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It’s March and we’ve long forgotten our New Year’s Resolutions. The fervor with which we planned the success of this year in January is probably frozen solid…we’ve certainly had the weather for that here in Michigan. (FYI – It was 14 below zero this morning…a temp so common now that school wasn’t cancelled despite the fact that it was when the temps were 10 below zero in January.)

Shake off those March doldrums, pour a glass of something you normally drink in the summer, and roll up your sleeves. It’s time to gear up and resurrect the goals for this year.

Speaking personally, this means that the novel I thought I could wrap up in December needs to be complete by the end of this month. I set an unrealistic deadline for myself during the Christmas season. It happens.

To keep myself on track, I did this for the month of February:

A Plan: Create an editorial calendar for the next month. Write down 5-10 things you want to accomplish and schedule time to  complete those takes on a calendar. At the end of the month, be honest with yourself and reflect on how you did. What worked? What didn’t? Repeat for the next month.

Writing Time isn’t always spent writing. Much of the time, I stare out the window as I need to first visualize a scene before I can write it. Although I appear to be day dreaming…well, that’s exactly what I’m doing, except I do need to come back to my desk to write down my day dreams. That’s where a plan is handy.

In February, I did well planning my journaling and blogging, but novel writing took a back seat. I’m going to work on that this month by spending my Wednesday writing time making notes for scenes. Thursday is my big writing day. Thursday is the day my husband is home in the afternoon, giving me from 1:00 – 9:00 PM to write. I do take breaks, but I’ve set a goal to have close to 3,000 well-written words every Thursday. Lofty, I know.

I’ve taken this exercise a step further and I encourage you do to the same. We’ve all heard that if we want to be a writer, we must write every day. It’s common sense that holds true for anything a person might want to accomplish: runners must run, athletes must practice, students must go to school. My obstacle has always been finding balance with my writing and my family. The solution that is working (for now) is to focus on one thing each day based on how much time I can devote to writing and reading.

Here’s the breakdown:

Mondays are the days I crank out my blog posts for the week. I don’t publish them all on that Monday, but schedule them for later in the week. Each day, I return to the posts to re-read, edit and revise them. By the time they are published, my posts have improved. In order to keep the blog posts as fresh as possible, I keep a notebook on my dining room table to collect ideas.

Tuesdays are reading days. No writing except in the form of notes, comments, and ideas that stem from what I’ve read.

Wednesday are scene plot days in prep for…

Thursdays. As I mentioned, this is my big day each week when I really make progress.

Fridays are too crazy with homeschooling groups to even think about writing. It’s my “Day of Rest”.

Weekends must be spent with families, but I coordinate with my husband to set aside a few hours a weekend to read or write.

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A Pro: Spend time reading Joel Friedlander’s blog/website.

Joel’s website is a treasure trove of information. Set the timer, otherwise your entire day will be spent on his blog and you’ll starve.

A Genre-Mash: Just for fun, re-imagine your novel as a picture book - or your picture book as a novel. Write a few scenes and see what happens.

I’ve done this a few times during my weekend writing hours. It’s refreshing to simply puzzle out a story in a different format. Writing styles, patterns, and techniques mature with exercises like this. What may seem a simple exercise will soon become your power yoga.

Why?

Because my favorite children’s books have quirky characters, surprising plot elements, and very often, rhythmic & rhyming verse. Stretching my thinking muscles to write in such a different format allows me the time to play with words. Instead of formatting sentences and paragraphs to show the story, I can pattern the story into rhythm patterns. Not much I do with this exercise is publishing-quality work – but that’s not the point. Trying something new…that is.

It’s very easy to feel that the success a writer creates is determined by the number of words written. That’s a trap. Don’t fall in! Writing success rides on the back of every unpublished word. The stories that don’t hold up, the sentences that fail, the characters so flat that they can slide under a door – those are the obstacles in writing we must overcome before we publish.

Writing exercises that specifically work on something we have no intention (or pressure) to polish and publish are necessary.

Enjoy the writing fun! Please let me know how these exercises work out for you.

Peace,

Jessica

Other Writing Exercises:

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

Vol. 4

Vol. 5

 

Many people enter into retirement with the dream of writing a novel. Theresa Jenner Garrido made that a reality. Whether you love romance novels or light mysteries, Theresa is your gal! With more than a dozen published books, she knows how to tell a good story. Theresa and I were both published by Martin Sister’s Publishing in 2013, so we share that sisterhood as well. I read Who Done It? and enjoyed the story line, but I fell in love with the characters; especially Ducky, a plucky 80-year-old. Allow me to introduce you to:

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Theresa Jenner Garrido

Author: Who Done It?, The Chinese Chest, By Any Other Name, and more

According to your website, you lived on an island in your youth. That’s an incredibly unique experience. Can you share a specific memory or two? In what way, if any, did that environment contribute to your story telling?

I spent the first nine years of my life on Bainbridge Island, off the coast of Washington State, which, at that time, was very rural and only saw a surge of people during summer months. I grew up, surrounded by tall cedars and Doug firs and a gray sand beach, cluttered with barnacle-covered rocks. With no neighborhood children to play with, I had to rely on a host of imaginary characters to share my adventures.

After years as a teacher, did that career lead you to writing? Speaking personally, I taught junior high for a few years and felt compelled to write. I’m wondering if your experience was similar.

I started writing with a passion in fourth grade. Nothing delighted me more than to have an assignment that required writing. When I became a middle school language arts teacher, this writing passion fit in nicely. Teaching drama was a favorite addition to my job and whenever we needed a play, I’d write it.  I couldn’t stop writing, but due to time and energy issues, never considered publication. Only after I convinced myself to retire early and really concentrate on my passion did I become an author.

Who has played an important role in your writing career?

No single person played a significant role, but I do believe authors like Lucy M. Montgomery and Gene Stratton-Porter helped. The rainy day in fourth grade when I discovered Nancy Drew was a day that will never be forgotten. The world of reading opened its magical gate and I entered. I never looked back.

What is the best review you’ve had about your writing? Where did it come from?

Any positive review will send me into ecstasy but one I remember fondly. An eighth grader read one of my mysteries and told me she loved it so much she promptly reread it. Her father told me he’d never seen her that excited over a book. Wow! That was high praise.

Are there places beyond Amazon and Goodreads that you either request or received a review?

I confess to being a complete duffer, where promotion, marketing and reviews come in. Writing is my “magnificent obsession” and I can’t stop. No matter what, I have to write. I can’t turn around without seeing something that sparks my imagination. I confess, however, to being a little lax in soliciting reviews.

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You self-published several of your books, and your latest was published by Martin Sisters Publishing. How did the two publishing venues differ for you? Which would you recommend to upcoming authors?

I self-published my first book back in 2004 with a “vanity press”. I knew nothing about the business and, even though an English major, knew very little about editing, etc. That first experience was tepid at best, but I kept sending in queries to “real” publishers. After enough rejections to paper an entire room, I was accepted by a small press, based in TX. They published thirteen of my novels but had difficulties and closed over a year ago. Since retaining all rights, I decided to re-publish a few of those books and chose Amazon, which was an excellent choice. Amazon is amazing. I’d recommend it to anyone. The big houses are having major issues and digital books are the future so authors have to rethink what it means to be published.  A few of my new works, however, are still going the query route. Who Done It? was accepted by Martin Sisters Publishing in 2013. Hoping for a series featuring the protagonist, I am working on book two now.  So far I have been very happy with MSP and hope we can work together for a long time.

What writing resources have you used to improve your craft? Magazines, books, webinars, conferences, classes? Which would you recommend?

All of the above.  I belong to two critique groups, a larger writers group, and attend as many workshops and conferences as I can. A few minor health issues prevent me from doing a whole lot, plus my extended family, rescue dog and cat, and retired husband who can’t quite grasp the urgency that is a writer’s constant companion, but I seek out advice wherever I can. Another recommendation: READ!  Read the kinds of books you like to write. Read about places you’d like to visit. Just read.

Because so much of self-publishing and publishing with a smaller publisher depend on doing all the marketing on your own, what have you learned?

I have learned that I have a lot to learn. This is a very touchy subject for me.  I cringed just reading your question. That’s where the workshops, etc. come in. I literally devour all-and-everything about “social media” etc. etc.

I read Who Done It? It was a wonderful cozy mystery. What were some obstacles you faced in writing a mystery?

Not many because I love mysteries, but my lack of knowledge about such things as police procedure certainly got in the way at times.  Luckily I was able to talk to “real” policemen and get the scoop. My protagonist is basically your everyday gal so my books aren’t hard-core crime dramas. The most interesting research I’ve had to do was speaking with a mortician about dead bodies, etc.

What’s the story behind your book?  In other words, how did the storyline come to you?

Every one of my books is based on an actual event that I personally was involved in. When I say based, I mean maybe just a spark to kindle the imagination fire. I write about places I’ve been to so can “see” the setting as I write.

What do you hope readers will gain from your writing? Do you have a specific message that you wish to impart?

To me, reading is the best medicine for what ails you. People today suffer a lot from stress. A good book can take you away from your present situation and allow you to forget for a while; unwind; rejuvenate; rest. A lot cheaper than seeing a psychiatrist. I hope my books do just that. I want the reader to be entertained and enjoy a few laughs or a few tears. When the reader closes the book, I want him/her to be satisfied.

They certainly do that! As I read Who Done It? the coziness of the bed and breakfast inspired me to bake…and that’s not normal for me ;)

Thank you, Theresa, for your time and willingness to share some backstory.

If your want to learn more about Theresa’s books, visit her website, her Amazon Author Page, or click to buy her book.

How did last week’s exercise feel? Are your creative muscles sore? Shouldn’t be too bad, you watched a movie! :)

This week’s exercise might feel a little, well, it will remind you of the good ol’ days of high school English. What? Those weren’t riveting classes where you devoured the book that was assigned to you? Yeah, me neither.

Exercise 1:

Of all the books you had to read in high school, what was your favorite? No favorite? Well, you’re older now. Go pick the first book you remember being assigned to read and re-read it. (Or read it for the first time.)

For me, the first book I read in high school was A Separate Piece by John Knowles. I enjoyed it… a little. I think I read the entire book, but that was…let’s just say it was a few years ago. I have the book on hold at the library. Apparently, people are still reading it. I’m on a list and should have it sometime in April.

Now, the book that really turned me on to reading was The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. A great part of falling in love with this book had to do with the excellent teacher I had in high school. The other part was obviously Dumas’ superior story-telling.

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Exercise 2:

Make a brainstorming graphic organizer (think bubbles, boxes, and lines) for your current story, or a story you are thinking about. Reflect on how this exercise did or did not (because, let’s be honest, it might not work for everyone)  help you think about deeper layers for the story.

This is how I start every story – with a gigantic sheet of paper on the dining room table, a stack of colorful pens, and an idea. In the center, I’ll start with whatever idea I have. It could a simple scene, an over-arching theme, or an idea for a setting. As I brainstorm, I write everything down, connect ideas with common color-lines, and just have fun with it. In the background I play fairly loud music…that part is optional.

This is a great way to set the story ideas down on paper without fussing for sentence structure or feeling the need to organize things too quickly. Let the ideas fall where they will. Once it’s on paper, you can’t lose it.

Exercise 3:

Write a one-page synopsis for your story. Don’t hide the ending. Tell all in a short and interesting way.

Why do this? Many publishers and agents will ask for a synopsis and they are darn tough to write. As much effort as you put into writing your story, almost as much will go into hacking your story into a one-page synopsis. Hint: Don’t look at this as hacking. Make the one page synopsis fun to read. If you can’t shine up your writing to keep a potential agent or publisher interested through one page, they likely won’t ask for an entire manuscript.

Starting next week, I will be interviewing authors who are self-published or published by smaller houses. It’s been fun to read their work as I prepare questions for each of them. There are still a few spots left, so if you are published and are looking for a fresh and fun way to market your work as well as the books of other authors, check out Pay-It-Forward for details.

Did you miss the other writing exercises?

Writing Exercises Vol. 1

Writing Exercises Vol. 2

Writing Exercises Vol. 3

Writing Exercises Vol. 4

I have only two writing exercises for you this week. I’ve tried these out over the past several months, and have enjoyed it immensely. I’ve also used these techniques with great success with my home-schooled children. Once you read the exercises, you’ll understand why these are such a hit.

Exercise 1:

Watch a movie. Outline the scenes into the following categories:

When the main character is the: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr

The Orphan stage of the story is when the main character is either an actual orphan (Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Will of Ranger’s Apprentice) or in a state of living or mentality that screams ‘Orphan’ (Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz). This is when the author sets the stage, hints at the conflict, and brings the main character to life with several short vignettes that allow you to sample the character’s every day life.

The Wanderer stage occurs when the character is forced or accepts a challenge that will ultimately lead to change. (Harry leaves for Hogwarts, Will starts his apprenticeship as a Ranger). There is much to learn for the character to learn, great opportunities for trial and errors scenes. In this stage, the antagonist makes a stronger appearance. Hints toward the final conflict are strategically placed. As a wanderer, the main character will sometimes succeed in slipping away from trouble, but more often, he or she falls into it. The Wanderer stage ends with a highly tense scene that forever changes the character. At this point, the main character must give in and die or become a Warrior.

The Warrior stage is the result of that scene. Now the main character is angry, vengeful, or struggling to live. Now is the time to learn, perfect, journey, and prepare for the final battle. The antagonist is more visible, formidable, and success is unlikely for the main character. Although success seems impossible, your character is learning and growing, becoming more resolute in his or her plight. No longer is he wandering from situation to situation, but has an end goal in mind.

The Martyr Stage is the final stage, which includes the climax of the story. Here, the main character is prepared to die in order to prevent the antagonist from winning. This doesn’t mean death in a literal sense, but can mean that he will forever lose that great career (think of the movie, The Firm or Anna in My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult) or lose something else of great value to them.

After practice in identifying these four stages in a movie, take a look at your own story. Do you have these in your plot? Are they each about 25% of your story?

If these four stages are new to you, I highly recommend The Story Template by Amy Deardon. It’s a good read, breaks down the parts of a story in clear language, and gives you a basic structure in which to frame your own story.

Exercise 2:

Listen to an audio book. How is it different from reading?

Record your story/novel/poem and listen to it. Does it have the same ‘ring’?

This exercise takes far less explanation and is great for road trips, during dinner prep, and while exercising. One of my favorite books to listen to is The Willoughby’s by Lois Lowry. If you haven’t listened to this yet, rent it from the library. It’s hysterical!

I cannot stress enough how important it is to ‘hear’ your story.

Reading it aloud to yourself is only step one. You’ll make changes and are ready for…

Step two: Read it into a recorder then listen. Make edits, switch scenes around, revise weak areas of your story. Then you are ready for…

Step three: Have someone else read it to you. This will showcase areas of your writing that don’t flow well. While you do need to take into consideration the natural ability of the narrator, if two people both stumble over a section, it indicates that it isn’t ready. Also watch their expression; frowns and a decline in the pace of reading are bad.

When you are finished with both of these exercises, you will never see a movie in the same way again. And the way you write your first drafts will be challenged by the need to write the scenes smoothly. Don’t shy away from that challenge. While the common encouragement for writers is to write now, edit later, don’t believe that your three hour word-dump on your latest story means it’s ready to submit.

Writing is an art – make it beautiful.

I’ve just returned from a mid-winter break – a concept I’ve fully embraced! For almost 10 years, my family and I have taken a few days in February to stay at a lodge in Northern Indiana that was built in the 1920′s by the CCC and is still the family-oriented destination that features woodland animals but no Disney princesses.

 

This photo courtesy of the Potowatomi Inn.

This photo courtesy of the Potowatomi Inn.

 

As we walked the halls toward the pool, the craft room, or the common room, I was aware how much my children have grown. Our first years at the lodge were spent corralling toddlers and a preschooler. Swimming was a two-person tag team for my husband and I of keeping them above water and in the shallow end. The craft room wasn’t even an option as my middle daughter always painted her face with anything (and I mean anything! Vaseline was the worst.)

This year, I walked those halls with young women. We swam together, painted little cars and wooden statues in the craft room, we put puzzles together. We watched the Olympics at night and read together in the common room in the morning. I thoroughly enjoyed the calmness of their spirits, their willingness to be together with me, and the memories we shared as we wandered the lodge and surrounding grounds playing, “Remember when we…”

As they mature, I’m constantly in awe by their changes. The interests they had just five years ago have changed, as one might expect. From horses, mood rings and dolls to books, musical instruments and, well, horses. I guess, not everything changes.

I wonder what will that lodge be like for me five and ten years from now?

And tonight I’m home. Sitting at the table for the last several hours, I’ve been polishing a poem and drafting a synopsis for a novel that I’ve finished and feel is ready to send to publishers. I started this poem years ago as a short story, but realized that it works better in rhyming, rhythmic meter. The novel began at least five years ago and has grown from an awkward tale about awkward middle schoolers to a poignant reflection on innocent times, changing times, and war times.

Everything around me is growing and maturing.

Day by day my daughters are becoming women.

Word by word my writing is developing from scenes to chapters to books.

And that’s the point: If it’s valuable to you, put your time into it everyday.

My children are my greatest source of joy, pride, and yes, hardship. As any parent, I would give every ounce of my life I have to them. Some days I feel like I really do that :)

My writing is not quite as important as my children, but I still manage to work it into each day. Some days, like today, I have hours to write. Every other day, I have about an hour or two to devote to reading and writing. It’s not much, but word by word, it’s happening.

Perhaps the writing you did today is in the toddler or preschool stage – messy and surprising. As you develop your skills, you’ll need a training bra or maybe you notice your voice is cracking, then deeper. When the time is write, you can marry that writing to a publisher and a great union is formed.

Whether you are a writer, a parent, an artisan, or a crafter, spend time doing the things you love. Little by little, those small efforts lead to a great outcome.

 

This blog is usually about writing, but on occasion I throw in a post about homeschooling or faith. Today? Self-esteem and how it influences what we do or don’t do.

Something occurred to me a few months ago…I disciplined myself enough to write a book. Heck, not just one book, but nine so far. Why am I not carrying that over to other aspects of my life?

And so I began writing about it. Shocking, I know.

I came to this conclusion:

Life is hard. Get over it and make your dreams real. (cue Disney music)

In other words: Take the tough stuff, feel it, explore it, and cry about it. Then make a plan and move on.

After practicing the ‘deal with it and walk forward’ plan, I began to look at my reflection, my body image, my children, and my house. In that order. Interesting.

I’ve blamed so many other things -diabetes, stay-at-home-mom, too tired, no gym membership, etc. - in my life I wasn’t happy with, I wasn’t giving the joyful areas of my life their due attention. My family, being a mom, being able to stay home, a husband and family that supports our homeschooling, amazing friends, my faith…the list goes on. Sad how body image can become such a wedge to everything else.

I saw myself first. Self centered me. I was not as thin as I wanted to be, but passably feminine. Because I have three daughters, it’s important that my body image and my ‘self-speak’ are all positive. I don’t want to feed them negative images of women, spiritually or physically. After all, is every woman you love able to grace the covers of magazines? No? Really? Same here. I won’t be on the cover of Fitness or Vogue, but in my kids eyes (and hearts) I am fit and vogue. Yes, I rock these yoga pants!

See that? Positive self-speak.

Say it out loud, believe it, and others will follow.

That is, after all, how politics work. For better or worse, it rocks a nation.

Part of changing how I see myself has impacted how my children see me. I have not talked about those last few pounds I need to lose, but I have talked about training for a 5K and then a 10K. My daughters run cross country, so this is something to which they can relate. We train together, talk about running pace, running shoes, trails and sports drinks. This week, we all went swim suit shopping…and it was fun! I actually liked almost every suit I tried on. They didn’t all look great, but I saw beyond my body’s short comings and could see my strength. It’s all about perspective:

If you train for it, the results will come.

The biggest lesson on body image came from my three-year-old son: At Barnes and Noble, as he played with the train set, a little girl joined him and they played for over fifteen minutes without any conflicts. (For parents who have ever monitored the train table, you know what a miracle this is.) As we left, my son whispered to me, “She is so beautiful!” I asked, “What makes her so pretty?” In his preschool ways, he answered, “Her smile.”

Pow! Truth!

The other area I struggled with was my house. Being a homeschooling family in a fairly small house, it’s been difficult for me to keep things clean and clutter free. I really wanted this to change. It’s hard to think in a mess. I don’t have a desk. Instead I use the dining room table and sometimes a lap desk. How could I possibly carve out a ‘writing space’ where I could truly become the writer I want to be.

The reading corner...favorite place to write.

The reading corner…favorite place to write. It’s clean in the picture, but today there is a pile of Legos on the floor.

I started with my heart. If I want this dream of writing to be real, I needed to make it happen. A desk won’t magically make the words come to life. Only I can do that.

Then I moved to the house and the de-cluttering. One room at a time, we attacked the corners, the papers I’ve picked up and set down a dozen times, the stacks of books. Once we had the room just how we wanted it, I took a picture. Now when I ask my children to clean the reading corner, the kitchen, the bathroom, the family room, there is a picture to refer to so everything is done properly.

The result? Cleaner house, faster runner, happier me. Happier me, happier kids, cleaner house. I’ve also written and read more in the past three months than ever before. The organized home, the positive thinking, the focus on forward movement all pays off.

This process has brought to mind five things we can do to change our thinking from self-defeating to forward thinking:

1. Identify where you struggle and be honest about it.

Journal about it. You can burn the pages when you are finished writing, but have a heart-to-heart on paper about areas of your life that are hurting.

2. Identify aspects of your life that you are good at and feel positive about.

Make a list and list everything you like: eye color, your name, your legs, your wide hips. Maybe you make kickin’ desserts or love to cook for others. That’s a huge gift…and if that’s true, I want to be your friend!

3. Focus on those positive things and figure out how to carry that over to the areas where you struggle.

I wrote books. I disciplined myself to make the time to sit down and write. Then I edited. Now I’m learning to carry that discipline over to exercise. Everything I do well in writing can help me do well in other areas of my life. The same is true for you. Explore that.

4. Don’t ever give up. Ever. Giving up on making changes – be it weight loss, career stuff, making a dream come true – only results regret.

In a journal, write a letter to yourself a year from now and talk about all the things you hoped you accomplished. Try writing a letter to who you were ten years ago. Keep it positive, but identify what is holding you back. Give that younger version of yourself some advice. Then take that advice. In ten years, the letter you write should be very different.

5. Remember that you didn’t get to this point in one day, one week, or one month. It will take time to make the changes happen and to make them real. Be patient with yourself.

This was the best advice I was given by a dear friend: Take it day by day, but move forward every day. This applies to so many different people in so many different ways. Sometimes it’s my house. Other times it’s diabetes. Today it was remaining calm with my son. No matter what, take it day by day.

There’s more for me to work on – next on my list is meal planning. It’s 4:30 right now and I have no idea what to make for dinner.

Baby steps.

 

On this Sunday afternoon, take an hour or so and give one of these a try. It is a good practice to hone your skills as a writer on something other than your masterpiece. Why? For the same reason professional athletes cross-train. Running, weight-training, stretching, yoga – it all leads to a stronger body and mind.

Writing is no different.

Read every genre, write poetry, practice outlining a mystery, give a picture book a try. Warm up with these exercises and then turn toward your current work. Ask yourself: Can I bring anything new to my story? How did these exercises help me discover my writing voice? Are the results of the exercises worth exploring further?

 

  1. In Writing Exercises Vol. 2, you printed a few pages of your most recent work to focus on how you begin each sentence. With those newly printed pages, put a box around the verbs (action and linking). How many weak (linking) verbs do you have? Play around with stronger verbs and see if it enhances the visual effect of the story.

For example: John walked into the room holding a gun. I have your attention with the word ‘gun’, right?

Now try: John stormed the room, eyes wild, his hand trembling as a gun slipped from his sweaty palm. Very different. The action is generally the same: John enters a room. With the second sentence, John is unsure and in way over his head. Stormed vs. Walked.

How about this: John kicked the door open and aimed the gun at Stewart. “I never miss,” he said. Totally different John.

I don’t normally write about men storming rooms with guns…kinda fun. Stories I read to my son are more about trucks with spinning wheels and little bunnies saying goodnight to everything in the room. Which leads to the next exercise…

  1. Go to the library and ask for a popular children’s picture book. Copy (by hand or on your computer) all the text. Note how the illustrations break the story apart. Do the same with your work, using illustrations or chapter breaks. How does that change your story?

My son recommends Good Night, Good Night Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker. I love the rhymes, but it’s the illustrations that seal this book as a family favorite. With over 1,000 5-star reviews on Amazon, I’m not alone! Check it out – you’ll never look at construction vehicles the same way again.

3. Read the book that was on the New York Times Best-Seller list the day you were born. Search “New York Times Best Sellers” and “the year you were born”.

Write about the book – different than you normally read? What did you like and dislike about the book? Will you read more by this author? Leave a review on Goodreads, Shelfari, Amazon, and the like. Don’t forget to make mention of reading this book in your writer’s journal. A well-documented list of what you’ve read will be invaluable.

In the year and month I was born, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL, by Richard Bach was #1. Time to search the library shelves!

May your writing time be filled with lovely music in a quiet atmosphere with rich dark chocolate and strong coffee nearby. Peace!

Jessica

Four years ago today, according to my writing journal, I met Jack Elliott, a.k.a. Graypay from my book, Unforgettable Roads.

birthdaycake

Jack Elliott is modeled after a man I see at church. He is handsome, all grey, and very devout. I didn’t get to know him until after Unforgettable Roads was accepted for publication, and I was amazed to learn that his name is Jack. Coincidence?

Shortly after I wrote a short story about Jack Elliott and his granddaughter, I registered for the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing. This was my fourth writing conference. I expected to go, listen, learn, and then write – same as always. But I went with Beth, my friend and writing partner, and the conference was completely different.

I hope you have a friend like Beth. She pushes me gently, inspires me even when she’s not around, and encourages me. I tried to do the same for her at this conference by staying up late to go to the poetry reading from 8:00 – 11:00 PM. I’m all for staying up late, but this was a push for me. I had been gone all day, was missing my kids, and was overwhelmed by the amount of information I’d received. But my love for Beth was stronger (plus my kids were already in bed, so I wasn’t going to see them anyway) and I gladly walked into the room.

It was my first poetry reading and I loved it. I also felt a little jaded by the fact that there wasn’t a short-fiction reading. What’s a fiction author to do but raid the second night of the poetry readings with a short fiction piece?

That’s where I shared the chapter of Graypay, a.k.a. Jack Elliott, with my first audience. If you have the book, it’s the chapter titled, “Time Machines”. The buzzer sounded ten minutes after I started reading, so my writing obviously wasn’t short enough, but the audience protested with the time-keeper to allow me to finish.

Talk about a boost in self-esteem!

Several people loved Graypay’s character and wanted more. “Is this a part of a novel?” they asked.

At the time it wasn’t, but through their enthusiasm, I did start to think about the larger story.

The point of this post is to encourage you to keep a journal. As a parent, teacher, writer, doctor, business owner, grandparent - whatever you do & whoever you are - a journal will help you trudge through difficulties, celebrate milestones, and track the events of your life. Just like Jack’s journals play an important role in the novel, your journals can do the same for future generations. Write about your successes, your plans, your failures. Share the expectations you have and the reality of the world; be it authentic awe or disappointment.

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The notes in my writing journal that I kept while writing Unforgettable Roads are filled with my research, travel notes, photographs and practice scenes with the characters. I use it differently each day: sometimes to track a to-do list, other times it’s a place to try new ideas for current writing pieces. My journal is also where Eddie, another character from the book, sprang to life. I’ve never experienced that before – a character just showing up – and it wouldn’t have happened without the journal. I’m working on writing a second book that follows Eddie after his conversion.

My journal, like Jack says, is like my brain with all my thoughts, ideas and memories locked into existence with ink.

So stop reading – go write!

Being a writer is not easy. Speaking personally, I write alone in a quiet room. It’s best when I have more than 30 minutes to devote to the task. With four homeschooled children in the house, you can imagine that this isn’t easy. When I do find the time to write, I use earphones, a little George Winston, and every minute I can.

When I do finally polish up a piece in preparation for a reader to provide feedback, I’m always disappointed. I’ve finally realized that my disappointment can only be expected when I don’t ask for specifics.

If you were to ask me what I thought of the basketball game, I would likely say that the uniforms have nice colors. For a basketball fanatic, this answer would seal the belief that I know nothing about basketball beyond being able to identify the court, ball, and all the tall players. Stereotyping, I know.

As a writer, when I ask a reader to let me know what they think, I receive the answer I asked for: I liked it; It was good; Not my style, but a nice story.

To a writer, this is incredibly unhelpful.

Here is a list of questions I can ask readers of manuscript drafts to ensure that “It was good” no longer betrays my growth as a writer.

1. What is the heart of the story? Without a heart, we are nothing. Same is true for a story. While the question is clearly a subjective question, it will allow the reader to dig deeper into the story and share their impression. If they come up with something you didn’t intend, well, that’s interesting. If they can’t determine the heart of your story, then you have more work to do.

questions for readers

2. Does it flow well? I remember watching a documentary about Sesame Street. To test the flow of the program, they mixed up the regular order of the short clips and had a handful of 4-year-olds watch it. The preschoolers were unsettled and started pacing the room. Several said to their teacher that the program didn’t make sense. While the video clips were all part of a regular Sesame Street program, the fact that they were out of order was enough to prevent comprehension. The same could be true about your story. All the pieces might be there, but are they in the best order? A bigger question: Is your story being told from the correct point-of-view?

3. Which chapters pushed you forward? Give your reader a colorful pen (I don’t use red because it reminds me of grading papers. I use purple. Much less like blood.) and ask them to put a star at the end of the chapter if they want to read more. If the chapter ended and their curiosity had died, then have them draw in a sad face. The purpose is that each chapter must spurn on the action and the investment of the reader to the story. If that dies, so does your story.

Related Articles:

Finding Time to Write

Finding Time…Vol 2

Do you remember gym class? Outside of the horrifying gym uniforms (think green polyester shorts and a t-shirt with my last name written across my chest with a black permanent marker), the exercises we did at the beginning of each class prepared our muscles for the real work to begin.

These exercises serve the same purpose. Before you start the long haul of working on your latest, soon-to-be best-seller, warm up your creative muscles with one (or all) of these:

1. Go back to the beginning:

Write about the first chapter book you ever read. What do you remember?

Was it a good read or did you not finish it?

2. Take a step into a great challenge:

Imagine you are a first grade teacher and have been asked to include a 68-year-old illiterate man in your classroom. What might come of that situation? Make notes, write a few scenes, or run with it.

3. Go back to the basics:

Print the first two pages of any story you are writing. Circle the first word of each sentence. Are those words similar? If so, re-work the sentences and re-print.

Make these writing exercises more fun – get out of the house, order a cup of hot something (it’s below zero here in Michigan) and write the way you imagine all writers do…over coffee, in the middle of a cute café, capturing the essence of your next character from the personalities walking by your table.

Do you have a published book? Click on this pic to read about an opportunity to receive and share in a marketing group.

Do you have a published book? Click on this pic to read about an opportunity to receive and share in a marketing group.

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