Tag Archives: writing help

Working Review: Our Daily Toast

This time, I am headed over to Toasted Cheese, which is a literary journal, writers’ forum, and writing prompt provider. They have a fantastic monthly calendar, which provides prompts for each day. March particularly impressed me because every Saturday was a genre challenge and anyone who encourages writers to experiment with many genres deserves a pat on the back. Unfortunately, April does not include Saturday genre challenges; I suppose it would be difficult to find enough different genres to do it every month.

The nice thing about these calendars, as opposed to a book of writing prompts or other collections of them, is that it really encourages writing as a daily habit. I know for me, especially now when I am juggling House of Cats and a list of anthologies for which I want to write, writing often turns into something about deadlines and quotas. If I don’t have a deadline hanging over my head, I don’t want to write at all. I start to think, I’ve put in my time for the day, the week, the month, now leave me alone.

But ironically, the discipline of a daily habit makes writing less about what you have to do and more about the joy of storytelling. Because even if I say I must write each day, there are no rules and no demands about subject or, heck, even quality. This is writing as play, as an adult’s recess, as indulgence.

Tuesday’s prompt is “Bangles and Beads: she was obsessed with making jewelry.” But I feel like I should be giving you a bit more than just hi, here’s a site, here’s a snippet, good night. So let me break down for you my process of developing an idea when presented with a prompt.

First of all, my best brainstorming occurs in the shower. The combination of quiet solitude and the automatic movements of washing leave my brain free to tinker with ideas. The shower is where I conquer all my worse blocks and develop ideas from nothing. I break down the elements of the prompt and ask questions about each one. So:

Jewelry: who makes jewelry? –> women, craftsmen, metalworkers, children (I am envisioning the macaroni necklaces I foisted on my mother as a child)

What can they make it out of? –> metal, gems and stones, rope, wood, macaroni, found objects, glass, beads, pearls (found objects and pearls are speaking to me at the moment)

Why do they make it? –> to wear, to sell, to pass the time, to preserve objects, to repurpose objects

From this, I’ve got bored children using found objects to make their own jewelry and pass the time.

Obsessed: what sort of person obsesses? –> perfectionist, hyper focused, avoidance of other issues

Under what circumstances does obsession develop? –> has little else to occupy mind, stressful situations, way to block out unpleasant realities

From this, I’ve got someone in difficult circumstance who can’t do anything to change them, but who needs to focus their attention on something to cope with that stress.

After that, I get to the part that I can’t explain or map out. Once I’ve picked out the details in the prompt and found variations and interpretations that speak to me, my right brain really kicks in and starts putting the tinker toys into new and attractive configurations. I get an image, usually, or a character or a bit of plot. The parts stick together into something that resembles story. Right now, it is the idea of a child in a new land, maybe even a new planet, entertaining herself while her mother works, and the image of a necklace made out of a huge and luminous pearl-like object, which floats above the child’s head in zero gravity while she tries to sleep.

Once I have that kernel of an idea, I can start to develop. POV character is the child. I’ll need a theme if it’s going to be much more than a vignette. Number of words to shoot for and number of scenes I can get out of that based on my average words per scene. Lines describing each scene. A sentence describing the core of the story.

Joanna washes her cereal bowl in a sink with running water, which is a nice change from buckets pulled up from wells or rivers. The bio crisis planets are usually more advanced than the famine planets. Their cottage is right on the beach, so it makes no difference to her if Dr. Claudia Shipman spends the day treating the local livestock — something like a llama and something like the mega rabbits on XMV-671 — for the virus that is killing nine out of every ten. Joanna can amuse herself. If she gets bored of playing by the water, she can go inside, where there are books to read and half-strung necklaces to finish and math lessons to not do.

In the tide pools, Joanna finds a strand of seaweed caught on a colony of anemone-like creatures. She teases it loose from their waving fingers and retreats to the dry sand with it. Where each leaf attaches to the vine, there is a pearl, a bud, a buoy and when the sun has baked some of the water from the vine, these pearls float in the air. The ends of the vine drag in the sand. Looking through its parabola, Joanna sees a knot of tall children scuffing towards her through the sand. She plucks the vine from the air and retreats to the house. She locks the door behind her.

When Joanna lets Dr. Shipman in, she stinks of sick animal. There is mud up to her knees and the mostly washed off remnants of blood on her arms. “Why did you lock the door?”

Joanna shrugs and goes back to the little kitchen table, where she has a thick sewing needle stabbed through the stem of one of the pearls. Its skin is thick and hard like bark. She uses a pair of rusty forceps to pull the needle the rest of the way through. Dr. Shipman goes into the tiny water closet. The water turns on. Joanna slips the needle from the thread and puts it safely away. She holds up the two ends of thread. In the middle, the pearl bobs. Joanna opens her box of beads. She slides a blue stone onto the thread and takes it off again. She tries faceted glass and polished stones. The pearl sags with their weight and floats free again when she takes them off.

The water shuts off. Dr. Shipman sits down at the table wearing the battered flannel robe. “Hey, kiddo, what did you find?” Joanna only thinks of her as “mom” when she wears it. The rest of the time, she calls her Dr. Shipman like everyone else on every planet they visit.

Joanna tries red and orange and yellow beads, all down the list of colors she has neatly organized, and takes every one off again. “Found it on the beach,” she says.

“That’s called moon tree. The floaters are filled with lighter-than-air gasses. That’s how the plant floats high enough to get sunlight underwater.” She goes to fix dinner when Joanna just keeps working.

Over chicken and rice MREs, Dr. Shipman says, “It looks like we’ll be here for a few more weeks.”

Joanna pushes her fork through her food. “Fine.” At eye level, the pearl drifts, the ends of thread looped around her off hand.

Dr. Shipman lets out a loud sigh. “Do you want to go to classes at the school?”

“No, thank you. I’ll do my lessons here.” When the table is cleared, Joanna just knots the ends of the thread behind her neck. In bed, with the two moons shining through her window, Joanna catches the pearl in her mouth. It tastes of sea water. She lets it go and a third moon rises over her planet. It is a moon she can carry with her when she leaves in two weeks or two months, whenever this assignment ends and the next one comes in.

I think I must have been reading something written in present tense because I did not notice until the second section that I had started writing in it. I’m a strictly past tense sort of person usually. I feel pretty strongly that I would like to finish this story some time. It hits a whole bunch of my favorite things: new worlds; awkward childhoods and parent-child relationships; animals and medicine; crafts; weird flora and fauna; rural settings; and issues of loneliness and independence.

I did not in fact go through all the development I described earlier, since I knew I would not be doing the full story within the confines of this article. So I can see that I don’t have enough overt conflict driving the story forward. I’m still just drifting in the area of “mood,” which is fine for practice, but makes for deadly dull fiction. But it is exactly what I imagined when I first started thinking about someone obsessed with making jewelry.

This is the first time I have written science fiction, though I admit I have taken the soft science approach. Which is another fringe benefit of following these calendar challenges: if you write long enough and often enough, it is my belief that, to keep from boring yourself, you will eventually have to branch into new genres. This, as I mention, can only be a good thing.

Crunch Time, Pt. 2/3

Why is it, at the times in my life when I most need a computer, mine fails? Junior year in high school: my term paper is due in two days and my disc drive burns out, thereby preventing me from using the strange, CD-ROM-based word processor I had at the time. Second year of college: my laptop’s hard drive MELTS, at which point I discover that the backups I had made of my files are all corrupt. NaNo 2009: I have less than two days left in which to finish my 50k and my computer decides now, now is the time in which to run slower than molasses in January for no obvious reason.

Really, what’s that riff? Stop. Work properly. There is no excuse for this shabby crap. I have words to write.

Also, Holly Lisle’s newest course, How to Revise Your Novel, has gone live! I am happy to say that, despite a slow computer and my ever-wonky internet connection, I got signed up right away. But there’s no time to think about that! This is November still; no editing, just writing. Back to work!

Crunch Time, Pt. 1/3

I went to the public library for a while today. Nothing gets me writing like going to the library. It’s not being surrounded by books, nice though that is. It’s not the refreshing change in location. It’s not the peace and quiet. It’s not the people-watching. It is, in fact, the terror that someone is going to notice that I’m just staring into space, into the back of my little work station, not moving, with my Alpha Smart in front of me. The need to look like I’m working gets me to actually work. It’s great.

I’m doing okay on the word count. I would very much like to get a bit more so that the next two days are not an absolute hell of words. I’m at the point where I just have to bully and torment myself into writing, just putting one word in front of another until I finish a sentence, a scene, an episode.

Serendipity strikes again

Back in October, I signed up at Procrastinating Writers to get daily tips for keeping up with my NaNoWriMo word count. And lo and behold, after I posted about my fears last night, today’s tip was about precisely that. It included a link to a series of articles, The Things Procrastinators Fear, available on their site.

Of their four identified fears, I struggle in this instance with fear of failure and fear of not being good enough. Why write a scene that I find difficult? There are other sorts of scenes that I can write easily, that I know I can get right the first time out. And why risk writing a scene if I could fail at it? It might be bad. It might make the story worse. It might make readers point and laugh.

Yeah, no. That kind of self-defeating crap is not going to fly here. So, new task! Every day, I’m going to write five hundred words of sex scene, starting with a new one each day. If writing sex scenes freaks me out so much that I can’t get anything else done, well, I’m just going to have to get over it. No backing down this time. I don’t expect that I will share any of the writing at any point, but I will try to drop updates about it now and then.

I’m going to open with an exercise from Bret Anthony Johnston’s Naming the World, the new and delicious book of writing exercises I bought a while back. I made a sort of unofficial pledge to myself that I would do one of the warm-up exercises in the back of the book each day, until I run out of them, at which point I’ll just have to find new ones somewhere else. I guess I’m making that official now, too. The exercise, which I should have written yesterday, but continued to chicken out on, is to spend five minutes listing what turns you on.

I can handle this. It’s just a list. No need to fear a list. I’ll use the list, though, as a jumping-off point for the first few scenes that I will write. After all, I might as well enjoy them, right? ;) So wish me luck, please, as I face up to my fears and get my writing back on track.

The T

hings Procrastinators Fear

Writer’s Block and Best Friends

I have a tip to share, from my own fun and exciting writing battles. So consider this a miniature Working Review, my apology for taking the month off.

So, I’ve spent yesterday and today dealing with a thorny problem in the future episode of HoC that I’m writing right now. It has to do with conflict and character background and structure. The short version, sans spoilers, is that I have a goal I want to accomplish, involving secrets to be revealed to the reader, but not to the characters. But I can’t (couldn’t) get it to come together. The scenes wouldn’t go anywhere and none of them linked to one another at all.

Then I got an email from a friend and an opportunity to tell someone else about my problem. And suddenly, I put two sentences next to each other and realized the inherent conflict between them. So my tip, such as it is, is to write letters. Emails. What have you. You don’t, I suppose, have to send them to anyone, but I recommend at least writing them with a reader in mind. The mind works differently when it is explaining things to itself than it does when explaining to another person.

Writing is a solitary career. Mostly, I love this about it. But it is a career that does not come with built-in colleagues. Yes, somewhere down the line, we may get agents and editors. But in the beginning, we just have ourselves. And, hopefully, friends. So the next time you are stuck in a story, explain your problem to a sympathetic friend (or just anyone you can hog tie long enough to have listen to you), but do it in writing. The shift in perspective may be just what you need to find the solution.