The Not So Secret Secrets of Writing

When I think about writing, I get all tingly and, if I’m not careful, can get lost in the fantasy of being a world renown author who has millions of fans waiting breathlessly for my next novel to hit the shelves of their local bookstore. I have book signings and my adoring fans wait for hours for a few moments with me and have a photo taken together. I am financially secure and can easily afford to send my kids to college; I have a cozy writing cottage (a la Laurie Halse Anderson’s, but without all that snow) or some other really great writing space with a door that is mine alone. No boys allowed. No kids allowed. Just me. And maybe my dog.  Ah! It’s good to have dreams, right?

I realize, though that before that can happen, I have to get a grip on my own writing skills and nurture them. I must hone those skills and do my best to master them. I know what I do well and what my strengths are, and I also know where my weaknesses lie. I know what you’re thinking….yes, I do have weaknesses in my writing, but I’m not going to tell you what they are. Cheeky, I know. 😉

I have figured out some secrets along the way, though. Okay, so they’re not really secrets. I know I should join organizations for writers and attend writing conferences and workshops whenever I can. I need to build and maintain an active web presence that engages social media so I can continue to build a solid network of writers, agents, and editors who may be willing to help me get closer to my goal of publishing.

Mostly though, I need to sit my butt down and WRITE my novel. I also have to be a better juggler of the kids, the husband, the insane amount of reading I have to do for my Masters program, and all of the research and academic writing I must do. Oh, and there are these pesky little tests (known in graduate circles as the dreaded Comprehensive Exams that are the final determinates as to whether or not you graduate) I have to prepare for next spring.

I must confess that after doing my academic reading, writing, and preparing, all I want to do is watch Big Brother and eat chocolate. And maybe sleep a little. And then watch an NCIS marathon.

I hate that since school has started I’ve lost the momentum I had this summer when I was so energized with Teacher’s Write! and all the support and encouragement that went along with it.

BUT, the most obvious thing I have to do if I want to get that novel finished, or take the smallest step toward its completion, is MAKE the time to write.

It’s okay. You can call me Captain Obvious. I won’t be mad. I promise.

**Oh yeah, I almost forgot: I have a WRITER/AUTHOR page on Facebook now, so you can come on over and join me there if you like. Please do. I’d love to see you there!

Music: Even Characters Have Their Own Playlists

Last week over at Teachers Write! camp, one of our writing prompts involved using multimedia to help us with character development. The guest author supplying this prompt is Julie Kingsley, and one thing she suggested doing is choosing songs that reflect your character inside and outside—really find songs that represent the character.

The cool thing about this prompt was that I was already doing this, but this prompt really helped me see how doing things like this give our characters depth they may not have had before. It will also help readers connect to these characters in unique ways, which is great for establishing an audience.

I discovered that my main character, Lauren, has an eclectic taste in music, ranging from Taylor Swift style country to 80’s bands like AC/DC and The Cure, and John Hughes movie soundtracks (think Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller, and The Breakfast Club—NOT Uncle Buck).

Lauren also likes Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Etta James. She likes early U2 and The Smashing Pumpkins; she even insisted I download $9.90 worth of songs from Rotten Apples, The Smashing Pumpkins Greatest Hits, which I did. (Lauren and her Muse are pretty of bossy, you see.)

I discovered she’s not crazy about Journey and Foreigner, and she hates 80’s hair bands, much to my chagrin. I’m not sure where I went wrong here…

BUT, she does love Adele, The Fray, Fleetwood Mac, and The B-52’s.

Whew! I’m not sure I could’ve taken it if she didn’t. Seriously.

I’ve since created a few playlists for Lauren and I listen to them as I work on this novel, and I’ve been amazed at how much easier it is to capture her and her story. I would encourage you to do the same. It really does make a difference!

I’ve yet to share any excerpts here, so I decided to share a short (and fairly unrevised) excerpt from my current work-in-progress, a young adult novel tentatively titled Closer to Nirvana. I think this excerpt does a decent job of illustrating how weaving in a character’s musical tastes can add to character development.

The longer I sit here thinking, the more pissed off I get. I slip in my earbuds and turn on my mp3 player. I never did see the sense in spending all that money on an iPod. I am so not an Apple girl. Nope. Just your average run of the mill mp3 player for me. Within seconds, the melodic sounds of The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Drown” fill my ears. I take some deep breaths and wait for that edgier guitar that comes in about half-way through the song. That’s how I’m feeling these days…edgy. And I hate it.

I sit with my eyes closed, listening to the music. Feeling the music. My body begins to relax, and the tension reducing sounds of 311’s covers of classic Cure and songs by Coldplay certainly do the trick. I’m feeling less irritated now, and I can’t help thinking of that adage about music soothing the savage beast. I can’t help snickering a little at that thought. God knows I’ve had some beastly moments lately.

I still can’t believe I bit my mom’s head off like that over something so stupid. I never do that. I mean never. I know she was only trying to help me get organized for school, and it was just a stinking comforter for crying out loud. And my apology was so lame. I’ve got to figure out a way to make it up to her.

I’ll figure it out. I will.

I open my eyes and notice the time. It’s lunchtime. My stomach grumbles on cue, so I decide to heat up some Spaghetti O’s in the microwave. I take a few bites and I’m surprised by the sweetness of the tomato sauce. Has it always been this sweet? I’m pondering this thought as a Taylor Swift tune shuffles in. Normally, I would welcome Taylor, but right now, I’m simply not in the mood for her or anything soft and gushy for that matter. It’s an easy fix. I skip that song and the next three. I stop skipping songs when I hear “Cherub Rock,” another Pumpkins tune. There is something calming about this music. It makes it easier for me to think somehow.

It’s still pretty rough, I know, so be gentle.  🙂

Your Focus Needs More Focus

Well, Teachers Write! is moving on swimmingly, even when I’m just treading water. If you can even call what I’ve done this week treading water. I mean, I’ve been writing—as in working on my work-in-progress—but when I look at how much time has passed since school let out (four weeks), it feels like I’ve done squat. Boo!

I know many of writer friends would tell me not to beat myself up about it, that we’ve all had those times when we are less than focused. Like Mr. Han says to Dre Parker in the 2010 Karate Kid movie: “Your focus needs more focus.” Exactly. So how does one do that? How does one get “more focus”?

 

Yeah, well, the answer to that is quite obvious: stay off Facebook and the Internet. Watch less TV, right? Right. If only it were that easy…

I know there are Internet distraction blockers out there, but how effective are they really? I mean, if I can set the perimeters, I can certainly change them or cancel them altogether. Drat! That’s not helpful.

Sheesh. I guess that means I need some self-discipline. Some self-control.

Huh. It’s just a little self-control. I can do this, right? I can decide to stop lurking online and stop avoiding this writing thing. But why am I avoiding this writing thing in the first place? I love writing. There’s something about finding that perfect word and putting words together in a way that makes them dance across the page. I love that feeling.

I think I know part of the reason I’m dancing around this writing thing. Writing is hard, but in this particular case, it’s not for the reasons you think. Well, not completely. After reading Jo Knowles’s book Lessons from a Dead Girl last week, I had an epiphany. The subject matter of that book is hard to read at times. Heartbreaking, really. Can you imagine how hard it was for her to write words that break hearts?

I’m not saying my book will be as heart wrenching as Jo’s, but I’m tackling some sensitive issues as well—similar subject matter even. Which brings me back to this whole avoidance thing. Dodging my Muse doesn’t prevent my characters from whispering in my ears. And avoiding her (my Muse) only irritates her, and when she’s irritated, she drags my ass out of bed at 4:00 am or keeps me up until 3:00am. Either way, I surrender to her and write until my head hurts. Stupid, demanding, unyielding, brilliant, beautiful Muse.

You win.

It’s time to hit this thing head on and get it done. One scene at a time.

When a Book Grabs You and Doesn’t Let Go

As a teacher, I really look forward to two things in the summer: 1) getting to read A LOT, and 2) getting to write A LOT. Okay, so I actually look forward to more than just these two things during the summer (I do love not having to answer to the alarm clock most days).

I am a self-proclaimed bookaholic, which my husband and children will attest to, and I bought a book (Lessons from a Dead Girl) a few months ago that had been on my ever-growing To Be Read (TBR) list. I lost track of the book between taking it to school and bringing it back home again, so when I found it again a few days ago I was excited to finally be able to read it.

Here’s a quick review of Lessons from a Dead Girl, a damn fine book written by one of my Teachers Write! mentors, Jo Knowles.

From the book jacket:

Leah Greene is dead. For Laine, knowing what really happened and the awful feeling that she is, in some way, responsible set her on a journey of painful self-discovery. Yes, she wished for this. She hated Leah that much. Hated her for all the times in the closet, when Leah made her do those things. They were just practicing, Leah said. But why did Leah choose her? Was she special, or just easy to control? And why didn’t Laine make it stop sooner? In the aftermath of the tragedy, Laine is left to explore the devastating lessons Leah taught her, find some meaning in them, and decide whether she can forgive Leah and, ultimately, herself.

Lessons from a Dead Girl focuses on Laine, and how she reconciles the death of Leah (her former best friend for life) and the guilt, hatred and shame she felt as a result. The friendship they shared was convoluted, unforgiving, and binding; bound by secrets fueled by years of abuse in various forms. Laine struggles to understand why Leah does the things that she does to her—why she abuses her and their friendship—over and over again. It isn’t until the night of the fatal accident that Laine learns the horrible truth behind the abuse. After the tragic accident that claims Leah’s life, Laine begins to piece everything together and discovers their story has two victims.

Jo Knowles wrote a difficult story, a story which clearly needed to be written. This story grabbed me immediately and didn’t let me go until I had finished the very last word. I read this book in one sitting, which is something I hadn’t done since I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I couldn’t stop reading. The characters of Laine and Leah were real and flawed and masterfully created. Knowles did an amazing job crafting Leah, and try as I might, I just couldn’t hate her. Instead, my heart broke for her. And for Laine. But most of all, for all the kids who have suffered in silence, bound by secrets.

Thanks, Jo, for writing a story that needed to be told and for giving me the inspiration to do the same.

#TeachersWrite! The First Week(ish)

Okay. We’ve been at this Teachers Write! thing for about ten days now, and I thought I’d bring you up to speed and let you know what I’ve been up to with my Work in Progress (WIP).

We’ve had writing prompts from Jo Knowles and quick writes from Kate Messner and guest authors as well. I have to admit, I haven’t written at every prompt and when I have, I have sometimes adapted it and written to suit the needs (demands really) of my WIP. However, EVERY prompt I have written to from one of Kate’s crew as proven to be right on target and has fallen in nicely somewhere in my novel.

In addition to writing prompts, the authors who have come on board have given excellent advice, answered multitudes of questions during a Q & A session on Kate’s blog, and have given us assignments to help us organize a WIP or get started on a new project. One such assignment was to write out some type of outline.

I am the self-proclaimed I-Hate-Outlines Queen, so I took the advice of my buddy Gae Polisner and created what she refers to as a “mini-manuscript” in which you create a document that chronicles your chapters with the first and last lines of each chapter, along with a few bullet points that sum things up.

What I find helpful about this format is getting the gist of each chapter without having to re-read the chapter to refresh my memory. This is super important for me because if I re-read what I’ve written, then I feel compelled to revise, revise, revise and I never get to the part where I add, add, add new chapters. In other words, I sort of end up spinning my wheels and don’t actually move forward toward the finish line (and publication).

Probably one of the most helpful things to me thus far, was combining yesterday’s quick write prompt with a blog post, written by Tamara Felsinger, which one of my fellow Teachers Write! colleagues posted on our Facebook group page pertaining to the main character’s personal agenda (which was pretty brilliant, btw).

Well, what resulted of this tweaking and joining of ideas was…well…an outline looking thingy. An EXTREMELY helpful (and quite possibly one of the most important things I’ve created in the process of writing this novel) outline looking thingy. I mean, who knew I’d end up creating an outline looking thingy and like it?? That Kate Messner and her crew are sneaky, tricky people whom I have quickly come to trust and appreciate in more ways than I thought possible. When my book is all set to publish one day, I’ll have to use up a whole page just to acknowledge them, I think.

And I will happily do so.

Teachers Write! Day One: We’re Off and Running!

Today marks the first official day of Teachers Write! I have visited the blogs of Kate Messner and our gracious guest author Jo Knowles. Kate offered words of wisdom regarding finding making time to write, and Jo offered us some encouraging words before giving us our writing prompt.

Kate says that finding time to write is pretty much a myth—you have to make time to write. I talked about this very thing a couple of posts ago. When I get really honest with myself—even with the demands of teaching and raising four kids, a husband, and two dogs—there really are enough hours in the day for me to carve out some writing time. I just have to choose to write instead of doing some of those other things that usurp my time (like all those NCIS marathons I LOVE to watch again and again and those Facebook and Twitter notifications that call to me like Sirens). Kate also helped me see that I also need to have an honest conversation with my family regarding my writing. Of course my family knows I’m working a novel and that I write blog posts, but I’m not sure they see me as a writer yet. My writer friends and I have talked about this ad nauseum, but don’t think I’ve ever really told my family how important writing is to me. Thanks, Kate!

After pondering and processing Kate’s words of wisdom, I went to visit Jo, who seemed to know exactly what I needed today with her words of wisdom, encouragement, and the writing prompt she gave us. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how she did that…  Anyway, the writing prompt was to write a sensory description of a kitchen from our childhood. This prompt transported me to my Grandma Tedder’s kitchen, which I spent quite a bit of time in while growing up. I see sunlight and bright yellow cabinets and Grandpa’s garden through the rear window. I smell fresh baked bread and coffee. I hear sizzling bacon and whispers of past conversations. But most of all, I feel love oozing from every nook, cranny, and crevice of that kitchen and it hugs me tight. Oh, how miss that kitchen. And I miss them.

Jo’s prompt did more than just transport me to Grandma’s kitchen, it was just what I needed to help me fill out a chapter I began a few months ago in the YA novel I’ve been working on for the past year. I couldn’t quite figure out the connective tissue between scenes, and that was SO frustrating! This prompt was EXACTLY what I needed to help me fix this, and I am so excited and relieved to feel a sense of accomplishment and forward motion. Thanks, Jo!

Teachers Write! Camp is off to a great start!

#TeachersWrite: The Best. Summer. Camp. EVER.

Greetings, Campers!! Well, I’m working reaaalllyyyy hard to take my own advice about getting off my butt and writing. Like Yoda said: “Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.” 

So. I am going to put my keyboard where my mouth is. I’ve been writing this week, not as much as I shoulda coulda woulda, but I’ve actually put words on paper. As in complete sentences and paragraphs! And that feels really good. I’ve also been talking shop this week with other writers on Twitter, Facebook, and right here on Micki’s Musings which has done wonders for me in terms of motivation and encouragement to get going and keep going.

Which brings me to something VERY exciting that came together this week as a result of a few casual conversations among some fellow teacher/writers I follow on Twitter. These teachers were talking about the very thing I was talking about in my previous post: finding more time to write and how our writing time as teachers always seems to get pushed off until those glorious months of summer.

Well, the fabulous Kate Messner, who is a well-established author of numerous books for kids, put some feelers out on Twitter to see if any of us teacher or librarian types (who also write) would be interested in participating in a virtual summer writing workshop. Several of us who follow Kate, enthusiastically said, “YES!!!!!” and off she went, planning away. She created this lovely little summer writing workshop she named #TeachersWrite.

Long story short, those of us who were interested took off with it, too. We retweeted on Twitter and shared links on Facebook. At last count, there were 570+ participants signed up. Kate was astonished. I was only a little surprised at that number, as I know there are many, many others out there like me who want to learn the secrets of balance. I will be sharing my progress on my current work in progress (WIP) as #TeachersWrite gets into full swing.

Why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this because there are LOTS of folks out there who, like me (and maybe even you), need a little nudge to get on the right writing track. I think it’s an amazing thing Kate is doing for us in helping us form our own writing communities and to help us become better writers and teachers of writing. I’m also sharing this with you because that’s what writers do: we support each other and promote each other. And I am, after all, a writer.

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