Tag Archives: writing prompt

Friday Links for Writers: 04.29.16

Round tower bend, Waterford, Ireland. copyright Elissa Field.

Round tower bend, Waterford, Ireland. copyright Elissa Field.

It has been another busy writing week. New fiction. Book editing for a client. Research and academic work to finish a masters class. Digital portfolio…

My biggest writing priorities this week have been getting my novel printed for read-through, and hosting #wssprint.

On the novel: I’d made it through the 9th draft of my novel, appreciating the ability to shuffle new chapters in Scrivener. But that also means I spent an undue amount of time this week hair-pulling in order to compile the novel back out as Word document. God love Scriv — a difficult child, requiring deep digging into its Advanced custom menus to simply ask it not to reformat everything in order to print (smh). I’ll still be working through this much of today, to get the 10th draft in printed form, ready for big read-through revision.

What is #wssprint? I’ll be hosting the last of 6, all-day live writing sprints on Twitter with my writing group, Wordsmith Studio. The sprints run from 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. EST, starting at the top of each hour. It’s been a fantastic experience each week. But also requires preloading 72+ organic tweets through twitchy Hootsuite, finding or originating prompts that take novels deeper, plus manning the live event. So do come visit, if you’re reading this 4/29 — or look for periodic events in the future. (On Twitter #wssprint or blog post)

But as with any week, time writing includes time for reading…  This week’s Friday Links for Writers includes advice on pitching, relevance, freelancing and more. Let us know what you find meaningful, or share your own favorite links.

Have a great writing week!

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22 of the Best Single Sentences on Writing

As Lit Reactor puts it: if good writing is succinct, shouldn’t the advice be, too? 22 single sentences with advice from Chekov, Gaiman, Oates, King and more.

Tips for Writing the Perfect Pitch

This piece by Estelle Erasmus on BlogHer is insightful as to what makes for an effective pitch — advice that resounds among my freelancing friends.

Thoughts on Pitch Contests

On the eve of another Twitter pitch madness event (#PitchMad or #pitchmadness), agent Julie A. Weber gave her thoughts on the process for pitching novels in these events, including do’s and don’ts.

Relevant

Agent and writer Donald Maass has a way of cutting to the heart of what makes breakout fiction today, and his posts on Writer Unboxed tend to stick with me. This, on “relevance,” came to mind as I was reading a recent bestseller and could see how, without particular threads of relevance the novel would have fallen flat.

Freelancers Roundtable

Interesting Longreads conversation between three freelancers — Josh Dean, May Jeong and Jason Fagone — about the state of freelancing and their experiences on various aspects of the business, from finding ideas to negotiating, and more.

Ontario

Colin Barrett is a slick & insightful writer whose collection Young Skins is described as voice of today’s young Ireland. Irish Times shared “Ontario” as a short story — to me, it’s more depiction of how we write (and don’t write) from reality. Here or elsewhere, Barrett’s worth reading.

Another Hidden Message Box on Facebook

This isn’t specific to writing, yet ran wild through writers’ posts recently. So, you know there’s a message/inbox in Facebook, right? Some folks freak out to discover there’s also a second inbox (called “message requests”), catching attempts to message you by people who are not your friends. Look at the foot of that: click the link that says “see filtered requests.” That’s a third inbox — and friends have found everything from letters from readers to requests from agents in there. Thanks for the confusion, FB.

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What Are You Working On?

Chime in to share your current writing goal or link to a recent favorite read in the comments. April has been a month with friends using a range of challenges to work through writing and editing goals. A group of published friends merely start a FB post each week to keep accountable, keeping each other going. Others have used #AprWritingChallenge, Camp NaNoWriMo, Poem a Day Challenge, A to Z Blog Challenge and others to claim time to write with the camaraderie of others. In conversation (#wschat), writers traded personal strategies for finding time.

What do you do to claim time to write?

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Need Motivation?

cElissaField

cElissaField

Don’t forget: I’ll be on Twitter with Wordsmith Studio all day today (4/29) to host hourly writing sprints. Find me @elissafield, follow hashtag #wssprint or read more in this prior post.

Even if you’re past the live date, you can find prior sprint days (with prompts) on my Storify — and continue to follow #wssprint and Wordsmith Studio, as we offer these events periodically throughout the year (current plans for a summer and October series)

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If you like this blog, be sure to click the WordPress +follow button, or follow via email or Bloglovin options in the sidebar. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield or on Facebook.

For more Friday Links for Writers:Thinking of Him

  • Friday Links for Writers: Quirky Research Sources for Writers #3
  • Scan summaries of the links shared on all Friday Links posts: hover over individual post-titles listed on the Links & Where to Find Me page

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Join Wordsmith’s Live Writing Sprints on Twitter: #wssprint

cElissaField What we love about writing: constantly changing corner office view.

cElissaField What we love about writing: constantly changing corner office view.

Do you use word counts, hourly goals or other motivators to reach your writing goals? April is a great month for joining in any of a variety of writing challenges. Wordsmith Studio brings them all together with weekly writing sprints, every Friday in April.

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Join Hourly Writing Sprints Every Friday in April

Along with a fabulous group of writers, Elissa Field is a Founding Member at Wordsmith StudioYou may know I am a founding member of Wordsmith Studio, an awesome group of writers and artists who share craft resources and support each other throughout the year. We celebrate each other’s writing, keep each other going, and laugh a lot. This month, we are celebrating our 4th anniversary.

My part of our month-long celebration has been planning and serving as a moderator for all day writing sprints, live on Twitter every Friday in April. Look for camaraderie, motivation and some seriously smoking keyboards with hourly writing sprints, each Friday from 11am-11pm EST.

How #wssprint Works

The live sprints take place on Twitter. Follow #wssprint , or find via @WordsmithStudio  or @elissafield. (If you’re a Wordsmith member, we repeat some tweets in Facebook, as well.)

Beginning at 11 am EST, sprints start with a kick-off tweet on the hour. Write or edit for 45 minutes, then share your success — word count, page count, plotting solution, a favorite line, whatever — using #wssprint at :45. We take a break for 15 minutes (time to chat, share, ask questions, invite a friend, cheer each other on), then start again at :00, up until 11 pm EST.

Optional Prompts

Every hour, there is an optional writing prompt.

The prompts are great — more than 13 a day. I am a huge fan of novel prompts shared by Donald Maass in 21st Century Fiction (highly recommended for building depth, power and tension, when building or revising a novel), so we share some from him. Here is a favorite – you can see why I think he’s awesome.

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Sarah Turnbull (@thesaturnbull) and I wrote the prompts that aren’t credited to Maass, based on writing advice that has impacted our work. There are also photo prompts and ones coordinated with challenges our members are working on (see below).

But there are no rules. No prompts required. Lots of our writers are editing, rather than writing. Use the time however gets you going. Most say it’s just nice to feel like someone else is writing or editing with you.

Do take time to say hello, while you’re there.

What Goals Are Writers Working On?

Some of our participants are using the sprints for organized writing challenges, such as Camp NaNoWriMo, Poem a Day Challenge, A to Z Blog Challenge, or the monthly 500-word-a-day challenge (#AprWritingChallenge this month).

But most — including our Wordsmith Studio Goals Group or visitors from Writer Unboxed and Binder subgroups — are using sprints to keep going with existing goals.

I am using sprints to keep moving from draft 9 to draft 10 of my novel, Never Said. The first week, I finished transcribing handwritten scenes, incorporating new work and changes into the draft. Some writing sprints are chance to anchor scenes with more developed setting, now that I’ve fully developed character and plot. Sometimes I’m working on nonfiction, writing for education or editing for clients.

We’re all jumping in to inspire each other.

Oh, No. I Missed It!

Not all of our participants write along with us “live” — jump in to use the sprints whenever it works for you. You can scan #wssprint to find the prompts and share your success any time. Or, visit previous #wssprint days via Storify. And, considering the success this month and when we ran Fridays Are for (Spooky) Writing last October, be sure to follow @WordsmithStudio for sprints we run in the future.

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How About You?

What challenges are you working on in your writing this week, or what strategies help you reach your goals? We’d love to hear from you — share your thoughts or links in the comments.

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If you like this blog, be sure to click the WordPress +follow button, or follow via email or Bloglovin options in the sidebar. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield or on Facebook.

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Wordsmith Studio Blog Hop: Writing Challenges, Successes & Strategies – Part 1

I love this sign from Atlantic Center for the Arts, which comes on the heels of a sign asking the public not to venture beyond a point where the center is reserved for artists. c Elissa Field

I love this sign from Atlantic Center for the Arts, which comes on the heels of a sign asking the public not to venture beyond a point where the center is reserved for artists. c Elissa Field

I’m joining in Wordsmith Studio’s 3rd Anniversary Blog Hop, today — responding to a great Q & A about my (recent) writing challenges or successes, and the tools, strategies or resources that help me succeed.10634351_10100112304388454_1141723537_n

Being a little funny, there, calling it a “great” prompt, as I was actually the one to write it. This is the third week I’ve hosted the WSS blog hop for writers, for our anniversary month.

I encourage you to go over and check out the hop. You don’t have to be a member of the writing group to join in. Do jump around and read the various posts. Particularly this week — it would be great if you shared a post with your own writing challenges and your tools or strategies for success. I’ll post links to the hop down below.

But not yet. First, here’s the interview.

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Q & A: My Writing Challenges (or Successes) and the Tools, Strategies or Resources That Help Me Succeed – Part 1

1) What are you currently working on?

My work is split between my business (freelance nonfiction, writing & editing), my Masters (writing and research related to curriculum & learning) and fiction. I occasionally write short stories (have a had a few published, a couple awards — small fry), but spend most of my time on novels. I work toward literary fiction, or what is referred to as crossover or book club fiction — literary fiction with commercial appeal.

I am working on a novel called Never Said (it was nicknamed Wake elsewhere on the blog). It trines between the U.S., Ireland and the Middle East, with one couple’s love affair unraveling a tension of what it is to live “without war” in an era when war touches everything.

As tools go: I use Outlook to block out time for business, masters and fiction, and to keep to do lists with weekly steps that help keep me moving forward in all 3 goals. I share goals with friends and with a life coach, to organize my goals and keep me accountable.

2) In recent past, what was your greatest joy or greatest challenge?

I have been impatient to complete this novel — but it was challenging, as it was the first one I attempted where the idea wasn’t that clear when I started writing. I knew the main characters and understood an essential tension, but had to go deep into research to understand the international context, and then deeper into character to develop the motivation and parallel stories that drive each.

Badge for my personal 2015 challenge with this novel.

Badge for my personal 2015 challenge with this novel.

It’s easy to get impatient when you feel like you should be able to have finished by now (twice, I thought I was revising a final draft), but as I work on this 8th draft, it is obvious that I had to work this long to understand the story that I had only sensed in the earlier versions. A fast version would have “worked,” but wasn’t compelling. Being willing to pull up and start over let me find the real story. And, of course, hard work teaches valuable lessons.

The greatest joy is that I love the newer material.

As resources go: 2 books on writing offered some good tools for targeting and addressing weak areas in my narrative or characters: Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions, and Donald Maass’s Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling

3) What challenge are you working through now?

Time is always an issue — especially right now, as I restarted my business and am busy with my kids — so any time delays are aggravating. I had a tree fall across my windshield 2 weeks ago, so groaned over the time spent getting it fixed. Same goes for lags in technology, or time spent marketing for work.

It’s not just about having time to write every day, but wanting those writing hours to be end-zone-level productive.

Transitioning between drafts means that I am pulling successful scenes from several documents in Word to build the new draft. Last summer, on the last draft, I did this simultaneously in Word and Scrivener; Scrivener has won me over, so I may be assembling this draft just in Scrivener. Although it sometimes slows me down to have to set up all the preferences, I like the ability to see each scene as a discreet piece in Scriv. Much of my writing in recent months involved re-envisioning existing scenes — the ‘notecard’ view helps me locate, compare or replace previous versions, and to readily sort scenes that will be re-ordered in the final draft. The challenge, though, when working from multiple drafts is staying organized.

As tools go: I believe in Scrivener enough that I’ve include a link to their site in my sidebar. If you don’t know much about the software, click the picture here to check it out (if it takes you to a “buy” page, click the banner for the homepage for more about…). They are generous in offering a 30 nonconsecutive-day free trial, which allows you a lot of time to play with it before having to pay.

Buy Scrivener for Windows (Regular Licence)

4) For work you are just planning or starting, what challenges or growth are you expecting or hoping to encounter?

I’ve drafted novels and met with agents face-to-face before, but this will be my first foray into blind querying. I’ve practiced pitching and spitballing at conferences and workshops in the last year, and gotten an agent’s feedback on a query draft.

As for strategies: It’s worth noting that attempting to draft a query or plan pitches and log lines during different face-to-face activities with peers and agents is part of what helped me know when I didn’t have a clear sense of the story. Writing pitches and queries ended up being a great strategy for understanding my narrative structure.

5) What have successes or challenges in your work (recently) taught you?

Well, the thing I just mentioned. Having come from a literary background where these things aren’t brooded on as much as word choice and such, I was surprised how important plot structure, narrative arc, suspense and other elements more typically suited to screenwriting have been, as tools in my revisions.

As resources go: the sign at the top of this post was from a workshop I participated in last January (Blue Flower Writers Workshop at Atlantic Center for the Arts), where Ben Percy was the clearest I’ve heard in talking about structure and suspense, even in literary writing.

6) What obstacles or challenges have you not been able to overcome, or still frustrate you? Is there a “magic wand” you would invent to solve this problem?

Yes, I want Hermione’s time turner — to be able to use the same hour to address multiple priorities. It’s not that I don’t have the time. Keeping time to write (fiction) every week is a nonnegotiable for me — I am stubborn in crafting the rest of my life around it, even while running a business or when I teach full time. But I still get frustrated to not be done yet.

As tools go: A magic wand that pulls the story straight out of my head would be great. As strategies go: here are other posts I’ve written on time management strategies for writers.

To Be Continued…

There are 2 more questions to the Q & A, asking how I would define a great writing week and what specific tools and strategies help me succeed. Those answers are long enough that I’m going to let them be a second post.

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How About You? Join in the Blog Hop!

What successes or challenges are you working through, and what tools, resources or strategies help you succeed?

I’d love to hear your answers in the comments.  Better yet, if you are reading this 4/29-5/4, join in the blog hop by using the linky tool below.  Visit the initial prompt, with all 8 questions and more explanation of “how to hop,” on Wordsmith Studio’s site: Writers’ Homecoming Blog Hop – Week 3.

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Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

If you like the idea of more blog hops, let me know, as I may host them in the future on this site.

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If you like this blog, be sure to click the WordPress +follow button, or subscribe via email or Bloglovin options in the sidebar if you don’t have a WordPress account. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield or on Facebook. I love to connect with readers and writers.

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Writing Prompt: Develop Setting – Inspired by Colson Whitehead on New York City

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

I am a very visual person — I think in pictures — so writing setting is perhaps the last aspect of storytelling that I worry about. In writing a story set in India, details crept into every line without me thinking about them. I knew the exact color of shadows, the moment a bird would flush out of dry brush. A lot of writers can relate to this, especially if their drive to tell a story is inspired by place.

But that’s not always the case. In Friday Links for Writers: 3.21.14 , I quoted Anne Enright from a bit of advice where she said, “description is hard.”

Describing setting can be a powerful way to engage readers, conjure up surprising sensory details, reveal character, add resonance to a scene, develop internal and external conflicts… but it has do so in a way that moves the story, and that fits the voice and character(s)’ point of view.

Continuing the series on Novel Revision, today’s post shares a prompt for developing an important setting in your story, making it work to build character, motion and greater resonance. While many details may have come about in a first draft, midlevel revision is a great time to revise for ideas that were not yet clear in your first vision.

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Find a Place to Stand

Anne Enright’s advice was: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.”

This is a great starting point for thinking about setting: begin by knowing your character(s)’ point of view and seeing your setting from where the character stands.

Colson Whitehead on New York

Some of you may know I am working from my family’s house outside New York City at the moment, and felt the impact of this year’s anniversary of 9.11.01 in that context. On the anniversary, Jodi Kantor shared on Twitter a link to Colson Whitehead’s beautiful article from the New York Times that ran November 11, 2001.

As a New Yorker living in the city as it recovered, Colson wrote not directly about the event, but about what defines one’s connection to and identification as being from the city.

Read it because it’s beautiful — and because we’ll use it as our prompt. (Read it now, or in the prompt below: The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01)

The First Brick in Your City

Colson says, “You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it.” Anyone who’s spent time in New York knows what he means by “private New York,” as everyone comes to define their own sense of the city — a city so large that any of us sees it only in pieces.

But isn’t that true of each character’s response to setting?

In the paragraph that follows, Colson lists a handful of ways a person might have experienced their first moment in the city.

Freeze it there,” he says; “that instant is the first brick in your city.”

There is so much about writing setting that can be taken from his words. The point of details in your novel is not to inform a reader of what to see and do when visiting the place; you are not a glorified camera taking a picture for the reader. What matters about the places in your story are the ways your character(s) perceive and respond to them.

In Colson’s essay, each example of a newbie arriving in New York City presents a character you can view clearly in your mind, despite being limited to the details of a single sentence. They are details of setting, but they clearly define the interaction of people within that setting. The details involve objects, structures, qualities and even the kinds of actions and thoughts a character has within that setting. A detail could be as mundane as holding a piece of paper or a communication between friends, but the detail is not left vague. “The phone rang,” could happen in any city, but Colson made the same detail of a phone call place-defining, as: “there was some mix-up in the plans.”

Prompt for Developing Details of Setting

So let’s turn his essay into a prompt for your own writing today.

Interpret this for whatever you are working on: a novel, a short story, a poem, a detail in your memoir, a detail in an essay, details fleshed out for a travel piece, or start something new.  You won’t be recreating Colson’s format; you’ll just use the prompt for generating details in whatever scene you imagine.

  1. Read Colson Whitehead’s The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01
  2. Have in mind the place you will write about, thinking of it first as it is in the story’s present. Tip: Have in mind a specific place. For existing work, this will be an important location in your piece. For new work, be sure to have a single place in mind before writing. While Colson writes about a city, yours could be any kind of a place, real or imagined.
  3. What is the “first brick” in your character’s experience of this setting? Be vivid. Be true. Likely part of your backstory, what first memory comes to mind as the moment he/she began to define their own private version of their place? Freeze there. Think, then write where it feels revealing.
    • What emotion attaches to that first brick? Awe? Horror, pain, fear, injury…? Joy, excitement, beauty, anticipation, faith…?
    • What details attach to that first brick? Think of the stub of paper with a new address in the hand of the New Yorker arriving at their first address, or the limited view of a toddler in a carriage.
    • What actions or motion are involved? Are there details of arrival, communication, cross signals, movement? Are there broad sights or limited senses?
    • What does your character want (or think they want) in that first moment? This may be very different — distorted, more basic, more naïve — than later in the story.
  4. Moving through your story, how does your character continue to build their definition of the setting?
    • How does that first brick define the setting for your character?  Does it leave a ghost of emotion through later events? Does it start memory on solid or unstable footing? Do regrets haunt, long after, no matter how much success follows? Do later moments never live up to the first glow? Is there a sweetness the character carries from that first memory that lends forgiveness or blind faith in later experience? or..?
    • Does your character (or do you) come to measure later scenes against that first experience, or is it nearly forgotten as others take priority?
  5. Options for how this might create tensions, conflict development or structure in your story – where you might take it next:
    • What other “bricks” of memory, detail or experience define the setting for your character? Does this possibly suggest a structure for story events?
    • In what ways do these details define your character’s “own private” setting? Is your reader aware of a contrast between that private vision vs. other perspectives?
    • Do different characters perceive contrasting “private” versions of the setting? Does this lend structure, tension or just details to scenes? Would these different perspective ever cause missed understanding in dialogue between characters?
  6. Going beyond a single scene, how could you use this different private viewpoint to add details of how characters dress, what they carry, how they speak or what they do?

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What About You?

Are you working on setting this week? Did you use this prompt or what other inspiration helps you envision your setting clearly? Several of my friends work in photography or other media — how do you reflect on setting in your work?

Let us know how your work is going in the comments. Feel free to share a link to your own post, if you want to share an excerpt or other writing.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s follow option or via email, or the Bloglovin button in the sidebar. You can find me on Twitter @elissafield.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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Friday Links for Writers: 06.28.13

air-show-snow-conesSome weeks have a person singing “TGIF” loudly. My earlier posts this week (on the hard work of revision Monday and revising a flat character Tuesday) have confessed how intense writing and novel revision have been on my end. Yesterday’s challenge was the bleary work of comparing prior drafts, line by line. Still not fun, yet.

On the other hand… the kids and I are out of school for the summer. Today we’re off to the pool. Nights, we’ve been repeating my favorite childhood memory of reading mysteries falling asleep, as we’ve been buddy-reading my 11 year-old’s summer reading, And Then There Were None.

Before heading out to swim, it’s time for Friday Links. When writing is intense, I especially appreciate great reading to escape into, and I’ve stumbled across some great pieces this week. I hope you enjoy them – as always, let me know in the comments which links resonate for you, what you’d want more of, or share links to your own posts or links. Enjoy!

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This is Where the Rubber Meets the Road

I’m sure lots of you will agree that literary agent Rachelle Gardner shares some of the best advice on her blog.  As I said, I’m in the hard part of writing, and this article is just the right pep talk. Rachelle says to tell yourself, “This is where patience comes in. I can do this.” You knew it was going to be hard; tell yourself, so this is what hard feels like. If you don’t need this inspiration, click to follow her anyway, as her blog is always great.

Are Children’s Books Darker Than They Used to Be?

If you read or write YA, this title probably called to you as much as it did to me. My spontaneous answer to the question was, “No” — have you ever read original fairy tales? They’re dark. In her article, writer Julia Eccleshare at the Guardian evaluates the darkness of current kid lit, and also the thematic needs of young readers that compels that darkness. (But a parent/teacher request to YA writers: not too dark folks. Recent experience with cable-channel movies has me aware of how much we’re desensitizing ourselves from violence. Don’t be dark just to get attention.)

Teachers Write!

If you are a teacher or librarian, this is a really high-energy writing “camp” hosted by 4 young adult authors online. I wrote about Teachers Write! on my teaching blog here, and shared response to a morning prompt here — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are daily prompts, advice, Q & A with authors and feedback — plus the positive camaraderie and feedback from participants. Use the link above for official info and sign-up… or see what’s going on at this Facebook page: Teachers Write! Facebook page. One can jump in to participate at any time.

Is the Key to Becoming a Great Writer Having a Day Job?

On the heels of link for teachers who write is this link, on that perpetual debate: the value or conflict of a day job to earn a living while writing a novel. This piece by Mason Currey in Slate won’t give you modern advice but may reassure of the value of day job as he examines several famous writers from throughout history and evaluates the impact of day jobs on their success.

Querying Agents? Check hashtag #MSWL

Want to find agents who would love to read a manuscript just like yours? Search tweets using the hashtag #MSWL which stands for manuscript wish list. Writers, don’t post your wishes — look for agents to list the kind of manuscript they’d love to get.

A Dozen Reasons Books Are Rejected by Agents, Editors (& Readers)

What’s interesting about this post by Mike Wells on his The Green Water blog is that his examples address that gap between writing a good enough query to interest an agent… but then the manuscript doesn’t follow through on the expectations set.

13 Inspirational TED Talks for Writers

Have you discovered TED Talks yet? I used to roll my eyes a little, they came up so often in “let’s rock the world” conversations — and then I got hooked myself. This is a second great link I’m sharing from Aerogramme, with a range of authors talking about creativity and more.

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Want to Join a Book Discussion on Writing Craft?

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

With fellow writers at Wordsmith Studio, I shared my love of novel writing prompts that literary agent Donald Maass used to tweet. I included 23 of those prompts, plus link to Maass’s site, in this post last March:

Want more? As one of our community resources, Wordsmith Studio hosts quarterly discussion groups including books on writing craft. Starting Monday July 1, we’ll be reading Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel. My copy arrives today. Find discussions on Twitter on Mondays at 9 pm EST July-September — using the hashtag #wschat (this tag is also used for Tuesday discussions of various aspects of writing).

Links for more info:

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Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

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Just for Fun: Responding to a Prompt from Teachers Write

One of my favorite family photos. We'd all converged in Virginia and I took this as we stopped in a specialty bike store so my brother could look for a part for his vintage BMW. None of the bikes Roonan would race, but a great moment. c. Elissa FieldMy posts on the last two days were pretty intense… So today’s is a chance to just play around with sensory detail.

Inspiration for today comes from a writing challenge — no, “challenge” is too intense for summer — a virtual writing camp for teachers called Teachers Write!.  (I wrote about it on my teaching blog hereTeachers Write via Mrs. T’s Middle Grades. Go back to that later — right now, read on and I’ll give more links below.)

Teachers Write 2013 ButtonWhether you’re a teacher or one of my YA-writing friends, you’d be interested to know the camp is hosted by four kid-lit authors: Kate Messner, Gae Polisner, Jo Knowles and Jen Vincent. They share daily writing activities every day except Saturday, and the hosts and participants get together in blog comments, Facebook and twitter updates.

With all the revision I’m doing, I wasn’t sure I’d get involved — but, wow, with such excitement amongst the hosts and participants (over 1,111 last count I heard), it’s been a fun opportunity to connect with others.

Tuesday Quick Write Prompt

On her blog, kid-lit author Kate Messner  got everyone started today with Tuesday Quick Write (<click to read the prompt).  As a warm-up, her prompt was really interesting: it’s a single word but — whether from her examples and encouragement, or merely the suggestion of the word — it was amazing the range of sensory details it helped rouse.

My Morning Warm Up

So, just for fun here is my morning warm-up. It may seem random without the context of the story, and it’s just an unrevised rush of ideas, but I liked that the prompt provoked details of setting that brought out my character Roonan’s childhood fear about his motorcycle-racing father on race days.

        Sometimes night left vapor rising off the fields, waving hands across the laneways in warning. Stared you straight in the eye from the place where darkness started at the edges of fields and crept its way through the trees overhanging the roads. Smelling of earth, of damp, of rocks uncovered by cloven hooves in the night, of the sour, live alarm of dung beneath the cows, jaws cranking out the sane pace one should travel. Ch-omp, ch-omp, ch-omp… Pausing. Heaving out a breath. Stomping. Looking away to where a kite split the white haze of morning, where crows hid somnambulant in the trees, faces hid beneath a wing. Slow. Sl-o-o-ow. Slow. Sometimes rain would come. Barely falling, merely a dew floating in the air. Sometimes heavy sheets, rushing rivers impromptu along the lanes, drawing rivulets of mud, strings of grass, ripened berries knocked loose in the night by greedy maws, pebbles, spilled oil, sprung gears popped loose, a bit of chain, spit hocked out in yesterday’s trials, bit of tape. Men walked in the rain. Their boots mucked a neat path from trailer to trailer. Mechanics continued methodically adjusting spanners, polishing visors, low voices saying, “I’ve not heard shite,” of whether it would dry or the meet be canceled. Roonan was still young enough to squat beneath the trailer’s overhang, hearing but unseen, his eyes fixed on the rivulets creeping  closer to him beneath the trailer, eyes widening at the chance there might be no race today. He heard the familiar rasp of his father’s voice, the disappointment in it, saw what he knew to be his father’s hand extend out the door to feel how hard the rain still fell. Sometimes it stopped. Sometimes Roonan’s heart would race the hour or more after rain stopped falling, anxious knowing how badly the men wanted to ride, how the crowds were clamouring, “The roads are fairly dry…” Sometimes it would rain all day and he’d lie in his bunk, coffinlike, in the caravan, forcing his gaze to stay fixed on the near distance, tuning out all other voices – the complaints, the cursing, the calculating of costs paid to come this far and not race – and press down, like holding down sick, the guilt that rose in him. To be afraid, as he never saw his father or Stephen: scared by the thought of his father flung 160 miles an hour between the hedgerows.

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What Else is On Teachers Write?

Wednesday’s feature is Q & A — participants post any questions to be answered by guest writers. If you’re reading this on Wed morning the 26th, hop to this link, where writers  Laurel Snyder and Joanne Levy are on deck.

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What About You?

If you are a teacher/librarian and want to participate in Teachers Write, here is the post on Kate’s site announcing the program and how to sign up. Here is the recent writing prompt: Teachers Write 6/25 Tuesday Quick-Write Sometimes

If you’re not a teacher, I am in love with the handful of prompts to spur thoughts about setting halfway down this article by Donald Maass: The Map and the Trail.

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Revision is Messy c. Elissa Field

Revision is Messy c. Elissa Field

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Friday Links for Writers 06.14.13

fl beach

Welcome back to Friday Links for Writers, which has been on a 3-month hiatus while I focused on other work. Today happens to be Flag Day which is also my birthday. I am celebrating on a gorgeous South Florida day with a little writing spree — and a short break to visit with you!

As writing friends here may know, my fiction competed for time with a new teaching role from February to May (remember my post: Writer Day Jobs: the Time-Money-Credit Trifecta? Street cred & money have been winning out, while time-to-revise… not so much) — so the idea of uninterrupted time to “make neat” of the frantic writing done in 15 or 30 minute chunks in the past several months is a fabulous luxury.

Luckily, there is never too little time for reading, and below are some great links I’ve come across in the past week or so. As always, let me know what you find useful, what you’d like more of… or let us know what writing goals you’ve been up to lately. Great to see you here.

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The Map and the Trail

Truth: I have yet to read any advice from literary agent Donald Maass that wasn’t immediately useful. As this essay opens with a rambling piece on a family hike, I thought maybe this was the one. But no. He pulled off great insight into the power of setting, including a great series of prompts to provoke thinking about how to make setting more powerful in your own WIP. Yup, I’ll be considering these in today’s work.

Book Editing

This post, featured on K. M. Weiland’s blog, Wordplay, features advice from ghostwriter Karen Cole on what to expect from the book editing process. In particular, her definitions of 5 types of editing give interesting terminology and clarity for discussing the possible processes during book edits with an editor or agent.

What to Write in the “Bio” Section of Your Query Letter

Working on getting queries out to agents this month?  This is a great article from Chuck Sambuchino at Writer Unboxed, breaking down the finer points of what to include (or leave out) of the bio paragraph of your query letter.

Race, Identity & Writing

As someone who has written outside culture and in foreign settings, I’ve often weighed the different challenges (and permission?) writing faces when an author writes outside their own race or identity — a topic taken on in this article by Kathy Crowley at Beyond the Margins.

Forging Words

I read this in a week that my former hometown, Detroit, has been declared bankrupt. What poet would be more fitting to profile than Philip Levine, a former Rouge Plant auto worker turned Poet Laureate of the United States? There is something humbling and inspiring to hear of work and decay spoken of in the same breath as creation of art.

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air-show-snow-cones

Where Else You’ll Find Me

One of the projects I’ve been up to has been writing about resources for educators. You’ll find the beginnings of that project, including Twitter 101 for Teachers: Steps for Getting Started on Twitter, at Mrs. T’s Middle Grades.

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Writing Workshop: Novel Writing Prompts from Donald Maass

When life intervenes, writing can compete hard for our hours. Especially if a day job or kids cry for our attention, we can have days we wish writing had its own demanding boss screaming, “Write! Write!”

Thanks to her March Madness Challenge, we can all pretend agent Nephele Tempest of the Knight Agency is that stern boss. Or encouraging one.

Tempest’s challenge is to make time to write every day. She supplements this with homework and “circuit training” — which began with a challenge to compile a list of at least a dozen writing prompts. This is why bosses are fab: if you asked me, I’d say I don’t like prompts. Too work-out-ish. Let me just write.

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

But Tempest says, “Gather prompts,” and I am suddenly reminded that agent Donald Maass has been tweeting a thought-provoking series of novel prompts, one per week, since 2011. In March, Maass’s agency website shared at least 50 of the 101 prompts he had tweeted at the release of his Writing 21st Century Fiction, a to kick a good WIP into “breakout novel” shape. (The list of prompts is no longer on the site. Look for other links below.)

Here are some of the prompts from Maass’s list that challenge my thinking with my WIP.  Please follow the link to his agency website for the whole list or find more recent prompts in his feed on Twitter at @DonMaass . Update 6/2013: the list has been removed from the site, but Maass does tweet occasional prompts from his book, using the hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday.

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  1. “What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more.” Thinking to myself: the death MC caused. Hurt his mother, his brother, himself. But what about his younger siblings, his mother’s family? What about his son? Did his mother have a best friend who never forgave him for it?  Hmm.
  2. What’s the most selfless thing your MC does? What good change or effect does that have on someone unexpected? Add that in.” Curious in the absence of this. Who in my WIP is selfless? Would it be more revealing if they were selfless than if their motivation were more immediate?
  3. “Find any violence in your ms. Delete any shock, fear or horror. Replace with two *conflicting* emotions that are less obvious.” I like this, as writing violence can be as challenging as writing sex: for literary fiction, you need the effect of the thing, and I’m curious about this challenge for getting further from the obvious.
  4. “What should your readers most see, understand or be angry about? At what story moment will that happen? Heighten it in two ways.” Mulling (which is why prompts are great): have I been clear enough with this?
  5. “What does a sidekick or secondary character see about your MC that your MC denies? Force a showdown over it.” My MC would have a heart attack over this one. It is a key point to the story: the fact his best friend knew his error all along. But, hmm. There’s never been a showdown, and that intrigues me.
  6. “Over what does your MC disagree with his/her boss or mentor? When does the boss/mentor prove to be right?” While my MC is focused on ways his father mentored him, a small conflict as prompted with his boss (a minor character) could be perfect diversion to expose a clearer image of how the world sees my MC.
  7. “Find a small hurt someone suffers. What’s the big principle or hidden injustice it represents? Stir your MC to anger over it.”  My WIP opens with a small hurt that engages the reader. The injustice is clear as it leaves a little boy without a father. It’s that last bit that lights a flare: I’ve never let my MC know about it.  How would he react?
  8. “What’s the worst thing that happens to your MC? Work backwards. Make it something your MC has spent a lifetime avoiding.” Yup. This is key to MC’s internal conflict. Lifetime of avoiding wills his fear in.
  9. “What secret is your MC keeping? Who is keeping one *from* your MC? Spill the truth at the worst possible time.” I’m debating a story thread I added last fall — knowing it is strong, but weighing if it takes power away from the MC’s story. This question is key as I decide if there should be another secret in play or not.
  10. “What does your MC know about people that no one else does? Create 3 moments when he/she spots that in others.” Roonan: everyone is hiding. Or he thinks everyone is hiding, or sees what everyone is hiding. (Which may be true, but reveals more his animal state of having lived in hiding.)
  11. “Find a small passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your MC see in it? Add that.” Like the one before, these are intriguing as they provoke: what does the MC see that no one else does? What a great way to reveal inner conflict.
  12. “Give your MC passionate feelings about something trivial: e.g., cappuccino, bowling, argyle socks. Write his/her rant. Add it.” I just think this one’s funny.
  13. “Your MC’s worst quality: let him/her struggle with it, provoke it 3 times, make it cost something big, then allow change.” Use this one to evaluate where his worst quality is revealed, where this might incite more. And the love interest’s worst quality?
  14. Who in your story has an ironclad, unshakable belief? Shatter or reverse it by the story’s end. Force him to rebuild.”  Yup.  Reversed.  Shattered. Time to rebuild.
  15. “What principle guides your MC? At what moment is it most tested? When does it fail? Put it into action three times.” Roonan: to stay out of the violence. Secondarily, he had to protect his younger brother and sister. In protecting or helping vulnerable people, he backs into violence.
  16. “Find a corner, crossroads or dark object in your story. Invest it with eeriness, unknown portent or dread. Go there three times.” There are guns in the book, but a vintage motorcycle and bag of locks would be the dark object. Or is there something else?
  17. “What does your antagonist believe in? Who else shares those values? Why are they actually right? When does your MC see that too?” If anything, this challenges me to wonder: am I too quick for MC to agree with antagonist?
  18. “What’s the worst thing your antagonist must do? Make it against his/her principles. Make it unthinkable. Then make it imperative.” Thinking… External antagonist? Wondering if there is a place for this. But also, how about internal antagonist? Have I directly confronted this? Is this what compels his mistakes?
  19. “What does your protagonist most want? How is it truly something that everyone wants? Explain & add.” I’ve written about this before (here). My character wants the same happiness he thought his parents had. Writing needed might include those directions: “explain & add.”
  20. “In your climactic scene, what are 3 details of place that only your MC would notice? Cut more obvious details, replace with these.” Intriguing challenge.
  21. “During a big dramatic event, what’s one small thing your POV character realizes will never change or never be the same again?” My immediate thought is a smaller detail, not the obvious change.
  22. “Cut 100 words from your last 3 pages.You have 5 minutes. Fail? Penalty: cut 200 words.” We all love-hate this one.
  23. “What’s a moment when everything could change? Pause. Explore. What does it feel like to be weightless?” This tweet provoked a transformative emotional response in a crucial moment in my WIP when I came across it last fall.

Updated Summer 2013 — Here are several resources for learn more from Maass:

Hey! Want an opportunity to read Maass’s book, work on your manuscript and trade notes with a fab writing group? My friends at Wordsmith Studio have selected Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel for our book chats on Twitter, starting July 1, 2013 at 9 pm EST. We’ll discuss the book at chats July through September, using Twitter chat-tag, #wschat.

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What prompts or other writing inspiration do you use to start your work? Do you avoid prompts or welcome them? Have you posted your own prompts before? Feel free to share your link or favorite prompts in the comments.

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October Writing Challenge 2: Reflections on Writing Character & Place

As mentioned in an earlier post, October is host to a couple interesting writing challenges from fellow bloggers.  Today’s post gathers reflections from Days 2-5 of Herding the Dragon’s 30-day challenge.

Visit my other “challenge” posts this month:

October Challenge 1: Submit-O-Rama & Herding the Dragon Fiction challenge

October Fiction Challenge 3: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation
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Day 2)  How do you come up with names for characters (and for places if you’re writing about fictional places)? 

Some time back, we had a stray cat move in and dump a litter of kittens on us. Between that and my sons’ normal pets, I’ve gotten good at naming animals (Lilybird, Twinkle, Wolfie, Coco, Storm, Attaluna…). Same goes for children.  My mother tells me to stick with cats and hamsters, since I could end up with a half dozen kids to use up the names in waiting.  But I don’t always love naming characters.

Workshopping the opening pages of Wake in May, one of the key questions Ann Hood asked was if it was intentional that I kept referring to the two characters in the scene as “the mother” and “the son.”  Yeah, not altogether.  I forgot that I’d never added their names in.  I’d originally written the scene not knowing what I’d call them.  Wake isn’t my only work that was written almost entirely with the characters being called by who they are (the doctor, the man, the boy).

With some manuscripts, I identify a character quickly with the sound of a name. In Breathing Water, the mama was Clara from the first lines that ever came out. Equally, her daughter was undoubtedly Julia. Even more fun, most of the side characters stole names from people in my life as I wrote the story. About the lives of certain Cuban immigrants at a point of powerful emotion over the exodus from the island, I was continually affected by stories of friends around me, eager to share their family’s experience. Haydee was the bailiff in the office of the judge next to mine; Raul was named after a man I admired; Armando after an attorney who fled Cuba in 1957 then ended up in my LSAT class in 1992, finally trying to have his law license made official in the US.

But I’ve not been so quick with naming in other manuscripts.

I’m very picky that names 1) fit and 2) disappear.  I never want them to be a distraction.

Currently, the son in Wake is named Liam after my own son, only because I knew his mother would name him something Irish but I didn’t need the name so Irish it was dancing a jig. That would have been out of character for her. In fact, he’ll probably get renamed.  His mother is Carinne.  For her, I needed a name that was feminine and not common, yet not too fussy, either.  I didn’t want a flawless heroine.  Michael Roonan is the protagonist — a man questionably involved in paramilitary activities in Ireland. His first name was chosen to disappear. In choosing the last name, I’ve done research to be sure that no real person exists with a similar name, to avoid any suggestion he was based on fact.

As for names of places, I have maps of India, Cuba (including airspace maps) and Ireland hanging on my office walls from targeting settings.  In BW, I use the actual names for most places (in Virginia, Miami and Cuba), down to street names and neighborhoods.  The Miami house is based on a real house we used to stay in along the Miami River.  In other stories and novel drafts in the US, India and Ireland, I sometimes use real place names, but just as often use amalgams to invent towns, streets, house/cottage names, estate names, lakes and rivers. These are consistent with real places, but allow me to set scenes in anonymity. I invent names when detachment from reality serves the story, or to avoid appearing to make a statement about an actual place.  In most cases, I’ll follow naming conventions from the area this imaginary story would be set, but I have fun slipping in names from my family history or something odd my sons said to create the name. In another post, I mentioned how the source of the name of Crooked Moon Bay in one story was taken from how my son described the moon one night.

Day 3)  Tell us about one of your first stories/characters. 

I had a short story earn Honorable Mention in the Writers at Work fiction fellowship years ago, that was maybe the second story I’d written. I’d call it cringe-worthy now — I can’t help thinking it was full of cliches I didn’t know were cliche — but I’m still in love with certain lines about the musician that bring about affection I had for a coworker the year I wrote it. The character is a computer tech and hardworking father, but teaches guitar lessons at night. It comes out that he’d once been the real thing: he toured with the Cashmere Junglelords. Now he was picking up odd gigs at the Wild Ginger lounge, swearing each time would be his last night teaching the macarena. It wouldn’t make the list of stories I would include in a collection now, but it had its moments and readily takes me back to that time in my life.

Day 4)  By age, who is your youngest character? Oldest? How about “youngest” and “oldest” in terms of when you created them?

In Wake, Liam is about four in the opening scene, and appears in other scenes as a toddler. His innocent, clean slate is key to the story’s external conflict colliding with his father’s inner conflict.  For the adults in the story, there is the question whether anyone will make it to be old, which is perhaps fitting in the latent question whether Northern Ireland’s peace will hold.

In Breathing Water, Julia is in her late teens/early twenties at the opening, with memories recurring from when she lost her parents when she was six.  Her mother is in her fifties, with memories going back throughout her childhood in Cuba.  It is an “older” story than Wake, as it hinges on events that occurred in Cuba in the 50s, now coming to light in the 1990s.  It currently has the oldest timeframe of my drafts, but I have bones of a novel set in World War II and another set in 1817.

Generally, I’ve always started out with adult characters — although my interest in young adult fiction may take one work in that direction.

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What about your characters or naming conventions? What ideas do Herding the Dragon’s questions bring to mind for you about your writing?

Leave link to your blog in the comments below, if you join in on the challenge.

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Writing Life: A Zen Prompt for Writing Past Blocks

My car’s view while I’m in a fiction workshop today (Freedom Tower, overlooking Biscayne Bay, Miami)

I wasn’t planning to post today, as I have about an hour to get ready to head to Miami for the last day of a writing workshop I’m doing with Ann Hood, on beginnings.  It has been a fabulous workshop, astounding in the depth of advice Ann has offered, and I’ll be putting together posts about this in the coming week.

Although I’m in a rush this morning, in responding to reader comments about managing writing time on my last post (What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here & 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time), I was struck by Eden’s comment:

“As my husband always says, ‘Do something, even if it’s wrong.'”

For many writers who are getting started, or those beginning to have successes but still balancing day-jobs, family and other priorities with their writing goals, simply doing something is at the heart of making any progress.

Do something, write something – even if it’s wrong. Claim the time, get something done.

Two other commenters on the same post spoke of the times they finally have the time, but not the inspiration or (heaven forbid) forgot what they had been planning to sit and write.  This made me think of advice I read in one of Natalie Goldberg’s books (either Writing Down the Bones or Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life).

Common writing advice is to write every day and, when writing, to keep the pen or keyboard moving.  As Eden’s husband encouraged, do something.  Write something.  It is also common advice to not be afraid to write something bad, or at least not good.  Frequently I hear writers say, there’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration.  You write anyway.  Write something, even if it is wrong.

What is different in Natalie Goldberg’s advice is her use of Zen principles, and the concept of positive and negative space.  Writers waiting to write the right thing, the inspired thing, insist on that positive space: the thing they want pictured, described, acted out.  Writing negative space is to acknowledge the non-thing.  To write what is not there, not happening, not inspired, not the focus of the story.

Goldberg offered this daily prompt, as a way to get writers past fear of the blank page.  When you don’t know what you want to write, then start by finishing the sentence, “I’m not going to write about…”

Try it.  I know it is strange, but it is oddly freeing.  The first time I did it, I remember the first line that came out was, “I’m not going to write about the blinds.”  How mundane.  But the riff that followed (I’m not going to write about the cat quacking at my feet, I’m not going to write about the growl of the trash truck and silence of the trees, with no wind.  I’m not going to write about the main character who is stuck sitting in that cafe…) revealed entire reams of detail and even a scene I hadn’t thought of before.

It’s an odd little practice, but sometimes flips energy just enough to loosen your voice.

There are two ways to use this activity.

1)  In the example above, I wasn’t even trying to go head-on at writing something I would use in existing work.  It might only shake loose distractions, quiet a preoccupied mind, and mess up that pristine white page enough to get past writers block for the moment.  It might free you enough to move on with more effective writing for the day, or might just be an activity in creative practice, maybe percolating some interesting details that might at some point be useful, or maybe just dormant or even discarded journal entry.

2)  Where Goldberg’s Zen approaches have been more meaningful to me, is her entire approach of thinking of negative space can be liberating and eye-opening in imagining story.  So often we are focused on inventing what is happening in the story, but what about what is not happening?  We focus on our main character’s experience, but what did those same scenes look like from a fringe character’s point of view?  Generally speaking, when we take our focus off the main attraction and take in the negative space, we understand (and can write) the story more fully.  We begin to notice the blank space around the story we wrote, and realize what might have been happening in the world around our character.  New “what if’s” begin to come to mind.  In using this practice, I’ve written scenes from another character’s perspective, which might lead to more insightful dialogue.  I’ve realized entire scenes or tensions, or outcomes of the conflict that hadn’t otherwise occurred to me.

That said, this girl needs to get in motion or I’ll miss Ann Hood’s reading during lunch today.  Since I won’t take time to edit this post as carefully as usual, do let me know in the comments I’ve left it unclear — or let me know if resonates with you.  Have a great day!

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Update 10/8/12: I have to share with you all a link to this beautiful post by fellow Florida writer, Kelly Turnbull, from her blog Parsley and Pumpkins on “writing what you don’t see”: Change with Color.

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