Tag Archives: work

A full moat versus a network of canals

The working (creative) writer: allocating resources for residency and beyond

The glories of a sand castle lie in its walls... and moat system. CC image Sandcastle Competition courtesy of Victoria Pickering on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The glories of a sand castle lie in its walls… and moat system. CC image Sandcastle Competition courtesy of Victoria Pickering on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I grew up near the coast, the child of two beach lovers. My childhood summer memories are filled with sand and salt, the smell of sunblock and the roaring sound of the surf as it crashed ashore. I was especially devoted to two activities at the beach: spending as much time in the water as possible, which included boogie-boarding, getting knocked on my butt, and general frolicking; and building sand castles. The number one feature of any good sand castle, in my view, aside from perfectly shaped towers that didn’t immediately crumble and collapse when I removed the bucket, was the moat.

The moat had to be filled with seawater to be truly special and worthwhile; the more of the moat we could fill with water, the better the moat and the more successful the sand castle. You could fill up the moat by hand, running back and forth from the surf with a bucket, but this method was time-consuming, tiring, and in the final analysis, futile. The water would always drain away, through the sand at the bottom of the moat (nicely porous) and/or via the front of the moat crumbling in the direction of the sea. Much more satisfying was building your sand castle and moat in such a way that the sea itself would fill the moat for you — via incoming waves.

Building a sand castle so that the ocean fills the moat for you is an exercise in basic planning and engineering. The castle needs to be close enough to a certain percentage of waves so that the moat can fill, but far enough from the pounding surf to last (every castle eventually succumbs to the sea; the question is only when, and in terms of Child Time, “long” is a flexible concept). To do this, you need to take into account whether the tide is going out, or coming in, and whether you have sibling helpers or obstructionists, or if everyone is going competitively solo. You have to plan your resources: for instance, there are a finite number of buckets and shovels for creating towers and moving sand. You have to accept that some parameters are beyond the builder’s control (the surf; your siblings; people who walk around not paying attention).

The same can be true of preparing for a writer’s residency: planning and preparation meet resource considerations and the reality of limitations on the writer’s ability to control all circumstances.

Why my residency is like a sand castle

When I first realized that my residency was real — not only had I been accepted, but I would be able to go — I immediately thought about how to best use the time I had to prepare. So many thoughts and ideas around the residency swirled through my head, I embarked on a weekly blog posting commitment to address my personal experience and share information that could be useful to other writers. I jumped in without much forward planning but a lot of ambition — the equivalent of pouncing on the first sand castle site available on the shoreline, without considering the number one rule of real estate: location, location, location.

I also didn’t count how many shovels and buckets I had available, and I ignored the reality of other life circumstances that place limits on my time.

As a result I can see a gap now of four weeks since my last blog post. Dear reader, in all this time, I have been writing… a lot. I have been writing every day. I have pages and pages full of notes, queries to myself, scenes and expository sequences. I meet and then exceed my word count. My story is starting to knit together and thrive under my devoted attention. I didn’t so much forget about my blog commitment, as realize that I had a bigger, more important commitment to attend to first.

Which brings me to the moat

When designing a moat for your sand castle, you can go for simple, a ditch that surrounds the outside perimeter, or you can opt for a complex network of canals and tributaries, feeding one another from the main moat. I’ve seen people with gorgeous sand castle canals, forking networks around complicated series of turrets, sometimes with an inner moat as well as an outer one. I’ve tried to build a few of these myself.

The trouble with fancy canal systems is that they require much more, and more regular, water. I’m sure an engineer and math enthusiast could calculate water volume, but in practice the relative amount of water is the key. You are dealing with a structure perched at the edge of the incoming or outgoing tide. The water will drain away unless replenished. If you have a big, deep moat, you can get by with more infrequent waves. Complicated networks of canals require more regular feeding, and are subject to increased decay because of the destructive force of the incoming water.

That’s how I currently feel about focusing on my residency manuscript at the expense of weekly blog posts. The blog posts are the complicated network of canals that require regular feeding; they siphon off water (creative energy and time) from the larger project. If I can pour more energy, in a concentrated amount of time, into my manuscript, I am better off than diverting all my resources into a network of shallow canals that require greater upkeep but produce less lasting results.

I think this is only natural. Larger projects demand larger amounts of our time. We have to engage with them in a different way from smaller, bite-sized responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to make a commitment.

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When was the last time you gave yourself permission to focus on one big idea?

At Your Own Risk

This post continues with Week 5 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies (info on my own residency is in the sidebar to the right). I started at Week 1: Preparing, and am counting up. See also Week 2: Make Writing Exercises Work for You, Week 3: In Defense of Obstinacy, and Week 4: A good prompt is hard to find.

fenced in play area with sign Play At Your Own Risk

Procrastinators, beware! Writing exercises are risky business. CC image “Play at Your Own Risk” via Stephen Gadsby on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In science, you never ever call an experiment before all the results are in: not before you’ve concluded all the tests, counted and analyzed all the samples, and run the numbers through statistical software, after first reviewing any shortcomings in your method.

Likewise, you don’t “call” the end of a sports match before it’s over. We know too many stories of last-minute comebacks, of end-of-game collapses, to truly know what the results will be until after the clock has run down to zero.

However, I feel reasonably confident in making a few comments about the past four weeks of my experiment with writing exercises, although technically speaking, as I’m writing this, I am still in the midst of my fourth week. If I was a scientist, perhaps I would call these preliminary results, but I’m not a scientist. I’m a touchy-feely liberal artist, and the trend seems clear.

Writing exercises are sneaky bastards, and you should use them at your own risk.

Sneaky bastards

In ways both good and bad, writing exercises are deceitful little creatures, posing as one thing, though often showing up as another. For one, they are deceptively difficult to practice. Exercises are intentionally short and focused: write for five minutes. Write three paragraphs about your favorite breakfast cereal. In my case, write no more than 500 words, keeping your novel in mind. However, despite their brevity, I found myself often ducking the exercise, postponing when in the day I would write, and sometimes forgetting to write altogether.

My average was three exercises a week out of a five-day “work week” of Mondays through Fridays. Most of the time, I sat down to my legal notepad (I avoided working on the computer, because of fear of distraction) with a mental groan. Except in Week 4, where I am just shy of perfect and have experienced much less reluctance to take on the exercise, all week.

For another, writing exercises also pretend that they are simple creatures, with low standards for happiness and without ambition. Be warned, this is a lie. Like David up against Goliath, they pack a lot of punch and savvy for their small size. I found myself, in the latter half of the experiment, running up against my time and word constraint and ending the exercise before I ended the scene.

Despite all my best intentions to keep them hypothetical, they kept advancing my plot. Nasty, double-talking exercises!

Procrastinators, beware

Somewhere at the start of the third week, I had to concede that my writing exercises weren’t exercises anymore. They were still experimental, but they had shape-shifted, and now were scenes and fragments of scenes, important linkages in narrative, subtle lights on the motivations of a few key characters. I tried to call them exercises through Week 3, but I finally had to give up. I was writing. I was writing my novel.

Be warned: if you want to procrastinate, writing exercises are NOT for you.

If you don’t feel like working on your story project, writing exercises are NOT for you.

If you prefer to not learn something new (not always pleasant) about yourself or your characters or your writing habits, WRITING EXERCISES ARE NOT FOR YOU.

In conclusion

In conclusion, writing exercises can lead to writing.

I started the exercises four weeks ago as a way to stay in touch with my writing muscle while I did research for my writer’s residency. I projected that I’d be spending so much time looking up information, I would be in danger of losing touch with my story and my characters. In this sense, the experiment has been a success, because my characters and I are now VERY close.

In terms of providing a writing stopgap until proper writing could take place, this writing exercise experiment has been a FAILURE.

I have a writing habit now, and a minimalist but persistent word count I want to meet. My writing exercises ended up developing my story. I’ve done more writing on my novel since starting the exercises as a way to postpone working on my novel, than I had in the months before I started exercises. Stopgap, my foot.

Disclaimers: Due to the small sample size (N=1) and the abbreviated duration of this experiment, results cannot be definitively extrapolated to other members of the writing population. The prospective nature of this study makes statistical analysis tricky. However, my results show that writing exercises may in fact lead to a writing habit, and have demonstrated amplifying effects on story ideas in certain cases. Proceed at your own risk.

A good prompt is hard to find

This post continues with Week 4 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. See also Week 1: Preparing, Week 2: Make Writing Exercises Work for You, and Week 3: In Defense of Obstinacy. I started at Week 1 and am counting up.

drawing of a turkey running away from Thanksgiving

Now that’s creativity! CC image “Turkey Escape” via Mark Ahlness on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ever come across writing exercises or suggestions online, and roll your eyes?

If you’ve spent any time working through your own blocks, chances are you’ve acquainted yourself with writing resources and how-to guides, and found any number of writing prompts. They usually fall into one of two categories: a) I’ve read/done this before; and b) what am I, five?

Maybe that second one’s just me. I can get snarky when I’m feeling stuck.

The third category, c) suggestions that we haven’t seen before and that do stimulate our curiosity, are less common. Copy them down and save them somewhere, because they are GOLD.

I was recently reminded how hard good writing prompts are to find, when I started my writing exercise experiment two weeks ago (you can find more info under Week 2). In fact, the process was so annoying that I inadvertently came up with some of my own prompts.

I didn’t set out to write a how-to, a list, or to be helpful to anyone beyond myself, frankly… but there it is. If you have seen any of these elsewhere, have mercy on a writer, and keep me in the dark.

Keep your writing prompts handy

A major lesson I learned is to always have a store of writing prompts, techniques, and suggestions at the ready. When I started my first day of the writing exercise experiment, I ran into a problem. The problem — this should surprise exactly no one, and sadly did surprise me — was that I needed writing exercises to start with. I’d been under the impression that I had a few lined up, which turned out to be wrong.

Looking for writing exercises threatened to derail the experiment before I was able to start. I had set limits on my time and word count for the exercises knowing how easily I slide down the rabbit-hole and lose sight of the original goal. Right out of the gate, I proved myself and my precautions right.

Well, the horse was out of the barn. That first day, I settled for a thematic starting point as quickly as I could. The second day, I allowed myself to put together a short list, based on ideas I found from other writing sources. Emphasis on short. The second week, I allowed myself to devise my own prompts.

Super bonus points: I can use these newly-invented prompts for the second fortnight of writing exercises. Ha!

My primary focus was on exercises that allowed me to get to know my main characters. You could set up your prompts to help develop setting, theme, or another facet of craft. Some of my questions form a kind of “interview” with the characters; others give me alternate ways of playing with the material. I hope some may be useful to you.

Writing exercise prompts for characters

      1. Food. We can take this theme many different ways. I have a scene in a hospital, after a child is born, and I described the meal there. The neat result of this was the way my notes illuminated the setting, AND added to my understanding of the character.
      2. Nightmares. I’ve seen plenty of writing exercise suggestions that ask us to pursue our/our characters hopes, goals, and dreams, and I thought this would be much more fun. What terrifies your character? What does your character react to with disgust, revulsion, or otherwise find awful beyond words? Do they experience literal nightmares? What about?
      3. Shame. What was your character’s most embarrassing experience?
      4. Music. As with food, this can be taken in different directions. What is your character’s favorite music (if any)? What instrument would your character play? What if they played a different instrument? What if they were an instrument?

I also messed with techniques, because I like to jog myself out of my stylistic ruts.

Techniques to change up your writing exercises

      1. Reveal the answers to any of the above (or other) questions using dialogue alone. No descriptors or actions, though tags (he said, she said) are allowed.
      2. Write (or re-write) a scene as a play or screenplay (dialogue and stage directions). This is useful if you find yourself stuck creating action in the narrative.
      3. Your character is being interviewed for the local newspaper. Write the article that results from that interview.
      4. Your character has won an award. What for? Describe the presentation/acceptance of the award.
      5. Write about your character as though they were the opposite sex. To make this extra difficult, choose one scene where they MUST be female or male (because we are confined by biological realities), and change the gender. Don’t just switch pronouns! Be honest with this and you may weirdly discover a whole other character (not to mention plot)!

My new problem is that now that I’ve gotten started on this meta-writing path, I’m in danger of developing so much new material, I already want to pretend the revision process does not exist.

What is your favorite way to stoke the creative fires?

Make writing exercises work for you

or: Life after the exercise (pre-residency Week 2)

This post continues with Week 2 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. I started at Week 1, and am counting up. You can find Week 3 here.

child playing around on piano keys

Practice meets play. CC image “piano practice” by woodleywonderworks on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Writing exercises are billed as a way to break through writer’s block, and a way to greater creativity if we are stuck in a rut or a theme. Be loose! writing exercises always tell us. Let it flow!

I’ve sometimes wondered what happens to all those writing exercises once we are done with them. I imagine them as a sort of Dr. Seuss creature, fluffy and green, being left at the side of the road and abandoned after the cuteness has worn off. So sad.

I’m not alone with this question. A blog post I recently read on Writer’s Digest makes the same point. Most of these exercises end up on dusty little fragments of paper or perhaps digital files that get lost in our computer’s file structure. They accumulate in corners until we forget about them, and if we happen to discover them eons hence, we often throw them out like trash. Is this really the wretched fate that awaits every writing exercise? Are they always only our creative trash?

Writing exercises as a tool

I’ve been thinking about writing exercises recently because ironically, since I’ve started working on my project for the writer’s residency, I’ve done very little writing. I am knee-deep in research. My writing takes the form of notes; I haven’t tinkered with the draft manuscript once I started pulling sources. Noticing this, I wondered if writing exercises might be useful.

Writing is a skill that improves with practice, like playing the piano. The more you practice, the more you can play (see more about this in my post on writing warmups). I don’t want to be all rusty and cold when I do start writing again on this manuscript. Plus, short creative writing exercises can be great fun (the billing ain’t all hype). Last week I tried one with nouns and verbs. My favorite sentence from that exercise is: “The toadstool listens to the conversations of the ants as they pass by.”

Yay! Fun! (You can’t steal it though; it’s mine.)

However, while practicing is great, eventually, I want to play Beethoven and Chopin. Or, in this case, I want a finished manuscript, dammit.

Use the tool for a specific purpose

Can writing exercises be more than fluffy green creatures we abandon for the Next Big Thing? More specifically, can I use writing exercises to bootstrap my way forward on the draft of my novel, instead of throwing them in the dustbin?

For the next month, I’m going to test these questions out on my own writing. My premise is that yes, I can use the material that comes out of writing exercises for my bigger, specific project… IF I structure the exercises correctly, and I do a small amount of pre-exercising. I don’t want to plan what I’m going to write — that would go against every tenet of free-form exercises to begin with — I want to be intentional about how I write.

The Writer’s Digest article suggests a number of questions to guide the development of writing exercises. Because my creative life is circling the residency right now, I am going in a slightly different direction.

The plan

I’m going to set up a 2-week alternating schedule. In the first week of the pair, I’m going to commit to doing a writing exercise (preferably short), one day a week, Monday through Friday. In doing the exercise, I am going to keep my project, the characters, the setting, and the main point of tension, in mind. I’ll allow myself to not have to write about these aspects EVERY single exercise, though I do want to be thinking about them.

In the second week, I’ll revisit the exercises I wrote in week one, with a view to taking one of the following two steps:

  1. incorporating the writing exercise into a scene or narrative I’ve already written or sketched out;
  2. re-writing a scene or narrative, using part of the writing exercise as the backbone or central point.

This will give me two sets of writing exercise development to work with in March.

Rules of engagement: writing exercises should be kept brief (~500 words), as should the scenes I am writing or re-writing (<1000 words). Time spent on the exercises in both weeks should not exceed half an hour each day. The point is I want to use quick bursts of writing to keep me in touch with both my writing muscles and my story development, while I am involved in background research. I want to avoid sinking into a self-critical/editorial morass.

I’ll report back here after the month is up with my thoughts on the practice — has my premise proven to be correct? Can writing exercises “recycled,” as it were, instead of falling onto the creative landfill?

If anyone wants to test out this way of playing with writing exercises, I’d love to hear about your experience! Feel free to modify the outline so that the work suits your goals, and report back here if you feel like doing so. Here’s to keeping our craft fresh, our writing out of landfills, and our stories in the forefront of our minds.

Your opinion of my art is awful, really

Adjectives are about as useful to a working artist as quicksand is to the through-hiker

view of a bay with Quicksand sign in the foreground

Help! I’m sinking in a morass of value judgments! — CC image “quicksand” courtesy of Mark Roy on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I finished a drawing last week!

Actually, I finished two, I think… time to invest in fixative that doesn’t bill itself as being “workable.”

I’ve been stockpiling a growing folder of images that I wanted to use to draw from. With each one I’d think, “I’d really like to draw that, but…” When I opened my sketchpad, I was confronted with page after page of unfinished drawings.

Finally, I decided that before I could start any more new drawings, I’d have to finish the old, to the point where I would spray them with fixative. Any fixative, even “workable” fixative.

For a long time that resolution meant that I wasn’t drawing anything at all.

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out the sketchpad again and realized how close to finished one of the drawings actually was. In the time since I’d started it, and the day I was looking at it, I’d been learning about different techniques I wanted to try, and this drawing was a perfect candidate.

I want to note for the record that I am not an artist. I’m a writer. I like to mess around with drawing, “just for me,” as I tell my friends, who are sometimes interested to see what I am doing. I don’t want to share my drawings partly because I have higher standards for my work than what I’m able to produce, and partly because people are usually prompted to share an opinion when they look at a piece of art. They do this when they look at a piece of writing too, which is why I’m allowed to make the current analogy.

Bad opinion — Bad!

With love, people: I’m not looking for an opinion.

I want someone to talk to me like a craftsperson. I’d like to hear about techniques, different choices, and skills I either have or can acquire. Instead, many people react to a piece of art as though they’ve been asked to provide reassurance. That is, they tend to respond like this when they look at a piece of art in person, with the artist. They don’t usually do this in a museum. In a museum you are much more likely to hear genuine critiques and deconstruction of a work. You’ll get to hear why they feel the way they do about a piece of art.

Details, details, details

The hallmark of a good critique is specific details. The most over-used and, to me, most frustrating adjectives imply a value judgment only, with no reference to why or how that judgment was formed. The piece is “good” — one of the most useless adjectives ever, right up there with “interesting.” “Good” tells me absolutely nothing. Why is it good? How is it interesting?

I would mind sharing less — of my writing, too — if people wouldn’t always respond in this way. If instead, they did what one of my friends, who saw my second newly completed drawing, did. She eyed it for a moment, and said, “I like how you made that part negative, brighter than everything else.”

I loved my friend’s comment so much because it was specific.

The enemy of the good

“Good” just invites us to compare ourselves to other artists and writers we think of as “good” (our own value judgments). We know where we stand in relation to their work. Most of the time, they are more skilled than we are, and we can point out in what ways this is so. Comparisons and value judgements are no good for my art. Specifics, on the other hand, are valuable, because I can gauge my work against itself — I’m not worried about anyone else.

Worrying about how we compare to other artists is a crippling disease. We need frequent booster shots to inoculate ourselves against this state of mind. Specific details are the booster. Remember this, the next time a friend asks you to look at his work.

When’s the last time you had your shot?

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Does anyone have suggestions on how to frame a preference for detail over opinion to their friends and acquaintances? I would love to hear your thoughts.