Unlock the Muse – October 10, 2018

The days are getting shorter, and night falls early. I don’t like the idea of driving to work in the dark every morning and driving home in the dark every evening, but I do appreciate that the darkness makes my children sleep longer in the mornings.

Your writing prompt for this week is as follows:

Think about your most emotional moments. Write about how you could use them in your work.

The loss of a loved one. The birth of a child. That horribly embarrassing moment when you were in high school. Powerful emotions evoke powerful memories. Even if the personal memory itself doesn’t fit into your work, try to capture the essence of that emotion.

There is little that is more frustrating as a writer than to have a flash of brilliant idea only to lose it before it can be committed to paper. Different writers deal with this in various ways. Some keep a notebook handy at all times, others might used their phone to save a quick note. Anne Lamott in her book, Bird by Bird, uses index cards that she carries with her to jot down that moment of insight or interesting observation. She says:

Sometimes you’ll sit down or go walking and your thoughts will be on one aspect of your work, or one idea you have for a small scene, or a general portrait of one of the characters you are working with, or you’ll just be completely blocked and hopeless and wondering why you shouldn’t just go into the kitchen and have a nice glass of warm gin straight out of the cat dish. And then, unbidden, seemingly out of nowhere, a thought or image arrives. Some will float into your head like goldfish, lovely, bright orange, and weightless, and you follow them like a child looking at an aquarium that as thought to be without fish. Others will step out of the shadows like Boo Radley and make you catch your breath or take a step backward. They’re often so rich, these unbidden thoughts, and so clear that they feel indelible. But I say write them all down anyway.

Find a method that works for you and write down those beautiful goldfish before they can swim away.

It’s grammar week, and again I refer to Strunk and White’s, Elements of Style. Rule #6 of their Elementary Rules of Usage is:

Do not break sentences in two.
In other words, do not use periods for commas.
ex. She was an interesting talker. A woman who had traveled all over the world and lived in half a dozen countries.

In this example, the first period should be replaced by a comma.

It is permissible to make an emphatic word or expression serve the purpose of a sentence and to punctuate it accordingly:
ex. Again and again he called out. No reply.

It’s important to understand the rules of grammar, even when writing fiction. Use the rules to your advantage like in the above examples. Break the rules when it’s advantageous and works well for your writing. But for the most part, follow them. Poor grammar will interrupt the flow of the narrative and distract the reader.

Happy writing!

Among the changes I’m contemplating for the new year is posting on a new day. Rather than Wednesdays, I’m considering Tuesdays for this post instead. It’s a small change, but potentially significant as I hope it will help me spread out other posts throughout the week. As always, I’d love to hear from you!

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

Unlock the Muse – October 3, 2018

Here it is, another Wednesday. Due to some schedule changes this week, I’ve enjoyed a couple of days off from the whirlwind sports routine. I should be working on my villain. I should have had this post written earlier, but I’m once again writing it at the last minute.

Here is this week’s writing prompt:

Autumn is here. Write a list-poem about what this season evokes for you.

This is my favorite time of the year. Temperatures are moderate. Leaves are changing color and falling to the ground. They make a delightful crunchy noise when stepped on. There are birthdays and pumpkin patches and Thanksgiving.

I wanted to find something that spoke about writing through exhaustion and burn out because that’s where I’m at right now. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott doesn’t speak about exhaustion. But she has a wonderful chapter on writer’s block. Here is some of what she shares:

The fear that you’ll never write again is going to hit you when you feel not only lost and unable to find a few little bread crumbs that would identify the path you were on but also when you’re at your lowest ebb of energy and faith. … Things feel hopeless, or at least bleak, and you’re not imaginative or organized enough to bash your way through to a better view, let alone some interesting conclusion. … We have all been there, and it feels like the end of the world. … The word block suggests you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is you’re empty.

Anne suggests getting out of your own way. Take the bad days and commit to writing just 300 words of whatever. Write them, then let them go. Let your subconscious mind fill again with all those things that make you a productive writer. Then get out of your own way and let your subconscious work. When the well is again full, the ideas will flow once more.

October is the time of spooks and villains. I’ve been working on building the villain for my novel series. In honor of the season, I’ll ask this question: What is your villain most afraid of? Why?

Happy writing!

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

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!

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!

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!