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Archive for February, 2014

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

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

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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.

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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 ūüôā

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.

 

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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.

 

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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

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