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Writing advice from a Tasmanian cave spider, or how to get your creative juices flowing

Ok, I lied. This post isn’t really about writing advice from a Tasmanian cave spider—more like life advice.

Hang with me for a moment. You’ll see what I mean.

After taking nearly a year off from writing poetry, I had an idea to kick start 2015 with the goal of writing two to three new poems a week for the month of January. But I wasn’t feeling very inspired. Some pretty heavy stuff was going on in my life, and I felt drained.

Then, a gift arrived in the mail.

My blogging partner Carly sent me The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, by Diane Lockward (I hadn’t even mentioned my goal to her…scary how we think alike, isn’t it?)

Now, I’m normally NOT a “prompt” person but being the good friend that I am, I felt I should at least flip through the book so I could extend my sincere gratitude to her. (Wink. Wink). Late one night, I dragged the book to bed with me and the strangest thing happened—the pages reached out and grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Hands down, best poetry craft and prompt book. Ever. Nine of the ten poems I’ve written so far this month were inspired by the book.

But what does this have to do with a Tasmanian cave spider?

One of the prompts suggested writing a poem from the point of view of an animal giving advice. I mulled around for some suitable prospects—a field mouse? Diamondback snake? Pink Fairy Armadillo? (Look it up—there is such a creature.)

Nothing sparked my creative juices until I happened upon an article featuring one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, and his project with the Bookend Trust, which runs environmental educational programs in Tasmanian schools. Turns out they’re shooting a documentary on the Tasmanian cave spider.

Ah! Now, that’s interesting—especially when you picture Mr. Gaiman communing with cave spiders, perhaps drawing inspiration for a future novel….

Anyway, enough drooling. Here’s the poem. Hope you enjoy it! And, if you want to try the prompt, I would love to see your poem.

Advice from a Male Tasmanian Cave Spider

Spin gracefully. Feed on anything big enough or dumb
enough to jump, fly or fall into your web. Don’t be a glutton.
Save some for later or invite friends for a feast.

Create strong structures. Hang by your own thread.
Practice disjointedness whenever you can. Save
your venom for special occasions.

Perpetuate your mythos of mystery and doom.
Scuttle across cave ceilings. Lurk in darkness.
Spend time in your inner cave. Throw shadows

across the walls to scare scientists studying you
for their documentary. Haunt the author
of “Coraline” so he writes you into his next novel.

Cultivate a following. Flaunt your prehistoric nature.
Don’t worry if smaller-minded relatives make fun of you.
They don’t live for decades or stretch the length of a dinner plate.

Develop a fondness for large-bellied females. Pluck your web
nightly to attract a mate. Knead her softly with your long legs.
Spread her fangs apart so she can’t kill you.

Remember, you have eight legs, but sixteen when making love.
Learn to embrace change in case one day you find yourself
squinting into the light.

Are you stymied by a scene? Duck and cover

It happens to all of us.

You’re working on your manuscript and you get stuck. The writing feels clunky. Something isn’t working. This is when you must duck and cover.

“Duck and cover” is the term author Pam Lewis coined to describe her process of jumpstarting her writing when she’s become stuck.

“I open a blank page on my computer and ask myself, ‘What’s going on in the scene?’ I close my eyes and watch the characters and hear them.”

In her current manuscript, Lewis said she used the technique to figure out what a character was doing in a particular scene. But she realized the technique helped her see what mattered to the character and the character’s emotional state. With her eyes closed, Lewis saw that the character’s hands were trembling, she was sweaty, and didn’t smell good.

Duck and cover can be a way of accessing the sensory details of your scenes.

Lewis is the author of A Young Wife, Perfect Family, and Speak Softly, She Can Hear.

Watch the scenes of your novel as though they were a movie, Lewis says. Start by writing the action or what the character is thinking or feeling. Sometimes Lewis writes random dialogue to get the sentences flowing again. “It almost always offers something useful, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m writing about at the moment.”

“Even more important than what the characters say sometimes is what they do and their facial gestures,” Lewis says.

For more ideas to break through writing resistance, read Four tips to defeat your writing funk.

Four tips for setting 2015 writing goals

In the process of setting my goals for 2015, I realized how much magic there is in writing them down—and I don’t mean just randomly choosing goals and then giving ourselves a due date. That doesn’t work. The magic comes when we dig deep.

Here’s my process in case it helps you:

Tip # 1: Brainstorm and write it down

First, I grab a legal pad and have one page for each of the following areas of my life: business, writing, health, and hobbies. For each category, I write down the goals I want to have accomplished by the end of 2015. And, if necessary, I break the goals down into different categories.

For example, in my writing life, I have prose goals and poetry goals. My prose goals for 2015 are to finish and publish my fantasy novel and then edit and finish my memoir. And then to be writing down ideas for my next book. All great goals. But I need to chunk them down and make them doable.

For my fantasy manuscript, my first goal is to finish my first draft. How many words per day/per week/per month can I realistically do while I work fulltime? Figure it out and set a date. Once my first draft is done, what’s next? Implement my marketing plan while I take time to revise and edit. I continue writing down the next action step in my plan until I can see all the parts to the whole.

Tip # 2: Look forward to events

Look forward to events that can be used as goal dates. For example, the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference is in July this year. What would happen if I had my book ready and published in order to market at that event? The idea excites me! It feels good. Can I realistically meet this goal? With hard work and focus, I think it’s doable. Now, I work backwards from this date and plan accordingly.  Read more

For lasting change, vow to adopt tiny habits

The new year is here, and it’s natural to think of how we can make a fresh start. Enter New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, researchers* have found resolutions often don’t stick.

The problem with most resolutions are that they’re too general. The top five for 2014 were:

  • Lose weight
  • Get organized
  • Spend less, save more
  • Enjoy life to the fullest
  • Stay fit and healthy.

You can probably see that without specific tactics, it’s hard to achieve these resolutions.

The numbers people at Statistic Brain reported that 2014 research from University of Scranton, Journal of Clinical Psychology, indicated that only 8% of people who make resolutions achieve them, 49% have infrequent success, and 24% fail each year.

Is there something you want to do better? A habit you want to add to your daily routine? Try adopting tiny habits, a program started by social scientist and part-time Stanford professor BJ Fogg. This is the thinking behind Fogg’s Tiny Habits program:

Instead of large, sweeping goals, consider how adopting small habits over time can result in lasting, automatic behavioral changes. The beauty of habits is that they are automatic and creating more automatic behaviors makes change effortless. Read more

How limiting creative choices enhances creativity

I recently had lunch with one of my older friends who lives at a retirement community. At the table, I met Robert, 88, another resident. As our group visited, I turned to Robert and asked, “What is your creative passion?”

“I’m a sculptor,” he said.

I asked him if the retirement community had an art room to work in. No, he said. He just worked in his apartment.

“There are some limitations,” he said.

I told him, “Sometimes limitations enhance creativity.”

“That is true,” he said.

As it turned out, Robert had been a university art professor, worked as director of an art museum, and traveled extensively. As I talked to Robert, I found that he had another limitation that affected his creative pursuits. He was losing his eyesight, which affected his whole approach and experience as an artist. Read more

Freshen up your manuscript with this exercise

You may already know I’m a big fan of the online Lawson Writer’s Academy. When I earned my MFA, I was a poet learning how to write prose and put together a complete manuscript. Mission accomplished.

And now, through Margie Lawson’s academy, I’m learning writing craft I didn’t learn in my MFA program: How to develop deep point of view, what makes a scene click, the importance of MRUs (motivation response units) and having them in the right order, how to use dialogue cues (Margie’s term) that evoke emotion in the reader, how to use body language effectively and many other aspects of a well-written novel.

In a recent post, Margie writes about the importance of writing fresh and shares some great examples.

After reading her post, I found several places where I could freshen up my own writing. Here are some examples (I bolded the trouble spots):

Example 1:

Before:

“How are you getting home?” Noah frowned and I found my eyes tracing the outline of his lips. Lips I’d recently felt pressing against my own. Lips I’d recently tasted.

“I’ll get a ride from Lily…”

After:

“How are you getting home?” Noah shot me his I-think-you’re-making-a-big-mistake scowl.

I loved the way his lips puckered when he did that. Lips that had recently pressed against my own. Lips that tasted of sea and mountains and home.

I cleared my throat, struggling to dial down my hormones. “I’ll get a ride from Lily…”

Comment: in the before example, “frowned” is boring and overused and doesn’t describe much. The following bolded phrases, “I found, I felt, I tasted” are all filter words…it’s much better to just give the reader the experience.

Filter words are words that remove the reader from the action and filter the character’s experience through the writer’s point of view. Instead of seeing the action through the character’s eyes, the author is filtering it first. Examples from first person point of view: I saw, I thought, I felt, I heard, etc.  Read more

Five ways to build your curious nature

I’m a curious person.

My intense curiosity propelled me into a writing career. So when I read Bernadette Jiwa’s post, The Relationship Between Curiosity and Business Growth, my curiosity meter spiked into the red zone.

Jiwa tells about going to her local florist one Friday night and being surprised by the sheer number of roses she found in the shop. Buckets of roses filled almost all the floor space. She assumed they were for a wedding the next day and questioned the florist. The florist explained that the roses were for a customer who bought 110 bunches of 10 roses every Friday evening. The florist didn’t know what the customer did with them.

As a person who lives a life of curiosity, I could hardly stand not having the answer to this question.

Curiosity is what drives children to develop skills, scientists to devise groundbreaking inventions, and writers to write best selling novels by asking “why,” “how,” and “what if.”

The good news is we’re all born with this trait and developing and embracing it can make us better writers. Exercising our creativity can help us be attuned to story ideas, build out better characters, and think of more creative plots.

Make a practice of pursuing your inquisitive nature each day with these tips: Read more

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