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Like A Boss: Writing Exercises for your Work in Progress

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This was one of the first “appropriate” pictures that came up when I searched for Mistress. I think it’s perfect. She even has a book and writing materials!

I may only be Mistress of Fine Arts, but I am boss (my favorite trendy adjective, by the way) at using writing exercises to maximizing their use on my current work in progress. In almost every workshop or writing group I’ve attended in the past four or five years, my novel Dollhouse Daughter has always been at the forefront of my mind to finish and get it into the hands of my future readers. It’s been a long road and like all masterpieces is still incomplete.

As accomplished as I felt after completing my degree, my novel was in urgent need of structural renovations, character makeovers, and an addition of approximately 100 pages…at least! Add to that a start date of January and a deadline of July, and you have a recipe for confusion, disaster, stress, complete meltdown.

My sweet, beloved minions must be asking, “Mistress, how can you pull that off when you’ve expressed many times how slow your muse works, how you are notoriously slow to get new content written, and how much you procrastinate?”

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Yes, this is what writing exercise looks like!

My answer…drum roll please…WRITING EXERCISES. Now you’re thinking, “Okay, but those are just to help with the fundamentals and they aren’t even fun.”

Except my minions, they are! Character charts filled out like dating profiles, timelines for plots handwritten on notecards and taped to the wall, writing prompts specifically geared toward the book’s subject. When a book requires this much attention to detail or revising, the key is organization and focus.

Take for example my new outline for the revised plot. I have three separate pages of lined paper, draw so that on the left column you have the major points in the plot: obstacles, midpoint, denouement. And on the right side some keep points or summaries of the chapter’s contents.

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This diagram is both easy to outline with and also not too simplified.

The reason I have three? Well, my book has a main character (Cassie), with a subplot and important point of view from her mother (Marge), and a secondary mother-like character (Azalee). In the current version, let’s call it my MFA version, it had a lot of Cassie (as expected) and she was present in all 15 chapters. Marge was present in about 13 chapters. Azalee was only present in only 6 chapters. Thus I had to equalize the distribution of mother and mother-like character in order for the book to be balanced.

So, now that I was organized, I needed to focus. And here’s where my writing exercises came in handy. I needed new content, and a lot of it was for Azalee because she is a catalyst for the change Cassie had been waiting for.

I’m starting by using my monthly prompts (which you can read about here) in reference to write new content about Azalee, and thus add more content to my book. I feel like it’s an kind of art to take seemingly unrelated exercises, like prompts which pose a different story and genre in each one, and write a chapter or scene somehow related to one piece. This month, I chose a prompt about love spells and how someone would ever come to the decision to use magic to make someone love them. And who better to write this scene with than my vodou priestess!

So, I’m going to share my three tips for using writing exercises to benefit your current work in progress.

  1. Most stories beyond their theme or genre are about people, so choosing a character based prompt that focuses on why a character is making decisions or how they’re feeling are best. They are easiest to apply to many story ideas. You could use the love spell one, most obviously, for fantasy, but if you interpret spell differently you can use it as a scientific breakthrough or natural phenomenon in science fiction, or an emotional state for realistic fiction like romances or westerns or mysteries (to clarify: someone’s emotions are so strong, to call it a love spell would be a figurative description of the emotions). The most important part about that prompt is the intention or emotion you’re focusing on about the person willing to use a love “spell” on someone else is quite a character to write.
  2. There are hundreds of prompts out there that you can tailor to what you’re looking for. If you have a character who will soon have a flashback to childhood, but you’re having trouble envisioning that character. A prompt like this would help you find out what details to include with the flashback by creating the child’s setting: Imagine your character’s childhood room. What color are the walls, what kind of toys do they have, what posters hanging on the wall.
  3. Lastly, don’t be afraid to write something completely off topic. Say your work in progress is located in a warm climate. Don’t be afraid to choose a prompt relating to snow or ice because it puts your characters in a completely different environment or situation and can reveal something truly remarkable or unknown for you to use in your actual piece.

Whatever the reason, don’t be afraid to use simple, seemingly unrelated writing exercises to help you and your characters get to know each other. Because getting to know your characters in any situation, no matter how ridiculous, is the most efficient way you can tell your story. Look out for the prompt submission I’ll be posting on 2/22 using my vodou priestess Azalee and how she handles a love spell. If you want to read more about the prompt I used or want to try one of your own. Check out my monthly prompts chosen here.

Happy reading and writing!

 

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Why I Lost NanoWroMo And Other Exciting News

Before I begin the analysis of my ill-fated attempt at NanoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I want to congratulate some of my lovely writer-ly friend who did win this year and showed me what Nano can offer every writer if given the right motivation. Both of my friends Denise and Rion are seasoned winners, and Rion has been an ML(Municipal Liason) for multiple regions in the U.S. These phenomenal ladies have many helpful tips and encouragement for any who wish to learn more about Nano or need help throughout the event. So, don’t forget to check out their blogs (linked above).

ATT_1418613029912_CYMERA_20141121_093517December 2014 marks the first failed attempt at NanoWriMo  for the Spotted Writer. While it is only a technical fail since I didn’t write 50,000 new words for the month of November, I knew beforehand that I couldn’t succeed. Well, wouldn’t is a more appropriate word. If I had scheduled and outlined I might have won, but I did none of those things. There was little time for me to prepare when I was finishing Dollhouse right before November began. That on top of the fact that I had never written more than 700 words in a day meant that I was destined to lose.  (For those who don’t know, a daily word count of 1,667 is needed to complete the 50,000).

Don’t worry my lovely minions, I was not discouraged and I’m not upset at the outcome. I knew going in that any amount of new words would be an improvement from my current standing (about 1,500) for the piece tentatively titled The Hawthorne Grove.  I managed a total of 350 words give or take a few, but my mind was still focused on my manuscript.  Which is why I’m hoping the below  tips will be of help for those who also didn’t manage a win at NanowriMo to improve for next year-including me.

#1- Any new words…any at all 1-50,000 is a true win. The simplified goal for National Novel Writing Month is to create an uninhibited habit of writing daily and consistently. That kind of discipline is astronomically helpful for a writer no matter what age or experience level. I still continue to struggle with putting down new words daily, so next year, the plan is to write every day no matter what. Maybe not 1,667, but new words every day is a great achievement.

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#2-Even if you’re not an outlin-er, a basic plot outline makes the goal of reaching 50,000 more manageable. Now in my case I did have an overall idea of  what The Hawthorne Grove could be about. Unfortunately, I hadn’t ironed out any specifics other than some character profiles. For some, that may be enough, but for me I needed more direction if I’m going to write at a faster pace. And thus I say unto you slow writers, plan. Plan for all of October and by the time November arrives, you will have everything in your arsenal ready to go. This is also where I fell short because I was still writing a majority of Dollhouse Daughter even into the first week of November, so I never made time to plan.

#3-Focus on the one idea. This is a good tip in general, and coming from someone who skips between different works frequently this is a challenge in itself. I became so distracted in November (even after I finished Dollhouse) with revisions and my beta reader comments that I never switched my brain to focus on the novel I was supposed to be writing. So, focus on the idea at hand and don’t let revisions clutter your mind and distract you. If necessary, make notes in a separate document or put [] in the place where you want to come back.

This is my advice. I found it all on my own. It’s little, and simple, but good. Yeah, still good. Now onto the phenomenal events that have happened in the last month.

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First and foremost, I finished my first novel. You can view the post  about finally finishing the piece here. It isn’t publishable yet, but Dollhouse Daughter has a completed first-ish draft. I hate say first draft because I’ve revised the overall story and the setting so many times. Ultimately, though, I finished it. Woot!

And then, my minions, I was asked to speak at a creative writing class at the school my boyfriend works at.  The request came as a complete and utter suprise because I assumed that my boyfriend had been whispering awesome compliments about me to his coworkers. In reality, I had a fan in my midst…a.ka. my boyfriend’s boss.  Imagine my further surprise as I had never met his boss and he had never actually read anything of mine.  He was fantastic in his support, especially when I discovered he was an avid reader and huge supporter of local writers.

10703751_10152855200426804_6683006687294229484_nI accepted without question at the opportunity to share what small nuggets of wisdom I can manage to articulate to other. Most of the wisdom I’ve learned from my mentors and guest speakers is currently bumbling around in my brain waiting to be absorbed and utilized at the right moment. So, what I really wanted to focus on was giving them an introduction into writing in the real world. Beyond the classroom assignments and what to expect if they want to pursue higher education (which even to this day and thousands of dollars in debt I still support).  Lucky for me, the class was made up of mostly seniors and some sophomores and underclassmen and the class was an elective, so the students were invested in what I had to say at least in some respect.

I started off the class with Mark Twain’s “what what you know” not in the sense that you must ONLY write what you know. Instead, I wanted to impress upon these writers how import it is not to put more into your story than you’re capable of accomplishing. I had learned first hand that no matter how much I wanted my novel to be in Revolutionary war England, it was going to take my characters and I decades (and a degree in history) to write it. It didn’t fit to try and make the story work in a setting and a time that I knew nothing about when I had all of the knowledge about modern day America already in my arsenal.

My initial fear is that I would sound pretentious and condescendingly repeat the same precepts that are drilled into every beginner’s brain. The students, however, were a blessing. Sure, every speaker would love to have more questions, but out of the eight or nine students there was at least a dozen questions, which was exciting. There is so much promise for these writers to be even if they were just taking the class for fun.

10660214_10152829833841804_7786051364276860172_nOne of the most difficult points to cover during the class was higher education (my Master’s degree included). For the parents of the millennial generation and later, college in general may seem like the obvious next step, but for the students it’s much bigger than that. In 2014, college is the equivalent to the mortgage on an incredibly expensive home without the guarantee of a return on investment (although to be honest depending on where and when the house may not be guaranteed either). And with a liberal arts degree or concentration…forget about it! With the average American having a potential of two to three career changes in their lifetime (source: some article that is probably now outdated by a few years) what room is there for thousands of dollars in debt for an education you may never fully utilize? These are a few of the fears/concerns that make it that much more difficult for students to choose what to do next, especially if their true passion is writing.

Yes, an understanding of the English language and communication is a vital skill set that students, and people in general should be more in tune with, but how does that translate to a well-paid career? With the right choices, it can pay off well. If you push yourself toward an unconventional or non-traditional career path, it could bring you a wealth of success and stability. I guess my main point (and I made this to the class) is being confident in your decision. I knew in high school that English/writing/reading/literature would be my life. I knew that nothing else would do, and I was willing to sacrifice everything I had been taught to achieve it. I was willing to forgo the more traditionally stable positions in the medical field (at the behest of my father) or education (at the request of my mother) in favor of my passion. To this day, I don’t regret that decision. What I regret most is not choosing wisely about which school to ascertain my degree from, allowing my debt to pile higher than Mt. Everest.

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But, I digress. My temporary class had little to no knowledge or advice on what to choose or even if they had a choice. I impressed upon the necessity to fully support their decision and if they had doubts not to make one hastily or at the behest of anyone! I agreed to the possibility of living paycheck to paycheck until I found my place in the work force. I was 100% ready to follow my passion wherever it lead. And I am so incredibly happy with where I’m headed.

I’m sure these students still have their reserves and questions about the craft and especially about how writing fits into their future, but I think…I think…I gave them something to chew on for a little while. They had the opportunity to read some of my novel that I continue to slave over for three+ years, and experience a public reading. It gave me a chance to see how it would be in front of a high school level class as well as a chance for those students to see possibilities for themselves if they are passionate about writing. And even deeper, it provided a continuous flow of information between writers regardless of age, experience, education or amount written. I saw in those students a glimmer of hope for something they enjoyed or the potential for it to grow. The experience has opened me to the phenomenal path ahead, and I cannot wait to share more milestones with you.

I’ll leave you all with some of the pictures from my vacation. I attended Blizzcon in Anaheim and experienced the glory of San Diego. If given the choice to live in a mansion in Pittsburgh, PA or homeless in San Diego, CA- I would choose San Diego in a heartbeat. It is quite the change from being on the east coast and I relish the thought of going back! Look for more updates and maybe even some excerpts from Dollhouse Daughter to come.

Happy reading and writing!

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Not So Trivial Pursuit of the Perfect Novel: Colloquialism and Place

Welcome minions! I’m finally adding another installment to this never-ending blog series. I find myself looking forward to these posts more and more because it gives me a chance to truly reflect on what kind of piece I’m developing and to share what I’ve learned along the way.

Onto the topic at hand—where is my story going? No, I’m not talking about the plot or the character’s movements from room to room. I’m talking about the where. The setting. The place. Whatever you call it, it’s the magic behind the scenes or a character all its own. In the dozens of writing workshops and seminars I’ve attended, place isn’t something you just throw in or use without proper consideration.

Not utilizing the full potential of place is as much of a writing crime as too many adverbs. This may not be a carved-in-stone rule of writing, but hell what rule is carved in stone? Mostly, I just want to express how underutilized place is in a ton of commercial writing. When I say commercial writing, I mean books that are made with the intention of being sold or published on the commercial market i.e. Amazon, Createspace, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Scribd etc. Whether it costs money to read your book or not, never ever forget about place. It represents the where in the all-important foundation of your story (simplified: who, what, when, where, why).

If you simply choose New York for your  alien story because it’s easy—think again! Place can ground readers in history like Anglo Saxon Britain or allow the reader an escape to a faraway galaxy uncharted by humanity. I, for one, have fallen prey to laziness in this department for a few of my unfinished pieces that I dare not share with the world yet. This is especially true for my earlier drafts of Dollhouse Daughter, which was initially set in London during the late 1700’s. Without knowing it, I set myself up for disaster.

I knew nothing about the 1700’s much less London in that period. It was after two pages that I made the switch to a modern London with a few chapters based in modern U.S. The change in period was a fantastic relief because it made my job as the writer so much easier, but I unknowingly still struggled with place. My manuscript, still untitled at that time, had grown to a whopping six chapters before my laziness caught up with me. Eventually, my Irish mentor suggested I write what I know because in the chapters I’d written there was little to nothing about British culture. At that moment, I realized the right place for my story wasn’t in London; it was a town called Warrenton, Georgia.

Step 1–to finding the true place for your story is research. A normal part of every story has at least some research. Outside of realm of “write what you know”, we wordsmiths crawl onto the world wide web searching for delectable bits of information. Now that I’ve found the right setting for Cassie’s story, I had to figure out what it meant to live in the deep South. Being a native Northerner, I had quite the task ahead of me, but research is only useful if you…well, if you use it. So, I studied youtube videos, pictures, and articles in hopes that I could catch the essence of Warrenton. But I couldn’t research too much. I had to put a limit on how much I perused because I’m not writing an essay of the culture of the deep South. I only need to learn enough to keep my story moving. And I hope others can appreciate place a little more after sharing the fundamentals I used in my own novel.

Step 2–Dialect is both the easiest and hardest part of showing place because it can be simple for someone to write a dialect they know, and so easy to create stereotypes or bog the story down with unintelligible dialogue.  Mark Twain is by far the best and most controversial example of how dialect can transform a simple novel ( The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) to a piece of timeless literature. He had a magic formula that made his writing seem realistic without distracting from the story. So my challenge was not only to include accurate, exciting Southern dialect to give the right characters flavor, but my Haitian Kreyòl had to be just as present if I wanted to truly represent the vodou of  Haiti. It was even more thrilling to know that my past French classes were put to good use since it was a major component in the construction of Kreyòl as a language.  Below are just some examples of my own use of dialect in Dollhouse Daughter:

Southern:

“Burn my biscuits, that woman’s nose is up so high in the clouds she could drown in a rainstorm,” Betty said.

“And just to ruffle my feathers, that foul woman had the au-da-city to tell me that Sandy should be having little Samantha baptized in a Lutheran church instead of St. John’s.”

Oh, honey,” Jessica said, flashing her too-bright teeth. “It’s all Coke in Georgia. They mustn’t teach common sense in them Northern schools.”

Haitian:

“No, pitit mwen, it will not hurt.”

“Papi, please hear me.Your LeeLee needs guidance.”

“Bonjou, pitit Brigitte,” he bellowed, his baritone voice thunderous even against the sound of the drums. “You have come to us humble vodouisants on a special evening. Tonight we celebrate the changing of the moon by meeting Mambo Azalee’s nouvo zanmi, Cassandra from the North.”

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Let me know what you think and especially if anything screams out as being inaccurate or unrealistic because I want to make it the best it possibly can be. The next installation of N.S.T.P.P.N. will be coming up shortly with an emphasis still heavily devoted to place. It should be posted within the next few days, so don’t forget to check back. And as always Happy Reading and Writing!

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Storyboarding Like A Boss!

Now that I have decided what my manuscript is and how to focus my energy, the next step is outlining my novel. I  know that I shouldn’t know everything that happens in my book, but it’s important to understand where my story is going. I had no clue how to plan my book. Should I go by months? weeks? holidays? There is definitely no right answer to how long a novel should last. My characters are the only ones who can decide it for me. That and Doctor Who. When I chose a six month time-frame for the novel, it never occurred to me that it would span that length of time. It was Doctor Who that helped me to pick the resolution to my story. Why not end the story on Christmas and in England?!

 

The only difference is that my Christmas ending won’t be involving aliens or terrifying space ships. Yet, Christmas seems like the perfect time to resolve a lot of bad juju over the course of the novel. The easiest part about deciding the timing of my story was playing off my character. The most important time for a 13-year-old girl is the summer, and I wanted to showcase how important that is to your childhood. Not only that, but starting school in a new country is a pivotal point for my character to  experience. I was compelled to purchase a white erase board, so that I can write all of major notes.  The clean, glossy surface was just what I needed to put my novel into perspective, to know where it is heading.

I’m not trying to impose my new ideas or that it will ultimately effective at writing my novel. However, it does help organize your thoughts as well as visualize them. Whether it be brainstorming a new idea or plotting a half finished one, the goal is the same. Get your ideas in the most organized way you can be so that the story comes out the best.  I’ll share with you, my story board in case you don’t know where to start. On the right, I put a time line that had dates or months with small summaries on the left. Then, I placed themes for the overall story, and a list of characters that have been mentioned so far. Pictures I found from my research and a perfectly chosen actress from a casting website helps me visualize what I see me in my head. It may do that for you.

 

Please comment if you already have a story board, pictures too! And if this inspires you to make one share what comes from my suggestion 🙂

 

Happy reading/writing!

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The Prologue: In Medias Res

Well, it has been quite a long time since I have posted any of my work. Here is the prologue to the novel that I am writing for my Master’s program. This coming of age story has a little bit of action, which is shown first in the prologue. Please comment on what you think of the beginning of my novel.

She ran. The sores on her feet stained her white shoes with blood. The puddles of freezing rainwater numbed her pain, but only for a moment. There was no time to stop, to rest, or to even think. Her mind was focused on one thing: survival. The street filled with fog, and it disguised the glow of the lamps with a shimmering haze.

As she ran, her ripped dress tripped her and she fell. Her heart raced as she turned back to look at something, relieved for a split second because all she saw was fog. Picking herself up off the ground, she continued running, tearing off parts of the long, ceremonial gown.

Have to get away. They can’t get me as long as I keep running. Just keep running.

The fog slowly dissipated, revealing cozy, little homes separated by dozens of dark alleys. The girl bolted past a few houses before she found an opening littered with piles of garbage. She turned the corner, leaning against the stone wall to catch her breath. Hopefully, she ran far enough to escape it. Once her heart slowed, she picked her way through the rotten food and plastic wrappers, until her body was completely covered.

She crouched there, almost gagging from the stench around her. The moonlight illuminated enough of the street so that she could see the entrance, where her eyes deadlocked on the shadow shuffling past her hiding place. She resolved to stay there until morning when she knew she would be safe from the monster following her in the night.

 

 

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Filling Up the Dead Spaces

“Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, no batteries, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent. What I wonder is why everybody doesn’t carry a book around for those inevitable dead spots in life.” ~Stephen King

The inevitable dead spots. You know where they are. The doctor’s office, in between classes, IN classes, on the subway ride to work. All of these dead spots in life should be filled with something. So, why not read or write?

It may not be a comfy sofa, but it is a great time to read!

For King, it was simple. Reading was the easiest way to learn how to write. Eventually, King’s reading in the dead spaces gave way to writing in them. It’s a logical cause and effect for those who pay enough attention.

I learned early on how fulfilling it was to read every chance I got. When I truly found a good book, NOTHING stood in my way of reading it. I would find the time to read because that was the most important thing on my mind. Now, it has transitioned into writing. I’ve been writing on the go for as long as I’ve had a dream of being a writer. Most of my writing has been done outside of a desk at home whether it be an assignment for class, poem, or just a note to a friend.

The pivotal point for my writing on the go was six years ago. I was working at a grocery store, and the downside to the job is that you have to wait, A LOT!  It gave me an opportunity to write notes to friends and my boyfriend, but it was only until my first book idea came that I appreciated the free time. My first book idea was the  role of those who served others. I’m not talking about the heroes like soldiers or firemen. I’m talking about those who literally serve: waitresses, cleaners, cashiers, cooks, manual laborers etc. All of the people who are taken for granted by those we call “customers” or consumers. We take for granted the hard work it is to handle each other.

As sad as it is, we change who we are the moment we walk into a store or restaurant that we aren’t going to work at.  Sometimes those who have worked a crappy service job still don’t understand the respect other people deserve, but humanity isn’t perfect. What I know after 5 years of working as a cashier is that respect is a precious commodity, and it needs to be earned by the customer. Screw them being right! So, I began to write. Every minute of my shift, I wrote down the things that bothered me, the exciting chance to meet a interesting customer, and the sad part of leaving the new friends I’d made. It was the sarcastic, funny, mostly fictional story that thousands would read.

Once I started writing notes for my novel, the writing on the go grew. Two summers ago, I began a short story that completely altered my writing. It was a crime story based off the cliches of 1940s and 1950s detective fiction. Being a writer became a reality thanks to the time I spent writing little-by-little in the dead spaces. Today, I write everywhere I can, even at work. Although it may not be conducive to writing large amounts, the small bits of writing I get while on lunch give me the inspiration when I write at home. Something about being distracted by the job releases the creativity in me.

Where is the weird dead space you’ve written or read? On a public toilet? In a meeting? At a family dinner? Share the times you’ve spent filling the dead spaces in life.

Disgusting and un-sanitary? YES! Productive? HELL YEAH!

Happy reading and writing, wherever it is!

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