They can do it….so can you!

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hosting a book signing for a group of 4th and 5th graders who had each written novels during last November’s NaNoWriMo as part of their elementary school writing club. There are some great photos from this event, seeing as how their Language Arts teacher (and one of the leaders of the Writing Club) is also a professional photographer, but alas, I can’t just post photos of other people’s kids, so I won’t. Here’s a photo of a cake instead.

We held it in the student center of the college where I work, so there was a fair amount of college-kid foot traffic going past. Most of the college kids stopped to talk to the kids.

“What, ya’ll wrote a book? What, all together?”

“No, we each wrote our own,” one girl said. The others chimed in. They all wrote their own books.

The girls (they were all girls–maybe it was a situation of friends joining the club under the influence of friends?) were outgoing and seemed to be very accomplished marketers of their books as well. This was one of the learning objectives, according to the teacher who designed this program. The girls not only wrote their books and demonstrated perseverance and self-discipline during the month of November, but they also self-published them, and then practiced the soft skills of learning how to talk to people about their books.

“You serious?? How old are you?”

“I’m ten.”

“Eleven.”

“Ten.”

Not only were the kids adorable, but the upshot of that night is this: If a group of fourth and fifth graders can write novels (one of them was even the adult-length 50,000 word goal set for NaNoWriMo), then we all don’t have much excuse for not following our own passions, do we?

On Walking…

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There are two main ways I know to get unstuck if you need ideas and need to clear your head to write. The first is driving.  The second is going for a walk.

I don’t know what it is, why walking works. Perhaps it’s being both surrounded and confronted by the physical world, removed from one’s mind, while simultaneously submersed in our thoughts? When I walk, I feel the sun on my arms, hear the buzz of wasps that fly past or the sound of traffic on the highway, and smell the smoke from a neighbor’s cigarette. I must deal with sidewalks that end or mud that begins and I must navigate around it. I am immersed in the world.

At the same time, however, am usually alone in my thoughts when I walk, which forces me to juxtapose ideas I’ve had on the transience of life with the homeless backpacker and his dog, whom I just trekked past. Walking creates connections between the conscious and unconscious, the physical and spiritual, and those connections are sometimes just what we need to write.

When we walk, we also see things from a different angle than we do when we drive past in a car. We have a different vantage point. We see the cracks on a building. We see mildew growing in the corner of a house. We observe the Rottweiler guarding a back door with a splintered frame and imagine the children who play in the brand-new swing-set that adorns a side yard. We wouldn’t have seen this if we drove past, focused on speed limits and traffic lights.

So, if you catch yourself getting stuck with writing–or in any way–it can’t hurt to go for a walk. To immerse yourself in the world.

Bullet Journals for Better Writing

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Several months ago, I was in a university bookstore with my daughter when I learned about bullet journals.  As we passed a display of Moleskine notebooks, I took a moment to swoon because I can’t pass any kind of notebook, from old school composition notebooks to Moleskines to those leather journals they sell at the Renaissance Festival and as I swooned, my oldest daughter told me about bullet journals.

“A what?” I asked.

“A bullet journal?  You really haven’t heard of this?”

“I’m old.  That’s been well established,”  I said.  “So tell me.”

“Well, it’s like a journal and a planner and a sketchbook and a diary, or whatever you want, all in one,” she said. “Go google it. It’s totally up your alley.”

A few days later, I googled it and my daughter wasn’t kidding–I am not sure what rock I was hiding under, but bullet journaling was absolutely up my alley.

I spent that afternoon mining the internet’s wisdom on the subject of bullet journals, then another few minutes on Amazon buying a Leuchtturm1917 and other supplies (shocking how easy that is to do) and I’ve been toting one around with me ever since.  I am currently on my third one (two are pictured above. The other one I used a different type of notebook [Ren Fest….cough, cough] and it is beautiful, but also huge and cumbersome. I recommend not doing that–use something smaller that you can take with you everywhere) and I use it constantly, which is a positive change in every way.  I keep track of everything from work details to remembering to take out the trash, and I am able to define and take clear steps to achieve all goals.  I use the journal as I never did before. Sure, I have been an avid journal-keeper since high school, but I was also one of those folks who had several journals going at once–one in my purse, one for work, one about writing ideas, one about personal stuff, and I always felt indulgent taking the time to write in them.  But no longer. Now, all of my stuff is in one place and with me at all times. And heck yeah, I’m going to write in it–my journal helps me to tackle all the stuff!

She also wasn’t kidding about how much information is out there on bullet journaling.  If you also have no idea what a bullet journal is, then go google it and meet me back here.

[*waits…..doodles in own bullet journal Makes a shopping list. Tells Alexa to turn off the coffee. Asks Alexa if she’s a spy. Alexa’s answer is disconcerting. Waits again. Huh, what?  You’re back!]

Cool, right?  I know!!  In your search, you probably learned that Ryder Carroll developed the original bullet journal idea.  You can read it by googling and then adapt it to your own life.

Of course, five minutes on Pinterest or Tumblr or YouTube will reveal all of the different approaches to bullet journaling, many of them transforming a simple little notebook into works of visual art that far exceed my abilities or willingness.  If you’re like me, I move along when I see those types of bullet journals (after admiring them for a bit, of course) because those layouts just aren’t going to work for a writer. I’m a writer, after all, not a painter or a sketch artist.  The important point, however, is that you can adapt your bullet journal for your own life, your own needs, and your own approaches.

Enter, writing.  My use of bullet journaling has morphed over the last several months as I have learned how to use it as a tool in nearly every area of my life, which of course, includes writing. To that end, here is how I have been using bullet journaling for writing:

Idea Gathering: This is the most obvious for most writers and the chief reason we carry notebooks around in the first place. Prior to my bullet journal, I had notes scattered all over random Evernote files or on scraps of paper, which I inevitably lost.  Now? When I get an idea, I jot it down and highlight it in orange. I can flip through any book and find all the orange. Easy.

Reading Notes: As I’ve mentioned, good writers read! And what does a good writer do when she reads a nugget like, “It’s odd how much we want to be in love when you think about how much anxiety comes with it, like a tax on money you won in the lottery,” (Joe Hill, Rain), you can write it down.  (Disclaimer:  that Hill quote is just the most recent quote I wrote in my own journal because I just finished reading Rain. I am not implying it’s the best line ever written, but I do like it. I’m just lazy and also giving you an example of how this reading note thing works by flipping through my own notes I took this week).

Really-Rough-Drafts: I’ve also mentioned that I suffer from HUGE writing anxiety. This  is an unfortunate condition for a writer, but what sometimes helps me to get going is to write rough drafts in pencil, on paper, just to get me past the “first draft hump.” What better place than writing in my journal? I have it with me all the time, after all, and if I have some time waiting for something, I can pull out my pencil and have at it.  It helps me by saying, “this is just drafting….you’re just having fun!”  Once I get a good draft going, I move to the keyboard.

Conversation Spying:  Nothing improves your dialog more than eavesdropping in a crowded cafe.  And writing down what you hear. Hey, I don’t judge you.

Character Development: Sure, we can use a word-processing program to develop our characters, but journaling allows us to draw arrows, shapes, doodle our ideas out of our locked minds.  And a bullet journal helps with that.

Habit Tracking: Not writing?  Add it to your habit tracker and watch how, over time, you begin to develop good habits, from eating healthy to writing every day.  Go google that, too, and then have your colored pencils ready!

Those are just a few ways I have used my bullet journal for writing.  At this point, you may be wondering how to keep track of all of this? My own system is just to write the topic at the top of the page (ie: “Character of Marty” or “Lawyer Story Part A”) and then add it to the index (bullet journaling involves updating an index in the front to keep track of the pages). I don’t use the index for every day “to do list” logging, but I do find it useful to use one for keeping track of notes and detailed things that I intend to reference later.

Also, for the technology buffs, I found that if you take a photo of the “Moleskine-sized” journals (and a Luechtturm1917 falls into this category), Evernote recognizes it as an “Moleskine upload” and will recognize the handwriting. Boo-yah!  Now your notes are searchable if you want to also upload some of them to Evernote, just in case. I don’t upload the whole journal, but I do upload work notes or writing sketches, just as backups.

So…my daughter created a bullet-journal monster.  In the end, she doesn’t even keep a bullet journal, but it’s an integral part of my day and I hope some of this is helpful for you, too, writers out there!  Happy journaling!

 

That’s A Story

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People who know me in real life know that I tend to punctuate most conversations with “That’s a story.” If you tell me about how your next door neighbors got divorced and moved into separate houses on opposite ends of the same neighborhood?  Well, that’s a story.  If you tell me how your uncle won a hot wing eating competition? That’s a story as well.  And your description of your great aunt Lucille who can’t take left-hand turns?  It takes Lucille an extra hour to get anywhere because she refuses to turn left. That’s definitely a story.

Everyone is fascinating to a writer.  Everyone is a story.  Even boring people are fascinating in their seeming-boringness; no one can be boring, so what tumult lies beneath those still waters?

Writers love jury duty and airports.  Recently, two members of my family got called to jury duty and I was jealous of them, first because I want to serve on a jury, but also because I, too, want to sit in a room with a selection of random individuals for a few hours, all in the name of civic duty. I want to study the lines on eyes as they squint through glasses, and the curves of mouths as they whisper words into phones, and observe calloused fingers as they punch cracked phone screens.

This post was going to be a list of ways to get ideas for your writing, but at the end of the day, all it boils down to is having the realization that people are endlessly fascinating. And pretty much everything can be a story, if you are waiting for it.

Aim Low! (The “A-Little-Is-Better-Than-Nothing” Approach to Goal-Setting)

This post goes out to the procrastinators of the world. The writers who have great ideas bouncing around in their writerly minds, but still find it difficult to dedicate the time needed to transfer those ideas into words. I feel you, procrastinators! But I do have some advice: Set a low daily writing goal you know you can meet and stick to it. Pretty soon, you will be not only meeting those goals, but exceeding them.

How low, you ask? Very low. As low as you think you need in order to get yourself in the habit of daily writing. For some people, that may only be a couple of sentences, even, or a couple of paragraphs. For others, it may be a couple of pages. Whatever “low” is for you.

This is how the medical community motivates people to exercise, after all. If they tell folks who haven’t walked any further than from their bedroom to their living room or out to their car in the last fifteen years to suddenly walk the hour per day necessary for optimum health, they will immediately squash the poor patient’s feeling of agency. “Why even bother?” the patient will think, “I’m gonna sit here and watch Judge Judy. I’ve been fine all my life so far without this walking nonsense.” Instead, doctors tell patients to walk or exercise an achievable amount of, perhaps, “fifteen minutes per day.” An hour seems unachievable, but fifteen minutes–a walk around the block–seems more doable for almost everyone. Of course, once people begin walking around the block, they realize (depending on their health, of course. I’m not trying to be insensitive here) that this is not only doable, but they feel better. So the next week, they maybe walk further. The next week, they may walk further. And pretty soon they are walking all over the neighborhood, five miles a day. But initially, they need to set a small goal and meet it. And even if the goal never grows, fifteen minutes of walking is better than nothing at all.

As a person who suffers horribly from writerly self-doubt and perfectionism, I set my own daily goal at an achievable 500 words. Five hundred words is a pretty easy goal to meet for me and if I’m on a roll, it takes no more than twenty minutes of my day. If I’m not on a roll, it can take longer, but it’s never more than 45 minutes to write a measly 500 words. The goal here is to just get myself writing: It’s “only five hundred words. It’s like brushing your teeth and washing your face. You brush your teeth, don’t you? You have time to do that….” So, I sit down to write my 500 words more often than not, and while I’m writing, I realize I’ve actually written 700 or 1000 because once I cross the “I don’t have time to write” threshold, I remember how much fun it is for me, how relaxing it is for me, how much I fundamentally enjoy writing. If I had never set a low goal, though, I never would have been able to talk myself into it. Because I am ever-so-busy, of course.

I stand by this little trick–it works every time. Would I be more productive to force myself to write 2,000 words per day? Maybe. But for the long haul, sometimes we just need to get into the habit of doing a little bit, every day, consistently. Because in the end, that’s how we live our lives. Bit by bit, day by day.

Advice to Future English Majors

Earlier this week, I had a student visit with me because she wanted to know whether or not she should become an English major. With no other guidance, I did what any other self-respecting former English-major would do: I began blabbering away, with great enthusiasm, detailing everything from my own experiences with an English degree (yes, it is a degree worth having, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), my own career path (an English degree may not lead to the most linear career path, but it certainly gives you more options than most people realize), and also, because this student seemed to want my advice on how to pursue writing, I blathered on about that, too.

In short, I told her the following:

  • I became an English major because I really liked to read and write, and had since childhood, so it was an easy choice for me. In fact, at the time, it was the only thing I thought I could do. It was the only thing I wanted to do. That may not be the case with her necessarily, but whatever she chose to do, she should ultimately enjoy the crux of whatever it is she chose.
  • The world has a shortage of people who can write well, so if she CAN write well, she will be ahead of most people in the career world. We need people who can write and just being able to do that (and successful English majors generally can) gives a person a tremendous edge.
  • The world also has a shortage of people who can think logically and critically, so if she could do that, too, she would also be ahead of most people in the career world. A degree in English can help prepare students for logical thinking, unpacking of arguments, finding errors in reasoning, and so forth.
  • Given the above, did she like to read and write? Because if not, then she’d be miserable being an English major. English majors do a LOT of reading and writing. Deep reading. “Writing-in-the-margins-after-reading-a-work-four-times” kind of reading, of the like she may have never done before.
  • Given all that, you don’t need to be an English major to learn how to write fiction. Many well-known writers had other careers, too. Just as an FYI.
  • That fear of failure at the blank page? (She nodded). That doesn’t go away. Writers learn to just live with it and find a way to tackle the fear of the blank page.
  • Every day, she should read. Every. Single. Day. It doesn’t really matter what. If she reads great literature, she’d learn how to read critically and write better. If she read crap, she’d learn how to read critically, how not to write crap, and she’d gain confidence that if that nonsense could be published, so could her own work. Ideally, she should read both quality work and crap (with more focus on quality work, of course). She should read anything and everything, so she can learn a confidence with the written word, learn new vocabulary, learn varieties of sentence structure, learn what works and doesn’t work. Writers read. There is no way around that.
  • Every day, she should write. Keep a journal and write down observations and notes on her world. This could be any notebook of her choosing, even on her phone notebook app for that matter, but all self-respecting writers need to jot down their thoughts and ideas on a continual basis so they don’t forget them.
  • Every first draft is crap and she should embrace that idea. This is completely fine and telling herself that will help her get started. But she should also remember that writers revise. A lot.
  • Don’t listen to the nay-sayers who tell you your English degree will be useless. I have never once regretted my English degree, even before graduate school. When I was an undergraduate, marketing majors loved to harass me about my English major and were forever asking me, “WHY are you majoring in English??” Well, guess what my one of my early jobs involved? That’s right: I was a marketing gopher. I wrote ad copy, press releases, and did other marketing-related work for two different marketing departments. When they hired me, they said when that they preferred to hire people with an English degree over a marketing degree (ha!). So, do your research and know what’s out there–don’t just listen to equally uninformed people without thinking critically. That’s not how future English majors roll.
  • Just because you have a degree, this doesn’t mean you will automatically get a job, English degree or other. There are a lot of people wandering around in the world with lots of degrees, but no job. It’s up to you to get the job. To this end, I recommended she make connections early while still in college. Talk to professors, be involved, get to know people in the community.
  • Be prepared to work hard. While it doesn’t involve math (amen!), being an English major is still not an easy degree. Think: 2 books of reading per week. Lots of papers.

In the end, I think I may have left her overwhelmed, clutching a Post-It note where I’d written a list of books to read, but I think it was good advice. I hope it was, anyway.

I wasn’t going to even write this post, but then, like a message from the Great Beyond, I was drinking my coffee this morning and got a good glimpse of my daughter’s laundry bag, which she brought down from her room so she could do her laundry. Check it out at the top. It is cute, unless you look closely and study the words. Then, it burns. Oh, how it burns.

Now, this bag was probably not made in an English-speaking country (one can hope), but still. I think it illustrates my point, future English scholars. If you can write well, the world needs you!

NaNoWriMo….Lesson Learned

Okay, so I’m back. Besides my brief post about my latest “Sea Glass,” the last any of you heard from me was when I finally “won” NaNoWriMo 2017. Then the holidays happened, etc., and now, here I am, ready to debrief about my NaNo experience two months ago….mea culpa!

At any rate, was NaNoWriMo worth it? Sure. Will I do it again? Who knows? The experience pushed my natural tendency toward neurosis a bit further than it needs to be pushed and the resulting “novel” is certainly not pretty, as was to be expected. I’m a goal-oriented Type A person anyway, so the whole thing stressed me out more than was probably necessary (ie: if I say I’m going to write a novel, I’ll write it. I don’t know if I need a NaNoWriMo experience to accomplish that psychologically), but it was also kind of fun to be able to wear my Winner shirt with pride (yes, I bought one, which I wore all the way through December while I finally got around to decorating the Christmas trees).

If you do decide to tackle NaNoWriMo, however, I highly recommend buying Chis Baty’s No Plot, No Problem! I bought the book and I love how Baty walks Wrimoers through the experience, giving them tips on what to expect at each week of the process. Sure enough, when the month started, I bounded through the week, writing 2,000 + words per day on average. I also recommend using Scrivener as well, if only because it has a word-goal feature–that alone is cool and even though I’ve been using Scrivener for a few years, I didn’t know about the word-goal feature (Of course, I don’t know about a LOT of the Scrivener features….there’s a lot to learn). I intend to use the word-count goal with Scrivener on a regular basis going forward, for all writing projects.

After a couple of weeks of writing, however, I hit some snags. None were due to plot issues or tangles in character–at least not at first–but rather honest-to-God time-constraint issues. Thanksgiving may allow “a built-in holiday,” according to Baty, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, if you are the person who cooks all the food for all the people and decorates the house for the holidays, along with all your other life tasks, this doesn’t leave much time for writing–especially not regimented writing. Throw in a few high-stakes work commitments and some kid-driven dramz and pretty soon, you are about ready to throw in the towel.

Which I did. For three days, maybe four, I focused on the rest of my chaotic life, deciding that in the grand scheme of things, giving up on something as insane as NaNoWriMo wasn’t the end of the world…..it’s not like I stopped writing or anything. I do write–just not every single day for a month. I made excuses, excuses, excuses, until some ultra-competitive part of me that doesn’t like to lose kicked in around day four or five and I decided to finish what I started.

And then I did that, too. I kicked it into high gear and allowed myself to write the worst damn piece of crap I have ever probably written, and that includes the drivel I wrote in freshman creative writing seminars (lord, help me). Oh, man, it was bad. I didn’t delete it, but I should.

But I finished it. And I bought a shirt, which I wore with pride, even though most people have no idea why I was wearing a “Winner 2017” shirt. (“Winner of what? Huh? why, again?”) And there IS something to be said for being able to say, “I did that!” Even if what you did was incredibly stupid on the surface.

So, there’s that.

But what lessons did I learn? Here they are, in no specific order:

  • You can do whatever the heck you want to when you really want it. In this case, I wanted to write a complete novel in a month, come hell or high water. Goal accomplished. On with the next one!
  • I AM still a pantser. I feel, though, that if I had more time to linger and didn’t need to “finish” a specific word count, I could have lingered on places that needed lingering a bit longer. It would have been even more fun, given my personality. I was more focused on finishing than having fun. And writing should be fun, after all.
  • Too many characters….I just had too many. IF I rewrite this novel (highly unlikely), I will trim several. I’m no Dostoevsky. Clearly.
  • Make time each day to write–choose some goal (it doesn’t have to be 1,667 words, either)
  • I can write a novel. Damn straight! You can too. 🙂

NaNoWriMo Nearly Done!!! Keep Going!

So….last week, I didn’t write for four days and I had already mentally composed a blog post where I described how while I hadn’t “won” NaNo, it had still been worth it and blah, blah, blah…November is a brutal month for this, particularly when you ARE the person who cooks Thanksgiving dinner for 14 people and puts up the Christmas trees (fun fact: the Christmas decorations are in boxes on my kitchen floor right now and have been there since Friday). I have been following along with Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! which has been useful and fun, but Chris, lemme tell you, I don’t have a “caretaker” in my writing quest. I AM the caretaker. I have five kids and a career where I can’t just write at work, even if I were so inclined to do that morally, because I actually have work that has to be done and I even bring work home I have so much work and blah, blah, blah….NaNoWriMo is just too hard.

So, that was my whiny post until Friday, where I decided that while I wasn’t going to finish NaNo, I’d finish the novel I started. So I sat down to write a more reasonable 1,000 words before starting to put up the Christmas decorations.

But then I saw….I wasn’t THAT far behind. If I wrote a little under 3,000 words per day, I could still “win.” Hmmm….I guess I could decorate for Christmas in early December.

I hate not winning. I’m pretty competitive, even with myself. And while I still maintain that even if you don’t “win” NaNoWriMo, it’s still worth tackling, I, personally, felt it was worth it to see it through to the end.

So, I started tapping away at the keyboard.

Oh, it’s an awful piece of crap, let me tell you. This crap novel will not see the light of day, I swear, but I’m at 41,531 words now (I haven’t written yet today) and I think I’ll finish it.

So, all you Wrimo-ers out there! It might be worth it to keep going! You can do it.