Unlock the Muse – December 12, 2018

My boys started basketball a couple weeks ago. My youngest is so shy, he won’t engage at all with his teammates or coaches. I was a shy child too, so I understand his pain. But that doesn’t make it any easier to help him through it.

Writing can be a little terrifying in its own way. If you find fear of what others will think holding you back in completing your project, give yourself the freedom to write just for yourself. Write the story that’s in your heart. No one else is going to read it until you share it.

Here’s your writing prompt for this week:

Treat yourself when you break the block. Have a glass of wine or a bowl of ice cream. But don’t cheat. If you’re still stuck, you can’t have the wine or ice cream.

Sometimes the words won’t flow. It might be that life is just too busy. Or it could be that you simply need to recharge your creativity. If it’s the first, by all means, set up the reward system. If it’s one of the other two, you may just need to allow yourself to step away, lower your expectations and don’t beat yourself up.

And when the words start flowing again, totally reward yourself! Drink wine. Eat ice cream. Get a new puppy. Well, maybe not the puppy. That will distract you from writing!

Since we’re on the subject of writer’s block this week, here are some tips from scribendi.com on how to beat it.

It’s grammar week, and today a question came up today between my writer siblings and I regarding when to use the singular or plural verb form. While the examples in The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White don’t include the exact situation we were discussing, I feel that what I did find justifies my answer.

Number 9 in the “Elementary Rules of Usage” says:

The number of the subject determines the number of the verb. 
Words that intervene between subject and verb do not affect the number of the verb.

The advice I gave my sister was to simplify the sentence. Take out the intervening words. At this point it is usually clear whether subject/verb combination should be singular or plural. Most of the time it works, but as with many “rules” in the English language, this one has a number of exceptions.

Happy writing!

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

Unlock the Muse – December 5, 2018

It’s the beginning of a new month. The final month of 2018. And it’s a busy one, full of holiday craft bazaars, concerts at the elementary school, lighting candles, cookie exchanges, singing Christmas trees and secret Santas.

This time of year can also be difficult for a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons. Wherever you’re at, I hope you’ll find an outlet in writing.

Here is your writing prompt for this first week of December:

What elementary or high school teacher most influenced your decision to write by helping you with your work or exposing you to great literature? Write a letter of appreciation thanking him or her. If you can locate the teacher, mail the letter.

Maybe it was a parent, or another relative who inspired you to write. A neighbor? A friend? A coworker? Whoever it was, write them a letter.

After the frenzy that is NaNoWriMo, it can be all too easy to step away from the daily writing and let “taking a break” become consistently not writing. To avoid that, here are some great tips from prolifiko.com on how to continue (or create) a daily writing habit.

December can be a busy time filled with lots of traditional activities. My question for you this month is, how do you build these types of traditions into your fictional world?

Happy writing!

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

Unlock the Muse – October 24, 2018

October is a busy month for me. Planning a birthday party, visiting a pumpkin patch, choosing costumes, participating in a 24-hour read-a-thon, preparing for NaNoWriMo… The list goes on. While some of the interruptions life throws out are avoidable, others aren’t so optional. The best we can do as writers is to take what life throws at us and incorporate it into our work. Life experiences are what makes our fiction authentic.

Here is this week’s writing prompt:

With pen and paper in hand, visit a popular bookstore. Sit at a table or in a comfy chair, and write down snippets of dialogue you hear as people walk by. Don’t look at their faces, just keep your head down and write.

If the bookstore doesn’t work well for you, choose instead a local coffee shop or café. Maybe a university setting is more your speed, or a government office open to the public. After you’ve spent some time at your chosen location and have a good selection of dialogue, go back to your usual writing space and try to imagine what those people look like. What do they do? What are their goals? Can you create a logical conflict?

Again, I haven’t started a new writing craft book yet. My focus lately has been on world building as I prepare for NaNoWriMo next month. I found this excellent resource on the subject that offers tips for creating imaginary worlds as well as alternate reality and real world settings. 

World building is a potentially overwhelming task, but it doesn’t have to be. Take it a little bit at a time and focus on the parts that are most vital to your characters and plot.

It’s time to play! Here’s the roll of the dice from Rory’s Story Cubes, Voyages edition:


Choose just one image, or use them all and create a narrative. Or work on your world building skills and create a world where all of these things make sense together.

Happy writing!

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

Unlock the Muse – August 8, 2018

This week I will send my eldest off to summer camp for the first time. I remember going to camp many times as a kid and I loved almost every bit of it. But I’ve never done this before as a parent. For every experience, however, there must be a first time. Summer camp is almost a rite of passage, and there’s no time quite like the first time.

Your writing prompt for this week is:

Assign yourself a certain amount of words to write each day. Hit your target.

If you’ve ever participated in a NaNoWriMo event, you may have experienced the near-debilitating aftermath. For an entire month, writing is the central focus of your life and daily word counts are pursued obsessively. In the days following the event, the sudden release from the word count demand can have a negative impact on your writing progress. This week, give yourself that daily word count goal again and stick to it. It doesn’t have to be to the same level as a NaNaWriMo event. The important thing is to stay consistent, and to keep moving forward.

I haven’t started reading a new writing craft book yet, so I went searching for writing tips on the Internet. Given the theme of the opening paragraph of this week’s post, I decided to see what I could learn about writing beginnings.

Beginnings are crucial to any written work, but I think even more so for a longer work such as a novel. A reader wants to know right away that they are investing their time in something worthwhile. One blogger suggests these three tips for writing great beginnings:

  1. Have a fantastic first line.
  2. Introduce your main character as soon as possible.
  3. Hint at what’s to come.

It’s great, simple advice. You can read the full article here at thewritepractice.com.

Since we’re talking about beginnings, one thing beginning writers struggle with is style. Everyone wants to have a unique writing style, not one that feels like a copy of someone else. Some advice from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style:

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background. … As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.

Happy writing!

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

Unlock the Muse – August 1, 2018

Here it is the beginning of a new month. A good time for revisiting plans and tracking progress (or lack thereof) on goals. The summer is coming to an end and soon it will be time to resume fall routines, like school. The last few weeks have been busy for me, filled with necessary downsizing and important celebrations. Just this past weekend, I celebrated a 90th birthday with my grandmother and a 6th birthday with my youngest son.

I also completed Camp NaNoWriMo, reaching my goal of 20,000 words. More important than the word count, however, was the huge progress I made toward a complete story line. Now is a good time to slow down and evaluate where I’m at with this book I’m working on. I hope to make significantly more progress over the rest of this year, and it’s time to make a plan.

Here is your prompt for this week:

Go for a Sunday (or any day that works best) drive on a route you have not explored. As Frost suggested, taking the “road less traveled” can mean a fresh start in the right direction (and possibly some new writing inspiration). Be sure to take a map, just in case!

This is the perfect opportunity for slowing down to reexamine your writing. Have you hit a road block on your current novel in progress? Been completely uninspired? Maybe you’re cruising along just fine, but the words are starting to sound a little stale. This is the perfect exercise to clear your mind and recharge. Better take a notebook too, along with that map!

Chris Baty finishes his book No Plot? No Problem! with a chapter titled “I Wrote a Novel. Now What?” In this chapter, he gives very practical advice on what to do next – from taking an honest look at the book you’ve just created and deciding whether or not to continue forward with it, to tips on finding the right agent.

Baty warns the rewriting process could easily take up to a year or more to complete. It is a difficult and challenging process. And your novel may need to be rewritten not just once or even twice, but three, four, five or even more times!

The good news, though, is that the difficulties of rewriting are absolutely worth it, and that taking your novel from the rough draft stage to the shining, breathtaking end product will delight and devastate you just as intensely as the rough draft did, if not more so.

Here’s something to think about this month: How has your summer gone so far? Have you done the things you planned on doing? Accomplished what you wanted to accomplish? Take a moment to consider where you were at the beginning of the summer, where you are now, and where you hope to be by the end of summer.

Happy writing!

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

Unlock the Muse – April 25, 2018

It’s the last week of April. My Camp project has been of mixed success so far. I am currently caught up on my word goal. I’ve reached ‘the end’ on one of the two stories I am working on this month. On the flip side of that, I have often found myself struggling to find time for writing around soccer practices, soccer games, school concerts and so on. And when I do find time, I waste a lot of it on Twitter and Goodreads. But I am having fun, and that is, after all, what Camp should be, isn’t it?

Here is your writing prompt for this week:

Go to your local mall and buy some postcards of your city. Use the postcards as stationary to drop a brief “hello” to friends.

This seems the perfect prompt for Camp month. If you’re Camping, send a post card from camp and let others know what you’re up to this month and how you’re doing on your writing goals.

While I haven’t exhausted the wisdom contained in the little book, Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, I have decided that I’ve shared enough. The problem is, I haven’t started reading another writing craft book.

So instead, let’s take a look at the writer’s reference shelf. Every trade has its specific tools designed to help get the job done right. As a writer, that means reference books. There are a few most writers consider essentials: a good dictionary, thesaurus and a “what to name the baby” book. Right?

Then, if you’re like me, you have a few (or a few dozen!) other specialty reference books and writing craft books. Some of the more unique titles on my reference shelf:

Creating Characters Kids Will Love, by Elaine M. Alphin
Medieval Wordbook, by Madeleine Cosman
Wicked Words, by Hugh Rawson
Word Dance: The Language of Native American Culture, by Carl Waldman
The Complete Fantasy Reference, by Andrew I. Porter
Editing Fact and Fiction, by Irene Gunther & Leslie T. Sharpe

What’s on your shelf?

In honor of Camp NaNoWriMo, April 2018 coming to a close this week, here’s my “post card” from Camp with a quote from NaNoWriMo’s founder:


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:

Unlock the Muse – April 11, 2018

It’s week two of April and I am barely keeping up with my Camp NaNoWriMo goal. I chose what I thought was a low goal of 25,000 words, but it has proven more challenging than I had hoped it would be. My hope is to have a completed first draft of a middle grade adventure story that takes place on a spaceship. I’ve had a lot of fun learning about spacecraft, space travel and all things robotic. And my story is beginning to take shape. There is still hope.

Your writing exercise for this week is:

Take a decorative calendar, and pick an image from one of the months. Create a setting based on the image you select. Choose randomly, or do this exercise for each month.

I love this prompt. For the last several years I have sought out a new calendar by the artist Ciruelo. His work includes a lot of dragons and fantasy artwork, and it is stunning. Many of the pictures evoke a story, and would work well for this prompt. Whatever calendar you choose, have fun, and be creative!

I think the essay “Write Anyplace” from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones just might be my favorite. In it she says:

Okay. Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can’t find his shoes, your car won’t start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams. There is the threat of nuclear holocaust, there is apartheid in South Africa, it is twenty degrees below zero outside, your nose itches, and you don’t have even three plates that match to serve dinner on. Your feet are swollen, you need to make a dentist appointment, the dog needs to be let out, you need to defrost the chicken and make a phone call to your cousin in Boston, you’re worried about your mother’s glaucoma, you forgot to put film in the camera, Safeway has a sale on solid white tuna, you are waiting for a job offer, you just bought a computer and you have to unpack it. You have to start eating sprouts and stop eating doughnuts, you lost your favorite pen, and the cat peed on your current notebook.

Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of the chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.

Life gets crazy. Breathe. Write.

For this month’s grammar lesson, let’s take a look at a few commonly misused words and phrases from the Strunk & White style guide.

Allusion. Easily confused with illusion. The first means “an indirect reference”; the second means “an unreal image” or “a false impression.”

Anybody. In the sense of “any person,” not to be written as two words. Any body means “any corpse,” or “any human form,” or “any group.” The rule holds equally for everybody, nobody, somebody.

Care less. The dismissive “I couldn’t care less” is often used with the shortened “not” mistakenly (and mysteriously) omitted: “I could care less.” The error destroys the meaning of the sentence and is careless indeed.

Effect. As a noun, means “result”: as a verb, means “to bring about,” “to accomplish” (not to be confused with affect, which means “to influence”).

Imply. Infer. Not interchangeable. Something implied is something suggested or indicated, though not expressed. Something inferred is something deduced from evidence at hand.

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: