Just for Fun: Vacations

Pick a character from a current work-in-progress, a past story you’ve written or one you’ve thought up but never used.  Where do they go on vacation? What do they do while they are on vacation?  Do they go alone or bring their family with them? Describe the vacation in the comments here or write a vacation scene or story to get to know your character better.

On Schedules and Routines

I’m sitting here this Wednesday morning feeling completely out of phase with the world.  It’s a feeling I get whenever I oversleep and today I overslept.  I have to assume I hit the snooze button a few times this morning, but it’s more fun to think that some aliens from a distant planet had a hand in this. Well, the aliens or my evil cats.  Either way, I awoke at 5:07am… a full 30 minutes later than normal.  At 5:07am I’m usually already at the gym, not just getting out of bed.  I hurried through my routine, got myself ready and walked the dog, then scurried off to the gym for a truncated workout.  Officially, I’m back “on schedule” now, having cut my workout short so that my shower and subsequent trip to Starbucks could occur “on time”.

Yet, I feel completely out of sorts.

It gets me to thinking about the importance of routines for me.  My life is ruled by schedules.  Get up at this time, do this at that time.  The kids’ schedules are also my schedule, so I have to be sure they get to their baseball games or dance classes or parties on time and that they get picked up from the same on time.  The dog’s and the cats’ schedules are also my schedule owing to their demands to be walked or fed or pet as needed.  Even the garden has a schedule which is my schedule owing to the need for watering, harvesting and weeding.  You’ll note I haven’t even mentioned the real dictator of my life’s schedule: The Day Job.  You’ll also note I haven’t mentioned writing.

Where I am going with this is simple: schedules and routines are important to me because they are what drives my day.  This has been the case for my entire life, really.  But writing was one thing I never wanted to schedule.  It is the only thing in my life where I don’t plan anything at all – no outlines, no idea where a story is heading before I write it, nothing.  I’ve attributed this to me wanting something in my life that was not schedule-oriented and not dictated by the clock or the calendar or some sterile design document telling me what the result needs to look like.

I’ve also sometimes thought my lack of a writing schedule could be due to the fact that in high school English class we had journals and every day we had to spend ten minutes writing.  I hated it.  Loathed it, really.  I spent ten minutes each day repeating “I don’t know what to write… I don’t know what to write…” over and over again for pages on end.  At the time it looked like an enormous waste of time to me.   Recently, though, I came across one of those old journals and I flipped through it.  Yes, as I recall, there were plenty of those pages of repeated negativity.  But mixed in with them were pages of real writing ideas – dialogue between characters, descriptions of distant, alien landscapes,  ideas for stories or poems.  I do not remember writing those passages, but they are there, in my own horrifically bad handwriting, buried and hidden within the obvious distaste for the forced writing exercises.

Many people have routines for writing.  There are as many ways to schedule yourself to have time to write as there are writers out there.  I’ve read about these ideas (morning pages, dedicated writing times, word sprints, etc.) but I’ve only utilized them in November during NaNoWriMo.  And now, if I’m being honest with myself, I can look back and see that back when I was working in an office my routine included getting to the office early and spending that hour writing.  I suppose that was “scheduled writing”, but it was never required and if I spent that extra hour working on my day job instead of writing I wasn’t feeling like I had done anything wrong.  And since I’m being honest with myself here, I can admit that I’m not really getting any good writing done now with my anti-schedule mentality.

So where does that leave me?  I’m going on vacation next week (which as we all know comes with its own overpowering need for a schedule).  I am considering trying a “forced writing” routine into it.  Just for a little while, just for the week. That’s how I’m selling it to myself, at least.  I haven’t decided if it’ll be on paper or on the laptop. I haven’t decided if it will be in the morning or evening (most likely morning, since no one else will be up early). I haven’t decided if I’ll just allow myself to write “I don’t know what to write” over and over again until something better shows up on the page, or if I’ll dedicate the time to writing a vacation blog post each day or if I’ll try to flesh out some of the story ideas for which I haven’t done anything yet.  My not-so-secret hope is that if I do this every day for a week it will be easier to incorporate it into my regular routine at home.  I have no idea if this will work for me but I need to try.

I’m curious about other people’s routines and methods for carving out time to write from a busy life. Do you have any habits you think help you to focus your writing energy into whatever time you have? Any tricks or routines that you think might seem weird to others but work really well for you? Share your ideas in the comments below… maybe I’ll incorporate them into my experiment next week.

Write Now Prompt for July 22, 2014

Write_Now_Plane

At Today’s Author, our first goal is to get you (and us) to write. Write Now is our own collection of prompts to help you do that. With Write Now we’re not talking about writing, or trying to teach anyone how to write. Write Now is all about putting pen to paper.

Today’s Prompt:

The key he found while weeding in the garden was clearly an antique.

Now_Write_Plane

How to play along with our Writing Prompts

  1. Write in any format or style you wish: short story, poem, script – whatever you like.
  2. Write for at least 5 minutes. There is no time limit – write for as long as you wish!
  3. Editing is not required, though we do recommend that you run a spell check at least.
  4. Post your work to your blog and include a link back here so your readers can find other writer’s work, too.
  5. Come back here and provide a link to your work on the Write Now! prompt for which it was written.
  6. Read other authors’ posts and leave constructive comments.

Important Note: When you post a draft of your work online, it may be difficult to find a publisher who will accept it, as many see an online document as being previously published. It may also be ineligible to be submitted for certain writing competitions. Always check publisher’s and competition guidelines before using a draft you put online.

The Writers Circle: Publishing

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Self-publishing has made it easier to get your books out there for people to read and buy, but it isn’t for everyone and the idea and promise of traditional publishing houses remains the goal for many.  Do you feel traditional hard-copy publishing is still feasible or realistic for new or emerging authors?  Which publishing methods do you feel are best for your own work?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

 

Do you have an idea you think would be a great topic for a future The Writer’s Circle post?  Do you have a question you’d like to ask our authors?  Fill out this form to submit your ideas and questions:

 

 

 

Write Now Prompt for July 18, 2014

Write_Now_Plane

At Today’s Author, our first goal is to get you (and us) to write. Write Now is our own collection of prompts to help you do that. With Write Now we’re not talking about writing, or trying to teach anyone how to write. Write Now is all about putting pen to paper.

Today’s Prompt:

She thought it was going to be a typical blind date, until she noticed her date’s bodyguards.

Now_Write_Plane

How to play along with our Writing Prompts

  1. Write in any format or style you wish: short story, poem, script – whatever you like.
  2. Write for at least 5 minutes. There is no time limit – write for as long as you wish!
  3. Editing is not required, though we do recommend that you run a spell check at least.
  4. Post your work to your blog and include a link back here so your readers can find other writer’s work, too.
  5. Come back here and provide a link to your work on the Write Now! prompt for which it was written.
  6. Read other authors’ posts and leave constructive comments.

Important Note: When you post a draft of your work online, it may be difficult to find a publisher who will accept it, as many see an online document as being previously published. It may also be ineligible to be submitted for certain writing competitions. Always check publisher’s and competition guidelines before using a draft you put online.

Making Habits

I’m mucking out old files. This includes old stories, really bad poems, and sheafs of paper from writing workshops. A little over six years ago I spent my evenings and weekends enmeshed in writing in some form – writing stories, writing reviews of other novice’s stories.

In a short version of things I’ve written before: six years ago I deliberately chose to set creative writing aside to go back to school, but then I also had a baby, making summers just as fraught and exhausting as fall-winter-spring, despite the lack of required reading and academic writing. All and any time to write was sucked up under the heading “Life”. He’s bigger now, not so all-consuming, yet – as you’ve seen – I still struggle to write. In the school semester I’m just too busy. Now, in summer, I still am not writing in the way that I used to. I seem to be out of the habit.

(Not that I’m losing spark or ignoring writing. I have stories and poems developing – eventually I will finish them. I wrote a post about my submissions process. It’s finished; you will never read it. Be grateful.)

Cleaning out my old files leads me, of course, to reviewing all the things I did in the years before my writing time became focused and efficient1. I thought I’d share the ways I’ve approached writing over the years, things that once helped me define and develop my habits. These are by no means all the ways to establish writing habits, simply the ones I’ve done, successfully and not.

Project-based. Some writers work best when they take the project they are interested in and break it down in stages to work on. For a novel, this might be spending week 1 outlining, week 2 writing character interviews/spec sheets, week X-X drafting, etc. Essentially, each writing session begins and ends with a very specific task that relates to the project. I’ve done this, but for me it’s really only effective on academic writing. (And even there I skip outlining.) In creative work I’ve learned I’m a drafter. I can do all the character development pages in the world, but when I sit down to write the story is where I learn who the characters are and what they want.

Spontaneous. The when inspiration hits then write method. It’s fun, exciting, and – to be honest – completely unhelpful with instilling a writing habit. Inspiration sputters out as quick as it ignites. Rather like an inexpertly lit campfire, isn’t it? I’ve tried this method, of course; but find I want to be the expert, the one who keeps the flames going. I don’t tell inspiration to take flaming lessons, but do tell it to have patience.

Timed write. That’s truthfully how this post began.2 The last post I wrote was by the bits-n-pieces method, which started spontaneous then became forced. Again, you will never read that one and you are happier for it.
Timed write goes a couple ways. It can be a short, intense writing session in which you set a timer for 5 minutes and just write. Anything. Everything. Quickly. It’s a wonderful way to cut out the internal editor and loosen up the creative unconscious. Yet I tend to use it more along the in-class essay way. I take myself away from home, pick a topic, set a chunk of time—½ hour or an hour—and write about that topic. Even if the writing’s not terribly focused at first, I have long enough to free-write until I find the heart of the topic. At the end of the chunk of time, I type it into my computer (if I was writing on notebook paper) and edit down to the important points. When it comes to short stories, this method has been doing jack for me

“Morning pages.” I don’t remember which writer advanced this, though one of our editors may remember. Essentially, it’s a first-thing in the writing period technique in which the writer sets down everything and anything that comes to mind for 3 pages. Like timed write, it’s a way to clear out the mental clutter in order to allow the creative subconscious room to stretch. The sweet thing about it is you can do this while a kid is running around the house and jumping on you. It might be a bit less effective that way though.

Writing classes. I work well – really well – with a deadline. I found myself most productive when I took a writing class that required three stories in three months. Of course, I had time to write three of my own and review many other stories from classmates. But also as a class, the time needed to do the work was now psychologically just as important and the time needed to do the dishes / laundry, etc.

What would you add? What have you tried, successfully or not?


 

1meaning that when I sat down to write, I wrote; I made progress on the project I intended to make progress on; I completed drafts. In no way does “focused and efficient” mean one sitting completed a draft, or that a draft was a finished piece.
2It’s been slightly less than one hour since I sat down. Technically, I could keep on writing, but all the didn’t-do’s are creeping back into my brain. Timed writes, I find, push them out for the period of time I declared I get to write. That said, it has a serious flaw in habit-building. It’s impossible to do when you don’t know if you will have ½ hour before the family wakes up. Not to mention, in my house, if I wake up at 5:30 in order to write, my son – if not both son and husband — is up and active 2 minutes after I get my thoughts in order.

Rolling the Dice

imageFor people who know me, it may come as a surprise to learn that I am not a fan of Dungeons & Dragons.  Frankly, I was smack dab in the middle of the D&D demographic and many (most?) of my friends played.  But I never got into it.  Perhaps this was because I simply didn’t have the time to play it consistently, perhaps it was because when I did play it was not with a good Dungeon Master. I really don’t know why I never got into it, but I never did.

The one thing I really liked about D&D was the creation of characters.  When I was a kid, characters were created by rolling a set of polyhedral dice to determine how strong the character would be, how healthy, how smart, how friendly, etc.  In the newer editions there are point sheets or lists from which these characteristics are assigned (cue the old man in me as I say, “Meh, why’d these whippersnappers have to go and change something as simple and elegant as that, ehh Sonny?”).  I used to enjoy creating characters using the set of D&D dice I got one year for Christmas.  I’d roll the dice and create these characters — naming the toughest characters with the wimpiest names I could come up with or naming the least dexterous characters with names that implied gracefulness. I would build dozens of characters this way for no other reason than to create them.  Their character sheets were quickly tossed aside never to be looked at again.

That is, until I created the character called Swan.

As I said, I was not a big fan of actually playing Dungeons & Dragons.  But I was always writing stories  One day I was lacking a character for the story I was writing. I had no idea who the missing character was, just that I needed one.  So, I grabbed my D&D dice and started rolling.  By the luck of the rolling dice, Swan was unintelligent, sick, unlikable and had what amounted to two left feet. But he was physically stronger than one could ever imagine.  I sat there staring at the scribbled numbers which defined this character and shrugged – clearly this was not going to solve the problem in my story.

But as I started packing up my dice, a story started developing around Swan. I saw entire armies of any and all species attacking him with any and all sorts of weapons and magical spells… and Swan didn’t even break a sweat fending them off.  I saw him standing there humming peacefully, sipping a coffee in one hand while destroying whatever foe came at him.  He avoided crowds in general and refused to be in the company of children because he was embarrassed that children knew more things than he did. He single-handedly protected the land from everything the universe threw at it.  The rest of the soldiers and politicians grew comfortable that Swan would just take care of everything, so they went about their lives an left him alone.

One day the enemy country sent a few young kids over, presumably to show an attempt at making peace. The diplomat who should have greeted them was busy playing video games and so he walked away from them.  The arrival of the kids was suspicious and strange but hey! It was just some scrawny little kids, right?  So, Swan greeted them with an awkward grin and sat down. When the scrawniest of the kids (named Bruiser) shuffled up to Swan and sneezed on him, it was just kind of gross… except that Swan was not a particularly healthy man.  This one sneeze overwhelmed Swan’s immune system and brought him to his knees. Before anyone knew it, the war was lost and it was all because of a kid who was trained by the military to not cover his mouth when he sneezed.

Obviously, that was an abrupt ending for an amazingly strong warrior (and an amazingly awful story).  I didn’t like it, so I went back and started trying to adjust the character to change the outcome. But I failed to make it better—no matter what I changed in this character, the story around him adapted and found another way to defeat him. This endeavor, no matter how frustrating it turned out to be, taught me a few things about writing in general and my own writing in particular:

  1. Characters, no matter how strong or talented or capable they may be, always tend to have some sort of flaw or weakness they struggle to overcome.
    I’m flawed. You’re flawed. My amazing, athletic, intelligent, beautiful, perfect children are flawed.  It’s part of what makes us real and part of what makes it critical that we work together to overcome whatever the world throws at us.  My weakness might be your strength, your weakness might be something I do well.  To be realistic and believable, characters in our stories need to have flaws and strengths just like we do.  In my character, Swan, the less flawed I tried to make him in terms of specific characteristics, the more flawed he – and the story – became as a whole.
  2. If a character does not recognize their area of weakness, then other characters usually do.
    Adversaries try to take advantage of weakness. Allies will attempt to compensate for weaknesses.  This is true in life and will be true in most stories as well.  I always think of things like “opposites attract” and wonder why this seems to be a Universal Truth… but to some extent it just makes sense that I would seek out friends and partners who round out my rough edges.  Swan’s weakness was his health and his lack of intelligence… had he been able to recognize that the kids who came to see him were sick, perhaps he would have refused to grant them an audience.  Alternatively, had his colleague recognized that Swan was unable to manage situations such as this, perhaps he’d have put his video game down and distracted the enemy children. Characters in our stories should know their own abilities in much the same way we know our own. It’s okay to let the characters test their limits, but much like we all have our own strengths and weaknesses, the characters must recognize that about themselves too.  That is, unless their flaw/weakness is that they cannot recognize this about themselves.
  3. No matter how much of a hipster a character might be, without a really good reason they are not any more likely to do unexpected or out-of-character things than a real person is.
    I don’t like heights.  I’m not afraid of heights, I just don’t like them.  It started when I got glasses (I remember this distinctly). Basically, I always fear my glasses will fall off and go crashing to their doom.  As a result of this dislike of heights, I tend to avoid ladders.  I’ll get up on a ladder when needed, but I will keep my feet on the ground as much as I can.  Last year, while on vacation, I decided (read: was convinced by the teenagers vacationing with me) to go on the zip-line.  I found myself tied to a rope, dangling from a platform 40 feet in the air, then hurtling downhill at what felt like faster than the speed of light.  Clearly, I survived the event, but it took me a long time to recover from such an out-of-character activity. The entire time I was waiting for my turn to run off the platform, I felt every cell of my body trying to turn me around to walk the other way. It was out of character for me and I knew it (as did everyone else on the trip with me).

    Similarly, I’ve had characters in my stories get to a point where they refuse to cooperate with me.  The character afraid of flying who is suddenly about to sky dive just for fun?  Nope. He won’t do it. The character who is afraid of swimming because her parents, grandparents, sister, brother, best friend and favorite puppy all drowned?  She’s not likely to suddenly decide to participate in a synchronized swimming event. Clearly, characters can grow and change and can overcome their fears or weaknesses, but if the skill is not part of their original characterization the story has to be written so that they change and grow into that new behavior or are forced into it by circumstances within the story.  In my example here, Swan would never have sat with the children because he hated children. Had he stuck to that bit of his character, he’d have avoided the sneeze which lost them the war. Every attempt I made to make him like children or avoid this interaction weakened not only the character but also the story itself as each change required other changes elsewhere in the story to make it all fit. You can’t change someone into something they are not.  This is true in life and in writing (at least my writing).

  4. Every character you imagine is worthy of being remembered.
    In any creative writing class, you will hear that you should never discard anything you create.  Story passages, plot ideas, character sheets – these are all important bits of creativity that may not be useful right now but may become useful down the road.  I find this especially true with characters.  I write by the seat of my pants, so ideas float in and out of my mind all the time.  Characters show up, say hello, and then stand there waiting for me to do something.  I don’t always know their backstory or their purpose in my creative universe, but I take note of them and file them away until such time as they are ready to share their story with me. Sometimes the characters refuse to share those stories and I just start inventing them.  It’s a good exercise to take a character and just write for a bit, throwing everything you’ve got at the character to see how they react.  Doing so can tease out the little character flaws and strengths within them and may even turn that random character into something quite special.

 

The bottom line for me is that characters in our stories are just like us in many ways.  They have hopes and fears, dreams and desires, strengths and weaknesses. As writers, it is our job to figure those pieces out and help these characters be true to themselves.  Swan is a useless character to me today, but every once in a while it is a good exercise to trot him out of my little Cavern of Characters and send him off on some wacky adventure.  The resulting story may not be literary gold, but the benefits of flexing those writing muscles, exploring new ways of characterization and helping a character to grow and change are enormous.

So what do you say?  Why not roll the dice, create a few new characters and send them off on an adventure?  You may be surprised at what they will help you discover. I could lend you my Dungeons and Dragons dice if it helps.