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 – 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 – March 14, 2018

The second week of March, and spring is definitely making an appearance. The trees are blooming, the robins have reappeared and the time has changed. If you don’t participate in Daylight Savings Time, count your blessings. This one always seems particularly hard on the kiddos. Which means it’s tough on parents.

Your writing exercise for this week is:

Try writing a conversational piece mimicking the dialect of a given region.

Writing dialect can be tricky. But I challenge you to use the exercise to deepen your understanding of language and dialogue. Be excessive in adding southern twang to your fictional conversations. Pepper your dialogue with foreign phrases. Read your passages aloud and see what effect this has on your writing. Is it still readable? Most likely not. Now, dial it back a bit. Or a lot, if need be. Recognize the power of a simple suggestion in adding local flavor to your dialogue.

Need more of a challenge? Try mimicking the conversational style of your child’s favorite cartoon. Or your partner’s favorite sportscaster or news anchor. Eavesdrop on people talking in your local coffee shop and attempt to recreate the tiniest nuances of the conversation.

Keep in mind, this is an exercise, and not necessarily intended to be used in writing fiction. The Strunk & White, The Elements of Style guide has this to say on the subject of dialect:

Do not attempt to use dialect unless you are a devoted student of the tongue you hope to reproduce. If you use dialect, be consistent.

I have finally begun reading through Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. This is actually a re-read for me, as this book was required reading for one of my college writing courses. This book is a treasure trove of succinct bits of writing advice. I’m not entirely sure where to begin. Perhaps with this line from the essay titled “Tap the Water Table,”

We learn writing by doing it. That simple. We don’t learn by going outside ourselves to authorities we think know about it.

This is great advice. And so simple. The best way to improve your writing is to write more. As such, I’ve decided I need to take up another bit of Goldberg’s advice, and start writing in notebooks again. She has the personal goal of filling a notebook every month. This seems a reasonable goal, and quite doable. If you don’t already have a supply on hand, go out and get yourself a good pen and blank notebook. Let’s begin filling the pages with observations, inspirations and, when necessary, complete nonsense.

This week’s sticky grammar issue is the split infinitive. What exactly is a split infinitive? This is when an infinitive is separated from the “to” that goes with it, usually by an adverb. For example, to diligently inquire vs. to inquire diligently. According to William Strunk and E. B. White in The Elements of Style,

There is precedent from the fourteenth century down for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive it governs, but the construction should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb.

Consider the phrase, to boldly go where no one has gone before. To turn that around would sound strange. Sometimes emphasizing the adverb is preferable. On the other hand, is the adverb really necessary at all? Is there a way to modify the action without using an adverb, a stronger, more precise verb perhaps?

Happy writing!

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask! Put it in the comments below, or send your question by email here: