Archive for the ‘Journaling’ Category

Summer Vacation Vs. Back to Writing: 10 Tips to Unblock Your Plot

August 13, 2013
Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

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I’ve returned from a lovely vacation in Utah, where family members met and hiked in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. There is one slight problem with vacations, however. They end! When writers return to work, many of us occasionally have difficulties with getting back into the creative flow. The past few days I’ve done laundry, walked the dog, and even – – don’t faint – – IRONED – – in order to avoid my office.

But writers must write. How do you get back to your fiction?

Writing Prompts for Me and You:

1. Write about ANYTHING. Just get your pen moving, or type words on the computer screen.

2. Write an imaginary account of what happened on a summer vacation with the photos above. Make it as outlandish as you can.

3. So you want to get back to your novel? First, read what you have already written. Revise to make it better. Stuck on what happens next? Remember, everything goes back to your characters.

4. Write a journal entry in your main character’s point of view about what’s happening in your story. How does she/he feel about everyone else? What actions does she wish she could take? What does she want more than anything else in the world? What stops her from getting it?

5. What is the main character’s relationship with every other character in the story? What are each characters’ epiphanies? How do they get them?

6. If you are stuck on #5, write more back story for your characters, or have them interact in current scenes that may or may not appear in your book. Just get them together and see what happens.

7. Read another author’s good writing. Good reading inspires good writing.

8. Wonder about your characters. Wonder about them as you walk, wash dishes, or gaze into space. Wondering is often the most important step in writing.

9. How can you make the scene you are writing more difficult for your protagonist? More emotional or suspenseful? Push your writing to the limit. Have you used all of your senses? Enough specific details?

10. Ask your subconscious for help before you go to sleep. Don’t worry about your book. Just wonder what will happen next. Keep paper next to your bed. As you wake up, the answer may be part of your dream or a clear word or image.

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Elephant Seal Antics

July 3, 2013

 This past week my cousin came from Wisconsin and we played tourist, taking her places in Northern California, including Ano Nuevo, where male elephant seals are currently moulting.  Even though there are no females around, a few of the younger seals practiced showing dominance, as showed in the photo, and with their tremendous, guttural wails.

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Seals flipped sand onto their backs and bellies as a cooling mechanism, as it was a warm day.  One seal became a sand mound; so he wiggled out only to start sand-flipping all over again. 

Writing Prompts:

  1. Study a creature in nature.  Describe its habits, vocalizations, or body movements.  How does it relate/communicate to others?
  2. Write a poem, short story or personal experience based on this being. 
  3. Is your summer filled with day trips or longer travel?  Keep a travel journal.  Collect photos and paper souvenirs which can help recreate your experiences. 
  4. Create art or writing based on an anecdote in your journal. 

Writing Realistic Dialogue

October 5, 2012

“So, like you know Nick’s mom?” the teen’s pony tail swished behind her as she walked.

“Yeah, like she’s blonde  right?” said the girl in the middle of the three, her short-shorts hiking up oh, so far.

I huffed and puffed behind them on the walking trail and made sure I kept up so I wouldn’t miss a word. 

The girl on the right chimed in with awe in her voice.  “She’s really good-looking.”

“No kidding,” said Ms. Pony Tail.  “She looks exactly like Carrie on Sex in the City. Her body, anyways.” 

All three murmured their agreements. 

Just a tidbit of conversation, but a goldmine for a writer.  Why?  Because if you’re not around teenagers, you don’t know how they sound any more.  Whether they’re in your  young adult novel or in another work of fiction, their dialogue needs to sound real.  Nothing worse than phony characters!

Ever read a book for adults with a child who doesn’t  sound kid-like?  The talking doesn’t match the character, where they live, or time period?   Fake.     Or lines of useless talk without a purpose?   

So what makes dialogue good?

Dialogue should show character and move the story forward.  Talk should be action.  Can you get your characters’ words to heighten conflict?  Sometimes great dialogue has subtext, or a secondary meaning when  words that mean one thing on the surface, but underneath they have a deeper emotional meaning.    And occasionally dialogue is important because of what isn’t being said.   The elephant in the room that no one is talking about.

It reminds me of an incident once years ago when my husband, young son and I traveled to see his parents, brother and sister-in-law.  We talked in the living room for a couple of hours and then took separate cars to meet at a restaurant.  In our car I mentioned to Bob that his mother was upset with his father and my sister-in-law knew, but I hadn’t figured out the reason yet.  And my sister-in-law was irritated about my mother-in-law over an issue too, but we’d learn why at the restaurant.

Bob’s mouth dropped open.  “You are nuts.  We talked about the weather, everyone’s health and what the kids were doing in school.  How did you get all of that out of mindless conversation?”

“You weren’t paying attention!” I said.  “Watch the body language, the eyes, listen to the voices.” 

My husband shook his head in disgust.  “You are wrong, Liz.  Totally wrong.”

Of course, we discovered the source of my mother-in-law’s irritation with her husband, and my sister-in-law’s problem with my mother-in-law.  Later, he grew to appreciate my “women’s intuition.”  But I don’t think it’s limited to women.  All writers have this when they are working. 

And when aren’t we? 

Writing Tips: 

1. Don’t use substitute words for “said.”  I just unearthed a beginning writing piece of mine from a trillion years ago and I’m embarrassed to say each time someone talked I used gasped, murmured, whispered, indicated, questioned, etc. so often it was embarrassing.  Occasionally it’s appropriate but generally, use SAID.  it will make your writing flow more smoothly.  

Or, skip the tags and employ an action.   (See above.  Bob’s mouth dropped open.  The teen’s pony tail swished behind her as she walked.)

2.  Don’t use dialogue to tell information a character would already know.   Example: 
“Mary, you are my very best friend.  I’ve known you all my life and your mother is our horse’s vet.  She saved his life two times.”  

Writing Prompts

1.  Listen to real dialogue wherever you go.  Keep a journal.  Jot it down after you hear it so you won’t forget.  (But try not to write it down as you walk, or you’ll be caught like Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.)  Choose a piece of real dialogue and create a story with it.

2.  Write a story with special buzzwords.  These are words that each and every hobby or occupation has.  Does your character love horses?  Research horses.  Interview a horse lover.  Read horse books.  How does a horse lover talk about them?  What are the “horse words” that would go with this character?  

My husband was an engineer and he wrote a recommendation for one of his secretaries and said she had good “phone presence.” This time I thought HE was nuts.  But sure enough, in that industry, it was exactly what they called good phone etiquette.

3.  Write a story about you with real dialogue.   Read your dialogue out loud.  (In fact, read ALL dialogue you EVER write out loud!) 

4. Check a recent project of yours.  Do you have long narration that needs to be broken up with dialogue?  Make sure your piece is balanced.  Dialogue helps provide a balance and is good for pacing.  Need faster pacing?  Write short dialogue and skip tags.   But don’t have huge blocks of dialogue, either.  Make sure you have a balanced story that flows well.  Read it aloud to make sure it feels just right.

Down Wedding Memory Lane

September 8, 2012

I’ve just arrived home from my niece’s wedding in Utah, where the bride and groom spoke of their love for each other under pine-scented air with majestic  mountains all around us. There were small touches the crowd couldn’t see, such as the tiny framed photos attached to the wedding attendents’ flowers of the grandparents’ marriages, three of them having passed away before this grand day.

This touching celebration made me flashback to her youth and my son’s, their escapades in the sandbox, water rocket bottle launches, Marco Polo water games in the pool. 

Then I flashed back to my own wedding, which didn’t flow as smoothly as this one.   Mine began on a sweltering June day in Fresno (111 degrees)  with the cake lady calling to report the frosting wouldn’t stick on the cake.  What should she do?  Maybe I shouldn’t have saved quite so much money after all, and gone with a professional baker . . . Next, after seeing the priest briefly at the church, my friend who played the piano, asked when she should begin. 

“The wedding starts at ten, so begin at ten,” I said.  Hey.  I’m from the Midwest.  We are prompt.  What I didn’t know is that California time begins much later than universal time. 

The music began and so did we.  And there we stood, at the altar, waiting for the priest to appear.  We waited.  And waited.  Where was he?  In the bathroom?  Ten minutes slowly ticked by.  We thought we’d have to get a friend to be a stand-in when he finally rushed on to the scene.

My Uncle Arnold, a sign-painter by trade, couldn’t travel to the wedding, but he made us a lovely sign which we put in the back of our car’s window.  After the ceremony and on the way to the reception across town, the sign fell down.  At a stoplight, a friend in the car next to us, opened my door to our two-seater car, pushed my seat forward, and leaned over to straighten the sign.  The light turned green and he slammed the door shut.  Problem was, I held on to the door’s frame when he pushed me forward. 

He jumped back into his car before he noticed my hand protruding outside the closed-door, and me with my mouth open, uttering sounds.

“What’s wrong?” asked my new husband.

“Uh, ug, uh,” I said which I thought were intelligible words. 

I cradled my swollen hand and refused the idea of an emergency room visit.  Fortunately, one of my bridesmaids was a nurse and knew my hand wasn’t broken, just bruised.  All the pictures show me with one hand behind my back.

The best man was so nervous he spilled wine on my dress twice – – red and white.  He shook so much before the wedding I promised him he wouldn’t be the one married that day.

And our photographer friend, employed by a newspaper, used different film he had never used before.  Only one photo came out that day.  Fortunately, we had other friends taking pictures so we did have some for our scrapbook.   And we did have memories, didn’t we?  Fortunately, compared to the wedding, the marriage has been a piece of cake. 

Writing Prompts:

1.  Write about a major celebration in your life.  What memories made lasting impressions upon you?  Others?

2.  Using a character from a current writing project, create a wedding scene.  Throw in a major or minor conflict.  What happens?  Make your reader cry or laugh or both.

3.  Use the theme of a wedding to create a poem, song or another work of art. 

4.  Write about your wedding or a wedding you have attended.  What made an impression upon you?

August 24, 2012

This morning I learned a young acquaintance of ours ended his life this week.  Stunned, I stood in silence, images of the man and our dealings with him reeling through my thoughts like a movie.

Cheerful.  Giving.  Resourceful.   Three descriptions that come to mind when I think of him. 

As my neighbor  and I walked our morning trail, she said, “Don’t people realize the blues pass?”

“But depression isn’t just feeling down,” I said.  “It’s more all-encompassing.  I know because my uncle suffered it all of his life.”

Memories of his battle  floated to the present.  I knew he took pills which gave him side effects that weren’t pleasant.  So he got off the pills and would be all right for a while until he slid into the depths of misery again.

“And what about his mother?  Didn’t he think of her?  She had to find him,” said my neighbor of the young man’s suicide.

I nodded.  “But he wasn’t thinking about her, he was so inside his own pain and grief.” 

It’s another one of those what if stories.  What if you could have stopped him in time?  What if you hadn’t left? 

Modern medicine has come so far . . .  and yet it hasn’t. 

Writing Prompts:

1.  Writing can be cathartic.  Is there a memory you have been suppressing?  Writing about an emotional pain may bring relief.  Try it and see if it can help you.

2.  Write a poem, song, essay or story in honor of someone you know who has faced a battle – – either emotional or physical.  What do you admire about this person?  Why?

3.  Create a piece of art expressing a mood you are in right now.  You choose the form and style.

Your Lucky Break

June 25, 2012

I read Anna Quindlen’s lovely memoir, Lots of Candles Plenty of Cake and paused at her question, “Do all of us, by the time we’re grown-ups, have something that was our signal lucky break?”

Thinking back, I can construct a time-line of lucky breaks, but I don’t really believe in luck.  I believe everything happens for a reason, both “lucky” and “unlucky.”  If it’s not something we desire, perhaps we learn more from those stages in our lives?

But no matter what my philosophy is, there are moments for everyone that there is a click . . . everything comes together perfectly.  Whether it is in a career, level of creativity, knowledge, or a special relationship that changes a life forever, it is a break. 

Writing Prompts:

1.  Answer Anna Quindlen’s question through a personal narrative, poem, song or another work of art. 

2.  Create a time-line of creative learning experiences you’ve had in your life.  Choose one to express with an essay.

3.   What about the characters in your most recent project?  What have been their lucky breaks?  Create scenes about theirs.  What about their unlucky ones?  How have they dealt with these?  Favorably?  Unfavorably?  Show their character’s growth or weaknesses through these scenes.

Writing About Your Life . . . Will it Harm Others?

February 13, 2012

Are you interested in writing episodes of your life?  Working on a memoir?  Personal narratives? 

You must be willing to be honest.  What do you owe the other people in your life who will make appearances in your scenes? 

At the moment, I’m writing about how my life intersects with others.  As I read my aunt’s diary for research, one line changes everything. 

Do I include this in my story?  If I do, it alters perceptions. 

I pause.  It is true the people in my narrative have passed on.  But I do not want to cause hurt to anyone on this side or the other.

Yes, it is important to the storyline. 

But. 

We must choose our words carefully in our daily life and in our writing. 

Crash!  A dove has just flown into my office window.   The universe has sent me a message. 

Writing prompt:

Choose a moment from your life that has emotional meaning for you.  It can be funny or sad, small or large.  Write the scene using sensory description, dialogue, setting and your feelings.  Set it aside for a few days and then come back to it.  Can you recall any other details you may have left out that are important to the story?  Do you have a journal  you can check which may refresh your memory?  Anyone that was there who might provide insights to the moment in time?

Funny but true: Wedding Snafu

June 16, 2011

Yesterday, my husband drove us in the car to complete errands, windows cracked open a few inches to allow the cool breeze inside. My right hand rested outside on the window frame. As the car picked up speed, it got a bit breezy for Bob, so he hit the power button window on his door. Only he hit the other button. It closed my window.

Zzzzt. The sound made me react immediately. I pulled in my hand so fast Bob whipped his eyes from the road.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“You pushed the wrong one. My hand was out there!”

“Oh, sorry,” he said, searching for the right switch.

Memories flooded back to our wedding day. My Uncle Arnold had painted a JUST MARRIED sign which we placed in the back window of our car. After the church service, on the way to the reception, a friend pulled up next to us at a stop light.

Mike had noticed our fallen sign. He opened the passenger door of our two-seater car, shoved my seat forward, forcing me nearly into the dashboard. I gripped the door frame for balance. Mike straightened the sign as the light turned green. He threw my seat back, and slammed the door. Mike jumped back into his own car. 

My husband was about to take off when he saw my face.

“Uh, bluh, glug . . .” sounds emitted from my mouth. They were sort of a sob/scream/gurgle. For once, pain made me speechless.

“What’s the matter?” my new husband asked. “

Uh, bluh, glug . . .” I clearly articulated.

Fortunately, our friends in Mike’s car saw my protruding fingers; Mike leaped out of the car to save them.

After I refused to go to the hospital, we raced to the reception hall where one of my bridesmaids, a nurse, assured me my hand was just badly bruised and nothing was broken. I kept an ice bag on my swollen hand for the rest of the day.

That wasn’t the only mishap of our wedding day, June 20, 1981 in Fresno, CA. It was 110 degrees, and I remember wondering if everyone in church could actually see the beads of sweat rolling down my back.

Before the church service, when my friend Carol, the pianist, asked me what time she should start playing the entrance music, I knew the answer. Being from a prompt Midwestern family, when something starts at ten a.m., it STARTS AT TEN A.M.

Carol played our cue at ten o’clock sharp. We made our way down the aisle.

We waited.

And waited.

The minutes ticked by.

Bob and I exchanged nervous glances. Where was the priest? Did he get an urgent call from nature? A rich, talkative parishioner stop by with an offer for a donation? Did the priest get cold feet?

Finally, after what seemed like an hour but was probably ten minutes, Father appeared, upset we started without him.

Obviously, he wasn’t from the Midwest.

Writing Prompts:

1. When has a sound motivated an action? By you? By a character?

2. Write a scene where a sound plays an important role in saving someone from emotional or physical pain.

3. Familiar scenes can trigger memories from long ago. Write a scene for a character which triggers a memory that is important to your character.

4. Write an important scene in your character’s life and have things go wrong. How does your character handle it? Throw obstacles in his/her way. First make the scene painful. Next, make it funny!

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California Writer Club Young Writers Contest – Check your newspaper THIS WEEK for the photo and article about the Young Writers Contest Banquet.  Jacquie Oliverius writes YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD and it’s in her column TODAY in the Pleasant Hill/Martinez Record.   Thank you Jacquie for letting me know!

Hot Button Memories

May 31, 2011

While choosing fresh vegetables at a farmer’s market, I wandered upon an unusual jewelry display.  A woman had fashioned bracelets and rings out of old buttons that acted as a door to decades in the past. 

“Wow!  I can see this on a 1940s coat,” I said, examining a large green button. 

The woman at the booth pointed to a pink button on a bracelet that jangled at her wrist.  “I remember the exact housedress my mother wore,” she said. 

Just the other day when I rummaged around in my closet I came upon a box of buttons my mother had given us. When my son was little he loved playing with those buttons.  Now it was my turn to treasure them.  “If I gave you some buttons will you make me. . .”

“Sure!  People do it all the time,” she answered. 

I couldn’t wait to get home.  Digging out the button box, I felt like a kid, spreading the buttons on the table, sorting them into colors.  Sadly, I didn’t have any concrete memories of the outfits they had been attached to.

Until one flipped over.  There!  Black and white material, still on the button!   An image of my mother wearing the white and black dress she had made, her trim figure standing with her enviable posture next to me in church, with a little black veil on her head.  Or if we had forgotten our veils, we’d attach a piece of Kleenex with a bobby pin.

Of course, that day at the farmers market I walked out of there with a $15 bracelet, and a longing to come back with my very own buttons. 

Writing prompts:

  1. Find an object of your past that brings a flash of an old memory for you.  Write about that memory.  Can you recreate a scene? 
  2. Choose a button or a piece of clothing.  Let it take you back to a memory.  Write about it as if it were today.  Then change it slightly and make it fiction.  What could have happened?  You can star in this yourself, or create a completely new character. 
  3. Interview a member of your family about a special piece of clothing.  What was their favorite thing they EVER wore?  Why?
  4. Write about your favorite piece of clothing.  What makes it special?  Using details, describe what it looks like and how it makes you feel when you wear it.

Young Writers

May 25, 2011

On Saturday,  May 21, the California Writers Club, Mt. Diablo Branch held it’s annual Young Writers Contest Banquet at Zio Fraedo’s Restaurant in Pleasant Hill.  The twenty-seven award-winning students along with their teachers, family and friends were invited to eat the delicious banquet Tony and his efficient staff prepared, receive their cash, and their lovely awards created by Joanne Brown.

Guest speaker editorial agent and former Tricycle editor Abigail Samoun spoke about actually being an editor.  To the threatening sounds of  the music known from JAWS, we saw on the screen before us an actual room filled with slush pile manuscripts. (Yes, we WERE frightened!  We could have gotten smothered by those stacks of large manilla envelopes!)  The young writers discovered that slush refers to  manuscripts sent to the publisher without an agent.    The audience learned how busy editors really are, and found out it can take years for a manuscript to turn into an actual book and appear on bookstore or library shelves.

Congratulations to all of the winners of this contest, and to everyone who took the big step and risk of putting pen to paper and writing.  Each time you bare your soul on paper, it is a risk.  You are brave!   Congratulations to everyone who entered the contest.  Each time you do something brave like this, you learn and grow.  We hope if you are a Contra Costa middle school student next fall, you will enter your short stories, poems, and personal narratives again.  It doesn’t cost anything but the postage.  And you can start writing this summer!  Hope to see you at our FREE July 27 writing workshop at the Clayton Public Library!

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On Tuesday, May 24, I visited Mrs. Laird’s fourth grade classroom and the students impressed me with their intelligent questions, comments and ease at writing.  The moment Mrs. Laird turned on classical music, the kids’ pens hit their paper and didn’t stop moving until the music came to an end. 

Wow!  Very cool!  Most classrooms I visit today don’t have time for writing, and when I ask them to pick up their pen to write, kids are plain stumped.  “How shall I begin?”  they may ask.  “What if I spell something wrong?”  They don’t realize that first drafts are the place to make spelling mistakes!  It’s okay!  It’s fine to be messy or to make a punctuation error.  In a first draft, you just want to WRITE! 

I was very proud of how well this class wrote, and how eager they were to share their writing.  It was wonderful how they included their personal thoughts and feelings in their words. 

At one point in my talk, I mention an author I interviewed for my book, The ABCs of Writing for ChildrenJane Yolen likes to say BIC is the most important rule for being a writer.  I agree!  What did the kids think BIC stood for?  They talked with partners and came up with some possibilities:

Brain in classroom

Butt in conversation         (Hmm.  This could be a funny story, but I’d hate to assign it . . .)

Butt idea chair

And finally, one group got the answer Jane came up with:  Butt in chair! 

How can you be a writer?  Sit down and write!  Turn off all of the distractions in your life and pay attention to the sounds in your head!  Write your thoughts, feelings, senses, and memories.  Create characters, stories, poems and combine them with art if you can.  Let your imagination run wild!  But you can’t do that if you don’t take time. Sit. Let you mind wander and pick up a pen.   

As one student told Mrs. Laird, “Now that Liz came to our school, I know what to write:  moments from our lives.” 

They don’t have to be big moments.  Some of the best writing can be a small detail that makes all the difference in your world.

Writing Prompts:

1.  Write about one small (or big) thing that happened today to make you smile.

2.  Take out the last story or piece that you wrote.  Now add a sensory description.  Is there a sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell you can add that will give your piece more depth and make the reader feel like he or she was really there?  Can you add more than one?

3.  Recently, I posted a photo of a gopher that my husband took onto an online sharing site. I thought a couple of people might think it was cute.  Twenty-five people began a discussion about it! Who knew so many people could talk so much about a little gopher?  Something so un-important became a heated discussion!  Write a conversation where you say one little thing and suddenly people react in ways you’d never imagine!

4.  Keep a diary/journal for one week.  You don’t have to write everything that happens to you.  Just choose one thing each day that you want to write about. What will you choose?  Whatever you choose, make the reader feel like he or she is right with you by writing your thoughts, feelings, and a sensory description.  You can even put in some dialogue!

5.  Write about an animal you have met or known.  Make that animal come alive!  Describe it.  Make it move.  How did it make you feel?