Writing Homework #17: Do Something New

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I’ve never been scuba diving, for a number of reasons. I’m a decent swimmer and I love being in the water, but diving safely requires some training and a lot of expensive equipment (even renting isn’t cheap.)

Also, it helps to live somewhere with a body of water worth diving in. Which I don’t.

If I were doing research for a book that involved characters scuba diving, I’d have to fall back on doing lots of research online; watching videos and reading articles and all that jazz. And I’m glad I have access to that–the Internet is a freaking miracle goldmine filled with rainbows.

But if I could, I’d rather experience it myself. Nothing can fully replicate the knowledge I’d gain and the observations I’d make if I really went diving.

With that in mind, here’s this month’s assignment.

Do something you’ve never done before, then write about it.

This is vague, I know, but it’s meant to be. I can’t know what you already know how to do, or places you’ve already been.

Use this as a spur to visit the zoo and participate in a feeding–I’ve never done that either, even though at the Detroit Zoo you can feed the giraffes!

Or teach yourself a new craft and document the process. Describe what came easily and what you had the most trouble with.

Go to your local coffee shop and order a drink you’ve never had before. Write about how it tastes.

Call one of your Congresspeople, if you never have, and tell the nice staffer who answers whatever you feel about a pressing political issue. Or go to a local town hall meeting. Write about how you felt getting involved; write about what other people said at the meeting and the impression you got of them.

Whatever it is that you choose to do, notice the details of as many senses as possible. Smell might be more obvious at the zoo or a garden than that town hall meeting, but what if it isn’t? The meeting room could smell like coffee, or carpet cleaner, or too many bodies packed into a small space.

When you write, focus on the personal. What did you see or hear that another person might not have noticed, or wouldn’t think to mention if they were telling you about it? How did the environment affect you as an individual? What made your experience unique?

So, if you can go scuba diving, do it for my sake, who can’t, and tell me all about it. Everyone else, take a little time to have a small adventure (even a tiny one) and write about what you did.

 

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Writing Homework #16: Housecleaning

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Is your writing folder as messy as mine, overflowing with WIPs, notes for ideas, multiple drafts, and non-writing materials?

I’ve got promotional images for my published novels stashed in five different subfolders, even though there are only three books.

So here’s the homework assignment for May: clean it up.

I want to be clear, I’m not saying get RID of anything. You can if you find files that are truly useless, or, say, if you combine all your plot bunnies into a single file, sure, delete the individual ones. But DO NOT get rid of any actual writing.

Organize it.

The system you choose is up to you. Some people go by year, if they’ve been writing a long time–last time I organized (years ago) I tried it this way, shoving all my writing prompt responses from my time at /r/WritingPrompts into folders dated for each month, because I was attempting the 365-day response challenge, so that made the most sense. I made a folder for the previous year and shoved everything else I had into it, because that’s when I wrote it, and I wasn’t working on any of it anymore.

But as I started working on larger projects over longer periods of time, I began the switch to project-based organization. I have a mega-folder for the What We Need series, named “Seeking Shelter” because that was first (potential, discarded) title for What We Need to Survive. Inside, each book has its own subfolder, and within those, I have divisions for early drafts and rewrites, the final drafts for publication in all formats necessary, the cover and other graphic files I commissioned, plus random other junk that accumulated around the books through their publishing process–author questionnaires and interview transcripts, my author bio, ARC files for reviewers, excerpts, and so on.

I can find what I’m looking for with some digging, but honestly it’s a mess that’s grown over the past three years. You know who doesn’t clean up their room for three years straight? Hoarders.

So, I’ll be taking a look at my bloated Writing folder and seeing what I can do to tackle the clutter. I invite you to do the same, to impose a little order on what could very well be the messiest corner of your hard drive. I know mine is!


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Writing Homework #15 — Studying Pacing

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Pacing in writing can be a tricky beast to wrangle. It’s often hard to know how your story flows by the end of the first draft, and even if you do, there’s probably a lot about the pacing that needs work. A solid rhythm might not even take shape until multiple rewrites are done.

And it’s a difficult thing to sum up in a quick homework assignment, but I’ve got an idea.

Pick a book from your shelf that has never bored you. It doesn’t have to be your absolute favorite book ever, or one you know by heart, but it does have to be one you’re reasonably familiar with, and most importantly, IT’S NEVER BORING.

Pick a chapter from the middle. Not the end, where it’s likely to be more action (for most genres, anyway) or the beginning, where it’s likely to lean into world- or character-building. Pick a chapter from the part of a story that so often sags, the part that gives so many writers, myself included, terrible fits of frustration–the middle.

Reread it. While you are, make notes about any obvious hooks–bits of foreshadowing for the end, payoffs of earlier foreshadowing, subplot resolutions or new subplot introductions, new characters, new settings. Depending on the exact chapter of the exact book, not all of these will be present–but if the middle’s not boring, something is happening. What? What is happening to keep you so engaged?

If you have the time and inclination, re-reread the same chapter, but break it down page by page. What is most of each page devoted to? Action, conversation, description, exposition? Is there a balance between two or more of them? Does the balance shift as the chapter goes on?

And in your future reading, use these questions to study books that are boring you, to see what it is that’s failing. Too much exposition at once usually an obvious flaw, for example, but it could be something more subtle–are the characters talking, and it should be helping the plot move, but it’s really just filler? Is there too little action, or is there too much, and it whizzes by so fast you don’t feel like you absorbed any of it?

If you study stories with good balance first, ones that keep you engaged, it will be easier to identify flaws both in less intriguing books, and in your own work as you rewrite and edit.


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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.

 

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!