Turn Your Routines into Rituals

Happy Summer!  I’ve been away for a while, partly do to injuring my left wrist while paddle boarding Memorial weekend.  But I’m back, and here to talk to you about how you can turn your everyday routines (boring!) into amazing life-changing rituals.

I saw the above quote while on a recent trip to New York City.  You see random stuff like this posted all over the city, and you can never really be sure if it’s advertising, artwork, or just a random rant.  But this one struck both my husband and I so much that we had to take a photo.

We all have daily routines: washing dishes, doing laundry, answering emails, taking the dog for a walk, driving to work.  We do these things over and over every single day, and mostly it just feels like a big waste of time or at the very least a nuisance.  But can we make these trivial, monotonous moments meaningful?  The answer is YES.

Some of my creative rituals include:

  • putting on my blue polka-dot robe to get ready to write
  • listening to Joss Stone’s “Clean Water” while cleaning up my art space to get in the mood to paint
  • giving my lucky Petoskey stone a squeeze before I send out a submission
  • thinking about my characters or plot problems while exercising or washing the dishes

Performing these rituals help me take on the creative tasks day in and day out.  They motivate me to do the work.

I also have rituals before I go to bed to get ready for sleep.  I drink a cup of tea and do gentle yoga or meditate with a special mantra.  Sometimes I take a bath and mull over the day, before letting it all go.  Then I count my thoughts until they disappear.  Just by engaging in this ritual, my  body knows it’s time to unwind.

Other useful rituals I do that you might enjoy:

  • call a friend for social time while taking a walk and listen more than you talk
  • focus on the world around you and experience it with all five senses
  • meditate on different quantities of empty space while staying in the present moment, a technique known as open focus, which allows your brain a break

Rituals add excitement and meaning to your every day.  They feel more like preparation.

So go get ready already!  Because your next big adventure could be right around the corner.

 

 

 

From Beginning to End

When writing a novel, some people have trouble with how to begin.  Where should the story start?  How much action?  How much dialogue?  Should I include backstory?  Sound familiar?

If this is you, there’s help in the form of a book by Nancy Kress called Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.

I personally struggle with beginnings, so I thought I would take a look and try to learn a thing or two.

Some obvious points:  You want to make sure you have an engaging character.  You also want to make sure your story has conflict.

But if you’ve gotten that far, what could possibly be missing?

  • It’s all in the details.  And not just any details.  Very specific details.  “Details set your opening apart from the hundreds of others similar to it,” says Kress.  Here’s her example.  Don’t just say Mary loves dogs.  Show how she feeds her eighty-pound Lab all the best leftovers every night.
  • Create credible prose.  Meaning, learn how to use the English language in a way that is accurate, interesting, and easily understood.  For example, consider varied sentence structure.  Short sentences pick up the pace and add drama, while longer sentences slow things down and add tension.
  • A note on character: make sure he or she is unique enough to be picked out of a crowd.  Ask yourself, “Would nine out of ten people behave and think like this?”  The answer should be no, otherwise you haven’t conveyed your character to readers in a compelling enough way.  You need to share more and perhaps dig a little deeper into what makes your character unique.

Add these elements with others and you’ll be on your way to having a successful opening scene!  But what next?  Kress suggests toning down the level of conflict in scene two.  You can do this with backstory or flashbacks, but be careful they don’t slow the story down too much.  The key is balance.  You can certainly continue on with more action, but if you’re going to do that, the challenge is to reduce the level of conflict in relation to the opening scene.  Or you could consider introducing conflict in the form of a subplot, but again, make sure it’s not quite as intense as the opening.  It’s all about pacing.

There’s also advice for trouble with murky middles and how to wrap up the ending of your story in a satisfying way.  But we’ll save those tips for another day…  Or better yet, go check out this book!

In the meantime, get started on your story.  Will it be Once upon a time…or perhaps something more unique?  I think you know the answer! 😉

 

 

Crafting Great Scenes: Give Your Story a Pulse

So you finished NaNoWriMo.  Now what?  It’s time to revise.  Or maybe you haven’t started writing yet.  Either way, the key to a successful novel is in the scenes.  Each scene should tell its own story with a beginning, middle, and end.  It should have conflict and tension and move the story along.  And above all, it should have a pulse.

I recently finished a great book on crafting scenes called The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield.  Here are some highlights!

First, as an exercise to get you thinking about what makes up a good scene, try writing about a movie scene as you watch it.  This is a great way to deconstruct exactly what makes a scene work, all while enjoying your favorite movie 😉

What makes a scene come alive?  It must have a pulse.  The author defines a pulse as an emotional need or desire.  Tension arises from the pulse and is built from action.  You can imagine the pulse like a heart beating, a flame burning, or a key turning.  Fun!

Scofield provides a great example of a pulse using a story about an aspiring writer.  The ambition to be a writer is the pulse; but by neglecting everything else, there is a confrontation with the lover who says if things don’t change, then he will leave–that is tension!

You also want each scene to have a focal point, hot spot, or pivot.  Otherwise, the scene will be boring.  Think of it as the turning point where everything changes.  For example, the moment when the love interest walks in the room at a boring party.  Here’s a little math equation to help you remember:  Scene (Before X + After X) where X=focal point

Remember that each scene should involve some kind of conflict whether big or small and a resolution.  Keep in mind that conflict actually means power struggles and attempts at negotiation.  In each scene, always try to identify the balance of power.  Who has power and who doesn’t?  What does each character do to try to gain power in a given situation?

Another important element of a scene involves the use of images, which enhance a scene by creating a mood and revealing how a character experiences the world using the five senses.  We must see the world through the eyes of your point of view character and feel what he or she is feeling.

Also be aware of the emotions of your character and how they may change during the scene (i.e. from hope to sorrow).  This will help you create an emotional arc for your character throughout the story, so that he or she can grow and change.

And don’t forget to ask yourself: “Why have this scene?”  It should either reveal character or advance plot. If it does both, even better!

Just to recap.  How do you make a good story great?  One well-crafted scene at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Thanksgiving, Put Your Novel on a Diet

As you prepare for the biggest meal of the year, don’t think about all the extra food you’re going to eat.  Give thanks and enjoy that!  Instead, consider cutting something else precious from your life–your words–especially if you’re a novelist participating  in NaNoWriMo.

BUT…you say.  How can I sacrifice my darlings?  Easy!  If you follow some simple rules, as outlined in an article about filter words and how they weaken your writing.  When filter words are used, you–the reader–sense the presence of the narrator rather than experiencing the story firsthand as if you are the main character.

Examples of filter words include:

  • to see
  • to hear
  • to think
  • to touch
  • to wonder
  • to realize
  • to watch
  • to look
  • to seem
  • to feel (or feel like)
  • can
  • to decide
  • to sound (or sound like)
  • to know

Want an example of how they are used and how to fix?  Sure!

You wrote: Mary felt nervous.

Instead: Mary’s hands shook.

By the way, this is also an example of showing vs. telling 😉  Find more examples in the article.

For more ways of simply cutting down on unnecessary words, check out my post here, especially the part about reducing clutter.  And, no, I don’t mean closet clutter 😉  We’ll save that for another upcoming blog post.  Seriously!

Want one more polishing tip?  Of course you do!  Reconsider your use of ‘ing’ and ‘as’ phrases, according to this blog post by The Bent Agency.

Don’t say: “Running for the refrigerator, she pulled out the last slice of turkey before anyone else could get to it.”

Instead: “She ran to the refrigerator and pulled out the last slice of turkey before anyone else could get to it.”

*If you’re trying to vary sentence structure, find other ways to do it.  Check out Resources for Writers for some examples.

But again, the key word here as with all overuse is moderation.  You can have an exclamation point or two (despite what Elmore Leonard says) but not 10 on one page!!!!! Or so many consecutively 😉  Otherwise it’s like making a pie with too many spices, when a dash of this and that would actually suffice.  Just like in life, you must choose your words carefully.

So this year, put your novel on a diet and enjoy as much turkey and pumpkin pie as you want 🙂

Plotting vs. Pantsing

The age-old question for novel writers regarding how they work:

Are you a plotter or a pantser?  It sounds funny, but writers really do fall into one of two categories.  They usually make a detailed plotline before they write and then follow it, sometimes allowing for a little serendipity.  OR they write by the seat of their pants, meaning they write as they go, following the muse wherever it leads.  Then there’s the plotser.  I believed myself to fall into this category, as I always know the beginning and end of my story as well as some major plot points, critical scenes, and the climax.

But which one is right for writing?

Truly, either style CAN work.  What I’ve learned over time is that the pantser tends to have more freedom in the beginning but will have more work after the first draft.  The plotter takes more time to choreograph all the details ahead of time, but ends up with a more polished first draft.

So really, what you want to ask yourself is whether you want more work after you write (pantser) or more work before you write (plotter).  Either way, there is significant work involved! 😉

For plotting tips, I recommend reading Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland.  The author makes plotting seem like an organic process.  It’s not so much about roman numerals and bullet points but more about figuring out what drives the narrative and building around that.  You basically keep a notebook of the details you do know in the order in which they happen and then just keep building on that until you connect all the dots.  Ask yourself a lot of questions and write in a stream of consciousness format, allowing for many different possibilities to unfold.  By doing this now, you’re more likely to figure out plot holes and fix them instead of writing yourself into a corner.  You’ll also quickly notice where your story lacks tension.

One great suggestion the author offers when you get stuck is to consider working backwards.  If you know what happens at the climax and you know one of the major events leading up to it, but you don’t know what happens in-between, you can use the climax as a springboard.  Meaning, think about what is necessary for the climax to occur, ask yourself some questions, and you will likely discover ways to lead up to this point.  That way you are less likely to add random, meaningless events just to fill space from point A to point B.

Once you get to the level of crafting individual scenes, consider Darcy Pattison’s advice on her popular blog, Fiction Notes.  In her post entitled “My 4000 Word Day: Prewriting,” she says, “Scenes need a beginning, middle, end; add in conflict and a pivot or turning point; stir with some great emotional development.”

Consider using a set of index cards and have one per scene.  Identify the POV, 3 reasons for each scene (i.e. character, theme, plot/subplot advancement), the number of pages, and on which day in your story the scene takes place (from your timeline or story calendar).  You can also rearrange the cards to determine the best scene progression.

Now if you insist on pantsing, which is OK, you might try these tips that I learned at Detcon, the North American Science Fiction Convention held in Detroit last summer.  When you get blocked, try using tarot cards, especially a literary archetypes deck.  You can also consider collaging ideas or creating a mind map.  You want to at least have a broad story arc and know up to 2 or 3 scenes ahead.  The voice is key, so try to nail that within the first 10,000 words before moving on.

The coolest thing I discovered about detailed plotting is how it actually heightens creativity rather than stifles it.  You’re still making up every detail from your imagination.  I would argue you can actually keep the flow going more easily at this stage, because you aren’t also focused on language and crafting the perfect sentences.  Furthermore, plotting reduces the anxiety of sitting down to write, since now you have a guide to follow.  Every sailer needs a map, even if you plan to go off course every once in a while.

So plot the course of your novel, and prepare to sail through your first draft with unexpected ease!

The Key to Success: A Journal of Steps

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I keep an affirmation journal.  In it, I write down all the accomplishments I’ve made towards my creative goals as well as the positive feedback I’ve received.  It’s useful to go back from time to time and read over the list to remind yourself how far you’ve come.  It also helps combat the negative voice in your head.  When you confront that negative voice with your list of accomplishments, it’s amazing how quickly the voice becomes silent.

But what I want to share with you today is how I learned about a way to take this concept one step further.  Awhile back, a fellow blogger, Timothy Pike, started following my blog.  One of his posts caught my attention.  He titled it, “My life changed, literally overnight, when I started keeping a success journal.”  You can read more about it here.  I quickly learned that his success journal was far more detailed than mine.  Partly because he committed to writing down at least one accomplishment for every day of the year.

While I was only writing what I considered worthy accomplishments: having a successful art show or receiving encouraging feedback from an agent or editor, this blogger suggests that you write down every action you take towards your goal.  For instance, not just winning a contest, but entering one.  Not just completing a novel, but coming up with an amazing new character.  And certainly don’t limit your accomplishments only to moments where others have responded favorably to your work.  You need to feel a sense of worth from within yourself, so you can trust yourself and continue moving forward.

The most amazing discovery, as noted by this blogger, is what happens when you start keeping this success journal.  It not only lifts you up, it also pushes you to take further action towards your goals.  You literally want to have things to write down in your success journal, so you keep taking steps.  Action is always the key to success.

So what are you waiting for?  Take a step in the direction of your dreams.  Then write it down!  You’ll be surprised at how quickly you want to take another step.

 

The View

Greetings and sorry for the lapse in blogging!  I’ve been traveling most of the summer.  But now I’m back, at least for now, and ready to share my adventures with you!

On our trip to the Southwest, my husband and I visited a place called Monument Valley situated on the border of Arizona and Utah where we stayed at a hotel with a view of some of the most spectacular naturally made monuments I’ve ever seen.

Though not ruins, the monuments feel like remnants of an ancient civilization, and in some ways they are.  Monument Valley is a Navajo Nation Tribal Park.  This location has also been used for a number of Western films.

Take a look at the four monuments I’ve posted below.  The first one is sometimes called a mitten, which reminded me of home–since the state of Michigan is shaped like a mitten.  Take a look at the others.  What do you notice about each of them?  Which is your favorite?  Scroll down to find out the one I like best.

Monument #1

Monument #2

Monument #3

Monument #4

So my favorite is definitely the mitten!  But now I must make a confession.  All four photographs are of the same monument.  They’re simply taken at different viewpoints while on a hike.  The first is of the front, then the right side, the back, and finally the left side.

This walk was probably one of my favorite hikes.  One of the things it reminded me is that any given thing can be viewed from multiple vantage points, none of which are necessarily superior to the other.  Each view offers a different interpretation of the subject.

As an illustrator, it’s important to find just the right perspective for each illustration in your story.  Will it be a close-up to create more emotional intensity?  Will it be a bird’s-eye or worm’s-eye view?  Will it be a sweeping panorama for depth?  Or angled in some way to add tension and drama?

As a writer, it’s important to figure out what point of view you will use to tell your story.  First person brings your reader closer to the story but limits the reader to only one character’s perspective.  Third creates distance but often stays close to one character in particular.  Omniscient allows for dipping into the thoughts of multiple characters but may make it harder for readers to connect to the story.

In life, it’s important to see situations from different perspectives.  This creates empathy and understanding.  If you’re feeling bored with your own life, trapped by the monotony of your daily routine, try stepping out of your comfort zone and view your life from a different angle.  You might discover new meaning and even excitement!  And maybe just maybe a new adventure could be waiting just around the corner.

 

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