Tag Archives: Online Writing Group 2015

Summer Writing Project Completed!

The Lake Projects eight-week summer writing project wrapped up last week, and it was a success! Some of our participants checked in for one last time with a final project statement. Here’s what they had to say:

Anne: I didn’t get what I wanted done this session mainly because life kept turning too chaotic for me to be able to write anything. I did get something written back in June but once July hit everything went down hill. (Anne wrote our week four guest post, and she did a lot of journaling, so, Anne, I think you did a great job)

Bev: I did pretty much finish my journal of my vacation (26 pp), did four blog posts on it, tweaked my query letter, and got potential agents in a spreadsheet.
My Big Picture goal is to get my memoir published, continue my letter writing, and start working on the next memoir from the 15 months I lived in Logan, UT, tentatively titled In the Shadow of the Temple. (Bev wrote our week six guest post; make sure to follow her blog, Fiacre’s Spade)

Laura: I didn’t reach my “big picture” goal (to finish a short story and start another), but I got a lot of work done on a story I started years ago, and I’m almost finished with the first draft. I wrote a lot of blog posts this summer, and that’s thanks to this group. On a whole, I feel great about the writing I did and I loved having a group to be accountable to. (Keep following the Lake Projects blog right here!)

Lisa: I can’t really remember what my big picture goal was for this summer session. I think I wanted to work on a few chapters of the children’s novel I’ve been wanting to start and I wanted to revise an old story. I never actually got to the story, but I did write the beginning of the novel that I’ve thinking about forever. That’s a pretty big accomplishment. I actually got words on paper and started fleshing out some characters. Wow. More importantly, I’m really excited to continue working on this, which is amazing. So, I’d consider this summer a success! Woo hoo! (Lisa wrote our week eight guest post. Good job, Lisa!)

Mike: I didn’t achieve my big picture goal from the start of the group, but I’m happy with the progress I made. It’s been a while since I tried to break up the writing process into manageable chunks (outlining, drafting, dividing-and-conquering on edits), and I was successful at those parts. I’ve also never tried to meld what I thought were two separate stories together and not let the seams show too much, and I think I’m closer to a finished product with that than I would have expected otherwise. The bonus was this past weekend, while cleaning out old files in preparation to pack up and put our house on the market, I found two pages of a draft version of one of the two stories with which I was working. I don’t remember writing them, but they actually function quite well within the revised version I have now (and provide dialogue and do a lot of connective work that I was missing), so I have even more material to edit together than I thought. I even have a possible new title, but I’ll hold off on sharing that till the draft is done, and I can make a careful decision on that. (That’s big progress! Read stories about Mike and his family’s experiences with Rett Syndrome on his blog, The Big Deal – Living With Rett)

Robert: I could only participate in the last week, but I exceeded my goal. I planned to write 2,000 words this week and I wrote 3,565. Yay! (Follow Robert’s progress on his writing blog, ROBBLOG)

I asked our group if they’d be interested in a shorter session, four weeks, beginning after the new year. I know that after the fall semester ends and the holidays wrap up, I’m going to want something to motivate me, and I thought others might feel the same way. And the writers are interested, so it will run! Mark your calendars and let me know if you’re interested in participating!

Coming Soon: Winter 2016 Online Writing Group, Monday January 4, 2016 – Saturday, January 30, 2016

Time to Get Lost

Group member Lisa is a colleague of mine in the MCC English Department and my office-mate on campus. In addition to being an excellent tea-drinking pal, Lisa co-advises the campus creative writing club with me, she is a fellow super-fan of The Walking Dead, and she’s a talented writer and has been published in The Florida Review, Black Warrior Review, and Mid-American Review.

When Lisa isn’t teaching, raising her three smart and gorgeous kids, or watching The Walking Dead, she’s finding “micro-moments” to write. Here’s how she does it.

This is a guest post from Lisa Crizer, a member of this summer’s Online Writing Group:

Lisa and Eli

I grew up in a loud family, to say the least. We discussed everything, and to the outsider I’m sure our conversations seemed like complete chaos. We watched a lot of TV, too. I’m completely comfortable with the dull background hum of daytime programming.

I like my surroundings loud and lively. I treasure the laughter and giggles that usually fill our rooms. I’m even learning to decipher the screams and squeals of the ever more frequent arguments between my girls. We are living life, with all of its sticky hands, mosquito bites, and nerve-sizzling mayhem.

Lately, however, days filled with hours of swimming and running around in the sun have led to late summer bedtimes. I love seeing my kids passed out in the corner of the couch, faces dirty from a day of fun. But, these later bedtimes have a sinister side effect — less time for me.

Our oldest daughter used to put herself to bed at 7:30. She still does. For years, my husband and I were spoiled with three hours each night all to ourselves. We were time-rich fools binge watching series on Netflix, having adult conversation, and doing crazy things like going to Target alone. Two children later and we are in a completely different boat; a completely different rickety old canoe in a deep, tumultuous ocean of constant companionship.

I never dreamt I’d seek out quiet; envy people dining alone at a restaurant, walking solo on the bike trail, or even just driving alone in their car listening to the radio. This summer has reminded me how important it is, as a writer, to have some solitude; time to think, make up scenarios, plan out conversations, flesh out characters.

So, what can I do? How can I rediscover this time and allow my mind to wander?

I wish I knew. I wish I had some great, disciplined plan where I would wake up every day a few hours before the kids and write. But, I don’t.

What I do have are “micro-moments”. Those precious instances where the TV is off, or the kids fall asleep in the car and I can finally turn off the Care Bears DVD. Or, the afternoon I’d been looking forward to for years, when I took my oldest to the bookstore and she read while I worked.

These “micro-moments” are hard to plan, and sometimes even hard to recognize. But right now they’re all I’ve got and I’m working hard not to waste them scrolling through my Facebook feed. If I can learn to appreciate these bits of calm, and string together all of these tiny specks of quiet time, I might just be able to get lost again once in a while.

We can all find these moments — we just have to look for them. Thanks, Lisa, for the reminder!

Week Eight: Online Writing Group

It’s the eighth and final week of the Summer 2015 Online Writing Group!

This is our last week of the Lake Projects Online Writing Group!

Here are Everyone’s Week Eight Updates & New Goals:

  • Anne: I am hoping for this week to have a good amount of research done in my journal. I am not sure if I will be able to make my eight week goal, as life has seriously been blocking the way lately. I am hoping to have something done by the end of the week.
  • Anuar: No update
  • Bev: I got twelve pages or so written about my vacation last week. For this week, I am going to send query letters to agents. Really! I mean it! At least four. Swear to God! (You will do it, Bev!)
  • Bonnie: No update
  • Curt: No update
  • DonnaNo update
  • Laura: I must finish my short story this week; I must, and I will!
  • Lisa: I’m hoping to write two pages this week!
  • MaryI didn’t write anything for two weeks because of some personal things, so for our last week I want to write a blog post about that.
  • Mary MargaretNo update
  • Matthew: No update
  • Mike: I made more progress on the first half of the draft version of the story but didn’t finish it. I still need to work on some of the connecting scenes and dialogue to get things coherently to the final scene of the story, which will be my goal for this week.
  • Robert: Been back from Hong Kong for a week, getting the jet lag out. Haven’t done any writing — we’ve had guests with us until today. I hope for this next week to get 2,000 words written. (Welcome back, Robert!)
  • Samantha: No update
  • Steve: No update

 Check back Wednesday for a guest post from Lisa!

Week Seven: Online Writing Group

It’s the seventh week of the Summer 2015 Online Writing Group!

We’ve got two weeks left in our online writing group! OH MY GOD!

We didn’t have a guest blogger this week, and a few of you got me posts after Sunday, so I’ve posted this a bit late. Are you disappointed? Too bad, suckers.

Here are Everyone’s Week Seven Updates & New Goals:

  • AnneMy goal for this week is going to be something simple: I want to go through my old journal entries and see if there is anything there to add to and improve. I have some things I wrote during my time at Columbia that I want to revisit as well. I’m going to be starting a new job this week so I’m going to have to rework my schedule a bit and see how the writing goes this week. As of right now, it’s up in the air and whatever happens this week, happens, writing wise I mean. (Hope the job is going well, Anne!)
  • Anuar: My goals for week seven are the same to add three more chapters to my book and I’m a bit behind but I’ll try to write more often over this last two weeks.
  • Bev: This week I’m going to keep a journal of my trip to the little cabin near the Boundary Waters north of Grand Marais, MN for another edition of Bev and Jane’s excellent adventures.
  • Bonnie: No update
  • Curt: No update
  • DonnaNo update
  • Laura: I want to get two more blog posts done this week — a short one about the play and a longer one about my favorite band that I’ve been thinking about for weeks now. I’ve also got an estimated four to six pages left on the story I’m writing, and I’d like to finish that this week.
  • LisaOkay, I’m going to say two pages. That’s all I’m shooting for.  🙂 (That’s enough, Lisa!)
  • Mary: No update
  • Mary MargaretNo update
  • Matthew: No update
  • Mike: I have the same objectives as last week (to flesh out the first half of the story draft), but not out of total slackerness. I wound up spending more time on the second half of the story and its climactic scene instead, so progress happened.
  • RobertNo update
  • Samantha: No update
  • Steve: No update

I couldn’t decide if I should use this week’s post as a list of links or a list of prompts, so you’re getting both!

The following is a list of links that, as writers and readers, you might find interesting:

And now, here’s your list of writing prompts (these are non-fiction, but you could like adapt them for fiction if you wanted to):

  • “Write a memoir about a job you have held. Show (and tell) why this job did not lead to a life-long career” (Burroway 250).
  • “Make a list of family mysteries or things you feel uncertain about in your family history. Interview someone in your family who might be willing to fill you in” (Roney 105).
  • Write about something that’s stuck in your craw — a graduate school professor of mine, Larry Heinemann (who is wonderful and everyone should read Paco’s Story [and every Chicagoan should read Cooler by the Lake]) gave me this assignment once, and whenever a student is stuck, I repeat it. What idea, moment, argument, or observation have you not been able to shake for the last few days or weeks? What’s stuck with you? Write about it. Now.
  • Write 250 – 500 words about your worst fear. It doesn’t have to be rational (I’m scared of sharks and have been known to get the terrors for a few seconds while in a swimming pool); it doesn’t have to exist (unicorns, vampires, narwhals [wait, narwhals exist, nevermind]). But why does it scare you?

Okay, got enough? Now, get to writing! Next week is our last week; we’ll have one more list of goals, a guest post from Lisa, and more amazing content to keep you procrastinating long into the wee hours of the morning!

*Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 3rd Ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2011. Print.

Roney, Lisa. Serious Daring: Creative Writing in Four Genres. New York: Oxford, 2015. Print.

*Burroway is a writer whose textbook I use in my creative writing class and whose textbook I used when I was an undergraduate learning the craft. Her approach is practical and straightforward, and I recommend reading her book for useful tips and an excellent anthology of poetry, prose, and drama.

Just Us Chickens

Group member Beverly, a colleague of mine in MCC’s Biology Department, has written her first book — an epistolary memoir called Seven Bridges to Mandan — and is in the process of looking for an agent.

In her time “off” from teaching, fine tuning her manuscript, and writing her blog, Fiacre’s Spade, Bev farms her land and raises chickens. It’s an interesting life — and one that produces farm-fresh eggs that she generously gives to her friends (thanks for the delicious eggs, Bev!). It’s also a life that can be mined for lessons. Here are some of the things Bev has learned, about writing and about life, from her feathered farm friends.

This is a guest post from Beverly Dow, a member of this summer’s Online Writing Group:

Gracie, a silver crested hen

Gracie, a silver crested hen

In the three years that we have had chickens, I have discovered that they are wonderful, Zen-like creatures that have a lot to teach us about writing and living. Here are four points of chicken advice.

1. Be present in the moment. A chicken pomodoro is two minutes, tops. But in their brief attention span, they are totally focused. There is no past and no future. There is only now. When writing, set aside a short time, and don’t let anything distract you.

2. Regard every good thing as the best thing that has ever happened. Scratch grains, carrot peels, worms on a rainy morning—best thing ever! I have a “chicken moment” with chocolate every day after lunch. Presumably we are all in this group because we love writing. Make your writing time the best thing ever.

3. Deal with aggravations directly and get over it. Chickens really do have chicken fights. Two face off, run straight at each other, and collide. It’s hilarious! I have no idea how they decide who wins, but it is all over in seconds. You can’t write if your mind is on the last quibble you had with your spouse. Move on. (Note: I am terrible at this one.)

4. If you get broody, chill.

Anna Vic brooding

Anna Vic, brooding

The primordial chicken had to incubate (brood) eggs. Her belly gets warmer, and her brain tells her to sit in the nest and get all pissy if disturbed. Broodiness has not been completely bred out of modern hens. We cure a broody hen by putting her in an elevated cage to cool her belly and disrupt the broody hormone cycle. So take a time out and stop obsessing. Have some chocolate. Get back to writing. It’s the best thing ever!

These are some really wise chickens! Or, at least their farmer is a wise woman who is a fan of writing and chocolate. Either way, take the chicken’s advice and get to work, writers!

Week Six: Online Writing Group

It’s the sixth week of the Summer 2015 Online Writing Group!

We’ve got three weeks left in our online writing group, so celebrate with your leftover Fourth of July fireworks and then get down to business!

A few of you didn’t get your week six goals to me, so you’re getting a holiday Patriot Pass (I just made that up). Feel free to share your week’s goals in the comments section or send me something today (Monday) and I will include it with Bev’s guest post on Tuesday!

Patriot Pass

Here are Everyone’s Week Six Updates & New Goals:

  • Anne: This week I’m hoping to catch up on some much needed journaling as well as continuing my research from several weeks ago. I’m to the point where I need to do some serious historical research to find inspiration to continue to write what I began years ago. I feel like doing this historical research will help me because I love history, so it will be like a muse for me to continue several of my stories that I have put on the back burner for the past few years. Also, I have really been getting into the Folktale genre lately and I hope to try and write a short, original Folktale by the end of the week. 
  • Anuar: No update: Patriot Pass
  • Bev: Last week, I wrote the guest blog post and two of my own blog posts (read Bev’s blog, Fiacre’s Spade), worked on my story of the wedding in Sugar Land, TX that I attended in April, and found several promising leads on agents. This week, I will do two more blog posts, finish the wedding story, and read the first three pages of my memoir to be sure it really pops, since at least one agent only wants the first three pages. I will also update my query letter.
  • Bonnie: No update: Patriot Pass
  • Curt: No update: Patriot Pass
  • DonnaNo update: Patriot Pass
  • Laura: I wrote a couple of blog posts last week and added four new pages to my short story, so I feel good. This week I’ll finish the story’s last scene and do at least one blog post (this one doesn’t count).
  • Lisa: I’m back! I hope to do about five pages this week. Fingers crossed.
  • Mary: I successfully updated again! After a rocky start, this seems to be keeping me on track. For this week I will update again and I’m going to shoot for two this time. Go big or go home. Or something. (Go BIG, Mary!)
  • Mary MargaretNo update: Patriot Pass
  • Matthew: No update: Patriot Pass
  • Mike: My objectives for this week are to complete the draft of the first half of the story. I made good progress with the second half of the story (actually writing a few pages of it, rather than just outlining it) last week, and now I want to flesh out the missing parts in that first half.
  • RobertNo update: Patriot Pass
  • Samantha: No update: Patriot Pass
  • SteveI’m still writing my paper on Mendelssohn. Got to page 31, and switched from 12 point to 11 point font, so I still have room to finish my 25-30 page assignment. HA! (Good trick, Steve!)

If you took a Patriot Pass last week and want to get back on track, I have a couple of ideas to cut down on computer/Internet/social networking distractions.

I know that Facebook, for me, is a time waster. I could scroll through for hours, looking at friends’ pictures, following goofy clickbait links to goofy articles about celebrity make-up habits and adorable baby animals. And then I look up and realize that the sun has set, the dog needs to be fed, and I haven’t gotten out of my pajamas all day long. It’s kind of depressing.

Twitter has a similar effect on me, but many of the accounts I follow are news sources or book blogs, so at least I feel like the time I spend following links and reading articles are keeping me in the loop for what’s going on in the world. Not so with Facebook; so I deleted the Facebook app on my phone and allow myself to access the site only when I’m on my computer. This cut down on my Facebook time significantly and made me feel better about my media consumption.

But, when I’m on my computer at home, the Internet is right there: Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, Flavorwire, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. So, how do I control myself? If I’m working on a short story, it’s easy because all I need open is a Word document. But if I’m writing a blog post, I’m on WordPress, and just opening up my Internet browser is a slippery slope (case in point: I started this post at 8 a.m. today and have so far been distracted by my blog’s WordPress analytics, my Goodreads updates page, GIFs from the U.S. women’s soccer team World Cup finals, and, of course, Facebook. It’s currently 2:16 p.m. That’s a lot of wasted time.

So let’s acknowledge that the Internet, while a brilliant tool when used responsibly, is also the devil’s screwdriver. Or the devil’s television. Or something made by the devil, I don’t know. Here are two tools designed to beat the devil and his wonderful, wonderful GIFs:

Self Control

Self Control is a free software developed by Charlie Stigler and is designed to keep you from the websites and applications that are most distracting to you.

Once you download Self Control, you’re able to import or add each website you want to block to a “Blacklist”. These sites will be unavailable to you during a timed session, which you set yourself. Once you have your list completed, you set your timer and won’t be able to access any of the sites on your “Blacklist” until the timer runs down. It’s easy and it’s effective.

Self Control sliding timer

Self Control sliding timer


ZenWriter is a text editing software from Beenokle that gives the user a full screen text window — with limited formatting options — and a few options for background images and music. I love the idea of writing in a full screen window; if you can’t see your applications and alerts, you won’t be bothered by them. I haven’t been able to try ZenWriter because it’s a Windows application and I have a Mac. If you give the free trial a shot, though, let me know how you find it.

And if you want to keep it simple and not spend a dime, just make your Word document Full Screen. It’s simple to get into: View – Enter Full Screen; and just hit “Escape” to get out of it. Here’s a short video to walk you through (warning: this video is very exciting):

But before you do anything, please watch this video of foxes jumping on a trampoline. Then get to work!

Week Five: Online Writing Group

It’s the fifth week of the Summer 2015 Online Writing Group!

We’re half-way through our eight week writing group. Don’t lose steam, and don’t forget to give yourself time every week (hopefully every day) to write. Remember: it doesn’t have to be a lot of time; and it doesn’t have to be on a computer. You might jot down notes in a notebook about your current project or a new idea. You might take fifteen minutes to work on one paragraph of your story or blog post. That’s enough! Just give yourself permission to spend that time and energy on your project, and don’t make excuses.

Here are Everyone’s Week Five Updates & New Goals:

  • Anne: This week I want to try something different because I have been very busy, so it’s been hard for me to find the time to write. I would like to revisit my Circus Man and other pieces that I have already written and do a rewrite of them in my journal. I hope to get a good chunk rewritten and maybe, between that and the journaling, it will help me get into the mode to write a manuscript!
  • Anuar: My goals for week five are to add three more chapters to my book. And my writing has been going great so far.
  • Bev: It was slack-dog week for me, although I made good progress weeding the garden…I did two blog posts and not much else. So this week I’m going to find at least four agents, and I mean it this time! Also, I’m going to work on my next letter and get the last letter in the mail.
  • Bonnie: Writing about Ireland, Bonnie?
  • Curt: Are you writing, Curt?
  • Donna: Made progress, Donna?
  • Laura: I didn’t meet my blog goal this week, but I worked on my short story. My goal for week five is the finish the short story and get at least one blog post up (aside from this one).
  • Lisa: I’m in the middle of Kentucky with no WiFi. I’ll have to take the week off. I’ll get lots of reading done this week. 🙂 (Writers need to read, so go to it, Lisa!)
  • Mary: I wrote another post! (I’m really good at writing them last minute, I guess.) So, week five’s goal is to update depending on the outcome of tomorrow’s test and then also, if I’m feeling adventurous, a catch up post of everything that happened before I started the blog. Because I’ve been meaning to do that…
  • Mary Margaret: What’s up, Mary Margaret?
  • Matthew: How you doing, Matthew?
  • Mike: So I didn’t do too bad with mildly ambitious goals this week. I completed (but have not yet posted) one out of the two blog posts I had planned, and I was able to formulate a draft version of the story that coherently combined the first two sections of the original story with the opening section of the second story.
    For this week, I plan to complete a second, longer blog post than what I’d planned for my second post for this past week, as well as complete the last sections of the short story outline and do sufficient research to finalize logistics around one of the bigger plot points in the overall story.
  • Robert: Still traveling, Robert?
  • Samantha: For week five I am not doing anyyything because I’ll have no time in between orientation for DePaul and legally playing with fireworks for a paycheck! (Point all fireworks away from your face, Samantha, and have fun!)
  • Steve: Where’s Mendelssohn at, Steve?

This week’s post is about exposition, and I’m attributing this idea to Trevor, who had to listen to me complain, kind of a lot, about the heavy handed exposition in the first episode of the new season of True Detective.

The Merriam-Webster defines exposition as “the act of explaining something,” and this is essential for a writer working on either fiction or non-fiction, academic or creative work. But the writer’s act of explanation must come after we answer the question, what needs to be explained? What information is essential to the reader’s understanding of the immediate context of the scene, the story? It is only that essential information that should be explained right then and there. Everything else should wait until it is essential to the forwarding of the conflict, the development of characters, or the resolution.

So, why do I bring up True Detective? Because the writer, Nic Pizzolatto, for his first season gave us a beautifully crafted eight-episode story that meted out exposition only when it was developing characters realistically or was contributing to the main action.

But if you’ve been watching the much anticipated second season of TD, like me and others, you might have been disappointed with the first episode, which aired June 21 on HBO. You might have found it dragging and dull, and that’s likely because of the way the new cast of characters are introduced. Unlike the first season’s opening episode — where we are thrown into the lives of two police detectives in Louisiana at the same time we are thrown into the case of a gruesome murder — the second season opens with fifty minutes of “get to know your new cast” bologna in the form of super clunky, exposition-heavy dialogue. The actual crime (of course, a murder) isn’t even discovered until the last five minutes of the show.

In that first fifty minutes (a lot of it in the first ten), we learn that Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) has a failed marriage and a contentious relationship with her new age spiritualist father; that her sister has a history of mental health issues, arrests, and drug abuse, and is now working for a web cam sex subscription collective; that her mother, an unsuccessful actress, committed suicide by drowning herself in a river. It’s the Bezzerides family history in about ten lines! And all of those lines are forced and unnatural because they’re spoken between family members who don’t need to say these things. And they contribute nothing to the main action.

And don’t think that we don’t also learn about the other characters, because we do. In the first few minutes, we learn that Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) has an adolescent son who is the product of a man raping his wife; Velcoro likely killed that man after making a deal with a shady real estate mogul (Vince Vaughn); Velcoro and his now ex-wife are going through a custody dispute. Seriously, that’s like, five minutes in.

Does any of this have to do with the crime? Nope. It’s all just back story. It’s all just Pizzolatto telling us that our detectives are…troubled, out of control, complicated.

You know how he showed us that Detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) was complicated in the first episode of season one? He gave Cohle one nugget to slowly reveal — that he had a daughter and that his daughter was dead. And almost as soon as he’s revealed this to his partner’s wife, Cohle changes the subject. Because Cohle’s not giving up that history tells us a lot about him as a man. And because his back story is not immediately relevant to the “big” story — the story of the crime — we don’t need it right away.

Sometimes, though, the audience does need information. So how do we get it across and still make it feel natural and useful to the action? Let’s take a tip from Pizzolatto’s earlier work: again, the first episode of TD‘s first season. We, the viewers, need to know that a man named Edwin Tuttle is the governor of Louisiana. Here’s how we get it: one Reverend Tuttle visits the police station and name drops “Eddie” when chatting with the detectives. Cohle doesn’t understand the name drop (he says, after the reverend is gone, “And who the fuck‘s ‘Eddie’?”) and the other detectives in the room are in disbelief at his missing this huge reference. To cover Cohle’s ignorance, Detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) explains it away by telling the other detectives that Cohle doesn’t have a t.v. and is from Texas, and then he tells Cohle that “Eddie” is the governor and the reverend’s first cousin.

Photo Credit and Video

Sure, Cohle needs to know that, but that bit of exposition is really for us, the audience. We need to know how the reverend and the governor are related, but we also need to know that Rust Cohle is the kind of guy who doesn’t have a television set. Because he doesn’t care about t.v., about politics, about anything other than his job and his own internal demons. Bingo! Character development by way of realistically delivered exposition!

So, writers, here’s your lesson for the week: start with the action. If you’re two pages, three pages, four pages into your story and nothing has happened, then rip those pages out and start with the action.

Remember our week two lesson from Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story? Cron writes that one of the first three questions the reader should be able to answer right away is “what’s happening here?” So cut out all of the unnecessary exposition — the character back story, the family drama — and get down to business. Homer called it in medias res, “in the midst of things”, and since Homer was, well, Homer, let’s follow his lead.

(and everyone watch True Detective because the second episode [which should have been the first] is much better. and then we can talk about it.)

Journaling Past Writer’s Block

Group member Anne, a former student of mine, is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Columbia College Chicago. I worked with her on an Undergraduate Research Scholar Program project about the popularity and tropes of genre fiction, and I even invited her into my class to give a mini-workshop on her findings (I do not invite just anyone to take over my class; in fact, it’s only happened twice in nine years).

Anne 3

Anne talks genre fiction mash-ups to my creative writing students

Anne is a great writer and talented young woman. Here, she talks about tapping into her own emotions to serve her writing process. Enjoy Anne’s post!

This is a guest post from Anne Donald, a member of this summer’s Online Writing Group:

Writing has saved me hours of emotional turmoil, because for me that is a huge emotional release. It’s where nothing matters beyond the story I need to tell. When I’m feeling extreme emotions lately I’ve been reaching out to my manuscripts and journal. These raw emotions are the driving force behind my writing. I’m creating my own world, a world where the feeling of writer’s block is drowned out by the message I want to send. When I started at the fiction writing program at Columbia, I found myself in a massive writer’s block; but then when I would scroll through the Internet and came upon posts that evoked extreme emotions from me, I would turn to Microsoft Word or my journal and just write.

The students get to work with Anne's writing exerise

The students get to work with Anne’s writing exercise

Using my emotions and experiences, I am able to get in the zone until the story I need to tell is completed. Another thing that helps me is posing questions to myself, asking myself the what would I do if I were in that situation type of questions. Usually I have a long list of questions I ask myself. Sometimes I even write a letter to my characters. And when I feel passionate about that or am able to completely get into my character’s mind, the writer’s block is cleared up.

I am an avid lover of history, so for me looking up historical facts, reading history textbooks or historical fiction, and finding things no one has written about fuel me and induce me into writing a story that I feel needs to be told or there is a message that I need the world to hear. Lately I have been branching outside historical fiction and dipping my toe in the waters of other genres and I have found that my emotions and experiences allow me to let the story tell me what it wants, no matter the genre.

If I can’t really think of anything to write, I purposely turn to things that I know will evoke an extreme emotional reaction from me; then my mind clears from its writer’s block and I’m able to tell what I need to tell. Also, I love reading and asking questions about the novels. I’m excited because lately I have been branching into unknown territory for me, where I put my characters in situations I wouldn’t normally find myself in. That goes back to the what would I/my characters do in certain situations that are new to me/them? I find my writing process easier when I am doing something that I enjoy as well, but more often than not this distracts me and I need to feel that raw emotion put to paper to clear up any remaining traces of that pesky writer’s block.

Anne’s method of getting into her characters’ heads and using her own emotions and hypothetical responses to situations is a great way to write believable actions and reactions. What else do you do to realize your characters?

Week Four: Online Writing Group

It’s the fourth week of the Summer 2015 Online Writing Group!

We’re all in different spots, but we’re all continuing to think about and work on our projects, which is the ultimate goal. So keep it up, everyone!

Here are Everyone’s Week Four Updates & New Goals:

  • AnneThis week I want to continue my journal and see where that takes me. I’m hoping to record further research in my journal as well as looking at new and interesting words and their definitions, and hopefully that exercise will help me in finding material for my story ideas. I do have paragraphs of ideas written, and whether or not they will ever leave my journal is yet to be determined. I’m hoping to get something typed but I don’t want to set a specific page goal. I am just going with it this week and I will see what happens. 
  • Anuar: My goals for week four are to add two more chapters to my book; and my writing has been going well so far. 
  • BevThis week, I’m going to do a blog post, continue research on agents, and spend a couple pomodoros on the second letter in the queue. Oh, and finish the final draft of the first letter and get it ready for duplication and mailing.
  • Bonnie: Where you at, Bonnie?
  • Curt: What’s happening, Curt?
  • Donna: How you doing, Donna?
  • Laura: I didn’t get as far into my story as I’d wanted this week, but it’s still moving along. This week I’ll continue to work on it and write two blog posts (this one doesn’t count).
  • Lisa: I got through two pages and I’m trudging forward slowly. I’ll be away at a conference this week, so if I get anything written (two pages), I’d be really happy.  🙂
  • MaryI had a terrible couple of weeks in regards to this writing group but I did finally post something last week. I’ve decided to revamp my goals and just take them week by week. Since I have something in mind to write about, my goal for week four is to get a post written and published. I’m shooting for earlier in the week rather than later. That way I can get myself set up for another post in week five.
  • Mary Margaret: Are you blogging, Mary Margaret?
  • Matthew: Bust through any writer’s block, Matthew?
  • MikeFor this coming week, I plan to add more detail to the last third of the outline (which he made progress on!), write/rewrite draft versions of the story represented in the first two sections of the outline and write two new posts for my blog.
  • Robert: Robert is still traveling, so he’s got a pass and will pick up when he returns!
  • SamanthaThis week I’m going to start rewriting the second chunk of the story, fleshing it out and improving upon it.
  • Steve: How’s the Mendelssohn paper going, Steve?

Since many of us are working on blogs, I thought I’d focus on crafting a blog post. I started my first blog, Archipelago, in January of 2006. At my height I’d get about one hundred hits/views a day, which, compared to really successful bloggers getting daily hits in the thousands, isn’t a lot. But since I was primarily writing the blog for my family and friends, I felt good about my readership.

The longer I continued my blog and started reading other blogs, I got an understanding of how to craft something that would be easier to read and more popular than my usual blatherings about our dog, my affinity for sandwiches, or our Door County vacations. Now, I really like writing about our dog, sandwiches, and Door County vacations (which is probably why I’ll never really be a thousand-hits-per-day blogger), but now I can do it better.

If you want real readership for your blog, the first thing you need is a niche — a place in the blog-o-sphere where you can write about what you know and where people will want to come to you for your expertise (and, of course, for your good writing). My friend Jeanette at Tiny Rotten Peanuts organizes her site around arts and crafts projects to do with your kids (or just for you, because art is cool). She has a wide reader base of moms: she gets them in with unique and interesting art project tutorials and keeps them reading with her smart and silly writing style. And when she deviates from posts on arts & crafts to write about her kids, husband, or booze, it doesn’t matter because she’s still focused on her story of being a mom, doing art with her kids, and drinking a lot of iced tea.

If you’re not a parent or artist, maybe you’re a foodie, a fashion plate, or a female Canadian academic. Whatever your niche and your audience, find them and write to them.

Once you’re focused, keep your posts frequent, easy to read, and visually interesting.

Keep Posts Frequent

A good rule of thumb for bloggers is to post something new every few days. This means that you’ll need a lot of ideas and you’ll need to keep yourself on a schedule. Luckily, that’s what this online writing group is supposed to help with! Since writing a new post every few days is quite a bit of work, you can compromise by writing one short post and one long post each week. Your short post can include an image and short anecdote or update; your longer post can be something meatier, thoughtful, and something you work on a bit each day.

Keep Posts Easy to Read

In this world of BuzzFeed lists, clickbait, and Reddit, readers are looking for something easy to read and digest. That usually means short and easily scan-able. Write in short paragraphs (nothing is easier to avoid than a big block of text) and make sure your post is organized logically. Sometimes that means making a list-style post, giving directions or instructions, or telling a story in chronological order.

Keep Posts Visually Interesting

Readers want images. Period. This means you should start taking pictures to use in your blog posts, or find appropriate images using Flickr Creative Commons or a similar site. Your images should reflect your post’s content, though it can be straight or sarcastic. Remember Matthew’s post about busting writer’s block? His image of “matches,” a bottle of “gin” and “Taylor Swift” wasn’t exactly…accurate. But it was funny and worked with his tone.

Images aren’t the only way to keep posts visually interesting; you can also use headings, numbered or bulleted lists, or italics or bold font. Don’t overuse any of these, though. If you have a bunch of different lists with a bunch of bold-face words, no reader will understand what’s really important.

Read other blogs to see what works well and what doesn’t. Remember that blog posts don’t have to be long, but following the above mentioned tips will at least ensure good organization and audience appeal. And share your blog posts on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn to promote your work and to find interested readers.

What else do you think about when writing for your blog? Share in the Comments below to keep the conversation going!

One Writer’s Process

When I was recruiting members for the Lake Projects Online Writing Group, I asked for volunteers to contribute guest posts for the blog. The posts could include details about the writer’s eight-week project, their writing process, or something else.

The first guest post was by Matthew Wasik, and it explained, in excellent detail, how to combat writer’s block. This post, by Anuar Escutia Ponce de León, discusses one writer’s process for putting together his motivational book, Looking for Stars in the Middle of the Darkness. Enjoy Anuar’s post!

This is a guest post from Anuar Escutia Ponce de León, a member of this summer’s Online Writing Group:

So far my writing progress has been going great. I have six chapters and the prologue of my book done. These chapters are some of the previous blogs I have posted on my blog, Wheelchairs Rock. I pretty just copy and paste them into my book. It was simple, but I did have to edit the posts into a book version.

My book idea is to share those moments full of tears and full of brightness that have taught me something valuable. I figure that readers could possible learn something valuable from the things that I’ve experienced in my life. Everyone has their own situation in life and each of us learn different important lessons. So I believe it’s always good to make the best out the lessons life gives us by sharing those lessons with others.

I have many posts written that I haven’t had the chance to put on my blog yet. So I’m going to add those posts to my book throughout these next weeks. Sometimes I feel like I have enough material to publish this book, but I believe I still have many more lessons to obtain. Those lessons could perhaps be very useful for this book.

Feel free to check out my blog and give me some feedback. It’s highly appreciated since my blogs will be chapters of my book in the future.

Thanks for post, Anuar! Writing a blog is a great way to test material, gain readers, and build a buzz about your story and your book. Good luck! (check out more from Anuar on his blog, Wheelchairs Rock)