Thursday, October 29, 2009

Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo

… National Novel Writing Month, that is. And if you haven’t tried it yet, sign up now! You have nothing to lose except for maybe the wildest 50,000 words you’ll ever write.

This is my fourth year of participation and I’m counting the days, pen in hand, ready to start along with thousands of other writers the first day of November at the crack of dawn; no mere figure of speech for me. I’m currently on vacation and in the middle of traveling so I’ll be writing at the airport of all places, waiting for an early morning flight. Should make for an interesting beginning to both the month and my plot!

My working title for this year’s manuscript is Ghazal, inspired by an actual ghazal I wrote and posted on 7/07/2009. My genre is “literary” and the blurb I added to my user page (user name “poppywriter”) at reads: “Thirty years, thirty doorways. Every breath, every door we take matters to someone.”
To further help me get into the NaNo mood, I made a Polyvore set (top of this post) a few weeks ago to illustrate my theme, and I’m using that as my visual inspiration to ensure I’ll keep writing. I’ve printed it out in a larger format to slip into the front cover of my 2009 NaNo binder, a wonderful periwinkle blue notebook that truly speaks to me and makes me hungry to write. Color does that to me whether it’s a binder, a new ink, or the paper I’m using and it’s all part of the fun of abandoning myself to “just write, don’t think” for an entire month.

The rest of my binder consists of:
  • 30 sheets of paper, each with a picture of a different doorway taken from magazines (of course!).
  • A writing prompt for each page selected from A Writer's Book of Days by Judy Reeves.
  • A cut-out phrase from my magazine word pool added to the bottom of each page.
To create this visual “outline” I matched doors to prompts and phrases totally by random. After pasting everything together I shuffled the pages up, and then arranged them into a 30-page/30-day sequence for each day of November’s writing marathon.

I lucked out unbelievably on my first page: a dark, mysterious door slightly ajar and leading to a garden passageway coupled with the phrase “Every story has a bead…” The writing prompt joining these two items commands: “Write about ‘what goes without saying.’” Wow. I couldn’t have planned that better even if I’d tried.

Tip of the day: 50,000 words in 30 days is only 1,667 words a day. You can do it. Go sign up now while there’s still time: Can’t wait to see you on the other side of the finishing line.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review, Harvesting Your Journals

Harvesting Your Journals, Writing Tools to Enhance Your Growth and Creativity by Rosalie Deer Heart and Alison Strickland. Heart Link Publications, Santa Fe, 1999. 200 pages.

Every few years I think about throwing away my journals. As someone who moves a lot, prefers a minimalist approach to decorating, and doesn’t have a lot of closet space, keeping all those storage boxes of spiral bound notebooks sometimes seems just plain nutty. I know I’m not alone in this. Once at a Christina Baldwin seminar I heard a participant ask, “What do we do with our journals after we’re finished?” One suggestion was to have them buried or cremated with our bodily remains.

Despite my rather grandiose visions of ancient Egypt or sending my journals off to Valhalla in some glorious fire ritual, I still find myself asking, “Yes, what to do with the darn things? There’s so many of them!” The day I came across Harvesting Your Journals was one of those times I was feeling the weight of my collection and was ready to put every single page through the shredder. After all, I reasoned, I had “gleaned” every morsel I would ever need from all that writing: from dreams to character sketches to bad poetry; really bad poetry. It was time to move on; I was finished with the past. Or so I thought. After reading the first chapter of Harvesting Your Journals I began digging through my old journals with an eagerness I hadn’t even known when I was writing them.

Central to Harvesting is the idea that when approached with creativity, old journals are anything but boring. Reading through past journals allows us to discover all the things we didn’t write about, things that were perhaps too painful, confusing, or too embarrassing to record. Or perhaps we were so caught up in the tide of the moment while writing we were unable to look at events with the depth we wanted. By re-examining those events as jump-off points for new directions and choices, we can also gain confidence by realizing how much we have grown. I have to admit that at first I thought this would be impossible—all those pages of complaints! But inspired by the authors’ guidance and ideas for pre-planning the best way to return to your journals, such as making search lists of themes or specific questions, I found myself reading old entries with fresh interest.

The book is divided into four sections, starting with “Entering the Fields” and ending with “Celebrating the Bounties.” Each section provides readers with an extensive list of ideas, tools, and writing aids to begin the journey into the past in order to “invent the future.” Throughout the text the authors—friends for many years and journal keepers themselves—share a wealth of personal examples showing how and why their techniques work.

In case you’re thinking that there aren’t enough hours in the day to write in new journals let alone go through the old ones, the authors assure readers that revisiting old journals isn’t meant to be some dutiful chore, starting with the first journal ever written and then plowing through until the present day. Instead, readers are encouraged to start anywhere. The point is to take your time, savor the process, and delight in your discoveries—the same steps to enjoying any form of creative writing.

Tip of the day: Revisit your old journals. Choose just one and experiment with questioning and revising your entries. What have you learned since writing them?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Finding True North: Bring Your Settings to Life

Last night I had the privilege of speaking to the Albuquerque branch of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They’re a friendly group and I was happy to discuss some of my ideas on how to maximize the use of setting in our writing. For today’s post, I thought I’d share some of the things we talked about.

For starters, I enjoy writing about place, especially foreign places. Four of my books are set in New Zealand (two of these are nonfiction) and one is set in Egypt. One of the best things I can hear from a reader is that my settings “made the story come to life.” I take that to mean that I’ve made the setting essential to the plot; without my setting details, the story just wouldn’t be the same.

The following list includes some of the things I do to make writing about setting just as much fun and vibrant as all the other story elements I strive toward.

1. Choose the setting you love, not what you think will please an editor or follow a trend. In many instances, the place we are from is our best starting point; it’s our “root” equation. Give that same foundation to your characters. Everyone has a sense of “home” with both good and bad associations.

2. For fictional settings: write first, research later. Even if you’re describing your hometown, get your story down on paper first and don’t worry too much about the “facts.” You can add all the precise information you need later. This goes for any kind of extra detail you might need to further your plot. For instance, in my current WIP, my heroine is an art restoration expert. I don’t know how to restore a painting or what kind of environment is needed to do so. It’s far more important to me that I write about her motivations, goals, and character development before I worry about her cleaning products. Right now I’m calling whatever she uses to fix a painting “Magic Art Clean.” I’ll insert the correct brand names later. I’m writing a novel, not a treatise on art conservation. Equally, when I write about place in fiction, it’s important for me to keep in mind that I’m not writing a travelogue or a term paper. I don’t need to know everything.

3. To find what part(s) of your setting is important and worth including, think in terms of levels or “boxes”: in your WIP notes, describe your characters’ immediate safe place, i.e. their room, cave, or cupboard. Follow that by describing the home that contains that room. Move out into their yard; their neighborhood; workplace; city; country; and finally any foreign destination that takes them away from these safety zones.

4. Whenever you’re embarking on either fiction or nonfiction research, ask yourself: a) What do I already know? b) What don’t I know? c) What do I want to know? Brainstorm your answers. Make extensive lists and then pursue the information you truly need. Useless research can eat up a lot of creative time.

5. Narrow your focus: rather than try to describe an entire panorama, choose a few unique details to define your setting in as specific and simple terms as you can. The main reason editors and many readers claim to dislike the inclusion of overly-descriptive passages is that they slow the story down.

6. Good news, bad news: you don’t have to travel to the places you write about. (And here you were thinking you could call that dream vacation "research.") Foreign travel is great of course, but not necessary to your writing. The trick is to use research opportunities that go beyond simply reading a nonfiction book about your chosen setting. My absolute favorite starting point (as you’ll have gathered from my last two posts) is to collect magazine photos to get a feeling for the look of the place. I gather photos that show my setting by night, midday, dawn; luxury tourist areas and the poverty-stricken backstreets; private homes, grocery stores, schools, business districts. I try to get as wide an angle as I can on every aspect of my setting.

7. Read cookbooks. A good cookbook is so much more than a collection of recipes. Besides providing insights into foreign foods and ingredients, the books are often filled with memoir, historic references, and overall cultural attitudes to life, religion, festivities, as well as tiny details that may otherwise be overlooked. Trying out some of the recipes is just as important too!

8. Foreign newspapers are excellent resources, especially the back pages. Advertisements and the classifieds in particular can help you learn about the types of employment in a town or country, as well as the price of items and what kind of things people are interested in buying and selling.

9. Read as much foreign fiction as you can that originates from your chosen setting. Watch foreign films and television programs.

10. Order some items from your chosen country online: food, clothing, cosmetic items, and crafts. Just seeing how these things are wrapped for shipping is an amazing view into “how things are done.” Often these items will have their own unique and sometimes surprising scent that conjures up all kinds of images. For instance, I recently bought some paper scraps from India. The smell of incense, curry, and industrial strength bleach emanating from these colorful sheets is enough to describe an entire marketplace.

11. With that in mind always, always write with your five senses. Description of place goes far beyond the way it “looks.”

12. If you do get to travel to your chosen setting, make sure you take some time to be by yourself away from tourist sites. Go to the grocery stores, shopping centers used by locals, back neighborhoods. Be still; observe and record; again, use your five senses.

13. When in doubt, make it up. (Within reason of course!) But really, there’s nothing on earth to stop you inventing your own apartment building, restaurant, private school, or subdivision. Just make sure it follows the “norm” of wherever it's set and isn’t too bizarre, such as a Starbucks at the top of the leaning tower of Pisa (though maybe there is such a thing now, who knows…).

14. Fantasy, science fiction, or mythological settings. This is when you can put the Starbucks wherever you want it. The key to creating fantasy settings is to stay consistent. You will have to make maps, create your ground rules for place and image, and once again, use the five senses as much as possible. Magazine cut-outs are especially useful here to help you portray and remember your other-world.

15. Finally, keep in mind that setting is tied into the emotions of your characters. It can be a source of conflict, comfort, wonder, pleasure, and downright boredom for them. It’s up to you as the writer to choose which parts of your setting are the most important to your characters and discard whatever doesn’t keep your story moving forward.

Tip of the day: Get out those notebooks! Try a week’s worth of writing practice based solely on setting. Where are you now? Where do you wish you could be? Write.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

More Ways to Use Magazine Cut-outs in Your Writing

Magazines are full of bizarre statements and attention-grabbing headlines. Taken out of context, they make incredible writing prompts to go with the magazine pictures I talked about last week.

Susan Wooldridge was one of the first writers to get me started on making "word pools" when I read and loved her book Poemcrazy. Susan suggested writing down words on the backs of paper tickets, the kind you can buy at any stationery store. I tried that for awhile, but then found I preferred cutting words out of magazines because I enjoyed the colors, various typefaces, and just the overall look of the re-arranged words.

I have two methods for making my word pools: the first is to simply scour magazines for strange or mystifying statements; the headings in bold or italics work the best. Then I just cut them out. Pretty simple! Advertisements in particular are a real goldmine: “Monkey optional.” “The Passion of Performance.” “Spanish Lessons.” The second method I use is a lot more finicky, but can be well worth the trouble. First, I clip out entire columns from the publications. These are always just a couple of inches wide and I often cut them in half to work with a piece no more than four or five inches long. Using an X-acto knife, I cut away excess words that don’t suit my purpose, and then work my way down the column until I have something that resembles haiku or free verse. I like to see how far down the column I can go without cutting off the paper too soon (or cutting myself…those blades are sharp!). The longer the "story" or train of thought I can get out of a column, the more fun it becomes. Whichever method I use, listed below are some of my favorite ways to play with random words.

1. Titles for poems, screenplays, short stories, and novels. I’ve found some of my best titles from random cut-outs. The title of my short screenplay, “Julian’s Dinner of Small Flaws” came from cutting my way inch by inch through a restaurant review.

2. Timed writing prompt. Timed writing works best when you don’t think, just write. Having a pool of prompts ready to go makes a huge difference between starting and procrastinating. I always carry a zip bag of words with me wherever I go.

3. Inspiration for non-writing related projects. For several years I took a one-on-one class with a ceramics instructor. At one point my teacher decided I needed to work with porcelain. Faced with twenty pounds of the whitest, most featureless clay I had ever seen, I used my word prompts to design and decorate the finished pieces. The results were surprising: “The Rattlesnake Ritual,” “Glance,” and "Earth Circle" are pieces I could never part with.

4. The smaller cut-outs can form an entire haiku or short poem on their own. For instance, this is a piece I put together with a visual collage of Buddhist and Asian inspired images: How do you discover/other worlds/secluded doorways/the secret/glimpses of the past?

5. Fragments such as those above can form a much lengthier work, with each section comprising a new verse. Here is the beginning of a piece made entirely from cut-outs that went for two pages in a large-sized sketchbook: I remember the robust tanginess of/chilling/buttermilk/cooking barefoot/when I was young/in search of/miraculous/baskets, bowls, and/a paper heart.
6. When I paste the words on the pages, they look like a somewhat less sinister equivalent of those “anonymous letters” in an Agatha Christie novel. Sometimes just the combination of colors and fonts is enough to make the creative wheels turn. When combined with pictures, they can make a startling collage, and a well-placed phrase or series of words can be just the thing to make the entire piece pop.

7. Create a word prompt journal. I like to buy a blank journal and paste a word or phrase on each page before I start to use it. This also makes a great gift for my writer friends, too.

8. Party time. At your next writer’s group, ask everyone to bring their own selection of cut-out words. Pool them together in a basket or jar and then agree to write for an hour or two. Every ten minutes, draw a new prompt from the jar.

9. Design your novel: plan ahead how many chapters your next book will have. Then use a word or phrase with a picture to be a prompt for that entire chapter.

10. Choose a theme. I've always believed creativity thrives on restriction and limits. By choosing to work with only one kind of magazine, e.g., fashion, politics, or gardening, you can start to harmonize the types of cut-outs you save. For instance, right now I am working on a novella-length found poem based entirely on what I've harvested from food magazines. It’s fun to specialize.

Tip of the day: Organize your word clippings into categories: single words; phrases; large headlines; “the small print.” I use self-sealing plastic envelopes to store my collections. Once you have a good variety, start playing. Try pasting your words on large sheets of art paper or tiny little scraps of cardstock. Add some pictures and don't be surprised when your friends start asking, "Do you want to sell that?"

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Thirteen Ways to Write With Magazine Cut-Outs

Magazine cut-outs and collage have been the foundation for many of my writing projects. Not only is it fun to read the magazines while looking for photos (hey, it’s research!) but I find the pictures add richness and detail I would have trouble coming up with on my own. After all, I can’t always travel to Tokyo on a minute’s notice to set a scene in a backstreet noodle shop, but a great National Geographic shot can provide an amazing amount of information in just one frame.

My primary source for photos is the library where there is always a stack of magazines for exchange and recycling. I like to go for big and glossy: Martha Stewart, Food and Wine, Opera News. I also love trade-oriented magazines that cater to the textile industry or jewelry making. Friends know I love to “write with cut-outs” so they are always happy to share with me old issues of Vogue, Elle, and Marie Claire.

I cull through my magazines on a regular basis, always searching for the unusual and most startling photos. Once I have the latest bunch, I keep them organized in file folders: People, Places, Animals, Things, Background Colors. The system is a bit idiosyncratic, but it helps me find exactly what I want at any time. After I have my latest collection, the really fun part is to use the pictures as a jumping-off point for my writing. Here are some of my favorite things to do:

1. Book Covers. Whenever I start a new WIP, I like to make a collaged “book cover” I can slip into the plastic front of the binder I’m using. I choose images that illustrate my plot and theme.

2. Character ID. Magazine photos help me to see my characters more fully. Rather than just giving them “brown hair and brown eyes,” photos of the right models can help me see freckles, eyebrows, and smiles with more individuality.

3. Characters’ Wardrobes. I love to dress my characters; it’s almost like playing paper dolls. Keeping a full “closet” of dresses, suits, and evening gowns keeps my writing consistent. I know what everybody’s wearing and when, and I also get a better idea of who they are by their taste in clothing.

4. Where They Live. Decorating my characters’ homes and work places is almost as pleasurable as buying my own new furniture. I typically choose for each character a photo of their home’s exterior followed by a living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. Then I try to find one space unique to that particular character, for instance an attic or a secret part of a garden they love to visit.

5. Scene Settings. These are the spaces where my characters interact and are the basis for where the action takes place. For my current WIP, a contemporary romantic suspense, I have pictures of France, dockyards, cloisters, and art galleries.

6. Sequel Settings. After a strong action scene, I need a place for my characters to unwind and plan their next line of attack. I try to have a number of “safe, quiet” photos that describe a good place for them to “think aloud” while keeping reader interest high. It’s too easy to forget about where characters actually are while they’re internalizing. Photos help me remember the wind is blowing, or steam is rising off their coffee.

7. Story Symbols. I love collecting photos of everything from rhinestone Chihuahua collars to Bavarian tea-sets. These are the things that define my characters and offer story “symbols.” For instance, a tea-set can be a recurring motif, something a character inherits, say, and is afraid of breaking because it will mean losing the last contact with “home.” Conversely that same set can be what my hero hates because it’s what a mean aunt always used during horrible holiday get-togethers. Breaking it symbolizes breaking with the past.

8. Dreams. The stranger the photo, the more valuable it is as something a character can dream about. In my next book due out in 2010, I have my heroine—a newlywed—dream about a row of brides. This scene would never have occurred but for finding a bizarre photo of a dozen brides in a Vogue magazine. That dream eventually came to stand for an important revelation that foreshadows the rest of the story.

9. Memories. Photos of children in school, family reunions, birthday parties can all be used for important memories that motivate my characters’ actions and emotions.

10. Past Generations. Whenever I can, I grab old-timey photos of the past. These are great for describing a character’s family origins and history.

11. Favorite Colors and Feelings. Sometimes it’s helpful to create a collage just using all the colors and objects that describe to me what my story is about. Even if I never use half of the items in the actual writing, just seeing them in front of me is very useful. For instance, a picture of a kimono can remind me of some important detail in my heroine’s psyche that I want to convey, such as her modesty or love of decorum.

12. Outlining the Story Arc. In my WIP binder, along with scene notes and character bios and all my other important photos, I like to arrange a story arc solely through pictures, sometimes one per chapter. This is the picture that sums up what that chapter is about. Having it there just helps me feel the chapter with all my senses.

13. What If? More than anything, unusual and unexpected photos get me thinking. They make great story prompts for keeping me enthused about the WIP or for any other kind of writing project. One favorite thing I like to do is simply paste a variety of images throughout a new journal before I’ve used it. That way, any time I turn the page to start writing I will always have “something to write about” and no excuses about “lack of inspiration today.”

Tip of the day: start cutting up those old magazines! If your library doesn’t have a “freebie” box, ask if you can help get one going.