Tag Archives: Writing Exercises

A little here, a little there

Writing

You may have guessed that of late my writing itself hasn’t been at its peak. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that I’ve been working on three different projects, or that in my spare time I’m trying to do a number of other things (like find a venue for a child’s birthday party that doesn’t cost the earth – ugghhh!), but yes, it’s been sporadic at best and non-existent at worst. I suspect this is one reason I’ve been throwing myself in to editing so readily: because the writing thing just isn’t really happening for me at the moment so at least if I’m editing I can feel like I’m achieving something.

Of course, there are a million blog posts out there telling people how to get past writers block. Heck, I’ve written some myself. And I’m sure that if I really applied myself, I’d be able to get a lot more written … but therein lies the rub. If I really applied myself. The trouble is, getting around to applying myself just isn’t really happening.

This is risky behaviour for me. On the birth of my youngest child I gave up writing (and reading, for that matter) for  the best part of nine months. For anyone who knows me, this is nothing short of remarkable behaviour. Me, not read? It’s like asking the sun not to rise in the morning. But, I sense that it might be a very easy trap to fall back into. If I take too much of a break from writing – or reading – then goodness only knows how long it would take before the bug bites me again. Last time it was nine months …  who’s to say it wouldn’t be longer next time?

Yeah, yeah, I know. If I’m to call myself a writer then I have to write. Most people write because they can’t NOT write. Me, well I’ve proven that I can quite happily go without writing for several months. Does that make me less of a writer? I don’t think so, but it does make me pause to think.

In any case, I’m still editing. You know, that zeal that makes you want to get that manuscript just right, no matter how long that takes. Or maybe not just right, because it will probably never reach that peak, but at least good enough to send out into the world. And editing is a key part of writing, so in that sense I’m definitely a writer. And in the meantime, I do find myself jotting down ideas for my other two projects – character traits, things to remember, things to include in the plot arc. And that counts, right?

Yep, a little here and a little there. It all adds up. And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

 

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Looking for motivation

English: Motivational Saying

English: Motivational Saying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Okay, first things first. I know I didn’t do a post last Friday, so my deepest apologies. The lack of activity was due to a combination of things – a late cancellation combined with a generally crappy day meant that things just got away from me and I wasn’t able to put something together. Fear not, though, I have things lined up for this Friday so it’s only a minor blip. :)

Aside from my general lack of blogging, though, today I was going to talk about motivation. I’ve been sick lately so finding the motivation to get out there and write has been more difficult than usual. Sure, the ideas are there, but the thought of actually opening that Word document and writing just hasn’t appealed.

My way of getting past this is, oddly enough, NaNo. Yes, I know that last week I said loud and clear that I wasn’t going to do NaNo this year as I wanted to get my WIP out of the way first. However, what I’ve decided to do is my own mini NaNo, in that rather than aiming for 50,000 words during November, I’m heading for 15,000. That’s 500 words a day, and if I get that done then I’ll be, if not finished, then very close to. I’m doing okay, too – today (in my part of the world) is the 5th of November, so that means I need to have 2500 words done by the end of today. Well, I’m not there yet, but it’s not yet midday so I’ve got time, and I’m over 2000 to start with. That means less than 500 words and I’m on track.

I know that personal NaNos don’t work for everyone, though, so I’ve come up with a few other methods that might help with motivation.

1. Carrots, as in carrot-and-stick methods. In this case, reward yourself. I’ve promised that I’ll get myself a manicure when the manuscript is finally done – or, at least, the first draft is. This isn’t necessarily because I’m huge fan of getting my nails done, but it feels like a good reward for my fingers, which are what has been doing the bulk of the work in typing this story out. In other words, set up a reward system for significant milestones, like some personal pampering, or a night out with friends, or a fancy lunch, or whatever. Not a huge reward (I don’t condone celebrating every chapter finish with a weekend away, for example), but something that fits the task at hand.

2. Sticks. This is punishing yourself if you don’t meet certain milestones. This doesn’t work nearly so well as people respond so much better to positive than negative rewards, but sometimes it just works to do it this way. This has worked for me in the past when I denied myself chocolate until I’d written 1000 words in a day. (This was especially effective when I had the chocolate just sitting there, looking at me, and I was forcing myself not to have it.) Stick methods are probably better for short term goals than long term ones, or at least they are for me.

3. Competition/social deadlines. This is where something like NaNo comes in, though it’s not necessary; it could be an agreement with a friend or something at your writers’ group. It’s where you agree to have a chapter finished by X date, or try to write more than someone else in  a given time. The widgets on the NaNo website are great because you can track your progress against that of a friend or even a region (averaged out), but really any sort of arrangement will work. The idea is that you will write, even if it’s rubbish, because someone else is relying on you to do it. There’s nothing like a bit of social guilt to make you get stuck into it.

You will notice that I’m employing a combination of (1) and (3) this month – the promise of a manicure to reward my fingers when the draft is finished, along with the pressure to meet a NaNoWriMo-like deadline. Only time will tell if I’m disciplined enough to do it, but if I don’t try I’ll never know.

So, what works best for you when you’re not feeling motivated? How do you make yourself write? Or do you just take a break and wait for the inspiration to come back again? I’d love to hear about it. :)

 

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Assorted writing tips #8 – Characterisation

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

 

I’ve written about writing exercises before, but this time I just wanted to talk about one that has really helped me.

Last week, I started a five-week (or really, five-fortnight, but you know what I mean) novel-writing course at my local writers’ centre. I’ve been a member there for a while but haven’t actually been to much – with the kids, most of the things they’ve had on have been either at a bad time or took too much out of the day (say, 10 till 5 on a Saturday, which is really hard for me to do). I figured I could manage two hours a fortnight, though, so off I went.

The first session was about characterisation. Characterisation is something that I find a lot of fun – getting to know one’s characters is always an enjoyable process, and I love seeing where they take me. Often it’s places I don’t expect, but that’s half the fun of it, don’t you think? Anyway, I’ve been given (and used) different character sheets over the years, but there is something about them that seems, I don’t know, sterile. Filling in a form about someone, while it can be very instructive, doesn’t really give me a feel for them. Thing was, I didn’t know of any other way so I persevered.

Then along came Thursday night, and Lucy Clark, the author who is running the course, made the comment that they don’t really work for her either. Hurrah! I knew I couldn’t be alone, but it was great to see someone who has been really successful facing the same battles. What she did, she explained, was write a biography of each character. This is a page or two – or three or four, depending on how small you write and how far you get into the character – written in the first person, telling the story of that person’s life. It’s not really structured, and it’s not intended to be edited (much), just a jumbled narrative of one thought after another. We did a sample in the class, given just a name and an occupation, and it’s amazing how much I could turn out. (In fact, I’m considering using the character I came up with in that session in a future novel.) This is free writing at its best - rambling, unfocused and full of tangents, yet extraordinarily useful when it comes to characterisation and character development.

I’ve used this since on the characters I’ve been writing for the past couple of years, and I have learnt so much more about them by doing this that I have in two years worth of scene creation. Sure, a lot of it I already knew, but I found myself delving so much further into them, especially some of the secondary and tertiary characters, that finishing this manuscript is going to be a breeze. Instead of wondering how someone is going to react to a certain situation, I feel now that I’m at the stage of just putting them in the scene and stage managing – and some of my best writing has been doing just that.

So, there it is. My tip of the day for really getting into your characters’ heads, especially if character sheets don’t really work for you. Of course, not everyone is the same so this might really not appeal to some people. For me, though, it’s been amazing.

 

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On setting word count targets

"Writing", 22 November 2008

“Writing”, 22 November 2008 (Photo credit: ed_needs_a_bicycle)

I’ve been disappointing myself lately. After a great creative start to my revised life as a working mother, my novel has been suffering a little of late. This isn’t because I haven’t had time to work on it – as I wrote a few weeks back, I have lunch hours and the like which have me already sitting at a computer and which give me ready-made writing time. No, I’ve found myself faffing about during that time instead, checking the newsfeeds on the internet or looking at my blog stats or whatever. Basically, anything that doesn’t involve actual writing, I’ve been doing it.

Because of this, my word count has stagnated a little. I hit 90K last week, but since then my total count has actually gone down rather than up. Sure, I’ve been writing (a little), but I’ve been more active doing minor line edits than actually being creative; cutting things rather than adding them. I’m sure the manuscript is all the better for it, but that doesn’t really make up for the fact that I’ve been neglecting the creative side of it.

In order to slap myself into submission, I’ve decided to give myself word count goals – a minimum of 1000 words each day that I have time to sit down and write for an hour or more, and preferably 2000. I know I can do this (I’ve knocked up a 1200-word short story in about 15 minutes on occasion), I just need to be motivated.

I know that word count targets can be counter-productive. Writing just for the sake of writing often produces substandard results. However, this for me isn’t a long-term solution, more of a kick start (or a kick up the rear end). To finish my first draft I’ve got a lot of scenes that need to be written, but which I know will be dull to write. This is my way of making myself write them. If the quality is bad I can edit them later on; for now, I just need them done.

Naturally, simple goals often aren’t enough. I could be sitting at my workstation faffing around as usual, without paying attention to my goals and not feeling guilty in the slightest. However, if I use the carrot and stick method, it’s more likely to be effective.

The answer, for me at least, is chocolate. I will buy myself one or two chocolate bars each day, and leave them sitting on my desk. When it gets to lunch time, if I don’t get to 1000 words I don’t get the chocolate bar. I have to leave it sitting there, of course, as recognition that I didn’t do it, and as motivation for the next day. As someone who has trouble leaving a good Crunchie bar just sitting there uneaten, this is bound to motivate me. (If I manage 2000 words, I get two chocolate bars. Extra reward for extra effort.)

Will it work? Time alone will tell. But I have enough prompts in my WIP to give me the inspiration to write the missing scenes, so that shouldn’t be an issue. The question is whether I want the chocolate enough.

So, that’s my goal. 1000 words per day that I’m able to write for an hour or more. With any luck this dratted first draft will be finished in no time, and then I’ll be able to really go through and do a thorough edit. In the meantime, I was wondering – what motivations work for you? What have you tried to make you get your story finished? And did it work? Because, if my Crunchie bar method isn’t successful, I’m sure as hell going to need all the ideas I can get! :)

 

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Assorted writing tips #7 – finding inspiration

A woman searches for inspiration, in this 1898...

A woman searches for inspiration, in this 1898 painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

It’s not easy, is it? Finding inspiration on days when, quite simply, you’re just not inspired. After all, we are at the mercy of our muses, right?

Well, perhaps it’s not as simple as that. I’ve written before about dealing with writer’s block, and about just writing anyway when you have the time and opportunity to do so. And sure, that works, to an extent. It’s just not the same as doing it when you’re feeling inspired, though, is it?

So today I’m going to talk about ways you can find inspiration on days when it’s just eluding you. Ways you can perhaps pick up the threads and get going, rather than doing any number of writing exercises which, while they are generally beneficial, can also feel remarkably dull. Naturally these won’t work for everyone, but they will for some people so I figure that’s worth sharing.

  • Watch a movie. Or read a book, or watch a television show, or something like that. The important thing here is to subject yourself to someone else’s creativity, and it’s even better if it’s in the same genre as what you’re trying to write. You can see how other writers have crafted their plots, put in the twists and turns, dealt with what are very likely similar problems to what your manuscript has. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t in that story, and perhaps it will give you some ideas for your own.
  • Try something new. Do something you’ve never done before. It doesn’t have to be huge – something as minor as trying out a new recipe or going on a walk around your neighbourhood using a route you haven’t used before, but test your boundaries a little. Give yourself a new experience and see how you react to it – was it enjoyable? Did you learn anything from it? Was it worth it? The thing about this is, once you start thinking outside the square when it comes to your own activities, it becomes almost second nature to do it for your characters.
  • Watch / listen to / experience something that moves you. Whether it’s the cannons in the 1812 Overturethe World Cup final from 1990 or the end of Forrest Gump, there is bound to be something out there that moves you in a significant way. With the Internet, it’s also available at your fingertips. Subject yourself to something that tugs on your heartstrings, makes you irrationally proud or elicits some other major emotional reaction. Succumb to it. Enjoy it. Live it. Because if you’re moved to that extent, then that can set the creative juices flowing like nothing else.
  • Talk to a child. Children have a very different take on the world than adults do, and they make you look at things in different ways. For example, my five year old told me quite authoritatively yesterday that if a playground has bark chips underneath the equipment, it’s called a park, because the word “park” is a contraction of the words “playground” and “bark”. (Okay, the word contraction wasn’t used, but you get the idea.) It’s amazing how a conversation like that can make you re-think things.
  • Exercise.Sure, a lot of you are probably sedentary sorts who would rather sit in front of the computer or television than go for a run. Heck, I would too. But getting some exercise and raising a sweat works wonders for your mental activity. It reinvigorates you, wakes you up and gives you a real boost in your cognitive processes. More invigorated and more alert = more likely to find that inspiration that’s been eluding you.

Like I said above, these things won’t work for everyone. But, if you’re looking for inspiration and there’s something on this list that you haven’t tried, then why not give it a go? You never know what might happen.

Good luck!

 

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Dream a little dream

dramatic dream

dramatic dream (Photo credit: unNickrMe)

I’ve been dreaming about my characters lately. My subconscious has been putting them in all sorts of strange situations, and they’ve been forced onto the back foot and had to find a way out of them. The scenes generally have nothing to do with my novel, but they are interesting in their own right.

What this is doing, of course, is cementing certain characteristics and traits in my mind about these people I have created. By putting them through things that would never come up in the course of the narrative, I am learning a lot about them and they’re evolving at a rate of knots. Of course, they were pretty well fleshed out before – my earlier post about not knowing them well enough is now well and truly irrelevant – but now they’ve got a depth they were previously lacking.

I have to admit, I didn’t even realise they were lacking until this past week, but now I know better. It’s amazing what having someone dangling off a cliff, hanging onto a fragile root system for their very survival, is doing for their character. Or how someone else tries to save them. Really, it’s a fascinating process.

In this case I have my subconscious to thank. I’ve seen writing exercises where you put your characters in strange situations and see how they respond, but I’ve never really done one of those. (Yes, I know, I’m sadly lacking in this sort of thing.) In previous stories I’ve written I’ve known my characters so well that I was barely writing them, but instead putting them in a scene and then stage-managing and watching what they did of their own accord. I wasn’t quite at that level with these characters – nearly, but not quite. Now I am.

As such, I have in my own way learned the benefits of doing this sort of writing exercise. Sure, I wasn’t writing, but dreams are still your creativity at work and I was getting my characters well out of their comfort zones, even more than the novel requires. And of course I benefited enormously.

This has got me thinking. If this is so useful, then what other writing exercises should I be doing in order to get this manuscript as good as it can possibly be? My general tactic is to write the scenes from several different points of view, to make sure I get each person’s motivations and reactions right, but this is the first time I’ve tackled things that weren’t directly related to the story I’m telling. And it was brilliant.

So now I’m asking you:  What tips and tricks do you use to get your story right? What writing exercises work for you? Because if we all share our techniques and try new things, then we’ll all become better writers.

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On losing one’s mind

Forget-me-not

Forget-me-not (Photo credit: Sir_Iwan)

Or, at least, having a memory like a sieve. That’s me at the moment – I have great ideas, but I neglect to write them down or otherwise record them, and the next day I have absolutely no idea what they were. Or even, in some cases, what they related to.

Take today. Yesterday I had a brilliant idea for today’s blog entry. It was going to be a little bit different but still on my theme, and I was going to have no end of things to say about it. Trouble is, that’s all I can remember. It’s not like I have an excuse for forgetting, either; baby brain is on the way out, I’m getting plenty of sleep, and I had my phone (and pencils and paper) nearby at the time so I could very easily have made some record of what this big idea was. But, you know, I didn’t. Something to do with it being nice and warm under my blanket on the couch and not wanting to move, I suspect. (Either that or I didn’t want to pause Death in Paradise. I have such a weakness for British whodunnits.)

Naturally, I suspect everyone reading this can relate. Whether it’s to do with your writing, or just life in general, I’m sure every single one of you has had the occasional sensational idea, only to have it slip away when you weren’t paying attention. Ideas are naughty like that, aren’t they? You ask them so nicely to just stay put until you need to use them, but they insist on skipping off and doing their own thing. I’m sure my idea is in the Bahamas sipping cocktails by the pool by now, thumbing its nose at me, or at the very least tucked up warm in bed. In any case, it’s nowhere near my head, where I need it to be right now.

So, instead, today you get this rambling post from me about forgetting things. I seem to be doing it more often these days, which isn’t ideal, especially as I have this annoying habit of not writing things down. This happens even more when they don’t directly pertain to my WIP. I’m aware it’s a simple case of retraining myself to record more things, but unfortunately this old dog isn’t that keen on learning too many new tricks. Surely this reinvention of myself as a writer is enough? Why do I have to remember stuff too?

Okay, I’ll stop whining now. Hopefully this episode will in fact be enough for me to learn my lesson and take note of the ideas when they come calling, even when they don’t move the plot of my novel forward. There is clearly merit in the occasional idea outside that particular creative process. Therefore I am now going to my brain, cap in hand, and promising to pay it more attention in future. Promising to write things down when they come to me, rather than assuming I’ll remember them when the time comes. And hopefully,  next time the creative urges strike, I’ll be ready and able to jot something down.

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Inspiration, where art thou?

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

This past week, I’ve struggled with inspiration.

I don’t just mean I haven’t written much, more that I haven’t written at all. For someone who’s supposed to be doing Camp NaNo this month, it’s a bit of an issue. And I can’t even say that I haven’t had time, because I have – I’ve just chosen to spend that time catching up on TV shows I’ve missed, or reading, rather than writing.

I’m not going to get worked up about it, though. While common advice is to make yourself do it (and I’ve endorsed that sort of advice myself), I don’t think that the occasional break from writing is necessarily detrimental. In fact, I think it can leave you feeling refreshed and give you a new perspective on things. My notebook is full of ideas – single sentences, most of them, but things which will add a richness to my story when I expand on them. I’ve not been writing, but I’ve not been idle either.

A break, though, is good only if it’s limited. I’ve been known to put down my pen and not pick it up again for months. Sure, I had an excuse last time this happened in that I’d just given birth, but I shouldn’t have waited till my youngest was nine months old before I started writing again. The break was far too long and it took me a while to get back into the swing of the story. For me, I think a week is about right. It would be far too easy to let this hiatus drag on and not get any writing done, but then that would be detrimental to the desired outcome – namely, a finished manuscript.

As such, starting tomorrow I’m going to start writing again. It would be today, but it’s a public holiday in my part of the world and the day is full of family-related things. I may get a chance after the kids go to bed, but then again I may not. We’ll see how it goes. Tomorrow, though, I have no excuse, and I have plenty of ideas thanks to my break. I’m making a promise to myself … hopefully I’ll keep it.

What are your thoughts on taking a break? Are you a “write at all costs” sort of person, or do you think that the occasional period of time off can be beneficial? I know where I stand, but I also know that different things work for different people. So, let me know what works for you and who knows, I might find something that’s better for me too.  :)

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Assorted writing tips #3 – Read. Keep reading. Then read some more.

Image by Adrian van Leen

 

It seems so obvious that you may well be wondering why I’d bother writing a blog post about it. Really, though, it’s one of the best things you can do to improve your writing. Reading a lot not only broadens your overall experience, but can give you a number of handy hints for your writing career.

This is something I noticed when I started taking my writing seriously. I’ve been a reader all my life, and have rarely been without a book or two on the go.  My mother even used to put old magazines in my cot when I was a baby to occupy me when I woke up, giving her fifteen or twenty precious minutes before I called out to her. Reading is a huge part of who I am.

Anyway, once I started thinking about writing, I started to notice things about the books I was reading. Storytelling techniques (both good and bad), use of dialogue, examples of show rather than tell – all of those basic stock things that you have at the back of your mind when you write, were there when I read.

I’m a lot more critical now, I admit that. I have read books by previously adored authors and pulled them apart as I read, thinking of ways the plot could have unfolded more smoothly. I have looked at published books and been astonished at their predictability and the corners they cut in exposition. I have, in short, been critiquing them in my head.

Of course, the opposite has been true as well. There are books I’ve read where I’ve been in awe of the work that went into them. Accurate and detailed research cannot be faked, and as someone who has done that sort of research for a particular niche I appreciate the effort involved. I have been amazed by plot twists and been left hanging after every cliffhanger, dying to know what happens next. As such, I have begun to appreciate the quality of what I’m reading, especially when it’s by an established and successful author, and I’ve learned a bundle from it.

So, read. Read because you enjoy it – because if you don’t enjoy reading, then what are you doing writing in the first place? Read as a reader … but also read as a writer. Think about not only the content of the narrative, but also how it’s been put together. Think about how the sentences and paragraphs flow, and how you might be able to apply the techniques used to your own writing. Think about what you can learn from them. I know I do.

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