Getting Words on the Page – Three Tools to Increase Productivity

How fun is this

The Plot-o-Matic and Dialog warm-up in Morning Pages

It’s almost time for me to print out the rough draft of my novel, to read through the whole thing with fresh eyes, as if I just brought it home from the bookstore. But first, I have a few more goals to accomplish: I WILL finish reading Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (I was born at exactly midnight and I enjoyed many of his other books, so I thought it would be a fun read when I bought it at the airport about five years ago. It seems no matter how much I read, I’m only half-way through.) and I WILL finish the draft of my mid-grade fiction story and make a mock-up of my picture book. I’m pretty close on all of these goals so I’ve given myself (and now you can hold me to it) until the end of the July 4th weekend to finish (these goals) before the big first-draft read.

In the meantime, I thought I would share some writing tools that helped me get all my words to the page:

  1. Morning Pages – as recommended by Julia Cameron author of many inspirational books including the Complete Artists Way where I first discovered morning pages.
  2. The Plot-o-Matic – a rendition of PLOTTOMATIC! introduced by John Dufresne in his intelligent and useful book on writing, Is Life Like This?.
  3. Dialogue Warm-up – a way that I get my writing going when my plan for the day escapes me. When I run out of things to say, I let my characters start up a conversation and watch where it goes.

Writing every day has not been easy for me, but I’m pretty close now. Throughout my journey to (almost) writing every day, I read everything in my local library on writing and everything recommended to me, plus a lot more. Only a few things really stuck with me and, through some development, still work for me.

Everyone has different amounts of time they can commit to their writing and most have to SQUEEZE it into their hectic lives (and family tithes). Making time for your passion makes you better for all the other people in your life, so that is why I want to emphasize . . .

  1. Morning Pages – Get up twenty minutes early if you have to. It will be totally worth it. Find three lined 8.5 X 11 sheets of paper. I use a thick college ruled notebook (I’m addicted to kukumusu designs, but they’re expensive and my super-favorite is already out of print, so I buy a bunch at a time). Start writing. Do not get dressed. Maybe make a pot of tea or coffee, but then – Start writing. Do not get up and do the things you remind yourself to do while you’re writing. Do not lift pen from paper. Write everything that comes to mind even if it is “I can’t think of anything” then “I’m spacing off”, etc. Keep writing until you fill all three pages. No excuses. No I have to’s.

Staying at the page for all three pages is much more difficult than I ever expected. I’ve worked with morning pages for years and looking back at my filled journals, there was very little written, but paragraphs of things done and things to do, with either woeful disappointments in not accomplishing these lists, or motivational speeches to myself of how I would accomplish these lists. After a while, however, I noticed if I did my morning pages those thoughts wouldn’t nag at me when I took a walk, or when I tried to meditate. I had more room for creative thought. More recently, I’ve started spending only the first page on those should do’s and the other two pages on character development and story ideas. These days most of my writing for the day is retyping my Morning Pages. I took a long time to get here, but if you have a story burning inside you, but can’t find time to write, set that alarm twenty minutes earlier than normal and give Morning Pages a try.

What about those days when even your morning pages won’t get you where you want to go? You feel dry of ideas, you want someone to just hand you a character, a conflict, or your character’s next step. Try the . . .

  1. Plot-o-Matic – I loved reading Dufresne’s book, Is Life Like This? and I will bring it up more when I work through my rewrite. A plot-o-matic is easy to make. I made a Word document with large print, bold type, centered in 3” X 2” rectangles. I printed the subjects – Dufresne used occupations and I added character descriptions like “Conspiracy Junky” and “Disco Dancer”- on green cardstock, the needs or wants of those subjects on yellow cardstock, and an action the character took on blue cardstock. I cut out the different colored “cards” and turned them upside down so I couldn’t see what my options were and chose one of each. If you take a look at the picture at the top of this post you’ll see I drew “A conspiracy junky wants to rescue kittens, so he listens at the wall as the neighbors argue” Fun right? Why rescue kittens? What conspiracy could the neighbors be part of? Are they the neighbors’ kittens? This tool can be great for story ideas, but you can also customize it to help you decide what your characters will do next. Limit the subject pile to only include your characters and choose wants and actions until you feel inspired. Remember to write at least five minutes for every combination you choose. Exploring what you don’t think will happen can be even more exciting than what you thought you were looking for.

And finally, my personal trick that gets my mental juices flowing when I’m not quite sure what to write about . . .

  1. Dialogue warm-up – Discovering dialogue as a way to get my juices flowing was a major step to finishing the draft of my novel. The way it works for me is: I’ll imagine I’m speaking from one of my character’s point of view. Who does she want to talk to today? Who might she run into in the scene I’m thinking about? Who do I picture when I write, “Oh, wow, didn’t expect to see you here.” I let their conversation flow. While I write, I picture their motivations, what they are saying and not saying, who they might talk about. Where are they as they converse? Are they in public? Does another person join them? By the time I have finished writing a short conversation, I often have my next scene in my head, even if I never use the conversation in a finished piece, somehow my characters tell me what I need to know. Try it. Let the conversation flow. It’s fun. Big Tip: Don’t worry about dialog punctuation, or he said she said while you’re getting it out in these dialogue warm-ups. Only pay attention to starting a new paragraph for each new person speaking and adding physical descriptions of vocal or body language nuances that seem important. Be in the moment. You can put in all the other stuff when the conversation is over.

I hope at least one of these tools that work for me helps you find what works for you. The only way to know what works, and doesn’t work, is to physically put pen to paper in ways you haven’t tried yet. The job is only a little bit thinkin’ about it and a whole lot of writing it down.

I would love to hear some of the things you’ve discovered to keep pen to page. Please share your tips in the comments.

Exploring the Senses – Finale: Using sensory information in your writing

image from asiadesignwithpurpose.com

image from asiadesignwithpurpose.com

Through this series on exploring the senses we (you and I) have explored all the major senses and more. We’ve experimented with how sensual stimuli trigger memories that can inspire writing and played with different ways to add sensory detail to our writing. Now, I want to talk about when and how to use this lush sensory information we’ve discovered.

While writing your first draft, feel free to write all of the sensory details for everyone and everything. During the rewrite however, it’s important to ask yourself: Did I add this detail because it tells the reader something important about the character, because it is an important element of the story, or just because I thought it was cool? If the honest answer is the last one, take it out. Even if you came up with the greatest way to describe the color of the sky or the smell of water, if the sensory detail is not important to telling the story, take it out. Don’t let this statement turn you away from sensory detail in any way. Most sensory details add depth to your characters and dimensionality to your settings. I solely wish to remind you to be aware of your readers. When you bring sights, sounds and smells to a reader’s attention, s/he will expect them to have importance and be let down if they don’t.

Unexpected sights: The little bunny and its surroundings looked normal at first, but upon closer examination the bunny was really a swirl of white dots, as if I could see its cells magnified in space.

Unexpected sights: The little bunny and its surroundings looked normal at first, but upon closer examination the bunny was really a swirl of white dots, as if I could see its cells magnified in space.

Creative mismatching of sensory detail is a quick cue to readers that they aren’t in Kansas anymore. A pink sky over yellow water that smells of asparagus is an instant cue that the reader is not on the earth s/he is familiar with.

Exercise: Create as many sensory mismatches as you can in 5 minutes. Use your favorite ones to imagine a place where this sensory information exists (i.e. another dimension, another planet, the center of the earth, an undiscovered land at the bottom of the ocean, under the melting ice caps, inside a future space station, etc.). Write a scene about a person experiencing this place for the first time using the sensory details you’ve created.

Inspiration from exercise: After staring at the bunny circles until it made me dizzy, I looked down, but down was no longer an option. I was separating into colorful cells, worlds within worlds orbiting each other. How did I still have my consciousness?

Inspiration from exercise: After staring at the bunny circles until it made me dizzy, I looked down, but down was no longer an option. I no longer had form. My cells now danced, worlds within worlds orbiting each other. How did I still recognize my consciousness?

I’ve enjoyed exploring the senses with you. Don’t forget to stop and smell the bad smells as well as the roses, and describe them in all their malodorous glory.

Over the next few months I’ll be working on the first rewrite of my current novel. As I work, I look forward to sharing my discoveries: what works, what doesn’t work, trials, tribulations and epiphanies. Please share your tips, tricks, suggestions, or questions along the way.

Exploring the Senses – The Sixth Sense

Playing ghost hunter on Halloween night. Ghost floutist or submarine?

Playing ghost hunter on Halloween night. Ghost flutist or submarine?

next shot no flute

The next picture zoomed in on same spot. The ghostly image is gone.

Though everyone agrees on the five major senses, neurologists and perception researchers believe there are more. Some think the main senses should be broken into  sub-genres. Others believe we have many sensory cell types leading to other senses including: balance, pain, temperature, time, body part location, and sensing internal organs. However, when we talk about the sixth sense, none of these other senses come to mind. The sixth sense is commonly understood as a blanket term for how we perceive everything that is considered paranormal (not scientifically explainable).

Writing about the sixth sense can put your story into the horror or fantasy genre, or it can add depth to a character. A character who believes she has psychic abilities can be odd, crazy, or in tune with things others cannot see depending on how the writer presents the sixth sense.

Exercise: What kind of psychic power do you wish you had? Choose one (mind reading, seeing the future, telekinesis, etc.) and write about a character who has it, or having it yourself. Is it a positive or negative experience? Are you able to use it to help others, or is it a torturous burden? How would this insight or ability change how you relate to others? Write for five or ten minutes.

Example: When we did this exercise in writing group I chose a clairvoyant who sees the future in her dreams. This is an expanded version of what I wrote in group.

Unless she passed out drunk, she always left her computer on playing reruns of television shows on repeat. The song at the end of each episode would wake her up just long enough to kick her out of REM sleep. It was the only way she knew to avoid the dreams. She had been doing it for over eight years and was sick of it. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, she thought, as she turned off the computer.

After a few vivid demonic visages that almost convinced her she wanted to watch a comedy-mystery for the 10,000th time, she slept. The nightmarish images came in full color. It was a hot sunny day made nice by a breeze. She and Miss Opal sat at a café having a pleasant catch up chat when the bomb was thrown from a moped speeding by. The scene happened in slow motion: her head turning, the white helmet with the black reflective visor moving toward them, the brown paper package coming into view just as it was thrown. She hated the ominous seconds that felt like a lifetime in which the viewer wants to do something, but cannot move. She watched as her friends and neighbors blew apart, heard their screams and smelled their burning flesh.

The room was dark and quiet. The clock read 4:10 am. She wasn’t sitting up, crying or sweating. She was more angry than sad. Just because she had been talking to her dead friend Miss Opal didn’t mean the bombing would happen in New Orleans. It didn’t mean it would happen at all. She wouldn’t tell anyone or watch the news. Knowing never helped her help anyone, not even herself.

Let your imagination run wild. Explore more than one idea of the sixth sense. Is psychic ability a spiritual issue for you? Does the idea of a sixth sense bring up death and afterlife philosophies, or is it pure fantasy wish fulfillment?