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Write active, sensory description to make your story believable

In a post I read a few years ago by Marg McAlister, “Verisimilitude: Description that Puts the Reader in the Scene,” I copied and saved one of the excerpts she used because I thought it was a good example of how sensory description can work well in a scene.

I was reminded of this last night as I lay in bed reading an urban fantasy novel (to remain nameless except to say it is a popular series by a well-known author in the genre) and my pet-peeve radar was activated.

But let me ask first–why do we read? I read for many reasons: to learn about the world, to learn about the craft of writing, to activate my imagination, to take a break from work. But the main reason I read fiction is to enter other worlds, to lose myself in another place and time, to feel what the characters feel, to experience something different.

So, my biggest pet peeve when reading is when an author pulls me from that world.

And pulling me from that world with an info dump of inactive setting or character description is the worst offender. Pure, unadulterated, torturous Hell. Or, what I imagine Hell might be like for a writer or avid reader. Read more

Start a New Year’s writing tradition: Keep a mini journal

I’ve always been intimidated by New Year’s resolutions. As an indecisive person, it was April before I’d decided on an aspect of my life to improve. And by that point, well, it was already April. But five years ago, I was gifted a mini journal before the New Year that led me to start a new tradition: Keeping a yearly mini journal.

Journals are fantastic ways to document memories and ideas. But a full, blank, white page can be daunting. What happens when I only have four words of dialogue that I want to write down — that memory when I introduced myself to my coworker Jeremy, as Jeremy?

“Hi Jeremy, I’m Jeremy.”

I don’t need to expand on this embarrassing moment, but I would like to look back and laugh at my former self.

In this case, I need a mini journal. Read more

Create a journal to increase sensory awareness

Sensory images are glue that grabs readers and draws them into your story world.

If you want to improve your ability to write sensuously, become more conscious of senses by creating a sensory journal. Supercharge your attention on what’s going on around you as you go through your days, and you’ll likely become more aware. To boost that experience, commit to focus on a specific sense. Start today by creating a scent diary.

As you leave your house for work, take children to school, or do errands, notice how the air smells when you walk out the door. Does it smell like rain? The paper mill across the river? Pine trees? I still remember the smell of chocolate when I walked out of my hotel on a trip to Chicago. I found out that it emanated from the Blommer chocolate factory. Read more

How a goal + writing prompts led to a first-place poetry award

Have you ever wanted to elevate the quality of your writing or increase your creative production? Try giving yourself an assignment. It worked for my blogging partner Carol.

Earlier this year, I gave Carol a poetry writing book, The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop, by Diane Lockward. It happened to coincide with her goal to write two or three poems a week for the month of January.

She ended up writing 18 poems. Fast forward to July, and Carol won first place for poetry in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association contest. See the complete list of winners.

For more insight on Carol’s poetry writing practice, read her post Writing advice from a Tasmanian cave spider, or how to get your creative juices flowing, which includes one of her poems, Advice from a Male Tasmanian Cave Spider.

Try writing a poem of your own based on one of these prompts:

  1. Think about a defining moment or incident in your life and write about it.
  2. Write a love letter in the form of a poem.
  3. Write a poem about a common object.
  4. Find a memento or object that has sentimental value to you and write a poem that reveals the reason and emotion it carries.
  5. Write a poem about moving from one place to another. It could be literal or metaphorical.

Congratulations Carol!

 

Nine ways to get out of your rut and create a blast of writing energy

Habits and routines are good. Ruts are not.

A routine is all about established habits. A rut is about feeling stuck or bored.

People can be creatures of habit. Routines are comforting and comfortable. I used to work with a designer who ate the same lunch every day for the 10 years I worked with him. A turkey and havarti sandwich and a container of yogurt. I know this because when I’d go visit him at his desk, I’d see that sandwich all wrapped up nice and snug in Saran wrap sitting there on the window sill. But I digress.

Routines are good when we find a habit that reinforces our writing practice. If you’ve established a writing routine, stick with it. If you examine the habits of famous and productive writers, you will find they have routines. They show up every day at a specific time to write.

In an interview in the Paris Review, author Haruki Murrakami said, “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Mesmerization is a good thing.

But, if you’re bored with life or feeling stuck, mixing things up might give you some new creative energy. As writers, we need all the creative energy we can get.

To think of things in a new way, try doing things in a different way. Cultivate a little disruption in your life.

Here are several ideas:

Change up your eating. If you eat Cheerios for breakfast every day, have pumpkin pie once in awhile. Change where you eat. Sit outside on your porch and observe the outdoors.

Write something in a genre you’ve never written in. If you’re a novelist, write a poem. The structure of a poem might throw your mind in a whole new direction. Who knows, you may even find a poem finds its way into your novel.

Read a magazine you’ve never read before. Do you normally read writing magazines? Try reading Scientific American or Architectural Digest or a yoga magazine. Even better, get a couple supermarket tabloids. Scan the ones that feature stories about alien kidnappings and have headlines like: EARTH HUMAN’S SECRET LOVE AFFAIR EXPOSED and TOP CELEBRITIES AND THEIR TOP SECRET CELLULITE TREATMENTS. While you’re at it, give your brain a jolt by writing some practice tabloid headlines of your own.

Wear something different. I used to work with a guy who wore the same outfit every day. I’m assuming it wasn’t the exact same clothes but basically a uniform he’d created for himself: khaki pants, button down shirt in a small plaid pattern, and navy blue blazer. Every day. I loved it. I wanted to create my own uniform. If you’ve found yourself wearing jeans and a t-shirt every day, go for a week like my friend Jimmy. With him, you never know what he’ll wear on any given day. One day he could be wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and another day he could be decked out in a black suit, black tie and white shirt looking like a Secret Service agent. And then there’s his hair. You never know what color it’s going to be.

Travel the world or even just to another nearby town. This is one of my favorite ways to rev up my idea machine. Different weather, different culture, different energy, different scenery, different language equals sensory inspiration. Once I went from working and living in a small town to a big city. Weirdly, my favorite color before I moved was pink. After moving it became red.

Do something you’ve never done. Go visit  your town’s tourist attractions. How many times do people live in a place and never get around to visiting the museum or the zoo or sculpture gardens?

Take a bath instead of a shower. Throw in bubbles. Authors Ben Franklin, mystery writer Agatha Christie, Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov, and French playwright Edmond Rostand reportedly wrote while soaking in their bathtubs. Take a shower outside. I stayed at a hotel once where when you stepped into the shower, you were outside in a cedar enclosure with open sky above.

Order something different at your favorite restaurant. How many people go to their favorite restaurant and order pretty much the same dish each time? I don’t know if there is a piece of research out there about this, let me know. But just anecdotally speaking, I do it and I know others who do it too. If you do this, next time you eat out, order something new.

Watch the Spanish TV or French or whatever language you don’t speak. See how many words you understand. Watch a foreign language film with subtitles.

The point is to do something that makes you feel different inside. Something that creates an emotional reaction. Shake things up to sharpen your creative edge.

Go out and disrupt yourself, and if you feel like it, report back what you did in the comments below.

For more ideas about how to shake up your creative spirit, read Carol’s post, Four ways to stimulate creativity and cure the writing blahs.

Be a better reader to be a better writer

A simple writing truth is that to be a great writer, you must be a great reader. To fully absorb the author’s artistry, analyze the stories you read to understand how the writers crafted them. How did the author engage you as a reader? What was satisfying about the story? What craft elements stood out for you? What didn’t work?

As I read, I stay alert for sentences or paragraphs that cause a ping in my chest. Then I ask myself why I liked them and make a note.

Watch for these elements of writing craft as you read.

Metaphors. I assigned myself a project this week to make a note of metaphors that stand out in my reading. They don’t even have to be good. We can learn from something we read that doesn’t seem to work quite right. Note the metaphor and why you do or don’t like it. I’ll be doing a blog post in the future where I’ll share a list I’ve collected.

Description. When you read a distinctive description of a character or a setting, take notes about what makes it different so you can apply the ideas to your own work. Look for descriptions that are organic to the story. In the post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, he describes the world his father and son characters inhabit. “Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.” Read more

Grab your reader with a good beginning

Good beginnings matter, whether you write poetry, memoir, novels, or short stories.

A compelling beginning hooks your reader’s attention, including agents and editors, who may hold the key to publishing. Imagine your readers walking around a bookstore and pulling books off the shelf to read the first page or downloading a sample to read online. Would your book capture their interest?

Check your story’s beginning against these three elements of a good beginning. Good stories should:

Raise a question. Create a sense of curiosity to draw readers into your story. At the heart of every good story is a question that must be answered. A protagonist wants something and the reader must read to the end for the answer.

Hint at what’s to come as your story unfolds. A beginning is an opportunity to set a tone and give clues to what’s in store. One of my favorite books and an example of how the author set a tone is “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger.

Surprise the reader. How often are you surprised by the first paragraphs of a book? This book surprised me in the first line:
“The Winter War” by Philip Teir
“The first mistake that Max and Kateriina made that winter — and they would make many mistakes before their divorce — was to deep-freeze their grandchildren’s hamster.”

Check out these examples and see how they meet the criteria of good beginning.

“The Haunting of Hill House” is a ghost story by Shirley Jackson, who also wrote, “The Lottery.”
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Read more

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