FOR YEARS, I BEGAN EACH NEW WORKSHOP with this exercise from WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS. It’s a great way to get to know other people in a group—and also a great way to get to know yourself, so I’ve adapted it here for your personal-writing use.
Set a timer for seven minutes. Then, writing fast, hit the high and low points of your life, skimming across the years—from birth to this very moment—like they were so many tumbleweeds.
When the timer rings, stop and read over what you wrote. Mark three events that stand out to you. Pick one (you might save the other two for another day, when you’re looking for something to write about).
Take another ten minutes to write in detail about the incident or period you’ve chosen. Why is it important to you now? How is it relevant to the bigger story of your life-to-date?
MAKE NO MISTAKE: SWEET AS THIS SCENE may appear, that lion has teeth. And claws. And a ravenous hunger! Oh, my!
Most days, we could catch sight of him happily slurping the blood of his prey. But not today. Because, with kindness, skill, and patience, this character has tamed the beast, creating an ally of him—and becoming his ally as well.
Tarot writing prompt
So. Who’s the beast in your or your character’s world?
POET AND CREATIVE WRITING PROFESSOR BRUCE AUFHAMMER introduced me to this basic operating principle: Writing comes from writing, not from inspiration. Now a teacher myself, I sometimes hear people say they aren’t writing because they’re uninspired. But inspiration isa fickle mistress! For just one month, rather than awaiting any version of the muse, try this daily, no-inspiration-required exercise and see for yourself whether the quiet act of writing isn’t a more steadfast friend.
Get yourself a diary, maybe a kid’s locking diary or a small spiral bound memo book. Starting this evening—and for the next month—take a few minutes each night to jot down something from your day. Even if you only list what you ate for lunch!
Novelist Heidi Julavits did just this. Using the phrase “Today, I …” to get started, every evening she jotted down as many associations as arose in the time she allotted for writing. The (fascinating!) book she made of these diary entries—THE FOLDED CLOCK—was published in 2014.
A diary—less demanding, perhaps, than a “journal”—offers a low-stress way to nurture your daily writing habit. And that writing habit, once established, makes a resilient diving board from which to spring into your next writing project. Also, as in Heidi J.’s case, when you look back over your diary, you may find something you’ve written there suggests a direction for you to develop.
We’re aglow with possibilities when we start something new—but we may be a little shy of setting our hopes too high. For your first entry, use your diary to whisper in your own ear. Tell yourself on its pages what you hope to accomplish or uncover over the next thirty days.
EXTRA CREDIT: This week, use your diary as a Fitbit. At the end of each day, make a note of every bit of writing you did that day. I bet you’ll be surprised at how it all adds up!
ONCE, AT A HORSE SHOW, I watched a pair of judges assess the relative merits of a ring full of huge, glossy Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and other warm-blood hunter-types in a conformation class. Unlike most skill-based horse-show events, conformation ribbons are awarded to those animals who best meet the standards of excellence for the physical characteristics of their breed. (More like the Westminster Dog Show than a canine agility event, in other words.)
On that afternoon, almost hidden in the forest of sixteen- and seventeen-hand-high bay- and chestnut-colored hunters, a tiny, black-and-white Shetland pony arched its short, chunky pony neck. “How cute,” the spectator closest to me murmured, “but how disappointed its little owner will be. There’s no chance for her to get even a look-in with that sort of competition.”
And yet, twenty minutes later, it was exactly that “little owner,” a six-year old girl dressed in black and white to match her pony, who paraded her Shetland around the perimeter of the ring, blue ribbon oh-so-proudly affixed to its bridle.
No sentimental decision, the judges had weighed the equine contestants’ attributes fairly. The Shetland pony, small and unassuming as it seemed amidst the tall, regal company, was in fact a perfect specimen of its type and well-deserving of the win.
So … what about writing?
Recently, I judged a short story contest. In four days, I read fifty-one stories that spanned a myriad of genres. Not Thoroughbreds and Shetlands, but fantasy, suspense, sci-fi, romance, and contemporary/realistic—as well as a single picture-book entry.
As a whole, the stories were competently constructed and smooth-surfaced. No doubt, these were writers who had studied their craft.
Yet, as I read through the three-thousand-words-or-less stories, I noticed some failed to engage my interest because they lacked a distinctive voice. Some delivered a strong voice, but the stories were so predictable I could tell where they were headed before they’d even left the barn. And those that did find a fresh approach did not, for the most part, make it all the way around the course to create a satisfying narrative arc.
But the picture book?!
In a quick, bright voice, the PB writer created an engaging pair of characters—a grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter—who found themselves in an exciting and unexpected muddle over the destruction of the grandmother’s Sunday-best real-human-hair wig. Together, the characters struggled, they lost, they struggled some more—and then they triumphed!
In less than five hundred words, the lone PB writer managed to incorporate three elements vital for the success of even the shortest of narrative forms: a distinctive voice, a fresh, unexpected story element, and a complete narrative arc.
While the other competitors’ stories—like those big, beautiful Thoroughbreds I admired so many years ago—might have had size on their side, might have boasted weightier topics or more sophisticated story structures than the unassuming little picture book, not one of them made it to the finish line with all of three of those important elements in place.
If this were a horse show, make no mistake, Grandma’s real-hair wig would be sporting a brand-new, bright blue, First Place ribbon the next time she hoisted it atop her head and tottered up the aisle to her favorite pew.
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This post was first published on a former blog, THOSE DARNED RUBY SLIPPERS, in which I wrote about the magic I saw around me—and about writing, a magical craft of its own.
YOUR MANUSCRIPT IS AWESOME! You’ve had it critiqued and beta-read—and you’ve revised, revised, revised! But if you’re not getting the interest from agents you feel your book deserves, check out the resources below. May you discover the golden key to your success amidst these pages and pixels!
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1) Among other topics, in her article “10 Steps to Getting a Literary Agent” for Writers & Artists, Gilly McAllister talks common sense about having a complete draft ready before querying [querying fiction and memoir, that is; see number 2 if you’re writing nonfiction], what your first three chapters need to do, and what happens when you get a nibble.
2) However, if you’re a nonfiction writer, the rule about completing a manuscript before querying doesn’t necessarily apply. Instead, you might be well-served to create a fabulous nonfiction book proposal to start your agent search. In that case, you’ll find THE WEEKEND BOOK PROPOSAL (Writer’s Digest), by Ryan Van Cleave, a comprehensive guide.
6) In addition, the ever-awesome POETS & WRITERS magazine has a free online literary agent database for your perusal. P&W says, The Literary Agents list includes agents and literary agencies that represent poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers, plus details about the kind of books they’re interested in representing, their clients, and the best way to contact them.
8) But wait! Do you really even need a literary agent? That’s a great question! Here’s a link to Claire Bradshaw’s Writers Edit article “Do You Need a Literary Agent?” which offers some of the pros and cons of being agented.
10) Finally, you might want to subscribe to former literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog. I’m pretty sure this will be the gift that keeps on giving, as Bransford consistently and reliably discusses writing for publication in helpful, bite-sized nuggets. Yum. (Thanks to writer pal Bonnie Cehovet for introducing me to Nathan’s blog!)
I’VE LOOKED AT THIS CARD SO MANY TIMES. Is there anything I haven’t seen? There’s the lyre embroidered on the patriarch’s cloak; the heraldry on the archway; the shy little kid, who will barely remember her grandfather when she’s grown; the gray pups, grateful for their master’s notice; the graceful young couple; the flat blue sky of autumn. I’ve noticed all these details before.
Today, I challenge myself to find something new, something significant—at least to my understanding of the card—something I haven’t noticed before.
My gaze travels around the edges of the image. Nothing new there. I pull my focus back and take in the scene as a whole. Nope. Still nothing. Homing in on the middle of the card, I notice the woman’s fond (and familiar-to-me) glance at her husband. Following that glance, I consider the curve, like a sail, of the man’s blue cloak.
Lovely, but … significant?
Then, as my eyes travel that blue curve, I see it! The young man holds a staff, a detail I have never noticed in the hundreds of times I’ve considered this image! With this observation, suddenly his grip and his posture evoke the dynamic Magician holding his wand aloft! Although the young man in the Ten of Pentacles has yet to raise his own staff high enough to invoke its power, this subtle suggestion of The Magician’s potency changes—yes, significantly—the stories I can tell myself about this card.
Now, I perceive the courtyard within the skirt wall’s embrace as a womb, a cauldron, a place designed to protect and foster the young man’s latent powers. And, jeez, what stories could that notion conjure?
“The devil is in the details,” they say, but so is the life force animating every moment. Here, we find that force pulsing at the exact center of the image, the spot from which all the card’s energy emanates—challenging the weighty, static notions of generational obligation and inheritance that can be associated with this card.
Having experimented myself with this oh-so-familiar image, I offer you this …
Tarot Writing Prompt
Look closely at a familiar image, maybe a family photo. Jot down a dozen or so details as you scan the image, seeking the juice, the motor, among those details. Ask yourself, “Is it this? This? This?” Such close observation reveals what’s pulsing underneath. That, in turn, builds energy for writing.
Next, write the scene which occurs to you to write from either the cumulative weight of all the details you’ve noticed or from your close, fresh observation of just one. Make whatever associative leaps you need to get yourself someplace new.
EXTRA CREDIT! After writing that scene, let it cool for a day or two. Then, return to what you’ve written and to the list of details that inspired it. Reconsider both. Do you see anything that escaped your notice before? Write a new scene based on your second look.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT FEEDS YOUR CREATIVE FIRE? While it might be as plain (or as stunningly gorgeous) as the nose on your face, sometimes it takes a mirror for us to see exactly what helps us thrive as writers, as artists, as creative participants in our lives.
MIRROR MIRROR: I’m taking an intensive creative challenge, ICAD (Index Card a Day), with Tammy Garcia of Daisy Yellow—and about 300 other fabulously creative, engaging, encouraging folks (600, if you include Instagram participants)! When I asked Tammy what I should sign up for next, she said, “I think you really thrive on the group interaction,” and suggested I choose another workshop with a dynamic group.
I don’t know Tammy well, nor have I known her for long. But she sees my preference for creating within a group as plainly as she does the nose on my face—which I can’t perceive myself without a mirror of exactly the sort Tammy kindly provided.
Tammy is right. I thrive in groups. Not only do I make art most happily in highly interactive groups, but I also
attend three busy yoga classes a week, as much for the friendly social interactions as for the fabulous instruction at Winter Park’s Full Circle Yoga,
create writing groups just to have others to write with,
When I’m feeling stuck, having partners, or at least compatriots, fuels me. Their support, or feedback, or even participation fires up my engine again.
So, back to you: What fuels your creativity? Do you know which circumstances or types of support allow you to play fully and freely in your preferred forms of art or creative living? If not, ask three of your closest friends what they think gives you the juice you need. I bet they’ll provide you with a strikingly accurate reflection of your creative self (and your adorable nose).
UPSIDE DOWN, BOY YOU TURN ME . . .
My puss Bert flips upside down to survey his kingdom. Sometimes, from his inverted perspective, he spots a faux mouse not visible from right-side up. But mostly, upside-down, Bert just watches—noticing what I, with feet firmly planted, can’t see.
As a writer, I can learn from Bertie’s up-ended view. For instance, my short story heroine Sharon would prefer to have me present her predicament as if it were all Lars’s fault. Instead, following Bert’s example, I’ll flip the story on its head, step back, and re-write (at least temporarily) from Lars’s point of view.
I expect to learn something from Lars that Sharon would rather I not know (protagonists are notorious for angling stories so they look good!). If nothing else, I certainly stand a better chance of approaching an honest complexity if—instead of just taking Sharon’s word for it—I peek through Lars’s eyes, too.
“And, action . . . “
The 1951 Akira Kurosawa film, RASHOMON, relies on four characters to tell its tale: In the film, two crimes are commited. As viewers, we’re shown the crimes—a rape and a murder—from the perspective of four different witnesses who each give a different version of the events.
As each witness—all of whom are also defendants in the case—tells his story, new and contradictory details are revealed. While the crimes in the film are never solved, RASHOMON conveys a powerful message: Truth is no absolute. It is as mutable as the living, breathing creatures that perceive it.
This understanding absolves us of the obligation to “solve” our stories. Instead, we can work to uncover real tensions between those who live in our fictional worlds. We needn’t think in terms of “good” or “bad”—just let our characters tell their own truths.
What do you think?
Want to play by Bertie rules? If so, tap out a brief scene from one character’s POV. Now, flip yourself upside down and write it again from another character’s perspective. Did your second character reveal something the first omitted?
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This post was originally written for a former blog, Workshop Porkchop. Today, I repost it in honor of Bertie Botts Morris (now passed on to the big catnip field in the sky).
I MET PAULA JEFFERY SEVERAL YEARS AGO in an online art group. The other day, we had a chat about how investing time (consistently) and effort (persistently) in any art form will eventually bear fruit—and she pointed me to this post, which she wrote for her own blog, but is graciously allowing me to share in an edited-for-length version with you. (And, yes, it’s about drawing, but really it’s about anything to which you’d like to apply yourself!)
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I’ve Got No Talent
Not long ago, I read THE TALENT CODE by Daniel Coyle. In it, he tells about a group of children who were monitored before and during the time they took music lessons. After a couple of months, as you would expect, some were doing really well, some not so well, and most were in the middle of that bell curve. The researchers looked closely for common factors between those who were excelling. They looked at things like the amount of practice they did, home environment, anything they could think of that might influence the children’s musical ability. They could find nothing. None of the factors they anticipated had any effect at all.
Until … bingo! Before they started lessons, all the children were asked, “How long do you see yourself playing music?” Their answers ranged from “until the end of term” to “a couple of years” to “forever.” The researchers were amazed to find those answers sat perfectly aligned on the bell curve! The kids who saw themselves as musicians playing forever were head and shoulders above the rest, sometimes by as much as 400 percent—even if they practiced less! The kids who decided their music career would only last until the end of term were the same kids who were falling behind. The only common factor was their attitude to learning music before they even picked up an instrument.
This is not some mysterious, ethereal thing: It’s attitude!
Every now and again, someone on social media will say, “You’re so talented,” which is kind and lovely, but sometimes what’s unspoken is: “You’re lucky. You can just do this stuff. You were born with this ‘gift,’ and I wasn’t.” But I wasn’t a talented kid! I took art at school because I was lazy and it seemed an easy option. I wasn’t even allowed to take the art exams because my work was so bad. My adult life was spent happily stating I couldn’t draw a straight line.
Fast forward to 2014. I was 59 years old. Going off-piste one day on a visit to YouTube Land, I discovered art journaling. It looked like fun. You didn’t have to actually draw or paint anything recognizable, you could splash paint about and glue pictures from magazines. From there, I did a couple of courses (shoutouts to Tamara Laporte and Effy Wild), and I painted figures and faces. Then I did ICAD (the index card a day challenge: shoutout to Daisy Yellow). One of the daily prompts was “eye.” I hunted on YouTube for How to draw an eye and found a step-by-step tutorial. I followed along and, OMG, I drew a recognizable, not-bad-looking eye.
This was an aha moment. These techniques could be learned! Next, I drew an elephant, again from instructions! I was so excited. I thought, “I could learn to draw,” and there was no stopping me. I joined groups. Someone recommended Danny Gregory, and I joined Sketchbook Skool, founded by Danny and Koojse, and amazing tutors from all over the world opened my eyes and freed up my pen. I joined drawing memes and drew 100 faces, one each day, to see if it improved my technique. And guess what? It did! Now, I’m taking part in Imagining, the latest Sketchbook Skool Kourse (where our last tutor was the amazing Stefan G. Bucher).
For the last three years, I’ve drawn nearly every day. I’ve worked at it and studied hard. I try not to compare myself to others, and I absolutely LOVE what I’m doing.
Here are three sketches of my husband, Graham. I did the first in 2014 as part of my 100 Faces project. It was a massive improvement on previous portraits. The second I did in 2017, and I really pleased with it. The final portrait I just completed.
So, when someone tells me I’m talented, with an undertone that suggests they couldn’t do it, I am tempted to sit them down and gently tell them that “Yes, yes, really, you can.” Their next line is usually “I’m too busy.” So busy there is not time in the day to take five minutes to draw something, anything? I learnt a lot about “busy” when I studied for my Open University degree with women who had three kids under school age and wrote their essays at the kitchen table in the early hours of the morning. And got their degrees. If you really want to do something, you will find the time.
Then the argument can shift to this: “Well, I’m too busy doing other things I prefer.” That’s fine. That’s an “I don’t want to,” rather than an “I can’t.” (Occasionally, I hear an “I’m too busy” that really means “What I do is so much more important than your little scribblings.” But, hey, for those, I just nod and smile, nod and smile.)
Apart from my immediate (and very lovely) family and friends, social media has been the biggest catalyst for my artistic achievements. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have continued without the support of Facebook friends and groups. Inspirational, supportive, and non-judgmental art groups are amazing and always offer the message Yes, you can!
Now, I’m not afraid to say, “I’m an artist,” with no apologies (and no “amateur” in the mix).
THE FIGURE IN RED is doling out alms, and he’s doing it judiciously, measuring out equal amounts to each of the recipients. He’s also holding enough aside for his own needs. His scales help him keep his giving in balance.
As writers, we could do with a pair of scales. Not for measuring the cash we’re handing out, but for noticing how much of our precious time we dedicate to others and how much we conserve for our own use.
You see, writing takes time—and not just time that’s packed in around the corners of other obligations. Writing requires time that’s set aside as preciously as if the hours were so many gold coins.
Today, the Six of Pentacles, asks you to take charge of your time. It suggests you weigh out your minutes, hours, and days and allocate them consciously. Give generously, of course. But at the end of the day, make sure you haven’t broken the bank and left your writing to go begging at someone else’s feet.