Category Archives: Writing

Week Three: Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s week three of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group and you guys are getting it done. Nice work!

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Image via Giphy

Here are our third week goals.

Week Three Goals:

Anne:

I’m sure that we all know that this is a major asset. The perfect writing area, created:

Anne's Office.jpg

Anne’s newly organized writing space!

Are you asking: is that a active writing stool? Yes. Is that a giant 4G screen with the correct software installed although right now it shows a picture of a boat? Yes. Are those shelves full of writing books? Yes, and some family pictures. I think it’s perfect. The writing notebook is the next project, for when I can’t be in my writing space.

Bev:

This week, I got three chapters from the new textbook revised! Hooray! Also, I began researching agents and turned up two prospects. Sadly, I need to spend some time rethinking my query letter, which I will be doing this week in addition to researching more agents. And doing at least two more chapter notes and lectures.

Cynthia:

This week’s goal is as follows:

Collect research sources to supplement evaluation plan abstract for Library Research Methods course. Begin to collect resources for Law Librarianship annotated bibliography.

Laura:

I started a new story last week, so this week my goal is to keep working on it. I also need to write a couple more blog posts documenting my trip to the Netherlands, so I’m adding that in for this week as well.

Lisa:

Progress report: My trip interfered greatly with my progress this week. I wrote zero pages 🙂 (Yes, but Lisa, you spent quality time observing children in their natural vacation habitat, so you can count that as “research.”)

Next week: I hope to catch up and write five pages.

Mike:

Week Two Progress: Wrote about three more new pages of the book (against my goal of ten). I’m realizing my goals need to be a little more granular than “write x more pages.” I’m not having issues with what to write necessarily — since I’m working from a true story, I have the built-in crutch (if I’m not sure what to write next) to just tell what really happened. What has slowed me down so far is the impulse to focus on the individual scenes I’ve started and making sure they’re compelling. This week, I realized that the narrator’s voice wasn’t quite working. I switched what I’d written from third-person to first, and I realized quickly how easy it is to make a young Lithuanian woman in the 1930’s sound robotic, since the easy impulse is to take out all contractions and idiom from their language. I went back to a few books I love that have interesting narrative voices, whether it’s a non-English speaker or a contemporary of my narrator to make sure I absorbed what they did well. So Long See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell is going to be my constant companion throughout the next few weeks of drafting this out.

Week Three Goals: Complete drafts of two early scenes — one of which I’ve started, and one of which I have yet to start. Also, review some of the research materials I have on the story (a conversation I recorded with my dad a few months ago talking about his mother) as well as an online repository of info about the kind of Swedish ocean liner that brought my grandmother here (since the middle portion of the book will be on-board the ship).

Rachel:

Last week, I was supposed to learn more about the landscape of what’s already out there for my book idea. As I suspected, there are already some books out there around the topic that I’m thinking of, but none from the perspective of someone with my background. So this week I’ll start outlining the book chapters. I am also considering revising my big summer goal, but I think I need a week to think about it, so that will also be on my docket for this week.

Robert:

This week’s goal was 7,000 words. I wrote 6,815, so that’s good enough. My current total is 35,700 words.

Next week the goal is another 7,000 words.

Sarah:

Coming soon…

Ted:

Coming soon…

 

This week’s post is inspired by John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers.

In this book, Gardner argues that while “there are techniques — hundreds of them — that, like carpenter’s tricks, can be studied and taught” (8) there are no real rules of literary (non-genre) fiction. Writers must trust that they can tell the good from the bad, and this knowledge will come from two things: 1. practice; and 2. reading a lot. Like, a lot.

I have no doubt that everyone in this group is a good reader. We’re here, aren’t we? We’re here because we love to write and we love to read. But Gardner also talks about the benefits of a higher education for a writer, because it is in a college or university setting where a writer can encounter a literature course in which the professor leads the students through a close reading  of Macbeth, looking at each line, each word, and analyzing how and why Shakespeare made the choices he did, why he didn’t include stage direction, why he made the loss of the Macbeth’s child so subtle when making it clearer could have increased sympathy for Lady Macb. You don’t get that when you’re just reading it yourself.

Out Damn Spot

And why didn’t she just use this soap? I mean, it says there right on the label that it’s just what she needed.

Along with a great reading experience like that, though, might also come something else that Gardner argues is essential to a writer, and that’s the ability “fully understand the other side of one’s argument” (10). Because that same Shakespeare professor, or (more likely) another student in the class might argue that the three witches Macbeth encounters are really time traveling robots. Sure, okay. Let’s get into it.

It’s much more likely that in higher education, however, that you won’t engage in too many arguments about Shakespearean robots (though if you do, please, please give me a call and invite me to the conversation). But you will engage in robust debate about the contemporary relevance of the philosophical questions set forth in The Handmaid’s Tale; about the effectiveness of using multiple first person narrators in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings; about whether it is better to use simple syntax (Salinger) or complex syntax (Woolf) for a slowly paced story; whether it’s a grotesque violation of the audience’s trust or a brilliant violation of genre when a writer does not reveal who the killer was at the end of a literary mystery novel (if you want to know who this writer is, let me know; otherwise, no spoilers).

And it is by examining and arguing about these things that will help you understand how other great writers write and how you, as a young writer, can mimic the greats — how you can set forth a philosophical question in a way that will transcend history; how you can frame a story within a story as a way of developing the character of the storyteller; how you can violate genres and expectations.

But because it may not be realistic for all of us to immediately enroll in a college level literature class, your homework this week is to read something and then discuss it with someone else.

I have two text options for you (though of course you can choose your own): one creative and one academic.

The creative text is a short story called “The Swim Team” from Miranda July’s 2007 collection No One Belongs Here More Than You.

No One Belongs Here More Than You

As you read the story, please think specifically about these three things:

  1. What is the story about? Why do you think that?
  2. Why doesn’t July use quotation marks for dialogue? Are there other writers you’re familiar with who use this style? Do you like it or not? Why?
  3. How does July tell the story? Does she use traditional first-person narration? Does she embed stories within stories? Why does she do the things she does? Do you like it or not? Why?

The academic text is a chapter from Michelle Fine’s 1991 book Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban High School.

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Image via Goodreads

As you read Fine’s chapter, please think specifically about these three things:

  1. How does Fine incorporate creative writing into her work? Is it only in the passages she includes as references, or is it her style as well? Does she reference creative texts differently than she references scholarly texts?
  2. What kind of relationship does Fine seem to have with the subjects of her study? What about her writing makes you feel that way?
  3. What kind of relationship does Fine want to have with her audience? What about her writing makes you feel that way?

Anyone who wants to chat about the text they’ve read can do so in the comments on this post — have at it! What do you think? Why do you say that? And is there anything you can take from these writers and mimic in your own work?

Have a great writing and reading week!

 

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. Vintage Books, 1985.

 

 

Week Two: Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s the second week of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group!

We have a new member of the group this week: Ted. Ted is a colleague of mine in the English Department at MCC and someone I’ve exchanged work with over the years. He’s an excellent reader and has given me consistent and helpful feedback. He primarily writes poetry, but he can carve out some mean prose. Welcome, Ted!

Here are our second week goals.

Week Two Goals:

Anne:

I did review Save the Cat. I’m going to continue with organizing my writing space, organizing my writing notebook, reading the next Save the Cat book and taking notes, and generally psyching up.

Bev:

Last week I was working from 8 to 5 at a summer science institute for K-8 teachers. It was tons of fun, but the only writing I did was three lectures and a bunch of cut-down lab handouts.

Onward! This week I will make up for last week by finding two agents and sending out query letters. I mean it this time!

Cynthia:

This week, I am working with my group mates in my MLIS course to develop a library evaluation plan, and we are writing the abstract and outline this week.

Laura:

I failed to meet my week one goals; I kind of lollygagged and putzed around all week, getting over my jet-lag (bad excuse), reading a good book (slightly better excuse, but still not good), and watching television (nope, I just went backwards). My goal for week two is to write every day and to find somewhere to submit my new essay. Same as last week.

Lisa:

Coming soon…

Mike:

Week One update: my original goal had been to write 15 pages of the new book. However, I underestimated how long it had been since I’d tried writing from a completely blank screen with no outline, structure, etc. I wound up writing a little over two pages, which I’m happy with as a start. They also provide a clear path to breaking out into two longer opening scenes. I edited a few pages of an old short story (which had not been part of my original plan), and then interrupted that to write an outline and few key lines of a completely new story that came into my head. Someone posted on Twitter over the weekend: “Taking a break from not finishing one story to not finish a completely separate second story,” which for some reason seemed very fitting.

Week Two goal: write a full draft of each of the two scenes I started with from my work this week, ideally, winding up with about 10 total pages from them.

Rachel:

I definitely did not make any headway on my week one goal so consider my week two a copy-paste of week one. 😟 (I have a very similar update for this week: no shame, no shame!)

Robert:

My week one goal was 7,000 words, and I wrote 8,669. For week two: my goal is 7,000 words. Currently the novel is at 27,885 words.

Sarah:

Week Two Goal: I have to finish my week one goal, you take late work right? (YES I DO, SARAH.) So finish my article on STEAM initiatives and start an article I am currently calling “Postmodernism: what the hell is it.”

I am struggling to focus on work with all this sunshine and fun. So I am also starting to read a new Ross King book. Reading, even historical fiction, helps me focus.

Ted:

In an effort to be more pragmatic (odd, uncomfortable feeling) my eight week goals are to be thoroughly re-committed to three separate pieces of fiction, which I’ve begun and re-entered in erratic fashion. I don’t see myself completing any of them necessarily — to find them irresistible would be perfectly fine.

I also want to pull existing poetry into different configurations pf manuscript — again, with a notion of establishing momentum (and discipline).

Well: we shall see.

 

These sound like excellent goals — thanks, writers!

This week I wanted to write briefly about pace, which, as the dictionary defines most appropriately for our context, is “the speed or rate at which something happens, changes, or develops.”

Pace is important for all writing, academic and creative. It should be considered for scenes, chapters, and sections, and it should also be considered for the entirety of a piece, no matter how long. It’s essential to have a pace that matches the kind of story you’re telling, and it’s essential to know how to regulate your pace: how to slow it down when you need to spend more time on character development, and when to speed it up when you’re trying to convey something quick like action, or to summarize rather than detail exposition or main ideas.

Okay, so how do you figure it out? How do you determine if your story — holistically — is moving too quickly or too slowly, if you’re moving past important information without giving your reader enough time to think, or if you’re boring your reader with scenes that feel like they’ve got their feet stuck in puddles of cold syrup? My advice for this: know the scope of the piece you’re writing, and then ask yourself if it’s possible to write a well developed, thorough piece in that amount of time and space (developing your characters, ideas, and themes well enough to heighten conflict, get readers caring about your story, and to reach a believable resolution).

If you’re writing a novel or a series of books, then you’ve pretty much got all the time and space you could ever need. The book I’m reading right now (as part of my procrastination activities last week) is the second in a series and it picks up directly where the first book left off. The writer, Hugo Award-winner N.K. Jemisin, clearly had a big story to tell and an enormous world to describe, but she didn’t want to rush it or overwhelm the reader with a 1,200-page brick, so she gave us a 468-page first book that moved through this new world and all of its characters and plots with a pace allowing the reader time to absorb everything smoothly and evenly (like a really good makeup foundation [yep, I just did that]); and her second book, which is about the same length, is consistently paced to match the first.

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They’re good. Read them. (Image Credit: Amazon)

So if you have a big story, give yourself some room. If you’re trying to tell a big story in a short-story format, considering either narrowing your story to a single scene — something that can feel like a complete story with a conflict-crisis-resolution but that fits into the world of your larger story (J.D. Salinger did this with his Glass family stories; William Faulkner did this with the fifty or so stories he set in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi; and I’m sure there are a bunch of other writers [more contemporary, less male, less white…?] who have done and continue to do this as well). If you try to fit too much into too small of a space, your pace will suffer. It will be rushed; your characters will be underdeveloped; your resolution will read as unbelievable, or flat, or both.

Here’s an example from something else I was doing last week instead of writing: watching television. (Are you really surprised? You know me by now. Don’t be surprised.) I started watching the Netflix series Dear White People, which is based on a 2014 film by the same name. When the film came out, I was eager to see it. It sounded clever and timely, and it took place on a college campus, which is a setting I love for stories of all mediums. But I thought that Justin Simien’s debut feature didn’t live up to its potential, and I believe it’s because he was trying to tell too large of a story — the intersections of five (primary) young people navigating contemporary race relations at an Ivy League university — in too short of a time. The movie was rushed and the characters were kind of flat and I didn’t feel connected to them or to the story.

But the series is different, and it’s because Simien, still at the helm, now has space. He’s able to devote thirty-minute episodes to developing the same story from different characters’ points-of-view, giving background and perspective that a single 108-minute film just can’t do. The pace now fits the scope. Success!

Unfortunately, as far as figuring out the actual, technical pace of your story and each scene within that story, the ball is in your court. There is no magic formula, no matter what well-meaning listicles may say. You have to read a lot and ask yourself, “How is this writer giving me exposition? How is she balancing that exposition with action? With character development? With conflict development?” And then, if you like what the writer is doing with pacing, mimic it as best you can. And if you don’t like it, analyze what they’ve done and avoid that at all costs.

And watch t.v. and movies, too, because they’re great for figuring out pacing. If you’re ever confused about a plot point or a character, odds are that the story’s pace is too fast. Fix it, re-write it in your head, and then remember not to make that same mistake.

So your homework is to read and watch t.v. and movies and pay attention to pace. Apply it to your own writing and see how it goes.

Oh, and I guess you should write, too. Yes, please do some writing.

Good luck, all, and see you here next week!

Week One: Summer 2017 Online Writing Group

It’s the first week of the Summer 2017 Online Writing Group and I’m already behind schedule!

So, really, things are working as they usually do.

This is week one of our third summer online writing group (holy cannoli we’ve been doing this for three years!) and as usual, we have a great group of writers. So far (we may have a late addition or two since I neglected to send a reminder email [who’s not surprised? me.]…) they’re all returning members, which means they’re familiar with my shenanigans and are willing to deal with me for another summer! Ha-ha, suckers! (j.k. you’re not suckers; you’re all great and I’m really glad you’re in the group again!)

 

To give you a refresher of how the group will run, please notice that below you’ll see two lists of goals that each participant has submitted:

  1. A list of big picture goals–what everyone hopes to achieve by the end of our eight week session
  2. A list of first week goals–what everyone hopes to achieve by the end of our first week

As we continue on each week, I’ll only include everyone’s weekly goal, but please come back here for a refresher on each writer’s big project goals.

Big Picture Goals:

  • Anne: My goal is to continue with the study of Save the Cat, reading the next book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies. I also want to make a notebook and a planning board for using that method for planning scripts.
  • BevMy goals for this summer will be modest because we are getting a new edition of the textbook we use for one of my classes. My life this summer will be completely ruined by course revisions, which are going very slowly so far. However, I am going to commit to finding at least one agent and sending out one query letter for my memoir each week.
  • Cynthia: My eight-week goals would be to research and write giant paper about the future of law librarianship giving the increased use of technology in both fields.
  • Laura: My eight-week objectives are to write every day (no word count or page goal, just writing every single day); to submit a short essay I wrote in December out for publication; and to start and finish a new short story.
  • LisaEight-week goal: First few chapters of elementary level chapter book.
  • Mike: I’m pretty sure about my overall goal — write a first draft and then do at least one round of revision on 100 pages of a fictionalized account of how my grandmother came to immigrate to America. (Mike is also taking an online workshop through the Southeast Review and has promised to share any good tidbits he learns!)
  • Rachel: I have a medium-term life dream to write and publish a nonfiction book before I turn 40 (seven years from now). For this summer, my 8-week goal is, broadly, to figure out how to do that, and specifically, the output will be an outline of the book by chapter plus a written draft of the first chapter or introduction.
  • Robert: My goals are to write a thousand words a day. I’ve been doing that for the past few weeks and I’ve written 20,000 words of Love and Numbers.
  • Sarah: Big Picture Objective: I am reworking my Humanities Through the Arts course to run without a textbook in the fall. To make this work I have a lot of writing to do. I have articles to write for topics within the course that I cannot cover with outside sources and lectures to script for some depth of content.

First Week Goals:

  • Anne: Start reading Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.
  • Bev: Finding the first new agent and sending out a query letter.
  • Cynthia: Start giant research paper
  • Laura: Write two new blog posts about my recent trip to the Netherlands, and start the new short story.
  • LisaFirst week goal: Get started! 3 – 5 pages.
  • Mike: Work on the draft and get something useful from the online workshop.
  • Rachel: For week 1: I should probably confirm that the book I want to write hasn’t already been written 🙂 I know of at least one book that is similar to what I want to write. So, I will do a thorough search of what’s already out there and then decide if I should move forward with this particular idea.
  • Robert: One thousand words a day.
  • Sarah: Week 1 Goal: I need to get in the groove of writing one article while editing previous ones. So this week I need to finish a draft of an article on the placement of the humanities in higher education from land-grant colleges to STEAM initiatives in the US, and edit the course outline.

As usual, we have a terrific mix work represented here, which I always love. I’m looking forward to hearing about everyone’s progress over the summer.

To get everyone motivated for the week, here is an interview with writer Susan Sontag from The Paris Review‘s “The Art of Fiction” series. Sontag is an interesting writer for us to consider, given the makeup of writers in our group. She has written about writing, about war, about photography (I saw a couple of her titles as I perused the book shop during a recent visit to the Foam Photography Museum; a little Sontag seed was planted and sprouted for this post!); she has written fiction and non-fiction. Her style is journalistic, personal, and creative.

So read the interview, get a little inspiration, and then write away!

Portrait Of Author Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag: Image Credit The Paris Review

Because this post is so late, I’ll be doing a quick turnaround next Monday. Until then, good writing, everyone!

 

Wrapped Up! Winter 2017 Online Writing Group

Four weeks ago, our winter writing group wrapped up. And it has taken me four weeks to draft and publish our wrap-up post.

Four weeks late.

O.M.F.G.

But even though I am the worst, my writers are the best. They met goals and kicked some ass for a month, and I’m happy they let me lead them along, even if I was late with posts 80% of the time.

Good work, gang!

Good work, gang!

For our wrap-up post, I asked my group to send me pictures of their notebooks along with their wrap-up posts. I was inspired by Rachel’s lovely photo of her notebook on a table in a coffee shop in Paris, and I wanted to know what everyone’s notebooks looked like. So enjoy everyone’s final posts!

Winter Writing Group Wrap-Up Posts:

Alena:

Last week I had a complete breakthrough, realizing how to fix the ending of my short story. It is now close to publication ready, which was my goal for these four weeks. I just submitted it to my fiction workshop class to be critiqued before I submit it for publication in March. I’ve also made a lot of progress on my other story and figured out a new strategy for creating to-do lists. Overall, this group has really helped me! Thank you!

Anne H.:

For my final report, I can admit that I had many days when I didn’t do my study project, but also, I had days when I did, and I have learned much. I’m going to keep going with that project of reading books about writing and creating notes and worksheets. The worksheets are planning documents for projects like novels and screenplays. I have a notebook which I’ve had for about 20 years which is a very nice Circa portfolio, and I have extra supplies too. It’s never had a purpose until now, and it was unused. But now, I can see that I can put the worksheets in there, and I can carry the notebook around, and I can work on my planning. By the next time that I write to you, I’ll have that setup.

Anne's Notbook

Anne’s Notebook

Laura:

I crashed and burned a bit for our last week, but overall, I was happy with what I did. I still want to do a bit of work on my new short story, but I’m still giving myself high-fives because I finished it. (*smack!* [that is the sound of me giving myself another high-five]).

Sticker courtesy of Cynthia and her amazing, sticker-making friend

Laura’s Notebook: sticker courtesy of Cynthia and her amazing, sticker-making friend

Lisa:

So I didn’t finish my story, but I did start and that’s pretty amazing for me! I plan to continue working on this piece until it’s finished (eventually).
I’m so happy to have been a part of the group again. Thank you, Laura! You help keep me on the good path!
I’m including a pic of my Wonder Woman notebook—one of my favs. It’s full of scribbles, to-do lists, and bits of stories.

Lisa's Notebook

Lisa’s Notebook

Matt:

I’ve finished our four weeks with a new draft of the book. Many of the same issues persist,  in particular a cumbersome length, but I’m feeling better about the structure now. The monstrosity has been uploaded to my Dropbox and the link sent to my unfortunate friend Steve, who will probably never speak to me again.

Matt's Legal Pads

Matt’s Legal Pads

Rachel:

My goal last week was to edit my essay, but I realized a big part of editing, other than chopping out as many words as possible while still retaining meaning (my favorite challenge), is to know your audience, and tweak your message for them. Since I wrote my essay largely just to get it out of my head, I ended up just letting it percolate. But I like that I have this draft at the ready, should the need arise to tell the story.

I did spend a lot of time thinking about the climate we live in and how it’s even more important, now more than ever, to keep writing. The outside forces that try to silence us, to censor us, can never take what’s in our minds, and as long as we can get what’s in our minds out on paper or on the internet or scratched into the side of a subway car, it has a chance of living on. It’s when we’re afraid to speak out is when they really win.

P.S. I’m not advocating vandalizing public transportation. (Sure, Rachel. Sure. [*wink*])

Rachel's Notebook

Rachel’s Notebook

Robert:

In this last week I wrote 1,384 words. For the entire session I wrote 9,426 words. I’m very happy with my progress. Attached is a photo of my writer’s notebook. I keep all my word counts and notes there. 

Robert's Notebook

Robert’s Notebook

Good job to all of our writers! I love doing this group, so I’ll keep doing it; and this summer during our eight-week session, I will have very little else to do, so my posts will be on time. On. Time.

Keep up the good work, everyone. Write on!

Get it done!

Get it done!

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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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