Unlock the Muse – September 26, 2018

September has flown by in a blur of soccer balls, football games and more practices than it should be humanly possible to attend. All of this while I’m trying to complete a reading challenge, write a novel and maintain a full-time job. But I’m chasing a dream. And if that means I have to slog through the wet, muddy fields of fall sports, then I say, bring on the cleats! Let’s do this thing!

I’ll be honest, I’ve been struggling with the writing of late. I’m sure my busy schedule has a lot to do with it. Next month, NaNoWriMo plans begin in earnest. I’m going to have to make some adjustments if this is going to work.

Here’s your writing prompt for this week:

If you could leave on vacation today, where would you go? Write the journey you long to take.

Will you journey alone? Or is this a family vacation? Do you long to show your children where you grew up? Is it a journey of discovery? Escape? Who will go with you? And what will you take?

Part of what Anne Lamott talks about in her book, Bird by Bird, is being in the right frame of mind. Or I suppose you could say, the write frame of mind. She encourages the writer to look around, observe what’s happening around you in the now. This is where the writing comes from. Learn to really see what’s going on. She says:

Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on. Now, if you ask me, what’s going on is that we’re all up to here in it, and probably the most important thing is that we not yell at one another. … Writing involves seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein. But you can’t do that if you’re not respectful. If you look at people and just see sloppy clothes or rich clothes, you’re going to get them wrong.

So go out this week and observe the world. Watch and record what you see. But don’t just look. See. Attempt to understand. Bring meaning to the world around you.

It’s fun and games week, and it’s all about Actions! I’ve rolled out the Rory’s Story Cubes for you. Use one, or all nine to inspire a your writing. Look, even here I can’t get away from the soccer! Have fun!


As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, this weekly post will be undergoing some changes in the new year. Some features may disappear, others will be combined together. My goal is to find a sharper focus for this post in order to become a better source of encouragement for writers. I would love to hear what you enjoy most about these posts.

Happy writing!

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

Grace and Fury, by Tracy Banghart: A Review

#47 on the 2018 Reading Challenge list is to read a book by an author with the same first or last name as myself. I had a hard time with this prompt, not really finding a book that appealed to me that met the requirements. It seems that a lot of Tracys write romance novels. Now, I like a good romance novel now and then, but it just isn’t what appealed to me right now.

So when I stumbled across Tracy Banghart’s Grace and Fury, I jumped on it. This book moves fast, driven forward with action and suspense. While there may not be a lot of depth to this story, it is really fun. I loved this book.

This is the story of Serina and Nomi, sisters who are as different as sisters can be. In their world, women have no rights. They aren’t allowed to read among other things, and the slightest offense can have the direst of consequences. Serina, the eldest, has been groomed her entire life to become a Grace, someone to stand by the Heir’s side as an example of the perfect woman. Instead, it is her spitfire younger sister, Nomi who catches the Heir’s attention.

Now both sisters are caught in a role they are completely unprepared for. With time running out for both of them and a dangerous plot afoot within the palace, the sisters must take matters into their own hands to save the other.

I like how Banghart has created characters who make real decisions. Poor decisions in many cases, but they aren’t exempted from the often disastrous consequences of their choices. They are forced to acknowledge their faults, learn from them and move on.

There are some romantic elements to this story, though even in this, things don’t go as expected. Ultimately, this story is about the relationship between two sisters and their willingness to fight for each other when everything is stacked against them.

If you’re looking for a light, fun read, this is a good choice. My biggest complaint is the long wait for the sequel!

Unlock the Muse – September 19, 2018

Wow! It’s mid-September already? Where has the time gone? This soccer-mom business is cutting into my writing time. But we all have challenges that we face on a daily basis. It’s all in how we work to overcome them, or turn them to our advantage.

Here’s your prompt for this week:

Sit on your porch or balcony or in the yard, and concoct a conspiracy theory from the activity (or lack of activity) in your neighborhood.

I live on a circle, and I know most of my neighbors. While this is great for raising a family, it’s not so great for conspiracies. If I can find the time to sit out in my yard, I’m going to turn this neighborhood on its head!

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has a lot to say about writing. But more than that, she talks about life as a writer – the good, the bad, the terrifying. I love her frank honesty about the sometimes neurotic behavior creative people exhibit. For example, this bit from her chapter titled “Someone to Read Your Drafts.”

I always send my work Federal Express, because I am too impatient to wait for the mail to deliver it. I spend the entire next day waiting to hear, pacing, overeating, feeling paranoid and badly treated if I haven’t heard from my friends by noon. Naturally I assume they think it is tripe but they don’t have the courage to tell me. Then I’ll think about all the things I don’t like about either of them, how much in fact I hate them both, how it is no wonder neither of them has many friends. And then the phone will ring and they usually say something along the lines of “I think it’s going to be great, I think it’s really good work. But I also think there are a few problems.”

Writing is so much a solitary act. At the same time, we need to partner with others to make our writing the best it can be. It’s important, as Anne Lamott says, to find the right partner to share your writing with. Don’t waste time on the wrong partner. Find someone who can be supportive and encouraging while helping you to improve your work.

Since we’re talking about partners, let’s take a look at that word in this month’s vocabulary session.


1. A person who takes part in an undertaking with another or others, especially in a business or company with shared risks and profits.
Synonyms: colleague, associate, coworker, collaborator, comrade, teammate.

According to etymonline.com, the word partner is an altered form of the word parcener from the late 13th century Old French word parçonier which means “partner, associate; joint owner or joint heir.” It is derived from the Latin word partitionem which means “a sharing, partition, division, distribution.”

I particularly like that last bit about a sharing, or a division of labor, especially in light of this week’s discussion on reading partners. Any creative act is a labor of love, and it can only be strengthened when it’s shared with the right people.

Happy writing!

Please consider sharing a link to your response to the writing exercise. Do you work with a reading partner for your writing? Tell us how you found your partner!

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!