Monthly Archives: January 2017

Week Four(ish): Winter 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s the fouth week of this winter’s writing group! (It’s not really the fourth week; it’s technically the fifth week because I was such a slouch last week that I never finished writing this post and it’s totally belated.)

So, please imagine that you have just traveled back in time and it’s actually Monday, January 23, 2017 (actually, since our country’s climate is a toxic smog-storm of hatred and bigotry, I’m thrilled to make you go back a week. In fact, let’s go back a few months and start over! [I know, I know — this is not productive thinking, but I’m feeling desperate and under-caffeinated, so get off my back, man]).

All right, let’s get into this.

Week Four Goals:

Alena:

I’ve been feeling very inspired this week and hope to continue this momentum for week four. My goal is to write at least five pages.

Anne D.:

My week four goal is to continue editing and rewriting a piece for submission. I would like to work on polishing the piece more.

Anne H.: Coming soon…

Cynthia:

This week, I hope to write at least five hundred words a day on the novel and finish a short story that I’ve been tweaking for what feels like forever.  🙂

Laura:

My goal for Week Four is to work for at least an hour on my course outline and to write a blog post I’ve been putting off writing about a science fair I helped judge.

Lisa:

I’m going to attempt three more pages this week.

Matt:

I’ve made a lot of progress so far. My overall goal for the final week is just to go over everything I can one more time, to make sure that the new shape is working the way I need it to work. More specifically, I need to write a brief epilogue which takes the form of a handwritten message; I know more or less what it needs to convey, but I haven’t actually put any work into it yet.

The biggest problem I’m facing in this draft is that the prologue still feels way too long, but I really haven’t figured out how to solve that. I’ve got a reader lined up who I’m pretty sure will actually put in the effort to read the whole book, so hopefully he can give me a little outside perspective on the issue. I’m stumped.

Noëmi: Coming soon…

Rachel:

Is it week 4 already?! Time flies! I have a draft of my essay, so this week’s goal will be to edit it down and also figure out what I want to do with it. I want to share it with the world at some point but haven’t thought much about how or when. I think the first step will be to just have a good think about it.

Robert:

This week’s progress: 561 words.
Next week’s goal: 1,000 words.

Sarah:

Final Week Goals: This is my last week to edit. So my goals are to give this beast a strong read through, write the conclusion and abstract and then dive into formatting.

 

For our final week, I wanted to write about organization.

Over my sabbatical last semester, I started to investigate better ways of organizing my tasks to ensure I wouldn’t lose track of any important steps in my grad school project completion. I’m a list maker, and I like to check things off of my to-do list, but I asked myself if there was a better way to visually organize and compartmentalize different tasks.

On my quest to answer this question, I got sucked into the world of bullet journals, and it’s a big world, indeed.

Hours and hours of wasted time

Hours and hours of wasted time

I wasted hours — literal hours — looking at different ways of drawing little banners and icons and reading blog posts by people who claimed to have the best way of organizing your bullet journal.

And I dabbled in it for a bit; I bought some fine-line colored markers and even ordered a small dot-paged journal. But I realized that I love the weekly schedule journal I already have, and I don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

What I did want to do, however, was to reorganize my way of looking at projects. Previously, I’d just made a big list of to-do tasks: small things, big things, everything I needed to capture. And a lot of times, things that I put on that big list got lost in the shuffle as I moved from week to week. So I decided, after listening to an episode of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast featuring a conversation with Robert Talbert about getting things done, that I should list my big projects first, and then give myself some smaller tasks to do to make progress toward completing a specific project.

Et voila, I had my system!

I took my main ideas for organizing my weekly schedule page by merging a couple of bullet journal ideas I’d seen on Pinterest, and this was what I came up with:

This is my system.

This is my system.

The “Projects” on the far right column (green-shaded) are the big things I’m working on; these will travel from week to week. Projects will fall off as they get done, and new projects will be added. But these aren’t tasks; they’re big picture things. This was the most important take-away from the interview with Talbert: projects must be divided into smaller tasks. This will help you feel empowered to complete the tasks; it will reduce anxiety about feeling overwhelmed by a large project; and it will help you manage your time and efforts appropriately.

The red-shaded column is where I put everything I need to capture: things students mention to me after class that I want to check up on; things colleagues ask me about in the hallway; ideas I get when I’m sitting in a meeting. Then, the weekly schedule page (left side of journal) is where I organize those “most important” tasks and spread them out by day. This gives me a sense of small to-dos that I can complete each day toward a larger task, as well as some “one-off” tasks I need to get done.

bullet-journal-page-2

Yes, I did have my “Writing Group Blog Post” as a project last week. That I clearly did not finish. The system is not perfect.

Giving myself a “Next Week” column also allows me to capture something I know that I need to do, but I don’t need to think about right now. Then, the following week when I’m jotting down my important tasks and rearranging my project list, I can add in those things where I need them.

It’s not perfect, and I’ve been playing with the system over the past couple of months. But right now, it helps me keep my ideas, my tasks, and my projects organized pretty well.

Another resource I’ve been using this month to reorganize myself is the book Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte. This book has helped me rethink the way I approach my lesson plans and the lecture/presentations I give to my students. I have long agreed that presentations — especially PowerPoint — need to be image-focused rather than text-focused. And Duarte’s book gave me excellent practical ideas for translating my ideas into images and organizing those images into a presentation that makes sense for my audience.

I got myself a couple packs of different colored Post-It notes, and I’ve been using the wall in my office to organize ideas that I’ll later turn into presentations.

presentation-postit-organization

The only text on my PowerPoint slides should be what fits on my Post-It; anything more is too much

organizing-presentations

These are two presentation outlines; I used different colors to signal the hierarchy of my ideas.

It’s fun to do this, and it has been saving me time when I plan my presentations. It’s easy to move Post-Its around into an efficient and clear path of ideas, and then it’s quick and simple for me to turn these into slides (or not, if I’m “teaching naked” [without technology, you pervs]).

Regardless of what kind of projects you’re working on — work, creative, academic, social — organizing them in large and small groups is helpful, both to motivate yourself to get to work, and to ensure you keep track of details.

Now, give yourself a couple hours to fart around on Pinterest and Google looking at bullet journal ideas. And then, get back to work.

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On Writing: A Love Story

Rachel Kwon is one of our new writing group members, and a woman who I’ll always associate — fondly — with LaSalle Street, fake parades, and Batman, and she is much more interesting than that will give her credit for. I’m happy to welcome Rachel into the group, and to present her guest post.

This is a guest post from Rachel Kwon, a member of this winter’s Online Writing Group:

This is my love story to writing.

As a child, I wrote because putting pen to paper in itself was thrilling. Of course, as a new human, I had no frame of reference, so peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and automatic soap dispensers were also thrilling. But writing was like time travel — I could write about something, and then minutes or hours or days or YEARS later, somebody could read what I wrote and connect with me on some level.

The first story I remember writing was when I was six years old. I wrote about a six year old (how original) who had AIDS, and also came up with a cure for AIDS, but then died before she could benefit from the cure. You know, casual kindergarten topics.

In my teenage years, I wrote mostly for practical purposes. Essays for school. Notes to my friends. Letters to my relatives thousands of miles away. I didn’t think about it as a creative endeavor. I didn’t think I had anything to say, really. Although computers were becoming a THING, I still preferred to write with pen on paper.

I hit my twenties, graduated from college, and started medical school, then residency. Writing for fun took a bit of a backseat, but I wrote lab reports, sure, and convoluted analyses of clinical trials. I took extensive notes as a study aid. I made endless lists in an effort to organize and prioritize my life. As a doctor I wrote endless notes about patients’ histories and physical exams, progress notes, interim notes, all to document that I was taking care of them. I sometimes felt like I was doing more documenting than actually taking care of patients, which sort of made me hate that kind of writing. But my favorite was still just to pick up a pen and some paper (or a bar napkin, or my own forearm) and simply write out whatever was in my head.

Now, in my thirties, I write because I finally have things to say. I write because it’s the only way I can say what I need to say without being interrupted. When I left my career as a physician, I told all but my closest confidantes (to whom I told to their faces, because some things can’t be communicated in writing) by writing a letter. It was important to me to tell my story the way I had lived it.

My relationship with writing evolves as I do. Maybe, in the future, I’ll be writing into the air thanks to holographic technology, as I pet my robot dog and prepare to ingest a savory meal delivered in pill form. But I’ll still be writing.

 

Thanks, Rachel! The letter you wrote about leaving medicine was poignant, and it made me happy and sad a the same time. I have a feeling you infuse that same wonderful, emotional complexity into all of your writing.

Come back on Monday, readers, to see our goals for the final week of our winter writing group. Until then, write on!

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Week Three: Winter 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s the third week of this winter’s writing group!

LET'S DO THIS.

LET’S DO THIS.

Week Three Goals:

Alena:

I had a productive week — but not for my writing. Fortunately, I have a real deadline to force me to make some headway because one of my short stories will be due as a homework assignment next week.

Anne D.: Coming soon…

Anne H.:

I did finish reading and watching Get Shorty, and I’m going to continue this week with reading and making notes on Save the Cat.

Cynthia:

Since it’s the beginning of the new semester, I’m going to use this week to do some fleshing out and editing of the most recent two chapters of my novel and see how that goes. Being kind to myself the rest of the week. 😊

Laura:

I finished my short story! I haven’t submitted it anywhere yet, so I’m behind on that, but since this week will be busier than usual (Cynthia already mentioned that the new semester starts this week), I can do some quick submissions. My goal, other than submitting, is to work on continuing to develop my new course outline.

Lisa:

I was able to get a few pages done this week. It feels like a miracle.
I plan to do this same this week.

Matt:

It’s been a week of dogged progress, mostly restricted to two stories in the group. My plan for next week is just to keep going.

Noëmi:

My Week Three goal is to finish the first week of a Coursera course, Creative Writing: The Craft of Plot.

Rachel:

My Week Three goal will be the same as my Week Two goal (just had one of those weeks at work :/ I’ll blame Friday the 13th and the full moon): to write a first draft of my essay. 

Robert:

This week’s progress: 5,300 words
next week’s goal:  2,000 words

Sarah:

Week Three Goals: 10 more pages which will include the conclusion (insert panic). Then edit, edit, edit. I believe I will be just a page or two shy of the minimum page requirement but I have some sections where I have just been putting place holders until I could get back around to the topic. I have never been very good at jumping around in my writing, I am a start to finish kind of writer.

 

This week’s “advice” will be short and sweet.

I’ve written before about Lisa Cron’s book on writing, Wired for Story, and I wanted to mention her advice about protagonists. She says that writers must know what their protagonists want, and why they want it. This is important because the protagonist’s motivation must inform every action they take, every decision they make. And as a writer, you must know why your character wants what they want. Is your main character being honest with herself that she really wants her family to reunite and be happy; but does she really just want to prove her mother wrong in front of the rest of the family? Now, make sure that everything your protagonist does is fueled by that motivation.

Cron also mentions that everything in the story must be put there to give your protagonist an opportunity to act, react, and make decisions. If it’s not purposeful, then it’s just a device for drama, and that’s ultimately not very interesting.

I found this glaringly obvious in a book I just finished reading, Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10. The protagonist of Ware’s book was beset by all sorts of obstacles that increased the drama, but none of them really tested her character in any real way. Because she didn’t really have a character to speak of. She was murky from start to finish, so every new complication was just a complication, and I yelled at every decision she made because she was just a dummy doing dumb things and I didn’t care about her.

So, don’t do that! But do read Lisa Cron’s book — it’s full of interesting and straight-forward writing advice that you can use for large and small pieces.

Come back mid-week for Rachel’s guest post, and good writing, everyone!

 

Cron, Lisa. Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2012. Print.

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This Is A Writer

Sarah Ruthven is a colleague of mine in MCC’s Art Department who first joined in on our Summer 2016 writing group. She is one of the group’s academic writers and brings diversity to our updates. She’s also the person who first introduced me to curriculum mapping in a faculty development workshop I attended back in 2008, and for that, I will be forever grateful. (I bet you’re thrilled with how you’ve changed my teaching life, aren’t you, Sarah?)

This is a guest post from Sarah Ruthven, a member of this winter’s Online Writing Group:

I am a writer.

My first time through graduate school I did not think this about myself. Despite the fact that for two years I wrote paper after paper culminating in a rather long master’s thesis, I did not think of myself as a writer. When I decided to go back to graduate school again, my biggest fear was that I had not been writing and I was sure my skills had become rusty.

sarahs-workspace

I took another picture of my writing space, minus the laundry basket but it felt like a lie. I am a writer and mom; there is always a basket of laundry somewhere.

When I became a full-time faculty member, I thought I would read all the time and write, publish even. But then the reality of teaching set in and I just never found a writing groove; I wasn’t a writer anyway. In my eleven years as a faculty member I wrote numerous Action Team Declarations, draft after draft of contract language, and a million letters. But still, I just didn’t see myself as a writer.

But something clicked in graduate school the second time around. I started to see it when I wrote to my classmates in discussion boards and when I would hit the page length on a paper, realizing I still had things to write, ideas to get out. Then I joined the summer writing group. I had seen the invitation to join before but I wasn’t a writer then. Things were different, I was different.

I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. She recounts her struggles when writing, and I saw those same struggles in my process. Holy shit, I had something in common with Anne Lamott, other than a significant amount of unexpected swearing. But of course we have something in common: we are both writers.

Whether it is swagger or efficacy, something about really seeing myself as a writer has changed the way I write. I am forty-eight pages into a sixty-page paper that will be finished in exactly eighteen days. I sit down to write and struggle. Writers do that. But I don’t stop, I try again. Writers do that, too.

I want to write more after graduate school is done. And while I will likely spend a semester reading everything Nora Roberts has ever written just to take a small break after two and a half years of graduate school, I will not stop being a writer. My work flow will just need to change so that I can teach and write. I am not sure how I will do this, but I have never felt so confident that I will find a way to make that happen.

For my thesis I am writing about the photobook Events Ashore by An-My Le, and recently went to see Moholy-Nagy: Future Present at the Art Institute of Chicago just before it closed. These are the things that I feel so strongly about I had to write about them. They helped me realize I am a writer.

Sarah at the museum

Me at the museum

 

Thanks, Sarah! If you’re writing — writing anything — then you’re a writer. Embrace it. Give yourself a high-five. And now, get back to work.

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Week Two: Winter 2017 Online Writing Group

This is week two of the Winter 2017 edition of the Lake Projects Online Writing Group, and I begin this week’s goals post with a call to action: this week, be the hammer. You all had a good start on your projects last week, so this week, don’t lose your momentum. Keep whacking away at those nails until your foundation is able to stand on its own. Be the hammer.

Hopefully you all saw last week’s addendum about our three new group members, and this week we’ve got everyone together in a single, beautiful group. So let’s go!

Week Two Goals:

Alena: I’ve been writing essays for scholarships this week instead of working on my two short stories. I’ll return to them for Week Two. My other goal is to start reading Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. I know this isn’t technically a writing goal but reading helps develop writing skills so I’ll include it.

Anne D.: My Week Two goal is to polish up a few pieces and see where that takes me.

Anne H.: This week I’m going to continue making notes on “Save the Cat,” and I’m also going to continue reading the Elmore Leonard novel Get Shorty; and after I finish reading the novel (almost done!), I’m going to watch the movie. I think the novel and movie are similar to a project I’m working on, so I’m using them as a study. [You all know how I feel about Elmore Leonard.]

Cynthia: My Week Two goal is to write at least a paragraph a day. Baby steps. [Those are the cutest kind of steps!]

Kate: Coming soon…

Laura: I worked a bit on my short story last week, but I have another once-over to do before submitting it. That’s my goal for this week: to submit to two magazines (one I just found out about last week; another I’d intended to submit to is closed for the winter, so I’ll keep it in my pocket until they’re open) and to a contest. This week I’m also going to start to begin the outline for my new course.

Lisa: So…I did absolutely nothing during week one. My goal for Week Two is to write the three pages I wanted to write in Week One. Wish me luck! [Good luck!]

Matt: The first week has been productive; I’ve completed the basic process of reorganizing my framing device and feel that I am well on my way to where I need to be. Sadly this has only reduced the overall size by about two thousand words, or about point-zero-zero-two percent of the total mass of the book, but it’s a start.

Now that I have a new shape, for this week I go back and start again, revisiting where I began, armed with the knowledge of where it ends up. The framing device has a narrator and I am still finding her voice.

The frustrating thing is that I also keep finding more stories, hidden inside the little cracks, and it’s hard not to want to tell them. How do you deal with knowing so much about these characters, knowing stories that want to be told but also knowing that they probably don’t need to be told?

Noëmi: My goal for next week is to write at least about 500 words. I don’t know whether I want it to be a short story or a blog-post or something else.

Rachel: I met last week’s goal to compile all my essay ideas in one concrete place: I bought a little notebook at Muji, gathered all my idea scraps, and wrote them in there. For next week, I will plan to write a first draft of an essay about an old Dutch lady I met at the post office last week who tried to cut in front of me in line (don’t worry, we became friends by the end). I’ll shoot for 1,000 words for the final draft.

Robert: Week Two goal: continue working on my novel. Week One progress: wrote 1500 words.

Sarah: Week Two goals: my thesis course is back in session. To stay on task in the course I need to write everyday. I need seven pages this week and I have ten to edit. I did well with my Week One goals so I’m energized to wrap up this paper. Oh and I need to finish my blog post.

Yahoo!

This week, in addition to telling you all to be the hammer, I wanted to talk a bit about how writers break up their writing. The long and winding road that got me to this idea started last week as I determined how many books I would set as my goal for this year’s Goodreads reading challenge.

See, last year I set my goal as fifty books, but by the end of 2016 I’d only read thirty-two, and I’m always a little disappointed when I don’t meet my goal. I know that I spent a lot more time last year reading academic publications for my two graduate classes, which don’t count toward my Goodreads goal, but I think that I also missed my goal because I read a number of big, fat books that took me a long time to read.

Sad. It's so sad.

Sad. It’s so sad.

As I thought about the number of big, fat books that I read in 2016 — A Brief History of Seven Killings (688 pages), Villette (657 pages), It (1,116 pages), City on Fire (911 pages [though, full disclosure: I started this in 2016 but I haven’t quite finished it yet]) — I thought about Infinite Jest, because thinking about long books invariably brings me to thinking about Infinite Jest (1,079 pages [a couple hundred of which are footnotes (yes, you do need to read the footnotes)]).

And then (bear with me; I’m almost to my point), as I thought about how reading It is such a wholly different experience than reading Infinite Jest is (in every aspect, including the simple act of turning pages), I started thinking about how both writers had broken up their books into small sections, sections so small, sometimes, that they were only a page or two.

And this kind of a break up of a long piece into small sections — maybe authors call them chapters, but frequently they don’t — is useful in a piece of any length, but especially when you have something that’s upward of six or seven hundred pages. Stephen King knows this; he is a prolific writer in terms of books and in terms of pages (It is not King’s only book over 1,000 pages, and he frequently publishes novels that are 800 pages or more [for better or for worse…]), and he usually breaks up his books into small, non-chaptered but numbered sections that are sometimes only a few paragraphs.

it-and-infinite-jest

And Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, knows this, too. James broke up his Man Booker Award-winning brick-of-a-book into smaller first-person sections, each told by one member of his cast of about a dozen or so characters. And relative newcomer Garth Risk Hallberg, author of the 911-page impromptu-weapon-against-home-invasion City on Fire, breaks his long book up by short chapters, too (also by character p.o.v., though third person, not first like James’s). I don’t have a picture of Hallberg’s book because it’s downstairs and I forgot to do it and I’m too lazy to leave my chair. So you get Tolstoy instead.

Anna Karenina was so big and fat that sometimes it's broken up into two books!

Anna Karenina is so big and fat that sometimes it’s broken up into two books!

And all of this segmentation can help you organize your story, too. It can help you organize the writing of the story (it’s easier to tell yourself that you’re going to tackle just one character’s account from that one afternoon when she was running errands and ended up getting car-jacked rather than the entire swirling narrative of all of your characters and what in their lives led up to that one car-jacking and their lives in the days that followed it); and it can help you organize the overall narrative arc as well. If your big work is broken up into smaller segments, you may decide that your story is best told out of chronological order and instead told according to character, or according to location. Once you’ve decided what’s best, just move all of the bits from each character together and you’ve got your story. So easy, right? (hahahahahahaaaa! writing is so easy!!!!)

Breaking your work up into small sections will also help your reader; because books that are broken up into smaller sections are much, much easier to read. As I started reading City on Fire in bed at night, it was easy for me to tell myself, “Oh, just one more chapter, it’s such a short one.” And then, the first night I’d started it, it was 1 a.m. and I was two hundred pages in. Boom.

For those of you who are working on short pieces, think of the breaking-up of your story in more traditional narrative terms: onset (leading up to the [usually unpleasant] main conflict); conflict, resolution. This three-act organization is typical in films and easy to understand, so use it as your guide. You likely won’t organize these three sections numerically once your short piece is finished; in fact, your story might take place all in the same place in a very short amount of time and you’ll have written a single scene. But thinking about this segmentation might help you to get through the drafting process.

And for those of you who are working on very short pieces (this is me), I have only this advice: just sit down and f*cking write it.

Okay, that’s my long-winded advice for this week! In case anyone is curious, I’ve set my 2017 reading challenge for only forty books; let’s see how I do.

Write, on, everyone!

Just one more for good measure (YES I JUST DID THAT!)

Just one more for good measure (YES I JUST DID THAT!)

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Addendum

Earlier this week I published the first post from this winter’s online writing group, but since then, our group has gained three new writers.

I considered updating Monday’s post to include these three writers’ goals; I considered waiting to add them until our Week Two post next Monday. But since there were three of them and since two of them are brand-spanking new, I decided to give them their own mini-post and introduce them to you here!

First, we have Lisa, who is a returning member from each online writing group I’ve done since 2015. Lisa is a great writer and has contributed a couple of great guests posts in her time with the group. She also shares an office with me and is totally okay with my shenanigans, which makes her a valuable human being in the grand scheme of things.

Next we have our first brand-spanking new member, who, while new to the group, is not actually new to the blog: Noëmi. Noëmi is from the Netherlands, in a village just outside of Eindhoven, where she teaches English at Summa College. She visited the U.S. in October and stayed with me and Trevor as part of a scholar exchange program. We had many adventures (read about them here), and this May I’ll be going to the Netherlands to visit her; so you are guaranteed accounts of many more adventures.

Our second brand-spanking new member is another colleague of mine in MCC’s English Department (my goals is to recruit every single one of them, so…they have been warned): Cynthia. I admire many things about Cynthia, but mostly the fact that she is a consummate student and not only has a master’s degree, but also a J.D., and she’s currently working on her master of library science. She appreciates the value of studying, like, everything, and I would like to give her one million high fives for that.

Welcome new writers — we are happy to have you! Now, to their goals.

Winter Writing Group 2017 Goals:

Cynthia:

Okay, so as to four-week goals, basically, I’m hoping to write a little every day. I’ve been dinking around with this novel idea for about a year, and I work on it in fits and starts. So, some consistency would be good.

My Week # 1 goal will be unearthing my writing desk and making it a usable space once again. [We’ve talked about the value of writing spaces before — it’s important, so good luck, Cynthia, because it’s worth it!]

Lisa:

[Lisa was traveling in Arkansas when I harangued her about her goals, which is why she was late getting in and why these are short. Deal with it.]

Overall goal: Write one new story.
Week one goal: Write first three pages.

Noëmi:

I don’t have any writing projects I’m working on, though I would love to improve my writing. My goal for this week would be to finish my application to the university. I found out I also need to write about 500 words about relevant work, study, etc., experience. So I want finish that this week. And overall I just want to write and improve my writing.

Don’t they sound great? I think they do.

Come back on Monday for a new post of the whole group’s goals as well as new writing tips and exercises. We’ll also have a guest post from Sarah, so look for that in the weeks ahead.

Write on, everyone!

Week One: Winter 2017 Online Writing Group

Welcome to the first week of the Winter 2017 Online Writing Group!

This is week one of the Winter 2017 edition of the Lake Projects Online Writing Group. Welcome readers, and welcome writers, to what I hope will be a fun and productive month.

This is our second winter session (check out last year’s) and our fourth overall session (we’ve done Summer 2015 and Summer 2016), and I’m excited to welcome two new members to our group.

Our first new member is Kate, a wonderful woman who Trevor met first when they were students at Columbia College about fifteen years ago. As soon as I met her, I claimed her as my friend, too, and I still appreciate her for her excellent, pun-tastic, and sometimes (almost always) dirty jokes, and for our shared adoration of Paul Rudd.

Image Credit: Pop Sugar

Kate, this is for you. And for the rest of America. You’re welcome. (Image Credit: Pop Sugar)

Our next new member is Rachel, who I met during a weird and wonderful experience during the summer of 2007: we were extras in The Dark Knight. A literacy organization I was volunteering for at the time, 826CHI, had an opportunity for their volunteers to work as extras for the movie and donate our pay (about $35/day) to the organization. I didn’t have much to do that summer during the weeks they were shooting, and I figured, why not? I met Rachel the first day I was there, and since so much of being an extra is hanging around doing nothing, we chatted, played cards, became friends, and eventually ended up “on” camera in the funeral parade scenes.

There we are, Rachel! (Original Photo Credit: Loop/Chicago)

There we are, Rachel! (Original Image Credit: Loop/Chicago)

Welcome, new writers, and welcome back to the rest of you! Now, let’s get down to business.

Below is a list of everyone’s goals for the next four weeks. I’ve included our big picture and first week goals together for this first post, and then each Monday through the month, I’ll include everyone’s weekly goals. Here we go!

Winter Writing Goals:

Alena:

Four-Week goal: There are two short pieces that I want to work on over the break. The first is a short story that I will refer to by its working title, “A Simple Murder.” I want it to be almost ready to submit for publication by the end of the winter break so I can submit it to a workshop class come February. The other piece I’ll be working on is a short biography of my grandparents’ early lives and all the crazy things that happened to them during the war in Croatia.

First week goal: My goal for week one is to work on either of these (whichever one is calling my name). I already have an outline and a page drafted for my grandparents’ biography. Now I need to finish the first draft. For “A Simple Murder,” I’m on the sixth or seventh draft but it needs more revisions. This will probably require me to do some journaling and brainstorming to further develop the main character.

Anne D.:

Okay, so my four-week goal is to write and see where it takes me. I have a few things that I am working on right now.

Anne H.:

Four-Week goal: Finish and make notes on four more books about writing; continue to compile novel and screenplay worksheets.

This week’s goal: Finish reading and making notes on “Save the Cat.”

Update: Since our summer group, I’ve continued to perfect my writing space in my house. I’ve made good progress and may even get it “just right” during this writing group in January. I also participated in NaNoWriMo and worked on a few projects, writing at least a paragraph on 27 of 30 days. I even gave about 20 printed pages from one of those projects to a colleague at the start of December, just to make that project more “real.” I’ve been discussing works in progress with my another colleague during our morning walks, and I shared a piece of another project on one of those walks. But all of this activity made me want to get some expert advice on a few issues, to study up on some things I was having problems with right off the bat as I started practicing scenes and characters during November. So, I started in December reading and re-reading some books and my notes on books about writing and compiling what I am calling “worksheets.” These are planning sheets for screenplays and novels. My writing software (Scrivener) came with basic planning sheets; but I’m compiling my own along with other notes. The last time I did a study project on writing books was 2001. I found the notes. Wow. I guess it is about time to get back to this. Thanks to the group for the motivation!

Kate:

I don’t have a storyline that I’ve been brewing. I just want to get back to writing. Anything.
So my plan is to do writing exercises. First week: wordstreams. [Kate, I’m so glad you joined the group — check out the exercise at the end of this post for another idea to get you started.]

Laura:

My four-week goal is to finish a short story I started last week and to send it out for publication. I’d also like to work on the Creative Writing Part 2 course curriculum for school; I didn’t get much work done for it while on my sabbatical Fall semester, so I’m going to see what I can get done in the next month. My week one goal is to revise my short story and submit it to The Missouri Review for publication and to the Kenyon Review’s 2017 Short Fiction contest.

Matt:

With a slightly heavy heart I find myself with much the same goal as this time a year ago. While my stated intent at that time was to create “a readable first draft by the end of January”, and I am no longer on the first draft, a convincing argument could be made that ‘readable’ is a quality that has yet to be achieved, in the broadly accepted sense.

While the various stories that make up my book are working pretty well, they are still not hanging together in the way I want. Over the summer I was able to share a draft (version two and a halfish?) with my college thesis adviser, Maxine Scates. She oversaw the writing of the central story twenty years ago, and it was emotionally important to me that she be involved in this process. Since Max is a human person with things to do, she did not provide a detailed analysis of the project, but she did confirm for me some misgivings I had, and helped me to focus my next round of efforts.

My book has a framing device. I know, that’s terrible, it’s like telling instead of showing, or not having a proper climax, or ending your book with “and then he woke up. It was all a dream!”  Well, bugger off, this book needs a framing device, and I know how much everyone hates framing devices, which is why I’m working so hard on it. [Matt, you will get no judgment from me; Geek Love, House of Leaves, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Taming of the Shrew — all amazing stories and all with frames!]

I’ve begun the process of scrapping a lot of the interstitial material, redistributing information and, most importantly, turning the author of the framing device into a character instead of just a voice. She was always meant to be a character, it was just the last thing I got around to doing. My goal for the four weeks is to completely reorganize the framing structure to allow for more active participation, to more fully involve the (rather disembodied) character in the framing device with the overall story. The process has a cascade effect throughout the book, and I don’t yet know how much work will be created by this task, but I guess you could say that I’m hoping to have a first readable draft by the end of January.

Rachel:

So I have lots of ideas for essays floating around on various bits of paper, and also in my head. My goal by the end of the month is to get one of them written. My week one goal is to compile and organize all of the ideas on paper, and to choose the one that I’ll write up.

Robert:

My goal is to finish my novel, which has stalled since the last time we did this in January. I have only the ending scene to write. My goal is to finish it before the 16th.

Sarah:

My four-week goal is to complete my thesis! [Yahoo, Sarah!] My goal for week one is 5 more pages on communitas between military actors and viewers. I also have some editing to do on the first 20 pages.

 

Everyone’s goals sound excellent and I’m excited to get started!

But before you leave, I have a quick exercise to get you going this week if you’re at all hesitant or if you don’t know where to start: write someone else’s story.

What am I talking about? Last week, Trevor and I visited his grandma, who lives in Door County, Wisconsin. We love to visit her because she folds us easily into her daily routine of breakfast, reading, lunch, reading, napping, reading, and t.v. watching. When we visit, Grandma adds “chatting” to her daily routine, and the three of us sit around her dining table and talk about…well, about anything. Her memory is remarkable and she tells stories from her childhood, from when she and Trevor’s grandfather met and married, from when she was an art teacher in Gary, Indiana, and from when Trevor’s mother’s was growing up. It’s a joy to listen to her, and while I was listening last week, I got an idea for a story.

Courtesy of Madel Family Photo Album

Here is the woman who inspired me last week (Image Courtesy of Madel Family Photo Album)

Writing the story was fast and easy, primarily because it wasn’t mine. It was neither my own personal story, nor was it a story about any of my own fictional characters. Grandma already had characters and an anecdote with a narrative arc; I just needed to fill in some gaps.

Using another person’s story can be a good starter exercise if you’re not quite sure about what story you, yourself, want to tell. At the least, it can just get you writing; and if you’re lucky, it will keep you writing.

So, if you don’t have a Grandma Madel sitting around, waiting to tell you a great story of her life as a child in Depression Era Iowa, then here’s what you can do. Listen to anyone else in your life and pick something out that has potential. Did your husband get into any hijinks working that part-time job when he was in high school? Does your mom have a weirdo in her bridge club who cheats at every single rubber? (that’s a bridge term, right?) Does your friend go into verbal battle with her cubicle neighbor every morning at work over the perfume she’s wearing? Poach these stories to use as a quick exercise! Write the story in a couple of pages, and use their voice (first or third person). Embellish any details you like, and don’t tell them you’ve stolen it. It’s just practice, after all. (If it gets published, then you might have to tell them what you’ve done; but dedicate the story to them and then buy them a drink or a cupcake. Or both.)

If your project is academic, like Sarah’s, then all of the stories you’re writing — the history, the research — are other people’s. But you can still use the idea: remember that the people and relationships you’re researching are real. Use that to humanize them and write about them as though they’re still around; bring them out of academics and back to life. It will make for much more interesting writing and reading.

And if you’re embroiled in a project and don’t need help, then keep doing what you’re doing! But you can also take a minor character and tell her/his story if you need a break from your main narrative.

Come back next week, readers, for new goals, new tips, and (hopefully) a guest post or two. We might have a couple new members as well. Until then, everyone, write on!

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