Tag Archives: Writing Advice

Productivity: It’s Not Just For Robots!

This is the second go-around in our writing group for Rachel Kwon: she first appeared during the Winter 2017 session, and she wrote her excellent first guest post in January. I’m happy she’s back in the group summer (especially since she’s considering starting her own blog, and blogs are great!) and I’m thrilled that she’s here for her second guest post!

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

I like to think of myself a semi-serious amateur writer (and a very serious fried chicken enthusiast, but that’s another story for another day), and while I am still shaky on the creative elements of writing—you know, producing words so earth-shattering that readers weep and call their mothers immediately thanking them for giving them life so they could read the work—there is one thing I know pretty well, and that’s productivity. Productivity and smashing a to-do list are admittedly less sexy than a well-written piece, but they’re still necessary.

So, how does one self-motivate and make time for writing, particularly writing for leisure, when there are so many other things competing for time and attention? I think a big part of it is simply creating structures and treating it seriously, even if it’s “just for fun.” I’ve found that these three things have helped me improve my writing (and also simply to enjoy it more):

1. Establish a routine…

I don’t think the details really matter that much, but for me, as a hardcore morning person I do my best thinking when the sun is coming up, so about a year ago, I started doing a thing where I would wake up, stretch, put on the coffee, and literally just start writing. Just 15 minutes or so, in my journal, sitting at my writing desk, about whatever was in my head. It was writing that I would just do for myself, but I found that by doing it regularly in this way, I’d come up with ideas for stories or essays that I’d want to share with other people, and it became easier to do that by just having a dedicated time to do it. (Our post about momentum last week really resonated with me, because I feel that having my routine is sort of like free momentum—it’s always easier to keep things going once they’ve already started than to start a brand new thing, and that’s what my routine has offered.)

Rachel's Writing Space

Rachel’s supremely covetable writing space

2. …but know when to stray from it.

Interestingly, early-bird-writing is the exact opposite of the routine I had for over a decade, which was 15 minutes of writing, lying prone on my pillow, before going to sleep. The circumstances of my life were different and I needed to wake up around 4:30 or 5 a.m. so I didn’t quite have that same zest for writing in those wee hours (or for anything—I don’t care how much of a morning person you are; there’s a very fine line between late night and early morning and I believe that line is around 4:30 a.m.). I also like to mix up the setting sometimes and write in the park or in a coffee shop or on the subway (not during rush hour, because then I would have to write into a stranger’s armpit, which is less fun). Some of my best writing has been scribbled on the back of a bar napkin.

3. Don’t overthink it.

Overthinking plagues me. I can’t help but obsess over the most seemingly trivial details. I used to be of the mindset that I should choose my words extremely carefully, and not write them unless I really meant them. That might be a good philosophy if I were using a typewriter, and a typo (literally!) or some imperfect phrasing really was a disaster, but these days I’ve adopted more of a “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” mentality, and oddly enough, I find that I’m a lot more productive when I just write SOMETHING, anything, and then whittle it down to what I actually want to say, the way I want to say it. These days I spend HALF as much time and energy writing a draft of something, no matter how horrendous it is, so I can spend TWICE as much time editing. Someone once said (and I’m paraphrasing), “You don’t win the Tour de France by reading about the race and planning the perfect ride; you win by getting out there, riding every day, and making incremental improvements each time you do.” There is definitely an element of “just do it”-ness involved.

So, there it is. I have some other quirks that I think help, like my preference for Muji 0.38 mm black pens, but those are the high-level structures that I believe have allowed me to be productive with my writing. Now, I think it’s fried chicken time!

 

Thank you, Rachel! Now, go get some chicken.

And the rest of you, write on.

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If I dance fast enough, Rachel can’t eat me! (Image via Giphy)

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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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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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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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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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Week Eight: Summer 2016 Online Writing Group

It’s week eight of our online writing group!

IT’S WEEK EIGHT! WEEK EIGHT!

It’s a busy time of the summer, so some of our writers are out of town, out of the country, and out of the writing zone, so check back later this week for possible new updates.

And now, our goals!

Week Eight Goals:

  • Alena: I already finished the new short story that I started. So, for the last week of the group, I’ll allow myself to circle back to an old work-in-progress or start a new one.
  • Aliena: Coming soon…
  • Anne D.: What I’m thinking of doing this week is revising a few pieces to be done before the Fall semester starts and submitting them to the literary magazine at Columbia.
  • Anne H.: Coming soon…
  • Bev: Blog about my vacation. Finish my vacation journal. Finish revisions on the next chapter of my memoir, which I dutifully took on vacation with me and consistently ignored for eight full days.
  • Emily: Coming soon…
  • Katherine: Last week, I finished entering my line edit revisions into the computer. It didn’t take me nearly as long as I had initially thought. I also wrote a “closing.”

    My week eight goal is to start researching and writing query letters. Writer’s Digest had a post about some agents looking for memoirs. Also, I want to go to the book store to see who publishes miscarriage and mommy books. HEY YOU MCC FULL TIMERS!!! I might be dropping by in August to see if one of you will look at my query letter(s). I have never ever written one before. (Katherine — Bev might be a great person to hook up with to talk query letters!)
  • Laura: I didn’t get as much done last week as I’d have liked, but I’m excited to continue working this week. I’m going to put my big project aside and get into this shorter piece that’s been lurking around me for years. And I will write the opening scene, at least one paragraph, for a new short story.
  • Lisa: This week I will try to finish and submit my story. Wish me luck! (Good luck!)
  • Matt: I accomplished my most important goal of week seven, which was printing and shipping the 523 pages of my manuscript to my old college thesis adviser, whom I haven’t seen in nineteen years.  That’s a load off my mind!

Meanwhile I have continued my most tedious and painstaking pass through the first story. Each scene seems to reveal a new problem that was invisible before. My goal for the final week is to complete this latest edit of The Liminal Man and finish the eighth week in a state of readiness to move ahead. I’d like to be able to embark on a new read-through of the remaining stories in the aftermath.

  • Matt the Second: Coming soon…
  • Mike: This week’s report and goal will look much like last week’s, but I did continue to make progress with the story. I revised another four pages but didn’t touch the blog post. The goal for this week will be to revise another five pages (which could potentially put me at the end of the story) and finish and publish the blog post.
  • Ray: As always, my writing seems to be going in fits and stops and starts. This week I completed four chapters. I was just in the zone I guess, and I am two chapters away from attaining my goal of having the story arc, completely laid out for a main character, for my third and final novel in the series I am writing. It has been a strange summer, weatherwise, workwise, and the strange world that we suddenly seem to be living in. Some escapism is in order, and I find myself more willing to spend time in storyland, than engaging in following the news. My main concern at this point is that the world will end, before my book comes out about the world ending. Irony huh?
  • Robert: Goal: 7000 words. (Robert, your consistency is my rock, and I am grateful.)
  • Rosalie: I will be making my edits this weekend and then I’m all done. This has been a very difficult project and I’m looking forward to pushing that send button.
  • Sarah: Coming soon…

For this final week, I wanted to give you all a bit of perspective on writing advice. Advice can be helpful, whether you’re a novice writer working on your first piece, or whether you’ve got a list of publications (and an even longer list of rejections, the writer’s best frenemy).

But advice can also be overwhelming, off-base, and just plain wrong, even when it’s coming from someone whose work you admire and who you’ve previously written about as being the Original Gangster of Dialogue.

So this week, please read this funny and on-base essay by Danielle Dutton about terrible writing advice from great writers. As Dutton writes, sometimes “there’s no right track at all” for your writing. Just have faith that what you’re doing is something that can be good, can be great (even if it’s not right now).

Now get writing!

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