved ones
  • Cook something that has to be constantly stirred
  • Listen to soothing music while doing gentle stretches
  • Walk, preferably during daylight hours to get vitamin D
  • Swap a few showers for baths
  • Copy poems or inspiring prose into your journal
  • Write snail-mail letters to distant friends and family
  • Improvise with a musical instrument
  • Doodle, draw or color
  • Build Legos with or without your family

Balancing out the hustle and bustle with quiet should make for a happier holiday season, and keep burn-out at bay.

What special challenges make writing difficult for you in December? Which ideas above appeal to you most?

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: danielemusella from morguefile.com
December is here, and with it comes a lot of rush and bustle. Shopping, decorating, parties, concerts, recitals, bake sales, visiting family and friends, preparing for visitors, more shopping, more baking, more parties, etc. All the festivities can be pretty draining, not only of your bank account and time, but of your creativity, too.

"Caring for your creativity" might sound a little strange, but think of it like a muscle. It needs both consistent exercise and protection from injury. Holiday busyness provides both unique opportunities and unique dangers for your creative powers.

Deeply engage socially


The times I've been most blocked with my writing have not been for want of time, but want of ideas--specifically interesting stuff for the characters to be doing that move forward their arcs of change. Busy seasons provide an opportunity to fill up with ideas. Getting butt out of chair and living life can help, as can being exceptionally curious and nosy.

During the holidays, you are thrown together with lots of people in all sorts of venues, so take advantage of it. Everyone who crosses your path has an interesting story to share, so make it your mission to access those stories. Some folks will be quick to share their best adventures, others have to warm up a bit. Here are some conversation starters that can help you get people talking:

  • What is your favorite holiday memory?
  • What happened on your worst Christmas ever?
  • What is the most memorable gift you ever received? 
  • What is the kindest thing anyone has done for you?
  • What unique traditions have been passed down in your family?
  • What do you love most about your family? Dislike most?
  • How are you like your parents? How are you different?
  • What was your most precious childhood possession?
  • Are you a collector? What do you collect and why?
  • What is the weirdest secret you ever discovered?
  • What is the funniest thing you’ve ever done?
  • What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? Was it worthwhile?
  • What is the coolest place you’ve ever visited? Scariest? Most disgusting?
  • What mishap turned out better than you ever expected?

Once you ask, listen, not only to story ideas, but also how the story is told. Note the storyteller's tone of voice and be alert to unique turns of phrase. Watch their expressions and gestures. Jot down the best stuff. Get a copy of Emotions in the Wild, a guided journal I created to help you collect data about how real people express emotions, and use it to keep your observations organized.

And if you're a party host, your guests just might love a structured time of storytelling, in which they take turns sharing a funny or touching memory with the group.

Seek pockets of stillness


Busy seasons also have a way of filling our minds with a lot of noise. This can be a big cause of post-holidays burn-out. The more you can give your mind pockets of quiet and stillness, the more mentally healthy you will feel during and after the holidays. Here are some ways to reduce noise and introduce peaceful moments into your day:

  • Pare back on social media. Most of what you'll find there is buy, buy, buy anyway,
  • Set your phone and computer aside more often.
  • Limit TV watching
  • Take far-away parking spaces and walk more
  • Begin and end the day with a few minutes of silent reflection or prayer
  • Journal: write away some of the noise of the day, then write about your childhood
  • Snuggle with pets and loved ones
  • Cook something that has to be constantly stirred
  • Listen to soothing music while doing gentle stretches
  • Walk, preferably during daylight hours to get vitamin D
  • Swap a few showers for baths
  • Copy poems or inspiring prose into your journal
  • Write snail-mail letters to distant friends and family
  • Improvise with a musical instrument
  • Doodle, draw or color
  • Build Legos with or without your family

Balancing out the hustle and bustle with quiet should make for a happier holiday season, and keep burn-out at bay.

What special challenges make writing difficult for you in December? Which ideas above appeal to you most?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Photo credit: jdurham from morguefile.com 
I'm not here today, I'm guest posting over at Jami Gold's blog on honing your observation skills in order to better portray characters' emotion in fiction.

Reading others' emotions is something you do every day.  It's a skill one begins to develop from infancy. But like other kinds of reading, it's a learned skill, not an entirely inborn one. So if you feel like this is a weakness, never fear, you can improve with practice.

And it's worth the effort to observe people's natural emotional reactions in natural settings in order to better represent human behavior in your fiction.

So please swing by to say hello and, I hope, pick up some useful tips for turning your ordinary trips to the grocery store, your kids' swim meet, the dentist, the gym into an emotions laboratory.
Tuesday, November 17, 2015 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: jdurham from morguefile.com 
I'm not here today, I'm guest posting over at Jami Gold's blog on honing your observation skills in order to better portray characters' emotion in fiction.

Reading others' emotions is something you do every day.  It's a skill one begins to develop from infancy. But like other kinds of reading, it's a learned skill, not an entirely inborn one. So if you feel like this is a weakness, never fear, you can improve with practice.

And it's worth the effort to observe people's natural emotional reactions in natural settings in order to better represent human behavior in your fiction.

So please swing by to say hello and, I hope, pick up some useful tips for turning your ordinary trips to the grocery store, your kids' swim meet, the dentist, the gym into an emotions laboratory.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Dear Editor-on-Call,
Photo credit: diannehope from morguefile.com

My critique group always argues about how you should write time. 5 o'clock or 5:00 pm? And do you have to write out numbers, as in five thousand, or can you go with 5,000 (in fiction?)

Yours truly,
Counting on you


Dear Counting,

Unfortunately, there isn't one hard and fast rule for this. These sorts of decisions are what industry pros call "style." Every publisher has its own style guide dictating its preference for handling things like numbers. No one will expect you to know this information ahead of time--they'll likely just ask for changes during the editing phase if you chose something other than house style. However, if you don't handle numbers consistently, you won't be making fast friends with the editorial department.

For many years, I worked on publications that used Associate Press (AP) style, so I've had that pretty deeply ingrained in how I approach this question. Its style choices will feel more right for some genres than others.

Clock time

AP usually handles time like this-- 4:43 a.m. or 11 p.m. (Note the letters are lower case with periods after each. AM and PM is right out.) If your story is, say, a mystery, thriller or SciFi full of time references, this is the format to go with. It's pithy and official looking.

In most other fiction, I typically see times written out as four o'clock or eight-thirty or half past two. For occasional references, spelled out numbers read more fluidly. The a.m. and p.m. distinction can be handled better through descriptors like morning, afternoon, evening, night.

I'd recommend against combining the two formats. Both "four forty three a.m." and "5:02 o'clock" just look stupid.

Quantities, amounts and ages

AP style says to spell out numbers under ten and use numerals for everything else. I can't think of a single novel that follows that rule. Quantities should be spelled out. Hyphenate a compound number when used as an adjective.

He came in sixth place.
Joyce won fifteen million dollars.
The kidnappers are demanding thirty grand.
I can give you twenty-two reasons to stay home. (note hyphen)
When Kit turned twenty two, she bought an electric bass.
The victim was an eleven-year-old male. (note hyphens)
I haven't been back to Viperville since I was eleven years old.

Dates

Calendar dates are another sticky area you didn't mention. AP handles them like this--May 5, 1999; June 13; Summer 2014. Commas are used only between day and year. Ordinal numbers are a no-no (notice it's NOT June 13th in AP).

I haven't seen any clear preference in fiction for how one handles numbers for the purpose of naming a date. Obviously spelling out the year will be too wordy, so I'd avoid that. As far as using the word or numeral, go with whichever looks better in context. Ordinal numbers will generally look better spelled out--and sound more like natural speech.

Kyle left for camp on June 23.
Which day should we go, the sixth or the seventh?
Joe-Bob remembered that awful lynching in April 1952.
Who wants to hike on February third?
The ambassador's letter was dated September 9, 2012.

The most important thing is to pick a style and follow it consistently. I'd suggest making an index card with your personal "style guide" and posting near your computer for quick reference.

If anyone knows of a definitive style guide all the major houses use, please me know!

Which of these areas have tripped you up? Would you argue against any of my recommendations? Why?

Have a burning editing question? Feel free to leave it in the comments, and I'll cover it in a future post.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015 Laurel Garver
Dear Editor-on-Call,
Photo credit: diannehope from morguefile.com

My critique group always argues about how you should write time. 5 o'clock or 5:00 pm? And do you have to write out numbers, as in five thousand, or can you go with 5,000 (in fiction?)

Yours truly,
Counting on you


Dear Counting,

Unfortunately, there isn't one hard and fast rule for this. These sorts of decisions are what industry pros call "style." Every publisher has its own style guide dictating its preference for handling things like numbers. No one will expect you to know this information ahead of time--they'll likely just ask for changes during the editing phase if you chose something other than house style. However, if you don't handle numbers consistently, you won't be making fast friends with the editorial department.

For many years, I worked on publications that used Associate Press (AP) style, so I've had that pretty deeply ingrained in how I approach this question. Its style choices will feel more right for some genres than others.

Clock time

AP usually handles time like this-- 4:43 a.m. or 11 p.m. (Note the letters are lower case with periods after each. AM and PM is right out.) If your story is, say, a mystery, thriller or SciFi full of time references, this is the format to go with. It's pithy and official looking.

In most other fiction, I typically see times written out as four o'clock or eight-thirty or half past two. For occasional references, spelled out numbers read more fluidly. The a.m. and p.m. distinction can be handled better through descriptors like morning, afternoon, evening, night.

I'd recommend against combining the two formats. Both "four forty three a.m." and "5:02 o'clock" just look stupid.

Quantities, amounts and ages

AP style says to spell out numbers under ten and use numerals for everything else. I can't think of a single novel that follows that rule. Quantities should be spelled out. Hyphenate a compound number when used as an adjective.

He came in sixth place.
Joyce won fifteen million dollars.
The kidnappers are demanding thirty grand.
I can give you twenty-two reasons to stay home. (note hyphen)
When Kit turned twenty two, she bought an electric bass.
The victim was an eleven-year-old male. (note hyphens)
I haven't been back to Viperville since I was eleven years old.

Dates

Calendar dates are another sticky area you didn't mention. AP handles them like this--May 5, 1999; June 13; Summer 2014. Commas are used only between day and year. Ordinal numbers are a no-no (notice it's NOT June 13th in AP).

I haven't seen any clear preference in fiction for how one handles numbers for the purpose of naming a date. Obviously spelling out the year will be too wordy, so I'd avoid that. As far as using the word or numeral, go with whichever looks better in context. Ordinal numbers will generally look better spelled out--and sound more like natural speech.

Kyle left for camp on June 23.
Which day should we go, the sixth or the seventh?
Joe-Bob remembered that awful lynching in April 1952.
Who wants to hike on February third?
The ambassador's letter was dated September 9, 2012.

The most important thing is to pick a style and follow it consistently. I'd suggest making an index card with your personal "style guide" and posting near your computer for quick reference.

If anyone knows of a definitive style guide all the major houses use, please me know!

Which of these areas have tripped you up? Would you argue against any of my recommendations? Why?

Have a burning editing question? Feel free to leave it in the comments, and I'll cover it in a future post.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Monday night I wrote the words "The End" on a manuscript I have been working on steadily for roughly three years. I should be ecstatic, right?

Instead I'm scratching my head about why it took me so freaking long when other people can draft an entire book in a matter of weeks.

Photo credit: deegolden from morguefile.com
My process is such, however, that my "first draft" is more like a NaNo participant's fourth draft. It's not a mess or full of holes. Though I'm an organic (aka "pantser") rather than planner type, I don't draft fast and sloppy. I meticulously research and interview experts as I draft rather than run amok with some half-baked ideas that don't bear out in reality. I revise as I draft, doing big structural changes to earlier chapters when I find I've written myself into a corner. I also do some editing as I draft because I can't seem to not tinker. And because I let my critique group look at a few chapters at a time, and some of them nitpick more than look at structural issues.

From what I can tell, this latter issue is the linchpin of my process problem. I don't stay consistently motivated generating material only for myself. I have a terrible weakness in wanting feedback while I draft. I really don't know how to break myself of it or if I should.  I see a lot of benefit in others with some emotional distance telling me, "hey, your story took a wrong turn at chapter 4" while I'm only on chapter 7, because I don't have to throw out and redo from scratch as much material.

I'm also not sure if I should abandon my method of "draft-ivizing" as some call it, because many other organic/pantser writers I know also stop when a plot problem appears, go back and fix what needs to be fixed, and only then continue moving forward. Steven James's Story Trumps Structure (one of the only books I've read that works with rather than tries to change pantser process) makes clear that pantsers' creativity doesn't work in a linear manner. If it did, we'd be plotters.

This particular story went places I'd never imagined, especially for what is ostensibly a sequel with mostly existing characters. Because a venue change brought to light new things about them. And some of the plot ideas that excited me most required a lot of research, research that opened up some pretty interesting horizons. I now have a lot more knowledge about HIPAA and hip fractures, personality disorders and protocols for EMTs, military re-enactment and draft policies, aphasia and vericella zoster, anti-vax trends and 60s fashion, chemical properties of artists' oils and French idioms, weasel hunting and Pennsylvania driving laws. It's a weird list, I know. I'm not sure what the NSA would make of my Googling habits.

I suspect one of these days, I'll end up writing historical fiction, because I really grooved on all the research. Writing what you know is boring. Writing what you want to know is where it's at. Learning and discovery fuel my creativity. But I suspect I would have just as much fun with my research if I were doing it more methodically, during set periods, instead of chasing down facts as needed.

I know how you readers come to me expecting tips, but we're all learners here, folks. The best I can give you is some of my lessons learned and questions I'm grappling with that I hope will enable me to be progressively more productive with future projects.

  • Be willing to let go of preconceived ideas about existing characters. Otherwise, they rebel.
  • Be willing to live with ambiguity and notes to yourself so that you can do batches of research at one time rather than constantly stop to look things up.
  • Be willing to change your process if it isn't getting you where you want to be
  • Consider whether your desire to tinker with a scene is helping your imagination open more or if it's just holding back your forward motion.
  • Consider when you seek feedback. Would other eyes sooner help or hurt your forward motion? Perhaps there are other ways to gain accountability and encouragement besides critiques on an incomplete project. 

What parts of your writing process do you want to change? 
Wednesday, November 04, 2015 Laurel Garver
Monday night I wrote the words "The End" on a manuscript I have been working on steadily for roughly three years. I should be ecstatic, right?

Instead I'm scratching my head about why it took me so freaking long when other people can draft an entire book in a matter of weeks.

Photo credit: deegolden from morguefile.com
My process is such, however, that my "first draft" is more like a NaNo participant's fourth draft. It's not a mess or full of holes. Though I'm an organic (aka "pantser") rather than planner type, I don't draft fast and sloppy. I meticulously research and interview experts as I draft rather than run amok with some half-baked ideas that don't bear out in reality. I revise as I draft, doing big structural changes to earlier chapters when I find I've written myself into a corner. I also do some editing as I draft because I can't seem to not tinker. And because I let my critique group look at a few chapters at a time, and some of them nitpick more than look at structural issues.

From what I can tell, this latter issue is the linchpin of my process problem. I don't stay consistently motivated generating material only for myself. I have a terrible weakness in wanting feedback while I draft. I really don't know how to break myself of it or if I should.  I see a lot of benefit in others with some emotional distance telling me, "hey, your story took a wrong turn at chapter 4" while I'm only on chapter 7, because I don't have to throw out and redo from scratch as much material.

I'm also not sure if I should abandon my method of "draft-ivizing" as some call it, because many other organic/pantser writers I know also stop when a plot problem appears, go back and fix what needs to be fixed, and only then continue moving forward. Steven James's Story Trumps Structure (one of the only books I've read that works with rather than tries to change pantser process) makes clear that pantsers' creativity doesn't work in a linear manner. If it did, we'd be plotters.

This particular story went places I'd never imagined, especially for what is ostensibly a sequel with mostly existing characters. Because a venue change brought to light new things about them. And some of the plot ideas that excited me most required a lot of research, research that opened up some pretty interesting horizons. I now have a lot more knowledge about HIPAA and hip fractures, personality disorders and protocols for EMTs, military re-enactment and draft policies, aphasia and vericella zoster, anti-vax trends and 60s fashion, chemical properties of artists' oils and French idioms, weasel hunting and Pennsylvania driving laws. It's a weird list, I know. I'm not sure what the NSA would make of my Googling habits.

I suspect one of these days, I'll end up writing historical fiction, because I really grooved on all the research. Writing what you know is boring. Writing what you want to know is where it's at. Learning and discovery fuel my creativity. But I suspect I would have just as much fun with my research if I were doing it more methodically, during set periods, instead of chasing down facts as needed.

I know how you readers come to me expecting tips, but we're all learners here, folks. The best I can give you is some of my lessons learned and questions I'm grappling with that I hope will enable me to be progressively more productive with future projects.

  • Be willing to let go of preconceived ideas about existing characters. Otherwise, they rebel.
  • Be willing to live with ambiguity and notes to yourself so that you can do batches of research at one time rather than constantly stop to look things up.
  • Be willing to change your process if it isn't getting you where you want to be
  • Consider whether your desire to tinker with a scene is helping your imagination open more or if it's just holding back your forward motion.
  • Consider when you seek feedback. Would other eyes sooner help or hurt your forward motion? Perhaps there are other ways to gain accountability and encouragement besides critiques on an incomplete project. 

What parts of your writing process do you want to change? 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

image by http://wallpaper222.com/
William Shakespeare is considered a key transforming force in the English language. There are hundreds of words and phrases, particularly colorful idioms, he is believed to have coined. While scholars may squabble over which terms he invented and which ones were simply the slang of his day that he recorded for the first time, there's no doubt that his plays have hugely influenced our language.

Ask a teen to read Shakespeare, and they'll say his work is full of cliches, mostly because terms he first penned continue to be used so widely today. "Break the ice," "fancy-free," "in a pickle," "live long day," "neither rhyme nor reason," "night owl," "play fast and loose," "primrose path,"  "seen better days," "set my teeth on edge," "tongue-tied" are but a small sample of idioms we now use every day thanks to Shakespeare. (A comprehensive list is available here.)

But there are a number of his famous idioms that linger in our language with meanings and spellings that aren't particularly obvious in 2015, because they include archaic words one never hears outside these Shakespearean phrases. With each term, I give  the "eggcorn" version, a misheard or misunderstood incorrect variation. (For more on eggcorns, see The Eggcorn Database.) I also explain the phrase's meaning, giving special attention to the odd word you are likely to misspell.

bated breath (eggcorn: baited breath)
To hold one's breath in anticipation. Bated is a form of abate, to diminish or reduce.

much ado about nothing (eggcorn: much adieu)
Fuss, overreaction to something unimportant.

one fell swoop (eggcorn: one foul swoop)
Quickly arriving doom. Fell is an archaic term meaning deadly. The image is of a bird of prey attacking.

short shrift (eggcorn: short shift)
To make quick work of something or have little regard for it. Shrift is an archaic term that comes from shrive, to serve penance. The image is of being given an easy task to atone for sin, like reciting the Lord's Prayer once.

shuffle off this mortal coil (eggcorn: mortal toil)
To die.  Coil/coyle in this era meant trouble, strife. The image is of drifting away from the struggles of life.

Other archaic idioms you might be misspelling

Shakespeare was neither the first nor the last to give us lasting idioms that include archaic words. Here are some others to be aware of, some first appearing as early as Chaucer (1343-1400), some only a century and a half ago.

damp squib (eggcorn version damp squid)
Something that flops or fails to work as expected. Literally, a dud firework because it got wet.

derring do (eggcorn: daring do)
Heroic daring.
Possibly coined by Chaucer. More on origins here

high dudgeon (eggcorn: high dungeon)
Resentment.
Might come from Welsh, or might derive from the term for a knife handle first recorded decades before Shakespeare's plays. More on origins here.

on tenterhooks (eggcorn: on tenderhooks)
In suspense. The image is of woolen cloth stretched on a special rack (tenter) after washing to prevent shrinkage.

vale of tears (eggcorn: veil of tears)
Deep suffering. Vale is a derivative of valley.

Which of these idioms have plagued you most? Do you try to coin idioms in your work? Any favorite Shakespeare quote you'd like to share? 
Wednesday, October 28, 2015 Laurel Garver
image by http://wallpaper222.com/
William Shakespeare is considered a key transforming force in the English language. There are hundreds of words and phrases, particularly colorful idioms, he is believed to have coined. While scholars may squabble over which terms he invented and which ones were simply the slang of his day that he recorded for the first time, there's no doubt that his plays have hugely influenced our language.

Ask a teen to read Shakespeare, and they'll say his work is full of cliches, mostly because terms he first penned continue to be used so widely today. "Break the ice," "fancy-free," "in a pickle," "live long day," "neither rhyme nor reason," "night owl," "play fast and loose," "primrose path,"  "seen better days," "set my teeth on edge," "tongue-tied" are but a small sample of idioms we now use every day thanks to Shakespeare. (A comprehensive list is available here.)

But there are a number of his famous idioms that linger in our language with meanings and spellings that aren't particularly obvious in 2015, because they include archaic words one never hears outside these Shakespearean phrases. With each term, I give  the "eggcorn" version, a misheard or misunderstood incorrect variation. (For more on eggcorns, see The Eggcorn Database.) I also explain the phrase's meaning, giving special attention to the odd word you are likely to misspell.

bated breath (eggcorn: baited breath)
To hold one's breath in anticipation. Bated is a form of abate, to diminish or reduce.

much ado about nothing (eggcorn: much adieu)
Fuss, overreaction to something unimportant.

one fell swoop (eggcorn: one foul swoop)
Quickly arriving doom. Fell is an archaic term meaning deadly. The image is of a bird of prey attacking.

short shrift (eggcorn: short shift)
To make quick work of something or have little regard for it. Shrift is an archaic term that comes from shrive, to serve penance. The image is of being given an easy task to atone for sin, like reciting the Lord's Prayer once.

shuffle off this mortal coil (eggcorn: mortal toil)
To die.  Coil/coyle in this era meant trouble, strife. The image is of drifting away from the struggles of life.

Other archaic idioms you might be misspelling

Shakespeare was neither the first nor the last to give us lasting idioms that include archaic words. Here are some others to be aware of, some first appearing as early as Chaucer (1343-1400), some only a century and a half ago.

damp squib (eggcorn version damp squid)
Something that flops or fails to work as expected. Literally, a dud firework because it got wet.

derring do (eggcorn: daring do)
Heroic daring.
Possibly coined by Chaucer. More on origins here

high dudgeon (eggcorn: high dungeon)
Resentment.
Might come from Welsh, or might derive from the term for a knife handle first recorded decades before Shakespeare's plays. More on origins here.

on tenterhooks (eggcorn: on tenderhooks)
In suspense. The image is of woolen cloth stretched on a special rack (tenter) after washing to prevent shrinkage.

vale of tears (eggcorn: veil of tears)
Deep suffering. Vale is a derivative of valley.

Which of these idioms have plagued you most? Do you try to coin idioms in your work? Any favorite Shakespeare quote you'd like to share? 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Photo credit: JulesInKY from morguefile.com
I have a somewhat embarrassing habit when it comes to using Goodreads. I really love to read negative reviews of books that are extremely popular. At first I focused on classics, because their haters are quite hilarious. Then I began branching out to books others raved about that just didn't do it for me. It was gratifying to hear others describe problem after problem.

It's also a bit small minded to be wasting time hunting for another dose of schadenfreude. So I've been looking for ways to reform this vice into something more constructive.

One thing that's pretty clear--you can learn quite a lot about what story elements drive readers batty by listening to their harsher critiques. Some comments will, of course, tell you a lot more about an individual reviewer's biases and hobby horses than about general reader expectations, but others can be quite educational. If you write genre fiction, it can be especially helpful to know what elements readers are sick to death of, or feel cheated if they aren't there.

Here are some writing tips I've gleaned from insightful "mean" readers of popular young adult books:

Characterization no-nos

Protagonist who is


  • Whiny 
  • Self-serving
  • Mean-spirited
  • Indecisive and dithering
  • Thoughtless
  • Foolhardy
  • Bland
  • Flawless
  • Skilled only at being attractive
  • Instantly in love after one smoldering glance
  • Unchanged by the story events

Sidekick who is


  • Only comic relief
  • Hateful
  • Jealous
  • Clone of protagonist
  • An ethnic or racial "type"
  • Deeply stupid
  • Foolhardy
  • Disloyal

Love interest who is


  • Instantly in love after one smoldering glance
  • Narcissistic
  • Abusive
  • Stalker-ish
  • Controlling
  • Prone to jealous rages
  • Boring
  • Too dependent
  • Lacking personal goals
  • Lacking outside interests
  • Flawless
  • Constantly pursued by rivals

Other hated character tropes


  • Cheerleader mean girls
  • Athlete bullies
  • Self-absorbed, uninvolved or dead parents
  • Love triangles with bland, flat love interests
  • Romance based only on physical attraction


Plot no-nos


  • Pacing that drags
  • Pacing that races
  • Abruptly dropped subplots
  • Actions aren't motivated
  • Actions aren't realistic
  • Episodic plots
  • Repetitious actions
  • Melodramatic responses


World building no-nos


  • Bland small towns with no character
  • Cookie-cutter suburban settings with no diversity
  • Unrealistic, movie-set settings
  • No clear origins for a society
  • No sense of how society is organized
  • Unclear social strata 
  • Unclear economic system
  • Unclear food sources
  • No one seems to do essential jobs
  • Unexplained divisions among groups
  • Lack of age diversity

Look at another genre, you'd likely gather a different list. But there's no doubt that you can learn a lot about reader expectation by taking a gander at some less than glowing reviews. Just resist the urge to gloat. Instead, use the information to grow.

 What writerly foibles drive you batty? Have you even gleaned writing lessons from online reviews?
Wednesday, October 21, 2015 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: JulesInKY from morguefile.com
I have a somewhat embarrassing habit when it comes to using Goodreads. I really love to read negative reviews of books that are extremely popular. At first I focused on classics, because their haters are quite hilarious. Then I began branching out to books others raved about that just didn't do it for me. It was gratifying to hear others describe problem after problem.

It's also a bit small minded to be wasting time hunting for another dose of schadenfreude. So I've been looking for ways to reform this vice into something more constructive.

One thing that's pretty clear--you can learn quite a lot about what story elements drive readers batty by listening to their harsher critiques. Some comments will, of course, tell you a lot more about an individual reviewer's biases and hobby horses than about general reader expectations, but others can be quite educational. If you write genre fiction, it can be especially helpful to know what elements readers are sick to death of, or feel cheated if they aren't there.

Here are some writing tips I've gleaned from insightful "mean" readers of popular young adult books:

Characterization no-nos

Protagonist who is


  • Whiny 
  • Self-serving
  • Mean-spirited
  • Indecisive and dithering
  • Thoughtless
  • Foolhardy
  • Bland
  • Flawless
  • Skilled only at being attractive
  • Instantly in love after one smoldering glance
  • Unchanged by the story events

Sidekick who is


  • Only comic relief
  • Hateful
  • Jealous
  • Clone of protagonist
  • An ethnic or racial "type"
  • Deeply stupid
  • Foolhardy
  • Disloyal

Love interest who is


  • Instantly in love after one smoldering glance
  • Narcissistic
  • Abusive
  • Stalker-ish
  • Controlling
  • Prone to jealous rages
  • Boring
  • Too dependent
  • Lacking personal goals
  • Lacking outside interests
  • Flawless
  • Constantly pursued by rivals

Other hated character tropes


  • Cheerleader mean girls
  • Athlete bullies
  • Self-absorbed, uninvolved or dead parents
  • Love triangles with bland, flat love interests
  • Romance based only on physical attraction


Plot no-nos


  • Pacing that drags
  • Pacing that races
  • Abruptly dropped subplots
  • Actions aren't motivated
  • Actions aren't realistic
  • Episodic plots
  • Repetitious actions
  • Melodramatic responses


World building no-nos


  • Bland small towns with no character
  • Cookie-cutter suburban settings with no diversity
  • Unrealistic, movie-set settings
  • No clear origins for a society
  • No sense of how society is organized
  • Unclear social strata 
  • Unclear economic system
  • Unclear food sources
  • No one seems to do essential jobs
  • Unexplained divisions among groups
  • Lack of age diversity

Look at another genre, you'd likely gather a different list. But there's no doubt that you can learn a lot about reader expectation by taking a gander at some less than glowing reviews. Just resist the urge to gloat. Instead, use the information to grow.

 What writerly foibles drive you batty? Have you even gleaned writing lessons from online reviews?

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Denouement can involve untangling and weaving
(photo by 
DodgertonSkillhause from morguefile.com)

I'm in currently in the midst of drafting the final chapter of my WIP, that this, the denouement section. I have the scenes roughed out, but my concern is how to handle weaving the threads without the chapter feeling like a series of info. dumps.

I realize that by nature, denouements have an info-dump-ish quality built in. Here are some of the ways the term is defined:

Oxford dictionaries:
The final part of a play, film, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.

Brian Klems at The Writer's Dig
The denouement is the final outcome of the story, generally occurring after the climax of the plot. Often it’s where all the secrets (if there are any) are revealed and loose ends are tied up.

Merriam-Webster Word Central (the online kids' dictionary)
the final solution or untangling of the conflicts or difficulties that make up the plot of a literary work

The word's etymology is from the French, meaning "the untying." That term makes me think especially of mysteries, when the sleuth reveals how all the various plot elements you'd just read actually worked together, and s/he clears away all the false assumptions and red herrings to reveal just "whodunit" or perhaps, why the terrible crime happened. In many of the classic texts, like those of Agatha Christie, the sleuth monologues for pages, with occasional interruptions from his/her captive audience.

My fear is that some of these scenes could end up feeling like that. At the moment, I don't have tips, just questions for you:

How do you avoid info dumps in your final scenes? What books model well how to bring multiple threads to a satisfying conclusion without dragging or feeling too tell-heavy?


Wednesday, October 07, 2015 Laurel Garver
Denouement can involve untangling and weaving
(photo by 
DodgertonSkillhause from morguefile.com)

I'm in currently in the midst of drafting the final chapter of my WIP, that this, the denouement section. I have the scenes roughed out, but my concern is how to handle weaving the threads without the chapter feeling like a series of info. dumps.

I realize that by nature, denouements have an info-dump-ish quality built in. Here are some of the ways the term is defined:

Oxford dictionaries:
The final part of a play, film, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.

Brian Klems at The Writer's Dig
The denouement is the final outcome of the story, generally occurring after the climax of the plot. Often it’s where all the secrets (if there are any) are revealed and loose ends are tied up.

Merriam-Webster Word Central (the online kids' dictionary)
the final solution or untangling of the conflicts or difficulties that make up the plot of a literary work

The word's etymology is from the French, meaning "the untying." That term makes me think especially of mysteries, when the sleuth reveals how all the various plot elements you'd just read actually worked together, and s/he clears away all the false assumptions and red herrings to reveal just "whodunit" or perhaps, why the terrible crime happened. In many of the classic texts, like those of Agatha Christie, the sleuth monologues for pages, with occasional interruptions from his/her captive audience.

My fear is that some of these scenes could end up feeling like that. At the moment, I don't have tips, just questions for you:

How do you avoid info dumps in your final scenes? What books model well how to bring multiple threads to a satisfying conclusion without dragging or feeling too tell-heavy?


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The other day, a well-meaning writer on Twitter tweeted, "I've found that if the story isn't easy to write, it's because you're telling the wrong one."

Once in a while, that might be true--some stories do practically write themselves in a blaze of white-hot inspiration. But most writers I know don't have that experience every time, only once a career, or sadly, on and off as they get in the grips of a bipolar mania.

Image source: www.metrolic.com
I think the myth that easy = right is a creatively crippling one that will lead you to make bad decisions about what stories to write.

When I was younger and as naive as they come, writing came very easily. And those easy-to-write stories were pretty terrible, cliche filled, amateurish homages to other books and films. More than anything, my easy stories didn't require me to stretch or grow. I wrote what I knew, and at 12 and 13, I didn't know much.

Having the expectations that the only good ideas are the easy ideas goes against everything we know about creativity and invention. The good ideas are ones like the light bulb, that went through over a hundred prototypes until Edison got one that actually worked well. If every inventor who ever hit a hitch immediately dropped the idea because hard = wrong, we wouldn't have cars or computers or yes, even light bulbs.

There are a number of reasons a story might not be easy to tell that don't make it "the wrong one." The best ideas take more than a momentary zap of inspiration. They take time and energy, prototypes that fail, revision, more prototypes, outside input, encouragement, yet more prototypes, testing, more revision, until the brilliant final product emerges.

Expecting ease means bypassing craft, because craft always involves a learning curve. Learning curves are not easy. They kind of suck. They make you feel like everything you do is wrong, until one day you're over the curve. And then you realize that the hardness and the suckiness were just what you needed. The slog made you stronger and wiser. Your ideas got better because you didn't settle for easy.

Here are some signs you might indeed be telling the wrong story:
~You heard this genre was hot, even though you never read it.
~You're following the usual tropes of a genre for lack of better ideas.
~You're trying to write a genre because you think it will make you look smart, cool, or sexy.
~You love reading a sci fi/fantasy/historical but don't enjoy world building.
~Your characters seem to rebel against every plot decision.
~You've had absolutely no moments of fun and enthusiasm while writing.


Here are some reasons that the right story might be hard to write
~You have to dig deep emotionally, and it's scary.
~You'll have to take a side on a divisive issue, and fear you'll offend people or lose friends.
~You fear being judged for your genre choice.
~This story is unlike anything you've ever written and you fear you'll lose fans.
~The amount of research needed will take years or involve expensive.
~You'll need to talk to experts to get accurate information, and you're super shy.
~Your research will require talking to victims and you worry about the emotional toll on them and on you.
~Writing multiple points of view is something you've never done before.
~You're scared people will think this story is too weird.
~You worry that your take on a hot-button issue will thrust you into the limelight, and that kind of attention is way too scary.

And finally, here are some signs that your "wrong" story is salvageable, and possible remedies

I was having fun for a while, but can't seem to fix plot holes
~Set aside the manuscript for a few weeks or months
~Get beta readers to help you
~Research more aspects of the plot or setting to get better ideas

A secondary character keeps stealing the spotlight
~Reassign the role of protagonist
~Shift the narration style ala The Great Gatsby, so your former protagonist is a narrator
~Write in alternating points of view so both character 1 and 2 can speak

My story feels too much like an homage to my favorite author
~Try a change of milieu, setting it in a radically different time or place. (For more, see THIS post).
~Try reassigning roles in your cast, so the kinds of people who are your mentor author's villains are your heroes.
~Experiment with point of view. If your mentor author writes first person for example, try third
~Experiment with timeline narration. If your mentor author writes linear stories, try multiple time streams, unfolding the story from the past to the future and from the future to the past, meeting at a crisis moment.
~Mix elements of other genres into your story, such as literary, mystery, romance, or comedy

I'm bored with this story
~Research aspects of plot or setting to get more exciting ideas
~Assess who in the cast is dragging down the story's movement and give them a makeover, or the boot
~Ask beta readers to pinpoint where in the story their interest lags, and cut or revamp those scenes
~Revise for pacing, removing as much stage business as possible and tightening up the dialogue. (See Janice Hardy's pacing posts for more ideas)
~Look for opportunities to raise the stakes or add complications

What do you think friends? Do you believe the mythos of easy = right, hard = wrong? Why or why not?
Wednesday, September 30, 2015 Laurel Garver
The other day, a well-meaning writer on Twitter tweeted, "I've found that if the story isn't easy to write, it's because you're telling the wrong one."

Once in a while, that might be true--some stories do practically write themselves in a blaze of white-hot inspiration. But most writers I know don't have that experience every time, only once a career, or sadly, on and off as they get in the grips of a bipolar mania.

Image source: www.metrolic.com
I think the myth that easy = right is a creatively crippling one that will lead you to make bad decisions about what stories to write.

When I was younger and as naive as they come, writing came very easily. And those easy-to-write stories were pretty terrible, cliche filled, amateurish homages to other books and films. More than anything, my easy stories didn't require me to stretch or grow. I wrote what I knew, and at 12 and 13, I didn't know much.

Having the expectations that the only good ideas are the easy ideas goes against everything we know about creativity and invention. The good ideas are ones like the light bulb, that went through over a hundred prototypes until Edison got one that actually worked well. If every inventor who ever hit a hitch immediately dropped the idea because hard = wrong, we wouldn't have cars or computers or yes, even light bulbs.

There are a number of reasons a story might not be easy to tell that don't make it "the wrong one." The best ideas take more than a momentary zap of inspiration. They take time and energy, prototypes that fail, revision, more prototypes, outside input, encouragement, yet more prototypes, testing, more revision, until the brilliant final product emerges.

Expecting ease means bypassing craft, because craft always involves a learning curve. Learning curves are not easy. They kind of suck. They make you feel like everything you do is wrong, until one day you're over the curve. And then you realize that the hardness and the suckiness were just what you needed. The slog made you stronger and wiser. Your ideas got better because you didn't settle for easy.

Here are some signs you might indeed be telling the wrong story:
~You heard this genre was hot, even though you never read it.
~You're following the usual tropes of a genre for lack of better ideas.
~You're trying to write a genre because you think it will make you look smart, cool, or sexy.
~You love reading a sci fi/fantasy/historical but don't enjoy world building.
~Your characters seem to rebel against every plot decision.
~You've had absolutely no moments of fun and enthusiasm while writing.


Here are some reasons that the right story might be hard to write
~You have to dig deep emotionally, and it's scary.
~You'll have to take a side on a divisive issue, and fear you'll offend people or lose friends.
~You fear being judged for your genre choice.
~This story is unlike anything you've ever written and you fear you'll lose fans.
~The amount of research needed will take years or involve expensive.
~You'll need to talk to experts to get accurate information, and you're super shy.
~Your research will require talking to victims and you worry about the emotional toll on them and on you.
~Writing multiple points of view is something you've never done before.
~You're scared people will think this story is too weird.
~You worry that your take on a hot-button issue will thrust you into the limelight, and that kind of attention is way too scary.

And finally, here are some signs that your "wrong" story is salvageable, and possible remedies

I was having fun for a while, but can't seem to fix plot holes
~Set aside the manuscript for a few weeks or months
~Get beta readers to help you
~Research more aspects of the plot or setting to get better ideas

A secondary character keeps stealing the spotlight
~Reassign the role of protagonist
~Shift the narration style ala The Great Gatsby, so your former protagonist is a narrator
~Write in alternating points of view so both character 1 and 2 can speak

My story feels too much like an homage to my favorite author
~Try a change of milieu, setting it in a radically different time or place. (For more, see THIS post).
~Try reassigning roles in your cast, so the kinds of people who are your mentor author's villains are your heroes.
~Experiment with point of view. If your mentor author writes first person for example, try third
~Experiment with timeline narration. If your mentor author writes linear stories, try multiple time streams, unfolding the story from the past to the future and from the future to the past, meeting at a crisis moment.
~Mix elements of other genres into your story, such as literary, mystery, romance, or comedy

I'm bored with this story
~Research aspects of plot or setting to get more exciting ideas
~Assess who in the cast is dragging down the story's movement and give them a makeover, or the boot
~Ask beta readers to pinpoint where in the story their interest lags, and cut or revamp those scenes
~Revise for pacing, removing as much stage business as possible and tightening up the dialogue. (See Janice Hardy's pacing posts for more ideas)
~Look for opportunities to raise the stakes or add complications

What do you think friends? Do you believe the mythos of easy = right, hard = wrong? Why or why not?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


I'm a verbal/auditory thinker. My stories usually begin with a character talking to me. I actually get pretty confused by assembly instructions from Ikea that are nothing but images. I NEED words to understand the world. So it was a real eye-opener when my last post, with seasonal writing prompts, garnered this comment: "I find I 'freeze' when given a written prompt. But visual prompts...get me writing."

She's not alone there. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series was born from a single image: "a scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who did not know he was a wizard" (wikipedia). In a guest post here, Michelle Davidson Argyle mentioned that her novel Out of Tune began with the the simple image of "a girl and a guitar."

So today's post if for you visual thinkers. I've gathered some nonverbal prompts to stir your imagination.




Photo credit: BBoomerinDenial from morguefile.com


Photo credit: clarita from morguefile.com


Photo credit: EnriqueRodriguezSantamaria from morguefile.com


Photo credit: taliesin from morguefile.com


Photo credit: phaewilk from morguefile.com


Photo credit: krosseel from morguefile.com


Photo credit: jamsheed from morguefile.com


Photo credit: gracey from morguefile.com


Photo credit: kconnors from morguefile.com


Photo credit: wintersixfour from morguefile.com


Photo credit: JANYLEE from morguefile.com


Photo credit: nasirkhan from morguefile.com


Photo credit: kconnors from morguefile.com


Photo credit: clarita from morguefile.com

Have your stories started with an image, a phrase, a voice, or a premise? Which of these images is most evocative for you?
Wednesday, September 23, 2015 Laurel Garver

I'm a verbal/auditory thinker. My stories usually begin with a character talking to me. I actually get pretty confused by assembly instructions from Ikea that are nothing but images. I NEED words to understand the world. So it was a real eye-opener when my last post, with seasonal writing prompts, garnered this comment: "I find I 'freeze' when given a written prompt. But visual prompts...get me writing."

She's not alone there. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series was born from a single image: "a scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who did not know he was a wizard" (wikipedia). In a guest post here, Michelle Davidson Argyle mentioned that her novel Out of Tune began with the the simple image of "a girl and a guitar."

So today's post if for you visual thinkers. I've gathered some nonverbal prompts to stir your imagination.




Photo credit: BBoomerinDenial from morguefile.com


Photo credit: clarita from morguefile.com


Photo credit: EnriqueRodriguezSantamaria from morguefile.com


Photo credit: taliesin from morguefile.com


Photo credit: phaewilk from morguefile.com


Photo credit: krosseel from morguefile.com


Photo credit: jamsheed from morguefile.com


Photo credit: gracey from morguefile.com


Photo credit: kconnors from morguefile.com


Photo credit: wintersixfour from morguefile.com


Photo credit: JANYLEE from morguefile.com


Photo credit: nasirkhan from morguefile.com


Photo credit: kconnors from morguefile.com


Photo credit: clarita from morguefile.com

Have your stories started with an image, a phrase, a voice, or a premise? Which of these images is most evocative for you?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Photo credit: ali110 from morguefile.com
In this post, I discussed using warm-ups as a means to break through your initial reluctance to start a writing session.

Sometimes seasonal prompts can be helpful in your routine, to get you paying attention to your immediate environment and the sensory experiences you can collect. It can also get you thinking about story potential in everyday events. Consider how to spin theses prompts for different genres or milieus. "My earliest school memory," for example, could be memoir, historical or sci fi. Some could be humor or horror, or dark comedy, a mix of both.


I know summer is over when...

My idea of a perfect fall day is...

It must be September (October, November) because...

What a retiree to Florida misses about autumn up north.

Smells I associate with autumn.

Fall foods I have been craving for months.

How my protagonist's neighborhood changes in fall.

After dropping their youngest at college, parents return to their empty house and...

The foreign exchange program has a mix up and sends your character to...

A college freshman struggling with homesickness misses...

Three enemies are forced to create a group presentation for a class.

My earliest school memory.

What my protagonist likes most and least about autumn.

If I were at Hogwarts, what classes would I take?

A new teacher faces the third grade from hell.

Kids collecting leaves for science class discover something in the woods.

Back-to-school night goes horribly wrong.

A struggling cross-country runner finds a pair of magical shoes and...

What clubs did or would my protagonist join in high school?

The soccer moms go to war because...

How I discovered the head cheerleader is actually a witch.

Why squirrels are really collecting all those nuts and berries.

Photo credit: Schick from morguefile.com 
A Halloween prank takes an unexpected turn.

A football fan discovers his/her magical power during a game.

What happens in the corn maze stays in the corn maze.

A booking mix-up switches the acts for the Fall Family Jamboree and Slasherfest

Something strange appears in the wood pile.

How the marching band saved homecoming.

The newest guy on the football team turns out to be a girl in disguise.

A cider tasting goes horribly wrong when...

Thieves execute an elaborate heist in an elite neighborhood on Halloween.

A soccer team bus is hijacked.

A recent arrival on the frontier has two months to prepare for winter.

How the pumpkin festival was saved.

A horror film extra gets lost in Amish country.

Leaf color changes in autumn are actually...

Which prompts appeal to you? What's your favorite thing about autumn?
Wednesday, September 16, 2015 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: ali110 from morguefile.com
In this post, I discussed using warm-ups as a means to break through your initial reluctance to start a writing session.

Sometimes seasonal prompts can be helpful in your routine, to get you paying attention to your immediate environment and the sensory experiences you can collect. It can also get you thinking about story potential in everyday events. Consider how to spin theses prompts for different genres or milieus. "My earliest school memory," for example, could be memoir, historical or sci fi. Some could be humor or horror, or dark comedy, a mix of both.


I know summer is over when...

My idea of a perfect fall day is...

It must be September (October, November) because...

What a retiree to Florida misses about autumn up north.

Smells I associate with autumn.

Fall foods I have been craving for months.

How my protagonist's neighborhood changes in fall.

After dropping their youngest at college, parents return to their empty house and...

The foreign exchange program has a mix up and sends your character to...

A college freshman struggling with homesickness misses...

Three enemies are forced to create a group presentation for a class.

My earliest school memory.

What my protagonist likes most and least about autumn.

If I were at Hogwarts, what classes would I take?

A new teacher faces the third grade from hell.

Kids collecting leaves for science class discover something in the woods.

Back-to-school night goes horribly wrong.

A struggling cross-country runner finds a pair of magical shoes and...

What clubs did or would my protagonist join in high school?

The soccer moms go to war because...

How I discovered the head cheerleader is actually a witch.

Why squirrels are really collecting all those nuts and berries.

Photo credit: Schick from morguefile.com 
A Halloween prank takes an unexpected turn.

A football fan discovers his/her magical power during a game.

What happens in the corn maze stays in the corn maze.

A booking mix-up switches the acts for the Fall Family Jamboree and Slasherfest

Something strange appears in the wood pile.

How the marching band saved homecoming.

The newest guy on the football team turns out to be a girl in disguise.

A cider tasting goes horribly wrong when...

Thieves execute an elaborate heist in an elite neighborhood on Halloween.

A soccer team bus is hijacked.

A recent arrival on the frontier has two months to prepare for winter.

How the pumpkin festival was saved.

A horror film extra gets lost in Amish country.

Leaf color changes in autumn are actually...

Which prompts appeal to you? What's your favorite thing about autumn?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Photo credit: Prawny from morguefile.com 
Last year, a handful of authors began an initiative called "We Need Diverse Books" to raise awareness about  the lack diversity in traditionally published children's books. Librarians and educators have joined them. In their mission statement, they clarify what they mean by diverse:

We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.
*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization. 
(Source: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/mission-statement/)

Whether or not you agree with their assertion that the types of people listed above are underrepresented, and whether or not you like their language for describing the issue, the group certainly has statistics on their side, at least when it comes to kidlit. And you don't have to look far in our world to see the problems created when various groups misunderstand and mistrust one another. Literature can be a bridge for building cross-cultural understanding and empathy.

Perhaps you don't write kidlit. But do you write nothing but characters who resemble you in most ways? If so, it might be time to rethink that.

It's true that some communities are fairly ethnically homogeneous. But even they will naturally contain some of the  groups mentioned above. (I'd note WNDB doesn't discuss the ageist bias against elderly characters).

So how does one go about building fictional worlds that aren't Mayberry or Stepford?

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Learn what the stereotypes are

It can be easy to think we're successfully diversifying our casts by including a brainy Asian best friend or a wise wheelchair-bound mentor. But both of these characterizations are based on standing stereotypes about these groups--that Asians are naturally top scholars and that disability brings magical powers of wisdom or observation. Stereotypes can be hard to identify in our own thinking because they are ingrained expectations and ways of interpreting situations that are constantly reinforced by majority culture. They are the "beam in your own eye" that prevent you from seeing correctly (to quote from Matt 7:3).

A good place to start educating yourself is the TV Tropes "Magical Minority Person" page, which describes numerous stereotyped depictions of diverse characters often shunted into supporting roles.

Read diverse books

You very well may have to go outside your genre to find work by authors of other ethnicities, or at least to bookshops outside your neighborhood.

Listen to the cadence of books translated from other languages. Look for diverse thematic concerns. What values are rewarded and vices punished in communities unlike your own?

Expand your study

Do you find yourself drawn to particular cultures and subcultures? Read all you can about them, and seek out all their modes of creative expression. Learn all you can about historical shaping forces and how those play into a culture's self-concept and dreams for tomorrow.

Think about how what you learned could press against or defy certain stereotypes about that group. Consider what traits might marginalize a person even in that minority, and what traits would mark him/her a "winner" or leader.

Listen and ask

If you're able to get to know individuals that belong to the minority group you'd like to depict, be genuine and vulnerable. Don't treat them like lab specimens. Ask them questions you would any friend you'd want to know more deeply and be equally willing to share your own stories.

Where did you grow up? What was that like?
What did you love and hate most about your childhood?
What do you like to do for fun as a kid?
What careers did you aspire to?
Who were your heroes?
How did you fit in or stand out in your family, school, neighborhood?
What "borders" have you had to cross in your life? What has that been like?
What bugs you about mainstream media portrayals of your neighborhood?
What do you wish outsiders knew about your community?

If you develop a character based on your friend's stories, let the friend beta read before you finalize your manuscript, to ensure your depiction isn't off base.

Encamp

It's difficult to do another culture justice until you've inhabited it yourself. There's only so much that reading books, watching movies, listening to music, and even interviewing can provide. If you find you want to take the big leap and write a protagonist from a group to which you don't belong (versus a supporting character), it may be necessary to live for a time among that group. Actually walking through a neighborhood, learning its smells and flavors, feeling your heart thump at its dangers or soar at its delights--those experiences will give you the most realistic details to use in your work. Otherwise, you're likely to resort to stereotype and trope.

The people you meet and observe day after day will provide the best characterization details, the most accurate lingo for dialogue, and the most compelling backstories. Just be sure to create composites of several real people, or disguise them by changing key details (age, gender, appearance).

Have you written characters outside the cultural groups to which you belong? What tips would you add?
Wednesday, September 09, 2015 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: Prawny from morguefile.com 
Last year, a handful of authors began an initiative called "We Need Diverse Books" to raise awareness about  the lack diversity in traditionally published children's books. Librarians and educators have joined them. In their mission statement, they clarify what they mean by diverse:

We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.
*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization. 
(Source: http://weneeddiversebooks.org/mission-statement/)

Whether or not you agree with their assertion that the types of people listed above are underrepresented, and whether or not you like their language for describing the issue, the group certainly has statistics on their side, at least when it comes to kidlit. And you don't have to look far in our world to see the problems created when various groups misunderstand and mistrust one another. Literature can be a bridge for building cross-cultural understanding and empathy.

Perhaps you don't write kidlit. But do you write nothing but characters who resemble you in most ways? If so, it might be time to rethink that.

It's true that some communities are fairly ethnically homogeneous. But even they will naturally contain some of the  groups mentioned above. (I'd note WNDB doesn't discuss the ageist bias against elderly characters).

So how does one go about building fictional worlds that aren't Mayberry or Stepford?

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Learn what the stereotypes are

It can be easy to think we're successfully diversifying our casts by including a brainy Asian best friend or a wise wheelchair-bound mentor. But both of these characterizations are based on standing stereotypes about these groups--that Asians are naturally top scholars and that disability brings magical powers of wisdom or observation. Stereotypes can be hard to identify in our own thinking because they are ingrained expectations and ways of interpreting situations that are constantly reinforced by majority culture. They are the "beam in your own eye" that prevent you from seeing correctly (to quote from Matt 7:3).

A good place to start educating yourself is the TV Tropes "Magical Minority Person" page, which describes numerous stereotyped depictions of diverse characters often shunted into supporting roles.

Read diverse books

You very well may have to go outside your genre to find work by authors of other ethnicities, or at least to bookshops outside your neighborhood.

Listen to the cadence of books translated from other languages. Look for diverse thematic concerns. What values are rewarded and vices punished in communities unlike your own?

Expand your study

Do you find yourself drawn to particular cultures and subcultures? Read all you can about them, and seek out all their modes of creative expression. Learn all you can about historical shaping forces and how those play into a culture's self-concept and dreams for tomorrow.

Think about how what you learned could press against or defy certain stereotypes about that group. Consider what traits might marginalize a person even in that minority, and what traits would mark him/her a "winner" or leader.

Listen and ask

If you're able to get to know individuals that belong to the minority group you'd like to depict, be genuine and vulnerable. Don't treat them like lab specimens. Ask them questions you would any friend you'd want to know more deeply and be equally willing to share your own stories.

Where did you grow up? What was that like?
What did you love and hate most about your childhood?
What do you like to do for fun as a kid?
What careers did you aspire to?
Who were your heroes?
How did you fit in or stand out in your family, school, neighborhood?
What "borders" have you had to cross in your life? What has that been like?
What bugs you about mainstream media portrayals of your neighborhood?
What do you wish outsiders knew about your community?

If you develop a character based on your friend's stories, let the friend beta read before you finalize your manuscript, to ensure your depiction isn't off base.

Encamp

It's difficult to do another culture justice until you've inhabited it yourself. There's only so much that reading books, watching movies, listening to music, and even interviewing can provide. If you find you want to take the big leap and write a protagonist from a group to which you don't belong (versus a supporting character), it may be necessary to live for a time among that group. Actually walking through a neighborhood, learning its smells and flavors, feeling your heart thump at its dangers or soar at its delights--those experiences will give you the most realistic details to use in your work. Otherwise, you're likely to resort to stereotype and trope.

The people you meet and observe day after day will provide the best characterization details, the most accurate lingo for dialogue, and the most compelling backstories. Just be sure to create composites of several real people, or disguise them by changing key details (age, gender, appearance).

Have you written characters outside the cultural groups to which you belong? What tips would you add?

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

For today's phonics fun, I'm going to tackle the semi-homophone pair, dual and duel. Most pronounce the words similarly, though one of the pair might have two syllables (dewl; DEW-ul). There may be significant variation here depending on your dialect. The two are most often confused in written contexts, because they sound nearly alike and are spelled nearly alike.

Their meanings, however, are nearly antonyms. Nearly because they aren't the same part of speech. The A version is an adjective, the E version, a noun and verb. But both involve twosomes, the former, friends, the latter, enemies.

Confused yet? Let's dive in to meanings, see the words in context and learn some handy mnemonics to keep them straight (not strait, that's a geography term).

A dual team. Photo by earl53 from morguefile.com

Dual 

(adj.) having two parts or aspects that are alike or complementary.

Examples

  • Geoffrey is a dual citizen of the US and Canada.
  • The dual speaker system makes the sound so rich.
  • Dual airbags keep both front passengers safe in a crash.
  • Maisie had a dual purpose for her trip--to relax and find a man.
  • We call our two-man  mime act "Dual Fools."

Mnemonic
Dual parts are always pals.

Fencers dueling. Photo by FidlerJan from morguefile.com

Duel 

(n.) a contest or battle between two opponents to settle a dispute or point of honor.

(v., intrans.) to battle, to fight in a duel.

Examples

  • Benedict challenged Roderigo to a duel for publicly embarrassing his wife.
  • Kate and Leo dueled all semester to become valdictorian.
  • Hal displayed his grandfather's épée, a light dueling sword.
  • The Ravens and the Mustangs will duel for the league championship.

Mnemonic
Enemies ever duel to the end.

Do these two words trip you up? What homophone pairs give you trouble?
Wednesday, September 02, 2015 Laurel Garver
For today's phonics fun, I'm going to tackle the semi-homophone pair, dual and duel. Most pronounce the words similarly, though one of the pair might have two syllables (dewl; DEW-ul). There may be significant variation here depending on your dialect. The two are most often confused in written contexts, because they sound nearly alike and are spelled nearly alike.

Their meanings, however, are nearly antonyms. Nearly because they aren't the same part of speech. The A version is an adjective, the E version, a noun and verb. But both involve twosomes, the former, friends, the latter, enemies.

Confused yet? Let's dive in to meanings, see the words in context and learn some handy mnemonics to keep them straight (not strait, that's a geography term).

A dual team. Photo by earl53 from morguefile.com

Dual 

(adj.) having two parts or aspects that are alike or complementary.

Examples

  • Geoffrey is a dual citizen of the US and Canada.
  • The dual speaker system makes the sound so rich.
  • Dual airbags keep both front passengers safe in a crash.
  • Maisie had a dual purpose for her trip--to relax and find a man.
  • We call our two-man  mime act "Dual Fools."

Mnemonic
Dual parts are always pals.

Fencers dueling. Photo by FidlerJan from morguefile.com

Duel 

(n.) a contest or battle between two opponents to settle a dispute or point of honor.

(v., intrans.) to battle, to fight in a duel.

Examples

  • Benedict challenged Roderigo to a duel for publicly embarrassing his wife.
  • Kate and Leo dueled all semester to become valdictorian.
  • Hal displayed his grandfather's épée, a light dueling sword.
  • The Ravens and the Mustangs will duel for the league championship.

Mnemonic
Enemies ever duel to the end.

Do these two words trip you up? What homophone pairs give you trouble?

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?