Unlock the Muse – September 12, 2018

It’s football season again. And by that, I mean both soccer and American football. All three of my boys are engaged in one of these two sports right now, so it goes without saying, my life is busy. And interesting. Because anything with children involved never goes as planned.

Novels are a little bit like children in this regard, never quite going the way you expect. But it’s the surprises that keep things interesting and what makes writing so much fun.

Here is your writing prompt for this week:

The longer your novel, the more crises it will have. Outline three crises in your novel and what their effects are on the characters.

This feels like a timely prompt for me, as this is what I’ve been trying to work on. I swear, these prompts are chosen purely at random, quite literally drawn out of a bowl.

Creativity is that indefinable something inside all of us that yearns for outlet. For some of us, that outlet is writing. Sometimes, however, that creativity gets pushed aside by our rational, day-to-day, necessary life. The reality of paying bills and feeding children is seldom conducive to creative flow. Anne Lamott offers this advice in her book, Bird by Bird:

You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don’t look at your feet to see if you’re doing it right. Just dance.

It’s grammar week, and as such, I’ve pulled this little tidbit from Strunk & White’s Elements of Style:

Write with nouns and verbs.
Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech. Occasionally, they surprise us with their power. … In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing their toughness and color.

Happy writing!

As the end of 2018 approaches, I have been considering what it is I’m hoping to accomplish with this weekly post. My goal has been, and remains, to provide inspiration and encouragement to writers – myself included. I am contemplating changes in the new year, and I would love to hear from you if this weekly post has been useful to you, and if so, in what way?

Please consider sharing a link to your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask!


The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood: A Review

A book that is also a musical or play is #13 on the 2018 Reading Challenge list. I already planned to read The Handmaid’s Tale, and decided to use it for this prompt. This was one of several books I was determined to read this year, so I fit it in wherever I could. This book has been adapted for stage, and more recently for television.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is a speculative fiction tale about a dystopian future where an extreme theocracy has taken over the United States. In this repressive regime, women belong to one of three classes – Wives, Marthas and Handmaids. Wives are allotted to the Commanders in what appears to be a war heroes reward sort of system. Marthas are servants – housekeepers, cooks and the like. And Handmaids are those who’ve been deemed fertile, and are assigned to Commanders for the sole purpose of producing progeny for the Commanders and their Wives.

Told through the voice of Offred (Of-Fred), a Handmaid, this is a chilling picture of what humans are capable of doing to each other. Written as a recollection sometime after the events of the novel take place, the narrative is somewhat rambling. It shifts and wanders as memories often do. Certain colors and images stand out as Offred simultaneously recalls her life as a Handmaid and her life before. Here is one of my favorite images:

Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out.

Margaret Atwood uses beautiful and often surprising language as she tells her story. I was captivated by this book, though not at first. In the beginning, the writing feels dull somehow. Not dull as in boring, but rather as if all the edges had been worn off. It felt blunted. But as I read on, I could feel everything being stripped away, much as it must have happened for Offred. And through this, I realized that the dullness was intentional. It builds the sense of fear and paranoia that is rampant in Offred’s reality.

I enjoyed this book and feel it is one worth reading. I have to say, however, I don’t really like the way it ends. The ending comes a bit abruptly, and I am left feeling vaguely unsettled with many questions unanswered. But then again, perhaps this too was intentional.

Fiction Friday: Preparing for National Novel Writing Month

NaNo Prep season is officially upon us. What are you doing to prepare for the biggest novel writing event of the year? I’ve decided to do things differently this November than what I usually do. Typically, I approach November with grand ideas, but no plans. I dive into the writing on November first with little more than a character’s name and a vague idea of who he is or what he will do.

I’ve successfully completed NaNoWriMo every year since 2010 in this fashion, pantsing my way to 50,000 words or more with wild abandon. What I have failed to do, however, is come away from November with anything resembling a completed novel draft.

This year I am working on a novel I started a couple of years ago. It has grown into a series that will total five books when complete. The last few months, then, I have been working to prepare for writing a complete draft of at least one of these novels during NaNoWriMo 2018. There is a ton of work to do, but I’ve tried to focus on three major areas: Organization, Characterization & Plot, and Research.

A novel alone is a lengthy project. One that can involve some intricate planning. In my experience, keeping track of all that goes into just one novel is a daunting prospect. Now, multiply that task by five. I am now keeping track of characters and locations for five separate, interlocking novels. I need a way to keep it all straight.

I purchased five 3-ring binders, one for each novel. They are different colors so I can color-code each book. Here, I can keep records of each character within the relevant binder – pictures, descriptions and back story. Everything is all in one place and easily accessible when I need it.

Characters & Plot
This is probably the most basic of novel-prep – character profiles. It is a lot easier to write about people you know. Therefore, I spent most of July’s Camp NaNoWriMo working on profiles for the various characters that will fill my fictional universe. I’m still working my way through all this, and it feels like it’s taking longer than it should.

I have also started working on a plot outline. I know basically how I think the story should go, and I am building a story arc for the series as well as arcs for each individual novel. Each novel will ideally work with the others to build and complete the larger story. Discovering the connections between each character as I build the overall story is fun and exciting. I love all the little break through “aha!” moments.

Along with plot outlining there is also map making and world building. This series takes place on a universal scale, thus my map is a model of the universe itself. I learned somewhere that it has been theorized the shape of the universe is a dodecahedron. I like this idea, and have adopted it for the purposes of my novels. I have put together a small 3-D “universe” using the dodecahedron idea. This will provide a good visual to help keep me motivated as I write.

My research for this set of novels has led me into an interesting selection of topics. I’ve been reading about veganism, numerology and space travel. I’ve tried to learn more about African folklore and the African diaspora that resulted from the slave trade. I researched the best city for motorcycle enthusiasts, and where on Earth would be the best place to build a space port.

There are also multiple planets besides Earth involved in this series, so I am learning the basics of geology, climate, botany and zoology. And not only do these planets need to be built from the inside out, they need to have a name. I thought naming characters was difficult. I’ve since decided naming a planet is even harder.

This is my plan over the next two months as I prepare for National Novel Writing Month 2018. My goal this week is to work on the overall story arc for the series and decide where each of the five novels fits within that arc. Also, I hope to hunt down pictures for at least the most significant characters.

I’ll post an update about my progress in a semi-regular post, Fiction Friday. This will hopefully keep me accountable and moving forward with this novel series.

Are you planning to participate in National Novel Writing Month? What are you doing to prepare? If you’ve participated before, is this your usual approach, or are you trying something new?

Unlock the Muse – September 5, 2018

Welcome to September! Summer ends, and a new season begins. While fall isn’t quite the renewal of spring, it does bring a new beginning. The excitement of returning to school, renewing old friendships and new commitment to goals.

For myself, I have committed to working on a series of novels I’m writing. My plan this fall is to have a solid outline in place by November for part of this series. I intend to come away from National Novel Writing Month this year with a completed (if horrible) first draft.

This week, your writing prompt is as follows:

Imagine what it was like when you were in your mother’s womb. Describe this environment without using the sense of sight.

Nothing like going back to the very beginning. After you contemplate your own womb experience, stretch this exercise to the birth of a nation, a people, the world. What was that gestation period like?

To really get to the heart of any story, you need to know your characters. They can’t do things simply for the sake of the plot, but their behavior should emerge organically from who they really are. This may mean conducting extensive fictional interviews, or spending time with them, writing your draft in fits and starts that may not go anywhere you’re expecting. Here’s what Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird regarding false starts and getting to know your characters:

So if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t. You may try to get them to do something because it would be convenient plotwise, or you might want to pigeonhole them so you can maintain the illusion of control. But with luck their tendrils will sneak out the sides of the box you’ve put them in, and you will finally have to admit that who they are isn’t who you thought they were.

Spend some time with your characters. Invite them to coffee and discuss their goals and dreams. What do they want most out of life? Let them grow and develop into who they should be, then let them burst forth onto the page fully formed and alive!

In keeping with the theme of gestation and birth, the question for you this month is how long does it take for a story to develop from idea to draft? (Hint: there is no wrong answer!)

Likely, this is as different from one person to the next as it is from one story to the next. I know that I’ve had ideas that lay dormant for months, or even years before they finally quicken into full life, as well as many that never go beyond that initial idea.

Happy writing!

Please consider sharing a link to your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask!

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath: A Review

I chose to read The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath for a book about mental health, #16 on the 2018 Reading Challenge. I came across Sylvia Plath when I began researching notable women authors. I’d heard her name before, but never read any of her work. I found this book on a list of novels about mental health. The premise intrigued me, so it joined my list.

The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a talented young college student on scholarship in an honors English program. As the novel opens, she’s participating in an internship program with eleven other young ladies. The story follows Esther’s descent into depression and madness.

Written from the first person perspective, this novel takes the reader along on a deeply personal journey. Esther struggles to define herself and her place in the world. When things begin to fall apart at the end of her internship and she isn’t accepted into the summer writing program she was counting on, Esther falls into a spiral of depression, suicidal thoughts and ultimately attempts to take her own life.

In this book, Plath not only took on the debilitating aspects of depression and mental illness, she also tackled issues facing many young women who struggle with their identity as a person and as a woman. There is a certain social weight that comes along with womanhood – the looming responsibility of parenthood that cannot be fully separated from the act of sex. Esther wrestles with this issue as she deals with the question of dating and marriage, a near rape and the idea of what sex should mean to her. Though this isn’t the central issue of the story, it contributes to Esther’s decline.

This is a well-written, compelling story. Written in 1962, this novel wasn’t published in the US until 1971, several years after Plath’s death by suicide. This novel has an autobiographical feel to it, especially in light of what transpired in Plath’s life and death.

While this book didn’t completely wow me, I did enjoy it. It made me think about how we all experience life from the limited perspective of our own minds. We’re locked up in our own heads, and nothing makes sense except within the framework of our flawed understanding.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler: A Review

When I set out to choose the books I would read for the 2018 Reading Challenge, I struggled to find just one book for some of the categories. I wanted to focus first on what I already had on my shelves but I also wanted to expand my reading experience. One category I particularly struggled with to choose just one book is a book by an author of a different ethnicity than myself.

So, although I’ve already filled this prompt with another book, there was no way I could not read Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler this year. I already had the book on my shelves, after all. Butler is on all the must read sci-fi author lists. This was my opportunity to finally make that happen.

Written in a sort of journal entry fashion, Lauren Olamina tells her story of survival in a future America ravaged by the effects of global warming, severe drought and government corruption. The world teeters on the edge of anarchy. More and more people are unemployed and uneducated. Clean drinking water is expensive and hard to come by. Police and firefighters only come when they’ll get paid for their services.

As unrest grows, it presses more and more into Lauren’s world, ultimately forcing her out of her home – one of the last, semi-safe walled communities outside Los Angeles. She flees north along with a handful of others seeking a better, safer way to live.

Butler’s writing is intelligent and powerful. This book is so deep and intense, so full of radical ideas, a single read through might not be enough. The story itself is so terrifyingly real, it’s easy to get caught up in the motion and miss some of the important ideas Butler is trying to convey. I know I found myself caught up in this book.

There are probably many quotable passages in this book, but one that stuck out for me was this one where Lauren is having a conversation with her friend and neighbor, Jo about what she would do if she found herself outside the walls of their neighborhood.

I realize I don’t know very much. None of us knows very much. But we can all learn more. Then we can teach one another. We can stop denying reality or hoping it will go away by magic.

Despite the difficult subject matter, I enjoyed this book immensely. I look forward to reading more by Octavia Butler, and quite likely re-reading this book at some point. I highly recommend this book.

Unlock the Muse – August 29, 2018

It’s the last official week of summer. The loosely scheduled, free-wheeling days are coming to an end, and it’s time to get back to a solid routine. This is easier for some than for others. Maybe for you summer is no different than the rest of the year. For myself, my children will go back to school. We’ve started a new round of sports activities. NaNoWriMo is just around the corner.

Your writing prompt for this week:

Buy a copy of your favorite magazine and write a letter to the editor about something you read in the issue.

Whether you send it or not is up to you. But it’s a nice opportunity to practice with a short piece of writing. Write, rewrite, edit, polish. Now go do it again!

Now that you’ve perfected a short piece of writing, let’s take a look at that sometimes troublesome monster, perfectionism. There is a time and a place for that perfectionist inner editor, but writing the first draft is certainly not one of them. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has this to say about perfectionism:

The bottom line is that if you want to write, you get to, but you probably won’t be able to get very far if you don’t start trying to get over your perfectionism. You set out to tell a story of some sort, to tell the truth as you feel it, because something is calling you to do so. It calls you like the beckoning finger of smoke in cartoons that rises off the pie cooling on the windowsill, slides under doors and into mouse holes or into the nostrils of the sleeping man or woman in the easy chair. Then the aromatic smoke crooks its finger, and the mouse or the man or woman rises and follows, nose in the air. But some days the smoke is faint and you just have to follow it as best you can, sniffing away. Still, even on those days, you might notice how great perseverance feels. And the next day the scent may seem stronger—or it may just be that you are developing a quiet doggedness. This is priceless. Perfectionism, on the other hand, will only drive you mad.

It’s the fifth Wednesday of August, and that means it’s bonus week! I’ve decided to make a small change in my usual monthly line-up. After today, this bonus week “play time” will be a regularly scheduled feature on the fourth week each month. Bonus week will now be reserved for inspiring quotes about writing related things.

That said, here’s new game from Rory’s Story Cubes. Let’s play!


Happy writing!

Please consider sharing a link to your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask!