Fewer and fewer Christmas cards are showing up in the mailbox each year. While I enjoy getting something other than ads in the mail, sending holiday greetings via social media seems to be the way of the world.
But if you, or characters in your story, need to mail or email a family, know this:
It is not Greetings Robinson’s. Itis Greetings Robinsons. No apostrophe.
Ideas are everywhere. It’s those good ones that are hard to find. At least for me. That’s why I love those writing challenges.
Storystorm, created and hosted by the fantabulous picture book author Tara Lazar, is my favorite writing challenge. Every January, picture book authors and wanna-be authors start the new year with a full month of imaginative play.
Play—that’s the operative word here. Let your imagination play. No pressure. Just let it run wild to create new ideas—even if a lot, or maybe even most, turn out to be, well, crappy.
So what if they are? I think of those crappy ideas as a brain dump. It’s a way for my brain to flush out the useless stuff so it can retain and focus on the useful information. I tell myself every crappy idea gets me closer to a good idea, a workable idea, an idea that becomes a real story.
Maybe your idea appears crappy right after you write it down … or a day or two later … or halfway through your first draft. Even if you file it away in your “Epic Fail” folder, someday you might mine through it again and see a kernel of a better idea glimmering through the mire and muck.
Sometimes I look through my “No way will these see the light of day” stories and remember the hours, days, or even weeks spent on those losers. Wasted time? Writing time is never wasted time. It’s good practice—as long as you’re working toward improvement.
And sometimes, you might find, that one of those fails can be reworked into something completely different—and wonderful.
So, go ahead. Carve out time each day to let your imagination play. Tell it: “No pressure. No expectations.” Find writing challenges like Storystorm or writing prompts on the internet. Here are a few to get you started:
Find an object, and write about the Day in the Life of a ________________.
Without looking creepy, observe a stranger in a public place and make up an unusual job or identity for him.
If you were Big Foot, why wouldn’t you want to be found? Think of the fame and fortune!
The first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. So:
I admit have a problem with an app. Not just any app, a game app on my phone that takes up an inordinate amount of my time.
The app advertises itself as a tool to exercise your brain and stave off dementia. It involves words, so … sounds beneficial, right? Except I’ve become so good at it, I can do it rather mindlessly while watching TV. My brain could atrophy and I could slide into dementia today, but I’m quite certain I would still be rather adept at it. I’d forget what a spoon is, but my fingers would instinctively and proficiently play that darn game.
I don’t even want to think about how much time I spend on it—mindlessly earning game coins that I can’t buy anything useful with—except other game coins.
But I have had an epiphany. Every time I reach for my phone to play that game, I am going to think of the word “write.” What if that time I spent playing the game was transformed into writing time?
I know the time of day when I typically reach for that game, so I can easily imagine doing something more useful: writing, thinking about writing, watching a webinar on writing, reading about writing, honing my writing craft, analyzing books in the genre I am writing in.
When writing isn’t your main job, and it’s not translating into a paycheck at the moment, it’s easy not to prioritize it. There are other things to do. But honestly, some of those other things … are they really worth doing? Think about how much closer to your writing goals you’d be, if you spent more time writing or reading about improving your craft. Even if it’s just a little more time. So:
Game app = writing.
Log writing time. (I’m going to use a nice calendar for that.)
Set goals (my own writing deadlines, submissions, etc.).
Think of a useless, veg-out type of activity that’s wasting your time. Maybe it’s that second hour on the couch watching TV. Imagine turning off the TV, and then choosing to do something very specific: I am going to set the timer and do 20 minutes of free writing on anything that pops into my head. I am going to search for submission opportunities. I’m going to pull out an old manuscript and change the POV. …
I love writing stories. I love tinkering with words. It’s such a joyful feeling to think, “I’ve got something here. I really think this time I’ve got something.”
And then I submit it to my critique partners.
I appreciate critiques. I really do. But honestly, sometimes I wonder if a colonoscopy would be less painful. (kidding)*
Living in a fantasy world where my manuscripts are ALWAYS PERFECT is a lovely place to be. But in the end, it is a very lonely place to be. No one else lives there. Just me.
Critique partners are great when you need help brainstorming or looking for a suggestion to get you over a writing hump. But as painful as it is, they are especially great when they act like vultures, swooping in on your fantabulous story, served up naked on a silver platter.
Sure, sure, sure, there are good things about your story, but chances are, there’s room for improvement. And no matter how nice they are about it, and how carefully they couch their suggestions, critiques of your “baby” can hurt.
“Oooo, what’s that thing? Hmmm. I don’t know … Maybe, you want to … or Hmmm, that doesn’t seem quite right. Ha! I like that part. Good start. Happy rewriting.”
Good start? “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! They don’t get it. They don’t know what they’re talking about.” You stomp around the room. You cry. You rip up paper. You promise yourself you will never, ever, ever write again.
Then you take a deep breath, and email: “Thank you for your insightful feedback.”
Insightful? Yes, because it is. And You know it. Maybe not now, but in a month or two when you pull out your story and read it again. “Oh. Right. Aha! That would make more sense. They were right.”
Not always right and not on everything. But enough, maybe a lot. The key here is to put space between you and your critiqued manuscript. That way, you can read it with fresh eyes and from a more critical perspective.
Then comes the opportunity to write an even better version of the story.
Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and then buckle up. It’s time to submit to the critique partners again.
Lord, have mercy, because hopefully, your critique partners will not.
*(My critique partners are actually quite wonderful. I would much rather get a critique from them then a colonoscopy. They are fabulous cheerleaders on my writing journey, and I am grateful for each one of them. If you don’t feel that way about yours, you need to find a more supportive tribe.)
I was never a big fan of the word “office.” Maybe because a lot of people identify it with something they want to get out of, have a break from, or leave completely.
One of the places where I write is my dining room table. Papers clutter the space around my laptop, and bright sunlight pours in from the windows that line one wall.
I’m always just a few steps from the kitchen cupboards and refrigerator. I’m also a leap or two from the window where I can see what the neighbor’s dog is barking at or what the kids are shouting about on the playground.
Don’t scold me. Those aren’t distractions. Those are mental breaks that might lead to musings, that might lead to something interesting.
My dining room table is a nice place to write. But it’s not my favorite place. It’s not always the best place for seedlings of ideas to sprout and bloom.
That would be here:
Writing is my mind wandering. And I don’t always wander well unless I’m moving. My mind works best weaving and winding down a tree-lined path or behind the wheel, gliding over a country road.
Ideas have even popped up unexpectedly in the shower, or while cleaning the toilet, or mowing the lawn. Sometimes my ideas go bump in the night. I’ve learned to write it down then and there, or risk losing it forever.
Sometimes when I get back to my seat in the dining room to tap out the idea on my laptop, that idea kind of fizzles and fades. It seemed brighter somehow when I was folding the laundry.
But sometimes it grows into something even better than I thought it would.
Yes, I know I need to plant myself in front of my laptop to actually get words to document. But I also know I need to take my mind out for a walk or a drive and let it run wild.
And for us writers, the best is waiting for us at the library and the bookstore.
Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.”
It’s not just about reading books that teach you how to improve your craft. It’s about reading books you love and immersing yourself in the kind of books you want to write.
In The Magic Words, editor Cheryl B. Klein writes, “If you want to write well, you must get good prose and story structures into your brain so they flow naturally onto the page. You can only do that through massive amounts of reading.”
Klein shares Newbery Medal-winning author Linda Sue Park’s suggestion that aspiring children’s writers need to read at least 500 books in the age range they hope to write for before they begin.
Read, love, learn
Study the books you love. Why do you love them? What is it about the writing, the plot, the characters that make you want to turn the page and keep reading?
One writing exercise is to rewrite a chapter of a book or an entire picture book to study and absorb the prose of a well-written story.
“Massive amounts of reading” may sound like a daunting task, but if we look back on our reading history, I bet most can honestly say, “Yes, I’ve already read a massive, walloping, humongous amount of books. And it was my pleasure.”
Now all we have to do is add purpose to that pleasure.
So, treat yourself, dear writer. Turn off the TV and delete that Solitaire app on your cellphone. Linger instead among the stacks of great books—a writer’s best friends and teachers.
Fiction writers: Put your hands up and move away from those single quotation marks.
Sometimes I see writers use single quotation marks around a word to show irony, to show the word is a nickname, or to show it’s a weird or unfamiliar term. By American punctuation standards, that’s downright unpatriotic.
Use double quotation marks instead:
Our “conversation” was Lucy scolding me nonstop for five minutes.
I met Harry “Big Head” Handley when he sat in front of me in English class.
My teacher referred to my fidgeting as “antsy-pantsy-wiggle-isms.” He would often interrupt class to say, “Mary, cease and desist with your antsy-pantsy-wiggle-isms.” (Note: Once you set off a weird word with quotation marks, you don’t have to do it again.)
When you write about the word as the word itself: I just learned what “vituperate” means. (You can also choose to italicize the word.)
When to use single quotation marks:
If you’re writing a quote within a quote: Larry said, “She was furious. She told me, ‘Larry, you’re a low-down, stinking, rotting skunk.’ ” (Note: Look where the period is located. The period always goes within the first quotation mark—unless you’re British. American writing style differs from British writing in several ways, including the use of single and double quotation marks.)
Or if there’s a quote within a newspaper or magazine headline: President vetoes ‘idiotic bill’
For fiction writing, that’s pretty much all you need to know about single quotation marks. Used correctly, you might see fewer of them on your pages.
Do you hear it? The clock is ticking, and writers everywhere are tapping out the beginnings of what should be 50,000 words by the end of National Novel Writing Month.
Even if you’re not writing a novel, use NaNo as a motivational exercise to tackle your personal writing goals.
Fifty-thousand words in the month of November may be an admirable goal for some, but maybe not for you. Maybe you want to get into the habit of writing consistently every day, or Monday through Friday, or maybe that one night of the week you have free. Then put that goal into your Google calendar and do it. Set your alarm on your phone and then write nonstop for an hour, or two, or however long you can. Make it about quality time, not word count.
Yes, people all over the world are madly tapping out words for NaNo, and (Yay!) so are you. But make it about you and your goals.
“How long is this dystopian ride going to last?” I asked.
“Oh, don’t even say the word dystopian. That is so over,” the young, bright-eyed literary agent told me. “What’s happening now is gritty realism.”
So, imaginary-futuristic-depressing gave way to contemporary-depressing in middle grade children’s books? Sigh.
“What about humor?”
“Weeell.” She scrunched up her nose and pulled her mouth into a tight line. “Humor is a hard sell,” she said. “It’s so subjective.”
But depressing is not. Got it.
Don’t get me wrong. I got into TheHunger Games as much as anyone. And I know readers—teenagers especially—feed off any devastating and gripping rollercoaster of a read. But do people want to read that all the time?
I like humor. Unfortunately, I don’t see enough of it on the bookshelves—for middle grade, young adults, and beyond.
Remember when Oprah had her TV book club? I would look for that little Oprah seal on a paperback and buy it. However, I bailed out early. My God, no wonder suburban housewives drink. Isn’t real life rocky enough without a constant consumption of depressing books?
Not much has changed since my conversation with the agent more than a year ago or even when Oprah first started her book club way back when. Are writers sad and angsty and tragic in general? Or is all that stuff just natural to write about?
I know I might be alone out here in La-La-Happy-Land, but … come on! Where’s your sense of humor, publishers? Writers? Help a reader out.
Do you know the difference between the words stationary and stationery?
When I edited articles for a parenting magazine, we got a charming piece about thank-you notes and how kids can create their own stationery. Charming. Except the writer kept using the word stationary, meaning not moving. Apparently, she didn’t catch the difference between stationary and stationery—and neither did her spell-check.
Homophones, words that sound alike but are spelled differently, can be a pain (as opposed to a pane). Examples:
ad – add
principle – principal
capitol – capital
cite – site
discreet – discrete
enumerate – innumerate
lightening – lightning
canvas – canvass
elicit – illicit
fare – fair
flair – flare
foreword – forward
peek – peak – pique
Did she arrive in the nick of time or the knick of time?
He got his just deserts or his just desserts?
I waited with bated breath or baited breath?
The tortoise had free rein of the house or free reign of the house?
Did he wreak havoc or reek havoc?
rein (I’m not lying.)
So, let’s be careful out there. Give your words a double take.