New Tools For a New Year

footprints in the snowTo say that I dread winter is putting it mildly. In Minnesota, winter means beginning and ending my workday in darkness, enduring longer commutes, and sloshing through slush that leaves floors slippery or soggy. This year, however, winter supplied me with a gift: two new tools for revising my writing.

Like many writers, I’m a verbal learner. I prefer to process information through words, especially written text. My primary learning style, however, is visual. I learn best when I see or can envision an idea, and I communicate through metaphor, simile, or words that “draw” pictures in my reader’s/listener’s mind. These style preferences mean that, until recently, I relied on written text for every part of the writing process, from brainstorming to proofreading.

Written Text Isn’t the Be-All, End-All

I tell the college students I teach that the best way to edit their writing is to read it aloud. That’s true, and I follow my own advice, but it doesn’t work for big writing projects like it does for small ones. While working on my first book-length project, I’ve discovered that by the time I’m well into revising and editing, I know each passage’s backstory (how it appeared originally, how many times I’ve changed it and why, how it leads into the next passage) too well to assess it effectively. Familiarity causes me to read aloud what I intend the passage to say instead of what it actually says. Without realizing it, I read aloud prepositions and articles that aren’t on the page. And grammar is the least of my problems.

My discovery of a new writing tool began with listening to audiobooks in my car. I didn’t appreciate the extent to which a reader could shape how the text was perceived until I experienced it. For example, I stopped listening to a few potentially interesting books because I couldn’t get past the author’s reedy voice or flat delivery. Conversely, I finished a novel whose plot and characters I didn’t like because a professional actor’s voice and inflection made sentences that were already lovely even more compelling.

Tool #1

I don’t want an actor’s (or my own) reading to polish my writing while I’m revising and editing, so I tried Microsoft Word’s Read Aloud feature. (You’ll find it under the Review menu in most versions of Word.) Something about the computer’s lack of inflection makes problems I didn’t know existed leap off the page. Some of those problems include:

  • Potholes. This is my term for missing or inadequate transitions between ideas—places where the smooth pavement of ideas I’m traversing drops from beneath my feet. (See? Visual learner.) I feel a thud and find myself thinking, “Huh?” If I have that reaction, my readers will, too.
  • Ambiguous Sentences. A phrase I thought was crystal clear suddenly has an alternate interpretation.
  • Errors. Mistakes I read past dozens of times without noticing include everything from typos to repeated explanations to passages placed in the wrong spot.
  • Awkward Rhythms. Sentence clunkers stand out like wrong notes in a familiar song because the computer doesn’t intuit how they’re supposed to sound.

The feature’s pause button allows for quick fixes without losing my spot in the text, which is especially important when I pair this tool with the second one I discovered.

Tool #2

I like to walk and run outdoors. Aside from exercise and stress-reduction, these activities spur brainstorming and problem-solving. A walk or run always shakes loose ideas when I’m stuck, but I’m not as hearty as runners I see on the street, bundled so that only their eyes show. I’m limited to treadmills, which bring an added challenge: boredom. The less actively my brain is engaged, the more likely I’ll hit the “stop” button before I reach my goal. Watching Netflix helps, but nothing makes my workout go faster than revising and editing my book. Interval sprints (running and walking) are perfect for pausing Word’s Read Aloud feature to make corrections.

Exercising, listening, and editing at the same time ignites magical mind-body connections. I’ve come up with ideas on the treadmill that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. Exercising while listening prevents me from rushing the editing process, too. I can only edit as fast as the computer reads. Besides, I’m ticking two things off my list at once, so I feel less pressured by time constraints.

I can’t say that these new tools make me a fan of winter, but they definitely offer a bright spot amidst the season’s dredges.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/3028460/

 

2018 Gift Guide for Feisty Writers

It’s that time of year again, and we’ve compiled another fantastic list of gift ideas from our Feisty team for your favorite writer.

Lisa Franek’s Gift Ideas:

1. Literary Insults Chart $25

a chart of literary insults

For those times when your words fail you, you can turn to the masters for a quippy turn of phrase when you need it most.

2. Scrivener $45

Scrivener software logo

I bought this writing program several years ago and haven’t looked back since. It’s perfect for organizing long-form works (like novels, screenplays, plays, and so on), and formats like a dream. Every writer should have it.

 3. “Tequila Mockingbird” by Tim Federle and Lauren Mortimer $10

the book cover for Tequila Mockingbird book

For your writer friends who like a little spirit with their story, this book is full of fun recipes to try (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margarita.). Just remember: Write drunk, but edit sober.

Lisa Whalen’s Gift Ideas:

1. The INFJ Writer by Lauren Sapala
Book Cover for The INFJ Writer book
Though aimed at INFJs (on the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator), it’s a helpful guide to the writing process for all writers, especially introverts. It’s encouraging and offers exercises for inspiration and overcoming writer’s block.
2.The Emotion Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
book covers for Emotion Thesaurus and twoother books by same authors

 

These books will help you develop believable characters and avoid using the same descriptive phrase repeatedly.

3. Power Structure Storytelling Software

Power Structure logo

This easy-to-learn program offers a variety of ways to consider and shape any story. Writers can isolate or link features that include line graphs for plot, flash cards for character traits, arcs for character development, tabs for chapters and sections, and word processing for the actual text.
a picture of two mugs for writers

Their selection of mugs expresses our sentiments exactly.

 

Marijke McCandless’s Gift Ideas:

1. “Educated” by Tara Westover
Book Cover for Educated

2. “Tarot for Writers” by Corrine Kenner

Book Cover for Tarot for Writers

3.“H is for Hawk” by Helen MacDonald

Book Cover for H is for Hawk

A great memoir illustrating how to take a niche passion (Goshawk training) and build a true story for everyone.

Marni Freedman’s Gift Ideas:

The logo for Audible, an Amazon Company
Writers can use it to download audiobooks, magazines, and newspapers to their computer, tablet or phone.
Use the above link to get 50% off the first three months.
Necklace that says I am not afraid, I was born to do this
Book Cover for Excuses Begone
This is a great book when you are wondering how to actually change old thinking that can sabotage your writing like “I’m too old/too young,” “I’m too busy/tired,” “Who am I do write a book?” or “I can’t change my habits, this is the way I’ve always done it.” It’s the kind of book you can keep by your bedside and reread the sections that will gently challenge your old thinking and charge you up as you nurture your passion.

Paula Margulies’s Gift Ideas:

1. Archangel Gabriel Oracle Cards by Doreen Virtue

A picture of Archangel Gabriel Oracle Cards

These gorgeous cards are great for creativity, teaching, and parenting. I bought mine at the temple on Meditation Mountain in Ojai and really love them (they’re spiritual, but not overly religious).
2. Writing gloves from Storiarts
picture of writing gloves
This website features scarves, bags, and other items with words from famous works of fiction on them, but I love the writing gloves (with fingertips cut out) for typing on cold mornings. A portion of the proceeds goes to LitWorld, a non-profit organization dedicated to tackling illiteracy worldwide.
3. T-shirts, socks, and onesies from Out of Print
Little Golden Books t-shirt
Out of Print has clothing for lovers of all things literary. If you know anyone expecting, check out the cute assortment of onesies featuring children’s book titles.

Tracy Jones’ Gift Ideas:

a photo of The Wild Unknown Tarot Deck
One of my clients brought these to my writers’ retreat, and I loved them! Each of the seventy-eight cards is gorgeous with hand-drawn, striking images that explore the mysteries of the natural world and animal kingdom. It also comes with a beautiful guidebook. Try asking your character a question or how to structure a scene and see what the tarot inspires.
A photo of Blessings Gratitude cards
In our chaotic times, it often takes practice and dedication to find joy and peace. This is my gift to myself this holiday season to keep focused and grateful on what matters in life: healthy, family, friends, and writing!
Photo of cross pen
A client recently gave me a Cross pen, and I was brought back in time to receiving an engraved one from my grandparents when I graduated high school. It’s long lost now, but the memory remains. I had forgotten what a real pen feels like and it’s a delight to write with. If you’re like every writer I know who is always searching for a pen, treat yourself. (The engraving makes this a great gift!)
Photo Credit to Feisty bloggers and Amazon.com

Write Like a Charlie Horse, Not a Charley Horse

Lisa walking the horse named Charlie through a pastureConfession: I’m impatient.

I like things to move and keep moving—quickly. I failed my first driving test at age 16 because of…you guessed it: speeding. (In my defense, test roads vacillated between 45 and 35 mph within a short stretch, and the surrounding traffic was flying.) Awareness of more serious consequences than a failed test has kept my lead foot in check since, but when I walk around lakes near my home, strangers comment on my pace.

Unfortunately, my need for speed includes writing. Like any Type A personality, I chase the satisfaction of completing projects and ticking them off lists, so I’m easily lured into treating the writing process as a means to an end instead of as the revelatory gift it is. My product-versus-process conflict reached its peak when I wrote my first book and discovered that the publishing industry moves like a sloth.

Then I met my patience coach: Charlie.

After my first few horseback riding lessons on Charlie, I dubbed him The World’s Slowest Thoroughbred (a horse breed known for its speed on the racetrack) and grumbled inwardly when assigned to ride him. His lumbering canter felt like riding an oil field pump. His name should be Charley Horse, I groused when my calves ached from the effort required to keep him moving.

“Wait for it. Wait, wait…” my riding instructor cautioned one Sunday morning as Charlie and I cantered toward a fence we aimed to jump.

“Nope,” she said when Charlie landed. “You anticipated, so you leaned forward and knocked Charlie off-balance. If the fence were any higher, you’d have been in trouble. Stop rushing! Wait until Charlie gets to the takeoff spot and go with him, not ahead of him.”

Easier said than done.

I had longed to gallop though jumper courses since I’d started lessons a few years ago. I discovered in the meantime that they are a test of skill, not speed, so they require a controlled canter.

The more I rode Charlie, however, the more I recognized his talent. Whether easing first-time riders’ fears or carrying advanced jumpers through courses in competitions, Charlie does it all well. The key to his success is his patience. He meets each rider where she is and stays with her as she progresses. He also takes courses one fence at a time—exactly the way successful riders approach them.

I’m learning to accept that too much speed can cause injuries in riding. Charlie forces me to practice patience and to appreciate process for its own sake, which I’m working to apply to my writing.

One of the first things Charlie taught me about patience is that allowing time to meander leads to discovering nuggets I would have missed if I had galloped toward a finished product in writing my book. Many of these nuggets grow into blog posts and essays, turning what seems like wasted time into published work.

One such meander led me to suggestions for preventing and treating a charley horse—a list that reads eerily like a manual for writers’ self-care:

Warmup

I’ll admit it, though I warmup when exercising and riding, I rarely do it when writing. I don’t do morning pages, and I dislike journaling. But there are a million things I can do when I’m not ready to leap into a big work-in-progress, like a book: research agents and publishers, follow writers on social media, look for opportunities to submit essays, scan image sites like Pinterest for descriptive details I can use in current projects. These often become the meanders that lead to a new image in my book or content idea for my blog.

Stretch

While I haven’t taken to morning pages, I have experimented with process by trying prompts and exercises found online. They perk me up when I’m feeling depleted.

Start Slowly and Work Toward Small Goals

Big writing projects can overwhelm, so I approach them the way Charlie approaches courses: one fence at a time. If I’m not up to working on my book, I tackle something manageable, like brainstorming for my blog, revisiting unfinished essays, or describing a recent everyday experience in exaggerated detail. Description sparks inspiration; it’s my way into every project.

Track Your Progress and Celebrate Successes

Like many writers, I keep a color-coded submissions spreadsheet to track what I have submitted where and whether it has been accepted, rejected, or ignored. What I’ve come to think of as “Ignored Gray” dominates but seeing bursts of “Accepted Blue” boosts my confidence. Rereading my blog does the same and supplies topics for follow-up essays.

Stop and Rest If You Feel Strain

It’s all grist for the mill, I tell myself when life interferes with writing. I’m still training myself to “walk the walk” when it comes to that saying, but when I succeed, I discover a wealth of grist. My concentration is sharper after time away from writing, too.

Be Patient with Your Body and Yourself

For me, this is the hardest lesson. When I feel rushed or get frustrated with slow progress, I tell myself, You want a Charlie Horse, not a Charley Horse. That means to not become hyper-focused on the finish line or push myself to extremes.

So, I keep plugging along: revising my book, drafting blog posts, submitting to contests, and researching agents. Riding Charlie assures me that I’ll jump publishing’s fences as they come—one at a time, using a moderate pace—and land more successfully for having completed my book’s jumper course at the right pace.

 

Photo Credit: Lisa Whalen

How to Write While Triggered

a man in a suit reaching toward the red nuclear buttonI’m triggered, and I have good reason to be: the state of our world. Need I say more?

My curled, stiff trigger fingers can’t type, and even if they could, my words are frozen in my brain by my powerlessness. By the fear of what could become of us and the wheels of darkness that are already in motion. By the sadness rising in my throat as I watch it unfold. And the guilt pounding in my temples for not doing more to stop it.

When I am triggered like this, my writing comes screeching to a halt. But I can’t allow this. Because my writing is connected to the wellness of my mind, body, and soul. To stop writing now, when the world desperately needs the power of our words, would be admitting defeat to the evil rising around us. And if our world is a contest, this is not one I am willing to forfeit.

So how do I get back to a place where I can create? Where I can produce work that is not filled with rage or fear or hopelessness? At this juncture, how do I yield writing that is both heartfelt and engaging, while also staying aware of my mission and true to my humanity?

I have scraped together a few tips here. My hope is, when you find yourself blocked due to stressful circumstances, be they in your family, in your body, or in your politics, these tools will help you, too, find a way back to your pen.

  1. Meditation. You’ve heard this a thousand times, but in my opinion, it can not be said enough. Meditation is free, it’s easy, and it works. This guided meditation by Feisty guest blogger Kimberly Joy (also featured today) deals with this very thing—allowing meditation to help you create distance between your trauma and your words so you can write your story. Remember, it can take up to six months to feel the initial effects of meditation so don’t give up. Never give up. On any of this.
  2. Read something that inspires you. Make it a sure thing. Pick a piece highly recommended by a friend in your favorite genre. Or something written by someone you admire. The point is, when all else fails, bury your head in a book that will bring you joy. My guess is your head spent a lot of time bent over pages as a kid, not blinking, tearing the bindings of your favorite series. Being child-like during times of stress is always liberating to the pen.
  3. Go to the place where your best ideas come. Whether you’re on a nature walk or stepping toe to heel in a tight circle in your living room, blowing bubbles in the shower or while surfing, jabberjaw-ing about ideas with a buddy or sitting in silence at your favorite museum, identify the setting where many of your ideas land, and spend time there. My best ideas arrive when I’m driving. I wouldn’t think that would be my place of enlightenment, but alas, it is. On episode 22 of the Masters of Scale podcast, Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkdIn, talks to Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, about How to Find Your Big Idea. Turns out her ideas come in the car, too. So although she lives a few minutes from the Spanx headquarters, she wakes up an hour early and does what her friends call a “fake commute,” driving around Atlanta, giving ideas permission to enter. Sara Blakely is an entrepreneur, but I think writers and entrepreneurs depend on a few of the same things—fierce creativity and even more ferocious bravery. To stay inspired for this ferocity, setting matters. So be in your place.
  4. Redirect your thoughts. Meditation helps with this but if you can’t do that, simply do this. Acknowledge that your thoughts are not you and that, in fact, they are both separate and directable by you. In the beginning, this may feel hard. But like most things, it takes practice and more practice. Once you have it down, choose to direct your thoughts toward creative, productive pursuits.
  5. Write cat poems. Maybe this sounds like it doesn’t apply. Give me a sec, and I’ll explain. I have a thing for my cats. They are a bottomless well of cuteness and entertainment to my family and me. You can exchange the word “cat” for “dog” if that fits better. Or “horse.” Or “pig.” Anway, recently, with pen stuck like glue, I was compelled to write a cat poem. Then I posted it on Twitter. Twitter has limited characters and, for me, an even more limited audience. This makes it a perfect place to write publicly about the crazy beasts that make me smile. And it was fun! And easy. Maybe you don’t want to tweet animal poems. My point is less that and more this: push your boundaries. Try something new. Find what brings you joy and write about it somewhere. Publicly, privately, it doesn’t matter. Just write. Whatever, whenever, however you can. Don’t abandon your words. Our world needs your voice to create necessary change, now more than ever.

 

Photo Credit: pixabay.com-3038098/

Curiosity Cures the Cat . . . and the Writer

Cats, Bubba and Spaz on Window SeatMy husband and I often joke about our cats’ reverence for routine. The more predictably their days unfold, the straighter their tails stand at attention (a sign of confidence) and the narrower their eyes squint (a sign of affection).

Writers find comfort in routine, too. I see it when I ask the college students I teach to reflect on when, where, and how they write best. And I see it in myself. I drink Caribou Daybreak Blend coffee from the same stainless-steel travel mug every morning. I water our houseplants on Sundays and follow an identical pattern each time I vacuum our house. I begin writing projects—whether creative, academic, or utilitarian—by generating bulleted lists.

But too much routine stifles creativity. Even cats are inherently curious, as their Internet fame can attest. I’ve found that channeling their ability to see fleeing mice in stuffed toys nudged down a staircase and snakes in yarn dragged across a carpet acts like catnip in my hunt for inspiration.

Here are some recent—and unexpected—discoveries:

Books

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators. This novel puts the creative process under a microscope. Two writer-artists forge a path from obscurity to ubiquity, hitting signposts along the way that nearly every writer will recognize:

  • The discomfort of mining one’s life for material to put on display.
  • The tide of inspiration that drags a lull in its wake.
  • The pendulum of emotion that propels progress.
  • The spinning plates of daily life that interrupt project momentum.
  • The intoxication of creating art that reveals a sum greater than its parts.
  • The excitement of publishing a work that has been a labor of love.
  • The pain of fissures that crack open when relationships are depicted as art.
  • The void of purpose that follows a completed project.

Ultimately, however, Whitaker’s book confirms that no writer toils in isolation.

Joshilyn Jackson’s Almost Sisters. Readers accompany a writer as she untangles her identity from her protagonist’s while also convincing her family to accept her unplanned pregnancy. The novel examines creators’ art-imitates-life-imitates-art conundrum in fascinating detail.

Podcasts

Invisibilia, 99% Invisible, Radiolab and Ear Hustle. All four shows take a familiar concept (anything from parenthood to concrete and memory to lightning bugs) and twist it just enough to make listeners perceive it anew. Radiolab’s Placebo” (season 3, episode 1) is among my favorite episodes because of its relevance for writers: The hosts set out to examine the placebo effect and discover just how integral narrative is to our human brain’s functioning.

Heavyweight and This Is Actually Happening. These podcasts offer listeners a glimpse into one real-life event per episode. Happening serves as a study in voice because individuals describe an experience, such as getting stranded on a mountain or witnessing a mass shooting, in their own words. Their telling is organic but edited flawlessly by the show’s creator to eliminate the linguistic gear-grinding inherent in speech. The result is a sense that I’m inside the speaker’s head, observing as she processes what happened.

Ironically, Happening is the weightier of the two podcasts. Heavyweight garnishes its poignancy with wry humor. The host turns a spotlight on his life, narrating in real time and then reflecting in hindsight.

Both podcasts remind me that moments big and small can produce rich content.

New (or Borrowed) Toys

Last summer, my sister lent me a high-end camera she’d purchased to document her kids’ milestones. Playing with it proved, well . . . eye-opening. Searching for shots drew my attention to things I’d looked past and made me see them. The digital format meant I could experiment without getting stuck developing 100 unwanted photos for every keeper. Looking through a lens changed the way my eyes viewed and my brain processed the world, which sparked ideas I turned into blog posts.

Other Writers

Recently, I’ve met writers who have published a book while parenting and working full-time. One woman composed her memoir solely during lunch breaks. Another wrote his YA novel during his son’s hockey practices. These reminders perk me up when I’m feeling deflated (See? Anything is possible if you stick with it.) and kick me in the butt when I’m lagging (You have no children and a flexible work schedule, so no excuses!).

The most important thing I’ve learned from hunting inspiration is that its sources are endless when I remain open to possibility.

 

Photo courtesy of Lisa Whalen

If Meditating Pisses You Off, Try Connecting

meditating, a flower floating in a pondMeditating pisses me off. Mostly because I feel like I’m failing every time I go to quiet my endlessly active monkey brain.

However, I know that getting quiet and accessing that meditative state is one of the most fruitful and rewarding experiences we writers can have.

The other day, while wandering through the Huffington Post, I came upon this quote:

“Mindfulness meditation is a great technique to help improve creativity. It … reduces the reactivity of the reptilian brain, increases resilience, stimulates the neocortex, as well as improves emotional intelligence. All these assist in getting ideas flowing directly to your best creative thinking brain: the neocortex.”—Bianca Rothschild, Huffington Post

Let me be clear: I have deep respect for successful meditators. I aspire to be one of those awesome people who can sit on a cushion with legs crossed, palms up and go deep for twenty minutes or more a day. But somehow when I’m on my second inhale of breathing deeply my cat always seems to puke or a pipe burst.

Why Is It Essential to Connect to That Meditative State?

Artists and writers have long attributed their creative inspiration from being able to access this state. Many look to it as a form of otherworldly guide. Some call it the hypnagogic state, which is the realm between sleep and wakefulness, where both the theta and the alpha waves are present. (Hypnagogia comes from the Greek words for “sleep” and “guide”). During this state, it seems that the brain is more open to finding unique connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Many studies have shown a strong link between the waking-dream state and improved problem solving and increased creativity.

The Beatles shared that many melodies from their songs, including ‘Yesterday,’ came to them in that state or in their dreams. Mary Shelly described the story Frankenstein as having come to her in a waking dream. The Disney Company adopted meditation in the workplace early on. After employees meditated, they noticed a marked increase in creativity. The painter, Salvador Dali, described that his surreal paintings came directly from his dreams. Dali called this state “the slumber with a key.”

Finding a Way to Connect

So, suffice it to say that getting quiet and accessing this realm is chock full of good stuff for artists and writers. But what if you are like me, and sitting down to mediate only pisses you off? How do you connect, download and access that state of infinite possibilities?

For me, I noticed that at certain times in my daily routine, a steady flow of ideas would show up. As I investigated further, I realized that the ideas would most often flow while gardening, taking a long walk, or making a slow-cook soup.

What was happening?

In time, I found that when I was going about the more calming activities of my daily life, I had unconsciously taken the pressure off. A level of peace was traveling through my motions. I was garden-meditating. I was cooking-meditating.

I was connecting.

If traditional meditation feels just a little beyond your reach right now, don’t give up on accessing that magical realm.

A Path to Connecting:

  • Pick an activity that you find calming. See if you can perform it just a little slower than usual. Allow moments of complete stillness within that activity.
  • While you are performing that calming task, ask to connect. Ask for the information you are seeking to be downloaded.
  • Allow the information to drop in. No matter how kooky or wild the information might seem. Just take pen to paper and allow it into your consciousness.

Other ideas:

  • Stay a little longer in bed. Juice that time between sleep and wakefulness. (Permission to sleep late.)
  • Check in with the sky. Cloud watch or star gaze. (Permission to look like an idiot on the street.)
  • Connect your body to nature with ongoing nature dates. Stick your feet in the sand, get wet in the ocean or hold gardening soil. (Permission to hug a tree.)

Connecting, going within, meditating, accessing the hypnagogic state—call your practice whatever you want, but do it regularly. For me, calling it connecting took the pressure off. It also allowed me to understand that I didn’t have to perform some magical ritual to experience that that rich realm of creativity. That realm was never very far.

If you want to try gaining some juicy tidbits from the slumber with the key:

Slow down, pay attention and ask the stars. And keep your notebook handy.

 

Photo by J A N U P R A S A D on Unsplash

Harnessing the Power of Six-Word Memoirs

a lit fire in a fireplace with hearthSix years ago, I lost my job right around the same time I became an empty nester. Adrift without direction and needing inspiration, I decided to sign up for the TedX San Diego conference.  I was surprised to learn there was an application form to be turned in before being accepted as a participant.  Among the thought provoking questions was a requirement to write a six-word memoir. We would use these six-word memoirs as talking points with other participants. That gave me pause. It had been years since I had written and shared my writing with others. Could I even write a six-word memoir?

It turned out to be a powerful exercise, requiring me to discern what had been the most important and interesting theme or themes in my life thus far and pointing to what I knew best.  

After much debate, I settled on this:  Smoking-gun girl cooks from the hearth.

I hoped to stimulate conversation:  Why Smoking-gun girl? What’s important about cooking? Why the word “hearth?”

I had a reputation for being a “finder,” earning me the nickname, “Smoking-gun girl,” and I liked this about myself.  I was inherently tenacious and knew whether I was seeking a critical piece of evidence, the perfect family vacation, or enlightenment, I was going to keep at it, paying attention to patterns and ferreting out the keystone.  

I had also developed a passion for cooking—not gourmet cooking, mind you, but something closer to peasant cooking.  I made endless variations of stone soup and relished the sensual art of hand chopping ingredients and melding them together. To me the hearth was symbolic of gathering together and nourishing each other with good food and good stories.

This six-word memoir pleased me and, in fact, helped me shape the next phase of my life.  Most importantly, it got me writing again. At that TedX conference, as I was sharing my six-word memoir with others, my adrift and unfocused self suddenly saw a simple next step: I would start a cooking and storytelling blog. I wanted to use my favorite recipes as a springboard from which to tell stories.  My blog would be my cyber hearth.  

I revisit the idea of the six-word memoir from time to time. I still find it to be a powerful focusing exercise for my writing. A few years ago I was a “Zen Tantrika Witch Casting Writing Spells.” These days I am more of a “Devoted Rock-climbing Dakini Cooking Up Stories.”  

I hope you’ll track me down and ask me about it.  And if you do, I’m going to return the favor and ask you:  What is your six-word memoir?  Please, do tell!

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1896745/

 

It’s a Bad Bake: Maybe Your Stakes Shouldn’t Be That High

A lava cake with a piece missingYou’ve got a story. Your protagonist wants something, and somebody else intends to stop them. Whether your protagonist succeeds or fails, there will be consequences: something is at stake. Sometimes this means the world ends if they fail, or sometimes what’s at stake is a deeply personal gain or loss.

Right now, though, I want to talk about really low stakes. Not just “her girlfriend dies” instead of “the world ends.” Lower than that.

What I really want to talk about is the Great British Baking Show.

The Great British Baking Show follows in well-trodden reality-TV footsteps: A dozen amateur bakers gather in a tent to bake very complicated, very British desserts. Every week, the person who performs least well goes home. At the end, one Star Baker is chosen, and they get … some sort of cake display dish or something.

The contestants are stressed, and earnest, and extremely kind to each other. They live in terror of the judges telling them their dessert was “a bad bake.” They’re all lovely people, and it’s sad when one leaves, but you know they’ll be okay. The most scandalous thing that’s ever happened was a contestant got frustrated by a melted cake and threw it away. (He apologized immediately.)

It sounds like it shouldn’t be that suspenseful or engaging. It is extremely suspenseful and engaging.

I feel like I don’t see this acknowledged enough: that with a good setup, you can be just as gripping with fluffy stakes as with dire ones. There’s this idea among writers sometimes that suspense requires a plausible threat of death. Kill off a major character, so the reader knows you’re for real. Show them anyone can die.

“Anyone can die” works great. When it’s right for the story.

I’m a Firefly fan–you remember Joss Whedon’s early-aughts space Western TV show? The joy of Firefly was actually a lot like the Great British Baking Show. Yeah, the caper of the week might go well, or it might go badly, but it was never going to go that badly. The real point was how the characters looked out for one another. They rarely admitted how much they cared, but you saw it deep down.

And then they made the movie-sequel Serenity. Serenity is what I mean when I say “anyone can die” isn’t always good.

Don’t be afraid to kill when it’s right for the story. Hell–when it’s right, go ahead and massacre. But also, don’t be afraid to keep your stakes small when they’re meant to be small. Not every story is Game of Thrones, and not every story should be.

The low-stakes road is not easy. You don’t have a plot that will keep readers’ hearts in their throats, so you need beloved characters instead. If the stakes aren’t life or death, you’ve got to show why they matter just as much.

Every story gets to define what death is in that story. It can be a literal death, but it isn’t always.

Look at Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie is caught between the dual threats of losing her entire social world by failing to marry or entering into a contract as miserable and soul-destroying as her parents’ marriage. Look at Firefly, where we pretend characters might die, but the real danger is they’ll lose the small piece of family they’ve found in an unforgiving universe. Look at The Great British Baking Show, where going home isn’t so bad, but becoming Star Baker is a moment of glory these people have dreamed about and worked their asses off for.

Set up your stakes and your world right, and you don’t need “anyone can die.”

A bad bake is scary enough.

Photo by Jennifer Schmidt on Unsplash

Would Shakespeare Tweet? #Maybe, Part 2, by Guest Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Bubba the cat hiding under a bookshelfLast month, I wrote about how my cat, Bubba, inspires me. Eighteen months after I adopted him from the Animal Humane Society, he continues overcoming fear and learning to trust despite past trauma. In fact, his playful batting of a stuffed mouse beneath a bookcase, as pictured, prompted me to overcome fear and learn to Tweet despite past (and present) introversion.

I discovered that Twitter doesn’t embody Othello’s famous line, “Chaos is come again.” It even provides benefits I hadn’t imagined. Here’s what I learned:  

  • Lurk. The same cacophony I dreaded allowed me to sit on Twitter’s banks and observe unnoticed while I figured out how its currents flowed and its rapids broke. I didn’t have to dive in unless and until I was ready. #soundandfury   #introvert

 

  • Make Twitter work for you. It is a tool, after all. Follow people you can learn from: writers, artists, editors, publishers. Check in on organizations that interest you, like nonprofits and hobbyist associations. #AWPW2W

 

  • Do you. If you don’t want to tweet, don’t. I started by thinking of Twitter as a device for professional development. Following writers and publishers exposed me to titles I could add to my reading list, writing tips I could apply, and associations I could join. Before I knew it, I was bobbing along on Twitter’s surface, making my way happily downstream.

 

  • Experiment. My low profile meant I didn’t have to get a tweet right the first time, as the perfectionist in me often demands. I could let go of the reserved professional I play at work. I could test out new personas and voices. Since I’m not Taylor Swift, no one would notice. And if, by random chance, someone does, well, then, I’ve accomplished what publishing industry insiders tell me I should. #TaylorSwift   #lookwhatyoumademedo

 

  • Accept help. Even if it’s inanimate (and grammatically incorrect). Twitter composed and offered to publish my first tweet, so I let it: “Hello Twitter! #myfirstTweet.” Silly? Yes. Unoriginal? Totally. Uninformative? Absolutely. But having someone (or somebot) launch me into the deep made releasing my grip on the shoreline easier.

 

  • Keep calm and carry on. The impulse to sprout feathers and squawk dire warnings faded when the sky remained intact after I composed my first tweet. Unless I land a network talk show like Ellen DeGeneres (highly unlikely) or run for political office (even less likely), nothing sky-shattering will result from what I tweet. Just like that, the pressure’s off. #chickenlittle    

 

  • Appreciate the benefits. Being confined to 140 characters has helped me work toward long-held goals: (1) write shorter, punchier sentences, (2) create catchier titles. Twitter’s push to rely on images also reconfigured my approach to other writing and teaching tasks.

 

  • Set limits. Twitter can be a time suck. It’s especially compelling when I want an excuse not to write: I’m building my platform. I’m learning how to promote my work. After 30 minutes? No. I’m procrastinating. I’ve decided I can only login when I can articulate a specific goal, such as finding and following an agent I want to query.Promote. Your writing, your causes, yourself. Everyone else is doing it; you might as well, too. Though uncomfortable at first, it gets easier. If you really squirm when typing a soliloquy, generate one tweet (or retweet) for a charitable cause to match every tweet you write for your own benefit.

 

  • Have fun. Once I got acclimated, I surfed bigger waves. Now I follow favorite entertainers and my celebrity crush, Stephen Colbert. Maybe one day I’ll grow brave enough to tweet @StephenAtHome. #stephencolbert  #colbertlateshow   #LSSC   #colbertnation

Take it from a reluctant social media swimmer: Come on in, the water’s fine! And if you follow me @LisaIrishWhalen, I can even show you the ropes.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/2430933/

How To Be A Writer Who Reads

a woman reading while sitting on the year 2018As 2017 drew to a close, the Internet lit up with posts boasting how many books people had read in the year. Some were photos of meticulously written lists, others just a blanket statement: “I read sixty-six books!”

That was the one that got me: sixty-six books—in one year.

Were these children’s books? I wondered.

I turned to a new page in my to-do list and jotted down the books I could remember I’d read in the past year. And then I checked my Audible account—because audio books count, right?

My grand total? Sixteen books. That’s one-six. The age you get your driver’s license.

That other person could have filed for social security with her book count.

I glanced at the stack of books on my bedside table and noted that five of them had makeshift bookmarks sticking out the top. Three of those I had started two or three years previous. And I still wasn’t done.

The next thought that popped into my head was, what’s wrong with me? I love reading! Why am I not reading more?

And then I remembered one little detail: I’ve been writing a book.

Not that that’s an excuse. And yet it’s an important factor to consider. Reading is a vital part of any writer’s life. Be it for inspiration, learning new prose, becoming familiar with why certain grammar techniques sound better on the page, or just for the escapism fare from your own ideas.

And yet when forced to make a choice between spending one hour reading and one hour writing, the decision is simple: spend it writing.

That’s what I’d done all year: set aside time for writing. Excepting the audiobooks, three of the books I’d completed had been for a yoga teacher-training program and the three that had been for “leisure” were actually my attempts at finding a comparison title for my own novel.

Sadness and doubt crept into my mind. I was failing at one of my favorite past times. And I refused to believe that reading and writing had to be mutually exclusive!

By chance, I’d just signed up for an online learning platform called Mindvalley and the next morning in my inbox was a video (http://www.emresanli.com/video/?id=ll2C2J6Q3SY) about reading faster! According to the man in the video, Jim Kwik, the CEO and founder of Kwik Learning, the average number of words in a book is 64,000, and the average person reads 200 words per minute. By his calculation, if you set aside forty-five minutes a day for reading, you could finish one book per week.  

Hallelujah! The answer I was looking for dropped into my lap!

Of course, fifty-two books per year still seemed a bit ambitious, but this tangible breakdown of time was the first step in factoring reading into my schedule.

I decided that I would set aside forty-five minutes just before bed for reading. This would give my mind a way to wind down instead of staring at a computer screen. I could still write a bit before that forty-five minutes, or I could move my writing time to when I woke up.

Within a month, I was able to finish one of my “in-progress” books and get halfway through another. Not quite a book a week, but I was also able to achieve my weekly writing goals.

So let’s break this down:

Let’s say you allot three hours per day to writing. Of those three hours, forty-five minutes—or twenty-five percent of your writing time—would go to reading. By that same calculation, if you allot ten hours per week to writing, two and a half hours would go to reading. While this isn’t getting you to fifty-two books a year, it’s allowing you some time for reading without compromising too much writing time.  

You can apply this math to any amount of writing time that works for your week or month. For me, it’s about making reading just as deliberate as I make writing.

And with that I leave you with a Confucius-style quote to ponder:

“To be a good writer, you have to read; and to be a good reader, you have to read.”

Wouldn’t you agree?

Melissa Bloom is a writer, writing coach, and certified yoga instructor who is passionate about exploring the connection between productivity and wellness. As the founder and director of the Mindful Writer, Melissa has developed targeted writing tools and techniques that help people develop a sustainable writing practice to accomplish their writing goals without burning out. Melissa has a background in film, animation, and creative writing. She travels often, learns daily, and attends workshops, trainings, and conferences in a continued effort to hone the crafts of writing and living well.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/3039802/