Oct 13, 2014

A Sense of Place

Once upon a time I had a dream of a room of my own. I dreamed of a place where there was a desk and a reading chair, maybe a small fire and a window that gazes on some serene landscape. Maybe I'm dreaming of Laurie Halse Anderson's cottage.

The reality is I do have a desk. It is located in the center of the house in an area that accommodates the living room, dining room and kitchen within 180 degrees of my periphery. It is adjacent to the hall that leads to my kids' bedrooms. It is right smack in the middle of the action.

I'm sure there are many people who theorize they would do better if physical circumstances were different. That they could be inspired better.

Surely, I can't be the only one guilty of coveting a different environment.

In May of 2013, I attended my favorite writing conference wherein Sandra Tayler taught ten principles that apply to the creative life. The one that stood out to me then and has resonated with me in the year and a half since is the necessity of physical space. She explained that when it is time to write, the mind engages better when there is a sense of space.

But the mind is tricky and trickable. If you, like me, don't have a proper place to call your own, don't despair, because the main purpose of the space is routine. If you have ever had kids or puppies, you know that the way to train them and keep your sanity is routine. When I am blogging or social mediaing or whatevering at my desk, music can be coming from the speakers, I can be offering critiques on the violin, viola, cello, percussion or piano being practiced, offer poor advice on how to solve a math problem and so forth.

But when it is time to write, it is time for classical music, my red SkullCandy headphones and Scrivener. This generally works, but it after hearing some recent tips about further communicating work vs play from the brilliant minds at Writing Excuses, I plan to make a sign that indicates when the kids can and cannot bother me.

The thing that I learned recently is that I'm getting to the point where my brain does recognize when it is writing time. Over the weekend, while sitting in the passenger seat of the car, I put on my headphones, music, open laptop and got quite a few words jotted down in the 45 minute drive to my son's soccer game. My process is creating a broader room of my own, one that is portable and adaptable and still productive.

Do you have a place of your own? If so/not, what is your getting ready to write routine?

Oct 6, 2014

You Are What You Read

That's a loaded topic if ever I have written one.

About two weeks ago, I finished reading the first stories turned in my this year's creative writing class. After the first five, I commented on facebook that I could tell who read and who didn't within 3-5 sentences. Several others in the teaching profession joked, "That long?"

Somewhere along the line, there is often a disconnect between reading and writing that isn't seen in other areas. If someone wants to paint, they look at paintings. If they want to be a good dancer, they watch dancing. To be a good writer, that person HAS to read.

But that brings me to my second meaning by the blog title. I have written on this before, but as I'm drafting a new book, I find myself thinking about it even more. What we read matters as well. 

Let me explain. I read a decent amount of YA literature - I love it and there are some really incredible books out there for this age group. When I started thinking about writing actively, I thought for certain that my audience would be those who I teach during my day job. I know their voices, stresses, and a surprisingly large amount of their secrets. 

But that isn't the voice of my characters. 

I recently started a book totally over. There were several problems, one of which was starting the story too soon. Because I started the story too soon, the voice was weird and there was a disconnect between what I was trying to write and who I was writing it for. My characters needed to be older. So, in preparation for thinking of them again, I dove into the literature that I admired for voice and characterization and the way they appealed to audience. And the feedback from my CP's indicates it was indeed the correct decision. 

I am a huge proponent of read, just read, read anything, read always. But when it comes time for me to draft, I have to have the feel of what I'm trying to convey. 

Do you read when you are drafting? Have you found that reading different genres from what you are writing helps? 

Sep 24, 2014

On Getting Better

In the last few weeks, I have handed back the first essays and stories from my students. They are often horrified at what I place back in their hands, not because of the score (I grade the first assignment very generously) but because of the things that I pointed out that they know but don't. Many of these students (especially those in the honors class) want to toss the essay and pretend it never existed, but I tell them to keep it.

"You see," I tell them, "if you don't save the first essay, you never all the way believe me when, at the end of the year, I compliment the growth you've made as a writer."

I'm about 3 1/2 weeks into the healing process for my broken hand. It still hurts often, it still restricts many of the things I want to do, or requires some ingenuity to re-learn how to do something. To say it is frustrating would be an understatement.

And yet.

Yesterday, I was able to lift my laptop bag and hand it to my left hand. Minimal wincing. I could maneuver a knife through an apple and turn the key in the ignition.

It doesn't feel like I'm getting better because there are so many things I can't do.

But I am.

Image Source
So it is with our writing. There are various reactions when writers go back and look at first drafts, unseen stories, brainstorms that never quite manifested as prose. But nearly everyone who goes back to an early version will make comments about silly mistakes, weak concepts, ridiculous dialogue, etc.

The reason they notice these things is because they have gotten better.

It is easy to be frustrated with writing. It is easy to notice all the things we haven't done, can't do.

It is easy to focus on the negative.

So, on this lovely first Wednesday of Autumn 2014, I want you to take a minute and think about how you have gotten better in the last week, month, season or year. Go ahead, celebrate the small victory. Post your accomplishments in the comments and I'll celebrate with you.

After all, the last three weeks have given me several opportunities to master the index finger clap.

Sep 8, 2014

Re-configuring the Stakes

My 30's have not been super kind to me.

I had two bunion surgeries, severely sprained my ankle several times which resulted in reconstructing ligaments and just over a week ago, I fell while picking apples and broke my hand.

My right hand.

I am right handed.

Bone in the middle of my hand.
This last week has been a series of relearning how to do things (seriously, try brushing your teeth with the other hand).

But in the last week, I also successfully wrote the Greek family tree vineyard on the board for my students, developed a deeper love for my iPhone and iPad and touchscreen communication, accompanied a Suzuki strings group for and hour and a half (mostly left handed), and still went on with my life.

It has been good to make me think about the other things I assume. I assumed I could only type with two working hands, but my speed with just two fingers in my right available is getting better. My concentration is more honed because I have to watch so carefully what I am writing or I spend more time deleting than drafting.

But the big benefit that came from this whole thing is that it made me think about characters. I think as writers, we try to make life too easy for our characters. We forget that characters, and people for that matter, are resilient. We think that the conflict we are presenting will show their true character, but sometimes it just makes them re-configure.

I'm about a month deep into an outline which I sent to my CP's last week, and through our discussion, I realized that what I thought was a conflict is really more of an annoyance. The stakes aren't high enough, so the emotional connection isn't high enough.

A broken hand sucks, and people feel sympathetic, but after the first week or two, sympathy diminishes and people go on with their lives.

How do you raise stakes with your characters? What book have you read that had stakes at just the right level?

Aug 27, 2014


There have been many books come out in the last few years about the power of habits. At first glance, a buyer might wonder if it is the latest trend, like hiding vegetables in cupcakes was a few years ago. But I think it is more than that. People are recognizing that in the society of constant distraction via technology, where time can slip away with what seems to be the snap of a finger, there is a necessity to be more diligent in preserving focus.

William James suggested that people are "bundles of habits". We have these things that distract us, then become us, often without even really seeing the transformation take place. Obviously, this can happen for our benefit or our detriment.

For all the chaos that going back to school causes in my life, I am always happy once it is underway because that schedule provides an incredible framework within which I can structure my life. I know what time I need to wake up (4:40 am) what time I need to be in the shower by, what time I need to spend studying scriptures with on my own and with my kids in the morning, what time I need to leave work in order to arrive on time (7:20 am). And though it seems frenzied at first, it is structured hurrying.

Along these same lines, I have the opportunity to understand the time in which I can write. There are blog posts, social media and the like that are able to be intertwined with Mom, what is a vertice (I still don't know), how do you spell, what book should I, can this be washed with the whites, etc.

And then there is writing a novel.

Or re-re-writing again again, which is what I'm currently doing.

The habits that we form also need to melt in with the habits of those who live around us. After school, my kids and husband know that my habit is to take care of kid stuff and house stuff and most nights, dinner stuff.  In return for that habit that contributes to their life, they give me the liberty to enjoy the habit of putting on my red SkullCandy headphones, turning on my classical music, and writing. When I complete that habit, my brain shifts into time to write mode, and productivity can be achieved.

Of course, this isn't how every day works out. But a habit won't be cast to the wayside with just one day of disruption. Still, we need to fight to keep the habits that will lead us to achieving the goals we have set for ourselves.

How do you set your day to encourage habits? Any techniques that make life a little easier in maintaining them?