Writing Homework #14 – Freewriting

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Don’t think–just write. Ray Bradbury

My writing hasn’t been going as well as I’d like lately, and part of it is not knowing how to begin. I need to rework the beginning of my novel draft, which includes adding a new first chapter (or two) before the original draft picks up the story…and I’m just not liking how it’s going.

I’ve got myself a block, and when that happens, I like trying new techniques to get past it. Hence, freewriting.

If this isn’t something you already do, you may want to try it. Not just to unblock yourself, like I am–many writers like to start a session with a few minutes of freewriting, to limber up their fingers and unknot their brains.

How do you do it? Set a timer, open a document, and just write. Sounds simple, yeah?

It’s not. “Just write” means don’t edit. Don’t fix typos. Don’t stop to think about what you’re writing or where it’s headed or if it’s at all related to the story you’re trying to tell in your “real” work–just write.

Will anything you get down in those five or ten or twenty minutes be usable? Bits and pieces, at best, sometimes. But it isn’t the content of your freewriting that’s meant to be useful–it’s the act of it. The cathartic release of your emotions, if you use the exercise like a journal to clear out your head. The warming-up of your hands and brain to the task of working on your project, if you use the exercise as an opening to your regular writing session. The disabling of your internal editor, who is forbidden to care how badly you mangle the words and sentences that tumble from your fingertips.

If any of that sounds like something you need for yourself, here’s your assignment: try five minutes of freewriting, now, or whenever you sit down to write next. Turn on the timer and turn off your self-criticism.

If you feel better afterward, use that, and work on your real writing. If you don’t yet, try another five or ten minutes to see if that gets some of the kinks out. And if it doesn’t? If you’re just frustrated at the end? Maybe freewriting isn’t for you, but now you know.

 

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Writing Homework #13: Song Lyric Inspiration

Song and song-lyric writing prompts are nothing new, but I’m going for a slightly different tactic here.

My husband and I are both devoted Pumpkinheads, being teenagers from the ’90s, and early on in our friendship we bonded over our similar tastes in music quite strongly.

On our car trip for Christmas vacation, we popped in some Pumpkins for nostalgia’s sake–I hadn’t actually listened to Machina – The Machines of God in years.

I was caught by a single line from “Try, Try, Try” —

the automatic gauze of your memories

In five words, it says so much. How memory is imperfect and fades over time, and how that’s something beyond control.

Now, if I wanted to use this directly in my own writing, obviously that’s plagiarism. And plagiarism is bad, okay?

But there’s nothing stopping me, or any writer, from noting down lines we love, that speak to us, and adapting that imagery or emotion for ourselves, reinterpreting it.

I’m not going to go so far as to recommend you keep yet another dedicated journal just for song lyrics, like the vocabulary journal, but if you already do have a little notebook handy for your writing thoughts, add those song lyrics in, with whatever images or ideas they spark in you, however they make you feel. Take some time to listen to old favorites, especially music you might have neglected for a while, see what memories the songs conjure up, and write about that too.

When you need inspiration later for your projects, or when you need to capture a specific tone for a scene, you’ll have your own words ready to guide you.

Writing Homework #12: Try a New Outlining Method

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Since I’m trying to wrangle my plot bunnies and choose which one gets fed during NaNoWriMo this year, and I’ve got seven to choose from, I thought this would be a great time to investigate different ways to outline. I’ve already tried a few throughout my years of writing, with wildly varying degrees of success, but I got it in my head to try as many as I can now, while I have all these ideas to cultivate.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to take a story idea you have an try out a new-to-you method of outlining it. I’ve assembled several ideas, but there are certainly more methods out there.

#1 – Standard (Research Paper) Outline

Just like the ones back in school, this is your Roman-numeral, descending outline. Straightforward, especially if you’re already familiar with it from a thousand sheets of class notes or research papers–just change the sections from Introduction, Thesis, etc. to Act I, II, II (for the three-act structure) and make the subdivisions into chapters; or if that’s too rigid, use the sections for the major plot points you want to occur, the subdivisions for scene details, and figure out the chapter divisions as you write.

#2 – The Synopsis

Take a sheet of paper (or a blank document) and write out in simple action sentences the plot of your novel. This one’s quite flexible; it doesn’t need to be as formal as writing a synopsis for publishing agents, though it still shouldn’t go into great detail at this stage. Include notes for character motivation or settings where you already have ideas, but in truth, this is the bare-bones summary of what happens in your story.

#3 – The Snowflake Method

If the Synopsis is a quick-and-dirty approach, the Snowflake Method is its fractal cousin. Its creator explains it in more detail than I can–but briefly, you start with one sentence describing your entire premise, then expand that into a handful of sentences detailing the major plot points, then expand that into paragraphs with the first details of how and who and why, and so forth.

#4 – The Headlight/Flashlight Method

Useful for us pantsers who have a character already in mind or know how the story starts, this method (which I’ve seen frequently under both names) is a brainstorm-as-you-go plan, where you take what you already have and only plan a few chapters in advance. At each major decision point, you can explore as many new ideas for how to proceed as you want before committing to writing the next few chapters. By its nature, this method isn’t as strong for a situation like NaNoWriMo when you might want all your planning done ahead of time, but it certainly appeals to me!

#5 – The Zero/Discovery Draft

An anything-goes race from start to finish, written with more depth but less precision than a synopsis; the kitchen sink of outlines, where everything from detailed character descriptions to snippets of dialogue to [insert fight scene here] is acceptable. Author Leigh Bardugo describes her process for one of my favorite YA novels Six of Crows as “I write a skeleton and then put meat on its bones.”

#6 – Mind Maps

A visual, non-linear outlining method that I have no experience with myself, so I’ll point you here for a comprehensive breakdown. It seems a little intimidating to me, as I’ve never attempted anything like it–but that means I probably should, right?

#7 – Note Cards/Sticky Notes

Another visual method with the bonus of being rearrangeable, for stories without firm timelines at the outset. Depending on your planning style and level of abstraction, each note card can be a scene, a chapter, or a simple major plot point if you’re in the early stages. You may end up using the note cards to build a more classic outline in the end, but for strongly visual thinkers, it might be an easier way to get there.

I hope this has given you some ideas for the care and development of your plot bunnies–good luck!


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Vocabulary From Books, #1

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Last year, I created a Writing Homework assignment charging you to look up the words you don’t know as you’re reading.

I’ve been keeping a vocabulary journal for the whole year, and while it goes through fallow periods when I’m reading books that don’t drop the ten-dollar words, it has been growing.

Time to share some of the entries and their sources!

He used to present copies of this otiose chronicle to his business associates, who must have been surprised, though perhaps not.

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

otiose: 1) being at leisure, idle, indolent; 2) ineffective or futile; 3) superfluous or useless

Every family had a few skeletons in their cupboards, but the Vanger family had an entire gallimaufry of them.

Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

gallimaufry: a confused jumble or medley of things

The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions.

Stephen King, The Gunslinger

apotheosis: the highest point in the development of something; a culmination or climax

A clear stream ran out of the woods and across the center of the clearing, first bubbling through a deep channel in the spongy earth and friable stone, then pouring across the splintery rock floor which sloped down to the place where the land dropped away.

Stephen King, The Waste Lands

friable: easily crumbled

“Let me see your Jewish manuscripts and incunabula.”

Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

incunabulum: an early printed book, especially one printed before 1501

When Ivy had asked for clarification, she had been told that her abbreviations were “schoolgirlish and recondite.”

Neal Stephenson, Seveneves

recondite: (of a subject or knowledge) little known; abstruse

“If nothing else, I might accidentally step on his fleam and break it; that’s probably the only way I’ll stop him from bleeding people.”

Diana Gabaldon, The Fiery Cross

fleam: a handheld instrument used in bloodletting


I plan on doing more of these posts with the more useful and/or interesting words I turn up, but the scheduling, of course, will depend on what I’m reading and how quickly I acquire new words to share. Until then, keep reading, and keep looking up those definitions!

Writing Homework #11: Prep a Name Master List

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Every author handles choosing names differently, but speaking for myself, it’s often a struggle. Consulting baby name websites and lists of the most popular names in a given era are great places to start, but I often find myself wading through tons of blah names without feeling inspired.

What struck me lately is that I keep meeting people with fantastic names that I wish I could use. I can’t–not in full, anyway–but there’s a way around that.

If you’re like me and you have a notebook on you at nearly all times, simply write the name down for later. (Not in front of the person, that would look weird!)

But for the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to draw names to work with from a pool. Head over to IMDb and find a favorite show or movie, then click through to the full cast and crew listing.

I’ll be pulling names today from Stargate SG-1. I miss that show.

To keep this small, I’m going with ten, though a master list you could make as long as you want to start, and keep adding to it whenever you find something new. My only criteria at the moment is to pick a name I like, which is vague–maybe the first name is pretty or the last name is one I haven’t heard before or the two just sound good together.

  1. Amanda Tapping
  2. Andy Mikita
  3. Charles Correll
  4. Jonathon Glassner
  5. Jacqueline Samuda
  6. Claudia Black (okay I picked her because I’ve loved her since Farscape, I confess)
  7. Gillian Barber
  8. Karen van Blankenstein
  9. Kevin McNulty
  10. Jennifer Calvert

So, realistically speaking, we authors can’t/shouldn’t use any names as they come. If I write a book where the main character’s name is Amanda Tapping, even if the story has nothing to do with any Stargate elements and the character looks, sound, and acts nothing like the actor…well, you get the situation I had last year when I read The Summer of Chasing Mermaids. And also, if Amanda Tapping found out, she might not be pleased.

So, it’s time to break the first names free of the last names and do some rearranging. On my first pass, I got these shiny new names, all perfectly usable:

  1. Karen Tapping
  2. Jonathon Mikita
  3. Gillian Correll
  4. Jennifer Glassner
  5. Andy Samuda
  6. Kevin Black
  7. Amanda Barber
  8. Claudia van Blankenstein
  9. Charles McNulty
  10. Jacqueline Calvert

My criteria for rematching the names was simple. Everyone had to be shuffled, and I wanted them to sound good together. Which made me wonder what that means, so it’s time to take a look.

Many of these new names share sounds. “Gillian Correll” has the Ls, “Andy Samuda” the Ds, “Jennifer Glassner” shares the -er ending, and “Jacqueline Calvert” doubles down by sharing both the L and the hard C.

In the names that don’t share sounds, the rhythm of stressed syllables flows well. The hardest on the mouth is probably JON-a-thon mi-KI-ta, but it’s not terrible, and maybe that character will go by Jon instead.

There’s nothing stopping me from rearranging the first names again to switch up the ones I don’t like quite as much, but some of these names are already forming characters in my head. “Claudia van Blankenstein” is a Gothic Romance heroine name if I’ve ever heard one. “Charles McNulty” could easily be a teenage introvert whose parents insist on calling him Charles even though he’d want his friends to call him “Charlie,” if only he had any. (Poor Charles!) “Amanda Barber” would make a great real estate agent, with easy-to-spell-and-remember name gracing billboards and bench-seat ads all around town.

Go forth, my lovelies, and make yourself master lists of names, so when you’re tumbling through your draft and suddenly you need a real estate agent, you have a name ready to go.


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Writing Homework #10: And Then the Murders Began

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I’ve been seeing a post floating around on Tumblr a lot recently. “Take the first line of a novel, and add And then the murders began.

It leads to some really funny outcomes, as one might expect. Take the first line of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. And then the murders began.

Or Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. And then the murders began.

Or one of my most beloved classics, I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. And then the murders began.

So your writing assignment, this time around, is to grab a few books off your shelf (or look up a list of famous first lines, if you want some classics,) choose a first line, add the bit about the murders, and use it as a prompt for a flash fiction piece. If you end up using a line from a story you know well, you can adapt it to incorporate the murders; or you can just use the two lines as the start of an entirely new story.

I haven’t had the time yet to write my own–still slogging through WWNTR formatting–but expect my version sometime in June. Have fun and keep writing!


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Writing Homework #9: Every Song a Story

A long time ago, under a different name on an account long deleted, I was an active participant in /r/WritingPrompts, before it became a default sub and exploded into a crazy pit of meme prompts. I didn’t stick around, and to be honest, I have no idea what the community is like these days.

But I do remember one prompt in particular, to take a song that almost tells a story, and write a scene based on it.

My response to that prompt is lost to the sands of time (and the account deletion) but I do remember I chose “Shape of My Heart” because the song so clearly defines a character, but not the story itself.

So this week’s assignment is to seek out a similar song, not one that already lays out a story in great detail, but one that gives insight into the character or situation it describes, and write a drabble/scene/flash fic based on it.

I know, I know, song prompts aren’t exactly a new idea, but I want to present my take on it.

Have fun and keep writing!


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