20 Jan

The Portacle

Posted in Brain Boot Camp, DIY MFA, Inspiration, Writing

As of last weekend, our house has been slowly disappearing into boxes all around us.  We still have another three weeks until we move, but because I’ll be busy with conferences the next few weekends, we’ve had to get a jump start on the packing.  Perhaps the hardest part about the move has been parting with all my writing books/supplies/knick-knacks (even if just for a few weeks).  This is where the Portacle comes in.

Portacle = Portable + ORACLE.

As some of you may recall, the ORACLE (along with my special writing space) is where I keep my miscellaneous writing ideas, prompts and exercises.  But alas, my beautiful workspace and containers of treasure are slowly disappearing into boxes and I’ve had to ask the tough question: which parts of my workspace can I absolutely NOT live without for the next three weeks?

Here’s my list:

For Writing

  • Journal (unlined)
  • Stickers
  • mini Image File (a couple of postcards tucked into the journal)
  • Who/What/When/Where/Why/How question cards
  • Small velvet drawstring baggie containing dice, worry stone and beaded charm

For Reading

  • Kindle
  • Amazon gift card (Christmas gift – to be used only in literary emergencies… like if I run out of things to read between now and February)
  • The Iliad (Fagles translation) for some light reading or to cure insomnia, not sure which

For Teaching

  • The Art of the Short Story (the textbook for the class I’m teaching)
  • Strunk & White (duh)
  • Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio
  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
  • Good Poems by Garrison Keillor
  • Two books on craft (one poetry, one fiction)
  • Graphic Novel version of Pride and Prejudice (because I can’t survive without at least one version of my favorite book)

I can’t tell you how much it has pained me to store away my books.  On Writing (Stephen King).  Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg).  Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott).  I mean, it’s almost like taking your friends and squashing them into boxes.  It’ll be three whole weeks (or longer) before I see any of their shiny, smiling covers again.

But hubby put his foot down and said I had to pack the books.  Either that, or the movers wouldn’t take them and I was going to have to move the books to the new place all by myself.  (I hate it when he makes sense and sounds reasonable.)

Still.  All these empty bookshelves make me feel so darn lonely.

Guess what I’m unpacking first when we get there!  🙂


13 Jan

Dice Games for Writers

Posted in Brain Boot Camp, DIY MFA, Writing, Writing Exercises

As a writer, I have found that one of the most versatile (and portable) sources of writing prompts is a set of dice.  There are many writing games you can play with a die and they can help bust through writing blocks.  Here are a few games that work for me.

Writing by Numbers
Roll the die and multiply the number by 10.  That is the number of minutes you have to write.  Do not stop writing.  Keep your hand moving.  If you find yourself getting distracted, bring yourself back and keep writing.  Subject doesn’t matter; what’s important is that you’re writing.  You can do a similar exercise where the number on the die indicates the number of pages you need to fill in your writing session. 

Tip: Writing by hand often helps kill the inner critic.  After all, it’s OK to be messy while scribbling in a journal.

6 Questions
Roll the die.

1=Who?   2=What?   3=When?   4=Where?  5=Why?   6=How?

Use the question to investigate a character from a current project.  Push the question as far as it will go.  For example, if you rolled 1, you might ask “Who is this character?”  “Who is he at the core?”  “Who is he to his friends?”  “His enemies?”

Point of View
Roll the die to determine which POV to write in.

1 = 1st person
2 = 2nd person
3 = 3rd person limited
4 = 3rd person multiple
5 = omniscient
6 = wild card*

*For wild card, choose any other point of view not listed above.  If you’re not sure what the options are, you can find more info on POV in this post.

Roll the die again.
odd # = present tense
even # = past tense

Why Dice Games?

There’s something freeing about leaving some element of one’s writing up to chance.  It’s as though all the responsibility is no longer just in the writer’s hands.  By making your writing time into a game of chance, it can help strip away some of the anxiety or perfectionism which often haunts many writers.

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20 Nov


Posted in Brain Boot Camp, Craft, Process, Writing

Here’s the ugly truth:  No writer exists in a void.  All writing is influenced by what has come before.  There is no such thing as utterly, completely unique because writing exists within a context.

In a world that’s always screaming for the Next New Thing, how do we writers reconcile that with the scary truth that there’s really no such thing as new?  Here are a few things I learned as I completed my WIP draft.

1)  Write what you love, not what the market “wants.”  I used to work in the toy industry and it always boggled my mind that we had to predict what kids would “want” not now but a year from now.  We could spend a whole year developing a product only to discover at the end of it all that the trend was over.  The same is true for writing.  If you’re working on your project because the genre or topic are a big hit now and you want to jump on the bandwagon, chances are you’ll be disappointed.  But if you’re working on this book because you love the subject and the characters, then no matter what happens, it’s win-win.

2)  Context isn’t something to be afraid of.  Think of it as a “safety net.”  In the product development world, companies love to create extensions of popular product lines.  After all, a good chunk of the development legwork has already been done in the first version, customers recognize the brand and there’s already a built-in market for it.

Think of books that came before yours as a similar “safety net” to your project.  Study the books–both the successful ones and the less so–and think about what made them work or not work.  Think about what you can do to differentiate your project from what has come before, but still keep it within the context.

3)  Find partners in crime.  One of my favorite things to do is go to conferences!  I love meeting other writers, learning about the craft and hearing new information about the business.  This January 2011 I’ll be attending the Writer’s Digest and SCBWI conferences, both in NYC.  If you’ve signed up for either of these, let me know in the comments!  I love connecting with new writer friends.

The way I see it, you never know who you’ll meet at one of these things.  It could be a new critique partner or beta reader, it could be someone you’ll collaborate with some day, it could be a future mentor or someone you might mentor yourself.  The key is to be open to possibilities.

4)  Ideas are not books.  Books are books.  In his memoir, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, David Morrell talks about the distinction between the idea and execution.  Every time I start getting down about how un-unique my ideas are, I reread his chapter on plot where he discusses this subject.  His main point is this: sure, an idea might be shiny and new, but an idea does not make a book unique.  What makes a book unique is how the writer implements the idea.  An example:

Take the Harry Potter series–many people marvel at J.K. Rowling’s originality. “How did she come up with such a unique idea?” they wonder.  As if all it takes to create a fantastic book (or series of books) is one extraordinary idea.  Because when you have the fun flashy idea then the book just writes itself.  Ha!

I don’t know about you, but I find this outlook to be rather belittling to the writer; it’s almost as if the writing doesn’t matter.  But as we all know, Harry Potter is about much more than just one sparkly idea.  These books are what they are because the author wrote them.  That same concept in the hands of any other writer would have turned out to be completely different.

5)  Ideas are like subways: any minute now there will be another one.  When I worked in toy development, our department had a attitude that boiled down to this: “If a competitor wants to steal our idea, let it.  We’ll have an even better one in five minutes anyway.”  The minute you think of your idea as one link in a long chain of great ideas, then that one idea doesn’t seem all that ground-breaking anymore.  If you coddle and protect your idea like it’s something precious and priceless, you run the risk of getting too attached and taking the project too seriously.  Have confidence that another better idea is always just a brainstorm away and that even if someone does “borrow” your concept, they’ll never be able to execute it like you will.

Now go out there and do something wild and crazy and unique!


02 Oct

The T-Word

Posted in Brain Boot Camp, DIY MFA, Thesis

Thesis is such an ugly word.  I hear it and right away I start getting the willies.  Something about the idea of a thesis can be intimidating, paralyzing even.  I bet you’re thinking, this is a DIY MFA… which means I can do whatever I want, so why do I have to write a *gag* thesis?

Sure, DIY means Do-It-Yourself, so if all you want is to dabble in writing, you don’t have to write a thesis.  But if we’re really serious about our writing, we have to be in it for the long haul and sooner or later that means writing something “big.”  And by “big” I mean anything: a collection of short stories, a collection of essays, 100 1-page flash fiction pieces, a novel, a memoir, a collection of poems.  I’m not saying that “size matters,” but… well… when it comes to writing, it sort of does.  After all, you can’t just write one story and rest on your laurels for the rest of your life.  Well, theoretically you can but the you’re not really a writer.  You’re just a laurel-sitter.

Chances are if you’re a writer you’ll have to start a big project at some point, and I’m guessing that if you’re reading this you are one of the chosen ones.  And that’s where the THESIS comes in.

In honor of NaNoWriMo I’ll be posting a series every weekend between now and the end of November about getting through a “big project.”  I’m currently working on a schedule of topics and I’ll keep you all posted (ha ha, pun intended!).  Even if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo–I’m not… my deadline is in October–you can still learn tips on getting through a big project.  Just stop by and read up on how to jump through the ultimate MFA hoop.  Thesis…dum dum dummmm.

Remember, the beauty of a DIY MFA thesis is that you come out of it with a full-on book (unlike an MFA Thesis where you might write only half of the book, or do one revision or do one small part of the process).  The DIY MFA thesis is more involved because our goal is to come out of it with a book that’s ready to query.  It might take you months, even a year or two, but when you’re done with it you’ll have your book and you’ll be ready for the next step.

Excited?  I am.  Starting after Commencement Week, I’ll do my first Thesis Project post, so stay tuned.


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