Category Archives: writing tips

Sticky Note Solutions

November—already, can you believe it? Some of you are probably happily bogged down with Nanowrimo this month. It’s early in, the inspiration is thick and humid, the words and ideas are growing like crazy, but despite your amazing work ethic and exciting word counts thus far, you’re ever cognisant of the reality that you need to log 1666.66 words per day (better round that up to 1667!) to nail this bad boy.

Others of you, like me, decided to forgo the 50 000 word extravaganza this month, because you have other writing priorities yelling loudly in your head that you don’t want to ignore.

Whatever camp you fall in, I suspect that because you have spectacularly lofty goals this month, life will throw a lot of unexpected distractions at you this month, including but not limited to things like: surprise visits from old friends, birthday bashes, baby showers, or other celebratory not to be missed events, extra work hours, a small family crisis or two, etc . . .

Wait? Am I talking about November particularly or the writing life in general? Rats, you caught me. Nano or no Nano, my writing life, despite my best laid plans, always gets interrupted. I still manage to get quite a lot done most months, however, and one of the easiest ways I’ve learned to motivate and focus myself (not to mention remind myself of what I actually want to accomplish) is to use sticky notes. And not the sticky note app—the actual, messy little pieces of paper that one scrawls notes on and sticks up all over the place.

The idea is not uniquely mine, of course. After all, sticky notes were invented to leave memos for yourself. And I took a class with author Kerri Nelson, called “The Book Factory—Produce Multiple Novels in a Year” that I raved about before in “Take 15 . . .

Kerri advocated constructing a brief list of things you need to get done in a day or in a chunk of writing time, keeping it in a highly visible place, then before you got to bed that evening making sure you’ve accomplished each one.

There’s something powerful in the act of prioritizing (only so many goals fit on a sticky note) and then crossing each accomplishment with swift stroke of ink. The more specific the goals, the better.

When I jot down “Blog post,” it’s a little tougher to get down to, than if I write “Blog post + TITLE,” because just writing a title is consideration of an idea—and idea that stirs about in the muck and mire of my brain, and is then more than ready to muddy up the page once I sit down to it.

When I write “Edit TITLE,” it’s not as effective as when I write, “Edit three chapters of TITLE.”

“Write a chapter” is not as forward-driving as “Write scene where blah-blah-blah.” (Of “blah blah blah” is actually spelled out on the note—even if so cryptically that only I know at a glance what on earth I’m talking about.)

I also write mundane, non-writing tasks on my sticky notes (“Toyota Payment, “Park Optometry,” etc.), not because I consider them writing-related per se, but because my brain sometimes uses menial chores and other trivial “must-do’s” as a way to avoid writing. “You shouldn’t write right now. You should insert-silly-but-practical-distraction.” Once those chores make it to the sticky note, I can make my procrastinator shut-up. (It’s on the sticky note, it’ll get done. Now be quiet, I have work to do!)

I don’t know if sticky notes will revolutionize your writing days or the short sessions you try to sneak in around the other demands of life, but I know that when I’m using my sticky note system, I’m always a little blown away, by how I manage to get things done when I have no time.

I wish you crazy productivity this month—especially if you’re Nanowrimoing! And if you have special methods or tips for breaking down your big goals into smaller, manageable ones, please share.:)


Can a writer (or should a writer) ever really go it alone?

If you have other things in your life—family, friends, good productive day work—these can interact with your writing and the sum will be all the richer.  ~ David Brin

Last night I met with the Northwords Writers’ Camp writers and presented on how the Internet fits into/enhances my writing life.  I mentioned how it’s a great resource for:

  • Support, Inspiration, Community
  • Education, Practice
  • Writing markets, Publishers
  • Marketing, Communicating and building relationships with readers

I also delivered the reminder that we all apparently need to hear on on occasion. Just like any super hero has their kryptonite, the Internet has a side that can cripple even the most stalwart writer. It’s called TIME SUCKAGE. Only writing is writing.

And I touched on a few other things to beware of online (in blogs or public forums):

  • Nothing is private
  • Nothing goes away
  • Published online (even “just” on your blog) is published.

But feeling that the pros of getting involved in the Internet writing community (how it can help one grow in and enjoy his/her writing life) far outweigh any small cons, I encouraged each attendee to start their own blog and we spent the rest of our time talking about Do’s and Don’ts of great blogs and did some writing exercise to per chance get us started.

As ever I was blown away by people’s creativity and how unique and highly individual each person’s results were, even with exercises as specific and guided as the ones we did together were. It reminded me yet again of why I write, why I readto share, to learn, to grow.  To think, to laugh and sometimes, though definitely not last night, to cry.

It also reminded me of how good it is to get together with other writers (in person, live!) and talk craft. The Internet is awesome and I’m incredibly grateful for it, but it doesn’t replace the value and importance (and fun :)) of getting together in real-time with flesh and blood people who share your interests. (We talked about that too.)

If you’ve been writing in solitary confinement (as is, of course, the necessity and norm)or perhaps are feeling that you’re not getting enough alone time with your wordsre-read the quote I opened this post with. It’s good to have people and other activities in our lives. They refill the well.

Yes, only writing is writing, but sometimes to keep on track with our writing (in a way that brings joy, refreshes our inspiration, soothes our fears, etc) connection with other kindred soulsonline or face-to-faceis just what the Dr ordered.

What do you think? Can any writer truly go it alone?


Love – It’s in the Details

I had a terrible day a few weeks ago. When I finally crawled into bed, my husband was already asleep. That was great with me because I really didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I tucked myself up into a ball and rolled up against the mighty wall of his thick-muscled back as tightly as I could.

As I listened to his heartbeat and to the rumble-not-quite-snore of his dreaming, I was slowly comforted. No matter what days come, I thought, I have this.

And then something struck me so hard I literally jolted, causing him to pat my leg absentmindedly (no doubt thinking, Shh, shh, let me sleep—don’t wake me up . . .). What I realized was this: There are other people who, when they feel bad, sneak onto their side of the bed without making a sound and lie there, silent in their misery, alone—the body beside them being the last person they would—or could—seek comfort/solace/respite in.

And because I’m a freak and can never totally escape my inner writer, I had to turn this sweet moment of gratefulness into a craft lesson. I thought about the writing rule, “Show don’t tell,” and how in general, the way a couple positioned themselves in bed at the end of a bad day would be a powerful indicator of how they related to each other.

What I did says something about me. What my husband did (in not rolling away and burrowing his head under a pillow when I’m sure having my knees jammed against his back and me sniffling and flinching wasn’t exactly a big pleasure) says something about him.

People reveal themselves—their passions, their fears, their insecurities, their hopes, their strengths, their vices—in a million ways in little moments everyday. And often, because none of us are perfect or completely consistent, even with ourselves, there are tiny contradictions that may (rightfully or wrongfully) colour our interpretations of people.

A relationship might seem rocky or strained when couple snipes at each other in public—but that falls away, or at least loses weight, when they hold hands when no one else is around and he opens the car door for her or she gets him his favourite snack. And vice-versa, Shakespeare’s famous line, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” can apply in a negative way to romantic love too. If a couple is too sugary-sweet and all over each other all the time in public (and they’re older than nineteen), I confess I’m a little sceptical about the strength of the tie that binds them . . . (But than again, maybe not—maybe they’re genuinely more touchy-feely and I’m just an old curmudgeon!)

Now how about you . . . Do you consciously consider little “throwaway” moments that reveal your characters’ relationships with themselves, their mates, their kids, their friends, etc? Do you notice what, if any, contradictions exist between what they say and how they act? Is it harder, in your opinion, to show nuances of love or nuances of trouble brewing . . .


Take 15 . . .

I’ve been extra busy lately—in good ways, with great things: my business, my part-time day job, my family. . . And though I strive (and mostly succeed) to work on my own writing projects, plus do at least one “author Ev” chore daily, I’m always tempted to give into the feeling that I can’t fit one more thing in and should go watch TV.*

The ongoing struggle is not to find words, but to sit my butt down and get them out on the page.

For the most part though, I’ve learned well not to yield to sloth (unless I really need to which is another post for another day ;)). Not making my own work a priority makes me miserable. Plus, I work hard to not let other people down and to help them achieve their goals—so why wouldn’t I give myself the same treatment?

And in that vein, I was fortunate this month to discover two amazing strategies for getting work done even when you think you have no time.

The first strategy comes from a course I took online through RWA, offered by author Kerri Nelson , called “The Book Factory—Produce Multiple Novels in a Year” (an amazingly practical and inspiring class, by the way. I highly recommend it). It boils down to this: write new words everyday, even if just for 15 minutes. Set the timer and write flat-out, no editing, no breaks, no pausing to think . . .

It’s freakish how effective those fifteen-minute sprints have been for me this month and last. I’ve had NO fiction writing time, yet in January I wrote 18 142 new words.

The second strategy is a bit more specific, but no less powerful. It’s “Plot your novel in 15 minutes or less” by Claudia Suzanne and I came across it at Mayra Calvani‘s blog (Mayra’s Secret Bookcase), a site recommended to me by author and friend Angela Dorsey (Oh, the tangled World Wide Web!).

I don’t usually outline at all, but desperate to not lose a new novel idea that just occurred to me last week, I thought I’d give it a try. I loved it. I now have a very bare bones, yet fantastic 15-point outline that gives me plenty of freedom, but that will guide me through to the story’s end, and (even better!) provide a frame for the book’s synopsis (my least favourite part of novel writing).

Anyway, I’d love to hear how your writing and life is going this month. And if you’re busy and my small suggestions above motivate you to put off your lounge on the couch for even just fifteen minutes, you’re welcome, heh heh.

* Yes, I realize there’s an obvious logic problem there—if I have no time, how can I manage to watch TV? What can I say? I like television . . .


Where Stories Come From

People frequently ask me where I get ideas from and I’ve even blogged about this topic before in “Ye Olde Idea Shoppe.” While I occasionally have a clear connection between input and my vision for output (Oh, for “Such and Such” I was sitting under a bridge when X, Y and Z happened and Bam! I was hit with the story idea), I generally stumble through some lame mumble: Well, I don’t really know exactly. Ideas are everywhere.

Today, however, I’m happy to share a concrete bit of knowledge—including pictures—about where some of my ideas come from.

This weekend I was garage saling with my aunt and suddenly this crazy handcrafted basket made of twigs and burlap and leather appeared from out of nowhere.

“It’s a witch’s basket!” my aunt proclaimed with a small cackle. Indeed, it is Someone Interesting’s basket. I do not know what ideas exactly are coming from the basket, but there are many and I’m interested to see which ones I try to put to paper.

How about you? In the mood for a writing exercise? Here’s the basket—in three locations for your imagining pleasure. Write a scene or a short that features it or its owner, be he/she a long time keeper of the basket or someone who has just stumbled upon it.

If you do write something about this basket and want to share, I’d love to read what you come up with: just point me to the place!

Happy writing,
Ev


Slow Writer

I’m used to being a speedy writer, easily getting 1000 words, and usually closer to 2000 or 3000, on any given writing day—and that would just be on the fiction side, not reflecting my non-fiction work, blog entries, column ideas, or miscellaneous writing projects and experiments . . . And then I took a regularly-scheduled day job. I’m slowly getting into (and loving!) my new routine, but I was a bit worried a few days ago when I considered what it might be doing to my writing.

While I’ve been writing almost daily in June (to my huge relief, phew—in May I was worried about when I’d be able to return to that!), my word counts per session are way down. 380, 431, 494, 650, 733, 198 (gah!) . . . I only broke 1000 once this month. (Again though, not counting any non-fiction writing.) Yikes, my whole aim in getting a day job was to alleviate financial stress that was slowly quashing my creative joy—now was I in danger of potentially crushing my progress? Was I stuck in some lose/lose scenario? Absolutely not.

I did the math (funny how more and more as I get older I see the beauty and inspiration in numbers!); all those low numbers actually averaged 500 words per day. Even if I only write 20 days a month and even if I only get 500 words per session, that’s 10K in a month or, even more excitingly, 120K a year—a full novel, plus. And I suspect that most months I’ll write more than 20 days—and more than 500 words.

My worry changed to renewed excitement and fresh vigor. I love how my writing, no longer burdened with the need to generate money to live, is free to be my whimsy and passion again. And I especially love that I’ll be able to keep on track (easily!) with my novel a year goal, even if I keep being “slow.” I’m still striving to be a career novelist, hoping to write novels for enough money that I can work at them full time, writing even more of ‘em . . . but it’s nice to know that until that day comes, I don’t have to be a starving artist or sacrifice my writing goals.

It was a lovely realization and I’m thrilled to consider what my new routine will do for my writing.

How about you? Do you enjoy the luxury of writing full-time and still making ends meet? (Or perhaps struggle to make ends meet, but feel the pay off of doing what you love most makes it worth it?) Or do you balance your Art and a job/career? What are the benefits, pay-offs, or downsides of the type of writing life you lead?


Filling the Well

Many years ago I quit writing. The cessation lasted two years and almost drove me crazy. When I figured out what I needed (to write, regardless of the consequences—or maybe because of the consequences of not writing), a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron was incredibly, incredibly helpful to me.

Though I’ve forgotten many of the specifics of that great book, one of Cameron’s suggestions continues to be part of the philosophical foundation I build my writing life on: Fill the Well. It’s basically just the conviction that all ideas come out of a life lived, so rather than cloister yourself away to write every minute you have time because dammit-you’re-a-writer-and-writers-write, you should do things that aren’t writing related per se without guilt, because every activity, experience, moment with others, pours into your creative well and if you don’t have non-writing time, eventually you won’t have a well to draw from—or what you do manage to dreg up will be stale and bitter.

It can be easy to forget to freshen the well. If you’re like me, your life is busy and you covet writing time and feel guilty if you have time that you could write, but don’t use it “productively.” And there’s wisdom in our you-gotta-plant-your-butt-tyranny—but there’s also a line where too much discipline squashes—where I find myself writing only out of a sense of obligation, not that agony/ecstasy feeling of I MUST WRITE TO GET THIS ALL OUT OF MYSELF OR I WILL EXPLODE.

When my writing has that “Ugh, I have to write,” versus, “I get to write” feeling, I know I have to spend some time doing other things, and ironically, it’s usually when my work/life schedule is at its most hectic and my writing time is already at its scarcest that this need to make time to do other things is crucial.

My family is out at a cadet camp this weekend and after a ticket-selling shift yesterday (good volunteering mom, eh?) and getting a brochure I needed printed for a client, I planned to get A LOT done, because I have (like always, it seems these days) A LOT to do.



Instead, I:



Made a very yummy veggie and cheddar wrap and drank two glasses of wine, sitting in the sunshine with Twisted by Jonathan Kellerman (famous novelist, new to me—am enjoying very much!) 



Then I had a nap. Until 6:00 p.m. 



Then I worked in my delicious smelling flowerbed and yard until 9:00. 

Then I poured more wine, tossed up a stir-fry and watched TV—what a treat. 

Very rejuvenating. Just what I needed!

Today has been low-key too: sleeping in, drinking coffee, reading short stories—and I might clean my house a bit . . . But I’m starting to feel a building urge to get to my novel—there’s a scene burning, a character screaming to be let out . . .

What about you? Do you have similar feeling about the importance of sometimes NOT writing?

p.s. Where was that jeep found? Who did it belong to and why was it left? Last weekend found me wandering, filling the well—I hope the old ghosts don’t begrudge the pictures I took . . .


Going Through Changes

I started a new job April 27 and as I was driving home from work the first Friday, reflecting on the week’s training, the thought occurred to me: I’m not a kid anymore.

It was a happy thought, triggered by the realization that I’m, for the most part, free of the obsessive worry to please that plagued me in younger years. I have confidence. Or at least far more than I used to

I attribute this change to a myriad of ongoing experiences. Running my own business has shown me that I’m competent in a variety of areas. Writing has given me a safe place to vent and to explore, while providing a sense of fulfillment that makes “job satisfaction” less critical to me. I want to do well at work, because that’s my personality type, but my job is a job, not my life. Aging itself, which has lent perspective about what to concern myself about.

This “not a kid anymore” strain of thought was lovely and apropos as it occurred on the eve of my 38th birthday and coincided with the realizations my main character has made lately.

I’m fascinated by how changes in our personalities or general approach to life can sneak up on us, catching us almost unawares—like until we’re put into a position where our personality/beliefs, etc are tested, we’d never know they’d deviated.

While my change in self-perception/outlook was positive, sometimes these sneaking deviations from formerly held views and approaches to life are negative. The person who wakes up on his 30th wedding anniversary and realizes he doesn’t love his spouse (or that she has never loved him). The person of religious faith who, after years of devotion, worries that their faith is baseless. The fifty-year-old who realizes now that their children are fully grown that they’d made the same serious mistakes raising them that their own parents did . . .

The most powerful part of these inner revelations is not the actual change in our thinking, but the awareness of our change and what we go on to do in light of it—how it affects the way we live and the way we relate to people in our lives.

The most interesting novels to me show characters grow and develop (and regress!) over time—they explore the twisty path of human experience, not just event.

I hope your characters have pivotal moments—large and small—in their interior lives, perhaps kindled by action happening in the story, perhaps intrinsic to, thus feeding the story. It doesn’t matter which comes first—the plot, then the characters’ change and growth or a character’s change that leads to some explosive plot, but inner change has to be there.

We shouldn’t create static characters, because humans aren’t static. Even in the silliest, most simple ways they change, grow, discover—and are changed by noticing that they do.

So what do you think? Do your characters change in big and small ways through your story or series? Do you agree that it’s important?


Wherever you go, there you are . . .

Photo by Ev BishopOnce upon a time, a long time ago, I was sitting at the end of a wooden dock in the purple-not-quite-dark haze of a warm northern summer night with a dear friend. We were discussing places we’d been (or he was) and places we hadn’t (me, everywhere; him, it seemed then, nowhere). I confess I was expressing a bit of jealousy and at one point he looked out over the shimmering dark mass of the tiny isolated lake we visited, and his side profile was a perfect black shadow.

“Nah, you don’t get it,” he said. “Wherever you go, you bring yourself. After about two weeks in any place, you stop being a visitor and they’re just the same as anywhere else, because you’re the same person. So if you enjoy where you are in general, you enjoy the place. If you aren’t happy in general, you aren’t happy in a new place.”

It was a life changing moment, though I didn’t realize it then; it grew on me over the years as the wisdom in his casual words came back to me time and again, applying aptly to so many facets of life.

And just recently, a variation of its truth struck me in how it relates to reading and story. I was commenting on a short exercise one of my friends did called *The Iceburg. In her reply to my comments, it became obviously, embarrassingly clear that I had completely missed her intended “understory” and put my own feelings and sentiments and past onto the character and his motivations/feelings.

I felt kind of stupid, but then I didn’t, because I realized that’s what readers do. They bring themselves to the book. To the short story. To the poem. Despite our best and most skilled writing, despite our subtle pointers and sometimes even didactic scenes meant to reveal something specific, readers will immerse themselves, with their personal histories, their guilts, their persuasions, in your story.

So can you challenge readers whom I’ve basically just said come into your story with preconceptions, prejudices, set ideas, notions, etc? Absolutely. The power and joy of reading—and its value—is that through story, you experience a new or different world and can add others’ experiences to your own, enlarging your thinking and ways of seeing/perceiving the world.

But equally absolutely, you will sometimes be surprised by what conclusions a reader arrives at about your story . . . hopefully not in too negative a way—my friend wasn’t offended—I hadn’t said anything offensive—she was just curious about how I’d gotten what I had from my read . . . and quite simply this was how: her character reminded me of someone I knew and I put all my “stuff” with that person on to her character.

So what does this fact that the reader brings him/herself to the story, thus colouring its reading, mean for us as writers? At least two things: 1) We should write our stories putting as much personal heart, care, and detail as possible. They are ours. 2) We should share our stories, knowing that once we do, they are ours no longer—or, at very least, not in the way they were, because now they are the reader’s. Precious and loved—or hated and scorned—perhaps for reasons we skilfully intended, perhaps for reasons that have nothing to do at all with what was actually in the story we wrote.

For me, it takes a bit of the pressure off—yes, I want to write stories that people love, relate to in some way, “get” . . . But if they don’t, perhaps it’s not me. It’s them. :)


* The Iceberg comes from a book of writing exercises that I recommend you buy: The 3 am Epiphany by Brian Kiteley.

If you’d like to try the exercise yourself—it’s a great one—here you go: “Write a small story or storylet that works with the idea of an iceberg, whose great mass is mostly below the water and therefore unseeable. Write a scene in which much of the actual story is not told. Let us feel the rest of the story that bobs quietly underwater, but don’t let us see it concretely. 500 words.”

If you do the exercise, I’d love to hear how it went, or better yet, let me read your resulting short story.


Souping it up

I’m a bit of a soup addict. Whenever I’m stressed, inching toward depressed, or feeling blue about something, I make soup. Chopping and grating, bringing to a boil, simmering. . . tasting. The steamy aromas of mingled garlic, onion, occasionally ginger . . . Mmm.

There’s something Zen about cooking in general, and making soup from scratch especially. And like my aunt says, even if you can’t cook, it’s hard not to make great soup, so long as you use quality ingredients. It will sound corny, but I think she’s right only to a point. Something of yourself has to go into the pot too—your love, your affection, your hope, your well wishes . . .

Yesterday I made salmon chowder (from a Spring my son caught last summer) and while I consider myself a decent cook, I impressed even myself. I was wowed by the scrumptious creamy, savoury results. I used a recipe from Allrecipes.com, then modified it (as is my style) ‘til the concoction in my pot could never be recreated using the recipe card sitting on my counter.

As I cooked (and tasted!), my mind wandered all over the place, but especially back to the novel that I’m working on. In the last scene, written just shortly before I started dinner, my MC was making soup. And there were soup references in my last novel too. The books aren’t the type that will be marketed at gourmands, with recipes in the back (though I do love those). In fact, the scenes are very brief—I don’t know if a reader would even consciously remember them, but they are, I realized, symbolic.

Soup is the epitome of comfort food, belonging and home. Every culture has its own variations of the dish, and while soup can be whimsical, there’s nothing trendy or passé about throwing things in a pot to simmer and blend all together into something, always a bit different, always good. Soup, regardless of its name, is as old as the human race.

And what does my character want and crave, but not have? Family. A sense of belonging. A home.

Food and eating of all kinds (not just soup!) has weighty (no pun intended) positive and negative connotations for the character as an individual and within his/her relationships. What your character eats or doesn’t eat, and the way they eat—standing over the kitchen sink, or with wine and candles even when alone—says a lot about their personality, their desires, their family background, their financial situation and so much more.

The way characters prepare food (or don’t) also shows who they are, how they perceive themselves, and how they want to be perceived by others. I don’t know what this says about me, but when I make soup, I feel like a good mom. What does your character feel like? A house elf? A slave? A fortunate soul to be able to cook when so many people in the world can’t put food on the table?

We shouldn’t make every scene about drinking tea or buttering fresh baguette, but we should remember that all humans everywhere eat—or need to eat—and have strong feelings about food. Sneaking in small sensory details about this primal need can be a great way to reveal information about your character.

So how about it? Have you ever considered what the food references in your story might be saying about your characters? Would adding some details about eating somehow enhance your characterization?


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