Of the Atrophy of Brains and Brawn

(Oops. I have family visiting and we stayed up until one playing dice last night and I completely forgot to post this thing. Sorry!)

Summer always seems to hit me like a golf club. Smack! And we’re off!

I never seem to transition well between the quiet lethargy of winter to the frenetic busy-ness of summer. In particular, my physical activity goes zero to sixty once summer starts. I do basically no exercise during the winter, but in summer, I bike commute and play rugby and generally cavort around with my family- canoeing, hiking, minor home construction projects, the works. These first few weeks of summer can be pretty rough until my body adjusts. Soooo much soreness…

Getting back into writing again after a break can feel a lot like that too. I mean, I never completely stop writing- like I never totally stop walking around and lifting things during winter- but there’s definitely a difference in pace between when I’m actively pursuing writing with a love-of-my-life passion and when I’m doing it just because I know I should be. Take this summer for instance. As I mentioned last week, I’m not doing much fiction writing. And by “not much,” I mean hardly any at all. I’ve also been known to take breaks like while vacationing for weeks or months on end, or after having a kid or going through some other massive life changer. These breaks aren’t always avoidable, and you might not always want to avoid them completely. Sometimes breaks can be a good thing (more on that later).

But to go back to the exercise example, just like I always tell myself all through winter, I shouldn’t just stop everything. Yeah, cutting back might be a good idea for a variety of really good reasons, but I always plan on getting back on the wagon, and it really would be better for me to just do some exercise throughout winter. And so I usually talk myself into doing an ab workout here and there, or maybe a few squats- just enough to make sure I realize how pathetic I’ve become. But as pathetic as these efforts are, they are really truly better than nothing. Every little bit is going to make the summer transition that much easier (and my overall health that much better).

There are little writing things you can do even during a writing break that will help make the transition back into full-steam-ahead writing a little smoother. Here are a few things that I like to do even when I’m technically on a fiction writing break.

Write Blog Posts I don’t know why I am so do-until-I-die dedicated to blog posts, but I really like them. I love the steady schedule and the public accountability of them. I like that they force me to constantly come up with fresh content. Even if they’re not fictional and sometimes not even fun, they keep my writing muscles limbered up.

Jot Down Story Ideas It’s true that you get more ideas as you work on the ones you already have, but that doesn’t mean that all ideas completely stop when you’re taking a break. And some of these ideas are really great ones that should be revisited later. Keep writing down all your cool ideas, and then you’ll have plenty of material to play with at the end of your break.

Read Books Nothing keeps the brain fed and well nourished quite like a full and varied diet of good literature. Whether or not you’re on a writing break, you should always have a ready answer when someone asks you what you’re reading right now.

Tell Stories Even if you’re not writing them down, keep telling people stories. Tell folks about your day, about that funny lady at work last week, about when you lost your phone and where you finally found it. Tell them about something you’re proud of, or something super cool you saw someone else do. A pause in writing does not mean a pause in storytelling.

Learn New Things Some of the funnest stories I’ve written have come about because I was learning about some wacky little nonfiction slice of life (human or otherwise) and I thought, “Huh! What if this, but with that?” My brain is not happy unless I’m constantly learning new things. And when it’s happy, it poops out little story ideas (that I of course write down). So nourishing!

There are tons of things that I could share about keeping your writing brain in shape, and I’m sure you fair readers have a bunch that you like to lean on in those hard times when, for whatever reason, you can’t write as much as you’d like to. None of these things (except maybe the blog post writing) take up that much time. They’re simple and easy and fit neatly around the rest of my day. That makes it easy to keep doing all these things with all due diligence! And if you have any writing brain limbering tips you’d like to share in the comments, I’d love to give those a try too!

Until next week, happy writing (or not)!

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Wrangling Up the Posse

Howdy friends! A happy late Mother’s Day to all you maternal types. Today’s going to be a little short today, as I find myself working through some unpleasantness that you’ll probably have the joy of reading about later.

M Elizabeth Tait pointed out last week that I had forgotten to add a mentioned link and then she kindly helped me comb through the archives to find it. During the hunt, it became apparent that I had skipped over some information in my post that I had thought were written up in a previous post, but didn’t seem to have been. (Gosh, what tense is that sentence in?) And some of that missing information is finding those writing pals in the first place- pretty important stuff!

So as a quick follow up/stop gag to last week’s post, here are some of my favorite places where aspiring posse-ists can look for fellow creatives.

Formal Writing Organizations– A lot of towns and even regions have their own writing groups, like my very own Alaska Writers Guild, particularly our chapter right here in Fairbanks. You can also check and see if your age category or genre has a writing organization, such as SCBWI, RWA, SFWA, or HWA; these groups also often have local chapters as well where you can meet up with your writerly neighbors and keep up with each other and your projects. If there aren’t any local chapters, forums can help you to keep in touch with fellow members.

Writers Conferences, Workshops, etc.– When attending writing events, be sure to take a bundle of business cards with you (or at the very least, a pad of paper and a writing utensil) so you can give out your info- and be sure to plug any new pals’ info into your phone or laptop as soon as possible just in case you lose that slip of paper later. Swapping contact information with other writers at these events can be a great way to build up your writing support group.

Social Media– I found a bunch of my writing buddies on Twitter. Maybe Instagram is your thing- writers are there. Pinterest? Writers are there too! Facebook? There. Anywhere you are, other writers are too.

Local Libraries, Bookshops, Schools, etc.– These spaces love supporting local writers and often have groups you can join, or at least contacts for writing groups in town. If your local college/university/high school has a creative writing department, get it touch with those teachers specifically and see if they can introduce you to other writers as well. The same holds true for librarians and shop owners. These folks know people. These folks know everything.

So the hunt is on! Just remember as you put together your writing group that this is a collaboration to benefit all members. Be sure you give as much as you take and you will soon have a healthy, thriving writing group to support you in all your literary goals.

Happy writing!

Cultivating a Writing Posse

posseWant to know a secret? When left to my own devices, I’m not a very productive writer. I can easily type over seventy words per minute, but I generally don’t write more than a couple paragraphs in a day

That is, unless I’m writing with pals. On those nights, I can clock in and have nearly two thousand words an hour later. Of course, I’m not always that productive. We do like to chitchat between sprints, and we can sometimes lose track of how much chatting we’re doing (and how little writing). But I definitely write more when I have others working with me.

I think it comes down to pride. I am a very competitive person (just ask my longsuffering husband). And as any kid who has ever done like any sport ever knows, you’re really only supposed to compete against yourself, but- yeah. I run faster when I have other people running with me, and I got better grades when I took the same classes as my brother, and I write more when there are others writing with me. None of this is to say that I excel at any of these things. Just that I try harder than when I am on my own. (There are probably all kinds of psych to unpack here.)

Whether this is good or bad, I know me and I know what gets me moving. So while some people work better in seclusion, I work better when I know that in fifteen minutes I’m going to be comparing my word count and the last sentence I wrote to some very talented friends, and darn it all, I don’t want to embarrass myself.

I’ve written in the past about where to find writing pals (but never did it better than Grandmaster Evrard in A Beta, a Beta, My Kingdom for a Beta-Reader), but once you have a group of people together, what can you do to make that group the best it can be? Here are three things that I’ve found help our group shine.

STAY POSITIVE Okay, yes, everybody loves a little trash talk, but in the end, we are all there for encouragement. So even when someone gets a stinky word count or has to miss a session or drops off the planet for months at a time, stay positive- this is a zero guilt zone! Everyone is stronger when we support one another.

BE FLEXIBLE Whenever you get groups of people together, there must be give and take. For example, I write best at night, but that time doesn’t work for my group because one of us lives on the east coast and I live out west. My ideal writing time is like one or two in the morning for her and that’s no good. We work together to make the group the best possible for the most of us, most of the time, which is basically like trying to hit a moving target. It will never be perfect for everyone, but we try to roll with it.

KEEP IT SMALL Try to keep your group small and close knit. This will make hitting that aforementioned moving target a little easier. Also, don’t make huge plans to meet every other day for three hours at a time; make it manageable. (For example, there are three of us in my group that meets online for one hour twice per week while kids are napping/at school.) Likewise, populate your group with others that are at about your own skill level, which will help assure that everyone benefits from the group.

And that’s it! I’m sure there are other things that we could be doing Writing Crest Simpleto improve group cohesion, but honestly, I don’t think we need much more than that. We’re basically like the same demographic copied three times and we adore each other; doesn’t get much more cohesive than that. Some groups prefer having group agreements laid out at the beginning for newcomers to sign. Others like to keep it local and meet face to face. Some groups are only for writing, which others like to throw in beta reading as well. What works for one group might not work for the next. You do you.

If you have some eager authors ready to write but aren’t sure how you want the group to look in the end, just set a meeting and get started. You’ll figure out pretty quickly what works and what doesn’t, so don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. If everyone treats the group like a first draft and understands that you’ll shift and settle into your best group over time, that’s fine. If you’d rather have the bylaws and election ballots ready to go on day one, that’s fine too. Just do whatever works for your group.

However, if you start a group, or join an already established one, and find that it isn’t working for you, do not feel obligated to stay. I’m not telling you to get everyone to edit your work and then drop them when they ask the same of you (because that would make you a turd), but don’t stick with something that isn’t good for your writing career. Our group briefly had a fourth member; she was only with us for a couple months before she realized that she works more effectively on her own. And good for her for standing up for her career! Remember, zero guilt zone!

Building your career as a successful author begins with building your process. If you want that process to include others, great! If that process is best done alone, great! Know what works best for you and do that. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. The only ‘should’ is to write, whatever form that takes. That’s it.

Happy writing!

Prep Work

Prep Work

Hello, friends! It’s Camp NaNoWriMo time again! And that means- bad art! reblogs! now later than ever!

I don’t think anyone could argue that any of the NaNoWriMo sessions churn out polished masterpieces, but lemme tell you, I needed this. I’ve been in an awful slump since… well, since last November, really. It’s nice to feel excited about a new project again.

Speaking off, I haven’t hit my word goal for the day yet. I’d better to see to that. Happy writing!

I Miss Plastic, and Other Tales of Woe

seal paintI stood helplessly in the grocery store last Friday, wandering in bewilderment up and down what had to be miles of grocery aisles. Everything I could possibly put on my grocery list was right here, but I couldn’t seem to buy any of it. I stared at racks that soared over my head and thought, ‘I just… I just want to make rice krispie treats.’

A little background: each year, my family observes its own weird version of Lent. It’s not a part of our religion, but we’ve decided it builds character. And since we subscribe to Calvin’s Dad’s School of Character, calvin shovelingwhat it usually boils down to is forty days of making ourselves as miserable and deprived as possible. This year seems to be the granddaddy of denial and, guys, I don’t know if I’m gonna make it.

My kids and I have been worrying a lot about penguins and baby turtles and dolphins and stuff, and so we decided to give up single use plastic. This wasn’t a completely naïve decision- I had been working at cutting back on plastics for several months going up to it- but holy guacamole, I don’t know if this is even possible in Fairbanks Alaska. We knew we would have to make exceptions for things like milk and medicine, but this is nuts.

Did you know that paper ice cream cartons are lined with plastic? And really any paper food container, such as shortening or my favorite almondmilk? As well as metal cans and aluminum soda cans? And the looks-like-metal-to-me twist off caps of glass bottles? The stickers on produce? Like everything ever? It makes me angry that I researched this at all because I thought things like glass bottles and fresh fruits and vegetables were safe. What the heck are we supposed to eat until Easter?

The thing is, the closer I look at my habits as a consumer, the more I notice all the ways I am a bad hippie (and, at least this year, a bad observer of Lent). Sometimes, when I’ve done everything I can do and it still doesn’t feel good enough, I just have to make a mental note and move on and hope that maybe, in a more perfect future, this will be fixable.

There’s a writing lesson here too. (I know you were waiting for it. [Although, really, I did just want to complain about plastic. Man, I would do some horrible things for a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips right now.]) Everybody knows that first drafts are pretty ugly little things, and that can be for a lot of reasons. Maybe the characters don’t feel real and layered, or maybe the plot got a little off course somewhere along the way. But one of my omnipresent reasons is the abundance of writing tics that slip in uninvited.

Writing tics vary from person to person. Some people find themselves using tons of brackets, or dropping necessary helper verbs, or writing in passive voice, or using the same three actions over and over. But the common thread is that these are the same sloppy little quirks that sneak into your writing over and over again, without your even noticing them. Drafting from scratch tends to dredge them up the most frequently because that’s when the ideas are first forming out of nothing, producing large streams of text for tics to sneak in with. Drafting is when we are most likely to write the way we speak, complete with all the hedges, repeats, and asides that are totally normal and acceptable in casual speech and informal writing, but less so in a finished piece.

Going back to edit is when I tend to notice my tics. And much like plastic in a grocery store, once I start looking, it’s everywhere. I swear, not a paragraph goes by without someone sighing. If I really want to shake it up, maybe they’ll roll their eyes instead. OR BOTH. But even knowing about the sorts of tics that I gravitate toward, I can’t seem to stifle them when I draft. They’re like dandelions.

Next month is Camp NaNoWriMo. I have been failing miserably at pretty much all of my goals so far this year, so I am determined to pick up the slack and get this thing back on track. I’m going to draft a brand-new story (a side story in-betweener novella in a series I’ve been working on forever), and I’m already anticipating all the funky little quirks that I won’t notice until the editing stage begins.

Your tics and mine are probably different, but just for fun, here are my most common writing tics. Maybe you’ll recognize a few from your own writing!

JUST, A LITTLE, SORT OF Okay, maybe I just like to hedge a lot. (I see you there, Just.) And on the other hand…

A LOT, VERY, SO Same issue, just bigger. (I can’t un-see all these ‘just’s. I’m not doing this on purpose.)

PET VERBS like sigh, pause, grin, and hesitate. Just these four words are probably a pretty good synopsis of most of my first draft stories. Look out for the pregnant pause. (Oh my gosh, there’s another ‘just’. Normally I would fix these, but I’m leaving them in for your benefit. You’re welcome.)

UNREASONABLY LONG SENTENCES It’s not editing unless I’m breaking behemoth sentences down into two, three, sometimes four much more digestible tidbits.

There are definitely more tics. Soooo many more. But at least I’m not quite as food obsessed as I used to be. I’d wedge in these Redwall-esque banquets and I swear, my characters did nothing and said nothing without a wad of food in their hands. Now they just fold their arms and slouch in doorways instead.

How about you guys? Any tics tend to crop up in your writing? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Happy 2019!

resolutions*flings confetti* Wahoo!

Another year down and I haven’t managed to overdose on lemon sandwich cookies and kimchi brine yet! *fist pumps* Man, 2018 had a lot of madness and utter rubbish, but here with are with another shiny new year. Let’s not screw this one up, guys!

All things considered, last year wasn’t too embarrassing as far as resolutions go. I got pretty lazy on my health goals, but that’s somewhat to be expected, given how lowly I prioritize my own well being. (Stop that, Jill.) But other than that, things weren’t too shabby.

Numbers-wise, I hit my reading goal, and with a couple extra books besides; I even hit the stipulation that half of them be nonfiction! I did write up two new first drafts (Copper and Box of Bones) but only managed to edit one first draft into a second (Sacrifice); but I knew from about October onward that this would be the case, so I’m trying not to beat myself up about it too much. (Because man have I got excuses for the tail end of this year.) Sadly, I totally faceflopped on my goal to write twelve short stories by writing a grand total of three. *sad trombone* But in a shocking turn of events on the last day of the year, I actually hit the rejections goal! *soccer stadium cheer* I even managed one extra rejection (yay?) for a total of forty-nine.

Honestly, for my writing stuff, I think I’ve about maxed out my productivity in my current stage of life. So I’m pretty much just setting a repeat on last year’s reading, writing, and publishing goals, with just a few minor adjustments.

Once more, I’d like to read twenty-four books, with half of them being nonfiction. This year, I’m planning on leaning a little more heavily toward the editing side of things since I have about a million first drafts lurking around my hard drive; I hope to edit three ugly early drafts (probably Blood and Ebony, Quicksilver Queen, and A Cinder’s Tale, but I’m flexible) and to write one first draft of something new over the course of the three NaNo sessions. I’m also reining back on the short story drafting, just letting those evolve on an as-needed basis without a specific goal in mind. And I’m sticking with my forty-eight rejections for the year goal because, augh it hurts, but it seems to be working for me.

So that’s it! I’ve broken each of these goals down into quarterly, monthly, and daily goals to help keep me ticking along a little more smoothly (and maybe eliminate the need for New Year’s Eve miracles, haha). So I have a plan. Let’s see how badly I wreck it!

How about you guys? Any big writing resolutions? Or little ones? Let me know- I’d love to chat! Happy New Year and happy writing!