Writing on the Road

RoadIn my naïve notes that I wrote up for this blog post before starting off on an insanely long road trip, I wrote “Writing on the Road- About all the tricks and stuff I used to help myself write while traveling”.  Ha.  So cute.

As mentioned in earlier posts, I didn’t get much writing done.  Really, it was all I could do to keep up with blog posts, since I burned through the buffer before the first month was out, and even then I failed on the home stretch when I somehow improperly scheduled a post and it- shocking- didn’t post.  (I’m calling this another technofail.  They never end.)

Despite the startling lack of bonanza write-a-thons, I don’t feel like the summer was a total waste, as far as writing goes or otherwise.  True, there was very little drafting, and very little editing, and not even all that much outlining or active brainstorming.  But there was a lot of experiencing going on, and experience is the foundation on which believable fiction rests.

Write what you know is one of the sacred commandments of writing, and there’s good reason for it.  Obviously nobody writing today really knows what riding a dragon feels like, or living on a colony embedded deep in an asteroid, or working as an astrologer in the court of Tutankhamen.  We make a lot of inferences about the details in our fiction.  Riding a dragon probably feels kind of like a cross between riding a horse and a hang glider.  Living on an asteroidal colony probably feels similar to living in the Princess Elizabeth Research Station, or the International Space Station, or a fancy underground bunker from the Cold War.  As writers, we get as close as we can, and then we make an educated guess.

But there are some things that can’t be fudged.  These are the things that will bother a reader like an itch they can’t quite reach.  A child whose voice isn’t quite what it should be.  A victim shouldering his abuse in a way that feels off somehow.  An emotional outburst that’s somehow wrong.  These things are much harder to quantify and, in many ways, much harder to peg.  But they’re things that, once we’ve experienced them, we can smell a fake from a mile away.  And nothing snaps a reader out of a story faster than a fake.

(And then there are the mistakes that just drive the experts crazy, like having your Western hero shoot a Peacemaker three years before the thing was developed.  But just because the demographic is small does not mean it’s quiet.  Don’t irritate your experts.)

Experiences keep us from making those mistakes.  Experience helps us to know precisely what places ache after nine hours in the saddle.  But more importantly, experience helps us to transcend the particular setting and to find the truths that are just as relevant to a thirty-year-old woman writing in a closet as they are to a twelve-year-old boy in the second century staving off starvation, or a forty-year-old xenologist encountering their first alien, or a dwarf girl who wants to be a florist when she grows up.  And when we have the experiences that give us that insight into human nature, and then we couple it with a mind open to tangents, we give ourselves a powerful recipe for creativity.

When it became clear that I wouldn’t be penning my opus magnus on the road, I instead tried to focus on keeping this recipe for creativity stewing as much as possible.  Although I don’t have the write-no-matter-what pearls of wisdom that I hoped to have, I did get some sense of the sorts of things that fostered a creative mindset (and kept me open to new experiences), and the things that killed it.  Maybe better people than I can build on merely thinking creatively and actually create creatively.

What hampered creativity

High expectations– Being disappointed in myself was the quickest way to squash my ability to think clearly, let alone creatively.  Just like your body needs time to rest after a program of intense dieting or exercise, your brain needs a break too.  All my attempts to power through and keep up on my home routine were total failures.

Stress–  I know, I know, stress can be hard to avoid when you’re hurdling down the highway for hours upon hours at a time, day after day, and the kids are so over this.  But avoid it when you can.  If you’re stressing about missing deadlines or flubbing wordcount goals or whatever, your focus is on the failures instead of the opportunities.

An excessive I-got-this attitude– I learned this at the birth of my first child- ask for help.  Trying to do everything myself- the cooking, the childcare, the everything all the time- absolutely depleted me, mind and body, leaving no energy for creativity or adventures.

What promoted creativity

Taking care of myself– When I was sick or tired or hungry or desperately iron deprived, creativity did not happen.  Mostly tears and anger and hiding under blankets happened instead.  Things were just better for the world in general when I made sure the basic needs were met first.

Time for reflection– As weird as it sounds, time was kind of a hot commodity during this vacation.  But I found it was very important for my brains to just have sit-and-chill time.  I didn’t go into it with the active intent to brainstorm, but it happened naturally, and those are always the best of storms.

Paper at the ready– I know I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but always, always keep something handy on which to jot notes.  There’s just something about having blank paper begging to be filled that gets the juices flowing.  This is especially needful when you have other things going on (like funerals, reunions, weddings, and a million visits).  My little pocket notebook has tons of little ideas and snippets that I would have forgotten completely if I hadn’t written them down.  The paper helps you think creatively, and then it helps you hang on to the things you do come up with.

I had some great ideas while on the road, ideas that I can hardly wait to flesh out and write up.  So maybe I only had the time and presence of mind to jot down some don’t-forget-this sort of notes.  I’ll count the fact that I was having ideas at all- despite the oppressive heat and despite living out of a car and despite months of nausea- as a victory.

Inspiring Vacation Photos

Ah, I’m finally home!  *hugs house*  Seriously, I never want to leave Fairbanks again.

Not that we didn’t have a great time.  We did.  We saw tons of friends and family, had many an adventure, and I was able to get lots of notes taken, even if I didn’t quite get around to much actual fiction writing.  (More on that next week.)  Another thing I was able to get a lot of: vacation photos.

A picture says a thousand words, or so goes the famous adage.  But without a translator on hand, exactly what words are being said isn’t always totally clear.  For example, what would you say is happening in this picture?

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Copilot, can you check our altitude?

It kind of looks like two kids are flying an airplane and are calmly about to crash into a tree.  Or maybe you see a dystopian future wherein child soldiers are sent on bombing raids.  Or maybe even fully grown space aliens who just happen to look like human children who are about to land on Earth on a mission to prepare the planet for hostile takeover.  (It’s actually my kids at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, dangling over the rhinoceros pen.  Go figure.)

This has been the longest vacation of my life.  I have lots of pictures, and lots of stories.  But if I weren’t around to tell you why there is a chipmunk on this man’s face…

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Tiny claws! In my eyes!

… you could probably have a really fun time making up your own version.  And your version would probably be even better than the truth, at least from a storytelling standpoint.

Vacation photos can make wonderful writing prompts.  They’re often of people outside their element, at interesting places, doing unusual things.  In a single snapshot, you typically have a setting, a character, and a basic scenario.  You can write about the photo at any point in time: write either how the photo came about, what’s happening in the photo at the moment, or the aftermath of the photo’s events.  Or you can simply grab a single element of the photo- say, an interesting person in the background, or Cousin Judy’s red sweater- and write up a spinoff that otherwise has nothing to do with the picture at all.

When using these visual prompts, it’s probably best not to use your own photos.  When you already know the real story attached to the image, it can be hard to set that one aside and start fresh.  I know what this is all about-

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Hey, honey! Babies are on sale!

-but you don’t.  So I would have a harder time coming up with something that isn’t just a retelling of the events than you would.  But if I were to look at someone else’s pictures, I wouldn’t have that limitation.  Fortunately, hats off to the internet, there’s no shortage of vacation photos floating around to inspire you.

Have a few more!

Remember that inspiration is all around you.  If you find yourself stuck on your writing, maybe spending a little time nosing around through Uncle Terry’s vacation photos just might be the thing to get you thinking again.

Happy writing!

5 Ways to Keep your Idea Kit Full

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Dandelion disapproves of all this nonsense. Dandelion disapproves of everything.

A couple months ago, I noticed my older chicken limping. I didn’t think much of it, primarily because she’s pretty old and I couldn’t find any actual injuries on her. But then the old biddy couldn’t stay on the roost anymore. Then early this month, she couldn’t even stand on the foot. I mean, she’s old, but come on. Being a novice chicken keeper, I watched this all with growing trepidation, but didn’t do anything more than wring my hands. Finally, I had an “oh, duh” moment and ran a Google search, and found my answer pretty quickly.

Bumblefoot. After snickering a moment over that super cool name, I read through exactly what had happened to my girl and what I needed to do to save her- because if I didn’t do anything, she would most likely die. And since I had let it go so long, I had to act fast. I pored over the procedure for drawing out the infection, and preventing it from spreading, all the time hoping my husband would get home before the stores closed for the evening.

Turns out, he didn’t have to.

My stockpile of nonstick gauze and medical tape from like three years ago was ready to roll. And, gee, I even had the same triple antibiotic spray the internet chicken lady calls for. Oh, and that gigantic sack of Epsom salt my cousin left here that I never got around to throwing out was right there in the laundry room. And… hey, there was that huge pack of disposable latex gloves my brother left here. All this stuff I’d been pack-ratting over the years was suddenly and immediately necessary. I could get right to work. (Ironically, the only thing I didn’t have lying around was a hair dryer- the one thing internet lady was sure everyone had. Eh, I didn’t really need it anyway.)

Being prepared to suddenly perform life-saving medical work on a chicken is a little more exciting than my day-to-day life typically goes. But it seems to run parallel to another aspect of my life I do deal with daily: writing.

More than stockpiling medical supplies, I stockpile ideas. I have notebooks and scraps of paper and sticky notes all over my writing desk. Some of the ideas are full length stories just waiting for their turn in the queue. Some are mere snippets- a wisp of dialog, a solitary choice, a sketch, a setting- in need of a framework to support them. But they’re everywhere. And then when a lightning-bolt of inspiration strikes, I’m ready for it with an abundance of details and prompts.

So what can we do to make sure the idea kit is stocked? Here are some things that I find help me to catch those little flickers of ideas before they’re gone, and to keep them coming:

Always have something to write with. You never know when or where you’re going to have an idea. It could be in the shower or the grocery store, waiting at your kid’s ballet class or your spouse’s job, with your reading group or by yourself. So be ready to catch those juicy little tidbits with a note. I keep a pen and small notebook in my purse, another in my van, another in the church bag, and like a zillion at home. You will sooner catch me without pants than without paper.

Try new things. Nothing stimulates the brain like new experiences, and our daily lives are full of opportunities to deviate from the norm. Get Thai instead of Mexican for lunch. Take a different route to school. Jog around the block instead of using your treadmill. Read a book you wouldn’t normally pick up. Learn a fun party trick. The new experiences don’t have to be huge- I doubt anyone reading this blog has the time or means to pop off to Italy for the weekend. (Or if you do, maybe consider making a small donation to the Jill Needs New Socks Fund?) But shake off the routine now and then and your brain will rev up in response.

Look smell taste touch listen. We’re sensory creatures and our writing becomes more potent when we immerse our readers’ senses within our world. Take the time to eat a strawberry slowly. How would you explain that taste and texture to someone who has never had one? Dig to the very bottom of your kids’ laundry bin and take a big whiff. How would you describe that smell? Go to a public place and people watch. Why are people wearing what they are? Saying what they are? Look at their faces. What are they thinking? Why? These experiences make wonderful seeds for later ideas.

Read! Books, blogs, forums, magazines, anything you can get your hands on. What parts interest you? Infuriate you? Elate you? The things that get you excited are likely the things that will get other people excited. If you really like a quote, write it down in your idea notebook. Draw a sketch of a character in a book. As long as you aren’t passing these ideas off as your own work, this isn’t plagiarism- It’s practice. When I was teaching myself how to draw, I traced art I liked. When I’m teaching myself how to get ideas, I mimic good ideas.

Ask questions. What if the mayor was an alien sent to save humanity from itself? What if the last mass extinction didn’t happen? What does Mrs. Vespers do when she’s alone? Asking myself absurd questions is one of my most visited pastimes. (What if I pulled out my intestines? What would I do if a moose chased me down the trail? What if the school was on fire? What if I was on the bus and someone tried to take it over with a scalpel? If someone tried to steal my van when my baby was in it?) Okay, so it’s not always the most cheerful of thoughts, but it does get me thinking. And thinking is really the only absolute prerequisite to generating ideas.

The heart of the matter is that nobody really has a secret formula for getting ideas. Brandon Sanderson doesn’t peer into a crystal ball. Neil Gaiman doesn’t have a hand-crank idea generator in his basement. Stephen King hasn’t sold his immortal soul for an underworld imp that sits invisibly on his shoulder and whispers ideas while he writes. (Probably, anyway.) Ideas come to us much in the same way that plankton comes to a whale. We can drift around and wait for them to just swim into our mouths, the stupid things. Or we can swim and hunt and sift. Which whale do you think gets more plankton?

When we are constantly primed to catch ideas, we catch more ideas. Real writers never really run out of ideas (although this is a recurring nightmare of mine that will wake me in a cold sweat some nights). We hunt and we sift and gather, gather, gather, so that when the pieces fall into place, we have enough and more to fill in the cracks.

The well is never empty. So when we find ourselves in need of a cool side character, or a nifty world mechanic, or a witty response, it’s right there and ready, like a good med kit.

10 People to Follow on Twitter

twitter-bird(A quick aside to those of you not on twitter- the same general principles can be applied to whichever social media you prefer- whether that’s Facebook or Reddit or whatever. If you’re not involved in any social media… well, why not? Assuming you’re a writer, you’re missing some cool opportunities to interact with new faces and places. So give it a shot already!  *climbs back off soapbox*)

When I first signed up for Twitter way back when, I was pretty irritated with all their inane suggestions for who I should be following. (Seriously, I’m not here to stalk Lady Gaga, please stop asking if I want to.) But it didn’t take me long to figure out who I really should be following. A lot of goofiness and guesswork later, I’ve come up with a good starter list that I really wish I could just quietly slip to Past Jill and save her a lot of silliness and trouble. Behold!

News Outlets More than one. I also think it’s important to have them vary in their sizes and/or scope. This way you get the great big global stuff that affects us all, as well as the teeny little slice o’ life stories. And don’t limit yourself to news that only applies to you! On a more temporary basis, I also like to sign on for local news in other places when I’m trying to get into the setting of a new book, or just to broaden my horizons. But for purposes of this list, I’ll keep it to my permanent news outlets. For my global news network, I use @BBCBreaking. For the local stuff, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner’s very own @newsminer.

Industry Pundits There are all manner of industry pundits you can be following. You can stalk the literary agents and editors you’re thinking about querying. You can listen in on industry news or find tips. You can follow publishing houses, literary agencies, writing coaches, freelance editors, whoever- they’re all here. When putting together this list, I again decided to limit myself to two. So I chose two literary agencies that also do advice and answer direct questions. Plus, they’re just super nice people! I give you New Leaf Literary & Media Inc, @NewLeafLiterary, and Fuse Literary, @FuseLiterary, formerly Foreward Literary.

Sprint Runners I’m often on twitter because I have a hard time forcing myself to be doing the things I know I should be doing, and so I like to lurk around and see if I can find anyone willing to run writing sprints with me. (Or giggle over dancing cat gifs. There’s that, too.) So it’s important that I also follow some good sprint runners, accounts that I know can get me motivated to write. My favorite is @NanoWordSprints, the official sprint account of NaNoWriMo; they only running during Nano months, but during those months, they are present an impressive percentage of the day. I also have a special place in my heart for Friday Night Writes, @FriNightWrites, although they don’t do sprints as much as they used to, so it’s hard for me to catch them anymore. (If you’re looking for them, though, hang about on the first Friday of each month.) But I also seem to run into @TheSprintShack pretty often, so between those three, I get a fair amount of sprints in.

(A little different, but related, I recently found the following article at the Sprint Shack useful- Twitter for Writers: 3 Ways to Make Meaningful Connections. I came across it while researching (aka playing around in twitter) for this blog post and thought, ‘How timely!’. Among other things, it taught me about the much feared hashtag.)

Real Humans I Adore So to fill in the gaps between sprint runners, I also have a big batch of personal accounts that I follow.  This actually makes up the vast bulk of the people I follow.  Even if we don’t get around to sprinting, I enjoy being surrounded by like-minded writers who are always willing to kick me in the rear if I ask them to. Also, it’s nice to have people that will actually interact with you when you reach out to them- who are personal persons rather than some organization’s faceless primate who happens to be at the keyboard that day. This list of my well beloved internet buds could go pretty long, so I’m limiting myself to three. I narrowed it down to non-US folk, limit one per country, who are always full of writing encouragement, and who I run into frequently online. And here they are! @melindrea, @SchofieldCM, and @TanteWillemijn. These folks are all fantastic and have kept me going on days when I would have been otherwise lame!  Go check out their coolness!

Other useful accounts to follow would be anything that inspires you. Want pictures of cool abandoned structures? There’s an account for that. Ever wondered what Darth Vader would have to say if given a Twitter handle? There’s an account for that. Want nonstop fluffy cuteness oozing out your feed? There’s an account for that. Whatever gets your creative juices flowing, that’s what you should be seeking out in your social media.

Social media is super cool in that it is all about the connections we make, connections that probably wouldn’t have been possible fifty years ago. Having a healthy social media life (Healthy– don’t sit around doing this all day every day. Not healthy!) is an easy way to connect with other writers, potential readers, maybe future collaborators, publishers, agents, etc. Writing and publishing are tricky, and often lonely, but social media can help it be just a bit easier.

How about you guys? Who do you think I should be following? Let me know in the comments! Pleeeeease! And until next week, happy writing!