There’s nothing like a good, long meet-up with a writing friend to get the creative juices flowing. Yesterday, I drove the ninety miles headed west to sit with Victoria Flynn for several hours and talk shop. We worked up some big plans, exchanged story ideas; I drove home with thoughts for a new post.
Everybody wants to be a writer. Or, at least, plenty of people say they want to be a writer. But, the craft doesn’t come easy. And, rest assured, it is a learned craft. I will never forget a quote I read by Margaret Atwood in her book, Negotiating with the Dead:
A lot of people do have a book in them – that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same as “being a writer.” Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger.
Yesterday, Victoria and I poured over notebooks and clicked on a laptop or flipped through the iPad, taking notes and pulling up information from books on the craft and working out the structure of workshops and novels. We’re not taking this writing business lightly. And, neither should you.
1. You, the writer.
If you’re new to serious writing, or if you’re getting back into the craft after a long hiatus, a few questions from Melissa Donovan’s new book, 101 Creative Writing Exercises, may help guide your vision and point you in the right direction:
1. What do you write or what do you want to write? Think about form (fiction, poetry, memoir, etc.) and genre…. Be specific.
2. What are your top three goals as a writer?
3. In the past year, what have you accomplished in working toward your goals?
As Donovan says, “For those who intend to succeed, to finish that novel, get that poem published, or earn a living wage as a freelance writer, staying focused is imperative.” This is true for me. My big goals are solid, clear, but I consider questions like these when approaching smaller projects as well. If I’m struggling with a story or a chapter in a novel (or a blog post), I ask myself what I aim to do? What am I trying to say? What’s the big picture? Once I find that focus, I move forward.
2. Your Characters.
Say you have the story, but the characters – or atleast some of them – are still fuzzy. What’s a writer to do? There are plenty of character development worksheets out there, but those structured forms don’t always work for someone like me. Surprisingly. In real life, I need plans, lists, a timeline. In creative writing, not so much. So, when well-thought-out forms fail, I can always turn to an exercise that Roz Morris and Joanna Penn discuss in their Webinar series, “How to Write a Novel“: discovery writing. This type of free writing brings your characters into a better light, uncovers the mystery of their world and their thinking, reveals if that character would stand out as a strong antagonist or end up playing the part of a catalyst. Doing this type of exercise early on in the writing process, as Morris says, gives you “plenty of opportunities to use your creative urges . . . . to make the book better, instead of getting lost” in the middle.
3. Hidden Prompts.
When you decide you must write, have to, can’t stand it a minute longer, suffer from that “Dadgummit-why-have-I-waited-so-long” drive, where do you start? There are so many books and websites that offer daily writing prompts (stop by Patricia McNair’s website for starters), but there are also writing prompts everywhere around you.
- Find a seat at a restaurant. We overhear conversations all day every day. Practice in the exercise of listening, pick out a snippet of conversation nearby, grab your pen. Go with it and write a whole new story for the couple two tables over.
- Read the paper, and not just today’s paper. I’ve mentioned the fun of flipping through old microfiche before, how they are hidden treasures for character names and how they are just plain fun. But I’ve also discovered that snippets of those old stories become great prompts for flash fiction. Here’s one example from a paper dated 1889:
Mr. Cates returned from Iowa convinced by personal experience that Iowa prohibition does not prohibit.
Mr. Cates has a tale untold. Will you write it?