Tag Archives: Writing

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:


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!


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.]


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!










Get Your Write On This Winter!

Starting next week, I’ll be running the 2017 edition of our online winter writing group to kick of the new year in the write way. (yep. I just did that.)

Last winter we ran a productive and fun four-week winter session, and this year, we’re planning to do the same. This year’s four weeks will run  January 2 through January 30, and will, as usual, be as complex or as simple as each member decides for herself. You’ll communicate with me via email/Facebook/Twitter, and you don’t need to share your work — only your goals.

If you’re interested, let me know in the comments section below (if we’ve never met), contact me through Facebook or Twitter, or send me an email (if we are email acquainted). You can look through all of the Winter 2016 posts and the Summer 2016 posts to get an idea of how the group runs.

Get ready to write!

Grad School Lessons

Last week I posted a snippet about the type of reading I’ve been doing while on sabbatical from teaching this semester, but this week, I wanted to elaborate a bit with some lessons I’ve learned during my first five weeks in grad school at UIC.

I knew that being a student again would be a very different kind of work than I’ve been used to, but what I didn’t realize was just how different the work for this degree (a Master of Education) would be compared to the work I did at DePaul University for my first graduate degree (Master of Arts in Writing). While I did take four courses for my MA that focused on theory, rhetoric, grammar, and teaching, the remainder of my eleven courses were writing courses: writing the novel, creative non-fiction, magazine writing, short fiction, and screenwriting. And it’s remarkably different when your weekly homework includes doing a close reading of a Reginald McKnight story, and writing a draft of your own story for a group workshop, than when your homework includes doing close readings of case studies from the academic journals International Journal of Environmental & Science Education and Child Development.



And, thinking about these past five weeks — the reading, reflection papers, discussion questions, and one presentation I’ve done (that made me feel like a teacher again for about fifteen minutes!) — I decided to share with you the lessons I’ve learned.

I Sure Love a College Campus

Now, this is a silly lesson to learn, because I already know this. I work on a college campus, and I love where I work. But my campus at MCC isn’t what people usually think of when they think “college campus”: It’s a single (albeit large) building where commuter students walk to-and-from the parking lot with their backpacks rather than to and from their college buildings by way of pedestrian walkways and quads.

When I went to DePaul, all of my classes were in the same building (the now-demolished McGaw Hall) and I lived on Deming Place at Orchard, which was only six blocks away. This didn’t give me a “college campus” environment, either, at least not in the same way I’d experienced undergrad at Madison, where everything sprawled out over a green, hilly campus, and most of my classes were in this 165-year old building:

What you don't see is Bascom Hill, leading up to this building, and a murderer of a climb to do every goddamned weekday morning for four years. Especially during a Wisconsin winter.

What you don’t see is Bascom Hill, leading up to this building, and a murderer of a climb to do almost every weekday morning for four years. Especially during a Wisconsin winter.

So when I got to UIC’s campus and walked from the #60 bus stop to the Education, Theater, Music, and Social Work Building, and I was surrounded by young adults wearing backpacks, looking all adorable and studenty, I felt right at home. A college campus is a place where it’s totally normal to hang out at the library (I was lucky to find a tiny seat at a counter in the technology section of the first floor at Daley Library last Tuesday), where it’s not uncommon to see someone walking around in pajama pants (I’ve embraced my jeans and t-shirts, but haven’t taken it quite this far yet […yet]), and where you might see art pieces in trees as you walk to your lecture hall.

Hey, tree eagle. Treagle.

Hey, tree eagle. Treagle.

And then, when I had to drive to campus one afternoon, this was my view from the campus parking lot:


I mean, come on. Come onnnnn.

This wonderful view, as well as my new commute using CTA buses and trains, confirmed my love of college campuses and informed the next lesson.

I Kinda Miss Chicago

After spending five weeks floating around the Loop and UIC’s campus, usually on the #60 bus or the Blue Line, but sometimes on my own two feet, I realized that Chicago is so easy to maneuver, and I really miss that.

Now, I love Camp Crystal Lake, but it’s nice to be totally anonymous for a few hours every week, to be able to get lunch somewhere and then walk half a block to get a cup of coffee and then walk four more steps to a bus that will take me where I need to go in five minutes. It is so easy. And easy is so nice.

You Can Never Have Too Many Library Cards

I now have three working library cards (yes, I still have my Chicago Public Library card because it’s hard to part with something that was very important to you for so long, and it’s so small that no one will know and my wallet doesn’t mind don’t worry I asked): my Crystal Lake Public Library card; my McHenry County College library card; and now, as of last week, my University of Illinois Chicago library card.


Sorry. The power has gone to my head.

I Know What My Professors Are Doing

Not, like, right now. I’m not a creepy weirdo. But I do know what they’re doing in respect to their teaching and grading practices. There’s a benefit to being a teacher-student.

See, I have weekly assignments due in each of my classes: a reflection paper, discussion questions, and a chapter self-quiz in one class, and discussion questions for another. I submit these all through Blackboard, our online learning management system.

And the first three weeks, my professors gave lots of feedback for all of the assignments. My psychology professor gave comments on each of my three page reflection papers, engaging my ideas and giving me thought-provoking comments. My policy professor gave general comments about my discussion questions. I was happy to get all of the feedback, but I certainly wasn’t surprised that week four came and went with no new grades entered into my account, and, in the middle of week five, when I finally got new grades, there were no comments.

The first few weeks of any semester, teachers have high hopes for the amount of feedback they can give each student and the amount of time it will take them to grade a single set of assignments for a single class. As the assignments pour in, however, and as the semester continues to chug along, teachers understand how unrealistic their hopes really were.

I go through this every single semester. I used to beat myself up over it, but then I realized, after chatting with my colleagues, that we all suffer this same fate. There’s never enough time, nor enough hours in the the day, nor enough energy in our bodies.

So, to my professors, I say, thank you, and I appreciate you and your work, and I won’t ask you when you’ll have my group project graded. You know the one I did two and a half weeks ago? Don’t worry, I won’t ask. Promise. I won’t.

Everything Is Better When It’s Covered in Kittens

Case in point:


This is a passage from a week four reading assignment. I covered it in kittens for you.

I Don’t Mind Working In Small Groups

Now, most people (at least 99.9% of my students) dislike working in small groups. I force my students to do it almost every week during the semester, even if it’s just for a small-stakes discussion or activity. It’s good to generate ideas before a large group discussion; it’s good for brainstorming; it’s good to promote teamwork and individual responsibility.

But people still don’t like it!

I’ve used this to my advantage as a student this semester to take a leadership role in my small groups. For me, it’s really easy to do, and people speak up after I break the ice. In fact, my first group was so okay with my nerdy, group-happy participation, that they didn’t mind if I took a picture of the development model we were working on:

It's a puzzle piece and we rocked it.

It’s a set of puzzle pieces, and we rocked it.

And a few weeks ago, the group I worked with on a class presentation didn’t even laugh at me when I made this picture after being stunned and driven into hysterical laughter about the Federal Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM) sex education programming for adolescents:

A required piece of curriculum included a video showed a young woman asking a nurse what would happen if she had sex before marriage; this was the nurse's reply.

Curriculum included a video dramatizing a young woman asking a nurse what would happen if she had sex before marriage; this was the nurse’s reply.

Of course I didn’t include this picture in the presentation, but my group didn’t kick me out for making it, so I think we all know who won here.

Teachers — All Teachers — Appreciate This Whiskey


Um, or any whiskey, TBH.

I didn’t learn this last one in grad school; it’s just a Truth in the world. A TRUTH.

Well, that’s it for now! It took me about four days to finish this post because each time I started to work on it, I realized that I had more reading to do. So, maybe my next post will be completed by Halloween!














Summer 2016 Writing Group Wrapped Up!

This summer’s online writing group has officially finished up! We had a solid eight weeks, and although some of us didn’t always meet our weekly goals (me — primarily me), we kept each other accountable, wrote, and shared our progress.

Inspired by Anne H., I’m including a couple of new things for our wrap-up post. In addition to asking for each writer’s final progress report, I asked them all to contribute the first or last line of their work-in-progress, and a picture of their writing space. Anne suggested this, since we’d talked about writing spaces a couple of times over our session, and she’d recently contributed a guest post about writing and driving. I loved her idea, and now you all get to see our writing spaces!


I wrote and proofread a poem this week that I’m completely in love with. I feel it is publication-ready. I also went back and proofread the short story I finished last week. All in all, it has been a productive last week and a productive last eight weeks! I definitely wouldn’t have written as much as I did this summer if it weren’t for this group’s deadlines and advice. I’ll miss the extra nudge. Thank you, everyone!
I would have included a picture of my workspace, but I kind of write all over the place, always with a notebook or laptop in hand. Here are the first lines of the four things I’ve been working on this summer:
First line of “Two Bakas”:
Your grandmother has a Facebook.
First line of “Darkblooms”:
Warm blood trickled down my face.

First line of “Conscious”:
The happiness hurts.
First line of “Ékleipsis”:
She needs somewhere to sleep, something to eat.

Anne D.

This summer was once again too busy for me to accomplish much. I only recently got a car and was able to go to the library if needed. To make a long story short I may have a magazine decided on and will go from there.

Anne H.

These are the last two lines of my short something “Midnight Blindspot in a Rear View Mirror.”  That title comes from the musical composition composed in my honor on the occasion of my college graduation. A friend commissioned it from another friend who has since had quite a good career as a composer. My favorite part was always the title; I’ve never even heard the piece.

I find myself reflecting lately on middle age. That’s what the Prince short something was about, and that’s what this short something is about as well.

Last two lines:

The midnight blind spot is not a black hole which will engulf me;  it is in the rearview mirror
And I power forth

Final report:

I only wrote 1.5 short somethings and 1 guest blog post. But without the encouragement of this group, I doubt that I would have written anything whatever. So, thank you, Laura. I look forward to your next group.

Anne's Writing Space

Anne’s Writing Space


I have revised eleven of fifteen chapters of my memoir, so far cutting 50,104 words. I am 23,100 words short of my goal of getting the damned thing down to 90K, which an agent told me was the customary maximum for a memoir. And yes, I do have the word counts for each chapter on a spread sheet. I am a geek.

I really, really want to get this thing done before classes start, but it’s hard to find time when the harvest starts. I’ll keep trying, though. I can’t seem to sleep past 5:00 these days. I’ve been getting up and writing until the dew is off the grass. I did accomplish my goal of posting on my blog at least weekly and got one letter in the mail to my readers.

First line:

“I’m taking the job in North Dakota,” I announced while having lunch with the girls at a Thai restaurant in Greektown.

Below are photos of formal and casual work spaces. I have been working mostly in the casual space this summer. The formal space hasn’t gotten messed up since the cleaning ladies were here last week.

Bev's Writing Spaces

Bev’s Writing Spaces


I know what my dilemma is — I don’t check this email on weekends. I don’t have a designated writing space. My notebook is at home, so I can’t send a first line. Excuses aside, I did THINK about writing frequently over the past two weeks, and have thought of my main character’s name and a tentative outline.


I made great progress this summer, and the weekly goals kept me on track and focused. I have currently what I would consider a finished draft of a memoir, almost 37,000 words.

I couldn’t just send the last line… so here are the last three:

Avery is my reason for doing all that I do and all that I should do. Being a mother makes me want to be a better person. I have reevaluated the way I have been living and the people I have surrounded myself with in an effort to make better choices for her and to set a better example for her.

Below is a picture of my work space. I am either writing on the couch near Elmo or some other kid toy or at the kitchen table.

Thanks, all, for a great writing summer.

Katherine's Writing Space

Katherine’s Writing Space


I didn’t get nearly what I’d hoped to accomplish this summer, but thanks to the group, I had to think about writing, write about writing, and actually do some writing, so thank you, group!

First line:

Mary and her dog, Bubs, walked past the white house with the pillars and the twice-a-week gardener, past what she thought of as the “party house” because it filled the block with the sound of children playing and splashing in the backyard pool from May until mid-September, and past Chico’s house, although Chico—a black Chihuahua who was in a constant state of near-fear at Bubs though still chased him into the street whenever he got the chance—didn’t seem to be home.

My Writing Space

My Writing Space


Again, I’m so happy to have been a part of the group! It really does keep me on track. I definitely got more done than I would have otherwise. Thanks!!!

This was finally one of those things; something Cal couldn’t have possibly had the foresight to tell her, couldn’t possibly have warned her about.

“No, we just buried it in the yard.” He turned towards her and leaned up on his elbow. In the bit of light that filtered in from the kitchen, she saw him raise an eyebrow at her. “What kind of people do you think we are, Nay?”

Lisa's Writing Space

Lisa’s Writing Space


What can I say? I still haven’t quite made it through this last pass on my story. It’s been a hell of a busy week. But I have made progress, and overall, the work I’ve done since this group began has been pretty satisfying. This is the best it has ever been (which is a claim of dubious quality, since you don’t know what it was before.) Anyway, the changes are getting smaller, more pointed. I feel the story has attained more or less its final shape, which is a grand accomplishment that I am prepared to enjoy until I decide I was wrong in a couple of weeks.

This is the first line of The Liminal Man:

At least if you get your legs chopped off, you know for sure that your life is going to be different from now on.


I definitely didn’t accomplish what I expected over the eight weeks, but I’m happy with what I have gotten done. I didn’t touch the novel-in-progress, which was my original goal, but I’m pleased that I was able to objectively realize how much work my short story still needed.

My previous round of revisions cut away a lot of unnecessary pages that I’d left in for far too long. Reading the story without them these eight weeks reinforced those were the right cuts to make, but I did further tightening and wrote (from scratch in most cases) the story again with better connective material. There’s a flow now that was missing in some parts, and I’ve reconsidered a few large plot points and incorporated them into the latest version (which is still not finished, but I see a better finished product on the horizon).

The first lines of the story are:

The first time Tyler’s head hit up against the passenger window, it was an accident. But because he didn’t wake up, and we had a good twenty minutes to go till we reached the airport, it turned into a game. And I was a little pissed he’d been asleep since we left our driveway; he didn’t know yet that I was coming on the plane with him.

Below is a picture of my home office, where I’ve been doing 90% of my work (aside from when I find a spot to write a page or so in my actual work office or on my train commute). As much as I love our new house (as of March), the office is the best addition for me.

Mike's Writing Space

Mike’s Writing Space


Final report: 8,528 words written. Novel still incomplete.

First line:

He seemed, in a crowded room, a ship with a damaged rudder, or with torn sails.


My next project is to file all of the resources I used.

First line:

European countries are amazingly diverse despite the fact that they are bound by close geographic connections. This mosaic of cultures is reflected in the art and history of Europe.

Rosalie's Writing Space

Rosalie’s Writing Space

Thank you, participants, for sharing your time, efforts, work, and spaces with us!

I really enjoyed this summer’s group; it gave me a bit of structure and kept me from straight-binge-watching three seasons of Veronica Mars and then every single thing in my Netflix queue, even those dozen foreign films I’ve had in there for five years and always mean to watch but never get around to (You think I’m kidding. I’m not. Watching twelve hours of television every day is literally the only thing I would have done this summer if not for the group. I thank you. My husband thanks you. My dog thanks you.)

I’ll be running another four-week winter session in January, 2017, and I hope you’ll all consider joining. It’ll be a nice mental work-out for our post holiday-season brains.

And of course, please continue to read my regular blog posts, which will come less frequently when I don’t have twelve people to answer to, and which will 99% of the time feature my dog. So, clearly, you’ll be really excited about that.

Have a terrific last few weeks of the summer, all, and, as usual, write on!

Roo on a Tube

Who wouldn’t want to read about this dog? She’s in a tube! A tube!



Anne Humphrey is a colleague of mine in MCC’s English Department who first joined in on our Winter 2016 writing group. I have a soft spot in my heart for Anne H., because, in addition to being a fellow grammar nerd, ardent defender of the Oxford comma, and my office neighbor, she is also a fellow alum of DePaul’s MA in Writing program.

And, like me (or like I used to be), Anne is used to commuting quite a distance to and from work. Here’s what Anne has to say about taking advantage of driving for her creative endeavors.

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

This past week, I was on a road trip to Connecticut and back. I love driving. and I love road trips. On the way back on this trip, I was so excited to work on some of what was discussed at the conference, and from seeing old friends there, that I drove all night without getting tired.

But I love to drive in general. Driving for me is not mainly about the trip itself, or the act of driving, but the way driving makes me feel — I am DRIVING as in accomplishing, moving forward, going to a next step.

I commute over an hour, each way, during the school year. Sometimes, people express concern or pity. But I say “I don’t mind. I make phone calls. I listen to podcasts.” To people I know better, I say, “I rehearse for class; I think through various problems.” Some people who correspond with me frequently know that I even manage text and email communication while driving (don’t worry, just at stop signs).

But what I rarely have admitted to anyone is that driving is for me prime writing time. Admittedly, I’m usually working out carefully worded emails about delicate situations, but I’ve worked on my creative writing too, quite a bit, while driving.

We’ve been spending time in this group discussing our writing space, and I am working on a new space in my house. But my main writing space for about thirty years has been in the driver’s seat of my car.

There are things I’ve tried over the years: a pad fitted for the dashboard (people commented on that quite a bit, but it was not really that exotic — my mom got it for me at Walmart); carrying a camera (now can just use my phone for this); carrying a voice recorder (now I can use phone and even voice recognition the same way); and recording phone calls (legal in Illinois if the other party knows you are doing it) — I would use these to talk through writing ideas with my mother or one close friend who is also a writer.

Most of the driving-writing has been inadvertent; ideas just flow for me in that environment, so in thinking about my WIP, ideas would come. Or random new ideas would occur from the stimulation of the driving. However, some writing I have assigned myself as an objective for the road trip.

On one occasion about twenty years ago, I had a novel almost finished but could not work out a central chapter. I knew what needed to happen, and where I wanted it to happen, but I had skipped over the chapter when drafting because I felt intimidated by that piece somehow. So, I said “I will work on that during this trip.” I was driving from St. Charles, IL to Cincinnati. In northern Indiana, I had to stop to replace my voice recorder, which, under the heavy use of this project, chose the first half of that trip to die completely. I forged on. I wrote the chapter. I even thought it almost was good, or at least as good as the rest of the book (which was not very good, but still).

After that, I gave myself many purposeful assignments for during specific trips, both long road trips and my commute. This summer, I had the idea for the “Prince poem” and wrote about half of it on a road trip back from Lake Erie a few weeks ago. On the overnight trip last Sunday night (action photo above), I worked on a different short something and wrote the whole thing. It’s just a short something. I’m not going to say “poem” because in the past few weeks, at two early music conferences, I’ve sat in a few talks about poetry that made me realize that I was not making poems. So for now I am calling them short somethings. Anyway, the Prince short something is still only half done. But I finished the “Midnight Blindspot in a Rearview Mirror” short something, while driving, on an overnight road trip.

I did it using text messaging, texting single lines or couplets to myself. The technology changes, but my method only changes slightly.

MORAL OF THIS RAMBLING STORY: I’d say, when it comes to writing, we should simply do what works: “Just do it.” Get the equipment, be at least somewhat intentional, and do it. Also, the writing space is where you are/where I am. So we should just start writing.

Notwithstanding this strong pitch, I’ll try to finish and post about my in-house writing space for our end post. I’m pretty pleased with it so far. I want the space to be so perfect for my needs that it lures me in, to writing.

Anne (R) dressed as her alter-ego, Grammar Girl, helps me (L) and our colleague Starr (C) recruit students on MCC Night, 2014

Anne (R) dressed as her alter-ego, Grammar Girl, helps me (L) and our colleague Starr (C) recruit students on MCC Night, 2014

Thanks, Anne! Although I don’t promote texting in the car (Trevor can attest to this, since I harangue him if he even looks at his phone while he’s driving), I love these ideas and wholeheartedly agree that writers can capitalize on driving, both for quiet, alone time as well as for brainstorming. So next time you’re stuck on an idea, get in the car and drive!

Week Eight: Summer 2016 Online Writing Group

It’s week eight of our online writing group!


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!

























Week Seven: Summer 2016 Online Writing Group

It’s week seven of our online writing group!

Nick Dancing in Helmet

We’re almost finished! It sounds as though everyone has made solid progress on works-in-progress, and that makes me feel warm and gooey. I, myself, have gotten more done with this group than I would have without it, and that makes me feel grateful for all of you who are participating. Thank you!

This week, we welcome Donna, who’s going to pop into the group for our last two weeks. I’ve also got some tidbits about willpower from health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal, and later this week, we might have a surprise guest post. (yay! surprises!)

And now, let’s get to the goals.

Week Seven Goals:

  • Alena: I’m nearly finished with the short story I’ve been working on; however, I’m burnt out on it. I’ve started a new short story. It’s pretty experimental so I’m not sure it will eventually get published or anything. Nonetheless, it’s been a good writing exercise for me. My goals for week seven are to work on anything. Just write.
  • Aliena: Coming soon…
  • Anne D.: Coming soon…
  • Anne H.: Finish draft of Prince poem on long road trip this next week. I drafted the first half on a road trip a few weeks ago. If I get this done, perhaps I’ll make a guest post for the next writer’s group on writing while driving. I do quite a bit of work while driving, and I’ve learned a few tips which might be useful, especially for those with long commutes.
  • Bev: Gone fishin’.
  • Donna: My weekly goal is figuring out a name for my main character and what she desires most.
  • Emily: Coming soon…
  • Katherine: Last week I did a line edit of 110 pages and made some structure revisions to the end of the book.

    This week, I need to make my line edits on the computer. I have thirty pages edited on the computer so far. I am also not entirely happy with the final couple of chapters. I want to take a closer look at those next week.
  • Laura: This week I’m going to keep working on revisions to my short story. I’m not ready to start something new, and I’m happy just to keep working on it every day this week. If I need a break, I’m going to investigate the new horror magazine Belladonna Horror for submission guidelines, and then do a bit of brainstorming.
  • Lisa: My goal for this week is to revise a story. I need a break from the work I’ve been looking at, so I’m mixing things up this week.
  • Matt: This week my focus has gotten even smaller, as I find myself spending greater amounts of time on smaller passages. Sometimes completely restructuring sections for clarity, sometimes just cutting out all the synonyms and dialogue tags. It all feels like a natural pace. The next couple of weeks I have more fewer days away from work so I am just hoping to maintain my momentum.

Meanwhile, I was contacted by my thesis adviser from college, Maxine Scates, who oversaw the original creation of the exact story I’m chipping away on at the moment. Having previously given conditional assent to read a draft of my book, she has now requested that I send her a hard copy. So I am in the process of printing that copy now, and I’m pretty excited to get it into her hands as soon as possible. The version of this story that will be included is already out of date, of course, but there’s nothing to be done about that now. It’s a pretty current incarnation, different from what she read twenty years ago, and will be accompanied by hundreds of pages of stories following the same characters that she saw me develop in the mid-nineties. I feel that her participation in this process will be invaluable, whatever form it takes, and I am unbelievably relieved that she is willing to read this thing.

  • Matt the Second: Coming soon…
  • Mike: I managed to get through the next four pages of revisions on my short story (out of the five that was my goal) but I didn’t have a chance to publish the blog post as I hoped. For this week, I plan to revise the next five pages of the story and actually finish and publish the blog post.
  • Ray: Coming soon…
  • Robert: Goal is 7000 words.
  • Rosalie:  I have a very little bit of work and I will be finished with this project. We will be on vacation next week and I won’t be doing any work but I have set aside Sunday the 24th as my finish date. It has been fun and helpful to be in this group. (And it’s been great to have you!)
  • Sarah: Other than a rather organized guest bedroom closet I got nothing done this week. So I am carrying over my previous week’s goals. I am reading a book called Possession, which is inspiring a great deal of thought. Now to capture that in scripts and videos. To the batcave.

Sounds great, everyone!

This week I wanted to talk a bit about productivity. There are so many books and methods and systems out there aimed toward increasing productivity. If you Google the word, you’ll find not only definitions, but lists upon lists upon lists of “tips” from highly productive people. Some of them are pretty good, and some of them just rehash the same-ole, same-ole. Not that keeping to a writing schedule and being accountable are bad — these things are good, and they’re why we’re all here, aren’t they? But we all know that we need to make time for writing, that successful and prolific writers are those who make writing a priority during their day, no matter what. We know this.

But, how do we actually do it?

Like so much else in life, we need to practice: practice using our willpower and self-control in order to strengthen it for the important activities in life, like writing.

Last winter I read a book called The Willpower Instinct, by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, which was much more satisfying than other self-help and pop-science books I’ve read. McGonigal, a lecturer at Standford, used her ten-week willpower seminar as a model for this book, and she recommends looking at each of the ten chapters as a weekly lesson to be thought about and then practiced before moving on. She also uses gobs of psychological studies as the basis for her conclusions and her advice, which I appreciate. (And, yes, “gobs” is a very scientific term. Thank you very much.)

Now, the reason I mention this book is that McGonigal’s thesis resonated with me. Writing each week is not really about creating a tidy work space in your house (sorry, guys), but it is about having the willpower to turn off the t.v., get off your Facebook app, stand up from the couch, and tell your family you need twenty minutes of alone time to write. That. Is. Literally. All. It. Takes.

So why is it so fu@%ing hard?

Well, McGonigal, citing studies from psychologists Roy Baumeister and Matthew Gailliot, among others, writes that “willpower is a muscle you have to build” (McGonigal Ch. 4)*. She uses a “muscle model” of willpower, which likens your self-control to a literal muscle that can be strengthened with targeted practice and exercise. And like all of our other muscles, your “self-control drains throughout the day.” There’s only so much willpower we have to tap into, so if we’re using the same stash to navigate our family, hold productive meetings with work colleagues, eat fewer donuts, and to write more (or write consistently), we might find that there is less and less at the end of the day.

In her third chapter on strengthening our willpower muscle (the fourth chapter of the audiobook), McGonigal writes about Susan, who wanted to start her own business but had to contend with her hour long commute and a ten-hour work day at a demanding job. When Susan got home at the end of the day, she felt too tired to work on her own business plans. She’d been using her willpower up all day long, and it was spent by the time she pulled her car into the garage.

Susan realized, though, that instead of starting her morning at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee, checking her work emails, she would use that same time for her own project. That early morning kitchen table time and space was when she felt clear-headed and full of energy for the day, so why give it up for someone else? She could certainly wait until she got to work to check those emails; she needed to prioritize herself when her willpower was at its strongest.

Clearly, identifying when our willpower is strongest can help us choose when to schedule our own writing time. But that’s not all there is to it: we must also practice using our willpower for small things so that when the time comes and we are supposed to sit down at our writing space, we can actually do it.

This is where Baumeister and Gailliot come in. They aimed to answer the question “could willpower exhaustion simply be a result of the brain running out of energy” (McGonigal Ch. 4). Gailliot used sugar to boost participants’ energy levels, and then looked at how those participants were able to exert willpower. The study’s findings ultimately discovered more about the effects of blood sugar levels on willpower, and supported the scientists’ hypothesis that willpower could be strengthened with exercises in self-control (because mental exercises are a better idea than just eating some sugar every time you need a boost to get some writing done [I’m running an unscientific replication study using Twinkies in an effort to disprove this; I’ll let you know my findings.]).

If the body, and the brain, is out of energy, it may resist exerting extra energy for self-control. And you know that this is true: it’s almost impossible to get out of bed or off the couch if you’ve got a cold or if you’ve had an emotionally taxing day. So how do we strengthen our willpower to make sure we have it when we need it?

McGonigal looked at the Baumeister/Gailliot study, along with others, and found that small exercises can help. She writes that “committing to any small, consistent act of self-control — improving your posture, squeezing a hand-grip every day to exhaustion, cutting back on sweets, and keeping track of your spending — can increase overall willpower” (Ch. 4).

The reason these small acts work is that in order to get into the habit of doing something small, like saying “yes” instead of “yeah,” your brain has to be on alert and then pause before you make the decision. Training your brain for that kind of mindfulness will help you apply it to larger tasks and projects, like your writing.

So these are your jobs this week:

  1. Identify a time of day when your willpower is at its strongest, and then use that time of day for yourself, even if you’re accustomed to using it for someone/something else;
  2. And do something small to practice your willpower. You can focus on improving your posture throughout the day, drinking water instead of soda, or eliminating your own verbal tic (saying “um” a lot, consistently using a slang term…). Choose anything you like, just be aware of it and try to adjust it every day this week.

If nothing else, by the end of this week you’ll have some insight into when you’re most motivated to write, and how good your posture is. This information will be useful!


*my citations are for the audiobook, which labels the introduction as “Chapter 1”, so chapter labels in the hard copy will be different

Works Cited:

McGonigal, Kelly. How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Gildan Media, LLC, 4 Jan. 2012. Audiobook.

Further Reading:

Baumeister, Roy F., Matthew Gailliot, C. Nathan DeWall, and Megan Oaten. “Self-Regulation and Personality: How Interventions Increase Regulatory Success, and How Depletion Moderates the Effects of Traits on Behavior.” Journal of Personality 74:6 (Dec. 2006): 1774 – 1802. Web. 18 Jul. 2016.

























Read Me A Story…

Group member Lisa participated in last year’s writing group and wrote an excellent guest post on finding small moments to write. In this post, Lisa shares why reading out loud has become so important — and fun — to her.

Lisa doing a different kind of reading out loud: her own fiction at an MCC faculty reading series

Lisa doing a different kind of reading out loud: her own fiction at an MCC faculty reading series, The Typewriter Factory

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

Each night, we finish our day here at the Crizer abode with a book. Currently, we’re going between the Random House Book of Ghost Stories, Lila and Myla the Twin Fairies, and Thor: The Mighty.

I have to admit, I love reading aloud. Sure, there are nights, especially when Pinkalicious is requested (again!), when all I want to do is give some quick kisses, tuck a few blankets, and sit in front of the TV as fast as humanly possible. But, as soon as I start reading, I’m always in my happy place.

There’s something special about hearing your own voice as you read the words on the page, pacing yourself, finding the slight nuances of each character, pausing dramatically, and even choosing to skip an unnecessary dialogue tag here and there. And to say it’s magical for me is nothing compared to how it lights up my little ones; their focused eyes exploring every detail of the illustration; their fingers twiddling with pillow cases as their imaginations give life to unearthly visitors, fantastic creatures, and warrior heroes. I jump at the opportunity to read in my kid’s classroom. Twenty-five little imaginations swirling at once. It’s pretty incredible!

Like most summers, though, I’ve been giving myself grief lately for not reading enough. I borrowed Gaiman’s American Gods from the library (again), I’ve started Rigg’s Hollow City twice now, and Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is on call for tonight. These are all good books, but what makes reading with my kids so much more enjoyable to me right now? We do everything together…everything. So, how can something that has always been such a solitary experience for me changed into such a group activity? I think it’s actually the other way around.

Books and reading have always been such an integral part of my life that they found a way in. Even if I don’t have the time, energy, or focus to read the volume I used to, I am able to share in the wonders of story in a way that is new and different, but really fun and rewarding. I’ll take advantage of this for as long as I can. One day, I’ll be back on my own, curled up with a good book.

Check out the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Storyline Online website with videos of some great children’s books being read by actors. So fun!


Thanks, Lisa, for sharing. Your kids (and their classmates) are so lucky!

Week Six: Summer 2016 Online Writing Group

It’s week six of our online writing group!

Week Six, y’all.

Everyone is doing swell, and kicking some butt on the writerly front. This week, in addition to today’s goals post, we’ll have a guest post from Lisa on Wednesday. So come back for that! And now, on to the goals.

Week Six Goals:

  • Alena: Week five has been the first week that I fell short on my goals. *Sad violin.*Now I’m hungry to get back to my short story. (and maybe the novel I’ve been working on too?)
  • Aliena: Coming Soon…
  • Anne D.: Thinking is my goal this week. (Think away, Anne!)
  • Anne H.: I’ve been out of town much of the last four weeks, and had out of town guests another week, so my report is that I’ve done almost nothing since my first burst of energy on the Prince poem (which I am now carrying around, waiting to finish). I hope to have more to report next week! I want to at least get the writing area set-up done. (Even if you don’t, check out last week’s post for writing area tips!)
  • Bev: Week six: Finish the Ch. 11 revisions, which I didn’t get done last week, get Ch. 12 revisions done, do my usual blog post, and pack for vacation.
  • Emily: Goals: 3 more questions for book. Progress: Embarrassing. (Have you gotten out of bed and thought about your writing? YES. No embarrassment.)
  • Katherine: I feel as though I have completely finished my “writing,” and I have moved on to revision this week. I did print out my 110 pages at Office Max. I am working on finding necessary edits and revisions that I missed on the computer. I am 50 pages in.Next week, I need to finish my revision work, which will include some restructuring to the end of the book.
  • Laura: My productivity last week was mediocre, but I’m not discouraged. I have high hopes this week to keep working on my larger project (finish Chapter 2; start Chapter 3), and to continue working on a short story that’s yet unfinished. The person who inspired the story got married last weekend, and his wedding was lovely, so I feel like I owe it to him to just get the damn thing done.
  • Lisa: As far as this week goes, I hope to just write anything. I’ve been slacking this past week, so I’m hoping to get back on track!
  • Matt: I know that, pretty soon, I’m going to embark on another read-through of my entire book, with a lot more editing concerns, but for the moment I’m continuing to focus my efforts on the first story, “The Liminal Man.” Over the past few weeks I’ve put in a lot of hours and succeeded in reducing the overall story length by more than five thousand words, and each strategic reduction is getting me closer to where I need to be. Everything I remove allows me to focus on something else, something revealed in a new light when I chipped away its surroundings.  

After this most recent pass, what became clear to me is that the beginning of the story is the very worst thing that anyone has ever written. It’s so boring that I wept tears that hung themselves in a basement. So that’s what I’m concentrating on right now: making the beginning of the story into something you could actually read. Like, for example, if I put a copy of my story on a table next to a loaded gun, and you sat down to read it, I would like you to be able to at least make it through three or four pages before you grabbed for the gun painted the walls just to avoid having to finish it. To that end, I’ve written a new first line that’s kind of promising, and we’ll take it from there. Week Six: Back to One.

  • Matt the Second: Coming soon…
  • Mike: 1) Continue revising the same short story as in previous weeks; complete another five pages of work on it, and 2) Finish and publish the blog post about my daughter that I worked on last week.
  • Ray: I have been covering another guy’s work all week, and I just got my proofs back for my first book. So I haven’t been getting a lot of writing done. This week things should be back to normal though, and I fully anticipate being able to get some writing done. I am going to aim for one chapter, just to get back into the swing of it.
  • Robert: Goal: 7,000 words this week.
  • Rosalie: I am finishing my project today. Will start massive editing tomorrow and intend to be all done by Friday. It has a soft deadline of July 15, and I intend to make it. 
  • Sarah: I have set up my writing space at the front of the house so that when my three year-old gets engrossed in a game I can be ready to write. That helped me make some progress this week. This week I need a more specific goal to help focus. Currently I have numerous video scripts started but nothing complete. So this week I need to finish China video lectures. I will write the scripts, record the videos and cross China off my to do list.

Last week, I asked participants if they’d rather read a post about writing or a post about project management. No one had a preference, so this week I’m going to focus on writing dialogue.

Writing dialogue is difficult. It takes a writer who’s a good listener, has a good ear, is able capture realistic speech, and balance that speech with a certain amount of exposition. Yeah — it’s difficult. And when you find someone who does it well, you should read as much of it as you possibly can, even if it’s not in your genre. That writer for me is Elmore Leonard.

The summer between my junior and senior years at college, I lived in Washington, D.C. for an internship at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (now called the Multicultural, Media, Telecom & Internet Council). I lived in the Georgetown Law School dorms, which were empty of law students for the summers, so they could be filled with interns like me. I shared a room with another interning student, but I moved in three weeks before she was and (being an introvert), I wasn’t great at starting up conversation in the building commons. And there was no t.v. in my room. And this was 1997. And I wasn’t old enough to go to a bar.

I figured the best way to spend my off-work time was to read (and listen to Loveline every night, because…1997), so I got myself to the bookstore. The movie Jackie Brown, based on Leonard’s Rum Punch, was coming out that December, and I’d seen some trailers. I bought a mass market copy and got reading. And I needed to go back to the book store the very next day. Six books later, my roommate got there and I had a mad literary crush on Elmore Leonard.

The thing I continue to love most about Elmore Leonard — aside from his lovably crooked and frequently bumbling criminal characters — is his dialogue. As I read his dialogue, the voices just came to life in my head. They. Came. To. Life.

And his dialogue is what makes his books so easily and successfully adaptable to the big screen. The screenplays just write themselves because the dialogue can be lifted right off of Leonard’s pages. But it wasn’t always fast or easy for him, just like it’s not fast or easy for any of us. Here he is, talking a bit about writing dialogue:

And now, here is his work in action, from his novel Glitz, the last four pages of Chapter 9. Notice the way he works in summary dialogue (without the quotation marks, not every word, just as part of the narration):

Read this page

Read this page

Now, read this page

Now, read this page

Next, read this page

Next, read this page

Finally, read this page

Finally, read this page


So, what can someone like me, someone who writes literary fiction, and maybe someone like you, who doesn’t write crime fiction, take from Leonard’s dialogue? First, we can take away how he writes dialogue tags. Notice how he rarely uses any at all, and when he does, it’s only “he said” or the rare “he asked”? There are no adverbs, and he certainly doesn’t have his characters thinking about things as they talk — they just talk. This back-and-forth style of dialogue with very few tags quickens the pace and is doable for a writer of any kind of fiction. And these minimally used, simple dialogue tags make sure that the writing is streamlined.

Another thing we can take away from Leonard’s dialogue is the way he drops words, frequently articles like “a” and “the.” By doing this, Leonard is mimicking spoken word: people don’t speak in grammatical correct sentences; people don’t speak in complete sentences. So, don’t have your characters speak in grammatically correct, complete sentences. We also use words like “gonna” instead of “going to,” and we start sentences without subjects. So drop words, drop letters, drop whatever you need to in an order to make things sound spoken rather than written.

Leonard also assumes that his reader is smart enough to follow along, which is why he doesn’t have his characters stop to go over things. Instead, his characters tell anecdotes to give character development and background rather than simply lay out what we as a reader need to know: that Sal is concerned with his appearance and his impression, and that Ricky the Zit “eats like a fucking goat” (which is also a great metaphor).

And no, none of this comes quickly, as Leonard himself admitted in the video. But it should be fun — fun to make these characters come to life, have their own voices and ways of speaking, just as we all do. Their dialogue should reflect who they are as a person. These aren’t just words on the page.

So that’s your job for this week: listen. Listen to the way people speak around you. How do they say what they’re saying? What do they include? What do they leave out? What ticks and speech patterns do they have? What words do they repeat? Write it all down and then, when you need it, use it in your work to develop something about your character. That’s one of the most fun parts about being a writer: calling eavesdropping “research.”

And your unofficial job this week is to watch more interviews on YouTube with Elmore Leonard, and then read one of his books. It’ll only take you about four hours. And, damn, will those be a fun four hours.

For more about Elmore Leonard’s writing, including his dialogue, read this excellent profile from The New York Review of Books.

And check back on Wednesday for a guest post from the terrific Lisa!
















Week Five: Summer 2016 Online Writing Group

It’s week five of our online writing group! Yee-haw!

Now let’s get to it.

Week Five Goals:

  • Alena: Laura’s assignment for week four came at a good time for me. I had hit a wall with the short story I was writing, “Two Bakas,” because I was getting hung up on the story’s flaws. Frustrated, I didn’t work on it for a while. Then, for week four’s assignment, I revisited it with a less critical eye and got back to writing it for the enjoyment of writing’s sake. (I’m so glad it helped!)

My goals for week five include finishing that same short story (or at least coming close to finishing it). I’d also like to work on a novel of mine, which I’ve already started doing character sketches for.

  • Aliena: WRITE. (I’m on vacation, dagnabbit. I have time to write. Just need to make it happen!)
  • Anne D.: My goal this week is to try and write.
  • Anne H.: Coming soon…
  • BevWe got chicks this week, and I have spent an inordinate amount of time admiring how cute they are. With the holiday extension, I was able to finish Ch. 10 revisions and even go back to Ch. 5, which is still bloated. I also wrote a letter AND put it in the mail without agonizing for weeks about typos. Some of my readers have been critical of me sending letters about summer in December… I will continue to post cute chick pictures on my blog, Fiacre’s Spade, and tackle the next chapter. I’ve already cut four pages. I hope the story still has a soul. (I’m sure it does!)

For next week, I will tackle Chapter 10, May, a big one for plot development, write my blog, and finish the letter. (Bev, I’m so glad the assignment helped — good work!)

  • Emily: Gonna try to write three questions for my book this week.
  • Katherine: Last week, I did get some writing done, but not as much as I would have liked.Next week, I have some writing that still needs to be done, but mostly I am needing to do some reorganizing of the back 30% of the book. I want to print out the entire thing so that I can really analyze the order and structure better than on my small laptop.
  • Laura: I met most of my goals last week and am looking forward to continuing to work this week. I’m going to finish the second chapter of my big project and start on the third; I’m going to finish my blog post about California and publish that on Wednesday; and I’m going to start a short story I’ve been thinking about (I finally have an opening image/scene and feel like I can start it).
  • Lisa: Last week I got absolutely nothing accomplished in the writing department. This week, I hope to at least write five pages.
  • Matt: More of the same from me for week five.

The past week has been different. My progress has slowed considerably, and that is only due in part to a busier schedule and a bit of clusterfrak that diminished my free time during my days off. I’ve made a number of fairly large changes to this story since the writing group started, and now I find myself focusing more on smaller issues. It is a more ponderous pace, but an interesting thing has happened. Somewhere along the line I have developed a sense of confidence that the manuscript is constantly improving, and that each new version of the story is the best version that it has been.

  • Matt the Second: I was able to finish my piece for the Raue’s poetry night from a few weeks ago. But I haven’t been very productive as the only place I have to write is in a very public spot with a lot of distractions and potentially people being nosy and looking over my shoulder. Being that what I want to work on is personal I don’t feel comfortable writing there, and I’m not sure how to overcome this obstacle, which sucks because I’d like to be more productive. Both the pieces are ones I’d really like to see some progress on. One so I can possibly submit it to different 10 minute play festivals and the other so I can get over the hump of not believing I’m able to write something full length. So I guess my goal should be finding a place to write where I feel comfortable to do so. Not sure where that could be. (Try the library!)
  • Mike: Only revised a few more pages of my short story but worked out a big plot point in my head for future work. That’ll have to wait till next week. I’m traveling with my older two daughters this week and will have to keep my goals appropriately realistic. I’m planning to finish a long blog post about my daughter Zoe’s educational environment.
  • Ray: Coming soon…
  • RobertGoal is 7000 words.
  • Rosalie: Once again I accomplished my week four goals at the very last minute. I seem to be having trouble making up my mind about how I want this work to flow. I have changed the theme FOUR times and finally decided that I’m just going to let it stand. Because I’ve changed the theme so often massive revisions to the work I thought I had finished are in my future. For week five I’m going to start on this task.
  • Sarah: Two goals this week: 1. Set up make-shift writing space in the living room; 2. Sneak in writing time while my kid plays. Still working on scripts for videos on Non-Western art.
  • Tina: Coming soon…

I’ve noticed that a number of you have included “setting up writing spaces” at some point during the last few weeks. And I absolutely recognize the need to have a tidy space that makes you feel in control. That feeling of control makes you much more likely to start working; it’s easier to transition to a working state in you have a comfortable, soothing space to do it in.

And I know how hard it is to transition to a working state. I have a hard time transitioning from listening to NPR in the morning to working; from watching my DVRd episode of The Preacher to working; from watching my DVRd episode of BrainDead to working; watching my DVRd episode of The Bachelorette to working; from binge-watching all of season three of the X-Files for no real reason (except, because, X-Files) to working. You see where I’m going with this?

In fact, I have such a hard time transitioning to a working state, that I rarely get much good work done at home at all, so I try to work as much as I can in my office at school. On campus, I don’t have to contend with my television (or, really, my lack of will power when it comes to my television). Instead, there’s just a cave-like atmosphere (because I turn on very few lights) and the white noise of the building’s HVAC. It’s tremendously productive.

But because I’m not teaching this summer, I have few reasons to go into the office, and I need to capitalize on all of my time here at home. So what I’ve been doing is not letting the lack of a comfortable, soothing, tidy space be my excuse not to work. And that’s your job this week: do not let the lack of a comfortable, soothing, tidy space be your excuse not to work.

This is my office:

Messy Office

This is actually a relatively clean space for me. Only two piles.

See, that’s not a soothing place to work. But I have to work anyway. So here are three options for you to choose from this week if you don’t yet have a great space to write:

Move to a clean space, even if it’s not your office or designated space.

If you have any space in your house that’s cleared off — your kitchen or dining room table, a table in your basement, or your lap as you sit on your couch or on the bed in the guest bedroom, make that your writing space for this week.

Yes, writing in a tidy space is soothing, and I know this because of what Marie Kondō writes about in her two books on tidying up. And do you know where those books are right now? In that pile on my desk. Let’s move on.

Make a Cave.

Let’s imagine that there are no cleared off spaces in your home, and that every single space is covered in piles of books, receipts, papers to file, notes to remember, etc. What do you do? Embrace the piles.

When I was an undergrad at University of Wisconsin, Madison, I used to love studying at Memorial Library where they had these cave-like study carrels. I’d go to do my research (using books, not computers) and then do my writing in a little library cave, usually at night, and usually with a smuggled in cup of coffee. It was quiet and creepy and totally amazing.

So what you have to do to create a writing cave at home is this: double-stack all of your piles on your writing surface so that you have just enough room to work in, but make sure that you’re sort of surrounded by stuff. Then hunker in there and put in a pair of headphones. This is key: the headphones will help you focus and pretend that you’re alone in this little paperwork-pile cave world. You don’t even have to plug them in or listen to anything; just put them in your ears, tell everyone in your house that you can’t be disturbed for thirty minutes, and then get to work.

Do a Quick-Clear.

If you don’t have any clear spaces, and you don’t want to make a cave, then take five minutes — no more — and move everything you don’t need from one of your spaces onto the floor in the corner of the room (preferably behind you so you don’t have to look at it). Don’t worry about organizing. You are not organizing. I repeat: You. Are. Not. Organizing. In fact, the less you pay attention to what’s in the stack you’re moving, the better. Just move it into piles that are sturdy enough not to fall over, then turn your back and get to work. When you’re done, move it all back.

Is any of this ideal? Of course not! But we rarely live in ideal spaces or exist in an ideal situation for writing. We have to carve out space just like we have to carve out time. Don’t let the lack of either be an excuse not to write.

And if all else fails, leave the house and go to the library, a coffee shop, or a park bench!

Doesn’t this stock photo woman look totally romantic and productive? YOU CAN BE HER!











Have a productive week, writers!